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Posts Tagged ‘George Eliot’

whistlerreadingbylamplight1858-large
James Whistler (1834-1903), “Reading by Lamplight” (1858)

Women cannot be expected to devote themselves to the emancipation of women, until men in considerable number are prepared to join with them in the undertaking — John Stuart Mill, On the Subjection of Women

Dear friends and readers,

Another set of texts we covered in my 19th Century Women of Letters course this term included George Eliot’s ground-breaking depiction of wife abuse in her “Janet’s Repentance” (one of her three Scenes from Clerical Life), which I preceded with Caroline Norton’s English Laws for Women and the contextualized with Lisa Sturridge’s chapter on the novella in her Bleak House: Marital Violence in Victorian Fiction, an on-line Master’s Thesis by Renee Wingert, Battered, Bruised and Abused Women: Domestic Violence in 19th century Fiction, to which I am indebted in what I write below. We also read a fine essay by E. S. Gruner, “Plotting the Mother” about Ann Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Ellen Wood’s East Lynn and Caroline Norton’s Lost and Saved (Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 16:2, 1997). Although until recently (when it is discussed) “Janet’s Repentance” has been treated as centrally depicting alcoholism, its real center is wife abuse. Given the set-back women’s causes have received in the recent US election, I’d like to right this misapprehension and urge those who love 19th century novels, especially by women, to read it.

It is striking and original study even today. It places the multiple acts of of physical violence (seen on Janet’s body and the whole of her depressed behavior as a result) not in a private house away from everyone, as a hidden private act, but in the community, showing us how it’s known and occurs as part of everyday life that everyone knows – like the reality everyone also sees (highlighted in Chapter One) that Janet’s husband, Dempster, is an awful bully. Most of the time until today when these things are talked about or dramatized in stories and film, it’s assumed or said no one knew. The woman colludes by not telling explicitly in the cases of sexual harassment. In modern stories, she fears she’ll lose her job, her children, her husband will get back to her and kill her. In fact people live utterly interdependent lives, and a build up of a community of hypocrisy is essential to the husband getting away with it (from schools where the children attend to doctor’s offices). When she leaves she leaves into a community of people, that is what is so striking and to this day unusual. Eliot shows how she is blamed in all sorts of ways by the very woman living in the house with her, how legally she has to break the law to leave him. And yet Janet is isolated – who more without someone to turn to for help than she? her mother doesn’t move on her behalf; only after she flees for her life do the others admit they know, help her to hide and determine to act o her behalf. In Oliver Twist Nancy is a street prostitute; Helen Huntington in her Wildfell Hall is this reclusive person, the whole point of Sherlock Holmes stories which include as inset pieces stories of abuse – the best known is the “Adventure of the Abbey Grange” – is to protect the aristocratic family from shame. (“Abbey Grange” is well-known because the husband spitefully murders her dog and it was done superbly well in the 1980s Jeremy Brett series). The other books mentioned by Wingert or Sturridge do not bring out this everyday reality. “Janet’s Repentance” was serialized by Blackwood and it made him far more uncomfortable than most of the books he ever published.

Equally still mostly verboten is the man is upper middle class. A middle class milieu is usual for stories by women because it’s what they know. But most accounts in the 19th century and until today are of working class men and women, often desperately poor; in the 19th century in parliament an elsewhere it was repeated ad nauseam this was not a middle to upper class problem: it was the drunken working class man presented as unemployed often (as in Dickens, e.g., Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities). And there was legislation in Parliament proposed (it didn’t pass) to flog such men. John Stuart Mill supported flogging such men. Because of course then it’s not them. Didn’t pass.

It’s a movingly done, utterly believable, persuasive story. Wingert’s chapter brings out how the violence is multifaceted violence: emotional, mental, physical, social (the man demands absolute obedience) — he becomes incensed when she finally on impulse in small way refuses him (she will not pick up the clothes he has thrown on the floor) and he kicks her out. The first time we see her it’s as a silence woman waiting for him to come up the stairs, and yes she’d drunk, how else could she endure this but find indifference and oblivion this way. You can see what’s emphasized by noticing it’s serialized and where each installment begins and ends (Part 1, chs 1-4, Part 2; Chs 5-9, Part 3; Chs 10-14, Part 4, Chs 15-21, Part 5, Chs 21-28).

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Another 19th century illustration of a woman with a book

As the story opens (1-4), there is an emphasis on the nature of social life and community in Milby. We see how bullying, competition, domination is what wins out and is respected. Everyone sees how horrible Dempster is but they don’t care; they are afraid of him themselves. This environment fosters violence – to a clergyman seeking a post, in public and in private. There is much witty satire on professions (like the medical establishment, though not as funny as Trollope in Dr Thorne), women’s vanities in church. the curate and teacher at this point reads nothing at all. It’s a first attempt at ethnography.

At first we hear of Janet through ominous gossip of unnamed or minor characters or Janet’s mother. “to see her daughter leading such a life …. For my part I never thought well of marriage … Janet had nothing to look to but being a governess … I certainly did consider Janet Raynor the most promising yong woman of my acquaintance … Or: “I’ve never been to the house since Dempster broke out on me in one of his drunken fits. She comes to me, sometimes, poor thing, looking so strange, anybody passing her in the street may see plain enough what’s the matter” (Mrs Perrifer). It ends on her waiting for him to come up. We hear ““O Robert! Pity! Pity!” and are told her mother not far off in her house is imagining this: Janet’s mother’s complicity is thus begun. Two more conflicts are laid out: the established church type versus the dissenters and evangelicals within the citadel; the sensitive, Tryan who wants to effect moral change in the community and those who want an older acceptance of rough coarse ways to remain dominant (why Dempster and his ilk want to pillory him). Tryanites versus anti-Tryanites.

The second part (5-9) opens with switch of mood, morning, people cheerful, a fortnight has passed and Janet is looking better. We move from

The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us, and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we know them when they are gone” … [to]

When our life is a continuous trial, the moments of respite seem only to substitute the heaviness of dread for the heaviness of actual suffering … Janet looked glad and tender now — but what scene of misery was coming next? …. When the sun had sunk, and the twilight was deepening, Janet might be sitting there, heated, madened, sobbing ot her griefs with selfish passion, and wildly wishing herself dead (5)

We see Tryan again, this time with a firm constituency and friends. They are anti-high church (one man says we could do without all these bishops) and we see his courage withstanding ridicule to be stubbornly the way he is. we hear the local clergy: they discuss carelessly who is kept out of the workhouse and who not. Alas, Janet is delighted to collaborate with her husband on placards; she claps her hands so pleased is she to be valued. We have this scene of the mother-in-law and Janet and her husband: she has little love for Janet, much jealousy, angry that Janet is childless (as are all Eliot’s heroines insofar as we see them). Then we meet the middle range of church leaders, the vicar, his wife, a tea party, and Tryan comes off very well: he is a decent average man who wants to be among people. We have the scene of stigmatizing Tryan gets through with his friends nearby. Eliot seems anxious for us to know that Janet will change here too: the next time we will see him, he will come as Janet’s beloved friend to help her.

In the central chapters (10-14) we see Tryan making his way into minds and hearts and (among them) Janet responds despite the “thickening miseries of her life.” Dempster’s business is not prospering – and he takes it out on the person nearest to him whom he can. We are told about “these suspicious points:” it would seem this is a corrupt man (who wouldn’t reveal his tax returns if there were such things). He’s not liked, not trusted, and is drinking more, he becomes more violent inwardly too. The word “cruelty” is used of him repeatedly (13 — “a woman he can call his own to torment … the keen retort which whets the edge of hatred”), and then the crashing close where a dinner is supposed to take place and she refuses to pick up his clothes – an impulse of defiance, maybe the first. Alcoholism is central in these chapters too, though not overtly dramatized until the end of the story. Janet does say to her friend (who will help her) Mrs Pettifer; “Kindness is my religion.” She does tell her mother finally how cruel this mother and everyone else is to. These are complex persuasive pictures of the man becoming more drunk, more inwardly violent – reviewers likened this story to a biography. Reviewers recognized that here was a new unusual author. Then the dreadful scene where he says I”ll kill you,” with a “devilish look of hatred.” But instead on impulse, he thrusts her in in her nightgown, barefooted on a freezing old night. She stands there so relieved she is not dead. It takes a while for her to realize she is cold and feel her strong instinct against suicide. This is the story’s climax.

The denouement (15-21) shows us Janet out in the world now, parted from her husband. she has a strong instinct against suicide and saves herself by going to Mrs Pettifer’s house to whom she was kind and is her rescuer. Is told stay, remain calm. We enter her mind, her memories and there many deeply felt about a woman’s life, its stages and phases (15); she was when young “a pet fawn” given over to the “clutches of a panther.” She thinks over her situation: he owns everything; we are told she felt she had not strength to be independent (much less go to court).

Life might mean anguish,might mean despair; but — o, she must clutch it, though with bleeding fingers, her feet must cling to the firm earth that the sunlight would revisit, not slip into the untried abyss, where she might long even for familiar pains (15)

Eliot muses how all of us are hidden from one another (“full of unspoken evil and unacted good”). Janet fears “being dragged bck again to her old life of terror, and stupor, and fevered despair” (16). She has to determine something. In modern terms we’d say Janet needs to “work” on several areas of psychological damage, needs to talk and find understanding (where Tyran comes in). The difficulty of breaking the habit of drinking for calm (in her case) and indifference to what is happening around her, and the hardest of all what to do about her husband. Now others are with her, among the first thing to be said is, how to protect her from further violence. Today people get a court order and police are alerted – they are supposed to be on the side of the abused person. How is she to live? Her lack of property or income. Mostly dramatized is how she must consult with someone. Over in her house the household and Dempster begin to realize she is not coming home. He has no Janet to bully so he goes after his coachman. Here finally is someone who won’t serve him if insulted: the man says will have the law on the lawyer. A little later therefore Dempster is too proud to call for this man, and half drunk (as usual) gets up to drive his coach himself.

There is a kind of waiting and finally one evening Tryan comes to Janet as her mutual confessor-psychiatrist. In a deeply inward colloquy he tells Janet of an attachment he had with a girl who he left because she was in slower station than him (they were lovers); his cousin said to go out to missionary. He does not but finds life is empty without her, and he hears she had become a prostitute subject to a brothel madam, and is now dead. Here is the core of his conversion experience. (As with Gaskell’s Mary Barton we have the story of a broken prostitute at the hidden core of the tale.) Those who’ve read Daniel Deronda (or seen Andrew Davies’s film adaptation) will recall that Gwendoleth Harleth ends up in just such a relationship with Daniel Deronda.”Janet’s Repentance” has been called “evangelical gothic:” we have a slow conversion of Janet not to the doctrines of evangelicalism but to an emotional cleansing. The others are practical; Something must be done to secure her from violence. Then the community feeling: turning in her favor: her servants who saw it all say they would not stand being mauled. (They never helped her, did they?) As she grows stronger, her mother rightly fears she might go back. But news comes Dempster has had a bad accident (overturned the coach), no one knows if he is alive or dead. As a reader the first time round I hoped he was dead.

And then the ending or fifth part (22-28). We get this exemplary wife, and then he dies with her still looking for some sign of forgiveness (!?); there is none. He is Dempster to the end. No final moment which Janet dreams of even comes. And an incipient romance between her and Tyran cut off. This ending reconciled Blackwood to the story (though he no longer wanted a fourth clerical tale). Janet can be seen as repentant, and I have to admit not only repentant for having been alcoholic but for somehow being at fault. There is a punitive pattern asserted here too.

Although her friends try to keep from her Dempster’s state, she has been trained to submit, and wants actually to go back. They try to stop her, and hide at first that he has been in this accident, but she’s a free body, no one is imprisoning her. Can’t hold her back and she is there to listen to his nightmares – maybe such a man feels remorse. Good lines include Eliot on the community’s “inherent imbecility of feeling:” Most people simply do not enter into one another’s cases at all, Mr Pilgrim (who is close to the scene) is a case in point. Tryan talks of how she doesn’t want particulars known to protect her. Day after day, the community again becomes divided about her – she is to blame, some cant about widows helps. We begin to get religious talk and Janet manifests nervousness. She is so used to her old life; she is at sea, scared. Real psychological feeling. she yearns for “purity, strength, peace” (221). Finally Dempster dies in a delirium tremens fit. Then we see her efforst with others to secure the now consumptive (over-worked) Tryan a place to at least maintain what health he has. Her mood is likened to that of a prisoner galled long after bars go away; you are feeling the memories of the abuse – Eliot would know what is it like to be an ex-prisoner from American prisons. Still she is freed from “haunting anxietya about the future,” “dread of anger and cruelty,” can find repose (23) Again Mrs Pettifer is our dea ex machina; she moves so she will need a boarder. Another good woman in the story, Miss Linnet (a sweet bird name) helps furnish the new place. But he dies.

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Elizabeth Nourse (1859-1938), The Closed Window

As in Eliot’s Mill on the Floss and other stories, Eliot’s heroine submits herself to duty; violates natural feelings of revenge, fear, hatred. She does this throughout her career. Gwendoleth’s husband falls over boat, and she hesitates a moment before she throws him the rope; he cannot reach it and the water carries him off; had he not drowned she would have submitted. I wrote in an essay on Eliot published in Studies in the Novel some years ago, “Taking Sides:”

It is the great merit of Eliot’s imaginative work that she poses questions of serious and large import with which we are today only beginning to deal frankly. It is its great defect that she repeatedly opts for dramatic resolutions which cruelly deprive her exemplary characters of some natural fulfillment or worthy goal on the grounds that it is right for them to violate their natural instincts and obey conventions, conventions she herself ignored and disobeyed in order to become George Eliot the great novelist. Her characters immolate themselves, behave even semi-suicidally and we are to admire them for this. What she most often offers is consolation.

In this story we will have Janet left to do good deeds and sit near Mr Tynan’s grave and be admired and liked by all especially her mother. I should say I see in the incipient romance, an underlying autobiographical paradigm (Janet: “alone, she was powerless”): in the second half of Eliot and Lewes’s marriage, he was often ill, very thin; he lies behind Ladislaw, Daniel Deronda — and Tryan too. Tryan is cut off by his consumption.

From the reviewers at the time: some were shocked, women were to write uplifting fiction, all three very unpleasant stories said one critic. Some attacked the exposure of clerical politics: clerical and religious papers paid attention to all three stories. Mostly they were offended but dissenters not as. Many preferred the portrait of Tryan to Trollope’s Mr Slope (from Barchester Towers); a positive not satirical image. Famously Dickens said the author was a woman. Among the best were those that praised the story for the strong depiction of Janet – the interior character of Janet. But I think also the community life is central to the story’s effect. It was agreed moral impact of book was well-meant and there you have the beginning of the immense respect she would get.

I’ll end by suggesting the use of the pseudonym in this particular case was the result of more than Eliot’s being a woman and wanting to hide that. Her matter is deeply subversive. She was known to be an atheist or at least agnostic, living with a man outside of marriage. How could she deal with issues like these and get the respect needed for her story to function morally.

Janet’s Repentance is a deeply felt, passionate and intelligent text, often satiric too. I hope I have roused my readers’ curiosity and interest to get hold of and read “Janet’s Repentance.”

Ellen

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graphicfreelibrary
From The Graphic, Women reading in the London Free Library, from Lady’s Pictorial, 1895)

A Syllabus

For a Study Group at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at American University
Day: Nine Monday late mornings into early afternoon, 11:45 am to 1:15 pm
4801 Spring Valley Building, near American University main campus, Northwest, Washington DC
Dates: Classes start Sept 26th; last class Dec 5th, 2015; Oct 17th cancelled.
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

We will ask what did a woman writer’s career look like, what genres and journalism women published, what were obstacles & advantages women experienced, like & unlike today. We’ll read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (gothic, 1818), Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (“condition of England” novel, 1849), George Eliot’s “Janet’s Repentance” (a Clerical Tale, domestic fiction, 1857) and Margaret Oliphant’s Hester: A Tale of Contemporary Life (1883, not quite a “new woman” novel). We’ll also read on-line excerpts from Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography (abolitionist, de Toqueville-like US travels), journalism at mid-century (from Caroline Norton’s English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century, 1854), and 1890s suffragette writing (Emmeline Pankhurst, “Freedom or Death,” 1913, and from an online Sylvia Pankhurst archive).

Required Texts in the order we’ll read them:

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, ed. Maurice Hindle Penguin, 1992. ISBN: 0140433627
Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life, ed Macdonald Daly. Penguin, 1996 ISBN: 0-140-43464-X
George Eliot, “Janet’s Repentance,” from Scenes of Clerical Life, ed. Jennifer Gribble Penguin, 1998. ISBN: 0-14-043638-3
Margaret Oliphant, Hester: A Story of Contemporary Life, introd. Jennifer Uglow. Penguin/Virago, 1984. ISBN: 0140161023

On-line:

Harriet Martineau, from her Autobiography (The Fourth Period). http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/vwwp/view?docId=VAB7103&doc.view=print
Caroline Norton, from English Laws for Women: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/norton/elfw/elfw.html
Emmeline Pankhurst, “Freedom or Death,” Great Speeches from The Guardian, 2007: https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2007/apr/27/greatspeeches1
Sylvia Pankhurst Archive: Selection, https://www.marxists.org/archive/pankhurst-sylvia/index.htm
Margaret Oliphant, “Old Lady Mary.”
http://www.loyalbooks.com/download/text/Old-Lady-Mary-by-Mrs-Oliphant.txt
Or alternatively
“The Open Door:”: a Gaslight text

Illustrations for Gaskell’s Mary Barton

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Jem saving a man from the fire

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Mary to Jem: “Oh, Jem, Take me Home” (1905, Ivor Symes)

Format: Study group meetings will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion (essays mentioned will be sent by attachment or are on-line).

Sept 26th: Writing and other careers for 19th century women. Shelley’s Frankenstein (please have read the first third by this day).
Oct 3rd: For this week although we have no class, please have read the second third of Frankenstein.  Holiday
Oct 10th: Please finish Frankenstein for this day.
Oct 17th: Outside class:  read the first third of Mary Barton, Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography, Part IV, Section 1 and 2, pp 206-17. 2 essays on Martineau’s life and early writing, and on O’Flinn’s essay on Frankenstein sent. Class cancelled.
Oct 24th: Mary Shelley and  Harriet Martineau’s career, we begin Gaskell and Mary Barton (begun)
Oct 31st: Mary Barton; Bodenheimer on “Private Griefs and Public Acts in Mary Barton” (essay); Sections 1 and 2 of Caroline Norton’s Defense of Woman, the ODNB life; finish Mary Barton.
Nov 7th: Mary Barton, we move onto Caroline Norton and other cases (law & custom); for next time read E Gruner on “Mother Plotting” novels by Ann Bronte, Ellen Wood and Caroline Norton and “Janet’s Repentance”
Nov 14th: Norton, Rosina Bulwer-Lytton’s Blighted Life; Eliot’s life; the problem of “Janet’s Repentance” (from Clerical Tales) in context. Read for next time Oliphant’s Hester, ODNB on Bulwer-Lytton, Oliphant, MA thesis “Bruised, Battered Women in 19th century Fiction” by Wingert.
Nov 21st: Eliot’s life, career and her books: close reading “Janet’s Repentance.” Finish reading Hester.
Nov 28th: Finish Eliot; the women’s suffrage movement. Begin Oliphant and Hester; Oliphant’s ghost stories and Autobiography. Read for next time Oliphant’s “Old Lady Mary” and Lewis C. Roberts, “The Production of a Female Hand: professional writing and career of Geraldine Jewsbury;” Mary Burnan, “Heroines at the Piano: Women and music in 19th century fiction” (essays sent by attachment).
Dec 5th: Oliphant’s Hester and her answer to Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” Tentative final thoughts and women of letters in the 19th century.

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A photograph of Margaret Oliphant when young, shortly after she married (1852)

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A quick drawing of George Eliot, late in life, leaving a London concert (1879)

Suggested supplementary reading:

Bennett, Betty T. Mary Diana Dods: A Gentleman and Scholar. Johns Hopkins, 1991. One of Mary Shelley’s close friends.
Bodenheimer, Rosemarie. The Real Life of Mary Ann Evans aka George Eliot, Her Letters and Fiction. Ithaca: Cornell, 1994. The best.
Broomfield, Andrea and Sally Mitchell, ed. Non-fiction Prose by Victorian Woman: An Anthology. NY: Garland, 1996.\
Bulwer-Lytton, Rosina. A Blighted Life: A True Story, introd Marie Mulvey Roberts. Bristol: Thoemmes, 1994.
Coghill, Mrs Harry aka Annie Walker. The Autobiography and Letters of Mrs. M.O.W. Oliphant. NY: Dodd, 1899. Nothing better on Oliphant than this.
Clarke, Norma. Ambitious Heights: Writing, Friendship, Love: The Jewsbury Sisters. Felicia Hemans, and Jane Carlyle. London: Routledge, 1990.
Mackenzie, Midge. Shoulder to Shoulder: A Documentary. NY: Knopf, 1975.
Flint, Kate. The Woman Reader, 1837-41. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002.
Harman, Barbara Leah and Susan Meyers, edd. The New Nineteenth Century” Feminist Readings of Underread Victoria Novels. NY: Garland, 1996.
Lupack, Barbara, ed. Nineteenth Century Women at the Movies: Adapting Classic Women’s Fiction to Film. Ohio: Bowling Green State UP, 1999.
Maroula, Joanou and June Purvis, edd. The Women’s Suffrage Movement: new Feminist Perspectives. Manchester UP, 1998.
Merman, Dorothy. Godiva’s Ride: Women of letters in England, 1830-1880. Indiana University Press, 1993.
Mill, John Stuart. On the Subjection of Women (1861). Broadview Press, 2000.
Peterson, Linda ed. The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Women’s Writing. Cambridge, 2015.
—————-. Traditions of Women’s Autobiography: Poetics and Politics of Life Writing. Univ Press of Virginia, 1999.
Robins, Elizabeth, The Convert: suffragette and new women novels. A blog: https://reveriesunderthesignofausten.wordpress.com/2015/04/05/elizabeth-robinss-the-convert-excellent-suffragette-novel/
Seymour, Miranda. Mary Shelley. London: Picador, 2000. Superb, original research.
Spark, Muriel. Mary Shelley. NY: New American Library, 1987. Short version of the life, insightful.
Stoneman, Patsy. Elizabeth Gaskell. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987. Very good short life and works.
Sturridge, Lisa. Bleak House: Marital Violence in Victorian Fiction. Athens: Ohio UP, 2005.
Uglow, Jenny. Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1993. The best.
————. George Eliot. NY: Virago, 1987. Short life.
Webb, R. K. Harriet Martineau: A Radical Victorian. NY: Columbia UP, 1960.
Williams, Merryn. Margaret Oliphant: A Critical Biography. NY: St. Martin’s, 1987. Excellent.
Wingert, Lee. Battered, Bruised and Abused Women: Domestic Violence in 19th century Fiction. Ph.D. Thesis, Iowa State University. On-line pdf.

Films:

Shoulder to Shoulder. Script: Ken Taylor, Alan Plater, Midge Mackenzie. Dir. Waris Hussein, Moira Armstrong. Perf: Sian Philips, Angela Downs, Judy Parfitt, Georgia Brown. Six 75 minute episodes available on YouTube. BBC, 1974.
Suffragette. Script. Abi Morgan. Dir. Sarah Gavron. Perf: Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Marie Duffey. Ruby, Pathe, Film4, BFI, 2014

Talking Books: On CD:

For Frankenstein, Gildart Jackson the reader (Dreamscape, available at Downpour)
For Mary Barton, Juliet Stevenson the reader (Cover-to-cover, available at their site)

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Ralph Hedley, Seeking Situations (1904)

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GriffHouse
Griff House, farmhouse Mary Ann moved with family to when she was 4 months old and grew up in — Mead visits it as it is used today

‘Having endless hours in which to create is hardly useful if most of those hours are spent in a paralyzing [half]-torpor of loneliness, overwhelmed by anxieties about that loneliness lasting forever, as I am surely not alone in having discovered’ — Mead, My Life in Middlemarch

‘If Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally … The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joybs of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures’ … In viewing [Eliot’s characters] I am invited to shed my wadded layer of stupidity, and to listen for the sound of growing grass …

Dear friends and readers,

Anyone up for writing My Life in Pride and Prejudice? or My Life in Mansfield Park? I can see myself writing a My Life in Sense and Sensibility — or to switch authors, My Life in one of the Barsetshire or Palliser books or a combination of Trollope’s works that precisely suited what I wanted to show about him and me. But I’d have to have a contract, a guarantee of publication first.

I’ve been reading two books in tandem: Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch and Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel [The Portrait of a Lady]. I’d read a chapter or so of one and then turn to a chapter or so of the other. Sounds crazy: not so much as the two writers, George Eliot and Henry James, knew and influenced one another, and held some of the same idealistic views towards the deep-feeling thinking realistic fictions they created. I’m told a third in this vein is Phyllis Rose’s A Year of Reading Proust. Paula Byrne seems to me trying to pull something of this off in the way her The Real Jane Austen is organized: around meditations she concocts over objects in Austen’s life that are arranged to give a chronological order to her fact-filled (or supposedly fact-filled) musings. Azar Nafisi gives the mode a political spin in her phenomenally popular Reading Lolita in Teheran.

Mead and Gorra’s are successful version of a new kind of biography cum-literary criticism (and vice-versa) where a writer-as-reader take the reader through a novel as a story, step-by-step, attaching each phase of the book to some phase in the book’s author’s life, some place they went to visit connected with the novel, or some person in the novelist’s life. Mead and Gorra (separately in their respective books) then themselves visit and re-live insofar as they can the circumstances that are parallel to the book; Mead adds a mostly upbeat account of her life (all her choices end in happiness at last), where she intersects with Eliot and/or Eliot’s characters. The first book to be written precisely in this way and perhaps the best of them all is Richard Holmes’s Footsteps: Confessions of a Romantic Biographer — which I once taught.

Both these books are intended to (and in me did) evoke thoughts which come out of Middlemarch or Portrait of a Lady (or some other related book by Eliot or James), its author or Gorra or Mead’s own life to the reader’s life. When you finish them a reread of the novels in question will be much enriched. Both books have the comforting intelligent tones of their writers taken over from the books they are inviting us to inhabit with them.

Maybe what’s liberating about these two books is they are a sort of biography where the writer does not have to follow the life history of the subject but can weave in what he or she wants and when, with the justification that well I’m going through associations from this novel. So we skip dull parts of the person’s life and also get new sorts of insight as the material is reconfigured.

What is so satisfying is how seriously both writers take their books and how seriously the original authors did. I wish I had time to type out some of the appercus in Middlemarch or Portrait quoted by Mead or Gorra, which speak to the book, Eliot or James and to me of course. Both books about landscape and self. Identity and self – as mirrored in these books. Since I don’t want to write too long a blog, and the purview of this blog beyond Austen and Austen-related matters is women’s or 18th century art, I’ll just write on My Life in Middlemarch, saving Portrait of a Novel for Ellen and Jim have blog, two.

Some specifics: Mead does not give away anything unconventional about herself. She describes her reactions in general terms which omit any details which might say embarrass her parents or herself for that matter — for example, how did she and they come to live in a community with no access to culture? I don’t mind that and don’t ask that authors necessarily give away that sort of thing. What I do ask is they tell something of their connection — and Mead tells enough about her private life however shadowily and through pollyanna lenses. I am drawn to parallels Mead sets up between herself and Eliot and Eliot’s characters – only like Carolyn Heilbrun in her life-writing we slide to quickly to an unpersuasively happy ending – like Eliot Mead fell in love with a man who had children from a previous marriage; like Dorothea in one case he was older. Mead would have us believe that it was difficult for her the way it was for Eliot to adjust but that in the end all was bliss. Mead does want us to see her connections with the characters in Middlemarch: the career trajectory, the aspirations of both central characters but will not tell us how she got where she did – at all.

Sometimes authors make up for a lack of intimate painful revelation by delving the themes – this is Maureen Corrigan’s ploy in her excellent Leave Me Alone I’m Reading, which is brave enough — today one must be brave to do this — to read the books as a woman reader bringing up feminist stances with no apologies – Mead is not quite brave enough for that when she hedges about the feminism of Eliot. At each turn, the comments are carefully couched so as not to reveal anything really distressing or unusual. She lives alone but has a fine job – by that time as a staff writer for the New Yorker. How she got that we are not told. No stories of homosexuality or lesbianism will be here.

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Rosehill, Mary Ann’s first literary friends and where her real adult life got its start: the Brays’ Coventry home

Nevertheless or oddly, the strongest parts of Mead’s book are those which seem to connect to Mead’s way of seeing a life as a progress towards a career — this is a modern trope right now infecting literary criticism everywhere. It can be found in the 19th century too: Trollope ever ahead of his time writes his life of Thackeray as an account of how the man built a successful career as a journalist which he was well-suited for in all ways (but dilatoriness) and then as a novelist despite his not having the kind of gifts for consistent naturalism and a conventional morality demanded by his audience. Mead begins with Mary Ann’s painful break from her father and reprints and paraphrases the letter Mary Ann wrote to him. We feel her anger simmering beneath the piety. Mead suggests that although Eliot herself shows a slow success over decades of effort, she is the poet of “disappointment;” many of her readers pluck out of her texts that can serve as “inspirational mottoes” with twisted misquotations: “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” It’s not there in her thousands of pages. Rather what is shown — in Middlemarch strongly — is “how it can grow altogether too late for lots of things:” “Eliot is the great artist of disappointment.” Dorothea is a “foundress of nothing”. A “melancholy willed seriousness resonates through all her books, but especially the stories of Middlemarch.

The excerpt printed in the New Yorker came from this section and it is alluded to in Joyce Carol Oates’s review of Mead’s book. On this review to me it’s obvious that Oates does not have the same respect for Middlemarch that Mead has. I am not surprised as the spirit inhabiting most of Oates’s books is utterly different from that of Eliot.

To turn to what Mead says about Eliot, her world, the worlds of Middlemarch: She has sections on real people in Eliot’s life (and her own, however vaguely identified) and sections on Eliot’s characters.

Her portraits of Lewes’s sons, frank about their mediocrity, racism and other values and showing how lovable they could be (through letters), was effective and relevant to us today. Mead shows how hard it was for someone like Lewes to find a place in the world for his sons (Trollope helped place one son in the post office as Frances Trollope had placed Trollope himself) – and we read the poignant story of Thornton’s life as a boy, his athleticism, his affectionate nature, how he and his brothers were shuffled off to schools, and in his case time in South Africa and fatal disease and painful death is effective. Mead connects the sons and Lewes to Ladislaw and Fred Vincy. The whole section fascinating in its way.

The section on Rosamund Vincy is superb. I remember how shocked I was when I was first online and reading with others to discover readers who could actually deeply (not just enough in the way Eliot would have us), but deeply empathize with Rosamund. After all don’t you want to be rich and have the “world” everyone else admires admire you. I liked particularly Mead’s way of reading the essay “Silly Lady Novelists” so that we are not confronted with yet another anti-feminist or women’s fiction diatribe (then one ought to read Eliot’s other essay on a later 17th century French woman’s letters which is deeply feminist) but this: “It’s an acid taxonomyh of terrible popular novels and their predictable heroine …” and implied (though again Mead too careful to say this) the kind of reader who enjoys books with these wretched values. Chick lit has stacks of it — I remember reading Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict and just wanting to barf. It was a book Rosamund would love.

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Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea in the 1994 BBC Middlemarch (scripted Andrew Davies): she is planning cottages

Mead is also utterly convincing on the parallels between Mark Pattison, Lady Frances and Dilke with Casaubon, Dorothea, and Ladislaw: it gives her a chance to talk about real marriage as well as the book. She also doesn’t overdo it — at the same time as she shows up the special hiding of those who insist there is no parallel. It’s a biography of the real duo in itself. In Mead’s description of Eliot’s relationship with Lewes — her dependency on his business acumen, his closeness to her, their delight in one another’s unusual intelligence and attitudes I felt Lews was to Eliot like my Jim to me only I got to marry him. Mead defends those who mocked or denigrated or felt uncomfortable with this outwardly gay and cheerful man — who was a genius.

Mead beautifully and frankly goes over Eliot and Lewes’s inward relationship for which we have documents beyond the novel – and also what is found in Middlemarch. How Eliot was ostracized and thus even more dependent on Lewes. Everyone knows but for him there’d no novels; one of his motives was money. Eliot and Lewes chose to defy society and be themselves apart — of course they were taking on social roles of parians and did get away with it with enough people supporting them. I am feeling the choke of society myself and fled it many years I know — Jim enabled that. A wonderful annotation of Eliot’s on how Lewes kissed her after the first success. Jim congratulated me with a kiss after my speech at the Reform club. I will remember that always as a high spot of my existence.

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Priory, Regents’ Park, George Eliot and G.H. Lewes’s home in London together once she became a financial success — where they held their Sundays

If you search the Henry James e-journal, you will find a paper that discusses how Portrait is James’s rewriting of Middlemarch. Isabel, like Dorothea, wants very much to do something with her life and instead makes a bad marriage. While Dorothea ends up with Ladislow, Isabel rejects Casper. This is an over- simplification, but Isabel in a sense also rejects her sexuality, which is what, I suppose, makes her a lady in the end. (I’d say James didn’t want her liberated; he’s encouraging women to graciously accept their limiting place in society, a place that will help him secure his place as “The Master.”). In Daniel Deronda the mother shows one has a self apart which will break away, but James’s Isabel’s tragedy will be she cannot

There is a chapter called “the Empty Chair” in Gorra’s book where he tells of James’s relationship with Eliot: the visits to Priory Park, the reviews James wrote (Lewes kept them from her as they are ambivalent) and connections between James’s novels and Eliot’s – especially Middlemarch. The new perspective here is James also knew Eliot’s second husband Cross and now I must think of Cross as a successful banker who did the investments for Lewes and Eliot – I never knew that.

For Eliot Mead says “her novelistic powers had taken root in the fertile soil of her domestic happiness with Lewes, and [Eliot] had no faith in her ability to produce anything else without recreating as best she could, that sense of connectedness and inter-dependency.” I’ve always identified, and this is well done: Dorothea tells Celia that Celia would have to feel with her to understand her choices, so she will not talk of it. Mead says she had a relationship with someone like that of Eliot and Lewes. But she tells little specifically: I wondered how she got to be a staff writer for the New Yorker?

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Heights at Witley, the Lewes’s country retreat late in life

I wondered how Eliot lived with the reality that the last few years of Lewes’s life he was very sick, clearly starving because of some digestive or excretory disorder and nothing could be done. I assume neither Eliot or Lewes could write about this, so we have no record. However, since the very justification fot his type of biography — that it’s free conjecture pulling on the author’s fiction and the writers’ own life, then go for it. Tell, imagine, James’s remark that after Lewes died, Eliot had been “shivering like a person who had had a wall of her house blown off” xomes in here. Then Mead shuts down the curtain swiftly to Lewes’s death and moves on to Cross.

It’s in the generosity towards the only 7-8 month marriage of Cross and Eliot that we feel Mead’s strength again — it’s in her empathy. She takes the famous incident of Cross jumping out the window and puts it in full context: she tells far more; of their trip together and their talking of Lewes and how he missed this; of the new home they made together. It emerges that we can’t tell the source of the jump and there was much went right. And why should Eliot not seek some peace and happiness again; we see her from Cross’s point of view. Lucky woman to have won this twice.

I underlined some of the moral reflections of Eliot which resound to me: she longs to make those who read her books “imagine and to feel the pains and joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures.” She identifies her as someone who tried to stay independent and was miserable and the implication is finally that if she must give up something in submission, it’s worth it:

Each of Mead’s chapters is headed with a title of Eliot’s sections of her book: so Two Temptations is on Bulstrode and moves into Edward Main. The tempted person where the text is extraordinary is Bulstrode, nothing one would not expect except this is the section which was exerpted for the New Yorker where Mead shows that Eliot was the poet of disappointment and how a distorted memory of some lines of Eliot has turned her in public media from a writer a bout “how it can grow altogether too late for lots of things” becomes this purveyor of upbeatness you can do anything at any age kind of thing. She moves into how after Eliot’s death started the first phase of negative comment, the resentment of her morality; and how she had “committed the unforgivable offense of being old.” Now Mead finds “Eliot’s melancholy willed seriousness resonates.” With me too. I’ll bring Scott in here: he has melancholy willed seriousness but the problem is his style and beyond that his outlook is not modern while Eliot’s is. Eliot’s Daniel Deronda is treated as a case of adoption – not illegitimacy as it would be by Scott (and Trollope too).

This moves into Alexander Main – this story was first told by Leah Price: Main was an admirer who wrote Eliot a worshipful letter and she did respond with gratitude; soon though he was proposing and then did make books out of her “sayings and wisdom.” This is just the sort of thing that Mead has just written against: pluck the saying out of the book. Why did Eliot succumb to this? Well it made money; the book was in its 8th edition before the end of the 19th century – readers will do this to books. And it advertised Eliot’s book. Perhaps Lewes was the tempted one here, but Eliot was drawn to this young man. Unusually Mead is compassionate towards him – his personal life which he kept hidden seems not to have been a smashing success until he produced these books of Eliot’s wisdom – not that he did it to push himself forward successfully …

As I went on with Mead’s book, I was won over. At the close of her section on Main, she suggests he is a kind of quintessential Middlemarch character himself. And his “circumscribed lonely life” “resonated in her novelistic imagination.” In the correspondence it’s all that is unsaid, what is quietly suggested about moral limitations, disappointments, loss.

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Arbury Farm, where Mary Ann Evans was born, 22 Nov 1819

In her last chapter Mead travels to Eliot’s childhood landscape – one coterminous with her own; throughout the book we visit landscapes, landscapes which connect to Eliot’s books (more than Middlemarch is covered), her career in London — and also to where the George Eliot society meets, where today a modern housing project has replaced a tavern, an institution replaced the rich and servanted households of large upper class houses into which Eliot was welcomed or herself rented and lived in. In the book’s close, she quotes moving passages from Mill on the Floss, making me want to suggest on Trollope19thCStudies that we read both _Mill on the Floss_ and Middlemarch_. Movingly (to me) she says that these two books contain lost landscapes, worlds Eliot could not have stayed in but which she felt her being rooted in and what she became. Mead talked of her older brother and self as children and how such a “landscape is imbued with the deepest memories.” From this angle, Mary Garth is the heroine of the book – Mead goes on to discuss Mary and Fred rather than Lydgate and Rosamund in London and Ladislaw and Dorothea, though she does do justice to the closing meditation of Dorothea by printing a first version of it and showing how the second qualified, deepened, made it more sad.

For me this brought home how I lived in an utterly different world – a Bronx slum, not much vegetation about – and how when I read these books I was not longing for a lost landscape, but one I never had and when I came to England and saw the White Cliffs of Dover and occasionally went here and there down south and the southwest the dream I never had resonated in my heart. For Eliot to be sensitive to the memories of childhood shows “moral maturity,” that is not to reject them; for her, Mead she is “restored anew to the place of childhood and what remains with her.” All well and good for them, but what if you hadn’t these privileges, and so for me I have invented a replacement, and with Jim kept it up.

It ends well — she goes to where George Eliot was writing Middlemarch and quotes a letter by Eliot describing herself writing and how the light form the sun turns yellow and blue through painted glass. This place does not at all exist any more; the very streets reconfigured, utterly transformed, but Mead finds a house nearby like it which also has decorated painted windows and tells you she too sees yellow and blue light.

The book has been her trying to relive Eliot’s experience of life that went into Middlemarch.

When I taught Advanced Composition in the Humanities at GMU (for a number of years) as their final essay, I’d ask students to find ad favorite book from childhood or some earlier time in your life and try to

‘remember what you were when you first read this book and the circumstances of your life; then to try to remember why you liked it. When you reread your book, try hard to call to mind how your present reading may differ from the first one. Write an essay about the experience of this rereading. [They were to research the books, author, genre &c. ] Another way to put this is: write about how the book seems to you now as opposed to the way you now remember it seemed to you when you first read it’

I did give other options: mostly because I know the room had plenty of people for whom books were unimportant or who don’t have deep thoughts when they read. So you could research the genre and write about the book as a type of children’s literature; you could research the author and put the book in the context of the author’s life; you could simply write about its themes as they seem to you now &c&c. Also I promised not to have papers read aloud if it was too personal but the serious problem for many was that books didn’t mean that much. For those to whom books did they loved the assignments.

Those who loved such assignments might love a book like this.

‘I was impressed for the ten thousandth time by the fact that literature illuminates life only for those to whom books are a necessity. Books are unconvertible assets, to be passed on only to those who possess them already.’ Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time

Ellen

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