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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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Virgina, Leonard and Pinka Woolf

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Six Tuesday mornings, 9:40 to 11:05 am,
March 5 to May 9
Tallwood, 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

We will read and discuss the later Woolf: a playful satirical biography, Flush: A Biography [of a Dog], by indirection of the Victorian poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Virginia Woolf herself, a feminist tale, and historical novel; and Orlando, an experimental novel, biographical and autobiographical fantasy about Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, time-traveling historical tale about a search for identity on the part of a woman writer; a satire on culture through free-wheeling literary history, a struggle to find and come to terms with sexual maturity and gender; and Three Guineas, a pre-World War II essay, which analyzes the origins of war and suggests how we may prevent future wars, nothing can be more relevant for us today. We will watch clips of Sally Potter’s allegorical visual fantasy of a movie Orlando. Our aim is to understand and enjoy these delightful, original, & unusual works.

Required Books & an essay (in the order we’ll read them):

Woolf, Virginia. Flush: A Biography, ed. introd Trekkie Ritchie. Harcourt, 1983. ISBN 0156319527
Woolf, Virginia. “The Art of Biography:” online https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91d/chapter23.html
Woolf, Virginia. “The new Biography,” available at the Internet Archive in Granite and Rainbow.
https://archive.org/details/graniterainbowes00wool
Woolf, Virginia. Orlando: A Biography, ed. introd Maria di Battista. Harcourt, 2006. ISBN 9780156031516
Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas, ed. introd Jane Marcus. 2006. ISBN 9780156031639

One film: Sally Potter’s 1992 Orlando, featuring Tilda Swindon, Billy Zane, Quentin Crisp, Simon Russell Beale.

Harvard has digitalized Virginia and Leonard’s photo album of life at Monk House, their home, and you can view the album here. Many of Woolf’s central long and shorter texts may be found on Project Gutenberg Australia:


Tilda Swinton as Orlando as a young Renaissance man

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

June 19: Introduction: Woolf, & animal stories, art of biography, Finish Flush if you haven’t already.

June 26: Flush: Non-human animal point of view; Elizabeth Barrett Browning & Woolf herself. Read for next time also “The New Biography.”

July 3: Orlando: Knole & Vita Sackville-West, tranvestite tale

April 10: Orlando,” time traveling; the writer’s life’ clips from the movie. Read for next time also “The Art of Biography.”

April 17: Three Guineas: pacifist movements after WW1; the lead-up to World War II, the Woolfs position

July 24: Three Guineas. The text. Final thoughts


Vita Sackville-West photographed to look like Orlando in 1840

Suggested supplementary reading:

Ackerley. My Dog Tulip, introd. Elizabeth Marchall Thommas. New York Review of Books, 1999
Auster, Paul. Timbuktu. New York: Holt, 1999.
Barrett, Elaine. “The Value of Three Guineas in the Twenty-First Century,” online at Academia. edu: http://www.academia.edu/7822334/The_Value_of_Three_Guineas
Briggs, Julia. Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life. Harcourt, 2005.
Knopp, Sherron. “‘If I Saw You Would You Kiss Me?’: Sapphism and the Subversiveness of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando,” PMLA, 103:1 (1988):24-34.
Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf. NY: Knopf, 1997.
Forster, Margaret. Lady’s Maid. Penguin, 1990. Fictionalized biography of EBB’s lady’s maid, Elizabeth Wilson.
—————–. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography. Doubleday, 1988.
Maurois, Andre. Aspects of Biography. 1929; rpt. Ungar, 1966.
Nicolson, Nigel. Portrait of a Marriage. New York: Bantam, 1973. Important text for understanding Vita Sackville-West.
Orr, Douglas. Virginia Woolf’s Illnesses. Clemson University Press. 2004. Online as a pdf: https://tigerprints.clemson.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1017&context=cudp_mono
Raitt, Suzanne. Vita & Virginia: Work and Friendship of V. Sackville-West and V. Woolf. Clarendon, 1993.
Sackville-West, Vita. Knole and the Sackvilles. Drummond, 1948.
——————–. All Passion Spent. Virago Press, 1983.
Snaith, Anna. “Of fanciers, footnotes and fascism: Virginia Woolf’s Flush,” Modern Fiction Studies 48:3 (2002):614-36.


Knole, Sevenoaks, Kent (2009)

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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Madame Roland, from her last year of life

Friends,

For quite a while I’ve been considering giving a course on “The Enlightenment: at risk?” at one of the two Oscher Institutes of Lifelong Learning I teach at, and finally I bit the bullet and wrote this proposal for an 11 week course at the American University OLLI:

It’s been suggested the ideas associated with the European Enlightenment, a belief in people’s ability to act rationally, ideals of social justice, human rights, toleration, education for all, in scientific method, are more at risk than any time since the 1930s. In this course we’ll ask what was & is meant by the term, how & why did this movement spread, against what obstacles, what were the realities of the era and what were the new genres & forms of art that emerged. We’ll read Voltaire’s Candide, Diderot’s The Nun, Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands, and excerpts from Madame [Jeanne-Marie] Roland’s Memoirs.

I originally thought to repeat my work on Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover, the novel of Naples in the 18th century, but decided it was too long, top heavy, and obviously tendentiousnessly pessimistic.

Then I discovered an English translation and good paperback edition of Madame Roland’s Memoirs as A Heroine of the French Revolution, translated and edited by Evelyn Shuckburgh. New York: Moyer Bell/Rizzoli, 1989. I first read Roland’s Memoirs in an Elibron facsimile of the 19th century original French edition published by her daughter, and at that time had just read a great biography by Francois Kermina (not well-known among English readers), Madame Roland ou La Passion Revolutionaire (Paris, 1976). In type Kermina’s biographies are like Amanda Vickery’s marvelous books, or Amanda Foreman’s biography of the Duchess of Devonshire. Beautifully well done scholarship meant to be read by the serious common reader, and written from a woman’s point of view. Not worshipful: she sees the ambitious conflicted woman who had an affair with Brissot. I enjoyed Gita May’s biography less because it seemed more superficial even if factually full. Gita does show what a reading girl Roland was. Now I look upon May as a conventional biographer with Kermina writing a modernist biography. Also Charles A. Dauban, Etude sur Madame Roland et son temps, another Elibron reprint, a perceptive study in the thorough 19th mode.

The value of Dauban is about 1/3 is made up of her letters. Though all my notes on a review I wrote of Eighteenth-Century Women: Studies in Their Lives, Work, and Culture, ed. Linda V. Troost, an anthology of mostly excellent essays on 18th century women writers seems to have vanished, I have the review itself on my website. I’ll transfer it to the academia.edu page (where such papers get more attention).

One exception was of Madame Roland by Mary Cisar (“Madame Roland and the Grammar of Female Sainthood”). Cisar erases what Marie-Jeanne (Manon) Phlippon (born 1754, guillotined 1793) turned to in order to lead a life at odds with her era’s mores and customs: the power of an intensely rebellious and non-religious private spiritual life. Cisar argues that Roland was an unconsciously religious anorexic recluse through a chart which correlates a generalized life pattern of a typical saint with Roland’s unsocial habits and, emptied of its political content, the record Roland left of her sexual and literary experiences; and through an insistence that a subset of religious books meant far more to Roland than all others. Cisar denigrates Roland: Roland’s memoir is “a somewhat self-indulgent reminiscence,” her “intellectual journey [is] hardly original;” she was reluctant to marry because she “considered all of [her suitors] inferior to herself”; her life was “flight from social obligation.” (How terrible.) Roland’s preference for communing with her books and thoughts and overt claims to “exceptionality” are treated with resentment.

Cisar cites and then ignores Caroline Bynum Walker’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast and “Women’s Stories, Women’s Symbols” (in Anthropology and the Study of Religion, ed, R. L. Moore and F. E. Reynolds [Chicago: Center for the Scientific Study of Relgion, 1984], 105-25) whose study of female saints, women’s symbols and individual women differentiates actual life patterns and those of women from men. Cisar also dismisses Edith Bernardin’s Les Idées Religieuses de Madame Roland (Paris, 1933), which does persuasively show Roland’s faith to have been theoretically optimistic, secular, and Rousseauistic. Roland’s references to Francis of Sales’s “La Philothée” (which Cisar makes much of), consist of one ironic reference to its sensuality and one anxious one to its injunction to repress unprocreative sex (Mémoires de Madame Roland, ed. C. A. Dauban [Paris: Elibron Facsimile edition, 2002], 50, 67).

Cisar reads Roland’s texts at face value. As has been shown by a number of scholars (e.g., Dorina Outram, The Body and the French Revolution, and Nicole Trèves, “Madame Roland ou le parcours d’une intellectuelle à la grande âme,” Femmes savantes et femmes d’esprit, ed. R. Bonnel and C. Rubinger [New York: Peter Lang, 1994], 321-40]), Roland’s writings are defensive, guarded, often disingenous to protect her, and contain a multiplicity of intellectual journeys, each fascinating and on the level of an original genius. Cisar does not cite Françoise Kermina’s Madame Roland ou la passion révolutionnaire (1957; rpt. Perrin: Librairie Académique, 1976), which is meant to reach a wide audience and based on thorough archival research of her subject’s life. Kermina shows Roland to have been intensely ambitious: Roland’s writings hide from view her frustration, two years of intense politicking, and “une amertume terrible” (the phrase is Trèves, 322).

I would add that, like many another woman, Roland’s writings reveal a woman who valued the friendships she managed to sustain. There is a set of touching letters between her and a good friend, Sophie Canet; she was close to her mother and meant to be devoted to her daughter, who remained loyal. I think Roland was throughout her life profoundly depressed. When she and her husband fell from power and she was anathematized (with salacious slander very like that directed at so many other ambitious intelligent women), a barely controlled hysteria and paralyzing trauma actuated her decision not to flee death. She kept herself sane and explored this trauma by writing the famous memoir.


I discovered an excellent Norton

The course will of course be but one quarter on Roland. If it goes well, perhaps another time I can try Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters from Sweden, and replace Johnson’s travel book with one of the era’s new biographies.

For the other three: I have not read Voltaire’s Candide in many years. When I did, I thought it was the 18th century equivalent of Primo Levi’s If this be Man and The Truce for the 20th century, a sina qua non of the 18th century.


We hear her shouting and then muffled

I read Diderot’s The Nun in French (La Religieuse) and watched the extraordinary 1966 film directed by Jean Rivette, screenplay Jean Gruault, produced by George de Beuregard, starring Anna Karina as Suzanne when I wrote my paper on rape in Richardson’s Clarissa. A study which illuminates much of the process Clarissa and Suzanne go through is Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The aftermath of violence – from domestic violence to political terror (New York: Basic Books, 1992). For my study of Johnson and Woolf I’ve begun listening to Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands (blended with Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides) on Recorded Books. The two readers do it very well.

Documents from the era in one of its new genres would make the point of what was the actuality of the era against its ideals more convincingly. I may add just snippets or excerpts on-line from the most famous books, Tom Paine’s Rights of Man, Rousseau’s Social Contract, Hume’s famous chapter on the argument for a belief in God based on miracles (in the Dialogues), and Beccaria’s against torture from his Crimes and Punishments.

I can Sontag’e Volcano Lover, an important philosophical book for our time rooted in the 18th century — with Daphne DuMaurier’s King’s General, in the spring. A reprise of the summer course I did at OLLI at Mason last summer.


An 18th century painting of “the Pont Neuf and pump house” (painter unnamed)

Ellen

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The Great Picture by Jan Van Belcamp: it takes three panels to suggest Clifford’s outer life

We should ourselves be sorry to think that posterity should judge us by a patchwork of our letters, preserved by chance, independent of their context, written perhaps in a fit of despondency or irritation, divorced, above all, from the myriad little strands which colour and compose our individual existence, and which in their multiplicity, their variety and their triviality, are vivid to ourselves alone, uncommunicable even to those nearest to us, sharing our daily life … Still, within our limitations it is necessary to arrive at some conclusion, certain facts do emerge … Vita Sackville-West, Introduction, Diary of Lady Anne Clifford (1923)

The knowledge that his arrow pointed to that impossible mark [‘a duplication of an image in the mind’] was Boswell’s source of confidence. Other biographers might forestall his book, but that they could rival it he never, in his most sombre moments, conceived. Those others did not know that biography is impossible … Geoffrey Scott, in the Malahide Papers, as quoted by Iris Origo, in “Biography: True and False” (1984)

Friends,

This is me again working out evolving thoughts about biography and the relationship of Samuel Johnson and Virginia Woolf as modernist biographers. I’ve gone on to consider Maurois’s Aspects of Biography and define Woolf’s Flush as a canonical modernist biography. I’ve been reading Iris Origo’s short biographies and her essay on biography as well as Nigel Nicolson’s Portrait of a Marriage and Vita Sackville-West’s Knole and the Sackvilles as two true sources for Woolf’s Orlando. And I’ve spent two to three weeks teaching Woolf’s Orlando.

One of the characteristics those who first wrote and theorized about biography after 1910 (the year when, we will remember, the world changed) as such, described the history of the genre, its development between the early modern period and 19th century, and then outlined and defined the type they were writing as “modern” all come to when they discuss the genre is its impossibility. It is impossible to write a text that truly accurately tells the life of an individual. It’s arguable that the way modernist biographies were written in the wake of Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria, Geoffrey Scott’s Portrait of Zélide, and longer examples of the same sort of thing (it’s not true that modernist biographies are always concise) like Stefan Zweig’s Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles, and self-reflexive experiments, A.J.A. Symons’s The Quest for Corvo, were attempts to overcome the considerable complicated obstacles in the way.


Two chapters are inserted fragments of an autobiographical memoir by Sackville-West about her sexually free marriage, her lesbianism and love of her husband, whom she nonetheless exploited hard

Most of the time this continual reassertion is dismissed because the plain reality is that these writers and others (colleagues, friends, rivals, people privileged by living knowledge of the subject) went on trying to achieve such impossible feats in words, sometimes accompanied by pictures, anyway. My feeling is this blithe sliding over is also done because at the same time it has proved also impossible to persuade the countless readers of fat popular biographies (“great men,” lurid women) to stop looking at the text they are devouring as a compilation of facts from unquestionable documents that add up to what is seen as an existence telling to know about. The “common reader” so strongly yearned after by Samuel Johnson and then supposedly targeted by Virginia Woolf also will not accept frank fictionalization in their intake of biography, and are on the record (on the Internet and elsewhere) as regarding another modernist tenet (admission) that the greatest biographies are autobiographies in disguise as a convenient way to dismiss a book that contains a perspective or whatever information they might not want to consider seriously.

It will be part of my iconoclastic argument that the value of examining Johnson and Woolf’s biographical art in alignment from a modernist point of view is that both worked hard in pursuit of their repeated self-appointed or commissioned biographical tasks conceived in the most high-minded way, all the while coming up against their own bedrock accurate perception that what they aimed to do was highly problematic, if not quite impossible. It is important to see where they failed in order to recognize where they succeeded, not just to do justice to to under-recognized because not well-known or long texts, but to grasp in what biography inheres. I want to write up first how they understood the biographical process, its aims and its problems, which they never solved. My belief now after reading so much (including Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale) is that someone’s biography is a product in the mind of the reader and writer after a process of induced identification and empathy: this process requires several texts taken together.

How about that? a biography and autobiography does not end where the text ends at all? I have to return to Umberto Eco’s Six Walks in Fictional Woods, which was so essential for my chapter on Trollope’s Autobiography in my Trollope on the ‘Net.


Taking it down form its shelf

With this kind of outlook or basis, one can then move into biographical texts by them that have attained the status of masterpiece biographies, Johnson’s Life of Savage and Woolf’s Roger Fry: A Biography. These two texts have seemed to do the essential required core of biography, convey a complex living presence, mind and body, in the context of, or emerging from a historically accurate portrait of their society as these people experienced it. I admit to loving the Roger Fry after having read some of Fry’s writing and Frances Spalding’s biography of Fry as an artist and art critic, connoisseur, museum person, curator. Woolf also wrote biographical fantasies one of which post-modern attitudes would include a legitimately biographical: Orlando: A Biography. It’s a woman’s time-traveling fantasy perhaps inspired by the idea behind a tiny girls’ book by Vita Sack-ville West (A Note of Explanation). I’m not sure how I feel about Orlando. At some level I even dislike it, it’s too frivolous for me, at times silly, and deeply elitist. How should a biography be written? is some form of verisimilitude necessary? I think so, so Orlando doesn’t make the cut at all. In some of Johnson’s unfair Lives of the English Poets he allows the political perspective of the whole set or his own personal distaste for a kind of personality or literary style or stance to lead him into fictional biography, the most obvious his life of John Milton — where Johnson gets away with what he writes by using verisimilitude with a seemingly practiced novelistic art.

All these texts stand up to scrutiny only in the context of more recent biographical, autobiographical, critical and even fictional texts on and by the subject — they are printed with long notes and annotations. In the case of Johnson’s Life of Savage, I am convinced after reading Tracy Clarke that like Boswell, concluded Savage was at first simply lying and then became a self-deluded impostor. Johnson’s text is also egregiously misogynistic towards Anne Brett (who appears as Lady Easy, a bullied woman in Cibber’s The Careless Husband). Johnson captures the pity of this gifted man never being given a real chance to enter the aristocracy or gentry he was so determined to belong to; his strangeness in some ways, the angry, the mysteries, that he was thrown away. But what was he? Tracy comes much closer to capturing the real man. Woolf’s Fry cannot pass muster without Diane Gillespie’s long introduction and annotations (two thirds again as long as the book). It should be considered a literary biography, the kind I can hope to write about Winston Graham. Orlando just won’t do (I shall write on it separately next week): it’s a time traveling wish-fulfillment fantasy, telling of the life of a woman writer seeking an identity in society. For Johnson’s Thomas Gray two modernist concise biographies: one by Edmund Gosse and the other David Cecil can function as touchstones on what’s lacking in Johnson: they are both so much superior, as is Frances Mayhew Rippy’s Matthew Prior (an unassuming Twayne book).

Which are or what kinds of other biographical texts constitute Johnson and Woolf’s problematic attempts and successes? Thus far from my reading Johnson’s Lives of Dryden, Pope, Thomson and Collins, and Virginia Woolf’s short biographical essays about obscure and unknown women (one of Geraldine [Jewsbury] and Jane [Carlyle] is superior to Norma Clarke’s Ambitious Heights, gathered in the Common Reader, others in other collections (especially Memoirs of a Novelist) and still more in the Collected Essays. In all these the needed background, the panoply of other texts are the paradoxically long biographies of the treated literary figures which fail to address central cruxes of these lives which Johnson and Woolf do.

Flush: A Biography is a wholly successful modernist biography if we take what Woolf says in her two essays on biography seriously. (Another would then qualify: Jenny Diski’s Apology for the Woman Writing, a fictionalized life of Marie de Gournay from the point of view of her maid. A fictionalized biography.) So is Jane Stevenson’s The Winter Queen more insightful than Josephine Ross’s.

I’ve also been questioning the assumed great worth of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, thinking about how good John Wain is, how original and questioning Nokes, and the respect I once gave to WJBates’s book. About 2/3s the way through the listening to Bernard Mayes reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson, I’ve tired of it. Johnson is there all right, but I have realized I have been mis-remembering, elevating him, forgetting how he regards women as instruments for men to make children with, yes an obsessive Christian; Boswell further skews the portrait by his constant justifications, idealizing, omitting Johnson’s sex life (very troubled), misrepresenting Mrs Thrale. Every once in a while a letter by Johnson brings his deeply humane character through, his comments his sensitive morality towards everyone (an off-the-cuff argument showing how slavery can never ever be justified in human arrangement, a deep violation). Johnson nails precisely that something is deeply wrong with a society where the homeless and sick are simply ignored — with the leaders he says, as they must act first. But I’ve stopped listening (gone on to Gabaldon’s Outlander 3: Voyager, read by Davina Porter). I probably much prefer Johnson straight than Johnson through Boswell.

I ought to decide which of the several still respected biographies of Woolf stands up: Julia Brigg’s Inner Life, Phyllis Rose’s Women of Letters, Hermione Lee’s old fashioned huge tome, whose aims are nonetheless those of modernist biography. I admit I need to read through the first two.

Not everyone fails; indeed my favorite form of reading is the literary biography and many masterpieces exist in the genre. This summer I read one: Claire Haman’s Charlotte Bronte, and Iris Origo made a career as a writer because she wrote great biographies and diary-journals. One of the great books for me of the later 20th century is Richard Holmes’s Footsteps: The confessions of a Romantic Biographer, which I taught three times in a class called Advanced Writing on the Humanities.

And I still believe that the key to understanding any one’s art is to understand their lives and that means reading the life-writing coming from and attached to the subject in all its forms. Wrong-headed biographies if they are intelligent and written out of sincerity and original thought are important in understanding writers too, e.g., David Nokes on Johnson and Austen.

This is where I’m at tonight on this project. I think I had better give this one up for a while. Put it away. And come back to it in May when the heavy teaching and most courses end. My thesis as far as I can manage is the value of studying these two writers seen as modern biographers is in what they teach us about biography in their successes and their failures, brilliant insights and misapprehensions and along the way about the people they create or misapprehend.

I hope I have not bored you, gentle reader, and invite any commentary on what you think of biography as a form or any of the texts I’ve cited. These have been thoughts I pushed out of myself with difficulty and then added to late at night and then early in the morning before dawn.


Isabel Coddrington (1874-1943), Evening 1925

Next up: blogs on Woolf’s Orlando and then (if I can only discipline myself once more to it) women artists.

Ellen

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Dear friends,

Although in the first session of Prof Tamara Harvey’s Early Modern American women writers, I regretted that she didn’t show the truly appealing poems of Anne Bradstreet or Sor Juana, in the second session on captivity narratives I had to admit someone today would not read the texts chosen by Mary Rowlandson and Phillis Wheatley for their subtlety, beauty, or true self-exploration. Again, as with Bradstreet and Juana, against all logic, natural emotion, and reason, Rowlandson interprets her horrifying experiences as evidence of God’s grace. Wheatley falls all over herself with gratitude to the Deity as well as her condescendingly kindly owners, then friends. Both are writing forms of captivity narratives. Rowlandson experienced the horrors of continual war: murder, destruction of communities, and then a hostage-worker. Wheatley was slave from a young baby, her gifts recognized and developed — up to a certain point.

The once enormously popular captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson (1637-1711), is printed with many different covers and additions to the text. Only a few of these today sport the original title, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God &c). While remarkably vivid and direct, Rowlandson presents a very limited view of what’s happening, of herself, of the Indians controlling her (enslaving, terrifying, killing, putting her and her neighbors and their children to work). The Indians are the savages (never mind the colonialists slaughtered them in thousands), she is the melodramatic victim heroine.

She just thrusts us into a layer-heavy experience. Her sister is dependent on her and killed immediately (this is seen as God’s way of rewarding her). Her baby dies during the march in her arms. The chapters are called “removes, so this is a journey. In the story we see her interacting with the Native Americans, in effect bargaining with them. She begins to know more about them as individuals and their customs; she suddenly uses their names. She eats their food, expresses kindness when she is treated decently. She is also at one point glad the native woman’s child is dead. She will in desperation take food from a baby’s mouth. She tries to change the outlook of those around her so they are not thinking how they are about to be killed. She also writes of other narrators like herself, other books so this text is not as unself-conscious as it seems. She presents herself as happiest at home. Her husband was a printer. Apparently he died and she remarried (became Mary White). The native American she is servant to is killed and she records this. There is no closure for her though: she tells us that since her experience, she can no longer sleep.

The text also functions as an exemplary conversion experience. I was interested in how she managed not to become a concubine while maintaining in her text not a hint of anything unchaste going on around her. Did the native people rape their captives: apparently they tended either to kill or adopt the person into their culture. It makes visible how continual and internecine fierce quarrels often resulted in mini-wars. There were native people who themselves converted to Christianity, and they were called (derisively) “praying Indians.” There are moments where she reproaches the English for not saving them. She was accused in turn: why didn’t you escape? why did you stay with them? Ironies: she is seen as having asked too much for herself when there was ransom bargaining. Her plight was real and she got very little sympathy (as victimized lower status women today often don’t).

For my part I thought the most effective places were where Rowlandson lets go and puts on the the raw emotion she is experiecing without knowing why or understanding herself: she is landed by her captors who are in canoes; they all come ashore, the people about her talk, laugh, are happy with their victory:

Then my heart began to fail and I fell aweeping, which was the first time to my remembrance, that I wept before them. Though I had met with so much affliction and my heart was many times ready to break, yet I could not shed one tear in their sight, but rather had all this time been in a maze (8th remove)

Apparently some Americanists try to argue these narratives were influential on the Anglo-European novel. They were read avidly out of curiosity to learn about the colonial experience and the American continent. Another captivity narrative by Hannah Duston shows as exemplary a murderous retaliatory heroine. Tamara Harvey ended this part of the session by talking of Jill Lepore’s book In the Name of War, which reveals the mindset we see around us today, the paranoid beset and beseiged, the notion that violence is a solution, that there is something special about the US experience is fully here. Wars of this era include King Philip’s, Metacun Rebellion, the Pequot war. It was all about slaughter. No wonder the Quakers were so anathemized. Lepore is today an excellent staff writer for the New Yorker. You can read Chapter 1 of her book here; hers is a book about the nature of war and how people write about it.

I regret to say I regard Phillis Wheatley’s neoclassic verse in the same light as Rowlandson’s prose: historically important but as poetry, thin, imitative, a rigid prosody, with a content where she shows that after she was literally freed, she continued to spout the (especially with regard to her) semi-hypocritical rhetoric used to disguise the aggrandizement, exploitation, destruction of the people native to America, the Africans kidnapped and enslaved, the indentured servants and convicts brought over from the UK. Perhaps I’m not being fair and there are many good lines if the book is studied carefully.This good paragraph comes from a poem to William Earl of Dartmouth:

Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

Still, I have to admit it seems to me the scholar-critics want to avoid saying how unsatisfying the idiom of this poetry is. To see this clearly is to see the tragedy of her short life. Hers is the story of the lucky token exception with powerful patrons who recognized her gifts, and in return for presenting the Wheatleys as super-good people and behaving exemplarily (as the white colonialists saw this), she is protected — for a while. Wheatley was the family name; Phillis the name of her ship. There seems to be no memory of her earliest childhood. When she married, she found she had to work very hard for little money. The contemporary biographer blames John Peters, her husband for what happened to her. Dead children, herself very sick. Of course in comparison with most African people, she was treated like a princess, with respect, attention, and equivalent humanity.

Prof Harvey treated the volume and story from interesting angles (as she did Sor Juana and Bradstreet). Living in Boston was another stroke of luck; she showed us how Wheatley’s texts were marketed by looking at details in the titles of the poems. Wheatley was writing to middle and upper class women; there are elegies for the deaths of family members, for George Whitefield, a well-known Methodist; she addresses George Washington. In one epistle she writes of the Countess of Huntington and abolition movement; she writes to male aristocrats who were patrons. We see her in a community of well-connected people. Later there appear to be poems to or also about black people, a man manumitted at 40. She wants to associate with the local elite where she moves to, to admire a black nun, to think the city she lives in represents something great. Yet there is said to be an awareness in her of women across the globe who she might be like but had not had her luck.

The best book is Vincent Carretta’s Biography of a Genius in Bondage; I’ve met him at conferences and lectures, and heard him speak eloquently about Wheatley and Olaudah Equiano. We can see all that was available to a male once freed, not available to a female; Equiano lived a full life on his own while she had to marry, be dependent on her husband and died young of too many children and poverty.

I wish I felt more for these women from their books than I do. I can’t find a way into an attitude of mind so deeply guarded by religion and convention however clever Mary Rowlandson was. I can see that Wheatley survived and had what achievement and pleasure she did by somewhere deep in her fiercely repressing any anger. I find what is written about them resonates more.

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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