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Posts Tagged ‘symbolic women’

This she blotted carefully and laid aside [a real letter she has written expressing real emotions]. Then, taking up the folder containing Beneath the Visiting Moon [her latest novel], she pulled out her papers, re-read her last paragraph, and bent her head obediently to her daily tasks of fantasy and obfuscation (Brookner, Hotel du Lac, characterizing what her heroine does when she writes fiction)

Friends and readers,

For the last 8 to 10 weeks and sometime before I’ve been having a wonderful time reading four twentieth Century women’s political novels, to wit, Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September, Olivia Manning’s Balkan and Levant Trilogies, Lillian Hellman’s Scoundrel Time, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye — as well as (just as much fun in some ways) books on these women authors and other books by them and reviews and essays, not to omit watching relevant movies. This blog is not on this material, as I have written about these books and some of the movies on this blog and elsewhere, but I want to assert how enjoyable such books are.

This is a period when women were beginning to achieve all sorts of rights by law and custom they had not had before, but were still much constrained by the social roles imposed on them by determined patriarchy. Not until the 1960s and 70s do women begin to take jobs in the professions after going to college, and only after that are they more widely recognized in such colleges and jobs. So a paradoxical or complicated situation is theirs.

The political slant has been as enjoyable as one I did several years ago of two 20th century women writing historical novels set in the long 18th century: Daphne DuMaurier’s The King’s General and Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover.

“What country? when she is a woman? (Woolf), women’s political novels differ from men’s; they’ve not been allowed (until very recently) to connect directly to the public world and state; have not joined wars for the usual canonized reasons; independence & self-esteem stirred but same ideology which undermines them returns. They question basic assumptions, about battle too. Naomi Mitchison’s worry that liberalism, belief in democracy, endlessly subject to internal dissent and attack from oligarchies, will dissolve if conservatives when they gain power yield to fascist ideas …

The teaching has gone over so well, or well enough, in these veins, I would like to continue, with intriguing switching of perspectives: Christa Wolff’s Cassandra and Four Essays, Eva Figes’s The Seven Ages [of Women]. I will teach these two next winter.  Also finally to branch out into other genres and non-Anglo texts (in translation) Marta Hillier’s Women in Berlin, Iris Origo’s War in Val d’Orca, Storm Jameson’s Journey from the North.

There is just so much from so many women, so often unsung, neglected, marginalized, died young (Winifred Holtby, say South Riding) and still misrepresented (Virginia Woolf). Non-Eurocentric texts: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s A Backward Place, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreters of Maladies. I’ve gone on to a number of fine books on women’s 20th century novels/memoirs under the aegis of different themes, eras, genres –just wonderful.

I’ve also been reading about women’s publishing houses, a history of Virago by Catherine Riley, not only as for the first time publishing women’s books in large numbers and continually, but publishing books by women telling their history, of their literature, their point of view.

Not so wonderful though: today in the New York Times, an article by Ruth Franklin ostensibly about the withdrawing from public of a biography of Philip Roth: the biographer, a male, has been accused of sexual assault, but there is further context about Roth’s own behavior and his books. It’s by Ruth Franklin and her title gives you insight into what is her real topic: “What we lose when only men write about men.” She tells you, quite correctly, that is it much much easier to get a contract or access to archives if you are man wanting to write a biography; I’ll add to that it is also much much easier if your topic is a famous man. Famous male writers count.

But if you are a woman intent (let’s say) on writing a literary biography of woman writer boy do you have rough road ahead and your work may never reach fulfillment. And if it does, what characteristically happens to it? I’ll give one example, we are told Boswell is the father of (literary) biography, his book is on the famous Samuel Johnson. Then we are invited to fast forward to later 19th century biographies, all by men. Guess what? There is a great powerful biography inbetween: Elizabeth Gaskell on the Life of Charlotte Bronte. Arguably it’s better than Boswell’s. What has happened: it was attacked at the time as unwomanly (telling some truths about Bronte) and Gaskell was sued; nowadays it is attacked as unbalanced and (oh dear) unfair to Bronte’s tyrannical father (who, we are told, against all evidence to the contrary was no tyrant).

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Tonight I want to talk about two novellas by women of the mid-century which at the same time I happen to be reading with a group of people on FB, “The Way We Read Now.” One of them by an author whose novels I now realize I read very naively in the 1980s, Anita Brookner, and another by an author I knew I had not cared for particularly, Muriel Spark, and now by dint of reading with others, have been driven to decide why. As part of this group I to some extent contributed a posting on each chapter of the novel day-by-day, one after the other: it was through this that I feel I got inside Brookner’s guarded emotionalism in her self-defensive Hotel du Lac for the first time, and at least confronted the chilling derision in Spark’s depiction of a group of a few poignant but mostly desperate and petty or selfish and ruthless very aged and dying characters.

On Hotel du Lac: this is a book about women’s relationships with one another; it’s (to use a word no longer familiar) feminocentric. We see that often the individuals in this group neither like or trust one another, though they pretend otherwise and can feel sorry for one another. Edith Hope is a modern Bronte heroine. Make a spectrum with Austen on one side, and Bronte on the other, and there’s no question. She truly wants to be solitary (whatever she says), to lose herself in the treasures of mind (as Jane Eyre says at one point this means more than anything), and she dislikes plush, luxury as all in very bad taste.

Like Brookner herself, Edith prefers the lifelong single life – but unlike Brookner has not found an occupation where she can find a substitute set of ethics for herself. A quiet retreat. This makes me remember Vanessa Bell who lived an utterly unconventional life sexually and otherwise and remained a very private person. Edith’s pseudonym is Vanessa Wilde.


Anna Massey as Edith Hope and Desmond Elliot, as the needling sadistic (if on the surface ever so kind) Mr Neville (the 1986 film is beautiful to look at)

After reading a couple of essays on the book: Margaret Stetz on “Visual Life” connects Brookner’s novels to her art books: Brookner critiques society through the painter’s work & life: Watteau is an idyllic escape but profoundly melancholy. Geuze is salacious and tells uplifting anecdotes so as to sell. In Hotel du Lac we have perspectives on the writing life. There’s much more and while am no longer in my 30s and would probably not read another Brookner novel soon (I read it in a far more aware way), I took down my two art books and would love to find the time to read her sketches on Romanticism and Its Discontents.

Fisher-Wirth’s tragic vision made me think about these women — maybe I should take this too gross caricatured mother-daughter and think about mothers and daughters in Brookner’s other fiction, Edith Hope’s estrangement from her mother. Mother-daughter relationships are central to women’s fiction. Hotel du Lac (lack as well as lake) is a deeply despairing book — she reminds me of Wharton but also Ishiguro — except this book lacks tenderness and little tolerance for the philistinism Brookner pretends to in her interviews.

Last Stetz’s “Reluctant Feminist:’ Brookner’s public remarks are rebarbative, abrasive & misleading; that Brookner seems to regard some patterns in women as not constructed but innate. Stetz shows parallels between Brookner’s fiction and Woolf (Voyage out repeatedly, sometimes using Rachel/Helen). I liked the writing the woman artist core of the book. I wish Brookner had presented Edith’s fiction in some way but Brookner is/was herself too much on guard. Other lacks in the book include its inflexibility of POV —

I tried the Morahan/Foster movie, and it lost Edith’s inner life so was a hollowed out, shallow version of the book, excising especially especially the bitterness against men who play flattering games with deluded women and profoundly unfaithful to any vulnerable partner.

I should say how strong and picturesque her writing style. The sentences on each page quiet utterances of art.

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The moments when Spark’s book most interested me were the rare passages of literary allusion in which she seemed to be inviting the reader to compare her supposed realistic depiction of the very old and dying to more romantic feelingful texts. I’d say hers is not realistic because Spark chooses to deprive her characters of any beauty, fulfilled hope, anything charitable or redemptive — insisting on pettiness, cruelty (to the point she is not satisfied with destroying the life’s work on aging and death of one man in a fire, the fire must burn to death a cat and dog as well), to me it seemed the meaninglessness of life for all (though they don’t see this).

Early on we have a very mocking description of the fiction of the 50+ year old son of two characters (“I simply could not go on with it. A motor salesman in Leeds and his wife spending a night in an hotel with that communist librarian … ” – an allusion to Philip Larkin?), and very late a ridiculing description of his mother’s romantic seemingly soap opera fiction, so entangled you cannot keep track of individual characters or events; there is an allusion to Dylan Thomas who did not go gentle into that good night; several to Dowson who wrote fin-de-siecle sensual poetry, especially his poem supposed written by a man in love with a women but unfaithful while she is indifferent to him (this parallels one of the very elderly couples in the book). Very Verlaine, with echoing refrains and classical allusion (one line refrain: “I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion”).

It was Dowson who wrote the famous often quoted “Days of Wine and Roses:”

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

Then near the close of the book allusions to last two stanzas of Byron’s Childe Harolde. They are really moving as Byron bids adieu to his book, to his dreams, to his poetry, to everything he has tried to suggest from his deep soul. If Spark means to say reflexively, see hasn’t my take been better? my answer is no. The central mystery of the novel is who is the neurotic man or supernatural or psychic spirit who has been pestering the characters with obsessive phone calls saying “remember you must die.” They are in no danger of forgetting. I was urged to see Spark as in a distanced way (ironic) trying to show us the lack of compassion in the treatment of the old. But to me the ironies were very unfunny: a very sick feeble man disinherited because it turns out his wife briefly had another husband first?

While reading the book, I happened to watch one of this year’s Oscar winner, The Father (see excellent review), with Anthony Hopkins as an very old man, and Oliva Coleman, his aging daughter who has recently been forced to bring him into her apartment as he has gone into senile dementia and much as she loves him, needs liberty to live a life fulfilling her own needs.

I thought to myself though maybe Spark would say it is absurdly sentimental because it presents the daughter as so concerned for her father, so deeply grieving at what is happening. But the people surrounding the man are not super-kind (especially a man who seems to be his daughter’s husband – it’s hard to tell since we are in the old man’s confused mind), and the story in front of us is how much a burden his daughter finds caring for him.


Miss Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith) takes “her girls” on a field trip (from the 1969 popular movie)

I thought one chapter from a book of essays on Twentieth Century Women Writers edited by Thomas Staley, excessively charitable:

William McBrien interprets (or explicates) Spark’s novels as manifesting “dandyism.” He links her to Max Beerbohm and says in her books “artifice” is “a spiritual strategy;” her writing is “macquillage” (make-up, cosmetics) “that may serve the spirit.” He quotes her saying “I believe events are providentially ordered,” and says that at the same time or maybe because of this she writes in a “insouciant” manner.

What troubles me about this is there is no discussion of the content in this general summary — he just asserts this as well as the idea that readers find her stories “engrossing.” (I didn’t; I admit I found the book very easy reading, no trouble to take in.) She gets away with what she does — what she swiftly and concisely piles on — because of her style — he uses the word “flippant and sophisticated’ for that — I’ll agree on flippant.

He then goes through quite a number of her novels where the characteristics found remind me of what is found in Memento Mori. In The Comforters a typewriter that clicks by itself with a voice that repeats the words the heroine utters. One critic, Peter Kemp, collected all her references to Job in her books and her statement in a Church of England Newspaper called “The Mystery of Job’s Suffering” where she shows (this is Kemp’s paraphrase) “how alone we are in life and how incomprehensible and inconsolable in human ways.”

At one point McBrien uses the phrase “Catholic Chic” of the fantasies in one of her books. There’s a mocking story about a convent and [The] Abbess, much “studied frivolity.” They include post-texts: one is called Robinson – a Robinson Crusoe story. He goes over The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie slightly, focusing briefly on how the heroine is a fascist. There are mystery elements in many, connections to T.S. Eliot (in one novel “an Eliotic voice, revealing the Unreal City, and Waste Land archeology), to Ivy Compton-Burnett. Flannery O’Connor admired her work

One quotation by Stevie Smith I found apt “Muriel Spark has a real genius for being gruesome and hilarious in practical circumstances, gay in city graveyards, gothics in factories.” It may be that if you read a number of her books, put them together and brought forth some consistent vision – she has one autobiography as novel (Loitering with Intent) that might help — you could make a case for her as a serious novelist. That’s what Wm McBrien is suggesting.

For myself I still may try Loitering with Intent because I’m interested in life-writing. To me there is something chilling and heartless in this book.

It was probably a good thing for me to have read this book so I won’t go overboard in my praise of all 20th century women writers. My blog may seem more balanced (ironic joke alert).

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To conclude, as long time readers of this and my other blogs may know, I’ve long been working on a project “towards a book” (whether I ever write one or not doesn’t matter) where I study life-long single women writers (“Not an anomaly” is its working title); now I’m seeing a way to modify my argument which has been at once too broad and too narrow and one others might not find appealing in the way I do. Brookner was a life-long single woman living with her parents. Muriel Spark also spent much of her life alone; she had a long term relationship with a woman she denied was lesbian.


A brilliant art study by Brookner where she uses the painter’s life, sensibility and paintings to characterize aspects of 18th century culture


Occasionally praised and reissued (because her novels sell), this critique of the book’s inadequacies by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt makes sense to me after reading Memento Mori

Ellen

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For three days I could find no information on the Persephone Books’ move to Bath. But this fourth day I got a letter from a company representative to say yes, sadly, they are are moving. I had concluded that I fell for an April 1st fools day hoax. No such luck, they have been driven to the smaller city, away from Bloomsbury and the nearby British Library. I include my correspondence with them in the comments


Nicola Beauman (b. 1944) recently

“I like books that tell me how we lived,” says Persephone’s founder Nicola Beauman.“I’m very, very interested in the novel as social history.”

Dear friends and readers,

This is a shorter blog than I’ve been in the habit of writing, more in the nature of an item of news, followed by context suggesting the meaning of the news. I’ve been very frustrated since the YouTube of Nicola Beauman announcing the move of the Persephone bookshop located in Bloomsbury (Lamb’s Conduit Street, near the British Library), London to Bath, which I saw on twitter and was able to trace to a Carol Shields site on Facebook, is not movable — I cannot share it, nor can I link you to it, except as a tweet (on twitter — do click as of this morning the video is still there). I cannot even find the originating story in any of the major online newspapers I read. No wonder; there is no originating story there. The Video says nothing about moving; it is about why and how Beauman started Persephone books and that is is managing to survive during the pandemic though online sales and its reputation among a select loyal group of readers. I was correct to surmize that economics might driving the shop from its present location to this western spa city, only it was quietly announced in a newsletter that goes out to members of the Bookstore and potential customers who subscribe.

Why make this blog. Because the marginalized announcement together with the way the store is tactfully run, and the people are careful to control how it appears and is discussed — is indicative of the continued marginalization of women and their justified apprehension of the way they will be presented. And yet it has been since the beginning of the 20th century and the suffragettes’ presses, and until now, so crucially important that women have their own presses.  As I cannot be sure you will heat the YouTube yourself, I’ll tell you what she says below. I will “flesh out” some of the points she makes with my own experience.  Then add some information on other presses publishing women’s and feminist books.


A photograph from one of the corners of the bookshop

Nicola Beauman started the company in 1998 because she had long loved 20th century women’s books, and finding for decades that most publishers would publish very few books by women of them, especially if they were about mothers centrally, that at long last (like the little red hen) did it herself. She says what is unique to the 20th century is women are still strongly constrained by all sorts of inhibiting conventions and until the 1960s/70s could get good jobs or into professions, were not seen or active widely in public life in general the way they began to be as of the 1980s. Yet they were going to public school up to university, working “outside the home” (“out to work”) in large numbers before World War Two, had the right vote and many rights and liberties that men have. So knowledge, self-esteem, self-confidence were within their purview regularly.

The result is a peculiar angle on life. I have discovered in teaching 20th century political novels by women this term, I just love not only the books I’m teaching, but to read about and some of other 20th century women’s political books.

I’ve twice taught a course I called 19th Century Women of Letters, and once Historical Novels by Women, especially set in the 18th century and dealing with war. I moderate a small modest listserv on groups.io I call WomenWriters.

All other things being equal, I often prefer women’s prose texts and poetry to men’s. They are inwardly much richer by virtue of the aesthetics that often informs them. Why not plays? because until recently almost all stage plays were written from a male angle even when women got a chance to write and to be staged. Women have, it seems to me, broken into screenplays for movies much quicker than for plays — less money, less prestige.


The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme, a partial view of the cover — see excellent blog

my other Persephone books are Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy, The Making of the Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Miss Pettigrow Lives for a Day by Winnifred Watson, Susan Glaspell’s Fidelity, Beauman’s own The Other Elizabeth Taylor, a book of short stories, and a lovely catalogue.

I love that the covers of these books are grey. Virago had a policy of choosing for covers paintings or images by women, or the kind that a woman would not — not a woman as a come-hither-fuck-me sex object. They seem to have given that up and turned to more abstract designs (as has Oxford of late), as if the publishers fear that younger adults today will not be attracted to a picture that depicts the 19th or even 20th century — as too old-fashioned. Grey solves the problem I have had many a time: a book I long to read comes with a soft-core porn image of a woman on its cover.

I am now reading a very good translation of Tolstoy’s Anne Karenina by Richard Pever and Larissa Volokhonsy, in a deluxe Penguin edition. In order to be able to endure the physical object, I put over the image of a woman’s knee which suggested what was up her thigh, a still from Joe Wright’s film adaptation of the novel featuring Keira Knightley looking desperately calm. Sometimes I can’t find an image that fits, so I just have to cut the cover off — weakening and eventually ruining the book. Grey reminds me of the old sets of good book sold in the 1930s and 40s by Left Book Clubs with soft brown or beige covers, sometimes with soft gold or silver lettering.

Beauman says that Persephone has kept up their high standard of choice and their have been sales sufficient to stay in business, even during this pandemic. But they will have more budget to publish and do more of the things they like to. They miss the in-coming customers and occasional events (book launches, talks). IF they had to they could succeed in Bath & spread their wisdom, and splendour there. But after all, they do not. Mockers may find their presence absurd, but I don’t nor their shop.

The New York Times had a spread of pictures and story to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the press and bookshop: A Bookstore of One’s Own by Sarah Lyall. Over on Twitter, Elaine Showalter tweeted to my comment that I like the shop, love the imprint, prefer to read good books by women most of the time, that I’ve covered wonderful lists, and there “really should be a book about the great feminist presses;” I replied there is a fine book on Virago: Catherine Riley: The Virago Story: Assessing the Impact of a Feminist Publishing Phenomenon. This retells the origins of the press, its struggles to stay true to its mission, good books by women, its morphing into divisions of larger publishers and its stubborn integrity until today, the specific women who have made it what it is. I own too many (cherish most) to enumerate. An essay on the authors favored who resemble Austen can be found in Janeites, ed. Deirdre Lynch: Katie Trumpener, The Virago Jane. But a full scale book would be enourmously helpful in understanding one important strand of feminism today: other presses born around the time of Virago were Spare Rib, Pandora (“Mothers of the Novel” were the older books), Feminist Press of NYC. Anyone coming to this blog who can think of others, please supply the title in the comments.

As for Beauman herself, I’ve read her superb (highly informative) A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel, 1914–39, Virago (London), 1983 (about early and mid-20th century women writers and their books); The Other Elizabeth Taylor, Persephone (London, England), 1993 (did you know Taylor was a communist? and had affairs — you wouldn’t realize this from the surface stories of her books unless you think about them a bit); and Morgan (on EM Forster as seen and realized through his imaginative writings). The first and third have meant a lot to me. I have been to the shop twice, once with a friend I’d never met face-to-face before, knew for years here on the Internet. We had coffee and some kind of cake.

Ellen

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IAlice (Keeley Hawes) and her daughter, Charlotte (Isabella Pappas) (Finding Alice, Episode 1).



1940a photograph of Japanese Americans being forced into internment camps; the basis of the film, Come See the Paradise

“Something had been done in the way of raising money by selling the property of convicted secessionists; and while I was there eight men were condemned to be shot for destroying railway bridges. ‘But will they be shot?” I asked of one of the officers. ‘Oh, yes. It will be done quietly and no one will know anything about it. We shall get used to that kind of thing presently’… It is surprising how quickly a people can reconcile themselves to altered circumstances, when the change comes upon them without the necessity of an expressed opinion of their own. Personal freedom has been considered as necessary to the American of the States as the air he breathes.” — Trollope on the civil War in North America


Portrait shot of one of several variants 1949-1957 TV versions of I Remember Mama


Elinor Dashwood (Hattie Morahan) looking up at Marianne and hearing her extravaganzas with patience (2009 BBC S&S, Andrew Davies)

Dear friends,

Tonight, I thought I’d bring together three movies which center on women or can be related to women and seem to me good and significant movies to watch relevant to us today. As an experiment, for fun, I’ve been watching the Austen movies (a subgenre, some 37 at this point) and end on a pattern others may not have noticed. As I’ve been doing, the blog will not be overlong.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been watching a 6 part ITV (British) serial story, Finding Alice. I was drawn to it because its central role, Alice, a woman at least in her later 30s, whose husband dies suddenly from a fall over a steep staircase, which he deliberately built without a bannister is played by Keeley Hawes, one of my favorite actresses. She used to garner central roles in costume dramas based on masterpiece books (Cynthia in Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, as scripted by Andrew Davies); or moving series on remarkable books (Louisa Durrell in The Durrells). Now she is more often found in mystery thrillers which are just that little bit better (more intelligent) than the usual. So this series sounded like a return back to her more thoughtful rich programs. Perhaps the problem with the series is it is too rich, takes too much on, and does not resolve enough of what is presented. This Guardian review by Lucy Mangan is unfair (and shows itself to be a little stupid) by singling out Nigel Havers and Joanna Lumley as superior actors to all the others (I wondered if that had anything to do with their race and age); they are no better or worse at acting their roles, their roles no less or more jarring or uneven than the other characters: but she does outline the story, and I can vouch for many shining moments beyond the ones Mangan allows for.

The film plays variations on how difficult it is to accept the death of a beloved person; it projects different modes of grieving and bereavement. Rashan Stone as the man who is in charge of a hospital morgue and runs bereavement groups is superb in his role; he comforts Alice as well as himself exemplifying how someone else can deal with devastation (his daughter killed herself) and a wife whom he does not get along with (one of the variations on a daughter not able to adjust to a mother who is hostile to her). The hardest hit is Charlotte, Harry and Alice’s teenage daughter, upon whom much of Alice’s earliest antics fall — she insists on burying Harry in their garden turns out not to be such a bad idea after all. But she also wants to impregnate herself with the sperm Harry froze so that she could have another child by him — since she was (rightly) refusing at the time.


Alice in Episode 6, learning to stand alone

After the 6th episode was over and nothing much had been resolved, of several emerging conflicts, except importantly Alice had taken responsibility for all those things her partner Harry had supposedly been doing just fine, only he wasn’t. The story is the sudden death by falling down a steep staircase of the heroine’s partner. We learn pretty quickly both Alice & Harry have taken no thought for the possibility he might die — he has (it emerges by the last episode where we hear him speak his last words) regarded and treated her as a child. Been false in the way he appeared to love her. His bank account does not have her name on it, she has almost nothing in hers; he left this house he and she were supposed to be so proud to live in to his parents. His business dealings he does with women, one of whom turns out to be a semi-mistress — who may have bought (?) his sperm to impregnate her female partner with. The business is near bankruptcy. An illegitimate son appears who thinks he will inherit — but that is not accurate. If she never married Harry and so can’t automatically inherit whatever is left, how does an unrecognized bastard son inherit anything? Harry’s parents are hostile to her, want to sell the house out from under her to pay their inheritance taxes; her parents (Havers & Lumley) consist of a mean-mouthed bullying mother and a weak father who finally seems to leave his wife who openly cuckolds him in the last episode). Many episodes contain such a multitude of complex emotions one cannot begin to cover the ground so richly sown.

This review by Reece Goodall falls into the very trap I suggest the movie wants to preclude: the idea that people don’t let go a lot when they grieve; that they know to be tactful and to live in and within themselves. Anything else is not adult. Sure, in public, but not in private which is where these scenes delve. I grant at the third episode I began to feel this was an attempt to present ever-so-modern patterns of living and taste in a voyeuristically morbid vein, but then in the fourth an upswing begins where we see the point is to show us Alice slowly discovering she is an individual, what kind of person she is, what are her real tastes. I don’t think the only way you can assert your independence is to give other people who are trying to cheat you a hard time, but it is one of those things a woman living alone will have to deal with alone.

At its end you get a message telling you where you can contact counselors to help you through bereavement — quite seriously — the creators just did not know how to cope with what they are presenting to a wider popular audience so they become “constructive.” I see another season is planned (or was). I hope it comes back and becomes less unsteady, giving more time to each set of characters and incidents.

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Movie poster

Coherent and beautiful is the indie, Come See the Paradise, written and directed by Alan Parker. It opens with a mother in her early 30s walking with a young adolescent girl child. They are traveling by train to re-meet the father and husband whom they have not seen for years. The mother tells the girl the history she does not understand for her father was take away when she was around 4. This flashback movie then tells from the point of view of the Japanese woman who is attached equally to her family and American husband and is herself self-sufficient, upright.

Hers is the story of them as a young couple, American young man who was involved as a non-professional (non-degreed) lawyer in a union in the 1930s who falls in love with Japanese girl whose parents are about to marry her off to a much older man. In 1942, over 100,000 Americans were interned in prison camps in the USA. Well this extraordinary complete violation of human rights (it was against the law in many states for a white American to marry a Japanese person and they were not permitted to become citizens unless they were born here) hits hard on these lives that are slowly presented. We see the young couple try to persuade her parents; they cannot so they elope. Several years go by and Jack (Dennis Quaid) has involved himself again in striking; Lily (Tamlyn Naomi Tomita) disapproves, is frightened, and when he is taken away to be arrested, flees home to her family (whom she was very attached to). When he finally gets out of jail, he comes to find her and is slowly accepted into the family by all but the father. Then the war breaks out, the internment begins. Everything is very harsh; they have to give up all their property and live in a camp in crowded impoverished conditions. Eventually the young men are coerced into fighting for the USA or accept being sent back to Japan. Jack finds he cannot stay with them and spends most of the war as a soldier. He is finally recognized as a labor agitator and re-sent to jail. So the film is pro labor too — like his Japanese brother-in-law, Jack has a no-choice: go to jail or endure military service. The two stories intertwine and reinforce one another. There is a fine use of music; some of the scenes are very moving; the use of colors is careful and effective. I do not think think it at all exaggerated or exploitative or smug or over-angry. The Karamura family slowly changes; they learn to appreciate Jack; they hang together and they also make individual choices that bring out their characters and need for usefulness, joy, respect.


One of several parting scenes

Recently there has been an increase in violence towards Asian people. Incited by the truly evil man, Trump, to blame Asian people for the coronavirus, older atavistic prejudices have come forward.  This time it was a massacre of eight people, six Asian women, in Georgia by a young white very sullen-looking man. In his recent speech before this incident Biden mentioned the way Asian-Americans have been treated since the pandemic started and said this has got to STOP! Tonight he and the Congress are working on helping Asian-Americans and doing what they can to discourage this virulent racism. So this film’s story is not at all obsolete. There is a sneer (!) in wikipedia: the movie is called “oscar bait” and I dare say it won no prizes because of its strong Asian theme. It is a bit long because it wants to get us to the qualified happy ending — retreat for this intermarried family.

Here is Ebert’s excellent review (1991): how easily it seems our assumed liberties can be taken from us; Caryn James of the New York Times: when our people were victimized right here; Frederick and Mary Ann Brussat of Spirituality.


Mr Karamura accepting Jack who tells him that this family is his family, he loves them and they love him ….

I don’t know how or why Roosevelt could have allowed this — it is a blotch on his record, very bad. I know how he (in effect) threw Black people under the bus (what an inadequate metaphor) to keep the southern democrats with him. Also how social security did not include cleaning women and other lower end self-employed people — often Black people.

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The political story of I remember Mama is told here It immediately belongs to the history of suppression of any socialistic feelings which came to a head in the early 1950s with the McCarthy hearings of the HUAC; long range it belongs to women’s studies: Gertrude Berg invented, wrote, starred in this development from an earlier genteel white stage play and made a resounding hit of it — despite studio feeling that Americans don’t want Jewish stories either. Berg had a very hard time getting the shows any sponsorship originally.

Then after the success, the show was forced off the air — in effect. The executives cared more about stamping out socialism than monetary success when it came to a Jewish ethnic show. I love Lucy wasn’t touched because it was seen as all-American (but for the unfortunate Cuban husband). The man playing the father, Philip Loeb, a professional stage actor was active in the labor movement; that was enough to get him was black-listed; the show never recovered from his departure and other changes insisted upon. It’s all lies that Americans would not tolerate a divorced person, a Jew or a person from NY on their TV shows. This shows how the channels and big media colluded absolutely with the wave and institution across the US in the fifties of anti-social democratic movements everywhere in every way. They wanted it to be that US people not tolerate Jewish people. Jennifer Keishin Armstrong does tell us that in life Gertrude Berg did not wear housedresses, but swathed herself in silk, furs and jewels.

I did not know this story. I do remember some of the earliest sit-coms, replaying on morning TV — there was one about a daughter and father with a matinee idol as the father (My Little Margie?); another about a secretary (Suzy?); of course I Love Lucy. A Jim Bakkus. Amos ‘n Andy was still playing at night in 1955/56 when we got our TV.

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Elizabeth Garvie as Elizabeth (1979 BBC P&P, Fay Weldon)

So to conclude, once again watching all the Austen movies (I’ve watched more than these, see my blog with more recent Austen movies, viz., P&P and Zombies, Whit Stillman’s Love and Freindship, Sanditon, &c I own or can rent: in general, just about all Austen movies made for paying cinema are versions of Screwball comedies or high erotic romance, from the 1940s P&P, to McGrath’s 1996 candied Emma, Wright’s 2005 Lawrentian P&P, to Bride and Prejudice and the recent travesty 2019 Emma, not to omit the 1995 Clueless and P&P and Zombies. Just about all the serial TV Austen movies are centrally melodramatic, presenting Austen’s material as familial drama exceptions are the occasional gothic (Maggie Wadey’s 1987 NA) and but once only a genuine ironic but gentle satire, the 1972 Constanduros Emma (it falls down today on the visuals, the way the characters are dressed just won’t do). This is true of the three short 2007 films (MP, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey; Wadey, with a spectacular performance by Sally Hawkins, and Andrew Davies) and the 2009 Emma (Sandy Welch) and Sense and Sensibility (again Davies) Many have been made by women, and even in the cinema versions, one finds that women’s aesthetics predominate: the use of letters, a voice-over female narrator, a pretend diary. The Jane Austen Book Club belongs here.


Romola Garai as Emma practicing after the assembly (2009 BBC Emma, Sandy Welch)

For my part in general I vastly prefer the TV choice of genre, though neither captures Austen’s inimitable mix. Perhaps the closest that ever came to her were a few in the “golden years” of the pre-Thatcher BBC — the 1971 Sense and Sensibility (again Constanduros), the 1979 Pride and Prejudice (Fay Weldon) with its emphatic bringing out of Elizabeth’s inner sensibility and quiet wit and also the 1995 A&E Pride & Prejudice (Andrew Davies) taken as a whole. I am a real fan of Andrew Davies (there are a large number of blogs dedicated to films by him, and one of my published papers is on his two films from Trollope (HKHWR and TWWLN)


Wonderful passing time moment: Jane (Susannah Harker) and Elizabeth (Jennifer Ehle) walking and talking

That’s all from me around the ides of March.

Ellen

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Mary Taylor’s Miss Miles — one of several cover illustrations, Oxford UP, introduced by Janet H. Murray

Friends and readers,

I so enjoyed this book I am in danger of over-praising it. So I will begin by conceding it’s not Middlemarch; and if I say that I first read about Mary Taylor and conceived a desire to read her book from Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney’s portrait of her, description of her novel, and story of her friendship with Charlotte Bronte, which in their A Secret Sisterhood: the Literary Friendships of Jane Austen [Anne Sharpe], Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf also includes a number of passages from Taylor’s letters to Charlotte, you must not expect the density of poetic and erudite diction found in Charlotte or Anne’s novels.

But if you are willing to come down a little in your expectation, partly because this is Taylor’s first (and alas last) novel, accept some visible struggles in the structuring and knitting together of the book’s several stories, a multi-plot pattern which accommodates four central heroines, Miss Miles is as insightful, eloquent, with cogent dramatically realized lessons that women must be allowed to become maturely independent, self-supporting when the need arises (as it often does in ordinary women’s lives even among the 19th century middling classes), self-respecting and morally brave as many of the finer still read and known 19th century English novels. My header title comes from Murray’s introduction where she writes: the novel “reflects [Mary Taylor’s] lifelong advocacy of independence for women and her lifelong experience of women’s courage and sustaining friendships.”


An old photograph of Mary Taylor on an alpine expedition taken with friends in 1874: she is on the far left, age 57

I will leave it to my reader to click on Taylor’s name (above) to read Nick Holland’s short biography of Taylor. You will discover in Murray’s introduction a full life of Taylor’s teaching, rebellions, early traveling, time in New Zealand and long life in Yorkshire after she made enough money not to have to work. Ironically for all that she argued forcefully all women must work to become independent, as soon as she was able to stop all week long hour working in a business she created she quit — not to be idle, but to devote the rest of her life to reading and good causes — and travel and enjoyment with others. There are a number of characters and events that link Bronte’s Shirley to Mary Taylor’s life; nonetheless, Taylor severely criticized Bronte for her timidity in her books, for being coopted herself, for sacrificing herself to her father, and she did scold Charlotte in life. What is most poignant is that what emerges is the father was central to Charlotte’s choices for most of her life to self-erase, abase her talent, and sacrifice herself to him. Today we have a big chorus normalizing the man, making him ever so attractive, but here is another account which proves that Gaskell had it right.


The Red House, Taylor home in Gomersal (from In Search of Anne Bronte)

For other criticism, common readers’ voices, here is a sizable thread from “good reads”, where the central posting describes the book as original in its use of a bildingsroman for four young women, feminist, about women’s friendships, and morally intense. This prompts a number of postings by people responding well to the novel (one in Italian). It was written and rewritten over the course of Taylor’s life, so while it’s set in mid-century, the feel and attitudes of mind the book speaks to are those of century’s end, and is part of a series published by Oxford for the British Library, as by “female authors who enjoyed broad, popular appeal in their day.”

In a recent Times Literary Supplement, January 8, 2021 (p. 19), in “Tales of Hopeless Husbands”, Lucy Scholes writes charmingly about this series — of the intelligence, appeal and some of the common themes across these books. Scholes cites several and describes a few novels that sound very good, one by an author brought back by today’s feminism, May Sinclair, The Tree of Heaven; a number of Sinclair’s novels are still read, and are reprinted by Virago too, e.g., The Life of Harriet Frean). Another author in this series is E.H. Young’s Chatterton Square in which the secondary heroine is a spinster wholly dependent upon a (married) friend for their shared income — the friend passes as a widow and is thus respectable but in fact she is merely bravely separated from her husband. Young is still remembered for her Miss Mole and found in Virago and Persephone books. Scholes thinks the best of the fine books she is writing about Dorothy Evelyn Smith’s O the Brave Music. In a number of the books described we discover marrying a particular man (a bad choice) ruined the narrator’s (or heroines’) hopes for a fulfilling life. A rare gay one is Elizabeth Armin’s apparently lesser known Father (rain does fall in this book).

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Taylor’s Miss Miles fits right in with the worlds captured in this British Library series. Eventually there emerge five distinctly different women characters, one, Miss Everard, somewhat older than the others so not part of the bildingsroman in quite the same way: they differ somewhat in class, nature, probably occupation (for all but one are intended to do something towards earning the family’s living and their own within the family), less so in age. However all five prove to be on the edge of economic disaster (and two topple over for a while, with one dying), their circumstances are different psychologically and sociologically:

Two of our heroines, Sarah or Miss Miles and Maria or Miss Bell, are strongly supported emotionally, intellectually and insofar as income will go, economically by family and close friends. Sarah is the daughter of two shopkeepers who encourage her musical talent; she must struggle with them to go to school,but they support many of her choices to become a servant (only for a while), to sing in a neighborhood choir (with young men) and then in the established church (they are dissenters) — though we see how obedient she is, and how they could thwart her. Maria, a Vicar’s daughter both of whose gentle intelligent parents die, leaving her with a small legacy with which she (against much disapproval and invented obstacles from the neighborhood and an uncle, Mr Turner, supposed to help her) opens a school. Dora Woodman’s mother, a widow, marries badly for a second time, and her husband, a brutal ignorant man, is partly responsible for her mother, his wife’s decline and death, with Dora left isolated, with no opportunity to learn manners, or to improve her skills from books or training of any kind. My heart felt deeply for Dora whose bearing and character slide down until late in the story her step-father’s death rescues her in the sense she must turn to Maria, come to live with her, who luckily at that point, has just enough to share and encourage her in a plan she has to become a lecturer (again against advice, which angers Maria).

The seemingly most privileged, Amelia Turner, a property owner’s delicately brought up daughter, engaged to a wealthy young man who pretends to share her genuine literary tastes, finds when her father, the same Mr Turner’s film goes broke for a while, she is forbidden to do anything to help support them or herself lest it should shame him or bring them down in status. It is she who is worn down by hostility in her family to her desire not to sit doing nothing, starving, pretending all is well, by the turning against her and dropping her of the still wealthy in the town; in this novel the decline and death of a female character is made believable by long experience of frustration, ostracizing, and desperation. Loneliness afflicts her, Dora, and Miss Everard, genteel in the manner of Amelia, whom we discover has been readily cheated by Turner for years since she was taught nothing about money and yet to fear to ask any male she feels dependent upon about her situation. Her class bias (snobbery) at once keeps her spirits up and estranges her from others who might help her; her pride keeps her alienated and supports her.


Roe Head School where Mary Taylor, Charlotte Bronte — and Ellen Nussey met and spent some of their years growing up together — schools gone to and the experiences had therein are enormously important in Miss Miles — and if a girl or boy does not go to school that is equally crucial to his future. At the same time we see how young adults do not at first understand why this “book” learning is so important until later in life …

Miss Miles has other female characters, several of whom figure importantly in the different stories as well as male characters who variously court, are friends with, help, or hinder our heroines: of especial importance, Sam Sykes, close to Sarah from childhood, who becomes Mr Turner’s partner for a while, is also cheated by him, but manages to escape the burden of debt that would have sunk him by selling the failing business and choosing another less prestigious trade; his sister, Harriet, who marries early on; they live close to the Miles family. Sydney Winde, part of this group of people just below gentility, a fine musician; Mr Branksome whom Maria becomes involved with (they write letters to one another); Mr Thelwal, who breaks the engagement with Amelia, and is a harsh creditor to her father. Mrs Overton and other wealthier county ladies; Mrs Dodds, a Vicar’s wife. A thorougly people world is built to represent Repton, and the West Riding around the town. I found myself utterly identifying with Taylor’s heroines in many of the scenes of social satire, and thought her text remarkably nuanced in exposing how people manipulate and put one another down, discourage, encourage, hurt in a variety of experiences. How people in power cannot always make up their minds to reveal vulnerability or need and so will puzzle those dependent on them for work or as educators.

One of people in our group wrote in to say:

I am actually quite engrossed by this novel and read ahead. What I like about the book is that it feels so raw and angry (note how often the word “anger“ is mentioned in the text). Yes, the writing is often clumsy and wooden but it does feel so honest. Taylor is grappling to find the right words to express how these girls are struggling in the world, how they are trying to find their place, protect those they love but ultimately cannot help (Dora and her mother – I could really relate to Dora – her helpless rage about her mother´s wrong decision in marrying this horrible man Woodman who just needs a housekeeper and his equally horrid, unkind, cruel sons). I really like this focus on women/mothers/girls and how they interact with one another. Also, it´s such a nice change not to have a love story lurking around the corner …

One of the themes of this book is there is more to life that makes it worth living than being monetarily successful or rising in rank. Yet one does need money — to back a school, to feed yourself, to pay what’s necessary for rent or taxes or loans. In one of the book’s turns, the world the characters live in suddenly becomes poorer — they do not understand the workings of this but they are many of the characters done in for a while or permanently by a depression. The key note is “There’s summat wrong somewhere,” repeated in variations, “There’s surely summat wrong when such as he wor cannot live,” just after a recitation ending in “He’s worked all his life, and couldn’t get on, an this is t’end on it!” The novel teaches that it is not an individual’s fault if he or she goes under and that after years of effort, you may well go under at any time. Taylor puts it this way for Sarah: she was “face to face with the great problem of existence, how was she to live.” Trollope makes light of women’s choices (marry the man and have two children and all will be well), thus dismissing the idea a woman has an individual existence, and will be responsible for herself when her husband fails, or leaves her, or dies. The narrator shows us how poverty leads to anti- or asocial behaviors — in desperation in phrases like “the fierce self-assertion that poverty makes necessary” (p. 175)

Another voice from our group:

” For me what stood out in this chapter was Sarah’s realization that despite years of hard work one could still end up poor, starving and dead. It’s definitely at odds with her longstanding goal of working hard which will naturally (in her mind) bring her wealth and happiness. It still seemed a shock when she said she would go into service like her sister. This reminds me of Gaskell’s novels where the working poor are disregarded by mill owners who don’t realize the extreme circumstances they live and die under. Here it is the government who is the culprit for not providing aid to hardworking people who face dire circumstances …”

Another: “I also found this chapter very powerful and felt deeply for Sarah as she asks if this is all there is to life. The singing and sense of community in the chapter help to dispel the gloom. I can’t help thinking this life was far gloomier than ours, as gloomy as life is right now in many ways, because they had less sources of entertainment, less connection outside their immediate community, less sense of overall hope for a chance to change their situation, and yet, I suspect they drew strength from the community in a way most of us don’t anymore.”

While there are bad and stupid people in Miss Miles, who make various individuals’ lives much worse (Mr Turner, Mr Thelwall, Mrs Overton), the situation itself is not attributed to specific individuals but implicitly to the whole system of money-making and trade. Gaskell also dramatizes how a crowd of people can emerge to demand the right not to starve, the right to make their gov’t improve their lives and works into her text the larger perspective of knowledgeable people — so explanations of what a strike is, a lockout, how pressing is wrong. Taylor tries to stay within in the level of understanding of her participants and she nowhere blackens them as a mob. She shows how hunger, loss, desperation brings people out because they do know there are authorities who can help them. Not only is “summat wrong,” there are ways to make it “right.” We see how chapel brings people together. Since her POV is a girl who would be forbidden to join and does join a march anyway we are so aware of how women aren’t wanted. They are told to go away. To this day many protests and demonstrations and mob scenes in the middle east are all men. No women obviously to be seen. We are witnessing these people educating themselves by protesting. In Mary Barton John Barton returned from London bitter and disillusioned from having tried to petition parliament (the chartist movement) but we do not experience the scene. Taylor includes this line about women: “for women to earn their own livings was almost impossible.” She is thinking of unmarried or separated or divorced or widowed women — women w/o men and unless in service cannot earn their own living. Maria’s school is not doing well. Sarah’s mother while overtly against her going on this march sympathizes with her when she does.


It seems to me closest in feel and story and class level to Miss Miles is Oliphant’s Kirsteen (subtitle: a Scots Story of Seventy Years Ago)

For me the qualified happy endings for all the characters but Amelia (and her bad father, Mr Turner, and a few others who die along the way) were convincing and satisfying. For example, the penultimate chapter “in which” Maria Bell rescues Miss Everard from starving in her cold flat; Miss Everard protests a little but soon is transferred to the house Maria has rented to serve as a school; a quietly Dickensian or maybe Gaskell-like scene follows as the two sup and eat by a fire together. Maria’s tutoring goes on, her small amount makes the difference as Miss Everard (who it turns out is owed money) becomes a sort of housekeeper. The chapter closes on Dora’s visit, with 5 pounds gift from her successful lecturing.

The book does end on two expected marriages. Sarah finally returns home from her various stints as servant, music teacher, companion, to find Sam returned from having chosen a failure that frees him to start afresh. Perhaps the scenes between them move too quickly, but we have much earlier in novel understood they are a pair and embedded in their intertwined family and chapel groups. But there will be no more invitations from the Overtons or the established church types for Sam and Sarah. I was reminded of Ross Poldark being told how he will now not be invited to upper class functions since he married his kitchen maid, Demelza. Ross: “Well I think I’ll survive it.” Our letter writing suitor, Branksome did have to persist, and here it’s telling that Maria never forgives him (but agrees to stop harping on it) for telling her to desert Dora (as beneath her). One of the women in our discussion did say (rightly) “the women were at odds with their future husbands, Maria more deservedly so I think. But within a flash, both admit their love and agree to marriage. Sammy and Sarah was interestingly without romantic language while Maria did admit she couldn’t live without Branksome and he declared he couldn’t/wouldn’t live without her”

“I don’t know how Amelia could have escaped the circumstances of her life. She had ideas of personal responsibility and work, but was too tied to her family structure and perhaps hadn’t the level of courage which Dora finally mustered that would have been required to leave home and make her own way. So I don’t know how the author could have resolved Amelia’s story except by her death. But it did remind me of the highly emotional withering away of other female characters, although typically for romantic reasons rather than being unable to pursue an ethical self-fulfillment.

The two outlier women, Dora and Miss Everard, seemed to represent the progress women have been making. Miss Everard totally ignorant of business which left her to be victimized by Turner for so many years versus Dora who has become a successful and independent career woman out in the world. Never could have guessed Dora’s outcome at the beginning of the novel.”

I responded that Sarah was presented all along as a pragmatic, phlegmatic type — a chip off her mother, whom she is not separated from. If there is less romance between our Sykes couple, by the book’s end there is already a little Sarah. Amelia’s is the tragedy of the book and perhaps that’s just right for it. Its deepest message is to keep women from working out their natures and capabilites and what is that in this world but often a job is to destroy them. In a deep way, unconsciously perhaps, Mary Taylor is defying gender fault-lines for understanding male and female characters. Men need to live emotionally fulfilling lives, and women need to be alive in the worlds of societies.

Taylor lacks the artistry of Oliphant and Gaskell — we see how she strains at the opening to introduce and to knit all her character groups together. She does not endow most of her characters with the learning Oliphant, Gaskell do — and of course Eliot and the Brontes both (not Emily). Perhaps also Gaskell is at times as angry at conditions for the poor or average person as Taylor is — as in heer North and South (remember Mr Higgins whose solutions are given respect, credence).


From the 2004 BBC North and South (Sandy Welch, Brian Perceval), Mr Higgens (Brendan Coyle)

I wish Miss Miles were a book one could assign in an OLLI but it cannot be. One cannot find enough readily available affordable copies and it lacks the prestige that would persuade the ordinary reader to try it.

Ellen

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From the first Christmas special in Downton Abbey, Maggie Smith as the Dowager Duchess, another old lady (from Downton Abbey, Christmas special closing Season 2, referred to below)

Friends and readers,

For this Christmas, I thought I’d share a Victorian ghost story for Christmas (that’s what they characteristically wrote most often for Christmas, ghost stories), happily even now still on line, and then offer a reading of it, which (I think) shows she is replying to Dickens’s still famous Christmas Carol.


A contemporary illustration that accompanied Oliphant’s fine late gothic ghost (self-reflexive), “The Library Window.”

So now first you must read the story: gentle friends, it is not overlong at all: “Old Lady Mary”, one of Margaret Oliphant’s remarkable Tales of the Seen and the Unseen.

And now what it means, or how I read it:

Upon my first reading:

In brief a very old lady, ‘Old Lady Mary’, who is very rich and alone, takes the daughter of a distant cousin, nearly a child, young Mary, or Mary, who is without anyone else to turn to, into her house. She is all that can be loving and tender and good to the child as she brings her up. She is then told that she must make a will out which will leave her money to young Mary, but cannot get herself to do it. She must make some provision for this girl whom she has nurtured to become a lady without skills in any marketplace. But Old Lady Mary cannot face the reality she will die, has always herself been because of her wealth sheltered. (Like Austen’s Mr Woodhouse in Emma). Lady Mary also resents advice, and avoids the lawyers by playfulness. But contradictorily, because she loves the girl and knows how destitute the girl will be, writes a codicil, leaving everything to young Mary, but she hides it away.

She dies, and the young girl is left desolate.

The story proper begins here, and we are taken through the young Mary’s fear when her aunt dies, her sense of emotional loss, her humiliations at the hands of the family who take over Lady Mary, her guardian’s house. They don’t mean to hurt her, but they put her in her place. Mary is now their servant. Now at the very end of the story we are told it was finally found, but that is put last, a sort of coda, not part of story proper, as if what will ruin it and is not important! What’s important is the story as told from the point of view of Old Lady Mary after she has died — when she is a ghost, trying to make contact and reparation, so very anxious to make contact, and finding, alas, retrieval of the basic  situation seems impossible; it is too late. Her presence is felt but the human beings act towards her frivolously, foolishly. Ghosts make them uncomfortable, especially restless ones


Cover illustration to a volume titled Restless Spirits: John A. Williams for Mary Heaton Vorse, “The Second Wife” (1912)

For Old Lady Mary is desperate to make contact with the young Mary. She also wants more than emotional catharsis, forgiveness, and release. She wants to help her adopted child. (Think Tiny Tim.) She wants more than to compensate; she wants to retrieve, to make up for past mistakes, and finds she cannot make genuine contact. She has convinced herself her attempts, what she did was unselfish because there’s the codicil to be found and then the young Mary will own the house where she is now a servant. But she has to recognize not so.  Ghosts are laughed at or make people nervous. Their paraphernalia is absurd. Who takes knocks and dragging sounds seriously?

For me reading this Dickens’s A Christmas Carol leaps to mind. Scrooge retrieves so much via the enigmatic and silent ghosts. Like Gaskell (Trollope too), Oliphant while so admiring of Dickens, saw his flaws. Time cannot be retrieved, what we were, we still are.  What happened, happened.  The past is not suddenly to be undone.  Oliphant also has some fun gently mocking the way ghosts are treated in stories. Her story is done from the ghost’s POV.  The curious effect of this is to make us believe in Lady Mary as a ghost; to take her seriously.  Her tales of the seen and unseen are not for people who want titillation or reassurance.

The climax of the story is in a obscure but precisely described vision that comes to Mary. From all her troubles and the disquiet and upset brought on by Lady Mary’s efforts themselves (presented as comic), the young Mary grows ill, and, as in a dream, for a split second, thinks she sees Lady Mary who thinks she is seen. In that moment the girl holds out her hand and Lady Mary feels she has been forgiven. After all Old Lady Mary then feels she needs no nothing more. That’s it. At the same time we get a sense the young Mary and the old Lady Mary were face to face. But we are not sure. It might just be in the ghost’s mind! Young Mary never fully explains what she feels because people would laugh, and she’s not sure what she saw though she did from the beginning forgive & never hated her ex-guardian. She was taught by the old lady not to expect much. Mary is our modest Victorian heroine. Fanny Price, Jane Eyre, sans the rage. I ask my 2020 readers is not this more sophisticated and true to life than A Christmas Carol?

The last line of the story proper (as told by the ghost) is enigmatic: ‘Everything is included in pardon and love’. And then that sort of coda by an impersonal narrator which I told you about.

It’s very delicately done. All the wintry imagery. Scenes of snow, of darkness, ice abound. Early in the story there’s a remarkable moment in Lady Mary’s consciousness when she realizes she is dead. To me there is something in this which refuses the sentimentality of most ghost stories. One reason Oliphant’s ghost stories are so powerful is they are hard — her Beleaguered City reminds me of Camus’s La Peste. Whatever her religious beliefs were, Oliphant was not complacent about what if anything lies behind that “Open Door” (the title of another of her powerful ghost stories), this one taking place in Scotland. These stories might be said to belong to Scots gothic traditions.

As we all know, the ghosts make contact with Scrooge, and he retrieves himself, and is re-formed and the story ends in forgiveness and love. What we may not know is A Christmas Carol is highly unusual ghost story in that the ghosts are ultimately benevolent in purpose. It’s a comforting parable. In comparison, “Old Lady Mary” offers no certainty, and no sense of justice. The codicil is found by chance, and almost not found in that coda. We are also not told much about what happens afterwards except now the ghost appears no more to young Mary. Old Lady Mary can go wherever or rest wherever because she is satisfied with her illusion of contact. We assume things get better for young Mary, but don’t know for sure. But most ghost stories are mischievous, the ghosts malevolent, people who had nothing to do with the original evil act, are often shattered, they are Kafkaesque.

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Several years later:  I offer a qualification after trying to teach it to students and listening to their readings and replies:


The Lost Ghost, from a modern volume imitating Edwardian illustrations

The students wanted some redemption or hope beyond the idea young Mary will inherit enough.  They said there is a kind of general accounting: Old Lady Mary does not get to reach out to her niece directly, cannot have the satisfaction for sure which she is reaching out for soon after the tale opens. So the ghost is taught a lesson as are we the readers.  She could have had while they were still living the girl understand she was sorry for the way she made out her will; had she said something before dying perhaps somehow the girl would have guessed  the ghost was pointing to where the will was and the will would have been found quickly.  Plus it does happen that there is  understanding and forgiveness in the ambiguous encounter. Me to students: the final events are left ambiguous. We do not know for sure that the girl got the money she so desperately needed, but I will agree that enough is put before us to assume so.  Perhaps it was perverse of me  not to admit  this possibility …

Nonetheless, I was more than ever persuaded Oliphant had typical Dickens’ and probably other Christmas season texts in mind where all is made up for in a gush of end-of-story forgetfulness. She felt real life experience and whatever was beyond was not being taken seriously enough.

Again we have a heroine’s text in effect and this l’ecriture-femme, with its circular structure and ending. Much of the story is spent in Lady Mary as a ghost’s mind — that alone is very unusual. “Old Lady Mary” is even more unusual than Trollope’s “Christmas at Thompson Hall” — in that almost all ghost stories, we are not permitted to get close to the ghost. They are kept at a distance. Again, they are mostly scary, malevolent, Kafka-esque figures. Dickens’s benign ghosts are a high rarity. The intensely benign aim of ghost Lady Mary’s efforts is as rare. And to show us the ghost failing to reach, her grief, clumsiness, how these ambiguous wispy signals are the ghost trying is startling.  Margaret Oliphant did believe in ghosts — she imagined them as carrying over human emotions to this new supernatural state — rather like Dante whom her “Land of Darkness,”  another tale of the “seen and unseen” alludes to.


Games with the Planchette: Thomas barrow, footman (Robert James Collier), Mrs Patmore, cook (Leslie Nicol), Miss O’Brien, lady’s maid (Siobhan Finneran), Marigold Shore (Sharon Small, planted mistress of a guest male aristocrat (from Christmas special, 2nd season, Downton Abbey)


Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) to Daisy (Sophie McShea): Well I don’t believe they play boardgames … ”

Of course this could be fodder for a spiritual medium. To my mind this might show us how Oliphant understood the absurdity of what happens at seances. My outstanding favorite line from Downton Abbey occurs when the housekeeper speaks wryly to Daisy,  the kitchen maid’s question, “Don’t you believe in spirits?” that she does not believe they play board-games.

Oliphant was a firm believer in the afterlife. I should stress that. These are not the kinds of ghost stories where the story is strictly speaking a metaphor. In Oliphant’s case her husband, both sons, nephew and a niece all pre-deceased her. To believe they carried on elsewhere was apparently one way she could endure her raw grief and continual sense of desperate loss.

I found it a more moving story than I did the first time. I now think it’s a kind of twin to “Christmas at Thompson Hall” (see also Lucia Constanza’s talk), which I see as a tale of comic but intense social anguish, in the couple of ways I’ve suggested – a riposte to the over-expectations that this yearly ritual can inflict on people.


John Millais, “Christmas Story-Telling,” “Christmas Supplement,” London News, 20 December 1862

Ellen

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The three covers before the TV series began

I woke to the patter of rain on canvas, with the feel of my first husband’s kiss on my lips. I blinked, disoriented, and by reflex put my fingers to my mouth. To keep the feeling, or to hide it? I wondered, even as I did so.
Jamie stirred and murmured in his sleep next to me, his movement rousing a fresh wave of scent from the cedar branches under our bottom quilt. Perhaps the ghost’s passing had disturbed him …

Dear Friends and readers,

As I’ve done before, although I’ve been blogging on the fifth Outlander book, The Fiery Cross, and the fifth TV series season, on my Ellen and Jim have a blog, two site because the series is just as much, perhaps more a creation of male film-makers (by which I mean everyone involved) as female, I want also to link in my review-essays here — the historical fictions are all of them very much women’s historical-romance fiction, and many of the directors, writers, producers are women, to say nothing of the brilliant actresses. It’s  also set in 18th century North Carolina.

I wrote four. One comparing the book and film season against one another and then in the context of the previous 4 books and seasons:


Ulysses’ story is much changed in the series; that’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded Jamie is bringing Ulysses to read (Ep 11)

Season 5: The Fiery Cross transposed and transformed

Then a second on Episodes 1-5 and a third on Episodes 6-11:


Claire’s over-voice narration binds together the 5th episode which moves back and forth from the 18th century to the 20th (Ep 5)

Outlander, Season 5: Episodes 1-15, Her Stories


Brianna and Claire walking by the ocean (Ep 10)

Outlander, Season 5: Episodes 6-11, Women’s Realm (birthing, birth control, breast-feeding &c); again anti-war, father-son-friendship Bonding

A fifth and last on the astonishingly good last (12).

Outlander, Season 5: Episode 12: The Rape of Claire


Claire’s dream: her beloved 18th century family & friends transposed to the apparent safety of the 20th century (Ep 12)

As I like to provide more than the links when I do these handy lists (I’ve done this kind of cross-blogging for Poldark, Wolf Hall, and a few other film series, let me add that beyond Gabaldon’s two Outlandish Companions (books 1-4, then 5-8), and the two books of The Making of Outlander type (Seasons 11 2; the Seasons 3-4), I’ve used for all my blogs since the first season began and I started to write about the books; wonderfully interesting and well written books of essays and encyclopedia like articles edited by Valerie Estelle Frankel: Adoring Outlander: fandom, genre, the female audience (just the first book, also called Cross-Stitch and first season); Outlander’s Sassenachs: gender, race, orientation and the other in novels 1-5 & TV, seasons 1-5) and written by her alone: The Symbolism and Sources: Scottish Fairies, Folklore, Ballads, Magic and Meaning, not to omit why the titles, covers &, up to book 5)


This covers the titles and covers of the books too

Ellen

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John Opie (1761-1807)’s portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft, circa 1797

Let us recall that 5% of the modern artists in the Art section of the Metropolitan museum are women, but 85% of the nudes are female … (See protest at Tate museum)

Friends,

It seems that any remembrance of Mary Wollstonecraft since her tragic early death from childbirth is  destined  to do her a disservice, e.g., how William Godwin’s loving memoir of her full reality in life became the basis of centuries of castigating disdain and rejection. But Joan Smith is spot on to say of the perhaps well-meant monument to her by Maggi Hambling, placed in Newington Green, London, it is “exceptionally obtuse:” “she was vilified for having sex outside marriage, causing her enormous anguish. The decision to portray her in an ahistorical & heavily sexualised way feels like adding insult to injury.”

Here is an enlarged photo. Click on the image and it’ll fill your screen.

It looks like a super-gilded ornament for the hood of a super-expensive automobile. Why this tiny toy-like object on top of a distorted plinth? The silver puts me in mind of the second suitor for the hand of Portia in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. It could also be a trophy, it’s the right size and feel for an Oscar given out at extravaganzas. Woman as trophy.  An action figure.  Have we not yet moved beyond an idea that the way to present a woman as woman is a sexualized body? No idealization or remoteness here: closely presented nipples  on realistic breasts (of course high ones — hanging breasts have long been a no-no in men’s imaginary) — and thick pubic hair.

Mary Wollstonecraft herself would been mortified, felt deeply humiliated. At no point did she come out for anything like promiscuous behavior. She was badly hurt by a partner, Imlay’s sexual treachery towards her. She loved the domestic life with her baby daughter, Fanny. Pride, self-esteem, dignity, education were what she was after for women. Is that no consideration? I grant many women have been renamed since the 1970s but I am among those who feel uncomfortable at the re-naming of someone who in her life was Ann Kingsmill Finch, Countess of or Lady Winchilsea to Anne Finch (the “e” was added by Myra Reynolds; Ann’s signature shows she spelt her name “Ann”). This is to change their identity.

A silver toy does not reflect Wollstonecraft’s identity. It is regrettable that Wollstonecraft should be so misremembered or misconstrued. She could have at least been granted the accoutrements of her trade: we see these generals on horses, in their uniforms complete with guns and horses. So why not a desk, pens, bronze depictions of paper? There are appealing depictions of dozens of women writers in drawings, paintings: one of my favorites is a photograph of Edith Wharton.

How unfortunate there was a campaign, and the result something so unlike the above. Now we could say the absurdity of monuments and lack of a dignified vocabulary for women is exposed, but I suggest better to pull it down, replace it or say she does not need to be Peter Panned. To my mind the tradition of turning people into statues is immediately susceptible to unexamined admiration, mockery (in this case), and use in ideological promotions.

People have spoken of mythic statues of heroes (Michelangelo’s David) but the giant David is not a real person in recent history, not a specific woman who really lived. He’s a Biblical figure about whom we know nothing for real. Mary Wollstonecraft left letters, journals, and is admired and is important for what she wrote out of her inner life and published especially her feminist tract vindicating the rights of woman. Michelangelo’s statue is also thoroughly idealized.

The context for Wollstonecraft is that of a real woman seeking to be respected as an independent person and that includes decades and hundreds of years of the kind of hypocrisy underlying Kenneth Clarke’s famous book on nudes (I’m with Mary Beard in her program about the “nude”), of the valuing of women as sex objects for men to enjoy, have babies from, be nurses for them.

I have more than once presented a statue of Jane Austen by Adam Roud found today in by Nicholas Church in the Chawton House Library grounds.

For me her love of walking, the rich vivacity of her imagination, the strength of her body, an independence of mind are all caught up in this attempt at semi-realism

By way of contrast, I add to that a recent life-size statue of Virginia Woolf by Laury Dizengremel, which was having trouble finding a place, has now received thousands of pounds, a reaction of members of the public to the Wollstonecraft monstrosity.

Dare I suggest that Hambling made a naked silver representation of a woman because it would catch attention; Dizengremel’s subdued tasteful depiction of Woolf in reverie, contemplative, relaxed, smiling (the way she is sometimes seen in photographs) was getting nowhere.

Perhaps I should file this under perverse sexual politics.

Ellen

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Elizabeth Bishop and her cat in a car

Dear friends and readers,

Of the many women poets I’ve written a foremother blog about, just now Elizabeth Bishop may be the best known — both for her poetry and about her life and letters. There is a recent consensus about her importance and transcendence (if that’s not too pompous a word). She is reprinted everywhere (though maybe her refusal to allow her poetry to be printed in all women anthologies has slowed down the dissemination); dozens of articles, several individual books, two biographies (at least). For this blog I recently read Megan Marshall’s partial autobiography, Elizabeth Bishop: a Miracle for Breakfast, and Zachariah Pickard’s Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description. It’s easy to learn supposedly little-known facets of her talent too: such as she also drew and painted, as in William Benton’s “Elizabeth Bishop’s Other Art” (New York Review)

It seems most of her pictures are of her travels; she liked to draw the places she lived in as a sort of visitor, or temporarily, her domestic spaces, and typical woman’s objects: so still life flowers presented from a overtly plain life angle:


Daisies in Paintbucket

From a very young age, she began to pile up awards— even when she had published little outside college newsletters or a slender number of poems. She is likened to the finest poets in tradition: as Emily Dickinson, about whom she wrote in a “poignant and pointed” review of a book of letters by Dickinson that has survived (Emily Dickinson’s Letters to Doctor and Mrs Josiah Gilbert Holland and also of Rebecca Patterson’s Riddle of Emily Dickinson (the riddle is Dickinson was lesbian). There she is also with Helen Hunt Jackson, Muriel Rukeyser, Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath (in Vivian Pollak’s Our Emily Dickinsons: American Women Poets and the Intimacies of Difference). I’ve now attended and myself led two zoom get-togethers of poets and readers happy to spend two hours and more close reading Bishop’s poetry. In both we felt we had hardly started and gotten through too few poems.

Paradoxically, this means I can write rather less than more about her, and the way perhaps to add to what is known is pick slightly less frequently printed poems.

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Again with her cat

About her life, I think it important to know that she was the daughter of New Englanders, one of whom, her father, was from a wealthy and well-connected (Brahman) family, from whom she inherited a legacy that kept her afloat (precluding the necessity of work for higher wages), and enabled her to go to good schools where she made the right connections: Walnut Hull School to study music as a girl led to Vassar College (1929) where she wrote and met (among others) Mary McCarthy, Eleanor Clark (whose Rome and A Villa is one of the most brilliant meditative books about a place I know), and Marianne Moore who became a dear friend (never a lover apparently), who mentored Elizabeth and helped her publish. Like Bishop, Moore avoided controversy by erasing references to her gender beyond the obvious, steering well clear of telling anything explicit about her personal life, or overtly political. According to Kathleen Spivack, like many women writers of her generation, Bishop internalized the misogyny of the 1950s. I can understand why she would want to protect herself against prejudice and the judgmental tendencies of the wider public.

She had a difficult childhood: her father died when she was very young, and her mother was institutionalized; she lived with different relatives and it took time for these people to realize and act upon the apparent reality that the child was more comfortable with her maternal relatives though they were the less educated, and not part of forward-thinking circles. From her young adulthood on, she suffered badly from depression and alcoholism (she alienated people, she lost time from serious work), and her history includes several liaisons, some longer, some shorter, with the most important woman a Brazilian woman from a pre-eminent political family, Lota (Maria Carlota) de Macedo Soares. Bishop lives with Soares in Brazil for years; alas, over this relationship, Soares killed herself. An important friendship with a male poet was with Robert Lowell; Elizabeth became involved with his troubles with his wife, the writer Elizabeth Hardwick (whom Lowell treated very shabbily and whose letters he plagiarized). Very late in life Elizabeth became deeply involved with a woman much younger than herself. There is an equally complicated history from her young to her later years of academic appointments.

She not only does not write free verse; from an artistic point of view, hers is a highly patterned poetry, using formal and stringent rhyme schemes, stanzaic forms, with continual subtle uses of assonance, alliteration (sometimes she seems to drill down into rhythms of anglo-saxon prosody across a line). Annie Finch has written about how this formality, love of patterns, is a characteristic of l’ecriture-femme, women’s poetry (see Finch’s The Body of Poetry: Essays on Women, Form, and the Poetic Self and A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women). Sestinas, villanelles, double sonnets, repeating tercets (a poem using just three rhymes). Her poems with the most moving content convey their ideas and articulated feeling through close visualized description and the verse musical refrains. She is a foremother poet’s poet, loving repetitive structures, imitative sounds for moods and evocations.

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I’ve chosen a few poems where I kept my inability in this blog to replicate stanzaic forms demanding indentation visual pictorialism in mind, and which I fancy might be less known and are not too long.

The first, as a Trollope scholar, her brilliant meditation on the part of Trollope’s North America where he visits Washington, DC, during the civil war and projects the depression and despair Trollope felt while there, partly a result of what he saw in the city.


South National Mall, Washington, D.C. 1863

From Trollope’s Journal

As far as statues go, so far there’s not
much choice: they’re either Washingtons
or Indians, a whitewashed, stubby lot,
His country’s Father or His foster sons.
The White House in a sad, unhealthy spot
just higher than Potomac’s swampy brim,
— they say the present President has got
ague or fever in each backwoods limb.
On Sunday afternoon I wandered, – rather,
I floundered, – out alone. The air was raw
and dark; the marsh half-ice, half-mud. This weather
is normal now: a frost, and then a thaw,
and then a frost. A hunting man, I found
the Pennsylvania Avenue heavy ground …
There all around me in the ugly mud,
— hoof-pocked, uncultivated, — herds of cattle,
numberless, wond’ring steers and oxen, stood:
beef for the Army, after the next battle.
Their legs were caked the color of dried blood;
their horns were wreathed with fog. Poor, starving, dumb
or lowing creatures, never to chew the cud
or fill their maws again! Th’effluvium
made that damned anthrax on my forehead throb.
I called a surgeon in, a young man, but,
with a sore throat himself, he did his job.
We talked about the War, and as he cut
away, he croaked out, “Sir, I do declare
everyone’s sick! The soldiers poison the air.”

John Bowen argues that Bishop’s double sonnet gives us an epitome, the core quintessence of Trollope’s North America: Trollope’s mood, central attitudes to the war. Bishop saw the same city many years later and had the same take on it. It is not a cynical perspective but an accurate response to aggressive militarist people, an unpretentious disquieting vision. She takes words from Trollope’s letters and wove them into her verse.

The next poem inspired a novel by Lisa Weiland about Bishop.

Paris, 7 A.M.

I make a trip to each clock in the apartment:
some hands point histrionically one way
and some point others, from the ignorant faces.
Time is an Etoile; the hours diverge
so much that days are journeys round the suburbs,
circles surrounding stars, overlapping circles.
The short, half-tone scale of winter weathers
is a spread pigeon’s Wing.
Winter lives under a pigeon’s wing, a dead wing with damp feathers.

Look down into the courtyard. All the houses
are built that way, with ornamental urns
set on the mansard roof-tops where the pigeons
take their walks. It is like introspection
to Stare Inside, or retrospection,
a star inside a rectangle, a recollection:
this hollow square could easily have been there.
—The childish snow forts, built in flashier winters,
could have reached these proportions and been houses;
the mighty snow-forts, four, five, stories high,
withstanding spring as sand-forts do the tide,
their walls, their shape, could not dissolve and die,
only be overlapping in a strong chain, turned to stone,
and grayed and yellowed now like these.

Where is the ammunition, the piled-up balls
with the star-splintered hearts of ice?
This sky is no carrier-warrior-pigeon
escaping endless intersecting circles.
It is a dead one, or the sky from which a dead one fell.
The urns have caught his ashes or his feathers.
When did the star dissolve, or was it captured
by the sequence of squares and squares and circles, circles?
Can the clocks say; is it there below,
about to tumble in snow?

Written in 1937 while for three weeks in Paris Bishop seeks to capture the architecture of the place she is living in, uses the image of a star inside a circle to recreate the way Paris grew out from itself (as Hugo has it in his Notre Dame de Paris) here like a star-fish. We have the present grim winter time (the Nazis were making their inroads on Europe, whence the reference for a need for ammunition), with Dickinson’s image of hope now “a dead wing with damp feathers.” I love the way the registering of the fleeting and transient (a child’s snow fort becomes a child’s sand castle) becomes something eternally remade over the seasons, with the image of stone signalling Paris’s long history, its eternity in stone in its ancient buildings. The idea of time is carried through the second stanza: “can the clocks say; is it there below?” What there?

And for a last, this sonnet where I find Bishop keeping herself calm by making order and harmony through making a poem which can harnesses the very rhythms of her heartbeat and body as she writes and we read it. This is the way I read Jane Austen’s novels, say Emma: the orderly rhythm of her sentences, their elegance and deeply felt content within patterns soothes and keeps me calm, strengthens me. This is what Bishop is doing through her very finger-tips, her lips, her whole body healing. Is there any more beautiful evocation than that “moon-green pool” which reminds me of lines by Pope and Anne Finch [to be cited, and linked in]

And this Sonnet (1928)

I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling finger-tips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.
Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,
A song to fall like water on my head,
And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow!

There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, that sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep.

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I conclude with a YouTube of Elizabeth Bishop reading a group of her poems at the 92nd Street Y in NYC in 1977.

Ellen

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A mid-18th century illustration of Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison: Grandison rescues Jeronymo


Jamie as a young Scots farmer (a memory of himself from Outlander, Season 1, Episode 2, Castle Leoch)

I attended (went to?) a superb talk on Sir Charles Grandison sponsored by the Digital Seminar group at Eighteenth Century Studies, and found it so stimulating I managed to take good enough notes to at least give the gist of the talk, and then compare what was said to contemporary startling instances of male virginity (in Outlander, my current addiction). What was particularly valuable about Rebecca Barr’s talk was how she related the misogynistic anger at the core of male virginity (weaponized, a way to control women) not only to characters in novels (St John Rivers in Jane Eyre), but also to what we saw in Brett Kavanaugh.

Gentle friends and readers,

Have you guessed what Grandison and Fraser have in common? both were virgins on their wedding nights. Yes.

I today attended a very interesting Open Digital Seminar (zoom lecture and meeting) today sponsored by Eighteenth Century Studies, a talk delivered by Rebecca Anne Barr, Lecturer in Gender and Sexualities at the Faculty of English, at the University of Cambridge, “The Good Man on trial, or male virginity and the politics of misogyny.” It fascinates me because the pattern she uncovers is the same one found in Outlander for the two top heroes, Jamie Fraser and his eventual son-in-law, Roger Mackenzie Wakefield, and helps explain what I thought paradoxical oddities of attitudes in women readers especially (but also men) towards sexuality in other heroes of today’s historical romances. As usual this is by no means all Ms Barr said; it is only an outline with the particulars I could get down in my notes.

Rebecca Barr argued (and demonstrated from Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison) that by a combination of mood techniques (including humor) that male virginity is used to create rhetorical and actual power for men to control female sexuality. Unexpectedly perhaps this characteristic usually demanded of women before marriage, and thus associated with women, when found in, indeed insisted upon by a man, enables him to persuade women to accept his power over them. “Male virginity becomes “a key constituent of an intrinsically reactionary arsenal of public virtue.” I think most people who have read Grandison remember that Sir Charles was a proud virgin and after marriage chaste man. What was startling was Ms Barr went on to display a photograph of Brett Kavanaugh a couple of days after Christine Blasey Ford, under oath, accused him of leading a group of male fraternity members at a party to strip and gang-rape, or (as the individual case might be) humiliate her. The photograph was said to have caught  Kavanaugh insisting he was a virgin until he married.


This is not the photograph Ms Barr showed, but another where we see how he yelled during the hearing, so fiercely angry did he let himself become (on whose advice I wonder? — click to enlarge)

I had been told but forgotten that with his wife to one side of him, and Kelly Conway on the other, he vehemently asserted that he could not have done such a deed because he was a virgin. His description of himself in high school and college as an intensely shy, sensitive, moral young man (=good) was a show-stopper. He was asserting an intense femininity of himself, aligning himself with a “feminine niceness” — at the same time as he spoke in an enraged, choleric voice, shouting his words, to make chastity the bedrock of (his and all) male goodness. A man who did lead a group of fraternity guys to rape women who were so foolish as to come to their parties.


Clarissa (Saskia Wickham), (1991 BBC Clarissa, scripted David Nokes)

Ms Barr asserted that in Richardson’s Clarissa, the rake is the worst sort of husband; in Grandison, chastity and virginity guarantee the best sort of husband. She went on to talk of how in Clarissa Charles Hickman, it is suggested, is a delicate chaste man, mocked and ridiculed by Anna, he is as part of his character a gentle, kind, loving and protective husband. (A little later she said that Mr B in Pamela II anticipates Sir Charles.) This derision of Hickman was (in effect) echoed by Terry Eagleton who in his famous book on The Rape of Clarissa wrote an acerbic dismissal of Sir Charles; bluntly he remarked that in a patriarchal society it does not matter if the man is chaste or not. There is no price, no value put on a man’s virginity, such a virtue would be a personal characteristic with no general inference; this critic was repulsed by this assertion of Sir Charles. Ms Barr disagreed and argued that Richardson’s ploy here is more relevant than ever even if such a virtue is kept silent. Hickman, yes, is made a joke out of, he is despised by Anne as meek; she does not know whether to pity or laugh at him; he looks guilty like someone who committed a fault.

But Richardson is careful to align and attribute to Sir Charles all other usual male characteristics: physical bravery, virility when tested, wealth, intelligence, the prestige of rank, socially able. His kin all around him adore and value him, and call him “a good man;” this “womanly private virtue” becomes a sort of weapon in his repertoire to assert his superiority to other men and to the women involved with him. They have to come up to his chastity, themselves be just as “good.” This is not a form of feminism, or femininity but “triumph of discipline,” all the more because it is asserted he has a hot temper, is proud, not naturally timid at all. In this way the male is exalted, and the women all around him made to dwindle into fallible people.

Philip Skelton, one of Richardson’s correspondents, responded to this portrait by demanding that Grandison “be persecuted” and be paired with a “bad woman” (of course the worst trait given a woman is drunkard so she should be a drunkard, slattern), and if Sir Charles is able to cope with such women, it will make him a favorite among female readers. (Whether Skelton was alive to the irony of this I couldn’t tell.) Ms Barr pointed to passages in Grandison where we are told Sir Charles would have agreed with God to annihilate the first Eve and produce a second one, and she suggested that Harriet is the second best in the novel. Sir Charles loved Clementina first. Richardson’s correspondents, Catherine Talbot and Elizabeth Carter (two friends) also voiced that less than moral attitudes would characterize women’s responses to Sir Charles’s women — they saw other women as wanting to possess Sir Charles themselves. Ms Barr reminded us that in Jane Eyre, St John Rivers is a austerely chaste man who appeals intensely to Jane, but who would suffocate her with his intensity and offer her a torturing kind of love; he could become an unnatural tyrant over her. Bronte is showing us how such a good man oppresses a heroine. Male virtue here is weaponized when virtue (self-control) extends to virginity; it can be an excuse for male virulence, male rage, his frustration is implicitly sympathized with.

Ms Barr ended her talk around this point; she has written a paper on this topic, which will appear in the next issue of Eighteenth Century Studies; the paper is part of a book project.

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Jamie and Claire (Caitriona Balfe), “The Wedding Night” (Outlander, Season 1, Episode 7)

There was time for a question and answer period through chat or through making yourself un-muted and visible. I just found it irresistible to tell of how Jamie Fraser turns out to be unexpectedly a virgin when it is time for him to marry Claire — in order to rescue her from the probable beating, torture, imprisonment and rape by the evil villain of the first books and seasons of Outlander, Black Jack Randall. By contrast, Claire has been married and at first she is supposed to be teaching him. He does not need much instruction: it turns out he has kissed and “made out” many a girl; they just didn’t consummate. Why not, we are not told. Ms Barr was right because this state of gentle purity does give Jamie a special status — especially because he has all other male traits, and he says and makes good his promise to keep Claire safe as long as she stays by him.


Brianna (Sophie Skelton) beginning to understand that Roger Wakefield (Richard Rankin) wants an engagement and marriage as the price of a relationship with him (Outlander, Season 3, Episode 4, Of Lost Things)

I also realized that the second generation hero of the romances, Roger Wakefield, exhibits a similar superiority and gets to control Brianna, Jamie’s daughter by Claire, because he will not have sex with her unless they become engaged and are about to be married or married. She wants to be free and have sex with him as she pleases and then return to university to finish her degree. If they feel later they want to continue the relationship, fine. If not, fine. She has committed to nothing, with no promise of fidelity either. Well, he’s not having that, and they quarrel fiercely over this. Needless to say, Roger wins — after all Brianna will and cannot force Roger to fuck her. Slowly and surely, Roger comes to dominate Brianna (mainly because she wants a relationship with Roger and can only have it on his terms) though she struggles against his asserting her right after they are “handfast” (have a private ceremony between themselves with God presumably looking on). And then she is punished because now alone she is quickly raped when she attempts to go into a tavern and be accepted as an equal human being to the men there.

Roger does suffer terribly. Later in the evening, Brianna is raped by Stephen Bonnet, and when, having discovered Brianna has returned to her parents, Roger seeks her there, Jamie and Brianna’s cousin, Ian, think he is the rapist, beat him ferociously, and sell him to the Indians. So Roger is enslaved and humiliated and treated horribly for a long time. But when the ordeal is over, he has won.

Similarly Jamie is persecuted because Black Jack Randall is homosexual and deeply attracted to Jamie and captures him, and beats, tortures him, threatening to rape and kill Claire; he shatters Jamie (this is what torturers do) and rapes him to the point that Jamie loses his sense of an identity, and agrees to accept Randall. So Skelton’s demand that the male paragon be persecuted as part of the complex icon here is repeated in the 21st century.


Jamie’s Agon (Outlander, Season 1, Episode 16: To Ransom a Man’s Soul)

It may be that Hickman is made fun of, is “a comic figure” with little power over Anna Howe, whom he is pathetically grateful to marry. But it was noted that “if Lord G, Charlotte Grandison’s husband, is similarly ridiculed” for not being able to control his wife or stop her from domineering over him; nonetheless. “the marriage disciplines her.” She must accept pregnancy and breast-feeding his child. He is “second best to Charles, whom Charlotte would have married if Charles has not been her brother.”

Several other people offered ideas and parallels to Sir Charles in eighteenth century characters and twentieth. Richardson is “re-fashioning the rake,” and making a “new culturally attractive” moralized “Christian” icon. Carol Stewart offered the idea that by presenting a male this way you detach heterosexuality from agency. A character can be forceful and active and not heterosexually involved with anyone.

Ms Barr responded that there is a “heterosexual pessimism” at the core of this kind of icon; heterosexuality is not presented as good for people; sex is distrusted; we are committed to love and to sex, but it is not necessarily in our best interests to be sexually active; it can be against our interests; the best thing you can do is resign yourself. You end up with a resigned or deflated happiness. Harriet is a second best choice. The sexual life of Sir Charles and Clementina is deeply troubled.

This reminded me of the attitude towards sexuality in J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country where sex causes anguish and grief, especially to homosexual or emotionally vulnerable and tender men. It can lead to heroines marrying someone who is non-congenial and with whom life is a form of deprivation.


The self-tortured James Moon (Kenneth Branagh) (1987 A Month in the Country, scripted Simon Gray)

There was talk of the second Eve or Lilith as an icon in 19th century fiction. That these underlying complexes of feelin suggest why Sir Charles is attractive to women readers — or was. George Eliot is said to have loved the novel. There is an eroticism in this femininity, or feminine aspect of a man. I know this to be true of Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser.

I also know in the case of Winston Graham’s Ross Poldark, the readership is ferocious in denying that he raped Elizabeth Poldark — they dislike intensely any reference to any liaisons he may have had before he marries Demelza, and in the book any hints that he has affairs while an M.P in London are kept very discreet. It should be said that most of males in the Poldark series show no trace of homosexuality; they and the women characters, though, have strong same-sex friendships.

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St John Rivers (Andrew Bicknell, very handsome, brooding, absolutely chaste (1983 Jane Eyre, scripted Alexander Baron, probably the best of the 20th century adaptations)

The meeting concluded with bringing up a global dimension. We were reminded by one of the people who introduced the session that St John Rivers is a missionary going to Africa to convert African people to Christianity. He wanted Jane to be disciplined to be part of his imperial project. Jane, though, says the demands of such a role would have killed her and much prefers to return to Rochester to make a home for herself and him. That missionaries are aggressively destroying the identities of “other” people, and St John would have regarded Jane’s death as “collateral damage” in the way the US regards all the native peoples we destroy. In some post-colonial formulations, these “other” people become “spectral bodies” who will then be dominated.

This made me remember the fate of some of the Native Americans or Indians that the Frasers interact with in Drums of Autumn, and that the woods of North Carolina are haunted by the revenant of Otter-Tooth, a young man once called Roger Springer, who came from the 20th century back to the 18th and was assimilated into an Indian tribe, was killed “as a troublemaker” and now is an apparently grieving ghost haunting both present and past.

I may be overdoing these parallels, for, as we move away from Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, Bronte’s St John Rivers, and the hypocritical thug-rapist, now Supreme Court Justice, Brett Kavanaugh, we lose sight of Ms Barr’s central core point: literature’s male virgins have a peculiarly misogynist anger at their core. Perhaps one of the differences in more humane 20th and 21st century literature is that homoeroticism and homosexuality form part of the complex of sexuality openly shown to be part of male iconic characters.


Jane Eyre (Ruth Wilson) (2006 TV JE, scripted Sandy Welch)

Ellen

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Hattie Morahan as Elinor Dashwood as she resolves to accept a future with her mother, where she on herself can live (she thinks Edward has married Lucy) (2009 BBC S&S, scripted Andrew Davies)

“‘It is not every one,’ said Elinor, ‘who has your passion for dead leaves …

“Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition …

“‘We are all offending every moment of our lives’ … (Marianne Dashwood)

“‘We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing’ … (Elizabeth Bennet)

“She regained the street — happy in this, that though much had been forced on her against her will, though she had in fact heard the whole substance of Jane Fairfax’s letter, she had been able to escape the letter itself … (Emma Woodhouse)

“‘We all know at times what it is to be wearied in spirits. Mine, I confess, are exhausted’ … (Jane Fairfax)

“‘But why he should say one thing so positively, and mean another all the while, was most unaccountable! How were people, at that rate, to be understood?’ … (Catherine Morland)

“‘One does not love a place the less for having suffered in it, unless it has been all suffering, nothing but suffering….’ (Anne Elliot)

Dear friends and readers,

Every once in a while it is good for me to remember why I’ve had two blogs dedicated to Jane Austen and art I connect to her and her books, and films made from these. Last night I was in a zoom group yesterday (a nowadays not unusual experience) where we were asked this question as a sort of topic for us to discuss and share; “Who’s inspired or guided you?”, and I was surprised to discover that most people either didn’t have or didn’t want to talk about a person or book or specific event(s) they could cite. All day long today that realization was reinforced when I threw the question out on face-book and my three listservs. Only now I feel it’s not that people don’t want to tell of such an experience, most people apparently don’t have one major intense experience or person who made such an impression. I know I am more intense than many about many things.

For myself upon my eyes reading the question, my answer came out in my mind almost before the words for it: my father and Jane Austen’s six novels.


This image of the RLS book is not the one my father read to me, but I cannot replicate a book cover from the old-fashioned sets of English classics he had on his shelf, often published by do-good organizations like the Left Book Club …

I know I have mentioned about my father here before, but not said much for real. Despite spending 44 years in close friendship-love-marriage with my late husband, Jim (whom you are tired of hearing about), the true core influence on what I am, how I came to have the stances I do, political, areligious, social, were the result of my relationship with my father: from my earliest memories, he was the person who understood, companioned me, yes mothered me. Like Edmund with Fanny, he read with me, and reasoned with me about what we read together, read aloud to me — some of my happiest memories of my girlhood come from when he read aloud to me Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Sire de Maltroit’s Door” and “A Lodging for the Night:” since then I’ve been a reader/lover of Stevenson’s style, stance, pizzazz. My father took me to the library, told me of his boyhood during the 1930s depression, explained the politics of the 1950s and early 60s we were experiencing. I left home in 1963. But there was a year after Izzy was born where he phoned me every week on Sunday and we’d have a long satisfying talk.


Emma Thompson as Elinor writing to their mother to tell of what has happened in London to ask if they can come home (1995 Miramax S&S, scripted Emma Thompson, directed Ang Lee)

Then Jane Austen’s 6 famous novels. A couple of people in the zoom registered puzzlement. How could a book (maybe they meant also one so old) influence, guide or shape someone. To some extent this shows how for some people books mean nothing vital to their lives. I read today in one of the papers how public figure was influenced by a book or event — what was cited were famous people, widely know fairly recent books, fashionable, movies. So I tried to tell of how I had first read these books at age 12-13 (S&S & P&P), then 15 (MP), that as a teenager of 17 or so when I was in need of a way of responding to social life and the hard abrasions of people, I’d think of Elinor Dashwood and her stance in life, and how this character (an aspect of Austen herself I still believe) gave me a presence to emulate, to aspire to come up to to protect myself (self-control, prudence are strong themes in Austen embodied in Elinor). How often while I don’t say to myself, How would Elinor or Anne Elliot or Jane Fairfax, or even Fanny Price have acted in this situation, nevertheless parallel situations in the books come to mind when something is happening to me that have some meaning. They need not involve these central figures, but they often do – as well as some of the heroes. Lines from Austen’s books come into my mind unbidden — I remember (or half remember) what seems to crystallize or capture an aspect of the situation. What a given character said.

This is probably why I have so little patience with preposterous interpretations and some of the uses made of her text to forward careers or fill a fashionable niche, or turn her into a whipping post for someone’s feminist thwarted career, or even the hagiography which turns her into an unreal omnipotent presence, which leads to extravagant claims. And as to the solemn moralizing one comes across in some JASNA groups, how can they be so moronic to have missed the core continual anarchic ironies of the text.

To explain this to others I had to fall back on using words like role models — though that’s too crude; I know I don’t imitate these characters in literal close ways. It’s not quite the way I conceive of myself understanding how literature functions, but as a rough and ready analogy that others can understand from their own experience comes close enough. The deepest thing is  view of Austen herself that I feel throughout the novels.

By the way: My father did very much like Jane Austen. But there was no need for him to introduce the texts to me. The first time I read Pride and Prejudice I identified my relationship with him with Elizabeth’s with her father. My sympathies have ever been with the father; and it’s clear to me Austen understands what pain and counterproductive humiliation Mrs Bennet puts both her older daughters through. He also was one of those who introduced Trollope to me, with words about The Vicar of Bullhampton to this effect: Trollope has much wisdom.

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But during the talk of the group, I was led to remember how in my first year of full time college I had a teacher for an introductory course in literature where we read Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and I was shocked to hear someone (a group of people) assert how boring the book had been, and I protested and defended my favorite book. (Something similar happened to my daughter, Izzy, in a summer night-time class she took (post graduate) where she gave a paper on Elizabeth Bowen’s Last September and astonished the class by talking about it as deeply sexual. Clinton F. Oliver, an elegant black man, Henry James scholar, born in one of the Carribean islands (he once said). When I came to his office one day he suddenly said to me, major in English literature and be a college teacher. I was so touched, the first teacher to pay attention to me — tellingly a black person.

One memory: we had one class in a big auditorium (the other two were break-out sessions where I was lucky enough to be in his). One day a student came with so many lollipops and gave them out to everyone but me. I was somewhat older than the others — not as much as they thought, dressed in a skirt, probably all in black, anorexic then, but harmless. Anyway he came from behind his lectern and secured two and gave me one and smiled and we both sucked on lollipops with everyone else. It was in his class I first read Henry James: The Princess Casamassima. Also Conrad’s “Secret Sharer.” He was the only black teacher I ever had in all my years in school — until now at OLLI at AU I’ve had a class in August Wilson’s plays taught by someone who is retired military and now a librarian at Howard University


This is an image of the copy I read in that class, edited by him, which I cherish the way I do my first copy of Dr Thorne (edited by Elizabeth Bowen)

One person in this zoom group told me I was lucky to have had an experience with a teacher like that. One experience I never had was of a mentor: by this is meant not only someone who is older, wiser, and counsels you on careers, but helps you create one. Izzy had that: a Mrs Kelly who hired her for her 1st gov’t job, and helped her transfer into the library where she is now (though working remotely from home). Mrs Kelly had real feeling for Izzy and Izzy still goes to Mrs K’s yearly Halloween parties.

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And then reversing perspective: eleven days ago, I came across a posting in that excellent blog, Kaggsby’s Bookish Ramblings, on Annie Ernaux’s A Girl’s Story. Pray read what Kaggsby writes so eloquently, from which I quote her opening paragraph:

It tells the story of a pivotal event in young Annie’s life when, at the age of 18, she spent a summer as an instructor at a camp for younger children. A naive only child, Annie is instantly taken advantage of by H., the head instructor; though remaining technically a virgin, she is used sexually by him, and as the summer goes on, by plenty of others in the camp. Overwhelmed by these experiences, she is unable to recognize how she has been abused or see herself as a victim; she thinks instead she’s now experiencing freedom from the repressive control of her parents, and cannot understand why she should be labelled whore. Her humiliation at the mockery and contempt of the rest of the instructors is almost as strong as her pain at being used and abandoned by H.

As I wrote here, when I reviewed Anne Boyd Rioux’s book on Alcott’s Little Women, the problem with the books I was given, including Little Women, was this aspect of female adolescence and teenagehod, the experience of predatory punitive patriarchal sexuality that not only are boys encouraged to inflict on girls, but girls collude with, are complicit to, is omitted. It is at least hinted at in Sense and Sensibility, and in movies like Lee/Thompson and Davies brought out fully. I wish I had had as well Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia, Naomi Wollf’s Promiscuities. Kaggsby does not see that Ernaux is Aspergers  but her description of Ernaux’s horrible time in camp and as a girl growing up is an Aspergers experience.  Kaggsby has her limits, but she often goes beyond what she consciously says or sees by the thoroughness of her analyses.  In France too although the medical community knows about autism and Aspergers, the general population is unfamiliar with the term. I’ve had a few close French friends and only one knew the term; the other two were uncomfortable with the idea of a disability. It may be Ernaux knows and doesn’t say aloud — but I doubt it. I likened the book to Reviving Ophelia because Mary Pipher at no point that I can recall talks of autism: her book is an expose of the predatory punitive patriarchy that not only many men inflict on us, but many women are complicit in.

This disability puts girls at a frightening disadvantage before boys in our predatory sexual culture. I feel so for her. I have read two others of her books, both life-writing, which I associated with gothic; another I don’t have is Englished as I remain in Darkness; now I think that’s because perhaps she has not been willing to move out into rational diagnosis – the next step would be a book like Annie LeBrun’s

.

I had not thought of Aspergers but now this Kaggsby’s blog provides a comprehensive perspective for all Ernaux’s work. Of course it’s possible she was just naive and inexperienced with no social skills and a very protected upbringing, but I doubt it. At any rate she was a ripe target for experienced and cruel others.

This past summer a woman in my Bloomsbury class at OLLI at AU startled me by in front of the whole group online (another zoom experience) revealing she is lesbian by saying how she wished she had known such Forster’s Maurice when she was girl, and how much it would have helped to know others who are LBGTQ. I responded in kind: that in the 1990s when I first read Reviving Ophelia, I just cried to realize there was a large world of women experiencing what I did. This woman is in her 60s and probably has far more friends and is far more effective in life (may have made real money) than I’ve ever been. Every single person who comes out helps the rest of us.

Not that I think Austen understood herself to be coming out with the depths of her own experiences to help others but rather she began with sharp satire, and revised and revised, until the tone of mind of her book was to some extent also the opposite of where she had begun so deep empathy becomes the mode towards the vulnerable heroine.


Ania Marson as Jane Fairfax, barely but firmly self-contained (BBC Emma 1972, scripted by Denis Constantduros)


Laurie Pypher as Jane Fairfax explaining to Emma that she needs to get away from this wonderful gathering at Donwell Abbey & losing self-control (BBC Emma 2009, scripted by Sandy Welch)

What was wonderful about Andrew Davies’s development of Sanditon was he brought out this paradigm in three of the heroines (see my exegesis of Episodes 1-4, By the Sea …; and Episodes 5-8, Zigzagging). It is central to why Jane Austen has meant so much to me. This is not all she offers, but this is the core.

Ellen

My day’s journey has been pleasanter in every respect than I expected. I have been very little crowded and by no means unhappy. — Jane Austen, Letters (24 Oct 1798)

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