Archive for April, 2011

Kathleen Raine

Dear friends and readers,

Last week we had Rosamond Marriot Watson (fin-de-siecle and Hardyesque poet, 1860-1911). My choice for this week’s foremother poet is Kathleen Raine (1908-2003), whose poems I found among the modern Scots and Anglo-Scots poets in Catherine Kerrigan’s An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets and in Ann Stanford‘s The Women Poets in English. I first came across her as an autobiographer in Beatrice Didier’s L’ecriture-femme, where Didier presents her as a quintessential autobiographer who enacted a myth of a return to a past that is still with her, that has never ceased to be, and for women, this is found in childhood as metaphor and reality before the development of an adult female sexual body with all the imprisonment, repression, and destruction of the self that society inflicts. Scotland became for her a maternal landscape where a woman could find a non-distruptive filiation through its continuity of language, myth and untransformed land.


She gave me childhood’s flowers,
Heather and wild thyme,
Eyebright and tormentil,
Lichen’s mealy cup
Dry on wind-scored stone,
The corbies on the rock,
The rowan by the burn.

Sea-marvels a child beheld
Out in the fisherman’s boat,
Fringed pulsing violet
Medusa, sea gooseberries,
Starfish on the sea-floor,
Cowries and rainbow-shells
From pools on a rocky shore,

Gave me her memories,
But kept her last treasure:
‘When I was a lass: she said,
‘Sitting among the heather,
‘Suddenly I saw
‘That all the moor was alive!
‘I have told no one before.’

That was my mother’s tale.
Seventy years had gone
Since she saw the living skein
Of which the world is woven,
And having seen, knew all;
Through long indifferent years
Treasuring the priceless pearl.

This one reminds me of the vision of Siddhartha at the end of Hesse’s novel of the same name

Highland Graveyard

Today a fine old face has gone under the soil;
For generations past women hereabouts have borne
Her same name and stamp of feature .
Her brief identity was not her own
But theirs who formed and sent her out
To wear the proud bones of her clan, and live its story,
Who now receive back into the ground
Worn features of ancestral mould.

A dry-stone wall bounds off the dislimned clay
Of many old face forgotten and young face gone
From boundless nature, sea and sky.
A wind-withered escalonia like a song
Of ancient tenderness lives on
Some woman’s living fingers set as shelter for the dead, to tell
In evergreen unwritten leaves,
In scent of leaves in western rain
That one remembered who is herself forgotten.

Many songs they knew who now are silent.
Into their memories the dead are gone
Who haunt the living in an ancient tongue
Sung by old voices to the young,
Telling of sea and isles, of boat and byre and glen;
And from their music the living are reborn
Into a remembered land,
To call ancestral memories home
And all that ancient grief and love our own.

Her well-known literal belief in a poetic vision of divinity manifest in nature (like those of Blake and Yeats whose work she studied in her Defending Ancient Springs) and the wisdom of the religions of peoples can thus be linked to her life-writing and feminism (e.g., in Farewell Happy Fields)

Message from Home

Do you remember, when you were first a child, Nothing in the world seemed strange to you?
You perceived, for the first time, shapes already familiar, And seeing, you knew that you have always known
The lichen on the rock, fern-leaves, the flowers of thyme,
As if the elements newly met in your body,
Caught up into the momentary vortex of your living Still kept the knowledge of a former state,
In you retained recollection of cloud and ocean, The branching tree, the dancing flame.

Now when nature’s darkness seems strange to you, And you walk, an alien, in the streets of cities,
Remember earth breathed you into her with the air, with the sun’s rays,
Laid you in her waters asleep, to dream
With the brown trout among the milfoil roots,
From substance of star and ocean fashioned you,
At the same source conceived you
As sun and foliage, fish and stream

Of all created things the source is one,
Simple, single as love; remember
The cell and seed of life, the sphere
That is, of child, white bird, and small blue dragon-fly
Green fern, and the gold four-petalled tormentilla The ultimate memory.
Each latent cell puts out a future,
Unfolds its differing complexity.
As a tree puts forth leaves, and spins a fate Fern-traced, bird-feathered, or fish-scaled.
Moss spreads its green film on the moist peat,
The germ of dragon-fly pulses into animation and takes wing
As the water-lily from the mud ascends on its ropy stem
To open a sweet white calyx to the sky.
Man, with farther to travel from his simplicity,
From the archaic moss, fish, and lily parts,
And into exile travels his long way.

As you leave Eden behind you, remember your home, For as you remember back into your own being
You will not be alone; the first to greet you
Will be those children playing by the burn,
The otters will swim up to you in the bay,
The wild deer on the moor will run beside you. Recollect more deeply, and the birds will come, Fish rise to meet you in their silver shoals,
And darker, stranger, more mysterious lives Will throng about you at the source
Where the tree’s deepest roots drink from the abyss.
Nothing in that abyss is alien to you.
Sleep at the tree’s root, where the night is spun
Into the stuff of worlds, listen to the winds,
The tides, and the night’s harmonies, and know
All that you knew before you began to forget, Before you became estranged from your own being,
Before you had too long parted from those other More simple children, who have stayed at home
In meadow and island and forest, in sea and river. Earth sends a mother’s love after her exiled son, Entrusting her message to the light and the air,
The wind and waves that carry your ship, the rain that falls,
The birds that call to you, and all the shoals
That swim in the natal waters of her ocean.


I came too late to the hills: they were swept bare Winters before I was born of song and story,
Of spell or speech with power of oracle or invocation,

The great ash long dead by a roofless house, its branches rotten, The voice of the crows an inarticulate cry,
And from the wells and springs the holy water ebbed away.

A child I ran in the wind on a withered moor
Crying out after those great presences who were not there, Long lost in the forgetfulness of the forgotten.

Only the archaic forms themselves could tell
In sacred speech of hoodie on gray stone, or hawk in air, Of Eden where the lonely rowan bends over the dark pool.

Yet I have glimpsed the bright mountain behind the mountain,
Knowledge under the leaves, tasted the bitter berries red,
Drunk water cold and clear from an inexhaustible hidden fountain.

and her poetry of imaginative memory and recreations of gaelic utterances in English (e.g,. “The Ancient Speech”,

Scottish highlands, Loch Torridon

poems to “Isis Wanderer and


Sailing by night on the dark Adriatic in the moon’s eye
I slept upon the watery flood where only spirits walk
In the womb of archaic night between deeps and skies;
And in my sleep sublunary saw the moon disclose
Her other face that only dreamers and the dead may see,
That seemed or was more real than moon over mast or funnel
Of the throbbing ship that traced my wake towards Piraeus …

A sympathetic obituary by Janet Watts published in the Guardian (Tuesday, 8 July 2003) provides a concise narrative of her life and achievement. Watts includes the story of her love for Gavin Maxwell (the title of whose book Ring of Bright Water is taken from a line in one of her poems, “The Marriage of Psyche”), which seems unfortunately to overshadow accounts of her life and work on the Net.

She was fortunate to live in an era where intellectual merit could win scholarships. Her background: her mother sang to her border ballads and wrote down her poems for her before she was able to; while her father was a miner’s son, he went to Durham university and became an English teacher and lay preacher. A scholarship took her to Girton College, Cambridge (where she later found a job); she studied science and psychology, Empson published some of her poetry. She did not at all follow trends of her secular world, and made it (monetarily) because her beliefs pleased Prince Charles (Windsor) who became a patron. (One needs to explain how people live.) She married twice (Hugh Sykes Davies and Charles Madge) and had two children, one of whom married a descendent of Thomas Taylor, a 17th century English neoplatonist important to Raine. She became close to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren late in life (see wikipedia). She visited India in 1970 and loved its culture and the place.

Her autobiography was published in three volumes: Farewell Happy Fields (1973), The Land Unknown (1975) and The Lion’s Mouth (1977). She wrote many critical works (many on Blake and Yeats) and published books of poems (the earliest, Stone and Flower, 1943, Living in Time 1946, Pythoness 1949; more recently Living with Mystery, 1987-91; The Collected Poems, ed. Brian Keeble, 2000). She was translator as well, of Balzac’s Cousine Bette (Cousin Bette, 1948) and Les Illusions Perdues (Lost Illusions, 1951). She contributed frequently to journals (Studies in Comparative Religion), co-founded a journal, Temendos, was a research fellow at Girton College (1955-61), a Mellon Lecturer at the National Gallery of Art in DC (1962), taught for a year at Harvard (“Myth and Literature”) and was a professor at Cambridge.

I am drawn to her as an autobiographer, for her unconventional stance in life (anti-materialism, anti-ambition) and how the very marrow of her work seems to derive from her perception of women’s sexuality and creates a collective of female myth for women poets. Didier links Raine’s work to that of George Sand’s liberation through sentiment and Virginia Woolf’s mothers and daughters. Raine too has been “exiled” and re-finds herself in

“le langage des grands mythes antiques, parce que sa vie individuelle, si intensement qu’elle soit vecue, rejoint toujours — et precisement a cause de sa intensite — une certaine realite collective: l’histoire de l’humanite et de la longue servitude des femmes” (Didier, 269)

Ana Mendieta (1948-85), Silueta Works


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Renee Fleming as the Countess bowing before the audience after the opera was over: we see a wide portion of the whole set from on high

Dear friends and readers,

Before too much time goes by, I want to praise and recommend going to see the Met’s production of Richard Strauss’s Capriccio. The Admiral, Izzy & I saw it in HD movie form this past Saturday, and I had this feeling of being transported quietly, of feeling touched in a tranformative distanced way that made me feel life could be so valuable if people would only live it according to its true pleasures — poetry, song, kind and/or courteous manners, good food, self-respecting dress.

The opera (as people who mention it usually quickly remark) was written during World War Two and is written as a kind of antidote to the horrors and terrors and cruelties of that conflagration, not so much to shut it out or pretend it’s not happening, but to carve a place, an interlude of refuge to remember and return to in our minds or memories. I never realized it’s set in 1770s. An overt allusion shapes it: Talleyrand said of the time before the French revolution, “Only those who lived before the revolution knew how sweet life could be.” He meant of course rich people which then and now means the privileged and lucky. In this opera we are asked to forget that such wealth and leisure and lack of insecurity was dependent on keeping a huge proportion of the population in servitude cheaply (and this cruel kind of arrangement is one the Republican reactionary party of the US is trying to return the US to), and I surmise one reason the opera is often not done in 1770s costume but in a generalized early 20th century one (say 1920s) is to make the viewer forget this immediate context and somehow abstract the experience into an ideal realm where no one is hurt from what we see.

I’d say its key is that it was made so intensely pleasurable I just didn’t want it to stop — and I felt the audience about me felt the same. When at the close, the production design and director teased the audience by step-by-step ending it, each time putting out more lights in the room, and then not yet ending it, one could feel the audience hold its breath, and hear laughter as each time we did not yet end. The opera began to “click” as this mood of rich quiet gratifications around the time the ballet pair came in, and we had the comedy of the thwarted absurdities of the classic ballerina. Then we had vexed quarreling between the poet (Olivier sung by Russell Braun) and composer (Flamand sung by Joseph Kaiser) over whose art was more important (and which man therefore more worthy the countess), which brought in the impresario (La Roche sung by Peter Rose) to sing the second best and longest aria of the opera, a justification of theater itself.

We see the principals circled round La Roche

The quarrel was a kind of pastoral version of Net debates I’ve experienced. You could call the opera an 18th century conversation piece (a favorite kind of genre painting of the era).

Fleming’s last aria was the crown of the piece — what was so unusual was the mood was cheerful, an upbeat genial hopeful melancholy (!). The role at the close is a reprise of her countess on Der Rosencavalier made political — the gossamer quality of her dress may be called symbolic.

Fleming in the shimmering silver dress that seemed to float on air: her rich typology made the opera even woman-centered — we have no less than 4 (countess, count’s sister, ballerina, diva)

This cheer was central to the opera too — it was filled with visual jokes. When the hired ballerina and her male danced came into the room to dance for the assembled group, the ballerina was thwarted in comical ways and we watched her from the perspective of the people in the room: Clairon (Sarah Connolly), the sister of the count (Morton Frank Larson) looked especially taken aback at the wild configurations of the ballerina’s legs as they neared Clairon’s body space. After the two Italian singers burlesqued their behavior while singing exquisitely, they sat down to eat cake and drink wine provided by the countess. The diva’s eating mounds of cake was made funny — such a human and natural failing, so sensual and sticky. When these privileged people left (for Paris — apparently they are in a country house), the male servants came in and comically discuss what we’ve just heard debated, with self-reflexive ironies like, What next, they’ll put servants in operas? Then the prompter came on in visibly frazzled dress and state, claiming to be the invisible spirit of it all, the genius loci hidden away under the floor, enabling everyone else to carry on. It made me smile.

On facebook where I put a brief message about the opera, a friend commented

Wasn’t it great! I went by myself (husband is grading papers) and the woman next to me, who was very chatty before the start, fell asleep and was snoring a tiny bit. This didn’t really bother me. I thought the whole thing was the most delightful confection. I hadn’t expected to be so moved by the whole thing.

I agreed:

The story went sort of slow and not much happened. I think a man on the other side of Isobel slept for a bit. It’s not just because I’m so into Austen that I thought of Austen’s Emma. Emma may be said to be Austen’s attempt to write a story about people were nothing much happens, a more rigorous form of realism. Well, the comparisons of usual opera as outlined by La Roche with their impossible unreal gods and goddesses, continual miraculous doings, heroic and tragic deeds, all well beyond the norms of verisimilitude with what we were watching make the same point as Austen’s: here are the real emotions these extravaganzas Write Large and lose sight of partly. The Emma project thus becomes an antidote to the war at the time, a spot of “civilization” (narrowly defined in upper class European terms) before any of the world’s most famous recent revolutions (French, Russian) occurred.

This evocation of a Canaletto in ruins found on one Met site suggests the Met was indeed referring to the revolution with the theme I suggest:

She (my friend) compared it to a Moliere comedy, The Misanthrope, and also the film The Red Shoes about a ballerina torn between love and ballet:

I thought of a Moliere comedy, because Madeleine with her suitors reminded me of Celimene in Misanthrope. And the brother-sister pair, too. But in Moliere the suitors would have been poor artists–here they were good (though vain and not very good husband material), and she really has an opportunity. I also kept thinking about the movie The Red Shoes, in which a woman is caught between two men, one of whom believes ballet is the highest art and the other that music (especially his own music) is the most important art. Apparently the director of Red Shoes wanted to direct a movie of Strauss’s life a few years after Strauss died, so maybe they were influenced by the opera, though in their work something does happen.

I objected but also agreed and generalized out to the theme as often presented in the 18th century:

I probably wouldn’t think of Moliere because I see him as so anti-feminist, savage satire against bluestockings (bad-mouthing word but appropriate here to Moliere’s plays). Strauss’s opera celebrates the countess and is fond of the other three women: Clairon, the ballerina, and the Italian opera singer. But I see your point. In the 18th century the emblem of Hercules between Vice and Virtue (comedy and tragedy in a Reynolds painting of Garrick):

Reynolds, Garrick between Tragedy (Virtue) and Comedy (Vice)

was a frequent underlying archetype; it probably goes back to the Renaissance. I think there is something like this in Sidney’s Arcadia, certainly Spenser’s Faerie Queene — Una v Duessa. I wished I could remember Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia play (also about the arts) more.

She conceded the anti-feminism of Moliere’s perspective:

Of course, you are right; poor Celimene never had a chance.

I don’t know why people who write of this opera persist in calling it a curiosity or feeling uncomfortable about it, since most operas are implicitly deeply conservative in their presentation of numinous and upper class figures, traditional myths, and irrational feelings as what must rule the world. It’s just honester, done with startling clarity and self-awareness and the intelligence that shines through is another part of its comfort. It can make a viewer hopeful that the world could be better since such moments and experiences can and (for a couple of hours on stage) have been.

Maestro now taking final bows with prompter, dancers, male servants seen too

Small pleasures for the 18th century lover were all the references to 18th century theater and art: the best and radical operas are Gluck’s (this is pre-Mozart with his revolutionary Marrriage of Figaro and Masonic Magic Flute), the reference to the group putting on a Voltaire play (Tancred).


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Robert MacNeil plays with his autistic grandson, Nick

Dear friends and readers,

Twenty days ago I wrote a review of touching, and intelligent film, about two disabled adults, both autistic, Wretches and Jabberers by Gerardine Wurzburg. I praised the film and hope that it gets more distribution than a few movie-houses in a few cities in the US. I have now a second film — or series of films to recommend on similar grounds: Robert MacNeil’s 6 segments on Autism Now have the capacity to help educate the general public about what autism, the as yet insoluble problems teaching autistic people, and the tiny amount of money given over to children, with just about none at all to help Aspergers and autistic adults.

The first segment was directly about MacNeil’s grandson who is on the autism spectrum. It was presented with a full personal perspective: MacNeil and his daughter talk about Nick, are filmed attempting to interact with him. I burst into crying and couldn’t stop myself or calm down for a few minutes.

The second segment showed that the increase in diagnosis in the last couple of decades has been extraordinarily large. What’s important & good in this part is the demonstration that autism takes such varied forms, and that an increase of diagnosis is progress for more people can be helped.

The third part showed people don’t know what causes autism, partly because it’s an umbrella term with many disorders placed under it. Generally it’s genetic and inherited but to say that is far from being able to understand its etiology, what genes might cause it, how to prevent it. MacNeil meant to defeat the mad nonsense by people who intuitively dislike vaccine that vaccine has caused their grandchild’s neurological system. His interviewees waffled so, they couldn’t even dismiss this canard.

A dialogue on this part of the series with a fried:

I enjoyed it (thanks again for the link). There’s a lot of information there though of course none of it is firm. MacNeil’s own daughter had attributed his grandson’s autism to a vaccine in Part 1 (I remember), so they had to address it and… he was probably interested in the speculations. I did think it would have been helpful to establish earlier and more clearly what you are saying about the variety of symptoms. I suppose that for funding’s sake and other political (in a good sense) reasons it is better to stress the common needs of autistics rather than the variety of disorders.

Logically and from history politically it seems ever to make sense to make a larger group with common cause, but my experience thus far is that the larger group setting emphasizes below an IQ of 70 and physical disabilities when it comes to… funding and many services. The accent is also on children. I seriously recommend, Judy, you try to see Wretches and Jabberers to get a sense of how little is available to Aspergers and High functioning autistic adults. It will (one hopes) change but when one reads much that purports to be sympathetic, you find it’s not so.

I became aware of the new definition when a friend’s daughter was diagnosed. She was in high school and the main results were smaller classes and not having to dress out in public for gym class. Her father probably had Asberger’s himself–he was a marvelous person, bright, meticulous and hard-working but not good at dealing with the social part of improving his job prospects (a situation with which I sympathized). Anyway, he and his wife had decided their daughter was “shy” but the new classification did make a big difference for her in school. I’ve lost touch so I don’t know where she is now, but I am hoping she is doing OK, having her dad’s qualities. However, it is the old definitions of autism that emphasized the very low-functioning children and adults. Nothing like that was in evidence in this program, which surprised me. Did you ever see the Oliver Sacks program on the autistic but artistic girl?

Thank you for this contrast in perspectives you’ve picked up. You’re right that this wider look at a spectrum is not just inclusive but changes the way we can see everyone within it. I’ve had some hard experiences this past year & so lose (or never had) a perspective on what’s been gained recently. Despite all the talk of concrete chemical environmental factors, the evidence is strong on behalf of heredity, genes. It seems to be a complicated process: not like inheriting an eye color but say intelligence or personality susceptibilities. And now from what I’ve seen, experienced, read, thought about yes: one of the most difficult areas for a higher functioning autistic person is forming relationships; as in middle class life this is central in gaining promotion, Aspergers will have a strong negative effect on people’s career. In the present competitive jobless economy unemployment is superhigh among Aspergers people. Since it’s invisible to many, there’s a great deal of shame and blaming the person. But MacNeil’s efforts are clearly what’s wanted; I’d just like to see more — and what’s needed is funding for effective services for adults (as well as children who have been getting services but are at risk in the budget cuts).

MacNeil’s fourth segment takes us into schools who are required to educate all children. It’s about the challenges educating autistic children. They need highly individualized attention, tender loving care & understanding. MacNeil does not emphasize this but one sees this is not something external to the person that he or she outgrows or can be cured, but intrinsic to a way of being. What is slowly learned is how to cope, &, with support, build a life for yourself.

The fifth segment — finally MacNeil treats of adults with aspergers/autism. I was troubled that only this small portion of the seriers was on adults. If you go to the PBS hour page where comments are allowed, you find many parents, relatives, people with adult autistic people in their families commenting, and you see many Aspergers adults commenting. It’s easy to make viewers think they sympathize with children.

I was hoping for much more on funding. I note on the page where we see talked about where money is going, but no concerted effort to get adults aspergers jobs and places in their community. SSI is a joke: you have to prove destitution & then you get a miniscule sum that won’t cover a typical rent.

Tonight was general health policy questions. The argument is that this is a general health emergency because nothing adequate to the numbers is being done. We have not begun to develop enough awareness to begin to set up educational programs to enable autistic people to have enough skills to cope with life in society; we do not offer monetary support to families and we do not provide employment or social recreation or housing for adult autistic and Aspergers people. Two of the people said that before 21 the availability of what services are available is highly varied, with huge numbers of people finding nothing before school and then having only what the public educational system offers; and after 21, the person is offered nothing and subject to the vagaries of their area; many with no community to join, no job, and given no meaningful work deterioriate.

Again there was no reaching out to discuss the imposed norms on autistic and Aspergers people and that these are skewed or unfair or unreal or even irrelevant to much of life. If you could get beyond these norms, the people could contribute much.

On the series as a whole:

I have some real reservations about the instrinsic value of what was said and dramatized. There are real problems in all MacNeil’s segments, the same ones as are found in Lehrer’s reports for donkey’s years. The reporters all rely on getting authority figures and asking them questions as central to whatever they present. These authority figures give a consensus safe view that protects their interests (personal) and the interests of the groups they represent (establishment). The result often is not the right questions are even asked that will elicit real truths that matter. (As a teacher I am asked to give out forms to my students which supposedly ask them to evaluate my class; the questions are not designed to elicit what students care about or want to say, but only what the administration wants to hear and most students do not think to ignore the questions and make up ones of their own.) Everyone on Lehrer-MacNeil is tactful lest anyone be offended — including members of the audience and there is this distorting idea that one must be balanced. Not that all opinions are voiced only the popular ones in a kind of opposition. But some ideas are wrong and balance leads to stating nonsense. Whence in part all the presentation as if true of these people who are anti-vaccine (probably an intuitive humane responise); here it was further skewed not to tell of the man’s whose science was filled with lies. Also things thought radical are often left out — as “extreme.”

All this takes up time and since there are but 10 to 12 minutes much is wasted. Then in each segment we had such idealism. This one on adults had the male parent an investment banker. He makes oodles of money, he has connections. Of course he found the best school available for his son. The relatives were all presented as spending huge amounts of time and love — this is patently unreal. The slight resentment allowed through was still voiced piously. Yes here and there some hard truths: like the salaries that are paid will not garner the best people for teachers. The emphasis on children came in here too — it will be more popular, appeal, be less controversial inside a controversial topic. For my part I find false optimism very common because it’s what is thought to be wanted by most people (the socially acceptable is the upbeat) but it gets in the way of seeing the real problems and realities of whatever you are presenting.

MacNeil clearly meant well — and he’s very smart — he did this series of programs. He did expose many of the unresolvable difficulties of the autism spectrum and especially the lack of funds given to autistic people, including children. There was no denigration of autistic people. The occasional blunt comments were directed at the audience’s important prejudices: for example, the opening statement about adult autistic and Aspergers people that they are not cute nor harmless nor unthreatening was repeated at the end when MacNeil said (without fully explaining what he was referring to — a typical tactic of the Lehrer hours too) that we fear what is different and what we don’t understand was there to explain why Aspergers/autistic people are not getting the help they need. But he didn’t say that quite — meaning he didn’t produce the idea he wanted to say fully, he left the statement hanging.

But he did not counter real prejudices about specifics that might arouse hard antagonism. For example, why should a person go “out there”? Why is “out there” better than staying at home or in one’s room and occupying oneself fruitfully. Nowhere was the assumptions that sociability is a final test of whatever it is that is happening. If you could get the audience to agree it’s okay to stay in one’s room maybe they then might see that such a person given a job he or she could do — working at home on computer files — would offer society much of worth. That Aspergers/autistic people have real talents and much to contribute. Nowhere did we really see that Aspergers/Autistic people have important talents and skills, high intelligence that can contribute to society.

The best parts of the Lehrer reports are often the straight story telling, the film narrative of whatever it is — be it a war story, a story of a strike, of a hospital. There was some of this in these 7 segments — strongest in the first one where we were allowed to watch his grandchild be difficult in a store, be demanding, not be in touch with the grandfather following the boy about, hearing the mother’s stories of her first perception that “something was wrong” and her fear as she watched, her anxiety. In the last segment the statement by someone that after 22 with their relative they faced a black hole of nothingness.

On the job front — gov’t jobs — the continual shedding of gov’t jobs is far more important than any written mandate that demands disabled people be given opportunities for jobs in government. The important thing to watch, the subsequent growth of cronyism to the point that merit/skill does not matter it’s who you know in a particular office gets a job. The elimination of the 171 has been fatal to large numbers of people having an opportunity to get a job dependent on their education. That Obama clearly couldn’t care less for real about the vulnerable and powerless in the constituency that elected him. The MacNeil segment offered no statistics where they matter — for example how many autistic people there are who are unemployed and without resources beyond their families. I assume he has done enough research to be able to offer an extrapolated educated guess but he did not.

MacNeil has no hostility whatsoever towards autistic or Aspergers people — something very common in articles which purport to sympathize. Again and again they show themselves to have simplistic notions about autistic people which see them as freaks and because different fearful. Again and again the thrust is to coerce the Aspergers or autistic person into becoming neurotypical.

For example, an article in the Baltimore Sun about “exercise for autistic people” contained common central features I find troubling and problematic. Autistic people are referred to as “they” as if such a person is somehow radically different from others; it is assumed that neurotypical peopoel exhibit a set of characteristics (all of them) which include a liking for exercise. Then it’s assumed the autistic person should want to be like a neurototypical and how shall we go about forcing this.

On each count no real understanding is gained of anything much.

Laura Schreibman’s The Science and Fiction of Autism suggests that there is a real continuum between neurotypical people and autistic people as there is across the autism spectrum. Among the theories about personality type she explains is that the male human being tends to be more asocial than the female (more competitive, less cooperative) and that it may be autism is a kind of extreme of certain characteristics found in men — and reinforced by our society.

I found A Rant against autism awareness month.

We should be disquieted by talk we come across of people as empty shells and living utterly deprived lives necessarily. Not so. Autistic people can live rich lives inwardly.

It reminds me of when deaf people were first recognized as educable. In the middle 18th century the first sign language was invented and a tremendous change could be seen in deaf people taught sign language: from apparent idiocy to full humanity except they are deaf. By the end of the century though some schools had opened up where the first forbidding of sign language began to be seen and an insistence that deaf people be like hearing people insofar as sound is concerned to harms that come from hostile articles are many, and one is that people who are autistic or Aspergers might take seriously the caricatures and stereotypes
found in such articles. To be sure, stereotypes often have an element of truth and they appeal since they exaggerate one or two traits at the expense of many others. Caricatures take that one step further by seeing these few traits hostilely, presenting them in the light of ridicule or humiliation.

So we fall prey to hurt and harm if we argue about these unreal stereotypes and caricatures. People who are or with Aspergers may have friends, but they may experience friends differently and have a different relationship with them — one that also may look different if you see their outward daily patterns.

People who are Aspergers often like routines. I love what I call my routs. Some autistic people are comfortable with, like doing repetitive tasks which to a Neurotypical would be awful as NTs are careless about such things. That does not mean the NT’s way is better, only different

So while, as usual watching a PBS MacNeil segment on the Lehrer show was frustrating and at moments (for me) painful; nonetheless, these 10 to 12 minute segments probably did some good in gently spreading better attitudes and knowledge (think of water dripping on wood) for the very reasons I have objected to the program’s whole apparatus — it’s what respected, what’s respectable.


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I have a right to choose my own life … Verity, Bk 1, Ch 13, p. 138

Ross (Robin Ellis) and Verity (Norma Streader) Poldark greeting one another: he has returned from the presumed dead (Poldark Season 1, Part 1, Episode 2)

Dear Friends and readers,

I’m just delighted to be able to report that generally my students appear to have not just liked, but attended to, and even loved Graham’s Ross Poldark. I was so worried the detail of the book, the strangeness of the era, the size would put them off. But no. The first week we began to discuss it, one young woman said “I couldn’t put it down.” Another, “he gets me to care so much about the characters. When Jinny Carter was at risk [of rape, beating], I was so worried.” A third: “It’s my favorite book thus far”! Two boys read ahead that week. They said that “the history part” did not get in their way. The things in the book reminded them of today. The language was not a problem either — or no more of a problem than the average college-assigned novel nowadays.

Jim (Stuart Doughty) and Jinny (Gillian Bailey) Carter on their wedding day (Part 2, Episode 5)

This was our second week and we had our first three talks assigned on the book. Well two of them were among the best all term. First for an account of the novel’s phases and an outline of the story see Ross Poldark, Revenant.

Both by young men.

The topic for the first was: “On two of the heroines: describe the behavior of Ross Poldark to Demelza Crane: how is his behavior a direct rebellion against the mores of his time and how does it show what a rough/raw (unfair) deal women get? Describe the behavior of Verity’s family to her? Are they justified?”

He really entered into the spirit of the talk and produced a strongly feminist critique of the way that Demelza was treated — until marriage.

Demelza (Angharad Rees), first seen, being beaten (Part 2, Episode 2)

And was judicious about the family’s rejection of Captain Blamey for their apparently 30 year old spinster daughter, Verity: he pointed out how terrible was Blamey’s conduct (alcoholism beat his wife, kicked her down stairs when pregnant and she died) and the student was very harsh towards — much harsher than the book. (I added they should see how much power a brother as well as father had over a woman of 30.)

Ferociously violent family scene, Blamey (Jonathan Newth) tosses Francis (Cliver Francis) off Verity, Charles, the father (Frank Middlemass) shouting

Then he had done research on women’s positions in the era and compared it to today.

I was blown away. I didn’t expect it at all. The class discussion was about how Jinny Carter, the miner’s daughter was stalked and nearly raped — or violently killed — by an ex-suitor, disgruntled. A girl student brought up how anxious she had been for Jinny when her husband would go out poaching. They talked of how the two were near starving but for poaching small game and the “amazing” thing that she said she’d rather starve than Jim, her husband, poach.

The second was: “Discuss how in Ross Poldark the need for money, class antagonisms and resentments clash with family values in among the Poldarks and Warleggans and how that mirrors things that can happen within families and powerful people in an area too.”

The student did omit the Warleggans where it is harder to see the monopoly emerging but he was remarkably insightful on the characters’ personalities interacting in day to day life over class and money. He remarked that Verity was a female version of Ross.

Verity and Ross at ball

He was very alive to amounts of money mentioned in the book. For example, he noticed that Charles Poldark bet 100 guineas on a single cock-fight while Demelza was getting two guineas a year as a kitchen maid. He was very alive to what an upper class person might do or not do for a lower class one — you’d think US society was class-ridden (joke alert). He went into the competition over piano playing at the close of the novel that I’ve thought is an imitation of Emma. His main point was that Ross is a “hybrid” and feels more comfortable with working and lower class people even if he has the manners to stay with the upper class and seems to think he loves Elizabeth. (This is another student who declared Ross would have been unhappy with Elizabeth; only in reading the later novels and carefully can you see her better traits.)

Ross comfortable with the prostitute Margaret (Diana Berrimann)

Alas at the end he uttered a justification for the class system which did not seem aware that our own society has one nor that there are huge gaps in income in the US today. When I remarked that something like 1% of the US population now controls over 80% of the wealth, students looked astonished and disbelieving. “We no longer have have-nots” said one. This ignorance supports the corporations today. A couple of intelligent more well-read students seemed to know the truth of the matter.

They seemed interested in some of my lecture on fantasy and costume drama. At least they did ask questions.

We then watched most of Episode 3, including the unjust trial scene,

Ross getting very drunk, very bitter at his having made matters worse for Jim (perhaps), and the ensuing first sexual intercourse between Ross and Demelza.

He tells about his failure

She supports him as no one else has; Verity would correct, scold

The first gesture of tenderness

Ellis was brilliant in that one, shuddering unable to stop himself from bitterness and a desire for oblivion; Rees as the girl adoring the man who had rescued her from an abysmal life.

Still I have to admit the students didn’t care for the film either time as much as I hoped (that is, I hoped to attract others to read): through their eyes I could see how slow it seemed, and also how wasteful of film time (we are feed information in separate scenes that would not be done now). But they were alive to its comedy in Part 2 (which we saw the first week), especially Paul Curran as Jud and the initiating encounter at the fair between Ross and Demelza, their relationship changing and ripening into companionship over work (he in the fields, she bringing out lunch) and final love-making of Ross and Demelza — which nonetheless appeared to make a few uncomfortable because she was just 17 and he 30. Again a better read student said this was typical of the time, nothing unusual.

This experience has further developed my desire to write a panel proposal for the coming EC/ASECS on liberty in the 18th century on historical and post-colonial fiction, a paper proposal just on the Winston Graham’s Poldark series. My emphasis will be the first 7 books the series covered, and within that specific kinds of episodes. And I’ve been working out a few thoughts after reading Helen Hughes’s Historical Romance, Jerome de Groot’s Historical Novel and Suzanne Keen’s “The Historical Turn in British Fiction,” from A Concise Companion to Contemporary British Fiction, ed. James F. English.

Hughes begins: Historical fiction and costume drama are strongly popular in the US and Europe; historical novels have been so since the early 19th century saw the “birth” of the species (so to speak) with Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly novels (set in Scotland in the 18th century. I add another influence are gothic novels set in the past against a wide landscape of time and history, the first widely influential one by Anne Radcliffe, Mysteries of Udolpho which neither Catherine or Henry can put down (from Northanger Abbey).

Original covers of the Graham books showed — rightly — views of the Cornish coastline. As de Groot says, historical fiction has from its outset been part of a ongoing definition of one’s national, ethnic and cultural identity. These belong to a kind of subspecies of regional fiction — novels set in a specific place redolent of that place, Daphne DuMaurier’s novels also set in Cornwall. Ross Poldark we see the mines and dangerous rocky seacoast; Demelza, written under her “sign” so to speak, shows us spring, flowering pink bushes. I’m rereading Demelza for the third time too.

Coastline of Cornwall near Falmouth: opening of Season 2, Part 1

Hughes goes on to say that the word “romance” is much denigrated because it is attached to women and women as a group are demeaned in our culture except as they serve families and men (mothers, wives, daughters, teachers, nurses). (I add to say of someone he is effeminate is an insult. But it is true to say that not only is science fiction romance, so too is historical fiction: the linking element is fantasy and wish-fulfillment, a kind of distanced and thus comfortable feel finally even if the characters suffer a great deal.

Key element is combination of realism — so we believe in what we read and identify, engage, bond, and distancing of time — so story can be framed away from us, and feel mythic.

Buying Sheep

What historical romance and costume dramas do is highlight and dramatize versions of fear and hope we experience today — in Ross Poldark, war, class and gender inferiority, money. The time of revolution, the later 18th and early 19th century have been favorite periods for dramatizing dislocation and political themes — for criticizing the way the political arrangements of present society are through a mirroring technique.

We are invited to spend our time with the aristocratic world and with a hero who is charismatic and exemplifies qualities we are to admire, he is connected to a heroine who we can see also exemplifies traditional behavior of women which is flattering to and services men and families. There are also fairy tale romantic heroines, in this case I’ll add Elizabeth Chynoweth. I”ll add that Graham shows Elizabeth makes bad decisions which leave her in the power of the bullying crude amoral resentful George Warleggan.

Elizabeth (Jill Townsend) as first seen in the series, looking at and seen by Ross as she dances with her first husband, Francis, the heir to Trenwith (older son of older son).

And everyone does suffer a lot in these dramas.

The adventure part is very important. Hughes says most historical fiction does not use it to expose injustice clearly, so I’ll add Graham does and graphically and continually: in Ross Poldark and again in the fifth novel, Black Moon, we are brought into the prisons of the ancien regime. Do not say we do not have prisons: we have a huge population in captivity and if they are not treated so horrifically as they were before the fall of the Bastille, they are again a subject way of repressing a huge group of people — increasing numbers of woman. Privatized so we know little. In Jeremy Poldark (novel 3) a typical trial for poaching and for taking things from wrecks off shore expose how trials favor the rich and judges are from the upper class. Again today we have an analogy.

Hughes reiterates that the past is not just a pretext though, the unfamiliarity of the past lays bare before us what we see, but it also comforts. We try to note what has improved since then (sick people mostly get medical care, prisoners do not starve, they have light, live in cleanliness. We also feel we are studying something universal because we see the same characteristics then as now. Now this is not quite true as much anachronism goes into the creating historical fictions and costume dramas (we update though we don’t realize it), but we feel we are encountering permanent human characteristics. A core personality. Thus disguise enormously important: the characters disguise themselves during some of their adventures. Underneath they remain the same.

Historical fiction and dramas do to some extent marginalize the role of socialization in a given era and culture — sometimes though we are made strongly aware of a few characteristics — coerced marriage for a woman, how a powerful aristocratic male can do just about anything he wants.

It’s not escapist but a mix: a kind of inverted utopia.

Books are imagined by the writer and informed by his ideology; films are the product of the film-makers interaction with the text through the script and awareness of the conventions of films, and the actors and production design and costume and budget.

So, now to myself exemplify through the Poldark novels and film series what I’ve picked up by my reading; also to qualify, extend, enrichen:

Poldark series set in time of revolution and war: the French where fundamental values were changed and debated. We see relationships between parents and children, men and men, men and women and are supposed to become conscious of a critique of society through the past.

Ross almost killed in a casual execution by the emigres in France

Ross is a kind of Cornish 18th century Che Guevara: on the side of the poor, does the just and honorable thing, decries and directly flouts law to bring about justice, will go in for violence if necessary. If not quite a Jacobin (not quite so radical) then a Girondist: he would have been a middle-of-the-road revolutionary in French assembly.

Two systems going on at the same time: the archetypal and mythic and particular and historical.

Characters enormously important. We must care about them. We are led to worry about the kinds of failures and miseries that touch a nerve in us, a nerve in our consciousness. Will Jinny be raped by this ex-suitor? Will Ross do the right thing and keep Demelza, and then when they make love (so she is no longer a virgin) marry her. (Same thing in Northanger Abbey: when it’s implied that Frederick Tilney had Isabella, he has damaged her permanently; even if she is not sympathetic, he has done this carelessly to her — Frederick is a cad.)

So, Ross: strong in courage, ingenious in strategy: he borrows money and sets up a secret company to struggle against the monopoly power of Warleggans — they stand for modern corporate power. He is good at commanding men. Has to learn to cope with women. They are ultimately conservative in this sense: it’s a society run by “natural leaders” and the lower classes are shown as comic characters, as not capable of leading, investing and so on. He rescues the heroine.

Still he often remains a figure apart, thinking for himself, sensitive under a hard exterior. And to make ends meet in Demelza he will resorts to smuggling — as did many throughout the UK and other places. Excise tax killing people who lived on a subsidence level. He is almost taken more than once, if taken, he’d be hanged. He leads a band of men to rescue Dr Enys from prison and kills people himself to do it and to escape.

Demelza: strong in affection, makes a home, loves to garden, to cook, sets up orderly peaceful place, looks to help others in their affectionate emotional life, wants to solidify ties, accepts social realities and works within them — so as she marries and grows older a stabilizing influence. Enjoys sex. She is there for the hero. She wins and tames him

Ross Poldark is a solitary saturnine kind of guy and Demelza the spirited heroine. We get a symbolic expression of female concerns: a need for self-development is answered by the myth of her educating herself in Ross’s library. As she grows older she gains more independence but less liberty to enjoy it once she weds — anyway we are show in Demelza that social life for women is often abrasive encounters with aggressive men — why she does so badly in that first assembly and why in a much later book (Angry Tide). After the one experience, she stays in Cornwall. I understood this decision of hers from within my own experience as a teenager and young woman.

Safety is marriage in these books, but we see that the norms are enforcers of rules that derive from male needs. That is shown.

Love is a matter of affinity, physical love a crowning expression of this valuing of one another’s individual qualities, rather than an end in itself. The heroine becomes powerful because he values his home-life as stability and meaning (p. 129) where the hero retires to (at the close of most of the books) she is compensated for her quiet life serving him and his children by how he is valued as charismatic and is powerful on her behalf.

Tellingly both are disinherited. They are not illegitimate as is so common, but he is not of his class and he comes home to find much of his property removed from him. He is a younger son of a younger son. Her mother is dead, her father beats her; when he remarries he marries a religious fanatic whose identity would squash Demelza’s. So both have to find and invent new identities. They do and these cohere finally with the winners of their worlds, the conventional upper class: he landowner, mine-owner, she his loving wife and mother of his children.

But the characters do feel solitary too and we get a strong sense of their living apart in a indwelling mind — a chapter in Verity’s mind shows this very well as she tries to deal with how she has now been deprived of the life she had wanted to live with a husband and now has to live a supposedly safer life with more social acceptance in her father’s house. Bk 2 Ch 14, pp 143-45: the chapter is really about a young woman compromising what she wants and resigning herself to what she is pressured into accepting by those who supposedly love and have her best interests at heart. Verity’s assertions include: “I have the right to choose my own life” (p. 138) “These were the remarks she had forged in the quietness of her own bedroom ” (p. 119).

Each lives apart when contented too: Verity with her estranged husband, Demelza in her garden, her books, her library, Ross a wanderer.

The books individually ususuall end on a positive note (not always, e.g., Black Moon does not). But they do not end in tragic loss as the elite and high culture books we read in my class this term: Small Island (Andrea Levy’s Booker and Whitbread Prize winning books that I am going to read with my students as their last book for this term), not ending ambiguously as Namesake (which I read with students in the first half of the term), poignantly as A Month in the Country (by J. L. Carr, ditto), and ironically as in Bel Canto (by Ann Patchett, ditto).

At the close of the Ross Poldark he comes home to her and they have made a good space for themselves and coming child to thrive. Ross is momentarily rewarded at the end of the books with quiet domestic peace. His public actions are rarely rewarded: he is praised and admired by the populace but not liked by the powerful and again and again we see him come near bankruptcy and be threatened with dire punishments.

First series though ends in loss and conflagration with them apart — and how I loved it for this, exhilarating and comforting too (as Jim and I do live apart from others):

Closing moment of Season 1: here Trenwith has been burnt down, George and Elizabeth Warleggan thrown out, Ross broke returns to his regiment, Demelza to stay in Cornwall with children, but they are exhilarated as together

The Poldark mini-series displays a continual political, economic and social dimension which connects to the individual being able to take advantage of their natural liberty as entities in the world.

Why popular beyond this?

In writing of historical fiction’s power I see I left out a central feature which Hughes makes much of and I’m intensely aware of — having this morning read-skim through about half of Graham’s Ross Poldark — it’s that recreated within the terms of the fiction is a consciousness that feels modern and can be identified with. The appeal of these books is the consciousness of its characters. This is very strong in the first encounter between Ross and Demelza, pp. 84-82

Readership is often lower middle class, clerks, teachers, people in office and library and public service jobs. They are anxious about dislocation, and the anxiety of the characters enables them to re-experience and validate their own seeking/searching
Jinny Carter almost being raped by Reuben Clemmow (pp 169-70).

Identifying with idealized images of Englishness works not only to flatter and increase the person’s self-esteem but also makes the class conflict less visible, harmonizes and makes “sound” an idea of nationhood. This is one of the contradictions in the Poldark series.

Hughes has a chapter on Englishness in popular historical fiction. It harmonizes and makes people accept the class system as they are at least part of this apparently beautiful (green and pleasant land), civilized in manners, educated natioin. The Poldark series also subscribes to the middle-century middle class gospel that work will get an adequate reward; it’s a gospel of hazard too, where risk does eventually lead to success.

Ross Poldark and Graham’s second in the series (Demelza) are enormously rich in suggestiveness and details that can be later elaborated of all sorts, from wrecks and poaching and business deals … to marriage and babies and female isolation.

Western society seems to me to have changed little in fundamentals since 1945 — though the discourse of this unusual series remains unusual in its genuine left-of-center critique of class cruelties, injustices and at least an instinctive feminism (countered by now and again a curious drive to justify male violence towards women).

Truth to tell, I love them because inside them is a presence, Graham’s which values solitude, apartness, is deeply sceptical and disillusioned and he is aware of how women need safety and all people tenderness and liberty. They validate my deep needs and I feel I am in contact with another spirit who understands.

Unfortunately but not unexpectedly since the 20th century when the form turned more and more into woman’s romances and novels and presents women’s issues, women’s romance historical novels are not respected the way the form was in the 19th century when men dominated. So my great love of them is common among women and my inability to try to find a way to discuss the realistic ones which are not elevated by pseudo-high culture criticism (as the 19th century novel was elevated by its historicism and regionalism) fits just what I experience in other areas of life. As a woman what I like and want to talk of and share is not acceptable in establishment places where men and male tastes and pride predominate.

On C18-l we had a long thread where people cited “modern rewrites” of 18th century novels (see comments). I am wondering if someone (anyone who reads this blog — if there are any who will tell me you do) could make suggestions in the reverse direction. We’ve had citations of rewrites of 18th century novel.

Nomenclature: Jerome de Groot in The Historical Novel suggests that “rewritten fiction” is a good term for what we are discussing here. He argues it’s a subspecies of historical fiction. In rewritten fiction the franchise and world is the previous book. They undermine and engage larger social attitudes by presenting a kind of alternative literary history. Examples: Coetzee’s Foe and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargossa Sea and Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone.


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Sunset near Naples (c 1785), Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-97) [serves as cover illustration for Anne Radcliffe's Sicilian Romance]

Dear friends and readers,

A. Mary F. Robinson Darmester Duclaux, lyricist, ballad-writer, translator, sybil, wrote of Italy in a Vernon Lee sort of vein during one part of her long career, lived in France, her prose book is a study of Emily Bronte. When I first wrote a foremother poet posting to Wom-po in 2006, the implicit praise for the poetry involved prompted a series of protests from women poets on that listserv at the time, and in response a cogent passionate defense by Annie Finch of this type of feminine (“female poetess”) poetry. This week when I put the same few poems on Wom-po, the poems attracted curious questions and sympathetic interest.

The reader will find that Robinson is a consciously egalitarian poet, identifying as a woman and a poet of the people (of ballads, folksongs) and her defense of her lyrical bent is formal poetry is especially a woman’s province. Those discussing her in anthologies rarely reprint her poems about women: I have two here, “The Scapegoat” and “The Wise-Woman.” One shows her to have been a reading girl and then woman (“Bookworm”). reminding me of Logan Pearsall Smith’s comment: “Some people say that life is the thing, but I much prefer reading.”

Here are my favorites by her, which I found in Angela Leighton and Margaret Reynolds’s Victorian Women Poets: An Anthology. I chose her originally because I so loved the few lyrics that I found in this anthology; since then I’ve discovered that there is not one poem by her in Chadwyck-Healey nor available online on the Internet; you can read her at length only if you buy one of the recent facsimile reprints of her books of poetry (and they are not inexpensive). So here is a blog filled with her poetry, where I retell her life briefly and cite anthologies which include and essays on her.

The Sibyl

Behold, the old earth is young again!
The blackthorn whitens in the rain,
The flowers come baffling wind and hail,
The gay, wild nightingale
Cries out his heat in wood and vale.
(And in my heart there rises too
          A dim free longing
For some delight I never knew!

O Spring, thou art a subtle thing,
Wiser than we, thou Sibyl, Spring!
Thy tresses blown across our face
In Life’s mid-race
Remind us of some holier place –
(And unawares the dullest find
          A new religion
That all their doubts have left behind

From Tuscan Olives

“Seven Rispetti”


At Lucca, for the autumn festival,
          The streets are tulip-gay; but you and I
Forgot them, seeing over church and wall
          Guinigi’s tower i’the black-and-blue sky.

A stem of delicate rose against the blue;
And on the top two lonely olives grew,
Crowning the tower, far from the hills, alone;
As on our risen love our lives are grown.


Who would have thought we should stand again together,
          Here, with the convent a crown of towers above us;
Here, mid the sere-wooded hills and wintry weather;
          Here, where the olives bend down and seem to love us;

Here, where the fruit-laden olives half remember
All that began in their shadow last November;
Here, where we knew we must part, must part and sever;
Here, where we know we shall love for aye and ever.

John Singer Sergeant (1856-1925), A Boating Party (1889)

The Bookworm

The whole day long I sit and read
          Of days when men were men indeed
          And women knightlier far:
I fight with Joan of Arc; I fall
With Talbot; from my castle-wall
          I watch the guiding star …

But when at last the twilight falls
And hangs about the book-lined walls
          And creeps across the page,
Then the enchantment goes, and I
Close up my volumes with a sigh
          To greet a narrower age.

Home through the pearly dusk I go
And watch the London lamplight glow
          Far off in wavering lines:
A pale grey world with primrose gleams,
And in the West a cloud that seems
          My distant Appenines.

O Life! so full to truths to teach,
Of secrets I shall never reach,
          O world of Here and Now;
Forgive, forgive me, if a voice,
A ghost, a memory be my choice
          And more to me than Thou!

Here are some of her longer poignant despairing pieces on behalf of fellow women.

The Scapegoat

She lived in the hovel alone, the beautiful child.
          Alas, that it should have been so!
But her father died of the drink, and the sons were wild,              And where was the girl to go?

Her brothers left her alone in the lonely hut.
          Ah, it was dreary at night
When the wind whistled right thro’ the door that never would shut
          And sent her sobbing with fright.

She never had slept alone; when the stifling room
          Held her, brothers, father – all.
Ah, better their violence, better their threats, than the gloom
          That now hung close as a pall!

When the hard day’s washing was done, it was sweeter to stand
          Hearkening praises and vows,
To feel her cold fingers kept warm in a sheltering hand,              Than crouch in the desolate house.

Ah, me! she was only a child; and yet so aware
          Of the shame which follows on sin.
A poor, lost, terrified child! she stept in the snare,                  Knowing the toils she was in.

Yet, now, when I watch her pass with a heavy reel,              Shouting her villainous song,
It is only pity or shame, do you think, that I feel
          For the infinite sorrow and wrong?

With a sick, strange wonder I ask, Who shall answer the sin,
          Thou, lover, brothers of thine?
Or he who left standing thy hovel to perish in?
          Or I, who gave no sign?

The Wise-Woman

In the last low cottage in Blackthorn Lane
          The Wise-woman lives alone;
The broken thatch lets in the rain,
The glass is shattered in every pane
          With stones the boys have thrown.

For who would not throw stones at a witch?
          Take any safe revenge
For the father’s lameness, the mother’s stitch,
The sheep that died on its back in a ditch,
          And the mildewed corn in the grange?

Only be sure to be out of sight
          Of the witch’s baleful eye!
So the stones, for the most, are thrown at night,
Then a scuffle of feet, a hurry of fright -
          How fast those urchins fly!

The witch’s garden is run to weeds,
          Never a phlox or a rose,
But infamous growths her brewing needs,
Or slimy mosses the rank soil breeds,
          Or tares such as no man sows.

This is the house. Lift up the latch ­–
          Faugh, the smoke and the smell!
A broken bench, some rags that catch
The drip of the rain from the broken thatch
          ­Are these the wages of Hell?

The witch – who wonders? – is bent with cramp.
          Satan himself cannot cure her,
For the beaten floor is oozing damp,
And the moon, through the roof, might serve for a lamp,              Only a rushlight’s surer.

And here some night she will die alone,
          When the cramp clutches tight at her heart,
Let her cry in her anguish, and sob, and moan,
The tenderest woman the village has known
          Would shudder – but keep apart.

May she die in her bed! A likelier chance
          Were the dog’s death, drowned in the pond.
The witch when she passes it looks askance:
They ducked her once, when the horse bit Nance;
          She remembers, and looks beyond.

For then she had perished in very truth,
          But the Squire’s son, home from college,    Rushed to the rescue, himself forsooth
Plunged after the witch. – Yes, I like the youth
          For all his new-fangled knowledge.

How he stormed at the cowards! What a rage
          Heroic flashed in his eyes!
But many a struggle and many an age
Must pass ere the same broad heritage
          Be given the fools and the wise.

‘Cowards!’ he cried. He was lord of the land
          He was mighty to them, and rich.
They let him rant; but on either hand
They shrank from the devil’s unseen brand
          On the sallow face of the witch.

They let him rant; but, deep in his heart,
          Each thought of some thing of his own Wounded or hurt by the Wise-woman’s art;
Some friend estranged, or some lover apart.
          Their hearts grew cold as stone.

And the Heir spoke on, in his eager youth,
          His blue eyes full of flame;
And he claspt the witch, as he spoke of the Truth;
And the dead, cold Past; and of Love and of Ruth ­
          But their hearts were still the same,

Till at last – ‘For the sake of Christ who died,
          Mother, forgive them,’ he said.
‘Come, let us kneel, let us pray!’ he cried …
But horror-stricken, aghast, from his side
          The witch broke loose and fled!

Fled right fast from the brave amends
          He would make her then and there;
From the chance that Heaven so seldom sends
To turn our bitterest foes to friends, -
          Fled, at the name of a prayer!

Poor lad, he stared so, amazed and grieved.
          He had argued half an hour;
And yet the beldam herself believed,
No less than the villagers she deceived,
          In her own unholy power!

Though surely a witch should know very well
          ‘Tis the lie for which she will burn.
She must have learned that the deepest spell
Her art includes could ne’er compel
          A quart of cream to turn.

And why, knowing this, should one sell one’s soul
          To gain such a life as hers -
The life of the bat and the burrowing mole ­
To gain no vision and no control,
          Not even the power to curse?

‘Tis strange, and a riddle still in my mind
          To-day as well as then.
There’s never an answer I could find Unless -
0 folly of humankind!
          O vanity born with men!

Rather it may be than merely remain
          A woman poor and old,
No longer like to be courted again
For the sallow face deep lined with pain,
          Or the heart grown sad and cold.

Such bitter souls may there be, I think,
          So craving the power that slips,
Rather than lose it, they would drink
The waters of Hell, and lie at the brink
          Of the grave, with eager lips.

They sooner would, than slip from sight,
          Meet every eye askance;
Sooner be counted an imp of the night,
Sooner live on as a curse and a blight
          Than just be forgotten?


Marianne Von Werefkin (1870-1938), Woman with a Lantern

And last:

Selva Oscura

In a wood
          Far away,
Thrushes brood,
          Ravens prey,
Eagles circle overhead,
Through the boughs a bird drops dead.

Wild and high,
          The angry wind
Wanders by
          And cannot find
Any limit to the wood
Full of cries and solitude.


Helen Allingham (1848-1926), Santa Maria Salute (1901-2)

A. Mary F. Robinson died two years before I was born. She was born in Leamington, England, and spent her childhood at home, educating herself through reading in her father’s library. He was an architect’s daughter and grew up among respected literary people (knew Robert Browning, Oscar Wilde); it’s said that she decided that instead of having a coming out ball at age 18, she had a book of poetry published. She did go to school, in Brussels, 1870, and then studied in Italy and at University College, London. She published a study of Emily Bronte in 1883. Emily Dickinson wrote of Robinson’s study that it was “more electirc far than anything since Jane Eyre.” She and Vernon Lee may have been lovers — they were at least close friends.

She lived through the worst of World War Two apparently utterly devastated by what she saw.

She married as well, a French scholar and professor of Persian, James Darmesteter; they translated one another’s work, and tried to bring about an alliance of French and British culture. She lived in Paris where she is described as having a salon (so are other women). She did translations from Greek. When her husband died in 1894, she did not return to England, but rather remarried, this time a French scientist, Emile Duclaux, and stayed in France. He died in 1904 and she continued to write until nearly the end of World War II.

It seems she remained close much of her life with her sister, Mabel, a year younger than she was. Her Images and Meditations published 1923 was dedicated to “to Mabel, Only Sister, Dearest Friend.”

Pietro Fragiacomo (1856-1922), Inverno [Winter, Venice]

Most of her poems are set in Italy, Venice frequently.. Some show a power of authoritative argument (“Darwinism”) but I have preferred the lyrics and deeply melancholy enigmatic pieces. She defended her love of ballads, and said it was a “special woman’s form,” valuable for an authenticity of experience.

We women have a privilege in these matters … We have always been the prime makers of ballads and love songs, of anonymous snatches and screeds of popular song. We meet together no longer on Mayday, as of old in Provence, to set the fashion in tensos and sonnets. But some old wife or other, crooning over her fire of sticks, in Scotland, or the Val d’Aosta, in Roumania or Gascony, is probably at the beginning of of most romantic ballads …

Fruit Stall Near Venice, Helen Allingham (again)

Beyond Leighton and Reynolds’s Victorian Women Poets, one may read her poetry in The Collected Poems, Lyrical and Narrative of Mary Robinson (Madame Duclaux), London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1902, and British Women Poets of the 19th Century, edd. Margaret Randolph Higonnet (who also prefers the sequences of lyrics). There’s her Emily Bronte in the Eminent Women series, London.

Writing on Robinson includes M. Lynda Ely, “Not a Song to Sell: Re-presenting A. Mary F. Robinson,” Victorian Poetry, 38:8 (2000):94-108; Emily Harrington, “The Strain of Sympathy: A. Mary F. Robinson, The New Arcadia, and Vernon Lee,” Nineteenth Century Literature, 61:1 (2006):66-98.

John Singer Sergeant (1856-1925), Vernon Lee (1881)

From her Love without Wings (“Eight Songs”):


Ah me, do you remember still
          The garden where we strolled together,
The empty groves, the little hill
          Starred o’er with pale Italian heather? …


Long blessed days of love and wakening thguht,
          All, all are dead;
Nothing endures we did, nothing we wrought,
          Nothing we said.

But once I dreamed I sat and sang with you
          On Ida’s hill.
There, in the echoes of my life, we two
          Are singing still.


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Ralph Fiennes as Duke telling the Duchess he does not make deals; why should he? Keira Knightley as the powerless stunned wife listening (The Duchess)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve returned to my movie studying project (right now I’m watching films and making notes towards a revision of a chapter on Andrew Davies and the 2008 S&S), and as a sort of control film, what an Austen film is not, I re-watched The Duchess, directed by Saul Dibb, screenplay Jeffrey Hatcher, Saul Dibb, and Anders Thomas, produced by Gabriella Tana and Michael Kuhn (among others), featuring Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling and Dominic Cooper. I also watched the features (one of Foreman reading aloud from the letters), another on the costumes and production design and a final one emphasizing the position of women at the time.

I had only watched the film once before, written a blog, but knew I should re-see it. I now realize how inadequate was my take. Yes it’s unlike Amanda Foreman’s book but in a good way: Foreman’s book is a mildly feminist one: she values the woman at the center and shows her to have led an intelligent life well lived and been a fine writer (especially of letters). But Foreman goes no more and even (I think backtracks) to suggest the system at the time was not inimical to women. I had written a foremother poet (and writer) blog about the real Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire, but not considered the film seriously.

The movie is a strongly protest one with a heavily outlined feminist fable at the center. Its done very formally and at times strong stylization which makes the scenes more acceptable in their absoluteness. The characters are continually given either-or choices: the either/or is obey the conventions and authority figures or these people (the mother of the duchess, the duke she marries) will destroy you. We see her married to the duke and simply taken by him as an object, we see him rape her brutally; we see his utter indifference to any injustice to her and demand she accept his promiscuity and bring up his children out of wedlock but strong retributive punishment for her if she stray sexually openly. The poignant scene where she is forced to give up her child by Grey

has a parallel to a scene in Small Island where a white mother gives up a black child (she had intercourse with a black man) for its own sake though it breaks her heart and life’s hope.

Ruth Wilson as Queenie Bligh, Benedict Cumberbatch as Bernard Bligh

In the movie it’s there as a part of a paradigm one sees in movies in modern dress. Most striking are the many scenes carried off so well by Fiennes (out of typology) where he is adamant and cruel to Georgiana and they have no recourse.

Here he refuses to listen to anything but his own will

It’s hard to say that the film could not be read as conservative. Certainly if you wanted to read it this way you could: by obeying at the end we are told Gray became a prime minister, the child was brought up loved, and Georgiana lived a full influential society life. This would be like in Thelma and Louise emphasizing the ending — for the journey is one of strong victim hood and suffering and loss, violation of spirit and body, wtith he duchess becoming a heavy drinker, gambler, almost setting herself on fire.

We are never told what the job of motherhood entails – that’s telling. It seems to be only playing with a child or kissing it. That it entails re-inculcating these ugly inhumanities we’ve seen all movie long is only seen in Charlotte Rampling’s remorselessness. It’s part of the movie’s failures — for as in most art the painful sordid and icky realities of networking are nowhere to be seen.

Telling of raw things casually — over cards as if things of intense emotional importance do not count

The movie deals in absolutes but as cinema and film art it’s all the more effective.

The figure at the center was coerced by threats and violence into selling her body for these beautiful costumes and hats :). Shooting on location was reinforced through color and everyway possible to make a richly luxurious picturesque experience, at the edges of which were dependent poor.

Landscape around Chatham, where the Duchess’s letters in manuscript reside

I note Saul Dibb has done two documentaries of serious protest: one about the lives of black people in London and the other about pornography and prostitution. It’s not common to find a man doing this for women’s issues too.


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Dear friends and readers,

I’ve noticed in mainstream media the determination to de-fund Planned Parenthood has not been treated with any clarity or truthfulness. What has been repeated is the mantra of the Republican group refusing to sign the budget is the objection to Planned Parenthood is they support abortion and do abortions. The reality is a tiny percentage of Planned Parenthood’s efforts are about abortion (different figures are quoted, one that’s repeated is 3%).

The real animus against Planned Parenthood is they enable women to have sex without getting pregnant. The whole thrust of the organization (as seen in its name) is to spread contraception, to give women control of their bodies — and inexpensively. It’s a legacy of Margaret Sanger. The real objection of the republicans is such places enable women to have sex without anxiety.

IN the 1970s I went to Planned Parenthood to be fitted for a diaphragm and while there I had a health assessment exam and pills for menopausal pain. One of my daughters went there in the later 1990s. She wanted contraception, and chose the birth control pill. She also got pills to help her with nervous anxiety and saw a psychologist regularly for about a year.

Why in the mainstream media is the false presentations about abortion and Planned Parenthood repeated. Whose interest is it to prevent women from having sex unless they are threatened by pregnancy? Whose interest is served by not telling the truth here? Can it still be that men measure their manliness by their ability to control women’s sexuality? Husbands have to pay the costs of having children. Who is afraid to say aloud that women should have access to contraception? that women should have equal access to sexual enjoyment as men?

I omit the general health care that Planned Parenthood provides as that’s not the apparent target here, though their price and inclusionary policies also free women of authorities in their lives, the need to have money or connections.

I’ve not written many political blogs since the Admiral and I opened “Ellen and Jim have a blog, two,” but the recent self-serving, ludicrous, and pettily triumphant theatrics over closing down the US government included one vignette, one photo I also want to record…

At about 1 in the morning on Friday night I saw a glimpse of one of the leading women from Planned Parenthood. She looked terrible, her face so harrowed like someone aged 10 years in the last hour, careworn, her shattered held-together guarded expression indescribable. Imagine what they have been going through: the whole nation held up (countless individuals threatened with going broke) because, you see, of these evil women. It’s not a coincidence, that this is an organization dominated by women.


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Henry Robert Morland, A (Later) 18th century female servant

Dear friends and readers,

As the anthology of Scottish woman poets I want to use for blogs on their poetry has not yet arrived, I’ve decided to blog about another poet about whom little is known, but whose poetry is felicitious. (It’s not hard to find candidates who fit this description). Elizabeth Hands, an 18th century Englishwoman had a genius for quietly biting comic satire. She was for a long time a domestic servant in a great house (Mr Huddesford of Allesly and his daughter); in 1785 married a blacksmith at Bourton.

In this two brilliant anapestic tetrameter poems we see the poet having to listen to her poetry derided because she is of low status. The company are imagined as unaware that the author is listening to them, recording their words — and I would say she grants them far more wit than they ever had.

A Poem, on the Supposition of an Advertisement appearing in a Morning Paper, of the Publication of a Volume of Poems, by a Servant-Maid

The tea-kettle bubbled, the tea things were set,
The candles were lighted, the ladies were met;
The how d’ye’s were over, and entering bustle,
The company seated, and silks ceas’d to rustle:
The great Mrs. Consequence open’d her fan;
And thus the discourse in an instant began:
(All affected reserve, and formality scorning,)
I suppose you all saw in the paper this morning,
A Volume of Poems advertis’d—’tis said
1They’re produc’d by the pen of a poor Servant Maid.
A servant write verses! says Madam Du Bloom;
Pray what is the subject?—a Mop, or a Broom?
He, he, he,-says Miss Flounce; I suppose we shall see
An Ode on a Dishclout—what else can it be?
Says Miss Coquettilla, why ladies so tart?
Perhaps Tom the Footman has fired her heart;
And she’ll tell us how charming he looks in new clothes,
And how nimble his hand moves in brushing the shoes;
Or how the last time that he went to May-Fair,
He bought her some sweethearts of ginger-bread ware.
For my part I think, says old lady Marr-joy,
A servant might find herself other employ:
Was she mine I’d employ her as long as ’twas light,
And send her to bed without candle at night.
Why so? says Miss Rhymer, displeas’d; I protest
‘Tis pity a genius should be so deprest!
What ideas can such low-bred creatures conceive,
Says Mrs. Noworthy, and laught in her sleeve.
Says old Miss Prudella, if servants can tell
How to write to their mothers, to say they are well,
And read of a Sunday the Duty of Man;
Which is more I believe than one half of them can;
I think ’tis much properer they should rest there,
Than be reaching at things so much out of their sphere.
Says old Mrs. Candour, I’ve now got a maid.
That’s the plague of my life—a young gossipping jade;
There’s no end of the people that after her come,
And whenever I’m out, she is never at home;
I’d rather ten times she would sit down and write,
Than gossip all over the town ev’ry night.
Some whimsical trollop most like, says Miss Prim,
Has been scribbling of nonsense, just out of a whim,
And conscious it neither is witty or pretty,
Conceals her true name, and ascribes it to Betty.
I once had a servant myself, says Miss Pines,
That wrote on a Wedding, some very good lines;
Says Mrs. Domestic, and when they were done,
I can’t see for my part, what use they were on;
Had she wrote a receipt, to’ve instructed you how
To warm a cold breast of veal, like a ragou,
Or to make cowslip wine, that would pass for Champaign;
It might have been useful, again and again
On the sofa was old lady Pedigree plac’d,
She own’d that for poetry she had no taste,
That the study of heraldry was more in fashion,
And boasted she knew all the crests in the nation.
Says Mrs. Routella,—Tom, take out the urn,
And stir up the fire, you see it don’t burn.

The tea things remov’d, and the tea-table gone,
The card-tables brought, and the cards laid thereon,
The ladies ambitious for each others crown,
Like courtiers contending for honours sat down.


A Poem, on the Supposition of the Book Having Been Published and Read (1789)

The dinner was over, the table-cloth gone,
The bottles of wine and the glasses brought on,
The gentlemen fill’d up the sparkling glasses,
To drink to their King, to their country and lasses;
The ladies a glass or two only requir’d,
To th’ drawing-room then in due order retir’d;
The gentlemen likewise that chose to drink tea;
And, after discussing the news of the day,
What wife was suspected, what daughter elop’d,
What thief was detected, that ’twas to be hop’d,
The rascals would all be convicted, and rop’d;
What chambermaid kiss’d when her lady was out;
Who won, and who lost, the last night at the rout;
What lord gone to France, and what tradesman unpaid,
And who and who danc’d at the last masquerade;
What banker stopt payment with evil intention,
And twenty more things much too tedious to mention.

Miss Rhymer says, Mrs. Routella, ma’am, pray
Have you seen the new book (that we talk’d of that day,
At your house you remember) of Poems, ’twas said
Produc’d by the pen of a poor Servant Maid?
The company silent, the answer expected;
Says Mrs. Routella, when she’d recollected;
Why, ma’am, I have bought it for Charlotte; the child
Is so fond of a book, I’m afraid it is spoil’d:
I thought to have read it myself, but forgat it;
In short, I have never had time to look at it.
Perhaps I may look it o’er some other day;
Is there any thing in it worth reading, I pray?
For your nice attention, there’s nothing can ‘scape.
She answer’d,—There’s one piece, whose subject’s a Rape.
A Rape! interrupted the Captain Bonair,
A delicate theme for a female I swear;

Then smerk’d at the ladies, they simper’d all round,
Touch’d their lips with their fans,—Mrs. Consequence frown’d.
The simper subsided, for she with her nods,
Awes these lower assemblies, as Jove awes the gods.
She smil’d on Miss Rhymer, and bad her proceed—
Says she, there are various subjects indeed:
With some little pleasure I read all the rest,
But the Murder of Amnon’s the longest and best.
Of Amnon, of Amnon, Miss Rhymer, who’s he?
His name, says Miss Gaiety’s quite new to me:—
‘Tis a Scripture tale, ma’am,—he’s the son of King David,
Says a Reverend old Rector: quoth madam, I have it;
A Scripture tale?—ay—I remember it—true;
Pray is it i’th’ old Testament or the new?
If I thought I could readily find it, I’d borrow
My house-keeper’s Bible, and read it to-morrow.
‘Tis in Samuel, ma’am, says the Rector:—Miss Gaiety
Bow’d, and the Reverend blush’d for the laity.

You’ve read it, I find, says Miss Harriot Anderson;
Pray, sir, is it any thing like Sir Charles Grandison?
How you talk, says Miss Belle, how should such a girl write
A novel, or any thing else that’s polite?
You’ll know better in time, Miss:—She was but fifteen:
Her mamma was confus’d—with a little chagrin,
Says,—Where’s your attention, child? did not you hear
Miss Rhymer say, that it was poems, my dear?

Says Sir Timothy Turtle, my daughters ne’er look
In any thing else but a cookery book:
The properest study for women design’d;
Says Mrs. Domestic, I’m quite of your mind.
Your haricoes, ma’am, are the best I e’er eat,
Says the Knight, may I venture to beg a receipt.
‘Tis much at your service, says madam, and bow’d,
Then flutter’d her fan, of the compliment proud.
Says Lady Jane Rational, the bill of fare
Is th’ utmost extent of my cookery care:
Most servants can cook for the palate I find,
But very few of them can cook for the mind.
Who, says Lady Pedigree, can this girl be;
Perhaps she’s descended of some family;—
Of family, doubtless, says Captain Bonair,
She’s descended from Adam, I’d venture to swear.
Her Ladyship drew herself up in her chair,
And twitching her fan-sticks, affected a sneer.

I know something of her, says Mrs. Devoir,
She liv’d with my friend, Jacky Faddle, Esq.
‘Tis sometime ago though; her mistress said then,
The girl was excessively fond of a pen;
I saw her, but never convers’d with her—though
One can’t make acquaintance with servants, you know.
‘Tis pity the girl was not bred in high life,
Says Mr. Fribbello:—yes,—then, says his wife,
She doubtless might have wrote something worth notice:
Tis pity, says one,—says another, and so ’tis.
O law! says young Seagram, I’ve seen the book, now
I remember, there’s something about a mad cow.
A mad cow!—ha, ha, ha, ha, return’d half the room;
What can y’ expect better, says Madam Du Bloom?

They look at cach other,—a general pause—
And Miss Coquettella adjusted her gauze.
The Rector reclin’d himself back in his chair,
And open’d his snuff-box with indolent air;
This book, says he, (snift, snift) has in the beginning,
(The ladies give audience to hear his opinion)
Some pieces, I think, that are pretty correct;
A stile elevated you cannot expect:
To some of her equals they may be a treasure,
And country lasses may read ‘em with pleasure.
That Amnon, you can’t call it poetry neither,
There’s no flights of fancy, or imagery either;
You may stile it prosaic, blank-verse at the best;
Some pointed reflections, indeed, are exprest;
The narrative lines are exceedingly poor:
Her Jonadab is a—the drawing-room door
Was open’d, the gentlemen came from below,
And gave the discourse a definitive blow.

I also like this against ambition:

On Contemplative Ease

Rejoice ye jovial sons of mirth,
By sparkling wine inspir’d;
A joy of more intrinsic worth
I feel, while thus retir’d.

Excluded from the ranting crew,
Amongst these fragrant trees
I walk, the twinkling stars to view,
In solitary ease.

Half wrap’d in clouds, the half-form’d moon
Beams forth a cheering ray,
Surpassing all the pride of noon,
Or charms of early day.

The birds are hush’d, and not a breeze
Disturbs the pendant leaves;
My passion’s hush’d as calm as these,
No sigh my bosom heaves.

While great ones make a splendid show,
In equipage or dress,
I’m happy here, nor wish below
For greater happiness.

Her poems include one on her lying in, a beautiful epistle to friendship and particular woman friend, more comic verse (“Written Extempore, on seenig a Mad Heifer run through a Village where the Author lives”), one on courtship (“Lob’s Courtship”), an erotic pastoral between two women (“Love and Friendship”). My favorite is her wry candid sonnet:

On an Unsociable Family

O what a strange parcel of creatures are we,
Scarce ever to quarrel, or even agree;
We all are alone, though at home altogether,
Except to the fire constrained by the weather;
Then one says, ”Tis cold’, which we all of us know,
And with unanimity answer, ”Tis so’;
With shrugs and with shivers all look at the fire,
And shuffle ourselves and our chairs a bit nigher;
Then quickly, preceded by silence profound,
A yawn epidemical catches around:
Like social companions we never fall out,
Nor ever care what one another’s about;
To comfort each other is never our plan,
For to please ourselves, truly, is more than we can.

Wm Hogarth (1697-1764), Shrimp Girl (c 1745)

Originally founded as an almshouse for men (1509), Fords Hospital, Coventry, is now a home for older women

Elizabeth Hands described herself as “born in obscurity, and never emerging beyond the lower stations of life.” We know she was a domestic servant in a household near Coventry, that she married a blacksmith near Rugby by 1785 (Hands is her husband’s and her married name; we don’t know her birth name); and that she had at least one daughter. The people described in the above poem would be the types of people she would have been surrounded by and had to work for.

Jopson’s Coventry Mercury published Hands’s poem under the pseudonym Daphne. The headmaster of Rugby, Thomas Jones [not one of those in the poem] was impressed, and by 1788 the masters at his school were seeking subscribers to publish a book which appeared in 1789 and was titled The Death of Ammon. A Poem. With an Appendix: Containing Pastorals, and other Poetical Pieces. It appeared in Coventry, printed for the author, had a 28 page introduction, 127 pages of poems, and its thousand subscribers included Anna Seward, Thomas Warton, and Edmund Burke.

Hands was a courageous poet: her Death of Ammon centers on an incestuous rape (as in the Bible); she mocks “English literary tradition, and calls into question social stratification.” Her language is “colloquial, some irreverently comic,” and portrays her working class characters with “dignity.” “Her working poor are independent and capable of finding conjugal happiness without the blessing of institutionalized religion. They also harbor resentments against class oppression.” There is “nostalgia” for supposedly simple earlier village life,” and she is aware of the absurdities of people and life (all from Paula Feldman, cited below). In her pastorals, we have women speaking their minds rather than men (Donna Landry, ditto).

Her poetry at its best is colloquial, contains a prosaic stance, and on the surface light satire. The two famous ones on the publication of her book are about how what we write will be by many or most people judged by our status, and also how people will talk publicly about the act of reading in private (where we may respond very differently as not under social pressure).

As predicted by the author, critical reception of her book was mixed — at least as we can see it in published reviews. The Monthly Review manifests just such snobbery as we find in the after-dinner conversation imagined by Hands, e.g., “we cannot but form the most favourable conclusions with respect to that of the writer, — forming, as we do, most of our judgment from the uncommonly numerous list of subscribers: among whom are many names of persons of rank, and consideration. There could be no motive for extraordinary patronage, but a benevolent regard to merit — of some kind.” There were harsh and nasty sneers for Hands (a housemaid), as in the Analytical Review: “we will let her sing-song die in peace.”

What became of Hands after the publication of her volume no one appears to know. She was buried in Bourton on-Dunsmore.

Hands is said to portray working class people with real respect, giving them dignity: they find conjugal happiness without the blessings of institutionalized religion (i.e., marriage — it was not uncommon not to marry among the working classes in the era). She expresses nostalgia for a village life she thinks is disappearing. Of course she is resentful of class oppression. Donna Landry (who has written a book on laboring women poets of the 18th century) says Elizabeth Hand’s’s poems show an awareness of why a woman needs a reputation for chastity (respectability — or she’ll be at risk for constant harassment and humiliation, or simply not be employed in money-making occupations), and has some strong women at the center.

I took the poetry and information from Roger Lonsdale’s invaluable anthology Eighteenth-Century Women Poets, Paula R. Feldman’s British Women Poets of the Romantic Era: An Anthology; also Paula Backscheider’s British Women Poets of the Long Eighteenth Century; Donna Landry, Muses of Resistance: Laboring-Class Women’s Poetry in Britain, 1739-1796. I can’t praise Feldman’s and Landry’s books enough.


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Catherine Hogarth Dickens, a photo of her later in life

Dear friends and readers,

Last week I finished reading Lilian Nayder’s The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Hogarth. Were it to be read widely, its content genuinely taken in and disseminated, the book has the potential to alter the common perception of Catherine Hogarth Dickens as a person, woman, and wife and mother, of Dickens’s attitude and behavior towards her during the early as well as later phases of their marriage. Many people are aware his conduct towards her once he decided to eject her from their mutual home, was studiedly cruel, outrageous, but they seem unaware that from their earliest years as man and wife, far from dissatisfying him, she supplied and catered to his every need and desire, as a man and professional (who wanted a presentable socializing baby-making wife). This includes obeying the smallest detail of the decorations in a mantelpiece of their home, really letting him control her almost completely, with only the occasional (apparently) easily squashed protest against his vicarious similar use or enjoyment of other women through what was called mesmerizing them.

Nayder’s book could function to offer readers another example of what happens to a woman when you give her husband unqualified power over her from the concrete money and power the man has and from the inculcated myths of what life is about (she is to be an obedient devoted wife) and how we are to judge her (by how she is said to have brought up her children). Nayder says her aim is to build a portrait of Catherine as a complete life apart from Dickens; she can’t quite succeed in that, but her book could help to break down popular stereotypical hagiographies of Dickens among fans and scholars too. It seems to me as important a re-framing of Dickens as well as Catherine Hogarth as Gillian Gill’s We Two: Albert and Victoria Saxe-Coburg. Like Gill’s, Nayder’s book is a strongly woman-centered text.


My project reading and writing postings about the chapters of the book began on Trollope19thCStudies when I posted a review of Nayder’s book by Dinah Birch (London Review of Books, 33:3 [2001] 25-28), and a friend and member of the listserv community was taken aback by Birch’s text as it seemed written by someone who had not read the book at all. Birch repeats the false conception of Dickens’s marriage that it was in his interest to spread (that Catherine was an inadequate, boring, “easily controlled” and therefore irritating unworthy partner for the great genius), reiterates in abstract language general assertions of those aspects of Dickens’s fiction and action which make him look like a mild proto-feminist, and hardly recounted any details from Nayder’s book. Indeed Birch’s review concentrates on Dickens, not Catherine, and accuses Nayder of “an element of revenge” because Nayder dares to forces Dickens into the “margins.” My friend was very generous and sent me a copy of the book as a present, and I now write this blog in order that someone put into public a summary of its contents.


Early autograph of the unmarried Catherine

Nayder begins her book by making a strong case for Catherine Hogarth as a person in her own right. Catherine lived many years before she met Dickens and many after the marriage ended. Chapter 1 tells us (as biographies do) Catherine’s background, her family. There were a number of strong intelligent women in her family; hers was a Scots background with a strong intellectuality and interest in music as part of the culture.

We first meet Catherine (get a sense of her presence) at age 17, going out to pay a social call. To capture something of the witty outlook of the young Catherine, Naydor retells one of Catherine’s jokes: to someone explaining the supposed beauties (?!) of the story of Adam and Eve, Catherine said: “Eh, mon, it would be nae temptation to me to gae rinning aboot a garden stark naked ‘ating green apples.” Catherine sounds like an Austen heroine (probably not Miss Morland as this character is a naif): bright, good-natured, well-read, open, able to write an appealing letter. This comes from a letter by Catherine and she also shows an ironic reaction to the typical sentimentality women are supposed to feel and enact.

I wish Nayder had reprinted this letter. What’s interesting is people have paid attention to a post-script added by Dickens — not the letter itself, and in this post-script as is typical of Dickens apparently (and perhaps he liked to put down his coming wife this way — a rival you see) “the comic insignificance of Catherine’s concerns’ — and all women’s concerns, trivial you see.

People care about who wrote something I’ve discovered, far more than what’s in it. (This leads to an overvaluation of any famous writer’s oeuvre, fetishicizing, but that’s by the bye). We do get reprints of some of the autographs.

Later ones written after her marriage are closely written and crossed like Jane Austen’s.

Nayder says Catherine’s sense of self was strongest before marriage and this segues into an account of her parents and grandparents.

Nayder is hampered because the womens’ letters were not saved (how typical this is) but some of the men’s were. Both parents and grandparents were really substantial middle class types — her father had just the kind of job Walter Scott started out with, a law writer — and literary and musical people. Her grandfather, George Thompson, did serious scholarly work to collect Scots music.

George Hogarth, Catherine’s father was a publisher, and thus potentially of great use for a young writer. But there’s a lot more here. He was ambitious, left off being a farmer’s son and become a solicitor. Not easy. He rose in status and to add to his money and social contacts was a tutor. When he did not do that well (not easy in this era) and began to need more money or lose out (nonetheless they lived in nice quarters in Edinburgh), a letter on this. Then he switched to journalism, and that’s what brought him and his family to London.

Here we learn about the man’s varied previous life; cultured, capable, educating his daughters, in cultured fashionable circles in Edinburgh like Catherine’s grandparents). Justice is done to Catherine’s mother, Georgina, apparently also derided by Dickens’s scholars. Mrs Hogarth apparently was not deferential to her great son-in-law. She would not keep up to his impeccable house-keeping standards. A minor but real irritation for me as a woman reader is Dickens’s nagging at women who don’t keep impeccable houses. I wonder whether he ever kept up a house, controlled a servant. I would never have spent my life this way no matter what era. Catherine’s mother insured her own life too. Her outlook against a man like Dickens was “semi-sarcastic humor.”

There is a problem with Nayder’s praise of Catherine’s grandfather and father’s positive attitudes towards women. They were not to be educated fully in the way of men at all. They may admire women in France for doing men’s jobs but they are not to learn how to cope in the world the way men do. Not that it’s easy to learn this for anyone, boy or girl. It’s just that admirable as some of their sentiments are, the particular limitations are enough to skew a girl’s outlook about herself.

This may also be seen in spades in the endless pregnancies and children Catherine’s grandmother, mother and then she had to cope with. Lists of children and siblings do not convey what this does to a woman’s life but is enough to suggest how she must spend it.

Music meant a lot in both the grandparents and then Catherine’s parents’ home, and not only did Catherine read a lot, she was trained in music for its own sake. Indeed “profit was a secondary consideration” in the home. That makes life a lot more comfortable but can boomerang.

So we leave the Hogarths off with the father through the influence of Lockhardt (Scott’s son-in-law and that’s what made him) as the editor of an Exeter newspaper. Nayder’s narrative (p. 48) confirms the idea that Dickens was strongly attracted to Catherine for the connection with her father — and yes the two-removed contact to Scott (though his equally reactionary Tory son-in-law, Lockhardt). See p 48, last sentence second paragraph: “She was the daughter of George Hogarth.”

Myself I surmised that part of the attraction for Dickens surely was this father-in-law he’d get this way. Later in life he controlled his writing and became the lasting success he did because he became a publisher himself. (“Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one” &c&c). Sutherland’s Victorian Publishers and Novelists is very good on Dickens as businessman (so too Gaskell). It’s an age-old truism that ambitious men can and do pick wives with their father-in-law in mind. It’s put in this nice neutral way about how the father does affects the daughter’s marital choices but consider the inner life ties of this.

That he focused on her partly because of who she was related to does not mean there was no psychological allurement. Apparently there was, but from these letters and enough are left for us to see subtleties (even if we might not understand them accurately or as either of the two participants saw them) and these suggest tensions from the start.

To backtrack: Catherine’s father George Hogarth found himself editor of Tory papers, first in Exeter, then in Yorkshire, and then in London where he finally did move over to a liberal paper – the one Dickens was writing for (The Morning Chronicle), so for a while Hogarth was a sort of boss if not over, at least alongside Mr Dickens.

It’s no surprise the Tory papers outnumber the liberal. Today we know what money supports. Nayder tells us the contemporary political events affecting the media and real people in England at the time (Peterloo massacre, Reform bill. We learn of Hogarth’s continued musical interests reflected in some of his daughter and her sisters’ doings, and of the friends the Hogarths made: Franklins, Arytons. With the latter the Hogarth girls became friendly: Nayder does include how Mrs Ayrton had TB and was dying from it all the while expected to run a household, have children (?!).

Nayder shows us how much responsibility and time this business of running a middle class household took, and also how important it was for her husband’s career. This not only brings home the nature of these women’s real lives once again, though she doesn’t enough emphasize the constant pregnancies and babies and how the power arrangements probably stifled complaints about the husbands. I take it Mrs Ayrton apparently complained her maid was drinking (the “alcoholic maid” on p. 45), but we have nothing about Mr Ayrton.

So Catherine would have to take all this on.


Charles and Catherine when young

The courtship and engagement

What’s important about Nayder’s treatment of Dickens’s courtship of Catherine is the tension early on in Dickens and Catherine’s courtship running up to marriage. Apparently Dickens had been disappointed by another engagement: Maria Beadle had turned him off and he was determined that he would not suffer the same kind of cold-shouldering and the domineering that apparently was part of this again. Nayder quotes Dickens’s letters (alas he destroyed Catherine’s) which show him complaining about Catherine behaving in an affected way, playing silly manipulative tricks (from his point of view. Nayder says this is Dickens’s interpretation of Catherine through indirection trying to assert her private independence and space. As time went on and Catherine saw that Dickens would break the engagement off (a no no for women as it hurt their reputation) and (I assume really liked him — and Naydor says she was mastered by him and feel for the romantic tradition) she gave in, and we get this letter where he’s instructing her how she is to be there to make him breakfast and serve him. I would say that Dickens was here bullying Catherine and she is inadequate how to deal with it and thus she began to try to manipulate him indirectly and he immediately reacted by calling her out on this and resenting it.

Slater in a footnote is credited with taking the view that Dickens really felt Catherine to be frivolous and was writing earnestly and gravely. When Dickens writes to Catherine that she exhibits “frivolous absurdity, which debases the name [of love] and renders it ludicrous,” I also see her as someone made uncomfortable by Dickens’s evident intellectual genius. As it emerges from the letters I am reminded of one of Dickens’s grotesque (supposedly comic — but here I’ll confess I no longer find them funny myself) Fora Flintwich.

He will have to support her and is busy writing and she resents the time lost — like many people married to writers who do not themselves write or read incessantly. This is his strong point. I wish Dickens had said he loves to write and enjoys it and been less hypocritical and not referred to their duties to one another, but maybe that would have not gotten the response he wanted.

Altogether both are manipulating and playing games. This is a couple who are regarding marriage as a part of this planned career, looking on marriage as this responsibility from a very gendered perspective. So they are endowing all their actions with these imagined (or real if you like) burdens. No wonder they are already having trouble, experiencing stress.


Chart of Catherine’s pregnancies (p. 156)

The marriage

Jumping ahead: Chapter 5 opens with lots of statistics about childbirth in the era and specifically Catherine’s: how often, when confined; there’s even an information speculation that such a couple as the Dickens’s with their reproductive rate would probably have 15 to 20 acts of intercourse per month, with estimated intervals of pregnancies and non-pregnancies.

What Birch ignored beyond the real details of the book about Catherine Hogarth’s life is how Nayder set her life in a woman’s world, and quite carefully — later we’ll see how Nader uses some women’s novels that Catherine liked and read to provide parallels with Catherine’s behavior and experience. The early part of Chapter 5 is given over to outlining the statistics of childbirth in the Victorian period — and extrapolating what kind of sex life might lie behind these. The idea is to give a general picture of averages within which Dickens’s treatment of Catherine and her response can be really understood.

Another long portion is about how doctors treated women pregnant, miscarrying, giving birth. Like inferior people whose ideas are not to be taken into account at all. Repeatedly we see the doctor consulting the husband first as to what to do. The woman is turned into a child who cannot be trusted with information or decisions that are affecting her directly.

Some of this continues into today; the difference would be that today such attitudes have to be qualified strongly — the doctor must at least pretend to consult the patient and many do consult and try to get the patient to take responsibility too, and to chose (this helps avoid lawsuits) and are not just meted out to women but to many patients.

We also get an account of how Victorian wrote about postpartum depression, again in a way that disregarded the woman as an individual, did not take at all into account she might not want endlessy to be pregnant or breast-feed. Among the revolting things here are how women were denied painkillers for a long time, the rational being Eve’s necessary punishment.

To return to our specific individuals, Nayder’s Chapters 2 and 3 tell the story of the Dickenses’ engagement, wedding and first years of marriage I see this: what happened was Dickens was just too strong a personality for Catherine. She couldn’t buck him, backed up as he also was by the culture. I feel for her.

His taking over the expenses, bills, buying stuff, even deciding what they should eat is a controlling personality. He had enormous energy – that’s part of his genius — too. He did leave to her the control of the servants to some extent. I find that par for course. It’s probably among the least pleasant of tasks in a household such as the Dickens’s. In part of course who wants it; she was endlessly pregnant and sick (including miscarriages too — no fun I can tell the reader — I’ve had two). But she would rue the day when she realized that in fact the house was not hers nor the objects in it, not even the children.

Nayder says (probably rightly) having all these babies gave Catherine her reason for being as a woman and put her into a community, with all the people active around her either helping her or doing the same. Also each child was to her a new sign of affection. I’ve seen this attitude myself today. As Catherine was to find out, this confidence was more than a little delusional.

As important as the ceaseless pregnancies was the demand she control herself to stay in a kind of seclusion and give over her body night and day to caring for and breast-feeding her children on demand. No wonder she became depressed: every aspect of her waking life was a form of self-erasing bodily servitude. Again I feel for her. Nowadays too women are pounded by an incessant drumbeat for breast-feedings, and the pseudo-science supporting this matches the pseudo-science supporting the idea that there’s a baby in a woman from the moment of conception. Nurses gain power over women in the hospitals this way. In Nayder’s account it’s the doctors and Dickens himself who exert the control.

Among other things to see Catherine as forced and not wanting what was imposed on her and managing at last to avoid it shows her not an hysteric, not an incompetent, but as during her engagment indirectly reacting sometimes on her own behalf. She was fortunate to have such a rich man as her husband who when he said she was to have a painkiller got it. Not though when she said it. She was not asked.

This not telling women and not giving them their own choice does not protect from reality — what is inflicted is a specific kind of reality — and it can be seen in how Dickens treated the death of one of their children. Dora. He lied. He pretended she was just very sick

Thus Catherine Hogarth weeping and depressed because she couldn’t breast-feed is a significant spectacle. Nayder herself says she got over these depressions once she was no longer required to stay upstairs and be powerless. But the experience of this at least three times was not to be overcome or forgotten. A pattern with Dickens in charge is set. Who is he to tell her what to do — and all the male doctors. I suspect she didn’t want to breast-feed and didn’t care (dare) to say it. So she’s driving herself nuts in several directions at once.

(I spent four times in hospital over miscarriages and childbirths and experienced a modern version of the pressure Catherine had to endure. I was herded into a huge room filled with women, many with IVs attached to them still where a speech was given whose purpose was to create guilt and insist all women must breast-feed and the longer and the bettter. I’ve seen women urged to diet not to have big babies and urged to overeat — and end up with a C-section because the baby is too large. After first four weeks there is no need for transfer of antibodies; all the talk about needed bonding this way and asking women to feed on demand is absurd; who should control a situation, a woman or a baby? Just as much love can be shown by bottle-feeding (and a lot less expense and anxiety when the woman resorts to a breast pump (unspeakable this infliction). In quiet talk with other women I know many admit how they dislike it, how much it gets in the way of their lives and what an emotional strain the ordeal is. Lots pretend to follow orders, even more feel guilty because they are targets for blaming for years after for what ever the child grows up into.)

That Dickens blamed Catherine for the endless pregnancies is rich too. He writes that Macrone is “permissive’ in letting other woman come downstairs (!). These women are owned by these doctors and husbands, like some cattle to produce calves?

Catherine did grow close to the first child, a son as it happened. I’ve seen this. The first child seems to mean so much — it’s the first experience.

And so now we come to Mary Hogarth whose story is told from her and Catherine’s point of view. It was common in this period for sisters to be close — especially if at all congenial in nature. women didn’t go to school, couldn’t get real jobs, couldn’t leave the home so they had to make friends with biologically related individuals. It does seem as if Mary felt for Catherine even if she became the “privileged” person to shop with the genius making so many money around whom so many people were happy to gather and so respected. But then Mary died and Catherine lost her.

It’s not irrelevant that Catherine is losing her looks. In the photos and pictures she is heavy. It would have been so hard for her to keep her figure at all. Part of the enjoyment she was to partake of was eating food — we are told how Dickens likes it that she can eat again when they go out. But this did her in too — and does her in still. Photos in books show Ellen Ternan to be conventionally attractive staying thin.

I do note that Ellen never got pregnant. From Trollope’s remark I take that not to be that she withheld anything from Dickens but rather that he knew how to have sex with a woman and not get her pregnant. He did not have the unselfishness and decency towards Catherine not to use her as a continual baby-maker but did refrain from doing this to Ellen as it would not have been in his interest. There were contraceptives available and their uses were well understood, his relationship with Ellen Ternan implies he knew lots of satisfying sexual techniques which did not include full sexual penetration and ejaculation into a woman’s vagina. Orgasm can
be brought about in many ways.

After showing the reader how Catherine Hogarth was the partly (or mostly) willing victim of the usual abuses of women through their reproductive and biological organs still going on today, through her lack of any job on offer but that of wife and the reality that she married a controlling dominating personality increasingly successful financially as well as socially (and a genius to boot), Nayder backtracks to present another view of the death of the sister, Mary.

This is the first time I’ve read the details of how Dickens presented Mary; hitherto I was aware only that generally he presented a ludicrously unreal worshipful picture of her. Dickens then used this portrait to damn Catherine: the story line became how Mary saw how Catherine was inadequate to start with and of course did all she could to compensate to the (poor?) big man. Mary was used as a hammer to smash Catherine.

Nayder shows us by quoting the letters that in fact Mary’s relationship was with Catherine, that the two of them formed a supportive partnership as close sisters and women friend still can. All make sense to me. They were together “irreverent towards men … mocked male presumption … emphasized, with comic self consciousness, their own power, not their power by proxy.”

I liked this sort of thing brought out by their alas only 5 letters and also that Nayder shows Dickens using Mary to keep men/guests in the house: how could Bentley be impolite to Mary and so he took the drink and stayed.

So Catherine not only had a loss in companionship, support, but Dickens later reinterpreted Mary to be part of his story.


Dickens in a daguerrotype by Mayall (c. 1853)

Travel and living abroad, mesmerizing Catherine and other women

Chapter 3 brings use Dickens’s claims to hypnotize Catherine (and then other women). I’ve read about this phenomenon (as maybe some on our list have) and know that often the idea you have been mesmerized or hypnotized is partly believed by the victim. Studies show that repeatedly the person doing the hypnotizing is of high status and the one hypnotized low. I find Macready’s behavior to his wife, Fanny, horrible (p. 97): 10 children, dies of TB (very painful disease)

We see Dickens discouraging Catherine’s relationship with her mother and youngest sister, Helen from 1858 and Catherine bringing Georgina in. Catherine wanted someone — Georgina didn’t get to run the household as a consumer either. They move to bigger quarters, very fancy now. Now she’s expected to travel with him. She apparently would have preferred to stay home with her children, or at least was not keen to leave them.

Here we get this mesmerizing and obliged travel brought together; she is uprooted from where she knows, and feels (presumably) safe and is now dependent on him utterly. He the God, she among those who worship Him. So what does he do? he hypnotizes her again and she gets hysterical (p. 117). Of course this proves her weakness and volatility as a woman to Dickens.

It’s really not funny. Dickens shows little feeling for Catherine for real; or to put it another way, any feeling she might have had that interfered with him, he dismisses. He makes her pain during her births into a joke, and says he’ll mesmerize her. Very funny. (He did arrange for her to be anesthetized during the eighth. Chloroform was used. How good of him. I wonder did husbands have to sign for their wives.)

She loses self-control and consciousness.

I’ve now and again come across papers about women’s psychological reactions to marriage as presented practiced in many parts of the world still: the woman at home, left with children, the man with the job. One pattern that emerges is Catherine’s here: that a personality hitherto firm and independent becomes dependent and even afraid to go far on her own; this is accompanied by emotional instability (crying jags), infirmness. the paper is Alexandra Symonds, “Phobias after Marriage: Women’s Declaration of Dependence” American Journal of Pscyhoanalysis, 31:2 (1971). I’ve seen this debilitation and loss recently in reaction to the marketplace practices that have emerged as jobs become scarce, prices high, no safety net; things like “behavioral interviews” (a form of hazing).

Two others: Lenore Walker and Elizabeth Waites (“Battered Women and Learned Helplessness” and “Female Masochism and the Enforced Restriction of Choice,” Victimology, 2 [1977-78]:525-44) whose work demonstrates 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 highly restricted set of choices and is trained early on to see that none of her actions have any effect on what is done to her. This kind of thing done early creates a passivity in individuals difficult to break out of. Animal studies show this for animals. And then we are told women can be innately masochistic.

Chapter 5 continues this mesmerizing by Dickens of women. Now he’s mesmerizing Madame de la Rue whose huband is understandably not keen. Nayder reports in this chapter how Dickens said of one of his readings aloud of A Christmas Carol how much pleasure it gave him to see the power he could have over others. I’ll bet. I forgot yesterday to say also that most people who allow themselves to be hypnotized are also women and it’s most frequently done by men.

I suppose Dickens wanted to have an affair with this woman and couldn’t in the tight circumstances.

In this chapter Dickens takes his family to live in Italy you see: cheaper, and supposed quieter. We see that Catherine has two years respite from these incessant pregnancies and then they begin again, but she has at least asserted her right to a wet nurse.

Catherine did what she could to put a stop to Dickens’s taking over the de la Rues; it was finally achieved by moving away from Genoa and never returning.

While some of the self-abnegation demanded hurt Catherine, she begins to fight back for herself: she holds onto women friends she wants (Christina Thompson who Dickens particularly disliked), introduces a pianist, Christina Well. But I note how Dickens threatened her again in the way he did in the courtship: “I should never forgive mysel or you if the smallest drop of coldness or misunderstanding were created between me and Macready, by means so monstrous” (p 129). My guess at this humor Georgina was directly at Macready’s sister-in-law was needling, catty needling. Why is this Catherine’s fault.

He’ll never forgive her. Like Darcy with his implacable resentments. Dickens’s dreams are about how the dead Mary is this angel trying to reach him. Naydor again says how Dickens’s idea about Mary that she was so centered on him was not but we can see how Dickens is the object of compassion in the dream.

She is not effective for her children: I’ve read how Dickens tried to mould his sons in his own image. I certainly feel for Charlie who is not aggressive enough (“lack of manly energy and drive”) to suit Dickens. Perhaps not as intelligent as he too (so disappointing to Dickens). Naydor writes: “When he could not successfully influence and control family members, he judged and criticized, a pattern particularly evident in his marital relations” (p. 123). Catherine stuck up for the boy to some extent. We are told in a previous chapter the boy chose to stay with his mother later on.

The man depicted here is the author I’m familiar with in the books too: some of his attitudes towards “pathetic” male characters.

The time in Genoa is (possibly) reflected in the Dorrits’ experience of Italy in Little Dorrit

So now we find that Charles Dickens can’t stand the Weller young women. How dare they want to have careers and a life of their own. It seems the Weller father and even a husband (Thompson) worries lest Christian throw away, give up her gifts and business as a pianist and piano teacher.

It seems that if you marry in this era, it’s all over for you (pp. 134-35). There was no thin rubber.

What Dickens would like to see though is Anna getting “shocked and knocked and started into a reasonable woman.” Let us take a minute to think about what he could mean by that phrase.

He goes to visit the Wellers and what does he find: (“singularly”) untidy children! (p. 136)

Catherine tries to hold onto the friendship with Christiana: “a talented friend with whom she could discuss people and art, refreshing in her expressiveness and her relative unconcern with social proprieties” (p. 137)

Nailed down again though: the sixth pregnancy ended in a miserable childbirth: she is reported as “in a most critical condition,” “in a state of tribulation,” on the morning the baby finally emerged “suffered very much.” So she can’t go to her friend’s wedding.

The hostilities between the men (the Wellers are betraying the class order called men) were too much. So Catherine finds a new young musical friend. It seems she lived vicariously through this young musical women.


Georgina Hogarth late in life

Following Chapter 5 is a sketch of the character and life of Georgina (who I gather sided with Dickens when Dickens left Catherine) contextualized by the life of another (I had almost said) women servant in the household: Anne Cornelius and Anne Cornelius’s daughter, given the names of Catherine and Georgina and Anne: The curious thread left hanging is about Catherine Georgina Ann Cornelius. We are given no father’s name.

The chapter contextualized Georgina’s life not with Dickens and her work for him but as one of a trio serving Dickens and living together as women in the house., traveling together. Anne traveled second class of course. Yours in subordination is the idea. It appears that Georgina was in the house as much a servant as governess, as much mothering the children (p. 198) What set Georgina apart was not that she was so superior a character but she was not a target for sex: no babies endlessly, no miscarriages, no restrictions imposed on her all throughout. Of course if Georgina asserted herself in company not to like this person or that Dickens put her in her place (p. 202)

Georgina’s reward was to live the rest of her life with Dickens, supported by him. Catherine’s own large heartedness comes out in the remark she made afterward that it was a comfort to her to think her sister was with the children. Not many women would take it that way (p. 199)

The Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Bill has a sinister aspect: the man was not bedding his sister-in-law, that would be incest and as log as they didn’t marry no one would think they were having sex. Probably Dickens and Georgina didn’t — it appears her services were not called upon here.

A friend who is a frequent reader of Dickens (has read collections of Dickens’s letters as well as a spate of biographies) suggested to me one flaw in Nayder’s book is she doesn’t quote Catherine Hogarth enough. There are more letters than the surface feel of this book presents. My friend said that paradoxically Nayder is guilty of what she accuses others of: quoting Dickens rather than Catherine.

This kind of argument can be used to suggest that Nayder skews the evidence, but it is a problem for biographers from Boswell and Gaskell to our own day: how much do you transcribe verbatim and how much paraphrase and summary. You have to do the latter a good deal or the book gets too long.

The last part of the interlude gives us the fates of Anne and her daughter, Kate. Kate went on to become a pupil at North London college, Dickens paying for her schooling as he did for the daughters of his brother, also enrolled in the same school. Then a third sister joined these daughters (Dickens’s nieces).

Catherine did not mention mother, Anne, or daughter, Kate in her will and they seem to have lost contact. Georgina did write Anne after Catherine’s death, the day after, an acknowledgment of what Anne’s presence had been in the household.

Anne kept getting into financial difficulties. Not uncommon in this pre-20th century age (we are returning to the conditions that caused the vast majority of people to be desperate). Kate was allowed to marry quite young, but it seems the marriage turned out well to the extent that Kate became a successful music instructor and schoolteacher well into middle age while still having 6 children. Anne came to live with her daughter and son-in-law in old age.

Catherine spent her old age with Charley and Bessie Evans, the latter of whom she formed a good relationship with. I hope I’m not alone in finding such ends called successes demoralizing.


Charles and Catherine later in life

Chapter 6: Middle years, tension erupts, and Dickens’s breaks up the marriage and disperses his children

Nayder does say that many of Catherine’s letters were destroyed by Dickens so the picture that emerges from the last years of the marriage just before the break-up comes from his letters and we see a strongly egotistical husband-in-charge. The letters show him turning her into the helpless woman: in this chapters’ letters we see how he takes his point of view and insists it’s hers and then insists she act on it. He talks in this “you had better” tone — she had better do and think what he wants, and then he throws at her how he has provided everything: he has given her a “station better than rank, and surrounded you with many enviable things.

To say the early years were happy ones is to use the word happy in a superficial way. Dickens may have been happy because he got a willing servant-slave administering to his needs, obeying him at all points, including every bit of her body, time, and even mind. When he is gone from the house, he sends a letter which orders every detail of a mantelpiece be precisely what he wants. This is scary If she was happy in the beginning, she seems not to have been by the time of the first birth. Depression at childbirth is not caused just or even by childbirth, but by all the things that occur around it and what is demanded of the woman and how she is treated. Since he destroyed the letters we are left with this idea that childbirth brings on depression as a general principle instead of the actual situation which brought on her depression.

Now we also back with his mesmerizing Catherine and even more fun for him: his conjuring. We are told in the scholarship how splendid Dickens was at this, and that he could ferret out Catherine’s thoughts. I know I have the implication right here: Nayder suggests Catherine was silently playing along and saying what was wanted so Dickens would look like he conjured up her meaning. This silence of hers is chilling. Is she afraid of some aspect of him. Well, duh, yes, see how he threatens her implicitly with the loss of his affection in the letter where he tells her what he thinks and how she must act on it (pp 212-13).

He’s still pursuing other women by his mesmerizing and conjuring antics. One of the women she gets involved with from this sees her “subservience:” Mrs Hoare (p. 219). It was apparently okay by Dickens that Kate Horne got rid of her tyrant-husband; now he has no husband to deal with when he visits (p. 221). We hear how relieved Kate was. I suppose she had money of her own or got a decent income out of the husband. She was a strong type and maybe this is why Dickens admired her too.

To Dickens it was not okay for Christina Thompson to try to have a life of her own while with her husband. Oh no. She is to keep her children tidy first thing: this women’s “excitability” and “restlessness’ are a “disease.” She is not subordinating herself to husband and children. I notice the other Dickens brother, Fred, is separated from his wife too, Anna. So Charles’s behavior is not unusual for the family.

We see Catherine scurrying about, writing letters to people to get her brother a job from them. Wonderful these connections. Angela Coutts. The letter is interpreted as showing Catherine had her own relationship with one of these women. I see something different: she is using what Dickens gives her to further her family member’s advancement. This is the payment for her subservience and she does buy into it (p; 231)

Nayder is unusual (also?) in not dwelling at length on the separation or making it loom large in space: in a sense the book has been preparing for it since Catherine’s pregnancies and Dickens’s use of them to control her further began. It’s in the cards even if it was Dickens who called a halt to proceedings: we see early on not only his taking over her personality (as well as body) and her diminishment from this, but the near affairs (mesmerizing of other women, and then chasing after them) and now finally open affairs.

Ellen Ternan

What precipitated the break was Dickens’s taking up with Ellen Ternan — and I suppose though the text doesn’t put it this way — his decision to take over Ellen’s personality and bring her under his control and he saw he couldn’t go this far. At the close of the chapter just before the break, we are told Catherine realizing an affair was going on began to protest, there were quarrels; this is when Dickens insisted she visit the Ternans to “show” all was legitimate and she agreed it was so, and she did, but they both knew better.

Dickens even bullied Catherine into visiting Ellen Ternan. This is edging to the practice of bringing your mistress to your house and table which in France at least was something a wife could bring into court to demand a divorce or separation.

We also see how he broke up the whole home, including sending away the sons. I felt as sorry for them as I do for Catherine. I realize that this level of people were the colonialists: Trollope sent one of his sons too. The fringe gentry who would not inherit big and hoped to gain big by going abroad to grab the land and its products in countries controlled by the British military. But Dickens had a good deal of money, far more than Mr Trollope and he could have tried to set the sons up in the UK. He wanted them out. The story of their leaving is pure pathos.

Catherine never saw Walter again (his eyes in his portrait look intently elusive). Dickens says how “manly” was Walter’s behavior. Right. Four were sent off to school — far away from where Dickens is again.

Charley did defy the father and openly side with the mother and stay with her.

Nowadays Dickens couldn’t get away with this. Catherine would have the right to equal share in the property, to equal right in what would happen to her children (clearly Dickens regards them as his appendages, symbols of his identity), and would not have been so humiliated and bereft. She could have carried on her life as mother, housekeeper, respectable and at long last independent householder. She was deprived of a life this way — he killed her in effect.

Having said this I am again struck by how she doesn’t protest and she does not publicize her side at all. That she tried to stay. It seems to me that one aspect of the tragedy of her life was she loved this man and was enthralled by him very strongly. It makes sense in that from his books you see what a power he was, what a genius, and she would have been influenced by the adulation everyone else, most of whom didn’t know him intimately, gave him. A couple of times I was startled by her abjection. I read as a living person and this book has wanted me to compare Catherine to myself as a woman. So here I do it again: I’ve never loved anyone sufficiently to allow anyone to do this to me. When I have come across men much admired or powerful, partly because I’m a strong sceptic, I’d say I saw through it to judge them on human qualities. She seems not to have been able to say to herself, what a bastard this man and turn around and tell everyone else and let him know it in no uncertain terms.

There was her weakness. She probably (foolish foolish woman) tried to hold onto him through the pregnancies. She had not the insight to see he would not take any kind of inward responsibilty for them, that he couldn’t give a shit about them as individuals for real — partly because of what his character clearly was and partly as his code of manliness (it didn’t do).

We get the story of Hans Christian Anderson’s visit – his lack of seeing what’s in front of him.

We do get in this chapter a couple of paragraph vignette of Dickens as sexual predator in the brothels of Paris. On a night after a dinner party Dickens describes where he stigmatized Catherine for overeating (he’s aware she’s overweight badly by now — partly from all the pregnancies), he goes to a brothel. He talks about the prostitutes in terms which signal his disdain and moral and physical superiority: “wicked, coldly calculating, or haggard and wretched” [which they clearly deserve]. But there is one he is attracted to. He looks for her. Not there in the house. So he’ll look about the streets for her: “I mean to walk about tonight …” p. 239) The great man.

For Catherine’s final years (Chapters 7 and 8 and Interlude III of Nayder’s biography), see comments.


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. Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), Avenue with Flowering Chestnuts

Dear friends and readers,

I spent part of yesterday watching a movie made by a woman, Gerardine Wurzberg, about two disabled, to be specific, autistic people: Wretches and Jabberers, in an AMC moviehouse in DC. I sat with an acquaintance. The auditorium was crowded.

In a nugget generally, the film is about how the disabled are treated in many societies: indifference, fear, discomfort, repugnance. I long to see it widely distributed. It could awaken consciences. It shows common ideas about intellectual disability ignore and are themselves responsible for destroying these people’s real talents (not giving them any opportunity to develop them), and makes plain the risk of homelessness these people daily face.

Van Gogh’s painting is the emblem for this blog: Van Gogh was a mentally troubled/disabled man who created beautiful work but spent crushing time in an asylum, and died broke, in another words a gifted man his community/society did not take real care of, responsibility for (“an artist deeply frustrated by the inactivity and incoherence brought about by his bouts of sickness” as the wikipedia article puts it)..

Wurzburg tells the story of two now middle-aged men, Tracy and Larry, who live in Vermont and, with their autistic advocates (a sort of state-paid part-time companion) go travelling to three counties: Sri Lanka, Japan, Finland. There
they attend two conferences about autism, and meet with four young people who are autistic too. All six people are unable to speak normally or easily and communicate through typing on computers as I am doing right now.

The central characteristic of the film I want to emphasize is its lightness, nothing inflated, no exaggeratedly emotional moments. The film is not melodramatic, eschews wrenching your heart more than is necessarily (if you are someone whose heart is capable of being wrenched): in fact every effort is made to keep the tone light, easy, jogging along.

Thus it’s hard to write about as once I begin to tell the content I don’t think I am capable of conveying this tone as well as the content. As in many films nowadays we have a narrator as well as flashbacks interwoven with the present journey narrative, itself subdivided by insertions of Larry and
Tracy’s meeting with the four young people, their parents or friends and going with them to say a temple, a restaurant, walking in the streets of their city. The content tells of the shameful indeed devastatingly indifferent and therefore cruel treatment these two men met with earlier in life, how it has permanently maimed them, how precarious is their dignified and decent existence today. I was not surprised to find that the basic treatment of autistic people in Japan and Sri Lanka is no different (today in Japan worse in this way: the autistic young man is not allowed to go to public school, the schools will not have him; there is no money for the young man in Sri Lanka) and not that in Finland I saw the one place where the society and government has found the young woman a job appropriate for her real intellectual skills, but I was surprised to discover that Finland did little more than that and like the others the young woman was dependent on the kindness and income of a relative (one
remove therefore from a park bench perhaps).

Tracy and Larry

Larry Bissonette today is an artist who lives with his sister, Sally. He has a bedroom in her house and a studio. We see him visit Bernie Saunders who decries tax cuts on the disabled. (Massive unemployment has soared among the autistic in the last 15 years with the policies of outsourcing and destruction of government meritocracy tests in the US.) Vermont it seems is not that generous a state. Larry is extraordinarily intelligent; his writing on his computer shows a depth of thought and lexical complexity that is startling given that he was not educated at all for most of his life, far from helped at age 8 put in an asylum for 14 years about which the film leaves it that the less said the less painful. Larry says of this time he desperately missed his sister. I felt today he might have been talking, not typing had he been able to go to a learning disabled pre-school of which Alexandria, Va had a fine one in the 1980s, since shut down, closed. Many tragedies have probably happened since then because of this closing.

He seems to have been rescued in his 30s and at long last helped to learn to use language, to use the typewriter. And now he makes modern art pieces which are centered on photos of autistic people across the spectrum (from mentally low IQ to relatively independent functioning people — some with jobs.

Tracy Thresher’s life is more at risk. It seems that he has no permanent home. He seems to have access to comfortable bedrooms in public facilities intended for disabled people only a certain number of nights a month. So here we see the limits of Vermont’s decency. He says he sometimes sleeps in a crisis center and also a homeless shelter. His advocate cannot be with him all the time so quite how he manages I don’t know. I assume someone provides him with some minimal income as he has no remunerative occupation or job.

The four young people they met brought me near to tears at moments — not quite though as there was this light talk and light music going on. I was nearest when the mother of the Japanese boy turned away to hide her face where she was crying silently. Also when the two men parted from each of the young people; the young people were so happy and gratified by their meeting with one another and Larry and Tracy and looked or spoke desolately of loneliness when the parting came. We see them (all of them) at autistic conferences: panels where they talk to audiences so like most other people, they choose a conference with similarly-minded people delving their own interests.

We also listen a lot to the autistic advocates and learn their names: Pascal Cheng is with Tracy. I did not catch or do not remember the name of the man with Larry, only his sister, Sally.

The theme or thesis of the film is that the attitude the general public has towards high-functioning autism is based on ignorance of the people, of their real gifts and talents, and a rejection of their outward behaviors, which does include twitches, sudden gestures, an inability to socialize with ease, sudden emotional and physical outbursts like running about or getting very excited uncontrollably for a few minutes now and again. The movie wants us to see this as cruel intolerance and I for one do.

I have a hesitation and qualm about the film. First while I can understand the light approach may bring more people into a theater and thus function the way the film is meant: to bring home to a larger audience the plight of the disabled in our society, I am not sure eschewing strong drama throughout is rhetorically effective. In history we see that the melodramatic work is the one that makes the effect. Wurzberg may feel that this is not an era where compassion and justice get much purchase in the media, but I wonder if she had been willing to use more commercial techniques (told more of a full story with climaxes) she might not today at least have her film in many more theaters all day long.

Second. I reprehend the title. I have a book at home which is about individual autistic people in London and how they survive (including uses of group therapy) and don’t (one suicide). They are children of people with money so access to services in Britain even before the recent cuts is not adequate at all. It’s called Bring in the Idiots. This reminds me of how books which seek to de-scandalize women from earlier ages and tell their stories for real are forced to use lurid language in the title for the woman and include a sexualized picture on the cover. I cannot understand the makers of the book or this film bowing to this kind of pressure — or quite in this case the producer felt it necessary to label the film with a title coming out of the very rejection of autistic people the film is intended to fight.

These two thoughts come from my worry about how much good this film can do — one would like to see it reach many people and change their false conceptions (whatever these be) about autistic people. Funds must be put in hands of people across each country who are trained and empowered to provide jobs, homes, companions in centers for these people. But I noticed that as I came in the attitude of mind towards anyone going to this film was not open-minded. At first I couldn’t find the theater: no 13 out of 14. When I asked, the person who answered looked at me, with a glance of askance, of distancing, as if to say; “are you one of ‘them,’ a freak?” I heard someone say she was asked if she was the parent of such a person since she didn’t look like “one of them.” A curious atmosphere surrounded the stairs going down to the theater where ushers were. Like something very odd was happening somehow. Well I’m not and it was not. I wished I could believe that the audience was made up more of the general public, but I felt not so.

Jim asked me if I had a preference which film would I have people see; Even the Rain or Wretches and Jabberers. I’d say Wretches and Jabberers because the average person still will dismiss a fiction (no matter how closely based on recent Bolivian history and politics) and respect a documentary as “factual.”

I write this blog in the spirit of my blog on Even the Rain which even now is only in 16 movie-houses across the US. Wretches and Jabberers played once at noon in three theaters in the larger DC area (including Maryland and Virginia) and then not again. I encourage others to inquire about it and say they’d like to see it in their local theater. Here is a list of theaters where the movie is going to be screened this and next month.

A last related issue: while the theater I was in was crowded with people, it was not packed (as the latest Jane Eyre was two weeks ago) and it did seem that a number of people in the audience were themselves Aspergers Syndrome people (probably also high-functioning autism as there is no fine line) or related to someone who was.

Afterward, I walked amid the flowering trees of DC; I had intended to go on a walk with a group of people I’ve now joined (net group in Washington DC), but by the time I got back to my house, ate lunch, and was ready to go out again, it was late to meet the time line. I was emotionally tired from the strain of going out once already. But it was to be an excursion tour around the Tidal Basin to see the trees later that afternoon. Alas (or maybe happily for my projects at home), as is not uncommon with me, I got slightly lost getting back to the Metro so missed my blue train and got back home near 3:00, whereupon it rained.

So in the end Izzy and I were like Mrs Allen and Catherine in Northanger Abbey in our house, saying if only the sun would come out … (which it did, but too late to get back on time).

I did walk among the trees along K street on which the movie house is located: there beautification proceeds apace by the Potomac. Lovely scene. So I include a second impressionist picture of flowering trees.

Berthe Morisot (1841-95), Tremire, Flowering Trees — she lived to her fifties quietly, without understanding of the origin of capital, monopolies (effective)


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