Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘social life’


Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of inward nobility and sensitivity of Samuel Johnson

Dear friends and readers,

When at the first session of the class I was leading, The Enlightenment: At Risk? one of the people in the room remembered back to having had John Radner as “Study Guide Leader” (prof-teacher) twice for courses just on Johnson, and had clearly come for more, I felt I had made an effective choice of Samuel Johnson as the third of the writers we would read and discuss. Also when another man brought in his W.J. Bate biography of Johnson, an old battered and much read-looking book, and said how much he had enjoyed it, I felt vindicated. When someone had volunteered that he “liked” Johnson, after someone else said he much preferred Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides to Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands, read aloud passages in which (it must be admitted) Boswell seemed the far more accessible, funny, vivid, concretely in an immediate way informative writer, while Johnson by contrast might seem so colorless and dull. Then the first man turned around to confess that Johnson in Boswell’s Life and A Tour seems a totally different person, not deep, not thoughtful, but a dense bully, by no means accurate in his pronounced assessments, coarse examples, stubborn, a contradictory egoistic, a religiously intolerant man. Were there two Johnsons? We had read Lisa Berglund’s essay on how Boswell’s presentation of Johnson’s cat-companion, Hodge, differs from Hester Thrale’s. Another man said he was reading John Wain’s biography of Johnson and agreed with me, that in some lines we seem to hear Johnson’s very tone, his meditative nobility of soul intermingling with Wain’s. Finally most of them read the supplementary reading by Johnson on line in the Ramblers, Idlers and prefaces.

Have I mentioned this is a group of highly intelligent adults more or less retired adults, have held positions of considerably responsibility in their lives? That made a huge difference in how the class went but I’m not sure how to talk about this. Also simply they seemed more able or willing to take Johnson’s point of view in than either Voltaire or Diderot’s.

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

Colin Hunter (1841-1904); Good-Night to Skye (2895) (Glasgow Museums)

My second question to myself was, Did I chose the right text from among Johnson’s many? I avoided the Life of Savage because (like Boswell before me and I think Clarence Tracy too) I believe Johnson was deluded and that Savage was himself an imposter whose delusions grew to such a reinforced point, he believed them; similarly, as I couldn’t see how I could write about Johnson’s Life of Savage in as positive a vein as was wanted for a paper comparing his biographical art to Woolf’s, I couldn’t see how I could teach people over 60 that this text is a great biography even though its central information and even respectful sympathetic perspective of Savage is misleading. Johnson is obsessive in his understandable compassion and horror (because he believes that Anne Brett denied this child). In the biography Johnson believes the story that Anne Breet tried to have Savage hanged — and tries to justify his murder of someone in a violent brawl — Richard Holmes (Dr Johnson and Mr Savage as in Jekyll & Hyde) understands that one much more accurately. Apparently Anne Brett’s family had members willing to pay Savage off as long as he will agree to be silent (he wasn’t) and behave minimally decently in their houses — but he would not do that either, and after a while he was thrown out and the allowance stopped.  The key story is hers as much as Savage’s: she was subject to violence from more than one husband, hers as hard a life. What this material cries out for is a life of Anne Brett.

It turned out yes. Maybe even some chose the course because they had gone to the Hebrides! I counted four people in the class who had been to the Hebrides or at least northern Scotland. So I also showed Patrick Watkins’s stunning anti-war docudrama, Culloden, and they were gripped, or at last interested to ask questions after I sent three good essays on Patrick Watkins’s art, on its place in 20th century great films, on the problem of teaching history from written fragments, visits to relics and landscapes, from a lack of evidence, from inescapable biases and identifications I read aloud from John Lister-Kaye’s poetically brilliant The Song of the Rolling Earth.

I retold Johnson’s life, and had sent a review of a biography of Francis Barber. At the time of the death of Johnson’s wife, Tetty, Colonel Richard Bathurst whose estates in Jamaica failed came back with a white son and one black boy given apparently a common name: Quashey. Richard Bathurst the son strong abolitionist and friend to Johnson. Given name Francis Barber and sent to school for 2 years – about age 10, and then came to live with Johnson in London. At one point he ran away. A bid for freedom?but Johnson thought this choice not a good idea, and agitated to get Francis back and at age 26 sent him to Grammar school. Francis came home and became a sort of servant, married a white woman and was set up in a shop to sell books in Lichfield. It’s said he was given a generous legacy, but the shop failed. He died impoverished in 1801, a schoolmaster. He is said to have given details of intimate domestic life to Boswell.  He had a circle of African friends in London: there was a population of African black people living in London.

I also offered background on Scottish culture at the time, Jacobitism, Buchan’s Crowded with Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh’s Moment of the Mind, and offered a narrative of Johnson’s life, and then we got down to going through Johnson and Boswell’s book. I found a number of the people also read a good deal of Boswell’s, which comes with most editions of Johnson’s.

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

Johnson had desired to go to Scotland for a very long time, he says; he wanted to travel to another society and here was one close by, and now they were doing it: they spent about a hundred days in a place neither man was used to. Although Boswell had connections, once they crossed Inverness, he was essentially an Enlightenment lowlands city Scot whose rank and family, and father’s known position, made an opening wherever they went. This is not a package tour nor a comfortable one made very convenient and easy: they have to find accommodation where they can; they went through wildness, solitude, untamed, and as they go, Johnson repeatedly attempts to imagine the history of a object: why does a castle take the form it does? Or the landscape they are seeing.  What happened here to make this building look this way or that?  Johnson tries to analyze the economic activity that he sees and extrapolate from it to understand the economic and political systems of Scotland. His ideas about the tacksman could be applied to why communism failed as a system of exchange among people.

Johnson wanted to compare European society, to him modern, with what existed earlier; he wanted to discover a feudal society (so did Ann Radcliffe in her joural tour of a summer tour — she eventually went north too), but this was a society in the “agonies of change” to quote John Wain. Johnson was also observing two societies side-by-side — lowland modern Scotland and highlands older Scotland. Meanwhile the English were killing a way of life — and didn’t care who or what this affected. Again and again Johnson sees whole groups of people emigrating. How deeply sceptical Johnson was of claims of attribution and past glories and history. Yet he persists at each stop-over to read and write on – and at each turn Johnson is really describing what he sees, testing and verifying, an ethnography of a society in the throes of change, forced emigration and death and exploitation is what he describes to us.

To me it’s almost natural and understandable that Boswell’s book should be the one preferred by many readers as – to tell the accurate truth if like Johnson you really try to find out “which Johnson” the person is discussing – you discover often it’s Boswell’s Johnson, Johnson as described by Boswell and from Boswell’s book who is so well known or subject of fan groups not Johnson himself considered apart from Boswell. Boswell offers a comic, immediate, psychologized and prosaic talk-y language, going over the same incident with details nowhere to be found in Johnson but which support his point of view. Johnson’s is the tragic book: we see the tragedy of people’s lives, the difficulty of survival, and hard struggle each person makes to carry on. That’s the true emphasis of his book. By contrast, Boswell’s jovial filled with his real belief in hierarchy, enjoyment of good times, considerable self-esteem; he is continually name-dropping.

Johnson analyses the basic constraints and history behind each human existence or type of life he comes across with real depth of understanding. He is seriously looking at a different way of life in its death-throes and the violent history behind it. He really describes the desolation before him. His language moves from quiet to brilliant uses of general terms which capture so much meaning to magnificence and deep emotionalism of gratitude or enjoyment. Johnson ends his book on a school for the deaf. Deaf people were treated as idiots until the 18th century when two French philosophes (Abbe Sicard one, discussed by Oliver Sacks in his Seeing Voices) invented sign language. I regret to have to report this was one of those schools where the teachers were to force deaf children to learn to speak so it was not kind place but it was backward step (still not gone) in a forward movement.

Boswell gives us a good time with individual justifications as we go along. We meet individuals and rejoice in them or help or listen to or just interact with them: the old woman and her goat is to Johnson an epitome of hard-scrabble life; how admirably she uses all her resources. To Boswell, she’s a merry joke; she thought one of them would want to go to bed with her, or rape her. She seems unaware that Boswell does not find her attractive. In a frightening tempest, Boswell shows us how frightened he was, what a fool he made out of himself, how he tried to help and appreciated all the captain did. Johnson barely notices this transitory if deeply (to them as frail human beings) ephemeral experience of life. What does Boswell end on their last agreeable days –- how Johnson was feted, what they saw, what they laughed about where they stayed and that he deserves the credit for having gotten Johnson to go, taken him through and so the existence of Johnson’s book. Boswell’s book is an advertisement for the coming biography which he was already diligently at work at.In the Footsteps of Johnson and Boswell — there are a number of such books, I brought in Israel Schenker.

I cited some months ago Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands, with or without Boswell’s A Tour to the Hebrides, as one of ten that had the most influence on me in my life. I quoted a passage where Johnson tells us how he came to choose to want to travel to Scotland even now in his old age. Now I’ll emphasize Iona, which island experience (and others) we went over carefully in class. I read Henry Hitchings’s redaction in his The World in 38 Chapters:

An inscription over the door, to show what kind of a Book this is

A scrap of land, a speck in the sea’s breath. On an OctoTuesday, two travellers arrive after dark. The sea has been rough, and their craft’s four oarsmen can find no easy place to disembark; it seems they must carry the visitors to dry land, though one of them chooses to spring into the water and wade ashore. In the moonlight the two
figures embrace. It is late to be inspecting monuments, so they retire for the night — sleeping fully clothed in a barn, nestled in the hay, using their bags as pillows.

The next day they explore the island. Its buildings have been battered by storms and stripped by locals needing materials for their homes; now they are ruins, caked in filth. The old nunnery is a garden of weeds, and the chapel adjoining it is a cowshed. The two men walk along a broken causeway — once a street flanked by good houses — and arrive at a roofless abbey. Its altar is damaged; islanders have carried off chunks of the white marble, believing that they afford protection against fire and shipwreck. A few intricately carved stone crosses still stand.

Later, the visitors will write about what they saw. One will comment that the island used to be ‘the metropolis of of learning and piety’ and wonder if it ‘may be sometime the instructress of the Western Regions’. The other will reflect that ‘the solemn scenes of piety never lose their sanctity and influence’: ‘I hoped that, ever after having been in this holy place, I should maintain an exemplary conduct. One has a strange propensity to fix upon some point of time from whence a better course of life may begin.’

This is a sketch of Iona, where in AD 563 the energetic Irish exile St Columba founded a monastery. Today, the island’s great sites have been restored and are often mobbed with day trippers – a mix of Christian pilgrims and happy­snapping tourists. Yet in 1773, when Samuel Johnson and James Boswell visited, few people went there. It was Johnson who reflected on the island’s lost role as ‘the metropolis of learning and piety’, recalling how, as he experienced its decay but also its tranquillity, he was transported into the past — to a time when it was ‘the luminary of the Caledo­nian regions, whence savage clans and roving barbarians derived the benefits of knowledge and the blessings of religion’. This was a place where earth and heaven seemed only a finger’s width apart. Somehow it cheered the soul.

‘Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses,’ Johnson wrote, ‘and makes the past, the distant, or the future predominate over the present, advances us in the
dignity of thinking beings.’ This is a rallying cry, an appeal for historical understanding. He doesn’t mean that we should refuse to live in the moment, ignoring the pith of the present to spend our lives dwelling on how idyllic the past was or how ambrosial the future might be. Instead he is arguing that we are dignified by our ability, through the operations of our minds, to transcend our circumstances, to reach beyond the merely local, to appreciate difference. It is an insight typical of Samuel Johnson, a heroic thinker whose intelligence exerted itself in a startling number of directions. A poet and a novelist, a diarist and editor and translator, as well as the author of numerous prefaces and dedications, h produced the first really good dictionary of English, invented the genre of critical biography …


There is more than one edition of the original two copies as In the Footsteps of Johnson and Boswell (Israel Schenker from the NYTimes wrote one and now lives in Scotland).

Hitchings led to talk of  journeys people in the class had taken to the Hebrides and even  Iona and how “spiritual” it had felt. I used Matthew Arnold’s old touchstone method — I quoted Johnson: in the midst of telling how the Highlanders are fleeing the place, and that there are some “lairds of more prudence and less rapacity [who] have kept their vassals undiminished,” Johnson writes: “From Rasaay only one man has been seduced, and at Col there was no wish to go away” — because of the good man running the place. It’s that “at Col there was no wish to go away” that captures the dense concision of understanding in the man’s texts.

We then went over a number of individual passages. What Johnson is interested in? the past, meditation of what was, on generalization about humanity trying to survive in hard and various conditions: looking upon human life; passionate student of history, and of geology, geography, culture in general and that’s what he puts in his book. Sudden affection. Universities are decaying, on Canongate. Inch Kenneth, high point. How he spontaneously, inspired, wrote poetry in Latin. How he admires people: Col, so well educated trying to help his people, spends such time with them, drowns suddenly, Macquarry emigrating. Topics included his interest in castles and dungeons and the violent past they reveal. Mountainous people and their cultures. His Sardonic humor. But also merry and unself-conscious; can imitate a kangaroo. They spend a long time in Sky, Ostig: Johnson talks of what really corrodes people’s minds. Power overcomes law but money has power to abrogate law. When guns appear, non-human animals decrease. The fight over the Ossian poems: James Macpherson claimed to have found and just rewritten slightly these epic fragments in ancient gaelic and Johnson challenged him to produce the manuscripts. Of course there were none; people wanted ancient poems and unscrupulous writers produced them – it was a kind of watered down Miltonism style that appealed – tremendous international popularity but Johnson stubbornly held out. The man, thug-like threatened him, and Johnson said he’ll carry a big stick and protect himself Boswell often quotes Johnson, and works passages in, like this.

Johnson provides somber, Boswell the prosaic thought. The two of them talking, different perspectives, Johnson goes about to show us how different the re-tellings of history and concludes how little Boswell’s tour he just complains he can’t learn anything from oral tradition. In the mornings Boswell would bring what he wrote to Johnson and Johnson fix what he had written, rewrite, plan in his mind. They were making books together.

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


The Yale edition of Johnson is now complete and online, open to the public

I assigned a few other texts found online. We went on to the Rambler and Idler, etexts online. We read the history of Misella (Nos 170-71) How she was drawn from her parents’ house with promises, never given the advantages claimed; then seduced by the benefactor, removed from the house when pregnant and gradually abandoned and her life as a prostitute now. Then Idler No 22 the mother vulture teaching her children — how 18th century readers liked allegory of this type in the period – an outgrowth of Aesop’s Fables. The vulture thinks man made for them and Johnson approaches Voltairian satire. We turned for an example of Johnson at his most witheringly sardonic: the review of Soames Jenyns. The malevolence in the idea that extending education to all is dangerous, will make people discontented, rebellious. The notion that human and animal sufferings produce good effects made Soames imagine that immortal beings enjoy watching us for their diversion and those in heaven derive satisfaction from those in hell. Unforgettable. Idler 22 similarly against debtors’ prisons. Idler No 81: native Americans discussing behavior of European armies and how they can use these killers.

Lives of the poets: constitutes a history of English poetry across the long 18th century, a discussion of the nature of poetry, even in this different style, lives of writers, and he is at his personally involved or make political points. He chooses some of subjects because booksellers told him to (they had the man’s works – no woman I regret to say) and others because he knew the man. Great compassion for some: William Collins. He added names he thought should be included, but one can be very disappointed because a poet today thought important isn’t there: Christopher Smart who died raving in a prison when he should have not been put in their in the first place.. Famous for a long poem on his cat Jeffrey who kept him company. I went briefly over Boswell’s, Hawkins, Thrale’s and Murphy’s biographies of Johnson himself. His letters. I read a couple to Warton, one to Mrs Thrale, part of the one to Chesterfield.

As editor of Shakespeare’s works: he did not idolize the man and some students reading the preface are surprised to find critical and evaluative comments. He puts Shakespeare in the context of his time, looks at his ultimate vision. His observations on passages are like close readings of Shakespeare’s texts. From Measure for Meausre. They did not have novels the way we do and what they read often were bound up groups of plays sold as books. Shakespeare’s plays could be read as realistic novels, so on Macbeth …

Lastly I offered a bit on Johnson’s politics. I recommended Donald Greene’s Twayne book. Thoughts on the Falkland Islands is his most anti-colonialist. But he supports gov’t sometimes because he fears chaos and who might rise to power. Oddly it has been rumored and whole essays written to show Johnson as Jacobite because he supported the Tory party and in context, from Boswell he seems sympathetic but anyone who knows the realities of Jacobitism and he did would be hard put to go that far. In his own day some accused him of this — he was often corrosive over the Hanoverian gov’t – more anti-whig than pro-Tory. Wrote Swiftian parodies. He did support expulsion of John Wilkes seen as this ultimate patriot at the time. England had the right to tax the colonialists without their permission – because they defended the colonialists against the Native Americans (but why did they so?), he attacked the anonymous Junius – a kind of Deep Throat writing eloquent diatribes exposing corruption.

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


Another depiction of Johnson by Reynolds — a more familiar one

Every spirit passing through the world fingers the tangible and mars the mutable, and finally has come to look and not to buy. As shoes are worn and hassocks are sat upon … finally everything is left where it was and the spirit passes on — Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

I had assigned Isobel Grundy’s irreplaceable essay on Johnson’s depiction of death in his biographies. She says he shows both the older views and the modern towards death: it’s a rounding off and leaving a meaning, but also confusing, ambiguous, making one feel that the life had no significance beyond for the person and for most of us the few people who we’ve been meaningful to. We still see the older attitude in churches and religious places, and in people who plan their death, care about their will, make due preparations. Pope did. She says that Johnson repeatedly fails to find this significance or meaning in the deaths he recounts or describes, asked what he felt while dying: he wanted to live” deaths ironic, horrifying, show a lack of concern in reality; jarring and shocking. Did they die as they had lived? He again and again refuses to draw a moral. More: he deliberately puts before us the ironies, casual comedy, inappropriateness of what happens, the grotesqueries. In his essays we find death is the great leveller, what is the case for common humanity, avoids religious talk or judgement; early lives he does offer exemplary deaths; he looks into legends: Hermione Lee who has written a number of even great biographies says the most problematic of chapters is often the last because so many lies, distortions, agendas come in – we hear what the survivors of the scene want to tell us – yet you can’t avoid it and so recent biographies tend to scant it. He moves from seeing death as a kind of testing to part of common humanity – ridiculous, frailty of human body, not dignified not in control. The person or people comforting the dying can try to help the dying person feel he or she has that control over the last if that’s what the person wants or cares about.

Grundy’s was the last text I talked about and then I did wish I had assigned the Oxford Authors volume of Johnson, edited by Donald Greene, because we could have read some of the Lives of the Poets as then the people in the room would have read some of these texts.

The three to four sessions were about as successful as I’ve ever been with a “older” more difficult author. More successful than the Voltaire and Diderot sessions I felt. I asked if I tried to do this theme again, did they think it was a good idea? They said they did. I said I would try to substitute other authors: Jean-Jacques Rousseau for Voltaire (Reveries of a Solitary Walker as it needs to be a shorter text), Goethe (either The Sorrows of Werther or Elective Affinities). Mary Wolstonecraft for Madame Roland (The Rights of Women, Residence in Sweden), but I thought to myself I can probably not find an analogous substitute.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Wybrand Hendriks (Dutch painter, 1744-1831) Old Woman Reading
Wybrand Hendriks, Old Woman Reading (Dutch, 1744-1831)

Dear friends and readers,

I almost made a Freudian slip and typed as the the title of Goodman’s bok, Becoming a Woman of Letters in the 18th century, for that is what this book is about. It’s just the book I needed to put together a paper on Anne Grant, Elizabeth Grant Smith and if not Anne Home Hunter, Anne Radcliffe — who also wrote a journal book and left a journal-diary whose entries are letter-like. I may substitute Radcliffe for Anne Home Hunter if my emphasis moves from Scots women to women forging connections as such. Naturally,I recommend it.

The cover picture of Goodman’s book is the same tired image I’ve seen on so many 18th century books about French women, Adelaide Labille-Guiard‘s Portrait of a Woman, so despite its appropriateness and lovely colors,

PortraitofaWoman

I led with a much less familiar image of a woman avidly reading — as if her life depended upon this.

A review of Goodman’s book appeared in the latest issue of Eighteenth-Century Studies, 48:4 (546-47). I want to emphasize from Aurora Wolfgang’s brief account, that writing was for women of the 18th into 19th century “a transformational practice,” where they both developed a consciousness for themselves (an identity we might say) and spoke to both private and public worlds out of their own private world (writing self) and public knowledge. Goodman debunks the stereotype of women as reading and writing love letters primarily; she developed her role as a teacher, mother and legitimized active participation and autonomy. The writing desk, her closet, the learning what are one’s innermost thoughts through the use of language, using reason, knowledge (her reading), and sensibility. Sensibility is only one part of this even if this is a “gendered sense of subjectivity.”

Goodman covers the manufacture of supply too: pens, paper, furniture for the modern person (like a desk), books of illustrations to study.

The writer and reader reached out to embed themselves in social networks of friends and family and book illustrations too.

ElizabethShippenGreen
Elizabeth Shippen Green (1871-1954) — and woman illustrator

Goodman analyzes over a 100 such illustrations; her central women writers are Genevieve de Malboissiére, Manon Phlipon, Catherine de Saint-Pierre, and Sophie Silvestre.

Other reviews: Maire Fedelma Cross, French History 24:2 (2010):292-93; from Cornell’s website.

A small connection which may seem foolish but is a defense of good historical. In Graham’s Poldark novels when Demelza learns to write and uses her skill to connect Verity to Blamey, to communicate with others, to be herself, she is enacting what Goodman claims for women of this era. I regret to say I’ve not been able to locate any snaps or stills of Eleanor Tomlinson teaching herself to read (they are probably fleeting). These are taken from Graham’s book. What is emphasized in both historical films is Demelza teaching herself to play the piano. Reading is still a suspect activity?

I’ve bought the book used from Amazon, and await its arrival eagerly.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

MillaisIrishMelodiesAnExcludedWoman
John Everett Millais, Irish Melodies

Westron winde, when will thou blow,
The smalle raine downe can raine.
Christ if my love were in my armes,
And I in my bed againe.
    Medieval English Lyric

Dear friends and readers,

I expect it will come as no surprise to my readers I’ve been thinking about, reading and making notes about, and have written a panel and paper proposal for the coming EC/ASECS in Delaware (now accepted) about the above linked topics. What I wrote comes out of years’ of reading Austen and 18th century texts and pictures, my recent experience and a few books and articles recently read. This blog is about this recent reading and two proposals.

I would have preferred to begin with the book I took most extensive notes on — though it was a disappointment because it relied heavily on documentary evidence, and as B-B says, until recently the history of widowhood has been badly served, distorted by what has been written down: Être Veuve sous l’ancien régime [To be a widow in the ancien regime] by Scarlett Beauvalet-Boutouyrie. But before that I feel I have to suggest why the documentary record ignores dominant realities: it’s heavily due to the intense hostility on the part of the majority of people towards a woman living alone independently, having power and (until recently) usually old. So instead I’ll present my panel proposal which partly explicates this hostility.

KateWinslett
Kate Winslett as Mildred Pierce (one phase of her life as widow)

The Anomaly: the single unmarried adult woman living alone, spinsters, divorced and widowed women

According to Mrs. Peachum, “The comfortable estate of widowhood, is the only hope that keeps up a wife’s spirits.” According to Chudleigh’s “To the Ladies,” the most frequently reprinted poem of the period, the only way to know any pleasure or liberty is to “Shun that wretched state,” i.e., marriage. But notwithstanding the misogynistic infamous type of the frustrated unhappy lascivious or power-hungry widow and a real woman’s in ability to own property until she is widowed (though her jointure), and some well-known examples of (usually independently) wealthy women who throve (Mary Delany, Lady Granville; Hester Thrale Piozzi); like other women of the era who might end up or try living on their own without a man of their class and type (when respectable kin), modern studies suggest spinsters (lesbian or not), separated and divorced and widowed women had a hard time of it financially, socially and psychologically. I call for papers exploring and discussing depictions in art and literature and/or the realities of life for a women from the long 18th and into the early 19th century (if that’s of interest) who lived on her own or with another woman or women. Salonnières, bluestockings, businesswomen, the down and out and vengeful (as seen from the fictional Moll Flanders and Roxana, “’Tis better to whore than to starve,” to Mrs Dashwood’s lack of adequate resources to Madame de Merteuil’s rage), women who never quite recovered and made the experience of marriage central to their writing (i.e., Francoise de Graffigny, a victim of legal violent abuse when a wife), women without families to take them in, governesses, companions without vows, housekeepers, agricultural and city- and sex-workers – how were they depicted and how did they depict themselves, how did they survive, create viable existences for themselves, find pleasure, when they chose not to re-marry or marry in the first place.

Here then Être Veuve sous l’ancien regime by Scarlett Beauvalet-Boutouyrie. The fundamental assumption of many of the quotable quotes famous still is that marriage is an unhappy business and when expressed from the male point of view (as it usually is) is that a second marriage is (Johnson’s famous quip) “the triumph of hope over experience.”

18th Century Fashion Plate
Fashion plate for supposed wealthy widow

Preface – Jean Pierre Bardet

B-B asks if this sizable group of women constitutes a coherent social group with determined shared traits – they are mentioned as widows and orphans with connotations of vulnerability and poverty but do not they have diverse circumstances? BB analyses the literary representations as reflecting views of the era (problem of numbers, problem of subjectivity) and finds a mostly unacknowledged distinct group.

she suggests there are three ways of seeing this group of widows: 1) that of the clerics: a dangerous state, risks of sinking into sensuality (!), rumor hurting her and greed attacking her or her being caught up by. So she is pressured to become chaste, devoted to charity, submitting to religious order. At bottom this is hostile to the widow, to her remarrying; 2) that of secular literature: does not contradict the above, just another direction with the same “risks” in mind demands that she act with dignity, fear of her frivolousness, her duty to remarry dramatized; 3) that of her memoirs – there must be a time of affliction, but readers dreads the inconsolable widow; they must put themselves in agreeable circles; they are heavily closely controlled: think of the effect of the demand for mourning clothes. (I add that poetry is one place where some liberty can be found and the greatest poetry by women in the Renaissance is often that of the grieving widow or woman living alone).

These groupings importantly, do not include some realities at all: the education of the children she was typically left with – so we see immediately how the published typology presents a false sociology, a sociology badly served and predetermined by the documents which erase central realities.

In 20th century living longer has produced more widows; in the past marriage did not last that long (mortality heavy; fragility of coupling real and for women without social protections. Yes she did have legal rights, more autonomous than other married women; she had arrangements over her dowry and portion (jointure) – but very often the family did not permit her to dispose of these things freely at all – (as I recall even get her hands on the money); but some Parisian contracts show widow’s social and customary positions improved in the long 18th century – when they were rentiers; they carried on the husband’s economic activity – the choice of a religious life was rare (8). Widows with means in minority.

Most poor but hard to delimit- problem of survival crucial – taken into Parisian alms-houses but they were not old all the time, didn’t say, so what became of them and their children?

B-B did not investigate the remarriage state, a great number did not remarry (as opposed to widowers), what they say of themselves now confirms but then contests usual characterizations: in another book will be history of poor widows, remarriage, and solitude.

BB: her Introduction

Recent studies want to escape masculine lens, the axis of domination or subordination/oppression; Ida Blom little done on widows because women researched in roles as mothers; they also are often inactive and feminists don’t want that annihilation – old women past menopause so no one interested – she says first widowhood not synonymous with older years as it is today; women have numerous family, money of some kind to handle or wholly w/o resources – why have historians ignored it when he shows changes in laws over time – is she always pathetic, alone, in black, isolated; or someone whose very existence disquiets, at risk – a woman living alone outside of marriage and religion (15). So you get these codes of comportment to deal with these myths – she proposes to see what is common in these ideas and the realities.

She needs numbers: when on average was a woman widowed, how many children did she have, what strategies did she use against the rupture the death caused – early death so common, unions brief often – much prepared in law and custom for this expectation of death; upon widowhood women became responsible for their actions
How to organize a life alone. First there is no wandering widow – she does use documents she has from Paris, contracts of marriage – favorable cases and isolated widows; some way of navigating between widows with children, affairs, and the one struggling to survive – there were some institutions which provided a little assistance – history of widowhood is a social history – how death leads to solitude and mobilizes energies of widows confronted with their future

The Mythic Figure

Chapter 1. Women written about as such by men, a being who fascinates and frightens; aim to establish norms of conduct and confine her in them (21); she’s given virtues like sweetness, pity, docility; others around her role as mother. They want to contain the widow who has autonomy (and has had sex), put her back under “tutelle”

1. Make them choose the church and charity; comes as part of advice to married women; the work of Francois de Sales who gives a whole chapter to this; God must have wanted this; at risk of seduction when alone: she is to consecrate life to family and children; pray, practice good works

2. Second marriage tolerated but not wished for (p 38) – solitude again a danger, 39; you are told to refind your husband in God

Chapter 2: she writes a series of biographies of holy women; quite a number (56) – but these represent a small minority but one there are many documents on. (To me this was a waste of paper.)

Chapter 3: we meet the independent woman: through the lens of different sources we may decode a system of values and representations (p 101): beyond arranged marriages and validation or condemnation of love romance, stories tell of intrigue, how marriages happen, a multiplication of obstacles – all witness the desire for liberty of choice; intrigues and rebounds. It’s elite texts addressing elite people – what function and what category does someone belong to. Widowhood presented as temporary; will remarry.

What are the dominant traits we find in stage comedy? — most often presented as young, w/o children, with money – little consideration given to older woman.

First she must dress as a widow (for prescribed time); the widow a la mode (La Veuve a la mode), Duneau de Visee uncovers hypocrisies to show us what is funny and what pathetic. Other women characters in arranged marriage glad the man is dead and want to seize money and papers – so we get a theme of false affliction – the mourning a short moment, sometimes just the result of convention (107). Women who sacrifice happiness for children regarded as rare (107). In Le Paysan parvenu, the widow does not know how to take care of her money and she ends having to retire to a convent, p 108. Voltaire’s tale insists women are consolable.

For women, widowhood is a means of acquiring liberty (109): “Vous etes veuve et vous ne dependez que de vous:” Celimene in Le Misanthrope by Moliere – another theme now she can choose someone she likes: La Mere coquette (110): Madame de Merteuil quoted, p 111 as not wanting anyone over her actions. Those presented as greedy and ambitious are not pardoned (p. 117) (She has done a survey of French plays.)

In the novel we find widows who love and want to find happiness ( p 121); she does not marry for money now, she seeks sincere love and “le bonheur”. Diderot writes a novel where a widow genuinely longs for sincere love but is betrayed after her marriage (p 122). In a book of 18th century novels a number of stories of widows remarrying who seek sincere love and are betrayed, hurt in various ways, one dies. Madame Riccoboni, Juliette Catesby: arranged marriage, widowed at 18, now at 20, determined to marry for love but he leaves her to marry another, when he is widowed at first she will not forgive and then she does: lesson, women must accept men are unfaithful

Diderot: “Cette femme avoit ete si malheureuse avec un premier mari, qu’elle aurait mieux aime s’exposer a toutes sorts de malheurs qu’au danger d’un second mariage” (p 124) (from Jacques le fataliste)

Some of these stories are quite poignant: one woman surmonts all the mockery preferring to have a lover to a husband – a lover no one knows of – he wearies of her and she wants revenge but he is pardoned by his wife so she is left “seule et trahie” (p 124)

Is love in remarriage impossible? Colle, La Veuve, a Madame Durval was miserable in forced marriage, cannot get herself to remarry even if she loves man; she cannot believe love can survive a union in which she becomes a servant once again; she does marry him when he loses all his money p 125; another story a woman who had suffered much in insists on marrying someone who is a misalliance; it turns out terribly.

“La veuve, rarement decrite common une victime, attire peu la commiseration” (p 126). In literature presented in marriage plot (because anything else disquiets), it’s acceptable to be young in love not old and greedy, p 127. Sources cannot conceive of a woman who prefers to be alone. Neither comedy nor novels show a woman alone and independent; only a conditional liberty and she is presented as feeble and dependent. No matter what she does she’s criticized: stay home alone, morbid and risks losing her goods. They want the widow self-contained, p 128.

Madame de Sevigne does not approve but describes Mme de Vaubrun’s grief, p 128-29; some go into convulsions, p 130; a century before Madame Campan suspects falseness when dauphine grieves too much; there are some rituals especially in rural areas allowing for strong grief expression p 132

That ritual mourning clothes a social convention, not always black; tells about rank; idea of black, no jewels is to symbolize chastity, purity, modesty; time requires varies with who you are, who died … said to turn into a fashionable habit, p 138.

Again BB comes back to how Sevigne does not credit excessive grief; that she had opportunities but choose not to remarry, p 139; sexuality a weakness; widows obtain their liberty, long ; long marriage and love are incompatible; how a niece longed to be a widow and rejoices at how much she now has, p 140; she writes of a group of widows: her social life with other widows essential part of her life; none of her friends remarried. Many axioms in period follow suit: St Evremond: “La plus grande douceur qu’on trouve au mariage/Ne vient que de l’espoir qu’on concoit du veuvage” (a Mrs Peachum sentiment, p 141)

B-B reprints a typical poem of the era, one which shows women get over it; and how they are to put themselves at the service of God & families.

Chapter 4: widowhood, the demographic reality

Death omnipresent so unions brief – yet more than 1/3 of couples in 18th century France were married for more than 30 years; people moved about so hard to get firm statistics –in Normandy 18.7 years a mean (1650-79), 23.3 (1700-49) – a gradual increase over the long century; to marry early or to marry late ends up similar statistics; more men die even with mortality of women in childbirth; younger women have more young children (well duh). Moving about again gets in way of figures for women remarrying or remaining widows, p 164; older widow less likely to remarry

How do they organize their household? – she discusses them these ways: do they live in solitude or with amiable families and friends. There is some information: we can now where heads of households are widows, 17 to 15% – living with them how old are they? Who are servants? Who relatives or friends? Pp 168-72 – in one place less than 10% of places have 5 people – not common to live all alone, p 173; sometimes it’s women with children. Towards end of period structures of families evolving more to modern individualist model – -and it remains hard to generalize if widows are a solitary species or living in midst of others

Chapter 5: About Laws seen as protecting and constraining women; the way married women are treated influences the way widows are in custom. Whole idea is women are not capable of fending for themselves in areas like law; woman considered a person incapable; while married, all laws give husband control over everything.

Now widows do get a re-found capacity: but laws and customs at the same time set up so that her inheritance does not leave the family she married into or was from; problem if you marry a widow. You marry the debts from the previous marriage; she is supposed to be accorded a dowry which enables her to carry on with the status of her husband. And the widow and family went to court over these things.

Chapter 6: the woman in black gets a conditional liberty? Rules and customs about how long she must wear mourning, she must be provided with money for it – all modes of control; she could lose her dowry if she did not behave according to codes of respectabilty; punishment often inflexible; for some conditons for remarriage

Chapters 7 and 8: ways they were allowed to exercise responsibility, places the state or societies tried to help indigent. Full of numbers.

Conclusion: the favorite image of a woman without children is unreal, nor are they sad religious women or frivolous salacious fools, but caught up in milieu of family life (this is what we see in Austen except for Mrs Smith).

So why did these hostile or repressive images emerge? There are societies where they don’t. – she puts it down to fear of the autonomous woman – in societies where some autonomy is allowed such images emerge.

A further worthwhile essay: Lionel Kesztenbaum on The Decline of Life. Old Age in Eighteenth-Century England by Susannah Ottaway, in Population (French Edition), Vol. 60, No. 5/6 (Sep. – Dec., 2005), pp. 858-862. 10 superb pages in French. He says that the aging poor older couple where both lived did do better, but when the man died especially the widow was in great trouble. Contrary to what might be thought, being old was not thought an excuse for giving someone help or alms until the later 19th century. It’s not true that the aged were more respected in the century previous to ours. If you were rich and if your children were good to you you would fare well — but class, status, money trumped all and the old were really left to starve or die if they had not “earned” some right to a pittance say as a servant. Kesztenbaum says evidence shows that even in the 18th century all these elder people insofar as they left records desperately tried to maintain their independence.

There are many many more images of widows in 19th century illustration and painting than in the 18th or 20th century, and a sizable percentage contain children. A sentimental type:

Widow_Kennington
Benjamin Kennington, The Widow

Here we have the woman embedded in her family, but she is clearly well-to-do, James-Jacques Tissot images are today often used as cover illustrations for Trollope novels:

james-jacques-joseph-tissot-a-widow

And how do Austen’s writings fit in here: I’ve blogged most recently about widows and widowers in Austen; on “previously married woman”,, how the treatment of widows today resembles the treatment of the disabled, but not on how women living alone in many modern communities (let alone traditional ones) are still treated as an oddity, an anomaly, there she is with her cat. See Jenny Diski (“However I smell”), LRB, 8 May 2014:

there is a special dungeon for women alone, mad old bats, pathetic creatures talking to themselves and their cats, waiting out their lives …

With Être Veuve, and the other scholarly texts I cited elsewhere, I have now looked enough in the English texts to say that Austen is unusual for the variety and lack of stereotyping found. Vastly superior to the era’s drama in English — which by the way whose misogynistic and snarky strains I don’t like at all at all. But I don’t know enough about the French — the French have deep psychological and philosophical currents, especially the memoirs — which Austen apparently read.

vlcsnap-344976
Jemma Jones as Mrs Dashwood, pushed out of her house (1995 S&S)

Widowed worlds in Austen’s fiction and letters

Jane Austen’s writing is replete in widows, and not a few widowers too. This demographic in the semi-realistic fiction of the 18th century is not uncommon; what is uncommon is she presents widows and widowers in all their economic, social, and even psychological variety. In most fiction of the long 18th century the author presents only a few narrow stereotypes whose characteristics work to stigmatize the character hostilely, and, except when seen from afar, the author imagines these within a narrow band of the gentry class. Austen’s widows cover a spectrum from the wealthiest and highest status to impoverishment and near unacceptability. We will see how aware she is of central aspects of widowhood, sees widowed people as part of a distinct group, uses aspects of the condition in her stories, and without writing sentimentally, delves into their inner lives of memory. In all this she
anticipates developments in 19th century fiction and 20th and 21st century costume dramas.

In the texts I’ve read thus far (and that includes women playwrights, like Elizabeth Cooper in her The Rival Widows; or the Fair Libertine) and the texts about texts, there are usually only a couple of stereotypes and very often the development of the character has little to do with her or him being a widow per se — the being the widow is just part of what helps stigmatize the person. If you think about all Austen’s widows she does continually taken into account a full economic status and an attitude of mind as part of the condition. Indeed if you include her letters one could argue that she certainly singles out women living alone, then older women and widows as a group.

One problem in 18th century for widowed people, especially women (who fare badly as most were poor) is to be recognized as a legitimate group with group needs. Austen is coming near that almost explicitly in Persuasion. she will not give us the grief-striken interior life — she has Mrs Norris mouth that as cant but I think there is room enough to feel it — in Mrs Dashwood, Mrs Smith, probably Mrs Blake from The Watsons.

the-widows-tale-jacket
21st century image, but not by a woman

Ellen

Read Full Post »

masquerade
A masquerade: The Ball of the Yew Trees

Friends and readers,

Herewith my third report on the past ASECS conference at Williamsburg. The morning after the masquerade ball, I was up by 7:30 am as I knew two sessions included papers I did not want to miss. Without intending it, I spent a morning listening to papers about the unjust treatment meted out to women by law and custom — if we include the actual content of Burney D’Arblay’s The Wanderer, a session alive with the excitement of the individuals with their text. After lunch I met the editors of the coming complete edition of Anne Finch and heard some of her poetry sung aloud — not for the first time; I had myself participated in writing a script of her songs for a musica dolce group using later 17th and early 18th century musical instruments in the 1990s. And there was a walk along Colonial Williamsburg where people read aloud from documents either read aloud at the time of the revolution or delivered and read silently as momentous and (for the participants) dangerous events went on.

annfinch
Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea

“Paper Cuts: Criminality, Violence and 18th century Judicial Reform” turned out to have three papers whose focus was violence and economic injustice inflicted on women as permitted by laws and customs. Peter Mello’s “Searching the Garrett: Jane Barker, John Stanhope, and Religious Law after the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion:” in going through archives from 1714/15 Prof. Mello discovered on 20 July a marquis received a letter from Stanhope: the pretender’s forces were aroused, and he outlined measures to take against recusants. The inhabitants of Lincolnshire for the previous 60 years had seen action taken against local matters: prostitution, theft, having a babies born outside marriage. Now state matters like demanding people take oaths against the pope began to be enforced. Inaction had been the rule on anti-papal laws; in 1715 the Papist Act forced registration of papists. Overt acts of persecution ensued. So just before the rebellion began parliament had begun practices which anticipate modern methods of control. Jane Barker was Catholic and feared inclusion; her property could be hurt; to have a stable and horses taken from you was a substantial loss. She went silent for about 8 years. From a hopeful Jacobite waiting for the return of her king Barker became a writer about the anxiety and results of living as a Catholic in England. These stories were held together as a patchwork quilt. Her heroine, Belinda, was at risk, as she tried to “pass”. Marriage in this collection is used as an analogy of political behavior: those who don’t marry are at risk of prosecution or imprisonment; when she marries, she ends up in disaster and calamity.

AllinghamFruitStallVenice
Helen Allingham, Fruit Stall, early 20th century Venice

Ana Maria Diaz Burgos’ “Slanderos words and violent deeds: Female victims and perpetrators in 18th century Peru:” from 1543-1821 many cases of misery and violence inflicted on women and women trying to defend themselves under siege and gain some social standing in Lima records. There were 151 cases where emotional and physical violence were imposed on women. In one case of physical violence the female victims were allowed to sue; women themselves uttered violent words to gain attention and protection. Prof. Burgos looked at who were the witnesses and how the events were portrayed, how women explained relationships they had with attackers. She told of a case of attempted rape and homicide where the woman denounced the brutal regime itself: the woman was badly injured; the man thought he had the right to beat her; the law required 6 indigenous witnesses and she had only 4: he said these witnesses were relatives and friends and thus biased; She said he had chosen a day when she was relatively unprotected. In the second case an altercation arose between women who had a history of quarrels; we get a picture of the narrow alleys, small houses, the squares where neighbors hung out; one dangerously accused the other of whoredom and witchcraft and one of them had to pay restitution; one had more witnesses, the other a daughter of under 25. The words are not quoted (as too defamatory). In these records we can hear the voices of lower class women.

Clarywashingrapeaway
After the rape, Clarissa washing herself (1991 Clarissa, scripted David Nokes, Saskia Wickham)

Mary Trouille’s “Evolution in Rape Laws and Attitudes towards sexual assault in the 18th century:” Men have often imposed sex on women through violence; the crime is now more visible than it once was, but one can construct a history of rape in pre-revolutionary France. Women were not considered as actors in their own right; if she came from the lower ranks she was ignored. Age, social status, reputation all played a role in whether a rape could be prosecuted. Forcible rape among the haute bourgeois and aristocracy was taken seriously; seen as a crime against the property of a father or husband; women as property were damaged as this threatened the sure legitimacy of the heirs born to them (modern variant: honor-killing). Punishments could be severe: burning at the stake; you could be drawn and quartered on a wheel, and less gruesome forms of capital punishment. Rather than risk shaming someone or a family the charges would be downgraded. Gradually attitudes shifted so rape seen as a crime against a person who has right to autonomy, and the focus begins to be the rape victim. There was a gap between the reality and heightened attention; the law did not distinguish between kinds of consent; less weight to testimony than medical records; when rape committed on a pre-pubsecent girl it was regarded as a crime and prosecuted more vigorously. People began to require examination of the victim. From 1791 the Napoleonic code demands proof of rape, unequal strength, cries for help, traces of violence on the body. 1803 there is a move backwards; hard to have 4 witnesses.Rape cases accounted for little more than 1% of what was prosecuted. We see a turning point in attitudes towards dissolute aristocrats: the public was apparently distressed to see a horrible crime go unpunished because the perpetrator was a high status male. There is still a popular belief in the untrue idea that in custom a lord had the right to deflower a girl who lived on his property on the first night of her marriage; it was in the 18th century these false beliefs took hold. There was greater determination to prosecute violence.

Prof Trouille then went over some high profile cases of sexual assault involving aristocrats. 1733 a chambermaid attacked by a marquis and his brother who broken into the house; the man was angry when he was ignored by the prosecutor; in the end there were royal pardons and the woman was imprisoned for taking money from her attacker (a bribe to be silent). In a second case of a Duke’s abduction and rape of a Parisian shopkeeper’s daughter, he followed her from church, gave her gifts, went after her mother. It reads like an episode from a Sade novel: he had a rape machine which held her upside down with her legs tied; the behavior of the libertines cold and calculating. The judicial procedure was suspended after the Duke offered money. In another case a count’s wife paid the victim in another case where the man raped his chambermaid in a carriage (perhaps Valmont modeled on this). Sade as emblematic dominates the landscape of these stories: the most notorious case (1768) when on a Sunday a girl was abducted, raped, beaeten, hot liquid poured over her wounds and she fled to and reached magistrates with her story. Sade said she was a prostitute, and she that he had offered her money after she lost her job in a textile factory. The story was elaborated into a myth — Sade supposed to have used a crucifix; it’s still being discussed by Deffand and Walpole. Charges were withdrawn in return for payment of a substantial sum of money, but Sade’s mother-in-law used a lettre de cachet to imprison him; he would be imprisoned for life. Booksellers provided indignant accounts as an illustration of the impunity enjoyed by the high placed male. Sade’s wife helped him escape to Italy; she was among the strangely complicit wives (eventually divorced).

The talk afterward was instructive. A legal historian asked Prof Mello about the non-enforcement of the laws against Catholics before 1715: among other things said: after the Monmouth rebellion there was a reaction against the savagery inflicted on the suspected; and after 1715 we see an attempt to put “the right” people into office. Prof. Burgos said Lima was a port where there was much corruption in the markets. As to rape, someone talked of a recent article in Past and Present where the figure of 80-90% acquittal was claimed; to prove rape you had to prove ejaculation; those who won had help from witnesses; repeatedly there were partial verdicts on lesser charges; the sexism is seen in the way women’s low status made them not believed. We see Richardsonian complexes of feeling; when a brutal male like Charteris was successfully convicted, he was pardoned by the king. Prof Trouille said middle class males were able to get cases dismissed completely because the magistrate was reluctant to prosecute harsh laws. We see minor differences between states but the same patterns emerge. The panel moderator talked of the difficulty of proving spousal abuse; midwives did testify to abusive husbands; bruises then had to be aggravated. It is true that parishes drove women from one parish to another in order to avoid supporting them or their children.

MasqueradePrint
Anonymous print

The experience of the masquerade the night before seemed to seep into the session of Francis Burney’s D’Arblay’s The Wanderer. I was not alone in remembering Cecilia that night. I found myself sitting next to someone who recognized me from the night before but I had not recognized her as the woman who told me about her paper on tuberculosis and women’s beauty.

To the papers: Tara Ghoshal Wallace spoke of how the real history of the era is reflected in The Wanderer, a text conceived during the height of the French revolution. In FBDA’s writing outside this novel she insists that politics remains outside her sphere, yet she writes a recusant narrative, and in her diaries of how she rescued her papers as she was crossing the channel. Prof Wallace talked of “rupture” in the novel as history entering through the margins of the novel; e.g., the text punishes those who travel to France as frivolous tourists who want to find favorite famous spots. Diane Boyd talked of how The Wanderer conveyed paranoia, commenting on key scenes of intense anxiety and discomfort for the heroine. Shen then told of her study mapping the text using computer programs finding clouds of words and diagramming their frequency. The graph for Book I shows violent ambivalence over women working: Juliette had trouble finding a place in the shop, networking. Hired as musician, she is reluctant to perform in public and stays with private families, hoping to pass unobserved and yet she attracts intense attention. The graph shows violent swings over aging, public performance. Juliette is in a double bind: she must pay to learn so go into business; we see how inadequate her learning because she lacks theoretical knowledge; her working conditions sound terrible, she is often anxious about her inability to support herself. FBDA has a source information about a famous French milliner. Juliette flits from place to place: liberty is a source of difficulty. Juliette a kind of female Robinson Crusoe and her novel one which keeps some realities of work for money for women before us.

Wanderer
Francis Burney D’Arblay, The Wanderer; or Female Difficulties (as edited by Margaret Doody)

Elaine Bander’s paper was rather different: she went over the comedy of The Wanderer, expatiating on Sir Jasper. She argued for the influence of Pope’s Rape of the Lock. We see a complex of characters’ relationships evolving over the novel: Jasper’s inconsistency enables him to read Juliette’s character subtly; he is a guardian as the sylphs are guardians over Belinda; he tells her not to take an aversion to him; under her redemptive influence, Jasper helps her. Prof Bander also talked of the ending of the novel in Stonehenge and an Abbey. (Later Diane Boyd said the word cloud for “Harleigh” the hero was huge.)

Lastly Catherine Parisian discovered from the history of sales and descriptions of costs of printing The Wanderer that the book actually did well; the problem was how large it was and the costs of printing it; the book failed to meet the publisher’s high expectations & outlay. She offered fascinating details (who got what sums, how many copies of a book printed, typical length) that enabled her to compare the various earnings for The Wanderer with how a novel by Anna Maria Porter and Alicia Lacey (a novel) did. At the same time Burney D’Arblay wrote her brother that she had never read or chanced to meet with one word on the subject, and she never expected the book to find favor in the world or enjoy “the partiality” its “Elder sisters” had enjoyed. We know that she was energized by her obsessive suspicion the publisher was cheating her (as the publisher for Cecilia had, she felt) and got a good price.” It’s a book that resembles books of the 1790s; Napoleon had just abdicated when it was published so the publisher had over-estimated “how the market would perform” at that juncture.

There was not much time for talk afterward as a group; I did talk and sit with the organizer of the session, Cheryl Clark, who sat with me to listen to the Clifford lecture and then came with me to the luncheon where we sat together and talked of Burney studies some more.

Benjamin_Lay_(1681-1760)_colored_(Alter_Fritz)
Benjamin Lay (1677-1760).

There are just a few notes from Marcus Redicker’s rousing (almost preacher-like) talk on the remarkable abolitionist, Benjamin Lay. Prof Redicker opened with an anecdote typifying Lay’s behavior, outlook, status (or class): in 1738 he took a look walk to attend an annnual meeting of Quakers, which would include many slave-owners, where he decried slavery and performed a theatrical act which got people’s attention. He was thrown out. Prof Redicker emphasized how Lay used forms of guerilla theater to call attention to his causes, e.g., he kidnapped a couple’s child and arrived at the distraught parents’ cottage, he said to all who were there this is what it is to be a slave who can be sold at any time. Another time he smashed delicate tea cups in a market place to point to the connection between these and the mistreatment of slaves. 1677 Lay was born to Quaker parents in Colchester England, he worked as a shepherd, and active on behalf of the revolutionary people after the Civil War; he was a farm laborer, a seaman until he was 33; in 1717 ex-communicated by the Society of Friends (he would go to services and be disruptive); he and his wife lived in Barbados for 14 years: there he came into direct contact with half-starved, wretched slaves who would steal and he remained haunted by what he saw. He lived a long time in Philadelphia, he died 1759 at the age of 82. In physique he was a dwarf, 4 feet 11 inches high with a large head, and might be called disabled; his wife was a dwarf too and an active abolitionist. Benjamin Franklin published Lay’s vehement uncompromising anti-slavery, All Slavekeepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates. He paid small attention to genre, so this work combines autobiography, tract, bibliography, scathing denunciations of quakerism as really practice, quotations from his commonplace book. The absence of sources (people don’t write down the terrible things they do) never bothered Lay who liked also to point out analogies between slaves’ lives and that of the workers in English mills. Lay opposed the death penalty, refused to eat meat (animals are God’s creation), boycotted sugar. Writers who influenced him included Edward Burrow. He was known widely and in his last years was something of a hermit and lived in a cave with a huge library. During the discussion Prof Brycchan Carey (who has researched into Lay’s life and works and written about him) brought up Lay’s significance for vegetarianism (Lay was far ahead of his time in his understanding of the politics of consumption). He has been a subject hard to research.

It was then time to go to the women’s caucus lunch. I can report the women just rejoiced at the terrific success of the evening before, the amount of money gotten, and made plans for next year: the 40th anniversary of the caucus deserved a party. All the tables were filled and we picked topics for next year, and good conversation was had.

Mask

For the afternoon sessions and “re-enactments” and walk in the set of blocks that make up Colonial Williamsburg, see comments.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

marine-pavilion1787
Marine Pavilion, Brighton, with 1801-2 ground plan

Dear friends and readers,

We can understand these two letters most clearly by reading them as a pair, utterance and answer, antiphony. We are in danger of accepting and then justifying the lack of any sense of what makes for honest art in Clarke’s previous and this letter as “what everyone does,” unless we have before Austen’s direct rebuttal. So let’s start with the two texts in tandem and then read them as a conversation inside the conversation on Janeites about them:

138(A). From James Stanier Clarke, Wednesday 27 March 1816, Pavilion

Dear Miss Austen,

I have to return you the Thanks of His Royal Highness the Prince Regent for the handsome Copy you sent him of your last excellent Novel — pray dear Madam soon write again and again. Lord St. Helens and many of the Nobility who have been staying here, paid you the just tribute of their Praise.

The Prince Regent has just left us for London; and having been pleased to appoint me Chaplain and Private English Secretary to the Prince of Cobourg, I remain here with His Serene Highness & a select Party until the Marriage.’ Perhaps when you again appear in print you may chuse to dedicate your Volumes to Prince Leopold: any Historical Romance illustrative of the History of the august house of Cobourg, would just now be very interesting.

Believe me at all times
Dear Miss Austen
Your obliged friend
J. S. Clarke.
Miss Jane Austen
at Mr Murrays
Albemarle Street
London

38(D). To James Stanier Clarke, Monday 1 April 1816

My dear Sir

I am honoured by the Prince’s thanks, & very much obliged to yourself for the kind manner in which You mention the Work. I have also to acknowledge a former Letter, forwarded to me from Hans Place. I assure You I felt very grateful for the friendly Tenor of it,
& hope my silence will have been considered as it was truely meant, to proceed only from an unwillingness to tax your Time with idle Thanks. —

Under every interesting circumstance which your own Talents & literary Labours have placed you in, or the favour of the Regent bestowed, you have my best wishes. Your recent appointments I hope are a step to something still better. In my opinion, The service of a Court can hardly be too well paid, for immense must be the sacrifice of Time & Feeling required by it.

You are very, very kind in your hints as to the sort of Composition which might recommend me at present, & I am fully sensible that an Historical Romance, founded on the House” of Saxe Cobourg might be much more to the purpose of Profit or Popularity, than such pictures of domestic Life in Country Villages as I deal in — but I could no more write a Romance than an Epic Poem. — I could not sit seriously down to write a serious Romance under any other motive than to save my Life, & if it were indispensable for me to keep it up & never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first Chapter. — No — I must keep to my own style & go on in my own Way; And though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.-

I remain my dear Sir,
Your very much obliged & very sincere friend
J. Austen
Chawton near Alto,” April 1 st – 1816-
[No addressJ

Diana Birchall chose to deal with each letter separately; here she is informative about the first:

It’s a little confusing to deal with Deirdre’s numbering of the letters.  Letter 138A is Rev. Clarke to Jane Austen, written on 27 March 1816, and  Letter 138D is her reply, written on  1 April. Where are B and C I don’t  know. But let’s look at this exchange.

James Stanier Clarke writes from the Pavilion at Brighton. Remember that the domes we associate with the Pavilion had not yet been erected at that date. The structure was still a rather grand farmhouse, with huge stables and some Eastern art, but the work of turning it into a palace was barely begun. Still, it’s where the Prince Regent’s court was at the moment.  Clarke wrote to convey the Prince’s thanks for the handsome presentation volume.  “Lord St Helens and many of the Nobility who have been staying here, paid  you the just tribute of their Praise.” Actually the Prince had just left for London, and perhaps the real purpose of the letter was for Clarke to announce to his friend his new appointment as Chaplain and Private English Secretary to the Prince of Cobourg. This of course was Prince Leopold of Saxe-Cobourg, about to come to England to marry Princess Charlotte, the Prince  Regent’s daughter, which happened on  5 May  at Carlton House. Here Clarke  makes his famously absurd suggestion, “Perhaps when you again appear in  print you may chuse to dedicate your Volumes to Prince Leopold; any Historical Romance illustrative of the History of the august house of Cobourg, would just now be very interesting.” Finishing with an effusive flourish, he directed the letter to Jane Austen c/o Murray, and it had to be forwarded to Henrietta Street, and then Chawton.

Will look at Jane Austen’s reply later –

Diana

Then my commentary: Austen’s response to Stanier Clarke’s letter shows that if his suggestion is not to the ambitious author who can churn out what’s wanted for money and fame “what everyone would do if they could,” it is wholly intolerable to Austen — which he should know. He has spent time with her, she has said in a previous letter and perhaps face-to-face, my dear Sir, these themes are not themes I can write on nor am I comfortable with, he has presumably read the passages on how justifying the church as a career requires real work awakening moral and social consciences alike.

Imagine your self with a friend and a friend makes plain some attitude she has: do you blithely ignore it and repeat your urgent suggestion as if she had never spoke.

I hope not. If you do, you in effect (unless you’re a parent and moralizing or think you have the authority to urge something which goes against your child’s character because the child cannot break off relations, is younger, possibly dependent) are careless of your friend’s feelings or whether you irritate him or her. It does not make me doubt the sincerity of Clarke’s friendship in the sense that he really thinks one can churn out novels: it makes me wonder if he paid any attention to Emma , which it is right to point out he does not even name. In his previous he admitted he had not begun to read it or read very little thus far. His descriptions of her novels show some understanding of their value: he anticipates Scott’s main praise — “there is so much Nature — and excellent Description of character in everything you describe.” But his likening MP to slightly idiotic or vacuous descriptions of his own of clergyman makes one wonder if he really thought these were serious books — or just woman’s romances. 

So to his suggestion:

Perhaps when  you again appear in print you may chuse to dedicate your Volumes to Prince Leopold: any  Historical Romance illustrative of  the History of the august house of 
Cobourg,  would just now be very interesting.

Austen replies (and the honesty plainness and fullness of the reply is poignant since she so rarely does give herself away like this: she has it seems given him the respect of a friend:

You are very, very  kind in  your  hints as to the sort of Composition which might recommend me at present,  & I am fully sensible that an Historical  Romance,  founded on the House  of Saxe- Cobourg might be much more to the purpose of Profit  or Popularity, than  such pictures of domestic Life in Country Villages as  I deal in – -but  I could no more  write  a  Romance  than an Epic Poem. — I could not sit seriously down to write a serious Romance under any other motive than to save my Life, &  if it  were indispensable for me to keep it up  & never relax  into laughing at myself or other people, I am  sure  I  should be hung before I had finished the first Chapter. –No — I must  keep to my  own style & go on in my  own Way;5  And though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in  any other.- 

Austen is not treating him the way she does the Countess of Morley; in her “your Ladiship’s,” she shows she regards herself as of a much lower rank and does not expect the countess really to regard her as an equal. She apparently did expect Stanier Clarke to listen to her. She here gives one of the most valuable of all her statements about her fiction.

Why doesn’t he? I suggested to a man like him the life of sincerity and integrity is unreal; he can’t conceive of it. I now suggest on top of his maybe finally he didn’t respect her art. We must return to his first paragraph: He may have been the kind of person who respond intensely to his surroundings so we have to remember (as we shall see Jane does) he is in this courtier like place where for a person like himself (in effect a sort of upper servant, equivalent of a governess), who has just achieved a post and salary and place with Leopold of Cobourg, the man who was to be married to Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales, the girl who it was thought would be queen, and so father of the next royal set. In the event she died from a horrible childbed experience. He is just full of pride, and has been puffed up as he has puffed others up for several days. I’ve no doubt one of his purposes was to boast about his new place – which as we shall see she tells him point blank she regards as one demanding such a sacrifice of thought and feelings that (it’s implied) barely worth it.

Here again is his boasting intended to make Austen feel all is not over with the list-servs (though a friend of hers has just died):

Lord St. Helens and many of the Nobility who have been staying here, paid  you the just  tribute of their Praise. The Prince Regent has just left us for London;  and having been  pleased to appoint me Chaplain and Private English Secretary to the  Prince of Cobourg.

Her reply was originally from a religious perspective much harsher than the one she sent.

She sent this:

Under every  interesting  circumstance which  your  own Talents & literary Labours have  placed  you in, or the favour of the Regent bestowed,  you have my best wishes. Your recent appointments I hope are  a step to  something  still  better.  In my opinion, The service  of  a  Court can hardly  be  too  well paid,  for immense must be  the  sacrifice  of  Time  &  Feeling  required by  it. 

Given that Clarke’s a literary man (who wants to be published) to get the favor of such a person is a guarantee of it, so good. She hopes he will get something better — which if he read her words carefully (which I doubt he did) would seem strange to him. How could he get anything better than the prospective husband of a queen. Maybe she thinks chaplain is not that respected an office really (remember how Mary Crawford looks at it and says others do), but also it’s not likely to further a writing career. Finally that last line – I take it to mean that like Fanny Burney she regarded time at court as a death in life, preventing her from doing what makes life worth while

The original version points to the continual hypocrisy   these positions required: For once LeFaye tells us something to the point:

In my opinion not more surely should They who preach Gospel, live by the Gospel, than they who live by a Court, live by it – & live well by it too; for the sacrifices of Time & Feeling they must be immense.

In other words, at a court the central of religion to be truthful and moral is not possible because you must continually be lying in some way or other so outside the court they had better live by the gospel for real to make up for the Immense sacrifices of time and feeling.

Time shows this is a literary thought for the Bible emphasizes truthful feeling not time. Austen would hate to give up her writing time to be living at that Pavilion. 

Austen is aware of how much she disliked his letter and how hers contradicts his at every point and sometimes deeply so her opening is very courteous, courtier-like one might say, but not untruthful. In her opening she excuses herself for putting off writing back — she thinks that to him this several month interval between his letter of December (still unanswered) would be slightly insulting: after all is he not chaplain to … living with these big shots, did he not tell these great people paid tribute to her book. (I am not so convinced as others appear to be that the court group liked Emma — would they really? come now, a book where nothing happens but an old man eats his gruel and his daughter copes with him — would they even grasp the satire on her snobbery? her use of Harriet would seem to them nothing wrong at all. So what does she say? does she believe it. Not quite. She thanks him “for the kind manner in which you mention the Work.” She is aware she never answered his previous much more decent letter where he offered her a place to visit at the library; now 5-6 days have gone by since this last one and she just forces herself.

I assure You I felt very grateful for the friendly Tenor of it, & hope my  silence will have been considered as it was truely meant, to proceed only from an unwillingness to tax your Time with idle Thanks. —

She is not lying in the sense that he did praise her and repeat praise of her. She was grateful for his stance of friendliness but knows better than to listen to him literally.   He meant well, he means well by his materialistic point of view to her. But all she can offer are “idle Thanks” of a woman who can do nothing for him (that’s why her thanks are idle).

It matters not if the average ambitious person would understand Stanier Clarke’s offer, Jane Austen is not such a person, her books do not come out of such outlooks and she realizes he can’t get that. Yet she does forgive him as she knows there are far worse fools and meaner people. He has after all paid her the compliment of using her to flatter the Prince Regent by connecting him to an author who was being recognized however slowly as having something fine in her books – that’s why Murray took her and keep the relationship up as best a busy publisher could.

From Diane Reynolds’s reading of the first and second letter:

The ostensible reason for this letter is to thank JA for the advance copy of Emma sent to the PR. Oddly, he refers to it not by name, but with the generic boilerplate, “your last excellent novel.” Does he even remember it’s called Emma?

All through the letter, Clarke’s worldview shines through, leading to the question: how sincere is he in his “friendship" towards Austen? Does he really admire her works or does he sense, with the instinct or calibration of a professional courtier (or in our world, marketer) that the wind is blowing in her favor, and he wants to be on board  with a rising star? Or is it both admiration and calculation? … Clarke does sound uncomfortably like Mr. Collins in this letter in his language towards higher-ups …

I couldn’t agree more with what Ellen’s interpretation says, which certainly echoes my own: that regarding her vocation (what she was supposed to do with her life) Austen had a rare integrity, a singleness of purpose. She knew what she was meant to be–a writer– and what kind of writer she was meant to be … When she says she could only begin such a romance if her life depended on it and even then probably not get beyond the first chapter, she is not joking.

Another voice in this conversation (written earlier) appeared on WWTTA: Fran to whom we may give almost the last word:

I can’t help feeling the fact that she wrote this letter on All Fools’ Day may have been an example of her warped sense of humour as well. She’d gone as far as dedicating Emma to the Prince that year, but I’m rather glad she finished Persuasion before her untimely death, rather than attempting the kind of sycophantic potboiler Clarke suggested.

To be fair, Austen did write a parody version of the sycophantic potboiler, which has been typed out on Republic of Pemberley and includes a father modeled on Stanier Clarke whose adventures

comprehend his going to sea as Chaplain to a distinguished naval character about the Court, his going afterwards to Court himself, which introduced him to a great variety of Characters and involved him in many interesting situations, concluding with his opinions on the Benefits to result from Tithes being done away, and his having buried his own Mother (Heroine’s lamented Grandmother) in consequence of the High Priest of the Parish in which she died refusing to pay her Remains the respect due to them. The Father to be of a very literary turn, an Enthusiast in Literature, nobody’s Enemy but his own …

Novel-plan_1-2

As Chapman’s notes show (interestingly, from Austen’s own marginalia), Stanier Clarke is not the only acquaintance and friend Austen burlesques in this parody

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Longbourn-pride-and-prejudice-1995-6175243-710-426
Luckington Court, Wiltshire: Longbourn in the 1995 P&P (scripted Andrew Davies)

Dear friends and readers,

Back from my trip to Boston to watch the US National Ice-Skating Championship, and am delighted to report that the book that most helped me get through a long wait for an airplane to go to Boston, long hours in our hotel room when I had caught a bad cold and could not attend the skating was Jo Baker’s Longbourn. Unlike the several sequels to Austen’s novels that try to create something new within the close confines of sticking mostly to Austen’s original characters and stories, Baker’s Longbourn is alive with effective powerful characters, presents a story that is persuasive, holds your attention, has passion and unfolding subtlety.

She has performed this considerable feat by using the same method or ploy as Tom Stoppard in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (out of Hamlet) and Valerie Martin in her Mary Reilly (out of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde). Essentially we stay totally with the characters mentioned in the margins of the original fiction, in this case a butler, Mrs Hill, two housemaids, and James, the coachman (all explicitly mentioned), in their world upon which the highlighted strongly remembered events of the original fiction impinges as its story moves along. All three new texts (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Mary Reilly and Longbourne) depend on your knowing the story in-between, or enough of it to make do with the sketch of this other story upstairs more or less merely suggested. (I’ve an idea Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea is another example of this kind of sequel.) So Baker is not in the position of having to herself re-invent or bring to life a character Austen dwelt in, because the main characters of Austen’s novels are only seen or felt in passing, and Baker is clever enough to use the original words from the novel whenever possible.

Longbourn is also a text that emerges as much from the Austen film canon (especially the 1995 A&E P&P) as it does from the two Upstairs/Downstairs (U/D and Downton Abbbey) long running serial dramas. So the rules of how footmen dressed, how people behaved at table, and much else owes much to the dream books (printed on art paper, plenty of colorful stills) that accompany the films as historical paraphernalia.

vlcsnap-2013-03-30-21h59m18s239
Sarah first seen in novel doing hard heavy morning chores the way Daisy is seen here (Sophie McShea)

The whole conceit of taking us downstairs is an outgrowth of the Upstairs/Downstairs patterning of so many and recently the Downton Abbey pattern. Arguably, Daisy from Downton Abbey is central to the central characters of Longbourn: Mrs Hill as a girl servant when she got pregnant, and now Sarah, Mrs Hill’s protegee, an orphan rescued from a poorhouse. The P&P film most in mind is the 1995 one where there is most information. The long sequence of James’s adventures and ordeals about 3/4s the way through the book (his back story) are closely reminiscent of Darcy’s ordeal (played by Colin Firth) in the 1995 P&P. There’s even a scene where like Darcy, James consults a girl of the streets who is clearly willing to give him sex for the money or expects to, and he does not ask this at all but feels for her.

95PP5DarcyandWomanonStreet1
Darcy and woman in streets (his ordeal test)

I felt numerous of Baker’s scenes were sketched with a movie in mind: James, her hero does not move into anguish where we are invited to experience this with the character; instead most of the time we see him and others from afar and are left to imagine his inner world. The effect of reading a number of her scenes is that of a screenplay where the dialogue and descriptions of settings have been thrown into the conventional prose of a novel. The way the characters we are with watch the upper class characters live their luxurious easy lives has the effect of watching a super-rich costume drama at a distance from us. It’s self-reflexive. We are also continually made aware of how the point of view in costume drama as a genre is that of the upper class or privileged because suddenly the troubles of most of such characters (even the downstairs set) seem as nothing to the threat of homelessness, starvation, pressing, flogging, rape, ruthless exploitation such as the group of characters who inhabit the kitchens of both Longbourn and Netherfield in this book know.

Within its own terms Longbourn often makes us piquantly see Austen’s novel from an angle many of us would not have considered before. I’ve read countless times how wonderful it is that Elizabeth Bennet goes traipsing through the fields and mud to reach Jane, not caring about how her dress fared: we are to admire her physical stamina, prowess, nerve. What’s omitted is how the maid might feel about such a petticoat and nice pelisse getting filthy. We see Sarah’s raw hands, how hard she must work with a few chemicals, rubbing, beating, boiling garments to make them spotless (ahem) again. I suppose I most enjoyed re-seeing such acts from the servants’ point of view. When Sarah passes by the young man being flogged, we are made to see and feel the full humiliating horror and pain this man is subject to.

Still, Longbourn is (like Mary Reilly and Wide Sargasso) a woman’s novel, for it’s a heroine’s text mostly. The movies it comes out of are genres rightly identified with women. Nothing to be ashamed of; these are genres of great art. I enjoyed Lonbbourn as much as I did Emma Donoghue’s magnificent powerful Slammerkin (which I’ve now read twice too).

The central character whose consciousness we are in for 3/4s of the novel is, as I’ve indicated, a kitchen-housemaid, Sarah, whose work and characters are more than a little reminiscent of Daisy in Downton Abbey. Mrs Hill took Sarah from the poor house after her working class family died, was kind to her, but also works her hard as she works herself. The second character is Mrs Hill herself, from the same milieu as her Sarah, so we have an older woman’s perspective: as the novel unfolds we discover Mrs Hill was once as young as Sarah and at the time had a liaison with Mr Bennet (before he married Mrs B), which Mrs B, dull as she is, senses when she turns, as she does several times, to Mrs Hill to persuade Mr B to do this or that, assuming that Mr B will listen to Hill. Alas, from Mrs Hill’s point of view, Mrs B exaggerates her power over Mr B: he is as much his own man, as obdurate, irresponsible, and unable to control some of his family members or reality as Mr B in Austen’s novel.

97tomjonestomejected
Tom Jones (Max Beesley) looking back at the house at the moment of ejection (1997 Tom Jones)

The third character is James, the hired footman; he lurks to the side once he turns up, and only in the last third of the novel does his consciousness take over as we move into his past as Mr Bennet’s illegitimate son by Mrs Hill, and then a volunteer in the army who ended up enduring and perpetrating the horrors of the peninsula war, where driven by the cruel injustices of the time (including flogging, coercing him to murder animals as well as whoever gets in the way), he commits an act regarded as an unspeakable crime in the era, and deserts. Thus turning up a few chapters after the book opens as a newly hired coach and footman in one. I suggest Baker consciously meant this novel as a Tom Jones story where Tom is until the near end deprived of any just deserts from the place which ought to be his home.

Baker’s work is close to Stoppard’s because she stays with the original characters and invents as few extra characters as Baker’s plot-design requires, no more. A wholly invented character who stays within the confines of Austen’s fiction and opens it up suggestively for us is Mr Ptolemy Bingley: a mulatto who was born on one of Mr Bingley’s father sugar plantations and whose handsomeness, good education and good treatment by the Bingleys suggests an unacknowledged but understood half-brother. We see where the Bingleys got their money; and this sheds light on the supposed humane Bingleys attitudes towards people “beneath them” — the master’s generosity and limitations.

In the case of Baker this is still or also one of her limitations. Unlike Martin, she does not invent an idiolect or style which is a genuine living imitation of an earlier century’s speech naturalistically transposed (which Winston Graham is so superb at in his Poldark series), but basically uses a clear simple (but not vulgar) style — and she lacks the high poetic genius of a Stoppard (as seen say also in his Arcadia). This means her novel cannot quite be read (as Mary Reilly can) as a historical novel in its own right which happens (so to speak) to collide into or cohere with an earlier story.

Baker also does not thoroughly think or imagine things through to give her book the wider franchise of history: for example, the book includes an illegitimate son for Mr Bennet but rather than imply or build up the many complicated reasons within a patronage and family network system why a man like Mr Bennet might continue to refuse to recognize in any way his illegitimate child would not be recognized — not just shame, but as the father of the illegitimate would be pressured into providing for him or her and any spouse he or she married; given the interwoven kinship system, be repeatedly subject to appeals for money, seen as responsible for any wrong-doing his son or daughter did. Baker has Mr Bennet merely ashamed; it’s too thin. There is not the kind of serious research into an era one feels in say Graham’s Poldark novels or Emma Donoghue’s Life Mask. What there is research and knowledge of is Austen, Austen’s novels, the Austen film canon, though even there the focus is the fiction, not Austen’s life or letters. This last lacunae makes the novel old-fashioned as most newer sequels take into account a mirroring in the novels of Austen’s life. Some of the latest ones prefer the letters as text (e.g., Lindsay Ashford’s The Mysterious Death of Jane Austen).

So this remains a sequel, but a strong one. She stays with most traditional interpretations, including later ones that have grown dominant. She makes strong case for Mr Bennet’s selfishness as well as the stupidity and vacuity of Mrs Bennet. He will accept Lydia after someone else supplies the money, but he will not lift a real finger to help his only son. We see him guilty and remorseful by the end of the novel, but unpunished and carrying on in the usual way.

95PP6Interlude5selfishness.
Benjamin Whitlow as Mr Bennet here fits the bill

We see the kindness and well-meaning gifts of Jane and how after she gives Sarah a present she dismisses her from her mind. Wickham’s uglyness of character is considerably deepened (as is Mr Bennet’s); Darcy becomes the powerful rich man who pays little heed to the lower world. We don’t see enough of the others except perhaps Mary who we feel for. Mr Collins is made sympathetic by taking on Tom Hollander’s sensitive rendition. One can see some of the actors in Austen’s characters’ roles taking over here.

One of Baker’s great strengths is the ability to be really inward inside a character. So when James goes off to the Peninsular war we hear of no larger issues. Graham re-imagines the peninsular war from the perspective of a wide and far (not too far) landscape where this side wins here and that there; I assume Baker did serious research into the battles of the war as you can trace James’s trajectory through a series of battles that did occur, but once this outline is established, the fiction returns to the older mode of say French heroic romance: wholly private happenings with no world-stage characters or events recorded.

The modernity or contemporaneity of the novel resides in its violence: we witness atrocities (horrible) not only in Spain but at “home,” the home counties where Austen’s action takes place. Sarah passes by the man who is flogged (and mentioned in passing as so much news by Austen’s ironic narrator) and we are made to feel the scene from his point of view, rather like a novelist who is writing a novel against capital punishment shows us the indifference or hostility of all to the person murdered from the man’s point of view. Of course after such a scene, what matter a lack of roses on dress shoes?

Perhaps most interesting are the ways this perspective turns things discussed so intensely in Austen criticism, into sheer selfish talk of the over-indulged. Darcy’s high pride (or arrogance) appears merely as the way a super-privileged young man might walk by the wholly unimportant maid: when at the close of the book Sarah has been made a lady’s maid to Elizabeth at Pemberley and finds the life of stifling and wants to leave it, Mr and Mrs Darcy sit down with her to ask her (puzzled) why? has she not everything she could want? no hard work. They cannot see she wants a life.

And tellingly the life she choses or ends up with is reminiscent of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. James has been forced to flee in the night when he tries to protect a young girl servant from the depredations of Wickham. Wickham is presented as a false treacherous man here (and unlike Lost in Austen it’s no joke), and as James once refused wantonly to destroy some horses and ended up committing a murder himself, so he intervenes, to be told by Wickham, Wickham has suspected him all along and will have a quiet word with someone to investigate James. (There was no liberty for the lower orders in earlier centuries either). Sarah leaves Pemberley to seek James out.

And then we get our fairy tale idyllic ending, the dream that Naomi Schorr defended in her book George Sand’s fiction as the way women’s novels critique our lives by presenting the fulfilled dream. At the close of Indiana, the two lovers flee to a paradisal island; the ultimate paradigm is the ancient romance of Daphnis and Chloe, the 18th century version, Paul et Virginie. Sarah goes seeking James and finds him amid a crew of working agricultural laborers and joins them.

closingsceneofseason1
Again Ellis this time with Angaryrd Rees as Demelza: the two outcasts regarding the rest of the world as the junyard that does not matter, a world well lost — still come home at their close in each book (Poldark)

The novel picks up speed and it’s a few years and maybe a child or so later, and we are on the road with the pair of them coming home. Home is where? Yes Longbourn – for all along in the novel to James Longbourne and its world with all its hardships presents beauty, quiet order, routine, and yes a father he does not know is his father; it’s where Sarah knew a family as an infant and had some kindness from Mrs Hill, still there. It’s a moving moment as the pair near, and one that’s nowadays added onto to costume drama: the latest, the film adaptation of Sheridan LeFanu’s Wyvern Mysteries where our heroine and her child return to a house, place, landscape they knew some comfort, peace, refuge in. Other non-reactionary versions: Patrick O’Connor and Simon Grey’s film adaptation of J. L. Carr’s Month in the Country (with an early great role for Colin Firth as the nearly destroyed anguished artist), both sets of Cranford Chronicles with its communitarian ideals. Downton Abbey as a place of refuge is the heart of its appeal; it’s not its unreality which many people are aware of, but the dream itself asserted that its audiences and Jane Austen audiences want.

dai1countrysideblog
Opening shot of Downton Abbey

Rumor hath it a film adaptation of Baker’s Longbourn is “in the works,” one which uses the tropes of upstairs/downstairs as found in Downton Abbey heavily. I read somewhere that James Schamus, producer of many an Ang Lee movie is involved. I can hardly wait to see the mini-series film adaptation of Death comes to Pemberley featuring Anna Maxwell Martin (as Elizabeth) even though I’ve been told the P.D. James’s book is poor or disappointing; with a good book behind it, a decently humane politics, perhaps the coming film adaptation (if it’s still on), Longbourn will be a another fine movie to join the Austen canon.

Sylvia

Read Full Post »

August1985blog
The author of this blog, her husband, their children August 1985, so Jim 36, baby Izzy one and a half, Laura over 7, me, 38, @The Cloisters, NYC

Dear friends and readers,

This is not a foremother poet posting — as after all Mary Oliver is still with us. I preface it with images that have nothing particularly to do with Oliver, but everything to do with why I’m putting some poetry for Sunday here. My husband and I used to love to walk along the top of Manhattan by the Hudson River where we could see the cliffs, though on most days they lacked the gorgeousness of Bellows’s vision

TerraGeorgeBellowsblog
George Bellows (1882-1925), Terra

and some of Oliver’s poetry (as in her famous often-reprinted “Poppies“, where I fancy a less green-blue is intended).

As some may know, my beloved husband, Jim Moody, died October 9th, 2013, and by way of informing the people who read this blog (as I may recur to this topic again) I’m offering some of Oliver’s intendedly consoling poems and a brief excursis and critique. Call this a sort of foremother poet posting.

It is now autumn; during my husband’s illness (esophageal cancer metastasized into his liver) for us time outside us stood still; we never noticed summer had come and gone:

Fall Song

Another year gone, leaving everywhere
its rich spiced residues: vines, leaves,

the uneaten fruits crumbling damply
in the shadows, unmattering back

from the particular island
of this summer, this NOW, that now is nowhere

except underfoot, moldering
in that black subterranean castle

of unobservable mysteries – roots and sealed seeds
and the wanderings of water. This

I try to remember when time’s measure
painfully chafes, for instance when autumn

flares out at the last, boisterous and like us longing
to stay – how everything lives, shifting

from one bright vision to another, forever
in these momentary pastures.

Mary Oliver is said to combine environmentalism with a woman’s voice. As I am now a committed environmentalist I like this, but agree with feminists who suggest that identifying women with the natural world (as she sometimes does) hardly empowers them as people.

This blog was prompted by my coming across this characteristic poem:

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice-
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.

I’m not there yet; it’s more like this for me:

Dogfish

Some kind of relaxed and beautiful thing
kept flickering in with the tide
and looking around.
Black as a fisherman’s boot,
with a white belly.

If you asked for a picture I would have to draw a smile
under the perfectly round eyes and above the chin,
which was rough
as a thousand sharpened nails.

And you know
what a smile means,
don’t you?

*

I wanted the past to go away, I wanted
to leave it, like another country; I wanted
my life to close, and open
like a hinge, like a wing, like the part of the song
where it falls
down over the rocks: an explosion, a discovery;
I wanted
to hurry into the work of my life; I wanted to know,

whoever I was, I was

alive
for a little while.

*

It was evening, and no longer summer.
Three small fish, I don’t know what they were,
huddled in the highest ripples
as it came swimming in again, effortless, the whole body
one gesture, one black sleeve
that could fit easily around
the bodies of three small fish.

*

Also I wanted
to be able to love. And we all know
how that one goes,
don’t we?

Slowly

*

the dogfish tore open the soft basins of water.

*

You don’t want to hear the story
of my life, and anyway
I don’t want to tell it, I want to listen

to the enormous waterfalls of the sun.

And anyway it’s the same old story – – –
a few people just trying,
one way or another,
to survive.

Mostly, I want to be kind.
And nobody, of course, is kind,
or mean,
for a simple reason.

And nobody gets out of it, having to
swim through the fires to stay in
this world.

*

And look! look! look! I think those little fish
better wake up and dash themselves away
from the hopeless future that is
bulging toward them.

*

And probably,
if they don’t waste time
looking for an easier world,

they can do it.

Nature savage in tooth and claw, as Tennyson put it.

Another accusation which has justice is Oliver forces her endings to be optimistic. No more than Jane Austen (say, reading Hannah More or Laetitia Hawkins) do I like to be coerced into certain conclusions. Do you think she would have liked Oliver’s poems?

As one of the members of Wompo (Ann) wrote a few years ago, if only Oliver had left off the last line of this:

Salt shining behind its glass cylinder.
Milk in a blue bowl. The yellow linoleum.
The cat stetching her black body from the pillow.
The way she makes her curvacious response to the small, kind gesture.
Then laps the bowl clean.
Then wants to go out into the world
where she leaps lightly and for no apparent reason across the lawn,
then sits, perfectly still, in the grass.
I watch her a little while, thinking:
what more could I do with wild words?
I stand in the cold kitchen, bowing down to her.
I stand in the cold kitchen, everything wonderful around me.

Ann said we should end with the cat:

Ianwith1911Britannica300smaller
I haven’t got a black cat: we have Ian, our ginger tabby, and behind him you see our copy of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.

A good friend, however, pointed this one out to us on Women Writers through the Ages (@ Yahoo), discerning in the ending needed irony:

When I am Among the Trees

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness,
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

Judy Geater suggested the poem is about the “difficulty of writing , and the need to find quiet moments which can give strength to cope with the rest of life.” So there is a Wordsworthian romantic current here (“The world is too much with us, late and soon … “)

I could end on that note, but an attentive reading of Oliver also yields the insight life, the world are harsh and exciting:

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

The world announces your place–not that we announce our place. It is pre-determined, like being born a wild goose … For my part I have ever preferred the quiet, as in Cowper’s:

Scenes must be beautiful which daily viewed
Please daily, and whose novelty survives
Long knowledge and the scrutiny of years …

but I recognize the truth of the poem, only must we stay in the place we are thrown. I did not — and without having broken away I would not have had my 46 fulfilled years with my Jim.

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

mary-oliverblog
Mary Oliver and a sweet dog

There are many on-line sites about Mary Oliver with selections of poetry. Poetseers, the Poetry Foundation; an npr interview whose problem is the usual: Oliver and and the interviewer do not so much as mention what is destroying the natural world and its people, let off the hook those who continue to profit from all that makes and is the cancer scourge (see also Vigil and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring).

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »