Posts Tagged ‘Helen Mirren’

Birgit Schossow, from a New Yorker cover: Big City Noir

Dear friends and readers,

Over on WomenWritersAcrosstheAges @Yahoo, quite a number of us have read (or tried to read) some of Jane Smiley’s novels, and two of us have just finished her mystery-crime novel, Duplicate Keys, with three now going on for 13 Ways for looking at the Novel. Having once tried 13 Ways where Smiley defends “the virtuous and good character” (though on what grounds I no longer remember) and remembering the ferocious quarrels that once flared on Austen-l over Fanny Price, I thought those of Smiley’s novels I’ve read thus far a good opportunity for discussing the good or exemplary heroine. All three novels I’ve read have at their center, Private Life, A Thousand Acres, and now Duplicate Keys, have such a presence as their point of view.

Duplicate Keys may be said to be centrally about whether such a heroine is really “good” or is she a fool (cannot see the world in front of her), a “free rider” (she — horrors! — lives off a man or someone else), “dependent” on others, unfairly entangling them with her devotion, idealization (so much emotional blackmail), in reality a “passive-aggressive” (what could be worse than the hypocritical bully in disguise?). It’s also a Radcliffian sort of gothic (heroine terrorized by locks and doors), a woman’s novel re-engineered to look like a crime/mystery book, similar to Hughes’s TV film, Five Full Days, and is reminiscent Jane Elizabeth Howard’s Falling & Winston Graham’s Walking Stick.


First, about the book: the commentary on it online suffers because people stick to this anti-intellectual and silencing idea we are not supposed to tell the ending (or in some versions anything about the book the person doesn’t know) especially stubbornly when the book is a mystery. If you can’t tell anything or the ending, you can’t discuss its meaning. A book’s meaning includes the whole design. (See What do spoiler warnings spoil?).

Far from being like a Hitchcock story (though why this should be a term of praise is beyond me, Hitchcock being a mean film-maker who loves to do cruel things to women), it’s a woman’s novel re-engineered to be a mystery; or mystery-crime-detective re-engineered to be a woman’s novel. Rather like Gwyneth Hughes’s Five Full Days or Prime Suspect featuring Helen Mirren — with the detective, whose name is Detective Honey (perhaps a joke) marginalized. And I liked it for the reasons I liked her others: a deep-feeling study of a cultural milieu through the eyes of a heroine: the difference is this time we are in a big, no a world city, and the time is contemporary. I long for books to be getting on with, a kind of friend to be dialoguing with someone and I can go for quite a time without finding a new one, but admit I’m now sure Alice, her heroine, was quite someone I could identify with. Bond and care about her, but not love and be intensely anxious for. I had the same problems with her previous two heroines.

It has a story which swirls around the friendship of two women: Alice Ellis and Susan Minehart. Alice comes to Susan’s apartment one day to find murdered in two chairs next to one another Susan’s husband, Denny and his best friend, business partner in a firm making and marketing popular music, and hanger-on, Craig Shellady. Who did it? and why? we slowly hear about a tiny circle of friends, associates and meet Noah Mast and his wife, Rya, whom it seems he bullies, while she clings to him. I realize now that they are a weak parallel for Alice and her ex-husband, Jim Ellis, who left her for a younger woman, Miranda, because he couldn’t stand her idealization of him, her “goodness,” her dependency; at the same time we learn, through the phone calls he sets up, that he continues to encourage this dependence, is himself still sexually jealous of any other suitors. The back story as Alice remembers away in one chapter tells something rather different: Miranda was an idolizing beautiful and much younger student, and Jim preferred her as a rebel, as a romancer, and because Miranda never asserted herself in any way whatsoever, not even achieving the minimum of job and profession.

There is also the homosexual Ray, doing well in his music businessman, big spender in expensive restaurants for all, and a drug dealer, with a cool (nasty-minded) lover, Jeff. The cast of characters is small: the last is Henry Mullett, a man who lives in her apartment house, and whose window faces hers (he has been watching her for an undetermined time) and with whom she commences a sexual affair and friendship. Craig is a domineering abusive type and both Alice and Rya have become his mistress-punching bags for a time.

Did I say Alice is a librarian? but perhaps gentle reader you guessed that. It seems in the cliched universe of popular novels librarians are characters who embody “good girl messages” by their love of books, lack of ambition (librarians are assumed to be without ambition) and typical activities (shelving books, cataloguing, and worse yet, helping other people to find and read books). In a way she reminded me of the heroine of Graham’s The Walking Stick, also a mystery: Deborah Dainton is a kind of cataloguer and librarian for an expensive art-jewellry-antiques shop.

It seems there has been drug dealing and someone murdered Denny and Craig over money and/or drugs — Ray is a suspect; so too Noah who is at one point arrested. Susan has throughout a severe tongue, apparently hating Craig, whom she characterizes as a predator a neurotic abuser. Alice (as ever, traditional good heroine again) tries to understand which means excuse, even justify Craig. Alice also turned to Ray after Jim left her; as a gay man, she was a companionable friend and he a support. This feels sinister feel as Ray is one of those people who took keys from Susan and gave them out. While Susan spent for the funeral, she defied other taboos too: she will not leave the large comfortable apartment and after she and Alice do a ritual cleaning out and throwing out, begins to return to sleep there. Denny who seems to have loved Craig has a Catholic family who insist on an expensive burial and Susan feels she must make a Catholic funeral and has to go yet further into debt to pay for it, about which she is endlessly bitter. Never made explicit after a while the reader realizes Susan has turned to Alice for friendship because her husband, Denny, made Craig his alter ego.


The title refers to how Susan has been in the habit of making duplicate keys and giving them out to everyone who has a relationship with Denny and Craig as a matter of business policy, a way of networking. Those given duplicate keys can of course make more copies. So anyone could have gotten into the apartment and murdered Denny and Craig. Alice has followed suit (she often imitates Susan) and given keys for her apartment to others. The cover illustration to my book show two doors that seem to be at right angles, an old-fashioned glass-looking doorknob on one, the other in shadows, both having reflective light glancing over them.


What there is of suspense is as Radcliffian as the business of doors that can be opened by others at will, doors Alice cannot lock: it’s the result of Alice hiding from Susan and everyone else her growing relationship with Henry.

18th century illustration for Radcliffe type novel

Duplicate Keys reminded me of The Walking Stick because of the way Henry Mullett quietly pursued Alice. We see he watches for her from the window; she half realizes this and does not (like Deborah trying to avoid Leigh Hartley) want the man’s company. She is though reading her ex-husband’s poems to his second wife as a substitute for phoning him, which she has not quite got out of the habit of doing still at the crises of her life. Henry insists she come downstairs as a much better way to pass the time. He cannot get her to go to a movie with him as she has to work tomorrow — to to her librarian job her basis for support.

Heny’s slow moving into Alice’s life is worrying — because of the way he is insistent, from the time he got her to pick him up (and we realize now that he was aware they lived near one another so he was watching her go in and out of the apartment house), and from her dropping the remark that she did not know why she had not told Susan about him.

This feels like a Hitchcock motif and to be sure he uses it, but I’d like to suggest it’s more endemic of women’s books. A very powerful one I read a couple of years ago, Falling by Elizabeth Jane Howard has another Henry insidiously take over a woman’s life to the point she is in mortal danger from him; it was made into a chilling film by Andrew Davies. The man can take advantage of this divorced woman now in the country, partly retired. At the core of Graham’s Walking Stick: the lame or crippled heroine discovers that she has been a target for the man whom she regarded as so beautiful and the rare friend; we don’t learn of this quiet stalking and plan all along to use her to steal jewels form the firm she works for until the very end.

Tricky this business of caring about, being anxious about characters. On Trollope19thCStudies we talked about how this is central to our love of particular books or authors …. Remember when we read A.S Byatt’s Imagining Characters where Byatt and Sodres talked about how filmed characters can get in the way of people’s memories or they can be very disappointed in the choice of an actor as he or she interferes with a previous conception. What happens to me sometimes is the actor almost replaces the preconception or character as I’ve felt it before I saw the movie.

Alice is carrying on a genuine affair with Henry (going to bed with him) and hiding this from her friends. This spells disaster: how will they know to help her or where to find her if he should spirit her away? Smiley accounts for her hiding where she’s been by her fear of a new failure or rejection. Alice fears Mullett will desert or hurt her as have all the others. The heroine of Falling is saved because her friends know of her Henry (hmmn the same name) and find out about him and are there to help her if she should phone.

This hiding reminds me of how Ginny in A Thousand Acres kept getting herself pregnant by not using contraceptives – and telling Tyler she was – and when she’d miscarry hiding this. Come to think of it this is a bit improbable. But Margaret also kept secrets in this way.

Remember the trio of lies, secrecy, silence as the way women get through life — and also the pathologies that result – this begins with Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, it’s central to Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters and many a woman’s novel. In the 2002 film adaptation of Forsyte Saga we see that after sex with Soames, Irene goes to take a bath, and uses a syringe to push up into her vagina vinegar (and whatever else she can think of) to stop any conception.

She’s learn of more adulteries and betrayals among her group of friends. Rya was having an affair with Craig (he got around, so did Alice, so did Denny now dead and murdered too) and her deriding husband, Noah knew. And suddenly Ray shows up and asks to stay with her.

The novel held me mostly through the my fear for Alice over Henry … What I liked about the one Susan Hill mystery, The Various Haunts of Man (a Simon Serailler novel) I read – which made me very anxious — was there too a woman was threatened who was alone. I have liked mysteries when they are comedies of manners too (Sayers) and romances (Byatt); this is combining female gothic justifiable paranoia …

Ray and his slinky boyfriend Jeff now somehow force their way into Alice’s apartment and while she sleeps they take her key. I feel for her because I know that I could be pressures this way. The screws are turned as Henry Mullett is also pressing himself on her but then suddenly vanishes from the narrative and Alice wonders where he is.


Semi-comic image of gothic library — libraries are replacing labyrithine castles (e.g., The Name of the Rose, Charnas’s Vampire Tapestry)

But our Alice takes satisfaction in her job as a librarian; what a release to escape to one’s job. (I knew the feeling even as an adjunct, when I would turn to what I was doing with books and writing and for my students). J. L. Carr has a wonderful line in Month in the Country about escaping into the mask of one’s job to meet others through. But as she works into the night she finds herself downstairs among the stacks. The light seems to go out after she has put it in and suddenly for a sequence we get this uncanny nervous fear that such books usually have on offer. From Radcliffe to Susan Hill this is part of what we are to feel; in Falling once the heroine lets Henry live with her in the house we have it continually.

But then Alice calms down. To me this calming down is a sign that Smiley’s real talent is not in the gothic area as she really is at play unseriously when she does it.

I should say it’s very easy reading and if you get lost on the subway (as I did yesterday on the DC metro) it is a good companion. There is Alice having her hard time and there are you lost. There is Alice unable to hold onto her keys. There are you unable to make the machine add $10 to your “smart” card (proving of course you are not worthy a smart card as you are not smart enough). Both incompetent before life’s demands. You feel not so alone …


And then it happened, I was 23/s the way through and got to what Margaret Forster called in Smiley’s Blind Horses and A Thousand Acres “the sudden pull, the shocking jerk as the point of it all pushed home …” The brutal reality that was staring me in the face all along. Alice comes to the conclusion Susan did it. And we realize how Susan has been managing Alice’s life: Susan does all the cooking when she is there, takes over Alice easily.

At first when Alice come to the conclusion suddenly that Susan did the murders we are not sure. It might be all in her mind and Smiley wisely keeps up the uncanniness at the same time as we cannot be sure Alice is right. If Susan did it, that is the sudden pull though: so now we have a picture of private life in the city as lived by people making it through the arts (or not making it as the case is), and then we get the proof. It’s also about what constitutes success and what failure and how the lack of admired success can destroy people, and when it destroys an individual it can poison the circles he’s in.

It seems that what Susan loathed was Denny and Craig’s continual “whining” over their lack of success. They had one success with one hit and never made another, and they have spent the rest of their lives trying to make another hit, to become stars or businessmen like Ray. She has had to listen to them talk about this for years, plan this networking, that strategy, watched them fail, vow to do something else, but come back to the dream all over again. And take drugs in the meantime, sell them, deal, get into worse and worse debt.

A bit improbable: Alice twice sends away a locksmith, once after Detective Honey urges her to change her locks, and again after Ray and Jeff get in and leave without permission. After the first time she is left without a door. Could Susan have engineered a “difficult” locksmith? At any rate, after the second attempt she has no locked door again — we are in Radcliffe country now. Susan thinks she again hears that same sound she did before and escapes — out the window.

Great movie cliff-hanger as she literally hangs 4 floors up form a ledge; as she improbably rounds the bend, she sees Susan looking out the window gun in hand, looking for Alice.

Things fall into place: all the bitter conversations, Susan’s disgust (for that’s what it is) with Alice’s way of coping with life and men — Susan scorns the way Alice lived with Jim and blamed Alice for Jim having left her and we are asked to take this seriously.

Alice has so dithered and insulted Henry by this time — for example at one point letting him buy an expensive set of food from Zabar’s to bring back, and then when Susan shows up on the sidewalk hurrying off with her without telling Henry. He slams the door in her face the next time she comes to his apartment. We are to see she mishandled a relationship that would have been satisfying — though at the beginning we distrusted him too (Hitchcock-like looking at her from his window). The romance is weak because Henry disappears and at the close of the book is apparently suddenly happy to start up again — to furnish us with a supposed happy ending?


A excellent thoughtful posting by Anna on our listserv awakened me to the function of this book as a woman’s novel. Anna said she was ambivalent about the book and heroine, and had a friend who disliked it — presumably because she disliked the heroine. I know I did dislike Ginny at times, not because she was good but because she was conventionally good, because she bought into the mores of her community, many of which were awful, and she hid the incest inflicted on her by her father and kept on justifying him to the end. The way for example, at the close of Persuasion Anne Elliot justifies Lady Russell.

Leonora Carrington, The House Opposite (a depiction of women’s worlds, women’s relationships)

Women’s friendship is central to this book, to me unexpectedly,
and also the good heroine. Alice is good and her goodness is
presented in this novel as under attack and somehow false — at least I suggest we are to believe Susan that Jim left Alice because Alice was”‘too dependent,” “loved him too much.” Susan shows a great deal of hostility towards Alice while dominating her, being the lead in the relationship. Susan resents this while taking advantage — as if somehow Alice were lacking and
irritating by not being aggressive and competitive. It’s false Susan thinks, a coverup for what? laziness? not seeing the truths of life. Alice is accused of not seeing the truths of life.

Ginny is similarly a good heroine and she gets some hard knocks because of it but her genuine helpfulness, cooperativeness, love and the rest are not turned into Freudian “passive-aggressive” nonsense (partly because her sister does not have the language for this kind of charge). This phrase is a badmouthing out of resentment and even jealousy. Many readers nowadays are perfectly comfortable with their more ugly and cruel impulses, told these are fine (such is the rhetoric of our time which supports unqualified competition, capitalism in the very corners of our souls). Ginny married Tyler out of her relationship with her father. He is NOT-her father, not a bully, not aggressive, not hurtful (and does get hurt for this is not a good reason to have married him just alone) Margaret is also good and has her life sluiced from her, but she is at the same time very strong and her husband lived off her.

Susan is also the bad heroine and fascinates Alice. Alice thrills to imagine Susan’s crime and for a while does not want to tell Honey what she saw. She admires Susan too. Only when she realizes that if she does not tell what she knows, Susan will kill her does she go to Honey.

The problem in Duplicate Keys for me is Smiley never defends Alice. We can see her goodness as real; how kind she is at the end to Noah, how she does the right thing to Rya. That she’s a good librarian Goodness ought to be defended more. I’ve had students write explicitly out of an assumption they’ve been taught: we are not to allow our human sympathies to decide our moral judgements. The best of judges know that this sympathy is what guides them in their determination. Yes there are pious books which teach women to hurt themselves centrally (good girl messages). And where I didn’t like Ginny was where she was this sort of good girl.

I believe the attack on the traditional heroine mostly comes out of resentment and jealousy when such a character is supported by loving people. Alice is acceptable to Susan because Jim left her. Susan then stepped in; she’d hate it if she saw Alice succeed by her goodness and it be accepted at face value — as well as having ambiguities.

People who want to be bullies and to win out at all cost want us to define the victims they make (as they often do make them) as “passive-aggressive,” and really wanting to do the same only too cowardly. Not so.

I liked Walking Stick so much better because Graham did not blame the victim. It’s true that Elizabeth Jane Howard is content to allow the villain to be simply pathological (Graham is not) while the portrait of Susan is sympathetic to her. Only it must be admitted Susan does not herself question success, she only wants Denny to get into another business, and drop Craig.

This is an important quarrel among women today. Many women just hate Austen’s Fanny Price (Mansfield Park) and call her every name they can think of including “creep mouse.” I suppose Ginny is a creep mouse, so too Alice – Esther Summerson has phases like that. This point of view hurts feminism, is anti-feminist, comes out of pride unwilling to admit women are victims, oppressed, and their goodness taken advantage of — if you want it to be socialistic, caring, supportive, a group effort for us all. I’m sure my readers have seen this “I hate the good heroine” syndrome; the good heroine is the traditional heroine from 18th century on to today. Nabokov openly despised this “type” and made her the mother of Lolita and had his Humbert Humbert kill her off.

A crime novel is a perfect place to bring out this debate as many womens’ enjoyment of these seems to be an enjoyment of femmes fatales, bad women, and the aggressive hard kind of heroine we see in Susan. There are (mistaken here) women justify violent revenge movies as feminist (these are serving the misogynist vicarious thrills of men viewers and movie-makers).

I’d like to read 13 Ways now to see if Smiley goes into this matter with insight and explicitly. I gather Smiley does what I call avoid the issues her own women’s novels sets up. She seems to treat “the novel” as if novels by men and women are seamlessly one. Myself I’ll guess it gives us more than insight into her books, but also insight into her Americanness and strong tendency as central heroines to justify (if in Private Life especially) undermine “good girl messages: Maybe though in the details she does not treat of novels and values as if they were universal and not continually gendered. Her own fiction is deeply gendered.


Read Full Post »

Lichfield Cathedral: Honora Sneyd lived here for a time with Anna Seward

Dear readers and friends,

This blog has two subjects: lesbian arts and spinsters. About a year ago I was so enthused by a review of Lisa Moore’s Sister Arts, and now I’ve been sent it to review and have skimmed the book as a preliminary move. First it’s a beautiful book, an art book, about 18th century landscape and gardening and the popular images conferred and imposed.

If one wanted seriously and earnestly to persuade readers that Jane Austen had some lesbian tendencies (as when she and Martha spent the night on the floor together one fall evening at Steventon), to substantiate Emma Donoghue’s thesis about a type of individual recognizable in the 18th century (thought not openly admitted), the lesbian spinster, one could not do better than advise the person to read this book and Moore’s previous, Dangerous Liaisons, together of course with reading selections of letters and diaries from literary women of the later 18th and early 19th century. Dangerous Liaisons close reads the overt lesbian patterns in Edgeworth’s Belinda, Austen’s Emma and Sister Arts takes us from a group of 18th century artists (including Mary Delany and Anna Seward whom Moore claims had a sexual love relationship with Honora Sneyd) to 20th century lesbian poetry and art through nineteenth century poets (Emily Dickinson one) and into contemporary aligned art, Mickalene Thomas. The purpose: to demonstrate a lesbian aesthetic.

I am also reviewing for a Burney newsletter Volume 5 of Burney’s Early Journals and Letters and there I’ve come across long pieces on Mary Delany and have been reading about her. She’s a woman who may be said to have begun life all over again several times, from devastating falls/disappointments (except maybe the second husband). As a biography about her says (Mary Peacock’s The Paper Garden), Delany’s best time began at 72!

As background one has to read books like Ann B. Shteir’s Flora’s Daughters: Cultivating Women, cultivating science. I cannot say this is an entertaining read; Shteir’s style is dull, but she does convey important information about women in science in the earliest days they entered consciously. She tells of how plants were organized by different taxonomies and the superiority of Linnaeus’s precisely because he used sexuality as a marker; the arguments to keep even this knowledge from women as too sexualized. How that was successfully fought off. Latin could be used to exclude women, but Lineaus’s terms had just two words. Then a chapter on the popularizers, who women read and where they got these texts. I’ve been aware of how much information women in the 17th through later 18th century had of what was useful in medical science as well as plants and vegetables. They were responsible for putting food on the table. (Shteir does not make that kind of point).

Letitia Bushe, Mary Delany’s first Irish love, a drawing (1731) in the et Arcadia Ego situation: I too (Death) am here in this idyllic place.

Moore opens by going through lesbian genres, lesbian type arts hitherto not recognized as lesbian specifically. Sister Arts is filled with color plates and drawings — all by women, often flowers and still lifes. Moore wants to show us a kind of taste or aesthetic crossing across countries and time too, and claims should be part of the lesbian matter we will attached to Virginia Woolf. I’m not sure Moore is not simply identifying l’ecriture-femme (the best book is still Beatrice Didier’s) . One source of botanical knowledge was a book by Rousseau: Lettres elementaires sur la botanique (1771-73). The readers and comments in letters on botanical knowledge include the French Swiss (the Constants) and English so-called bluestockings whose lifestyle again exemplifies Emma Donoghue’s findings.

But I wonder.  Charlotte Smith who lived an anguished life of much hardship turned to botany for solace. Her Rural Walks were not meant just for children, but contained available sound scientific women’s delights.  As “To the Goddess of Botany,” tells you, she was also escaping a hard life and resulting depression (she had a violent abusive husband, many children to bring up and place and was cheated out of a legacy for them).

To the Goddess of Botany

Of Folly weary, shrinking from the view
of Violence and Fraud, allow’d to take
All peace from humble life; I would forsake
Their haunts forever, and, sweet Nymph! with you
Find shelter; where my tired, and tear-swoln eyes
Among your silent shades of soothing hue,
Your “bells and florets of unnumber’d dyes”
Might rest — And learn the bright varieties
That from your lovely hands are fed with dew;
And every veined leaf, that trembling sighs
In mead or woodland; or in wilds remote,
&;Or lurk with mosses in the humid caves,
Mantle the cliffs, on dimpling rivers float,
Or stream from coral rocks beneath the Ocean’s

Charlotte Smith, Elegiac Sonnets, 1797

In an exhibit of the art of Mickalene Thomas I saw recently at the Brooklyn Museum of life the accent was on how she also turned a life of hardship and abuse into beautiful art:

Mickalene Thomas

It may be because the general culture at large either ignores women-centered writing and its characteristics or downright despises it. Or is there some other motive here? some other tabooed type of woman?


Now three days ago I queried Austen-l on the uses of the term spinster:

In a hispanic film adaptation of S&S, From Prada to Nada, Mary (Marianne) arrives home the morning after the central party of the film. Mary has gone to bed with Roderigo-Willoughby; she says she wants to marry Roderigo for his money, class, all he can give her of freedom from having to work for a livingt. Nora (Elinor) says “that makes you a whore.” To which Mary replies, “that’s better than being a spinster.”

Hot quarrelling

Now I know the word “whore” is nowadays a slang word for slut, promiscuous. It’s not used in its more accurate sense of prostitute receiving money for sex. But I find the use of “spinster” as an opposite fate to selling oneself to a man odd. I asked on Austen-l, Janeites and Women writers through the ages whether spinster was still in common use and if this use struck them as unexpected.

After 3 days & nights one person had responded by referring to an essay on spinsters as represented in films and dictionary definitions of the term: the term is not just to refer to a woman who “spins” – it was until the turn of the century [1900] a legal term meaning an unmarried or single woman – it is used in legal proceedings as a title, or addition to the surname; as it was / is? in the Book of Common Prayer.

Well I knew that. So I asked her: “Do you use the word spinster?” No reply.

I had thought the term “spinster” had gone out and was to be found only in older texts or historical fiction or history. “Jane Austen would have been called a spinster.”  In Ross Poldark we are told that “Verity Poldark was on her way to be a spinster.” When I was young I did want to grow up, get married, have children; around age 9 I dreamt of a wedding, and husband (never very distinct image) and 3 children. But the state to be dreaded was “old maid,” the word in use was “old maid.” I used the term “old maid.” I used to show in my undergraduate classes a powerfully great movie, Wit, about a woman who is a professor in her later 40s diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. It was a shock to me the first time the students wrote about it, how many of them held against her that she had never been married. I cannot remember if they used the word spinster but a whole host of negative terms for her as cold, dried up, isolated (that’s a negative one) were trotted forth.

It seems that people think with the word “spinster,” but do not voice it aloud. Is it such a horrifyingly unacceptable state for a woman. The implication is not bachelor girl but someone who remains a virgin. I think an ambivalent attitude towards the real Jane Austen as we find her in her letters and fiction derives from having been a virgin, especially the refusal among other things to see that she’s basically asocial outside her family — much of the false way of presenting her comes from hiding from, compensating for her spinsterhood.

Cassandra (Gretta Scacchi) discouraging Jane (Olivia Williams) from going through with her promise to marry Bigg-Wither (MAR)

In both Becoming Jane and Miss Austen Regrets Jane Austen is presented as depressed for much of her life because 1) she never married, and/or 2) everyone is nagging her to marry. Miss Austen Regrets has her trying to tell people she didn’t want to marry but they refuse to believe her, and the final scene implicitly suggested she and Cassandra had an inactive lesbian relationship. In the film’s opening scene we saw that Cassandra convinced her not to marry Bigg-Wither and now in the closing one Cassandra is drenched in remorse and asks for forgiveness.

Women alone in modern movies are often semi-promiscuous (aggressive detective type)s. When Helen Mirren is Jane Tennison, her state of mind remains opaque. Such programs are said to be transgressive. A few hours did do much to convey what’s it’s like to live as a single woman having a career, and much of the time we were to see that Helen was not personally happy though she was professionally fulfilled. She was useful to other women and the vulnerable and powerless.

Season 3, Part 4, morning: Edith (Laura Carmichael) getting up early for breakfast (nothing to keep her in bed) now wants a profession

To invoke Downton Abbey the coarse (insensitive, unsubtle, prejudiced) way of understanding the humiliation of Edith for trying to marry Sir Anthony Strallon was she was so despicable as openly to chase him rather than be a “spinster”. I believe one of the characters throws the word of her. She’ll be a spinster. So Lady Edith (Downton Abbey) brings us back to Nora’s insult of Mary (From Prada to Nada), both women’s films. The African Queen with Katherine Hepburn is the only movie I can think of that tries to defy the stereotype – there the heroine was framed as eccentric.

On commercial popular TV, the program “Girls” seems to me not to have made much progress. (See Emily Nussbaum’s New Yorker article, Barbaric Hannah.) Why? well for a start all these girls are into sex, and supposedly realistic sex at that. Like many a women’s film the sex in Girls is not idealized. I did watch 3 episodes of the first season myself and went from feeling liberated by what I was seeing to feeling it was a one joke or one paradigm scenario. Girl rises above humiliation, puts her clothes on, and walks away, only to return the next day. Does this show really put an end to the demand that women marry, have sex with men and babies? No. it does show an alternative lifestyle going on for a small group of upper class white women living in Manhattan for the time of their later 20s. These are precisely the terms of Sex and the City. And fashion, however differently presented, is central to both, the women costuming themselves.

Lena Dunham and her “girls:” Illustration by Michael Carson. Do not they look like they are waiting to be taken by a man?


My two topics come together in the strong prejudice against, refusal to recognize lesbians and continued hostility to unmarried women and women who haven’t had any children. The sources of the stigmatizing, ostracizing are the same. Women’s central function is to provide sex and children for men. ? Paradoxically if you try to write a book on women living independently and with other women and show their power relationships from the aspect of power but not sex you are misunderstood: that’s what happened to Betty Rizzo’s Companions without Vows — many of whose subjects were women who were unmarried at the time of their jobs as companions.


Read Full Post »

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (John Singer Sergeant) — this is the kind of image many recent studies of actresses want to make dominant

Geraldine Somerville as Daphne DuMaurier (in the film Daphne 2007, written by Margaret Forster, directed Claire Bevan) — the reality captured is a lot more ambivalent and complicated)

Dear friends and readers,

Tonight I watched a great film, She’s Been Away, and put on line my review of Felicity Nussbaum’s Rival Queens: Actresses, Performance, and the Eighteenth-Century British Theater (just click), the culmination of a couple of months (at least of work). The review appeared in the most recent issue of The Eighteenth Century Intelligencer, just before the meeting last weekend of the EC/ASECS in Baltimore.

At one time I would have been simply very proud of it: I know it’s excellent, and admit a high point of said conference for me occurred when a senior male scholar whom I very much respect came over to me and complimented me on it. He never appeared to see me before, but in our conversation, especially when he said to ignore if anyone is “snippy” to you about it, that he knew something of me (had observed me). Silly? I couldn’t help it.

I’m no longer simply proud because I know to tell the truth about books is not something most scholars do, nor reviewers for that matter. They are there to compliment their friends, do what will elicit reciprocal favors; not only do you not make friends this way, you alienate people. (They worry you’ll write about their book or essay that way.) I tried hard to be even-handed, balanced and the first five paragraphs praise and describe much that is of value in the book: I called it “stimulating, provocative,” and hope I conveyed how much information, and insight it conveys. By following it, and reading a sample of what Nussbaum had read I learned much not just about actresses, but the conversation that surrounds them today: one that (I regret) has more than occasionally turned feminism (as Gail Dines has said) into essays that seem to value any any act of any woman gaining whatever power (influence counts), money, glamor she can, and turn away from a genuinely reformist social movement for all women together. Celebrity studies seems often to be similarly amoral.

I regret it because the actresses the writers bring into the canon of remembered culture were often fine, good women working not just for themselves but other people and since the mid-19th century some of them consciously and effectively for all vulnerable exploited people, especially other women as a group. I count Helen Mirren as one of these.

Helen Mirren, a Robert Maxwell photo

They include directors, producers, writers, an array of costumer and production designers, entrepreneurs — all of which roles were instrumental in raising the status of the actress by the later 19th century. I know the screenplay writer of a BBC film is a central force in its realization, and much admire the work of Sandy Welch and Anne Pivcevic:

Sandy Welch

Anne Pivcevic, director, producer, writer for the BBC

So I’d like to do more, read, write, perhaps someday finish that etext edition of George Ann Bellamy I started. Catherine Clive is one of my favorite people; Sandra Richards’ book a favorite.

Tonight I watched a very great TV movie, She’s Been Away (director Peter Hall, written by Stephen Poliakoff), the story of a young woman institutionalized basically for misbehavior 60 years ago, and thus destroyed, and how her presence when brought home by nephew since the alternative for her is the streets prompts this nephew’s wife, a young woman in her 30s finally to act out a rebellion – which endangers her life directly (and her pregnancy) and really gains nothing for her, but the important friendship of the first. She also brings the first out of her carapace insofar as the aged women is capable. Both angry, the older much more justifiably, the play explores their thwarted lives and lack of choices. It’s played by Peggy Ashcroft and Geraldine James, I can’t recommend it too highly: it was they who made it the powerful experience it is. James stole the movie by the second half. It was much harder to convey the broken stilled old woman whose life has simply been ‘taken from her,” as Ashcroft says quietly in her last moments as she watches James’s husband (James Fox) storm up the hall towards them (indignant). James is still acting up, acting out. In order to convey these women’s real sense of themselves, and perspective, and how they are really used by their society, the film moves away from realism into a semi-wild haunting sequence in the London city landscape of cars, supermarkets, a hotel and finally a hospital. That year (1989) they played together in The Jewel in the Crown, very different types, James the good (and strong) young woman heroine, and Ashcroft, the tragic victim older woman.

Geraldine James, Peggy Ashcroft meeting outside their overt costume roles

Ashcroft in her prime as Duchess of Malfi

No one picked up my call for papers on actresses for this conference. I was not entering into this upbeat Nussbaum mindset which sees actresses as acting analogously (and therefore praiseworthily) in was ambitious successful academic career women do. I’ve discovered even prostitutes are written about in this vein (e.g., in some of her chapters Kristen Pullen, Actresses and Whores). In the 18th century and throughout much of the 19th the life of the actress (let alone prostitutes) was very different, not analogous at all with the 20th century teacher-scholar at all.


Read Full Post »

Ian McKellen and Judi Dench as Macbeth and his lady (1979 BBC Macbeth, Philip Casson, Trevor Nunn)

Dear friends and readers,

Before I went away to Asheville, North Caroline for the South Central region’s 18th century conference, I wrote briefly about the importance of this book: Richards locates in the mid-19th century the significant shift of presumed scorn for the actress as necessarily, most of the time desperately promiscuous to the actress as a respected artist whose serious vocation leads to her exemplifying centrally important roles on the stage and film and TV and (modelling revisionary progressive behavior) life. Now I’m ready to tell the whole story, which begins in the 18th century in England.

Why? The book is super-expensive and only available in hardback. It is really hard to understand why. I can think only that for real few people are interested in actresses seriously. I remember how disappointed I was when I tried to find women’s poetry and then any poetry on movies. Most of it was unthinking unexamined star worship and much simply projecting the familiar sex stereotypes. There were exceptions (John Hollander on the Valencia) but by and large not.

In Richards’s preface she wants to chart how the English actress as a role and type and career and person came semi-prostitution, to women who make distinguished contributions to status of women, theatrical profession, society at large. She singles out women whose careers are best documented, and contemporary ones available for interview, whose thinking gave them something worthwhile to say, those who did innovations, started new types. She did go also for middle rank to be well rounded.

Her problems included a dearth of sources on living actresses so had to rely on newspapers, magazines, biographies; the interviews as presented were collaborative; the actress was active and it is to be seen as just her at that point of her career/life.

Chapter 1, Later 17th century

Rachel Weisz as Hypatia (all that 17th century actresses were not allowed to be, 2010 Agora

Richards tells the story of a place and time when & where there was no respect for actresses; they had no right to privacy. She goes over the strong attempts made to keep women off the stage; and how, against that, that there was a growing demand among upper classes for women on the stage. Alas, Richards herself buys into some of the attitudes towards sex: she calls earliest actresses “unsavory types.” She says of Elizabeth Barry Otway’s worship “cannot unfortunately be ascribed to virtue,” and that Barry’s vanity hardened as the reasons she refused to go to bed with Otway. Why cannot a woman refuse to go to bed with a man once she has sold herself for sex to another. Does not she have the same right over her body as any other woman? (p 14). Richards also says the existence of actresses lowered the tone of theaters and plays; yet helped keep old plays alive; and (this is not consistent) we are to congratulate them for influence and leading playwrights to do new types of women and utterances .

The actress is regarded as worst of characters. They left the stage with protectors; some respectability granted when an actresss married an actor (she was less vulnerable to aggression). The playhouse seen as place of assignation with orange girls as go-betweens. The actresses often came from professional people fallen on hard times; were mistresses to nobles. This leads to fierce rivalry with one another. The theater bound up with life of the court;. She goes over individual lives and people; we see how precarious it was. Their talents used as instruments of power in a hostile setting

Mrs Barry overcome an ugly appearance, and lack of immediately recognized talent. Richards also tells the life of Nell Gwyn because she rose from so low to so high, so she popularized idea of regarding actress with respect.

One difference from actors is the actors could and did rise to be management and shareholders; this first happened for women after 1695.

Chapter 2, Earlier 18th century

Joshua Reynolds (1723-92), Mrs Hartley as Jane Shore (1773 — the play itself early 18th century by Rowe)

Early 18th century actresses again came from acting families; from families on hard times — she gets some of this wrong or is too firm in her biographies. She tells of chance discoveries and dubious legends some of them dubious. Hannah Pritchard came from a family which supplied costumes, fans, corsets

Actresses began to specialize in certain kinds of emotion and roles: Susannah Cibber for tragedy (Constance in King John): Clive for comedy (she went for parts not really suitable for her); Hannah Pritchard a great Lady Macbeth. Rivalry implicit in Richards’s mind
Here she discusses unnatural v natural delivery; how rivalry drove where they appeared; Woffington’s humiliation (p. 31); George Anne Bellamy’s relish about how she beat out this or that rival; Jane Rogers recognized she was not rival to Oldfield

Garrick’s role; the letters quoted, how he treated his actresses; it seems he did not take advantage, and was fair; she says he was “henpecked” — showed himself that way perhaps; he tried to use “good-natured banter”. Then the power struggles with managers: brief on how sharers in patents were greedy (she does not use such harsh language when she should); how Catherine Clive driven to present her case to public.

It seems most actresses at close of 18th century not making much more than beginning (p 34). The advent of the benefit; she calls running about soliciting for people “degrading” (it was); stage favorites; actresses’ indispensibilty

She remarks how most actresses who achieved economic independence early on did not marry; alas, she does not go on to say how some who achieved it quickly got rid of their husbands; that Clive was helped by Walpole and lived near ex-colleagues. The victimizing of Susannah Arne Cibber by her husband, Theophilus Cibber – and it was – her husband taking her earnings, sullying her reputation; she tells it as if Slope wholly forced on Cibber and not that eventually Cibber preferred Slope. That she lost 2 children to death because too busy to care for them.

Actress became an index of moral standards by what she was prepared to do on stage — perhaps that is so today too; the sexual harassment form managers; the marriages (few); that a few turned up noses at good offers, yet aristocratic favor used as a badge of pride. Then specifics of careers of Wofington (lived with Garrick), Oldfield (charitable to Savage), Pritchard irritated Johnson

How they did become literary artists themselves — the few who wrote (Catherine Clive); the memoirs, actors apologies it’s suggested were shorter (Tate Wilkinson?); the trying to get others to write good roles for them.

Again when she says an actress could gain a respectable position by doing a number of things she does not distinguish how some of these were signs of success not what gave you success. You had to get success first. They were respected if lived blameless sexual life; delivered demanding roles and epilogues; were eulogized when they left the stage; burial in Westminster

Richards thinks the change in the mid-18th century demanding decorum in plays (overtly) helped the status of actresses. Richards ends on Cibber’s assessment of how Oldfield achieved her success through apt negotiation with those she had directly to deal with.

Faults: Richards does not distinguish signs of success from ways of getting success: as a way of getting success was to create an important original role or rival another actress in one. Anne Oldfield in Lady Townley — and chapter keeps showing her high status among actresses as an actress. The actress had to avoid using roles to invest her own identity in; they did have to distance themselves (as men did not?), then some examples of how particular actresses achieved rapport.

She could make a mark by dressing in men’s clothes — you might get attention that way; she seems to think she is showing the managers bullying the actresses to wear breeches. She mentions Woffington and Wildair and says Peg “become identified with the contempt her character showed for audience” (this made me remember the number of times she was attacked by audiences — not quite literally though Richardson does not make that connection).

This chapter is odd: it descends into a salacious tone sometimes and is nowhere as somehow general in its approach as the previous. Maybe it was originally written for some other place. Perhaps this chapter lacks a thrust forward because Richards does seem to think by mid-century actresses in general had not improved their status: Charke died destitute.

Chapter 3: Later 18th century

Mrs Young as Distrest Mother (she exemplifies fashion too)

It appears that by the end of the century actresses still had not achieved respectability and status and respect they ought to have given their hard work, talent, artistic achievements. This chapter is thus a catalogue of the intense refusal to allow women to be independent and interacting as equals with men. The heart of it is also this insistence on female virginity and that she shall be owned by one man or family. Diehard prejudices and exploitation of women; ideas held about their “natures” (p. 70); they must be kept away from knowledge to be “delicate.”

So, the proliferation of actress’s memoirs and biographies to Richards suggests acute preoccupation with uncertain place in society: more actresses came from acting families in a strolling or provincial background. How did they get into the profession: Stage offspring include Siddons, Jordan, Misses Brunton, Farren and Harriot Mellon; Sophia Snow Baddeley was daughter to a theatrical musician (her husband pushed her); George Anne Bellamy pushed by Mother Jordan put on stage in tranvestite roles at 17. Actresses continue to come from families fallen on hard times. Sheer rural stock: Inchbald, Harriet Mellon (mother nurtured it). From tradespeople: Ann Street Barry Crawford; Mary Yates daughter of ship-captain. You could still be discovered but rather less of this type of story-legend.

Sexual harassment undergone by many and much testimony to get hired to a job (Jordan, Inchbald); you could marry in, Frances Barton married James Abingdon a minor Drury Lane players. Inchbald plagued by sexual harassment early in her career; some men did treat women decently (Tate Wilkinson James Quinn over Bellamy).

Rise of variety of specialist roles: such as sentimental comedy, breeches to some extent less a titillation, moral scolding (political hectoring); Some of these comic characters become household names (Little Pickle for Dora Jordan). The actress was seen as having expertise: Jordan had a natural style for the time

Again we see them struggling with manager for control and power; Garrick’s determination to make stage more respected helped players. She tells the story of Garrick v Mrs Abington in ways that favor Garrick. Inchbald uses her “beauty,” she wanted to refuse certain roles. Aristocracy as patrons could help but if women became someone’s mistress she was at risk; fickle

Still average salary not good: top ranking actress 10 pounds a week. They had no right to their private space in their dressing room and actresses had more audience bullying (p 57). Rivalry encouraged, called attention to them, but did not help

As a group they had great problems with husbands who are jealous, want to fleece them, impregnate them. We see how the unsettled life of George Anne Bellamy did get in her way; women just considered “chattel of men” (p. 63): Harriot’s salary, Sophia Baddeley; Jordan’s position ambiguous; she was sympathized with Richards says (but Richards forgets when king dumped her she remained dumped). Inchbald’s self-sufficiency produced best situation (when backed by monetary success writing).

Repeatedly difficult to stop vile stories in the press; how to counter. One way was actresses turned themselves into writers; they produced memoirs strong in radical and feminist views (Inchbald, Robinson). You could have yourself painted, the portrait become mutually beneficial (Lawrence’s career made with portrait of Farren)” this writing an extension of extroversion and self-projection actresses enjoyed. Abingdon one of those who used the world of fashion to achieve status, expertise

The best way to rise is finally through your craft — won over audience by brand of magnetism (charisma, it), stamina, hard work, enough beauty, and choose roles that enhance your status: buy into the prejudices of the multitude and obey them

Chapter 4: Sarah Siddons (1755-1831)

Reynolds’s Sarah Siddons as Tragic Muse

Like everyone else, Richards sees Siddons as an important stage in gaining respectability for actresses. Unlike Nussbaum and several others, Richards is not resentful of the way Siddons did this: by presenting herself as solemn, serious, conventionally virtuous, a loving mother. Richards’ account is worthwhile for the way she does not elide over the miseries and difficulties of Siddons’ existence – which most of those resentful of her elide. Consequently a more truthful portrait of Siddons emerges; it’s obvious to me that Richards is much influenced by Manvell’s biography.

Some points most others don’t make: Siddons was helped enormously because she was part of a family group and her brother became a manager (they helped one another.) Richards thinks the turning point in Siddons’s career came with her acting of Belvidera in Otway’s Venice Preserved, that she revolutionized the depiction of Lady Macbeth by presenting the character utterly seriously, not as glamorous. Richards provides notes someone (Prof G. J. Bell) took while watching Siddons and these are revealing of what she did that so held people. Siddons’s salary range suggests that actresses were in greater demand than actors — we see this again in the 19th century chapter.

I feel so for Sarah’s marital unhappiness and her loneliness. She had no one like herself to confide in or be congenial with for real (this is the probable cause for the friendship with Hester Thrale Piozzi as well as why later in life she could be taken advantage of. She wrote her Reminiscences at 75; her portrait as tragic muse was a collaboration with Reynolds.

And yet Sarah was not accepted socially for real — why she was so lonely, why she could not meet someone who could be a real friend and companion. Richards insists on the “irony of her social position.” It was part pretense that she was acceptable. Richards suggests that what success she had — for she did raise the status of the actress, no one confused her with prostitutes — came from her having portrayed “an elevated idea of women’s nature.”

(I wonder if one of the reason the women academics who so dislike her dislike her is they dislike this elevated idea of women’s nature. They don’t have it, don’t want it.)

Chapter 9: Early 19th Century & Victorian actresses

Reynolds, Fanny Kemble (1783)

I like surprises. I like learning something I had not expected: it was in the mid-19th century that the tide began to turn for actresses and they became socially acceptable outside the stage and achieved respectability for some on it. What brought this about? a combination of events: 1) women began to be managers for the first time and set the terms in which they were presented on stage; 2) the presentation of women as having an elevated nature was kept up; but most of all, 3) women began to write respectably, serious books. Richards thinks less demonstrable but also important was women’s emancipation from exclusively domestic roles began in the middle 19th century in Europe and the establishment of girls’ public schools between 1840 and 1870 (p. 90-91). This is a summary of the chapter as a whole

So a key figure is Fanny Kemble! This pleases me for I loved her powerful anti-slavery Journal on a Residence of a Georgia Plantation: it changed my understanding of women in slavery, made me see I had had a failure in imagination and never thought about the full horror of the lives chattel slaves who are concubines could know.

Richards opens with citing diary entries for an “obscure English actress, Anne Ellerslie:” she is lonely; she wonders if she would have been happy just married and at home, how depressed she is. Yet the number of actress rose by astounding numbers: from 891 in 1861 to 3696 in 1891 (pp. 90-91)

So first how did women get into the profession in the 19th century: Eliza O’Neill and Helen Faucit were daughters of provincial and London managers; Julia Glover came from theatrical family; the Kembles (p. 90-91)

A problem was the lack of a way or place for training (outside family groups).

We then get some individual lives: Madame Vestris who made her name in breeches roles but managed to present herself in ways that were modest; it was careful personating of a male (p. 94). It’s later in the chapter we see Vestris career as manager (pp. 103-109). Actor managers had carried on using the actresses; making them their hand-maidens to their projects (Macready resembles Garrick in trying to raise the profession this time by reviving classical theater). Vestris simply made a great success of a third theater, the Olympic while the two others were dying or struggling (p. 104); she actually got salaries paid in advance. This was terrifically important; actors had professional rights (p. 104); she abolished half-prices and boxkeepers’ fees (less corrupt). Seven seasons of management (p. 105) which included a faithful production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream which was a hit. Madame Vestris beats out Macready with her Comus (p. 108-9). Olympic wins.

Still the audience’s persistent idea that the role an actress played must be related to her character continued to cripple women as people outside the stage and deterred them from playing unsympathetic women. So there’s the problem of taking on mature roles. (pp. 94-95)

Shakespeare’s heroines provided one way to get deeper rounded roles and yet be respected and actresses published notes on these characters — Helen Faucit was one. Faucit outshone Siddons in tragic force too; she anticipated feminist actresses; Lady Macbeth was remorseless and self-centered, almost fiendish in Siddons’s portrayal; Faucit takes her another step into humanity: a complex character with her own weaknesses. A lofty Belvidera emerges (pp. 95-98). Helen Faucit also participates in encouraging ensemble acting and theater conceptions (p. 104)

Some jealousy between actresses still publicly seen. At this point their social position is hovering on the brink of respectability; between Madame Vestris who helped break the monopoly of the two theaters, Madge Kendal’s career, and Fanny Kemble’s life it was accomplished. (pp. 99-100)

Another aspect of this comes out again: the actress has to overcome the use of her by managers (p. 105); one way was through acting with her husband, Marie Bancroft used her husband as a barrier and he was an actor-manager himself (p. 105). This helped a rise in salary too (p. 105) between 1880 and later 1890 way up.

Madge Kendal desperately tries to escape type casting in burlesque breeches parts; she transforms vulgar and controversial characters into sympathetic ones (p 102). She developed a new style of acting (p. 106) Again on Madge Kendal developing naturalistic style, bringing out what was noblest and highest in women’s characters.

Kemble masters mature roles early; she shows personal distaste for claptrap and professional integrity (pp 100-101). We are again told of Faucit’s way of presenting her characters as noble, sincere womanliness and “understated expression[s] of powerful passion” (p. 107 — this reminds me of today’s acting). This mute acting Ellen Terry perfected. And now the serious life-writing (p. 110) Faucit, Kendal (some non-actresses wrote too, e.g., Jameson). Armed in literature, Kemble and others wrote respectability into their lives.. How Kemble managed her divorce (p. 110). These actresses and Kemble are re-educating their audiences. Entrenched idealization both a help and hindrance (p. 111)

Serious seminal novels & writing about women having conflicts between lives and careers are signs of change: Geraldine Jewsbury, The Half-Sister, Henry James’s Tragic Muse. Jewsbury tests values of conventionally ideal Victorian woman against professional actress who deepest instincts run counter to need for social acceptance. James exposes Victorian hypocrisies; Englishman demands wife quit. 1885 National Review article launches attack against tendency to make actresses and women scapegoats (p. 111). Same pitfalls (sexual) are found in all professions for women. Actresses simply are of higher social rank than shop-girls and don’t have it in them to be governesses (p. 111)

Queen Victoria and her prestige helped – she began to see she needed to pay the actors to come for special performance or the cost was deadly (p. 114)

Richards jumps to Married Women’s Property Act: how husband and fathers just ruthlessly exploited women who worked; how individual women overcame this, from Kemble to Faucit; how others were ravaged (Julia Glover); Madge Kendal’s marriage shows compromises; these were superior actresses and gaining intense respect as noble-minded women Madge Kendal seeking playwrights who write roles they can use (Pinero); we see actresses in collaboration with playwrights to do this (p. 113-114). You needed to free yourself from the bondage of exploitative fathers and husbands, of temptations from gilded mistresshood of aristocrats (pp. 114-15), must behave with selfrespect

To conclude, Fanny Kemble showed world through her writing actresses capable of thinking intelligently on issues of day; her dramatic readings restored Shakespeare’s original texts.
Faucit gave back Shakespeare’s heroines as analogues of ideal professional life. Vestris transforms the Olympic carves path for independence of manager and accuracy in costume and scene effects (p. 115); she put on London Assurance, comedy of manners, used modern management and ensemble playing: it was understood how important she had been. Shaw praised Kendal as “superior among English actresses in comedy, a standard bearer. Kendal gave a speech: greatest gain of the century was “a recognized position for a play,” their insights increased toleration and charity; they could be educators of their audiences; they should maintain dignity in their private lives (keep them out of the limelight); she berated those who encouraged low tone, arraigned press, wry note that actresses at disadvantage when they age: “you must fill up wrinkles with intelligence.”

Kendal’s pupil was Ellen Terry who clinched the change — “greatest influence on 20th century actresses Sandra Richards claims.

Chapter 6: Ellen Terry (1847-1928)

Photo of Ellen Terry in later life

The career of Ellen Terry helped solidify the gains the middle 19th century actresses had secured. Ellen Terry’s pre-Raphaelite looks helped enable her to this embodiment the Victorian ideal of womanhood. Characters she presented and (importantly) wrote about are not miracles of female perfection or fiends, but full blooded real women with passions and desires, flaws and weaknesses previously only tolerated in actors

She was the child of strolling players, educated by father, began painstaking attention to detail and period accuracy. Her lesson was to be useful. She entered the profession three times. She makes Portia and Ophelia central icons and then they became her parts. It was a healthy change in understanding of Shakespearean actress. Lady Macbeth a role she turned into strength and tenderness. Her notes and lectures show she believed in heroines animated by unswerving devotion to men; this idea informed er acting of contemporary play heroines; so to write for her meant she could take your character and turn her into passionate type that appealed (say Margaret in Goethe’s Faustus).

She liked to keep life on stage separate from life off. She could use contemporary plays just as well, but it was not she she who led to Ibsen heroines, more 2nd and 3rd line un-idealized portrayals like Madge Kendal; she was among first in films; she began the ploy of turning up in cameo roles — to make money later in life. She learned from her managers: Charles Reade; then Henry Irving; she did quarrel with latter sometimes.

Interestingly, her domestic and private life unconventional: early marries on G. F. Watts and then flees him; goes to live with Godwin and has two children; then involved with Charles Wardell called Kelly; allies with painters who profited from mutual relationship; with Shaw. But lurid accounts of the 18th century variety which equated actresses with whores did not emerge.

Her writing significant (like Kemble’s, like Faucit’s) was significant; she had the finest style in her autobiography (Story of My Life); Four lectures on Shakespeare are feminist literary criticism. And like Vestris, she was involved in management of super successful respected productions.

Yet when all is said, she was still not quite respectable; she submitted ot double standard; she was excluded from Westminster

Actresses after Terry recognized as civilizing force; guardians of natiional morale; can be adjudicator between people and push for good causes. Holroyd has good book on Irving and Terry. And like Siddons and other successful celebrity actresses she used the respected genius artist and helped his career and image along too.

For latter part of book, see comments section

Glenda Jackson as Charlotte Corday in Marat/Sade


Read Full Post »