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Posts Tagged ‘foremother poet’


Watteau, The Serenade

Day 8/10 of books that influenced me, had a discernible impact. (For Day 7/10, Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale). When I was around 17 or 18 years old, I was in a used bookstore in Manhattan called the Argosy. It was on 59th Street, near the corner of Lexington Avenue. How I got there I don’t know but someone must’ve told me about it — it seemed to be about 5 floors high with very old elevators (the kind that had gates that seemed near to falling on you), and each floor was filled with bookcases of dusty books, many very old and decidedly uninviting, some falling apart.

It was there I first came across Fanny Burney, in a one volume and in a three volume edition of her letters (brown, falling apart) and I have told that story in the Burney newsletter: “On First Encountering Fanny Burney D’Arblay.”  But it was what was nearby that riveted me truly: a single volume edition in French of the letters of Julie de Lespinasse, nearby a 3 volume edition in French of the letters of Madame Du Deffand. I opened them up and started to read and found them irresistible. I no longer have those books but I do have the Elibron facsimile of a 2 volume edition of Lespinasse and a 2 volume edition of the letters of DuDeffand edited by Chantal Thomas.

In the volume by Lespinasse I read she was frantically and abjectly in love with a M. Guilbert and wrote him desperate letters where she poured out her thoughts and feelings in the most eloquent language I had ever come across. In the course of telling the tortures of her soul, she talked freely about all sorts of things, writing dramatic scenes, commenting on books, on plays she’s gone, people she knows, but always she comes back to the main point, she loves him, she cannot do without him, why does he not write her, why does he not visit her, not even respond to her. It was a form of madness.


An engraving said to represent Madame du Deffand

Madame du Deffand was very different: acid melancholy, caustic wit, the most bitter and truthful comments about life, funny, she wrote mostly to a man I had never heard of before: Horace Walpole whom she was very fond of, but also Voltaire (I had heard of him) and people with strange (to me) titles, particularly one man, Heinault to whom she confided the secrets of her life. I’m sure I understood less than half of what I read but what I did read struck deep chords. At early point I understood she was blind. Well many years later I have read much about Lespinasse, niece to Deffand, and Benedetta Craveri’s Madame du Deffand and her world, and Chantal Thomas. I read these before I read the unabridged Clarissa.


Engraving representation of Julie

I took all these volumes home (including the Burney) in a big brown shopping bag, and since then have read even many later 18th century women’s letters and memoirs and novels, English and French. I typed and put two novels by two other women of this era (Sophie Cottin, Isabelle de Montolieu) on my website, and edited Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde for Valancourt Press. Jane Austen read some of these women (Stael, Genlis, for a start).


On the vast first floor

The Argosy still exists but is no longer many floors with ancient elevators; it’s one big floor with a basement and you buy many of its books through catalogues. Below is the Argosy from the outside ….

This coming fall I propose to read with a class at OLLI a paperback edition in English of Madame Roland’s autobiography and letters. I am very fond of a biography of her by Francoise Kermina, which is more insightful than the ones in English and also a Elibron facsimilar of a 19th century study of her by Charles Dauban which includes selection of letters by her to her friend and separate sketches of her relationships with different equally interesting people..


Alfonso Simonetti, Ancor Non Torna, illustration for 19th century Italian translation of Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest

I put Ann Radcliffe here too, anong these women: my love for her novels, and the one travel book comes out of how the tone of her mind is coterminous with the tone of these other women’s minds of the later 18th century. I know I love the gothic which increases what her books mean to me, but basically her Mysteries of Udolpho is such another as Stael’s Corinne, ou l’Italie, and Madame de Chastenay translated Radcliffe’s great book into French and left a 3 volume memoir of her own.


Watteau, Iris (detail inside much wider vaster mural)

Ellen

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Virgina, Leonard and Pinka Woolf

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Six Tuesday mornings, 9:40 to 11:05 am,
March 5 to May 9
Tallwood, 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

We will read and discuss the later Woolf: a playful satirical biography, Flush: A Biography [of a Dog], by indirection of the Victorian poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Virginia Woolf herself, a feminist tale, and historical novel; and Orlando, an experimental novel, biographical and autobiographical fantasy about Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, time-traveling historical tale about a search for identity on the part of a woman writer; a satire on culture through free-wheeling literary history, a struggle to find and come to terms with sexual maturity and gender; and Three Guineas, a pre-World War II essay, which analyzes the origins of war and suggests how we may prevent future wars, nothing can be more relevant for us today. We will watch clips of Sally Potter’s allegorical visual fantasy of a movie Orlando. Our aim is to understand and enjoy these delightful, original, & unusual works.

Required Books & an essay (in the order we’ll read them):

Woolf, Virginia. Flush: A Biography, ed. introd Trekkie Ritchie. Harcourt, 1983. ISBN 0156319527
Woolf, Virginia. “The Art of Biography:” online https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91d/chapter23.html
Woolf, Virginia. “The new Biography,” available at the Internet Archive in Granite and Rainbow.
https://archive.org/details/graniterainbowes00wool
Woolf, Virginia. Orlando: A Biography, ed. introd Maria di Battista. Harcourt, 2006. ISBN 9780156031516
Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas, ed. introd Jane Marcus. 2006. ISBN 9780156031639

One film: Sally Potter’s 1992 Orlando, featuring Tilda Swindon, Billy Zane, Quentin Crisp, Simon Russell Beale.

Harvard has digitalized Virginia and Leonard’s photo album of life at Monk House, their home, and you can view the album here. Many of Woolf’s central long and shorter texts may be found on Project Gutenberg Australia:


Tilda Swinton as Orlando as a young Renaissance man

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

June 19: Introduction: Woolf, & animal stories, art of biography, Finish Flush if you haven’t already.

June 26: Flush: Non-human animal point of view; Elizabeth Barrett Browning & Woolf herself. Read for next time also “The New Biography.”

July 3: Orlando: Knole & Vita Sackville-West, tranvestite tale

April 10: Orlando,” time traveling; the writer’s life’ clips from the movie. Read for next time also “The Art of Biography.”

April 17: Three Guineas: pacifist movements after WW1; the lead-up to World War II, the Woolfs position

July 24: Three Guineas. The text. Final thoughts


Vita Sackville-West photographed to look like Orlando in 1840

Suggested supplementary reading:

Ackerley. My Dog Tulip, introd. Elizabeth Marchall Thommas. New York Review of Books, 1999
Auster, Paul. Timbuktu. New York: Holt, 1999.
Barrett, Elaine. “The Value of Three Guineas in the Twenty-First Century,” online at Academia. edu: http://www.academia.edu/7822334/The_Value_of_Three_Guineas
Briggs, Julia. Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life. Harcourt, 2005.
Knopp, Sherron. “‘If I Saw You Would You Kiss Me?’: Sapphism and the Subversiveness of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando,” PMLA, 103:1 (1988):24-34.
Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf. NY: Knopf, 1997.
Forster, Margaret. Lady’s Maid. Penguin, 1990. Fictionalized biography of EBB’s lady’s maid, Elizabeth Wilson.
—————–. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography. Doubleday, 1988.
Maurois, Andre. Aspects of Biography. 1929; rpt. Ungar, 1966.
Nicolson, Nigel. Portrait of a Marriage. New York: Bantam, 1973. Important text for understanding Vita Sackville-West.
Orr, Douglas. Virginia Woolf’s Illnesses. Clemson University Press. 2004. Online as a pdf: https://tigerprints.clemson.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1017&context=cudp_mono
Raitt, Suzanne. Vita & Virginia: Work and Friendship of V. Sackville-West and V. Woolf. Clarendon, 1993.
Sackville-West, Vita. Knole and the Sackvilles. Drummond, 1948.
——————–. All Passion Spent. Virago Press, 1983.
Snaith, Anna. “Of fanciers, footnotes and fascism: Virginia Woolf’s Flush,” Modern Fiction Studies 48:3 (2002):614-36.


Knole, Sevenoaks, Kent (2009)

Ellen

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Cattle Watering perhaps by John Glover (1767-1849)

Gentle readers,

I’ve had some troubles over the past two weeks: my PC Dell Desktop computer died, and it has taken two weeks to replace it with a new one (Windows 20); alas while I was promised that all my files would be retrieved and put back into my new computer for reasons that remain unexplained, the IT people did not manage to do that. So I’ve lost many of the stills I gathered over the past five years and worse yet some of my more precious files in my 18th and 19th century folders: the material for Charlotte Smith that became the Global Charlotte Smith, much of my recent notes and work on Margaret Oliphant and Elizabeth Gaskell. Very unlucky.

There is a silver lining: I paid to have the material said to have been backed up in the hard drive put into a commercial “icloud” set up called Carbonite and that has now been put on desktop and I was shown how to retrieve these lost files individually. It is arduous but can be done, one by one as I need them. Or so it’s said. I’ve yet to try alone but I believe I will as the need arises — or before when I have time.

Thus my usual work came to a stop for a while. I read on and for communication used my now beloved Macbook Pro (apple). It has been my savior twice, as this is the second time since Jim died a computer died on me. I wear them out 🙂 It also has the files as they were 5 years ago and this Friday I have promised myself at long last I will again contact the IT company I use for Macbook Pro and have them update and “clean it out.” Fix my icloud so that all that is in that computer will be in the icloud. I have learned new things about computers and coping with technology these past two weeks.

In the meantime from my laptop I am carrying on as best I can — as in Carry On, Cleo!  I don’t like to leave this blog with nothing. I study and read Virginia Woolf and am reading about Vanessa Bell still and the art of the Bloomsbury circle. Soon I will be able to post a syllabus for reading Woolf with a group of retired adults this summer. Tonight I am sharing a proposal for a paper that was accepted for the coming EC/ASECS (Eastern Region, American Society for 18th century studies) in Staunton, Virginia. This is a mid-Virginia town where Mary Baldwin college is located and the Shenandoah Shakespeare Company, a repertoire going for many years which Jim and I used to attend regularly. We’d make a day of it as it is a three hour drive from Alexandria, Va. There are two blocks of restaurants and tourist-y places, historical sites, a lovely landscape all around.

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Amanda Root as Anne Elliot in the scene from the novel where Anne remembers Smith’s poem (1995 BBC Persuasion)

How to perform Charlotte Smith and Mathew Prior in the same novel: Intertextuality in Austen’s Persuasion

A proposal for the EC/ASECS conference in Staunton, Virginia, this October 2018.

In this paper I propose to explicate two diametrically opposed moods and points of view on the human experience of profound loss in Austen’s Persuasion. Pervasively and across the novel Austen alludes to Charlotte Smith’s plangent and despairing poetry of loss, embedding into the novel also the romantic poetry of Byron and Scott. Arguably the crippled, bankrupt and betrayed Mrs Smith is both the genius loci of the novel and a surrogate for Smith herself, whose life Mrs Smith channels. At the same time, it is of Mrs Smith’s apparent cheerfulness when she is with other people that Anne Elliot declares: “Here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from Nature herself. It was the choicest gift of Heaven” (Volume 2, Chapter 5). Reinforcing this “other” point of view, Austen is careful to contradict Anne Elliot’s despondent musings as she walks alone in the autumn: through allusion Anne is thinking: Ah! why has happiness—no second spring? (the last line of Smith’s second sonnet in her much reprinted and ever enlarged Elegiac Sonnets).


Dancing at Upper Cross — one of the lighter moments in this film (the same Persuasion)

As if in mischievous larger contradiction to all this powerful passionate protest and investment in grief in the novel, Austen also alludes across the novel explicitly to a very different kind of poet and poem: Matthew Prior’s semi-burlesque rewriting of an older ballad, The Nut-Brown Maid as Henry and Emma. The novel is braced (so to speak) with a  questioning out of the medieval poem and Prior’s implied cynical disillusionment. In the poems two males demands abjection from the female to prove that she is in reality irrecoverably in love with him. Emma is up to each turn of a screw Henry inflicts on her. The parallels with Wentworth and Anne present a serious critique of Wentworth’s behavior, with her usually much-praised new independence severely undercut. Austen seems concerned to undercut the misogynistic theme of testing a woman so prevalent in literature, among other texts in the era Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte.

Beyond these the grim realism of parallel tales in Crabbe are here.

There’s evidence to show that Austen knew Smith, Scott and Byron, Prior and Crabbe very well. The novel unites these disparate veins as variations on reaching an authentic self.  In her famous dialogue with Captain Harville Anne asserts as her right a burden of knowledge of ravaged grief and permanent desolation as strong as any man’s. She should be respected for this. We have reached Northrop Frye’s once well known last phase of irony and satire, only instead of winter, Wentworth breaks through with a letter and we tumble back into romance, with even Mrs Smith knowing retrieval at novel’s end — as the real Mrs Smith never did, quite.

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The attentive regular reader of this blog will recognize I’ve put together two previous blogs and drawn on my knowledge of Smith, Scott, and Prior. I never tire of Austen’s Persuasion nor the many film adaptations made from the text since the first in 1971 (click and scroll down to reach 6 blogs & essays on 5 Persuasion movies).


Anne lending herself to be lifted into a carriage by Wentworth (Ciarhan Hinds)

Ellen

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Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807), A drawing of a girl reading her writing

Friends,

I’ve not written a foremother poet blog since I went to a Sylvia Plath exhibit last fall. For Wom-po Annie Finch and Pratibha Kelapure have revived the corner of the list’s website to begin to post brief essays on earlier women poets. They need not be very far back in time. And the first fine one was about Leonie Adams. I thought if I can contribute one this week perhaps that will stir others to pony up, and that community of poets might supply themselves with a foremother poet posting every week to inspirit and teach them, to enjoy.

Two nights ago in my continuing quest to explore the biographical art of Virginia Woolf as modernist and recently as by a woman, I came across a fine book by Caroline Breashears, Eighteenth Century Women’s Writing and the ‘Scandalous Memoir”, one chapter of which discusses the memoir startling for its candour and honesty of an 18th century women poet whom I was therefore drawn to a number of years ago: Catherine Jemmat.

These past couple of evenings I found Jemmat is more successful in prose than verse and presents herself first as a memoirist and then writer of verse and prose miscellanies. Reading over her poetry, her ardent and strident Memoir, and some of the essays she had printed in Miscellanies, in prose and verse (1765 edition), I see her ever struggling to justify herself, and obsessively retelling a paradigmatic story. Again and again she or her subject is mistreated by a relative. Sometimes the angle is ironic: an aunt writes a niece now fallen and in trouble to berate her. A clergyman’s family loses all their money and their father and when they expect to be supported emotionally and financially by an uncle, they are rejected and humiliated. Most horrifying is a story by a animal treated with great cruelty by a family who continually maim the creature (it opens with the master demanding her ears and tail be removed); she morphs into a smaller and smaller animal (finally a worm) each time treated harshly and without mercy. Jemmat says the purpose of this tale is to teach children to be more humane. She certainly does expose the false sentimentalization of family life as a haven. According to Breashears, this is precisely the myth presented in Eliza Haywood’s work (to cite a contemporary woman writer).

Jemmat’s best poems are short columns of verse, and refer to writing, to print. There are some longer prologues or epistles that read well. Lines here and there come alive. There are epistles to friends.  Two suggest that her brother was lost at sea, or died on board a ship. Numbers are addressed to titled male, someone in a position of power, a known artist or professional in Dublin. She is in a friendless state.  She is seeking patrons. Two exultant epistles are to Peg Woffington; one much quieter to Thomas Sheridan. There are poems on simple objects and stanzaic tales, some ironic. Moralizing verse on behalf of prudence. There is one in praise of science. She offers ironic advice to someone on her very latest marriage. She says because she has been saddened by her own life, she cries over stories in newspapers. One touching Prologue is for a benefit play for a hospital: “With sympathetic warmth to feel the throws,/And racking anguish of another’s woes.” She often personates an imagined character. The prosody and aesthetics of her verse are simply centrally 18th century Popian (there is one Miltonic imitation).

An epigram:

Three times I took, for better and for worse,
A bed-fellow, a fortune, and a nurse.
How bless’d the state, which such good things produce,
How dear that sex, which serves such various use!

This stands out:

Question, on the Art of Writing
Tell me what genius did the art invent,
The lively image of a voice to paint?
Who first the secret how to colour found,
And to give shape to reason, wisely found?
With bodies how to cloathe ideas taught,
And how to draw the pictures of a thought?
Who taught the hand to speak, the eye to hear,
A silent language roving far and near?
Whose softest notes out-strip loud thunder’s sound,
And spread their accents thro’ the world’s vast round?
Yet with kind secrecy securely roll,
Whispers of absent friends from pole to pole.
A speech heard by the deaf, spoke by the dumb,
Whose echo reaches far in time to come;
Which dead men speak as well as those that live:
Tell me what genius did this art contrive?

The story of her life indeed is (as retold and commented on by Breashears too) of someone betrayed by the family and relatives and friends she was was brought up to count upon.

Her father, Admiral John Yeo of Plymouther, is the worst of her family to her (when he should be the kindest she says). Her mother, his first wife, died when she was 5; he remarried a girl of nineteen who of course could not relate to another child.  As this second wife becomes a woman she becomes mean to Catherine. The father was often at sea. She was sent to boarding school. Then deeply disappointed of a love match: a young surgeon was going to marry her and died. She rejected the son of a tradesman. She doesn’t  want to marry for money.

She finally marries a silk mercer named Jemmat by whom she has a daughter, but he turns out to be cruel, accusing her of adultery, bullying her, making her fear him through violent behavior. She has a miscarriage. Her father will not give up the dowry, so the husband beats her, and her family actually refuses to pressure her husband to behave differently. She and her husband’s sister fight over power and space. She does “fall” at one point (sexually), but she does not tell much of that — rather we hear of the sisters-in-law fight over property and who will live where. So the escape from her nuclear family was far worse than the original sentence. Jemmat, abusive, often drunk, goes bankrupt. So Catherine was (according to her memoir) “thrown upon the wide world for support.”

We may imagine what this means, but she did survive and wrote a 2 volume book of Memoirs (1st ed, 1762. She became dependent on aristocratic patrons who had known her father. She must have lived in Ireland for a while and frequented the Dublin theater. She published a Miscellanies in Prose and Verse (1766), which includes an essay called “In Vindication of the Female Sex.”  She protests against the scapegoating meted out to women who may be said to have sexual relationships with anyone outside marriage (no matter when or how this is written or talked about).

Catherine Jemmat is not presenting herself as a fallen woman but someone brought low by cultural and financial circumstances and norms. She finds no forgiveness anywhere for just about anything. She flees to her family for succour and they only make things worse, especially her father. Breashears says her memoir is about a woman seeking a home, unable to find or create one for herself. Lonsdale says there are “mysteries” surrounding her — but there are about so many women writers. In Virginia Woolf’s Memoirs of a Novelist, two of the book’s memoirs demonstrate how little we know of women’s lives because quite deliberately their relatives and friends will say nothing truthful; so she slips from our grasp only glimpsed in a phrase here or there.

In her excellent book, Vita & Virginia: The work and friendship of V. Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, Suzanne Raitt argues that the function of life writing when written by women is to restore to them their mother. Like other writers on biography, she collapses the distinction between biography and autobiography. Autobiographers to be listened to and good must have the capacity to see themselves from the outside, almost as if the writer were another person. Conversely, the biographer often prides him or herself on the autobiographical element in their quest and they use autobiographical documents. Raitt suggests when a woman writes of herself or another woman, she is working at restoring her inward health, to put together a new identity out of the fractured one.

Bell Gale Chevigny in an essay in Feminist Studies: Daughters Writing: Towards a theory of women’s biography that women write the life of another woman — who is usually younger than them, or perhaps now dead, from a daughter’s vantage point. Gaskell writes as a daughter of Charlotte. Woolf writes Orlando as a daughter of Vita Sackville-West. I know Elena Ferrante writes as a lost daughter, child, doll. As a mother rejected by her daughters. Jemmat was then fractured at age 5, then again by a step-mother, then by sister-rivals. Hers is an absent mother she cannot reach.

Here is what Jemmat writes to Peg Woffington “on seeing her in several characters:”

In silent wonder sunk, in rapture bound,
My captivated thoght no utt’rance found;
Each faculty o’ewhelm’d, its vigour lost,
And all my soul from theme to theme was tost.
Whate’er the heart canfeel, the tongue express,
The springs of joy, the floods of deep distress,
The passions utmost pow’r, o’er-rul’d by laws,
Which genius dictates, and which judgment draws,
Subdu’d thsu long my bosom’s grateful fire,
Silent to gaze, and with the crowd admire.
Stand forth confest, unrivall’d, and alone,
And view the human passions all your own,
Reign o’er the heart with unresisted sway,
The heart must beauty, and must power obey;
Each muse hath plac’d her sceptre in your hand,
And ready rapture waits on your command …

A second addressed to Woffington makes her into a goddess adorning the very earth and all the seas. She “moves obedient to the air like “bright Venus in the midst of spring,/Sports with the graces in the verdant ring,/The nymphs, the fawns, the sylvan crowd admire …


Peg Woffington as painted by F. Haytley in her role as Mistress Ford in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor

Ellen

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Dear friends,

Although in the first session of Prof Tamara Harvey’s Early Modern American women writers, I regretted that she didn’t show the truly appealing poems of Anne Bradstreet or Sor Juana, in the second session on captivity narratives I had to admit someone today would not read the texts chosen by Mary Rowlandson and Phillis Wheatley for their subtlety, beauty, or true self-exploration. Again, as with Bradstreet and Juana, against all logic, natural emotion, and reason, Rowlandson interprets her horrifying experiences as evidence of God’s grace. Wheatley falls all over herself with gratitude to the Deity as well as her condescendingly kindly owners, then friends. Both are writing forms of captivity narratives. Rowlandson experienced the horrors of continual war: murder, destruction of communities, and then a hostage-worker. Wheatley was slave from a young baby, her gifts recognized and developed — up to a certain point.

The once enormously popular captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson (1637-1711), is printed with many different covers and additions to the text. Only a few of these today sport the original title, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God &c). While remarkably vivid and direct, Rowlandson presents a very limited view of what’s happening, of herself, of the Indians controlling her (enslaving, terrifying, killing, putting her and her neighbors and their children to work). The Indians are the savages (never mind the colonialists slaughtered them in thousands), she is the melodramatic victim heroine.

She just thrusts us into a layer-heavy experience. Her sister is dependent on her and killed immediately (this is seen as God’s way of rewarding her). Her baby dies during the march in her arms. The chapters are called “removes, so this is a journey. In the story we see her interacting with the Native Americans, in effect bargaining with them. She begins to know more about them as individuals and their customs; she suddenly uses their names. She eats their food, expresses kindness when she is treated decently. She is also at one point glad the native woman’s child is dead. She will in desperation take food from a baby’s mouth. She tries to change the outlook of those around her so they are not thinking how they are about to be killed. She also writes of other narrators like herself, other books so this text is not as unself-conscious as it seems. She presents herself as happiest at home. Her husband was a printer. Apparently he died and she remarried (became Mary White). The native American she is servant to is killed and she records this. There is no closure for her though: she tells us that since her experience, she can no longer sleep.

The text also functions as an exemplary conversion experience. I was interested in how she managed not to become a concubine while maintaining in her text not a hint of anything unchaste going on around her. Did the native people rape their captives: apparently they tended either to kill or adopt the person into their culture. It makes visible how continual and internecine fierce quarrels often resulted in mini-wars. There were native people who themselves converted to Christianity, and they were called (derisively) “praying Indians.” There are moments where she reproaches the English for not saving them. She was accused in turn: why didn’t you escape? why did you stay with them? Ironies: she is seen as having asked too much for herself when there was ransom bargaining. Her plight was real and she got very little sympathy (as victimized lower status women today often don’t).

For my part I thought the most effective places were where Rowlandson lets go and puts on the the raw emotion she is experiecing without knowing why or understanding herself: she is landed by her captors who are in canoes; they all come ashore, the people about her talk, laugh, are happy with their victory:

Then my heart began to fail and I fell aweeping, which was the first time to my remembrance, that I wept before them. Though I had met with so much affliction and my heart was many times ready to break, yet I could not shed one tear in their sight, but rather had all this time been in a maze (8th remove)

Apparently some Americanists try to argue these narratives were influential on the Anglo-European novel. They were read avidly out of curiosity to learn about the colonial experience and the American continent. Another captivity narrative by Hannah Duston shows as exemplary a murderous retaliatory heroine. Tamara Harvey ended this part of the session by talking of Jill Lepore’s book In the Name of War, which reveals the mindset we see around us today, the paranoid beset and beseiged, the notion that violence is a solution, that there is something special about the US experience is fully here. Wars of this era include King Philip’s, Metacun Rebellion, the Pequot war. It was all about slaughter. No wonder the Quakers were so anathemized. Lepore is today an excellent staff writer for the New Yorker. You can read Chapter 1 of her book here; hers is a book about the nature of war and how people write about it.

I regret to say I regard Phillis Wheatley’s neoclassic verse in the same light as Rowlandson’s prose: historically important but as poetry, thin, imitative, a rigid prosody, with a content where she shows that after she was literally freed, she continued to spout the (especially with regard to her) semi-hypocritical rhetoric used to disguise the aggrandizement, exploitation, destruction of the people native to America, the Africans kidnapped and enslaved, the indentured servants and convicts brought over from the UK. Perhaps I’m not being fair and there are many good lines if the book is studied carefully.This good paragraph comes from a poem to William Earl of Dartmouth:

Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

Still, I have to admit it seems to me the scholar-critics want to avoid saying how unsatisfying the idiom of this poetry is. To see this clearly is to see the tragedy of her short life. Hers is the story of the lucky token exception with powerful patrons who recognized her gifts, and in return for presenting the Wheatleys as super-good people and behaving exemplarily (as the white colonialists saw this), she is protected — for a while. Wheatley was the family name; Phillis the name of her ship. There seems to be no memory of her earliest childhood. When she married, she found she had to work very hard for little money. The contemporary biographer blames John Peters, her husband for what happened to her. Dead children, herself very sick. Of course in comparison with most African people, she was treated like a princess, with respect, attention, and equivalent humanity.

Prof Harvey treated the volume and story from interesting angles (as she did Sor Juana and Bradstreet). Living in Boston was another stroke of luck; she showed us how Wheatley’s texts were marketed by looking at details in the titles of the poems. Wheatley was writing to middle and upper class women; there are elegies for the deaths of family members, for George Whitefield, a well-known Methodist; she addresses George Washington. In one epistle she writes of the Countess of Huntington and abolition movement; she writes to male aristocrats who were patrons. We see her in a community of well-connected people. Later there appear to be poems to or also about black people, a man manumitted at 40. She wants to associate with the local elite where she moves to, to admire a black nun, to think the city she lives in represents something great. Yet there is said to be an awareness in her of women across the globe who she might be like but had not had her luck.

The best book is Vincent Carretta’s Biography of a Genius in Bondage; I’ve met him at conferences and lectures, and heard him speak eloquently about Wheatley and Olaudah Equiano. We can see all that was available to a male once freed, not available to a female; Equiano lived a full life on his own while she had to marry, be dependent on her husband and died young of too many children and poverty.

I wish I felt more for these women from their books than I do. I can’t find a way into an attitude of mind so deeply guarded by religion and convention however clever Mary Rowlandson was. I can see that Wheatley survived and had what achievement and pleasure she did by somewhere deep in her fiercely repressing any anger. I find what is written about them resonates more.

Ellen

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Photo taken during Plath’s college years — this is one of my favorites (not in the exhibit)


One of several self-portraits in the exhibit — she is imitating the popular “abstract” style of the 1950s

Pursuit By Sylvia Plath

Dans le fond des forêts votre image me suit.
Racine

There is a panther stalks me down:
One day I’ll have my death of him;
His greed has set the woods aflame,
He prowls more lordly than the sun.

Most soft, most suavely glides that step,
Advancing always at my back;
From gaunt hemlock, rooks croak havoc:
The hunt is on, and sprung the trap.

Flayed by thorns I trek the rocks,
Haggard through the hot white noon.
Along red network of his veins
What fires run, what craving wakes?

Insatiate, he ransacks the land
Condemned by our ancestral fault,
Crying: blood, let blood be spilt;
Meat must glut his mouth’s raw wound.

Keen the rending teeth and sweet
The singeing fury of his fur;
His kisses parch, each paw’s a briar,
Doom consummates that appetite.

In the wake of this fierce cat,
Kindled like torches for his joy,
Charred and ravened women lie,
Become his starving body’s bait.

Now hills hatch menace, spawning shade;
Midnight cloaks the sultry grove;
The black marauder, hauled by love
On fluent haunches, keeps my speed.

Behind snarled thickets of my eyes
Lurks the lithe one; in dreams’ ambush
Bright those claws that mar the flesh
And hungry, hungry, those taut thighs.

His ardor snares me, lights the trees,
And I run flaring in my skin;
What lull, what cool can lap me in
When burns and brands that yellow gaze?

I hurl my heart to halt his pace,
To quench his thirst I squander blood;
He eats, and still his need seeks food,
Compels a total sacrifice.

His voice waylays me, spells a trance,
The gutted forest falls to ash;
Appalled by secret want, I rush
From such assault of radiance.

Entering the tower of my fears,
I shut my doors on that dark guilt,
I bolt the door, each door I bolt.
Blood quickens, gonging in my ears:

The panther’s tread is on the stairs,
Coming up and up the stairs.
— one of the poems typed by Plath in the exhibit, said to have been written almost immediately after she met Hughes

Dear friends and readers,

Another foremother poet blog from a different angle than usual: I usually offer a few images from their best work, and comments, then a central section on the life and finally on the poetry in general. For tonight I want to describe a remarkable exhibit I saw and lecture I heard at the National Portrait Gallery: One Life: Sylvia Plath.

The exhibit was culled and put together by Dorothy Moss, a curator at the National Portrait Gallery, who also has taught at Smith College where Sylvia attended, and Karen Kukil, a curator of rare books and manuscripts at Smith College, and editor of the first unabridged, uncensored (unbowlderized) books of journals, and now letters by Plath. Until Kukil’s work all the autobiographical writing by Plath that readers could reach were put together by Ted Hughes or only with his or his sister, Olwen’s approval; even now Plath’s daughter, Frieda, controls what is put in print, so there are still some letters, poems, pictures withheld, or where they appear framed and controlled by Frieda who is said to be a fierce partisan on behalf of her father, Ted Hughes. Frieda has written lines showing intense hostility and resentment towards those who want to know more about her mother’s life.

‘Wanting to breathe life into their own dead babies
They took her dreams, collected words from one
Who did their suffering for them.

They fingered through her mental underwear
With every piece she wrote. Wanting her naked.
Wanting to know what made her.

Then tried to feather up the bird again

The exhibit is small, only one room, but they pack a lot in. It takes us through her life at first using photographs, her own art work, letters about her by others, journalism, writing by her for obtaining prizes, an essay on the double in literature for a class, a recommendation by Ruth Beuscher, a psychiatrist who became her friend recommending her for a Fulbright after her time at Smith, and gradually focusing on her poems written upon specific personal occasions, and her later letters to friends in distress at Hughes’s treatment of her, trying to start a new life with two young children to care for. There is also a musical piece, an installation it’s called by Olivia Johnson, Glass heart/bells. On a table one sees glass jars and funnels, bells, light flickering, with some of Plath’s words from her poetry heard over and over (“I thought I could not be hurt”; “How frail the human heart”) and a line from Hughes (“a mirrored soul of art”). Moss and Kukil said they had a hard time getting the Smithsonian to agree to any exhibit: objections included the idea that since Plath killed herself, the exhibit would be dark and not appeal; the idea that Plath was not widely known. This is startling to be told when for most women poets she is the major figure of the 20th century. It reminds me of how until the 1960s Virginia Woolf did not receive public acclaim and only recently has her importance and greatness been acknowledged. Prompted by questions, Moss and Kukil agreed that her suicide has made her an ambivalent figure the way Woolf’s suicide has made her.

For the lecture, first Moss spoke for about a half hour, then Kukil for the same amount of time, then they took questions.

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A depiction of Plath by her from the exhibit: here she is weeping over what she is reading about World War One

Moss’s lecture: She began by saying how tears welled in her throat when the exhibit was finally in place. She surveyed the many books, essays, poems published on Plath since her death, and insisted that in fact Plath is part of popular culture, however unacknowledged or acknowledged only quietly. She seemed to determined to alter the picture of Plath as dark and brooding; at least she was not so when she was younger, though she had a break down before she went to college. Moss said many readers say they do not feel so alone in their reactions to our society and one another when they read Plath.

This made me recall one of the poems I first read by her, which I remembered ever after.

The Applicant

First, are you our sort of person?
Do you wear
A glass eye, false teeth or a crutch,
A brace or a hook,
Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch,

Stitches to show something’s missing? No, no? Then
How can we given you a thing?
Stop crying.
Open your hand.
Empty? Empty. Here is a hand

To fill it and willing
To bring teacups and roll away headaches
And do whatever you tell it.
Will you marry it?
It is guaranteed

To thumb shut your eyes at the end
And dissolve of sorrow.
We make new stock from the salt,
I notice you are stark naked.
How about this suit —

Black and stiff, but not a bad fit.
Will you marry it?
It is waterproof, shatterproof, proof
Against fire and bombs through the roof.
Believe me, they’ll bury you in it.

Now your head, excuse me, is empty.
I have the ticket for that.
Come here, sweetie, out of the closet.
Well, what do you think of _that_?
Naked as paper to start

But in twenty-five years she’ll be silver,
In fifty, gold.
A living doll, everywhere you look.
It can sew, it can cook,
It can talk, talk, talk.

It works, there is nothing wrong with it.
You have a hole, it’s a poultice.
You have an eye, it’s an image.
My boy, it’s your last resort.
Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.
(11 October 1962)

I too hate interviews. In my experience they are forms of hazing as well as demanding the applicant portray herself as utterly willing to efface the self to be loyal to the institution, the people who are hiring her, someone of high status, with a great deal of pride and determined ambition. Oh yes and doing what is fashionable. The poem is not in the exhibit.

Moss followed what is fashionable today too. Plath was presented as constructing her image, posing and savvy before the camera, so a picture of her imitating Marilyn Monroe (they said) in a bathing suit was one self, but another of her with brunette hair, looking demur was for application for a scholarship was another. They chose her with a bicycle in front of a school building with a sketch pad to be the leading image outside the door of the exhibit because they thought somehow this showed her presenting an image of herself. The photo was taken by a good friend at the time, Marcia Brown, who stayed loyal to her after Hughes left her, and to whom one of the poignant letters in the exhibit was written. They chose the poem “It was the night before Monday” to show a happy moment with her parents, Winthrop and Aurelia Plath, and her brother, Warren.


On one of the walls of the exhibit

She covered the usual early biographical material, her father’s sternness and early death, her closeness to an aunt Dot (Dorothy, her mother’s sister)), a picture of herself dressed as a nurse (done during her father’s illness). There were cut-outs by her: when young she wanted to be a fashion designer. These show an astute awareness of popular highly sexualized styles of the 1950s. (Yves Saint-Laurent similarly made his own beautiful cut-outs as a young boy; his were more original in style; see my comments on an exhibit of his art at the Fine Arts Museum in Richmond, Virginia.) There was a pony-tail, a long, Plath’s own from when she was 12 and first cut her hair, saved as a relic by her mother. Her mother wrote that she couldn’t sleep the night before Plath cut her long hair for the first time.

In her teens Plath drew herself again and again, imitating different styles. She was liberal in her politics , and some reflect that (there is a mocking collage of Eisenhower in the exhibit). She was horrified at the murder by the state of the Rosenbergs. Her pictures also imitate popular styles at the time (surreal, cubism), we see her as a clown. She originally wanted to major in studio art but soon after entering Smith her professors directed her into literature and writing.


A Fractured Self

Moss said the thesis about the double in literature reflected Plath’s own sense of her fractured selves. After she won a number of awards, she secured a position for a year working in New York City for Mademoiselle (much coveted). She interviewed Elizabeth Bowen; photographs of that interview are in the exhibit. She met Marianne Moore too. Her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, is about the disillusionment she experienced during that tie.

In 1955 she went to England on a Fulbright and there met Hughes whom she married a year later. There are many photographs of her and him together, and several familiar ones are in the exhibit, and a portrait by her of him (quite beautiful). Moss did not say this but it’s apparent (to me) that Plath unfortunately bought into the myth of the deep appeal for sexual women of aggressive, violent macho males and the poem “Pursuit,” and a letter she wrote immediately after that show her exultant upon meeting Hughes as a “savage animal.” She was in fact naive when it came to understanding the realities of living with a promiscuous aggressive domineering man; Moss said she thought she could change him; it’s not clear when she began to realize that he didn’t want to live a domestic life centering on children. She herself had longed to be a mother. Kukil said they included the famous poem, “Balloons” to indicate how much joy she felt with her children.

Here is one less well-known:

New Year on Dartmoor

This is newness: every little tawdry
Obstacle glass-wrapped and peculiar,
Glinting and clinking in a saint’s falsetto. Only you
Don’t know what to make of the sudden slippiness,
The blind, white, awful, inaccessible slant.
There’s no getting up it by the words you know.
No getting up by elephant or wheel or shoe.
We have only come to look. You are too new
To want the world in a glass hat.

It is said to be to her daughter, Frieda, as a little girl around Christmas. Plath’s greatest poetry comes from the period of her marriage and the desolation, despair and betrayal she knew in the separation.

Moss ended on Plath’s posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1982. In accordance with her upbeat presentation, she did not tell of the gravestone which apparently has had to be renewed several times as people keep trying to erase Hughes’s name from it. Nor did she mention that Hughes’s second wife, whom he was living with when Plath killed herself (not yet divorced) killed herself. She had a child too.

Another poem not in the exhibit:

Edge

The woman is perfected.
Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment
The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga
Her bare

Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.

Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little

Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded

Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden

Stiffens and odours bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.

Diane Purkiss wrote an essay on this poem from which I quote: “Plath evokes first Cleopatra, whose serpents in Shakespeare are babies suckling her breasts, then Medea, whose ‘illusion of a Greek necessity,’ is revenge on Jason, her unfaithful husband.Medea’s revenge takes the form of child-murder. The woman in the poem hovers undecidably between the two figures, one whose ‘children’ killed her, one who killed her children, one whose violence turns towards her own flesh through her children, one whose violence turns outward through her children.”

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Large Size Shoes by Sylvia Plath (this comes from an essay I read on another exhibit of Plath’s visual art — her drawings and illustrations, which are often very home-y and plain)

Karen Kukil concentrated on Plath’s writing, telling us briefly of the works she wrote, something of the history of the editions of the poems and letters. I wish she had told more about this. The exhibit includes the Royal manual typewriter she used as a teenager; later she has a semi-electric Smith Corona (so did I); then an Olivetti (in the UK). Kukil began by quoting a line by Plath: “I am in my deep soul happiest on the moors.” She is buried in Hepenstall (a parish church in Yorkshire). She covered The Bell Jar, the first book of poems, Ariel, with “Lady Lazarus,” a poem about suicide attempts. She too wanted to counter images of Plath as always a depressive by (as with Moss) by not giving the full context or de-emphasizing say her alienation from her mother’s form of ambition, such a poem seemed to come out of nowhere. She did talk later of the book, Letters Home, to her mother (Plath wrote altogether 747 letters to her mother); these show a happy complacent girl; they were carefully selected and censored after her death. Her mother had been very angry at the portrait of a mother in The Bell Jar, thinking it was simply her when it was a composite. Kukil said her own edition of Plath’s Journals (1955-62) is the first non-censored edition of Plath’s life-writing.

Plath, Kukil said, was “fearless.” That’s why she could write such frank bold transgressive poetry. She was an artist and would go through 15 drafts (of a poem “Elm,” a wood used for coffins, a poem about loneliness). She saved drafts of her poetry. All this was inherited by Hughes. Her poems also often have political context: so a poem on electrotherapy (which she apparently had inflicted on her) connects to her memories of how the Rosenbergs were electrocuted. Peter K. Steinberg whom Kukil worked with has created a website for studying Plath’s poetry. He is the co-editor with her of the two volume The Letters of Sylvia Plath (2017/18).

They then took questions. There was a good discussion. They told of how they came to study Plath. For Kukil it was being in Smith College. They were convinced that Plath knew she would someday be studied, and wrote at least some of her letters with a later audience in mind. She would write to Hughes saying they would someday be admired as a couple of poetic geniuses. (Their image has not emerged in quite the way she thought when she first married him.) They mentioned that Frieda has had a hard emotional life: her brother, Nicholas, Sylvia’s son, had a Ph.D. and did good work in science, but he too suffered from depression and killed himself. Teachers they had were important: Pamela Hunter gave a course which included work by Plath. Smith now has a rich archive of Plath material — bought from Hughes. They spoke of a course which joined together the work of Plath with Virginia Woolf. I made a comment at that: I said I thought that Plath and Woolf resembled one another in their after reputation: both died too young to control their papers; since they killed themselves, the reaction to their work has been affected by the average person’s discomfort with suicide, and this has kept the respect they both had early on subdued; that suicide arouses hostility in many people connected to someone who killed him or herself and by outsiders to the people most closely connected (say a husband). In Plath’s case there have been duelling angry biographies; in Woolf’s many attacks on her as elitist, “out of touch” with the world, often little understanding of Leonard. Both women commented on that, basically agreeing.


Stevenson has written about how she was hampered and stymied by Olwen Hughes

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A Kitchen — by Plath

I’ll close on discussions I’ve had with people who’ve studied and written professionally on Plath, people who have taught her poetry, and people who have read her deeply. Often they object to autobiographical reading, but this seems to me cannot be avoided; the material is often rooted in the personal, and Plath makes this plain (as did a poet of the 18th century I’ve studied, Charlotte Smith.) Friends who suffer themselves from bad headaches mentioned that Plath suffered from migraines and how these are reflected in her poems; for example, the rhythms and imagery of “Lesbos.” One seeming impersonal theme that has general application emerges circles around Medea — as we know betrayed by Jason. My friend, Fran, wrote “one major aspect in Wolf’s own treatment of the Medea theme is the way people feed on other people’s catastrophes, scandals and often actually fan the flames of defamation themselves. Here you have a voyeuristic, vampiristic crowd gloating over a homier Medea’s personal calamity:

Aftermath

Compelled by calamity’s magnet
They loiter and stare as if the house
Burnt-out were theirs, or as if they thought
Some scandal might any minute ooze
From a smoke-choked closet into light;
No deaths, no prodigious injuries
Glut these hunters after an old meat,
Blood-spoor of the austere tragedies.

Mother Medea in a green smock
Moves humbly as any housewife through
Her ruined apartments, taking stock
Of charred shoes, the sodden upholstery:
Cheated of the pyre and the rack,
The crowd sucks her last tear and turns away.

One last which seems to me to show Plath at her finest is vatic:

The Moon and the Yew Tree

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God,
Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility.
Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place
Separated from my house by a row of headstones.
I simply cannot see where there is to get to.

The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
White as a knuckle and terribly upset.
It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet
With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.
Twice on Sunday, the bells startle the sky
Eight great tongues affirming the Resurrection.
At the end, they soberly bong out their names.

The yew tree points up. It has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.
How I would like to believe in tenderness
The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.

I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering
Blue and mystical over the face of the stars.
Inside the church, the saints will be all blue,
Floating on their delicate feet over the cold pews,
Their hands and faces stiff with holiness.
The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.
And the message of the yew tree is blackness-blackness and silence.

Ellen

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Elizabeth Moss as Offred, and Martha (cannot find actress’s name)

Friends and readers,

I’m over a week late in writing about the finale to this year’s film adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (see Episodes 1-3, 4-6, 7-9), but I want to offer some closure and a comparison with Atwood’s novel’s close.

This was another intensely grim and cruel episode: every human feeling that is natural and loving is thwarted; all the people living under this regime who are said to be powerful are seething with frustration; there seems to be no kindness anywhere until near the end of the hour when Moira-Ruby reaches Canada, and when Nick seems to enable Offred to at least leave the dead souls (man and wife) now at the core of the Waterford home. The only natural people are Nick, the Martha (who tells the story of her son’s death during the war they lost, for whom she grieves still).

As in the first episodes, the film-makers are past masters at coming up with the most terrorizing kinds of moods — Offred is to be punished with the other women — she showed she had power in the previous episode when she had to be turned to to persuade Offwarren not to throw her baby over the bridge: she is viciously hurt with that electric prod; she is taken and something seared in her ear; then Mrs Waterford is beating the hell out of her for the adultery she has endured in the Commander’s bed — Mrs Waterford has found her dress, and then dares to challenge her husband, which gets her nowwhere (as he answers to God, so she answers to him, a rephrase of Milton’s famous: he for God, she for God in him). What saves Offred momentarily is she is found to be pregnant and that overcomes all he transgressions (no, I will not use the verb “trumps” as it is now peculiarly ruined, sour) — except Mrs Waterford tells the commander it’s not his. That this does grate on him is seen when he questions Offred and elicits from her the misinformation of course the child is his. In fact, we have good reason to believe it’s Nick’s, and without sufficient explanation it is Nick who somehow engineers her escape from this home at the end of the episode into a shut truck which may be taking her into worse darkness or into the “light” (liberty)


Nick’s response when he realizes that Offred is pregnant and it is probably his

Offred now entitled to a good breakfast, but after witnessing the above scene of natural affection between Nick (glad of the pregnancy — this idea of children, sentimental behavior to them is not challenged by the series) and Offred takes her and cruelly shows her Hanna from afar without letting Hanna get close. Offred is locked in a car with strong windows and she cannot reach her child sitting on a school’s steps. Offed goes mad with frustration. Mrs Waterford re-enters the car and threatens to kill Hanna if this baby that Offred is carrying does not survive. Or she Mrs Waterford does not somehow become its mother. In a review I did some years ago of a study of the function of discarded children, nowadays abortions, dead babies, child-abandonment or murder, I discovered that such events are often at the core of searing novels (from Christina Stead’s The Man who loved Children to Winston Graham’s Marnie, an image not mentioned much in all that has been written about Hitchcock’s film) Offred, terrified because she cannot control nature (guarantee her pregnancy will go to term), tells Mr Wwaterford about his wife’s threats; he refuses to believe her. Meanwhile the man whom Offwarren had had to service and exposed as seducing he is humiliated and the egregious hypocrisy of a council leads them to use science – one of these hideous operations to which our society subjects people — to cut the man’s arm off. This “operation” is classic gothic (used in Branagh’s Frankenstein): one of the motifs of gothic is exposing science as inhumane, cruel, used for perversion. I have reason to know tonight egregious operations are performed in dentistry too.

Late that night Offred tries to visit Nick and he seems not to be there His house is shrouded in darkness, — or he’s not coming out in the night. Tired, she returns to her room and opens the package that Jezebel had delivered to her, and discovers it is brim full of hundreds of notes telling the dire stories of the different handmaid’s. We watch her reading these with a kind of joy, and then carefully stowing them away. Near the close of the episode they are rescued as evidence by one of the hand-maid’s.

Woven into the episode (across it, like a tapestry) Ruby-Moira’s escape to Ontario. We see her toil across snow and ice, avoid shots, and finally arrive at a bleak garage like room where she is taken in. Switch to a hospital like place where she has been fed, redressed, is asked if she has any family, and when she says no, is provided with a family from Offred (her husband Luke) and then (wonderful to an American) given insurance cards; welcomed warmly, given warm close and looks about her to see pictures of other invented families on the boards of the hospital corridor. Humanity conquers biology.


Luke in corridor in Canada

The final perversion in Gilead is the handmaid’s are led into a circle to stone someone to death and discover the person is Offwarren, subject to such brutality and from their hands for endangering her baby. First one brave handmaid refuses this outrage and a guard beats her ferociously, but then Offred steps forward into the circle, and drops her tone on the ground, “sorry Aunt Lydia,” and all follow suit, one by one. Lydia seems to feel here is a battle she should yield on (however temporarily). So she gives in, but says ominously “there will be consequences.” The girls return home as a group in triumph, each off to “her” home.

Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) confronts Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) over cradle

These are seen at the ending as Offred remembers a happy moment with Luke after she is first pregnant with Hanna or has given birth (marveling over the child’s hands). This contrasts with a scene between the Waterfords where she and he attempt to reach one another humanly, to make love, but are intensely stiff, and seemingly fail emotionally. They must first admit and resolve their new perverted emotional lives, hers one of extreme resentment, frustration and probably self-blame, his still obtuse hypocrisy and reveling in power.

Then the ambiguous ending: as before Offred is woken in the middle of the night, pulled out of bed, dressed but as she comes down the stairs, she finds that both Mr and Mrs Waterford are desperately protesting and cast aside. There is Nick telling her to get into the truck, and she is locked in, the truck driven away. The camera focuses on he inside and for reasons that do not seem reasonable she is filled with hope and triumph (yet says she does not know what is ahead). The episode is called “Night.” Many of the episodes are filmed as if in night’s darkness. The 1999 film has Offred escaping with Nick and he daughter to a landscape of refuges, now pregant, rather like Julie Christie at the close of Heat and Dust finds peace in a refuge center high on a mountain where she comes to give birth. I am not eager to watch next season unless Atwood herself writes the script — I fear that the hard satire at the center which came from Atwood’s extraordinary book would not be kept up.

Atwood’s book’s ending is utterly different from both films: it is a piece of astonishing sleight-of-hand utterly skeptical of all we have read – not we did not experience it, but that we are led to see it as a manuscript from a time a century or so ago whose truthfulness we cannot check. Atwood times travels for her close. We are at a conference where the male professors are discussing a manuscript from another time and place. So fast forward to the future and the past looks very different, not so searing as here we are today, presumably safe and sound. This coda is a satire on academics, and their pretenses at humanity. The patriarchy reasserts itself too. The story in the book is more persuasively real than either film because psychologically credible throughout with the characters having inner complexities, especially Offred in her relationship with Mr Waterford (though this tends to excuse him, it even handedly shows sympathy for males caught up in patriarchy).

Here’s a personal take: the vision of this society is of imprisonment. Inside Gilead all are in prisons, prisons made of mind-sets, prisons dependent on punishment, prisons of hypocrisy, prisons of power. Supposedly competition is eliminated for some greater good, but the greater good is for the very few and is itself hedged by ideas that natural pleasures are sins.

We are in prisons or what we’ve built from our pasts; my neighbor-friend told me once when I was first friendly with her, that she felt when her husband died, her past had been wiped out, it was as if it didn’t exist. She was talking of personal memories, and the reality that they were diplomats and moved around the world so she first took root again in DC — luckily for she had a good job at the German institute, a private educational place serving the public (like so many in the US part private) teaching foreign languages to people going to and coming from abroad (then English), but much of her life is the product of her past. I’ve tried hard for 3 years to create a new existence for myself but find I cannot escape my past and to make something new and new relationships, create a new self at 70 well nigh impossible. My beautiful house, the books — if I move and reject them, then I have nothing. Both parents dead, no siblings, a couple of cousins and aunt who lives far away. As we age, we are prisoners of time and our bodies and these a product often of years of interaction, some considered and more free, others subject and subjected. The series is about enforcing pregnancy and regimenting the body. Power in it is based on paining bodies. Others are imprisoned in other ways — social life’s customs and patterns deeply fixed, regiments. Even the weather here — now ceaselessly hot — keeps people in who are not at the beach or taking trips.


Samira Wiley who plays Moira-Ruby — off hours, out of character

Atwood is showing the imprisonment rituals and ways of life are perverse in our world by her exaggerations of our world in her Gilead. At the time there were other female dystopias about wars between the sexes (one by Suzie McKee Charnas) where the women win or they lose. There is no gain for real from it. Interesting all the non-Gilead pasts in the min-series are of a hard brash difficult commercialized world where happiness is snatched at home from tiny nuclear groups attached to one another. It’s not really a Nazi or fascist vision, but simply capitalist and militarist in all the buildings and appurtenances we see. Food is associated with women who are cooks both in the past, outside and in Gilead; it is women who give birth but the outcome of this process intensely controlled.


Atwood herself in an authorized photo

Of course Margaret Atwood is a foremother and present-day poet of great achievement and stature. From her rich poetic writing, here is the appropriate (for Handmaid’s Tale)

Werewolf Movies

Men who imagine themselves covered with fur and sprouting
fangs, why do they do that? Padding among wet
moonstruck treetrunks crouched on all fours, sniffing
the mulch of sodden leaves, or knuckling
their brambly way, arms dangling like outsized
pajamas, hair all over them, noses and lips
sucked back into their faces, nothing left of their kindly
smiles but yellow eyes and a muzzle. This gives them
pleasure, they think they’d be
more animal. Could then freely growl, and tackle
women carrying groceries, opening
their doors with keys. Freedom would be
bared ankles, the din of tearing: rubber, cloth,
whatever. Getting down to basics. Peel, they say
to strippers, meaning: take off the skin.
A guzzle of flesh
dogfood, ears in the bowl. But
no animal does that: couple and kill,
or kill first: rip up its egg, its future.
No animal eats its mate’s throat, except
spiders and certain insects, when it’s the protein
male who’s gobbled. Why do they have this dream then?
Dress-ups for boys, some last escape
from having to be lawyers? Or a
rebellion against the mute
resistance of objects: reproach of the
pillowcase big with pillow, the tea-
cosy swollen with its warm
pot, not soft as it looks but hard
as it feels, round tummies of saved string in the top
drawer tethering them down. What joy, to smash the
tyranny of the doorknob, sink your teeth
into the inert defiant eiderdown with matching
spring-print queensized sheets and listen to her
scream. Surrender.

Ellen

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