Archive for June, 2011

Marina from a Sidney Opera House, Australian production (Shakespeare’s Pericles)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve decided to write a blog on Ann Patchett’s latest novel, State of Wonder, mainly because it’s been so mis-characterised by most reviews. Far from a book about medicine, South America, or grave variant on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it’s a muddled fantastic romance relying heavily on stereotypes of scientists, so-called primitive “native” people, and upper middle class white people. Its surface plot-design is filched from the 1992 film, The Medicine Man, about “an eccentric scientist working for large rich drug company in the Amazon jungle, with joke elements taken from Evelyn Waugh’s Handful of Dust.

The archetypal pattern (which the chosen name of the heroine and title of the novel shows Patchett was conscious of) is taken from Shakespeare’s Pericles, whose heroine, Marina, motherless, journeys on a quest to seek her father. Like Miranda in Shakespeare’s Tempest, Pericles‘ Marina is described as finding the world “wondrous” and “beautiful” and the play is filled with “wonders” (magic happenings); we are to see the world is hard, scary, dangerous. Prospero to Miranda when she comes out with one of her statements of joy: “It seems so to thee.” Prospero’s only alive because he found out his brother was planning to murder him in time; he’s been betrayed by all.

Patchett’s disingenuous literary allusions remind me of how she claimed her Bel Canto was modelled on Mann’s Magic Mountain when after the first reading, you realize she had in mind Francis Hodgson’s Burnett, The Secret Garden, or a child’s book in the same mode (“How much does a house know?”).

As the book opens, our heroine, Marina, a research scientist with a pharmaceutical company is visited by Mr Fox, the CEO (who normally stays in another area of the compound) with a thin blue envelope which tells her of the death of her close colleague and mentor, Anders Eckmann. It’s written by Dr Annick Swenson who is as concerned to report the weather and make enigmatic references to her great research more than tell of how this relatively young man died. This great research concerns finding out how the women of a strange tribe, the Lakasi, manage to keep getting pregnant to a very old age. An ominous note is hit when Swenson says it was hard to bury the corpse — such was its state?

Probably the Waugh-like joke in Patchett’s mind is poor female creatures, who would want this, and the paradox of our irrational world that a drug or herb which might cause this would sell terrifically. That’s why the company is funding the mysterious enigmatic Dr Swenson.

Marina has the job of having to tell Eckman’s wife — who has three children by him, lives dependently on him and needs him and his income absolutely. Karen Eckman was that morning in a state of starting to complain bitterly than he should be home already. As the novel moves on, you discover that Marina has been having an affair with the CEO, Mr Fox even though he’s 62, at least 20 years older than herself, 5 years older than her mother. Karen Anders calls Marina and passionately argues that 1) we don’t know for sure that Anders is dead; we have no proof; and to ask her 2) to go to Brazil (the feel is a jungle, wild place, heart of darkness) to find out what’s happened. She can’t go herself — the children you see. Mr Fox would prefer her to go too: he exploits her we see: the company, he says, wants Marina to find out all about Dr Swenson’s research which is costing the company too much money and about which Swenson has told them zilch.

The back story which provides Marina with what emotional life she is given is that of a woman’s subjective romance: she has an Indian father, her parents’ a troubled marriage; she suffers bad dreams from an fantasy anti-malarial drug she takes (Lariam). Secrets are slowly revealed about her childhood and years as a resident, such as she made a bad mistake delivering a baby; this was caused by the “cold” Dr Swenson and led to her leaving off becoming a doctor. From this angle, Dr Swenson assumes mythic proportions of enigmatic fearfulness. All this is treated superficially as we are told so little for real — the same goes for the Anders marriage.

Once in Brazil, every middle class person’s dread occurs: Marina’s luggage is misplaced. We are with a tourist (=stranger) in a strange land. She is taken up a a kind “native” (=Spanish) driver, Milton, goes on fantasy trips to a beach with two elegant friends of Swenson who live in an apartment that could be found in Manhattan. They go to the opera. (What else?) The easy prosperity of this pair parallels the patently TV style upper middle class life of the Eckmanns. Once in the jungle this typology is repeated in the Saturns and a black & Asian scientist, Dr Nkomo and Dr Budi. Patchett also often manages to evade the question of money: she invents situations where somehow what’s happening does not depend on the characters getting money for themselves.

So much for description; now for a brief interpretation: There is a certain (how shall I put this?) opportunism here. Everyone nowadays knows how corrupt pharmaceuticals are — or anyone who reads anything intelligent. Drug companies are increasingly the bad guys in wide-selling fiction — LeCarre’s Constant Gardener is a case in point. I was more and more reminded of Ondjaatje’s Anil’s Ghost. Like Patchett’s other novels, this one begins with a central political and painful issue of our time and manages to skirt it wholly. When we are moved, it’s by supposedly inconsequential details of her central women characters’ lives, e.g., Karen’s letters never reached her husband. We have this vision of this woman writing letters patiently and endlessly and never getting there. The heartlessness of those who couldn’t be bothered to make sure her letters got to her husband is before us.

The actual interest in the book for Patchett was touched upon in a review by Katherine Wyrick: Patchett described it in a studiedly neutral way as an interest in the relationship of a teacher or mentor and student. One of the members of Women Writer through the Ages at Yahoo put it more accurately:

Swenson [is the figure of the artist, or most precisely, the solitary, isolated writer, i.e., Patchettt herself. Swenson Patchett, the successful writer, [is] working to escape the corporation panting to make huge profits from her work. Like Swenson, Patchett must get a blank check from her publisher — all the advances she needs, all the funding she needs, all the trips she needs — because the book industry knows a cash cow when they see it. She’s a brand. I bought this novel on her name. I can imagine Patchett pursued by eager Marinas, dispatched by the publisher with the same zeal as Mr. Fox to find out what kind of “progress” Patchett has made.

Another member said Swenson is a kind of Svengali. Swenson reminded me of the traditional dragon lady type found most famously traditionally in Pride and Prejudice: Lady Catherine de Bourgh, rude, arrogant, indifferent to others, pressuring them through her indifference. Women’s films and fiction still feature this archetype of the mean older domineering woman-witch. Anders is the kindly father figure and Mr Fox the deceitful one. In Bel Canto, this part was taken by Mr Hosakawa who is a Mr Knightley type (Austen’s Emma). Sex occurs off-stage.

As to our moral lessons and the full real context of Patchett’s work: Patchett often justifies some of the worst things in women’s lives: in her Patron St of Liars she comes out for lying and homes for unwed mothers and having babies instead of abortions as that makes her characters happy. In The Magician’s Assistant she shows us how much happiness Wall-Mart supplies to these women and supports the enjoyment of mountebank fraud. What is happiness Swift asked: the state of being well-deceived, the supreme felicity of being a fool among knaves. Swift is scathing, while Patchett asks, Would you take it away? Then they’ll have nothing. She does not present her heroines in the truly desperate state they are, and they are even encountering benign representatives of institutions who save them. These are good bad books. They are bad for the way they function; they are good because they are strongly written. Her success is due to her style.

Bel Canto is a better than these, somewhat. I keep assigning it because a middle range of intelligence it my classes like it. The best students never like it best, but the middle ones do and more read it than most books. It alone of the books I’ve read thus far has real humanity because she really does focus in on a real hostage incident and keeps the unjust devastating true ending. Alas, though, I’ve asked and the book does not at all change any students’ attitude in the class for real about “terrorists.” They only see this as being more benign. They don’t even believe the humanity she extends to the “terrorists” in the book. She longed for Bel Canto to be made into a movie, but there it’s radical content (being on the side of the “terrorists” too makes that impossible).

One member of our list wondered why Patchett is respected. I suggest she enacts the political myths of today; she seems liberal but is not for real. The books are disguised women’s romances which don’t disquiet, which reinforce false consciousness (it’s okay to be satisfied at Wall-Mart and accept the world as it is). The back story of Marina’s affair with Fox and her loss of her father is soap opera stuff dressed up to look multicultural.

She is also not respected by the more thoughtful and/or scholarly essayists. Repeatedly these writers show Patchett to reinforce the worst stereotypes. State of Wonder is not the first book where she presents non-white people as primitive with a scary (inferior) culture: in The Destructive Persistence of Myths and Stereotypes: Civilization and Barbarism Redux in Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, Letras Hispanas, 2:1 (Spring 2005), Jane Margus-Delago shows how destructive are the depictions of Spanish people in Bel Canto.

In “Telling stories about illness and disability: the limits and lessons of narrative,” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 53:1 (2010):121-35, Rebecca Garden exposes how Patchett’s afterward to her friend, Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face and Patchett’s memoir, Truth and Beauty, is like most disability narratives, constructed to present various lies which reinforce the original blindnesses to the disability. Such stories don’t show how the person is not assimilated, and they set up a “happy ending’ where at the end the person is accepted by their worlds; they don’t tell what the person’s real thoughts are. The person’s great success is to learn to be acceptable. Grealy does something of the this, only she is so distraught that the reality comes through; she tells how much she suffered from people’s response to her deformed face. She goes on to tell of her terrible operation to fix herself(showing she bought into all the horror at her face) and not content with that had breast surgery to enlarge the size of her breasts. Then she died. Patchett’s afterward set up a firestorm because she showed the autobiography was constructed (like most) often imagined, not literally so. Patchett, though, then did not defy the taboo against telling why a person died. (This is very strong; I’ve noticed it again and again). The twist in her memoir was to blame her friend for not assimilating. To suggest Lucy was at fault for her troubles by presenting her as this nagging impossible person. And to top it off, Patchett bought into the values of cosmetic surgery, congratulating her friend for doing that to herself. Patchett was accused by the popular press of invading her friend’s privacy and using her friend’s agon to make money.

Still, Patchett’s books are not pernicious in the way say Kate Chisholm’s My Hungry Hell is. Chisholm does harm to anorexic girls because she creates fear and hatred of them while pretending to be sympathetic. This one is not as bad as that by far. It’s rather a muddle.

Patchett simply irritates, yet I read her books and even assign one. They are quintessentially American: the optimism is part of the teleology of religion which underlies most American books. In her you see American values of the hypocritical pseudo-liberal establishment exposed unashamedly. That her books never go into money or class shows up the fatuity of the multicultural approach as practiced by her. I get bothered because I live here and have to live with them, see them in the New York Times, where I work, in doctors’ offices, hospitals, hear them in conversation. I want to expose her pretended context of “great men’s books” because this works to dismiss and erase women’s books where her true context is. It is the tradition of women’s romance that sells and makes her money for her fancy house.

So I’ve written this blog out of an impulse to correct. So many of the reviews gush (Patchett has friends) or mis-describe the book. It amuses me to make public the real sources of the book, and Patchett as a Patron Saint of Liars — and Artists. The connection to artist is perhaps the book’s one intriguing aspect with depth. An important book in the literary pantheon (across all countries, eras, languages) is Denis Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew where two men debate the right of an artist to be utterly amoral. Diderot considers this position but rejects it finally. Patchett would not.

Gentle reader, if you’ve gotten this far, Patchett even provides a happy ending. Anders did not die. Marina takes him home the way Shakespeare’s Marina brings her father, Pericles, back to their home in Ephesus. Karen rushes out and (after we are to imagine mild scolding) we are in Father Knows Best once again. So Dr Swenson is justified.


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Simon Keenlyside as Macbeth (HD film from Royal Opera House, London)

Dear friends and readers,

Another experience of opera I feel I should record and urge others to see if they can. The last of the West End Cinema’s summer season (not to worry, summer’s not over by a long shot, only this May through June series of operas from Europe) was Verdi’s Macbeth (the later 1865 version) as produced by the Royal Opera House first in 2006 by Phyllida Lloyd. I was really looking forward to it because I so loved Keenlyside as Hamlet, and thought to myself, “Macbeth? how can they go wrong?” I have seen disastrous productions of even A Midsummer Night’s Dream (surely one play that carries itself), but it is hard to make it a number of Shakespeare’s plays really bad. Macbeth is one of those hard to fail with. This was not an electrifyingly scary visceral Macbeth: I once saw one such, a magical nightmare woven by Papp’s New York Summer Shakespeare Festival way back in the 1960s when the company was still traveling out to the boroughs. This was rather an austerely controlled Macbeth: stage designs symmetrical, costumes somber (even when gilded) and made to match or parallel one another, the acting subtle (directed by Harry Fehr), with a strong reliance on symbols.

The production made it into a story dominated by death and several times we faced two beds on either side of the stage. Corpses, ghosts, signs of burial, withered nature. Very still emblematic scenes. All the time an inner agon is quietly happening. The most obvious contrivance were small and large boxes with criss-crossed bars (tic-tac-toe sets) were small prisons in which we saw crowns and large ones where life-and-death scenes were enacted:

Macbeth and Dmitri Pittas as Macduff

Verdi’s choice of words, scenes, and action may turn Shakespeare’s basically frighteningly nihilistic amoral nightmare into a continually moral drama of crime-and-punishment, but this production worked against this by such props and furniture (so to speak) and by having the witches continually on stage, arranging, mischievously tricking those on stage to expect something different than what will occur, or simply influencing the experience of what’s happening:

Macbeth, a witch and Liudmyla Monastyrska as Lady Macbeth (he is crowned king)

As last time in Hamlet, Keenlyside’s singing and performance were magnificent, near-perfect: we saw him evolve from a proud ambitious man into a despairing desperate criminal, seemingly (as he played it) played upon by cruel ironic forces, natural as well as human, once he commits his crime. Liudmyla Monastryska sang with underplayed skill so that she saved the overpowering rage, irritation, neuroticism, madness for high pitches, but her acting, especially in her wide flat young face was not flexible enough, and it was only in the last part of the opera, the Banquo feast on, and especially the madness scene that she seemed to become a complex feeling quietly crazed character:

who finally retreats to her bed and becomes a corpse wrapped in white.

Raymond Aceto acted and sang Banquo powerfully, and while Dmitri Pittas as Macduff was not as strong or effective as a singer or actor, surrounding him with a beautiful actress to enact his wife and several children seemed to lend him peculiar poignancy.

I can’t say I was made to see or feel Macbeth in a newly perceptive or relevant way, but as a traditional Verdi’s take made into an aesthetically intelligent masque it hit home as somber parable. Most reviewers seemed to long for sensational effects (as Polonius would remark, they’re for a a gig or they’re bored), and commended Antonio Pappano for his quick pace, but I had enough in the play as played and the music as performed. The producers did not get in the way; they were suggestive in their minimal use of props (e.g., rows of tree branches for withered nature, a single coffin for a corpse) and used dance also in this controlled expressionistic way:

This chorus of women witches was very effective. I liked how individuals you could not recognize would appear in odd places, acting apparently playfully. For example, when Fleance flees the murderers, a witch appears, opens the hole in the floor and the boy actor jumped down it. A little while later when it was safe, no one on stage, she opened the flap and he fled across. Little bits of stage business.

I did miss Macbeth’s great soliloquy, but know that Verdi cut most of it because he did not want the meaning intended by Shakespeare. Well, I do, so restore it here for my close:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Like Massenet’s Manon, this opera is a film adaptation, and in this case I find the meaning of the original fuelled this variant for me.

The Deadly Place of Power, from Polanski’s film, a production which left me with nightmares. This film spoke to our time.

Fuseli’s response to an 18th century production with Sarah Siddons: it is the moment when Macbeth is holding onto the bloody daggers, and cannot get himself to return to the scene of the murder and put them back


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John Bowe as Ross Poldark grown older (The Stranger from the Sea, 1996 Poldark

Mel Martin as Demelza and Kelly Reilly as Clowance

Dear friends and readers,

The second to the last Poldark novel did not disappoint me. The epigraph of the novel is from Pslam 22, Verse 20: Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog. It is a powerfully anti-war novel; it must be one of the first novels to portray accurately and sympathize with an autistic hero — thought useless and called an idiot by those around him, jeered at, dismissed until Dwight Enys takes up his cause and by the close of the novel due to the decent way a few people are beginning to treat him living a life of dignity, self-respect with his gifts developing through use. We have a moving portrait of the love of Ross and Demelza, as an older couple and how they deal with the devastating death of Jeremy, their oldest son. Clowance, their daughter learns the basis for lasting love must include truth-telling and genuine mutual respect, and she is seeking to build thought-out independent values as the basis of her life at the book’s close.

This one is not set in an unusual but important battlefield, Peninsular war, sometimes called Napoleon’s Vietnam (the opening sequences of the 8th one are set in The Stranger from the Sea), but one of the heroes (Geoffrey Charles) and the novel’s main figure (Ross Poldark) fought in Portugal, and are part of the central group of interlocking characters at Waterloo. It’s a novel which dramatizes Paris just as the Bourbon king’s regime was beginning to crumble, the experience of Napoleon’s return from Elba and Waterloo from the point of view of people caught up in the chaos and then the battlefield and Europe. It reminded me of Fanny Burney’s later 1815 diary-journal letters and Anne Radcliffe’s 1794 Summer Tour through Europe, where both travel through the affected areas, Burney during the war and Radcliffe during an earlier phrase of the wars. As the other novels based on thorough research, this time one of the central sources a long chapter in Keegan’s Face of Battle.

Graham’s The Twisted Sword, Book 1, Chapters 1-3

Travalls Port Bawden, Cornwall

1815. Back to Cornwall. One of the immediate differences between this fiction and the 19th century historical fiction by Graham I just finished (Cordelia) is how deeply atmospheric Graham is here (and not in Cordelia). The opening chapter immerses us in the rains of mid-January off the coast of Cornwall, in the workings of the mines in such a time.

The story opens with what was slowly begun in the previous novel: Ross has been asked to become a sort of spy for Lord Liverpool in Paris. We don’t begin with him but Demelza confronted with this difficulty: she had failed to cope in London, how will she do in Paris? (I had the thought maybe she’s better off not knowing the language.)

We get the usual brief rehearsal of what has gone before in the last couple of novels to situate us – though it is really expected we will have read the previous books. These are continuation novels.

We are again made to feel that Demelza is no longer in good health or strong. They want their two friends, Caroline and Dwight Enys to accompany them — this is a bit artificial; it’s that Graham wants to take all four of his favorite characters to Paris in 1815.

Clowance discovers that Stephen Carrington is 37 (not 34) and had another wife who died and has a living son. He is now working for George Warleggan as he is a sort of pet of Harriet’s – especially since the estrangement of George from Valentine

Jeremy in Belgium A momentary lull or peace in the war there.

Graham’s The Twisted Sword, Book 1, Chapters 4-11

Paris, Port-au-ble (18th century)

Ross and Demelza arrive in Paris and we get scenes between Ross and more “minor” historical personages who he is working for, and we do see him begin to network as we call it and begin to gain information on attitudes towards the Bourbon king, the war, Napoleon. He thinks to himself maybe he is wanted in Paris because his working for a radical agenda (he’s against the Corn laws) in Parliament is not much appreciated.

This is another book where the intensity of the first 7 has worn off and if you are not involved with the characters before you begin, might not carry on. I am, so do. We get Demelza’s early doings getting used to the angle of Paris she sees; also that the baronetcy now given Ross to make him more viable is a problem to her. She begins to take French lessons.

We see George’s real understandable dissatisfaction with his wife, his bitterness that Ross is getting on (because liked really) and he not, getting a baronetcy now. His loneliness in a way. Teh moral lesson here might be, This is one of the things one has to deal with when one marries not for affection or love at all. The other person will not care for you either. He too remains an interesting character to me, a riveting moment of intensity and reality.

In Cornwall Clowance and the disabled Music Thomas come across an animal on the inside of George Warleggan’s fenced in property and discover it’s one of Harriet, his wife’s favorite beloved dogs. They work hard to loosen it from a terrible trap and bring it back to the house in order to try to save its life. This is the best thing in the book thus far, these moments.

Stength comes from the continual returns to Cornwall and its landscape, rhythms, descriptions of the sky, seas, movements of land

It’s also striking that Graham keeps up putting this minor semi-disabled character before us. He is not appreciated by most of the people he works for, gets along so minimally but we are made to see how much talent and humanity he does have. I do think he’d be see as someone along the autistic spectrum; by someone in the book he’s called an idiot (shades of the people on Victoria).

Hints we are to worry about Jeremy in Belgium, even if the war is said to be over. News of many deaths in New Orleans after the treaty there is signed. Graham too anti-war, showing its absurdities though he himself has a conventional physically courageous duelling type (Ross) hero at the center. We do care about Jeremy at this point and also Clowance who is looking worn, dark eyed, thinner. We are (mildly) to worry once again lest Ross be driven to duel because he gets jealous of Demelza for example. Mildly is the atmosphere around Ross and Demelza and this is the core problem with this as other later Poldark novels. Graham is too distanced and too careful of his central original characters. He couldn’t be mild over Morwenna and truly I think kept to the idea such a person does not heal, does not get over what happened entirely and cannot go back to scenes she so suffered in or met the people in them, so he dismissed her to the margins of the books after Book 7.
Now Ross and Demelza tour Paris. It gives Graham a chance to depict what was going on in Paris in the year Napoleon was on the island of Elba. One of the interesting perspectives is that of the bitterness of those who had been active on behalf of Napoleon, had worked hard in France during dangerous periods, sometimes on one side and sometimes another. What immediately began to happen (cut off by Napoleon’s return) was the old aristocrats started to return with their ancien regim attitudes of mind utterly unchanged. Many of them had learning very little only that the world was more dangerous than they had thought and they didn’t repress enough. They are beginning to get the plums, the patronage because the Bourbons real allegiance is to these emigres.

Also depictions of stuff stolen and put in the Louvre or on top of an Arc de Triomph. Little ironies of this sort.

Demelza is learning French. I assume Graham read French with no trouble.

Graham’s conceit for bringing his hero into Paris is as an informer. Since Ross is not betraying his own side, but spying for them, that’s all right, but we do see how spying is an outgrowth of networking and how all of it helps to keep one afloat financially.

Demelza now goes to a salon and see and hears Madame de Stael speak.

The story line does grow ominous when George Warleggan gets his first evidence that one of the three men who stole such a large amount of money and treasures from his bank may have been Stephen Carrington who is even now trying to become a lucrative business partner. Stephen is too daring; he ought to have stayed away for its Stephen’s lack of his eyetooth on the left that is the mark noticed. We do begin to realize Jeremy is not so safe as Napoleon first lands, is dismissed at as laughable and merely to be rounded up, but then attracts huge numbers of men, is not himself attacked and begins to march on Paris.

I left off at “Lyon has fallen.”

Graham’s The Twisted Sword, Book 1, Chapters 12-16: Napoleon’s march on Paris from Elba

Napoleon Bonaparte (by Antoine-Jean Gros, 1796)

The narrative takes on a charge and I found myself peeking ahead in anxiety, reading on as Napoleon begins to gather people, troops and then important men on his side and approaches Paris. Ross has left to see someone outside the region, still under the impression from reports (misinformation) that Napoleon is getting nowhere and soon will be recaptured. Demelza finds herself having to take the offer of a place in a carriage with a friend, a French aristocrat who asks Demelza to present herself as the English lady of the coach, with this woman as her servant. This is romance, traveling together she discovers a man with them has in his case, “the crown jewels” (or some of them). Silly stuff. But the narrative is otherwise of interest: we see that there was collusion, Napoleon had powerful supporters who wanted to get rid of the Bourbon king because he was giving plums and spoils to these old line aristocrats. Some English were complicit, then Fouche and the like began to join.

Characteristic (as Richardson would call them) letters from Clowance and Jeremy fill us in on what’s happening in Brussels just then and Cornwall.

In Chapter 15 an effective description of societies suddenly falling apart as people in drove flee before Napoleon, those who cannot or will not flee, trying to hide themselves, or put out signs changing sides, the mayhem among those fleeing in the various places. This is done most effectively through Ross who, finding that Napoleon is successfully marching to Paris, attempts to return, and finds himself continually frustrated. The axle of the coach he gets into breaks. There is no axle to replace it with. The people disperse to where they are told to wait and it will be coming. He manages to get a promise of a horse, the young man said to have the horse doesn’t show for another day and it’s a bad horse. Nonetheless, he buys it and makes his way back to Paris. Finds the apartment he left his wife in locked, so he must find someone to tell him where she is. He does find their contact and her letter, but if she did go with Mlle de la Brach is not clear so where she went is not clear.

It reminds me of Fanny Burney’s description of her flight across Europe to join her husband.

Less effective is the description of Demelza as there Graham idealizes and romances more. We are asked to believe in the coach, in Demelza’s getting people to believe that the man with her is no one important and not to break open the case. We are asked to believe no one rapes anyone, much less her daughter. But it is brought up that such things are threatened at least and why everyone is fleeing and that she is lied to about who she was going with and where. We are aware she is not on her way to get to Calais.

Graham’s Twisted Sword, Book 2, Chapters 1-5: parallels with politics today

Nicolas Greaves as Stephen Carrington (in a good mood)

In London now Demelza goes to Lord Liverpool to try to persuade him to do something effective to free Ross. The way he stonewalls her reminded me of an experience I had had earlier in the afternoon where I called two different women from two different agencies, both of which had done nothing of what they promised, nor had they intended to, had I not called the supervisor of one and complained and protested vigorously to the other, calling her at least by implication a liar (which she was). I don’t know that I got them to do what they are supposed to do. The same kind of behavior is seen in this scene and Demelza knows it. She knows the man is not going to do anything as it’s not in his interest right now or anyone else’s.

With Warleggan calling in all the loans of Carrington, he is going to be bankrupt and not go to jail only because one bank he has used has previously guaranteed some of his loans. So Clowance, not admitting this to herself, goes to visit Harriet, who is grateful to her for saving the dog. At first Clowance is unwilling to say why she’s there and unhappy but by rough rude methods of her aristocratic background (come to think of it contrasting with Demelza’s weak behavior), Harriet finds out what George is doing. She insists both before a visit and dinnner they are having and afterwards that George tell her why. She won’t take his “I don’t truth or like Carrington anymore,” and she does get George’s suspicions and wrath out and how much of the case now rests on Carrington’s lacking a left eye tooth. The scene between them is as interesting as Demelza with Liverpool and much stronger and passionate. It emerges that she is pregnant. Whether George will stop calling in the loans is not clear when the chapter finishes, but it seems he might.

A loving cup is mentioned by George, one we know is sitting on the mantelpiece in Nampara.

War is heating up at Brussels despite its being only in a very few individuals’ real interest (again the parallel of how politics works is made). Russia, Prussia and Austrian leaders have trouble keeping their own population quiescent. Belgian and Dutch troops are sympathetic to Napoleon himself as one of them. Bourbons were unpopular except with the emigres returning. England delays and delays in doing anything. How fascinating that nonetheless there was this ousting of the man — it matters which individuals have the fervent interest and how many they can get to obey them who are in significant positions.

A touching letter from Demelza to Clowance. I wish Graham were also not such an idolater of his hero and heroine. Ross is now Sir Ross and Demelza Lady Poldark. (Yuk on these names, I like to think they are Graham’s tasteful concession to his duller readership.)

Ross put in prison by old enemies, really people he never curried favor from enough, but he is not tortured — Graham can’t bear to do that I suppose. Demelza makes it home to Cornwall. Enys and Caroline had set out for Paris and she doesn’t know where they are.

I like imagining Hans Matheson as Ben Carter

Carrington has been pushed into bankruptcy by Warleggan (who suspects Carrington of robbing him so soundly) and clearly blames Clowance as she is a Poldark; she clearly is not happy with him in any case. Having been awakened sexually she realizes she is attracted to Ben Carter and his obvious decency for the first time appeals. She is learning the hard way what to value.

Graham’s Twisted Sword, Book 2, Chapters 6-10

Ross in Cornwall at the close of the novel

Graham seems to be able to “hit the spot” with me. Although Demelza could not persuade — or bully (as Lady Harriet seems so able to do) — anyone with power to act to help Ross, Brigadier Rougiet, the one friend he made does visit him; Rougiet discovers that Ross is kept in this prison from the spite of a high up police man (someone just below Fouche) and finds he cannot effect much either, but after his visit Ross discovers he has better food, more light, and more important, the closeness of his confinement is relaxed. He can walk about and he begins to understand the layout of the prison, how to escape if he could, where the stables are. Then late one night a guard finds him missing from his cell and the local guard bound and gagged. There seems to be a delay in this Corporal Lemere reporting Ross gone missing. Lemerre we are to remember is one of Rougiet’s clients.

What then ensues is Ross’s escape through France trying to get to Calais. What’s interesting is it doesn’t go fast, but slowly and peeking ahead (anxious lest he be re-captured, or wounded or whatever) I see about 3/4s more of the book will be Ross’s wanderings through war-torn France as an outsider. He gets himself an old pony. His ankle bothers him (he is somewhat lame since his time in America.) His problem is finding food and drink and staying hidden. His clothes give away his origin and he could be shot, but very Don Quixote-Sancho Panza like one dawn he is surprised by someone who is dressed under his cloak in a British army uniform. Of course it emerges this man was in Spain during the Peninsula war like Ross: Coluuhoun Grant. They hit it off, and Grant advises Ross either to follow him as far as Chimay and then by himself make for Ghent where there is the Bourbon court, or come with him to where Wellington is gathering people. Ross of course decides the latter and now we have a traditional pair of males, only not master and man in this vast chaotic dangerous place.

I like this. The outsider again.

Stephen Carrington discovers that after all Warleggan is not going to drive him to bankruptcy but he sees the terms offerd as hard and no longer trusts Warleggan — as he was told not to. He still does not conceived that Warleggan suspects him of the robbery. He decides to return to the smuggling business with his son, much to Clowance’s dismay. She cannot stop him.

Clowance on the beach

So we have two adventure stories going on: the sea story of smuggling, the war story of walking through the land. And two woman’s stories: Demelza reaches home and now determines no matter how enjoyable was Paris for the few days, she will go out of Cornwall no more, and Clowance’s growing realization of what her choice means to her life.

Graham’s Twisted Sword, Book 2, Chapters 11-13, Book 3, Chapters 1-4

Ioan Grufford as Jeremy Poldark (when young and fresh, as seen in the 8th novel filmed, The Stranger from the Sea, 1996 BBC Poldark)

This novel has a long powerful sequence of chapters where the author imagines the battle of Waterloo from the point of view of two men serving the British side in middling ranks. It’s superlatively well done, controlled so as not to be a rant against war, but rather a sober exposure of its insanities. Among the foci are the horses who are killed senselessly; Graham has time to make us feel how horses in this period were driven to the ground in the first three years if they didn’t go to war, and how if they did, they were subject to hideous exposure and death. He again and again pictures the muddy battlefield filled with horses and corpses, and how gradually they are looted. We get the full sense of what’s called “the fog of war” from the point of view of combatants who don’t know what is over the hill or why they are doing what they are doing. How important spies were for the leaders to make their decisions and how one decision to put one group of men here rather than there can and often did lead to the deaths of so many. He registers what this new effective weaponry meant — in 16th century people did not die on the field this way but often from disease afterward. He tells us of the famous Duchess of Richmond’s ball but for once that is not the focus. Rather that it rained over the three days. I’ve read that before and he imagines what this meant.

The scene of Jeremy being killed is strong out in-between chapters of Ross’s wanderings, but when it comes it is brief and very moving. And book 2 ends.

Graham does not dwell at length on this hero’s death because he wants us to see him as one among many who died so wastefully. And to see the larger picture too. For example, George Warleggan makes a killing trading stocks. He watches the Rothchilds and others and buys a set of stocks very cheap and they go soaring up when the battle by the Allies is won. The French defeated you know you will be able to trade as you once did and as the Bourbons and Prussians and Austrians and English were setting up. So as Jeremy dies, George grows rich.

We see Stephen out smuggling and by chance winning the day. It is an adventure story and we get him attacking a French sloop without realizing a French frigate was nearby. Outnumbered he and his men frantically cut away the chains used to bring the ships together, but he loses his son in the fight and (like Ross) determines to rescue him in a daring stunt that he is almost killed in. He does win out and the sloop too and brings it all back to Bristol — not Falmouth as he does not trust Warleggan and fears Warleggan will try to prosecute him for smuggling. But he brings quietly some of the goods, and changes his bank account to another bank and hires people. Of course what you are shown (not told) is how smuggling was central to the economic minimal prosperity of these people.

Clowance is glad to see him alive but no longer in love with him.

And deep grieving scenes of Demelza having lost her boy, her son, her darling companion of so many years. Some of this told through letters. She walks the beaches over and over. I really did begin to cry at times then. The book evokes tears in me for more than Jeremy but all these wasted lives, all this havoc made more grim by keeping Warleggan’s activities in mind (he’s a magistrate too).

Graham’s Twisted Sword, Book 3, Chapters 5-8

Demelza and Fiona Victory as Caroline Enys in Nampara kitchen

I had not mentioned Ross’s home-coming which occurs at the opening of Book 3, Interestingly (to me) this novel brings Dwight Enys to the fore again; he has not appeared much before this. In these chapters he is called in repeatedly for psychological as well as physical problems. Valentine Warleggan makes good his account of himself to his wife, Selina, is unfaithful and not nice to her at all, and she slits her wrists. She does not die as it takes an intense desire to die to kill yourself this way (you must slice pretty deeply apparently); and in the talk and visits, Valentine questions Enys for the first time on the circumstances of his birth. We see that Valentine remembers a great deal, and probably has heard the rumors not only that he is not George’s son but that he is Ross’s, but this is not clear and perhaps no one has had the nerve to say this to him. Valentine remembers his boyhood with bitterness, and still mourns the loss of his mother. His rakishness is a cruel foul twisting of the self but it is thorough and he’s not changing. He can win women over we are told as Selina is said to forgive him, at any rate live on with him.

While dare-devil behavior can through luck win out sometimes, sometimes not. And finally Stephen’s runs out. He seeks out, meets and has a semi-encounter with Harriet Warleggan (in a hut on Warleggan property). He doesn’t care if she’s older or pregnant; she eludes and they race on horses. Even pregnant, she is a more powerful controlled horsewoman and jumps a huge ditch successfully; he not and is thrown from his horse and appears to be paralyzed from the waist down. Not much fun for Clowance. Before this we have seen how little he does feel for others: he doesn’t really mind Jeremy’s death (Graham remarks the young often don’t mind the deaths of others), and is bored by her parents, but has been polite. Now he will himself be dependent on others it seems. His business as a smuggler, the new effective men he has found will now be no good to him unless they remain loyal which is not very likely we are led to surmize.

Among the wounded has been Haverlog who was courting Isabella-Rose who despite her youth, 13, seems to be attractive and adult in some ways. He lost a leg and is no longer such good husband material :)

Demelza keeps up her friendship with Mlle de la Brache through letters.

To me the most unexpected story of a character has been that of Music Thomas, an autistic character, called “village idiot” — now Graham involves him in a pregnancy of Katie Carter, the daughter of Jinny and Jim Carter who believes herself pregnant by a man who deserted her and whom she is too proud to chase. Dwight here tries to play match-maker and brings her to agree to marry Music. Alas, we see how pathetically grateful he is, and how this makes her despise him all the more. He readies his cottage for her – – reminding me of Mark Daniels’s attempts to please the wandering amoral hard actress, Karin from the second novel. In the event Katie’s pregnancy is declared hysterical and she drops this young man. It’s a piece of real compassion where the autistic young man is shown to have many talents, only not social ones. Dwight has been his friend and ally, a rare one.

A touching supper between Dwight and Caroline and Ross and Demelza is described as a moment of comfort amid a dark world.

Andrew Readman as Dwight Enys grown older

For the conclusion, see comments.


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Natalie Dessay and Rolando Villazon sang & acted Manon and her Chevalier with great aplomb

Dear friends and readers,

Tonight we went for the second time to the West End Cinema in Georgetown, DC, to see and to hear another HD opera from Europe, this time Massenet’s Manon out of one of my favorite eighteenth-century French novels, Prevost’s L’Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et Manon Lescaut. I enjoyed it very much, partly because I am, like many 18th century people (see J. R. Foster’s The History of the Pre-Romantic Novel) a lover of Prevost. Prevost’s Manon, even in an older English translation so riveted and moved me that I made it my business to read it in the original French, and then went on to read some of the larger novel in which it occurs (Mémoires et aventures d’un homme de qualité), much of Prevost’s finally tragic historical epic-romance, Histoire de Monsieur Cleveland, fils naturel de Cromwell, and then Jean Sgard’s fat literary biography, Prévost romancier. Prevost is one of the great writers of romance of any century. I felt that this opera and this specific production really captured much of the passionate despair, radical protest, and obsessive love of Prevost’s roman noir texts. You might say this was a highly successful yet original film adaptation of a novel :)

It wasn’t easy for the singers and everyone involved to do this. The script works to distance the watcher because everything is done so self-consciously, all the characters explain themselves several times over to one another; the costumes were highly ornate:

Dessay in a gorgeous red dress

and the blocking stylized as well as visually extravagant with a controlled wildness:

a symmetrical imprisonment

exultant dancing

Further, 19th century decorums, time, and what was thought stageable prevented the script or libretto writers (Henri Meilhac and Philippe Gille) from presenting us with frank sexual scenes and a full panoply of amorality to which our hero and heroine are driven or choose to descend to.

The chaste presentation of their first sexual encounter

The other prostitutes: there was a lot of stage business to fill out the story: sexual encounters, some degrading; stealing, social pressure, manipulation, Marat/Sade vehicles

Nonetheless, the singing was so strong and the acting so magnificent with long scenes of letting go that the limitations of the enunciation were transcended. This was no Eurotrash framing; the people doing the opera did not feel they had to expose absurdities and undermine reactionary scenarios, but rather worked to make more explicit, more elaborate what Massenet had been at such pains to make us understand and sympathize with: two young people’s refusal to be co-opted and engulfed by an inhumane order which they cannot escape, must live in to survive (eat, have shelter) and which turns them to punish them when they disobey its repressive (and to them) hypocritical hierarchical laws.

From one turn of the story where Grieux is imprisoned to force him to become a priest (his father’s choice of profession for him, a typical gothic trope of the era which reflected social realities)

I really wanted to cry at the end when Villazon as Grieux grieved over the dying Dessay-Manon, lifting her of the cart, laying her limp body down, and we saw her hair dissheveled, her clothes filthy, a vision of the opening scene of the book. The first time the Chevalier sees her in the book, she has an iron collar around her neck and is chained into a row of women headed for prison or transportation. As here the book ends on the two of them trying to flee; they actually make it to America; in the opera, only a little beyond the cart and city walls.

Prevost’s Manon Lescaut is a tragic vision pulled out of a story that is like Moll Flanders, a pyschologized picaresque tale of criminal adventurers. Massenet’s Manon is tragic heroic opera pulled out of French grand opera. Prevost’s text as a novel of sensibility can be seen coming out in the actor’s lachrymose expressions (which I don’t mind in the least). At one point the action stopped and all the characters watched a ballet. The eighteenth century style costumes were filled with exaggerated colorful details, poverty combined with panache. The music reminded me a little of bel canto only much more melodramatic, and instead of repetitive patterns the lines were expressionist of the emotions going on at the moment of singing. The close-ups were wonderful and I again much appreciated the subtitles so I knew what was going on. If the translations into English were sometimes inaccurate, they provided the gist of the French so I could make out what the actors were literally singing.

The audience in Barcelona applauded and cheered long and hard for tremendous effort Natalie Dessay put into the part: such a small thin wiry woman to carry so much gravitas. Also for the daring open vulnerability played out by Rolando Villazon. Samuel Ramey was a dignified dense father; I loved his voice (though Jim said it “wobbled”). The other actor-singers were effective as corrupt protectors, libertines, innkeepers, prostitutes, street, inn, court and police people and the whole cast and chorus were whooped, clapped. Individuals doing Gavotte, Poussette and Rosette were great fun. The people in the West End Cinema seem not in the habit of clapping along the way the audience at our local HD opera where we see Met productions usually do, but a few people did clap with me for Dessay. The auditorium was much much fuller than for either of the two Eurotrash productions I’ve seen before, the excellent Claus Guth’s of Don Giovanni and the ridiculous Netherlands La Fanciulla del West. Basically the auditoriums then were empty. People got up talking about the performance which is a good sign.

The theater manager said there will be another season of operas from Europe in the Fall and I put Jim and my email address down on a list to be alerted. I recommend the house white wine (it comes chilled). Next week a real treat: Verdi’s Macbeth from the Royal Opera House, London, starring Simon Keeleyside. One of the interests of all three European operas we’ve seen so far is the difference between the way these European houses do these operas and the Met. The Met is much much more Broadway, Hollywoodized (I assume I’m inventing that word) somehow, hyped up, especially because of the all the framing, the interviews, the explanations drenched in self-praise and flattery. You are left along in peace to make up your mind.

Jim has now also bought 6 sets of tickets for plays, concerts, and events in the 3 week fringe festival next month. So, much pleasure and interest ahead.


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The curious women: Marcy Stonikas as Rosaura, Florindo’s girlfriend; Ashlyn Rust as Eleonora, Lelio’s wife; Lindsay Ammann as Beatrice, Ottavio’s wife

Dear friends and readers,

Tonight was our first of four nights at Wolf Trap this summer. We brought a picnic supper from Whole Foods, a bottle of Riesling white wine and ate out on a wooden table near the Barns. A lovely evening except for the flying bugs and occasional rain. Well the trees were a kind of parasol and there were no where as many bugs tonight as there will be 2 months from now (August). We were merry over salmon, artichokes, pasta and bread.

Then we went to the pre-opera lecture. The opera was written by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari in 1903 and is an adaptation of a 1753 play by the 18th century writer of farces and social (hard) comedy, Carlo Goldoni. We were told that Wolf-Ferraro resolutely looked backwards when it came to writing music — he wanted a musical score redolent of the 19th century, and his operas were enormously popular during the ten years preceding World War One, after which they dropped from sight. There was not much talk about the decision to set the play circa 1950s, which was a loss. I’d have liked to know why they did that, for it seemed to me the opera would have had more bite, not have been as bland and seemed blah at times, in short been much more fun throughout had the director and designer set it in the 18th century and tried to enact some of the rough, hard, raw action, the intended slapstick.

The problem with the opera was it was done too sweetly. This battle of the sexes seemed a tepid allusion to a fierce true (if comic) contention that could have taken place. As it was, I couldn’t figure out why the women cared what the men were doing in their all-men club, nor why the Ken-doll type men didn’t want these elegantly-coiffeured, well-behaved women around. The production just wasn’t bold enough. I know that I for one would not have liked a reinforcement of the misogyny of some of the lines and wife-hitting is not fun, but the players could have done this farcically. One long lovely aria scene beween Rosaura and Eric Barry as Florindo was so sexy in the words, they should probably have had them in bed and half-naked. They were rather permitted courting gestures. It is true Stonikas was 6 months pregnant (large with child the 18th century person would have said) so maybe lingerie in bed might have passed muster. The best acting was done by the three players who sang the traditional comedia dell’arte characters, Angela Mannino as Columbina, the servant; Ryan Kusteler as Pantagone, and Craig Irvin as Arlecchino, servant, and the play-opera was at its best in the last act when the women at least got active and tried to storm the men’s club room.

If one wanted to see the origins or source and rationale of the opera’s rejection of women, there’s an article by Piero del Nero, “Carlo Goldoni and Venetian Freemasonry,” Italica 80:2 (2003):166-74, where you learn the play exalts upper class male sociability, people who are not (as their wives suspect) having a time apart from the women in order to gamble, drink, have mistresses, but enjoy “feasts of reason and a flow of soul” (I allude to Pope).

The men of the production at their club

So Goldoni’s work and this rewritten version by extension sort of resembles the paradigm equating men with noble reason and women with irrational passion of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, except these men are misunderstood by their dense wives. In Mozart the females either worship or execrate the males. Here one sex vexes the other. The supposed comedy is to show how male incompetence fails to subdue females properly. In some ways a strange choice for 2011 if you consider say the recent acquittal of two police officers who raped a young women in NYC who had called for their protection in going home, or that of the Bahraini poet tortured, raped and now let off with a “light” sentence of 1 year for having read her radical poem aloud.

I had been hoping to see a mid-18th century piece rewritten as early 20th century opera; instead it seemed a Lucille Ball situation comedy (circa 1950s) slowed down and rendered just a little distasteful if you paid too much attention to what was literally being said and done to one another by the characters. I knew I was supposed to accept the stupidity of say Eleonora casually inviting Lelio to beat her, look at the thing as historical, but find that these attitudes are not in fact gone from us so I could not laugh, only endure it. That’s how I feel when I watch Cosi Fan Tutte. It may be that whatever the opera-makers did they would not have pleased me for real. The female character I liked best was Beatrice:

Many people in the audience were talking in the intermission about aspects of the production which is a good sign and there was much laughter during the performance. So the permutation went over with this crowd. I like the Barns as a building, it’s a pretty faux-rural wooden symmetrical structure, and the coffee in the cafe area helped me stay awake.

Heavy traffic on the way home. We passed road construction, FBI cars pulling some unfortunate person over, perhaps an accident and people were driving in individualistic ways so it was an adventure to get home too. I felt glad to have come out and been part of the evening beehive of activity.


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From an Australian production, Perth Theatre (good critique)

Dear friends and readers,

Last night went with Jim to a dramatic reading of a contemporary German play, Mayenburg’s Ugly One. It’s won lots of prizes and was remarkably well done at the Goethe Institute as a sheer reading. I enjoy such readings almost as much as I enjoy operas in concert.

The play is about what makes & changes one’s identity, how other people’s conventional reaction to your physical appearance is central to what you are continually. A man who has been very ugly all his life is denied a part in a conference where he has done the major research work. His boss cares more how many people come to the conference and thinks that depends on how others look. So he has plastic surgery to make his face beautiful. The play is a fantasy since we are to believe that indeed his face becomes startlingly beautiful. What happens is this man who was a “nice” person becomes awful. A monster. Unfaithful to his (to her way of thinking) long-suffering wife.

Many questions arise. Do we have an identity? How solidly central is it to us? What does it take to change it? how much? how swiftly or slowly? The play is also about power, the power of others to prevent you getting any recognition or reward for your work — the power of our physical appearance, our bodies are not just clothing for our souls since what we are or become is partly a reaction to others’ response to us.

Alas, much of the talk afterward in the audience was about cosmetic surgery with lots of silly fantasies about what miracles plastic surgery can perform. This was encouraged by the producer of the play having invited a bioethicist and philosopher who persisted in talking about the “ethics” of plastic surgery (and seemed to imply most people in the audience could afford it, while somewhere else existed these 50 million people who didn’t have health insurance). They were mistaking the metaphor and talking literally about the metaphor as if it were the play’s central substance. Not that plastic surgery was not germane. The issues the play dramatized do lead to people paying huge sums, endangering themselves (and their immune systems) to have some impossible dream self, to beat the effects of aging and/or disease and accidents (or one’s genes), but what was exposed was fantasies of power and unjustified envy (!) in some audience members towards people they opined got surgery cheap in countries outside the US. These people had missed the point of the play which was to critique as well as examine the power of appearance.

This relates to a reading and discussion on WWTTA now going on: Ann Patchett’s The State of Wonder (received high praise in among other places, The New York Times, The Telegraph and The Independent. This is the fourth book by her we’ve discussed on Women Writers through the Ages At Yahoo: we’ve discussed two other novels, her Bel Canto, Magician’s Assistant, and her memoir, Truth and Beauty , about her friend Lucy Grealy’s quest to change Lucy’s deformed face (from a young childhood disease) and how this deformed Lucy’s inner self, so that for example Lucy became promiscuous in her desperate quest to have friends, be popular, how she tortured herself in all sorts of way, the humiliations she endured, the scorn, and then how she became addicted to this kind of thing and went in for breast surgery. Patchett has been attacked for her presentation of this friend as exploitative ploy to make money for herself. My critique is rather that Patchett simply buys into, accepts the social demands for a narrow range of looks. Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face is painfully candid and an important book because she tells the truth of her feelings. She died young.

One of the flaws of all Patchett’s work is over-optimism, presenting conventional middle class stereotypes as if they were real and typical, yet she does examine the uncomfortable issues far more deeply than Mayenburg because she remains realistic enough, detailed, and is attentive to the issues of power and privilege. How institutions as embodied in people impose further norms of beauty & hypocritical socialability. Mary Capella in “Autobiography of a Friendship,” The Woman’s Review of Books, 22:1 (Oct 2004): 4-5, reveals a stunningly painful existence and excruciatingly dependent relationship (Grealy apparently on Patchett), and brings out many of the ambiguities and discomforts of the books of both women and their place and the use made of them and by them of others in their milieu.

Well, one of the flaws of Mayerburg’s play was that we were to believe this man was unaware of quite how ugly he was until he is denied the right to be at the conference and his wife is said to tell him for the first time how ugly he is. Then the story had him simply quickly beautiful. The pain omitted and the reality you cannot remake yourself to look say like this handsome star or that. It was all rise rise rise when it came to promotions. The power plays between the central character and others who wanted his place and his changed now morally ugly sexual life was done justice to, but as the Perth reviewer says, this play too buys into the need to sell ourselves, and relies on conventional ideas (about sexuality) to shock us. The uncomfortable areas in Patchett’s treatment however muted are further diverted from in Mayenburg’s play by all the technical talk. So we have to ask why has it won prizes and been re-staged a couple of times. I fear its precisely the fascination of audiences with plastic surgery.


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Abby Wood as Ruth Carson and Jim Jorgenson as Dick Wagner, Australian journalist for London Globe (roles originally played in the ’70s by Diana Rigg and John Thawe)

Dear friends and readers,

Brief review: we saw Tom Stoppard’s Night and Day at the WSC last night and despite its manifest decency of perspective, and how well performed it was, the play was tedious. The first by Stoppard I’ve ever found so — though now come to think of it, he is wordy, and very like Shaw in the centrality of debate to his plays. The Admiral pinpointed the problems: how journalism (its subject) as a paying profession had already been ruined when newspapers owned destroyed the unions by moving to Wapping; that the troubles of 1970s are today overtoppled by destruction of profession 20 years later by a combination of advertising and daily immediate articles going to the Net, ruthless destruction of any progressivism in major papers, not to omit (to be fair) the subject of the play: determined murder of journalists who dare to report truths of colonialism, capitalism, militarism. Finally, that Stoppard is unable to present a credible portrait of a sexually aware, awakened, adult woman as the central presence of a play. Most of his plays have few or no women (The Invention of Love is a case in point) or they are marginalized (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) or we have a 12 year old (Arcadia). It was good to see such a full audience, rejuvenating to see that other areas of this soulless cement building with its hospital-like corridors and white-washed vast spaces were housing dancing, another play and nearby (around the corner from the wide highway right by the place) two restaurants enlivening up the audience. In one corridor drinks and pizza are now served too.

But how hard it is to get up a human cultural people-friendly world in these inhumane spaces and difficult-to-navigate (much less park in) environments. an award was given out to an audience member for being such a devoted goer-to plays for many decades. He made a touching speech about how now he means to get new shoes as his are quite worn out. We do have a wonderful set of repertoire companies in DC and I write often about them (especially the WSC, e.g., on their Richard III and Mary Stuart) in order to support them.


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Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West (usually Englished as The Golden Girl of the West, from the title of the play upon which the opera is based), at West End Cinema, from Netherlands Opera

Dear friends and readers,

Summer is definitely here. We have several days in a row where the temperature soared to the high 90s and the heat index was in the 100s (the “dog days of June” anyone?). And we’ve begun using up our tickets bought across the summer to go to operas (not all in HD, some live), plays, concerts, and events of various sorts. Three sets of tickets we bought from the West End Cinema (Georgetown, DC) where the proprietor is bringing in operas from 3 different opera houses in Europe.

First up was Monday last week: La Fanciulla del West done in Eurotrash style. I learnt that one reason we are not in our area seeing the efflorescence of opera that was predicted when HD operas first were broadcast is that the Met will not sign with you if you also broadcast other opera houses. So much for their ethics.

From Netherlands Opera house it was wonderfully well sung but the settings made it impossible to believe in any emotional way. One scene was performed in a large shoebox done as a Barbie trailer home all in ludicrous pinks (see above). Another a vast junkyard of trashed once super-expensive cars. As a comment on the culture and state of “modern” society today the scenes were suggestive, but against the action of Puccini’s opera, the thing was ludicrous. Maybe it was meant to be so, as the characters were also ridiculously, burlesque-ly overdressed, the characters playing “Indians” walked around saying “Ugh” (no need for this as this was not sung), reminding me of the song from Disney film for Peter Pan, “What made the Red Man Red?”. The acting was melodramatic, the silly myths of cowboys, in origin about sociopaths, lynching as a fun thing to do, desperate greed, were sent up. Eurotrash can make a serious statement about our world and not make the very opera part of the problem of those who have and control huge amounts of money running — I had almost said ruining — all experience for the rest of us in accordance with how much profit they personally make: a case in point was Claus Guth’s brilliant Don Giovanni, which took refuge in a pastoral wasteland (which also had junked cars about).

That our response was not unusual may be seen in the film of the live broadcast. The audience laughed at the sets, at the costumes. Here in the US theater, as even with the Giovanni two years ago, the audience was almost non-existent, maybe 7 people there. This sort of thing or non-commercial style operas do not seem to attract Americans at all. Guth’s Don Giovanni at the Atlas two years ago had a tiny audience.

Izzy (my daughter) has written wittily upon it (Russian Roulette is not the same without a gun, a blog which features ice-skating, tennis and bicycle tours): Opera in Cinema: La Fanciulla del West, from which I take a central paragraph:

The program claimed that the setting for the opera had been changed, for the California gold rush to modern-day Wall Street. But it didn’t really look like any vision of Wall Street, except for the footage shown on a big screen above the set during the brief overture. Especially not when everyone was still wearing cowboy hats and boots and other western regalia, except in black leather. If you want to change the setting, you really do have to change the setting, or else the story really takes place nowhere at all.

In the first act this was mildly distracting, but it was okay when the better singers were singing, particularly when Eva-Maria Westbroek was hitting the loud high notes. Puccini’s capable of some beautiful music, though La Fanciulla really has only one memorable theme, which didn’t appear enough. The second act was likewise, despite the heroine’s bachelorette pad having an overabundance of pink, and seeming to be on a snow-covered hill even though it’s being so makes absolutely no sense. But then came the third act. The audience laughed when they saw the initial impound lot set, and then again when in the end it suddenly parted for a flight of lighted stairs and the MGM logo(no, really), which is about when the setting lost whatever coherence it had.

When the dollar bills started appearing on the screen, it was officially so bad not even the singing could save it.

The West End Cinema is a comfortable place. One of the auditoriums has moveable chairs. Very comfortable ones too. There is an outside terrace-portico area and they serve liquor, wine, beer; you can get decent coffee and salads too. The audience envisaged is not one made up of teenagers — though pizza is available too. And it is a relief to see opera productions which are (unlike the Met’s and those brought to Americans on PBS), not interwoven with over-the-top self-praise by everyone on the stage who speaks to you, a kind of faux excitement roused by all sorts of flash techniques, and the opera itself strongly influenced by the latest Broadway technologies. You were left in the quiet of an understated framing of the film to come to your own conclusions, think your own thoughts. Opera done this way might seem boring at first …

I mean to use this blog to journalize and will be adding to it (or linking in other similar blogs) to the other two operas we see on consecutive Mondays: from Barcelona, Massenet’s Manon (which I’ve never seen before) and from the English Royal Opera in London, Verdi’s Macbeth (with Simon Keeleyside), plus the live operas we are planning to go to: at Castleton (rural Virginia, further south and west, see, for example, Britten’s Beggar’s Opera) and Glimmerglass (New York State, see Handel’s Giuilio Cesare in Egitto).


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Winston Graham’s Cordelia, 1st page, 1949 Doubleday edition

Dear friends and readers,

A secondary project I’ve been progressing with this spring and summer is reading historical fiction — accompanied by watching film adaptations when there are any. This because I love the genre, for my paper this coming fall for EC/ASECS, and, in the case of Winston Graham, I’ve come to love his historical fiction. I took off time from reading his Poldark novels, set in the later 18th century and the very early 19th mostly in Cornwall, a bit in London, and phased, bits on the continent (Paris. Spain, the peninsula war. Brussels), to see what would be the difference when he wrote a novel set in the 19th century, and what features would still appear. I read a novel still in print, Cordelia, set in a 19th century city and suburb, about a young woman led to marry into a wealthy dye-factory industrialist family. Cordelia imitates 19th century novels but is really about 20th century concerns through them. The subject for this one is the nature of independence, and the central character a paradoxically independent woman.

Like the Poldark novels, it’s an intelligent well-researched tactful fiction whose surface imitates novels written in the era and whose themes speak to the modern reader through the use of the earlier ear’s terms as a metaphor. I enjoyed it very much, but must admit it’s not as alluring nor absorbing as the Poldark books as it lacks a deep-rooted feel of landscape, specifically Cornwall and from this place the rhythms of life, a pervasive sense of local life. The Poldark magic is that of a beloved regional as well as historical fiction.

Cordelia is still very good, and its central themes are analogous to those of the Poldark books: the importance of liberty to his characters transmutes into the necessity for independence for them. When people emigrated from the UK in the 19th century, they often spoke not of seeking some idyllic place, but “independence.” They meant escape from the patronage system where they lived which they had experienced as intensely oppressive or exclusionary. The word is used by Graham in this novel to suggest that you need economic to have personal independence. The novel is an exposure of Victorian patriarchy sexual and economic in an industrial suburb of a great Victorian city.

Mr Fergusson, the successful industralist-father can rule everyone in the house with a powerful personality and also because he has complete control over the wealth of the factory, and Brook, his son, has not been trained by him to do anything remunerative work in that factory. Brook is a sensitive writerly type susceptible to bullying — as his previous wife, Margaret, recently dead as the novel opens was not. She defied this old man openly while the other of the people in the house, a seemingly eccentric uncle, a Darwinist, Huxleyite, Uncle Pridey (who studies mice) and a seemingly simple-minded aunt, Trish, sneak around or simply obey him. The book opens with Mr Fergusson successfully pressuring his son to marry quickly, Cordelia Blake, a pretty clock-maker’s daughter, who begins by being an able apparently cooperative wife and daughter-in-law. The novel takes place in Manchester and the business of the Fergussons is dyeing cloth in a large factory. The factory also imprints designs pre-made elsewhere on cloth and then proceed to dye that.

Manchester Town Hall, later 19th century

The story is about the growing rebellion of Brook and then Cordelia against the stifling Victorian life the intensely controlling Mr Fergusson imposes on them. She is the oldest daughter of a clockmaker who has done well whom she is very fond of and he here. Mr Fergusson fancies himself and is relatively liberal (beyond whiggish he can see the justice of some workers’ demands, of even extending the franchise), except to his family, and especially son. A densely decorated snobbish home, intensely repressive ways of coping with sex. Cordelia was to replace Margaret, the previous wife he commandeered his son to marry, an upper class woman who dared to clash with him daily and over religion. She died young and as the novel evolves, the question is, Why? She left a diary which Cordelia has just found.

An early incident shows the way Mr Fergusson operates. He will pretend to have to go out when an unwanted visitor comes and returning early to discover himself disobeyed. He then uses all sorts of norms which are shown to be illegimate to control behavior. So he wants to cut Cordelia off from her family and tries to stop her visits and makes her family uncomfortable when they do visit. They are much less rich and this is easy to do without revealing the motive that he wants no one in the house really to have friends outside. Mr Blake, Her father has given her a beautiful tall clock for her wedding gift, and Mr Fergusson insists on relegating it to her and Brook’s bedroom not the front hall downstairs which it is made to be. When Mr Blaker, her father, visits during a time Mr Fergusson said he would be gone, she moves the clock downstairs in order to please her father. Of course Mr Fergusson comes home early and after the Blake family leaves, he picks a high quarrel with Cordela. Very like some Trollope male characters, Mr Fergusson will not discuss the merits of what she did, just demands complete obedience. Unlike Trollope in many instances, we are here supposed to dislike the father for what he is doing.

The novel includes portraits of hypocritical Darwinists — Fergusson’s friend, Mr Slaney-Smith, who may domineers over others using Huxley’s views, but also goes in for seances, of people who run music halls. A young entrepreneur, Stephen Crossley, who runs a chain of music halls sets up a (false) seance for Cordelia’s father-in-law and his friend. In the seance was revealed that Margaret, died in mysterious circumstances; Mr Massington, her brother had come to visit to get her diary, and Cordelia had found her things and diaries in the attic. She is led to go up into the attic, find and read parts of it. They are gothic documents appearing to reveal a past that will expose this father-in-law’s cruelty, perhaps criminal behavior to his first daughter-in-law.

Cordelia’s rebellion emerges because she does not love Brook, is only fond of him, and is drawn to the stronger independent character of Stephen; Stephen in turn longs to seduce her, tells himself he loves her, and seeks to allure her away from the house. She visits his music hall at first with her Fergusson relatives and then alone. He begins to turn up at her parents’ house, and slowly she does fall in love.

What is very Graham and also found in the Poldark novels (and his Marnie, the one mystery book by Graham I’ve read thus far) is the longing for sexual love and romance outside marriage by a chaste heroine where we are not to reject her. About a third of the way into the novel Cordelia, has full sex with Stephen Crossley (committed adultery would be the phrase some might use), and there is someone in the house who knows about them (perhaps Uncle Pridey). Cordelia has learned that perhaps Margaret’s death was helped along by too many sleeping pills and become alienated from Brook who allowed this and quietly hostile to Mr Fergusson. (Graham’s interest in medicine in the Poldark books and how it operates is to the fore here.)

Graham picks up on issues of interest in 19th century fiction, such as bigamy and blackmail, children who are fathered by someone other than the legal father; women having real careers. Cordelia does almost elope with her lover; she is stopped because a blackmailer stalks her and Stephen Crossley one night in the music hall, a fight ensues, and the huge crowd panics and a fire spreads. This is of course a fictional set up and it’s accompanied by Brook’s becoming very sick, a psychosomatic disorder which is also semi-pneumonia; she makes herself his devoted nurse. By the time the two incidents are sorted out (the fire, the illness), Cordelia has also discovered Stephen has a wife already: he is a potential bigamist and has been lying to her. The family firm needs an heir and when her pregnancy becomes obvious, Brook (whom she likes) rejoices as does Mr Fergusson. It would be a complete betrayal of her own nuclear biological family, her beloved father, ruin her sisters’ chances to marry well, hurt her mother badly, if she eloped and shamed them, plus her infant would be forever ostracized, an outcast. Mr Fergusson, had also taken Cordelia, who he respects and therefore likes on a tour of the factory with a view to allowing her to become a third manager. That did happen in Victorian times: Margaret Oliphant has such a woman in Hester; Kirsten becomes a businesswoman in London by the end of the novel named after her.

So, Cordelia stays and has a baby, Ian, whom she attributes to her husband but is probably not his (as he didn’t manage to impregnate his first wife). This motif is found in the Poldark novels: Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark gives birth to a child by Ross Poldark and presents it as her wealthy husband, George’s.

Ross Poldark (Robin Ellis) quarrelling with Elizabeth Warleggan (Jill Townsend) over how to protect their boy child, Valentine

There is a scene of fierce fighting (rising to hatred at moments) between Cordelia and Stephen when Stephen realizes she won’t leave the husband as there are such scenes between Elizabeth and Ross and also Elizabeth and George (once he suspects the truth). This motif is then not a matter of what’s appropriate for the 19th century historical fiction, but something particular to Graham’s fiction. (As is marital rape.)

A distinctly 19th century dramatized not found in the Poldark books is that of suicide as well as religious doubt (rather than hypocrisy). Two of the characters in the novel may have killed themselves, at a minimum they self-destructed. The first, Margaret, probably did not literally destroy herself (her pills are found); the second, Mr Slaney-Smith, also rich from trade about to be exposed does shoot himself. Mr Fergusson is troubled about religion. All but the open disquiet about religion are motifs found in Trollope’s novels: the young woman who tries to self-destruct (say Nina Balatka), the male who shoots himself through the head (in The Bertrams, The Last Chronicle of Barset) or inflicts high violence on himself (Ferdinand Lopez throws himself under a train).

[I tell the last turn of the book to show its superiority to many romance historical fictions with their supposed happy endings.] What happens at the close of this novel is unexpected except when you thought about it, it was the probable unromantic yet best feelingful one.

The center of the book has been a critique of patriarchy through the story of a domineering industrialist and how he has warped and destroyed his children, a Dickens’ theme, e.g.

Matthew MacFayden as Arthur Clenham, a depressed young man, hurt by his businesswoman tough mother very badly (2008 Little Dorrit)

At last Brook the one son Mr Fergusson has left (we discover two have died) upon whom he imposed our Cordelia rebels: Brook goes to London, manages to get his book of poems paid attention to and is told now if he will put 5000 pounds into a publishing endeavour he can have a job as an editor of a journal the group want to set up. His father has given him and Cordelia a share in the management of the firm and its moneys and he thinks he can get his hands on this amount of money. This is his one chance to live out the life that is within him (George Eliot’s words in Daniel Deronda).

Mr Fergusson remorselessly thwarts Brook. There is a a clause in the contrast saying only 500 pounds can be pulled out in any one year. This is the handle Mr Fergusson uses to squash Brook’s chance to go off on his own and become or find himself. The clash of father and son is powerful; it brings on a renewed psychosomatic illness in the young man again, a return of his pneumonia and he dies. The crisis precipitates Cordelia’s flight to London where the tyant’s (so to speak) younger brother, Uncle Pridey, not so young any more, has managed to escape and is living in lodgings enacting a life off of his Darwinian book. After Brook’s death she had been subjected to a long session with the father-in-law where he opens his heart and needs to her — his desire to continue the firm with her son — by her lover. His religious doubts which he imposes on others perversely. Her reaction is to save herself and her son from this man’s grip.

So, she takes a train to London, wanders, and finds her exlover, Stephen, in one of his music halls with a new mistress, and one expects that there will be a love tryst and a romantic ending. But no although Stephen as lover is altogether willing to start up again, she never gets so far as to tell him her boy is his. Left free by Brook’s death, they begin to quarrel over their attitude towards his near-bigamy and especially his willingness to lie to her; she sees how vulnerable she is with just her legacy, how her boy will now have very little and decides to return to Manchester.

Although in different circumstances, Nan Astley (Rachel Stirling) returns to Whitstable at the close of Tipping the Velvet to renew her solid tie with her family

As Cordelia comes into the house, we are reminded of her deep friendship with a humane doctor, Robert Birch, who has been a moderating influence — shades of Mrs Gaskell we are to foresee a marriage there. Mr Fergusson seen in a less hysterical light is growing older and more tired, not easy to deal with but this is her place and her boy’s. Uncle Pridy will be returning on and off. How can she desert the partly disabled old aunt Tish, her father and family not far off. (A visit by the father happened just before her flight.)

So, the carved signature on the fireplace that opened the book did not tell a DuMaurier type tale of someone who fled long ago. In fact it was not even fully carved by Cordelia, but finished off by the whimsical uncle. The story of the poisoning we expected from the gothic diary turns out to be literally false, a matter of hidden pills never consumed, but there was a woman destroyed by her inability to withstand realities of people which we see Cordelia can manage. There is a bleakness here too, an acceptance of what is that I liked very much too.

Cordelia’s romance also reminds me of the Poldark novels in that Cordelia’s nature reminds me of Demelza and the man ruthlessly pursuing her, Stephen Crossely, is very like the renegade amoral Stephen Carrington who pursues Demelza and Ross’s daughter, Clowance. Graham is an instinctive feminist for this is a novel seen through Cordelia’s eyes who in turn is now rummaging into the mind of her husband’s previous wife and her diary mind reminds me of many a gothic sensibility. It’s compelling reading for me for again the same vision of life, the tone of mind is at work. I love the strong scepticism about social psychology and group behaviors, local ambitions, moral cant and the quietism at the core which comes out now and again explicitly in the thoughts of the heroine and villain-hero, Stephen Crossley — for he is the hero of the piece. A villain because he had a mistress in London who he has now deserted — or set up in a separate business and then dropped.

The comic characters include Uncle Pridey who does carve out a quiet independence for himself by his room filled with mice, his laboratory, his haunting concerts, taverns, and lectures about natural selection, and finally getting his book on mice into print. Uncle Pridey takes Ian to the zoo (then in London) during the time Cordelia seeks Stephen out.

At one point in the novel Cordelia has just finished reading aloud Mr Trollope’s The Warden, and she and Brook are about to begin Barchester Towers (its sequel, said to be very good, a must read).Historical fiction has many pleasures, not least of which is the piquancy of “in” recognition.

Donald Pleasance as Mr Harding, the warden (1983 BBC Barchester Chronicles)


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          Books, books, books!
I had found the secret of a garret-room
Piled high with cases in my father’s name;
Piled high, packed large,­where, creeping in and out
Among the giant fossils of my past,
Like some small nimble mouse between the ribs
Of a mastodon, I nibbled here and there
At this or that box, pulling through the gap,
In heats of terror, haste, victorious joy,
The first book first. And how I felt it beat
Under my pillow, in the morning’s dark,
An hour before the sun would let me read!
My books!— EBB, Aurora Leigh

Dear friends and readers,

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading Linda H. Peterson’s Traditions of Victorian Women’s Autobiography, [subtitled] The Poetic and Politics of Life-Writing as a sort of companion-accompaniment to a group reading on WWTTA supposed to be going on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh. I’m a lover of women’s memoirs and letters, travel-books, life-writing. It includes many of my favorite books, deeply cherished ones (see Julia Kavanagh: disabled woman of letters). She shows how such books first came into print in larger numbers from the 17th and 18th century in the 19th century. Arguing (dialoguing) with this book reminded me of some beautiful books I’d read, informed me about others, and showed me the state of feminist and life-writing studies at the time it was written (1999). I recommend the book for its learning, bibliography and thoughtfulness — and the books it calls attention to.

There is (in my view) a serious flaw though: Peterson is concerned to argue against the idea that women’s autobiography constitutes a different separate tradition from men’s. Well. She’s right when she says both men’s and women’s autobiographies share many of the same structures and fall into other types (spiritual or religious is one) but there is a kind of deliberate erasure going on here which doesn’t quite work and is counter to her own book which is just about women’s life-writing int he 19th century. She does show that ideas about women’s nature and what her life should and must be about (private domestic life) generated the production of these earlier texts which also supports the modern feminist structural outlook and her “other” perspective brings out other qualities of the books, but her perpetual use of scare quotes for “feminine” (as if there’s no such thing) does not work.

She is probably worried lest her book be put into a “feminist ghetto” and ignored — by whom I wonder as her audience will be the same women and men who have been working on these life-writings.

Mary Robinson

Chapter 1: “Origins” of Women’s Autobiography; Reconstructing the Traditions

The first chapter concerns the republication in the 19th century of a group of 17th century women’s autobiographies — mostly by clergyman, sometimes antiquarians related to the woman writer, once in a while a scholarly historian. It was these books I first found in the Library of Congress in the 1980s when I returned to scholarly studies here in Virginia after finishing my dissertation in 1979 in NYC. They include the memoirs of Anne Murray Halkett who two years ago I finally wrote two papers on and delivered them at 18th century conferences, and whose text I put up on the Net to make it generally available in the form it appears in the 19th century copy.

There is much of value here. You learn how these books first came into print, which ones, a little about the editing and how this bringing into print of these earlier books facilitated the publication and influenced or mirrored 19th century productions of women’s life writing from Harriet Martineau’s autobiography and travel book to Barrett Browning’s imaginative autobiogaphical (Prelude-like) narrative poem, Aurora Leigh.

The last part of the chapter is of interest to 18th century people too. Here Peterson goes with some depth into Mary Robinson’s Memoir (finished by her Victorian daughter) and Charlotte Charke’s autobiography, apparently framed by the Victorian editor to be a warning lesson and end gloomily when the ms end cheerfully and is not presented as a warning lesson at all. Peterson’s perspective leads her to emphasize of Robinson’s memoir is more than about her life as a mistress, mother, and daugher but also about her as a professional actress and writer. While I know from reading the text there is precious little about these in the book, they are obviously the real background to the publication of such a book. Similarly Peterson’s perspective enables her to make more “sense” of Charke’s non-feminine transvestite behavior, Charke’s love of male roles and her rebellion: an ambiguous experience as unsuccessful if financial and other rewards are the measure, but successful by a deeper measurement, i.e., she lived the life out that was within her, the one she wanted to, choose her identity.

For a good recent study of 17th through 18th century women’s life-writing see Caroline Breashears’s The Female Appeal Memoir: Genre and Female Literary Tradition in Eighteenth-Century England, Modern Philology, 107:4 (2010):607-631. Jane Austen’s letters would be among these kinds of life-writings first brought out in the 19th century and it follows just the same sort of trajectory: censored, re-framed from the original, coming out of genteel milieus. Another Elizabeth Grant Smith’s Highland memoir which had to wait 100 years for the full powerful text to be published, along with several others shorter memoirs she penned.

Harriet Martineau when young (often used as frontispiece to her autobiography)

Chapter 2: Polemics of Piety: Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna’s Personal Recollections, Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography, and Ideological Uses of Spiritual Autobiography

The unsentimental truthfulness of Barrett Browning must’ve stood as a refreshing shock against the common life-writing of the day if Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna’s Personal Recollections are any measure. I read the first half of the second chapter of Peterson’s book last night and admire the temperateness with which Peterson describes Tonna’s melange of silence, outright lying — for what is it to present one’s wretchedness in life as the result of a spiritual conversation when it’s rather that the writer lives with a physically abusive husband who when she makes any money takes it ruthlessly by law from her, has to live in isolated horrible conditions whose minimal comfort depends on unscrupulous rent-racking of starving peasants. Peterson shows us how pernicious are these sorts of lies in effect — though she doesn’t say so explicitly and uses the surface content of the book to demonstrate her thesis that many women’s autobiographies do not make gender central.

Well, duh, Tonna doesn’t but if you ignore the subtext then what can you possibly read Tonna’s book for? And it’s for the subtext that Peterson does read it — though as with Austen, one can’t get behind the veil to discover what were the real particular truths of what happened to Tonna — only that she was lucky enough to escape, had a brother who took her in, became for 10 years an editor of a widely-selling Christian magazine. What she did in the magazine also goes unmentioned, unwritten up.

All that counts. No wonder Aurora Leigh was so valued, such a stunner.

Peterson does take this way — a valuable nugget? Peterson suggests that books like Hannah More’s (whom Tonna modelled herself upon) and Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna’s prove the worth, value and integrity of chronique scandaleuse. These do tell important truths; these do give us what we need to know for real about women’s lives — the pious books give us the illegimate norms and also the rationales women used to control, berate and (I suppose) solace and flatter themselves with.

I’d add unfortunately as to behavior Tonna’s book was the “ideal” and her novels sold widely. But chronique scandaleuses also sold widely and it may be that women readers of these understood them better than we give them credit for, at least intelligent women readers did.

Peterson is slightly (not very) comical in her perverse “take” on Martineau’s autobiography. She insists on reading it as a not conforming to female autobiography because Martineau rejects the inane domesticities and pious hypocritical cruelties of Tonna’s stupid book and instead presents herself as gifted, shows how she was put down and almost destroyed by her family, escaped them to London and built a career. To be sure the latter part of the autobiography is like male ones, and Martineau’s models are implicitly male (Wordsworth, though she anticipates Trollope).

But the point is she had this terrible trouble doing it, she had the breakdown, she broke the taboo, none of which the men had to do, and the shape of her life at the end shows a female friend published the book and how she carved out a non-family group to be with.

I’m troubled by this attempt at erasure of a female version of the genre. Someone read my treatment of Kathleen Raine as “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” and immediately countered that this is what men experience and is not at all particularly feminine. Did she not read the last phrase? I answered: Didier’s point is when girl develops into a woman, her sexuality inflicts a terrific blow on her self-hood and psyche because her society all around her does all it can to twist and repress her. A boy may find developing into manhood hard, but he is not pressured and, if he will not succumb to pressure, then driven and ridiculed and ostracized until he gives up his appetites.

She barely acknowledged this and then I got this pious type utterance from another woman: “Thank you, too, Christine, for seeing the un-gendered humanity of Raine’s themes.” This is the early 21st century version of Tonna’s self-congratulatory tones.

My project as I see it is to call attention to women’s poetry and try to suggest what an enormous and worthy body of art it is — though much has been destroyed and what’s left from previous history and is written nowadays continues to be ignored. It is also to put together many texts which show that women’s poetry and art is different from men’s and has to understood and appreciated as by women. If most men won’t respond to that, sobeit.

Post-feminism, indeed.

Zelah Clarke as Jane Eyre (1983 BBC mini-series)

Chapter 3: “The Feelings and Claims of Little People:” Heroic Missionary Memoirs, Domesticated Spiritual Autobiography, and Jane Eyre

The problem with Peterson’s chapter on Jane Eyre is signalled in the chapter heading: she is concerned to prove that Jane Eyre like other autobiographies conforms to male norms too, the male norm here being spiritual autobiography. What others have seen as contradictions in the trajectory — for example the daughter’s obedience to the mother, her ambivalent over sex, the disconnect between a providential design and radical doubts — are ironed out. Really the feminism partly erased.

It is true that one third or the novel or maybe a quarter is given over to ST John Rivers and his desire to make Jane into a missionary wife and by paying attention to this as a career option for women, Peterson brings out what Bronte consciously meant us to see: Jane is conflicted over living for love or living for a selfless career (not so selfless as it gives some respect and prestige and activity); the very recent movie takes this last third to turn the book into a conflict between two men over a woman or her conflict which one to take. That’s not the text here.

Still I find what interests Peterson is something that comes out of a desire to accommodate society and its offer of modified compromised goals (to be a missionary’s wife was very repressive, awful really — I read about one half of Catherine Hall’s book on missionaries in Jamaica recently), that itself mirrors the problem with her whole book.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, posing herself in velvet and satin

Chapter 4: “For my better self: Autobiographies of the Poetess, the Prelude of the Poet Laureate, and EBB’s Aurora Leigh.

Peterson argues successfully that Aurora Leigh may be considered a metaphoric biography of EBB, and that it seeks to counter the image of the woman poet found in the autobiographical poetry and life-writing of Letitia Elizabeth Landon and to imitate and also correct the view of the poet we find in Wordsworth’s Prelude. Along the way Peterson quotes some of the best lines of the poem and shows how Eulalie is as important as Marion in the poem.

There is a real problem in the analysis though: again Peterson wants to show that we should not read women’s life-writing apart from men’s, and it is true that EBB has The Prelude in mind. However, the reason Peterson wants to show this in the case of Aurora Leigh is she wants to argue that EBB wanted a public role for the woman poet and she could only reach for this by making herself the equivalent of a male, seen as doing and feeling analogous things. All well and good but then Peterson has a problem: at the close of the poem Aurora marries Romney, she retreats, the lesson learned is the limits of socialism; apparently the social function of the woman poet is going to inhere in her publication of her poems which will have this influence.


This is deeply conservative stuff. Ellen Moers’s take on this poem as finally reactionary in a number of fundamental ways is the correct one. That Peterson wants to downplay the class element too is to me part of our present climate where class issues are not presented in the public media.

What is salutary about the poem is its creation and continuation of a woman’s tradition of writing and insofar as we can read against the grain when it comes to the fate of Marion Erle.

Margaret Oliphant when older

Chapter 5: Family Business: Margaret Oliphant’s Autobiography as Professional Artist’s Life

This is perhaps the best chapter in the book; it’s the one which is closest in spirit to its book, and where the refusal to put the book into a female tradition works best — with the ironical qualification that the five books Peterson uses to illuminate this one are all women’s autobiographies. She shows that Oliphant meant her book to fall into a sub-genre where the woman shows how her professional activities arise out of her home milieu, her family and that the two are inseparable. She says this sub-genre has been forgotten — or ignored. Maybe. What we are making the mistake of doing is reading this book as tragic and about a failure; no it’s about how she tried hard to bring her two sons into her profession and did succeed. I’d almost believe much of this except for the long ending where the sons fail at the profession she wanted for them and she makes this clear and they die before the end of the book’s time frame and suddenly she gives over to deeply poignant re-framing of all that has gone before. The opening about her trip to Rome where her (partly failed) artist husband died and her struggle to become professional when she returned — she succeeded largely due to one man, Blackwood – and this close are the powerful parts of the book.

The conservative and careerist biases of the Peterson’s stance became explicit here. Peterson celebrates without qualification how wonderful it is that people’s professions emerge from their families. What about people who don’t have the family talent or don’t have a family framework which suits them. She is absolutely in spirit with the family piety of Oliphant’s approach, possibly because it suits Peterson to argue that there is no difference between private and public selves. She shows how Oliphant disapproved of the life writing by a woman where she goes forth on her own to carve out her career — Martineau, Eliot’s life.

I have found the reading of this book very unpleasant. IN this chapter Peterson’s insistence on how Oliphant’s is not a story of failure (it isn’t when it comes to her personally) reminded me of 2 incidents where I was asked would I contribute my life story to online magazines. In both cases I gave an outline of what I would say and was told after all it wouldn’t do because mine was not an upbeat success story. I didn’t end up with a big job or money from publications. Therefore they didn’t want it. I said my story was that of their readerships. They said their readerships would not want such stories; they want inspiration. Since this happened twice, I was struck with this evidence of why women’s magazines are often filled with phony stories which don’t reflect the average realities of women writers or readers. I’m sure Peterson would have been on the side of these editors.

Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter 6: Mary Cholmondeley’s Bifurcated Autobiography Eliotian and Bronte Traditions in Red Pottage and Under One Roof

This was a very interesting chapter and made me want to read a novel or memoir by Cholmondeley. Peterson analyses Cholmondeley’s novel, Red Pottage and her memoir, Under One Roof Peterson again is in the paradoxical position of beginning by saying we must put women in a non-gendered autobiographical context only to find her intertextual models in women, specifically Cross’s Life of Eliot for Red Pottage, and Gaskell’s Life of Bronte for Under one Roof. Peterson argues that Red Pottage shows a young girl whose gifts are destroyed because of the repressive norms and demands of her family; she does not manage to escape (as Eliot did). It’s the bookish account of a development that is the strongest parallel. It is also based on Mary’s sister, Hester, who died young. Her brother brutally intervened to stop her career

I do love one long passage Peterson quotes from another book, Rachel West’s passionate defense of a friend’s novel, Idyll of East London (ridiculed) by talking of how a relationship with a man did not sustain her where it counted, nor any of her family, but her friend helped give “affection” and understanding to “an empty heart” and “lighten[ed] the burdens of this world” for her.

How many of us would tell our life story by an account of what books we read and what they did for us when we were young. I do think I might were I to account for how I came to get a Ph.d. in English literature, but it would be strongly in reaction to my environment (escape from the Bronx into Mary Poppins in the Park) and not an argument that as a gifted person I deserved to escape. Which in part I certainly did. I am not part of that working class family or environment (father’s, Catholic) nor the eventually bourgeois one (mother’s, Jewish, now accountants).

There is a relationship between pain and personal achievement in Red Pottage and in George Eliot’s life — and maybe for some of us too.

Under One Roof is about the importance of female friendships, of sisters, of how much they meant — as is partly Red Pottage (if by its absence). As I recall May Sinclair has a novel Three Sisters where we see these bonds mean so much. In Gaskell’s book we see that Charlotte was the one who made the public achievement of her sisters possible; it was she who took Emily’s poems and some of hers and Anne’s to a publisher and got it published. She who posthumously published Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Wuthering Heights. Whatever the flaws of Charlotte’s presentation, she did publish these. Cholmondeley is again vindicating and keeping her own sister alive through this memoir.

To conclude, this historically-rooted study is one which adds much to Victorian studies, (despite itself) studies of l’ecriture-femme, life-writing of men as well as women, and can provide many jumping off points for someone else’s study of life-writing. Peterson does make you think about genre, what is a genre, and see how many permutations there are under any given category. You could end the book thinking to yourself that genre thinking gets in the way of understanding what we write and what we read.

To all Peterson’s Victorian candidates, I add another of my favorites: Mary Smith, schoolmistress and governess, my study of her autobiography and poetry.


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