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Posts Tagged ‘women artists’


A photograph of the wall at Lyme from the water side (contemporary) — see my review of Lucy Worseley’s JA at Home, book & film

Dear friends and readers,

I finally unsubscribed from Janeites on this past Sunday night, and will no longer be putting any postings on Austen-l — after being on the first list for more than 20 years and the second some quarter of a century. A sad evening. I asked myself if I learn anything about Austen on Janeites, now at groups.io (after considerable trouble and work) and previously at yahoo; so I experience any pleasure in ideas about her, gain any perspective on her era, contemporaries, the books or authors or people or places she was influenced, and the sad answer was no. Often just the opposite. I faced up to the reality that the listserv space is one Arnie Perlstein’s playground for preposterous sexed-up and male-centered (he is ever finding famous white males like Milton or more modern males in Austen) theory and semi fan-fiction postings. The latest very long thread was once again about how Jane Fairfax is pregnant in Emma (I’m not sure if Frank Churchill or John Knightley was the candidate) and the idea the full fantasia of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is central to Emma.

I felt bad about deserting the list-moderator but it seemed to me the latest series went beyond previous in a tone of triumph and enjoyment which suggested one motive was to show contempt for the purpose of the listserv (and its membership), which the moderator replied to by writing (as she has so many times before) the purpose of the list, its terrain was to read Jane Austen’s actual texts, discuss them, her era, and her real life. She has said repeatedly how she dislikes these sexed-up “shadow texts” and says their content ruins her enjoyment of Austen. A couple of people then told me (through the message mechanism on face-book) how they laugh at such threads — that reminded me of the way people enjoyed Scottie Bowman on Austen-l years ago (he had a gift for needling malice). One person had the courage to onlist explain she stayed only for sentimental reasons — remembering what was. Maybe it was the latter sentiment that determined me to face up to the demoralization and aggravation this particular kind of debasement of Austen the money- and career-making cult leads to.

Lest my last phrase be misunderstood what I am referring to is that part of the reason Jane Austen (as a name, a picture, a set of titles) has spread so widely is the pair of words makes money for many people and has been used by many to further their careers — from getting tenure, to heritage businesses, to touring oneself, to selling objects, to setting up tours for others (at a price), from business as far apart as the hotel industry (JASNA is kept expensive in order to keep the meetings smaller), to toy and knick-knack manufacturers and (at one time) séance mediums, to running sites de memoire.

It matters that while the secondary literature on Austen has grown exponentially, her oeuvre remains tiny and easy to read through in say less than two weeks. Yet I’ve met people at these JASNAs who at best have read 2 of the novels. And yes many of these participants will say they “hate” Mansfield Park; lately participants I’ve met suggest Mr Knightley is “really” in love with Jane Fairfax; they get this from some of the Emma movies. JASNA having finally “allowed” in panels on sequels is now not just flooded with them — you see it in the shop — one of the years the very topic was in effect these sequels and movies. JASNA grew to its present size after the first of the contemporary Jane Austen movies in 1995/96.

Maybe now with so many vying to publish about her, it’s not so easy to be published in journals, and fan fiction is no longer a publisher dream of an easy sell, but an essay on her, an umpteenth film adaptation of Emma will get further than than any essay on a “minor” (obscure) woman writer? Who has heard of Margaret Oliphant? Charlotte Smith? The situation may be similar for Sherlock Holmes as a name and set of titles — as well as a literal place Holmes lived in — as if the character actually existed. Readers can invest whatever they want into these post-texts (or sequels).

I find very troubling how reputable scholars have argued in print that it’s okay to tell lies, it’s okay if the printed material or what is taught is all wrong, is the product of political censorship, or if what is on display is salacious, misogynistic, just plain stupid. I objected to this supposed neutrality in Devoney Looser’s latest book. She implied it’s elitist to insist on accuracy and truth and explicitly undervalued the difference between knowledge and illusion, credible evidence and lies.

Group and social dynamics in cyberspace work differently than in real space, so one or two people can take over and ruin a listserv, silence everyone else; scapegoating is easy. So one of the things some site-owners (face-book moderators, listserve owners and moderators) whose platforms survive do is early on or soon enough establish parameters on what is somehow pernicious nonsense — Hardy Cook had a hard time at first with his Shaksper-l and now just forbids all stupidity over the idea that Wm Shakespeare did not write his books; these kinds of ideas circulate among lots of (foolish snobbish) people; or (as I have seen many times now), you say this face-book page is for this author and no other authors; discussions about contemporary politics are out; this is not the space to talk of movies or your favorite star-actor. Today Shaksper-l is a sober discussion of Shakespeare’s plays, the productions, real cruxes in the scholarship &c Athurnet years ago is another place where setting boundaries on theories of where the Arthur matter came from finally worked. I’ve seen this on face-book fan pages — more than one determined moderator is sometimes needed. Most of these kinds of posters fall silent without an audience to triumph over.

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On the Janeites list I had been trying with the list moderator to agree on a book of literary criticism or history about Jane Austen where each chapter would bring us to the text or her life again. We would try to post weekly on Austen through such a text. I had tried posting on the essays in the most recent Persuasions (as a text many members might own) starting in summer but few people were interested in serious analysis or any discussion at all, in reading such writing.

I have been having a difficult time keeping this blog going — with all the literary and film and other study (for teaching and classes I go to) I do in the other parts of my life, and had proposed to go back to series: of actresses, fore-mother poets, women artists, serial dramas based on the 18th century or film adaptations of historical fiction based on the early modern to early 19th century European cultures. But I know this excludes Austen. So now I’ll have an alternative thread if I can manage this: once a week or so, blog on a chapter on a book genuinely engaged with Austen’s texts, life, era. I’ll begin with Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. Long range I’d like also to try for one of the books on the relationship of Jane Austen’s texts to the plays or theater of her time.

Accordingly, I have changed my header picture to a picturesque illustration found in one of the older handbooks for Austen, F. B. Pinion’s A Jane Austen Companion. Pinion’s is a beautifully made book (sewn, heavy paper, a lot of rag content in the boards). It’s filled with various kind of pictures (plates, photos, vignettes) where the material is written as clear essays critically surveying Austen’s life, the early phases of her writing, a chapter each for the major novels, topics like influence, her reputation. Places, character studies. Dulce and utile is a phrase that is rightly applied to this book. Manydown house is now gone: it was the Bigg-Wither home where Austen bravely went back on a weak moment where she said yes to an unsuitable man for her as an individual; and it was the place where assembly-type balls were held in her time. Thus it seems to me appropriate.


Susan Herbert’s parody of Adelaide Labille-Guiard’s Self-portrait with Two Pupils (1785)

Ellen

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Mary Wollstonecraft (1758-97)

“I don’t believe you realise how much the war has stung our generation. We have had the bottom of things knocked out completely, we have been sent reeling into the chaos and it seems to us that none of your standards are either fixed or necessarily good because in the end they resulted in the smash-up. We have to try to make a world for ourselves, based it as far as possible on love and awareness, mentally and bodily, because it seems to us that all the repressions and formulae, all the cutting off of part of our experience, which perhaps looked sensible and even right, in those calm years have not worked. Much has been taken from us,and we will stick like fury to what is left, and lay hold on life as it comes to us” — Naomi Mitchison’s War Diaries (1940-45, quoted in Elaine Showalter’s Inventing Herself, but I am reading this book late at night)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been blogging under this sign for nearly 20 years now, and have completed (or broken off from) several series of blogs, viz., most strikingly actresses, foremother poets, women artists. Not all of these series were about women in the imaginative arts, though; I’ve done several serial dramas from over a single season (Wolf Hall) (however defined) to several, some based on series of books (Poldark, Outlander), original dramas. I’ve shared papers and sessions from academic conferences I’ve been to. I’ve look at types of genres (historical fiction, biography). Individual authors and individual books. Individual movies. All Austen’s letters as organized and edited by Deirdre Le Faye, biographies of her close relatives, The Austen papers, and French contexts for reading Austen. One problem is I do forget to tag, and I do these on my other blog too (Ellen and Jim have a blog, two) so the sets are scattered. My longest ones (except for Austen’s letters) are over there, viz., The Pallisers. Tom Jones.


Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse (Joshua Reynolds)

Some of these were given up because I’d finished the thing I set out to do (all Austen’s letters), I was beyond my area of expertise (recent poetry) Some what with teaching, serious projects I’ve not been able to or make time to write a three part blog-essay more than once every two weeks, if that. I keep inventing things that take me into social groups, out of the house. I proposed to teach a two-part course at the Politics and Prose bookstore: 4 French women writers & eras, beginning with the poetic masterpiece by Stael, Corinne, ou l’Italie, for 3 sessions, then a break and consecutively 1 session each of George Sand’s Indiana, Marguerite Duras’s war memoir, La Guerre (occupied France from her vantage point), and then recent lesbian feeling novel about Marie Antoinette and her ladies, Farewell, My Queen by Chantal Thomas (exquisitely sensitive beautifully meditative book). I’d love to add Winter in Majorca (time spent by Sand with Chopin), but there was no go (no offer of position or classes to teach) for this non-famous person with no connections that counted. But I will still attend a few sessions on specific fine books (like Olivia Manning’s Balkan trilogy the first novel, Sarah Water’s Night Watch) there scattered across the spring.


Joanna Mary Boyce (died so young), The Heath Gatherer

That I’ve no idea how to sell myself or anything else much to the general public may be seen in my not having more than 176 subscribers and about half the number of followers. For individual blogs that land in some moment of popular notice, the numbers will go way up, but not from anything I’ve done. I trust, gentle reader, you and I and the other 175 enjoy or find some kind of profit from what I put here.

I’m contemplative and surveying this evening to push myself on to return to these series, especially the poets, actresses (I’ve written about singer-actresses, including Judy Garland), and painters (one scientific farmer, Beatrice Potter too).


Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds


Beatrice Potter squirrel from her children’s books

I felt some stirrings recently, today over a blog on an exhibition going on right now of women Pre-Raphaelite painters, Nick Holland’s blog on an unfinished deeply imaginatively, fantastical fragment by Charlotte Bronte (how could such a spirit be localized into the demands of the realistic novel?). This week I read (for the first time) Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, watched the poignant movie, and returned to these working class English women’s writing of the 1950s (Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman, A Story of Two lives anyone?)


Vera Brittain (1893-1970)

As evidence of good continuing interest in women and the arts (of all kinds) I finally finished reading Elaine Showalter’s Inventing Herself: it’s a book made up of a series of portraits (some long and some sort in a group style) women who achieved as feminists in their writing and active lives. Beginning with Mary Wollstonecraft, taking us through Margaret Fuller, Olive Schreiner, Eleanor Marx, Charlotte Gilmore Perkins (daughter hated her), Elsie Clews Parsons (?! — yes an important later 19th century writer), early 20th century Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Nora Zeale Thurston, Rebecca West and Vera Brittain, moving into the middle years, Mary MacCarthy and Hannah Arendt (more alike than you think), Simone de Beauvoir and Susan Sontag (ditto), and then very recent, names I read as contemporaries, Nancy Miller, Adrienne Rich, Ann Douglas, Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem, taking us to Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton (a rousing defense) and Diana Spencer (died young spectacularly, Showalter unexpectedly sympathized). All of them had to live unconventional highly self-centered lives in order to be the writer or woman she became; demoralizing to see that before the early 20th century a woman had to be chaste to have any social capital; from the mid-20th a woman had to make herself sexually available, or seeming so to radical men to get anywhere. I was surprised at how many had become enthralled by or to a man, and this become a crucial determinant in the existence they led. There is no false idealization: Sontag was able to travel and write the books she did because she perpetually partnered with very rich people. Beauvoir’s claim she did not become a feminist until after 1947 (her trip to the US) disingenuous.

73 years old the end of this week, tiring, failing better than I used to, I shall go down with all flags flying.   I do everything together with others, except meet …

I cheer myself up by keeping watching the recent Durrells of Corfu, the dose, an episode every three nights (I love the music, scripts, cartoons, actors), backed up by midnight dream reading of Laurence Durrell’s island books. Perhaps my first new actress will be Barbara Flynn, aka Aunt Hermione — pitch perfect in this series. How I find her characteristic characters so appealing. To my eyes she is beautiful still.


From the Durrells of Corfu, you see Keeley Hawes as Louisa from the back

Ellen

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Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717)

Dear readers and friends,

Back from this year’s EC/ASECS (its 50th anniversary) at Gettysburg, I’m re-filled with enthusiasm for all things long 18th century, and return with new topics to think about, new perspectives, and old interests made new. Among the highlights for me of the evening and two days, was a guided visit during the long lunch on the first day through a Maria Sibylla Merian exhibit at the Schmucker Art Gallery on the Gettysburg campus, made richer by a lecture given later that afternoon by its professorial curator, Kay Etheridge. I heard that first morning intriguing papers on theater which attempted to get beyond the relics, remnants, remains in the form of verbal texts, costumes and setting to convey to us today what the experience of the theatrical representation might have been like in concrete breathing, noisy, living details. What are our aids today and were used in the 18th century to capture the fleeting presence performing in our memories.

Of course I was deeply engaged by the panel I chaired where we were once again immersed in Samuel Johnson (with a little bit of help from Boswell), and in the panel dedicated to Jacobitism where I gave my paper where themes of colonialism, migrancy, and religious-political conflicts emerged. But in this first of two blogs on this conference I will just write about the conference’s first panel on theater, the group trip to the Art Gallery and talks on Maria Sibylla Merian. As with last and a couple of years previous the views I offer and accounts of papers are necessarily partial since I could attend but one panel at a time, and my summary reports are imprecise, and omit much because my stenography is not what it once was.

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A frontispiece from Bell’s British Theater

I was fascinated by the first panel on theatrical history (Friday morning, session 1, 9-10:15), chaired by Matthew Kinservik. One of the central questions coming out of Jane Wessel’s “Samuel Foote’s Strategic Ephemerality” was the problem that the theatrical experience disappears as it is acted. How do you know, study, understand performances before there were moving pictures (photography, movies, films, DVDs, video, digital YouTubes). Jane said professional enacted mimicry; that they looked in the scripts to enable imitation. Diaries, journals, and news descriptions constitute snapshots; you puzzle over what is meant by the familiar “character performed with additions.” Her paper attempted to get beyond the notion that ephemerality means loss: performances can escape censorship, others could not control what was immediately represented; you were as much going to see the performer as the work; the performed was the work. She showed evidence of Foote attempting to lure people using print. She read a footnote telling the reader which actors or actresses were imitating which.

Aparna Gollapudi’s “Theater in the Reading Closet: Bell’s Frontispieces” attempted to uncover what literally happened, live performances and audience response similarly. She discussed the texts, pictures, paratexts (like frontispieces) that circulated after a performance. The pictures do what they can to bring into people’s “closets” (rooms, homes) actual experiences of the stage. But they also are fanciful and illustrate what the audience might like to dream could epitomize the action or character but is in reality not possible for stage action. She showed a favorite print of a scene from Cibber’s Careless Husband which in the script occurred before the play began (two principals having sex); a moral play like Steele’s Conscious Lovers is accompanied by a picture which is not moral, but comic, leering, hinting at sexual availability. The frames outside the print have playful vignettes. Sometimes an actor is pictured in roles never played; substitutions like this abound as celebrity culture does its work. Illustrators were a kind of play critic, a reader of inner dreams of what did not happen.

Matthew’s “Charles Macklin’s Career as Theatre Manager” was about how the written records do not begin to record Macklin’s varied remarkable work for decades on the stage.


John Conde’s 1792 engraving of a painting of Macklin (from John Opie’s painting)

Macklin was not just an actor and playwright; if you pay attention to who is on the stage, who is involved in the acting, staging, presentation, you discover that for 30 years (1740-72) he acted, taught (he had in effect an acting school at a coffee house), deputy managed the most popular famous plays and actors (Garrick, Foote) too. He was one of those who could make up for the incompetence and parsimony of Fleetwood. He lectured on acting. As the novelty of some of what he did wore off, he behaved in less dignified ways, he found himself ridiculed. It seems one problem Macklin had was he angered people, another he had no money of his own to invest.He was a bankrupt in the 1750s, but went to Dublin and became a partner in the Crowe St Theater competing against Smock Alley. He got into disputes with Barry. In London his expertise in great acting roles (Shylock, Macbeth) was recognized by Colman. But his paper trail is through the courts: his Love a la Mode was so popular he declined to print it and would sue people for performing it.

In the general discussion afterwards people talked of those who could do shorthand and would take down quaker speeches and found that publishers and other people went after them to stop. As a stenographer who could once upon a time take down every word people said at a meeting, this interested me. I have experienced many different reactions to and uses of my ability to do this: early on, a lawyer I worked for used my work to his advantage in negotiations; later on as a graduate student in committee meetings I curbed myself rather than become too involved. They also talked of the terms of legal suits.

A second topic I started was about (I suppose) celebrity. I said that on face-book I noticed YouTubes put on of incidents in serial dramas that never occurred. I eventually learned these sorts of re-doings of bits of videos in order to change the scene (usually to make it more sentimental, more erotic, sometimes to make fun of something) are common. Many focus on a famous or admired star. No one but me appeared bothered about this. I suggested this sort of falsifying (as I see it) is the modern version of fanciful illustrations of theatrical scenes and actors in the 18th century.

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Pear Blossom?

I wish I could do justice to the talk by the graduate student-curator who took a group of us through the exhibition — together with an art history professor. I came away with a slender catalogue paperback, Artful Nature and the Legacy of Maria Sibylla Merian, where the major pictures in the gallery are reproduced together with essays by the students on Merian’s life, science, the social norms of her class as well as the work of three other naturalists of Merian’s era.


From Merian’s Metamorphosis Insectorum Surianemensium (she went to Surinam)

I was able to take down some of what Prof. Kay Etheridge (biologist) told the whole conference in her talk in the afternoon. Merian was the daughter of an middle class artist, Matthäus Merian the Elder, and was highly educated. Her father died in 1650, and in 1651 her mother remarried Jacob Marrel, the flower and still life painter. Marrel encouraged Merian to draw and paint. While he lived mostly in Holland, his pupil Abraham Mignon trained her. She married Marrel’s apprentice, and had two daughters, but eventually separated from him. She gave drawing lessons to the daughters of the wealthy and this gave her access to their gardens; she collected specimens, insects, studied botany, and devoting herself to her art and studies, she produced pattern books, and became a much respected scientific illustrator and then naturalist; she was among the first to study insects directly. Prof Etheridge went over (as far as she could) the steps Merian might have taken as she gained expertise. What was remarkable was she put the life cycles of insects together with plants. She wrote, engraved, published remarkable books, financing herself to go to Dutch Surinam. She talked to the indigenous people and to enslaved people and wrote about their desperation (how the women cared deeply for their children and would even kill them rather than see them grow up into an enslaved person); an indigenous woman accompanied her home. Her images tell ecological stories and Prof Fletcher showed how. We can see great cruelty in nature in some of what is observed in many of these illustrations.

Among the famous and wealthy who wrote or commemorated her: Alexander Humboldt named a flower after her; Hans Sloane collected her work; Tsar Peter; she was imitated by many major and minor scientific illustrators. Popularizers spread her work, e.g., Friedrich J. Bertuch in his picture books for children, attempting to teach a scientific way of seeing the world (published between 1780 and 1839); in English she cited Oliver Goldsmith. She talked about the 18th century naturalist, horticulturist, and illustrator Mark Catesby (1683-1749) best known for witty books based on his observations in the Carolinas, Florida and Bahama Islands. Catesby’s work is included in the exhibit.

The Gettysburg art gallery had another exhibit, the work of Andrew Ellis Johnson and Susanne Slavick dwelling on the present humanitarian crisis around the world; it consists of images, chosen poetry (a psalm by Wislawa Szymborska), essays (one by Suketu Mehta), commentaries on politics. historical incidents. I took home the catalogue for this too. It includes Warsan Shire’s

Home

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilet
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten …

For the rest and about Shire, click here.


New butterfly named after Merian (Smithsonian Museum page)

Ellen

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Ahdaf Soueif

Would Austen have read this book? she would have seen it as an improbable Radcliffe fantasy (especially the trunk and manuscripts) and gobbled it up, all the while writing harsh abrasive remarks about it to Cassandra who would at least listen ….

Friends and readers,

I first read Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love some six years ago. I immediately recognized it as written in the Booker Prize mode: it has narratives within narratives, especially the past ones embedded into present day memories; deep subjectivity and reveries as the POV for long stretches; rich prose style. It seemed a cross between Ruth Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust (1984) and A. S. Byatt’s Possession (1990), Brontesque in its passionate outpourings, a George Eliot kind of heroine (Anna is called a Dorothea Brooke by her great-great grandaughter, Isabel Parkman), neo-Victorian, self-consciously Orientalist. Unlike many a more politics Booker Prize winner (in the event it was merely short-listed) Soueif is more than anti- or post-colonialist: she is avidly pro-Palestinian, rightly searingly critical of British, then US, then Israel behavior towards Egypt. She provides an alternative and accurate history of Egypt within this book, teaching the reader to understand events she (most readers I’ve met have been women) has been mislead, miseducated or silenced about. I had a hard time with it because the first heroine we meet, the older new reclusive Egyptian journalist Amal al-Ghamrawi, tells her story now in the third person, now in the first person, and reads and tells Anna’s story in a similar woven way. But if you keep at it, you will find yourself enjoying a passionate historical romance masterpiece.

I reread it for a paper I wrote on Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake as they seemed uncannily similar, with both having epistolary situations (epistolarity — characters reading letters and journals where we are aware of the other reader) and story-telling first person story-telling set in side-by-side time frames. Smith’s Ethelinde and Soueif’s Map of Love are deeply recessive novels. The stories and characters that matter most are suspended, remain latent until we are well into the novel. Characters who blend into one another so it’s hard to keep them distinct. Prevailing moods are melancholic, ironic and nostalgic despite considerable alienation, deeply erotic, paradoxically all the more when the main character, a woman or feminized hero, has chosen celibacy. Events occur in widely disparate geographical places, leading to estrangements between characters, whom memory nonetheless connects and who act based the connection. Books will straddle languages. Contain some form of influential armed war (whether or not off-stage). Ending in a periphery, where the characters accept severely diminished hopes, tragic deaths and loss. A retreat into a refuge, internal exile. And above all migrancy.  The trunk motif is first found in Godwin’s Caleb Williams. Intense love stories.

These past three weeks I’ve reread and skimmed and dreamt over it — for the love scenes between Anna and her Egyptian lover evoke in my mind or are very like those of Jamie Fraser and Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser in Outlander. At Politics and Prose Bookstore a 2 hour single session class was held on it this past Thursday. The room was full, and we had even a male reader. The teachers, Susan Willens and Virginia Newmyer, worked thoroughly to present historical and thematical and allusion background, then went over the story line section by section, and then we discussed characters themes POV politics settings moods. So here I am to share at least that part of that original paper concerning just Map of Love and offer a brief account of the politics of Soueif’s other novel, In the Eye of the Sun (set during the 1967 Israeli-Egyptian war), and at least mention her journalistic autobiographical account of the Arab Spring (2012), Cairo and her book of good essays, Mezzaterra (Fragments from the Common Ground) whose themes, attitudes and use of fragments as a way to speak remind me of Elena Ferrante’s La Frantumaglia.

Soueif’s core story is of Anna Winterbourne, found in a trunk filled with writing. Anna is a fin de siècle English widow of a minor English colonialist whose early death is attributed to his experience of colonial war with Kitchener’s forces on the Sudan. Anna travels to Egypt and marries a middle-aged Egyptian nationalist bachelor, Sharif Basha al Baroudi, who like by this marriage defies and cuts himself off from people. Anna’s trangressive history is held off, and surfaces as correspondence told by bits and pieces. Soueif’s Map of Love was for me a page-turner as I worked my way through parallel contemporary stories of Soueif’s direct surrogates, the older now reclusive Egyptian journalist, Amal al-Ghamrawi, who reads and tells Anna’s story, of Amal’s much younger American cousin, Isabel Parkman, who has an affair Omar, Amal’s middle-aged brother (Palestinian, modeled on Edward Said, but made directly active in the Arab-Israeli wars),to reach Anna’s “translational” texts (Hassan). The Map of Love ends when Shariff is assassinated and in the novel’s penultimate passage a paragraph remembering the ambiguous close of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette: Omar is thought to have been assassinated. Like Smith’s pro-active young woman-daughter Medora (from her last novel, The Young Philosopher), Isabel will not give up hope (516). Anna’s story is one of failure at the close: when Sharif is assassinated, she must return to England and bring up their daughter — shades of Outlander, but unlike Claire — Anna has not been to create some new social identity as a result of geographic and ethnic and marital dislocation.

The power of The Map of Love resides in its stretches of intense interiority. The reticence Soueif felt appropriate for Anna, with a sophisticated understanding of political relationships provide neo-Victorian texts (Tolstoy like), which enable Soueif to weave the colonialist and nationalist politics of Eygpt in naturally Anna’s main correspondent is Sir Charles Winterbourne, her dead husband’s now retired father. Soueif also (anticipating Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall) has Amal interweaves a distilled opulent neo-Victorian novel which Amal simply tells and moves between the third and first person. The Map of Love has been called a “translational novel,” with Sharif and Anna supposed talking to one another in French (though the words are English); when it finally drives down to fleeting naturalistic exchanges between the two. I was deeply moved, especially at a long scene of his dying, and her relief to have as an option a final choice of retreat for herself back to England, to educate her daughter by Shariff, paint, garden, and care for Sir Charles in his decline (505). The real mark of the post-colonial novel is migrancy, a kind of ricochet.


John Frederick Lewis (1804-76), The Harem — the painter who inspired Anna Winterbourne’s journey into Egypt after her husband’s return from there and death

Soueif’s novel achieves its political goal for an English novel simply weaving in nuanced accurate history of the earlier phases of the British take-over because much is unknown and rarely told from the perspective of the colonised subjects. We learn of the important Evelyn Baring, Earl of Cromer (1841-1917), a feminist Qasim Amin (1863-1908); the novel (like her In the Eye of the Sun on the Israeli-Eygpt wars) is meant to educate English-reading readers. Movement is temporal, back to Sharif’s father, still alive after decades of solitary confinement (political exclusion presented as religious), forward to 1900, when Anna’s eleven years in Eygpt begins, to her readers’ stories of Suez, 1952, Amal’s prime, in the 1960s, and Isabel’s now in New York, London, Cairo 1997. Soueif pokes fun at Booker Prize self-reflexive and cultural conventions, at the same time as she is open to “orientalist” texts. Shortly after her first husband’s death, Anna is drawn to return to Egypt when she is mesmerized (Map 45-46) by the Orientalist opulently colorful depictions of Egyptian street life, Islamic culture in schools, harems by Frederick Lewis (1779-1856) in her frequent trips to the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert). Emily Weeks, an art historian has written an immense book on his work as cross-cultural. Map of Love is (Wylie Sypher like) is a kind of verbal equivalent of Lewis (Sypher). Like Smith, despite the repeated failure of group efforts, Soueif hopes for an internationalism, though it has to be said that the kind of cosmopolitanism found in this novel, has lately come under scrutiny as a disguised mask for neo-liberal western-style colonialism.

Surely she was also hoping someone would make a film and she could make money that way. Increase her visibility &c

In the class we spoke of the importance of the women’s friendships and relationships within the novel, for me this was especially true for Sharif’s sister, Layla, and Anna. As is common for me, I discovered a common view of the book by the women there was critical of some of the more unusual sexual couplings while I had no trouble. Anna’s granddaughter, Isabel’s older lover, Omar, has had an affair with her mother, Anna’s daughter, Jasmine. Some objected to the modern stories as thin, or unbelievable — no more so I felt than the Victorian one.

See this excellent review in the New York Times when the book first came out: Annette Kobak’s “Out of the Trunk.”. Also Emily Davis’s wonderful, “Romance as Political Aesthetic in Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love, ” Genders 45 (28 July 2007).
****************************

Soueif’s earlier and equally long novel, In the Eye of the Sun, reveals how self-consciously she has imitated the Booker Prize model — for this is not at all pastiche, but very contemporary in language and feel. Soueif mentions Tolstoy as her master, and here she is retelling what she suggests is the crucial war of the century, and how the betrayal of Egypt (its defeat) was engineered with Britain’s help, and fostered by some of the elite of Egypt too. While I can see that Map of Love is far more polished, more somehow artful, In the eye is the more living book. It is also like Tolstoy meaning to be accurate and meaning to inform her reader — as if she were a journalist

What Soueif shows is the Egyptian authorities deliberately allowed Israel to strike first in that war and so gave it the opportunity to destroy the Egyptian air force. Having wiped that out, it was relatively easy for Israel to win the war. Soueif indicts the incompetence, rivalries between different Egyptian people in power but what is striking to this reader is how she is careful to include someone saying to someone else, the Israeli planes are on their way a day before June 6th; that is June 5th. I remember how nervous the other character became, fearful that if Egypt hits first, Egypt will be the aggressor, blamed, and then the US will outright attack Egypt. Now I recall how the US has not been in the habit of attacking other countries along side Israel whom Israel wants to destroy in some way. We give them billions, and share spying information but we don’t overtly attack. Now we are doing the same for Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

Back to In the Eye of the Sun, this idea that Egypt dare not defend itself from Israel’s surprise attack because of fear of US retaliation emerges as false since what happens is the surprise attack not only pulverizes Egypt but allows the rest of Egypt’s army to suffer horrendous casualties. Whole units wiped out. It is really implied this is collusion of some sort — could it be that those in authority were thought to want a capitalist order to replace Nassar’s open socialism — remember he nationalized or wanted to nationalize the Suez canal. He was replaced by Sadat a pro-US person (pro-capitalist).

The book has a good subjective heroine’s plot. One heroine’s half-ass husband who can do no real harm gets involved in quiet revolutionary activities and is imprisoned, tortured, psychologically and economically destroyed for life: Deena’s husband, Nur-ed-Din. Several of the women die of too many childbirths; they are shown to be very much bullied by their husbands, they dare not refuse sex and sex means children. Although brief, very good:  Marilyn Booth on In the Eye of the Sun, in World Literature Today 68:1 (1994):204-5.

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To conclude, I admit I was chuffed when I found the two teachers and I were agreed in some deep ways: they loved the account of the long imprisoned father of Sharif, his melancholy despair and his (religious) attitude towards existence that enabled him to hang on in solitary for so long and endure a life-in-death. I liked some similar characters and melancholy piquant details in her Eye of the Sun, e.g., Aysa’s father loses his library; it has to be sold. It is in 1979 that Deena writes letter detailing what was done to her husband (terrible things); that was the last year that Jim and I were together in NYC and found we must move to Virginia.

Other of her novels I’d like to read: The Sandpiper; other of her essays, This is not a Border. I loved this essay: “The Politics of Desire in the Writings of Ahdaf Soueif” by Joseph Massad in Journal of Palestine Studies, 28:4 (Summer, 1999): 74-90

Ellen

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Vivian Maier from the archive and film by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel (review by Manohla Dargis: “Nanny as Sybil”)


Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo in Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (review by Richard Brody: “There’s a voice left out”)


Sally Mann: What Remains, a film directed by Steven Candor, reviewed by Ginia Bellafonte)

Finding Vivian Maier, a complex film about a complex woman surrounded by complex people. As in the film, Kedi, on cats in Istanbul, the portraits by interview of those Vivian lived with as remarkable as the couple-of-hours portrait and Vivien. Another great poet of the camera (Dorothea Lange, and Annie Leibovitz the two I wrote of earlier this winter season). I allude to Cleo in Roma whose voice is also unheard for the most part; I bring in Sally Mann, about whom at OLLI at Mason this winter we also saw a film about; I used an Emily Dickinson poem as suggestive explanation …..

Friends and readers,

This was a season for nannies, from the meretricious new Mary Poppins, to the (however silent) heroicizing of Cleo (the film has now won the Bafta for Best Picture), and at OLLI at Mason, John Maloof’s slow emerging portrait of Vivian Maier, a brilliant street photographer, amateur in the best sense: she took pictures as a vocation, as a quest to record the actual world around her, seemingly against being ignored. In life “we” may not have paid any serious attention or respect to her, but she paid alert attention, respected unsentimentally us. I’ve blogged twice on Ellen and Jim have a blog, two, about a course I’m taking in films about women photographers: the first on Dorothea Lange; the second, Annie Leibovitz. Last week was Sally Mann, and this Vivian Maier.

It is so hard to tell original fine sincerely-meant authentic art & a film about it from the exploitative (which I think Mann’s photos of her children may be, carefully, it seems, posed like Diane Arbus to arrest our attention, shock, voyeuristic); and from the well-meaning compassionate and true to memory and actual experience (Roma) film.  If the criteria is selflessness, impersonal and distancing, so varied and yet intimately observed, Maier’s photographs pass the test. Just look at some of them on Malouf’s website. I was by turns riveted, bemused, fascinated, put off (some are too Diane Arbus),


A common type by Maier: the older hard over-dressed rich woman walking in the streets: here our eye is made to look at the unfortunate mink whom her camera makes look so alert, alive, sad …

touched,


Young black man looking up with a sort of uncertain hope, Central Park

fascinated by the enormous unexpected variety of images. Like Dorothea Lange’s of a terrified horse, this one of young African American riding a horse down a New York City Avenue under a raised subway is a revelation, though quite what of I can’t say:

There are photos capturing tragic existences: a black man who is a beggar on the street and has no legs. Vivian can capture the self-satisfied arrogance, or hardness of a face, someone all body or all clothes whom we grasp is all carapace. The ridiculous. She was liberal in her politics. Asked by someone what or who she was, she said “a sort of spy.”


I’ve walked in just this square in Central Park (which I so love) many times, including during snow

Her story is now well-known: the film is set up as a sleuthing expedition so there are ironies along the way: the professor who invites us to read his Ph.D. dissertation which he suggests proves his point that Maier had a faked French accent is followed much later by Malouf finding that Maier was born in a small village on February 21, 1926, in France, traveling there, meeting what’s left of her family, photos of her and her mother. At first we feel for the exploited nanny who is low paid and over-worked but gradually it emerges her employers were long-suffering and generous too: they gave her enormous space for her hobby, one made friends with her, another let her be part of the family. She worked briefly for Phil Donahue. Then we learn that she could be mean and cruel to the children under her care, and probably had had some traumatic experience in her teens, perhaps from a man.


But here with her charges she reminds me of my aunt and my cousins (and me) circa the Bronx, 1950s

She sought out pain — as when she insisted on photographing animals about to be killed to be made into meat or clothes (sheep).


Avert your eyes


She still has pride and dignity intact

She was utterly silently gregarious, and at the same time solitary. Someone says she dressed like one would expect a working class women in the Soviet Union, 1950; I think she looks more like someone from a lower middle class village in France. She would have been in dire distress late in life but that two people whom she was nanny for supported her.

There needs some explanation for her insistence on utter privacy, her never trying to publish her photos that she takes obsessively and ceaselessly that they are the point of her existence. I know how hard it is to publish, how hard to interest people, negotiate, how they judge you immediately as to class, rank, self-esteem. But she never put herself forward in any way at all.

She died before Maloof found and sought out and put together her corpus; she left only a few precious written documents; so it’s just us, the gov’t and church records, and 100,000 photographs.


The pity for the child afraid and the child neglected is palable

There are just so many sites on the Net of her photos, and I’ve casually counted what looks like 6 excellent books. I am (as usual) late, this time four years: the film was produced and received its nominations awards in 2019.

The New York Times critic of the film is too hard on Maloof as a salesman. It is true that Maloof is now making a living from his find, but he worked long and hard — though my guess is he had money inherited or given to him at some point during the years of sheer gathering (including looking everywhere and anywhere, from flea market to garage, finally to those she worked for one of whom had kept the material in a huge container), archiving, scanning. Maloof began on line with a blog, then twitter. He couldn’t get museums to take an interest for years, and even now after some hugely successful exhibits, he has not found a permanent home for Maier’s legacy. I spoke of Roma on my Sylvia II blog, and don’t want this blog on Maier to go on beyond what’s necessary to alert someone who may not have heard of Maier.

I’m ceded, I’ve stopped being theirs;
The name they dropped upon my face
With water, in the country church,
Is finished using now,
And they can put it with my dolls,
My childhood, and the string of spools
I’ve finished threading too.

Baptized before without the choice,
But this time consciously, of grace
Unto supremest name,
Called to my full, the crescent dropped,
Existence’s whole arc filled up
With one small diadem.

My second rank, too small the first,
Crowned, crowing on my father’s breast,
A half unconscious queen;
But this time, adequate, erect,
With will to choose or to reject,
And I choose—just a crown
— Emily Dickinson, refusing to accept the identity imposed on her, choosing another; what did Vivian move around the world for?

I also ask the serious question of photography, when is it art, if always, what kind are Mann and Liebovitz’s work. Lange I think is beyond question a great poet of images and after looking at Malouf’s site I trust you’ll agree that Maier is an authentic sincere heartfelt and ironic poet too. I don’t want to be hard on Mann: read her site and you discover, one of her sons killed himself.


A rare color photo

Ellen

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A photograph of Tom Carpenter, the trustee of Chawton Cottage; he is carrying a portrait of Jane Austen’s brother, Edward

Friends,

Last night I came across in the latest issue of Times Literary Supplement (for January 25, 2019), an informative piquant review by Devoney Looser of a autobiographical book, Jane & Me. Its author, Caroline Jane Knight, a fifth great-niece (with now a little help from Devoney & the TLS), is launching this book maybe to provide herself with a raison d’être (a not “very promising heroine-in-training” says Devoney), a basis for her living independently someday. I think the information here and acid insights make it required reading for the Janeite, and discovered it’s behind the kind of magazine paywall where you must buy a whole subscription for a year, before you can read it. It is almost impossible to share a TLS article online as if you subscribe to the online version, you can only do it through an app on an ipad or some such device. So I here provide a summary, contextualized further by what I have drawn from Deborah Yaffe’s Among the Janeites.

Why is the review valuable in its own right too: we learn a good deal about the history of Chawton House Library this century from the point of view of the family who owned it — Jane Austen’s collateral descendants. Caroline is a poor transmitter: Looser points to where Caroline has not even begun to do the research necessary on her own life, but there is enough here to make do, and if you know something from your work, or can add further research like Devoney, you can have some insight into Austen’s family and what she was up against as she tried to write honest entertainments.

In brief, Devoney tells the story of a downwardly mobile family who let the house fall into desuetude and the present Richard Knight leased it to Sandy Lerner whose great luck on the Net had brought her huge amounts of money, some of which she expended by renovating, it’s not too much to call it rescuing Chawton House into a building one could spend time in comfortably enough so that it could function as a library. While she set about building, she started a board of informed people who would know how to turn it into a study center for 18th century women’s writing. Austen’s peers & contemporaries.


Richard Knight and Sandy Lerner walking on the grounds together during some occasion

Let me first bring in Yaffe’s account who also sheds light on Richard Knight who was at the conference as a key note speaker and we can here gather a few truths about him. He had “inherited a crushing estate-tax bill and a `16th century house in need of a million British pounds’ worth of emergency repairs.” A developer’s plan to turn the place into a golf course and expensive hotel had collapsed by 1992. Enter Sandy Lerner. She had made oodles of money off an Internet business, is another fan of Austen, one common today who does not like the idea of Austen as “an unhappy repressed spinster,” something of a recluse, not able to see the money and fame she wanted. When Dale Spender’s book, Mothers of the Novel, presented a whole female population writing away (as Austen did), a female literary tradition, she found a vocation, collecting their books. After she heard a speech by Nigel Nicolson, where he offended her (talking of a woman who thought Jane Austen didn’t like Bath as “a silly, superstitious cow,” described himself as heading a group who intended to open a Jane Austen center in Bath even though Edward Austen Knight’s Chawton House was on the market (too expensive? out of the way for tourists?), she decided to “get even.” When she had the money two years later, she bought Chawton House. She wanted to make it “a residential study center where scholars consulting er rare-book collection could live under 19th century conditions.” This super-rich woman loved the sense these people would gain “a visceral sense of the historical moment,” wake up to “frost on the windows, grates without fires, nothing but cold water to wash in.”

She paid six million for 125 year lease on the house and its 275 acre grounds; another $225,000 for the stable block. She discovered it to be badly damaged, inhabited by tenants she found distasteful, “ugly,” rotting. Crazy rumors abounded in the village she was going to turn the place into a lesbian commune, a Euro-Disney style theme park, her husband testing missile systems in the grounds. She thought of herself as this great philanthropist. Culture clashes: the Chawton estate sold its hunting rights for money; she was an animal rights activist. Disputes over her desire to remove a swimming pool said to be a badger habitat protected under UK law. I saw the Ayrshire Farm here in Northern Virginia that she bought during the protracted lawsuits and negotiations over Chawton: an 800-acre spread in northern Virginia, where “she planned to raise heritage breeds under humane, organic conditions, to prove socially responsible farming was economically viable.” She started a cosmetics company whose aesthetic was that of the Addams Family (TV show). Chawton House was finally built using a sensible plan for restoration; a cemetery was discovered, a secret cupboard with 17th century telescope. Eventually Lerner’s 7000 rare books came to reside in a house you could hold conferences, one-day festivals and host scholars in. It had cost $10 million and yearly operating costs were $1 million a year.


Lerner’s Ayrshire Farmhouse today — it’s rented out for events, and hosts lunches and evening parties and lectures, has a shop ….

Lerner is unusual for a fan because she dislikes sequels and does not seek out Austen movies; it’s Austen’s texts she loves — yet she too wants to write a P&P sequel. I sat through one of her incoherent lectures so know first-hand half-nutty theory that every concrete detail in an Austen novel is crucial information leading to interpretation of that novel. I’ll leave the reader to read the details of her way of research, her travels in imitation of 18th century people: it took her 26 years to complete. How she has marketed the book by a website, and how Chawton was at the time of the book thriving (though her Farm lost money). Yaffe pictures Lerner at a signing of her book, and attracted many people, as much for her Internet fame as any Austen connection. Yaffe has Lerner against distancing herself from “our distastefully Twittering, be-Friending world, for the e-mail boxes overflowing with pornographic spam.” But she will buy relics at grossly over-inflated prices (“a turquoise ring” Austen wore) and give them to friends. She launched Chawton House by a fabulously expensive ball, to which Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul (dressed as aging Mr and Mrs Darcy) came. A “prominent chef” made 18th century foods (“nettle and potato soup, pickle ox tongue, sweetmeats”). She was in costume: “a low-cut, pale-blue ball gown. She even went horseback riding with Rintoul. A real thrill for a fan.


Chawton House Reading Room — there are two rooms, one open to the public, the other locked and filled with rare 18th century books

Devoney doesn’t say this nor Yaffe but I will: Chawton House never quite made it as sheerly a study center for women’s writing as originally envisioned; instead it became a sort of Jane Austen tourist site where festivals and conferences dwelling on Austen for fans were necessary, sometimes becoming a semi-popular community center like the Bronte Haworth house seems to be turning into. That’s not so bad, far worse was the people working for and at the place never acquired enough funding to do without Lerner; and over a fit of pique and probably long-standing resentments, some two years ago now Lerner pulled all her money out. It turns out 80% of funds came from her, and no way has been found to locate a substitute so the place can carry on its serious functions in the same way. Some new compromise will have to be found. Nearby is Chawton Cottage, now a small research center (for those select people who get to see its library), but more a tourist site; also nearby is the Austen family church where (among others) Austen’s sister, Cassandra and their mother, are buried. The house now (Looser says) “stands to revert back to Richard Knight’s family,” of whom Caroline is a member. All of us who know something of the house, who have experienced its scholarly meetings, its library, walked on its grounds, heard a concert at the church, mourn the fact that its fine director, Dr Gillian Dow has gone, to return full time as a scholar and lecturer to the University of Southampton.

This is the larger context for the story of Caroline and her older relatives from the turn of the century to now. Like other of these aristocrats who cannot afford to life the extravagant life of leisure they once did, Caroline (says Devoney) presents herself a slightly downtrodden: she and her parents lived in the basement of Chawton house while the rich tenants occupy the plum apartments above. One of the houses I was shown in the Lake District/Nothern Borders of England is owned by an aristocrat’s wife’s family; and the husband himself works to hold onto it by throwing it open to the public for various functions. He is clearly a well-educated man who lived a privileged elite life; nonetheless, he gave one of the talks. He told us he and his family living in the basement quarters below; their paying tenants above stairs.

The various Knights during Caroline’s life didn’t have many servants (oh dear poor things) and spent their time in less than admirable ways (watching TV say, horse racing — which costs). None of them were readers, and (as opposed to Devoney) I would say none of them ever produced anything near a masterpiece or important book, except maybe JEAL — if you are willing to consider how central his Memoir of his Aunt has been and how it has cast its spell over ways of reading Austen and understanding her ever after. A few have been minor literary people, and Joan Austen-Leigh and others been influential valued members of the British Jane Austen Society and they “grace” the JASNA every once in a while with their presence. Several have written sequels. Looser goes over a few of these, giving the impression that a couple which JASNA has promoted are better than they are.

Various financial troubles and also legal ones (including one male relative running over a local person with his car and “found not guilty of manslaughter” although he fled the scene) are covered by Devoney. When it comes to explaining the financial problems, Caroline says they are all a mystery. She omits any clarifying description of what the estate was like and which Knights lived here in WW2. Devoney supplies this: she tells of one recent Edward Knight’s time in India — his father had had been a royal favorite and a public-spirited magistrate, who loved to shoot birds. In 1951 thirty cottages in which tenants lived were auctioned off, and some went to occupants. They were in such bad shape apparently (again that is my deduction from what Looser gently implies) that one lucky man who could afford to buy the cottage said he got it for the price of a TV. Devoney implies this was dirt cheap. Not so: for many British people in 1951 the price of TV was out of their range; in the 1950s most Brits rented their TV


Chawton House recently from the outside

Death duties, genuinely high taxes each time the house changed hands is what did them in. (We no longer have even that in the US and the Republicans are salivating to change the death tax laws once again — these are important tools to prevent the growth of inequality.) I thought interesting that Chawton House was sold to one Richard Sharples, a conservative politician (1916-73) who served as governor of Bermuda and was assassinated (in Devoney’s words) “by black power militants.” Of course this bad-mouths these people, and when they were hung for the murder, there were days of rioting. I remember how horribly the white treated black and native people on Bermuda — so cruel that there are famous rebellions (Governor Eyre) wth terrifying reprisals by the British and colonial gov’ts. In the 20th century Sharples’ widow’s only recourse was to sell the property, furniture, books, portraits in 1977. There have over the century been a number of such sales to pay off death duties and some of the objects prized in museums, libraries came out of just such Sotheby auctions. Looser tells us in an aside there is a ditigal project trying to reconstruct the Knight Library as it was in 1935 (“Reading with Austen,” readingwithausten.com)

As to Caroline, she has apparently read very little of Austen’s fiction — that must very little indeed since Austen left only 6 novels which can easily be reprinted in one volume. She has appeared on TV, and is now she’s trying what a book can do. It’s not a memoir worthy of Jane Austen, says Devoney: the lack of elemental research even about her own life; Caroline’s account of herself features James Covey’s self-help book, The Habits of Highly Effective People, as the one that has gotten her through life. Wouldn’t you know it was seeing the 1995 P&P film by Andrew Davies that “kindled” Caroline’s interest in Jane Austen. I watched a documentary with Andrew Davies aired on BBC recently about just how much he changed the book to be about men; how much “correction” of it he made. Caroline still dreams of moving back to Chawton with the present male Richard Knight as ambassador (of what it’s not clear). I’ve been to JASNAs where Richard Knight gave a talk about his family in the mid-morning Sunday breakfast slot of the JASNAs. Here is Arnie Perlstein’s reaction to one.

Devoney ends her review with suggesting how much this history might remind us of Persuasion and the Elliot family and quotes Darcy in P&P: “I cannot comprehend the neglect of a family library in such days as these.” Devoney does justice at her opening to a few of the immediate Austens who showed some literary ability and genuine interest and integrity towards their aunt: James, her brother was a minor but good poet; his three children include JEAL; Anne Austen Lefroy who tried to finish Sanditon and wrote a brief touching novel, Mary Hamilton; Caroline Austen wrote her Reminiscences; Catherine Hubback several novels, a travel book of letters, and a continuation of Austen’s The Watsons as The Younger Sister. Her son, grand-nephew, and granddaughter all wrote books to add to our knowledge of the family; Edward Knight’s grandson produced the first substantial edition of Austen’s letters. There the inspiration coming through and about the aunt seems to have ended.

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From Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her?, Jeffrey Palliser tells Alice, a visitor to this aristocratic family at their country mansion who wonders what there is to do all day, about what he as an example of his relatives’ lives does with his time:

“Do you shoot?”
“Shoot! What; with a gun?”
“Yes. I was staying in a house last week with a lady who shot a good deal.”
“No; I don’t shoot.”
“Do you ride?”
“No; I wish I did. I have never ridden because I’ve no one to ride with me.”
“Do you drive?”
“No; I don’t drive either.”
“Then what do you do?”
“I sit at home, and—”
“Mend your stockings?”
“No; I don’t do that, because it’s disagreeable; but I do work a good deal. Sometimes I have amused myself by reading.”
“Ah; they never do that here. I have heard that there is a library, but the clue to it has been lost, and nobody now knows the way …

None of this loss and mismanagement or lack of literary interest or ability as part of a family history is unexpected. In her discreet last chapter of her fine biography of Jane Austen, Claire Tomalin records the earliest phases of this decline, together with or amid the real attempts of Catherine Hubback’s part of the family and other descendants of Frank to publish respectable books about Jane Austen. I imagine the valuable library gathered since Chawton House Library became a functioning study center (a large room in the present Chawton house) will remain intact but nowadays (as some of us know) libraries filled with books are not valued by booksellers or even libraries or universities in the way they once were. I know people who found they could not even give away a particularly superb personal library, and others driven to sell theirs for very little in comparison say for what they would have gotten in 1980 or so and that would not have covered how much it cost them over a lifetime.

Ellen

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


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

Friends and readers,

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


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

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

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


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

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


Nathaniel Bone talking with David Castlemain

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


Elizabeth McGovern is memorable in her brief appearance

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


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

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

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


Jonathan Pryce is pitch perfect in his easier role ….

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

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


Judy Davies when first pulled out of her lair by Tillie

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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