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Posts Tagged ‘women artists’


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


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

Friends and readers,

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


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

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

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


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

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


Nathaniel Bone talking with David Castlemain

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


Elizabeth McGovern is memorable in her brief appearance

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


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

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

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


Jonathan Pryce is pitch perfect in his easier role ….

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

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


Judy Davies when first pulled out of her lair by Tillie

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Watteau, The Serenade

Day 8/10 of books that influenced me, had a discernible impact. (For Day 7/10, Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale). When I was around 17 or 18 years old, I was in a used bookstore in Manhattan called the Argosy. It was on 59th Street, near the corner of Lexington Avenue. How I got there I don’t know but someone must’ve told me about it — it seemed to be about 5 floors high with very old elevators (the kind that had gates that seemed near to falling on you), and each floor was filled with bookcases of dusty books, many very old and decidedly uninviting, some falling apart.

It was there I first came across Fanny Burney, in a one volume and in a three volume edition of her letters (brown, falling apart) and I have told that story in the Burney newsletter: “On First Encountering Fanny Burney D’Arblay.”  But it was what was nearby that riveted me truly: a single volume edition in French of the letters of Julie de Lespinasse, nearby a 3 volume edition in French of the letters of Madame Du Deffand. I opened them up and started to read and found them irresistible. I no longer have those books but I do have the Elibron facsimile of a 2 volume edition of Lespinasse and a 2 volume edition of the letters of DuDeffand edited by Chantal Thomas.

In the volume by Lespinasse I read she was frantically and abjectly in love with a M. Guilbert and wrote him desperate letters where she poured out her thoughts and feelings in the most eloquent language I had ever come across. In the course of telling the tortures of her soul, she talked freely about all sorts of things, writing dramatic scenes, commenting on books, on plays she’s gone, people she knows, but always she comes back to the main point, she loves him, she cannot do without him, why does he not write her, why does he not visit her, not even respond to her. It was a form of madness.


An engraving said to represent Madame du Deffand

Madame du Deffand was very different: acid melancholy, caustic wit, the most bitter and truthful comments about life, funny, she wrote mostly to a man I had never heard of before: Horace Walpole whom she was very fond of, but also Voltaire (I had heard of him) and people with strange (to me) titles, particularly one man, Heinault to whom she confided the secrets of her life. I’m sure I understood less than half of what I read but what I did read struck deep chords. At early point I understood she was blind. Well many years later I have read much about Lespinasse, niece to Deffand, and Benedetta Craveri’s Madame du Deffand and her world, and Chantal Thomas. I read these before I read the unabridged Clarissa.


Engraving representation of Julie

I took all these volumes home (including the Burney) in a big brown shopping bag, and since then have read even many later 18th century women’s letters and memoirs and novels, English and French. I typed and put two novels by two other women of this era (Sophie Cottin, Isabelle de Montolieu) on my website, and edited Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde for Valancourt Press. Jane Austen read some of these women (Stael, Genlis, for a start).


On the vast first floor

The Argosy still exists but is no longer many floors with ancient elevators; it’s one big floor with a basement and you buy many of its books through catalogues. Below is the Argosy from the outside ….

This coming fall I propose to read with a class at OLLI a paperback edition in English of Madame Roland’s autobiography and letters. I am very fond of a biography of her by Francoise Kermina, which is more insightful than the ones in English and also a Elibron facsimilar of a 19th century study of her by Charles Dauban which includes selection of letters by her to her friend and separate sketches of her relationships with different equally interesting people..


Alfonso Simonetti, Ancor Non Torna, illustration for 19th century Italian translation of Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest

I put Ann Radcliffe here too, anong these women: my love for her novels, and the one travel book comes out of how the tone of her mind is coterminous with the tone of these other women’s minds of the later 18th century. I know I love the gothic which increases what her books mean to me, but basically her Mysteries of Udolpho is such another as Stael’s Corinne, ou l’Italie, and Madame de Chastenay translated Radcliffe’s great book into French and left a 3 volume memoir of her own.


Watteau, Iris (detail inside much wider vaster mural)

Ellen

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Early recording of Garland before the studios got hold of her: “Bill” from Jerome Kerns’ Showboat

Easter for me as a child was her voice singing “Easter Parade:” in your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it ….


As Dorothy (Wizard of Oz, never re-done)

Friends,

I’ve written only a very few blogs about women musicians, singers, composers. I am not myself technically musically educated, and there is so little readily come by of higher calibre, where the art of the woman is taken seriously, centrally. Opera composers yes, the occasional prima donna. Judy Chicago placed at her 39 women dinner table, Ethel Smyth (who became Virginia Woolf’s friend and for a brief time lover).


Ethel Smyth – pianist

I’ve written of Edith Piaf on my Sylvia blog after going to a lecture with clips, and of Kaija Saariagho’s L’amour de lion after seeing the opera on HD screening.

So it’s more than time I wrote about one of the most famous of the 20th century, an extraordinary singer and performer: Judy Garland. On Wednesday night I went to a 2 and 1/2 hour lecture by Robert Wyatt, accompanied by remarkable podcasts, clips, tapes. The auditorium was full, and I was told what a treat and how excellent is Wyatt. I have gone to one of his presentations on Gilbert and Sullivan: his talk is banal and sometimes to me offensive because he causes (to me) inexplicable laughter in the audience. Some of what I write here is from the few notes I took, a good deal from my own response to all the music and clips he played, the rest found on the Net or from memory.


For me an iconic image

The argument of this blog is that women singers have had a sexual story imposed on them, which they have succumbed to — not hard to understand since in life many interviews include a demand for sex. To make their way in a career they must negotiate their way through the male patriarchy and often end up marrying (as protection and as a platform) a male producer or director at some point (in Garland’s case most famously Vincent Minelli). Judy Garland’s life and the kind of presence her most frequently-played songs resemble are those of Edith Piaf.

What these are stories about are women with an extraordinary gift that could make enormous money and be fulfilling to enact out; they felt they had to submit to soul-destroying false archetypes; to keep up the show self-destructed from within. Each needed more self-esteem to start with, more education, and a higher status; then each might have been able to build a stable environment based on their innate self (yes there is such an entity or presence in us), and turning away from worshipping the siren calls of admiration to do what they apparently couldn’t stand. To endure this they had to drink or drug themselves into a stupor. Now this life enabled them to leave the plethora of work we have from them. Given the US environment Garland’s achievement was to do so much good work and leave behind many kinds of records of it.

One contrast I can think of: Joan Rivers managed to fulfill her talent, stay far more than solvent and possess and care for her soul (and her daughter), be true to a decent set of values her satire at least suggested. But she had to buy into (so to speak) capitalist ideals of ambition, competition, and glamor. Which she did. These desires were part of her innate self. So she claims in her bio-pic film.

Frances Ethel Gumm, the third daughter of two Vaudevillians, Garland appeared on the stage at age 2. Like Piaf, her extraordinary gifts of voice in the range and depth of emotional expressiveness, was quickly recognized and by the time she was a young teenager MGM had seen someone whose gifts would attract large audiences, and the process had begun of working her to the limit of her strength and tolerance for artifical commercial popularity.

Wyatt asserted Garland had a domineering mother and never learned to read music — she relied on memorizing.  While he suggested that Garland was abused because from the age of nine she was fed with heavy prescription drugs, he did not say why. As her life went on, the only explanation offered was the implicit,: see how weak she was, how uncontrolled; for several of her husbands and/or lovers he said how the man had “protected” her. Nowhere did he speak of the long hours MGM demanded, the high pressure (he said only that she hated Buzby Berkeley) to perform in a certain way, the demand she lose weight, look and behave a certain way; and that as she got older, the reward was large amounts of money for MGM and a (perhaps) a (thin) pretense of adulation all around her. Breaking down in private of course.

From this early decade of her life and career Wyatt told of a drivingly ambitious mother (he exonerated the father), and showed some clips, played some podcasts of her earlier effective performances on stages across the US. Tapes exist and they are musically pleasing, expressive of genuine and gay feeling. Her body type was (reminding me of Marlene Dietrich in her first years) was considered ugly (read: socially unacceptable) so she was forced into dieting, cosmetics, exercise to make her conform to the fake ideal of Barbie-ness (we see in all the Trump women today).


With Mickey Rooney

Once her appearance and name were changed, and she entered into the world of the filmed musical, she began to make huge sums for MGM. The Wizard of Oz was her earliest signature hit. She paired with Mickey Rooney again and again. One song that became a signature number was “Get Happy:” I’m not sure that any of the mainstream recordings capture what is at the core of this one: black spirituals. Listen to Judy’s words about Judgment day, getting rid of your cares and troubles, the Lord is going to chase all your cares away. It’s all so peaceful on the other side. The overlay is white male slickness, a pretense of flippancy, the male suit and tipped hat feminized.

Her years of contract under MGM showed her to emerge as a feature star whose presence commanded listeners. The wikipedia article absolved MGM of her addiction habit, but the writer does not cite the tremendously challenging (in every way) schedule wrenched out of her, nor the phoniness of the numbers — nor that she was continually berated by Buzby Berkley — nor everything draining surrounding such a career based on wide success, petty vanity and power struggles within the smaller circles. I could see how she promoted Gene Kelly, supported Mickey Rooney: they were all contending with the nonsense de-sexualized myths the public wanted to believe in. When you watch the clips, they mostly seem so pastoral , as in the famous trolleycar song from Meet Me In St Louis: bang bang bang went the trolley (trolleys were destroyed by large corporations in order to make US people dependent on the car).

There were years of great success, widely popular pleasing film after film with the same names performing with her, her husband Minelli the director and then others. She worked with the most famous and best of popular singers, actors, musicians. Wyatt showed a clip of her with Fred Astaire. But she also began to not show up for filming sessions, disrupting a making of a film repeatedly. It was inevitable that the studio would fire her. Wyatt seemed to delight in emphasizing how many husbands and lovers she had until she began to deteriorate in health under her punishing schedule, drug and drinking freely over the course of her day and night performances (on stage, in life). When she left MGM, she went on to other studios, to work on the stage, to recording songs, and at the end on TV. At a high point she owned a beautiful home in Hollywood, during a come-back she lived in London. Wyatt seemed to like to repeat she was living out of suitcase.  Wyatt discussed her times of great misery in a nonchalant way, saying (for example) how she threw something at her children and “so that was the end of her motherhood.”

She had altogether three children, Liza Minelli, something of a look-alike, the only one able to become a similar admired singing actress . Lorna Lufts had but a brief career. Garland couldn’t manage the relationships she was expected to, and would break away through breakdowns, suicide attempts, discarding who she had to, but also forming for life bonds with similarly suffering stars (e.g., Frank Sinatra), musicians, producers.  I remember her when I was young on TV looking dreadful (very heavy, her face over made-up, her teeth glittering sickly) and then very thin; later at Carnegie Hall, having become an icon for gay men — they felt a kindred spirit.

My favorite songs (and the one easiest to find) are those where she reinforces the myths; she is inimitable expressing anguish.

Except for the initial presence of a mother, Garland’s life resembled Piaf’s — and both conform to the stereotype of the woman in need of a man. Judy’s best known songs enforce this, e.g., “You made me love you.”

She lived but 47 years but the enormous amount of songs and recorded dances, movies, stage performances, military shows suggest a life twice as long with work never ceasing (NYTimes obituary).

The wikipedia article has a long description of her singing worth reading:

Garland possessed the vocal range of a contralto.Her singing voice has been described as brassy, powerful, effortless and resonant, often demonstrating a tremulous, powerful vibrato. Although the octave range of her voice was comparatively limited, she was capable of alternating between female and male-sounding timbres at will with little effort. The Richmond Times-Dispatch correspondent Tony Farrell wrote that Garland possessed “a deep, velvety contralto voice that could turn on a dime to belt out the high notes” … From an early age, Garland had been billed as “the little girl with the leather lungs”, a designation the singer later admitted to having felt humiliated by because she would have much preferred to have been known to audiences as a “pretty” or “nice little girl”. Jessel recalled that, even at only 12 years-old, Garland’s singing voice resembled that of “a woman with a heart that had been hurt” … Garland stated that she always felt most safe and at home while performing onstage, regardless of the condition of her voice. Her musical talent has been commended by her peers; opera singer Maria Callas once said that Garland possessed “the most superb voice she had ever heard”, while singer and actor Bing Crosby said that “no other singer could be compared to her” when Garland was rested …

Garland was known for interacting with her audiences during live performances; a New York Times biographer wrote that Garland possessed “a seemingly unquenchable need for her audiences to respond with acclaim and affection … The biographer went on to write that Garland’s performance style resembled that of “a music hall performer in an era when music halls were obsolete”. Close friends of Garland’s have insisted that she never truly wanted to be movie star and would have much rather devoted her career entirely to singing and recording records … Michael Musto, a journalist for W magazine, wrote that in her film roles Garland “could project decency, vulnerability, and spunk like no other star, and she wrapped it up with a tremulously beautiful vocal delivery that could melt even the most hardened troll”

Her TV show provides a cornucopia of greatness and evidence of remarkable stamina; she was on for a couple of years; here she is with Liza as Two Lost Souls:

For quite a long time in the 1970s I had a long-playing album of Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall. Jim loved it too and I would play and replay it at night. Now looking at it and the other citations from Wyatt, I see a major writer was a man blackballed as socialist: Harold Arlen. I did love “I’m gona love you, come rain or come shine.

One last: Her life in pictures in her last performance, Copenhagan, 1969: “Over the rainbow:”

It’s possible there will be a biographical film with Renee Zellweger playing the role. There is a fine American Masters PBS program.

And this shall be for music when no one else is near,
The fine song for singing, the rare song to hear!
That only I remember, that only you admire,
Of the broad road that stretches and the roadside fire
— R.L. Stevenson, “I will make you brooches”

Ellen

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Three Guineas

“The worst betrayal of intelligence is finding justification for the world as it is.” — Jean Guehenno

Friends,

Last term (spring), and this term (summer) I am again teaching about Virginia Woolf, and we are reading her mid- and later books, Flush; A biography; Orlando: A Biography; Three Guineas and Between the Acts (unusual historical fiction, shall we call it?). I’ve written about the first two separately; tonight I want to go on to the exhilarating and astonishing candor of Three Guineas. What I love and find exhilarating is Woolf’s words (if they were followed) would constitute a direct threat to so many values and norms thrown at us all the time, from society joining (don’t you want to identify with a group?), to ambition and competition as central to our mode of being, and to our incessant prize culture with its ribbons and awards (money) as central to why we want to achieve and how we measure our achievement.

What can I offer for thought tonight better than a (I hope) suggestive outline of this book? A poignantly still crucially needed book. Nothing more relevant tonight. I now understand Reagan’s term of benign neglect. Trump and his regime do not benignly neglect people. It’s an aggressive campaign to criminalize, imprison, impoverish, punish all those who don’t submit — new laws everywhere and now they’ll purge voters. Tax the poor, let the corporations reign and isolate us. I wish people would stop saying Trump’s picture is as if we were in a banana republic; this is as if this were a nazi state — his picture is that, this is, this is US because enough of a majority supports and is for all that is happening. I did the Three Guineas finally because each time he bombs people, the newspapers rally round him and his regime. And this week the imitation becomes more complete: Nazis told people as they entered the death-prison camps here is soap and you will take a shower; we rip their children from their hands and tell them they are going to have a bath, and then we put these children in cages and will not let reporters in to see what is happening to these children.

Three Guineas consists of three essays or letter-chapters. In all three Woolf is answering someone or more than one person. In the first, she says she has been asked by a high-ranking gentleman to join a society to prevent war. Is not this astonishing? that she should be asked to join a society to prevent war? as she writes on, we see the problem is she is not asked to figure out who is responsible for war — for to prevent something, do you not need first to discover who is going to do it? and then to stop the people, do you need not to discover why they do it? Nor is the society examined? In the second, she has received a letter begging for money to support a girls’ college – and to join them. If she doesn’t have money, any left-over object in her house, she doesn’t need would be appreciated for their bazaar. She could become one of them that way. She is stunned: Why is it that a woman’s college has so little money as to beg for cast-offs? In the third, she decides to speak to a third woman who would like her to join a society on her (this woman’s) lack of money, and professional women and discovers that the problem is the way women make money (when they do make it) to sell their brains and advocate causes and beliefs that stifle them and lead to war.

So there you have it. I have read Three Guineas numerous times. Each time I have read this book I think to myself it is one of the most important essays of the 20th century and along with Primo Levi’s If this be man, and The Truce, ought to be required reading for every adult alive who can read. I used to assign it every time I was given the second half of British literature to teach. Sometimes along with Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and a couple of essays on the Spanish civil war he published elsewhere. But it hit me anew because since Trump won I have been inundated with requests to join groups, told how wonderful the society and members are, and begged to send money – not to prevent war but to stop Trump, to renew democracy and the idea is sending a check, joining this group will be doing something useful or a very good thing. I will be a member of them, and then I read an advertisement telling me of all the good the group does.

A guinea has never existed as a separate coin. It was the name of a gold coin worth one pound and one shilling. Stopped circulating as of 1813, but elite shops kept expressing the amount of an item in guineas. Medical consultation fees were often expressed in guineas. You paid actually pounds and shillings but this was how it was expressed. So it’s an allusion. The working title of these essays was Answer to Correspondents

I can give only the gist of each letter-essay. In the case of the second and third I cannot follow the lines of argument as they are too circuitous in order to be suggestive and allow for further extrapolation. I also have not cited or described most of the individuals she uses as examples and quotes from. If you want to know this level of detail, read the book. If readers ask for some, I’ll come back with select quotations tomorrow night.

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


Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia

She begins: she has waited three years since receiving her first letter. Why? The person she must write to is a professional man high in a learned prestigious career with much power. How can she talk to him since her and his life have been so different, and why is this? For a start: Arthur’s Education Fund. Arthur and all her brothers, father, any son have been given the best and most expensive education the family can afford and the girl taught nothing but to be a wife to a husband, chaste so that she will be sure to bear only his children. He has lived out in public and she has been kept at home. What can she possibly say that he would understand?

But by 1938 the question has become so important. All around her, around him war is beginning, being fought, and i the newspapers fierce propaganda to support it. She must speak. She holds out some photos of recently dead bodies and destroyed houses. (Probably from Spain. One of the immediate promptings of this book is the killing of her nephew Julian Bell in the Spanish Civil War where a fascist take-over of Spain was being allowed, funded by the surrounding capitalist states.)

She says looking at these: there is nothing worse or more destructive of all people hold dear. Yes the very wealthy might make huge sums but they couldn’t do it without the cooperation of hundreds of thousands of people; not just those who fight, but those who acquiesce, those who support the activity. Why do people go to war? A subsidiary question for Woolf is how the subordination of women is central to this way of life — because wars fought so often become central to a way of life, always there, on the edge, waiting to be indulged in.

So why do they do it? It would be laughably simple if one did not know the results. Men are incessantly honored for it: it’s presented as a profession (soldier), a source of happiness and manliness – yes manliness. It’s better to be kill than be killed. They get to wear great uniforms, everyone bows down in parades. Lots of ribbons. They are continually trained in fiercely competitive games, modes of learning, aggressive professions, adversarial behavior.

An immense amount of money is spent on these colleges, these professions, these awards. (I’d compare these colleges Woolf describes in the UK to the immense amount of money spent in and on elite colleges in the US –- with no money in the society for the rest of to go to much less funded colleges). Right away when you go to these colleges you are confronted with hierarchy, this is prestigious and that is not. Join this one and you make the right connections. Exclusion is central to privilege.

Woolf asks if anyone asks, What kind of a human being do you want to produce? All the many things that can be taught cheaply should be taught cheaply. No barriers. And everyone including women taught how to be independent, how to earn your own living so as to not have to obey someone else’s interests, to be able to think and act independently. What are truly useful and good results for all.

Women are of course excluded. Why? Because everything a woman is taught is in service of preserving her body for a man, making it look appealing to a man. Women who wanted to go to war were escaping that loathed private house, its hypocrisies, cruelties, its immorality, its inanity ….

She goes over the dress code, the advertisements everywhere.

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


Isobel Bishop, Reading Together (1935)

Second letter: here we have this college and it needs money so badly the women don’t even have enough cast off clothes for a bazaar. This letter harks back to A Room of One’s Own 1929 which originated in a lecture Woolf was asked to give to Newnham college in October 1928. Julia Briggs suggests that Woolf had in mind Pernel Strachey who was a principal at Newnham: in the earlier essay we see how poor the meals, how inadequate the library and how the women are excluded from male libraries which contain all the serious research material.

Whitaker’s Almanac is called in evidence to show how little money women make; ludicrously less. They are not paid at all for all their work in the home, and to say they share their husband’s salary is absurd because we find their husband’s salary after minimal needs (rent, food) goes on all his luxuries, male sports, male cigars.

She says some pointed questions: women have the vote and yet they have not changed the terms of their existence. Why is this? why have they made so few gains after the initial ones of being permitted to own property, permitted to keep their salaries, allowed to have custody of their children, allowed to obtain a divorce (if they can pay for it) on more grounds than he came near to destroying you by beating you and was egregiously adulterous. They have failed she says because men have continued to withhold positions in universities, positions in the professions, posiitions in parliament, and through these means refused to pay them an equal wage, to promote them. Frightened and jealous of them. The way a higher job is gotten is still through influence and patronage.

To jump ahead again it is in the third letter she talks of how males – especially fathers do all they can to forbid their daughters from making money, to teach them making money is beneath them. She calls it “the infantile fixation.” She does not always define her terms. This second letter is a far more concrete practical, overtly angrier. Everything is done to teach them to want marriage and children first and only, to infantilize, not to teach them to thrive in the larger public world. In this chapter she shows that (ironically) what women have been taught is chastity, poverty, derision (of themselves), and freedom from unreal loyalties. What country when you are a woman? on the analogy of, What father when you are a slave? Freedom from unreal loyalties: one of these is the delusions of nationalism.

How is this connected to war? They cannot work against the norms of war until they can put pressure on men. They can only do that if they are equal in independence and respect, if they do jobs that are held to be so useful they are paid for to make sure they are done well.

In both letters a primary source of documents are biographies and she cites these. She finds that for most men still money-making takes over their lives and there’s no time for any thought, any protest. She finds there are hardly any professional women in the sense of holding positions of power and making money. She finds that when women do campaign for change that will improve their lives, by the time the reform is turned into law, it is set up to protect men, not women.

So since sex is so central it is no coincidence one of the earliest campaigns (beyond stopping alcoholism among men as it makes them violent and trying to secure the vote) is Josephine Butler’s campaign on behalf of prostitutes: the contagious diseases act was set up to protect men and not women and did not stop trafficking in female children. She was not able to get them to stop imprisoning women, condemning them to hard labor if they would not submit (a recent anti-abortion bill in Virginia included a requirement that demand a doctor violate a woman’s body if she sought an abortion). So Butler turns to work for public housing, and ceaselessly to abolish prostitution, to make it illegal.

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


Primo Levi’s If this be man

This letter contains some of my most favorite passages. In this one in talking of what is written and published, she says before you judge it you must think of how much in that piece of writing is there for (p 115) “the money motive, the power motive, the advertisement motive, the publicity motive and the vanity motive” – let alone all the other more a particular ones depending on the local politics of those involved in the topic. I remember reading a review of a friend’s biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer where I was struck by how much of this review was pretense and performance, and what the reviewer cared about was how she appeared to what she took to be the hostile audience to the book –- she was writing for her own career first, her position in the organization second, fame third, showing off fourth (the style) and only after that did the quality of the book and its content concern her and she shaped what she had to say in terms of the first four goals.

She reverts to opening request from a different angle: how can professional women help to preventing war. You must not sell your brain. Margaret Oliphant is brought in as a representative of a finely gifted woman who sold her brain for money. Right now in 1938 Arthur’s education fund has been spent, war is imminent and that means that education has failed, professional women have failed — they have not even made much money.

Now she says women must have different weapons than men. They must take into consideration they have lived and continue to live differently. This is imposed on them but it is part of what they must candidly look upon. So what can they learn from their own history? How can they resist being pulled into that male procession of fancy costumes and ribbons? They must in their minds constitute themselves a society of outsiders. They have been excluded and oppressed, now they must remember what they perceived themselves for real and act on that. Here she shows how the private world of the house and women is inseparably connected with the public one; tyrannies and servilities of the one are the tyrannies and servilities of the other.


Vanessa Bell, Leonard Woolf

Who will listen to us? what are we writing? what reading? This is where she brings in the how the money, advertisement, publicity, vanity, power motives permeates what people write. How most people don’t try to divest themselves of these motives. (This is why she and Leonard opened Hogarth Press so there might be a press apart from this mainstream — a word Woolf doesn’t use.) She had earlier pointed out how newspapers are so influential by what they leave out (that’s in chapter 2) and now shows what they put in is often rotten with distortion and self-interest. So who is in charge of the newspapers, and the institutions these newspapers support, which usually support them.

And again she makes the connection between all the dead bodies and the destroyed houses in previous wars and what we find in public writing. What are the real purposes of the various societies that produce this writing too. And they want her to send them money? Are they kidding?

There is a suggestion that in lieu of the celebratory parades let’s show the condition these men come back in. One can do small things. Increasing beauty in landscape, in places not intended to advertise a public company or body of people. She talks about the value of obscurity (as she does in Orlando). Let’s dispense with all those distinctions, these ribbons, refuse to knit socks for war.

And so she comes to the end of her work and goes for the core. At the heart of the desire for war is fear, and a male desire to control all others, all women and those men you can make into docile workers. The major support for this fear, for chaining people up in strictly controlled heterosexual marriage is found in the male priesthood (religion). And she is back to the sexual taboos central to controlling women and powerless men’s behavior. In this section she brings in Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her father (Flush is not just a jeux d’esprit); how Patrick Bronte did what he could to stop Charlotte marrying, to control her for himself. It is telling which women she does cite — whose life or work or character meant most to her.

The only way to escape is to have a room of your own and income to support yourself adequately. Tonight in my house I watched Gosford Park for an umpteenth time: it is a form of cheer to see the world’s order so caught up in this ironic melancholy formula, the brilliant acting, the wonderful singing of Jeremy Northam of Ivor Novello’s songs. The land of might-have-been:

It’s not that the Republicans have taken over; it’s that the values we follow enable them. Our lives as presently lived do not have to be this way.

Ellen

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Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807), A drawing of a girl reading her writing

Friends,

I’ve not written a foremother poet blog since I went to a Sylvia Plath exhibit last fall. For Wom-po Annie Finch and Pratibha Kelapure have revived the corner of the list’s website to begin to post brief essays on earlier women poets. They need not be very far back in time. And the first fine one was about Leonie Adams. I thought if I can contribute one this week perhaps that will stir others to pony up, and that community of poets might supply themselves with a foremother poet posting every week to inspirit and teach them, to enjoy.

Two nights ago in my continuing quest to explore the biographical art of Virginia Woolf as modernist and recently as by a woman, I came across a fine book by Caroline Breashears, Eighteenth Century Women’s Writing and the ‘Scandalous Memoir”, one chapter of which discusses the memoir startling for its candour and honesty of an 18th century women poet whom I was therefore drawn to a number of years ago: Catherine Jemmat.

These past couple of evenings I found Jemmat is more successful in prose than verse and presents herself first as a memoirist and then writer of verse and prose miscellanies. Reading over her poetry, her ardent and strident Memoir, and some of the essays she had printed in Miscellanies, in prose and verse (1765 edition), I see her ever struggling to justify herself, and obsessively retelling a paradigmatic story. Again and again she or her subject is mistreated by a relative. Sometimes the angle is ironic: an aunt writes a niece now fallen and in trouble to berate her. A clergyman’s family loses all their money and their father and when they expect to be supported emotionally and financially by an uncle, they are rejected and humiliated. Most horrifying is a story by a animal treated with great cruelty by a family who continually maim the creature (it opens with the master demanding her ears and tail be removed); she morphs into a smaller and smaller animal (finally a worm) each time treated harshly and without mercy. Jemmat says the purpose of this tale is to teach children to be more humane. She certainly does expose the false sentimentalization of family life as a haven. According to Breashears, this is precisely the myth presented in Eliza Haywood’s work (to cite a contemporary woman writer).

Jemmat’s best poems are short columns of verse, and refer to writing, to print. There are some longer prologues or epistles that read well. Lines here and there come alive. There are epistles to friends.  Two suggest that her brother was lost at sea, or died on board a ship. Numbers are addressed to titled male, someone in a position of power, a known artist or professional in Dublin. She is in a friendless state.  She is seeking patrons. Two exultant epistles are to Peg Woffington; one much quieter to Thomas Sheridan. There are poems on simple objects and stanzaic tales, some ironic. Moralizing verse on behalf of prudence. There is one in praise of science. She offers ironic advice to someone on her very latest marriage. She says because she has been saddened by her own life, she cries over stories in newspapers. One touching Prologue is for a benefit play for a hospital: “With sympathetic warmth to feel the throws,/And racking anguish of another’s woes.” She often personates an imagined character. The prosody and aesthetics of her verse are simply centrally 18th century Popian (there is one Miltonic imitation).

An epigram:

Three times I took, for better and for worse,
A bed-fellow, a fortune, and a nurse.
How bless’d the state, which such good things produce,
How dear that sex, which serves such various use!

This stands out:

Question, on the Art of Writing
Tell me what genius did the art invent,
The lively image of a voice to paint?
Who first the secret how to colour found,
And to give shape to reason, wisely found?
With bodies how to cloathe ideas taught,
And how to draw the pictures of a thought?
Who taught the hand to speak, the eye to hear,
A silent language roving far and near?
Whose softest notes out-strip loud thunder’s sound,
And spread their accents thro’ the world’s vast round?
Yet with kind secrecy securely roll,
Whispers of absent friends from pole to pole.
A speech heard by the deaf, spoke by the dumb,
Whose echo reaches far in time to come;
Which dead men speak as well as those that live:
Tell me what genius did this art contrive?

The story of her life indeed is (as retold and commented on by Breashears too) of someone betrayed by the family and relatives and friends she was was brought up to count upon.

Her father, Admiral John Yeo of Plymouther, is the worst of her family to her (when he should be the kindest she says). Her mother, his first wife, died when she was 5; he remarried a girl of nineteen who of course could not relate to another child.  As this second wife becomes a woman she becomes mean to Catherine. The father was often at sea. She was sent to boarding school. Then deeply disappointed of a love match: a young surgeon was going to marry her and died. She rejected the son of a tradesman. She doesn’t  want to marry for money.

She finally marries a silk mercer named Jemmat by whom she has a daughter, but he turns out to be cruel, accusing her of adultery, bullying her, making her fear him through violent behavior. She has a miscarriage. Her father will not give up the dowry, so the husband beats her, and her family actually refuses to pressure her husband to behave differently. She and her husband’s sister fight over power and space. She does “fall” at one point (sexually), but she does not tell much of that — rather we hear of the sisters-in-law fight over property and who will live where. So the escape from her nuclear family was far worse than the original sentence. Jemmat, abusive, often drunk, goes bankrupt. So Catherine was (according to her memoir) “thrown upon the wide world for support.”

We may imagine what this means, but she did survive and wrote a 2 volume book of Memoirs (1st ed, 1762. She became dependent on aristocratic patrons who had known her father. She must have lived in Ireland for a while and frequented the Dublin theater. She published a Miscellanies in Prose and Verse (1766), which includes an essay called “In Vindication of the Female Sex.”  She protests against the scapegoating meted out to women who may be said to have sexual relationships with anyone outside marriage (no matter when or how this is written or talked about).

Catherine Jemmat is not presenting herself as a fallen woman but someone brought low by cultural and financial circumstances and norms. She finds no forgiveness anywhere for just about anything. She flees to her family for succour and they only make things worse, especially her father. Breashears says her memoir is about a woman seeking a home, unable to find or create one for herself. Lonsdale says there are “mysteries” surrounding her — but there are about so many women writers. In Virginia Woolf’s Memoirs of a Novelist, two of the book’s memoirs demonstrate how little we know of women’s lives because quite deliberately their relatives and friends will say nothing truthful; so she slips from our grasp only glimpsed in a phrase here or there.

In her excellent book, Vita & Virginia: The work and friendship of V. Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, Suzanne Raitt argues that the function of life writing when written by women is to restore to them their mother. Like other writers on biography, she collapses the distinction between biography and autobiography. Autobiographers to be listened to and good must have the capacity to see themselves from the outside, almost as if the writer were another person. Conversely, the biographer often prides him or herself on the autobiographical element in their quest and they use autobiographical documents. Raitt suggests when a woman writes of herself or another woman, she is working at restoring her inward health, to put together a new identity out of the fractured one.

Bell Gale Chevigny in an essay in Feminist Studies: Daughters Writing: Towards a theory of women’s biography that women write the life of another woman — who is usually younger than them, or perhaps now dead, from a daughter’s vantage point. Gaskell writes as a daughter of Charlotte. Woolf writes Orlando as a daughter of Vita Sackville-West. I know Elena Ferrante writes as a lost daughter, child, doll. As a mother rejected by her daughters. Jemmat was then fractured at age 5, then again by a step-mother, then by sister-rivals. Hers is an absent mother she cannot reach.

Here is what Jemmat writes to Peg Woffington “on seeing her in several characters:”

In silent wonder sunk, in rapture bound,
My captivated thoght no utt’rance found;
Each faculty o’ewhelm’d, its vigour lost,
And all my soul from theme to theme was tost.
Whate’er the heart canfeel, the tongue express,
The springs of joy, the floods of deep distress,
The passions utmost pow’r, o’er-rul’d by laws,
Which genius dictates, and which judgment draws,
Subdu’d thsu long my bosom’s grateful fire,
Silent to gaze, and with the crowd admire.
Stand forth confest, unrivall’d, and alone,
And view the human passions all your own,
Reign o’er the heart with unresisted sway,
The heart must beauty, and must power obey;
Each muse hath plac’d her sceptre in your hand,
And ready rapture waits on your command …

A second addressed to Woffington makes her into a goddess adorning the very earth and all the seas. She “moves obedient to the air like “bright Venus in the midst of spring,/Sports with the graces in the verdant ring,/The nymphs, the fawns, the sylvan crowd admire …


Peg Woffington as painted by F. Haytley in her role as Mistress Ford in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor

Ellen

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Pilgrim children dressed for church (17th century American art and dress)

Yet grant some small acknowledgement of ours (Bradstreet, “The Prologue”)

In darkness foundering
Words fail the troubled mind.
For who, I ask, can light me
When Reason is blind? (Sor Juana, “On the effects of Divine Love”)

Dear friends and readers,

Among the delights I knew this early winter was to hear for the first time ever some American women writers I once spent hours and even weeks reading in the Library of Congress talked about intelligently and in words I could understand for the first time. It’s an odd feeling to have felt and thought about these women writers and their texts in the silence for long periods, shared my pleasure and thoughts with no one, and then suddenly confront a living constituency. I took a course at the OLLI at Mason in Early Modern American Women’s Writing. Four sessions of reading.

Not only the professor from George Mason, Tamara Harvey, had studied them thoroughly, but this was no dumbed-down course:  she cited articles, books, and talked of colleagues and students who also had read with interesting comments they made and perspectives written about. Had clearly discussed them in conferences, taught them to coming scholars. She took a perspective I had not thought of, and chose quite different poems from the ones I had so loved when I read their work in the 1980s on weekday nights and weekends in the Library of Congress reading rooms. I had looked at each as an individual and was absorbed by their life stories, chose the immediate personal texts, or texts that immediately appealed by their easy eloquence or wit or humor or pathos. Prof Harvey chose texts which could show the reader the origin and development of the American imaginary that is with us today. For all of them were born or writing or lived out their lives in the North American colonies and then US states.

There has been written a good sympathetic biography by a modern American woman poet, Charlotte Gordon: Anne Bradstreet, The Untold life of America’s First Poet. Anne emerges as a reluctant American, and you gain her full personal context:

I’ve never written about these American women writers in public before. The first two wrote texts which even at their most attractive show them thanking their God for dire punishments inflicted upon them personally, or when they try to assert their love of writing or desire to express themselves, they have first to argue for a right to write in the first place (which they seem to have to), in language so self-berating, so without any overt sense of their strong value, it’s hard to find several verses altogether unmarred. In her A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf complains the problem with 18th century poetry by women (in the UK) is they cannot forget themselves, are continually so aware of harassment, of embittering experiences as women, of obstacles set in their way for any kind of individual fulfillment, they are ever writhing with complaint. What about disfigurement and deformity & miseries which you feel you are forced to be thankful for? Religion has not just veiled and repressed the minds of women writers in the US, it makes them express patently perverse ideas.

That’s why I never made a foremother blog for Anne Bradstreet 1612-72). She’s a strong poet with an individual voice, as in this opening of some vereses upon waking up to find her house burning down (July 10, 1666):

In silent night when rest I took,
For sorrow near I did not look,
I wakened was with thund’ring noise
And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice.
That fearful sound of “fire” and “fire,”
Let no man know is my Desire.
I, starting up, the light did spy,
And to my God my heart did cry
To straighten me in my Distress
And not to leave me succourless.
Then, coming out, behold a space
The flame consume my dwelling place.
And when I could no longer look …
When by the ruins oft I past
My sorrowing eyes aside did cast
And here and there the places spy
Where oft I sate and long did lie.
Here stood that trunk, and there that chest,
There lay that store I counted best.
My pleasant things in ashes lie
And them behold no more shall I.
Under thy roof no guest shall sit,
Nor at thy Table eat a bit.
No pleasant talk shall ‘ere be told
Nor things recounted done of old

She writes of her children as chicks in her nest — she’s another woman poet who identifies with small vulnerable non-human animals:

I had eight birds hatched in one nest,
Four cocks there were, and hens the rest,
I nursed them up with pain and care,
Nor cost, nor labour did I spare … (“In reference to her children, 13 June 1659”)

She writes so intensely about her love for her husband, and what a good man he was (as all as her father), is guilty about the trouble she caused her (apparently) incessantly pregnant (and bodily miserable) mother, her fear herself of death from childbirth:

And when thou feel’st no grief, as I no harms,
Yet love thy dead, who long lay in thy arms (“Before the birth of one of her children”)

I had stayed with the domestic woman’s art, her private life. Well, now I branched out over the week in my reading. I read four poems on the four seasons (summer “with melted tawny face, and garments thin”), filled with wonderful home-y imagery of her life. Tamara Harvey said her favorite of Bradstreet’s poems is “Phlegm,” which she said was about medical science of the era, and which I discovered when I went home and read my one paperback (The Works of Anne Bradstreet, ed. Jeannine Hensley, foreword Adrienne Rich) is unqualified angry at the behavior and language of most people she encounters

Patient I am, patient I’d need be,
To bear with the injurious taunts …
I’ll leave that manly property to you,
I’ll love no thund’ring guns nor bloody wars …. (from “The Four Humors”)

It was still to me counterproductive for the professor to have picked out to concentrate on the worst stilted poems (admittedly by Bradstreet probably thought her most serious), as Bradstreet in epic form at length retells some Biblical or ancient history, and I thought to myself the other women around me (there was but one man in the class) will never seek out this woman’s book, but in these the professor found assertive feminist ambition (interwoven with the usual half-thwarted ambition) and comments allusive of American experience historically.

I now reread Rich’s introduction and found for the first time she too was interested in Bradstreet’s early depiction of the American experience: Rich stayed with the poetry one can read (descriptive) and we end up with Hart Crane by way of Cotton Mather. All those many years ago I had compared her to Anne Hutchinson, persecuted (like the French women of the 1790s,e.g., Madame Roland), speaking out, acting publicly on behalf of radical political beliefs. Now I see Bradstreet much more in a line with the political learned Lucy Hutchinson, down to having written an epic poem too (Lucy’s is actually readable), who, happily I have written a foremother blog for.


Sor Juana, portrait by Miguel Cabrera (see essay by Elizabeth Perry in Early Modern Women, a Disciplinary Journal, 2012, Vol 7, pp 3-32)

The professor chose the same kinds of high ambition poems to stress in the case of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (1651-95). These are truly awful, some plays where allegorical Catholic figures declaim and dance, again with the twisted self-accusatory, self-assertions. Sor Juana was much worse off: illegitimate, the child of small landowners, she’d have no dowry and (reminding me of Galileo’s unfortunate daughter) was made a nun, and for a while let alone to read and study and write love poems to imaginary lovers (the poems reminded me of Andrew Marvell, somewhere between the metaphysicals and clarity of later 17th century verse). These were those I read, plus a few others to Mexican aristocratic women, sometimes on classical myths I could recognize (Pyramus and Thisbe!). I did remember one where she justified the enslavement of a girl. I seem even to have tried to read a book on her poetry, and got half-way through her life and religion (!) by Octavio Paz, Sor Juana, on “the entrapments of faith.”

No one to talk to, I somehow did not realize that what happened was she defied a bishop (guardedly, qualifiedly) and that was enough to lead all around her to quash her gifts, stop her writing; silenced, made to “do penitence,” no surprise she didn’t live long after this. Prof Harvey revealed also that Sor Juana was strongly hostile and aggressive towards native people in the US (for savage reprisals, strong nationalist), wrote blood-thirsty choruses,reminding me now of the sequences of “savages” dancing in the Americas in the film adaptation of Outlander (so we haven’t gone far in popular conceptions of African-derived rituals or native Americans, it seems). I began to see why I read only a third of the one volume of poetry I have (A Sor Juana Anthology, trans. Alan S. Trueblood, foreword by Octavio Pza) and never opened one of these half-crazed vision books (Sor Juana’s Dream, trans., intro, commentary Luis Harss), filled with guilt, agony, torturous versions of mystic neoplatonic readings of ancient kingdoms.


17th Century Spanish church (American, Yucatan, San Pedro)

Poor woman. I now think what I managed on my own was from her short period of joy, and reading over the week came to the conclusion she was a lesbian, and her bitter encounter with the bishop was preceded by equally crushing relationships with court women. She began as an innocent with a kindly good heart, naively reaching out to people expecting reciprocation:

And although loving your beauty
is a crime beyond repair,
rather the crime be chastised
than my fervor cease to dare.

With this confession in hand,
I pray be less stern with me.
Do not condemn me to distress
one who fancied bliss so free.

If you blame me for disrespect,
remember, you gave me leave;
thus, if obedience was wrong,
your commanding must be my reprieve …(“Excusing herself for silence, on being summoned to break it”)

So this time I read on into two-thirds more of my anthology of her poetry. It is equally hard to find a whole poem to share that is not painful. The fantasies of herself with the imaginary beloved in natural landscapes (reminding me of Anne Finch’s reveries) are lovely. There are long winding verses with deep grief at separation from the beloved, relief in his company where she can tell of her cares, “insidious memories,” awareness of the fleetingness of their beings. Some are addressed so directly and intimately to a lover (sonnets like Vittoria Colonna’s, but better, less repetition of the same imagery and more truthful) where she imagines him strangling her with a rope, teasing, vexing her with vacillations; in one she is widowed in a series called “Vicarious Love.” In the English translation, she’s at her best in short lines with four line rhyme schemes:

That my heart is suffering
from love pangs is plain,
but less clear by far
is the cause of its pain.

To make fancy come true
my poor heart strains
but, thwarting desire,
only gloom remains …
I yearn for the chance
to which I aspire
yet when it impends
I shrink ….

She has so few color words, I share this stanza for the sake of that word “green:”

Return, beloved one;
my weary life is suffering decline
from absence so prolonged.
Return, but if you stay away,
although my hope is fed by tears of pain,
I’ll keep it green till you return.

There’s a series on the relationship of convent to court. Any individual stanza gains its individual meaning from context so again it’s hard to convey why anyone would be drawn into these. There’s one on music which attempts to imitate music, a series on the self in the world (things are pretty bad, even learning is harmful for many). She recognizes the great cruelty of people, but also that hers are imagined troubles too, so some are “happy in their unknowing.” Paz finds her not so melancholy as I do since he follows her astronomical poetry and, through his religious belief, enters into her Dante like visions where she transfigures her longing spirit for love and understanding.

When it has come to the desired place,
It sees a lady held in reverence,
And who shines so, that through her radiance
The pilgrim spirit gazes on her (Paz, “Council of Stars”)

Nonetheless, in the dream book I mentioned, now opened and at least skimmed, this self-insight is not uncommon:

… to the undaunted spirit
that, disdaining life, determines
to immortalize itself in ruin.

I thought of the Renaissance poet, Margaret of Navarre’s Prisons, but perhaps for the modern reader, Emily Dickinson, Gabriela Mistal, and Elizabeth Bishop (drunk, lesbian, living at the edge of a world that did recognize her) would be more helpful in situating her among women. For art work, Remedios Varo (see my blog series, women artists) who spent her last years in Mexico and ended making surreal mystic fantasias.


Varo’s The Escape

I’ve four more, long 18th century women writers from this course on American roots, for our imaginary. The writer of a once widely-sold captivity narrative, Mary Rowlandson (1637-1711) and the neo-classical verse writing Phillis Wheatley (1753-84), in a deep sense a captive all her life; then journalist, essayist, playwright, poet, advocate for women’s rights (an American Mary Wollstonecraft), Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820), and Hannah Webster Foster (1758-1840), playwright and still in print and read novelist.

I’ve spent this evening in the company of two great spirits.

Ellen

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Giovanni di Paolo, Paradiso (14th century)

Friends and readers,

Before concluding my reports on the JASNA AGM for 2017, I return briefly to my work on women artists. I’ve not forgotten this series of blogs, just had to put them on hold for a while. I was asked if I would collaborate on a paper on Virginia Woolf and Samuel Johnson as modernists, and set myself to reading what Woolf (and Johnson too, though his specific views are not germane here) had written about biography and in the biographical way. What a task. This was a couple of months ago, and it seems to me the one subject Woolf didn’t write about, which one might have expected, was her sister, a great original visual artist, Vanessa Bell (1879-1961). Woolf’s two longest most sustained biographies are of the great art critic and visual artist, Roger Fry (1866-1934), and her beloved friend, Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962)


Vanessa Bell by Roger Fry (1916) — they were lovers for a time


Roger Fry by himself (1926)

I’m struggling with this topic because there are not natural easy parallels between Johnson’s deeply felt realistic biographies of the poets, and tragic-ironic Life of [Richard] Savage (1697-1743) and Woolf’s traditional and great biography of Fry (it’s more or as much about his inner life than his life as an artist/art businessman); and new or modernist biographies, say many of her short or “obscure” lives in her criticism/journalism (“Miss Mitford,” “Geraldine and Jane,” “Laetitia Pilkington”), and especially the imagined ones in Memoirs of a Novelist (“The Mysterious Case of Miss V,” and “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn”); and post-modern parodic biographies, Flush, the biography of a [Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s] dog; and the time-traveling fantasia, Orlando: A Biography


Vita Sackville-West photographed in the Margaret Cameron [aunt to Virginia] manner, circa 1840

From my notes on Orlando: It does what masterpieces should do: astonishes me with its beauty, power, deep insight into the human condition, comedy and tragedy and farce and all. The description of the river Thames as ice and then turning to a flood and storm is stunning. Although the book is self-reflexive all along, the narrative begins to be a parody of biography and refer to Vita only in the second chapter,and then is so far away from Vita’s life. I have Sackville-West’s Knole and the Sackvilles, which is one of the sources for the houses and staff. Orlando is also a playful coterie book — all sorts of in allusions, especially to the elite world of the Sackvilles, and it is an imitation of a child’s book by Vita too … The transgender part is sheer flattery, obsequious and embarrassing with its references to the gypsy mother …

A number of Woolf’s ideals for biography correspond with those of Johnson (such as the central goal of realizing the inner life, of showing how the art, character, and actual life of the person intertwine). Boswell, it would seem, came closest to her criteria that a biography must combine granite (fact, what can be reported as objectively having happened, been said, written down) and rainbow (the realm of the mind and body unrecorded in words), with Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Bronte, doing this for the first time for a woman writer. But Johnson is no modernist in his biographical writing, though last night Richard Holmes’s book, Dr Johnson and Mr Savage began to render Johnson’s Savage in terms that are post-modern: Savage is the haunting figure of the poetic outcast, Johnson himself when young, a figure of both pathos and terror psychologically disturbed (p 52, 63), disabled, keeping a strange distance of otherness. (I find a good deal of Johnson’s political writing post-colonial, but that’s another matter altogether.) I wish Virginia whose relationship with her sister, can be said to resemble Johnson and Boswell in closeness and (ambiguously) influence, had written a traditional life of her sister (Suzanne Raitt wrote the book thus far: Vita and Virginia: The Friendship and Work of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf), for that would correspond to Boswell’s Life of Johnson.

But this morning I was stirred to feel I am on the right path after all, and this is a topic suited to my mind when in reading Frances Spalding’s Roger Fry: Art and Life (for comparison to Woolf’s), I came across a reproduction of a fourteenth-century predella panel, painted with tempera on a canvas, rendered in black-and-white, a full plate plate on art paper.

I was riveted by it. I had a few days ago told someone at this year’s East Central 18th century Society meeting here in DC, how I began to find myself (“When I was 17 …”), to find out who I am and what I can do in life for personal meaning and satisfaction by going when I was 17-19 twice a week in the morning to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Manhattan) to listen to lecture-tours, and one morning came across the most moving small drawing in a glass case of paradise. It seemed to me even then (before I had lost any beloved people to death) that this artist had captured what people long for when they imagine a life after death. Beloved friends reunited at last. Look how happy they are:


Here it is again, larger, albeit in black-and-white as printed by Spalding (I scanned it in and alas part of the left side could not be got into the scanner)

None of this nonsense about seeing gods, or nebulous awards, I half-remember thinking to myself. This, this is why.

I was prompted to tell of this because I was shown another image of paradise, also medieval, which reminded me of the one I had seen more than 50 years ago, but which missed the point, and I wanted to tell this friend who painted the image I had seen, and what was its name, but I didn’t know. I hadn’t thought to write it down, and anyway if I had, I would have long ago lost it. I could only describe it as understanding why people might long for an afterlife.

And now this morning here it was, with the name of the artist, of the picture, a scholarly description of what it is, where it came from. I had learned now that it was there in the museum that morning because more than 50 years before Roger Fry had acquired it for the museum. I felt my spirit soar as I looked at this image.

I would like to believe in the afterlife now, for then I might dream of seeing Jim once again, which I cannot. This longing is so strong that it is at the core of my engagement with the mini-series Outlander where the heroine travels though time and space through fantasy to see and be with her beloved again, though in 1945 on her first trip and again 1967 he is long since dust, and lying in a grave in a church, the kirkyard of st Kilda, near Inverness.

Kneeling among the unmowed grass she stretched out a trembling hand to the surface of the stone. It was carved of granite, a simple slab … Yes I know him. Her hand dropped lower, brushing back the grass that grew thickly about the stone, obscuring the line of smaller lines about the base: “Beloved husband of Claire” (Dragonfly in Amber, “Beloved Wife,” Chapter 5:76)

In my life-writing blog I’ve been writing about how my life has been and continues to be a journey through books and art, and if it is a trail with meaning, it ought to have some consistent inner shape where the parts relate. I thought of T.S. Eliot’s line: In our end is our beginning.

So I must be on the right track still, even if my project doesn’t necessitate my reading a biography of Vanessa Bell I also have in the house, one I discover also by Spalding, written 3 years after she concluded her book on Fry. It’ll be the one I read as soon as I finish this project-paper and be my first women artists blog, I hope this Christmas

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
— Vita Sackville-West, from “Winter” in The Garden and the Landscape (a georgic)

Ellen

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