Posts Tagged ‘homosexual characters’

Philip Glenister as Wm Stafford curtly asking Mary Boleyn to be his wife (The Other Boleyn Girl, 2003)

Jim Sturgess as George Boleyn, in the tower, awaiting beheading (The Other Boleyn Girl 2008)

Dear friends and readers,

This week I’ve been listening to Simon Vance read Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies so effectively that I returned to re-watching the 2008 Other Boleyn Girl film and part of the 2015 mini-series Wolf Hall. And now after several Tudor films this year I’d not watched before, and a number of non-fiction as well as fiction books on the actors and/or milieus of this area, how the Renaissance era is seen from contemporary documents. I’ve also come up with with an fresh idea that might help explain the popularity of this era. For why after all should the murderous and sexually insecure impulses of a half-mad King Henry VIII deserve a moment’s attention.

It’s this: the appeal of this Tudor Matter comes from its unacknowledged freedom to present masculinity in ways that undermine norms for men either in costume, manners or sexual behavior since the later 19th century, and tell real truths about fluid sexual desire and what worldly ambition may necessitate. hese “Elizabethan” or “Renaissance dream-themes,” screenplays and films expose men caught up in situations where their masculine pride is directly hit. They kneel to strong women, and their swords are rendered irrelevant when it comes to the power of money, religion and the king. The origin of this is in the period: men were flamboyantly dressed, the poetry and plays of the era demonstrate how they defied sexual taboos by enacting enthrallment, abjection, and sensitivity; when aristocrats or courtiers or businessmen (lending money) or soldiers, they were at direct risk from monarchs with the power to execute them with impunity. There were a number of women who came to power and used it effectively: Catherine de Medici in France, Elizabeth I in England are only among the most famous and powerful; there are many minor levels of power and victimage. Historical fiction and gothics picked up on this strain beginning with later 18th century gothics (Sophia Lee’s The Recess, 1783) and Walter Scott (Kenilworth and The Abbot among many others), and have not let up since; films took this over in both the US and UK from The Prisoner of Zenda on, and especially in the Errol Flynn and Gainsborough movies. Stewart Grainger is with us still in Ross Poldark.

Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl (2001) has been credited with putting new characters into the familiar mapped territory: George and Mary Boleyn. In Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel has for a wider public transformed the character of Thomas Cromwell (it began in the scholarship of Geoffrey Elton and Marilyn Robertson, 1970s-89) from the monster of Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons into another kind of empathetic hero-monster, a fixer and businessman and intellectual coerced into cooperation, co-opted like many today feel they are. for myself I bond intensely with Mary Boleyn, and have ever wanted to read more about the so-called “minor” women of the court, from the French Jeanne d’Albret (mother of Henry IV who said Paris was worth a mass) to Katherine Parr. It’s the first age where we find numbers of women educated and writing letters and poetry and drama.

Beyond this I am just fascinated by bringing Elizabethan-set movies together, and looking to see what is their dramaturgy; what new did this movie contribute to the Tudor Matter, what new techniques did it use. I want to watch the older Elizabethan movies and trace the changes in movies about Elizabeth I, Mary Stuart, from Scott. I get the impression the 18th century was more stuck in frozen gender types than the age before or ours since. I find myself looking at the paintings of the Renaissance era to see where ideas and images came from for each decade of the 20th and 21st.

Ana Torrent as Katharine of Aragon (Other Boleyn Girl, 2008)

The 2003 film is peculiarly fascinating for the way it also defies dramaturgical norms: Andrew Davies is credited as adviser and this script has the characters speak directly to us; the focus of the story is inward shattering of participants. Who are these: Anne and Mary Boleyn, with George around the edges of their talk .The 2008 film was a commercially successful costume extravaganza, whose historical adviser was Gregory herself, whose characters in this film strongly feminist film: beyond the Boleyn Girls, the remarkable Ana Torrent for Katherine of Aragon, Kristin Scott Thomas for Elizabeth Boleyn, the mother of the two beheaded children. The agonies of childbirth are presented repeatedly. I found these two women writhing under their lack of power yet so strong. The makers of Wolf Hall have had the daring to give us a new Elizabethan revenge play, with Anne Boleyn as a cool and transgressive stealth tragic heroine, and Cromwell a driven Hamlet.

Clare Foy as Anne Boleyn, aggressively keen archer, POV Cromwell (2015 Wolf Hall)


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“I could not do without a Syringa, for the sake of Cowper’s line” — Jane Austen to Cassandra

“… the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour?” — Jane Austen to James-Edward Austen-Leigh

A still from a film, Dyke Pussy (2008) where Allyson Mitchell’s sculptures are seen whirl

Peter Firmin’s woodcut illustration for winter for Vita Sackville-West’s georgic, The Land and the Garden (1927, 1946)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been reading and looking at visual, concrete, and written art by a small group of elite women (known to one another, friends or associates, read from or about afar) cited and studied by Lisa Moore (Sister Arts) from which she posits or carves out a lesbian erotic aesthetic. Moore’s book might be considered a companion volume to Emma Donoghue’s Passions Between Women: Donoghue teases out and identifies clearly too some patterns of social and writing behavior that she argues were typical of lesbian spinsters in the 18th century, recognizable to one another (which we observe are found in Austen, her sister, Cassandra, their friend, Martha Lloyd, and other single and also married friends, a kind of female community).

One difference is Donoghue has so many candidates and verbal explicit demonstration from their writing; in the first 4/5ths of her book, Moore seeks to make do with four and three of them with very little written documentation: Mary Delany and her employer-patroness-mistress-lover(?), Margaret Bentinck, Duchess of Portland; Anna Seward (she provides reams of writing); Sarah Pierce, an educator in the US; in each case, Moore finds other women who work in the same artistic media to create the same kinds of images (mostly botanical, but also sewn, glued as in shellwork, built, lacquered and scissored). Her method is to show that in landscape, garden, botanical, sewing, craft, landscape and house design, these women continually project images of a woman’s sexual organs.

Like Donoghue, Moore argues such relationships included same-sex intimacies and brings forward some (to mainstream ways and tastes) strange and beautiful and obsessive artwork which through her grouping achieves a context in terms of others very like it and no longer seems so odd: Who scissors out 900 sciss accurate paper flowers and then presses them against a lacquered black background sheet and then places them into thick volumes for preservation. Moore waxes graphically descriptive at length of female private parts she sees in it. A kind of Rorschach test is repeatedly applied.

I never thought about how maps drawn in the era by women in their novels (the famous Tendresse one) are themselves expressive art; and I just love the delicate picturesque drawings the book is filled with. She reveals great pathos in thwarted lives, as when Anna Seward carried from room to room a painting by George Romney of a young girl reading which Seward declared an image of her dead beloved, Honora Sneyd. Seward spent most of her life alone, lame, writing letters to others. I almost forgive her her snobbish spiteful attacks on Charlotte Smith’s revelations of another kind of deprived existence. Legend (Moore has to rely on hearsay) credits Seward with designing part of a Litchfield Park in imitation of Hyde Park’s Serpentine Walk:


The first is an engraving by W. Schmollinger, the map for Hyde Park; the second a photo of a lake in a Litchfield Park (no dates)

It does not seem to me that Moore proves her case altogether; maybe it’s not provable: the idea these images she finds in these women’s work are necessarily lesbian only becomes convincing when she shows their behavior like that we might think lesbian. Margaret Bentinck had numerous children by her husband, and used the women she enforced service to herself from; Chicago lived only with men; Delany and Frida Kahlo were bisexual. I remembered Stella Tillyard’s group biography of the Lennox Sisters, The Aristocrats, and then the Companion volume to the mini-series film adaptation by Harriet O’Carroll, where there are plates of art that fit right into Moore’s scheme. Only one of these women was a lesbian.

Moore has a tendency to see vaginas where there are only arches:

A picturesque drawing by Mary Delany: View of Beggar’s Hut in Delvile Garden (1745); she lived with her husband Patrick at Delvile (I wonder if she installed a beggar in that hut?)

Moore will mount a full-scale relationship (friendship, influence) from the tiny twig of the woman’s ideas: such as Mary Delany knew of the work of the other woman (we think), or visited a salacious place (like the Hellfire Club’s Venus Temple) she is said to have imitated — with no proof of visit, no proof she built or even drew a drawing for some of her attributed buildings. I would love to think Moore’s candidates were architects but proof is needed.

There is also a distasteful reactionary justification of her chosen subjects elitism, racism, and ignoring how they used their power over one another and did not fulfill obligations: the Duchess of Portland did not leave a penny to Mary Delany after decades of devoted service, including reading aloud long hours into the night — Betty Rizzo in her Companions without Vows suggests we know which person is the subject one by looking to see who is doing the reading. Sarah Pierce is just fine with slavery and Moore attempts a softened portrait — true that I could see in the Litchfield Academy Pierce set up characteristics of a girls’ school which works that I saw in Yvette’s Sweet Briar (as older girls appointed sister-mentors to younger ones).

In the last fifth of her book, Moore attempts to fill out her theory by citing exemplary women artists from the 19th through 20th century. I thought immediately of Judy Chicago, and indeed her Dinner Party is discussed in the last part of Moore’s book. Moore tells of these women’s lives; she demonstrates quiet partnerships with other women, describes, reprints, quotes their art. I include a few images of this later art, and some snatches of poetry, and passages in lives not well-known.

A photo of one of many fancifully shaped buildings in her book:

Jane and Mary Parminter’s house in Devon; Victorian unmarried sisters, one died 38 years before the other, but managed before that terrible parting for so long to fill the place with paintings, shellwork, feather decorations, decoupage (scissored stuff), semi-precious stone inlay — how lonely all those years must’ve been

Moore enables us to see the feminocentric slant of some repeating absurdities in 19th century women’s art, such as a subject I have seen done by women in the 19th century: they paint Moses as a baby in a basket among the bullrushes — the point seems to be to view the relationships among the (for the moment) powerful women picking the baby up and caring for him. Otherwise, he would have died. No ten commandments.

Moore says that Emily Dickinson admired the botanical illustrations of a contemporary, Fidelia Bridges. This one belongs to the many picturesque garden, flower and landscape images of the book. According to Moore, these resemble Delany’s and several other lesbian women flower artists, but I see an austerity which is lovely because it does not lend itself to a Rorschach description:

Fidelia Bridges, Calla Lily 1875 — click to make larger

I did not know the story of the 19th century black sculpturess Edmonia Lewis’s experience of betrayal by white women. Lewis’s genetic background included New England black and Ojibway Indian people; her mother feared she’d be kidnapped into slavery so sent her and her brother to Canada to live among Ojibway. After the civil war was over, due to her brother’s efforts, she attended Oberlin College in 1860s. It was a staunchly abolitionist place, and she seemed at first to thrive, but she was accused of poisoning two white girls on sleigh riding date with 2 white boys; she was exonerated but dragged out into February night and beaten severely by thugs. The headmistress prevented her registering for last semester lest this provoke the local community again, so Lewis never graduated –-  her sculpted women figures are women seen as outcasts.

Hygeia, commissioned by a woman physician, then terminally ill

After Lewis returned to the US and experienced the post-civil war backlash, she returned to Italy where she drops out of historical record — she was last seen by Frederick Douglas living with Adelia Gates, a flower painter.

Turning to the 20th and 21st century, Jim and I saw an exhibit of Mickalene Thomas’s paintings the last time we were in NYC together and he in good health; I am aware of Frida Kahlo’s bisexuality and use of flower, botanical, craft imagery; landscape installation art of contemporary women (Ana Mandieta, Alma Lopez, Tee Corinne), Alice Walker’s silhouettes. I did not know for sure that Georgia O’Keefe had a long-time woman lover (though she is depicted this way by Suzy McKee Charnas, in her Dorothea Dreams). Moore places Jane Addams and her long-time friendship with another woman here.

Appropriate for the season, from Vita Sackville-West’s The Land and the Garden, “Winter” poetry for which Peter Firmin drew the woodcut illustration (above):

You watcher at the window, you who know
Life’s danger, and how narrow is the line,
How slight the structure of your happiness,
— Think on these little creatures in the snow,
They are so fragile and so fine,
So pitiably small, so lightly made,
So brave and yet so very much afraid.
They die so readily, with all their song.

There are equally moving lines across “Winter:”

It is not the Winter, nor the cold we fear;
It is the dreadful echo of our void,
The malice all around us, manifest …

Fabulous flowers flung as he desires.
Fantastic, tossed, and all from shilling packet
— an acre sprung from one expended coin, —
visions of what might be.
We dream our dreams.
What should we be, without our fabulous flowers?

Homesick we are, and always, for another
And different world …
And so the traveller
Down the long avenue of memory
Sees in perfection that was never theirs
Gardens he knew, and takes his steps of though
Down paths that, half-imagined and half-real,
Are wholly lovely with a loveliness
Suffering neither fault, neglect, nor flaw;
By visible hands not tended, but by angels
Or by St. Phocas, gentlest patron saint
Of gardeners …. Such wisdom of perfection
Never was ours in fact though ours in faith,
And since we live in fabric of delusion
Faith may well serve a turn in place of fact.
Luxury of escape! In thought he wanders

Down paths now more than paths, down paths once seen.
Gold is their gravel, not the gold that paves
Ambition’s highway; velvet is their green;
Blue is the water of the tide that laves
Their island shore where terraces step steep
Down to the unimaginable coves
Where wash on silver sand the secret seas.
Above such coves, such seas, he strays between
Straight cypresses or rounded orange-trees,
And sees a peasant draw a pail from deep
Centennial well; and finds a wealth in these.
Across the landscape of his memory
Bells ring from distant steeples, no cracked bell
Marring the harmony, but all as pure
As that spring-water drawn from that clear well.
What time the English loam is bare and brown
Elsewhere he roams and lets his reason drown
In thought of beauty seen. There was a key
Opened an iron door within the wall
Of thee thick ramparts of a fortress town
Where the great mountains sudden and remote
Like clouds at tether rose,
But the near larkspur seemed as tall
Dashing her spire of azure on their snows;
And, wandering, he might recall
Another garden, seen as in a moat
Reflected, green, and white with swans afloat,
Shut in a wood where, mirrored sorrowful,
A marble Muse upon her tablets wrote.
Look, where he strays!
Images, like those slow and curving swans,
Sail sensuous up, and these drab northern days,
This isle of mist, this sun a shield of bronze,
Melt in the intenser light away.

As sensitive natures seek for comfort lest
Th’assault of life be more than they can bear …

Sackville-West’s poem is Cowperesque and reminded me of how Austen loved Cowper’s poetry. There are telling lines of convergence in Moore’s choices.

I was drawn to Moore’s section on the mixed-media work of Toronto artist, Allyson Mitchell — as in the above sculptures of cats from a film and below from a film, Oxana, again we have what we see all book long: carpets remnants, rug hooking, fringe, needlework, bits of lace (seen in all sorts of European women’s art and their metaphors for their art):


The above reminded me of the runners in Judy Chicago’s place settings; below the real treat of Mitchell’s art is not in imposed supposed sexual fantasies prompted by the art, but a delicate playful allusion to motherhood:

Allyson Mitchell — Moore describes this image from a film solemnly — it’s a Teddy Bear substitute for a well-cared for cheerful young child


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Jim Carter as Mr Carson; Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley (Season 2, Episode 6, Downton Abbey) — the equivalent characters in WWWWDA are Edward, the concierge seemingly in charge of the Alexander, an expensive building in mid-town Atlanta, Georgia, and the super-rich heroine who married for money, position, and to support her siblings, Samantha Jackson Davis

Dear friends and readers,

This is a blog about a novel that is what many people (including those who have read Ausen’s six famous novels) seem to assume Jane Austen’s books are: light romantic amusement about privileged women whom nothing dangerous happens to. Oh yes the characters feel deeply at moments, they seem to be at risk of poverty now and again, but we never see anything really unpleasant, in fact everyone is doing fine financially and at book’s end all are reaching some form of their heart’s desire however qualified; there is a strong hierarchy in place which is defended; sex is kept in bounds. Indeed Wendy Wax goes further than this: she justifies taking menial occupations (like working for a butler service and as part of a building staff, the equivalence of service in a great house) as somehow work that will give people strong self-esteem because they are contributing to the ease and convenience in what seems the most trivial things of others (which turns out to be what happiness we can have); the immiseration of the middle class in the US today is made to appear fun, glamorous, like being in a play (or PBS serial costume drama). This is chick lit without the stings Helen Fielding or Karen Joy Fowler provide.

And yet I enjoyed it — read it with ease, kept at it, it made me smile at times, it helped me through a nervous patch at night; the idea is very like The Jane Austen Book Club: the characters in the novel were parallel to some in DA and the book itself a kind of intermediary between US culture today — presented in a way that removes all real troubles and changes what is a misery into a grace — and DA — where the trick is similar. And her seductive technique of at the core presenting characters whose emotional problems and fears are like women’s today are seen in the three chapters of her next book offered at the book’s end: The Beach Road. Our heroine is in her fifties, her children are “out of the nest,” and for the first time in years she has time to herself (she feels) and she is planning to make herself a room of her own, when she discovers that her husband, a financial adviser of some type, has been hiding from her for the last six months that he was fired and has lost all their money …

I suggest this is the kind of book Ann Patchett writes, only she disguises hers as liberal and sophisticated politically when they are not (see Bel Canto, How much does a house know?; Another patron saint of liars).


A couple of weeks ago now, the night before All-Hallow’s Eve to be exact, with my friend, Vivian, I went to Politics and Prose expecting to hear Azar Nafisi talk; instead I watched her smooch and present obviously false hype for a fellow reactionary Iranian woman author who had come to this wonderful bookstore to sell her book. Nafisi did talk on a level of conscious larger understanding that Goli Taraghi was incapable of, but alas Taraghi was allowed to natter on.


All was not a total loss because I had a good time with my friend in a nearby pizza place, and while there I ascertained the third sumptuously produced book of lavishly beautiful photographs on heavy art paper, Behind the Scenes in Downton Abbey is not simply a reprint of the first two books (The World of Downton Abbey [Season 1], The Chronicles of Downton Abbey: A new Era [Season 2, WW1]) but a book in its own right. But also that there is less text than ever, more hype, though more photographs. I couldn’t see my way to spending over $30 but did buy a paperback for less than $15 (I feel one should support the bookstore), Wendy Wax’s While we were watching Downton Abbey, and whatever I may say about it in the following remarks, I should confess that not only did I enjoy it in a deep way as I read, but found I could read it anywhere, at any time, it cheered me with its cleverly allusive wit, and even helped me get through my nervousness during a weekend where I went to my first longish conference by myself.

The hero of the novel is Edward, Mr Carson (showing Max’s values) who has shepherded them all gently into knowing one another, watching the programs, discussing them, teaching the arrogant brother to Samantha, Hunter a false third-grade lesson, who in turn brings investment to Edward. None of this is unbelievable in terms of the given fiction.

At the same time it’s important to know the world of this novel has never heard of CEOs, tax rates, real salaries, how physical work is hard, the stigmas of lower ranks, how no oe wants you when you’ve no connections to offer. The US has brought up a generation of women who believe in this trajectory of the novel’s hero’s success:

No matter how weird the revelation, Edward never lost sight of the fact that one of a concierge’s most valuable assets was discretion; a trait his grandfather, who’d been’in service’ at Montclair Castle in Nottingham just as his father before him had been, had begun to teach Edward somewhere around his tenth birthday.

Edward reached for his cup of tea; taken at four each afternoon and allowed to go slightly tepid just the way he liked it, and looked around his small office tucked away in a corner of the Alexander’s lobby. He’d hung his black blazer on a hanger on the back of his office door in much the same way that his grandfather had removed and hung his jacket when he went ‘below stairs’ at Montclaire. But Edward had hung his own diploma from the Cornell School of Hotel Administration next to it.

He’d begun to fully understand-and practice discretion-when he landed at a Hilton property in Maui as an assistant manager-a glorious posting from which he’d sent two years’ worth of sun-filled postcards home to the Hungry Fox, the family pub in Newark-on-Trent, upon which Edward estimated some fifty to sixty inches of rain fell annually. It was in the Aloha state that he’d handled his first celebrity peccadillo and learned the art of misdirection and the value of resisting bribes. The lessons-and postcards-continued in big-city hotels it} San Francisco, New York, and Miami Beach.

There’d been smaller postings, too; a fancy dude ranch in Montana where he’d fallen in love with the sweeping vistas of the American West and bought a pair of snakeskin cowboy
boots that he owned to this day. A charming Band B in the historic heart of Charleston where he’d reveled in the beautifully restored buildings and come to terms with the pairing of shrimp and grits, and enjoyed the languid blend of heat, humidity, and manners.

The Hungry Fox would go to his older brother, Bertie, much as the title and country estates his forebears had served in had gone to oldest sons. But that was all right with
Edward, who had pulled plenty of pints behind the Fox’s scarred wood bar but could never imagine staying there; not even to keep the woman he’d loved.

Bertie continued the tradition of mounting Edward’s post-cards, which now papered an entire wall of the bar. The last seven years’ worth had been sent from Atlanta, making the Fox’s patrons among the lucky few in England to know exactly what the Fox Theatre, a restored Egyptian-themed 1920s movie house, looked like. He’d sent postcards of other Atlanta landmarks-like what was left of the apartment Miss Mitchell had written Gone-with the Wind in; Stone Mountain, Atlanta’s answer to Mount Rushmore with its three-acre mountaintop carving of three Confederate heroes of the Civil War; CNN Center; Turner Field; the World of-Coca Cola.

Six months ago he’d sent not a postcard but a sales piece he’d had printed after his newly formed personal concierge company, Private Butler, had been selected by the Alexander’s condo board.

What do children learn in schools? the above is a mirror of dream (very loud) commercials which invent stories of ever increasing fairy tale upward mobility (it’s called).

The interest for me is to see what is the charm of such a book — and by extension why is this view of Austen so pervasive and contributory to her supposed popularity. Its matter does not correspond to any of the narrow typologies Diane Philips worked out for women’s novels of the second half of the 20th century, but contains the single woman-mother novel, the sex and shopping novel, and the aga paradigm all in one book.

Deborah Findley Brown as Lady Sybil as first seen in Downton Abbey, Season 1 — there are three heroines in WWWWDA; in DA there seem perpetually to be 3 young women upstairs and 3 down

It is that beneath the glamorous patina, beside the plot-line where three troubled women find friendship, escape and relaxation by watching Downton Abbey once a week on Sunday evenings, Wax manages to dramatize real fears, insecurities, anxieties problems lower to middle class women in the US experience today. Far from advocating challenge and take a chance, these are books which show how if you follow a modified conventionality you’ll have all the material goods you want and some moderate happiness; you can cope.

Samantha’s father had embezzled a huge amount of money from Jonathan Davis’s firm, and found herself without the means to support herself or her siblings at age 21, and being beautiful (as are two of the three heroines) had no problem attracting Davis’s proposal and marrying him as a solution to being able to live a comfortable life (which includes ordering fancy food from restaurants when she feels expected to produce the exquisitely delicious upscale meal), and having stability, respect, safety. Samantha’s thoughts as she copes with her mother-in-law, her spoilt siblings, her own guilt at never having gotten pregnant capture the mind of someone who married for presentability, career, social success. Trouble is she feels she does not love him and assumes he married her out of pity. She does all she can to please him in every way and the pleasantest sense of sex life is projected by the tasteful scenes of their love-making. I enjoyed these.

Downton Abbey, opening of Season 3

Claire Walker early on in her marriage discovered she didn’t like or respect her husband, was tightly constricted by him and his parents, so bravely left him to endure 16 years of single motherhood during which she did manage to publish two (absurd) romances, with very Scottish highland type titles, which did make enough money that she has now taken a year off work to write a novel, moved out of the far-away lower-cost suburban rings around Atlanta (yes it’s registered but not with awareness of what this means that all the poorer and low middle people in Atlanta live outside its center, and must have cars to get into the center with any regularity). She also lives in the Alexander, a “beautifully renovated Beaux Arts and Renaissance Revival-styled apartment building” (Claire is the first to describe the place), into a small flat of her own. Her daughter, Hailey, is in the usual upscale live-away college (aren’t all American young adults there?) and determined (like the good American she is) to support herself as far as she can. Trouble is now that Claire is not driven by so many other things to do and really has time when she looks at her computer screen nothing comes. What’s happening is she’s trying to write something real for the first time as she has the time to reach herself.

Lastly, Brooke Mackenzie, chubby (a horrific no-no), awkward, clumsy, mother of two, never worked for a living, and now deserted by her husband after she worked for years to support him through medical school; he is now making huge sums doing cosmetic surgery and has remarried a woman like a Barbie doll (he is likened to a Ken doll) and they have moved into the Alexander too. She is the Edith of the piece — and it was when at the gym half in the mind of Samantha Wendy Wax as narrator delivered her complacent moralizing condescension and exhortation over Brooke’s overt depression while Brooke is on a gym machine, I knew I was in a mean or small book however entertainingly written.

Laura Carmichael, Edith-as-susceptible-librarian averting her eyes from the hideously scarred Patrick Crawley, a phony revenant in Season 3

The stories of these three women play out poignantly and through ordinary human emotion. I found that the upbeat tendency of them over-all was comforting. It turns out Jonathan after leaving Samantha for a month, no longer able to endure her obvious desperate sycophancy, loves her. It turns out Claire begins to write of the women in the building as heightened by paradigms she discerned in DA. It turns out Brooke can work as a party-thrower, consultant for Edward and begins to be attractive to a man who is a widower.

Of larger schemes or perspectives this book of course is utterly innocent — of the real hard world in which these human emotions occur our author appears to be innocent. Of course she’s not or she’d not have gotten as far as she has as a novelist. As in a formulaic subgenre, there is no sense of how Wax as a woman or person relates to her fiction.


It’s also a sort of sequel to Downton Abbey as several of the characters have their equivalents in DA. We all know — or it used to be assumed — how popular are these sorts of sequels to Jane Austen. I would be much surprised if Wax has not hoped for a film adaptation along the lines of Karen Joy Fowler’s Jane Austen’s Book Club;. At any rate not yet.
Rob James-Collier (promotional shot to the right) as Thomas Barrow — the equivalent character is Samantha’s brother, Hunter, a supremely egoistic wheeler-dealer who presents a face to meet faces but has to bow-down to Edward in order to survive when upon his losing yet another large sum of money in a capital venture Samantha cuts off his allowance

So I also found myself eagerly looking forward to the discussions of the shows, though repeatedly these were neutral descriptions showing Wax’s cleverness as none of them deviated into presenting what was the reactionary take we were to get. Nor did any discussion relate what was on the TV screen to what has happening in the Alexander. So not interesting and yet I underlined the bits that were there. They seemed to make visible what one might think viewers thought as they watched — except they were so conventional. Fellowes’s notes to his scripts shows that readers have far more amoral and idiosyncratic reactions than people assume. So, e.g. Claire musing:

Over the last two Sundays she’d watched Anna and Bates fall in love with each other despite some dark secret that kept him from being free, seen sparks fly between Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley, and watched Lady Sybil begin to notice just how attractive the Irish chauffeur was. Then there was poor Edith, who had stirred the pot by writing a letter to the Turkish embassy that would presumably implicate Mary in Kemal Pamuk’s death.
The plot had been thickening and the story lines racing rorward at a pace that Claire couldn’t help admiring even as she compared its graceful dance to the fumbling, halfhearted steps of her own manuscript.

Anna (Joanne Froggart) and Mr Bates (Brendon Coyle): a on-running joke of Max’s book is the Isabella who has been hired to be a 19th century servant, acts the part of Anna and her like out all wrong. She thinks it relies on accidental sounds we make. It does not, at any rate not entirely — mark of WWWWDA’s conservatism is there is no equivalent for Mr Bates, no disabled characters either.

The witty allusions told me what a sophisticated woman the author of the book is – so often so amusing, mocking the inner life of the fairy tale (or Downton Abbey episode) from a deconstructive point of view at the same time as it’s validated in the patterns of the three central stories. (There are others adumbrated.) E.g.

There was plenty of precedent for prince-marrying in the fairy-tale world. Sleeping Beauty had not ignored the prince’s kiss in favor of a few more years of shut-eye. Cinderella never considered refusing to try on the glass slipper. And Snow White didn’t bat an eyelash at moving in with those seven little men. (p 2)

I wish I could write like this.


To sum up: The questions for readers and study and reading groups afterward concentrate on what Wax feels are the parallels between the TV serial drama and the book and “real world” women’s problems and characters’ troubles in the book. I wonder if Wendy Wax is her real name: it is so pattern-y.

I should have mentioned at the opening of the book the characters have all heard of Fifty Shades of Grey, and they have no trouble understanding why it is so popular: it is the same dream as this book, a fine good man supports the heroine in easy comfort and the sex fun. That is how the 50 Shades is seen here.


I notice some of the actors in the series who have stayed on are concerned to make sure their promotional shots and appearances utterly undermine their roles lest they end up permanently typecast and these are the downstairs characters:

Who are they?
One guess. This one is easy. Why?

Obviously Sophia McShea aka Daisy


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Dear friends and readers,

After shoverdosing on the MP movies, I followed up my intermittent preparation for the Montreal JASNA AGM, topic Mansfield Park, with debating with fellow readers what should be the topic for the student essay contest. The winner was:

Consider the role of silence in Mansfield Park. Sometimes silence is chosen, sometimes it is forced, and sometimes it just happens. The number of times the narrator remarks that people say nothing is quite surprising, yet the narrator too is silent on important points. And sometimes only the narrator fills the silence on equally important points, especially about Fanny. What do we learn from the silences of Mansfield Park?

One person had objected to the over-guided nature of most of the suggestions; I suggested one can argue that through silence one can possess one’s soul wholly and apart — as Elinor Dashwood argues (in effect) to Marianne (Chapter 17, Vol 1) in one of their disputes:

My doctrine has never aimed at the subjection of the understanding. All I have ever attempted to influence has been the behaviour. You must not confound my meaning. I am guilty, I confess, of having often wished you to treat our acquaintance in general with greater attention; but when have I advised you to adopt their sentiments or conform to their judgment in serious matters?”

Elinor keeps her views even if no one agrees and she never voices or even acts on them openly. One can keep a space for peace. But equally one can argue that silence is a weak weapon, indeed one that easily can be manipulated against you as in law and custom: silence assumes consent. Lucy could easily have taken Edward Ferrars: she preferred the new (false) eldest, Robert (made so by the mother’s will). (Shades of Mary Crawford at first, when she said she knew it was her way to prefer the eldest, and then at last, when she thought Tom lay dying, so Edmund would be the heir.) Which of Austen’s heroines is pro-active on her own behalf? Maybe Jane Fairfax with her clandestine engagement? Which speaks truth to power. Elizabeth Bennet to Lady Catherine de Bourgh comes firmly to mind. But then what if you have no opportunity, but can only possess your soul — Anne Elliot’s case for 8 years?

So, is silence a effective weapon or shield in lives where (as the narrator suggests at the close of MP) we are born to struggle and endure? Or is it counterproductive?


Silence. What is it like to be without Jim. It’s silence. And more silence. It’s he’s not here and there is no one I can turn to as any kind of replacement for the function he had in my life. Or for himself. Silence. He is not palpably absent; there is no sense of him except in my mind.

As I listen to Juliet Stevenson read aloud MP, it comes to me Austen is such a comfort because of her style and restraint. Stevenson reads the book exquisitely right. No over-reading, but not mindless or toneless. This steady graceful rhythm that enters my soul. Austere hard ironies are contained in it (strong stuff), pathos quietly conveyed (moving), and it soothes my soul because I can hold firm onto those rhythms. I manage to still my beating heart by holding to them. My rib cage doesn’t strain so. And the calm is not false for the words Austen uses are true to nature and human life.

Juliet Stevenson, a little about her

Still listening as of 11/7/13.


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Ellen and Jim Moody as servants in Love’s Last Shift (1972-73 production at the Graduate Center, NYC)

Dear friends and readers,

You may not have heard of this kind: salacious comedy. Well Jeremy Collier certainly did. He called it smut — in the case of LLS probably unfairly. The play is about a rake who reforms, and is sometimes said to herald sentimentalism. The text is on-line in various forms. (Two dissertations; an intelligent older article: “Equivocation” by Paul Parnell.) Vanbrugh’s reply was to write The Relapse in which the hero does just that.

The play has been seen as a bellwether and there is on-line a surprising amount of commentary on it. Myself having read much better Cibber in later years, e.g., especially The Constant Husband which really centers on a brutal one whose brutality of stance and emotion escapes Cibber, I’d call LLS hard comedy in disguise. I read it through last night and the most interesting character is the theatrical novelty (at the time), Sir Novelty Fashion, presented as utter fop, but (I’ve always thought) a way of introducing transgressive sex, especially gay males as fops.

Tellingly — if you want to think about the mysteries of how the history of literature proceeds — this particular play did not last the century; that is to say, if you look at what plays were bound into collections and rented at circulating libraries, what reprinted, what played on stage, this one fell from the repertoire. The Relapse stayed a while, and other of Van Brugh and Cibber’s plays (often with Anne Oldfield in a leading role) remained until near the end of the century when sensibility and currents repressive of sex made them impossible to play. It affected the stage partly because of its crassness is my guess (it was “available” to all).

This is by way of remembering: I’ve just reread the play; for our mostly silent parts I had remembered only that we were a pair of promiscuous servants, amoral, had few lines and lots of stage business. Unless memory is fooling me (which she may) I realize we did not do the whole play; Byrne Fone, the director produced a cut-down text (rather like the Aural/Oral experience we have at our East Central Regional group of the American 18th century society). I remember as a climax of one of the acts, I fucked on the floor with was whoever he was (a kind of climax in the sub or lower plots); at another that Jim as servant was a successful sly cheat at cards. Jim is 24 there and his expression is an acted one: it’s put on as part of the character, and reminds me just now of Rob James-Cellier’s playing the footman Thomas (a similar faux hauteur put on) in Downton Abbey. I’m 26 there and trying to smile knowingly.


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Sir Charles Pasley (1780-1861)

Dear friends and readers,

This is a high-spirited letter. S&S has been published, a success d’estime; in three days P&P will be announced and on sale; she is working on her final published version to come of MP. What more could she want? a dream come true.

Diana Birchall uses the word “jubilant” for one set of phrases and I agree she feeling strong; alas, though her big wins are not doing her generosity of spirit much good. This is a demented sort of jubilation: Austen triumphs in her books, but she has little to show for it: no companionship with the women she wanted, no money, no open reputation. In fact she has not gained anything tangible or in status. She’s still like a porcupine within, still sore. She is not living the life she wants but what that is she can’t say, thwarted at every turn as she’s been — except for these books for which she sacrificed time, energy, spent all within her that she had as she successively corrected and revived.

She is just determinedly cheerful in the opening paragraph. She slides over a lack of reciprocating letters from Cassandra or others. Usually the lack of a letter is rationale enough to justify a sense of hurt, loss, emptiness. On top of that it’s cold. And as if this weren’t enough, Cassandra is at the ambiguous Steventon. Yet “this is exactly the weather we should wish for …” If they have had no letter, they have an “excellent Stilton cheese and after Mr Digwood’s base usage (he didn’t come? didn’t write?) they have had Miss Benn (a source for Miss Bates).

She has been reading. She assumes we (like Cassandra) understand the political content of the books, and when we do know, her strongly stated preference is significant. Southam (see my blog on his JA and the Navy and her brother Frances) however made clear and it’s significant. Pasley was a deeply reactionary conservative politician whose book defended imperialism to where and to do what few were willing to go or do. The man advocates the most ruthless of imperialist policies, the sort that leads to what Belgium did in the Congo. the book ws a Society-Octavo (Alton book club had its own binding). Southey reviewed it and said it was the most important political document of the era.

Jane approves — because her brothers stand to make money? (Remember her flipancy about Sir John Moore’s defeat: how many dead, but how nice we know none of them.) Pasley kept at “expansionist politics” supported by “a certain easy ruthlessness,:” the English should enact “the ambition of
conquerors,” those who loved Burke loved this. Let us attack and destroy all our enemies” by force, take Buenos Aires as an operation.

Jane returns to this book repeatedly in this letter. She says she loves it as much as she ever did Clarkson (the abolitionist). Buchanan’s Christian Researches in Asia is also preferred. A proselytizing Evangelical Christianizer. The two Mr Smiths are parodists of contemporary (often romantic) poetry, the Rejected Addresses. From the aside to Mrs Digwood and their placement next to the flirting couple the content is about courtship: in each someone’s address is rejected.

She also sidelines Anne Grant’s Letters from the Mountains; she slyly insinuates she’d like to get rid of the book. I’m not a one woman fan club but I like Grant and find her criticism head and shoulders above Austen’s, she is romantic, but a thinking feeling tolerant one. Her poetry and stance of moderate conservatism fits Austen’s notions of reasonableness and tender feeling. Had Austen written but one passage of critical assessment like Grant’s we’d never hear the end of it. We can’t know what displeased Jane exactly and she knows she can’t attack frontally. Perhaps again she wants no peer.

LeFaye gives us no help on Mr White. Her mother is reading John Carr’s Travels in Spain from Miss B (he was a diplomat) to make sure she is literally accurate in MP. Tellingly for those who want the book to have general application outside the UK (outside what we’d call the Eurocentric), she does worry about a reference to the Government house at Gibraltar. Maybe we should pay attention to this detail as much as Fanny’s not getting any information about slavery in Antigua.

Austen does love to debunk so we get a lot about the parody of contemporary poets called Rejected Addresses by the Smiths. I wish I knew which poets were parodied and on what grounds. Not a peep on this from LeFaye. But the book and its courtship thme does serve to enable Jane to sneer at the Papillon’s niece Eleanor. Why does she come in for a shot? Austen often mocks the Papillon; one of them was suggested for a husband for her. Perhaps they were dim. At the opening of Miss Austen Regrets Gwyneth Hughes has Olivia Williams as Austen sending him up, quizzing him meanly.

I suggest the line “What she meant, poor Woman who shall say?” is a reference to a certain imbecility in understanding and that’s what leads her to talk of the Papillons. Austen doesn’t like Whist but certainly decamps hastily from playing rounds with this set. She did read Anne Grant for she remembers detail from a card party in Grant’s letters and says there were just as many for their round table as there were at some similar party in Grant’s letters.


Tax or spring cart (1903)

On Wednesday she went to a party with the Clements in their tax (or spring cart — you paid little taxes). A party on previous Wednesday to which she went with the Clements in a tax cart. It’s small and no doubt a declasse way to travel. She let them know it. “I would rather have walked, & no doubt they must have wished I had.”

So she didn’t bother to hide her disdain or make herself pleasant. and much preferred to ‘run home with my own dear Thomas” — luxury in comparison to the cart. No doubt the cart was lousy, bumpy and uncomfortable. but I find nothing to admire in her making the others know it. If she couldn’t really be polite, then walk there.

But of course that would have been even more socially low.

There were 11 there and one man who would have pleased her father. Whenever her father is brought up in these letters, Jane Austen’s morality improves. Mr T is nothing but dark-complexioned, but Mr W, a “very young man, hardly 20 perhaps … of St Johns, Cambridge & spoke very highly of H. Walter as a Schollar.” Walter was a family member too. Austen is never not partisan. Then the sort of vignette Henry James puts down in his notebooks for later
use to write up for his novels:

I could see nothing very promising between Mr P & Miss Pt — She placed herself on one side of him at first, but Miss Benn obliged her to move up higher; –& she had an empty plate, & even asked him to give her some Mutton without being attended to for some time. — There might be Design in this, to be sure, on his side; — he might think an empty Stomach the most favourable for Love. —

So Mr P and Miss Patience Terry are flirting. Jane then turns to Mrs Digweed, and becomes polite; she hopes the Rejected Addresses amused Mrs Digweed but Mrs Digweed’s silly mind flies off to some detail that is unimportant. Then that Eleanor looks like someone rejected.

She decamped at 10 and “not ashamed of my dutiful Delicacy” — she made her mother at home an excuse, but still she goes on to include more of this barbed gossip about the people there. I agree with Diana that Austen is just loving to disparage and be superior here:

WWhat can be a stronger proof of that superiority of ours over the Steventon & Manydown Society, which I have always foreseen & felt?”

But it’s not on grounds of the Rejected Addresses that the Miss Sibleys are sitting around not-reading (for they are reading the book, but rather that the Miss Sibleys openly want to
imitate Austen’s group. Austen’s group has never been caught wanting to emulate some other book society. No. And then we get a series of references to which books the Miss Sibleys prefer. Biglands, and Barrows, and Macartney’s and Mackenzies. Since in another place (MP) Fanny Price likes MacCartney perhaps this is just high spirits catching on to anything to laugh at and the alliteration is part of what the writer is enjoying.

But again there is a political meaning here. Austen prefers that ruthless imperialist. The other books are travels, about the peninsular war (perhaps critical of war policy) and the places include Iceland. Who would want to read of Iceland, pray? maybe that’s part of this not so funny joke.

The Coulthards were talked of you may be sure; no end of them; Miss Terry had heard they were going to rent Mr Bramston’s house at Oakley, & Mrs Clement that they were going to live at Streethams Mr Digweed 8{ I agreed that the House at Oakley could not possibly be large enough for them, 8{ now we find they have really taken it. — Mr Gauntlett is thought very agreable, & there are no Children at all. —

Streatham was a beautiful place, but how many children can any place stand? Austen is with Mr Gauntlett. People who go on rejoicing at Jane Austen’s warm love of children prompt me to echo her: “What [they] mean … who shall say?”

Then we turn to activities after Wednesday. Jane went for a walk. Happily (she says) it provided her with someone to unload Anne Grant’s Letters to the Mountains onto. Jane said she found the walk agreeable and if the others didn’t, the fault was theirs, for “I was quite as entertaining as she was.”

Dame G. is pretty well, & we found her surrounded by her well-behaved, healthy, large-eyed Children. — I took her an old Shift & promised her a set of our Linen; & my Companion left some of her Bank Stock’? with her

We might stop here and consider the typical character or core of a satirist. It often does come from alienation of some sort. Then a sudden drop down to calm decency. Austen was not irritated by the poor villagers they visited. They aroused no antagonisms.

And then we get a reference to a Tuesday which is I think a quiet reference to the game of Tuesdays in the novels:: “Tuesday has done its duty & I have had the pleasure of reading a very comfortable Letter.” It had a lot in it, the cover written on, and Austen’s mood improves after she reads it.


1983 BBC MP: Nicholas Farrell as Edmund listening with distaste and discomfort to

Jackie Smith-Wood as Mary talking of how admired are men in the professions (unlike clergymen)

The last part of the letter is not as barbed nor does Austen get a kick out of mocking other people or showing herself to have been disdainful of things she for the moment deems beneath her (like the cart). She really does not like these social occasions with people whose minds she finds imbecilic, and with no reference to arouse her competitiveness, her shots after Tuesday are limited to those who’ve genuinely taken potshots at her or have hurt her for real in some way.

Potshots include Mrs Bramston:

LeFaye shows herself a pro-family editor. Austen says Mrs Bramston is the sort of woman she detests. Why? LeFaye without admitting she is justifying Austen offers the “information” in her appendix that John Byng said she was “an artful worldly woman, of a notable self-sufficient capacity, … not selon mon gout; and her son is letter better than a blockhead,” to which LeFaye adds one of the two Mrs Bramstons thought “the first three of JA’s publishd novels boring and nonsensical.” A stupid woman: the boring gives it away. She probably let it be known she despised _S&S; this tells us the people in the neighborhood all around knew the authoress was none other than Miss Austen.

People who have hurt her (or other members of the family) include the people who took Steventon: so Austen says she does not recognize Steventon from Cassandra’s description of if justifying why probably Mary and James too behave the way they do, not omitting Anna’s responses to them:

I cannot imagine what sort of place Steventon can be.

Cassandra has been saying see how Mary is not so bad, and Austen acknowledges “kind intentions”). But Mrs Austen not keen on sharing the cooked pork; better to offer a share in the pigs. (Well yuk, maybe it is not so nice to have someone send cooked stuff that are left-overs. The parallel is in Emma where the rich Woodhouses and Emma remember to send pork to Miss Bates and Jane. Here Mary is in the position of the grand lady Emma and Austen’s mother and herself Miss Bates and Jane.

But in turn Mrs Austen is just filled with “great pleasure” to send a pair of garters and “is very glad she had them ready knit.” Enigmatic in tone because probably the mother did not feel about all this the way Austen patently does — she thinks the whole thing absurd – as we can see from how this “twig” entered _Emma_.

I thank Christy for identifying the specific Papillon Jane found herself having nearly to sit down to whist with. There Austen after all found the suggestion she marry him grating enough to hold the grudge in her letters.

I read Diana on the reference to Gibraltar in MP. But Diana ignores the meaning of the passage she quotes, its political content which fits into this letter.

It’s interesting because it shows one of the characters intuitively uncomfortable with what the author Austen is so keen in this letter would think would exult him. Pasley’s imperialism (and those who want to see MP as about colonialism do not usually remember she said she likes Pasley as much as Clarkson) would suggest people dressing up in uniform because they’ve been promoted should exult. Not Edmund. Only Fanny reconciles him to anything. Edmund is a portrait of someone not for sale, someone who does not want a position or place that does not involve him in duties his conscience makes palatable to him.

Here we can compare bring Austen’s MP in comparison with Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde: Montgomery a lord who has no money must force himself to take a job with the East India company (just the sort of thing Mary Crawford would respect) and knows it will be distasteful and require him to exploit the natives; Edmund does not make such a distaste explicit but it’s behind his enigmatic comment to Mary that he would have to do things for the kinds of positions she wants to take he would not be able to endure.

This is a good place to see how Austen’s fiction slips away from her conscious meaning — probably upon a revision. She is “in character,” Edmund a hero in her mind and we have an anti-imperialistic stance towards uniforms. By contrast, William is continually apparently naive and will take promotion and riches at any price; Austen says at one point he was not too kind to another man aboard his ship as he wished he could supersede him when the guy died. This is precisely Tom’s attitude towards Dr Grant. Very human.

So after the important event of the Tuesday (some Tuesdays are not bad, they are rather important), the comfortable letter from Cassandra, what do we have? mostly a thicket of gossip and doings.

She’s glad to go for walks. As she knows “Mary is interested” to know that Miss Benn is not neglected, Mary is to be told that Miss B dined last Wednesday at Mr Papillons.”

Another hit. It’s sarcastic. How lucky is Miss Benn. (Of course like Marianne Jane is forgetting perhaps Miss Benn might have enjoyed it? Maybe Miss Benn was no fool. And we get a list of people she dined with in a row. She had little money for food let us recall. Once she even wore her new shawl! Remember how they had to be sure not to buy her a too nice one for then she’d never wear it.

Jane is glad to hear that Martha is not at Barton. No wonder she hardly mentioned the employer. There is no barb here, only (perhaps) a reference to something under the bed. It could be dogs, but LeFaye reminds us that the single ladies at Cranford had myths about spirits beneath the beds both mischievous and protecting.

I had fancied that Martha would be at Barton from last Saturday, but am best pleased to be mistaken. I hope she is now quite well. — Tell her that I hunt away the rogues” every night from under her bed; they feel the difference of her being gone. —

Not far from it is this delight in walking and in winter no matter how filthy, greasy, cold, and ugly the roads: It’s here the slightly demented gaiety comes out.

A very sloppy lane” last Friday! — What an odd sort of country you must be in! I cannot at all understand it! It was just greasy here on Friday, in consequence of the little snow that had fallen in the night. — Perhaps it was cold on Wednesday, yes, I beleive it certainly was — but nothing terrible.-Upon the whole, the Weather for Winter-weather is delightful, the walking excellent.

It seems that Anna is going to come to Chawton for a visit. Mrs Austen’s letter will be forwarded by someone else (saving postage) but if they do not manage it, Anna will have it to read when she comes.

Scarlets is the country estate where the harridan Aunt, Jane-Austen Leigh resides. Austen is glad to hear anything “so tolerable” of them from Mr Leigh’s letter,. (He will double-cross them; he leads them to think he will share his wealth with Mrs Austen and hers when he dies but leaves it all to his wife who then holds it of over JEAL’s head for years to come).

“Poor Charles and his frigate. But there could be no chance of his having one, while it was thought such a certainty.” Charles not given a frigate. She’s ironic. Because they want something, things are against us.

The letter ends with a hit at Anna’s suitor’s news — she can scarcely believe him) and her dismissal/irritation at Mrs Bramston. She says she had rather been called liar by Mr Cotterell than to excite no interest in Mrs Bramston who (see above) insulted her book perhaps knowing it would get round to her.

Jane in form,

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Gerard Depardieu as “the fake” Martin Guerre (1982 The Return, based on a novel, “The Wife of” by Janet Lewis, screenplay based on Natalie Zemon Davis’s book, Jean-Claude Carriere; director Daniel Vigne)

Dear friends and readers,

No this is not about the wonderful film adaptation, though I do include a source in the form of a widely-read Cause Celebre. In 18th century France lawyers routinely published judicial memoirs in which they told of cases they were arguing in court; addressed to judges, they were written so many readers could read them and were ways of trying to influence a local public; the popularity of these attracted two groups of people (I generalize): people who wanted to sell these apparently fascinating stories and those who were reformers and wanted to change norms. One enormously important influential (fluent, eloquent, intelligent) compendium was written and compiled over many years by Nicolas-Toussaint Le Moyne Des Essarts (1744-1810), and it contained the story of the two Martin Guerres.

As I wrote the other day I’m into 2 projects for this summer and early fall which are leading me back to favorite romantic and French books and themes, and hope to write about these here. First up, is Charlotte Smith’s Romance of Real Life: in 1787 she produced 3 volumes of stories from two of the more popular redactions of Des Essarts: Francois Gayot Pitaval’s and Francois Richer’s, both called Causes Celebres et Interessants (1735-44). I’ve read summaries and redactions in Mary’s Trouille’s Wife Abuse in 18th Century France and Sarah Maza’s Private Lives and Public Affairs. I write this blog to suggest Smith’s little lives, for a while a popular read, are not quite accurately represented in what has been written about them in biographies and literary accounts of Smith, nor in Michael Garner’s introduction to Pickering and Chatto’s edition of The Romance of Real Life.

Much that he and others have said is true of them. Enormously shortened, they often focus on a vulnerable heroine, but they are more than abridged. They omit the arguments of the different sides, so unless Smith is particularly interested in these, they are hollowed out narratives that she shapes. Further, most of the time the heroine is lost amid a welter of detail about everyone else involved (family, sometimes friends),and the final lesson drawn is not necessarily in her favor. Rather story after story by Smith reveals to us how the legal and economic arrangements of the ancien regime, daily familial customs, create hatred and resentment and can lead to murder and profound injustice and misery. She brings out first repeatedly how everything is inherited by one person (a male), how everyone in the family has to live with this one man, or obey his ideas or the ideas of those who control or are close to him, and how this creates the hatreds and resentments that give rise to the misery, thievery, occasional murders, physical abuse and threats to women the cases make visible.


William Hogarth (1697-1764), The Denunciation

So, for example, in “The Count de St Geran” (Volume 2, pp 187-204 in Pickering and Chatto) where various family members seek to murder a wife’s newborn son, the origin of the action is a brother who wants to inherit the property. This is one of Smith’s longer stories and she depicts the whole households, the interactions and motives of the different people with a different relationship to the property and heir. This emphasis or perspective may be seen at length, dramatized in Smith’s The Young Philosopher where the Kilbrodie family, led by an older woman, succeed in treating one of our two heroines, Laura Glenmorris so badly during her pregnancy that her eldest born son dies.

“The Contested Marriage” is another lengthy tale (Volume 1, pp 167-77). Here Smith shows us a worthy young pair of people who want to defy their parents and marry for love and do. We see how the parents are relentless and even after marriage and the birth of children seek to destroy the marriage. In this story Smith produces arguments which in Prevost’s Manon Lescaut (translated very sympathetically by her as Manon Lescaut, or The Fatal Attachment) support Des Grieux, but for his criminal behavior — and that criminal behavior is something Grieux is driven to. In both Prevost and Smith’s texts the point is made explicitly that Grieux would have married Manon early on and gone to live with his father again had the father permitted. In “The Contested Marriage” the marriage is not wholly valid because the law forbids young people to marry who are under 25/30 w/o parental consent. Here her emphasis is on how legal arrangements pervert everyone to behave either illegally or immorally.

Tellingly, Smith depends on her reader to feel how awful is the parents’ continual appeal to legal forms when children have been born, against what I’ll call an inner sense of reality and justice, or fairness. And in all her stories she rings the changes on words like justice, the “heart” (our hearts are supposed to “revolt” at cruel practices), “terror”, “treachery” to our “affections,” and “atrocious behavior.”

Not that females are not shown (implicitly, not explicitly) especially vulnerable. “The Deserted Daughter” (Volume 1, pp. 152-59) is a good example of how females are shown to be vulnerable, but at the same time how Smith’s idea is not to show sympathy for the woman’s risk, lack of power, but rather how property arrangements can hinge on chances, and perversions of feeling emerge when variously desperate and (by virtue of the original arrangements) suspicious people have to cope with realities that result. This too is one of the longer tales.

Emma Brownlow King, The Foundling Restored to Its Mother (1858) — in the 19th century we begin to see sympathy for a women in a woman painter

Smith tells of a child who was born 7 months after her parents were re-united after a separation. As in Mary Trouille’s cases, we find an instance where a very old man (age 69) had been married to a young woman (29). Joachim Cognot just could not accept that his wife had a premature infant, and he farms her out to a woman, Frances Fremont, agreeing to pay her for her service, but in a short while stopping payment. The woman conceives real affection for the daughter and brings her up for 14 years but when she discovers who the mother is, goes to both parents to demand payment. The mother’s conduct shows wavering: she grieves when her baby daughter is taken from her, but then lavishes attention on the one son; when the nurse comes for the money, she supports her husband in refusing to pay; she and the husband do take the daughter, called Mary into their house as a servants, but after he dies, her mother begins to treat her as a real daughter, providing for her a suitable match, but after she marries again, becoming Madame Coquant, herself does all she can to marginalize this daughter. The court after much chicanery on the part of the Madame Coquant, finds for the daughter a right to half the legacy from the original legal father.

Amid all this Smith never loses sight of its origin: a premature baby and father’s angry suspicions. She does not produce a feminist argument against the man who would not accept this child — we never know that there was another man nor who he could have been, but rather warns the reader against “such indiscretions.” A contrast is found in Winston Graham’s Poldark novels where intense sympathy is extended to a heroine who is raped by one of the heroes, conceives a child, but married to his enemy must deal with his suspicions about her 8-month pregnancy. When after much emotional abuse heaped not only on her but the son, she takes a concoction which leads to premature birth (but also risks infection and death), and dies, we are told these two men between them killed her. Her son, Valentine (ironically named) grows up twisted. Graham’s 18th century series often has paradigms which imitate 18th century novel paradigms or realities from an instinctively feminist point of view.

Smith is somewhat interested in the mother’s treachery to her daughter, but not alive to the different mothers the girl had nor that she could be considered a child traumatized by too many re-adoptions, something we do see in novels of the era, including her own.

“The Pretended Martin Guerre” is yet another of Smith’s longer stories, and again a modern treatment brings out what is Smith’s emphasis. Smith’s title indicates how she agrees with what she supposes are conventional sympathies of the reader. Natalie Zemon Davies goes into the subtle psychological nexus we can glimpse even in Smith’s abridgement: the real Martin Guerre fled his parents and wife because he had been impotent and had been shamed and pressured over his failure to be masculine in the appropriate way. Davies sympathizes with the wife’s divagations and terror of her first husband (I’ll call him) and also makes the case that our identities are partly or even largely the result of not on inner selves, but who and what we are asked to enact. This idea is found in Anthony Trollope’s novels about children declared illegitimate as opposed to those granted legitimacy.

The film at times presents a perspective like Smith’s — but not the wife at the center

Smith’s interest is in showing how economic and social arrangements lead to deep perversions and troubles in particular family groups. She emphasizes how the case was brought by an angry deprived relative: Martin’s uncle, aided and abetted by Martin’s wife, Bertrande, originally from a rich family (but that gave her personally no power), who was swayed back and forth by need, fear, her vulnerability. There we do see the woman’s perspective. Bertrande needed a husband, one adequate to produce the heir with her; when the “real” Martin turns up we are made to see he is an angry man and may have beaten and will beat her again. More is known as this went from court to court and had the unusual end result of a real claiment turning up: often these claiments are false, with the original man really dead. Smith goes over the arguments and the welter of emotiona that arises and perspectives turns her book into an anticipation of Leonard Woolf’s horror stories of family in a traditional village, The Village in the Jungle (Woolf was a magistrate for many years in “Ceylon”).


To conclude, the first story in the volume is the horrifying one of the Marquise de Gange (Volume 1, pp 131-59), made familiar to readers since Sade’s story, Dumas’s novel and other retellings. In Smith’s a great deal of space is spent on the Marquise’s earlier history, including her first marriage, so that we feel we are entering the world of 17th century romance redolent of Madame de Lafayette. Smith cuts short (hardly mentions except as something claimed by the marquise’s mother) the beatings of this woman, the sexual rage of the husband; rather it seems a story of “avarice” and “revenge,” that revenge partly brought on by the heroine herself for laughing at the young stupider brother. Smith is at a loss to explain the “excess of cruelty” here and spends space and time on the agonies the marquise experienced from the shots and poison, and after life of the second brother, the Abbey who escaped punishment by the way in which he elsewhere manipulated the norms and manners. “The Chevalier de Morsan” (Volume 3, pp. 249-74) is a long, the last story, “Renee Corbeau” (Volume 3, pp. 284-85) short high-romance.

But when totally serious what fuels these tales are the ironies and distortions of life set up by customs and laws, fearful worlds they are of violence, of inter-familial hatreds and abuses, desperate intense concern for money, public pride, status in circumstances which exacerbate the rigidity of these laws and horrendous punishments just thrown off. “La Pivardiere” (Volume 1, pp 160-166) about a bigamy case, one of whose victims is whipped, burnt with a hot iron, and exiled to poverty “fore ever. It is not good to be a woman in this world, and not possible to defend yourself against a violent man, but that’s not Smith’s central point. Her central idea is might be said to be to put before us what her later reform minded heroes (Desmond in his novel of the same name, Armitage in The Young Philosopher) assume is the case in life and needs radical change, not just in law but custom.

That this is will be supported by a tale still in print though the author’s name not well-known, Annette von Drost-Hulshoff’s novella, The Jews Beech, about which I hope to write a foremother poet blog soon. It may seem a mild instance but I suggest Austen gets at this too when she has Elizabeth tell Lady Catherine de Bough when Lady Catherine is indignant at the idea that the younger daughters are out before Jane Bennet, the eldest is married or at least engaged: she does not think such behavior conducive to encouraging kindness among sisters.

They also contrast very sharply with the popular sentimental and gothic tales of the era, with their unreal castles, pursuits and pirates, and gushing exemplary emotionalisms (gratitude) on the one side and supposed quiet domestic realism on the other (from Sarah Fielding and Charlotte Lennox to Jane Austen and Elizabeth Inchbald say). I think they justify and like some of her novels are said to have done (The Old Manor House as precursor for Bleak House) the later melodramatic novels of the Victorian era.

Richard Redgrave (1804-1888), The Outcast (1851)


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