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Posts Tagged ‘women’s novels’


Marge Piercy

Friends and readers,

I’m pretty sure I’ve never written a blog on Piercy’s poetry, much less about her as a central foremother poet in English, though I’ve written blogs on her novels, memoirs, and blogs on feminist and other issues where I’ve quoted her poems. I love them — as well as those of her books I’ve read thus far. On her End of Days; on her Cat Poetry; “Sleeping with Cats.” Earlier blogging: Three Women (rescued from an attack by a virus).

I would like this evening to share as an interlude between my summaries of the Virginia Woolf virtual conference I joined in on, her

“Right to Life”

A woman is not a pear tree
thrusting her fruit into mindless fecundity
into the world. Even pear trees bear
heavily one year and rest and grow the next.
An orchard gone wild drops few warm rotting
fruit in the grass but the trees stretch
high and wiry gifting the birds forty
feet up among inch long thorns
broken atavistically from the smooth wood.

A woman is not a basket you place
your buns in to keep them warm. Not a brood
hen you can slip duck eggs under.
Not the purse holding the coins of your
descendants till you spend them in wars.
Not a bank where your genes gather interest
and interesting mutations in the tainted
rain, any more than you are.
You plant corn and you harvest
it to eat or sell. You put the lamb
in the pasture to fatten and haul it in to
butcher for chops. You slice the mountain
in two for a road and gouge the high plains
for coal and the waters run muddy for
miles and years. Fish die but you do not
call them yours unless you wished to eat them.

Now you legislate mineral rights in a woman.
You lay claim to her pastures for grazing,
fields for growing babies like iceberg
lettuce. You value children so dearly
that none ever go hungry, none weep
with no one to tend them when mothers
work, none lack fresh fruit,
none chew lead or cough to death and your
orphanages are empty. Every noon the best
restaurants serve poor children steaks.

At this moment at nine o’clock a partera
is performing a table top abortion on an
unwed mother in Texas who can’t get
Medicaid any longer. In five days she will die
of tetanus and her little daughter will cry
and be taken away. Next door a husband
and wife are sticking pins in the son
they did not want. They will explain
for hours how wicked he is,
how he wants discipline.

We are all born of woman, in the rose
of the womb we suckled our mother’s blood
and every baby born has a right to love
like a seedling to sun. Every baby born
unloved, unwanted, is a bill that will come
due in twenty years with interest, an anger
that must find a target, a pain that will
beget pain. A decade downstream a child
screams, a woman falls, a synagogue is torched,
a firing squad is summoned, a button
is pushed and the world burns.

I will choose what enters me, what becomes
of my flesh. Without choice, no politics,
no ethics lives. I am not your cornfield,
not your uranium mine, not your calf
for fattening, not your cow for milking.
You may not use me as your factory.
Priests and legislators do not hold shares
in my womb or my mind.
This is my body. If I give it to you
I want it back. My life
is a non-negotiable demand.


Expectant, of all life might offer, a digital picture by Lida Ziruffo

Ellen

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Christa Wolf, Frankfurt, Germany, October 1999

A life, review-analyses of Patterns of Childhood and Cassandra and 4 essays. Patterns of Childhood is about growing up in a fascist state (what she saw), WW2, then the years of the East Germany, finally 1970s and global imperialism — in narratives of childhood, memories, meditations, and travelogue. The 4 essays are travel memoirs of Greece, meditations on literature, her Cassandra, & women’s writing.

Dear Friends and readers,

I’m delighted to able to say the curriculum committee at OLLI at AU has approved my course for 4 weeks this summer:

Retelling Traditional History & Myth from an Alternative POV

The course aim is to explore books which retell stories and history from unexpected and often unvoiced POVs. In War in Val D’Orcia, An Italian War Diary, 1943-44, Irish Origo retells the story of World War Two as a woman in charge of Tuscan estates who hides partisans, POWs & runs a school for evacuated children. Cassandra & Four Essays by Christa Wolf tells the story of Troy from her POV, no longer a nutcase but an insightful prophet. It is profoundly anti-war & emerges from Germany’s history 1930s – 70s.

For weeks before giving this course I devoted myself to reading both the set books and several others by and about both Origo and Wolf. I’ve written on Origo on this blog before (however inadequately I now feel), but I’ve never written on Christa Wolf’s magnificent books or said anything about her. One of the great and important woman authors of the 20th century — as well as absorbing, moving, an original thinker, a candid truth-teller who led a life where she became involved with harrowing and intendedly humanely productive events of our time. Of those I read, I found the most riveting and continually interesting and will speak of here were some of her books of life-writing, her historical fiction, and her essays: the misleadingly titled, Patterns of Childhood (it was originally ironically A Model Childhood), The Quest for Christa T (disguised autobiography), Cassandra and Four Essays, No Place on Earth, and Parting with Phantoms, 1990-94.

I only began her Medea (she completely transforms the tale), and read it compulsively but must reread — it reminds me tonight of Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment and Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, in her One Day a Year, 1960-2000 (it’s September 27th) and Eulogy for the Living. But this course will give me the impetus and reason/opportunity for these (as well as more Origo) and I will write two more blogs on both women. I cannot speak too highly of them in life and as writers.

First a little life:


Answering questions

She was born in to lower to middling middle class Germans who lived in a province that had been fought over by Poland and Germany for centuries, and it was just then German; her father was a grocer assisted by her mother. As happens to gifted children, even in a girl in a fascist country, her gifts were early on recognized and she was sent to good schools. What she thinks important in her Patterns of Childhood is that she was subjected to Nazi education and was for a while an enthusiastic member of Hitler’s Youth Camps. Patterns of Childhood (like Cassandra) is written from the vantage point of her older years, traveling with her husband, and growing daughter in 1974 back to places she grew up in or experienced the terrors of war and refugee life, when her mind moves into different streams of flashbacks, sometimes from very early in her life, then again her adolescence, and more than one severe disillusionment: there is her re-education as the horrors of Nazism became apparent, from the terrifying destruction of Jewish life and then Jewish people — to the disappearance of people into extermination-slave labor camps (including socialists, gay people, disabled). She saw her father bullied and threatened into obeying Nazism. The war came and she flees with her mother – father already a POW – and brother.

The dates that matter are of her publications and three more: 1951 she married to a like-minded journalist and it was a long happy and collaborative marriage: they wrote and traveled and lived together. There were two children

After the war she had a period as a socialist and journalist-editor where she rose to respect and prominence in the early and middle literary culture of East Germany. First novels are social realism; they are readable novels, but she wanted to break away and she found imposed on her communist dogma, gradually sees that the life supposed to be wonderful is not turning out that way. Yes people have jobs, houses, but those rising to power are increasingly corrupt, and this middle area of consumer goods does not emerge. She begins to write very modernist books and writing – more like Virginia Woolf and modernists, without herself having much access to them. She joins the campaign for nuclear disarmament. Many writers left – but she and her husband did not (reminding me of Anna Akmatova). She broke with the leaders of East Germany, and the second level of people who controlled who got good positions.

There was a 2-3 year period where she was an informer for the Stasi — a period, which when it came out after the two Germanies merged (after 1989), did her reputation so much harm, it never recovered — I see much misogyny in the continual attacks and demands for an apology. There are a series of what I’ll call wild unreal fantasy long short stories: These are not much mentioned in what is written about her in English: the political position overshadows all, unhappily. I’ll mention two: “The life and opinions of Tomcat”, and let me tell you Tom is one sophisticated tomcat whose references to philosophy and Marxism left me bewilderes, but she is clearly arguing comic style against all sorts of economic and metaphysical ideas. It’s not that common to write an animal tale with cat as consciousness; AN Wilson has a poignant one called Stray. “What Remains” is another comic paranoid fantasy, dramatizing what it feels like to be in a constant state of surveillance where your things are taken from you – you can’t go by a window, go out to your garage and pick up your car; hone calls are nerve-wracking. She wasn’t that keen on capitalism In Parting with Phantoms she tells of what it feels like to watch a socially cooperative business turn capitalist — how quickly attitudes seems to change. There are interviews where she is treated very hostilely. I find it like the way Hilary Clinton was treated, and Wolf (while she didn’t kill herself) was not that good at stonewalling. She went to live in LA – California where it was sunny but she didn’t stay

Then around 2000 there is what I’ll call a period of relative silencing (what often happens to women). She continues to writes seriously but seems to have been much less in the public eye. Most of the famous respected works come before 2000. She was made very ill on and off in later life. See also this moving synopsis of the hard time she had inflicted on her in later life and how much she did achieve.

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The narrator, Nelly Jordan, tells of her 1971 trip to her hometown–the former Landsberg, now part of Poland–with her husband, her brother, and her daughter Lenka; of her childhood during the Nazi period; of the three years she has spent writing the present book; and of her efforts to explain to Lenka how Nelly and her parents could have failed to oppose the Nazis. Daily middle-class life under fascism is described in detail, often by inserting authentic materials such as newspaper clippings. Such events as the limitation of the freedom of the press and the establishment of concentration camps do not really affect the family; they continue to operate their store and remain largely apolitical, as did so many Germans, not realizing that their disinterest is making possible the consolidation of Nazism. As a young teenager, a group leader in the “Young Maiden” section of the Hitler Youth, she idealizes a female teacher dedicated to Hitler. The memoir is presented as a novel and so is daring in suggesting–contrary to the official dogma of the GDR — that East Germans as well as West Germans share in the guilt of the Nazi past. The problems of the 1970s, such as Vietnam, Chile, Greece, and the Middle East, are referred as part of the contemporary context. The last part of the book is an escape narrative, as Nellie and her relatives flee across the Elbe, then are forced even farther west, and end up living half starved with several other families (28 people total) in a farmhouse in what eventually becomes a Soviet zone. They exhibit a full sense of German suffering and a deep sense of outrage at historic houses bulldozed, bombings, civilians being shot wholesale and other atrocities.

I was taken by the narrative immediately. Strong passionate prose intensely written. Ursule Molinaro and Hedwig Rappoli’s translation is gripping: it seems as if Wolf deliberately cultivates a distanced style while sweeping in to show us the ravaged emotional and complicated stories and social realities of the adults and children surrounding her as a child. The pictures of her dolls reminded me of mine. Of her relationships with cousins. chapter delves how her father was driven to allow himself to be drafted into World War 2. She also depicts the mother’s sudden half-hysterical protests and the use of the term or name Cassandra emerges. Her mother’s behavior is Cassandra behavior.

In the chapters there are are narrativs in the present, remembered narratives of the past, and meditations. She also uses epigrams to signal the change of theme. Two later chapters registering the full horror of this “final solution.” When she first heard the term, long after when she came fully to understand what these people were doing — IG Faben, a hideous company which I hope is historically remembered for a behavior so heinous it’s unspeakable without strong nerves as one writes. Also from POV of that time and now, 1970s when Allende is being overthrown and another monstrous conflagration going on. What must be grasped about fascists. Again her mother a Cassandra, to protect her daughter, is mean to others. And we met or see an original of Christa T.

When they have to flee: it seems that at the last moment irrationally Charlotte, Nelly’s mother, cannot bear to leave her home. She feels she is guarding. But when the truck sets off without her, she realizes she has nothing to do, she can guard nothing. She sent off most of the “precious stuff.” And what we see is her join forces with another person (a relative) to chase down the truck and re-find her children. I found I couldn’t face the idea of what was going to happen if it was that mother and daughter would never see one another again so I peeped forward until I managed to ascertain that after a long ordeal they are reunited. As Charlotte goes forward (on foot, there is nothing else) she hears of the truck and thinks she will find them quickly, but our narrator warns us not. So Nelly (young Christa) is to endured on her own with her younger siblings and an uncle — in the piece I found ascertaining that they are reunited, I gathered Nelly was for a time in a concentration camp.

In the summing up chapters of what we’ve learnt — she’s on about how much needs to be forgotten in order to continue in life, but also that “time is running out” somehow on humanity. I’m thinking it ought to have been called The Testament of a [1930s & WW2] Survivor. She ends in the remembered sections, on the time just after WW2: her father brought home in terrible state, his death, her mother’s mortal illness, and she is with people who have TB — who died, who didn’t expected and unexpected. Done to make it fitting. Modern time is 1975 and latest brutal coup engineered by US recorded. Then we are back on this trip of 1970s, with her husband, brother (her daughter’s uncle) and a daughter’s views.

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The story begins: She has arrived before Mycenae (gates of town Agamemnon is returning to) in a sort of cage, a basket and with her is her maid-companion, Marpesa and her children -– twins. In this version they are not Ajax’s after all, they are the children of another thug-rapist, Eurypylos, whom she was given as wife to by Priam in return for Euryplos fighting on the side of the Trojans; she is taken out of the cage. It does not matter whether they are Agamemnon’s, Ajax’s or another thug – it was forced. She knows when they go inside Clytemnestra will have axed the blustering wimpering Agamemnon, now by her side, to death, and not only she but the children and maid will go the same way. We then get a long series of flashbacks as she remembers how they got to this point.

First half several dominant themes emerge immediately. A society based on utter exploitation of women, no rights whatsover, often enslaved. She is forced to endure the Greek Panthous in bed, though he disgusts her. An elder of Troy, an old man. Like Nestor. Second half she is raped by Ajax in a fit of rage. Patriarchy based on war and aggression as necessary, cult of a hero. I mentioned in Origo’s work what we see is an ethic of caring, concern, refusal to retaliate, love. There is little room for this beyond the friendships of women. I don’t have it to hand at this moment but we are told about a group of huts the women retreat to, just outside Troy. They sew, cook, talk and even dance there – they have some liberty when they get to talk to one another. That is a theme in this novel (in Wolf’s Medea, Medea has been betrayed by her pupil, so the teacher-mentor motif as common in women’s novels as the mother-daughter paradigm is deeply perverted – as if Jane Eyre turned on Miss Temple or Miss Temple on her). The various women telling one another things. Confiding.

Significant changes from traditional story to emphasize: she and Aeneas are lovers; Wolf has given Cassandra the role of Dido, whom in Virgil’s Aeneid was queen of Carthage and lover of Aeneas. Only Aeneas is no longer something of a sneak (that’s not Virgil’s view), but a noble loving man who wanted to take Cassandra with him.

Two halves. Much of the first half does consist of Cassandra’s memories as a child, young woman, growing up with vignettes of all the characters involved – including importantly Aeneas, Eumelos, you might take him to be Kissinger (or Dr Strangelove in the famous movie, who was acted as an imitation of the very young Henry Kissinger crossed with a nutty Nazi in a wheelchair).

She was Priam’s favorite daughter and loved to sit with him as he discussed politics and matters of state. Her relationship with her mother, Hecuba, however, was never as intimate, since Hecuba recognized Cassandra’s independence. At times their interactions are tense or even cold, notably when Hecuba does not sympathize with Cassandra’s fear of the god Apollo’s gift of prophecy or her reluctance to accept his love. When she ultimately refuses him, he curses her so that no one will believe what she prophesies. When Cassandra is presented among the city’s virgins for deflowering, she iwas chosen by Aeneas, who makes love to her only later. Nonetheless, she falls in love with him, and is devoted to him despite her liaisons with others, including Panthous — indeed, she imagines Aeneas whenever she is with anyone else. It is Aeneas’ father Anchises who tells Cassandra of the mission to bring Hesione, Priam’s sister who was taken as a prize by Telamon during the first Trojan War, back from Sparta. Not only do the Trojans fail to secure Hesione, they also lose the seer Calchas during the voyage, who later aids the Greeks during the war. Menelaus visits, a complicated silly quarrel, Hesione taken and Paris follows returns (Cassandra intuits because Helen is not seen) with out Helen.

A beautiful happy moment where she becomes the lover of Aeneas. Pius Aeneas. Forgive me I could not come before now. She wakes upon a very bad dream and he takes her to her mother. Cybele a goddess of dance in a temple

Climax at center (this part of the story is in Shakespeare’s despairing satiric Troilus and Cressida): the Trojans get together to decide if they should go to war. Remember the narrative is not place in the order things occurred. Instead the segments are thematic and things are ironically juxtaposed. Like in an epistolary novel. There are three ships returned from the Greek islands and Greece. Paris is there and very angry and for war as is Troilus. Eumelos, guard, very untrustworthy, is manipulating for war. The problem comes out that if they are to fight for Helen, absurd some say, she is not there. Paris was so incompetent he didn’t manage to bring her all the way. All they have is this phantom. There is a version of the Troy story where she is spirited away to Egypt. One of Euripides’ plays has Helen landing in Egyptian with the cunning Egyptian tyrant. The allegory works very nicely if you substitute for Helen Weapons of Mass Destruction. There were no weapons of mass destruction We were going to war with Iraq (by the way there were no Iraqis on the 9/11 planes, they were Egyptians) because of all these weapons of mass destruction But when it was found out, we did not leave. And her Troilus and Hector object. So what? Our honor is at stake. Cassandra gets very excited, known to be excitable. Oh Woe is me Woe is me and Priam agrees to have her dragged away and chained.

In the second half all chaos breaks out and Achilles emerges as this senseless utterly dishonorable brute (as he does in most versions of the story since Euripides and then particularly the Aeneid. In this version Achilles brutally murders Troilus after Troilus attacks him for having murdered Hector and then dragged him in a chariot around Troy – desecrating his body. This is what happens in Homer’s Iliad, which is pro-Greek. But we are supposed to understand that Achilles was in this mad rage because his lover, Patroclus, has been murdered by Diomedes, another thug ( the whole of Homer’s Book 5 of Iliad is Diomedes murdering people)

The close: Cassandra tells of the final events: another Amazonian princess, companion-maid, Myrine, murdered, and the sounds remind Cassandra of Polyxena heard screaming by Achilles’ grave where she was murdered; Andron her lover had coward-like betrayed her. Hecuba she remembers called Hecuba (mother of Trojans) a “howling bitch.” Cassandra’s children are dead. “Yes, that is how it happened.” You are a hero. I don’t want to become a statue or hero. How are we to understand her refusal.

The four essays are travelogues, literary critiques and explications of her books (see what I wrote just above) and an essay on women’s literature. If you read Wolf’s first two travel reports to find something concrete out about Greece, you’ll be very frustrated. She does not tell us but she is in Metelyn, Germany because there is a group of people meeting there to stop nuclear armament, campaigning against building these huge arsenals of nuclear bombs whereby we can destroy the earth many times over. This is 1981 when she has come out as a political activist against the present German GDR and the Western one too

The story of the first two: here’s a strike in Copenhagen that gets in their way, they land, are taken by their friends to the friends’ apartment, lovely meal. Their friends take them for drives around Athens and out to the countryside, by the sea, they meet other people, friends of friends, they visit taverns, eat out. At some point they go to the Acropolis and wander about. Just what you’d expect. In the first report, the housekeeper-cook complains to Wolf about the mistress who treats her badly (says the house-keeper-cook). We get a lot about the food they eat, the drinks, and twice both in Athens and then part 2 they find they must go down to a police station (or so they are told and register themselves, answer questions). It’s not clear they must do this, but they do it twice. They are used to this presumably.

They make friends with two free spirits, Helen and Susan traveling together and become a sort of foursome or maybe six-some. The difference between the first travel report and the second is on the second they take a boat to Crete where some believe women were once powerful. In the second they no longer have a car, so they travel about on buses with irritatingly noisy (modern music) . They go to an amphitheater where thousands of years ago these plays were played – by men as far as we can tell, no women there. They participate in Easter Ceremonies. Much conversation and thoughts about the conventional history of what they are seeing and what they are seeing and imagining what was.

There are the barest of references to the complicated political history of Greece after WW2 and the1950s where the US CIA was involved in overthrowing a socialist regime, parties within Greece fighting ferociously, and at first a conservative regime put in place but eventually Greeks themselves worked out tenuous solutions. There were long-lasting premiers at times. The Greek orthodox church remained strong.

The fourth essay: I just love where Wolf attacks Aristotle’s ideas on tragedy or art, and quotes a male (p 278) who tells her “He does not understand me …. (p 278) I was so stupefied I could not answer him.” The female genres have been subjective novels. Ahe opens with an individual reverie I’ll call it on one of Ingeborg Bachmann’s poems where she first gives you one of the stanzas and only after that the full poem, and then her terms of reference are not the usual English and American women authors you might expect or be familiar with or at least have heard of, maybe a couple of French – so while there is a reference to Virginia Woolf – and remember I said that Woolf was not available in East Germany in translation until well into the 1970s, instead of say Susan Brownmiller (Against our Will), Adrienne Rich, Gloria Steinem, Erica Jong (I’ve never read Fear of Flying), popular novel or Simone de Beauvoir. Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, she cites Anna Segler, Ingeborg Bachmann, Marie-Louise Fleisser; she refers to their lives a bit, their writing but especially Bachmann who was a poet and whom Wolf knew, but then ends on a long passionate argument that the literature women read starting with earliest classics (Homer)is male-centered, women presented through male eyes, and proceeds herself to explain ancient classics from POV of women in charge – as if matriarchies really existed at one time and the present way we know these famous one is men having twisted the stories to suit them in charge.

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From Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party — the Renaissance Women section

Most women’s literature has been destroyed once it was written, re-framed (Sappho the only women ancient writer we know of for sure cut just to bits), only in the 18th century do we begin to hear women talking for and to themselves – the mocking and satiric Jane Austen among the first of these. I confess for those who made it to the end of the fourth essay I do not at all believe there was ever a matriarchy the way Wolf and some schools of feminism believe – Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party a huge display in museums of 39 famous and archetypal female figures having dinner together; the floor is covered with little biographies of hundreds of women in history. As far I’m concerned Chicago wastes the first 7 plates on women goddesses who cannot have existed. But throughout the history of the arts from the beginning there have been central women characters who play roles that have drawn women to them – and real historical women who have contributed to western (it’s mostly) society. A mostly Eurocentric table.

Cassandra is among these. I’ll name a few again since we don’t much hear them this way: still remembered today, Penelope (Odysseus wife) – knitting away, Medea, child-killer, Clytemnestra, nut case, Iphigenia, sacrificial daughter, Dido, seduced abandoned, a suicide, Cassandra, nut-case fast forward to Arthurian matter Guinevere, adulteress, Morgan le Fay, a witch, somewhat unhappily these queens who got their heads cut off – compensatory victimhood I call it – Anne Boleyn, Mary Stuart, Marie Antoinette, all of whom had their heads chopped off – warnings against wanting power – and among these I do include Hilary Clinton who I believe the other day in a rant Trump was saying should clearly have been executed.


Christine de Pizan’s Capital letter — she wrote books of imagined exemplary women

In my next blog on Wolf, I’ll write about Medea, No Place on Earth (if possible Anita Raja or Elena Ferrante’s Italian translation too, and Eulogy for the Living.


Mid-life from a conference of German writers

Ellen

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“She stood on the pavement, a thin shabby figure, so insignificant in her old hat and coat, so forget of herself in her enjoyment of the scene, that she might have been wearing a cloak of invisibility” (Virago, Chapter 1, near the beginning of the book).

Down in the drawing-room, Charles and Harriet sat without speaking. The wireless usefully filled in the gap. Charles read Persuasion — his favorite book, to which Harriet imagined he resorted when wounded … ‘What a novel to choose,’ Charles thought. ‘Only the happy in love should ever read it. It is unbearable to have expression given to our painful solitariness, to rake up the dead leaves in our hearts, when we have nothing that can follow … except in dreams, as perhaps Jane Austen herself never had but on the page she wrote’ … (Elizabeth Taylor, A Game of Hide and Seek. 1951), quoted in Katie Trumpener’s The Virago Jane Austen

Friends and readers,

This is a book that deserves a blog all to itself. Ending sometime last month, over a three week period a group of people on The Way We Read Now face-book page, read it three chapters a day seemingly (of course everyone is invisible on the Net) together. How many participated I do not know; I don’t know how many summarized the different chapters. I “did” the penultimate trio, Chapters 35-37 out of 40. During the course of the read, I sent along two essays on Miss Mole or E.H. Young, which I thought would give some desperately needed context within which to understand this woman’s realistic novel masterpiece: Kathy Mezei’s “Spinsters, Surveillance and Space: The Case of Miss Marple, Miss Mole and Miss Jekyll” and the chapter from Deirdre Lynch’s Janeites: Jane Austen Devotees and Disciples by Katie Trumepener” about the Virago “Jane” books of the 1930s. I discuss and link in these at the end of this blog. The one other of Young’s novels I’ve read is her Jenny Wren, a re-write or post-text to Sense and Sensibility. I once knew a woman who was planning to write a literary biography: Maggie Lane, who has produced four excellent books on Austen and one on Fanny Burney.

I cannot find a plot-summary anywhere: doubtless the result of repressive censoring spoiler warning policing (not to say terrorists, for you can be thrown off websites for telling any literal detail of a book someone might not have read). But if anyone would be kind enough to supply one I’d insert it into this blog. I just don’t have the patience, for the delicate and subtle twists and turns of the plot-design, are central to the experience. So just the main thrust:

Miss Hannah Mole is a lifelong unmarried woman. She survives by hiring herself out as a companion and/or housekeeper where her salary is so small, that if she is fired, she cannot carry on for very long w/o becoming destitute. She is the only daughter of a working class farmer, and housewife, who left her a cottage, where (we learn in the last quarter of the novel) for a time she lived with a WW1 veteran who fooled her into thinking he cared seriously for her. She has not been able to move him out and so herself moves from place to place. She is deeply ashamed of this secret, fears exposure would render her jobless for life. One female relative, Mrs Lily Smith-Spencer, is a 20th century version of the obnoxious harridans of Austen’s fiction: Mrs S-S won’t give Miss Mole a position herself but provides “character” references. During the course of the story Miss Mole becomes housekeeper to a dissenting minister, Mr Corder, a second mother to his daughters (his wife has died), Edith and Ruth, is fallen in love with by a man, Mr Blenkinsop, living in the house she previously was employed at (where she saved someone from suicide). Her greatest satisfactions come from playing the role of a strong mother/friend to the people in Corder’s household. She loves being alive, walking in th natural world. She seems not to enact a malicious or envious thought all novel long. Her reward is to be taken in as a partner (marriage is assumed but not enacted) by someone with whom she finds herself congenial. There seems to be no way for her to be independent. In life Young worked as a librarian, fell in love with a married man and lived with him and his wife until the wife left them. She never married. You can view her life and writing career here.

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So here are my contributions as I read the book with others:

Miss Mole has gotten through life by masking; by in effect leaving others to assume she thinks or feels like them when she doesn’t. What she needs is a real job, real profession and salary but her original start position is such there is little hope of escape except by marriage. And I can see why she wouldn’t want that. She would not be able to get herself fired. We are told she is thin, unattractive, shabby with sensible non-stigmatizing shoes (her one self-indulgence). She has a trick of immersing herself in the natural world and reveling in it.

From Chapter 5:

“Money was one of the best things in the world, used properly, used by Miss Hannah Mole, and all the way down Prince’s Road she was buying annuities for people like herself, settling some thousands of pounds on Mrs. Ridding” (‘the woman who seemed so ungrateful for the help Hannah gave her baby and her suicidal husband.). “The wind had risen strongly as night came on and Hannah crossed the Downs under swaying branches and swirling leaves. The football-players, the riders, the children had all gone home; lamps edged the roads, but, where Hannah walked under the elms, there was a stormy darkness. The branches creaked lugubriously or with shrill protest, and those which still kept their leaves were like great flails, threshing the winds, maddened by their sterile efforts, for it was the wind, threshing harder, that produced the harvest, whipping it from the trees and driving it before him. Hannah was driven, too; a wisp of a woman, exhilarated by the noise and the buffeting”. Chapter 7: “The image of the funeral procession at the beginning of this chapter is powerfully sad. “This was a very melancholy procession, a detachment of an army of women like herself who went from house to house behind their boxes, a sad multitude of women with carefully pleasant faces, hiding their ailments, lowering their ages and thankfully accepting less than they earned.”

Chapter 8: a large part of the meaningful content of this book is conveyed by its ironic tone. That likening of Miss Mole’s transplanting of herself from Mrs Gibson (her previous employer) where she felt some warmth towards herself as she’s there as a friend) to Mr Corder as a funeral procession is powerful: “a detachment of an army of women like herself who went from house to house behind their boxes, a sad multitude of women with carefully pleasant faces, hiding their ailments, lowering their ages and thankfully accepting less than they earned? What became of them all?” this and the rest of the paragraph (upon dying “a craving that there should be at least one person to whom her disappearance would be a calamity.”

In the context of Mrs Gibson, Mrs Rider, and the two daughters, the story of Miss Mole seems to me there to show us how marriage and children were forced on women. You were given few options other than that which might be fulfilling and to reach those you needed to be middle class definitely, and better yet well connected. Miss Mole rebels by her continual ironic abrasions; she knows some release that way (reminding me of Elinor Dashwood in Austen’s S&S). But the descriptive metaphor brings out the tragic undertones of this bleak vision. There is a complexity in these half-hidden stories too. The problem we have reading this book is its particular women’s tradition and 20th century context (like so many others from other eras where women similarly coerced) has been erased. See The Virago Jane.

Chapters 9-11 and 11-14: I felt that Chapter 11 took us past the kind of rebarbative suggestive scenes we’ve had and provided important background for Mr Corder. We have had Miss Mole’s past history and something of her cousin, Mrs Spencer-Smith but Corder is (like the widow before him) the linchpin person in this house, the one with control over money and who does what. He is our self-blind selfish patriarch; it’s a wonderful irony that his sister’s marriage was forgiven to the extent she was given enough money to live on and supply him. He has been something of a rebel but he sees everyone as there to serve him.

I found myself warming to Miss Mole in these chapters as she tries to make existence more comfortable for others and perhaps (gasp! — imagine this group having an Xmas party) happier. The incident over the child Ruth having candle lit in her bedroom as she falls asleep is indicative. The father wanted to stop it though its costs are negligible, I’d say on the grounds he is supporting a deeply punitive culture. It is brave of Miss Mole to stand up to him. I feel we as readers don’t get the full nuance that is referred to here without this context of women’s position and literature in protest at the time. I remember when I first read one of these: The Gentlewoman by Laura Talbot (a pseudonum for Lady Ursula Chetwynd-Talbot) and how I loved its seeming strangeness.

Up to Chapter 20. I see much of what Miss Mole says or does as ironic. She does not seriously entertain any thoughts of any love affair with Mr Blenkinsop or Mr Samson. She much prefers Mr Samson because he is unconventional but as to becoming any man’s, that’s not for her. Whatever happened between her and Mr Pilgrim (whom she fears will tell of her time with the WW1 vet, she wants no boss. Think of all the mortified heroines in Austen – her pride was hurt. To me the real feelings she has are for Ruth and Edith and herself as foster mother (we might call it). She does say to herself, quite seriously, “for the sake of one good baby, she would have paid for than that:” she is thinking of Mrs Ridding where the price for the baby was a neurotic husband.” But she, Miss Mole, can function as a mother through her position as housekeeper, and in these three last 3 chapters, we see her suddenly worrying lest she has insulted Mr Corder (by her abrasive irritated wit) and lose the place. I take her thoughts of doing what Mrs Corder would have done seriously. This, like many of these Virago books at the time, are a protest against demanding a woman marry and giving her no alternative. That’s why the heroines are so often life-long single women.

As to language, and what is a book but words, this book is pre-feminism the second phase (starting 1970s) when for the first time a vocabulary to discuss sex from a non-religious and women’s POV starts to emerge. It’s pre-Simone de Beauvoir. So the books have to use a vocabulary which is antithetical – the authors fall back on understood paradigms. One of the more moving moments occurs when Edith says how dreadful not to have a mother, and Miss Mole thinks of “all the women who waited for words they would not hear.” That is not a marriage proposal but some decent respect and understanding they are not secondary objects (coming alive only in relationship to men). These words Edith longs for – her mother’s understanding – will never come from her father or any ritual Christmas nonsense.


Anna Madeley as Mrs Hall

There is a Miss Mole among the current crop of TV shows from the UK: pay some attention to Mrs Audrey Hall in All Creatures Great and Small. The portrait of Mrs Hall shows how much ground feminism has lost since Miss Mole or the 1980s. She is not presented as a woman who has never married. For all we know she’s a widow. Her estrangement is also from her son, who we learn has done some criminal act which she turned him in on. So the establishment and its forms of punishment are endorsed here. Yet the outline of her life is that of the Virago heroine of the 1930s. None of this is in Herriot’s book, and in the 1970s series she was presented as impersonally there, a woman who needed a job. I will say the interest in her, the desire to give a woman a central role in and of herself, not there as a romantic interest shows the mild feminism of the series. She helps Herriot, she is the central staff of the house (metaphorically) and a very good person. But she is not driven to irony; she accepts her lot as Miss Mole does not.

Christmas time, 1st season, we learn that Mrs Hall’s husband came home from war a changed man, and not for the better. This is why we find her going from house to house as a servant. Her son did something criminal (funny how it’s not specified too – he stole something) and she, his mother, told on him. Maybe they were both servants somewhere – a typical job for lower class people especially women at the turn of the century. Son went to jail. He has never forgiven her. During the course of this conversation, Mr Farnon shows himself to be better than Cordelia near the end of Lear. Of course he will keep Mrs Hall on; he would not know what to do without her. He stands by her in church holding her hand as they sing, for this son did not turn up for Christmas.

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Painting by Harold Wright: an image supplied by one of the people who was part of the group read as Miss Mole

A second angle obviously there is class. Mr Corder is not CofE, but a dissenter of some sort (I use very old fashioned language) and part of what makes him so intolerant and seeming dense, is he feels he has to hold onto parishioners and is fighting a continual invisible fight with those who might just look down on him. See Margaret Oliphant’s Carlingford novels – if you have the patience.

Chapters 18-20: the “dirt” Mr Pilgrim (the name is now ironic) has is he sexually harassed Hannah, and she fears that whatever happened between them he can use to make her seem to be at fault. #Metoo. ome of her behavior might seem to compromise her and in a culture like this of course, he, the man, the guest, would be sided with. So we have here in this novel an early half-hidden story of sexual harassment, which no matter what the woman does is a threat to her position in the world and peace of mind. She was a sexually harassed woman in flight and at risk of being hurt by the very person who treated her with contempt and insult. Mr Pilgrim (the name allegorical of course) found out something about her and went to her house because as a preacher, he wanted to teach her the error of her ways… However he never got near her because she shut the door in his face… The last part of this trio is a poignant. Hannah is afraid to kiss Mr Corder’s youngest most candid and sincere daughter, Ruth. Is she inwardly fearful of becoming too close to this family because, again, she may have to leave them (just as she left her previous positions)?

Her relationship with these two girls is moving. She is acting as a replacement for Mrs Corder she tells us. Looked at from a distance, Miss Moles’ life is pathetic (filled with thwarting) but she will not acknowledge this openly. Maybe that funeral metaphor. Some day she could be broke with the tiniest of pensions.

Me: My mother-in-law was a lower governess in a great house just after WW1, sometime in the 1920s. It was like slavery. Up at 5, never given a moment to herself except when eating and then under constant surveillance. Woolworth’s in the early 1930s, 6 and 1/2 days a week with a real salary was liberty and some power (because you had some money, could even chose you own meal every two weeks). No you were to have no followers.

The opening of Chapter 23 is beautiful in thought and form (Virago, pp 166-67) Her acceptance of what is includes a reveling in the nature world, and through a Wordsworthian (maybe that’s a good term) perspective therapeutic. Complex poetry in prose. We can have a character very bad at heart, and Corder is at the present time (loss of his wife hurt) a mean and petty man in many ways. The sentences do that twisting and turning so it is hard to grasp where Young herself stands. Her dark dress reminds me of the sober Jane Eyre. She is comfortable with Blenkinsop but why?

Miss Mole has won me over for many reasons; here she is very ambivalent Christmas and it’s not only for the homeless and those w/o families. Well, me too. She is so tenuously connected to society; she’s not far from homeless and that may be why the group comes to mind. Where is her family? She might be looking to marry: Mr Samson is not that bad a choice if they are congenial and he has enough money to support them (and loves his cats). She is a prisoner in effect: her work never stops; she is not appreciated by the person who pays her; she endlessly has to worry about impressions she makes. There’s not much best in Mr Corder to be seen insofar as she or his daughters are concerned. He is a man intensely concerned with his status, resenting the money he does get because it’s from an older sister.

I’ve usually felt and experienced Christmas as an ordeal and Young is conveying this, and a very fraught one at that. Not everyone is good lying, and some people never get the knack, nor is it easy for them to see through the lies to what might be a sort of truth. Miss Mole is very clever in that way, but she is not a domineering bully so does not manipulate only self-protects through lying – and her lies are often kind jokes. Her stories (the non-existent burglar) are kind moral exemplums. Young conveys that the patriarchy, class status and the ability to bully put Corder and Mrs Spenser-Smith in charge but many of the other characters have such better traits than they and what’s valued in this book is kindness. I was struck how one of these boss-mistresses says to Miss Mole she has no trouble with servants because she never tolerates an iota of discontent: the servant is fired on the spot. Yes I am seeing that perhaps Young is setting up a suitor-courtship paradigm between Miss Mole and Mr Samson and between Miss Mole and Mr Blenkinsop. Alas. And a Cinderella paradigm is emerging: up to now Miss Mole is seeming very plain and she never gets to go out; suddenly she is elegance itself and cannot be kept out. It would seem she cannot live in her own cottage because she needs money to keep it up — beyond someone living there who does not pay her rent. So marriage is the way out of living on the edge of destitution.

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Young lived for a long time in Clifton, Bristol where several of her novels are set

As the story turns and Hannah has a worthy suitor at last, I offer the idea that nonetheless, Hannah’s blindness over Mr Blenkinsop’s intentions is a device – and to me improbable. Young felt his book needed suspense. So the suspense is we are to sit on the edges of our seats worrying whether Hannah will somehow ruin her chances with Mr Blenkinsop before he has a chance to propose (and thus reveal – our hearts are all pit-a-patting now – he loves and wants to marry her). And we are supposed worried about what Mr Pilgrim can tell (sexual probably given that Hannah has open-minded views about sex) to ruin her with Mr Corder.

Mrs Spenser-Smith is one of the more obnoxious characters in this book. Hannah has to placate her because she needed her for this job and might need her again. But she is awful – in Jane Austen’s hands we’d recognize her for the Lady Catherine de Bourgh she is. Will say anything outrageously insulting. She shows her power by doing things like paying for Howard’s education at Oxford. So he has escaped her too. On the shoes, we have to remember how shoes – poor shoes on people’s feet, especially children – were once a sign of poverty. Also you need good shoes to be comfortable. So Miss Mole having good shoes is a way of avoiding a stigma and being comfortably shod for her incessant work – in the house mostly but no less work than that. Have a look at Mrs Hall’s shoes in the latest season of All Things Great and Small. Attractive and sensible.

Hard to comment on the ambiguity of what we are reading until finally the two secrets — Blenkinsop’s pursuit of Miss Mole (or Hannah as she was called in the BBC film adaptation) and what happened sexually to Miss Mole (not clear with whom or how her giving up of her cottage to a tenant who does not pay his rent relates to this) – are revealed. But for my part I find Ethel sympathetic, all at sea as a teenager, and Mr Corder a male version of Mrs Spenser-Smith without the monetary resources. I compared her to Austen’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh; the closest male I can think to him is the selfish, obtuse, blind, fatuously cruel John Dashwood. What does it matter if John Dashwood does not know how he hurts his family members and those directly in his power? In both the essays I offered as context I have not read all the texts cited (I can’t stand Ivy Compton-Burnett and the only Christie I’ve been able to finish is her superb autobiography), but I’ve faith if I knew more of these Virago Jane authors (or remembered more of those I’ve read) I could cite parallels.

The self-reflexivity of the story is made plain. EH Young lived with a man she was not married to for many years and here he is indicted, though not named and a somewhat literally different story offered. The nameless cad at the center of the fiction in real life was married. I have to go outside my purview to cite what I feel is the moral of the book (by no means adequate to what it dramatizes about our lives in ordinary society, especially when it comes to women) and at work in this chapter – I’ve cited it before: “I believe unkindness is the worst sin of all” (Ch 38). My critique of this idea: it may be what is so excruciating in a daily way but it is not what has made the situation for all of them: apparently under Corder, Mrs Spenser-Smith and the other lying bullies of the book.

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So, in this chapter (35) we are told what happened between Mr Blenkinsop and Miss Mole on her day out with him. In a nutshell (I’m not going to paraphrase piece by piece) Mr Blenkinsop is taking Miss Mole back to where her child- and young girlhood occurred to the house she owns. He means to take her there and confront whatever it is. She goes to pieces. The chapter is really made up of her thoughts. She is remarkably unmalicious.

Some people might think to go over ground you once were traumatized by is to overcome it – I’m not in that school of thought myself nor EH Young. We see some of Miss Moles’s obsessions. The paragraph beginning “Ah, she thought, things were easy for people with an income they had not to earn.” She ceaseless broods (all book long) on how tenuous her position is, her dependence, her material bonds. I feel for her – I remember ceaselessly in the middle years of working as an adjunct (I did it for 27 years) how I’d brood. I forget why I stopped: I put this down to getting onto the Internet and beginning to write and then to publish so I had other things on my mind that overcame this position. There is nothing in Miss Mole’s life to provide a strong distraction of satisfaction. Mr Blenkinsop is presented thinking how he came to this house by accident. This is the sort of thing that irritates me. He cannot have come here by accident. But he is kind (see above) and does not press himself on her. He feels terrible he has made her so hysterical within. She thinks also about the people she thinks depend on her: the Corder children.

At the end of the chapter Mr B suggests why not start a boarding-house of your own. You could escape this perpetual distress. She says she’s thought of it but she hasn’t the money and has been told she’s too young.

At last the beans are spilled. She retires to her room and sits by the fire. I think of all the many Victoria illustrations of women sitting by the fire (or out on the moor) thinking of their miseries


Miss E Taylor’s depiction of Kate Vavasour, left with her arm probably broken by her brother, George.

We learn at length what was Miss Mole’s horrifying sin, which apparently Mr Pilgrim knows (and my guess from these three and before and after) that’s because she also offended him (by leaving his church?) What happened is during WW1 Miss Mole inherited a house and a man who had fought in the war came to live with her and became her lover. There you have it. His reasons for such behavior remind me of what (summed up) Willoughby told Elinor Dashwood were his motives for smashing Marianne Dashwood’s peace of mind (I refer to Austen’s Sense and Sensibility): “at no stage in their intercourse had he considered her as more than a temporary inconvenience.” Willoughby claims that he grew to love Marianne and felt remorse when his patroness, an aunt, kicked him out for impregnating another girl and deserting her . Right. The way he showed his remorse was to engage himself to an improbably wealthy heiress. Young’s fiction is more probable. Miss Mole does not have the strength of character that believing in yourself, having self-esteem, and backup in other’s people’s support would give. She can’t throw him – or couldn’t. So did the next best thing when she discovered what he was. She left. They had some agreement he would pay her rent and he never has. I’ve seen situations analogous to this.

Meanwhile Mr Pilgrim decides it’s in his interest to tell this tale to Mr Corder. Why? Maybe he thinks she’s in the way of his gaining control over (oops – marrying it’s called) Ethel. Luckily, Mr Corder’s very nasty mind on the surface rejects all Mr Pilgrim has to say as vile calumny just in character.

Since it’s through Miss Mole’s mind realizing what happened (we don’t get this – note that) we get some half-ironic thoughts about God engineering all this and how God and she, Miss Mole, know one another. Hannah gets some peace of mind thinking this but it’s as much exhaustion. This technique is third person indirect discourse so the author is there in and out talking to us too. It’s remarkable the metaphors Miss Mole uses for herself: she refuses to be the dog with the bad name …

Yes I think the double-self is a directly self-reflexive comment: of course Miss Mole has no cousin who has been living her secret life alongside er; the cousin is Hannah Mole herself, and not even a dream alternative but what lies under Edith Hilda’s own reality. Did she pretend to be the housekeeper when living with her lover lover and his wife? I agree with her that Uncle Jim is ruthless. I’d be careful what I told him too. I agree Howard is kept at a great distance. We cannot tell if it is good for him that he got away (gave up the position Mrs S-L got for him at Oxford) as we don’t know enough about his inner life or what he was experiencing at Oxford. Corder cares more that they are seeming to insult the benefactor (if she is that), Mrs Spenser-Smith than his boy’s future or even presence.

What a heartless crew many of these believable adults in this novel are, and Miss Mole knows it. It is not uncommon in 18th century novels for the housekeeper to be the master-owner’s mistress; it’s a cover or disguise. These novels often present the female character without sympathy.

Ethel returns who has been to see Patsy Withers (another of the book’s awful people): Miss Withers wanted to take over the club and certainly would like to see Miss Mole fired. Miss Mole asks why go to a woman who tells lies about you; Ethel says it’s because of that she went. People just gluttons for punishment. It’s here we learn something of the connection of Pilgrim (ironic allegorical name) to Miss Mole (also an allegorical name) Miss Mole was going to chapel at the time of her relationship with the nameless cad.

Miss Mole becomes intensely aware of how Mr Blenkinsop is walking about outside – it seems for hours, in quite a state. She goes out – to let him off the hook. To be kind. She tells him don’t worry, she’s fine – manifestly untrue except that it’s become obvious that Mr Corder is willing to overlook the past and keep her anyway. Well, gee thanks.

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Here is a typical picture of am English country cottage at the beginning of the twentieth century – much popularized as art by Helen Allingham, part of her worlds of women

Chapter 36: Mr B says he was told about the house by a colleague at work… he had not seen it before but thought it might be a good place for the Riddings, and wanted Hannah to see it with him to help him decide if it was appropriate … As soon as Hannah saw the chimney tops, she knew it was her house and could not stomach the idea of her story being revealed to him in all its sordid “glory”, so she ran off in the opposite direction with him following behind totally confused as to what she was running from … She was running from her past to keep the story sacred for as long as she could…it was only later that the scales fell from her eyes and she realized that it was no longer sacred…it was time to put it behind her for good…

“Then shame swooped over her like a great flapping, threatening bird, and the robin piped his gay derisive note.” The events in that cottage were deeply traumatic. It was much more than her lover refusing to marry her. As is very common with trauma victims, she blames herself. For allowing it to happen.

And for being romantic and believing him in the first place…she was a girl though and had no experience of men like him…she believed they would marry eventually while he had no such intention… Women beat themselves up like this even today…”why didn’t I know, why couldn’t I have seen etc.”

A wonderful interlude in this chapter is the conversation with Wilfred. “I think I’ll change my lodgings. My poor dear mother doesn’t pay three guineas a week to have her son’s nerves shattered.” I hope he does go to Mrs. Gibson. Her house is definitely the refuge in this novel.

Chapter 37: This chapter is interesting both for what it shows about Young’s art (by this time we can discern this) and what happens in it.

The opening has Hannah (she has become Hannah far more often than Miss Mole) grieving intensely over this lost love, this betrayal of some ideal of love and companionship embodied in the house or home . She remember how she disobeyed everyone and held onto her house (again we see how society is working to undermine her independence and not allow her to think she can have any, fixed it so beautifully and how the man she invested all this in felt none of it. She was no snob in choosing him. He was an ordinary soldier and farmer. So EH Young does not fool herself with DHLawrence and gothic reveling (remember the Mary Webb books – her dreams are actually nightmares) about getting back to nature and “real men.”

As is so often with this heroine, she sees the best (she reminds me of Austen’s Jane Bennet who tells Elizabeth she sees the best because the pain of seeing the world, here Darcy and Bingley’s family – sisters – and everyone else as heartless and mercenary is too much to endure). So she tells herself this man never understood how much he hurt her.

Well, long ago, someone told me that when people say malicious things to you, especially to other people and appear not aware of how much pain they are causing you, that’s nonsense. They know.

At the same time the pain here is worse for her because she is imagining that Mr Blenkinsop (first paragraph of chapter) is working at kicking this guy out and taking the house over because he wants to place Mrs Riddings and her babies in it (she watches Mrs Riddings in the meadow hanging out the clothes – quite like a rhyme). Now again we are to keep our distance and our ironic perspective – we know she’s got it all wrong. Mr Blenkinsop is doing this for her, and we know also from these opening paragraphs and others, she loves him.

Thus we are almost reassured that soon that proposal will be made and she will say yes. We are not permitted utter fevers of anxiety in this book, but we are never left off the hook (think of a hook put into someone’s stomach) and onto security. By this time we know that Mr Pilgrim’s telling Mr Corder will not result in Miss Mole having to return to the obnoxious cousin and find another place to live. Or it’s improbable.

This kind of maneuvering is done throughout the book.

Then we watch Miss Mole work very hard – things she has not done for months. I feel she is doing this to shore up in her mind Mr Corder will not fire her. How could he? And she is busying herself, feeling wanted, needed. On other other hand, surely there is something masochistic in her choosing to turn the sheets, a job she says she hates; she also does not enjoy using the sewing machine.

Ruth who by this time is a fully educated pupil of Miss Mole (worthy of her, intelligent) says of all this activity: it’s “rather like making a will and paying your debts when you think you’re going to die.” We can connect that to Miss Mole’s thinking Mr Blenkinsop is getting her house ready for Mrs Riddings or her worry still Mr Corder will or can fire her. Miss Mole says, oh, no, I’m “bad-tempered.”

Then they go for a walk. The mood of this walk is very like many of them. Miss Mole rejoices in life, and landscape, and the weather, being alive and activity around her – whether rural or city. Even better she has Ruth by her side. Mother-daughter and pupil-mentor paradigms here. This chapter is also serving to remind us that Ruth can now do without Miss Mole. This is clearing the way for what will become of Ruth once Miss Mole departs – for we do see that Mr Blenkinsop is preparing a halcyon refuge for himself and Hannah. The closing paragraph of the chapter is just beautiful poetry.

But we are not allowed to revel mindlessly because what metaphors does Hannah use to show her understanding of her place in this: the small ships alongside the big ones remind her of “sad widows in their pathetic dignity under their bare masts and yards, and tugs were like the undertakers, at a fuss about the funeral.” Maybe (like Alice Vavasour at the close of CYFH?) Miss Mole is not to be taken as moving into some kind of paradise when a particular man gets a house ready for her and is willing to live in it with her and support her.

We are also not allowed to forget Ethel. Ethel is in is in the midst of making a bad choice. She has opted for Pilgrim and we are reminded several paragraphs before the final one of this chapter that it was Mr Pilgrim who told Mr Corder about Miss Mole’s past so as to bond himself this way more deeply to Ethel. Wait – he was throwing an innocent woman (never hurt him) literally to possible destitution to place himself better in the eyes of Corder? Ethel sees that Miss Patsy Withers as stepmother is far far worse than Miss Mole as housekeeper (because she is a kind of minor Lady Catherine de Bourgh) and knows it’s in her real interest that Miss Mole stay

Finis. I’ve kept up and have finished Chs 38-39. So now (somewhat out of order) we are told what Mr Corder responded to what Pilgrim said It interests me that Ethel sees what a shit Pilgrim is, agrees she should not snitch on Miss Mole but then goes ahead to become his erotic target and to tell even the obnoxious Mrs S-s. I feel that Young means us to forgive and feel sorry for Ethel — too much a dullard to get beyond all conventions even when her mind can acknowledge they are stupid. There is no hope she can see these conventions are there to control and subdue women to men’s wills. We are seeing Ruth emerge to take control: Howard had a farm to escape to; she has Uncle Jim. Miss Mole has too much pride to crawl to Mr Corder and imagine what her existence would become on these terms. So are we are at the end of her tether and in the streets. Why can’t she go to Mrs Gibson? I don’t get it: because she saved Mr Riddings?

Some intuitive instinct now takes Miss Mole or our Hannah to Blenkinsop’s door. I remember Robert Louis Stevenson: two short stories, A Lodging for the Night, and Sire de Maltroit’s door — the poet Villon, homeless, happens on them and is taken in. So our heroine is happening on Mr Blenkinsop’s door. As Austen says at the end of NA, the “telltale compression of pages” informs us “we are all hastening together to perfect felicity.” Only unless you have not paid attention, this final refuge, however it could end in happiness, is a desperate compromise.

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This is a distinguished, uniquely written protest novel on behalf of women and vulnerable men in deeply punitive capitalist relentlessly repressive patriarchy. In these scenes Young shows she knows how people behave and she captures their obtusenesses to themselves very sharply — by having made Miss Mole so very perceptive and with a desperate need and impulse (from years of training) to make do and compromise. Not altogether perceptive because (reminding me of Austen’s Emma), she does not see (improbably given how sharp she usually is) Blenkinsop is trying to court her. A difference from Austen is that Austen would have let Mr Pilgrim be told somehow he had made a fool out of himself (like poor Miss Bates of Austen’s Emma). None of them would like to be seen through. We should remember at this point that Hilda was E.H. Young’s second name.

I find myself wanting to bring in (and read) yet another book: Elena Ferrante’s Lying life of Adults. I’ve often felt that the way a lot of people get through being with others is lying, little lies, big ones; perhaps the difference for Miss Mole is hers are not only self-protective and kind but when alone they shore her up. We’ve seen that with the tales she tells Ruth. Austen’s Catherine Morland: “But why he should say one thing so positively, and mean another all the while, was most unaccountable! How were people, at that rate, to be understood? …” (Northanger Abbey)

An essay by Kathy Mezei (“Spinsters, Surveillance and Speech”) should also be of interest to anyone who reads books by women written after WW1 and into WW2, especially once again published by Virago. This essay includes an Agatha Christie and Ivy Compton-Burnett book beyond EH Young’s Miss Mole. In all three the life-long unmarried and deliberately-set up vulnerable woman is defended but at the end of both books the establishment (as it were) closes in on them again. So they are mild protest novels. For my part the problem is the acceptance of the class, religious and capitalist system these characters live in a corner of. The author does show how awful the top accepted male is in all three cases. He’s murdered in at least one of them. What I liked about the essay is situating Miss Mole with two other spinsters, or life-long unmarried women — one a famous detective by a famous author, the other a dark caustic author. It helps pick up the intended tone or nuance.

More important for the large perspective is Kate Trumpener’s “The Virago Jane” in Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees, where she analyses a group of novels published by Virago in the 1930s, and shows how they are in continual dialogue with the deepest and more superficial aspects of Austen’s fiction. As I’ve written above reading Young’s book continually brought to mind analogues from Austen and by extension other women writers influenced by Austen. Trumpener supplies the full nuance and depths in Austen through these books, which the reader ca then (as it were) take back into Young’s books. There are two pages on Chatterton Square.

It is a real loss here is no single study of E.H. Young. The woman I knew slightly (still have a sort of memory acquaintance unless she’s dead), Maggie Lane (who has written and published 3 books on Jane Austen, 1 on Burney) said she was working on but never came through. She also said she was working on a book on Fanny Burney and Hester Thrale as “frenemies.” Not all things we study become books. The quietude mixed with profound disquiet of this book cannot attract any kind of wide audience now – but gender, class and money are still key factors for women who are still often made “secondary creatures” as Simone de Beauvoir wrote.

A stinging woman’s novel. Rosamond Lehmann wrote a great novel, woman’s novel type, called The Weather in the Streets (1930s, heroine has abortion and recovering reads P&P as a fantasy that cheers), available as a Virago. The group at TWWRN went on to read Chatterton Square:


Note how covers and titles resembles those on better women’s books today (her Curate’s Wife title puts me in mind of Joanna Trollope’s Rector’s Wife)

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It was made into a BBC 4 part serial drama, Hannah, but that has vanished decades ago. Have I mentioned that she worked for the women’s suffrage movement and was an air-raid warden during WW2. See Heavenali for The World of E.H Young: Upper Radstowe, with images from the cover illustrations of the green Virago editions of Young’s novels


A photo of Young in later life

Ellen

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Il Figlia oscura as translated by Ann Goldstein (a rare pleasing cover for women)


Jessie Buckley as the young Leda Carusa in the film by Maggie Gyllenhaal

Friends and readers,

The writer (or writers) of the novels who uses the pseudonym Elena Ferrante has become a more complicated person (or two persons) and her books better or more widely appreciated since last I wrote about her and them. I’ve come to some conclusions about the people, the books, their translator, and the now at least five film adaptations made. I think it important to know the true author, context, and helps to have films meant to convey a book in trying to understand, and enjoy that book. I laid out the choices of author and stances we are presented with in the author controversy when I reviewed the first novel of The Neapolitan Quartet, My Brilliant Friend (L’amica geniale). I’ve finished the Neapolitan Quartet, read and re-read a couple of the novellas, and then a couple of good books of criticism: The Ferrante Letters by five women authors, and In Search of Elena Ferrante by Karen Bojar as well as the obfuscating hostile statistical essays on the books as a scam by Domenico Starnone (Anita Raja’s husband, also a novelist).

What decided me the author, the person who wrote all the material in Italian is Anita Raja are her Italian translations of Christa Wolf, the famous brilliant German, whose novels and memoirs I’ve been reading over the past two to three months while reading chunks of Ferrante’s novels in the Italian.  First, Ann Goldstein is (to my mind) a misleading translator of Raja’s books: Goldstein (like many another recent commercial translator) has turned dense, difficult and ever so richly suggestive Italian prose (very long sentences) into the kind of modern simple-to-read lucid English publishers press translators of older and recent more difficult books to use. Literally it is hard to accuse Goldstein of inaccuracy, but as to the experience of these novels you are losing much that makes her one of the important women writers of the 21st century. I was chuffed when late in Bojar’s book she says how alike are the characters and a number of the plot-designs in the Neapolitan Quartet and Wolf’s Quest for Christa T; Raja’s Lila (Raffaelle Cerullo) is in type and meaning a recreation of Christa T. What’s more the Italian in both books is close in style, feel, sentence structure, and that indefinable thing called presence.

I also read Domenico Starnone’s Ties (Lacci) and, as Bojar claims, it reads like the male’s answer to Raja’s Days of Abandonment (see my review). I felt like I was meeting Nino, the cad-villain of the Neapolitan Quartet, whom both Lila and Lenu (Elena Greco) fall in love with, have babies by, who rises in life to high positions in academia, parliament (with a stint in jail that ultimately does him no harm). Here is this man who thinks so well of himself, and treats women so dismissively (whatever he might say of them when their lover). I could not compare style since the translator is Jhumpa Lahiri (who has left her husband and children and made herself over as a writer of Italian, living in Italy): Lahiri make a hard book, nothing like the flexible fluid style of Goldstein but as to outlook it is a contrast to Raja’s: Ties is a witty book, often sarcastic and ironic; it moves quickly and simply one story at a time; rearrangements of time are clarified; the author is guarded. All very unlike Raja. I am not at all convinced by the statistical studies’ walls of numbers; such studies when applied to Shakespeare have concluded 17-18 of his plays are collaborations, or not written by him at all. But I do think this “answer” to one of Raja’s books, and what I’ve read of his other books and life suggests he has had input: mostly his childhood in Naples, his male outlook. Neapolitan Quartet is so much more outward, and more in control, more mainstream, polished, less raw and openly vulnerable.

It’s my view that Ferrante ought to come out and protect her name and her work – the way George Eliot was forced to when a male claimed he had read it. Perhaps some of the denigration, the condescension, and sheer resentment would be controlled. She is in the unfortunate position of Anne Radcliffe, the later 18th century gothic writer who is today still ridiculed because she could not bear to acknowledge, much less answer her critics.

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Gaia Girace as Lila Carracci (nee Cerullo) in film by Staverio Costanza (among others, Elena Ferrante too)

To the last of The Neapolitan Quartet (Storia della bambina perduta) and Lost Daughter. The closeness in title is true to the content of the very long fourth book and the novella. All four of the novels (very mainstream with two central heroines who correspond to one another thematically) are one continued story (like Winston Graham’s Poldark books) and by the time we get to this fourth, there is so much to resolve, so many ongoing stories (see My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name [Storia della nuove cognome] and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay Away [Storia di chi fugge e di chi resta], that I can’t begin to cover them here (see supersummary and the New York Times review ).  What I’d like to dwell on is the central event (though it comes about 2/3s of the way into the book) that determines the final outcome of Lila’s life: her daughter is kidnapped from her, probably murdered at the behest of the Solares. On “an ordinary Sunday” she and Enzo and Lenu and (for just that day) Pietro are cavorting outside, and they suddenly realize Tina has gone missing.

The disappearance of Tina ruins the rest of Lila’s life. She just never gets over it, partly because despite her many successes in business (making money selling, conquering digital techniques) and her finding a real man worthy of love, Enzo; despite all this, I say, in comparison to all Lenu or Elena achieved (the education, the book writing, the belonging to more upper class and therefore interesting, enlightened, enjoyable worlds), Lila has been defeated. She was turning to her children’s futures vicariously. Her son, after all by Stephano, Rino, is a deep disappointment to her: he could not escape his patriarchal brutal and anti-intellectual environment; and she poured her hope and dreams into Tina. At the same time that Lila gave birth (child by Enzo), so too Elena, truly pregnant by Nino (this cad they have both over-rated), has had a daughter, who comes to be called Imma (Elena’s mother’s name abbreviated). When Tina, Lila’s daughter is (presumably) kidnapped and killed, and enough time goes by that Lila realizes she will never have Tina back, Lila discards the business; and causes (by her angry behavior) her loving partnership with Enzo to break up.  There is only so much punishment Enzo can stand.  Lila estranges herself from everyone but what she finds in her computer and the library. It’s poignant to me how she turns back to the library (so have I, more than once), now to read and learn and write of Naples. Elena/Lenu does try to get Lila to produce a typescript that she, Elena, can edit and give to a publisher.  But Lila will or cannot conform enough.  How I felt for Lila.

Towards the end of Perduta Bambina, in another permutation of this mother-daughter paradigm, Elena finds herself caring for her mother in her mother’s old age, and forgiving her mother, her cruelty, denseness, jealousy of Elena (which but for Maestra Oliviero would have precluded Elena’s education ticket out of working class women’s lives).  We also see that part of the reason for Elena’s success as an author is her mother-in-law’s nurturing of her, a mother-as-mentor – a very ambivalent relationship.  Maestra Oliviero, the spinster elementary school teacher, is responsible for getting Elena’s parents to send her to junior high (this is a US term so I refer to its equivalent in Italy).  Prof Nadia Galiani encourages and introduces Elena to the right people; and lastly, Adele, Pietro’s mother mentors her and publishes Elena’s first novel.  In contrast, no one takes an interest in Lila once she is taken out of school at fifth grade (her father throws her out a window when she demands at age 10 to go); her mother, Nunzia means well but is very weak.  Nunzia dies off-stage.  This mother-daughter paradigm is central to all Ferrante’s work, while the friendship exploration remains almost unique to the four books, however thoroughly gone into — there are other women friends in these books, sister relationships.


Margherita Mazzucolena as Elena — when my daughter Izzy is in her usual skirts, with her glasses on she reminds me of this actress in this part and I am so proud of her

I found myself more than any of the other three identifying with Elena. This changed after I read Christa Wolf.  I finally after I had read Christa T: Christa T is Christa Wolf as open angry rebel, deeply alienated, hurt, striking out, and I can understand that and indirectly have acted that way myself (to the point of destruction of friendships), but the character who came closest to me is Elena. Consequently I got angry with her as I rarely do for characters. I could not understand how she could leave Pietro, a good man, supportive and economic support; yes he did not help her with her work, sabotaged it in part, with him she began to lead the dependent wife-life, but I felt that was forgivable as there was still room for her to go to a conference say, have a temporary liaison.


Jack Farthing (Warleggan in Poldark) as Gianni-Joe in Lost Daughter would also be perfect for Pietro in the Neapolitan Quartet

I found The Ferrante Letters so satisfying to read because all four authors (Sarah Chihaya, Merve Emre, Katherine Hill, and Jill Richards) are open about this bonding; I had not come across this kind of talk about a woman’s book by women since reading Sheila Kaye-Smith and G. B. Stern’s Speaking of Jane Austen. There is not only such a thing as l’ecriture-femme, one of its signs is the woman reader gets into sincere earnest dialogue with the characters and reflects on central issues of her life.


Audible set of the four from the BBC

The end of the fourth book brings us right back to the beginning of the first; we return to the two small girls and their dolls; either Lila or someone else leaves one of the original dolls (or a facsimile) in Elena’s post box, a sign that Lila has not been murdered but chosen finally to find peace in retreat (rather like Mary, Lady Mason, in Trollope’s Orley Farm, which I am now engrossed by). The second book, Nuove Cognome, opens with Elena shockingly and beyond retrieval, throwing Lila’s hard-fought for box of diaries in the Arno, whence her writing of these four books. She acknowledges or believes that all her fiction writing comes out of Lila’s ideas, first child’s book, talk. I think the fourth is aesthetically the sloppiest and overlong. It meanders and repeats itself. It stops and starts — my feeling is Starnone was too much in it, making it too “normalized” with Ferrante struggling for ambiguity, circularity. I know I need to re-read all four and will discover so much more prepared for and anticipating what is to come and see so much more than the first time through. I am prepared to buy a full subscription for HBOMax when the third season of My Brilliant Friend finally comes to US TV.

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Movie Poster


Olivia Coleman as Leda Carusa now 48 at the end of the film (one of the best reviews I’ve come across of book & film by Kayti Burt)

The Lost Daughter is not a satisfactory translation of the Italian title: much closer is The Depressed or Saddened Daughter and it refers as much to Leda and her relationship with her crude unsatisfactory inarticulate mother (it reads like a precis for Elena and her mother). Leda is also identifying far more strongly with Nina, the beautiful young woman on the beach with the spoilt daughter, Elena (the name keeps coming back), whose doll it is that Leda takes away and plays with, abuses, dresses all summer. Nina (played by Dakota Johnson in the film) is headed for a frustrated life with a dense bully of a violent husband, watched over and controlled by the sister-in-law, Rosalia (actress not listed), who is ecstatic at having become pregnant after many years of marriage; Nina is too mindless, and has not begun to break away from a lying culture, so one might say she is a lost daughter too.

The book opening:

Leda is having, or in the middle of a car accident, as the book opens. She is exhausted, wearied (her teaching job is like that of a US adjunct, she never achieved any high appointment as did her husband from whom she is separated) and needs a break. To the hospital come friends, her two daughters, Bianca and Marta and even her husband, Gianni, whom they live with, and who, she says, was a wonderful tender father when he had time to pay attention to his daughters. He won their love far more easily than she has. She remembers as she decides to go to the shore (an Ionian beach, probably middle class, and for privacy), her mother working on her (through fear) to stay safe by issuing threats of how she’s going to get drowned if she goes too close to the water. At the close of the book as the film she comes near to drowning herself.

One there she sees this huge clan of a family, Neapolitan, they are part of the clan she has escaped from. She recognizes they are enjoying themselves, but also that they are godawful in their manners and the whole thing a powder keg waiting to erupt. They push other families to give them more room; she refuses she’s not quite sure why. They become hostile to her and when she leaves someone throws a hard thistle at her back, leaving a painful wound (it is also a plant which, for the superstitious, carries ill-wishes). Soon after she has made a habit of this morning “rest” (she brings papers and books), Elena goes missing; Leda finds her because she remembers the hat that Elena is wearing, her mother’s. Bu the child carries on whining (I find myself using this word for once) and vexing everyone because her doll has gone missing.
We learn in a last sentence of a section, Leda put said doll in her bag. She tells herself she’ll bring it back to the beach tomorrow, put it out there and it’ll be taken as found but she cannot get herself to give up this doll.

We then get a weaving of present time adventures with many memories. Here the book is much more successful because Gyllenhaal will not use voice-over and fears offending conventional women in the audience who have given up their lives to their children and now perpetually lie to themselves to make it seem a far happier and fulfilling choice than it ever can be.

Some of these memories:

An academic truly upper class woman named Lucilla (Dagmara Domińczyk in the film) visits and can cater to Leda’s daughters and win them over because unlike Leda, Lucilla doesn’t have to cope with them 24/7. “The woman did her enormous harm” Leda thinks now. Her children start to hit her and at first she doesn’t respond, then says stop it, and then hits them lightly but repeatedly. They do prey on her. They want her to be their doll, and I’m astonished at her that she permits this. They are jealous of one another and nag at her. At one point she becomes so over-wrought as she tries do her work, she puts Marta outside the room and then somehow the glass shatters in the door. Child not hurt, but the text quivers with her intensity of trauma and upset, she feels herself in continual crisis. But the woman also knew how to network and had connections and sent one of Leda’s papers to a Professor Hardy and at a conference, he praised her highly, got the paper published (of course they went to bed together). She remembers the difficulty of using opportunities at the university to work towards being considered for positions – how hard that is. Tell me about it. I never knew how. She wanted to act out rage but nowhere to act it.

Present time:

One day she actually tells the older pregnant woman, Rosaria about abandoning her children for 3 years. The woman of course is shocked. She actually longs to confide in Nina because she (mistakenly I feel) bonds with Nina and thinks Nina could be someone she could confide it. How wrong she is she discovers at the film’s end when Nina stabs her with the hat pin she bought for Elena. The older handyman, Gianni (Lyle in the film, Ed Harris) has come to visit and they discuss wives and husbands and their children. He offers to cook a fish he has caught; he is a good cook. He stays at first (she thinks) so he can lie to his friends about having sex. They end up confiding in one another about their relationships with their children, he boasts about how good his has been despite his early separation from his wife. He sees the doll, recognizes it, but chooses not to tell. Leda talks of how her own mother would disappear once in a while and scold the harder when she returned (this is a memory in the book transposed into this dramatic scene). In both book and film Leda tries to watch a movie one night and is made fun of by the young men who ridicule the film (one I couldn’t recognize, a sentimental one Towards the end of the story there is a dancing sequence with Nina dancing with her boor of a husband after having spent the afternoon having sex with him, and Leda, first Giovanni and then Gino (the young man who wants to go to bed with Nina and for whom Leda is ready to give up her room). It’s strange that Leda should see herself as in competition with this woman or even reach out to her –- it is so useless. But such is life.

The book returns us to the beach for her last day; she is warned that as she has produced the doll and given it back, she should get away as now the Neapolitan family will feel they have a right to have a grudge against her. The film has the near car accident that occurred at the opening of the book occur now, together with a near or acted-out suicide (to spite her mother who so threatened her not to go near the shore). In both she rolls back, and the very ending has her calling her daughters (or they call her) and we see the intense relief she experiences when they say they were worried about her. She is cheered, gladdened, and finds strength to sit there and gather herself together emotionally once more to return home to her apartment, probably in Turin — where Elena ends up, nowadays a center for Northern writers. Either way as in life nothing is resolved though much experience inwardly and some outwardly has been traversed, considered, perhaps understood better.


Naples, Old Neighborhood in My Brilliant Friend


The two girls as children reading Little Women together (same film)

Ellen

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Sylvestre Le Tousel as Fanny Price, writing to her brother, amid her “nest of comforts” (which includes many books) in 1983 BBC Mansfield Park

“Our books, dear Book Browser, are a comfort, a presence, a diary of our lives. What more can we say?” (Carol Shields, Mary Swann).

La bibliothèque devient une aventure” (Umberto Eco quoted by Chantal Thomas, Souffrir)

Dear friends, readers — lovers of Austen and of books,

Over on my Ellen and Jim have a Blog, Two, I provided the four photos it takes to capture most of my books on and by Anthony Trollope, and explained why. You may also find a remarkably informative article on book ownership in England from medieval times on and what makes up a library. I thought I’d match that blog with a photo of my collection of books by and on Jane Austen, and in her case, books about her family, close friends, specific aspects of her era having to do with her. Seven shelves of books.

I have a second photo of 3 wide shelves filled with my DVD collection (I have 33 of the movies and/or serial TV films), my notebooks of screenplays and studies of these films, as well as books on Austen films of all sorts. These three shelves also contain my books of translations of Austen into French and/or Italian, as well as a numerous sequels, many of which I’ve not had the patience or taste to read but have been given me.

My book collection for Austen is smaller than my own for Trollope because even though I have many more books on her, she wrote only seven novels, left three fragments, some three notebooks of juvenilia, and a remnant of her letters is all that survives. For each of her novels or books I have several editions, but that’s still only seven plus. By contrast, Trollope wrote 47 novels and I won’t go on to detail all his other writing. OTOH, there are fewer books on him, and the movie adaptations of his books are in comparison very few.


There’s no equivalent movie for The Jane Austen Book Club where members vow to read all Jane Austen all the time

So although I won’t go to the absurdity of photographing my many volumes of the periodical Persuasions, and what I have of the Jane Austen Society of Britain bulletin like publications, I can show the little row of books I’m reading just now about her and towards a paper for the Victorian Web.

The project includes reading some Victorian novels written with similar themes, and Henry James’s Spoils of Poynton; for me it is true that Austen is at the center of a group of women (and men too) writers and themes that mean a lot to me, so I have real libraries of other women writers I have read a great deal of and on and have anywhere from two to three shelves of books for and by, sometimes in the forms of folders:

these are Anne Radcliffe (one long and half of a very long bookshelf), Charlotte Smith (two long bookshelfs), Fanny Burney (three, mostly because of different sets of her journals), George Eliot (one long and half of another long bookshelf), Gaskell (two shorter bookshelves), Oliphant (scattered about but probably at least one very long bookshelf). Virginia Woolf is another woman writer for whom I have a considerable library, and of course Anne Finch (where the folders and notebooks take up far more room than any published books).

As with Trollope starting in around the year 2004 I stopped xeroxing articles, and now have countless in digital form in my computer; I also have a few books on Austen digitally. The reason I have so many folders for Smith, Oliphant, Anne Finch (and other women writers before the 18th century) is at one time their books were not available except if I xeroxed a book I was lucky enough to find in a good university or research library. You found your books where you could, went searching in second hand book stores with them in mind too.

One of my favorite poems on re-reading Jane Austen — whom I began reading at age 12, and have never stopped:

“Re-reading Jane”

To women in contemporary voice and dislocation
she is closely invisible, almost an annoyance.
Why do we turn to her sampler squares for solace?
Nothing she saw was free of snobbery or class.
Yet the needlework of those needle eyes . . .
We are pricked to tears by the justice of her violence:
Emma on Box Hill, rude to poor Miss Bates,
by Mr Knightley’s were she your equal in situation —
but consider how far this is from being the case

shamed into compassion, and in shame, a grace.

Or wicked Wickham and selfish pretty Willoughby,
their vice, pure avarice which, displacing love,
defiled the honour marriages should be made of.
She punished them with very silly wives.
Novels of manners! Hymeneal theology!
Six little circles of hell, with attendant humours.
For what do we live but to make sport for our neighbours
And laugh at them in our turn?
The philosophy
paused at the door of Mr Bennet’s century;
The Garden of Eden’s still there in the grounds of Pemberley.

The amazing epitaph’s ‘benevolence of heart’
precedes ‘the extraordinary endowments of her mind’
and would have pleased her, who was not unkind.
Dear votary of order, sense, clear art
and irresistible fun, please pitch our lives
outside self-pity we have wrapped them in,
and show us how absurd we’d look to you.
You knew the mischief poetry could do.
Yet when Anne Elliot spoke of its misfortune
to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who
enjoyed it completely
, she spoke for you.

—– Anne Stevenson


The Jane Austen Book Club meets in a hospital when a member has a bad accident

Gentle readers, I can hardly wait to see the second season of the new Sanditon on PBS; my daughter, Laura (Anibundel) much involved with WETA (PBS) nowadays, writing reviews and such, who has read the fragment and books about Austen tells me it is another good one.


Chapman’s classic set (appears as Christmas present in Stillman’s Metropolitan): for our first anniversary Jim bought me a copy of Sense and Sensibility in the Chapman set (1924, without the later pastoral cover)

Ellen

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For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Days: Wednesday mornings, 9:40 to 11:05 am,
Jan 26 to Feb 16
4 sessions online, zoom meeting style (location of building: 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Virginia) 22032
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course: F407 is Retelling Traditional History & Tales from an Alternative POV

We will read two books which retell stories and history from perhaps unexpected and often unvoiced points of views. In War in the Val D’Orcia, An Italian War Diary, 1943-44, Irish Origo (a British-Italian biographer and memoir-writer, and literary OBE) retells the story of World War Two from the point of view of a woman taking charge of her estates in Tuscany during the war. Then Cassandra & Four Essays by Christa Wolf (a respected East German author who won numerous German literary-political prizes) tells the story of Troy from Cassandra’s point of view, no longer a nutcase but an insightful prophet. The second book was written after the war was over and after a trip the author took to Greece. The immediate context for both books is World War Two; long range, they are anti-war (a particular aim in Cassandra is nuclear disarmament): they tell history from a woman’s standpoint; one mythic, the other granular life-writing.

During the time covered by Origo’s diary, she takes in and creates a school for 23 refugee children; she and her husband hide partisans, and protect various disconnected endangered people; a real problem is the German disproportionate and terrifying reprisals & their dropping of landmines everywhere across Italy. So one BBC serial (1979), Danger UXB, we will discuss is made up of a story of a bomb disposal unit and I may suggest watching a couple of episodes (TBA); among other parts of her life, Christa Wolf was coerced into becoming an informant for the Stasi, so I will urge people to see the powerful film, The Lives of Others directed and written by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck by the fourth week of term; the heroine’s story is said to be partly based on Christa Wolf.

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

Origo, Iris. War in the Val D’Orcia, An Italian War Diary, 1943-44, introd. Virginia Nicholson. NY: NY Review of Books Classics, 2017.
Wolf, Christa. Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays, trans. from German Jan Van Heurck. NY: Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 1984.

Note: War in the Val D’Orcia has not been out of print since it was first published in 1947; there are a couple of other editions, which could cost less, but this one has an introduction, notes and photos. Cassandra also has not been out of print since first published (1983, German) but this is the only edition; what’s happened is there are editions of just Cassandra available (same translator) but you miss a lot about the book if you don’t read the four afterpieces, two travelogues, one diary, and some thoughts on the book and other 20th century European women writers.


Iris Origo in later life


Christa Wolf, 2007 (Berlin)

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

Jan 26: Introduction: Iris Origo, Life and Work, the Diary in the context of the war all around the estate

Feb 2: Her earlier diary, A Chill in the Air, an Italian War Diary, 1939-40; her essays on the fascism build-up in Italy; other diaries, e.g, Norman Lewis, Naples ’44; Eva Figes, Little Eden, A Child at War. The reprisals and landmines (Danger UXB)

Feb 10: Christa Wolf’s Life and Work, Cassandra and Four Essays, in the context of usual tellings of Iliad/Aeneid story, including Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (play where Cassandra and Agamemnon are killed by Clytemnestra), Euripides’s Trojan Women, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida

Feb 17: More discussion of Wolf’s Cassandra, the four afterwards (especially travel in Greece and diary); women’s novels & memoirs from the era (historical fiction); The Lives of Others: on an autocratic gov’t and society (Wolf’s Patterns of Childhood, what living in a fascist dictatorship is like).


An actress playing Cassandra from recent translation of Aeschylus’s The Oresteia, as translated by Robert Fagles

Suggested outside reading or watching (a bibliography):

Du Maurier, Daphne. The KIng’s General, introd. Julie Picardie. 1946; rpt. London, Virago, 2006. Historical fiction retells history of seige of Menabilly and war in Cornwall 17th century.
Duras, Marguerite. The War: A Memoir, trans. Barbara Bray. NY: Pantheon, 1986.
Feder, Lillian. A Handbook of Classical Literature. 1964; rpt NY: Da Capo, 1998. Very accessible.
Figes, Eva. Little Eden: A Child at War. NY: Persea, 1978.
———–. The Seven Ages [of Women]. NY: Pantheon, 1986. Fantasy retelling of all history in England, from Neolithic to 20th century by unfamous central women types (e.g. midwives, one is an aristocratic woman, Lady Brilliana Harvey who really held out in 17th century siege of her castle-like manor house)
Finley, M. I The World of Odysseus. Middlesex, Eng: Penguin, 1954; 1984; rpt. Ancient History: Evidence and Models. NY: Viking Penguin, 1987.
Finney, Gail. Christa Wolf. Boston: Twayne, 2010. Short biography and survey of her writings.
Holden, Inez. Blitz Writing: Night Shift and It was Different at the Time, ed Kristin Bluemel. 1941; rpt. London: Handheld, 2017.
Lewis, Norman. Naples ’44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy. NY: Carroll & Graf, 1978
Lochhead, Liz. Medea: After Euripides. London: Nick Hern, 2000; rpt. Glasgow: Theater Babel, 2007.
Moorehead, Caroline. Iris Origo: Marchesa of Val d’Orcia: A Biography. Boston: Godine, 2002.
Nightingale, Florence. Cassandra, introd. Myra Stark, epilogue Cynthia Macdonald. NY: Feminist Press, 1979.
Origo, Iris. A Chill in the Air, An Italian War Diary, 1939-40. introd. Lucy Hughes-Hallett. NY: NY Review of Books classic, 2017.
———–. Images and Shadows: an autobiography. Boston: Godine, 1970.
———–. A Need to Testify, foreword Ted Morgan. NY: Books & Co, 1984. On history of biography, and portraits of people she knew in the 1930s, who worked as anti-fascists
Weil, Simone, trans, ed. James P Holoka The Iliad or the Poem of Force: A Critical Edition. Peter Lang, 2003.
Wolf, Christa. Medea: A Modern Retelling, trans. John Cullen, introd. Margaret Atwood. 1998; rpt. NY: Doubleday, 2005.
————-. Quest for Christa T, trans Christopher Middleton. NY: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1970. Semi-autobiographical.
————-. Parting with Phantoms: Selected Writings, 1990-93, trans, notes Jan Van Heurck. Univ. Chicago, 1997.
————-. Patterns of Childhood (sometimes titled A Model Childhood), trans. Ursule Molinaro and Hedwig Rappolt. NY: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1980.

Movies:

Danger UXB. Developed John Hawkesworth and John Whitney. Various writers and directors, based on stories by Maj A.B. Hartley. Perf. include Antony Andrews, Judy Geeson. Available on Amazon Prime.
A French Village. Developed by Frederic Krivine, Phillipe Triboit. Various writers & directors. 7 year French serial set in occupied Vichy France, 1941-1946, with fast forward to 1975; 2002. Amazon prime, also to buy as DVD sets.
The Lives of Others. Dir. Script. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck Perf. include Ulrich Mulne, Martina Gedeck, Sebastian Koch. Independent. Available at Amazon Prime, as DVD on Netflix, to buy as DVD
Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Dir. Jonathan Miller. Perf. include Benjamin Whitlow, Anton Lesser, Suzanne Burden. BBC 1981 movie. Available on Amazon Prime.


Montepulciano, town, commune (history begins in the medieval and Renaissance eras) close to Origo estates, to which everyone who can flees & takes refuge during a particularly dangerous period

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An eighteenth-century mask

Friends and readers,

Another report on the papers and panels at another virtual conference, this one the fall EC/ASECS, to have been held at the Winterthur Museum, with the umbrella subject matter: “Material Culture.” Happily for each time slot there was only one panel, so I missed very little. On Thursday evening, we began our festivities online with Peter Staffel’s regularly held aural/oral experience. Excerpts from two comedies were dramatically read, and various poems. I read two sonnets by Charlotte Smith, and probably read with more feeling the first, No 51, because I thought of Jim and how I have dreamed of going to the Hebrides and got as far as Inverness and a drive around the northern edge of Scotland where across the way I saw the isle of Skye (or so I tell myself it was):

Supposed to have been written in the Hebrides:

ON this lone island, whose unfruitful breast
Feeds but the summer shepherd’s little flock,
With scanty herbage from the half cloth’d rock
Where osprays, cormorants and seamews rest;
E’en in a scene so desolate and rude
I could with thee for months and years be blest;
And, of thy tenderness and love possest,
Find all my world in this wild solitude!
When Summer suns these northern seas illume,
With thee admire the light’s reflected charms,
And when drear Winter spreads his cheerless gloom,
Still find Elysium in thy shelt’ring arms:
For thou to me canst sov’reign bliss impart,
Thy mind my empire—and my throne thy heart.

The next morning at 9 am we had our first panel, Jane Austen Then and Now, chaired by Linda Troost, and I read my paper “A Woman and Her Boxes: Space and Personal Identity in Jane Austen”.

Next up was Elizabeth Nollen’s “Reading Radcliffe: the importance of the book in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. After the publisher had held onto the manuscript for six years, she wrote an angry letter, but he refused to return the manuscript unless she paid back what he had paid her brothers (£10); her family wouldn’t fork out the money. Nollen retold Udolpho in a way that emphasized its comforting and inspirational components. Her argument was Austen was re-writing Udolpho to make Radcliffe’s book into a bildingsroman. In Northanger Abbey we go with a heroine on a journey into womanhood. Henry and Eleanor Tilney, kind and unselfish friends, invite Catherine to back with them to their ancestral home. Ms Nollen (to my surprise) at the close of her paper inveighed against Catherine marrying Henry, finding in him much offensive man-splaining, seeing him as a man who will domineer over her. Catherine is exchanging one boss for another was her take, and that Catherine’s new future life is that of a dependent. (I feel that at the novel’s end, we are expected to feel how lucky Catherine is to have married such an intelligent, cordial, for the most part understanding man — and at the young age of 18, but of course it could be the narrator’s closing words are wholly ironic.)


Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland escaping her friends and social duties by reading (paratexts from the ITV Northanger Abbey)

B. G. Betz’s “Pride and Prejudice and Its Sequels and Variations: a Gift to the Humanities.” She began by asserting that for Elizabeth Bennet is the favorite heroine of most readers, that Elizabeth and her novel provoke a passionate response in people. Why else the endless retellings of the E&D story? I’d say this is certainly so in the film adaptation Lost in Austen. (Here’s the plot of Pride and Prejudice to refresh your mind.) She then told us she travels around to libraries doing Library Hours (reading books to younger children) with the aim of getting more people reading, reading Jane Austen and also all the modernizations and adaptations, and appropriations of Austen books into written sequels, other (related?) romances, and many many movie adaptations. BG emphasis was “As long as I get them reading!” She probably is alive to Austen’s distinctive language and intelligent text, but what she aims out is to re-engage common readers with books, using Austen and romance. She went over several lists of sequel-writers (naming them, citing titles), told of which characters did chose this or that as central to the story line of a particular novel or series of novels, and the dates of publication. (I sometimes wonder if I miss out because I so rarely read sequels, and admit that the most recent Austen adaptations [heritage as well as appropriation] do not attract me because the film-makers seem no longer to assume the viewership includes a sizable population who have read Austen’s novels).

The morning’s second panel, Women in the World: Shaping Identity through Objects and Space included four papers. I can offer only the gist of three of them.
The chair, Andrea Fabrizio’s paper, ““Small Town Travel and Gossip: Earthly Obstacles and Spiritual Agency in The Narrative of the Persecutions of Agnes Beaumont, was about a slender book, that because of my lack of knowledge of the topic and perspective, was difficult for me to follow. It’s short (only 50 pages) and vindicates a woman’s right to a spiritual choice. The general issue is one of control. A young woman’s father will not allow her to belong to a Bunyan-like church group, during their perpetual struggle, he dies and she is accused of murder (!) and then acquitted.

Ruth G. Garcia’s “‘Affect nothing above your rank’: Social Identity and the Material World in Conduct Books for Servants” focused on Edgeworth’s Belinda as a novel. Ms Garcia sees the novel as one which manifests and explores anxiety over servants sharing space with their employer (Belinda is Lady Delacour’s companion; another servant is insolent). The novel might seem to uphold conduct books which insist on controlling servants (in among other areas dress), but we are shown how servants have little right to live. Lady Delacour’s is a troubled marriage and accedes finally to Belinda’s influence. By contrast, Lady Anne Perceval is an exemplary character who is her husband’s partner. She cited Carolyn Steedman’s Labours Lost, an important book about women servants. (I have read essays which interpret this novel quite differently, seeing it as a lesbian text, as about a mother-daughter relationship.)

Xinyuan Qiu’s “Affection or Affectation: An Alternative Way of Reading Pamela Provided by Hogarth’s London Milkmaids” is described by its title: she used Hogarth’s satiric depictions of milkmaids (which do resemble the ways Richardson dresses Pamela) to argue that the text is salacious but not to satirize or critique it in the manner of Fielding but rather to argue that the milkmaid figure used erotically challenges traditional hierarchies.


A drawing by Hogarth featuring a milkmaid — this is a more chaste image than several of those examined

I could take in more of Elizabeth Porter’s ““Moving Against the Marriage Plot: London in Burney’s Cecilia because I have studied Burney’s Cecilia, as well as her journal writing (and of course read Evelina). This seemed to me a study of Cecilia as an instance of urban gothic used as a critique of the way this young woman is treated. As defined by Ms Porter, urban gothic, associated with the Victorian gothic, presents a state of disorientation in urban spaces; male authors tend to write this kind of gothic (I thought of Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White and No Name.) It is a development out of Radcliffe (whom I remember Burney commenting upon in her journals). Cecilia ends in a psychic breakdown running around the London streets, near the novel’s close she experiences horror, imprisonment, living in darkness. In marriage laws and customs where women lose personhood in marriage, which provides a happy ending which seems more like succumbing. We are left with feelings of stress, strain, haunted regret, resignation.

I was able to attend to only one of the papers on the third afternoon panel, a miscellany of papers, “Susan Howard’s “‘Born within the Vortex of a Court’: Structural Methodologies and the Symbology of Possessions in Charlotte Papendiek’s Memoirs. This was a reading of Papendiek’s 1760s Memoir. Her father had been a servant in Queen Charlotte’s court, and Charlotte constructs a dual narrative telling about her private life as a child and grown woman at this court. Ms Howard read material realities as manifesting aspects of social realities. Things, and especially gifts, are emissaries between people. She discussed Sir Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of the queen and of this Assistant Keeper of the Queen’s wardrobe (as well as Queen’s reader). After her talk (during the discussion) Ms Howard talked about the problem of gauging how far what Papendiek wrote was literal truth, but suggested if it wasn’t, the journals are as valuable for telling us of the values, norms and general events at the court. (I feel the same holds true for Burney’s journals and diaries, which have recently been shown by, among others, Lorna Clark, to be often highly fictionalized.)

I came in at the end of Jessica Banner’s “Women behind the Work: Re-Thinking the Representation of Female Garment Workers in Eighteenth-Century London,” which was a study of the realities of the lives of female garment workers in 18th century London (methods of production, pay, who and where were they located?, their re-organization between the 1790s and 1815). There is a Liverpool directory, an alphabetical list of names.

The second day ended with an hour-long very enjoyable talk by Deborah Harper, Senior Curator of Education, Winterthur Museum and Library, working there for over 30 years. She took us on a tour of the keyboard instruments in the Dupont collection at the museum, focusing on 18th century elements and what seems to be one of the most cherished treasures of the collection, a 1907 Steinway owned and played upon by Mrs Ruth du Pont (nee Wales, 1889-1967); her husband, Henry Francis Dupont was the Dupont who developed the museum into the premier collection of American decorative art it is today. Although not mentioned by Ms Harper, his father, Henry Algernon du Pont, was a US senator for Delaware, a wealthy Republican businessman and politician who promptly lost his seat when senators were no longer appointed but elected. I wouldn’t presume to try to convey the rich detail and explanations in this talk (accompanied by interesting images). Ms Harper covered what are harpsichords, pianofortes, owners, collectors, specific histories of the different keyboards, how they fit into the culture of their specific place and era, stories of estates, individual players, where the keyboard has been and is today in the buildings. One group of people mentioned, the Lloyd family who owned Wye house and Wye plantation, owned large groups of enslaved people, among them Frederick Douglas.

The longest section revolved around the Steinway at present in a beautiful front room, and how it was loved and used by Ruth du Pont, who, Ms Harper said, loved musicals and Cole Porter songs. Ruth du Pont is described on the Winterthur website as “the Lady of the house,” “a social figure, talented musician, and hostess of four houses” and “devoted wife” and mother. “Photographs and documents from Winterthur’s vast archive document Mrs. du Pont’s life of hospitality, music, and travel.” I found elsewhere a full and franker life of high privilege than you might expect (with many photographs). She had to endure various tensions throughout her younger years (in each life some rain must fall), and later in life would go into angry tirades at FDR as “a traitor to his class.” So she would have resented my having social security to live upon? It also seems that her husband didn’t like the color of her piano; he wanted to paint it gray-green to match the 18th century colors of some of his collected furniture. When he decided against this (wisely, or was persuaded not to), he kept the piano from view for a long time (placing it for example in a concert hall for a time).


Used for Christmas concerts today

One of two blogs,
Ellen

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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. An addendum to the paper.

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


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.

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


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.

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


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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