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Posts Tagged ‘symbolic women’

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Hardy, Under Beachy Head

Dear friends and readers,

This is the sixth and last of my reports on the the Charlotte Smith conference this October, to which I will add a lecture given by Carole Brown on the history of St John’s Church in Guildford where Charlotte Smith was baptized and lies buried. The first I told of of the building, grounds, the social world of the conference; the second, my paper on the post-colonial Ethelinde and Smith’s The Emigrants (as well as plans for women artist blogs, Anne Killigrew, Dora Carrington and Remedios Varo); the third was on the Elegiac Sonnets; the fourth on Smith’s poetry again, this time from the point of view of the marketplace, natural world, and the use of paintings in her novels; the fifth, Smith as a novelist and playwright. We began and ended the conference papers with her poetry. Desmond and the places of her birth, upbringing, wandering and burial were part of this last phase.

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Hubert Robert (1733-1808), The Demolition of the Bastille (1789)

On Saturday afternoon of the second day of panels, there were two papers on Smith’s Desmond. Grace Harvey presented a group of ideas she was working out. She talked of Desmond as the most important radical novel of the era; it was the first to present the French revolution, and in is earliest phases, and made a strong case for radical reform. She had trouble finding a publisher. An epistolary novel, it has two central voices in the dialogues about revolution, which are connected to Desmond’s choices in life and couched in terms of their friendship: Desmond is the idealist “voice of reason,” his arguments show William Godwin’s influence; Bethel, the older man, is the “voice of experience, primarily there insistently to counterbalance and modify Desmond’s arguments. Desmond is unable to embrace Bethel’s advice, which takes the form of warnings, his own idealism untempered will become a source of unhappiness for him. Smith’s later books for children show the double voice again but in different terms: Mrs Woodfield, the teacher urge repression of discontent, cheerful submission to what is, a sort of Bethel attitude; but she also checks flippancy and superficiality in Henrietta and Elizabeth, urging on them a kind of serious earnestness. Grace didn’t mention how strongly Smith was influenced by Rousseau in both all these books, especially Julie ou La Nouvelle Heloise (for the novel) and Emile (for pedagogy)

Katrin Roder contextualized Smith’s Celestina and Demond with a discussion of sensibility in the era: her radicalism is rooted in ideas associated with the feelingful character of sensibility. These novels centrally question unconditional obedience to authority. They show how social sympathy creates human bonds; how important concern for others, for one’s home,and the limits of interpersonal support. Desmond loves his house too. she quoted interesting passages where Celestina attempts to help her servant Jessie, and Desmond listens to Geraldine, whose husband has sought to sell her and whom he marries at the end of the novel, where both identify and sympathize with these intelligent victims. Typical patterns for the sentimental novel show a hero’s suffering rewarded, morally superior victims who obey patriarchal norms. In Smith’s novels suffering is not inevitable, there are salutary reward, but the happy ending is often an afterthought. The reflections of the characters and narrator and what happens during the fiction of more important. Characters endure internal and external exile. In the discussion afterward it was remarked that if you cut Smith’s endings off, stop say at a penultimate chapter, they are deeply pessimistic.

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Helen Allingham (1848-1926), Near Beachy Head — this feels so appropriate as until they grew older Smith would often have had her children with her

One could say the last part of the day was devoted to Charlotte Smith’s unfinished (it’s a long fragment) poetical masterpiece, Beachy Head. Three excellent papers dependent on close reading, followed by a recital in the nearby St Nicholas church. Melissa Cow began with how Beachy Head, Smith’s most ambitious poem, lacks clarity of vision. The poem shows the inadequacies of science, geology, history, paleontology which are difficult to assemble produces a sense of strangeness. She begins with a strong sense of locality: the narrator is at the top of Beachy Head, and looks to see what is buried under his feet. While in Gilbert White we feel nature is a system, a good one which can be comprehended, Smith’s questions complicate and upset what we know. She goes beyond her reading of Erasmus Darwin to anticipate modern ideas about extinction; 17th century ideas about the immensity of the earth, catastrophes that have occurred, fossils of mammoth elephants. Her poem works through a range of associative leaps. Samantha Botz suggested Beachy Head invites pivotal readings of history as well as implied politics. Wordsworth saw himself as a man speaking to men, someone with a more lively sensibility, led to create in his mind what he does not find in the world. Smith gives us wandering silent fugitive figures, a contemplative antiquary, a lively anecdotal voice, as well as a critically analystical one, with visible nature showing contingency, and the vanity of science’s boasts.

Amela Worsley’s “‘Death Alone: Charlotte Smith’s hermits” provided a fitting close to the conference and a lead-in to the musical setting of the poem. The idea of a poet as a lonely figure begins in the later 17th century, solitary introspective males in a landscape, to which the sublime is added in the later 18th. The lone woman is ever at risk of sexual assault. Her multiple solitaries are male hermits whose outlook she likened to that of Milton’s Comus, the unknown poet of the “Elegy written in a country churchyard,” Mary Robinson’s “Anselmo, hermit of the Alps. Amelia said Smith uses geology to de-familiarize the local. She offered a careful comparative readings. The figures seek safety and run great risk (psychological too), know intense suffering and rhapsody, and often end in the peace of death. This is one of the passages she dwelt upon:

    Then, of Solitude
And of his hermit life, still more enamour’d,
His home was in the forest; and wild fruits
And bread sustain’d him. There in early spring
The Barkmen found him, e’er the sun arose;
There at their daily toil, the Wedgecutters
Beheld him thro’ the distant thicket move.
The shaggy dog following the truffle hunter,
Bark’d at the loiterer; and perchance at night
Belated villagers from fair or wake,
While the fresh night-wind let the moonbeams in
Between the swaying boughs, just saw him pass,
And then in silence, gliding like a ghost
He vanish’d! Lost among the deepening gloom.—
But near one ancient tree, whose wreathed roots
Form’d a rude couch, love-songs and scatter’d rhymes,
Unfinish’d sentences, or half erased,
And rhapsodies like this, were sometimes found—

    Let us to woodland wilds repair
    While yet the glittering night-dews seem
    To wait the freshly-breathing air,
    Precursive of the morning beam …

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John Constable (175-1837), Derwentwater, Cumberland (where Ethelinde is set)

I can’t speak too highly of the music of Amanda Jacobs, singing of Janet Oates, and recitation of the poem by Elizabeth Dolan at St Nicholas Church. Amanda and Beth had divided the poem into several emotional sequences conforming to the phases of the day that the poem charts. We moved from morning to afternoon to evening, giving us the lines as songs of grief and happiness. As with Ned Bingham, Viscount Mersey’s setting of Smith’s Sonnet, “Written in Bignor Park in Sussex, August 1799,” Low murmurs creep along the woody vale the day before, Jacobs’s music was atonal, dissonant, each line of music fitted to each line of verse, with an overall patterning that was melancholy yet beautiful, and in this case finally uplifting. Very 21st century music. I felt I had understand parts of the poem for the first time, had seen the logic (so to speak) of how the poem was put together. Everyone in the church seemed so moved.

It was evening and time to return to the hotel.

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Sunday was our day of trips, which I mentioned in my first blog. On Sunday we set off around 9:30 am in a chartered bus. The bus-driver was a tour guide himself and told us about some of the landscapes and towns we drove through. Ned Bingham was our generous gracious host in a visit to Bignor Park where we could wander where Smith had grown up, left to marry and later visited, and wandered to write her poetry more than a century ago; a tourist’s trip to Petworth House and Park. The house is now a hollow shell for tourists to wander through with the impressive objects in the house set up somewhat indiscriminately. I could see how the original Earl was determined to set a grand aristocratic framing for each aspect of his house and park too, notwithstanding the beauty of the park and some of the pictures.

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St John the Evangelist, Stoke, Guildford

The last place felt most like a revelation to me, mostly because I had not known anything about Charlotte Smith’s actual birthplace, Stoke House where her mother grew up, the history of the local community at the time (and before and since), as well as the problem of where she’s buried (no one knows the exact spot in the church or grounds). All this and more was covered by Carole Brown, a local church activist, conservationist, and historian, who seemed delighted to be able to inform us of all this and whatever else we wanted to know with as much detail as she could get in in the half-hour walking and sitting tour. The site of the church goes back to pre-Christian times, the building itself (renovated countless times) to the pre-Reformation. She was able to inform us especially some of the other (and more) famous people who attended this church, philanthropists, a good deal about the church in World War One, and the most recent art in the church (Pre-Raphaelie glass windows) and how it is the center of a community of people of all ages doing all sorts of things in the church today.

It was a splendid conference.

Ellen

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Richard Rothwell’s Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

Dear friends and readers,

I interrupt what has become our regularly scheduled programming recently (conference reports, women artist blogs, Austen films and pictorialism) to be ironically a propos to the dire election results of last Tuesday. A new book of short stories, Eternal Frankenstein, testifies to how Mary Shelley’s transformatively original fable seems never to go away, endlessly susceptible of immediate application. A friend wrote it’s “an anthology of short stories that, for lack of a better term, all riff off of the original Frankenstein. Many of the stories are very good and the last is a retelling of Mary Shelley’s life by her ghost, hence her own pov. Many seem to be written by academics.”

I say ironically because I read it with a group of adults in a class called 19th century Women of Letters where the burden of our song included the truth that most of the great books by women of the 19th century and certainly those who practised successfully (for the first time perhaps in history) sufficiently remunerative professional writing to support themselves are on the one hand, forgotten, not recognized, not in print, or the other, ignored as not mattering. Until today still there are people who insist (John Lauritsen, to be precise) that Mary Shelley wrote none of Frankenstein, and that her diaries recording the inspiration, writing, publication and revised edition are all lies (Lauritsen also insists Percy Bysshe was homosexual). Many readers today do not realize Shelley wrote superlatively fine books and essays for 30 years after Frankenstein.

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Brendan Coyle playing Nicholas Higgins in Sandy Welch’s adaptation of Gaskell’s later novel, North and South, would be perfect as John Barton too

Let me first mention the relevance. In 1848, the year of revolutions across Europe (reformist, not reactionary) and of the Communist Manifesto, Elizabeth Gaskell published Mary Barton, the first English novel with a Communist working class man (actually a chartist) as its protagonist. Describing John Barton whom she wanted to name the novel after, she writes at one point:

And so on into the problems and mysteries of life, until, bewildered and lost, unhappy and suffering, the only feeling that remained clear and undisturbed in the tumult of his heart, was hatred to the one class, and keen sympathy with the other. But what availed his sympathy. No education had given him wisdom; and without wisdom, even love, with all its effects, too often works but harm. He acted to the best of his judgment, but it was a widely-erring judgment. The actions of the uneducated seem to me typified in those of Frankenstein, that monster of many human qualities, ungifted with a soul, a knowledge of the difference between good and evil. The people rise up to life; they irritate us, they terrify us, and we become their enemies. Then, in the sorrowful moment of our triumphant power, their eyes gaze on us with mute reproach. The people rise up to life; they irritate us, they terrify us, and we become their enemies. Then, in the sorrowful moment of our triumphant power, their eyes gaze on us with mute reproach. Why have we made them what they are; a powerful monster, yet Without the inner means for peace and happiness? John Barton became a Chartist, a Communist, all that is commonly called wild and visionary.

The middle class in the US made it against the law to teach a slave to read. Gaskell actually conceives of her tale as a realistic elaboration in the person of John Barton of what Shelley’s monster can stand for. The creature as the outcast slave, as the oppressed, as the victim of society. Vulnerable, loving wanting love and when ignored and treated as hideous, beaten, taking his violent revenge. That was not James Whale’s view in 1931 who took the monster to be the mob. I have seen cartoons of Donald Trump as a Frankenstein monster (many readers do not realize that there are two characters, one a Dr Frankenstein who created the second, a nameless creature sewn out of parts of corpses) where he stalks the world and is followed by madden peasants with pitchforks.

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Boris Karloff as the creature innocently trying to make friend with small girl who he turns on when she is revulsed by him

In an absolutely primal way Frankenstein and his creature converse are wholly unreal — to find an equivalent allegorical resonance you have to return to poetry, Blake, Milton, the Greek drama, probably also the dramas of Byron and Shelley too.

We had a wonderful time in my class reading and discussing Frankenstein primarily but also Mary’s life and excerpts from a few of her later works and a poem by her on her lasting grief over Shelley’s death, how she never stopped missing him as a companion.

“STANZAS”

I must forget thy dark eyes’ love-fraught gaze,
Thy voice, that fill’d me with emotion bland,
Thy vows, which lost me in this ‘wild’ring maze,
The thrilling pressure of thy genrle hand;
And, dearer yet, that interchange of thought,
That drew us nearer still to one another,
Till in two hearts one sole idea wrought,
And neither hoped nor fear’d but for the other.

I must forget to deck myself with flowers:
Are not those wither’d which I gave to thee]
I must forget to count the day-bright hours,
Their sun is set – thou com’st no more to me!
I must forget thy love! – Then let me close
My tearful eyes upon unwelcome day,
And let my tortured thoughts seek that repose
Which corpses find within the tomb alway.

Oh! for the fate of her who, changed to leaves,
No more can weep, nor any longer moan;
Or the lorn Queen, who, chilling as she grieves,
Finds her warm beating heart grow cairn in stone.
Oh! for a draught of that Lethean wave,
Mortal alike to joy and to regret! –
It may not be! not even that would save!
Love, hope, and thee, I never can forget!

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What was acceptable for a woman to write? Gothics. Ghost stories. They were allowed into this semi-fantasy genre. The industrial novels of the era. Their children were in those factories; women made up an enormous part of the factory labor force very quickly. Domestic realism and romance. Frankenstein is an explosively unusual multi-faceted gothic. The gothic is an instrument by which you can explore our existence and its meaning fundamentally, ask fundamental questions the premises of a realistic novel doesn’t allow. This leads me into the most subversive theme or perception and complex of emotion in the book. It hovers at the edges more than in the center, it’s there, in the allusions — to Adam and God (though Milton), to the Prometheus myth. At several points in the narrative Victor Frankenstein cries out against vague forces of world and wishes he had never been born; the monster cries out to Victor, why did you make me? Did I ask for life? in all its hideousness? Let us look at epigraph. It comes from Paradise Lost. Adam speaking to God who says to him he deserves the punishment he is getting. There is a similar line spoken by Satan. The Promethean figure has ever been interpreted as ultimate rebel against God. The book is deeply melancholy endlessly questioning.

FRANKENSTEIN by Dear, Benedict Cumberbatch (as Victor Frankenstein), Jonny Lee Miller (as The Creature), Naomie Harris (as Elizabeth Lavenza), Ella Smith (as Gretel, prostitute), The Olivier, National Theatre, 15 February 2011, Credit : Pete Jones/ArenaPAL, www.arenapal.com
From the National Theater production in London where Bernard Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller took turns playing one role and then the other, in succession

Mary Shelley’s poet-husband, Percy Bysshe wrote a play called Prometheus Unbound in which he takes the Aeschylus situation and shows Prometheus as someone who triumphs over all tyrants, all tyranny including that of any and all Gods. Concept of liberation is central. It is not central for Mary Shelley; rather there is a dark despair more reminiscent of Byron’s closet drama called Cain: in Byron’s play Cain revolts against the heavy toil God has imposed on him and his mother, father and brother; in a fit of passion against Abel who he sees as kissing the rod and in disgust at a blood-sacrifice Abel makes to God, Cain murders Abel and becomes an exile and wanderer. Much like Frankenstein, the creature, Caleb and Falkland. The audacity of Byron’s poem aroused terrific indignation. Mary much influenced by Byron: her novel called The Last Man based on a vision of the universe in Byron’s poem called Darkness. Reads like what the earth would be like after a nuclear holocaust.

Mary Shelley’s book has again and again been identified as not only questioning the complacencies of Christianity: the world is good, and if it’s not you get your reward afterwards – why wait?. That, like her father’s book, it certainly does.

Frankenstein also an attack on whatever Deity it is that is in charge with Victor playing the part of the Deity and his Creature the part of man. There are many references to the Greek and modern usages of the Promethean myth of rebellion; read Blake, and you see that, as other critics have written, Mary Shelley uses the gothic to make a statement about the nature of life which is
exultant in its rejection of the norms of a mercenary foolish society which are trivial, soul-destroying and absurd; despairing in its search for some new source of fulfillment which will not twist human nature into depravities it has not known before (such as we find in deSade — another writer from this era). You can go through this novel finding allusions which recall story of Adam and Eve and Prometheus myth, except that when you do you find Frankenstein is Prometheus. It was Frankenstein who attempted to bring to man the power to stop death and dying, to bring back the dead. You find allusions to Paradise Lost from epitaph on, to end, p 209: when he says he is a Satan after he has read it. So creature is Satan and Adam.

Book’s first critic is Shelley: society is responsible for what the creature becomes, but equally what happens emerges from nature itself, human; we learn to overcome nature a bit by empathizing with what we have never empathized before. Christian readers continued to be horrified when they couldn’t themselves turn it into religious warning and punishment message

There are so many interpretations and ways to approach this novel we could spend a whole semester on it far more easily than people do on Pride and Prejudice or even Eliot’s Middlemarch. Given my course, I concentrated on it as a female gothic.
it is about birthing: Frankenstein, a man who cannot give birth to children, does it through science – which in the period as far as the body goes meant dissecting corpses – and upon the birth of this creature is revulsed. The language tells us the source of this nightmare: Mary knew from quite a young age that her mother had died of the childbirth. She often visited her mother’s grave – people did that. It’s a nightmare of parturition. The child comes up and demands protection, love, absolute devotion. When the creature comes to tell his story – I don’t know how far you got, we get this extraordinary account of how a new born baby might slowly gain perception of the world it is part of. In the era there are others that do this: Dinah Craik’s Olive: this gives us a neonate coming to consciousness. The central character is disabled – the monster is so ugly he is like a disabled person. Motif found in woman’s novels of this era is disability seen sympathetically and from the point of view of the caretaker (burden, responsibility). The one novel easy to find is John Halifax, Gentleman who corresponds to mainstream Victorian novels .Olive does not.

This is distinctly a woman’s gothic and for once not about rape: but the experience of the aftermath of birth, for child and mother, it’s a hideous thing the experience, and early experience is tremblingly in need. The book was written before Mary had given birth five times, and all but one of her children died. It’s prophetic: her first two were alive at the time, Clara and little William. Byron accused the couple of not being careful enough of their children: Mary knew this but didn’t know how to live defying Shelley. We read and discussed Margaret Atwood’s poem, “Speeches for Dr Frankenstein.”

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Kenneth Branagh as the hubristic irresponsible doctor-scientist with his technology and Robert de Niro his victim-creature (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, directed and produced by Branagh)

We also went over it as a male gothic and (again) attack on science. he structure of gothic books seen as male gothic are male with wanderer –: atemporal, do not just move forward in time. Pursuit and pursuer as a doppelganger. Often the gothic has some interface which moves us from reality, world of apparent reason into dream romance world. Can be a mirror we walk through, a manuscript, a diary. Design of Frankenstein:

The story opens on the icy edges of the earth, near the North Pole. We have impossible fantastic voyages through mountains, into a crazed laboratory-scene deep in the Orkneys, in furthest Scotland; it takes us back to the ice for the rousing conclusion. It is all letters or first-person narratives — only the epistolary mode could carry such a reverie off and keep you believing. Parts:

1. 4 Letters: We open with Walton to his sister — . He is introducer. Slow moving into madness. She is exploring the body while attacking science. The book has Victor returning to alchemy which is also suggestive. The stealing of bodies. She then makes an analogoy with the quest for north west passage.

2. Chs 1-8; II, Chs 1-2: Walton is supposedly telling us what Frankenstein said word for word. Frankenstein a deep-musing memoir, a flashback. Whole book is a flashback in the center of which we find another flashback Okay first we get Frankenstein’s story up to the time just after Justine’s death. Volume II opens up with Frankenstein home, death of Justine, disillusionment and despair of Elizabeth

3. Vol II, Chapters 3-8: At the center of the novel, we have the creature’s tale. Tell of gentle family. How slowly he learns. Lovely beautiful piece about coming to consciousness of a child. Note though that material resembles story of Count Malvesi and Lucretia. Seems strained romance from far away Europe about oppression of ancien régime

4. Vol II, Ch 9; III, Chs 1-7: Then we return to Frankenstein: he becomes driven figure; creature stalks him, he tries to make another. in this sequence shows we are inside total dream world of gothic: nightmares predominate no one tells a tale in the words of someone else and then recites letters in it. Is it probable in the least bit a man (Walton) could retell the story of Frankenstein to his sister in the words of Frankenstein; then the creature to Frankenstein; then letter writers too. Doesn’t matter. Our sceptical tendencies turned off.

5. Walton, in continuation, more journal-letters. He watches Dr Frankenstein die, the creature grieve over him and then escape into an infinity of ice and a conflagration of fire. Finally back to Walton again: he cannot withstand mutiny and is returning to England. It would seem back to impersonal, world of rationality: except we cannot return, we have seen too much; and one final scene and appearance of creature.

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I had just gone to a lecture on Frankenstein Revisited by Bernard Welt, a film and literary scholar (scroll all the way down) at the Smithsonian. I told of that, and that there appear to be a plethora of biographies on Mary Shelley, but when you look into it, most of them, very like the recent Romantic Outlaws, basically end with Shelley’s death, leaving a 30 year rich life where she wrote more novels, at least two as gripping as Frankenstein, and some say her The Last Man is better than Frankenstein, countless biographies, travel writing, 2 plays, essays and lived an interesting life. A rare one to do this and tell some hard truths about Mary Shelley’s life with Shelley is by Mary Seymour. For example, not that I want to be sensational: but the half-sister who traveled with the unmarried pair to Italy, Clare Claremont became Shelley’s mistress for much of the pair’s life together, had at least one child by him, Allegra was probably his not Byron’s two miscarriages, and he impregnated two other women during that time. Mary was determined to cover all this up and almost succeeded. Lots of writers, especially those who are pro-Shelley tell it quite differently. Percy influenced Frankenstein oh yes but she wrote it. The same person who wrote Matilda (about an incestuous love between father and daughter so real Godwin stopped her from publishing it in his lifetime) and The Last Man wrote Frankenstein. Her independent and at times unconventional existence was one she kept out of view: she was in love at times, had a close relationships with a woman who lived her life as a man, and her intense relationship with her radical father, Godwin are all of great interest.

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Another popular depiction of Mary – Reginal Easton allegedly drawn from her death mask

Mary was the daughter of the notorious Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin and her father placed the book for her. It was not easy: times were hard, this was after a depression set in after Napoleon unseated and armies disbanded, the next year was the Peterborough massacre, Godwin took it to John Murray, who debated but turned it down, finally an old firm he knew about who dealt in cheap books and it was published cheaply, only 500 copies. But her dedication was to her father, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, also by this time known (Queen Mab), wrote a powerful preface, and soon the familiar story began to circulate: this one acceptable: one very hard summer, cold, miserable earthquake on the other side of the globe, rainy, she, Shelley, Lord Byron (famous) is valet, Polidori and Shelley were reading ghost stories late in a villa on a lake. They proposed a competition, each would write something about a ghost. Why do we know this story? Because it helped sales. Did it happen? Something like it probably did. Godwin wrote an anonymous wild scream of praise. At first it was attacked: Tory Edinburgh critic described it as “blasphemous,” “a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdities.” but Walter Scott (the great unknown) wrote a fair appreciation – puzzled saying the author had written an unnerving fantastic tale in precise clear English. ‘An extraordinary tale, in which the author seems to disclose to us uncommon powers of poetic imagination . . . [it is a work which genuinely] excites new reflections and untried sources of emotion’. But there was a price to pay when Shelley died; our present text is the 1831 text – incest is censored out, the impieties muted or softened.

She went on to write five more longish novels and the one novella, Matilda. She became a regular writer of biographies, short stories and tales, literary criticism, did an edition of Shelley’s poems that was influential. She was not able to bring it out fully until her father-in-law died. Her father-in-law was her tyrant you might say: he was very rich and could have made her life easy, but resented her deeply. Alas, her son was his heir, and he was slowly driven to dribble out money for a good school, for clothes, for university. She did fall in love or at least began to; at one point she was involved with woman. I had forgotten the one lesbian relationship Mary probably involved herself in when she returned to England: Mary Dodds, a transvestite was written about in a piquant biography by Betty T. Bennett. Mary’s last 30 years were engaged in a self-effacing cover-up and distortion of her life and Shelley which has done her far worse harm (her reputation, what’s read of her today, how she’s seen) than she managed to do with Shelley whose works and reputation escaped her reframing hand. People remembered he was radical. They did not know he had been a sexual predator after women and died apparently quite fat — utterly self-indulgent too in all areas.

She traveled back to Italy and Germany and wrote about it. Though she never ever would say this when one considers how faithless Shelley was to her and how wretched her life with him, she could have been better off had the situation of women been better, her reputation not so ruined as to drive her to lie, and to try to hide her life.

I’ve more than one friend who has said to me The Last Man is better than Frankenstein: I started it this summer but had to leave off, and am hoping to read it in with a group online this coming spring. I’ve mentioned how there are people who insist Percy wrote Frankenstein: he had a hand in it, was influential but when you read his poetry you say how distanced he is. He wrote a play called Prometheus Unbound in which he takes the Aeschylus situation and shows Prometheus as someone who triumphs over all tyrants, all tyranny including that of any and all Gods. Concept of liberation is central for Shelley himself. She wrote excellent short biographies of Renaissance and other literary period figures. Her criticism defends the idea that the author is central to a work: his or her core spirit has to animate it.

I regretted leaving Mary and her creature. Percy did write about the book society is responsible for what the creature becomes, but equally what happens emerges from nature itself, human; we learn to overcome nature a bit by empathizing with what we have never empathized before. Christian readers continued to be horrified when they couldn’t themselves turn it into religious warning and punishment message.

I know there’s a pleasure in terror, and the aesthetic sublime; the novel lets us move into unspoken and still mostly unmentionable ideas (of grief I’ll mention) which as Scott says were not so much has broached much less discoursed so meaningfully before. Her Frankenstein, Matilda and Last Man are books written by one person under the impetus of strong passionate commitment — endless repeats of something obstructive are hard to resist. Again, over on an academic romantics list Laurens and a couple of others chiming in have persisted to the point that Shelley scholars concede maybe Percy wrote this or what part of that or certainly wrote more than the preface. Laurens goes to the absurd lengths of saying Mary’s diaries are made up and Shelley a frantic closet homosexual (meanwhile two wives, perpetually pregnant and probably a maidservant in Italy by him).

Not so. The paradigm of paranoid pursuit and chase, the intense paranoia, the alienation of the central figure is found in Mary Shelley’s Mathilde — and no one has ever attributed that to her husband. It shows the influence of her mother’s Wrongs of Women. Both Matilde and Frankenstein are deeply influenced by Godwin’s Caleb Williams: obsession, paranoia, deep rebellion against rock-bottom ideas of a hierarchical deeply injust society and human nature fuel all three in a closely similar pattern.

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Robert De Niro seems to me to have gotten the peculiar combination of dignity, high intelligence and pathos that is Mary’s creature (when not in a violent rage)

Lastly on the movie tradition, we read an essay by Paul O’Flinn where he began by suggesting there is no such thing as Frankenstein, there are only Frankensteins, as the text is ceaselessly rewritten, reproduced, refilmed and redesigned. The fact that many people call the monster Frankenstein and thus confuse the pair betrays the extent of that restructuring. At the time Mary’s book answered contemporary tensions and issues. It’s a direct response to the machine breaking and industrial conditions at the time. When a group of people peacefully assembled in 1819 in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, where Gaskell lived and where her two industrial tales are set, to demonstrate for representation in Parliament (chartism), calvary charged into the 60,000 to 80,000 people and many were killed. A defining moment of the age; Shelley wrote one of his more readable memorable poems on it, The Mask of Anarchy, whose concluding stanza you’ve probably heard snatches of because Orwell quoted it Shelley urged the people to

Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number –
Slake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you
Ye are many – they are few.

The earliest framing, Presumption, or the Fate of Frankenstein, 1823 – a very orthodox view: Frankenstein took God’s place, he presumed and he was punished. Crude and popular. We have had Mrs Gaskell who says that John Barton is a realistic representation of Frankenstein – she too writing as if the creature and his creator are one and the same. Mary hated the Tory despotism; she is also interested in the new science of the age. This is not daft modern leftism. This political way of reading Frankenstein surfaces repeatedly, but against it are the movies.

O’Flinn felt that the 1931 film has been central; James Whale then led to the 1957 film which revived the craze of films. The 1931 movie strips the original book of its philosophical underpinnings and presents an anti-mob fable. Central is the abnormal brain given this monster – so it’s an attack on disability too. Media companies are actively interested in maintaining the status quo – to my mind the incessant commercials have a deeply reactionary subtext. The movie reversed just what Mary wanted: she did not want the creature to be seen as brutal but as brutalized, as deeply hurt. All the highjinks and supernatural grotesqueries drew in an audience, made a great deal of money and spawned an industry of Frankenstein type films. I did bring in Martin Tropp’s qualifications in his study of many Frankenstein films in Barbara Lupack’s excellent anthology, 19th century women at the Movies.

Why people like this kind of thing? I have seen the 1931 film as well as The Bride of Frankenstein. I may well have seen the 1957 one, I’ve read about it. O’Flinn says an altered ideology is now at work: now the doctor is the villain; he’s a Baron and meglomaniac. Now a new set of fears are embodied in the film: of nuclear holocaust, of technology itself. Now the isolated outcast whatever you think about him is replaced by someone with control over weapons. I can add to O’Flinn a lot of the imagery was taken over by Peter Sellers for How I learned to Stop worrying and love the bomb: especially that which is associated with Nazism, and crazy dictators, especially Dr Strangelove himself, said to be partly modelled on Kissenger. Donald Trump invited or visited Kissenger among his day’s activities today.

Ellen

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Frontispiece to 1788 edition of Elegiac Sonnets

To the Goddess of Botany:

OF Folly weary, shrinking from the view
Of Violence and Fraud, allow’d to take
All peace from humble life; I would forsake
Their haunts for ever, and, sweet Nymph! with you
Find shelter; where my tired, and tear-swollen eyes
Among your silent shades of soothing hue,
Your ‘bells and florrets of unnumber’d dyes’
Might rest–And learn the bright varieties
That from your lovely hands are fed with dew;
And every veined leaf, that trembling sighs
In mead or woodland; or in wilds remote,
Or lurk with mosses in the humid caves,
Mantle the cliffs, on dimpling rivers float,
Or stream from coral rocks beneath the ocean’s waves

Dear friends and readers,

This is my 2nd report on the Charlotte Smith conference at Chawton House Library (October 14th-16th). I’ve described the morning panels and musical recitals; in the afternoon, there were three more panels, two again on Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets and her poetry, the third on her novels. This suggests someone preferred the poetry papers or more likely there were more of them and they were strong: this verse first made her reputation, and continued to be respected (if forgotten). I first fell in love with Smith’s poetry. I report on only these two on poetry here (saving the third for third blog in order to keep the reports shorter). I want to stress here, this is just the gist of what was said, many details and sub-arguments omitted.

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From Elegiac Sonnets, 1789.

We began with The Marketplace and the Canon.

Michael Gramer’s “Subscription and the Poetic Corpus,” was a comparative study of the first 3 editions of the Elegiac Sonnets. He compared Smith’s sequencing of her first 19 poems in the first and second editions; for the third, he suggested the 35 poems open and close in the same fundamental trajectory of permanent heartbreak. The compelling goal of the 1st edition was to support her husband and herself and children while in the debtor’s prison, and to hire lawyers or do whatever was necessary to see him freed. What we see is a drama of non-renewal, of indifference before the poet in nature and outside in society. I agreed with the pairings Michael outlined: thus sonnets 7 (“On the Departure of the Nightingale”) and 8 (“To spring”) revisit and deepen sonnets 2 (“Written at the Close of Spring”) and 3 (“To a Nightingale”). In Sonnet 9 (“Blest is yon shepherd on the turf reclined”) Smith envies the shepherd; in Sonnet 10 (“To Mrs G,” “Ah! why will memory with officious care”) she fails to bring her memories out vividly or repeat them; 11 (“To Sleep”) and 12 (“Written on the sea shore. — October, 1784) drift towards death, with the last registering an indifferent universe. Mid-way Sonnet 6 (“O Hope! thou sooth sweetener of human woes!”) and the last, 12 (below) offer a sense of closure.

Written on the Sea Shore, Oct. 1784.
ON some rude fragment of the rocky shore,
Where on the fractured cliff the billows break,
Musing, my solitary seat I take,
And listen to the deep and solemn roar.
O’er the dark waves the winds tempestuous howl;
The screaming sea-bird quits the troubled sea:
But the wild gloomy scene has charms for me,
And suits the mournful temper of my soul.
Already shipwreck’d by the storms of Fate,
Like the poor mariner methinks I stand,
Cast on a rock; who sees the distant land
From whence no succour comes–or comes too late.
Faint and more faint are heard his feeble cries,
Till in the rising tide the exhausted sufferer dies.

There is some change in ordering in the 2nd edition, but not significant. The third edition extends the perspective further to create a world of widening allusions, with the poet still the lone wanderer who is not cured, but (as yet) feels not altogether hopeless. It was published by subscription, usually not favored by women; it too sold widely, and then there was a second subscription. Almost unheard-of. The fifth edition listed the subscribers’ names. At one point her husband, Benjamin (she had left them by then), heard she was making money, broke into her house (she was in law his), attempted to beat her, through violent attacks got her to give him the money in her desk.

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John Constable, A Seascape

Bethan Roberts’ “On the margin” returned us to Smith’s 44th sonnet, “Written in the churchyard in Middleton in Sussex” (it had been discussed in the morning). We were looking at the sonnet’s content about a church near the sea from a geological standpoint: Bethan had illustrations (1796 1807, 1828, 1847) showing showing the gradual encircling of the church by the waters. It’s a poem about erosion; all dissolves away, only she fated to remain (and endure hard-work, geological, archealogy). The poet wishes she could escape the noise and movement of the oceans, mountains, life itself. She is intensely desolate. Bethan also showed images of paintings by Constable of this area. She ended on Smith’s poem to St Monica. The learned antiquary no longer comes to this spot, no holiday rituals occur here, not even “the pensive stranger” who looks at the place from afar. Only the poet comes close to find meaning in this spot

The antiquary comes not to explore,
As once, the unrafter’d roof and pathless floor;
For now, no more beneath the vaulted ground
Is crosier, cross, or sculptur’d chalice found,
Nor record telling of the wassail ale,
What time the welcome summons to regale,
Given by the matin peal on holiday,
The villagers rejoicing to obey,
Feasted, in honour of Saint Monica.
Yet often still at eve, or early morn,
Among these ruins shagg’d with fern and thorn,
A pensive stranger from his lonely seat
Observes the rapid martin, threading fleet

The broken arch: or follows with his eye,
The wall-creeper that hunts the burnish’d fly;
Sees the newt basking in the sunny ray,
Or snail that sinuous winds his shining way,
O’er the time-fretted walls of Monica.
He comes not here, from the sepulchral stone
To tear the oblivious pall that Time has thrown,
But meditating, marks the power proceed
From the mapped lichen, to the plumed weed,
From thready mosses to the veined flower,
The silent, slow, but ever active power
Of Vegetative Life, that o’er Decay
Weaves her green mantle, when returning May
Dresses the ruins of Saint Monica.

Oh Nature ! ever lovely, ever new,
He whom his earliest vows has paid to you
Still finds, that life has something to bestow;
And while to dark Forgetfulness they go,
Man, and the works of man; immortal Youth,
Unfading Beauty, and eternal Truth,
Your Heaven-indited volume will display,
While Art’s elaborate monuments decay,
Even as these shatter’d aisles, deserted Monica!

M.O. Grenby returned us to Charlotte Smith as a businesswoman as well as poet. We learned how in her letters dealing with her publishers, Smith would demand higher prices than they were willing to pay, would argue with their assertions they had made less than they had; used them (and her work in effect) as stocking a bank from which she could draw needed money. Smith also wanted to influence almost every level of the publication process, was actively interventionist, changing the order, the content. She suggested a French translator. (What kind of translation matters.) Her later books meant for children were also published to make money. We know exact sums Smith asked for and what she got. She was willing to move from one publisher to another. It does seem most of Smith’s efforts did not bring the money she wanted. When the older Cadell with whom she began as a writer died, she had an even worse time and eventually cut off relationship with the younger Cadell. It’s telling that at the end of her life when the liberal brave publisher, Joseph Johnson, began to publish her, she got better payment and advances without doing half as much strenuous negotiation (or hardly any at all).

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Thomas Bush Hardy, “Under Beachy Head” (the poem published by Johnson was “Beachy Head”)

There was not much time for discussion afterward (the musical recital and lunch had made us much later in the afternoon by that time than intended), so we had a brief coffee, and immediately after another panel of papers.

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

Now the topic was Nature and Art.

Lisa Vargos’s paper on Smith’s “Nature Writings for Children,” suggested how original or at least different was Smith’s approach to the natural world and time from that of most romantics or readers at the time. (Reminding me of Mme de Genlis in her Adele and Theodore and many another woman writer before and since (discussed so long ago by Ellen Moers in her Literary Women), Smith sets herself up as a teacher, Mrs Woodfield, who with her two pupils, Elizabeth and Henrietta, explores the landscape. Mrs Woodfield shows how hard it is to control nature, rather they, as people, must join in on an intimate community within the natural world and exert influence on behalf of this continuum of living creatures and plants. Rural Walks contains innovative dialogues, and anticipates aspects of our contemporary theories about climate change. Often Elizabeth cannot see or respond to what Mrs Woodfield is putting before her while Henrietta is more receptive and perceptive. A kind of common humanity is felt, as Mrs Woodfield describes the tragic death of a small animal (dormouse). In her Conversations Introducing Poetry Smith is Mrs Talbot talking to George and Emily. Lisa discussed “To the Snow-drop” which shows Smith’s knowledge of Erasmus Darwin. Smith had in mind Anna Barbauld’s poetry for children; her book also aligns itself with Gilbert White’s writing. As a teacher she is not a disciplinarian, she challenges children to say why this or that is happening. One underlying aim is to help them find (or create) a permanent place to dwell within themselves.

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Richard Ritter’s talk, “Finding ‘Remote Pleasures at Home:’ Charlotte Smith’s Conversations and the Leverian Museum,” was about the museum as such, and how museums in the later 18th century functioned commercially. Smith as teacher is in this part of her book bringing the children there to see the collection; everything is neatly displayed, and the children supposed to look, ask questions and given a sense of a system within which specimens were set up with great care, and made to look “alive.” The limitations of taxonomy were felt. Here and there Smith’s poetry registers the sudden violent destructive power of natural history. What made his talk interesting was the conflicts he described between those like Smith who had their doubts about such displays:

The birds, or insects, or quadrupeds, though they may be very well preserved, lose that spirit and brilliancy, which living objects only can possess. The attitudes of the birds are stiff and forced, and without their natural accompaniments. Their eyes are seldom so contrived as to resemble those of the living bird; and altogether, their formal or awkward appearances, when stuffed and set on wires, always convey to my mind ideas of the sufferings of the poor birds when they were caught and killed, and the disagreeable operations of embowelling and drying them. — Charlotte Smith, Conversations, Introducing Poetry: Chiefly on Subjects of Natural History. For the Use of Children and Young Persons, 2 vols (London: J. Johnson, 1804), ii, 64-65.

and those so enthusiastic for this kind of show that they overlooked the down side, such as imprisoning animals in an unnatural environment which gives false impressions to those come to see.

Oil painting on canvas, River Landscape, with Fisherman, and distant Ruins of an Abbey, manner of George Smith of Chichester (Chichester 1714 - Chichester 1776) and John Smith (Chichester 1717 - Chichester 1764).Tall tree in foreground; river runs across the centre of the picture. A fanciful ruin of slender Gothic arches on an eminence at right. A fisherman seated on near bank.
River Landscape, with Fisherman, and distant Ruins of an Abbey, manner of George Smith of Chichester (1714-1776) and John Smith (1717-1764).A fanciful ruin of slender Gothic arches on an eminence at right.

Valerie Derbyshire’s paper, “In pursuit of the picturesque: Looking a Smith’s places with an Artist’s Eye,” was about the effect of a some popular contemporary landscape artists on Smith’s poetry. Valerie dwelt on George and John Smith, followers of Gilpin, especially; she seemed to feel his paintings were liked by Smith; but she also mentioned Thomas Hearne’s paintings based on an artificial aesthetic, putting nature in an ordered landscape; Paul Sandby, with his ideal classical landscapes of anywhere and everywhere; Richard Wilson’s more romanticized (as to light and mood), but more accurate landscapes. And of course Gilpin, whom Austen’s brother and Austen herself mention with much delight and respect. Val showed us where specific landscapes could have been influential. Smith rejoices in her picturesque memories of her childhood and uses them: Emmeline is herself outside the social world; Ethelinde makes heavy use of some recognizably real places; Celestina is another homeless heroine, living in an exiled state. Valerie said the descriptions of the Isle of Wight and some of the English countrysides owe a good deal to this kind of painting.

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John Smith of Chichester, A Winter Landscape

The talk afterward was informative. Lisa talked about botany in the era, the use of herbs for medicine. There is a poignancy about Smith’s tone in her children’s books. I asked Val how she felt about John Barrell’s Dark Side of the Landscape where he argued that most of these landscapes were unreal because they left out the rural poor, the hard work, the disordered dismal existences. Valerie acknowledged the cogency of Barrell’s objections and said Smith must’ve been aware of this gap or discrepancy between these distanced views as she describes beggars, exiles, soldiers the desperately poor in her poetry. There was not time to talk about why such figures are not found in Smith’s novels more often — perhaps readers wanted romancing?

I have now thought about this problem of the source of Smith’s landscapes. I know that Radcliffe studied travel books to concoct her landscapes and perhaps Smith did this for the Hebrides. Her years at Bignor Park were important and in her letters and the poetry until she is too sick and in pain to walk she wanders in the English countryside. She had herself been to France. She orders books from libraries and borrows them when she is writing her novels, and she grieved so about their loss because (as she says in her letters) she used books too to write with.

I also thought about Smith’s depiction of a debtor’s prison where she does not dwell on the other people surrounding her hero and heroine sympathetically, but as dangers to the heroine (sexually) and people the hero keeps away from (this in Marchmont). I’ll end on this sonnet, one whose political point of view was not much covered in the conference:

Sonnet 67: To dependence

Dependence! heavy, heavy are thy chains,
And happier they who from the dangerous sea,
Or the dark mine, procure with ceaseless pains
An hard-earn’d pittance — than who trust to thee!
More blest the hind, who from his bed of flock
Starts — when the birds of morn their summons give,
And waken’d by the lark — ‘the shepherd’s clock,’
Lives but to labour — labouring but to live.
More noble than the sycophant, whose art
Must heap with taudry flowers thy hated shrine;
I envy not the meed thou canst impart
To crown his service — while, tho’ Pride combine
With Fraud to crush me — my unfetter’d heart
Still to the Mountain’s Nymph may offer mine.

It’s a bitter poem. It’s said in studies of emigration to the US and Australia and Canada from the UK what was longed for most was independence, liberty from the clique-patronage system of the ancien regime, which Smith loathed. So the problem of dependence in the poem is much larger than a woman seeking a position or freedom from a tyrannical husband or family. She attacks the ancien regime system at its corrupt narrow source, and at the same time asserts a secular ethical outlook that strengthens people. So if she does not truly identify with the poor or lower class people, she does understand what makes the world everyone lives in so corrosively destructive.

It was time for coffee and some biscuits. My next report will cover papers on Smith’s fictions.

Ellen

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Anne Killigrew, Self Portrait (c. 1685) — note the allegorical picture to the side, what looks like a war tent above, and her holding a leaf of paper

Dear friends and readers,

I’m gratified to be able to say I return to blogging tonight with a poet and painter I found strangely appealing more than 30 years ago: Anne Killigrew, who managed in her brief life to leave a small body of strong remarkable grave poetry and at least four paintings. The paintings are of interest as providing an authoritative image of Killigrew herself, as well as an effective one of her mistress’s husband, James II, then Duke of York:

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James II when Duke of York by Anne Killigrew

What’s left or what themes we know of Killigrew’s paintings fit into, might today be seen as surprising but is the typical repertoire of later 17th century themes for women, i.e., she painted an image of the story of Judith’s violent beheading of Holofernes. Killigrew also shows characteristics we find in other women artists: her Venus Attired by the Graces, manifests a gentle mood and soft blended rich colors of red, pink, brown against stand-out soft blues are reminiscent of (anticipate is too strong) Angelica Kauffman:

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However, Killigrew did not leave enough paintings nor are the assertions that this or that image is of her secure enough to list her as an considerable woman artist of the era. Thus, what respect, knowledge and true interest someone can take in Killigrew must rest primarily on the posthumous edition of her poetry published a year after her death (alas, from small-pox). I here treat Killigrew as primarily a (foremother) poet.

Maureen Mulvihill, a literary specialist (who has written much on this later 17th century era, and done no less than 2 editions of the poetry of Ephelia) and rare book collector, has now added to the work done on Killigrew, “Poet Interrupted, the Curious Fame of Anne Killigrew.” Mulvihill’s focus is the history of Killigrew’s book in the context of what we know about her life, family, the court she lived in, her connections (especially as shown by the names of the people she addressed in her poems). Mulvihill identifies some of the problems and areas yet to be researched, and then surveys recent editions by Patricia Hoffman and Margaret J. M. Ezell. It’s also an essay directed at rare book collectors.

The poetry itself may sampled and is well (if briefly) characterized by Mary Mark Ockerbloom in the series A Celebration of Women Writers. Ockerbloom points out how uncertain is our knowledge of Killigrew (we are not sure what was her connection to the court of Mary of Modena, we are not sure if she knew Anne Finch, later Countess of Winchilsea (1661-1720), whose poetry and life I worked on for years). Ockerbloom brings out the evidence which suggests Killigrew was known in court circles for her poetry, a court atmosphere where a learned and chaste young woman was not likely to be comfortable, and then describes and quotes from Killigrew’s poetic oeuvre. I remembered a dark, grave, witty poetry, and would add to Ockerbloom that Killigrew’s most famous poem, “Upon the saying that my Verses were made by another,” is arresting for Killigrew’s representation of herself (as Germaine Greer remarks) “as a burnt offering” (Slip-shod Sibyls, 24-25) before her “sacred muse”

O Queen of Verse, said I, if thou’lt inspire,
And warm my Soul with thy Poetique Fire,
No Love of Gold shall share with thee my Heart,
Or yet Ambition in my Brest have Part,
More Rich, more Noble I will ever hold
The Muses Laurel, than a Crown of Gold.
An Undivided Sacrifice I’le lay
Upon thine Altar, Soul and Body pay;
Thou shalt my Pleasure, my Employment be,
My All I’le make a Holocaust to thee.

Dreams of rapture, of fame, of being valued like Katherine Philips (Orinda, 1631-64) turned into a source of shame, she was exposed for vanity (she alludes to “Esops painted Jay”). She is a Daphne who was “rifl’d,” her feathers torn:

My Laurels thus an Others Brow adorn’d,
My Numbers they Admir’d, but Me they scorn’d:
An others Brow, that had so rich a store
Of Sacred Wreaths, that circled it before;
Where mine quite lost, (like a small stream that ran
Into a Vast and Boundless Ocean)
Was swallow’d up, with what it joyn’d and drown’d,
And that Abiss yet no Accession found.

She lacked access, and by the end of the poem has likened herself to Cassandra.

Ockerbloom’s bibliography includes the best essay I’ve read on Killigrew: Carol Barash’s 22 pages situating her in “the imaginary underworld of Mary of Modena’s court,” along with a number of other fine poets of that court (Finch) and the era, in her magnificent study, English Women’s Poetry, 1649-1714. Barash is concerned to treat Killigrew both realistically and practically (wages for women at that court were 200£ a year, plus room and board) and to make clear that her poetry does not belong to the plangent and sentimental nor does she focus on rape or sexual victimizing, but creates a community of women in sensual landscapes filled with hidden allegories about power, ambition, and yes deep and embittering disappointment. “The Miseries of Man” is strikingly grief-stricken turn by turn. Barash discusses an unfinished ode by Killigrew where the poet identifies with a dove, “contrasts mundane squalor with the speaker’s belief in a higher, spiritual calling. The speaker urges her dove to soar beyond the low and dirty material world,” is at first self-confident and aggressive, returning to her “heavenly birthplace” after a “short time” on earth:

    Thy native Beauty re-assume,
    Prune each neglected Plume,
    Till more than Silver white,
    Than burnisht Gold more bright,
Thus ever ready stand to take thy Eternal Flight.

The imagery reminds me of Marvel’s in his famous “Garden” poem, but Killigrew’s dove finds her “plumage has been spoiled by those who attempt to transmit it to a larger public,” and that she has been “punished for taking the material world too seriously, for staying there too long,” is now at risk of being left “naked … and bare,/The Jest and Scorn of Earth and Aire.” I first read Barash’s book in the year it was published, 1999, and was startled by Barash’s austere tone. I had not been part of academic conversations for too long. Years (and many conferences and much interaction, reviewing, publishing) later, I understand better why Killigrew’s poetry about social deaths and real deaths, wars, violent dangers (mental as well as physical) and high aspiration, in a controlled pastoral landscape (a “specifically female retreat” and “place of political resignation”) calls out for sophisticated readings and high respect.

To suggest other points of view than Ockerbloom, Greer or Barash, an essay not included in Ockerbloom’s bibliography is David Vieth’s sceptical “Irony in Dryden’s Ode to Anne Killigrew,” Studies in Philology, 162 (1965):91-100: old and perhaps unfair, Vieth’s close reading suggests that Dryden’s ode to Killigrew could be read as high critical of her work (damning is the word). Barash has in mind Kristina Straub’s “Indecent Liberties with a Poet: Audience and the Metaphor of rape in Killigrew’s ‘Upon the saying that my Verses” and Pope’s Arbuthnot,” Tulsa Studies of Women’s Literature, 6 (1986):27-45, which I find has much merit. It’s a Foucault reading which finds that Killigrew and Pope’s poetry use of forms of rape offers paradigms for “social relations of domination and repression” determined by gender. Pope’s poetry emerges as under the sign of his disabilities.

To return to the essay which led me to this reading and blog tonight, Mulvihill’s analysis and description of the Killigrew’s posthumous book and modern editions situates Anne in her court and Killigrew world and also the commercial world at the time. She discusses the importance and merit of Richard Morton’s facsimile reproduction of Killigrew’s poetry, with a still valuable introductory essay (this is the edition I first read Killigrew in and have cherished ever after).

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The image on the front is said to be by Killigrew herself

Mulvihill suggests (I think rightly) that the recent editors should have gone further: the poems should be re-ordered to bring out significant relationships between them, their interlocutors, with a concentration that brings out themes and the different genres. I felt the same was true of an edition of Katherine Philips, and my work on Anne Finch was predicated on recognizing her struggle with the genres of the era, which she had to transcend to express her original thought and combinations of feeling. Here too (as with Finch) Mulvihill points to the problem of unattributed poems and poems wrongly attributed, which remain unresolved. She lists what she thinks specialists will find missing in the latest edition. She asserts that we are still awaiting a truly authoritative edition. Mulvihill includes at the end of her essay some particularly clear (large and richly colored) reproductions of images said to be of or attributed to Anne Killigrew and of one of her interlocutors.

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Mary of Modena (c 1694), artist unknown — she appears to have played an important role in the poetic writing of the women of her court (Anne Finch wrote a beautiful poem remembering Mary of Modena)

Ellen

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

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Fires were started (outside the usual assembly room dance)

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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?

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

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The world as ruin, on fire from bombs

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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).

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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

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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

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Wickham early in the film

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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?

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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.

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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

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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)

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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.

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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:

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The city as ruins

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Elizabeth gone mad and Jane in open distress

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The film’s last still before the credits roll

Ellen

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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).

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

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From The Last Days of Disco when Beckinsale had some character in her face and Sevigny was thinner
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

Frederica

Ellen

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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.

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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.

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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

Ellen

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