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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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)

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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

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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

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Martha Rosler, in front of her most recent exhibit, Irrespective at the Jewish Museum & Yale University

Dear friends,

This is an interim blog, or a blog in progress. I am not ready to write at all adequately, even in a blog form, on the life and work of the American artist, Martha Rosler. I need to read her writing more, see more of her photography as printed in books. I’ve two good books on the way(Culture Class, and a Retrospective catalogue). But having felt so demoralized by recent events in the US public worlds, and today feeling lifted up with some hope for women with Joe Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris for his vice-presidential candidate, and listened to the various podcasts on Rosler’s exhibit online, I want no longer to wait to include in my series of woman artists at long last, someone still alive as well as right now creating art to enable women to uncover, challenge, and subvert the views of them that turn them into powerless sex objects, woman as existing only in relation to men (mother, wife, sister, daughter),and to expose war, homelessness, gender roles, commercialism, inequality, hard labor, desperately abysmal living conditions around the world. She is has been at this for fifty years. She was born and still lives in Brooklyn, taught at Brooklyn college, has been socially engaged with the communities all around.  Her official website.

Her photograph and montages speak for themselves — as pictures should.  From her Semiotics of the Kitchen:

Letter “K” (Knife). Still from Semiotics of the Kitchen, black-and-white video, 1975 — If you had to live here …

From House Beautiful, Bringing the War Home (1962-72); Images of women at home as of Vietnam and the US colonialist wars against the Southeast Asian people (Vietnam, Cambodia)


The Gray Drape


Men at War


The Gladiators

This is one she made of Pat Nixon, as the quintessential American householder:


First Lady, Pat Nixon — it’s hard to distinguish so much phoniness, so flat and abject , so pathetic a consciousness

How beautiful? what make for beauty? Rosler is much influenced by Luce Irigaray’s strategies of apparent aquiescence combine with harsh punishmentas the way of the world towards ordinary people. In her essays on art and the art world, she lays bare the class structures, the privileging, how museums and colleges can work to stifle individuals. Her anti-war work is sometimes wrongly interpreted as being against just one kind of war: the colonialist, far away. But she is ever doing is examining the material bases and left-overs from our daily lives. History and art must be inclusive: take in what’s found at Wall-Mart, low and vulgar as well as high and elegant art.

Here is a good explanation of what her collages and montages are made of:

And here she discusses the conditions of the art world in Lisbon at an exhibit in a museum the 1970s, her own attitudes and how they’ve changed over the years, and what are the conditions an artist who wants to show her work (and occasionally maybe sell it) have to deal with: audience taste, audience tolerance, the financing of art

Ellen

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Knole, Kent, the house, begun in 1456, greatly extended c.1603, on a frosty December day

Winter. Blackout.

Quiet. The tick of clock
Shall bring you peace,
To your uncertain soul
Give slow increase.

The blackened windows shut
This inward room
Where you may be alone
As in the tomb.

A tomb of life not death,
Life inward, true,
Where the world vanishes
And you are you.

War brings this seal of peace,
This queer exclusion,
This novel solitude,
This rare illusion

As to the private heart
All separate pain
Brings loss of friendly light
But deeper, darker gain ….
— from The Land

Friends and readers,

It is truly hard to know by what image to represent Vita Sackville-West. If popular culture is our lens, she’s the wealthy gardener of Sissinghurst,


Sissinghurst Gardens

thrown out of Knole (above), after a long bitter fight to hold onto it; a lesbian about whom bad movies are made (Vita & Virginia, and The Portrait of a Marriage, not much better — except, and it’s an important except Janet McTeer intuitively and with probably study does manage to capture the inner better qualities of Sackville-West).  Despite the best efforts of lesbian and feminist scholars to help us appreciate the lesbian motifs of her art (see Lisa Moore’s Lesbian Arts, the Erotics of Landscape), and lip-service paid to acceptance of LGBTQ people, in fact lesbians in the public mind (if movies be any criteria) are seen as ludicrous somehow.  She loved Nicholson, her children, wrote poetry, explored earlier women, aspired to be trusted and respected by Woolf, but was an outsider:


Janet McTeer (Portrait of a Marriage)

The woman-in-the world, promiscuous self-indulgent aristocrat with the scandalous grandparents, parents, vehement liaisons, glamorous enough at age 26:

is at the center of Victoria Glendinning’s biography, which, in my view because she omits the literary part of Vita’s life (!), on the grounds the book would get too long, produces a thoroughly unlikable, not to say obnoxious, deeply reactionary woman.

But if the lens be what she wrote seriously, what she built (renovated) and gardened away on, her identity emerges quite differently; at a minimum caring for others she imaginatively identified with.  She is not primarily or just a novelist.  As with Woolf, there are big diaries, much travel writing, the book about Knole and the Sackvilles (before abridgement), and a book about country house, another on her garden and the land (in verse this time). She goes over the courtyard of Knole, showing how each element was functional at the time it was built, how beautifully appropriate the shapes, angles, and how they fit into another, into the earth’s landscape around them, and then carried on functioning across time. There are the remarkable non-fiction biographies, from Joan of Arc (long with a firmly built up world of 15th century France),

I was startled to realize what the point was. I tried to read it years ago in a mind-blind (?) heteronormative way. Sackville-West is drawn to this girl as a transvestite, as a lesbian, probably somewhat butch. Having watched the film Carrington (see my blog on the artist) the other night I am persuaded the way Emma Thompson looks early in the film – chunky, boyish, dense, determined — would be perfect for Sackville-West conception of Joan of Arc too. It is as a absolute underminer of female sexual conventions that Sackville-West is writing with sympathy and admiration. Similarly her portrait of Anne Clifford, the superpower Duchess in the 17th century. Maybe S-W would have loved Thatcher — for she is also politically profoundly reactionary.

to Aphra Behn, and Lady Anne Clifford (here I’m thinking of her edition of the diary and her unearthing of this woman who controlled and renovated castles in Northern England), Pepita (a biography, half fantasy, half hard headed of her grandmother). Among the best of this non-fiction work, her books on houses, and her literary criticism (particularly her defense of rhyme and formality in poetry, of the use of deeply personal felt material in a poem — contemporary poetry is too afraid of ridicule –, and the odd unusual angle or focus).

I particularly admired her analysis of what’s wrong with contemporary poetry: it was a Bloomsbury perspective: modern poetry (1928, a lecture she delivered) is inhibiting people from from producing the raw inward feelings that drive them — by its demand for balance, its strong embarrassment, so critics ridicule what distresses them about humanity. I know one complaint about the Bloomsbury people at the time is who wants to read about cripples, people mentally distressed &c. Beyond the fear of ridicule, the focus of contemporary read poetry and critics is too central, mainstream. What is wanted is a new angle, something oblique and truer to the inward material itself. Last there is too much worship of free verse; free verse itself uses rhythm, word assonance, all sorts of subdued patterns. She is justifying her own poetry but this manifesto reminds me of others by other Bloomsbury people. Last I love her call for “the dignity of pessimism.”

Then there are her literary biographies (shorter, one on Andrew Marvel), and fiction, and Georgic poetry of the seasons (her Virgilian book-length Land and Garden, once a best seller) .  She is a compelling, deeply appealing, strong artist, a major woman writer of the first into the second half of the 20th century. Worthy to study alongside her lover-friend, and sometime admirer, Virginia Woolf, and definitely belonging in the circles of Bloomsbury people.


Virginia as photographed by Ottoline Morrell, 1926 — caught as glamorously as Morrell could manage

To suggest how to get to know about the Sackville-West who matters in a blog, I’ll put the matter this way: first read Suzanne Raitt’s Vita and Virginia: The Work and Friendship, then Louise DeSalvo’s study of their writing in terms of one another’s aims, outlook, style, then the literal books by Woolf (Vita gave Virginia the dog, Flush, about whom Virginia wrote her marvelous biography; and Virginia wrote her fantastical biography Orlando, an experimental novel, as a way of expressing the complex realities of Vita’s life and art (“Lighting the Cave”). Then read all of Mary Ann Caws’s Selected Writings of Vita Sackville-West: she has picked out the highest moments of genius in the best works and beautifully described many others.

As a pair in life, they met in the early 1920s, became lovers for a while, 1925-28, traveled together. Vita made money for Hogarth Press, wrote best-sellers in not only fiction but life-writing – about herself, the famous ancient house she lived in (thought she should have inherited but excluded as a girl, quite like Austen’s Bennett sisters) and her grandmother. As of 1970, The Land and the Garden sold 100,000 copies (alas not printed by Hogarth Press as too big & complicated a book). In both their books we see their love of animals, and immersion in the natural world, deep respect for the past, deep past, architectural, geologic (Virginia), geographic (Vita)

Vita’s books are as central to the diptych. Sackvlle-West’s biographies and scholarly editions of the work of earlier women, beyond those I’ve mentioned, a life of the first successful female playwright, Aphra Behn, two of whose plays are still done — The Rover and The Widow Ranter (about a woman who lived in the colonies) – with the first truly readable novel about an enslaved man, Oroonoko. What Virginia called for in her Room of One’s Own, what her Memoirs of a Novelist asked for (what Virginia’s Miss Rosamond Merridew wanted to do for her brilliant memoirist, Mistress Joan Martyn), Sackville-West did for several early modern women. She brought them back from oblivion.  On her Anne Clifford and Woolf, see Nicky Hallett’s Ann Clifford as Orlando: Virginia Woolf’s historiology and women’s biography,” Women’s History Review, 4:4 (1995):505-23/

The subjective style, tri-partite structure, themes of Sackville-West’s gem novella, All Passion Spent are pure Woolfian, especially the central section, part two where we get these anguished memories of Lady Slane of how she came to marry Henry, what her life was like, that she loved him, but was defrauded of the life she wanted to lead. She was one who lived her life as a category: great man’s wife, she came with the luggage, was there to manage house, have children, and look good at dinners. Could not escape. So let me concentrate however briefly on this novel, offer another poem and then have done.


Wendy Hiller as Lady Slane, on her own at last – she plays the part of the gradually frailer woman impeccably

The novel is about someone who is suddenly (as it were unexpectedly, almost with surprise) feeling emancipated at age 88. As with Maurice, there is this gap between the outward life imposed on Lady Shane (that she lived) and the one we find ourselves in in her mind. How was it that she led the life she did? How as she led into it? Why did she stay? he was coerced, made to feel that her deepest desires were absurd, utterly unsuitable for a life’s quest; by her husband, not even given a studio to work at painting as an art (perhaps watercolors, he says, thinking perhaps of a kit on a table?). Funny how Henry never had to give up any of his hobbies – any of the things he enjoyed most. All Passion Spent is a strongly feminist book. In the case of Forster’s Maurice, the deeply troubled childhood and early manhood dramatized before us is something that could happen to a heterosexual male; it can be felt by any girl or women growing up who cannot conform, cannot understand she is (to paraphrase Alec Scudder) being “taught what is not the case” in order to get her to behave certain ways — performatively I’d call it. In the case of All Passion Spent, what happened to Lady Slane and also Genoux is particular to women. Men are coerced into doing things but often they lead to power, and positions in public life. Deborah, Lady Slane was made into a man’s instrument – she was lucky he was rich and powerful but everything was owned by him. Her body was his, where she lived, how she spent her time. No one ever gave a thought of any kind to Genoux; she was to be a servant of her siblings, and live a life of hard work, filled with trauma. She escapes to Lady Slane. Genoux loves her lady because we are shown Lady Slane was all kindness. It has flaws. It’s pastoral, an idyll, a kind of courtly entertainment in which there is no threat but the ultimate death. (Et in Arcadia Ego.) All the people Lady Slane meets are all courtesy and truth. There is a kind of dripping condescension towards Genoux. The attitude towards money is improbable (a function of S-W having been so rich).

From Winter once again

What have they,
The bookish townsmen in their dry retreats,
Known to December dawns, before the sun
Reddened the earth, and fields were wet and grey?
When have they gone, another day begun,
By tracks into quagmire trodden,
With sacks about their shoulders and the damp
Soaking until their very souls were sodden,
To help a sick beast, by a flickering lamp,
With rough words and kind hands?
Or felt their boots so heavy and so swere
With trudging over cledgy lands,
Held fast by earth, being to earth so near?

Book-learning they have known.
They meet together, talk and grow most wise,
But they have lost, in losing solitude,
Something — an inward grace, the seeing eyes,
The power of being alone;
The power of being alone with earth and skies,
Of going about a task with quietude,
Aware at once of earth’s surrounding mood
And of an insect crawling on a stone …

Nocturne:

Now die the sounds. No whisper stirs the trees.
Her patten merged into the general web
The shriven day accepts her obsequies
With humble ebb.

Now are the noiseless stars made visible
That hidden by the day pursued the track,
And this one planet that we know too well
Mantles in black.

Then, from the thicket, sang the nightingale,
So wildly sweet, so sudden, and so true,
It seemed a herald from beyond the veil
Had broken through.

The common earth’s confusion all unseen,
But worlds revealed in broad magnificence, —
That unembodied music third between
Sprang hence, or thence?

Nothing remained of the familiar round,
Only the soul ecstatic and released
Founted towards the spheres in jets of sound,
And died, and ceased.

But plangent from the thickets of the thorn
Broke other voices, taking up the choir,
While Cancer interlaced with Capricorn
In silent fire,

And all the harmonies were joined and whole,
Silence was music, music silence made,
Till each was both or either, and the soul
Was not afraid.

It was produced as a beautiful book with illustrations redolent of medieval woodcuts (subtly modernized).

                               Duncan Grant — Parrot Tulips (this image fits Lisa Moore’s ideas on erotic lesbian art ….

For my part, there is nothing I love more than to read for hours books by and on early modern to later 18th century women.  So I here support all Woolf’s efforts in the area of retrieving women’s lives and texts and Vita’s successes.

Ellen

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One of many self-portraits

“I have to work like a slave to keep myself, my daughter, her teachers, the maid, a domestic, a carriage, a cook, a household and, finally, to cover the perpetual expense of travelling. What would I have done without my work? If I had been ill, you would have let me starve; since instead of saving money you have spent it on women who deceived you, you have gambled and lost, Monsieur; a thousand and one people have told me that you see me in your own image, but I am not you. I will neither let my fortune fall into the hands of strangers, since it has been too hard to earn and I do not know a single person low enough to profit by it, nor will I take advice from anyone.”

“[I] cared so little for money that I scarcely knew the value of it … my closest friends all know that M. LeBrun took all the money I earned, on the plea of investing it in his business. I often had no more than six francs in my pocket … the Princess Lubomirska remitted twelve thousand francs to me, out of which I begged Mr LeBrun to let me keep forty; but he would not let me have even that, alleging he needed the whole sum for a promissory note … “

Friends and readers,

In her fine aesthetic and feminist study, Mary Sheriff labels our heroine The Exceptional Woman, with a subtitle pointing us to “the Cultural Politics of Art” (University of Chicago Press). This in a period where we find successful professional woman artists (Adelaide Labille-Guiard, Angelica Kauffman, Ann Vallayer-Coster, Mary Beale, Maria Sybilla Merian, Anna Dorothea Therbusch, Rosalba Carriera, to name only a few and keep within the 1660-1815 tranch. Even in this rich Enlightenment interlude for women, Vigée-LeBrun’s output of paintings (in the hundreds), her extensive network of well-known patrons, supporters far flung across Europe, the money she clearly made to support a very comfortable upper class life-style, and unashamed self-promotion, makes her exceptional and important.

Yet there are similarities: in common with a number of women artists, early on she assumed an independence from her husband, in effect lived the life of a single woman (even if she had a husband in tow she was the money-earner). The woman with a career, the professional was often a woman with no husband to support her.  She exploited (did not thwart or ignore or defy) stereotypes of ideal womanhood:   she acted out myths (the genius child, treated as an equal by aristocrats, self-taught, it was her father who encouraged her). As with her portraits of herself, those of her with her daughter, Julie, are very much posed, & transparently pointed, so I’ve chosen one just of Julie as less common:


Just Julie LeBrun (eventually Nigris)
The mirror image resembles Elisabeth’s face closely

She frequently flattered her clients, especially women where she repeatedly gives them expressionless un-individuated faces (to the point, they can look like dolls and could have been left blank)

Caroline Murat (wife of King of Naples, one of Napoleon’s generals, 1806) — often LeBrun gives women hefty arms whose structure shows a lack of anatomical care

If I seem hard on her, it’s because I believe we do an artist no favor except we offer careful analyses. She is a wonderful colorist, and can capture psychology in a face when she wants to, is especially acute painting male artists she sympathizes with,


Hubert Robert (1788)

She suffuses those she loves with deep sensuality, her brother’s skin breathes at us


Etienne LeBrun, Portrait of the Artist’s Brother (1773)

If you want to see just what a genius in the areas she is superb in, look at this album of images from Female Artists in History: a number are not well-known


Daughter of the actor, Caillot, 1787

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

What differentiates her — almost unique for women as such from before the 19th century: she wrote and published herself before she died, a 2 volume autobiography, Souvenirs, and once the revolution “hit,” and she fled, discovered liberty and enjoyment in traveling about (rather like a tourist at times). If this blog can contribute to the numerous articles and some book-length studies (don’t miss Gita May’s; a third is Angela Gooden’s The Sweetness of Life, which I have not read), and catalogues from exhibits, I can point out to those just discovering her, the readily available Memoirs of Madame Vigée-LeBrun translated by Strachey, is a very much abridged, censored (expurgated) and poor translation of the Memoirs.  Avoid it.  Souvenirs must be read whole to appreciate the artist and woman: in the original French, Elisabeth Vigée-LeBrun, Souvenirs (1 & 2), ed. Claudine Hermann (Des Femmes, 1986), Englished by Sian Evans and published in the UK in two volumes (Camden Books, 1989, ISBN 0948491396).

If you obtain and the whole two volumes (whether in English or her French), you emerge with understanding and appreciation of the real hardships the woman knew (however she denies this), and how she can show real insight into all sorts of situations (from a young age), places, landscapes. Her book opens with 12 letters to a trusted friend, Princess Kurkan, then 32 chapters of a chronological life, 9 letters to another woman friend, a Polish princess, Helene Massalska (married into Potocka family), 3 more chapters bringing us up to the last phase of her life (she was 80 when she wrote the book), and closing with ten witty portraits, notable personalities (Benjamin Franklin, Talleyrand, Madame de Genlis, Voltaire, David among them).

The story line of the middle chapters of the book are travel literature under pressure. She flees the revolution across the Alps, across Northern Italy (Venice, Milan), until she gets to Rome where she tries to recreate the life she had known in Paris (complete with salon and hard work in a studio) then, without much explanation for the move, south to Naples, where she met and painted Emma Lady Hamilton,


Lady Hamilton as Sybil (this is typical work for LeBrun)

There follows a long interesting time in Russia where she made many friends (St Petersburg and Moscow), and finally (when it was safe), home to France, but not to stay put as yet: she then has an interlude in England where she again meets the gifted, rich, intelligent (a delightful section, evoking London), and re-starts her career once again, and finally back to France for retirement in Louveciennes (yes where the Impressionists settled and painted later in the 19th century), with trips to Versailles. Here is just one of the countless portraits she did (she would have liked to do landscape she said, but there was no money in it) during her travels:  the brilliant: Count Giovanni Paisiello, seeming rapt while in mid-action at the clavichord


Giovanni Paisiello, 1791

As with so many other women artists of the 18th century, her art is as good early on as it ever gets to be.

She had gotten along very well with Marie-Antoinette, painted her numerous times — why her life was in significant danger. It’s not a feat for her values are the values of these aristocratic women and men — that’s why starting in the 1790s she floats through Europe almost at times as if there had been no revolution — while taking advantage of it – she divorced her husband in 1794.

Just be careful to take with a grain of salt some of her assertions and some of the more spectacular scenes. She mis-characterizes most reactionary people, with an eye continually to dismiss anything smacking of reformism. She does have encounters with the destitute: there is a graphic description of poverty in Letter 10, where Vigee-Le Brun writes about visiting the poor with her friend, the middle-aged and increasingly eccentric Mme Dubarry, who, Le Brun says, was herself from “the bottom of the social ladder”.

“We often went together to visit some poor unfortunate, and I still remember her righteous anger one day when she came upon a wretched woman about to give birth with nothing to alleviate her suffering. ‘How is this!’ cried Mme Dubarry. ‘You have neither linen nor wine nor broth?’ ‘Alas! Nothing at all Madame.’ Straightway we returned to the chateau; Mme Dubarry called for her housekeeper and other servants who had not carried out her orders. I cannot begin to describe the fury with which she spoke, while ordering them to pack a bundle of linen for the poor sick woman as well as some soup and Bordeaux wine.”

This is a Lady Bountiful scenario, but the “anger” and “fury” does show an awareness of the social problems, and there isn’t much feeling that the broth and wine will put anything right. For herself, her misfortunes (in Russia) are physical: she cannot bear and makes us feel the cold — or noise when it disturbs her concentration when working and needed sleep. Whenever she finds someone who is pro-revolutionary and can point to where some aristocrat gave him or her a present, or bribe or job, she points this out. The whole point of the revolution was to destroy this way of getting on and substitute meritocracy, skill, education, to get rid of this kind of rottenness.

Some examples: There are the parties she puts on or attends where the conversation is always of the highest order. She claims to be the originator of a few new hairstyles and or fashions. The adoption of green veils in Naples quickly imitated. She invents novel entertainments for her guests which are well received.

In Venice when the Doge drops a ring into the water, we are told a thousand cannons fire “instantly.” Did Venice possess a thousand cannons. Venice itself was not fortified though there may have been surrounding forts. The Mediterranean powers did not use the large warships like the British, French, ans Spanish in the open Atlantic, which could carry 80 guns. They mostly used comparatively small galleys (oared with a single mast and sail). No matter how the cannons are arranged, it is not possible for them to be situated in such a way that all gunners could see and immediately respond to the Doge’s action. It’s unlikely more than one side of one ship could easily see the Doge’s action. Even without projectiles in the cannons, you don’t want to be in front of them when they are fired. Ships would need to be lined up end to end or be quite widely spaced. If land forts were involved there would be separations measured in miles. Most likely one ship would be close to the Doge with either the bow or stern nearest and an officer relaying an order to fire. Other ships or forts would react to the muzzle blasts or sounds of the first cannons fired. We all know about the delay of thunder from lightening strikes. If there were a really large number of cannons, the first volley or two would be fairly distinct, given human reaction time, but would quickly build to a cacophony as more distant cannons were fired.

Her daughter is nothing less than a genius of exceptional merit. If it wasn’t for these revolutions coming along and spoiling things (and the inferior husband), her life is at times near perfection.You must be alert to the reality she is not reliable. But like Angelica Kauffman, Vigee-LeBrun shows more or less truthfully how professional women artists had to present themselves, to avoid accusations of sexual transgression. As a woman living apart from her husband, she was accused of having affairs, early on with Charles Alexander de Calonne who looks very sweet-tempered here.


Charles-Alexander de Calonne, 1784

We might think maybe she did; but I get the feeling she is too cunning and hard to let go in this way, even if for those who knew how, contraceptive techniques of various were available (just kidding). For a reading of these Memoirs, see Jean Owens Schaefer, “The Souvenirs of Elizabeth Vigee-LeBrun: The Self-Imaging of the Artist and the Woman,” International Journal of Women’s Studies, 4:1 (1980):35-49.). We must not attribute too much calculation or control: hers was a life of wandering exile and self-containment, with a daughter by side, and later (when the daughter was estranged) two nieces by her side, Caroline de Riviere, Etienne’s daughter, and Eugenei Le Franc, who showed a talent at portraiture. She outlived many of her friends as well as her daughter.

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

Out of the literature about her, I pick two strains or themes an observer or reader might follow. First, many art critics are taken by her work and write beautiful art criticism, pleasurable to read. Julian Barnes puts me in mind of Diderot: from an exhibit he saw at the Grand Palais (quoted from the London Review of Books:

She was very accomplished, excellent at flesh and all the varieties of material that covered it: the muslin and lace, the satins and silks, the straw hats and the flowers that lodged in them; she was good at and with children. She was also very professional, knowing how to disguise physical fault and accentuate any hint of beauty; she knew the most winning relationship between parted lips and visible teeth. She pleased her sitters; her sitters pleased her. She was expert at a kind of formal informality. In this, she resembles Cecil Beaton at the court of the young Elizabeth II: both produced a very highly worked art whose intended effect was of naturalness. She was very French. She spent three years in England, much of it – from Matlock to the Isle of Wight – reminding her of Switzerland. When visiting Bath she thought the city’s effect from a distance was ‘immense’; but up close, you realised its architecture ‘was not in good taste’. She also complained of Reynolds’s art that it was somewhat ‘unfinished’. Her own painting is always, always finished.

A tension between artifice and naturalness: this is where her art comes from, and what it delivers. The clothes are loose, the hair usually unpowdered, the pose informal, the smile of just the right size. All her aristocrats look noble, all her mothers devoted, all her children cute; even the background furnishings and fittings are loyally supportive. The charm is tremendously calculated. And charm is dangerous, double-edged. Take one of the century’s most famous portraits of a child, her Alexandrine-Emilie Brongniart of 1788, now in the National Gallery in London. This seven-year-old girl is all in white, a pocket minuet of muslin and silk, while her auburn curls escape from a knotted white scarf. She is rummaging in a sewing bag from which she has just removed a red ball of wool. Naturally – or rather, ‘naturally’ (since she would ‘normally’, i.e. in ‘real life’, be looking where she is rummaging) – she fixes us with big round eyes and a cautious, disarming half-smile. There are no two ways about this picture. Either you want to adopt this adorable bundle of girlhood; or else you want to strangle the knowing little moppet.

I don’t have copies of these, but invite my reader to contemplate this remarkably warm picture: the lady has suspended her reading for “a few moments of thoughtful reflection” (see May, pp 136-38). Look at her dress, the colors, the textures of things, the symmetry of relationships


Princess Catherine Dolgorouky (1796?)

Her relationship with her daughter repays study as well. What we discover counters or contradicts the continual pairing in LeBrun’s paintings of the two as intertwined lovingly A brilliant essay by Katherine Ann Jensen, Marriage, and Nostalgia: Mother-Daughter Relations in Writings by Isabelle de Charriere and Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun,” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 19:2 (Autumn, 2000):285-313, traces the early devoted relationship of mother and daughter, an apparent deep bonding. The assumption is that Julie will mirror her mother, and her life be shaped by her mother’s values. In fact, Julie broke away rather early, defying her mother’s choice of a husband for her and hard-working way of life. LeBrun wanted to validate her success through making her daughter secure, by marrying her to rank, money, high gifts; she saw Nigris, the secretary of a family friends as “un homme sans talent, sans fortune, sans nom.”

Perhaps LeBrun was trying for Julie, to lead her to create an independent sense of self through a partner who would place her high in society and enable her to thrive there, create a self as she, Elisabeth, had; or, she wanted to retain control over the girl by marrying her to her own candidate. Her husband sided with Julie; she could not convince the girl herself that Nigris would not make a good partner, would not bring happiness. LeBrun felt bitter, blamed the governess, blaming reading romantic novels (Nigris looked like a “pale” melancholy hero). And so they parted, mother and daughter. But the girl did not build a different self. Nigris turned out to be a man much like her father: gambled, went to prostitutes. What we should pay attention to (I think) is the misfortune did not eventually bring mother and daughter together as sometimes happens or might have been expected. Julie did not try to re-join her mother, she left her husband seven years later, and stayed proudly away; we are told that fifteen years later (at age 39), she somehow grew sick (lost weight) and died.

The interest for Jensen is that in what actually happened insofar as we can judge it does not cohere with Freudian style paradigms of parent-child symbiosis; the mother-daughter paradigm so typical of women’s art, women’s writing is still somehow central but we have not understood it for real, the true nuances of developing relationships.


This is Elisabeth’s study, a drawing of Marie Antoinette’s baby for the famous picture of Antoinette as mother in grandiose dress with her children all about her

There is so much material, so many pictures to explore and to learn, just add diligent work in archives and/or studying the art and norms of France and other women artists and writers in this spectacularly changing era. Gentle reader, as Goodden doubtless suggests, Elisabeth is great fun, and you will have much pleasure, learn a lot about a woman’s life, art, and this era.

Ellen

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Catherine Clive as Mrs Riot by Peter Van Bleeck (in the Garrick Club) (detail enlarged)

Friends and readers,

I am delighted to be able to say I’ve put onto academia.edu, a review I wrote a couple of months ago of Berta Joncus’s Kitty Clive, or the Fair Songstress . I had hoped to attend the ASECS meeting in St Louis this past March, and was looking forward to seeing it published in the spring 2020 issue of the Intelligencer — right around the time of the conference. I was also to give a paper on historical fiction in the 18th century: Wheelchairs and Vases (on Daphne DuMaurier’s The King’s General and Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover), but like all the world (it seems), in the interests of protecting literally thousands and thousands of lives from a deadly and high contagious virus, the meeting was called off and I have been “sheltering in place” since March 13.


An 18th century illustration, said to be the house in Twickenham where Clive lived out her later years

Seven years ago I wrote a blog on Clive as an actress and writer, a woman who built a highly successful career in 18th century theater: I hope I have now deleted that blog because I realize how inadequate it was: for a start, I did not realize to what extent Clive built her success on her singing and musicianship. The blog was part of series of blog-essays on actresses, artists, and women poets, which I resumed doing a couple of months ago, and now add a much shortened (& corrected) version of.

If my reader has read the review, and is (I hope) going to get the book and read a few of the essays of and by Clive available, perhaps the thing I can do here is add to it a sense of Clive’s inner life at its charming best: on stage. To convey her the persona or personality her audience supposed was hers I begin with two epilogues written for and/or by her. It was a central convention of the era for star-actresses to address the audience before or after the play in ways that introduced or satirized the play they had seen, presenting an ironic under-self, a hidden laughing sub-self who mocked and replayed the character the actress had just personated in familiar (supposedly non-fictional) ways.

We begin with an epilogue spoken at the end of The Apprentice by Arthur Murphy, an 1756 after-piece for Southern’s Oroonoko (tragic-poignant). This one is attributed to a friend (as some of her pieces also were) but is written as if it were by her, identifying the speaker’s attitudes with that of a another hard-working girl. Note how Clive addresses the audience rebarbatively, partly identifies with the milliners, qualified by sharp hard ironies towards women spending their lives in virtuous low paid hard work, and the many ironic and celebratory references to familiar characters of the Shakespearean and 18th century repertoire (some of which she would have played):

EPILOGUE written by a Friend , spoken by Mrs. CLIVE.

[Enters reading the Play-Bill.]
A very pretty Bill,—as I’m alive!
The Part of—Nobody—by Mrs. Clive !
A paltry, scribling Fool—to leave me out—
He’ll say perhaps—he thought I could not spout .
Malice and Envy to the last Degree!
And why?—I wrote a Farce as well as He.
And fairly ventur’d it,—without the Aid
Of Prologue dress’d in black, and Face in Masquerade;
O Pit—have Pity—see how I’m dismay’d!
Poor Soul!—this canting Stuff will never do,
Unless, like Bay’s, he brings his Hangman too.
But granting that from these same Obsequies,
Some Pickings to our Bard in black arise;
Should your Applause to Joy convert his Fear,
As Pallas turns to feast— Lardella’s Bier ;
Yet ‘twould have been a better Scheme by half
T’have thrown his Weeds aside, and learn’t with me to laugh.
I could have shewn him, had he been inclin’d,
A spouting Junto of the Female Kind.
There dwells a Milliner in yonder Row,
Well-dress’d, full-voic’d, and nobly built for Shew,
Who, when in Rage, she scolds at Sue and Sarah ,
Damn’d, Damn’d Dissembler !—thinks she’s more than Zara
She has a Daughter too that deals in Lace,
And sings—O Ponder well—and Cherry Chase ,
And fain would fill the fair Ophelia’s Place.
And in her cock’t up Hat, and Gown of Camblet,
Presumes on something— touching the Lord Hamlet .
A Cousin too she has, with squinting Eyes,
With wadling Gait, and Voice like London Cries ;
Who, for the Stage too short by half a Story,
Acts Lady Townly—thus—in all her Glory.
And, while she’s traversing her scanty Room,
Cries—“Lord, my Lord, what can I do at home!”
In short, there’s Girls enough for all the Fellows,
The Ranting, Whining, Starting, and the Jealous,
The Hotspurs, Romeos, Hamlets, and Othellos.
Oh! Little do those silly People know,
What dreadful Trials—Actors undergo.
Myself—who most in Harmony delight,
Am scolding here from Morning until Night.
Then take Advice from me, ye giddy Things,
Ye Royal Milliners, ye apron’d Kings;
Young Men beware and shun our slipp’ry Ways,
Study Arithmetic, and burn your Plays;
And you, ye Girls, let not our Tinsel train
Enchant your Eyes, and turn your madd’ning Brain;
Be timely wise, for oh! be sure of this;—
A Shop with Virtue, is the Height of Bliss.

The second prefaced a private performance we apparently know almost nothing about, only that prologue survives and was published in one of several miscellanies of prologues and epilogues popularly read at the time in collections of such verse, as by David Garrick, a actor-manager very important in Clive’s life and to her career (as he was to just about all actresses and actors at the time).

A Prologue, upon Epilogues, Spoken at a Private Benefit:

Enter in a black coat, closely buttoned.
Behold me in the usual prologue dress,
Though why it should be black, I cannot guess;
Custom, the law of schools — improvement’s foe,
Has long established that it shall be so:
But, say is slavish custom to control,
The active vigor of my free-born soul;
I”ll break the statute — and her laws deface
[Unbuttoning coat and displaying gold-laced waist-coat]
Behold the glare of deviating lace;
Departing farther from custom’s dream
I bid adieu to prologue’s usual theme;
And while o’er critic rules my rivals doze
A prologue upon epilogues compose.
The epilogue, which always deck’d with smiles
In female accent, tragic care beguiles:
That when exalted thoughts, the mind impress,
A trivial jest must make the pleasure less.
Ludicrous custom, which compels to show,
The cap of folly, in the rear of woe;
Portrays a smile, emerging from a sigh,
And pleasure starting from affliction’s eye;
Makes joy’s bright beam in sorrow’s face appear,
And Quibble dry the sentimental tear.
If when a tragic tale in virtue’s cause,
The soft compassion of the tender draws;
Custom, decrees, our feeling be repressed,
By some vile pun, or some unseemly jest:
By the same rule, when comic swains give birth,
To nature’s dimples, in the cheeks of mirth;
A doleful ditty, should conclude the night,
And rob the audience of their dear delight:
E’er with improvement they can make retreat,
The purpose of the well-wrought piece defeat.
Then sons of genius, be it all your pride,
To throw the codes of prejudice aside:
By custom’s shackles be no more restrained,
Be ev’ry mental faculty unchain’d.
Our bodies freedom, we in birthright find,
Then let’s assert the freedom of the mind.

This prologue upon epilogues develops a complicated thought and assertion on behalf of liberty as well as containing an insightful critique of how epilogues relate to the genres of plays and play with dramatic conventions. The text is not in ECCO; it’s reprinted in “Garrick’s Unpublished Epilogue for Catherine Clive’s The Rehearsal; or, Bayes In Petticoats by Matthew J Kinservik, Études Anglaises, 49:3, (1996):320-26.


This the full length whole portrait by Peter van Bleeck – -I prefer to reprint this than one of the several prints supposedly of Clive much younger — they are patently false, doll-like rococo faces, Barbie doll bodies, smooth wigs, a shepherdess costume

Her career was so long and complicated, I thought it best to provide a narrative older life from the ODNB (as an alternative to or) filling out Joncus’s portrait from a different register & tone:

“According to William Chetwood’s General History of the Stage (1749), Clive was the daughter of William Raftor, a Kilkenny lawyer of considerable estate who ruined his fortunes by aligning himself with James II during the latter’s campaign in Ireland in 1690. After a period of exile, he was pardoned and returned to London to marry a Mrs Daniel, ‘Daughter to an eminent Citizen on Fishstreethill with whom he had a handsome Fortune’ (Chetwood, 126). Chetwood further claims that the couple had numerous children, but the names of these brothers and sisters are unknown, except for James (*d*. 1790), who joined Kitty in a stage career, and a sister whose married name was Mrs Mestivyer. There is evidence that Kitty Clive supported her father once she was working, so whatever handsome fortune was in place when her parents married evidently dwindled over time.”

In 1728, “A friend of Jane Johnson, the first wife of Theophilus Cibber, Kitty was introduced to both Cibber and Chetwood. They, in turn, impressed with her ‘infinite Spirits, with a Voice and Manner in singing Songs of Pleasantry peculiar to herself’ (Chetwood, 127), recommended her to Colley Cibber, who added her to his list of performers at Drury Lane. Chetwood indicates that she had a few minor appearances in the spring of 1728, but once the full 1728–9 season opened she began appearing regularly in increasingly large and important roles. Throughout that season and those that followed she moved from supporting roles in tragedy to singing in afterpieces and playing the first-ranking characters in the farces popular in the period.”

“The fashion of musical comedy and burlesque suited Kitty’s vocal and comic talents perfectly, and she shone in parts such as Nell in Charles Coffey’s The Devil to Pay, in which she portrayed a cobbler’s wife transformed into the lady of the manor. Henry Fielding wrote several parts for her that highlighted her skills, including Chloe in The Lottery and Lappet in an adaptation of Molière’s The Miser. In the summer of 1732 she was given the most sought-after female role in musical comedy, Polly in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, and received a tribute to her portrayal from the Daily Journal, which called her the ‘Darling of the Age’ (25 July 1732). During the rebellion of the players in 1733, Kitty remained with John Highmore’s company at Drury Lane . . . Henry Fielding, who also remained loyal to Drury Lane, praised her acting talents and the alternative view of her character. In his preface to The Intriguing Chambermaid (1734), in which she played the title role, he compliments her as ‘the best Wife, the best Daughter, the best Sister, and the best Friend’ (Fielding) . . . Her best roles were particular comic types: the silly country miss, the wiser and more fashionable version of the same, and the pert and resourceful servant. These remained her strong suit for much of her career.

Few details are known about Catherine Raftor’s marriage to George Clive (*d*. 1780), a barrister and second cousin to Robert Clive ‘of India’ [Joncus suggests he was homosexual and it was a marriage of convenience — to look like heterosexuals], but that she appeared as Mrs Clive in the bills for the first time in October 1733. The name change suggests that the pair had just married or had done so during the summer, when she would not have been performing regularly. Evidence about the couple’s married life is also slight, but the two did not live together for very long, separating some time in 1735. Chetwood, ostensibly declining to comment on marital affairs, declares, ‘I never could imagine she deserved ill Usage’ (Chetwood, 128), implying that was just what she [had] received . . .

Although Clive herself did not contribute to the pamphlet war during the theatrical rebellion of 1733, in 1736 she had reason to believe that the acting manager, Theophilus Cibber, was trying to claim some of her roles for his second wife, Susannah. Clive published her side of the controversy in the press in order to defend her position on the stage.

It is my consolation to think, that as I have always endeavor’d to please them [the town] as an Actress, to the best of my Abilities, whatever has been urged to the contrary by the Malice of my Enemies, will have no weight or Influence upon my Friends. (London Daily Post and General Advertiser, 19 Nov 1736)

When Clive’s appearance as Polly was finally presented, she addressed herself to the house, apologizing for the disturbance and offering to play the secondary part of Lucy instead. This apologetic tone and willingness to appease her audience secured both her popularity and the role of Polly until she herself was ready to bestow it on a younger actress of her own choosing in 1745 . . . Although publicly Clive decried and apparently regretted bringing theatrical matters notoriety in the press, the lesson she learned during the Polly war served her well in 1744.

After the failure of Charles Macklin and David Garrick to open a third theatre to break the monopoly held by the patentees, Clive found herself unemployed. Rather than relying on others to defend her position and livelihood, that October she printed a pamphlet, The Case of Mrs. Clive Submitted to the Publick, explaining her position and that of other performers. Particularly galling to her was the oss of her annual free benefit, a privilege she had held for nine years, and how she discovered her lack of a job—by finding other actresses listed in her roles in the bills. This ‘unprecedented Act of Injustice’ (The Case of Mrs. Clive, 14) did not allow her the time to find work in Dublin, where she had met with success during the summer of 1741. Following the publication of her pamphlet, Clive held a benefit concert at the Haymarket on 2 November by command of Frederick, prince of Wales, and Augusta, princess of Wales. The royal couple had commanded Clive’s benefits in the past, and their continued patronage of her expressed their personal dismay at the lord chamberlain’s ruling in favour of the patentees. Theophilus Cibber confirmed that the audience at the benefit had been a notable one, by describing the affair as having ‘many Persons of the first Distinction … in the Pit and Boxes’ (Cibber, 76). The manager, John Rich, no fool, recognized Clive’s drawing power, and rehired her the next month at Drury Lane, although not at the salary level she had previously attained. As in the Polly war, Clive found that humble approaches to the theatre-going public could push theatrical management to some semblance of civility towards players . . .

David Garrick attained the patent for Drury Lane in 1747, Clive’s career settled down considerably. Printed appeals to the public were no longer necessary, except for a skirmish with the actor Ned Shuter over benefit performances in 1761. She continued to shine in her best venue, the stage. She retained many of the parts that she had made famous, including Nell in The Devil to Pay, but moved out of *ingénue* roles into those more suited to her maturing voice and figure. Flora in Susanna Centlivre’s The Wonder, Mrs Cadwallader in Foote’s The Author, the Fine Lady in Garrick’s Lethe, and Lady Wishfort in William Congreve’s The Way of the World were typical of these later roles. Comedy remained her forte, but she also continued her facility in speaking prologues and epilogues.

A dedicated performer, and one with full appreciation for the transience of theatrical life, Clive continued to seek new roles for herself and new ways to supplement her income. She tried her hand at writing farces, which became a feature of her benefits. Her first, The Rehearsal, or, Bays in Petticoats, was first presented at her benefit in 1750. There were scattered additional performances, and it was eventually published in 1753. Clive wrote at least three more farces, Every Woman in her Humour, A Fine Lady’s Return from a Rout, and The Faithful Irishwoman, but none received even the limited fame that her first had done and none was published.

Throughout her long career Clive remained a London actress, and except for the two seasons at Covent Garden (1743–5) she was loyal to Drury Lane. However, at some point in the 1740s it is apparent that she moved her primary residence to Twickenham and lived in lodgings in London during the theatrical season. In that small community, she and Horace Walpole became close friends . . . Soon afterwards she had become a visible and cheering presence in his correspondence, and he gave her a small house on his
property. Reading through the correspondence makes it clear that Walpole and Clive developed a strong, enduring, and almost certainly platonic friendship . . .

In 1768 Walpole mentioned to a friend that Clive was preparing to leave the stage, and the bill for her benefit in April 1769 advertised that it would be the ‘last time of her appearing on the Stage’ (Stone, 3.1401). She performed some of her favourite roles: Flora in The Wonder and the Fine Lady in Lethe. After more than forty successful years on the stage, Clive had earned enough to support herself comfortably in her retirement. In her published Case in 1744 she revealed that she had been making £300 annually, plus her benefit, which in her most successful years could almost double that salary—in 1750, for example, her benefit brought her just over £250. In 1765, in a letter to David Garrick, she commented that her salary remained £300 a year. Although much of her income would have gone to support her professional life (she spent considerable sums on singing lessons and appropriate clothes) she had evidently managed her money wisely.

Her own correspondence, along with that of Walpole and David Garrick, reveals Clive’s retirement to have been carefree, except for bouts of illness and occasional trouble from footpads and tax collectors. Her brother James and sister lived with her, and were, according to Jane Pope, supported by her. She busied herself with ‘Routs either at home or abroad every night [and] all the nonsense of having my hair done time enough for my parties as I used to do for my parts with the difference that I am losing money instead of getting some’ (Highfill, Burnim & Langhans, BDA). Her periods of illness self-described jaundice-—eventually grew more frequent, and after catching a chill at the funeral of Lieutenant-General Henry Lister, she died on 6 December 1785. She was buried in Twickenham churchyard on 14 December. Horace Walpole dispersed her personal possessions among her friends and relatives.

K. A. Crouch”

The actual private lives and characters of actresses were in earlier centuries and still are distorted by the roles they inhabit (which they are partly identified with) and the media which presents them in these roles: the critical reviews, nowadays active fan groups on the Internet. The process is sometimes called specularization (from speculum, Latin for mirror): specularization or mirroring refers to the process whereby the nature of an observer’s gaze shapes and defines what he or she looks at, thereby determining the what is and can be said or thought. In the 18th century actresses were still partly seen as prostitutes, as degraded and demeaned by their work; today to escape or elude this pornification, actresses are now elevated as rich and therefore powerful and successful; they are dressed to be glamorous, beautiful in today’s conventional terms.

Having read Joncus’s book, Clive’s The Case of Mrs Clive and The Rehearsal; or, Bayes in Petticoats, as well as the remnant of her letters left to us, and read and watched a number of her most roles/characters in straight and concert plays, and understood that she was sexually lesbian, I see her as highly ambitious, unusually pro-active for a woman of the era (no lack of agency here), robust, anything but thin-skinned (more like a rhinoceros, at least in public), determined to be respected, to dress well and be the center of her world. She kept a strong guard on her sexuality, but alas was determined to keep a reputation for chastity (and her safety) by attacking other women not as fortunate, more sensitive, less or differently talented than she. She could not find it in herself to empathize and thought they represented a danger to women like her.  She could therefore be ruthless (in the original meaning of the word too), but as Fielding and other long-time relationships (with Garrick) suggest, capable of generosity, loyalty, trust and very hard work. She had a real talent for writing and I can imagine (in effect) collaborated on many of the songs and speeches she gave, was herself a kind of director. Joncus seems to feel she preferred comic roles, and late in life was able to carry on her career after attracting too much envy — and growing old — by caricaturing herself. Her Rehearsal reveals how painful she found this, and how tiresome fools, how weary she could become of long hours and years of work. But she did provide for herself and family until she died. The word I’d use of her at her best is gallant.

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

For the sake of the review I watched Christopher Miles’s 1999 film adaptation of Garrick and Colman the elder’s The Clandestine Marriage, re-arranged, made much more plangent, poignant, softened but yet with an undercurrent or robust scepticism about the character’s motives for what they do and appreciation for how they attempt to enjoy their lives.

The play itself had been (in the 18th century mode) ironic and rough-house, everyone blatantly mercenary, innately selfish and would doubtless soon return to being so again. The joy or sentiment comes in erotic bless — the play historically speaking is defying the 1753 Marriage Act as the couple marries in Fleetwood prison) and our heroine is pregnant; beautiful landscape, music effective, acting very well done. Stellar cast, especially Natasha Little as the convincingly sweet innocent Fanny, Nigel Hawthorne (lecherous aging but finally benign Lord Ogleby), Timothy Spall, Tom Hollander (early in his career, Sir John Melville attempting mercenary marriage), Paul Nicholls as the drop dead handsome Lovewell. Trevor Bentham wrote the screenplay.

The brilliant comedienne of the Carry on films, perfect for Lady Bellaston in Tom Jones, Joan Collins took Catherine Clive’s original role — domineering and I felt I went some of the way in trying to imagine Clive on stage. I’ve see the play itself twice at the Folger. Another actress who could take this role is Frances de la Tour. So I’d say she went from a cross between Mae West and Jean Arthur in her earlier years to Frances de la Tour (another actress who could take on Lady Bellaston, Mrs Heidelberg and a Mother Hildegard, the powerful 18th century abbess in Outlander).


Joan Collins as Mrs Heidelberg

Ellen

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Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper) curled up with Pride and Prejudice (2008 Dan Zeff, Guy Andrews, Lost in Austen)

It is a truth generally acknowledged that we are all longing to escape. I escape always to my favorite book Pride and Prejudice. I’ve read it [turning of pages heard] so many times now, the words just say themselves in my head, and it is like a window opening. It’s like I’m actually there … It’s become a place I know so intimately I can see that world I can … I see Mr Darcy …. [vanishes, back to present time] … Now where was I? …. (2008 Lost in Austen)

Friends and readers of Jane Austen,

I’ve not written anything on the present COVID-19 pandemic because I was trying to counter the topic; everywhere else just now we are just all COVID-19 all the time; I had in mind one of the marvelous utterances of Robin Swicord’s The Jane Austen Book Club, when asked by a joining member if they ever read anything other than Austen, Bernadette (Kathy Baker) replies, “oh no, we are just all Jane Austen all the time!” What I wanted to do was dramatically read aloud, the first chapter and the 34th (where Darcy proposes, and Elizabeth refuses him) of Pride and Prejudice, to make a speaking video of myself. I thought of it as a playful, fun things to do & for me a new experience to hear my voice aloud on the Net.

But alas, I am so old & ugly (all wrinkled skin) but when I tried to reverse the camera, & hold a copy of the book behind the screen at the same time as reading in front of it, I found I had not enough hands. No place in the house, including a piano where I could prop up what I needed to. And then, though I’ve been much praised when I’ve done reading from Austen (recently in a dramatic reading class), the thought occurred that in all cases there were real people in the room, who were themselves reading, who knew me, and might be inclined to be kinder. I might be taken as wanting more praise than I do — I know I’m no professional. My idea was to amuse in a new more distinctly felt human way — what more appealing than human voices (as Penelope Fitzgerald ironically says in her book of that title). And then I felt the question (the prejudice against as not sufficiently middle class) of my ineradicable New York City accent …


March — Prudie (Emily Blunt) wisely reading silently to herself Mansfield Park (2007 Robin Swicord, The Jane Austen Book Club)

So what to do? I turned to see what Austen had to say about illness. Worse yet. Not much solace here. It’s not just that in Persuasion we learn sickrooms are not places for heroism, places where people are seen far from their best, and in Sanditon, the way to cope with illness and death (as in a number of Austen’s letters) is to be wildly antipathetic, as in Jane to Cassandra: “I believe I never told you that Mrs Coulthard and Ann, late of Manydown, are both dead, and both died in childbed. We have not regaled Mary [James’s wife, nine months pregnant] with the news” (Letter 11). This is a mild joke. She most often refuses to believe people are ill; confronted with mental suffering, she spits out caustic or wry references. Mockery of hypocrisy (as with Mrs Norris) or forgiving people is her stance. Mrs Smith, near destitute, utterly crippled, is so egregious an example of unwellness, she cannot dismiss her — and what seems to make Austen tolerant is Mrs Smith (most unusually implies Austen) has a buoyant spirit, much fortitude and patience. (See my “Depiction of Widows and Widowers.”)

Perhaps as this is supposed a blog about women in art, followers in some sense of Austen perhaps, if I turned to other writers. Susan Sontag’s Illness as a Metaphor sprung to mind. Won’t do, because quite rightly much of the energy of the piece is devoted to ripping the metaphors away and making us recognize the real miseries of sickness and death, and shearing away hypocrisies to lay bare before us how people withdraw from the ill person, stigmatize the condition, give it a moral meaning (including fantasies about who gets sick and who doesn’t as if your attitude of mind makes you blameable). Sound, I admit, and with its rock bottom disillusion, reminiscent of Austen.

On a listserv I’m on for Virginia Woolf, someone suggested her “One Being Ill” is peculiarly a propos. I can link the text in, and agree with her that illness can alter consciousness, give us new insights into ourselves and other people, enable us to read texts in new ways. Here I felt her moving onto these insights was taking us dangerously into the territory of turning illness into a metaphor. When you are truly sick, it is hard to read, but again I found myself back with Austen from a different direction. Woolf finds the idea that people are linked together from illness an illusion; each person she suggests is in a “virgin forest” of isolation (perhaps she is thinking of a first severe illness). And Nature indifferent.


There is a good reading aloud of a translation of an unabridged text (and used Audio CDS may be found)

Eighteenth century texts will neither counter illness or offer much cheer — it was an age of satire. Of course the one everyone thinks of is Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year (1666 is the year imagined), and it is just such a calamitous situation that our present social distancing is desperately trying to avoid. This is a not atypical moment:

“He was going along the Street, raving mad to be sure, and singing, the People only said, he was drunk; but he himself said, he had the Plague upon him, which, it seems, was true; and meeting this Gentlewoman, he would kiss her; she was terribly frighted as he was only a rude Fellow, and she run from him, but the Street being very thin of People, there was no body near enough to help her: When she see he would overtake her, she turn’d, and gave him a Thrust so forcibly, he being but weak, and push’d him down backward: But very unhappily, she being so near, he caught hold of her, and pull’d her down also; and getting up first, master’d her, and kiss’d her; and which was worst of all, when he had done, told her he had the Plague, and why should not she have it as well as he. She was frighted enough before, being also young with Child; but when she heard him say, he had the Plague, she scream’d out and fell down in a Swoon, or in a Fit, which tho’ she recover’d a little, yet kill’d her in a very few Days, and I never heard whether she had the Plague or no.” Defoe, Journal of the Plague Year (1722), p. 184.

I came across a qualification from a member of another listserv: “Defoe does all he can to “challenge … the inhuman behavior in all the sources. Scandals told of the buriers, doctors, watchmen, nurses, he is unable to accept.The refusal to condemn, the tempering of any adverse judgment of the population and the authorities, is the most characteristic quality of the “Journal.” In almost every case the participants are exonerated from any charge of cruel behavior or offensive conduct. Reminding us of the charity and benevolence of London’s citizenry in the past, and given our moment in time, Defoe’s Plague Year might be a saner and more supportive and even reassuring read than Camus” (whose La Peste likens those rats to fascists, a worrying topic for us today)

I thought of Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi, written in the 19th century, imitative in some ways of Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris, is a novel set in the 17th, in Milan (Lombardy is today not a lucky place), plague appeared in 1630 and (it’s said) half the population died, and a crazy paranoia arose whereby it was thought evil people were spreading the Black Plague by smearing oily substances about; suspects were hanged. I recommend this book, but for the purposes of this blog I was just not getting anywhere.

And then I thought of Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea (1660-1720), whose work I spent so many years on: she had probably more than one nervous breakdown, suffered badly from depression, and none of this helped her physical well-being. Like Woolf I suppose, but Finch wrote much more about distressed and distraught states of mind, analyzing depression itself (the first attempt to do so without blaming anyone, without attributing the state to God’s intervention). Her verses which have been seen as proto-romantic, where she immerses herself in the natural world, are deeply-felt moments of healing in retirement, and then of taking back control and finding comfort and fortitude.

And so now I do have something, not too heavy, lovely  to share, offering good humor, beauty and strength out of disaster, Finch’s poem to a “Fair Tree,” in an early form not in print (so it’s a text you will not read in the new standard edition), from a manuscript:

Fair Tree! for thy delightfull shade
‘Tis just that some return be made;
Sure some return, is due from me
To thy cool shadows, and to thee.
When thou to birds doest shelter give,
Thou musick doest from them receive;
If Travellers beneath thee stay
‘Till storms have worn themselves away,
That time in praising thee, they spend
And thy protecting pow’r, commend.
The Shepheard here, from scorching freed,
Tunes to thy daancing leaves, his reed;
Whilst his lov’d nymph, in thanks bestows
Here flow’ry Chaplets on thy boughs.
Shall I then, only silent be,
And no return be made by me?
No, lett this wish upon thee waite,
And still to florish, be thy fate.
To future ages may’st thou stand
Untoutch’d by the rash workmans hand,
Till that large stock of sap is spent,
Which gives thy somers ornament;
Till the feirce winds, that vainly strive
To shock thy greatnesse, whilst alive,
Shall on thy lifelesse hour attend,
Prevent the axe, and grace thy end,
Their scatter’d strength together call,
And to the clouds proclaim thy fall,
Who then their evening dews, may spare
When thou no longer art their care,
But shalt, like Ancient Hero’s, burn,
And some bright hearth be made thy Urn.

Here it is, read aloud accompanied by “Epping Forest” from John Playford’s “The English Dancing Master 1670, 11th Edition,” the painting which emerges, “The Oak Tree”, isby Joseph Farrington, 1747-1821.

Ellen

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A Self-portrait

Friends and readers,

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


Madame de Genlis

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


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

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


Portrait of Louisa Elisabeth of France (painted 1788)

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

Ellen

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Ellen

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