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Bath House, for Mrs James Henry Leigh by John Adey (1755-1860, Humphry Repton’s son)

“Those cottages are really a disgrace. The church spire is reckoned remarkably handsome. I am glad the church is not so close to the great house as often happens in old places. The annoyance of the bells must be terrible. There is the parsonage: a tidy–looking house, and I understand the clergyman and his wife are very decent people. Those are almshouses, built by some of the family. To the right is the steward’s house; he is a very respectable man. Now we are coming to the lodge–gates; but we have nearly a mile through the park still. It is not ugly, you see, at this end; there is some fine timber, but the situation of the house is dreadful. We go down hill to it for half a mile, and it is a pity, for it would not be an ill–looking place if it had a better approach — Mansfield Park, Chapter 9

“… the Cobb itself, its old wonders and new improvements, with the very beautiful line of cliffs stretching out to the east of the town, are what the stranger’s eye will seek; and a very strange stranger it must be, who does not see charms in the immediate environs of Lyme, to make him wish to know it better. The scenes in its neighbourhood, Charmouth, with its high grounds and extensive sweeps of country, and still more its sweet, retired bay, backed by dark cliffs, where fragments of low rock among the sands make it the happiest spot for watching the flow of the tide, for sitting in unwearied contemplation; the woody varieties of the cheerful village of Up Lyme; and, above all, Pinny, with its green chasms between romantic rocks, where the scattered forest-trees and orchards of luxuriant growth declare that many a generation must have passed away since the first partial falling of the cliff prepared the ground for such a state, where a scene so wonderful and so lovely is exhibited, as may more than equal any of the resembling scenes of the far-famed Isle of Wight: these places must be visited, and visited again to make the worth of Lyme understood — ” Persuasion, Chapter 11

Dear friends and readers,

I thought before going on to notes from my last conference this fall, “EC/ASECS: The Strange and Familiar,” I would devote a working blog to my project and thinking about “Ekphrastic patterns in Jane Austen.” After all this is supposed a blog focusing on Jane Austen.

For the past month, I’ve been slowly making my way through Austen’s famous six novels alongside many studies of the picturesque in landscaping, about landscape architects in her era and their debates, on how literary people, gardeners, historians have approached the mode (especially different when it comes to the use of enclosures to take the land from the propertyless and vulnerable), and how writers about Austen in particular place her and her novels in these debates. One might expect her outlook to change because the worlds of her books have different emphases, and since her stance towards life changed over the years: from (generalizing) a mildly rebellious, personally acid (as a woman) point of view to seriously politically grave and questioning, to acceptance, ever with irony, mockery of the very gothic mode she had loved, to late melancholy over what she wished she had known, and a new valuation of the sheerly aesthetic.

Yet I find broadly across the thirty years of writing life (1787-1816/7) a sameness, a steady holdfast to a point of view. This may be voiced as a strong adherence to judging what is presented as aesthetically pleasing or true by its usefulness. How far is what is created useful for those who live in or near it — use includes how much comfort and pleasure an individual can have from art, which seems to depend how far it works with the natural world (or against it, destroys the natural world), at what cost does this use come, and she counts as cost not only the removal of people and destruction or neglect of their livelihoods (especially in Mansfield Park and Emma), but how far it erases history or the past which she sees as giving meaning to the present through group memory and identity. She excoriates those who seek only status through their purchases and efforts, shaping what emerges from this motive as hypocritical at least as regards joy in all the aspects of the natural world, and disrespectful of animals, plants, whatever has been built. There’s nothing she despises more than someone who professes to love something because it’s fashionable — as say the gussied-up cottage. She has little use for celebrities: partly she is too snobbish and proud to chase after someone whose work so many profess to admire but in fact understand little of. To appreciate any art, no matter what it is, from drawing, to singing and playing an instrument, to curating (as it were) an estate, you must do it diligently and caring how it will turn out for its own sake, not for the reward you might personally get.

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John Linnell (1792-1882), Gravel Pits in Kensington (1812)

This is what I found to be true of the implied author’s attitudes and to account for the treatment of pictorialism wherever it be found in her works. I began with the idea that she found very funny viewers, readers who approach art and judge it insofar as it literally imitates what happens in life: walking in the autumn or death of the year, sitting in a garden in the cool fall, working in a kitchen, aboard a boat — these three are the subject of aesthetic conversations, however brief, in, respectively Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion. Now I see she partly wants to take aboard critiques from characters who never forget the practical realities of life, so remain unable to engage with improbable conventions of design, typical scene drawing, and what’s left out and/or assumed. The aesthetically naive or obtuse reaction has something direct to tell us about what is the relationship of what is seen to person seeing. I originally saw in the gap between artistic convention in a medium and what it’s representing in real life as allowing for enjoyment in contemplating how the convention is just a convention and we could presumably choose another. So we are free in art. Now I’m seeing the importance of going outside convention, our own enjoyment of whatever it is, to understand ourselves better. Then we can do justice to others who may not be able to respond imaginatively on a sophisticated level but have other valuable traits.

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John Crome (1768-1821), A Heath

This is a very serious or moral way of putting this matter but I think in what seems to be the beginning of an era of indifference to the needs of others, to previous understood relationships, to truth anything less is a further betrayal.
I found myself so strengthened by Austen as I went along (as I have been before) this time because in contrast our world outside is seeing remorseless attacks on the natural world, most people inhabiting the earth, worship of pretension, competition for rank and accumulation of money at whatever cost to others and group loyalty (never mind what to). A different version of these latter probably dominated the world-centers and made the later 18th century world the suffering-drenched place it was, but there were at the time groups of reformists, revolutionaries who were (to use FDR’s formulation) for a much better deal for all, even including animals.

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George Morland (1763-1804), The Artist’s Cat Drinking

I’m going to hold back on working this thought pattern out in close reading of appropriate places in Austen’s books for my paper, and here just briefly survey one old-fashioned book published surprisingly recently (1996) for the way Austen is treated as knitted to and writing for her family.  Matey belongs to those who read Austen’s books as non-critical of her era, to some extent unexamined creations (staying away from “politics”), belonging to a closed small world of what I’d call rentier elites. I thoroughly disagree with most of this; I think Austen’s outlook to be so much larger than this, and critical of her world and family too, but Batey understands what is provable by close reading and relevant documents (which recent published critics seem not to). Matey’s book is good because Matey uses the particulars of Austen’s family’s lives and their neighborhood (and its inhabitants), their properties and how they treated them wisely.  She looks at how authors that Austen is known to have read or from her novels probably knew and how their topics and attitudes are treated in Austen’s books. Her documented sources  are books Austen quotes, alludes to, or are unmistakably part of her text). She researched about these common sensically and with discrimination, ever thinking of what is Austen’s tone as Batey decides whether this or that text or garden place or drawing could be meant to be part of Austen’s discourse.

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Contemporary illustration: Box Hill

Each of the chapters is attached either to a period of Austen’s life or one or a group of her texts; they all have beautifully appropriate reproductions of picturesque landscapes; they all pick up on some aspect of debates on the picturesque in the era, often closely attached to, coming out of the particular Austen texts (but not always). “The Background” (1) tells of Austen’s family’s life briefly, how they lived in picturesque landscapes, how Edward the third brother was adopted by a rich couple who gifted him with immense wealth in the form of two country mansions and wide lands with all the patronage, rents, and power and education that came with that. The Austen family is presented as highly intelligent, wanting few personal relationships outside themselves (unless it be for promotion) and their gentry world. Austen wrote for her family is Batey’s assumption. We learn how Austen grew up inside “The Familiar Rural Scene” (2), loved Cowper, band egan her first long novel as epistolary narrative .  Batey dwells on Austen’s love of Cowper and how his poetry educated her into the kind of writing she did. Cowper is much quoted, how Marianne is passionate over his verse, Fanny has imbibed it in the deepest recesses of feeling and memory.

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Selbourne today —

Batey swerves slightly in “Agonies of Sensibility” (3): as she is herself politically deeply conservative, she makes fun (unexpectedly given how she’s presented Austen thus far) of the writers and the texts she says influenced Austen profoundly: Goethe’s Sorrows of Werther (where, I suggest, the hero kills himself as much because he has to live in a sycophantic court as any love affair he has), Charlotte Smith’s deeply depressed poetry and more desperate novels (highly critical of the social and political arrangements of the day): as with Cowper, Batey quotes at length and Smith’s poetry does justice to itself. Batey shows how the family paper, The Loiterer mocks “Rousseau’s half-baked” (her words) ideas. She goes over the juvenilia she can link directly to the family members: “Henry and Eliza” where she uses names and places of people close by:

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Lady Harcourt’s flower garden in Nuneham Courtenay (based on precepts in Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Heloise)

The same paradoxical pull-back shapes her “The Gothic Imagination” (4):  Batey talks of “the whine” of this material: the graveyard poets, the grand tour, Ossian, Blake. Batey does not take seriously any of this as deriving from contemporary anguish; her perspective is that of the aesthete (very 1950s American); she discuss the sublime from Burke apolitically, the lucky landowners, and even (or perhaps especially because ever sceptical). Samuel Johnson is hauled for his sceptical assessments (no sign of his Journey to the Western Islands). So Batey’s outlook on Northanger Abbey is it is about this “craze” which Austen saw through. Nonetheless, she quotes tastefully, and you can come away from this chapter with a much richer terrain and Austen text than Batey herself allows for. And she combines, so Smith’s Emmeline now comes in. She quotes from the effective presence of the abbey, the Tilney’s conversations on the picturesque and history, Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest as found in Austen’s text (amply quoted with illustrations appropriate).

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Thomas Jones (1742-1803), The Bard

Batey has not heard of feminism but she does know these are women’s texts and includes a reproduction of an landscape by a woman I’d never seen before but alas tells nothing of the artist, not even her first name:

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Lady Leighton, a watercolor of the gothic seat at Plas Newyd where the ladies of Langollen (a famous lesbian couple) read Ossian together (it was said).

I must start to condense. “Enamoured of Gilpin on the Picturesque” (5) and “The Beautiful Grounds at Pemberley” (6) contain a valuable discussion of Gilpin, who he was, how he came to wander all over England and write books on landscape and accompany them with evocative illustrations. She goes over the flaws in these (they are semi-fake, omitting all that is unpleasant, like exhausted hard-working human beings, and “eyesores” like mines), his theoretical works, of course the mockery of him (Batey is big on this). She does tell how Richard Payne Knight and Uvedale Price exposed the way these landscapes avoided showing how exploitative of the people and landscape products (for use) these enclosures and picturesque-makers were, but does not apply this to Austen: rather she quotes Marianne either engaged with the sublimely or critical of hypocritical cant. For the Sense and Sensibility discussion (where Batey stays on the surface again) she includes many lovely black-and-white and grey illustrations of real landscapes (ruins that real, i.e., crumbling buildings), tourist sites (Netley Abbey to which Austen’s family came). The productions for Pemberley are gorgeously colored: a Turner, a Joseph Wright of Derby, photographs of vast green hills. For Pride and Prejudice Batey simply dwells on the visit to Pemberley saying how unusually detailed it is, without asking why. She does notice Darcy has left much of the original placement of streams in place, and invites gentlemen to fish there; but how is it that every window has a gorgeous view from it, how did this come about, were these specifics originally related to some discussion (in a previous longer P&P) of how Darcy made the landscape never crosses her mind.

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Batey thinks Ilam Circuit walk gives us a sense of what was to be seen outside Pemberley windows

No matter how much was “lopp’d and chopp’d” says Batey, we have all in place that we need.

Batey approves of the chapters on Mansfield Park, “A Mere Nothing Before Repton (7)” and Emma, “The Responsible Landlord” (8), because there is so much serious criticism of the picturesque which Batey finds herself able to enter into in the first (land should be useful, should honor history, the church). She has a fine thorough discussion of Stoneleigh Abbey which Mrs Austen’s cousin tried to take over when its owners died so took his aunt and her daughter with him, possession being nine points of the law: the letters are quoted and they feel like a source for Northanger Abbey. Repton’s work for the Austens as well as generally is done far more justice to than Mr Rushworth ever understands.

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Stoneleigh Abbey before (Batey includes an “after” too: all the animals, the gardening work are removed as unsightly)

Batey believes Mr Knightley is modeled on Austen’s wealthy brother, Edward, who did work his own land, who valued his cows, who was conscientious — within limits: she does not bring out how later in life Edward was among those who refused to pay for a share of improvements of roads as he himself would not profit from it (we can’t do that, must not share). She does not seem to realize the earlier portrait of John Dashwood is also Edward nor that Edmund (whom she also identifies with Edward) is more than a little dense. But yes Mr Knightley is our ideal steward of land, working hard to make sure all can get something from nature (though, let me add, some do get more than others as the pigs in Animal Farm said was only right), and has not bowed to fashion, kept his trees, his house in a low sheltered place, has not spent enormously for “an approach.”

It comes as no surprise that Batey’s last chapter, “The Romantic Tide” (9), does not concentrate on Persuasion or Sanditon. These do not fit into her idealization of wealthy mansions, landscapes of and from power (I’d call them) . The aesthetic debates of MP and Emma set in a larger social context do not reach her radar. Thus that the Elliots have lost their house as Austen’s sixth longer book begins, the money basis of the economy, of war (Wentworth’s business like William Price’s is when called for killing and grabbing the property of others) and increasingly transient nature of existence for the fringe gentry are not topics here. We begin in Upper Cross but move to dress and harps in Mansfield Park (Regency costume enables Batey to bring in Fanny Knight and Austen’s times together in London). The furor over cottages orne probably represents an association from Mary Musgrove’s house, but the details are now all taken from the satire on Robert Ferrars’s despising of large buildings, worship of cottages and hiring Bonomi (without further context) in Sense and Sensibility. Sanditon‘s seaside gives way to “the insufferable Mrs Elton’s” lack of a real abode, her origins in trade in Bristol, and Lydia Bennet’s vulgarity. Batey’s text turns snobbish itself.

Where originality comes in again is not the sublimity of the sea, but in how the Austens enjoyed themselves in summer after summer of Austen’s last few years on the coast, “undeterred by threats of invasion.” Batey thinks the source place for Sanditon Bognor, which made a great deal of money for its entrepreneur, something what we have of the fragment suggests Mr Parker will not do. Anna Lefroy’s apt continuation has him going broke but for brother Sidney, a hero only heard of in the extant text. Jane Austen, we are told, disapproved of challenges to the traditional way of life, was against exploiting sickness and hypochondriacs like the Parker sisters. Batey seems to forget Austen was herself dying but includes the idea she “had little time for the socialistic propaganda of William Godwin”! In Sanditon Austen is harsh towards Burns and (we know from her letters) was strongly enamored of Crabbe — he has a hard look at nature and the rural landscape. A Fanny Price, name and character type, the story of a couple separated as imprudent with no retrieval are found in Crabbe. However, as Batey acknowledges in her book’s last few paragraphs, in Persuasion Austen revels in Charmouth, Pinny, Lyme.

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William Turner, watercolor of Lyme Regis seen from Charmouth — Austen stayed there in 1803 and 180 and Anne Elliot discusses romantic poetry with Captain Benwick there

Batey’s is a useful book if you don’t look in it for any perception of why Austen was compelled to write and the full complicated nature of her texts. If it seems to be, it is not much different from Janine Barchas’s comparable History, Location and Celebrity, recent, respected: Barchas’s book is not filled with matters of fact in Austen, but in other books (of genealogy), in Barchas’s case buildings Austen never mentions (interesting if lurid), in amoral people not connected to her except by chance of first or last names (of which Austen does not have much variety). A “proof” can hinge on a number: Thorpe and Catherine have driven seven miles to one place, well seven miles in another there is this other gothic place, and Barchas has her subject matter. Both give us historical context, and between the two, Barchas remains speculative, a matter of adding one speculation to the next, and then crowding them around a text that never mentions them; Batey has the merit of writing about texts and movements Austen discussed, alludes to, quotes from, places we know for sure she visited, lived in. Both have good bibliographical references and you can use them as little encyclopedias.

Ellen

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There can be no such thing as an isolated utterance. It always presupposes utterance that precede and follow it … there can neither be a first nor a last meaning; [what can be understood] always exists among other meanings as a link in the chain of meaning, which in its totality is the only thing that can be real. In historical life this chain continues infinitely, and therefore each individual link in it is renewed again and again, as though it were being reborn (M.M. Bakhtin, “From Notes Made in 190-71”, 1979)

You may recall my favorite saying: we are human because we can create works of art, and conjure up happy islands in the midst of life’s unhappy, restless, polluted streams (George Lukacs, “On Poverty of Spirit,” 1911) — epigraphs from Anthony Lee’s paper [described below]

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Claude Lorraine (1600-82), Pastoral Landscape (1648)

Dear friends and readers,

It’s been 3 weeks since I attended the East Central American Society for 18th century studies meeting in Philadelphia. As I said, it included on Thursday night a performance of an abridged yet revealing version of Elizabeth Inchbald’s Lovers’ Vows. The theme, a popular one in the 18th century, prompted some fine panels and papers.

I here discuss the poetry of retirement and uses of re-appraisal, reading, life-writing in Johnson and Thrale as reflected in papers given on two of the panels that took place on Friday morning. As I’ve said before, these are notes I took while listening to some excellent papers, summaries of what I was able to get the gist of.

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First up was my own panel, “The Retirement Poem,” to which I had planned to contribute a paper on Anne Finch. I was not able to write the paper, but had received 3 excellent proposals which resulted in 3 stimulating diverse papers.

Frank Parks’s “Morality, Politics and the Poetry of Retirement in Early American Newspapers” was about the the colonial retirement poems published in Virginia in which we find worldly values rejected, rural life for settings, often placed outside historical time and misanthropy. Prof Parks described several specific poems where we find speakers seeking happiness, edifying people with moral guidance and political issues, advocating freeing oneself of ambition, competition, and hassles. One, Richard Lewis’s “Rhapsody” was a kind of businessman’s prayer; in another, happiness without domestic tranquility is elusive; a third was about exercising “reason,” while the poet’s mind wandered in favorite poems. An anonymous poem, “On Retirement” ends with a man having retreated sufficiently so he cannot hear from “from far/Of tumults, and descents, and distant war.”

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John Constable (1776-1837), Cenotaph to Memory of Reynolds (1833)

Jonathan Williams’s “Warton’s Woe: The Ethics of Retirement in 18th century Melancholy poetry,” was ultimately an explanation and defense of the mood of pleasing melancholy as it was understood in the later 18th century. Historians have tended to dismiss this mood (Panofsky) as trite, insincere, insipid; Jonathan discussed Thomas Warton’s early “The Pleasures of Melancholy,” where Spenser’s Faerie Queene and heroine, Una (who “inspires lengthy contemplation”), are much preferred to Pope’s “Rape of the Lock,” and heroine, Belinda, which the poem is said to present immediate vain pleasures, shallow and erotic ones dependent upon much pettier emotions. Jonathan argued seeing into such a poem enables one to participate in the 18th century community shifts of taste; in Warton’s poem an “interior investment” was part of a wholescales shift in literary taste.

Mike Parker’s paper on Edmund Waller in retirement, “Nobler Resolutions,” took us on a journey across Waller’s career. Waller was much influenced by friends, by immediate political situations, by his personal life. He abandons his seat in Commons in 1679 after a decade spent writing (creating?) Caroline poetry, rejects what he had been doing (politically allied poems), and turns to poems on affairs of state until Marvel’s critique soured Waller who then was inspired to write poems by a small coterie of women friends who wrote retirement poems: Anne Wharton (who was grateful for Waller’s respectful attention), Catherine Jones, Anne Finch. Lastly politics of a war war (against the Turks) led Waller to write an epic, whose last lines (among his last) were about the power of death’s approach.

The discussion afterward was lively; most people in the audience of at least 15 joined in at some point. I suggested that the plantations and farms of Virginia were business ventures, where owners were continually fighting debt, using patronage wherever they could. It was suggested that Warton’s “Pleasures of Melancholy” came early in his career and that Jonathan Williams ought to bring into his account much of Warton’s later work:; that Dodsley as a publisher is dictating a taste quite different from Pope’s Dunciad. Prof Parker added that Waller was a rich man coping with literary loneliness; his biography has been complicated by false assumptions, as for example, he never went to Bermuda. Someone offered the insight that writing out of retirement enables people to enter publicly into the printed medium, a kind of poignant mask, a rite of passage.

I and others suggested that women’s retirement poems were quite different from these males’ — circulated in manuscript, about friendship, the creation of counter-universes. It was mentioned that Coleridge used the knowledge that melancholy provides (so did Anne Finch) and elegy theorizes to be melancholy.

It was around then that I did get to say a little summary of the paper I would have given had I been able: that Anne Finch used the poetry of retirement to work out a modus vivendi for herself that she could live with: she had to give up ambition when she saw its price and milieu to find peace. She analysed her own experience of depression to help cope with it, and thus provided a form of knowledge out of her clear awareness of what depression entails. She explored her inability to sleep, and what she found in the natural world useful for understanding life. She used certain images she identified with, trees for example; and especially the bird as metaphors for the stages of her own condition. Her nature poetry is allegorical. There are not two sides to her poetry, one embodied in her “Spleen” and the other in her “Nocturnal Reverie,” but rather they are two aspects of one vision and sensibility.

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Samuel Johnson (1775) concentrated by reading by Joshua Reynolds (1723-92)

I then went to a panel on Samuel Johnson and his associates and I heard two papers emphasizing the reappraisal and renewal aspect of the topic of retirement. Anthony Lee presented an intertextual reading of Johnson’s “London” (itself an imitation of Juvenal’s third satire). Prof Lee expatiated on allusions in Johnson’s poem to versions of a couplet found in Dryden, Pope, Horace, Juvenal, Milton: “Some safer world in depth of woods embrac’d,/Some happier island in the watry waste.” He asked why Johnson shifted from one source to another in his career.

Stephen Scherwatzky speculated about why Johnson who valued autobiography destroyed his own and wrote biography. He quoted Johnson’s praise of biography (“there is scarcely passed a life that is not useful” to know about) and saw universalism; if the autobiographer is less likely to give a biased version (Fish says “we cannot but tell the truth about ourselves”), people still shrink from writing autobiography because the truth is painful (“we do what we don’t like to do”).

Lisa Bergland discussed Hester Thrale Piozzi’s richly contradictory attitudes towards retirement. Time and again Hester Piozzi’s reaction to stress was to retire, and then when recovered, come out of her retirement. She enjoyed socializing, celebrity. Lisa brought out how late in life Piozzi fell in love with Wm Augustus Conway. When she looked to Bath as a place of retirement, she ended calling it wretched — for among other things its gossip; yet she feared not being talked about. She died after age 80 of a fall aggressively over-medicated. Piozzi acted out a wry detachment, she was a kind of court jester and made ironic fun out of her ideal of retirement. Like Johnson, her first mentor, she was ever aware of the folly or fallacy of the country retreat. Lisa showed us the physical and emotional courage of this woman; her generosity (to her adopted son, to others); her willingness to see herself. In Piozzi’s unpublished life-writing we see how she repeatedly skips over the long period of her marriage, many pregnancies by Thrale. She had this power of abridgement. Her letters which do take us through her life were preserved but only began to be published in 1901.

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Hester Thrale and Queeney (1775) by Reynolds

I regret I was not able to stay for the last paper by J. T. Scanlan, “Johnson and he Common Reader: the life of Shenstone and Patterns of Reappraisal in the Later Lives of the Poets.”

Ellen

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Excellent Letters; & I am sure he must be an excellent Man. They are such-thinking, clear, considerate Letters as Frank might have written …

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Aunt Jane (Olivia Williams) and Fanny Austen (Imogen Poots) conspiring
(Miss Austen Regrets 2008)

Dear friends and readers,

Another two weeks, another letter. Two days have passed since the last letter, and we have an even more snowy journal letter. It consists of four entries over 4 days; she begins on Saturday, and for the next three days, the day she sits down again is underlined: Sunday, Monday,Tuesday. This time it’s confusing to go strictly chronologically (close read in the order of the letter) as the letter is disjointed, moving back and forth associatively and according an immediate stimulus; but to go thematically altogether loses the sense of context. So I move back and forth.

Topics include: personal relationships that count, two court cases, snowy weather, literary remarks. This is interwoven with telling of social visiting (or entertaining the courted Fanny Austen Knight), theater going, visits, walking, shopping and clothes.

Here is the full text.

The particular interest of the letter is Henry is reading Mansfield Park and Austen watching him keenly; he tries to please her. She has begun Emma; Emma is on her mind and we see her going to the theater where she sees plays that influenced her conception and shows familiarity with a number of actor and singer’s careers; Robert Wm Elliston, Edmund Kean, Catherine Stephens.

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Robert Wm Ellison

It may not be a coincidence that she named her secondary heroine, Miss Smith, after seeing a Miss Smith on the stage.

Young men are courting her niece, Fanny, and she must stand by, be chaperon, facilitator, watch Fanny make choices she would not make, go out in the snow to keep Fanny active. Edward is involved in two court cases and writing a woman friend. She is famously unimpressed by Byron’s Corsair and plots her and Cassandra’s movements around what they surmize Henry wants and, together with Madame Bigeon, are sure to get raspberry jam for him.

I am again close reading with Diana Birchall.

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Ford Madox Ford, The Corsair’s Return (1870): Pre-Raphaelite painting of an episode from Byron’s The Corsair

We might compare this rapid getting down of journal entries, to be sent to her sister, to Frances to her sister, Susan. The comparison falls down here, though, as I do not recall Fanny Burney ever apologizing to Susan for writing to her or deprecating her anger or scolding for writing too much. “Do not be angry with me for beginning another Letter to you.” Jane and Cassandra’s relationship is still fraught with opposing attitudes and needs.

Diana remarked: “It is two days since the last letter, and Jane Austen is still at Henrietta Street. And she begins with one of her most famous sayings: ‘I have read the Corsair, mended my petticoat, & have nothing else to do.’ This is usually taken to mean that she was not overly impressed by Byron, and we can easily imagine it would have been a very Sir Walter Elliot/Admiral Croft situation (“reciprocal compliments, which would have been esteemed about equal”).

Since the poem quickly became well-known and was seen as seethingly exciting & lurid, Austen is making a statement by making it the equivalent of mending her petticoat. Maybe Austen senses what others feel are false titillation while they sit in their secure parlors.

Diana: “Nasty weather, “Thickness & Sleet,” and “Getting out is impossible,” but yet social life goes on. Young Wyndham Knatchbull accepts an invitation and is thought of as “he may do for Fanny,” but she will later marry his older brother, whose wife will die first. They are to see friends, Mrs. Latouche and Miss East, and to avoid Miss Harriet Moore, friend of Henry’s. A domestic detail: Henry is out of Raspberry Jam, Madame Bigeon offers some – so will Cassandra bring a pot when she comes?

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They are expecting and on Sunday considerably after four o’clock Edward and Fanny arrive. For their sakes young Wyndham has been invited (for Fanny), they are stuck going to Mrs Latouche and [her daughter] Miss East in two weeks. She groans (half-dreading it already), and is not made more sociable by Miss H. Moore’s (Harriot’s note) apologizing for not returning Jane’s visit and says they (Henry and Jane) can come this evening. “Thank you says Jane” ” but we shall be better engaged.” Not keen on any of it as usual.

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Edward (Pip Torrens) talking amiably with Jane (Olivia Williams (Miss Austen Regrets 2008)

In this letter we see that Fanny Austen Knight was the object of courtship by three suitors: Wildman, Wyndham, and Plumptre — not to omit the presence of George Hatton hanging around at a distance. She was an heiress, young, very conventional, pretty enough. What’s not to like? for a similar kind of male.

First, it seems that the niece did not share her aunt’s taste in men. We’ve seen this before and the first candidate is reacting to what happened before: Jane on Saturday: “Young Wyndham accepts the Invitation. He is such a nice, gentlemanlike unaffected sort of Man, that I think he may do f for Fanny; — has a sensible, quiet look which one likes.” Fanny had discouraged the young man previously, for on Sunday we read: “This young Wyndham does not come after all; a very long & very civil note of excuse is arrived. It makes one moralize upon the ups & downs of this Life … ”

As Jane turns away from, dismissed Byron’s Corsair with remarks on mending her petticoat, so on Sunday what appears to me her own disappointment — she would have enjoyed the conversation of an intelligent young man — is turn off by talk of clothes. I have determined to trim my lilac sarsenet with black sattin ribbon just as my China Crape is, 6d width at bottom, 3d or 4d at top. — Ribbon trimmings are all the fashion at Bath, & I dare say the fashions of the two places are alike enough in that point, to content me.” The “me” is underlined in the original. The whole utterance connects back. She, Jane, is content with this fashion, but not Fanny is what’s implied — just as Fanny didn’t want Mr Wyndham but Jane had looked forward to him.

But note Diana’s reading of the break aways in Jane’s later talk on the theater: “Then the inevitable topic of finery arises again, and it is amusing that a letter or two ago she was talking of how vulgar women are who wear veils, but as is only human, she now proposes to buy one herself! … More finery – lilac sarsenet, black sattin ribbon, China Crape, and the bon mot, “With this addition it will be a very useful gown, happy to go anywhere.”

Then on Sunday, the two Austens, Henry and Jane, waited until after 4. Imagine them watching clock as they sit and say read (Henry reading Mansfield Park) or write: Jane writing Emma and letter to Cassandra: a “grand thought” for her and Cassandra’s gowns (Cassandra not forgotten). The “roads were so very bad! as it was, they had 4 horses from Cranford Bridge [expensive]. Fanny was miserably cold at first, but they both seem well” — – No possibility of Edwards’s writing.” Now recall Austen has just apologized for writing again so soon, so it’s she not Cassandra who is expecting this writing. He’s had enough apparently.

The court case: Robin Vick (N&Q)explains that James Baigen, “the boy,” was 10 when he stabbed Stephen Mersh who did not die; James’s father was a yeoman farmer. Wickham who sent a letter advising a second prosecution against Edward’s view was a Rt Honorable, served on the Grand Jury under Sir Wm Heathcote for 1814 summer assizes (he’s in the DNB, diplomat, gov’t minister), recently retired a few miles from Chawton. There was no second prosecution. Chapman though there was but the later trial Austen mentions is of her brother, Charles, a court martial.

We may speculate it was two boys fighting; it’s obvious the right thing is to let him off; he’s 10 and prisons were terrible places (you could get a disease; you had to have money for food). We don’t know how old Mersh was but he was okay at the time of the trial. Mr Wickham’s letter which so entranced Jane might have been a philosophical punitive point of view (from which perspective hard to say). Wiser heads prevailed. Quietly again and again we glimpse a Tory/conservative Jane (imperialist, anti-Rousseau new ideas about children). Austen calls him and “Excellent Man” and says just such a letter would Frank have written. It might be he concedes a humane point of view well. Frank I recall was a flogger to the point he was warned he had better restrain himself.

“Excellent Letters; & I am sure he must be an excellent Man. They are such thinking, clear, considerate Letters as Frank might have written.” Were I Marianne and this an utterance by Elinor I would find her cause for starting to ask about the state of my interlocutor’s heart. Frank’s letters (those left) are simple and direct; he’s another “not clever enough to be unintelligible” so Austen would like that, and he is often humane when he writes — he remarkably writes eloquently against bombing as particularly vicious (you don’t risk yourself, you kill non-combatants who don’t have a chance against you) which is however the opposite of what Jane’s admired Paisley advocated.

There is one cross-out — it’s a reference to a Bridges named Edward. So here we have this antagonism to Edward Bridges again, this needling souring of a romance once he married his “poor Honey” (Austen’s famous nasty slur) and then seemed to show up as a flirting man to Jane. In context “Edward is quite [About five words cut out]” is not a reference to Austen’s brother but the party coming.

Frank an excellent man through and through and Edward Bridges a grating annoyance.

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Frank as reflected in Jane’s Persuasion (Ciaran Hinds as Wentworth talking of Benwick to Anne Elliot)

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Bridges as seen in Miss Austen Regrets: from Nokes’s reading of the letter via Gwynth Hughes’s script (Hugh Bonneville as Bridges)

So much for the aunt’s imagined male love life.

Because Edward and Fanny have come there is therefore much theater-going, visiting and visitors, which requires fixing clothes and shopping with local news from Edward and his worries over a coming lawsuit seeking to unseat him from Godmersham, indeed take all his income. Looking ahead thematically to the other court case mentioned later in the letter: Austen was not correct as Edward did not escape the lawsuit; his opponents did not “knock under” easily but had to be paid a cool 20,000 pounds before they would go away. Before Wyndham’s letters arrives, it is good to see both Edward and Jane agreed on not prosecuting the boy further. I note Edward is friendly first with Fanny Cage and now Louisa. He keeps writing to Louisa. I take it he did think about remarrying, but 11 children and one dead wife was enough (as we are told in the family hearsay)

Diana on Sunday: “Some observations of Fanny, how she liked Bath, the play, the Rooms, the company, the accounts of Lady B. After a break, Jane writes, “Now we are come from Church, & all going to write.” She continues, remarking that everyone has been in mourning (for the Queen’s brother), “but my brown gown did very well.” Another mention of General Chowne from the last letter, “he has not much remains of Frederick,” she says, belaboring the joke that probably refers to his playing that part in Lovers Vows. Young Wyndham makes his excuses after all, and Jane exclaims mock-melodramatically, “It makes one moralize upon the ups & downs of this Life …

Back to domestic matters – buttonholes, travel (Cassandra will travel post at Henry’s expense), a rise in the cost of tea, and inquiries about the Mead and a cook. Then she moves on to Monday …”

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Temple of Bellona, kew Gardens, London in winter

In numerous passages in this letter Austen registers the state of the snow.

Sunday as they wait: “Getting out is impossible. It is a nasty day for everybody. Edward’s spirits will be wanting Sunshine, & here is nothing but Thickness & Sleet; and tho’s these two rooms are delightfully warm I fancy it is very cold abroad.”

Monday: “Here’s a day! The Ground covered with snow! What is to become of us?– we were to have walked out early … Mr Richard Snow is dreadfully fond of us. I dare say he has stretched himself out at Chawton too.”

Gentle reader, have you ever been on a vacation or holiday with people about whom you are kind of burden you must entertain and the weather gets in the way. What shall she do with Fanny who wants thrills and people. Go out anyway. And close reading has turned up another negative use of Richard. I should add that to my blog on negative Richards in Austen’s fiction and non-fiction (from clergyman to Dick who if the Musgraves had any sense they are better off without)

They went as far as Coventry anyway but that was it; they had to put a visit to Spensers off: “It was snowing the whole time”.

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Henry Austen (Jo Anderson) takes his sister, Jane (Anne Hathaway) to the theater (Becoming Jane, 2007)

It’s in this section we again have signs of this awkwardness between her and Henry or Henry and everyone. He does not say what he wants to do. They cannot just ask him it seems. They must listen carefully for hints. Now Jane realizes by this “careful listening” that Henry really wants to go to Godmersham for a few days before Easter & has promised to do it.”

This being the case Cassandra need not worry she’ll have to stay in London after Adlestrop and she must hurry to come. Indeed it might work out easier if she Jane does not return from Streatham to meet with Cassandra to go home to Chawton but rather Cassandra can join her at Streatham.

Such a “great comfort” to “have got at the truth.” Really? She means temporary relief.

They are very chary around this prickly Henry. And she falls to working out that Henry cannot leave for Oxfordshire before the Wednesday which will be the 23rd — we are talking two weeks ahead and more and he is a mercurial man. That I do agree, mercurial is the word for him (reminding me of Henry Crawford in these movements of his). If he does, they will still not have many days together. It seems she would like to enjoy London with Cassandra and this is not something the sisters are openly willing to admit. They are to be used by others first.

Henry is meanwhile omnipresent as he is in all the letters — coming down the stairs — where she lives with him. She’s intently aware of his presence. Maybe he’s only mentioned twice, but we are to recall (as Cassandra would) that Gen Chowe is a Tilson, and therefore Henry’s business partner. He makes the second directly literary remark of the letter:

— Henry has this moment said that he likes my M.P. better & better; he is in the 3rd vole. — I believe now he has changed his mind as to foreseeing the end; — he said yesterday at least, that he defied anybody to say whether H.D. would be reformed, or would forget Fanny in a fortnight.

Jane pleased; he’s gotten the point. The novel is built on real life contingency, and Henry from all we’ve seen no one to trust at all. Despite her fears that the first part of the novel, the play acting, would be seen as far more entertaining, Henry has in fact liked the courtship and ball part and Portsmouth too. he says “better and better.” That must have pleased her too.

No raspberry Jam for the master of the house says Mme de Bigeon. Cannot Cassandra bring a pot? She is still recording Henry’s state of health as dubious: as he comes down the stairs, “seems well, his cold does not increase.”

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Edmund Kean as Shylockblog
Edmund Kean (1787-1833) as Shylock

Austen jumps about as usual (writing associatively) and when Henry comes over “just this moment” to make his remark about MP which means he’s reading it while she’s writing this late Sunday entry (late in the evening we must imagine) her mind reverts to “Kean” who “I shall like to see again excessively, & to see him with You too; it appeared to me as if there were no fault in him anywhere; & his scene with Tubal was exquisite acting.”

So she’s moved by the man’s loss of his daughter. This is a new attitude (I did talk today of how there is no monolithic 18th century).

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Sarah Smith Bartley by Samuel Lane

We were quite satisfied with Kean. I cannot imagine better acting, but the part was too short, & excepting him & Miss Smith [Sarah Bartley], & she did not quite answer my expectation, the parts were ill filled & the Play heavy. [We were too much tired to stay for the whole of Illusion (Nourjahad) which has 3 acts;-there is a great deal of finery & dancing in it, but I think little merit. Elliston was Nourjahad, but it is a solemn sort of part, not at all calculated for his powers. There was nothing of the best Elliston about him. I might not have known him, but for his voice.-

Diana: “A spirited discussion of an evening at the theatre; about Kean she says enthusiastically “I cannot imagine better acting,” but apart from that “the parts were ill filled & the Play heavy.” They were too tired to stay and see another spectacle, “the whole of Illusion (Nourjahad) which has 3 acts; – there is a great deal of finery & dancing in it, but I think little merit.” Theatrical evenings must have been lengthy! She writes animatedly of the actor William Robert Elliston. “Elliston was Nourjahad, but it is a solemn sort of part, not at all calculated for his powers. There was nothing of the best Elliston about him. I might not have known him, but for his voice.” Jane Austen has seen him before, more than once; and we may satisfy our curiosity on the subject because the “Austen Only” blog has an excellent piece on him and what Jane would have seen and known.

I’ll add that Nourjahad would be one of these oriental allegories, perhaps ultimately from Francis Sheridan. Kean was in temporary decline by this time. We see in the life Diana said how hard life was for theater people. Theater was a many-hour experience, with the first play, afterpieces — often mocking. She did not like the performance of MofV except for Shylock, “heavy”.

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Catherine Stephens

On Monday they went again and saw “The Devil to Pay” a comic farce. “I expect to be very amused. — Except Miss Stephens [later Countess of Essex], I dare say Artaxerxes will be very tiresome.” so she saw Dora Jordan who was said to be inimitable in farce (Coffey’s Devil to Pay). She’s not keen on the pantomime or famous clown cited by LeFAye, but now likes the actress she expects to see best.

Penny Gay and Paula Byrne in their respective books about Jane Austen and the theater have written about this farce and the comedy. Gay provides a picture of Dora Jordan in the role (p 21). Remember she was then living with the prince and often pregnant; so this is idealized. Bryne goes on about Jordan and makes much much more about Austen’s remarks on the play here. I see nothing in Austen’s letter to justify saying that she is using her time at the theater as a point of reference. The point of references are the people around her who matter to her, their strong concerns (next time Fanny and her beaux) and hers (her book which Henry is reading, Edwards’ problems and doings, with Frank as our star to aspire towards).

The last reference to the theater is on Farmer’s Wife by Dibdin which again has Miss Stephens, the entry is Tuesday . Read the lines: Austen is going to see Miss Stephens and does not think the interest she feels warrants a Box which Henry wants:

Mr J PLumptre joined us the later part of the Evening — walked home with us, ate some soup, & is very earnest for our going to Covent Garden again tonight to see Miss Stephens in the Farmer’s Wife. He is to try for a Box. I do not particularly wish him to succeed. I have had enough for the present.

Mr J. Plumptre is one of the suitors vying for Fanny’s hand. Wildman, Wyndham, Mr Plumptre. He was the suitor used in Miss Austen Regrets as he did get further and they were serious for a while — we will see this in Austen’s later letters. Plumptre clearly wants to go to the theater to be with Fanny and he is getting a box to please Fanny and her family. As the article cited by LeFaye in the notes will tell you it’s not The Farmer’s Wife that influenced Emma, but The Birthday which is a translation from Koetzbue anyway, not a farce either.

Byrne does deal with The Birthday, but Margaret Kirkham’s section on Emma on both Barrett’s burlesque novel, The Heroine, and Koetzbue’s play and Dibdin’s free translation is much more to the point. See JA, Feminism and Fiction

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Dora Jordan as Rosalind by John Hoppner

Not to say that Dora Jordan is not of real interest as a performer and for her life story as a woman of Austen’s time (see Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography). She worked very hard, lived well for a short time, very well, but she was providing the ready money, and then she was dumped, was badly treated at the end, her children taken from her. She had no rights that were respected at all. But Austen does not mention her name. It’s Miss Smith who disappoints her and Miss Stephens whom Austen says goes to the theater for — as well as Edmund Kean.

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From Diana’s conclusion: “By a little convenient listening,” she tells Cassandra candidly, “I now know that Henry wishes to go to Godmersham for a few days before Easter, & has indeed promised to do it.” This gives Cassandra fore knowledge, so she and Jane can better contrive and make plans. “It is a great comfort to have got at the truth,” says Jane. A very clear glimpse of what maneuverings and uncertainties surround their movements.

Now who gave her the ermine tippet? “You cannot think how much my Ermine Tippet is admired both by Father & Daughter. It was a noble Gift.” Father and daughter being Edward and Fanny I suppose.

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A knitted tippet for ladies

A brief mention of the lawsuit Edward would become involved in, not amounting to anything yet. In the next sentence she anticipates seeing The Devil to Pay, and expecting to be very much amused. Artaxerxes she dares to say will be tiresome. More finery – “I have been ruining myself in black sattin ribbon with a proper perl edge; & now I am trying to draw it up into kind of Roses, instead of putting it in plain double plaits.” This has to do with Caps, very fancy affairs at that date.

Now she hastily and effusively thanks Cassandra for a letter, and passes on news and messages from Edward – he is amazed at “64 Trees,” and gives directions about a Study Table that is to arrive at Chawton. The evening has been rather tiresome: “Mr. Hampson dined here & all that,” and she was “very
tired of Artaxerxes,” as she thought she would be, though “highly amused with the Farce, & in an inferior way with the Pantomime that followed.” Mr. Plumptre wants them to go to Covent Garden the next night to see Miss Stephens in The Farmer’s Wife. “He is to try for a Box. I do not particularly
wish him to succeed. I have had enough for the present,” Jane Austen finishes.

Her appetite for plays and London is evidently not insatiable.

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Fanny and Mr Plumptre (Tom Hiddleston) dancing at Godmersham, Jane in background (Miss Austen Regrets 2008)

If you go through the thread of just this you discover that much of it is the result of trying to entertain Fanny amid the persistent snow and the mentions of clothes come up either as a way to turn away from the disappointed romancing (Jane is the one sometimes disappointed as when Wyndham doesn’t come) or fill out where she is bored or to address Cassandra.

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Skating Lovers, around 1800

So Jane is not only trying to satisfy Fanny but is soothing Cassandra whose letter arrives the very moment they return from the theater and she hastens to thank her. So good of her, “Thank you thank you.” Casssandra home with Cassy with those fleas. There might seem to be a disconnect here because at the opening Jane is so worried lest Cassandra get angry at her writing. But there is not.

What we have in Austen in this letter is someone trying to please others. No wonder she didn’t get to write as much as we’d like (or she would have).

In this letter the underlying temperament is closer to Fanny Price and Anne Elliot than many would be willing to acknowledge … she is trying to get out of the time there what she can. She likes Miss Stephens, she likes Kean, she likes the landscape. She does not tell us about her writing Emma – that’s hers to keep unspoiled. She is working with Madame Bigeon and Cassandra to supply Henry with raspberry jam.

There Jane did not have to produce acquaintances, she could make them up. There her satire could make her powerful — within limits for after all the NA manuscript was not returned. I sympathize very much.

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Olivia Williams as Jane Austen taking deep pleasure in seeing her books

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in the prince’s library as laid out kindly by his librarian, Mr Clark (Miss Austen Regrets 2008)

Ellen

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I remember this one as a cartoon; I wish it were one; it’s Jane because of the cap & square cut bodice as visibilia

Dear friends and readers,

Women’s graphic novels (comic books, anyone?) have arrived. They’ve a homepage all their own. There are women’s graphic novels festivals. In Leeds a bunch of fairly well-known artists got together and held contests. I’ve written twice before about two of my favorite artists: Posy Simmonds and Audrey Niffenegger, but I’ve not yet written about the species in general or the Jane Austen types. Women favor the gothic. I include a book of poetry by Margaret Atwood.

On Sharp-l (an academic list-serv devoted to book history), there was a long thread on comic books, graphic novels, and pretty quickly (no surprise here) the topic of gender was brought up with a tendency to deny there is a big or any meaningful difference between what boys have read and what girls read, what men draw and what women. It did come out that nonetheless in the last 20 years there has there been a specific effort to appeal to girls and women comic book makers, and for the first time a genuine number of women graphic novelists, comic book creators, artists.

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From Niffenegger’s Nightbookmobile: called “Almost there,” the young women is beginning to immerse herself in the books that turn up in the night in a moving library bus

It happened the most recent of issue of Women’s Review of Books (Sept/Oct ’12) had an essay on Alison Bechdel’s Are you my mother? A comic Drama (a graphic novel) by Audrey Bilger where Bilger brought up Hillary L. Chute’s Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics (2010), “The Other Shoe Drops.” Chute shows that women’s graphic tales differ centrally from men’s: they tend to center on women’s lives, women’s dreams and they make trauma overcome or not a central part of the story. Bechdel may be the woman who set the Bechdel standard for movies: does it have any women conversing about something together; is the subject of the movie if it’s about women anything other than getting a man; does it have more than 2 women featured? Most movies do not pass this test. Are you My mother? A comic Drama is about a central experience for women: their fraught relationship with their mother, whether love-filled or not. This comic book includes dreams, memories, photographs made into comics, letters, stories of the mother’s girlhood, excerpts from Virginia Woolf, D. W. Winnicott (tells a story of growing up not centered on rivalry with a father).

This fits Simmonds, Niffenegger, the comic books I’ve made adapted from Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Radcliffe’s Udolpho, Northanger Abbey (bound with Udolpho one based on LeFanu’s Carmilla, a female vampire story). Sense and Sensibility adapted by Nancy Butler, illustrations Sonny Liew is based on the 2008 BBC/WBGH movie with Hattie Morahan, Charity Wakefield, Janet McTeer, David Morrissey, Dan Stevens, Dominic Cooper (scripted Andrew Davies). The costumes are taken from this movie, the plot-design, the way the characters look.


Hattie as Elinor wears just such a dress as she looks down from a moor on high


Charity as Marianne flees Cleveland house to the grounds and temple in a tempest in just such a dress

An interesting aspect of some of the others (for Pride and Prejudice and Emma (Nan Butler, Julian Totino did the cover), is they are done in a way to appeal to GLBT tastes. The “message” from the cover is on the surface they are absurd schlock, mindless and idiotic. Embarrassing even.

There are film adaptations nowadays too. And wouldn’t you know it: you find one which is about disability. This one by a male team, but now the males are beginning to take advantage of breaking out of the macho-male (super-muscled) and over-sexed earlier cartoons (which simply reinforced the male heterosexual hegemony) to be unsettling yet touching, subversive, questioning. When done for a great novel, I suppose they are great pop art.

For they are pop too. Picturesque in the old sweet way:


The country walk from NA: Catherine is saying this is just like the south of France!

The new name tries to deny this. The term graphic novel is a marketing tool picked up by academic to give more status to their work, and it’s not true that graphic novels are to be separated out because they are not serialized. Some are serialized and some comic books are singletons (rare but it happens). But there is no hard distinction. I still remember that favorite “classic” comic I loved as an adolescent girl was Lorna Doone. How lovely the landscape looked, how wonderfully kind and good John was. I’m sure it influenced my memories of the book read long after. I don’t know the author’s name. I wouldn’t have thought to look for one.

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A personal anecdote:


Emily terrified, from Mysteries of Udolpho adapted by Antonella Caputo, illustrations Carlo Vegara, Gothic Classics (Vol 14)

If you believe there has been no significant difference between men’s comics and women’s, I’ve got a bridge I could let you have, dead cheap. Remember the macho-male super-muscled men, the line drawings of conventionally sexy women.

When I was around 8 or 9 an aunt whose husband was a printer prepared 4 huge volumes of comic books, two for two of my boy cousins, two for the two girls, one for me and one for a girl cousin precisely my age. The four of us represented the adolescent age group in our family at Christmas. These were to be our presents. Aunt Helen (her name) had bought and saved comics for over a year and put together 4 sets of a huge number of these to make very fat volumes. Then my Uncle Bill (his name) bound them in brightly colored sturdy boards, and put our individual names on them in gold lettering (no less). My aunt was good with her hands, she was very good at wrapping presents artistically, and added a certain amount of art work inside the books.

These presents were tremendous hits with the four of us and my uncle and she did it again the next year. Then enthusiasm or invention or numbers of comic books gathered gave out. They tired of it. We grew older. Now I know for a fact the two sets of books were distinct. My girl cousin and I had Archie, Nancy, and comics for girls much more (love stories), Wonder Woman, while the boys had these wild and violent action-adventure male centered cartoons like Batman, Superman and other such. I can’t remember as I didn’t have any.

There were some deemed appropriate for both: Dennis the Menace, Charlie Brown, cat and mouse cartoons. Bugs Bunny. Minnie and Mickey Mouse, Daffy and Daisy Duck. The second year my cousin Pat and I had “classics,” “great books” turned into comics as did Richard and Bobby. I don’t remember these as well as do the other parts of the books; there were Lorna Doone, Jane Eyre, Treasure Island, Oliver Twist. Neither uncle or aunt were reading people particularly and they didn’t think out the default line (and they didn’t include better strips like Pogo); they did intuitively (as it were) choose what they thought appropriate.

The 8 books were read to pieces.

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So, maybe I should end on Audrey Niffenegger’s Three Incestuous Sisters and Margaret Atwood’s art book of her beautiful poem sequence, The Journals of Susanna Moodie (with Charles Pachter her collaborator):

I did not have any particular expectations, but was slightly startled to have in my hands two over-size books. Three Sisters was a huge folio size (where will I put it?) hard-back book with very large pictures, so large I can’t scan them in without distortion. I could do individual figures but without the vast space proportionate to them, they would lose something. They’re also raw, very sexy.

As you open and go through: on the one side (left, is this recto?) a tiny bit of text and on the other (right, verso? or facing) a huge picture. The texts are of the slightest, a sort of naming (“Being cruel to Bettine,” “Paris Intercedes,” “Ophile, miserable, small, and alone”), which are a testimony to how little you really need to say to get across a story if you somehow suggest archetypal ones. Drenched in melancholy. I mean this is desperate, suicidal stuff.

Yet the paradigm for the figures is Gorey. The book is a kind of Gorey book writ large — without the streak of black humor, devilish.

Here is one of the sisters finding comic together in sleep:

This is from early in the sequence by Atwood:

Further Arrivals

After we had crossed the long illness
that was the ocean, we sailed up-river

On the first island
the immigrants threw off their clothes
and danced like sandflies

We left behind one by one
the cities rotting with cholera,
one by one our civilized
distinctions

and entered a large darkness.

It was our own
ignorance we entered.

I have not come out yet

My brain gropes nervous
tentacles in the night, sends out
fears hairy as bears,
demands lamps; or waiting

for my shadowy husband, hears
malice in the trees’ whispers.

I need wolf’s eyes to see
the truth.

I refuse to look in a mirror.

Whether the wilderness is
real or not
depends on who lives here.

And in one of the later poems (emblematic and intertwined so impossible to pick out) the pictures inclde an old woman among her children in the poem; how they see her; how she feels at the moment. Towards the end of Atwood’s poem when Moodie now old says her mind “in its old burrows/little guess how/maybe” she will “prowl and slink,” Atwood is writing of how Moodie slithers through the bedrock of Canadian culture and has come to terms with its roots.

A green background might signal spring. Her spirit ever rejuvenates the literature and spirit of the culture. “gold and/fiery green.” The old woman’s fingers are “curving and scaled,” but they did the writing. Her eye is an “opal” and no has “no/eyes glowing.” After all the real women is gone, dead, and now she’s old in the poem and wrinkled. The grandchildren cannot begin to know what she felt at the height of her living life, when, for example, she waited for her husband to come home and she wrote a marvelous love poem, “Sleigh Bells.” What does Canada have more of than snow?

Atwood does not try to overcome, erase, compete with Susannah Moodie, but collaborates with her, re-lives the experience and brings it back to us. Her Alias Grace (I just love it, a favorite book, Jane Eyre type) came out of an experience Moodie had when she went to an asylum so Moodie’s famous 19th century memoir meant a lot to Atwood.

Ellen

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I did not often see my Aunt with a book in her hand, but I beleive she was fond of reading and that she had read and did read a good deal. I doubt whether she ever much cared for poetry in general but she was a great admirer of Crabbe. She thoroughly enjoyed Crabbe … and would sometimes say, in jest, that if she ever married at all, she could fancy being Mrs Crabbe … — Caroline Austen, My Aunt Jane Austen

No. I have not seen the death of Mrs Crabbe. I have only just been making out from one of his prefaces that he probably was married. It was almost ridiculous. Poor woman! I will comfort him as well as I can, but I do not undertake to be good to her children. She had better not leave any . . . — Jane Austen, Thurs, 21 October 1813


The set for the Teatro alla Scala Peter Grimes — the rooms in which the actions take place are all inside trailers in a sort of car park, in front is the crashing dangerous sea and cliffs; to the back tenement apartment houses

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been thinking about writing about George Crabbe’s poetry here, and possible sources for Austen’s deep affinity with his spirit as seen in his poetry, partly because a while back now (more than two years) a couple of us on EighteenthCenturyWorlds @Yahoo read a number of his poems in The Borough and Tales 1812, and found them compelling in their grim realism. Since then I’ve read his son’s biography of him, and my good friend, Nick, has carried on reading Crabbe and books on his verse and every once in a while sends me a specimen of verse with his comments.

Then today Jim and I went to see an HD version of Richard Jones’s brilliant production at Teatro alla Scala (Milan, Italy) in the beautiful theater of the American Film Institute in Silver Springs. If the film is shown anywhere near it (or you are lucky enough to be in the vicinity where this is being performed live), rush out to see and hear it. Like other of the Britten operas I’ve seen, the perspective of Peter Grimes comes out of a mind imbued with the finest of humane values as he puts before us the dense unexamined needs, desires, angers, conscious and unconscious of people in and pushed outside of communities. Britten’s Peter Grimes is rightly sometimes called the greatest opera written in the 20th century and this is a production which makes all its parts understandable.

The daring Britten story and characters: Britten makes a victim and community scapegoat of a man who is violent, has cruelly driven one boy and drives another by relentless hard work in unameliorated circumstances to their deaths. He had not meant to kill them, but he had not taken care of them, and he was not adverse to roughing them up, beating them to get them to obey him and work harder, and we see him take out his resentments on the second. He certainly shows them no affection. The community is right to condemn him (in the opening scene, a court room in a trailer), but we are made to see that in their better circumstances they behave not much better than he does in his worse ones. His perverse (given their real indifference to him) need to prove himself better than them by growing rich and building himself a house (which paradoxically he says will enable him to stay apart from them) has been picked up by the town’s spinster-librarian, Ellen Orford, who sees in his character and goals an opportunity to marry and find a place for herself to thrive. When the community refuses to enable Grimes to hire another apprentice after the death of the first, she steps in to promise she will soften the boy’s life and make sure he is treated decently. And so a second boy is bought.


Peter Grimes (John Graham-Hall) and Ellen Orford (Susan Gritton)

But Ellen does not protect the boy sufficiently at all. She cannot control Grimes. He works the boy very hard all week and will not give the boy off on Sunday. She has tried to pretend to make friends with the boy (her caring for him is certainly limited as we watch her complacently embroider while she asks him to talk to her, confide in her), but the boy (rightly) will not speak. He is a bought slave. We see other boys his age jeer at him, and seem to threaten him. The citizens are not prepared to befriend Grimes in any way, nor take the one help he has, the boy, away from him until they see proof of beating; their laws and customs (making profits from such sales included) invite Grimes to act out his worst self. They include types: Mr Swallow, a libidinous lawyer, a judge, Rev. Adams, a hypocritically pious priest, Mrs Sedley, a female nosy-neighbor who is thrilled by the notion of violence and fueled by the excitement of relating slander (how true she doesn’t care); there is a tavern owner, Auntie, at which dances are held (very modern club like), her two nieces who are presented as over-sexed cock-teasers, the very quintessence of sick heterosexuality (some of the male dancers have shaved heads and dance with these sopranos). We see them “service” Mr Swallow and how he despises them, and enjoys the experience all the more for the triumph over them.


From another production which did emphasize the connection with Crabbe (older costumes, at the Royal Opera House, London)

How does this opera relate to Crabbe’s Borough, especially the two poems most central: “The Poor of the Borough: Peter Grimes” and “Ellen Orford.” Crabbe’s The Borough is a narrow-minded repressive culture which makes an already hard-scrabble life much harder to endure. In Britten’s play Grimes has not deliberately murdered the boys; he didn’t take care of them properly but the final deaths are accidental (if clearly being slowly engendered). Crabbe’s central figure hated his father who hated him. Old Peter Grimes was a religious hypocrite who made his wife and son pray while he also made their lives a misery and when he dies, they are at least free of his tyrannies. The son, Peter however has been taught to be violent and longs to hurt others as he has been hurt; he is gleeful when he gets his first boy and really enjoys subjecting the boys to his blows. Britten’s Grimes wants to make the boy work harder. Crabbe’s central Peter despises the second boy who becomes lame under the terrible treatment; the town sneaks him fire, food, and comfort, but he drowns after beatings with a knotted rope because he can’t hold on during a storm. The town then will not allow Grimes another boy, and we see him living alone, struggling to keep up his fishing trade. He is haunted by his father’s ghost and the ghost of the two boys, left in isolation and slowly goes mad. One of the epigraphs to Crabbe’s poem comes from Macbeth: “The times have been,/That when the brains were out, the man would die …” The poem ends with a long soliloquy from Grimes begging his father’s ghost for mercy, imagining demons (the boys?) around his bed.

There is no Ellen Orford in the original tale. Instead she is the focus of a tale just as hard and grim. She is also one of the poor of the borough. Crabbe opens by bitterly regaling the reader with typical sentimental romances and then says he will show you what real life is like, real tragedy. Ellen was the daughter of a woman who when widowed remarried a violent angry husband who mistreated her and her children; a young upper class man took advantage of her need for affection and friendship and when she became pregnant deserted her; her baby-daughter was born an idiot. After many years of isolation and menial work, a tradesman takes pity on her, marries her, but their hard life sours the husband, and all her children but two die, her one son is corrupted away from her (like the son in Wordsworth’s poignant “Michael”), another son a seaman drowns. Her retarded daughter had the same fate as she, worse, she dies too. Now Ellen is blind and lives alone, and is imagined telling this tale to show how she survives still, loving mankind and thankful to God (“my friend”).

These are typical tales for Crabbe. My friend, Nick and I have mused over their ambivalent meanings. The director did not indicate why Britten turned to this kind of material, nor did anyone else in the intermission of the opera (where there were interviews played as in the Met broadcasts). Britten did spend the last part of his life in East Anglia (Aldeburgh, Suffolk) where Crabbe was born and lived. It is a place which has fishing communities, probably narrow-minded villages where people live out a hard life. Crabbe would have been a well-known local poet-hero. The sea is central to the opera: a dangerous realm where people have to wrest a living and where they can die doing it.

You might say this is a homosexual take on Crabbe’s original story. He shows no desire for Ellen Orford. It’s a social bargain. The conductor, Robin Ticciati, mentioned this and from the production it’s clear this was in Ticciati and Jones’s perspective. the costume designer suggested the way she designed the nieces’ clothing took this perspective in mind too.

Ticciati said the play and music were written by Britten in the 1950s (correction: actually 1942-45) when he and his partner, tenor Peter Pears, returned from the US where they had waited out WW2 as conscientious objectors. Britten was an outsider at risk from overt hatred as someone who was a pacificist, an open homosexual, regarded as something of a traitor. He is in danger from the small town people. At some level especially in the last scenes when Grimes shows intense remorse and fear as well as frantic anger and a sense of alienation and loss, Britten is identifying with this man, the lowest of the low. He deserves punishment; he ought to be controlled, but he is nonetheless not a monster; he cries, deranged. The one person who shows some disinterested concern for him is Captain Balstrode (Christopher Purves) and at the play’s close, Balstrode tells him there is nothing left but to sink himself in his boat into the sea. Grimes leaves the stage quietly and a messenger reports drowned himself. Meanwhile the citizens have reconstituted the court the opera opened with and Ellen is about to swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

The opera was sung and acted beautifully. There were only some 17 people watching it on Thursday afternoon, but just about all looked very moved. We were taught some lessons about life. Were we any of those people or Ellen Orford? did we recognize aspects of our own experience as we watched and listened to Grimes going through his. My only qualification or objection to the show was at the end the young boy who had played the apprentice was not singled out for special applause. He looked around 14 at most and he was directed to be depressed, frightened, attempting to get out of a beating, accept hitting, lay down and cry, and finally slip over a cliff to his death. Not easy for any youngster to enact. The company’s nonchalance towards him during the bowing time (except for one man who seemed to encourage the boy to smile) paralleled the way the community in the play had not looked out for Grimes’s apprentice.

The Crabbe poems are are not poems we might expect Austen to feel deep congeniality with, though since she loved Samuel Johnson’s dark work and he promoted and thought very well of Crabbe’s early poems, we can see a direct line or connection or parallel here. She also loved the tragic book, Richardson’s Clarissa. Fanny Price, her character, has a direct parallel character in one of Crabbe’s poems, “The Parish Register” (see Selwyn, JA and Leisure, pp 204-7). I’ve discovered parallels with Anne Elliot’s story where characters are pressured to wait until a seaman makes good and the lives of both are ruined (see Sarah Raff’s “‘Procrastination, Melancholia, and the Prehistory of Persuasion, Persuasions, 29 (2007):174-180). Crabbe’s milieu was her own: clergymen, well-educated, connected to richer relatives, but themselves fringe people. Austen spent a few years in Southampton, her brothers were sailors, and she experienced a meager genteel poverty existence from 1805, the time of her father’s death, moving about on a precarious income until her brother took her and her mother and sister, and the beloved friend, Martha Lloyd in permanently in 1809 in Chawton. Frank had tried to provide in 1807 at Southampton but the arrangement did not work out: he was away a lot and his first wife, Mary, uncomfortable, fled the Austens to nearby friends, and would not return. Austen had eyes for what she saw around her, even if she did not put it too often into her book. The most consistent treatment is The Watsons

Emma Watson … “I would rather be a teacher at a school (and I can think of nothing worse) than marry a man I did not like.” Elizabeth, her sister, “I would rather do anything than be a teacher at a school … I have been at aschool,and I know what a life they lead …” — The Watsons

But Jane Fairfax similarly dreads becoming a governess, a form of slavery she calls it.


Jane Fairfax (Ania Marston) in a bad moment, the anxious Miss Bates (Constance Chapman) standing helplessly by (1972 BBC Emma)

Perhaps it’s well to end on Crabbe’s compassion for his characters, for he does have that. These lines by Crabbe bring very vividly to life the world of the dependent woman in the later 18th, early 19th century: they are from Tale 16 (Tales, 1812) “The Confidant”….

Now Anna’s station frequent terrors wrought,
In one whose looks were with such meaning fraught,
For on a Lady, as an humble friend,
It was her painful office to attend.
Her duties here were of the usual kind –
And some the body harass’d, some the mind:
Billets she wrote, and tender stories read,
To make the Lady sleepy in her bed;
She play’d at whist, but with inferior skill,
And heard the summons as a call to drill;
Music was ever pleasant till she play’d
At a request that no request convey’d;
The Lady’s tales with anxious looks she heard,
For she must witness what her Friend averr’d;
The Lady’s taste she must in all approve,
Hate whom she hated, whom she lov’d must love;
These, with the various duties of her place,
With care she studied, and perform’d with grace:
She veil’d her troubles in a mask of ease,
And show’d her pleasure was a power to please.
Such were the damsel’s duties: she was poor –
Above a servant, but with service more:
Men on her face with careless freedom gaz’d,
Nor thought how painful was the glow they raised.
A wealthy few to gain her favour tried,
But not the favour of a grateful bride;
They spoke their purpose with an easy air,
That shamed and frighten’d the dependent fair;
Past time she view’d, the passing time to cheat,
But nothing found to make the present sweet:
With pensive soul she read life’s future page,
And saw dependent, poor, repining age.

Let us recall what Austen and many another woman of this era who remained unmarried and threatened by her inability to get a decent job of what is written of governesses etc. – are these lines not brilliant descriptions of the horrors of a woman dependent? But also the lines about the male gaze – quite extraordinarily modern really? the very use of the verb. And those great last 4 lines – nothing to console in past, present or future …

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Miss Austen Regrets: Jane Austen (Olivia Williams) meets a Member of Parliament who quotes lines from Crabbe at her, and she acknowledges she often carries Crabbe in her pocket (probably ironic).

The lines: With awe, around these silent walks I tread
These are the lasting mansions of the dead … The Library

In Austen, Crabbe and now Britten we can see how in a particular group we are led to feel ourselves an outsider and alien when we don’t share the views of all and are often silenced and depressed by the experience … (Marianne Dashwood anyone?). We see also the theme of the outrages of social life so pervasive in Crabbe. A central motif of the opportunity once lost never gotten again swirls around this: the person doesn’t take the opportunity because they are persuaded out of it … (in all the novels, but especially S&S, P&P, MP). All three can empathize and recognize that crass, stupid, narrow, mean, bigoted people have inner lives too, suffer too.

I recommend Terence Bareham’s Twayne George Crabbe. He opens with a fair and concise resume of Crabbe’s life and then prints a long letter someone wrote after the person visited Crabbe late in life. Much of what’s known of Crabbe’s inner life emerges from this letter as well as what an
innately cordial man (when given the rare opportunity of a like-minded
intelligent person to talk to) he was, someone (not uncommon) who in
effect lived in and upon himself.

Ellen

P.S. For discussions of other operas, HD and live, see Opera archive at Ellen and Jim Have a Blog Two and further operas in Austen Reveries.

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“Vision begins to happen in such a life
as if a woman quietly walked away
from the argument and jargon in a room
and sitting down in the kitchen, began turning in her lap
bits of yarn, calico and velvet scraps,
laying them out absently on the scrubbed boards
in the lamplight, with small rainbow-colored shells . . .
Such a composition has nothing to do with eternity,
the striving for greatness, brilliance —
only with the musing of a mind
one with her body, experienced fingers quietly pushing
dark against bright; silk against roughness,
putting the tenets of a life together
with no mere will to mastery,
only care . . .”


Adrienne Rich when young


Adrienne Rich more recently

Dear friends and readers,

Adrienne Rich died this afternoon (John Nichols’s obituary). She was one of the great poets of our time, a perceptive selfless essayist, consistently humane in all her stances, a feminist, eloquent and pithy. I came to her late, but discovering her, I’ve found solace, inspiriting anger, validation.

Two favorite short poems:

From Contradictions

The problem, unstated till now, is how
to live in a damaged body
in a world where pain is meant to be gagged
uncured          ungrieved over          The problem is
to connect, without hysteria, the pain
of any one’s body with the pain of the body’s world
For it is the body’s world
they are trying to destroy for ever
The best world is the body’s world
filled with creatures          filled with dread
misshapen so          yet the best we have
our raft among the abstract worlds
and how I longed to live on this earth
walking her boundaries          never counting the cost

From an Atlas of the Difficult World

I know you are reading this poem
late, before leaving your office
of the one intense yellow lamp-spot and the darkening window
in the lassitude of a building faded to quiet
long after rush-hour. I know you are reading this poem
standing up in a bookstore far from the ocean
on a grey day of early spring, faint flakes driven
across the plains’ enormous spaces around you.
I know you are reading this poem
in a room where too much has happened for you to bear
where the bedclothes lie in stagnant coils on the bed
and the open valise speaks of flight
but you cannot leave yet. I know you are reading this poem
as the underground train loses momentum and before running
up the stairs
toward a new kind of love
your life has never allowed.
I know you are reading this poem by the light
of the television screen where soundless images jerk and slide
while you wait for the newscast from the intifada.
I know you are reading this poem in a waiting-room
of eyes met and unmeeting, of identity with strangers.
I know you are reading this poem by fluorescent light
in the boredom and fatigue of the young who are counted out,
count themselves out, at too early an age. I know
you are reading this poem through your failing sight, the thick
lens enlarging these letters beyond all meaning yet you read on
because even the alphabet is precious.
I know you are reading this poem as you pace beside the stove
warming milk, a crying child on your shoulder, a book in your
hand
because life is short and you too are thirsty.
I know you are reading this poem which is not in your language
guessing at some words while others keep you reading
and I want to know which words they are.
I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn
between bitterness and hope
turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse.
I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else
left to read
there where you have landed, stripped as you are.

************************

Betty LaDuke (b. 1933), Timeless Time, Latin America

I find other women quote her. It’s common for me to have passages from her poems and prose in my file on her (a Net commonplace book) which come from other people’s writing. For example, My Dream of You, a novel by Nuala O’Faolain (whose work I love similarly, maybe even more so her two memoirs):

You sleep in a room with bluegreen curtains
posters          a pile of animals on the bed
A woman and a man who love you
and each other          slip the door ajar
you are almost asleep          they crouch in turn
to stroke your hair          you never wake

This happens every night for years
This never happened . . .

What if I told you your home
is this continent of the homeless
of children sold          taken by force
driven from their mothers’ land
killed by their mothers to save from capture
— this continent of changed names and mixed-up
          blood
of languages tabooed
diasporas unrecorded
undocumented refugees
underground railroads          trails of tears
What if I tell you your home
is this planet of war-worn children
women and children standing in line or milling
endlessly calling each others’ names
What if I tell you, you are not different
it’s the family albums that lie
— will any of this comfort you
and how should this comfort you?


Berthe Morisot (1841-95) Seascape

I came across this part of another of Rich’s moving poems in a wonderful biography cum art-criticism, Berthe Morisot by Anne Higonnet:

The women who first knew themselves
miners, are dead, The rainbow flies

like a flying buttress from the walls
of cloud, the silver-and-green vein

awaits the battering of the pick
the dark lode weeps for light.

My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed

I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,

with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.

This one, on line, from a blog:

I have read again and again in her Poems: Selected and New, 1950-1974, and (a real favorite, for the title too), The Fact of a Doorframe. I like her better than Margaret Atwood because she is less elusive, less diplomatic, less intellectual; I like her better than Marge Piercy because she is less direct, less brash, more reflectively thoughtful.

************************

I love her essays just as much. Cherished volumes are: On Lies, Secresy and Silence; Of Woman Born: Motherhood as an Experience and institution; What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics.

She taught us and will continue to teach us; turn anywhere to where women writers are quoted, of course especially women’s studies, women’s poetry, women’s issues, and you found some utterance of hers (like Simone de Beauvoir, like Andrea Dworkin, like Catherine MacKinnon) a concept, a feeling, an experience that people must begin or argue with. Last night I was reading Jane Gaines and Charlotte Herzog’s Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body, and where, in order to turn to understanding, valuing, finding resistance, meaning, some power, some utopia, in fashion, but Rich:

“In one of the strongest statements against traditional feminine dress and adornment, Adrienne Rich puts haute couture and ‘feminine dress code’ in the same category as purdah, foot-binding, the veil, public sexual harassment and the threat of rape, all of which work in some way to physically confine and prohibit movement.”


Robert Maxwell’s photo of Helen Mirren (actress)

There are many tributes to her today: Here is one from a woman I am proud and happy to call my friend, Farideh Hassanzadeh-Mostafavi: “An Interview.”

Reading Rich I could believe in life, love and peace in spite of death, disloyalty and never ending wars. I learned from Rich to resist in my poetry and in my life … I love her pride and purity as a poet, rejecting the most important awards granted by owners of violence and wealth. I introduced her poems to Iranian readers, first in my anthology of women poets and then in my anthology of American contemporary poets. Let me tell you that Rich’s poetry in translation loses everything but poetry itself, simply because it is the language of spirit, not only the language of heart or head. And the language of spirit is common between trees, rivers, and the essence of poetry.

A fine obituary by Gloria Orenstein who taught with her: Legacy; from Susan Rich (An Alchemist’s Kitchen), The Nation (with 5 poems); Reuters Press and the Los Angeles Times:

“Later in the life, in 1997, she created a stir by refusing the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor awarded by the U.S. government to artists and artistic patrons, on political grounds.

“I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House,” she wrote, “because the very meaning of art as I understand it is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration.”

The Progressive; NPR: Solfeggietto read aloud; The Guardian; The New York Times obituary.

Among the things I admired today was how we were told how and why she died: rheumatoid arthritis. Complications. It’s made such a taboo so often, but not her.

If you knew nothing about her life, work or writing, here are two general sites: wikipedia, Poetry Foundation

*****************************

Among her famous often-cited and anthologized poems, Her “Diving into the Wreck” is the equivalent of T. S. Eliot’s Waterland. it sets my spirits soaring:

“Diving into the Wreck”

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is used for,
who who have used it.
Otherwise
it’s a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reels
and besides
you breathe differently down here,

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.


Nell Blaine (1922-96), Rooftops during Rain

**********************

For me one particular stanza explains how to read literature — or how I read and what I value it most for: the stanza which begins: “the thing I came for:/the wreck and not the story of the wreck …” For me great literature, great art is where we see “the drowned face” and “the ribs of the disaster” so that we may understand our “book of myths” and why we must carry “a knife, a camera.” She has good lines about sex and gender too: the mermaid has dark hair streaming back while the merman is in an armored body. It is impossible to say which is courage and which cowardice.


Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), The House Opposite — a commentary on fairy tales, myths, women in literature

***********************
Just entrancing:

“Transcendental Etudes”

This August evening I’ve been driving
over backroads fringed with queen anne’s lace
my car startling young deer in meadows — one
gave a hoarse intake of her breath and all
four fawns sprang after her
into the dark maples.
Three months from today they’ll be fair game
for the hit-and-run hunters, glorying
in a weekend’s destructive power,
triggers fingered by drunken gunmen, sometimes
so inept as to leave the shattered animal
stunned in her blood. But then evening deep in summer
the deer are still alive and free,
nibbling apples from early-laden boughts
so weighed, so englobed
with already yellowing fruit
they seem eternal, Hesperidean
in the clear-tuned, cricket-throbbing air.

Later I stood in the dooryard
my nerves singing the immense
fragility of all this sweetness,
this green world already sentimentalized, photographed,
advertised to death. Yet, it persists
stubbornly beyond the fake Vermont
of antique barnboards glazed into discotheques,
artificial snow, the sick Vermont of children
conceived in apathy grown to winters
of rotgut violence,
poverty gnashing its teeth like a blind cat at their lives.
Still, it persists. Turning off into a dirt road
from the raw cuts buldozed throgh a quiet village
for the tourist run to Canada,
I’ve sat on a stone fence above a great-soft, sloping field
of musing helfers, a farmstead
slanting its planes calmly in the calm light,
a dead elm raising bleached arms
above a green so dense with life,
minute, momentary life — slugs, moles, pheasants, gnats,
spiders, moths, hummingbirds, groundhogs, butterflies —
a lifetime is too narrow
to understand it all, beginningwith the huge
rockshelves that underlie all life.

No one ever told us we had to study our lives,
make of our lives a study, as if learning natural history
music, that we should begin
with the simple exercises first
and slowly go on trying
the hard ones, practicing till strength
and accuracy became one with the daring
to leap into transcendence, take the chance
of breaking down the wild arpeggio
or faulting the full sentence of the fugue.—
And in fact we can’t live like that: we take on
everything at once before we’ve even begun
to read or mark time, we’re forced to begin
in the midst of the hard movement,
the one already sounding as we are born.

At most we’re allowed a few months
of simply listengin to the simple
line of a woman’s voice singing a child
against her heart. Everything else is too soon,
too sudden, the wrenching-apart, that woman’s heartbeat
heard ever after from a distance
the loss of that ground-note echoing
whenever we are happy, or in despair.

Everything else seems beyond us,
we aren’t ready for it, nothing that was said
is true for us, caugh naked int he argument,
the coutnerpoint, trying to sightread
what our fingers can’t keep up with, learn by heart
what we can’t even read. And yet
it _is_ this we were born to. We aren’t vituosi
or chld prdigies, ther are no prodigies
in this realm, only a half-blind, stubborn
cleaving to the timbre, the tones of what we are
— even when all the texts describe it differently.

And we’re not performers, like Liszt, competing
against the world for speed and brilliance
(the 79-year-old pianist said, when I asked her
_What makes a virtuoso? — Competitiveness.)_
The longer I live the more I mistrust
theatricality, the false glamour cast
by performance, the more I know its poverty beside
the truths we are salvaging from
the splitting-open of our lives
The woman who sits watching, listening,
eyes moving in the darkness
is reheasing in her body, hearing-out in her blood
a score touched off in her perhaps
by some words, a few chods, from the stage,
a tale only she can tell.

But there come times — perhaps this is one of them —
when we have to taek ourselves more seriously or die;
we when have to pull back from the incantations,
rhythms we’ve moved to thoughtlessly,
and disenthrall ourselves, bestow
ourselves to silence, or a severer listening, cleansed
of oratory, formulas, choruses, laments, static
crowing the wires. We cut the wires,
find ourselves in free-fall, as if
our true home were the undimensional
solitudes, the rift
in the Great Nebula.
No one who survives to speka
new language, has avoided this:
the cutting-away of an old force that held her
rooted to an old ground
the pitch of utter loneliness
where she herself and all creation
seem equally dispersed, weightless, her being a cry
to which no echo comes or can ever come.

But in fact we were always like this,
rootless, dismembered: knowing it makes the difference.
Birth stripped our birthright from us,
tore us from a woman, from women, from ourselves
so early on
and the whole chorus throbbing at our ears
like midges, told us nothing, nothing
of origins, nothing we needed
to know, nothing that could re-member us.

Only: that it is unnatural,
the homesickness for a woman, for ourselves,
for that acute joy at the shadow her head and arms
cast on a wall, her heafy or slender
thigs on which we lay, flesh against flesh,
eyes steady on the face of love; smell of her milk, her swet,
terror of her disappearance, all fused in this hunger
for the element they have called most dangerous,to be
lifted breathtaken on her breast, to rock within her
— even if beaten back, stranded again, to apprehend
in a sudden brine-clear though
trembling like the tiny, orbed, endangered
egg-sac of a new world:
_This is what she was to me, and this
is how I can love myself —
as only a woman can love me.

Homesick for myself, for her_ — as, father the heatwave
breaks, the clear tones of the world
manifest: cloud, bough, wall, insect, the very soul of light,
_homesick_ as the fluted vault of desire
articulates itself: _I am the lover and the loved,
homne and wanderer, she who splits
firewood and she who knocks, a strange
in the storm_, two women, eye to eye
measuring each other’s spirits each others’
limitless desire,
          a whole new poetry beginning here.

Vision begins to happen in such a life
as if a woman quietly walked away
from the argument and jargon in a room
and sitting down in the kitchen, began turning in her lap
bits of yarn, calico and velvet scraps,
laying them out absently on the scrubbed boards
in the lamplight, with small rainbow- colored shells
sent in cotton-wool from somewhere far away
and skeins of milkweed from the nearest meadow —
original domestic silk, the finest findings —
and the darkblue petal of the petunia,
and the dry darkbrown face of seaweed;
not forgotten either, the shed silver
whisker of the cat,
the spiral of paper-wasp-nest curling
beside the finch’s yellow feather.
Such a composition has nothing to do with eternity,
the striving for greatness, brilliance—
only with the musing of a mind
one with her body, experienced fingers quietly pushing
dark against bright; silk against roughness,
putting the tenets of a life together
with no mere will to mastery,
only care for the many-lived, unending
forms in which she finds herself,
becoming now the sherd of broken glass
slicing light in a corner, dangerous
to flesh, now the plentiful, soft leaf
that wrapped round the throbbing finger, soothes the wound;
and now the stone foundation, rockshelf further
forming underneath everything that grows.
(1977)


Remedios Varo (1908 – 1963), Girls on Bicycles (?): it puts me in mind of the Madeleine books

And these are only a few of my favorite poems. It has to be admitted Rich is not often playful. But then I’m not often playful. She wrote only of Austen that I can find once: in “When we dead awaken: Writing a Re-vision”: in A Room of One’s Own, Woolf was trying to sound “as cool as Jane Austen, as Olympian as Shakespeare, because that is the way men of the culture thought a writer should sound.” She is right about that: Austen did compromise and I will be writing about one aspect of this tomorrow: her letters to her niece, Anna Austen Lefroy.

I had not included Rich in my foremother poet blogs and postings before because I felt inadequate to the task, that I did not know enough. I am aware I never saw, heard or spoke to her while it seems other people I know have. Today I got over that and perhaps next week will attempt another foremother blog for Amy Clampitt whom I also feel I don’t know quite enough about.

I’ll come back later and add some good essays or books about Rich and her writing if I can find some I feel sure are good. An addendum for now: it’s useless to write a foremother poet blog for Adrienne Rich, it almost makes nonsense of what she stood for unless we tell the content: a free-for-all against blacks, women, the poor. US action outside the borders of the US.

Ellen

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Lady Gaga, a mainstream image, twilight faux feminine innocence


Lady Gaga, performing masculinity

Dear friends and readers,

File this under a “and now for something competely different” category but please do not think it irrelevant to Austen who herself has become an numinous icon whose presence and about whom stories are told which have hardly anything to do with her books: the origin of her cult is in the publication of her novels even if it first took off in 1870 when her nephew unwitting produced the terms which would enable the cult to get started (see my “Continent Isolated: Anglocentricity in Austen Criticism:” Re-Drawing Austen: Picturesque Travels in Austenland [English translation of Italian title], edd. Beatrice Battaglia and Diego Saglia. Napoli: Liguori Editore, 2005. Pp. 325-338, and comment). Nor is the soft-core parodic porn irrelevant, for Graham-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and the Zombies presents just such material.

I got into a conversation on Lady Gaga with anibundel whose insightful intelligent blog (I should have been a blogger) has been featured in Atlantic and who is my older daughter, Caroline. On one level (as my comment afterward, which I also include, suggests) Caroline-anibundel shows the pornification of our culture. Insightfully we see how not only the masochism of girl rock culture today, but also how women dressing as man are perform masculinity the way homosexual men dressing as woman are perform femininity. On another. we see an attempt to make oneself into one of these numinous icons (such as Marilyn Monroe and other celebrity women, including princesses have become). I don’t think Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta quite succeeding, and it would be interesting to understand why. I suggest Lady Gaga is not coming across as unguarded and enigmatic enough; there’s something pathetic going on.

Caroline-anibundel wrote as follows (suitably edited for this blog):

1. This is Lady Gaga’s biggest hit to date, “Bad Romance.” In it, she is trying to temper what was originally a wildly sexual piece into something (mostly) far more mainstream. (But note her microphone looks oddly like a dildo.) The faux old english ballroom setting was what caused me to ask if Dr.Who was going to suddenly materialize in his TARDIS. I apologize for the commercial at the front of this video. This is what network TV does now.
http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/video/lady-gaga-rocks-bad-romance-15025935
In comparison, here is the original video for “Bad Romance”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qrO4YZeyl0I

2.This is Gaga’s latest release “Edge of Glory” reworked for the piano, and performed in what looks to be the dining room in Downton Abbey. This should give you a good sense of the odd pretentiousness of the proceedings, and why I said it was a bit near-Great-Performances parody.

3. I am a touch irritated that I can’t find her rendition of “Orange Colored Sky” which was the best number by far. Sadly instead everyone’s pimping the “White Christmas with an extra verse” that she did from that same setting. This setting with a small jazz band was the best showcase for her voice. (Again, obnoxious 1min long commercial alert)
http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/video/lady-gaga-dreams-white-christmas-15025902

4. As to why people call her a Lesbian cross dresser, well, here. This was her summer release:

You’ll note there’s a tribute to Bette Milder and the mermaid thing (Gaga even appeared at one point with the fishtail in the wheelchair when promoting this video.) You’ll also get a sense of the “weird’n’wacky” outfits that Gaga wears normally. But the part that caught everyone’s attention was the shots in the cornfield. The “New York Italian tough” sitting on top of the piano that she’s singing to in her shift is actually herself, in male drag. Originally it was meant as a masturbation reference. Once she got wind that the most shocking part of the video wasn’t the odd outfits (and that no one under the age of 35 remembers bette milder) but that the idea of her in drag, she changed tactics and started doing all her public appearances in character as this new york italian tough who is gaga’s secret boyfriend from back home. That lasted maybe all of 6 weeks, which was when the next single came out.

************************

Lately “she” has begun to appear without her signature frilly cap

My reply:

The first video and the last used masochistic and punitive imagery; probably the first “Bad Romance” was better as it had less gadgetry and more a single mood, but it is a woman (women) offering herself (themselves) up to men to do with as they please. Masochistic over-the-top. That’s softened in the mainstream by having the guys dance too, but the use of a dildo as the mike offsets that. Nos 2 and 3 are boring in comparison, but yes mainstream and she makes these gestures she assumes or wants to be part of her signature act/performance. She has a hoarse individual voice. I agree the plush stuff comes from PBS kind of masterpiece theater or other pop norms. Glamor is the pretense. The last video had some startling self-harm stuff. Her feet, the heels and ankles bleeding. Vagina dentata with naked behinds, all got up military style. I did see right away the person on the piano was her as well as the one seated. The image that came to mind was her offering to fellatio him (only “him” is her).

On the whole, the first and last are what’s called the pornification of mainstream by second wave feminist.

But you’re right. This is not a lesbian act. Nonetheless, the imagery is imagery gay people often find entertaining especially some of the uses of grotesquerie, of big and little.

The young girl — Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta (I wonder if these are really all her names, it’s a parody of a type of naming) — is super thin and anorexic in Video 1 is very Italian New York. There is an attempt here at compensatory iconographies of victimhood. She is trying to make herself into one of these super-numinous icons — from Marilyn Monroe to Madonna, from Mary Queen of Scots to Princess Diana to Jane Austen: these are women who became female icons which function as symbols women and men pour their own needs into. In Lady Gaga, the compensatory portion is not strong enough; Helen Mirren for example, comes across as having iron in her veins, she walks the walk as they say, a queen, a Marlene Dietrich. Lady Gaga is too much the twilight princess.

So I don’t think Lady Gaga quite succeeds, and offer this explanation, but to tell the full truth, I am not really sure why. Maybe it’s more that she’s not bigger than life. Helen Mirren who I likened her to is a second rank icon. Beyond that though Lady Gaga doesn’t have “it” the way Madonna has — I saw through her act to the Italian New York teenager, just a little coarse who would otherwise be going for “big hair”,a large diamond ring, a Mrs and a nose job, to say nothing of a big house in suburbia and husband in a suit.She looks like Barbra Streisand too.

Digression and coda: The above conversation took off from something the admiral in our house said (our captain). His argument was originally about 18th through 20th century cross-dressing, cross-dressing on the UK stage and television (there’s still very little of it on US TV or the stage — except maybe these teen videos). He argued that there is a difference between a woman playing a man’s role and a woman in breeches part. Breeches part you have one sex dressing as the other and it was done so men could look at women’s behinds, calves, and thighs: it is not performing masculinity but rather calling attention to women’s legs, especially their calves and behinds; breeches parts please heteronormative sexually oriented people. When women played men’s roles in complete disguises (the way Sarah Bernhardt did Hamlet or Peg Woffington Sir Harry Wildair in The constant Couple) they were not sending up heterosexuality so much as literally trying to be men, suggesting a strong lesbian impulse which validates heterosexual norms. When Lady Gaga in that last video doubles herself as a woman before a man and a transvestite male, she suggests a lesbianism as she performs masculinity in her male guise just the way homosexual men dressing as woman perform femininity.


Peter Capaldi as Vera Reynolds (from Prime Suspect 3).

It’s a form of gay entertainment. It’s not normalizing but sending up.

Thus the admiral. I chose Capaldi in Prime Suspect 3 because he goes well beyond sending up. He makes the typology poignant-tragic.

Ellen

P. S. I apologize for the UTubes which did not appear. I am not good at making UTUbes appear. Those that are not here may be reached by taking the URL and feeding it into your Firefox (or whatever you use) and hitting “enter.”

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