Posts Tagged ‘friendship’


An actress in semi-comic imitation of Catherine Parr as she appears in a portrait that anticipates several of her stepdaughter, Elizabeth’s (attributed to “Master John”)

Dear Friends and readers,

In previous years when I’ve sought to commemorate Austen’s birthday, I’ve placed on the blog something she wrote or something written about her novels, usually poems; e.g., the beautiful elegy she wrote in 1808 commemorating the death of her friend, Mrs Lefroy four years ago before; Anne Stevenson’s poem, Re-reading Jane: “To women in contemporary voice and dislocation/she is closely invisible …”

This year I’ve been reading biographies of Tudor women as I watch movies based on what I call “The Tudor Matter.” I have noticed before that Austen’s entries in her parodic History of England include queens and any ladies Austen can find involved in this time frame whom someone included or neglected to include in their history, or female figures in novels of Austen’s era about these Elizabethan women. Her entry on Henry VIII is an extended defense of the two women he beheaded with some remarks correcting a date (so she does care about dates), and a final comment on Henry’s last queen which shows she had read enough about Catherine Parr to know she too came close to being beheaded:

It would be an affront to my Readers were I to suppose that they were not as well acquainted with the particulars of this King’s reign as I am myself. It will therefore be saving them the task of reading again what they have read before, and myself the trouble of writing what I do not perfectly recollect, by giving only a slight sketch of the principal Events which marked his reign. Among these may be ranked Cardinal Wolsey’s telling the father Abbott of Leicester Abbey that “he was come to lay his bones among them,” the reformation in Religion, and the King’s riding through the Streets of London with Anna Bullen. It is however but Justice, and my Duty to declare that this amiable Woman was entirely innocent of the Crimes with which she was accused, of which her Beauty, her Elegance, and her Sprightliness were sufficient proofs, not to mention her solemn protestations of Innocence, the weakness of the Charges against her, and the King’s Character; all of which add some confirmation, tho’ perhaps slight ones when in comparison with those before alledged in her favour. Tho’ I do not profess giving any dates, yet as I think it proper to give some and shall of course Make choice of those which it is most necessary for the Reader to know, I think it right to inform him that her letter to the King was dated on the 6th of May. The Crimes and Cruelties of this Prince, were too numerous to be mentioned, (as this history I trust has fully shewn;) and nothing can be said in his vindication, but that his abolishing Religious Houses and leaving them to the ruinous deprecations of time has been of infinite use to the landscape of England in general, which probably was a principal motive of his doing it, since otherwise why should a Man who was of no Religion himself be at so much trouble to abolish one which had for Ages been established in the Kingdom. His Majesty’s 5th Wife was the Duke of Norfolk’s Neice who, tho’ universally acquitted of the crimes for which she was beheaded, has been by many people supposed to have led an abandoned Life before her Marriage — Of this however I have many doubts, since she was a relation of that noble Duke of Norfolk who was so warm in the Queen of Scotland’s cause, and who at last fell a victim to it. The King’s last wife contrived to survive him, but with difficulty effected it. He was succeeded by his only son Edward (Cambridge Juvenilia, ed PSabor, 180-82, notes 461-63)

Catherine Howard by Holbein

To imitate Austen’s own sweeping confident tone, her manifest numerous errors (such as Henry had no religion, he did have one if a typically wholly subjective one for his own personal justificatory need), absurd characterizations (her pronouncing the brutal sycophantic Norfolk noble), lack of knowledge (alas Catherine Howard did have a lover before her marriage, one she remained entangled with afterward) of which I have now given sufficient proofs are by modern readers of Austen explained away by saying that this is irony, that the very purpose of her book is to show that written history is not possible if your aim is objective truth. Or they point to her intuitive summations which are very much to the point: Henry VIII’s crimes and cruelties; there is no excuse for the savage barbarisms of the man, and here and there she does highlight some significant aspect of the personalities she mentions: Wolsey’s gift for performance and ability to deeply feel and express such feeling.

Austen is a strongly partisan reader and literary critic. If she is on your side, she defends you unqualifiedly, sees whatever happens in ways that redound to your credit. If someone were really to try to write an adequate explication and background for each of her assertions from the literature of the era, it’d be the chapter of a revealing book about her reading, attitudes and the books of the era others read and responded to and how this is part of a tradition we still participate in today, as witness the continuing films and books.

As witness: Claire Foy, Damien Lewis, Mark Rylance, Charity Wakefield as Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell and Mary Boleyn in street procession (2015 Wolf Hall, scripted Robert Vaughan out of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy)

Like mine author, I am not in a position to do all that would be necessary. So I will double down on the general attitude of mind in the passage that reflects the attitude of mind of the whole small history and then one sentence towards the end. The attitude of mind is Austen’s form of feminism. She looks out at history from the point of view of the experience of the 50% of humanity often left out: women. Most of the passage is about the women Henry married and then slaughtered or nearly slaughtered. We all remember how Austen wrote of a similar set of accusations about Queen Caroline of Brunswick:

— I suppose all the World is sitting in Judgement upon the Princess of Wales’s Letter,” Poor Woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband — but I can hardly forgive her for calling herself “attached & affectionate” to a Man whom she must detest — & the intimacy said to subsist between her & Lady Oxford is bad. — I do not know what to do about it; — but if I must give up the Princess, I am resolved at least always to think that she would have been respectable, if the Prince had behaved only tolerably by her at first. —-

A timely online article from Persuasions On-line worth your perusal is Martha Bailey’s “The Marriage Law in Austen’s Time”

This appears at the end of a letter to her beloved friend, Martha Lloyd 16 February 1813, the one relationship most fans of Austen and scholars too choose not to go into deeply. While Martha Lloyd has been suffering all the miseries of a single woman with no income (having to be a similarly underpaid companion/toady) and Austen mentions that Martha must’ve suffered particularly from the raw cold damp (Martha’s room was not adequately heated), and herself as a prisoner of her mother’s supposed ill-health. Her letter to Martha also includes an allusion to Eliza dying and in great pain, Henry active in his banking business, and three indirect allusions to Mansfield Park (which we surmise Austen was writing at the time): Martha has not been able to answer her friends questions about Northamptonshire, and (a seeming non-sequitor), Austen is so aware of “the tricks of the sea,” and is aware of how Lady Keith’s sister could not have enjoyed herself at a ball because she is “shy and uncomfortable in a crowd of Strangers.” The associative threads here lead us all back to Mansfield Park. The specific allusions of the letter are a melange of details of women’s lives into which Jane and Martha must fit.

Lucy Davis as Charlotte Lucas eyeing the constrained Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet as Charlotte tells Elizabeth she is quite satisfied with her lot, as look at this room she gets to sit in, and most of the time alone (1995 Pride and Prejudice, scripted by Andrew Davies)

So there is Austen’s form of feminism before us all — she is strongly partisan for the individuals and groups of individuals she feels sympathy for, identifies with — that is how she behaves or feels. She looks out at the world unashamedly from a woman’s perspective; her loving friendship (with lesbian overtones or experience included at times) with Martha gives her the liberty to express her views on Caroline and adultery openly. The same we see in her History of England, written many years later.

So the sentence I mean to parse:

The King’s last wife contrived to survive him, but with difficulty effected it.

Austen’s gift for concision has enabled her to say in one sentence what it takes Linda Porter a chapter to discuss adequately in her felicitously written and beautifully informative Katherine the Queen: this is a perceptive book on the phases of Katherine Parr’s life as Katherine moved from child- to girl-hood, through four marriages and finally death in childbirth (her one and only pregnancy, Thomas Seymour the begetter) and the aftermath of her absence in the lives of the others she lived amongst and left remnants of herself to (as well as problems to cope with). Austen knows that Katherine Parr did not just passively or luckily outlive Henry; she had to work to escape arrest and death at least once. Henry’s suspicions were aroused and then worked up to a near estrangement and then fury because of Katherine’s political and religious views – and worse yet, poor woman (as mine author might say) she translated and paraphrased and published (!) three works: Palms or Prayers taken out of Holy Scripture (1544); Prayers or Meditations (1545) and posthumously, The Lamentation of a synner (1548).

So we may assume from the text before us and all we know of Austen’s other texts (novels and letters) that she admired and liked Catherine Parr, took her side as a woman no matter what. Parr’s near catastrophe was the result of her attempt to disseminate information and texts from the evangelical Protestant reform movement and even persuade Henry to alter his hierarchical and Catholic political views (such as work, deeds are necessary for salvation); Austen overlooks, she passes pver that. In this History, Austen is adamant that in these lethal Elizabethan politics she favors the Roman Catholics: thus the lines about Norfolk and her passionate partisanship, she says, for Mary Queen of Scots. I am adamant that much that Austen writes in this early text is written straightforwardly; or, to put this another way, her irony is directed at previous historians, and at human behavior as she catches it on the fly, but not the literal general content of her history, meaning the general outline she presents. A series of victims of a brutal man. She is often pro-Catholic but here what’s at stake is to defend a woman: as she defends the regent’s wife, Caroline so she defends all the women in this particular passages — on the grounds they are women and get a raw rough deal. It’s telling for those who might still assert Austen ignores sex that three of the cases I’ve just mention swirl around adultery; and for those who might still assert (or believe in their hearts that Austen ignores or is not interested in or mum on politics), the fourth is thicket of religious, dynastic and party politics (family clans the parties that mattered then).

I found the most interesting part of Porter’s book the section on Katherine’s writings where I found as I have discovered several (countless) times before that intelligent reading women of this period read evangelical writing, and were deeply taken by it: from Italian (Vittoria Colonna, Veronica Gambara) to French (Jeanne d’Albert and Margaret of Navarre) to English (Anne Boleyn and now the mother-surrogate to Elizabeth Tudor, Katherine Parr). Katherine also like the women of letters of this era used translation as a way of self-expression, some of which by Katherine Parr show closely similar attitudes to that Elizabeth Tudor (I that was to come) in her translation of Margaret of Navarre’s Prisons. There is something in this material sensitive, educated women cannot resist — and communicate to one another through ( I can much better understand women reading Rousseau). Also men close to power but without it (e.g., Anne Boleyn’s brother, George). Anne Seymour, nee Stanhope, Duchess of Somerset, Katharine’s rival, her fourth husband’s brother’s wife (Edward Seymour who became protector when Henry died) is also deeply drawn to this material. I mention Katherine’s sister-in-law because she was one of Parr’s enemies.

Katherine, from the years of her second marriage, to a much older man, John Neville, Lord Latimer who got into serious trouble during the Pilgrimage of Grace (explained lucidly by Porter), with Katherine held hostage for a time — to my mind she looks intelligent and shows fortitude (women in the 18th century wrote novels featuring heroines with fortitude)

It was due to Katherine’s reading, the friends she made (Cranmer who was a strong influence on her religious beliefs, Porter, 203-4, 234-35) and life-long associates, and translating that Henry began to listen to people who wanted to replace Katherine with a candidate of their own. He had had enough of strongly intelligent women in his first and second wives: Katherine of Aragon who fought him successfully and Anne Boleyn who could not (not having the connections her predecessor had.) He had had enough of royal women after Katherine of Aragon. Enough of highly sexual women after Katherine Howard. Parr was beginning to fit into these paradigms. In Porter’s book we see Katherine intelligently deflect these accusations by falling back on her previous entire loyalty to Henry. Lucidly and persuasively Porter analyzes central events of Henry’s reign during Parr’s years as queen from a correctly skeptical point of view. When Henry VIII goes off to one last battle in France he destroys so many people and places, he spends huge amounts of money — and everyone around him, including and especially Katherine are all praise. Parr tells of the intensely affectionate home-coming Parr gave him. Blame her? Well mine author would understand.

So on the occasion of Austen’s birthday, I provide a brief exegesis of a passage in her History of England, and a footnote to one line — remember nowadays people write reams on the smallest phrase Austen utters so I’ve precedent — Linda Porter’s excellent Katherine the Queen supports Austen’s contention.

As to Porter’s book in general in relationship to Austen: Porter writes a biography where the novelistic technique of pretending to be inside the central subject’s mind is used at times (Austen condones this through Eleanor Tilney’s critique of the way men write history), but this is not overdone, and as to factual basis, Porter footnotes all she says and clearly has read all the extensive literature on Henry’s reign and Katherine’s life. Porter is concise, engaging, not cliched in her conclusions, for example, arguing either that Katherine is a person of high integrity and learning, or that she is seeking power, influence for herself sheerly, or that she was passive flotsam and jetsam upon the seas of life. If married to a much younger man with a close family connection when she was in her early teens, and then to a much much older man to obtain money, power and land for her family again, Parr held her own and lived usefully in her second and third marriages. She could not avoid Henry VIII; she may have been mistaken to love Thomas Seymour, something of a boasting lout-rake, who molested her stepdaughter with more than her complicity, but Katherine then paid the ultimate price.

Katherine’s own bedroom in Sudeley Castle, from her very last years

Katherine’s correspondence with Henry’s three children shows a decently considerate step-mother. Parr left letters and paraphrases of reformist texts, a trail of documents because she married so often, was widowed thrice, and attempted to mother other people’s children in two her marriages. The one drawback is Porter doesn’t quote Katharine enough. I’d like to believe Porter’s interpretations of her unqualifiedly, but for her argument about Katherine’s religious politics, the center of the later part of Porter’s book I need more documents. I know publishers discourage close reading, and to ferret out Parr’s individual voice from guarded letters, paraphrases and adaptive translation, micro-analysis on Porter’s part would have been necessary.

What does emerges is how ordinary Katherine Parr was, how the outlines of her life fit the lives of these “elite” women traded (trafficked?) by men in these power- (land, money) hungry families: her life experience feels so typical, even in her death from her (one) pregnancy. No one woman friend emerges (which is common if you are paying attention), but she was fortunate in some of her male friends and mentors. She appears to have loved and been loyal to her brother, William Parr and he reciprocated. Reminding me that Cuthbert Tunstall, diplomat, churchman, a writer, humane, even approved of by Thomas More, was Katherine’s father’s friend, and constantly there for her in Katherine’s life:

Cuthbert Tunstall (1474-1559) when young

The relationship with Henry of course is what brings Parr into the terrain of Austen’s history and warrants comment: he was an insecure man, fantastic as it is to say this of this terrifying beheader tyrant, deeply duplicitous man (as so many of these absolute monarchs and today totalitarian leaders become). Porter persuaded me that Parr was still very attractive at what was then middle age (an age that most novels and histories and still movies today do not admit women as having because they will not hire women that age to play women that age) and that Henry wanted her sexually, hoped for children from her, and assumed she would be an obedient (no talk back) woman who would submit and yet be companionable. He didn’t mind a mother for his children as long as she didn’t take their interests over what he deemed his.

Porter succeeds in showing more than Eric Ives on Anne Boleyn that Katharine wanted an image of herself to provide her with enough respect to protect herself with, some power to be able to act individually, and to that end she kept having herself painted with the regalia of her “office” — in abstract patterns too like her stepdaughter, Elizabeth I, for a while would and used ritual successfully.

Katherine late in the marriage to Henry

I don’t know what I am so attracted to this woman (as I take it Austen was to single her out); like Mary Boleyn, Jeanne d’Albret, Katherine Parr’s story compels me. I have next on my TBR pile an excellent biography for d’Albret meant for academic and non-academic readers alike: by Francoise Kermina (in superb French, she too a wonderful stylist). Kermina’s biography of Madame Roland is the best text on her there is in print and some of her brief sketches are equally good. In typology I’d make Mary Boleyn into a Marianne Dashwood type with Katharine Parr as an Elinor Dashwood.

In each case of the books I’ve been reading since last fall – began with Anne Boleyn – the woman’s death is by no means the end of the biography. Her life in each case is so interwoven with these men who are powerful and clans and it was these people who in general destroyed and twisted these women – there are occasional winners and outliers and they end these books. Katharine had been and was becoming one again (a winner), but childbirth did her in (as it did so many women) Mary Boleyn was an outlier who survived. She had not sufficiently surfaced in the histories so Jane”s history omits her.

So this is how I honor Austen: her feminism, her intelligence, her understanding of others’ books, her writing. Austen is with Katherine Parr all the way and read whatever was available about her — and the other Elizabethan women and characters she treats of — with care and perception.


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Fanny (Imogen Poots) and Jane Austen (Olivia Williams) having frisks at Godmersham — drunk and running about garden (Miss Austen Regrets 2008)

Dear friends and readers,

The second of the two letters we’ve discussed this month on Austen-l (see letter 95). Very long, written within 3 days of the first, it represents the actual rhythm of exchange, and is (further typically) filled with people of whom we know nothing and LeFaye is disinclined to give away; there are many tiny vignettes, if incisive still half-formed, so to close read is quite a job. On the first week Diana Birchall took us but 1/3rd the way in.

I’d like to try as an experiment a different way of proceeding than we have been doing lo these weeks, months, and years. I will for a change do a general reading zeroing in on themes — because I feel I am ready to see larger patterns now (having gone through 95 letters just about all by Jane Austen), and get them right as I was not when we began. I will scan the whole letter and place it into the comments for reference. As Diana remained faithful to our proceeding all along, she has the last word.

Gentle reader, if you feel you can, comment on this different way of proceeding and say which you prefer.

18th century print of Streatham

There’s Jane’s view of herself. It is clear she does not get many compliments and is inclined to think she is not valued, and is sceptical about all such utterances. Towards the end we get a strong statement about how she values Cassandra and the Bigg sisters. She likes being with them better than being at Streatham or Bookham (you can have these fancy houses you see). She says she can’t get used to seeing them in Henry’s carriage. What a view she has of herself. We saw how she couldn’t get over seeing herself in a carriage. She comes back to the weather several times. It’s apparently nice for November. She does this to say to Cassandra that she knows Cassandra is making the most of this in order to enjoy life as best she can. “I was in hopes of your seeing the illuminations and you have seen them.” It’s here an association comes which makes her remember Frank’s use of the past participle or country accent as a boy so fondly. I see an important undercurrent here, which leads me to …


Austen as reader and writer. From the standpoint of books Austen read and admired and her work as a writer: again there is the liking for Crabbe; she’s pleased that the conservative (anti-Jacobin is the phrase used) Elizabeth Hamilton admires her work sufficiently; she does not care if the people at Cheltenham really don’t like her books if they are willing to buy them (“a disagreeable duty”), still “so as they do it” makes her happy. She is working on the 2nd edition of S&S — those long mornings we’ve observed mentioned in other letters must be when it’s done. There is a reference to Madame de Sevigne which suggests that Austen had read her letters. She likens Mrs Hamilton’s relationship with her daughter to madame Sevigne’s with hers.

Cheltenham, the 18th century spa era … again highly idealized

Her brothers: She wants to visit Henry and he has been ill (she says we rejoice sincerely in his gaining ground), and she is aware that the illness is his anxiety and his state of mind for the past year or so (so since Eliza’s death), but it’s clear she is not certain he wants her around. She may see that she’s an uncomfortable person in some ways to have around (she does not like social life, is part of it only it “bits and starts” either because she’s snubbed as older, single, poorer), but she would like to go to be there. I don’t think this is ironic as she repeats the idea more than once. Note she has these plans 3 letters ago to go to Henry quickly but not stay long and has yet to leave.

She also is remembering language as a child that Frank used, with a kind of cherishing — again that strong love for him, which we’ve had some evidence comes from their childhood. The remarks people make about Frank as a boy all come from her passing phrases. He apparently would use the past tense participle when he should not and she imitates this several times even to ‘draved.” It may be she is also imitating his country accent. Poor Mary in the last part of the letter is a reference to Mary Gibson Austen. She was pregnant again. Frank is stuck in the Baltic. Jane thinks of this, and feels for Mary vicariously.

Bath, the River Avon

Edward and she have become quite companionable since Elizabeth’s death: it’s worth remarking that the sharp asides about his miserliness, possessiveness over land, egoism have stopped. She notes that he hates to be around sick people in a previous letter with respect to Lady Bridges. I remind everyone in a previous letter Lady Bridges and her doctor (Parry) and coming to Bath were mentioned and Jane said Edward won’t go to Bath now rather than be around sick people — even if Louisa is going (Edward has had a letter from her we are told at the close). The Lady B seen here is the same sick lady of the previous letter that Edward wanted to avoid, e.g., “Dr Parry does not want to keep Lady B at Bath when she can once move.”

Edward (played very well by Pip Torrens, MAR 2008)

But no sharp comments about Edward over this — earlier much earlier she made fun of his going to Bath for his health and again there is no mockery of this type of him any more. Perhaps the absence of Elizabeth made her like him better. There’s only “you may guess how Edward feels.” He wants to avoid this sick lady and will bring back Fanny Cage (who we must assume didn’t like being around the sick either.) Again I see in John and Fanny Dashwood aspects of this brother and (now dead, mercifully I expect Jane would admit to herself) sister-in-law. Lady B has money and status; as Diana remarks when Lady B wants to leave, she ups and does — unlike Jane who must wait on everyone else. (Anne Elliot’s powerless has its source here.) And Jane admires the decisiveness. I rather suspect she really was so frustrated in the time she had to waste with dullards; the irritation is not so strong as it once was.

Jane and Fanny look through window at men playing cards (MAR 2008)

Jane’s niece Fanny whom we have to accept was her favorite by this time is not too keen on the aunt just now. She favors the younger people around her and Mr Wildman. Jane enjoys running about with them outside the house, sitting in a row for fun — this is used in Miss Austen Regrets (2009) we see Olivia Williams just with Fanny drinking a lot and running about (to be scolded by Edward Bridges in the person of Hugh Bonneville). She does find companionship with Mrs Lefroy’s sister, Mrs Harrison, but note the repeated self-consciousness. She cannot resist praising people who are not eager over the concert (Lady B). She kids about Miss Lee who likes Crabbe and talks up a ball too much — perhaps the woman was pompous.

Yes Jane does not like over refined and elegant people – or laughs at them, or tries to. They irritate her probably because of her own lower status and it must have grated knowing herself to be so much more gifted and yet so undervalued for this.

Notice how she is often paired with Miss Clewes. This is the common way at Godmersham, Aunt Jane and the governess.

On people important to Austen, people who are not relatives: The Hattons (some of whom she has a relationship with) come and go and so do the Bridges. There is another mention of Edward Bridges with an enigmatic statement about why he keeps coming “for more reasons than one.” Apparently Austen did not like him by this time at all. We’ve seen this growing since the beginning of a previous visit to Godmersham. I agree with Diana that Austen at Chilham must’ve met Mr Breton (spelt here Britton), an intelligent man would make it a decent party (“the pleasantest party ever known there”) but note she does not say so. It’s curious how she represses this kind of thing — Cassandra would not like it?

Tomalin remarks how loathe Austen was to mention First Impressions in her letters. This is the same reluctance. Harman sees this as the result of her literary work not being valued by her society or her family enough — or her fear they would think she was getting too full of herself.

The Sherers are really gone — remember last week’s letter (this is the problem with taking such time over these) how she lamented they were really going. She likes Mrs Sherer especially. Perhaps this woman and Mrs Harrison valued her for real somehow the others did not — parts of her personality no one else responded to.

I think by this time she has become cool with Martha altogether. At Worthing might have been a high point for them, but life has intervened. Martha persisted in wanting to marry; is a poor dependent who must sell herself as a companion. They are apart too much and she expected too much of Martha. She expected less of Miss Sharpe and consequently the friendship stays easier — we lack many letters they apparently exchanged.

As will be seen I did this letter differently. I’ve deliberately picked out what is important here.

A costume used in the 1995 S&S film

Now for the minutiae which make up style and tone. In her first posting on this letter, Diana admired the sweep, concision of “very snug, in my own room, lovely morning, excellent fire, fancy me” — it shows a confidence with language found and way with words like Dickens’s in Pickwick Papers, the famous passage ending “sagacious dog, very.” Austen does the same thing with Mrs Elton only then the style is to send Mrs Elton up. I agree there is a feel of bitterness in her references to the Fowles’s buying her book reluctantly.

Authorship is not paling, but she has not the same first elan and ecstasy after 30 years waiting. It’s only human when you have felt your 2nd edition staring you in the face. The truth was she was not independent, far from it, not making anywhere near enough money to effect a life change.

She is though in the same letter genuinely pleased to be older, to be out of the “rat race” of procuring partners, and looking attractive to young men: “as I must leave off being young I find many Douceurs in being a sort of Chaperon. I am put on the sofa near the Fire & can drink as much wine as I like.” she does not want to be old but as time has enforced age upon her, she finds real compensations.

She finds some of her guests dull, but some she takes real pleasure in and there’s are these strong utterances:

“We had a beautiful night for our frisks.” Like lively horses.

“Dog-tired” the next day. (Why are dogs proverbally tired?)

“The shades of evening are descending, & I resume my narrative” is an interjection between a list of people’s names who might be a “a good ball next week, as far as females go.” Maybe the local area didn’t support assemblies, book circulating libraries.

Jane Austen no longer goes to balls to find male partners. Company, good female company is what she wants — and we see this in this letter from her enjoyment of Mrs Harrison, to her gratitude to Mary Plumptre whom Jane would hardly have known but “was delighted with me, good Enthusiastic Soul!” By contrast, men are “useful” (Mr Gibbs), provide carriages (Henry) or they are “unsteady” (Mr Paget). A rare sort of proto-feminist quip Diana overlooks: “what is wrong is to be imputed to the Lady — I dare say the House likes Female Government.”

Rex Whistler (1905-1944) painting bought by Mr. and Mrs. Robert Tritton at Godmersham is now in the possession of Mrs. Sam Hood (daughter of Mrs. Tritton)

Diana picks up on the quip about Sophia as “comer” (more comments on women) and how Jane disses the Hattons — she is always dissing them, if not the women, then George. This is not the first came and sat and went about them. They were above her socially, lived in far greater luxury, with a bigger library … but now I’m looking for phrases, style, tone that matter I am struck by this:

“Dear Henry! what a turn he has for being ill! & what a thing Bile is!” This attack has probably been brought on in part by his previous confinement & anxiety.”

She hopes it is going fast and then resorts to that time-keeping one sees in her novels: she will look for a good account from Cassandra on Tuesday, but since letters come on Wednesday she can’t hope for the letter written on Tuesday to arrive before Friday. I don’t know why a letter to Wrotham would make Henry feel better. Jane is concerned. When I read this passage and think of the undercurrents about him and his living over his business since Eliza’s death, I am not surprised at his later retreat to a plain woman and quiet curacy. He’d had enough.

Cassandra (Gretta Scacchi) at Chawton (MAR, 2008)

By contrast, Cassandra’s letter is “excellent sweetness … to send me such a nice long letter — it made its appearance, with one from my Mother, son after I & my impatient feelings walked in.’

Her impatient feelings have feet too. Diana ended on something not explained, well after she mentions her mother’s letter she writes; “How glad I am that I did what I did! I was only afraid that you might think the offer superfluous, but you have set my heart at ease.” This brings her back to Henry and her determination to stay with him whether he will or not, “let it be ever so disagreeable to him.” But she has not time or “paper for half I want to say.”

We cannot know what Jane did that she was so glad about and she thought Cassandra might find superfluous except it be her offer to visit Henry. In context it feels to me to be more about her mother. I take the above to be some of the more important tones and sharp memorable turns of phrase and minutiae in this letter.

For Austen’s text and Diana’s close reading see continuation in the comments.


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To translate seemed to me a beautiful thing to do — Victorine de Chastenay on her beginning Radcliffe’s Udolpho

La Coeur et la raison: title of Goubert’s translation of S&S, so the allusion is to Pascal’s La cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît pas [The heart has its reasons, that the reason doesn’t know]

Dear friends and readers,

I send along a brief review of Helen McMurran’s significant book. Her argument implies that creative and attentively alive linguistic translations as well as translations that paid close attention to changing the text to something acceptable to the targt culture were at the core of the spread of the novel across Europe.

Next up will be a two part evaluative review of Pierre Goubert’s study of Jane Austen: he finds out the traits of her mind and character as shown in the books and letters, and has himself written one of the powerful accurate translations of her book into French: La Coeur et la Raison, a translation that enables me to approach Austen’s text afresh the way Ang Lee’s great film adaptation (1995), together with Davies’ 2008 imitation also function. Goubert is much closer in spirit to Austen.

Then I’ll return to Austen’s letters, probably beginning with just Letter 95 (Jane from Henrietta Street, to Cassandra, at Godmersham, 3 Nov 1813).

What troubles me about the reviews of this book is most reviewers seem not to have bothered to read carefully enough to present its arguments about translation or simply (as usual) don’t care about translation studies to see its significance. Her views are consonant with David Bellos which a recent review of Virginia Woolf’s collaborative translations from the Greek with S. S. Koteliansky show hardly anyone takes into serious consideration. The writer found her alterations of Koteliansky deeply effective but had to dismiss it as not accurate, so wrote a muddled even puzzled account of the Hogarth project.

McMurran’s book is presented as having dual purpose: it also explains how novels spread and that was probably what attracted reviewers and a publisher as it’s what was mostly discussed by the reviews I read. The images in this blog are of translations of Austen into French from her own era. See Francophone Jane for listing.

This is Isobel de Montolieu’s translation: it contains her preface, a short life, and the whole of her text.

McMurran traces the history of translation in the 18th century. She argues that translation in the 18th century either refused to obey the norms of earlier translations which meant to obey the norms of classical culture as if it were universal; translations were also original (or idiosyncratic, depending on your perspective) in how they obeyed the target language’s literary norms (3). An influential study by Venuti divides translation types into domesticating or foreignizing. She says this division fails to take into account another way of thinking about translation. Before the 18th century the point of translating a text was to transmit it, and often the original and translated texts were used as learning tools.

Foreign language at the time was taught by method like Latin: silent, translating; in school texts we see words placed against one another as equivalents (9). (For my part I think this kind of study still essential in learning a new language.) You were transmitting the Latin and Greek (through Latin); your purpose to render and transmit; you produced what was understood and re-valued in original; you are engaging with, imitating, bringing up to date revered originals. There were classicists who did argue that a given text was not translatable, by which they meant it was necessarily at as good as the original. Such an argument would never be made when it came to Malory’s translations of 5 French romances into his romance epic of Arthurian Tales because the French texts were not respected (often not known). But it was applied in the case of Homer and Virgil especially. Now putting them into vernacular meant you were supposed to convey the essence of the author as you filtered it in your idiom. So Johnson complains that Pope loses the wild savage essence of Homer.

This Archipoche edition gives the complete and unaltered early 19th century translation of Austen’s MP as Les Trois Cousins by Henri Villemain.

In the later 17th century the historical sense was beginning to emerge, just glancingly but it was coming. People became aware that older texts were from another time and culture and the distance between themselves and this earlier time. They begin to update texts. The most infamous examples are the Shakespeare alterations in drama. 18th century scholars continue to see the much revered texts as partly timeless — not wholly as the verse imitations by Pope of Horace and Johnson of Juvenal show. But they never see the texts written in their own time as timeless. When they translate texts in their own time, they are not reviving or renewing. Translaters begin to see themselves as enriching their own readerships of their particular nation and language by translation. Literary translation becomes a transnational exchange; texts are seen as representative of a nation

Think of the difference between Curtius’s European Literature and Latin Middle Ages and Auerbach’s Mimesis

A very important sub-argument of this book is that translation in the era was not seen as hackwork. She has a long section showing simply that most translations we have were done of out love of a text, interest in it. Yes there were hacks, but they are in the minority because so badly paid. She suggests this sort of motive persists to our time.

It’s certainly true of Feneon’s Catherine Morland for Northanger Abbey which by chance, talent, perhaps spiritual affinity made this anarchist’s French text a genuine match for Austen’s:


The historical sense changed the way texts themselves were viewed in histories of the novel. Early histories of novel, starting from later 17th century just assumed earlier novels were written out of a universal impulse to tell a love or adventure story. They would connect texts across centuries and make no effort to discover if there was any author of the particularities of a time or place. De Sade’s history is the first person to look at circumstances and say the one romance comes from one culture and time and another from another. Scott developed this into an important insight: he was the first to begin to look at texts as forming national identity. Watt sidesteps all this to begin with new definition of novel that takes us back to universal aesthetic impulses (divided into neat binaries). But he too (McMurran does not say this) begins with this assumption there was something new in the 18th century which made a break with the past.

McMurran’s book may be a companion to Moretti’s Atlas of the Novel, showing us how much novels at the time represent an interaction between the French and English. But more importantly it’s an application of Bellos’s perspective on translation.

An anonymous 1816 translation of Emma, included in Valerie Cossy’s JA in Switzerland

McMurran tells us how trawling through catalogues tells us so little about the books — how nebulous and hard it is to make any sense of these catalogues, first pages, what little information is available and paratexts — and erects it into an understanding of the era as polymormous, as being indifferent to who the author was as they could not know. It was not until much later that it was admitted texts were changed to suit a political point of view, to sell to the taste of a public. Cossy’s book is an attempt to delve the people who produced the French translations of Austen, their political and personal views, and that of their immediate audience. It takes a long book to analyze just a couple of Austen’s translations (Montolieu, excepts from Pride and Prejudice) this way.


This is Eloise Perks’s 1822 text unchanged

She then moves into the translations themselves. It’s interesting to see (from what evidence we do have) that in the early parts of the 18th century 30-35% of fiction read in the UK were translations from French, but as century wore on less and less translations, there were more indigenous English texts in the UK. In France the proportions move the other way: little translation from the English until mid-way and then a flood of English texts translated into French begins, but these English texts were (it’s important to recall) naturalized, made to reflect French aesthetic and moral ideals.

This is Isobel de Montolieu’s text unchanged; unfortunately Helen Seyres has altered Montolieu’s text (as well as title, to Raisons et Sentiments) for Archipoche, making the reprint worthless

McMurran then turns to “rendering practices” in prose fiction. She explains that she ascertained what 18th century translators did when they departed from their text. Well it depends and was individual, but two common resorts are amplification to make more vivid, or condensing to make more forceful. I’ve found that later is typical for the two good male French translators of Radcliffe, Soules and Morellet (and sometime also for the poorer ones, Moylin and Fourier, but they might do that for anyone). Amplification allows for change of perspective such as we see in Smith’s Prevost and condensing such as we see in Chastenay’s Udolpho.

Behn then studies Eliza Haywood’s translations. I did not know that Haywood translated a lot (as did Behn) and I cannot resist thinking both did it for money. Haywood looks to heighten the impression of the text. My respect for her went up when I learned that that she translated Boiguibert’s Marie Stuart, Reyne d’Escosse, Nouvelle Historique, Mary Stuart was an attraction to Madame de Lafayette too (in her Princess de Cleves as the wife of Francoise). Haywood wrote about her methods justifying them Apparently many have thought her Mary Stuart an original book; she also wrote a fictionalized biography, The Life of Madam De Villesache, but this one she presented as a translation.

This real interest in French reminds me of Aphra Behn’s really fine work in French which only recently has gotten some attention (mostly libertine love poetry).

Quite career for Eliza Haywood as a translator. What’s interesting is how she deviates from her texts. Most of the time I dislike her fiction intensely (even her more domestic later fiction) which I find sarky and heartless or crudely didactic — it matters to me what her strength is exercised for; but here she emerges with a certain humanity. I did not know she translated a good deal of Prevost’s Memoirs of a Man of Quality; this is astonishing really.

McMurran then has a matching section on La Place as a French translator of English texts; his translation of Oroonoko influential; he sympathizes intensely with the African characters as native Caribs in a history of Imoinda; he manages to go outside a Eurocentric view of these characters according to McMurran.

About mid-point in her book the cross-channel emergence of the novel becomes her topic. Again she sees translations as central; part of this was the emergence of the nation state, for the first time the idea a language is not easily translated into another because of cultural differences is voiced regularly. McMurran loos at de-nationalizing strands too and turns to look at Richardson’s novels in translation.

It’s here I left off, but will return eventually, but again I interested to see a new perspective (so many have studied Clarissaand Richardson in translation you see). The new perspective informs Robert Frail’s more recent enquiry into transation, A Singular Duality which again is defeated by reviewers who remain wedded to the idea a translation is first and foremost a crib of a specific text. See Gillian Dow. “A Singular Duality: Literary Relations Between France and England in the Eighteenth Century (review).” Translation and Literature 17.1 (2008): 127-131. Project MUSE. Web. 26 Feb. 2013. .

The modern Pleiade texts

McMurran begins with the idea that a national cosmospolitanism characterized the outlook of readers and translators alike in the 18th century; people read the second language of either English or France while they were in Europe. As there was intense hostility between France (and hence French and French book) and the UK (books in English) so there was also intense admiration. This too describes some of the motives for translating central to the function and nature of translated texts in the era.

A still from Victor Nunez’s Ruby in Paradise, an appropriation of Austen’s Northanger Abbey: the image resembles a common motif in women’s painting (e.g., Jane Freilicher).

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Dear friends and readers,

This is a calmer letter. Jane is out of Steventon. She writes from Manydown where she is staying with the Bigg sisters and their brother to Cassandra, now residing with Henry and Eliza in Berkeley Street. The chord has been cut but more importantly she no longer has the irritant of Mary Austen’s triumph and James’s acquiescence — or collusion — in front of her.

Steventon from Barley Lane, by Julia Lefroy

It is as realistic as those which have come before (see, e.g., Letter 33) about the people she has to be dependent on (Henry, James), the politics surrounding her sailor brothers’ lives and continually aware of her lack of money and independent power.  its focus is first on simply retelling a letter sent by Charles; then we get a visit Austen intends to Miss Lyford (not exactly a favorite as we’ve seen), but also to where the Bigg sisters are (so friends Austen likes, if not as much as Martha Lloyd). Then these worried frettings about traveling, this time it’s Cassandra who must be ferried here and there in a state of upper-middle-classdom prestige and safety (how much did these people dread the "lower orders" — or did they dread being identified as one of them).  I am interested to find that again Austen thinks it fine for Cassandra to go with a servant..

I suggest from this juncture of her experience emerged The Watsons. People have often observed the milieu is that closest to Austen’s own and that of her father’s generation.  He is the person she has most identified with in this crisis, and for whom she has hidden why he was led to move his family from where they were secure and comfortable.

Page from manuscript of The Watsons: not titled that by Jane Austen. The Younger Sister gives away the strong autobiographical perspective. The bad Tuesday in this case was Oct 13th, 1801: see my calendar drawn from the novel.

Jane is not spending three days in Lisbon, she is not in London — she’s the younger sister, thought to have been the original title of The Watsons, perhaps the novel whose milieu for the central family comes closest to Austen’s own.  She dines at the same hour as Emma and Elizabeth do, one their visitors do everything they can to shame them with. I argued from the extant calendar in The Watsons that the novel was begun in 1801 (its opening date is Tuesday, Oct 13th and by my calculations that probably means 1801. So The Watsons is the novel written in the wake of the full brunt of the Austen family dismissal. Its mood is an expression of what she felt at this time. In rereading The Watsons I see the older brother and his nasty wife have inserted in them characteristics very like (but much stronger) we find in John and Fanny Dashwood, so all are reflections of Austen’s reaction to her eldest brother and sister-in-law as well as Edward Austen (though it was Henry Austen who made the remark about just think how cheap they will live …)

A must read & reread



We might mention that at Manydown Austen lives with the Bigg-Wither family. She would be with her wealthy friends (the family went back 4 centuries in records), Elizabeth, Catherine and Aletha. Harris was the brother, born in 1781, so 6 years younger than Austen. The proposal in December 1802 would not have come in a vacuum but after a considerable acquaintance. So perhaps during this and other visits there is building up a relationship between Harris and Jane that Jane’s extant letters do not mention. She might have talked of him, described him in some of her letters either unfavorably or mockingly (derisively) or else been frank in some other way (shown him to be stupid, or herself to be half-interested) and Cassandra destroyed it. I speculate that Jane did so write at times and this is part of what was destroyed.

I take Austen’s opening line to be a teasing about Mr Smithson, Henry’s friend. Cassandra has perhaps written about Mr Smithson so eagerly, that Austen teases her that she likes him.

Again Austen is self-consciously aware she will be seen as writing too much and excuses herself on the grounds of a letter from Charles which she now proceeds to paraphrase. This takes up about 1/2 of Austen’s letter..

There is a description of Henry and Eliza’s home in Upper Berkeley Street in Nokes, pp 231-234 — of the French cook, of the lifestyle of Eliza and Henry’s doings as a banker.

New Bond Street — shopping in fashionable London, 1801.

Jane acknowledged Cassandra’s letter on her mother’s behalf and then proceeds to paraphrase a letter that she has had from Charles Austen.

Charles’s letter contained information about Frank as well as himself. The Start is a headland on the Devon coast, a landmark for ships coming up the Channel from the Atlantic. The letter was written there and carried to Popham Lane by Captain Boyle (on his way to Midgham (Boyle family house, north of Reading and Newbury so he passes Winchester, Popham Lane, Basingstoke).Charles had traveled from Lisbon on the Endymion. Charles had met Captain Inglis (a commander) going to take command of Petterel. The Petterel was Frank’s ship. Boyle was a big man on the naval board and Austen’s allusion to a "conjuror" probably refers to how much the man can help Charles in his career (and Boyle’s own). The Endymion has not been plagued with any more prizes is one of her satiric jokes — this is very much in the vein of her mockery of the way Francis’s successes were over-played (letter 32).

Charles spent three pleasant days in Lisbon; they had the Duke of Sussex, 6th son of George III and his morganatic wife, Lady Augusta Murray (daughter of an Earl, Dunmore) aboard.  We see from Austen’s letter that the Duke did not hide that he had married Lady Augusta (even if by law not recognized) and was (like a number of these sons of George) "fat"; he also seemed to Charles "jolly and affable." Charles hopes to be in Portsmouth by Tuesday and is eager to see Henry (a banker)

Then we get how Charles was "of course" much "surprised" at his parents’ plans, "but quite reconciled" (right — she’s simply paraphrasing his pretense) but still wants to go to Steventon before it’s taken over by James and Mary.

I mentioned I’ve been reading Maggie Lane on Jane Austen and food; ever so discreetly, she registers surprise at Mr and Mrs Austen’s move from Steventon (though of course immediately turning to qualify and adhere to the myth they were seeking a version of "golden years"). Charles’s letter apparently — again ever so discreetly paraphrased by Austen with no open admission of subtext — showed much surprise  "he "was much surprised of course."  But of course too "is quite reconciled," though not enough not to want to get to Steventon before James and Mary move in: He "means to come to Steventon once more while Steventon is still ours." Not only did James and Mary make it clear they would be regarded as distant guests, Charles is aware there is nothing to be gained (indeed much lost) by this decamping. Note that Austen is ever controlling her every move by money: she will stay with Miss Lyford only 4 days because then she can return at no expense by filching a ride with Catherine Bigg.

The mention of Abercombie can introduce Sir Home Riggs Popham. Popham accarried dispatches for Abercombie (who died in March 1801 from wounds).  He would be another man around Austen’s sailor brothers.  Southam offers a portrait of Popham, pp 135-57 because Jane Austen wrote a political epigram (yes, Austen) defending this man as a victim of envy (he was court-martialed). Basically (according to Southam) Austen was right: Popham might have been as amoral as the rest of these naval people when it came to a career, and he was capable of wild adventurous risks, he was also efficient, knowledgable, effective, and ambitious — and his quick rose earned the jealousy of other naval people who cared more about their careers and status than anything else.. As Southam says, there is something of his personality type in Austen’s Henry Crawford (p. 166).

Austen then concludes her report on Charles with an allusion to the doings of Cassandra, Henry and Eliza in London:

"Such I believe are all the particulars of his Letter, that are worthy of traveling into the Regions of wit, Elegance, fashion, Elephants and Kangaroons (kangaroos)." LeFaye says Cassandra had gone to the zoo at Exeter Exchange — as I believe John and Fanny Dashwood do with their little darling son.

W see the sign for the menagerie (Zoo) at the top floor of the Exeter Exchange.

For Letter 32 instead of patiently parsing out the lines the way I just did this one I quoted a long paragraph by Southam retelling the details of what Austen was half-mocking.  Austen’s epigram  shows her genuine casual knowledge of the intimacies the Royal Bourbons seemed to share with everyone.

Miss Lyford was the young woman Austen suggested was either mutually in love with or chasing down the Digweed involved in the bickering and jockeying for most position and least expense at Cheesedown Farm. Mary Susan (born 1772) did marry James Digweed in 1803. There is no portrait of this apparent friend of Jane’s (or why visit her), only paraphrasing of Austen’s cattiness (Nokes 226).  Tomalin does not mention her either, only John Lyford, the man who later was Austen’s doctor when Austen was dying. I for one wish we knew more about the characters of these women. Austen makes no portraits of them in her letters; they are too scatty. By contrast, you do have portraits of people in Burney’s letters and that of many other women of this era.

Austen, for example, will only stay with Mary Susan for four days in order not to have to pay to travel back and still travel in upper class exclusionary style by going with Catherine Bigg. It seems that Catherine (not Mary Susan –it’s hard to tell from the vague pronoun reference) wished to see Cassandra again before she left permanently (as they saw it), if their schedules allow this. Austen says she supposed that Cassandra would not stay with ehr brother (Berkeley Street) more han 3 weeks.

It’s apparent here that Catherine will miss Cassandra and Austen assumes that Cassandra might like to see Catherine Bigg once more when she is still a owner-occupier as daughter of Steventon. The sentences do not quite make sense (as last week’s on the snow didn’t). for now Austen turns round and says she hopes this news of Catherine will not retard her coming back.


shelf in Austen home, from Miss Austen Regrets (they’d like to have more customs.

Teasing out this detail we see another source of Jane’s unhappiness at leaving Steventon. She leaves women friends. Psychological studies have shown repeatedly how much women friends mean to other women, and at least in Jane’s case that seems to be so. Perhaps Cassandra too — if so, then staying at Kent was something of a sacrifice, though the reverse sentence suggests it was not. I get the feeling Cassandra is a self-contained controlled woman; the insistence on preparing and thinking and feeling pious fits in with that.

The more of this fretting detail about travel. In the mid1790s letters we had Austen going over vexing different plans for her to be able to travel and her frustration at having to wait for a brother to take her, and here is a repeat. Henry might send a carriage; Cassandra could avail herself of John their servant who could sit outside on the bar or take some cheaper way near her? (How they regard servants as fixtures here for their convenience.)

I note her sarcasm over James her brother. She says that James offered to meet Cassandra anywhere — but Austen says he would not want to inconvenience himself, and has no intention of going to London on his own account.  Cassandra had better go with John, the servant.


The landscape in many of the film adaptations: this one sets quiet mood.

The last part of her letter from Manydown quickly sketches a visit to a country village town, Baugherst.  I add to Diane’s remarks about the wit here (see comments):  this small last section has the usual barbed remarks . A sentence testifies to Austen’s love of landscape and countryside (think Cowper). She had hoped to be in a pretty place, but it is winter. Family life of a house is described ironically: "all the comforts of little Children, dirt & litter."  Not much fun with endless noise, messes. Mr Dyson was his usual desperate self ("wild" = desperation) and she once again (as with Anna "poor animal") pregnant. Yes fat here means pregnant:  the 7th of 13 pregnancies. Once again the results of the cruel shallow selfish stance of those who repressed the knowledge and dissemination of contraceptive devices is before us: the ironies here include the reality it was done partly to keep men in charge (and women submissive); a man with little income and so many around him is not exactly in control of his life or space.

The only place left for Austen to express herself directly is the close we are told they pass the time quietly, and then we begin to get the usual barbed remarks  "Mr Dyson as usual looked wild & Mrs Dyson as usual looked big." This "poor animal" (to use Austen’s phrase for Anna during yet another pregnancy) was on her 7th of 13 pregnancies

A Mr Bramston called in Manydowne the day before: if John Byng (LeFaye’s note) is to be believed he was a "blockhead;" and while (years later) his mother or mother-in-law enjoyed Mansfield Park ,her daughter-in-law declared P&P, S&S and MP "boring and nonsensical." It should be remembered that from around 1820 when larger groups of people began to read Austen for the first time and until 1870 Austen was regarded as an elite taste. Nowadays many who might dislike Austen or be bored will not say so readily; there was nothing preventing conventional dullards then. Boring Austen might be to many who want adventure stories, but the "nonsensical" shows the cant mind.

Jane has sent a colored Muslin gown instead of a white one. So Cassandra was in need of a gown.

And "Everybody sends their love" (of course they do) and we get a fuller salutation than those in the last two letters which have survived from this moment: "I am sincerely Yours …"

We then have a silence of three months. Some of this would be letters between Cassandra and Jane before Jane got to Bath; others include her letters to Frank and other friends.  Perhaps she began The Watsons then.

Unabridged texts read aloud.

See 1&2, 3&4, 5, 6, 7, 8 & 9 , 10, 1112, 13, 14 , 15, 16 & 17 , 18, 19 , 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25 , 26 , 27, 28 29, 3031, 32 and 33.


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Dear Friends and Readers,

Izzy and I arrived home safely last night around 10:30 pm (Daylight Savings Time still); we both had our deeply gratifying moments, and happy times and conversation we’ll try to remember for a long time to come.   As the title of this JASNA was Jane Austen and the Abbey, and its topics Northanger Abbey, the gothic, and Henry Tilney, I can do no better than offer a still from the 2007 Granada Northanger Abbey (Andrew Davies, the writer) of J.J. Feilds as Henry Tilney driving Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland into the pretend Abbey (Castle Lisemore, Ireland):

On the bridge crossing over:

This is just one woman’s account of what I saw and heard. 

Izzy and I arrived after a long plane ride (from 10:20 am to 7:20 pm, Washington time); we took the lite train into the hotel, a vast tall two-towered enormous building. We managed to check in, get to our room, unpack, and rush out to register by 6:00 pm Portland time. 

Then it was time for me to find the Burney people as I had already missed the day’s sessions and reception, and did not want to miss anything of the dinner and talk afterwards. Happily the women at the JASNA AGM reception desk were able to find out that drinks and dinner were across the street, in another tower of the hotel, down in the lowest level. 

I went over and found myself among friends I had made at EC/ASECS and ASECS and online; they welcomed me and by the time the dinner was over I had met a small group of new people, heard the history of the Burney society (given by the president, Paula Stepankowsky, telling of its inception to the present time, and of all the accomplishments, as for example, the plaque in the Abbey), and I was cheered by the good feeling emanating at all 6 tables.  I talked Marilyn Francus at the Burney dinner; I finally met Elaine Bander in person; I talked again with Jocelyn Harris (who just flies about the earth — she had come from London, been to NY, and now was in Portland, soon to go to Otago, New Zealand again); her student, Janine Barchas was giving a paper on historical context for NA..  I don’t remember what I ate, only that I drank scotch and ginger ale and looked forward to the Burney society conference for half the next day.

Izzy had found herself supper at a local McDonald’s, wandered around Portland a bit, and was ready for bed. I stayed up late reading Winston Graham’s Memoirs of a Private Man which should rather have been called Memoirs of a Socially networking financially successful writer.

The next morning she had a ticket to the continental breakfast downstairs, and I didn’t.  But I was allowed in and both of us had croissants and orange juice, and I had coffee.  The breakfast was held in a room not nearly enough to accommodate even half the people to the conference (said to be 690).  There I encountered Diana for the second time in our lives. Izzy’s plan was to watch ice-skating on her computer for about an hour, go to a large session occurring in the Grand Ballroom whose topic was Henry Tilney, and then to an hour and one-half of dance workshop which would have helped her do the dances on Saturday night.  She did all that.

As for me, I first chaired a panel at the Burney society.  The topic was "Real Terror" in Burney’s grotesque gothic. Marie Thompson spoke about how grotesque realities were represented in the novel of Frances Burney and Charlotte Smith. Prof. Galperin (he of Historical Austen) and Marie Thompson had two different sets of texts, mostly all Burney and all Charlotte Smith; he Evelina and Northanger Abbey, and Prof Galperin once again differing. Both speakers praised the gothic as a mode women could use to communicate their real lives through and to one another. I noticed and said both papers show that there was a pivotal shift in the way gothic was understood and presented in the later 1780s into late in the French regency. Miss Thompson concentrated on particulars in the texts of Burney and Smith: she showed that Smith has many a female harridan and Burney’s older women are often destructive, that Burney’s characters are complex and don’t fit preconceptions about communities of women nor the female gothic; she discussed a concept I found in other papers: the domestic gothic, how ordinary life holds terrors.  Prof Galperin showed the strongly pro-patriarchal strain that comes through in Evelina and NA; Henry Tilney and Lord Orville will carry on the patriarchy; Prof Galperin’s larger purpose was to break down genre distinctions so that the gothic is the real.

A gatehouse with a lodging place for servants to live, a lead-in to the privileged spot Austen is not going to want to give up. What more can she need her Emma might have asked.

The plenary lecture by Cynthia Wall was called "The Impress of the Invisible." What she wanted was to show us how readers are led to ignore the typical gatehouse and nearby parking lodge as simply the introduction to the actual luminous cards.  The gatehouse and parking lodge are far more than this. They kept being built to give prestige, status and impose an aristocratic ordering and set of values (as in the train shuttle).  She showed how Park Gates when say X is pulled over for a license, he hasn’t got a chance of anyone believing he didn’t do it.  These are buildings which uphold the establishment.

Prof Wall went over several different texts picking out passages which includes the characters going through these gates and lodges and coming up the long progressive path to the mansion:  from Pilgrim’s Progress to Mysteries of Udolpho to Northanger Abbey, from Mansfield Park to Camilla.

What I most enjoyed about the lecture were all Prof Wall’s slides showing so many parking lodges, gatehouses, massive gates at the opening of Portsmouth; all meant for ostentatious display yet often a poor miserable wretched person would be living in the private ones.

A modern ruin

There was much talk afterward on these two papers and also on the gothic as it had emerged in the session in general. Again the idea that the gothic in these papers had become indistinguishable from the real was pointed out. I remembered that in the Landmark Trust catalogue there are numerous lodges and gatehouses, and that Jim and I had stayed in a hunting Lodge which had a vast bed in an alcove with a mirror about the bed. this was a place a great duke kept his mistress. A 15th gatehouse in Devon now sports the Jacobean ceiling once in a mansion.  Nowadays the lodge has the prestige elements in it. 

Afterward (when all had gotten up and were standing about, going off, having coffee &c&c), I introduced myself to and talked with Juliet McMasters at the Burney meeting, telling her how much I had admired her work all these years, including the book on Trollope. She said she had an interest in Thackeray too — I knew that but don’t know Thackeray that well. 

Then this really pleasant time and group of people merged into the larger JASNA.  I enjoyed the small time I had just as much as I had enjoyed their lectures at the EC/ASECS last autumn and mean in 2011 when I hope to go to the NYC JASNA AGM to go early enough to participate in the whole of the Burney society conference. I wish I could give a paper.  It’d have to be on the diaries for these are what I like in Burney.

Well it was near 1, time for the welcoming address to JASNA and the first plenary lecture by Stephanie Barron.  Izzy and I met in our room, went out to grab a hot dog for her and a banana and coffee for me, and then hurried back to go to the Grand Ballroom for the first time.  An enormous number of people were in that room, and within the limits that no one could be there who couldn’t afford it in some way (the average cost must’ve been about $1500 for 3-4 days), they were varied in type, from academic and professional (lawyers, business people) to Austen readers, to people dressed up in 18th century costume they had either gone to a lot of trouble to sew themselves and/or expense to buy. Everyone attempted to be friendly with everyone else.  The first plenary at this Austen AGM was by the author, Stephanie Barron who has grown fairly independent by writing mysteries with Jane Austen as a major character in them.

Stephanie Barron looked youngish and pleasant.  Her talk consisted of aligning story lines in Austen’s P&P and NA with story lines in her and other mystery stories fitted against categories drawn from mystery outlines as described in the popular presss or reviews.  She was turning Austen into modern mysteries this way.  At one point during the question time afterward (some inane) Izzy grew restless and asked me why we were sitting there. Barron did have a basic honesty.  Apparently her latest book has Byron’s name in its title and he appears; she told us she had not read Byron’s letters (not even apparently a selection) and recommended an older biography written in the 1930s which she had just read. She does a minimum of research it would seem.  She also revealed something of her original inspiration or idea: she reads Austen’s letters until she come across  an incident which lends itself to modern women’s romances; then she makes up a full-blown mystery out of that using elements from the famous six novels.  She likes to have other marquee characters. I noticed that the title of her first book resembled that of Sayer’s Unpleasantness at the Bellona ClubJane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor.  I can’t help seeing that the typical double title resembles the titles of the Bobbsey Twin or Nancy Drew series.

In the 1987 NA a statue of a woman broods over Catherine Morland in the Abbey room; she is the missing mother, the woman whose loss Eleanor Tilney longs for

Then it was time for the break-out sessions and mine came first. Its new title is "People that marry can never part: An intertextual reading of Northanger Abbey. I read the book in the context of Genlis’s Countess of C********** and two other gothic tales from Adele et Theodore; Charlotte Smith’s Montalbert, a powerful enthralling gothic with patterns and attitudes that resemble Austen’s ow;, Anne Fuller, The Convent, or the History of Sophia Nelson, a startling eye-opener as it satirizes to many books; finally Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle, written with NA in mind. I ‘read" Northanger Abbey in the context of a different set of gothics than is common: through the lens of French texts, real life cases, and little known and modern anti-gothics. My aim was to read Northanger Abbey against a fuller backdrop of the gothic, to explore and defend the gothic, especially those called "female" and those which feature younger sons. Among my points is the argument that coerced into nunnery tales are not about sexual violation but the confiscation of a woman’s life.  Imprisonment motifs reveal the wife abuse of the era as well as behavior that comes close to the torture of being a hostage (living in solitude, dependent on a cruel person, in the dark &c&c).  I’ll say no more until it’s published by Persuasions (or rejected), except that the paper went over very well:  it was well-received in the room, and I was thanked by several people over the course of the next two days: either they were there and enjoyed the paper, or they had been told by someone else I had done an excellent paper. This made me feel so good.

In addition, that the next day I was chuffed to discover that among the last papers give was Gillian Dow’s paper where Dow made the same central point: as I: Genlis’s Duchess of C******** was a primary source for NA. I no longer can make precise shorthand forms nor quickly but just attest to how forceful, vigorous and confident many younger women are today. In her session she had all the "important" people there. Gillian rightly emphasized how quickly English works were translated into French and vice versa; she mentioned the women writers whose novels I’ve worked on a lot: Sophie Cottin, Germaine de Stael.  Genlis wrote 17 novels. She added a detail I hadn’t noticed:  Mrs Tilney died 9 years ago in the novel; so the Duke of C********* imprisons his wife for 9 years.  She did come over to me later on that night to talk and say she understood how close to hers is my work and we should pool energies. I shall write her briefly before the end of the week. She said to watch out for a conference in Chawton in July on other 18th and 19th century women. I could write about Smith at long last. I have to email her soon.

In the 2007 NA, Felicity Jones as Catherine, deeply distressed to discover she has been tricked into standing up the Tilneys and cannot jump out of the carriage as John Thorpe just laughs and makes the horses go faster

After Gillian’s talk I and Izzy went to hear Elvira Casal’s talk on courtship and deception in NA. She had a big enough crowd in her room and spoke clearly and in an easy to understand talk style. It was like being in a classroom. As opposed to most of the talks which were about context, genres, archetypes, placing Austen amid other women’s novels (Helena Maria Williams’s Julia, for example), Elvira sensibly analyzed the motives and behavior of John Thorpe and Henry Tilney and showed us why Henry so valued Catherine (for her honesty, generosity of spirit) and how Catherine asserted herself to chose (wisely) what she wanted and reject what she (rightly) didn’t.  Hers was a humane reading of the novel, about how people construct lies to control what’s happening around them and to control others.

I took few notes so this brief resume of a few papers and what I remember of Juliet McMasters’ and Jeff Nigro’s lecture on Regency Gothic dress in the era and in today’s films will comprise the rest of the scholarly or bookish/art content I can contribute as a record of what happened. I feel morally persuaded (and from what I remember) Mr Nigro’s talk was excellent.  Alas it came so late at night I couldn’t take much of it in; Izzy said she drowsed. The one comment (with stills) I remember best is his assertion (probably true) that along with hair-, women’s costumes are often far more modernized than the men’s costumes in film adaptation.  There seems to be a feeling that it’s necessary to please the woman viewer by giving her images of herself to identify with in the film, while it is not necessary to please men this way.  Perhaps film-makers believe few men watch or identify.  At supper tonight Jim said he had wondered why in the era men wore these terrifically high and uncomfortable collars; they didn’t add to your looks; you had other clothing items to make you look exclusive.  Corsets flatter women’s bodies in ways they want: when Isabel put one in at the JA Museum in Bath, we laced her up and then put a mid-18th century dress on her, she did look lovely. On the other hand, until recently too in film adaptations male actors were trussed up all around their necks until they could barely move their heads easily and they did not look any better for it.

The high point of the conference for me that others can perhaps join in on was Juliet McMaster’s lecture, which was basically a meditation on the "holy fool" nature of Catherine Morland’s character who has "wisdom in simplicity."  She began by talking of how Claudia Johnson and other academics often downgrade the importance of character’s personalities; Prof McMasters wanted to show that responding deeply to characters the way we can respond to people can be a valid guide for seeing into the author’s larger purpose and meaning of her book.  She showed us how Catherine Morland makes "holes" in our imagination and how we care deeply about what happens to her. She cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible; she acts out of a refreshing honesty. Henry’s jaded dullness is rejuvenated by Catherine; he needs her.  It could be that Isabella Thorpe’s mercenary and corrupted behavior influences Catherine’s, but it does not (as Emma is not hurt by Frank Churchill). That carriage ride by Thorpe is an abduction but it’s not the body that’s emphasized, rather Catherine’s mind he tries to attack.  Catherine is suggestible, can be colonized, but she is fundamentally too good to be alienated and maintains her own space. Prof McMasters suggested Catherine’s reading of Udolpho saved her from Isabella; she is so absorbed in her books and her own values, they can’t touch her.  I love how Prof McMasters ended her lecture; it was on how Catherine under the tutelage of Elinor turns from gothics to the natural world and learns to love a hyacinth and Henry’s response (my epigraph for this blog):  we can never have too many holds on happiness.  During the course of the hour, Prof McMasters quoted Wordsworth, Keats, and ideas about the romantic imagination.  These writers also used the gothic as a form of awakening in their poetry. I have left out much that she said as part of her line of argument, but hope I have done justice enough to this moving talk.

Of course I really loved the meeting with friends, the overtly or directly social activities of the conference.  Diana Birchall had organized a lunch at South Park restaurant. There I met with a few friends on Austen-l and Janeites and now Women Writers through the Ages who I had been writing to for years now.  Two of the women were just beautiful (physically — how I feel my age!), and one was so generous as to give Izzy advice on what to do with her career (hoped for) as a novelist.  She and Diana told Izzy her Cinderella story (the only one she has on the Net) is superb and she must finish it.  I met Arnie Perlstein who is a nice guy at this lunch. Izzy did take pictures with her camera and maybe we’ll figure out how to put them on this blog, but in the meantime here’s one of the general talk I filched from Diana’s blog:

You glimpse Cindy Jones, and see Christy Somers, Katherine McCormack, Ted Adams, Izzy and me

We went to the social hours and I drank and chatted away.  We bought books at the Emporium, including a graphic novel version of Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, Austen’s Northanger Abbey, and Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla (all in one book). Diana and I managed to steal an hour and go to the gigantic Powell’s bookstore. It’s sort of overwhelming and we all bought a book (Izzy one by Terry Pratchett, Diana one on ballet and ballerinas, me Nuala O’Faolain’s posthumous Best Love, Rosie.  We (Izzy and I) went out to a lovely Italian restaurant one night and had a good meal and I drank.  We went to the ball, dressed up: Izzy in a white lace dress, and me in my black velvet one with the big black satin bow at the back.  I did get two people to dance with me even if I hadn’t gone to the workshops and managed to go up and down the line twice.  I hope I did not make a fool out of myself and look too ridiculous for I was not in costume the way most of them dancing were.  I did drink, gentle reader, scotch and ginger ale when I could get it, wine when I could not.  This helped on the night of the banquet when Isabel found the excitement and tension of the four days had been too much and had to go upstairs early. I saw some people at that table were made uncomfortable; to my mind, they were intolerant over a couple of minutes’ difficulty and I should have ignored them but did not.  I was trying for Izzy’s sake to persuade her to stay and dance as I knew she wanted to.

We did love the Wild Rose Garland dancers at the Portland museum. They did gestures which reminded me of Lancashire cloth-making and the instruments were folk, original, 19th century. The dancers were delicate and authentic. The museum has some lovely 19th to early 20th century American art.  There were at least two other mother-daughter pairs at the JASNA, and we sat with one:  Miriam Rheingold Fuller (whose Domestic Gothic in NA I heard) and her daughter: both in costume.  We walked by ourselves through the museum and then back to the hotel and then out again to dinner at a nearby good Italian restaurant.

Of course part of this socializing is meeting and talking with people whose names you never learn or who tell you their names but you know little else but the talk is fun because there’s a shared interest and nothing fraught, nothing going or resting on it, disinterested.  I talked with one gentleman with a bow-tie twice at breakfasts and then discovered he was one of those who owned one of the book stalls. I talked with a woman who will be organizing the NYC AGM and she explained why it costs so much to do power point presentations and so why one is discouraged from doing this sort of thing — though if it’s justified they can be done. I talked with the people running the book stalls.  One woman recommended a new Tracy Chevalier.  I met up with people from our JASNA-DC group during the large meetings in the ballroom.  I met the curator of the Jane Austen Chawton cottage at the banquet.  Unfortunately, I forgot to ask her name, but found myself inquiring whether she was a museum or Jane Austen person. She replied both.  At the end of Elvira’s talk I came up and re-introduced myself and we chatted as two friends. I spoke with Mary Margaret Benson while the dancing on Saturday night went on. I thanked her for allowing me to register Izzy late and helping us out in all sorts of ways. She and her team made it all possible — and for so many people.

Why do people go to conferences? Not really to hear the thoughts of the papers, because eventually many get into print. You go to be validated; to talk to people in your community like yourself.  To share feelings and thoughts.  The conversations on the bus (in this case trolley-cars and bus shuttles).  You are among your particular tribe.  A tribe not linked by genes or biology.  Perhaps this accounts for my worst moment.   While listening to Prof McMaster’s opening, a woman came to sit next to me.  She was one of the many in Regency costume.  She did differ from most of these by the perfection of her outfit. From head to toe she was dressed in impeccable later 18th century clothes; everything she had matched, from a partly rose-colored reticule to a spotless part-white dress.  She had regency shoes she had made.  Reader, she made me very uncomfortable. She took out of a thin bag a kind of cardboard figure which she proceeded to knot or knit at.  What was uncanny is that if she had been an 18th century lady, she’d have never been that clean or done such an act in a public lecture. It was entirely incongruous with her chair, with the lecture itself, with the year 2010.  Sometimes too she sat there so still. I doubted she was hearing the lecture. I felt very alien from this woman:  there seemed a kind of madness about the way at one point she ostentatiously took out a pair of fragile knitted gloves and put them on and off with a slight movement of her body. She did want people to see her, to pay attention.  For her the procession and parade at the banquet must be a must-do. Yet beyond the absurdity of her behavior and apparent consistency of dress, she had no corset on. Most of the women I saw wore no corset. These 18th century styles are not flattering to even young women unless they wear a corset; they are set up for corsets; modern taste does not idealize fecundity and in any case middle-aged women have (to put it tactfully) had it (more on the lack of laced corsets in my comments).

To turn back to the matter of the conference, the thing shared (here Austen and her era):  if nothing original, you hear a lot of development and get the feeling of what people are thinking and feeling this year, and this year we are all pro-gothic.  For Prof McMasters the gothic is an awakening experience; for many the other side of the real.  You are in for conning of course (maybe not so much in a JASNA but in some conferences where there is intense competition) and have to figure out what’s valuable and what hype, what personal aggrandizement sheerly and what of genuine interest

Then there is the occasional great moment:  the illuminating paper, film, encounter. For me this time the moment was the close of Juliet McMasters’ paper and hearing & seeing that Gillian Dow had come to precisely the same conclusions I had and facing up to how she had put it across much more persuasively than I had and appreciating why and how.


P.S. Gentle reader, about 4 months ago now my ability to get down the form of Pitman stenography precisely and quickly as people speak went from me.  It takes me too much time to make the forms clear; if I try to do it quickly, they don’t come out right. I can try to make them bigger and then they come out clearly but that too takes time. Meanwhile the person is talking on. I have lost my hand-eye coordination when I write in long hand-writing too nowadays: my forms don’t come out the way I mean them to, letters disjointed, the wrong ones sometimes.  So from here on in only the jists of talks and what I can remember.  

Year chases Year, Decay pursues Decay,
Still drops some Joy from with’ring Life away…
                —Samuel Johnson

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Dear friends and readers,

I began to want to read Emma Donoghue’s The Room when I heard the book was nominated for the Mann Booker Prize and a description of the plot-design that made me think it was a modern gothic whereby a young woman and her baby are subjected to some form of live burial.   I have read her Slammerkin, a book about a poverty-striken girl who goes into prostitution;

Life Mask ia another 18th century historical novelist based on an actress, at home theatricals, a lesbian diariest. I loved the first.

The descriptions I’ve read of The Room have emphasized the mother-son relationship, and don’t discuss at all how the pair came to be in the room or really anything specific at all. The result is ignorance, misunderstanding, misrepresentation to some extent.  The justification is probably that the critics "don’t want to give anything away," an absurd counterproductive demand. No to tell anyone any details about the work lest we "spoil" it, prevents all discussion.   So people come away either thinking this is a hard tough unpleasant book and don’t buy it; or making money from the London stage.

Neither is so. It’s not unpleasant to read nor is it about a mother-and-child primarily.  This is not a story about a mother and child; that’s the barrier, the surface, the outer surface. This is a classic gothic where (as Eve Sedgwick says) the story has a very hard time being told.  Remember Wharton’s "Mr Jones" and what effort it takes to get to Lady Juliana’s ms, and how Mrs Clemm is murdered in retaliation and as a warning to Lady Jane.  It takes hundreds of pages before we learn the story of Udolpho.  The analogous story is Lolita.  Imagine writing the story of "Old Nick’s" point of view, and remember how many people end up blaming Lolita as a sexpot and the movie which does: Lolita is a story of abduction, rape, murder (of the girl’s mother).. Also that in Five Full Days the abducted heroine is found drowned, carelessly murdered: you might say this is a police story like that turned inside out: instead of experiencing it from the point of view of the family who thinks the girl has died, we experience it from the point of view of the second child she is forced to carry and then give birth to as he reaches age 5..

The "trick" is that the story is told wholly from the standpoint of Jack, the five year old. It reminds me of To Kill a Mockingbird except Lee’s child narrator, Scout, is older, 7-8; or it could be one of James’s stories by a yet slightly older child or adolescent.  There is a convention followed which is not really realistic: the child is super-innocent.  Often the child doesn’t "get" racism, or classicism, or as here the terrible events that have led up to when the book opens. My experience of even kindergarten children is they are alive to some of these things. They sense beating, sex, and also status and position very early.

Now at first it might be he has no experience. As everyone says the book opens with a mother and child locked in a room — imprisoned.  One reason I read it fast is I’m impatient with this kind of semi-soppy point of view carried on for a while.  We really see a mother and child: her reading to him, playing, talking. It gradually emerges they are dependent on ond "old Nick" who comes at night and brings food and toys and whatever they need.

And we begin to hear dialogues between them the boy doesn’t understand but we do.  Donoghue has caught modern rough speech perfectly; it’s uncanny the street feel of this talk. Old Nick is a mean hard guy, and our heroine dependent on him.

Gradually it emerges he gets his way with this girl by starving her or not turning up for a while. So it’s a live burial with a kind of Genlis’s Duchess of C********** story going on.

If this went on too long the reader would grow impatient and so as in To Kill a Mockingbird by about 1/3 in we get Atticus’s voice and experience without Scout there, so what happens here is "MA" (another nameless heroine thus far) concocts a plan. The boy is ill, very ill and Nick won’t do anything. So she has the boy pretend to die and Nick will take him and bury him in a rug outside the room.  Here I experienced much anxiety lest they not manage their plan (they are starving as she is holding out against Old Nick) or Old Nick murder the boy or return him to the room.

Unrealistically the boy manages to enact the plan and (to make a long email shorter) and runs for his very life and the police are alerted to the hysterical scene that ensues. They rescue this boy.

What then happens is a police story told backwards. It reminds me of Five Full Days, also a police story turned into a woman’s novel:  They find the mother and we gather do arrest the man.  Then what Donoghue does is show us how this pair of people are treated by the police, then the psychiatrist, then the hospital. Profound mistrust of Ma.  A story emerges of an abduction of her in front of a school, and a seduction too. That’s the ticket — you see it’s presented in a way the girl could be blamed.  Details emerge here and there of a child born dead, of the birth of Jack, of his man’s obdurate cruelty.

At the same details of the media circus occurring just outside the new door, and we have yet to see how the story is being presented as far as I got. I got to where "grandma," "grandpa" and ma’s sibling with spouse and child have arrived on the scene.  We see how the psychiatrists misunderstand what has happened.  We see her father not want her son, dislike him as a symbol, that others suppose she had feelings she doesn’t have and when they are convinced she was a victim, begin to treat her like a weak freak.  She attempts to kill herself late in the novel.

I can’t call it gothic because it has this peculiar child’s atmosphere. I did read it skimmingly at moments because it made me impatient to get the next round of information.  While Donoghue offers respectable precedents for child-narrators, and she did give herself a hard task by having a 5 year old, another reason for choosing a child narrator is how hard if not excruciatingly difficult it would be to put oneself in the mindset say of Mrs Frizl. Can you unearth what might be in a woman’s mind who permitted her husband to do what he did?  Nabokov "solved" his problem by making his narrator titillating as well as utterly sleazy and self-satisfied so he can’t see what he’s doing; also the horror is not multiple with others involved. Genlis has just the wife and husband know, there are no repeated rapes, pregnancies or dead babies. The child excuses her from having to imagine some of the mindsets of the people involved.  Though child narrators are nothing new in fiction, a narrator who is only five is a challenge to pull off. Donoghue says she remembered classics she read in early life, like LP Hartley’s The Go-Between, "a marvellous example where, even though it is narrated by the child, we pick up strong hints of what’s going on between the adults that the child doesn’t consciously know. "I knew I would be able to tell the mother’s story through the boy in my book," she explains. "But when I told my partner I was going to write this, she said: ‘Oh my God, can you produce enough meaning through a five-year-old?’ I think you really can, if you choose a language that isn’t going to irritate the reader too much."

So it’s a story about a rape and abduction and imprisonment which could happen — and has. Recently a story of parental cruelty to two young daughters emerged (Austria When I read it I thought of the shocking horror of years of abuse. But in an interview Donoghue said it was an even more horrifying case: The Josef Frizl one  The respiratory problems reminds me of details of the still-born child. Jack is seriously ill with something and "Old Nick" won’t hear of taking him to hospital. It probably is that the Frizl case is not the only one she was thinking of.  There are six years between Life Mask (an 18th century historical novel, which I originally found a bit wooden — too much information poured in) and Room and Inseparable: Desire between women in literature. I noticed in Vickery’s Behind Closed Doors, a throw away line about in a couple of diaries (! – how many, madam) how belligerent (or some innocuous word like that) men would keep their wives’ keys from them or try to lock or contain them in this or that part of the house.

More: When I’ve got to the end, I’ll turn back and re-read. As with Austen’s Emma (McEwan’s Atonement) and many more, the second time one sees much more than the first.

"Ma Gone" is a phrase the boy (Jack) uses when the mother and he are still in the room.  It means that she’s in a catatonic depressive state. Suddenly he sees she’s not there.  She can’t get herself to get up or do anything. I have never suffered this myself but have met people who do: a kind of paralysis. It seems to emerge from a personality highly sensitive, high-strung, low self-esteem and in need of flight (can’t fight at all, can’t endure inner struggle either, or anger).

Well now Jack and mother are in hospital and her relatives have come.  They have a bad to mediocre reaction. Her father (lives in Australia, and not with mother) hates the sight of Jack.  Regards her boy as a symbol.  She is appalled by this.  Her mother can’t bear that she’s still breast-feeding the boy. Why not, says ma?  Her siblings also don’t have the best reactions to all this. 

So "Ma Gone." This time it means she tried to kill herself by taking a huge bottle of pills she found somewhere or she had with her. She almost dies but Jack is told she is coming back.  He is now home with his "grandma" who is feeding him piazza and working hard to make him "like" a conventional 5 year old.

In fact what we are seeing here (I suggest) is that in some ways Ma liked it in the Room.  She never tried to kill herself that we know of then. One of the reasons Old Nick could abduct her and she never fled or could seem to get out (remember Clary managed to flee Lovelace) is she’s a depressive and also was alienated or estranged from her environment. Her mother had remarried (there’s a stepfather who in fact has a better reaction to Jack than the father).
We also (I am) made to laugh at the psychiatrist who goes on about how she has to "socially reintegrate" herself. It’s hilarious because somehow through Jack’s transparent perspective we see this kind of talk is cant and she never really was "socially integrated" (whatever this means).

The novel explores why and how a woman is seduced into abuse, and how she might feel while being imprisoned – the socially unacceptable aspects of her feelings, such as she likes being alone with Jack and having him utterly dependent on her and not being able to do anything but care for him.  It absolves her of choices she dislikes and can’t do anyway.

I find that Donoghue herself is responsible for the misleading impression. She has said Room is a kind of allegory about parenthood and growing up. Mothers always want to protect their innocent children, as Elisabeth Fritzl did, and as Ma does in Room, from the sad truth that there is evil in the world. But children can’t stay babies forever. "For an adult to be imprisoned is a terrible thing," says Donoghue. "But the odd thing about a child being raised in one room is that children start literally in a very small place, they start inside you, and they like being inside you, and when they come out, they cry–it’s a shock. A baby is more than happy wrapped inside a sling and a toddler is more than happy sitting right beside you. It’s only when they start to get a bit older that they want a bigger world. "So I thought, paradoxically I could imagine a child finding it pleasant enough to be inside one room with a mother who is always available to them, never saying: ‘I’m going off to work now.’ It’s about that moment when a child hovers on the edge between wanting the small world with all its cosiness and intimacy, and wanting all the pleasures and dangers and excitements of the bigger world."

I think she’s deflecting having too much attention to what she really is on about: horrifying inhumane treatment where we can see the girl might end up blamed for what happened to her, and is out of sympathy with the fatuous, distrustful and simply silly views of the people now surrounding her.

Emma Donoghue

I do recommend this book, people.  In Gwyneth Hughes and Anne Pivcevic’s Five Full Days they too manage by flashbacks to go into the abducted (and by the end of the thing murdered) young woman and show her actual feelings and perspectives are not at all those enunciated by parents or social cant.


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Dear Friends,

As I was watching Part 24 of the 1974 BBC Pallisers, a beautifully picturesque and yearning, melancholy scene between Jeremy Irons as noble, well-meaning Frank Tregear, and Anna Carteret, as Lady Mabel Grex who  is now wrenchingly regretful that she had given up Tregear two years ago now that she sees him at Matching and taking up with Lady Mary (played winsomely by Kate Nicholls), a few lines delivered by Irons had the tone, the very accents of Ronald Colman when he makes one of his poignant rueful appeals

Irons as Tregear in such a moment speaking to Carteret close by, looking up, as Mabel

I was struck by a realization that a central mode or mood of film adaptations of older books which are also older costume drama is the elegiac.  And that this is rarely available to modern contemporary films.

You need the slow graceful pace for at least a few moments; you need the distance so that you can lend yourself to believing such sentiments can be uttered and at length; you need the beautiful surroundings ,the subtle long-drawn developing characterization in a seriously-taken story.

The drawing room in this part of the series has become green as a meadow, lit with sunlight.

The next scene is the curiously memorable one of the grown children (Silverbridge, Gerald, Lady Mary,, Duchess, Mrs Finn and Lady Mabel) processing out to the grounds of matching on a fine spring day — one’s heart stops at the sense of a precious moment caught from the flux of time.

Last night I was watching the antepenultimate part (the third before the last) of the 1984 BBC Jewel in the Crown:  Sarah Layton (Geraldine James) and Guy Perron (Charles Dance) finally consummate their love (Nigel Rowan having disappointed her centrally when he will not help her with what she regards as desperately-needed information about Ronald Merrick). They must part, but first they walk in the summer residence of the one of the high officials of the Raj after strolling through a garden of the Nawab. Again this strongly elegaic mode.  The book, The Making of the Jewel in the Crown, had this fine melancholy riverscape with suggestive hills and houses on its cover:

And throughout the book are line drawings, picturesque style, of typical buildings, gardens, festivals associated in the imagination the the Raj.

I remember reading how the Arcadian mode is central to costume dramas of these types; now I’m thinking yes "the allure of green thoughts," but not out of a fresh Arcadia, rather a fractured elegiac dream.

This fits the Austen movies I’m so involved with — today I managed to paginate my typescript, and finally subdivided Part 2 into its parts; I gathered what essays and books I have on Indian and Bollywood cinema and I Have Found It, systematically gathered the now many Persuasion Online essays on the various movies (and read one on Lake House, a free adapation of Persuasion), read the opening chapter of what appears to be an excellent suggestive subtle book on Austen’s novels, Susan Morgan’s In the Meantime

So here’s where I am with respect to my book project.  I’ve been worrying the question why I love these film adaptations of great books as historical costume drama so.  Well, now I’ve reached a new clarifying realization and a new turn or phase in the ms.

Jeremy Irons and Anna Carteret as Frank Tregear and Lady Mabel drawn to one another again, maturely disillusioned people

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