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Posts Tagged ‘women’s novels’

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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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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A Bridge Party by Barbara Loftus (1995?)


From A Woman in Berlin (Anonyma), Nina Hoss, Evgeniy Sidikhin, Irm Hermann (German, Max Färberböck 2008)

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at American University
Day: Ten Mondays, 11:45 to 1:15 pm,
March 1 to May 3
4400 Massachusetts Ave, NW. Washington DC, but conducted online via zoom

Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course: 20th Century Women’s Political Novels

We’ll travel across 20th century wars, politics, and social life in fiction and memoir: Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September (1929), about an Anglo-Irish household during the 1920s civil wars; Olivia Manning’s The Great Fortune (1960), on the fascist take-over of Rumania in 1939; Lillian Hellman’s Scoundrel Time (1975), her experience paranoic McCarthy era, 1950s USA; and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970), African-American experiences of life in early to mid-century America. We’ll learn of the authors; the woman’s perspective on earlier and today’s era. There are numerous excellent films which connect directly to these books; I cite a number (below) that people may profit from by watching on their own: of these, two are film adaptations of our books:  1999 Deborah Warner’s adaptation, The Last September; 1987 the first two hours of Alan Plater & Cellan Jones BBC serial film adaptation of Manning’s Balkan Trilogy titled The Fortunes of War.

Required books (in the order we’ll read them):

Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September. Anchor, 2000 978-0-386-72014-4.

Olivia Manning, The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City (the 1st & 2nd of the 3 novels called The Balkan Trilogy) available separately, but I have them in the more much more frequently printed The Balkan Trilogy. Penguin 1974. You get three for what you pay and the novels become more brilliant as they go on. The URL for this older print is 0-14-010996-X. The trilogy has been recently reprinted with the dual Title, The Fortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy, introd. by Rachel Cusk. Penguin, 2010. 978-1-59017331-1. Both printings have the same pagination for the text.

Lillian Hellman. Scoundrel Time, introd Garry Wills. Little, Brown 1976. This same edition is available reprinted in 2000. The old URL is 0-316-35294.

Toni Morrison. The Bluest Eye. Vintage, 1970. 978-0-307-27844-9.


Bowen’s Court, now pulled down

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

March 1 Introduction: A kind of novel, historical as well as political & about war; when written by women; 4 era. Using film. Contrasting memoirs & fantasy dystopias: Marta Hiller’s A Woman in Berlin (gang-rape); Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (nursing); Virginia Woolf, Storm Jameson, Naomi Mitchison (polemicists, home front stories). Elizabeth Bowen’s life, oeuvre. Irish War of Independence and Civil War

March 8 Elizabeth Bowen’s life and writing. Bowen’s The Last September

March 15 The Last September. The Two Bowen films. Fascism, fascist take over of Romania.

March 22 Olivia Manning’s life, oeuvre. More on women’s writing about war. Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.

March 29 The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City. Other women writers at war, at the end of the empire

April 5 1987 BBC Serial, The Fortunes of War Lillian Hellman, with something of Dashiell Hammett. Their careers.

April 12 Her memoirs, Scoundrel Time. Something of her plays. Movies available: Watch on the Rhine, The Little Foxes.

April 19 Julia? Black history in the US; Black authors; Toni Morrison’s life & career. The Bluest Eye.

April 26 The Bluest Eye. Her later novels & books. The African diaspora

May 3 The Pieces that I Am. Women’s 20th century historical & mystery/spy novels.


Guy and Harriet Pringle (Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson) with Prince Yakimov (Ronald Pickup) in the Pringle Flat (Fortunes of War, end episode)


From Julia, Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda) and Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards) going over Autumn Garden (1977)

Suggested Films:

The Heat of the Day. Dir Christopher Morahan. Script: Harold Pinter. Perf. Michael Gambon, Patricia Hodge, Michael York &c. 1989. Available as DVD to rent, buy from Amazon, and as a whole on YouTube.
The Last September. Dir. Deborah Warren. Script: John Banville. Perf. Fiona Shaw, Keeley Hawes, David Tennant, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, &c. 1999. Available as DVD from Netflix or to buy on Amazon. Also found on YouTube in 10 minute segments.
The Little Foxes. Dr William Wyler. Script: Lillian Helmann. Perf. Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, Teresa Wright &c MGM, 1941. Amazon prime. DVD to buy.
The Fortunes of War. Dir. John Cellan Jones. Script: Alan Plater. Perf. Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Ronald Pickup, Alan Bennet, Rupert Graves &c. 1987. Right now available as a DVD Region 2 to buy and on YouTube in 7 segments.
Michael Collins. Dir. Script. Neil Jordan. Perf. Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman, Julia Roberts. 1996. Available on Amazon Prime, as a DVD on Netflix to rent and on Amazon as a DVD to buy. As a DVD it comes with a documentary by Melvyn Bragg, very much worth the watching.
Watch on the Rhine. Dir. Herman Shulmin. Script: Hellman and Hammett. Perf. Bette Davis, Paul Lukas, Lucile Watson, Donald Woods &c 1943 Warner Bros. Amazon Prime and a DVD to buy.
Julia. Dir. Fred Zinnemann. Script: Hellman and Alvin Sergeant. Perf. Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Jason Robarts, Maximillian Schell, Meryl Strep &c 1977 20thC Fox. DVD to buy or to rent on Netflix. Also complete on YouTube
Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Dir. Jonathan Miller. Perf Benjamin Whitlow, Charles Gray, Anton Lesser, Suzanne Burden &c. BBC, 1981. DVD to rent from Netflix, available as (scarce) DVD.
The Pieces that I am. Dir. Timothy Greenfield-Saunders. Perf. Toni Morrison, Hilton Als, Ophrah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Walter Moseley &c 2019 Perfect Day Films. Amazon Prime, DVD on Netflix or to buy.


Lillian Hellman, 1947, Photograph by Irving Penn

Suggested Outside Reading:

Austenfeld, Thomas Carl. American Women Writers and the Nazis: Ethics & Politics in Boyle, Porter, Stafford and Hellman. University of Va, 2001.
Bowen, Elizabeth. Collected Impressions. NY: Knopft, 1950.
Caute, David. The Great Fear: The Anti-communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower. NY: Simon and Shuster, 1978.
David, Deirdre. Olivia Manning: A Woman at War. Oxford UP, 2012.
Foster, R.F. Paddy and Mr Punch: Connections in Irish and English History. London, Penguin, 1993.
Glendinning, Victoria. Elizabeth Bowen: A Biography. NY: Knopft, 1977.
Johnson, Diane. Dashiell Hammett: A Life. NY: Random House, 1983.
Lee, Hermione. Elizabeth Bowen: An Estimation. London: Vintage, 1999.
Kessler-Harris, Alice. Lillian Hellman: A Difficult Woman. NY: Bloomsbury Press, 2012
Lassner, Phyllis; British Women Writers of World War II. London: Palgrave, 1998; Colonial Strangers: Women Writing the End of Empire. NJ: Rutgers, 2004.
O’Reilly, Andrea. Toni Morrison and Motherhood: A Politics of the Heart. State University of NY, 2004
Martinson, Deborah. Lillian Hellman: A Life with Foxes and Scoundrels. NY: Counterpoint, Perseus Books Group, 2005.
Patten, Eve. Imperial Refugee: Olivia Manning’s Fictions of War. Cork UP, 2011.
Roymon, Tessa. The Cambridge Introduction to Toni Morrison. Cambridge UP, 2012.
Staley, Thomas. Twentieth Century Women Novelists. Barnes & Noble, 1982.
Theweleit, Klaus. Male Fantasies, trans from German by Stephen Conway. 2 volumes. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1987. A study of fascism.


A recent photo, from The Pieces That I am

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From the first Christmas special in Downton Abbey, Maggie Smith as the Dowager Duchess, another old lady (from Downton Abbey, Christmas special closing Season 2, referred to below)

Friends and readers,

For this Christmas, I thought I’d share a Victorian ghost story for Christmas (that’s what they characteristically wrote most often for Christmas, ghost stories), happily even now still on line, and then offer a reading of it, which (I think) shows she is replying to Dickens’s still famous Christmas Carol.


A contemporary illustration that accompanied Oliphant’s fine late gothic ghost (self-reflexive), “The Library Window.”

So now first you must read the story: gentle friends, it is not overlong at all: “Old Lady Mary”, one of Margaret Oliphant’s remarkable Tales of the Seen and the Unseen.

And now what it means, or how I read it:

Upon my first reading:

In brief a very old lady, ‘Old Lady Mary’, who is very rich and alone, takes the daughter of a distant cousin, nearly a child, young Mary, or Mary, who is without anyone else to turn to, into her house. She is all that can be loving and tender and good to the child as she brings her up. She is then told that she must make a will out which will leave her money to young Mary, but cannot get herself to do it. She must make some provision for this girl whom she has nurtured to become a lady without skills in any marketplace. But Old Lady Mary cannot face the reality she will die, has always herself been because of her wealth sheltered. (Like Austen’s Mr Woodhouse in Emma). Lady Mary also resents advice, and avoids the lawyers by playfulness. But contradictorily, because she loves the girl and knows how destitute the girl will be, writes a codicil, leaving everything to young Mary, but she hides it away.

She dies, and the young girl is left desolate.

The story proper begins here, and we are taken through the young Mary’s fear when her aunt dies, her sense of emotional loss, her humiliations at the hands of the family who take over Lady Mary, her guardian’s house. They don’t mean to hurt her, but they put her in her place. Mary is now their servant. Now at the very end of the story we are told it was finally found, but that is put last, a sort of coda, not part of story proper, as if what will ruin it and is not important! What’s important is the story as told from the point of view of Old Lady Mary after she has died — when she is a ghost, trying to make contact and reparation, so very anxious to make contact, and finding, alas, retrieval of the basic  situation seems impossible; it is too late. Her presence is felt but the human beings act towards her frivolously, foolishly. Ghosts make them uncomfortable, especially restless ones


Cover illustration to a volume titled Restless Spirits: John A. Williams for Mary Heaton Vorse, “The Second Wife” (1912)

For Old Lady Mary is desperate to make contact with the young Mary. She also wants more than emotional catharsis, forgiveness, and release. She wants to help her adopted child. (Think Tiny Tim.) She wants more than to compensate; she wants to retrieve, to make up for past mistakes, and finds she cannot make genuine contact. She has convinced herself her attempts, what she did was unselfish because there’s the codicil to be found and then the young Mary will own the house where she is now a servant. But she has to recognize not so.  Ghosts are laughed at or make people nervous. Their paraphernalia is absurd. Who takes knocks and dragging sounds seriously?

For me reading this Dickens’s A Christmas Carol leaps to mind. Scrooge retrieves so much via the enigmatic and silent ghosts. Like Gaskell (Trollope too), Oliphant while so admiring of Dickens, saw his flaws. Time cannot be retrieved, what we were, we still are.  What happened, happened.  The past is not suddenly to be undone.  Oliphant also has some fun gently mocking the way ghosts are treated in stories. Her story is done from the ghost’s POV.  The curious effect of this is to make us believe in Lady Mary as a ghost; to take her seriously.  Her tales of the seen and unseen are not for people who want titillation or reassurance.

The climax of the story is in a obscure but precisely described vision that comes to Mary. From all her troubles and the disquiet and upset brought on by Lady Mary’s efforts themselves (presented as comic), the young Mary grows ill, and, as in a dream, for a split second, thinks she sees Lady Mary who thinks she is seen. In that moment the girl holds out her hand and Lady Mary feels she has been forgiven. After all Old Lady Mary then feels she needs no nothing more. That’s it. At the same time we get a sense the young Mary and the old Lady Mary were face to face. But we are not sure. It might just be in the ghost’s mind! Young Mary never fully explains what she feels because people would laugh, and she’s not sure what she saw though she did from the beginning forgive & never hated her ex-guardian. She was taught by the old lady not to expect much. Mary is our modest Victorian heroine. Fanny Price, Jane Eyre, sans the rage. I ask my 2020 readers is not this more sophisticated and true to life than A Christmas Carol?

The last line of the story proper (as told by the ghost) is enigmatic: ‘Everything is included in pardon and love’. And then that sort of coda by an impersonal narrator which I told you about.

It’s very delicately done. All the wintry imagery. Scenes of snow, of darkness, ice abound. Early in the story there’s a remarkable moment in Lady Mary’s consciousness when she realizes she is dead. To me there is something in this which refuses the sentimentality of most ghost stories. One reason Oliphant’s ghost stories are so powerful is they are hard — her Beleaguered City reminds me of Camus’s La Peste. Whatever her religious beliefs were, Oliphant was not complacent about what if anything lies behind that “Open Door” (the title of another of her powerful ghost stories), this one taking place in Scotland. These stories might be said to belong to Scots gothic traditions.

As we all know, the ghosts make contact with Scrooge, and he retrieves himself, and is re-formed and the story ends in forgiveness and love. What we may not know is A Christmas Carol is highly unusual ghost story in that the ghosts are ultimately benevolent in purpose. It’s a comforting parable. In comparison, “Old Lady Mary” offers no certainty, and no sense of justice. The codicil is found by chance, and almost not found in that coda. We are also not told much about what happens afterwards except now the ghost appears no more to young Mary. Old Lady Mary can go wherever or rest wherever because she is satisfied with her illusion of contact. We assume things get better for young Mary, but don’t know for sure. But most ghost stories are mischievous, the ghosts malevolent, people who had nothing to do with the original evil act, are often shattered, they are Kafkaesque.

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

Several years later:  I offer a qualification after trying to teach it to students and listening to their readings and replies:


The Lost Ghost, from a modern volume imitating Edwardian illustrations

The students wanted some redemption or hope beyond the idea young Mary will inherit enough.  They said there is a kind of general accounting: Old Lady Mary does not get to reach out to her niece directly, cannot have the satisfaction for sure which she is reaching out for soon after the tale opens. So the ghost is taught a lesson as are we the readers.  She could have had while they were still living the girl understand she was sorry for the way she made out her will; had she said something before dying perhaps somehow the girl would have guessed  the ghost was pointing to where the will was and the will would have been found quickly.  Plus it does happen that there is  understanding and forgiveness in the ambiguous encounter. Me to students: the final events are left ambiguous. We do not know for sure that the girl got the money she so desperately needed, but I will agree that enough is put before us to assume so.  Perhaps it was perverse of me  not to admit  this possibility …

Nonetheless, I was more than ever persuaded Oliphant had typical Dickens’ and probably other Christmas season texts in mind where all is made up for in a gush of end-of-story forgetfulness. She felt real life experience and whatever was beyond was not being taken seriously enough.

Again we have a heroine’s text in effect and this l’ecriture-femme, with its circular structure and ending. Much of the story is spent in Lady Mary as a ghost’s mind — that alone is very unusual. “Old Lady Mary” is even more unusual than Trollope’s “Christmas at Thompson Hall” — in that almost all ghost stories, we are not permitted to get close to the ghost. They are kept at a distance. Again, they are mostly scary, malevolent, Kafka-esque figures. Dickens’s benign ghosts are a high rarity. The intensely benign aim of ghost Lady Mary’s efforts is as rare. And to show us the ghost failing to reach, her grief, clumsiness, how these ambiguous wispy signals are the ghost trying is startling.  Margaret Oliphant did believe in ghosts — she imagined them as carrying over human emotions to this new supernatural state — rather like Dante whom her “Land of Darkness,”  another tale of the “seen and unseen” alludes to.


Games with the Planchette: Thomas barrow, footman (Robert James Collier), Mrs Patmore, cook (Leslie Nicol), Miss O’Brien, lady’s maid (Siobhan Finneran), Marigold Shore (Sharon Small, planted mistress of a guest male aristocrat (from Christmas special, 2nd season, Downton Abbey)


Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) to Daisy (Sophie McShea): Well I don’t believe they play boardgames … ”

Of course this could be fodder for a spiritual medium. To my mind this might show us how Oliphant understood the absurdity of what happens at seances. My outstanding favorite line from Downton Abbey occurs when the housekeeper speaks wryly to Daisy,  the kitchen maid’s question, “Don’t you believe in spirits?” that she does not believe they play board-games.

Oliphant was a firm believer in the afterlife. I should stress that. These are not the kinds of ghost stories where the story is strictly speaking a metaphor. In Oliphant’s case her husband, both sons, nephew and a niece all pre-deceased her. To believe they carried on elsewhere was apparently one way she could endure her raw grief and continual sense of desperate loss.

I found it a more moving story than I did the first time. I now think it’s a kind of twin to “Christmas at Thompson Hall” (see also Lucia Constanza’s talk), which I see as a tale of comic but intense social anguish, in the couple of ways I’ve suggested – a riposte to the over-expectations that this yearly ritual can inflict on people.


John Millais, “Christmas Story-Telling,” “Christmas Supplement,” London News, 20 December 1862

Ellen

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The three covers before the TV series began

I woke to the patter of rain on canvas, with the feel of my first husband’s kiss on my lips. I blinked, disoriented, and by reflex put my fingers to my mouth. To keep the feeling, or to hide it? I wondered, even as I did so.
Jamie stirred and murmured in his sleep next to me, his movement rousing a fresh wave of scent from the cedar branches under our bottom quilt. Perhaps the ghost’s passing had disturbed him …

Dear Friends and readers,

As I’ve done before, although I’ve been blogging on the fifth Outlander book, The Fiery Cross, and the fifth TV series season, on my Ellen and Jim have a blog, two site because the series is just as much, perhaps more a creation of male film-makers (by which I mean everyone involved) as female, I want also to link in my review-essays here — the historical fictions are all of them very much women’s historical-romance fiction, and many of the directors, writers, producers are women, to say nothing of the brilliant actresses. It’s  also set in 18th century North Carolina.

I wrote four. One comparing the book and film season against one another and then in the context of the previous 4 books and seasons:


Ulysses’ story is much changed in the series; that’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded Jamie is bringing Ulysses to read (Ep 11)

Season 5: The Fiery Cross transposed and transformed

Then a second on Episodes 1-5 and a third on Episodes 6-11:


Claire’s over-voice narration binds together the 5th episode which moves back and forth from the 18th century to the 20th (Ep 5)

Outlander, Season 5: Episodes 1-15, Her Stories


Brianna and Claire walking by the ocean (Ep 10)

Outlander, Season 5: Episodes 6-11, Women’s Realm (birthing, birth control, breast-feeding &c); again anti-war, father-son-friendship Bonding

A fifth and last on the astonishingly good last (12).

Outlander, Season 5: Episode 12: The Rape of Claire


Claire’s dream: her beloved 18th century family & friends transposed to the apparent safety of the 20th century (Ep 12)

As I like to provide more than the links when I do these handy lists (I’ve done this kind of cross-blogging for Poldark, Wolf Hall, and a few other film series, let me add that beyond Gabaldon’s two Outlandish Companions (books 1-4, then 5-8), and the two books of The Making of Outlander type (Seasons 11 2; the Seasons 3-4), I’ve used for all my blogs since the first season began and I started to write about the books; wonderfully interesting and well written books of essays and encyclopedia like articles edited by Valerie Estelle Frankel: Adoring Outlander: fandom, genre, the female audience (just the first book, also called Cross-Stitch and first season); Outlander’s Sassenachs: gender, race, orientation and the other in novels 1-5 & TV, seasons 1-5) and written by her alone: The Symbolism and Sources: Scottish Fairies, Folklore, Ballads, Magic and Meaning, not to omit why the titles, covers &, up to book 5)


This covers the titles and covers of the books too

Ellen

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

Winter. Blackout.

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

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

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

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

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

Friends and readers,

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


Sissinghurst Gardens

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


Janet McTeer (Portrait of a Marriage)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

From Winter once again

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

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

Nocturne:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Catherine (Felicity Jones) and Isabella Thorpe (Carey Mulligan) in the circulating library at Bath (2008 NA, scripted Andrew Davies


Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) arriving near the sunny beach in Sanditon (2019 Sanditon, scripted by Andrew Davies, among others)

I would bring together Janet Todd’s talk and Georgina Newton’s to suggest that it is a sort of betrayal on Austen’s part to erase all details of books she read, and plays she went to, and not make any of her heroines serious readers or writers. I wish there were a heroine somewhere in her oeuvre who ends up happily without marriage. We will not have such heroines until the mid-20th century.

Friends and readers.

There is a sliver of a silver lining to this frightening pandemic and its necessary quarantining, many lectures and talks many could never reach, virtual conferences, plays operas concerts are turning up on-line. I’ve told how enjoyable I found the Chawton House Lockdown Literary Festival (Part One, Part Two). Chawton House has gone on to set up further talks over the summer, and this past week Jane Todd gave a quietly suggestive talk on Sanditon and Northanger Abbey: A Shared Pen, aka “On her first and last novel.” I spent a wonderful week in Bath in 2002, but never had time or occasion to go to one of the regular talks on Austen that occur there; this weekend the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute sponsored a second talk (I missed the first) on Jane Austen’s feminism and how it relates to girls today on-line. As the presenter said, hitherto they would get a small number of people who lived in and around Bath or made it their business to come from not too far off UK; now they had people a zoom session from literally around the world.

I took notes on both and am glad to record what was said for my memory’s sake and share what I remember for others who are interested. Remember my hands can no longer taken down stenography in the precise way and with the quickness I once did, so these summaries and comments are meant to be only suggestive, the gist of what was said. Both were thoughtful, stimulating talks

Janet Todd: Her first and her last, Northanger Abbey and Sanditon.

Prof Todd began by saying it’s not clear that NA is finished (see my calendar) and Sanditon is an unfinished fragment (no precise calendar is possible).

Austen, she felt, puts all her novels into dialogues with one another: S&S with P&P, the title shows a clear pair; MP with Emma), and the sister-Bath books, NA and Persuasion. Then we have heroines teasing each other across the volumes, themes and types contrasting and paralleling, with heroines within the novels further patterned. Northanger Abbey is far fuller than Sanditon, but Austen was not satisfied with it in 1816 when she put Miss Catherine “on the shelf” and felt she might not take it off again. I add Austen in her letters has a way of identifying a novel with its chief heroine as she sometimes refers to the novel by the heroine’s name.

First of NA draft began in 1794; she returned to it and wrote full length book after or during her second Bath visit of 1797-98. Coming to live in Bath, she starts writing in 1802, and sends it to Crosby to publish as Susan in 1803. It may have taken her a while to realize the book was not coming out from this man’s press. So in 1809 they are moving to Chawton, and she wants to procure ms of Susan to work on it; sneered at by his son, she does not pay the £10 asked back. In a preface written in 1813 she worried parts of this book had become obsolete. She had much admired Burney’s Camilla, mentioned in extant NA, and the heroine finds a copy in a bookshop lending books in ,Sanditon 1817.

Todd also felt Austen revised her manuscripts continually (I agree), and that they all had far more literary allusion and specifics than they had when published. These were pruned away in all but NA and Sanditon. They all also seemed to have had names which connected them to her family, to Austen’s life: The Watsons was The Younger. Well Sanditon was The Brothers. We may imagine (from the dates on the calenders and extant manuscripts) that Sanditon was written not long after Emma, which had been followed by a revision of NA as a similarly satiric text (heroine a romancer). I suspect (Todd did not say this) that Persuasion existed in some draft form earlier on, as that would be the only way to account for its extraordinary depth and suggestive detail (squeezed in between NA and Sanditon). Henry Austen said all her novels were gradual performances.


Henry Tilney (J.J. Feilds) dancing with Catherine at their first ball together


Sidney Parker (Theo James) meeting Charlotte at their first ball together

Some strong over-lappings: Both NA and Sanditon are rich in material items. We have a common sense heroine with parents who say put and are sensible prudent people (contrast the Bennets who are not). The Haywoods and Morlands economize; they have dowries for their daughters, the Morlands a sizable sum to set James up with. They are both off places associated with holiday and fanciful time: an Abbey, a spa town. If it was Henry who gave NA its name; it is a tale of a place, and ditto for James Edward Austen-Leigh’s naming of Sanditon (if he did name it) There is in both a comical sense of adventure; there is no abduction in Austen (though there is one in Marie Dobbs, and also now in Andrew Davies’s TV series, of Miss Georgina Lambe). Davies makes Sidney into useless guardian for Miss Lamb, but from what we are told of Sidney in Austen, it seems that he may have the same kind of slightly jaundiced witty, a teacher. Inadequate chaperons for both heroines in both books.

Some differences, with other novels brought in: Charlotte & Catherine have good hearts and thinking minds, but after that they differ. Catherine is the butt of the NA narrator, at times the naif and does not satirize others; by contrast, Charlotte is capable of he ironic put down, but gives people want they want, supports nutty people with a quietly thinking satiric voice. Austen wants us to take Charlotte’s presence seriously throughout; for Catherine, she is mocked in the first chapter of NA, a heroine device and we are back to that in the penultimate chapter. In Sanditon it’s Charlotte who keeps seeing Clara Brereton as a sentimental victim-heroine type, while Catherine has to be prodded by Isabella into seeing Isabella or the Tilneys into romance figures. Emma, on the other hand, has dangerous ideas about Jane Fairfax (dangerous for Jane) Todd felt that Emma protested too much how comfortable she was seeing so little from her window, while Charlotte is a realist. She does not need to read books to calm her mind the way (say) Anne Elliot does

In all Austen’s novels she works up anxiety for heroine; nasty domineering older woman throughout the fiction is still seen in Sanditon. (I suggest that Mrs Elton is an upstart younger version of this kind of bully.)

I felt that Prof Todd was most interested in showing that Austen is aware that fiction is an interpretive tool; the misreadings of reality by many of her characters bring out a core of rottenness at the heart of this society. I thought she was interested in the alienated eye in the books (sometimes the heroine’s, sometimes from other characters, e.g., Mr Bennet, sometimes Mr Knightley, Mr Darcy, more ironically Henry Tilney (who allows his sister to be left lonely and bullied). There is no one to over-ride the heroines in some of the books; Elizabeth Bennet, Elinor Dashwood, Jane Fairfax (however weak her position), Anne Eliot. The narrative voice is important here. Intrusive in NA. She pointed out how at the end of NA, Mrs Tilney is a felt ghost (I feel that is true of Lady Eliot). So there some things do turn into the tragic.

Todd saw hardly any darkness in Austen’s vision in these books (or across the whole of Austen’s vision). I cannot agree and think there are enough intelligent characters dissatisfied with their lot, and these reflect Austen herself. Remember the Juvenilia. Remember the anguish several of her heroines experience, how much chance is made to be on their side.  I am of the D.W. Harding school, and he has had many critics and readers like myself. Austen had limited material to work with, the conventions of the realistic novel. Only by these could she justify what she was doing to her family. Remember how worried she was about their approval, and how dependent she was on that for publication and the family for an allowance.  Lady Susan remained unpublished; The Watsons was left in a strangely high polished state for the 1st volume; how two of the published novels are not truly finished (NA and Persuasion). That Austen lost her fight with time and illness.

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Darcy (Colin Firth) meeting Elizabeth Jennifer Ehle) and Mr and Mrs Gardner at Pemberley, he greets them as equals (1995 P&P, scripted Andrew Davies)


Edmund Bertam (Nicholas Farrell) consulting Fanny (Sylvestre Le Tousel), an equal relationship from the beginning (1983 MP, scripted Ken Taylor)

While Janet Todd is a well-established scholar and professor, with many books and articles, an editor of important volumes, retired head of Cavendish College, Cambridge; Georgina Newton is a younger scholar, finished her Ph.D not long ago, with her specialty more sociological, and works as a university lecturer and primary school teacher. She is interested in the education of girls from poorer backgrounds. What she has seen in life makes her passionate to help them. Her Ph.D. consisted of studying working class girls and girlhood, looking at how they imagine their future. She discovered they have a feminist tone and attitudes but don’t know how to articulate their desire, how to vocalize their criticism of their place and given futures in society. What she did was divide Austen’s novels as a group into broad themes and look to see how these girls related to what is found in Austen.

First Ms Newton discussed Austen’s novels seen as a comment on society. Austen was once seen as wholly conservative; since the 1970s some see that she challenges partriarchal structures. Some of her heroines attempt to take charge of their own world. That is seen as feminist by girls today. Life today for girls is a battle with obstacles including class, rank, money, their roles as mothers, sisters, wives, daughters. What choices are they given. In books there was a limitation on what a woman could write. Ms Newton did her research from a socialist feminist perspective, and sees Austen as having a limited subject matter and personal experience. She shows us the restrictions of women’s lives; we see how confined they are, hemmed in, put into the interior of a home. The male goes out far more freely into the world of public work. The girls she studied (asked questions of) fully expected to make sacrifices to be able to do work commensurate with their education. They do not like that they cannot or it is hard to fulfill their personal goals; they don’t like the situation and yet accept it.


Emma (Kate Beckinsale) painting Harriet (Samantha Morton) (1996, scripted Andrew Davies) — Emma a book susceptible of lesbian reading, is relentlessly made heteronormative

Then heteronormative marriage is a key theme for Austen’s books, knitting everything together. Marriage gave the man almost total power over his wife, he could abuse her, take away her children, isolate, imprison her. The choice a woman was given was who to marry, the pressure hidden but ever there. In P&P it’s not that the man needs a wife, but a woman needs a husband. MP Lady Bertram got a far better prize than her dowry merited (ironic openings). Girls 12-13 will deny they are interested in boys; they say they want an education, to get a job before marriage. Marriage has still the fantasy element Beauvoir discussed; the man will take care of you. They could be scathing towards individual boys, bu they assume he will support them when they have children. Yet they seek independence.

The seeking of equal relationships in Austen and her heroines. Elizabeth is looking for a equal partner. This idea is found in Wollstonecraft. Not just equal in their relationship as people, but commanding respect, responsibility. Girls did not want to be “stay-at-home” “mums,” but do something for and by themselves. The girls she was with often talked about their parents’ relationship. Some girls said the father and mother juggled care for the children together; others became cross about how a father or brother left the women in the family to do the work needed at home.

The virgin/whore dichotomy still operative in Austen’s world.  This binary still forms typology; the girls were quite critical of one another or themselves for behaving in an open sexually inviting manner; they dress to escape blame. Ms. Newton did not say this but look at how Lydia Bennet, the two Eliza Williamses, when Jane Fairfax is clandestinely engaged, when Maria Bertram runs away, at the scorn for Isabella Thorpe when betrayed by Captain Tilney — how these characters are treated.


Where Elinor Dashwood (Emma Thompson) tells Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant) that men can work for a living, women are not allowed (1995 S&S, scripted Emma Thompson)

Economic Power in Austen. Men can get jobs, rise in the world through their work; women are impotent. Emma Thompson’s script for S&S brings this out. Only by marrying can a woman move up in the world. Women today make 24% less at similar jobs (she said). The girls were very aware of this economic inequality, and saw the lower salary and positions as defining the limits of what they can do – on top of the sacrifice for those at home.


Colonel Brandon (here David Morrisey) given much authority, respect in S&S (2008, scripted by Andrew Davies)


Wentworth (Ciarhan Hinds) talking to his sister, Sophia Crofts (Fiona Shaw) who challenged on his authority (1995 Persuasion, scripted Nick Dear)

Figures of authority in Austen. Very few authority figures given real respect are women. Women left out of history (NA), literally confined, small spaces and given no or miseducation. Anne Eliot talked of how at home they are preyed upon by their inward selves. Space is provided by a man, and women must accommodate themselves to what he can make or decides. Here they talked of how femininity is a public performance, to be “lady-like” or respectably feminine is the default setting. The girls said it mattered how society saw them; they were angry at the injustice of having to play these roles. Patriarchal structure continues in Austen and men as figures of authority. The girls had felt the experience of being subject to men or seeing women subject to men. Catherine de Bourgh is powerful but within the domestic home and over what patronage she inherited from her husband.

In general, the teenage girls she studied spent a lot of time talking about what makes a strong woman and the finale in books & movies where she is nonetheless married off to a man at the end. They saw that women with the least rank and money had the least economic power unless they marry a powerful man then and now. Marriage nonetheless assumed, heterosexuality assumed in Austen and their spoken lives. Newton suggested that in the 1970s an important theme, an attempt was made to enable women to support other women. Austen offers us a shrewd take on women’s worlds, a world not that far from ours in some essentials. Sisterhood a powerful theme through Austen – what women owe other women. She ended on the thought she had never expected the girls she studied to be as feminist as they were, and to read Austen with them in these ways brings out wonderful insights.

Some thoughts: I did feel there was condescension in some of what Ms Newton said, that she was too aware the girls were “working class” and she “upper middle” as constituting this big difference between her and them. “Their” statements/attitudes show how they are under terrific pressure to marry and to have children. Perhaps Ms Newton is too. We know what huge obstacles these acts will make if they want to have a thorough education and succeed in a job outside their homes. She might have emphasized that more. That Austen does not see marriage and family in that light because Austen sees no opportunity to “get out there” in the first place. That there are other ways of gaining fulfillment — individual self-cultivation (as we see glimpsingly in Lady Russell).

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I would bring together Janet Todd’s talk and Georgina Newton’s to suggest that it is a sort of betrayal on Austen’s part to erase all details of books she read, and plays she went to, and not make any of her heroines serious readers or writers. It is painful how she makes her one reading girl, Mary Bennet, a fool and plain to boot (as if that were why a girl might read a good deal of the time).  I wish there were a heroine somewhere in Austen’s oeuvre who ends up happily without marriage. We will not have such heroines until the mid-20th century.


A rare sympathetic portrayal of Mary Bennet (Tessa Peake Jones) is found in Fay Weldon’s 1979 BBC P&P

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Both sessions had a question and answer period. In the case of Janet Todd, it was a zoom meeting and there was real conversation. People knew or recognized one another. Alas, I had to leave early. I had so appreciated the quiet tone, the measured delivery of the talk but there is no way to convey that so I say it here. At the Bath Institute, the mode was to read aloud the Q&A in chat, with occasionally people voicing their comments or questions. Everyone seemed lively and interested; they were many more observations than there was time for. I can’t remember any to be as feminist as the working class girls Georgina Newton interviewed.

But there will be other sessions this summer from both institutions. I’ll add to that if you donated to Chawton House during the Lockdown festival, you were given a chance to re-see and re-listen to Todd as often as you like until it’s pulled down.  The Bath Institute had trouble with its zoom and everyone who paid for a ticket can now re-see it on the site for a while.

Ellen

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Drawing Room at John Murray, 50 Albemarle Street, London


Bee Rowlatt, Dear Mary, In Search of Mary Wollstonecraft

Dear friends and readers,

I continue my account of the talks and interviews variously recorded at the Chawton House Lockdown Literary Festival last weekend. We’ve covered Friday and half of Saturday, May 15th and 16th; today we’ll have the second part of Saturday and Sunday, the 16th through 17th.

I have a new observation to apply to all the proceedings: as I watched and listened I began to notice that almost all the women (all the speakers but two were women) had remarkably similar backdrops. At first, the tasteful cream-white room with its bookcase on one side, perhaps a window on the other seemed real, but a while, it could not be that all the people would be in a room with a bookcase to the side, all the rooms of a light creamy-white.

What fools you at first is they are not exactly alike. Some women seemed to be sitting and looking down at notes from time to time; others seemed to be standing up. Some people didn’t have it — Caroline Jane Knight didn’t — she came across appealingly in the way upper class Brits know how – she can tell seemingly charming/frank stories of this house as she grew up in it, and perhaps it was thought more piquant to give her as background a room in Chawton House; Devoney Looser didn’t conform either. But most did.

I now also add the titles of fiction and a brief description of one of the talks about fiction that were part of this festival in the comments to this blog — as I can see people are reading these blogs.

I began with Alison Daniells, whose YouTube went on line at 3 pm British summer time. She talked of Elizabeth Knight, who, very unusually for a woman, owned Chawton House and the surrounding properties in the earlier 18th century. She was not the elderly Knight woman who was kind to Jane Austen, but an ancestress (1674-1737) who, unlike most women at the time, inherited a vast property and its income. Despite the law of coverture (explained by Daniells) and primogeniture, sometimes a woman could end up owning a family’s property – basically when there were no direct sons or sons-in-law and when there was no entail put on the property (as became popular in the later 18th century).

We were told of Knight’s two marriages and then her pro-active behavior on behalf of controlling her property, doing with it as she wanted, and also exercising a right to vote. Apparently a woman could vote in some circumstances in the later part of the 17th and early 18th century.


Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) by John Opie

Louisa Albani. 5:00 pm British summer time, is an artist who created a short video where she expressed through visual pictures Mary Wollstonecraft’s experience of Paris and during a visit to Versailles in 1792. She was directly followed by Bee Rowlatt, interviewed by Clio O’Sullivan.

Rowlatt has written imitation of Richard Holmes (who literally followed in the footsteps of his biographical subjects in a book called Footsteps): In Search of Mary Wollstonecraft Rowlatt tells of her trip following Wollstonecraft as Wollstonecraft reports in her brilliant travel book, Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Rowlatt did some research (though she said that was not her emphasis) and her book includes why Mary was there –- not clearly told in the superb, melancholy, and picturesque book; Mary was working for her ex-lover, Gilbert Imlay. American, then smuggling silver and goods stolen perhaps from aristocrats. She had had a baby by him, which baby she took with her, and also a maid (whose name is never mentioned). She had tried to kill herself when Imlay left her and her baby, took up with another mistress and resumed his amoral peripatetic existence. She was partly trying to maintain contact with him, but also trying to build a new life for herself, to rescue a relationship, and to explore Scandinavia, which Rowlatt did too and describes. Mary never found the silver (which had, ironically justly) been in turn stolen; the captain won a legal battle in court. Imlay was also smuggling arms out of Paris – working all ends this unscrupulous man.

Rowlatt read aloud some of the beautiful pieces of peaceful description in the book. Mary did recover her health. Rowlatt talked of Godwin’s biography, how it functioned to hurt Mary’s reputation for a couple of hundred years – myself I think she would have been erased altogether if not vilified so that Godwin’s book is not what was to blame. Rowlatt remarked that the suffragette Millicent Fawcett was the first person publicly to defend Wollstonecraft after a century of sustained vituperative misogynistic attack. Men & the upper classes in general (she was a socialist for her time, very like Paine in her outlook) must’ve seen in her book real danger.


A Valancourt book

Devoney Looser, a Professor of English at Arizona State, at 6:00 pm, “All the Janes.” She is writing a dual biography of Jane West (1758-1852) and Jane Porter (1774-50). Looser pointed out that in Austen’s era thousands of books were published and hundreds of them by women, who often wrote novels, but not that much fewer than men (men 300 to women 295). Women more prolific than men. She did not say if all these were in English.

Everyone knows about West’s A Gossip’s Story, where one of the dual heroines is called Marianne. What was interesting to me was that Jane West may also have written a another novel influencing Austen’s beyond Sense and Sensibility. (Looser never mentioned Caroline de Lichtfield, but I didn’t expect it – she may have mentioned de Stael). West though also wrote a novel called Ringrove (1827), which seems to be an imitation of Emma, the motherless rich heroine. Devoney has published an essay with someone else “Admiration and Disapproval before Jane Austen: Jane West’s Ringrove, Essays in Romanticism, 26 (2019): 41-54.

Jane Porter was much better known than Austen during Austen’s lifetime and since, especially for her children’s books and for adults The Scottish Chiefs (1810). Where she lived is now crumbling down or flattened altogether. Her sister, Anna Maria Porter (1778-1832) wrote historical fiction too. Jane Austen wrote her brother Edward about this sister’s book, The Lake of Killarney. Stainer Clarke, the librarian (the one so easy to despise for presuming to encourage Jane Austen) encouraged Jane Porter to write the same romance for the royal family and she did, Duke Christian of Luneberg.

Looser suggested had Austen lived maybe she would have changed her mind, because she liked money (the pewter comment was trotted out). To me to say this is to misunderstand the source and nature of Austen’s art. She couldn’t write such a romance as her whole stance towards life, towards what kinds of writing she could do that was valuable and she enjoyed doing, her determination to ground herself in moral comic truth by writing of what she knew, precluded such book.

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On the third night I started earlier in the evening (US EST time). Perhaps it is well to recall here that research in this library and museum from a scholarly standpoint is far more about 18th century women writers or the 18th century matters affecting women in general. For fans it’s a shrine for Austen but in the library room she is rightly and naturally among dozens of women.


A promotional photo

Caroline Jane Knight, 11 am 4th great granddaughter of Edward, 5th great niece of JA, began the day. She is probably the present heir to the house, and seems (since Sandy Lerner pulled out) to be shaping what the house will become — much more popular in orientation. She told us of how she grew up in the house, its rituals; she stressed that her family didn’t feel rich, and many branches of the Knights lived in the house at one time, each with its own living quarters, rather like a rabbit warren. Since the opening of this house to the public after the Jane Austen Society became involved and Sandy Lerner endowed it so richly for many years (herself paying for the hugely expensive restoration), the house is becoming a local community and British public community space as well as place for AGMs, Austenian and other 18th century women.  There was little about Austen’s books —  I wondered if she had read them much until lately.

In her talk she made it clear she knows she lived a privileged life. Nonetheless, the house as described by her sounded like some castle where there’s a court and everyone in lives in little crowded corners. It is true that these mansions were at times turned into the equivalent of hotels or apartment houses. She looked very strongly made, and I wondered if she rides? (is a horsewoman). She was very upbeat. See my blog on Devoney Looser’s review of her book, Jane and Me.

Caroline Knight was followed by Martin Chaddick, at noon, telling us of the supposed secrets of Chawton House –- he had photographs of the house before it was restored. First built in 1583-1590; the Knight family failed to provide an heir after Sir Richard Knight; it was passed to other branches of the family where the owner would change his named to Knight as did Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen, after he was adopted. He said he was researching house and its actual occupants, and started with how many had this first name and that; his work was that of a genealogist. You can read the literal history of the place at wikipedia.

In a third connected talk (about the neighborhood), at 1:20 Katie Childs and Lizzy Dunford discussed the village around the house in a similar practical local history fashion.

To turn to Austen’s contemporaries and other women writers, Kimberley James, began at 1 pm; she is the Collector and Manager at Gilbert White house. She spoke about the friendship of Hester Chapone and Gilbert White as seen through their letters. We learned of how they met through Hester’s brother, John Mulso, who was at Oxford when Gilbert White arrived. All three very intelligent people; White trained as a barrister. The two men became very close and from ages 20-70 Mulso wrote letters to White and there we find the history of this pair of people as friends. In 1745 Mulso brought White to meet the Mulso family, and Hecky and White hit it off. Gilbert tried to pursue a career at Oriel, Oxford and gardened. Hester married in 1760 but her husband (Chapone) died soon after, and she had the liberty and desire to live in London middling society where she met Elizabeth Carter who introduced her to Elizabeth Montagu; she became part of several circles of learned ladies, among them one surrounding Samuel Richardson, author of Clarissa and Grandison. Mulso died in 1790 and until then his letters describe these groups of people as Hester and Gilbert interacted with them. Then there is silence.

Chapone’s Letters on the Improvement of the Mind went through 6 editions; his Selbourne is a nature writing classic. I was disappointed in this talk because there was little on the content of either book, not even any quotations from White’s delightful poetry-in-science.

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We come now to the two best talks of the last day: first, with no pictures: EJ Clery, 2 pm. Professor at Uppsala and author of a biography of Henry Austen. Clery said she had come to discuss literary societies. “All great writers need a gang” she began. Literary societies are about nostalgia, purpose conservation, they have archives, a shared love of books. The Jane Austen Society (of Britain), however, began 80 years ago, with the aim of restoring the small house Jane Austen lived in with her mother, sister, and friend, Martha Lloyd, and the throwing out of a grate from a fireplace. In 1949, we find an inscription on Chawton, which commemorates when the society and hopes for restoration began. Basically we owe the existence of the house still to Dorothy Darnell (1877-1953), who founded the society in 1940; it was at first a small gathering. Dorothy Darnell was also an artist (1904-1922), studied with Nicolson and exhibited in Royal Academy of Paris; she painted portraits; Emily, a sister, married (1856-1949), went to the Royal College of Music. We are in the period of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Dorothy’s sister, Alice Beatrix Darnell (1873-1995) was made chairman. A Rev Darnell was involved too. Carpenter who paid for an estimation; the Duke of Wellington at the time agreed to have his name used in the restoration of the small building.

Clery gave portraits of other early members of the JA British Society. Dorothy knew the writer Elizabeth Jenkins (1905-2010), Cambridge educated, wrote novels, 6 biographies, a very retiring, who destroyed her first novels. Elizabeth the Great is her best known book; she worked for Victor Gollancz during the war years, and chronicles her society in her writing and editing. She had no money, but was connected to upper class people and in Oxford, Mary Lascelles (1900-1995), one of the first scholars to produce a solid close reading of Austen, involved herself, RW Chapman (1881-1960) worked with Jenkins; they wrote Catherine Mecalf, that they need trustees, wanted to give prize, to produce annual reports In 1950 came the first one: 8 pages. 1938 appeared the first published articles about Jane Austen that became the traditional article in the journals (edited by Jenkins). At some point, Edward Knight agreed to sell his house for 3000£. The rooms became shrines, but meticulous research went into the making of them.

As to the Jane Austen Society journal reports, it is regularly published, each on average 100 pages, 10 articles, reports of talk (with much solid antiquarian research), reports from groups. David Selwyn edited them at first, and slowly a house of research was built: it’s from these reports Clery’s first information about Henry Austen> TABCorley and Clive Kaplan: Corley was an economic historian, had 4 children, a widower; Caplan involved with founding of JASNA. (My biography of Henry Austen as a blog is based on these men’s essays). Then Brian Southam and LeFaye built and expanded the society more to become what it is today. She told us where we may access the volumes nowadays: http://www.janeaustensocietyfreeuk.com/index.html and memsec@jasoc.org.uk

Now a YouTube of Gillian Dow, where she speaks for herself, but I’ll add a description too in case you want some notes:

Gillian Dow, who used to be the manager of Chawton House, has returned to Southampton University, and is writing a book on John Murray II (1778-1843) and his female authors, supporters, his networks. The Office at 50 Albemarle Street is above (the top of this blog). Bryon’s memoirs were burnt in that fireplace. She went there where literary gatherings once held (and Byron’s Memoirs deliberately burnt, Germaine de Stael once there, Scott too); also did research at the National Library of Scotland. She calls these women his 4 o’clock friends. JM2 was the son of John Murray I, who started the business in 1763. Gillian Dow read the letters of the women whose books he published or who tried to be published. David McClay published a good book just on Murray in 2018.

The story: 1793 JM2 inherited the business; he established The Quarterly Review in 1809, published landmark works, among them Byron and Austen. Egerton had published Austen’s first 3 novels; 1815 she resolved to go to Murray (much more prestigious, a publisher of literary books), and was offered 450£ for Emma with copyrights for S&S and MP; she and Henry refused (calling Murray a “rogue” in one letter), and published on commission, paying for production and distribution costs. Murray also published (1804) Genlis’s Duchess de la Valliere; radical women’s books, novels, listened to Caroline Lamb; went on with travel books, Heman’s poetry, an early woman scientist’s books; Susan Fevrier, Frankenstein; he was a supportive man. So it turns out Murray was no rogue (and Henry not such a good businessman); they made much less than 450£; 530 were remaindered at 2 shillings. The women he was involved with include Maria Graham (1785-1842), Sarah Austin (1793-1867), who followed her husband to Germany, kept in touch, provided Murray with a sort of readers’ reports, for example on someone she is asked to translate (1830). A third woman, Louis Swanton Belloc (1796-18881), who wrote a 2 volume biography of Byron; she was a translator, turned Cranford into French, Maria Edgeworth. She supported her husband and 3 children, was aggressive asking Murray to support this or that woman.

In the zoom period answers to questions included: unlike Austen most of these women did not work with brothers or come with male relatives on their behalf; yes, women are more likely to be translators. Very fashionable French readers liked to read English. Yes the women knew one another.

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Joshua Reynolds, The Ladies Waldegrave (sewing), 1780

Janine Barchas, 5 pm. The lost books of JA. Prof Barchas went over cheap reprints, embarrassing covers, lousy translations (mostly French, Italian and Spanish), and unreliable texts of Jane Austen’s novels. She presented herself as caring for these books and this readership but her tone was one of laughter. She showed mawkish covers and titles, saying we should regard these books as beacons in the darkness to readers left out, readers who need a chance to rebel. She was implying ideas about the readership of such books about which we know very little. The covers amused her, as did small grotesque female dolls called bobble heads (almost memorably ugly they are so distasteful) which she interspersed with the covers. I thought about her book on Northanger Abbey from where she claims to unearth as places she argues central to NA for which there is no evidence in the book, none; they are described as seriously chilling gothic places though are in fact highly problematic sensationalized tourist attractions.

Jennie Bachelor 6:00 pm, who was the first Chawton House fellow, and is now a professor of English at Kent University. Together with Alison Larkin, she has published a part craft, part critical and historical reading book on Jane Austen and Embroidery. Wollstonecraft regarded the perpetual sewing activity by women as oppressive, but many women (she said) did and do not. Austen appears to have taken pride in her sewing, and showed an avid interest in clothes.

Bachelor went over the kinds of materials you find in (considered as a type) Ladies Magazines: novels reviews, foreign news, advertisements, fashions, plates, poetry, but also frequently patterns for embroidery, but endlessly cut out for use (with no instructions — you were expected to know what to do). Her dissertation and an article she published includes some of the kinds of fiction found in these books: in one from 1790s, tale of shipwreck, we read of a Mrs Brandon attached to a Mr Willoughby; in 1802 a Case of Conscience has a Mr Knightley who marries an obscure orphan boarding at a school. Charlotte Bronte one of the later subscribers. These issues would be bound up (rather like single plays) – they were never meant to be kept.

Bachelor said she was very frustrated because she could find so few patterns, hunted for them, and then one day came across an issue with six. She started a Great British Stitch-in –- devised craft projects for all levels of ability, skill, some patterns for historically minded, others mixed media. She showed us a reticule made from embroidery. Among those who contacted her was Alison Larkin, from Yorkshire, they met and dreamed of a book. Sections organized with histories, biography, novels – an embroidery muff makes her think of Tom Jones. Well the book happened and she was here to show it to us.

The festival for me concluded with Hilary Davidson, at 7:00 pm, telling us of her Dress in the Age of Jane Austen. She traced the changes from exaggerated fashions of mid- to later 18th to a new apparent simplicity of dress for a while, until again a new set of exaggerations emerged (1830s). Sewing was very important; these were social acts. She studied women’s account books. They bought and wore differently textured clothing. How did women keep warm: they wore flannel underwear, a riding habit, woolen dress and habit, shawls, mantles, a pelisse, a spenser. Cossack trousers came in 1810 as armies crossed Russia and vice versa. From India lace-making, net machines, silk slips. She looked at Edgeworth’s Belinda’s depiction of assembly carefully. She showed us and analysed one of the covers on Margaret Drabble’s many women’s novels of our own era.

How did people use clothes in the Regency period and just after was the kind of question she asked herself and tried to answer. What exactly was stylish and why? What is meant by vulgar? Were you self-creating or ludicrous? Clothes represent complex identities are represented: she wanted to know how women experience these identities and the clothes that projected them?

And so it ended.

Ellen

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Jo (Maya Hawke) and Amy (Kathryn Newton) dressing in opening scene in the 2017 Little Women (scripted Heidi Thomas, directed Vanessa Caswill)

Never are voices so beautiful as on a winter’s evening, when dusk almost hides the body, and they seem to issue from nothingness with a note of intimacy seldom heard by day … In front of them the sky now showed itself of a reddish-yellow, like a slice of some semilucent stone behind which a lamp burnt, while a fringe of black trees with distinct branches stood against the light, which was obscured in one direction by a hump of earth, in all other directions the land lying flat to the very verge of the sky. One of the swift and noiseless birds of the winter’s night seemed to follow them across the field, circling a few feet in front of them, disappearing and returning again and again — Virginia Woolf, Night and Day, Chapter 15)

Friends and readers a Winter Solstice/Christmas blog:

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.
“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.
“We’ve got father and mother and each other,” said Beth contentedly, from her corner …. (Chapter 1)

Of course everyone remembers the opening line of Little Women, and (I hope) the opening sequence, where though the March girls are feeling they are among the deprived, are led by their ever vigilantly alert to the worst-misfortunes-of-others mother to go to a downright starving freezing family, sitting in rags in a hovel in the pitch dark, the mother having recently given birth to baby and give them their Christmas dinner (Chapter 2).

But did you know that Christmas is a recurring incident in Alcott’s famous book, like winter, brought back repeatedly, most of the time (as in Austen) as a way of creating realistic time, so fleetingly, and but crucially too (this very unlike Austen), dwelt on at length so as to provide vivid vignettes of camaraderie and carefully mitigated disaster, and sweet human togetherness.


Little Women — iconic scene of girls gathering round mother to be read too — here though it is a telegram (1970 BBC LW, Angela Downe as Jo, scripted Denis Constanduros)

When Mrs March receives a telegram from the civil war front urging her to come to her husband who is very ill, it is mid-November, and much of ensuing desperate, generous, and comic action occurs in the cold, dark and snowy winter, including Jo selling her long hair to get up money for the mother’s train fare. The father comes home as a “Christmas present,” and the first order of business is to sit down to “such a Christmas dinner” as anyone would revel in (“the fat turkey was a sight to behold … so was the plum pudding …”, and all sit down round the fire, drinking healths, telling stories, singing, “reminiscing,” foregoing the planned “sleigh ride” until another day (Chapters 15 on and off through 22)

I had remembered from more than one Little Women movie (I’ve seen at least 7) the putting on of a play around Christmas, as a separate time, but looking at my old book for adolescent girls (Grosset and Dunlap, illustrated by Louis Jambor) I find Jo’s writing of plays, acting and directing in an amateur theater are all part of the opening sequence. The play, as we all recall, is an “Operatic Tragedy,” the story of a stalking villain, Hugh, who hated Roderigo, loves Zara, with cabalistic outfits, comic gothicism in five fun acts (Chapter 2)


Laurie (Peter Lawford) gives Jo (Katharine Hepburn) some kittens for Christmas (1931, LW, George Cukor)

When Jo goes to New York to become a professional writer, the season is again November, and her first meeting with Mr Bhaer (she learns to call him Professor only much later) is during the Christmas week when she is feeling especially lonely, and so is he, and they agree for her to read to him “these pleasant little Marchen together,” while he teaches her German. They read Hans Christian Anderson together too, and unexpectedly to Jo (but not to us) her “big, muddy, battered-looking” “Christmas bundle” arrives, “so homey and refreshing” that “I sat down on the floor and read and looked and ate and laughed, and cried, in my usual way.” “The things” are “just what I wanted,” and “all the better for being made instead of bought,” which must exclude “the books father had marked.” Mr Bhaer gives her “a fine Shakespeare … one that he values much.” “Poor as he is,” he has made a present for every person in the house, servants and children too. Downstairs “they got up a masquerade;” Jo is at first not going to go, “having no dress … ” but “some old brocades” are remembered, a loan of “lace and feathers” takes place, and Jo goes as Mrs Malaprop in her mask.” This is all in a letter which ends very happily with Jo’s vow to “take more interest in other people than I used to” as Marmee has advised (Chapter 33).


Jo (Winona Ryder) and Prof Bhaer (Gabriel Bryne) pouring over manuscripts and drawings in their New York lodgings (1994 LW, scripted Robin Swicord, directed Gillian Armstrong)

I have here emphasized how the earlier part of the book are more didactic and more obviously aimed at adolescent girls. The later part (once called Good Wives) shows a change of focus to include young women, especially when the book turns to Jo’s career as a writer in her parents’ attic and life as a single unmarried daughter in the house. And in the text, Christmas drops out of sight, and Jo meets her beloved teacher once again not in winter, but years later in the mud and rain of spring.

Izzy and I intend to go to Greta Gerwig’s new Little Women, which begins with Jo in New York, trying to sell a manuscript. Laura, my other daughter, has already seen it and will be publishing her review for Elite Daily on Christmas Day. Despite a probably valiant attempt to update the book, and turn Little Women into wholly adolescent girl/adult book (see interview of Gerwig by Gabrielle Donnelly), Gertwig will not be able to lift the material too far from the original to stay true to its ethics. For her too (LW is my sixth of ten most influential books) this is a seminal book, one she can hardly remember not knowing, so often and so far back has she been reading it.


Meg (Emma Watson) Jo (Saoirse Ronan) Beth (Eliza Scanlan) and Amy (Florence Pugh) (2019, LW, Greta Gerwig et aliae)

I signed up for a course in Louisa May Alcott’s books, where we will read all Little Women (using the Norton Critical edition), her Hospital Sketches (Applewood) and a Long Fatal Love Chase (Dell). I’ve blogged on Anne Boyd Rioux’s Meg Jo Beth Amy: why Little Women still matters and on Louisa separately in Writing for Immortality.

So this is a looking forward to next year meditation too: I’m torn whether to buy the Norton (with its young girl picture) or the two Library of America volumes, edited by Elaine Showalter in paperback.

To conclude in the spirit of Alcott:

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

— Mary Oliver

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From Previous Years:

For Christmas in Jane Austen’s novels and letters, her 18th century perspective


Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth supposed reading Jane’s letters the winter after the Christmas visit of the Gardeners (who took Jane off to cheer her up, 1995 P&P, scripted Andrew Davies, directed Simon Langton)

For Christmas at Trenwith and Nampara: two occasions at length in the Poldark novels


Christmas at Trenwith, Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza, frightened, first visit, questioned by Caroline Blakiston as Aunt Agatha (Poldark, 2014, Season 1, Episode 4 — corresponding to the last quarter of Ross Poldark

Ellen

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Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) threatening Offred (Elisabeth Moss): why so repulsive and terrifying

Sometimes (sadly) it seems Austen is the only writer among some of my favorites whom I’ve not gotten to. This fall I’ve been reading Margaret Atwood (oh yes again!), her Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, a supposed and part-sequel to the Handmaid’s Tale, but much more a reaction to (mostly against) the TV serial, which by now has turned into voyeuristic misogyny (what can we do to hurt women exquisitely painfully? show them hurting one another), mistaken by some for feminism (strength used for evil purposes, complicity and collusion mistaken for community, coercion for choice). I’ve reread her very first sinister comedy, The Edible Woman, which ends with the heroine avoiding the fate of marriage to a man who would devour (destroy) her; and am reading her most recent ghost-ridden desperate comedy, Stone Mattress, 9 tales (she says) of witches. I’m more than half-way through Laura Esquivel’s magical realism, Like Water for Chocolate, where the punishing of a few young and older women by a horrifically violent hateful faux matriarch, just startles me, especially since the daughters keep coming back for more. The movie (written by her, produced and directed by her husband) is soporific because it turns the material into an inane celebration.

A good essay on Rachel Cusk by Lucasta Miller (of all people) in Times Literary Supplement sent me back to her Aftermath, which I can see would make me bond with her, but lies unread for now on a TBR pile. She is castigated for telling hard truths about marriage, motherhood, and all their accompanying glorification rituals.

In all these cases I have taken extensive notes or gone to a class and taken down intelligent and insightful comments by others, or information, or felt hope, but none of it coherent enough for an essay-blog. I can report that unexpectedly the traumas inflicted on Esquivel’s heroine are parallel to, sometimes the same paradigms I find in Atwood. I should not be surprised as Atwood is as fantastical as Esquivel and both are writing serious l’ecriture-femme. Thus far my first experience of magical realism has shown me it exists to provide humor, wish-fulfillment, some form of kindness and beauty in worlds otherwise grim and impoverished; it grows out of pseudo-science. Atwood’s dystopia shows character reacting perversely to scientific knowledge; using it to control others. The central section of her Testaments provides us with a Ardua Hall, a community of women who (reminding me of Sarah Scott’s 18th century Millenium Hall) need not marry or have children: a happy escape for most you might think, not from control, manipulation and even suicide for the central matriarchs (Aunt Lydia, Becka). Characters left standing now include Offred/June’s two daughters, Hannah now named Agnes Jemima and Nicole (pseudonym Jade).


The most unexpected heroine is Beatrice, our heroine’s spinster sister-in-law who marries late in the book and her life

Among older books I’ve read the strange and powerful early indirectly autobiographical English-style novel by Oliphant, Days of My Life, her first three Carlingford fictions, “The Executor” (short story), The Rector (novella) and The Doctor’s Family (longer novella, which last I agree with Penelope Fitzgerald and Merryn Williams can stand with among the most remarkable and powerful of English novellas. I’m now into Agnes. All these concern women estranged from a husband, or single women supporting a whole family, or the experience of being widowed, when the man you were married to was (most of the time) a heavy, painful irritating burden who was anything but grateful to the woman so naive to have chosen him. In the one case where the man is a good man, the heroine coldly rejects him until near the end because he has participated in tricking her into a marriage she cannot escape and whose terms demand full obedience and the offering up of her body to him nightly. Oliphant’s heroines anticipate Cusk’s.

Again my notes are long and various; they are shoring up my idea that the anomaly (the woman living apart from men or at least responsible for herself) is not an anomaly and can show up far more starkly than stories of married women the painful inexorable predicaments patriarchy or a male hegemonic order inflicts on many women. Curiously in all the cases I’ve been reading widowhood is a liberation, and the woman who was a library waiting to happen emits books at a rapid rate for the rest of her days, from real women (Oliphant and Fitzgerald) to fictional ones (Atwood’s Constance in her “Alphinland” in Stone Mattress).


A curious figurine for Lady Halkett found on wikipedia

I was very disappointed in a study of English civil war spies, where I had read Anne Murray Halkett was to be a central figure: but while Nadine Akkermann in her Invisible Agents recognized in print what no one but me (as far as I can tell) that what silenced, thwarted and skewed all presentations of Halkett is that she lived outside marriage with the spy-mole (some would call him a traitor) Colonel Bampfield and on her own (by herself! in Edinburgh), this long period of her life is treated briefly and what is talked about at length are her superficial literally active machinations for a brief period as a spy herself (“colorful” spy story stuff) as if in these are found her primary source of strength and interest. It’s her sustaining her identity against all odds, her self true to her Scots and Cavalier connections and norms as well as her high intelligence and extraordinary ability with narrative that one reads her for.

For Austen in a (it turns out) misguided attempt to help keep a Janeites list alive and remain close to Austen in some way I have been close reading a series of essays in Persuasions 40 on Persuasion; my notes here are more coherent and shorter than those for all of the above; I had hoped for debates about the issues in the essays by others on this list, but it seemed those who are active were not interested in the arguments or points made by the essayist. But I am nowhere near the end of the volume (it’s huge if you count in what’s put on line) so I can hardly say for sure (though this is true of the printed 18) the volume is wholly fitted into an agenda where Austen is presented as optimistic, conservative leaning, didactic and conventional in outlook if spectacular in as an artist and intertextual super-genius (outed by these writers).


Best performance and most interesting character in Davies’s (et alia) Sanditon is Charlotte Spencer’s Esther Denham

I have been watching Andrew Davies’s Sanditon, and have read through Austen’s own fragment once again, but for me far more watching and re-watching of this jarring series and reading not only of the fragment, but about a few other of the important continuations (by Anna Lefroy, Chris Brindle) and insightful essays on the book (Janet Todd has one in her recent edition of Sanditon) are needed before I can say anything sensible, accurate, useful for anyone else. Austen’s is a work whose suggestiveness if truly written about would break apart the Persuasions monolithic agenda.


Catherine Despard, probably his legal wife, was the Creole daughter of a freed African woman who herself “owned” enslaved people; after he was hanged, she disappears from the historical record — perhaps went to Ireland in the hope his family might recognize or help her

That’s where I’ve been this month when it comes to women writers or the eighteenth century beyond reading a remarkable informative and insightful book on Edward Despard (Mike Jay’s The Unfortunate Colonel Despard), whose complicated and compromised life first as a military man and engineer for the powerful and rich and slave-owners, then as a elected reformer trying to build a working colony out of all the people in South & Latin American lands and waters (Nicaragua, Jamaica) Debbie Horsfield exploited but (I find) misrepresented in ways that support the establishment’s view of him as deluded — so that her fifth season of Poldark remains as anti-French revolution and muddled on English reformists as her fourth season where she at least had a coherent book (The Angry Tide): towards the end of the season (the last two episodes) she turned to the genre of action-adventure thriller.

I enjoy still the (to me) deeply touching persuasive romance of the love of Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser for her Jamie Mackenzie Fraser but I know this is based on a fantasy configuration of a an impossibly lucky morally and physically courageous well-educated female individual (using the few humane 1950s norms) finding validation (most improbably) and companionship, understanding from a protective tenderly loving analogously well-educated Highlander (using idealisms drawn from 18th century Highlander culture), both made supremely intelligent, loyal people of unusual integrity. I am pouring into them my dreams of what was my and Jim’s relationship over our lives. Gabaldon’s politics themselves are deeply retrograde, supportive of patriarchy

With a co-opted writers like these last two (I will be writing a blog on the Poldark‘s fifth season) supposedly on the side of “strong” women making central TV films, I begin to despair of any feminist movement in the popular media dramatizing on behalf of meaningful progress for women. I was using the word stunned to describe how I see the position of women today and how the better older and more recent feminist humane (not all feminists are humane) writers are misrepresented, castigated but be-prized (some of them), but I saw a better one used of herself by an FB friend: drained. She felt (and I also feel) drained.

Ellen

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