Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘women’s poetry’

Friends,

This eloquent and persuasive study of four women writers’ work: — Elizabeth Stoddard, Louisa May Alcott, Constance Fennimore Woolson, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps — is the fifth of several general books on women who spent long periods of time unmarried that I have been reading towards my project for a collection of essays in a book with the working title: Not an Anomaly. I recently produced an outline for myself, singling out the specific women I’d focus on over three chapters (widow, pariah, spinster). See At the Crossroads of this life (scroll down). One of my choices will be Constance Fennimore Woolson, (lesbian?) spinster about whom I’ve written here before: Hours of Good Reading: a 19th century woman of letters.


A drawing by Constance Fennimore Woolson

The unusual argument in the introduction (and throughout) is this: Just about all women who wrote about artists or women making money until the 20th century do not themselves say they are ambitious for power or fame (Stael is an exception), or they take their art seriously and want to be respected as artists: no, they are writing for money, they are writing because they have to, they have a family they must help support. Rioux argues that these four women by telling stories of women who aspired to make permanent remarkable works of art, genius, are breaking an important taboo and behaving in a radical way: affirming the value of a woman’s life for what she as an individual can create, for what she can experience as an individual and convey, for having gifts equal to or superior to men.

Rioux insists that it is important to understand this presentation of one’s book as primarily there as a great art, great vision and the real goal of the woman as creating great art (not for supporting herself) as radical and important in building esteem and validation for women as a group. We are so used to valuing things for the money, book history as turned into a branch of let’s study how capitalism, fame, and industry worked and the idea of writing as a vocation becomes something we scorn people for: what? they must be hypocrites and just say that because their books don’t sell. We are so corrupted to the folds of our minds — today unless a book wins a prize, becomes social capital for the writer, we doubt it can be any good. We see up a relationship between a book and money as the first and foremost measurement of value. So this is quite a radical book. Vocational behavior is what we find at the core of great writers and Rioux finds it among her subjects.

The book then divides into four long chapters: first, we learn how the four women when young discovered themselves to be artists, to have singular talents and conceived a desire to fulfill them in family contexts where it seemed this desire could be realized; we read how they expressed this. Aspiration towards high ideals and values is found in the works of these four women and those who encouraged them — Margaret Fuller comes in here. In the second chapter we see them experience adult and later mature life as what thwarts them, and presents obstacles they sometimes overcome but usually not wholly and sometimes not at all, and we read the stories of women artists they tell which narrate such experiences in particular ways. They are all to some extent crippled in their ambition or fame or even what they were able to achieve or write because of the demand they be conventional heterosexual and marry. One of them did: Stoddard and that stopped her producing any more than two good novels.


Elizabeth Stoddard — The Morgesons

Stoddard’s work combines the narrative style of the popular nineteenth-century male-centered bildungsroman with the conventions of women’s romantic fiction in this revolutionary exploration of the conflict between a woman’s instinct, passion, and will, and the social taboos, family allegiances, and traditional New England restraint that inhibit her. Her most studied work, The Morgesons is set in a small seaport town, and is the dramatic story of Cassandra Morgeson’s fight against social and religious norms in a quest for sexual, spiritual, and economic autonomy. An indomitable heroine, Cassandra not only achieves an equal and complete love with her husband and ownership of her family’s property, but also masters the skills and accomplishments expected of women. Counterpointed with the stultified lives of her aunt, mother, and sister, Cassandra’s success is a striking and radical affirmation of women’s power to shape their own destinies. Embodying the convergence of the melodrama and sexual undercurrents of gothic romance and Victorian social realism. But to read Rioux’s very inward account of Stoddard her writing shows intense doubts about herself and the value of what she wrote; Rioux says she stopped writing well before she had to, defeated as it were by her household duties -1866 when she died in 1902; a story she tells after she stopped writing, “Collected by a Valetudinarian” is about Alicia Raymond who keeps a diary, she is a woman of genius and finds herself isolated, lonely, finding no understanding; she refuses a suitor whom she says had the best of her, and slowly dies as her brother marries; her works are forgotten.

The others fought and produced and led a life they found satisfactory but to do so took tremendous energies which weakened them in other ways. I’d say this is even true of Alcott — fine as her achievement in children’s books is and here and there in adult fiction, it’s not what she could have done.

The second woman, Elizabeth Phelps (Ward) spent a good deal of her life unmarried but she finally did marry (a man 17 years younger than herself) and was prolific; in the wikipedia article we are told of 57 volumes, that she depicted women suceeding in non-traditional careers (physician, minister, artist) and like Frances Power Cobbe, wrote polemics against vivisection and on behalf of animal rights. But her novel, The Story of Avis (is about a woman whose talent is extinguished because she finds that supporting herself and her child and writing are by no means satisfying; she is said to have two inward natures, she feels it goes against women’s nature to become a great artist and her life leaves no room for it; she does have a daughter and the daughter it seems will have a career. In life Phelps had a mother Elizabeth Wooster Phelps, who wrote about the repressive lives of women; her career as a writer was cut short when she became a prominent minister’s wife; apparently the mother became ill, mentally and physically with this attempt to break out. The mother’s one short story, “The Angel Over the Right Shoulder”, illustrates the repressive burdens frustrating a wife’s creative ambitions and need to “cultivate her own mind and heart”. The story is notable as “one of the rare woman’s fictions of this time to recognize the phenomenon of domestic schizophrenia”, says literary critic Nina Baym. What her mothr is famous for is a book that sold widely, The Sunny Side; or, The Country Minister’s Wife. The novel sold 100,000 copies in its first year, eventually more than 500,000, and garnered international recognition. She died the next year and the daughter Phelps Ward said her mother died of this struggle.

The central enemies of promise are what allured women and did give them happiness: to marry and have children. So these are hard complex conflicts we read about.

In a third chapter Rioux goes over carefully stories they told as they imagined women artists creating art and their lives. In these stories we find women who do not married (and have children) are regarded as unfulfilled failures no matter what books they write. Her book is dismissed as irrelevant and besides the point of her existence – while it’s what the heroine wants to pour all her existence into. So the question becomes how can one combine the two sets of activities, two different roles. I thought of how Gaskell’s Life of Bronte is really an apology for the woman artist and that while Gaskell was determined to normalize Bronte and her family, and show Charlotte involving herself in what was considered suitable for women, she still presented Bronte’s father (and I think rightly) as domineering, her marriage as simply getting in the way, isolating her, and destroying Bronte in childbirth. Phelps by the way allowed herself “aspiration” but not ambition, saw deeper satisfaction in love relationships for women than writing. I also omitted how another escape route from the conflict of career and personal artistic fulfillment and what their life circumstances demanded and what everyone around them probably said was to choose a male narrator at the center. Emma Lazarus had male artist figures at the center of her fictions. Another ploy was to have a maternal narrator – a mother figure. I don’t mind the mother figure or stance but know I prefer the daughter one. I know I often find very frustrating (even angering) the choice of a male in the center. That’s why I’ve not read DuMaurier’s later novels. To me it seems a betrayal. Somehow using the disguise of a male in Wolf Hall made me accept Mantel’s use of the ploy — this earlier era (unless you have a time-traveling heroine, pro-active from the 20th century) precludes active heroines.


Louisa May Alcott

Alcott as we all know strove to be a “dutiful daughter” and that is the phrase used here — it’s echoed in Beauvoir. Alcott wrote a novel she never finished Diana and Persis, which mirrors what happened to her and her sister May. May went to live in Europe, helped to get there by Louisa, and then lived a satisfying life (like Amy, except as an artist) but Louisa had to return home. In the novel Persis (May) at first has this satisfying life as both mother and artist, but soon she stops painting because she has had a child, and in an outburst (like Romney) it emerges despite her husband’s encouragement of her and saying if a woman will have courage and strength she can both, he berates her over her choice of her child when the child almost dies. It is a wish fulfillment book in that Diana (Louisa) becomes a sculptor, falls in love sort of with another (male) sculptor, Stafford, finds how wonderful it is to have this support, and then the novel breaks off. Rioux discusses her Hospital Sketches and Moods too. Rioux’s own Meg Jo Beth Amy, a kind of biography of a book is the one to read here.

Of the four Rioux concentrates on Woolson is the woman most pessimistic about this combination: Woolson’s register intense grief — as in “Miss Grief.” Woolson derided woman’s books which were “pretty and pleasant’ (idealized) romances, and writes about writing a story about a woman artist, Mrs B, that she never wrote out but the idea is she seeks to compete with men; Woolson has a male writer who realizes he cannot compete with the “power of a woman’s gifts of the heart” and a woman artist who feels she lacks the culture, learning, intellect of a man — this seems to mirror her idea of herself and Henry James. Alas she is best know for her relationship with James; late in life she went to live in Europe and didn’t return to the US, and apparently (I do think this is the truth) killed herself. Did she jump out a window or fall? Rioux stays on the fence but I feel thought she did kill herself. Woolson appears to have been bisexual.


Constance Fennimore Woolston

Grief is also central to these women artists; they grieve that they cannot come up to what men are granted as having achieved; they feel only unhappy women take to writing, they cannot sustain the achievement and eventually they die, killed by neglect, by exhaustion, live lives of quiet desperation. A less common theme (in both Woolson and Stoddard) is the need for women to have a belief in their own powers. She feels that their poses (however grating) could and maybe should be see as them finding authorial identities with which they are comfortable. Many of their heroines (or enough) really do aspire to be great artists, and they manage in different ways to circumvent the impasse they are confronted with by their culture, and how pessimistic they are, we see that in fact they had much success and real careers

Alcott seems single minded in her avoidance of courtship for herself, and intense grief in her novels. She was not unwilling to write uplifting girls’ stories. Phelps and Alcott openly advocate the single life — George Eliot could get away with the best of all worlds (she avoided time-wasting visitors is how I’d see it) because she had Lewes as her businessman. (Not mentioned by Rioux but Margaret Oliphant was envious and found that having to cope with the business end of her profession and support herself and family decreased her time and ability to produce the masterpieces she actually yearned to create. In Rioux’s re-telling, Stoddard emerges as the most poignant figure, for after her serious masterpiece, The Morgesons, still in print, the pressure of marriage and childre made her give up writing.


Mary Cassatt — Lydia at the Tapestry Loom (1881)

It’s not a story of what was not achieved though but of eloquent poems and life-writing, of great books, fascinating heroines and their stories, moving life achievements which at first gain an audience and respect or now and again gain these as if for the first time, but finally are placed in unknown and isolated limbos of neglect and disparagement, or just not valued for real. It’s a story of heroic struggle, of almost making it or making it for a while and then being stifled. I enjoyed reading the summaries and analyses of their books; Rioux makes these come alive with issues that women today who aspired to writing as a career (or any career) will face. I found myself indignant at the way particular editors and male writers and critics put these women down, refused to acknowledge their value, made fun of them, heaped withering scorn and resentment on them, would never give them equal respect — from Howells, Hawthorne and James to lesser known men (but powerful at the time) and the treatment the men and family members the women lived with did not sympathize, understand, and corroded their abilities. What differentiates American from English women was when in Europe they had the sense of being perpetually watched — paradoxically, the idea found in Henry James’s Daisy Miller, led to journalists and ordinary people in letters trying to watch and write about American women writers to see if they led moral as well as successful lives

Along the way Rioux brings in other women writers, especially those whose works did achieve longer lasting fame and recognition at least as first, as influential on our four. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, a narrative poem about a woman trying to live the life of a woman writer. Phelps is quoted saying of Aurora Leigh: “I owe to her, distinctly, the first visible aspiration (ambition is too low a word) to do some honest, hard work of my own in the world beautiful, and for it.” Germane de Stael’s Corinne, or Italy, a tragic novel of a woman whose muse creates this beautiful poetic book, at the end of which she is rejected as a woman and artist. She also treats of Eliot’s Armgart, a poem about a singer I have read, a narrative novel where by the end the heroine loses her voice. This is so common in 19th century novels for women artists — it’s a punishment (like the scenes of confession and humiliation for heroines in many American movies still today). There is a typology of writing or artist heroines in the novels of this era: in the US a sentimental artist heroine who can and does marry and we see her troubles; in the UK and Europe, the woman of Romantic poetic genius, who most of the time comes to a tragic end. They also turned to real women they knew or knew of: Charlotte Bronte as presented in Elizabeth Gaskell’s life of her; George Eliot as the model they all yearned to be as novelists. There are explicit intersections Phelps’s novel, The Story of Avis by Phelps and both Corinne and Aurora Leigh – Avis, who becomes an artist is engulfed by her husband and her gifts lost. Phelps does not think that the conflict is a society-imposed one but inherent in women’s nature — she also refuses to give her heroine genuine ambition.


Emma Lazarus

Rioux also (or along the way) discusses Rebecca Harding Davies, Helen Hunt Jackson, Emma Lazarus, one black woman who was never enslaved and lived a middle class life, Charlotte Forten Grimke, as women who either wrote less, or what they wrote did not achieve the same level, or who did not deal openly with the issues of their own lives and those of women from a woman’s point of view, but whose work placed in the same context emerges as similarly unfairly marginalized. She excludes Sarah Orne Jewett and Emily Dickinson because they did not seek careers and in a sense validated the idea that women should stay in some private retreat.

The last chapter is a convincing demonstration that the male white academy of the 20th century excluded all but white males like themselves in a canon they invented and taught; that the four were similarly dissed in the marketplace, pushed into writing less aspirant books (children’s books for example) and how they never were able to reach the status and receive the recognition their work deserved. One must admit an oddity here: these four women did write prolifically, all were in print and had careers, one now still famous, Alcott, and one now still respected for her artistry, if not well known (Woolson) and one respected as achieving something beyond a historically important still readable book (Phelps). Still, this is the saddest chapter of the book. I found myself embarrassed as I read: Rioux is showing that these women chased after males; they wanted recognition so badly, that they kowtowed before them, behaved in deferrent and self-humiliating ways. I know I have done this and wish I could altogether stop. What really hurts is the situation described in the early and mid-20th century history of the Atlantic Monthly obtains today. Yes the women’s page and their normative heroines are different from mid-century but underlying it all is the same non-valuing of literature by and for women. Maybe it’s that I’ve experienced editors “losing” the attachment, never writing back. The part of the chapter about how critics treat women’s books rings loud still. It’s a masculinization of taste.

Rioux’s last topic is the canon. Brigid Brophy was a breath of fresh air, among the first of the 1970s feminist books on women writers. Brophy’s contribution was to agree these are “dreadful” books and because they are dreadful they are masterpieces. She turns the charge of sentimentalism on its head — the sentimentalism is what makes them great – they are morbid, complaining, sad, emotional, say things matter that in life “adults”‘ learn (so it’s implied) to get past, slide over, ignore. In short, they are powerful great grapplings with life in art. Rioux returns to her four women in the end and tells of their later years — betrayed by “new” women replacing them, so Edith Wharton never acknowledged their real influence on her work. Then a marvelous bibliographical essay, which takes the reader through the important cited books a history of feminist scholarship in the last quarter century.


An early important book, which meant a lot to me when I was young

Rioux’s book is so rich in details, in retellings of stories by so many American women writers, of the circumstances of their lives, in quotation (how shocked women were when they sought the vote and discovered males were violently hostile … ), I can’t begin to do justice to it. Read it yourself, and then do like me, turn to read at least some of the literature Rioux has digested for us. I’ve also got myself a good biography of Alcott as a reformist, written in an intriguing way: Kit Bakke, Miss Alcott’s Email: Yours for reforms of all Kinds.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Cassandra’s depiction of Jane Austen, said to be at the seaside, 1804


Kynance Cove, modern photo

Janeite friends.

As I hope to get onto a plane and fly to Cornwall tomorrow evening in order to spend a week there with a Road Scholar group headed by Peter Maxted (naturalist, environmentalist, author of among other good books, The Natural Beauty of Cornwall), I’ve been looking to see if there is any mention or connection by Austen of herself with Cornwall. I found one specific concrete mention, to which a friend has added another in the comments:

In a letter to Cassandra, from Castle Square, Southampton, dated Saturday Oct 1st 1808, Austen writes:

You have used me ill, you have been writing to Martha without telling me of it, & a letter which I sent her on wednesday [sic] to give her information of you, must have been good for nothing, I do not know how to think that something will not still happen to prevent her returning by the 10th — And if it does, I shall not much regard it on my own account, for I am now got into such a way of being alone that I do not wish even for her. — The Marquis [of Lansdowne] has put off being cured for another year; — after waiting some weeks for the return of the Vessel he had agreed for himself by a famous Man in that Country [Cornwall], in which he means to go abroad twelvemonth hence (LeFaye, 4th edition, pp 147-148).


A contemporary print of the high street in Southampton: the Austens rented a house in Castle Square

I feel for Jane: she has been used ill: anyone who does not tell of information or acts they have been getting or about, but leaves their friend to act as if they were not in possession of information vital to both, betrays that friend, makes a fool out of her. Cassandra has done wrong, not a big betrayal, but she has gone behind Jane’s back to do something she hoped Jane would not find out about. I am moved by Austen’s statement that she has “got into such a way of being alone” that she no longer wishes even for Martha Lloyd, whom Jane loved. I have just had such an experience of a “friend” not telling me of information she has had and so in effect misrepresented a situation. But I will no longer be misled.

Of course I also feel for her as a woman “got into such a way of being alone” that she no longer wishes for a beloved presence.

LeFaye’s typically insinuating note tells of John-Henry Petty (1765-1809) who was “widely travelled but rather solitary” who came to Southampton “to indulge his passion for yachting. He bought the ruined castle within the city walls, and enlarged it “into a gothic fantasy,” selling off the father’s library and art collection at Bowood house to pay for this rebuilding. He became Marquis in 1805, married his mistress, Mary Arabella, daughter of Revd Hinton Maddox and widow of Sir Duke Gifford. LeFaye then recounts nasty gossip about how Lady Gifford was “fat,” and as “strange” as the house Lord Lansdowne created, because she, in supposedly eccentric dress, went walking one day with her three daughters in wind, rain, on stony and mud-filled cobbled streets. LeFaye follows this with the more charitable account by James Edward Austen-Leigh, who turns a carriage this woman went round in into a “fairy equipage” (pp 542-43).

But we have had to take several turns to get there.

For the second I am indebted to Diana Birchall and her use of google, a reference in Mansfield Park, the mention is direct, including the word Cornwall.

“To be so near happiness, so near fame, so near the long paragraph in praise of the private theatricals at Ecclesford, the seat of the Right Hon. Lord Ravenshaw, in Cornwall, which would of course have immortalised the whole party for at least a twelvemonth!”

The upper classes in Cornwall behaved the way they did in Northampton: put on private theatricals and then wrote in absurd praise of themselves.


The Mansfield Park players hard “at work” (from the 2007 Mansfield Park, scripted by Maggie Wadey)

Another more speculative literary connection could be Richard Carew’s Survey of Cornwall; an Elizabethan antiquarian, he wrote the first intelligent thorough vivid description of Cornwall and its people; it was valued and reprinted in 1769 and 1811; Davies Gilbert provided an index. It has been reprinted in our era by Halliday.

Austen never mentions it, but it is the kind of book we find her reading: histories, travel books, culture, memoirs, and in good 20th and 21st century accounts of Cornwall’s history and culture and geography Carew is still quoted as an authoritative source. The mid-18th century sees the beginning of archeaological digs and accounts of them in books. I would like to assume she read it, for if she did, she could have known as much about Cornwall and more as most general readers would today.

For a fourth and speculative type, Austen could have read some of the sources Winston Graham used, like reformist exposés of prison conditions. See The History of Bodmin Jail, 1779, compiled by Bill Johnson (2006). We know she visited another prison with her brother and was too appalled to describe what she saw.

She would have known of the Wesleys and clearly knew of the spread of methodism (in its evangelical reactionary phases in Hannah More and elsewhere); but again we are up against mostly silence or no specific evidence.

On religious radical religious movements, emigration and myths and legends associated with or rooted in Cornwall gaining new ground in her period (Arthurian, Druidic), like some sceptical or careful Enlightenment types of her era, she might have shown little interest; like others newly interested in the history of poetry, e.g., Thomas Warton in his History of English Poetry, she would come across Arthur in Chaucer and Spenser. We know she read the poets of the later 18th century.

We can find some specific authors and books from the peripheries (so to speak) where we know for sure she read well-grounded observations, in this case mostly about Scotland: Johnson and Boswell’s twin tours and Anne MacVicar Grant)’s memoirs. Here is one of my favorite of Grant’s poems, from her Poems on Various Subjects, a “familiar epistle” to Anne’s good friend of many years, Beatrice, remembering when they were young and aspired to be poets:

When to part us, loud storms and deep gullies conspir’d,
And sublime meditation to garrats [sic] retir’d;
To the workings of fancy to give a relief,
We sat ourselves down to imagine some grief,
Till we conjur’d up phantoms so solemn and sad,
As, if they had lasted, would make us half mad;
Then in strains so affecting we pour’d the soft ditty,
As mov’d both the rocks and their echoes to pity [but]
The cottage so humble, or sanctified dome,
For the revels of fancy afforded no room;
And the lyre and the garland, were forc’d to give place
To duties domestic … (reprinted in Breen, Women Romantic Poets, 1785-1832, pp 88-93)

In Austen’s active life, she traveled all around the coast of southern and once to western England — once as far as Wales, about which (again) we have some sketch-y knowledge: see Diana Birchall’s Jane Austen at the Seaside.

So we can sort of connect our 18th century Austen with Cornwall: “philosophical” studies, and history; poetry and memoirs of travel-writers and others telling of life in the peripheries at the time, the newly burgeoning genres of survey and archeaological analysis, and her own summer travels.

And we can place her against a backdrop of 17th through 18th century history in Cornwall from our own modern perspective: here we have a cornucopia, and from a virtual library of books I recommend F. E. Halliday, The History of Cornwall, Philip Payton’s Cornwall, Philip Marsden’s Rising Ground; Winston Graham’s Poldark novels and The Groves of Eagles, and DuMaurier’s several novels set in Cornwall, especially Jamaica Inn and The King’s General, grounded in the real doings of the civil war, its aftermath and the Grenville and Rashleigh families, and 17th into 18th century history of Menabilly in Cornwall. I’ll bet Stevenson’s reading of DuMaurier’s novel is absorbing and enjoyable.

And we can go there ourselves.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


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

Friends,

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Chawton House recently from the outside

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Emma Thompson as Elinor (1995 Miramax S&S, scripted Thompson, directed Ang Lee)

Absence.
Absence, hear thou my protestation against thy strength, distance, and length.
Do what thou canst for alteration
For hearts for truest mettle.
Absence doth still and time doth settle.
— John Donne as recited in tandem by Claire and Ned Gowan looking out over a loch in the highlands (Outlander, “Rent”)

I dreamed I was acting out Sense and Sensibility. I was not the characters, but I was right next to them, watching them go through the motions of their story. I tried to tell others of how this is my experience, and what the characters are like, what they are doing, their houses, their living arrangements.


Charity Wakefield as Marianne, holding out her hand, all expectant (2008 S&S, scripted Andrew Davies)

My dream-thoughts included how Austen calls the man who willing to play with and then when amusement is over hurt Marianne Willoughby, the name of the abrasive cad in Fanny Burney’s Evelina, and how Austen is either too discreet herself, or was unable to get past the censorship of her family to dramatize the kinds of ugly things Willoughby subjects Evelina too, or other males and older hard authority-females do in French novels of the era take advantage of, raping, needling the heroine with.

And I thought of what Elinor stands for. Austen was showing us how to protect yourself from harm, how to build an apparently invulnerable self: she began to wear spinster clothes after she is said to have written her first three novels (then called First Impressions, Elinor and Marianne, perhaps Susan).


Hattie Morahan as Elinor, Janet McTeer Mrs Dashwood having arranged their faces (2000 S&S)

As  I rose from sleep, the dream made no literal sense in its last fragments in the ways dreams don’t. The two women are on a train, the seat is the long type against long rows of windows, I am between them, we are speeding through the countryside, going somewhere together.

It is daylight and as I imagined it, our surroundings looked like a train I took long ago with Jim on our way towards Exeter in Devon. Only the Dashwoods take a coach.


Joanna David as the displaced Elinor traveling, gazing long ago (1971 BBC S&S, scripted David Constantduros)

It was a morning dream, and in that way of my dreams when they trouble me most I believed it had happened. I had really been on that train with them, and for hours, days, years, living, breathing, remembering, being them. As I woke, it took a long while to realize that it had been a dream

I think I am missing talking in the form of writing about Austen to others for myself. The Janeites listserv has been in effect long dead for real talk, Austen-l spoiled utterly by trolls and both stupidity long ago, there is nowhere for in-depth talk of what these books can and do mean to me except a blog such as this or an occasional paper delivered at a conference which escapes the censorship of careerist editors guarding their journal.

I had been reading Barbara Pym’s naively written diaries, which however reveal a frightening masochistic drive willing to endure humiliation, and at the same time Nicola Beauman’s extraordinarily insightful biography of E.M. Forster who did and did not cover his tracks in his novels: like Austen, she protected herself through her taking on the guise of spinster in her books, he survived with his identity alive by immersing himself self-consciously in his imaginative writing whose surface can resemble Austen’s, though he is alert to what he is doing fully (which she apparently is not).  I’ve been reading of Woolf (Virginia) too, & watching very late into the nights beloved historical romance time-traveling movies.

This absence, these immersions, this lesson I tried to practice myself as a teenager and still, and the connections made from Pym, to Burney, to Austen, Jim and I on a train gazing out, became this dream.


Barton Cottage (1995 S&S) — my house is defective as a cottage too

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Watteau, The Serenade

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

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

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


An engraving said to represent Madame du Deffand

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


Engraving representation of Julie

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


On the vast first floor

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

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


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

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


Watteau, Iris (detail inside much wider vaster mural)

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Cattle Watering perhaps by John Glover (1767-1849)

Gentle readers,

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

As if in mischievous larger contradiction to all this powerful passionate protest and investment in grief in the novel, Austen also alludes across the novel explicitly to a very different kind of poet and poem: Matthew Prior’s semi-burlesque rewriting of an older ballad, The Nut-Brown Maid as Henry and Emma. The novel is braced (so to speak) with a  questioning out of the medieval poem and Prior’s implied cynical disillusionment. In the poems two males demands abjection from the female to prove that she is in reality irrecoverably in love with him. Emma is up to each turn of a screw Henry inflicts on her. The parallels with Wentworth and Anne present a serious critique of Wentworth’s behavior, with her usually much-praised new independence severely undercut. Austen seems concerned to undercut the misogynistic theme of testing a woman so prevalent in literature, among other texts in the era Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte.

Beyond these the grim realism of parallel tales in Crabbe are here.

There’s evidence to show that Austen knew Smith, Scott and Byron, Prior and Crabbe very well. The novel unites these disparate veins as variations on reaching an authentic self.  In her famous dialogue with Captain Harville Anne asserts as her right a burden of knowledge of ravaged grief and permanent desolation as strong as any man’s. She should be respected for this. We have reached Northrop Frye’s once well known last phase of irony and satire, only instead of winter, Wentworth breaks through with a letter and we tumble back into romance, with even Mrs Smith knowing retrieval at novel’s end — as the real Mrs Smith never did, quite.

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

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


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

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Dear friends,

Although in the first session of Prof Tamara Harvey’s Early Modern American women writers, I regretted that she didn’t show the truly appealing poems of Anne Bradstreet or Sor Juana, in the second session on captivity narratives I had to admit someone today would not read the texts chosen by Mary Rowlandson and Phillis Wheatley for their subtlety, beauty, or true self-exploration. Again, as with Bradstreet and Juana, against all logic, natural emotion, and reason, Rowlandson interprets her horrifying experiences as evidence of God’s grace. Wheatley falls all over herself with gratitude to the Deity as well as her condescendingly kindly owners, then friends. Both are writing forms of captivity narratives. Rowlandson experienced the horrors of continual war: murder, destruction of communities, and then a hostage-worker. Wheatley was slave from a young baby, her gifts recognized and developed — up to a certain point.

The once enormously popular captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson (1637-1711), is printed with many different covers and additions to the text. Only a few of these today sport the original title, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God &c). While remarkably vivid and direct, Rowlandson presents a very limited view of what’s happening, of herself, of the Indians controlling her (enslaving, terrifying, killing, putting her and her neighbors and their children to work). The Indians are the savages (never mind the colonialists slaughtered them in thousands), she is the melodramatic victim heroine.

She just thrusts us into a layer-heavy experience. Her sister is dependent on her and killed immediately (this is seen as God’s way of rewarding her). Her baby dies during the march in her arms. The chapters are called “removes, so this is a journey. In the story we see her interacting with the Native Americans, in effect bargaining with them. She begins to know more about them as individuals and their customs; she suddenly uses their names. She eats their food, expresses kindness when she is treated decently. She is also at one point glad the native woman’s child is dead. She will in desperation take food from a baby’s mouth. She tries to change the outlook of those around her so they are not thinking how they are about to be killed. She also writes of other narrators like herself, other books so this text is not as unself-conscious as it seems. She presents herself as happiest at home. Her husband was a printer. Apparently he died and she remarried (became Mary White). The native American she is servant to is killed and she records this. There is no closure for her though: she tells us that since her experience, she can no longer sleep.

The text also functions as an exemplary conversion experience. I was interested in how she managed not to become a concubine while maintaining in her text not a hint of anything unchaste going on around her. Did the native people rape their captives: apparently they tended either to kill or adopt the person into their culture. It makes visible how continual and internecine fierce quarrels often resulted in mini-wars. There were native people who themselves converted to Christianity, and they were called (derisively) “praying Indians.” There are moments where she reproaches the English for not saving them. She was accused in turn: why didn’t you escape? why did you stay with them? Ironies: she is seen as having asked too much for herself when there was ransom bargaining. Her plight was real and she got very little sympathy (as victimized lower status women today often don’t).

For my part I thought the most effective places were where Rowlandson lets go and puts on the the raw emotion she is experiecing without knowing why or understanding herself: she is landed by her captors who are in canoes; they all come ashore, the people about her talk, laugh, are happy with their victory:

Then my heart began to fail and I fell aweeping, which was the first time to my remembrance, that I wept before them. Though I had met with so much affliction and my heart was many times ready to break, yet I could not shed one tear in their sight, but rather had all this time been in a maze (8th remove)

Apparently some Americanists try to argue these narratives were influential on the Anglo-European novel. They were read avidly out of curiosity to learn about the colonial experience and the American continent. Another captivity narrative by Hannah Duston shows as exemplary a murderous retaliatory heroine. Tamara Harvey ended this part of the session by talking of Jill Lepore’s book In the Name of War, which reveals the mindset we see around us today, the paranoid beset and beseiged, the notion that violence is a solution, that there is something special about the US experience is fully here. Wars of this era include King Philip’s, Metacun Rebellion, the Pequot war. It was all about slaughter. No wonder the Quakers were so anathemized. Lepore is today an excellent staff writer for the New Yorker. You can read Chapter 1 of her book here; hers is a book about the nature of war and how people write about it.

I regret to say I regard Phillis Wheatley’s neoclassic verse in the same light as Rowlandson’s prose: historically important but as poetry, thin, imitative, a rigid prosody, with a content where she shows that after she was literally freed, she continued to spout the (especially with regard to her) semi-hypocritical rhetoric used to disguise the aggrandizement, exploitation, destruction of the people native to America, the Africans kidnapped and enslaved, the indentured servants and convicts brought over from the UK. Perhaps I’m not being fair and there are many good lines if the book is studied carefully.This good paragraph comes from a poem to William Earl of Dartmouth:

Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

Still, I have to admit it seems to me the scholar-critics want to avoid saying how unsatisfying the idiom of this poetry is. To see this clearly is to see the tragedy of her short life. Hers is the story of the lucky token exception with powerful patrons who recognized her gifts, and in return for presenting the Wheatleys as super-good people and behaving exemplarily (as the white colonialists saw this), she is protected — for a while. Wheatley was the family name; Phillis the name of her ship. There seems to be no memory of her earliest childhood. When she married, she found she had to work very hard for little money. The contemporary biographer blames John Peters, her husband for what happened to her. Dead children, herself very sick. Of course in comparison with most African people, she was treated like a princess, with respect, attention, and equivalent humanity.

Prof Harvey treated the volume and story from interesting angles (as she did Sor Juana and Bradstreet). Living in Boston was another stroke of luck; she showed us how Wheatley’s texts were marketed by looking at details in the titles of the poems. Wheatley was writing to middle and upper class women; there are elegies for the deaths of family members, for George Whitefield, a well-known Methodist; she addresses George Washington. In one epistle she writes of the Countess of Huntington and abolition movement; she writes to male aristocrats who were patrons. We see her in a community of well-connected people. Later there appear to be poems to or also about black people, a man manumitted at 40. She wants to associate with the local elite where she moves to, to admire a black nun, to think the city she lives in represents something great. Yet there is said to be an awareness in her of women across the globe who she might be like but had not had her luck.

The best book is Vincent Carretta’s Biography of a Genius in Bondage; I’ve met him at conferences and lectures, and heard him speak eloquently about Wheatley and Olaudah Equiano. We can see all that was available to a male once freed, not available to a female; Equiano lived a full life on his own while she had to marry, be dependent on her husband and died young of too many children and poverty.

I wish I felt more for these women from their books than I do. I can’t find a way into an attitude of mind so deeply guarded by religion and convention however clever Mary Rowlandson was. I can see that Wheatley survived and had what achievement and pleasure she did by somewhere deep in her fiercely repressing any anger. I find what is written about them resonates more.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »