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Posts Tagged ‘women’s novels’


John Martin (1789-1854), The last Man (1849), a later painting illustrating Shelley’s novel, he was a friend

Friends,

This past November I blogged (at length) about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which I had just finished reading with a class of people at the Oscher Institute of Lifelong Learning at American University (on 19th century women of letters); last week I finished reading with a group of people on-line here The Last Man and thought I’d say a few words about it. I thought of Frankenstein as ever present because it seems as relevant and alive today (no museum-piece, not a classic which although set in contemporary times in its era reads like a historical novel) as when it was first written in 1818. I can’t say this third novel of Mary’s (she had also written Matilda, a novel in the tradition of her mother’s Maria; or the Wrongs of Women) is as alive: The Last Man is often a weak book: prolix inert style for too many stretches, the characters faery tale unbelievable except when we can recognize in them Mary’s memories of Byron, Shelley, Clair Clarmont and others as well as herself, or when seen as caught up in nightmares and idyllic sequences. Its strength is its memorable dystopian vision which is elaborated over hundreds of pages. Dystopias right now are what everyone is reading or watching — as in The Handmaid’s Tale. I watched the fifth episode tonight (whence this blog).


Max Minghella as Nick and Elizabeth Moss as Offred at the close of Episode 5: she and Mrs Waterford have decided the way to impregnate her is use Nick’s genitals — but cold sex is not working, so Offred visits Nick; not unimportant detail is that around his hips he wears much hardware as if to link his penis with guns, nails, iron, whips …

In genre or type like The Handmaid’s Tale, The Last Man is not science fiction — if we require that newly invented or fantastical technology play a key role. To my mind Shelley’s book is very like the Northanger Abbey novels cited in Austen’s famous satire. Shelley’s opening reminded me of Eleanor Sleath’s The Orphan of the Rhine, with its Paul et Virginie (or Daphnis and Chloe) love affair between central characters, Perdita and Lionel when they are adolesents. (Full disclosure: I wrote the introduction for the Valancourt edition of the novel.) I’d call The Last Man also gothic and very much coming out of the mode of Radcliffe, except no happy ending: it’s a dark vision in which all but one character die. The central characters are seen through the peculiar idiom of high idealistic sentimental romance, the tone intensely melancholy. It’s Shelley’s grief-work as she enacts and re-enacts the events of her life with these romantic poets in Italy. Mary Shelley’s deep trauma in reaction to PBS’s behavior (endless affairs and children with other women, her babies dying) is processed over and over. Lionel the narrator (a faux male like we find in George Sand’s novels) is mostly Mary herself; Adrian, this idealistic powerful leader is Shelley; Lord Raymond (a libertine) is Lord Byron. Idris is Clair Clarmont at times. There’s an Evadne, straight out of a Beaumont-and-Fletcher Jacobean tragedy. The politics is deeply conservative although what’s professed is deep humanity towards everyone. It’s Anglo-centric (everything occurs in places clearly versions of England or Scotland when we are not in a dream or nightmare version of Italy). War seems to be the only way to obtain peace (when all are dead); Mary resorts to emperors, kings, dukes, Protectors. The women all take traditional roles of wife, mother, daughter, or mistress.

I can refer the reader to a few essays offering interpretations of this novel (it has attracted a lot of scholarly attention in recent years), much of it predictable (alas), e.g., this is a realistic plague-story a la Defoe (Journal of the Plague Year) or visionary Camus (La peste), a horror piece in the mode of Charles Brockden Brown, apocalyptic in its spectacles; haunted by the nightmares of history Mary has read and the ghosts of people she cannot get herself to analyse accurately (and without false idealism). One problem with the scholarly essays is where is her book is situated, contextualized by male dystopias. Another is the autobiographical is ignored or denied as not interesting.

A third is left out is anger Mary cannot get herself to admit it. That’s the strain that unites it to The Handmaid’s Tale (or Charlotte Perkins’s Herland – she also wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper”. I was alerted to this by Rebecca Mead’s essay in the New Yorker after interviewing Margaret Atwood. Atwood remarked that in a number of her dystopias she kills nearly everyone off. Or she was asked about this and replied yes. She then said that she usually saves a few people, a remnant to start again. We need hope. Well is this not Shelley? then I thought to myself, is this typical say of women’s dystopias? In Perkins’s Herland the whole community as as community is destroyed.


Herland

I know of another: Suzy McKee Charnas wrote a trilogy of dark dystopias in the 1980s, strongly feminist: Walk to the End of the World and Motherlines. I don’t usually read science fiction (or allegorical fantasies) and have only skim-read these. The series begins in a dystopic post-holocaust America where men keep women as slaves. The women rebel lead by one woman, Aldera. By the second volume Aldera has joined a culture of free women who live a nomadic life and reproduce without men. It ends in a violent war where the two sides nearly destroy one another. Sixteen years later she wrote The Furies (1994), in which the women take back the male-ruled Holdfast and turn men into slaves. The first two books won awards; the second was written during the backlash (Susan Faludi covers that) and was daring for staying with strong feminism. Charnas is a fine writer: her Vampire Tapestry I’ve taught twice and even love: she gets rid of all the Christianizng and substitutes geology and sympathizes to some extent with our vampire turned professor; her memoir of her father, My Father’s Ghost is deeply moving; he deserted her and her mother when she was small, but now she takes the broken man and his cat in, very truthful about her ambivalent feelings.

A very great one I’ve written about here is Marlen Haushofen’s The Wall, adapted by Julian Polser.
The Wall: the heroine makes it on her own with a group of animals

I am wondering how far a deep anger in women as a group underlies their dystopias/utopias. For countless centuries we have died in childbirth, until recently were subjected to endless childbirth. Made into servants who could not make any money, own any property, by law could be beaten. Raped we were blamed. It seems at the end of WW2 there was a free-for-all of rape in Germany by all men. I suggest that these dystopias come out of the reality that Marta Hiller’s Women in Berlin dramatizes and explores (still often attributed something to Anonyma).


Nina Hoss as the woman haunted by continual rape

There is a gender faultline in all the genres I’ve ever studied and it makes sense to me there would be gender faultline for women’s dystopias. I distrust the idea that a utopia is a dystopia in disguise (which I’ve come across over Thomas More’s Utopia, a veiled attack on its communism). That’s to confound terms, perhaps mystify. Maybe a male would see any utopia as a dystopia because he is to be controlled and as a group wouldn’t want that. In More’s Utopia if an older man separates himself from his wife and marries or goes to live with a younger one, he is put in jail and then enslaved. Thomas More says this predilection of many older males to do this and the willingness of unattached young females to agree makes this punitive law necessary. For older women whose partners have left them for younger women this this parable would not seen dystopic at all.

On Trollope19thCStudies Tyler Tichelaar had this explanatory analysis of yet another dystopian book, not by a woman but written by a man in drag, as a woman:

I’m not sure I can speak to women’s dystopias in general, but I mentioned that I had recently read Robert O’Brien’s Z is for Zachariah – although a novel by a male author, I would place it with women’s dystopias since the narrator is a woman. She is all alone in her valley after a catastrophe and thinks she may be the only person left until a man in a space suit to protect him from radiation enters the valley. She spies on him until he hurts himself and then she cares for him. When he is better, he tries to rape her, she runs and then they are at war until in the end she steals the space suit so she can leave the valley and leave him behind. The idea according to critics is that she refuses to start the whole Adam and Eve story again. I think Shelley may feel something similar and that may be the reason for the drawn out Perdita and Raymond plot. Men do not support the domestic circle but end up working against it, and in the end, the woman is just too tired and sick of dealing with men’s behavior to try to start that cycle all over again. The continuance of the human race is just not worth the pain and frustration it brings its members.

A man in drag (as a woman character at the center, its consciousness) can produce l’ecriture-femme. Arguably the structure of Richardson’s Clarissa and Grandison are just that. Z sounds like Charnas’s dystopias. Women have been as unwilling as men to repudiate the reproduction function and that has given the patriarchal structures an advantage. And we see this in Mary Shelley in The Last Man and Frankenstein: where the creature longs for a mother and has been repudiated by his father. But Haushofen, Hiller’s, Charnas finds nothing sexy or attractive about rape (see Diane Reynolds’s blog on the dysfunctional and impotent males in The Handmaid’s Tale:: subversive TV), neither do they think the ends of their being to make babies.

I came the conclusion Mary Shelley’s The Last Man is courageous grief-work; she is exhausted but refuses to fall silent about what she has experienced, sees around her (the wastelands she saw in Italy too), and prophesizes: she is herself a muted Cassandra (bound not to offend father-in-law, not to hurt her chances as a professional woman writer).

I hope this blog gives my readers some new perspectives for thought as you watch The Handmaid’s Tale and if you should attempt Mary Shelley’s first and third novels.


This is another illustration by Martin (found on a site that discusses Shelley’s novel in context with other dystopias)

Ellen

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Elizabeth Moss as Offred (Handmaid’s Tale, 2016, “created” by Bruce Miller, director Reed Morano

Friends,

It may be that nothing could be fundamentally further in mood (dystopian horror) and genre (fantasy gothic or science fiction) from a Jane Austen novel, or any of the film adaptations (except perhaps P&P and Zombies: The Violent Turn) than Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985, only short-listed for the Booker at the time), with its two iterations, the 1990 Volker Schlondorff/Harold Pinter 109 minute cinema Handmaid’s Tale, and now this gargantuan mini-series of 10 one hour episodes Bruce Miller/Reed Morano Hulu Handmaid’s Tale. But this is such an important production of a now clearly prophetic woman’s novel, however or because problematic at moments, we cannot ignore it.

The book is not just prophetic; it’s an allegory of today, of the way the men in charge of the US gov’t want to control women and the world. Every violation a woman can know is meted out; many men are equally powerless; you are hung for being gay, transgender, speaking unacceptably … what is problematic is the over-the-top violence: is it part of an inuring process which leads to acceptance of torture in many forms ….

The book is hard, harsh, not easy to assimilate: it begins in medias res and immediately you are immersed in a closed environment where the narrator, Offred, is cut off from any information beyond her immediate environment, itself laced with lies, and surrounded by treacherous fearful and ruthlessly bullying people (in this mini-series, immediately aggressively violent). The narrator grips you from the start — rather like Michel Faber’s Under the Skin and MarlenHaushofen’s The Wall. We are seeing this world from a single point of view — Offred (Natasha Richardson, far too lovely, and now Elizabeth Moss, her face all hard angles).

The book begins with Offred in her single room and going downstairs where she is about to go shopping. Slowly it emerges from her mind how she has come to live with the commander Waterford (Robert Duvall/now Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway, now Yvonne Stahovski). The way records are completely under the control of gov’t agencies (which has been true for a few decades now), so that when the coup is accomplished, that very day our heroine cannot reach her bank account. The money she is told is not validly hers. When she gets home, she is told that her husband can reach it and it’s telling he doesn’t mind this. Suddenly then women are not allowed to own any property. The next day she is told by her boss –- as are all the other women in the office – they are no longer permitted to work. She must go home and be an obedient housewife. The boss looks very sorry to do this – he’s losing his staff – but he is under threat of terrific retaliations, he says. Return to the present: As Offred goes about the house we meet the Marthas (in long brown dresses); a male Guardian, Nick (now Max Minghella) at his car and where he lives (woman-less as a powerless man).

The novel is far softer, more subtly nuanced than either film: it begins with some sense of sympathy for Serena Joy as herself vulnerable (reminding me of the plantation owner’s white wife who hates his black concubine in Valerie Martin’s Property). But she seethes with resentment and hatred as she is forced to use Offred’s vagina (her own “barren”) to conceive a child, all she can justify her existence by. She moves from pretend concern for Offred when she thinks Offred is pregnant, to brutal kicking when Offred turns out to have her period. As the novel proceeds, Serena Joy encourages Offred to take up with Nick in order to conceive a child, and there is this appalling scene where Serena Joy has given Offed a single cigarette, and Offred has to practically beg to get a single match from one of the kitchen staff. Psychologically interesting scenes include those between the commander and Offred as they begin to be people to one another (as in their game of Scrabble). Lots of the details are vivid and appropriate — reminding me of the use of metaphor and landscape in Alias Grace, Cat’s Eye (one of her finest novels) and Lady Oracle (brilliantly about romance novels, the gothic).

The things that are done to the powerless heroines (all women are powerless but the apparent bullies, Aunt Lydia types (Ann Dowd) are horrible but not over the top so that they are not believable. They are parallel to what goes on in the US and elsewhere today. The hatred of gays, the desire to destroy women’s vaginas (one pregnancy test is an invasive procedure by doctors), the continual presence of military people, the ruthless disproportionate punishments, the way the hanged are dressed (like the tortured people in Abu Ghraib). A key motive in the book and both films: the narrator wants to survive and is willing to kowtow to anything, do or say anything to avoid bodily pain — it’s so easy to kill someone. I recently reviewed a crucial anthology, Speaking about Torture, where this drive to carry on as well as an assertion of individual self through talk and memory enables survival for a very few.


Max Minghella as Nick in the mini-series — he is hovering around the edges, looking like someone with a still alive conscience

The book’s ending is quite different from the first movie’s and since this mini-series has already gone well beyond the book in harrowing chilling inhumanity (the word seems so inadequate), I expect its ending will differ too. The book reaches its climax in the club where Offred comes upon Moira (she did not manage to escape), with Serena Joy discovering them having an apparent good time, and precipitates a crisis. One of the troubling aspects of the book and first film is how many of the women hate (or appear to hate) the other women. While reading I found detail after detail were simple exaggerations or night mare versions of our present political arrangements, what one sees in social clubs say — masquerades that expose.

The heroine in the book “goes out” — seemingly to her death, and the feel or sound is that of a great explosion. The 1990 film ends with a revolt, Nick enables Offred to escape to a trailer high in the mountains well beyond this terrible empire where we see her pregnant, relieved to be left alone, waiting for him — presumably the people who make such decisions insisted on an upbeat close. It did not feel tacked on: this is a pregnancy not dreaded. This mini-series has made Offred’s daughter central and she says she is staying alive to try to be there to protect her daughter (if she can), rescue her.


It’s worth noting that both are dominatingly white film — thus far Samira Wiley is the only black major character in both movies (Moira here, was Elizabeth McGovern)

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

Episodes 1-3


Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), Offred’s friend from the past (Offred now has a “real” name, June)

Episode 1: The film-makers made an atmosphere of complete appalled terror and horror. From the moment we see the family in flight, to their capturing Offred and her child. The use of violence is continually there and the film punctuated by heartless humiliation, regimentation, breaking of all taboos that are there to help people stay together naturally. I found myself shaking at moments. I was shocked by use rape to destroy people, and to make women (including Offred) attack someone viciously and ferociously.  Offred joins in, is even first to start beating the man labeled rapist mercilessly. The women are like dogs who from the punishment and the rage they feel are then drivne to wreak their vengeance on another helpless person. I worried Ofglen, the woman whom Offred goes shopping with, and seems to be making friends with, is not a traitor. Everyone is treacherous. But she is “disappeared” by the third episode. Some moments reminded me of the first movie. Moira in both is violently beaten and stipped naked, put to bed. The horror of the “maid” used as a receptacle for sperm while the husband systematically fucks her and she is made to lay in the wife’s arms. How the wife hates this. t. Offred witnesses the husband going into an elegant dinner party with the wife shut out in both iterations. The use of far shots is fascinating: these make us see the characters as so many tiny figures in a glass bowl, de-humanizes them into a maze.


The commander


His wife, Serena Joy

Episode 2: I can’t take more of this kind of thing than an hour in a row so waited another night before watching again. This is transition. The ever so gentle Mr Waterford (the commander played by an actor who reminds me of Ralph Fiennes when he plays these gentle loving brother-types so this is high irony; he chooses to impose scrabble on Offred nightly -(One Austen connection is with Emma! — Caroline Austen suggested one source for the depiction of Mr Woodhouse at backgammon with Emma was a real older male relative in the Lloyd family who tyrannized his granddaughters into nightly backgammon … for one night might be amusing but not continually.)
 
There is throwback to Offred’s memories of a having her child normally by her husband, but tellingly, the film makes that experience not altogether blissful: she is controlled by others as she fulfills routines taught, and her husband scoots out at the first opportunity. This mini-series has the nerve, the daring to bring out the analogies of “normal” life to this dystopia.  The bully woman in charge is so hypocritically proud of Moira for breast-feeding.  (I refused to breast feed the second time, I found myself after a vast hemorrhage asked if I wanted to try to breast feed — I told them you must be mad but they never blinked  — I could go on with this about how I was unknowingly dragged into some vast room where women were being taught to breast-feed, it took strength and never with that ridiculous IV to walk out).  Nothing is to be trusted: the woman Offred had started a relationshio with, Ofglen is replaced by another woman claiming to be her. Ofglen had told her not to trust the Commander’s driver, Max Minghella.

There is no gratuitous physical violence but the emotional violence through repression and perversion is continual and far sharper, a sort of continual emotional abuse which destroys pesonalities.


Aunt Lydia — the actress is made to look like people typically put into domineering intimidating roles, with expressionless faces, hard dense bodies ..

Episode 3 shows us in fragments how an originally semi-free society (ours) was turned into a dictatorship with women as slaves. First their bank accounts are frozen, then they have no money, then they are fired. Offred’s husband doesn’t mind it seems; he’ll protect her. But he can’t. Demostrations are seen, people beaten shot in the streets, especially women. All these remind me of what I see on TV when black lives matter people demonstrate, when the Occupy Wall Street Movement was brutally scattered, and people in the streets maimed for life. These are fragments of memory of Offred: she is thought to be pregnant and is phonily treated as precious. But after a hideous interrogation (she is given electric shock treatments each time she violates some speech prohibition or shows the least independence) she gets her period back and is again driven as a hated thing by the wife.

In each of the separate incidents, every profound violation a woman can know is done — I assume the last scene of the girl with a bandage over her vagina means she’s been subjected to female genital mutilation. raped, beaten, used utterly sexually, hung to death. It is moving slowly and instinct or some knowledge of long watching of these mini-series tells me it’s going at the speed of Outlander (16 episodes = 1 book much longer than Handmaid’s Tale) but it’s been so long since I read the book. A couple of allusions come from recently — about the constitution. Recent allusions I’d say are prophetic unless the writers had in mind Trump winning with Pence as his vice-president (Pence will not be alone in a room with a woman he says).

Note that I have not re-capped the mini-series; those wanting recaps must go elsewhere but here is an abbreviated review (by “anibundel” of I Should Have Been a Blogger) more or less done with an eye to the audience member who wants a recap. One should of course reread the book carefully, and then re-see all three episodes and then move on to the fourth. What is troubling about this mini-series is the hundred-fold increase in violence from book and first film: we are inured and most be given horrific behavior it seems before we are affected, and what this does is inure us further. I am worried that like Nabokov’s Lolita, this is an art work which invite us to revel in the subjection of women (especially since romance, marriage and motherhood are treated a holy subjects), while claiming through irony to attack the patriarchal bosses. See Francine Prose in the New York Times and think seriously about this.


A close-up landscape — from a later episode not yet aired on Hulu

Ellen

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Elizabeth Nourse (1859-1938), The Closed Window Shutters

Dear friends,

About two years ago now (how time flies) I chaired two panels whose topic was supposed to be single women living alone befoe the 19th century. Single did not mean unmarried necessarily: rather a woman living as a single woman without a man as husband, father, brother, uncle, or some form of “guardian” cousin. I did not specify that the women had literally to be living alone but was looking rather for someone who had the highest authority in the house, was not with someone else as her peer. I was aware that out of six papers accepted for this panel “as near enough,” only one was about real women living alone — and in these two cases, the woman, Charlotte Lennox and Charlotte Smith, were married and separated from their husbands, with children and servants and other people as burdens in the household too. The others were about fictions, nunneries, a love affair in letters (two young people being forbidden to marry), and my own on widows and widowers in Austen, where only a few in the fictions could be described as living alone for any considerable period of time, with the exception of the impoverished (Mrs Smith, Miss Bates). The fact of non-marriage as shaping their living conditions was not brought up except explicitly for Miss Bates.

I was encouraged by editors scouting about to develop a prospectus for an anthology of essays on this topic, but I was immediately confronted with the reason for the lack of papers. I had no study to fall back on, only individual books part of which might swirl around this topic (single women — meaning spinsters — in a given period, or widows in 18th century France). Studies were done of fictions because there at least the topic was defined and individuals clearly described — there is a problem of definition itself as the unacceptability of the state led many women to keep their state invisible (Felicia Hemans springs to mind). On the one hand, I felt there were so many women of this type when I began to look, and on the other how a firm conception to bring them together had not been developed. You could get articles or chapters on the pressure on women to marry, but then what was discussed was marriage. No one wanted to look; this was not interesting unless the woman was seeking power and it was this search for gaining power that was the interest. I asked friends who had more status than I to join me as an editor (to ask other people to write essays is to need status oneself), but all were busy with other projects. I am a retired adjunct lecturer aka independent scholar. A second obstacle was finding people; this requires a circle of close friend-scholars with the same interests who see somke advantage to themselves in appearing in this anthology. One last: one friend said I might find it becomes “too lesbian” (in effect) and so be sure to cover a wide range of types! (contact people privately before resorting to the CFP).


Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Modern Women

But I had not quite given up the topic. It’s too close to my heart now. Last term (at the Oscher Institute of Lifelong Learning at American University) I taught a class I called 19th century women of letters and my proposal to do it again with a different set of books has been accepted at OLLI at Mason for the coming fall. It hadn’t taken long for me to realize that the typical women of letters was a woman supporting herself, often living alone if I used the expanded definition. It does seem as if living truly alone, literally (though still an anomaly), is a phenomenon only found in the 20th century: essentially it requires that a woman have a good paying job or income (I thought of Virginia Woolf’s desideratum of £500 per year, the equivalent today would be $35,000 per year); and that the norms or mores of the community do not allow male thugs to molest her on the supposition she must be a prostitute (in effect). Before the 19th century there was no large general literary marketplace, few circulating libraries, few magazines. All this was the basis for the 19th century woman of letters:

19th Century Women of Letters

We will ask what did a woman writer’s career look like, what genres and journalism women published, what were obstacles & advantages women experienced, like & unlike today. We’ll read Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, George Eliot’s “Janet’s Repentance,” and Margaret Oliphant’s Kirsteen, and “The Library Window.”  We’ll also read brief on-line excerpts from Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography, Caroline Norton’s English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century, Emmeline Pankhurst, “Freedom or Death” and Virginia Woolf’s “Professions for Women”.

Now suddenly a thought has occurred to me which I had not been able to reach before: I could do a book on this topic if I chose 6 women I could write about myself. I had so worried myself over the obstacles to an anthology. But I can write a book on my own. I have the Library of Congress and Folger nearby, and access to two university libraries, one with the database. I can now see an introductory chapter; the body of the work; and a conclusion. I don’t know why I couldn’t break through to this before. Maybe need. I need absorbing work I can genuinely respect and look at as useful to others beyond giving myself some kind of meaning. I have now faced that I will be alone most of the time for the rest of my life. I can blog, teach, write and read to participate with others, but I want some overarching goal to guide me. An introductory chapter, a chapter on a specific woman and outline and I could try to send this to one of those editor-publishers whose names and presses I still have.


Another possible candidate: Julia Kavanagh (1824-77), disabled, she supported herself and her mother by her pen

So I’ve begun reading again Norma Clarke’s Ambitious Heights: Writing, Friendship, Love, The Jewsbury Sisters, Felicia Hemans and Jane Carlyle. I’m in the second half, the chapter on the relationship of Geraldine Jewsbury and Jane Welsh Carlyle, and remembered a brilliant portrait of them by Virginia Woolf in her Second Common Reader.

Woolf’s essay is a delight. She manages to convey Geraldine and Jane’s lesbianism without openly showing it — so this is a kind of post-James text. I refer to how Eva Sedgwick says lesbian and gay texts around the time of Henry James were using various subterfuges but coming out much more to show gay and lesbian experience. Carter takes another step into transvestism and gender ambiguity which except for the high-jinks of Orlando I don’t see in Woolf.

I was drawn to the pathos of these women in Woolf. Clarke’s Ambitious Heights rather brings out how hard Jane Carlyle was on her women servants — she worked them like semi-slaves, and also made them be a personal comforter to her. Let me say that was wrong of Jane Carlyle; Clarke made me wonder if other women did this. I know that male masters did bugger their male servants, and the only control was fear of blackmail. Woolf doesn’t have the space to explain why Jewsbury lived far away, how she came to London to live close. There were two visits of living together, and the first a disaster, the second a reinforcement. Paradoxically for us a disappointment because the letters stop when they live around the corner from one another. Today they might start to text and tweet at one another. Then Jane’s need of Geraldine but after her sudden death (from fatigue? from stress? from repressive years and years of wearing down her organs), Geraldine spends 20 years alone. The one photo we have of Jewsbury shows her quietly reading, all dressed up. Unlike Woolf who is daring for her time, Clarke does not bring up or out the probable lesbianism of Carlyle and Jewsbury (Jane and Geraldine). It was published in 1990; Clarke doesn’t even discuss the possibility. 26 years ago maybe it was verboten to get an academic respectable if feminist book published.


Geraldine Jewsbury

I also started Kirsteen, which I am relieved to say is as excellent as Oliphant’s Hester, The Ladies Lindores and Lady Car: A sequel (about the later years of one of the heroines in the first book), or long ago now (I don’t remember it as well any more) Cousin Phoebe. I just love Oliphant’s books and she would be one of my subjects. I need to narrow each one of six to the trajectory of women living alone, why, how, with what results. I have been wanting to blog on her powerful if flawed The Marriage of Elinor and thinking about this novel in terms of this perspective, brings out what Oliphant is meaning to say by this book, and its continued effectiveness today.

My reading of The Marriage of Elinor went on late at night; I turned pages feverishly because like other of Oliphant’s novels I couldn’t predict what was going to happen, and only towards the middle became aware (as is so common with Oliphant) that it’s not centrally about the character of the young heroine, after whom it is name, Elinor, or she’s secondary; the center is shared by her mother, Mrs Dennistoun whose first name was finally uttered: Mary.

The book is about a woman who gives all to a daughter who continually makes very bad choices. And why are they bad? because she chooses what the world says is admirable. Elinor marries Philip Compton, a macho male handsome man who takes her into expensive society and she finds herself emotionally corroded, among hollow people, a target for monetary fleecing. The book’s true hero, John Tatham has not been passionate and aggressive enough in his proposal to her. He is a kind of Henry James male who does not commit himself emotionally until it’s too late. Sheltering Elinor destroys her life. No one is willing to tell her (including her mother) why she should not marry Phillip Compton who turns out to be (not to put a fine point on this) far more than promiscuous and a gambler: he’s a downright criminal whom her world protects from censor because of his rank and family. The way the story is set up it seems to be about the young heroine — which is what happens in Hester and why it gets off to a very slow start, with us realizing only gradually the young heroine, Elinor, is a doppelganger to the older her mother (Hester is this to her aunt-in-law, Catherine Vernon). It’s very much both and about how destructive is the norm which will not allow a girl to know anything about the world, try to support herself and not be a helpless hanger-on, but find some fulfillment of her own.

Merryn Williams who wrote the best of the three recent books in English on Oliphant says the point of The Marriage of Elinor is to show us how little sexual passion and the reasons for marriage out of love last a very short time; what women care for is motherhood. Men cannot understand these feelings. Elisabeth Jay reminds her reader this is a late novel and she concentrates on the woman in it I’ve not mentioned: dissolute, amoral, endlessly in society (a sort of Helene in Tolstoy’s War and Peace) who is represented as repellent. Jay does not respect this novel, mentions it because it is not romantic and shows the real psychology of a desperately bad marriage (in terms of either party getting any fulfillment).

As Elinor sees how bad her decision to marry Compton is, she does all she can to hide the truth. There are hints Compton hits her. Her happiest times it now seems to her were when she was left by this husband to live with her mother and her boy. Finally she separates heself him for the sake of her son, so the son shall not be brought up to become another amoral man. Her mother has given up a great deal of money to Philip as a kind of bribe. Meanwhile Elinor allows her fear of what the world might say adverse to her pride drive her decisions: say to move from the comfortable home her mother has lived in most of her life (it appears to be near Dorking, so Sussex) way up north. She will not send her precious son to a school where he is surrounded by peers because is determined to keep from him who his father was for real, and his background. In court Elinor gives a testimony literally true, but false in what it implies, and the ne’er-do-well husband is himself let go, and returns to having nothing to do with her once he gets his hands on enough money to live luxuriously. But by the end of the novel she has silently conceded the man she married is a criminal type even if he has a title, and she goes to live alone up north, leaving her son with Tatham whose advice she has finally relied upon. The crucial last turn of the book is the question of whether her son will turn against her when he realizes all his life he has been kept away from others, gone to a school where he was not with his own class or boys of his own intellectual level; he does not partly because John Tatham has stayed by his side and provides the explanation and continuity the boy needs. The two women end up living alone in peace at the book’s end

Oliphant reminds me a little of Charlotte Smith: not finding a new radically changed structure on which to plot her story. She often wants us to see her characters confronting hegemonic norms of other people and unable to break them down — in many areas of life and death too. We are supposed to heavily criticize Elinor. I am so used to the conventional stance of pro-heroine, but in these latest scenes what Elinor wants to do (flee the law) is so egregious. Each time flight: each time refuse to cope with what she has created and wrecking havoc on those she says her actions are protecting. The book critiques the passive romantic supposedly super-virtuous heroine; she must come out and she must engage with the situations she’s created. The power of the book comes from what seems a skewed POV divided between Tatham and Mrs Denistoun who anguish over Elinor

How did Kavanagh, Jewsbury, Oliphant manage it? Woolf? I end on Eileen Atkins as Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own


Eileen Atkins as Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

So, added to Austen and sheerly the 18th century, woman artists, and foremother poets, I hope blogging here by thinking through work I do towards a book by me to be called The Anomaly. I’m an anomaly by the way. Not because I fit the definition of nearly living alone (which I do): a widow, with my unmarried daughter, a librarian and two cats, but because I’m a very learned scholar with no rank and no income except my widow’s annuity and social security, and the money my mother and Jim left me; because I teach at a place where I don’t quite fit either as a student (yesterday I became aware of how many of the women at AU went to elite or Ivy League colleges and studied to be lawyers and other professionals — they can have no idea who I am, from a free university, getting there by bus, studying English Literature) or teacher (I overdo), and because my social life such as it is is here on Net. Is this enough to be getting on with? I’ve got many rooms of my own and for now more than the minimum income …

Ellen

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From the 1981 Sense and Sensibility: Irene Richards as Elinor is seen drawing and walks about with art materials (BBC, scripted by Alexander Baron)

Friends,

I found myself unable to reach the Jane Austen and the Arts conference held at Plattsburgh, New York last week. I have told why in my life-writing Sylvia blog.
Happily for me, the conference organizer was so generous as to offer to read the paper herself, and had it not been for a fire drill, would have. Two of the sessions, one mine was supposed to be part of, were sandwiched together so she read from the paper and described. I was told there was a good discussion or at least comments afterward. Since I worked for a couple of months on it — reread all six of the famous fictions, skimmed a lot of the rest, went over the letters — and read much criticism on ekphrastic patterns in Austen and elsewhere, the picturesque in Austen, her use of visual description, not to omit related topics like enclosure, a gender faultline in the way discussions of art are presented, I’ve decided to add it to my papers at academia.edu.

Ekphrastic patterns in Austen.

I hope those reading it here will find my argument persuasive, and my suggestion for further work on Austen using her discussions of visual art and landscape useful.


From the 1983 Mansfield Park Sylvestre Le Tousel as Fanny Price gazes at the maps her brother, William has sent her as she sits down to answer his latest letter or just write herself (scripted by Ken Taylor) – her nest of comforts in her attic includes window transfers of illustrations

Ellen

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Outlander 2014 Caitriona Balfe as Claire Randall and Tobias Menzies as Frank Randall in Starz’s Outlander Outlander 2014 Caitriona Balfe as Claire Randall and Tobias Menzies as Frank Randall before Castle Leogh, 1945

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Castle Leogh, 1743

I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; I remember finishing it in two days — my hair standing on end the whole time …

Impelled by an irresistible presentiment, you will eagerly advance to it, unlock its folding doors, and search into every drawer –but for some time without discovering anything of importance — perhaps nothing but a considerable hoard of diamonds. At last, however, by touching a secret spring, an inner compartment will open–a roll of paper appears–you seize it–it contains many sheets of manuscript — you hasten with the precious treasure into your own chamber, but scarcely have you been able to decipher ‘Oh! Thou–whomsoever thou mayst be, into whose hands these memoirs of the wretched Matilda may fall’ — when your lamp suddenly expires in the socket, and leaves you in total darkness … Henry Tilney to Catherine Morland, NA, Chapters 14 and 20)

Dear friends and readers,

Having finished listening to Davina Porter read aloud (remarkably well) the whole of Diana Gabaldon’s historical romance, Outlander, I’m ready to go forward with watching the second season, adapted from Dragonfly in Amber. I’m studying both the series of romances and the film adaptations as examples of what has happened to popular historical romance in an era where the prestige of historical fiction has gone way up. Historical fiction and post-colonial historical romance have again for some (as the forms did in the Victorian era) become an instrument of political import (mostly post-colonialist). At the same time there has been a fierce backlash against feminism and liberal attitudes towards homosexuality (lesbianism, tranvestism), and fascist ideas gaining ground, i.e, violence as a means of solving problems, individual liberty and thought are out, women are there as mothers, wives, sisters, not individuals in their own right. That’s why Gabaldon needed a 20th century woman in her book so she should have agency.

How does this relate to Austen: this sort of book, the romance, especially gothic and implicitly political, ambivalently feminist were the kinds of books she read and praised as works genius — Ann Radcliffe, Charlotte Smith, Francis Burney, Maria Edgeworth — in a novel she rewrote endlessly in an attempt to combine satire of the form while embodying its truths persuasively, i.e., Northanger Abbey.

As a prelude, I’ve gathered up all the blogs I’ve written thus far on Outlander so I can refer back to them, and so my readers can see what has been our findings about this genre and film adaptation thus far:

Outlander: a cross between Frank Yerby’s Border Lord, DuMaurier’s romances, Sophie Lee’s Recess, Dorothy in Wizard of Oz, and epistolary subjective novels

Outlander and Poldark: Horsfield’s scripts; problematic parallels towards violence towards women & rape

Outlander 1: Sassenach and Craig Na Dun; People Disappear all the time … Radcliffe Redivida

1 Outlander 2 and 3: Castle Leogh & The Way Out: DuMaurier Redivida

1 Outlander 4 & 5: The Gathering and Rent; as a Descendant of Waverley

Outlander: 6 and 7: Garrison commander; Wedding Nights (2): tapestry

1 Outlander 8: Both Sides Now; The Long  night of the Wedding: magic

1 Outlander: 8 & 9: Reckoning; Both Sides Now, the historical sublime, Romancing History; 2:1 Through a Glass Darkly

1 Outlander: 10 & 11: Pricking of My Thumb; Devil’s Mark; babies & witchcraft; again the question of genre

1 Outlander: 12 & 13: Lallybroch and the Watch: you can’t go home again; gender roles transitioning

1 Outlander: 14-16: The Search, Wentworth Prison, To Ransom a Man’s Soul, Finale; The issue of torture

catrionabalfe

I have read fans were dismayed by the choice of Caitriona Balfe — I find her very appealing. At no point does she have the lightly mocking jocular tone Gabaldon uses for her heroine.

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Inverness where the novel opens

A few thoughts on Gabaldon’s novel:

Problems: in the present time sequences Gabaldon is American and has no idea how to write British dialogue or thoughts. She uses the phony language of 1950s romance as I remember it: Frank Randall calls Clare a wench; characters beam at one another; they are roguish. She has been influenced strongly by the 1940s British movies and this is reflected in the films in the way the opening new honeymoon scenes are done and the opening scenes of the second season when she has returned pregnant in 1948 after Culloden has happened but she somehow does not know what happened exactly, not even who won. In the opening sequence in the UK there is supercilious tone of half-mockery at reading people; a shallow amused jocularity and descriptions of what no British woman really did in the 1950s when they shopped. Gabaldon seems to think that genealogy studies are serious historical research — or she assumes her readers do. It may be this tone is intended to function like that of Lockwood in the opening of Wuthering Heights (supercilious and faintly ironic), but he never aims his irony at sensitivity, history itself and so on.

Oh and no one reads anything at all – except as part of a profession. The film did counter this gap in the book with literary allusion (all added in, poetry from Donne, Robert Louis Stevenson) and downplayed the heroine’s irony towards her husband’s literary research profession — though presented her as slightly bored by him, and the renewed marriage not quite working (so said the heroine in her voice-over). Gabaldon herself is clearly (I concede) drenched in the history of this period and all sorts of book leaning, biography, chronicles (disguised or referred to in her companion most cavalierly, sprezzatura and all that – she never sleeps, does no housework &c&c)

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Escape — Claire perhaps wanted to disappear — through the stones

At each deviation and choice the film-makers are better. They keep the significant and resonating lines unerringly. Her story is what makes the book in a way, and her characters are somewhat re-conceived. Litereally the mini-series is close. Her heroine has never had a political thought in her head. Gabaldon is also a master of romance style; she sustains eloquence about love; her dialogue is naturalistic once Claire moves back in time and to Scotland. The Scottish dialect does not feel like pastiche. They add “Madam” to Black Jack’s speech and sudddenly Randall’s is an 18th century male voice. Gabaldon’s strengths come out more too: she’s good at describing love-making, at erotica. These passages are important for today’s historical romance for women, as the love-making is told from a woman’s point of view (foreplay emphasized ….)

There is self-reflexivity. Clare comments how in romances the “bad male” of romance is never rooted in any local reality; Gabaldon feels she does this by her post-colonialist story of the vicious English against the Highland Scots, the corrupt Jacobite courts. She also (I think consciously) wants to give us a heroine who struggles against forces of nature: so we have Clare fighting a wolf and subduing and killing it! It’s very much a woman’s book — if you can get into this sort thing. Today I’m going to try Daphne DuMaurier’s King’s General for a while to see if I can in her case for the summer term as I have to send in a proposal for this coming summer by Feb 10th! DuMaurier is a political innocent in comparison. The 21st century Catherine Morland would read both. — in preference to “real history,” which Martha Bowden in her Descendants of Waverley does not have that much use for either. Phillippa Gregory gobbles it all up to spit it out as historical romance: she has done that for Margaret Tudor too. The book as Emily Nussbaum wrote of the mini-series it’s mirroring our time. Anne Stevenson, one of my favorite 20th century women poets, has also written about the book favorably.

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Claire being taught how to kill with a knife

There are some troubling patterns of violence and humiliation across the first season which is much more emphatic in the book: the subaltern hero is intensely punished. The last two episodes of the mini-series are horrifyingly abusive of Jamie Fraser: he is tortured into submitting to anal sex, his spirit to resist broken by breaking his hand, the merciless flogging. I had realized his back shows horrific treatment too, well, this a pattern in the book too: the ritual humiliation of the heroine (occurs much more weakly and not as centrally) is nothing to this. I asked izzy about Games of Thrones, and she said yes and they are killed off; in Agents of Shield these central and subaltern central heroes go through enormous emotional turmoil.

I had noticed this pattern in Tudor dramas on film: the men took the place hitherto reserved for the heroine, and took it that the Henry 8 story appeal was the ability to show masculinity of a very different sort than the modern controlled invulnerable (unattacked mostly) hero, but maybe not. In Outlander this fits the (mild or undeveloped very much )post-colonial perspective, an unintended consequence inheritance from Walter Scott. Poor Jamie can’t go home again even: the result an unmitigated disaster. I’ve grown to like Jamie Fraser, have bonded with him and to some extent Claire (the text is strongly offset by the mini-series, its tone and especially Caitronia Balfe’s intelligent performance). I find myself very anxious as the story moves from distraught catastrophe to distraught catastrophe. I know this was the appeal of Poldark: I liked the central hero and heroine (and secondary ones, Elizabeth and Francis, too). In Tolstoy’s War and Peace I bonded with some of the central characters. It’s a sina qua non finally for loving a book — though one can love the imagined author as a substitute.

I found a long scene describing a childbirth very good. IN the depiction of Lallybroch, Jamie’s home, in the film instead of a long series of scenes of life in such a country place there was yet another action-adventure inserted betrayal: the book here is good. Both women’s point of view. At the same time the insistence on violence as an answer to problems becomes yet more overt. It’s not simply the book shows a man violent to a woman and her learning to accept just that once, but there are repeated instances of problems solved by violence. The idea is when there is no other way. I have said I think there are situations where the other side will not respond except through violence. To me the argument slavery was dying by itself ignores human nature plus the actual situation. I think the present administration thinks they can do what they want as the American people, especially democrats are utter cowards, despicably lukewarm (that’s how they see the desire to reason and negotiate). But many many instances should not turn violent; that makes for more violence — which does happen in the book: a man forced to give up his son whom he has been beating mercilessly by violence on hi then turns in our hero, so he may be hanged; our hero’s friends then set fire to his house or him (it’s not clear).

There is an obsession with defending violence as a way of solving problems (really — the belief is you force people to do things and then they retaliate if they are not scared any more), but also sheer pain, and combined with the at times faux at times earnest post-colonialism, it is an exploration of torture from the point of view of the horrors of the experience. You are not meant to be inured (as can happen and discussed by Susan Sontag in her Regarding the Pain of Others). This book sold widely in the US, is enormously popular. I’ve already mentioned the ceaseless attack on homosexuality through the depiction of Black Jack Randall — it’s kept up as mockery of effeminate males.

gentlewillie
Again the mini-series is an improvement: there are added and emphasized males who are thoughtful, gentle: like Willie — and favored

pattersonbalfe
Ned Gowan’s role as poet-lawyer is built up enormously — he appears only in the collecting of rents briefly and in the court scene in the novel — so the film-makers recognized this violence as a problem in the novel

In the final sequence of novel Jamie is humiliated personally (made to do submissive begging) and he feels he has to tell this to Clare: we get a depiction of torture which condemns it on all grounds and shows how it is basis of a tyranny (as Eleanor Scarry discussed in The Body In Pain); beyond that in the telling why someone would kill themselves after they escape even years after they escape (as Primo Levi and others who spent time in extermination and German concentration camps). He lives in dread of Randall and has nightmares. In the mini-series the emphasis was on a man raping a man, in other words sexual, and the discussions (such as they were on popular websites run by professionals, very discreet) focused on see how men are raped too (so it almost became a show revealing women lying in another direction — they pretend only they are raped) though to do the film justice it was also deeply anti-torture. I could not get myself to finish one of books Jim was in the middle went when the cancer had affected his brain to the point he couldn’t read, Speaking About Torture, edd Julie Carlson and Elisabeth Weber. Looking it at now I find essays on “What Nazi Crimes tell us”, how torture is represented, the “rituals of hegemonic masculinity” John Yoo, the torture memo and Churchill. I find it used in studies of torture where it is suddenly introduced with insufficient information. At first I thought it referred to the purpose of torture (as defined in such studies) to through pain and terror “drive the victim ‘beyond the borders of death into [a state of speechless] nothingness; well, that is what Black Jack Randall has done to Jamie and it is Claire who must give him an identity again, a sense he’s alive, pride, should live; the idea of ghosts on the mind is part of the meaning and in the second season and Dragonfly In Amber Jamie is haunted by nightmares of Randall getting hold of him again.

Before the book ends there is a (to me) odd decent moral set of lessons: Claire seeks comfort in “confessing” to a priest and we see him calm her conscience over bigamy; try to give reasons for God having sent her back to this era. As with Austen and other popular books I’ve read two chapters before the end you get the characters discussing the moral of the adventures, of this time-traveling. She clearly believes in God, that this is a just universe with rewards and punishments and yet a moralism about life as a journey and self-development through helping others and so on is suddenly put before us credibly. The discussions include can she stop Culloden for then the people who are supposed to be killed won’t be? the responsibility of changing history. At this point the book is silly.

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Murtagh listening to the priest, Claire and Jamie in the monaster

The book ends with Claire and Jamie leaving the monastery through walking through a cave which has warm restorative mineral waters — like a spa, only dark colored, a mirror. This coming up from a recess is directly Sophia Lee and Ann Radcliffe material, only enhanced here by the sensual delights of love-making. The center of romance is the love story. They will go to Rome where he has connections and could get a position, be safe, and they work to prevent Culloden. Murtagh who we have learned once loved Jamie’s mother and regards himself as Jamie’s second father goes with them.

crossingthehighlands
Crossing the Highlands together

I realize now I have listened to Porter read aloud the whole of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as translated by Maud — she provides brilliant reading of that too. I recommend her to lovers of books read aloud by tape, CD, MP3 or download.

Ellen

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James Whistler (1834-1903), “Reading by Lamplight” (1858)

Women cannot be expected to devote themselves to the emancipation of women, until men in considerable number are prepared to join with them in the undertaking — John Stuart Mill, On the Subjection of Women

Dear friends and readers,

Another set of texts we covered in my 19th Century Women of Letters course this term included George Eliot’s ground-breaking depiction of wife abuse in her “Janet’s Repentance” (one of her three Scenes from Clerical Life), which I preceded with Caroline Norton’s English Laws for Women and the contextualized with Lisa Sturridge’s chapter on the novella in her Bleak House: Marital Violence in Victorian Fiction, an on-line Master’s Thesis by Renee Wingert, Battered, Bruised and Abused Women: Domestic Violence in 19th century Fiction, to which I am indebted in what I write below. We also read a fine essay by E. S. Gruner, “Plotting the Mother” about Ann Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Ellen Wood’s East Lynn and Caroline Norton’s Lost and Saved (Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 16:2, 1997). Although until recently (when it is discussed) “Janet’s Repentance” has been treated as centrally depicting alcoholism, its real center is wife abuse. Given the set-back women’s causes have received in the recent US election, I’d like to right this misapprehension and urge those who love 19th century novels, especially by women, to read it.

It is striking and original study even today. It places the multiple acts of of physical violence (seen on Janet’s body and the whole of her depressed behavior as a result) not in a private house away from everyone, as a hidden private act, but in the community, showing us how it’s known and occurs as part of everyday life that everyone knows – like the reality everyone also sees (highlighted in Chapter One) that Janet’s husband, Dempster, is an awful bully. Most of the time until today when these things are talked about or dramatized in stories and film, it’s assumed or said no one knew. The woman colludes by not telling explicitly in the cases of sexual harassment. In modern stories, she fears she’ll lose her job, her children, her husband will get back to her and kill her. In fact people live utterly interdependent lives, and a build up of a community of hypocrisy is essential to the husband getting away with it (from schools where the children attend to doctor’s offices). When she leaves she leaves into a community of people, that is what is so striking and to this day unusual. Eliot shows how she is blamed in all sorts of ways by the very woman living in the house with her, how legally she has to break the law to leave him. And yet Janet is isolated – who more without someone to turn to for help than she? her mother doesn’t move on her behalf; only after she flees for her life do the others admit they know, help her to hide and determine to act o her behalf. In Oliver Twist Nancy is a street prostitute; Helen Huntington in her Wildfell Hall is this reclusive person, the whole point of Sherlock Holmes stories which include as inset pieces stories of abuse – the best known is the “Adventure of the Abbey Grange” – is to protect the aristocratic family from shame. (“Abbey Grange” is well-known because the husband spitefully murders her dog and it was done superbly well in the 1980s Jeremy Brett series). The other books mentioned by Wingert or Sturridge do not bring out this everyday reality. “Janet’s Repentance” was serialized by Blackwood and it made him far more uncomfortable than most of the books he ever published.

Equally still mostly verboten is the man is upper middle class. A middle class milieu is usual for stories by women because it’s what they know. But most accounts in the 19th century and until today are of working class men and women, often desperately poor; in the 19th century in parliament an elsewhere it was repeated ad nauseam this was not a middle to upper class problem: it was the drunken working class man presented as unemployed often (as in Dickens, e.g., Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities). And there was legislation in Parliament proposed (it didn’t pass) to flog such men. John Stuart Mill supported flogging such men. Because of course then it’s not them. Didn’t pass.

It’s a movingly done, utterly believable, persuasive story. Wingert’s chapter brings out how the violence is multifaceted violence: emotional, mental, physical, social (the man demands absolute obedience) — he becomes incensed when she finally on impulse in small way refuses him (she will not pick up the clothes he has thrown on the floor) and he kicks her out. The first time we see her it’s as a silence woman waiting for him to come up the stairs, and yes she’d drunk, how else could she endure this but find indifference and oblivion this way. You can see what’s emphasized by noticing it’s serialized and where each installment begins and ends (Part 1, chs 1-4, Part 2; Chs 5-9, Part 3; Chs 10-14, Part 4, Chs 15-21, Part 5, Chs 21-28).

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Another 19th century illustration of a woman with a book

As the story opens (1-4), there is an emphasis on the nature of social life and community in Milby. We see how bullying, competition, domination is what wins out and is respected. Everyone sees how horrible Dempster is but they don’t care; they are afraid of him themselves. This environment fosters violence – to a clergyman seeking a post, in public and in private. There is much witty satire on professions (like the medical establishment, though not as funny as Trollope in Dr Thorne), women’s vanities in church. the curate and teacher at this point reads nothing at all. It’s a first attempt at ethnography.

At first we hear of Janet through ominous gossip of unnamed or minor characters or Janet’s mother. “to see her daughter leading such a life …. For my part I never thought well of marriage … Janet had nothing to look to but being a governess … I certainly did consider Janet Raynor the most promising yong woman of my acquaintance … Or: “I’ve never been to the house since Dempster broke out on me in one of his drunken fits. She comes to me, sometimes, poor thing, looking so strange, anybody passing her in the street may see plain enough what’s the matter” (Mrs Perrifer). It ends on her waiting for him to come up. We hear ““O Robert! Pity! Pity!” and are told her mother not far off in her house is imagining this: Janet’s mother’s complicity is thus begun. Two more conflicts are laid out: the established church type versus the dissenters and evangelicals within the citadel; the sensitive, Tryan who wants to effect moral change in the community and those who want an older acceptance of rough coarse ways to remain dominant (why Dempster and his ilk want to pillory him). Tryanites versus anti-Tryanites.

The second part (5-9) opens with switch of mood, morning, people cheerful, a fortnight has passed and Janet is looking better. We move from

The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us, and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we know them when they are gone” … [to]

When our life is a continuous trial, the moments of respite seem only to substitute the heaviness of dread for the heaviness of actual suffering … Janet looked glad and tender now — but what scene of misery was coming next? …. When the sun had sunk, and the twilight was deepening, Janet might be sitting there, heated, madened, sobbing ot her griefs with selfish passion, and wildly wishing herself dead (5)

We see Tryan again, this time with a firm constituency and friends. They are anti-high church (one man says we could do without all these bishops) and we see his courage withstanding ridicule to be stubbornly the way he is. we hear the local clergy: they discuss carelessly who is kept out of the workhouse and who not. Alas, Janet is delighted to collaborate with her husband on placards; she claps her hands so pleased is she to be valued. We have this scene of the mother-in-law and Janet and her husband: she has little love for Janet, much jealousy, angry that Janet is childless (as are all Eliot’s heroines insofar as we see them). Then we meet the middle range of church leaders, the vicar, his wife, a tea party, and Tryan comes off very well: he is a decent average man who wants to be among people. We have the scene of stigmatizing Tryan gets through with his friends nearby. Eliot seems anxious for us to know that Janet will change here too: the next time we will see him, he will come as Janet’s beloved friend to help her.

In the central chapters (10-14) we see Tryan making his way into minds and hearts and (among them) Janet responds despite the “thickening miseries of her life.” Dempster’s business is not prospering – and he takes it out on the person nearest to him whom he can. We are told about “these suspicious points:” it would seem this is a corrupt man (who wouldn’t reveal his tax returns if there were such things). He’s not liked, not trusted, and is drinking more, he becomes more violent inwardly too. The word “cruelty” is used of him repeatedly (13 — “a woman he can call his own to torment … the keen retort which whets the edge of hatred”), and then the crashing close where a dinner is supposed to take place and she refuses to pick up his clothes – an impulse of defiance, maybe the first. Alcoholism is central in these chapters too, though not overtly dramatized until the end of the story. Janet does say to her friend (who will help her) Mrs Pettifer; “Kindness is my religion.” She does tell her mother finally how cruel this mother and everyone else is to. These are complex persuasive pictures of the man becoming more drunk, more inwardly violent – reviewers likened this story to a biography. Reviewers recognized that here was a new unusual author. Then the dreadful scene where he says I”ll kill you,” with a “devilish look of hatred.” But instead on impulse, he thrusts her in in her nightgown, barefooted on a freezing old night. She stands there so relieved she is not dead. It takes a while for her to realize she is cold and feel her strong instinct against suicide. This is the story’s climax.

The denouement (15-21) shows us Janet out in the world now, parted from her husband. she has a strong instinct against suicide and saves herself by going to Mrs Pettifer’s house to whom she was kind and is her rescuer. Is told stay, remain calm. We enter her mind, her memories and there many deeply felt about a woman’s life, its stages and phases (15); she was when young “a pet fawn” given over to the “clutches of a panther.” She thinks over her situation: he owns everything; we are told she felt she had not strength to be independent (much less go to court).

Life might mean anguish,might mean despair; but — o, she must clutch it, though with bleeding fingers, her feet must cling to the firm earth that the sunlight would revisit, not slip into the untried abyss, where she might long even for familiar pains (15)

Eliot muses how all of us are hidden from one another (“full of unspoken evil and unacted good”). Janet fears “being dragged bck again to her old life of terror, and stupor, and fevered despair” (16). She has to determine something. In modern terms we’d say Janet needs to “work” on several areas of psychological damage, needs to talk and find understanding (where Tyran comes in). The difficulty of breaking the habit of drinking for calm (in her case) and indifference to what is happening around her, and the hardest of all what to do about her husband. Now others are with her, among the first thing to be said is, how to protect her from further violence. Today people get a court order and police are alerted – they are supposed to be on the side of the abused person. How is she to live? Her lack of property or income. Mostly dramatized is how she must consult with someone. Over in her house the household and Dempster begin to realize she is not coming home. He has no Janet to bully so he goes after his coachman. Here finally is someone who won’t serve him if insulted: the man says will have the law on the lawyer. A little later therefore Dempster is too proud to call for this man, and half drunk (as usual) gets up to drive his coach himself.

There is a kind of waiting and finally one evening Tryan comes to Janet as her mutual confessor-psychiatrist. In a deeply inward colloquy he tells Janet of an attachment he had with a girl who he left because she was in slower station than him (they were lovers); his cousin said to go out to missionary. He does not but finds life is empty without her, and he hears she had become a prostitute subject to a brothel madam, and is now dead. Here is the core of his conversion experience. (As with Gaskell’s Mary Barton we have the story of a broken prostitute at the hidden core of the tale.) Those who’ve read Daniel Deronda (or seen Andrew Davies’s film adaptation) will recall that Gwendoleth Harleth ends up in just such a relationship with Daniel Deronda.”Janet’s Repentance” has been called “evangelical gothic:” we have a slow conversion of Janet not to the doctrines of evangelicalism but to an emotional cleansing. The others are practical; Something must be done to secure her from violence. Then the community feeling: turning in her favor: her servants who saw it all say they would not stand being mauled. (They never helped her, did they?) As she grows stronger, her mother rightly fears she might go back. But news comes Dempster has had a bad accident (overturned the coach), no one knows if he is alive or dead. As a reader the first time round I hoped he was dead.

And then the ending or fifth part (22-28). We get this exemplary wife, and then he dies with her still looking for some sign of forgiveness (!?); there is none. He is Dempster to the end. No final moment which Janet dreams of even comes. And an incipient romance between her and Tyran cut off. This ending reconciled Blackwood to the story (though he no longer wanted a fourth clerical tale). Janet can be seen as repentant, and I have to admit not only repentant for having been alcoholic but for somehow being at fault. There is a punitive pattern asserted here too.

Although her friends try to keep from her Dempster’s state, she has been trained to submit, and wants actually to go back. They try to stop her, and hide at first that he has been in this accident, but she’s a free body, no one is imprisoning her. Can’t hold her back and she is there to listen to his nightmares – maybe such a man feels remorse. Good lines include Eliot on the community’s “inherent imbecility of feeling:” Most people simply do not enter into one another’s cases at all, Mr Pilgrim (who is close to the scene) is a case in point. Tryan talks of how she doesn’t want particulars known to protect her. Day after day, the community again becomes divided about her – she is to blame, some cant about widows helps. We begin to get religious talk and Janet manifests nervousness. She is so used to her old life; she is at sea, scared. Real psychological feeling. she yearns for “purity, strength, peace” (221). Finally Dempster dies in a delirium tremens fit. Then we see her efforst with others to secure the now consumptive (over-worked) Tryan a place to at least maintain what health he has. Her mood is likened to that of a prisoner galled long after bars go away; you are feeling the memories of the abuse – Eliot would know what is it like to be an ex-prisoner from American prisons. Still she is freed from “haunting anxietya about the future,” “dread of anger and cruelty,” can find repose (23) Again Mrs Pettifer is our dea ex machina; she moves so she will need a boarder. Another good woman in the story, Miss Linnet (a sweet bird name) helps furnish the new place. But he dies.

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Elizabeth Nourse (1859-1938), The Closed Window

As in Eliot’s Mill on the Floss and other stories, Eliot’s heroine submits herself to duty; violates natural feelings of revenge, fear, hatred. She does this throughout her career. Gwendoleth’s husband falls over boat, and she hesitates a moment before she throws him the rope; he cannot reach it and the water carries him off; had he not drowned she would have submitted. I wrote in an essay on Eliot published in Studies in the Novel some years ago, “Taking Sides:”

It is the great merit of Eliot’s imaginative work that she poses questions of serious and large import with which we are today only beginning to deal frankly. It is its great defect that she repeatedly opts for dramatic resolutions which cruelly deprive her exemplary characters of some natural fulfillment or worthy goal on the grounds that it is right for them to violate their natural instincts and obey conventions, conventions she herself ignored and disobeyed in order to become George Eliot the great novelist. Her characters immolate themselves, behave even semi-suicidally and we are to admire them for this. What she most often offers is consolation.

In this story we will have Janet left to do good deeds and sit near Mr Tynan’s grave and be admired and liked by all especially her mother. I should say I see in the incipient romance, an underlying autobiographical paradigm (Janet: “alone, she was powerless”): in the second half of Eliot and Lewes’s marriage, he was often ill, very thin; he lies behind Ladislaw, Daniel Deronda — and Tryan too. Tryan is cut off by his consumption.

From the reviewers at the time: some were shocked, women were to write uplifting fiction, all three very unpleasant stories said one critic. Some attacked the exposure of clerical politics: clerical and religious papers paid attention to all three stories. Mostly they were offended but dissenters not as. Many preferred the portrait of Tryan to Trollope’s Mr Slope (from Barchester Towers); a positive not satirical image. Famously Dickens said the author was a woman. Among the best were those that praised the story for the strong depiction of Janet – the interior character of Janet. But I think also the community life is central to the story’s effect. It was agreed moral impact of book was well-meant and there you have the beginning of the immense respect she would get.

I’ll end by suggesting the use of the pseudonym in this particular case was the result of more than Eliot’s being a woman and wanting to hide that. Her matter is deeply subversive. She was known to be an atheist or at least agnostic, living with a man outside of marriage. How could she deal with issues like these and get the respect needed for her story to function morally.

Janet’s Repentance is a deeply felt, passionate and intelligent text, often satiric too. I hope I have roused my readers’ curiosity and interest to get hold of and read “Janet’s Repentance.”

Ellen

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Hardy, Under Beachy Head

Dear friends and readers,

This is the sixth and last of my reports on the the Charlotte Smith conference this October, to which I will add a lecture given by Carole Brown on the history of St John’s Church in Guildford where Charlotte Smith was baptized and lies buried. The first I told of of the building, grounds, the social world of the conference; the second, my paper on the post-colonial Ethelinde and Smith’s The Emigrants (as well as plans for women artist blogs, Anne Killigrew, Dora Carrington and Remedios Varo); the third was on the Elegiac Sonnets; the fourth on Smith’s poetry again, this time from the point of view of the marketplace, natural world, and the use of paintings in her novels; the fifth, Smith as a novelist and playwright. We began and ended the conference papers with her poetry. Desmond and the places of her birth, upbringing, wandering and burial were part of this last phase.

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Hubert Robert (1733-1808), The Demolition of the Bastille (1789)

On Saturday afternoon of the second day of panels, there were two papers on Smith’s Desmond. Grace Harvey presented a group of ideas she was working out. She talked of Desmond as the most important radical novel of the era; it was the first to present the French revolution, and in is earliest phases, and made a strong case for radical reform. She had trouble finding a publisher. An epistolary novel, it has two central voices in the dialogues about revolution, which are connected to Desmond’s choices in life and couched in terms of their friendship: Desmond is the idealist “voice of reason,” his arguments show William Godwin’s influence; Bethel, the older man, is the “voice of experience, primarily there insistently to counterbalance and modify Desmond’s arguments. Desmond is unable to embrace Bethel’s advice, which takes the form of warnings, his own idealism untempered will become a source of unhappiness for him. Smith’s later books for children show the double voice again but in different terms: Mrs Woodfield, the teacher urge repression of discontent, cheerful submission to what is, a sort of Bethel attitude; but she also checks flippancy and superficiality in Henrietta and Elizabeth, urging on them a kind of serious earnestness. Grace didn’t mention how strongly Smith was influenced by Rousseau in both all these books, especially Julie ou La Nouvelle Heloise (for the novel) and Emile (for pedagogy)

Katrin Roder contextualized Smith’s Celestina and Demond with a discussion of sensibility in the era: her radicalism is rooted in ideas associated with the feelingful character of sensibility. These novels centrally question unconditional obedience to authority. They show how social sympathy creates human bonds; how important concern for others, for one’s home,and the limits of interpersonal support. Desmond loves his house too. she quoted interesting passages where Celestina attempts to help her servant Jessie, and Desmond listens to Geraldine, whose husband has sought to sell her and whom he marries at the end of the novel, where both identify and sympathize with these intelligent victims. Typical patterns for the sentimental novel show a hero’s suffering rewarded, morally superior victims who obey patriarchal norms. In Smith’s novels suffering is not inevitable, there are salutary reward, but the happy ending is often an afterthought. The reflections of the characters and narrator and what happens during the fiction of more important. Characters endure internal and external exile. In the discussion afterward it was remarked that if you cut Smith’s endings off, stop say at a penultimate chapter, they are deeply pessimistic.

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Helen Allingham (1848-1926), Near Beachy Head — this feels so appropriate as until they grew older Smith would often have had her children with her

One could say the last part of the day was devoted to Charlotte Smith’s unfinished (it’s a long fragment) poetical masterpiece, Beachy Head. Three excellent papers dependent on close reading, followed by a recital in the nearby St Nicholas church. Melissa Cow began with how Beachy Head, Smith’s most ambitious poem, lacks clarity of vision. The poem shows the inadequacies of science, geology, history, paleontology which are difficult to assemble produces a sense of strangeness. She begins with a strong sense of locality: the narrator is at the top of Beachy Head, and looks to see what is buried under his feet. While in Gilbert White we feel nature is a system, a good one which can be comprehended, Smith’s questions complicate and upset what we know. She goes beyond her reading of Erasmus Darwin to anticipate modern ideas about extinction; 17th century ideas about the immensity of the earth, catastrophes that have occurred, fossils of mammoth elephants. Her poem works through a range of associative leaps. Samantha Botz suggested Beachy Head invites pivotal readings of history as well as implied politics. Wordsworth saw himself as a man speaking to men, someone with a more lively sensibility, led to create in his mind what he does not find in the world. Smith gives us wandering silent fugitive figures, a contemplative antiquary, a lively anecdotal voice, as well as a critically analystical one, with visible nature showing contingency, and the vanity of science’s boasts.

Amela Worsley’s “‘Death Alone: Charlotte Smith’s hermits” provided a fitting close to the conference and a lead-in to the musical setting of the poem. The idea of a poet as a lonely figure begins in the later 17th century, solitary introspective males in a landscape, to which the sublime is added in the later 18th. The lone woman is ever at risk of sexual assault. Her multiple solitaries are male hermits whose outlook she likened to that of Milton’s Comus, the unknown poet of the “Elegy written in a country churchyard,” Mary Robinson’s “Anselmo, hermit of the Alps. Amelia said Smith uses geology to de-familiarize the local. She offered a careful comparative readings. The figures seek safety and run great risk (psychological too), know intense suffering and rhapsody, and often end in the peace of death. This is one of the passages she dwelt upon:

    Then, of Solitude
And of his hermit life, still more enamour’d,
His home was in the forest; and wild fruits
And bread sustain’d him. There in early spring
The Barkmen found him, e’er the sun arose;
There at their daily toil, the Wedgecutters
Beheld him thro’ the distant thicket move.
The shaggy dog following the truffle hunter,
Bark’d at the loiterer; and perchance at night
Belated villagers from fair or wake,
While the fresh night-wind let the moonbeams in
Between the swaying boughs, just saw him pass,
And then in silence, gliding like a ghost
He vanish’d! Lost among the deepening gloom.—
But near one ancient tree, whose wreathed roots
Form’d a rude couch, love-songs and scatter’d rhymes,
Unfinish’d sentences, or half erased,
And rhapsodies like this, were sometimes found—

    Let us to woodland wilds repair
    While yet the glittering night-dews seem
    To wait the freshly-breathing air,
    Precursive of the morning beam …

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John Constable (175-1837), Derwentwater, Cumberland (where Ethelinde is set)

I can’t speak too highly of the music of Amanda Jacobs, singing of Janet Oates, and recitation of the poem by Elizabeth Dolan at St Nicholas Church. Amanda and Beth had divided the poem into several emotional sequences conforming to the phases of the day that the poem charts. We moved from morning to afternoon to evening, giving us the lines as songs of grief and happiness. As with Ned Bingham, Viscount Mersey’s setting of Smith’s Sonnet, “Written in Bignor Park in Sussex, August 1799,” Low murmurs creep along the woody vale the day before, Jacobs’s music was atonal, dissonant, each line of music fitted to each line of verse, with an overall patterning that was melancholy yet beautiful, and in this case finally uplifting. Very 21st century music. I felt I had understand parts of the poem for the first time, had seen the logic (so to speak) of how the poem was put together. Everyone in the church seemed so moved.

It was evening and time to return to the hotel.

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Sunday was our day of trips, which I mentioned in my first blog. On Sunday we set off around 9:30 am in a chartered bus. The bus-driver was a tour guide himself and told us about some of the landscapes and towns we drove through. Ned Bingham was our generous gracious host in a visit to Bignor Park where we could wander where Smith had grown up, left to marry and later visited, and wandered to write her poetry more than a century ago; a tourist’s trip to Petworth House and Park. The house is now a hollow shell for tourists to wander through with the impressive objects in the house set up somewhat indiscriminately. I could see how the original Earl was determined to set a grand aristocratic framing for each aspect of his house and park too, notwithstanding the beauty of the park and some of the pictures.

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St John the Evangelist, Stoke, Guildford

The last place felt most like a revelation to me, mostly because I had not known anything about Charlotte Smith’s actual birthplace, Stoke House where her mother grew up, the history of the local community at the time (and before and since), as well as the problem of where she’s buried (no one knows the exact spot in the church or grounds). All this and more was covered by Carole Brown, a local church activist, conservationist, and historian, who seemed delighted to be able to inform us of all this and whatever else we wanted to know with as much detail as she could get in in the half-hour walking and sitting tour. The site of the church goes back to pre-Christian times, the building itself (renovated countless times) to the pre-Reformation. She was able to inform us especially some of the other (and more) famous people who attended this church, philanthropists, a good deal about the church in World War One, and the most recent art in the church (Pre-Raphaelie glass windows) and how it is the center of a community of people of all ages doing all sorts of things in the church today.

It was a splendid conference.

Ellen

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