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Posts Tagged ‘symbolic women’


Mr Elton about to reveal Emma’s masterpiece of a drawing of Harriet overwhelmed by its frame (Emma 2020)


Our three heroines, Marianne, Heloise, Sophie making supper, tasting the wine, sewing garments (Portrait of a Lady On Fire, 2019)

What is curious about Wilde’s hollowing out of Austen’s Emma to surface scenes until near the end is that the language the actors/actresses speak is strikingly a good deal of the time taken directly from the book. I have not seen this kind of thing since the 1970s and 80s in the BBC series of Austen’s film and Andrew Davies’s 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice. This viewer found real pleasure in hearing Austen’s own lines, and that they were chosen regularly over any modernization gave the film what gravitas, intelligence and inner grace it had.

By contrast, The Portrait of a lady on Fire is often a silent film, sparse dialogue, with meaning projected through strong silent acting in emblematic scenes

Friends and readers,

While these two prominent women-centered films made and written by women (Eleanor Catton, a Booker Prize winner wrote the screenplay for this Emma) would seem to have utterly disparate characteristic scenes, as seen in the above high caricature exaggeration of the scene from Austen’s book where Mr Elton displays Emma’s drawing of Harriet brought back from London, framed and the quiet group scene of three characters existing together cooperatively in a daily task, they are at core surprisingly alike. This has not been noticed because with the exception of Anibundel on Sanditon and Emma (whom I know, not from her review, but from personal knowledge, has read both books), every single review I’ve read shows not just no knowledge of the book, but seem to misremember details and distort the book’s overall feel. Mr Martin is not a widowed farmer, Austen’s book is not filled with frenzied activity (Sheila O’Malley); Austen’s book is not generally hilarious, Clueless not in mood at all like Austen’s book (Mark Kermode).

Kermode does begin with a passing comment, that Austen’s Emma is capable of “endlessly reinterpretable gender politics,” and it’s there that the two films criss-cross terrains. Quite the opposite to this new Emma‘s obsessive gaze at all its males’ breeches for signs of phallic strength, Emma is about women’s relationships with one another. The first third of the book has Emma (here Anya Taylor-Joy) obsessed with Harriet (Mia Goth), because she is bereft without Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan) now removed down the street to the house and presumably arms of Mr Weston (Rupert Graves, sadly aged, into the harmless if ever so there male). It’s arguable the book is as lesbian as the screenplay and realization of Sciamma’s two heroines. Consider how in the book Emma has no desire to marry she says until near its end, and then it’s Mr Knightley’s companionship she would feel deprived of. But Miss Taylor is dismissed in the movie, and Emma and Harriet are treated as two women on the hunt for two males, Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn) and Robert Martin (Conor Swindells); only at two moments of intense feeling (from the second half of the film) do we see Emma and Harriet dwelling on one another — when finally Emma understands Harriet is now enamoured of Mr Knightley and Harriet grasps this is not acceptable by the woman who deprived her of Mr Martin. The second traces a slow growth of real relationship:

Both movies and stories have one young woman drawing the other and a great fuss made about the painting, but Emma takes this seriously only at the close of the movie where suddenly Emma appears to value the drawing because it is by her and of Harriet, and thus a commemoration of their friendship.


This is of Emma (Kate Beckinsale) painting Harriet (Samantha Morton) from Andrew Davies’s 1996 Emma; but a real dwelling on this substory is found in all the heritage Emmas

By contrast, all the stills in Emma which capture two characters actually in a relationship with one another capture heterosexual passion, Emma with Mr Knightley or Frank Churchill:


Emma and Frank at Box Hill


Emma and Mr Knightley dancing

The reviews of both movies have been uniformly filled with praise, but when I looked at the Rotten Tomatoes comments and percentages, it seems to me those who went to see Emma were not as ecstatic over the costumes (in both films the characters are just beautifully dressed) as the reviewers, were vaguely disappointed at this Emma, and treated it as ho hum yet another Austen film come down the studio pipes (72% rated it favorably), while the audience who registered their views of Portrait were deeply satisfied, gratified, awakened to something new (92% loved it), unexpectedly, deeply pleasurable.

I suggest that the new Emma fails to capture the book repeatedly; in the first half to two-thirds of the film, everything is acted out through artificial gestures, symmetrical behavior, caricature, exaggerated quirky behavior designed to draw laughter. We are not allowed to take the characters at all seriously until the last third, when at the point of the appearance in the story of Mrs Elton (Tanya Reynolds as effective as caricature here as she was as real living woman in Outlander as Lady Isobel Dunsany — it’s curious how actors/actresses in seemingly minor roles in Outlander are being found in key roles in quality films) there is a turn into gushing romance, when (most unlike the book) Mr Knightley acts out a besotted male and Emma melts into throbbing passion.

A structural sign something is wrong is that Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) while introduced early on by her adoring aunt, Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), is not seen again until well past the mid-point of the film; most of the scenes in the book and previous films between Frank and Jane are cut; they are utterly forgotten its close. Emma’s rivalry with Jane comes out in the scene where Emma plays the piano in such a banal and awkward way, and Jane is the policed classical performer, but nowhere else. The actress’s power is glimpsed now and again but essentially thrown away:

However briefly (and this kind of clarity about him is sort of new) Frank Churchill is presented as a hard cad; but there is no time given for any camaraderie between Jane and Emma to be built as there is in most of the other Emma films.

Autumn de Wilde, fresh from her career as a fashion photographer, music video producer, and generally pop culture pleaser, just did not take Austen’s book seriously at any level, seems not to have thought about it and granted Austen only the desire to tell stories of conventional heterosexual people moving towards marriage. Thus the movie is amusing but ultimately a bore; she missed what was unusual and interesting and moving in the book. She perhaps overdevelops one of the most famous scenes in the book, but Emma insulting Miss Bates is not part of any insight into the vulnerability of all women. The scene between Mr Elton and Emma coming back from the Christmas party where Austen gives license for a #Metoo encounter (taken up by most of the movies) is here turned into a duel of who is the greater snob, Mr Elton when he sneers at Harriet (everyone has their level) or Emma when she puts on a condescending hauteur that prompts Mr Elton to become physically angry, bang hard on the carriage roof and jump out precipitiously. You’d think he was the person sexually assailed instead of vice versa.

What is curious about this hollowing out of Austen’s book to surface scenes until near the end is that the language the actors/actresses speak is strikingly a good deal of the time taken directly from the book. I have not seen this kind of thing since the 1970s and 80s in the BBC series of Austen’s film and Andrew Davies’s 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice. This viewer found real pleasure in hearing Austen’s own lines, and that they were chosen regularly over any modernization gave the film what gravitas, intelligence and inner grace it had.

Turning to Portrait of a Lady On Fire, the incidents told include Heloise’s sister’s suicide rather than be forced to marry and at the film’s end Heloise seen crying silently across a theater by Marianne; Marianne and Heloise helping Sophie to find an abortionist, comparisons with Eurydice (who might have been glad to escape Orpheus as Carol Duffy’s poem, “The Big O,” suggests), discussions of allowing oneself to be painted as draining the life out of the subject. When left alone, the three women move into egalitarian patterns. A truly perceptive review of the film by Muriel Zagha (for Times Literary Supplement, March 6, 2020, p 25, behind a paywall) brings out its allusions to 18th century women artists, its use of female gazes, its cool egalitarian spectatorship.


Marianne listening to Sophie

Marianne and Heloise confiding


Gazing out to the sea together, wrapped up

One of the most remarkable sequences shows the all-female household going to the beach at night at mid-summer to find the beach filled with women dancing, drinking, eating together, exchanging gossip and folk remedies.

Both films rely heavily on a musical score – use explosions of music to convey complex or comical or emotional commentary on what we are seeing. Emma moves from recognizable operatic music, to Christian hymns, to modern rock, with a probably deliberately sought jarring effect; Portrait of a Lady on Fire jumped to the next century with recognizable symphonies, piano music, arresting chanting (the women on the beach) and modern electronic music.


Mr Knightley and Emma fiercely yet comically quarreling when Emma bullyingly persuades Harriet to refuse Mr Martin


The landscape is made up of 18th century material objects

My quarrel with Wilde’s Emma is not to dismiss its laughter, which we are in need of just now. I have compared the unexamined nature of the material in this woman’s movie (as all the Austen movies ultimately are, no matter how a particular director tries to wrestle into male action sequences) with Sciamma’s sincerely-done contemporary re-imagining of the past to point to Wilde’s dismissal of a sisterhood movie whose 18th century setting could have been used as a reinforcement of themes (from or in the book) embodying women seeking liberty.


Here Heloise as daughter cannot free herself of her mother’s (Valeria Golino) command she marry a man she has never met

I can’t help but remember how this year’s Sanditon attempted a resolutely contemporary re-imagining of Austen’s fragment and failed to carry it off fully. Perhaps what is needed is a new sweeping away of (recent) hagiographical Janeite readings of Austen — as was done by D. W Harding and Marvin Mudrick in the 1940s and 60s respectively.

Ellen

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Esther Denham (Charlotte Spencer) and Lord Babbington (Mark Stanley) enthusiastically tie the knot (Sanditon Episode 8)


Mary Parker (Kate Ashcroft) and Charlotte’s adieu (Episode 8) — they had a real friendship

Mary: Despite everything, I do hope you don’t regret coming to Sanditon.
Charlotte: How could I? It’s been the greatest adventure of my life

Pleased and exasperated readers,

I follow on from my first blog-review of this series.

Since Esther and Lord Babbington do marry and we see them making love in bed, it’s not quite true that Episode 5 through 8 take us through a series of ratcheted up climaxes as the character zig first this way to no purpose.  There is a slender skein of satire and sensible human feeling spun through the second half, with again an attempt at showing us, the viewers, a joyous time in the natural and romantic worlds:

Episode 5 gives us yet another repeat of Georgiana Lambe (Crystal Clarke) defying Sidney (Theo James) and her governess, Mrs Griffiths (Elizabeth Berrington), with the help of Charlotte (Rose Williams) and a decoy novel, Mary Brunto’s Self Control, more crises over money, ending in all down to the beach for a rousing game of cricket, with Charlotte taking Tom Parker’s [Kris Marshall] place as he characteristically lets everyone down and then tries to cover up and lie, demanding the referee take back a decision


Tom Parker as sore loser demanding a re-decision (Episode 5)

(5)


With good-natured Charlotte taking over and ever compromising decent James Stringer (Leo Suter) accepting the injust recall (Episode 5)

Episode 6 is zag again as Georgiana flees to London, with Sidney and Charlotte hastening after (in hot pursuit? arguing all the way, he Sherlock, she Girl Friday); they rescue Georgiana in a wild high speed chase of coaches from a brothel where she was improbably captured by a unscrupulous man to whom Georgiana’s gambling suitor, Otis, (Jyuddah Jaymes) was in debt and to whom Otis seems to have sold Georgiana! After which all who count return to Sanditon (Otis is out), where again we have a repeat of near bankruptcy (the now utterly disillusioned embittered Mr Stringer still trying to get Tom to pay him and his men), staved off this time by Charlotte’s idea “let’s have a regatta!” to make money, with time out along the way for Babbington and Esther to take a water by a waterfall, and finally a ball so we can watch Sidney and Charlotte enacting falling in love through elegant dancing:


During the coach chase, Sidney swings his body from one coach to another (Episode 6)


Dancing falling in love — another extravaganza of a ball, the 2nd of the series (Episode 6)

Then Zag in the divagating circles of Episode 7 as we begin move into various water antics, while the subplot of the fierce competition between Edward Denham (Jack Fox) and Clara Brereton (Lily Sacofsky) over who will inherit Lady Denham’s (Anne Reid) wealth as she seems truly to be on the edge of death, becomes absurdly melodramatic: the two fuck on the floor, they frantically seek the will and bargain and burn it. All to no avail, as Lady Denham suddenly gets better, after which she is seen in her usual nagging way commanding Esther to please (and this time marry) Lord Babbington. I have been omitting various walks and drives on the beach for Esther and Babbington (among others), and Sidney and Charlotte’s growing friendship, suddenly cut off by the appearance of Mrs Eliza Campion, now widow, once engaged to Sidney and come to fetch him back …


One appealing scene has Arthur (Turlough Convery) once again being kind to (talking sensibly as no one else does) to Georgiana (Episode 7)


From the water race (Episode 7)

I will not attempt to follow the zigzagging of the great crises of Episode 8, which include yet another extravagant ball, interrupted by a vast fire destroying all Tom Parker’s buildings, the death of old Stringer (caught in said fire), Sidney rushing once again to London for money, only to return to say he got some in the one way left – he has engaged himself again to Eliza. Vic Sanborn’s blog covers this episode step-by-hurried step.


Sidney now adding to all his hero’s deeds, frantic fire-fighting (Episode 8)


Stringer looking up at the fire and realizing his father has died beyond one of the upper windows(8)


Charlotte facing going home, trying to accept that Sidney now cannot marry her

As to the content of the stories, the only thing I regret is the sense Tom has he’ll be all right. He does not deserve to be all right. As written it seems Charlotte may after all marry Mr Stringer, and he will be her reward as Esther’s is the Babbington as good husband material (she is rescued from the pit of incest and seething envy of Clara) and maybe Sidney will marry Eliza — all pragmatic. Diana Parker is for a moment desolate as all Arthur’s kindness to Georgiana begins in her mind to add up to love, until Arthur reassures her he has no desires for women (is homosexual) so will not marry Miss Lambe, but with his money go home with her, so the comic spinster too will now not be alone — as she feared.


Diana and Arthur: she to him: “Home’s best. You’re so right, Arthur!” —

I dislike happy endings unless I am made to believe in them. Most of the time Austen qualifies her happy ending by ironies and other astringent comments or a downright melancholy possibility in the future (as in Persuasion‘s final paragraph). Sentimentality such as in the scene between Tom and his wife, and then Sidney and Charlotte on the cliff grates on me by its untruthfulness. You might say I so long for joy that meretricious substitutes depress me. In life this ending seems to me just what might happen. I can hope that after all Charlotte marries Mr Stringer and., like Esther, learns to love her worthy kind consistent tender hard-working husband (Stringer can still take up the offer of an apprenticeship to an architect in London once he recovers from his grief over his father’s death).

I wouldn’t mind if there was another season, but would be very unhappy if Charlotte did not marry Stringer as I find Sidney has shown himself to be a volatile, difficult and often tyrannizing violent man. As I feel that at no point did the writers make me truly believe in Georgiana or Otis (they were not created as portraits of African people as they really might have been snatched from their environment, given little security, disdained for their race), I don’t know what I want for her. I’m glad Edward is ejected (poetic justice there). I would hope Clara comes back and is reconciled with her aunt (though who would want to live with such a harsh bully?), but if we are to be treated again to these seething melodramatic absurdities I’d just as soon skip her doing more handjobs.

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


This remains the best edition for the money — the editor is Margaret Drabble


This edition has a long full introduction (history, interpretation, text)

Again, the important questions to ask are, is this a good movie series? how does it relate to Austen’s Sanditon, its source (with or without continuations). To take the questions in reverse order: as opposed to the first four episodes (and perhaps some of what was planned) just about nothing from these 4 episodes comes from any Sanditon. All that could be taken was taken and now they are trying for further character development, changes and story matter. Much that is developed is melodramatic, cliched, and when written with some attempt at human truth, not given enough time for development. Continuity and smoothness of transition were ignored. The scenes between Sidney and Charlotte as they begin to try to get to know one another and seem to be much attracted needed much more time and words. Charlotte Spencer’s acting of Esther a difficult role was effective, and, given the number of swiftly juxtaposed scenes she was in, there was enough for the actress to convey a miserably abused young woman. Rose Williams’s Charlotte made sense and if more quiet time had been granted to Theo James as Sidney, not so much rapid switching back and forth, he might have conveyed a man whose masculinity and self-respect was threatened as he watches his family go broke. Tom suggests Sidney was jilted by Eliza; Sidney hints at remorse over his life in Antigua. But so little time was given for any development or nuanced dialogue.


Two of four shots of Charlotte walking along grieving … (Episode 8)

One sign of haste is the Deus ex machina of Lady Susan. She is suddenly there, is never explained.  Why should a high society woman, or (if she) a prince’s mistress take an interest in the obscure Charlotte and help her?


A shot from Chris Brindle’s Sanditon material


A dull fairy tale shot from this series

Perhaps the film-makers (writers, directors) didn’t trust their viewing audience for a moment not to be bored. Its dramaturgy reminded me of the new Poldark. I find the Outlander series vastly superior: why? they will sometimes spend (really) 10 minutes on a interlude; they give time to dialogues to develop and we get real thought from the characters. Not enough time or money was spent on the Sanditon sets: the buildings were uninteresting, shot from afar, with the same stills used over and over again. It was clear a minimum of what was suggestively needed inside was created; the best “sets” were the beaches and water.

It’s a shame since it did seem to me that the conception of the series suggested experimentation. Could they build another kind of Austen adaptation, one which took in contemporary attitudes towards family life, sex, money, and new film-making techniques and audience acceptance of lives not lived according to some narrow set of norms? They did not manage it because the series is not the careful work of art it needed to be – and I have seen many a Jane Austen adaptation have. There is a companion volume. It does not say much about the movie series. Why break a butterfly upon a wheel?

Ellen

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Charlotte (Rose Williams) as she comes out into the sunshine and her first full look at


the sea …. followed by


downright frolicking ….

You and I, you and I, oh how happy we’ll be
When we go a-rolling in
We will duck and swim ….
Over and over, and under again
Pa is rich, Ma is rich, oh I do love to be beside the sea
I love to be beside your side, by the sea,
by the beautiful sea …

Friends and readers,

This experimental or innovative Jane Austen is not an appropriation: this is heritage all right. All the people in costume. If you attend carefully to the twelve chapter untitled fragment, the last piece of writing Austen got down (1817), known in her family as Sanditon, and then equally carefully into the continuation added by her niece Anna Austen Lefroy (probably after 1830), you will find that a remarkable number of the details and slightest hints have been transferred and elaborated from both texts (plus possibly a third, Marie Dobbs’s continuation) into this eight part series. Davies and his team (there are several writers, and several directors, though Davies is credited throughout as the creator, and has written a good deal of what we hear), the team have also availed themselves of Davies’ previous film adaptations from Austen: so the angry hardly-contained violence of Mark Strong’s Mr Knightley (1996 BBC Emma) has become the angry hard-contained violence of Theo James’s Sidney Parker:


This strident Sidney is one on whom apologies have no effect: he returns sarcasm and rejection: “I have no interest in your approval or disapproval”

The rude intrusive domineering insults of all Lady Catherine de Boughs and Davies’s Mrs Ferrars have become part of Anne Reid’s Lady Denham; the clown buffoonery of minor-major characters in Davies 2009 Sense and Sensibility just poured into Turlough Covery’s Arthur Parker &c.

And they have scoured all Austen’s texts (letters too) for precedents: female friendships and frenemys everywhere, game-playing (including cricket), piano playing where fit in, wild and heavy beat dancing, balls, show-off luncheons, water therapy — though they have nonetheless switched from the single feminocentric perspective of Charlotte of Austen’s present Sanditon (all is seen through her eyes, with the emphasis throughout on the women) to a double story where Sidney and Tom’s (Kris Marshall) two stories run in tandem with, and shape, Charlotte’s


Here Sidney and Tom are standing over Charlotte coming out from underneath the desk, discussing what they are to do next, the men call the shots, stride by seemingly purposefully — though except for Stringer they seem to have nothing much to do …

Charlotte’s story in this movie itself is continually interwoven with, shot through by, the on-going separate highly transgressive sexualized stories of 1) the incestuous Edward and Esther Denham (Jack Fox and Charlotte Spencer), 2) sexual abuse from childhood by men and now Edward and social abuse from her aunt seen literally in Clara Brereton’s (Lily Saroksky) doings (which seem from afar to include forced fellatio or jerking Edward off), and 3) young Stringer (Leo Sluter)’s aspirations in conflict with his loyalty to his entrenched-in-the-past father.


Charlotte glimpsing, shocked, Clara and Edward (in the book she sees them from afar compromised on a bench), a few minutes later the upset Charlotte is given no pity by her aunt

If you add in Charlotte’s pro-activity on behalf of getting Miss Georgiana Lambe (Crystal Clarke as “half-mulatto” — Austen’s phrase) out of trouble, out of her room, and unexpectedly into flirting with an appropriate African-born suitor, now freed and working for the abolition of slavery (Jyuddah Jaymes as Otis Molyneux), you have a helluva lot of lot going on.

This is the busiest and most the most frolick-filled Austen adaptation I’ve seen (perhaps with the exception of the violent-action-packed Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) with an upbeat lyrical music that turns into a sharp beat rhythm now and again. Episode 1 after frolicking on the beach and in the water (twice) ends in a long gay dance-sequence. Episode 2 after more bathing (Charlotte rising from the sea), a super-luxurious dressed-up luncheon, with some excoriating wit and a rotten pineapple (talked about as an erotic object, seemingly phallic), and attempts to flee to London inside a mocking crowd, ends in several walks into the cliffs, with a apparently near suicide by Miss Lambe (rescued, just, by Charlotte), and a sexualized water clash (Sidney has tried to escape by diving in, only to discover in front of him as he emerges naked, Charlotte). Episode 3, a wild water therapy machine sequence by the latest of mountebanks or doctor-quacks, Dr Fuchs (Adrian Scarborough), followed by a serious accident inflicted on Stringer’s father, mostly the fault of Tom Parker for not paying them enough so they can have more workmen, but one which brings together Sidney and Charlotte for their first understanding (like other recent film heroines she is a born nurse) and walk on the wet beach.


Again amid the first love romance, Otis jumps off the boat to show his despair and they frolick over the splashing

And Episode 4, back again to scenes on the beach with varying couples (e.g., the genuinely amusing pair of Diana [Alexandra Roach] and Arthur, this time on donkeys), an escape to a woodland and canoeing up river (Charlotte with the uncontrollable Georgiana and compliant Otis), ending in a return to ferocious quarreling between Sidney and Charlotte after he witnesses Rose Williams’s funny parody of his own (Theo James’s) physical quirks in performance.


Rose Williams has caught the way he holds his elegant cigarette holder, his voce tones and the emphatic aristocratic (?) rocking of his body

The series does what it sets out to do: provide the pleasures of the place. The beach, the sea, the sands, the waters and landscape form another character, an alive setting. The series is fun to watch — from the bathing to (for next blog) the cricket playing. But is this series any good? you’ll ask. Yes, I think it is. Charlotte does not own the story, it’s not so centrally hers (as it feels in the book), no, but Davies has created through her a character who is a cross between the joy of life and longing for experience we see in his and Austen’s Catherine Morland (Felicity Jones), with the keen intelligence and wit of Elinor Dashwood (Hattie Morahan) and querying of Elizabeth Bennet (Jennifer Ehle) combined. Charlotte is (to me) so appealing, given wonderful perception lines and before our eyes is growing up. I feel I have a new heroine out of Austen.


And our heroine has a new friend, in a new whose mother was enslaved: Charlotte and Georgiana walking back from the cliff

The series also elaborates a theme about money: about our obligations to others, our responsibilities and how they tie us to one another. While the overt sexuality will leap at most viewers, including a sadomasochistic courting of Esther by the gallant Babbington (Mark Stanley is as effective as Charlotte Spencer — she is remarkable throughout), the drum-beat theme is money, finance, as it is in Austen’s Sanditon — and also the other film adaptation to come from Austen’s book with Lefroy’s as part of the frame (Chris Brindle’s).

Tom Parker is attempting to make a fortune by developing a property he owns, but has no capital for and he is doing it off money originally earned by Sidney (it seems, ominously, in Antigua, when he may have known Miss Lambe’s late father who would be the person who left her under Sidney’s guardianship) and now secured by loans. He has built a second house, he hires men he doesn’t pay, takes advantage of securing on credit tools and materials he has not bought; at the same time he goes out and buys an expensive necklace for his wife, the “gentle, amiable” (as in Austen’s book), Mrs Mary Parker (Kate Ashfield), who complacently accepts his lies. Critics and scholars have suggested the background for this is Henry Austen’s bankruptcy and what Austen saw of finances through that (see EJClery, the Banker’s Sister).

At the close of Brindle’s play, Sidney comes forward to maneuver humane deals out of the corrupt practices of Mr Tracy (a character found in Lefroy) with Miss Lambe’s money; in contrast, at the close of Davies’s eighth episode, we see Sidney agree to marry a very wealthy woman whom he dislikes very much but has a hold on him from his past (unexplained). Lady Denham is the boss of this place because she has a fortune; her nephew and niece are at her beck and call because they hope for an inheritance. Clara is similarly subjected to her; the hatred of Esther for Clara and Clara’s fear and detestation of Esther comes from money fears. Mr Stringer will die of his accident: exhausted, he sets the room on fire when his son has gone out for some minimal enjoyment. Not land, not rank, not estates but fluid money.

What Davies shows us is Tom continually pressuring Sidney to borrow more, Sidney resisting, then giving in and coming back with money, and then Tom wanting more. As the first season ends, Sidney has had to say to Tom the banks will give him no more and he does not think he can borrow more and ever get out of the hole they are in.


Mary asking Tom if Sidney has given him hope (and money to come)


and Tom lies, handing her a necklace he has just bought which he cannot begin to afford …

I am not sure that Austen’s fragment has centered on this power of banks by the time her fragment ends. Her book’s central theme is either marginalized, or erased in the film, at closest (in the assertion of feebleness in Arthur and Diana) immeasurably lightened: Austen wrote the fragment while dying and probably in great pain, and she is, as she does throughout her life, exorcizing her demons through self-mockery by inventing characters with imaginary illnesses. She certain does in the fragment write about breezes, and light, and sun and the sea with longing, but it’s not the longing of joyful youth, but the ache of the older woman remembering what she has been told about the sea and air as

healing, softening, relaxing — fortifying, bracing, — seemingly just as was wanted — sometimes one, sometimes the other, If he sea breeze failed , the seabath was certainly the corrective; — and where bathing disagreed,the sea breeze alone was evidently designed by nature for the cure (Ch 2. p 163)

Austen’s fragment also gets caught up with literary satire as she characterizes Edward as a weak-minded reader of erotic romantic poetry and novels.  Perhaps as with the long travelogue-like passage of Anne Elliot staring out into the hills in Persuasion, Austen intended to cut some of this kind of detail. But with Lefroy’s continuation and (I suggest) Brindle’s extrapolations (see Mary Gaither Marshall’s paper summarized), we can see that Davies is on the right track too. Austen’s fragment is waiting for Sidney to come to Sanditon to fix things — each reference to him while suggesting his cleverness, irony, sense of humor (and of the ridiculous too) also presents him as intensely friendly, caring for his family, responsible, and as yet in good economic shape (see Drabble’s Penguin edition of Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon, pp Ch 5, pp 171, 174, 176; Ch 9, p 197; Ch 12, p 210)


Young Mr Stringer and Charlotte confiding in one another

The series also brings home that outside this world of genteel people is another very hard one. The various people that Diana Parker and Tom want Mrs Mary Parker to apply to Lady Denham to relieve are made real in Austen’s Sanditon; in the workmen we see, the people on the streets doing tasks, our characters on the edge of homelessness we feel the world outside — as we rarely do in most of these costume dramas. Chris Brindle’s play makes much of the specifics of these vulnerable victims of finance and industrial and agricultural capitalism in the dialogue of the second half of his play — how when banks go under everyone can go under and the banker (Mr Tracy) hope to walk away much much richer.

So the latest Jane Austen adaptation is a mix of strong adherence to Austen and radical contemporary deviation and development.

Not that there are not flaws. Sidney is made too angry; it’s one thing to clash, misunderstand, and slowly grow to appreciate, but as played by Theo James he has so much to come down from, it’s not quite believable that our bright and self-confident Charlotte still wants him. He is unlikeable. The only explanation for her attraction to him is he is the hero and Stringer not a high enough rank, for the scenes between Stringer and Charlotte in Stringer’s house, & walking on the beach together, on the working site, are much more congenial, compatible. The writers have made too melodramatic Esther and Edward Denham’s lines.

On the transgressive sex (a linked issue):  I see nothing gained by having Theo James expose himself to Charlotte, except that the audience is shocked. This is worse than superfluous to their relationship; it is using the penis as a fetish. The incest motif functions to blacken Edward much in a modern way similar for the 18th century reader to his admiration for the cold mean pernicious rapist Lovelace (in the book he wants to emulate the villain of Clarissa). I grant Charlotte Spencer’s lingering glances of anguish and alienation, puzzled hurt, at what she is being driven to do (accept Babbington) are memorable.

In general, the series moves into too much caricature, exaggeration – the burlesque scene of the shower is even probable, including Clara in her bitter distress reaching for a mode of self-harm — burning her arm against the red-hot pipes bringing in the lovely warm shower water. But it feels jagged. Too much is piled in in too short a time. Space we have, but there needed to be more money spent on continuity and development of dialogues within scenes, in both the briefer plots and the central moments between Sidney and Charlotte. I felt the quiet friendship seen between Mary Parker and Charlotte, and again Stringer and Charlotte on the beach (at the close of Episode 4) in companionable silence were some of the best moments of the series — as well as the wonderful dancing.

We are half-way through the PBS airing. I look forward to the second half. I have seen this ending and do know how it ends, and to anticipate a bit, I do like the non-ending ending. When we get there ….


An unconventional hero and heroine would have an unconventional ending … walking quietly by the sea

Ellen

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Susannah as Cordelia in Lear (a part often taken by James Quinn (1693-1766)


Susannah as Belvidera in Otway’s tragedy, Venice Preserved (Jaffier, the protagonist, played by Garrick)

For 14 consecutive nights Susannah drowned houses in tears, and stirred the very depths of men’s hearts, even her husband’s, who was so affected that he claimed and obtained the doubling of her salary, Doran, Annals of the English Stage (19th century work)

An eighteenth century actress. My first of the new style actresses blogs: I tell the story of her life in story-biography style. I had a lot more information to go on than for Adelaide Labille-Guiard, so this is also clearly about women’s position in the society and the specific conflicts of Susannah’s life and career. I chose her because she is nowadays spoken of denigratingly. The recent form of feminism which shapes studies of actresses is an aggressive capitalist one, and Susannah’s life under this lens does not draw empathy or admiration — as it should, and does from her biographer, Mary Nash (1977)

Friends and readers,

As Adelaide Labille-Guiard was my first choice for resuming my women artists blogs because her life is so little known, so Susannah Arne Cibber is my first choice for 18th century actresses because nowadays she is spoken of disparagingly as a woman dependent on men, a woman who submitted to men because too much attention has been paid to the marital and sexual arrangements that she was coerced into to survive, and then (in court) publicly humiliated for, and not enough to the strength and talents with which she began and developed her first successful career, and then, astonishingly, recuperated her life and work (in the Irish theater) to again become one of the most valued singers of her age and a deeply moving tragedian. In later years her partnership with Garrick was so firm and her insight into what an actress needed for control and respect that she worked to become a manager-partner with Garrick. She could not overcome the prejudice (in Garrick) against women, but she did, until an organic disease (in her stomach it’s said) overcame her, live a fulfilling splendid comfortable life. And again (as I have in many of these sketches from the beginning) found a good biography, Mary Nash’s The Provok’d Wife (Boston, Little Brown, 1977) and a couple of informative recent articles (by Helen Brooks).


Thomas Arne by Zoffany

There is an odd disconnect between her parentage and the musicianship both she and her brother became as masterly at. Her father and grandfather (who died in Marshalsea Prison) were upholsterers (artisans), her mother a midwife and devout Catholic. From parish registers we know that between 1710 and 1718 Anne and Thomas Arne baptised 8 infants: 5 of them died quickly; Susannah was the fourth child, born February 14, 1714, the second of three to survive. Probably because the father was ambitious, he was able to recognize genius-level talent in his son, Thomas, and Susannah. Thomas was first sent to Eton and then apprenticed as a clerk to a lawyer; he rebelled and one story tells of Thomas learning to play the violin in secret. He acquired a clavichord, a player, mastered the keyboard. They lived in the Convent Garden area, and slowly Arne began to become part of the companies playing; knew the people, wrote and worked with them on music, and then produced superb musical events with them.  Eventually he became one of the best and important composers of the era (1710-78), and among his friends, the equally talented, Henry Carey (1687-1743) and Johann Freidrich Lampe (1703-51, wrote scripts).

By contrast, the father had paid for singing lessons for Susannah for years — no need to spend money sending her to the right school to be taught to conform. She begins to sing professionally; one of her earliest professional roles was in Carey’s Amelia. She sang her brother’s music. In this early time she sang in Carey’s Rosamond (play by Addison) and her “expressive sweet contralto” won Handel over (whose Deborah she sang) and was a runaway success at Lincoln’s Inn Fields (1733). Unfortunately, she caught the eye of Theophilus Cibber, son of Colley, an obnoxious bully, sexually abusive of any woman he became involved with (his exhausted wife, Jane Cibber, married 1725, had just died), and her father by now in bad debt, she was confronted, bullied by him driven into marrying this man known as a vicious brute. She had been revulsed by Cibber, tried to hold out with her mother on her side. She had an earnest, melancholy sensitive character. There were worse men about, marriage was a form of protection (literally and from a reputation for promiscuity for unmarried actresses), and of course the two Cibbers were enormously influential in the theater.

At first Susannah was as prodigal as Theo (quickly pregnant), fitting herself into what he wanted; I would put it she accepts training by her father-in-law who recognized her capabilities. In the crowded scheduled super-busy Drury Lane, Susannah lands a break-through role in tragedy (she was hemmed in partly because roles were understood as belonging to the actress who first realized and made a hit with it), her first such role, in Aaron Hill’s translation of Voltaire’s Zaire as Zara.  Hill fancied himself knowing in dramatic art, Thomas Arne wrote the music  Her very frailty after giving birth for the first time was part of what appealed. She began to rack up (as it were) tragic and grave parts: Andromache in Philips’s Distrest Mother, Indiana in Steele’s Conscious Lovers, Amanda in Colley Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift. Meanwhile Theo was taking these braggart coarse roles (Pistol). Those writing about her next step talk of how naive she was, how she never did anything without a man’s approbation, calling her a “priestess of sensibility.”

But what was she to do and what did she do? she broke or tried to break her marital relationship. With all his physical bullying, driving her to work when she was pregnant, she had apparently established during the second pregnancy she was not going to sleep with him (he reproaches for this seethingly), and she moves to put a stop to being put into roles where she’d be publicly mortified. She had loathed how he spoke of and presented her as a “laughable public property.” Most of all of his insisting she take the role of Polly in Beggar’s Opera, which brought down on her Catherine Clive’s vituperative wrath. She had gone to Fleetwood for support, but he refused; nonetheless, she resisted taking Polly, insisted from now on she would decide what roles she took and what not. He went into a “cyclonic rage” and broke down the door of her dressing room, took all cash, her whole wardrobe, all her jewels, and sold it all. Basically the law gave him the right to strip her naked and leave her broke, with no shelter.

Lady Arabella: I won’t come home till four tomorrow.
Lord Loverule: I’ll order the doors locked at twelve.
Lady Arabella: Then I won’t come home till tomorrow.
Lord Loverule Then you shall never come home again, Madam.
— Vanbrugh, The Journey to London

It’s at this point William Sloper, the country squire who would make a crucial difference for her quiet eventually and for the rest of her enters the story. When later Cibber went to court and accused her and Sloper of adultery, it was said that it was Cibber who openly demanded she go to bed with Sloper for a sum of money Cibber would collect. Certainly he let the man visit his house. But an equally probable trajectory tells of how she had met Sloper at the Cibber home in Wild Court, and taught her to play backgammon. They would sit apart talking companionably; their temperaments were compatible.  His wife admired her in Othello; she learned of his splendid house, West Woodhay. He brought needed food to the house, disbursed money to half-paid servants.  Cannot it not equally and more likely be she chose this sensitive man, especially since Cibber began to resent him (especially when in prison)? Between Susannah’s salary and Sloper’s gifts, Cibber was doing very well when out of prison, but he wanted Susannah to be discreet, but now when he tried to get her to take Clive’s role of Ophelia in Hamlet (Clive was clearly unsuited for this role), Susannah would not even attend rehearsals.

The story is complicated, and includes the two lovers taking a flat apart (Blue Cross Street, Leicester Fields), moving again (Kensington lodgings), Sloper’s wife separating herself from him, then Cibber writing her a long crazed letter (Nash, 117-22), which Nash describes as hysterical, a mad, sly letter, so groveling and so menacing, so rambling and so calculating,” where there is also an assume “iron grip” on Susannah. She was now pregnant by Sloper; they capitulate for a while to the appearance of a menage a trois, — before throwing him out. There is another series of letters by Cibber. They flee to hide, but Cibber finds them out, goes after them with hired thugs and guns, and tries to wrest her from Sloper. She is dragged out of the house, but the two will not be parted. It all ends in a humiliating court case where Susannah is utterly shamed.  Even if the judge wanted to sympathize with her, the law was clear that it was Cibber who was the abused person; she, the vile sinner. Cibber asked for 5000£; the jury awarded him 10£. Some did understand Theophilus Cibber was as “depraved and rapacious” as the roles he played (Nash, 151).


West Woodhay house

It is from this nadir, Susannah climbs a long way back. It took a long time and to my way of thinking we ought to admire and respect her wondrously. She was pregnant, utterly shattered from shame and spent two years as if she were “a runway slave,” so fearful was she (and Sloper) that Cibber would make good on new threats unless (say) Sloper paid all his new debts; he advertised his case all over again, but still she kept fleeing (now with a young baby girl around whom Sloper and Susannah would eventually build a family life). Cibber was “still under a recognizance not to threaten or molest” Susannah and so he went to court again. Again he had to win because all law and custom was on his side; he was awarded 500£ (not the 10,000£ he asked for) and apparently he could not go to court again. I drop Theo’s story now: he sold his preposterous missives to the booksellers. He did continue to harass and threaten her and Sloper whenever he could; he drowned in 1758 crossing over to Dublin.

The two lovers disappear (perhaps from the British Isles) and the next time she emerges, it’s November 1741 and she is “under the protection of,” working with and for James Quinn and Friedrich Handel in Dublin. Again as told this is “amazing:” what “can explain the willingness of this timid woman to leave her retirement with William Sloper … ” Maybe she was not so timid; maybe her acting career was a raison d’etre of life for her; she had not chosen to be an actress (though she clearly sang from the time she was young, opinion is divided on her sophistication), but once started, maybe she loved the power over an audience, the accomplishment, the acting out of these different identities, the interaction with other actors. She didn’t have to invent a story, she could take someone else’s and express herself as an actress and through song.


Susannah Cibber by Thomas Hudson

Several elements went into her recovery of herself and her career. First she had a happy good relationship with William Sloper who admired her partly because of her career. He had money, connections, influence. Her first, and now in the second longer, phase of her career she made friends, was liked, she worked hard and had real talent for acting and singing and she had learned well on the job. She had grasped from what happened in courts and her hidden life, she was not as much Theo’s “chattel” as she had thought, but she did remain socially elusive except for when she and Sloper were at home in his country estate. Now her life is made up of her many many acting roles — mostly poignant, grave, or tragic. Nash says her singing was “mediocre,” but she riveted audiences. Charles Burney said how effective she was in recitative; there was an “emotional projection of words;” she was an actress when she sang. Nash writes: “there was something inconsolable, something irremediably melancholy about Susanna Cibber.”  (She seems to have had an opposite character to Catherine Clive.) It was with Spranger Barry (another of her partners on stage) in Romeo and Juliet that the lovers are described as “heart-rending.” She would also take virtuous heroines: she was the sorely-tried Aspasia in Johnson’s Irene.

She formed a strong partnership with Garrick (“the least promiscuous, the most conventional of men”); she felt safe with him; they made an effective couple on stage where the chemistry was transparent. Their highly performative letters survive and it is here we see her attempting to persuade Garrick to let her be a partner in the theater management or patent. Eventually she was the winner in her “wars” with Clive; the public stayed with this disgraced woman. Everyone knows how much Garrick did to make and keep Shakespeare’s plays central to the English stage. She was paid altogether an enormous salary while still in good health.


David Garrick, by Thomas Gainsborough

But her last years were marred by her “chronic stomach disorder” which emaciated her towards the end. She had to give up her heavy schedule. She did long for social acceptance by upper class women, be they titled or of the bluestocking variety, and never had it — neither did most actresses of the era. Mrs Siddons was a remarkable exception; so too Frances Abingdon. She never belonged to any group of women, and we find her maintaining close relationships with her family members: her daughter, her sister-in-law, Cecilia Arne (whom her brother mistreated), Sloper’s sister, Margaret Lethieulllier, who defied convention by coming to stay for long visits to West Woodhay.  Sloper and she hoped for much for their son; he was enrolled in Westminster but he died in the first year away in school. They educated Molly lovingly (in manners, musical accomplishments, an educated taste); she married a well-born clergyman, a love match, and was accepted by his community, but she died young, age 46. Susannah probably hoped for something more from her relationship with Garrick, though hard to say what; when he retired from the stage, it was a blow for her — he had regarded stage as having “almost civic importance” and had transformed Drury Lane. James Quinn, one of her strong supporters, died just two weeks before her. She died January 30, 1766, age 51.  She was buried not in Westminster Abbey itself (like Garrick, Anne Oldfield), but in the North Cloister, a sort of anteroom. William Sloper died three years after the death of their daughter. I imagine him lonely after the death of Susannah and his two children by her.

The one final command performance Garrick did before the king his heroine was Susannah Cibber and since the king wanted to see a comedy (and Susannah’s strength was in serious parts), the choice became Vanbrugh’s Provoked Wife. Nash says Susannah had a “passionate fondness” for this role: a young woman “wretchedly married to Sir John Brute, who not only neglects, but loathes and even physically assaults her.” She is “tenderly wooed by Constant,” a discreet, eloquent, patient and faithful lover, and if she is not yet Constant’s mistress when the play closes, the idea is waiting to be fulfilled off-stage. So Lady Brute does not die nor is she reconciled or resigned to her husband. She asks herself: “What did I vow? … I think I swore to be true to my husband. And he promised to be kind to me. But he hasn’t kept his word. Why, then, I’m absolved from mine” (Nash 313-15). I have read this play myself and find the scenes of the husband with his wife, implied mistress, and servants distressing. Susannah could and did play her part with “special animation” and “poignancy.”


Jonathan Slinger and Alexandria Gilbreath as the Brutes (RSC, 2019)

If Jane Austen never got to see either on the stage, she knew of them by their reputations, books, and read the plays they were in.

Ellen

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A Self-portrait

Friends and readers,

For my first of my new series of women artists I’m going to disagree with the some of the implications of the biography by Laura Auricchio, which book suggests a life and work where our heroine breaks through taboos, wins unusual recognition, fulfills her gifts, all while leading an independent life. She did indeed lead a courageous independent life if by that we mean she left a mistaken marriage quickly, was well-educated, trained in the best schools a young woman might find in France, and apparently lived as a single professional woman supporting herself and others for many years– in the face of all sorts of obstacles from ridicule to threatened possible imprisonment. The qualification is the result of her life-long relationship with her teacher and mentor, then friend and promoter, and finally lover Francois-Andre Vincent (his teacher had been Joseph Marie-Vien [1716-1809].) Following the records of her we find her continually doing what she had to do to get herself and her work accepted into what academies she could, obtain and paint paying clients (some of them remarkable people), and have her work exhibited in the right places. We find good and useful friendships (with other women, with clients). She survived the revolution, no mean feat, herself painting a series of National Assembly deputies, painting on into the last years of her life.

On a humane intimate level, it seems that one of the two famous pupils in her best known (beautiful) painting, of herself with two pupils, namely Marie-Gabrielle Capet (1761-1818) was Vincent’s daughter and became for Labille-Guiard a beloved (step)-daughter:


The other girl is Carreuax de Rosemond (d. 1788)

Marie-Gabrielle was lovingly painted a number of times (close-ups), e.g.,


Study of a Seated Woman Seen from Behind (Marie-Gabrielle Capet), 1789

She lived with Labille-Guiard and Vincent for many years; well past her (step-)mother’s death, she named Vincent as her father (and was his primary beneficiary). Late in life, Marie depicted Labille-Guiard surrounded by a group of male artists, while she paints Joseph Marie-Vien, to the side is an older Marie herself. She had become a painter in her own right calling herself Gabrielle Capet. A close-knit family of three artists. Adelaide’s father had been a successful marchand du corps de la mercerie, his shop was in an area of Paris which was a center for theater, music and dance, their street near the Louvre where the Royal Academy had its headquarters, with favored painters and sculptors living and working nearby. Madame de Barry was at one time an employee in her father’s shop. There had been 8 children (all but she dead by 1783). Her mother died in 1768, and a year later she married a neighbor, from whom she was legally separated in 1779. She married Vincent in 1800.

Where I part company from Auricchio’s study is I take Labille-Guiard’s work as an artist to have had (to use Germaine Greer’s words) an “illusion of success” rather than the real thing. Why? She paints as effectively and ably, with psychological astuteness Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun rarely achieves, in the earlier part of her career as she does the later. With a genius level talent for depicting aliveness, skin, textures, nervous brush strokes, moods, she never develops into anything else but a portraitist, and these remain oddly still. However later in her career she is forced to tone down the luxurious and rank- and reward-based accoutrements, extravagant costumes, furniture she seems to have delighted in painting, so that the portrait concentrates more than ever on the person’s face and body, yet she is essentially making the same kinds of portraits over and over. She flatters her clientele, has them lavishly enact admired norms (in the case of women breast-feeding, with children hanging all around them, or presented as deeply sensual), follows whatever she thinks will be approved of, and remains decorous (sometimes in the face of ridicule, implicit or open dismissal). When it’s not a case of elite requirements, she is hemmed in by new revolutionary codes. Late in life she shows her group hierarchical scenes are done out of more than commercial and respectable considerations, for she produces the same kinds of worshipful ancien regime type group hierarchical scenes she began with. Like Orwell’s horse at the end of Animal Farm, she cannot resist a ribbon, and elevates Madame de Genlis late in life with a satin and lace gown, “a spectacular headpiece of ribbon and lace” and (to me) unsettling green leather gloves:


Madame de Genlis

When she rises out of the usual, ordinary, expected, it’s because something in the person him or herself comes through or Adelaide’s own love for her subject lifts the painting.


Again Marie-Gabrielle Capet, 1798, a somber portrait – the girl smiles hiddenly

Or some inexplicable or unexplained allegiance, as in the emotionally intense strange


Portrait of Louisa Elisabeth of France (painted 1788)

Not the least fascinating element of the above often-reprinted image from Labille-Guiard’s portrait of the (once) Duchess of Parma with her two year old son, is that the Duchess died in 1759; Labille-Guiard was 10 at the time, so this is a probably a completely faked picture. Art criticism can go on and one about the combination of sentimental romanticism, hierarchical rococo neo-classicism, mothering in a fantastical hat whose feathers are repeated by the parrot on the one side, and white curtain to procure a shadow on the other, but it is as unreal a put-together set of alluring arms, hands, bosom, dress, with a waif-like child on a oddly sunny balcony (as if a film camera were spot-lighting the area) as you are likely to come across.

Auricchio’s study keeps to a sensible track. It may be read as a history of what helped but far more often stifled and got in Labille-Guiard’s way. In her early years of training (which included pastels), she studied with respected minor and well-known painters, one of whom, Alexander Roslin (1718-1793) was especially supportive of female artists, and nominated Adelaide for membership in the Royal Academy in 1783. In the first chapter she is attacked by the relentless comte d’Angiviller who did everything he could to exclude women from the Royal Academy and stop a commercial exhibition she was part of; at the same time she is supported by a bourgeois entrepreneur, Claude-Mammes Pahin de Champlain de la Blancherie-Newton (whew) who staged popular and varied art salons and praised her work strongly. She did learn to produce precisely the sort of work that was expected of her gender, class, even marital status. She also chose subjects which advertised, confirmed and validated her as in this or that network of support. I’ve chosen from this part of her career one which shows a favorite motif: the artist doing his or her work


Portrait of the sculptor Augustin-Pajou Modeling the bust of J.B. Lemoyne (a pastel)

Still she and other female artists were primary targets for virulent tracts presenting lewd gossip; she turned to the comtesse d’Angiviller against a gross libel that hurt a client. It’s no wonder her career stagnated. She seems never to have considered trying a landscape, a still life, anything truly expressionistic (like Angelica Kauffman). When she was strongly praised, she tried to use the moment to ask for lodgings in the Louvre, which she was not granted (but given a pension of 1000 lives instead). She also ran a school for other female artists. Dena Goodman has studied her work from this period and finds the way Labille-Guiard presents her women in what is clearly a public space (meant for men then) gives them gravitas and a place in the world.

Come the revolution, new fights and struggles (though over similar things) occur where she took a pro-active role for women and moderate reform; at one point she is mocked mercilessly. Transition was tough as fleeing aristocrats don’t remember to pay their bills, new patrons are needed, her worshipful style towards aristocrats not changing, she finds her one entry poorly received. Unexpectedly, she painted Robespierre, about which we are not told very much; discouragingly, this is another of her paintings to have gone missing. At this point she casts her lot (or informally joins) a group of political moderates; most of her paintings of this era remain untraced. Iconoclastic fervor destroyed one of her works. She retreats, retrenches, leads a quieter life; together with friends and family members she buys property, tries legally to secure income to Vincent’s daughter and another young woman and even continues to try to obtain lodgings in the Louvre.

Her work changes again, becomes smaller, less idealized, more somber. Now no women were allowed in the Royal Academy, yet we find her re-grouping and painting again. Two works from this later post-Revolutionary period:


Portrait of Joachim Lebreton — she is still keeping away from us the inner life of the more simply dressed and framed man — he was the head of the museum department of the Committee on Public Instruction, a leading art institution


Portrait of the Comedian Tournelle, called Dublin, 1799 — he had been imprisoned for performing Richardson’s Pamela (deemed controversial and unpatriotic)

I’ll end on an earlier work (for as I suggest the earlier works can be as good and interesting as her later), executed perhaps around the time she painted herself (1780), a portrait of her partner and husband, Francois Andre Vincent

Considered the leader of the neoclassical movement until he was usurped by Jacques-Louis David … [his wife paints Vincent] fully within neoclassicism … this painting is interesting for its wide range of colors, achieved with very little tonal variation … Labille-Guiard displays superb technical dexterity in color and tone which allowed her to perfectly integrate the foreground with the middle and backgrounds and the outlines of the figure with the surrounding space. The interplay between the lateral illumination of the face, the darkness of the other side of the face, and the light in the background contributed to an atmospheric school that would extend throughout Europe (Jordi Vigue, Great Women Masters of Art).

You could say she was a stubborn portraitist. She does not appear to have owned a cat nor painted any pet-companions.  One begins to find this in this era.  Her life-span id closely similar to that of Charlotte Smith.

Ellen

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Jo (Maya Hawke) and Amy (Kathryn Newton) dressing in opening scene in the 2017 Little Women (scripted Heidi Thomas, directed Vanessa Caswill)

Never are voices so beautiful as on a winter’s evening, when dusk almost hides the body, and they seem to issue from nothingness with a note of intimacy seldom heard by day … In front of them the sky now showed itself of a reddish-yellow, like a slice of some semilucent stone behind which a lamp burnt, while a fringe of black trees with distinct branches stood against the light, which was obscured in one direction by a hump of earth, in all other directions the land lying flat to the very verge of the sky. One of the swift and noiseless birds of the winter’s night seemed to follow them across the field, circling a few feet in front of them, disappearing and returning again and again — Virginia Woolf, Night and Day, Chapter 15)

Friends and readers a Winter Solstice/Christmas blog:

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.
“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.
“We’ve got father and mother and each other,” said Beth contentedly, from her corner …. (Chapter 1)

Of course everyone remembers the opening line of Little Women, and (I hope) the opening sequence, where though the March girls are feeling they are among the deprived, are led by their ever vigilantly alert to the worst-misfortunes-of-others mother to go to a downright starving freezing family, sitting in rags in a hovel in the pitch dark, the mother having recently given birth to baby and give them their Christmas dinner (Chapter 2).

But did you know that Christmas is a recurring incident in Alcott’s famous book, like winter, brought back repeatedly, most of the time (as in Austen) as a way of creating realistic time, so fleetingly, and but crucially too (this very unlike Austen), dwelt on at length so as to provide vivid vignettes of camaraderie and carefully mitigated disaster, and sweet human togetherness.


Little Women — iconic scene of girls gathering round mother to be read too — here though it is a telegram (1970 BBC LW, Angela Downe as Jo, scripted Denis Constanduros)

When Mrs March receives a telegram from the civil war front urging her to come to her husband who is very ill, it is mid-November, and much of ensuing desperate, generous, and comic action occurs in the cold, dark and snowy winter, including Jo selling her long hair to get up money for the mother’s train fare. The father comes home as a “Christmas present,” and the first order of business is to sit down to “such a Christmas dinner” as anyone would revel in (“the fat turkey was a sight to behold … so was the plum pudding …”, and all sit down round the fire, drinking healths, telling stories, singing, “reminiscing,” foregoing the planned “sleigh ride” until another day (Chapters 15 on and off through 22)

I had remembered from more than one Little Women movie (I’ve seen at least 7) the putting on of a play around Christmas, as a separate time, but looking at my old book for adolescent girls (Grosset and Dunlap, illustrated by Louis Jambor) I find Jo’s writing of plays, acting and directing in an amateur theater are all part of the opening sequence. The play, as we all recall, is an “Operatic Tragedy,” the story of a stalking villain, Hugh, who hated Roderigo, loves Zara, with cabalistic outfits, comic gothicism in five fun acts (Chapter 2)


Laurie (Peter Lawford) gives Jo (Katharine Hepburn) some kittens for Christmas (1931, LW, George Cukor)

When Jo goes to New York to become a professional writer, the season is again November, and her first meeting with Mr Bhaer (she learns to call him Professor only much later) is during the Christmas week when she is feeling especially lonely, and so is he, and they agree for her to read to him “these pleasant little Marchen together,” while he teaches her German. They read Hans Christian Anderson together too, and unexpectedly to Jo (but not to us) her “big, muddy, battered-looking” “Christmas bundle” arrives, “so homey and refreshing” that “I sat down on the floor and read and looked and ate and laughed, and cried, in my usual way.” “The things” are “just what I wanted,” and “all the better for being made instead of bought,” which must exclude “the books father had marked.” Mr Bhaer gives her “a fine Shakespeare … one that he values much.” “Poor as he is,” he has made a present for every person in the house, servants and children too. Downstairs “they got up a masquerade;” Jo is at first not going to go, “having no dress … ” but “some old brocades” are remembered, a loan of “lace and feathers” takes place, and Jo goes as Mrs Malaprop in her mask.” This is all in a letter which ends very happily with Jo’s vow to “take more interest in other people than I used to” as Marmee has advised (Chapter 33).


Jo (Winona Ryder) and Prof Bhaer (Gabriel Bryne) pouring over manuscripts and drawings in their New York lodgings (1994 LW, scripted Robin Swicord, directed Gillian Armstrong)

I have here emphasized how the earlier part of the book are more didactic and more obviously aimed at adolescent girls. The later part (once called Good Wives) shows a change of focus to include young women, especially when the book turns to Jo’s career as a writer in her parents’ attic and life as a single unmarried daughter in the house. And in the text, Christmas drops out of sight, and Jo meets her beloved teacher once again not in winter, but years later in the mud and rain of spring.

Izzy and I intend to go to Greta Gerwig’s new Little Women, which begins with Jo in New York, trying to sell a manuscript. Laura, my other daughter, has already seen it and will be publishing her review for Elite Daily on Christmas Day. Despite a probably valiant attempt to update the book, and turn Little Women into wholly adolescent girl/adult book (see interview of Gerwig by Gabrielle Donnelly), Gertwig will not be able to lift the material too far from the original to stay true to its ethics. For her too (LW is my sixth of ten most influential books) this is a seminal book, one she can hardly remember not knowing, so often and so far back has she been reading it.


Meg (Emma Watson) Jo (Saoirse Ronan) Beth (Eliza Scanlan) and Amy (Florence Pugh) (2019, LW, Greta Gerwig et aliae)

I signed up for a course in Louisa May Alcott’s books, where we will read all Little Women (using the Norton Critical edition), her Hospital Sketches (Applewood) and a Long Fatal Love Chase (Dell). I’ve blogged on Anne Boyd Rioux’s Meg Jo Beth Amy: why Little Women still matters and on Louisa separately in Writing for Immortality.

So this is a looking forward to next year meditation too: I’m torn whether to buy the Norton (with its young girl picture) or the two Library of America volumes, edited by Elaine Showalter in paperback.

To conclude in the spirit of Alcott:

Wild Geese

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

— Mary Oliver

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

From Previous Years:

For Christmas in Jane Austen’s novels and letters, her 18th century perspective


Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth supposed reading Jane’s letters the winter after the Christmas visit of the Gardeners (who took Jane off to cheer her up, 1995 P&P, scripted Andrew Davies, directed Simon Langton)

For Christmas at Trenwith and Nampara: two occasions at length in the Poldark novels


Christmas at Trenwith, Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza, frightened, first visit, questioned by Caroline Blakiston as Aunt Agatha (Poldark, 2014, Season 1, Episode 4 — corresponding to the last quarter of Ross Poldark

Ellen

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Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) threatening Offred (Elisabeth Moss): why so repulsive and terrifying

Sometimes (sadly) it seems Austen is the only writer among some of my favorites whom I’ve not gotten to. This fall I’ve been reading Margaret Atwood (oh yes again!), her Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, a supposed and part-sequel to the Handmaid’s Tale, but much more a reaction to (mostly against) the TV serial, which by now has turned into voyeuristic misogyny (what can we do to hurt women exquisitely painfully? show them hurting one another), mistaken by some for feminism (strength used for evil purposes, complicity and collusion mistaken for community, coercion for choice). I’ve reread her very first sinister comedy, The Edible Woman, which ends with the heroine avoiding the fate of marriage to a man who would devour (destroy) her; and am reading her most recent ghost-ridden desperate comedy, Stone Mattress, 9 tales (she says) of witches. I’m more than half-way through Laura Esquivel’s magical realism, Like Water for Chocolate, where the punishing of a few young and older women by a horrifically violent hateful faux matriarch, just startles me, especially since the daughters keep coming back for more. The movie (written by her, produced and directed by her husband) is soporific because it turns the material into an inane celebration.

A good essay on Rachel Cusk by Lucasta Miller (of all people) in Times Literary Supplement sent me back to her Aftermath, which I can see would make me bond with her, but lies unread for now on a TBR pile. She is castigated for telling hard truths about marriage, motherhood, and all their accompanying glorification rituals.

In all these cases I have taken extensive notes or gone to a class and taken down intelligent and insightful comments by others, or information, or felt hope, but none of it coherent enough for an essay-blog. I can report that unexpectedly the traumas inflicted on Esquivel’s heroine are parallel to, sometimes the same paradigms I find in Atwood. I should not be surprised as Atwood is as fantastical as Esquivel and both are writing serious l’ecriture-femme. Thus far my first experience of magical realism has shown me it exists to provide humor, wish-fulfillment, some form of kindness and beauty in worlds otherwise grim and impoverished; it grows out of pseudo-science. Atwood’s dystopia shows character reacting perversely to scientific knowledge; using it to control others. The central section of her Testaments provides us with a Ardua Hall, a community of women who (reminding me of Sarah Scott’s 18th century Millenium Hall) need not marry or have children: a happy escape for most you might think, not from control, manipulation and even suicide for the central matriarchs (Aunt Lydia, Becka). Characters left standing now include Offred/June’s two daughters, Hannah now named Agnes Jemima and Nicole (pseudonym Jade).


The most unexpected heroine is Beatrice, our heroine’s spinster sister-in-law who marries late in the book and her life

Among older books I’ve read the strange and powerful early indirectly autobiographical English-style novel by Oliphant, Days of My Life, her first three Carlingford fictions, “The Executor” (short story), The Rector (novella) and The Doctor’s Family (longer novella, which last I agree with Penelope Fitzgerald and Merryn Williams can stand with among the most remarkable and powerful of English novellas. I’m now into Agnes. All these concern women estranged from a husband, or single women supporting a whole family, or the experience of being widowed, when the man you were married to was (most of the time) a heavy, painful irritating burden who was anything but grateful to the woman so naive to have chosen him. In the one case where the man is a good man, the heroine coldly rejects him until near the end because he has participated in tricking her into a marriage she cannot escape and whose terms demand full obedience and the offering up of her body to him nightly. Oliphant’s heroines anticipate Cusk’s.

Again my notes are long and various; they are shoring up my idea that the anomaly (the woman living apart from men or at least responsible for herself) is not an anomaly and can show up far more starkly than stories of married women the painful inexorable predicaments patriarchy or a male hegemonic order inflicts on many women. Curiously in all the cases I’ve been reading widowhood is a liberation, and the woman who was a library waiting to happen emits books at a rapid rate for the rest of her days, from real women (Oliphant and Fitzgerald) to fictional ones (Atwood’s Constance in her “Alphinland” in Stone Mattress).


A curious figurine for Lady Halkett found on wikipedia

I was very disappointed in a study of English civil war spies, where I had read Anne Murray Halkett was to be a central figure: but while Nadine Akkermann in her Invisible Agents recognized in print what no one but me (as far as I can tell) that what silenced, thwarted and skewed all presentations of Halkett is that she lived outside marriage with the spy-mole (some would call him a traitor) Colonel Bampfield and on her own (by herself! in Edinburgh), this long period of her life is treated briefly and what is talked about at length are her superficial literally active machinations for a brief period as a spy herself (“colorful” spy story stuff) as if in these are found her primary source of strength and interest. It’s her sustaining her identity against all odds, her self true to her Scots and Cavalier connections and norms as well as her high intelligence and extraordinary ability with narrative that one reads her for.

For Austen in a (it turns out) misguided attempt to help keep a Janeites list alive and remain close to Austen in some way I have been close reading a series of essays in Persuasions 40 on Persuasion; my notes here are more coherent and shorter than those for all of the above; I had hoped for debates about the issues in the essays by others on this list, but it seemed those who are active were not interested in the arguments or points made by the essayist. But I am nowhere near the end of the volume (it’s huge if you count in what’s put on line) so I can hardly say for sure (though this is true of the printed 18) the volume is wholly fitted into an agenda where Austen is presented as optimistic, conservative leaning, didactic and conventional in outlook if spectacular in as an artist and intertextual super-genius (outed by these writers).


Best performance and most interesting character in Davies’s (et alia) Sanditon is Charlotte Spencer’s Esther Denham

I have been watching Andrew Davies’s Sanditon, and have read through Austen’s own fragment once again, but for me far more watching and re-watching of this jarring series and reading not only of the fragment, but about a few other of the important continuations (by Anna Lefroy, Chris Brindle) and insightful essays on the book (Janet Todd has one in her recent edition of Sanditon) are needed before I can say anything sensible, accurate, useful for anyone else. Austen’s is a work whose suggestiveness if truly written about would break apart the Persuasions monolithic agenda.


Catherine Despard, probably his legal wife, was the Creole daughter of a freed African woman who herself “owned” enslaved people; after he was hanged, she disappears from the historical record — perhaps went to Ireland in the hope his family might recognize or help her

That’s where I’ve been this month when it comes to women writers or the eighteenth century beyond reading a remarkable informative and insightful book on Edward Despard (Mike Jay’s The Unfortunate Colonel Despard), whose complicated and compromised life first as a military man and engineer for the powerful and rich and slave-owners, then as a elected reformer trying to build a working colony out of all the people in South & Latin American lands and waters (Nicaragua, Jamaica) Debbie Horsfield exploited but (I find) misrepresented in ways that support the establishment’s view of him as deluded — so that her fifth season of Poldark remains as anti-French revolution and muddled on English reformists as her fourth season where she at least had a coherent book (The Angry Tide): towards the end of the season (the last two episodes) she turned to the genre of action-adventure thriller.

I enjoy still the (to me) deeply touching persuasive romance of the love of Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser for her Jamie Mackenzie Fraser but I know this is based on a fantasy configuration of a an impossibly lucky morally and physically courageous well-educated female individual (using the few humane 1950s norms) finding validation (most improbably) and companionship, understanding from a protective tenderly loving analogously well-educated Highlander (using idealisms drawn from 18th century Highlander culture), both made supremely intelligent, loyal people of unusual integrity. I am pouring into them my dreams of what was my and Jim’s relationship over our lives. Gabaldon’s politics themselves are deeply retrograde, supportive of patriarchy

With a co-opted writers like these last two (I will be writing a blog on the Poldark‘s fifth season) supposedly on the side of “strong” women making central TV films, I begin to despair of any feminist movement in the popular media dramatizing on behalf of meaningful progress for women. I was using the word stunned to describe how I see the position of women today and how the better older and more recent feminist humane (not all feminists are humane) writers are misrepresented, castigated but be-prized (some of them), but I saw a better one used of herself by an FB friend: drained. She felt (and I also feel) drained.

Ellen

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