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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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18th century print illustration of Weymouth, fashionable spa resort where Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax become engaged ….

At one point, ten years ago things looked very precarious when the majority of our residents had their accounts at the Bank of Eastbourne. I had borrowed heavily to build the foundations of this resort and was nearly forced, through no fault of my own, into bankruptcy. Fortunately we had a major investor from Antigua, the famous anti-slavery campaigner Miss Felicity Lambe, who was prepared to invest in our resort, and our new bank, “Parker Brothers – The Bank of Sanditon”, and that saved the day. It gives us great pride that the dividends we pay Miss Lambe fund her great campaign: – and her model plantation for free-men labourers in Antigua — from the concluding scene of Chris’s Sanditon

Friends,

Some six months ago now I posted a review of Chris Brindle’s play’s Sanditon, or The Brothers. It was filmed as a play, played on British TV, and a DVD was made available of the play, as well as a 40 minute documentary narrated by Amy Burrows (who plays Charlotte Heywood in the film). I thought it a splendid adaptation, which used the continuation by Anne Lefroy (published in an scholarly edition of Sanditon), which shows a real feel for the original and some knowledge of what her aunt intended. The documentary told of Anne Lefroy’s life as well as some of the circumstances surrounding Austen’s writing of this last unfinished work. Among these that Austen was dying and knew it, and at times in great pain before (and probably) during the writing of this fragment. The way Austen seems to have dealt with pain as seen in her writing was to distance herself, make an ironic perspective which both reflects on the issues at hand, and mocks them (see my The Depiction of Widows and Widowers in Austen’s Writing).

In the same blog I uploaded a beautiful song sung by Burrows and Nigel Thomas, “The Blue Briny Sea,” a composition enacting what seems to have been Austen’s longing to be beside the sea far more than she had been able to. Emma Woodhouse’s longing is repeated in Sanditon where the wish fulfillment element is the town is by the sea.

Since then I’ve been able to read Chris’s script of the play, and an outline of how to turn this 2 hour script for a play or single movie into a mini-series (it looks very doable). Chris explains how he originally wanted to develop a play about Anna Lefroy, but there was insufficient interest — and how he came to develop an ending for Sanditon. He sent me a pdf of his book, Hampshire: Discovering the 19th century world of the Portsmouth artist, R.H.C. Ubsdell in which he recreates intimately the local world of Hampshire both Jane and her niece Anna spent much of their lives in through Ubsdell’s pictures (from the gallery). Finally, a musical rendition (words by Amanda Jacobs) of Austen’s Three Prayers combined into a hymn of praise, “Father in Heaven.” All this material shows immense sensitivity to underlying motifs and feelings of Austen’s works as well as the subtle felt realities of Anne Lefroy’s relationship to her aunt, a real knowledge and empathy with one another.

So when Chris sent me another song he wrote re-imagining aspects of the completed Sanditon, re-enacting Austen’s deep grief at dying so young, looking to understand how she dealt with this seriously (partly by writing), what compensations she saw (her work), I was eager to listen. I was much moved. — among other picked-up suggestions from Austen’s later work, the song remember the poem Austen is said have written in the last day or so of her life, “Written at Winchester on Tuesday, the 15th July 1817,” with phrases like “When once we are buried you think we are gone/But behold me immortal!” With his permission, and encouragement, I upload the new song here: It is written by Chris Brindle, with a brilliant 20 year old Swiss French girl called Clara Chevallerau, and sung by her. (Although only 20 Clara has toured Europe with a Swiss version of “William Tell” and sung for Musical Theatre impresario Bobby Cronin on a Europe / U.S. tour.)

as well as the words:

When did you realise
That you life would soon come to an end
Did you always know your life would be so short?
What is a life what is it worth
– Is it what you leave behind you
When you take nothing with you at the end?

PRE-CHORUS

Your books and letters were your children
Left to others to inspire
– And maybe carry on your work

CHORUS

Do you die if a bit of you will live in others
Or memories of you will still remain?
How do you spend your last few moments
on this earth
When your journey has to come to its end

BRIDGE

In your pain you left us biting satire
A town built on sand in need of hope
But you left us characters who could save it
If in our imagination we could see how they would cope

May the Lord look on you with grace and favour
For this was the world you created
Reaching out for your future
A century or more away
When your pain was most intense
And your time was running out.

FRENCH CHORUS

Est-ce qu’on meurt si un peu de nous reste dans nos oeuvres
Ou des souvenirs de nous survivent encore?
Comment passe-t-on nos derniers jours sur cette terre
Quand le voyage arrive à son terme?

FALSE OUTRO:
Comment une jeune enfant, fille de vicaire
Née dans un petit village du Hampshire
A pu autant, changé la face de cette terre?

REPEAT CHORUS (last time)


Recent photo of Winchester — where Austen lies buried

As we near the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death ….

Ellen

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Elizabeth Moss as Offred, and Martha (cannot find actress’s name)

Friends and readers,

I’m over a week late in writing about the finale to this year’s film adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (see Episodes 1-3, 4-6, 7-9), but I want to offer some closure and a comparison with Atwood’s novel’s close.

This was another intensely grim and cruel episode: every human feeling that is natural and loving is thwarted; all the people living under this regime who are said to be powerful are seething with frustration; there seems to be no kindness anywhere until near the end of the hour when Moira-Ruby reaches Canada, and when Nick seems to enable Offred to at least leave the dead souls (man and wife) now at the core of the Waterford home. The only natural people are Nick, the Martha (who tells the story of her son’s death during the war they lost, for whom she grieves still).

As in the first episodes, the film-makers are past masters at coming up with the most terrorizing kinds of moods — Offred is to be punished with the other women — she showed she had power in the previous episode when she had to be turned to to persuade Offwarren not to throw her baby over the bridge: she is viciously hurt with that electric prod; she is taken and something seared in her ear; then Mrs Waterford is beating the hell out of her for the adultery she has endured in the Commander’s bed — Mrs Waterford has found her dress, and then dares to challenge her husband, which gets her nowwhere (as he answers to God, so she answers to him, a rephrase of Milton’s famous: he for God, she for God in him). What saves Offred momentarily is she is found to be pregnant and that overcomes all he transgressions (no, I will not use the verb “trumps” as it is now peculiarly ruined, sour) — except Mrs Waterford tells the commander it’s not his. That this does grate on him is seen when he questions Offred and elicits from her the misinformation of course the child is his. In fact, we have good reason to believe it’s Nick’s, and without sufficient explanation it is Nick who somehow engineers her escape from this home at the end of the episode into a shut truck which may be taking her into worse darkness or into the “light” (liberty)


Nick’s response when he realizes that Offred is pregnant and it is probably his

Offred now entitled to a good breakfast, but after witnessing the above scene of natural affection between Nick (glad of the pregnancy — this idea of children, sentimental behavior to them is not challenged by the series) and Offred takes her and cruelly shows her Hanna from afar without letting Hanna get close. Offred is locked in a car with strong windows and she cannot reach her child sitting on a school’s steps. Offed goes mad with frustration. Mrs Waterford re-enters the car and threatens to kill Hanna if this baby that Offred is carrying does not survive. Or she Mrs Waterford does not somehow become its mother. In a review I did some years ago of a study of the function of discarded children, nowadays abortions, dead babies, child-abandonment or murder, I discovered that such events are often at the core of searing novels (from Christina Stead’s The Man who loved Children to Winston Graham’s Marnie, an image not mentioned much in all that has been written about Hitchcock’s film) Offred, terrified because she cannot control nature (guarantee her pregnancy will go to term), tells Mr Wwaterford about his wife’s threats; he refuses to believe her. Meanwhile the man whom Offwarren had had to service and exposed as seducing he is humiliated and the egregious hypocrisy of a council leads them to use science – one of these hideous operations to which our society subjects people — to cut the man’s arm off. This “operation” is classic gothic (used in Branagh’s Frankenstein): one of the motifs of gothic is exposing science as inhumane, cruel, used for perversion. I have reason to know tonight egregious operations are performed in dentistry too.

Late that night Offred tries to visit Nick and he seems not to be there His house is shrouded in darkness, — or he’s not coming out in the night. Tired, she returns to her room and opens the package that Jezebel had delivered to her, and discovers it is brim full of hundreds of notes telling the dire stories of the different handmaid’s. We watch her reading these with a kind of joy, and then carefully stowing them away. Near the close of the episode they are rescued as evidence by one of the hand-maid’s.

Woven into the episode (across it, like a tapestry) Ruby-Moira’s escape to Ontario. We see her toil across snow and ice, avoid shots, and finally arrive at a bleak garage like room where she is taken in. Switch to a hospital like place where she has been fed, redressed, is asked if she has any family, and when she says no, is provided with a family from Offred (her husband Luke) and then (wonderful to an American) given insurance cards; welcomed warmly, given warm close and looks about her to see pictures of other invented families on the boards of the hospital corridor. Humanity conquers biology.


Luke in corridor in Canada

The final perversion in Gilead is the handmaid’s are led into a circle to stone someone to death and discover the person is Offwarren, subject to such brutality and from their hands for endangering her baby. First one brave handmaid refuses this outrage and a guard beats her ferociously, but then Offred steps forward into the circle, and drops her tone on the ground, “sorry Aunt Lydia,” and all follow suit, one by one. Lydia seems to feel here is a battle she should yield on (however temporarily). So she gives in, but says ominously “there will be consequences.” The girls return home as a group in triumph, each off to “her” home.

Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) confronts Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) over cradle

These are seen at the ending as Offred remembers a happy moment with Luke after she is first pregnant with Hanna or has given birth (marveling over the child’s hands). This contrasts with a scene between the Waterfords where she and he attempt to reach one another humanly, to make love, but are intensely stiff, and seemingly fail emotionally. They must first admit and resolve their new perverted emotional lives, hers one of extreme resentment, frustration and probably self-blame, his still obtuse hypocrisy and reveling in power.

Then the ambiguous ending: as before Offred is woken in the middle of the night, pulled out of bed, dressed but as she comes down the stairs, she finds that both Mr and Mrs Waterford are desperately protesting and cast aside. There is Nick telling her to get into the truck, and she is locked in, the truck driven away. The camera focuses on he inside and for reasons that do not seem reasonable she is filled with hope and triumph (yet says she does not know what is ahead). The episode is called “Night.” Many of the episodes are filmed as if in night’s darkness. The 1999 film has Offred escaping with Nick and he daughter to a landscape of refuges, now pregant, rather like Julie Christie at the close of Heat and Dust finds peace in a refuge center high on a mountain where she comes to give birth. I am not eager to watch next season unless Atwood herself writes the script — I fear that the hard satire at the center which came from Atwood’s extraordinary book would not be kept up.

Atwood’s book’s ending is utterly different from both films: it is a piece of astonishing sleight-of-hand utterly skeptical of all we have read – not we did not experience it, but that we are led to see it as a manuscript from a time a century or so ago whose truthfulness we cannot check. Atwood times travels for her close. We are at a conference where the male professors are discussing a manuscript from another time and place. So fast forward to the future and the past looks very different, not so searing as here we are today, presumably safe and sound. This coda is a satire on academics, and their pretenses at humanity. The patriarchy reasserts itself too. The story in the book is more persuasively real than either film because psychologically credible throughout with the characters having inner complexities, especially Offred in her relationship with Mr Waterford (though this tends to excuse him, it even handedly shows sympathy for males caught up in patriarchy).

Here’s a personal take: the vision of this society is of imprisonment. Inside Gilead all are in prisons, prisons made of mind-sets, prisons dependent on punishment, prisons of hypocrisy, prisons of power. Supposedly competition is eliminated for some greater good, but the greater good is for the very few and is itself hedged by ideas that natural pleasures are sins.

We are in prisons or what we’ve built from our pasts; my neighbor-friend told me once when I was first friendly with her, that she felt when her husband died, her past had been wiped out, it was as if it didn’t exist. She was talking of personal memories, and the reality that they were diplomats and moved around the world so she first took root again in DC — luckily for she had a good job at the German institute, a private educational place serving the public (like so many in the US part private) teaching foreign languages to people going to and coming from abroad (then English), but much of her life is the product of her past. I’ve tried hard for 3 years to create a new existence for myself but find I cannot escape my past and to make something new and new relationships, create a new self at 70 well nigh impossible. My beautiful house, the books — if I move and reject them, then I have nothing. Both parents dead, no siblings, a couple of cousins and aunt who lives far away. As we age, we are prisoners of time and our bodies and these a product often of years of interaction, some considered and more free, others subject and subjected. The series is about enforcing pregnancy and regimenting the body. Power in it is based on paining bodies. Others are imprisoned in other ways — social life’s customs and patterns deeply fixed, regiments. Even the weather here — now ceaselessly hot — keeps people in who are not at the beach or taking trips.


Samira Wiley who plays Moira-Ruby — off hours, out of character

Atwood is showing the imprisonment rituals and ways of life are perverse in our world by her exaggerations of our world in her Gilead. At the time there were other female dystopias about wars between the sexes (one by Suzie McKee Charnas) where the women win or they lose. There is no gain for real from it. Interesting all the non-Gilead pasts in the min-series are of a hard brash difficult commercialized world where happiness is snatched at home from tiny nuclear groups attached to one another. It’s not really a Nazi or fascist vision, but simply capitalist and militarist in all the buildings and appurtenances we see. Food is associated with women who are cooks both in the past, outside and in Gilead; it is women who give birth but the outcome of this process intensely controlled.


Atwood herself in an authorized photo

Of course Margaret Atwood is a foremother and present-day poet of great achievement and stature. From her rich poetic writing, here is the appropriate (for Handmaid’s Tale)

Werewolf Movies

Men who imagine themselves covered with fur and sprouting
fangs, why do they do that? Padding among wet
moonstruck treetrunks crouched on all fours, sniffing
the mulch of sodden leaves, or knuckling
their brambly way, arms dangling like outsized
pajamas, hair all over them, noses and lips
sucked back into their faces, nothing left of their kindly
smiles but yellow eyes and a muzzle. This gives them
pleasure, they think they’d be
more animal. Could then freely growl, and tackle
women carrying groceries, opening
their doors with keys. Freedom would be
bared ankles, the din of tearing: rubber, cloth,
whatever. Getting down to basics. Peel, they say
to strippers, meaning: take off the skin.
A guzzle of flesh
dogfood, ears in the bowl. But
no animal does that: couple and kill,
or kill first: rip up its egg, its future.
No animal eats its mate’s throat, except
spiders and certain insects, when it’s the protein
male who’s gobbled. Why do they have this dream then?
Dress-ups for boys, some last escape
from having to be lawyers? Or a
rebellion against the mute
resistance of objects: reproach of the
pillowcase big with pillow, the tea-
cosy swollen with its warm
pot, not soft as it looks but hard
as it feels, round tummies of saved string in the top
drawer tethering them down. What joy, to smash the
tyranny of the doorknob, sink your teeth
into the inert defiant eiderdown with matching
spring-print queensized sheets and listen to her
scream. Surrender.

Ellen

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Photograph of DuMaurier at her desk

Dear friends and readers,

I’m relieved to be able to report that at least among a group of 50+ year olds (some 25 or more) Daphne DuMaurier’s fiction is not obsolete. Someone could say in reply, well, of course not, the production of film adaptations of her books has far from ceased. Two recent very well-done film adaptations, Jamaica Inn (2014, scripted by Emma Frost), a three part mini-series, featured Jessica Findley Brown (she of Downton Abbey fame), as Mary Yellan, with corresponding middle-range box office fine actors in the others, and My Cousin Rachel (this summer 2017, scripted by Roger Michell who’s done several Austen films), featured Rachel Weisz as Rachel dressed very like Olivia de Haviland in the famous Hitchcock film, and no less than Simon Russell Beale as the lawyer. Both were closely faithful to the original book –most unlike most previous film adaptations of DuMaurier. Very recently The Scapegoat has been filmed with Matthew Rhys as the hero who wants to take over another character’s identity. Nonetheless, a film is not a book, and a film may lend itself to a popular film genre and be re-made because it’s so well-known. Does the book itself still speak to readers?


Jessica Findlay Brown as he masculine Mary Yellan (Jamaica Inn, 2014)

Yes on The King’s General, from my own re-reading (decades after the first time when I was in my teens) and from the class discussion where several class members produced much subtler thorough analyses of the characters than I had, saw few flaws (transcending stereotypes), understood the underlying perspective of the book: much of the book dramatizes war as women experience it, battles, sieges, deaths, crippling, and especially the use of starvation (still very much with us) as a toolr from woman’s point of view. DuMaurier herself had just gone through a war (WW2– Cornwall was bombed) this in Menabilly, the mansion she lived in for decades as a renter, renovated, and was finally kicked out of, famous today as Manderley from Rebecca. The one element in the long sequence of chapters of the seige and sacking of Menabilly (7-19) omitted is rape (admittedly a central part of civilian women’s experience in war zones but one not admitted to in any of incriminating detail until World War Two. DuMaurier bases what she depicts after the seige of Menabilly (Honor Harris’s flight to another family mansion in Cornwall, Radford, and then another, Mothercombe on the book’s shaping insight that war for women does not end with any truce. Why not? People have died, and one person gone can change all, everyone left imitating themselves; people maimed, crippled for life, whole households destroyed and how do you bring back land, re-furnish a house. A woman who has been gang raped or coopted into concubine doesn’t forget, her memories don’t go away,see Marta Hilliers’ Women in Berlin, for which she was ferociously attacked for exposing war gang-rape and concubinage: we are supposed to swallow that, not shame ourselves (why are victims the shamed) and of course not the great warriors.

The 17th century in Europe provides us with our first documented replacement of men with women, women who themselves could write, so we stories of sieges from women from the English civil war era (see Lady Brilliana Harley in Eva Figes’s Seven Ages of Women); the closest non-fiction I could compare these to is Iris Origo’s War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-44 (extraordinary book); in fiction of course Gone with the Wind (siege of Atlantic, sacking of Tara).

We also see it’s a conscious decision to allow the countryside to be ravaged, ransacked in an attempt to win a war: winning the war, killing, is more important than what happens to those living in its countryside. And we see whichever side wins, the people lose.

The book is remembered (when it is) for its crippled heroine, but what emerged from our talk is how disability is a theme throughout the book: from the way Richard Grenville’s possibly homosexual son is abused from a young age for his lack of aggressive masculinity to the point he is abject and cannot defend himself (it’s not your disability that kills you but society’s response to it), to the maiming and destroying of valuable characters one by one as the battles are told.

The idea of the course I’m reading and teaching this book in is to show the contrast between historical fiction after say 1980 and before 1960: as the story goes, in the early part of the 20th century historical fiction had reached an all-time level of scorn. It has been regarded in the 19th century as the highest form of fiction, requiring serious research, about serious political issues and a tremendous imaginative input: Walter Scott was respected; George Eliot’s Romola set in the Renaissance; the most admired of Thackeray’s books was not Vanity Fair, but Henry Esmond set in the civil wars in Scotland in the later 17th century. In early 20th century until near WW 2 and just after still historical fiction was seen as bodice rippers for silly women and boys’ adventures stories for men who wanted to fancy themselves manly heroes. This way of looking at them is not gone from us and historical fiction and romance are still written in this mode sufficiently to be mocked. What are seen as women’s novels and women’s films are particularly susceptible to mockery.

Hard to pinpoint when this changed and the process was slow. I’d say a new form of historical fiction – or a return to higher norms, ideals, serious history begins just after WW2. Mostly people wanted to write about the war and found masquerade made this easier. The “jump” – changeover – begins to gather steam and many books in the 1970s: I’d date for convenience with Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, written between 1965 and 75, and called at the time of finishing “a landmark of post-war fiction. He won a Booker Prize for its coda, Staying On (which I’ll teach in another course on Booker Prize books this fall at the OLLI at AU). In short, the books got longer, they were seriously researched, they were political , and by the 1990s deeply anti-colonialist – the Raj Quartet occurs during the breakup of the British Raj and its complicated politics, ethnic identities, fierce hatreds leading into and out of World War Two. It’s very accurate if you can accept the Anglo- perspective. Salmond Rushdi could not.

It’s important to stress there is no hard and fast difference between the two eras, especially that there is a lot of romancing in the current books. All of them intersect the past with the present, realism with fantasy; it’s a matter of emphasis I suppose – Sontag gives her book, The Volcano Lover, the subtitle: a romance. The difference is an attitude of mind towards how your novel is going to function socially and historically. But what we discovered is while King’s General is not post-colonial, nor does it mean to undermine our Enlightenment ideals, it is seriously researched, accurate and implicitly political. Specifically DuMaurier is a Tory, and she sides with the Royalists against the oppression of the Parliamentarians after (in the book) Cornwall is taken by Parliament and the Protectorate confiscates property and attempts to impose its notion of a moral order (which included by the way secular marriage ceremonies, allowed for liberty of the press, decent trade agreements, better tax system).


Menabilly in the landscape

Within that slant, she really recreates the civil war as it played out from place to place in Cornwall. And many of the individuals in the Rashleigh family, Cornish gentry, and our hero and heroine are based on archives (albeit some of them in the Menabilly attic). DuMaurier cared about Cornwall. Cornwall was a place where the royalists made a last stand against the Parliamentarians – they had the sea at their backs, and they were with great difficulty slowly defeated. It was a royalist stronghold, rotten borough later on. At the end of the war when she wrote KG, she had already been living in Menabilly (Fowey, Cornwall) for some 8 years and even though just a renter had begun to renovate. The ancient house and grounds burnt into her soul. World War Two was coming to end and it seems the owner was seriously ill and perhaps dying; if he died, there was no guarantee his heir will renew the lease. He didn’t die, and the first of several such crises was over. But almost losing it, made her aware of the house. It was indeed sacked to the nth degree during the civil war; the family members, most of them (not sure about Honor Harris) said to be there in the novel were there. It was a linchpin house the way these huge houses were politically. She did serious research into the family and their papers – she found the Rashleighs were not as keen to be memorialized as she had thought. The various family members who is married to who, the names of the children, where they are, and how they end up are accurate in outline and to some extent their characters.


Godolphin House, Cornwall (one of the ancient ruins)

There was an Honor Harris, a Harris family (Honor’s oldest sister, Mary, did become the second wife of the oldest Rashleigh male, Jonathan. Honor left a memoir, and that’s the basis of this 1st person narrative, melancholy and somber in tone as it begins where the book ends, 1653, close to Honor and her brother, Robin’s deaths (they are living on charity), and her character (highly educated as she had the time to become so). The crippling by a hunting accident (Honor falls from a height to stones below) is DuMaurier’s addition. DuMaurier says of the crippling in a letter that she saw a wooden wheelchair from the 17th century once and it stayed in her mind and that she identified with this heroine – as with Mary Yellan. “Honor Harris beame an extension of the author, my persona in the past.” She had felt powerless as a woman in the war.


Early wheelchair — 17th-18th century

The outlines of Richard Grenville fit the portrait of the real man who did take money and supplies from Parliament telling them he would fight for them in Cornwall and then returned immediately the royal side. He was so violent to his wife Mary Howard left him; there were two lawsuits, one from her and another with her kinsman, the Earl of Suffolk. He did escape from prison and go to Germany for 6 years. A lot of the detail about the battles is accurate. He behaved very badly, enacting ruthless aggressive sociopathic behavior (like Trump no concern for other lives), hanging some men unfairly, even carelessly, extorting money, using war contributions for himself. He would not obey Royalist commanders; he was imprisoned more than once. St Michael’s Mount. Spent time in Launceston, and when released went to Italy. Excepted from Pardon in 1648, he found his way to Charles II. He accused Hyde deeds he knew that Hyde did not do. He wrote an account of the period war and it was published and used by DuMaurier, a vindication of himself. Hyde as Clarendon incorporated Grenville’s history straight into his own. As in the book, Grenville died a fugitive, disliked, looked upon as not worth trust (because he would not keep his word) in 1658, and buried in Ghent.

In her Enchanted Cornwall DuMaurier remarks there are no Grenville around now (there are Rashleighs) and while one man did write a vindication of him, there was no one around to become indignant in 1946. You think they wouldn’t? Think again. As with Max de Winter and a number of DuMaurier’s villain heroes, she meant us to be appalled by his behavior. Grenville descends from Jem Merlyn in Jamaica Inn: his cruel streak is visited on his illegitimate son in the book of whom he is fond: the Parliament king Joe Grenville where they know the execution will be seen by as many characters as possible.

It is also a gothic romance. It was in 1824 when some alterations were made to the house, the Rashleigh at the time he found in a redundant buttress skeleton in clothes of cavalier in civil war clothes, a stool, a trencher – a secret roo This incident, merely read about, was part of what drove her to write King’s General. Grotesque freakishness (which we see in Richard’s son Dick, rather like Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge) – these are typical of the gothic.

The same patterns emerge across DuMaurier’s books too. I’ll mention just two: in King’s General another mean domineering, near murderous female –- it’s Richard’s twisted sister, Gartred, who partly causes Honor’s accident. Readers have assumed that DuMaurier identifies only with the abject heroine, but from what she says we find she identifies with these rebellious angry types too; maybe in irritation at her readership, he almost sneers at the second Mrs De Winter whose name we are never told. She was conservative politically – common among the more popular romance and historical fiction writers (Winston Graham an exception to this rule – very progressive if you’ve been watching the mini-series or have read the books). Like other women before WW2 she will say she has two people in her, a loving wife and mother, and then this rebellious masculine self, hidden, giving power to her creativity.


Cornwall’s slate cliffs and hills (from Claude Berry’s Portrait of Cornwall)

And the centrality of Cornwall: many of her books are set there, and she writes two super ones on Cornwall: Enchanted and Vanishing. It is a periphery, a place outside the central boundaries. To the Lighthouse — PD James has a tale set in Cornwall which uses a lighthouse too. Later in life she was almost wholly in Cornwall, fought to protect it from tourist ravages; she was forced of Menabilly but lived no far away in Kilmarth. She maintained her privacy as far as she could but would break it with autobiographical memoirs which she is said to have regretted.

She was bisexual, probably more strongly lesbian and the two great loves of her life were Gertrude Lawrence and Ellen Doubleday. She also had a loving companionship with Christopher Puxley during the war which had to be brought to a close when DuMaurier’s husband returned. Forster says in her letters she shows herself to be homophobic and her children did and do what they can to squash the true story of her sexual life — told by Margaret Forster. I doubt they liked the movie, Daphne, based on the biography. The DuMaurier family are angry at Margaret Forster and today deny she ever knew their mother.


Geraldine Somerville as Daphne (2007)

The family has been gifted. Her grandfather was a Victorian illustrator, George DuMaurier, who late in life wrote two best selling novels: Trilby with its mysterious “oriental” character, Svengali was one of them. Her father Gerald DuMaurier was a prominent actor-manager in London, brilliant man about whom she wrote a wonderful biography. She met interesting people from her earliest years; a privileged existence; her parents connections got her publication early. Her sister, Angela also wrote, another sister, Jeanne painted. Family had journalists, her mother an actress, Muriel Beaumont. She’s described as uncomfortable, unhappy in the social whirl of London; she married a man she was not quite compatible with, but a good match, Frederick Browning and after WW 2 she was Lady Browning: he was himself a sensitive intelligent type (became attached to Philip Duke of Edinburgh and we may see him enacted in The Crown if it takes us back to World War Two, and forward to the 1960s, which I expected it will). DuMaurier was not a nice person – if you read about her behavior to her servants she could be deplorable, exploitative, especially of a governess who however was very loyal to her. She presents herself and others say she was distanced from her 3 children, Tessa, Flavio, Christian (Kit). If so, their later life shows them fiercely loyal to her, writing memoirs, nurturing her reputation.

Later in life she was almost wholly in Cornwall, fought to protect it from tourist ravages; she was forced out of Menabilly but lived not far away in Kilmarth. Her husband spent his last years at Menabilly too; he died in 1965. She maintained her privacy as far as she could but would break it with autobiographical memoirs which she is said to have regretted; she characterized herself as suicidal, sympathetic with why people have this impulse. She lived until 1989.

To conclude (as I don’t want the blog to be too long), when I looked at the Mason database for scholarly articles on DuMaurier, I found not a single one. On some of the Hitchcock movies made from her book, yes. Even Winston Graham (the Poldark author) and Diana Gabaldon (DuMaurier’s closet modern granddaughter, only Gabaldon is much less transgressive and subversive, disquieting) have a few scholarly articles. So when I began by rejoicing that for some readers (and probably some of those who persist in going to the DuMaurier films) is not dated, not obsolete, it’s true that with the exception of a few feminist critics (Nina Auerbach, Avril Horner, Sue Zlosnick), biographers and her children (and cousin) who wrote memoirs and edited DuMaurier’s letters and memoir, DuMaurier is still dismissed.

Ellen

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