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Virgina, Leonard and Pinka Woolf

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Six Tuesday mornings, 9:40 to 11:05 am,
March 5 to May 9
Tallwood, 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

We will read and discuss the later Woolf: a playful satirical biography, Flush: A Biography [of a Dog], by indirection of the Victorian poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Virginia Woolf herself, a feminist tale, and historical novel; and Orlando, an experimental novel, biographical and autobiographical fantasy about Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, time-traveling historical tale about a search for identity on the part of a woman writer; a satire on culture through free-wheeling literary history, a struggle to find and come to terms with sexual maturity and gender; and Three Guineas, a pre-World War II essay, which analyzes the origins of war and suggests how we may prevent future wars, nothing can be more relevant for us today. We will watch clips of Sally Potter’s allegorical visual fantasy of a movie Orlando. Our aim is to understand and enjoy these delightful, original, & unusual works.

Required Books & an essay (in the order we’ll read them):

Woolf, Virginia. Flush: A Biography, ed. introd Trekkie Ritchie. Harcourt, 1983. ISBN 0156319527
Woolf, Virginia. “The Art of Biography:” online https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91d/chapter23.html
Woolf, Virginia. “The new Biography,” available at the Internet Archive in Granite and Rainbow.
https://archive.org/details/graniterainbowes00wool
Woolf, Virginia. Orlando: A Biography, ed. introd Maria di Battista. Harcourt, 2006. ISBN 9780156031516
Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas, ed. introd Jane Marcus. 2006. ISBN 9780156031639

One film: Sally Potter’s 1992 Orlando, featuring Tilda Swindon, Billy Zane, Quentin Crisp, Simon Russell Beale.

Harvard has digitalized Virginia and Leonard’s photo album of life at Monk House, their home, and you can view the album here. Many of Woolf’s central long and shorter texts may be found on Project Gutenberg Australia:


Tilda Swinton as Orlando as a young Renaissance man

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

June 19: Introduction: Woolf, & animal stories, art of biography, Finish Flush if you haven’t already.

June 26: Flush: Non-human animal point of view; Elizabeth Barrett Browning & Woolf herself. Read for next time also “The New Biography.”

July 3: Orlando: Knole & Vita Sackville-West, tranvestite tale

April 10: Orlando,” time traveling; the writer’s life’ clips from the movie. Read for next time also “The Art of Biography.”

April 17: Three Guineas: pacifist movements after WW1; the lead-up to World War II, the Woolfs position

July 24: Three Guineas. The text. Final thoughts


Vita Sackville-West photographed to look like Orlando in 1840

Suggested supplementary reading:

Ackerley. My Dog Tulip, introd. Elizabeth Marchall Thommas. New York Review of Books, 1999
Auster, Paul. Timbuktu. New York: Holt, 1999.
Barrett, Elaine. “The Value of Three Guineas in the Twenty-First Century,” online at Academia. edu: http://www.academia.edu/7822334/The_Value_of_Three_Guineas
Briggs, Julia. Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life. Harcourt, 2005.
Knopp, Sherron. “‘If I Saw You Would You Kiss Me?’: Sapphism and the Subversiveness of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando,” PMLA, 103:1 (1988):24-34.
Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf. NY: Knopf, 1997.
Forster, Margaret. Lady’s Maid. Penguin, 1990. Fictionalized biography of EBB’s lady’s maid, Elizabeth Wilson.
—————–. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography. Doubleday, 1988.
Maurois, Andre. Aspects of Biography. 1929; rpt. Ungar, 1966.
Nicolson, Nigel. Portrait of a Marriage. New York: Bantam, 1973. Important text for understanding Vita Sackville-West.
Orr, Douglas. Virginia Woolf’s Illnesses. Clemson University Press. 2004. Online as a pdf: https://tigerprints.clemson.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1017&context=cudp_mono
Raitt, Suzanne. Vita & Virginia: Work and Friendship of V. Sackville-West and V. Woolf. Clarendon, 1993.
Sackville-West, Vita. Knole and the Sackvilles. Drummond, 1948.
——————–. All Passion Spent. Virago Press, 1983.
Snaith, Anna. “Of fanciers, footnotes and fascism: Virginia Woolf’s Flush,” Modern Fiction Studies 48:3 (2002):614-36.


Knole, Sevenoaks, Kent (2009)

Ellen

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Cattle Watering perhaps by John Glover (1767-1849)

Gentle readers,

I’ve had some troubles over the past two weeks: my PC Dell Desktop computer died, and it has taken two weeks to replace it with a new one (Windows 20); alas while I was promised that all my files would be retrieved and put back into my new computer for reasons that remain unexplained, the IT people did not manage to do that. So I’ve lost many of the stills I gathered over the past five years and worse yet some of my more precious files in my 18th and 19th century folders: the material for Charlotte Smith that became the Global Charlotte Smith, much of my recent notes and work on Margaret Oliphant and Elizabeth Gaskell. Very unlucky.

There is a silver lining: I paid to have the material said to have been backed up in the hard drive put into a commercial “icloud” set up called Carbonite and that has now been put on desktop and I was shown how to retrieve these lost files individually. It is arduous but can be done, one by one as I need them. Or so it’s said. I’ve yet to try alone but I believe I will as the need arises — or before when I have time.

Thus my usual work came to a stop for a while. I read on and for communication used my now beloved Macbook Pro (apple). It has been my savior twice, as this is the second time since Jim died a computer died on me. I wear them out 🙂 It also has the files as they were 5 years ago and this Friday I have promised myself at long last I will again contact the IT company I use for Macbook Pro and have them update and “clean it out.” Fix my icloud so that all that is in that computer will be in the icloud. I have learned new things about computers and coping with technology these past two weeks.

In the meantime I don’t like to leave this blog with nothing. I carry on with Virginia Woolf and am reading about Vanessa Bell still and the art of the Bloomsbury circle. Soon I will be able to post a syllabus for reading Woolf with a group of retired adults this summer. Tonight I am sharing a proposal for a paper that was accepted for the coming EC/ASECS (Eastern Region, American Society for 18th century studies) in Staunton, Virginia. This is a mid-Virginia town where Mary Baldwin college is located and the Shenandoah Shakespeare Company, a repertoire going for many years which Jim and I used to attend regularly. We’d make a day of it as it is a three hour drive from Alexandria, Va. There are two blocks of restaurants and tourist-y places, historical sites, a lovely landscape all around.

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Amanda Root as Anne Elliot in the scene from the novel where Anne remembers Smith’s poem (1995 BBC Persuasion)

How to perform Charlotte Smith and Mathew Prior in the same novel: Intertextuality in Austen’s Persuasion

A proposal for the EC/ASECS conference in Staunton, Virginia, this October 2018.

In this paper I propose to explicate two diametrically opposed moods and points of view on the human experience of profound loss in Austen’s Persuasion. Pervasively and across the novel Austen alludes to Charlotte Smith’s plangent and despairing poetry of loss, embedding the novel as well in the romantic poetry of Byron and Scott. Arguably the crippled, bankrupt and betrayed Mrs Smith is both the genius loci of the novel and a surrogate for Smith herself, whose life Mrs Smith channels. At the same time, it is of Mrs Smith’s apparent cheerfulness when she is with other people that Anne Elliot declares: “Here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from Nature herself. It was the choicest gift of Heaven” (Volume 2, Chapter 5). In addition, Austen is careful to contradict Anne Elliot’s despondent musings as she walks alone in the autumn: through allusion Anne is thinking: Ah! why has happiness—no second spring? (the last line of Smith’s second sonnet in her much reprinted and ever enlarged Elegiac Sonnets).


Dancing at Upper Cross — one of the lighter moments in this film (the same Persuasion)

As if in mischievous contradiction to all this powerful passionate protest and investment in grief in the novel, Austen also alludes explicitly a very different kind of poet and poem: Matthew Prior’s semi-burlesque rewriting of an older ballad, The Nut-Brown Maid as Henry and Emma. In his frequent vein of cynical disillusionment with much realistic detail supplied about the lives of two characters where the male demands abjection from the female to prove that she is in reality irrecoverably in love with him after her father has explicitly rejected him as a worthy suitor. Emma is up to each turn of a screw Henry inflicts on her. The parallels with Wentworth and Anne present a serious critique of Wentworth’s behavior, with her usually much-praised new independence severely undercut. Austen seems concerned to undercut the misogynistic theme of testing a woman so prevalent in literature, among other texts in the era Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte.

There’s evidence to show that Austen knew both Prior and Smith’s writing well. It’s tempting to unite the two disparate veins as variations on dark themes of an authentic self and constancy: in her famous dialogue with Captain Harville Anne asserts as her right, is a knowledge of ravaged grief and permanent desolation as strong as any man’s. When we get this far with these skeins, it seems to me we have reached Northrop Frye’s once well known last phase of irony and satire, only instead of winter, Wentworth breaks through with a letter and we tumble back into romance, with even Mrs Smith knowing retrieval at novel’s end (as the real Mrs Smith never did, quite).

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The regular reader of this blog will recognize I’ve put together two previous and drawn on my knowledge of Smith and Prior. I never tire of Austen’s Persuasion either nor the many film adaptations made from the text since the first in 1971 (click and scroll down to reach 6 blogs & essays on 5 Persuasion movies).


Anne lending herself to be lifted into a carriage by Wentworth (Ciarhan Hinds) (ditto)

Ellen

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Chawton House and Church

Friends,

The two week set of videos and podcasts, full length essays (mostly as published in Persuasions Online) and linking prompts, found on the Future Learn site offers some worthwhile material to most people who’ve read Jane Austen’s writing, and want to learn about her, her work, and her era. The central target audience appears to be someone who knows little of Austen, and may not have read even the six famous novels: Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1817), but the choice of material provides new information and food for thought for serious readers, devoted fans, and even academic scholars. No small feat.

The first week tells Austen’s life by sheer presentation and description of documents published by her family. Henry’s biographical notice, from what’s left of her letters, uncontroversial timelines for early family members, and much from what is made available from Chawton house and Chawton cottage. We are shown a map of places Austen and her family visited and which towns and seashore meant most to her It can and is meant to function as an advertisement (information about) Chawton house, its programs, library, gardens. So someone knowing nothing is not presented with bogus histories or legends or excessive hype. A plain photo of Chawton cottage is used.

The strongest sections where something beyond these primary basics are presented in the first week are thus understandably about Jane Austen’s reading and 18th century social norms for uses of gardens and house landscapes. Gillian Dow (Director of Research at Chawton House and Associate Professor at the University of Southampton) and Daren Bevin (Chawton House Librarian) discuss what is in Chawton House library (1:9).


From Horden House (another private library)

For Austen’s reading, Gillian showed the family copy of Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, said how Austen’s brother, Henry Austen, said it was Jane’s favorite book, showed the ms of the parodic playlet Grandison in Austen’s own hand, but then said (quietly but repeated it) it’s odd how this copy of Richardson looks like it’s hardly ever been read while Mary Brunton’s Self Control looks very worn. Who is Mary Brunton and what Self-Control? she was a very popular writer of Austen’s era, and someone Austen cites in her letters more than once, and clearly regarded as a peer and rival. The participant is then offered a copy of Self-Control to read online. The book has been reprinted in an inexpensive edition in the 20th century but for those who don’t have a copy, here is a chance to read a contemporary text from the context Austen was part of. The reader given the text of Henry’s hagiographic defensive piece and a couple of comments if listened to suggest how this is shaped to suit Henry’s respectability agenda.

And finally at the bottom of one of the sections, linked in is Dow and Katie Halsey’s essay, “Jane Austen’s Reading: the Chawton Years,” Persuasions Online, 30:2 (spring 2010). It is excellent, much improved on the older one by Margaret Anne Doody in David Gray’s Companion Handbook, or the one in Janet Todd’s JA in context by Alan Richardson (“Reading Practices”). I feel that finally the real particular books Austen knew well and respected are singled out — partly this is the result of their having access to the list of books at Godmersham and the books at Chawton house. It’s the specificity of what is listed and the descriptions of content and book. These are taken from Chawton House and Godmersham libraries, culled from Austen’s letters and novels, and supportive contemporary circulating library lists. What she literally had available during her years living in Chawton cottage, in the Chawton house and Godmersham libraries, what is literally cited in the letters and culled from a close reading of the novels.If you are not “upgrading” (not paying) you can download these immediately, and it’s well to because when the 7 weeks or whatever the time is up, the whole thing will disappear unless you’ve paid them $50 by May 20th.


The Walled in Garden at Chawton

The video of a discussion between Kim Simpson (post-graduate fellow at the University of Southampton) and Stephen Bending (a historian and specialist in landscape gardening) on the gardens and grounds of Chawton offers real insight into the gendered nature of house landscaping. Austen’s representations of gardens and landscapes in her novels replicates what she saw in the cottages, country houses and estates around her. They talked of specific areas in the gardens at Chawton and in Austen’s novels, for example, the wilderness, a place using diagonal paths to suggest something somewhat less formal than a shrubbery near the house. You were supposed to contemplate your relationship with God (said Bending). A ha-ha is a sunken fence, it keeps sheep out of the controlled areas, and gives an impression of far more space than a given owner has when you look from it out to the distance. The garden, walled areas, and wilderness were feminised spaces, outside versions of the domestic spaces inside a house: women walked there and certain kinds of behavior were demanded. Beyond these pleasure grounds, hunting took over and these were considered male spaces. They quoted and explicated texts from Emma.

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19th century French edition of Isabelle de Montolieu’s Caroline de Lichtfield

I enjoyed the first part of this second week especially. Dow travels to France to speak to a French scholar, Isabelle Bour, Prof of English Literature at the Sorbonne, Paris, who has studied Isabelle de Montolieu among many other 18th and 19th century French women authors. They describe Montolieu’s career (she was the famous woman), and how her translations of Austen differ significantly from Austen’s texts. I’ve read Montolieu’s translation of Sense and Sensibility and can vouch that they say is accurate. They talked about translation in general and touched upon Montolieu’s extensive oeuvre in original and translation work. One claim did puzzle me: Dow believes that Austen knew nothing of Montolieu’s translation of S&S. It maybe there is no proof or document showing Austen did know but from my research and (others I’ve read) and a line from an original source we know Austen read Montolieu’s Caroline de Lichtfield, gave a copy to Fanny Knight advising her to read it. I’ve argued (and so have others) that Caroline de Lichtfield is a direct influence on S&S.

I have a whole region of my website dedicated to two French women authors, later 18th into 19th, who influenced Austen and I put a novel each on in the French: Sophie Cottin’s Amelie Mansfield and Montolieu’s Caroline de Lichtfield. I wrote a short biography of Montolieu and my etext edition of Caroline and scholarship there have been commended in a peer-edited French journal. I know it’s been read by the equivalent of two high school classes in France. I reprint Montolieu’s preface to her two translaions: Raison et Sensbilite; or Les Deux Manieres d’Aimer. I discuss the preface to her La Famille Eliot, our l’ancienne inclination where Montolieu shows she has read all Austen’s novels and discerned repeating patterns in them (like the heroine experiencing agony from a tabooed and necessarily secret love for one of the heroes).

Dow and Professour Bour discuss translation in general briefly, and then go on to the idea of adaptation as a form of free translation: arguably Montolieu’s text is an adaptation: she adds passionate and sentimental scenes where Austen has none, and she changes the ending: Willoughby’s wife dies and he marries Eliza Williams.
Prof Bour was indignant at how Montolieu’s text is sold as a straight translation this year still (2018). Dow remarked that Montolieu’s translation of Austen’s title as Raison et Sensibilite takes into account the the two are not opposites in Austen’s book. She and Bour said the recent and the best translation of S&S so far as La Coeur et La Raison makes the opposition emphatic. I agree. I also agree La Coeur and La Raison is the best translation: it’s published by Pleiade; I own and have read it. it’s by a French scholar who understands Austen very well: Pierre Goubert.

Nancy Mayer and I discussed the idea that Austen did not know of Montolieu’s translation of S&S. Unless Gillian Dow has some proof that Austen did not know of the translation of her book I will continue to believe she did. Gillian may feel that’s Austen should have been indignant. But there was no copyright respected across nations. We also are missing many of Austen’s letters; may one did record her discomfort. I’d feel uncomfortable being told someone translated something I wrote until I saw the text or unless I knew the person’s work and could trust the person to translate without violation or false distortion. Part of my disbelief also comes from my sense Austen knew French literature of the period. She will carelessly (effortlessly) refer to French texts in passing. circulating libraries included French texts; as English texts were published in Paris so French texts were published in London. Friends shared books too.


In my judgement the best translation of Austen into French thus far: Felix Feneon’s late 19th century Catherine — see my published essay, “Jane Austen in French,” Ekleksographia Wave Two, October 2009

I’m not saying Austen read her novel in Montolieu’s translation, only that she probably knew of it. She and her family members seem to have been so tight on money when it came to “luxury” expenditures. Nowadays we’d say why does she not obtain a copy and read it. Think about how she did not pay back that 10 pounds that in 1803 the publisher gave her for Northanger Abbey until 1816 when she had had 4 successes and was determined to rewrite and publish the book. I suspect that was she didn’t want to spend the 10£ – nor her family! she clearly had a manuscript of her own as she threatened to publish it unless the publisher sent it back; he responded insultingly he would sue her unless she paid him the money he had bought the copyright with. Imagine such a state of finances. We might conjecture that the French S&S never came to London because why should it? it stayed in France and was sold there.


Stephen Frye as Mr Johnson coping with Jenn Murray as Lady Lucy Manwarring and Xavier Samuel as Reginald de Courcy (2016 Love and Friendship, scripted and directed by Whit Stillman)

After the interview with Isabelle Bour on Montolieu’s and other translations of Austen into French, there was an attempt to define a set of qualities or elements in a film that might made it “Austenesque.” You might ask why the speakers did not simply say “like Austen:” they wanted to define characteristics that are not necessarily in or like Austen at all but have come to be thought to be like her: one example I’ll give is romantic. Many Austen fans associate her books with romance and strong sentiment and yet this is not her quality or tone. They had in mind qualities films have made Austen associated with. The speakers in a video were Dr Will May and Dr Stephanie Jones, Dr Shelley Cobb and Kim Simpson

One problem for anyone listening is that they were talking on a level of high abstraction and generality: I felt that was to avoid offending: by not becoming concrete or giving examples, they could be less held to adverse response. They also could extend the idea widely – so widely that they came to the conclusion that Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan is Austenesque and so is Clueless, and it’s arguable that within the Austen film canon two films could not be more unalike. Considered against lots of films that cannot at all be said to have anything to do with Austen (action-adventure) they might be seen as alike : women centered, about falling in love and getting married. They included clips from Clueless and Metropolitan.


Aubrey Rouget aka Fanny (Carolyn Farina) and Tom (Edmund Clements) discuss Lionel Trilling’s essay on MP: Aubrey says she finds Fanny very likeable (1990 Metropolitan, Stillman)

But to me at least terms extended so far become far less useful. Also I thought of P&P and Zombies where a film type — the horror film – and actions so endemic to American films nowadays – grotesque cruelty and violence – are now in the Austen canon. Yet I felt as they talked the term was not invented just to reify their ideas into some academic like category – it had a kind of usefulness to carve out an area of feeling and thought viewers associate with Austen. OTOH, a little while later it had the same feel of emptiness or barrenness or maybe thinnness I felt in other parts of the two weeks’ materials. This time it was not a result of the target someone who knew very little about the topic because clearly the people decided to one-third of only two weeks into movies because they expected the people who registered to know a lot of these Austen movies.

They also asked if Mansfield Park was a radical novel and the consensus seemed to be yes, sort of. No one objected to the idea that Clueless is Austenesque; there was no discussion of Emma in relationship to Clueless. This was just the sort of thing that was disappointing. For myself Clueless is one of my least favorite of the more famous Austen films (there are now more than 35 of these): I feel it’s a descendent of the 1939 MGM Pride and Prejudice, more Hollywoodized and celebrity-worshipping than anything in Austen and those films influenced by it similarly misleading. Yes she can be broadly comic, but in the spirit of burlesque as in her Juvenilia.

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A detail of Cassandra’s drawing of Austen: her face

I didn’t try to engage in any conversation after I realized so many of the “learners” there had not read much beyond Pride and Prejudice and maybe one of two others of the novels — just the six and nothing else seems to me a basic expectation for anyone saying they have an interest in Austen. Also as I skimmed in the first what they said, I realized the talk was often a mirror of popular unexamined attitudes. As such, for example, the interest they displayed in a “Radical” Austen showed why publishers are eager to publish such books. I noticed very quickly the word “austenesque” was objected to as snobbish; why do we need such a term? In the first week the whole idea of examining someone’s reading offended a number of people as elitist. So one couldn’t say anything that was not centrally public media mainstream while they were also aggressive in unexpected (to me) areas. Like their resentment at discussions of what Jane Austen read. I can’t figure out what is the going cant sometimes. And if it’s particularly pious or anti-pious someone will defend it. In the second week there was more content from those commenting, more people contributed who had read Austen and some criticism and history, and I noticed people doing their dissertations. Then there appeared “mentors” replying to them, but I felt who was responded to was carefully chosen and words.

I did tell of my page on Montolieu, where you could find her Caroline de Lichtfield, a short biography, information about her, an essay-review of my etext edition as well as her preface to her translation of Sense and Sensibility. Eventually I had 18 replies, one from one of the mentors and one from Gillan Dow (Herself!), very generous of her to take time. I include her comment and my reply in my comments here over whether Austen may have known of Montolieu’s translation of Sense and Sensibility. It’s not just ego that makes me persist, but that it’s an important question if you are interested in the interaction between French and English literature of the 18th century and would like to make a convincing case for Austen having been immersed in the French memoirs and novels of the period just as much as she was in the English ones. And for the record I did spend the $50 so I could have continual (as long as Future Learn lasts and keeps this feature going) access to the material offered in the course.

Ellen

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From Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship aka Lady Susan (Chloe Sevigny as Lady Alicia, Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan)

Dear Friends and readers,

Friday was a long day. The morning was filled with yet more “pre-conference” activities,” and from these, Izzy and I went to a dance workshop. We both enjoy 18th century dancing, and for this day she wore an 18th century day dress, a lovely shawl and a hat I bought for her at the “Emporium.”


A photograph I took of her on our balcony

It was great fun, the dancing, but I was tired afterward and went back to the room, and so forgot that I had intended to go to a special “event,” a lecture on the churches Jane Austen attended. Probably this was the first disappointment of the conference and it was my own fault. A number of the other special events (like the dance workshop) one needed a ticket for, but not this. So I surmise the organizers didn’t think too many people would go. A friend told me it was many slides, pictures of the basic churches Austen attended in Hampshire, Kent, Bath, and London, and had a contemporary twist. What these churches do today. As I don’t know their names, I can supply no more than that.


Gillian Dow

Then the first event of the conference proper: Gillian Dow’s keynote speech called “The Immortal Jane Austen and Her Best-Loved Heroine, 1817-2017,” it was not about Elizabeth Bennet (as I expected), nor Isabelle de Montolieu, which the blurb led me to expect (a French writer was to be compared); she rather spoke at length about Germaine de Stael’s Corinne, or Italy and compared Stael’s heroine to Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet. Gillian began by offering the usual connections: while in London in 1815, Austen had a chance to go to a party where Stael was and declined (or so Henry implied), in her letters she tells Cassandra that she recommended a man at an assembly (who may have been deaf and thus not connected to what was happening) to read Corinne, presumably as a very good novel (December 27,1808); Stael read Austen and is said to have pronounced Austen’s books to be vulgar (commonplace, banal). Corinne was of course one of many contemporary novels by women Austen read and described. Then she quoted Virginia Woolf on how hard it is to catch Austen in the act of greatness.


The most felicitious translation into English available today: Sylvia Raphael’s Corinne, or Italy

Well, using the Victorian English translator of Corinne, Isabel Hill’s comments on Corinne, and conceding there was a lot more commentary in the 19th century by other women writers on Corinne than Austen’s books (George Eliot in Mill on the Floss, George Sand, Louisa May Alcott), and comparing scenes in Emma to Corinne as well as other novels to Corinne, Gillian critiqued Corinne to show that Corinne is unacceptably sentimental, Austen’s heroines are more interesting and believable characters than Stael’s heroine, so Austen has a staying power with contemporary readers and writers that Stael nowadays lacks. The larger context showed the “aftermath” or afterlife of Austen’s books. She recited an appalling poem to Austen by Kipling, talked of the publishing history of these and the illustrations that accompanied them (Corinne is part travelogue).

Gillian wanted to argue for the value of studying other women authors contemporary with Austen, as a way of understanding her context and achievement. It was a strong speech, but by emphasizing how superior Austen is, and Stael’s flaws she may have reinforced what she set out to discourage: the dismissal of other novels of Austen’s era — at any rate to the popular readership listening, not the academics so much who might read for historical reasons. The same holds true for some of the treatment by Ellen Moers who was the first in the 20th century feminist movement in literature to treat Corinne for its serious treatment of how women’s lives are shattered by society if they disobey the restrictive conventions. For my part despite its flaws, I love the book: its meditations on history, on culture, on travel and Italy, on Scotland are deeply stirring. And here we see where Stael has qualities and an experience on offer Austen doesn’t begin to think of.

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Chawton House

It was then time to go to the break-out sessions of which there were three that afternoon. Suffice to say that the paper I had wanted to go to for the first session (A), Jeffrey Nigro’s on illustrating Austen was cancelled; he had become ill and couldn’t attend, and didn’t have a good back-up. One of the problems at this conference for me was the target content was not Austen, but her aftermath, her reputation, what people did with her (as in writing sequels, making films), her fan groups. Peter Sabor’s talk on “the Digital Godmersham,” was on his work on a digital recreation of the library Austen used at Godmersham Park for Chawton House; he knows some of the books, and is researching to find more. Had I understood this was the content of his talk, I would have gone.

For the second session (B) I listened to Ruth Williamson give a crowded room a sensible history of what happened to Austen’s letters after she died. James Edward Austen-Leigh’s (JEAL) daughter, Mary wrote that a majority of Austen’s letters were destroyed by Casssandra; that Francis’s letters to Austen (three packets he saved all his life) were destroyed almost immediately after he died by an irate daughter (Fanny Sophia); JEAL used what was left for his biography of his aunt. Fanny Knight Austen’s son, Lord Brabourne published a semi-censored edition of Austen’s letters, with Chapman the first scholarly attempt to publish all we have edited impartially. She told of individual responses, and attitudes towards letters we find in Austen’s novels. In the discussion afterward she was a bit more interesting, saying for example, that readers read Austen’s letters as by a woman. Austen’s letters are crucially important for understanding her and her fiction, and I would have preferred a close reading approach towards the letters themselves.

There was one at that time (B) on using Pride and Prejudice as therapy (“I want my Mr Darcy”), had “Deciphering Mr Darcy” by Monica Alvarez on how other characters beyond Darcy were the center of attention for 19th century readers been on at that time I would have gone: another later talk (Saturday) by Sayre Greenfield and Linda Troost seems to have been on how Darcy was seen as a satiric figure before the 20th century; as described in the catalogue it looked like it was about which characters were most written about in the 19th century. Neither was (like Dow’s talk) engineered so as to try to give us insight into Austen’s text itself.

The last paper I heard, the early evening (C) session was Alice Villasenor’s “evidence from the archives.” She had diligently read contemporary local chronicles, especially about local elections (as these were reported on), but she had wanted to prove connections between specific big-wig individuals and Jane Austen, and there is no evidence, so it (seemed to me) was a matter of unsubstantiated nuances. She wanted to ferret out attitudes towards slavery of those few who got to vote and came up with the idea only “a small minority” (of a small minority of people) “wanted to keep the slave trade,” yet again the evidence was slim (in an election only 16 people voted against abolition of the slave trade). Again I might have done better to listen to Jane Darcy talking of “periods of anxiety and cheerlessness” in Jane Austen. I spoke with someone who had gone to that, and she said Ms Darcy talked about the underlying conditions of Austen’s characters, threat of genteel poverty, Emma’s father so frail and dying (perhaps). I think Austen’s texts are far more melancholy than many readers seem willing or able to understand.


Whit Stillman

Later evening there was a great treat: in one of the large rooms JASNA screened Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship, a film adaptation of Lady Susan. (Despite his using a title of one of Austen’s juvenilia, this film had nothing to do with that.) I’ve written about the film in a blog so will not write about the film here. I had noticed (too late) that there were two talks in the conference on this film. One for the B session, by two people, Pauline Beard and Jennifer Snoek-Brown, where they proposed to briefy “overview” the novel, show clips from the film and then thrown the discussion to the audience on the topic of “moving from letters to narrative.” I’m not sure that Stillman’s film is a narrative. Another by Margaret Case proposed to compare clips from Stillman’s film with clips from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to see what they “illustrate” about “the ‘mix’ of violence” and “romance” in Austen’s novels. she labeled her talk half-comically, “seriously” perhaps because some fans refuse to take this Zombie movie seriously, but it can be treated seriously as another example of the ratcheting up of violence everywhere in US films (“The Violent Turn”).


From Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Lily James as Elizabeth Bennet (2009, Sethe Graham-Smith)

Stillman’s talk was done as an interview by an Austen scholar, Peter Graham, who brought along carefully devised questions. Stillman mostly ignored these or turned them around to talk interestingly about his film and a novel he has written out of the film since, Love & Friendship (In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated). He did the same after Last Days of Disco: wrote a good novel taking off from the matter of his movie. Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards is a sophisticated commentary on young adult life in the middle and upper middle class in the US in cities (which he had been part of), as well as books like Austen’s in genre (melancholy-satiric comedies of manners, a favorite kind with him). He was there partly to sell his second movie book. He told us about how he had been very depressed as a young man, and tried Northanger Abbey which he thought an essay on books in the form of a novel. Much later he went on to read Mansfield Park, and realized how Lionel Trilling had misread it. Stillman made Metropolitan to refute Trilling and turned Fanny Price into his heroine, Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina played the part). He so loved Kate Beckinsale in his Last Days of Disco, saw her as perfect as a heroine in a Cold Comfort Farm kind of book (by Stella Gibbons, and in his mind the same kind of satire as Northanger Abbey), so he wanted her for Austen’s satirically derived Lady Susan. He insisted Lady Susan is not an early book; if the manuscript comes from 1905 that’s a suggestion the book was written after 1805 not before.


From Stillman’s Metropolitan: Audrey Rouget aka Fanny and Edward Clements as Tom Townsend aka Edmund discussing Trilling on Mansfield Park (1990)

To him it’s a serious challenge to make a film from an Austen novel because these books are masterpieces; he didn’t feel confident that he could imitate an 18th century voice; turning to contemporary comic actresses and actors helps. He had wanted to write novels, but found this was not his metier, and turned to film as a substitute, trusting to a belief there were enough intelligent film-goers to react to his work as an attempt at realization. He then went into particulars of his film this time; he was trying to take the characters further, extrapolating out of what Austen had written. He likened Lady Susan to her as a (hidden, self-obscuring) social climber. He talked about how Austen never went as far as moral nihilism in her work, and instead as she grew older became more moral (his movie injects Christian themes into the text explicitly). He did not think Austen meant to repudiate her. He said how hard it was to make a period movie; you need and he had “very good people,” but he was limited by costs.

His talk on the whole had been about his own response to Austen, how she fitted into his life, and when I got back to the room I noticed there had been a talk that day (by Lisa Tyler) on “how Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Mansfield, Kate Boyle [an artist who painted], Virginia Woolf, Thornton Wilder and Ezra Pound perceived and acknowledged Austen’s influence.” All of these people were artists of the 1920s, pre- and just post-WW1. Austen is not usually thought of as important to this “Modernist” generation, though she was to Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster (who hated the Austen who emerges he felt from the letters). Those comments on Austen by these people I’ve read suggest they see the aesthetic value of her novelistic art (anticipating Mary Lascelles’s early book on Austen’s art), assume she was the spinster JEAL projected (and thus made her disliked by someone like DHLawrence). Wharton is more than an admirer; she imitates at a distance some of them. Austen is clearly important personally to Stillman, and that’s why he has made three genuine movies (Last Days of Disco has scenes imitative of Emma, and the two heroines are like Elinor and Marianne, a doppelganger).

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Isobel Bishop (1902-88), An Image of Austen or woman writer of the 18th century

I thought I’d end this second blog not with a poem but a brief commentary from Devoney Looser’s The Making of Jane Austen on post-Austen matters connected to the above talks: plays and films made after, about, in imitation of Austen. She was the keynote speaker the next day. In Looser’s chapter on early dramatizations of Austen (among others by Rosina Filippi), Looser argues they show the heroines in the novels as strong, assertive women, and argues they were popular because of this. They present Austen’s novels as centering on the interactions between women, she goes on to analyze several plays written in the 1930s derived from Pride and Prejudice.

What is interesting, Looser says, is how these scenes and playlets anticipate critical and popular outlooks on Austen since then. Among other things, what she shows is that a play by Mary Keith Medbery (Mrs Steele) Mackay began an emphasis on Darcy and changing of his character from the one we find in Austen which has taken over since then. MacKay’s Darcy is a kind of Heathcliffian or Bronte-like realization of Darcy. The best known of these is by Helen Jerome, partly because it was popular and then influential on the 1940 movie by Stromberg, featuring Laurence Olivier as Darcy, Greer Garson as Elizabeth: this movie aslo altered Austen’s emphasis on the book as Elizabeth’s story so that it begins to become Darcy’s story, says Looser. I own a copy of this play and read it in the light of what Looser writes. Yes, scenes are invented to make Darcy’s distant and arrogant character more likeable, and like Davies, Jerome fills in the absent time in the novel when we are to assume he changed his mind about Elizabeth with scenes of him working on behalf of Lydia.


Colin Firth as Darcy writing his letter of explanation to Elizabeth (1995 P&P, scripted Andrew Davies)

Several other aspects of Jerome are worth noting. In P&P there is hardly a scene between Jane and Bingley: Jerome writes several (Davies does his best to present pantomime scenes between Jane and Bingley) “to fill out this gap.” Looser suggests that Jerome identified with Lydia and Lydia becomes a more central character, not the fool she is in Austen, and Wickham a sexualized false cheating hypocrite who allures her by how he apes romantic males of the era in books and movie (Jerome endured a parallel relationship in her life). Jerome sentimentalizes Elizabeth (and she cries more than once), and most striking of all, Elizabeth apologizes to Darcy and he has the last word in the play. ritual apologies and humiliations are common for women in many many movies.

In a play called Dear Jane,written by Eleanor Holmes Hinkley, and directed and produced by Eva LeGallienne and her lover-companion or partner, Josephine Hutchinson, we are returned to woman-centered book, and lesbian reading of Jane and Cassandra’s relationship (I add it anticipates part of Miss Austen Regrets with Olivia Williams and Greta Scacchi in the roles). It does much more than this but this is the main thrust. It apparently failed very badly in the theaters, was understood by some critics and mocked. Looser says both this and the previous accompany new attitudes towards Austen which seek to end the view of her as a asexual (or frigid) spinster, give her a sexual life and independent character fit for a career characteristic of mid-20th century women.


From Miss Austen Regrets Olivia Williams as Jane and Greta Scacchi as Cassandra in one of their many intense scenes together (2009, scripted Gweneth Hughes)

All these plays increasingly present Mr and Mrs Bennet as happily married by the end – I was struck how in the 2005 Wright Pride and Prejudice, Wright made them into a sexually satisfied couple. Looser is much taken with knock-about comedy and face and she discusses a script that was never produced but intended for an Austen movie after the Stromberg film that turned P&P into farce, but wanted to include Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier to play Mr and Mrs Bennet in happy old age together.

Looser has a very long chapter on the production of the 1940s film. Many scripts, many endless changes, most of which show that until Huxley and Jane Murfin (the final screenplay writers) came on board, the last thing that interested MGM was to be faithful to Austen. They were very dubious about any popularity such books could have –- over in the UK there was more sense that these books did have a following (maybe since Speaking of Austen by Kaye-Smith and Stern a book discussed in the conference in the last Saturday afternoon session). The movie was in fact not the popular hit that was longed for (in the way of Wuthering Heights, Rebecca and Mrs Miniver at the time) and there was no commercial movie of Austen in the cinemas until the 1990s.

As I wrote last time, Looser refuses to evaluate this material and clearly from the quotations some of it is drek. We do see what stage play and movie makers assumed were popular responses to the Austen, and how they turned her round to reflect their own lives (like Stillman). Even more telling to me is how Looser is showing the slow growth of popular celebrity for Austen and how this celebrity has nothing to do with the actual content, tone or nature of her books (often acid, anti-society, showing family life as internecine, unsentimental, not heterosexual), which seems in fact to be anathema to any wide readership.

On Janeites the other day Nancy Mayer wrote of how the sequels often have little feel for Austen’s texts. At the JASNA dinner I sat at a table where three of the people has read no Austen; two had seen a lot of the movies. At the front of the room was the familiar silhouette that has become a tiny symbol for Austen –yet there is no evidence for thinking it’s a portrait of Austen. It was found in a book connected to her. To my eyes the outline of the face does not look like Austen particularly. The emptiness of a celebrity image was my thought as I sat there.

Now, writing this blog, I remember how Gillian Dow mourned Austen’s early death, asking all to recall that she was cut off from she might have written had she lived. Q.D.Leavis was accurate in pointing to the similarities and repetitive patterns in the six published novels. They were after all in their final state written within 7 years. Would she have developed in a new direction?

Ellen

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The Door (2016, Istvan Szabo, Helen Mirren as Emerence)

Then she actually tried to leave, throwing herself out of the bed …. if she live to old age, must probably sink more … Emerence, The Door, Miss Bates, Emma

Friends and readers,

I’ve been listening to this translated Hungarian text byMagda Szabo read by Sian Thomas and occasionally reading it myself for the last few weeks, and it is has had mesmerizing effect on me. It helped me to think about it in terms of Austen’s Emma: the narrator is often as clueless and blundering as Emma; much irony directed at both women, and there are intriguing parallels.

The narrative is a book-long monologue by a woman never named, an apparently well-educated so middling to upper class novelist (“lady novelist” others call her) who was prevented from publishing for too many years under the communist regime, but since some unexplained change, can not only publish but has become popular, widely read, wins a (unnamed) prize. It comes across very strongly: it’s one of these semi-autobiographical novels so common in our age; perhaps the most intriguing thing about it is whether we are to read it as a novel or autobiography, probably both. This skein of this story in outline is that of Magda Szabo who hired a local more working class woman, child of a carpenter but with what we might call a peasant’s mentality, to serve her in just the way the second presence in the book does. Her name Emerence. Emerence cleans for a living, perhaps paid by the government for caring for several buildings and the street — she endlessly shovels the continual snow Hungary seems afflicted by — but goes well beyond that, not only hiring herself out to individuals to housekeep, clean, shop, and cook, but acting as an angel of charity with gifts of food in a beautiful crystal bowl to anyone in the neighbor who is ill, depressed, momentarily (I suppose she cannot this up) broke.

The story is that of their shared lives (so Magda would have us believe) their relationship with intense emotional ups and downs, fierce quarrels (at least on Emerence’s side), deep confidences by Emerence in moments of high passion to the narrator over many years. While the narrator complains Emerence is so private, we learn very little about the narrator’s private life. Emerence’s tales of herself are more than a little improbable, like some mad folk tale from the Renaissance: her twin siblings under the care are hit by lightening standing both a tree, both at once turned to ash after a series of deprivations felt as nightmares are inflicted on Emerence. Her mother’s first husband dies, the second is a tyrant; after the death of her twins, she throws herself down a well. I felt very angry with the stance on the side of atavism, an archaic woman, Emerence by name, someone often raging, furious, deeply resentful, who (paradoxically) seems to spend her life serving others almost selflessly.

Yet the narrator never endorsed Emerence’s rage or said it was understandable, what she seemed to admire was Emerence’s intransigence, her refusal to be tolerant of others at least in theory. Magda evinces or tries to a modern enlightened tolerant attitude towards all about her, we could call it religious humanism, for (paradoxically) Magda is religious to the point of unexpected beliefs: she goes to church weekly because she believes she can get into contact with beloved dead relatives and friends, especially her parents while there. Magda does not always believe Emerence’s told autobiography: the catastrophic disasters come too thick, fast, in extremis: for example, deep cruelty her traditional family subjected her to as when they believed she had given birth to an illegitimate child while the truth was she rescued a Jewish baby from probable extermination. Magda has bad troubles: her husband becomes very ill, and has to be taken to hospital to have a many-houred operation and then recuperates very slowly. (Szabo’s husband dies relatively young.). In the modern way.


With Martina Gedeck as Magda

Why do I say the novel seems to side with archaic anti-intellectualism? Emerence’s fits of corrosive scolding are worst when she begins to castigate the novelist for not doing any work in her life. To Emerence, intellectual work is no work at all. Real worthy work is always physical. So my life would by Emerence be called one of indulged luxurious idleness — I also hire people to clean my house but not daily, once very 3 to 4 weeks for an hour and twenty minutes or so. At the same time, the implied author or novel insofar as she/it can vindicates Emerence’s assessment of what is immediately happening at any given time while often it’s ironically clear that Magda is a sort of Emma Woodhouse.

She sees Emerence mistakenly, obtusely. She persists in the idea that Emerence adores her, loves her, cares tenderly for her. Emerence laughs this to scorn, insults, does spiteful things, but all this is dismissed because forsooth, Emerence keeps working so hard. She is paid by more than money: she gets to be important by serving others, in effect seems to control and dominate them. Her circle of friends apart from her employer includes a woman who kills herself, Polette. Emerence does not try to persuade this woman to live but enables her to hang herself, write the letter of explanation for her. Asked why, she says the woman wanted to die but shapes this explanation angrily: how dare Polette be dissatisfied? were not her friends doing all they could by being her friend, helping her, did they have it any better. Well if Polette than wanted to die, let her. The narrator is horrified at what seems Emerence’s heartlessness, except that we can see how upset Emerence is as she speaks, and when accused of helping to kill Polette, Emerence bursts in hysterical grief. She was hiding this.

She is a great one for hiding, is Emerence. As the novels opens the narrator tells us how she is haunted by dreams of a door. The door is Emerence’s: most of her life since Magda has known her, Emerence would not let anyone in her house. The door barricades the world outside. Over the years, Magda learns that Emerence once had a cat with her, but the cat was tortured to death by a neighbor who believed the cat killed his pigeon, and that Emerence helped the cat. When Emerence accosted and blamed him, he killed a cat she had adopted as a substitute. Clearly Emerence has to protect herself. We learn much later that eventually she had nine cats in her house with her. In one of her stories Emerence claims that a powerful (unnamed but probably modeled on a real Hungarian politician who went into exile more than once) took refuge with her since she was so obscure and loved and respected her very much. She’s no proof. The house seems to have beautiful furniture which Emerence took over after the Jewish family (the Grossmans) whose child Emerence took were deported by train to a camp where they were murdered. The narrator is at first indignant at Emerence for profiting from this family’s horrific loss.

Once when the narrator is invited to give a talk at a conference in the village where she was born, she asks Emerence to come with her as Emerence comes from the same village. They will go to the cemetery together. At first Emerence says maybe, then no, then reluctantly (it seems) shows up and goes with the narrator, but somehow stays away from the cemetery. Our narrator finds the gravestones of Emerence’s family and it is after this Emerence tells the narrator the story of the baby she adopted and was ostracized for. But she won’t go and look or wander among the graves as does the narrator.

Time and time again I identified with Emerence — the woman who seemingly has never learned to, does not understand how one performs manipulatively. In my neighborhood I began to give food to what seemed a stray or lost cat, and briefly tried to find out whose the cat was and if someone would help rescue it. The lies one woman told, the pretenses of the others that they knew all about local Humane societies which would of course come out to help take away the cat, would never kill it (“euthanize” was their term), and one woman’s letter in which she tried to embarrass me because she was irritated lest her lawn be urinated or shat upon by this cat riled me up. This level of bonding was never recognized by the narrator, again reminding me of Austen’s Emma’s attitude toward Jane Fairfax. Emerence tells the narrator she is clueless (or some such word) because she has led such a privileged life, even if her work was not published for years. If Emma pays lip-service to Jane’s literal destitution (dead parents, no money of her own, must go out and endure the stifling humiliated life of a governess (read Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey sometime), her behavior is callously cruel: spreading rumors that can only hurt Jane’s reputation (her social capital such as it is), talking about her behind her back half-mockingly, and worst of all, indignant that Jane does not spill her soul. Why should Jane? I cannot say I ever bonded with the narrator, but then I most of the time don’t care for Emma.


Sandy Welch’s 2009 Emma: Emma (Romola Garai) comes upon Jane (Laurie Pyper) fleeing and feels for her

Emerence makes a feast for a friend she doesn’t identify. She goes to enormous trouble for this. She obtains from our narrator permission to do this in the narrator’s house. What happens? the friend doesn’t show. I wanted to feel for Emerence. She was was so irascible and bitter it was hard to. Turns out the friend is this adopted daughter Emerence saved who now lives in the US. She had planned to come to dinner because she had a business trip to Hungary, but the business trip was called off. Who would spend that much money and time just for a dinner. This friend-daughter told this to the narrator when she came to dinner at the narrator’s house. Perfectly reasonable in the contemporary world thinks the narrator. But is it? should not Emerence bes someone special? not be stood up.

Emerence was left with all this food. Gentle reader, I have been stood up this way. The trope is the archetypal broken feast. I would show up. I’ve seen and myself spent large sums just to travel to see someone or attend a party. Not that I was thanked for it: months later the person took against me (as if she resented my kindness) but was not at all angry with another “friend” who would not take 10 minutes of her time in NYC out to meet this woman who would have traveled from a remote outpost in Brooklyn anywhere anytime. But this other woman had prestige (including was standoffish which makes her more valuable). Like Emerence, I have over the years hardly ever (remember Mary Crawford said the synonym for this is “never”) been invited to dinner anywhere individually. Of course the narrator understands. She probably goes out to dinner regularly. Not Emerence. She has lunch in a kitchen by herself. Or eats on her porch with her peers keeping the door on the house firmly shut lest they see it. Who knows what they’d say? I was (rightly) mortified by the outside of my house until I renovated it ($60,000 is what it probably cost me) this year.

Yet at the close of the novel, when the narrator goes on about how she is responsible for Emerence’s death, and if that’s too strong, certainly for her misery and tragic losses leading up to it, I couldn’t quite see it. Emerence (we are told) is about 80 when the novel opens and she has just died, and the narrator is having these bad dreams about doors, especially Emerence’s, which she was not permitted to pass. What happened was she sickened badly from some (unnamed) fatal disease, perhaps heart trouble, and would not see a doctor. It appears that for a few years she had refused to work so constantly for our narrator and now she just retires into her house to die. Neighbors bring food which she takes in on the other side of the door, just sticking out her hand. Somehow the narrator learns Emerence is laying on the floor paralyzed. Terrible smells begin to come from the house. The narrator has just won her prize and is so busy running to do TV shows where (she tells us) she makes a fool of herself by imitating the bland hypocrisies of everyone else when she had planned to tell bald truths. Be herself. (But who is she?)

So after Magda has implied how much she loathes interference by gov’t or impersonal agencies, she obtains a doctor’s services, a lawyer and team to come to Emerence’s house, herself tricks Emerence (this does take effort) to open her door. Emerence has threatened to axe anyone coming in with a hatchet. She has one. Nonetheless, half-paralyzed, old, weak from lack of ood, Emerence is grabbed and hauled away to tests, hospitals, treatment and her life seems saved. But as in a film I saw earlier this year, A Man Called Ove (by Fredrik Bachman), where people from gov’t agencies and making money, burn down houses they say are unfit to live in, take away crippled people they say they have no money to support outside the institution and so devastate the people’s existences, so the people from the agency in The Door couldn’t care less about Emerence’s feelings, what has meaning for her, whom and what she loves: they fumigate or throw out everything that has rotted in the house over the weeks; don’t try to rescue the cats (four of whom end up as corpses). She is mortified by the exposure of her lack of dignity. Her ending is pathetic and while the novel can be read as comic, it is more often (if you think about it, pathetic).


The cats are in the film, seen eating from nine dishes, here on the garbage cans? — is it a comedy, do the cats here represent the two women?

How could Magda have tricked her this way? then run away to her TV show interview? Emerence seems to get better and interacts with everyone but the narrator. When the narrator arrives, Emerence puts a cloth over her face, pretends not to know her. Emerence can no longer work and this narrator has offered to take her in. Emerence is having none of it. Wisely probably as the husband would be rendered miserable by her living there, if only because his wife (our narrator) is obsessed by her. Emerence is all spite, the narrator all quiet sorrow. Again I thought of Emma picking out the best, the very best arrowroot to send to Jane and it was rejected summarily. Emma came by with her carriage to offer Jane a ride. It would have indeed killed Jane to get in as it was Emma who had stirred up the antagonism between Jane and her clandestine lover, Frank, breaking them up — if she had no pride in front of him what would happen if she married him with his insensitive ways? Well Emma meant well, was doing the right thing, no? Emma never meant to break them up. Emma didn’t know they were engaged. She wants to help Jane. And let’s not forget at the end of Emma, Austen so far forgives Emma that she has Jane come out and gush in front of Emma, all apologies for not being open and all gratitude. I so loathe that scene.

It will be seen that this is very much a woman’s novel, a study of a relationship between a privileged upper class employer and a lonely woman utterly dependent on her labor who no one helped much. Emerence hates the church because when she went the other women giving out charity gave her a fancy dress. She took this as their comment on her clothes. Their respect for her to her became hypocrisy. What are they in church for? and anyway how can one believe in a reasonable benevolent or any God or meaning given experience? She makes out a will leaving what she claims is enormous amounts of money to her brother’s son (a nephew she doesn’t get along with) and the narrator and now the narrator has spoilt this bequest. It’s been written more often as about two women friends, peers who are very bad for one another, frenemies: recently Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend and three more novels centering around a relationship. Margaret Atwoood’s Cat’s Eye. And of course Harriet and Emma in Austen’s emma. Novels of mothers and daughters. A few women in the book club saw Magda as playing the role of mother to the narrator. Marianne Hirsvh writes a long intelligent about the centrality of the mother-daughter relationship in women’s books (The Mother-Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism). What woman writer worth her salt doesn’t write books about pairs of women at some point?

But it’s made to carry larger meanings.

Including the relationship of fiction to autobiography. After all if this is a fiction, Szabo has made the narrator and Emerence up. The joke is on the reader when the reader is made to feel that the narrator is lying and Emerence could not have acted like that and got away with it. She has to approve her employer. Could anyone endlessly sweep snow the way Emerence is said to? Sometimes the narrative detail is symbolic. At the end of the novel what is left of Emerence’s furniture is said to turn into dust.

The style in Rix’s hands is concise, strong sentences, not meandering at the same time it can be remarkably lyrical. In her introduction to the New York Review of Books edition, Ali Smith thinks it’s a novel about survival tactics, a study of “authenticity versus fakery,” of “old Hungary” versus the “new” (Emerence being the old? this narrator a new kind of person?) In a review in the New York Review of Books (April 2016), Deborah Eisenberg thinks it’s about two people who need one another, need people, the gulf between people and “rationales” we tell one another to excuse ourselves for “failing” to cross the door and “the costs of love.” The anonymous writer of the Gale Scholarly entry writes:

“Ultimately, however, the novel represents more than the struggle of two individuals to understand each other; the conflict veiled by the plot actually amounts to an inner struggle. Emerence is a moral genius–in the Kantian sense–who is part of all. She goes through the hells of human experience, recollects the barbaric and tragic events of fate, is capable of essential movements only, is generous, and in her every relationship seeks to defend and develop her own dignity. The novel is more than the struggle of two types of persons for mutual understanding; it is a duel that is really an inner struggle. Emerence and the fiction writer are then two sides of the same person. A human fragmented into roles searches for the self, for the Emerence that lives in all.”

All very satisfying, wholesome even. A doppelganger as the posters for the film imply.

A Hungarian reader, Clara Gyorgyey (World Literature Today, 69:4, 1995) finds Emerence to be magical, surrounded by mystery, a mythic figure (the narrator does go on about her being a goddess, a Valkyrie at one point), everyone is cured, animals obey her. (She takes over a dog, Viola, whom the narrator and her husband rescued from a cruel death by burying her alive in the streets.) John Cunningham says the film adaptation by Istvad Szabo (no relation, and it’s available at Amazon prime) is disappointing even if it has Helen Mirren as Emerence. I agree there; it’s so bland, he just didn’t know what to do with this troubling book. He made Emerence too soft, too approachable and realistic too. At this book club some of the women (all were women that day and most days most are women I gather) tried to categorize and tuck it away. One person said it didn’t have a “good” message; another (me) that there was precious little joy or satisfaction in the love or relationships people took some considerable risks for. It might be the narrator is made very happy by this husband she is devoted to, but we don’t see this. As far as we can tell, he’s an avoider. There was someone who said it was disquieting. We could take it as life-writing where Szabo tries to tell of the recent and older history of Hungary, the lives of vulnerable woman, of whom she is one, and cannot tell directly — as she could not take down any doors when on TV. Nor does Austen reveal herself directly either. But she is everywhere in Emma.


From Andrew Davies’s 1996 Emma: Harriet (Samantha Morton) shows Emma (Kate Beckinsale) Mr Martin’s letter

Ellen

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Joshua Reynolds, c 1763-5: previously “George Clive & his Family with an India Maid” (c 1763-5)

Dear friends and readers,

Amid all the hoopla 200 years on from Jane Austen’s death on July 18, 1817, one essay stands out: Charlotte and Gwendolen Mitchell’s identification of Austen’s aunt, her cousin, and their husband/father and maid in a painting by Reynolds. The essay comes at the end of a series of articles discussing the celebrity status of Austen, recent and older books on her, the films, and fandom (as it’s called) in the July 21, 2017 issue of Times Literary Supplement, a compilation resembling the one I described found in the New York Times Book Review (and doubtless countless others in other magazines, periodicals, websites, blogs, video media), in this case closely as to pages (16). The quality of the articles, the tone, and (by virtue of this essay alone) substance is much better than the NYTimes Book Review. I’ll review these briefly before turning to the pièce de résistance of the set, original research on a painting hanging in a gallery in Berlin.

The series opens with a witty essay from an unexpected standpoint: unlike all the other opening gambits of this “celebration” (an over-used word) of Austen I’ve come across, the TLS begins with someone who is decidedly neither a fan of Austen scholar: Ian Sansom assumes that “like most other sane people” (in fact he is hostile to Austen worship and not keen on her novels), he has only a few dog-eared copies of her novels. After quoting Woolf’s fascination with Austen and characterization of her her readers and critics as genteel elderly people liable to get very angry at you if you criticize Austen in any way, and their remarks as as so many “quilt and counterpanes” on Austen “until the comfort becomes oppressive” (this can be taken as misreadings of a sharp hard text kept from us), describing the paraphernalia that comes with “dear Jane” (Henry James’s formulation) and some mocking descriptions of Yaffe’s book on the fandom, and a couple of other books no one much mentions (one I have an essay in, Battalgia and Saglia’s Re-Drawing Austen: Picturesque Travels in Austenland), he has a good joke: much of this comes from the money and social capital to be made so it’s fitting she has been turned into money itself (the face on a £10 note) — especially since money is a central theme of her books. He then goes on to make a fairly serious if brief case for seeing her novels as not so much as over-rated, but wrongly unquestioned, and not seriously critiqued for real flaws.and retrograde attitudes: “What’s it [the hoopla is] all about is what it’s avoiding.” He is refreshing with his debunking and his own genuinely enough held ideas about what is valuable in the novels individually: My complaint is he asserts now and again his views on particular critics is right and on the novels held “by almost every else,” viz. Mansfield Park is “the most utterly unendearing of all Austen’s works.” In the end he (perhaps disappointingly) he defends Austen against Bronte’s accusation there is no passion in Austen. I like that he is so fond of Northanger Abbey, though I cannot agree with it: “this is the novel in which Austen comes closest to a rounded presentation not only of human society, but also of human consciousness.” But read his many-columns of reflections.

There follows a similarly sceptical article by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, an essay on amy Heckkerling’s Clueless, as the finest of all the Austen films on the grounds it’s comic and an appropriation (transfers the material to a contemporary LA setting). The attitude fits the essay into those which look upon the dramatic romance mood so common to most of the Austen cannon (especially the Heritage mini-series) as dull, not fun (Austen here is fun). But he too has an unexpected turn: it seems the movie is badly dated (as comedy often is so rooted in particular time and place), a mirror or a group of attitudes, postures from its 1990s era, and leaves out much that gives Austen’s Emma depth. It’s “sunny optimistic” (“light, bright and sparkling” is not an ironic phrase by Austen it seems but truly accurate for her best work), finding in fashions, in the surfaces and undangerous manners of life what Austen intended to give us (maybe she did this consciously when she began each novel, and in her talk about them in her letters she remains mostly light — when not moral. Douglas-Fairhurst does concedes the film leaves out much that gives Emma its depth: it offers us, a half-empty glass despite its implied self-congratulatory assertion it is itself more than half-full.


So Hugh Thomson’s 1890s illustrations are appropriate after all — it seems

Things become more usual for a bit as TLS then offers the famous people’s points of view (a paragraph or so each), except that there is a sense in the way they are arranged that each known presence tells us more about themselves than Austen. The group printed include mostly those who praise Austen strongly, those who came early (I’m among these) or say they came to her late but learned to respect and value her books highly; you have to read these with care since all are diplomatic (even those who register some doubt, e.g., Lydia Davis, Geoff Dryer — I wish people would not call the heroine of Pride and Prejudice Lizzy Bennet, as no one but Mrs Bennet refers to her by this nickname). You can find among these potted pieces authentic (meaning not repeating the usual things, not cant) readings. For myself I like Claire Harman’s take best: she emphasizes how long it took Austen to get into print; consequently how little time she had before she (as it turned out) died young, that her career might have been very different, but that perhaps the long period of freedom, of writing for herself, not seeking to please others before she turned to publication (not a stance usually taken nowadays) made her books much subtler, with much art for its own sake; and demanded great strength of purpose and character in her (an “uncheerful but utterly rational self-belief”) and made for better books.


From Miss Austen Regrets, a rather more somber and much less luxurious film than most: Olivia Williams as Jane and Greta Scacchi as Casssandra getting ready for church in their plain bare room

But the editor turned back and as opposed to the representatives of famous writers and scholars brought out in the New York Times to judge recent books, we are offered Bharat Tandon’s uncompromising evaluations who has devoted much of his scholarly life thus far to Austen. For the first time I saw why some of those who choose key speakers for JASNAs chose him this past autumn. At the JASNA itself alas his speech went over badly — because it was an audience he was not comfortable talking to at all, and so he punted and hesitated and they were bored anyway (and complained later). Tandon reviews some of the same books found in the New York Times Book Review (and elsewhere) but by contrast does not slide by what is wanting. Thus Lucy Worseley’s TV documentary misses out what one might want to know about the houses Austen visited and lived in: she takes you to them, offers glamorous film, but then just gasps out exclamations of how wonderful Jane is or this house is, not about its history say, actual status then or now — nor how its influence might be found in the novels. Looser is again highly praised as is Paula Byrne: though Tandon reminds us Byrne’s “new” book represents her two books rehashed for more popular consumption. Byrne does add a chapter on the film adaptations, and Tandon reveals he is another film-goer who prefers the commercialized comedies in movie-houses to the TV mini-series. This is a lack: the deeply felt dramatic romances bring out important realities in Austen’s texts to which readers respond, and their adherence to women’s aesthetic gives filmic representation to important functions Austen has had in the worlds of art. A book I had not heard of by a critic I admire (she writes on gothic, Radcliffe, de Sade), E. J. Clery has written a biography placing Austen in her brother’s banking world: “the banker’s sister.” I wrote two portraits of her brother (Henry, the 4th son, a shrewd individual mind …) and sister-in-law, Eliza Hancock de Feuillide Austen, kindly, strong, deep feeling, thoughtful, a mother and Hasting’s daughter) when close-reading the letters for four years in this blog and know that neither Eliza nor Henry are usually done justice to. And we are back to the worlds of money in Austen. Tandon is at moments super-subtle, but he brings in new analogies, sources (Cecily Hamilton , a suffragist turns up). This beautiful sculpture — an image of it — graces his essay — this Jane Austen is recent, commissioned 2017 by Hampshire Cultural Trust and is by Adam Roud.

Tandon is worth more than one reading, and his description of Henry’s commercial world is a fitting lead-in to the last long essay by the Mitchells identifying a picture by Joshua Reynolds long thought to be of a Clive family group as Tysoe Saul Hancock, his wife Philadelphia, their daughter Elizabeth and their Indian maid Clarinda. Eliza was Henry’s wife, and he was not unlike her first husband in his (unsuccessful) attempts to curry open favor (and advantage) from William Hastings (in a transparent letter). The argument is complicated and I cannot do it justice in this necessarily short blog. They first tell of an “obscure provenance” and how the identification of the figures with an branch of the Clives came to be accepted, why on the grounds of what we know about the specifics of George Clive’s family in the early 1960s make this identification not probable. Making the new identification persuasive is harder, but the Hancock family and their maid were in London in 1765, there are records of interactions between Reynolds and Hancock at this time,and best of all two recorded payments (3 guineas for the man, 50 for the woman) on days Reynolds notes sittings of the child, Miss Hancock, and a mention of “Clarinda.” The specifics of the individuals in the picture (age), that they resemble other pictures of these people helps the argument. Like others they are careful only to suggest that Hastings was Eliza’s father through the suspicions and ostracizing of the Hancocks in letters against the loyal friends who insist on Philadelphia’s outwardly virtuous deportment. I agree the child in the center is the right age for Eliza Hancock, and has the same tiny features in a large moon round face that is in the familiar dreadful miniature of Eliza; the woman looks pretty and some of the features like Philadelphia Austen Hancock, that Hancock himself is absurdly idealized is just par for the course (he was fat and looked ill). The essay includes speculation on where the picture was hung but also comments (to be accurate) by others at the time who identify the family as the Clives. I am more than half-persuaded. The picture which will be argued over but I feel the Mitchells do not add to their case by in their last paragraph sneering at non-scholarly Austen writers as “a motley crew of camp followers” (including bloggers).

You can hear (if you like) Emma Clery talking about Austen’s Emma in this BBC podcast set up by Melvyn Bragg to discuss Emma.

Ellen

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Cassandra’s drawing of Jane — close-up

“We are all offending every moment of our lives.” — Marianne Dashwood, Austen’s S&S

“We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing” — Elizabeth Bennet, Austen’s P&P

Sitting with her on Sunday evening—a wet Sunday evening, the very time of all others when, if a friend is at hand, the heart must be opened, and everything told…” Edmund from Austen’s MP

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

My dear Alicia, of what a mistake were you guilty in marrying a man of his age! — just old enough to be formal, ungovernable and to have the gout — too old to be agreeable, and too young to die … May the next gouty Attack be more favourable — Lady Susan from Austen’s Lady Susan

But why he should say one thing so positively, and mean another all the while, was most unaccountable! How were people, at that rate, to be understood? …. Catherine Morland from Austen’s NA

One does not love a place the less for having suffered in it, unless it has been all suffering, nothing but suffering….’ Anne Elliot from Austen’s Persuasion

Friends,

July 18th, 1817: Not, one might think, an occasion for happy commemoration. On that day a relatively young woman ended a long painful period of dying (dying is hard work), in bad pain (opium could not cope with it except as dope), cradled in the arms of her loving sister, a close friend, Martha Lloyd, and relatives near by. She had managed to publish but four novels, and no matter how fine, there were so many more she could have written or drawn from her stores of fragments. Two came out the next year, posthumously, one clearly truncated (Persuasion), the other not in a satisfying state according to Austen herself (Northanger Abbey). (Titles given by her brother and said sister.) She had been writing for 21 years at least before her first novel was published — Sense and Sensibility, by herself with money saved up and money and help from said brother, Henry and his wife, her beloved cousin, Eliza Austen. After Emma and a couple of unwise (seen in hindsight) decisions, she was just beginning to make money — or there was a hope of it. She was not altogether silenced as her books were reprinted in sets of novels over the 19th century, while over the next 170 years (1951 was the last date for a new text) fragments and letters by her emerged, albeit framed by contexts set up by her family and then academic critics. A sentimental identity was concocted for her by her loving nephew, Edward Austen-Leigh in 1870, in a memoir of her, an important year and publication because his portrait and picturesque edition was the beginning of a wider readership for her novels.

It will be said the poem she is said to have composed on her last days where she wrote: “Behold me immortal,” has been fulfilled. All her extant writings seem to be in print; some are widely read, the major six filmed over and over, and recently a seventh (Lady Susan) and an eighth (Sanditon) added, with influence on many other familial romanes and witty romantic comedies, and from her work, a growing number of appropriations to boot. All written and/or discussed in newsprint, on public media, TV, in conferences as of the utmost importance. Her fictions has been translated into the major languages of the world. Who has not heard of Jane Austen? A New Yorker joke of 30 years ago was a good alibi on the stand was you were writing a biography of Jane Austen. The Bank of England commmemorates her today with a £10 note.

Nonetheless, she had so much life left in her, she was so open to trying new trajectories, looking for new ways to develop her novels (as Persuasion and Sanditon seem to suggest), that the commemoration ought to be done with a sense of loss, of what might have been before us (and her) — as well as acknowledgement of what her journey’s end was. That this is not the tone can be accounted for in numerous ways, but a central one is the phenomenon of celebrity — as it is enacted in her case. For all such individuals, a kind of “ideological magic” (Theodor Adorno’s word) is ignited which may be sold through respected cultural industries’ institutions because it is recognized to confer power on people surrounded by this awe — such a person can get elected to be president of the United States however ill-qualified, or simply be worshipped as genius and each decade his or her identity (biography) reshaped to fit the new decade’s ideas of what is most admirable. That this re-shaping is going on before us can be seen in the various articles that were published in the New Times Book Review on Austen yesterday (on which more below).

For my contribution, for yes I’m pulling my little bandwagon along behind or with the others too, I’m prompted by Diane Reynolds’s fine blog on the first lines in Austen’s fiction.

I thought to myself, What more fitting in thinking how she was cut off, than her last lines? Tracing these in order of publication (so at least we know that there is evidentiary basis for our chronology),

Sense and Sensibility (1811):

Between Barton and Delaford there was that constant communication which strong family affection would naturally dictate; — and among the merits and the happiness of Elinor and Marianne, let it not be ranked as the least considerable, that, though sisters, and living almost within sight of each other, they could live without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands.

Pride and Prejudice (1813):

With the Gardiners, they were always on the most intimate terms. Darcy, as well as Elizabeth, really loved them; and they were both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons who, by bringing her into Derbyshire, had been the means of uniting them.

Mansfield Park (1814):

On that event they removed to Mansfield; and the Parsonage there, which, under each of its two former owners, Fanny had never been able to approach but with some painful sensation of restraint or alarm, soon grew as dear to her heart, and as thoroughly perfect in her eyes, as everything else within the view and patronage of Mansfield Park had long been.

Emma (1815):

The wedding was very much like other weddings, where the parties have no taste for finery or parade; and Mrs. Elton, from the particulars detailed by her husband, thought it all extremely shabby, and very inferior to her own. — “Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business! — Selina would stare when she heard of it.” — But, in spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.

Northanger Abbey (1817):

To begin perfect happiness at the respective ages of twenty-six and eighteen is to do pretty well; and professing myself moreover convinced that the general’s unjust interference, so far from being really injurious to their felicity, was perhaps rather conducive to it, by improving their knowledge of each other, and adding strength to their attachment, I leave it to be settled, by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience.

Persuasion (1817):

His profession was all that could ever make her friends wish that Tenderness less; the dread of a future War all that could dim her Sunshine. — She gloried in being a sailor’s wife, but she must pay the tax of quick alarm for belonging to that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance.

Lady Susan (1871)

For myself, I confess that I can pity only Miss Mainwaring; who, coming to town, and putting herself to an expense in clothes which impoverished her for two years, on purpose to secure him, was defrauded of her due by a woman ten years older than herself.

The Watsons (1871):

As for me, I shall be no worse off without you, than I have been used to be; but poor Margaret’s disagreeable ways are new to you, and the would vex you more than you think for, if you stay at home —
    Emma was of course un-influenced, except to a greater esteem for Elizabeth, by such representations — and the visitors departed without her.

Love and Friendship (1922)

Philippa has long paid the Debt of Nature, her Husband however still continues to drive the Stage-Coach from Edinburgh to Sterling: — Adieu my Dearest Marianne, Laura

Sanditon (1925)

And as Lady Denham was not there, Charlotte had leisure to look about her and to be told by Mrs. Parker that the whole-length portrait of a stately gentleman which, placed over the mantelpiece, caught the eye immediately, was the picture of Sir Henry Denham; and that one among many miniatures in another part of the room, little conspicuous, represented Mr. Hollis, poor Mr. Hollis! It was impossible not to feel him hardly used: to be obliged to stand back in his own house and see the best place by the fire constantly occupied by Sir Harry Denham.

Catherine, or The Bower (1951)

A company of strolling players in their way from some Neighboring Races having opened a temporary Theater there, Mrs Percival was prevailed on by her Niece to indulge her by attending the performance once during their stay — Mrs Percival insisting on paying Miss Dudley the compliment of inviting her to join the party when a new difficulty arose.

If we pay attention just to these last lines, we do not see the ironist and satirist primarily. Yes there is a barb in the Sense and Sensibility line; and the ending of Emma brings us yet another exposure of the complacent shallowness of Mrs Elton’s moral stupidity (she does though have the last word); however muted, some hard ironies in Lady Susan, plangent ones in Sanditon. In a novelist supposed to pass over death, two have direct allusions to death (fear of widowhood for Anne Elliot, a more pragmatic re-enacting of life now without the partner). If we cheat just a little and go back one sentence we begin to darker emotional ironies: Elizabeth Watson will stay in a seethingly bitter home so Emma can visit a brother not keen to have her. Go back two or three paragraphs, and we learn for Sense and Sensibility the moral of our story has been:

The whole of Lucy’s behaviour in the affair, and the prosperity which crowned it, therefore, may be held forth as a most encouraging instance of what an earnest, an unceasing attention to self-interest, however its progress may be apparently obstructed, will do in securing every advantage of fortune, with no other sacrifice than that of time and conscience.

More famously in Mansfield Park:

… Sir Thomas saw repeated, and for ever repeated, reason to rejoice in what he had done for them all, and acknowledge the advantages of early hardship and discipline, and the consciousness of being born to struggle and endure.

Lady Catherine de Bourgh puts in a final appearance before the happy coda of Pride and Prejudice:

But at length, by Elizabeth’s persuasion, he [Darcy] was prevailed on to overlook the offence, and seek a reconciliation; and, after a little farther resistance on the part of his aunt [Lady Catherine], her resentment gave way, either to her affection for him, or her curiosity to see how his wife conducted herself; and she condescended to wait on them at Pemberley, in spite of that pollution which its woods had received, not merely from the presence of such a mistress, but the visits of her uncle and aunt from the city.

Still, I suggest what we have in these last lines, is coda, resolution, a sense of quiet satisfaction at the way things turned out for the characters (like all of us far less than perfect people) at journey’s end. This continuum of stability, of order, of reasoned perspective is central to what many readers seem to value Jane Austen for still.

According to Cassandra, Austen’s last written lines were:

“Henceforward I’ll triumph in shewing my powers
Shift your race as you will it shall never be dry
The curse upon Venta is July in showers–‘.”

As Hermione Lee in a good book on biographical writing has shown (she is not the only biographer to do this), what is often asserted as the dying person’s last words won’t stand courtroom-like scrutiny. Emotionally involved people have their agendas just as surely any more distanced politicized (as who isn’t?) group of people. And it’s hard to remember or get the emphasis accurately: Cassandra says that towards the end of conscious life Austen said “she wanted nothing but death & some of her words were ‘God grant me patience, Pray for me Oh pray for me” (LeFaye’s edition of Austen’s letters, Cassandra to Fanny Knight, Sunday, 20 July 1817).

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Another portrait of Jane Austen by Cassandra — when she was in good health as may be seen from her strong body (see JA and Food). Some readers/critics complain vociferously that we don’t see her face refusing to recognize this was at the time a trope for absorption in landscape reverie

But, as I mentioned, the usefulness of Jane Austen as icon makes for a ceaseless attempt to get past such texts, peer into them to find what is wanted by the viewer, and pry something new out. I recall how Hamlet did not like being played upon by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Matthew Arnold congratulated Shakespeare that he eluded it: “Other abide our question; thou art free …” Since her nephew’s memoir, Jane Austen has not been so fortunate. And this pronounced phenomenon – the re-invention of Jane Austen as well as an exploration of who these millions of readers are (now recorded in book reading groups and blogs across the Internet) is found across the many publications this year. I’ll confine myself to what was printed in the New York Times Book Review and their Sunday Review for some examples.

The most to the point was John Sutherland’s on Helen Kelly’s JA: Secret Radical: at first he lightly and deftly, but definitely skewers Kelley: he picks out precisely the most untenable of her theses and arguments. I did not know that Kelley trashed Tomalin’s biography (I missed that), Sutherland picks up that as as well how she is deliberately insulting, provocative. One online review I read said she combines blog-style snark and literal readings with academic (sort of) approaches; I know that she misreads in a peculiar way: if we do not see Catherine doing something then she didn’t do it — no novelist conventions are allowed the usual play.

Bu then he says something significant: that the aim of Kelley’s book (as with many other readers who want to turn Austen into a political radical) is ultimately against the Marilyn Butler thesis that Austen is a deep conservative.  The problem here is as with other critics Kelley is dependent on, she no where mentions Butler. But the opposition is important: Butler’s thesis is persuasive and convincing in her first book especially, Romantics, Rebels and Revolutionaries because there Butler analyses at length true radicals in the era against which both Scott and Austen emerge as reactionary. Butler’s thesis fits  William St Clair’s about “the reading nation” that it is no coincidence Scott and Hannah More and Austen a little later were readily available and the likes of Wollstonecraft’s works and Charlotte Smith, Holcroft, &c were not. Butler’s edition of Northanger Abbey remains the best and she wrote the present authoritative ODNB of Austen.

Jane Smiley on Deborah Yaffe, a book about readers and writers of Austen, especially of the common reader kind (“Fandom”), complete with interviews. She is a journalist. Smiley says the second half of Looser’s The Making of Jane Austen contains worthwhile analyses: it is a “book history” book, tracing the literal publications, what they looked like, who bought them. It’s weak on illustrations, but then in the second half she discusses the way Austen has been discussed in the 20th century: by male academics, and then by women readers (Speaking of Jane Austen by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G. B. Stern is important), and now the new manipulations of her texts. Smiley feels just about all of Paula Byrne’s book on Jane Austen and the theater of the time teaches us in an interesting insightful way: about the theater, when Jane Austen went there, and how the plays of the era relate to her books. From my reading I find Byrne’s claims for sources in specific plays won’t bear scrutiny, but as a book about an aspect of the cultural world of Austen, it’s fascinating. Byrne’s other book (A life in Small Things) explores Jane Austen through small things she left and marginalized texts adds real information and readings of Austen’s life-writing.

Sutherland is followed by an essay by Lizzie Skumick on sequels, the writer and texts in question, Joan Aiken. I have one of them somewhere in my house and remember I found it unreadable. Then a Francesco Moretti like analysis of Jane’s vocabulary using computer cluster technology by Kathleen Flynn (who wrote the JA Project, a time-traveling tale, claiming to unearth further secrets about Austen’s private life and death) and Josh Katz. They find Austen uses many intensives (very, much), lots of abstractions, in fact defies prescriptions for good writing. What then is her magic? they fall back on interpretation (forgetting Sontag who we recall instantly was against interpretation) and argue the tension between appearance and reality, pretense and essence (a good nod to Marvin Mudrick book on irony in Austen: “defense and discovery” were her modes). Moving on, Rahhika Jones reveals no deaths in Austen’s pages while we are reading them — we hear of a stillborn Elliot. But we hear of a number of deaths before the fictions start is the truth. And these deaths are important: Lady Susan’s husband, her support, Mrs Tilney, Eleanor’s, Mr Dashwood — all these set the action and it’s not just a question of property and money. Not content, we get a quiz with “famous” people (small celebrities) who alluded to Austen. Finally on p 16 it gives out.

Not to despair, in the Sunday Review we find Devoney Looser arguing suggestively against the idea that Austen did her major writing on a tiny desk with a handy set of pages to push the little bits of writing under. It does sound improbable as long as you don’t take into consideration she might have done it once in a while when company was expected. Looser is also not keen on the assumption that Austen carried about much of her papers in a writing desk (rather like an ipad). Again it does seem improbable she took them all — but that she took some when she traveled (the way one niece describes) is demonstrated in one of her letters where she talks about a panic when her writing desk with was carried off in another carriage during trip. The desk was rescued.

Some of these revisions of Austen in each era’s image can add much to our knowledge. Such a book is Jan Fergus’s on Austen as an entrepreneurial businesswoman, a professional (a word with many positive vibes) writer. Each must be judged on (my view) on its merits as contributing to sound scholarship (documents explicated using standards of probability and historicism) or ethical insight into Austen’s creative work.

Susan Sontag in several of her essays on the relationship of art (especially photography) and life (especially the representation of pain, of illness) asks of works of art, that they advance our understanding of the real. Do they instead conceal reality under the cover of sentimental versions of what probably didn’t happen or not that way. Austen’s own fervent adherence to doctrines of realism in her era (probability, verisimilitude) suggests she thought the justification for her irresistible urge to write and to reach a readership is to promote an understanding of the reality of another person’s experience of life. I suspect such a standard would produce contemporary serious critiques of Austen’s fiction along the lines of the older irony-surveying Marvin Mudrick. This, as Amy Bloom on Lucy Worseley’s documentary about the houses Jane Austen lived in (also in the New York Times Book Review) concedes is not what’s wanted by a majority of Austen’s readers; Bloom reviews a BBC “documentary” (as much myth as fact) by Lucy Worseley on Jane Austen’s houses. It’s characterized, Bloom says, by “shameless ebullience” is a composite phrase using Worseley’s frank admission.

One counter is Elena Ferrante’s unusual (and obsessive) defense of anonymity as the only true way to elicit for a piece of art its value in its own right (not as belonging to some group, some identity, some agenda). While her choice of anonymity has been defended on the grounds she has a right not to tell her name or about her life, the principles she tirelessly repeats in Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey has not received the endorsement it should. Online when she has put an essay arguing why anonymity is important, against in effect celebrity (fame) and icon worship, commentators don’t believe she really thinks as she does. Her idea, like Sontag’s, Austen’s own, and numerous of Austen’s more sober critics, that it’s the duty of the fiction-writer to “get close to the truth” of reality calls out for more attention. Sontag puts it in her Regarding the Pain of Others, that falsehoods protect us, mitigate suffering, and allow us to avoid the terrifying moment of serious reflection (I condense and paraphrase).

Are there any terrifying moments in Austen. Yes. Some of this important material in found across her letters (which are often glossed over or dismissed on the grounds she never meant them to be read by others); some in the Austen papers (the life history of Jane Austen’s great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Weller Austen, how badly she was treated as a widow and her struggle to provide for herself and for her children), in Austen’s fiction, an undergirding of deep emotions held at bay, which I think come outs strongly in her treatment of death as experienced by widows in her fiction. At this level Austen also (in some words Victor Nunez gives his Henry Tilney hero in Ruby in Paradise about reading Jane Austen): “Saved me from evil. Restored my soul. Brought peace to my troubled mind. Joy to my broken heart” (Shooting Script, p 41).

It’s good the books survive, and some of the films, biographers, and literary critics do justice to them.


From the Jane Austen Book Club: Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) reading Emma

Ellen

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