Posts Tagged ‘victorian novelist’

New Penguin Edition

Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea hard at work on plans to build cottages for tenants on her and relative and friends’ properties (never actually done by her)

“There is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it … the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is forever gone” (the last page of Middlemarch)

“Only those who know the supremacy of the intellectual life──the life which has a seed of ennobling thought and purpose within──can understand the grief of one who falls from that serene activity into the absorbing soul-wasting struggle with worldly annoyances” (Bk 8, Chapter 73, Middlemarch)

Dear friends and readers,

The high moments of this summer (more than half-way over now) have been an eight-session hour-and-one-half class given online from Politics and Prose bookstore (Washington, DC) where Prof Maria Frawley (of Georgetown) held forth and talked of George Eliot’s transcendent masterpiece, Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life. I didn’t think I would but under Prof Frawley’s tutelage and inspired by her class, I reread it for a third time — it was my fourth time through if you count listening to it read aloud beautifully by Nadia May while I was studying and writing on Andrew Davies’s film adaptations.

The first time age 18 in a college class on the 19th century novel, the second on Trollope listserv with a friend, Martin Notcutt and a few others around 1998 (I was 52), the third listening in an early year of the 21st century, but none of them was the experience I just had where I know my attention was alerted sympathetically to much that intelligently and idealistically apprehended on the many realistic (psychological, social) levels of this novel’s language.

I became far more open to what is in the novel than I ever had before — as in the depiction of the Garths, which I had been inclined to see as simply unconvincingly exemplary. I reveled in the movie serial twice through(!) with a renewed enthusiasm. Saw its hour-long feature along with a BBC4 special: Everything is connected (on Eliot) . I reread some of the criticism, and biography, including the now famous My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead. Had there been no pandemic, I might have re-listened to the CDs in my car.

For myself I find Middlemarch a transcendent book because of the in-depth understanding of human nature all its complicated ideas are based upon; and the intent to offer this kind of knowledge, which the reader can use to find some happiness or ways of coping with unhappiness in his or her life. The deeply humane and forgiving point of view is one human society is in need of — as long as the line is drawn at giving into evil and harm to people to gratify the greed and cruelty and egoism also found in groups of people who band together or individuals who inflict pain on others. It must also be drawn at self-immolation and self-sacrifice of the type we find in Dorothea at first, and Lydgate at length driven to. So on my own statement, the heroine who comes closest to staying with the good is Mary Garth; the heroes Farebrother and Ladislaw. Not that Lydgate does not do some good when he writes a treatise on how to cope with gout.

This blog is rather about the content of the class and how the book emerged through that.  So what can I convey of such an unfolding and complicated nuanced conversations (the class was filled with thoughtful readers too).  I shall have to revert to my compendium method for Ruth Prawer Jhabvala because there is far too much to tell of what was said.

Douglas Hodge as the yet unbowed eager Dr Lydgate (his is made the central shaping story paradigm of the serial)

As luck would have it, the online Literary Hub led this week with a much linked-in couple of columns, “George Eliot begins writing Middlemarch this week.” The site tells the familiar story of how Eliot began by writing the story of Lydgate (an aspiring young doctor), then separately “Miss Brooke” (an ardent young woman with no outlet for her intelligence, imagination, desire to do something for others in the world with her wealth), with Eliot afterward seeing how the two characters’ personalities and stories could be situated in one place, and then fit together in a artful design.

But it adds that there was a fragment written earlier — about Mr Vincy (Walter, the Mayor of the town, and hard-working merchant) and old Featherstone (the miser the Vincy family hopes to inherit a fortune and a house, Stone Court, from). Featherstone torments his young housekeeper, Mary Garth, who links to Mr Vincy because Featherstone enjoys humiliating the Vincy son (Fred) who loves and wants to marry Mary, among other things bringing her books, like Walter Scott’s Anne of Geierstein, which Featherstone forbids her to read, lest she have any enjoyment of her own during the time she is supposed working for him. So there are the three story matters. Eliot did keep a notebook of quotations, so you can try to follow her creative process just a bit. She meant it to be a study of provincial life.


From Book I: Now Prof Frawley emphasized the metaphoric and inward perspectives embedded in these stories and ethnography. And I here present her ideas as they worked out during class discussions in which I participated too. Eliot presents herself as watching human lots (in the Greek sense of your fate, what cards you were handed) organically inter-related. Yes the biological connections are real: Lydgate is deeply erotically attracted to Rosamond Vincy, the Mayor’s daughter; his patron, the evangelical town successful man, Nicholas Bulstrode, is married to Vincy’s sister, Harriet. Dorothea becomes enamoured of the aging scholar, Casaubon, whose nephew, Will Ladislaw, comes to work for Dorothea’s uncle, Mr Brooke, who, running for public office, hires Ladislaw to edit and write articles in a newspaper on his behalf; Ladislaw is emotionally drawn to the idealistic Dorothea, and flirts with Rosamond Vincy once she marries Lydgate.

But Eliot is representing the interactions between their inner worlds and realities of outward life (class, money, rival ambitions); the way society distorts (town gossip is central to what happens to these people) their awarenesses and conscience; how their consciousness distorts what they see of and in society, how they understand it. Mirrors are an important metaphor in this novel (as is tapestry, webs of interconnections). Casaubon also shows an ability to feel for Dorothea when he realizes he has made a mistake in marrying her: she is too young, too eager for him to be a great hero, and the mirror she shines up in his face mortifies him so he strikes out to silence her.

We have characters to compare: three central women: Dorothea (Dodo), Rosamond (Rosie), Mary Garth, heroines, and with them Celia (Kitty), Dorothea’s sister, Rosamond Vincy, Fred’s. Three men: Lydgate, Casaubon, Ladislaw, and against them, Bulstrode (as a hypocrite, hiding his criminal past used to rise in the world), with them, Rev Farebrother, Mr Brooke, Dodo and Kitty’s uncle. We see what six center presences do with their lives, what they make of them. We are led to ask by the narrator, Who among us could stand close scrutiny? to think pride is not a bad thing as long as you do not hurt others or yourself with your own. Some of these characters are given beauty in their thoughts, aspirations, generosity, but others show them unable even to understand the person right in front of them at all and no toleration at all for anything that might endanger their position in the world.

Both Lydgate and Dorothea make bad choices for their first marriage. Lydgate cannot escape his partly because of his conscience; Dorothea when she realizes she has make a mistake, recalibrates (like a GPS). The petty perspectives of a Rosamond, the small ones of the local rector’s wife, Mrs Cadawallader, and Celia’s husband, Sir James Chettam, a conventional county leader, matter too. We looked at beautiful statements in the first book about self-despair; Farebrother, the vicar, who while a humane man, has no real vocation to be a clergyman, found himself in studying insects, but he is deeply thwarted in his secular scientist study because he must spend time as a vicar, gets such low pay and is trying to support his mother, her sister, and an aunt. But also the inner rapture as the self involves its consciousness in study, which will also result in nothing practical. We are seeing the ways people struggle with their lives. We see our friends change, grow, mature as they try to follow a career.

From Book II: It is a novel about vocation; and for me, it is also about the enemies of promise that stand in the different characters’ ways. I loved how Eliot captured inner moments that can mean so much to us as we define who we are and follow a road possible for us — as when Lydgate realized he wanted to be an original researcher in medicine. Eliot writes:

“Most of us who turn to any subject we love remember some morning or evening hour when we got on a high stool to reach down an untried volume, or sat with parted lips listening to a new talker, or for very lack of books began to listen to the voices within (Bk 2, Ch 15, p 143)

I did tell of how after I read a moving passage in Wordsworth’s Michael, I knew I wanted to be an English major, to study literature.

There is a comfort in the strength of love;
‘Twill make a thing endurable, which else
Would break the heart … “

The intense emotional pain caught up in those lines took my breath away. The pain for me comes in how the words capture also the opposite reality: that few feel this love, and since Luke (Michael’s shallow son in the poem) had not, the lines are also about how at times we come near into breaking or our hearts are broken and we can scarce understand how we bear up.

Rufus Sewell as Will Ladislaw

While in Rome with Casaubon, who is spending most of his time researching in the libraries, Dorothea meets Will Ladislaw, there to study art, and he glimpses in her a buried, a repressed depth of emotion; Dorothea will find it like death, like a nightmare of dread when Casaubon attacks her for her nature. Prof Frawley said many times the book explores what it is be alive. The deeper question here is how we know others; a lot of 19th century novels are about characters some characters thought they knew but did not; how we really get to know who somebody is: in the case of Lydgate and Rosamond, they knew so little of each other, they understood so little of each other’s character. Rosamond is not interested in any character or desires but her own, and her dense tenacity triumphs over the sensitive Lydgate who yearns for her validation of him, and cannot bear her misery, no matter how stupid (he knows) the causes. Of course it is Lydgate who choose her, who is dismissive of women and yet she becomes his trap. The often-quoted passage is about how were we to be able to know the miseries of others (including the animals around us), we could not keep our equanimity

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well-wadded with stupidity (Bk 2, Ch 20, p 194)

We had talked about the novel as historical, set back in time from the era Eliot was writing in; it is also devotedly realistic, turning away from romance, ever aware of actualities (as an artful norm discussed by her in Adam Bede). You can see her practicing her awareness of the natural world around her in her Ilfracomb journal. The question here is what can a novel do? how does one make a character resonate with a reader? She says her mirrors are doubtless defective however earnestly she commits to faithful accounting. The mirror is a mediator, not the thing itself — now it’s Dorothea who remembers Rome so intently vivid; it is an epoch to her, while to Casaubon, absorbed in his own central self in years of arcane study, cannot respond with any immediacy to what is around them, is imprisoned in self-preoccupation, thoughts of gaining fame and respect from others, fear he never will.

From Books 3, 4 and 5: We moved into how Eliot works up, depends on our responding with sympathy so that we may pass over this egoism. She shows us Dorothea aware of what another character is feeling through her sympathetic impulses; sympathy just erupts, but equally characters fail in sympathy. Frawley defended Eliot’s narrator as not intrusive, and there in the text tactfully, but also rightfully there, to thicken out the novel, to share things with us. She numbered the ways the narrator adds to our understanding and pleasure in the book. I remembered the narrator’s sense of humor at the auction later in the book where we invited us to laugh with her at the absurdity of the inflated descriptions, what the seller said about the items from people’s houses to push the price bidding/war up. She lends life to all the minor characters in the Featherstone story, the Garth family: Caleb sees the potential and real goodness in Fred, Mrs Garth feels the loss of money she has saved for months to enable her boy to become an apprentice

Jonathan Firth as Fred Vincy being bullied by Michael Hordern as Featherstone, Rachel Power as Mary Garth looking on, Trevyn McDowell as Rosamond Vincy keeping well away

The medical history context as such becomes more important as Lydgate becomes part of the Dorothea/Casaubon story after his heart attack. Specifics go beyond Lydgate trying to institute reforms as Lydgate gets involved in individual characters’ health (like Fred’s, which leads to Lydgate’s engagement with Rosamond). Gossip begins to play a major role — how we come to talk and to know about one another (Book 4, Ch 41, p 412: the world as a “whispering gallery”). Last debt and obligation — how we can be saddled with moral as well as financial debt. Invalidism as a form of identity emerges in Victorian novels; epidemics are part of the this 19th century realistic world, and we see Lydgate struggling to be professional, to be taken seriously. Now the question is, What good can people do for one another in this world. We did talk of a Medical Act trying to set minimum criteria before a man can call himself a physician.

Ladislaw, Robert Hardy as Mr Brooke, and Stephen Moore as Mr Vincy on the hustings

Where does progress happen? Certainly Mr Brooke makes no progress on his estates nor does he help his desperate tenants to live at all better lives. Prof Frawley saw Brooke’s disastrous speech as an example of how hard it is to to get a society to support progressive legislation. She pointed to a debate between Lydgate and Ladislaw about measures, men voted in to pass them (Bk 5, Ch 46, p 465), which did remind me of debates between characters in Trollope’s political Palliser fiction, only here it did seem to me that the measures the characters were talking of were genuinely capable of helping vulnerable individuals (to be honest, I’ve never seen that in Trollope’s fictions — perhaps in his travel books, yes). The existence of (stupid) gossip connects here: ignorant people attributing malign motives to other people; people who make a living selling useless products. Change is therefore glacial. Lydgate finds himself attacked for dissections.

A Middlemarch grocer appeals to Lydgate to prescribe Mrs Mawmsey’s strengthening medicine, next to Lydgate, Simon Chandler as Farebrother

Prof Frawley called Eliot’s a “curative vision,” and admitted there is a conservative thrust to her work; she takes a retrospective POV and sees elements in community life as entrenched deeply. Middlemarch as a community is a social body. What can you change among such people? what do they value? (I’d say speaking general individuals their position and status first of all.) Characters find themselves powerless to stop ugly gossip. Dorothea can act once she is a wealthy widow, not before. She can decide on what she wants to do as social obligations once Casaubon has died; she would have obeyed him out of a deep feeling of pity and duty she had to him, but we see in her meditation how she is alienated at long last when she realizes how he thought so meanly of her. Meanwhile she is coming to defer to Ladislaw as he proves himself to her, and she wants to think so well of him. I’d put it Dorothea needs to, as part of her make-up and the way she needs to see the world. She applies an ethical compass to what Mrs Cadwallader tells her of others; at the same time she is realistic about people around her, and we see her hesitate when Chettam or Farebrother advise caution.


From Books 6 and 7: I’d say the central most fascinating character in the last books of the novel is Nicholas Bulstrode; Frawley showed how Eliot’s analyses here are extraordinary for insight as well as compassion for a distasteful often petty cruel and power-mongering man in the way she enables us to see how he sees himself. (Cont’d in the comments.)

Clive Russell as Caleb Garth, Peter Jeffreys as Nicholas Bulstrode, and John Savident as Raffles

From Book 8: how we find all the preoccupations and themes brought together in this deeply felt consoling vision of acceptance (also Cont’d)

The 1994 serial: one of the best adaptations of a novel thus far ever made — if faithfulness, wonderful artistry appropriate to this book’s tone and feel, and depth of understanding matter (third continuation).

The coach loaded down with people and whatever goods they can carry, bringing people into Middlemarch and out again — the first thing we see when the film begins ….


Read Full Post »

Frontispiece to 1788 edition of Elegiac Sonnets

To the Goddess of Botany:

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

From Elegiac Sonnets, 1789.

We began with The Marketplace and the Canon.

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

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

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

John Constable, A Seascape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Now the topic was Nature and Art.

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


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

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

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

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

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

John Smith of Chichester, A Winter Landscape

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

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

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

Sonnet 67: To dependence

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

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

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


Read Full Post »


Dear friends and readers,

I want again to report on, share part of a review of a book, this time because I suspect its title, Sentimental Memorials, as well as the marmoreal cover illustration, will put potential readers off. Norma Clarke’s own books are uniformly insightful and informative, and her description of Sodeman’s book is to be trusted (appeared in TLS, July 31, 2015, but not on-line). Clarke suggests that Sodeman shows a direct line from 18th century novels by women to those of women writers of the later 20th and early 21st century. Sodeman discovers

in the novels of Sophia Lee, Ann Radcliffe, Charlotte Smith and Mary Robinson a concern with the status of their own writings at a time when literature was becoming professionalized and when the novel, increasingly popular, became downgraded as genre. Women established the new genre of historical fiction, and left to friends the task of including them in their histories, while in fact the participation of women in popular genres was then and still is seen as an embarrassment.

But the most popular works offered debased forms of excessive emotionalism or action-adventure. By contrast, says Clarke,

Sodeman imagines the generation of women writing and publishing in the 1780s and 90s as sharing “a vibrant memory of elite women’s literary accomplishments … while becoming aware that their own efforts were culturally devalued, and that history-writing and and canon-formation were leaving women out. Frances Brooke in 1785 complained that “the road of literary fame” was closed to most women. They were not included in the multi-volume collections; they were not being memorialized. Sentimental Memorials rescues each of its subjects not from obscurity, for they are now much studied, but from negative characterization.

More profoundly, she argues that the establishment of the literary canon itself depended on a sentimental reading of the past shaped by illusions of historical recovery. Historians like Hume and Robertson used the devices of sentimental fiction to fill gaps, inviting readers to imagine what Mary Queen of Scots felt, for example, as she left France. Antiquarians found or forged manuscripts and built invented pasts on these “authentic” fragments. The “found” manuscript was already part of gothic convention when Ann Radcliffe made powerful use of it in The Romance of the Forest (1791). Jane Austen gets a little slap for missing the point in Northanger Abbey: Radcliffe was critiquing a device, not simple-mindedly deploying it to create terror.

Sodeman asks us to consider her subjects as women who possessed a heightened awareness of the historicity of forms, and of the likely obsolescence of their own fictions. It is an ingenious way of reclaiming elements — such as Radcliffe’s use of interpolated lyrics, Smith’s repeated appeals to her readers to sympathize with her as a victim of the legal system — that have dissatisfied stem critics. It leads to a subtle blend of textual criticism with literary history and single-author study.

Sentimental Memorials … takes the ephemerality of sentimental fiction and discovers in it a concern for enduring reputation. It examines the uses of autobiographical detail in imaginative prose that depicts national and international concerns while at the same time conveying personal truths that have public meanings … Sodeman is steeped in the critical literature about realist fiction and its relation to facts or history

There are some flaws:

[Sodeman] has little to say about the longer history of women’s writers; and although she quotes Clifford Siskin’s formulation, the “Great Forgetting,” she manages when discussing Mary Robinson as “the English Sappho” to make no mention of Aphra Behn, the most famous “Sappho” in the English tradition… Similarly, Sodeman explains Ann Radcliffe’s interpolated lyrics as a strategy to accentuate artifice and intensify feeling without indicating that many readers would already have associated the device with the sentimental figure of an oppressed woman: Radcliffe was following a model set in the mid-century by Laetitia Pilkington in her Memoirs. In the “Great Forgetting”, it was the so-called scandalous women who were most forgotten. Their works tended not to be realist fictions but memoirs, stories of lived lives that were compelling because they were real.

Clarke concludes:

Writers such as Smith and Robinson owed as much to this tradition as they did to realist fiction. Questions about fictionality, truth, the status of individual experience and the forms in which it was received and believed were crucial to memoir. So, too, for readers, was the mingling of wonder and scepticism. The vibrant memory” of women writers in the ’80s and 90s operated on literary materials that have yet to receive the attention that has been paid to realist fiction and forms which, as seller lists demonstrate …

are far from obsolete.


Read Full Post »

Elizabeth Robins playing Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (1891)

Dear friends and readers,

I must interrupt my series of blogs on the ASECS conference to recommend an excellent novel that I read this week: Elizabeth Robins’s The Convert (1907), developed out of her popular play, Votes for Women! When I was told it was a suffragette novel, I expected an overtly didactic text whose central character would be a politically active suffragette, preferably lower middle class; instead I found myself in a subtle realistic novel whose central character is an enigmatic upper middle class woman, Vida Levering, much of whose life (and the action of the novel until its last quarter) takes place in Oscar Wilde like luxurious residences, elite parties, and dinners featuring witty and complex characters. We begin with her visit to a pair of wealthy children, in a lavish nursery whom Vida is visiting and move on to her servant problem: her lady’s maid, gaunt and middle-aged, wants to quit in order to leap at a chance of marriage with a widower, a market gardener she’s never met (who has children for her to care for too). The cover of the first Feminist Press edition conjures up an appropriate image for the heroine:

The image is a reproduction of Cecilia Beaux’s After the Meeting

After a few minutes this did make sense: the leaders of the suffragette movement were often women with connections, money they had some control of, and enough sense of self, of esteem, of their own rights to demand power. If nothing else, who else could find the time to proselytize, organize, work for the vote. Would a poorer woman see the importance of the vote?

We begin seemingly in the world of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, but as we listen on (the text is strongly dramatically imagined) we discover it’s more George Bernard Shaw whom Elizabeth knew fairly well at one point in her life. Interwoven with the upstairs nursery (and very snobbish stern nursery governess) and Vida’s private bedroom, we find ourselves in a political dinner party, on the surface an infinitely more intelligent, nuanced, detailed depiction of the world of Downton Abbey at a dinner, complete with (so much is missing from DA one does not know where to begin) connected politicians and semi-unacceptable people. Little is overtly explained so our curiosity is aroused. As they talk a subtle feminist and even egalitarian slant emerges. While Vida makes the point to the leading politician, Haycroft (probably intended to stand for a Tory prime minister) that the women at this function are enacting a Geisha form of life, amusing the men, there is also much in the scene that most women would want to be and to do: beautifully dressed, well-educated (Wollstonecraft would say they are mis-educated), admired, conversing, moneyed. Robins begins by bringing out the deep difficulty of reforming any society. These privileged women could not begin to see that anything but wealth and position matters, and if that is threatened in any way, it would be difficult to persuade them of the need for feminism — outside the sexual, there you might get them privately to admit to much misery. Every type of woman is gradually put before us in these first chapters. From hostess to guest, widow to a woman seeking a husband, to women trying to marry off daughters, to women seeking position in social pecking orders.

It’s the morning after and we see the home-life of Vida’s sister, Mrs Fox-Moore who was snubbed at the dinner party ad socially pathetic (acceptable only because she had made this good marriage), whom Vida is living with. They are at breakfast and the husband comes downstairs: he is a corrosive quiet tyrant over his wife and makes her life miserable. The point of the chapter is to dramatize how if someone is given full power over someone else he or she will usually use it and in unkind ways. Mrs F-M has a sickly daughter Doris whom the father dotes on — like last night’s company he despises his wife because she does not know how to manipulate others, and is overtly weak before him. We hear ofMrs F-M’s satisfaction from charity work which Vida objects to as what these poor people want is not sermons or entertainment uplifting or not, but real help: solid money to make their life different and opportunities for decent employment. That’s not said but it’s implied. Quite a difference from Dickens’s mockery of Lady Bountfiuls as bullies.

A visit to a Brideshead kind of house: Uland house and its mistress, Lady John — a full description of one of these rich houses and the people in them — some the same individuals we met at the dinner party. I could quite see Diana Quick as Lady Julia as one of these characters (from the 1981 film), as well as Jane Asher, the actress who played the upper class woman Charles Ryder marries, and Jeremy Sinden who played her brother though he is a caricature as Charles Keating, Rex, Julia’s philistine politician husband is not (and could be a characer in The Convert). Robins’s feminism continues by showing us Hermione Heriot who hides the least conventional thought, Lady Sophia who reminds me of Trollope’s Miss Dunstable but not a caricature, there’s a dog Joey, a Lord Borrodaile and Paul Filey presented as unusual and perhaps interesting. When all gather over tea we see Filey is absurd, flattering himself he is not conventional, he has written a useless book defending aesthetics as the basis of life. could this be Robins on Wilde? Filey does not seem Wilde like and is likened to Shelley. What happens is there erupts a discussion of the suffragettes which grates on Vida. Suffragettes are mocked as absurd lunatic disgusting and so on. Vida’s resistant reaction brings out a side of her publicly she had not before: she tells of a scene she saw of unemployed people protesting and a working man who was dragging a rich child on a toy horse on a string; he was the horse for the child. She escapes before she says any more to a garden and then hearing her cousin, Mary, very dull, is not well, hurries off on this excuse to get out of this luxurious set of self-indulgent people who conversation is deliberately mindless. The tone inimitable rich, ironic, it reminds me of Henry James (whom Robins also knew). Robins has one of her characters mention Rhoda Broughton whose I’ve not read but know Trollope recommended and others have. This is the kind of Victorian novel that academic critics sometimes try to turn earlier Victorian women’s novels into.

Well by the center of the novel our two heroines have shown they have social consciences, and their curiosity aroused, they attend a suffragette meeting. Mrs Fox-Moore does not return a second time, but allured and fascinated despite misgivings, Vida does — with her new lady’s maid. Apparently women of the upper or middling classes did not walk alone in the streets if they were conventional. The lead-in to the first meeting showed the police becoming belligerent, derisory, obstructionist to our heroines — who never experienced anything like this before.

The meetings seemed to me to function two ways. Directly the words the suffragettes speak are ways of speaking to the audience of the book. They make the suffragette argument: how miserable are most women’s lives (working long hours, for little pay, endless children) with no power to alter this, while they have to listen to absurd rhetoric about being on pedestals and the like. There are a strong socialist admixture: the speakers all bring out the poverty and abysmal conditions of the working and lower middle class and make the analogy with chartism and men’s movements to gain the vote, and say these were efficacious. There’s now a labor party. The strongest speaker is probably intended to be a mirror of a real women: Emmeline Blunt she’s called.

We are also to experience how hostile crowds were. Most of the time I’ve gone to any political rally the people attending were people for the party. The last time I went to rally with hostile people about were demonstrations against Vietnam. Robins does justice to the kind of withering and abusive rhetoric women were subjected to, how they were mortified by a complete lack of respect. We see how odd their dress: one woman speaking is a widow with four children. She points out when a set of children lose their father they are left with the mother to try to care for them, usually in desperate circumstances and the children have no opportunities. When they lose their mother, they are unless taken in by a family, put to workhouses. Men don’t take their responsibility, will not mother. Most effective is how the women strain, what an emotional strain it is to talk above and against such a crowd. That the women get some respect, are listened to some of the time is remarkable. You see that ridicule was tried against the suffragettes, but the cause, the misery and needs of half the population (and their children suffering with them) was too important so it didn’t work

The first part of the novel was a perspective which showed her ironic realization of the circumstances and realities of her powerless life against men’s desires, wants, needs, demands; children are just fitted in as what men want too. She is now being converted. Amusingly she shows the little daily routines that kept upper class family members in their place. I noticed in Downton Abbey that everyone obeyed the dinner gong. You had to give up so many hours a day to eat and dress for it too. The servants had to cook and serve the meal. The gong in emerges as a technique for repressing and controlling the behavior of the whole household.

A photo of a suffragette demonstration (ca. 1910)

The emphasis in this central and to near the end of the novel is on demonstrations — of course such scenes make for drama but you could have scenes of suffragettes talking together. There is one between a Miss Claxton and Vida Levering, but when it comes time for the woman to tell the story of her life, Robins punts. We get very few details about the misery of ordinary working women’s lives; what she does tell is how when in prison women were somehow treated in a sexually disgraceful, humiliating or mortifying manner. Probably made to endure public overt harassment — it does not sound like rape. They were kicked and heads banged — that’s mentioned. Women did not get the vote until after WW1 in 1918 and in 1828 universal suffrage included women. I know there was no other way to show and try to make your desire felt. Mass demonstrations of men in Ireland and again in London and around England indirectly led to the extension of the franchise — women can’t threaten implicitly in the same way. It’s indirect: men hated to be bothered by women demonstrating, being violent, starving themselves and/or felt embarrassed by the exposure of their own power? But it was not enough: the whole experience of WW1, the breakdown of so many conventions, the death of so many men, had to intervene.

Slowly Vera begins to helping Blunt at demonstrations; coming in with her carriage and helping Blunt or others to flee. She’s followed about by Lord Borrodaile who appears to worry for her physical safety. These scenes are used to make it an astute politically aware novel. The depictions of the speeches include dialogues between Vida and Ernestine Blunt where you see how Robins understood what makes people respond to a political figure and what brings out an effective active response and what people just don’t care about, or refuse to recognize can be changed. Especially good is the mockery of the men — what they say, how what they care about women is their looks and little else. One woman who presents a real intelligent case of how women workers suffer from lethal conditions fails to get any attention as she’s hitting emotions of indifference; another intuitively seeks political power in her speeches and appeals more; a third in ordinary life is fine but up on a bench and she’s perceived intuitively as a weak target and humiliated.

She begins to accompanied by younger upper class women who are idealistic (reminding me of Lady Sybil Crawley): one, Jean, comes with her protective suitor who she is eager not to offend by her behavior, but wants there as a protector as well as for moral support.

As Vida leaves her upper class life, people become willing to talk about her, and fissures open up so the enigmatic feel of the character is explained. It seems that as a young woman Vida “left her father’s house” (the language so reminiscent of Richardson’s Clarissa): was it an attempt at incest? did her father take a mistress openly? it matters. We are not told. A male friend who knew the family and had been kind, seduces and then takes her to live with him. The novel uses coincidence: it was Stonor himself. It seems he pushed her into having an abortion, and it is made plain that she didn’t want the abortion, she regrets it even now. I was surprised to discover that in the turn of the century a woman would talk about a fetus as a baby. I thought that was the result of recent anti-abortion rhetoric, Catholic beliefs that life and a soul start at conception; from the few mentions (but real enough) I have come across in the Renaissance (Veronica Gambara’s letters where she had miscarriages) and later 17th through 18th century, until quickening the pregnancy (not called that) was not thought to be a baby; after quickening few aborted, very dangerous. As I said, these 1890s novels bring out thoughts one never heard at the time (and often do not now). Vida think had she had a child, she’d have more to live for today.

In Daphne Phillips’s Women’s Fiction, 1945-2005 she describes a 1960s type of women’s novel as the single mother novel. These are books where the heroine becomes pregnant outside marriage; in just about all the heroine chooses to have the child and the novel is about the burden and complications and rewards that ensue. Philips says an American survey in 1959 of documentable (middle-class) women who got pregnant outside marriage showed only 2% chose to carry the pregnancy through to birth. Novels described include Lynne Reid Banks’s The L-Shaped Room (filmed 1962), Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone (filmed 1969 as A Touch of Love), Nell Dunn’s Up the Junction (filmed 1967 as Poor Cow).

Well the crown or denouement of the book has Vida getting on the bench herself and speaking publicly. She holds her own. Not that she achieves much that we can see — but it’s an addition, however small; she is a lady getting up there. But its climax, final scene reverses the emphasis back to private life. The last chapter shows the novel’s origin in a play. It reads like some final confrontation in an Ibsen play or Shaw — Vida and Stonor engaged in ahn impassioned debate over their shared past. He feels guilty about what happened, but to him she has become an unacceptable woman; he wants the young woman, Jean, whom he is engaged to be as sheltered as possible and we see while at the demonstration, how she is by training and disposition heeding all he says and will obey him. Unlike Trollope, Stonor does not go on about purity and the “beauty of innocence;” that is the underlying demand, but the overt thing he wants is a dependent woman who does not know how to cope with hard realities alone. We have been told by some of the other upper class women how Vida’s sister made a good marriage; we have seen how she is bullied so the future before Jean may not be any different. Here is our Shavian happy ending. A remarkable book,


George Moore’s Esther Waters edited by David Skilton

I’ve read only few novels from this era about or by “new women” (emancipated in some way, women who worked for money outside the home) or presenting the realities of the time in new reformist ways: George Moore’s very great Esther Waters (and novella, Albert Nobbs); Anna Lombard by Victoria Cross, a pseudonym used by Anna Sophie Cory, sister to “Laurence Hope,” aka Adela Cory who married and lived in India (where she and Vivian and another sister were born) and wrote popular poetry depicting female sexuality, sensual desire through pseudo-Indian imagery. As I recall in Anna Lombard the heroine pressured into either having an abortion or giving up the baby to caretakers knowing that the baby may be let die — by the husband or man who deigns to marry her; the book seems to endorse the idea that a man is right to refuse to be father to another man’s child and it is somehow unmanly for him to have been involved with her while she was pregnant by another man. What is shameful is he thinks of her as owned by him and orders her to kill a child. Esther Waters in Moore’s novel saves her baby from this at great sacrifice to herself; the pressure is economic and socially; she is regarded as a social outcast. These are books that should be better known. Hence this blog.

These “new woman” novels bring out into the discussably open for the first time realities not discussed even today — or skewed when discussed. So the first time out you can see attitudes blurted out which the person has not learned to hide.

The cover photo for Suffragette Sally (ca. 1910 photo)

Elizabeth Robins’s book is a cross-over between novels which focus on the private sexual lives of women and novels retelling the public world and activities of the suffragettes. A good Broadview edition (with an introduction about the suffragette movement, explaining why they had to resort to violence), Gertrude Colmore’s Suffragette Sally, edited by Alison Lee. One that sounded interesting is “by Lillie Devereux Blake, an American suffragist who wrote a novel, Fettered for life or Lord and Master. Blake wrote this to educate– [as in Mary Wollstonecraft] the emphasis on education — women in how greatly the law was stacked against them in marriage. Blake worried that young women were woefully uninformed about the lack of rights of married women, even in the 1870s. Blake worried that young women were woefully uninformed about the lack of rights of married women, even in the 1870s. Domestic abuse was exerted economically and legally. Blake wanted to show women that they were in great danger from husbands because the law worked from the premise that a husband would protect a wife — therefore, whatever a husband did, even hurting her physically, was seen through the lens of protecting her, keeping her line. Laws protected abuse, so there was no real justice. Also, men could easily circumvent laws as women didn’t know the law and lack finances to sue. To the 19th century suffragist movement, the vote equalled protection from domestic violence and hence from death’ (quoted from a posting by Diane Reynolds to WWTTA).

I’ve sent away (bought through Bookfinder.com) Blake’s novel. To be honest, I am more drawn to the novel of the era which focuses on women’s sexual exploitation.

From the cover of Harman’s Feminine Political Novel: upper class women caged upstairs watching Parliament: Trollope’s Madame Max refuses to go because she is locked out and in

One good book by a single author that studies women’s political novels as such, The Feminine Political Novel in Victorian England by Barbara Leah Harman includes Gaskell’s North and South, Robins’s The Convert as well as Bronte’s Shirley. It bothers me that Harman choses to cover Gissing’s The Year of the Jubilee and Meredith’s Diana of the Crossroads — were there no other women’s political novels in the 19th century? What about Henrietta Stanndard’s A Blameless Woman (about a women tricked into bigamy)? Harman with Susan Meyer has edited a collection called The New Nineteenth-Century: Feminist Reading of Underread Victorian Novels: this has good essays on Bronte’s Agnes Grey (a wonderfully bitter book), Geraldine Jewsbury’s The Half-Sister, Oliphant’s Miss Majoribanks, Eliza Lynn Lynton’s The Rebel of the Family, Sarah Grand’s Heavenly Twins, Mary (Mrs Humphry) Ward’s Marcella (about a home-visiting nurse) and Sir George Tressady, and Flora Anne Steele’s On The face of the Waters (Anglo-Indian, about rape). There is another essay on Elizabeth Robins’s fiction (she wrote 14 novels altogether, as well as plays), Angela John’s “Radical Reflections: Elizabeth Robins’s “The Making of Suffragette History and the Representation of working Class Women,” and on “Henrietta Stanndard and the Emancipation of Women, 190-1910” by Owen Ashton in The Duty of Discontent: Essays for Dorothy Thompson (wife of E.J., she wrote The Outsiders), Robert Fyson and Stephen Roberts. The volume includes “Who wrote The Northern Star?, essays on the experience of the workplace by women, on lunatic asylums (what class person was put in there?), rural resistence, poverty and the poor law, chartism (all suffragette topics).

A familiar photo of Robins at the height of her career and beauty

There are two biographies of Elizabeth Robins: one, Angela V. John, Elizabeth Robins: Staging a Life, takes her long life into her later obscure years.

Elizabeth Robins in later life

The other by Joanne E. Gates, Elizabeth Robins, 1862-1852 which appears to center on her central active years as socialite, actress and woman of letters and the theater (her pseudonym was Claire Raymond), suffragette. See comments for Nina Auerbach’s review.

We are on Women Writers through the Ages@ Yahoo (WWTTA) embarked on reading Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women. These are Wollstonecraft’s great-great-granddaughters.


Read Full Post »

Jim Carter as Mr Carson; Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley (Season 2, Episode 6, Downton Abbey) — the equivalent characters in WWWWDA are Edward, the concierge seemingly in charge of the Alexander, an expensive building in mid-town Atlanta, Georgia, and the super-rich heroine who married for money, position, and to support her siblings, Samantha Jackson Davis

Dear friends and readers,

This is a blog about a novel that is what many people (including those who have read Ausen’s six famous novels) seem to assume Jane Austen’s books are: light romantic amusement about privileged women whom nothing dangerous happens to. Oh yes the characters feel deeply at moments, they seem to be at risk of poverty now and again, but we never see anything really unpleasant, in fact everyone is doing fine financially and at book’s end all are reaching some form of their heart’s desire however qualified; there is a strong hierarchy in place which is defended; sex is kept in bounds. Indeed Wendy Wax goes further than this: she justifies taking menial occupations (like working for a butler service and as part of a building staff, the equivalence of service in a great house) as somehow work that will give people strong self-esteem because they are contributing to the ease and convenience in what seems the most trivial things of others (which turns out to be what happiness we can have); the immiseration of the middle class in the US today is made to appear fun, glamorous, like being in a play (or PBS serial costume drama). This is chick lit without the stings Helen Fielding or Karen Joy Fowler provide.

And yet I enjoyed it — read it with ease, kept at it, it made me smile at times, it helped me through a nervous patch at night; the idea is very like The Jane Austen Book Club: the characters in the novel were parallel to some in DA and the book itself a kind of intermediary between US culture today — presented in a way that removes all real troubles and changes what is a misery into a grace — and DA — where the trick is similar. And her seductive technique of at the core presenting characters whose emotional problems and fears are like women’s today are seen in the three chapters of her next book offered at the book’s end: The Beach Road. Our heroine is in her fifties, her children are “out of the nest,” and for the first time in years she has time to herself (she feels) and she is planning to make herself a room of her own, when she discovers that her husband, a financial adviser of some type, has been hiding from her for the last six months that he was fired and has lost all their money …

I suggest this is the kind of book Ann Patchett writes, only she disguises hers as liberal and sophisticated politically when they are not (see Bel Canto, How much does a house know?; Another patron saint of liars).


A couple of weeks ago now, the night before All-Hallow’s Eve to be exact, with my friend, Vivian, I went to Politics and Prose expecting to hear Azar Nafisi talk; instead I watched her smooch and present obviously false hype for a fellow reactionary Iranian woman author who had come to this wonderful bookstore to sell her book. Nafisi did talk on a level of conscious larger understanding that Goli Taraghi was incapable of, but alas Taraghi was allowed to natter on.


All was not a total loss because I had a good time with my friend in a nearby pizza place, and while there I ascertained the third sumptuously produced book of lavishly beautiful photographs on heavy art paper, Behind the Scenes in Downton Abbey is not simply a reprint of the first two books (The World of Downton Abbey [Season 1], The Chronicles of Downton Abbey: A new Era [Season 2, WW1]) but a book in its own right. But also that there is less text than ever, more hype, though more photographs. I couldn’t see my way to spending over $30 but did buy a paperback for less than $15 (I feel one should support the bookstore), Wendy Wax’s While we were watching Downton Abbey, and whatever I may say about it in the following remarks, I should confess that not only did I enjoy it in a deep way as I read, but found I could read it anywhere, at any time, it cheered me with its cleverly allusive wit, and even helped me get through my nervousness during a weekend where I went to my first longish conference by myself.

The hero of the novel is Edward, Mr Carson (showing Max’s values) who has shepherded them all gently into knowing one another, watching the programs, discussing them, teaching the arrogant brother to Samantha, Hunter a false third-grade lesson, who in turn brings investment to Edward. None of this is unbelievable in terms of the given fiction.

At the same time it’s important to know the world of this novel has never heard of CEOs, tax rates, real salaries, how physical work is hard, the stigmas of lower ranks, how no oe wants you when you’ve no connections to offer. The US has brought up a generation of women who believe in this trajectory of the novel’s hero’s success:

No matter how weird the revelation, Edward never lost sight of the fact that one of a concierge’s most valuable assets was discretion; a trait his grandfather, who’d been’in service’ at Montclair Castle in Nottingham just as his father before him had been, had begun to teach Edward somewhere around his tenth birthday.

Edward reached for his cup of tea; taken at four each afternoon and allowed to go slightly tepid just the way he liked it, and looked around his small office tucked away in a corner of the Alexander’s lobby. He’d hung his black blazer on a hanger on the back of his office door in much the same way that his grandfather had removed and hung his jacket when he went ‘below stairs’ at Montclaire. But Edward had hung his own diploma from the Cornell School of Hotel Administration next to it.

He’d begun to fully understand-and practice discretion-when he landed at a Hilton property in Maui as an assistant manager-a glorious posting from which he’d sent two years’ worth of sun-filled postcards home to the Hungry Fox, the family pub in Newark-on-Trent, upon which Edward estimated some fifty to sixty inches of rain fell annually. It was in the Aloha state that he’d handled his first celebrity peccadillo and learned the art of misdirection and the value of resisting bribes. The lessons-and postcards-continued in big-city hotels it} San Francisco, New York, and Miami Beach.

There’d been smaller postings, too; a fancy dude ranch in Montana where he’d fallen in love with the sweeping vistas of the American West and bought a pair of snakeskin cowboy
boots that he owned to this day. A charming Band B in the historic heart of Charleston where he’d reveled in the beautifully restored buildings and come to terms with the pairing of shrimp and grits, and enjoyed the languid blend of heat, humidity, and manners.

The Hungry Fox would go to his older brother, Bertie, much as the title and country estates his forebears had served in had gone to oldest sons. But that was all right with
Edward, who had pulled plenty of pints behind the Fox’s scarred wood bar but could never imagine staying there; not even to keep the woman he’d loved.

Bertie continued the tradition of mounting Edward’s post-cards, which now papered an entire wall of the bar. The last seven years’ worth had been sent from Atlanta, making the Fox’s patrons among the lucky few in England to know exactly what the Fox Theatre, a restored Egyptian-themed 1920s movie house, looked like. He’d sent postcards of other Atlanta landmarks-like what was left of the apartment Miss Mitchell had written Gone-with the Wind in; Stone Mountain, Atlanta’s answer to Mount Rushmore with its three-acre mountaintop carving of three Confederate heroes of the Civil War; CNN Center; Turner Field; the World of-Coca Cola.

Six months ago he’d sent not a postcard but a sales piece he’d had printed after his newly formed personal concierge company, Private Butler, had been selected by the Alexander’s condo board.

What do children learn in schools? the above is a mirror of dream (very loud) commercials which invent stories of ever increasing fairy tale upward mobility (it’s called).

The interest for me is to see what is the charm of such a book — and by extension why is this view of Austen so pervasive and contributory to her supposed popularity. Its matter does not correspond to any of the narrow typologies Diane Philips worked out for women’s novels of the second half of the 20th century, but contains the single woman-mother novel, the sex and shopping novel, and the aga paradigm all in one book.

Deborah Findley Brown as Lady Sybil as first seen in Downton Abbey, Season 1 — there are three heroines in WWWWDA; in DA there seem perpetually to be 3 young women upstairs and 3 down

It is that beneath the glamorous patina, beside the plot-line where three troubled women find friendship, escape and relaxation by watching Downton Abbey once a week on Sunday evenings, Wax manages to dramatize real fears, insecurities, anxieties problems lower to middle class women in the US experience today. Far from advocating challenge and take a chance, these are books which show how if you follow a modified conventionality you’ll have all the material goods you want and some moderate happiness; you can cope.

Samantha’s father had embezzled a huge amount of money from Jonathan Davis’s firm, and found herself without the means to support herself or her siblings at age 21, and being beautiful (as are two of the three heroines) had no problem attracting Davis’s proposal and marrying him as a solution to being able to live a comfortable life (which includes ordering fancy food from restaurants when she feels expected to produce the exquisitely delicious upscale meal), and having stability, respect, safety. Samantha’s thoughts as she copes with her mother-in-law, her spoilt siblings, her own guilt at never having gotten pregnant capture the mind of someone who married for presentability, career, social success. Trouble is she feels she does not love him and assumes he married her out of pity. She does all she can to please him in every way and the pleasantest sense of sex life is projected by the tasteful scenes of their love-making. I enjoyed these.

Downton Abbey, opening of Season 3

Claire Walker early on in her marriage discovered she didn’t like or respect her husband, was tightly constricted by him and his parents, so bravely left him to endure 16 years of single motherhood during which she did manage to publish two (absurd) romances, with very Scottish highland type titles, which did make enough money that she has now taken a year off work to write a novel, moved out of the far-away lower-cost suburban rings around Atlanta (yes it’s registered but not with awareness of what this means that all the poorer and low middle people in Atlanta live outside its center, and must have cars to get into the center with any regularity). She also lives in the Alexander, a “beautifully renovated Beaux Arts and Renaissance Revival-styled apartment building” (Claire is the first to describe the place), into a small flat of her own. Her daughter, Hailey, is in the usual upscale live-away college (aren’t all American young adults there?) and determined (like the good American she is) to support herself as far as she can. Trouble is now that Claire is not driven by so many other things to do and really has time when she looks at her computer screen nothing comes. What’s happening is she’s trying to write something real for the first time as she has the time to reach herself.

Lastly, Brooke Mackenzie, chubby (a horrific no-no), awkward, clumsy, mother of two, never worked for a living, and now deserted by her husband after she worked for years to support him through medical school; he is now making huge sums doing cosmetic surgery and has remarried a woman like a Barbie doll (he is likened to a Ken doll) and they have moved into the Alexander too. She is the Edith of the piece — and it was when at the gym half in the mind of Samantha Wendy Wax as narrator delivered her complacent moralizing condescension and exhortation over Brooke’s overt depression while Brooke is on a gym machine, I knew I was in a mean or small book however entertainingly written.

Laura Carmichael, Edith-as-susceptible-librarian averting her eyes from the hideously scarred Patrick Crawley, a phony revenant in Season 3

The stories of these three women play out poignantly and through ordinary human emotion. I found that the upbeat tendency of them over-all was comforting. It turns out Jonathan after leaving Samantha for a month, no longer able to endure her obvious desperate sycophancy, loves her. It turns out Claire begins to write of the women in the building as heightened by paradigms she discerned in DA. It turns out Brooke can work as a party-thrower, consultant for Edward and begins to be attractive to a man who is a widower.

Of larger schemes or perspectives this book of course is utterly innocent — of the real hard world in which these human emotions occur our author appears to be innocent. Of course she’s not or she’d not have gotten as far as she has as a novelist. As in a formulaic subgenre, there is no sense of how Wax as a woman or person relates to her fiction.


It’s also a sort of sequel to Downton Abbey as several of the characters have their equivalents in DA. We all know — or it used to be assumed — how popular are these sorts of sequels to Jane Austen. I would be much surprised if Wax has not hoped for a film adaptation along the lines of Karen Joy Fowler’s Jane Austen’s Book Club;. At any rate not yet.
Rob James-Collier (promotional shot to the right) as Thomas Barrow — the equivalent character is Samantha’s brother, Hunter, a supremely egoistic wheeler-dealer who presents a face to meet faces but has to bow-down to Edward in order to survive when upon his losing yet another large sum of money in a capital venture Samantha cuts off his allowance

So I also found myself eagerly looking forward to the discussions of the shows, though repeatedly these were neutral descriptions showing Wax’s cleverness as none of them deviated into presenting what was the reactionary take we were to get. Nor did any discussion relate what was on the TV screen to what has happening in the Alexander. So not interesting and yet I underlined the bits that were there. They seemed to make visible what one might think viewers thought as they watched — except they were so conventional. Fellowes’s notes to his scripts shows that readers have far more amoral and idiosyncratic reactions than people assume. So, e.g. Claire musing:

Over the last two Sundays she’d watched Anna and Bates fall in love with each other despite some dark secret that kept him from being free, seen sparks fly between Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley, and watched Lady Sybil begin to notice just how attractive the Irish chauffeur was. Then there was poor Edith, who had stirred the pot by writing a letter to the Turkish embassy that would presumably implicate Mary in Kemal Pamuk’s death.
The plot had been thickening and the story lines racing rorward at a pace that Claire couldn’t help admiring even as she compared its graceful dance to the fumbling, halfhearted steps of her own manuscript.

Anna (Joanne Froggart) and Mr Bates (Brendon Coyle): a on-running joke of Max’s book is the Isabella who has been hired to be a 19th century servant, acts the part of Anna and her like out all wrong. She thinks it relies on accidental sounds we make. It does not, at any rate not entirely — mark of WWWWDA’s conservatism is there is no equivalent for Mr Bates, no disabled characters either.

The witty allusions told me what a sophisticated woman the author of the book is – so often so amusing, mocking the inner life of the fairy tale (or Downton Abbey episode) from a deconstructive point of view at the same time as it’s validated in the patterns of the three central stories. (There are others adumbrated.) E.g.

There was plenty of precedent for prince-marrying in the fairy-tale world. Sleeping Beauty had not ignored the prince’s kiss in favor of a few more years of shut-eye. Cinderella never considered refusing to try on the glass slipper. And Snow White didn’t bat an eyelash at moving in with those seven little men. (p 2)

I wish I could write like this.


To sum up: The questions for readers and study and reading groups afterward concentrate on what Wax feels are the parallels between the TV serial drama and the book and “real world” women’s problems and characters’ troubles in the book. I wonder if Wendy Wax is her real name: it is so pattern-y.

I should have mentioned at the opening of the book the characters have all heard of Fifty Shades of Grey, and they have no trouble understanding why it is so popular: it is the same dream as this book, a fine good man supports the heroine in easy comfort and the sex fun. That is how the 50 Shades is seen here.


I notice some of the actors in the series who have stayed on are concerned to make sure their promotional shots and appearances utterly undermine their roles lest they end up permanently typecast and these are the downstairs characters:

Who are they?
One guess. This one is easy. Why?

Obviously Sophia McShea aka Daisy


Read Full Post »

Frontispiece for Phillis Wheatley’s poems

Dear friends and readers,

In this second of a two-part report on the EC/ASECS conference I attended a couple of weeks ago now, the themes of the papers and talks seem as much about what gains respect as what incurs infamy.

Papers and talks were on ways writers were pressured into presenting themselves in order to be heard at all, surprising underlying punitive and/or emotional patterns which are still with us; the difficulty (impossibility it seems) of breaking out of stereotypical expectations, frustrating publishers. Since two of the panels I went to were chaired by Eleanor Shevlin and were about book history, I also summarized a paper she read aloud to the Washington Area Print group last week on the publisher William Harrison.


From a 2007 film adaptation of Justine

The session I chaired on Saturday (9:00-10:15 am) was originally intended (by me) to be about actresses, but as my call for papers turned up but one possible paper and I found I was not able to write a paper myself after all, I contented myself with the publication of my review of Felicity Nussbaum’s Rival Queens, and widened the scope of “R-e-s-p-e-c-t (yes I had Aretha Franklin’s famous song in mind) to include women in all working occupations and all ranks: “For actresses, women playwrights, working women, fictional heroines, and even aristocrats respect and favorable reputation matter.”
I’m delighted to say truthfully all three papers were excellent (I took more notes than usual) and the talk afterwards stimulating.

Kate Novotny spoke on “The Ethical Quicksand of Sade’s Justine: or, How to Win Readers and Offend People.” Mr Novotny went over the text, conventions and rhetoric of Sade’s Justine to show how Sade mediated his book’s shocking content in order to persuade his reader to listen to his philosophical point of view which (among other things) justified violence. His rhetoric relies on the similarity of his story to Richardson’s Pamela and other tales of virtuous lowly girl makes good. Justine is a satire on Richardon’s piety. Kate went over the text of Justine slowly, showing its use of familiar motifs. Lulled as it were, once we are reach the orgy, the fundamental nature of the text is an egoistic misogynist ethos. The strongest person is the best person and can or will not be controlled; one implication is that it’s a mistake to give women a voice at all.

In contrast, Sarah Hastings’s paper, “Vows, Whores, & Signs: Women and Words in Behn’s The Feigned Courtesans and The Rover shows Behn’s comedies hinge on a critique of mores that prevent women from exercising their power. Behn intermingles women who enact normative roles of virtue and who are prostitutes, gypsies are aligned and actresses identified with prostitutes. Failed servants survive through prostitution — indeed only through sexual flexibility can women survive at all, marriage being an exploitative commercial contract whose crux is a sexual-familial bargain. We see the mask of the courtesan allows her to enact agency and be pro-active on her own behalf; she is better off than the relatively helpless women who obeys norms of virtue. Women want to flee the world of men, be free from male control. Her stories foreground anxieties about marriage. Behn’s women want marriage to be partly based on compatibility (love). Tellingly Angelica Bianca is the only real courtesan in The Feigned Courtesans and wants to de-commodify herself; Helena wants a constant husband (while Willoughby wants an open marriage for himself). Behn’s plays reflect the world outside them too. Ms Hastings gave a brief history of the laws concerning prostitutes (made illegal under Henry VIII) and suggested an infinite series of steps exist between respectability and being called a whore; the class the woman belongs to affects how she is seen too. Women were treated as interchangeable objects. Market savvy women exploit these gradations and contradictions. During the civil war too there seemed to be a surfeit of women in civilian society, yet changes in customs which favored women.

From a 1986 production of Behn’s The Rover

Katherine Kittredge’s paper, “No Shame in Patchwork: Didactive Depictions of Laboring Class Girls” came out of her work on child poets and children’s literature in the long 18th century. Mr Kittredge asked how are laboring girls depicted in the 18th century? The improbability of Pamela not only gave rise to parody, it was felt not to be the strongly corrective narrative needed to train working class girls to accept their place and condition. The most famous of the didactic stories for girls was Goody Two-Shoes, the story of an itinerant orphan teacher who becomes respected and later marries up. Much harsher is the History of Susan Grey where an orphan becomes a washerwoman; when a captain goes after her, she is unjustly fired, flees, and dies a horrible death. We see the vulnerability of such a girl; ambition is dangerous; education and gentle behavior cannot change your status. In another story, the mother so busy with so many children that she can teach them only the catechism and her older daughter cannot be spared to attend school. Interestingly, in such stories we do not find upper class women teaching; the roles modeled insist on plain clothing, mending one’s clothes, and if the girl has fewer that suggests she will be safer: one good calico say and two other outfits. (She is not trying to get above herself.) Sewing or making clothes becomes a skill that creates community among women. These are proto-adult narratives that teach the girl that a laboring girl will never pass, they have an underlying paranoia that everyone is watching and punishments meted out. Later on in the century other standards than home-made few clothes replace these; now the girl has to be careful lest she make herself ridiculous because she has access to consumer culture.

Samantha Morton as Jane Eyre (1997 film)

The discussion afterwards was very interesting. One French scholar debated whether Sade had a discernible or consistent philosophy in Justine. Late on I thought of the Comus-like debate in Sade’s Marquis de Ganges but do not know if there are such passages in Justine. After all the papers all stayed within the 20 minute limit. I remembered Germaine Greer’s two part chapter in her Slipshod Muses where she argued that we have very few documents on Behn and suggested that much that has been said about her in biographies has no foundation. Greer thinks what evidence we have suggests Behn lived partly as a kept mistress and her playwriting was a way to help her make ends meet, not something she could really survive on. Thus her plays mirror her life’s experience. Ms Kittredge’s children’s stories anticipate Bronte’s Jane Eyre who has (we recall) only 3 dresses, two grey plain ones and one grey silk; she resists Rochester’s attempt to make her play a role above her status; she becomes a teacher, and she is rewarded for her selflessness. Even 20th century novels for women reflect these didactic “good girl” patterns: in Winifred Holtby’s socialistic radical South Riding, one of the heroines is very intelligent and her parents cannot afford to send her to school because her mother having too many children needs her at home. She is rewarded for her self-sacrifice when someone comes across with a scholarship for her; her great wish is to become a teacher like the primary heroine of the book.

Sarah Burton (Anna Maxwell Martin), the working class girl as teacher with her pupils behind her (2011 South Riding, an Andrew Davies’ product)


Edward Young (1681-1765)

Eleanor Shevlin chaired two book history sessions. The mid-morning (10:30-11:45) had three papers whose particular topics — a woman poet, a bluestocking and saloniere who wrote letters and Richardson — were areas I’d worked on.

Jim May spoke first about the frustrations he’d experienced working on a half-volume for the Cambridge edition of Richardson’s complete correspondence. Prof May has been working for many years on Edward Young and his part was to edit the 28 Young-Richardson letters (6 from Richardson). He gave a brief history of the publication of this correspondence. Richard Phillips had bought Richardson’s letter ms’s, and commissioned Anna Barbauld to edit the papers inside 3 months (!) Peter Sabor has counted around 600 letters from Richardson and Barbauld included about 1/4 of these; she conflated, abridged, eliminated substantives. The texts are hard to read. Foundational work was done in the 20th century by Henry Petit and Harry Forester; it would be very hard to improve upon them. PRof May handed out a xerox of letter by Mary Hallow, Young’s housekeeper who had a close relationship with Young. The problem is Cambridge’s policies which do not include information on punctuation, variants and have other restrictions so hat Prof May will intends to publish an essay which includes the notes not permitted in order to get the material he has added.

Elizabeth Montagu (1718-1800)

Eliza Child’s paper on Elizabeth Montagu’s “Letters from the North: Marriage, Power and Coal” was fascinating to me. I had known Montagu was involved in her husband’s mines (a central source of their great wealth), but not how active, how interested in industry, genuinely knowledgeable and (for her time) benevolent or at least just to the workers. It was another outlet for her imagination, altruism, sensibility. She chaffed at the limitations her husband imposed on her. Ms Child told us about Montagu’s entrepreneurial activity at Denton, a mining community; she had the confidence to persuade her husband to risk capital expenditure. Sections from Montagu’s candid letters were read aloud (she does not want to “lose” money “merely to avoid a little trouble”); her husband was more cautious (we heard her urging him “to act”, that he got “angry” but when “money came into his pocket” is gratified). She had hoped to be seen with Voltaire and Johnson in her “Essay on Shakespeare”; here she could be socially useful. She enacted fair hiring practices (contracts were short-term), opposed fixing prices (cabals), broke ranks with their peers over these issues. Her sister, Sarah Scott’s Sir George Ellison, is a model of benevolent capitalism. She also had effective charities: set up schools, gave material assistance to children to learn to read, for girls to knit and spin. These letters can provide a conterpoint to how women are often depicted in the 18th century novel where we often find them victimized by wealth.

Felicia Hemans, recent edition of her poems and letters

Alex Grammatikos spoke on “The Nothingness of Fame, At least to Women: Felicia Hemans and the Price of Celebrity.” Mr Grammatikos’s paper showed how Hemans was gradually pressured into presenting herself in the most conventional poetess sort of ways because she saw that not to do so left her vulnerable to criticism for her private life: she separated from her husband after having 5 children by him in 5 years; she turned to her mother who took care of the children while she spent her days writing and reading. She was also ignored or seen as inferior to the male poets. When she presented her work as that of a women of sensibility (and wrote poems to suit) she was successful. In her letters we see her say that she has no friends to help her promote her work as an author. She tells one correspondent how her previous poems were not successful because their subject was “not to be seen from a female pen.” She read reviews which focused on her femaleness and she redirected her career. There was a considerable gap before she could get a book of poems published again and when she did, she writes in the sentimental vein (“Records of Women”) for which she became famous. Mr Grammatikos felt Hemans resented this identification and Byron’s mockery of her as a “he-mans” was grating. But there was no breaking out of these stereotypes. So the phrase “nothingness of fame” was hers and refers to her sense of her true selfhood as lonely and suppressed.

Once again the talk afterwards was very interesting. I regret I was not able to get most of it down because so much was give-and-take. I can remember best what I contributed which was that I reviewed a Cambridge edition of Austen’s later manuscripts (which is supposed to be published this spring) and found the edition to be a missed opportunity; the choice of documents showed the series had not been thought through (so one had “everything else” including early manuscripts and not all the late ones); it was said to be for students and yet the price was outrageous and notes veered between minute erudition and high school-type explanations; it was basically a reprint of Chapman without Chapman’s apparatus.

There were two more lively talks (Phillis Wheatley, Kathy Temple on William Blackstone’s Commentaries); another session from which I briefly summarize 2 papers, and on November 9th (a few days later) Eleanor Shevlin’s paper on “The Making of the English Novel,” the role of periodical subscription magazines and newspapers; for summaries of all this see the comments.


Read Full Post »

At the White Sulphur Springs by Carleton Walker (a 1868 stereograph of an idyllic walk in the American world Catherine joined in the 1870s, not so far from her Austen sequel)

Dear friends and readers,

Anna Austen Lefroy wrote one good novel Mary Hamilton) and a continuation of Sanditon which shows she understood the way her aunt wrote novels; Catherine Anne Austen Hubback wrote 10 novels in a few short years to support herself and her family (1850-63); I have not read any of them, but some have been praised, and her continuation-sequel of The Watsons is an entertaining, well-written novel, occasionally charming, often witty. (see definitions for kinds of sequels in my blog on Drabble’s Dowerhouse of Kellynch).

Hubback’s The Younger Sister led me to think about what makes a good sequel: well, a novel in its own right which reflects the author; a novel which does develop the original story somehow justly and if partly critically with understanding. So the criteria is like that of good faithful (or transposition) film adaptations. It should also provide insight into both the era of the original book or author: this one does fall down there — the franchise is Austen (reminding me of Confessions of an Austen Addict by Laurie Rigler). Or it should mirror its own, which this does through an Austen lens: I’d call this a governess-novel, a novel about young women who either fall or fear to fall into jobs as put-upon governesses, school teachers, companions, nursemaids. This is a kind of historical romance.

It’s no denigration of The Younger Sister to say it’s the novel or kind of novel that James-Edward Austen-Leigh, Austen’s nephew who wrote the cult-engendering memoir of his aunt, thought his aunt had written. It’s about a small number of people all in a limited milieu living in the same small area together (it’s consciously excluding the Victorian larger world, very much a historical novel); several characters fall in love or strain against not falling in love with someone else; the Watson sisters experience financial and social upsets (not quite upheavals as they do not at any time live outside their class); Hubback gives her characters subtle psychology and witty, delicate (sometimes half-teasing) and eloquent dialogues.

Numerous scenes remind me of the scenes added to Jane Austen in the film adaptations, particularly the ones of good feeling: like when Henry and Catherine come home from riding in the 2007 Northanger Abbey (by Andrew Davies) and Eleanor Tilney meets them so cordially at the door; or in the in the 2008 S&S when Elinor and Edward go out walking and he (in effect) proposes a way of life with her of which she approves, and he says “A quiet life with a parish it is then.”

Emma Watson, Hubback’s central character, Emma, is at times modeled on what Catherine Hubback had been told about Austen and gleaned to be so about her (which is someone rather asocial and austere in her ideals and norms). Sometimes the fiction feels like Elizabeth Gaskell’s: one character who is part of the aristocratic family, Rosa (Victorian name there) Osborne is very like Lady Harriet Cumnor in Wives and Daughters.

Here are scenes of green and lovely England as a park — no poverty about. The couples visit a cottage and the woman living there has no distress (nor is she in the least resentful). No war. The hungry 1840s? forget it.

It is self-consciously not a Victorian novel. Now I’ve dipped into a couple other of Hubback’s novels (they are downloadable online): they have wide purviews, they include hard sexualities and aggressions. It is self-consciously written as a kind of continuation which will please an 1850 reader.

Emma is snowed in at the vicarage where Mr Howard and his sister, and their nephew live (recalling Jane Bennett having to stay at Netherfield) and the growth of love between the good kind clergyman, intelligent figure of integrity of the book gives way to effective descriptions of snow.

At times the book recalls Restoration or eighteenth-century comedy something in the vein of the 1890s English stage because of the debates the characters indulge in — harking back to the debates in longer 17th century romances. They are intended to hark back to Austen. What is preferable for marriage? real affection and worth in someone character and humble life or luxury, high status, the security of patronage but a rather stupid or amoral partner? Yet there is no French feel like in some of Austen’s novels. (Anyway French novels of the era were Balzac and Sand, not Genlis and Cottin and before that Scudery and Lafayette).


Catherine Anne Austen Hubback (1818-77)

For the researcher into Austen’s life, the scholar interested in Austen’s art in the unpublished unfinished books, it’s a goldmine of suggestiveness. It’s a distanced source. I can see why Austen-Leigh and Anna were stung by the book to the point that Austen-Leigh did not send Catherine a copy of the memoir; he and his sister were anxious to prevent a similar performance using Sanditon too.

Fanny (Billie Piper) and William Price (Joseph Morgan), congenial spirits (2007 ITV Mansfield Park)

One might say the character clearly intended for Frank, Sam (tremendously handy, not upper class, an apprentice to a surgeon who lives away) is given such affinity with Emma (Jane) because Catherine was his daughter. I suggest the evidence outside the book reinforces the portrait in it. Sam and Emma have a striking affinity; when Hubback’s Emma comes near to a threat of rape (or at least has a physical and abrasive sexual encounter), it’s not Mr Howard who rescues her but Sam and Sam who is thinking of a duel. (It does not come off, an accident removes the offender from the scene — in a Persuasion like scene.) Emma Watson does nearly end up living with Sam her brother (recalling William Price dreams all novel long of making a home for the two of them), the pair say it will hold “until they [will] tire of one another” all while she and another friend, Annie, are writing letters which are just the greatest pleasure imaginable (Cassandra’s?). In the event after all Sam does marry this witty friend, Anna, and in a consciously partly fairy tale ending the aunt returns from Ireland, having wrested her property and enables Emma to marry Mr Howard (as originally planned by Austen). But the connection is clear.

There is a scene in The Younger Sister after the father’s death when Sam comes home for the first time where the two really do just about fall into one another’s arms (2007 MP, Wm coming to Mansfield after a long absence)

However you take who=who, it’s impossible to miss if you know anything at all for real about the family. The break-up of Steventon is the breakup of the Watson’s household upon Mr Watson’s death. What apparently (according to Villasenor) troubled JEAL and Anna and others is that the memoir depicted a Jane never once bothered about money, never having to worry even when her father died, ever secure. In The Younger Sister, they saw Robert Watson as a possible portrait of any or all of the brothers. He does closely recall John Dashwood in several scenes, lamenting for example, that he nearly lost money and could have gained some had Emma’s aunt not remarried and the uncle left all his money to he, Robert, as he should ahve done as the eldest Watson child. Mrs Jane Watson does succeed in bullying her husband, recalling Fanny Dashwood; Hubback’s Mrs Jane combines the character of Mrs Elton (sordid, vulgar, a hypocrite) with the worst characteristics Jane Austen suggests were Mary Lloyd Austen’s in Jane’s letters.

Fanny (Harriet Walter) and John Dashwood (James Fleet) in the 1995 Ang Lee S&S

Emma is really badly treated by her brother and sister-in-law and tries to get a job as a governess. She is worked hard, given a small plain room, paid nothing, berated, said to be living off them, when she is doing more than earn the keep she is not getting. We see how hard this is; we see her desperation, her illness. I assumed Sam is Frank (from the novels and letters), but (according to Marie Villaseñor (who has written a book, Women Readers and the Victorian Jane Austen, two chapters of which are devoted to Jane Austen’s novelist nieces and grand-niece [Fanny Caroline LeFroy, Anna Austen Lefroy’s daughter) feared that Robert and Jane Watson would be seen as Frank and Mary giving a household to the women Austen and not treating them right. Or as one of the brothers or all of them. Sam is apprenticed to a surgeon as Mr Austen’s brother was and we see the hardness of this family group — as many were.

All this destroys the idyllic view of the Austen home in Austen-Leigh’s memoir. Alice Marie Villaseñor makes the point that the family was not monolithic (Fanny Lefroy insisted that Austen’s novels left out her love life for the most part and much else — did not mirror what she had known). Both JEAL and Anna deliberately marginalized Catherine Hubback’s sequel novel (never mentioning it for example or her in the aunt’s biography) because, like Fanny Lefroy, Hubback departed from the safe conventionalizing story of JEAL. JEAL did not want Hubback’s The Watsons continuation to be read because they too read it autobiographically and as partly about the Austen family.

One thing Hubback is not aware of: she’s not alive to the hidden obsessive patterns of her aunt. For example the woman with the hidden love that is tabooed. There are sensual or nearly sensual scenes of heterosexual feeling such as one does not have in Austen – one proposal which ends in an embrace — makes Austen’s proposal scenes seem what they are: very stiff and hurried so that the couple can return to talk about the moral lesson of their story or some aspect of it. And the intensities of distress and passion that come through in the daily patterns of Austen’s novels which is how they reach the level of tragic are not here. Emma is wrong when she is in such distress and the way it’s presented is to suggest that she understands this. In Austen when Emma is upstairs thinking about the tormenting people below they are tormenters and she is spot on to dread returning.

Hubback was a pro-social conformative woman. It’s not that Hubback is not on her own incapable of writing of passionate distress and anger and need release but when she sees her aunt’s patterns she does not identify these sorts of feelings. To her Jane Austen probably had it easy. She didn’t have a husband who went mad, and then children she had to support and somehow place.


Mudie’s Circulating Library, mid-19th century book illustration

The Younger Sister is also a novel that reveals where Austen was going and a work of art in its own right.

In the 1985 reprint of Chapman’s 1927 edition of The Watsons, Chapman makes a footnote on “Lady Osborn’s love for Mr. Howard”: “Doubtless a slip for Miss Osborn. Lady O. was ‘nearly fifty’ (pg 38).” I’ve read elsewhere by pro-family members that Cassandra made a slip of the pen and meant Miss Osborne. No she didn’t. She meant the older woman, and Linda is right to say Hubback makes the parallel with Emma’s aunt marrying a worthless younger man clear but the parallel is in the fragment already. Here we do see a rare moment of bad faith, of the editor as censoring-family-member in Chapman.

Hubback fills out Austen’s unfinished novel with characters types and perspectives from Austen’s other novels. (Sarah Scott suggests this is typical of sequels in her study of the continuation type.) So Jane Watson has traits of Mrs Elton and Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Robert Watson is another John Dashwood. She again and again brings in bleaker and ironic lines transposed or half-remembered. The parallel of Emma Watson with Fanny Price, Jane Fairfax, Anne Elliot is brought out through these. Most interesting of all in Emma Watson there is a portrait of Jane Austen which had to have come to Catherine from her father. As often very tired. as worn out, as weary. As of no importance as the younger sister. Tom Musgrove contains traits from John Thorpe made more subtle and harassing. Lord Osborne has Darcy traits in him.

Mr Howard is a new character, not seen in Austen, more firm and male-like (more potentially physical) in a couple of encounters. Emma and Margaret must walk home and a farmer will not remove his growling dog from the path. They are about to walk into the muddy field and he comes along and demands of the farmer he does remove the dog. But he does not talk against “the horrid animal” like Margaret and says the behavior of the man is strange as farmers are not just brutes or and it’s not in the immediate interest of the man to make this sort of half-rebellious assertion. It’s a rescue that is more believable than Willoughby’s in S&S: he comes down form his horse and then walks with them home.

On a slightly different perspective when the Watsons visit the Osborn compound I am strongly reminded of Lost in Austen and begin to wonder if the Lady Catherine de Bourgh owes anything to Lady Osborne in Hubback’s Younger sister. The facsimile has been available for a few years now. The intersections of film adaptations with Austen’s texts and other intervening one is really fruitful as long as you don’t press ridiculously hard. Clueless cannot demonstrate homosexuality in Austen’s text.

What about lady Osborne? She’s not onstage very much. She is wanting Howard to marry her although 15 years younger and he’s got a problem. He is no longer living in the house lest she take over his space too much. She does indeed forcibly try to seduce Mr Howard into marrying her. The scene uncannily anticiipates Lindsay Duncan’s lecherous like behavior in Lost in Austen (or the 1997 Tom Jones where she’s Lady Bellaston chasing the young Tom Jones), only when she’s rejected she becomes a Mrs Ferrars determined to do everything she can to wreck revenge on Mr Howard. As I’ve said Lord Osborne her son turns out better than we expect and the fairy tale providential close, plus that she starts to feel desire for a young officer and becomes otherwise occupied.

While the novel seemed to embody or make concrete a Janeite vision of Jane Austen and the UK, once the father dies it takes a decidedly darker turn, and in fact at times is far more rawer and carries incidents like those which occur in Austen into greater probable reality.

Again there is the same curious reflection of Austen’s own life. The breakup of the vicarage, the auctions, the heir taking over, the selling of property, what to do with servants, how to place them, all sorts of details put me in mind of the break up of Steventon. I could not use this as evidence or life-writing but it’s coherence with the letters reinforces what is found there.

The real difficulties the girls experience in traveling with luggage on cross-roads with post-horses.

The behavior of Robert and Jane Watson is much worse than John and Fanny Dashwood, much harder, more particularized. Emma is put in a small room upstair, a bed, chest of drawers, a stool, no chimney and her window has a dismal view of roofs of other houses. She is berated and pressured into becoming a nurse-governess for her sister-in-law’s child. Jane Watson has traits of Mrs Elton only worse; she is bitterer, more sordid in references, ready to take advantage monetarily. She hinders Emma making friends, going for walks.

A parallel with Marianne Dashwood again made more real. Tom Musgrove really talked sexily to Margaret, and really does propose, and they go behind some bushes, and then he denies it all. He was overheard by Emma and Miss Osborne and rather than let him marry another of the Osborne relatives Miss Osborne wants to expose him. She writes a letter to Emma detailing frankly how they both are witnesses. Now in the Watson household Emma has no control over her letters and Robert ends up reading it and determines to try to sue the guy. In fact the Osbornes use the threat of suit to bring him to heel. Margaret has a scene where Marianne like she thinks someone has been bad-mouthing her; the forced wedding is one which will bring misery to Margaret we see.

A theme of how you prevent people bullying you inside a family gradually emerges, you must assert yourself.

The depiction of heterosexual relationships is more thorough, more in depth, more private conversations: they are in line with Austen’s era and mileu and seem a probable development from the original Watsons. Lord Osborne not sure keeps his distance; Mr Howard too. Elizabeth becomes engaged to a nearby intelligent farmer and will be marrying him and provide (she hopes) a home for Emma. Lord Osborne, clumsy, ill-educated, awkward, yet with kind potential, seems to be a portrait of Bigg-Wither

A long dinner party where Jane Watson recalls Mary Musgrove insisting on her rank and precedence Emma seeks a position as a governess to escape her brother and sister-in-law.

A male type who recalls Henry Crawford (both modeled on a type of male seen in such milieus) delivers a remarkably bitter but real enough description of the way the different classes of people and individuals attend each to their narrow vanities and concerns except when ugly gossip out of envy is spread.

So I’d say this leaves the Janeite world. But there is nothing in Hubback herself to correspond to that deep personal sense of loss, grievance, satire one finds in Austen.

Linda also writes:

“Hubback’s character development felt seamless to me from those in the fragment, and I loved the dialogue. She was apparently in wales with her family when writing Younger Sister, hoping for a cure there of her husband’s mental illness. The welsh language added an interesting twist toward the end of her novel.”

I agree with Linda here. We have witty dialogues with very real undercurrents of sex, hard life, playfulness, real sexual jealousy.

We get a paragraph in imitation of Northanger Abbey (like other sequels as Sarah Scott says, this one continually brings out features of the different novels, and it does have the advantage of knowing far more than the 6), so Lord Osborne takes the place of Eleanor Tilney’s young man and we hear of how he went to the Peninsula war, and returned with a Spanish bride (in words that imitate Austen’s). It may be recalled that Osborne was to like Emma and he does and he does propose and is rejected — he reminds me of what is said of Bigg-Wither, awkward, big, clumsy but it turns out if you had given him a chance was a very good sort after all (well meaning)

At the close the last sentence of the book may convey the difference in attitude towards experience that Hubback manifests in this book (not in her letters, there she is much harder) and her way of parodying Austen’s style and moments now and again:]

I have nothing more to say of any of the party, and only trust that all who read my tale, may be convinced, as I am, that prudence, gentleness, and good sense, will secure friends under the most disadvantageous circumstances, but that marriage alone, unless undertaken with the right feelings and motives, cannot be considered a certain recipe for worldly happiness.


A recent facsimile of an important book: In France alone woman has had a vital influence on the development of literature; in France alone the mind of woman has passed like an electric current through the language . . . (George Eliot, “Woman in France: Madame de Sablé”)

The larger point made by Villasenor is that the history of Austen criticism often tries to suggest that feminist readings of Austen is a mid-20th century and recent phenomena. She argues that Hubback’s take on her aunt’s book shows an early real feminism, that Lefroy too wanted to give her aunt a separate real life. Villasenor says we don’t read Victorian criticism by women enough. I agree, and she is trying in the later parts of her book to do just this. I have in hand a serious book which gose a lot further: Brian Corman’s Women novelists before Jane Austen: the critics and their canon. It’s an absurdly misnamed book. A friend sent it to me: it’s about 19th century women critics and readers reading 18th century books — these would includes Mary Hays, Anna Jameson, Julia Kavanagh, Geraldine Jewsbury to name a few better known ones.

The publication which enabled me to read Hubback’s continuation and fulfillment of Austen’s Watsons

An informative and insightful book on Hubback is Zoe Klippert’s edition of the Letters of Catherine Hubback, 1871-76: An Englishwoman in California.


Read Full Post »

“I can live alone, if self-respect and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure, born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld; or offered only at a price I cannot afford to pay” —-Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

‘An you’ll be a bit o’company for me too, miss … I like as I feel lonesome without my cat … [there was] Mr Weston, with the identical cat in his arms. I now saw that he could smile, and very pleasantly too … not twelve months ago I lost the last and dearest of my early friends; and yet, not only I live, but I am not wholly destitute of hope and comfort, even for this life … —-Anne Bronte, Agnes Grey

Charlotte Bronte by George Richmond

Anne Bronte by Charlotte Bronte

Dear friends and readers,

As a follow-up and continuation of my discussion of Mary Brunton’s Self-Control, I thought a brief foremother poet blog presenting some of the poetry of Charlotte and Anne Bronte would be fitting. Emily’s (1818-48) poetry is well-known and done justice to; her sisters’ verse not as much. I begin with Anne as her work is often not reprinted except with her novels.


John Constable (1776-1837), Autumn Sunset

Anne Bronte lived but 29 years. She seems to me a poet of autumn. In her novels (Agnes Grey and Tenant of Wildfell Hall), her tone is bleak, she often feels hopeless when confronted with the inhumanity of her employers and allowed brutality of their children; in her poetry there is much sweetness, and


Though bleak these woods and damp the ground
With fallen leaves so thickly strewn,
And cold the wind that wanders round
With wild and melancholy moan,
There is a friendly roof I know
Might shield me from the wintry blast;
There is a fire whose ruddy glow
Will cheer me for my wanderings past.

And so, though still where’er I roam
Cold stranger glances meet my eye,
Though when my spirit sinks in woe
Unheeded swells the unbidden sigh,

Though solitude endured too long
Bids youthful joys too soon decay,
Makes mirth a stranger to my tongue
And overclouds my noon of day,

When kindly thoughts that would have way
Flow back discouraged to my breast
I know there is, though far away
A home where heart and soul may rest.

Warm hands are there that clasped in mine
The warmer heart will not belie,
While mirth and truth and friendship shine
In smiling lip and earnest eye.

The ice that gathers round my heart
May there be thawed; and sweetly then
The joys of youth that now depart
Will come to cheer my soul again.

Though far I roam, this thought shall be
My hope, my comfort everywhere;
While such a home remains to me
My heart shall never know despair.

[My feeling is this is autobiographical and refers to those times she was sent away to school and to the period of governessing which she was not alone in hating as an occupation; paid companion was just as bad.]

Lines composed in a wood on a windy day

MY soul is awakened, my spirit is soaring
And carried aloft on the wings of the breeze;
For above and around me the wild wind is roaring,
Arousing to rapture the earth and the seas.

The long withered grass in the sunshine is glancing,
The bare trees are tossing their branches on high;
The dead leaves, beneath them, are merrily dancing,
The white clouds are scudding across the blue sky.

I wish I could see how the ocean is lashing
The foam of its billows to whirlwinds of spray;
I wish I could see how its proud waves are dashing,
And hear the wild roar of their thunder today!

[It’s tempting to compare it to her sister Emily’s acerbic and grim lines, but that usually ends in seeing Anne as weaker. It’s rather she has a different more open voice. This last occurs in Agnes Grey within a moment of hope in the book:]

The Bluebell

A fine and subtle spirit dwells
In every little flower,
Each one its own sweet feeling breathes
With more or less of power.
There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell
That fills my softened heart with bliss
That words could never tell.

Yet I recall not long ago
A bright and sunny day,
‘Twas when I led a toilsome life
So many leagues away;

That day along a sunny road
All carelessly I strayed,
Between two banks where smiling flowers
Their varied hues displayed.

Before me rose a lofty hill,
Behind me lay the sea,
My heart was not so heavy then
As it was wont to be.

Less harassed than at other times
I saw the scene was fair,
And spoke and laughed to those around,
As if I knew no care.

But when I looked upon the bank
My wandering glances fell
Upon a little trembling flower,
A single sweet bluebell.

Whence came that rising in my throat,
That dimness in my eye?
Why did those burning drops distil –
Those bitter feelings rise?

O, that lone flower recalled to me
My happy childhood’s hours
When bluebells seemed like fairy gifts
A prize among the flowers,

Those sunny days of merriment
When heart and soul were free,
And when I dwelt with kindred hearts
That loved and cared for me.

I had not then mid heartless crowds
To spend a thankless life
In seeking after others’ weal
With anxious toil and strife.

‘Sad wanderer, weep those blissful times
That never may return!’
The lovely floweret seemed to say,
And thus it made me mourn.

A fine selection may be found in Anne Bronte: Agnes Grey and Poems, introd. Anne Smith (Everyman, 1985).


William Turner (1789-1862), Drachenfels (1817)

By contrast, Charlotte’s poems are far more visionary, passionate; they have complicated ethical statements.

Sigh no more-it is a dream
So vivid that it looks like life.

Fast, fast as snow-flakes, fled the legions,
And the heart throbs, the blood runs fast
As gathering in from many regions
Returns the scattered, faded Past.

Under the rubric, “O that word never, December 23rd:”

NOT many years, but long enough to see
No foe can deal such deadly misery
As the dear friend untimely called away
And still the more beloved, the greater still
Must be the aching void, the withering chill
Of each dark night and dim beclouded day.

THE Nurse believed the sick man slept,
     For motionless he lay.
She rose and from the bedside crept
     With cautious step away.

HOW far is night advanced? Oh, when will day
Reveal the vanished outline of my room?
I fear not yet — for not a glimmer grey
Steals through the familiar blank and solid gloom
Which shuts me in — would I could sleep away
The hours — till, skies all flushed with morning’s
Shall open clear and red and cheer with light

Like wolf — and black bull or goblin hound,
     Or come in guise of spirit
With wings and long wet waving hair
And at the fire its locks will dry,
     Which will be certain sign
That one beneath the roof must die
     Before the year’s decline.

Forget not now what I have said,
     Sit there till we return.
The hearth is hot-watch well the bread
     Lest haply it may burn.

At first I did attention give,
Observance-deep esteem;
His frown I failed not to forgive,
His smile — a boon to deem.

Attention rose to interest soon,
Respect to homage changed;
The smile became a relived [?] boon,
The frown like grief estranged.

The interest ceased not with his voice,
The homage tracked [?] him near.
Obedience was my heart’s free choice
Whate’ er his mood severe [?].

His praise infrequent — favours rare,
Unruly deceivers [?] grew.
1And too much power a haunting fear
Around his anger threw.

His coming was my hope each day,
His parting was my pain.
The chance that did his steps delay
Was ice in every vein.

I gave entire affection now,
I gave devotion sure
And strong took root and fast did grow
One mighty feeling more.

The truest love that ever heart
Felt at its kindled core
     Through my veins with quickened start
     A tide of life did pour.

[A] halo played about the brows
Of life as seen by me,
     And trailing [?] bliss within me rose,
     And anxious ecstacy.

     I dreamed it would be nameless bliss
     As I loved loved to be,
And to this object did I press
     As blind as eagerly.

But wild and pathless was the space
     That lay our lives between,
     And dangerous as the foaming race
Of ocean’s surges green,

     And haunted as a robber path
     Through wilderness or wood,
     For might and right, woe and wrath
     Between our spirits stood.

I dangers dared, I hindrance scorned
     I omens did defy;
     Whatever menaced, harassed, warned
     I passed impetuous by.

On sped my rainbow fast as light,
I flew as in a dream,
     For glorious rose upon my sight
     That child of shower and gleam,

And bright on clouds of suffering dim
     Shone that soft solemn joy.
     I care not then how dense and grim
     Disasters gather nigh.

I care not in this moment sweet,
     Though all I have rushed o’er
Should come on pinion strong and fleet
     Proclaiming vengeance sore.

Hate struck me in his presence down,
     Love barred approach to me,
     My rival’s joy with jealous frown
     Declared hostility.

Wrath leagued with calumny transfused
     Strong poison in his veins
     And I stood at his feet accused
     Of false [ -] strains

Cold as a statue’s grew his eye,
Hard as a rock his brow,
     Cold hard to me-but tenderly
     He kissed my rival now.

She seemed my rainbow to have seized,
     Around her form it closed,
And soft its iris splendour blazed
     Where love and she reposed.

This, The Teacher’s Monologue, shows a working out of painful thought:

The room is quiet, thoughts alone
     People its mute tranquillity;
The yoke put off, the long task done,—
     I am, as it is bliss to be,
Still and untroubled. Now, I see,
     For the first time, how soft the day
O’er waveless water, stirless tree,
    &nbps; Silent and sunny, wings its way.
Now, as I watch that distant hill,
     So faint, so blue, so far removed,
Sweet dreams of home my heart may fill,
     That home where I am known and loved:
It lies beyond; yon azure brow
     Parts me from all Earth holds for me;
And, morn and eve, my yearnings flow
     Thitherward tending, changelessly.
My happiest hours, ay! all the time,
     I love to keep in memory,
Lapsed among moors, ere life’s first prime
     Decayed to dark anxiety.

Sometimes, I think a narrow heart
     Makes me thus mourn those far away,
And keeps my love so far apart
     From friends and friendships of to-day;
Sometimes, I think ’tis but a dream
     I treasure up so jealously,
All the sweet thoughts I live on seem
     To vanish into vacancy:
And then, this strange, coarse world around
     Seems all that’s palpable and true;
And every sight and every sound
     Combines my spirit to subdue
To aching grief; so void and lone
     Is Life and Earth—so worse than vain,
The hopes that, in my own heart sown,
     And cherished by such sun and rain
As Joy and transient Sorrow shed,
     Have ripened to a harvest there:
Alas! methinks I hear it said,
     ‘Thy golden sheaves are empty air.’
All fades away; my very home
     I think will soon be desolate;
I hear, at times, a warning come
     Of bitter partings at its gate;
And, if I should return and see
     The hearth-fire quenched, the vacant chair;
And hear it whispered mournfully,
    &npsp; That farewells have been spoken there,
What shall I do, and whither turn?
Where look for peace? When cease to mourn?

‘Tis not the air I wished to play,
     The strain I wished to sing;
My wilful spirit slipped away
     And struck another string.
I neither wanted smile nor tear,
     Bright joy nor bitter woe,
But just a song that sweet and clear,
     Though haply sad, might flow.

A quiet song, to solace me
     When sleep refused to come;
A strain to chase despondency
     When sorrowful for home.
In vain I try; I cannot sing;
     All feels so cold and dead;
No wild distress, no gushing spring
     Of tears in anguish shed;

But all the impatient gloom of one
     Who waits a distant day,
When, some great task of suffering done,
     Repose shall toil repay.
For youth departs, and pleasure flies,
     And life consumes away,
And youth’s rejoicing ardour dies
     Beneath this drear delay;

And Patience, weary with her yoke,
     Is yielding to despair,
And Health’s elastic spring is broke
     Beneath the strain of care.
Life will be gone ere I have lived;
     Where now is Life’s first prime?
I’ve worked and studied, longed and grieved,
     Through all that rosy time.

To toil, to think, to long, to grieve,—
     Is such my future fate?
The morn was dreary, must the eve
     Be also desolate?
Well, such a life at least makes Death
     A welcome, wished-for friend;
Then, aid me, Reason, Patience, Faith,
      To suffer to the end!

[It’s a poem by Charlotte Bronte expressing her real feelings in finding herself among deeply uncongenial people as a teacher in a school of the era, most of them then dedicated to teaching conformity in outward life and “accomplishments” and rote learning to impress others. I like the long opening especially. It falls off in the last two stanzas. I remember how more than ambivalent were the feelings of Jane Eyre about her students in the last part of the famous book, and also the power of the bitterness of Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey. I’ve been watching Jane Eyre films the past couple of weeks or so (1973 mini-series and again the 1983 one, the 2006 one — superb that last one too, by a team of women), also Kathryn Hughes’s Victorian Governess (how the job search then is like many today, and the experience afterwards too).

I was interested to see that in Chadwyck-Healey, a note told the reader as a matter of course, this is not good poetry. The assumption seemed to be that it’s bad because it tells the truth about the very real negative aspects of teaching and social life and depression, loneliness. Maybe too it’s not liked because it’s what Annie Finch calls “poetess” poetry, a poetry showing dwelling in sensitivity.]

by Charlotte Brontë

Long ago I wished to leave
“The house where I was born; ”
Long ago I used to grieve,
My home seemed so forlorn.
In other years, its silent rooms
Were filled with haunting fears;
Now, their very memory comes
O’ercharged with tender tears.

Life and marriage I have known,
Things once deemed so bright;
Now, how utterly is flown
Every ray of light !
‘Mid the unknown sea of life
I no blest isle have found;
At last, through all its wild wave’s strife,
My bark is homeward bound.

Farewell, dark and rolling deep !
Farewell, foreign shore !
Open, in unclouded sweep,
Thou glorious realm before !
Yet, though I had safely pass’d
That weary, vexed main,
One loved voice, through surge and blast,
Could call me back again.

Though the soul’s bright morning rose
O’er Paradise for me,
William ! even from Heaven’s repose
I’d turn, invoked by thee !
Storm nor surge should e’er arrest
My soul, exulting then:
All my heaven was once thy breast,
Would it were mine again!

[The sadness and isolation from others recall Bronte’s Villette. And the longing to be with those who have passed on, so poignant.]


Emily Bronte by Branwell Bronte (the brother who also died young)

This one is said to be by both Emily and Charlotte:

The Visionary

Silent is the house; all are laid asleep:
One alone looks out o’er the snow-wreaths deep;
Wathing every cloud, dreading every breeze
That whirls the wildering drift, and bends the groaning trees.

Cheerful is the hearth, soft the matted floor;
Nor one shivering gust creeps through pane or door;
The little lamp burns straight, its rays shoot strong and far:
I trim it well, to be the wanderer’s guiding-star.

Frown, my haughty sire! chide, my angry dame;
Set your slaves to spy; threaten me with shame:
But neither sire nor dame, nor prying serf shall know,
What angel nightly tracks that waste of frozen snow.

What I love shall come like visitant of air,
Safe in secret power from lurking human snare;
What loves me, no word of mine shall e’er betray,
Though for faith unstained my life must forfeit pay.

Burn, then, little lamp; glimmer straight and clear —
Hush! a rustling wing stirs, methinks, the air:
He for whom I wait, thus ever comes to me;
Strange Power! I trust thy might; trust thou my constancy.

      (Written 1845, published 1850).

See Selected Bronte Poems, ed. Edward Chitham (Blackwell, 1985).


The 1983 Jane Eyre with Timothy Dalton as Rochester and Zelah Clarke as Jane is very good (see The Latest Jane Eyre)

Of course I love their novels too as well as most of the film adaptations thus far. I can’t think of one I don’t like.

There are so many sites, so many books and essays, so much is known that I won’t repeat a potted life once more, but shall confine myself to referring the reader to the Victorian Web for Charlotte; and University of Pennyslvia and the Literary Gothic for Anne. One of the finest biographies is still Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Bronte; Maria Frawley’s Anne Bronte is a gem. A good book which treats Anne as her sisters’ equal: Julie Nash & Barbara A. Suess’s New Approaches to the Art of Anne Bronte. It’s telling to know that George Moore admired Anne Bronte. And don’t miss Daphne DuMaurier’s on The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte.

Landscape from Sandy Welch’s 2005 Jane Eyre (On Never Tiring)


Read Full Post »

George Austen (1731-1805)

Dear friends and readers,

There needs no subtle interpretation as to why 4 months later (see letter 39, Sept 1804) this and the next two letters were saved and printed: Austen’s father died, and Austen was deputed the writer. If we were not before, we are now in a position to feel how centrally this common act (dying of old age and/or disease) presented disaster to the Austen women. Not just financially, but socially (since they had not married, both girls were continually at risk of losing whatever status they had as genteel spinsters — allow me this word) and by extension emotionally.

Jane Austen had kept some of her negative liberty: she had escaped being answerable with her body (had been brave enough to go back on her promise to marry Harris Bigg-Wither), had turned to writing and books first, bonded with women friends, but as her heroine, Emma pointed out single women have a “dreadful propensity to be poor,” and Emma’s sidekick, Harriet, felt despised too. But in this letter the immediacy and exigency of coping with the death trumps a little what is to come so we find simply a straight emotional account, tinged with a sense of vulnerability and foreboding. The women had to hope (as did Austen’s Dashwoods) the brothers, the uncle and his wife, would be generous.

So, the first two letters are descriptions of how he died, the first apparently was thought not to reach Frank, but that she wrote twice gives us twice as much matter to understand her reaction, and probably was a release. It’s in the second contains we find one of those resonant lines which recur with more frequency in the later letters: “It has been very sudden” puts me in mind of one in 1816 about the wind or rain beating on the window: she’s fatally ill, knows she is, and the bankruptcy has occurred, she’s back in Chawton and aware that Emma was found boring and MP not the over popular hit she longed for another time.

The third letter disposes of a few practically useful things George Austen left: the paucity, personal quality and care with which this effect is taken care of reminds me of women’s wills of this era and that of the 19th century. They too had little to leave; all the more do they solemnly give these few symbols of their identities away.


The dying Mr Austen (Tom Wilkinson) attempts to extract firm reassurance from his son, John, that he will provide for his step-mother and step-sisters as they have only a tiny income and nothing for dowries (1995 Miramax S&S)

The letters may be usefully read together. All are to Frank. These escaped the vigilance of the grand-daughter who burned the three packets from Austen to Frank which he is said to have kept with him all his life; maybe they were in Cassandra’s position. All to Frank — I adhere to the idea Jane was very close to Frank partly on the basis of the three packets of letters she wrote him and partly from the novels (the importance of that letter “F”, the use of a sailor brother or lover and Frank as Jane’s lover in Emma). There are a number of places in Letter 41 where we see Austen reformulating or repeating as far as she can remember what she said in Letter 40, only the utterance comes out slightly differently. In neither is there any irony, nor the kind of elaborately re-directed guarded half-fantasy witticisms that are a cover-up for an emotion or feeling she apparently did not dare to Cassandra or get herself to express openly.

She is operating under a sudden shock and and the writing of the letter is helping her to contain herself. It’s really important to see how quickly she sat down to write the first. It is in fact nearly the first thing she must have done upon the man dying — and if we do not have letters to Henry and Charles and James that does not mean they were not written, perhaps by her too.

The sequence is this: the father is taken very ill as he has been before: “with a return of the feverish complaint, which he had been subject to for the three last years” (letter 41). Since they left Steventon 4 years ago, that means these bradycardia or mild heart-attacks (if that is what is involved and my guess is yes) started a year after they came to Bath. But he had survived these.

That was Saturday. The seizure was very violent and they resorted to violent counteractions: cupping (awful, painful; if it helped it was because it was so bad this procedure it wiped out the body natural pain from your mind). It seemed he was better, and the the next morning, Sunday, he was amended so that the family fooled themselves (as did the physician) when Mr Austen was walking with his stick (at Lyme her recording her father walking back was a sign that this was a kind of difficulty for him) Bowen (an apothecary) “felt sure of his [Mr Austen’s] doing perfectly well.” But as day advanced, he got worse to the point that by 10 it was alarming to look at him.

Then Monday at 9 in the morning Bowen comes and requests a physician, Dr Gibbs, by which time “it was then absolulely a lost case”. Dr Gibs said “nothing but a Miracle could save him” and at 10:20 he died. The first letter is written almost immediately after the death, in ordinary language, a little while after that. No delay and then letters to Godmersham (Edward) and Brompton (Henry & Eliza). James is sent “an express” to come, and does — he may be closer in distance, closer in feeling, is the eldest son.

When the next day a letter from Frank to Cassandra arrives, she seems immediately to have sat down again with the same system: she regrets to not to be able to prepare him for the shock, tells of the father’s death frankly, simply.

The differences between the letters are there, but they are minor. The first seems more distanced in tone; there is less detail. Yet in the first she gives a blow-by-blow account of Mr Austen’s last 3 days upon being taken ill In the second she precedes this with an account of the past three years’ complaints, but then she is more graphic and up close with the death and her feelings about it than the first: like Henry Tilney on his mother: “everything I trust & beleive [sic] was done for him that was possible! — It has been very sudden — within twenty four hours of his death he was walking with only the help of a stick, was even reading!” In both letters Jane moves to comfort her audience, trying to find something to say which offsets the devastating feelings they are now enduring.

Janet McTeer as the desolate Mrs Dashwood (2008 BBC S&S).

The Austens are also comforting themselves by thinking of the father’s worth; the father was “spared of all the pain of separation” because “quite insensible of his own state … he went off almost in his Sleep. The second says the family did have some hours of preparation and then prayed he would die quickly so as to prevent dreadful agons. The insistence he was “spared from knowing he was about to quit” such cherished objects as wife and children. In all this is the intense consciousness in Jane and by implication her father how they desperately need him for money, if not just now, eventually. In the first the mother is bearing the shock, was quite prepared for it, feels blessing of his avoiding long illness. In the second the mother is “tolerably well,” bearing up with “great fortitude, but her health must suffer from this great shock. We have to remember here that she is writing for effect, to comfort and is not necessarily expressing her own deepest feelings which seem to be on the side of life for her father most of all. Both letters express Mr Austen’s “tenderness as a father” (letter 41), “who can do justice to?” “The loss of such a parent must be felt, or we should be brutes (Letter 40).

The grieving trio, Elinor (Joanna David), Marianne (Ciaran Madden) and Mrs Dashwood (Isabel Dean) (1971 BBC S&S)

By the time of the second letter funeral arrangements are made for Saturday. The parents married in Walcot church; now the father will be buried there.

Walcot Church, Bath, contemporary print

I agree with Diane R about the relative lack of religion in these letters: the concern is here and now with the living left, the house something has to be cone ith, with the corpse. Indeed it might be considered astonishing. On the other hand, I find the assertion of the “serenity” of the corpse creepy but know Austen’s era is a half-way or transitional moment from real belief in afterlife (and thus ghosts not far off, the body is dwelt upon) to secular concern with how someone died, his being spared knowledge that they didn’t get before. They don’t care about religion enough even to need an explanation. The trouble there is in this era the people are nowhere near knowing the causes and therefore the salient symptoms of an illness.

Money is still to the fore. It is intertwined as a possible shattering experience and on Austen’s mind as that of the mother and aunt and Uncle (“shewn every imaginable kindness”) is the now unfunded state of these people. We see it most obviously in these immediate arrangements: where will they stay? Steventon? Is that an invitation from James. Since Austen does not mention Mary I assume she was not there even if the pronoun is a “they.” It could be James and aunt and uncle. But Austen women “must have this house for three months longer.” The verb is “must.” They have expended the money for a lease that long and will lose the money if they leave earlier. So they will “probably stay till the end of that time.” But what then? The “uniting in love” comes from those there being there and reassuring the Austen women that way.

The third letter brings us back to a world of subsidence where objects are hard come by and treasured. You did not throw out things. So the sending Frank Mr Austen’s personal property (the kind of thing one finds in women’s wills as the whole of what they leave) is not so or just sentimental but practical too: for the sailor “a small astronomical Instrument: (compass and sun-dial) in black chagreen case. Expensive. Which “direction” shall they send it? This question shows Frank now knows, wrote back. Also “a pair of Scissors”. They will be useful and “valuable” to him. It was Frank who walked about with Mr Austen’s Polonius-like letter in Frank’s pocket for years and years.

I Have Found It: the Indian analogous adaptation of S&S: the women cut out of the grandfather’s will, take their things and go to Madras

All three letters are from Green Park buildings; these are quite a step down from Sydney place if not as “low” as Trim Street. Frank was in the HMS Leopard at Portsmouth.

See Letters 29, 30, 31, 32, 33 and 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39.


Read Full Post »

Dear friends and readers,

What can I better write about under Reveries under the Sign of Austen than a book which is itself a series of extended brilliant reveries?  Collins’s Rambles Beyond Railways, about his walk with a friend (his illustrator) through a place no one goes to, is an informative delightful and serious travel book all at once.  Collins gives the reader a strong feel for the heart or typically individual Cornwall landscapes, its folk culture, economics, types of people, significant moments in its history through meditation, description, story telling,  and his own reactions. I like it best when he told somber stories of recent history against legends and older history. He also describes a play he went to (a satire on Victorian popular drama) and,using a manuscript out of a library, an ancient medieval mystery play he imagines done from an amphitheater he finds. There’s more research here than meets the eye.  Lots of illustrations too,

Cheese-wring rocks (tiny at top)  Cornwall in spring

In order to learn more about Cornwall I’ve been reading histories (e.g., Mary Waugh’s Smuggling in Devon and Cornwall, 1700-1850), watched a movie (a feature on the DVD Daphne, a biopic movie about Daphne DuMaurier which included a film adaptation of her Enchanted Cornwall), skimmed my older Arthurian books. And read travel books, fromr my Poldark interest, Winston Graham’s Poldark’s Cornwall, a partly autobiographic, part story of the writing of his novels and making of the mini-series, Poldark.  Robin Ellis’s The Making of Poldark (from which I took a few 1970s photos for this blog) is also evocatively informative. I still have not found an old county book I can afford – but continue to look. 

Then a friend showed me a  blog dedicated to things Cornish and I came across the title, Rambles Beyond Railways.  Gentle reader, I bought it and have spent a couple of weeks reading it on and off in the evenings. It’s a marvelous travel book.

Cover illustration, a colorized version of one of the numerous drawing illustrations by Henry Brandling, who accompanied Wilkie Collins. The illustrations are lovely, and one

Upon starting this book to my (mild) surprise, I found it delightful. I was mildly surprised because generally speaking I don’t care much for Collins’s fiction.  I did read in an intense fervor (when young) The Woman in White, but I never finished The Moonstone, and after trudging through the first third of Armadale, gave up, jumped to the end to see what had happened, and closed the book. My attitude towards involved mystery plot-designs is like Trollope’s.  But, as I’ve seen with others authors, this author changes his tone and stance when it comes to travel books. This is true of Gissing, and I can even read D. H. Lawrence when it’s a travel essay.

Collins’s book begins lightly, wittily: he starts by introducing himself and his book as if his book is a kind of friend who he has dressed up for us in cloth and is vying with other friends for attention.  He begins by saying that he will not change his title, no not he, even if there are now railways in Cornwall and elsewhere. When he went, there were few or none, and in any case, he never got into any. The opening self-deprecating humor about the lowly stance of this type of writing draws us in– which all the while Collins probably wants us to realize brings us gratifying experiences, hard to find information, and extends to our sympathies to people supposedly very unlike us.

The great joke to start with is Collins’s assertion that is no one goes to Cornwall as travel writers. People go to the extremes of the earth, all sorts of exotic and home-y places. But two are left out: Kamtschatka and Cornwall.  They wanted to go where no one else had been (shades of Star Wars?), and Cornwall was closer plus they are a wee bit patriotic.


Cornish Fisherman

Chapter 2 is the start. We get a full portrait of a boatman — presented as amusing but nonetheless realistic enough, and our narrator and his illustrator are taking to Saltash where they will begin their journey.  A singularly beautiful description of the waters and lights of the sky and land off Cornwall begins the piece.  Then we get all the stuff they must carry as they emerge from the boat into a tavern.

The practical is the situation of all three men caught up precisely as well as the atmosphere and specifics of place, but one reads this for evocation of experience.  The key note is they are beyond railways. I presume they will walk and/or ride in boats or coaches — if there are any.  And this is a Collins I’ve never met before. I like him as  a writer this way much better than in his novelist stance. 

In the next chapter he he reaches the "Cheese-Wring," one of these bizarre formations of rock — to those to whom it’s unfamiliar it looks like a series of rough slates placed one on top of the other only some smaller ones are under larger ones so it looks like it might topple any moment. But it hasn’t after centuries

The cheese-wringer stones on top of a rock formation covered by snow (Cornwall in winter)

One of Brandling’s illustrations of the Cheese-Wring rock has with a tiny male figure below it. The figure is intended to suggest Collins and the difference in size between the rock and the people coming to see it.  I can’t reproduce it as it comes out to fuzzily but in context it makes its point. These rocks dwarf people – the question is how the formed piles were put up?. The standing stone of Cornwall come from the same neolithic period as Stonehenge, Avebury and Stanhope (all in England) and similar stone monumental art works and natural formations around Europe. 

One of the things I became aware of this morning was how he manages to convey the poverty, desolation, real circumstances of the people living in Cornwall (including the corrupt egregiously corrupt rotten boroughs, just then being put out of commission, what work on a mine really looks and probably feels like on the surface), the reality of the picturesque towns and the grim agricultural ones in this gay humorous tone.  There is the usual desperately old lady living alone who gives he and his illustrators a lodging for the night — in these travel books there is often such a woman, sometimes with a cat, sometimes just alone.  Johnson and Boswell make fun of one they met in Scotland because she was so fearful for her "virtue."  Poor old women; they are still with us and I begin to identify.  Much on inns — but then that’s what a traveler experiences

The determined cheer is a bit grating on my nerves I admit but then  he can smoothly move into these lovely serene moments in the apparently deeply beautiful landscapes. One at a so-called Holy Well — which reminds me of a painting by Gainsborough of such a place in the southeast.

Gainsborugh, a Holy Wells in the southeast of England

Happily Collins drops his arch-facetious tone by the middle of Chapter 4 and his book begins to become good, even powerful at moments; it is at least a good travel and regional book.

After the extraordinary landscape envisaged from the Cheese-Wring and the shore, he tells the story of a man who could not get a job that could support himself and his family beyond the most starvation level and give him time to study mathematics. The one joy of his existence was his studies.  This does remind me of Dickens’s "Signalman" where we have a similar personality type outlined. Daniel Gumb finally gave up the hopeless struggle and moved with his family to live on one of these huge rock formations, carving out a dwelling inside one of these high Cheese Wrings. He and the family found enough to eat from a nearby plot they took over and braved solitude, cold, indifference.  Ridicule he could no longer hear. There they lived for a number of years until he died and the wife and children disappeared — so it seems — at any rate no one cared enough to tell or it was in no one’s interest.  Collins writes;  "amid a civilized nation, and during a civilized age, under such a shelter as would hardly serve the first savage tribes of the most savage country — to live, starving out poverty and want on a barred wild."  Lines were left carved on the rocks.

He and his companion-illustrator tried to find accommodation they could sleep in in the area, but it was hopeless so they went to a grand hotel and spent the night.

Chapter 5 gives us a picture of the economy of Cornwall.  Collins begins with the statistic that Cornwall is rare for having "no returns of death from starvation" in its "Government Tables of Mortality."  The trouble here is maybe they just weren’t recorded.  The wife and children of Gumb weren’t.  But this ability to subsist is his theme.  A land on th edge of England, where emigration has been more resorted to than any other place he says, how the cottages are very cheap, how the people live on pilchards, mining.  A little about how difficult it is to produce food, how people are dependent on the potato.   I know people lived by smuggling too — big industry as well as wreckage (taking things from what is wrecked on shore).

A photo of an old Cornish mine (1990s image)

The miners are surprisingly literate Collins says — because national schools have been set up.  There is no sense that women live different lives.  Are they literate too?  we are not told.  There is much hospitality, but ghost stories abound.

The section describing Cornish people, their landscape, their ways of life ends with a description of how the people react to our travellers: walking, with knapsacks.  The people think the travelers more than a little mad for not riding, not staying in grand hotels.  Collins says it’s probably expected that he tell tales of the people living by smuggling and wreckage. He quotes a statistic he finds in one community that only one wreckage has been recorded in so many years and no smuggling. This is a joke.  He does suggest that the govt’ and prevention men have come down hard on the people of later — and this is backed by Mary Waugh’s book where she says that the gov’t did stop much of the smuggling by mid-century.  The upper class wanted their cut and they didn’t like disorder.  Collins also denies that the people caused or created the wrecks, only lived off what washed up. But in any case, it would be ungrateful for him to dwell on this since he is being treated very courteously and his is a "the story of a holiday walk."

1970s photo of a Cornish harbour

He has managed to be suggestive and tell enough truth without having to do much research or burdening his narrative unduly. He does aim for a non-diabolic tone at a minimum

Loo Pool and the Lizard

Lizzard Light — again a 1970s photo

Magnficient compelling description of treks along the dangerous rock mountains, rock-ways, coves and beaches with their unusual flora, narrow ledges, high cliffs, and sudden gaps and holes fills the chapters. Collins says he skips the towns and cities that connect his first towns on the south coast to Loo Pool (so no Loswithiel, Fowey, St Austrell, Gampound, Probus, Truro or Falmouth); it’s not his aim to describe variants on the sorts of town and other life these can be fitte into, but describe what is unique to Cornwall — as he just went over the Holy Wells, Druid Relics indigenous to this part of the UK and Cornish people.

What is strikingly Cornish is the terrain.  Loo Pool is a huge sea-lake that is formed by a sand barrier; it attracts specific kinds of festivals, rituals and myths, and the people try to control its tides to gather fish off of it, cope with (and get things from) nearby wrecks.

Bird watching at St Ives

The masterpiece is his climbing with a Cornish guide up and down and all around the LIzzard. Really remarkable scenery and the illustrations (probably originally full-size) try to convey something of the strangeness of the place (vast towering rocks) but how people clamber about and play and live within the area.  Graham sets several of his key scenes on just such a landscape:  Morwenna Chrynoweth (governess) and Drake Carne’s first falling in love; Demelza Poldark’s liaison and love-making with Hugh Armitage among the rocks and sands in one of the flats (near crabs), and walks on the beach, one which ends Twisted Sword where Demelza throws to the sea the cup that she snatched from Jeremy’s robbery of Warleggan bank

Collins is particulary good on catching the changing lights and mists of morning, flashes in the night, storm and sun and sand with lots of gothic sounds and structures thrown in here and there.

The Pilchard Fishery.  We are offered the rhythms of fish, and in this case pilchard life enable groups of people in Cornwall to survive for parts of the year by being at the spot the pilchards debouch at and catching thousands of them. You must be there just then and no other time. It is a strange magnificent and desperate scene because people can fail to get them.  Winston Graham has a scene at the close of his first Poldark novel where his hero and heroine, just married (against all taboos, he a gentleman and landowner, she a miner’s daughter, having been lovers for about a month) — they get up before dawn, and row out to sea to watch one of these scenes.

From Poldark, 1977-78 (Second Season, Part 8: Demelza and Armitage running among the rocks)

The first half of the chapter on the Pilchard Fishery shows us how remarkable human beings are as a species. Different groups numbers of people, large enough to crowd a vast beach and rocky coast line and waters cooperate to net a huge huge cache of fish.  Watching this would give the mind pause.  They do it in order not to starve and everyone gets some cut, though the owners far more than the workers.  Every level of society, type, and age except the smallest babies.

One wonders why they cooperate this way but cannot in so many others.  Is it that the hierarchy makes the few very rich and those few are the strong types that make this happen? Collins maintains a postive inspired tone.  As I recall Graham’s description is more austere.

And then St Michael’s Mount where we are blessedly free of the human beings.

Brandling’s St Michael’s Mount

In Mt St Michael’s Collins uses a kind of proto-film technique. You’d think he’d been watching movies where some camera was using dissolves and cuts and flashbacks. We are first made to experience walking up to the mount, the weather, the rock, the building, the landscape, look out at the sea and contemplate what all this implies you have to do to live here.

Then dissolve to a first picture:  "ancient" people rowing in the waters to bring out tin, catch fish, interact with one another (quarrelling mostly), and also discipline.  Powerful.

Dissovve and cut to Edward the Confessor in the 11th century. Now we see a church establishment with its rich powerful king types. How they behave around this new building, the granite (how did it get there) what the aesthetic things carved mean.  Pilgrims coming.

Dissolve and cut to Charles First who came here in flight. How he talked to the loyal people is set up against a fast forward to what his experience of beheading must’ve felt like to contemplate and stand there that morning.  The letter of thanks that is left in the documents.

And the picture fades from view and we are on the mount again.  Back to present time — flashbacks over.

Then the banality (to those there all the time) and extraordinariness of fhe neolithic rocks at land’s end.  Four different illustraions of different rocks, one of the whole coast.  A story of how a lieutenant in 1824 took it upon him to knock one huge rock, the Loggan stone, because it was said it could never come down. It was also in the way he thought. He didn’t quite manage it and then the people around got frightened and mad at him and tried to restore it. They didn’t quite.

The grandeur of the place and the legends is caught up.  Alas Collins had no archealogy but we can supply it as modern readers.

He is getting to the heart and reaities of this place.  Land’s end closes with an argument to do your traveling at home — the UK. In his travel stories which take place in the UK (Devonshire countryside, Cornwall) Trollope does the same. And one reality is the famous Botallack Mine.

Cornish mine opening

Of course we must have a mine  Collins opens this section with the statement his readers must be impatient for a description of a mine by now. "Why do we hear nothing abouttin, and copper, and shafts, and steam-pumps — why are we all the time kept away from the mines?"

He makes up for it in this chapter. He comes upon Botallack (famous) and shows us how crack-gimmed together it seems.  How odd if you don’t understand what you are seeing.

He uses himself too . He says he is small, 5 feet six and the outfit given him too large. He emphasizes what such outfits feel like (much is canvas) and the candles in your hand and on your hat and how they are glued in place.  Again perspective de-familiarizes and familiarizes all at once.

He then really gives you a sense of the experience of being in a mine, going all the way down, crawling in it, half walking, the dangers of the ladders, the hard work, what it feels like to go up again, to see the sky after hours and hours below. Then the water — how central to pump it out The fear of being engulfed when there is a storm.

He emerges and we learn about the social organization, how people are paid (so little). The desperate nature of such work. But he ends on an accident that had a happy ending. A fourteen year old boy saved. And how his parents were so tender of him — so transient human life even here among individuals valued.

Modern and ancient drama in Cornwall

The old Launston  Gaol gate

There follow two chapters which are marvels of writing. In the first Collins tells of a touring group he sees do a performance of some ludicrous but somehow plausible melodrama before a large group of spectators in St Ives. I didn’t really find it funny, and think I was supposed to laugh until the tears ran down my face. Maybe if I were a Victorian and had been subjected to such an appalling lot of absurdity in lesser forms I would have. I did however find it amusing and many of the underlying patterns of ludicrous forms of sex and  aggression and money and other troubles are still with us today. In fact this silly play ends with the death of the major heroine blamed on the two heroes. Well in Graham’s Angry Tide that’s just what happens: a major heroine, Elizabeth Poldark, dies and we are to see that the two chief males, Ross and George, between them in effect killed her. Collins wants us to see also this play pleases. There are numerous actors described, costumes, the sets. Much is done that is admirable and for little money.  I was amused by the people thenselves and their ingenuity.  Then afterward their good time together drinking and talking. The lack of sophisticated understanding by middle class people too is underlined. He forgets maybe they had no other play to see, but then it was uncomfortable in a make-shift shed.

This is compared to his imaginative recreation of a play text written down in 1611, called The Creation of the World. It’s an apocalyptic drama that takes us through the drama we find in Paradise Lost by Milton — only in chronological order from the creation of the earth to Noah. It’s really a mystery play from a bigger cycle.  Collins is kinder to this one. For a start, he has done research and tells of the original and some successive translations and how it reached this stage and further reached him.  He finds some genuine poetry here and there and glimpses of serious feeling. I wondered if he was giving it too much credit because of its religious source. Or giving the modern drama too little – as the modern drama had moments like Dickens’s Little Dorrit. There is a wonderful account of the landscape where there’s a left-over amphitheatre used in medieval times. We are to admire this and the sense of this place has beauty.

Altogether the second play comes out better than the first, but then it is Collins imagining the second. The first happened. We have actors described, costumes, the sets. Much is done that is admirable and for little money.  I was amused by the people themselves and their ingenuity.  Collins mentions Mr Dickens as one who would take from his script an argument that we must educate people more.  It seems he did not know Mr Dickens then but is an admirer of Mr Dickens’s strong social principles.

The penultimate chapter takes us deep into one of these woodlands in Cornwall and I have put on our groupsite page:

Woodland, Bonnocoe

It is just such an idyllically green and lush place Collins draws us into where he then describes death-in-life way of existence by a group of nuns, Carmelite who took over the House of Lanhearne and now live this perversely silent withdrawn life. I’ve read nothing like this since I read Ann Radcliffe’s horrified description of a bunch of coffins she saw used as beds for nuns on the continent in 1794 Apparently Collins was attacked for his revelations — there’s a later footnote by him defending himself.

House of Lanhearne, one of Brandling’s illustrations

This tragedy — the women’s lives is prefaced by a description of a group of men who froze to death one freezing night (they had not realized how cold) as they were about their desperate measures to get some food. The juxtaposition of human behavior, realities and the natural world in which it took place is effective. 

North coast shore

Collins’s book ends brilliantly and movingly with him walking up the coast to Tintagel Castle and other places where ruins still exist.  The description of the magnficent coast line, at once desolate and goreous rich flora could be scenarios for a movie — or a plan for going to shoot one on location. He retells briefly the most famous moments in the Arthurian tales, concentrating on moments of high tragedy. He does seem to have some knowledge of what’s thought to be the historical basis of these legends:  some captain who had conquered the Saxons finally falling.

What I liked and can be presented as an epitome of the range of the book is this is matched by 2 local stories:  two women came to live in a now solitary cottage in a state of decay: they simply were there one day and lived together alone going out to procure food with money for months and months. They became the object of community curiosity since they never had anyone to visit them, but before this curiosity turned hostile, one of them died. This was discovered and the body taken from the grieving lone woman; she then died slowly and was found dead on her chair, and buried.

In the case of a second an old ruined church, Forrabury,  with a closed up belfry.  This church had no bells and the people of the church were jealous of the peals coming from Tintagel so they got together and produced enough money as a group (perhaps we should send them to the US congress who produce money only to conduct wars) to buy a new bell or set of bells. Alas, when the bell was formed, put on a ship, and the ship brought near harbor, a quarrel between the pilot and captain (the pilot devoutly bowing before the Tintagel bells heard, and the captain reviling the pilot as a fool) erupted and Heaven’s vengeance descended, the ship went down and the bells with it.

As much time and space is devoted to these stories, the environs they are said to have occurred in as the Arthurian legends, and a walk amid a landscape in the area where there was no roadway.

The book closes with a beautiful description of a last twilight evening as the two travelers linger before Launceston from whch they will go to Plymouth and then back to modern day worlds. Collins then appends a list of the routes he walked, the miles and inns to be found within each circumference.

What makes a good travel book?  A evocative physical recreation of the place through words and pictures. A strong autobiographical element where we travel with someone and experience as he (or she) experienced the journey/trip.  Concise well-chosen information epitomizing how people live there now and had lived there earlier.   Good history, an account of the economic basis of the place, social arrangements, meet people there who tell you stories whose value is as much in their being told as what they say. All this is in Collins in a felicitious style. The book was published early in Collins’s career, before he knew Dickens personally.  I should think it helped his career along.


Read Full Post »