Archive for March, 2011

Costa (Luis Toscar); Sebastian (Gael Gabriel Bernal), director and writer, Even the Rain, directed by Iciar Bollain, screenplay Paul Laverty, producer Juan Gordon

Dear friends and readers,

Strongly recommended film: Even the rain

It’s the story of a group of people trying to make a film: they are the individuals we are to see history/politics through. They are come to Bolivia to make a film where they expose the horrific open cruelty/brutality of Columbus and his henchman to the local Indians; the parallel story is they find themselves hiring Indians and just local people, most of whom who are living in abject poverty. Just at that time the gov’t has given a multinational all the rights to the water in the country, and the people find they can’t get water; all their pipes are broken. They make something like $40 a year ($2 a day) on average and the company proposes to put up the price 300%. The members of the company are this liberal group who mean to expose the injustice that once was openly brutal and exists today too (not aimed directly at bodies), and are shown to be themselves exploiting these Indians in the same (if more mild way).

Daniel (Juan Carlos Aduviri) hired as lead actor, becomes forceful leader of protest

The company is welcomed by the leaders of the city and the conversation and ways of life (for example in eating) makes explicit all the parallels.

We see people murdered, maimed, beaten, and (offstage are told about) tortured in the streets, vast parts of the city destroyed as we see destruction; in the film story we see torture (the Indians in the film are burnt to death, parts of their bodies chopped off when they don’t produce gold, won’t work like animals) on location stages.

The people win out over the establishment for the moment by fighting back; that is, the multinational decides it’s not worth it and gets out. The way the people win iss by insisting violently, which is the only way they can do it — physically on holding onto their water supply as it’s physically being taken from them, backed by armed militia. The native people do this because they need it. It’s not a matter of some “entitlement” coming to you, but water itself. Like air.

The moral of the piece: unless you are violent and take back whatever it is that is taken from you, you will lose it. Peaceful demonstrations don’t hack it. We have an example of this this week: a huge demonstration in London against the brutal cuts, and the Tories go on to pass the legislation and implement it.

Even the Rain is done in the modern strongly realistic or verisimilitude style. From the point of view of self-reflexive art it’s also remarkable: we sometimes watch the film making through the camera film; we can’t always at first tell if the actors are playing their roles in the film or are being themselves.

As history/politics art film it’s also worth seeing — for the the use of flashbacks and montage (though there is, tellingly, little voice-over – they are trying to be commercial and move forward as action-adventure heroism too).

Here’s another fine blog review about it.

A film we ought to support by going there and then writing about it.


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Helen Hunt Jackson at her writing desk in Colorado Springs

Dear friends and readers,

This week’s foremother poet blog is on Helen Hunt Jackson now known among those who read and care about social justice as a strong fighter for Native American rights, a progressive social activist, travel writer, poet of lovely lyrical poems of sensibility, descriptive, meant to cheer & uplift. Her Century of Dishonor is now in print. Perhaps she should have called it Centuries.

One of my earliest memories of watching old movies on TV (Channel 9, NYC) connects to Jackson: I recall the movie, Ramona vaguely still as centering on Loretta Young as the beautiful Ramona, with Don Ameche as her lover-husband

(A still I found on the Net tonight, perhaps from the movie, much touched up)

I am not alone in making the immediate association of the movie when I hear the name of the source novel’s author, Helen Hunt Jackson (1830?-1885). While she was once one of the most famous and respected of 19th century women authors, it’s Ramona (1883/4) she is probably most popularly remembered for. The novel has been in print almost continuously, and each year since 1923 in Hemet, California, a Ramona pageant takes place to which crowds of tourists come:

A photo of the pageant in 1928

In her era Helen Hunt Jackson was seen as a regional writer, poet, essayist, journalist who also wrote novels. Through Ramona she wanted to expose the plight of California Indians, and through a second book, the first book she published under her name, a non-fiction A Century of Dishonor (1881), she exposed how the Federal government (and US people) were destroying the Indians and their way of life.

I remember and celebrate her as a woman writer, a foremother poet who inspired and gave comfort to many readers, especially women, in her poetry, as a friend to so many other women writers, the list reads like a roll call of great — and good too — women writers and fellow-champions of reform causes, e.g., Emily Dickinson, Kate Field, Mary Mapes Dodge. She admired the poetry of George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti — not to omit American women poets, e.g., Celia Thaxter. She was friends with and supported by respected men of the era too: Emerson, William Dean Howells, the literary elite of her day, the transcendentalists. She praised the transcendental regionalist poet, Joaquin Miller; also Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris.

My selection begins with a bitter-sweet poem praised by Annie Finch in Finch’s essay discussing American women poetesses (The Poetess in America), and defending the poetry of sensibility and connecting Jackson to the tradition Edna St. Vincent Millay writes out of in her “The Harp-Weaver”:

Vanity of Vanities

Bee to the blossom, moth to the flame;
Each to his passion; what’s in a name?

Red clover’s sweetest, well the bee knows;
No bee can suck it; lonely it blows.

Deep lies the honey, out of reach, deep;
What use in honey hidden to keep?

Robbed in the autumn, starving for bread;
Who stops to pity a honey-bee dead?

Star-flames are brightest, blazing the skies;
Only a hand’s breadth the moth-wing flies.

Fooled with a candle, scorched with a breath;
Poor little miller, a tawdry death;

Life is a honey, life is a flame;
Each to his passion; what’s in a name?

Swinging and circling, face to the sun,
Brief little planet, how it doth run!

Bee-time and moth-time, add the amount;
white heat and honey, who keeps the count?

Gone some fine evening, a spark out-tost!
The world no darker for one star lost!

Bee to the blossom, moth to the flame;
Each to his passion; what’s in a name?

She was particularly strong as a writer of sonnets:


With sails full set, the ship her anchor weights,
Strange names shine out beneath her figure head.
What glad farewells with eager eyes are said!
What cheer for him who goes, and him who stays!
Fair skies, rich lands, new homes, and untried days
Some go to seek: the rest but wait instead,
Watching the way wherein their comrades led,
Until the next stanch ship her flag doth raise.
Who knows what myriad colonies there are
Of fairest fields, and rich, undreamed-of gains
Thick planted in the distant shining plains
Which we call sky because they lie so far?
Oh, write of me, not “Died in bitter pains,”
But “Emigrated to another star.”

Poppies on the Wheat

Along Ancona’s hills the shimmering heat,
A tropic tide of air with ebb and flow
Bathes all the fields of wheat until they glow
Like flashing seas of green, which toss and beat
Around the vines. The poppies lithe and fleet
Seem running, fiery torchmen, to and fro
To mark the shore.
      The farmer does not know
That they are there. He walks with heavy feet,
Counting the bread and wine by autumn’s gain,
But I, – I smile to think that days remain
Perhaps to me in which, though bread be sweet
No more, and red wine warm my blood in vain,
I shall be glad remembering how the fleet,
Lithe poppies ran like torchmen with the wheat.


Bending above the spicy woods which blaze,
Arch skies so blue they flash, and hold the sun          Immeasurably far; the waters run
Too slow, so freighted are the river-ways
With gold of elms and birches from the maze
Of forests. Chestnuts, clicking one by one,
Escape from satin burs; her fringes done,
The gentian spreads them out in sunny days,
And, like late revelers at dawn, the chance
Of one sweet, mad, last hour, all things assail,
And conquering, flush and spin; while, to enhance
The spell, by sunset door, wrapped in a veil
Of red and purple mists, the summer, pale,
Steals back alone for one more song and dance.

North Cheyenne Canyong, outside Colorado Springs, ca 1882-96

John Hollander in his Library of America American Poetry 2 volumes rightly chooses to end his selection with this lyric which suggests her love of Colorado:

Cheyenne Mountain

By easy slope to west as if it had
   No thought, when first its soaring was begun,
   Except to look devoutly to the sun,
It rises, and has risen, until, glad,
With light as with a garment, it is clad,
   Each dawn, before the tardy plains have won
   One ray; and after day has long been done
For us, the light doth cling reluctant, sad
To leave its brow.
         Beloved mountain, I
Thy worshiper, as thou the sun’s, each morn,
   My dawn, before the dawn, receive from thee;
   And think, as thy rose-tinted peaks I see,
That thou wert great when Homer was not born,
And ere thou change all human song shall die!

She also wrote “l’ecriture-femme” (as may be seen in Ramona) and very successful such poetry was. Among the foremother poets (ancestresses) she admired and wrote of was Gaspara Stampa: in 1881 a biography of Stampa was published and Jackson wrote a eulogy for her where she prizes Stampa for her tragic love poetry.

One last, in stanza form: she seems to have liked to write poetry to houses:

My Lighthouses

At westward window of a palace gray,
Which its own secret still so safely keeps
That no man now its builder’s name can say,
I lie and idly sun myself to-day,
Dreaming awake far more than one who sleeps,
Serenely glad, although my gladness weeps.

I look across the harbor’s misty blue,
And find and lose that magic shifting line
Where sky one shade less blue meets sea, and through
The air I catch one flush as if it knew
Some secret of that meeting, which no sign
Can show to eyes so far and dim as mine.

More ships than I can count build mast by mast
Gay lattice-work with waving green and red
Across my window-panes. The voyage past,
They crowd to anchorage so glad, so fast,
Gliding like ghosts, with noiseless breath and tread,
Mooring like ghosts, with noiseless iron and lead.

“0 ships and patient men who fare by sea,”
I stretch my hands and vainly questioning cry,
“Sailed ye from west? How many nights could ye
Tell by the lights just where my dear and free
And lovely land lay sleeping? Passed ye by
Some danger safe, because her fires were nigh?”

Ah me! my selfish yearning thoughts forget
How darkness but a hand’s-breadth from the coast
With danger in an evil league is set!
Ah! helpless ships and men more helpless yet,
Who trust the land-lights’ short and empty boast;
The lights ye bear aloft and prayers avail ye most.

But I-ah, patient men who fare by sea,
Ye would but smile to hear this empty speech, –
I have such beacon-lights to burn for me,
In that dear west so lovely, new, and free,
That evil league by day, by night, can teach
No spell whose harm my little bark can reach,

No towers of stone uphold those beacon-lights;
No distance hides them, and no storm can shake;
In valleys they light up the darkest nights,
They outshine sunny days on sunny heights;
They blaze from every house where sleep or wake
My own who love me for my own poor sake.

Each thought they think of me lights road of flame
Across the seas; no travel on it tires
My heart, I go if they but speak my name;
From Heaven I should come and go the same,
And find this glow forestalling my desires.
My darlings, do you hear me? Trim the fires!

She was born on 15 October 1830 (some sources say 1831) in Amherst, Massachusetts, and died August 12, 1885. She was the daughter of a professor, and both parents died when she was a child. Brought up by an aunt (I read an essay by Colm Toibin today on the importance of aunts in 19th century novels), she was well-educated at private schools. She was a schoolmate of Emily Dickinson’s and remained a lifelong friend of the poet. She was married twice: first to Edward Bissell Hunt, and he and two sons by him all died in short time. She began writing poetry to cope with this devastation. Her known name is that of her second husband, William Sharpless Jackson whom she married on the understanding he would give her freedom for writing and living out the life that was within her.

Her biography is fascinating and eventful, and I cannot recommend too highly Kate Phillips’s Helen Hunt Jackson: A Literary Life. (Univ of California, 2003). Phillips tells the outer events of Jackson’s life and then traces her existence through her development as a writer and social activist. (See the on-line review by Eileen V. Wallis, H-California). It’s said her Century of Dishonour led to the founding of the Indian Rights Association; she had hoped with Ramona to have an impact analogous to that of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin; instead it’s continued to be read as romance, a picturesque novel.

Some websites on Helen Hunt Jackson (there are MANY) include: a brief biography and critical assessment

And there are many recent articles, often about Ramona but also about her relationship with Emily Dickinson, Emerson’s admiration for Jackson (important male poet, recognized female).

She is included in Janet Grey’s She Wields a Pen: American Women Poets of the 19th Century. To find her poetry online it’s a help to know that she published under pseudonyms: Saxe Holm, H.H., or Helen Maria Fiske, but there are sites which use her real married name, and a fine book in pdf form.

The standard older biography is Antoinette May’s Helen Hunt Jackson: a lonely voice of conscience. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1987.
An old-fashioned assessment of her in a handbook (still in print by the way): she was “Adventurous, witty, unconventional, highly emotional, a good lover and a good hater….evoked the ardent affection of nearly all, men or women, who came under her spell….a shrewd business woman, who made a fortune from her work and knew how to keep it….Except for Ramona, her novels are rather sentimental, and for the most part were written with young girl readers in mind….A very rapid writer, she yet had a great respect for accuracy, and there was much research behind her apparently easy writing…”

Some older books: HELEN JACKSON”S POEMS (H.H.) and inside, VERSES by H.H., (published 1891); Helen Jackson. Poems. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1893; Burton Egbert Stevenson, ed. The Home Book of Verse for Young Folks. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1915.

I chose Helen Hunt Jackson partly because beyond issues of aesthetics, she exemplifies problems brought out by identity politics. As a woman and white, she was dismissed as presenting false and sentimental and condescending (and whatever other dismissive bad-mouthing words you want) views of Indians, and certainly she didn’t have the anthropological and ethnographic understanding we might hope serious researchers into cultures and people within and without the different cultures have today; yet partly because she was white and a woman and had an audience and wrote to its taste, she did reach people and did work hard for Native American causes.

Today too was a beautiful day in Alexandria, cold, bright, early spring, with flowering trees, and I thought her bright lyric, even if of fall, so fitting:

October’s Bright Blue Weather

O SUNS and skies and clouds of June,
And flowers of June together,
Ye cannot rival for one hour
October’s bright blue weather;

When loud the bumble-bee makes haste,
Belated, thriftless vagrant,
And Golden-Rod is dying fast,
And lanes with grapes are fragrant;

When Gentians roll their fringes tight
To save them for the morning,
And chestnuts fall from satin burrs
Without a sound of warning;

When on the ground red apples lie
In piles like jewels shining,
And redder still on old stone walls
Are leaves of woodbine twining;

When all the lovely wayside things
Their white-winged seeds are sowing,
And in the fields, still green and fair,
Late aftermaths are growing;

When springs run low, and on the brooks,
In idle golden freighting,
Bright leaves sink noiseless in the hush
Of woods, for winter waiting;

When comrades seek sweet country haunts,
By twos and twos together,
And count like misers, hour by hour,
October’s bright blue weather.

O suns and skies and flowers of June,
Count all your boasts together,
Love loveth best of all the year
October’s bright blue weather.

I include as in the comments, one review of Phillips’s biography who reprints this first page of Ramona in manuscript.


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Isabelle Huppert as Erika, the piano teacher, desperately reaching out

I can give you my loneliness, my darkness, the hunger of my heart;
I am trying to bribe you with uncertainty, with danger, with defeat” —Jorge Luis Borges, from “Two English Poems”

Dear friends and readers,

This past week I watched two memorable and intelligent films centering on women: the first with Izzy in a DC theater, the latest Jane Eyre (2011) which I recommend highly (even if you’ve seen so many already), a strong contrast to the second, which I watched alone at night on a DVD in my room: Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, adapted from the novel by Elfriede Jelinek. I see the movie as directly linked to Haneke’s White Ribbon: in both people are twisted into self-destructive and cruel behaviors through repression of natural sexual and emotional instincts and needs.

To begin with, I think the film The Piano Teacher fine, worthy art with the same kind of subject matter as Haneke’s stunning The White Ribbon (a study of the mindset of nazism). I start this way because friends warned me (meaning to prevent me from becoming distressed as I can do when a movie is crude, violent, functions on behalf of brutalities) that the movie contained strong violence mixed with transgressive sex, so the first question to answer is, Is it porn with a hypocritical kind of presumed labeling? I answer: no.

I never finished Jelinek’s novel. Her method of objectifying subjectivity dazzled my mind: I’m no good at Ivy Compton-Burnett either (and James’s drama-like novels leave me cold). But I do feel that Haneke made sense out of what I did read. This movie is a reading or interpretation of Jelinek, but one not out of kilter with the text. I take the story of the movie and book to be about a woman who is emotionally ill. I’ve read a good deal about masochism (in reviewing Mary Trouille’s Wife Abuse) and am dubious about the existence of this “tendency” or trait in women as are lots of sociological as well as a few psychological studies. From my review (to be published this fall) of Trouille:

J. P. Martin (violence in the family) and Lenore Walker and Elizabeth Waites (Battered and Learned Helplessness; Female Masochism and the Enforced Restriction of choice) are among those who demonstrate how this explanation (which partly absolves society) is maintained by not looking at the social arrangements and circumstances of a case. The girl is offered a restricted set of choices (say from her class as well as gender) and sees early on to see that many of her actions have little effect on most of these choices. In some societies she may learn that doing anything to try to free herself for real is useless or brings more trouble. The woman who returns or stays is has also her involved children whose presence and needs strongly influence a wife’s decision to return or put up with a husband to whom she might have to leave her child; she also fears the agencies she complains to will blame her and take the children too. The construction of motherhood, scarcity of good jobs, and few high-paying ones for women makes her dependent on the husband once she has children.

So I won’t use the word masochism for Erika’s desire to be punished, hurt, her desire to be degraded and used is found in men — perhaps equally. Both of these self-destructive syndromes are hidden. Haneke’s White Ribbon is also about how a community can sicken people sexually: a religious bigot punishes his son who he thinks is masturbating by forcing the boy to wear a white ribbon tied in an elegant bow on his penis at night. If the bow has moved or changed in any way by morning, the boy will be beaten fiercely.

The violence of The Piano Teacher comes from the teacher’s success in entangling a young man drawn to her because she’s young, female, a respected piano teacher: Benoit Magimal plays Walter Kemmer as superbly well as Isabelle Huppert enacts Erika.

This is what I can see: she appears to loathe her body, loathe sex, yet is drawn to do thing defined as rebellious: we see her enter porn shops and watch videos, sneak up to cars and watch people having sex supposed to be watching a movie and urinate alongside the car. Erika also practices self-injury and in a bad or vulnerable place: she takes a razor to her vagina — outer folds I suppose.

She is at the same time independent. She has a big clientele as a music teacher, offers recitals herself, and is a respected member of a conservatory faculty at a university.

The young man, Walter, is himself an admirer of her and wants to be her pupil. He of course is thrilled at her first overtures (and these provide the trailers for the movie which then give a false idea of its typical scenes), but when
she gives him a letter where she writes out her tastes and what she wants him to do, he’s sickened and disgusted. Erika’s body never looks appealing naked nor in clothes in a picturesque way. She is dry, dry, dry looking. Yet he is himself twisted and starts to perform unconventional sex himself (jerks himself off near her building) and grows angry and disgusted with himself, and infuriated with her for so using him. So he visits her, locks her mother (played by Annie Giradot) in a separate room:

and the one long violent scene ensues. The movie’s climax.

The violence is realistic; we see and feel the slaps or punches and kicks, but it’s not overdone at all. The still that prefaces my blog is of Erika beaten down and now laying at his feet and asking him to love her. She does not demand that he beat her now, that he do anything but touch and hug and fuck her hard.

How did Erika get this way? We are led to think the origin o her behavior is in her relationship with her mother. I’m sorry I’ve not seen Black Swann or Precious either: these are studies of mother-daughter relationships gone unhealthy. We see the mother attempts domination, tries to control what her daughter spends, wears, says ugly raw things, and they sleep in twin beds in the same room. The mother goes with her daughter to her daughter’s recitals. But it’s more complicated for the daughter at the opening beats the mother too and towards the close mounts the mother’s body (to the mother’s protest).

We learn nothing nothing of the father who surely had something to do with all this. He’s dead now.

Perhaps the novel offers some explanation the movie omitted. If so, I didn’t reach it. A few reviews offered readings of the film: “A film for the soul”; “Emotionally brutal”. I was relieved when the movies ended. At first I seemed to feel nothing (as opposed to The White Ribbon where I felt overcome by an appalled horror at the roving cruelly bullying children this village had produced).

After a while thinking about it, I found it touching. I felt sorry for this woman — as I had not during the movie. There is something haunting about the expressions on her face. Huppert plays the part using a frigid face, she is not kind to her pupils, she treats many of them with disdain when they don’t come up to the mark.

She looks so vulnerable too

The tone of the film is austere, the emotional temperature quite distanced. Again, The White Ribbon was far more emotional with some downright sentimental characters.

So my hesitant partial take is this: it’s about loneliness. We see the mother and daughter dress up and go out to their recitals together in bourgeois tight outfits

Mother and cello player at a typical gathering

In life they are endlessly under control; they bully others by maintaining their class and niche power through their manners and the teacher’s ability to reject her pupils. They discuss only money and aggrandizement. The teacher would not think of marrying someone beneath her; she has had no time for ordinary flirtations. The heart and its treasures, so contained explodes in angry perverse ways. It’s about sexual gratification and its discontents only on the surface; its so-called steamy sex (Salon.com’s reviewer) is alienating and ugly. Its corollary subject to loneliness is people being tough to one another; everyone is like a stiff warrior, wary, ready to pounce, on guard:

A typical encounter moment: all challenge

The treasure that was within this woman has been turned to ritualized stone. The movie is the reverse or concave mirror of Jane Eyre:

“I can live alone, if self-respect and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure, born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld; or offered only at a price I cannot afford to pay” —Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre


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Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1907), The Muse of Composition

Dear friends and readers,

My woman poet for this week is someone I came across first as an admirer of Anne Finch’s poetry: “In Memory of the Countess of Winchelsea”, a fine ode where we see how a woman poet can look to an admired predecessor as someone who authorizes her to write too. Elizabeth Tollett maintains a sort of shadow existence in the way poets do who have one or two poems repeatedly reprinted in anthologies. Her “Winter Song” is a favorite for anthologies of women’s verse across the ages and 18th century women’s verse and even of European or English verse across the ages and 18th century verse mostly by men:

Winter Song

Ask me no more, my truth to prove,
What I would suffer for my love.
With thee I would in exile go
To regions of eternal snow,
O’er floods by solid ice confined,
Through forest bare with northern wind:
While all around my eyes I cast,
Where all is wild and all is wast.
If there the timorous stag you chase,
Or rouse to fight a fiercer race,
Undaunted I thy arms would bear,
And give thy hand the hunter’s spear.
When the low sun withdraws his light,
And menaces an half-year’s night,
Thy conscious moon and stars above
Shall guide me with my wandering love.
Beneath the mountain’s hollow brow,
Or in its rocky cells below,
Thy rural feast I would provide,
Nor envy palaces their pride.
The softest moss should dress thy bed,
With savage spoils about thee spread:
While faithful love the watch should keep,
To banish danger from thy sleep.
(wr 1750’s, pub 1760)

It’s not coincidental that this is a rare poem by her to endorse heterosexual romance. I’m not sure she does it anywhere else. I quote from one by her permanently on my website (“I have such parts as we have plaid today”) where she personates Anne Boleyn the night before her execution writing to Henry VIII. Unfortunately she does not truly imagine what that night might have been like: filled with rage, despair, anger, nor make it clear how and why it was unlikely Anne could have written anything that night that would last. But her remembering Anne Boleyn and her fate as important and admiration for a transgressive victim was unusual in her time and helped keep Boleyn remembered (albeit by probably a very few) sympathetically.

Elizabeth Tollett was a learned woman, and lived much of her life with a kindly brother, an antiquarian who is always described as having gone to Cambridge. Only recently I learned for the first time that she was disabled, described as a “little crooked woman.” My choices for today show her variety and power as a poet and love for this brother, also her feminism.

First two poems she would have been proud of: the first tells us why people know her brother was at Cambridge: it’s a moving friendship poem, tender and loving, in the Horatian imitation style, and is influenced by poet.

To my brother at St. John’s College in Cambridge,

BLEST be the man, who first the method found
In absence to discourse, and paint a sound!
This praise old Greece to Tyrian Cadmus gives,
And still the author by th’ invention lives:
Still may he live, and justly famous be,
Whose art assists me to converse with thee!
All day I pensive sit, but not alone,
And have the best companions when I’ve none:
I read great Tully’s page, and wondering find
The heavenly doctrine of th’ immortal mind;
An axiom first by parent Nature taught,
An inborn truth, which proves itself by thought.
But when the sun declines the task I change,
And round the walls and antique turrets range;
From hence a varied scene delights the eyes.
See! here Augusta’s massive temples rise,
There meads extend, and hills support the skies;
See! there the ships, an anchored forest, ride,
And either India’s wealth enrich the tide.

Thrice happy you, in Learning’s other seat!
No noisy guards disturb your blest retreat:
Where, to your cell retired, you know to choose
The wisest author, or the sweetest muse.
Let useful toil employ the busy light,
And steal a restless portion from the night;
With thirst of knowledge wake before the day,
Prevent the sun, and chide his tardy ray,
When cheerful larks their early anthem sing,
And opening winds refreshing odours bring;
When from the hills you see the morning rise, 3
As fresh as Lansdown’s cheeks, and bright as Windham’s eyes.

But when you leave your books, as all must find
Some ease required, t’ indulge the labouring mind,
With such companions mix, such friendships make,
As not to choose what you must soon forsake:
Mark well thy choice, let modesty and truth,
And constant industry, adorn the youth.
In books good subjects for discourse are found;
Such be thy talk when friendly tea goes round.
Mirth more than wine the drooping spirits cheers,
Revives our hopes, and dissipates our fears;
From Circe’s cup, immeasured wine, refrain:
Start backwards and reject th’ untasted bane.

Perhaps to neighbouring shades you now repair,
To look abroad and taste the scented air;
Survey the useful labours of the swain,
The tedded grass, and sheaves of ripened grain;
The loaded trees with blushing apples graced,
Or hardy pears, which scorn the wintry blast;
Or see the sturdy hinds from harvest come,
To waste the setting suns in rural mirth at home.
Now on the banks of silver Cam you stray,
While through the twisted boughs the sunbeams play,
And the clear stream reflects the trembling ray.

Think, when you tread the venerable shade,
Here Cowley sung, and tuneful Prior played.
O! would the Muse thy youthful breast inspire
With charming raptures and poetic fire!
Then thou might’st sing (who better claims thy lays?)
A tributary strain to Oxford’s praise:
Thy humble verse from him shall fame derive,
And graced with Harley’s name for ever live.
First sing the man in constant temper found,
Unmoved when Fortune smiled, undaunted when she frowned,
A mind above rewards, serenely great,
And equal to the province of the state.
Thence let thy Muse to private life descend,
Nor in the patriot’s labours lose the friend.

As opposed to men of the era whose poems in this mode address public political questions, Tollett’s poem, like those by women of the era, present her innermost ideals for living. She says her brother is so much was luckier than she because he could go to Cambridge. He was learned, an antiquarian, many friends, and she is grateful to him for sharing his life with her.

A recent photo of Cambridge, Wimpole Hall

She tended to write in heroic couplets, grave and ultimately Popian in style (polished) but she also has merry and witty stanza poems. like the following:

A New Ballad To the Tune of All You Ladies now At Land &c [by Mrs Eliz Tollet.] To all you sparkling Whiggs at Court, p68v – 69v

To all you sparkling Whiggs at Court
We Torys in the Tower
Declare we mean to Spoile your Sport
By Mustring up our Power.
For tho’ you’vre laid us fast in hold
Yet Beauty bids defiance bold with a fa la &c

And first the fair of Villiers Race*
A Race to Beauty borne,
The freshest bloom, the Sweetest Grace,
Her Matchless face adorne
Our Land no Poet can afford
To praise Her justly but her Lord with a fa la &c

The Neighbouring Realm for beauties fame
Her Antient Right revives,
Nor can She plead a Stronger Claime
Than what Emilia gives,
For Artless Charmes & Native Mirth
Records the Bonny Maids of Perth with a fa la &c

Tho thus Maintain’d with Native Arms,
We call in foreign Aid,
May he be blind to British Charms
That dares resist the Swede
United forces Arm the fair,
Her Lovely Shape & Charming Air with a fa la &c

Fair Blackler Conquers by Surprise
And double Arms She bears
For while her form invades our Eyes
Her Musick Charms our Ears
Nature in her has Joyn’d to please
Good Natur’d Witt & Gracefull ease with a fa la &c

Tho Lovely Harley’s early Ray**
Now Shine in Youthfull bloom,
The Genial Influence of the Day
Shall brighen Charms to Come
So does the smiling morne arise
And Radiant Glories paint the Stars with a fa la la &c

Such force drawne up at our Command
We bravely take the feild
Whoever does our Arms withstand
Prepare to dye or Yeild.
Do you Appoint the Time & Place
We dare you bring a better face with a fa la &c

There are problems with the attribution on several grounds and I used to be sure it was by Finch, but no longer am and surmize it’s by Tollett, partly on the strength of the manuscript I found it in which is usually accurate in its attributions where I could check it.

It is, however, far more common for Tollett to write grave and melancholy verse, satire, and serious imitations. I chose her for today because of this and a poem by her I recently read in which she reveals she suffered from depression: it’s one of her Horatian imitations. Samuel Johnson would have liked this one. Horace seems to have authorized all kinds of subversive unacceptable feelings.

This particular imitation is one of the Pindaric kind and thus probably not one which will get much readership, but it’s superb, austere, controlled, filled with strong sad feeling. She would be preceded by Anne Finch, whose pindaric “Spleen” is in a similar vein and is perhaps one of the first or earliest poems where a poet comes out openly as suffering depression and analysing it in front of us.

Imitation of Horace, Lib II Ode 3

/Equam memento rebus in arduis/Servare mentem


Why thus dejected? can you hope a Cure
In mourning Ills which you endure?
Without Redress you grieve:
A melancholy Thought may sour
The Pleasures of the present Hour.
But never can the Past retrieve.
Who knows if more remain for Fate to give?
Unerring Death alike on all attends;
Alike our Hopes and Fears destroys:
Alike one silent Period ends.
All our repining Griefs and our insulting joys.

Not thy Expence, nor thy Physicians Skill
Can guard thee from the Stroak’ofFate:
Thou yield’st to some imaginary Ill
Thy very Fears of Death create.
With the fantastick Spleen26 oppress’d,
With Vapours wilder Indolence possess’d,
Thy stagnant Blood forgets to roll,
And Fate attacks thee from thy inward Soul,
Vain is Resistance, let’s retreat
To some remote, some rural Seat;
Where on the Grass reclin’d we may,
Make ev’ry Dayan Holy-day:
Where all to our Delights combine,
With Friendship, Wit, and chearful Wine.

Where the tall Poplar and aspiring Pine
Their hospitable Branches twine:
Among their Roots a silver Current strays,
Which wand’ring here and there, its Course delays,
And in Meanders forms its winding Ways,
Perfumes, and Wine, and Roses bring!
The short-liv’d Treasures of the Spring!
While Wealth can give, or Youth can use,
While that can purchase, this excuse,
Let’s live the present Now!
‘Tis all the fatal Sisters may allow,
Tho’ thou should’st purchase an immense Estate,
Tho’ the clear Mirror of the rolling Tide
Reflect thy Villa’s rising Pride,
And Forest shading either side;
Yet must thou yield to Fate:
To these shall thy unthankful Heir succeed;
And waste the heapy Treasures of the Dead.


Nor shall it aid thee then to trace
Thy Ancestors beyond the Norman Race:
Death, the great Leveller of all Degrees,
Does on Mankind without Distinction seize.
Undaunted Guards attend in vain
The mighty Tyrant to repel;
Nor does his Cruelty disdain
The lab’ring Hind! and weary Swain,
Who in obscure Oblivion dwell.
When from the fated Urn the Lot is cast,
The Doom irrevocable past,
Still on the Brink the shiv’ring Ghosts wou’d stay:
Imperious Fate brooks no Delay;
The Steersman calls, away! away!

We can see her feminism in the choices she makes to translate: from Virgil’s Aeneid, these lines:

From Virgil [Aeneid III. 321-4 Adapted]

How hard a fate enthrals the wretched maid
By tyrant kindred bartered and betrayed!
Whose beauty, youth and innocence are sold
For shining equipage, or heaps of gold;
Condemned to drag an odious chain for life,
A living victim and a captive wife!
More happy she, and less severe her doom,
Who falls in all the pride of early bloom,
And virgin honours dress her peaceful tomb!

and her


WHAT cruel laws depress the female kind,
To humble cares and servile tasks confined!
In gilded toys their florid bloom to spend,
And empty glories that in age must end;
For amorous youth to spread the artful snares,
And by their triumphs to enlarge their cares.
For, once engaged in the domestic chain,
Compare the sorrows, and compute the gain;
What happiness can servitude afford?
A will resigned to an imperious lord,
Or slave to avarice, to beauty blind,
Or soured with spleen, or ranging unconfined.
That haughty man, unrivalled and alone,
May boast the world of science all his own:
As barb’rous tyrants, to secure their sway,
Conclude that ignorance will best obey.
Then boldly loud, and privileged to rail,
As prejudice o’er reason may prevail,
Unequal nature is accused to fail.
The theme, in keen iambics smoothly writ,
Which was but malice late, shall soon be wit.

Nature in vain can womankind inspire
With brighter particles of active fire,
Which to their frame a due proportion hold,
Refined by dwelling in a purer mould,
If useless rust must fair endowments hide,
Or wit, disdaining ease, be misapplied.
‘Tis then that wit, which reason should refine,
And disengage the metal from the mine,
Luxuriates, or degenerates to design.
Wit unemployed becomes a dangerous thing,
As waters stagnate and defile their spring.
The cultivated mind, a fertile soil,
With rich increase rewards the useful toil:
But fallow left, an hateful crop succeeds
Of tangling brambles and pernicious weeds;
‘Tis endless labour then the ground to clear,
And trust the doubtful earnest of the year.
Yet oft we hear, in height of stupid pride,
Some senseless idiot curse a lettered bride.

On her long Heroides to Anne Boleyn: If you can bypass the self-blinding presentation of her as somehow penitent and excusing herself to the king (instead of bitter, enraged, hurt, and probably rightly duplicitious — read Retha Warnke’s accurate biography of Boleyn), the poem is striking. It’s long and you can probably find it in Chadwyck-Healey. This is a remarkable and unusual poem because she does not present Boleyn as this lurid victim; it’s not an iconography of glamorous victimhood, but a somber portrait where she defends Boleyn through notes (which shows she read up on the subject and didn’t like the common portrayals in the media then, which I suppose correspond to similar lurid iconographies today). It’s very revealing to go into the way actresses in the 18th century and these tragedy queens (Mary Stuart Queen of Scots, and then Antoinette) were represented; you can find that modern “glamor” types are closely similar (for example, the way Mary Queen of Scots was represented reminds me of the way Princess Diana is presented; Hillary Clinton, Marie Antoinette; Mary Robinson, Madonna). Plus ca change ….

This one precedes Wordsworth’s famous sonnet on Westminster Bridge:

On the Prospect from Westminster Bridge,
~March 1750

CAESAR! renowned in silence as in war,
Look down a while from thy maternal star:
See! to the skies what sacred domes ascend,
What ample arches o’er the river bend;
What vill[a]s above in rural prospect lie,
Beneath, a street that intercepts the eye,
Where happy Commerce glads the wealthy streams,
And floating castles ride. Is this the Thames,
The scene where brave Cassibelan of yore
Repulsed thy legions on a savage shore?
Britain, ’tis true, was hard to overcome,
Or by the arms, or by the arts, of Rome;
Yet we allow thee ruler of the Sphere,
And last of all resign thy Julian year

Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88), Holywells Park

Elizabeth was the daughter of George Tollet, Commissioner of the Navy in the reigns of William II and Queen Anne; she lived in his home in the tower of London; her father who was friendly with Sir Isaac Newton was encouraged by Newton to give her an excellent education (she translated some of the psalms into classical Latin): she read history, understood mathematics, was fluent in French, Italian and Latin. Like Margaret Cavendish and a number of the later 17th century English women poets who are in print today and still valued, she never belonged to a social circle, and not much is known about her beyond the kinds of facts found in registry documents about her male relatives; she never married. But she was addressed in verse by one John Hanway and perhaps Aaron Hill. She is said to have left property to her nephew, George Tollett (1725-79), a lawyer and critic of Shakespeare. She was buried in West Ham Church, where her epitaph says “Religion, justice, and benevolence appeared in all her actions; and her Poems, in various languages are adorned with the most extensive learning, applied to the best purposes.

She did publish her poems more than once (one edition is dated 1724), and there was a posthumous edition of her poetry (1755; it was in the second edition that her poem as Anne Boleyn was printed). She wrote poetry in praise of the poetry of other women: beyond Annr Finch, the Countess of Winchilsea, she loved the poetry of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu — who she in effect addressed as her foremothers, or as writing in a worthy tradition of poetry by women.

She comes across to me as a likable woman, really generous and kind, with decent values, living a quietly semi-fulfilled life.

I like to think this is to her best friend — who the poem tells us predeceased Tollett — and whom she identifies with:

Adieu my Friend

Adieu my Friend! and may thy Woes
Be all in long Oblivion lost:
If Innocence can give Repose;
Or gentle Verse can please thy Ghost.
No pious Rite, no solemn Knell
Attended thy belov’d Remains:
Nor shall the letter’d Marble tell
What silent Earth the Charge contains.

Obscure, beneath the nameless Stone,
With thee shall Truth and Virtue sleep:
While, with her Lamp, the Muse alone,
Shall watch thy sacred Dust and weep.

Blue Violets, and Snow-Drops pale,
In pearly Dew for thee shall mourn:
And humble Lillies of the Vale
Shall cover thy neglected Urn.

Marie Bashkirtseff (1858-84), Autumn

The information here comes from many sources; two useful anthologies which contain some of the above poetry are Rogers Lonsdale’s Eighteenth-Century Women Poets (Oxford); and Paula Backscheider’s British Women Poets of the Long Eighteenth Century.


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Picasso, Massacre in Korea, 1951

Dear friends and readers,

The Admiral and I tried another day trip yesterday. We went to Richmond, Virginia, to see the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and its special traveling exhibit of Picasso, and walk about to see something of the city. It was more than a little disappointing. Not that the time was uninteresting; the weather was lovely (warm, sunny, a little breeze) and the train ride was like moving between paintings — much of the run from Alexandria, to Richmond, goes through forests, alongside rivers. But the museum and its exhibit were thin, the latter having unfortunate emphases, and the city of Richmond is one of those whose spacial arrangements are set up to separate, stigmatize, exclude, and elevate people. No place for walkers.

I’ll begin with the Picasso. First mine is a heterodox or iconoclastic account. I have long thought Picasso mindlessly overrated; much of what I’ve seen shows haste, has no meaning that is available to fathom for the viewer; and the comments that accompany them occasionally by Picasso suggest he became arrogant in later life. He can fill a museum: right and get paid for it mightily.

Jim agrees and we hoped for much early Picasso, not just the very early and traditional but the phase which includes The Frugal Repast (which was there):

There was very little early of this. The Celestina (or blind woman) was there and compelling; with The Frugal Repast & a few others, one began to see Picasso’s pity for people, his strong satire both of conventional art and social arrrangements, but then we were onto the Braque cubist and cubist figure stage which seems to have lasted very long. Three rooms of this, two of which were basically empty; the crowd went for the third where the pictures had strong hard lines, the colorations were patterns (sold for wallpaper some of them). I had no idea how we were to to take most of these: not all were puzzling as Picasso uses allusions to previous paintings, e.g., he produces a sardonic cubist exposure of Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe by having his grotesque woman figure have a pinhead. Occasionally a figure has a strong face which projects a depth psychology:

Jacqueline aux mains croisses (Jacqueline with Crossed Hands), 1954

Here and there were semi-realistic figures, one of a boy in a comedia d’art costume was powerful; a cat catching a bird made me feel for a helplessly aggressive awkward cat and bird:

Chat saisissant un oiseau (Cat catching a bird), 1939

The pale blue echoed in the poor cat’s eyes is eloquent.

Jim was struck by the grim intensity of a heterosexual stone monumental-like dancing couple:

The greatest piece, almost worth going for alone was Picasso’s Massacre in Korea, where we see Americans murdering Korean woman in a frame that imitates Manet’s famous execution scene. You see it at the head of this blog, gentle reader, because it is not well known: the reason is not far to seek: the power of US money which seeks to make war to make more money.
The group of men who are drawn to look like science fiction robots with the arms and hands become rifles (popular male movies in the US) with the woman helpless, naked, at least two pregnant, their hands trying to protect their bodies from our view as well as the coming death: they are enough individualized so one child is unaware it’s about to be killed and is playing with a toy; another clings to its mother group of women. In various spots of the picture objects that look like they were once plants have become helicopters dispensing death, airplanes crashing down, tanks mowing villages.

I wish reproductions of this were placed in the US white house and other central places: today Obama declared he’ll take military action in Lybia as did the British PM, Cameron, whom the Labor leader was happy to support. Obama has no money to give gov’t employees cost of living rises, to create jobs, to stop foreclosures, produce a decent health care program, but you see wars are for free.

A few of these stunning works would have filled say two rooms. We were led through about seven. Two were corridors of photographs of the great artist and his friends, patrons, lovers. Other space was taken up by his casual sculptures. And the space was filled by studies for famous painting in glass cases: the drawings by Picasso himself for Guernica were revealing; but reproductions in technologically electric forms lost the point of going to an exhibit, which is not to see technical reproductions but the unique work of art. None of the plaques were helpful.

We wondered who made the choices and why so few were sent. What exactly was the agenda of this kind of thing.

As for the museum: It’s a large building and much is given over to empty space. There is a vast marble hall which people can rent for events. The sculpture garden is pretty. There was even (surprisingly — see below on the city), a small library open to the public for a number of hours! The shop is the usual junk. It did have a whole case of books on Picasso. Wayne Anderson’s Picasso’s Brothel is a hundreds of pages study of the rich allusion in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Anderson went over Picasso’s rich uses of intertextuality and was probably worthwhile. Picasso embeds into his best pictures (those he worked hard on) a history of a type of painting, specific paintings and perspectives on his subjects.

The museum does have some fine art: 19th century American (one John Singer Sergeant not on line was a vision of beauty), but most of the collection is European, often a poor representative of some famous artist (as a bad Poussin, a weak Monet; those on line are carefully chosen or details selected). You can see the curators today can tell which is a fine picture and which not and try to set up the pictures to focus on the good things, and that they are trying to improve the collection, but this takes time and money. But what are they to do when much of what they have comes from Paul Mellon whose taste includes a quarter of a floor of British 19th century ‘sporting’ pictures (upper class men and women fox-hunting). A quarter of a floor of ludicrous tapestries and so on. Richmond has not had the population of wealthy people who value fine art for long enough — if it has such a population today, which it may have.

We thought we’d spend at least 4 hours in the museum, but it took no more than 2. So we turned outdoors as the day was beautiful.

A friend once kindly drove me round the city of Richmond to demonstrate to me how rich a life one can live there. She drove me up and down Monument Avenue, to a stunningly picturesque park, to an opera house, and past two small areas of exquisite shops. I don’t know how far apart these were or how they all related to the central area of the city (where I was staying at a ASECS conference) or the area around the museum (called “The Fan” as the blocks converge into a central point). I came away with a very favorable idea of the city: partly from my friend who is such a good sympathetic person (met on the Net here), and from a dinner afterward in a restaurant she knew about.

Now walking and taking a bus are quite different experiences than sitting in a car that moves at high speed, driven by someone who knows the shortcuts. Well, Richmond is a city like many in the US today: the space is set up exclusively. One area of very wealthy (where the museum is) and that kept apart from devastated areas.

So, from the Virginia Museum Jim and I did find ourselves on Monument: it has never gone down and remains a huge avenue of pompous houses:

A typical house, down to the columns: Tara in GWTW, book and movie emerges from the same archetypal dream

Jim and I walked a bit of the route where the statues of confederate heroes are. Now I saw clearly how these are formidable grandiose imposing displays of Confederate values and militarism, e.g., a part of one which typifies the detail:

. At the end Arthur Ashe looks absurdly out of place. Picasso’s Massacre in Korea as part of this blog makes it unnecessary for me to comment further.

Two blocks over from Monument and we found ourselves walking along a enormous avenue of empty store fronts, with lots of homeless people. Supermarkets with big signs saying they take food stamps. The road is a high speech highway in effect. Gas stations, thrift shops, beauty parlors.

I have often found a little of what’s called reality goes a long way with me. (“Some people say that life is the thing, but I much prefer reading.” — Logan Pearsall Smith). It was hard to get a cab in the area we found ourselves having had enough in. We did manage by using a cell phone and arguing someone into sending a cab. So we made it back to the train, somewhat relieved, and then were delighted to discover we could get on an earlier train to Alexandria.

We were once in Atlanta, Georgia and there I saw how the lower middle and working class and poor population is basically in the suburbs, and the only way in is huge highways of concrete by bus or car. The police force looked fierce and those black people we saw, although middle class, seemed to hold their bodies in ways that took up the least room possible. Richmond seemed to me to practice this kind of exclusionary division in its center and I’ll guess probably this sort of policing.

I wondered what Trollope would have said and thought of this development of space. He traveled around the US at least four times, gentle reader and wrote a marvelous book about his one long trip. He did like higgledy piggledy space and predicted the way DC was laid out would not easily produce a livable genuine city life. It has but within the neighborhoods where people of somewhat different classes and businesses and residences intermingle. I thought of Jane Jacobs’s book about the tragedy of American cities as I stood waiting for the cab with the Admiral. What we knew to be so about what withers and destroys the pleasures of existence to us had been demonstrated.

Isobel was glad to see us home again as were our pussycats, Ian and Clary. I did read Randall Jarrell’s song to happiness, The Animal Family, in the train coming and going, and a few of his poems, e.g., this on his experience of WW2:


It was not dying: everybody died.
It was not dying: we had died before
In the routine crashes– and our fields
Called up the papers, wrote home to our folks,
And the rates rose, all because of us.
We died on the wrong page of the almanac,
Scattered on mountains fifty miles away;
Diving on haystacks, fighting with a friend,
We blazed up on the lines we never saw.
We died like aunts or pets or foreigners.
(When we left high school nothing else had died
For us to figure we had died like.)

In our new planes, with our new crews, we bombed
The ranges by the desert or the shore,
Fired at towed targets, waited for our scores–
And turned into replacements and worke up
One morning, over England, operational.

It wasn’t different: but if we died
It was not an accident but a mistake
(But an easy one for anyone to make.)
We read our mail and counted up our missions–
In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school–
Till our lives wore out; our bodies lay among
The people we had killed and never seen.
When we lasted long enough they gave us medals;
When we died they said, “Our casualties were low.”

The said, “Here are the maps”; we burned the cities.

It was not dying –no, not ever dying;
But the night I died I dreamed that I was dead,
And the cities said to me: “Why are you dying?
We are satisfied, if you are; but why did I die?”

and we enjoyed the rides. The people who service the trains are generous to customers, helpful. Very unusual in the new Raw Deal climate we live in in the US today.


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Canaletto, San Christoforo, San Michele and Marano from the Fuondamenta Nuove, about 1722

Dear friends and readers,

Jim, Izzy and I set forth on the first of our planned day trips on a brisk sunny day — around 10 this morning. We went into DC, walked about, visited the National Gallery, two special exhibits and the collection, and had lunch out. It was a good if tiring day. Memory’s gifts include — as it has before — good fellow feeling as we were coming home and again this evening.

Mnemnosyne (to use her Greek name) also reminded me as I scanned in a few pictures for this blog tonight how impossible it is to share or show Canaletto’s art and those of his followers and rivals through small reproductions. It’s the loss of the intense bright light that comes especially from Canaletto, the exquisitely careful details so crowded together inside an enormous canvas of buildings and boats and walkways and people as seen across a vast expanse from some specific angle, Canaletto’s playful beautifully caught individual people going about their lives, many very poor, and their things (wash hanging out, at their trade), dogs (but no cats) — and especially his texture you lose, of the ground, of the water, of the people’s clothes. The subtexts. And yet one wants to share, just a little

Canaletto, from, a drunken man and his friends, from The Molo from the Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day, 1733

What did I learn I didn’t know before? Most centrally that the kinds of tiny photographic details of the ordinary life of Venetians I thought must be rare moments in Canaletto’s paintings are everywhere for someone who is looking at the painting for real:

Canaletto: plants on a roof

The fun strange moment of the day was when Izzy and I found ourselves standing over three boxes called camera obscura and looked down. We saw in one, in a kind of dark mirror, the esplanade outside the museum we were in; in another box, the mezzanine. Both set up as a picture in perspective. Like a little dark movie. We knew we were seeing something from where we were, something happening right then, live, as we saw people moving about, figures in the mirror and above them was a marquee of the museum! So this is how the painter managed to see these scenes. He would put together several such boxes or have bigger ones.

And so to the story of the making of the veduto by Canaletto and his rivals. Basically this art form of subgenre of picture emerged when a Dutch painter, Luca Carlevarijs (1663-1670) started to fulfill the desire of the wealthy English who traveled to Italy to bring home memorabilia, especially pictures of what they had spent so much to see: what was wanted were prestigious ones of ceremonies, rituals, famous places. He too produced the vast scene, less distinct:

Carlevarijs, Piazzo San Marco

and he produced the vignettes of ordinary people within them — only his are more heroicized:

When Canaletto left off scene design to produce views, his work was recognized as superior pretty quickly but he had to work to market it and get a wealthy clientele. This is the sort of thing that sold best:

Canaletto, Piazzo San Marco (1723)

What I like is this one:

Canaletto, The Campo SantiGiovanni e Paolo, about 1725

The dry hard colors, rotting buildings, un-renovated ground, real people of The Campo Santi Giovanni et Paolo, and dream visions like the one that prefaces this blog: San Christoforo, San Michele and Marano from the Fuondamenta Nuove

One rival who gave Canaletto some trouble was Michele Marieschi (1710-1743): Marieschi came from the very poor and his prices were very low, his pictures while far more blurry, less energetic, seemed to serve the purpose of showing off to friends that the patrons wanted:

Michele Mariesdchi, The Grand Canal

He too has these vignettes of people: here they are overdressed, seemingly in masquerade and ballroom or debauched array:

From The Grand Canal at San Geremia

I preferred the less well-known early rival, like John Richter (1665-1745), for the light:

The Entrance to the Grand Canal, looking east, with the Bridge of Boats (Festival of Madonna della Salute).

The story includes Canaletto’s nephew, Bernardo Bellotto (1722-1780). As Izzy and I experienced, Canaletto made use of a camera obscura to enable him to see the grand scene he could not have with his own eyes:

This box bears Canaletto’s name

Then his nephew would imitate his pictures so we saw twin pictures of the same buildings, boats, festival or ritual from the same angle. But he did not want to stay next to his uncle, copying, but create a career of his own and went north and painted in Dresden, Vienna, Turin, Warsaw. A characteristic piece: his figures are usually larger, heavier, the whole picture more stylized (more inert), less subtle:

Capriccio of the capitol

The story concludes with Guardi and Napoleon. Francesco Guardi as great a painter as Canaletto took the form in a new direction: impressionistic, melting away figures, achingly beautiful soft colors and original color lights, plus later 18th century masquerade artifice.

Francesco Guardi (1712-93), Piazza de San Marco: I love the lady in the pink dress

Truth to tell, my favorite picture of the day was

Guardi, Isola di Madonetta in the Lagoon, about 1780-90.

Napoleon is important because his actions put a stop to grand tours. When his wars were over, the worlds of Venice had been severely cut. In the 18th century the city was filled with gambling houses, shops and restaurants, pictures galore, 12 theaters. Much of this was gone. No patrons to want these expensive postcards to take back, end of the veduto.

I did go into one of the dark rooms and watched a 20 minute film where a narrator told me yet more of the art market then and now. It is true to say this is not an indigenous art reflective of the people of Venice, but of the buyers’ tastes, and thus when Canaletto when to England stayed there for 9 years painting many marvelous pictures, these had content perhaps more true to the aesthetic wanted than these Venetian pieces.

Canaletto: characteristic picture from his time in England

The film narrator finally made the point that today the image many people have of Venice comes from these painters. I liked seeing the photographs of the places in the pictures today.

I learned that Canaletto stands out as a great genius over his rivals, and the previous book I already had of his work in England (by Links, Canaletto) is a marvel of truth with more wonderful pictures than I had realized. I do think after all the pictures done in the UK are truer to the spirit of this genre which is meant to be a celebration of power and order and wealth, harmony and peace, something the Italian pictures are continually undercutting with their small subtextual vignettes and the many pictures of intense poverty-stricken areas of chaotic life kept down.

I should say gentle reader that my wall paper for this computer is Canaletto’s Northumberland House at Charing Cross, a picture of Trafalgar Square before it became Trafalgar Square — where if you look carefully you can pick out from the painting parts of the street’s curves still looking just the same.

Except for the adventure over those boxes I’m not sure Izzy liked this one as much as our adventures and the strikingly beautiful pictures on Boxing Day as these pictures were sort of still, and one can’t claim they are simply inspired by something within (except maybe Guardi’s visions, moments within Canaletto’s Italian and the whole of his English ones — which however were not part of this exhibit), but Jim and I share a taste for the same kind of art, and know about the era so that this was for us a rejuvenation.
For the rest, we went to the large Paul Gaugin exhibit and while I was open to have my view of Gaugin changed, instead it was reinforced. He may have led a remarkable life, but his pictures are fakes and much of it all about producing something startling and pseudo-primitive for a market.

A paradox: the exhibit about Canaletto limited itself to pictures he did for money, and the art marketplace (see my comments on a fuller fairer more interesting appraisal of Canaletto’s art); this exhibit on Gaugin was presented as not driven by commercial considerations and perhaps Gaugin fooled himself, but unlike Canaletto he could not get beyond his need to work the market to make money.

Indeed, other Venetian artists also fed a market I admit but their pictures are rooted in realities or some (to me) pleasurable vision.

Typical detail, person from a good Bellotto

Gaugin’s best pieces seemed to be the ones where he was following landscape conventions of the impressionists: the road not taken as Jim called it.

Then we went to lunch. Yummy quarter of a chicken for Izzy and for me, a small bottle of wine for Jim and I to share, he had some concoction of beef and sauce and french fries.

We went into the book and gift shop and looked about. Jim bought me the book of the Canaletto exhibit — whence some of the above images, gentle reader. I was tempted by handbags, jewelry, to look at further books, but resisted.

We then had some good moments walking about the museum’s collections: it did my heart good to stand in front of a Pissarro, to go over to Monet in the Chester Dale collection. We went upstairs and saw a Bellini (The Feast of the Gods). But by then we were tired. How much can you give of yourself? and take away within.

The day outside included walking down a vast hill of a garden to get to the Metro from where we live, and walking up again when we returned to get back. We were in the same area of DC where the Shakespeare theater is, other good museums, shops, restaurants, where Izzy likes to walk herself sometimes during the day. But my feet gave out.

We hope to take another trip this Thursday (to Richmond, Virginia), see a play on Friday night (Sean O’Casey, Juno and the Peacock) and Jim has now bought for and planned six excursions for the summer: to Castleton festival in mid-Virginia, to Glimmerglass (wow, very far) to see one opera and stay over night, to Wolf Trap (with picnics).

This first one went well.

Canaletto, Northumberland House at Charing Cross


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Antonio Canaletto (1697-1768), London, Whitehall and the Privy Gardens from Richmond House (1747)

Dear friends and readers,

A fifth foremother poet. In Slipshod Sibyls: Recognition and Rejection and the Woman Poet, Germaine Greer’s moving “Rochester’s Niece” on the life and poetry of Anne Wharton reveals a brilliant young woman poet whose life was brief and deeply unhappy (in all senses of the word). What she was was a great tragic satirist. She’s not the only one to write in this vein in her period: her uncle, John Wilmot does; so too Dryden in certain moods, Oldham. This was to write great poetry in her era: peers as women include Sarah Fyge Egerton, Anne Killigrew, in some moods Anne Finch, Elizabeth Thomas, Aphra Behn (who tends to the hard comic in her satire). While the oeuvre is small, it’s strong.

To begin with, I have four poems this time — a fifth follows a short life, and selections from a sixth longer one, an Heroide, will be found in the comments: a free translation/imitation where Wharton personates Penelope to Ulysses in Ovid’s way will be found in the comments. Penelope as an important icon for women is still with us (Margaret Atwood’s book).

I hope the poems will mostly speak for themselves to readers who can lend themselves to the older British prosody and plain spokenness of verse from the later 17th century

A powerful personal lyric, psychologically-conceived pictorial allegory rooted in real natural event:

On the Storm between Gravesend and Diepe; Made at that Time

When the Tempestuous Sea did foam and roar,
Tossing the Bark from the long-wish’d for Shore;
With false affected fondness it betray’d,
Striving to keep what Perish’d, if it stay’d.
Such is the Love of Impious Men, where e’re
Their cruel Kindness lights, ’tis to ensnare:
I, toss’d in tedious Storms of troubled Thought,
Was careless of the Waves the Ocean brought.
My Anchor Hope was lost, and too too near
On either hand were Rocks of sad Despair.
Mistaken Seamen prais’d my fearless Mind,
Which, sunk in Seas of Grief, could dare the Wind.
In Life, tempestuous Life is dread and harm,
Approaching Death had no unpleasing Form;
Approaching Death appeases ev’ry Storm.

A strong critique of social life(my favorite of her poems that I’ve been able to read):

Wit’s Abuse

I see not why Astrea fled away,
But wonder more, why any virtuous stay
In such a world, where they are made a scorn,
Oppress’d by numerous vice, mangled and torn
Wounded by laughter, and by wit forlorn.
I mean not here by wit, what’s truly so,
But that false coin which does for current go.
‘ Tis certain but a few can judgment make
Of such a gift, which but a few partake.
Ignorant judges may decide a cause,
Sooner against, than for concealed laws.
This is wit’s pledge, but few those precepts know,
Which many false pretenders overthrow.
And yet amongst those very few, there are
Some who betray that glorious character;
Whilst low-born falsehood goes for heavenly wit;
How many aim at what so few can hit?
The trade of hell was never had to get.
Thus these intruders double ends pursue,
Rooting out wit, they root out virtue too.
Soft pity passes now for servile fear,
A generous scorn of life for mean despair.
Truth and sincerity the fools proclaim,
Which witty falsehood always load with shame.
An active soul affected notions prove,
Out-flying common thoughts, or private love.
Thus tho’ each virtue in itself they hate,
They love to make it add to a deceit.
Undress’d ’tis scorn’d, but favour’d and allow’d.
When to the neighbouring vice it lends a cloud.
Thus the inconstant empress of the night,
Tho’ foul, and spotted, clothes herself with light,
And can with borrow’d beams be always bright.

An elegy for poetry (also above) and Rochester:

Elegy on the Earl of Rochester

Deep waters silent roll, so grief like mine
Tears never can relieve, nor words define.
Stop, then, stop your vain source, weak springs of grief,
Let tears flow from their eyes whom tears relieve.
They from their heads show the light trouble there;
Could my heart weep, its sorrows ‘twould declare:
Weep drops of blood, my heart, thou’st lost thy pride,
The cause of all thy hopes and fears, thy guide.
He would have led thee right in wisdom’s way,
And ’twas thy fault whene’er thou wentst astray;
And since thou strayedst when guided and led on,
Thou wilt be surely lost now left alone.
It is thy elegy I write, not his:
He lives immortal and in highest bliss.
But thou art dead, alas! my heart, thou’rt dead:
He lives, that lovely soul for ever fled,
But thou mongst crowds on Earth art buried.
Great was thy loss, which thou canst ne’er express,
Nor was th’ insensible dull nation’s less:
He civilized the rude and taught the young,
Made fools grow wise, such artful magic hung
Upon his useful, kind, instructing tongue.
His lively wit was of himself a part,
Not, as in other men, the work of art;
For, though his learning like his wit was great,
Yet sure all learning came below his wit;
As God’s immediate gifts are better far
Than those we borrow from our likeness here,
He was but I want words, and ne’er can tell;
Yet this I know, he did mankind excel.
He was what no man ever was before;
Nor can indulgent nature give us more,
For to make him she exhausted all her store.

A disillusioned song:

How hardly I conceal’d my Tears?
How oft did I complain?
When many tedious Days my Fears
Told me I Lov’d in vain.

But now my Joys as wild are grown,
And hard to be conceal’d:
Sorrow may make a silent Moan,
But Joy will be reveal’d

I tell it to the Bleating Flocks,
To every Stream and Tree,
And Bless the Hollow Murmuring Rocks,
For Echoing back to me.

Thus you may see with how much Joy
We Want, we Wish, Believe;
‘Tis hard such Passion to Destroy,
But easie to Deceive.

The one image of Anne that has come down to us is heavily stylized.

An unlived life: Anne’s father, Sir John Danvers, died of plague four months before she was born; Anne Danvers, her mother died after she gave birth to Anne. She and her sister were made the responsibility of Anne, Countess of Rochester, John Wilmot’s mother. Rochester’s mother is not presented as having affectionate or tender feelings ever for anyone. After her niece was “deflowered” by Henry Mordaunt, 2nd Earl of Peterborough (the two events may not have been linked), she married Anne off in 1673 at age 14 to Thomas Wharton, referred to as a sportsman and politician. Wharton was one of the debauched wit set to which her uncle, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester belonged. Apparently Peterborough paid a servant to give him access to Anne and raped her. The marriage to Wharton produced no discernible relationship between the two except that he bullied her. The one genuine companionate relationship, congenial and supportive she had was with her uncle. Some scurrilous writing at the time said they were lovers, but from their poetry it doesn’t seem so. They seem to have been uncle and niece. She manifested a very bad illness (very painful) by the time she was 11 and is said to died in wretched suffering at age 26.

I hope her life will make the final poem of this blog understandable.

Complaints are not listened to:

To Melpomene against complaint

In soft Complaints no longer ease I find,
That latest refuge of a Tortur’d Mind;
Romantick Heros may their Fancy please
In telling of their Griefs to senceless Trees.
‘Tis now to me no pleasure to rehearse
A doleful Tale in Melancholy Verse!
Men are more Deaf than Trees, more Wild than Seas:
Complaints and Tears will sooner Storms appease,
Than draw soft pity from an Humane Breast.
All Sooth the Happy, and Despise the Opprest.
Each Man who lives, of sorrow hath his share,
Or else of Pride, and cannot pity spare,
For those whose weight is more than one can bear.
All who are happy, do their Merit boast,
Think Heaven ows ‘em more, and Heav’n is Just.
Still they observe the Opprest with Partial Eyes,
And think their Crimes draw Vengeance from the Skies.
But were they gentle, pitiful, and mild,
Not (as they are) rough, unconcern’d and wild.
What Joy can pity bring on other’s Grief?
For what I feel, affords me no relief;
To see another’s Eyes with pity melt,
For wretched me, would add to what I felt.
Since in Complaints there can no ease be found,
For such an Heart as mine in sorrow drown’d.

Anne Wharton does not belong to the set of women who experienced the civil war, but was a member of the next generation which reacted to and against the religiosities and (to them) hypocritical idealisms of the mid-century. Her prosody is that of this group whose most famous woman poet was Aphra Behn. The poem to Rochester shows that like Behn (who also wrote a beautiful elegy to Rochester), Anne Wharton was one of those who saw and appreciated all his finest qualities. I really love “Wit’s Abuse.” She is said to have left 24 poems and 1 play.

In her Eighteenth-Century Women Poets and Their Poetry, Paula Backscheider has credited her with a poem I think written by Anne Finch: All Flie th’unhappy, and all I would flie

The tone, prosody, simple language and rhythms of the sentences are wholly unlike Wharton’s; they are close in spirit and resemble many of Finch’s. Finch’s attraction to a line like: “”Survey those glittering Particles of Light” is quintessentially typical of her. The plangent tone is her. A typical melancholy withdrawing couplet, down to the use of one syllable words:

Yes, here I’m lost, for none of all the dead
Return to tell what a Soul is when fled.

The attribution was originally contemporary and is repeated in Chadwyck-Healey too.

Backscheider also says that Wharton’s elegy to Rochester was noticed by other writers and she was “an eminent” poet in the era. I would like to think so too, but the probability is she was mostly ignored and then forgotten (see Greer); at any rate there’s no evidence for wide respect. Yes she was praised by Edmund Waller and John Dryden and exchanged verses with Behn.

I took the poems I present from Germaine Greer, Susan Hastings, Jeslyn Medoff, Melinda Sansone, edd. Kissing the Rod: An Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Women’s Verse; Joy Fullard, ed. British Women Poets 1660-1800: An Anthology; Paula Backscheider and Catherine E. Ingrassia, British Women Poets of the Long Eighteenth Century.


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Demelza goes fishing to provide food (1975-76 Poldark, Episode 11)

Dear Friends and Fellow Readers,

GMU’s spring break is upon us, so I’ve decided to write a blog about where I am in my life just now. Seasonal taking-stock.

A while back the Admiral and I decided we would not go to the 18th century conference (at Vancouver) this year. Too far and too expensive. Now he has proposed (and bought tickets for, reserved train seats even) a series of day trips and excursions for next week. To Richmond, Virginia to see a exhibit of Picasso’s art. To the National Galley in DC one day. Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Peacock one evening. A ballet another. Izzy will come to some of it — did you see she and I went to Stars on Ice this past Sunday?

I’m beginning to see that I cannot both accomplish my book on the Austen movies and write papers for conferences, no matter how gratifying it is to join in this way, to see what I write become published (or put it on my website).

I have kept my word to myself and am following my own trails more (foremother poet blogs is one of them) and have re-read more of the books I assign my students this year with them (instead of relying on reading them ahead), watched movies slightly ahead as well as reading outside books on these books and movies.

I am close reading an Austen letter each week, and reading in a controlled way with a couple of people on my 3 listserv communities.

I’ve succeeded in helping Izzy to find some social and therapy groups, and gone myself to one.

All this has produced (paradoxically) a little extra time and (as hoped) occasional periods of happiness. Shall I catalogue for you where I’ve experienced the authentic?

Well, for teaching and for myself I’ve reread Winston Graham’s Ross Poldark. I thought to myself this morning while reading it, the happiest time during the day is when I’m reading this book. The true feeling in it is so deeply congenial, so adult. Graham has found a form (historical novel set in 18th century) with just the right characters to allow him to speak his vision of the world, create what he dreams of, speak home. I’ll go on to Demelza once again.
Now and again I dip into a book on historical novels.

So even if I don’t write a paper on historical novels set in the 18th century, I’m finding meaning that matters to me this way. And along with these I’m re-watching the Poldark series and just loving them.

Ross Poldark fixing his pipe by fireplace, his curtains drawn, he’s been paid to allow smugglers to use Nampara Cove; with this he can open Wheal Grace again and farm (Episode 11)

Last night I watched Episode 12. Sometimes I take very good notes and when I’ve done I’ll make a few blogs out of the material.

I’ve returned to my Austen movies book. This is a trial to my spirit — to see how self-indulgent I was and to have to re-write and re-formulate again. Here my “extra” hour a day movie has been the 2009 Emma (screenplay writer Sandy Welch): I am startled how much it focuses on Mr Knightley (Jonny Lee Miller) and how lengthy and developed are his scenes with Emma. It picks out the underlying pathos of Austen’s book to make that what it has to show us that matters. Much has to be sacrificed from the actual book in order to do this as the film is but four hours.

A pathos in the father and daughter scenes, so alone and eager

I am trying to read Julianne Pidduck’s Contemporary Costume Film. Admittedly I’ve not gotten very far …

I’ve been reading Randall Jarrell and about him preparatory to reading with my students his The Animal Family and came across this line: “The soul learns fortitude in libraries”. On WWTTA we are (Fran and I) reading Ingeborg Bachmann’s collected poems as translated by R Firkin, and I cannot speak too highly of these. Here’s one we’ve been going over the last couple of days:

Autumn Maneuver

I don’t say: ah, yesterday. With worthless
summer money pocketed, we lie again
on the chaff of scorn, in time’s autumn maneuver.
And the escape southward isn’t an option for us
as it is for the birds. Across the way, at evening,
trawIers and gondolas pass, and sometimes
a splinter of dream-filled marble pierces me
in the eye, where I am most vulnerable to beauty.

In the papers I read about the cold
and its effects, about fools and dead men,
about refugees, murderers and myriads
of ice floes, but little that comforts me.
Why should it be otherwise? In the face of the beggar
who comes at noon I slam the door, for we live in peacetime
and one can spare oneself such a sight, but not
the joyless dying of leaves in the rain.

Let’s take a trip! Let’s stroll under cypresses
or even under palms or in the orange groves
to see at reduced rates sunsets
that are beyond compare! Let’s forget
the unanswered letters to yesterday!
Time works wonders. But if it arrives inconveniently
with the knocking of guilt: we’re not at home.
In the heart’s cellar, sleepless, I find myself again
on the chaff of scorn, in time’s autumn maneuver.

With my students I again read and talked of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake: how enough of them read and responded deeply to it, how I did. And how we reveled in Mira Nair’s movie of the same name. I spent a few hours on Sunday watching the feature where Nair discussed her motives, methods, and offered montages.

On the one side of the screen, Ashoke (Irrhan Khan) and on the other Ashima (Tabu), the dream using bleached-bypass for melancholy harshness amid the tenderest of lyrical feeling

I finally found that CD recording of Philip Madoc reading all of Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago that had gone missing. Whew! I thought I had lost it. So ordered CD recording of Donada Peters reading all of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. Can now await it in guiltless peace. Pleasures of this past month included listening to CD recording of Juliet Stevenson reading aloud all of Austen’s Mansfield Park. Extraordinary variety of nuanced tones. So have her reading Northanger Abbey now too and Izzy and I start tomorrow.

We (she & I) even made plans to start a tiny garden of flowers.

So, you see, how it’s going — at least some of it. I can’t tell all. But of deep unhappiness there also has been plenty.

One area of grief and loss I have to get over, conquer it: it seems that I’m going to have to do without regular correspondences from friends. This had helped to sustain my spirit. Each day, sometimes it seems by the hour, people fall away from the original hopes and enthusiasms they had for a different kind of experience on the Net — from the thoughtful inward writing self. It’s natural that when life style changes or a job does, people haven’t the time they once had. (My life style never does seem to change.) More have been lost in the last three weeks or so than in a long time — or I’m aware of the loss of several. This time not my fault. No fights on lists. One just cold, another (apparently) bored.

Well for those of us who stay on the Net, bringing genuine content to it, emailing to one another offlist, sharing lives, emailing on list, sharing books, now on Facebook, sharing URLs, and thoughts, keeping up a blog, journalizing, my guess is they are as alone and lonely as I feel. Quite probably from different circumstances and what led to this in each case I do not, cannot know, but this need does not bind people together from the point of view of the content of what they write. Only the sheer writing.

I tell myself my poem “I on Myself Can Live.” I like the Portland ms version better. The couplets I used to hold onto were these:

Pleasures, and Praises, and Company with me
Have their Just Vallue, if allow’d they be . . .
If they’re deny’d, I on my Selfe can live
Without the aids a cheating World can give

Other areas I cannot conquer. Such as no job for Izzy, Jim’s loss of his, my lack of any effective practical help. I must take the long view of centuries and remind myself the cruel impoverishing economic world that has been set up to destroy all but the wealthy and well-connected and any public sphere is but a return to what was before the mid-20th century. If Jim, I and Izzy are now put where we would have been, we have been left here with the money and house he and I did manage to accumulate before the world was changed back. I and Jim and Izzy have had our moments at wonderful universities and on trips abroad that cannot be taken away. Apres nous, le deluge.

Our two pussycats won’t outlive us, and Jim thinks we probably have enough to see the three of us out. I can only hope so.


Thursday night into Friday morning

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Castello di Valsinni where Isabella di Morra lived out most of her brief life

Dear friends and readers,

A fourth in my new series of foremother poet blogs. Unfortunately Isabella di Morra’s fame (such as it is) derives from her having been beat to death (it’s said in more than one source) by 3 of her brothers “to cleanse the family honor.” They had discovered her correspondence with a Spanish nobleman, Don Diego Sandoval de Castor (married to Donna Antonia Caracciolo of Naples). They murdered the tutor who had facilitated the correspondence. They then ambused and killed Diego. They did have to flee Italy for a time after that.

Understandably, one of the dominating themes of her tiny extant corpus is isolation:

Four sonnets:


I write about the fierce assaults of Fortune,
The cruel one, and mourn my hapless youth.
Living in such a base and ugly country,
I waste my life without all recognition.
I seek a worthy sepulcher, though lowly
My cradle was, by following the Muses,
And hope to find somewhere some sympathy
In spite of Fate, so cruel, harsh and blind.
And with the favor of those goddesses,
Even without my body, with freed soul,
I hope on happier shores to be acclaimed.
Perhaps there lives a high king in this world
Who may preserve in everlasting marble
This mortal shroud in which I am confined.


From a high mountain top, where one can see
The waves, I, your sad daughter Isabella,
Gaze out for sight of any polished ship
Coming to bring me news of you, my father.
But my adverse and cruel destiny
Permits no solace for my aching heart,
But, enemy to any thought of pity,
Turns all my firmest hopes into laments.
For I see neither oar cutting the sea,
Nor any sail that billows in the wind,
So solitary is this dismal shore.
So I can only curse my evil Fortune
And hold in hatred this unhappy place
The only source of my tormented life.


Here once again, infernal rocky valley,
O Alpine rivers, ruinous high peaks,
O broken spirits stripped of every virtue,
You will now hear my plaints, my endless sorrow.
And every mountain, every cave shall hear me
Wherever I may stop, wherever go,
For Fortune, never stable, does not tarry,
But everlastingly adds to my pain.
While I lament, forever, night and day,
O beasts, o rocks, o melancholy ruins,
Uncultivated woods, o lonely caves,
Howl still with me, unriddling my grief,
And weep with me; in high continuous voices
Bewail my misery, worse than all others.


0 turbid Siri, careless of my grief,
Now that I feel so close to my life’s end,
Make known my sorrow to my loving father
If ever bitter Fate lets him return.
Tell him how, by my death, I will escape
My harsh misfortune and my niggard fate,
And, as a rare and piteous example,
I will entrust my sad name to your waves.
As soon as he regains your rocky shoreline —
Why do you make me think of this, fierce star?
How I am robbed and shorn of every good! —
Stir up your restless currents with great storms
And say, “I grew so great while she was living,
Through — not the eyes — rivers of Isabella.”

She was born to one of these powerful Italian families during an era of fierce brutal conflict over who would control Italy: French powerful people, Charles V and his gangs, or Spain, or local baron types. Her family’s territories were located in Favale, between Calabria and Basilicata, and after her father emigrated to the French court of Francois I (having sided with the French at one point), she was left to the un-tender mercies of brothers who distrusted culture and kept this sister isolated from social contact. When she speaks of an infernal landscape, she is literally accurate as the castle of Favale was located high up in a very arid region, near a small river, the Siri (now called Sinni).

She managed to educate herself through reading, and her books included Petrarch and Dante. The third sonnet (above, No. 7) shows her familiarity with Dante’s Inferno. Thirteen poems survived, and her poetry appeared in early anthologies (the second half of the 16th century) as wellas her life story. The early history of the publications of her poetry (which allowed it to come down to us today) is told in Women Poets of the Renaissance: Courtly Ladies and Courtisans from which I took the poems in translation by Laura Anna Stortoni and Mary Prentice Lille. They provide a good bibliography of recent scholarly articles and books. Attention was again called to her in the early 20th century by Benedetto Croce, who edited her Rime with a selection of poems by Diego Sandoval de Castro and provided a critical essay.

In 1975 a convention on poetry was held in the Bailicata region where she was the figure said to be honored.

Her style is described by herself “amaro, aspro e dolente” (bitter, harsh, and grieving). So too is Vittoria Colonna’s style often “amaro.” She writes strongly, directly, simply. Stortoni and Lille also include Morra’s second canzone which contains lines like “I shall speak out, though rough and weak my style,/And tell a little of my inner pain … among the uncouth ways/Of people lacking reason, short of wit,/Where robbed of any help,/I am constrained to live a narrow life,/Placed her alone, in blind oblivion.”

I first read about her and her poetry in a long essay by Benedetto Croce (Scritti di Storia letterarai et politica: Vite di adventure di fede e di passione, 1936), and then went on to Domenico Bronzini, Isabella di Morra, con l’edizitioni del canzoniere (Matera: Montenmorro Edition, 1975). Another booklength study is Giovanni Caserta, Isabella Morra e la societa: Meridionale del Cinquecento (Matera: Edizioni Meta, 1976). I also recommend Juliana Schiesari’s The Gendering of Melancholia: Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Symbolics of Loss in Renaissance Literature.

There seems hardly anything said of her mother. She had no say in this murder killing or if she did (was complicit) it was not mentioned. She is described as someone who did reach a “fragile age.” Isabella’s poems talk of her longing for her father as the one person she can imagine who might help her. So I wonder who Isabella’s mother was. what was her atitude? At any rate Isabella couldn’t reach anyone who would help her and no one did any thing for her for

There are several online sites the interested reader can peruse for information and insight: a brief [dry] biography by Margaret E. Kern which cites editions of her work and has a bibliography up to the 1990s; a longer (more evaluative biography and assessment by Diana Robin from The Encyclopedia of Women in the Renaissance: France, Italy, England; an Italian account by Vincenzo Napolillo, “Isabella Morra e Diego Sandoval Castellano di Cosenza” where the reader will view another of these fortresses which played a significant role in the era:

Cosenza Castello;

and the Italian wikipedia article: “Isabella di Morra”, which will take you to the IMDB site for the film which tells you exactly nothing. I hope to ask Jim to download the film and report back sometime after this coming weekend.

The deeper interest of the life of this unfortunate woman (no survivor, unlucky — the contrast would be the English example of Anne Vavasour) is in the issues of violence inflicted on women and honor-killing. I chose Isabella for this week because I just sent off a review of Mary Trouille’s Wife Abuse in 18th century France, to be published next September in the Eighteenth-Century Intelligencer.

The origin of wife abuse is just that of rape, honor-killing: women are regarded as not valuable is at the core of all the violence allowed (as Frances Power Cobbe demonstrated). So a must-read, my gentle reader. Jacqueline Rose’s review of the following 3 books for the LRB, Nov 5th, 31:21, their 30th anniversary issue: Murder in the Name of Honour by Rana Husseini; In Honour of Fadime: Murder and Shame by Unni Wikan, translated by Anna Paterson; Honour Killing: Stories of Men Who Killed by Ayse Onal Saqi. Rose looks beneath the rationale of a subsidence economy.

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652), a detail from a series of the Life of the John the Baptist.

The life of Artemisia and modern novels based on it (by Anna Banti for example), will be part of our terrain,

Ellen on a women’s poet’s life she was never allowed to live, poetry never allowed to develop, all ended brutally.

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An illustration for Gaskell’s Ruth

Dear Friends and readers,

I’m sad to have to report we seem to have come to an end of our not quite a year of reading Elizabeth Gaskell on my two listserv communities.

What had enabled us to keep on came to an end: three volumes of short stories (Cousin Phillis and other tales, The Moorland Cottage and other stories, A Dark Night’s Work and other Stories), which included two novellas, plus one longer or separately-printed novella, My Lady Ludlow, all of which were online, about which I’ve written two blog: Elizabeth Gaskell festival and Still Going On. About a quarter into her brilliant historical novel, Sylvia’s Lovers, postings ceased altogether. One of the causes of my dereliction was I got caught up in writing a paper on film adaptations of Trollope’s novels with a short deadline; what made the others cease altogether I know not for sure.

I proposed that we return to our original scheme which had been read Cranford (really a fourth volume of short stories) and Mr Harrison’s Confessions (another separately reprinted novella) before going on for a longer novel. As of tonight this is not happening.

So I thought tonight I would write a third and last blog on My Lady Ludlow and Sylvia’s Lovers, since for me this three season journey has been enjoyable: I enjoyed and feel most of the stories (as well as aspects of Sylvia’s Lovers) are fine, authentic, good art, feel I have understood some core aspects of Gaskell’s writing for the first time, and gained a good deal from the postings of listserv friends.

I did love My Lady Ludlow & was exhilarated to find Sylvia’s Lovers so rich in history and downright radical. Alas its heroine & her parents were insufferable (to me) and the book was not at core a melancholy one … I should say the powerful inset story in My Lady Ludlow takes place in the 18th century and Sylvia’s Lovers is a novel set in the later 18th century — just the period of the middle Poldark novels. If you look at my other two blogs on Gaskell, you will discover that this is an era (long 18th century, from later 17th to later 18th) Gaskell returns to repeatedly.


Francesca Annis as Lady Ludlow (Cranford Chronicles)

My Lady Ludlow, Chapters 1-4

I started My Lady Ludlow and found myself charmed by the picturesque quality of the description, the sweetly appealing (nostalgia) tone. It’s very much a tale by a woman again, as the outlook is a compound of a widow left with so many children and desperately writing for help, getting none until a cousin agrees to take Margaret, the eldest into her household.

The introduction of Margaret is done in two voices; that of the young girl come there for the first time, and the older woman looking back. The older woman looking back softens considerably the asperity of this crisply hard experience.

I did see the first six of the Cranford Chronicles and know threading in this novel into the Cranford material gave some hard backbone to the series. Francesca Annis was Lady Ludlow and Philip Glenister, Mr Carter, her male servant who tries to persuade her to give a chance to a little boy.

What strikes me this time though comes out of my experience of reading Trollope: this is a remarkably kindly and benign way of describing a woman who while she will give a few people a chance to survive has principles and behavior which are very cruel in their effect. She is against education for anyone but the highest ranking. She would deprive most people of any opportunity to fulfill their gifts. She sends a young girl away for daring to speak eagerly. Trollope does the same thing, takes a woman (often it’s a woman) and make as almost a sweet joke of these pernicious attitudes. I wonder at this impulse and why writers do this — to get themselves to accept this? to exorcise pain this way. The effect is to justify the present order because humanly speaking to make the fiction palatable they frequently show such a woman giving in despite herself. It is despite herself.

As I moved into the novella, I remembered what I liked so about it: the narrator, Martha, becomes a crippled young woman on a couch whom Lady Ludlow takes in for life. It’s her tone and outlook that shape the book and make it (to me) appealing.

The stories of Mr Horner and Joe Gregside carry on this justification of cruelty. This is where I saw the intersection of Dinesen while the fable like presentation and love of old things, old aesthetics, fine, good taste is Cather.

It also has an embedded tragic back story — like gothics. A story that has a hard time getting told and it’s the Marquise de Crequy. That was (terrific loss) omitted from the TV presentation, instead the back story of Lady Ludlow — loss of husband, so many children, living alone now was built up. it’s a secondary novella, a powerful melodramatic tale of the French revolution recounted in My Lady Ludlow. Could this have influenced Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, as the dates tie in well. I haven’t noticed any strong similarities between the two in terms of the plot or characters – but the dark emotional atmosphere is quite similar. We see she is on the wave length of Carlyle and those who read about the revolution because it remained hotly relevant even in the UK, certainly in France (1830, 1870 – when a slaughter of people was done by the French government which equaled the Reign of Terror so talked about so much.

This inset novella adds to the weaving of the poverty and despair of some of the inhabitants into its portrait of small-town life. There was a powerful moment in the the TV episode where Lady Ludlow comes face to face with just how some of her tenants live, and is lost for words

The result is a back story put before the public that upholds the present order, and the erasure of the novel’s true back story that give it its real grit and subversive critique.

Like Dinesen, Gaskell has a narrator (Margaret Dawson on her couch) who then gives way to narrators. It’s an intricate fiction with levels of pastness and memory. Stunning that it was forgotten until this film adaptation. Also the very interest in the French revolution which one finds in women writers as disparate as Suzy McKee Charnas (Dorothea Dreams) and Isobel Colegate.

There is a servant, Martha, in Cranford: Claudie Blakeley played the role in the film adaptation

Chapters 7-9: An inset story from the past: a Paul et Virginie tales of the French revolution

The inset novella is very moving towards the end: I said last time it made me think of people in concentration camps waiting for death, people fleeing pogroms; at the close when both young people are in prison together, find comfort in their last days (even though he is badly wounded) and then guillotined reminded me closely of the atmosphere of Bernardine de Saint-Pierre very late tragic romance tale, Paul et Virginie. It was translated by Helen Maria Williams and influenced Sand (Indiana). There is an English translation online; I don’t know good it is, I can vouch for the beauty, poignancy of Williams’s.

It’s a tale which insists on the cruelty of people to one another casually and at large, on how much chance played a part in who died — as well as personal vendettas, anger, greed (just like in the 1950s in the US against socialists, communists and France in the later 1940s against those who were high up in the Vichy regime). I find myself identifying and in a way (perhaps this is intended) having a La Rochefouauld response: maybe I should not lament my troubles for how far worse is this (“there is something in the misery of others &c&c). I’m drawn to this material too because of my interest in the 18th century.

It does help justify the cruelty of Lady Ludlow for being this utter snob and considering anyone of the lower orders ontologically different from those in the upper she sees all the betrayals of the two young aristocratic lovers as facilitated by their lower class keepers knowing how to read and write. She puts the revolution down to education — which perhaps is a real cause of it.

Gaskell does immediately enough show that Lady Ludlow’s refusal to allow Mr Horner to make a clerk of the gifted little boy and her wanting to put him in the fields is keen cruelty. It made me think of communist and other revolutions where people of gifts and middle class are forced to work in the fields — spite is behind this in these regimes (like spite is behind some of what the Tories, Republicans and other new reactionary masters around the world are doing to their people when they rack up the prices of colleges out fo reach of most young adults without horrendous debts).

Then we get a return to another paradigm of hers: Miss Galinda takes in crippled people to serve and work for her, providing them with a decent place. We saw in her early short stories how often she recurred to the pattern of a mother-figure taking on a disabled child/brother. Miss Galindo takes in one such person, deformed, who had a very ill temper — Gaskell is not an idealist. Again My Lady Ludlow has to be lied to about this. It’s a very curious center for a book. I’ve seen Trollope do this but not so relentlessly and admit I much prefer a Mr Harding.

Linda wrote:

Lady Ludlow seems to believe that only chaos and bedlam can result in giving the underclasses their due. She doesn’t believe for a second that they will be better off–she thinks the world will be turned upside down and the natural order of things will be destroyed. It is not only that she wants to hold onto her position and wealth that makes her deplore the idea of education for the underprivileged. She really believes it is a bad idea all around. In a way it resembles those in the South before the Civil War who didn’t believe that blacks could take care of themselves and handle freedom. Yes, there was economics involved but also a terror of changing the social order.

To which I replied:

I might be suggested this dreadful woman is put at the center of the fiction to make us see how the mind of aristocrats worked. Well, it doesn’t quite wash or convince since Lady Ludlow is idealized. She has really no mean, sordid, envious, jealous, ordinarily spiteful (&c) characteristics a realistically conceived character would have; plus many of the aristocrat emigres, counter-revolutionaries had anything but high principles to motivate them. Read Stael’s Delphine and you come across the same kinds of ruthless horrors that once in a while take off their masks in public: say that CEO who came before Congress last year.

My Lady Ludlow like Dinesen and Cather’s books of this type is fable. Dinesen gets us to accept her reactionary point of view that way, and Cather her nostalgic dwelling in the aesthetics of the past.

From Fran:

The line that stood out for me in Lady Ludlow was her comment, ‘I always said a good despotism was best form of government’ and the story was indeed reminiscent of the cult of personality built up around some of the so-called ‘enlightened’ despots of the past.

Interesting to me, too, was the fact that while she had been so adamant about not wanting to educate the masses, Lady Ludlow’s own increasing enlightenment was furthered by the lessons she herself was taught by the example of her presumed inferiors.

I brought up Trollope’s Mr Harding because he too is an idealized exemplary center: he is given a few more unadmirable traits: he’s a coward (a big no-no), he’s (albeit comically) super-sensitive, but he is made lovable because all his principles tend to strict real justice and kindness. He’s capable of overlooking principles to do a kindness too (which Lady Ludlow is not).

I was chuffed to find that Uglow saw the inset story as in the French tradition — and her account reminded me the heroine’s name is Viriginie. I should have thought of that: yes, an allusion to Pierre de St Bernardine’s tale then. Uglow’s account dwells on the present time story and contrasts Lady Ludlow with Miss Galindo, and apparently what is to come is an awakening and change of heart in Lady Ludlow. Finally when Lady Ludlow personally encounters rural misery and poverty she is against the laws of the time that keep all this in place. Uglow admits the story is “a gentle rural wished-for revisions of history.” Then Uglow looks at some of the comedy at Lady Ludlow’s expense — ironies.

The novel reminds me of modern Booker Prize type books where we have these inset embedded novellas from the past which contrast to an ameliorated present.

We might see it as a counter to stories like “Lois the Witch,” “The Grey Woman” and many others we’ve read of strong injustice perpetrated without recourse.

Philip Glenister, Lady Ludlow’s steward, a good man (Mr Horner in the novel becomes Mr Carter in Cranford Chronicles)

Chapters 10-14: The conclusion

Back to the present time story and Lady Ludlow begins to retrieve herself: when confronted with real misery, her instincts are at least right when it comes to an individual. So Harry Gregson has had a bad accident, is miserably crippled and now it’s clear to put him in the fields would be monstrous. It took that, though.

I’ve been ignoring the narrator: Martha Dawson, it’s her love for this woman who has been kind to her that makes for the tone.

I finished the novella and by the end finally saw that the whole book should really be seen as Margaret Dawson’s story. I suppose we might say the book qualifies as a gothic because it has taken all novel long for me to realize what is the back story, what the story that was trying to get itself told and finally did.

The tone of the novel — finding Lady Ludlow lovable, the buying into Lady Ludlow’s values (or at least not critiquing them) is to be put down to this narrator who is not Gaskell. We read several stories by Gaskell where she takes on the tone of arristocracy worshippers, naive people we are to see. I have to say it still can and does function to support the present hierarchies of our world.

She is writing from memory and present life up north with a brother who while he is kind is nothing like the one in My Lady Ludlow. There are hints that her life now is one of loneliness, deprivation and hardship, particularly as a cripple. We might say this is another disability story, one told by the disabled person for once.

The last part of the novel has Mr Gray emerge who ends up marrying Bessy, the illegitimate daughter of Gibson who is rejected by the snobbery and narrow-mindedness (very like Lady Ludlows) of the Galindo family. The daughter who is led to reject him suffers in the sense that she has been deprived of a lived life. It’s all done by indirection — this last section is startlingly kept off stage: we only see the characters as Margaret sees them, but enough is told to show us what sensitive decent hero Mr Gray is and Captain James. At the end of the story after all the little boy who was crippled for life and Lady Ludlow would have deprived of education and put to work as a laborer ends up the rector and happily in a home with loving wife.

Fairy tale which exonerates Lady Ludlow by how she is individually humane – and she is and by the fact that our author (who is Goddess of the book, the presiding spirit) gives everyone happy endings. At the end all the Lady Ludlow professed to believe in has been overturned and she is accepting. Illegitimate children grow up to marry well; people marry out of their order, are educated.

She also took Margaret in and would have kept her all her life if Margaret had wanted to stray. quietly we are to wonder if biology should trump deep friendship. Lady Ludlow is a Sergeant George figure after all — I’m thinking of Dickens’s Bleak House and how the Sergeant is in a tender companionship relationship with Phil and supports him utterly. (Ours is turning back to be a world where this is all the safety net there is for lots of people).

Miss Galindo is a parallel to Lady Ludlow: another of these apparently narrow, bigoted women who turns out to be a kind fairy godmother to a few people. Now I feel she’s a parallel to Margaret: Miss Galindo is herself a cripple, ugly (we are told) and has built herself a happy life by serving others, especially Miss Bessy, child of Gibson.

The one person we do not hear of except by indirection is Bessy’s mother. An unwed mother who presumably died — or what? I cannot believe Mr Gibson would have thrown her off.

I loved the tone of the ending, the kindness of the book. I can see why it was threaded into the filmic Cranford now, for it belong in its matriarchy, attention to the vulnerable and hurt, to women especially.

The structure of the story (not the length of installments), with this weaving process whereby the effect is cyclical is typical of women’s art. I have Hughes’s book too and Dickens’s complaint was that there was not enough suspense and not enough action: one of the things that makes for the present situation where some 75-90% of what is published by men is that men are the editors, publishers, and owners, and they want structures that are what you are calling dramatic: high drama. Dickens pushed Gaskell to change her “Old Nurse’s Story” to make that lurid ghost scene at the end.
The structure Gaskell opted for is a repetitive one where things are held back, indirect; the outline Hughes gives is the “conscious” narrative but even that is this gradual inward kind of thing.

It was not my point what either of us liked or not, but that the art here is l’ecriture-femme as the French women critics have described it — the most classic case is Virginia Woolf and the book about this (alas just in French) Didier’s L’Ecriture-Femme. She has a long chapter on Woolf.

This idea is a commonplace now when Hermione Lee defended Ian McEwan’s Atonement against the ridicule of the critics she said (what the narrator in the book tells us) it’s an imitation of Woolf, and (Lee’s words) a man writing in female drag.


Winslow Homer, Early Evening (1881), cover for edition of Sylvia’s Lovers

We see two women in the dark light, waiting on a rock, with a fisherman sitting near them, perhaps like Trollope’s Mally (“Malachi’s Cove”), they are remembering someone who did not come home alive.

Sylvia’s Lovers, Chapters 1-6

I began this today and just fell in. The last time I read a book which so gradually puts you into a landscape, step-by-step, first physically, then socially, then economically, was Hugo’s Les Miserables. I could picture Yorkshire, northeast, the seacoast, the agricultural farm land redolent of whale oil, the bridges, the different levels of houses, with outlying ones avoiding “contamination” of the smell of the source of wealth.

She enters into the outlook of sheep at moments, and then in passing what whaling is about: it reminded me of how cruel it really is: the people are killing whales for the oil. No crueller than this pressing where you snatch people (as in slavery), imprison them and then flog them into obedience.

A sense of the 18th century landscape and its typical size, amount of people and places — very like what I’m reading at the same time in Miller’s Dance, the Cornish coast, mining and its worlds (that still include smuggling through Stephen Carrington).

Trollope has a slow build-up like this for American Senator where he builds up Dillsborough, its environs, its hunting clubs, and then its people.

It seemed Scott-too, high romance is not forgotten through memory: as the new castle are looking at replaced one where a throne-less queen landed — clearly Mary Queen of Scots, and before that a monastery. A sense of the wildness of this world is on the first page, but this granddaughter of Scott does not have a man glimpsed coming down the landscape.

Gaskell ends on the chapters with an analysis & description of those classes of people who supported the press-gangs: the landed gentlemen who didn’t have so much money as the merchants and commercial and whale-fishery men below them — and liked to see them in distress. Gaskell puts it nowhere as bluntly as that, but it’s what she means. Their wives who were glad to see the upper class types who ran the snatchers as possible husbands for their daughters.

Of course those in the gangs. Everyone professed to despise the actual snatchers but Gaskell says of these, whatever else they were, they were brave and daring and led an exhilarating life of adventure — she appeals to us to remember how human nature has “this strange love of chase,” of “outwitting” others.

In the film adaptation of Graham’s novels (set in the later 18th century in Cornwall) by Episode 6-7 we have the militia — corresponding to their appearance in the last half of Graham’s second novel, Demelza, and there we get these exhilarating clashes — but also the deaths they cause, the great misery, how they do prey on the locals and rationalize it as patriotism. Donald Douglas is superb as Captain MacNeil.

Chapter 2 zeroes in on the women’s matter or romance part of the novel if I may be allowed: both working class girls out to sell butter and eggs, but Sylvia the darling, an only child, and Molly (Mary) one of many. I’ll stop here as I didn’t get far, only remark the way to read this for me is to try to hear it aloud. Then I get the dialect — otherwise I’d have trouble.

The book is very good: in Chapters 3 and 4 we learn why it’s called Sylvia’s Lovers. Yes we have one of these supposedly charming heroines in Sylvia: I’m not charmed, no more than Molly. But the context is what matters: it reminds me a bit of Les Miserables where the characters were in effect emblems and types. They did appeal to me deeply (especially Jean Valjean) but like this it’s the larger picture they are part of that’s compelling. Gaskell recreates the place of Whitby in the previous century and she is drawn to the wild shores — as a southerners she was released by these; as someone who saw the mean streets of Manchester she saw an analogy up north too.

We have a scene of sudden pressing by the gangs; we are not at the scene, rather experience it as heard of by the women not far off and then the men, what they see of ravaged and distressed and betrayed people who were waiting for men relatives, friends, lovers to come off a whaler.

There’s an argument about pressing between Sylvia’s father and Philip Hepburn, his nephew, the man who works in the shop Sylvia and Molly patronize, and takes her home. Hepburn, our normative gentleman produces an argument which defends this cruelty. Hepburn does it by this reification: the underlying idea is individual belongs to some entity called a nation, and if X is good for the nation, so the individual must obey. So if the nation feels it needs to win a war in France, it must take (kidnap) men. If we cannot pay in taxes, we must pay in person.

Sylvia’s father retorts laws are made to keep people from harming one another.

I’ve no time or perhaps inclination to work out an argument, only say that there is no such thing as a nation that is unified by one interest. There are individuals who share an interest and can act as a group. The war in France would not help the poor individuals it murders one bit, none of the wealth that would accrue to those winning would be shared with them as at this time there was no decent progressive income tax and no social services worth the name.

Groot and Fleishman (two critics) argue that the historical novel of the 19th century is a serious instrument for presenting political visions in debate. Gaskell’s certainly is — let us see if she brings in issues of political moment which affect women as individuals and people, not just as the sisters, wives, daughters of powerless men

G. Morland, Smugglers

Ch 5-6: what a quiet radical is Gaskell; a film adaptation would be terrific

Chapters 5-6 are powerful and how Gaskell to be a radical, however quietly. She has thus far shown us the political context and who and why press-gangs were supported. Rather ugly some of these. Then how press-gangs are experienced by those who are waiting for and dependent on the men coming home from a long journey. Then who are these gangs. We meet our two heroines and go home with one, Sylvia Robson and a young man who produces a philosophical argument defending them. Our heroine’s father, Mr Robson knows a thing or two of that: laws are made or should be to protect people. If his representative votes for the gangs, he won’t get my vote. A man after my heart voting for his interest.

Then we get this uneasy slightly comic intimate scene where Mr Robson is this restless person who has no intellectual life but is himself old and partly crippled and in the bad weather has no where to go. The mother and daughter contrive to make him feel he’s the boss and the daughter concocts a scheme where a tailor is induced to visit on the supposition he’ll make a sale. Gaskell is quietly showing how superior the mother and daughter are to the father in many ways but she does uphold this way of keeping this man in charge. Still she makes their subservience visible and how in order to be comfortable they are pushed into being devious.

When the tailor comes in, he is induced to talk to entertain the old man and what does he tell but of the experience of being pressed. What a violent horrific scene. We see the intimidation, the deceit and treachery, the killing and vicious shooting to maim, and the men giving in rather than be maimed or die. I’ve not time to scan it in or try to paraphrase.

It speaks for itself.

This is the era of slavery, of ubiquitous wife-beating too, high drunkenness, mass wretched poverty. Most men are not the sweet mythic manipulatable man Mr Robson is. He succumbs sweetly to his wife removing his bottle. Oh yeah …

The problem with this modern illustration is it makes the pressed man altogether too healthy and strong

Chapter 7-15

I looked up “Specksioneer.” This word was one of Gaskell’s choices for her title: The Specksioneer.” Naturally the publisher would not hear of it. It refers to the chief harpooner, who also directs in cutting up the speck, or blubber; — so called among whalers. By chapters 6 and 7 we realize the specksioneer Gaskell intended to title her book after is Charles Kinkaid, the man who attempted to fight with force the press-gang, was shot at, kicked viciously, beaten down and left for dead so they could by threats of murder kidnap the men come home from whaling.

They did kill his friend Darley a mass funeral on whose behalf we go to in Chapter 6. (Does anything ever change? a mass funeral can spark a mass protest). This funeral is overseen by the vicar who knows in his gut he ought to keen for Darley and cry out against the press-gang, if only to comfort the impoverished father and mother whose son this was. But that morning he gets a letter from the head of the press-gang telling him they were within the law, why this is needed (it seems “the English” need to go to war with the “French” and haven’t enough men, and so partly intimidated and (Gaskell would have us realize) partly persuaded, he gives a banal generalized speech.

This continual sticking up for the vicious is continued in the off-hand speech of Philip Hepburn who is Sylvia’s follower — quite literally. This kind of thing is partly put there to make us experience how these false voices nag at us.

Philip and Sylvia visit her cousins, Hester’s parents, the Coulsons and we watch the mother make out her pitiful will on Hester’s behalf. Women did make out such wills; Jane Austen has one. They try to give their little bits of property and money to someone who meant something to them, who helped them. The mother wants to help her daughter, Hester in case she marries her suitor, Will. A woman’s novel: we are made to feel how women experience time in the home: Sylvia’s mother feels how time slips by (p. 60

The scene of the funeral is powerful — the seacoast, the church on the high rocks, the crowd, and especially we are led to “dwell on the tall gaunt figure” of the specksioneer.

Unless I’m mistake Molly is in love with this specksioneer — our secondary heroine. And we see her home too. What is it bout gauntness. By Poldark Novel 9 Ross Poldark is continually described as gaunt.

Emma dancing with Mr Knightley at the Crown Inn (2009 BBC Emma)

Sylvia’s Lovers becomes a kind of Emma, Chs 11-12

Despite the sweep of the pictures, the analysis of economic, political and other angles on reality, and the action-adventure, not to omit radical sceptical politics, the book shows its roots or origins as a courtship novel in Chapters 11-12. And here it reveals Gaskell’s limitations. Sylvia is not just too good to be true, she is that way because she is ontologically superior to those about her. One cannot say she is above most others in class, but I feel in Gaskell’s core being, that’s it. And why we are supposed to be on the side of this catering to the husband no matter how distasteful his behavior apparently potentially is, how obtuse and at times ignorant or determinedly dumb his outlook, is beyond me. The fiction in this vein cloys.

Sylvia’s friend, Molly, marries a man much older than she for his status, wealth, and just triumphs over all. Perhaps we are to feel that Sylvia’s romance love of Kinkaid will not bring her a necessarily happier life, but it’s the condescension and thus falseness of the portraiture that is the problem too.

Why Gaskell “sides” against Philip Hepburn puzzles me too. It appears she too finds something lacking in him — insufficiently macho male. Oh Elizabeth I am disappointed there and begin to be on his side against the heroic harpooner.

I am enjoying this read though: I’m reading another book set in nearly this period (Graham’s Miller’s Dance is set in 1812-13) and also about people who make their living occasionally by smuggling and are threatened by pressing, and just at this turn have gone to a social occasion where there is dancing, gaiety and games, and presents a parallel to Gaskell’s A New Year’s Eve. However, Gaham’s Truro Races (Bk 2, Ch 6) do not feel at all like Emma because the focus is ont a young women “just out” (or its equivalent) going to rare chance at a ball/dance from life in a tiny community where she cares for a parent and knows only a very few friends. When Sylvia entered the ballroom, it was distinctly Emma entering the Crown Inn for her ball, and incidents of embarrassment, awkwardness ensue. I wondered if Gaskell was remembering Emma at all or if this was rather the result of two similar women not so far apart in era, type, genius and fundamental attitudes towards sex and marriage.

One striking quality of this book — now making me realize how it’s also found in North and South and Mary Barton is its radical political vision. For that it’s enormously valuable because she’s so intelligent and brings in a large picture and explains.

If I just praised the book, what I would say would be valueless because it’d be unreal.

I agree too that Philip is a hero. In the above chapters what I thought about was how real he is; he is much less a stereotype than Sylvia. He does not conform to stereotypical heroes; he’s given far more interesting and mature and believable thoughts than anyone else thus far. He’s not over-sentimentalized and genuinely somehow individualized — especially in the dance as this semi-outsider. Gaskell enters into his feelings and thoughts as someone not appreciated or understood because he feels (as a psyche) cleverer (being less a stereotype) than just about all the other characters whose minds we have been given access to.

His lack of macho maleness is in Austen’s tradition: a redefinition of manliness which is not based on appetitive rakes and glamorous sexuality (the ultimate of this might be Richardson’s Lovelace) but is first seen in the 18th century in grave heroes and then Grandison, but most appealingly in some of Austen’s heroes, especially Mr Knightley.

In fact when it comes to Philip I thought she began to side very strongly in these chapters — seeing his profound valuing of quiet domestic stable life and his kindness and tenderness and generosity. This has nothing to do with his political vision; that is critiqued. Gaskell can use a character consistently in various ways — as in life a man can be very good in private life and yet have real lacks when it comes to wider understanding. The voices she wants us to hear are also Kinkaid, Sylvia’s father especially and the narrator’s.

For a female reader a real woman at the center is more valuable – and Sylvia is a virtuous stereotype. Cynthia in Wives and Daughters is more valuable. These fictions are supposed to be exemplary. Gaskell’s heroines in this novel show the same compromises as George Eliot’s — not quite as self-sacrificing but as “innocent’ sexually and when not we are supposed to dislike or distrust or reject them. Yes it’s Victorian fiction.

But this does trouble me: again and again in her fictions she will endow the male with depths and originality of feeling (nothing coy) and not the women. We see this especially when the narrator is a male — it’s seen in Cousin Phillis for example. Men are not presented cloyingly. She respects them too much. So there is in spite of all her woman-centeredness and proto-feminism a dis-valuing her own sex in this book. It’s not in all of them (e.g., “The Grey Woman” does not).

In terms of the story it seems that Philip is in line to inherit the shop and so is in a position to ask Sylvia to marry him.

I stopped here. I account for one aspect of my stopping in the comments. Another was no one was posting with me regularly. The fun had ceased.


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