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Archive for October, 2009

“‘I consider a country-dance as an emblem of marriage. Fidelity and complaisance are the principal duties of both; and those men who do not choose to dance or marry themselves, have no business with the partners or wives of their neighbours.’ ‘But they are such very different things!’ ‘–That you think they cannot be compared together.’ ‘To be sure not. People that marry can never part, but must go and keep house together.’” (NA, Chapter 10)

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Henry Tilney (J. J. Feilds) and Catherine Morland (Felicity Jones) begin their first dance (2007 NA)

Dear Friends,

As I’ve written before, (“JA: The last quarter century”)a generous editor has been good enough to put the essays I wrote on the last 25 years of editions of Jane Austen’s novels on the Jane Austen Center online magazine, one a month. She also put some of my other essays, like Jane’s Aunt Jane probably stole that lace, on Austen’s heroines, a defense of Edmund Bertram and the like; I gathered the URLs up together and put them into a posting on Reveries under the Sign of Austen.

Today I add one more, celebrating a novel I’m particularly fond of (as can be seen by the epigraph to this blog): on

Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon — all together

In its original form, A Journey Through Austen’s Career

And on the occasion of this happy conclusion to the series, I also put online the proposal for a paper to be given at the next AGM in Portland,

“People that marry can never part:” real and romantic gothicism in Northanger Abbey

As I now understand something of the politics of the way these papers are assigned (I probably didn’t help myself by having written on Austen-l and Janeites, “The significance of the repugnance of certain males towards Austen’s fiction”), I’m prepared for a possible rejection, but hope on.

Ellen

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Same dance, toward its close

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Remedios Varos (1908-63), Luna

Dear all,

Here is my third report of a session at the recent East Central 18th Century conference in Bethlehem. I’ve summarized Devoney Looser’s lecture on Burney’s Memoirs of Dr Burney, and a session on four little known 18th century gothic texts, and a session on the treatment of Catholicism in literature and politics (Burke’s Ireland and France). For tonight I have two excellent papers and a lively candid discussion afterwards to report in a session where all chairs were taken (and it was not a small room with few chairs) but where all but one person were women. Apparently a topic with “mom” in the title scared away all but the most courageous of men. Three papers were listed, but only two were given.

First up was Laura Engels’s “Phantasmic Performances: Gothic Maternity in Mary Robinson’s Life of Mrs Robinson Written by Herself (1801). Ms Engels began by saying that Robinson had an early marriage, was an actress, novelist, poetess, and had a number of affairs after her liaison with the Prince of Wales, but she kept that single brief incident alive as her dominant experience for 20 years. In the era, motherhood was seen as irretrievably connected to the body, but was a legitimate role in the era; and Wollstonecraft and Siddons present themselves as private and domestic to counterbalance their socially iconoclastic experiences. Robinson, though did not present herself as a mother to counterbalance the other parts of her life, but rather simply to present herself as a mother briefly. Otherwise she foregrounded her seductive qualities and obscured her real body. [We can see this in portraits of her by Joshua Reynolds (where she is elusive and sexual) and Thomas Gainsborough, where she does seem to be spectrally sitting in a wood by a dog.]

Her depictions of mothering women show them vulnerable, powerless, hurting, in trouble. There was her mother whose husband (and Mary’s father) left her mother after 9 years of marriage to travel to America; he returned and took up a mistress and continued to dominate her mother and herself anyway. There was her teacher and mentor in boarding school, Maribel Lorrington (?) who she saw years later as a beggar in a torn dress, penniless, disfigured, the ghost of herself. She also saw destitution, aging, derangement in fiction connected to aging women and mothers, which made her not want to be a victim of her passions and desires. Still, to self-fashion herself as a mother in public felt impossible. During the time she was married and expecting her daughter, she presents herself as continually sewing clothes for her child, and kept out of public life. Her husband (to whom her Mrs Bennet-like mother married her off) was a gambler, had other women and she ended in debtor’s prison with him for a while. Yet at the same time she invokes her mother as the most important person in her life, and forced to leave her mother she at first feels powerless. She was eventually forced to survive on her own, and heavily pregnant, and breast-feeding her baby, she went on the stage to act. There is guilt over whether she can act and be a good mother at the same time. She was herself a strong woman who played many roles, had — as we can see in this depiction and her poetry — her own identity and views.

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George Dance, Mary Darby Robinson (1793)

Ms Engels wondered if this presentation of herself was a bid for sympathy, and/or she was exhibiting herself, was making herself into an image offered up for voyeurism (desire on the part of a spectator) or acting “in your face.” After this short representation of her earlier adult life, her daughter finished her memoir and in effect Robinson becomes a kind of ghost. She gradually disappeared from public view in her life. We owe what we have of her works to her daughter, Mary Elizabeth Robinson, and like her own mother, she became the central influence of her daughter’s life.

Laura did mention that by contrast in the Victorian period mothers (nursing and otherwise) were shown as strong angels.

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J. D. Watson (the illustrator), “The Aspen”, in Good Words, a 1863 issue

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Marilyn Francis then spoke from her paper, “When Will These Discoveries End:” Gothic Motherhood in Radcliffe’s The Italian. Ms Francis began by saying that The Italian ends soon after Ellena discovers her great friend and mentor, Olivia, is her mother. She quoted a critics who argued that absent motherhood in the female gothic allows the text to become a kind of bildingsroman; while the mother is waiting to be found and rescued by the child (often the mother is incarcerated and must be set free), the child’s story unfolds. The child’s story ends when the mother is revealed. Some scholars go so far as to say that mothers just have no story; the absence of a mother makes a story possible.

Ms Francis countered this with the self-evident truth that real mothers did and do have stories before, during, and after their lives with children, and in The Italian we have four active maternal figures in the novel. Bianca is Ellena’s chaperone who dies early in the novel; she protected Ellena and encouraged her relationship with Vivaldi. She tried to tell Ellena her background and that her mother was alive. The Marchesa di Vivaldi (the hero’s mother) tries to have Ellena kidnapped, put permanently in a convent, and is in collusion with the evil monk, Schedoni who is said to be Ellena’s uncle [but as I recall turns out to be her father so his desire for her and attempt at sexual coercion/rape at one point is incestuous]. The Marchesa thinks her son way above Ellena, and says of herself she “loses the mother” when she acts decisively (usually to be vicious). Only mothers who deviate from passivity and goodness get to have stories? In the novel Vivaldi never learns how complicit in evil his mother was and sorrows for her. The abbess is a third figure who Olivia defies to help her daughter.

Olivia is hiddenly a figure as major in the novel as Schedoni. She tries to teach Olivia how to have a mask, how to appear not to fight and yet fight. Olivia’s own story is kept opaque and untraceable and she relinquishes her daughter as soon as she is unmasked. We are to feel Olivia will be haunted by the memory of her daughter and loss of her daughter for the rest of her life.

Ms Francis suggested this paradigm was typical of more than gothic stories. Repeatedly in fiction mothers leave only traces of their stories behind, whch are waiting to be discovered but never are. Could it be that children don’t want to know, that the reality of women’s emotions and lives are erased because it’s too threatening to the society’s structure so the conventional narrative insists on giving us a child’s (unacknowledged) perspective?

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Remedios Varos, A Paradise of Cats

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The discussion afterwards was marvellous and wide-ranging. We (many people in the room, including me) kept it up for the rest of the time. Alas, I find I didn’t (or couldn’t because of my problems with hand-eye coordination and slowness) take much down. Scattered comments I got were the remark that in modern novels the mother’s story is deferred until near the end and then embedded in an inset story (say like Byatt’s Possession where Christabel LaMotte’s story is told in flashbacks or through a packet of letters). There is great distress in a child even when grown-up when the mother is discovered to have broken taboos and/or given the child up (I instanced Daniel Deronda’s mother Vashti). We discussed how women collude in the silencing of their presences; they keep quiet to protect others (society will attack them in any case). It was suggested that reticence has been enforced over private real lives until recently and that little is gained for those who speak or those who know by telling — except release. Things don’t change for the better for women. Revealingly, pregnancy endows women with authority and strength (a kind of substitute for a phallus) so perhaps pregnancy is erased because a patriarchy will not allow women to appear stronger than men. Through pregnancy she does transcend (by creating life).

We talked of how actresses present a chaste image where it seems they are not married and have no children when no such thing; Emma Thompson is one who presents herself nowadays as a spinster or unmarried independent woman when she has two children and has long been married to Greg Wise; in the 18th century actresses similarly invented narratives which made their lives closer to the conventional heroine images they embodied. The conversation slide into discussing women politicians and the intense hostility to strong public women like Hilary Clinton. People also talked of their own experiences as mothers and daughters.

Finally, we seem to have returned to 18th century icons, and discussed Marie Antoinette who Robinson wrote a poem to and sympathized much with as did many other women of the era (see my blog “how little we can know of her”); she had a story of her own all right and tried to model a mother role too, and was savagely punished for it. But today too women are drawn to her, to the stories of her and her women (as in Adieu a la Reine by Chantal Thomas)

From Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006)

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Kirsten Dunst as the young girl

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The revolution approaches and she dons a more somber (darker colored) outfit

I end on a Swiftian poem by Mary Robinson, written perhaps as she looked out the window, no longer able to walk

PAVEMENT slipp’ry, people sneezing,
Lords in ermine, beggars freezing;
Titled gluttons dainties carving,
Genius in a garret starving.

Lofty mansions, warm and spacious;
Courtiers clinging and voracious;
Misers scarce the wretched heeding;
Gallant soldiers fighting, bleeding.

Wives who laugh at passive spouses;
Theatres, and meeting-houses;
Balls, where simp’ring misses languish;
Hospitals, and groans of anguish.

Arts and sciences bewailing;
Commerce drooping, credit failing;
Placemen mocking subjects loyal;
Separations, weddings royal.

Authors who can’t earn a dinner;
Many a subtle rogue a winner;
Fugitives for shelter seeking;
Misers hoarding, tradesmen breaking.

Taste and talents quite deserted;
All the laws of truth perverted;
Arrogance o’er merit soaring;
Merit silently deploring.

Ladies gambling night and morning;
Fools the works of genius scorning;
Ancient dames for girls mistaken,
Youthful damsels quite forsaken.

Some in luxury delighting;
More in talking than in fighting;
Lovers old, and beaux decrepid;
Lordlings empty and insipid.

Poets, painters, and musicians;
Lawyers, doctors, politicians:
Pamphlets, newspapers, and odes,
Seeking fame by diff’rent roads.

Gallant souls with empty purses;
Gen’rals only fit for nurses;
School-boys, smit with martial spirit,
Taking place of vet’ran merit.

Honest men who can’t get places,
Knaves who shew unblushing faces;
Ruin hasten’d, peace retarded;
Candour spurn’d, and art rewarded.

A smart woman, a poem of the “universal pursuit of the mundane and amoral aggrandizement. She lived hard and died fairly young, badly crippled from rheumatic fever. The Prince was pressured into giving her a pension, and when her last lover with whom she travelled around Europe deserted, she lived her last 8 years with her daughter, supporting them by writing in lodgings. A lonely difficult existence whose solace was her daughter.

And one last gothic image, Leonor Fini’s (1908-97) Red Vision, an archetypal image of a girl child looking up at a protective maternal vision:

FiniRedVision

There was yet one more session on Friday: “Marriage and the Family in the Eighteenth Century” and that super one I’ll tell about in my next blog on the conference.

Ellen

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The slow motion duel from Barry Lyndon

Dear Friends,

I’ve been meaning to make a blog on Stanley Kubrick’s remarkable film adaptation of Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon (1975). I was so charmed by it when I watched it last year that I made a huge album of stills from the movie and put it in an album on Eighteenth Century Worlds. This week on Trollope19CStudies @ Yahoo we somehow began to discuss it, and I put a little of my original thoughts on the list and people liked it, so I put them here too.

The curious power of this film lies in its insistence on the importance of the slow-moving pictures:

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The men gambling

It’s a highly original landmark film for its aesthetics. It’s beautiful. There are continual frames of scenes that are picturesque and evocation of the 18tn century as it’s often imagined in high art. The allure of this includes the salacious and lurid and in context the ironic narrative undercuts and works well with them.

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The crowd gambling

Kubrick has the insight and daring to make a central part of his film his instinct that to see this earlier world set up as a neoclassic symmetrical dream vision and the visual pleasure of this is a very real part of the art of such films.

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Marisa Berenson looks like a Gainsborough portrait and her hats
make my mouth water: this is a throw back to the Gainsborough studio costume drama films of the 40s, so Kubrick took what he could of the older modes of costume drama too.

LyndonGainsboroughHat

The way to view is is to savour it in slow motion — as it is filmed. slow motion and that’s saying something since it moves so slowly.

Of course a film must have thematic meaning and this one has a hard one appropriate to Thackeray’s book. The ending said it all: a devastating bitter close whose final ethical point is close to Thackeray’s (indictment of a corrupt society, the product of human nature generally or its worst aspects for power, its coldness and egoistic appetite for where else can it come from?), though the means and methods are utterly disparate.

Thackeray’s novel (which I looked and dipped into after watching the film) has a narrator like that of Henry Fielding’s Jonathan Wilde: like Fielding’s hard satire, Thackeray’s Lyndon is a crude amoral presence and would be a dangerous sociopath if we read the book realistically. We don’t. We know it’s satire. By contrast, Kubrick’s Barry is a noble young man, with a good heart and many illusions about honor and love, just about all of which are utterly out of kilter which the society which professes them (so he’s more like Fielding’s Tom Jones). The movie is not a satire on upward mobility in the Victorian era) but rather an elegy for the destruction of the low-born hero and a poignant evocation of a beautiful world, the ancien regime which paradoxically arose on the miseries and backs of the many. A comment on the 19th century here too. The continual bad things everyone is doing to everyone else amid the domesticity of the later part of the film, how so many end up crippled.

So the underlying meaning is alive; but not brought out by the acting which we could scarcely appreciate as long shots were preferred and iconic and archetypal moments. The best and most memorable moments have little to do with the original story or plot-design or even moral. It moves so slowly, and Kubrick recreates idyllic art of the 18th century — not the real one, and not even the typical, but of a subgenre of picture that after this film many of these costume dramas picked up.

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This picnic was recently repeated in the BBC (later 1990s) mini-series, Aristocrats (based on Stella Tillyard’s book, film by David Caffrey and Harriet O’Carroll; it’s a domestic variant, appropriate for the age of sensibility we might say:

Aristocrats

Tom Jones and Barry Lyndon are set in the earlier part of the century.

Sumptuous romance had been the key in the 1930s and 40s but no attempt at surface realisms (like old fashioned light), no attention to surface historical accuracies. Kubrick was apparently the first to do this consistently, even manically. Conversation pieces and genre scenes abound:

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The musical Lyndon family

Kubrick’s scenes sometimes are shot for more than 90 seconds. It’s as if he asked himself how much strangeness will the audience tolerate? and dared them to complain :) We love to watch the gambling — that holds us. The second duel between the step-son and Lydnon is a masterpiece of nerve, especially when Barry’s nobility boomerangs back on him and he loses his lower leg and all his money.

The excess of the costume and scenes exceeds all else. Really this show that Brideshead Revisited is simply a repeat, a televisual bringing to mini-series what Kubrick did several years before in the moviehouse.

I read about Kubrick’s career too. While he is famous for a couple I couldn’t stand (the pornographic Lolita, and another frighteningly lurid one whose title I mercifully have blocked out), he also made Dr Strangelove. He is one of these directors who knows how to present himself as sole auteur — as in this film. But you have to look for in some cases another person has written the script or produced and it’s someone who does does the cinematography even if directed by Kubrick.

The next night I watched Tony Richardson’s 1963 Tom Jones to compare. While the earlier film is still charming, amusing, and yes offers a variety of filmic techniques which succeed in conveying the tone and attitudes of the book towards the characters, somehow it is also more dated than Barry Lyndon.

I think for me it was partly the movie’s content or thematizing of Fielding’s novel: Richardson told the same joke over and over: see how sweet, good, innocent, chivalrous, generous is Tom even though he is in bed with this and that and the other women. It’s that all these women want him so; they are the aggressor again and again. Then he is extricated by highjinks and we are to laugh again as he escapes — until near the end he is almost hung. I tired of it, over and over. Endless exposure of women’s breasts was part of the treat. Not much for Susannah York to do but look loving and accepting, and the sexy women to slither and slide and look CHFM.

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Tom and Molly

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Sophia and her Aunt Western

That’s what is the film’s repeating incident. I don’t find this all that amusing (at least on the third time and yet more of this to come) nor am I inclined to revel in this sort of “innocence” in the first place.

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A pastoral

Like Kubrick, Richardson used a narrator throughout (defying what I gather still is the wisdom of film people and their scorn against non-cinematic techniques like spoken words). This provided the soft comforting ironies. Instead of a slow pace, we had speed, and the stylization kept us at a distance too.

Like Kubrick too, a genuine attempt is made to recreate something of the 18th century world: here it’s rough and ready, rural. The actor doing Mr Weston was superb, as also Partridge.

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Finney as Tom setting out in the world, just before he’s diverted into the hunt

The famous long hunt is well done and its coda in a sweet chivalric scene punctuates and turns it into something conventional. Indeed as the man who gave a paper on the music of the film at the ASECS argued, it quickly repeatedly became a conventional complacent film.

Paradoxically because of its aesthetics Barry Lyndon is the graver film and Tom Jones froth in comparison. I don’t say I didn’t enjoy it in a way, but it was very mild enjoyment. A landmark film because it refuses to invite us to be snobs and uses costume drama differently for farcical comedy. It gives us something of Fielding’s quality but (as is not uncommon) leaves us the bite and what is hard about the book.

It’s my view that only is fidelity not a useful criteria, it’s impossible. What is important is to look into and at the movie as a work of art in its own right (as we do an opera many of which are adaptations from stories and novels), with many precursor texts and allusions, only one of which (if major) is its literary
source text. A movie (or opera) is not a window through which we see another text though it may interpret it. One looks at the major source to compare and understand and then appreciate the art and meaning of the new text or film (or opera)

Ellen

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Anna (Hermione Norris) places flowers on Clarissa’s grave, Mr Hickman (Jon Sotherton) standing by (1991 BBC Clarissa)

Dear Friends,

Here is the second panel I went to at the recent conference. The second period on Friday, from 10:15 to 11:45, offered what turned out to be an excellent set of papers on “The Seductive Menace: The Dangers of Popery.”

First up was Teri Doerksen, with “Catholicism, Danger, and Womanly Virtue: Clarissa Harlowe and the Appropriation of Catholic Iconography.” She suggested that until 1745 and the Battle of Culloden, Jacobite Catholicism seemed to pose a real threat to Protestantism. After that year there is a relaxation, and we see in Clarissa, an Anglicanized hagiography sliding into Catholic ideas and practices in Clarissa. Clarissa’s desire for the single life, to join some sort of nunnery, her martyrdom of herself (like a saint), Lovelace’s dream of her going up to Heaven dressed like the Virgin Mary while he is pulled down to hell; Belford’s desire for her to be a mediatrix for him; how he prays to her; her death consummation with the word “Jesus” on her lips — are all seen as uses of Catholicism. Ms Doerksen quoted Margaret Doody’s A Natural Passion where she goes over these kinds of images and says Clarissa’s last moment was calm and tranquil.

I came up to ask a question later about Sir Charles Grandison with its Italian Catholic characters, and Ms Doerksen said she regarded Harriet and Clementina as a kind of splitting of Clarissa into a Catholic and Protestant type, and yes, she thought Richardson was conscious of what he was doing.

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Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) Silence (1799-1800)

The second paper, by Rebecca Cepek, was “Remembering the Virgin Mary: Resisting the Normative in Lewis’s Castle Spectre” (found in the anthology Seven Gothic Dramas edited by Geoffrey Cox). Ms Cepek suggested Catholicism was seen as an agent of patriarchical oppression, misguided to actively cruel. Lewish reconfigures the Virgin Mary to represent the maternal; unlike Protestantism, Catholicism offered a woman to worship, and offered another choice to living ordinary women beyond that of marriage and motherhood. Lewis’s Castle Spectre is a powerful female figure resisting male domination. Unlike The Monk which is a male and horror gothic, The Castle Spectre is a work which fits the categories Anne Williams outlined for female gothic in her Poetics of Gothic. In the nightmare work run amok of The Monk, Osmond can either rape or marry Angelica; there is no role outside prostitute or wife. The male characters fail to protect the female ones; romantic love fails. By contrast, the female castle spectre creates feminist theatre. Evelina, a character in the play, longs for a wound, is in white, and has a Christ-like mother who saves her. Angelica must rely on her mother, and becomes more powerful this way. The play recalls Burney’s Cecilia who prays to her mother, anticipates Jane Eyre who does the same.

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The third paper was by a French literary scholar, Frederick Conrod, was called “Dialogue between a Libertine and a Pope in [Sade] Histoire de Juliette. South of the English channel, he began, Sade is seen as more than simply a site for evil; he wrote philosophical tracts in the same tradition as Voltaire and Diderot. In this paper, Mr Conrod went over a small pamphlet by Sade: “A Dialogue between a dying man and a priest.” In Sade’s collection of philosophical dialogues, Sade emphasizes how the Pope approved of those who kept their sex lives hidden. This particular dialogue is antagonistic (like Rameau’s Nephew.) The man on his deathbed says he is penitent for a life misspent (wasted, thrown away) repressing his natural impulses. The priest reinforces this idea by saying this is nothing compared to the falsehoods told knowingly by Catholic doctrine; the dying person wants a natural explanation for everything. The priest also says our free will makes a love of God worth while. But the soul equally needs vices and virtues, which are at the center of the human brain or body. In another, The Dialogue of Juliette and Pope Pius VI. The Pope stands in for an ultimate priest, and has Juliette achieve a union of sexual pleasure and perversion, which is a kind of beatitude.

I know I didn’t do justice to the subtlety of the arguments. These dialogues alternate with written-up orgies (which I guess the less said about the better). It seemed to me the paper was an argument for looking more closely at texts-in-history and the real living world Then we can see a revolution going on from the point of view of libertines of the 1790s.

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The ancient abbey ruins of Clonmacnois, Ireland

Elizabeth Lambert’s biographical essay on Edmund Burke was one of the best I heard this session: “Meanwhile back at the Ranch: Edmund Burke’s outlaw Irish relations.” During the long penal time (the British control) in Ireland, most messages were sent by word of mouth. What biographers and historians have to do is extrapolate through their imagination — from scraps for what is not recorded is lost. Then slowly quietly heroic individuals living their lives out as best they can emerge. Central to her argument was how these experiences of his Catholic relatives had an effect on Burke and led to his complicated political positions, and some of famous writing. Behind his Reflections on the French Revolution is his personal love of French society as he knew it in contrast to Irish. He could not help them, or not help them very much lest he risk his position and then no one would have anything; he would have to tell them this. At the same time he felt (rightly from the evidence) that his relatives were persecuted as a way of getting at him. If he acted too aggressively (including writing candid notes), his text might very well fall into the wrong hands.

She began her talk with setting the larger scene. A series of laws were passed in 1709 as a punishment to Jacobites: Catholics were banned from public office, teaching, inheriting land in a primogeniture fashion. It’s said Catholic worship was left alone, except when local magistrates chose to bother people, which they mostly did. The atmosphere of the Irish courts was very bad. Now Burke personally experienced the effects of the penal code. Growing up he saw much unhappiness between his mother and father; on the other hand, in the house of the Nagles, more prosperous Catholic relatives who served the Stuarts in France, he held his head up.

Professor Lambert then told detailed stories about Burke’s relatives and his inability to help them when they ran afoul of the penal laws and or were seditious. I can’t do justice to them either in tone or content, but can only indicate generally a couple of the experiences Burke was involved with or saw.

Garrett Nagle had abducted a Catholic woman and was accused of involvement with the White Boys; he had set up a school for one of his female relatives to teach in (many Catholics continued to maintain schools against the law). A second Nagle was accused of fomenting rebellion and was hanged, drawn and quartered. His aunt Mary went to France to be educated in a convent, and did not return for 18 years; she came back to Ireland and saw the wretched conditions of the poor, returned to her convent in France momentarily, but came out again to go to Cork and live and teach in a fine girl’s school alongside her brother Joseph. Mary lived a life outside the law and conventions. She supposedly kept her school a profound secret, but Charles James Fox had heard and came to visit and look round.

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The questions during the discussion were about female agency in the different papers. One person commented that if a woman becomes a mother and wants to live her life as a mother, there is no nunnery alternative. To this someone replied, she was studying mother figures in convent life. Finally, how does Lewis compare to Radcliffe when it comes to their depiction and treatment of women as such in their works. I’ve never read Castle Spectre and until now that he showed a callow misogyny (remember he was 19) when he wrote The Monk . one evil shot from a man who has gotten his high
Efforcite.

Finally as I did for my second report on the gothic, I want to add something that came to mind as I listened: women’s gothic poetry, specifically that of Amelia Opie (1769-1853), who began as a radical, anti-war, visionary poet and ended a Victorian writer known as a Quaker and unitarian. I thought of how her ethical novel dramatizing the miseries a young woman experiences when she decides she is against marriage and goes to live with a man without marrying him — is really about the daughter and her mother’s relationship (with the mother the destroyer), as seen in its subtitle: Adeline Mowbray; or, the Mother and Daughter (1804). She was briefly married to John Opie, the painter of theatrical portraits, who died young.

Two short poems:

To a Maniac

There was a time, poor phrensied maid,
When I could o’er thy grief have mourned,
And still with tears the tale repaid
Of sense by sorrow’s sway o’erturned.

But now thy state my envy moves:
For thou art woe’s unconscious prize;
Thy heart no sense of suffering proves,
No fruitless tears bedew thine eyes.

Excess of sorrow, kind to thee,
At once destroyed thy reason’s power;
But reason still remains to me,
And only bids me grieve the more.

To Winter

Power of the awful wind, whose hollow blast
Hurls desolation wide, thy sway I hail!
Thou o’er the scene around can’st beauties cast,
Superior far to aught that Summer’s gale
Can, in the ripening year, to bloom awake;
To view thy majesty, the cheerful tale,
The dance, the festive song, I, pleased, forsake;
And here, thy power and thy attractions own,
Now the pale regent of thy splendid night
Decks with her yellow rays thy snowy throne;
Richly her beams on Summer’s mantle light,
Richly they gild chill Autumn’s tawny vest
But, ah! to me they shine more chastely bright,
Spangling the icy robe that wraps thy breast.
(1795)

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Casper David Friedrich (1774-1840) Evening

Ellen

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Necromancer

Dear Friends,

This is my second record of the EC/ASECS meeting held last week at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: I’ve written about the meeting of the Burney Society on Thursday afternoon, Devoney Looser’s lecture on Burney’s Memoirs of Dr Burney and our dramatic reading aloud of Burney’s Witlings. Now I turn to Friday’s sessions.

The first session I attended , “The Eighteenth Century Gothic,” was notable for the unusual or relatively unknown novels and texts chosen as well as the rich suggestiveness of all the papers.

First up, was Madhuchhanda Ray Choudhury’s paper on The Necromancer, or the Tale of the Black Forest (1794) by Karl Friedrich Kahlert (recently published by Valancourt books; also available in a Folio Society edition, prefaced by Devandra Varma): “The Spectre, Spectacle and the Spectacular Redefined in The Necromancer.” This is one of the Northanger novels about which Michael Sadleir was the first to write insightfully.. Ms Choudhury argued that people read this book for its spectacle and that it reveals that the enlightenment did not reach deep into people.

It’s a novel about fraud. The necromancer uses the latest technologies of the era to seem to bring the dead back to earth to those who grieve for the loss of these people; we see him fooling victims in a forest and punished for exploiting the poor and ignorant and miserable by a brutal execution. Volkert is the necromancer’s name, and he is a consummate dramatist who is in effect producing shows and exploiting acting skills comparable to what was found in theaters of the era. Volkert claimed to be working from a book written in an ancient mystic language, and his audiences are made up of naive and frightened people.

James Boaden (the memoirist) recognizes the contemporary audience’s taste for terror, and suggests the audience resented the kinds of explanations Radcliffe would offer; the audience would resent and be disappointed by the rationales. They wanted to be fooled. Reviews at the time would moralize about these kinds of plays and novels (as did the novelists), but in fact we see that exposing the frauds in this novel does not lead to the audience blaming the necromancer; quite the contrary: the audience is indifferent to the exposure and feels sympathy for the fraudulent wizard. When Volkert is beheaded, he is treated like a martyr, a hero and his spells are valued for their eeriness. There is clearly intense pleasure in the macabre and bloodcurdling (so to speak) and Volkert regards himself as a genius. Very interesting is how the necromancer justifies himself; he says he does not regret having reached the dead; he did it for a just cause; spells are a manipulative tool which he uses to serve his community (!). He becomes a heroic figure in the book. Thus claims for any desire to be enlightened are undermined by this book.

OwensonMissionary

The second paper by David Fine was about Sydney Owenson’s The Missionary (1811): “Let me feel death and shame but once: Rethinking The Missionary’s Sensibility.” An alternate title is Luxima: the Prophetess (reprinted 1859). (It’s described by Nancy Paxton in her Writing Under the Raj: Gender, Race and Rape in the British Colonial Imagination, 1837-1947. where it’s described as the love story of Hilarion, a Franciscan missionary to india, and a beautiful Indian woman, Luxima.) Mr Fine argued that the novel engages the language of mystical experience, blurs lines often drawn between the self and others, vilifies the flesh and finds the roots of this vilification in false shame. Mr Fine felt the novel addresses political changes going on at the time; and while it attempts to recover and justify the cult of sensibility, it reinforces domination of individuals by those who can manipulate passion. Sensibility is far from freeing the individual from false norms of the establishment; sensibility imprisons people. The Portuguese missionary tries to convert Hilarion by using carnal love; she sees only the sacred in their experience, and the reader sees how her experience is rooted in the flesh.

Mr Fine suggested the emotion produced by this encounter simply replicates the environments the characters find themselves in. Mysticism (he said) can produce a rupture of the boundaries set between self and society normally.

(To me this analysis showed that whatever the novelist intended, her novel finally made an argument like Austen’s S&S, and those non-gothic novels hers is like, e.g., Jane West’s A gossip’s story, 1796.)

Southeywriting
Robert Southey writing by Edward Nash (1848)

The third paper by Elisa Beshero-Bondar was on Robert Southey’s Thalaba the Destroyer (1801, 1838); “Southey’s Gothic Science: Galvanism, Automata, and Heretical Sorcery.” Prof Beshero-Bondar suggested this poem had much in common with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818, 1831, partly by Percy Bysshe Shelley). Southey reveals the conflicts between gothicism and conventional beliefs; he merges natural philosophy (knowledge about electric bodies) with the gothic and Eastern and Western beliefs. (Southey’s apparently similarly iconoclastic poem, “The Curse of Kehama” is also dealt with at length by Nancy Paxton in her Writing Under the Raj.) She felt he was influenced by Humphry Davies’s and Thomas Beddoes’ experiments; Erasmus Darwin’s vitalist emphases in his poetry and Southey’s own travels to Portugal. At some level Southey was exposing false institutions, false religions and authorities grounded in customs and traditions. There is an assault on Islamic tenents, fatalism, submission to God. He was appropriating various models as a way of writing powerful poetry. He also anticipates his later conservatism in a questioning of the ideals of the 1790s. Cultural systems are shown to be oppressive fields, mechanisms of the powerful to control individuals.

The poem itself contains sorcerers defying God’s patterns, undermining contemporary codes of all sorts, dissecting corpses, adapting electrical energies in order to simulate the energies of the human soul. They construct a system of dynamic forces which triggers events and provides an elaborate simulacrum of the world. Some of the vocabulary and terms used are familiar to us today in some modern scientific fables (as I cannot get myself to read any of this kind of science fiction, cannot get my brain to process it as it seems to me so absurd I couldn’t really take down the parallels which seemed to be recognized by other people in the room). The events are not Godless; rather Southey modernizes Miltonic images of Satan to provide works of demon art. Electricity becomes a way of gaining power.

Prof Beshero-Bondar did not quote from the poem, but I add some lines from it from W. A. Speck’s Robert Southey: Entire Man of Letters; while Francis Jeffrey attacked the poem viciously, he did allow it had some beautiful lyrical passages:

How beautiful is night!
A dewy freshness fills the silent air;
No mist obscures, no little cloud
Breaks the whole serene of heaven:
In full-orbed glory the majestic moon
Rolls thro’ the dark blue depths.
Beneath her steady ray
The desert circle spreads,
Like the round ocean, girdled with the sky.
How beautiful is night!

romanticdrama
Anthology which includes Orra

The final paper of this panel was Melissa Wehler’s “Revising Ophelia: Joanna Baillie’s Orra and the Tradition of Madwomen.” Ms Wehler compared how Shakespeare’s Ophelia and Baillie’s Orra both progress from an aristocratic effective or socially viable woman to a mad person. It was the differences that interested her: Ophelia drowns herself, Orra brandishes her madness as a weapon. Orra rewrites her story. She summarized Foucault’s arguments in Madness and Civilization and suggested Orra’s madness was a way for her to escape imprisoning norms even if the result was a malign otherness.

Ms Wehler said Walter Scott disapproved of Orra as a character on the grounds she was no woman. Ms Wehler agreed, only she argued that this typology is conventional and she liked Baillie’s undermining of it. She compared Ophelia in her madness to Orra: Ophelia exemplifies conventional ideas about femininity; is tragically innocent, is a courtly, tender, distracted female, a spectacle for the male gaze demanding empathetic pity. In contrast, Orra is non-normative; madness provides inner sanctuary, the males around her cannot exploit her joys; they want to use her as a benevolent matriarch, but in her gothic madness she avoids all acceptable feminine types. Her posture is one of defiance and rebellion. So in a crucial moment (apparently) intense emotional distress leads to creativity.

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The discussion afterwards was intriguing and (to me) paradoxical. The intriguing part brought up fashionable ideas in scholarship nowadays: for example, that the gothic opens up a space for performance; it’s a way of framing “the other” safely for authors and audiences. Witches manipulate people it was said and so have agency; ghosts are usually not women (I don’t think that’s true). Someone suggested that men contact the supernatural and women don’t (again that’s not true). The thrust here was to say why Orra herself never has contact with the supernatural but has to find the supernatural within herself. There was also new information (for me). The Vashti character in Orra leads to Daniel Deronda’s mother. I picked up that Southey’s poem had a lot of analogies, archetypes and parallels with modern science fiction stories on TV and films and popular novels.

The paradox of the discussion seemed to me to be its disconnection with life. The people who were finding female agency in madwomen were people who knew that the way to find and keep ordinary power is to conform to expectations of other people and had done so to achieve their own successes. So there was a disjunction between their feminism for literary discussion and feminism for real.

For my part I suggested the material of The Necromancer anticipates the use of seances in the 19th century: early and frequent death was so common, the average person longed to reach lost beloved people (especially women who were continually impregnated and lost many children). It thus seemed to me not a fantastical book at all but one rooted in the kinds of longings A.S. Byatt dramatizes in her Angels and Insects. I also asked about the connections of The Missionary with other Anglo-Indian colonial novels. Hilarion tries to convert Luxima to Christianity; for her transgressive conduct, Luxima is continually threatened with abduction and rape; even though he never has sex with Luxima (since it’s sinful according to him), Hilarion is excommunicated; both nearly die in an auto-da-fe, but are saved; however, afterwards Hilarion is killed by a knife wound. The characters expose the cruelty of the power structure and perhaps the uselessness, amorality and hopelessness of an early justification for colonializing: converting people to Christianity.

I did not bring up a gothic novel we read on ECW (Eighteenth Century World at Yahoo) a couple of summers ago: Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland, or, The Transformation. There was not enough time (I had asked two questions already). But I would like to bring this one up here. While not one of the novels mentioned by Austen in her Northanger Abbey, it has many of the characteristics of these “horrid” novels and like The Necromancer, and Thabbala, it is set in Europe, uses pseudo-science and science; like The Missionary, it attacks powerful groups in society which exploit the poor and powerless. It also bolsters unconventional beliefs in the supernatural which comfort people. But it also dramatizes pathological states, incest, the breaking of bodily taboos, vampirism and is pitched to a high level of hysteria. See a fascinating article at Common Place: “The Awful Truth.”

Wieland
The hermits of Wissahickon Tabernacle, perhaps Brown’s inspiration for Father Wieland’s temple

So the novel is also highly individual, with quite a different set of obsessions and themes from the above relatively unread gothics today. So one thing this session showed was how little we can generalize about the gothic and or any of the “horrid” and sexy transgressive gothic texts, and how inadequately they are described most of the time.

Next up is a session which was also partly on the gothic in novels and real life: “The Seductive Menace: The Dangers of Popery; it included a play by Matthew Lewis, Sade’s Histoire de Juliette, Richardson’s Clarissa, and some real history of the oppression of Ireland.

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Abbie Cornish mothering Ben Whishaw as Keats and Fanny

Dear friends

Isabel and I went to see Jane Campion’s Bright Star yesterday and while I liked a few things in it, in general I found it disappointing to dismaying. That’s unusual for me, as I usually like costume dramas, historical and film adaptation types both. Part of my reaction might be the reaction of the audience we found ourselves surrounded by. This film resembles Shakespeare in Love, Becoming Jane, Miss Austen Regrets, and other movies about geniuses (see below) in its maudlin presentation of love and insistence love is the center of the writer’s life.

To begin with, the first half was over-wrought to the point of absurdity. In keeping with the recent propensity not to have any long speeches or scenes, the characters abruptly move into the most melodramatic confrontations at the beginning of Keats’s meeting with Fanny Brawne. It was ludicrous and improbable — not to omit a little hard to follow. This first part also included continual sops to the audience in the form of remarks by various characters making fun of reading, intellectual life, poetry, and reiterating how Keats doesn’t make any or not enough money. These were apparently intended to be funny, and there was some slapstick with some of them. They keep the audience around me tittering. This grated on me and I might have left but things began to improve around the time Fanny and Keats fall in love and especially when he gets sick to death. the conflict was apparently between Mr Brown, Keats’s friend and Fanny. He wanted to expose her as a hypocrite, and flighty; they were rivals for Keats’s friendship.

The problem then was there was no build-up. Since we were already nearly falling off a cliff of melodrama, it was hard to feel for Keats and took time. Towards the end of the movie all the undercutting sotto voce snideness went and the viewer was allowed to wallow in grief in peace. Not without other preachy remarks now and again about Keats’s lack of money as well as how when you have a strong will you can have everything and anything you want. This attitude was attributed to Fanny in some self-righteous scenes with one of the male characters said to be a friend of Keats’s, Browne, who impregnates a maid and then stays with her and has to support her (perhaps marries her, it’s not clear). (This reminded me of a movie about Aspergers with Hugh Dancy, Adam, I saw a few weeks ago: its subtext was also how really all the hero had to do was brighten up and go out there and be independent and all would be well.)

There is a feminist background to the movie. I read a long time ago (when a graduate student). W.J. Bates’s Life of Keats and I remembered him reporting how badly Fanny fared in talk after Keats’s death. I have in my house a much shorter biography by Gittings where he tells of how after Fanny’s death she was treated with much condescension in the scholarship: she is called a shallow flirt, caring only for clothes, and cold to Keats to some extent. They never did have full sexual intercourse. In the movie this Fanny is endlessly sewing and we are asked to believe the spectacular outfits we see her in continually (one a scene practically) we all made by herself. She also is no reader and lies to Browne when first meeting Keats to pretend she has read a good deal. Nonetheless, or despite these egregious faults (which in the movie are not seen as faults at all), she is presented very strongly positively. Indeed the movie is about her, not Keats. Here again there is a lack. She has no interest but loving Keats and silently sewing. I began to wonder why Campion had made this movie.

I did note the strange intertitle at the end which tells the audience she wore Keats’s ring for the rest of her life and liked to walk in their favorite park wood. Not that she never married. Given the over-the-top romance, I thought to myself she must’ve married. And indeed she did, a Sephardic Jewish man after her mother and brother died, and lived abroad until the last 5 years of her life when she returned to England and when she died was buried in Brompton Cemetery.

I wondered where Keats’s sister had gotten to. None of his family was anywhere to be seen. We heard about his work in the hospital but it was nowhere in this movie. But my real complaint was the same one I have with most biopics of writers’ lives: Becoming Jane, Shakespeare in Love (the title says it all), Miss Austen Regrets, Mozart something-or-othered; in science one sees this too: in Infinity Feynman’s life is presented out of the perspective of the five year period he was married and through the lens of his first wife’s death from TB. Apparently the popular wider audience wants to believe that writers write out of love for someone and that love dominates all; if women, it’s a man’s thoughts which inspire them (Austen was inspired by LeFroy); if men, it’s a woman and sex. In a study of classical biographies (of Euripides, Sophocles), Mary Lefkowitz shows that popular biographies of writers in particular show how unhappy such people are, a kind of revenge and resentment mode. We do see Keats writing but we never heard any intelligent conversation about books or get any sense what a rhythm of a real writer’s life or the real obstacles (remember Connolly’s Enemies of Promise) are.

The best thing about it was Ben Whishaw’s reading of Keats’s letters and poems. There was much voice-over and he reads very well. And Abbie Cornish has a body, she is not anorexic. But then what was wanted was Keats should look frail and near death.

I’ve liked Campion’s movies before: the one on James’s novel, The Piano, an earlier one on Janet Frame. But I know too she tends to be overpraised (even when her movies disappear from theatres inside one weekend). She must have a lot of friends (as opposed to Bogdanovich who never seems to get any praise at all).

Ellen Moody

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FrancesdArblay1811
Frances d’Arblay (Fanny Burney), 1811, artist unknown

Dear Friends,

Jim and I returned from the East Central ASECS at Bethlehem this past Sunday, having had a rejuvenating time. We met old friends, made some new ones, I heard some (to me) wonderfully interesting papers and took part in lively sessions, we walked about Bethlehem, and participated in a reading of Fanny Burney’s comic play, The Witlings, and read aloud poetry during the evening of the Oral/Aural experience under the direction of Peter Staffel. This play was chosen, and I have put a relatively unknown image of Fanny Burney d’Arblay in middle age because the Burney Society joined in with our small 18th century society, and thus a number of people gave papers on topics connected to Burney in some way. I’ve no doubt that I found most of the papers I heard for once of real interest to me because they were there, and all of these (yes, all) were excellent. I wish the Burney Society would join in with EC/ASECS more often, and now am torn over next year when on the weekend before EC/ASECS meets (the first in November), the Burney Society will again join in with JASNA in Portland, Oregon (Halloween) to talk of and celebrate (most appropriately) Austen’s sanguine gothic, Northanger Abbey. Can I go for two weekends in a row?

As I’ve done before, I’m going to type out my notes for those papers I heard and sessions I joined in on and enjoyed, with the difference that this time I shall only record one session at a time (per blog). I like to make these records for then I remember the sessions and they become much more useful to me, but have found it an arduous struggle to get down what happened. If I do only a session at a time, it will make each stint of work much easier. If I can get myself to follow this pattern, I’m more likely to keep this up, plus it will be less for interested readers to read each time.

So tonight I begin with Devoney Looser’s lecture on Thursday late afternoon (it was around 4:30 pm by the time she began), “An Elderly Lady with No Remains of Personal Beauty.”

Her title derives from an often-quoted line from a sketch Walter Scott wrote in his diary in 1826. Burney or Madame D’Arblay was then 74. He saw her on November 18th, and also wrote that she had “simple and gentle manners,” and “particularly quick feelings.” Unlike other women writers of the era, Burney never sat for her portrait when she was older and so we have nothing to set against Scott’s words which reveal him to be steeped in preconceptions of what female beauty and manners should be when a woman grows old: innocuous, uncomplicated, over-emotional, easy to please, soft-hearted, maternal. Definitely not a repository of wisdom and experience.

Burney was unusual for having carried on writing into middle and very late old age, e.g., The Wanderer (1814), The Memoirs of Charles Burney (1832) and of course her journals going up to 1840; by doing so, she was defying stereotypical expectations as did Maria Edgeworth when she wrote her novel, Helen (1834). Now in just about all the biographies of Burney, her later years are given short shrift; for example, Harman (a rare writer to give any amplitude to Burney’s old age), has only two chapters out out of fourteen for the years 1818-1840 (Burney was born in 1752). Dobson’s older book covers 48 years of Burney’s life in very few pages. Yes her most read and remembered books, Evelina (1777-8) and Cecilia (1782) come from earlier in her life, and Camilla helped shelter and support her and D’Arblay.

CamillaCottage
Fanny’s husband’s sketch plan of an interior for Camilla Cottage

But like all of us who live into middle and old age, she did important things for herself and others later too.

Professor Looser wants to do justice to these older years — not only for Burney but other women. She recently published a book, women Writers and Old Age in Great Britain, 1750-1850 (it includes a chapter on Anna Barbauld too), and her lecture was an elaboration of a section from her chapters on Burney. Between the years 1820 and 1830 Burney wrote 5 volumes of The Memoirs of Charles Burney, and Prof. Looser argued it has much to recommend it: we see her concept of authorship by that time, her sense of herself as an older woman, and in the hostile reception it got what she was up against.

This biography of her father has been described mostly negatively. It is a book where she is consciously preoccupied with old age, and includes a proud self-defense. She first began it in 1797 from her father’s own journal; she thought this journal was not publishable because filled with “irrelevant” and “mischievous” information (probably in reality just what we might most want to know, the politics of the music world and his worlds of family and friends). So she “burnt it as fast as she reread it.” She turned her father into an exemplary figure and instead of focusing on him, she retells her own life. We lern (once again) of the genesis of Evelina, how it became a tremendous hit, something of her time before she entered the court (writing Cecilia) and again afterwards up to The Wanderer. Using a third person narrative, she creates a distanced portrait of two elderly figures: the aged father and the memoirialist. She is seeking some way to represent herself.

Reading the book today, Prof Looser found a character sketch filled with tenacious information, good memory, sagacity. Burney had been silent for 20 years. She describes herself as trembling with anxiety. Maria Edgeworth was among those bothered by the amount of self-reference, and Prof Looser suggests Burney’s presence is called attention to because she chose to use the 3rd person. In 1806 in her Memoirs of Colonel Hutchinson, also an autobiography disguised as the memoir of a male relative, Lucy Hutchinson found favor: she used the “I” simply and directly. In a way she sets up a competition between her father at 80 and herself: he has a poor memory, and she a good one. But she also includes information about the old age of other people, e.g., Samuel Johnson and Mary Delaney. Delaney becomes a double for herself: unimpaired intellect, contented, competent to the end.

MrsDelany
Mary Delany in old age, portrait by John Opie

When we look to see what Burney said of herself, we find she does not describe herself physically; she talks of her father’s decay but not of any illness of her own. Other women did describe themselves physically (for example, Sarah Siddons), tell of their illnesses. Fanny describes the agonized death of her husband, while Hester Thrale Piozzi describes both her husband’s death and her own old age. (Obviously throughout her life Piozzi was more willing to show herself to be unconventional than Burney.) Prof Looser thought that Burney wanted to create a portrait of herself against history and inside her family group.

While she did receive some strong praise for this last book (and her career in general), she was attacked by reviewers with a virulence strong even for this acrimonious era. The attacks had a personal feel: she was called a “senile egoist.” John Wilson who made his living by writing needling poisonous banter spent 29 pages of vitriol on Burney’s Wanderer and Memoir; sexist, ageist, his technique is to slash at her by finding tiny errors; an anal garrulous old woman who he writes about as if she were dead already.

Women were apparently supposed to spend their last years frivolously, reading, and if they must write, writing only “charming” pieces, as they prepare for death.

Scott was behind some of this. Prof Looser thought that Scott’s son-in-law, Lockhart had encouraged Wilson, having perhaps been himself encouraged by his father-in-law. (Prof Looser did not mention this, but in his biography Sutherland tells us it was Scott who got Wilson the job, Scott who encouraged Wilson and his son-in-law, Lockhart to be merciless to any one not strongly Tory in outlook.)

Fanny appeared to take this and other attacks in her stride, and a few months assured her favorite niece, Charlotte Barrett (the one who first published her great-aunt’s diaries) she was not bothered, but she was. Her son, Alexander, wrote a reply on behalf of his mother, but it was not published.

AlexanderdArblay
The only surviving portrait we have of Fanny’s son, from 1815

Charlotte wrote one too, and it also was not published. It was Macaulay’s view that Burney had nothing to gain by arguing with Wilson; that her books would live on and thus she would defy him. But her niece did not like that her reputation would be framed at the last as vain and old. Her aunt had been hurt and had not forgotten what was said, and it may be said that in the 1840s Macaulay’s famous favorable sketch of Burney (which served as a preface to Barrett’s edition of her aunt) was also meant an effective silencer of Wilson.

CharlotteBarrett
A photograph of Charlotte Barrett in old age, probably from 1860s

After Prof Looser finished her lecture, there was some discussion of the way women in this era often don’t discuss their own physical characteristics; they avoid talking of their bodies. We also discussed how women’s subjective point of view is not sympathized with, especially when they use it to frame history or records or present it too strongly.

I came up to Prof Looser after the session was over and she said there can’t be any questions that are “too late.” I wanted to make a suggestion about any changes she might make or want to add to her book, British Women Writers and the Writing of History, 1670-1820. She had tried to expand our definition of history from those that look like men’s (Catherine Macauley’s) to fictional history novels. But I think we need to develop a whole new paradigm, one which has a subjective frame. I told her about Sarah Vowell’s travel memoir cum-history, Assassination Vacation, which I think is quintessentially women’s sort of history.

What Vowell does is go in search of history as part of her vacation and meditation on places she dwells in. Men do not write personal memoirs like this to talk about history. It’s this use of content to make a new form of genre that is so striking, and to me the scholars who write about earlier history by women are barking up the wrong tree. We have to stop judging by male criteria (which is often disingenuous when it comes to history and biography writing, pretending to more objectively than there can be). Since women’s books don’t even try to fit, we end up filling the space with women’s novels. We need to re-think how women write history the way Deborah Cherry re-thought how women paint and what they paint and their genres in the 19th century and Paula Backscheider thought about how women write poetry, make new genres, and have careers. That matters.

In scholarly works women scholars try to deal with how women write history and have problems even defining the genre since they often write in untraditional ways. Recently I read a book by Wm McCarthy on Hester Thrale Piozzi whose late history, Retrospective is just such a subjective history. It was ridiculed and attacked so at the time she never published again. It’s a treatment of history from a personal vantage — as is really Austen’s hilariously candid and boldly personal squib mocking Goldsmith’s History of England, as in

Oh! what must this bewitching Princess [have felt ' when informed that Elizabeth had given orders for her death'] whose only freind was then the Duke of Norfolk, and whose only ones are now Mr. Whitaker, Mrs Lefroy, Mrs Knight & myself …

Prof Looser liked the idea.

And then it was time for drinks and dinner. AFterwards a group of us acted out The Witlings — about which see the comments.

In my next blog I’ll tell of the first session on Friday morning on the 18th century gothic.

Ellen

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Dear Friends,

I write this from two perspectives. I’ve begun reading about real and fictional rapes towards my paper for the coming ASECS conference: “What right have you to detain me here: Rape in Richardson’s Clarissa, and so I look at it as it was experienced and is talked about (turned into a sort of fiction).

I also treat it to make a sequel to my blog on the realities of American life as reflected in Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story.” Were Moore to treat of rape, he’d include it in a movie on job interviews in a vile society. For the source of the situation was that the girl’s mother wanted to get her a job on one of Polanski’s movies. Perhaps I should call this my sequel; instead of to a Jane Austen book, I prose episodes that could occur in Michael Moore movie about Capitalism.

I’ll begin with Katha Pollitt’s eloquent statement that as Polanski did this cruelly abusive act, he ought to be punished for it at least to the extent of standing in a courtroom and serving what would have been his sentence. He drugged and anally raped twice a young adolescent girl. I incline strongly towards Pollitt’s point of view.

But what also attracts my attention also are the social details of the rape: that (as it’s suggested but maybe this is Rumor) the mother was looking for a position for her daughter this way, that Angelica Huston was in the house and looked at this girl and declared her “sullen” and so did nothing. And of course as Pollitt says what he could have done and gotten away with (beyond say the sadism of two anal intercourses and the drugging of her). Remember Clarissa who was drugged, held down by cold aggressive women, and then we are not told what:

and then such scenes followed — oh my dear, such dreadful scenes! — fits upon fits (faintly indeed and imperfectly remembered) procuring me no compassion –

Jim said what he noticed and made him laugh was the rhetorical question: “hasn’t he suffered enough?”

There is not only the real story but also the discourses on the Net and the way the story is presented. For example, the woman’s name is rarely mentioned nor her mother’s. This old-age trend continues and I like to see the woman’s wishes not to be at the center of a circus respected. She did mention her mother in one sentence I saw that was a quotation from something she recently said. She wished her mother also to be left alone. Perhaps there we may hope the mother has felt terrible remorse and regret, but (alas) I have learned that people do not always admit to themselves their fault or even attempt to change the values that led them there. Indeed they go on about how others follow these values and it was natural …&c&c. The woman who now wants it silenced, who is so ashamed, was paid off (needed the money doubtless, I hope it was big enough sum to change her life in some way; I’ve read half a million).

So (at risk here of being misunderstood or angering people), there are elements in Pollitt’s argument I don’t agree with and want to elaborate why. To be specific, it fits into Michael Moore’s portrait of the desperate nature of capitalist societies where no one takes any responsibility for anyone else and what joins us all is sheer money; that we discard and use one another at will, and let this happen, admire it. This is the context my blog emphasizes.

Let us begin with the defense of Polanski by all his movie-mates. From what I’ve learned personally (from my older daughter’s experiences seeking jobs in theatre, and from friends), sexual demands and harassment are common. It’s par for the course. That nasty or ruthless (or whatever word you want to use). She was a technical person seeking a job in Manhattan, and found herself taken back to a male’s apartment and harrassed for sex. She was in her mid-20s. The job was one where she would not be paid enough to live and where union rules would exclude such as she from even hanging curtains. She realized not to be thrown out of the theatre groups to which he belonged to she would have to not insult him, and try to get out of the apartment without quarrelling. In the event, she didn’t give him the sex he wanted, and got another job through a contact who begged and begged it for her from a “friend” who owed her a favor.

So let us imagine the morning-after scene now. It’s probable that when this guy, Polanski, got up the next morning, he didn’t think much about what he had done. It was common, nothing different from he and so many others might do and seems not to have been regarded as at all out of the way in Nicholson’s house. The mother got the girl up for her job interview (I hope my sardonic sarcasm is picked up here, for I mean it savagely). He had sex with the girl he hired for a couple of other movies at the time; Repulsion one of them. I show Bogdanovich’s Daisy Miller regularly: the chief actress was the director’s mistress at the time.

The girl for Repulsion fits my suggestion better for she was a young teenager. Polanski was having sex with her during all the time he was filming her as this distressing disturbed teenage woman whom the director was showing us with such compassion.

These movie-people are supporting their unacknowledged way of life.

Had the girl not gone to the police, we would know nothing. Most girls don’t go to the police. Everyone now take down your Brownmiller (remember Against Our Will?) from the shelf and read her response to Matthew Hale who famously said “it must be remembered, it an accusation easliy made and hard to be proved,”

“since four out of five rapes go unreported, it is fair to say categorically that women do not find rape an accusation either easy to be made”

Full stop.

I am suggesting such scenes might go on a lot and the girls don’t complain, don’t go to the police, and still go on. What everyone does. Angelica Huston is quoted (hilariously — again I am sardonic) as complaining the “girl was sullen.” not a good sport like good old Angelica who knew the score in getting a part.

What goes on to get jobs is not much put into print. Especially lately (again I’m joking in my harsh way). This was a job interview, folks, is what Whoopee Goldberg doesn’t want to acknowledge openly, and hey, anyone who wants to enter our privileged and rich way of life has to pay their dues.

Yeah.

In Nancy Paxton’s Writing under the Raj: Rape, Race, and Gender in the Colonialist Imagination, 1837-1947, she defines rape as “not the invariable consequence of biologically determined male aggression” (a way of excusing and saying it cannot be stopped), but rather “as the consequence of a complex process in particular places which prompts individual men to act out their gender, sexuality, desire and bodily impulses in this violent way.” The general social environment, stories and understood norms and justifications in effect encourage (or don’t encourage) rape. Data show that the incident of rape goes up in environments when cultural configurations encourage interpersonal violence, male dominance and sexual separation. (Not a digression so much as another example: one can see this in the horrors of fraternity rapes; the books to read her are Fraternity Gang Rape, Sex, Brotherhood and Privilege on Campus by Peggy Reeve Sanday; also Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut by Emily White, which latter could be my partial autobiography, about which I’ll add a comment to thsi blog tonight.)

So in this vile society where there are so few good jobs, and these protected within coteries and cliques, this is “just rape” and Goldberg said so articulately, not “rape rape” you understand.
And where is any discouse against the macho maleness of the behavior, the aggression, competition: Polanski is a success not because he’s a movie genius.

To conclude on a final train of thought: Just before ending, Pollitt suggests it’s nothing (or very little) for Polanski to come back to the US and have his day in court, and that he ought to, as if courtroom scenes occur in vaccuum, are some kind of ideal experience where such a thing as justice cleanly meted out.

A few minutes thought may suggest this is not so. Thus at the time when he fled, I understood why: it was said the judge was going to ignore his confession of guilt, statement about remorse, and plea-bargain, and put him in jail just about for life (the girl’s age connects the crime to pederasty which electrifies people into horror); well, now again although I think he should be punished, I understand why he doesn’t want to return. Thirty years later the religious fanaticism of the US is stronger yet, we have now an array of bogeyman talk shows where hatred and fear are whipped up regularly; who knows what “contempt of court” could lead to, or if the case would be tried again and so on.

We’ll see what happens to him if and when he comes back. I suspect a group of people in Switzerland took him in because they were making up to the US for their secretive ways over banking. He’s a sop handed over — again not for his crime. oftentimes we can find people justly punished but when we look at why the punishment happened, those who did it had many other motives (their careers), and those in the courtroom yet further ones.

People suggesting what they would desire to happen to Polanski ought to remember that 1) he pleaded guilty to a lesser offense, unlawful sex with a minor and it was accepted. That’s the charge.

On 1) one of his sets of lawyers are working to have the California judge’s response dismissed as misconduct.

And 2) his other set of lawyers are working in Switzerland to have the extradition charges dropped. Their argument is about custody.

You need to read what’s happening and what the case will be judged on — unless the whole can of worms can be opened again and then (as I said in my first email) justice does not occur in a vaccum. It does remind me of how the context in which Ezra Pound’s case occurred changed what happened to him to become grossly injust.

Not to say he won’t get off. Remember OJSimpson — and he chopped her and the man with her into bits and there was even a record of his violent abuse with the police listening and his blood sample on the glove. I don’t know enough about what contempt of court comprises and what could be the punishment for 30 years contempt. I don’t know enough about retrying cases — which I notice that many who write about this case on the Net and elsewhere do not bring up :)

I hope I have not tiresomely said the obvious. I have wanted to present the actual event, its context and how it’s discussed to suggest how badly our society works .. full of sound and fury and signifying as the poet said, now what did he say?. This is not only a case of a man with a lot of friends, it’s a case of a man with a lot of money.

Ellen

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MooretalkingtoCrowd
Moore talking to a gathering crowd (from Capitalism)

Dear Friends,

On Sunday, Izzy and I went to see Michael Moore’s strong film, Capitalism: A Love Story. I understand that numbers of people have been saying it’s like Moore’s early film, Roger and Me, which statement is meant to imply the two are similar in mood and techniques, i.e., both are folksy (Will Rogers updated to a chubby man in jeans and baseball cap).

Not so. Moore returns to the fundamental thesis of Roger and Me that in order for societies to operate with stability and security, all people must recognize and act on their obligations to one another. This is precisely what is not done in the US under the present unmitigated, unpalliated capitalism; thus it causes horrific human suffering and evil. Roger refuses to recognize he has any obligations to his workers (i.e., me or Moore). However, the way this thesis is exemplified (the kinds of scenes we see) and argued (the line of argument) is quite different. More importantly, the mood or tone of the film is grim
and I think towards the end (as have others) has a strain of despair, genuine hopelessness. The subtitle of his film should be the destruction of once somewhat decent socially-responsible society. For my non-US readers, it seems to me what he is showing is what has been happening in the UK and other places influenced by US corporate state.

Let me begin with its strengths. As with previous films and indeed most films, the pictures, the stills, and how a scene projects an important truth visually and orally. One that stays in my mind is when a group of workers demonstrate and someone calls out and others start to repeat: shame on you, shame on you, shame on you. When we see a family who have been foreclosed upon, working as garbage collectors and burners for the corporation which threw them out because they cannot find any other job. A scene of people thrown out of their jobs, with no pay, told there will be no pension, of course now without hearth care as part of an explicit line of argument which shows the corporation which told them this has as its top officers people who took huge bonuses this year after Obama gave them part of a 700 million to stay in business.

The line of argument is not as strong as Bowling with Columbine (which in my view is the best of Moore’s films thus far) as its basically has no parts, which attach it to other subsidiary themes (as did this movie on violence and gun-selling and buying the US). It’s just reiterated how this total lack of responsibility of people towards one another outside the narrowest of family groups doesn’t work, as it’s a recipe for a huge majority (say 90%) of the people going down in abjection.

But Moore does retell history right. He begins in the right place: Reagan, not a hero, but a puppet for lies and legislation which began the 30 plus year old grind down of the lower and now middle middle class of the US plus the destruction of unions. Before Reagan, the very wealthy paid as much as 90% of their luxury income in taxes; we see how this money went to build schools, roads, and so on, and did not at all deprive the very wealthy of very luxurious lives indeed. Their taxes were brought down repeatedly over the next decades (with a small blip upwards during the Clinton era), and all social programs cut drastically.

Moore doesn’t specify an important part of this began in Carter’s era: Carter was the first to destroy the large Federal government service which provided huge numbers of people in this country with decent jobs. My whole family and Jim’s were prosperous because based on a degree and taking a test (the merit system) they could get a job by filling out a 171: Jim’s father, mine, Jim, all worked for the federal government in this way. My mother has the small pension she has because for a short while she worked for NYC which ran the same way. Carter turned the higher grades into the coterie and clique systems of private industry though, and by the 1990s, there were no more 171s, thousands and thousands of jobs had been outsourced, the pension system cut to ribbons. (No one in government today can get the decent, not big, but enough, pension Jim has until he dies and 3/4s of which I get if he should predecease me.) It’s this kind of subsidiary argument one finds in Columbine. Partly he is too grim to stop to show nuances.

He concentrates on the visible: the foreclosures, the dead towns, the losses of jobs, the bad jobs on offer. He shows how graft and corruption and privatizing led (for example) in Pennsylvania to a judge colluding with a rich man to put hundreds of teenagers aware to a cruel prison for months and months for minor infractions. We see the teenagers on film and a little of that horrific prison. It’s now closed and the man in jail but it went on for a long time. Public eyes do not look into private jails.

The visible includes the people high in corporations who hold central positions in government now and then. About the middle of the film and towards the end, he makes it plain that Obama’s government is as full of these people as Reagan’s. It also includes votes in the congress where first the congress refused to give a hugh million dollar subsidy to the corporations (listening to how the letters from US citizens were pouring in against it), and how then in a few week back-room deal it was done anyway. This under Bush. He cannot resist film clips of Bush fils; I regret he didn’t include any of Obama with some of the same people.

As with Fahrenheit 9/11 and Sicko, things are not sufficiently linked together or fully explained. We are not old that congress was unable to stop foreclosures because banks stopped it as foreclosures are the most convenient way for them to cope with people who can’t pay — all other ways might have cost them money. He does though include someone telling us what Jim told me has been happening: the mortgages that were bought and sold were so often bundled back and forth and no one cared about them but the profits of buying and selling that the original documents for individual mortgages are often not findable. If this is the case with someone’s mortgage, the bank cannot foreclose. What’s been happening is lawyers are beginning to get this message out to people and they are beginning to succeed in staying in their houses and paying no one because it’s no longer documentable who owns the mortgage (or house). We see airline pilots who make $19,000 or $20,000 a year for full-time dangerous jobs who work part-time after that and who consequently sometimes get into accidents — but he does not tell us these are regional pilots and how the whole airline system has been destroyed by de-regulation, and he does not go after how the profit motive cannot support all industries as a standard.

The weaknesses are the usual ones. Absurd naivete in which Moore looks at the US constitution and cannot find anything about capitalism in it. Him looking dumb and puzzled as someone tries to explain derivatives to him — and we never then get an explanation, and it’s not that hard. Paul Solomon can manage it in less than 5 minutes on Lehrer. He talks to priests who tell us capitalism is evil. We hear how ugly and bad greed is as a central value. It is a weakness too (I think) that he doesn’t look right anymore in his adolescent boy’s outfit. He’s too old and too heavy.

He does dress basically in black and is seen alone with no crew around him for the first time. In the other movies, he was part of his filming group. Now we don’t see them: they are made a joke of as when he tells a guard they can’t understand what the guard is saying as they speak Spanish only. Not seeing them, seeing him alone and in sombre colors is part of the film’s grimness. He does have a joke-rescue sequence which reminded me of Sicko: there he is seen with his crew and five sick people headed out for Cuba where they are taken care of. In this film he charges around Wall Street in a vehicle which looks like the kind of vehicle police use for arrests. He has come to make a citizens’ arrest, and demands the bankers return the millions they have stolen from the public. He wraps buildings in yellow tape, take a horn and shouts at the building that the people in them should come down to be arrested. In his previous films such moments had a certain merriment (like the plane flying up in the sky filled with Saudi Arabians later in the day on 9/11 accompanied by strains of “We got to get outta this place if it’s the last thing we ever do).

Why the despair feeling? Because at the end of the film Moore asserts that more people will fight back now that the one union group which wrested its compensation pay back from the company (to make them go away as the spectacle was attracting sympathetic and respectful attention), and clearly doesn’t believe it. Groups of people holding up signs do not make a government fall; they are not paid attention to unless a channel films them and plays the film, and then misunderstood unless the voice-over tells the story right.

More: because of Obama. In an interview with Naomi Klein of The Nation on this film, Moore is quoted as saying that if Obama does not soon keep his promises to make fundamental change on behalf of the average person, he will have done worse to progressive causes than anyone in the last 30 years because the hope he aroused will be bitterly destroyed, and no huge groups of people will again come out to work for someone with little money. And he admits little has been done to keep these promises.

I’ll list them. Moore does not, only shows us how the people running important departments (treasury) are those who ran them under Clinton and made huge sums in corporate jobs, e.g., Larry Summers. What we get is a clip of one of Roosevelt’s last speeches presenting a bill of rights he wants to see the American people have which include decent jobs for all, decent educations, a place to live, health care and so on.

So, what has Obama not done which he insinuated he would do in his speeches before he was elected: no fundamental reform on health care, no jobs program (whatsoever, with no mention anywhere on TV by any commentator), no building of the nation’s infrastructure; Guantanomo bay is not closed; torturers will not be exposed nor prosecuted (and the only way to keep torture down is to make the people who do it think to themselves, I don’t want to go to Levenworth and tell that to their boss), nor even fined (so they are rich), no change for extending education for students without harsh loans and interest. The easy things that can be put as goals have been changed, e.g., in favor of women’s health and control of their bodies, but no money put to help them at all. Worse yet: Obama has extended the war in Iraq and is taking seriously the general who wants to extend it in Afghanistan and now Pakistan. Who is he protecting? Even on Lehrer tonight one conservative think-tank women pointed out that the so-called “cleansing” of terrorist “pockets” in Pakistan meant displacement of thousands of peoples and is now a humanitarian crisis about which nothing has been done.

Obama is not a sadistic monster and hypocrite as was Bush, nor is he heading the kind of reformation of the state which Reagan and after him Bush 1, and then Clinton (with his destruction of welfare for women, and NAFTA) carried on. But a decent man would not begin to make fundamental change to stop wasting a large majority of people’s lives for the sake of making the few yet more privileged; Lyndon Baines Johnson did that with his “great society” programs and “war on poverty,” and medicare and medicaid and civil rights bill.

Obama is behaving as a bad man when he comes on the TV on Sunday and promulgates vague programs which are no different from Reagan’s rhetoric; he is behaving as a bad man when he spends time to seriously consider extending war. He could have changed the terms of discussion when he first came into office; the democratic party behind him was poised. He didn’t. And the result is when he promises not to give health care to people illegally here (calling them aliens) he is hissed and called a liar.

He has betrayed the people who voted him in. He hob nobs with bankers and will retire with a rich pension. Jim says no one should be surprised. Obama sees himself as rewarded by this social order; why, then, should he think it needs serious change?
If you act, talk, and lie (not tell any truths, protect evil, present false accounts of what’s happening), like a bad man, you are a bad man (on the old analogy of if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck).

Moore’s film is not about the history he tells somewhat inadequately and it’s not about the specifics he shows so much as the increasing impoverishment of the US and (as his Sicko) increasing burdens of frightening debt (with collectors after people) right now. Like his other films, it’s meant to the moment.

I’ll conclude with a conversation I had with a man who owns and runs a petfood and paraphernalia store in my neighborhood. I am a long-term adjunct and have for many years experienced the stigmatizing, low salary, no benefits, powerlessness that has spread everywhere in the US. But recently — let say’s in the last 5 years or so — something new has been added to shut everyone up. As I stood paying for my cat food, we began to chat as since buying my cats over a year ago I’v become a regular customer.

I referred generally to a couple of bad experiences I’d had lately where I was being coerced into doing something I knew was not to my interest; to this he responded that increasingly people who sell cats won’t sell them individually. They demand you buy two. I said I thought it’s kind to remember that cats are lonely all day alone, but that if they won’t sell one individually what will happen is less cats will be bought (the euphemism is adopted). Vets charge huge sums; I was fleeced for $246 for half an hour of a vet’s time to give my two cats what I was told were needed rabies shot. A pretense was made at examining them at ten minutes a piece. Each thing I do costs me twice as much because I have two cats. (Garrison Keillor’s very funny parody of the health care debate as for a Public Pet Option played upon this reality.) He agreed. I said something about how this was done to give the person no choice, and he said yes, we are now in a very controlling society.

The experiences I had were basically that what was offered or what I was given to interact with was set up in such a way as to take all power and information from me. The purpose was to prevent me from costing anyone any money and to keep the profit level of the company as high as possible. It’s easier to do this now with the way phones are set up, and increasingly places on the web practice the old exclusionary practices of physical life. You have to be able to walk away and then you must do without whatever the person had that you wanted or needed.

(Continued in the comment).

Ellen

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MehtaFire
Sita (Nandita Das) and Radha (Shabana Azmi), Deepa Mehta’s Fire

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Jules (Keira Knightley) and Jess (Parminder Nagra), Gurinder Chadha’s Bend it Like Beckham

Dear Friends,

This is a continuation of my previous blog on Indian films: I dealt with Lagaan, Bombay, Guru, included comments on Mississippi Masala and Charulata, with links to Water and Before It Rains; instead of adding yet more comments, particularly since one of my readers complained about the length of the post, I thought I’d make a separate one for the work of Deepa Mehta and Gurinda Chadha, especially since the tabooed theme of lesbianism unites these two films.

I spent Thursday afternoon watching Gurinder Chadha’s Bend it Like Beckham after having read Ratna Kapur’s essay on the firestorm (pun intended) and controversy and violent demonstrations aimed at Deepa Mehta’s Fire, “The Cultural Politics of Fire” — as well as several other essays on Indian films, especially the South Asian, and especially considered from a cultural studies, sexual, & censorship point of view. I here bring this altogether to argue that lesbianism it seems is one of the ‘red flags’ for those who are for male hegemony; just before bluestockings (also a target for rabid cruel attacks). Both kinds of women appear to do without men, not seek families as the center of their existence, find much more personally fulfilling substitutes.

The revealing thing about Bend It Like Beckham, which (like Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice and Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala blends American or a Hollywood style film with Indian motifs) is that no one spoke of the subtextual and sometimes over central themes about homosexuality in the film. Here in the US we are supposed to have an open society: there were no riots; indeed the film garnered popular audiences, but mum was the word about this aspect of what was alluring.

The young Bengali man that the Bengali heroine, Jess (Parminder Nagra)’s parents want her to marry, and who does love her (as a brother or friend), Tony (Ameet Chana) is an unacknowledged homosexual. Jules (a boy’s name for Juliette as played by Keira Knightley) is mistaken for a boy when Jess kisses her. Jess is short for Jessminder, and Jess can be a boy’s name in the US.
Tony does tell Jess he’s gay but he swears her to tell no one else, especially the parents. At the end of the film Jess comes out for truthfulness in front of their Indian parents: when Tony attempts to help her take up an offered athletic scholarship in the US by claiming he and she are engaged and will marry when she returns from the US, she says “no.” That’s not so. She really wants the freedom to travel and live away and there is no guarantee she will be back to marry and live in the Bengali way. But neither she or Tony tells the parents, nor indeed anyone else.

I liked Bend It Like Beckham far more than I thought I would. I had not liked Bride and Prejudice very much: I saw its skillful art, beautiful dancing, and the wonderfully satiric proto-feminist and other songs. But it was silly and had other characteristics like Bend it. Both grated on and off and it took a lot of patience for me not to shut it off. Chadha’s sense of humor is (to me) awful; she invites us to laugh at what should make us pity someone or grow angry at outrageous accepted bullying; she finds obtuseness and social cruelties funny. One might say she is tolerant, but there is a line I’d draw when I feel the vulnerable suffering and Chadha dismisses intangible hurts. They do count, and at any rate I’m not amused. Like Bride and Prejudice, Bend It is very noisy; Jim agreed and said he could hear the decibel level in the front room.

She is all for “winners” (words like “whining” are used for justified protests or unhappiness, though she is too canny to use “losers” for those not so socially and in other ways most admire successful). Chadna’s films are incessantly upbeat in the worst way: all of us can have it all it seems. At least the male coach, Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) at the end though of course offered the high big place coaching men for soccer, decides to stay where he is with women: he wants to be a big fish in a littler pond and on the “cutting edge” of sexual politics (lest we think he wouldn’t go for the biggest prize in the room).

Worst of all, in Bend It, the husbands and fathers are all wise, and we are to laugh at mothers who are stupid stick-in-the-muds, sarcastic, bully their husbands (oh yeah — this from women who have no income too) and it’s Dad who saves the day for both our girls. Juliet Stevenson was (I hope) paid a lot for being a dope mother (Jules’s) who wants to put falsies on her daughter, but deprived wears them herself. It’s she who goes bananas when she thinks Jules kissed Jess; then told it was a mistake, she reverts to her (hypocritical though she does not know it so we are supposed to forgive this) toleration of lesbians as long as it’s not her daughter.

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Juliet Stevenson as Jules’s thick absurd mom

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Frank Harpet as Dad who saves the day.

The main problem with the movie for me is that Chadha panders (we get the ectastically expensive happy wedding) even as she urges women (it seems) to accept their totally unfeminist sisters: all Jess’s sister (played by Archie Panjabi who was Ghita in The Constant Gardener lives for is marriage, pregnancy; another female relative is a nasty cock-teaser who thinks this is the way to live too, and we see her making-out busted up by her parents who try to destroy the camera that took pictures. We are to accept this as part of the picture — not that it’s not or we should not, and it did somewhat deflate the absurd wedding. Jules and Jess are presented as not all that unusual for wanting to break tabooes and seek something beyond cosmetics, getting men and babies. They want to play football, to be applauded and admired, to complete and if they are both attracted to Joe, marriage is not the end of their being, and they are bored bored bored with the role of mother, daughter &cc, want to go to university and travel.

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Two Sisters: Chadha says the film is her most autobiographical

At the same time, Bend It is, though, also seriously about the pains of assimiliation, some of the character portraits are very well done, and it has its adult moving moments. I was struck though by how it also touched precisely on the issues that Fire dramatized. Jesse is attached to her family and she cannot get herself to hurt the individuals who feel tender affection for and loyalty to her, so she must participate in their cultural rituals. To walk away from their lifestyle would leave her without a lifestyle to belong to, for Joe himself is someone cut off from his father. UK families are no haven.

Jess’s Dad a Sikh man is a moving character: he is against his daughter playing football because when he was young and came to England, he was excluded from cricket on the grounds of his race. He mourns his having given up, and at the of the film we see Joe (making himself acceptable as a coming son-in-law) teaching this man to play cricket well.

In the essays on censorship the authors discussed the Hindu right, its parties, political arms, and the curious forms of censorship that stick, for example, the forbidden kiss. It stands for privacy, what goes on in the house. It’s okay for a woman to dance in sexy clothes and expose much of her private parts, but not
okay to kiss on the mouth anyone, nor men. I noted the Bend It played with non-kisses and it was not till the last moment that Jess and Joe kissed and then the camera insisted we watch it carefully close up.

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Jess and Joe, a loving interracial couple (the actor projects a curious louchness and wildness, and is effeminate in his brooding features; he was brilliant a disturbed near homocidal maniac from the experiences of civil war in Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil)

So Chadha does participate marginally in precisely what Mehta is doing. I have not yet seen Fire, only Water (see previous blog). I thanked Fran for her corrective comments on some of the reviews. It is not true that the women’s husbands are paragons; that does change the meaning of the film. Kapur perhaps wanted it to be more free-choice lesbianism. Instead the women turn to one another in reaction to the miseries of heterosexual marriage.

On WWTTA we talked about how such films and lesbianism and women’s friendship related to Jane Austen’s Emma. Emma has been interpreted from a lesbian standpoint (by Juhasz who is a lesbian herself); and Ruth Perry demonstrates how women’s friendship can’t last in the structures of society, not easily. Miss Taylor’s first loyalty must be to Mr Weston; her time is his; Emma turns to Harriet, but when Harriet emerges as a rival, and then marries a farmer, Mr Martin, she begins to keep her distance. Your first loyalty is to family and that means the males in charge too. In Bend It Chadha downplayed rivalry except for sexual jealousy between Jess and Jules over Joe, but that almost lost them the game.

Recent novels by more alert women (thinking) de-emphasize this rivalry I think; in Bell Jar (for example), Plath may show her mid-century placement and be using stereotypes and she herself (I understand) could be awful about and to other women (but her biographies are just as agenda-ridden by the authors as Dickinson). The psychologists say how important supportive friendships are for women, so this persistent divide-and-conquer is all the more poignant and hurtful for women. At the end Austen has Emma as the complacent winner, and I’m with a number of readers who find that ending grating (what did she do to earn anything) and while I wish it were ironic, I don’t feel it is. Austen herself dismisses what Perry is right to say is in the text (how women need women friends, how these relationships are broken up by patriarchial and class structures) and instead ends on one of Mrs Elton’s supposedly funny sneers at Emma, jealous of her as ever, and hoping Emma’s marriage will fail. Austen is also ambivalent about spinster old maids, for older unmarried women can be rendered as dignified women with a meaningful life too.

In my comments I add some on another recent American “women’s film”: a film dealing centrally with women’s issues and containing a positive or sympathetic portrait of women apart from men.

Ellen.

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