Posts Tagged ‘henry james’

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


This is Eloise Perks’s 1822 text unchanged

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The modern Pleiade texts

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

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

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Dear friends and readers,

I again make it my happy task to record another pleasant meeting of the JASNA-DC group (the last time was Christmas dancing) I and Izzy have joined: it took place at the Holiday Inn in Arlington. There was a luncheon, piles of a large beautiful book, sewn, fine paper, wide margins, felicitiously chosen illustrations: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: An annotated edition by Patricia Meyer Spacks, and Spacks herself come to talk to the group about her edition.

Just about all the copies were sold, and I splurged on one too.

Izzy and I arrived around 12, talked with a few people and I saw the line to buy the book. I did and Izzy took it over to our table and for most of the rest of the time when we weren’t talking to people or eating and Prof Spacks had not begun her talk, Izzy looked it over. I looked it over tonight. 

The biggest treat it seems to me are the unusual pictures, for it should be said at the out set that if you buy this book you are partly buying a beautiful coffee-table kind of book. For the money and what’s on offer, the good buy remains David M Shaparo’s The Annotated Pride and Prejudice published by Anchor (Random House).  The information and annotation there does not get in the way — I have this on the authority of some of my students. You can read the book through without ever looking at the full genuinely helpful and often pictorial annotations which are on the recto pages.  Shapard’s is the encyclopedia the student who knows nothing about the 18th century might want; Professor Spacks’s book provides a kind of "take" or reading of P&P through her more personal perceptive approach. 

A satiric picture of women’s accomplishments

Prof. Spacks’s talk was in fact basically a resume of part of her introduction to her book, and here I’ll tell a little of what Spacks said about her procedures and edition.  She was invited to annotate an edition of P&P while she was doing another project and at first she was strongly reluctant. After all here was a book which didn’t need any notes (Tony Tanner has famously edited an edition of P&P in the 1980s where he had one footnote), which a 14 year old girl could read without anything beyond the text itself.  Spacks was persuaded by a friend from Harvard. She herself knew the book very well, had read and taught it countless times.  She found it touching that the copy she was given had been owned by Amy Lowell.

The first thing to decide was what was the best way she could edit this book without spending the rest of her life on it. She thought of Martin Gardiner’s annotated edition of Alice in Wonderland and felt that edition could authorize her to annotate loosely: to go off on intereting tangents.  She wanted to illuminate the text not just for first time readers but for those who’ve read the book many times.

She came to the conclusion she would annotate it as made up of individual words, looked to see if historical context were needed, and what literary works were alluded to.

Gilpin’s Observations would be one such book (p. 88)

First words. She read the novel super-carefully, word by word. She was trying to reach people who don’t understand the words but don’t know they don’t understand because the words have changed some.  One such word is "liberal."  In Austen’s time it meant free from prejudice, also someone who enacts the conduct of a free man, i.e., an independent gentleman. The word "nice" meant more than discriminate carefully. Spacks found 18 different definitions and included these the way Gardiner were, a bit playfully. Nice meant foolish, ignorant, efficient, fastidious.  She found herself making up the history of the sofa.

Sir Thomas Banks, a chimney piece in Daylesford, an elaborate expensive ornamentation that Mrs Bennet would long for

Then historical and social context.  When Elizabeth and Jane return from London, Lydia is bursting over with news and among the items is her carelessly dropped information that a private was flogged. In context of inane and pretty details, this one stands out the way in The Rape of the Lock Pope’s lin; "wretches hang that juryman may dine."  Spacks said in the British army/navy were notorious in their awful treatment of soldiers and sailors. Local militias were formed only in time of war and we see they are all over the place in P&P. Brighton was thought to be a place the French would invade because of its deep harbour. Yet the Bennets have no fear of Lydia’s safety from invasion, rapine. In this era the officers lived well, dined off tables, the soldier lives in cold tents on the ground, sailors were pressed.  The way the authorities got away with it was severity of discipline.

A man about to be flogged.

P&P is a novel filled with war going on but you would not know it from the Bennets or their friends.  The point is how obtuse and blind this upper class privileged elite community is. It’s also a novel where people dine and fuss about seating arrangements, who comes in and goes out of a room first. That these people care about. Spaces discovered women came into a room before men.  She read about and use information of curricles (two horses) versus the less admired gig (one horse). Of course a barouche landau is today’s Rolls Royce.

Literary context was her last. There Prof. Spacks was in her element of course. The problem was to avoid over-annotating. After the talk when one woman asked Spacks what minor novel people don’t know well she would advise us to read. Spacks cited Memoirs of Sidney Biddulph by Frances Sheridan (feminist, melancholy) and Hermsprong by Robert Gage (pro-French revolution principles)..

She concluded her talk by saying she’s been embarrassed that P&P is her favorite of the six novels. The most paradigmatic of romance. but annotating it and coming into close contact many times with the text of the novel, Spacks decided it is nevertheless a serious book.  Just as with other books, the reader must read or find this out for herself but Spacks has here (I suggest) provided a framework which will bring out the seriousness and extent of social reach of the book. 

She concluded her argument thus:  she pointed us to its first sentence and chapter: what a predatory environment it suggests, how materialistic, and rank-based from previous generations. Now its last sentence is filled with gratitude towards the Gardiners; here we have a community based on human feeling. During much of the novel, Darcy is alone; Elizabeth too dwells apart. At the end of the novel they are in a self-enclosed garden which seems capable of further improvements 🙂 and its pleasant surface (living at Pemberley remember) belies some of the hard economic familial and war realities we’ve seen.

At the close of her talk she said that Harvard (Belknap Press) was planning a book like this one for each of the six famous Austen novels and she will herself also edit Sense and Sensibility.

To repeat, one of the pleasures and additions to knowledge Spacks’s annotated P&P offers is unusual pictures. She really has a set which includes a number I’ve never seen; they are well placed and relevant. Thus this image of Bifrons Park is a house Austen really knew (as opposed to the many luxurious great houses used by film makers). It faces the tour around Pemberley Elizabeth and the Gardiners enjoy. Jan Siberechts (ca 1627-1703) was a Flemish artist who settled in England in the 1670s and made his name painting English country houses

Bifrons Park, Kent, 1695-1700

Dove Dale and Matlock are not inventions of  recent film-makers! For those (like me perhaps) who have felt the photograph of Elizabeth on top of a high stone cliff gazing out at a landscape out of whack with Austen’s vision, a still repeated twice now in the Austen films (1995 P&P and 2005 P&P) but first found in the 1939 Wuthering Heights, think again.  Spacks’s edition includes two engravings of precisely two of the places Elizabeth and the Gardiners visit and both resemble the mise-en-scenes of these movies.

Engraving by J. Bluck (1791-1819) after Thomas Barber (1768-1843), Dove Dale 4, from T. C. Hofland, Six Views of Derbyshire (1805). One of the spots Elizabeth and Gardiners visit, discussed by Elizabeth and Darcy

Matlock.  It’s peaceful, alluring and note that Cassandra’s drawing of Jane from the back is an imitation of this pose.

Spacks spoke extempore and seemed so relaxed and casual friendly. I wish she had gone on much longer.

Among the afterward conversation was a question on how Austen managed to get her books published — what a disconnect the woman said between living in the country surrounded by relatives and the world of publishing. I suggested she was being anachronistic.  Sure today the book publishing world is highly organized with fiercely guarded turfs and thresholds, with prizes and such. But not the 1790s.  Things were not organized in the way they were in the mid-Victorian period. Authors got paid a lot  more, were more respected.  In the 1790s almost any one could get into print, so desperate were booksellers for stuff for their periodicals, but the pay was derisory. 10 pounds for Northanger Abbey, 10 pounds for Evelina. The audience for women’s novels (as they were denigrated) were after all women; today costume is denigrated as about bonnets and beaux,

And so the novels are often for and about a woman’s world, and the pleasures of costume drama include the hats.

A tradecard for inventing hats

Izzy and I left not soon after the speech and discussion time was over, as did a number of people.  There were people standing on line for Spaces to sign her book! The luncheon broke up much quicker than the dancing Xmas time. 

I spoke with a couple of old friends on the way out.  We had had a pleasant time. Spacks’ speech showed how suggestive she could be while remaining light in approach.


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Dear friends and readers,

This is a fourth in my series of blogs on films from 18th to 19th century sources.  First was the Hardy films, then for the 18th century, the Duchess and a Cornwall landowner, back to the 19th with, Young Victoria and ritual humiliation, now two of the many films over the century to adapt Henry James novels and stories, specifically the 1972 BBC Golden Bowl and the 2001 Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala Golden Bowl.

We see here an instance of how Henry James matter is often used to sexualize the 19th century trajectory for films in a for dark films disquieting and sinister way, as for example, the 1999 (Nick Dear) and 2009 (Sandy Welch), Turn of the Screws.  For lighter films (The Europeans and Daisy Miller), we find something quietly contemplative of family, social, sexual life.  

In a comparison of a 1972 and 2001 film, we also see the vast changes in film style over 30 years.  Film construction, the way a film is put together is central to the point of view on reality it allows.  The 1972 film was willing to endow great depth and importance to inward life, and was content to find in subtle nuance unending abysses of wounded feeling; the 2001 film must objectify, it must turn into bizarre kinds of opposition, overstate in order to get us to take what happens as significant. This is more than a matter of seeking a popular audience (the 72 film didn’t have to and didn’t aim at that), for the way the characters are regarded changes with this.


The 1972, Golden Bowl, screenplay Jack Pullman,director James Cellan Jones, producer Martin Lisemore

Bob Assingham (Cyril Cusack) contemplating the story he is telling us, how silently it happened is one of its strongest curiosities

I finally finished watching this once famous rendition of James’s Golden Bowl (I say once famous because it’s not available for sale as a DVD) for a second time. It’s just brilliant. I’ve now watched 4 of the 6 episodes, and it reveals that the dramaturgy of the 1970s, essentially staged plays or playlets, as as capable of holding the viewer as anything from the mesmerizing computerized and radical new modern thematizations of the 1990s and recent poetic cinematographies (1st decade 21st century) are.  It does have moments outside and they are rightly picked and effective:

The hour or so before the Prince’s weddig that Charlotte and the Prince share out in the open

You must have great actors to carry it off and good scripts.  Cuzack is up to it :).  The dramaturgy and cinematography is of the older stage scene kind; no montages, little voice-over, no mesmerizing computers and music.  The acting is not quite all but a great deal of it.  Furhter, the scenes are exquistely well-written, carry great force and slowly evolve into a fearful affair on the one side (Prince and Charlotte) although not sufficiently shown incestuous pair on the other.

Charlotte Stant (Gayle Hunnicutt) and the Prince (Daniel Massey) contemplating the cracked bowel (gilt over glass); the bowl is indeed badly cracked

This film has not been superseded for how can a work of art be superceded.  It builds slowly, and slowly the characters emerge. I think its final emphases are different from James’s book:  the films really get across (Daniel Massey as the prince is unforgettable in his facial expressions) that the prince is left bitter and lonely and scared from his loss of Charlotte and Maggie’s ruthless behavior towards her:

The Prince, earnest and soft, bought, anxious only not to be a hypocrite, when we first see him

that Charlotte is left shattered, just shattered and without a will (here Gayle Hunnicutt comes into her own at the close).  Maggie is presented as frantic and jealous of the prince and angry about this sexual liasion, but here is what I find the presentation not adequate to the case:  there is no sense really of Adam Verver as himself having evil or sinister tendencies  He is presented as loving his daughter and while incest is in the air as something emotional, we are not made to feel really that the father and daughter tried to buy their way to a private life of their own, using this desperately poor pair. 

Maggie (Jill Townsend) also when first seen, innocent

I surmize the film-makers thought this too strong and so Verver is seen as simply loving his daughter and passive throughout — we get no sense of this man’s power as he must be since he made so much money. He is absolved.  This is the script, not Barry Morse. 

Adam Verver (Barry Morse)

Maggie too is absolved, the other side of the "evil" ignored. It’s true in the book Fanny Assingham (both parts of her name salacious and undercutting) sees only this, but then she’s dense.

Also one could come away from the film blaming Fanny because we see how she controls our narrator who gets the last word that she made a mess of things. She never forced these people to marry or the prince and Charlotte to have an affair — which however discreetly they do in the film.

Fanny Assingham (Katherine Byron)

So there is woman-blaming here for we see how she controls her husband.  She is also obtuse to the pain and suffering of everyone, especially Charlotte and the Prince, utterly conventional in her acceptance of the father-daughter, rejection of the true lovers:

Against this is Charlotte Stant (Gayle Hunnicutt) as the deer caught in the lights of the oncoming car which rolls over her

The one minor women in the film who is having an affair with Mr Brink reinforces this.

Even so, even if the full weight of uses of people the tale unfolds is not there, enough is.

I don’t remember if Bob is so central; does anyone?  in the novel is he a mouthpiece for James, for in the film Cuzack as Bob is. The way he sits, holds his face, talks the lines reminds me of lines by James in letters and photos of him.

The movie does fit the Victorian model:  we are shown deep familial-erotic-social pathologies — for the heart of the story is two Americans buy this prince and this woman without a family. The bowl’s crack — a glass bowl covered with gilt, not gold at all, captures all these threads as James would say beautifully.


The 2001 Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala Golden Bowl, produced Ismail Mercant, directed James Ivory, screenplay Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Charlotte (Uma Thurman) bought, put into a savage outfit, paid for

I also watched the 2001 Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala Golden Bowl, and much preferred the 1972 film adaptation to this new one –though it too has merit, fundamentally from its use of visual symbolization. As I wrote yesterday film-style is of central importance in the core philosophy of life of a film: in this one it’s not only the giving-over of the daring technique of making Bob Assingham the narrator as James that makes the difference, but modern computer techniques, zoom, distancing, jump cuts, on location with good cameras, huge sums on places and luxuries — important as all this is — but the outlook.  

The 2001 film opens with a dream scene of the past — early modern, the Prince’s forbears (we learn the Prince is telling Charlotte of this so the sequence is a kind of flashbook presented discontinuously):  coerced marriage, the young couple defying the going to bed with one another, the males rush in and murder the girl, make the young man craven and obedient:

I was not sure I agreed with Laurence Raw who read the 1972 film as making the woman all powerful — for after all Charlotte is destroyed and for all Fanny Assingham’s efforts, it’s finally Adam Verver who makes the decision to go to the US, and the Prince who gives up Charlotte when he need not have — he is bleak in the face but he is not helpless and he is wanted.  That is, the story matter by James himself criss-crossed this interpretation. However, seeing this one I must agree. I did like how in this one Adam Verver (Nick Nolte) comes into his own as a cold fierce determined man when it comes to protecting his daughter and using Charlotte (sexually as well as his wife); he is frightening at times. But the dialogue for Maggie made her abject and not in charge and manipulating in the way she is in the book and also in the 1972 film.  So although Kate Beckinsale was chosen (chosen for Emma in the Austen films), she was turned into a role very unlike her usual one and she seems stilted. It turned Fanny into a foolish side-kick.

Further this opening sequence identifies Charlotte as sheer victim, and as the film progresses and she appears in more ane more extravagant outfits which seem to imprison her, we know who her rich master is, the hard (in this film) Adam Verver.  The opening sequence to this film shows us Charlotte and the Prince (Jeremy Northam) where as in The Wings of the Dove (or Trollope’s Duke’s Children), we have a couple agreeing to part for money. Here the man is requiring it, and the woman abject, crying:

She begs him, please don’t do this, let’s not do this (you marry Maggie and I find a suitable rich man)

This coheres with what I am seeing in other 1970s movies: often they have much stronger women than the sources they are taken from (not I’m afraid the Pallisers).

The greatest loss as to characters was the way Jeremy Northam was directed to play the prince. The movie opens with the lovers, Charlotte and the Prince agreeing to give up one another — a Trollope theme – and here she is protesting and tearful (partly she has nothing and he his name and place and hopes of marriage to an heiress) but when confronted by Maggie he just caves in, and we are to believe he loves Maggie and cares about his honor and that’s why he is cleaving to her. No bleak bitterness here, and much hypocrisy towards Charlotte. Uma Thurman, Cecile in Les Liaisons Dangereuses: her type is the abused woman it seems. The characters lost a great deal. Not Northam’s fault but the way he was directed. James Fox as Bob Assingham was turned into a sexual husband dominating his wife that way. 

Here again early in the film the Prince knows which side his bread is buttered on

As to the meaning, there was even less about Maggie and her father. No sense of them as somehow emotionally incestuous at all. At least the 1972 movie showed that over time if it was never explicitly acknowledged and the pair remained unblamed.  Interesting to me here is no more sex in this one than the 1972.  In the 1972 we see Daniel Massey a couple of times just about to take Gayle Hunnicutt’s clothes off and we get the sense of a long lived affair while Maggie and her father stay together. In this movie they do nearly strip and jump into bed, but the sex is done discreetly and over quick and hardly seen among bedclothes and seems only to happen once.

The actors seemed to be directed to behave too formally too.  Finally, for a 2001 film it stuck very close to classical conventions, with no disquieting uses of shots, angles, cameras, discontinuities which should have shown what was being ripped open within.

On the other hand, I had nothing against the luxuries for Verver is supposed to be super-rich, and in this film we had clips of films from the 1910s of miserable cultureless cities in the US, and also of workers working long hours in wretched conditions. We’re told they’re not keen on museums. But Verver says this is his payback. It reminded me of how at GMU we are getting so many buildings built with donors names and nothing we need (also a new horror, a hotel — erasing parking and putting up parking fees for students and teachers alike). And yet the luxuries were overdone and distracting I thought and the film clips of poverty and hardship brief and there to tell us about the father more than for themselves.  The film-makers interwove real footage from the early 20th century of bleak American cities, streets and factory life (anticipating the way in the 2003 TV Dr Zhivago footage from the Russians riots and massacres in the streets was woven in).

Arguably the most powerful moments of the film are in its savage riots of wealth and color — at balls, for example (and this kind of thing the 72 film had no budget for).  

The idea is the atavastic self under Verver comes out here.  Alas, Maggie is absolved of this.   The objets d’art are made to stand for meaning: the Prince passes by this statue —  we are to see he is the inwardly wounded, man:

They seem not to know what to do with Fanny Assingham and Bob.  Anjelica Huston is thrown away as this smooth woman, conventional but not doing the mischief because too stupid and to the side:

The comlicit Fanny saying "didn’t we agree" you would leave the Prince

She is under her husband’s thumb in this because compliant sexually:

In the 1972 film Cuzack would never enter a room so forcefully; and it is his wife (Katherine Byron above) who takes her husband to bed

No wonder laurence Raw in his Adapting Henry James to the Screen devoted only a few pages of his book to it.  Nonetheless to see the difference is instructive in film cinematography as well as content ideological change. I will come back later tonight to comment more on his take on the films as well as Diane Sadoff’s Victorian Vogue later in the week.

These two movies fit far more into my view of 18th century movies where while the pathology of family life is on the surface the interest, the driving impulse is to get at sicknesses in sex life.  The 2001 film does do more justice to the world outside the world of the wealthy; we are made to feel the other world impinging but that wealth controls and rules those outside the palaces.


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Dear friends and readers,

I’ve now watched Sandy Welch’s powerful 90 minute film rendition of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw three times, and want to recommend it strongly not just as a perceptive reading of the tale (in line with what James said of it in a later preface), but as another of this new 21st century generation of film adaptations:  like three Austen films of 2007 (Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, Mansfield Park) as well as  a slightly later group (2008-9, Cranford Chronicles, Return to Cranford, Room with a View), it’s short and done within a limited budget (one location for the house and grounds, and the rest in a studio), but at the same time intensely atmospheric, using sophisticated filmic techniques, and concentrating on a community of people, most of whom are powerless and/or vulnerable (and shown to be so), predominantly female.  The latter (the vulnerable, female, seeking refuge) includes longer ones with a larger budget (the 2008 Sense and Sensibility, the recent Emma, Little Dorrit). 

What makes it different, special, is that it’s a ghost story, and centers on a destroyed governess with tragic-poignant and scary ending. These last two seem to go together.  Ann is an Jane Eyre who is not rescued, a Lucy Morris (Trollope’s Eustace Diamonds) whose attempts to actively fight evil boomerang on her, a Mary Reilly sent to prison at the end because someone should pay for these deaths.  One might usefully compare it to Victorian gothic stories especially by women (Elizabeth Gaskell).  Partly because it is also so similar it gives shape to the group as forming a kind of cycle of films.

Arriving at the train station, Ann (Michelle Dockery), named in the film, she is unnamed in the text, greeted by the butch-female chauffeur, Baines (Wendy Albiston)


It is commentary type adaptation; it departs in a few significant ways.  James’s story opens up on a Christmas Eve in the later 19th century, a group of people are telling ghost stories, and one man remembers being told of a fearful one by a governess who has now been dead 20 years; she told him the story 20 years before that about an incident that happened in her life yet further back.  At the time of the telling she had still been respectable and had a decent place somewhere. So we move through recesses of time.

Welch’s film-story covers a brief time. We begin looking at a shattered woman in a temporary psychiatric asylum; a psychiatrist, Dr Fisher (played by the deeply empathic Dan Stevens) is taking down a deposition or questioning her.  

As can be seen from the bars and her outfit, our governess is in a temporary prison, a place meant for psychiatrically disturbed people (who we see outside in various postures of suffering

a handcuffed patient, beset by religious coercion)

where she can stay if she will only answer the questions in the way wanted. If she doesn’t manage that, she will be sent to prison to face a charge of manslaughter for the boy who has died while in her care, Miles (Josef Lindsay).  This scene of sympathetic questioning is returned to several times during the story:  a flashback told by the governess though without voice over so that once we enter into the past it feels like the present.  It both punctuates turns in the story and frames it ominously as we see Dr Fisher go to consult a man in charge of the asylum, the Professor (Corin Redgrave) who moves from hostility and suspicion of the governess to admitting she could be telling the truth to showing indifference as "someone must pay" and he doesn’t want to be bothered helping her.

His cigar is never far from him

At the close when the governess finished her story about her experience of two fearful blighted evil ghosts, the previous governess, Miss Jessel (Katie Lightfoot) and her violent lover, Peter Quint (Edward MacLiam) who (she says) were attempting to take over or else  alluring two children (who may be complicit with them or may be victims), the governess is taken away to another prison to stand trail for murder. We watched her handcuffed and put in a van.  Once walking to the professor Dr Fisher thinks he might have seen Quint in the prison hall; as he watches Ann taken away, one of the guards take on the face and form of Quint and then turns back to a nondescript man. Yes a second person seems to see one of the ghosts and believes the governess.

As seen by Dr Fisher, treated rougly, pushed

If it be thought, this is a simplication of the tale, it’s not. As dramatized we have all the ambiguity of James’s approach.  No one but the governess at Bly admits to seeing the two ghosts; when at one point Ann thinks she has seen Quint slapping Miss Jessel repeatedly and Miles slapping his sister, Flora (Eva Sayers) in imitation, after having tried to drown her (by keeping her head under water

moment of hysteria between chldren),

and made frantic, when the governess slaps Miles, the housekeeper, Sarah Grose (played briliantly by Sue Johnston) called Ann mad and appears to think the only one committing cruel violence is Ann.  Sometimes the children seem to know the ghosts are there (and grin and look complicit, mischievous spiteful looks in their faces, enjoying the governess’s aloneness and perplexity), but sometimes they seem innocent children at play and themselves lonely and bereft of protection or love and sometimes again cruel. 

There is the erotic frustration of James’s governess. We first see her visit the children’s guardian, the uncle; while telling her never to bother him, he treats her seductively and it’s clear she is attracted and longs for him to visit Bly (as he half-promises to do).  In her dream life she imagines him in her bed only to find him turning into Peter Quint.  She leads a repressed life and keeps the children under control by insisting on lessons even in summer.  She is appalled when a letter comes from Miles’s school saying that Miles is expelled for "intolerable" conduct, and it’s clear she thinks the boy did something sexual, perhaps taught that by Quint.  She takes no steps to find the boy another school; to be fair, how could she?  but she also destroys letters she had the children write their guardian about Miles’s desire to go to another school. We also see she is troubled: in her talks with Dr Fisher there are flashbacks to her father who was a bigoted religious tyrant.

An uncanny gothic atmosphere is built up, one as portentous, strangely beautiful, and chilling as James’s own. Ann plays the usual Psyche role of wandering around the dark house, which looks ruined and peeling from the outside all damp, up grand mahogany staircases with big balustrades, through narrow corridors (which repeat the angles of the aslyum corridors). Her soft white blouses (ivory, offcolor) add to her feminity and lady-like frail feel.  There’s an old grey church on the property, a flower and fennel filled grave yard in which Mrs Grose shows her the gravestones of Miss Jessel (who drowned herself – we see it re-enacted) and Peter Quint; the penultimate scene takes us back to that graveyard where Mrs Grose and Flora look at Miles’s gravestone. Peter Quint like some Dracula appears at windows to Ann and is trying to get in — reminding me of the ghost in Wuthering Heights (the book). It’s fantastical, photographed at odd angles frequently, framed by gardens, hedges, flower pots:

During the day, this is the brightest the film gets except during one boating sequence on an oneiric lake under a blue sky.

On the other hand (as in James’s tale) importantly, there is much evidence that the ghosts at least did once exist and Peter Quint at least did terrible harm. And then beyond this Welch adds to James’s story a complete community of women servants. Her changes remind me of Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly where a whole staff is added to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

and this is more than James’s story seen from below.   At least three seem to have been sexually harassed by Quint, and one woman who kills herself while Ann is there appears to have been raped. 

She seems desperate and seems about to say she is haunted, and does say Quint won’t leave them alone. 

Ann hears noises in the corridor which sound like violence towards these maids. it’s as such moments as well as when Ann goes in search of the chlidren’s rooms to see what they are doing, that Mrs Grose suddenly appears and vey frighened as if she knows the two blighted presences are in the house:

There is also much empathy in the lost way Miss Jessel’s ghost is presented; here she seems to be re-enacting being driven from the house:

On the other hand, this is not a supportive community. None of the women will openly admit they have seen ghosts.  They will not warn the governess.  They look despairing when she does (once) try to leave, but when she returns, they don’t help her.  They leave the house on the last day she tries to fight Quint on her own. Most significantly of all, Mrs Grose acts complicitly on behalf of her employer by never admitting anything she hints at.  Some may say the ending of over-the-top for we see a new governess arrive in just the way Ann had, and Mrs Grose again hand her the keys.

Where Ann saw Miles at the piano, now the new governess sees Flora who tells her "we were waiting for you, with an scary staring expression on her eyes that recalls Miles’s:

To call it feminist is not strong enough, partly because the vulnerable include Dr Fisher

Dan Steevens’ face registers the emotional pain of existence

the psychiatry system, the children, and (as in James), the governess seems to feel she has seen the face of sheer evil in Quint.  It is socially concerned, and speaks to the way mentally troubled people are being dismissed to pharmacology and bullying (called CBT or some such word) today.  It records the plight of governesses in the 19th century and women in analogous positions in today’s various worlds.  

So the emphasis is on powerless women and the two genuinely powerful people, the Professor, the uncle, the Governess’s father and prison priest, and police officers are clearly male.  The Professor disdains the governess, and the uncle-master (we are told) knew Quint harassed the women and didn’t care. If he doesn’t harass them himself, he can’t be bothered as he can get more attractive women.  I felt the key relationship (and the got star biilling) was that of the governess and housekeeper. becomes central. The housekeeper is complicit to protect herself and because (as she says — echoing Dr Fisher and even the Professor) no one cares and she at least keeps everyone seeming civilized most of the time.  Words to the effect.  But what are we to think and feel when she greets a new governess?  Is this the malicious repetivie patterns of a ghost story projecting a Kafka universe?  or a woman who lets others be abused; she dismisses the servant’s suicide with a story about how the servant was deranged because she lost so many relatives during WW1.  Maybe.

I hope I have conveyed something of the power of this one.  By contrast, the women of the Cranford Chronicles and The Return to Cranford (which I hope to write about eventually) seem to be and are powerful within their sphere.  They do support one another. They too have limits.  Martha (Claudie Blakely) dies in childbirth and it’s expected she get incessantly pregnant, and in the Return we have two young heroines who nearly don’t get the young heroes (a romance motif as the young heroes buy into the values which would keep them enclosed in their family hierarchies). Still as in the Austen films, Room with a View, Little Dorrit, the women win out

Comic harm in Return to Cranford

while in The Turn of the Screw, only some are holding on and that by knowingly letting other women take the hits.

Ann looking down at the cook and chauffeur (who might be lovers?), the cook is often caught looking with pity at the governess.

James’s preface tells us he saw the ghosts as real on some level and, "blighted fearful presences," felt for the governess, and wanted to create an atmosphere of intense evil.  All this Welch and her team tried for an succeeded in doing; perhaps there was too much emphasis on Quint as an embodiment of male vampiric nightmares as felt by the governess, but that was in line with the psychiatric perspective of Dr Fisher and the erotic dreams of the Welch’s governess in the film.

I also went looking at criticism of The Turn of the Screw, thinking to myself Welch probably did. I had no trouble finding misogynistic readings (by older Jamesian scholars, like Gordon Putt) where the governess certainly should have been put in prison as deranged, repressed, a witch-imagination. It seemed to me Welch had read Woolf on the atmosphere of the landscape.  Those which were "balanced" on whose "fault" it was (as is Britten’s opera), still did not come up with a reading as pro- the disenfranchised of society of this film. The film is in fact about our world today; where the others demonstrate the strength of community, this shows its limitations. 

Archetypal Madonna and boy

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Dear friends and readers,

I’ve just finished reading Lilian Whiting’s Kate Field:  A Record, a thickish book during the day, partly in response to reading Robert Polhemus’s essay in the volume I’m reviewing on two stories by Anthony Trollope (Politics of Gender in Anthony Trollope), and partly because Kate Field is an important 19th century figure for people interested in women writers, especially from a feminist standpoint. 

Kate Field lived a feminist life, stayed single, went about lecturing, and mingled with independent interesting people in English colonies around Europe.  I can see Whiting is in love with her or was — Whiting was one of these spiritualists and thought Kate came to visit her after Kate died (well everyone but has their weakness), and as I read I begin to wonder if Kate was bisexual and that one reason she never married.

Kate Field, by Frank Millet (1881)

She supported herself by giving lectures, common in the US then (no TV, no radio, no central city after the east coast): we see her forced to make something of a fool of herself in absurd costumes; she did it and was a success


Read alertly there emerges the portrait of a family trying to live differently. Her grandfather an Irish publisher who came to the US; her father an actor of real aspiraction and her mother an actress, living on the edge and falling off now and again.  Real intelligence and decent humane values. What strikes me with what I know of Trollope is the real heterodoxy of these lives (I’ve read enough of 19th centuruy American memoirs to know how philistine, materialistic were the average and the elite yet worse).   This depiction of the life of these theatre and publishing people in the US is more frank than most — for Whiting reprints many letters and includes details of struggle to make ends meet, of people pressuring one another to praise and place their work, get jobs, for the life of people who "boarded" (lived in boarding houses) and then rented a house.  The Kate’s mother lived with the her parents on and off to make ends meet; they had but two children (so contraception used) and one died. Taht left just Kate to support the mother when the father died.

Kate emerges as really gifted and an original spirit.  She was important to and for Dickens too; there she openly acknowledged the relationship.  As I say, she’s an important 19th century figure for people interested in women writers from a feminist standpoint too, for she lived a feminist life — she really is analogous to Trollope’s mother.

It’s a profound book. On one level, Whiting has made me ashamed of believing that Kate Field was somehow shallow, second rate, a minor woman indeed.  She reprints great swatches of Field’s diaries, her letters and pieces from her writing.  Yes she never produced the big masterpiece: reason, largely she did not manage to rise in the way Sutherland in his book Novelists and Publishers said one must: above the publisher, in control of one’s writing. Only two English women did:  Polly Lewes (aka George Eliot), largely the result of Lewes, and Elizabeth Gaskell.

I’m loving it — it brings the later 19th century independent woman alive. She is a feminist. She waxes indignant at the stereotypes imposed on her. She was driven against repression and her own upbringing to lecture. There was much money in it; it was time-consuming but except for 50 pounds from an uncle (who she defied or she wuold have had plenty) she has to make her way supporting herself and invalid mother.

Now she is not a lesbian. There are two enigmatic letters to another man who she was in love with; he has treated her very shabbily.  She has nothing in the money or prestige realm to attract him sufficiently.   Whiting seems to me in love with her; she and Whiting (or Whiting alone) just adore Elizabeth Barrett Browning; in that women’s works they find their exaltation and standard and comfort.  You will learn a lot about the lives of this class of woman when highly intelligent, gifted, going around in the "best" circles.

The book gets one into Dickens since she wrote more about her relationship with him, her Pen portraits and connections than she does to others — except for Trollope. Yes there are these references to meeting Mr Trollope.  She met him at a very impressionable time: her father just dead and she escapes to Florence with her aunt and uncle and there at the core of the group are the Trollopes.  Anthony begins to be mentioned separately. She meets him again apparently seeing him on and off for two weeks in DC and mentions other times.  Her letters to him were all destroyed by him. Only a very few of hers to him have survived, in number like Vittoria Colonna’s to Michelangelo — they remind me of these.

I’m not sure about the affair with Trollope myself — first her attitude of mind is so different from any of the heroines. She  is deeply romantic in spirit, idealistic, strong individual thinking, high aspiration. This kind of tone is alien from Trollope.  On the other hand, her form of conventionality, her despising of over commercialism, her own more conservative values (she’s not really anti-slavery in just the way Trollope is) fits him, so too the cosmopolitansim, dislike of the lies of ceremony. I can see the friendship’s basis.  Even love — especially if you bring his week as written up in Washington and think of his higher ideals presented through satire and occasionally forthrightly ni his work.

Whiting’s revealing "record" stuffed with letters, and excerpts from Field’s diary, journalism) and also two essays by Sharnhorst (who has written the modern biography) tells you that Field was a central important journalist of her time. The kind of phrases we see online on wikipedia which call her work "eccentric" is the usual dismissal of a woman: she was not eccentric at all.  She was mainstream. She did write a book, on an Italian actress who acted in the US, Ristori, a biography which has not been in print for some time and is forgotten   She did not write the kind of learned articles Eliot and Oliphant did because they were not wanted by US journals; she didn’t write at length because she never did get a sustaining job as an editor or regular contributor.  It was actually much harder to do this in the US, and so she had to spend a lot of time networking to get the next writing job. She also spent a lot of time traveling — and probably had lovers too.  She was a very modern woman. All this takes time.

That Trollope loved her speaks very well of him. I come away saying what everyone else does:  his love for this woman and respect for you goes against his repeated anti-feminism in his books, especially his insistence no woman’s life is worth living who isn’t married and with children.  He did write one letter that was kept where he urges her to marry.  But he wrote many others which have been destroyed. Always the ones one wants to read are those which are not put into print and destroyed.

James was a thorough anti-feminist in the way of Trollope: disliked competition really and he loathed the journalistic world which did reveal private lives of artists — for what the public did with these lives. And so Stackpole is shown to be a caricature of Field in a second article I share today.

She was a sceptical careerist despite her stance of idealism and sentimentality — it was a way to sell.  And so Dickens was for her someone to admire centrally but also a career choice — to write and especially to lecture about him (in lecturing there was much money and that’s another way she lost time to writing something we could today read). I got no sense he had been someone she loved. 

She had some radical stances. She supported John Brown and was responsible for a memorial set up there.  She supported Charles Bradlaugh, a man who was open about his atheism and was continually kicked out of parliament. The behavior towards him reminds me of the US congress towards the black member, Adam Clayton Powell and in the 18th century parliament’s attitude towards Wilkes.


Wikipedia gives a wholly false view of her. She was on the stage briefly and having no success stopped.  Even the photo misrepresents her as masculine — which she wasn’t in appearance at all.

Reading about Kate Field’s life of Adelaide Ristori, a rival to Rachel, I was curious to look at wikipedia articles. Rachel is a fascinating figure.  Ristori became associated with Marie Antoinette after she played the part in the US (Marie Antoinette exercises an inexplicable fascination for Americans to the point, Christina Stead, thorough going communist and radical wrote her unfinished book about an author writing a life of Antoinette which includes a piece of said imagined life, I’m Dying Laughing.

Ristori as a tragic actress: perhaps Mary Stuart?

the surface text is still all idealistic effusion, but the letters included show the difficulties of Field’s life, and hint at things sufficiently. For example, Field couldn’t succeed in an acting career because of terrific prejudice against women acting — if she wanted to continue being respectable, a journalist interested in public causes, and yet she needed the money she could get. So she wavered back and forth.

She did not want to marry. This comes out again and again. We are told she loved two men and given the letters of one who originally jilted her and then when he came back, she refused him. She had seen his inner self and values too much and writes she thinks marriage with him would be bad because of what he is. (Remarkable letter.)   Later in life after she lost her money from the phone shares he offers to help here.  She all her life refused her uncle’s money because the bargain was she would leave public life. When she is in her later 40s, this same offer is still made. How her aunt and uncle could offer such stiflement is starlting; it shows how little her public life was respected by the dull elves of the world.

Who is the second man?  We are not told.  Scharnhost thinks AT and through the years before Trollope is dead again and again there are notes of their meetings, not often to be sure but doing it — he points out how odd it is that all her letters to Trollope have been destroyed, most of her references to him and his long two week meeting with her covered up.

Scharnorst’s book which I’ve not read as yet

She dislikes the lies of funerals and her attitude towards graves reminded me of how Trollope was for cremation. 

She had to get herself  up as a woman.  In the album I put a dramatic theatrical picture of her (for Trollope19thCStudies it’s in individual photos) where she looks slightly ridiculous so overmelodramtic and sentimental is the get-up.  She’s in her forties and getting heavier top. She knew how to network and did present a face that was expected.

Very important were her women friends to her, and she visited and lived with people who were high culture and powerful again and again.  This is not easy to pull off; this aspect of her selling herself is kept from us in the book.

As she grows older, the tone goes stronger.

She made a great "killing" in the invention of the telephone. She pushed for it in journalism and was sold shares at a cheap rate which then went hammering up. For several years she was a rich lady, and then she did a remarkable thing: she opened a huge department store meant to be a cooperative. She would sell inexpensive dresses manufactured quickly at reasonable prices.  She herself hated and never did the endless sewing other women did — what a waste of time. (Austen says in one letter her dream is never having to sew a man’s shirt again, having ready made things — words to this effect, something never mentioned when people go ga-ga over her satin stitch.) She hired women employees only. The venture failed because her norms were still aristocratic int he way she set the shop up.  She did provide chairs for her employees to sit down in. The sad reality is upper class women came and they want expensive exclusive clothing and don’t care if it doesn’t easily fit.

She began a campaign against polygamy — a fierce one.  It’s noticeable that after 1882 when Anthony Trollope died, she stops her annual trips to London and takes trips west.  She went to Utah and what she saw horrified her. Alas Whiting won’t tell such details and what got into the newspapers was censored. Probably very young girls in effect sold to older men who could beat and enslave them sexually, inflict endless children on them.  Field got nowhere really because here no one would interfere with the sacred family-private life, but she did try. Here one does find letters from men (always men) refusing to give her space to lecture, suddenly ont he grounds she’s a woman. Trollope took a "mysterious" visit to Utah we are told in all the biographies. Another visit to the US we don’t know about at all, or why he went. Hmmm

Back to her general politics:  we can see so much done for women, meaning well, and yet publicly she was against suffrage.  She was brave very brave — we don’t hear about what sexual harrassment she must have known at all. But she didn’t cross lines in public.

Howells’ A Foregone Conclusion was a favorite novel for Field. It takes place in Italy and reminds me of Henry James:  Americans abroad in Europe is the surface feel.  Also anticipating Forster.

I can see why Trollope loved and admired  her. I was interested to see that his paragraph on her with his characterization of her as a "ray of light" that "strikes a spark" deep within him is on the antepenulate page of this book; so too did Robert Hughes end his masterpiece (a book important for our time), The Fatal Shore with Trollope’s description of a prisoner he saw in a cottage near a prison camp this man had spent his life in as a transported imprisoned laborer.  Chilling and not shocking because commonplace in what a life of such horror could bring to someone who endured it.

I feel the cruelty of Henry James’s Henrietta Stackpole caricature strongly and if Scharnhorst is right and everyone at the time saw it, this would be one of those "slings and arrows" Whiting mentions, only a few of which she describes or reproduces. The stilted inaccurate wholly unreal wikipedia article shows that since Kate Field didn’t fit any prescription then and lived outside norms so she still doesn’t fit them so you can’t categorize her and put her in an agenda like a number of her friends (Jeanette Gilder, journalist and editor out of her connection with her family –http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeannette_Leonard_Gilder; Lucy Stone, suffragette and so on).

There’s an odd double text going on in the book which comes out more and more towards the end. On the surface and literally there is this continual celebration. Look how many powerful, intelligent, radical, cultivated people are having her over to dinner, are giving her funds, are going to cultivated events with her. How much she is enjoying life. How involved in good causes she is. She dies in Hawaii having gone there in an attempt to find out about it (her two last trips remind me of Trollope’s last to Iceland — she goes to remote places and attempts to help people by writing about them) and very weak, sick, having lost more money again in a 5 year effort of publishnig a magazine important at the time, kate Field’s Washington, in DC. We are told how many people are around her as she dies — of pneumonia and apparently from neglecting herself.  At the same time we are told how alone she is; under the cheer is depression.  That’s the second script: how alone she is, the struggle, how she is ever on the edge of disaster economically or plunges in.  Because this is a Victorian book Whiting will not explain what she asserts: how many people criticized Field for her unconventionality and how and why this hurt, but she repeats it happened again and again.  She captures this dual story in utterances towards the end of the book like "Our real life is with most of us the life we do not live" (p. 575).


A few more realities about her last years:  she fought polygamy (called "Utah’s problem) because she feared it would spread.  She saw polygamy in other countries.  In her lectures she did describe what she saw but Whiting only quotes lines like this "would spread brutalization of men debilitation of women."  I remembered a famous case a few years ago where in an area of fundamentalist religion either in or near Utah, a woman drowned her five children; she was mentally troubled and after the second child the doctors told the husband to not insist she have more; he wouldn’t listen and I read in the courtroom it was clear he was a "dense patriarch" and seen as at fault.  She fought for preventing Utah from getting statehood until polygamy was declared against the law.  I don’t know that she got explicit legislation. She also wanted a a national marriage law (p 451) to protect women (and men too) from bigamy and exploitation and abuses.  One that would prevent coerced marriage and wife and children abuse.  Some Utahans (not Mormons) supported her (p. 463); she joined a women’s relief organization and tried to nationalize it.

Early versions of women’s sheltered and other protective legislation. ERA might have hurt such progressive steps as exist and that’s one reason it was understandably voted down. Who would put their fate in the supreme court’s hands then or now?

She supported very radical people again.  Willam Stead:

Like Trollope she was for cremation and unlike him was able to get herself cremated. She had no relatives to protest (see the above on this dual story in this biography). For Kate there is much evidence of strong scepticism and atheism especiall disbelief in Bible exists with belief in spiritual realm (Trollope once went to a seance I recall); it’s Whiting who turns her into this mystic p 553.

On more general social activities: She actually tried to set up a bureau to help people get jobs in the UK!  (pd. 501-2). This outraged the privileged and powerful — they always know that unemployment helps them. At the time there were very few ways someone could get a job without connections; a new system of tests and meritocracy had begun in the UK; and the first movements towards civil service reform, but only a few steps. (Thanks to Mr Carter we now have a destroyed government service, turned back to coteries.) Finally she did come out as a suffragette, but only later in life (p. 504).

Arts;  She and friends worked hard in the UK at setting up the Shakespeare sites at Stratford; they were mocked for wantiing to have the theater there.  She travelled a lot (like Trollope) and after France and Italy and the American west (as I suggested towards the end imitating Trollope) Alaska.

Late in life on a Western Tour (which she describes the difficulties of in her revealing Hap-Hazard (available in facsimile reprint)
I can see how small the elite world in the US was too.  For example, when she died, around her was Mabel Loomis Todd (editor of Emily Dickinson’s papers) who was on her way with husband to do some research; also her paid companion, Anna Paris.

The last 7 years include the 5 year stint as a self-engineering creator and editor of a paper: Kate Field’s Washington. As a woman she couldn’t get anyone to hire her as editor or regular contributor so she made a paper of her own. In the reprints of the writing from it I can see there is no tradition of high learning or intellectuality in US periodicals like those in the UK of the day (in which Oliphant wrote, Lewes, Eliot).  The anti-intellectual character of the US even then comes out. Its distrust of high art — so she has to vulgarize and can’t write what she would like – -she writes about this in separate letters. It was during this time she tried to set up a bureau for getting people jobs and also worked with a group of people to being the National Gallery. Like Trollope in his essay on the UK National Gallery, she wanted to see American works on its walls, American works honored.

She did create her own social capital and lived and made money out of it. Could not have had Aspergers.  She knew how people wanted to use her and how to use them without alerting them too strongly to it. I think that’s the ticket to successful social life: knowing intuitively how others want to use you in ways that really matter to them.

Her writing was daring: she actually criticized strongly Tolstoi’s Kreutzer’s Sonata – coming out as a unmarried woman on behalf of sexual life.  Whiting says her close reading of this book was unusual and created a stir and sold papers.

She wrote non-traditionally (this reminds me of myself) and one reason she’s not recognized; I mentioned how such a life of continually networking for support and writing for the public left little time for masterpieces. but also she conceived of writing as fundamentally social; she wrote to create movements (p. 516). Imitating Stead (and Michael Moore today) she did create her material for stories. Whiting who loves her says she "lived intensely in the present, "du jour au jour" (p. 545)

Again and again she doesn’t want to marry; doesn’t care to; would rather be alone than in a cold relationship.  The second unnamed lover (Trollope would be the other) comes around at stated intervals (pp. 191-93, 275-76, 413-16). She makes an eloquent statement on the joys she gets from the life she has. A close woman friend who stayed at home Whiting says is responsible for having this cache of letters. I wondered if it was Whiting, but it dosen’t quite fit. Very touching is the reproduction of one of Field’s letters so you see her handwriting and the intensities of affection towares this supportive friend she apparently wrote daily (p. 456) for 15 to 17 years.

Here are her comments on Mary Ward’s Robert Elsmere to this beloved supportive friend (p. 461)

Robert Elsmere is all you claim for it.  I am deeply moved by it and am more indebted to you than you can think.  What a study it is!  How great, how earnest, how artistic.  Nothing slighted, and the broad mind does the suffering as usual, and finds little sympathy at home. What a tragedy (p. 416).

She also liked Oliphant, stories of unseen and seen, especially "Lady Mary" (about the unretrievablity of what happens, an anti-Christmas Carol tale).


I conclude on Kate Field’s Pen Portraits of Dickens on tour and lecturing:

I can see why it’s in print: it seems to me that she captures a key note feel, qualities and turn of mind and attitude as seen by later Victorians and quite a number of people today too in each of Dickens’s texts that he acted portions out of.  Each sketch is a kind of distillation of the particular novel under question. It seems that Dickens chose texts that sort of epitomized qualities in his book he wanted to project strongly, and texts that conveyed some of his own personal obessions and hurts (one as a writer) and put these together.

I do emphasize as seen by Victorians. I do not mean she is not alive to the social criticism and reform themes of his novels. She emphasizes these, but rather she is not that subtle and is a woman of her time. So she discussed Doctor Marigold in a way that obscures it’s about child abuse, and is not sensitive to the idea that deaf people are as equal as non-deaf; is a text about how people who have abnormal conditions (like they are too tall) and makes fun of this.  She misses things that stare out at us. For me I see she is amused by precisely the kind of joke in Dickens I can’t take – at the vulnerable (Bob Sawyer’s Party would not amuse me), and she is susceptible to sentimental slosh (a Christmas story where there’s a character who is a Boots called Cobb).

She frames it by telling of the great excitement to get tickets. How people waited in line for hours. She puts herself in the scene as a rare woman getting tickets for herself on her own. She only got in through influence to the particular place she describes — which is small.  It seems it was rare for women to wait on line publicly that way. That night though there were many women in the audience and in particular many upper class respected members of the local population.

Very interesting was her quoting Dickens (and others) objections to the use of their texts in Victorian times to make plays out of to make money — just like today film-makers take texts fro this. Dickens complained (as did Trollope — Trollope got infuriaited at what was done to Ralph the Heir — and without his permissio and without promising compensation first) that his texts were ruined and new material invented. Well in Dickens’s presentation of Nicholas Nickleby he did the same. He made new writing which was more suitable for the stage to project what he wanted understood.  Field knew the novels very well (in her diary you can see her reading and rereading them) and can pick out what’s not in the novels. ( See p. 35 of 1998 Whiston Publishing edition of Pen Portraits).

in her description of Dickens’s readings from and of Mrs Gamp she shows he did what film-adaptors do: he takes speeches from one character and gives them to another, rearranges, takes tidbits here and there, this to convey the central aspect of Mrs Gamp which apparently on stage was redolent of pragmatic realism and pity — especially over her invented friend, Mrs Harris — who I remember her as talking to all the time. Lonely woman, Mrs Gamp.

As a woman who made money lecturing and doing theatrical presentations she is so alive to how Dickens is a showman presenting himself.  He would stand behind a dark colored skrim, had gas lights and gas pipes aimed at him with reflectors. He was presenting his face and figure to best advantage consciously frequently.  She is disappointed he is not handsomer (!) and somehow expected him to look different (this is a common experience I suppose) but adjusts and in the end talks of his wonderful varied expression-filled face and voice.

For myself as someone who listens to books read aloud a lot and often love it, I appreciate something she does that I’ve rarely done in talking on the Net about listening to books: she repeatedly brings out how listening to someone enact a text provides a new richer meaning, a new tone, and how you somehow (I do) respond more alertly to lots of things you might not in silent reading.  For example in her telling of Dickens’s doing Dombey and Son (courageous because this was done with full sense of the grim tragedy of the book, not for light amusement), she says how Dickens can make a face, pronounce a word, and suddenly "its significance dawns upon me, and I behodl that nurse in all manner of situations, with all manner of people."  (See particularly pp. 42-43).

I feel this with some of the readers I’ve listened to. Glenda Jackson reading Austen’s Persuasion forever changed my sense of Austen’s presentation of Mrs Penelope Clay.  Jackson brought out the sexuality of the woman and Austen’s empathy with her. It’s really there.  David Case is a superb adder to books as narrator in this way.

Alas, Dickens didn’t like this book that much. He told her he was enthusiastic and would do what he could to publish it, and then told her the publisher was against it.  There’s a discreet letter from Trollope telling her the truth he found out: Dickens was against her publishing it, and had someone in mind to do all his lectures (that other book is published, Charles Kent’s Charles Dickens as a Reader, available as a google book which you can buy if you really want to read it). Trollope really did try to help her, but no go; she published in the US, and only years later brought out a second fuller edition. Her book is slender partly because Dickens gave her no help — even if he was courteous and flirty in his letter.

Just on Robert Polhemus’s essay in Politics of Gender, ed. DMMorse and MMarkwick:  it’s on two remarkable short stories by Trollope; "Ride Across Palestine" and "Mary Gresley," the first with open sexuality that is homoerotic and heterosexually transgressive in all sorts of ways, the second about a woman author bullied and traumatized into destroying her work and going to live as a missionary and dying for her pains.  Both masterworks according to Polhemus, and partly intriguing for the sexualities dramatized in them as well as autobiograhical content.  He uses the paradigm of Lot and again very discreetly wrote a book about Lot’s Daughters as well as Erotic Faith in real relationships and novels showing emotional incest between older men and younger women as important to the successes of the women’s lives, their outlook and for the men’s fulfillment.  I know whereof he speaks.

Polhemus is too careful to say this (even today) but it seems to me he is one of those who sees it as obvious, inevitable that not only did Trollope love Kate Field and he her, but they had some sort of physical affair.  I’ve put in the Trollope19thCStudies files an essay which might make some laugh where Gary Scharnhorst shows a pattern of destruction of all letters and not mentioning one another and a kept-quiet time together in Washington DC (a time which is registered by the inexplicable depression of the chapter in his North America_ written after he and Kate had to part), the sections on Washington DC recorded here in one of those discussions this list used to have and put on line

The silence and awkwardness and insistence the affair has to be physically unconsummated reminds me of the way Trollope’s mother’s trip, Frances Trollope with Hervieu is still portrayed by some as her wa of setting up her middle son, Henry in life.

Polhemus like many wants to see a number of Trollope’s most famous portraits in his fiction as of Field. I doubt it.  The "Ophelia" story is the only one and there he trumpets the connection; his memories of her might enter into his portraits of flirtation witty American heroines, but the typing is still strongly redolent of novels, and Lily Dale, Lady Mason, and Mary Gresley are characters who retreat, who want out, very different at the core; Gresley ends up as Jane Eyre might have had she married Eyre, a mistake I can see Field would never have gotten near, for she never would have gone for such a bigoted tyrant in the first place.


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Dear Friends,

This is the second of three blogs on Azar Nafisi’s memoirs. The first two are on Reading Lolitan in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. The first consists of an account of her life, of the general themes of the book, and summary and evaluation of Parts 1 and 2, the first briefly telling of Nafisi and her girls in 1997 and at length their discussion of Nabokov in the context of 1995 (the year they read it); and the second on her return to Iran in 1979/80, the early phases of the revolution, and her teaching at the University various classics (including Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary), but she really concentrates on Ftizgerald’s The Great Gatsby and her students’ reponse to this book in the context of the years 1980 to about 1982.

Now I’ll speak of Parts 3 and 4. In brief, Part 3 takes place in the later phase of the revolution, when the state of Iran became an Islamic theocracy and went to war with Iraq, together with the crushing of all dissent through terrorizing citizens (murdering them, depriving them of any civil rights), the turn back to Sharia law and determined attempt to make women become instruments of men (be only mothers, wives, daughters, sisters) and contain any reaching for self-fulfillment, especially to insist they wear the burka whenever they leave the house. During this time she reads Henry James’s novels and letters with her students. She also leaves the university, is drawn back and then again quits the university (or is forced out) because she won’t obey all the rules.

Part 4 takes us to the earliest phase of her time with her 7 chosen women and 1 male student. Apparently they began with Jane Austen, and this section concentrates on Pride and Prejudice and how Austen’s books speak to the private lives of her female students. At its close Nasrinn, one of her students flees into the unknown, and she and her husband and family pack and flee to the US. I’ll end on brief assessment of theme of heroic teacher.

Azar Nafisi lecturing recently

A lacunae: she never explains how it happened that her father, an ex-Mayor of Tehran was imprisoned and for a long while and never killed; she never explains why she and her husband were not imprisoned. Who did she know? what did her father know? What were her husband’s contacts? Who protected her and her famiy. We are never given the slightest inkling. One does not expect to be told outright, but something should have been conveyed — if only in the later sequel, Things I’ve been Silent About, which I will talk about in a third blog.

Part 3: James

This section the most complicated of the book. We weave back and forth between narratives of what is happening politically at large and to Nafisi personally as a teacher and to her friends and associates personally, and her teaching and readings of James. It begins in 1980 and ends in 1989, with the death of Khomeini

Plot summary of the autobiographical and political events:

These chapters deal with the time when Nafisi was teaching at the university before setting up her women’s reading group in her home In the university, they seem to have a set course, to be on a certain direction without having other things to worry about, such as marriage or moving to another country. This even seems to be true of Nafisi. She also talks of Henry James as a man who lived through the American civil war and World War One, and she tells a great deal about those who variously suffered from the war: by being fired, by torture, by death, by persecution I’m artficially separating out the politics and autobiography here. In the next section I’ll talk about James’s novels.

It’s a transitional time from the early take-over by the Imams to the increasingly repressive tactics once they are firmly in power; we see the attempt of Mrs Rezvan (p. 179) to keep university going (she hangs onto and keeps the department going at any price), and she persuades Nafisi to return to the classroom as she feels irrelevant. Her magician (possibly her boyfriend, the ex-professor she describe sin Part 1) encourages her, besides she wants to be useful. She does not want to be like her other friend, Laleh. It’s not enough to go to classes to read Persian literature; writing articles for learned journals is not enough.

Here we get the descriptions of strip searching. She is accused of being adulterous (slander notes — typical of such eras; her husband encourages her to return.

The War between Iran and Iraq begins on p. 204, Chapter 19. Government has not done anything really to protect its citizens; has not prepared, pp. 207-9. Boys given a key to heaven. City resigned.

Chapter 27 begins with Nafisi going to visit her magician friend by invitation and the friend’s apartment being in order but he not being there. The incident emphasizes the possibility that any of their lives could change at any moment: that they could be arrested or that they could be drawn elsewhere without any ability to tell others what has happened. Nafisi calls this person’s best friend when she can no longer stand to wait by herself. She then picks up T.S. Eliot’ s Four Quartets (mid-20th century highly-respected meditative poetry) and reads about time.

Nafisi brings out in this scene one of the greatest charms of poetry or any literature, that revisiting a favorite passage can bring back the past when one first encountered it. It encapsulates the emotions of the past and the present. The friend suddenly returns and tells the tale of having gone with the a young man (a kid) to bury his grandmother who was of a religion without an official presence in Iran. The boy has a ludicrous struggle to bury his grandmother; this provides an ironic contrast to the got-up funeral of Khomeini and all the hysterias around funeral parades. He has also been forced out of a good education and now has no prospects because he won’t change his religion.

In chapter 28 Nafisi recounts watching American videos that were brought by a friend. She herself reads mysteries during the bombing. I have come across this idea that mysteries are ways of escaping the present again and again. When it’s Christie, I understand as it’s tongue-in-cheek in a way; but recent mysteries can be distressing; on the other hand, most of the time the "bad" guys are caught, pay for their crime and the establishment reasserts its power.

She says she sleeps with or near her children as the bombs hit nightly, moves her class to a lower floor so they can retreat to the basement during a bombing, and reports that after a raid, military marches are played negating any resumption of literary discussion.

Chapter 29 recounts the cease-fire in March 1988 when the universities closed. It is somewhat difficult to differentiate her students; she herself wants to protect them. She also often doesn’t think of people as individuals but as typifying something or belonging to a certain role in her life.. For example, she writes p. 233, "The Iraqi dictator was by now a household name, almost as familiar as Khomeini, for he had nearly as much control over our lives." She mentions his control, but doesn’t mention his name; of course, it is Saddam Hussain. In this chapter and the next two, Nafisi recounts the missile attacks on Tehran.

In chapter 30 she visits with Mina (whose brother was murdered early on and who is now working as a translator of genuine integrity, living in a much smaller house with her mother) and she writes eloquently: "It is only now, when I try to gather up the morsels of those days, that I discover how little, if ever, we talked about our personal lives–about love and marriage and how it felt to have children, or not to. It seemed as if, apart from literature, the political had devoured us, eliminating the personal or private" (237). I suppose this is fitting for James.

In this chapter we see how the personal becomes political; for women throughout the book, the political is personal.
During this time she finds herself under personal attack: she is accused of adultery, and poisonous letters circulated about her.

A great deal in this part is given over to showing us how it feels to be in a land where the leaders are conducting a cruel war and you have no say: the atmosphere and edicts enter the crevices of your mind and experience. Nafisi hoards, reads mysteries, lives in the basement.

The war comes to an end. Yet, "the war with the external enemy was over, but the war with the domestic one was not" (239).

In the classroom Nafisi’s remaining students are the committed modern ones They begin to resembles the group that will assemble in her home; some of them are there now. She writes: "Gradually, the real protagonists in class came to be not my regular students, although I had no serious complaints again them, but these others, the outsiders, who came because of their commitment to the books we read" (240)

In chapter 33 she describes the death and funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini. I remember reading about this at the time and was intrigued by her description of the millions who attend the funeral, mostly for the free food and drink despite the fact that the government thought of having a secret funeral for fear no one would come. She also describes the crowd rushing the grave and grabbing part of his covering so that he had to be removed and covered with another shroud — all very unseemly for a funeral. But mostly that day seems remarkable in that his end made little difference to the way they were living in Tehran. But the huge parade and crush testifies to wild irrationality of these kinds of public events and they are used to fuel political riots — as people get very emotional over beloved dead people.

In any event, in the final chapters, the classroom is interrupted by an incident in the corridor: a young man has doused himself with gasoline and lit himself on fire and run through the hall shouting revolutionary slogans. "It was ironic that this man, whose life had been so determined by doctrinal certainty, would now gain so much complexity in death" (253). Nafisi is trying to sum up the importance that she feels in recording the courage of her students.

There has been an utter disjunction between what people really feel comfortable with as social norms and what is enforced through terror.

Henry James

Henry James as a young man

James is relevant as someone who lived through two terrible wars and who wrotes novels defending living lives of integrity despite the cost. He retreated, was an exile, was "a perfectly equipped failure" in some ways, chose to try to live "all he could’ — privately;that he is refused to follow conventions and seek success as it was defined in his world (p. 201). Her experiences teaching James in this atmosphere begin at Chapter 15, p 194.

Chapter 35 (p. 249) contains the general account of James, the context in which we are to see him. She begis by summing up James, talking about the different kinds of courage in his works: Daisy Miller who is not afraid of conventions and traditions, Catherine Sloper who stands up to the people in her life, Strether who through imagination can empathize with others. I suggest that this is what Nafisi sees herself doing in this book.

She goes over two novels in more detail: Daisy Miller and Washington Square as books in themselves; she refers to many others as they are relevant. A student tortured and executed, p. 218: James is quoted, p. 219. The definition of success depends on what a society wants. A successful warrior; the point is this kind of success is what James never wanted, p. 201. In our society we’d have to include selling junk at high prices.

To some extent the misreadings in this chapter remind me of how lots of people can misread — because you have to read through the irony and also be sophisticated enough to know that no one is all good and how to define what is good in the world. A Mr Ghomi thinks Daisy evil and deserves to die, p 195. The kind of reader who does not see him or herself in the characters but judges them as an oracle.

The description and discussion of Daisy Miller (pp. 194-200, Chapters 15-18). For a detailed account of the book and film, go to my blog Costume Drama, 1960s to 80s: Daisy Miller and The Europeans, " Nafisi describes Daisy Miller as a novel about what happens is a young girl defies mores and goes out with men without a chaperone; this is enough to isolate her because she is also American, not fully upper class; in the end she is ostracized and therefore gets more and more involved; she dies of malaria because she has gone out at night.

Daisy and Mr Winterbourne look into dungeon at Chillon: people throw down there to die (a parallel with what’s happening in Iran then)

The second other short novel: Washington Square the more subversive book: about how parents can play adversarial role as well as supportive, or maybe rather. Catherine Sloper’s father dislikes her: she is heavy, awkward, not what he wanted; there is a power struggle as he condemns and stops a young man from marrying her whom he calls an adventurer. He probably was. It’s about the coldness and indifference of human beings.

Plain Catherine

The bully father and foolish aunt

It’s to Nafisi about the courage it takes to say no to what others wants for you but you do not want.

This was Reziah’s favorite book (Chs 26, pp. 222-225), the girl who was imprisoned, tortured and killed. Another analogy i found in Mina’s life and decisions: she was: someone who quit, making tiny bits of money translating; a book is written for someone and you feel like writing it because you know you have a publisher and audience. There’s a courage to die and a courage to live.

Nafisi speaks of Catherine as the heroine of this novella because she has heart, dignity and compassion. Although she is not pretty nor particularly witty, she rises above her father who has intellect, her lover who has beauty, and her aunt who tries to manipulate a marriage that would have demeaned Catherine. Catherine, according to Nafisi, is the only one who grows. They grow from the mistakes. I can think of Isabelle Archer in James’s Portrait of a Lady, and the daughter in James’s The Golden Bowl who judge so incorrectly, but who can rise above their errors and triumph in their compassion. self-respect is the important ingredient for James’s triumphant characters.

So perhaps Razieh may have triumphed over her heartless executioners after all — but hardly one most people would be content to have.

Key character in James is often the character who retreats to make a sanctuary somewhere, e.g., Clare in The American, p. 169. "Their essential (real) life goes underground.

She brings back James’s real life and quotes his letters: we see the involvement of his family with a civil war: in the face of the brutal inhumanity of what goes on, James, like Whitman he visits hospitals (p. 214); during World War One, James says the deaths are so horrific, that you must make a counterreality (p 216). Many people did ignore or tried to, but so many died and all these deaths affected those not fighting. She weaves back and forth between increasing death, despair, to the point a student sets himself on fire, and she asks what literature can bring to an understanding of it.

James is quoted as a witness the way none of her other authors are – directly. His actual texts (rather than Nafisi’s readings) are offered for insights on the human condition; for example James on the death of Rupert Brooke, a sensitive good man, poet, in a hideous battle:

"’I confess that I have no philosophy, nor piety nor patience, no art of reflection,’ he wrote, ‘no theory of compensation to meet things so hideous, so cruel, and so mad, they are just unspeakably horrible and irremediable to me and I stare at them with angry and almost blighted eyes (p. 219)

A mural by John Singer Sergeant, just after 1918, showing men gassed in battle. Nafisi wants us to imagine the horrors of the Iraq and Iran war (we may remember the US using FAE bombs on people in trenches in Kuwait: they were just burned to cinders). We have no pictures of the tortured peple.

Major theme in book is empathy. Novels extend the sympathetic imagination. Nobility to disregard social demands often ends in disaster, and women in especial danger. Still problen with Winterbourne is he lacked empathy (she would have appreciated more of my esteem he finally says at the close). No one but Cattherine Sloper in Washiing Square has empathy but she has to learn not to act on it. So when she says early on she was so upset at the "persistent lack of kindess" set up by relationships and norms in the society, she’s not ironic. No one can love Catherine Sloper herself or even pretend to; the later is what is most often done.

This is then she connects to execution of one of her studnets: murdered (p 218). Razieh was a student she had who was imprisoned, probably tortured (it’s easy enough) and then executed. Nassrin is the one who is repeatedly raped, passing her from one guard to another. p. 218 (that’s her good behavior); she does survie. Prison life. Do we know what goes on in US jails which are privatized? It’s said women’s jails are horrific places when it comes to sexual abuse. (An episode in Moore’s movie, Capitalism: A Love Story is about how teenagers were put in a concrete prison for little cause in a town in Pennsylvania when a corrupt politician allowed a capitalist to build one; only years later was it closed down. Think of all the misery and destroyed lives that happened there.

Now we hear bout the missiles, university closed down; it’s a matter of time before she too must go underground again.

Stand back a bit: This book is about Nafisi’s experiences with the government and university administrator’s under the Islamic dictatorship in Iran. It is also about her relationships with Mr. Bahri and The Magician – much less about her husband and children – more abouther students.

In this section, there is so much ambiguity. James tests his main characters in such subtle ways. Winterbourne certainly has enough coldness to kill the physically fragile Daisy; yes, he does make a grave mistake about her. Larger issue of failure and exile: Nafisi has an interesting take on failures in literature: Nabokov’s Pnin, Bellow’s Herzog, Fitgerald’s Gatsby and most of James’s and Bellow’s favorite characters. Says Nafisi, "They are people who consciously choose failure in order to preserve their own sense of integrity." What happens when you fall into a corrupted relationship and cannot escape: that’s what happens to his Portrait of a Lady where the lady stays because of the vicious man’s daughter and her own powerlessness.

Nicole Kidman as Isobel Archer, from Jane Campion’s movie, she’s no princess, someone harrassed and taken over


Part 4: Austen

Jane Austen drawn from the back by her sister, Cassandra

Final section: we return to "present time" cell with students with whom she reads Jane Austen, and the emphasis is on Austen’s most popular novel, Pride and Prejudice.

This is the one section which focuses on a book by a woman, and she does show the book as seen from a woman’s point of view: so the discussion of this novel is counterpointed with what happened to women in the revolution: Sharia (p 261) was reinstated and the joke was it is a truth universally aknowledged old men want 9 year old virgins for wives. Many stories of women in the book, but usually not strictly as a woman: e.g., the teacher, a woman put in a sack and then shot and stoned to death. Nafisi does say there is no such thing as Islamic feminism, a contradiction in terms and horizons.

Well, for women the problem of marriage is at the center a question of freedom. Interestingly her most conservative religious student doesn’t want to marry; she wants to spend her life otherwise,p. 288. Nassrin herself is the other person to leave: Nafisi leaves with money and belongings intact; she must flee in the night.

Plot summary of the autobiographical events in context:

We see her women students intensely involved in deciding who to marry: for most of them it does not seem to be a question of whether to marry. They don’t see a life without marriage available, except ironically the most religious of them. We see one of them get engaged after a series of relatively brief social encounters where they are surrounded by others; we see the miseries of marriage (in this case one woman student is beaten by her husband), the pressures of family life (awful, something they seek relief from); the fatuous simpleton who is Nafisi’s strawman throughout (after a while his misreadings get a bit too predictable) is of course a Mr Collins (p 291); the jackass from Pride and Prejudice. It’s he who says Mansfield Park is a book that accepts slavery.

She retells her girls’ stories to bring out parallels with Austen’s novels. There is a bit of a contradiction when she denies the personal is political (after proving otherwise), and then goes on to show how the regime she lived under shaped the personal; this is not so since what she is showing is that radical regimes are what make the personal political. She does not call herself a feminist and may be avoiding this idea in order not to be so labelled.

The story of her students now brings us back to where the book opened. We now find out that the idea for this secret class came from their reading of "Dear Jane" whose tone simply led them into dancing which itself led to celebratory sexy "Eastern" dancing — which we are told has this form of "unique" seduction not to be found in Western sexy dancing ("such a mixture of subtlety and brazenness").

Nafisi’s clear pleasure in "Eastern" dancing then comes in: her idea is it’s really superior to dancing in the west (sexier, more aggressive, more "calculating," "sophisticated" than poor Daisy Miller). She connects this dancing to dancing in Austen’s novels to show us there is much sexual nuance in Austen’s texts. I too find much sexuality suggested by Austen indirectly and directly. Nafisi, though, apparently thinks of Darcy as centrally very sexy (she must’ve loved Colin Firth in the film), and she asserts all her "girls" wanted to be Elizabeth. She assumes everyone does. I don’t.

Here is a recent film showing Henry Tilner and Catherine Morland (Northanger Abbey) dancing

Jane Austen

Her reading of Austen begins at the bottom of p.267. I think Austen’s books are about many things, and it’s true that one is the daily cruelties we endure. On p. 311 she says this very well: this is about the outrageous way we treat one another at times — through not acknowledging it we get away with that. Austen’s books are especially about pressure on women to marry. A famous impoverished Miss Bates is mocked by a heroine in one scene:

Sophie Thompson as Miss Bates beginning to realize how she is being treated

Nafisi still leaves her relationship with the man she calls her "magician" opaque, but from a remarkably Victorian device (we are told in the same sentence that she woke up and began to talk to him) perhaps we are to take it he was her lover. She is more than once on the outs with her present husband. Her magician is her great source of wisdom, though she does listen to her husband who is much against their leaving Iran (p 287) and losing their position and money there. So her distress about being irrelevant shared by husband who does not want to move where he will have no power. The husband also argues that they are deserting their country; the husband loves the place; they can do a job that’s important there. It’s not just that they have connections and high place there and may well lose this. She is berated for her withdrawal from university by several people in this book. She apparently began to write this book around the time she quit her job (or was finally forced out).

She becomes a sort of aunt to her girls the way Austen was to her nieces. We see her counsel them about love; Nassrin has a lover and may be pregnant ( pp. 296-8) she and her husband meet Nassrin and boyfriend at a public concert, (pp., 298-301). Then we see the girls are not taught about sex life by mothers or aunts or older women friends so she tries to substitute (p.302). Austen has many of these older woman/young friend relationships in her books.e.g., Mrs Weston and Emma Woodhouse:

Emma: Mrs Weston counselling Emma

Austen is woven in, not dealt with in four straight pages and then dropped in the way James’s novels are: so now we get her argument that Austen’sn novels are on pro-passion. we have the scene where Elizabeth is talking closely to Darcy about where she would be willing to move if she married (pp. 304-7). We do see Austen’s heroines risk ostacism and genteel poverty (not the same thing as real poveryt) to gain love and companionship.

I like this: There are acts which are unforgivable (p 315) and Austen knows and shows this — even if the person who doesn’t forgive doesn’t get to show it.

Elinor Dashwood enduring on

Last section turns personal and about the departure to actual exile

Things are getting more and more dangerous. See Chapter 15, pp. 307-11. People found dead — the bookseller. Her relationship with her magician friend is dangerous, p. 313. Nafisi and her husband begin quarrelling seriously (p. 316) over whether to leave and peopel begin to resent her ability to leave or that she wants to

It’s around Chapter 18 that the departure from Iran begins to loom large. Mrs Rezvan had been losing her power (p 293). Her women students are considering leaving and we hear about their conflicts over this. They envy her. Vexed relationships and quarrels erupt (p 317-19). The ridiculousness of petty reactions (p. 319) which come out of this. They feel she is deserting them, pp. 324-26; they quarrel with one another ver who wants to and will leave and who won’t, pp. 326-7; Nafisi tells us she told them of her personal troubles, p. 328.

Nassrin and her boyfriend, Ramin, break up; she sees him as having same attitudes as older rigid males: she is either a virgin or a whore. She thinks her girls identify with Daisy Miller: Winterbourne saw Daisy as innocent or corrupted.

In the midst of all this, she meets Miss Ruhi again; someone who reads literally and moralistically; yet she misses the books even if she says they are not important. Pathetic story of someone misled by her false beliefs to deprive herself. (pp. 332-333); it can be anyone who makes a decision which throws away her inner life. I’ve known so many people to do that by this time, men and women..

The ending recalls Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and other autobiographical novels of writers where the writer has to leave the home country in order to find free space to write and a marketplace to publish in where he or she may be left in relative peace afterwards — that is, not immediately castigated by all reviewers and people all around him or her as betraying them for disclosing truths.

She leaves the magician too and says unless you live an individual life how can you feel you’ve lived (p 339). Upbeat close is somewhat contradictory.

Disillusionment is also a theme in Nafisi. From the few comments she does make earlier in the book, though, it seems as if she used to be actively involved in student protest movements aiming at social change, but became first disillusioned at the contention within those groups themselves. Then even more so when their activism helped ring in an even more repressive religious regime than the Shah’s worldly one.

She seems to have transferred this ealier political idealism to the world of art and literature, elevating art and the world of the imagination to make up for the deficits in the real world, another kind of emotional transference.

Dangerous though the creation of a group to read such forbidden literature must have been, I suspect, though, that you could also categorize it as a kind of inner immigration and withdrawal. Nafisi says at the end, as attached as she became to the group the more emotionally detached to the outer world of Iran she became. So the group was in essence the prelude to her physical emigration. Her repeated references to seeing the world through the mirrors and the windows of her room under line this sense of separation and a society already seen at a remove. At the same time in the closing pages of the book she does people like Mrs Reznan who kept people in the society and active justice.


Teaching and reading. Nafisi’s book is about teaching. How she went about it is to pick a group of very bright sympathetic students who are deeply engaged by literature and have them in her house. It’s an ideal situation. They are desperate for her as mother-hen-comforter too. I wonder what their mothers/sisters/aunts were like. Girls are often strongly antagonistic to their mothers. Perhaps some of them acted as reinforcers of misery — as many women are in this society, more than complicit, active on behalf of represssion as instinctively they (like male)s like them may feel this gives them power over others. Also a woman may suggest strong compromise to her daughter as as the only one available that’s respected and safe. Lady Catherine de Bourgh is the dragon lady of this point of view and Mrs Bennet the foolish one.

A fault in the book is she didn’t present their comments on the books in the sessions enough. I doubt they agreed with her views altogether. She omits money and class perspective in her discussions of real life — she takse it for granted she should sit in expensive places and eat ice cream out of elegant glass cups.

It’s a relevant book. Nafisi shows us what can happen when a self-righteous group gets full military control and is fueled by an intense religiosity and sense of rightness.

Once more on Sanaz: Nafisi was particularly good on what such experiences do to people, both the jailer/soldier/torturer and the ictim who wants out: Her jailors jokingly suggested that since she was wearing an extra garment, she might not feel the pain, so they gave her more. For her the physical pain had been more bearable than the indignity of the virginity tests and her self-loathing at having signed a forced confession. In some perverse way, the physical punishment was a source of satisfaction to her, a compensation for having yielded to those other humiliations. Self-hatred, self-flagellation, depression of self-esteem, self-destructive change of world view are caught up in that last line.

It’s what we glimpse in Moon and Mr Keach (Carr’s Month in the Country), what Ashoke and Moushumi (Lahiri’s Namesake) fled: self-hatred, flogging oneself to get success in the alien identity’s terms. Yet Gatsby at the end is still flying high and she seems to admire that. I can’t. It’s not altogether nuts to see her as enacting a romantic Scheherazade, western style. She mentions Scheherazade very early in the book so she sees this.
18th century rocoo painting of tapestry, Carl Van Loo, Scheherazade talking to a disciple.


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