Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘women artists’


Marge Piercy

Friends and readers,

I’m pretty sure I’ve never written a blog on Piercy’s poetry, much less about her as a central foremother poet in English, though I’ve written blogs on her novels, memoirs, and blogs on feminist and other issues where I’ve quoted her poems. I love them — as well as those of her books I’ve read thus far. On her End of Days; on her Cat Poetry; “Sleeping with Cats.” Earlier blogging: Three Women (rescued from an attack by a virus).

I would like this evening to share as an interlude between my summaries of the Virginia Woolf virtual conference I joined in on, her

“Right to Life”

A woman is not a pear tree
thrusting her fruit into mindless fecundity
into the world. Even pear trees bear
heavily one year and rest and grow the next.
An orchard gone wild drops few warm rotting
fruit in the grass but the trees stretch
high and wiry gifting the birds forty
feet up among inch long thorns
broken atavistically from the smooth wood.

A woman is not a basket you place
your buns in to keep them warm. Not a brood
hen you can slip duck eggs under.
Not the purse holding the coins of your
descendants till you spend them in wars.
Not a bank where your genes gather interest
and interesting mutations in the tainted
rain, any more than you are.
You plant corn and you harvest
it to eat or sell. You put the lamb
in the pasture to fatten and haul it in to
butcher for chops. You slice the mountain
in two for a road and gouge the high plains
for coal and the waters run muddy for
miles and years. Fish die but you do not
call them yours unless you wished to eat them.

Now you legislate mineral rights in a woman.
You lay claim to her pastures for grazing,
fields for growing babies like iceberg
lettuce. You value children so dearly
that none ever go hungry, none weep
with no one to tend them when mothers
work, none lack fresh fruit,
none chew lead or cough to death and your
orphanages are empty. Every noon the best
restaurants serve poor children steaks.

At this moment at nine o’clock a partera
is performing a table top abortion on an
unwed mother in Texas who can’t get
Medicaid any longer. In five days she will die
of tetanus and her little daughter will cry
and be taken away. Next door a husband
and wife are sticking pins in the son
they did not want. They will explain
for hours how wicked he is,
how he wants discipline.

We are all born of woman, in the rose
of the womb we suckled our mother’s blood
and every baby born has a right to love
like a seedling to sun. Every baby born
unloved, unwanted, is a bill that will come
due in twenty years with interest, an anger
that must find a target, a pain that will
beget pain. A decade downstream a child
screams, a woman falls, a synagogue is torched,
a firing squad is summoned, a button
is pushed and the world burns.

I will choose what enters me, what becomes
of my flesh. Without choice, no politics,
no ethics lives. I am not your cornfield,
not your uranium mine, not your calf
for fattening, not your cow for milking.
You may not use me as your factory.
Priests and legislators do not hold shares
in my womb or my mind.
This is my body. If I give it to you
I want it back. My life
is a non-negotiable demand.


Expectant, of all life might offer, a digital picture by Lida Ziruffo

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Suzanne Bellamy — she just died — the conference poster


One of Virginia Woolf’s working tables — from Monk House

Dear friends and readers,

For four days two weekends ago I spent very long days on zooms, participating as a spectator, listener and then fellow commentator on a moving brilliant series of panels and independent key-note lectures on Virginia Woolf: June 9th – 12th, 20222. Virginia Woolf and Ethics. Last year around the same time the International Virginia Woolf Society hosted a similar conference, with the theme openly the pandemic (see last year’s blog on this and other virtual conferences). So now I’ve been privileged to go to their conference for a second time – and am regularly attending the Cambridge University series of virtual lectures (though I rarely blog on these as my stenography is so poor and it is just one 2 hour lecture). I wish there were going to be a third virtual conference next year, but I suppose they must come back in person and then I will be cut off.

As I did last time, I will not attempt to summarize or evaluate any of the papers, just pick up epitomizing details. This will though be the first of two blogs — so I took down a lot more this time than last.


Dora Carrington, An Artist’s Home and Garden

The conference began at Thursday morning, 9 am, a welcome meeting. At 10:30 am, I went to a session called “Things, Objects, Forms.” Alyson Cook talked of Between the Acts as an anti-war book through its presentation of objects. She said Woolf brings the non-human world to the fore here, and Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse (elsewhere too). Melancholy imagining of barrows puts before us a geological landscape. It seems the fabrication of stories is an imposition (one nature?). I agree our experience of life is limited by society. Leanna Lostocki-Ho also talked of Between the Acts as geological history. The pageant puts before us hypo-objects, which are defined as “things massively distributed across time and space.” (Stonehenge is a hypo-object). Against the vastness of time, human beings are a tiny point. Thus the pageant is “saturated with English history,” from airplanes you make out the scars of different historical eras. It seems the audience doesn’t recognize the point of Miss LaTrobe’s ethical pageant. “War is going on all around” the characters and places, “destroying everything.” Mary Wang talked about Flush.

In the talk afterwards Jed Esty’s book, A Shrinking Island, was recommended as including sections on Woolf and E.M. Forster’s pageants. At the end of the pageant in Between the Acts, a pontificating vicar has to stop as planes (with bombs?) are flying overhead. When someone said estate country houses are hypo-objects, I thought of Foyle’s War, 7:2, “The Cage,” where one such country house has been turned into a secret prison for torturing people.


Many editions of To the Lighthouse

The plenary lecture at 1:00 pm was “Virginia Woolf’s Reparative Ethics” by Elsa Hoberg. She began with Eve Kosofsky’s way of reparative reading by a “paranoid” PVL; you “write to expose cracks in the texts” that “show systematic oppression.” The question is then “how to get nourishment and pleasure” from a text not offering these. To do this you must create “conditions for sustainability of peace,” and she instanced Woolf’s short column, “Thoughts of Peace during an Air Raid” (New Republic, Oct 21, 1940) as reparative. Politics create “fear and hatred,” which “increase from the violence of military machines.” Prof Hoberg suggested Woolf “enacts a paranoid position in Three Guineas. Comments included there is “a need for a from of self repair and access to creative feelings”,” that “peace” leaves room for (“elicits”) people caring for others. In this sense To the Lighthouse can be seen as “a reparative text.” I think of the painter in the book, Lily Briscoe.

There was then a brief session on what is happening in Texas right now (Woolf’s legacy is activism on behalf of women’s rights): one of the women speakers said “basic access to health care is unobtainable.” I add the Texas gov’t and state laws are criminalizing pregnancy.


Vanessa Bell’s Leonard Woolf

From 3-4:00 pm I attended “Leonard Woolf, the man, the feminist, the socialist.” Peter Stansky, a pre-eminent biographer of Leonard who asked (rhetorically) is Leonard Woolf under-valued? He emphasized Leonard’s five terrific memoirs, and novel, The Village in the Jungle, comparable to Orwell’s Burmese Days and Forster’s Passage to India. (Jim read the memoirs and novel and told me I must, but I have not yet got round to them.) Leonard’s sad self-assessment has hurt his reputation, and Virginia’s written work overshadows his, which includes a successful civil service career in Ceylon and Burma, his writing on Maynard Keynes, the League of Nations. In life Leonard had an “austere style ” and “self-effacing” way and the assurance of an English gentleman of his class and time. Leonard is sometimes blamed as “controlling” Virginia, for not allowing her to have children;” the truth is he was “immensely supportive” and ‘crucial for enabling her to achieve so much.”

Marielle O’Neil talked about the political partnership of the Woolfs, their work with others in the Women’s Cooperative Guild,” where people worked to help reforms for the sake of working class women, where tea tables and parlors provide space for women to meet independently. Classrooms are places of education where working class women’s voices can be heard. Records in a Sheffield local library of women reading from working class women’s letters. In “The Pleasure of Letters,” Anne Byrne talked of the long extensive correspondence of Leonard Woolf with Nancy Nolan, a Dublin housewife. These are “fragments of lived experience” that “conceal” and offer “rare insights” as Woolf tells of his life, books, animals. She is unhappy because she cannot get round to writing; Woolf affirms her goals. An “integral part of [herself was] taken away when her husband died in 1966. Comments include “people who write or paint are not happy; in fact, they often suffer.” Yet they derive “immense happiness from their work,” that the Sitwells had a streak of cruelty. Woolf wrote out of affection and concern for Nancy: they are a agape set of love letters.

The talk afterwards was varied: people cited a propos books, talked of Clive Bell and Keynes (“political role of the state is to make conditions where art is more important than politics”).


Harold Nicolson’s Some People

From 5-6:30 pm I attended “The Ethics of Life Writing.” Chunhui Lu asked what genre does Orlando belong to? What is a good biography? She talked of “fantasy” and an “exemplary life” — what is a good life? Todd Avery’s context was the Bloomsbury group’s interest in inventing new kinds of biography. She discussed Woolf’s “The New Biography” (1927) written partly in response to Nicolson’s Some People, where some of the portraits are fictional and to a dull biography by Sidney Lee; and her “Art of Biography,” and Woolf’s “The Art of Biography” (1939), where the catalyst was Strachey’s biographies. Biographers are artists, imaginative writers, and must found themselves on facts: ideally the biographer writes with a “becoming brevity,” and “maintains” their own “freedom of spirit;” lays bare facts “understood impartially.” The ethical use of biography became more urgent at the time of Three Guineas: the human situation was “so dire.” Andy Koenig brought out Woolf’s intense awareness of how “empty of women’s lives” are our “archives;” that one “needs” to “write non-existent lives. She questions “the rules” for biography because Woolf wanted “to be doing something different.” This was a thought-provoking talk on A Room of One’s Own, Jacob’s Room, Orlando, Flush (thoroughly researched) and Woolf’s biography of Roger Frye.

In the talk afterwards a new bio-fiction, Norah Vincent’s Adeline: A Novel of Virginia Woolf was praised; I brought up Maurois’s Aspects of Biography, which I find to be as good (I wondered why no one mentioned it) on the genre as Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. I also mentioned Woolf’s brilliant historical novel, unearthing, bringing to life a 15th century young woman, “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn,” the self-reflexive Memoirs of a Novelist where a Miss Linsett is unable to re-create and make living the life of her friend Miss Willatt because the former was too bound by inner repressions and the latter’s papers kept mostly silent about what most mattered to her (see my comment).

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

I took far fewer notes, heard fewer talks on Friday — among other things, I had to go out shopping. I did go to the first session, 9-10:30 am, “Subjects of Violence.” Candis Bond talked of the graphic frank depictions of street harassment in The Years (a man exposes himself to Rose in The Pargiters; she flies for safety into a shop in The Years). Street harassment of women in later 19th century was a social problem; women were annoyed, damaged, humiliated, scared by male strangers in public spaces — lifelong trauma can be the result. In The Years Woolf breaks the silence.


Laura Knight, Logan’s Rock, Cornwall (1916)

At 11-12:30 I tried “Time and Tide, Form and Fold: Benjamin Hagen, Laci Mattison, and Shilo McGiff performed in tandem soliloquys inspired by, paraphrasing, offering insights and explications of and from The Waves. They dazzled listeners with descriptions of landscape and hypo-objects, anti-colonialist perspectives, pastoral and anti-pastoral allegories (some elegiac, some “false”), affirmations and “things hardly ever said aloud; they staged “thinking minds:” we heard voices; what do soliloquies do?; an alienation came emerge from an “over-pullulating world.” Death ends life for individuals, but Will anything survive? The Waves‘ bleak vision (“disgust used as weaponized morality”) This triple talk was inspiring and exhilarating.

The keynote speaker was Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina and her talk on “Bloomsbury and race” included discussion of black people in London from the 18th century, the Dreadnought Hoax (more in my second blog on this), the Windrush generation; recent public sculptures and new anti-immigration laws in the UK. I attended from 3:00-4:30, “Moments of Being:” Epiphany and Ethics in Virginia Woolf’s Writing,” and from 5-6:30, what can be found of Woolf’s attitude towards Shakespeare (“Who’s afraid of William Shakespeare”). The first had papers on secular spirituality (you might say); I did like a comment on Mr Ramsay’s “intense loneliness;” the second set of papers taken a whole seemed to suggest considerable ambivalence in Woolf towards Shakespeare’s plays.

I should mention the two evenings had social party zooms on offer. I’m sure all who attended would have been welcoming or at least polite. I was already very tired, and I felt that these are intended for people who truly know each other after dedicating their careers as well as personal social lives to Woolf. So abstained.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

“She stood on the pavement, a thin shabby figure, so insignificant in her old hat and coat, so forget of herself in her enjoyment of the scene, that she might have been wearing a cloak of invisibility” (Virago, Chapter 1, near the beginning of the book).

Down in the drawing-room, Charles and Harriet sat without speaking. The wireless usefully filled in the gap. Charles read Persuasion — his favorite book, to which Harriet imagined he resorted when wounded … ‘What a novel to choose,’ Charles thought. ‘Only the happy in love should ever read it. It is unbearable to have expression given to our painful solitariness, to rake up the dead leaves in our hearts, when we have nothing that can follow … except in dreams, as perhaps Jane Austen herself never had but on the page she wrote’ … (Elizabeth Taylor, A Game of Hide and Seek. 1951), quoted in Katie Trumpener’s The Virago Jane Austen

Friends and readers,

This is a book that deserves a blog all to itself. Ending sometime last month, over a three week period a group of people on The Way We Read Now face-book page, read it three chapters a day seemingly (of course everyone is invisible on the Net) together. How many participated I do not know; I don’t know how many summarized the different chapters. I “did” the penultimate trio, Chapters 35-37 out of 40. During the course of the read, I sent along two essays on Miss Mole or E.H. Young, which I thought would give some desperately needed context within which to understand this woman’s realistic novel masterpiece: Kathy Mezei’s “Spinsters, Surveillance and Space: The Case of Miss Marple, Miss Mole and Miss Jekyll” and the chapter from Deirdre Lynch’s Janeites: Jane Austen Devotees and Disciples by Katie Trumepener” about the Virago “Jane” books of the 1930s. I discuss and link in these at the end of this blog. The one other of Young’s novels I’ve read is her Jenny Wren, a re-write or post-text to Sense and Sensibility. I once knew a woman who was planning to write a literary biography: Maggie Lane, who has produced four excellent books on Austen and one on Fanny Burney.

I cannot find a plot-summary anywhere: doubtless the result of repressive censoring spoiler warning policing (not to say terrorists, for you can be thrown off websites for telling any literal detail of a book someone might not have read). But if anyone would be kind enough to supply one I’d insert it into this blog. I just don’t have the patience, for the delicate and subtle twists and turns of the plot-design, are central to the experience. So just the main thrust:

Miss Hannah Mole is a lifelong unmarried woman. She survives by hiring herself out as a companion and/or housekeeper where her salary is so small, that if she is fired, she cannot carry on for very long w/o becoming destitute. She is the only daughter of a working class farmer, and housewife, who left her a cottage, where (we learn in the last quarter of the novel) for a time she lived with a WW1 veteran who fooled her into thinking he cared seriously for her. She has not been able to move him out and so herself moves from place to place. She is deeply ashamed of this secret, fears exposure would render her jobless for life. One female relative, Mrs Lily Smith-Spencer, is a 20th century version of the obnoxious harridans of Austen’s fiction: Mrs S-S won’t give Miss Mole a position herself but provides “character” references. During the course of the story Miss Mole becomes housekeeper to a dissenting minister, Mr Corder, a second mother to his daughters (his wife has died), Edith and Ruth, is fallen in love with by a man, Mr Blenkinsop, living in the house she previously was employed at (where she saved someone from suicide). Her greatest satisfactions come from playing the role of a strong mother/friend to the people in Corder’s household. She loves being alive, walking in th natural world. She seems not to enact a malicious or envious thought all novel long. Her reward is to be taken in as a partner (marriage is assumed but not enacted) by someone with whom she finds herself congenial. There seems to be no way for her to be independent. In life Young worked as a librarian, fell in love with a married man and lived with him and his wife until the wife left them. She never married. You can view her life and writing career here.

****************************************************
So here are my contributions as I read the book with others:

Miss Mole has gotten through life by masking; by in effect leaving others to assume she thinks or feels like them when she doesn’t. What she needs is a real job, real profession and salary but her original start position is such there is little hope of escape except by marriage. And I can see why she wouldn’t want that. She would not be able to get herself fired. We are told she is thin, unattractive, shabby with sensible non-stigmatizing shoes (her one self-indulgence). She has a trick of immersing herself in the natural world and reveling in it.

From Chapter 5:

“Money was one of the best things in the world, used properly, used by Miss Hannah Mole, and all the way down Prince’s Road she was buying annuities for people like herself, settling some thousands of pounds on Mrs. Ridding” (‘the woman who seemed so ungrateful for the help Hannah gave her baby and her suicidal husband.). “The wind had risen strongly as night came on and Hannah crossed the Downs under swaying branches and swirling leaves. The football-players, the riders, the children had all gone home; lamps edged the roads, but, where Hannah walked under the elms, there was a stormy darkness. The branches creaked lugubriously or with shrill protest, and those which still kept their leaves were like great flails, threshing the winds, maddened by their sterile efforts, for it was the wind, threshing harder, that produced the harvest, whipping it from the trees and driving it before him. Hannah was driven, too; a wisp of a woman, exhilarated by the noise and the buffeting”. Chapter 7: “The image of the funeral procession at the beginning of this chapter is powerfully sad. “This was a very melancholy procession, a detachment of an army of women like herself who went from house to house behind their boxes, a sad multitude of women with carefully pleasant faces, hiding their ailments, lowering their ages and thankfully accepting less than they earned.”

Chapter 8: a large part of the meaningful content of this book is conveyed by its ironic tone. That likening of Miss Mole’s transplanting of herself from Mrs Gibson (her previous employer) where she felt some warmth towards herself as she’s there as a friend) to Mr Corder as a funeral procession is powerful: “a detachment of an army of women like herself who went from house to house behind their boxes, a sad multitude of women with carefully pleasant faces, hiding their ailments, lowering their ages and thankfully accepting less than they earned? What became of them all?” this and the rest of the paragraph (upon dying “a craving that there should be at least one person to whom her disappearance would be a calamity.”

In the context of Mrs Gibson, Mrs Rider, and the two daughters, the story of Miss Mole seems to me there to show us how marriage and children were forced on women. You were given few options other than that which might be fulfilling and to reach those you needed to be middle class definitely, and better yet well connected. Miss Mole rebels by her continual ironic abrasions; she knows some release that way (reminding me of Elinor Dashwood in Austen’s S&S). But the descriptive metaphor brings out the tragic undertones of this bleak vision. There is a complexity in these half-hidden stories too. The problem we have reading this book is its particular women’s tradition and 20th century context (like so many others from other eras where women similarly coerced) has been erased. See The Virago Jane.

Chapters 9-11 and 11-14: I felt that Chapter 11 took us past the kind of rebarbative suggestive scenes we’ve had and provided important background for Mr Corder. We have had Miss Mole’s past history and something of her cousin, Mrs Spencer-Smith but Corder is (like the widow before him) the linchpin person in this house, the one with control over money and who does what. He is our self-blind selfish patriarch; it’s a wonderful irony that his sister’s marriage was forgiven to the extent she was given enough money to live on and supply him. He has been something of a rebel but he sees everyone as there to serve him.

I found myself warming to Miss Mole in these chapters as she tries to make existence more comfortable for others and perhaps (gasp! — imagine this group having an Xmas party) happier. The incident over the child Ruth having candle lit in her bedroom as she falls asleep is indicative. The father wanted to stop it though its costs are negligible, I’d say on the grounds he is supporting a deeply punitive culture. It is brave of Miss Mole to stand up to him. I feel we as readers don’t get the full nuance that is referred to here without this context of women’s position and literature in protest at the time. I remember when I first read one of these: The Gentlewoman by Laura Talbot (a pseudonum for Lady Ursula Chetwynd-Talbot) and how I loved its seeming strangeness.

Up to Chapter 20. I see much of what Miss Mole says or does as ironic. She does not seriously entertain any thoughts of any love affair with Mr Blenkinsop or Mr Samson. She much prefers Mr Samson because he is unconventional but as to becoming any man’s, that’s not for her. Whatever happened between her and Mr Pilgrim (whom she fears will tell of her time with the WW1 vet, she wants no boss. Think of all the mortified heroines in Austen – her pride was hurt. To me the real feelings she has are for Ruth and Edith and herself as foster mother (we might call it). She does say to herself, quite seriously, “for the sake of one good baby, she would have paid for than that:” she is thinking of Mrs Ridding where the price for the baby was a neurotic husband.” But she, Miss Mole, can function as a mother through her position as housekeeper, and in these three last 3 chapters, we see her suddenly worrying lest she has insulted Mr Corder (by her abrasive irritated wit) and lose the place. I take her thoughts of doing what Mrs Corder would have done seriously. This, like many of these Virago books at the time, are a protest against demanding a woman marry and giving her no alternative. That’s why the heroines are so often life-long single women.

As to language, and what is a book but words, this book is pre-feminism the second phase (starting 1970s) when for the first time a vocabulary to discuss sex from a non-religious and women’s POV starts to emerge. It’s pre-Simone de Beauvoir. So the books have to use a vocabulary which is antithetical – the authors fall back on understood paradigms. One of the more moving moments occurs when Edith says how dreadful not to have a mother, and Miss Mole thinks of “all the women who waited for words they would not hear.” That is not a marriage proposal but some decent respect and understanding they are not secondary objects (coming alive only in relationship to men). These words Edith longs for – her mother’s understanding – will never come from her father or any ritual Christmas nonsense.


Anna Madeley as Mrs Hall

There is a Miss Mole among the current crop of TV shows from the UK: pay some attention to Mrs Audrey Hall in All Creatures Great and Small. The portrait of Mrs Hall shows how much ground feminism has lost since Miss Mole or the 1980s. She is not presented as a woman who has never married. For all we know she’s a widow. Her estrangement is also from her son, who we learn has done some criminal act which she turned him in on. So the establishment and its forms of punishment are endorsed here. Yet the outline of her life is that of the Virago heroine of the 1930s. None of this is in Herriot’s book, and in the 1970s series she was presented as impersonally there, a woman who needed a job. I will say the interest in her, the desire to give a woman a central role in and of herself, not there as a romantic interest shows the mild feminism of the series. She helps Herriot, she is the central staff of the house (metaphorically) and a very good person. But she is not driven to irony; she accepts her lot as Miss Mole does not.

Christmas time, 1st season, we learn that Mrs Hall’s husband came home from war a changed man, and not for the better. This is why we find her going from house to house as a servant. Her son did something criminal (funny how it’s not specified too – he stole something) and she, his mother, told on him. Maybe they were both servants somewhere – a typical job for lower class people especially women at the turn of the century. Son went to jail. He has never forgiven her. During the course of this conversation, Mr Farnon shows himself to be better than Cordelia near the end of Lear. Of course he will keep Mrs Hall on; he would not know what to do without her. He stands by her in church holding her hand as they sing, for this son did not turn up for Christmas.

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


Painting by Harold Wright: an image supplied by one of the people who was part of the group read as Miss Mole

A second angle obviously there is class. Mr Corder is not CofE, but a dissenter of some sort (I use very old fashioned language) and part of what makes him so intolerant and seeming dense, is he feels he has to hold onto parishioners and is fighting a continual invisible fight with those who might just look down on him. See Margaret Oliphant’s Carlingford novels – if you have the patience.

Chapters 18-20: the “dirt” Mr Pilgrim (the name is now ironic) has is he sexually harassed Hannah, and she fears that whatever happened between them he can use to make her seem to be at fault. #Metoo. ome of her behavior might seem to compromise her and in a culture like this of course, he, the man, the guest, would be sided with. So we have here in this novel an early half-hidden story of sexual harassment, which no matter what the woman does is a threat to her position in the world and peace of mind. She was a sexually harassed woman in flight and at risk of being hurt by the very person who treated her with contempt and insult. Mr Pilgrim (the name allegorical of course) found out something about her and went to her house because as a preacher, he wanted to teach her the error of her ways… However he never got near her because she shut the door in his face… The last part of this trio is a poignant. Hannah is afraid to kiss Mr Corder’s youngest most candid and sincere daughter, Ruth. Is she inwardly fearful of becoming too close to this family because, again, she may have to leave them (just as she left her previous positions)?

Her relationship with these two girls is moving. She is acting as a replacement for Mrs Corder she tells us. Looked at from a distance, Miss Moles’ life is pathetic (filled with thwarting) but she will not acknowledge this openly. Maybe that funeral metaphor. Some day she could be broke with the tiniest of pensions.

Me: My mother-in-law was a lower governess in a great house just after WW1, sometime in the 1920s. It was like slavery. Up at 5, never given a moment to herself except when eating and then under constant surveillance. Woolworth’s in the early 1930s, 6 and 1/2 days a week with a real salary was liberty and some power (because you had some money, could even chose you own meal every two weeks). No you were to have no followers.

The opening of Chapter 23 is beautiful in thought and form (Virago, pp 166-67) Her acceptance of what is includes a reveling in the nature world, and through a Wordsworthian (maybe that’s a good term) perspective therapeutic. Complex poetry in prose. We can have a character very bad at heart, and Corder is at the present time (loss of his wife hurt) a mean and petty man in many ways. The sentences do that twisting and turning so it is hard to grasp where Young herself stands. Her dark dress reminds me of the sober Jane Eyre. She is comfortable with Blenkinsop but why?

Miss Mole has won me over for many reasons; here she is very ambivalent Christmas and it’s not only for the homeless and those w/o families. Well, me too. She is so tenuously connected to society; she’s not far from homeless and that may be why the group comes to mind. Where is her family? She might be looking to marry: Mr Samson is not that bad a choice if they are congenial and he has enough money to support them (and loves his cats). She is a prisoner in effect: her work never stops; she is not appreciated by the person who pays her; she endlessly has to worry about impressions she makes. There’s not much best in Mr Corder to be seen insofar as she or his daughters are concerned. He is a man intensely concerned with his status, resenting the money he does get because it’s from an older sister.

I’ve usually felt and experienced Christmas as an ordeal and Young is conveying this, and a very fraught one at that. Not everyone is good lying, and some people never get the knack, nor is it easy for them to see through the lies to what might be a sort of truth. Miss Mole is very clever in that way, but she is not a domineering bully so does not manipulate only self-protects through lying – and her lies are often kind jokes. Her stories (the non-existent burglar) are kind moral exemplums. Young conveys that the patriarchy, class status and the ability to bully put Corder and Mrs Spenser-Smith in charge but many of the other characters have such better traits than they and what’s valued in this book is kindness. I was struck how one of these boss-mistresses says to Miss Mole she has no trouble with servants because she never tolerates an iota of discontent: the servant is fired on the spot. Yes I am seeing that perhaps Young is setting up a suitor-courtship paradigm between Miss Mole and Mr Samson and between Miss Mole and Mr Blenkinsop. Alas. And a Cinderella paradigm is emerging: up to now Miss Mole is seeming very plain and she never gets to go out; suddenly she is elegance itself and cannot be kept out. It would seem she cannot live in her own cottage because she needs money to keep it up — beyond someone living there who does not pay her rent. So marriage is the way out of living on the edge of destitution.

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


Young lived for a long time in Clifton, Bristol where several of her novels are set

As the story turns and Hannah has a worthy suitor at last, I offer the idea that nonetheless, Hannah’s blindness over Mr Blenkinsop’s intentions is a device – and to me improbable. Young felt his book needed suspense. So the suspense is we are to sit on the edges of our seats worrying whether Hannah will somehow ruin her chances with Mr Blenkinsop before he has a chance to propose (and thus reveal – our hearts are all pit-a-patting now – he loves and wants to marry her). And we are supposed worried about what Mr Pilgrim can tell (sexual probably given that Hannah has open-minded views about sex) to ruin her with Mr Corder.

Mrs Spenser-Smith is one of the more obnoxious characters in this book. Hannah has to placate her because she needed her for this job and might need her again. But she is awful – in Jane Austen’s hands we’d recognize her for the Lady Catherine de Bourgh she is. Will say anything outrageously insulting. She shows her power by doing things like paying for Howard’s education at Oxford. So he has escaped her too. On the shoes, we have to remember how shoes – poor shoes on people’s feet, especially children – were once a sign of poverty. Also you need good shoes to be comfortable. So Miss Mole having good shoes is a way of avoiding a stigma and being comfortably shod for her incessant work – in the house mostly but no less work than that. Have a look at Mrs Hall’s shoes in the latest season of All Things Great and Small. Attractive and sensible.

Hard to comment on the ambiguity of what we are reading until finally the two secrets — Blenkinsop’s pursuit of Miss Mole (or Hannah as she was called in the BBC film adaptation) and what happened sexually to Miss Mole (not clear with whom or how her giving up of her cottage to a tenant who does not pay his rent relates to this) – are revealed. But for my part I find Ethel sympathetic, all at sea as a teenager, and Mr Corder a male version of Mrs Spenser-Smith without the monetary resources. I compared her to Austen’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh; the closest male I can think to him is the selfish, obtuse, blind, fatuously cruel John Dashwood. What does it matter if John Dashwood does not know how he hurts his family members and those directly in his power? In both the essays I offered as context I have not read all the texts cited (I can’t stand Ivy Compton-Burnett and the only Christie I’ve been able to finish is her superb autobiography), but I’ve faith if I knew more of these Virago Jane authors (or remembered more of those I’ve read) I could cite parallels.

The self-reflexivity of the story is made plain. EH Young lived with a man she was not married to for many years and here he is indicted, though not named and a somewhat literally different story offered. The nameless cad at the center of the fiction in real life was married. I have to go outside my purview to cite what I feel is the moral of the book (by no means adequate to what it dramatizes about our lives in ordinary society, especially when it comes to women) and at work in this chapter – I’ve cited it before: “I believe unkindness is the worst sin of all” (Ch 38). My critique of this idea: it may be what is so excruciating in a daily way but it is not what has made the situation for all of them: apparently under Corder, Mrs Spenser-Smith and the other lying bullies of the book.

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

So, in this chapter (35) we are told what happened between Mr Blenkinsop and Miss Mole on her day out with him. In a nutshell (I’m not going to paraphrase piece by piece) Mr Blenkinsop is taking Miss Mole back to where her child- and young girlhood occurred to the house she owns. He means to take her there and confront whatever it is. She goes to pieces. The chapter is really made up of her thoughts. She is remarkably unmalicious.

Some people might think to go over ground you once were traumatized by is to overcome it – I’m not in that school of thought myself nor EH Young. We see some of Miss Moles’s obsessions. The paragraph beginning “Ah, she thought, things were easy for people with an income they had not to earn.” She ceaseless broods (all book long) on how tenuous her position is, her dependence, her material bonds. I feel for her – I remember ceaselessly in the middle years of working as an adjunct (I did it for 27 years) how I’d brood. I forget why I stopped: I put this down to getting onto the Internet and beginning to write and then to publish so I had other things on my mind that overcame this position. There is nothing in Miss Mole’s life to provide a strong distraction of satisfaction. Mr Blenkinsop is presented thinking how he came to this house by accident. This is the sort of thing that irritates me. He cannot have come here by accident. But he is kind (see above) and does not press himself on her. He feels terrible he has made her so hysterical within. She thinks also about the people she thinks depend on her: the Corder children.

At the end of the chapter Mr B suggests why not start a boarding-house of your own. You could escape this perpetual distress. She says she’s thought of it but she hasn’t the money and has been told she’s too young.

At last the beans are spilled. She retires to her room and sits by the fire. I think of all the many Victoria illustrations of women sitting by the fire (or out on the moor) thinking of their miseries


Miss E Taylor’s depiction of Kate Vavasour, left with her arm probably broken by her brother, George.

We learn at length what was Miss Mole’s horrifying sin, which apparently Mr Pilgrim knows (and my guess from these three and before and after) that’s because she also offended him (by leaving his church?) What happened is during WW1 Miss Mole inherited a house and a man who had fought in the war came to live with her and became her lover. There you have it. His reasons for such behavior remind me of what (summed up) Willoughby told Elinor Dashwood were his motives for smashing Marianne Dashwood’s peace of mind (I refer to Austen’s Sense and Sensibility): “at no stage in their intercourse had he considered her as more than a temporary inconvenience.” Willoughby claims that he grew to love Marianne and felt remorse when his patroness, an aunt, kicked him out for impregnating another girl and deserting her . Right. The way he showed his remorse was to engage himself to an improbably wealthy heiress. Young’s fiction is more probable. Miss Mole does not have the strength of character that believing in yourself, having self-esteem, and backup in other’s people’s support would give. She can’t throw him – or couldn’t. So did the next best thing when she discovered what he was. She left. They had some agreement he would pay her rent and he never has. I’ve seen situations analogous to this.

Meanwhile Mr Pilgrim decides it’s in his interest to tell this tale to Mr Corder. Why? Maybe he thinks she’s in the way of his gaining control over (oops – marrying it’s called) Ethel. Luckily, Mr Corder’s very nasty mind on the surface rejects all Mr Pilgrim has to say as vile calumny just in character.

Since it’s through Miss Mole’s mind realizing what happened (we don’t get this – note that) we get some half-ironic thoughts about God engineering all this and how God and she, Miss Mole, know one another. Hannah gets some peace of mind thinking this but it’s as much exhaustion. This technique is third person indirect discourse so the author is there in and out talking to us too. It’s remarkable the metaphors Miss Mole uses for herself: she refuses to be the dog with the bad name …

Yes I think the double-self is a directly self-reflexive comment: of course Miss Mole has no cousin who has been living her secret life alongside er; the cousin is Hannah Mole herself, and not even a dream alternative but what lies under Edith Hilda’s own reality. Did she pretend to be the housekeeper when living with her lover lover and his wife? I agree with her that Uncle Jim is ruthless. I’d be careful what I told him too. I agree Howard is kept at a great distance. We cannot tell if it is good for him that he got away (gave up the position Mrs S-L got for him at Oxford) as we don’t know enough about his inner life or what he was experiencing at Oxford. Corder cares more that they are seeming to insult the benefactor (if she is that), Mrs Spenser-Smith than his boy’s future or even presence.

What a heartless crew many of these believable adults in this novel are, and Miss Mole knows it. It is not uncommon in 18th century novels for the housekeeper to be the master-owner’s mistress; it’s a cover or disguise. These novels often present the female character without sympathy.

Ethel returns who has been to see Patsy Withers (another of the book’s awful people): Miss Withers wanted to take over the club and certainly would like to see Miss Mole fired. Miss Mole asks why go to a woman who tells lies about you; Ethel says it’s because of that she went. People just gluttons for punishment. It’s here we learn something of the connection of Pilgrim (ironic allegorical name) to Miss Mole (also an allegorical name) Miss Mole was going to chapel at the time of her relationship with the nameless cad.

Miss Mole becomes intensely aware of how Mr Blenkinsop is walking about outside – it seems for hours, in quite a state. She goes out – to let him off the hook. To be kind. She tells him don’t worry, she’s fine – manifestly untrue except that it’s become obvious that Mr Corder is willing to overlook the past and keep her anyway. Well, gee thanks.

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


Here is a typical picture of am English country cottage at the beginning of the twentieth century – much popularized as art by Helen Allingham, part of her worlds of women

Chapter 36: Mr B says he was told about the house by a colleague at work… he had not seen it before but thought it might be a good place for the Riddings, and wanted Hannah to see it with him to help him decide if it was appropriate … As soon as Hannah saw the chimney tops, she knew it was her house and could not stomach the idea of her story being revealed to him in all its sordid “glory”, so she ran off in the opposite direction with him following behind totally confused as to what she was running from … She was running from her past to keep the story sacred for as long as she could…it was only later that the scales fell from her eyes and she realized that it was no longer sacred…it was time to put it behind her for good…

“Then shame swooped over her like a great flapping, threatening bird, and the robin piped his gay derisive note.” The events in that cottage were deeply traumatic. It was much more than her lover refusing to marry her. As is very common with trauma victims, she blames herself. For allowing it to happen.

And for being romantic and believing him in the first place…she was a girl though and had no experience of men like him…she believed they would marry eventually while he had no such intention… Women beat themselves up like this even today…”why didn’t I know, why couldn’t I have seen etc.”

A wonderful interlude in this chapter is the conversation with Wilfred. “I think I’ll change my lodgings. My poor dear mother doesn’t pay three guineas a week to have her son’s nerves shattered.” I hope he does go to Mrs. Gibson. Her house is definitely the refuge in this novel.

Chapter 37: This chapter is interesting both for what it shows about Young’s art (by this time we can discern this) and what happens in it.

The opening has Hannah (she has become Hannah far more often than Miss Mole) grieving intensely over this lost love, this betrayal of some ideal of love and companionship embodied in the house or home . She remember how she disobeyed everyone and held onto her house (again we see how society is working to undermine her independence and not allow her to think she can have any, fixed it so beautifully and how the man she invested all this in felt none of it. She was no snob in choosing him. He was an ordinary soldier and farmer. So EH Young does not fool herself with DHLawrence and gothic reveling (remember the Mary Webb books – her dreams are actually nightmares) about getting back to nature and “real men.”

As is so often with this heroine, she sees the best (she reminds me of Austen’s Jane Bennet who tells Elizabeth she sees the best because the pain of seeing the world, here Darcy and Bingley’s family – sisters – and everyone else as heartless and mercenary is too much to endure). So she tells herself this man never understood how much he hurt her.

Well, long ago, someone told me that when people say malicious things to you, especially to other people and appear not aware of how much pain they are causing you, that’s nonsense. They know.

At the same time the pain here is worse for her because she is imagining that Mr Blenkinsop (first paragraph of chapter) is working at kicking this guy out and taking the house over because he wants to place Mrs Riddings and her babies in it (she watches Mrs Riddings in the meadow hanging out the clothes – quite like a rhyme). Now again we are to keep our distance and our ironic perspective – we know she’s got it all wrong. Mr Blenkinsop is doing this for her, and we know also from these opening paragraphs and others, she loves him.

Thus we are almost reassured that soon that proposal will be made and she will say yes. We are not permitted utter fevers of anxiety in this book, but we are never left off the hook (think of a hook put into someone’s stomach) and onto security. By this time we know that Mr Pilgrim’s telling Mr Corder will not result in Miss Mole having to return to the obnoxious cousin and find another place to live. Or it’s improbable.

This kind of maneuvering is done throughout the book.

Then we watch Miss Mole work very hard – things she has not done for months. I feel she is doing this to shore up in her mind Mr Corder will not fire her. How could he? And she is busying herself, feeling wanted, needed. On other other hand, surely there is something masochistic in her choosing to turn the sheets, a job she says she hates; she also does not enjoy using the sewing machine.

Ruth who by this time is a fully educated pupil of Miss Mole (worthy of her, intelligent) says of all this activity: it’s “rather like making a will and paying your debts when you think you’re going to die.” We can connect that to Miss Mole’s thinking Mr Blenkinsop is getting her house ready for Mrs Riddings or her worry still Mr Corder will or can fire her. Miss Mole says, oh, no, I’m “bad-tempered.”

Then they go for a walk. The mood of this walk is very like many of them. Miss Mole rejoices in life, and landscape, and the weather, being alive and activity around her – whether rural or city. Even better she has Ruth by her side. Mother-daughter and pupil-mentor paradigms here. This chapter is also serving to remind us that Ruth can now do without Miss Mole. This is clearing the way for what will become of Ruth once Miss Mole departs – for we do see that Mr Blenkinsop is preparing a halcyon refuge for himself and Hannah. The closing paragraph of the chapter is just beautiful poetry.

But we are not allowed to revel mindlessly because what metaphors does Hannah use to show her understanding of her place in this: the small ships alongside the big ones remind her of “sad widows in their pathetic dignity under their bare masts and yards, and tugs were like the undertakers, at a fuss about the funeral.” Maybe (like Alice Vavasour at the close of CYFH?) Miss Mole is not to be taken as moving into some kind of paradise when a particular man gets a house ready for her and is willing to live in it with her and support her.

We are also not allowed to forget Ethel. Ethel is in is in the midst of making a bad choice. She has opted for Pilgrim and we are reminded several paragraphs before the final one of this chapter that it was Mr Pilgrim who told Mr Corder about Miss Mole’s past so as to bond himself this way more deeply to Ethel. Wait – he was throwing an innocent woman (never hurt him) literally to possible destitution to place himself better in the eyes of Corder? Ethel sees that Miss Patsy Withers as stepmother is far far worse than Miss Mole as housekeeper (because she is a kind of minor Lady Catherine de Bourgh) and knows it’s in her real interest that Miss Mole stay

Finis. I’ve kept up and have finished Chs 38-39. So now (somewhat out of order) we are told what Mr Corder responded to what Pilgrim said It interests me that Ethel sees what a shit Pilgrim is, agrees she should not snitch on Miss Mole but then goes ahead to become his erotic target and to tell even the obnoxious Mrs S-s. I feel that Young means us to forgive and feel sorry for Ethel — too much a dullard to get beyond all conventions even when her mind can acknowledge they are stupid. There is no hope she can see these conventions are there to control and subdue women to men’s wills. We are seeing Ruth emerge to take control: Howard had a farm to escape to; she has Uncle Jim. Miss Mole has too much pride to crawl to Mr Corder and imagine what her existence would become on these terms. So are we are at the end of her tether and in the streets. Why can’t she go to Mrs Gibson? I don’t get it: because she saved Mr Riddings?

Some intuitive instinct now takes Miss Mole or our Hannah to Blenkinsop’s door. I remember Robert Louis Stevenson: two short stories, A Lodging for the Night, and Sire de Maltroit’s door — the poet Villon, homeless, happens on them and is taken in. So our heroine is happening on Mr Blenkinsop’s door. As Austen says at the end of NA, the “telltale compression of pages” informs us “we are all hastening together to perfect felicity.” Only unless you have not paid attention, this final refuge, however it could end in happiness, is a desperate compromise.

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

This is a distinguished, uniquely written protest novel on behalf of women and vulnerable men in deeply punitive capitalist relentlessly repressive patriarchy. In these scenes Young shows she knows how people behave and she captures their obtusenesses to themselves very sharply — by having made Miss Mole so very perceptive and with a desperate need and impulse (from years of training) to make do and compromise. Not altogether perceptive because (reminding me of Austen’s Emma), she does not see (improbably given how sharp she usually is) Blenkinsop is trying to court her. A difference from Austen is that Austen would have let Mr Pilgrim be told somehow he had made a fool out of himself (like poor Miss Bates of Austen’s Emma). None of them would like to be seen through. We should remember at this point that Hilda was E.H. Young’s second name.

I find myself wanting to bring in (and read) yet another book: Elena Ferrante’s Lying life of Adults. I’ve often felt that the way a lot of people get through being with others is lying, little lies, big ones; perhaps the difference for Miss Mole is hers are not only self-protective and kind but when alone they shore her up. We’ve seen that with the tales she tells Ruth. Austen’s Catherine Morland: “But why he should say one thing so positively, and mean another all the while, was most unaccountable! How were people, at that rate, to be understood? …” (Northanger Abbey)

An essay by Kathy Mezei (“Spinsters, Surveillance and Speech”) should also be of interest to anyone who reads books by women written after WW1 and into WW2, especially once again published by Virago. This essay includes an Agatha Christie and Ivy Compton-Burnett book beyond EH Young’s Miss Mole. In all three the life-long unmarried and deliberately-set up vulnerable woman is defended but at the end of both books the establishment (as it were) closes in on them again. So they are mild protest novels. For my part the problem is the acceptance of the class, religious and capitalist system these characters live in a corner of. The author does show how awful the top accepted male is in all three cases. He’s murdered in at least one of them. What I liked about the essay is situating Miss Mole with two other spinsters, or life-long unmarried women — one a famous detective by a famous author, the other a dark caustic author. It helps pick up the intended tone or nuance.

More important for the large perspective is Kate Trumpener’s “The Virago Jane” in Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees, where she analyses a group of novels published by Virago in the 1930s, and shows how they are in continual dialogue with the deepest and more superficial aspects of Austen’s fiction. As I’ve written above reading Young’s book continually brought to mind analogues from Austen and by extension other women writers influenced by Austen. Trumpener supplies the full nuance and depths in Austen through these books, which the reader ca then (as it were) take back into Young’s books. There are two pages on Chatterton Square.

It is a real loss here is no single study of E.H. Young. The woman I knew slightly (still have a sort of memory acquaintance unless she’s dead), Maggie Lane (who has written and published 3 books on Jane Austen, 1 on Burney) said she was working on but never came through. She also said she was working on a book on Fanny Burney and Hester Thrale as “frenemies.” Not all things we study become books. The quietude mixed with profound disquiet of this book cannot attract any kind of wide audience now – but gender, class and money are still key factors for women who are still often made “secondary creatures” as Simone de Beauvoir wrote.

A stinging woman’s novel. Rosamond Lehmann wrote a great novel, woman’s novel type, called The Weather in the Streets (1930s, heroine has abortion and recovering reads P&P as a fantasy that cheers), available as a Virago. The group at TWWRN went on to read Chatterton Square:


Note how covers and titles resembles those on better women’s books today (her Curate’s Wife title puts me in mind of Joanna Trollope’s Rector’s Wife)

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

It was made into a BBC 4 part serial drama, Hannah, but that has vanished decades ago. Have I mentioned that she worked for the women’s suffrage movement and was an air-raid warden during WW2. See Heavenali for The World of E.H Young: Upper Radstowe, with images from the cover illustrations of the green Virago editions of Young’s novels


A photo of Young in later life

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) Ethiopian girl living in Beirut (Capernaum)


Madeline (Martine Chevalier) and Anne, her daughter (Lea Ducker) — (Deux of Two of US is not just about the love of two aging lesbians, but the daughter of one of them)


Heloise (Adèle Haenel), Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) in Portrait of a Lady on Fire (it’s a three-way relationship at its height: wealthy young girl to be sold to a husband, painter, and pregnant maid)

Animals welcome
People tolerated …

Friends and readers,

I’ve just spent four weeks teaching a course where we read two marvelous books by women, Iris Origo’s War in the Val D’Orcia, an Italian war diary, 1943-44, and Christa Wolf’s Cassandra and Four Essays, and want to observe, commemorate, act out Wolf’s argument (proved) in her book that there is a real body of literature by women, separate from men, superior, filled with alternative values, following different genre paradigms, only permitted to thrive in Europe and her cultures since the 18th century and that in marginalized ways, but there and wonderful — deeply anti-war, anti-violence, filled with values of women, a caring, cooperative, preserving, loving ethic. What better day than V- or Valentine’s, better yet against Violence Day, especially when aimed at women. A day yesterday when much of the US in the evening sat down to watched a violent-intense game, interrupted by celebrity posturing, false pretenses at humane attitudes, and glittery commercials (the Superbowl).

Last night I watched Portrait of a Lady on Fire (which I’ve written about already here), and the 6th episode (Home Truths) of the second season of All Creatures Great and Small (ditto), and the fifth episode of the fourth season (Savages) of Outlander, Her-stories (adapted from Diana Gabaldon’s Drums of Autumn)


Anne Madeley as Mrs Hall (housekeeper, and vet)


Helen (Rachel Shelton) and James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph)


Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Adawehi

I delighted in my evening:

Home truths: shamelessly sentimental and ratcheting up lots of angst, yet nothing but good happens. Why? I’ve decided it’s a show with women in charge — for real. Mrs Herriot gives up James to Helen, Mrs Hall and the woman with the perpetually nearly mortal cows. Mrs Pumphrey is the local central goddess, and Tricky woo, her animal. A new woman came in, an aging gypsy who lives with stray dogs. Parallel to Mrs Pumphrey. I love it.

The men are the Savages: the crazed German settler who thinks the Native Americans are stealing “his water” so when his daughter-in-law and grandchild die of measles, he murders the beautiful healer of the tribe — they retaliate by murdering him and his wife and burning down his house. Claire had been there to help bring the baby into the world. The coming problem that most counts is measles. Jamie and Ian discover they can’t get settlers while the Governor and his tax collectors are taking all the profits from settlers and using it to live in luxury, and Murtagh is re-discovered. Very moving reunion with Jamie and Claire — keeping the estates, feeding animals. She functions as Mrs Hall.

The three women eat, walk, sleep, talk together; the two upper class ones go with their maid to help her abort an unwanted pregnancy among a group of local women meeting regularly to dance, talk, be together where they sit around a fire — here they are preparing food, drink, sewing ….

A brief preface or prologue to two fine women’s films: Capernaum and Two of Us, with some mention of Salaam Bombay and Caramel, ending on Isabelle Huppert as interviewer and Elif Batuman as essayist on women’s film art:

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

Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) and Rahil’s baby, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole)

One of the courses I’m taking this winter at the same OLLI at Mason where I teach is one recent fine movies, and the first we saw Capernaum directed by Nadine Labarki. She has another remarkably memorable film I saw years ago, Caramel, the stories of five women whose lives intersect in a beauty parlor). She and two other women wrote the screenplay. It’s an indie, in Arabic, set in the slums of Beirut: the title refers to a place on the northern shore of the sea of Galilee and forms part of the Jesus Christ stories. The word also means chaos. It makes Mira Nair’s Saleem Bombay looks into the semi-lark it is: both center on a boy living on the streets of desperately poor area who is cut off from any kind of help from parents. Nair’s film ends in stasis: with the boy on the streets still, having stabbed to death a cruel pimp who preyed on a prostitute who is one of the boy’s friends, and took her small daughter from her.

People write of Capernaum as heart-breaking but most of their comments center on the boy (Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian). It’s done through flashbacks. The gimmick complained about is the boy is suing his parents for bringing him into the world. Basically the boy, Zain, exposes the cruel treatment his parents have meted out to him — real emotional, social and physical abuse too. In fact, Hilary Clinton proposed many protections for children, a couple of which aroused the ire of conservatives because she proposed to give children rights which in effect included complaining about parental abuse. I remember how she was attacked fiercely for her proposals on behalf of children. As eventually passed it was about adoption procedures and administration, whether she succeeded in making the child’s welfare count for real I don’t know

What is seriously relevant is the continual filming of dire poverty and the imprisoning of helpless (stateless) immigrants, refugees with no papers and how the need for papers is used by criminals and some lower base businessman to punish and demand huge sums from these people willing to buy forged documents. Astro, the film’s villain, is trying to take Rahil’s baby from her so he can sell the baby, and we discover at the film’s end he had no good parents and home for the baby, only a transitory prison. Labarki takes the viewer through the jails such people end up in and the conditions there — although this is Beirut, you could easily transfer this to the borders of the US. I find the supposed secondary character, a young single mother end up separated from her child as important as the boy, Zain — the fantasy of the movie is this boy takes real responsibility for the child. We also see how Zain’s sister, Sarah was sold to a man when she was 11 and dies of a pregnancy, how his mother is endlessly pregnant with no way to make any money to feed her family or send anyone to school. We se how desperate circumstances have led the boys’ parents to behave brutally to him and to one another, to in effect sell Zain’s sister, their daughter, Sarah, age 11, who dies in childbirth (too young for pregnancy).

It’s an important movie for our time — Biden is continuing many of Trump’s heartless and cruel policies at the borders — not the separation of families. There is no excuse for this. This movie does have a sudden upbeat happy ending (sort of). See it.

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

Then very much a Valentine’s Day film: Two of us, also on this film course’s list.


Nina (Barbara Sukowa) — much in love with Madeline, she has no family around her


Isabelle Huppert more recently (see her in the interviews just below)

Very touching. It’s about two lesbians who have grown old and one is nervous (Madeline), frightened of her two grown children (Anne and Frederick), never ever admitted how she loathed her bullying husband (who made a lot of money if her apartment is any measure). Nina lives across the hall and yes people outside them think they are just friends. But they are deep lovers and as the movie opens, Nina is pressuring Madeline to sell her apartment so they can move to Rome permanently, Rome where they have been so happy.

What happens: Mado has a stroke, and is parallel to a movie so long ago, The Single Man, for which Colin Firth was nominated for an Oscar where two homosexual men have deep true life and one dies (Matthew Goode) and the other (Firth) is closed out by the family. Goode leaves everything to Firth, an English teacher. Goode’s family know about the gay life style and enjoy spitefully excluding Firth and beating back the will. Firth comes near suicide, pulls back, just in time.

Here the women hid, and Nina has to break through a caregiver who loathes her as competition. There is much inexplicable imagery. As the film opens, Nina has a dream of herself as a child saving Madeline as a child. Black birds or crows come and go. Nina becomes violent and axes the daughter’s care to get the caregiver in trouble and fired. Gradually the daughter realizes there is something special here. When she first sees a photo of the two women together in Rome, she is revulsed, and puts her mother in a home where the mother is drugged into compliance. The caregiver and her son come and threaten Nina, and when she is out, destroy her things in her apartment insofar as they can and steal what money she has. My mother had a caregiver just like this desperate hard angry woman. Anne witnesses her mother try to come out of her stasis to reach Nina, and Nina try to run away with her. Anne thinks again, and chases her mother and her mother’s lover back to her mother’s apartment, where they are quietly dancing together. The movie ends with Anne banging frantically on the door, saying she didn’t understand.

There is hope. Anne has brought a kitten for her mother while the mother was with the caregiver. We see it in the hall and may hope Madeline’s money will be enough and they will be left alone again. Such movies do show up the ratcheted up cheer of All Creatures and Small – how much truer to life this. Real anxiety Real trouble. It’s about aging and loneliness. There are as fine reviews of this as The Lost Daughter.

And two thoughtful interviews conducted by Isabelle Huppert (a fine French actress. One with the director, this his first film. The other between Huppert and Sukowa: listen to two actresses talk shop It’s very unusual to talk candidly about the problem of enacting, emulating having sex in front of a camera.

Don’t throw your evening out to become an object sold by one company to another to sell awful products at enormous prices.

I conclude with an excellent essay-review by Elif Batuman of the film-oeuvre of Celine Sciamma. Batuman shows how Sciamma is seeking out and inventing a new grammar of cinema to express a feminist and feminine quest for an authentic existence as a woman experiencing a full life: Now You See Me. I quote from it on The Portrait of a Lady on Fire:

The “female gaze,” a term often invoked by and about Sciamma, is an analogue of the “male gaze,” popularized in the nineteen-seventies to describe the implied perspective of Hollywood movies—the way they encouraged a viewer to see women as desirable objects, often fragmented into legs, bosoms, and other nonautonomous morsels. For Sciamma, the female gaze operates on a cinematographic level, for example in the central sex scene in “Portrait.” Héloïse and Marianne are both in the frame, they seem unconcerned by their own nudity, the camera is stationary—not roving around their bodies—and there isn’t any editing. The goal is to share their intimacy—not to lurk around ogling it, or to collect varied perspectives on it.

Mira Nair (filming A Suitable Boy) and Celinne Sciamma

.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Hung Liu, The Year of the Rat (2021) – this is one of the last portraits she did and it is downstairs in the lobby to lure you upstairs

Friends, readers,

Another woman artist, this time a woman photographer and painter whose work I saw in the DC National Portrait Gallery a couple of weeks ago. The following video where a curator takes you through many of the paintings and photographs in the exhibit, you learn so much about Liu’s life story, the images she made in the different phases of her existence, and hear Hung Liu talking about what she is trying to achieve in general, and what were her aims and circumstances in each of the works she is led to talk about — that the usual blog I would do for a woman artist feels superfluous. Click and see and hear. Hung herself talks in the interview clips of the importance of remembering people, especially to the person who remembers and the one remembered.



This is called Father’s Day: it is Liu with her father — he was taken from the family when she was five, imprisoned, enslaved, treated harshly and strictly for 50 years at the time when she learned where he was, and visited him. He told her that after so many years of such barbaric treatment that he can no longer show emotion.

She was proud of her mother and her grandmother’s stoicism in the face of such hardships:

All the information you need otherwise is provided in the marvelous catalogue book of the exhibition (Portraits of Promised Lands), with three essays and many beautiful plates, which I recommend buying. To be honest, and iconoclastically I think you can have as deep an experience as felt in the galleries, maybe more deep reading this book as going to the gallery. The difference is the size of the images and you have to imagine the thick impasto you eyes register as you gaze.

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

Here I just suggest emphases and perspectives, single out the most striking images.

She seems to have derived her passionate devotion to the deeply hurt by society and the vulnerable, and desire to give all her subjects quiet dignity, from the way her family was treated in her early life: her father’s fate (see above) was the result of his having fought in the army of Chiang Kai-shek; the family destroyed all the photographs and memorabilia of their lives they had lest any be interpreted against them. They didn’t flee, rather marginalized themselves, hid their individual identities, and only gradually as Hung’s gift emerged sent her quietly to the best schools and then art college in China available. She had herself to do two years farm work, and traveled, everywhere she saw thwarted and hurt people, she painted, and then later took photographs and painted these in her own distinctive way (the film will tell you of this) within terms of the imposed social realism of China. Like many others in such a situation, she learned much but felt constricted, that she was not fulfilling her art’s potential. They are not just downtrodden people, but people whose identity is at risk, like this one:


Summoning ghosts — the woman is beautiful but she resists us by turning to the side, she is dressing her hair and wearing that outfit to please another

She was both fortunate and her family maintained some good connections (her grandfather had been a scholar and botanist), and was able to travel to the US, go to an art college in California, and become part of the art worlds there. She became a resident artist at Capp Street Project in San Francisco in 1988; she eventually married a fellow art student, Jeff Kelley, who became her curator. She went onto graduate school, became a citizen, a Professor Emerita herself, had a child, a boy. In her earlier life she took many photographs as she traveled around China tracing the changes or just the events and behavior of people working out the cultural revolution. These photographs have to be experienced in the order they are placed in a narrative. In the US she resumed such travels down south (where both white and black, but mostly black lived hard lives), to places Asian people made communities in.

Here are some of these: she identifies with a plow-bough young man (black, living down south),


A plow-boy in the American south

A hopeful African-American woman — see the way she swings dangling feet or shoes


Dangling Feet

She talked with ex-Comfort Women in Korea:


This is from the cover for the book cited above (Promised Lands)

Here is a less well known portrait of comfort women:

There is also a portrait of an aged woman with bound feet, who cannot walk — very distressing in its ordinariness.

Much more hopeful: I love her monumental portraits of children, here are two young ones, the one helping the other to eat. I love the small pictures of small creatures, and how her linseed application visibly drips:

Here are two leaning against a wall:

She has a large portrait very beautiful of a black woman with flowers all around her.

She is famous for painting over or up, the photography of Dorothy Lange, whose perspective is coterminous with Liu’s. So here is Migrant Mother made somehow less grim by the coloration and a slight change in the woman’s expression or face and also making the pair further back in the picture space:

Her Dorothy Lange types are when original with her more poignant, as in this Father’s Arms:

Another too distressing to reprint, but found in Promised Lands is of a half-starved woman, with very narrow breasts, who has a baby clinging to one of her nipples. She is dressed in an undershirt with work shirt over, to her left a sad-faced child, a man who shades his face with a hat, another looking to the right as if far in the distance ….

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

I was strongly taken by this exhibit and went back a second time; that’s when I bought the book, the first large art book I’ve bought since Jim died. Hers is a redemptive art. She is paying attention to people others usually only register as a number who needs to be checked off, as it were “visible,” finishing what work they were given: it does not matter if their participation is active or genuine. There are few landscapes alone. Such images were thought very self-indulgent in her early training: consequently they are the circumstances against or in which the person pictured must live or work in most of her images.

But she did a series called My Secret Freedom, which are curiously pastoral, very conventional except for the objects and houses she invents (look at the grey boat):

Individual objects painted in her more usual way, very large, turn up now and again: Blue slippers; a bed; a comfortable desk chair with pillow; a grey phone, titled Telephone January 20, 2012:

This wikipedia article is useful. There are short insightful essays on-line on individual images. We are told of her crucial contributions, given thoughtful descriptions of the art techniques she uses to make her memorable portraits; how she’s summoning and commemorating ghosts

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Nanci Griffith: 2012/many years ago (probably 1990s) (1953-2021)

I grew up listening to Nanci Griffith in my mother’s car. I still remember seeing her live. I’ve loved her music to this day. #RIP — Izzy on Twitter

I have to remember the next time I do a video and then watch once (I never watch more than once) and find myself wincing at the sounds of my voice and accent: “Your own voice is the voice that carries you through life best” — Nanci Griffith —

Friends and readers,

Yesterday when I read on Twitter (to which news comes the fastest) that Nanci Griffith had died that day, I felt — somewhat to my surprise — so grief-stricken. I began to cry. I thought of all the hours I had spent over the years listening to her singing first on audiocasettes and then CDs in my car. I used to spend a lot of time in my car, and often Izzy was with me (especially during her elementary and junior high school years). I just had to go over and listen to one of my favorite of her songs: “It’s a long long way from Clare to here:”

Now don’t misunderstand me — I am intensely relieved that I need no longer go back at all, the best day of my life was the one where I left the USA for England … and came back with Jim and an alternative life I could live as myself

I then rushed over to the New York Times for an obituary, and was fobbed off by a brief one, which said she had asked that no one write about her until a week after her death (I saw that on several sites yesterday), but today there is far from truly adequate, but at least an informed one about her life and her career. It is true to say that she never achieved the wide popularity others did. I think too that she hid her more troubling insights under “a deceptive prettiness.” Early on, like Willie Nelson, she presented herself as a innocent sweet young white girl who was just dropping these unexpected ironic and satiric remarks, and seduced by romance, as in her famous “Love at the Five and Dime:” her opening remarks are to be treasured too:

My British mother-in-law told me of how she worked from 5 am to 11 pm as a servant, a lower-governess in a great house (later 1920s), a form of enslavement, and when she finally fled, and got a job at Woolworth’s how liberating it was — just 5 and 1/2 9 hour days a week, a salary of sorts, all Sunday and evenings free and off. The real life details the New York Times writer refers to resonate in this way with ordinary vulnerable working people

Rolling Stone magazine had an obituary featuring her musical career yesterday. I know all the songs mentioned; my favorite album is Other Voices, Other Rooms. I also would play There’s a light Beyond These Woods. She did voice political points of view, mostly strong humane, leftist-liberal, from what I’d call a “soft” or emotional stance: she presented herself as deeply hurt at injustice, racism, and told stories of individuals variously stymied, thwarted, and then making do with what they had. An underlying thread, not made explicit ever, was about women, abused as girls, deluded themselves. A rare tragic song: “Tecumseh Valley:”

I can never listen to this too many times. Never tire of it. Caroline is what I could have ended as

Surely this next one — “The Great Divide” — is utterly characteristic and when I listen to it tonight tears come to my eyes – one of her themes is the pain of cherished memories:

While I found real variety in her songs and music, she had a particular personal feel to her angle on country music, which included yodelling (which I loved when she accompanied it) because she presented country in ways that felt old-fashioned, with the kinds of instruments, voice sounds, and stories one expected from early on. NPR says her original inspiration was Loretta Lynn (I’ll add EmmyLou Harris & Linda Rondstadt & Patsy Cline); that she was the interpreter of other people’s songs, but it is also true that a song she originally wrote or was the first one to sing became a hit when done by some more mainstream personality — for again she retained in her music a strong sense of her origins in Texas, and working class rural American life. “When you can’t find a friend, listen to the radio” speaks to us all in the cities too: from Austen City Limits: here she names some of her favorite female predecessors

Izzy came with Jim and I to the Berkshire in the early 1990s, when she could still not command a mass crowd: it was a small venue for people sat at tables eating and drinking (in Annandale) and her personal style, seeming unassuming friendliness went over very well. But we also went once to Wolf Trap, and she filled the Filene Center — that must’ve been not far off from summer 2000. She was a big hit in Ireland and often sang with the Chieftains — this Irish group is a real favorite of mine. I love listening to Irish and Scots music.

My friend, Nick Hay, wrote on Twitter: “She always said either ‘I will always believe’ or ‘I still believe’ which was I always found intensely moving. So I still and will always believe Nanci.” I agree with him that it is vital not to forget her political commitment which is summed up in “It’s a Hard Life:”

Ellen who grieves for the loss of her very much

Read Full Post »


Dahlia Ravikovitch 1997 photograph (1936-2005)

A tweet I read tonight on twitter: “Tonight I put the kids to sleep in our bedroom. So that when we die, we die together and no one would live to mourn the loss of one another” Eman Basher @sometimes Pooh.” This reminded me of what I was told of a cousin of my mother’s in WW2. She chose to accompany her 6 children into the gas chamber rather than let them die alone.

Dear readers and friends,

This is an unusual foremother poet blog for me: most of the time I do not choose a woman poet because of the immediate political relevancy of her work; here in this time of another slaughter of Palestinians, yet more destruction of the open air prison they are forced to endure existence in, and the apparent indifference of all those in charge of gov’ts with the power to stop this shameless horror, I put forward Dahlia Ravikovitch’s poetry where she as a native-born Israeli, Hebrew-speaking and writing, eloquently cried out against what the Israeli gov’t (and the people who voted it in) inflict on a people whose country they seized by war (1948, 1967). Unless otherwise noted all the poems are translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld:

In this poem Ravikovitch identifies as an Israeli woman watching as a young female Arab is about to be destroyed

Hovering at a low altitude

I am not here.
I am on those craggy eastern hills
streaked with ice
where grass doesn’t grow
and a sweeping shadow overruns the slope.
A little shepherd girl
with a herd of goats,
black goats,
emerges suddenly
from an unseen tent.
She won’t live out the day, that girl,
in the pasture.

I am not here.
Inside the gaping mouth of the mountain
a red globe flares,
not yet a sun.
A lesion of frost, flushed and sickly,
revolves in that maw.

And the little one rose so early
to go to the pasture.
She doesn’t walk with neck outstretched
and wanton glances.
She doesn’t paint her eyes with kohl.
She doesn’t ask, Whence cometh my help.

I am not here.
I’ve been in the mountains many days now.
The light will not scorch me. The frost cannot touch me.
Nothing can amaze me now.
I’ve seen worse things in my life.

I tuck my dress tight around my legs and hover
very close to the ground.
What ever was she thinking, that girl?
Wild to look at, unwashed.
For a moment she crouches down.
Her cheeks soft silk,
frostbite on the back of her hand.
She seems distracted, but no,
in fact she’s alert.
She still has a few hours left.
But that’s hardly the object of my meditations.
My thoughts, soft as down, cushion me comfortably.
I’ve found a very simple method,
not so much as a foot-breadth on land
and not flying, either—
hovering at a low altitude.

But as day tends toward noon,
many hours
after sunrise,
that man makes his way up the mountain.
He looks innocent enough.
The girl is right there, near him,
not another soul around.
And if she runs for cover, or cries out—
there’s no place to hide in the mountains.

I am not here.
I’m above those savage mountain ranges
in the farthest reaches of the East.
No need to elaborate.
With a single hurling thrust one can hover
and whirl about with the speed of the wind.
Can make a getaway and persuade myself:
I haven’t seen a thing.
And the little one, her eyes start from their sockets,
her palate is dry as a potsherd,
when a hard hand grasps her hair, gripping her
without a shred of pity.

This one makes explicit the aim of the Israeli gov’t and settler colonialist “ethnic cleansers”

Get out of Beirut

Take the knapsacks,
the clay jugs, the washtubs,
the Korans,
the battle fatigues,
the bravado, the broken soul,
and what’s left in the street, a little bread or meat,
and kids running around like chickens in the heat.
How many children do you have?
How many children did you have?
It’s hard to keep the children safe in times like these.
Not the way it used to be in the old country,
in the shade of the mosque, under the fig tree,
where you’d get the kids out of the house in the morning
and tuck them into bed at night.
Whatever’s not fragile, gather up in those sacks:
clothing, bedding, blankets, diapers,
some memento, perhaps,
a shiny artillery shell,
or a tool that has practical value,
and the babies with pus in their eyes
and the RPG kids.
We’d love to see you afloat in the water with no place to go
no port and no shore.
You won’t be welcome anywhere.
You’re human beings who were thrown out the door,
you’re people who don’t count anymore.
You’re human beings that nobody needs.
You’re a bunch of lice
crawling about
that pester and bite

If you are still reading, two more:

A Mother Walks Around

A mother walks around with a child dead in her belly.
This child hasn’t been born yet.
When his time is up the dead child will be born
head first, then trunk and buttocks
and he won’t wave his arms about or cry his first cry
and they won’t slap his bottom
won’t put drops in his eyes
won’t swaddle him
after washing the body.
He will not resemble a living child.
His mother will not be calm and proud after giving birth
and she won’t be troubled about his future,
won’t worry how in the world to support him
and does she have enough milk
and does she have enough clothing
and how will she ever fit one more cradle into the room.
The child is a perfect izadil« already,
unmade ere he was ever made.
And he’ll have his own little grave at the edge of the cemetery
and a little memorial day
and there won’t be much to remember him by.
These are the chronicles of the child
who was killed in his mother’s belly
in the month of January, in the year 1988,
“under circumstances relating to state security.”

The Story of the Arab who died in the Fire

When the fire grabbed his body, it didn’t happen by degrees.
There was no burst of heat before,
or giant wave of smothering smoke
and the feeling of a spare room one wants to escape to.
The fire held him at once
—there are no metaphors for this—
it peeled off his clothes
cleaved to his flesh.
The skin nerves were the first to be touched.
The hair was consumed.
“God! They are burning!” he shouted.
And that is all he could do in self-defense.
The flesh was already burning between the shack’s boards
that fed the fire in the first stage.
There was already no consciousness in him.
The fire burning his flesh
numbed his sense of future
and the memories of his family
and he had no more ties to his childhood
and he didn’t ask for revenge, salvation,
or to see the dawn of the next day.
He just wanted to stop burning.
But his body supported the conflagration
and he was as if bound and fettered,
and of that too he did not think.
And he continued to burn by the power of his body
made of hair and wax and tendons.
And he burned a long time.
And from his throat inhuman voices issued
for many of his human functions had already ceased,
except for the pain the nerves transmitted
in electric impulses
to the pain center in the brain,
and that didn’t last longer than a day.
And it was good that his soul was freed that day
because he deserved to rest.
— Translated from the original Hebrew by Karen Alkalay-Gut

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

To be accurate, Dahlia Ravikovitch’s oeuvre as a whole is not dominated by poems of protest on behalf of the Palestinian people or other groups the Israelis or their allies have decided to “take out.” While she appears to have been a peace activist, and sincere political humanist from the outset of her career, much of her earlier poetry is written in styles and imitation of Biblical and archaic verse; for a secular poet and independent woman (married twice, with her son born from a lover she did not marry), her allusions and content are (to me) jarringly from patriarchal sources: her mother had been a graduate of a religious teachers college who went on to train as a teacher of Jewish studies, and Dahlia herself became a a student immersed in Hebrew, Biblical, and Jewish studies. She also wrote prototypical “women’s verse” at first (fantasy, presenting herself as overwhelmed by the world) and only gradually does feminist verse emerge. While courageously outspoken against all the forced evacuations, land and house confiscation, abuse of Arab women and children in ordinary discourse and the groups of people she demonstrated and worked with, her earlier targets were the abuse of language, power and powerlessness itself.

For myself I find her poetry direct, forceful, but, except for the personal autobiographical poems, curiously detached from modern reality until half way through her oeuvre. My feeling is it was over time that she became passionately horrified by what she saw the state she lived in did to non-Jews living on the land mass it controlled. It was as she grew older she grew angry at the norms many women obeyed. Perhaps it was after she lost custody of her son (1989, a great grief for her), that she began her moving poetry about mothers.

She was born in 1936, the daughter of a Russian born engineer who emigrated from Russia to Palestine via China. When she was six, her father was run over by a drunken Greek soldier in the British army; one of her early successful (and a characteristic) poems registers the trauma she felt when two years later her mother first told her that her father was dead:

On the Road at Night there stands the man

On the road at night there stands the man
Who once upon a time was my father
And I must go down to the place where he stands
Because I was his firstborn daughter.

Night after night he stands alone in his place
And I must go down and stand in that place.
And I wanted to ask him: Till when must I go.
And I knew as I asked: I must always go.

In the place where he stands, there is a trace of danger
Like the day he walked that road and a car ran him over.
And that’s how I knew him and marked him to remember:
This very man was once my father

The use of repetition, the simple stanzas, rhymes, monosyllables, and plain blunt sarcasm are central to her most memorable shorter lyrics and feminist poetry, as in

Clockwork Doll

I was a clockwork doll, but then
That night I turned left, right, round and around
And fell on my face, cracked on the ground,
And skillful hands tried to piece me together again.

Then once more I was a proper doll
And all my manner was demure and polite.
But I became damaged goods that night,
A fractured twig with only tendrils to prevent a fall.

And then I went invited to dance at the ball
But they cast me me with the writhing dogs and cats
Though all my steps were measured and true.

And my hair was golden, and my eyes were blue
And I had a dress printed in garden flower sprawl,
And a trim of cherries tacked to my straw hat.

She must have been a difficult (as the common adjective used) child from the first. Her mother took her and her siblings to live on a kibbutz after the father died, but at age 13 unable to cope with the collectivist conformist atmosphere of such a place, Dahlia left and moved from foster family to foster family. She was lucky to meet and be mentored by a literature teacher in high school Baruch Kurzweil who praised the way she blended archaic and contemporary modes; with high grades (a story of an intelligent reading girl) and the encouragement of Avraham Shlonsky, the leading poet of the pre-State Hebrew Moderna, and Leah Goldberg, a major woman poet of the time, her verse was published when she was 18; she went to Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was awarded a scholarship for Hebrew studies at Oxford.

For a woman whose work received so many prizes over the years, she did not do well (I am not surprised) in the academic or publishing marketplace when it comes to positions or jobs, and at the end of her life she was living in what is described as “a modest apartment in Tel Aviv, near the Mediterranean, barely ekeing out a living” as a journalist, TV & theater critic, high school teacher, writer of popular lyrics. She translated into Hebrew poems by Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Poe and others, as well as children’s classics, such as Mary Poppins. She is said to have suffered from severe depressions; when she was found dead in her apartment, it was at first assumed she killed herself.

Medically speaking it was determined she died of heart irregularities (“sudden death”) but surely her serious emotional breakdowns, lack of a secure family life, peripetatic lifestyle, several relationships, and underlying moods in her poetry (justifiable anger, bitterness, anguish and just strong passion for whatever she is feeling) and poverty (which she is said to have worried about) helped bring on a relatively early death. Not that she was spiritually alone or neglected; she collaborated with other poets, musicians, and respected public figures seeking peace, justice, and equality for all in Israel.

If the interested reader wants to know more, I list in the comments a couple of websites beyond 5 more blogs (by me), and a few reviews of Szobel’s book. For this blog I read Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poems of Dahlia Ravikovitch, translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld (where most of the poems here come from) and A Poetics of Trauma by Ilana Szobel. I find Szobel’s psychoanalytic and close reading approach to Ravikovitch’s poetry to be illuminating, useful — she will help the reader appreciate Ravokovitch’s poetry in all its layering. See The Poetry Foundation, Jewish Women’s Archive, an obituary from The Guardian.

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


From a series by Martha Rosler: House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home

So here are a few of the poems I find most successful and appealing. This first one is said to have been a favorite with her; and is often reprinte

Dress of Fire (The Dress)

You know, she said, they made you
a dress of fire.
Remember how Jason’s wife burned in her dress?
It was Medea, she said, Medea did that to her.
You’ve got to be careful, she said,
they made you a dress that glows
like an ember, that burns like coals.

Are you going to wear it, she said, don’t wear it.
It’s not the wind whistling, it’s the poison
seeping in.
You’re not even a princess, what can you do to Medea?
Can’t you tell one sound from another, she said,
it’s not the wind whistling.

Remember, I told her, that time when I was six?
They shampooed my hair and I went out into the street.
The smell o shampoo trailed after me like a cloud.
Then I got sick from the wind and the rain.
I didn’t know a thing about reading Greek tragedies,
but the smell of the perfume spread
and I was very sick.
Now I can see it’s an unnatural perfume.

What will happen to you now, she said,
they made you a burning dress.
They made me a burning dress, I said. I know.
So why are you standing there, she said,
you’ve got to be careful.
You know what a burning dress is, don’t you?

I know, I said, but I don’t know
how to be careful.
The smell of that perfume confuses me.
I said to her, No one has to agree with me,
I don’t believe in Greek tragedies.

But the dress, she said, the dress is on fire.
What are you saying, I shouted,
what are you saying?
I’m not wearing a dress at all,
what’s burning is me.
— translated by Chana Bloch and Ariel Bloch

She can express sheer sensual delight and pleasure; here is sonnet using the same devices of repetition and simple words and natural imagery:

Delight

There did I know a delight beyond all delight,
And it came to pass upon the Sabbath day
As tree boughs reached for the sky with all their might.
Round and round like a river streamed the light,
And the wheel of the eye craved the sunwheel that day
Then did I know a delight beyond all delight.
The heads of the bushes blazed, insatiable bright
Sunlight striking the waves, igniting the spray.

It would swallow my head like a golden orange, that light.
Water lilies were gaping their yellow bright
Mouths to swallow the ripples and reeds in their way.
And indeed it came to pass on the Sabbath day
As tree boughs lusted for the sky with all their might,
And then did I know a delight beyond all delight.

There is a series of poems where she expresses raw feelings as a woman involved with men who don’t treat her that well and whom she herself accepts because there is nothing better to calm herself with. I’d reprint “Cinderella in the Kitchen” but it is long so here is a shorter one from this type or series:

At Her Own Pace

A woman is holding a small photo.
She is no longer in her prime.
Travels a lot. Airplane. Suitcase.
For months on end, she stays
with relatives of hers.
“At your pace I couldn’t,” she says.
An introverted woman,
gentle in her ways.
People give in to her. She gives in too.
She’s on the move again. Airplane. Suitcase.
Nothing was set in advance.
The phone rang. She was flooded with a joy
that could tear the heavens open. He’s a man who’s not hers
in the full sense of the word.
She walks from room to room alone. An endless calm.
In the innermost circle of her being, she’s torn to pieces.
On the outside she’s calm. Doesn’t really seek
to take possession.
A small passport photo in her hand.
He’s wearing a tie. A featureless face,
I would say. For her he’s really
the world entire.
Apart from that, outside the innermost circle
she’s calm and recoiling
at her own pace.

Her poems on mothering are intertwined with her protests against brutal war — she saw mothering in war zones:

The quieter intense lasting grief of loss (this also includes typical sarcasm):

What a Time She Had!

How did that story go?
As a rule she wouldn’t have remembered so quickly.
In that soil no vineyard would grow.
A citrus grove stood there,
sickly,
stunted.
The single walnut tree blooming there bore no fruit
as if some essential life-giving element
were lacking in that soil.
Hard green lemons.
A balding patch of lawn.
A great tranquillity.
On the western side, the hedge went wild
and there was a honeysucker, of course
(today we’d call it a sunbird)
-if he were still alive
he’d be twenty years old.
In the valley, the army was hunting down human beings.
Fire in the thicket.
Summer’s hellfire blazing as usual.
Evening mowing down shadows, merciless.

Now she is a mother: On the Attitude towards Children in Times of War

He who destroys thirty babies
it is as if he’d destroyed three hundred babies,
and toddlers too,
or even eight-and-a-half year olds;
in a year, God willing, they’d be soldiers
in the Palestine Liberation Army.

Benighted children,
at their age
they don’t even have a real world view.
And their future is shrouded, too:
refugee shacks, unwashed faces,
sewage flowing in the streets,
infected eyes,
a negative outlook on life.

And thus began the flight from city to village,
from village to burrows in the hills.
As when a man did flee from a lion,
as when he did flee from a bear,
as when he did flee from a cannon,
from an airplane, from our own troops.

He who destroys thirty babies,
it is as if he’d destroyed one thousand and thirty,
or one thousand and seventy,
thousand upon thousand.
And for that alone shall he find
no peace.

Author’s note: This is a variation on a poem by Natan Zach that deals [satirically] with the question of whether there were exaggerations in the number of children reported killed in the [1982] Lebanon War.
Lines 1-2, He who destroys: cf. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:5: “He who destroys a single human soul. . . , it is as if he had destroyed an entire world.”
Lines 16-17, As when a man: Amos 5:19, about the danger of apocalyptic yearnings.

This is the concluding poem in the volume translated by Boch and Kronfeld:

The Fruit of the Land

You asked if we’ve got enough cannons.
They laughed and said: More than enough
and we’ve got new improved antitank missiles
and bunker busters to penetrate
double-slab reinforced concrete
and we’ve got crates of napalm and crates of explosives,
unlimited quantities, cornucopias,
a feast for the soul, like some finely seasoned delicacy
and above all, that secret weapon,
the one we don’t talk about.
Calm down, man,
the intel officer and the CO
and the border police chief
who’s also a colonel in that hush-hush commando unit
are all primed for the order: Go!
and everything’s shined up like the skin of a snake
and we’ve got chocolate wafers on every base
and grape juice and Tempo soda
and that’s why we won’t give in to terror
we will not fold in the face of violence
we’ll never fold no matter what
‘cause our billy clubs are nice and hard.
God, who has chosen us from all the nations,
comforteth with apples
the fighting arm of the IDF
and the iron boxes and the crates of fresh explosives
and we’ve got cluster bombs too,
though of course that’s off the record.
Serve us bourekas and cake, O woman of the house,
for we were slaves in the land of Egypt
but never again,
and blot out the remembrance of Amalek
if you track him down,
and if you seek him without success
Blessed be the tiny match
that a soldier in some crack unit will suddenly strike
and set off the whole bloody mess

From Bloch and Kronfeld’s notes: “The Fruit of the Land” (Hebrew, zimrat ha-arets), zimra means singing; in biblical Hebrew it can also mean “produce, bounty”. Block and Kronfield capture the macho voice of the defense types we constantly hear in the media rhapsodizing about Israel’s superior firepower. But nowadays they wouldn’t acknowledge they have “more than enough” and would have answered the opening question – ” You asked if we’ve got enough cannons” – with a demand for more funds for the military. There is much allusion to the Bible.

Central to the poem is the reality that things do not have to be this way. Armaments ever worse do not have to be the fruit of the earth

I pull out separately this rare more cheerful poem: New Zealand is a colony which succeeded: not all countries founded by colonizer end in cruelty, brutality, hatred; we see in this poem her early Biblical allusions, her use of repetition, her personal voice, the irony and sarcasm, and a late turn to acceptance.

Two Isles Hath New Zealand

Africa’s not the place to go right now.
Plagues, famine — the human body can’t bear it.
Brutality. They flog human beings with bull-whips.
Asia — it would make your hair stand on end.
Trapped in the mountains, trapped in the swamps.
The human body can’t bear it,
There are limits to the life force, after all.

As for me,
He shall make me lie down in green pastures
in New Zealand.

Over there, sheep with soft wool,
the softest of wools,
graze in the meadow.
Truehearted folk herd their flocks,
on Sundays they pay a visit to church
dressed in sedate attire.

No point hiding it any longer:
We’re an experiment that went awry,
a plan that misfired,
tied up with too much murderousness.
Why should I care about this camp or that,
screaming till their throats are raw,
spitting fine hairs.
In any case, too much murderousness.
To Africa I’m not going
and not to Asia, either.
I’m not going any place.

In New Zealand
in green pastures, beside the still waters,
kindhearted folk
will share their bread with me.

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


Al-shifa Hospital, 2014

Which other women have written powerful political verse, including directly about war successfully (whose work I know)? Charlotte Smith, Anna Barbauld, Simone Weil, Alice Oswald. Who have pictured it? Martha Rosler. Novels and plays and memoirs: Ann Radcliffe (in her Summer Tour), Olivia Manning, Iris Origo, Lillian Hellman, Suzy McKee Charnas, Marta Hiller, Margaret Atwood, Adhaf Soueif

Ellen

Read Full Post »


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

Friends and readers,

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


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

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

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

Upon my first reading:

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

She dies, and the young girl is left desolate.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Lost Ghost, from a modern volume imitating Edwardian illustrations

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Tina Blau with her Painting Wagon — and huge over-decorated hat (1911-12) — a photograph


Spring in the Prater (1879) — a painting (black-and-white reproduction)

Friends and readers,

I’ve put off writing this short blog on another later 19th into 20th century woman artist/painter long enough. I am not going to find any more material in English on her than I’ve already found. Tina Blau really is one of these superb painters who was been removed, erased, mischaracterized in the history of women painters and what usually accompanies images by her today. As opposed to most of the woman artists I’ve covered in this blog, she appears in not one of my several surveys and books of eras and narrower schools of women painters. Beyond marginalization as a woman, her pictures were simply replaced by others for decades in the 20th century because she was Jewish. Her paintings do not conform to the kind of gender shaping we find in most other women artists, nor does she make an emphatic impressionist place on walls — while it is true that most of the tiny figures in her landscapes are women, her interest is in large scale pictures of landscapes shaped by industry, agriculture, and cultural institutions. One is called Railroad Construction at Durnstein (1909). Here are two examples:


A Canal in Holland (click on all the images and most will become much larger and you will see their splendid beauty)


The Palace Garden of Prince Albert

Finally, after a bad experience when she submitted a beautiful large landscape to a central all women exhibit (her picture was rejected because it was too big, she was told, in an apparently discourteous offhand way), she refused to have her work exhibited with that of other women in all women venues — on the further grounds, that such shows will be denigrated, dismissed, marginalized by men, critics, academies. At the same time she was not included in some important exhibits coming out of movements (the Secessionists) because she was a woman.

Thus although every time she did exhibit or her pictures went on sale by an art dealer, they sold for a lot of money (including the rejected one), and quickly (making her and her husband comfortably well off), and though she co-founded an Art School for Women and Girls in Vienna in 1897, with Rose Mayreder (1858-1938), where she taught girls and women for many years; she has nevertheless escaped the radars of most feminist books and displays except for those specifically about turn-of-the-century Vienna. Like the Cornish Newnham schools of painting, and Edwardian plein-air schools, she knew of and mingled with the expressionist and polished French schools and colonies of artists (a famous artist there is Jules Bastien Lepage who influenced Eliza Adela Armstrong Forbes). This can be seen in this magnificent landscape:

And here:

Famously the Austrian emperor at the time liked and (presumably) bought her work, e.g.,


Spring in the Prater (1882)

So she was singled out among the many women (there were increasing numbers of women) in the art colonies of Central Europe. This is a fabulous reproduction of one by a colleague: Olga Wisinger-Florian: it shows that her work fits into and belongs with a milieu other women worked in at the time


Falling Leaves — we see the exquisite colors, precision, and (so common) the woman and child and small animal

Blau took a trip to the Netherlands in 1875 and her work became strongly influenced by the “old Dutch masters.”


A Sketch from Holland (one of many)


Kanal in Friesland (1908)

She was part of a later 19th century aspirational world of painters — made fun of in parodic illustrations of the French landscape obscured by so many umbrellas and parasols:  one in L’Illustration, November 24, 1849, Englished as “Study from Nature by a Merchant of Umbrellas and Parasols” (see Women’s Art Journal, Spring/summer 2020, p 34). The photograph of Blau is remarkable because of her use of a straw baby carriage and attached easel.

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


I find the reds in this twilight beautiful


This is a landscape described as “by the artist’s studio”

Her life is told in a couple of articles I list in the comments, and more briefly (but accurately) at wikipedia. I’ll leave the interested reader to find these (or email me) or be content with wikipedia. Here I just call attention to her father being a doctor and encouraging her strongly in her vocation and then profession of painter. She therefore studied with excellent artists, traveled to Italy, and made a few important and good friends who championed her work, e.g., Rosa Mayreder, A. F. Seligmann, a colleague at their school of art for women and girls. She does seem to have been adverse to advertising her work (networking) and would not follow or talk up a fashion because it was fashionable. She married another professional painter in 1883, the time together appears to have been happy, he died but 8 years later. She was thus mostly a single woman having to make her way, support herself. She had a studio in a beautiful park area in Munich for many years, and several solo exhibits, plus exhibiting with others. Around 1910 she began to photograph, document and try to set the record straight (she has been repeatedly described as the pupil of E. J. Schindler, when they shared a studio for some time).

How to put into words what is most remarkable about her art. I love the exquisitely precise detail of all that she sees in a landscape — there’s a geometry to the canals, polders, dikes, windmills. She is admired (celebrated) for her abilities to capture light, the colors of clouds, and for her own use of vivid and subdued colors. I am drawn to the peaceful order of the buildings, roads, and the people walking and gathering in groups.


April Day in the Prater (1889)


This is called Into the Light on some sites

When I look at her paintings like these, I find myself trying to remember the music and words for the songs in Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George (“Finishing the Hat” and “Putting it Together” especially) about music, order, art, harmony.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –-
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –
— Emily Dickinson


Claire (Caitriona Balfe) in her surgery (Outlander, Season 5)


After she is gang-raped in the 12th episode — she does need Jamie (Sam Heughan) to enable her to live the life she wants safely in the 18th century: without him, she would not last a month, and he would be lost without her, Brianna and now Roger …

Dear friends and readers,

A note to say I’ve not given up blogging on this site, but I am in an interim. I am slowing down and the teaching I am doing, classes I am following are taking up what strength and energy I have and so have put aside for now blogs on women poets (next up will be Elizabeth Bishop), painters (Tina Blau who paints just during the later 19th and early 20th century where I find so many women painters whose work deeply appeals to me), and actresses (next up a contemporary, Harriet Walter). I am instead working on a few related projects.

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


Sometimes this is called Into the Light (on Tina Blau)

I’ve started new or renewed older projects. Sometimes I forge ahead for a whole day, often at night. Once again I have watched and loved an Outlander season, 5, taken mostly from The Fiery Cross, with some material from A Breath of Snow and Ashes. The film-makers have brilliantly transposed the best in this fifth Outlander boo, and so consistently beautifully, I’m tempted to say it’s the best season since the first. I’ve found two academic essays, a book, and mean to start blogging soon.

My ideas for my Poldark book have morphed to what I can do and it will be a book finally on historical romances, arguing for the value of these two, and perhaps a selection of others which enter into the point of view in these two series of books and in the Outlander films that I love so much. I want also to dwell on Cornwall & like marginalized “edge” places.


The journey from Norland to Barton Cottage for the Dashwoods (from the 2009 Sense and Sensibility)

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

I am again watching the Austen movie canon, and recently finished three of the earlier BBC TV serial type versions: the familial drama, with love stories at the center: the 1971 Sense and Sensibility, the 1971 Persuasion, and the 1972 Emma. I am getting my act together on the ways in which they resemble one another, their real successes in conveying faithfully the inner world of these three novels.


Patricia Rutledge as the deliciously funny, rowdy and intrusive but well-meaning Mrs Jennings (1971 S&S, scripted Constantduros)

They do have the depth of emotion that are required and also the comedy — in the 1971 S&S, Patricia Rutledge is the most brilliant Mrs Jenkins I’ve ever seen and Fiona Walk the same for her highly sexualized Mrs Elton. What unites them is a real faithfulness to the literal as well as the true thematic emphases of Austen’s books — when in the 1971 Persuasion Wentworth (Bryan Marshall (who now I think of it played Rochester in a similarly early and very good Jane Eyre) arrives and the two actors silently interact — they are very strong presence and then the film opens out — so to speak. Out in the landscapes and gardens of some southern parts of England. The script is enough to convey the original tone and feel of the book, and it even gets better when they go perhaps to Lyme itself (they seem to on the cobb), lots of filming of the waters, the sky … No one has had the guts to present the hard ironized view of Emma as a bully, snob, and guarded when it comes to heterosexual sex that Glenister and Constantduros did in 1972.  No one played it as exquisitely lightly as Doran Goodwin.


Emma (Doran Goodwin) beginning to be aware she has made of Mr Elton an aggressive suitor (1972 Emma, scripted also by Constantduros)

The movies for cinema have still been mostly of the screwball (from the 1940s MGM Pride and Prejudice, to the 1996 Clueless and latest Emma travesty) to eye-candy (1996 McGrath Emma (Gweneth Paltrow starring) and 2016 Whit Stillman Love and Friendship (mistitled), to wild mis- and effective cultural appropriations, e.g., 2004 Bride and Prejudice (Gurinder Chadha), the 2010 queering of making violent Jane Austen and Zombies (Graham-Smith) ….

I could do it by source: watch all the Persuasions in a row, all the NAS — the problem would be there have been so many P&Ps, S&Ss, and now Emmas (with that last cinema travesty returning to screwball burlesque, with a coda of absurdly sexualized soppy romance). But this would turnup less general insights though perhaps more about the individual Jane Austen novels …

I carry on working on my review of a book on Jane Austen and the arts.

I am seeing the book as a whole as indicative of the state of Jane Austen studies today: Particular sub-theses: yet another set of writings doused in hagiography, uncritical celebration over the reality underneath the reach of Austen’s celebrity and the money-making powers of her name … sleight-of-hand and strained language to attach Austen to religious movements, areas of knowledge, and popular or super-respected artists, interesting in themselves but having nothing to do with anything truly present in her fiction, novels or life … A group of words which refers to a set of particulars in characters and stories … are replaced by words from a set of concept drawn from legal philosophy … Scholars work very diligently on the most unforthcoming bits of text … extravagant improbable assertions of flawlessness and originality …

I won’t write separate a blog on this material. It is too demoralizing: how lightly Virginia Woolf managed to pass over the “mendacious” (her word) Hill book on Jane Austen and her Home and Friends [actually houses she dwelt in] …., when I think about it I think how several of these essays could have made such fine books if not so inappropriately justified with skewed perspectives. In his skimmingly light analysis of the misreading of Austen today, Louis Menand of the New Yorker does not begin to go into nonsense, scams, delusions

I read or tried to read Kipling’s “Janeites” in context for the first time: it was published in a series of rabidly imperialist sketches of soldiers’, colonialists, Indian natives’ lives between 1882 and 1889:

Well, I’m thinking it may be be totally ironic. I know the jist: it tells of these soldiers who read Jane Austen because she is such a comfort when you are fighting and killing and dying. Could it be that Kipling meant to mock the growing cult that had begun with the publication of Austen’s nephew’s memoir, rightly sent up by Henry James because it had been taken up by publishers who witnessed the sudden sales of Austen’s novels read in this sentimental way. The illustrations by Hugh Thompson clinched this.

If so, he had failed utterly because it is usually read straight and to tell the truth it seems to me that the text won’t support the idea it is a mockery. It goes on too long. It is too affectionate. When you write satire or burlesque you need to play fair and indicate this somehow. When you don’t, you end up like Defoe after he wrote The Shortest Way with Dissenters — exterminate them! – in a pillory and parts of your body broken.

But Kipling’s story has been ever so convenient for today’s worshipful misreadings

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

While I also work as best I can on my review of the new standard edition of Anne Finch’s poetry (much to re-read and consider), I am again reading about what is specific to women’s poetry, more than one book, and how the women poets from the 17th through 21st century mine the same extraordinary terrain. Just now I’m reading Dwelling in Possibility: Women Poets and Critics on Poetry, edd. Yopie Prins and Maera Shreiber and Readings in Renaissance Women’s Drama: Criticism, History, and Performance 1594-1998, edd. S.P. Certasano and Marion Wynne-Davies.

Dwelling in Possibility turns out to be a sincerely thought out book on the state of thinking today on women writers by feminists and people who study women’s literature (not always the same group). I am so pleased to have explained to me and put together the very different strands of feminist outlooks studying women’s books today — including the “long” poem and why when it’s by women it seems to bore a lot of readers; and the sonnet or love lyric, and why it has been marginalized — a private world — and often dealt with as fictional (these are all conventions &c — when the men write them). Finch tried to write long poems and she wrote love lyrics (if not sonnets) and she attempted to feminize those male genres she was brave enough to write in, writing love lyrics from her own vulnerable point of view. It would seem that while much closer to the manuscripts Dickinson left than Johnson’s edition, Franklin is not true to their incoherent (they are crowded together sometimes, go to the end of page) and half-wild appearance. They are written in her heart’s blood.

Especially insightful is Claudia Thomas’s Alexander Pope and his 18th century women readers. She is far more truthful than the present Finch scholars in showing how ambivalent and estranged was Finch’s relationship to Pope as at the same time Finch participated in admiring and exchanging sentiments with a man who (like Rousseau) paid women the compliment by paying attention to and speaking to them through his translations and epistolary verse.

Readings in Renaissance Women’s Drama manages to convince me that these early plays by women are of interest — one essay by Wynne-Davies herself (now I have seen her in a Future Learn on the Sidneys which dwelt on Mary Herbert Sidney’s play, The Tragedie of Antony (he of Cleopatra fame), and Mary Sidney Lady Wroth’s play, Love’s Victorie — is about what it must have been like to write such plays in vast country houses during times of court exile and also war. She reminded me of what DuMaurier’s imagines of Menabilly (a great house in an estate) during the time of the 17th century civil war (The King’s General) — DuMaurier’s book connects back. Finch wrote hers from the seclusion of a great house too, and to protect herself from jeering and abrasion and probably scolding while she was deeply depressed –at least when around others.


Derek Jacobi and Eileen Atkins in a long ago production of Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not for Burning (alluded to centrally in one of Winston Graham’s mysteries)

I doubt there are ten people in the world who might understand why I find such joy and peace when I am engaged in reading about earlier (in time) and learned women’s poetry, drama, novels and memoirs and some of these themselves.  Or watching older and costume drama movies.

(Maybe there might be a few more who would understand my similar feelings for reading Trollope, whose books I teach regularly; I am also looking forward to V.S Naipaul’s A Bend in the River this term as part of a class on Kipling and colonialism (whence my reading “Janeites” in context). One of my favorite contemporary books by men is his The Enigma of Arrival. It’s not coincidence this more understandable escape is art by men.)

My context: during this pandemic and under the vicious rhetoric and violence of the Trump junta I feel I am living in retreat from a full-scale war on all decent ordinary people.

‘We are all offending every moment of our lives.’ — Marianne Dashwood, Austen’s S&S (1:13)

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


Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane in Strong Poison (according to Francesca Wade in one review the character was called a Bloomsbury bluestocking … she is my gravatar or image for my first old Sylvia I blog)

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »