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From the National Bibliotheque: Marie-Jeanne Phlipon later Roland


Madame Roland, the last year of her life, a sketch from the life

Friends,

Marie-Jeanne or Manon Phlipon Roland (1754-93) was our fourth writer, witness, and in her case sufferer — egregiously unjustly imprisoned and executed woman — as a direct result of her public and powerful activity on behalf of her and husband’s political vision in the earliest phases of the French revolution. As I knew the probability was that none of the people in the room would ever have heard of Roland, I was very worried people wouldn’t even buy her book as too unfamiliar and therefore daunting. It turned out that Politics and Prose got in about 10 copies of the abridged Memoirs, chosen, arranged, introduced, translated by Evelyn Shuckburgh. And all 8 who stayed for the last 2 and 1/2 weeks read this book.


Paperback copy

She riveted people as she opened her book explaining how she came to be arrested, how she is treated (not with any particular respect to keep her separate form prostitutes to “great men”), and how she came to be there. And they kept reading the portraits of important French philosophes and politicians, the story line of being welcome into Paris to being pariah hunted down and out. Not omit the second half, her own private experience of life up to the time of her marriage to Marie-Jean Roland (they had the same name, backwards). More than one person declared what an irony that had she not been imprisoned, and not under threat of immediate execution, she would not have written this great masterpiece of a political autobiography. Perhaps the first one. She could not break through the taboo against women writing and publishing. Others agreed that it was more than a little naive) (insane) of her not to have fled as her husband, (chaste) lover and many others did once it was clear the Jacobins were going to arrest of them on charges of treason. She hoped people would admire her as an example, she’d be allowed to put her case forward publicly at the show trials at last. One memorable phrase was “Madame Roland sought all her life to be the author of her life.” Yes. Whatever it was, a deep determination to shape the conditions she lived in once her beloved mother died, together with luck or chance, and one older man, Jean-Marie Phlipon (1734-93), recognizing in her the deeply passionate reciprocating partner he had longed for — enabled her to become her best self and hold to that until the moment of death.

She came from the same artisan class Diderot and Johnson hailed from. Her father was a prosperous master engraver, her mother a fringe aristocrat, religious, had lost seven children before Marie-Jeanne was born and they lavished attention on her once they discovered how intelligent she was. She was studious, contemplative, a “blue-stocking” who ranged far and wide in the classics: from Plutarch’s Lives to Rousseau, devotional authors to poetry and plays, the 17th century French feminist women (Scudery, Lafayette), to D’Epinay and Madame de Genlis; in her later years Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot and treatises, doubtless the English radicals in French translations. Since she never rebelled against the male hegemonic order in her writings (indeed never wanted to be published under her own name until she wrote her memoir), never tried for public office or recognition (she sat at the back of the room and did not talk in most sessions), the question asked is, how far was she feminist? She is not interested in women’s issues but in restructuring the gov’t (she would not put it this way) to redistribute education and wealth to reach far more people and bring prosperity. Not at all one might say except her whole life shows someone who given any chance dedicates herself to public service. She learns to loathe the social life imposed on a middle class woman seeking a husband, and puts off several candidates for her hand before she met Roland, a man 20 years older than she.


M. Roland from the Bibliotheque nationale

Her book is ostensibly divided into two parts: the first half, a political memoir, where she first wrote out her principles and gave a rigorous account of the revolution’s story before descending to particular people. Alas, when she smuggled that out, it was burnt — or so she was told. Can you imagine how she felt? It’s arguable she went into prison to be able to make an example of herself and she realized she needed to tell the story from her point of view. With astonishing fortitude, she rewrote this first half but this time just as portraits, anecdotes, an explanation of what went wrong so in the assembly’s early years (people refused to act, to agree, to be explicit, followed their own particular interests), her experience as the wife of a minister (visits from Danton whom she did not cultivate though he invited this), then her and her husband’s life during his first and then second term of office, ending on the dismal now of awaiting trial, execution; she begins with her first arrest, and ends with the fake release and her second arrest. This part is very immediate — both are. She recurs to the conditions she is living in again and again, the prostitutes, the debauchery, when she is interrupted, what she is eating, the weather. Originally the first half of our book book had a lot more particulars of politics, probably a treatise of sorts too.

The second her own story, and we get a depiction of a middle class girl’s early childhood, her admiration for her loving religious mother, for her grandmother, her sceptical analysis of her worldly, pragmatic, and (after her mother’s death she was to learn) superficial, incompetent, shallow father (he took a young mistress for a while, and the business began to fail badly). The happiest sections of the early part of her autobiography tell of her, her mother and father’s Sunday afternoons in the Paris parks. Then we learn a little of then engraving business and then an incident which in 1796 (when her book was first published in an early shorter form) caught the attention of the public: she was sexually harassed by her father’s apprentice. He took out his penis in front of her and attempted foreplay with her. She was profoundly shocked and also allured, but upon a second encounter, told her mother, who turned the incident into something far more traumatic than it had to be. Manon was persuaded to think herself intensely sinful, and put in a convent for her adolescent education. Her mother feared for her reputation, but what she did was make sex into an experience to be dreaded, a view she probably never got over. In the convent she did make two important friends who she stayed close to by visits and then letters for the rest of her life: Sophie and her sister, Henriette Cannett. She was not religious even then — and when we meet her seems to be a deist — and returned home. Then begins her this stifling snobbish social life she learns to detest; the courtships that go nowhere. She was probably intimidating, and the two young men who tried to get close (showing her love of reading and writing was known), one of whom promised to open a periodical and publish her (she rejected this offer vociferously — from afar there is a comedy in this scene) gradually realized she had not much of a dowry.

This facsimile of a 19th century scholarly study contains letter by Roland to Sophie and to Buzot — Charles Dauban is the 19th century scholar to whom we are indebted for this first collection of her correspondence: letters to and from her. An old fashioned biography: life and times, with insertions of letters and documents. Her best friend Sophie. The man she loved Buzot Unfortunately it does not contain the large book of essays that were published anonymously that she obviously wrote. There’s been no attempt to bring them together and publish as a single scholarly book. So I suppose Roland studies are in their infancy: this is not uncommon for women’s writing and women writers.

A devastating turning point is the death of her mother – who had become her world, her best companion, her meaning. A long section called bereavement is of deep interest for a mother-daughter relationship. Roland appealed as a father figure she needed, a substitute for this mother too, someone she can trust, look up to, admire, work with. He came from a higher echelon of the middle class and as a man was very well educated, especially on his own in the new technologies, sciences, arts: he held various local political positions: an inspector, assiduous and accurate, imagine him as an expert in industrial and agricultural matters. He had begun a distinguished public career in Amiens, just the type Trump hates and is slowly eradicating from all gov’t – tremendously competent in his areas, publishing learned tomes and articles on manufacturing processes, and trade. At first they courted, then he hesitated, her father resented him, and he disappeared for a while, only finally to return and then they married. She became his helpmate. She wrote the articles which appeared under his name in the Courrier de Lyon – gradually they were known to be by her. Again happy moments are the birth of her daughter, her years running the household, a trip to Switzerland and then England — in the footsteps of Rousseau and Voltaire. They return, and her husband had been active in questions of debt and was useful in Lyons, and came to the attention of prominent national politicians and was invited to come to the National Assembly — and of course took his wife, and a daughter who had been born to them, their whole household.

He was ambitious and gradually rose to have a position of authority in the new Parliament formed in 1789 May; which became the National Assembly in June 1789, promulgated the Declaration of the Rights of Man, August. He was not humanely that astute and she was; she could write far more eloquently, more talented; she held a weekly salon and gradually it was understood she was in herself powerful through him. She wrote in the Sentinelle. Madame Roland never had an official position; she didn’t want it. She never published anything. Her husband attended the Jacobin Club and she sat in the back; Tuesday evenings became her night to have politicians over and gradually a Girondist group, for constitutional monarchy, for gradual revolution but real emerged. It was almost inevitable that she should find herself in the centre of political aspirations and presiding over a company of the most talented men of progress. She ends her story of herself with her present time in prison: her disillusion, her waiting to die, her attempt at self-starvation, how she was taken to a hospital and then brought back. The book ends on a justification of herself, eloquent and passionate.

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Women’s march on Versailles … Modern rendition of original caricature

The first question to ask of the book and what I went over is, What happened that went wrong? We returned to 1788 when the overt events began to pile up.

In 1788 Louis XVI forced to call the Estates-General for the first time in nearly a couple of hundred years. There had been an absolute mismanagement of budget – court extravagances were horrendous but they needed a minister to reorganize the national debt; the way business was conducted in many phases of life was utterly corrupt patronage system. Several ministers brought in to re-organize and to reform and failed. I’ll name Jacques Necker, sometimes today referred to as Madame de Stael’s father; banker of Genevan origin. Bread riots were common in the 18th century: price of bread kept artificially high; the gov’t had overspent helping the Americans in their war. Necker made the budget pubic in 1781 – shock and horror, hitherto it had been kept secret. He was dismissed. Within a few years of his dismissal and other failed attempts, there is a devastating fiscal crisis, he is recalled but it doesn’t help. The truth was the King did not want to change the system.

Storming of Bastille July 11, 1789 is a symbol. The estates-general had convened in May and it became immediately apparent nothing could be passed when nobles had 300 votes, clergy 300 (a tiny percentage of population) and everyone else 600. So they reconvened without nobles and clergy (except those who broke away) in the tennis court, and took a oath they would not be suspended. August 26 Declaration of Rights of Man – extraordinary document. Drafted by Abbe Sieyes and Lafayette in consultation with Thomas Jefferson: based on idea “self-evident” that human beings have certain natural rights. Born free, and only those social distinctions should exist which are for the common good. Inalienable rights: liberty, property, safety, right to resistance against oppression. Law has right to forbid only actions harmful to society. Free communication of thoughts and opinions. State expenditures should be taken from people only in accordance with their ability to pay. If you think about these, you begin to see definitions must make all this more precise. There was a women’s march to Versailles where they forced the royal family to come and live in Paris, 5-6 October 1789. 1790 monasteries dissolved; nobility abolished.


Hubert Robert imagining the demolition of the Bastille prison

Height might be the famous Fete de Federation, July 14, 1790 – a vast public spectacle where everyone professed great principles – at the site of the current Eiffel Tower – pavilion with king and queen, people were joyous, much gaiety – big picnic for the nation.

But then the push-back began: from emigres fleeing and forming armies, and wanting to return to overturn this new order; in the countryside outbreaks of mixed violence –- it was a many sided civil war. Servants revolted and got back after years of oppression; those who had been deprived of the common for the master to drain his land, took back their land or tried to. They fought among themselves. Civilian armies emerged called People’s armies formed by the national assembly to go out into the provinces and get money and supplies. Many peasants were loyal to the church and while the poorest curates might be revolutionary, the church was not and had firm grip on people’s outlook. Counter-revolutions begin. Austria, the UK began to form armies to invade France on behalf of their order.

In the assembly, there were ruptures as they argued over what to do or were just vague and held out. Madame Roland is sardonic over how people dithered, did nothing because while they were for a principle, they were never for giving anything up of their own or their friends. King used his veto power again and again. June 21-22, 1791 he and his wife fled to Varennes and bought back. They were to meet with armies across the border. In 1792 March, Roland had been made minister of interior, he had a very brusque manner and she was writing decrees and suggestions that were very radical economically and politically. March 1792, Madame Roland wrote a letter addressing the question of the king’s vetoes, he read it aloud and it was judged so disrespectful that he was dismissed from his office. There were very conservative people among Girondins and constitutional monarchs. August 10th 1792 the National Guard stormed the Tuileries where the royal family lived and the monarchy was considered to have fallen. Roland is reinstated but liked by no one. A group of Jacobins tired of the stalling began to meet separately; Montagnards they were called as they sat high up. Roland and other moderate Girondists opposed the formation of a sort of rump to rule the capital and country called the Paris Commune which began to exclude the Girondists. The Commune was in charge of the army and took over.


The Mayor of the town coming down from apologetic visit to the King and Queen, now going to be arrested by the People’s Army (Ettore Scuola)

An army under the Duke of Brunswick invaded in August and captured Verdun.

Then a wave of killings, hysterical massacres of people in prison, September 9, 1792 – as traitors, as non-juring clergy, as against the revolution. Who fomented this? Madame Roland blamed Danton. She saw him as a hard vulgar man, corrupt yes, but radical and he did try to win her over in the early days and she didn’t like him. No manners, very working class. Never tried for a “de” in his name. Alas, had she joined him, she might not have ended up dead. Much like say when in Charlottesville two summers ago Trump did not call out national guard to stop the violence or protect people, or closer, Selma Alabama (I recently saw that film) where Johnson did not call out National Guard to protect black people or anyone demonstrating or marching — Georges-Jacques Danton and Maximillian de Robespierre did not call for any protection of the people in the prisons. Just the opposite: Jean-Paul Marot whipped up feeling. He was a very effective journalist, vehement invective against people, and exerted power through his newspaper, The Friend of the People, L’ami du peuple. She saw him as a monster and he attacked her vehemently, deeply misogynistic accusations of her as sex-mad (promiscuous) and power-hungry. Marot is still recognized by a wider audience today because of a painting by David made of him in his bathtub after the unhinged Charlotte Corday murdered him – he had caught some terrible skin disease from living in sewers. He was at times very poor.

M Roland was accused of hiding documents showing the king’s relationship with corrupt politicians. They now put the king on trial — they felt he couldn’t be trusted and was a site around which counter-revolutionaries would form movements. During the trial of the king, Roland and the Girondists demanded that the sentence should be decided by a poll of the French people rather than the new National Convention. After the king was executed in January 1793 Roland and others were denounced. He among others fled.

So on June 3, 1793 a group of Girondists were arrested (all her friends), her husband and others flee, and 21 days she is arrested. In truth she had the whole winter and spring to flee. She arranged for her daughter to stay with people who would take permanent responsibility for the girl if necessary. The charges were seen as trumped up, she was released and re-arrested before she could flee – she should have immediately upon getting out. And she tells of all this in part one. She is interrogated and her judges and the court insinuate she was part of a wide conspiracy to overthrow the republic and replace it with a monarchy. 8 November she is killed. Sophie Cannett was there at the front of the crowd. I said that last time. Courageous to do that – reminds me of how Thomas Wyatt, English poet, friend and protected by Thomas Cromwell in 1533 was on the scaffold when Cromwell was murdered. These are all murders. Cannett described the scene and her death but I am not sure who presented the scene of her with sufficient presence of mind to say as she mounted the scaffold: “O liberty! What crimes are committed in thy name!”

So why didn’t she get out when she had time? Was she so disillusioned that she wanted to escape the reality of what her life would be in hiding? depressed? She had fallen in love with another Girondist, Francois Buzot was his name. I don’t see that. She had had a number of close male friends though – all politicians and local people –- Brissot with his followers called Brissotins. Almost no women. There was great guilt after she died — her husband killed himself two days after she died. Buzot killed himself in June. She says she wanted to be an example. She learnt that this was naive, and to be grateful to the prison keeper’s wife in the earlier part of her imprisonment when she was given a room apart, permitted to leave her cell and come to the woman’s space to read and to write. Why didn’t she try to escape since she had real flexibility until her second arrest? Was she more than a little insane by that time? she says she went on a hunger strike but couldn’t keep it up? As a class we hashed this out thoroughly.

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Then I talked of the aftermath of the book’s reception, the earliest publications and the woman’s context. It was first published in 1796 so it’s possible Jane Austen read it. The passages about sexual harassment were the ones that made the most scandal, and in some 19th century notices she is criticized severely for telling of this incident.

I brought in the unabridged 19th century facsimile edition of Roland’s Memoirs supervised by her daughter. This so people could get a feel for what the book is. Nowadays there is a multi-volume edition of Roland’s Memoirs and letters from a French university, the kind with full introductions, annotations, notes and expensive abridgements you can buy of these. Published by her loving daughter who she didn’t give enough credit to: the first part is her autobiography of her life, and the second part the political story. It’s a facsimile and not that easy to read because it uses a “o” where modern French has an “A.” But that is how I read it. This is the fine recent biography in English that I by Gita May: it sets her in context and tells of phases of her existence. Hardships of courting. Also a trip she and her husband took to England and saw all the important sites pointed out by Voltaire. A deeply psychologically insightful account by Francoise Kermina, Madame Roland ou la passion révolutionnaire (1977). Kermina shows Roland shows to have been intensely ambitious, and bitter at her failure. Her writing hides her frustration, two years of intense politicking, and “une amertume terrible.” Her writings reveal a woman who valued the few friendships she managed to sustain intensely; she argues that Roland was throughout her life profoundly depressed (angry). When she and her husband fell from power and she was anathematized (with salacious slander), a barely controlled hysteria and paralyzing trauma actuated her decision not to flee death. She kept herself sane and explored this trauma by writing the famous memoir.

I had thought I would talk about the early phases of the French revolution, but one you can find this on wikipedia, and two we have two periods so I’d like first to talk about early feminism. There is no doubt in my mind that Roland, Olympe de Gouges were guillotined partly because they were women and taking power; Charlotte Corday is famous for being guillotined; let us say she was not a well person. A couple of people read the (not very good) pair of essays I sent by attachment: two different women writers argue over whether we can consider Roland’s apparently complete obliviousness to women’s issues at the time (divorce based on incompatibility, the right to custody of her children) and her refusal to publish under her own name a sure sign she was no feminist and therefore only of historical interest. So I decided to try to tell of the early history of feminism and the two good chapters in English from two books I know that deal fairly with Roland.

Roland is seen as this great souled woman and unfortunately that prompts discussions of her character: how far was she feminist or what kind of feminism did she practice? Well, none except her whole life shows a person who given any chance dedicates herself to public service. She is not interested in women’s issues but in restructuring the gov’t (she would not put it this way) to redistribute education and wealth to reach far more people and bring prosperity. Many women weren’t. My other example I’ll talk a bit about: Helen Maria Williams did not write about women’s issues particularly – though she got closer. You might look upon writing about women not as inferior, not in condemnatory ways – there were hundreds of anti-feminist tracts from the time books have been printed on – as a whole new outlook.

There were poems written about the need for liberty, education and a whole new attitude towards in the early modern period; it’s arguable that novels written by women in the 18th century implicitly carve out this new area of discourse: they have realistic heroines at the center. Such a writer was Henry Fielding’s sister, Sarah Fielding. Diderot’s La Religieuse is part of this conversation: how women mistreated. Sarah Scott, Millenium Hall: about a community of women to which abused women can flee, where you are educated and helped to find a new life. Jane Austen’s books are indirect, but not Fanny Burney’s.

The first writer though to carve out this area, but in an ambiguous way was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. People reading him can be perplexed on why his works meant so much to women, why they read him and imitated: his Emile, a book on education, has Sophie educated to be his good wife not on her own account; his exaltation of breast-feeding and motherhood has had mixed results: but he cared, he wrote about women as women separately and said what they do in private and public life too matters.

They take off from him, books correcting him, Louise D’Epinay, books arguing with him: a long section of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Rights of Women is about how women are mis-educated. It’s a beginning. Another step she took was to show that when women became mothers they were not well treated, not helped. A later step was to stop tethering what a woman’s life could be from the biological – her as a mother. That comes later after a fight over rights: to custody, to separation and divorce, freedom from male violence in marriage or as a daughter. In his Subjection of Women, 1869, a kind of companion treated to his On Liberty (mostly civil) he argues we don’t know what women’s nature and capabilities are because the way society has been structured has been to prevent them from doing anything but the narrowest of tasks.

I then described Mary Trouille’s book, Women Read Rousseau: Sexual Politics in the Enlightenment (1997), where Prof Trouille shows however narrowly anti-feminist Rousseau seems at first, he is the one man to pay attention to women’s needs, the naturalness (and ease) of breast-feeding, and to write to persuade them to see their functions as mothers as centrally important. Trouille has a long section on the paradoxical subversive use Roland made of Rousseau, and her demonstration by quoting the venomous attacks on her by the newspapers of the day that she was murdered for having as a woman tried to take public power on behalf of women and a moderate stance. Then Marilyn Yalom’s Blood Sisters: The French Revolution in Women’s Memory (2004): Roland’s memoir belongs to a subgenre of memoirs by women about the revolution who were imprisoned or suffered directly for a time: most are vitriolically reactionary so hers shines out (like Helena Maria Williams’s letters on the revolution) for remaining true to the ideals of the revolution and presenting these ideals as good, true, capable of making a good society from the ashes of the ancien regime. What all agree is that she was no diplomatic, never detached, not a manipulator and thus a poor politician.

I then asked them, how would they say Madame Roland saw herself? What is her portrait of herself? Anyone? she sees herself as grave, serious, earnest, and moral. One woman said she found Roland irritating; another said she saw herself as correct in her judgement. She had a passionate romantic nature. She saw herself as embodying the best of the revolution an example to others. She says so. You see this in her letters to Buzot. She did have a rage to write – and finally found her metier without censure in the prison. So many denigrate her – she is not social enough, not sexy. lead a life at odds with her era’s mores and customs: the power of an intensely rebellious and non-religious private spiritual life. Solitary. That was when one man said she wanted to the author of her own life.

So what did they think was at risk today from the enlightenment. One man said we were returning to authoritarianism, not thinking for ourselves. Another said we were returning to intolerance.  We needed to return to good education.  People today don’t read enough, know enough. I then read from Richard Feynman’s closing paragraphs from his eloquent speech to the National Academy of Sciences when he resigned from the organization on “The Value of Science”. And so the course ended.


Detail from Greuze’s The Woolwinder (with her cat) 1759

Ellen

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Emma Thompson as Elinor (1995 Miramax S&S, scripted Thompson, directed Ang Lee)

Absence.
Absence, hear thou my protestation against thy strength, distance, and length.
Do what thou canst for alteration
For hearts for truest mettle.
Absence doth still and time doth settle.
— John Donne as recited in tandem by Claire and Ned Gowan looking out over a loch in the highlands (Outlander, “Rent”)

I dreamed I was acting out Sense and Sensibility. I was not the characters, but I was right next to them, watching them go through the motions of their story. I tried to tell others of how this is my experience, and what the characters are like, what they are doing, their houses, their living arrangements.


Charity Wakefield as Marianne, holding out her hand, all expectant (2008 S&S, scripted Andrew Davies)

My dream-thoughts included how Austen calls the man who willing to play with and then when amusement is over hurt Marianne Willoughby, the name of the abrasive cad in Fanny Burney’s Evelina, and how Austen is either too discreet herself, or was unable to get past the censorship of her family to dramatize the kinds of ugly things Willoughby subjects Evelina too, or other males and older hard authority-females do in French novels of the era take advantage of, raping, needling the heroine with.

And I thought of what Elinor stands for. Austen was showing us how to protect yourself from harm, how to build an apparently invulnerable self: she began to wear spinster clothes after she is said to have written her first three novels (then called First Impressions, Elinor and Marianne, perhaps Susan).


Hattie Morahan as Elinor, Janet McTeer Mrs Dashwood having arranged their faces (2000 S&S)

As  I rose from sleep, the dream made no literal sense in its last fragments in the ways dreams don’t. The two women are on a train, the seat is the long type against long rows of windows, I am between them, we are speeding through the countryside, going somewhere together.

It is daylight and as I imagined it, our surroundings looked like a train I took long ago with Jim on our way towards Exeter in Devon. Only the Dashwoods take a coach.


Joanna David as the displaced Elinor traveling, gazing long ago (1971 BBC S&S, scripted David Constantduros)

It was a morning dream, and in that way of my dreams when they trouble me most I believed it had happened. I had really been on that train with them, and for hours, days, years, living, breathing, remembering, being them. As I woke, it took a long while to realize that it had been a dream

I think I am missing talking in the form of writing about Austen to others for myself. The Janeites listserv has been in effect long dead for real talk, Austen-l spoiled utterly by trolls and both stupidity long ago, there is nowhere for in-depth talk of what these books can and do mean to me except a blog such as this or an occasional paper delivered at a conference which escapes the censorship of careerist editors guarding their journal.

I had been reading Barbara Pym’s naively written diaries, which however reveal a frightening masochistic drive willing to endure humiliation, and at the same time Nicola Beauman’s extraordinarily insightful biography of E.M. Forster who did and did not cover his tracks in his novels: like Austen, she protected herself through her taking on the guise of spinster in her books, he survived with his identity alive by immersing himself self-consciously in his imaginative writing whose surface can resemble Austen’s, though he is alert to what he is doing fully (which she apparently is not).  I’ve been reading of Woolf (Virginia) too, & watching very late into the nights beloved historical romance time-traveling movies.

This absence, these immersions, this lesson I tried to practice myself as a teenager and still, and the connections made from Pym, to Burney, to Austen, Jim and I on a train gazing out, became this dream.


Barton Cottage (1995 S&S) — my house is defective as a cottage too

Ellen

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Hans Holbein’s (hostile) depiction of Thomas Cromwell

Dear friends and readers,

I attempt to capture something of the experience I have just had with a group of people at an Oscher Institute of Lifelong Learning (attached to George Mason). We read and discussed carefully Mantel’s two novels as providing us with a fresh angle on the Tudor Matter. Tudor matter includes all that happened, all that can be connected to people influenced by and influencing a family tree of Tudors, from the time of the ascension of Henry Tudor (1485-1509) to the English throne (also 1485) to the death of his son, Henry VIII’s third child, Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth (born 1533, died 1603).

In this case Mantel writes the kind of historical fiction which uses actual historical people for all its characters, remains faithful to what is historically documented as having happened while the novelist, like the historian, has a duty to realize the living experience and interpret the significance small and large of each event or character. Mantel presented a point of view so persuasive and well-supported that her book is now influencing the way historians as well as countless others evaluate Thomas Cromwell. The two books are labelled “the Thomas Cromwell trilogy,” though the third does not exist as yet (at least not as a finished published book) and will make up a fictionalized biography: all three will cover the years from Cromwell’s birth (said to be 1485) to execution (1540).


Mark Rylance as Cromwell

She was also an active spirit in Peter Straughan’s six part TV serial drama (2015) and Mike Poulton’s stage play (2012). I read aloud Mantel’s character descriptions at the beginning of the play text.


Ben Miles as Cromwell

It was important not to omit movies as the Tudor matter for many consists of movies. At the beginning of each session I’d play 3 clips from the 2015 Wolf Hall, for the 2nd through 7th session. Since (as in the case of Arthurian matter or the classical Greek and Roman stories) includes many others takes, I included the two books that constitute the powerful originating sources of Mantel’s: Robert Bolt’s play A Man for all Seasons, Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, and at the opening of our 8th session I played 4 clips from 2 movies made therefrom: Zinneman’s 1966 movie, A Man for All Seasons with Paul Scofield and Robert Shaw as man and master, Wendy Hiller as Alice; the highly original inward (daring) Philippa Lowthorpe’s 2003 BBC Other Boleyn Girl, with Jodhi May as Anne and Stephen Mackintosh as George Boleyn (central to the interpretation that finds Anne and George incestuous in a desperate attempt to produce an apparently legitimate son for Henry). I showed 2 very brief and a bit of the feature (with Philippa Gregory) of commercially successful Columbia 2008 Other Boleyn Girl (by the ubiquitous Peter Morgan, whose 2003 serial drama Henry VIII, with Ray Winstone, I also went over but could not show as I have only a Region 2 copy), remarkable for its depiction of strong women everywhere who are nonetheless forced to submit. Let’s gaze at those moments and characters less paid attention to:


Wendy Hiller bitterly telling More awaiting his death in prison as she awaits hers in poverty outside: “I’ll tell you what I’m afraid of: that when you’ve gone I shall hate you for it.”


Jodhi May as Anne Boleyn exiled to Hever for a year to bend her to comply with her father and uncle’s demands she serve the family interests first (2003)


Kirstin Scott Thomas as Elizabeth Boleyn, coerced not willingly into selling all three of her children, realizing two are going to be beheaded (2008)

So what we did was have themes we drew out from the books alongside talking of them section-by-section: I lectured on real early modern women I’ve studied (and translated) and what we know about Anne and Mary Boleyn (and a few other supporting characters so-to-speak, as Jane Boleyn, Catherine of Aragon, Margaret More, fast forwarding to Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor. A guarded bunch, easily rendered powerless, who left few papers, and most of those self- or other-censored. We talked about the spread of a religious movement across all classes which would satisfy people’s inner needs for self-understanding as well as justification, a matter of increasingly secular identity and conscience. Then there was how the political world worked. Finally, the fluid sexuality of the era. Mantel’s two books support such discussions, if you just extrapolate out (not too far) into the real world outside the book that the book continually has reference to. Mantel’s history fiction functions like life-writing, which does not begin to end at any book’s first and last pages. We don’t know all we can know about a character who lived from any single book. Many questions, all sorts we hashed out. I sent two articles a week (three by Hilary Mantel who is a witty essayist), and recommended and brought in biographies (scroll down).

One cannot yet explicate the structure of a work that is only (at best) 2/3s done. The central climactic tragedy, the execution of Anne, who is stealth heroine, is realized at length in the penultimate pages of Bring Up the Bodies, hard upon the interrogations by Cromwell of the five executed men, and Anne and George’s trials. What one notices is that at the close of Wolf Hall, the execution of More occurs off-stage; on-stage is Cromwell’s perhaps psychosomatic illness (or it’s from exhaustion) and the thematic clashes and dialogues, whole history of the rivalry (unknown to More until late in life) of More and Cromwell’s outlook on life and behavior begins only in the third book of Wolf Hall. Six parts; each section has a tripartite structure (3 chapters) of opening, long center, and brief coda.

Parts One & Two:

Fathers and sons: Across the narrow sea: Cromwell fleeing his violent father, at first rescued by his sister, Kat Williams; then on his own; Paternity: Cromwell’s relationship with Wolsey as true father and the problem of Henry’s lack of a legitimate son and demand Wolsey enable him to marry Anne Boleyn; Austin Friars: a good world he and his beloved wife, Liz, create together.


Natasha Little as Liz Cromwell who will haunt Cromwell ever

Visitation: The Downfall of the Cardinal, with all the powerful men who bring this about; Occult History; in the context of mythic to long past to immediate history of Britain as acted out by some of our central characters (we meet Mary and Anne Boleyn, the male courtiers including Henry Percy, and Cromwell’s pasts, in Italy, Antwerp, the death of his beloved wife, daughters, the coming of Rafe, in England Buonvisi as neighbor, first clashes with More; Make or Mar: Cromwell grieving with Cavendish, chooses to stay loyal to his master as a way to make or mar himself.


Cromwell’s household: We glimpse from the back Josh Porter as Richard [Williams] Cromwell, Thomas Brodie-Sangster as the invaluable Rafe, Saskia Reeves as his beloved sisterin-law, lover Johanne

Parts Three and Four:

Three-Card Trick: Mantel tracks time carefully, backwards again (circular structure typical of l’ecriture-femme: Wolsey at Esher, now Cromwell must get into Parliament, interact with ambassadors, cope with Henry, visit More himself; Entirely Beloved Cromwell: Christmas w/o wife and daughter; 1513 when Henry spent hugely stupidly killing all for nothing, Cromwell’s protest (the other side of Flodden Field); now caring for Cardinal under whose bed a kitten, Marlinspike, born; more of Gregory, his son, entirely beloved, the rise of Anne Boleyn is presented secondarily, we don’t see her that; we see her sister, Mary more; The Dead Complain of Their Burial: Christmas tide, 1530, King’s nightmare transformed by Cromwell’s allegoresis


Jonathan Pryce as the Cardinal, tucked into bed by Cromwell, praying for him — the ghosts accumulate

Arrange your face; “Alas, what shall I do for love?”;: profoundly dangerous time, he has to give up Johanne; court life, Anne people must say whatever will keep them alive, Mary’s role, her retreat, individuals acting out religious clashes, torture, execution; Chapuys emerges as emperor’s man, Catholic. The center of book a graphic depiction of the burning of an old Lollard woman witnessed by Cromwell as a young boy. Early Mass: Henry has fucked Anne and they are bethrothed


Joanna Whalley as rigidly catholic queen, Lily Lesser as her daughter, Mary Tudor, twisted, deeply in need

What was the appeal of this Protestantism? It appealed deeply to powerless men with whom women belong as a category, to servants, and it spread. It is often talked about in the most inadequate ways; one group says you saved by faith, Christ’s self-immolation paid for your sin, God has predestined you, so need to sit and feel intensely fearful you are going to go to hell if you have had a conversion experience: truly feel God in your heart. Other group says well what kind of God is that to damn so many people, and also say you need not perform good works, need not be public in church (where of course you can be controlled), just you and God and the book.

Going to reach for text some of you read with me, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, in the last part Margaret gets depressed and few will remember what book helps her after both father and mother are dead: it’s quoted at length in the text in French St Francis de Sales, “An introduction to the devoted or religious life.” Margaret finds much comfort in it. It’s translated in the back of those books with notes. Others did not want to look, wanted certainty of people saying your works would secure you, of authority figures

Before the 20th century if you were feeling terrible about yourself or your life there was no secular psychology free of blame to go to; and what these protestant re-tellings did was provide a way of thinking that absolved you. In this particular one Margaret reads how she should not “die of shame” because of what’s she done,” she has fallen into a pit,” but she can rise up if she thinks about what happened another way and realizes compassion and mercy are there. No blaming, no need to do anything for which you need power. Women began to write poetry in the 16th century and it was by an large paraphrases of the psalms or religious texts where they rewrote them in personal veins. Johane can be stopped from her love affair by her mother. A great deal of infamy was heaped on people over sex – that was part of Henry’s problem. There is good evidence to suggest – all you are ever going to have – that Anne Boleyn and Thomas Percy went through one of these informal bethrothals as did Anne Boleyn and the king and then she and Percy consummated.

Who were the kind of men who wrote this sort of thing? Thomas Kempis’s Imitation of Christ was huge continual re-translated best-seller for centuries; another one I’ve read is the Spanish so-called mystic, Juan de Valdes – Vittoria Colonna reread Juan de Valdes, Beneficio di Cristo obsessively. Methodism in the later 18th century show the intersection with power because they tried to throw off local landlords from choosing their vicars. Didn’t the rich and powerful in pews in the church.


Bainam burnt at the stake:

Parts Five and Six

Anna Regina and Devil’s Spit: women brought in: Helen Barre; Cranmer and Margarete the parallel; the half-mad Elizabeth Barton’s story, Anne as vulnerable woman by about half-way. Women doubles, surrogates, parallels; each reveals sides of man or men she is involved with. Cromwell’s kindness. Jane Boleyn emerges. Overriding mood is still paranoia: from enemies to crazy nun, all the reform depends on Anne who grows delusional and now wants daughter on throne. Rafe begins to emerge more. Painter’s Eye: Hans Holbein’s portrait. A theme:

An hour-long filmn Hans Holbein recommended by someone in the class; the speaker, an art historian named Waldemar Januszczak, art correspondent for the London Times, a controversial figure, often very provocative, who uses Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell to attack Hilary Mantel’s portrait of Cromwell on the grounds he looks like a murderer. I showed them a portrait of Cromwell where he does not look like a murderer. Holbein is tremendously arresting. We believe in his portraits. But Januszczak provides ammunition against his own thesis. He makes fun of Holbein’s imposing peacock, ever so tall and wide – Damien Lewis is hard put to look huge but does his best to strut. Why is Holbein’s portrait to be taken as gospel. Januszczak shows us Holbein came from Catholic people, he made many Madonnas, in fact he painted his own wife looking like a miserable madonna with two children.I suggest HOlbein’s portraits are catholic propaganda on behalf of More and against Cromwell. If you look at the portraits of Mary Boleyn as opposed to the one done by Holbein and thought to be her, they fit better. Juszcaak had a Holbein drawing of Anne Boleyn he says is her I’ve never seen and it looked convincing more convincing that that stiff woman in black we are often shown. Holbein could paint remarkable faces but that does not mean he is on oath –- he is like a modern camera or painter who can impose a view.


Partners: Rylance as More; Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn

Supremacy; A Map of Christendom: A rewrite of Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, to the point where speeches that Bolt plucked out of the historical records are re-plucked but uttered in contexts that reverse or at least significantly alter their significance. Cromwell attempts to persuade, with Cranmore uttering the same rationalities; in Mantel it is Rich who engineers More’s downfall along with his own scorn of Rich; from More salivating over torturing someone, through dialogue and the burning and torture of other Protestants we are led to see More as the harmful fanatic. More’s utterance near the end that he has wished and done no man harm and if that cannot keep him alive, he’d rather not live (rendered famously by Scofield on the scaffolld), is answered here by Cromwell as they sit over a table by a list of people that Cromwell cites whom More has destroyed viciously. In the final scene of More’s beheading, in Mantel and Straughan there is only the pathos of a wretched narrow man; in Mantel she has it happen off-stage and in the text we see Cromwell’s illness, his family all about him.Theme: how did power work?


Anton Lesser as More refusing to sign

Was it the king acting alone and at the center with aristocrats obeying him; or King-in-Parliament and factions vying for power. The latter seems far more accurate. Ordinary courts of justice were about property, property rights and it could be within a family or companies over contracts. Gov’t would go to court over taking people’s property – as Cromwell did when he dissolved the monasteries and nunneries. Or some act of violence. Anyone could bring a charge or ask prosecutor to bring a charge. You did not have the right to a lawyer or to speak in your own defense. All this came later. Women has no rights in such places as suitors but they could be accused. Parishes went to court to kick people out and control them. Short prison sentences. Wretched places where you were expected to provide for your own keep. Disease sites. Different courts for different purposes, and very powerful were the church courts. Your right to life, liberty and property is a later 17th century idea. Locally the JP or magistrate appointed by JP. Movement from king all powerful with henchmen aristocrats with castles and liege men in armies to whole change in fabric of society as commerce, capitalism, changes in agriculture occur. King did not control the people and land during
feudalism, power was local, and if you wanted power far away, you had to control through other people — life built on sales and money, middling people feared chaos and wanted security, peace, stability. Strong authority emotionally for most people began with parents and older relatives. Boys sent to train as pages or out to work after initial schoolroom; girls educated at home to read and to do accounts; Renaissance added history, languages, sewing. Lower class girls put into service, cook and sew and clean. Bible spread reading; 1566 Great Bishop’s Bible commissioned by Elizabeth I. Two agricultural recessions: 1530s and 1590s; on the whole period of expansion due to trade and cloth and what destroyed ordinary people was enclosure movements. Henry a strikingly volatile psychopath emerged from an educated young prince gradually. Enormously overweight. Domineering grandmother, neglected by father.

To Wolf Hall. Jane Seymour; Seymours replacing Boleyns. Over course of these three Cromwell becoming a darker harder figure.


Kate Phillips as Jane Seymour; contemporary portrait of Jane Seymour

Elizabeth I probably the victim of sexual harassment and abuse from Thomas Seymour during the time she was growing up in Katherine Parr’s household. It will come as no surprise she was interrogated and blamed as seeking to marry him and overthrow her sister. This early trauma from which Parr could not protect her could be linked to her decided uneagerness for a man; but it was also political. To marry would have been to take a master.

We did Bring Up the Bodies much more rapidly; in the film covered by Parts Five and Six.


Purefoy a cynosure for Anne

Falcons; Crows; Angels: Opens with display of falcons, birds who are fierce, vultures, turned into abject enslaved creatures, named after his daughters and wife. Kimbolton is where Katherine of Aragon is staying, Cromwell visits this dying woman and stays at a lodging house where he sleeps with the wife and thinks of doing away with her husband. Stepney and Greenwich, Christmas in Cromwell’s new household, with young men married, new children about him. He no longer is compassionate figure; less wit but still there: for Jane Seymour men “an unpleasant surprise.” Displaced by drive to manipulate, fierce anger at men, ambition to re-organize the world; Henry’s fierce anger at Cromwell (at Chapuys).


Jessica Raine as Jane Parker Boleyn, Lady Rochford (2015 Wolf Hall); we read Mantel’s witty essay suggesting yes Jane Parker’s evidence was sinister

Black Book: Anne has one last late miscarriage; the one called a monster and now she a witch, or because (as Jane Rochford and others had it, it was the child of an incestuous union). Retha Warnke in her historical biography offers the idea that the child was carried beyond quickening but then something was wrong with it (spina bifida?). Something wrong with Henry, or a mismatch of blood types.

Her dog killed; rumors rife as others begin to accuse Anne of sexual unfaithfulness. Closing in. Master of Phantoms: One member of Anne’s circle after another, first the women frightened, easily gotten to talk; then Jane Boleyn’s role, Smeaton’s stupid boasting; the ceaseless interrogations, the final trial, Anne and George and the execution. Spoils, London, summer 1536: divvying up the plums

How did we end? I gave Philippa Gregory full credit for being the first to develop new characters, a new perspective from Mary Boleyn on. Mantel picked up from that and Mary Robertson’s work on Cromwell, Cavendish’s great biography of Wolsey. We discussed the mystery of Henry VIII’s character and I told of Morgan’s take on him, and Ray Winstone’s performance.

Finally, I used Jessica Jernigan’s review in The Women’s Review of Books: Bring Up the Bodies filled with ghosts and monsters. I still love the style: it’s plainer and more popular or demotic than Wolf Hall but still a strong sardonic irony and use of concrete popular language as metaphor persists. In Wolf Hall Cromwell was also a fond husband, kind master, against the worst excesses of power, kindly easy to like; not this man whose virtues now are given a sinister cast as they are used to murder 6 people. His own evil twin meting out revenge. Protecting himself. Jernigan also brings in Mantel’s other novels. As with Larissa MacFarland whose New Yorker article I gave out, Jernigan sees an obsession with another world outside the probable sane one. We saw Cromwell fighting a blighted life and now? Jernigan singles out passages where she says that tricky “he” is not Cromwell any more; there creeps in an “us” – as with Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover, we the readers and Mantel herself are emerge from behind Cromwell and Henry. Perhaps in her third book we will move to continuity between present and past too:

Already you can feel the autumn. You know there cannot be many more days like these; so let us stand, the horseboys of Wolf Hall swarming around us, Wiltshire and the western country, stretching into a haze of blue – she wants us to feel the alders by the water’s edge, the early haze that lifted by nine; the brief shower, the small wind that died and settled; the stillness, the afternoon heat …

Ellen

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Natasha McElhone and Jodhi May as Mary and Anne Boleyn (2003, BBC The Other Boleyn Girl, written and directed by Philippa Lowrthorpe)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve just been watching the powerful 2003 BBC film adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, written & directed by Philippa Lowthorpe, with (most notably or memorably) Jodhi May as Anne Boleyn, Steven Mackintosh as George Boleyn, Natasha McElthone as Mary Boleyn and Philip Glenister as William Stafford. This is part of the term’s work I’m doing with a class in order to delve with them Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall as a A Fresh Angle on the Tudor Matter. Anne Boleyn is presented far more sympathetically in this movie than in Philippa Gregory’s book; we are allowed to understand how Anne came to be so ambitious, angry, rigidly vindictive, envious — if indeed she was all or any of these things: we must remember this is the same woman who worked with Thomas Cranmer and her brother to spread an evangelical Catholicism among many people. The one non-fictional historical text to do real justice to Anne Boleyn is still The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives.

Anne Boleyn gets such a hostile interpretation so often, that I can’t resist putting onto this blog a proposal (which has been rejected) I wrote for a panel on feminist approaches to the work of Henry and/or Sarah Fielding, for the upcoming ASECS conference in Denver, Colorado. One third of it was to have been on Anne Boleyn as a figure in mythic, literary, film, feminist, and anti-feminist writing.

Anne Boleyn, Jenny Jones, and Lady Townley: the woman’s point of view in Henry Fielding

I propose to give a paper discussing Anne Boleyn’s self-explanatory soliloquy at the close of A Journey from this World to the Next, Jenny Jones’s altruistic and self-destructive constancy to Mrs Bridget Allworthy across Tom Jones, and in the twelfth book of said novel, the character of Lady Townley in Cibber and Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Husband as she fits into a skein of allusion about male and class violence and marital sexual infidelity in Punch & Judy and the Biblical story of Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11:30-40). I will argue that the Boleyn soliloquy is probably by Henry Fielding and fits into Fielding’s thinking about women’s sexuality, and other female characters’ soliloquies in his texts; that Jenny’s adherence to a shared set of promises parallels the self-enabling and survival behavior of other women, which is seen as necessary and admirable in a commercial world where they have little legal power. I will explicate the incident in Tom Jones where Cibber and Vanbrugh’s play replaces the folk puppet-show to argue that these passages have been entirely misunderstood because the way they are discussed omits all the immediate (what’s happening in the novel) and allusive contexts from the theater and this Iphigenia story. I will include a brief background from Fielding’s experience and work outside art. I will be using the work of critics such as Earla A Willeputte, Laura Rosenthal, Robert Hume, Jill Campbell, and Lance Bertelsen. I taught Tom Jones to two groups of retired adults in a semi-college in the last couple of years and will bring in their intelligent responses to a reading of this complicated book in the 21st century. My goal is to suggest that Fielding dramatizes out of concern for them and a larger possibly more ethically behaved society the raw deal inflicted on women by law, indifference to a woman’s perspective, and custom.

These are the three areas I was going to show Fielding’s brand of feminism through. They are merely sketched here; I was going to do much more research for each:

In the case of Fielding’s Anne Boleyn, she speaks at length to justify her entry into peaceful oblivion or Elysium this fiction, to the judge Minos, who stands guard over the gate. She explains how she came to withhold sex from Henry VIII for so long, then as his wife treat him shrewishly and domineeringly, and finally (only perhaps) betray him with other males at court. She never loved him. It was a relationship coerced by her family. Fielding believed woman will willingly have sex with men when they care deeply for a man as a center to build a new family around (such a woman might not demand marriage first), but they won’t or are very reluctant to have sex when they do not love the man who wants or has married them. Who then did Anne Boleyn love? Henry Percy. They were betrothed, their love consummated directly after the wedding was over, and then they were dragged apart by Wolsey’s disapproval (he wanted to use Anne another way), and forced to deny what had happened. Fielding gives Anne a long poignant soliliquy. It echoes the opening section of Amelia by Miss Matthews. There is no reason to believe this is by Sarah Fielding; she has not the psychological acumen nor would have made this type of male-oriented love.

The happy out come of Fielding’s novel, Tom Jones, is the result of Jenny Jones having kept a promise, a pact she signed to with Miss Bridget Allworthy who had a love affair with a young clergyman, Will Summers, who dies before they can marry. The outcome of the book depended on these two women’s promise and contract whereby Jenney offered to present herself as having become pregnant outside marriage to enable Bridget Allworthy to keep her illegitimate baby under her blind and rigid brother’s nose. Mr Allworthy continually scolds lower class people (Partridge) and women for having sex outside marriage: he predicts dire things; he says it dehumanizes them, they become animals. In fact in the novel, only through having sex secretly or for money can most of the women survive. Tom is suddenly lifted up from being a victim of capital punishment or transportation to the liberty of a gentleman because (it is discovered when such a legitimate heir-type is needed) because he is found on the spot to be a bastard nephew of Mr Allworthy.


Joyce Redman as Mrs Jenny Jones Walters (1966 UK United Artists, Tom Jones, directed by Tony Richardson, written by John Osborne)

Fielding’s Tom Jones plays a part in my third example of Fielding’s empathy with women. I separate it out as it is a bit more complicated even in a sketchy outline.

At first we assume we (and our favorite friends) are going to watch on the street or in a countess’s public rooms in her house, a puppet show of Punch and Judy (Book 12, Chapter 5). A puppeteer at said inn after Upton refuses to use his puppets to put on a Punch and Judy show because it is “idle trumpery” and “low.” Instead he has his puppets perform a “fine and serious Part of The Provok’d Husband.” Much of Book 11 is taken up by Mrs Fitzpatrick’s story of how her husband married her for money, took her to Ireland, had a mistress, abused her; she is likened to a “trembling hare” fleeing him and his servants. Men were allowed to lock up their wives; they could beat them; a woman was supposed to obey, and people did marry for money sheerly (it was the only way to become rich if you were not born to it). Harriet tells Sophie her “companions” were “my own racking Thoughts, which plagued and and in a manner haunted me Night and Day. In this situation I passed through a Scene, the Horrors of which cannot be imagined …” – a childbirth alone, and childbirth in this period was a hard ordeal often ending in death (Book 11, Ch 12, p 320).

Vanbrugh and Colley Cibber’s The Provok’d Husband is a play which runs on lines similar to Fielding’s own The Modern Husband and is a companion piece to Vanbrugh’s The Provok’d Wife and one of Cibber’s plays about the same brutal male character called The Careless Husband. Repeatedly we find ourselves concerned over a couple who treat one another as commodities; they live in an adulterous world and to find any status, compete with one another over everything, including adultery. There’s a scene between Lord and Lady Townley where she says he is so abusive she will leave him and he replies, leave this house madam, and you’ll never come in again and I will give you no money whatsoever. She is subject to him. At its close there is a moving dialogue between husband and wife where she reasons with him – oh she’s had a lover but so has he had a mistress: “what indiscretions have I committed that are not daily practiced by hundred other women of quality” (II: 675).

No critic I’ve read mentions the Punch & Judy is misogynistic farce — and clearly the play substituted stands up for women’s rights (however ironically). Right afterward the scene we hear the landlady’s maid defend herself from being beaten by her mistress on the grounds that her betters are not better than she; “what was the fine Lady in the puppet-show just now? I suppose she did not lie all night out from her husband for nothing” (p 563). As the characters talk, the landlady remembers when good scripture stories were made from the Bible (as opposed to either Punch and Judy or The Provok’d Husband), and she refers to Jepththah’s rash vow? (p 564). Jephthah vowed to sacrifice his daughter on return from battle if God would only give him a win (it’s an Iphigenia story, note p 946). Before he sacrificed her she sat around bewailing her virginity. The idea is she wouldn’t have minded had she had sex, married, had a husband.

Partridge is one of the few companions on this road to prefer the play to the farce. Partridge told the cruel story of the London hanging judge, is himself an abused husband. Once they get off the road, we find ourselves in the story of Lady Bellaston, a female libertine who hires males for sex, but is herself deeply unwilling to marry for then she will be subject to a master. The chapter ends with the gypsy incident (where a husband uses his wife to decoy a gull) and Jones going off to mouth his muff — which stands in for Sophia’s vagina. There is a curious wild hilarity behind this final moment, something I’ll call uncanny. I was going to show Fielding is our puppeteer showing us how women get a raw deal from men, and is not as indifferent to violence or delighted with violence as is sometimes supposed.


Mrs Francis Abington as Miss Prue in Congreve’s Love for Love; she played Lady Townly in Vanbrugh and Cibber’s Provok’d Husband

As I said, my proposal was rejected, which I heartily regret because beyond my initial focus on Anne Boleyn, the first and last third parts of my argument are original, go against the grain of consensus about Henry Fielding, and it would have been fun to discuss the frank disillusioned drama of the 18th century stage.

Another though was accepted, on topics I’ve often written about here: historical fiction and Winston Graham’s Poldark novels. This time I will talk about the art of blending fact and fiction:

The Poldark Novels: a quietly passionate blend of precise accuracy with imaginative romancing

While since the 1970s, Winston Graham’s 12 Poldark novels set in Cornwall in the later 18th century have been written about by literary and film scholars as well as historians because of the commercial success of two different series of film adaptations (1974-1978; 2015-2019), very little has been written about these novels as historical fictions in their own right. They emerge from a larger oeuvre of altogether nearly 50 volumes. Most of the non-Poldark books would be categorized variously as contemporary suspense, thriller, mystery or spy novels, with one winning the coveted Golden Dagger award, and others either filmed in the 1950s, ‘60s and 1970s (e.g, The Walking Stick, MGM, 1971), or the subject of academic style essays. One, Marnie (1961) became the source material for a famous Hitchcock movie, a respected play by the Irish writer Sean O’Connor, and in the past year or so an opera by Nico Muhly, which premiered at the London Colosseum (English National Opera production) and is at the present time being staged at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Some are also set in Cornwall and have been the subject of essays on Cornish literature. But a number are also set in other historical periods (early modern and late 19th century Cornwall, Victorian Manchester) and Graham published a non-fiction history of the Spanish Armadas in Cornwall. His historical fiction is usually identified as verisimilar romance, and he has been given respect for the precision of his archival research and his historical and geographical knowledge (especially of Cornwall).

It is not well-known that Graham in a couple of key passages on his fiction wrote a strong defense of historical fiction and all its different kinds of characters as rooted in the creative imagination, life story, and particular personality (taken as a whole) of the individual writer. He also maintained that the past “has no existence other than that which our minds can give it” (Winston Graham, Memoirs of a Private Man, Chapter 8). I will present an examination of three of the Poldark novels, Demelza (set 1788-89, so the fall of the Bastile is woven in, written in 1946); The Angry Tide (set 1798-99, year of the Irish and counter-revolutions in France, strong repression in the UK, written 1977), and The Twisted Sword (set 1815, partly a Waterloo, written 1990), to show Graham deliberately weaving factual or documentable research with a distanced reflective representation of the era his book is written in. The result is creation of living spaces that we feel to be vitally alive and presences whose thoughts and feelings we recognize as analogous to our own. These enable Graham to represent his perception of the complicated nature of individual existences in societies inside a past that is structured by what really happened (events, speeches, mores that can be documented) and an imagined space and credible characters who reach us today.


Elinor Tomlinson and Aidan Turner as Demelza and Ross Poldark (from the first season, 2015 BBC Poldark, scripted Deborah Horsfield)

This is my third paper given at an ASECS conference.

The first was just on the books and it was EC/ASECS (“Liberty in the Poldark Novels: ‘I have the right to choose my own life!'”) and the second at a LA, ASECS, on the two TV series (“Poldark Rebooted: Forty Years On”).

I’ve been watching the fourth season of the 2015 Poldark series once again, and will be blogging about it here soon. I’ve never been to Denver, so now I’ll see a new city for me. Winston Graham and his fiction and characters no longer need vindication but I shall try to make the books more genuinely respected as well as both film adaptations (the one in the 1970s and the one playing on TV these last four years).

Ellen

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Kate Winslet as as Myrtle (Tillie) Dunnage sewing (The Dressmaker, written & directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, 2015)


Annie Starke as the young Joan Castlemain “helping” her professor husband, Joe, writer (The Wife, directed Bjorn Runge, script Jane Anderson, 2018)

Friends and readers,

Finally at the end of summer, four good women’s films. Two weeks ago The Bookshop and Puzzle, where in each a heroine seeks a new life, and now, The Dressmaker (based on a novel by Rosalie Ham) and The Wife (based on a novel by Meg Wolitzer), where in each two heroines wrest back what they have lost. They were gripping because was kept happening next was unexpected as women broke through taboos to become or take back herself after a long endurance. I recommend going to The Wife and renting or streaming (or buying) The Dressmaker as strongly as I did seeing The Bookshop before it leaves the theaters. In order to convey why they are rivetingly or quirkily surprising as we move along, I tell the stories but it’s the acting out as each turn comes that will hold you.


Glenn Close as the aging Joan Castlemaine reading The Walnut, a novel attributed to her husband as fiction, but one she wrote about her life with him

The Guardian says Glenn Close delivers the best performance of her career. She does make the movie the emotionally affecting experience it is, but I can think of other movies I’ve seen her in where it was she who made them extraordinary (Alfred Nobbs, with John Malkovitch, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Paradise Road, the box office winner Fatal Attraction).

It’s done through flashbacks with two sets of actors: we begin in present time with Joe Castlemaine (the character somewhat based on Saul Bellows) played by Jonathan Pryce, winning the Nobel Prize, and the couple going with their son to Stockholm for the award ceremony. They seem to be joyous over this crowning recognition, but have an intensely strained relationship as a couple. Through irritants, and promptings of memories at her husband’s bad behavior He denigrates and treats with mild contempt the son’s, (Max Iron as David Castlemain) writing; he incessantly controls her eating, drinking, smoking, being by herself at all, when he is the one who is ill, taking pills to stay alive, and (as we see) promiscuous with young women wherever he can be. Joan’s mind moves back to how they met (Harry Lloyd as the young professor and Starke as student at Smith College), how he seduced her while he was married, and their first successes: she is working as a secretary at a firm seeking good authors and brings his (it seems) books in. The cyclical weaving is very much a woman’s structure and we gradually realize we are seeing and feeling everything out of her older mind.


On the plane Christian Slater as Nathaniel Bone, biographer, approaches the Castlemains

The real story is also dragged out because the couple is stalked by Nathaniel a young man determined to write a truthful biography, to make a career out of exposing this celebrated author. He follows the Castlemains on the train, and begs for permission and is rejected, told to go away. He remains at the bar of the hotel they are staying at and when she escapes Joe for an afternoon she is lured into drinking and smoking with him, as we listen to him ask her to tell him the truth that she wrote the books, not Joe. Joe (we have seen) doesn’t even know central characters in the stories. Then when the son escapes, Bone insinuates himself into being a companion, telling the young man who then startled with this explanation for his bad memories, confirms Bone’s theory.


Nathaniel Bone talking with David Castlemain

Unfolded before is a Laura Ingalls and Rose Wilder story: what began as the husband writing poor novels and the wife being taught (perhaps wrongly) that women’s novels are ignored, not read, will not sell, or if they do, not be respected. This is conveyed by Elizabeth McGovern as the embittered women writer:


Elizabeth McGovern is memorable in her brief appearance

It at first seems the writing turns into collaboration and then (since he does not know what makes a good book, is dishonest about himself, superficial) an acted out lie: she hides away from children and world writing the novels while he takes (less than adequate) care of the children, cooks, makes money as a teacher, and takes all the credit for the books. What we see at first grating is the way he thanks her for enabling him to find time to work, devoting and giving up herself to his art, his creativity. The incessant gratitude as a cover-up drives her wild; it’s about as much as she can endure on top of his continual domineering demanding (he wants sex when she doesn’t) condescending ways. She has to smile and smile at the phony admiration, the adulation he receives so ecstatically.


In the car alone her face frozen, the husband trying to make up to her

Lying is at the core of this woman’s life, lying as an enabling and silencing mode of being. The movie made me think about what Rose Wilder might have felt because her books were attributed to her mother. The situation was so different: Rose Wilder chose to re-write and then write her mother’s books to project an Ayn Rand reactionary vision, to cover up the abysmal poverty of her childhood in rural America, and she got away with this because her publishers did all they could (as much of the media at the time) to castigate FDR’s turning the US into a more decent society for all (the New Deal, now in its death throes), to tell the false myth that anything is possible in individualistic uncontrolled capitalism. Closer are the faculty wives who spend years next to their husbands in libraries taking notes, typing his manuscript, perhaps “helping” him collaborating, who knows writing for him, and then thanked in a concluding line of acknowledgements. We see at first hand what pain this can be for such a woman, especially if he is someone who has affairs with his students or other faculty.

But there is continual ambiguity, different valid angles. The situation was more complicated than merely a bad husband, all self-sacrificing wife. As the days wear on, and she finally explodes and says she has had enough and is leaving him, they quarrel fiercely and it emerges she was complicit; he is accurate when he charges her with having liked being hidden, having liked getting rid of the children, of being rich (which as a woman writer and without a professorship she would have been), of him caring for the children, cooking and doing everything they pretended that she did. We see the beautiful houses they had.


Jonathan Pryce is pitch perfect in his easier role ….

We have seen how complacent she can be, and again how fierce in anger. How pained. She weeps at the end hysterically because when he suddenly as a heart attack. She is so persuasive and strong at that moment, I found the falling snow in the window behind her a false overdone note. Yet in the last scene on the plane with her son she tells the biographer if he tells the story of who wrote the books she will sue him as malevolent, and then turns with a look in her eye we see she is at the same time at long last free. She turns to her son and promises to tell him the truth of her life and the books when they get home. Will she? She fingers a notebook. Will she begin to publish under her own? or carry on writing producing books she will say were unfinished and are now coming out posthumously. She was ferocious with the biographer on the plane.

It’s arguable though that The Wife is a conventional movie in comparison with The Dressmaker. At the time it was in the theaters while it garnered many awards, non-professional and many professional critics alike lambasted it as peculiar, not making sense, erratic, unbelievable, and yes improbable and meandering (the last two charges commonly hurled at women’s movies). And at first I was startled and felt an urge to turn it off: why should this super-successive costume designer return to a filthy impoverished shack of a home with her hateful aging sick mother, Molly Dunnage played brilliantly by Judy Davis (a persistently fine actress, ever in good movies, unrecognized because not iconic).


Judy Davies when first pulled out of her lair by Tillie

Why go to a small town picnic dressed for the Oscars? What could be the point? Well give it a chance and you begin to see and then are on her side, wanting to see her get revenge on what was done to her and to her mother.

It’s a strange film, bizarre: Tillie begins to gain power because these dowdy jealous women want her to dress them the way she dresses, and she begins to make money as she determinedly ignores or over-rides her mother’s protests and cleans the house, her mother, and sets up a daily decent routine of life for them. What women seem to want, what they dream of themselves looking like is when seen startlingly artificial and grotesque


The movie ends with an album of all the actresses in all the (a cornucopia) dresses made and worn over the film (costume design Margot Wilson and Marion Boyce)

What emerges, in jarringly odd scenes is a female gothic story. When Tillie was small, she was bullied cruelly by a Evan Pettyman’s (Shane Bourne) mean stupid son, Stewart, and she was accused of murdering him in retaliation. She was hounded out of town and her mother disgraced. What gradually emerges is Tillie is Everyman’s illegitimate daughter by Molly; that Pettyman’s present wife has spent her life drugged by this husband before and worse after the son died. In flashbacks we see how the child was ostracized and harassed and when the boy tried to smash her head, she stepped aside and he rammed his head into a brick wall. Another reason she has returned, is she does not know what happened and is determined to discover how the boy died. The town is exposed as bigoted, hypocritical and brutally indifferent to anything but each person’s own ego pleasure. Tillie had a young man who was liked her; grown up now, Liam Helmsorth as Teddy McSwiney slowly reveals he has a mentally retarded brother whom the town despises and mocks, a mother who (like Molly) is impoverished and they live apart, in a tin shack with him making what money they have as a mechanic.

Needless to predict, Tillie and Teddy fall in love and become lovers, Molly emerges from her shell to show she loves her daughter after all, or can love her. They sew together:

There are wonderfully comic moments where Molly calls herself a hag and her daughter a spinster in need of such a man:

The three go to the movies and make fun of what they see: there is an older movie shown which probably is meant as an allusion but I couldn’t make out which one it was.

Wedding scenes, church, as the story is exposed, scenes of intense anger, scene where Pettyman hires another woman as a dressmaker to rival Tillie, only this dressmaker is nowhere as daring, bold, good a seamstress. But colluding and frightened people are exposed as knowing and hiding the truth, Pettyman’s wife awakened to the truth tries to cut his feet off (this reminded me of how Stella Gibbons’s mocked the gothic), and just as we think the evil people who hid everything will get their comeuppance and our trio (Teddy, Tillie and Molly) live happily ever after, Teddy too full of himself, slips down a man hole, gets caught in a vise and is killed. There is a moving funeral. This means his brother and mother can escape the town’s obloquy only by leaving. Molly determines to help her daughter and now dressed respectably, sets forth for help from those townspeople with hearts (they are some):

But in a tense tiring public scene, recalling or anticipating what happens to Bill Nighy as Mr Brundish assailing the witch power-center of the town in The Bookshop, Molly has a heart attack and dies before she can see justice begin to be done. So we have another funeral. The heart attack of the aging weakened person who sallies forth to help the heroine is not the only parallel with Fitzgerald’s tale as filmed by Coixet. In a final scene of rage, while the mostly indifferent town is caught up in another social public event, all of the women now dressed by Tillie, Tillie sets fire to the old cabin she and her mother had lived in, and takes a long red carpet and fills that with lighter fluid, hurling it out towards the town, where it slowly sets the central streets of the town on fire. The movie ends with Tillie re-dressed as the Parisian dressmaker she had become and leaving:

An important character in the drama is Australia itself. The film is made by an Australian film company and was filmed there. It’s filled with stunning shots of the bare and hard landscape, which the camera nonetheless seems to have a love affair with. We first see Tillie against this hard backdrop:

One of the good or remorseful characters, Hugo Weaver as Sergeant Farrat takes blame for Tillie as policeman, seen against the same landscape at another time of day:

A townspeople scene: they look up at Tillie and Mollie’s ruined home:

It is as deeply satisfying a film as one can hope to see, and it uses the power of a woman through one of her most characteristic skills: sewing. Moorhouse is unashamed to both caricature and celebrate high fashion and sexy dressing. It is also unsentimental in just the way of The Bookshop.

Two more women’s films not to miss, to revel in.

Ellen

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Emily Mortimer as Florence Green in the meadow contemplating opening her bookshop (2017, The Bookshop)


Kelly MacDonald her first visit to Robert, sees she can indulge in her secret passion, doing puzzles from among many many that at home she stashes away (2018, Puzzle)

Reading books & doing jigsaws — what’s not to like?

Dear friends and readers,

Among the kinds of blogs I’ve not been getting to recently, which I used to place here regularly — women artists, foremother poets, translation studies — and keep vowing to return to, is the summer woman’s film. I have more excuse for this last than mere lack of time and finding myself holding to a higher standard of sheer information: I’ve not seen any women’s films this summer until very recently, and then suddenly, two: Isabel Coixet’s The Bookshop, adapted from Penelope Fitzgerald’s superb novella of the same name; and Puzzle, directed by Marc Turtletaub, scripted by Oren Moverman and Polly Mann. My jump off point: I take the opposite view expressed by Neil Minow about Bookshop, which he thinks “never comes together,”, and Christy Lemire about Puzzle, which she finds “a lovely surprize.”

I think differently. These are from the once hallowed Roger Ebert site, which is not what it was when he was alive and its most frequent contributor. In both cases, the writers begin with a set of expectations: The Bookshop is supposed to be about books themselves, and is missing (so Minow thinks) critiques of books: why do we not hear how good Lolita is? or what the young girl clerk who so grates on Minow’s nerves, Christine (Honor Kneafsey) thinks of it or other books:


Florence and Christine reading together

On the other hand, Lemire was not expecting the wife of this utterly conventional family: garage mechanic husband, stay-at-home housewife to leave her husband. She does not even know how to operate a cell phone nor does she understand why one would want such a gadget, and has brought up two sons who expect her to serve them hand-and-foot:


Bubba Weiler as Ziggy, Austin Abrams as Gabe, David Denman as Louie (the sons and father) staring expectant at Agnes

Lemire is therefore just delighted that we are not stuck in this family-centered story, but move out from there to follow the wife’s adventures alone.

Perhaps Neil Minow should have read Fitzgerald’s book, for then he would have understood the source is a story about how power works in a community: it’s about how a woman who has been exercising control over central experiences of people in her town, Mrs Gamart (played by Patricia Clarkson) uses her connections, status, and subtle manipulative techniques fostered by the nature of the usually socially dysfunctional get-togethers (I say dysfunctional if you thought the purpose of getting together was to form friendships) to destroy another woman’s desire to find a function in life by using what money she has to sell books. I wrote an analysis of this book and others by Fitzgerald when Womenwriters@groups.io was having a group reading and discussion of Fitzgerald’s novels and Hermione Lee’s literary biography of her: Penelope Fitzgerald: The Bookshop and Offshore; Charlotte Mew. It’s about how a widow without the least trace of malice (so Florence doesn’t recognize a determined hatred) and kind heart cannot preserve herself against hostile inexorable power. We watch Florence after years of solitude and withdrawal come out of her peaceful shell to invest in, create, and build up a thriving bookshop business, only to have it destroyed insidiously step-by-step by an elite woman who knows how to get a law passed to enable the local gov’t to take over the shop, how to pressure a banker, a solicitor, an unscrupulous BBC layabout to undermine and sabotage the shop to the point where Florence is left without any money or a place even to live.

The only person on Florence’s side is the reclusive Mr Brundish, who, unlike Florence, knows exactly what Mrs Gamart is doing, and attempts to stop her by confronting her:


Bill Nighy (brilliant as the nervous man with unusual tastes) demanding to Mrs Gamart that she leave Florence Green alone

Coixet’s film has flaws or difficulties. Much that happens in Fitzgerald’s book is not visible, and it is only after Florence sees the effect of Mrs Gamart’s undercover and underhanded endeavors in say the form of a letter, or a school inspector taking Christine away from the shop, or a court order about her window (with the offending Lolita in it) that she slowly realizes she is being strangled by an encircling malign octopus. A film cannot go on for hours and must be understandable so Coixet gives us dramatic (sometimes too melodramatic) scenes or visualizations that are not in the book. Nighy and Mortimer manage to keep their scenes to the awkward, piquantly and/or poignantly comic (they are directed to behave in stylized ways)


Far shot


Close up

But all too often the need for pace makes for a seeming “tear-jerker,” which the story isn’t. It’s paradoxically a story about courage; Florence shows remarkable strength, which is part of Fitzgerald’s point. All Florence’s courage avails her nothing. Commercialization also demands a happy ending, uplift, hope, so a scene is tacked on at the end of Christine having grown up and from her experience learnt to love books, to read, and open a successful bookshop. The real world of the novel has Christine pushed into forgetting about the shop and Florence ending quietly but in anguish standing with her one suitcase waiting for a bus to take her to another town. The worst change is Coixet has Christine set fire to the bookshop: Mrs Gamart’s excuse was she was going to open an art center in the old house. I asked a friend I was sitting next to, how that helped? or had any meaning except (exciting to witness?) arson, for Florence would lose all whether the building lasted or not. My friend who can grasp a coarser understanding said to many people this means that at least Mrs Gamart will not be able to get her hands on the building. That’s to miss the central idea: Mrs Gamart wanted control and power, not the building.

OTOH, to give the movie its due (and so often when one compares a book to its film adaptation, it’s an undermining process), a reader can come away from the book feeling a horrible witch-like woman malevolently destroyed another, a sort of misogynistic perspective (soap opera like). The movie makes sure we feel that Mrs Gamart could not have done what she did by emphasizing how all the various characters cooperated in the destruction of Florence. We see them at work while in the book we only gradually understand their treachery. The movie also brings back all the faces in juxtaposed stills just before we last see Florence carrying her suitcase to a ferry. Mrs Gamart could not have done it alone. In the movie even Christine’s mother participates in destroying Florence with less reason (the book brings in how Christine fails her 11-plus and how unjust the 11-plus system is).


Florence dreaming in one of the movies’ early cheerful scenes

The powerful fable hits us strongly in the gut because as with the book, Mr Brundish’s attempt to help Florence, the first time he has left his house in years, ends in his having a heart attack. He is that upset by Mrs Gamart’s performance of surprised innocence. And Coixet socks this loss of her one true friend to Florence as she adds Mr Gamart coming to the shop to lie to Florence to tell her that Mr Brundish had visited his wife to give her his support for an art center. Florence has no proof, and she becomes (at last) hysterical and screams “Get out,” and ejects the wicked old man forcibly.

There is a good movie about American black people making the rounds this summer called Get Out (which I advise my reader not to miss); also be sure and see So Sorry to Bother You.

By contrast, Puzzle is puzzling. It may be that I need to see the 2009 Rompecabezas from Argentinean writer/director Natalia Smirnoff (a woman) to grasp why for at least one-half of the film we are in time warp: Agnes is a Donna Reed character, dressing and acting like a woman of the 1950s. Why Lemire is not bothered by this unreality I don’t know.  It is improbable that in 2018 Agnes should be so obedient to her husband; it seems utterly in another era when we find that she and her husband are not determined both their sons should go to college, but that the notion of college is one that needs to be introduced. Agnes is also made into a bingo-playing priest-friendly church-going Catholic:

who hides her least unconventionality in dreamy vulnerable-heroine moods:

Agnes’s one outlet is to do puzzles, of which she has many secreted away for afternoon bouts. Now it is not improbable that she might answer an ad in the newspaper by someone asking for a partner to do puzzles with for a contest, but could this woman suddenly start to deceive her husband, lie all the time in all sorts of ways in order to gain free time to take the train into NYC and begin a partnership with a completely unknown Arab man. Irrfan Khan has been in so many brilliant Eurocentric films (Namesake, The Lunchbox), showing virtuosity (he is usually as in this film kind, attractive, reasoning but can be vicious as in Slumdog Millionaire) that he carries off the character as utterly non-threatening. I find him very attractive and have been told the actor is a type found in Indian films: the intellectual.

The insistence in the film on then bringing out how Agnes immediately resorts to lying rather than saying she is going to NYC to participate in puzzle contests, how her husband is utterly faithful to her and never distrusts her (he feels only she gives of herself to others and not him too much), and then is willing to sell his favorite summer house to please her to get money to do something in the career area for the sons, gives the game away.  Also the intense sympathy given the husband who we see as within all his capabilities as meaning well as possible and even forebearing for not beating her (that’s how it’s presented). He says he can’t do it because he’s just not like his father.

This is a film (like Ladybird [scroll down]) masquerading as a woman’s film or point of view when it is told from the male point of view. The review on IMDB asked if the story is not about selfishness (hers) and deceit. For in the second half, as she begins to enjoy life doing puzzles, enjoys being independent, and especially winning she does start an affair with Robert. It quickly emerges that he is lonely, having been left by his wife. All these hard-hearted wives, you see.


Look at the promotional shot above: is she not coyly flirting?

The looming climax comes when Agnes and Robert have won to the point they must go to Belgium to be part of the final contest. It’s then Agnes must tell her Louie, but we are led to believe that guilt stops her from being willing to go to Europe with Robert. She does not phone him when she is supposed to, she looks very reluctant.  We might think she won’t leave her sons, and is going make sure about half the money will be used to send Ziggy whom her husband had insisted work in his shop to college to become a cook. That is what Ziggy loves to do, and what his father regards as unmanly and therefore unacceptable. Some of the other half (we are to assume) will go to Gabe who wants to travel around the world or the US with a vegetarian girlfriend.

I say some because just as we assume she is going to stay with her long-suffering if dull husband, we see her waiting for a train to go somewhere. We then see an airport and think to ourselves she is after all joining the disappointed Robert. But no, she is going to Montreal. She has to keep aside some of the money for herself, no?

Now, Montreal? There is a dialogue early in the film where she expresses a desire to Ziggy to go to Montreal on her own. Why? we are not told. To do what? we are not told that. I happen to know Montreal is a little north from the borders of Canada and cold. The radical point is that she is not going to escape the husband by running to the arms of a lover. But we are not told what are her ambitions or why? the ending reminded me of Ibsen’s Doll House where it’s enough that Nora goes out of the house, slamming the door behind her. The problem is this is not 1879 and a satisfied sly smile on MacDonald’s face aboard a plane to Montreal is not enough.

I don’t want to condemn the film as it is filled with quiet nuanced scenes, and slowly builds to an interesting ending, but suggest those who are praising it are doing so as a contrast to the perpetual high violence, action-adventure fascistic point of view of so many movies nowadays. It’s a gentle film, intelligently done, slowly unwinding itself.  My favorite line:  when Louie finally asks Agnes, “Are you having an affair,” all she can say is she “thinks” she is (not sure which astounds Louie) because what she has been doing is puzzles with someone and yes they did have sex but she “didn’t like it very much.” Now those are a woman’s lines.

I thought of Margaret Drabble’s The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws. Drabble turns to jigsaws to calm herself.

Are they a game? I think so: Drabble finds the earliest modern style puzzles are found in the Renaissance and first spread as a child’s game (think of the Alphabets in Austen’s Emma). Drabble suggests for the adult that you are working against the puzzle maker. You achieve something when all the pieces are in place.  I like to do puzzles and my method resembles Agnes’s: first she makes the frame and then she works on different portions of the picture. Of course the puzzle maker makes this second step hard and now you must follow the colors. For me since the competition is at a distance (I don’t go in for contests), it’s relaxed and I have aesthetic pleasure putting the puzzle together. It’s a rare game I enjoy.


A rehearsal shot

In Puzzle Robert teaches Agnes to follow the colors first, only when the competition begins she reverts. She trusts to her own instincts and methods — so there is a feminist “feel.” Robert also tells Agnes he does puzzles to give shape and meaning to life but does not elaborate on this idea, and it does not make as much sense as Drabble’s explanation.

Gentle reader, both these movies are worth going to see — as well as Get Out and So Sorry to Bother You. You can escape the Trumpite poisoned environment we live in in the US today to learn about living in normally hard worlds.

Ellen

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I have always respected her for the courage in cancelling that yes … All worldly advantages would have been to her — & she was of an age to know this quite well — Cassandra Austen speaking of Jane Austen’s refusal of Harris Bigg-Wither (quoted from Family Record, 93)

Ah! those were pleasant days when I had the Laconia! how fast I made money in her … ” (Wentworth, Persuasion I:8:67)

Once once we are buried you think we are dead
But behold me immortal” — Austen’s last writing, on it having rained hard on the Winchester Races

Friends and readers,

This is to recommend not just reading but obtaining E.J. Clery’s Jane Austen: The Banker’s Sister. Clery carefully correlates documents left by Henry Austen’s life’s activities and those left by people he did business with, was friends or connected to (letters, life-writing, other texts as well as military, banking, lease and all sorts of contractual and court records), with close readings of Austen’s novels and her and her family’s papers, to create a fresh coherent story that sheds real light on aspects of her life and outlook, on his character, and on Jane and Henry’s relationship.

Clery gradually produces a portrait of Henry Thomas Austen as an ambitious, chance-taking, highly self-regarding man who aspired to gain a higher status in life and more respect for his personal gifts than the fourth son of an Anglican clergyman was thought by his world entitled to. At the same time or throughout each chapter Clery attempts to create the contemporary socially engaged businesswoman Austen favored today moving through the familiar events of Austen’s life (there have been so many biographies of Austen by this time) and writing or thinking about writing each novel.

Clery is not the first critic-scholar to assume that Jane was closer in mind to Henry than any other of her brothers, nor the first to credit him with the initiative and knowhow to help Jane achieve her heart’s desire to publish her novels. (And by this earn our gratitude.) But Clery is the first to interpret these novels metaphorically and literally as engaging in and critiquing or accepting financial outlooks literally analogous to or undergirding the outlooks Clery assumes Henry’s military, business and clerical behavior showed he had. Each chapter of Clery’s study begins with a retelling of Henry’s business and social life at the time of the publication or writing of each of Austen’s novels (chronologically considered). Clery then produces an interpretation of the novel in question, which assumes Jane’s cognizance of Henry’s state of mind or business at the time and that this alert awareness actuated some of the novel’s major themes (perhaps hitherto overlooked or not quite clearly understood).


Henry late in life, a curate

Beyond all this, as a mine of information the book is as useful as James Thomson’s explication of the money system in the era in his “Patterns of Property and Possession in Fielding’s Fiction (ECF, 3:1 [1999]21-42)

This book, then, is not a biography of Henry Austen. Its matter is made up of explications of Henry’s business practices, living arrangements, day-to-day activities in the context of what was happening in business, military, court and city events. His marriage to Eliza Hancock de Feuillide takes a very much second place in the scheme of things nor do we learn much new about her, though Clery is concerned to defend Eliza against the implication she was a bad mother or somehow cool, shady or amoral person, which the insistence on a direct connection between her and Austen’s portrait of Lady Susan and Mary Crawford has led to in the past. She also suggests, I think persuasively, that over the course of the relatively brief marriage Henry and Eliza grew somewhat estranged: she had not been eager for the marriage, and once obtained, he was not especially keen on her company nor she on the life and Austens at Godmersham.


A very poor miniature of Eliza Austen when an adolescent girl


Her gravestone: appropriately Henry buried her with her mother and son

After Henry’s life considered almost sheerly from a career and advancement standpoint, we are given an explication of one of Austen’s novels: like David Nokes in his underrated biography of Jane, Clery has read the letters with an original thoughtful alertness as to the events found in them. She tells us what on a given afternoon Jane or Henry (or Eliza), was doing and with whom, and how this related to what they did yesterday and the following evening and some ultimate career goals (which these business friendships fostered). In these vignettes she comes near to recreating Henry and Eliza and Jane as characters, but is hampered in the case of the first two complicated, enigmatic (neither wore his or her heart on sleeve) people by her acceptance of the Austen’s family’s adversarial dismissive portraits of them, with Henry “wayward” and Eliza ever a flirt (see my blogs on Henry and Eliza). The book is then or feels like a sort of constrained dual biography which then morphs into not always wholly persuasive yet intriguingly innovative literary criticism of Jane Austen’s oeuvre.

There is so much to be learned about financial practices and banking in each chapter; she goes well past the level of generality found in the previous articles (by Clive Caplan and T.A.B. Corley) to give us an in-depth picture of how Henry actually got himself promoted, put into positions where a lot of money went through his hands (a good deal of it which legally stuck to said hands), who he knew who mattered, who they knew whom they pressured, and how once “fixed,” Henry preceded to develop his interests further. Receivership, speculation, the “rotten” credit system come one by one under the reader’s eye. We learn the state of the economy in crucial moments, especially with regard to war, which all these people looked upon as a money-maker for them (thus Tory and Whig enthusiasm). Where we the Austens living in London when the successful business of publishing Sense and Sensiblity began, and what it (and the other novels) entailed. I give Clery great credit for providing us with the sums to see the profoundly immoral and unjust systems at work (for example, the money in the military sector was to be made buying and selling commissions off the table). Henry was of course “conscious of no criminality” (290).


Modern photo of the site of Henry’s bank in Alton today

One is struck by the small sums (£100) Henry and Francis disbursed yearly for a few years to the mother and sisters in comparison to the thousands they pulled in and spent on themselves. Clery mentions the Austen women were utterly dependent on these men who controlled the women’s movement and spending. The year Henry was said to have gone completely bankrupt and he said he could only supply £50 for his sisters, and mother his closest long-time partner, and Henry Maunde probably killed himself (283-84); there were intense recriminations among those involved about how much money Henry and Francis had held back. Suits and countersuits. Henry was resilient enough to almost immediately turn back to a clerical career, begin study for a title, and two years ahead of time (of James’s death) write begging letters in order to gain his brother James’s vicarage (312). Clery also reports in slow motion Henry’s two illnesses during the period of the decimation of the country and other banks when the (“rotten”) credit system (based on massive loans unaccounted for) imploded, and it seems to this reader by no means was Henry’s much boasted about optimism thick-set into his being.

But if it’s clear he had to know (it’s right before him, us and Clery and all) how insecure were all these securities, nonetheless he gave both his sisters crucially bad advice when it came to offers of money for Jane’s books. It’s important to remember that when Jane self-published Sense and Sensibility, and lopped and chopped First Impressions into Pride and Prejudice and sold it outright for £150, not only had her work been continually rejected, no one had offered her anything. It’s repeatedly said in his behalf (for the letter disdaining Murray’s offer of £450 is in Henry’s idiolect) that self-publishing was the common way: not when you were given such a ready money large offer. In just about all the cases of self-publishing I know of there has been nothing like this offer; as for the other common route, to solicit subscribers you need to know people, you need to be well-connected, you need really to be known and you have to have people solicit for you — those cases I’ve read of slightly later (including Burney much later in life) the person hates to solicit. It’s more than half what Radcliffe was paid for The Italian. Murray was not a “rogue” in this offer; he knew the market for fiction far better than Henry or Jane did. Another comparison might be Charlotte Smith; the sums she was offered early on with her first successes are smaller than that offered Austen. Murray was said to be a generous publisher (as was Johnson to Smith).

Henry repeats the same mistake years a few years later when Murray makes an overture to buy the copyrights of all six novels. After “consultation with Henry, Cassandra refused. Murray had “remaindered the 539 unsold copies of Emma at two shillings, and the 498 copies of the second edition of Mansfield Park at two shillings sixpence.” Of course he didn’t offer more for a “new edition” as she hinted. They ended selling all the copyrights to Bentley for £210 minus the £40 Bentley paid to Egerton for Pride and Prejudice, and they reappeared as inexpensive cheaply produced volumes for six shillings each (“sales were less than predicted and the number of copies issued each time was reduced”, 318-19)

Here is the source of the continual itching of the acid chip-on-the-shoulder consciousness that wrote the biographical notice, the continual bitterness, albeit mild, of some of his satire in The Loiterer. Henry cannot accept that the real gifts he felt in himself and by extension in his sister were not valued by a world he himself knew indifferent to integrity. He kept hoping otherwise when, Edmund Bertram-like, he studied for a face-to-face examination in the New Testament and Greek, only to be told by the Bishop “As for this book, Mr Austen, I dare say it is some years since either you or I looked into it” (291). He got the position based on his connections and family status.


Close up detail of Cassandra’s one portrait of Austen’s face

Some of the readings of the novels may surprise long-time readers of the criticism of Austen. Emma is interpreted as Austen’s rebellion against commercialism, a “self-flagellation” where we are immersed in a world where most of the characters who count are indifferent to money (242-43). Emma has been repeatedly read as a seriously Marxist analysis of society. I was surprised by how little time Clery spent on Sanditon. Clery seems to me accurate that the fragment represents a return to the juvenilia mode, but is after all a fragment and nuanced and subtle enough to support persuasive continuations about the proposed novel as about financial bust. Clery does uncovers some new sources of inspiration: a novel by Thomas Skinner Surr called The Magic of Wealth (his previous was A Winter in London); the author, a banker, also wrote a pamphlet defending the Bank of England’s paper money policy (see 295-96 and my blog on Chris Brindle’s stage adaptation).

But there is much to be learnt from Clery’s analysis of the juvenilia themselves, what’s left of Austen’s letters, the Austen papers; Clery’s reading of Sense and Sensibility as an “austerity novel” exposing ruthless “greed” and measuring everything by money as the center of society (139-51) and her reading of Mansfield Park as dramatizing and exploring “a speculative society” on every level (194-214). Clery precedes MP with an account of Eliza’s dying, Henry expanding his banking business by becoming “Receiver General for Land and Assessed Taxes” (190) and Warren Hastings’ pose of indifference: there is no need to over-interpret Fanny’s position as an exploited bullied dependent, or her famously unanswered question on slavery. Everything in MP lends itself to talk about money, only this time what is wanted and achieved by many is luxurious ease. Finally, Persuasion is presented as defending “embracing risk” (274-76), with Wentworth linked to Francis Austen’s admiration for a naval hero accused of “wrongdoing in connections with the Stock Exchange Hoax of 1814” (216, 275).

Details of their lives come to hand for each novel: “How appropriate that the party had a chance to see Midas at Covent Garden Theatre during a short three-night stopover at Henrietta Street” (204). The quiet disquiet over Austen’s possible incestuous feelings towards at least one of her brothers now becomes part of a Henry story across Austen’s oeuvre.  I’m not alone in feeling it was Frank, given the poem about his marriage, Frank’s providing her and her sister and mother with a home, the infamy of the letter “F” and clandestine Jane, the destruction of their letters (attributed to his granddaughter), not to omit Frank marrying Martha Lloyd (whom Jane loved) later in life (see Honan, Jane Austen: Her Life).


Green Park Buildings, Bath, end of the row — Austen and her family lived in Green Park buildings 2 centuries ago

In recent years there have been a number of books claiming to link this or that Austen novel with a building, a real life person or event never mentioned in the novel in question or Austen’s extant letters so it is so refreshing to be able to say of the bringing of contextual matter outside the novels into them not discussed before is not dependent on theories of invisibility or subtexts. I especially liked when Clery brought Walter Scott’s career, Austen’s remarks about him and his texts together. She brings out that Patronage is the contemporary novel by Edgeworth with Mansfield Park (193) but what Austen continually took notice of in her letters is how Scott is doing. In Clery’s book just as a number of financial scandals come into public view as well as Henry’s “precarious position” (Edward gives him a promissory note for £10,325), Mansfield Park is lagging in the “performance” department and Emma is not electrifying the reading world, Scott’s Antiquary is published, at a much higher price than either MP or Emma, and withing 3 week 6,000 copies sold, the author gaining half-profits of £1,632.” Jane Austen tells the truth as far as she knows it: it was disheartening.

When they all returned to Chawton Cottage, Jane wrote her niece Fanny of Henry: “London is become a hateful place to him, & he is always depressed by the idea of it” (292). I detect a strong plangent note in her closing letters quite apart from her last fatal illness. Stress can kill.

Deign on the passing world to turn thine Eyes,
And pause awhile from Letters to be wise,
There mark what ills the Scholar’s Life assail,
Toil, Envy, Want, the Patron and the Jail,
See Nations slowly wise and meanly just
To buried Merit raise the tardy Bust.

Clery attributes Jane’s burial in Winchester Cathedral and the floor plaque with its inscription to Henry and the publication of her novels too. He ended his life impoverished but, Clery asserts, Henry ‘s courage in life gave us his sister’s novels (324-25).

Ellen

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