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Posts Tagged ‘women’s life-writing’

This she blotted carefully and laid aside [a real letter she has written expressing real emotions]. Then, taking up the folder containing Beneath the Visiting Moon [her latest novel], she pulled out her papers, re-read her last paragraph, and bent her head obediently to her daily tasks of fantasy and obfuscation (Brookner, Hotel du Lac, characterizing what her heroine does when she writes fiction)

Friends and readers,

For the last 8 to 10 weeks and sometime before I’ve been having a wonderful time reading four twentieth Century women’s political novels, to wit, Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September, Olivia Manning’s Balkan and Levant Trilogies, Lillian Hellman’s Scoundrel Time, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye — as well as (just as much fun in some ways) books on these women authors and other books by them and reviews and essays, not to omit watching relevant movies. This blog is not on this material, as I have written about these books and some of the movies on this blog and elsewhere, but I want to assert how enjoyable such books are.

This is a period when women were beginning to achieve all sorts of rights by law and custom they had not had before, but were still much constrained by the social roles imposed on them by determined patriarchy. Not until the 1960s and 70s do women begin to take jobs in the professions after going to college, and only after that are they more widely recognized in such colleges and jobs. So a paradoxical or complicated situation is theirs.

The political slant has been as enjoyable as one I did several years ago of two 20th century women writing historical novels set in the long 18th century: Daphne DuMaurier’s The King’s General and Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover.

“What country? when she is a woman? (Woolf), women’s political novels differ from men’s; they’ve not been allowed (until very recently) to connect directly to the public world and state; have not joined wars for the usual canonized reasons; independence & self-esteem stirred but same ideology which undermines them returns. They question basic assumptions, about battle too. Naomi Mitchison’s worry that liberalism, belief in democracy, endlessly subject to internal dissent and attack from oligarchies, will dissolve if conservatives when they gain power yield to fascist ideas …

The teaching has gone over so well, or well enough, in these veins, I would like to continue, with intriguing switching of perspectives: Christa Wolff’s Cassandra and Four Essays, Eva Figes’s The Seven Ages [of Women]. I will teach these two next winter.  Also finally to branch out into other genres and non-Anglo texts (in translation) Marta Hillier’s Women in Berlin, Iris Origo’s War in Val d’Orca, Storm Jameson’s Journey from the North.

There is just so much from so many women, so often unsung, neglected, marginalized, died young (Winifred Holtby, say South Riding) and still misrepresented (Virginia Woolf). Non-Eurocentric texts: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s A Backward Place, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreters of Maladies. I’ve gone on to a number of fine books on women’s 20th century novels/memoirs under the aegis of different themes, eras, genres –just wonderful.

I’ve also been reading about women’s publishing houses, a history of Virago by Catherine Riley, not only as for the first time publishing women’s books in large numbers and continually, but publishing books by women telling their history, of their literature, their point of view.

Not so wonderful though: today in the New York Times, an article by Ruth Franklin ostensibly about the withdrawing from public of a biography of Philip Roth: the biographer, a male, has been accused of sexual assault, but there is further context about Roth’s own behavior and his books. It’s by Ruth Franklin and her title gives you insight into what is her real topic: “What we lose when only men write about men.” She tells you, quite correctly, that is it much much easier to get a contract or access to archives if you are man wanting to write a biography; I’ll add to that it is also much much easier if your topic is a famous man. Famous male writers count.

But if you are a woman intent (let’s say) on writing a literary biography of woman writer boy do you have rough road ahead and your work may never reach fulfillment. And if it does, what characteristically happens to it? I’ll give one example, we are told Boswell is the father of (literary) biography, his book is on the famous Samuel Johnson. Then we are invited to fast forward to later 19th century biographies, all by men. Guess what? There is a great powerful biography inbetween: Elizabeth Gaskell on the Life of Charlotte Bronte. Arguably it’s better than Boswell’s. What has happened: it was attacked at the time as unwomanly (telling some truths about Bronte) and Gaskell was sued; nowadays it is attacked as unbalanced and (oh dear) unfair to Bronte’s tyrannical father (who, we are told, against all evidence to the contrary was no tyrant).

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Tonight I want to talk about two novellas by women of the mid-century which at the same time I happen to be reading with a group of people on FB, “The Way We Read Now.” One of them by an author whose novels I now realize I read very naively in the 1980s, Anita Brookner, and another by an author I knew I had not cared for particularly, Muriel Spark, and now by dint of reading with others, have been driven to decide why. As part of this group I to some extent contributed a posting on each chapter of the novel day-by-day, one after the other: it was through this that I feel I got inside Brookner’s guarded emotionalism in her self-defensive Hotel du Lac for the first time, and at least confronted the chilling derision in Spark’s depiction of a group of a few poignant but mostly desperate and petty or selfish and ruthless very aged and dying characters.

On Hotel du Lac: this is a book about women’s relationships with one another; it’s (to use a word no longer familiar) feminocentric. We see that often the individuals in this group neither like or trust one another, though they pretend otherwise and can feel sorry for one another. Edith Hope is a modern Bronte heroine. Make a spectrum with Austen on one side, and Bronte on the other, and there’s no question. She truly wants to be solitary (whatever she says), to lose herself in the treasures of mind (as Jane Eyre says at one point this means more than anything), and she dislikes plush, luxury as all in very bad taste.

Like Brookner herself, Edith prefers the lifelong single life – but unlike Brookner has not found an occupation where she can find a substitute set of ethics for herself. A quiet retreat. This makes me remember Vanessa Bell who lived an utterly unconventional life sexually and otherwise and remained a very private person. Edith’s pseudonym is Vanessa Wilde.


Anna Massey as Edith Hope and Desmond Elliot, as the needling sadistic (if on the surface ever so kind) Mr Neville (the 1986 film is beautiful to look at)

After reading a couple of essays on the book: Margaret Stetz on “Visual Life” connects Brookner’s novels to her art books: Brookner critiques society through the painter’s work & life: Watteau is an idyllic escape but profoundly melancholy. Geuze is salacious and tells uplifting anecdotes so as to sell. In Hotel du Lac we have perspectives on the writing life. There’s much more and while am no longer in my 30s and would probably not read another Brookner novel soon (I read it in a far more aware way), I took down my two art books and would love to find the time to read her sketches on Romanticism and Its Discontents.

Fisher-Wirth’s tragic vision made me think about these women — maybe I should take this too gross caricatured mother-daughter and think about mothers and daughters in Brookner’s other fiction, Edith Hope’s estrangement from her mother. Mother-daughter relationships are central to women’s fiction. Hotel du Lac (lack as well as lake) is a deeply despairing book — she reminds me of Wharton but also Ishiguro — except this book lacks tenderness and little tolerance for the philistinism Brookner pretends to in her interviews.

Last Stetz’s “Reluctant Feminist:’ Brookner’s public remarks are rebarbative, abrasive & misleading; that Brookner seems to regard some patterns in women as not constructed but innate. Stetz shows parallels between Brookner’s fiction and Woolf (Voyage out repeatedly, sometimes using Rachel/Helen). I liked the writing the woman artist core of the book. I wish Brookner had presented Edith’s fiction in some way but Brookner is/was herself too much on guard. Other lacks in the book include its inflexibility of POV —

I tried the Morahan/Foster movie, and it lost Edith’s inner life so was a hollowed out, shallow version of the book, excising especially especially the bitterness against men who play flattering games with deluded women and profoundly unfaithful to any vulnerable partner.

I should say how strong and picturesque her writing style. The sentences on each page quiet utterances of art.

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The moments when Spark’s book most interested me were the rare passages of literary allusion in which she seemed to be inviting the reader to compare her supposed realistic depiction of the very old and dying to more romantic feelingful texts. I’d say hers is not realistic because Spark chooses to deprive her characters of any beauty, fulfilled hope, anything charitable or redemptive — insisting on pettiness, cruelty (to the point she is not satisfied with destroying the life’s work on aging and death of one man in a fire, the fire must burn to death a cat and dog as well), to me it seemed the meaninglessness of life for all (though they don’t see this).

Early on we have a very mocking description of the fiction of the 50+ year old son of two characters (“I simply could not go on with it. A motor salesman in Leeds and his wife spending a night in an hotel with that communist librarian … ” – an allusion to Philip Larkin?), and very late a ridiculing description of his mother’s romantic seemingly soap opera fiction, so entangled you cannot keep track of individual characters or events; there is an allusion to Dylan Thomas who did not go gentle into that good night; several to Dowson who wrote fin-de-siecle sensual poetry, especially his poem supposed written by a man in love with a women but unfaithful while she is indifferent to him (this parallels one of the very elderly couples in the book). Very Verlaine, with echoing refrains and classical allusion (one line refrain: “I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion”).

It was Dowson who wrote the famous often quoted “Days of Wine and Roses:”

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

Then near the close of the book allusions to last two stanzas of Byron’s Childe Harolde. They are really moving as Byron bids adieu to his book, to his dreams, to his poetry, to everything he has tried to suggest from his deep soul. If Spark means to say reflexively, see hasn’t my take been better? my answer is no. The central mystery of the novel is who is the neurotic man or supernatural or psychic spirit who has been pestering the characters with obsessive phone calls saying “remember you must die.” They are in no danger of forgetting. I was urged to see Spark as in a distanced way (ironic) trying to show us the lack of compassion in the treatment of the old. But to me the ironies were very unfunny: a very sick feeble man disinherited because it turns out his wife briefly had another husband first?

While reading the book, I happened to watch one of this year’s Oscar winner, The Father (see excellent review), with Anthony Hopkins as an very old man, and Oliva Coleman, his aging daughter who has recently been forced to bring him into her apartment as he has gone into senile dementia and much as she loves him, needs liberty to live a life fulfilling her own needs.

I thought to myself though maybe Spark would say it is absurdly sentimental because it presents the daughter as so concerned for her father, so deeply grieving at what is happening. But the people surrounding the man are not super-kind (especially a man who seems to be his daughter’s husband – it’s hard to tell since we are in the old man’s confused mind), and the story in front of us is how much a burden his daughter finds caring for him.


Miss Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith) takes “her girls” on a field trip (from the 1969 popular movie)

I thought one chapter from a book of essays on Twentieth Century Women Writers edited by Thomas Staley, excessively charitable:

William McBrien interprets (or explicates) Spark’s novels as manifesting “dandyism.” He links her to Max Beerbohm and says in her books “artifice” is “a spiritual strategy;” her writing is “macquillage” (make-up, cosmetics) “that may serve the spirit.” He quotes her saying “I believe events are providentially ordered,” and says that at the same time or maybe because of this she writes in a “insouciant” manner.

What troubles me about this is there is no discussion of the content in this general summary — he just asserts this as well as the idea that readers find her stories “engrossing.” (I didn’t; I admit I found the book very easy reading, no trouble to take in.) She gets away with what she does — what she swiftly and concisely piles on — because of her style — he uses the word “flippant and sophisticated’ for that — I’ll agree on flippant.

He then goes through quite a number of her novels where the characteristics found remind me of what is found in Memento Mori. In The Comforters a typewriter that clicks by itself with a voice that repeats the words the heroine utters. One critic, Peter Kemp, collected all her references to Job in her books and her statement in a Church of England Newspaper called “The Mystery of Job’s Suffering” where she shows (this is Kemp’s paraphrase) “how alone we are in life and how incomprehensible and inconsolable in human ways.”

At one point McBrien uses the phrase “Catholic Chic” of the fantasies in one of her books. There’s a mocking story about a convent and [The] Abbess, much “studied frivolity.” They include post-texts: one is called Robinson – a Robinson Crusoe story. He goes over The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie slightly, focusing briefly on how the heroine is a fascist. There are mystery elements in many, connections to T.S. Eliot (in one novel “an Eliotic voice, revealing the Unreal City, and Waste Land archeology), to Ivy Compton-Burnett. Flannery O’Connor admired her work

One quotation by Stevie Smith I found apt “Muriel Spark has a real genius for being gruesome and hilarious in practical circumstances, gay in city graveyards, gothics in factories.” It may be that if you read a number of her books, put them together and brought forth some consistent vision – she has one autobiography as novel (Loitering with Intent) that might help — you could make a case for her as a serious novelist. That’s what Wm McBrien is suggesting.

For myself I still may try Loitering with Intent because I’m interested in life-writing. To me there is something chilling and heartless in this book.

It was probably a good thing for me to have read this book so I won’t go overboard in my praise of all 20th century women writers. My blog may seem more balanced (ironic joke alert).

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To conclude, as long time readers of this and my other blogs may know, I’ve long been working on a project “towards a book” (whether I ever write one or not doesn’t matter) where I study life-long single women writers (“Not an anomaly” is its working title); now I’m seeing a way to modify my argument which has been at once too broad and too narrow and one others might not find appealing in the way I do. Brookner was a life-long single woman living with her parents. Muriel Spark also spent much of her life alone; she had a long term relationship with a woman she denied was lesbian.


A brilliant art study by Brookner where she uses the painter’s life, sensibility and paintings to characterize aspects of 18th century culture


Occasionally praised and reissued (because her novels sell), this critique of the book’s inadequacies by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt makes sense to me after reading Memento Mori

Ellen

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For three days I could find no information on the Persephone Books’ move to Bath. But this fourth day I got a letter from a company representative to say yes, sadly, they are are moving. I had concluded that I fell for an April 1st fools day hoax. No such luck, they have been driven to the smaller city, away from Bloomsbury and the nearby British Library. I include my correspondence with them in the comments


Nicola Beauman (b. 1944) recently

“I like books that tell me how we lived,” says Persephone’s founder Nicola Beauman.“I’m very, very interested in the novel as social history.”

Dear friends and readers,

This is a shorter blog than I’ve been in the habit of writing, more in the nature of an item of news, followed by context suggesting the meaning of the news. I’ve been very frustrated since the YouTube of Nicola Beauman announcing the move of the Persephone bookshop located in Bloomsbury (Lamb’s Conduit Street, near the British Library), London to Bath, which I saw on twitter and was able to trace to a Carol Shields site on Facebook, is not movable — I cannot share it, nor can I link you to it, except as a tweet (on twitter — do click as of this morning the video is still there). I cannot even find the originating story in any of the major online newspapers I read. No wonder; there is no originating story there. The Video says nothing about moving; it is about why and how Beauman started Persephone books and that is is managing to survive during the pandemic though online sales and its reputation among a select loyal group of readers. I was correct to surmize that economics might driving the shop from its present location to this western spa city, only it was quietly announced in a newsletter that goes out to members of the Bookstore and potential customers who subscribe.

Why make this blog. Because the marginalized announcement together with the way the store is tactfully run, and the people are careful to control how it appears and is discussed — is indicative of the continued marginalization of women and their justified apprehension of the way they will be presented. And yet it has been since the beginning of the 20th century and the suffragettes’ presses, and until now, so crucially important that women have their own presses.  As I cannot be sure you will heat the YouTube yourself, I’ll tell you what she says below. I will “flesh out” some of the points she makes with my own experience.  Then add some information on other presses publishing women’s and feminist books.


A photograph from one of the corners of the bookshop

Nicola Beauman started the company in 1998 because she had long loved 20th century women’s books, and finding for decades that most publishers would publish very few books by women of them, especially if they were about mothers centrally, that at long last (like the little red hen) did it herself. She says what is unique to the 20th century is women are still strongly constrained by all sorts of inhibiting conventions and until the 1960s/70s could get good jobs or into professions, were not seen or active widely in public life in general the way they began to be as of the 1980s. Yet they were going to public school up to university, working “outside the home” (“out to work”) in large numbers before World War Two, had the right vote and many rights and liberties that men have. So knowledge, self-esteem, self-confidence were within their purview regularly.

The result is a peculiar angle on life. I have discovered in teaching 20th century political novels by women this term, I just love not only the books I’m teaching, but to read about and some of other 20th century women’s political books.

I’ve twice taught a course I called 19th Century Women of Letters, and once Historical Novels by Women, especially set in the 18th century and dealing with war. I moderate a small modest listserv on groups.io I call WomenWriters.

All other things being equal, I often prefer women’s prose texts and poetry to men’s. They are inwardly much richer by virtue of the aesthetics that often informs them. Why not plays? because until recently almost all stage plays were written from a male angle even when women got a chance to write and to be staged. Women have, it seems to me, broken into screenplays for movies much quicker than for plays — less money, less prestige.


The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme, a partial view of the cover — see excellent blog

my other Persephone books are Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy, The Making of the Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Miss Pettigrow Lives for a Day by Winnifred Watson, Susan Glaspell’s Fidelity, Beauman’s own The Other Elizabeth Taylor, a book of short stories, and a lovely catalogue.

I love that the covers of these books are grey. Virago had a policy of choosing for covers paintings or images by women, or the kind that a woman would not — not a woman as a come-hither-fuck-me sex object. They seem to have given that up and turned to more abstract designs (as has Oxford of late), as if the publishers fear that younger adults today will not be attracted to a picture that depicts the 19th or even 20th century — as too old-fashioned. Grey solves the problem I have had many a time: a book I long to read comes with a soft-core porn image of a woman on its cover.

I am now reading a very good translation of Tolstoy’s Anne Karenina by Richard Pever and Larissa Volokhonsy, in a deluxe Penguin edition. In order to be able to endure the physical object, I put over the image of a woman’s knee which suggested what was up her thigh, a still from Joe Wright’s film adaptation of the novel featuring Keira Knightley looking desperately calm. Sometimes I can’t find an image that fits, so I just have to cut the cover off — weakening and eventually ruining the book. Grey reminds me of the old sets of good book sold in the 1930s and 40s by Left Book Clubs with soft brown or beige covers, sometimes with soft gold or silver lettering.

Beauman says that Persephone has kept up their high standard of choice and their have been sales sufficient to stay in business, even during this pandemic. But they will have more budget to publish and do more of the things they like to. They miss the in-coming customers and occasional events (book launches, talks). IF they had to they could succeed in Bath & spread their wisdom, and splendour there. But after all, they do not. Mockers may find their presence absurd, but I don’t nor their shop.

The New York Times had a spread of pictures and story to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the press and bookshop: A Bookstore of One’s Own by Sarah Lyall. Over on Twitter, Elaine Showalter tweeted to my comment that I like the shop, love the imprint, prefer to read good books by women most of the time, that I’ve covered wonderful lists, and there “really should be a book about the great feminist presses;” I replied there is a fine book on Virago: Catherine Riley: The Virago Story: Assessing the Impact of a Feminist Publishing Phenomenon. This retells the origins of the press, its struggles to stay true to its mission, good books by women, its morphing into divisions of larger publishers and its stubborn integrity until today, the specific women who have made it what it is. I own too many (cherish most) to enumerate. An essay on the authors favored who resemble Austen can be found in Janeites, ed. Deirdre Lynch: Katie Trumpener, The Virago Jane. But a full scale book would be enourmously helpful in understanding one important strand of feminism today: other presses born around the time of Virago were Spare Rib, Pandora (“Mothers of the Novel” were the older books), Feminist Press of NYC. Anyone coming to this blog who can think of others, please supply the title in the comments.

As for Beauman herself, I’ve read her superb (highly informative) A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel, 1914–39, Virago (London), 1983 (about early and mid-20th century women writers and their books); The Other Elizabeth Taylor, Persephone (London, England), 1993 (did you know Taylor was a communist? and had affairs — you wouldn’t realize this from the surface stories of her books unless you think about them a bit); and Morgan (on EM Forster as seen and realized through his imaginative writings). The first and third have meant a lot to me. I have been to the shop twice, once with a friend I’d never met face-to-face before, knew for years here on the Internet. We had coffee and some kind of cake.

Ellen

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Mary Taylor’s Miss Miles — one of several cover illustrations, Oxford UP, introduced by Janet H. Murray

Friends and readers,

I so enjoyed this book I am in danger of over-praising it. So I will begin by conceding it’s not Middlemarch; and if I say that I first read about Mary Taylor and conceived a desire to read her book from Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney’s portrait of her, description of her novel, and story of her friendship with Charlotte Bronte, which in their A Secret Sisterhood: the Literary Friendships of Jane Austen [Anne Sharpe], Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf also includes a number of passages from Taylor’s letters to Charlotte, you must not expect the density of poetic and erudite diction found in Charlotte or Anne’s novels.

But if you are willing to come down a little in your expectation, partly because this is Taylor’s first (and alas last) novel, accept some visible struggles in the structuring and knitting together of the book’s several stories, a multi-plot pattern which accommodates four central heroines, Miss Miles is as insightful, eloquent, with cogent dramatically realized lessons that women must be allowed to become maturely independent, self-supporting when the need arises (as it often does in ordinary women’s lives even among the 19th century middling classes), self-respecting and morally brave as many of the finer still read and known 19th century English novels. My header title comes from Murray’s introduction where she writes: the novel “reflects [Mary Taylor’s] lifelong advocacy of independence for women and her lifelong experience of women’s courage and sustaining friendships.”


An old photograph of Mary Taylor on an alpine expedition taken with friends in 1874: she is on the far left, age 57

I will leave it to my reader to click on Taylor’s name (above) to read Nick Holland’s short biography of Taylor. You will discover in Murray’s introduction a full life of Taylor’s teaching, rebellions, early traveling, time in New Zealand and long life in Yorkshire after she made enough money not to have to work. Ironically for all that she argued forcefully all women must work to become independent, as soon as she was able to stop all week long hour working in a business she created she quit — not to be idle, but to devote the rest of her life to reading and good causes — and travel and enjoyment with others. There are a number of characters and events that link Bronte’s Shirley to Mary Taylor’s life; nonetheless, Taylor severely criticized Bronte for her timidity in her books, for being coopted herself, for sacrificing herself to her father, and she did scold Charlotte in life. What is most poignant is that what emerges is the father was central to Charlotte’s choices for most of her life to self-erase, abase her talent, and sacrifice herself to him. Today we have a big chorus normalizing the man, making him ever so attractive, but here is another account which proves that Gaskell had it right.


The Red House, Taylor home in Gomersal (from In Search of Anne Bronte)

For other criticism, common readers’ voices, here is a sizable thread from “good reads”, where the central posting describes the book as original in its use of a bildingsroman for four young women, feminist, about women’s friendships, and morally intense. This prompts a number of postings by people responding well to the novel (one in Italian). It was written and rewritten over the course of Taylor’s life, so while it’s set in mid-century, the feel and attitudes of mind the book speaks to are those of century’s end, and is part of a series published by Oxford for the British Library, as by “female authors who enjoyed broad, popular appeal in their day.”

In a recent Times Literary Supplement, January 8, 2021 (p. 19), in “Tales of Hopeless Husbands”, Lucy Scholes writes charmingly about this series — of the intelligence, appeal and some of the common themes across these books. Scholes cites several and describes a few novels that sound very good, one by an author brought back by today’s feminism, May Sinclair, The Tree of Heaven; a number of Sinclair’s novels are still read, and are reprinted by Virago too, e.g., The Life of Harriet Frean). Another author in this series is E.H. Young’s Chatterton Square in which the secondary heroine is a spinster wholly dependent upon a (married) friend for their shared income — the friend passes as a widow and is thus respectable but in fact she is merely bravely separated from her husband. Young is still remembered for her Miss Mole and found in Virago and Persephone books. Scholes thinks the best of the fine books she is writing about Dorothy Evelyn Smith’s O the Brave Music. In a number of the books described we discover marrying a particular man (a bad choice) ruined the narrator’s (or heroines’) hopes for a fulfilling life. A rare gay one is Elizabeth Armin’s apparently lesser known Father (rain does fall in this book).

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Taylor’s Miss Miles fits right in with the worlds captured in this British Library series. Eventually there emerge five distinctly different women characters, one, Miss Everard, somewhat older than the others so not part of the bildingsroman in quite the same way: they differ somewhat in class, nature, probably occupation (for all but one are intended to do something towards earning the family’s living and their own within the family), less so in age. However all five prove to be on the edge of economic disaster (and two topple over for a while, with one dying), their circumstances are different psychologically and sociologically:

Two of our heroines, Sarah or Miss Miles and Maria or Miss Bell, are strongly supported emotionally, intellectually and insofar as income will go, economically by family and close friends. Sarah is the daughter of two shopkeepers who encourage her musical talent; she must struggle with them to go to school,but they support many of her choices to become a servant (only for a while), to sing in a neighborhood choir (with young men) and then in the established church (they are dissenters) — though we see how obedient she is, and how they could thwart her. Maria, a Vicar’s daughter both of whose gentle intelligent parents die, leaving her with a small legacy with which she (against much disapproval and invented obstacles from the neighborhood and an uncle, Mr Turner, supposed to help her) opens a school. Dora Woodman’s mother, a widow, marries badly for a second time, and her husband, a brutal ignorant man, is partly responsible for her mother, his wife’s decline and death, with Dora left isolated, with no opportunity to learn manners, or to improve her skills from books or training of any kind. My heart felt deeply for Dora whose bearing and character slide down until late in the story her step-father’s death rescues her in the sense she must turn to Maria, come to live with her, who luckily at that point, has just enough to share and encourage her in a plan she has to become a lecturer (again against advice, which angers Maria).

The seemingly most privileged, Amelia Turner, a property owner’s delicately brought up daughter, engaged to a wealthy young man who pretends to share her genuine literary tastes, finds when her father, the same Mr Turner’s film goes broke for a while, she is forbidden to do anything to help support them or herself lest it should shame him or bring them down in status. It is she who is worn down by hostility in her family to her desire not to sit doing nothing, starving, pretending all is well, by the turning against her and dropping her of the still wealthy in the town; in this novel the decline and death of a female character is made believable by long experience of frustration, ostracizing, and desperation. Loneliness afflicts her, Dora, and Miss Everard, genteel in the manner of Amelia, whom we discover has been readily cheated by Turner for years since she was taught nothing about money and yet to fear to ask any male she feels dependent upon about her situation. Her class bias (snobbery) at once keeps her spirits up and estranges her from others who might help her; her pride keeps her alienated and supports her.


Roe Head School where Mary Taylor, Charlotte Bronte — and Ellen Nussey met and spent some of their years growing up together — schools gone to and the experiences had therein are enormously important in Miss Miles — and if a girl or boy does not go to school that is equally crucial to his future. At the same time we see how young adults do not at first understand why this “book” learning is so important until later in life …

Miss Miles has other female characters, several of whom figure importantly in the different stories as well as male characters who variously court, are friends with, help, or hinder our heroines: of especial importance, Sam Sykes, close to Sarah from childhood, who becomes Mr Turner’s partner for a while, is also cheated by him, but manages to escape the burden of debt that would have sunk him by selling the failing business and choosing another less prestigious trade; his sister, Harriet, who marries early on; they live close to the Miles family. Sydney Winde, part of this group of people just below gentility, a fine musician; Mr Branksome whom Maria becomes involved with (they write letters to one another); Mr Thelwal, who breaks the engagement with Amelia, and is a harsh creditor to her father. Mrs Overton and other wealthier county ladies; Mrs Dodds, a Vicar’s wife. A thorougly people world is built to represent Repton, and the West Riding around the town. I found myself utterly identifying with Taylor’s heroines in many of the scenes of social satire, and thought her text remarkably nuanced in exposing how people manipulate and put one another down, discourage, encourage, hurt in a variety of experiences. How people in power cannot always make up their minds to reveal vulnerability or need and so will puzzle those dependent on them for work or as educators.

One of people in our group wrote in to say:

I am actually quite engrossed by this novel and read ahead. What I like about the book is that it feels so raw and angry (note how often the word “anger“ is mentioned in the text). Yes, the writing is often clumsy and wooden but it does feel so honest. Taylor is grappling to find the right words to express how these girls are struggling in the world, how they are trying to find their place, protect those they love but ultimately cannot help (Dora and her mother – I could really relate to Dora – her helpless rage about her mother´s wrong decision in marrying this horrible man Woodman who just needs a housekeeper and his equally horrid, unkind, cruel sons). I really like this focus on women/mothers/girls and how they interact with one another. Also, it´s such a nice change not to have a love story lurking around the corner …

One of the themes of this book is there is more to life that makes it worth living than being monetarily successful or rising in rank. Yet one does need money — to back a school, to feed yourself, to pay what’s necessary for rent or taxes or loans. In one of the book’s turns, the world the characters live in suddenly becomes poorer — they do not understand the workings of this but they are many of the characters done in for a while or permanently by a depression. The key note is “There’s summat wrong somewhere,” repeated in variations, “There’s surely summat wrong when such as he wor cannot live,” just after a recitation ending in “He’s worked all his life, and couldn’t get on, an this is t’end on it!” The novel teaches that it is not an individual’s fault if he or she goes under and that after years of effort, you may well go under at any time. Taylor puts it this way for Sarah: she was “face to face with the great problem of existence, how was she to live.” Trollope makes light of women’s choices (marry the man and have two children and all will be well), thus dismissing the idea a woman has an individual existence, and will be responsible for herself when her husband fails, or leaves her, or dies. The narrator shows us how poverty leads to anti- or asocial behaviors — in desperation in phrases like “the fierce self-assertion that poverty makes necessary” (p. 175)

Another voice from our group:

” For me what stood out in this chapter was Sarah’s realization that despite years of hard work one could still end up poor, starving and dead. It’s definitely at odds with her longstanding goal of working hard which will naturally (in her mind) bring her wealth and happiness. It still seemed a shock when she said she would go into service like her sister. This reminds me of Gaskell’s novels where the working poor are disregarded by mill owners who don’t realize the extreme circumstances they live and die under. Here it is the government who is the culprit for not providing aid to hardworking people who face dire circumstances …”

Another: “I also found this chapter very powerful and felt deeply for Sarah as she asks if this is all there is to life. The singing and sense of community in the chapter help to dispel the gloom. I can’t help thinking this life was far gloomier than ours, as gloomy as life is right now in many ways, because they had less sources of entertainment, less connection outside their immediate community, less sense of overall hope for a chance to change their situation, and yet, I suspect they drew strength from the community in a way most of us don’t anymore.”

While there are bad and stupid people in Miss Miles, who make various individuals’ lives much worse (Mr Turner, Mr Thelwall, Mrs Overton), the situation itself is not attributed to specific individuals but implicitly to the whole system of money-making and trade. Gaskell also dramatizes how a crowd of people can emerge to demand the right not to starve, the right to make their gov’t improve their lives and works into her text the larger perspective of knowledgeable people — so explanations of what a strike is, a lockout, how pressing is wrong. Taylor tries to stay within in the level of understanding of her participants and she nowhere blackens them as a mob. She shows how hunger, loss, desperation brings people out because they do know there are authorities who can help them. Not only is “summat wrong,” there are ways to make it “right.” We see how chapel brings people together. Since her POV is a girl who would be forbidden to join and does join a march anyway we are so aware of how women aren’t wanted. They are told to go away. To this day many protests and demonstrations and mob scenes in the middle east are all men. No women obviously to be seen. We are witnessing these people educating themselves by protesting. In Mary Barton John Barton returned from London bitter and disillusioned from having tried to petition parliament (the chartist movement) but we do not experience the scene. Taylor includes this line about women: “for women to earn their own livings was almost impossible.” She is thinking of unmarried or separated or divorced or widowed women — women w/o men and unless in service cannot earn their own living. Maria’s school is not doing well. Sarah’s mother while overtly against her going on this march sympathizes with her when she does.


It seems to me closest in feel and story and class level to Miss Miles is Oliphant’s Kirsteen (subtitle: a Scots Story of Seventy Years Ago)

For me the qualified happy endings for all the characters but Amelia (and her bad father, Mr Turner, and a few others who die along the way) were convincing and satisfying. For example, the penultimate chapter “in which” Maria Bell rescues Miss Everard from starving in her cold flat; Miss Everard protests a little but soon is transferred to the house Maria has rented to serve as a school; a quietly Dickensian or maybe Gaskell-like scene follows as the two sup and eat by a fire together. Maria’s tutoring goes on, her small amount makes the difference as Miss Everard (who it turns out is owed money) becomes a sort of housekeeper. The chapter closes on Dora’s visit, with 5 pounds gift from her successful lecturing.

The book does end on two expected marriages. Sarah finally returns home from her various stints as servant, music teacher, companion, to find Sam returned from having chosen a failure that frees him to start afresh. Perhaps the scenes between them move too quickly, but we have much earlier in novel understood they are a pair and embedded in their intertwined family and chapel groups. But there will be no more invitations from the Overtons or the established church types for Sam and Sarah. I was reminded of Ross Poldark being told how he will now not be invited to upper class functions since he married his kitchen maid, Demelza. Ross: “Well I think I’ll survive it.” Our letter writing suitor, Branksome did have to persist, and here it’s telling that Maria never forgives him (but agrees to stop harping on it) for telling her to desert Dora (as beneath her). One of the women in our discussion did say (rightly) “the women were at odds with their future husbands, Maria more deservedly so I think. But within a flash, both admit their love and agree to marriage. Sammy and Sarah was interestingly without romantic language while Maria did admit she couldn’t live without Branksome and he declared he couldn’t/wouldn’t live without her”

“I don’t know how Amelia could have escaped the circumstances of her life. She had ideas of personal responsibility and work, but was too tied to her family structure and perhaps hadn’t the level of courage which Dora finally mustered that would have been required to leave home and make her own way. So I don’t know how the author could have resolved Amelia’s story except by her death. But it did remind me of the highly emotional withering away of other female characters, although typically for romantic reasons rather than being unable to pursue an ethical self-fulfillment.

The two outlier women, Dora and Miss Everard, seemed to represent the progress women have been making. Miss Everard totally ignorant of business which left her to be victimized by Turner for so many years versus Dora who has become a successful and independent career woman out in the world. Never could have guessed Dora’s outcome at the beginning of the novel.”

I responded that Sarah was presented all along as a pragmatic, phlegmatic type — a chip off her mother, whom she is not separated from. If there is less romance between our Sykes couple, by the book’s end there is already a little Sarah. Amelia’s is the tragedy of the book and perhaps that’s just right for it. Its deepest message is to keep women from working out their natures and capabilites and what is that in this world but often a job is to destroy them. In a deep way, unconsciously perhaps, Mary Taylor is defying gender fault-lines for understanding male and female characters. Men need to live emotionally fulfilling lives, and women need to be alive in the worlds of societies.

Taylor lacks the artistry of Oliphant and Gaskell — we see how she strains at the opening to introduce and to knit all her character groups together. She does not endow most of her characters with the learning Oliphant, Gaskell do — and of course Eliot and the Brontes both (not Emily). Perhaps also Gaskell is at times as angry at conditions for the poor or average person as Taylor is — as in heer North and South (remember Mr Higgins whose solutions are given respect, credence).


From the 2004 BBC North and South (Sandy Welch, Brian Perceval), Mr Higgens (Brendan Coyle)

I wish Miss Miles were a book one could assign in an OLLI but it cannot be. One cannot find enough readily available affordable copies and it lacks the prestige that would persuade the ordinary reader to try it.

Ellen

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Hattie Morahan as Elinor Dashwood as she resolves to accept a future with her mother, where she on herself can live (she thinks Edward has married Lucy) (2009 BBC S&S, scripted Andrew Davies)

“‘It is not every one,’ said Elinor, ‘who has your passion for dead leaves …

“Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition …

“‘We are all offending every moment of our lives’ … (Marianne Dashwood)

“‘We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing’ … (Elizabeth Bennet)

“She regained the street — happy in this, that though much had been forced on her against her will, though she had in fact heard the whole substance of Jane Fairfax’s letter, she had been able to escape the letter itself … (Emma Woodhouse)

“‘We all know at times what it is to be wearied in spirits. Mine, I confess, are exhausted’ … (Jane Fairfax)

“‘But why he should say one thing so positively, and mean another all the while, was most unaccountable! How were people, at that rate, to be understood?’ … (Catherine Morland)

“‘One does not love a place the less for having suffered in it, unless it has been all suffering, nothing but suffering….’ (Anne Elliot)

Dear friends and readers,

Every once in a while it is good for me to remember why I’ve had two blogs dedicated to Jane Austen and art I connect to her and her books, and films made from these. Last night I was in a zoom group yesterday (a nowadays not unusual experience) where we were asked this question as a sort of topic for us to discuss and share; “Who’s inspired or guided you?”, and I was surprised to discover that most people either didn’t have or didn’t want to talk about a person or book or specific event(s) they could cite. All day long today that realization was reinforced when I threw the question out on face-book and my three listservs. Only now I feel it’s not that people don’t want to tell of such an experience, most people apparently don’t have one major intense experience or person who made such an impression. I know I am more intense than many about many things.

For myself upon my eyes reading the question, my answer came out in my mind almost before the words for it: my father and Jane Austen’s six novels.


This image of the RLS book is not the one my father read to me, but I cannot replicate a book cover from the old-fashioned sets of English classics he had on his shelf, often published by do-good organizations like the Left Book Club …

I know I have mentioned about my father here before, but not said much for real. Despite spending 44 years in close friendship-love-marriage with my late husband, Jim (whom you are tired of hearing about), the true core influence on what I am, how I came to have the stances I do, political, areligious, social, were the result of my relationship with my father: from my earliest memories, he was the person who understood, companioned me, yes mothered me. Like Edmund with Fanny, he read with me, and reasoned with me about what we read together, read aloud to me — some of my happiest memories of my girlhood come from when he read aloud to me Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Sire de Maltroit’s Door” and “A Lodging for the Night:” since then I’ve been a reader/lover of Stevenson’s style, stance, pizzazz. My father took me to the library, told me of his boyhood during the 1930s depression, explained the politics of the 1950s and early 60s we were experiencing. I left home in 1963. But there was a year after Izzy was born where he phoned me every week on Sunday and we’d have a long satisfying talk.


Emma Thompson as Elinor writing to their mother to tell of what has happened in London to ask if they can come home (1995 Miramax S&S, scripted Emma Thompson, directed Ang Lee)

Then Jane Austen’s 6 famous novels. A couple of people in the zoom registered puzzlement. How could a book (maybe they meant also one so old) influence, guide or shape someone. To some extent this shows how for some people books mean nothing vital to their lives. I read today in one of the papers how public figure was influenced by a book or event — what was cited were famous people, widely know fairly recent books, fashionable, movies. So I tried to tell of how I had first read these books at age 12-13 (S&S & P&P), then 15 (MP), that as a teenager of 17 or so when I was in need of a way of responding to social life and the hard abrasions of people, I’d think of Elinor Dashwood and her stance in life, and how this character (an aspect of Austen herself I still believe) gave me a presence to emulate, to aspire to come up to to protect myself (self-control, prudence are strong themes in Austen embodied in Elinor). How often while I don’t say to myself, How would Elinor or Anne Elliot or Jane Fairfax, or even Fanny Price have acted in this situation, nevertheless parallel situations in the books come to mind when something is happening to me that have some meaning. They need not involve these central figures, but they often do – as well as some of the heroes. Lines from Austen’s books come into my mind unbidden — I remember (or half remember) what seems to crystallize or capture an aspect of the situation. What a given character said.

This is probably why I have so little patience with preposterous interpretations and some of the uses made of her text to forward careers or fill a fashionable niche, or turn her into a whipping post for someone’s feminist thwarted career, or even the hagiography which turns her into an unreal omnipotent presence, which leads to extravagant claims. And as to the solemn moralizing one comes across in some JASNA groups, how can they be so moronic to have missed the core continual anarchic ironies of the text.

To explain this to others I had to fall back on using words like role models — though that’s too crude; I know I don’t imitate these characters in literal close ways. It’s not quite the way I conceive of myself understanding how literature functions, but as a rough and ready analogy that others can understand from their own experience comes close enough. The deepest thing is  view of Austen herself that I feel throughout the novels.

By the way: My father did very much like Jane Austen. But there was no need for him to introduce the texts to me. The first time I read Pride and Prejudice I identified my relationship with him with Elizabeth’s with her father. My sympathies have ever been with the father; and it’s clear to me Austen understands what pain and counterproductive humiliation Mrs Bennet puts both her older daughters through. He also was one of those who introduced Trollope to me, with words about The Vicar of Bullhampton to this effect: Trollope has much wisdom.

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

But during the talk of the group, I was led to remember how in my first year of full time college I had a teacher for an introductory course in literature where we read Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and I was shocked to hear someone (a group of people) assert how boring the book had been, and I protested and defended my favorite book. (Something similar happened to my daughter, Izzy, in a summer night-time class she took (post graduate) where she gave a paper on Elizabeth Bowen’s Last September and astonished the class by talking about it as deeply sexual. Clinton F. Oliver, an elegant black man, Henry James scholar, born in one of the Carribean islands (he once said). When I came to his office one day he suddenly said to me, major in English literature and be a college teacher. I was so touched, the first teacher to pay attention to me — tellingly a black person.

One memory: we had one class in a big auditorium (the other two were break-out sessions where I was lucky enough to be in his). One day a student came with so many lollipops and gave them out to everyone but me. I was somewhat older than the others — not as much as they thought, dressed in a skirt, probably all in black, anorexic then, but harmless. Anyway he came from behind his lectern and secured two and gave me one and smiled and we both sucked on lollipops with everyone else. It was in his class I first read Henry James: The Princess Casamassima. Also Conrad’s “Secret Sharer.” He was the only black teacher I ever had in all my years in school — until now at OLLI at AU I’ve had a class in August Wilson’s plays taught by someone who is retired military and now a librarian at Howard University


This is an image of the copy I read in that class, edited by him, which I cherish the way I do my first copy of Dr Thorne (edited by Elizabeth Bowen)

One person in this zoom group told me I was lucky to have had an experience with a teacher like that. One experience I never had was of a mentor: by this is meant not only someone who is older, wiser, and counsels you on careers, but helps you create one. Izzy had that: a Mrs Kelly who hired her for her 1st gov’t job, and helped her transfer into the library where she is now (though working remotely from home). Mrs Kelly had real feeling for Izzy and Izzy still goes to Mrs K’s yearly Halloween parties.

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

And then reversing perspective: eleven days ago, I came across a posting in that excellent blog, Kaggsby’s Bookish Ramblings, on Annie Ernaux’s A Girl’s Story. Pray read what Kaggsby writes so eloquently, from which I quote her opening paragraph:

It tells the story of a pivotal event in young Annie’s life when, at the age of 18, she spent a summer as an instructor at a camp for younger children. A naive only child, Annie is instantly taken advantage of by H., the head instructor; though remaining technically a virgin, she is used sexually by him, and as the summer goes on, by plenty of others in the camp. Overwhelmed by these experiences, she is unable to recognize how she has been abused or see herself as a victim; she thinks instead she’s now experiencing freedom from the repressive control of her parents, and cannot understand why she should be labelled whore. Her humiliation at the mockery and contempt of the rest of the instructors is almost as strong as her pain at being used and abandoned by H.

As I wrote here, when I reviewed Anne Boyd Rioux’s book on Alcott’s Little Women, the problem with the books I was given, including Little Women, was this aspect of female adolescence and teenagehod, the experience of predatory punitive patriarchal sexuality that not only are boys encouraged to inflict on girls, but girls collude with, are complicit to, is omitted. It is at least hinted at in Sense and Sensibility, and in movies like Lee/Thompson and Davies brought out fully. I wish I had had as well Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia, Naomi Wollf’s Promiscuities. Kaggsby does not see that Ernaux is Aspergers  but her description of Ernaux’s horrible time in camp and as a girl growing up is an Aspergers experience.  Kaggsby has her limits, but she often goes beyond what she consciously says or sees by the thoroughness of her analyses.  In France too although the medical community knows about autism and Aspergers, the general population is unfamiliar with the term. I’ve had a few close French friends and only one knew the term; the other two were uncomfortable with the idea of a disability. It may be Ernaux knows and doesn’t say aloud — but I doubt it. I likened the book to Reviving Ophelia because Mary Pipher at no point that I can recall talks of autism: her book is an expose of the predatory punitive patriarchy that not only many men inflict on us, but many women are complicit in.

This disability puts girls at a frightening disadvantage before boys in our predatory sexual culture. I feel so for her. I have read two others of her books, both life-writing, which I associated with gothic; another I don’t have is Englished as I remain in Darkness; now I think that’s because perhaps she has not been willing to move out into rational diagnosis – the next step would be a book like Annie LeBrun’s

.

I had not thought of Aspergers but now this Kaggsby’s blog provides a comprehensive perspective for all Ernaux’s work. Of course it’s possible she was just naive and inexperienced with no social skills and a very protected upbringing, but I doubt it. At any rate she was a ripe target for experienced and cruel others.

This past summer a woman in my Bloomsbury class at OLLI at AU startled me by in front of the whole group online (another zoom experience) revealing she is lesbian by saying how she wished she had known such Forster’s Maurice when she was girl, and how much it would have helped to know others who are LBGTQ. I responded in kind: that in the 1990s when I first read Reviving Ophelia, I just cried to realize there was a large world of women experiencing what I did. This woman is in her 60s and probably has far more friends and is far more effective in life (may have made real money) than I’ve ever been. Every single person who comes out helps the rest of us.

Not that I think Austen understood herself to be coming out with the depths of her own experiences to help others but rather she began with sharp satire, and revised and revised, until the tone of mind of her book was to some extent also the opposite of where she had begun so deep empathy becomes the mode towards the vulnerable heroine.


Ania Marson as Jane Fairfax, barely but firmly self-contained (BBC Emma 1972, scripted by Denis Constantduros)


Laurie Pypher as Jane Fairfax explaining to Emma that she needs to get away from this wonderful gathering at Donwell Abbey & losing self-control (BBC Emma 2009, scripted by Sandy Welch)

What was wonderful about Andrew Davies’s development of Sanditon was he brought out this paradigm in three of the heroines (see my exegesis of Episodes 1-4, By the Sea …; and Episodes 5-8, Zigzagging). It is central to why Jane Austen has meant so much to me. This is not all she offers, but this is the core.

Ellen

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

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

Winter. Blackout.

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

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

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

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

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

Friends and readers,

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


Sissinghurst Gardens

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


Janet McTeer (Portrait of a Marriage)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

From Winter once again

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

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

Nocturne:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Frances Thynne Seymour, Countess of Hertford by Allan Ramsay

Come calm Retirement! Sylvan Power!
That on St Leonard’s lov’st to Walk,
To lend along the thoughtful Hour
And with the gentle Hertford talk …
— James Thomson

Gentle readers,

I don’t know how many years ago it was, probably nearly forty when, having fallen (so I thought) in love with the poetry of Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, and come across a poem by her, to her niece, Lady Hertford (shorthand for the above longer form), so grateful for encouragement, companionship, and Lady Hertford’s love of poetry and poets, that I bought from a catalogue an old-fashioned biography by Helen Sard Hughes, The Gentle Hertford: Her Life and Letters. When the old then sturdy blue book with its yellowing pages, and (to me then) delightful content arrived, I couldn’t put it down. It is made up of hundreds of documents, mostly letters and journals written by, shall we call her Frances or Seymour (that would be the modern style) to her mother, sister, friends, poets she supported, and many of theirs to her, which altogether transmit to the reader one of the kindest of women, gentle Hertford indeed, beloved (it seemed) by mother, husband, Algernon Seymour, Earl of Hertford, beloved son, George (who alas, died at age 19), and her long-lived daughter, Elizabeth (who eventually became a Duchess of Northumberland).


An early 19th century print, picturesque framing of St Leonard’s Hill, Windsor

Although a more moral set of people (as presented in these letters) you would have a hard time finding, the letters are not sentimental, foolish, or ignorant, but filled with wit, and the lively activities of an intelligent group of people living out the privileged lives of aristocrats in early to mid-18th century England. What I especially enjoyed were Lady Hertford’s letters to and from her friends, Henrietta St John Knight, Lady Luxborough (a quietly sceptical, proto-feminist picturesque poetry writing amusing women (who dared to leave her husband (who accused her of having an affair) and live for a while in a house without glass windows or closed doors, a poet in her own right, sister to Bolingbroke, and member of the Shenstone circle; and Henrietta Louisa Fermor, Countess of Pomfret, much duller, a seemingly boring woman, but for reasons I didn’t quite understand (I wasn’t there when they were face-to-face) very well liked by Frances and eliciting from her all sorts of trusted confidences. These women also exchanged verse epistles.

I did promise myself one day I would write about Lady Luxborough, and if I never wrote the essay she deserves (she has to her credit five sparkling poems, & one longish accomplished Georgic), I wrote a foremother poet blog where I reprinted of her three poems (she was called Asteria) you won’t find in print elsewhere, two of which are beautiful and filled with a rare depth of emotional intelligence. And I wrote about Lady Hertford and Lady Pomfret’s creation of a counter-universe, places for them to resist gender and other pressures, not an alternative life but a life inside a shared community of private identities.

Tonight I want to re-create the foremother poet blog for Frances (or Seymour, or Lady Hertford) I can no longer reach (until such time as I remove my ad-blocker). I began with her two best poems, first her rightly best known and savagely (or tragically ironic) story of startlingly cruel betrayal. It is even relevant for it is based on primal racial injustice: Inkle is European, rescued by Yarico, who is African as the tale begins:

Story of Inkle and Yarico: A Most Moving Tale from the Spectator (No 11).

A YOUTH there was possessed of every charm,
Which might the coldest heart with passion warm;
His blooming cheeks with ruddy beauty glowed,
His hair in waving ringlets graceful flowed;
Through all his person an attractive mien,
Just symmetry, and elegance were seen:
But niggard Fortune had her aid withheld,
And poverty th’ unhappy boy compelled
To distant climes to sail in search of gain,
Which might in ease his latter days maintain.
By chance, or rather the decree of Heaven,
The vessel on a barbarous coast was driven;
He, with a few unhappy striplings more,
Ventured too far upon the fatal shore:
The cruel natives thirsted for their blood,
And issued furious from a neighbouring wood.
His friends all fell by brutal rage o’erpowered,
Their flesh the horrid cannibals devoured;
Whilst he alone escaped by speedy flight,
And in a thicket lay concealed from sight!

Now he reflects on his companions’ fate,
His threatening danger, and abandoned state.
Whilst thus in fruitless grief he spent the day,
A negro virgin chanced to pass that way;
He viewed her naked beauties with surprise,
Her well-proportioned limbs and sprightly eyes!
With his complexion and gay dress amazed,
The artless nymph upon the stranger gazed;
Charmed with his features and alluring grace,
His flowing locks and his enlivened face.
His safety now became her tend’rest care,
A vaulted rock she knew and hid him there;
The choicest fruits the isle produced she sought,
And kindly to allay his hunger brought;
And when his thirst required, in search of drink,
She led him to a chrystal fountain’s brink.

Mutually charmed, by various arts they strove
To inform each other of their mutual love;
A language soon they formed, which might express
Their pleasing care and growing tenderness.
With tigers’ speckled skins she decked his bed,
O’er which the gayest plumes of birds were spread;
And every morning, with the nicest care,
Adorned her well-turned neck and shining hair,
With all the glittering shells and painted flowers
That serve to deck the Indian virgins’ bowers.
And when the sun descended in the sky,
And lengthening shades foretold the evening nigh,
Beneath some spreading palm’s delightful shade,
Together sat the youth and lovely maid;
Or where some bubbling river gently crept,
She in her arms secured him while he slept.
When the bright moon in midnight pomp was seen,
And starlight glittered o’er the dewy green,
In some close arbour, or some fragrant grove,
He whispered vows of everlasting love.
Then, as upon the verdant turf he lay,
He oft would to th’ attentive virgin say:
‘Oh, could I but, my Yarico, with thee
Once more my dear, my native country see!
In softest silks thy limbs should be arrayed,
Like that of which the clothes I wear are made;
What different ways my grateful soul would find
To indulge thy person and divert thy mind!’;
While she on the enticing accents hung
That smoothly fell from his persuasive tongue.

One evening, from a rock’s impending side,
An European vessel she descried,
And made them signs to touch upon the shore,
Then to her lover the glad tidings bore;
Who with his mistress to the ship descends,
And found the crew were countrymen and friends.
Reflecting now upon the time he passed,
Deep melancholy all his thoughts o’ercast:
‘Was it for this,’ said he, ‘I crossed the main,
Only a doting virgin’s heart to gain?
I needed not for such a prize to roam,
There are a thousand doting maids at home.’
While thus his disappointed mind was tossed,
The ship arrived on the Barbadian coast;
Immediately the planters from the town,
Who trade for goods and negro slaves, came down;
And now his mind, by sordid interest swayed,
Resolved to sell his faithful Indian maid.
Soon at his feet for mercy she implored,
And thus in moving strains her fate deplored:

‘0 whither can I turn to seek redress,
When thou’rt the cruel cause of my distress?
If the remembrance of our former love,
And all thy plighted vows, want force to move;
Yet, for the helpless infant’s sake I bear,
Listen with pity to my just despair.
Oh let me not in slavery remain,
Doomed all my life to drag a servile chain!
It cannot surely be! thy generous breast
An act so vile, so sordid must detest:
But, if thou hate me, rather let me meet
A gentler fate, and stab me at thy feet;
Then will I bless thee with my dying breath,
And sink contented in the shades of death.’

Not all she said could his compassion move,
Forgetful of his vows and promised love;
The weeping damsel from his knees he spurned,
And with her price pleased to the ship returned.
(1726)

The second I take from another perhaps too long (to modern tastes) epistle, this to the Countess of Pomfret, describing Frances’s life with her husband at their country estate called Richkings, in Colnbrook, Buckinghamshire (acquired 1739)

We sometimes ride, and sometimes walk,
We play at chess, or laugh, or talk;
Sometimes besides the crystal stream,
We meditate some serious theme;
Or in the grot, beside the spring,
We hear the feathered warblers sing.
Shakespeare perhaps an hour diverts,
Or Scott directs to mend our hearts.
With Clarke’s God’s attributes we explore;
And, taught by him, admire them more.
Gay’s Pastorals sometimes delight us,
Or Tasso’s grisly spectres fright us:
Sometimes we trace Armida’s bowers,
And view Rinaldo chained with flowers.
Often from thoughts sublime as these,
I sink at once and make a cheese;
Or see my various poultry fed,
And treat my swans with scraps of bread.
Sometimes upon the smooth canal
We row the boat or spread the sail;
Till the bright evening-star is seen,
And dewy spangles deck the green.
Then tolls the bell, and all unite
In prayer that God would bless the night.
From this (though I confess the change
From prayer to cards is somewhat strange)
To cards we go, till ten has struck:
And then, however bad our luck,
Our stomachs ne’er refuse to eat
Eggs, cream, fresh butter, or calves’-feet;
And cooling fruits, or savoury greens
‘Sparagus, peas, or kidney-beans.
Our supper past, an hour we sit,
And tlk of history, Spain or wit.
But Scandal far is banished hence,
Nor dares intrude with false pretence
Of pitying looks, or holy rage
Against the vices of the age:
We know we were all born to sin,
And find enough to blame within.
(written 1740)


From an old print of a Canaletto like painting (18th century) — called Green Park — as an example of the kind of picturesque painting Lady Hertford’s circle would enjoy

This is probably as much of her longer verse epistles as anyone today cares to read in one sitting. You see how she writes in the 18th century idiom for social verse and grave narrative. She imitates Pope, the popular verse styles of her time, at the edges belongs to the age of sensibility.  She was well-read in the poetry of her period; she will quote popular poems in her circle, refer to known characters in plays (Ariosto, Otway). Also the Bible. Further below, there are some examples of her “nature poetry.”

As to her life,

She was born and brought up at Longleat, child of the children of Thomas Thynne, first Viscount Weymouth (1640-1714), very close friends to (and sometimes monetary support of) Heneage Finch, later 4th Earl of Winchilsea, and husband to Anne Finch. Their son, Henry Thynne married Grace Strode, and Frances was one of their two daughters (the other was named Mary). Henry Thynne died young (1708), and his wife, Grace, went to live near Leweston, where among others, she was friendly with Elizabeth Singer Rowe (another poet of the era). All I have read about Algernon Seymour leads me to see him as a gentle sensitive man (he was later friends with Anne Finch’s husband, very patiently enduring Druidical names as he followed Heneage about in archeaological digs with William Stukeley, a respected 18th century “natural philosopher” also interested in depressive and hysterical states of mind) and I can quite see Algernon falling in love with Frances. While the high rank and political connections of the family in general would attract, their was not much money, and Hughes and others agree that Algernon’s parents loathed their daughter-in-law. They were probably intensely into ambition, prestige, and wanted much more money that she brought. They also resented very much that she would not send her son to a public school, brought him up tenderly lovingly at home – she refused to make a macho male of him.


Algernon Seymour, Earl of Hertford, later 7th Duke of Somerset by John Vanderbank

She was only 16 when she married him, but proved to be up to the demands of saloniere (a political as well as poetical one). Her husband had served in Flanders in the army, become the a Lord of the Bedchamber for the Prince of Wales, and she was an apparent success (well-liked as usual) as Lady of the Bedchamber to the princess, late Queen Caroline. Although she could manage life in London, she preferred what was called “rural retirement.” The poets she was patron to included James Thomson (The Seasons), and Richard Savage: she intervened to help save his life when he was (rightly) charged with murder. Isaac Watts dedicated one of his pious volumes to her. There exists a playful poem by Anne Finch protesting against Lady Hertford’s orders to the minor poet Laurence Eusden (“Hartford, ’tis wrong … “) commanding him to write a poem about a wood which includes only Aspin trees and King-cup flowers. After Caroline died, Lady Hertford spent more time in the Seymour’s country residences (they had it seems three), and she became more religious after her son died (I mentioned this above), from small pox in during his Grand Tour in Bologna. Her letters to her son are all a woman could be to a son, and knowing he died, they read to me so poignantly. She appears to have disliked violence, and war. There are several extensive correspondences: she loved imaginary friendship through letters. She was loyal to her friends and great-aunt.


“Italian light on English walls” (a line by Wm Cowper): this is a Canaletto reprint of the type this milieu of people might not have chosen — there are no upper class well-dressed groups of people socializing — I reprint it for the light

Are there any shorter poems? Here are some of her verses on the natural world. She uses the artificial poetic diction of her time but I think real feeling and seasonal change, the passage of diurnal time, comes through.  One Hughes quotes written in tetrameter for autumn contains these stanzas:

The changing leaves fall fast away
And all its pride is in decay.
Where blossoms deckt the point thorn
Now hangs the wintry drop forlorn …

Along the last enamel’d mead
No golden cowslip lifts its head;
Scarce can the grass its spires sustain,
Chill’d by the frost, or drench’s with rain.

She wrote Lady Pomfret during a period of illness (1741), some verses entitled To the East Wind, which include the lambs

But shiv’ring now and dull are seen
Bleating beside the racks for hay:
The blossoms from my pear-trees fall,
And naked leave the western wall.

That wall, which us’d to charm my sight
With varied blossoms adorn’d and gay
Can now afford me no delight,
Whilst you its glories sweep away:
If in my borders v’lets blow,
You bury them in flakes of snow

And as a last pair of couplets: Verses Occasion’d by Seeing the River Kennet Frozen Over:

Poor stream! held captive by the Frost
They current numb’d, thy Brightness lost;
Compell’d thy journey to delay,
And on these desart shores to stay …

Gentle reader, you owe this foremother poet blog-essay to a maddening incident that happened to me the other day. Studying Anne Finch’s poetry as I now am, and coming across her poems to Lady Hertford, I tried to reach the foremother poet column (I’ll call it) about her that I had put on a festival of poets sponsored long ago by a listserv called Wom-po, and found that I am cut off from my own work. Yes, the site these postings now appear on goes dark, puts a rectangle in front of me, which demands I remove my ad-blocker before I go any further.

I know that Frances Seymour, Lady Hertford is not a remarkable or wonderful poet — she was a warm, eloquent and supportive letter writer and friend. She was very much a woman of her era, from the Whig liberal super-rich circles. Hughes’s book about her is a labor of love as is this blog — for who she was, and for the values she lived by as seen in her letters and journals. I wish I had a friend such as she was to hers.

Letter to the Honorable Mrs Knight,
September 7th, 1731

Say, can you seriously intend
To deal unkindly by your friend,
And hasting from the peaceful Down
Return to sea-coal and the town
Without a transient visit paid,
To Marlborough’s neglected shade?
You know how welcome you would be
To all the house, but most of all to me.

Without you come you can’t conceive
How solitary here we live;
Yet cheerfulness we still maintain
Nor of the tedious hours complain.
When breakfast’s over out we rove
Around the terraces and grove,
Where flaunting woodbines spread around;
We lift their branches from the ground,
And tie them to some neighboring lime
Round which they may securely climb;
Or end the rose-trees, and divide
The suckers from their parent side.
Sometimes, where slow the river creeps,
And Babylon’s sad willow weeps,
To see if the new turf will grow
With anxious eyes along we go;
But when we find a sod is dead
Against the bank, or where we tread,
We grieve as much to see it fade
As toasts who find their charms decayed.
Thus we divide our morning cares
Till nine; then come in to Prayers.

Next to my closest we retreat
Where, after each has chose a seat,
I’m busies at my tent, the rest
Still sit or work, as the like best,
While Clavering reads the Gardener’s Toil;
When he should plant, when mix the soil;
The various kinds of flowers and fruits,
Which rise from seeds, and which from shoots,
Sometimes an author more sublime
Amuses and improves our time …

When Clavering till he’s tired has read,
We part, and next I comb my head
Then Beachy comes with careful look
To sing a Psalm and learn his book.

Again at two to dine we meet,
Our fare is plain, our dinner neat;
No seasoned dish allures our taste
To surfeit on the rich repast.
When we have dined we sit and talk,
Our walk concluded in we come
And each go to our sep’rate room.
We seldom work by candlelight,
But read, perhaps, and sometimes write;
Till called again to join in prayer
That God would make our souls his care,
Keep us from sin and all distress,
And our approaching slumbers bless.

Then sup, and with a cheerful heart
Converse an hour and so we part.

Now if our pleasures are not great,
You’ll own at least our life sweet ….
— Frances Seymour, Lady Hertford (1740)


Paul Sandby, Englefield Green, near Egham — this is typical picturesque plus shows us how this group of people liked to see themselves …

Ellen

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Emma (Autumn de Wilde, 2020, Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma)


Wendy Moore, Endell Street, The Suffragette Surgeons of World War One

Dear friends and readers,

Last week I was able to attend a series of mostly enjoyable and instructive lectures, talks, discussions from Chawton House for three long nights. I did not have to get on a crowded plane (for oodles of money), travel to Chawton, obtain lodging nearby (ditto), nor did I need to have a paper accepted, which to my mind for years has been a sina qua non for deciding whether to go to a conference, as I want not to wander about belonging to no one. Now I could skip that too.

It’s not that I would not have preferred to experience the place, some of the events and talk that would have gone on all around, but I have once been to Chawton, for three days, for a Charlotte Smith conference (about as perfect an experience as I’ve ever had), with Izzy, and feel I know it from years of reading, not to omit following a Future Learn on Jane Austen done at Chawton House a couple of years ago now.

Further, for me the core of what I go to these conferences for are the papers, the sessions. You see above, two of the delightful books I heard described, and the one Austen film that, together with the history of illustrations for Emma and earlier film visualizations that was included in the three day program. For today I will cover the best of the first day in England (which I experienced at night) and part of the second (ditto). At the end I’ve a video of a thoughtful revealing talk by Joanna Trollope about what actuates her when she writes her novels. I did not listen to all the talks on any of the days: there was too much to take in. You can find videos for many of those I describe below on YouTube. Don’t just skip these, if you love Austen or women’s writing and are fired into enthusiasm or (sometimes) despair at studying women’s lives.

Lockdown Literary Festival

On the first day there were 6 YouTubes, some twitter Q&As, and one or more zoom groups either for a presentation or an afterwards.
Telling hard truth: they are desperate: they lost 80% of their regular funding a couple of years ago now when Sandy Lerner in a huff (angry over something and not justifiably for real) left and took her money with her; now closed, the first speaker tells you their income is down 60%. So this is by way of showing their stuff — their place — there is a place to donate. They showed the strengths of what is available at Chawton House Museum, house, and libraries.

First, very early in the day, the Executive Director of Chawton, Katie Childs, telling briefly all about Chawton House, what she does, and their financial straits. There were two of these creative writing workshops where people are supposedly teaching those who paid for this (limited space) how to write poetry (Clair Thurlow, and Sinead Keegan). She came back later to tell of how hard the job is, about caring for this historical house (once owned by Edward Austen Knight, Austen’s luck brother, adopted by rich relatives, the Knights), the estate, the museum, the library, the events … All that was left out was the grounds.

Then Emma Yandel — All About Emma. Ms Yandel began by telling the viewer that the recent Emma is interesting for its use of costuming, for the visual presentation which breaks with traditions yet yet brings new meanings &c&c. About 16 minutes were filled with information and insight about the history of illustration: the earliest, 1833, Bentley’s edition, very sentimental, normalizing, especially revealing is the choice of scene: Mr Knightley proposing to Emma. Emma is not primarily or even at all a conventional emotional heterosexual romance; with Hugh Thomson’s comic illustrations are the first to break away into real scenes of women (which the novel is filled with), with some irony, then the 20th century took the reader somewhat further. She talked of a 1946 a stage play in London, which was all sentiment and unreality and then was moving on to the most conventional Emma (1996, McGrath, with Gweneth Paltrow) and one of the break-aways, Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, when, aargh!, the YouTube broke off and some other YouTube managed to block the rest of this talk …. I have seen the new Emma, and analyzed and described it as a hollow parody in the first half, and emotionally drenched heterosexual romance in the second.

Then a superb talk by Kim Simpson, she takes care of the two libraries and teaches at Southampton University. She told of the early women’s books the Chawton House owns, showed the two rooms of 1000s of books, and then gave a talk on the development of women’s rights as a concept and reality through focusing on seven women writers whose books she curated an exhibit in 2019 about — and including their associates, books they were responding to, and other books along the way. Each of these women that she chose was carefully selected and her work presented intelligently: Jane Austen, Persuasion was quoted (the pen has been in men’s hands), Bathsua Makin (a midwife), An Essay to Revive the Ancient Education of Gentlewomen (1673), Sarah Fyge Egerton, The Female Advocate, written when she was just 14; Mary Astell, Reflections on Marriage (1700, though she wrote a lot about setting up a college for women, on behalf of educating women, Mary Chudleigh (1655-1700), A Defense of Women; Elizabeth Montagu (1718-1800) for her letters and for founding a sort of society of bluestockings, Sarah Scott, Millenium Hall, A Journey through every stage of life (1754), Madame de Genlis (1746-1830), the books that Jane Austen read or mentioned; Catherine Macaulay (1731-91, Her Letters on Education (1790).

The intellectual treat of the day was Wendy Moore whose books I have read and admired: especially Wedlock about the abusive marriage Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore endured. Moore writes eloquently, insightfully, passionately. Her talk was on the first women’s hospital at Endell Street, which was created by two courageous women doctors during the first world War in London. At first rejected, then after much struggle and using what connections they had from their education and background, they were allowed to set up a hospital that became one of the best hospitals in London — staffed entirely by women. They were there for the Spanish flu. Then in 1818 ruthlessly disbanded, the women driven away back to their homes. A tragic waste after their heroic admirable successful endeavour. She has been interested in all her work in the history of medicine and exposing violence inflicted on, and exclusions of women from any money, power, ability to choose a life. The suffragettes were done justice to — ironically no longer done in many accountings of suffragettes. They were violent! how could they? only suffragists are nowadays spoken of as acceptable. A rare spirit pushing back is Lucy Worseley. Moore provides the solid research. I quote from Anne Kennedy Smith’s review of the book in The Guardian:

In 1920, as part of an exhibition on women’s war work, the Imperial War Museum planned to display a sketch of a busy operating theatre at Endell Street Military Hospital in London. The hospital’s commanding officers, Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson, were furious, convinced that the depiction of a discarded splint and other clutter would damage the future professional reputation of women in medicine. “We would rather have no record of our work than a false record,” they raged.

One hundred years on, this compelling book at last gives Endell Street its due. It’s the story of the remarkable wartime contribution of two medical women who, as active suffragettes, had previously been enemies of the state. Life partners Murray and Anderson were qualified doctors who met while waging a women’s war against the British government. Anderson refused to pay tax and spent four weeks at Holloway prison after smashing a window in a smart part of London in 1912. Murray risked her medical career by speaking out against the force-feeding of suffragette prisoners.

The outbreak of war in August 1914 gave them the opportunity to take a different sort of radical action. Together they organised the Women’s Hospital Corps and set up a hospital in a luxury Paris hotel. There, amid the chandeliers and marble, they operated on wounds caused by shell fire, used primitive x-rays to locate bullets and shrapnel, and treated gas gangrene and trench foot. The taboo on female doctors treating men vanished overnight. Reports of the women’s success reached the War Office, and in early 1915 Murray and Anderson were invited to establish a large new military hospital in central London.

There was a comedienne, Alison Larkin, who made me laugh; then a writer of Austen post-texts, Natalie Jenner. It was too late at night to listen to her; I’ve since read about her book and discuss Jenner in the comments to my second blog.

Last Joanna Trollope — I’d never seen her before. How personable she is, how she knows how to make herself appealing, I thought. She tells of her motives and what more deeply actuates her in writing the kind of realistic domestic romances of family life in contemporary life that she has for some 30 years. Her first commercial success was apparently The Rector’s Wife (which I am now reading, as a result of listening to this talk). She did real justice to the genre she writes in. I so appreciated this. She then told of her most recent novel, Mum and Dad.

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On the second night I meant to watch or listen just to two talks, and I ended up listening to almost all of them – though not in the order they were put online. In my judgement there were several highlights as talks and for the content in this earlier part of the second set of talks, especially Rebecca James and Julia Wheelwright. At the end of the day/night Devoney Looser (like Gillian Dow), as something of a Janeite star, I’ll save for the second blog. For entertainment and charm on the second day, I’ll focus pick Bee Rowlatt “following in the footsteps of Mary Wollstonecraft.” So here I’ll stop at Wheelwright, moving for the second blog to the later sessions of the second day featuring both Rowlatt and Looser; and for the third day Gillian Dow and Emma Clery. This time I got the time down they spoke.

Theresa Kiergan, a Northern Irish poet, and Lisa Andrews, a journalist who has worked in TV. 11:0 am British summer time. They met while both were working on 26’s 100 Armistice Project. This was about poetry inspired by women refugees, and Kiergan’s has researched and written about the exodus of Belgian into Northern Ireland in the 1940s. 16,000 people, and they were welcomed (a far cry from today). KIergan singled out one woman who did embroidery; one piece of this material she did has survived. Many of the women would have been lace makers

Clio O’Sullivan, communications and publications manager at Chawton, noon British summer time. She told of an exhibit she curated, which she was heart-broken over when it was about to be made public and all was locked down (March): “Man Up! Women who Stepped into a Man’s World.” The title and the way it was described would have put me off but she was such a good interviewer that I was curious to begin her talk. It turns out it is an excellent exhibit and they have done all they can to make it available online. She researched and produced materials (books and other artefacts) about “Miss Betsy Warwick, the Female Rambler,” the “Narrative of the Life of Charlotte Charke” (daughter of Collie Cibber who disowned her – O’Sullivan did not bring in her family), Hannah Snell who joined the army and navy by dressing as a man. Elizabeth Knight (see below – a property owner), George Sand (O’Sullivan has an interesting image of Sand I’d never seen before – very austere, man-like but yet a woman), Mary Ann Talbot, who joined the navy (another cross dresser), the Brontes, Mary Wollstonecraft and a reverse case where a man, Chevalier d’Eon dressed as a woman, Mademoiselle de Beaumont. Hers were stories of soldiering, piracy (!), duelling, acting, ballooning, — and writing. Without the writing we would not know of them. She showed pink as a background to defuse or change the stigmata surrounding the colors.

Rebecca James, at 20 after 12 British summer time. Hers and the next talk were the two best of the whole of the second day. I am so glad that I did listen to O’Sullivan or I might not have gone on to these two. They are not frivolous or silly or popular unrealities. James’s topic was titled: “Women Warriors of the Waves.” The actual subject was the literature of piracy in the 18th century, which she has been studying (half a century ago Richetti wrote about the popular literature on this topic, with no women mentioned). Her two central women are Mary Read and Ann Bonny. There are printed books about these women and documents which repay study: She first discussed The Tryals of Jack Rackam and Other Pirates (printed in Jamaica 1721). In this book the woman are described as disguised like men, but clearly women in disguise, the pictures show their bodies, their breasts. They are presented as fierce, ruthless, violent, unafraid. Then, A General History of Pirates, 1724, with the central characters being “the remarkable Actions and Adventures of Mary Read and Anne Bonny. It’s said to be by Charles Johnstone, perhaps a pseudonym. She talked of the subsections in which we find the stories of these two women. In these the women are really trying to pass as men and behave as men and today one can read these stories about as about women who wanted to have sex with other women. Mary’s story (as told) begins with her entering the male world, but Anne Bonny’s with her in childhood; both story matters emphasize that the girls were when young dressed as boys, and to an extent it is implied they cross-dressed at first due to the circumstances of their families. They were arrested and accused of enough crimes so they could be executed, but both successfully pled their “bellies” (they were pregnant?) and escaped the gallows. She cited one article, Sally O’Driscoll, “The Pirate Breast,” The Eighteenth Century, 53:3 (?):357-79.


Claire in The Search (Season 1, Episode 12, Outlander), one of my favorite sequences where she dresses like a man and sings and dances and rides through the Highlands in her search for Jamie with Murtagh (his best friend, a father-figure) by her side

One of the most striking things about James’s illustrations is how the women were depicted reminds me of the way women in action-adventure costume dramas are depicted today. She showed pictures from a series called Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag on Starz. This is the first time I’ve seen any show that resembles Outlander in any way also on Starz. On a channel called Ubisot, the women are deadly and fierce. Since I’m an addict of Outlander it fascinated me to see that for the first two seasons and part of the second when Claire (Caitriona) dresses as a man it is always clear she is a woman and the way she is costumed recalls some of the images James showed; she is disguising herself for protection; she can be violent and fierce in self protection but by the end of the second season she is working as a nurse caring for all people. By contrast, although in the last episode of the 5th season of Poldark, where Debbie Horsfield has no source whatsoever she attempts to turn Graham’s far more “womanly” heroine Demelza into violent male-dressed woman (it doesn’t work) until then Demelza never looks like any of this material although the circumstances of the costume drama include scenes at sea, and violent scenes of class warfare.

Julia Wheelwright at 2:00 pm British summer time. Her topic was “Masquerade: women of the 18th century dressed up for profit, adventure, liberty.” This too was not the actual theme. Her book is titled Sisters in Arms, and it covers women’s history from classical times past the 18th century. I can’t begin to include all she said or suggested. She too made central use of the lives and stories told about Mary Read and Anne Bonny. I was very interested in her accounting for the myth of the Amazons: she suggested it was a result of Greeks whose writings were transmitted to Western culture, coming upon tribes of peoples (Scythians) where the women did have male fighting roles, and so astonished were they made the stories into something supernatural, glamorous. She told of how Mary Read was Irish originally; not only did she dress as a boy, but she eventually married, had children, went to Jamaica. Mary Read we know died many years later, but Anny Bonny just disappears from history. Hannah Snell was a real woman, she was on the stage for some time, she had brother-in-law names James Grey, she seems to have dressed as a male to escape the roles she was given as well as her family; she would desert after a while. Her biographer, Martha Steevens (?) says the Duke of Cumberland pensioned Hannah; she was married 3 times, had children, but ended in mental illness, in Bedlam, died a pauper in its hospital. Mary Anne Talbot, another told stories about: her details are not born out by documents Best documented from the 18th century is one Mary Lacy, a female shipwright,and chandler.

I donated $50, bought a used copy of Endell Street, and found (with a friend’s help) the 1990s BBC series on YouTube, The Rector’s Wife, with one of my favorite actresses when she was young, Lindsay Duncan in the role of heroine, Anna Bouverie.

(To be cont’d & concluded in my next blog)

Ellen

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In one of her poem’s a heelpiece to a lady’s shoe (18th century of course) speaks

Her self-description: “a Traveller or Pilgrim, wandering about from House to House, in order to partake of the Benevolence of such good People [to her friends living in Windsor Forest] as you are … ” (ie., poor but honest & chaste) … Our real Worth must depend upon Our Selves (her brother, the Revd Olivier Jones and herself)

Friends and readers,

I thought the first couple of my new fore-mother poet blogs would be on women’s poetry which Austen could have read — and what’s more liked. There is no picture of Mary Jones (1707-78), so I have prefaced this with a pair of 18th century shoes and placed at the end a depiction of “a dreamer” as envisaged by a mid-18th century French poet, but we know a good deal about her outward life, and who she was related to, who were her friends (among these, Charlotte Lennox), where she lived, where she published. Her one Miscellanies in Prose and Verse (Oxford, 1750), which included verse, letters, translations, had a subscription list of 1,400 (some of them of high rank, many in the “fashionable world”) She had a place in Oxford literary circles, where she met Samuel Johnson, who called her “the Chantress” (her brother was Chanter at the Cathedral) and would quote Milton’s Il Penseroso to her: “Thee, Chantress, oft the woods among/I woo.” Her poetry and writing were praised and she seems to have been personally liked. Thomas Warton said of her she was “a very ingenious poetess … and, on the whole, as a most sensible, agreeable, and amiable woman.”

I’ve chosen three poems: first to Lady Bowyer, the friend  who helped her plan and publish her book by subscription: an intelligent and amusing poem:

An Epistle to Lady Bowyer

How much of paper’s soiled! what floods of ink!
And yet how few, how very few can think!
The knack of writing is an easy trade;
But to think well requires — at least a head.
Once in an age, one genius may arise,
With wit well cultured, and with learning wise.
Like some tall oak, behold his branches shoot!
No tender scions springing at the root.
Whilst lofty Pope erects his laurelled head,
No lays like mine can live beneath his shade.
Nothing but weeds, and moss, and shrubs are found.
Cut, cut them down, why cumber they the ground?

And yet you’d have me write! — For what? for whom?
To curl a favourite in a dressing-room? .
To mend a candle when the snuffs too short?
Or save rappee for chamber-maids at court?
Glorious ambition! noble thirst of fame! —
No, but you’d have me write — to get a name.
Alas! I’d live unknown, unenvied too;
‘Tis more than Pope with all his wit can do;
‘Tis more than you with wit and beauty joined,
A pleasing form, and a discerning mind.
The world and I are no such cordial friends;
I have my purpose, they their various ends
I say my prayers, and lead a sober life,
Nor laugh at Cornus, or at Cornus’ wife.
What’s fame to me, who pray, and pay my rent?
If my friends know me honest, I’m content.

Well, but the joy to see my works in print!
Myself too pictured in a mezzotint!
The preface done, the dedication framed,
With lies enough to make a lord ashamed!
Thus I step forth, an Auth’ress in some sort;
My patron’s name? ‘0 choose some lord at court.
One that has money which he does not use,
One you may flatter much, that is, abuse.
For if you’re nice, and cannot change your note,
Regardless of the trimmed, or untrimmed coat,
Believe me, friend, you’ll ne’er be worth a groat.’

Well then, to cut this mighty matter short,
I’ve neither friend nor interest at Court.
Quite from St. James’s to thy stairs, Whitehall,
I hardly know a creature, great or small,
Except one Maid of Honour”, worth them all.
I have no business there – -Let those attend
The courtly levee, or the courtly friend,
Who more than fate allows them dare to spend;
Or those whose avarice, with much, craves more,
The pensioned beggar, or the titled poor.
These are the thriving breed, the tiny great!
Slaves! wretched slaves! the journeymen of state.
Philosophers! who calmly bear disgrace,
Patriots who sell their country for a place.
Shall I for these disturb my brains with rhyme?
For these, like Bavius creep, or Glencus climb?
Shall I go late to rest, and early rise,
To be the very creature I despise?
With face unmoved, my poem in my hand,
Cringe to the porter, with the footman stand?
Perhaps my lady’s maid, if not too proud,
Will stoop, you’ll say, to wink me from the crowd.
Will entertain me, till his lordship’s dressed,
With what my lady eats, and how she rests:
How much she gave for such a Birthday-gown,
And how she tramped to every shop in town.

Sick at the news, impatient for my lord,
I’m forced to hear, nay smile at every word.
Tom raps at last — His lordship begs to know
Your name? your business?’ — ‘Sir, I’m not a foe:
I come to charm his lordship’s listening ears
With verses, soft as music of the spheres.’
‘Verses! — Alas ! his lordship seldom reads:
Pedants indeed with learning stuff their heads;
But my good lord, as all the world can tell,
Reads not ev’n tradesmen’s bills, and scorns to spell.
But trust your lays with me — some things I’ve read,
Was born a poet, though no poet bred:
And if I find they’ll bear my nicer view,
I’ll recommend your poetry — and you.’

Shocked at his civil impudence, I start,
Pocket my poem, and in haste depart;
Resolved no more to offer up my wit,
Where footmen in the seat of critics sit.
Is there a Lord whose great unspotted soul,
Not places, pensions, ribbons can control;
Unlaced, unpowdered, almost unobserved,
Eats not on silver while his train are starved;
Who, though to nobles or to kings allied,
Dares walk on foot, while slaves in coaches ride;
With merit humble, and with greatness free,
Has bowed to Freeman, and has dined with me;
Who, bred in foreign courts, and early known,
Has yet to learn the cunning of his own;
To titles born, yet heir to no estate,
And harder still, too honest to be great;
If such an one there be, well-bred, polite,
To him I’ll dedicate, for him I’ll write.

Peace to the rest — I can be no man’s slave;
I ask for nothing, though I nothing have.
By fortune humbled, yet not sunk so low
To shame a friend, or fear to meet a foe.
Meanness, in ribbons or in rags, I hate;
And have not learned to flatter ev’n the great.
Few friends I ask, and those who love me well;
What more remains, these artless lines shall tell.

Of honest parents, not of great, I came;
Not known to fortune, quite unknown to fame.
Frugal and plain, at no man’s cost I eat,
Nor knew a baker’s or a butcher’s debt.
O be their precepts ever in my eye!
For one has learned to live, and one to die.
Long may her widowed age by heaven be lent
Among my blessings! and I’m well content.
I ask no more, but in some calm retreat
To sleep in quiet, and in quiet eat.
No noisy slaves attending round my room;
My viands wholesome, and my waiters dumb.
No orphans cheated, and no widow’s curse,
No household lord, for better or for worse.
No monstrous sums to tempt my soul to sin,
But just enough to keep me plain and clean.
And if sometimes, to smooth the rugged way,
Charlot should smile, or you approve my lay,
Enough for me — I cannot put my trust
In lords; smile lies, eat toads, or lick the dust.
Fortune her favors much too dear may hold:
An honest heart is worth its weight in gold.

(wr, 1736, published 1750)

This second poem manages to put her genteel poverty into a acceptable yet real perspective:

Soliloquy on an Empty Purse

ALAS, my Purse! how lean and low!
My silken Purse! what art thou now!
Once I beheld — but stocks will fall —
When both thy ends had wherewithal.
When I within thy slender fence
My fortune placed, and confidence;
A poet’s fortune! — not immense:
Yet, mixed with keys, and coins among,
Chinked to the melody of song.

Canst thou forget, when, high in air,
I saw thee fluttering at a fair?
And took thee, destined to be sold,
My lawful Purse, to have and hold?
Yet used so oft to disembogue,
No prudence could thy fate prorogue.
Like wax thy silver melted down,
Touch but the brass, and lo! ’twas gone:
And gold would never with thee stay,
For gold had wings, and flew away.

Alas, my Purse! yet still be proud,
For see the Virtues round thee crowd!
See, in the room of paultry wealth,
Calm Temperance rise, the nurse of health;
And Self-Denial, slim and spare,
And Fortitude, with look severe;
And Abstinence, to leanness prone,
And Patience, worn to skin and bone:
Prudence and Foresight on thee wait,
And Poverty lies here in state!
Hopeless her spirits to recruit,
For every Virtue is a mute.

Well then, my Purse, thy sabbaths keep;
Now thou art empty, I shall sleep.
No silver sounds shall thee molest,
Nor golden dreams disturb my breast:
Safe shall I walk with thee along,
Amidst temptations thick and strong;
Catched by the eye, no more shall stop
At Wildey’s toys, or Pinchbeck’s shop;
Nor cheapening Payne’s ungodly books,
Be drawn aside by pastry-cooks:
But fearless now we both may go
Where Ludgate’s mercers bow so low;
Beholding all with equal eye,
Nor moved at — ‘Madam, what d’ye buy?’

Away, far hence each worldly care!
Nor dun nor pick-purse shalt thou fear,
Nor flatterer base annoy my ear.
Snug shalt thou travel through the mob,
For who a poet’s purse will rob?
And softly sweet in garret high
Will I thy virtues magnify;
Outsoaring flatterer’ stinking breath,
And gently rhyming rats to death.
(1750)


A print from Oxford, 1870s

She was born and grew up in Oxford. Her father was Oliver Jones of St Aldate’s, Oxford; her mother, a member of the Penn family of South Newington. In one letter Mary gives an account of her family. She grew up and was educated alongside her brother, eventually the Rev Oliver Jones (c 1706-75) at Oxford; his friends were her friends as she lived with . She was educated at Oxford, could read French and Italian and was translating from Italian at age 16.   There is a frequent sting in her poems as an outsider, the excluded woman. She does complain of the way “outsider” women were treated, but there seems to have been little overt anger. She seems to have thrived among groups of friends, especially women.  Among the poems by her I’ve read is a kindly one, “After the Small Pox,” seemingly addressed to a friend who has survived, but lost her outward beauty;” her poem about a great house is a comical sketch of hurrying to have dinner and become warm again (addressed to a friend, Charlot), “Written at Fern Hill, While Dinner was Waiting for Her. In Imitation of Modern Pastoral. ”

Printed books which contain some of her poems include British Women Poets of the Long Eighteenth Century, edd. Paula A. Backsheider & Catherine E. Ingrassio; British Women Poets, 1660-1800: An Anthology ed. Joyce Fullard (this is the best of the anthologies as Fullard has exquisitely good taste and an eye for living vivid poetry). Alexander Pope’s influence is often cited but I find the content and tone resemble far more other women’s poetry.  Much detail may be found in Roger Lonsdale’s short biography at the opening of each of his selections in The Eighteenth Century Women Poets (Oxford paperback). See wikipedia. In an Eighteenth-Century Archive, many more of her poems may be found (you will see why her poems were widely read in her milieu and she was so liked).

I call special attention to and conclude with her moving poem in grieving for the death of a beloved friend:  Verses to the Memory of Miss Clayton (click for the whole poem from which I type the concluding stanzas)

Still, but for Thee, regardless might I stray,
Where gentle Charwell rolls her silent tide;
And wear at ease my span of life away,
As I was wont, when thou were at my side.

But now no more the limpid streams delight,
No more at ease unheeding do I stray;
Pleasure and Thou are vanish’d from my sight,
And life, a span! too slowly hastes away.

Yet if thy friendship lives beyond the dust,
Where all things else in peace and silence lie,
I’ll seek Thee there, among the Good and Just.
‘Mong those who living wisely — learnt to die.

And if some friend, when I’m no more, should strive
To future times my mem’ry to extend,
Let this inscription on my tomb survive,
‘Here rest the ashes of a faithful friend.’

A little while and lo! I lay me down,
To land in silence on that peaceful shore,
Where never billows beat, or tyrants frown,
Where we shall meet again, to part no more.”

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Jean Francois Gilles Colson (1733-1803): A Dreamer

Ellen

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Susannah as Cordelia in Lear (a part often taken by James Quinn (1693-1766)


Susannah as Belvidera in Otway’s tragedy, Venice Preserved (Jaffier, the protagonist, played by Garrick)

For 14 consecutive nights Susannah drowned houses in tears, and stirred the very depths of men’s hearts, even her husband’s, who was so affected that he claimed and obtained the doubling of her salary, Doran, Annals of the English Stage (19th century work)

An eighteenth century actress. My first of the new style actresses blogs: I tell the story of her life in story-biography style. I had a lot more information to go on than for Adelaide Labille-Guiard, so this is also clearly about women’s position in the society and the specific conflicts of Susannah’s life and career. I chose her because she is nowadays spoken of denigratingly. The recent form of feminism which shapes studies of actresses is an aggressive capitalist one, and Susannah’s life under this lens does not draw empathy or admiration — as it should, and does from her biographer, Mary Nash (1977)

Friends and readers,

As Adelaide Labille-Guiard was my first choice for resuming my women artists blogs because her life is so little known, so Susannah Arne Cibber is my first choice for 18th century actresses because nowadays she is spoken of disparagingly as a woman dependent on men, a woman who submitted to men because too much attention has been paid to the marital and sexual arrangements that she was coerced into to survive, and then (in court) publicly humiliated for, and not enough to the strength and talents with which she began and developed her first successful career, and then, astonishingly, recuperated her life and work (in the Irish theater) to again become one of the most valued singers of her age and a deeply moving tragedian. In later years her partnership with Garrick was so firm and her insight into what an actress needed for control and respect that she worked to become a manager-partner with Garrick. She could not overcome the prejudice (in Garrick) against women, but she did, until an organic disease (in her stomach it’s said) overcame her, live a fulfilling splendid comfortable life. And again (as I have in many of these sketches from the beginning) found a good biography, Mary Nash’s The Provok’d Wife (Boston, Little Brown, 1977) and a couple of informative recent articles (by Helen Brooks).


Thomas Arne by Zoffany

There is an odd disconnect between her parentage and the musicianship both she and her brother became as masterly at. Her father and grandfather (who died in Marshalsea Prison) were upholsterers (artisans), her mother a midwife and devout Catholic. From parish registers we know that between 1710 and 1718 Anne and Thomas Arne baptised 8 infants: 5 of them died quickly; Susannah was the fourth child, born February 14, 1714, the second of three to survive. Probably because the father was ambitious, he was able to recognize genius-level talent in his son, Thomas, and Susannah. Thomas was first sent to Eton and then apprenticed as a clerk to a lawyer; he rebelled and one story tells of Thomas learning to play the violin in secret. He acquired a clavichord, a player, mastered the keyboard. They lived in the Convent Garden area, and slowly Arne began to become part of the companies playing; knew the people, wrote and worked with them on music, and then produced superb musical events with them.  Eventually he became one of the best and important composers of the era (1710-78), and among his friends, the equally talented, Henry Carey (1687-1743) and Johann Freidrich Lampe (1703-51, wrote scripts).

By contrast, the father had paid for singing lessons for Susannah for years — no need to spend money sending her to the right school to be taught to conform. She begins to sing professionally; one of her earliest professional roles was in Carey’s Amelia. She sang her brother’s music. In this early time she sang in Carey’s Rosamond (play by Addison) and her “expressive sweet contralto” won Handel over (whose Deborah she sang) and was a runaway success at Lincoln’s Inn Fields (1733). Unfortunately, she caught the eye of Theophilus Cibber, son of Colley, an obnoxious bully, sexually abusive of any woman he became involved with (his exhausted wife, Jane Cibber, married 1725, had just died), and her father by now in bad debt, she was confronted, bullied by him driven into marrying this man known as a vicious brute. She had been revulsed by Cibber, tried to hold out with her mother on her side. She had an earnest, melancholy sensitive character. There were worse men about, marriage was a form of protection (literally and from a reputation for promiscuity for unmarried actresses), and of course the two Cibbers were enormously influential in the theater.

At first Susannah was as prodigal as Theo (quickly pregnant), fitting herself into what he wanted; I would put it she accepts training by her father-in-law who recognized her capabilities. In the crowded scheduled super-busy Drury Lane, Susannah lands a break-through role in tragedy (she was hemmed in partly because roles were understood as belonging to the actress who first realized and made a hit with it), her first such role, in Aaron Hill’s translation of Voltaire’s Zaire as Zara.  Hill fancied himself knowing in dramatic art, Thomas Arne wrote the music  Her very frailty after giving birth for the first time was part of what appealed. She began to rack up (as it were) tragic and grave parts: Andromache in Philips’s Distrest Mother, Indiana in Steele’s Conscious Lovers, Amanda in Colley Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift. Meanwhile Theo was taking these braggart coarse roles (Pistol). Those writing about her next step talk of how naive she was, how she never did anything without a man’s approbation, calling her a “priestess of sensibility.”

But what was she to do and what did she do? she broke or tried to break her marital relationship. With all his physical bullying, driving her to work when she was pregnant, she had apparently established during the second pregnancy she was not going to sleep with him (he reproaches for this seethingly), and she moves to put a stop to being put into roles where she’d be publicly mortified. She had loathed how he spoke of and presented her as a “laughable public property.” Most of all of his insisting she take the role of Polly in Beggar’s Opera, which brought down on her Catherine Clive’s vituperative wrath. She had gone to Fleetwood for support, but he refused; nonetheless, she resisted taking Polly, insisted from now on she would decide what roles she took and what not. He went into a “cyclonic rage” and broke down the door of her dressing room, took all cash, her whole wardrobe, all her jewels, and sold it all. Basically the law gave him the right to strip her naked and leave her broke, with no shelter.

Lady Arabella: I won’t come home till four tomorrow.
Lord Loverule: I’ll order the doors locked at twelve.
Lady Arabella: Then I won’t come home till tomorrow.
Lord Loverule Then you shall never come home again, Madam.
— Vanbrugh, The Journey to London

It’s at this point William Sloper, the country squire who would make a crucial difference for her quiet eventually and for the rest of her enters the story. When later Cibber went to court and accused her and Sloper of adultery, it was said that it was Cibber who openly demanded she go to bed with Sloper for a sum of money Cibber would collect. Certainly he let the man visit his house. But an equally probable trajectory tells of how she had met Sloper at the Cibber home in Wild Court, and taught her to play backgammon. They would sit apart talking companionably; their temperaments were compatible.  His wife admired her in Othello; she learned of his splendid house, West Woodhay. He brought needed food to the house, disbursed money to half-paid servants.  Cannot it not equally and more likely be she chose this sensitive man, especially since Cibber began to resent him (especially when in prison)? Between Susannah’s salary and Sloper’s gifts, Cibber was doing very well when out of prison, but he wanted Susannah to be discreet, but now when he tried to get her to take Clive’s role of Ophelia in Hamlet (Clive was clearly unsuited for this role), Susannah would not even attend rehearsals.

The story is complicated, and includes the two lovers taking a flat apart (Blue Cross Street, Leicester Fields), moving again (Kensington lodgings), Sloper’s wife separating herself from him, then Cibber writing her a long crazed letter (Nash, 117-22), which Nash describes as hysterical, a mad, sly letter, so groveling and so menacing, so rambling and so calculating,” where there is also an assume “iron grip” on Susannah. She was now pregnant by Sloper; they capitulate for a while to the appearance of a menage a trois, — before throwing him out. There is another series of letters by Cibber. They flee to hide, but Cibber finds them out, goes after them with hired thugs and guns, and tries to wrest her from Sloper. She is dragged out of the house, but the two will not be parted. It all ends in a humiliating court case where Susannah is utterly shamed.  Even if the judge wanted to sympathize with her, the law was clear that it was Cibber who was the abused person; she, the vile sinner. Cibber asked for 5000£; the jury awarded him 10£. Some did understand Theophilus Cibber was as “depraved and rapacious” as the roles he played (Nash, 151).


West Woodhay house

It is from this nadir, Susannah climbs a long way back. It took a long time and to my way of thinking we ought to admire and respect her wondrously. She was pregnant, utterly shattered from shame and spent two years as if she were “a runway slave,” so fearful was she (and Sloper) that Cibber would make good on new threats unless (say) Sloper paid all his new debts; he advertised his case all over again, but still she kept fleeing (now with a young baby girl around whom Sloper and Susannah would eventually build a family life). Cibber was “still under a recognizance not to threaten or molest” Susannah and so he went to court again. Again he had to win because all law and custom was on his side; he was awarded 500£ (not the 10,000£ he asked for) and apparently he could not go to court again. I drop Theo’s story now: he sold his preposterous missives to the booksellers. He did continue to harass and threaten her and Sloper whenever he could; he drowned in 1758 crossing over to Dublin.

The two lovers disappear (perhaps from the British Isles) and the next time she emerges, it’s November 1741 and she is “under the protection of,” working with and for James Quinn and Friedrich Handel in Dublin. Again as told this is “amazing:” what “can explain the willingness of this timid woman to leave her retirement with William Sloper … ” Maybe she was not so timid; maybe her acting career was a raison d’etre of life for her; she had not chosen to be an actress (though she clearly sang from the time she was young, opinion is divided on her sophistication), but once started, maybe she loved the power over an audience, the accomplishment, the acting out of these different identities, the interaction with other actors. She didn’t have to invent a story, she could take someone else’s and express herself as an actress and through song.


Susannah Cibber by Thomas Hudson

Several elements went into her recovery of herself and her career. First she had a happy good relationship with William Sloper who admired her partly because of her career. He had money, connections, influence. Her first, and now in the second longer, phase of her career she made friends, was liked, she worked hard and had real talent for acting and singing and she had learned well on the job. She had grasped from what happened in courts and her hidden life, she was not as much Theo’s “chattel” as she had thought, but she did remain socially elusive except for when she and Sloper were at home in his country estate. Now her life is made up of her many many acting roles — mostly poignant, grave, or tragic. Nash says her singing was “mediocre,” but she riveted audiences. Charles Burney said how effective she was in recitative; there was an “emotional projection of words;” she was an actress when she sang. Nash writes: “there was something inconsolable, something irremediably melancholy about Susanna Cibber.”  (She seems to have had an opposite character to Catherine Clive.) It was with Spranger Barry (another of her partners on stage) in Romeo and Juliet that the lovers are described as “heart-rending.” She would also take virtuous heroines: she was the sorely-tried Aspasia in Johnson’s Irene.

She formed a strong partnership with Garrick (“the least promiscuous, the most conventional of men”); she felt safe with him; they made an effective couple on stage where the chemistry was transparent. Their highly performative letters survive and it is here we see her attempting to persuade Garrick to let her be a partner in the theater management or patent. Eventually she was the winner in her “wars” with Clive; the public stayed with this disgraced woman. Everyone knows how much Garrick did to make and keep Shakespeare’s plays central to the English stage. She was paid altogether an enormous salary while still in good health.


David Garrick, by Thomas Gainsborough

But her last years were marred by her “chronic stomach disorder” which emaciated her towards the end. She had to give up her heavy schedule. She did long for social acceptance by upper class women, be they titled or of the bluestocking variety, and never had it — neither did most actresses of the era. Mrs Siddons was a remarkable exception; so too Frances Abingdon. She never belonged to any group of women, and we find her maintaining close relationships with her family members: her daughter, her sister-in-law, Cecilia Arne (whom her brother mistreated), Sloper’s sister, Margaret Lethieulllier, who defied convention by coming to stay for long visits to West Woodhay.  Sloper and she hoped for much for their son; he was enrolled in Westminster but he died in the first year away in school. They educated Molly lovingly (in manners, musical accomplishments, an educated taste); she married a well-born clergyman, a love match, and was accepted by his community, but she died young, age 46. Susannah probably hoped for something more from her relationship with Garrick, though hard to say what; when he retired from the stage, it was a blow for her — he had regarded stage as having “almost civic importance” and had transformed Drury Lane. James Quinn, one of her strong supporters, died just two weeks before her. She died January 30, 1766, age 51.  She was buried not in Westminster Abbey itself (like Garrick, Anne Oldfield), but in the North Cloister, a sort of anteroom. William Sloper died three years after the death of their daughter. I imagine him lonely after the death of Susannah and his two children by her.

The one final command performance Garrick did before the king his heroine was Susannah Cibber and since the king wanted to see a comedy (and Susannah’s strength was in serious parts), the choice became Vanbrugh’s Provoked Wife. Nash says Susannah had a “passionate fondness” for this role: a young woman “wretchedly married to Sir John Brute, who not only neglects, but loathes and even physically assaults her.” She is “tenderly wooed by Constant,” a discreet, eloquent, patient and faithful lover, and if she is not yet Constant’s mistress when the play closes, the idea is waiting to be fulfilled off-stage. So Lady Brute does not die nor is she reconciled or resigned to her husband. She asks herself: “What did I vow? … I think I swore to be true to my husband. And he promised to be kind to me. But he hasn’t kept his word. Why, then, I’m absolved from mine” (Nash 313-15). I have read this play myself and find the scenes of the husband with his wife, implied mistress, and servants distressing. Susannah could and did play her part with “special animation” and “poignancy.”


Jonathan Slinger and Alexandria Gilbreath as the Brutes (RSC, 2019)

If Jane Austen never got to see either on the stage, she knew of them by their reputations, books, and read the plays they were in.

Ellen

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Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth wife (for the origin and my first adumbration of this perspective: What she said about Tudor queens)

I read history a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all … Catherine Morland, Northanger Abbey, I:14)

Friends and readers,

After all, for my first 2020 blog I have an innovative perspective on Jane Austen’s Juvenilia to share. For the coming JASNA to be held in St Louis, Missouri, in which the topic is to be Jane Austen’s Juvenilia, I sent in a proposal where I said I would demonstrate that in her The History of England, Jane Austen meant to burlesque the norms shaping the way “history, real solemn history” was written in her era, and to include and to defend not just infamous women, but forgotten and underappreciated ones. Her text goes beyond vindicating Mary Queen of Scots, and the Stuart kings and the English house of York, well beyond parodying Oliver Goldsmith’s popular history. She is a partisan defender of women, and places them in her text at every opportunity given, and ostentatiously refuses to make numinous figures out of powerful men.

This is a development from that proposal.


Mary Queen of Scots, contemporary portrait by Federico Zuccai or Alsonso Sanchez Coello


From 2018 Mary Queen of Scots (directed by Rosie Rourke); we see Ismael Cruz Cordova, Maria Dragus, Izuka Hoyle, and Saoirse Ronan as Mary and her ladies and David Rizzo: the most recent image

The effect of Austen’s attitude, tone, details, parody and insistent bringing in of women is to go beyond Tudor and Stuart history as it is usually found in books published in the 18th century: say Robertson’s and Hume’s histories of the Tudor and Stuart period, and what is found in Catherine Macaulay’s Whiggish history. I was going to quote from these works to show the way they are male-dominated, with a perspective that is top down and (ultimately) Big Man history even if the culture and social and economic life of the country is not ignored. This is a little book which should be included in the history of history writing by women.

The startling thing is how Austen surprises even the alert reader by how much she knows about obscurer women and men, and must herself have read in an alienated way, against the grain of her courses to get beyond common bogus distortions. The only cited date is a letter between Anne Boleyn and King Henry: that’s easy, it comes from Goldsmith. But one concise sentence referring to Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth wife, is packed with suggestion: “The King’s last wife contrived to survive him, but with difficulty effected it” (Austen, Juvenilia, Cambridge ed P. Sabor, 181-82). Parr did not just passively luckily outlive the king; she had to actively thwart his attempt to arrest her when her intelligent writing and political and religious views threatened (as Anne Boleyn had done) to go beyond what he meant to do by taking over the Church of England. Yet where can she have learned that Parr actively rescued herself — she is not included in Shakespeare or the better known plays about Perkin Warbeck (by John Ford).


Portrait of Anne Boleyn (1507-London, 1536), Queen of England. Painting by unknown artist, oil on panel, ca 1533-1536


From 2003 The Other Boleyn Girl scripted by Philippa Lowthorpe: Jared Harris and Jodha May as Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn

There is an excellent book on Katherine Parr’s life, reading, writing, intelligence by Linda Porter: Katherine the Queen, which I would have used. Also other good biographies of Renaissance women, of which there are many. Yes it’s true that Austen could not have time-traveled and read this book; rather she has to have read with alertness all the comments, assertions and counter-assertions on Tudor women in the romances and various histories of the era. In her letters in her later years she writes of reading history aloud with Fanny and Cassandra; she would have read the kinds of sources that went into Sophia Lee’s The Recess and later Walter Scott’s The Abbot and Monastery. Austen makes fun of the historical informative impulse in Scott after the publication of Pride and Prejudice, but in this earlier work we see she went for the same kind of material we find referred to offhand by Charlotte Smith and Anne Radcliffe (in her 1794 A Journey Made in the Summer [Germany into Italy was planned). Radcliffe has read astonishingly in the annals of the places she visits. Scott did not write out of a vacuum. It interests me how avid a reader Austen was of Scott, obtaining each volume as it came out (including, she was in time for, The Antiquarian)


Early depiction of Elizabeth Tudor (I) attributed to William Scrots


Glenda Jackson as the young Elizabeth, just come to the throne (1971 BBC serial drama)

A second context for her depiction of women in this young woman’s parodic didactic text will be her letters where she explains why she takes the adamant tone she does when defending a woman. In a letter to Martha Lloyd she remains fiercely on the side of “Poor Woman,” Queen Caroline of Brunswick “because she is a woman & because I hate her husband. She admits Caroline’s flaws but resolves nevertheless “to think that she would have been respectable if the Prince had behaved only tolerably by her at first … “

— I suppose all the World is sitting in Judgement upon the Princess of Wales’s Letter,” Poor Woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband — but I can hardly forgive her for calling herself “attached & affectionate” to a Man whom she must detest — & the intimacy said to subsist between her & Lady Oxford is bad. — I do not know what to do about it; — but if I must give up the Princess, I am resolved at least always to think that she would have been respectable, if the Prince had behaved only tolerably by her at first. —-(Austen’s Letters, ed LeFaye, 4th edition, 16 February 1813, 216-17).

I will argue the attitude of mind here, is one which pays attention to the original perpetrator of abuse, notices how harassment which claims love as its motive is a form of torment that inflicts misery on even unsympathetic women (Elizabeth I, 185-86). I counted no less than 18 women (Catherine, French wife of Henry V; Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI; Joan of Arc; Edward IV’s bethrothed, Bona of Savoy [referred to, not named) and wife, Elizabeth Woodville, his mistress Jane Shore; Richard III’s wife, Anne (whom she denies was murdered by her husband); Henry VII’s wife, Elizabeth of York, his daughter Margaret who married the Scottish James V; five of Henry VIII’s six wives, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Katherine Parr [not named referred to as “the king’s last wife”], Lady Jane Grey, Mary Tudor, Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scot, Anne of Denmark). Some are not named and our narrator frets then that she does not know the woman’s name.

Hers is a history with plenty of women in it. I intended to go over and use the marginalia to Austen’s copy of Goldsmith’s History of England, and the copious notes found in the Cambridge Juvenilia volume edited by Peter Sabor. Austen’s History of England is an exuberant but also richly intertextual work.


From excellent forgotten 1970 Shadow of the Tower (first episode by Rosemary Anne Sisson): James Maxwell as Henry VII and Norma West as Elizabeth of York (also a poet)

I would have used Thomas Penn’s The Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England; here is a YouTube, 15 minutes of an hour long lecture by Penn on the “most notorious invader of England” (he whole available on Amazon Prime) because he had so little right to the throne: Henry Owen Tudor

Finally I proposed to have some fun showing how Austen’s extraordinarily alert iconoclastic stances (as when she treats historical characters in the same way she does fictional ones by showing how she anticipates some of the more interesting film history and adaptations of our own era. I was going to bring in my laptop and show clips from older and recent film history and adaptations of novels set in the Renaissance era.

But my proposal was rejected and so now I’ll not do any of this. What a shame! It is speculation, not evidence. Meant to stir the mind to see Austen in another light as well as her era. Also to be feminist. I could have read part of Elizabeth of York’s (1465-1503) “sestina,” one of the earliest poems in English by a woman (see one of my earliest foremother poet essays):

I pray to Venus

My heart is set upon a lusty pin;
I pray to Venus of good continuance,
For I rejoice the case that I am in,
Deliver’d from sorrow, annex’d to pleasance,
Of all comfort having abundance;
This joy and I, I trust, shall never twin –
My heart is set upon a lusty pin

I pray to Venus of good continuance,
Since she has set me in the way of ease;
My hearty service with my attendance
So to continue it ever I may please;
Thus voiding from all penseful diease,
Now stand I whole far from all grievance –
I pray to Venus of good continuance,

For I rejoice the case that I am in,
My gladness is such that giveth me no pain,
And so to sorrow never shall I blynne,
My heart and I so set ’tis certain
We shall never slake, but ever new begin
For I rejoice the case that I am in,

Deliver’d from sorrow, annex’d to pleasance,
That all my joy I set as aught of right,
To please as after my simple suffisance
To me the goodliest, most beauteous in sight;
A very lantern to all other light,
Most to my comfort on her remembrance–
Deliver’d from sorrow, annex’d to pleasance,

Of all comfort having abundance;
As when I think that goodlihead
Of that most feminine and meek countenance
Very mirror and star of womanhead;
Whose right good fame so large abroad doth spread,
Full glad for me to have recognisance –
Of all comfort having abundance.

This joy and I, I trust, shall never twin –
so that I am so far forth in the trace,
My joys be double where others are but thin,
For I am stably set in such a place
Where beauty ‘creaseth and ever willeth grace,
Which is full famous and born of noble kin–
This joy and I, I trust, shall never twin.

Note the puns.

The JASNA members would have loved this paper. I got the usual hypocrisy over how there were so many applicants and how they had to turn away so many excellent proposals for papers of merit. Papers are also chosen by who is giving the paper and what kinds of people the organizers want, who they are connected to, how they relate to Austen. My hunch is they hardly looked at it. If you tell me it is too learned, I will laugh at you. Much of it a stretch. And meant to be fun. But yes grounded in the era and Austen’s texts and those she liked to read.

Why do I not write it up and send it to Persuasions? the two organizers asked. Ah yes.  Right.  As they well know, because Persuasions prefers papers given at the conference. As my daughter, Izzy, said to me last year when we did not make some final cut to join 800+ at the JASNA in Williamsburg (even though we were quite early in registering online), what do we pay this yearly fee for? She belongs to two organizations, one professional, American Library and another which professes to be a combination of personal interest (fans) and scholars; in both cases your money guarantees you a space at the AGM. I suggested it was the periodical and newsletter.

Ellen

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