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Friends and readers,

I’ve put off writing another blog on Ferrante since my first so long ago on her Days of Abandonment, I fear I’m too late to join in on the controversy that exploded in 2016 about her supposed anonymity.

Not bothering to disguise a vicious attack on this author, Claudio Gatti made a strong case that she was Anita Raja, known publicly thus far for her sympathetic translations of Christa Wolf (which she has written about), and then proceeded to do all he could to characterize her as a liar, someone trying to attract attention, and insinuate her husband, the Neapolitan writer Domenico Starnone, may have “helped” write her novels (see Alexandra Schwartz of the New Yorker, “The Unmasking of Elena Ferrante”). Reviewers and critics, especially when women, defended her right to be anonymous ferociously (Jeannette Winterson}: it was an attack on her as a woman writer; others said they couldn’t care less who the writer is, and it made no difference to know accurately the life or about the character of an author insofar as this is possible. People became mystic over how the mystery added to the books deepened them. Some said the novels are nothing but chick-lit, or they are the usual tired sentimental stories about women as victims. Look at the covers; in a more nuanced ways, objections were made to the paradigm of the abject, half-mad vulnerable heroine (Days of Abandonment), the raw language and anger (Troubling Love), the repetition of a very few motifs over and over (it was suggested this is common with a certain kind of woman’s novel).

Other praised the books strongly, showed how deep and nuanced each of the texts, how the Neapolitan novels were only pretending to be large depictions of a social world: Ye a the same time a depiction of a violent still fascist corrupt order; all agree elusive, with Ferrante’s abiding interest the inner life of women (Lidija Haas, TLS: “Closet Conservative or Radical Feminist?” — no longer available to the public).


Anita Raja

When the dust settled, we were still left with the troubling reality that Ferrante’s Frantumaglia, which she presented as truly autobiographical, is from a concrete standpoint, knowingly untrue in places; recent contradictions where she seems to want to be recognized (an introduction to Austen’s Sense and Sensibility where she said she was strongly influenced by Austen’s doppelganger and novels in general), and worse yet, continued repetition in respectable books that Ferrante’s texts could be written by her husband (Karen Bojaar who seems not to know that female friendship is a common topic for women writers).

I, for one, am glad to know who she is so as to throw light on her literary world, outlook, and also gladdened by her refusal to commercialize her life (I believe her as I notice many ordinary commentators do not), sell her books, alienation from the capitalist values of her society, value for privacy. Yet her attempts to shield herself and protest the norms and values of our violent patriarchal society have backfired; critics like James Wood read her all wrong because they want to de-gender her texts


Ann Goldstein who also translates Primo Levi

Put me in the camp of those who find true genius in her novels; who think she wrote them unaided by a husband, find in them the strengths of the best l’ecriture-femme (so she belongs to traditions of women’s texts, read Rebecca Falkoff), and am (alone may be) enchanted to think she translated Wolf’s great anti-war essays Cassandra, her autobiography, her touching historical fantasy set in the later 18th century, No Place on Earth into Italian. Yes they have some flaws: they are not intended to be Tolstoy-like depictions of society that finally neutral but the social order analysed and felt on the pulses of her heroines in the different stages of their lives.  I love reading Italian and have three of Ferrante’s books in the original Italian. I find Ann Goldstein’s to be good translations : she captures the elegance more than the raw but she gets enough there an has her own elusive tone too. When you think you are reading Primo Levi in the most recent English editions, you are reading Goldstein’s translated English.


La figlia Oscura

Since being so riveted by Days of Abandonment, I’ve read Troubling Love (a raw, bitter expose of the life of her mother, a woman continually beaten by her husband, taking revenge out on the daughter until the daughter escaped), The Lost Daughter aka La Filia oscura (quiet elegiac, a woman academic now divorced comes with her student papers to a beach after her daughters have chosen to stay with the father, fantasizes and steals a young girl’s doll) and The Beach at Night (a nightmare vision disguised as a child’s book), and some of the essays in Frantumaglia (brilliant political analysis of fascism in Italy, explications of her books and her stance for alienation).


The Beach at Night

A truly terrifying book. Masquerading as a children’s story, it is a kind of prose poem where a doll is left behind on a beach in favor of a kitten the child has been given a present of. The doll gets covered with sand, is treated badly by a Mean Beach Attendant, ends up laying next to a dead beetle with his feet up (shades of Kafka’s metamorphosis, is set on fire at one point, then doused with water, come near drowning. She is abandoned, deserted, motherless. I cannot imagine anyone giving this book to a child, European or not. I remember when by mistake (or not knowing) I bought the first Barbar book for Laura; she was traumatized by the sudden death of the mother elephant, shot wantonly and without warning by a hunter. It took hours for her to calm down. This is a distillation of Ferrante’s deeply powerful novellas before & her Quartet.

Now at last after having listened to My Brilliant Friend as translated by Goldstein read aloud, and watched avidly a couple of times all eight episodes of the recent HBO film, I’ve read this first book of the quartet slowly — as lovingly as I once read Elsa Morante’s Historia so feel I am qualified to speak, though I’ve not much to say: it’s a novel centered on a doppelganger (like Austen’s Sense and Sensibility) where the tragic heroine is Lila (Raffaele, and her counterpart, the luckier (because sent to school and then allowed to find an identity where she can try to fulfill her gifts an individual), Lenu (Elena).

As I read I recognized analogous events and experiences and thoughts and feelings to those I experienced as a girl-child growing up in the working class southeast Bronx and then Richmond Hill High School in Queens (both NYC). While at first I was turned off by Lila’s temptation to get back at the world through malice, wild anger, spite, withdrawal, even revenge on her friend, gradually I recognized the source for all this as the source I had known that turned me into an isolated teenager. Lenu too I recognized myself in. I had — as have so many girls — even read Little Women over and over and recently discovered so did other girls who now women I count as among my friends. So I became deeply invested in the book.


L’amica geniale (Italian title emphasizes the girls’ deep congeniality)

The awfulness of Lenu’s mother, the successful attempts of her teacher to rescue her, the experiences of the girls in the streets dominated by sexually and socially anxious-domineering males, what parties and schools are like, but above and especially the girls’ responses to one another amid all this take us through the childhood and young puberty of a girl. The sexual experiences Lenu has on the beach with Donato Sarratore, the older man who takes advantage of her after her luxurious and intellectually awakening summer at Ischia (she reads much of the time, learns not to be ashamed of her body, to swim too, falls in love with the intellectual Nino) re-taught me about my own. The climax of the book is a fireworks display on a roof after a dance where the each of the personalities and values of the different characters are exposed as they take a turn into young adulthood.

Since the common cover of My Brilliant Friend is now this stereotypical bridal gown and wedding party seen from the back, let me emphasize this: at its close the book mounts an uncompromising attack on everything having to do with a wedding, every hypocrisy, and how its meaning far from giving a girl access to a new wonderful life, cuts her off utterly from herself, and can be the first step in a life-long imprisonment.

Ferrante’s book is about how social life attempts to destroy, or repress or distort the best that was in one young woman innately and distorts the life of another) or she truly doesn’t mean us to care about these other characters as she, like Lila, silently cannot stand their norms and values.

A couple of incidents where I felt so moved and the film adaptation tried to capture. Unexpectedly (to Lenu), Lila wants Maestra Oliviero to come to her wedding. From the point of view of Lenu and probably everyone in the world Lila has done nothing to catch the woman teacher’s attention, compel her liking or respect, yet how badly she wants her to come. When she comes to the door, although Lenu has given us enough to feel Oliviero does remember Lila (because she says she dislikes her) she is very cruel, says you are not “Cerullo” I don’t know you, don’t want to come.

I identified and understood wholly how Lila could be crushed. In my life analogous incident have happened to me where in my mind I so admired someone for their intellect or position in a school and thought (naively) they valued me and was taught that no, unless you obey the world’s rules and do something to make yourself valued the world gives prizes too, you maybe insulted, cut off. I had some hard lessons in high school this way. Lenu is right to say Oliviero is “a mean old lady,” but we are given to know she would be miserable at such a wedding too. Lila might not see this.

I don’t know what a “speech master” is at an Italian wedding but guess it is a important function of announcing the people who speak. (These speeches are more than half phony and I wish the custom had not grown up recently.) Stefano, Lila’s bethrothed insists it shall be the chief crook of the neighborhood, the Solaro father, Silvio. At that Lila also breaks off the wedding altogether after all that has been done. Only Lenu can get her to change her mind, “seduce” her is how Lenu puts it. So she is acting as a Satan — the argument that persuades or seems to is they must not judge their generation by the older people, and Stefano is different. But from the dialogue we see Lila is sensing she is making the worst mistake she can. Stefano she says loves her “only when I don’t put real money at risk.” That’s important — money comes first. Lenu says she is able to rebel momentarily as she did in school as the authority of a religious teacher, but she caved, and what would happen to Lila if she returned to “the pale ponytailed Lila, with the narrowed eyes of a bird of prey, in her tattered dress.” She is admired by all now in her Jackie Kennedy icon look with dark glasses. During the (tellingly) long but boring ceremony Lenu knows her mother thinks Lila is doing infinitely better because at 16 she owns a flat, has this refrigerator and so on.


Lenu and Nino (walking together in school)

Everyone so overdressed, the only person not is Nino (who we are to have identified as the one true partner for Lenu apart from Pasquale who, fool in this wya, preferred Lila for her looks not her mind). But is he true to himself either dressed in such dishevelment? He comes so his mother overdressed can come; somehow she is slightly disgraced because her husband is blamed for the profoundly distressed Melina. Lila’s parents look well for the first time Lenu ever saw: the father’s Randolph Scott face (so many connotations there) and the mother all in blue. Note she kept away from most of the fraught conflicts. But one she invites: inward. She asks if her essay has been published, but discovers it was not included. Like Lila, she is a girl, comes from the wrong family or school, so it will take a lot more than the school certificate to gain a place in a community she might hope to fulfill part of herself in.

In that dress as Lenu dresses Lila she feels Lila is “the body of a dead woman.” what are they going to all this trouble for: so at night the young man can ram his penis into this 16 year old and perhaps ruin her beauty with a pregnancy.

A deeper incident which does not appear to crush Lila at the time is that these shoes she and her brother made so lovingly are not sellable – no one will buy them. They are dream shoes of young children wishing to have upper class stigmata on their clothes. No one in the neighborhood has the money; outside the neighborhood they make uncomfortable and they will not buy them. Stefano won Lila because he put all this money into the shop and now we see ahead that Rino who seems to be all important for real in Lila’s life will be a failure. Note that he was allowed to beat her

What will become of me, says Lila to Lenu. The answer is you will be destroyed — we see that in the opening chapters of the book where in older age she is vanishing in an attempt to escape a no-good son.

This is an extraordinary women’s book; it’s not recognized for what it is because it’s not explicit in the way Christa Wolff’s are — which books Ferrante translated.

Diane Reynolds wrote to WomenWriters@groups.io about this ending as follows:

The tragedy is that Lila has no other real options but to marry this awful man. The way the teacher rejects her reinforces that. Lenu does act the role of Satan—but what else is there for her friend? What Ferrante makes so relentlessly clear is that Lila would have been destroyed to if she had returned to the self in the tattered dress. The neighborhood/neighbors would have destroyed her. This is great literature because Ferrante shows us step by step that Lila is doomed—as doomed as Oedipus. It’s deeply poignant too. The friendship is remarkable—the one thing Lila has that is pure or as pure as anything can be in that world. I was so moved by the scene—which I did not take as sexual at all—when Lila has Lenu bathe her. She wants her friend as witness to what she was bodily before she is destroyed—she knows she is going to be destroyed by the marriage as much as any soldier going into a doomed battle. And yet the shock is that it happens faster than she imagined—at the wedding

As for the film adaptation: I’ll begin with Episode 2 (I won’t go through them all): The Money — and high brutal violence at the core of this world. Done in a muted black-and-white, it is in color but they are so muted. To give the impression of heat, chalk, lack of any beauty anywhere …. No trees, nothing to soften, make any beauty, or refreshment for the eyes.

I took the title to refer to how money is controlling much of the behavior we see. While the teacher feels that Lila’s family can afford just as surely (or just as little) to send her on to middle school as Lenu’s parents do, the money while an excuse is real. These people are poverty-stricken and the wretchedness of their existence comes from money, lack of it. The whole milieu reminds me of the southeast Bronx, where I grew up, circa 1950, only the patriarchy is so much more overt, fierce, the women more desperate and/or angry and taking out their misery on those they can prey upon or feel envy for: Lenu’s mother is awful and I for one am glad this portrait was not softened. In the book it explains some of Ferrante’s early deeply disquieted and troubled books: Troubled Love, the Lost Child. I wonder what was Ferrante’s relationship with her mother (and now her daughters – but that’s these other books and later in this series, the second). Lila’s mother is guilty but she is herself in accord with her husband, except when he throws the Lila out of the window.

What I like is it is a portrait of two girlhoods shared. Not like that movie this summer which gave a boyhood acted out by a girl with a mother there for disguise. Girls do let one boss another and Lila is the dominating one. she says let’s throw the dolls down the basement, now let’s see Achille, and then hide the money. I feared they would lose it and would not have give in to Llla then. The buying of Little Women is an allusions: girls’ book! we are told about girls growing up. I went back to the book and yes it’s Little Women all right: in the movie the Italian is back-translated into Alcott’s English. I have a copy of Little Women in Italian which I picked when in Italy in 1994 with Jim and my daughters — on a stall. It must be a popular book — well circulated. I was touched at how they read and reread — that’s what I did.

I would not have given in to Lila to walk to the sea – -I might not be a dominating girl in a relationship but I won’t be dominated. Still the whole sequence gave us a breath of fresh air, Suddenly the movie opened up. The houses are sets, and now we were on location somewhere. Alas Lila was trying to hurt Lena: she knew they couldn’t get there and hoped to get the girl in trouble. She succeeded. So spite. She is trying to one up Lenu so write a story, the blue Fairy. I feel for her because she does never have a chance to get out of this rotten culture. School here is seen as a central lifeline to a better world.

The episode was coherent, held together by the girls’ inner world together and their trajectory — and it began and ended on Achille, killed at the end, perhaps by a woman.

Yes high brutal violence is at the core of this society. And money. When the group finally is old enough to walk in Naples, they find they are outsiders, with not enough money to buy a meal in a restaurant.

For further episodes see comments: 3, Metamorphosis; 5, The Island; 7, The Engaged Ones.

Ellen

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A photograph of Tom Carpenter, the trustee of Chawton Cottage; he is carrying a portrait of Jane Austen’s brother, Edward

Friends,

Last night I came across in the latest issue of Times Literary Supplement (for January 25, 2019), an informative piquant review by Devoney Looser of a autobiographical book, Jane & Me. Its author, Caroline Jane Knight, a fifth great-niece (with now a little help from Devoney & the TLS), is launching this book maybe to provide herself with a raison d’être (a not “very promising heroine-in-training” says Devoney), a basis for her living independently someday. I think the information here and acid insights make it required reading for the Janeite, and discovered it’s behind the kind of magazine paywall where you must buy a whole subscription for a year, before you can read it. It is almost impossible to share a TLS article online as if you subscribe to the online version, you can only do it through an app on an ipad or some such device. So I here provide a summary, contextualized further by what I have drawn from Deborah Yaffe’s Among the Janeites.

Why is the review valuable in its own right too: we learn a good deal about the history of Chawton House Library this century from the point of view of the family who owned it — Jane Austen’s collateral descendants. Caroline is a poor transmitter: Looser points to where Caroline has not even begun to do the research necessary on her own life, but there is enough here to make do, and if you know something from your work, or can add further research like Devoney, you can have some insight into Austen’s family and what she was up against as she tried to write honest entertainments.

In brief, Devoney tells the story of a downwardly mobile family who let the house fall into desuetude and the present Richard Knight leased it to Sandy Lerner whose great luck on the Net had brought her huge amounts of money, some of which she expended by renovating, it’s not too much to call it rescuing Chawton House into a building one could spend time in comfortably enough so that it could function as a library. While she set about building, she started a board of informed people who would know how to turn it into a study center for 18th century women’s writing. Austen’s peers & contemporaries.


Richard Knight and Sandy Lerner walking on the grounds together during some occasion

Let me first bring in Yaffe’s account who also sheds light on Richard Knight who was at the conference as a key note speaker and we can here gather a few truths about him. He had “inherited a crushing estate-tax bill and a `16th century house in need of a million British pounds’ worth of emergency repairs.” A developer’s plan to turn the place into a golf course and expensive hotel had collapsed by 1992. Enter Sandy Lerner. She had made oodles of money off an Internet business, is another fan of Austen, one common today who does not like the idea of Austen as “an unhappy repressed spinster,” something of a recluse, not able to see the money and fame she wanted. When Dale Spender’s book, Mothers of the Novel, presented a whole female population writing away (as Austen did), a female literary tradition, she found a vocation, collecting their books. After she heard a speech by Nigel Nicolson, where he offended her (talking of a woman who thought Jane Austen didn’t like Bath as “a silly, superstitious cow,” described himself as heading a group who intended to open a Jane Austen center in Bath even though Edward Austen Knight’s Chawton House was on the market (too expensive? out of the way for tourists?), she decided to “get even.” When she had the money two years later, she bought Chawton House. She wanted to make it “a residential study center where scholars consulting er rare-book collection could live under 19th century conditions.” This super-rich woman loved the sense these people would gain “a visceral sense of the historical moment,” wake up to “frost on the windows, grates without fires, nothing but cold water to wash in.”

She paid six million for 125 year lease on the house and its 275 acre grounds; another $225,000 for the stable block. She discovered it to be badly damaged, inhabited by tenants she found distasteful, “ugly,” rotting. Crazy rumors abounded in the village she was going to turn the place into a lesbian commune, a Euro-Disney style theme park, her husband testing missile systems in the grounds. She thought of herself as this great philanthropist. Culture clashes: the Chawton estate sold its hunting rights for money; she was an animal rights activist. Disputes over her desire to remove a swimming pool said to be a badger habitat protected under UK law. I saw the Ayrshire Farm here in Northern Virginia that she bought during the protracted lawsuits and negotiations over Chawton: an 800-acre spread in northern Virginia, where “she planned to raise heritage breeds under humane, organic conditions, to prove socially responsible farming was economically viable.” She started a cosmetics company whose aesthetic was that of the Addams Family (TV show). Chawton House was finally built using a sensible plan for restoration; a cemetery was discovered, a secret cupboard with 17th century telescope. Eventually Lerner’s 7000 rare books came to reside in a house you could hold conferences, one-day festivals and host scholars in. It had cost $10 million and yearly operating costs were $1 million a year.


Lerner’s Ayrshire Farmhouse today — it’s rented out for events, and hosts lunches and evening parties and lectures, has a shop ….

Lerner is unusual for a fan because she dislikes sequels and does not seek out Austen movies; it’s Austen’s texts she loves — yet she too wants to write a P&P sequel. I sat through one of her incoherent lectures so know first-hand half-nutty theory that every concrete detail in an Austen novel is crucial information leading to interpretation of that novel. I’ll leave the reader to read the details of her way of research, her travels in imitation of 18th century people: it took her 26 years to complete. How she has marketed the book by a website, and how Chawton was at the time of the book thriving (though her Farm lost money). Yaffe pictures Lerner at a signing of her book, and attracted many people, as much for her Internet fame as any Austen connection. Yaffe has Lerner against distancing herself from “our distastefully Twittering, be-Friending world, for the e-mail boxes overflowing with pornographic spam.” But she will buy relics at grossly over-inflated prices (“a turquoise ring” Austen wore) and give them to friends. She launched Chawton House by a fabulously expensive ball, to which Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul (dressed as aging Mr and Mrs Darcy) came. A “prominent chef” made 18th century foods (“nettle and potato soup, pickle ox tongue, sweetmeats”). She was in costume: “a low-cut, pale-blue ball gown. She even went horseback riding with Rintoul. A real thrill for a fan.


Chawton House Reading Room — there are two rooms, one open to the public, the other locked and filled with rare 18th century books

Devoney doesn’t say this nor Yaffe but I will: Chawton House never quite made it as sheerly a study center for women’s writing as originally envisioned; instead it became a sort of Jane Austen tourist site where festivals and conferences dwelling on Austen for fans were necessary, sometimes becoming a semi-popular community center like the Bronte Haworth house seems to be turning into. That’s not so bad, far worse was the people working for and at the place never acquired enough funding to do without Lerner; and over a fit of pique and probably long-standing resentments, some two years ago now Lerner pulled all her money out. It turns out 80% of funds came from her, and no way has been found to locate a substitute so the place can carry on its serious functions in the same way. Some new compromise will have to be found. Nearby is Chawton Cottage, now a small research center (for those select people who get to see its library), but more a tourist site; also nearby is the Austen family church where (among others) Austen’s sister, Cassandra and their mother, are buried. The house now (Looser says) “stands to revert back to Richard Knight’s family,” of whom Caroline is a member. All of us who know something of the house, who have experienced its scholarly meetings, its library, walked on its grounds, heard a concert at the church, mourn the fact that its fine director, Dr Gillian Dow has gone, to return full time as a scholar and lecturer to the University of Southampton.

This is the larger context for the story of Caroline and her older relatives from the turn of the century to now. Like other of these aristocrats who cannot afford to life the extravagant life of leisure they once did, Caroline (says Devoney) presents herself a slightly downtrodden: she and her parents lived in the basement of Chawton house while the rich tenants occupy the plum apartments above. One of the houses I was shown in the Lake District/Nothern Borders of England is owned by an aristocrat’s wife’s family; and the husband himself works to hold onto it by throwing it open to the public for various functions. He is clearly a well-educated man who lived a privileged elite life; nonetheless, he gave one of the talks. He told us he and his family living in the basement quarters below; their paying tenants above stairs.

The various Knights during Caroline’s life didn’t have many servants (oh dear poor things) and spent their time in less than admirable ways (watching TV say, horse racing — which costs). None of them were readers, and (as opposed to Devoney) I would say none of them ever produced anything near a masterpiece or important book, except maybe JEAL — if you are willing to consider how central his Memoir of his Aunt has been and how it has cast its spell over ways of reading Austen and understanding her ever after. A few have been minor literary people, and Joan Austen-Leigh and others been influential valued members of the British Jane Austen Society and they “grace” the JASNA every once in a while with their presence. Several have written sequels. Looser goes over a few of these, giving the impression that a couple which JASNA has promoted are better than they are.

Various financial troubles and also legal ones (including one male relative running over a local person with his car and “found not guilty of manslaughter” although he fled the scene) are covered by Devoney. When it comes to explaining the financial problems, Caroline says they are all a mystery. She omits any clarifying description of what the estate was like and which Knights lived here in WW2. Devoney supplies this: she tells of one recent Edward Knight’s time in India — his father had had been a royal favorite and a public-spirited magistrate, who loved to shoot birds. In 1951 thirty cottages in which tenants lived were auctioned off, and some went to occupants. They were in such bad shape apparently (again that is my deduction from what Looser gently implies) that one lucky man who could afford to buy the cottage said he got it for the price of a TV. Devoney implies this was dirt cheap. Not so: for many British people in 1951 the price of TV was out of their range; in the 1950s most Brits rented their TV


Chawton House recently from the outside

Death duties, genuinely high taxes each time the house changed hands is what did them in. (We no longer have even that in the US and the Republicans are salivating to change the death tax laws once again — these are important tools to prevent the growth of inequality.) I thought interesting that Chawton House was sold to one Richard Sharples, a conservative politician (1916-73) who served as governor of Bermuda and was assassinated (in Devoney’s words) “by black power militants.” Of course this bad-mouths these people, and when they were hung for the murder, there were days of rioting. I remember how horribly the white treated black and native people on Bermuda — so cruel that there are famous rebellions (Governor Eyre) wth terrifying reprisals by the British and colonial gov’ts. In the 20th century Sharples’ widow’s only recourse was to sell the property, furniture, books, portraits in 1977. There have over the century been a number of such sales to pay off death duties and some of the objects prized in museums, libraries came out of just such Sotheby auctions. Looser tells us in an aside there is a ditigal project trying to reconstruct the Knight Library as it was in 1935 (“Reading with Austen,” readingwithausten.com)

As to Caroline, she has apparently read very little of Austen’s fiction — that must very little indeed since Austen left only 6 novels which can easily be reprinted in one volume. She has appeared on TV, and is now she’s trying what a book can do. It’s not a memoir worthy of Jane Austen, says Devoney: the lack of elemental research even about her own life; Caroline’s account of herself features James Covey’s self-help book, The Habits of Highly Effective People, as the one that has gotten her through life. Wouldn’t you know it was seeing the 1995 P&P film by Andrew Davies that “kindled” Caroline’s interest in Jane Austen. I watched a documentary with Andrew Davies aired on BBC recently about just how much he changed the book to be about men; how much “correction” of it he made. Caroline still dreams of moving back to Chawton with the present male Richard Knight as ambassador (of what it’s not clear). I’ve been to JASNAs where Richard Knight gave a talk about his family in the mid-morning Sunday breakfast slot of the JASNAs. Here is Arnie Perlstein’s reaction to one.

Devoney ends her review with suggesting how much this history might remind us of Persuasion and the Elliot family and quotes Darcy in P&P: “I cannot comprehend the neglect of a family library in such days as these.” Devoney does justice at her opening to a few of the immediate Austens who showed some literary ability and genuine interest and integrity towards their aunt: James, her brother was a minor but good poet; his three children include JEAL; Anne Austen Lefroy who tried to finish Sanditon and wrote a brief touching novel, Mary Hamilton; Caroline Austen wrote her Reminiscences; Catherine Hubback several novels, a travel book of letters, and a continuation of Austen’s The Watsons as The Younger Sister. Her son, grand-nephew, and granddaughter all wrote books to add to our knowledge of the family; Edward Knight’s grandson produced the first substantial edition of Austen’s letters. There the inspiration coming through and about the aunt seems to have ended.

***********************
From Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her?, Jeffrey Palliser tells Alice, a visitor to this aristocratic family at their country mansion who wonders what there is to do all day, about what he as an example of his relatives’ lives does with his time:

“Do you shoot?”
“Shoot! What; with a gun?”
“Yes. I was staying in a house last week with a lady who shot a good deal.”
“No; I don’t shoot.”
“Do you ride?”
“No; I wish I did. I have never ridden because I’ve no one to ride with me.”
“Do you drive?”
“No; I don’t drive either.”
“Then what do you do?”
“I sit at home, and—”
“Mend your stockings?”
“No; I don’t do that, because it’s disagreeable; but I do work a good deal. Sometimes I have amused myself by reading.”
“Ah; they never do that here. I have heard that there is a library, but the clue to it has been lost, and nobody now knows the way …

None of this loss and mismanagement or lack of literary interest or ability as part of a family history is unexpected. In her discreet last chapter of her fine biography of Jane Austen, Claire Tomalin records the earliest phases of this decline, together with or amid the real attempts of Catherine Hubback’s part of the family and other descendants of Frank to publish respectable books about Jane Austen. I imagine the valuable library gathered since Chawton House Library became a functioning study center (a large room in the present Chawton house) will remain intact but nowadays (as some of us know) libraries filled with books are not valued by booksellers or even libraries or universities in the way they once were. I know people who found they could not even give away a particularly superb personal library, and others driven to sell theirs for very little in comparison say for what they would have gotten in 1980 or so and that would not have covered how much it cost them over a lifetime.

Ellen

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Drums of Autumn (detail from original 1996 cover)

Friends and readers,

Having queried three lists, I discovered that there is very little in the thousands of pages Diana Gabaldon wrote for her Outlander series on Christmas. The rational presented for this is that in Scotland after the repression of medieval customs by the Presbyters, hardly anyone keeps Christmas. Instead the winter solstice is celebrated on New Year’s Eve and day as Hogmanay. I pointed out that Catholics surreptitiously kept up Christmas even in the later 17th century in Scotland (see The Days of Queen Anne [Hamilton]), and that parts of the Outlander books occur in Boston and North Carolina. I was told that in A Fiery Cross (No 5), there is a brief mention of Christmas, Jamie gives Claire a kitchen utensil that looked to my eyes like a thin spatula, and a celebration of Hogmanay occurs (Chapters 31-33). As far as I could tell, the emphasis is not only this ritual holiday.

But there is a long passage in Drums of Autumn where a Christmas story is made doubly central. I’ve linked in the story line of this fourth Outlander novel, and baldly retold the way it’s being dramatized this year – without the many interludes – the novel seems ridiculous. Jamie mistakes poor Roger for Briana’s rapist, beats Roger up badly, and with Ian, sells him to the Indians; Briana has become pregnant by Mr Bonnet (the actual rapist) and is almost persuaded to marry Lord John Grey, who happens to be visiting her Aunt Jocasta at River Run ….

What saves this resort to patently obvious contrivances are these long interludes where little overt action in term of story moving occurs and we get long meditative sequences, sometimes about a victim they come across, sometimes an idyllic fantasy of Gabaldon’s own, e.g., Jamie and Claire walking in a lush forest come across a field of strawberries. There are sequences where the idea is to present them as colonial settlers, coping with the different classes, upper establishment and middling rebels (against unfair taxes), floating down river, building their house, furniture, getting stock together, he hunting, she sewing.


Outlander winter landscape

In one of these where they are building their home together, he goes out in the night to bring back an animal to cook for a meal, and seems never to return. It’s late December, snow everywhere. She worries after several hours and goes to seek him. She finds him wounded and nearly frozen in a sunken sort of meadow. Claire tells Jamie Dickens’s A Christmas Carol to help keep him awake and both of them warm while they are stranded in the snow late in December, having built themselves a nest out of logs, leaves, their cloaks; and where she remembers also being stranded in the snow more than 20 years ago inside a car with Frank and Brian as a child where Frank Randall told the story to Briana, with Claire filling bits, as they huddled in their car amidst blankets.

Here is the passage: Drums of Autumn, Chapter 21: “Night on a Snowy Mountain, December 1767


From the serial drama Outlander: Promotional Snow scene (not sure if this is Scotland or North Carolina ….)

Jamie’s hair and shoulders were lightly dusted with snow, and flakes were settling on the exposed backs of his legs. I pulled the hem of his cloak down, then brushed the snow away from his face. His cheek was nearly the same color as the big wet flakes, and his flesh felt stiff when I touched it.

Fresh alarm surged through me as I realized that he might be a lot closer to freezing already than I had thought. His eyes were half closed, and cold as it was, he didn’t seem to be shivering much. That was bloody dangerous; with no movement, his muscles were generating no heat, and what warmth he had was leaching slowly from his body. His cloak was already heavy with damp; if I allowed his clothes to become soaked through, he might very well die of hypothermia right in front of me.

“Wake up!” I said, shaking him urgently by the shoulder. He opened his eyes and smiled drowsily at me.
“Move!” I said. “Jamie, you’ve got to move!”
“I can’t,” he said calmly. “I told ye that.” He shut his eyes again.
I grabbed him by the ear and dug my fingernails into the tender lobe. He grunted and jerked his head away.
“Wake up,” I said peremptorily. “Do you hear me? Wake up this moment! Move, damn you! Give me your hand.”
I didn’t wait for him to comply, but dug under the cloak and seized his hand, which I chafed madly between my own. He opened his eyes again and frowned at me.
“I’m all right,” he said. “But I’m gey tired, aye?”
“Move your arms,” I ordered, flinging the hand at him. “Flap them, up and down. Can you move your legs at all?”
He sighed wearily, as though dragging himself out of a sticky bog, and muttered something under his breath in Gaelic, but very slowly he began to move his arms back and forth. With more prodding, he succeeded in flexing his ankles—though any further movement caused instant spasms in his back—and with great reluctance, began to waggle his feet.
He looked rather like a frog trying to fly, but I wasn’t in any mood to laugh. I didn’t know whether he was actually in danger of freezing or not, but I wasn’t taking any chances. By dint of constant exhortation, aided by judicious pokings, I kept him at this exercise until I had got him altogether awake and shivering. In a thoroughly bad temper, too, but I didn’t mind that.
“Keep moving,” I advised him. I got up with some difficulty, having grown quite stiff from crouching over him so long. “Move, I say!” I added sharply, as he showed symptoms of flagging. “Stop and I’ll step square on your back, I swear I will!”
I glanced around, a little blearily. The snow was still falling, and it was difficult to see more than a few feet. We needed shelter—more than the rock alone could provide.
“Hemlock,” he said between his teeth. I glanced down at him, and he jerked his head toward a clump of trees nearby. “Take the hatchet. Bi branches. Six feet. C-cut four.” He was breathing heavily, and there was a tinge of color visible in his face, despite the dim light. He’d stopped moving in spite of my threats, but his teeth were clenched because they were chattering–a sign I rejoiced to see.
I stooped and groped beneath his cloak again, this time searching for the hatchet belted round his waist. I couldn’t resist sliding a hand under him, inside the neck of his fringed woolen hunting shirt. Warm! Thank God, he was still warm. His chest felt superficially chilled from its contact with the wet ground, but it was still warmer than my fingers.
“Right,” I said, taking my hand away and standing up with the hatchet. “Hemlock. Six-foot branches, do you mean?”
He nodded, shivering violently, and I set off at once for the trees he indicated.
Inside the silent grove, the fragrance of hemlock and cedar enfolded me at once in a mist of resins and turpenes, the odor cold and sharp, clean and invigorating. Many of the trees were enormous, with the lower branches well above my head, but there were smaller ones scattered here and there. I saw at once the virtues of this particular tree—no snow fell under them; the fanlike boughs caught the falling snow like umbrellas.
I hacked at the lower branches, torn between the need for haste and the very real fear of chopping off a few fingers by accident; my hands were numb and awkward with the cold.
The wood was green and elastic and it took forever to chop through the tough, springy fibers. At last, though, I had four good-sized branches, sporting multiple fans of dense needles. They looked soft and black against the new snow, like big fans of feathers; it was almost a surprise to touch them and feel the hard, cold prick of the needles.
I dragged them back to the rock, and found that Jamie had managed to scoop more leaves together; he was almost invisible, submerged in a huge drift of black and gray against the foot of the rock.
Under his terse direction I leaned the hemlock branches fan-up against the face of the rock, the chopped butt ends stuck into the earth at an angle, so as to form a small triangular refuge underneath. Then I took the hatchet again and chopped small pine and spruce branches, pulled up big clumps of dried grass, and piled it all against and over the hemlock screen. Then at last, panting with exertion, I crawled into the shelter beside him.
I nestled down in the leaves between his body and the rock, wrapped my cloak around both of us, put my arms around his body, and held on hard. Then I found the leisure to shake a bit. Not from cold—not yet—but from a mixture of relief and fear.


Frank and Claire’s Boston apartment (Season 2)

He felt me shivering, and reached awkwardly back to pat me in reassurance.

“It will be all right, Sassenach,” he said. “With the two of us, it will be all right ….
“All right, all right,” I said. “What if I tell you a story, instead?”
Highlanders loved stories, and Jamie was no exception.
“Oh, aye,” he said, sounding much happier. ‘What sort of story is it?”
“A Christmas story,” I said, settling myself along the curve of his body. “About a miser named Ebenezer Scrooge.”
“An Englishman, I daresay.”
“Yes,” I said. “Be quiet and listen.”
I could see my own breath as I talked, white in the dim, cold air. The snow was falling heavily outside out shelter; when I paused in the story, I could hear the whisper of flakes against the hemlock branches, and the far-off whine of wind in the trees.
I knew the story very well; it had been part of our Christmas ritual, Frank’s and Brianna’s and mine. From the time Bree was five or six, we had read A Christmas Carol every year, starting a week or two before Christmas, Frank and I taking it in turns to read to her each night before bed.
“And the specter said, ‘ I am the Ghost of Christmas Past…’”
I might not be freezing to death, but the cold had a strange hypnotic effect nonetheless. I had gone past the phase of acute discomfort and felt now slightly disembodied. I knew my hands and feet were icy, and my body chilled half through, but it didn’t seem to matter anymore. I floated in a peaceful white mist, seeing the words swirl round my head like snowflakes as I spoke them.
“…and there was dear old Fezziwig, among the lights and music…”
I couldn’t tell whether I was gradually thawing or becoming colder. I was conscious of an overall feeling of relaxation, and an altogether peculiar sense of déjà vu, as though I had once before been entombed, insulated in snow, snug despite desolation outside.


Boston Christmas — Roger visiting from Scotland

A memory within this subjective narrative:

As Bob Cratchit bought his meager bird, I remembered. I went on talking automatically, the flow of the story coming from somewhere well below the level of consciousness, but my memory was in the front seat of a stalled 1956 Oldsmobile, its windscreen caked with snow.
We had been on our way to visit an elderly relative of Frank’s, somewhere in upstate New York. The snow came on hard, halfway there, howling down across the icy roads with gusts of wind. Before we knew where we were, we had skidded off the road and halfway into a ditch, the windscreen wipers slashing futilely at the pelting snow.
There was nothing to be done but wait for morning, and rescue. We had had a picnic hamper and some old blankets; we brought Brianna up into the front seat between us, and huddled all together under coats and blankets, sipping lukewarm cocoa from the thermos and making jokes to keep her from being frightened.
As it grew later, and colder, we huddled closer, and to distract Brianna, Frank began to tell her Dickens’s story from memory, counting on me to supply the missing bits. Neither of us could have done it alone, but between us, we managed well. By the time the sinister Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come had made his appearance, Brianna was snuggled sound asleep under the coats, a warm, boneless weight against my side.
There was no need to finish the story, but we did, talking to each other below the words, hands touching below the layers of blankets. I remembered Frank’s hands, warm and strong on mine, thumb stroking my palm, outlining my fingers. Frank had always loved my hands.
The car had filled with the mist of our breathing, and drops of water ran down inside the white-choked windows. Frank’s head had been a dark cameo, dim against the white. He had leaned toward me at the last, nose and cheeks chilled, lips warm on mine as he whispered the last words of the story.
“’God bless us, every one,’” I ended, and lay silent, a small needle of grief like an ice splinter through my heart. It was quiet inside the shelter, and seemed darker; snow had covered over all the openings.
Jamie reached back and touched my leg.
“Put your hands inside my shirt, Sassenach,” he said softly. I slid one hand up under his shirt in front, to rest against his chest, the other up his back. The faded whip marks felt like threads under his skin.
He laid his hand against mine, pressing it tight against his chest. He was very warm, and his heart beat slow and strong under my fingers.
“Sleep, a nighean donn,” he said. “I wilna let ye freeze.”


Three different covers thus far

This retelling is fun because so many readers enjoy realizing that we remember the story with others. I do. I feel less lonely tonight at the thought.

I am just now watching Outlander Season 5, episode by episode, and listening to Davina Porter read the novel aloud in car (audiobook in CDS) and next year, Season 5, I’ll again watch and listening to Porter again read the next novel, A Fiery Cross, and should be able to supply the scenes of Hogmanay.

Ellen

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Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall, scripted Peter Straughan, directed Peter Kosminsky)
Wolf Hall

It is all very well planning what you will do in six months, what you will do in a year, but it’s no good at all if you don’t have a plan for tomorrow” — Cromwell to his son Gregory as they leave the princess Mary in her cold room at Hatfield, Mantel, Wolf Hall.

The past is not yet dead; it is not even dead — Wm Faulkner

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Eight Wednesday mornings, 9:40 to 11:05 pm,
September 19 to November 8
Tallwood, 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

In this course we’ll read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall & discuss Bring Up the Bodies. Our context will be non-fictionalized biographies of the Tudor/Stuart courts, the better historical romance fictions, and the immensely popular film adaptations of the Henry VIII Tudor matter in general, with the first two books of Mantel’s trilogy focusing on Thomas Cromwell, and Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl our particular examples. Our goal is to explore historical fiction, romance and film, and biography and history and ask why this particular era, its politics, its culture, its characters have appealed so strongly since the Tudor stories emerged in the 19th century.

Required Texts:

Mantel, Hilary. Wolf Hall. New York: Henry Holt, 2009. ISBN 978-9-312-42998-0
(Mantel, Hilary. Wolf Hall. Audio CD reading by Simon Slater. London: Macmillan Audio, Unabridged, 2009. Recommended if you have any trouble reading the book.)


Claire Foy as Queen Anne Boleyn

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion. Its material the Tudor Matter books & films.

Sept 19th: 1st week. Introduction: The Tudor Matter: History & biography, historical fiction & romance, Hilary Mantel. Linda Simon essay on Hilary Mantel’s life & works thus far (sent by attachment).

Sept 26th: 2nd week: Wolf Hall, Parts 1 & 2. Clips from Pt 1 of BBC WH. Serial drama. Early modern history: early modern women. For next week: Emily Nussbaum, a movie review comparing BBC Wolf Hall with HBO Casual Vacancy (Rowling)

Oct 3rd: 3rd week: Wolf Hall, Part 3; Clips from Pt 2 of BBC Wolf Hall. More on serial drama. Reading the text. For next week: Lettridge on a man for this season, and Mary Robertson on “the art of the possible” (sent by attachment).

Oct 10th: 4th week: Wolf Hall, Parts 3 & 4. Clips from pt 3 of WH; Bolt’s Thomas More, Mantel’s Thomas Cranmer; religion and politics.

Oct 17th: 5th week Wolf Hall, Part 5 & 6. Pt 4 of WH. Henry VIII and sexuality.

Oct 24th: 6th week Bring Up the Bodies, Part 1. Pts 5 & 6 of WH. Ghost stories. Beheading, treason trials. What happened?

Oct 31st: 7th week: Bring up the Bodies, Part 2. Philippa Gregory’s Other Boleyn Girl. Clips from the two Other Boleyn Girl. The psychodramas.

Nov 7th: 8th, last week: The Tudor mattter elsewhere; a clip from A Man for All Seasons; the as yet unwritten final phase of Thomas Cromwell.


Jonathan Pryce as Thomas Wolsey

Supplementary Reading and Films:

A Man for All Seasons. Dir. Fred Zinnemann. Script: Robert Bolt. Featuring: Paul Scofield, Leo McKern, John Hurt, Wendy Hiller, Susannah York. Columbia, 1966. Cinema release, adaptation of play.
Bolt, Robert. A Man for All Seasons. 1960; rpt. New York: Vintage, 1990.
Cavendish, George. The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey, in Two Tudor Lives, edd. Richard Sylvester & Davis P. Harding. New Haven: Yale UP, 1962.
Gregory, Philippa. The Other Boleyn Girl. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.
(Gregory, Philippa. The Other Boleyn Girl. CD Audio reading by Susan Lyons. Recorded Books LLC, Unabridged, 2006)
Groot, Jerome de. Consuming History: Historians and heritage in contemporary popular culture. London: Routledge, 2009.
Ives, Eric. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004/5
Mantel, Hilary. Bring Up the Bodies. New York: Henry Holt, 2012.
(Mantel, Hilary. Bring up the Bodies. Audio CD reading by Simon Vance. Macmillan Audio, Unabridged 2012.)
Mantel, Hilary. “Frocks and Shocks,” London Review of Books, a review of Julia Fox’s Jane Boleyn [a biography], 30:8 (April 2008):18-20.
Other Boleyn Girl. Dir, Script: Phillipa Lowthorpe. Consult: Andrew Davies. Featuring: Jodhi May, Steven Mackintosh, Natasha McElhone, Jared Harris. BBC, 2003. Cinema release. Adaptation.
Other Boleyn Girl. Dir. Justin Chadwick. Script. Peter Morgan. Featuring Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Eric Bana, David Morrisey. Cinema release. Adaptation.
Schofield, John. The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell. Stroud, Gloucester: History Press, 2008.
Weir, Alison. Mary Boleyn. New York: Ballantine, 2011.
Wolf Hall. Dir. Peter Kominsky. Script: Peter Straughan. Featuring: Mark Rylance, Claire Foy, Jonathan Pryce, Damien Lewis. BBC, 2015. 6 Part Adaptation


Damien Lewis as Henry VIII

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Emily Mortimer as Florence Green in the meadow contemplating opening her bookshop (2017, The Bookshop)


Kelly MacDonald her first visit to Robert, sees she can indulge in her secret passion, doing puzzles from among many many that at home she stashes away (2018, Puzzle)

Reading books & doing jigsaws — what’s not to like?

Dear friends and readers,

Among the kinds of blogs I’ve not been getting to recently, which I used to place here regularly — women artists, foremother poets, translation studies — and keep vowing to return to, is the summer woman’s film. I have more excuse for this last than mere lack of time and finding myself holding to a higher standard of sheer information: I’ve not seen any women’s films this summer until very recently, and then suddenly, two: Isabel Coixet’s The Bookshop, adapted from Penelope Fitzgerald’s superb novella of the same name; and Puzzle, directed by Marc Turtletaub, scripted by Oren Moverman and Polly Mann. My jump off point: I take the opposite view expressed by Neil Minow about Bookshop, which he thinks “never comes together,”, and Christy Lemire about Puzzle, which she finds “a lovely surprize.”

I think differently. These are from the once hallowed Roger Ebert site, which is not what it was when he was alive and its most frequent contributor. In both cases, the writers begin with a set of expectations: The Bookshop is supposed to be about books themselves, and is missing (so Minow thinks) critiques of books: why do we not hear how good Lolita is? or what the young girl clerk who so grates on Minow’s nerves, Christine (Honor Kneafsey) thinks of it or other books:


Florence and Christine reading together

On the other hand, Lemire was not expecting the wife of this utterly conventional family: garage mechanic husband, stay-at-home housewife to leave her husband. She does not even know how to operate a cell phone nor does she understand why one would want such a gadget, and has brought up two sons who expect her to serve them hand-and-foot:


Bubba Weiler as Ziggy, Austin Abrams as Gabe, David Denman as Louie (the sons and father) staring expectant at Agnes

Lemire is therefore just delighted that we are not stuck in this family-centered story, but move out from there to follow the wife’s adventures alone.

Perhaps Neil Minow should have read Fitzgerald’s book, for then he would have understood the source is a story about how power works in a community: it’s about how a woman who has been exercising control over central experiences of people in her town, Mrs Gamart (played by Patricia Clarkson) uses her connections, status, and subtle manipulative techniques fostered by the nature of the usually socially dysfunctional get-togethers (I say dysfunctional if you thought the purpose of getting together was to form friendships) to destroy another woman’s desire to find a function in life by using what money she has to sell books. I wrote an analysis of this book and others by Fitzgerald when Womenwriters@groups.io was having a group reading and discussion of Fitzgerald’s novels and Hermione Lee’s literary biography of her: Penelope Fitzgerald: The Bookshop and Offshore; Charlotte Mew. It’s about how a widow without the least trace of malice (so Florence doesn’t recognize a determined hatred) and kind heart cannot preserve herself against hostile inexorable power. We watch Florence after years of solitude and withdrawal come out of her peaceful shell to invest in, create, and build up a thriving bookshop business, only to have it destroyed insidiously step-by-step by an elite woman who knows how to get a law passed to enable the local gov’t to take over the shop, how to pressure a banker, a solicitor, an unscrupulous BBC layabout to undermine and sabotage the shop to the point where Florence is left without any money or a place even to live.

The only person on Florence’s side is the reclusive Mr Brundish, who, unlike Florence, knows exactly what Mrs Gamart is doing, and attempts to stop her by confronting her:


Bill Nighy (brilliant as the nervous man with unusual tastes) demanding to Mrs Gamart that she leave Florence Green alone

Coixet’s film has flaws or difficulties. Much that happens in Fitzgerald’s book is not visible, and it is only after Florence sees the effect of Mrs Gamart’s undercover and underhanded endeavors in say the form of a letter, or a school inspector taking Christine away from the shop, or a court order about her window (with the offending Lolita in it) that she slowly realizes she is being strangled by an encircling malign octopus. A film cannot go on for hours and must be understandable so Coixet gives us dramatic (sometimes too melodramatic) scenes or visualizations that are not in the book. Nighy and Mortimer manage to keep their scenes to the awkward, piquantly and/or poignantly comic (they are directed to behave in stylized ways)


Far shot


Close up

But all too often the need for pace makes for a seeming “tear-jerker,” which the story isn’t. It’s paradoxically a story about courage; Florence shows remarkable strength, which is part of Fitzgerald’s point. All Florence’s courage avails her nothing. Commercialization also demands a happy ending, uplift, hope, so a scene is tacked on at the end of Christine having grown up and from her experience learnt to love books, to read, and open a successful bookshop. The real world of the novel has Christine pushed into forgetting about the shop and Florence ending quietly but in anguish standing with her one suitcase waiting for a bus to take her to another town. The worst change is Coixet has Christine set fire to the bookshop: Mrs Gamart’s excuse was she was going to open an art center in the old house. I asked a friend I was sitting next to, how that helped? or had any meaning except (exciting to witness?) arson, for Florence would lose all whether the building lasted or not. My friend who can grasp a coarser understanding said to many people this means that at least Mrs Gamart will not be able to get her hands on the building. That’s to miss the central idea: Mrs Gamart wanted control and power, not the building.

OTOH, to give the movie its due (and so often when one compares a book to its film adaptation, it’s an undermining process), a reader can come away from the book feeling a horrible witch-like woman malevolently destroyed another, a sort of misogynistic perspective (soap opera like). The movie makes sure we feel that Mrs Gamart could not have done what she did by emphasizing how all the various characters cooperated in the destruction of Florence. We see them at work while in the book we only gradually understand their treachery. The movie also brings back all the faces in juxtaposed stills just before we last see Florence carrying her suitcase to a ferry. Mrs Gamart could not have done it alone. In the movie even Christine’s mother participates in destroying Florence with less reason (the book brings in how Christine fails her 11-plus and how unjust the 11-plus system is).


Florence dreaming in one of the movies’ early cheerful scenes

The powerful fable hits us strongly in the gut because as with the book, Mr Brundish’s attempt to help Florence, the first time he has left his house in years, ends in his having a heart attack. He is that upset by Mrs Gamart’s performance of surprised innocence. And Coixet socks this loss of her one true friend to Florence as she adds Mr Gamart coming to the shop to lie to Florence to tell her that Mr Brundish had visited his wife to give her his support for an art center. Florence has no proof, and she becomes (at last) hysterical and screams “Get out,” and ejects the wicked old man forcibly.

There is a good movie about American black people making the rounds this summer called Get Out (which I advise my reader not to miss); also be sure and see So Sorry to Bother You.

By contrast, Puzzle is puzzling. It may be that I need to see the 2009 Rompecabezas from Argentinean writer/director Natalia Smirnoff (a woman) to grasp why for at least one-half of the film we are in time warp: Agnes is a Donna Reed character, dressing and acting like a woman of the 1950s. Why Lemire is not bothered by this unreality I don’t know.  It is improbable that in 2018 Agnes should be so obedient to her husband; it seems utterly in another era when we find that she and her husband are not determined both their sons should go to college, but that the notion of college is one that needs to be introduced. Agnes is also made into a bingo-playing priest-friendly church-going Catholic:

who hides her least unconventionality in dreamy vulnerable-heroine moods:

Agnes’s one outlet is to do puzzles, of which she has many secreted away for afternoon bouts. Now it is not improbable that she might answer an ad in the newspaper by someone asking for a partner to do puzzles with for a contest, but could this woman suddenly start to deceive her husband, lie all the time in all sorts of ways in order to gain free time to take the train into NYC and begin a partnership with a completely unknown Arab man. Irrfan Khan has been in so many brilliant Eurocentric films (Namesake, The Lunchbox), showing virtuosity (he is usually as in this film kind, attractive, reasoning but can be vicious as in Slumdog Millionaire) that he carries off the character as utterly non-threatening. I find him very attractive and have been told the actor is a type found in Indian films: the intellectual.

The insistence in the film on then bringing out how Agnes immediately resorts to lying rather than saying she is going to NYC to participate in puzzle contests, how her husband is utterly faithful to her and never distrusts her (he feels only she gives of herself to others and not him too much), and then is willing to sell his favorite summer house to please her to get money to do something in the career area for the sons, gives the game away.  Also the intense sympathy given the husband who we see as within all his capabilities as meaning well as possible and even forebearing for not beating her (that’s how it’s presented). He says he can’t do it because he’s just not like his father.

This is a film (like Ladybird [scroll down]) masquerading as a woman’s film or point of view when it is told from the male point of view. The review on IMDB asked if the story is not about selfishness (hers) and deceit. For in the second half, as she begins to enjoy life doing puzzles, enjoys being independent, and especially winning she does start an affair with Robert. It quickly emerges that he is lonely, having been left by his wife. All these hard-hearted wives, you see.


Look at the promotional shot above: is she not coyly flirting?

The looming climax comes when Agnes and Robert have won to the point they must go to Belgium to be part of the final contest. It’s then Agnes must tell her Louie, but we are led to believe that guilt stops her from being willing to go to Europe with Robert. She does not phone him when she is supposed to, she looks very reluctant.  We might think she won’t leave her sons, and is going make sure about half the money will be used to send Ziggy whom her husband had insisted work in his shop to college to become a cook. That is what Ziggy loves to do, and what his father regards as unmanly and therefore unacceptable. Some of the other half (we are to assume) will go to Gabe who wants to travel around the world or the US with a vegetarian girlfriend.

I say some because just as we assume she is going to stay with her long-suffering if dull husband, we see her waiting for a train to go somewhere. We then see an airport and think to ourselves she is after all joining the disappointed Robert. But no, she is going to Montreal. She has to keep aside some of the money for herself, no?

Now, Montreal? There is a dialogue early in the film where she expresses a desire to Ziggy to go to Montreal on her own. Why? we are not told. To do what? we are not told that. I happen to know Montreal is a little north from the borders of Canada and cold. The radical point is that she is not going to escape the husband by running to the arms of a lover. But we are not told what are her ambitions or why? the ending reminded me of Ibsen’s Doll House where it’s enough that Nora goes out of the house, slamming the door behind her. The problem is this is not 1879 and a satisfied sly smile on MacDonald’s face aboard a plane to Montreal is not enough.

I don’t want to condemn the film as it is filled with quiet nuanced scenes, and slowly builds to an interesting ending, but suggest those who are praising it are doing so as a contrast to the perpetual high violence, action-adventure fascistic point of view of so many movies nowadays. It’s a gentle film, intelligently done, slowly unwinding itself.  My favorite line:  when Louie finally asks Agnes, “Are you having an affair,” all she can say is she “thinks” she is (not sure which astounds Louie) because what she has been doing is puzzles with someone and yes they did have sex but she “didn’t like it very much.” Now those are a woman’s lines.

I thought of Margaret Drabble’s The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws. Drabble turns to jigsaws to calm herself.

Are they a game? I think so: Drabble finds the earliest modern style puzzles are found in the Renaissance and first spread as a child’s game (think of the Alphabets in Austen’s Emma). Drabble suggests for the adult that you are working against the puzzle maker. You achieve something when all the pieces are in place.  I like to do puzzles and my method resembles Agnes’s: first she makes the frame and then she works on different portions of the picture. Of course the puzzle maker makes this second step hard and now you must follow the colors. For me since the competition is at a distance (I don’t go in for contests), it’s relaxed and I have aesthetic pleasure putting the puzzle together. It’s a rare game I enjoy.


A rehearsal shot

In Puzzle Robert teaches Agnes to follow the colors first, only when the competition begins she reverts. She trusts to her own instincts and methods — so there is a feminist “feel.” Robert also tells Agnes he does puzzles to give shape and meaning to life but does not elaborate on this idea, and it does not make as much sense as Drabble’s explanation.

Gentle reader, both these movies are worth going to see — as well as Get Out and So Sorry to Bother You. You can escape the Trumpite poisoned environment we live in in the US today to learn about living in normally hard worlds.

Ellen

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I have always respected her for the courage in cancelling that yes … All worldly advantages would have been to her — & she was of an age to know this quite well — Cassandra Austen speaking of Jane Austen’s refusal of Harris Bigg-Wither (quoted from Family Record, 93)

Ah! those were pleasant days when I had the Laconia! how fast I made money in her … ” (Wentworth, Persuasion I:8:67)

Once once we are buried you think we are dead
But behold me immortal” — Austen’s last writing, on it having rained hard on the Winchester Races

Friends and readers,

This is to recommend not just reading but obtaining E.J. Clery’s Jane Austen: The Banker’s Sister. Clery carefully correlates documents left by Henry Austen’s life’s activities and those left by people he did business with, was friends or connected to (letters, life-writing, other texts as well as military, banking, lease and all sorts of contractual and court records), with close readings of Austen’s novels and her and her family’s papers, to create a fresh coherent story that sheds real light on aspects of her life and outlook, on his character, and on Jane and Henry’s relationship.

Clery gradually produces a portrait of Henry Thomas Austen as an ambitious, chance-taking, highly self-regarding man who aspired to gain a higher status in life and more respect for his personal gifts than the fourth son of an Anglican clergyman was thought by his world entitled to. At the same time or throughout each chapter Clery attempts to create the contemporary socially engaged businesswoman Austen favored today moving through the familiar events of Austen’s life (there have been so many biographies of Austen by this time) and writing or thinking about writing each novel.

Clery is not the first critic-scholar to assume that Jane was closer in mind to Henry than any other of her brothers, nor the first to credit him with the initiative and knowhow to help Jane achieve her heart’s desire to publish her novels. (And by this earn our gratitude.) But Clery is the first to interpret these novels metaphorically and literally as engaging in and critiquing or accepting financial outlooks literally analogous to or undergirding the outlooks Clery assumes Henry’s military, business and clerical behavior showed he had. Each chapter of Clery’s study begins with a retelling of Henry’s business and social life at the time of the publication or writing of each of Austen’s novels (chronologically considered). Clery then produces an interpretation of the novel in question, which assumes Jane’s cognizance of Henry’s state of mind or business at the time and that this alert awareness actuated some of the novel’s major themes (perhaps hitherto overlooked or not quite clearly understood).


Henry late in life, a curate

Beyond all this, as a mine of information the book is as useful as James Thomson’s explication of the money system in the era in his “Patterns of Property and Possession in Fielding’s Fiction (ECF, 3:1 [1999]21-42)

This book, then, is not a biography of Henry Austen. Its matter is made up of explications of Henry’s business practices, living arrangements, day-to-day activities in the context of what was happening in business, military, court and city events. His marriage to Eliza Hancock de Feuillide takes a very much second place in the scheme of things nor do we learn much new about her, though Clery is concerned to defend Eliza against the implication she was a bad mother or somehow cool, shady or amoral person, which the insistence on a direct connection between her and Austen’s portrait of Lady Susan and Mary Crawford has led to in the past. She also suggests, I think persuasively, that over the course of the relatively brief marriage Henry and Eliza grew somewhat estranged: she had not been eager for the marriage, and once obtained, he was not especially keen on her company nor she on the life and Austens at Godmersham.


A very poor miniature of Eliza Austen when an adolescent girl


Her gravestone: appropriately Henry buried her with her mother and son

After Henry’s life considered almost sheerly from a career and advancement standpoint, we are given an explication of one of Austen’s novels: like David Nokes in his underrated biography of Jane, Clery has read the letters with an original thoughtful alertness as to the events found in them. She tells us what on a given afternoon Jane or Henry (or Eliza), was doing and with whom, and how this related to what they did yesterday and the following evening and some ultimate career goals (which these business friendships fostered). In these vignettes she comes near to recreating Henry and Eliza and Jane as characters, but is hampered in the case of the first two complicated, enigmatic (neither wore his or her heart on sleeve) people by her acceptance of the Austen’s family’s adversarial dismissive portraits of them, with Henry “wayward” and Eliza ever a flirt (see my blogs on Henry and Eliza). The book is then or feels like a sort of constrained dual biography which then morphs into not always wholly persuasive yet intriguingly innovative literary criticism of Jane Austen’s oeuvre.

There is so much to be learned about financial practices and banking in each chapter; she goes well past the level of generality found in the previous articles (by Clive Caplan and T.A.B. Corley) to give us an in-depth picture of how Henry actually got himself promoted, put into positions where a lot of money went through his hands (a good deal of it which legally stuck to said hands), who he knew who mattered, who they knew whom they pressured, and how once “fixed,” Henry preceded to develop his interests further. Receivership, speculation, the “rotten” credit system come one by one under the reader’s eye. We learn the state of the economy in crucial moments, especially with regard to war, which all these people looked upon as a money-maker for them (thus Tory and Whig enthusiasm). Where we the Austens living in London when the successful business of publishing Sense and Sensiblity began, and what it (and the other novels) entailed. I give Clery great credit for providing us with the sums to see the profoundly immoral and unjust systems at work (for example, the money in the military sector was to be made buying and selling commissions off the table). Henry was of course “conscious of no criminality” (290).


Modern photo of the site of Henry’s bank in Alton today

One is struck by the small sums (£100) Henry and Francis disbursed yearly for a few years to the mother and sisters in comparison to the thousands they pulled in and spent on themselves. Clery mentions the Austen women were utterly dependent on these men who controlled the women’s movement and spending. The year Henry was said to have gone completely bankrupt and he said he could only supply £50 for his sisters, and mother his closest long-time partner, and Henry Maunde probably killed himself (283-84); there were intense recriminations among those involved about how much money Henry and Francis had held back. Suits and countersuits. Henry was resilient enough to almost immediately turn back to a clerical career, begin study for a title, and two years ahead of time (of James’s death) write begging letters in order to gain his brother James’s vicarage (312). Clery also reports in slow motion Henry’s two illnesses during the period of the decimation of the country and other banks when the (“rotten”) credit system (based on massive loans unaccounted for) imploded, and it seems to this reader by no means was Henry’s much boasted about optimism thick-set into his being.

But if it’s clear he had to know (it’s right before him, us and Clery and all) how insecure were all these securities, nonetheless he gave both his sisters crucially bad advice when it came to offers of money for Jane’s books. It’s important to remember that when Jane self-published Sense and Sensibility, and lopped and chopped First Impressions into Pride and Prejudice and sold it outright for £150, not only had her work been continually rejected, no one had offered her anything. It’s repeatedly said in his behalf (for the letter disdaining Murray’s offer of £450 is in Henry’s idiolect) that self-publishing was the common way: not when you were given such a ready money large offer. In just about all the cases of self-publishing I know of there has been nothing like this offer; as for the other common route, to solicit subscribers you need to know people, you need to be well-connected, you need really to be known and you have to have people solicit for you — those cases I’ve read of slightly later (including Burney much later in life) the person hates to solicit. It’s more than half what Radcliffe was paid for The Italian. Murray was not a “rogue” in this offer; he knew the market for fiction far better than Henry or Jane did. Another comparison might be Charlotte Smith; the sums she was offered early on with her first successes are smaller than that offered Austen. Murray was said to be a generous publisher (as was Johnson to Smith).

Henry repeats the same mistake years a few years later when Murray makes an overture to buy the copyrights of all six novels. After “consultation with Henry, Cassandra refused. Murray had “remaindered the 539 unsold copies of Emma at two shillings, and the 498 copies of the second edition of Mansfield Park at two shillings sixpence.” Of course he didn’t offer more for a “new edition” as she hinted. They ended selling all the copyrights to Bentley for £210 minus the £40 Bentley paid to Egerton for Pride and Prejudice, and they reappeared as inexpensive cheaply produced volumes for six shillings each (“sales were less than predicted and the number of copies issued each time was reduced”, 318-19)

Here is the source of the continual itching of the acid chip-on-the-shoulder consciousness that wrote the biographical notice, the continual bitterness, albeit mild, of some of his satire in The Loiterer. Henry cannot accept that the real gifts he felt in himself and by extension in his sister were not valued by a world he himself knew indifferent to integrity. He kept hoping otherwise when, Edmund Bertram-like, he studied for a face-to-face examination in the New Testament and Greek, only to be told by the Bishop “As for this book, Mr Austen, I dare say it is some years since either you or I looked into it” (291). He got the position based on his connections and family status.


Close up detail of Cassandra’s one portrait of Austen’s face

Some of the readings of the novels may surprise long-time readers of the criticism of Austen. Emma is interpreted as Austen’s rebellion against commercialism, a “self-flagellation” where we are immersed in a world where most of the characters who count are indifferent to money (242-43). Emma has been repeatedly read as a seriously Marxist analysis of society. I was surprised by how little time Clery spent on Sanditon. Clery seems to me accurate that the fragment represents a return to the juvenilia mode, but is after all a fragment and nuanced and subtle enough to support persuasive continuations about the proposed novel as about financial bust. Clery does uncovers some new sources of inspiration: a novel by Thomas Skinner Surr called The Magic of Wealth (his previous was A Winter in London); the author, a banker, also wrote a pamphlet defending the Bank of England’s paper money policy (see 295-96 and my blog on Chris Brindle’s stage adaptation).

But there is much to be learnt from Clery’s analysis of the juvenilia themselves, what’s left of Austen’s letters, the Austen papers; Clery’s reading of Sense and Sensibility as an “austerity novel” exposing ruthless “greed” and measuring everything by money as the center of society (139-51) and her reading of Mansfield Park as dramatizing and exploring “a speculative society” on every level (194-214). Clery precedes MP with an account of Eliza’s dying, Henry expanding his banking business by becoming “Receiver General for Land and Assessed Taxes” (190) and Warren Hastings’ pose of indifference: there is no need to over-interpret Fanny’s position as an exploited bullied dependent, or her famously unanswered question on slavery. Everything in MP lends itself to talk about money, only this time what is wanted and achieved by many is luxurious ease. Finally, Persuasion is presented as defending “embracing risk” (274-76), with Wentworth linked to Francis Austen’s admiration for a naval hero accused of “wrongdoing in connections with the Stock Exchange Hoax of 1814” (216, 275).

Details of their lives come to hand for each novel: “How appropriate that the party had a chance to see Midas at Covent Garden Theatre during a short three-night stopover at Henrietta Street” (204). The quiet disquiet over Austen’s possible incestuous feelings towards at least one of her brothers now becomes part of a Henry story across Austen’s oeuvre.  I’m not alone in feeling it was Frank, given the poem about his marriage, Frank’s providing her and her sister and mother with a home, the infamy of the letter “F” and clandestine Jane, the destruction of their letters (attributed to his granddaughter), not to omit Frank marrying Martha Lloyd (whom Jane loved) later in life (see Honan, Jane Austen: Her Life).


Green Park Buildings, Bath, end of the row — Austen and her family lived in Green Park buildings 2 centuries ago

In recent years there have been a number of books claiming to link this or that Austen novel with a building, a real life person or event never mentioned in the novel in question or Austen’s extant letters so it is so refreshing to be able to say of the bringing of contextual matter outside the novels into them not discussed before is not dependent on theories of invisibility or subtexts. I especially liked when Clery brought Walter Scott’s career, Austen’s remarks about him and his texts together. She brings out that Patronage is the contemporary novel by Edgeworth with Mansfield Park (193) but what Austen continually took notice of in her letters is how Scott is doing. In Clery’s book just as a number of financial scandals come into public view as well as Henry’s “precarious position” (Edward gives him a promissory note for £10,325), Mansfield Park is lagging in the “performance” department and Emma is not electrifying the reading world, Scott’s Antiquary is published, at a much higher price than either MP or Emma, and withing 3 week 6,000 copies sold, the author gaining half-profits of £1,632.” Jane Austen tells the truth as far as she knows it: it was disheartening.

When they all returned to Chawton Cottage, Jane wrote her niece Fanny of Henry: “London is become a hateful place to him, & he is always depressed by the idea of it” (292). I detect a strong plangent note in her closing letters quite apart from her last fatal illness. Stress can kill.

Deign on the passing world to turn thine Eyes,
And pause awhile from Letters to be wise,
There mark what ills the Scholar’s Life assail,
Toil, Envy, Want, the Patron and the Jail,
See Nations slowly wise and meanly just
To buried Merit raise the tardy Bust.

Clery attributes Jane’s burial in Winchester Cathedral and the floor plaque with its inscription to Henry and the publication of her novels too. He ended his life impoverished but, Clery asserts, Henry ‘s courage in life gave us his sister’s novels (324-25).

Ellen

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Watteau, The Serenade

Day 8/10 of books that influenced me, had a discernible impact. (For Day 7/10, Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale). When I was around 17 or 18 years old, I was in a used bookstore in Manhattan called the Argosy. It was on 59th Street, near the corner of Lexington Avenue. How I got there I don’t know but someone must’ve told me about it — it seemed to be about 5 floors high with very old elevators (the kind that had gates that seemed near to falling on you), and each floor was filled with bookcases of dusty books, many very old and decidedly uninviting, some falling apart.

It was there I first came across Fanny Burney, in a one volume and in a three volume edition of her letters (brown, falling apart) and I have told that story in the Burney newsletter: “On First Encountering Fanny Burney D’Arblay.”  But it was what was nearby that riveted me truly: a single volume edition in French of the letters of Julie de Lespinasse, nearby a 3 volume edition in French of the letters of Madame Du Deffand. I opened them up and started to read and found them irresistible. I no longer have those books but I do have the Elibron facsimile of a 2 volume edition of Lespinasse and a 2 volume edition of the letters of DuDeffand edited by Chantal Thomas.

In the volume by Lespinasse I read she was frantically and abjectly in love with a M. Guilbert and wrote him desperate letters where she poured out her thoughts and feelings in the most eloquent language I had ever come across. In the course of telling the tortures of her soul, she talked freely about all sorts of things, writing dramatic scenes, commenting on books, on plays she’s gone, people she knows, but always she comes back to the main point, she loves him, she cannot do without him, why does he not write her, why does he not visit her, not even respond to her. It was a form of madness.


An engraving said to represent Madame du Deffand

Madame du Deffand was very different: acid melancholy, caustic wit, the most bitter and truthful comments about life, funny, she wrote mostly to a man I had never heard of before: Horace Walpole whom she was very fond of, but also Voltaire (I had heard of him) and people with strange (to me) titles, particularly one man, Heinault to whom she confided the secrets of her life. I’m sure I understood less than half of what I read but what I did read struck deep chords. At early point I understood she was blind. Well many years later I have read much about Lespinasse, niece to Deffand, and Benedetta Craveri’s Madame du Deffand and her world, and Chantal Thomas. I read these before I read the unabridged Clarissa.


Engraving representation of Julie

I took all these volumes home (including the Burney) in a big brown shopping bag, and since then have read even many later 18th century women’s letters and memoirs and novels, English and French. I typed and put two novels by two other women of this era (Sophie Cottin, Isabelle de Montolieu) on my website, and edited Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde for Valancourt Press. Jane Austen read some of these women (Stael, Genlis, for a start).


On the vast first floor

The Argosy still exists but is no longer many floors with ancient elevators; it’s one big floor with a basement and you buy many of its books through catalogues. Below is the Argosy from the outside ….

This coming fall I propose to read with a class at OLLI a paperback edition in English of Madame Roland’s autobiography and letters. I am very fond of a biography of her by Francoise Kermina, which is more insightful than the ones in English and also a Elibron facsimilar of a 19th century study of her by Charles Dauban which includes selection of letters by her to her friend and separate sketches of her relationships with different equally interesting people..


Alfonso Simonetti, Ancor Non Torna, illustration for 19th century Italian translation of Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest

I put Ann Radcliffe here too, anong these women: my love for her novels, and the one travel book comes out of how the tone of her mind is coterminous with the tone of these other women’s minds of the later 18th century. I know I love the gothic which increases what her books mean to me, but basically her Mysteries of Udolpho is such another as Stael’s Corinne, ou l’Italie, and Madame de Chastenay translated Radcliffe’s great book into French and left a 3 volume memoir of her own.


Watteau, Iris (detail inside much wider vaster mural)

Ellen

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