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Posts Tagged ‘women’s life-writing’

Friends,

This eloquent and persuasive study of four women writers’ work: — Elizabeth Stoddard, Louisa May Alcott, Constance Fennimore Woolson, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps — is the fifth of several general books on women who spent long periods of time unmarried that I have been reading towards my project for a collection of essays in a book with the working title: Not an Anomaly. I recently produced an outline for myself, singling out the specific women I’d focus on over three chapters (widow, pariah, spinster). See At the Crossroads of this life (scroll down). One of my choices will be Constance Fennimore Woolson, (lesbian?) spinster about whom I’ve written here before: Hours of Good Reading: a 19th century woman of letters.


A drawing by Constance Fennimore Woolson

The unusual argument in the introduction (and throughout) is this: Just about all women who wrote about artists or women making money until the 20th century do not themselves say they are ambitious for power or fame (Stael is an exception), or they take their art seriously and want to be respected as artists: no, they are writing for money, they are writing because they have to, they have a family they must help support. Rioux argues that these four women by telling stories of women who aspired to make permanent remarkable works of art, genius, are breaking an important taboo and behaving in a radical way: affirming the value of a woman’s life for what she as an individual can create, for what she can experience as an individual and convey, for having gifts equal to or superior to men.

Rioux insists that it is important to understand this presentation of one’s book as primarily there as a great art, great vision and the real goal of the woman as creating great art (not for supporting herself) as radical and important in building esteem and validation for women as a group. We are so used to valuing things for the money, book history as turned into a branch of let’s study how capitalism, fame, and industry worked and the idea of writing as a vocation becomes something we scorn people for: what? they must be hypocrites and just say that because their books don’t sell. We are so corrupted to the folds of our minds — today unless a book wins a prize, becomes social capital for the writer, we doubt it can be any good. We see up a relationship between a book and money as the first and foremost measurement of value. So this is quite a radical book. Vocational behavior is what we find at the core of great writers and Rioux finds it among her subjects.

The book then divides into four long chapters: first, we learn how the four women when young discovered themselves to be artists, to have singular talents and conceived a desire to fulfill them in family contexts where it seemed this desire could be realized; we read how they expressed this. Aspiration towards high ideals and values is found in the works of these four women and those who encouraged them — Margaret Fuller comes in here. In the second chapter we see them experience adult and later mature life as what thwarts them, and presents obstacles they sometimes overcome but usually not wholly and sometimes not at all, and we read the stories of women artists they tell which narrate such experiences in particular ways. They are all to some extent crippled in their ambition or fame or even what they were able to achieve or write because of the demand they be conventional heterosexual and marry. One of them did: Stoddard and that stopped her producing any more than two good novels.


Elizabeth Stoddard — The Morgesons

Stoddard’s work combines the narrative style of the popular nineteenth-century male-centered bildungsroman with the conventions of women’s romantic fiction in this revolutionary exploration of the conflict between a woman’s instinct, passion, and will, and the social taboos, family allegiances, and traditional New England restraint that inhibit her. Her most studied work, The Morgesons is set in a small seaport town, and is the dramatic story of Cassandra Morgeson’s fight against social and religious norms in a quest for sexual, spiritual, and economic autonomy. An indomitable heroine, Cassandra not only achieves an equal and complete love with her husband and ownership of her family’s property, but also masters the skills and accomplishments expected of women. Counterpointed with the stultified lives of her aunt, mother, and sister, Cassandra’s success is a striking and radical affirmation of women’s power to shape their own destinies. Embodying the convergence of the melodrama and sexual undercurrents of gothic romance and Victorian social realism. But to read Rioux’s very inward account of Stoddard her writing shows intense doubts about herself and the value of what she wrote; Rioux says she stopped writing well before she had to, defeated as it were by her household duties -1866 when she died in 1902; a story she tells after she stopped writing, “Collected by a Valetudinarian” is about Alicia Raymond who keeps a diary, she is a woman of genius and finds herself isolated, lonely, finding no understanding; she refuses a suitor whom she says had the best of her, and slowly dies as her brother marries; her works are forgotten.

The others fought and produced and led a life they found satisfactory but to do so took tremendous energies which weakened them in other ways. I’d say this is even true of Alcott — fine as her achievement in children’s books is and here and there in adult fiction, it’s not what she could have done.

The second woman, Elizabeth Phelps (Ward) spent a good deal of her life unmarried but she finally did marry (a man 17 years younger than herself) and was prolific; in the wikipedia article we are told of 57 volumes, that she depicted women suceeding in non-traditional careers (physician, minister, artist) and like Frances Power Cobbe, wrote polemics against vivisection and on behalf of animal rights. But her novel, The Story of Avis (is about a woman whose talent is extinguished because she finds that supporting herself and her child and writing are by no means satisfying; she is said to have two inward natures, she feels it goes against women’s nature to become a great artist and her life leaves no room for it; she does have a daughter and the daughter it seems will have a career. In life Phelps had a mother Elizabeth Wooster Phelps, who wrote about the repressive lives of women; her career as a writer was cut short when she became a prominent minister’s wife; apparently the mother became ill, mentally and physically with this attempt to break out. The mother’s one short story, “The Angel Over the Right Shoulder”, illustrates the repressive burdens frustrating a wife’s creative ambitions and need to “cultivate her own mind and heart”. The story is notable as “one of the rare woman’s fictions of this time to recognize the phenomenon of domestic schizophrenia”, says literary critic Nina Baym. What her mothr is famous for is a book that sold widely, The Sunny Side; or, The Country Minister’s Wife. The novel sold 100,000 copies in its first year, eventually more than 500,000, and garnered international recognition. She died the next year and the daughter Phelps Ward said her mother died of this struggle.

The central enemies of promise are what allured women and did give them happiness: to marry and have children. So these are hard complex conflicts we read about.

In a third chapter Rioux goes over carefully stories they told as they imagined women artists creating art and their lives. In these stories we find women who do not married (and have children) are regarded as unfulfilled failures no matter what books they write. Her book is dismissed as irrelevant and besides the point of her existence – while it’s what the heroine wants to pour all her existence into. So the question becomes how can one combine the two sets of activities, two different roles. I thought of how Gaskell’s Life of Bronte is really an apology for the woman artist and that while Gaskell was determined to normalize Bronte and her family, and show Charlotte involving herself in what was considered suitable for women, she still presented Bronte’s father (and I think rightly) as domineering, her marriage as simply getting in the way, isolating her, and destroying Bronte in childbirth. Phelps by the way allowed herself “aspiration” but not ambition, saw deeper satisfaction in love relationships for women than writing. I also omitted how another escape route from the conflict of career and personal artistic fulfillment and what their life circumstances demanded and what everyone around them probably said was to choose a male narrator at the center. Emma Lazarus had male artist figures at the center of her fictions. Another ploy was to have a maternal narrator – a mother figure. I don’t mind the mother figure or stance but know I prefer the daughter one. I know I often find very frustrating (even angering) the choice of a male in the center. That’s why I’ve not read DuMaurier’s later novels. To me it seems a betrayal. Somehow using the disguise of a male in Wolf Hall made me accept Mantel’s use of the ploy — this earlier era (unless you have a time-traveling heroine, pro-active from the 20th century) precludes active heroines.


Louisa May Alcott

Alcott as we all know strove to be a “dutiful daughter” and that is the phrase used here — it’s echoed in Beauvoir. Alcott wrote a novel she never finished Diana and Persis, which mirrors what happened to her and her sister May. May went to live in Europe, helped to get there by Louisa, and then lived a satisfying life (like Amy, except as an artist) but Louisa had to return home. In the novel Persis (May) at first has this satisfying life as both mother and artist, but soon she stops painting because she has had a child, and in an outburst (like Romney) it emerges despite her husband’s encouragement of her and saying if a woman will have courage and strength she can both, he berates her over her choice of her child when the child almost dies. It is a wish fulfillment book in that Diana (Louisa) becomes a sculptor, falls in love sort of with another (male) sculptor, Stafford, finds how wonderful it is to have this support, and then the novel breaks off. Rioux discusses her Hospital Sketches and Moods too. Rioux’s own Meg Jo Beth Amy, a kind of biography of a book is the one to read here.

Of the four Rioux concentrates on Woolson is the woman most pessimistic about this combination: Woolson’s register intense grief — as in “Miss Grief.” Woolson derided woman’s books which were “pretty and pleasant’ (idealized) romances, and writes about writing a story about a woman artist, Mrs B, that she never wrote out but the idea is she seeks to compete with men; Woolson has a male writer who realizes he cannot compete with the “power of a woman’s gifts of the heart” and a woman artist who feels she lacks the culture, learning, intellect of a man — this seems to mirror her idea of herself and Henry James. Alas she is best know for her relationship with James; late in life she went to live in Europe and didn’t return to the US, and apparently (I do think this is the truth) killed herself. Did she jump out a window or fall? Rioux stays on the fence but I feel thought she did kill herself. Woolson appears to have been bisexual.


Constance Fennimore Woolston

Grief is also central to these women artists; they grieve that they cannot come up to what men are granted as having achieved; they feel only unhappy women take to writing, they cannot sustain the achievement and eventually they die, killed by neglect, by exhaustion, live lives of quiet desperation. A less common theme (in both Woolson and Stoddard) is the need for women to have a belief in their own powers. She feels that their poses (however grating) could and maybe should be see as them finding authorial identities with which they are comfortable. Many of their heroines (or enough) really do aspire to be great artists, and they manage in different ways to circumvent the impasse they are confronted with by their culture, and how pessimistic they are, we see that in fact they had much success and real careers

Alcott seems single minded in her avoidance of courtship for herself, and intense grief in her novels. She was not unwilling to write uplifting girls’ stories. Phelps and Alcott openly advocate the single life — George Eliot could get away with the best of all worlds (she avoided time-wasting visitors is how I’d see it) because she had Lewes as her businessman. (Not mentioned by Rioux but Margaret Oliphant was envious and found that having to cope with the business end of her profession and support herself and family decreased her time and ability to produce the masterpieces she actually yearned to create. In Rioux’s re-telling, Stoddard emerges as the most poignant figure, for after her serious masterpiece, The Morgesons, still in print, the pressure of marriage and childre made her give up writing.


Mary Cassatt — Lydia at the Tapestry Loom (1881)

It’s not a story of what was not achieved though but of eloquent poems and life-writing, of great books, fascinating heroines and their stories, moving life achievements which at first gain an audience and respect or now and again gain these as if for the first time, but finally are placed in unknown and isolated limbos of neglect and disparagement, or just not valued for real. It’s a story of heroic struggle, of almost making it or making it for a while and then being stifled. I enjoyed reading the summaries and analyses of their books; Rioux makes these come alive with issues that women today who aspired to writing as a career (or any career) will face. I found myself indignant at the way particular editors and male writers and critics put these women down, refused to acknowledge their value, made fun of them, heaped withering scorn and resentment on them, would never give them equal respect — from Howells, Hawthorne and James to lesser known men (but powerful at the time) and the treatment the men and family members the women lived with did not sympathize, understand, and corroded their abilities. What differentiates American from English women was when in Europe they had the sense of being perpetually watched — paradoxically, the idea found in Henry James’s Daisy Miller, led to journalists and ordinary people in letters trying to watch and write about American women writers to see if they led moral as well as successful lives

Along the way Rioux brings in other women writers, especially those whose works did achieve longer lasting fame and recognition at least as first, as influential on our four. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, a narrative poem about a woman trying to live the life of a woman writer. Phelps is quoted saying of Aurora Leigh: “I owe to her, distinctly, the first visible aspiration (ambition is too low a word) to do some honest, hard work of my own in the world beautiful, and for it.” Germane de Stael’s Corinne, or Italy, a tragic novel of a woman whose muse creates this beautiful poetic book, at the end of which she is rejected as a woman and artist. She also treats of Eliot’s Armgart, a poem about a singer I have read, a narrative novel where by the end the heroine loses her voice. This is so common in 19th century novels for women artists — it’s a punishment (like the scenes of confession and humiliation for heroines in many American movies still today). There is a typology of writing or artist heroines in the novels of this era: in the US a sentimental artist heroine who can and does marry and we see her troubles; in the UK and Europe, the woman of Romantic poetic genius, who most of the time comes to a tragic end. They also turned to real women they knew or knew of: Charlotte Bronte as presented in Elizabeth Gaskell’s life of her; George Eliot as the model they all yearned to be as novelists. There are explicit intersections Phelps’s novel, The Story of Avis by Phelps and both Corinne and Aurora Leigh – Avis, who becomes an artist is engulfed by her husband and her gifts lost. Phelps does not think that the conflict is a society-imposed one but inherent in women’s nature — she also refuses to give her heroine genuine ambition.


Emma Lazarus

Rioux also (or along the way) discusses Rebecca Harding Davies, Helen Hunt Jackson, Emma Lazarus, one black woman who was never enslaved and lived a middle class life, Charlotte Forten Grimke, as women who either wrote less, or what they wrote did not achieve the same level, or who did not deal openly with the issues of their own lives and those of women from a woman’s point of view, but whose work placed in the same context emerges as similarly unfairly marginalized. She excludes Sarah Orne Jewett and Emily Dickinson because they did not seek careers and in a sense validated the idea that women should stay in some private retreat.

The last chapter is a convincing demonstration that the male white academy of the 20th century excluded all but white males like themselves in a canon they invented and taught; that the four were similarly dissed in the marketplace, pushed into writing less aspirant books (children’s books for example) and how they never were able to reach the status and receive the recognition their work deserved. One must admit an oddity here: these four women did write prolifically, all were in print and had careers, one now still famous, Alcott, and one now still respected for her artistry, if not well known (Woolson) and one respected as achieving something beyond a historically important still readable book (Phelps). Still, this is the saddest chapter of the book. I found myself embarrassed as I read: Rioux is showing that these women chased after males; they wanted recognition so badly, that they kowtowed before them, behaved in deferrent and self-humiliating ways. I know I have done this and wish I could altogether stop. What really hurts is the situation described in the early and mid-20th century history of the Atlantic Monthly obtains today. Yes the women’s page and their normative heroines are different from mid-century but underlying it all is the same non-valuing of literature by and for women. Maybe it’s that I’ve experienced editors “losing” the attachment, never writing back. The part of the chapter about how critics treat women’s books rings loud still. It’s a masculinization of taste.

Rioux’s last topic is the canon. Brigid Brophy was a breath of fresh air, among the first of the 1970s feminist books on women writers. Brophy’s contribution was to agree these are “dreadful” books and because they are dreadful they are masterpieces. She turns the charge of sentimentalism on its head — the sentimentalism is what makes them great – they are morbid, complaining, sad, emotional, say things matter that in life “adults”‘ learn (so it’s implied) to get past, slide over, ignore. In short, they are powerful great grapplings with life in art. Rioux returns to her four women in the end and tells of their later years — betrayed by “new” women replacing them, so Edith Wharton never acknowledged their real influence on her work. Then a marvelous bibliographical essay, which takes the reader through the important cited books a history of feminist scholarship in the last quarter century.


An early important book, which meant a lot to me when I was young

Rioux’s book is so rich in details, in retellings of stories by so many American women writers, of the circumstances of their lives, in quotation (how shocked women were when they sought the vote and discovered males were violently hostile … ), I can’t begin to do justice to it. Read it yourself, and then do like me, turn to read at least some of the literature Rioux has digested for us. I’ve also got myself a good biography of Alcott as a reformist, written in an intriguing way: Kit Bakke, Miss Alcott’s Email: Yours for reforms of all Kinds.

Ellen

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Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke (Before Sunrise, 1995)


Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson (Hampstead, 2017)

“I have nothing of value to offer anyone,” she said to her faintly condescending adult son who seems to imply she should get a paying job … “I have no [sellable] skills”

He: “You think my mother birthed a complete half-wit?”
She: “Is there such a thing as a COMPLETE half-wit?”

Gentle reader,

If, like me, you retain fond memories of Delpy and Hawk endlessly talking during a long day in Paris after they have mutually agreed to get off a train together, you will like this romantic comedy, done in something of the same vein, the walking and talking,

the sitting about

the doing things, like putting back together a shack which has been assaulted, reading, going to bed together,

eating, drinking, fishing for their food …

you will find this movie wonderfully enjoyable.

If, like me, you loathe super-rich phony people who pretend to be your friend, pressure you, undermine you, especially when they are making oodles of money more from connections to corporations, in this case, one that is pulling down a hospital, evicting a squatter (there for 17 years), and when he is gone wrecking his place

and want to feel for all endangered species (even salmon) — the young actor on the right spends his existence handing out petitions and helping other people


you will find this movie wonderfully enjoyable.

Our hero wins out against a dastardly priggish barrister seeking to humiliate and to remove him by having a decent judge (Simon Callow), wise lawyer (Adeel Akhtar), and supportive petitioning demonstrating friends (Hugh Skinner). Unexpectedly he can be allowed to stay in the park and even given the property under a medieval ordinance, as long as he can produce documentary proof he’s been there more than 12 years. He does — with a little help from Emily (and Phil Davis — see below). It is just wonderfully enjoyable to triumph once in a while.

The movie opens up with a cheerful scene in one of the meadows of Hampstead: we see a kite, children playing, adult joining in, lovers kissing. Emily (Diane Keaton) is meeting in her building with her women friends, and being told she has an enormous upkeep bill. We watch her go off to her volunteer work at a charity shop, upstairs to her attic to rummage, find a binoculars and glimpse and keeping watching “a tramp” (Brendan Gleeson) whose lifestyle is improbably picturesque, cunningly achieved, and comfortable. At moments of high and low comedy, poignancy (she and her son, played so warmly by James Norton), the score inspirits us — light, easy, life as dance. Lots of photography of Hampstead, a pretty place where elite activities go on all the time

People fly kites; they spoil their children. Emily and Donald even take time out visit a museum (as did Harvey and Kate — see below)

Towards the end of the movie, we worry our new found couple have broken up: when he gains ownership of the property, and she has to leave her flat, she wants him to sell the his house and property, and when she sells her condom, they can start “a new life” comfortably together. He says, they have a life already; a big explosion and protesting quarrel ensues. Switch to another shot and she is, with the help of her son, selling all her stuff in an auction, paying her last bills, and settling into a another picturesque place. Time passes and she has acquired a new companion, a hen (Claude). But lo and behold Donald is passing by in a houseboat, his house moved onto a moving barge and before you know it they are drifting down the stream together

The director, Joel Hopkins, has made only four films in the relatively longer time (for making more films than that) he has been working. They are original and quirky, draw on depth of feeling and thought and improvisation. This one is actually some two years old, and has only come over to the US recently, and while it may have a movie run, like other recent films, the place to find it is Amazon Prime. The one by by Hopkins closest in outline is the movie about a day-long exquisitely moving walk of Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson: Last Chance Harvey.


Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson (Last Chance Harvey, 2000)

Like Harvey Shine and Kate Walker, Emily and Donald have had long lives and real troubles; all three sets of couples (I include Delpy and Hawke) are meditations on the troubled private lives of people, intelligently put before us. What’s different here is the troubles are more probable — money. Emily’s husband has left her badly in debt; and she is at risk of being thrown out of her apartment unless she kowtows to her great friend (played by Lesley Manville) who gets through life by obeying her stealthy real estate developer husband; and unless Emily goes to bed with a creepy predatory lawyer (Jason Watkins) obtained for her by said friend. Donald’s life seems to have been rocky in different phases and he first achieved some stability when he built his shack and determined to live as modest a life as possible (grows some of his own food). The movie does not convey how Harry Hallowes supported himself sufficiently nor tell us the true ending of the saga.

The film does mean to have a serious political topic: homelessness, paradoxical because of the perpetual photography of this elite looking area. In fact in our society elite areas contain many desperate people. Emily prompts Donald to find the man (Phil Davis) who produced built his fireplace.  And Davis has saved (!) the miraculous 17 year old document to prove that Donald has been on that property all those years; he says he helped install a fireplace and has come to court because he was once homeless and knows what this condition is like to live out. Now he keeps body and soul together as a handyman.

Our central characters are a couple coming round to be more honest with themselves and one another, more tolerant and forgiving he, more assertive she. So it’s Last Chance Harvey all over again. They have witty conversations, explore how each reacts to society at large, and to one another. So it’s Before Sunrise all over again. But I think another different note is struck, one consonant the theme of homelessness and the power of a hegemonic real estate order. We find it in how they both meet with enough kind people along the way to keep them going — James Norton conveys the warmest affection as her son: it’s he who helps her sell her stuff at an auction, helps her find another apartment and is generally there around the edges of existence, on call.

As for Diane Keaton, she is channeling as they say Annie Hall in costume especially.


Brendan Gleeson is our aging Irish man who has hard some hard knocks but holds out for his dignity. The actor has a way of standing or sitting there so stalwartly you know he will not be abused beyond a certain point. As a man, you may lean on him.

I admit this movie is flawed; it is far more than treacly;there are not enough good individual lines and too much cliche; t is a long way shy from the art film that Before Sunrise is. I would say another summer movie, one from a couple of years ago, Mr Holmes was better because its underlying melancholy and bizarre wild underlife was more genuine.

Still, we have a couple coming round to be more honest with themselves and one another, more tolerant and forgiving he, more assertive she.  What distinguishes this film is its fundamental tone of kindliness. Even toward a hen. And that’s why it is appropriate for this year. I suggest we all be kind to ourselves this hot July 4th and to one another and revel in this gently humane part fantasy story, a summer movie. Let us not ask too much of one another for just now.

Ellen

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Fonny (James Stephen) and Tish (Kiki Layne) as we first see them walking together


Gradually appearing intertitle introducing the film

Friends and readers,

If Beale Street could talk, book and film, tell the same terrible tale we learn about in When They See Us. A system of incarceration whose structure and rules give African-Americans no hearing, only injustice and the felt hostility of blind chance & dependence on other vulnerable frightened people.

I began with the film, which I’ve wanted to watch for quite some time:  we are thrust into the story of two lovers walking down a paved alley in a park, and they vow love to one another, and determine they will tell their families, who, it seems, may not approve. Cut to Tish’s voice saying “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love…through glass:” we now see her sitting in a prison visiting room on one side of a glass waiting for Fonny to be brought out to sit on the other side. They cannot touch one another, they cannot hear unless they pick up the phones attached to each side of the booth they share. We are puzzled for a long time: why is he in prison. He seems utterly upstanding, he makes little money as a sculptor, but he is the son of church-going people, not an alcoholic, not drinking, trying to get together money to bribe someone willing to rent to them. Much of the film is interwoven flashbacks and we see in one: someone finally offers them a concrete garage space that is described as a loft (so the man can charge more). Most of the time no one will rent to them.

Gradually the story unfolds bit-by-bit: flashbacks interwoven and a narrator’s voice to connect is the mode: so throughout with increasing poignancy we see their ecstatic first days and nights of love.  But then after he is jailed, she finds she is pregnant, then (something she dreads) she has to tell her family and then his without him, because he is in prison (still unexplained): her family accepts the baby and coming marriage:

His mother does not, nor his sisters who speak in ugly spiteful ways using church dogma as a cover.

More time goes by in the ongoing forward time narrative as Tish gets a job selling perfume (one she is told she should be grateful for as she is black), and then one night in a flashback while they are walking in the street we see how from out of nowhere Fonny was accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), he never met and was nowhere near. They are told she singled Fonny out in a police-formed row of men; and are gradually led to a white lawyer (Finn Whittrock), well-meaning, who tells them the woman has fled to Puerto Rico. Fonny is beginning to become angry, frantic, violent, resentful, half-crazy in the bare cell room.

Then finally, either as flashback, just before or after, we see a brief encounter between Fonny and a sly angry-looking, resentful white police officer whose name we learn is Bell (Ed Skrein) grows livid when after he accuses Fonny of stealing, the store owner vindicates Fonny. Fonny himself is proud, often hot-tempered and has to be controlled by Tish. Bell warns Fonny he will get back. Early on Tish remarks what happened was the result of Fonny’s strong pride. Yes and it took just one resentful white man.


The police officer, seen only once, his sneer hardly has time to register

And all came clear to me. This white officer incensed at Fonny has lied, pressured the woman into accusing him, probably helped her to flee. There is no way Fonny can clear himself of this crime unless the Puerto Rican woman comes back to refute her testimony.

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

The movie seemed to me and now I know is a deeply felt adaptation of a novel by Baldwin, both of which (book and movie) dramatize as the on-going story the need African-American people have of one another. Again we see the two family groups early on, and Fonny’s mother and sisters are incensed, cruel and corrosive in what they say. After Fonny is imprisoned, the two fathers getting together to steal little-by-little to get up the money for Sharon Rivers, Trish’s mother (Regina King) to go to Puerto Rico to speak to the woman.

Mrs Rivers is so brave, ever changing her clothes, her wig, wanting to look presentable, right somehow, so intense, worried, tight, hopeful still, goes and at first is rebuffed by the woman’s older male relative, but eventually he yields (perhaps a bribe) but then Victoria becomes hysterical and refuses to go back to withdraw her testimony. She asks Mrs Rogers if she has ever been raped. This is the desolate climax of the film.


Mrs Rivers appealing to Victoria


Victoria herself angry, impoverished, resentful

When it’s clear they can’t count on any evidence in their favor except there is no evidence but the identification by a woman who won’t come to the court, at first the lawyer holds out, but we see the case is going nowhere, there is no trial set.  Tish gives birth to her baby; fast forward and Tish tells us that he plea bargained and it’s clear they are waiting for the years of prison to go by as they meet regularly in a freer prison room for visitors. His son is a small child and they try to act as a family during the time they have together. Eat, play a board game, tell each other how the week has been. This is how the  film ends; the family in a visiting room in a prison, with the wife’s salary and will power holding them together.

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

I waited until I got hold of and read the book, David Leeming’s commentary and quotation of Baldwin in his James Baldwin: A Biography, and Joyce Carol Oates’s review for the New York Times of the book and film before writing this blog. Why? No one in the feature that came with the film never anywhere said that Fonny was framed; that he will spend years of his life behind bars helplessly. Not one person said it was the spite of a single police officer. I wanted to read the book to make sure (since in the film this is never made explicit) this a parable about how vulnerable black people are at any moment to be plunged into non-life, death in prison. Why keep silent? This is supposed to be Beale Street talking at last, telling.

It’s an instance of what we experience in When They See Us: it is the same story writ little. In the US if you are black and someone somewhere with some authority who is white can destroy you. I’m told Get Out is a crucial recent film about black life in America. It’s next on my Netflix queue.

Baldwin emphasizes the story is a parable about “the black man’s bondage … everywhere; and “the emotional imprisonment of whites.” I again admit I didn’t see that much, only that the lawyer was as helpless as his client finally. In David Leeming’s biography, Baldwin says he also meant to show how isolated black are at the same time that they recognize they must be involved with one another, recognize their need of one another, share and bond experience in a way of imprisoned (if often invisible) life. The context is a “battle for integrity” in a world where the struggle to survive makes them have painfully to give integrity up — or compromise reality.

Joyce Carol Oates, like the people in the feature to the DVD, seems to want to make this an affirmative story about the endurance of African-American people helping one another Oates says it is a “traditional celebration of love:” and it is all she says, including a portrait of the white lawyer as sympathetic and doing his weak best.


Regina King as Sharon and Colman Domingo as Joseph as Tish’s parents


The white lawyer

Her review doubts the wisdom of using Tish as a narrator (voice-over) retrospectively — there seems to me her doubt of this young girl having gravitas enough doubt about a woman’s gravity and seriousness, and a black woman. I admit Oates goes over and makes plain the horror at the center of this disaster, but did she have to say “so patiently,” of course the police officer is a villain (who has killed a 12 year old black boy some time ago), and to de-emphasize this seems racist to me.

Now I see that the film, through an integrated back-and-forth series of flashbacks tells the story of both Fonny and Tish since they were children bathing together, the stages of their earliest life in black-and-white photos. I thought of Daphnis and Chloe, Paul and Virginia. We see his friendship with a man who gives evidence him (coerced); moments of Fonny doing sculpture, Tish selling things, coping with customers, the two of them begging a meal when they have no money, fixing their apartment, but I suggest a thread through the love affair is Tish’s mother’s support of them, of her; Tish’s sister gets the lawyer but Tish’s mother helps her to give birth and bathe the baby first. And especially Tish coping from pregnancy to still waiting.


Suggestive of giving birth: actually Tish’s mother is helping her bath the new born baby

The film rightly was nominated for many awards; it should have won more.  At least Regina King won for Best Supporting Actress.

It’s a beautiful book and wish I had known about it before; I’ve placed it in this Reveries under the Sign of Austen because the narrated voice and point of view is that if the young woman and her mother. It has many scenes of intimate domestic life: the kinds of furniture black people can afford; Fonny and Tish doing all sorts of things in their lives: he with friends, she in the subway. But much more (on the whole) she. The book is a heroine’s text. A poignant romance where courage is holding out (like Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop). It is a woman’s film using the characteristics of women’s art to powerful effect.

Ellen

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A statue representing Jane Austen outside Chawton House

I give an account of the whole meeting briefly and then summarize and comment on the first two papers: on religion socially, politically considered, and on the lives of servants, what a huge population, and the way they were represented as opposed to the reality. For now a brief anticipation of the second blog

Dear friends and readers,

This past Saturday, April 27th, the JASNA-DC (which includes people from Northern Virginia, and Maryland just outside of DC), together with members from the southeast and mid-Virginia local groups met at the American University Library to spend a day together. We heard and discussed four papers, had lunch, were told about events at the upcoming JASNA in Williamsburg, Virginia. Organized by Mary Mintz, an English professor at AU, and now regional coordinator for the JASNA-DC, with much help by Amy Stallings (one of those in charge of the upcoming AGM in Williamsburgh), it featured papers of high calibre, entertainingly presented, and covering basic aspects of Austen’s life and writing in brief, religion, servants, portraits, and dancing. This is on the morning’s papers, the first of two blog-reports.


Crofton, St Edmunds, Portsmouth — see RHC Ubsdell, a painter of Austen’s era

Anthony Batterton spoke on “Millenarians, Methodists and Muggletonians Religion in Jane Austen’s England.” He offered a general history and the situation of the differing religious groups of Austen’s England.

Austen’s era was a time of great diversity of opinion, undergoing a transition into fewer sects. At the same time the Anglican church had a very strong powerhold, to attend university, be an MP, to not be barred now and again from holding property, the sect to espouse was the Anglican. Beginning in the reign of Henry VIII, we see a re-branding of Anglican’s Catholicism (no inner change), but then what happened is what meant to be an Anglican swerved wildly. The 1662 Act of Conformity set up the exclusionary rules, against which many stubborn people held out — or were converted to something other than Anglican. There was a new Book of Common Prayer, it softened over the years and in 1689, an act of toleration had made the situation of Catholics and Unitarians clearer. One concrete result of all this is the re-building and decorating of churches in the later 18th century where iconography has been seriously gotten rid of. By mid-Victorian period, Anglican art was re-Catholicized. No one professed to atheism or agnosticism. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer was current into the 1920s.

A way of characterizing the values is enlightenment was to be preferred to enthusiasm (which in the 18th century tended to mean highly excessive and out of control) . In American the situation was quite different: the evangelical and Pentecostal sects met in the open air, encouraged mystic experiences. There had been a “great awakening” in the US, which began the Sunday school movement, and that spread to the UK. The evangelical revival in England in the 1730s, were intensely emulating their masters and mistresses. Austen shows much ambivalence to this new evangelical strictness, proselytizing and overt posturing. But Sunday school movement in both countries from around 1780 offered education for the very poor, reading, writing, math lessons, the start of a conscious effort to provide free primary school education. The abolition movement grows here (there were pro-slavery people too, e.g., Jame Oglethorpe); 1807 slave trade abolished; 1833 finally reached full abolition.

He went over the classes of ministers: rectors, vicars, and curates; that there were two kinds of tithes; gradually vicars became sort of rectors with curates replacing the vicar as a poorly paid worker in the parish. Later in the 19th century the anxiety over taking high Church of England positions and practices had gone: you might say the church was being slowly gentrified, with ministers having an upgraded gentleman’s status. The avowed purpose of Oxford and Cambridge was to train clergymen; churches functioned as the registry offices of the time starting in 1537. Marriage Act of 1753 was meant to control marriages. Ministers were supposed to preach or read sermons each Sunday.

Outside the church of England were all the dissenters, and after the enthusiasms of the civil war and 17th century these began to go into decline. It was so much to someone’s advantage to become Anglican. Still dissenting academies arose to provide an excellent education, and they were quietly supported and protected, and as the century wore on new and politically radical forms of dissension rose or spread: quakers who gradually shrunk, ossified, became inward looking, pietistic, and stopped proselytizing. Millenarism is a belief the end of the world is at hand, God about to overthrow the world’s order. Methodism can be dated back to 1730, John Wesley the crucial man (came back from the US after a failed romance and time in a church). Methodism split into factions with Wesley’s believing in free will and Whitfield’s disciples Calvinist (only successful in Wales). A Swedenborg sect was visionary, from Sweden. Muggletonians were millenarians, except aggressive so they would denounce people (they cursed Walter Scott, their last church destroyed during the Blitz). Unitarians held there was no trinity; nowadays they are not seen as Christian. Presbyterians and congregationalists organized their church so as to give the ordinary person power

Catholics and Jews were excluded from the act of 1689; those who had no property elsewhere and could, moved north. The decriminalizing of Catholicism in 1788 led to the Gordon riots. 1829 came a fuller emancipation. Jews had been expelled under Edward I, brought back publicly under Cromwell, emancipated partly 1753, and more full rights in 1858. No or few permanent Muslim residents can be found in English records; in 1813 a recording of a resoundingly successful Indian restaurant. Did they serve curry?

Now Austen had two brothers and a father who were all clergymen, so the whole profession (Navy too) a deep part of her life, but Mary Crawford exhibits a modern sensibility. You were legally supposed to show up in church once a month; you could be fined if you never showed, but it was social pressure within communities that led to church-going in the 19th century.

There was not much feeling for the inward experience of religion in the era; rather he thoroughly mapped religion outwardly, how it functioned socially and politically in the time, and how represented by the Anglican establishment.

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This is a portrait by Hogarth of the servants in his household – Janet showed this sympathetic image

Janet Mullany’s topic was “Freedom and Identity: Servant life in Jane Austen’s Time.” We were told she writes for WETA and speaks frequently; that she has a thorough knowledge of the lives of servants, having been studying this topic for years. She was English herself, grew up there. As Carolyn Steedman (whom Mullany quoted) demonstrated, thousands of people worked as servants in all sorts of houses and situations with records coming from the later 17th through early 20th century. Janet had many slides and was very witty. She zeroed in on specific aspects of the servant’s experience.

In the 1960s the BBC interviewed hundreds of servants, seeking reminiscences, and it became apparent many of these people were ashamed of such a background, or bitter. Also that there is a insistent conformity of attitudes projected by everyone (from whatever angle) towards servants. A huge amount of material emerged because so many were in “service.” People just did not live alone much until our own era; it was rare not to have a servant if you were above the subsistence level. One in eight people were servants in 1775; one in four in 1796. 1.4 million women, 60,000 men since the 1890s. They resiliently took on work that was hard; they have been replaced by technology.

So we heard how houses were built differently but from the later 18th century on you find special quarters set up for servants; that they expected “perks” and “Veils” from visitors. They were taxed as if they were objects, different roles different tax. Men servants more expensive and did much less. Mullany showed caricature cartoons. Mullany then moved to registry office entries — inns and taverns were places to exchange information, find position advertised. There were hiring fairs, they bought their specific tools with them. Cook was a major respected role. So too housekeeper. She told us about the rise of a respected chef in Paris. Cookery, cooked vegetables are found in engravings; shoes (precious for servants) found also.


19th century early photograph of a servant — it appears to be Hannah Cullwick

Austen mentions servants now and again with telling comments. Martha Lloyd was the Austen housekeeper (that’s how Mullany explains her presence for long stretches of time at Chawton cottage.) James was a servants during her father’s life. Littlewoods, foster parents. The city of Bristol was a code word for owners of enslaved people — Mrs Elton’s brother-in-law made his money from enslaved workers abroad. She mentioned what other people wrote about servants or the enslaved. Success stories helped gain respect: Ignatius Sancho, born in Africa, painted by Reynolds; some of the stories show the previously enslaved person or people at first making a success (he ended up owning property in Westminster), but the society throws wrenches. White Europeans did better often because they were not so easily cheated; the society would not help the previously enslaved as they didn’t have real respect. I thought of Johnson’s adopted son, Francis Johnson.

Mullany brought in slavery too by imagining from the smallest wisps. She told of the famous decisions: 1772, 1783, seeming to suggest that a person on English ground cannot be enslaved. For servants though newsprint is invaluable. By 1711 it was understood how important were the plantations “abroad” in bringing in needed income. Servants served people thoroughly. Supported musician-servants were 80% male.

Mullany concluded her lecture with “close reading” or deciphering sets of engravings revealing “the life” of the servant — as a patriarchal, hierarchical establishment would condescendingly show these. The popular play, High life below Stairs is not all that far gone from truth. She brought in the famous portrait of Belle from Kenwood House, and told us Belle’s life story in sofar as it is known.  More common as a set of representations:  One set of a “Harlot’s progress:” contrasted with her virtuous sister who gets her ring, holy moment of matrimony.  One amusing James Northcote set of engravings shows a wanton servant ending up a prostitute on the streets, and a virtuous Pamela type becoming the “lady of the house.” (I’ll add these last especially are more about controlling women’s sexuality and identity in men’s and the society’s political eyes than the reality of their existences.)

I suppose the title could make you ask yourself as you listened, How could you know any liberty working from the time you got up to when you went to sleep (and not in your own private space), made such a small salary, had so little time off? And also how could a servant emerge with authentic existence — finding out, and then fulfilling any individual talents and desires she might have had in such a chequered imprisoned silent space.


A delightful Brock illustration — don’t miss the cat ….

There was some brief discussion after each paper, but I didn’t take what was said down. The papers took most of the time allotted to each up and people came up afterwards to talk and ask questions.

E.M.

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[The article I wrote] was about old maids. ‘Happy Women’ was the title, and I put in my list all the busy, useful, independent spinsters I know, for liberty is a better husband than love to many of us — Diary of Louisa May Alcott, February 14, 1868

Friends,

This summary and review is a companion blog-essay to my review of Martha Vicinus’s Independent Women: Work and Community for Single Women, 1850-1920. It’s true that C-S’s book is about a previous generation of women, but C-S’s book is about the same topic from another angle. C-S examines the inward and private experience of women attempting to live independent useful fulfilled lives and where do they go for these? the institutions that Vicinus book argues was the only way single women in the UK could find the power and money and influence to enable future women and themselves also to choose a fulfilled life apart from their roles with men.

C-S’s is a much more upbeat book than Bridget Hill’s Women Alone: spinsters in England, 1660-1850 or Vicinus’s, not because of the tone so much but because C-S has found enabling norms and thought and behavior in the laws and customs of the US in the northeast after the revolutionary and before the Civil War. The average marital age creeping up, and more women were not marrying. S-C focuses on individual single women for whom liberty meant: economic independence, a room of their own, and the expansion of the mind in genial company. In her introduction, she looks to “the search for autonomy among women” and found that in her chosen era in the US this manifested itself in bourgeois individualism: women had “internalized” an “individualized ethic” that came from changes in structure and values of early modern families. Out of the Enlightenment came changing family relationships, and out of the first years of the US “republican motherhood” as an ideal emerged. I’d say the whole emphasis on how important mothers and motherhood is comes from Rousseau, that Janus-faced “feminist” for 18th century women. Under this aegis women asked for more respect, mutuality with men, authority for themselves. .

She asks why some women don’t marry: marriage market numbers get in the way, costs of supporting children, domestic arrangements in some cultures; opportunities for other kinds of self support. There are intangible reasons too: a daughter consigned to take care of the aged Pin some households (Verity in Poldark), the family or the girl deemed herself unmarriageable (this reminds me of Verity Poldark in the Poldark books too smart, too homely, thinking for herself) and didn’t seek a partner for her; some women shy away from sexual intercourse, because of the dangers of pregnancy, perpetual childbirth means she has too many children to do anything else.

But women began to voice more reasons: desire for greater intellectual life, more interesting one!, had a vocation marriage & motherhood inhibits. Ideas of self improvement, ambition, service, achievement, duty, independence shaped by different attitudes towards gender in the US. C=S is careful to distinguish vocation from career. A woman might still be embedded in family and not independent – vocation not bringing in money to live — this brings in Jane Austen to my mind. Teaching won’t hack it; low prestige, low pay, long hours, looked upon as temporary.

Statistics show rise in unmarried women in Massachusetts, and also west and less so south. Problem for women in a society based on enslaving large numbers of people to do the hard work of the and not themselves overtly enslaved, experience shows that they tolerate no rebellion or independence, hierarchy is presented as unquestionable. Sometimes white women could end up very isolated personally and socially if they couldn’t manage to marry or to obey. Southern slave-based culture ferocious towards white women who broke away in the least ways: makes them docile, a “lady” first. In the west there were pioneer settlers, and gradually women were permitted to homestead.

She names seven women and offers brief resumes; some were part of unacknowledged lesbian pairs — lesbianism was not acknowledged by most people at the time. Laura Clay (1949-19410, daughter of Cassius Clay of Kentucky, lived with divorced mother, ran successful farm, deplored any arrangement where someone is dependent on another for life’s necessities; Clare de Graffenried (1849-1921), labor bureau social investigator; Elizabeth Grimball, South Carolina teacher, refused to return home to live with parents; Eliza Frances Andrews (1840-1931) wrote and worked for women’s education; Olive Johnson White, moved out west 1866, a homesteader; so too Edith Kohl; and Clarissa Griswold; “bachelor” Bess Corey another. Laura Crews homesteaded in Kansas and Iowa.

The introduction to this book ends on Nancy Choderow’s ideas about women’s psychology in The Reproduction of Mothering with her ideas about motherhood, and Carole Gilligan, Lyn K. Brown and Kate Millett with their theories of female development, affiliation with mother and then one another (sisters, friends) and nurturing and caring for others, the community as the dominating ethic rather than competitive individualism.

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


Edith Pijpers (1886-1963)

Chapter One: C-S makes the astonishing attempt to prove that there was a strain of thought that did not decry no marriage but looked at singleness as blessed. Just what Vicinus, Hill and others I’ve read on British women deny. C-S acknowledges customs against this idea: in the US communities actually required unmarried women not prostitutes to live in licensed families, headed by respectable property holding men. This reminded me of customs in Europe forcing a poor woman living alone to apprentice her sons and put her girls in service. No woman allowed to live unsupervised by a man. But she finds poetry and magazine columns saying that the question, why should a woman marry at all needs to be answered; these publications outline the misery and strife of being “fetter’d to a [man of a] different mold.” US literature acknowledges happy marriages are the exception, while marriage esteemed more highly, “old maids” were revalued. Religion helped: is the man corrupting her? she must ensure her own sanctity (this recalls Clarissa Harlowe refusing Lovelace after the rape). Women’s moral purity shows in lesser sex drive. God likes celibate people and grants them conversion experiences. “Fetter’d” was an adjective for marriage; religion’s powerful hostility to sex helped women in the US; women writers stories in the US of the happiness of a single life. She needed to be chaste and seen to be self-sacrificing, to be good because then she would be useful (defined as happy): the cause, US communities needed the services of single women.

Then she tells of stories Catherine Sedgwick a novelist told, of stories and columns in Godey’s Lady’s Book, which sanctify the celibate, a maiden sisterhood; Sedgwick emplies the less you bother yourself over love or sex the more you know peace of mind. Discipline is good for soul. Better to be single than suffer the miseries of a bad marriage or compromise one’s integrity to gain husband or competency: this idea found widespread currency In US newspapers, periodicals, fictions, advice books

Chapter Two, “Hymen’s Recruiting Sergeant” is supposedly about “factors influencing the rate of marriage,” except it’s not. The chapter does list all the factors pressuring women to marry but far more space is given up to speculating on why statistics and commentary shows us that in the northeast of the US and some areas of the west, considerably less women chose marriage than in the south, south east. There were opportunities for paying jobs, teaching among them, factories.

Women were made to be the daughter staying home and in this role could find much satisfaction in the US given the state of fluctuating social life. There was a shift from traditional family economies in the widening of capitalism and so much more land available so parental control over their children started to give way in the US far more than say the UK. In the US far less gov’t agencies or social network so unmarried women had a real function in a family and small community.

The discourse in the US was far more about the gravity of your choice and how once you chose to marry you give up your identity. You have to obey the husband, live for him, for your children and women were endlessly pregnant. I do think here out of Austen’s letters you can find out why she chose not to marry, not to lean on the few flirtations that did happen and fled the one proposal. Renaming yourself is loss of identity. Stories of male abuse, women deserted. She suggests that articulation of the importance of women’s friendships and that women find far more satisfaction in confiding in other close women friends than any husband or family member (who would be biased against many complaints). They open sought emotional and spiritual (back to how religious the US is at base) support from other women.

Yes spinsters dreaded old age, poverty, had a limited right for family support. What if you become invalided? Cult of domesticity was very strong. This line of thought takes us to

Chapter Three: “To what thraldom is her noble spirit subjected?” is about the meaning of antebellum marriage

C-S looking at women who chose not to marry. We get examples of women who just turned down good proposals. And stories and novels of women made miserable in all sorts of ways by marriage. Again Catherine Sedgwick, an important novelist, dwells on this terrain. The loss of individual goals, pursuits, one’s will — these stories remind me of Clarissa Harlowe’s meditations and reasoning for her refusal to marry not just Lovelace and Solmes but really anyone. “At stake was female autonomy.” And the one happy dream of Clary’s is she gets control of the small farm her grandfather left her and goes to live on it.

Yet US culture which supposedly prized individualism and autonomy did not value female autonomy and it was as hard here to get institutions to acknowledge women’s individual existences as anywhere else. So how did women come to value their private wishes. C-S says the US constitution influenced by philosophes whose thinking implies or states principles and laws and judicial decisions which value privacy, limiting states’ coercion of individuals; treatises and essays on the importance of protecting privacy and how the state should ensure this. Is not this the core of Rowe V Wade? Scaglia mocked the idea of individual privacy. The philosophes here are Marquis de Condorcet, Wm Godwin, and John Stuart Mill. S-C finds instances of spinsters resisting submitting themselves to state control. They would say they had things they wanted to do and to accomplish — children got in the way

S-C turns to American stories about misery and danger of endless pregnancies — filled with revulsion of feeling (reminding me again of Jane Austen, this time in her letters). S-C cites names familiar to me — e.g., Fanny Kemble’s diary of her time on her husband’s plantation. Kemble writes about the exploited, raped, women whose bodies were directly (by violence and marking and indirectly literally destroyed, their minds shattered, no identity allowed but that of cattle. S-C cites and describes Alcott’s Diana and Persis where the heroine is urged not to live alone with a group of like-minded women. Alcott proposes singlehood as a prerequisite for artistic development.

S-C feels the idea of a vocation grew in antebellum US — presented as for men, but women could of course think why not me? Individuals write about desire for high attainments. (I know when I try to say Austen had vocation not a career most Austen scholars and Janeites are not pleased with that: they want to hear she wanted to make money, have a public career — this is not what some of the US women presented here wrote about — this makes me think of Constance Fennimore Woolson’s heroine, Anne. Lucy Larcom’s life story is often used by S-C – she is one of those who pretended she was forced into publication, didn’t want reviews, was not ambitious but her stories show her true yearnings to use “the values of US culture” in support of individual courses of action — for women. Reading this helps develop a perspective for the “anomaly” that is new and inspiriting. You were not to be personally ambitious; that remained a no-no.

The chapter ends on the essential compromise S-C finds American women making: they actively pursued self-development and personal growth. You might say that’ll end them up in their room, a dependent daughter, and in fact there is where Emily Dickinson’s pattern fits in. The startling thing about the fourth chapter of this book is Emily Dickinson’s choices suddenly make sense as a kind of exaggerated version of what other spinster daughters/sisters/aunts chose when they could not find a vocation outside the house.

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Chapters Four to Five: “When I get my freedom” & “I have reached the age for action”

What was avoided was ambitiousness and selfishness: if you were seen to be working for others as part of your vocation, you could get away with it. The problem then was how to support yourself. And in curious ways what emerges in chapters 4 and 5 is a kind of reverse picture of Vicinus. Each of the women start out with a burning vocation, one which evades masculine sovereignty (sounds like Austen, no”) and the way they end up doing this is they become part of religious institutions, institutions doing philanthropic work (which Vicinus talked of in settlement houses associations) and nursing groups (during war). American women asserted their independence first, undertook a calling in a quest for autonomy and self-actualization in something she believed in and ended up as a part of a group that in the UK formed itself from the upper classes first.

What then were the images that came to represent a woman’s freedom: wearing men’s dress or dress that looked very man-like, “throwing away shackles” (fetter’d was a synonym for marriage in the UK too) and one finds three themes: how can she achieve “economic security,” that “room of one’s own” (how this does resonate with all these US women) and “the opportunity to expand intellectual horizons.” I’m struck with this last as in the UK material anti-intellectualism and disdain for bluestockings kept this kind of desire silent; not in the US at the time.

She tells stories of individual women and quotes famous voices, speeches, attitudes. Susan B Anthony was firm on the need for “the higher dignity of the paid occupation.” Autonomy rests on someone’s ability to support oneself. Well women tried to re-define economic independence so as to make this more minimal.

Emily Howland’s story is moving; it’s not well known because she was not a writer. Basically she fought to have the right to spend her life working to better the lives of black Americans; and could not have done it (been allowed to leave home) without the support of a quaker community and aunt. It took until she was 31 to free herself.

Rachel Stearns attended a female academy in Wilbraham, Mass, wanted to prepare herself for teaching; an uncle would not give her a dime whose own wealth was the result of her mother making sacrifices for him when she was a child. It’s not clear if she managed to teach anyway. She wrote of what she had been deprived (basically an allowance form a male) what she wanted and of the bleakness of a life “friendless, pennyless,” of the utter loneliness” of a womans economic dependence. It was she who enabled her niece Emily to leave home and find herself. Now S-C doesn’t take this further as Vicinus would so we don’t know what sacrifices and difficulties Howland knew as she worked her way to success in NYC. Howland’s life as told by S-C is an idealistic one; she identified what she wanted to do and lived up to her own vision.

Alice Carey (not in Wikipedia) spent 14 years working very hard for very little for the poor in NYC: her health was never better, she was never more gratified or in a better frame of mind, though she inveighed on how little women and poets were paid for anything

Mary Reed’s is the story of a woman who could not afford to continue in the Philadelphia Female Medical College. S-C tells of women teaching themselves by borrowing every book in the library (reminding me of Ferrante’s Lila). So for some self-education becomes a life-long pursuit. It did therefore help that (according to S-C) intellectual development was respected (pp 78-79)

Cornelia Hancock was luckier but her luck will seem strange. She found herself and came alive and loved the life of a nurse in the civil war. As told by S-C conditions were horrific, medicine didn’t begin to have enough, or enough people, but Hancock would work 20 hours a day, sleep in terrible conditions, continually soaked, hardly getting enough to eat. When the war was over, she moved to South Carolina where she taught ex-slaves under the auspices of the freedman’s bureau – it’s a story of achieving personal autonomy, working for the socially marginalized despised and needy and becoming a “self-directed, self-actualized independent woman’ (pp. 97-99).

What is striking about these women and makes them so different from European ones and hard for me to enter into is a large portion of their strength came from a conversion experience. It is in S-C’s book almost an assumption that just about all US people were religious, or least these sorts of middling women who were the first to have respect and autonomy made it based on a dependence on their relationship with God. What emerges is a religious country – to me all the more striking in that S-C appears utterly unself-conscious about this (as Vicinus was about the intensely cloying semi- and full blown lesbian relationships she describes as important for networking for women I colleges and boarding schools).

Without telling the specifics, Helen Hunt who wrote of how she looked forward to a time when women would not be socialized in schools and elsewhere just to be wives (exchange sex and domestic labor for material support was the way she put it in 19th century American English), Mary Lyon, Mary Moody Emerson. Some women found a room of her own was not enough: she needed a separate establishment to get free time – Helen Hunt to practice medicine.

Catherine Beecher was a public intellectual (part of the upper classes and got into print) training women to be independent, how to run a business, that they should live together. Underlying was a desire for privacy and power in feminine guise – it was “disguised as a woman’s natural love for a home,” she just didn’t need to have a man or children in it. Anthony wrote a speech that resonates with me: “The Homes of Single Women.” I loved the lines where she talks about making rooms for yourself that reflect you, your doing, desires – women alone market (shop for food), house-keep, garden and cook for themselves and are a “true woman” after all. There is psychological truth to this according to Durkheim: men don’t make homes for themselves as “naturally.” (p 77)

Unexpectedly, almost weirdly I find that Claire Fraser in Drums of Autumn, without the religion takes up some of these roles as she asserts herself. She was a nurse in WW2 and in 18th century America she is a surgeon, helps with a school, goes out like Lady Bountiful to teach and help others, write letters and keeps a journal about her medical activities. The diaries are not filled with romance but religion. They keep diaries “to have a ventilator from the interior” to talk to (p 80). They seek self-knowledge.

I have a feeling Vicinus would say this is hopelessly idealized: I suggest the difference between the books is Vicinus is looking to explain how women can build power and why didn’t they in the early to mid-20th century. S-C is not looking to see how women can have power to alter their society

“The age for action” concentrates on that moment women finish school – we saw with Barbara Pym, I saw in Claire Tomalin and also Katherine Mansfield, once the girl is finished school, she is given no place or job in society she can be fulfilled by. Tomalin’s early years are marriage and 4 babies. Mansfield destructive free sex and a bohemian existence without enough money. Pym write novels no one wants.

So here S-C writes of individual women’s struggles form this point of view. They suffer badly from depression because they don’t want to marry and are given nothing else. Some do “make it” by turning to God – this reminds me of Renassance learned ladies in their closets. Other first submit to God and then somehow escape (Howland, Hancock, &cc but Stearns not)

The section on Emily Dickinson comes here and it’s among the best things I’ve read – she just is another more extreme and S-C quotes some poems by ED I had not read before.

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

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

My second rank, too small the first,
Crowned, crowing on my father’s breast,
A half unconscious queen;
But this time, adequate, erect,
With will to choose or to reject,
And I choose—just a throne

Louisa may Alcott’s novel for women, Diana and Persis is about the process of artistic development as experienced by antebellum women. Persis goes to Paris, does study, take up her sculpture but in the end marries. Diana stays in Boston, works away at writing (who is this?), dedicates herself to this. If she never reaches what she aimed at, she has much satisfaction. Alcott (apparently) has in this novel a woman “extending control over her medium” and “expanding her vision.” But outside the studio, things are not so good. Compare this to Jewsbury’s Two Sisters, one goes on stage and self-destructs, the other marries someone who will not let her fulfill herself. Neither is allowed by the to practice self-fulfilling art. So there is an American paradigm quite different from the English.

S-C end this section with the comment that women could escape being a wife, widow, mother but not a daughter. The pose of the submissive daughter was “high emotional price to pay.” Dickinson ended up “the madwoman” of Amherst.

This book is about making the self, a private individual task which in some lucky cases the woman did branch out into public work – they are trying to find and test out new roles primarily from the home and through accepted roles. She comes back to how these single women had to deal with a “primary identity as a daughter.”

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Remedio Varo

Chapter Six: A Daughter, an Immortal Being (a line from Dickinson I believe)

Cecilia Hancock’s reply: “If I had been unfortunate enough to marry some forlorn person and been obliged to stay in some disagreeable part of the country, you would not feel you could control me in coming home at your discretion. Now in that case it might be very humane to send for me. But I am pleasantly located with congenial friends and congenial employment and an independent home but am not allowed to stay in it in peace (p 108)

This chapter charts the struggles many women had freeing themselves from their parents: unless you were married you were not recognized as a fully self-governing adult. How hard it was to break away, not only disobeying the norm but girls were brought up to love the parents, especially to care for the mother. Women were seduced by the compliments to their gifts; they were told domestic life was crucial to their health as women; they loved those to whom they rendered service. (I guess I escaped more easily because the last was not true of me.) Sacrifice, acquiescence, duty, and the idea someone else owned you just about. Parents were conservative – most of these daughters wanted to do radical reform work. They came close to wishing themselves dead when they stayed. How the structure of home life made a vocational identity impossible or frustratingly difficult. Think of Austen with her desk by a creaking door; were it not for Cassandra would she have had any time.

Chapter Seven: “My earthy all:” Sisterhood and the search for autonomy

Now she again crosses the terrain of Vicinus when she talks of how sisters bonded, and went to female academies and the role of academies, associations, institutions in both freeing but also binding women. Women needed we see again and again female support, females with you, female encouragement – you could get this from a sister, but the relationship could also be fraught, and one odd central norm was that sisters were interchangeable. Remember how it was pretended Cassandra and Jane were interchangeable. Actually the Austens discovered this was not so; thus Cassandra far more often sent for than Jane.

Families were large, and siblings counted. The death or marriage of a sister was a turning point in others sister’s lives – brothers too.
Some did find you were better off with friends but it was more likely the sister would be loyal. Money came form families to sisters; they opened schools together, studied, She goes over the complicated relationship of Emily and Elizabeth Blackenwell, the first women physicians and how Elizabeth became the known one, how Emily was controlled by Elizabeth, differences in temperament. This is a very interesting story because they opened an infirmary in NYC, went back and forth to the UK, Emily was in the provinces; Elizabeth just gave them their titles. In the end Emily retired with another woman, Dr Elizabeth Cushnier because there she also had “Love and mutuality” to give meaning to her independence and autonomy”
Some sisters had a hard time when autonomy was thrust upon them. S-C does not despise this understandable result of such upbringings. The story here is of Harriot and Sarah Hunt

Remember too – S-C does not enough emphasize how this autonomy was presented as failure, despicable and the little sympathy for radical reform causes. So it was important for such a woman to have female friends, an association to belong to, a sister. You did want to belong to someone, to help and be helped and achieve and be recognized for this achievement by someone. I know myself how hard it is to do without the recognition.
Some of these pairs anticipate Elena Ferrante’s Lila and Lenu (My Brilliant Friend) — were Lila to have been given an equal education and not married off for money (by parents) for foolish version of prestige (by herself).

Some of the relationships remind me of the women in The Secret Sisterhood in their misunderstanding, vexations, the kinds of interpretation S-C gives whats happening to triangular conflicts.

I also was reminded the groups of sisters/nieces in Deborah Cherry’s book about women painters in the 19th century – there were famous quartets, female painting families – so this is the inner life of those presented by Cherry. I don’t have time to record the individuals – none of them are well known literati; some a little known like Alice and Phoebe Carey. Louisa May Alcott did not have sisters following her vocation and professionalism.

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Isabel Bishop (1902-88): Reading and Art

Chapter Eight: conflicts in the single life: heavy heart and heavy head. Now this chapter becomes harder: now we talk of the problem of earning a living.

It’s at this point the book turns dark – at heart what C-S suddenly admits is that the inner life of women of this era – in the US (and I think by extension Vicinus without her attention to private life as her focus shows this) the UK – women were made to feel their desire for independence was a social disease.

Read carefully with attention Trollope’s CYFH? Suggests Alice is erotically sexually deeply in love with John Grey (the TV series is a travesty of this and reverses it) and would have been very happy with him but that she was given foolish ideas by her lesbian cousin and evil male cousin, and rejected the deeply peaceful good life he was offering. He made it worse by his self-control and drive to dominance, But she has a disease it’s said more than once.

Meanwhile in the US the outward world was giving women for the first time through the industrial economy, need for schools, training, changes in family life to delay marriage to pursue self-development, accomplishments in careers outside the family
This chapter through story after story shows they were not paid anywhere near enough to earn a living when they followed these outward vocations. They could not be free, they could not afford space in dignity. Death or marriage of a sister or friend (who clubbed with them) could be devastating. Greater strain as they were also expected to do home tasks.

The chapter shows women breaking down under theses pressures: Sarah Pugh, Emily Parsons working in hospitals needed self respect from validation from others – and got it only from those they were literally working for. Women at home bored, frustrated. Women not married feared menopause as that put paid to any further marriage and yet they had not means of support – and they would be too old to work even for minimum pay.

So heroines earlier in the book are driven: Cecilia Hancock who say she hated organizational and institutional is driven to accept and conform
The problem with teaching was not enough money, no respect really and little adult companionship in the way it was organized. Women can’t relax; and they find satisfaction and peace only in hard work – Clara Barton became sick when not permitted to nurse; allowed to work ferociously for the Red Cross, which she built, she throve. Again and again women are rejected for professional positions they are as capable of the men at doing. – I am not naming the individual stories again – very bad psychic stress which they then were blamed for – as hysterical women. Had they married you see all would have been well busy with their babies and then family later on – all this hopelessly idealized.

Chapter Nine: “The Mind Will Give Way” assertion and limits of social tolerance

This chapter is unusual for telling one woman’s story at length Mary S. Gilpin: her four brothers and father lived good productive lives in professions and did well financially; she had the same assertive competitive, ambitious personality they did, but each time she opens a school or starts an institution, either not enough people bring children, or it’s underfunded or her assertive personality is complained of and either she is thrown out or her venture fails. At the end she actually spends years in an asylum (imprisoned by a brother in effect) and late in life retreats to near a Naïve American village spending her years reading and writing down her own thoughts –

This is where her book transects Vicinus: institutions of church, university, medicine, law, science so the extension of female autonomy that was going on as a threat and worked to keep women in low places – -and the rhetoric is conscious. Social tolerance very rigid – don’t act out your independent mindedness or disobey (sexual) propriety or you will be cast out, punished, ostracized, ignore

Chapter Ten: The great social disease – on women and independence. In this chapter we see society closing ranks at the same time as there is gradual growth of liberty, independence for women – in the US the land-grant colleges let women enter and several colleges (sister schools) are opened just for women: Vassar, Wellesley

This social disease – could end in insanity; women weren’t using their organs and so would sicken. Companionate marriage offered but that does not allow for equality – John Grey offers Alice Vavasour a companionate marriage where what he says goes. And women who did go out to work did not experience independence or expansion of autonomy because they did for a short while and only as filler or to bring in “extra money” (usually very low status jobs).

Three important women writers about this topic: Ida Tarbell, Alice Repplier,Anna Garlin Spencer. They tried to reshape these arguments – they defended spinsterhood, showed women were marrying later in the 19th century, argued for the period of work before marriage and during.
What happened in the 1890s with the coming of Freudian ideas and studies in sex is that spinsterhood is sexualized: such women are miserable because not having sex, twisted, torment others. Celibacy a social disease (not I realize why Frances Power Cobbe wants to show “celibacy’ such a good way to be in life because you are free to do good, to actuate things that need to be done. Doctors dominating women in childbirth, against abstinence (they won’t give you contraceptive either so you are compelled into pregnancy).

So we see each time a new form of thought or change in social or economic structure comes, the patriarchal norms twist them to the subjection of women

So for a book that began with such hope and filled me with a sense of inspiration and goals for women that could be meant, C-S ends with a demonstration that women lost ground badly in the early part of the 20th century. There was a tremendous push-back against them not because so many more were independent and seeking not to marry but that they were for the first time ever _visibly_ so and more women than ever were self-supporting – because jobs had changed, because of WW1, after the suffragette movement. And the tragedy is that we can see that ceaseless propanganda and punitive norms worked, for as the decades from 1890 went on fewer women were marrying later, many marrying younger, despite the spread of contraception still having what we today would consider relatively large families.

All the vile talk and behavior in short worked: The sexualization of spinsterhood and the way Freud was used was an important factor. I’ll bring in last night I watched half-way through the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala film adaptation of The Bostonians and was horrified to see how this movie reinforced the sinister misogyny of the book so that Vanessa Redgrave playing Olive Chancellor is presented as a sick woman, her desire for independence a plot to dominate Varenna. Varenna herself is presented as a simpleton who is used by her unscrupulous father for his spiritual seances and they are presented as just as useless and corrupt in the sense of taking money for their cause. The more I watch some of these older Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala films the more disillusioned with them I become.

Especially striking is where S-C crosses the same terrain as Vicinus. I was shocked or startled at the positive representation of women’s friendships in boarding school when they crossed a line not only into homoeroticism and lesbianism but also creating dependencies and manipulative. Vicinus was for this because she argued (in effect) it is from such woman’s friendships and mentors and networks that power can be built

From the 1890s on and especially after Freud’s theories became popular women’s friendship were intensely stigmatized as deeply sick, as sexually perverted – all of them were now suspect.

S-C says that what had been a sense of “womanhood’ and pride in your sexuality as feminine and your network of women’s friendships was attacked and women had another bad loss of self-esteem. This was a bad blow

Women who nourished and supported other women were presented as deviant – So say in Trollope’s CYFH? Kate Vavasour’s love for Alice is not presented as lesbian but it’s hinted and she is presented as deviant and destructive, she betrays Alice – not to make her independent but to get her to break with John Grey and offer herself and her money body and soul to George.

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Dame Laura Knight (1931): Good Night

In the Conclusion to the book S-C goes over what to me begins to become a bit suspicious – because I’ve seen these patterns of how women were once in charge (matriarchies – never was; in some cultures the fathers and brothers were in charge instead of the fathers and sons) or could go out in public (this never was) or public not separated off from private (never was) so now S-C would have us believe a period between 1780 and 1830 or so showed real progress for women partly based on new protestant beliefs, the loosening structure of society in the US, it’s lack of a tight social network so that an independent woman could find a praised niche. This is now described as destroyed by the new norms reinforcing subjection of women at the beginning of the 20th century.

Whether S-C is right or not, she also described the mechanisms by which most women were kept subject to their families throughout the 19th century, and she describes some of the ways of thinking and feeling that did help towards some liberation

That frontier and opening of educational institutions who needed teachers – pay was abysmal

What helps confirm women in singlehood or independence and not repeat the patters of a life of self-sacrifice to men and men’s children and family:

1) being ambitious, taught to want to offer service to a wider community.

2) Very important the desire to expand your intellect. This Vicinus talks about in two of her chapters: on boarding school and all women’s colleges. We can see why the persistence mockery and derision of learning as making a woman (horrors) a bluestocking so she obviously doesn’t want men or babies

3) a desire to explore, revere, cultivate the self

4) simply a desire to be free and independent – Alice Vavasour has this but no opportunity because the money left her is handled by her father and she is given nothing worthwhile to use it for – only George’s intensely selfish ruthless politicking

She quotes the religious language by which American women justified their pursuit of writing and communing or doing good work in a community – this kind of language was mostly not available in the UK – or elsewhere it seems – it gave courage because of the notion God was on your side. You are not going it alone

I’ve never much taken Hilary Clinton’s supposed piety seriously and when she includes this kind of thinking in her book I have felt she was hypocritical but it may be her tin ear and turgid style, and inability to sound sincere – and upper class identifications that grate on me

5) a family context which valued you as an individual and education, and sisters, mothers who supported you (rare) friendships with like minded women

S-C talks of some women who tried to set up utopian communities and the settlement movement. So again we are with Vicinus.

She thinks present feminism’s roots owe a lot to these early spinsters writing and women who did write in feminist ways for independence or revealing the deprivation and nightmares of their existences (like Fanny Kemble about enslaved black women on her husband’s rice plantations).

It’s a moving book which ends in the same place Vicinus does: a kind of bleak despair.

A few more to go before finally choosing individuals: Onto Anne Boyd Rioux’s Writing for Immortality is very good: a history and analysis of the culture of 18th century American and struggles of 4 to write and publish successfully in it: Alcott, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Elizabeth Stoddard and Constance Fennimore Woolson her choices. Showalter in her Jury of Her Peers, a rare history of American women writers from the eighteenth to the later 20th century, has sections on Stoddar, Phelps, and Woolson. Rebecca Traister: All the Single Ladies, which begins with how living independently has become a norm for women well into their thirties and yet if you want to cast suspicion on someone (Anita Hill) you ask her why she never married (frigid or a lesbian?), or if she did, why she never had children (selfish and lazy). Virginia Nicholson, Singled Out: a book on how millions of women lived out their lives after WW1 without getting married (a whole generation of young men wiped out), her other writings are on novels of the era about single women.

Ellen

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Friends and readers,

I’ve put off writing another blog on Ferrante since my first so long ago on her Days of Abandonment, I fear I’m too late to join in on the controversy that exploded in 2016 about her supposed anonymity, but here goes — in brief.

Not bothering to disguise a vicious attack on this author, Claudio Gatti made a strong case that she was Anita Raja, known publicly thus far for her sympathetic translations of Christa Wolf (which she has written about), and then proceeded to do all he could to characterize her as a liar, someone trying to attract attention, and insinuate her husband, the Neapolitan writer Domenico Starnone, may have “helped” write her novels (see Alexandra Schwartz of the New Yorker, “The Unmasking of Elena Ferrante”). Reviewers and critics, especially when women, defended her right to be anonymous ferociously (Jeannette Winterson}: it was an attack on her as a woman writer; others said they couldn’t care less who the writer is, and it made no difference to know accurately the life or about the character of an author insofar as this is possible. People became mystic over how the mystery added to the books deepened them. Some said the novels are nothing but chick-lit, or they are the usual tired sentimental stories about women as victims. Look at the covers; in a more nuanced ways, objections were made to the paradigm of the abject, half-mad vulnerable heroine (Days of Abandonment), the raw language and anger (Troubling Love), the repetition of a very few motifs over and over (it was suggested this is common with a certain kind of woman’s novel).

Other praised the books strongly, showed how deep and nuanced each of the texts, how the Neapolitan novels were only pretending to be large depictions of a social world: Ye a the same time a depiction of a violent still fascist corrupt order; all agree elusive, with Ferrante’s abiding interest the inner life of women (Lidija Haas, TLS: “Closet Conservative or Radical Feminist?” — no longer available to the public).


Anita Raja

When the dust settled, we were still left with the troubling reality that Ferrante’s Frantumaglia, which she presented as truly autobiographical, is from a concrete standpoint, knowingly untrue in places; recent contradictions where she seems to want to be recognized (an introduction to Austen’s Sense and Sensibility where she said she was strongly influenced by Austen’s doppelganger and novels in general), and worse yet, continued repetition in respectable books that Ferrante’s texts could be written by her husband (Karen Bojaar who seems not to know that female friendship is a common topic for women writers).

I, for one, am glad to know who she is so as to throw light on her literary world, outlook, and also gladdened by her refusal to commercialize her life (I believe her as I notice many ordinary commentators do not), sell her books, alienation from the capitalist values of her society, value for privacy. Yet her attempts to shield herself and protest the norms and values of our violent patriarchal society have backfired; critics like James Wood read her all wrong because they want to de-gender her texts

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Ann Goldstein who also translates Primo Levi

Now for her novels in translation and in the original Italian:

Put me in the camp of those who find true genius in her novels; who think she wrote them unaided by a husband, find in them the strengths of the best l’ecriture-femme (so she belongs to traditions of women’s texts, read Rebecca Falkoff), and am (alone may be) enchanted to think she translated Wolf’s great anti-war essays Cassandra, her autobiography, her touching historical fantasy set in the later 18th century, No Place on Earth into Italian. Yes they have some flaws: they are not intended to be Tolstoy-like depictions of society that finally neutral but the social order analysed and felt on the pulses of her heroines in the different stages of their lives.  I love reading Italian and have three of Ferrante’s books in the original Italian. I find Ann Goldstein’s to be good translations : she captures the elegance more than the raw but she gets enough there an has her own elusive tone too. When you think you are reading Primo Levi in the most recent English editions, you are reading Goldstein’s translated English.


La figlia Oscura

Since being so riveted by Days of Abandonment, I’ve read Troubling Love (a raw, bitter expose of the life of her mother, a woman continually beaten by her husband, taking revenge out on the daughter until the daughter escaped), The Lost Daughter aka La Filia oscura (quiet elegiac, a woman academic now divorced comes with her student papers to a beach after her daughters have chosen to stay with the father, fantasizes and steals a young girl’s doll) and The Beach at Night (a nightmare vision disguised as a child’s book), and some of the essays in Frantumaglia (brilliant political analysis of fascism in Italy, explications of her books and her stance for alienation).


The Beach at Night

A truly terrifying book. Masquerading as a children’s story, it is a kind of prose poem where a doll is left behind on a beach in favor of a kitten the child has been given a present of. The doll gets covered with sand, is treated badly by a Mean Beach Attendant, ends up laying next to a dead beetle with his feet up (shades of Kafka’s metamorphosis, is set on fire at one point, then doused with water, come near drowning. She is abandoned, deserted, motherless. I cannot imagine anyone giving this book to a child, European or not. I remember when by mistake (or not knowing) I bought the first Barbar book for Laura; she was traumatized by the sudden death of the mother elephant, shot wantonly and without warning by a hunter. It took hours for her to calm down. This is a distillation of Ferrante’s deeply powerful novellas before & her Quartet.

To conclude at where I am in my Ferrante reading just now:  at last after having listened to My Brilliant Friend as translated by Goldstein read aloud, and watched avidly a couple of times all eight episodes of the recent HBO film, I’ve read this first book of the quartet slowly — as lovingly as I once read Elsa Morante’s Historia so feel I am qualified to speak, though I’ve not much to say: it’s a novel centered on a doppelganger (like Austen’s Sense and Sensibility) where the tragic heroine is Lila (Raffaele, and her counterpart, the luckier (because sent to school and then allowed to find an identity where she can try to fulfill her gifts an individual), Lenu (Elena).

As I read I recognized analogous events and experiences and thoughts and feelings to those I experienced as a girl-child growing up in the working class southeast Bronx and then Richmond Hill High School in Queens (both NYC). While at first I was turned off by Lila’s temptation to get back at the world through malice, wild anger, spite, withdrawal, even revenge on her friend, gradually I recognized the source for all this as the source I had known that turned me into an isolated teenager. Lenu too I recognized myself in. I had — as have so many girls — even read Little Women over and over and recently discovered so did other girls who now women I count as among my friends. So I became deeply invested in the book.


L’amica geniale (Italian title emphasizes the girls’ deep congeniality)

The awfulness of Lenu’s mother, the successful attempts of her teacher to rescue her, the experiences of the girls in the streets dominated by sexually and socially anxious-domineering males, what parties and schools are like, but above and especially the girls’ responses to one another amid all this take us through the childhood and young puberty of a girl. The sexual experiences Lenu has on the beach with Donato Sarratore, the older man who takes advantage of her after her luxurious and intellectually awakening summer at Ischia (she reads much of the time, learns not to be ashamed of her body, to swim too, falls in love with the intellectual Nino) re-taught me about my own. The climax of the book is a fireworks display on a roof after a dance where the each of the personalities and values of the different characters are exposed as they take a turn into young adulthood.

Since the common cover of My Brilliant Friend is now this stereotypical bridal gown and wedding party seen from the back, let me emphasize this: at its close the book mounts an uncompromising attack on everything having to do with a wedding, every hypocrisy, and how its meaning far from giving a girl access to a new wonderful life, cuts her off utterly from herself, and can be the first step in a life-long imprisonment.

Ferrante’s book is about how social life attempts to destroy, or repress or distort the best that was in one young woman innately and distorts the life of another) or she truly doesn’t mean us to care about these other characters as she, like Lila, silently cannot stand their norms and values.

A couple of incidents where I felt so moved and the film adaptation tried to capture. Unexpectedly (to Lenu), Lila wants Maestra Oliviero to come to her wedding. From the point of view of Lenu and probably everyone in the world Lila has done nothing to catch the woman teacher’s attention, compel her liking or respect, yet how badly she wants her to come. When she comes to the door, although Lenu has given us enough to feel Oliviero does remember Lila (because she says she dislikes her) she is very cruel, says you are not “Cerullo” I don’t know you, don’t want to come.

I identified and understood wholly how Lila could be crushed. In my life analogous incident have happened to me where in my mind I so admired someone for their intellect or position in a school and thought (naively) they valued me and was taught that no, unless you obey the world’s rules and do something to make yourself valued the world gives prizes too, you maybe insulted, cut off. I had some hard lessons in high school this way. Lenu is right to say Oliviero is “a mean old lady,” but we are given to know she would be miserable at such a wedding too. Lila might not see this.

I don’t know what a “speech master” is at an Italian wedding but guess it is a important function of announcing the people who speak. (These speeches are more than half phony and I wish the custom had not grown up recently.) Stefano, Lila’s bethrothed insists it shall be the chief crook of the neighborhood, the Solaro father, Silvio. At that Lila also breaks off the wedding altogether after all that has been done. Only Lenu can get her to change her mind, “seduce” her is how Lenu puts it. So she is acting as a Satan — the argument that persuades or seems to is they must not judge their generation by the older people, and Stefano is different. But from the dialogue we see Lila is sensing she is making the worst mistake she can. Stefano she says loves her “only when I don’t put real money at risk.” That’s important — money comes first. Lenu says she is able to rebel momentarily as she did in school as the authority of a religious teacher, but she caved, and what would happen to Lila if she returned to “the pale ponytailed Lila, with the narrowed eyes of a bird of prey, in her tattered dress.” She is admired by all now in her Jackie Kennedy icon look with dark glasses. During the (tellingly) long but boring ceremony Lenu knows her mother thinks Lila is doing infinitely better because at 16 she owns a flat, has this refrigerator and so on.


Lenu and Nino (walking together in school)

Everyone so overdressed, the only person not is Nino (who we are to have identified as the one true partner for Lenu apart from Pasquale who, fool in this wya, preferred Lila for her looks not her mind). But is he true to himself either dressed in such dishevelment? He comes so his mother overdressed can come; somehow she is slightly disgraced because her husband is blamed for the profoundly distressed Melina. Lila’s parents look well for the first time Lenu ever saw: the father’s Randolph Scott face (so many connotations there) and the mother all in blue. Note she kept away from most of the fraught conflicts. But one she invites: inward. She asks if her essay has been published, but discovers it was not included. Like Lila, she is a girl, comes from the wrong family or school, so it will take a lot more than the school certificate to gain a place in a community she might hope to fulfill part of herself in.

In that dress as Lenu dresses Lila she feels Lila is “the body of a dead woman.” what are they going to all this trouble for: so at night the young man can ram his penis into this 16 year old and perhaps ruin her beauty with a pregnancy.

A deeper incident which does not appear to crush Lila at the time is that these shoes she and her brother made so lovingly are not sellable – no one will buy them. They are dream shoes of young children wishing to have upper class stigmata on their clothes. No one in the neighborhood has the money; outside the neighborhood they make uncomfortable and they will not buy them. Stefano won Lila because he put all this money into the shop and now we see ahead that Rino who seems to be all important for real in Lila’s life will be a failure. Note that he was allowed to beat her

What will become of me, says Lila to Lenu. The answer is you will be destroyed — we see that in the opening chapters of the book where in older age she is vanishing in an attempt to escape a no-good son.

This is an extraordinary women’s book; it’s not recognized for what it is because it’s not explicit in the way Christa Wolff’s are — which books Ferrante translated.

Diane Reynolds wrote to WomenWriters@groups.io about this ending as follows:

The tragedy is that Lila has no other real options but to marry this awful man. The way the teacher rejects her reinforces that. Lenu does act the role of Satan—but what else is there for her friend? What Ferrante makes so relentlessly clear is that Lila would have been destroyed to if she had returned to the self in the tattered dress. The neighborhood/neighbors would have destroyed her. This is great literature because Ferrante shows us step by step that Lila is doomed—as doomed as Oedipus. It’s deeply poignant too. The friendship is remarkable—the one thing Lila has that is pure or as pure as anything can be in that world. I was so moved by the scene—which I did not take as sexual at all—when Lila has Lenu bathe her. She wants her friend as witness to what she was bodily before she is destroyed—she knows she is going to be destroyed by the marriage as much as any soldier going into a doomed battle. And yet the shock is that it happens faster than she imagined—at the wedding

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She has been involved in the film adaptation and it helps as an interpreter of her 4 novels: I’ll begin with Episode 2 (I won’t go through them all): The Money — and high brutal violence at the core of this world. Done in a muted black-and-white, it is in color but they are so muted. To give the impression of heat, chalk, lack of any beauty anywhere …. No trees, nothing to soften, make any beauty, or refreshment for the eyes.

I took the title to refer to how money is controlling much of the behavior we see. While the teacher feels that Lila’s family can afford just as surely (or just as little) to send her on to middle school as Lenu’s parents do, the money while an excuse is real. These people are poverty-stricken and the wretchedness of their existence comes from money, lack of it. The whole milieu reminds me of the southeast Bronx, where I grew up, circa 1950, only the patriarchy is so much more overt, fierce, the women more desperate and/or angry and taking out their misery on those they can prey upon or feel envy for: Lenu’s mother is awful and I for one am glad this portrait was not softened. In the book it explains some of Ferrante’s early deeply disquieted and troubled books: Troubled Love, the Lost Child. I wonder what was Ferrante’s relationship with her mother (and now her daughters – but that’s these other books and later in this series, the second). Lila’s mother is guilty but she is herself in accord with her husband, except when he throws the Lila out of the window.

What I like is it is a portrait of two girlhoods shared. Not like that movie this summer which gave a boyhood acted out by a girl with a mother there for disguise. Girls do let one boss another and Lila is the dominating one. she says let’s throw the dolls down the basement, now let’s see Achille, and then hide the money. I feared they would lose it and would not have give in to Llla then. The buying of Little Women is an allusions: girls’ book! we are told about girls growing up. I went back to the book and yes it’s Little Women all right: in the movie the Italian is back-translated into Alcott’s English. I have a copy of Little Women in Italian which I picked when in Italy in 1994 with Jim and my daughters — on a stall. It must be a popular book — well circulated. I was touched at how they read and reread — that’s what I did.

I would not have given in to Lila to walk to the sea – -I might not be a dominating girl in a relationship but I won’t be dominated. Still the whole sequence gave us a breath of fresh air, Suddenly the movie opened up. The houses are sets, and now we were on location somewhere. Alas Lila was trying to hurt Lena: she knew they couldn’t get there and hoped to get the girl in trouble. She succeeded. So spite. She is trying to one up Lenu so write a story, the blue Fairy. I feel for her because she does never have a chance to get out of this rotten culture. School here is seen as a central lifeline to a better world.

The episode was coherent, held together by the girls’ inner world together and their trajectory — and it began and ended on Achille, killed at the end, perhaps by a woman.

Yes high brutal violence is at the core of this society. And money. When the group finally is old enough to walk in Naples, they find they are outsiders, with not enough money to buy a meal in a restaurant.

For further episodes see comments: 3, Metamorphosis; 5, The Island; 7, The Engaged Ones.

Ellen

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

Friends,

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Chawton House recently from the outside

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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