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18th century writing-slope: sometimes called a writing-box, or writing-desk

Hans Mayer had written: “Identity is possible only through attachment.” Christa Wolf responds: “What he does not say in so many words but knows from experience is that identity is forged by resisting intolerable conditions, which means we must not allow attachments to deteriorate into dependency but must be able to dissolve them again if the case demands it (Wolf, Parting with Phantoms, 1990-1994)

Austen could not dissolve these attachments but resisted mightily and yet without admitting resistance. This idea can be also applied as a general summation of part of D W. Harding’s famous essay on Austen’s satiric comedy, “Regulated Hatred.”

Dear friends and readers,

You may be yourself in your own life tired of virtual life and longing to turn to in-person life: I am and am not. Over the past two weeks I had a number of wonderful experiences on-line, virtually, which I would not have been able to reach in person: a London Trollope society reading group, a musical concert at the Smithsonian, a good class at Politics and Prose, held at night when I cannot drive. I also longed to truly be with people too — it’s physical places as much as communicating directly with people, casually, seeing one another’s legs and feet, but for even most the alternative was nothing at all. I think I am enjoying these virtual experiences so because they are laid on a groundwork of memory (I’ve been there or with these people), imagination (extrapolation), much reading (shared with the other participants) and visual and aural media.

All this to say I’ve been attending the Bath250 conference, officially held or zoomed out from the University of Liverpool, for several late nights and for the past evening and two days I’ve attended a full virtual version of the EC/ASECS conference. I’ve gone to EC/ASECS almost every year since 2000, and since Jim died, every year. This is the second year in row we (they) have postponed the plan to go to the Winterthur Museum for our sessions, and stay by a nearby hotel. Our topic this year has been what’s called Material Culture: A virtual prelude, but there was nothing of the prelude about the papers and talks. I will be making a couple of blogs of these in order to remember what was said in general myself and to convey something of the interest, newness and occasional fascination (from the Educational Curator of Winterthur) of what was said — with one spell-binding Presidential talk by Joanne Myers, “My Journal of the Plague Year.”


18th century lined trunk

For tonight I thought I’d lead off with the one talk or paper I can given in full, my own, which I was surprised to find fit in so well with both what was said at Bath250 and the topics at EC/ASECS, from costumes in the theater as central to the experience, to libraries and buildings, to harpsichords and pianofortes now at Winterthur. This is not the first time I’ve mentioned this paper, but it has undergone real changes (see my discussion of early plan and inspiration), and is now seriously about how a study of groups of words for containers (boxes, chests, trunks, parcels, pockets) and meaning space shows the significance for Austen of her lack of control or even literally ownership of precious real and portable possessions and private space to write, to dream, simply to be in. I’ve a section on dispossessions and possessions in the Austen films now too.

I’ve put it on academia.edu

A Woman and Her Boxes: Space and Identity in Jane Austen


Marianne Dashwood (Charity Wakefield) packing her writings away in the trunks in what was their Norland bedroom (2009 Sense and Sensibility, scripted Andrew Davies

At the last moment I added a section on women’s pockets and pocketbooks in the 18th century and as found in Austen’s novels.

And a bibliography.

Ellen

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Anne Bronte by herself, drawn as a girl seeking, looking out

Dear friends and readers,

A couple of week ago now I wrote out some notes I took on two separate occasions, a talk on zoom from the Gaskell house and Haworth cottage on Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Bronte, and two talks from an Anne Bronte conference (which also included material on Patrick, Charlotte, Emily and Branwell) on September 4th Well tonight I want make a second installment of notes on talks on Anne Bronte herself, her poetry, and mostly about The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

I thought I’d begin backwards, with Anne Bronte herself as discussed by the award-winning journalist, Samir Ahmed, and here I’ll point out to how she won a suit against BBC for paying her derisory sums.

Samira began by telling everyone how early as a teenager, she was “blown away” by The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (this made me remember how much Austen’s Sense and Sensibility has meant to me since my teens). Ahmed felt that Anne had an awareness when very young of injustice. As a graduate student, Ahmed’s dissertation was on “Property and Possession in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.” She agued the book was written as a popular call that could be intertwined with a romantic novel story. In her preface she says she cannot understand why a woman cannot write what a men might want to and a man a woman. Her aim is to tell the truth.

In both Agnes Grey and Tenant there are experiences our heroines have, which are burned into their brains. Agnes Grey humiliated and berated for not controlling children allowed to become frantic and savage. She is giving testimony ever bit as surely as Christine Casey Ford. Anne was an intelligent woman with a need to speak. A mind seeking justice. At the time of the novel Frazer Magazine one could find awareness of the equivocal nature of the place of the governess. Agnes is paid barely enough to live on. Anne like the “fly” on the wall in a documentary for both her books. She claimed that you find in her books abhorrence towards hunting and going out to kill animals as a sport (I must carry on re-reading Tenant, which I’m doing just now; then turn back to Agnes). Both books too play upon the exploitative power children can give an adult — to oppress the adult, or to terrify her if she is the child’s mother.

She quoted Andrea Dworkin to align lines of hers with those of Anne Bronte. The last lines of Agnes Grey speak to an anti-materialist socialist idea:

Our modest income is amply sufficient for our requirements; and by practising the economy we learnt an harder times, and never attempting to imitate our richer neighbours, we manage not only to enjoy comfort and contentment ourselves, but to have every year something to lay by for our children, and something to give to those who need it. And now I think I have said sufficient.

I have omitted much that Samira Ahmed said about contemporary feminism, modern movie-making (the good Wuthering Heights films and the 1996 Tenant film), some actresses who have involved themselves in good causes, trafficking in women, alcoholism (with respect to Branwell). I wanted to concentrate on the central theme of her talk. What I loved best was she concentrated as much on Agnes Grey as The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.


Anne Bronte as drawn by herself by a family dog
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This edition is by Stevie Davies:

Davies was known to me previously as a superb historian of women and original inventive fiction: her Unbridled Spirits is a part imagined history of 17th century British women – -during the civil war they gained freedom, agency and lived some of them remarkable lives; her Impassioned Clay brilliant historical fiction where the insight that what we are doing is ghostly, bringing back dead people becomes central (insofar as Gabaldon is aware of this, and so too the better writers of the TV serial there is invested in the series a ghost-like apprehension of the past).

Davies has gotten herself an academic position and edits Tenant of Wildfall Hall expertly. Alas, there is no manuscript. This happens with Austen’s novels. It’s not until way after mid-century (except for Scott) that writers save their manuscripts: they apparently gave them to the printers to devour. What we have here is the first edition of Tenant before Charlotte could abridge or tamper with it. Davies simply adds on the preface Anne wrote for the second edition.
Davies’ introduction is superb Among other things she brings out the subjective nature of the text, the ambivalence in the way Gilbert Markham is treated; she shows that many aspects of this book are a kind of inverse for Wuthering Heights. There are a lot of characters with H names in both. She finds a lot of the Gondal stories in both; she has Jane Eyre as another alternative in the same kind of vision about women artists, Rochester contrasted to Arthur Huntington.

There were five talks on Anne’s fiction, mostly on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, for which I have some brief or merely representative or summary notes.

Marianne Thormählen,”Literary Art and Moral Instruction” in Anne Bronte’s novels. She wanted to show us is how modern critical dislike or moral judgements and dislike of didactism has marginalized her novels. Juliet McMaster is one of those alive to lapping multilay humor, wit, a kind of low laughter, amid real pain and bruises. Josephine McDonagh brings out the actuality of the body in Tenant; how the body and soul are both threatened. The structure of the book has put off others: Markham for the first time, then Helen as an inset diary. I like her bringing up Antigone. You must learn to distrust what flatters you, look at what makes us uncomfortable — for my part I see little.

Amy Bowen presented Tenant as a horror of “gothic realism: about real imprisonment, a woman trying to escape an abusive husband (where she has no rights or power). The focus is the interiority. Enclosed imagery reflects the hard world outside. Helen resists engendered discussions about education: that boys are taught to be inconstant, indifferent to the pain of others; women taught to be constant with no knowledge of an abrasive world.


19th century painting by an unknown woman of herself as a painter

Emily Vause’s themes were female authority, authorship and one’s identity. Charlotte was conventionally female, and she insisted her sister hated Tenant (because she, Charlotte, did). Anne draws adults with discerning eye to her apparently widowed adult female. Vause’s paper delineated the excruciating interactions Helen has with Arthur’s guests; she has to withdraw herself from what she hates: the male gaze fixed on her. She denies him access to her bedroom and he is dumbfounded (May Sinclair said the resounding of that door echoed across women’s minds). In effect he had been raping her. He means to corrupt the boy to spite her, and she flees with him. Her autonomy as a woman she never gives up, nor her authority as his mother. Her authority by her art allows her to escape to self-sufficiency. At one point he casts her painting supplies into the fire. Vause saw a parallel between Markham and Huntingdon, and was disappointed to find at the end of her story Helen becomes subject to a new husband.

Jordan Frederick discussed gender, custody and child-care, a genuine issue from what I’ve seen and heard from ordinary readers reading the novels today. I find today that many readers are put off by Helen’s wanting to keep her son close to her, her refusal to let him be educated into alcohol (she makes it associated with bad tasting medicine. To protect your child as a woman was legally impossible (he cited the series of reforms, 1839, division of wardship; 1873, giving a woman custody of her baby and young child; 1886 guardianship of children). Not until his deathbed does Arthur exhibit any remorse; she must turn to Gilbert in part. The temperance movement, methodist magazines (ideas of bearing witness) and Anne Bronte’s experience of her brother also lies behind this book. Anne is questioning toxic masculinity; Helen actively criticizing and fighting against this formation of the male psyche. He talked of how the gothicism here is realistic and the setting itself; society itself is the threat. Her feelings isolate her. Here he agreed with Any Bowen. He felt much irony in the book but thought at the end Gilbert will behave in a way that allows Helen not to be entrapped again.

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A recent cover for Agnes Grey

Maureen Kilditz’s “Walking and Health.” Perhaps the most interesting paper for the group (from the way the talking went – this was just after the Taliban had taken over Afghanistan) was about walking as an act of liberty. Kolditz began with a quotation that indicated women were not seen walking in the street unless accompanied by a chaperon. Agnes Grey must find someone to walk with; not permitted to examine the employers’ garden. How can a woman obtain a position for work if she is not allowed to walk about casually (she would be mistaken for a prostitute and then arrested for vagrancy). Walking is a function of our mobility in the natural world. How to get to your destination if you don’t have a horse? Strolling was discouraged: when Mr Western sees Agnes walking he suspects something — a kind of latent sexual nuance lingers over this act. So walking is perilous — it represented “unfettered female agency.” At the quiet contented ending of Agnes Grey, Mr Western comes with his cat to invite Agnes to come out with them. Here it is pleasurable; not a sign of poverty or struggle.

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Wildfell Hall in the engraving by Edmund Morison Wimperis (1873)

I conclude with three of the four talks, which were on Anne Bronte’s poetry: Quinnell: ‘Tis strange to think there was a time’: Romantic Echoes in Anne and Emily Brontë’s Poetry; Ciara Glasscott, “Is childhood then so all-divine: representations of childhood, innocence and romantic imagery in the poems of Anne Bronte: and Dr Edwin Moorhouse Marr: “Even the wicked shall at last Be fitted for the skies:” Anne Bronte’s Poetry and the Hope of Universal Salvation.” I don’t want to repeat what they said lest I transcribe it correctly because much was subtle and attached to specific lines in poems. I omitted Sara Pearson on their afterlife because I couldn’t take precise enough notes. I’ll call attention to those poems the talks pointed and make some general remarks from what they said:

“Tis strange to think there was a time\
When mirth was not an empty name,
When laughter really cheered the heart,
And frequent smiles unbidden came,
And tears of grief would only flow
In sympathy for others’ woe;

When speech expressed the inward thought,
And heart to kindred heart was bare,
And Summer days were far too short
For all the pleasures crowded there,
And silence, solitude, and rest,
Now welcome to the weary breast … (see the rest of the poem where you clicked)

This and others were said to emphasize a loss of early innocent childhood; then silence, solitude and rest is what was wanted; now night the holy time is no longer a place of peace. A grieving and regretting here that goes beyond Wordsworth. There is real fear in her “Last Lines” “A dreadful darkness closes in/On my bewildered mind”). In “Dreams” she imagines herself to a mother with a young baby, fears finding herself unloved afterward. There is a Blakean idea of unqualified innocence, an idealized nostalgia (it is highly unlikely Anne ever saw Blake’s poetry). There is great affliction in her poetry partly because she wants to believe in salvation for all. It was very upsetting for her to think of Cowper lost in hell. If he is not saved, what hope has she? She sought individual comfort; there is a deep seriousness about them all, and then quiet contemplation. I’m not unusual for finding Bluebell, one of her finest

A fine and subtle spirit dwells
In every little flower,
Each one its own sweet feeling breathes
With more or less of power.

There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell
That fills my softened heart with bliss
That words could never tell.

It seems to me we have been misreading these poems by framing them in evangelical and sheerly religious contexts. We need to take seriously, the strong dark emotions as well as her turning to the beauty of the natural world and real and imagined memories of childhood.


Branwell Bronte

Ellen

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Portrait of Anne Bronte (Thornton, 1820 – Scarborough, 1849), Emily Bronte (Thornton, 1818 – Haworth, 1848) and Charlotte Bronte (Thornton, 1816 – Haworth, 1855), English writers.


Elizabeth Gaskell, late in life, a photograph

Dear friends and readers,

Over the past couple of months, while some of the new groups of people meeting about authors and books, have quickly returned on-line just about wholly (the JASNA AGM), others have wanted to stay partly online to gather in new people who could not have joined in where they require to travel wherever (the Trollope London Society) and still others have cautiously, stubbornly stayed wholly online (Sharp-l, Burney) or morphed into online experiences at the seeming end of the pandemic even now (National Book Festival in DC). The same pattern is seen in theaters, movies, concerts. Two organizations which have come to put themselves partly online are the people at Chawton, Elizabeth Gaskell House, and those at Haworth museum. So Austen, Gaskell and Bronte events have been still available to me (and I gather will be so still in the near future), and tonight I want to write of few that criss-crossed.

At the Gaskell House, they held an afternoon’s panel on Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Bronte, where they brought in lecturers and people at Haworth; and another afternoon it was Gaskell and Scott (whose work, to tell the truth, was not very influential on Gaskell). Haworth hosted an all-day conference on Anne Bronte, which naturally brought in her sisters, Charlotte and Emily, and then Gaskell’s Life of Bronte, which book has helped shape the way we today regard the Bronte family, Charlotte especially. I attended a single lecture on a recent historical fiction-fantasy bringing together Austen and the Godwin and Shelley families — rather like Christa Wolf whose quietly beautiful No Place on Earth brings together as lovers an early 19th century German romantic male writer and woman poet.

I divide this material into two blogs, lest either blog become overlong. This one is on Gaskell’s Life of Bronte, the figure of the governess in Charlotte and Anne’s writing, and the Anne Bronte films. Part Two will be on Anne’s poetry (and Wordsworth and Blake), Agnes Grey, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

I would like to start with Gaskell’s Life of Bronte as discussed at Gaskell House. Libby Tempest, Ann Dinsdale, Susan Dunne and Lucy Hanks were those discussing Gaskell and her biography of Charlotte Bronte and they cited Patsy Stoneman, “Such a life …, ” Bronte Studies 41:3 (2016):193-206. So five voices. As they begun and sounded defensive and apologetic, I worried they had fallen for the anti-feminist indifference to Gaskell’s biography, were going to attack on the grounds Gaskell was all wrong about the father’s eccentricities, harshnesses towards his wife, their mother, and some intimidating and bullying he used on them. They began with Gaskell’s comment after the storm of objections broke: “everyone who has been harmed by this book have complained,” about the scurrilous articles, but turned round to argue it’s one of the most important of the early great biographies, important especially because by a woman writer, by one, meaning to define that new term. Gaskell, they quoted, told the truth with all her heart and considerable intelligence and sensitivity based on three years of hard research and writing.

Susan Dunne answered the question, Why did Elizabeth take on this task. She had wanted to write a private memoir when she heard her friend had died from a miscarriage and serious bodily condition, but now almost everyone was dead and she felt such grief and a sense of betrayal, that she had not gone to visit Charlotte enough, that maybe she could have saved Charlotte’s life. Well she would save Charlotte’s reputation. Gaskell was seeking to explain away the attacks on the Bronte books, impossible to do as the motive was she was a woman and should not be writing this kind of book. It’s a book about, growing out of their friendship and identification as writers. Gaskell told of how the father would not give Charlotte money when she was younger as a means of control. He opposed her marriage to Nicholls. He said “Had I not been an eccentric person I am, how could my children have formed the way they did. He carried a pistol with him. Gaskell’s relationship with the father, Patrick, became complex; he and Nicholls (Charlotte’s husband) wanted Gaskell to write the book, and then were distressed at the libel suits. But he did tell Gaskell “you’ve never been an enemy of mine.” He was enormously proud of what his children had written. He would say “no quailing Mrs Gaskell, no drawing back.” And her book is fabulous, an immensely absorbing porous book.

Ann Dinsdale emphasized how Gaskell had such rich material to work with. She mentioned Kaye Shuttleworth had been instrumental in bringing Bronte and Gaskell together. She said Gaskell’s biography was “just ground-breaking; a brilliant use in it was the sense of a future to come in the earlier parts. To be sure, there are omissions: M. Heger,” the coping with profound disappointment. It is an inspired book.

Lucy Hanks talked about the manscript. Gaskell would normally create a fair copy after she wrote several drafts of pages; but now, pushed, she produced a messy, involved and disorganized piece. William, her husband, stepped in to offer more perspective. He helped also shape the material itself, thought for her of social pressures. She did mean to be diplomatic, wanted to harmonize the family POVs, and to “shoot down deeper than I can fathom” to reach deeper truths about all four Brontes and the father and aunt. Gaskell found Emily “very strange,” “selfish, egotistic.”  This remote sister was also “exacting.” Gaskell crossed out this sentence: “Her conduct was the very essence of stern selfishness.” Gaskell lived with an enlightened man, and could not easily understand a patriarchal male — very off-putting to see Bronte repress herself. She added that the biography is about how female identity has to be negotiated. A persona would be created by this biography — like one was created in Jane Eyre.

Elizabeth Gaskell liked to be in the center of a room, she liked to bring people together. The biography project was a prize and she was at first naive and optimistic. Volume the first she defended her friend. The second volume is far richer because it’s laden with Ellen Nussey’s letters, and Gaskell let Charlotte take over. She watched carefully for reactions to passages. Lucy thinks this biography changed women’s life-writing, changed the nature of biography, by bringing the person to life — she forgets Boswell did this first with Johnson, a male writer for a male writer too.

Libbey Tempest had the last remark: “without this book we’d know so little of the Brontes.”

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A Bronte conference, mostly on Anne, September 4th, all day Saturday, BST


Vera Claythorne, a real governess in the era

Kathryn Hughes, one of the biographers, gave the first, a key-note speech. Her topic was “Anne Bronte, Working Woman.” She found it extraordinary that Anne lasted in this work for 5 years. The deep clashes between the governess and members of the family is really the governess and the mother, who (Hughes thought) had to live with a companion to help her, couldn’t do the job of mothering alone or much better. The governess for the mother (and father too) could become a site of insecurity and jealousy. The governess was ever suspect. She was doing job not called a job. She is given almost no salary, but rather “a home” (not hers at all). Hughes thought no one in most households wanted such a woman there; she made everyone uncomfortable. What Charlotte does is eroticize the governess; Jane Eyre becomes Rochester’s betrothed in a game of power (over what she shall wear for example). Governesses were not supposed to have lovers, and fair game to the male servants.

I felt Hughes was very sympathetic to these upper class families. She was justifying these people. I would say that Anne and then her brother needed the money from the two different sets of families:  Anne had a dreadful time with the first family: the children were selfish, mean, supported by parents. She was courageous to leave — she needed them to give her a character remember.  With the second family the wife’s behavior was disastrous for Branwell. This is a case where the woman had a little power (not enough) and so she scapegoated her servant. In both instances the employers treated the Brontes with contempt.


Tara Fitzgerald as Helen Graham painting out on the moor (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, 1996 BBC, scripted David Nokes, Janet Baron)

In a talk entitled, “Anne Brontë in Film and Television,” Mateja Djedovic first gave a brief survey of all the many many films adapted from Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and Emily’s Wuthering Heights — by way of contrast, for thus far there have been three film adaptations of Anne’s books. There was a Spanish Agnes Grey, about which he appeared to know very little, but he was taken with both a 1968 BBC and the 1996 BBC remake. Christopher Fry, a much respected dramatist, wrote the script for the earlier film; it starred Bryan Marshall as Gilbert Markham (Marshall tended to play romantic period drama heroes), Corin Redgrave as Arthur Huntingdon, alcoholic, and Janet Munro as Helen Graham. I’ve never seen it. He said it was too faithful, but brought out the austere, and reserved feel of the book; we have a recluse who has revolted, she is escaping a pursuit, and there is quiet happy ending. The later one is much more sophisticated, bringing out the feminist themes of the novel, with Toby Stephens as Gilbert more sidelined (sensitive type) in favor of a remorseful, confusedly angry, yet self-tortured Huntington as played by Rupert Graves.

I thought Djedovic should have gone over the landscape, the camera work, the way the script does follow the involuted plot-design of the book. Yes it’s erotic, influenced by Andrew Davies – who,  however, uses this eroticism to support Anne’s own outlook against macho males and on behalf of teaching humane customs or norms.


Chloe Pirrie as Emily, Charlie Murphy as Anne, and Finn Atkins as Charlotte

He then mentioned there have been several biopics, with all three sisters but all focusing on Branwell and his alcoholism. He briefly talked of a 1979 French film; a 1973 TV serial, where Anne gets one episode as a working governess. The most recent was To Walk Invisible (2017), which stressed the difficulty of being a woman author, how they have to hide their gender, but it also allows a negative picture of Branwell as destroying their lives to dominate the story.

I’d call this biopic a profoundly intolerant movie, using male weakness to explain why the young women so suffered.  They suffered because the water they all drank was laden with filth and sickness. I’d too add it misrepresents the father as ineffectual when he was a strong and intelligent personality; Charlotte as mean, narrow, very hard, with Emily as more than a little strangely mad. In fact prejudiced and as to biographical content nil.  I grant it’s photographed beautifully and well-acted.

I look forward to writing of The Tenant as feminist, as gothic, as grim realism, of Anne Bronte herself as a whistleblower, and of her poetry as at times Wordsworthian (he influenced so many women writers, among them also Gaskell) and at times William Blake-like. Gaskell and Scott and once again an Austen sequel.


Anne Bronte as drawn by Charlotte

Ellen

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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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