Posts Tagged ‘symbolic women’

London bridge, galloped across by Lydia, then Darcy, then Elizabeth, and all back again (Burr Steers’s P&P and Zombies)

Fires were started (outside the usual assembly room dance)

Elizabeth (Lily James) swinging her battleaxe

Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition — Elinor Dashwood, S&S

We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing” — Elizabeth Bennet, P&P

Dear friends and readers,

I’m in the peculiar position of having set out to damn this movie with faint praise, and dutifully reading the major reviews first, finding myself having more to say on behalf of the movie than most, and feeling what was so bad about the movie important enough to warrant explanation. Most reviews were a short paragraph or two at most: Peter Travers of Rolling Stone dismissed it cheerfully (!) as “utter nonsense;”; Manohla Dargis of the New York Times pronounced it “tedious and dull,” was irritated by reiterated motifs and jokes. Christie Lemire, one of those who carry on RogerEbert.com conceded some pictorial value, but it was so poorly done;; I went to Deb Barnum (Jane Austen in Vermont) hoping to fortify myself with praise there, but found that in fact she apologizes for her enjoyment and the movie.

This all agreed, despite the valiant efforts of this or that actor/actress. After an initial promotional showing in Maryland, P&P & Zombies never came near the movie-houses in my area (not DC, not in Northern Virginia, not exactly a backwater), and disappeared from movie-houses in friends’ areas around the country inside a week. Most Jane Austen movies, no matter how jarring the collocations, do very well. What was so bad? What went wrong?

The Proposal scene, first phase (Sam Riley and Lily James)

Second, they fight over a gun, before dengenerating into wrestling, hitting, and kicking match

I watched it twice, the first time swiftly through, the second much more slowly, taking a few snaps and paying attention to that or that. I didn’t dislike it the second time as much as I did the first (a common reaction I have to poorer Austen films). It’s memorable, a weird mirror. It shows the same turn for sudden blazing violence as even this summer’s Woody Allen’s Cafe Society includes. I argue despite its egregious flaws, it is not just failed entertainment.

I’m slightly ashamed to say why I disliked it so at first, but as this is why I argue the film is worth thinking about I’ll bring this out. I could not get myself to take it non-seriously. Had I been able to regard it as the smashing together of inane trivia from the conventions of Zombie movies with the plot-outline and most memorable or favored scenes of P&P, which in turn rendered all the Austen parts we have as themselves more inane trivia, then I would not have been disturbed. Damn it, I was.

The given of a zombie movie is there are these zombie creatures inhabiting wherever the movie is taking place, they are utterly distasteful looking — the worst kinds of ugly suppurating wounds, patches on people’s faces or whole parts of their bodies bleeding, filthy (filth is an important part of the visuals), curiously hideous; the face of the person grins at you, and it seems given a chance they would bite or attack you so that you become transformed into something similar. There can be poignant moments as if someone stepping out from a bombed area, some nuclear war:

A mother and child

Only the zombies are not given the chance. The “good” or unpolluted (good = unpolluted, this is part of the worrying subtext) characters assault the zombies first. We are “treated” to the major principles in the film blasting these zombie creatures with bombs, blasts, fire, guns of all sorts, knives photographed close up, long rifles; the principles kick, smash, jump on, and blast out the zombies. Our five heroines we are told have been training as warrior in China (the usual place is said to be Japan), so too Charlotte (Aisling Loftus, Sonya from the recent W&P), over-the-top hideiously made-up is Lady Catherine de Bourgh who is treated as just delectable (Lena Headley) because of her warrior costume and black patch on one eye.

Thrones play a big part in the sets

These heroines pass their days hitting one another, slapping, kicking; they walk about with guns. Darcy is a chief hunter-out and destroyer of Zombies, behaving like some doctor in violence.

Considering what goes on in US streets, the killing and violence of fear and hatred also across Europe and the middle east, engendered by this war on (so-called) terror, how can anyone regard this as trivial? it’s a reinforcement. There was Lily James, with a mean expression on her face, hair dyed dark brown (it is just one step too far to make Elizabeth Bennet a blonde), toting and stumbling over huge rifles as she stalked down streets.

The gallant “Parson” Collins (Matt Smith), the only character in the film who is against guns (will not have them in his house), chivalrously turns to help Elizabeth during the walk to Meryton

I can’t laugh at these versions of slapstick. I never liked laughing at characters made to slip and fall and be humiliated. There is an underlying pattern of humiliation here — voyeuristic laughter at wounded horrors.

My dislike is founded on a deep rejection of senseless violence, of commercial uses of body imagery which debase and degrade the viewer’s sense of what violates whatever fundamental empathy or humanity we have (not a lot). Serious gothic is defensible as expressing deep grief, thoughts about death, the meaning of history in the present, victimization. The second time round I picked up the archetypal plot-design one sees in most spy-thrillers. Early on a bad guy emerges (evil in whatever are the terms of the movie), here Wickham (Jack Huston) and the audience glimpses this while we watch the hero (Colonel yet Darcy) fight this evil person and win and the characters slowly realize it. Like others more recently the hero here is saved by someone else in the nick of time: here Elizabeth, after Darcy has saved her in the nick of time several times — very like the film adaptation of Gabaldon’s Outlander where in the nick of time at the close of the first season Claire (Catriona Balfe) saves Jamie (Sam Heughan); hitherto it had been he who saved her in the nick of time. They too perform riding tricks aside the same horse.

I noticed too that the language used is that our political war filled world. The characters have no choice but to fight and be violent. I thought some of the language used about the zombies was racist (the way black people are talked about by those for allowing police to murder them at will); a friend who studies film as well as literary gothic said the zombies in some zombie movies seem to stand for immigrants. No idea of understanding in the movie anywhere but then the whole lift-off from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is simply exploitative. There was here and there the idea that life and death are connected but that was not structural as in say Branagh’s Frankenstein. So this is a deeply reactionary, fascistic film.

A lot was made of common distaste for bugs.


In the above typically orange-and-black scene of manners (playing cards), the older man is attacked and destroyed without warning because he is supposed a zombie (it’s the same procedure the US uses for drones)

Human beings find insects horrible because they look so different from us, seem so mindless. So bugs are everywhere and we have to watch Lily James crush them with her hands, then drop a bunch into Darcy’s hands. Well, yes, yuk. But this sort of thing doesn’t do much for those wanting to increase respect for otherness in the kingdom of living things. This was part of the film’s vein of foulness.

The de rigueur breakfast scene

Aesthetically there was a continual jarring as the film-makers moved back and forth from Austen material taken straight (word-for-word when famous), in more or less quiet usual daylight colors, and zombie scenes. Interwoven absurdly the reading of Forsyte’s sermons. For a moment here and there an actor captured something of the original spirit of Austen’s book (Charles Dance, thrown away here as Mr Bennet — I hope they paid him big, Sally Philips as Mrs Bennet) but mostly the dialogues were made to feel silly and made no sense surrounded by this sudden outbreaks of brutal meanness. (I admit much of it might seem light or harmless if you compare it to what goes on in the popular and fleeting action-adventure, spy-thriller, macho male concoctions as in Games of Thrones, The Infiltrator.) It’s more than that:  Furman’s pacing was inadequate. Poor art. No edgy-ness when sheer edge was called for.


The world as ruin, on fire from bombs

Elizabeth crawling through to reach an apparently dead Darcy

OTOH, the photography of London and the gothic imagery was effective, haunting, the mise-en-scenes of gothic places apocalyptic – the grey anonymous city. These set pieces reminded me of the sets created for Jim Jarmusch’s brilliant genuinely apocalyptic The Last Lover Left Alive featuring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston: The Last lover Left Alive was an overly political gothic movie: the city the vampires (in this case) try to escape to or from is Detroit which has been deliberately sluiced and destroyed by super-wealthy (reminding me of similar characters in Our Kind of Traitor, the most recent LeCarre). Richard Davenport-Hines in his Gothic: 400 years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin demonstrates that the gothic is as often used for radical and liberal visions as reactionary atavistic cruelty.

The most interesting aspect of the film was its gothicisms. How stable this kind of material is: someone coming to the movie from the 1790s who had been reading gothics could recognize it, only it was more Victorian, drawing more on the kind of detective gothic coming out of later 19th century books. I can see the origin of this in the fable of Frankenstein, Boris Karloff’s first costuming; in the latest version (Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro) finally the monster’s loneliness, the defiance of death, the strong attack on medicine as violating us was brought out; the zombie machinery just throws that all away but for the occasional look of forlonrness on a female zombie which is quickly erased as she snarls. The more general origin is not what’s called “terror” gothic (often female, often about intangibles, inward) but “horror” gothic (often male, misogynist, doing all it can to violate bodies in startling ways).

One movie does not a genre make but from what I observe in this one zombies belong to the male gothic, violate the body side of gothic. The Jane Austen woman’s film has become a male one. One of the famous stills — which is seen for a moment in this film as an unnamed woman zombie wanders through — is a mask of iron with slates over the woman’s face. This silences her– like taking out her tongue. So you can rape her at will. I’ve few pictures of wife abuse before the later 18th century but one shows a woman whom the court punished by putting such a mask on her face: the court was itself abusing her. (This makes me think of the present Republican insane-hate fest where they chanted at Hilary Clinton “lock er up,” the next best thing is lock her face, cut out her tongue, execute her).

Our principals pass by a place that looks like George Bellows’s under Brooklyn Bridge, where zombies and others come out starving, looking for food, warmth, anything

Out of a key church in the film, St Lazarus, come the 4 horseman in black, and then zombies and others half-crazed pour out

Wickham early in the film

Last seen, a kind of mad-dog terrorist (?) with a many-pronged iron tool

While the two genres utterly clash, beyond Jack Huston a credible, slowly emerging angry, and then enraged Wickham, Aisling Loftus a self-respecting Charlotte, Matt Smith a comically effective Collins. Both Lily James and Sam Riley were almost almost moving their last scenes but one (the fatuous wedding, meant to be fatuous, made fun of) — reaching out to one another, the second proposal. When the Jane Austen material was to the fore (alas rarely I thought of how Austen’s novels prima facie stand for civilized behavior at a minimum — which is not to be despised in today’s world.

It’s a film you could think about.


The direct source, the men, & the sisters: side issues?

Matt Smith marrying everyone else

Since Seth Grahame-Smith’s mash-up novel seems to me a gay send up of the archetypal heterosexual romance, I’ll mention I saw no homosexuality, no jokes I could recognize as gay in this film.  Erased. There is nothing homoerotic in this film either, unless you impose on Bingley’s usual dependence on Darcy (Douglas Booth as Bingley is made effeminate) and the enraged hostility of Darcy and Wickham (now developed from previous sequels) as homoerotic. Maybe we were to see the anti-violence Collins as gay. This shows a strong stereotyping, and it’s a stretch.

Darcy and Bingley — typical moment between them

A friend said of “the men, who in the Austen book we see idling like a bunch of Ken dolls, [are] engaging in activity, even if that activity was killing zombies. As one interested in what Kenneth Johnston calls the white spaces in Austen’s novels, I appreciated at least a depiction, if extremely fanciful, of what the men do when they aren’t hanging around drawing rooms.” Yes but I wished they could find something else beyond killing as a trade. A mirror of our time? the US gov’t makes only military jobs. We have girl-power chicks readying themselves with guns

withguns (1)

A debate broke out on Janeites because one person (Arnie Perlstein?) claimed tha the film developed a subtext in Austen of Elizabeth’s intense jealousy and rivalry with Lydia, here turned into a kind of hatred. Lily James does seethe at first at the usual sullen spiteful version of Lydia (Ellie Bamber)

A group scene

The film lacks all subtlety except when Austen material comes through. But this idea is such a tiny element — if you blink you’ll miss it. It starts early on, but is no more prominent than the standard bad behavior of Lydia in this film (she tries to humiliate and scorn her sisters); it’s also overturned because of the stupidity of spy-thriller conventions (more just in the nick of time stuff). Our victim-heroine Lydia is lured into St Lazarus castle and without explanation we next see her chained in a dungeon. Darcy knows where she is (so a tiny hint from the original book) and risks all rescuing her; then Elizabeth knowing where he went, rides after them, and of course rescues them both and the two girls hug in a wooded wasteland at some convenient split second.

JameasRosamundPike (2)

JameasRosamundPike (1)

In the Austen domestic comedy and romance sequences, the costume designer costumed Lily James to look like Jennifer Ehle; some of her dresses were exactly those of Jennifer Ehle; Jane’s (Bella Heathcote) costumes were same as Jane’s (Rosamund Pike) in Joe Wright’s films.

Maybe it’s too much to call this gothic Jane a significant mish-mash, but it should not just be dismissed. Compare them in gothic guise:

The city as ruins


Elizabeth gone mad and Jane in open distress

The film’s last still before the credits roll


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Stephen Frye as Mr Johnson coping with Jenn Murray as Lady Lucy Manwarring and Xavier Samuel as Reginald de Courcy (2016 Love and Friendship, scripted and directed by Whit Stillman)

Dear friends and readers,

I confess to a real let-down and disappointment upon my first viewing of the film. Since Love and Friendship is a Stillman film. Given the high literary quality of his scripts, and depth of emotion he invested Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco with, I assumed he’d do real justice to the sardonic nature of the central hypocrite, Lady Susan (played by an almost unrecognizable Kate Beckinsale — since her face-life her face resembles that of a Barbie doll) and her real potential destructiveness (however thwarted by her lack of money and need of other people’s and their houses) and perniciously cold and egoistic values. I knew it would not be presented as an “inverted protest novel” (the way I had read it recently).

Beckinsale as Lady Susan – a rare moment in the clear light

From The Last Days of Disco when Beckinsale had some character in her face and Sevigny was thinner
Beckinsale as a bright hard mean Emma with Samantha Morton as a comically sensitive Harriet (1996 Emma by Andrew Davies)

I’d just taught Lady Susan, so could not easily forget, how hard, mean, at moments raw (towards her daughter, Frederica) Austen’s Lady Susan reveals herself to be in her letters to her confidante, Alicia Johnson (played by Chloe Sevigny whom I regret to say is as wooden and incapable of conveying a witty line as ever — she twice throws away “what man could deserve you” saying straight). The single moment of steel in the 92 minutes was supplied by Stephen Frye as Alicia’s husband: when Mr Johnson sees his wife still in a close relationship with Lady Susan (which he has strictly forbidden) and is confronted with the helpless and therefore hysterical grief of Lady Lucy Manwaring (Jenn Murray) whose husband is adulterously entangled with Lady Susan, he informs hers that he understands the weather in crossing the Atlantic this year is tough. (She has told Lady Susan Mr Johnson threatens to remove her from Lady Susan by taking her back to Connecticut if she does not stopping seeing this friend.)

Yes, Alicia Johnson is made into an American. Ang Lee and James Schamus are on record since their The Wedding Banquet if you want big funding from an American company, especially in the case of costume drama seen as having a smaller audience, a woman’s film in the first place, you are pressured into having one American character. American producers cannot believe the average American will like a film that has no American in it. Thus recently Julian Fellowes made Miss Dunstable in the self-consciously costum-y Dr Thorne improbably into an American.

Sevigny as Alicia (the promotional stills photograph her from a distance or angle)

Instead he has opted for slow artifice, insistence on playful theatricality (each character is announced in a still with their name written across their face, and their familial or work relationship with the other characters), a full-scale imitation or throw-back to 1970s BBC mini-series costume dramas. Everyone and everything is dressed or outfitted, decorated super-elegantly, not just Laura Ashley style but the hats are pure Gainsborough films (1940s costume dramas rather like Saul Dobbs’s The Duchess). The non-sourced music is often 18th century and as ironic background to the closing marriages, Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte. Sometimes he seemed to be imitating Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s super-successful 1996 bejewelled Sense and Sensibility. Xavier Samuel as Reginald de Courcy’s stiff body gestures, his pained facial expressions, the occasional astonishment reminded me of Hugh Grant’s Edward, only Hugh Grant at the close does suddenly invest his character with a depth of tender affection nowhere felt or seen in this movie.

Catherine de Courcy (Emma Greenwell) and Reginald Vernon

Stillman imitates the many walking scenes in Sense and Sensibility too. This is what a Jane Austen movie is supposed to be many of its fans feel; this is what they go for: emasculated men, women so gussied up to rape anyone would take excruciating efforts over corsets first. And both times I went I could see the audience was pleased: Beckinsale changed outfits almost every time we saw her, some of them quite lovely, especially her impeccably unruffled hats and curls. It is a relief after the alpha male, action-adventure movies crowding theaters with their 11 second scenes, non-literate scripts, and token women acting as male as their sexual roles permit.


Those reviews which have been favorable have picked up on this unbroken surface, these masks. For example, Adam Thirkwell’s Unserious Austen. Thirkwell is one of those who believes Lady Susan is a work of a teenager (the hagiography that surrounds Austen makes it possible to attribute this kind of sophisticated understanding of the nuances and circumstances surrounding adultery to an 18 year old) and looking at Stillman’s other films, Thirkwell reads the film as about the seriousness of surface; the insistence that the way to live life is by staying shallow, encasing yourself in the frivolous, to be unserious and insist anyone with an emotional attachment that is unchangeable is deluded: that is to take Lady Susan’s view of the world as accurate, or good enough, a way of getting through the actual coldness, meanness, mercenary motives of everyone else.

Except that Metropolitan, Last Days and Barcelona are rather about happiness coming from the integrity of the heart, from intelligent people seeing the limitatons of say worldly success (a great concern of Metropolitan is where you will be placed by your mid-30s). A few essays in Mark G Henrie’s collection of essays on Stillman’s films, Doomed Bourgeois in Love, argue that Stillman is highly unusual not only for his open identification with and interest in the upper class, but because his films are ironic Christian comedies. He is a thinking Christian and sees Austen as an optimistic ethical writer.

An unusually emotional scene: Lady de Courcy (Jemma Redgrave) and Catherine Vernon meeting Frederica (Morfyyd Clark) (not in Lady Susan but implied)

Thirkwell omitted a series of scenes not in Lady Susan, and certainly not the lines: except for the local vicar, the unnamed “local curate (played by Conor MacNeill) no one knows which position on the 10 commandments a particular instruction has. This curate is an invented character not in any of Austen’s texts: pious and trying hard to make the Christian message he understands doable. The joke about the 10 commandments is brought back three times. They are also all clueless on the story of Solomon judging which woman is the mother of a baby. Lady Susan alludes to it at least three times too as if it shows just what a good mother she is; she does not seem to know the parable contains two mothers or what happens in it, nor does anyone else. Frederica (Morfyyd Clark) Vernon, Lady Susan’s daughter, presented as unqualifiedly virtuous is so guilty over having finessed her mother’s injunctions not to tell her uncle Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) or his wife, her kind aunt, Lady de Courcy by telling Reginald goes to church to find guidance and solace and comfort. (Something that never occurs in Lady Susan.) The lighting of the film throughout is exquisitely beautiful, like a golden Vermeer painting, and especially of Frederica reading books here and there, but this scene is luminous. Our new local curate looks at her lovingly, and for a moment I thought maybe Stillman would make this a match. As she emerges, she meets Reginald and he is clueless over why anyone would go to church on any day but Sunday. He asks twice about this peculiarity of hers. But by the end of the movie he has apparently “gotten it,” understood why, for at their wedding, he cites a verse written in 18th century style celebrating Frederica’s virtue, where virtue means religious as well as marital constancy. We then see James Fleet as Reginald’s father, Sir Reginald beaming down on Jemma Redgrave, with slight comic over-doneness (James Fleet like Fyre is able to act the part with comic effect).

James Fleet as Sir Reginald looking on at some ridiculousness

Stillman does have to soften the story somewhat. In general until near the end of the movie he sticks literally to events in the book. Then instead of Reginald finally waking up to what Lady Susan is (Reginald is an anticipation of the denseness and delusions of Edmund Bertram) and throwing her off, Stillman has Lady Susan break the engagement. Reginald’s pride is hurt we are told, and he is still in danger of returning to Lady Susan. If he does not, another change is that Lady Susan is pregnant by Manwaring at the close of the film. This gives her a less mercenary incentive: in the book she wanted to marry Sir James to her daughter so with her ability to bully her daughter, she could have (in effect) enforced regular marital sex and children on her daughter by taking the money herself. Stillman adds a silent scene where we see Sir James giving Lady Susan money. He adds wedding scenes which however ironic underneath are on the surface social happy affairs. So too dancing.

A particularly gorgeous hat == the cloaks provide further eye-candy (the film recalled McGrath’s 1996 hit Emma with Gweneth Paltrow in this respect)

So I should not have been surprised at the genre Stillman has opted to use for Austen’s story: highly traditional familial costume drama undercut gently by ironic music and for the thoughtful more critically by what is actually happening and the distance between what’s said and what’s done in the case of Lady Susan. Rich costumes bring audiences in; there are people who insist on the meaninglessness of Downton Abbey for them personally: they are watching for the costumes and to look at the lovely rooms and buildings.

One of the houses glimpsed in the distance (there are few photos of distant shots in promotional images)

Certainly in this film a number of older grand mansions in various states of decline were filmed (like the 2007 Northanger Abbey by Andrew Davies this film was done in Ireland). And it fits into his outlook, the way he professes to understand Austen. He’s not a typical Janeite though as he finds Fanny Price a likeable (appealing) character in Mansfield Park. He has his heroine in Metropolitan defend Fanny against the strictures of Lionel Trilling as well as the story’s taking seriously whether amateurs should do a salacious play in a private house.

Myself I don’t find this kind of tone characteristic of Lady Susan. Since it is all in letters, she can drop the social mask and reveal herself more than once very directly as a bully, mean, aggressive, with an expectation that everyone will be as nasty she is (rather like Fielding’s Bifil). A couple of time Stillman acknowledges the centrality of letters by having one read aloud, and he shows characters communicating through them, but his theme of the effectiveness of social mask and that Lady Susan never drops it is not true of the book. She can be very raw as can her friend Alicia; these lines are divided in the film:

My dear Alicia, of what a mistake were you guilty in marrying
a man of his age!–just old enough to be formal, ungovernable
and to have the gout–too old to be agreeable, and too young to
die. May the next gouty attack be more favorable

As I read Lady Susan and have listened to it read aloud by Blackstone and other audio-readers, it’s close to Les Liasions Dangereuses, or Stael’s Delphine (1805, with a Madame Susan Vernon as worldly villainess and very bad mother). If you were puzzled why there are so many brief scenes between Alice and Lady Susan — I mean how she does manage to whiz up to London from the country and back again repeatedly: Stillman is presenting the matter of their letters brief scenes. Epistolary narrative can be looked at as inner dramas on a stage with the characters represented by letters in lieu of dialogue.

The heroines exchange bits from the letters — sometimes they lurk outside amid columns in unspecified areas

But I did find it startling to see the transposition of the original language of the letters into dialogue, often without much change. This is very like some of the 1970s film adaptations and the closest in the Austen canon is the 1979 P&P by Faye Weldon, only Weldon had an omniscient novel with characters talking to one another. The effect is stilted, and I could see from other viewers they were growing restless. Since the 1990s these costume dramas have been trying for some compromise between the language of the originals and intelligent and demotic talk of today. The audience were clearly glad to have the more obvious jokes, or seemingly obviously funny lines which they got and laughed a bit too determinedly I thought — as if to feel they were enjoying themselves. I wondered if some other of the lines given to Lady Susan gave them pause, but after all Stillman’s Lady Susan never for once breaks her surface of sweetness and she never offers more of her real values and norms than she has to even to Alicia. So no one leaving this theater could think from this film Austen seriously questioned our society, except maybe if you were seeking something, you could say see how desperate women were. This jusifies Lady Susan’s behavior in part, and it is the way a couple of favorable reviews took the movie. It’s about how women are oppressed.

To me this kind of review is a caricature of the idea: no woman in the movie is ever pictured as less than well-fed, comfortable, and on the surface complacent. If you can control the surface this way, what can the depths be? The one hard statement in the film comes from Catherine Decourcy Vernon (Emma Greenwall) when at the close of the film she calls Lady Susan a cold snake (to her mother). It’s a good thing this utterance does not need an ability to utter irony for Greenwall is another actor in the film who cannot do it; nor Justin Edwards as Frederica’s lummox of an uncle.

Moment of obvious astonishment: Catherine de Courcy and Charles Vernon

The overt joke here is that uncle Charles is astonished that any woman of intelligence could marry a fool, by which he means Sir James Martin (Tom Bennet). At the close we learn that Lady Susan has married Sir James, and as Charles drivels on in his usual “candid” way (of seeing all good everywhere) to say Lady Susan has fallen in love with him, Greenwall turns aside to grin. In Austen’s book, Sir James is not a harmless rattle, but a stubborn and dense man who would not (as Sir James does here) not realize that he’s being cuckolded by Manwaring; as Reginald is a permutation of the obtuse Edmund Bertram so Sir James is a version of Rushworth in Mansfield Park. In the book Frederica is right to dread marriage with this man and in the film to assume she will be just fine with Reginald. After all her aunt Catherine is doing just fine; her uncle does whatever the aunt wants. Stillman has picked up that Charles Vernon is a version of Charles Bingley (P&P), easily led, only left out that he could be led by bad people.

Talk I heard from people coming out both times included asssertions “it’s an odd film.” One woman didn’t quite know what to make of it, but then she’d not read Lady Susan. At least most people leaving seemed to realize there is such a novel, and they realized perhaps that there is another juvenilia called Love and Friendship which because he so likes the title and thinks it appropriate Stillman chose to call Lady Susan. Disingenuousness can work but it’s transparent that someone hoped there might be Austen readers who’ve read the wildly hilarious Love and Freindship and be drawn into the theater that way. In my own anecdotal experience really faithful fans do know of Love and Freindship: they learn bout it in an effort to find more Austen to read, and when they start it’s burlesque wild jokes lead them on to the end.

Nonserious Austen indeed. No one will leave this film disquieted or having been brought to think about our society seriously through an Austen text. The Guardian gives the expected comment: this is a racier, naughtier Austen than we have known. But the second time I knew what to expect. I’ve seen many Austen films. It’s intelligent and literate and if you can extrapolate out from Lady Susan’s behavior and how she is thriving at the close, you can say cold performative people utterly without any humane compassion for anyone, in fact despising anyone who has that as weak fits in just fine with our world. Stillman gives Beckinsale a line just before the credits as she looks at her daughter now married, to the effect she is delighted to see Frederica is becoming more manipulative though where I couldn’t see. This is a more usual transposition into modern talk of a passage in a letter where Austen’s Lady Susan indicates an active dislike or distaste for her daughter; she finds Frederica “contemptible” precisely because she has sincere feelings and acts on them. Doubtless had Lady Susan been able to read Mansfield Park she would have despised Fanny Price too:



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Angelica Kauffman, A Turkish Lady Reclining, Gazing at a Miniature (1773)

Friends and readers,

Further to my coming blogs on women artists and while studying and reading about Angelica Kauffman and Anna Dorothea Therbusch (1721-82), last night I read Linda Nochlin’s famous (oft-referred to) essay, “Why have there been no great women artists?” (reprinted in her Women, Art and Power and Other Essays). I was surprised and disappointed to find she dismissed the idea of l’ecriture-femme as non-existent. She couldn’t discern this because her categories were so broad and general, and she named women as if we could understand the texture, content, nuance, context, so much part of any particular works’ true quality by just citing the artist’s name.

How is Kauffman’s Turkish Lady Reclining different from male orientalism of the 18th century: it’s not salacious, not overtly sensual, rather it’s contemplative, meditative, an imaginary space outside male control (an “inner orient” Nochlin herself called this in another essay), liberating because meant for women to identify with, the female gaze, for female patrons

Nochlin also seemed to agree there have been no great women artists! There is no female Michelangelo, says she (quite seriously). Well no but Artemisia Gentileschi just as good — yes I do, and better in some way. Why is not Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes a great woman artist, as great and better than many of the men so lauded: I can’t stand Gaugin; Van Gogh is repetitive.

Her argument is the very idea of the Great Artist is suspect. She likens this to God-worship, fetishing. (Jim thought this way when he used to say individual works might be great but that most artists have uneven oeuvres and it’s silly to elevate people so.) But then she goes on to excuse the lack of great women artists: We look at, say, wealthy or at all powerful aristocrats, we find hardly a great artist: a person’s circumstances, class, ethnicity, whole grounding nearly (not quite) predicts whether or no he (or she) will make, promote, or write about great art. Gender is clearly another category, and she has a section on how women are taught from birth to sacrifice themselves to others, and from a young age taught and placed in situations which sap, undermine, make impossible aspiration to sustain such an achievement over time. Then though she goes on to lament the lack of truly great women artists, with her example the self-deprecation of Rosa Bonheur (1822-99), how she tried to dress like a man, how she undermined her own extensive studies of animal anatomy.

Rosa Bonheur, Sheep [reclining] by the Sea (1865), commissioned by the empress of France, Eugene, from Bonheur’s travels through the Scottish highlands — not at all the seemingly usual stampede-like picture, nor sentimentalized into people-like domesticity

But (contradictorily) she has suggested the whole idea is teleological in the first place. Which is it? The concept is absurd or women artists haven’t got a chance? Along the way she also argues that individual books on individual women or studies get women nowhere. Nowhere if their aim is to procure the respect of a majority of men whose aesthetic sensibilities are different from women’s.

At the core of this essay is Nochlin’s desire for the admiration of male critics, to have women’s art included in male-controlled, run, financed exhibitions. She wants that women should be admired because she’s a woman. And by whom? well men or women and on men’s terms because she is too impatient to uncover alternatives and assert this are as good or superior, and if ignored, carry on regardless.


Susan Herbert, a female urchin grinning (remember Angharad Rees as Demelza when Ross Poldark rides off with her at the fair and he offers her a job as a servant …)

The sentence that was current at the beginning of the nineteenth century ran something like this perhaps: ‘The grandeur of their works was an argument with them, not to stop short, but to proceed. They could have no higher excitement or satisfaction than in the exercise of their art and endless generations of truth and beauty. Success prompts to exertion; and habit facilitates success.’ That is a man’s sentence; behind it one can see Johnson, Gibbon and the rest. It was a sentence that was unsuited for a woman’s use. Charlotte Brontë, with all her splendid gift for prose, stumbled and fell with that clumsy weapon in her hands. George Eliot committed atrocities with it that beggar description. Jane Austen looked at it and laughed at it and devised a perfectly natural, shapely sentence proper for her own use and never departed from it. Thus, with less genius for writing than Charlotte Brontë, she got infinitely more said. Indeed, since freedom and fullness of expression are of the essence of the art, such a lack of tradition, such a scarcity and inadequacy of tools, must have told enormously upon the writing of women. Moreover, a book is not made of sentences laid end to end, but of sentences built, if an image helps, into arcades or domes. And this shape too has been made by men out of their own needs for their own uses. There is no reason to think that the form of the epic or of the poetic play suit a woman any more than the sentence suits her. But all the older forms of literature were hardened and set by the time she became a writer. The novel alone was young enough to be soft in her hands another reason, perhaps, why she wrote novels. Yet who shall say that even now ‘the novel’ (I give it inverted commas to mark my sense of the words’ inadequacy), who shall say that even this most pliable of all forms is rightly shaped for her use? No doubt we shall find her knocking that into shape for herself when she has the free use of her limbs; and providing some new vehicle, not necessarily in verse, for the poetry in her. — Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own


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Kauffmann, Angelica; Penelope Taking Down the Bow of Ulysses; National Trust, Saltram; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/penelope-taking-down-the-bow-of-ulysses-101590
Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807), Penelope Taking Down the Bow of Ulysses (1788)

Dear friends and readers,

Lest you think I’ve given up on my women artists blogs, I write an interim few thoughts on the problems women had making money for their work. (See my last, later 17th century Mary Beale.) I’ve been reading a much respected book on Angelica Kauffman’s Art and Sensibility by Angelica Rosenthal in an effort to understand why her art is spoken of by women art critics and historians with such high praise. I acknowledge and am drawn to the brilliance of some of her portraits (which I’ll discuss when I finally do my blog on her), and those few of her paintings reproduced exquisitely well, with some sense of the full range of her rich vivid colors conveyed, and occasional somber depictions of mournful moments in the repertoire of classical stories, where color, design, mood are pitch perfect

Kauffman, Virgil writing his own epitaph at Brundisium (1785)

Nonetheless, most reproductions of pictures by Kauffman include embarrassing items, and too many of these, as 1) fat female bodies lying supinely, enacting fecundity; 2) ludicrously sentimental scenes featuring marginalized women, often nameless from classical stories; 3) expressionless faces, on top of bodies which look like they don’t weigh anything. Rosenthal’s book is itself much praised for general applicability to all women’s art. It is. She defines and and persuasively carves out to describe what is called l’ecriture-femme in women’s writing for women visual artists.

Rosenthal does something more: she gets beyond the obvious obstacles for women artists (no liberty outside the family, married off young, endless pregnancies and early death from these, refused training, despised as woman) to those not often discussed. What she does is call attention to the experience of painting for customers — for that is what a professional career is about. Of how prestige is gained to make larger profits. So quite apart from the gender of the customer, in the 18th century one was hampered by having to paint the rich, having to replicate the values which sustain their wealth, having to picture cant-driven norms for the all-important commissions. Moving outside family-centered portraits to male customers (who after all controlled the money), How do you manage to to choose appealing subjects when what the men wanted (and they have the money) at the core were pictures of suppliant nubile fecund-looking women? Nowadays male directors prefer very young semi-anorexic girls for their chief actress. For such commissions, Angelica Kauffman wanted to paint historical paintings as these were what was most respected: I have learnt (she makes it explicit) from Rosenthal that meant classical stories even more often than the “heroic” battle scenes and public rituals conferring power on men. Further, in the 18th century these classical stories were often actuated by an idea that comes down to soft-core porn that flatters male power.

Kauffman, From Zeuxis Choosing his Models for His Painting of Helen of Troy (1773-1780)

Two examples: it seems a very popular story painted repeatedly was that of Campaspe: Pliny recounted how Alexander was so pleased by Appelles’ depiction of his slave-mistress, Alexander gave Campaspe to Appelles; favored in these depictions was the inclusion of one of Alexander’s homoerotic (homosexual) friends. Nicholas Vleughels was among those who painted Campaspe as offering her body openly to Appelles and whoever else was in the studio, her expression all docile compliance, her legs parted, a slave nearby lifting up part of her for inspection (1715). Later in the century Diderot was sufficiently alert to the salacious aspects of this in another version of this (by Etienne Falconet, 1765) that he interrupts his salivating to object the portrait suggests a prostitute so unworthy a viewer’s attention; on the other hand there is too much modesty and innocence (stupidity) so she is obviously someone who will go from man to man. This in euphemistic French is the burden of his Salon here.

What’s a woman to do with such stories? Rosenthal reproduces Kauffman’s depiction of this scene where the difference is Campaspe is actively participating, much more lively in body, more centered in the picture, and (in the age-old trope) has one breast bared which she offers up. Rosenthal goes on about how Kauffman has improved on, given a proto-feminist (?!) turn to the story by showing the heroine involved as negotiator. Since when is openly forced prostitution agency? (I know since trafficking began to be disguised as sex-work by women surviving from this industry.) I wouldn’t reprint Kauffman’s picture any more than I would Vleughels or Falconet’s. More briefly, a second favorite story was that of Zeuxis choosing a model, and in Kauffman’s version we have three very sexy models (of the usual soft-body type) but also an alert woman with a piquant expression behind him who is presented as much stronger looking and possibly about the paint the scene herself. You see her, a detail in the picture, blown up large above. Is this a vast improvement on the total lack of agency usually seen in such pictures? Rosenthal asks that we praise and take seriously these changes and these depictions. The truth is Kauffman’s pictures leave men as powerful with most of the women differently salacious.

A second kind of related problem is doing portraiture. It was part of the custom for selling pictures to have an open studio where customers could come and see your wares; in these places artists did portraits. Obviously a relationship between the woman artist and subject evolves and now the problem is men are made uncomfortable because there is an implicit submission going on, quite apart from the possibility of women gaining sexual power through seduction. Diderot who was franker than many is again our witness. It seems that Diderot ended up allowing himself to be painted by Anna Dorothea Therbusch (1721-82) with his shirt partly off. He wrote about this in a titillating way, and knowing that people could insinuate a liaison had gone on, he meant his piece to be funny — because everyone knew Therbusch was old and ugly. Women had somehow to negotiate a respected presence in their own studio, and that meant they had to present a subjectivity for their subjects that was constrained; Rosenthal interprets one of Rosenthal’s depictions of Garrick as showing him trying to fend off any sense that he was vulnerable to her.

A detail from another portrait of Garrick by Kauffman (not well known, not an ostensible show-offy studio product)

How much does it help to be told that Kauffman chose to paint Penelope again and again in non-narrative aggressive-passive ways because she was reaching for “monumental time,” a concept developed by Kristeva: women are said to move away from “linear time” and “measure existence via repetition, procreativity, and motherhood.’ I know the marks or features of l’ecriture-femme in writing include cyclical structure, a female consciousness with her type of life at the center. I know that part of the task of persuading 50% of the population to like women’s art is to present and teach and explain the value, meaning, beauty of a woman’s aesthetic, and their invention of genres that express their lives. But l’ecriture-femme cannot make something inferior or deeply unethical better. I began this blog with Penelope Taking Down the Bow of Ulysses from the series of Penelope that Kauffman painted because I needed no argument or explanation to recognize its mystery, beauty, numinous tone, glimmering color.

bacchus (Large)
Or this of Bacchus Teaching the Nymphs to Make Verses by Kauffman (1788) — this image fails to convey the rich red and orange hues, the deep blues and brightness of the original, its sensuality and psychological looks on the learning nymphs’ faces

So from Rosenthal’s opening two chapters on the commercial world of 18th century art, I’ve learned the answer to why so few women have been recognized as great goes well beyond the obvious obstacles, which now for me include the very different aesthetics women practice. What to do about this lack of recognition which is needed has no uncomplicated solutions. Arguing there is no such thing as women’s art, that women do not make art for other women as women, that see they do the men’s genre here or there, just erase women’s art further and do a disservice to the female audience, nor will qualified pandering persuade anyone with an ethical compass.

Not that I’m giving up on my project. There are centuries where an egalitarian perspective begins to take hold, painting out-of-doors, many other genres beyond male history and porn (which some of the Pre-Raphaelite pictures are disguised versions of, others bring back the trope of women as witches). Rosenthal’s book is extraordinarily instructive; I’ve learnt the name of two more 18th century women artists I never heard of before, and found a picture by one of them to share here:

Lenoir (Large)
Marie Genevieve Bouliar (162-1825), Chevalier Alexandre-Marie Lenoir (1796) — he is holding onto a catalogue he made from a museum to save is art from destruction, as he shields his face from the woman’s artist’s scrutiny


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Picture by Joanna Mary, Head of Mrs Eaton

Dear friends and readers,

My project to call attention to women artists ignored, neglected, marginalized, erased in modern museums, exhibits and survey books includes reviews of books on such women. I reviewed Deborah Cherry’s ground-breaking and creatively original, Painting Women: Victorian Women Artists, in 2007. Cherry’s most important (of many) insights in that book is a demonstration that women in the 19th century did not attempt to fit into (now famous and respected) male aesthetic schools, but evolved genres of painting, technical emphases and moods quite apart from male pictures. The continued attempt to fit them into pre-conceived male schools, impressionism for example, ends up finding them producing inferior or odd versions of impression (or the school in question), with only one or two sufficiently conforming. In Painting Women Cherry identified several types and modes of painting coming out of women’s gender-constructed circumstances and values (what they were permitted to see and to paint) which go far to re-frame the 19th century woman artist.

Beyond the Frame fills in the social and economic worlds of women, especially as manifested in public writing and media about women artists, their schooling, their careers, their leisure activities, their politicking. She looks at the images of women they were surrounded by and tried to push back against (not very successfully), and the images of women and the world around them they created, many of which have been marginalized, vanished, and misunderstood. She answers the question how how did women as a group acting to be treated as paid professionals shape them as people and what they then did in their lives. If a few women became professional artists without their families in the later 18th century, they were anomalies. This is indeed a book about what happens outside a frame and how that is part of what is said about or appears inside the frame. An aspect of this book which makes it so different from Germaine Greer’s The Obstacle Race is there is little about the woman’s private lives, their affairs with men, how that affected them, their families. This helps bring out different women’s individual agency.

Her introduction sets her subject in the present state of feminist theories about visual art and women because it’s through images that women have been used (abused, exploited), framed, understood, made models for other women to imitate. She pays attention to how visual culture was used by ruthless colonizers and imperialists. She focuses on individuals when she can. Throughout she shows how the world of women artists intersected with the hard necessary work of increasing women’s rights to work, to make and keep their money, to have real access to liberty and use it for self-fulfillment and social good.


Her first and second chapters, “Artists and Militants, 1850-66” and “In/between the colonial theater: visuality, visibility, and modernity” focus on specific years: a time when the first employment office and agency on behalf of women for professional work was begun in London, and when the first feminist press (a press run by women) and women’s journals were published. She names a few names since change in the high cultured arts is top down. The women who mattered were Barbara Bodichon, Eliza Fox, Emily Faithful (who Trollope published with), Harriet Martineau, the usual suspects – as well as a growing group of women artists and their biographers, the artists themselves painting pictures which showed the real lives of women or parodied and burlesqued the conventional pious pictures (like Florence Claxton, Emily Jane Osborne). She then suggests why women wanted to travel: emigration to a colony or moving about offered liberty not available in any other way.

Florence Claxton, The Choice of Paris

The portrait of Florence Claxton, and the parodic nature of her art is splendid. I am tempted to make Caxton one of my forgotten women precisely because I’ve never heard her mentioned in any Pre-Raphaelite exhibit, and unlike the few women mentioned (muses, sex objects, occasionally painting in a woman’s version of the male aesthetic here), she sends up the male pictures. How refreshing and what attention it would catch if a few of her sketches were included – she did paintings too.

I never saw some of these pictures before: funny sendups of the male Pre-raphaelites. The woman artists conceived of themselves as militants for women’s rights. They struggled to get and mount exhibitions of their work as a whole and some to make sure only work of high quality was included; that they entered prestigious shows. They didn’t want extravagant praise, for that does not take them seriously.  To stop the production of pious images was impossible but you could introduce satire. Of course some women journalists stopped short of endorsing anything not determinedly pro-marriage, children as the center of women’s lives (Elizabeth Ellet). The first histories of women’s visual art were written. These are lives told in terms of obstacles overcome – just like Germaine Greer.


Barbara Bodichon, Sisters Working in Our Field (1858-60)

Near Algeria (1860s)

Her third chapter, “The Worlding of Algeria” is problematic:  she investigates the particular case of Algeria as a place Bodichon went to live in when she married a French husband. Cherry takes it as a given we will disapprove of Bodichon’s horror at the nature of Muslim women’s lives –- I don’t. This chapter reveals the great gap and fault-line between what privileged elite, white upper class women experienced and want for themselves and their lack of knowledge of non-western and working class women. The visual imagery of the colonized and subaltern woman influences how the elite woman will be treated too. The elite women wanted to to go an imperialist colony like Algeria it was unlike settler colonialism where the aim of the Europeans was to create a new version of the old society (after “removing” the native people).

She then launches into a revealing critique of such pictures that we are many of us familiar with. Citing Spivack, Bhabha, and Linda Nochlin, Cherry demonstrates the familiar alluring pictures of landscape and buildings of Africa, India and others are all false constructs: they omit much that was actually there, in the way they frame what they see they follow the Claude Lorraine scheme, the celebration of harmony is of power; the figures of “natives” either are not there, or are tiny and we never see them doing anything commercial. Linda Nochlin describes such pictures in her essay on the “imaginary orient.” She brings out the ambiguity of women’s painting in the era: how when they achieve some freedom, it is not available on “innocent” terms. And that a number of the women painters who are better known painted this kind of landscape or “oriental” people inside it.

One detail sticks in my mind: one of these elite women inspired a powerful French woman to wear silks and it was argued this was kindness to provide jobs for these oriental girls: the jobs were 12 hours a day to spin silk at age 13-21 whereupon she’d be married off. European women wanted to go to places like Algeria because there was no settler colonialism there: no one was attempting to recreate a little England or France, but only occupy gov’t and business positions; the European imperialists were fiercely militaristic, destroying native attempts to stop them taking the natural resources and thus made a safe space for women not married to travel in and “be free.” Only a few such women noticed the natives, even fewer respected and saw them as human beings. To be fair, the only women white women came across were veiled, spoke a different language.

The chapter is relevant to us today: when something is shown of native type it’s a ruin, or desolate and obviously needs to be torn down except that it is so picturesque. Painters did not know how to show the civilization they were seeing. Islam when shown is depicted as fanatic, desecrating Christian and ancient Roman and Greek sites. Cherry talks about the literal frames put around such pictures; buyers expected a frame as if they want to distance themselves. I’ve seen similar pictures of 19th to 20th century Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Egypt.


Harriet Hosmer’s Zenobia (1862)

As her first book taught generally so this one begins with a detail or person and moves out “beyond the frame.” Chapter 4 begins with Harriet Hosmer’s Zenobia to bring out how in order to make money the artist who made sculptures had to make copies and when she did she had to use the services of other people. Large statues often required workman skilled in the material the statue was made of. This reality was used to accuse women of not doing their own statues, but hiring others. Again we see these Greek/Roman images were an aristocratic European ideal: people who never looked like that; the artists are imitating the figures of the early Renaissance. Cherry discusses Hawthorne’s Marble Faun, which has an ideal woman painter, pure virginal copying masterpieces, and the daughter of a Jewish banker who paints stories of blood and revenge (Jael, Judith).

The Art Journal defended these women sculptors in Rome, including Edmonia Lewis (accused of poisoning her fellow students – Lisa Moore’s Sister Arts explained that false charger). Tellingly though feminists of the era pushed for masculine qualities in the art; Francis Cobbe liked statues of strong figures; these are high art, so Angelica Kauffmann’s pictures (which I admit I often do not like) are feeble and about prettiness. Women must create what they admire, and they admire power, force, grandeur, says Cobbe. (I don’t.) but Cobbe goes on to doubt if such qualities are found in women to the same extent as men. (As if men are all strong … ) all this is written in connection with Hosmer’s Zenobia and others statues. Cherry includes the strong influence of Americans in Rome, perhaps overstated, how they interacted with English and Canadian people. Now Hosmer was judged on how she looked, her private life; happily neither were found wanting: she was leading a “real life – a life “carried out for herself.” Frances Cobbe met her long-time partner in Rome, Mary Lloyd, a Welsh sculptor who worked with Rosa Bonheur.

About this time in 19th century culture that an author’s life began to “authorize” the art work (or writing or music). So, after showing that attempts were made to say the women did not sculpt their own heroic statures, she brings in Foucault to argue that respect for an author and the perceived presence of the author in the art work gave a work respect. An author authorized the text — I’ll add that we see in the 19th century the growing worship of authors as celebrities. When it was argued that Homer never existed, the value of the Iliad went down; when it was argued that several authors could or would have been involved, the Iliad became almost not worthwhile any close study. There was nothing to study it for.

(Films have this problem today and those who want to elevate the status of film often resort to some form of auteur theory to make people regard the work as art and enabled them to analyze its vision. And if the auteur is famous  respected then you are in business as a critic to be listened to. And it’s true we (or I) look for the “signature” of the author by looking at the script writer or director’s other films and comparing and showing likeness. We see the importance of the author’s life come in here; how viewers want to judge it. The hard truth is no matter how dominant one or more personalities are in the final product of a film, it is the product of intricate collaboration on every level.)

Hosmer’s Beatrice Cenci

Some women sculptors presented these heroic figures with large gravitas (Edmonia Lewis’s Death of Cleopatra) which influenced other depictions — or they were all following a similar paradigm. Joanna Mary Boyce depicted a Cumean sybil as a figure of learning and prophecy — she painted the famous often reprinted Head of Mrs Eaton (a model in 19th century London often referred to “a woman of color”). The Zenobia by Hosmer is then a watershed and achievement for women artists, but not as strong a one as has been made out.

She then covers the kind of postures for women in art that were popular, allowed or just circulated widely: heroic women who were nonetheless enslaved, seen in chains — like Zenobia; we were to admire their passive fortitude. It was objected by some at the time why do we never see Zenobia when she is successful and a warrior, only in her downfall? Other images — such as enslaved Greek by Hiram Power (a male) are voyeuristic; you are invited to imagine something sadistic about to happen. Chains around female figures were everywhere in these sculptures, also a focus on the woman’s private parts, one breast bared (the traditional sign of the prostitute). If we look at how Victoria was represented there was a problem of showing her heroic and strong and yet not aggressive and loving mother; there was severe disapproval of her continual retirement from public life and her love for Brown was known and had to be hushed up. 


Gwen John, a self-portrait (1899)

The last and fifth chapter, “Tactics and allegories, 1866-1900” is overlong and meanders; it takes different turns. My experience of writing for publication makes me suspect it is comprised of material meant to be part of later chapters, but she was forced to cut down her book and condensed these further chapters in this last fifth one. In it she analyzes Gwen John’s self-depiction. It’s a single image condensing many themes of independence, self-confidence making her stand for the “new woman” – personal freedom, individualism, making of independent life organized around work, socializing unchaperoned in mixed company, living in rented accommodation rather than family home. The problem is most novels are about sexual non-conformity, not about politically active, or neurotic and idealistic women.

What the whole book shows and especially this chapter was the kind of social abilities a woman needed to be a professional painter or the kind of family, background and connections she needed to come from and have help through made many of the women artists political activists. While a few famous ones, were adamantly publicly opposed to women getting the vote (of course they would be made famous), most worked for women’s causes of various sorts, and strongly for this. So women artists and suffragettes converged. Her point is that women artists were politically active because in order to have a career they had to be economically and socially active within elite groups.

She prints portrait by Sophia Beale of herself as a taxpayer, a person who worked as teacher, painter, landlady has no vote and the drone male in her house has one. Bodichon pointed out women were eligible for public offices too. It’s the paying taxes that is the clincher each time. Only a few resisted paying taxes and their goods were seized. Women artists embodied social responsibility, professional and properties status. People have called the group elite: list of important women in public life as all for suffrage. Women for the vote spoke lectures, there was attention to public works. Petitioners, Bodichon presented demand for vote to John Stuart Mill. Scottish women painters active. Several women artists took active roles in organizations. Cherry offers a list of active women which includes several familiar and not-so-familiar artists.

Cherry then moves into traditions of radical thought, social reform, professional work for women. Emily Ford came from prosperous Quakers, who trained both sexes for independent lives, social responsibility and active intervention. Each placed herself in some central functioning area; worked against Contagious Diseases Act which criminalized women rather than those who exploited them. Emily Fox a committee member for Leeds Educational society. The women attended one another’s meetings and become involved with labor politicians. Emily Fox joined Leeds Social League; and with her sisters and Alice Scatcherd helped series of strikes which included women weavers and tailors. The organization provided education, practical help, money. Emily Ford became Anglican but at the same time worked for protective regulation on behalf of women and children. Now she provides a list of names who were variously active –it’s striking what they did. It was a broad moral critique: against domestic violence, child abuse, animal rights too, antivivisectionist, for women’s unions. Not all women artists had the time to act as suffragettes, a couple still demurred too. They all had to be careful not to let these activities affect a positive reputation; they would contribute in ways that kept their name quiet; artistry with less elite status could be more public. Then she cites famous women artists who did not involve themselves, e.g., Gwen John, Vanessa Bell. The very definition of femininity was now challenged.

There were of course upper class women who were anti-suffrage; the pro-suffrage women saw these people as elitist; people wanted to be part of what was stylish too, so issue was complicated as they say. Little mention was made of women’s rights in magazine aimed at them, and yet they signed petitions in huge numbers, a few allowing the use of their famous name as a spearhead. When prominent British politicians asserted there was no evidence women wanted the vote, the Women’s Social and Political Union (the major organization begun by the Pankhurts) brought out thousands in the streets and petitions galore – the latter are weak instruments at best.
A convergence had occurred on public platforms, theaters, book buying too. Cherry produce a long list of women artists who were known to be suffragettes.


Rachel Weisz as Hypatia in the 2009 film Agora (see my review of the movie which presents Hypatia as a tragically silenced teacher)

She has the great insight to remark that the male Pre-Raphaelites who painted the beautiful women they kept as mistresses often painted them as powerful sorceresses, and that early on when women wanted power or lived alone they were equated with witches, burnt or somehow punished (guillotined in the French revolution). And she says the most famous of the sorceress paintings emerge just before and during the time of the “new woman” in fiction and suffragette campaign. Susan Casteras has argued that “women endowed with great creativity” in Pre-raphaelite imagery become witches, sorceresses;” then Beverly Taylor sees these as also fearful, projections of male anxieties (they have these dark narrow eyes). So the re-emergence of imagery of women as witches, sorceresses – in male Pre-Raphaelite paintings!  Women art critics who like the male Pre-Raphaelite painting are concerned to counter this: Jan Marsh wants to see this as “idealized beautiful” women, enchantresses (159).

These images coincide with first organized woman’s movement for vote, rights on a national scale. Women wreaking havoc and destruction in tales too. Morgan LeFaye a murderess, incestuous with son, a Medea type. Casteras: they are defying the rhetoric of masculine control. Elizabeth Barrett Browning does all she can to distance herself and heroines from this kind of book. Mary Boyce Wells has a sympathetic sibyl, but the issues were property laws, Contagious Diseases Acts, professional opportunities, paid work, medical knowledge. In 1872 the first public schools and colleges including or for women with high academic standards emerge. No more independent scholars, bluestockings, visibility in public life and suffrage petitions was what was needed and sought. At the same time the formation of a distinctly homosexual-social culture was forming. To this belongs Eliza Lynn’s attack on the “new girl of the period.” then there was increasing disquiet about race as world shrunk.

Joanna Boyce Wells, Elgiva

The pictures of Joanna Mary Boyce Wells come closest to painting sibyls in ways that are deeply sympathetic. She is one underrated painter – very good. Her Head of Mrs Eaton (found on the Internet easily) is only one of her paintings that are very good. About to have her first exhibit, she died in childbirth. Without a husband, women were not respectable and they also had a hard time making a living. The next time my reader goes to a Pre-Raphaelite show with no women painters (or the obligatory Mary Cassatt or Berthe Morison) have a real look at how the males are painting these “gorgeous” females. Like Julia Cameron’s photographs (who follows Michelangelo’s depiction of sibyl turning pages of volume with putti holding a light), Boyce does not follow Virgil to show a possessed woman; not gloomy, not about to commit crimes (Burnes-Jones’s sibyl is); she is poised, calm, contemplative. Cameron’s work required costumes, furniture, tableaux vivants, Marie Spartalli works with her “performing” beauty, maternity, spirituality; Cameron’s picture recalls a painting of Isabella d’Este.

Hypatia became a focus for women artists – she is made fun of in Punch as Miss Hypatia Jones, Spinster of arts – we can trace the complex of ideas and emotions attached to Hypatia in several women artists: Marie Spartali Sillman (imagery from Spenser’s Faerie Queen – Britomart), identified with Sophia and also Antigone (think of George Eliot! – and recent play with Juliette Binoche, not to omit Rachel Weisz in Agora, figures of resistance to patriarchal authority). 

Meanwhile discourses about art’s moral function were under pressure. It’s in this context Cherry brings up Pre-Raphaelite women artists too; Rossetti was attacked so you needed to be moral and yet art for art’s sake the mode. Spivack sees an interplay between a portrait of the self and using the self to represent a constituency – you stage yourself to represent an idea and blend all these female archetypes (Dido is very far from this I see.

Laura Hertford, Elizabeth Armstrong Garrett (1866 — a photograph of a portrait)

She turns to what was happening in women’s professions. Elizabeth Garrett Armstrong gets a license from society of apothecaries and sets up practice as a physician; in magazines we find comic drawings of sweetly pretty doctor, useless, hired for sex appeal; or a harridan disrupts family life. Visual language recalls women campaigning for voting rights. So how can women artists counter this? Around the time of her license, Laura Herford painted Garrett, stayed within family looks grave, high neck dark dress, hair pulled back with middle part, gaze alert serious steady. She declined openly to support suffragettes; cartoons showing women professionals neglecting husband, children, women barristers presented as the next absurdity, ridiculous jargon ridden papers. She did not dress like Langham place group.
Debates occurred on what is appropriate curriculum for women, appropriate areas of practice. Mary Macarthur an early 20thcentury unionist declared “Knowledge is power” and “knowledge and organisation mean the opening of the cage door.”


1890s is a period of conflicting groups and tendencies. A time of discussions about marriage, motherhood, compatibility with women’s desire for self-fulfillment. One problem is people rarely discussed content of pictures.

Susan Isabel Dacre, Linda Becker (1886)

Fashioning an image for professional woman and vote is not easy: Osborne mad Jane Cobden Unwin into a woman silvered in satin (!), class based; Susan Isabel Dacre painted Lydia Becker insombre sober dress– nearly 60, another very heavy woman, direct gaze through her spectacles, not prettied up like Millais’s depiction of Louise Jopling, but drab, isolated thoughtful weary; she became target of satiric depictions.

Towards the end of Chapter 5 Cherry quotes Susan Casteras to the effect that with few exceptions women did not challenge canons of taste, imagery, citing Margaret Isabel Dicksee’s Miss Angel – we see Angelicak Kauffmann introduced by Lady Wentworth, visiting Mr Reyndols 1892 – elegantly dressed lady. The image reminds me of Kauffmann’s pictures (and Angharad Rees in the 1976 Poldark as Demelza), which reinforced story of Kauffmann’s life how she missed out on marrying Reynolds, chose badly so led blighted life. (Kauffmann’s work is a problem – if only we would admit it – soft unreal nymphs. I have not done a blog because in all conscience I find so many of her ideal forms vapid or insipid. Only when she does a portrait of a real person is the picture valuable as aesthetic and philosophical art. The stories of the 18th century musical Linleys are made to fit.

Dicksee took up mantle of Henrietta Ward. Exhibiting a major historical painting with lengthy explanation; another cited Jessie Macgregor’s In the Reign of Terror which depicted a mother’s courage; Louise Jopling did an Elaine of Astolat drowned for love but also Salome (a contested figure) and like other women painting the figure was criticized for conception (head on tray), Jopling said her Queen Vashti refusing to show herself to the People was “an originator and victim of women’s rights.”

A campaign which used the words “purity” and took a stance of moral vigilance attacked these sorts of paintings, of nudity in public, “obscenity” in postcards, posters; women trained to produce degrading images of their own sex; 1890s saw passing of Criminal Law Amendment Act raised age of consent for girls to 16, powers to the police to prosecute street walkers, brothel keepers, indecent acts between adults are made illegal.

Artists and critics inveighed against women artists studying nudes, even if “hampered from competition for highest prizes in art.” Florence Fenwick Miller takes Lawrence Alma-Tadema for exerting himself against admission of women’s paintings but not the “languorous dreamy women” of his paintings. Political Lady Cricketeers seen in a drawing are rare for not being made misshapen harridans. Cherry wonders if these images had a “multivalency” for women at the time (meaning maybe women then liked these sexy pictures of women.) Fenwick Miller and Emilia Dike upheld women’s rights to study and depict the nude as necessary for career. There was fairly consistent agitation to obtain permission to attend life classes at the Royal Academy.

Such campaigns gave women opportunity to speak out about sex, morality. In 1899 Louisa Starr defended nude depiction; not improper, indecent, offensive – much was at stake here. Henrietta Rae’s Psyche before the Throne of Venus with its numerous nudes and semi-draped women was attacked; Starr’s defense is as long as done in classical tradition, showing sports, as long as nude is “robust, mellowed, healthy … “ No corset of course, the “purity of spirit” would shine through 186. There is a problem here. This is classic vigilance argument, no lasciviousness here, implicit racism (whites painted). Elizabeth Forbes’s School is Out does break with stereotypes to show teacher satisfied, in charge; using rural background assures respectability.


At the close of her book Cherry moves to justify 1890s women artists who went in for spiritualism as a form of feminism and the art they created using these. It won’t do. It does seem as if her woman artists were mostly elitist types and could not get themselves to avail themselves of socialist allegories of the type Walter Crane and Morris used. Nor can Cherry stomach the work of the Newlyn school as led by Stanhope Forbes. (Like others, she holds against him his elitism, that he squashed parts of his wife’s career, that the women accepted in the Newlyn school had to conform to domestic ideals.) I prefer the Newlyn School with its deeply respectful realism.

Another aspect of the 1880s and 90s is men’s institutions refuse to accept women’s work, portraits of important women. I know that Anne Barbauld’s papers were destroyed many of them because the British Library would not take them and in the 1940 the house they were kept in was destroyed by bombs.

Suffragette meeting, from The Graphic, 25 May 1872 — includes Millicent Garret Fawcett, Frances Strong Pattison [aka Emilia Dilke], Ernestine Rose, Lydia Becker, Rhoda Garrett

We can study the period as suffragette and women artists saw it to some extent by looking at saved cuttings from newspapers – compiled extracts which they often found mean and cruel: rare not to have political women “as a red nosed, misshapen republisve looking harridan.” National Portrait Gallery refused to accept Dacre’s portrait of Becker on the grounds she had not been dead 10 years as yet – this excludes women from “imagined national community” 195; they collected their own material but what was publicly shown was A Dream of Fair Women” in Lonoon 1894: women in grand manner, uncomplicated beauty. Women’s Suffrage Society presented their collection to University College, Bristol.

New womens’ colleges often had bare walls; Bodichon provided furniture money for Girton decoration. Emily Mary Osborne exhibited a picture of Bodichon calling her “instrumental” in founding Girton after Emily Davies had claimed herself the exclusive founder; Bodichon wanted the painting there to be sure that she was credited 197. Picture of Davies makes her look like heritage family portrait demure, white cap, hands folder; Bodichon painting. These women fought over this.

Then the resort to allegory: Emily Ford’s Rising Dawn has disappeared but a photograph of it survives – on the occasion of Philippa Fawcett achieving highest place in Math Tripos exam at Newnham College Cambridge 198. Resembles Soul Finding the Light (see below). Using Owens’s theory, Cherry defines allegory is one text read through another; you add a layer of meaning – we can re-see them with a different allegory: allegory is unmotivated in the sense that symbolism is particular to, grows out of a work itself. So to many today (to me) Watts’ Hope (a woman) looks hopeless. Leighton’s Arts of Industry shows well born women showing off jewels; women sew with servants all around; while men make and deliver luxury goods – indolent self-regarding women; Golden Stairs thought to have no content or story.

Cherry suspects that Emily Ford’s pictures had political meanings that she does not tell. Cherry points to – she descriptions of Ford’s works not now extant: The Weary Way had wild winds of Yorkshire (it seemed) hindering steps of old woman who struggles under a load. How do you create a new visual culture for socialism?; wee see attempts in Walter Crane, Walter Langley in Newlyn school – she seems oddly dismissive of these males because she wants to include women whose art is elitist even if they are trying to celebrate women.

So Cherry moves to the use of spiritualism imagery: the imagery of seances, spiritualism, Society for Psychical Research is what some women artists appear to have used for hopeful allegory .I see a great irony here – she cites historians who say this kind of thing has a particular appeal for women – (after all they had the many children who died I put it) so we get suffragettes joining this group: Agnes Garrett, Anna Swanick, Elizabeth Blackwell, Charlotte Despard – they would investigate table-rapping, mediums, automatic writing

Evelyn de Morgan — note both figures are female

Evelyn de Morgan not a member but interested in this kind of psychical research and she expressed ideas of women’s spiritual evolution through the imagery as in her Soul’s Prison House, Aurora Triumphans; Cherry finds the same spiritual journey in Emily Ford’s painting – she sees Morgan’s paintings as “resplendent” – Night flees and the female figures move into the light; central to Judeo-Christian imagery from Pilgrim’s progress to Swedenbourg to Quakers. Paul de Man comes in useful here. She wants us to begin to see this sort of thing as feminist. Marina Warner has said this kind of allegory is declamatory.

She turns to look at banner and visual images used in campaigns. In 1884 there was one to extend suffrage to include almost all men – to include women too– a huge demonstration-meeting in Sheffield and elsewhere, in London, in Edinburgh – banners used (“Women Claim Equal Justice with Men”), eye-catching spectacle of flags (Westminster and London Tailoresses said to have participated), use of singing, of processions. She means to give a sense of the full visual culture of women’s suffrage in the 1880s – this pageantry connected to temperance, mother’s union, church groups, labor protests, socialist groups, miners’ galas … Later on it became narrower and larger middle class in imagery. These were images of women at meetings, of well-dressed women in groups, looking semi-professional.

Most of the suffrage visual art has been lost, not collected, not valued, no one had the resources to save these. But collections of family paintings have been dispersed and women’s paintings ended up there; marble statues (!) by women have been lost (Edmonia Lewis’s Death of Cleopatra lately found); endowments, insecure donations, lack of continuity and gifts are lost.

She suggests we are uneasy with women’s pasts. Allegory is uncertain and slippery and becomes barely discernible. That’s why the use of these spiritualist allegories is lost to us today says Cherry. It’s more than that. Seance and spiritualist movements were and are a dead end. Women did die in great numbers in childbirth; their children died in great numbers. All tragic but the technological solution of better childbirth procedures and what we have of scientific medicine was what was needed.

The coda

Emily Ford, The Soul Finding the Light (1888-89)

Cherry lifts her book again to the important and profound about women’s movements and art. After saying that allegory (and I’ll add irony thinking of Austen and Trollope) is treacherous, that it can be erased or misread, she quotes Owen again who remarked most of such works are not preserved or preserved in odd ways. A large number of the works Cherry has discusses are misread or lost or known only through photographs. Hosmer’s statue is disappeared; so too paintings by Howitt of Boadicea, Tekushch of The wife and Rebecca Levinson of Hypatia. In order to get the Girton authorities to put Becker’s picture up, Osborne had to cut it down; the original once in the Manchester Art Gallery is now preserved only in a photograph. We have cursory reviews. Ford’s Towards the Dawn gone missing.

Cixous says that the gift is a dangerous because it is not given with the aim of getting something in return. The gift which is part of potlatch is “proper” (like Christmas). She says gifts arouse suspicion and are associated with women. The gift is donated and thus out of the system and constitutes a threat to the system which has refused to pay for it or reciprocate. So it is insecure and is not preserved, is not put anywhere that recognition works to make permanent (e.g., blogs on the Net, postings on listservs, participation in networks online, volunteer work … women’s work at home when unpaid).

When such works are gone, they are misrecollected or dismissed when mentioned. Cherry ends on Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations where he says “every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own … is threatened by irretrievable disappearance.” Here we see the important of awards as well as money.

So unless you coopt and obey the system to some extent, you are lost. Often women did not in order to speak of themselves truthfully, and much of their work has been systematically as well as with indifference lost. It is courageous of Cherry to end on this note.


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From closing frames of S&S (modeled on Andrew Wyeth picture?, Liew, Molinari, Sabino)

From closing frames of NA (imagery of pastoral intermixed with nightmare, novel as Catherine’s dream, Lee, Pildari, Eckelberry)

Dear friends and readers,

Surely it’s time to write about Austen here again. Long overdue some might say.

Last night I read and perused the latest graphic novel of Northanger Abbey, words chosen and written by Nancy Butler, the artist Janet K Lee; colorist Nick Pilardi, letterer Jeff Eckleberry. It’s a Marvel product and since in just the way the company that produces a film predetermines the shape and much that is indefinably the film so the comic book publisher Marvel predetermines elements of the commodity they sell. Thus it’s no surprise if the other Marvel graphic novel I own, which I also reread and looked at the pictures for far more carefully and deeply than I’ve done before, Sense and Sensibility, also by Nancy Butler, but this time artist Sonny Liew, colorist L. Molinai, Letterer Joe Sabino, showed a strong family resemblance.

The Dashwood family approaches Barton Cottage (Liew, L. Molinar, Joe Sabino, angle and shot from the 1996 Ang Lee/Emma Thompson S&S)

Catherine and Isabella exploring Bath (based on general gothic mode, Lee, Pilardi, Eckleberry) Isabella “easy, unreserved conversation” (!), showing Butler can do irony

Both have marvelous large pictures at the close of the most striking of the panels that are smaller inside the story — and here both are highly original or they allude to famous works of art or movie/movie genres.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed them — I have a strong tendency to see these books as comic books but under the influence of Simon Grennan’s Dispossession, which I bought at the Trollope conference meeting, and is a graphic novel adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s John Caldigate, I began to look at the individual panels seriously for the first time, and could see they are genuinely art; in these two cases expressionistic, and project a general outlook and mood, not necessarily Austen’s but a reading of her. It’s obvious that Posy Simmonds and Audrey Niffennegger’s graphic novels are art, Simmonds’s images are so distinctive — and Niffennegger’s spun art in the manner of artistic poem books. These Marvel books are not so; they are deliberately set up in frames and use typologies resembling more comic book images — probably not to put off the comic book buyer. I can’t say that all Marvel comics are genuinely good; and I know some of the recent autobiographical graphic novels rich on text are poor on images (which makes them poor graphic novels), but these are worth perusal.

As with Posy and Niffennegger, one aspect of the enjoyment is the text. In both cases Butler is the writer and she choses wisely to take as much from Austen’s text straight as she can. I once had a publisher tell me when you publish about Austen let your guide by to quote her when you can. You are sure to please that way. So you are reading Austen epitomized, in bits and pieces, sometimes altered and expanded with piquant details, often from the era, but they are well chosen.

Mr Willoughby and Marianne have their first literary discussion: it’s about Scott

As Henry and Catherine drive up to the Abbey, it is gothic — purples, greys, angles which are edgy

The pictures matter of course, maybe more than the words. In the case of NA I was surprised to find very dark colors used for Bath itself, Bath made gothic, with overlarge oddly angled depictions of the characters (so we are inside their minds), haunting kinds of shapes for what happens. In the case of the S&S, there are zoom shots, the characters look so overawed and powerless against the screens they are caught in, especially Mrs Dashwood in her widow’s garb, at a kind of great distance angle of shot from on high, very sudden too.

The page where Catherine receives the invitation to go to the Abbey and discusses it with the Allens

Fanny Dashwood needling Mrs Dashwood to make her take Elinor away, Mrs Dashwood vowing not to take this punishment

Butler (in a preface) talks of Northanger Abbey as sending up the gothic, but the artist and especially the colorer made Bath into a gothic image, with the characters sometimes looming and scary in context. Everything feels pervasive from colors seeping around to lines — lots of odds oranges, off-color yellows, browns. As if a page is the inner or deeper feeling of Catherine. The lines on the face of John Thorpe make him menacing. Real grit in the S&S: this frame combines the melancholy of the three Brandons: Robert Swann who uses a cane (1983), melancholy Alan Rickman with that brown jacket (1996), David Morrisey brooding most of all:

(You do have to abandon your critical faculties to the cartoon’s edge into absurdity)

In the S&S panel you see the characters drawn as on a stage from different angles and then squares within squares with faces close up, so tensions from social life come out: in the preface to S&S Butler speaks of the book as about sisters, and outrage over the way the Dashwoods are treated by the laws and when they arrive in Devonshire custom. Butler and Lee’s S&S takes off from the movies.

It’s undeniable that many of the characters are drawn to recall specific actors in either the 1996 Emma Thompson S&S or the 2008 Andrew Davies one; the dresses; the way Colonel Brandon is figured as so strong, manly, and melancholy with a cane. Many of the frames prefer what happened in one or other other of these two S&S than Austen’s more simple lack of particulars. So Barton Park recalls the 2008 S&S grand mansion (even photographed or drawn in the same way) and Barton cottage the 1996 S&S house (as they come up the walk) though the inside is more like the 2008 (as they go through the place, with the same clothes as Charity Wakefield and Hattie Morahan had on). As this is the third time I’ve read this one I started to see new things, and for the first time recognized some memories of the 1983 S&S film too — in the dresses, in some of what’s emphasized in the choices of text, occasionally a frame resembles a shot in the 1983 film — the script writer for the 1983 film was Alexander Baron, a fine novelist in his own right who did quite a number of the Dickens and one notable Bronte adaptation for the BBC in the 1980s. Mrs Jenkins is even modelled on Patricia Routledge from the 1971 S&S (Denis Constanduros the writer), with this wild page showing Ciaran Maddan as Marianne and Joanna David as Elinor:

The hairstyle suggest Irene Richards is remembered in the grieving Elinor

Yet at the same time similarly there is a particular interpretation which is Butler and Liew’s own and it’s poignant because of the high shots. It’s more daylight mind (Molinari did the colors) here than the Marvel NA, with normal perspectives on the size of the characters (they don’t overwhelm a page) and the background made into light of the day or quiet of an evening so there is a quieter feel to the work.

I have read a previous graphic novel adaptation of Northanger Abbey (words Trina Robbins, illustrator Anne Timmons): a Gothic classics volume which contains 5 novels so each one is shorter (it includes Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, words Antonella Caputo, illustrator Carlo Vergara); I want to say that the pictures are in black-and-white makes them limited only I know that Posy Simmonds makes beauty, gives depth with drawings on white too. I think it’s the wild angles of the frames themselves, sudden thrusting and most of all that the gothic is kept to throughout.



Also the use of Austen’s words: in the NA and S&S both occasionally Andrew Davies’s superb perceptive scripts.

I probably enjoyed them strongly because I’ve not been reading Austen in a while and when I return (I am grateful this is so) after having been away for a while, I forget all the outside materials I read about Austen: while some adds and enriches, so much is said or has been that to say something new or different (which is required) mars the experience because it’s so intermixed with the critic-writer’s political/social point of view and my feeling of how this book is supposed to operate for them in the Austen world, or just things that are said that are a new extreme and grate, or simply ignore the book altogether or mock it (in effect it’s so over-the-top in its reactive reading) though the person writing does not always know that.

Post-texts. S&S has the occasional wink as featured in the upper frame of its windowed cover:


while the NA is not above bats, and allusions to vampires, Udolpho and bookishness (the ancient table the two sit on are held up by fat ancient tomes)


I should not have been surprised as I love studying film (and films are moving pictures), loved art history and see pictures as endlessly meaningful when well done. In this Marvel NA, we have many narrowed eyes, on the male and female faces, suggestive; in this S&S really detailed developments out of Austen via different movies.


It’s a small vindication of the readings each perform since Austen’s words are used to pull NA into gothic realms, and easily host images from across 4 S&S films

My daughter Izzy bought the Northanger Abbey one on Sunday, November 1st, and we said it was appropriate to the season and All Saint’s Day — which for me would have been very lonely but for her and my two cats – and Austen and memories of the Austen movies.

Hattie Morahan as Elinor

Charity Wakefield as Marianne


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Ring-a-Ring-o’Roses (charcoal, watercolor, click to enlarge)

Woodland scene (1886, click to enlarge)

Dear friends and readers,

Forbes is the third woman I’ve chosen from this later Victorian into Edwardian/modern period (the other too Paula Modersohn-Becker and Helen Allingham) from out of eight thus far.

This is the first era of the impressionists, and Forbes came under the influence of James McNeill Whistler.

From her earlier French period: La Seine pres de la Caumont

Like his her landscapes are psychological projections. In her case her landscapes represent them as a child would see them, or suggestive of a particular story (Great Women Masters of Art, Vigue, 299). The use of children has another origin: like Allingham Forbes was an illustrator and had to come up with a solution to the repressive mores of the era which demanded she have a chaperon: she painted children.

I first came across her work at the National Museum of Women’s Art in DC where she seemed to fit into the Pre-Raphaelite mode: at the time her mural, Will-o’-the Wisp, was on a balcony, next to an ascending stairway:

(click to enlarge)

The painting connects her to Helen Allingham as Forbes is illustrating his symbolic poem, The Faeries, and

depicts the story of Bridget, who was stolen by the ‘wee’ folk and bought up to the mountain for seven years. When Bridget returned to her village, she found that her friends were all gone.
Set in autumn with bare trees silhouetted against a moonlit sky, the triptych’s dark rocks, swirling mist, and eerie glow in the sky convey a mystical quality to this scene featuring Bridge, the ‘stolen child … dead with sorrow … on a bed of flat leaves.’ In the left panel of the painting, little forest denizens, who in Irish legends often entice young girls with sensory pleasures, troop through the forest.
Will-o-the-Wisp displays the tenets of the Newlyn Art School in its meticulous portrayal of natural detail … the elaborately hand-wrought oak frame that incorporates sheets of copper embossed with intertwined branches imitat[e] the painted tree limbs … Lines from Allingham’s poem inscribed along the sides and bottom of the frame allude to the centuries old philosophical dialogue between the relative artistic merits of painting versus poetry (JP, Women Artists, Works from the National Museum, p 66)

Like Modersohn-Becker she was influenced by the avante-garde; for Forbes it was the work of Walter Sickert, a print-maker, that struck her.

Brighton Pierrots by Sickert (click to enlarge)

Julian Treuherz (Victorian Painting, pp 187-96) valuably reprints a number of late Victorian landscape and country painters unfamiliar to many people today, Jules Bastien-Lepage, Frank Bramley, Elizabeth’s husband, Stanhope Forbes, Clausen, Wm McTaggart, Atkinson Grimshaw), but she assimilates to these only in the naturalistic and seeming social-criticism phases of her work.

Jules Bastien-Lepage, Pauvre Fauvette (1881)

William McTaggart, The Storm (1890)

And of course her husband’s work influenced hers as hers did his:

A characteristic fisherman’s wife scene (click to enlarge)

Martin Hopkinson’s review of a recent biography of Forbes, Singing from the Walls: The Life and Art of Elizabeth Forbes by Judith Cook, Melissa Hardie and Christina Paine, suggests the wide range of influences and center of art Forbes attended (see The British Art Journal 2:3 (Spring/Summer 2001):108. It’s true that what’s depicted may seem insular English as in The Edge of the Wood (1894), a “love tryst” (Christopher Wood’s term, from Paradise Lost: Paintings of English Country Life and Landscape, 1850-1914, p 199) something from a Hardy novel


or ideas for a new BBC film adaptation of elegant rich Edwardians

The Minuet (1892)

but note the rich coloration of her Forbes’s art, her use of animals, the leaves, the wood; the second picture’s center is the child’s yellow dress, with triangular shades of light and three women watching over her while a fourth works near a window.

She is included in a few of my surveys of women painters, mentioned in others. Greer places her alongside Mary Cassatt and Laura Knight because she worked in “the fragile” (and demanding) “medium of watercolor, leaving grander genre and history compositions in oils to her better-known husband. Often the simplicity of her work seems slack and spurious, but occasionally, as in her pastel, The Kiss, some greater intensity swells the small statement” (Obstacle Race, p 113). What a put-down.

Those women who write about her art sympathetically say forget the fashionable masculine schools of the era (impressionism, Pre-Raphaelitism); to align Forbes with these or the anecdotal Victorian naturalistic depictions gets you nowhere. You have to stake out a terrain of femininity for her as much as her you do for Allingham and Modersohn-Becker. This seems to me right: like the woman authors of the 1930s who are marginalized (see Alison Light, Forever England) in favor of say Graham Greene or George Orwell because these women don’t fit in the political movements of the day, the marginalization of Allingham and Forbes is the result of looking for what the women don’t want to be there.

Her art is so varied: suggestive, wonderful use of space and line, decorative bright colors, the picturesque and the plain and real, movement within a picture and stylization, so many influences too, from book illustrators and Millet to costumes and Art Nouveau. For myself I am deeply attracted to women artists of this era, and in Forbes’s case the melancholy and in her illustrations overt poetic feel. As a girl I learned to love Arthurian stories because of the illustrations that accompanied them in Edwardian books.


Elizabeth in 1882 by her husband, Stanhope Forbes

Born December 29, 1859, in Kingston, a suburb of Ottawa, Canada, daughter of a government official. At age 16, 1875, she went to the South Kensington School of Art to study; she returned home when her father died (presumably she lack funds to stay on). Two years later we find her in NYC under American influence while studying at the Art Students League, and then going on Munich (encouraged by William Merrit Chase). In 1882 she moved to Pont Aven (France) where she met leading “plein-air” painters, people working in smocks out-of-doors. Decisive, though. was the autumn she spent in Newlyn, Cornwall, with her mother, both for choice of subject and execution:

A Zandvoort Fishergirl (1884) (click to enlarge)

and because she met her husband, Stanford Alexander Forbes there. A yet stronger luminous quality and use color and light, respect for a humble occupation, and expressiveness has lead to critics regarding her Boy with the Hoe as one of her outstanding paintings:

Elizabeth Adela Forbes - Boy with a Hoe
(click to enlarge)

The couple married in 1891; she had a son in 1892. She wrote and illustrated a children’s book, King Arthur’s Wood, and edited a magazine called The Paper Chase. She had been doing etchings from a time in St Ives, but gave this form up. She also could no longer keep up the French connections directly. To support themselves she and her husband opened a school of art in Newlyn (1899), but her predilection for presenting her modernity as the working teacher began before that, as seen in her fine School is Out(1889):

(click to enlarge)

Deborah Cherry (Painting Women, pp 183-6) argues that Forbes’s images take issue with masculine definitions of what is modern art, she (in effect) refuses to imitate paintings focusing on “the commodification of [sexually available] women’s bodies.”

Blackberry gatherers

Pleasure has other sources too, like in this Christmas Scene

Elizabeth Adela Stanhope Forbes (Canadian artist, 1859–1912) Christmas Tree

Here is her husband reading a very thick book:

Stanhope Alexander Forbes

Using just lines and shades an umbrella:


Her first individual exhibit was held in 1900 at the Fine Arts Society of London; she was elected a member of the watercolor society; 1904 she had another individual exhibit at Leicester Gallery in London. She died at the relatively young age of 53 in 1912.



She is known for her depiction of children. Alone:

A street in Brittany


The Half-Holiday

Grouped in scenes:

Looking over a wall

In a wood

But there is equal adept depth and individual use of different painting techniques for adults:

A Fisherman (she seems usually to avoid the stereotype Cornish fishing and fishing equipment scenes

An Old Man

She did many and varied illustrations: Another Arthurian:


Some consciously sexy:


Take oh take those lips away (!)

She did sheer fairy tale:

The Pied Piper

Probably today she would be more admired for landscapes and simpler expressionism:

Across Mount Bay

A Holland scene: Volendam, from the Zuicende

[A] balanced, typically Dutch landscape … The spatial conceptions lends he work a homogeneous image constructed around the strong verticality of the canal and its banks… striking for its sense of depth, and the harmony of light and color, with a strong colorist atmosphere far removed from somber English landscapes. The force of light increases through the use of color, with luminous effects concentrated on the water in he canal, represented as a mirror reflecting the sky .. Vigue, p 304)

But she could be very Henry-Jamesian:


And some of her compositions defy allegoresis or ready comparisons as this of a country girl stroking a goat who is eating wildflowers from her flower-laden wheel barrow

Jean, Jeanne, Jeannette (1880) (click to enlarge)


She seems to love water-imagery and when not painting working women and children at play, she is a poet of painterly reverie.

Two self-portraits

In her studio, from the early phase of her career with her husband

Later in life


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