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Archive for November, 2011


Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) studying his wife’s computer files

Dear friends and readers,

I’m again turning a lecture for my students into a blog for their use and what I hope is its interest to anyone who has read LeCarre’s masterpiece novel, The Constant Gardener, or Fernando Mereilles’s equally great film adaptation (with a little help from Jeffrey Caine for the screenplay, Simon Channing-Williams for production, and very many great actors and technical people).

Speaking generally first, in the feature to the film on DVD, LeCarre said he wanted to present what the ruthlessness of unqualified capitalism backed by military since the fall of communism and defeat of socialist movements. He did not want to deal directly with this perspective as it would be “too much on the nose,” too direct, too preachy, so he chose the way the medical world and industries operate as a metaphor for this new world.

First the novel. What John LeCarre did that was remarkable was to endow the detective and spy story with serious political content for the first time. They are not frivolous Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes stories. They mirror the human condition in the world’s marketplaces, at business and how these deform personal relationships. He made the popular form carry serious weight. Before hand and still you read of Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, and now again frivolous or fun kinds of spy and detective and gothic stories. LeCarre turns our appetite for violence and strangeness and vicarious fear to account.

With The Constant Gardener in 2001, LeCarre turned to Africa and asks himself what happens when there is no opponent to capitalism and militarism. No one on the other side with any effective power. I put on our website, his short article “Congo Journey” about a trip to the Congo (long history of colonialism, corruption, torture, terrible working conditions for masses of people driven to it) which lies behind his most recent book, Mission Song. The reality of ruthlessly set up drug trials forced on people, and the two LeCarre has in mind in The Constant Gardener, see Marcia Angell’s “Body Hunters.”

That’s the scenario posed in the book. In recent New York Times article LeCarre affirmed “a fascination with what will happen to capitalism now that there’ s no opponent.” So what is the moral landscape of a world where we have no effective counter: So his recent books look at the new globalization at it most ruthless — where human life is merely a research tool, and the most vulnerable among us are the most expendable.


Bernard Pellegrin (Bill Nighy), the ultimate ruthless instrument

One of the areas where you can get drama from this which affects people is Medicine. And hypocrisies most strong too. Much as we acknowledge the monetary underbelly to it, we shudder at the prospect that access to, or quality of, care could be compromised by so crass a consideration as finances. It’s intimidating enough to be sick and left without any alternative but to place your trust in someone else’s expertise and compassion. A pill or operation is a sale.

You don’t have to formulate it politically or given this political parties: we’re talking about utter selfishness. Mass wilful blindness to the harm caused to others in the relentless pursuit of these goals. Complicity is widely shared.

The pharmaceutical industry may be le Carre’s most unsavoury antagonist yet because of our delusion — duly encouraged by the pharmas themselves — that profits are merely a happy afterthought, an unintended (if not unwelcome) consequence of helping people.


Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Kounde) explaining to Tessa the TB test as they watch Kenyans coerced into taking dypraxa at a local clinic

LeCarre’s outlook in this book: Le Carré seems bleak about the chances of any such reform. At the end of the novel, both Quayles are dead, no one is called to account, and KVH and all the people who serve its interests in and out of government presumably continue undeterred. The film, however, adds a Hollywood-style hint of justice to come.

LeCarre’s afterword, pp. 557-60. Of course this is no individual, firm, much less any governemental agency. He also makes it clear, however, that he is obliged to say this “in these dog days when lawyers rule the universe.”

People getting killed to ensure silence and protect corporate earnings? “I am sure people have died,” LeCarre offered in an interview with the London Times. Furthermore, in the author’s note to the novel he wrote, “As my journey through the pharmaceutical jungle progressed, I came to realise that, by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard.”

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Tessa Quayle (Rachel Weisz). pregnant, in Africa, surrounded by children

The characters. Quayles: they are the birds so easy to kill when one goes shooting; pellegrin makes us think of peregrine, a vulture. Justin, the just man, Tessa, or St Teresa. Arnold Bluhm — bloom, a Christ figure. Sandy is every man; he and his wife, Gloria are US, trying to make it in life and ignore what goes on around them. Tim a mock spy; Ghita the person forced to give up older culture and Americanize herself, modernize self to stay afloat. Kenny Curtis is not that far an exaggeration of crude thug; Crick better. Hangers on. Story shows the evil doers getting away with it. No poetic justice.

Unreliable narrator is someone whose judgement we don’t trust because their ethics or morality is skewed. They can be a good person (say Miss Bearing in Wit, she is an unreliable narrator) or a bad one Woodrow is intended to be an Everyman so complicit that he is bad. People like him allow evil to go forth; so too Gloria. They are US, us. We are supposed to recognize ourselves in Sandy Woodrow and Gloria, ordinary people trying to get a promotion, advancement, live luxuriously and easily.

Bad guys (really bad) include believable types: Sir Kenny Curtis, rough man at the head of a company that does business in hard parts of the world, Bernard Pellegrin (peregrin vulture) the civil servant man who rises high and does what’s necessary; Crick, the hired thug who probably led the group who raped and murdered Tessa and tortured and murdered Arnold.

Some real people outlined by Angell and again in script book. Other real people: Todd Hoffman’s “Constant Writer”: the characters of Tessa Quayle and Lara Emrich resemble Yvette Pierpaoli and Dr Nancy Olivieri. The book is dedicated to Yvette Pierpaoli who was killed in Vietnam.

Dr Nancy Olivieir who blew the whistle in 1993 against the drug deferiprone while at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. Lara was under contract to conduct research for KVH, but bound by a confidentiality clause against revealing anything negative she might turn up. Dr Olivieri, too, was restricted by such a clause, but violated it to publicize the negative side effects of the drug in The New England Journal of Medicine. Like Emrich, Olivieri was the recipient of menacing anonymous communications. She is now unemployed. While I was in Canada, there was a news-story about two top editors fired from an important medical journal: they had been reporting on the real side effects and political campaigns about the after morning pill.


Zoom shot on murder of Lara Emrich in film

vette Pierpaoli, a tireless relief worker he met back in the 1970S when he traveled Indochina gathering material for The Honourable Schoolboy. Along with her husband, Pierpaoli ran a trading company, the profits from which she poured into aiding the sick, the starving, and the stateless. In an article for The New Yorker, he claims that she, “like almost no one else, had opened my eyes to constructive compassion, to putting your money and your life where your heart was.” Although, like Tessa, Pierpaoli would die prematurely — in a car accident while helping refugees in Albania. Probably an accident.

Beyond the ease with which you can find parallels (collusions in bureaucracy, destruction of reports — Feynman had quite a time nursing Appendix F along remember — Pellegrin simply destroys Tessa and Bluhm’s 16 page report. You don’t need specific individuals. People like them for reasons I suspect: then they can absolve themselves.

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Ghita (Archie Panjabi) explaining to Justin what Tessa was doing, a narrow angle shot

The themes. Beyond the drug matter. Point of view is Justin’s. This makes the story very effective; not only is it done through what comes next and revelation, but we see things through characters who don’t know everything. Point of view: first person, third person. Angle you see the book at counts. He makes use of dramatic irony (you say one thing and mean another), dramatic irony (you know things the character doesn’t — this makes the book rich on the second reading when you see all the ironies; the first depends on suspense); and plot-design irony: no poetic justice at the end; the ending seems perverse or unjust. All three
intermingle. Justin, Tessa through her emails on the computer, Sandy Woodrow.


Sandy Woodrow (Danny Houston) guilty-brooding over Tessa’s murder

Central theme of LeCarre’s fiction is betrayal, that it’s not possible to act honorably: his father was a shady businessman who went to prison for fraud; enrolled in elite British schools.

Did Tessa betray Justin in some deeper way. She was not physically unfaithful, but was she morally alienated from him. Does not she turn to Ham for things we expect she might turn to her husband for? He lets her. She emotionally betrays him with Arnold. Did she use him? She doesn’t think through things.

Like Graham Greene, John LeCarre is hard to pinpoint politically . He does write spy fiction and has his characters sacrifice themselves for larger causes like one’s country. Is that what Tessa is doing? She never sees she is asserting herself too. So she’s an ambiguous heroine

It may not be betrayal to let your partner go off on his or her own. After all we are a modern society and people don’t own one another because they are married or in the same family. That’s an imprisoning older idea, though one still made explicit in traditional societies (where people inside a family will murder a member if they think she — it is mostly she — has shamed the family)); and is implicit in many people’s minds even our modern world. We assume we owe something to our family and they owe a lot to us. The US government treats individuals financially as if they are part of a family group.

In the case at hand, there’s some extra or other things going as part of the story. First Tessa is keeping secrets from Justin, secrets which endanger her and are about his job. He sense this but ignores it because partly it’s so difficult to cope with. All his life he has retreated from confrontation and told himself he was doing some good. By her keeping secrets from him which affect him she is disrespecting him (I think) especially since her behavior leads to other people despising him as a man whose wife has lovers. She ought to care about that (I think); she ought to realize he is humiliated. We cannot live apart from the people around us and pretend their attitudes towards us don’t count. So here is her betrayal of him. As to his of her, it’s a little harder I agree, but he seems to feel guilty. He has the old-fashioned male idea he’s supposed to protect her, but we could say when you love someone you ought to care about them and try to intervene to protect them. He did not do that.

In the book, and according to the actor Ralph Fiennes, Justin Quayle feels he did not love Tessa enough until after she dies and he discovers what she was doing.

Spying in a network becomes a metaphor for how people treat one another in the commercial marketplace; what is the tenuous nature of their relationship, and what they are willing to do to one another and so doing to themselves. How we are forced to betray who we are, what our original culture is to get on in the world (Ghita character, old world India in the book)

Like Conrad, the theme of the “secret sharer” is part of this novel’s skein. There is another self or other selves we keep repressed and don’t know about, but if we face him or her, we can become stronger for it. I suppose that’s an optimistic point of view. I don’t know that anyone in the novel becomes stronger for facing who or what they are. Sandy tries, but moves away. Maybe that’s why we can like him some. He doesn’t make love to his employment in the way of Bernard Pellegrin. Crick is a silent animal, and Kenny Curtis a loud-mouthed one.

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Justin’s closing illusion: that he has retrieved Tessa

According to Hoffman, regret a binding theme in LeCarre’s work and we see it here. Justin, of course, regrets all. Immense suicidal depression. Looks back on his career too as a total naive preoccupation . He thought he was pessimistic, but he wasn’t pessimistic enough. Sandy has a marriage that leaves him anxious for alternatives that don’t exist. In a letter he ought never to have sent, he has proclaimed his undying love to Tessa, and would surely regret treating her cause in so cowardly a fashion. Markus Lorbeer, who has been instrumental in marketing Dypraxa to ThreeBees, regrets how his actions have amounted to a sin against God and condemns himself to an aid outpost in southern Sudan as penance. Rob and Lesley of Scotland Yard regret being stonewalled and subsequently removed from the investigation into Tessa’s murder, their careers in shambles for failing to comprehend that they were never meant to solve the case. The aged and ill British intelligence man in Nairobi, Tim Donahue, finds that his “only regret, looking back, was that he had spent so little of his life on kids’ football, and so much of it on spies.” But this is verbal irony: he too like Justin regrets all, but is not in suicidal despair over what he sees. Only when it’s already too late do most of us recognize how skewed our priorities somehow become when we’re not looking. And then we have to live with ourselves as best we can.

In search of lost time by Proust is about retrieving time; LeCarre shows characters not able to retrieve time or the past.

Only Tessa and Arnold could be — or deserve to be — free of regret. They saw a wrong and worked relentlessly to redress it, until they paid the ultimate price. In so doing, they have assumed a responsibility that we might hope our governments would take on — but they hope in vain. The people running our government or the drug companies as presented here are acting out of their financial interest or have abdicated, leaving us to fend for ourselves with whatever conscience and courage we can muster. This, I think le Carre might agree, is what has happened to capitalism backed up militarism in the absence of an opponent.

Again Hoffman: reflect their times; great books define them. Great writers see through the conventional wisdom to show us a world we hadn’t imagined for ourselves. They take events or ideas and twist them just so; tweak them in such a way that we are compelled to see otherwise.

Newspaper like, uncanny prophetic language: you might think you are reading a slightly souped up newspaper: The Game. Yet stories are psychological quests with characters in search of a soul; the travelogue is a spiritual journey where the sights and sounds of the places gets us inside something essential in the scene which is important in the culture of the place.

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Mereilles filmed Africa and its people

The film a virtuoso performance of art. See Eberts’s review; student review

Its exposure of real exploitation: review on British Medical Journal

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Flashback scene excluded from film: in book the couple is married for three years before going to Africa; he older, guarded, disillusioned, drawn to her youth, gregariousness, daring passion

The art. In brief: opening of in-depth psychological presences for her characters, then an action-adventure quest, to want to return to his lady who is his homea the same time a spiritual journey of humbling atonement. See analysis in comment.

A forward moving plot of suspense as we first through Woodrow’s eyes and then on a sleuthing quest through Justin’s find out what happened. This is intertwined with suspense: will Justin get killed?

Interwoven with strong psychology both from points of view of each character controlling the section and the rich cast itself — some of whom were lopped off in the film. We didn’t have Lara Emrich in Canada for example; we never went to Italy; we didn’t get enough of Tessa’s cousin, Ham.

He can do a lot in a very few words: gift of concision and suggestion. One sentence in Chapter 19, Scene in playground with Birgit from Hippo. Much revealed through allegory too. The camera brings to vivid life

Finely sketched characters here: diplomats and their families (Coleridge Porters for example, actually well-meaning people thrust aside and then sent back), frustrated Scotland Yarders burdened with investigating a murder beyond their jurisdiction, corporate types, and rough-and-ready aid workers — all with their own objectives.

Film and book differ in conception of Tessa and Justin. Film doesn’t explain enough, and has a semi-justice ending. Film improves because camera can do so much and it uses juxtaposition and internet (which is like an inset-epistolary novel in the book) brilliantly for cross-stills.

Again Hoffman: GOOD BOOKS reflect their times; great books define them. Great writers see through the conventional wisdom to show us a world we hadn’t imagined for ourselves. They take events or ideas and twist them just so; tweak them in such a way that we are compelled to see otherwise.

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John Le Carre (David John Moore Cornwell), by the Cornish cliffs, see his biography in my comments.

Ellen

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Temple of the Muses, Scotland, dedicated to James Thomson, author of The Seasons

Dear friends and readers,

My third and last blog report on our East Central Region meeting on the theme of liberty in the long 18th century at Penn State: late Saturday afternoon and early Sunday morning. This last afternoon I heard a book history type session on Thomson’s The Seasons, listened to a lecture on “the black Mozart,” Joseph Bologne, and on Sunday morning, heard an analysis of a novel by Edgeworth from the point of view of an anti-Jacobin, pro-Jacobin axis, while Jim heard an iconoclastic paper where the speaker argued against the attribution to Aphra Behn of Love-letters between a Noble-man and his Sister, and all her posthumous novels. And I thought of a topic for next year: Infamy, infamy, everyone has it in for me: paranoia in the novels of Sophie Cottin — I may not do that.

Except for the talk on Joseph Bologne (see African heritage site), again the theme of liberty came out most frequently from the point of view of people trying to curtail the liberties of others, this time by arguing against the concept in its new 18th century radical pursuit phase or appropriating someone else’s work to make money.


A legendary scene in the (folk) life of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-George: he is imagined duelling with the Chevalier d’Eon, said to have spent 49 years as a man and 33 as a woman

See the first report and the second.

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After a third session on professional women, and trip to Penn state library, I had come back to Nittany Inn to hear 3 papers on the editions of James Thomson’s Seasons: this was a book history session. Sandro Jung discussed the Scottish editions of the poem after the opriginal copyright lapsed: we saw the increasingly naturalistic readings of Thomson’s text; Kate Parker looked at the sexual and erotic relationships in the poem; and Kwinten Van De Wall showed us competing paratexts. All three focused on the differences between the different texts’ illustrations, discussed marketing, copyright issues. The session was refreshing because of the turning away from interpretive readings of the editions’ prefaces to pay attention to how marketing the text for different sets of readers was reflected in the physical characteristics of these books. The papers covered the English editions of Thomson and then 3 Scots editions (1178, 1792, 1793); Sandro’s three publications where much more detail was included were listed in the handouts (see comment). Afterward we did talk a little about interpretation of the poem and also Thomson’s life: although not super-rich, Thomson lived very comfortably on the fees he got from the publishers.


The traditional image-portrait of the Chevalier de Saint-George

We then had a special lecture by Charles H. Pettaway, a Professor of Music, on Joseph Bologne, Le Chevalier St-George (circa 1745-1799), sometimes called “the black Mozart.” My report here differs from my usual ones in that I’m not summarizing or retelling what Prof. Pettaway literally told us, but rather saying very briefly from what he said what I generally understood to be what we today know about Joseph Bologne (the same story more or less also re-stated in wikipedia). There are large problems distinguishing the actual events of this man’s life, much less understanding his character, and probably music, because so much legend has grown up around him, some of it dramatized in a recent biopic. Prof Pettaway’s story was of a man born a mulatto slave in Guadaloupe to a black slave mother and white French aristocratic father, who was eventually brought to Paris where he was educated according to European cultural and aristocratic norms. It’s said this man became an excellent swordsman, an equestrian, manifested musical genius: he played the violin, rose briefly as a musician and composer, and wrote and left music in the middle European tradition (Mozartian). You might say such a person would seek liberty because his position necessitated this. Born to a complete lack of freedom or status which can enable people to have some liberty, he had to assert the concept through himself in order to achieve anything. After the revolution, because he had been associated with aristocrats, and was yet black, he found himself without patrons and died in obscure circumstances. One very pretty piece of music attributed to Bologne was played on the piano by Prof Pettaway. He also showed scenes of music playing from the DVD of the biopic.

It does seem that up to now we cannot reach whatever this man was. Prof Pettaway cited no sources, no memoirs by Bologne (such as we have by Equiano). He could have died in despair, but if so, we do not know this.

It was this, the last evening of the conference that I went to dinner with a friend after a long friendly (exhilarating) reception for everyone between 6 and 7. I got back to the hotel around 11 and went to bed because the next day we were to get up early to listen to one paper each and then leave for home.

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Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849), from E. A. Duyckinck’s Portrait Gallery

That morning after an half-hour’s conversational time over coffee (my friend, Erliss and I caught up on the year), the last sessions began. I went with her to hear Janne Gillespie’s analysis of Maria Edgeworth’s epistolary Leonora as a book exploring the French philosophe’s threat to institutional monarchy as Edgeworth saw it. Overtly the novel projects a distrust of sensibility, especially as seen in French novels (Stael’s Delphine) which Edgeworth parodies; at the same time Edgeworth alludes to anti-Jacobin authors (e.g, Hannah More, Elizabeth Hamilton) as exemplary. The book, though, is chock-a-block with allusions to French philosophes and French ideas and fascination with liberated love and radical ideals. At times the paper seemed to me more about anti-Jacobin novels and French ideas than Edgeworth’s novel, but there was a working out of the plot-design. The Lady Olivia who exhibits the bad behavior these ideals supposedly foster becomes the lover of Leonora, which provides the real interest of the book. She has misunderstood what these ideals were about, and Leonora who at the close of the book is contemptuous of Olivia and very English, is herself an amoral woman.


Aphra Behn (1640-89)

Jim went to a different session and he heard what was to him the most iconoclastic and stimulating paper of the conference, and this brief report is based on his notes and memory. Leah Orr, a student of Robert Hume, followed his footsteps: in a previous conference Prof. Hume had argued that except for Robinson Crusoe, we lack any authority for attributing to Defoe the novels we traditionally say are his, that Defoe never acknowledged these texts in his lifetime, unscrupulous publishers printed them, and we ought therefore at least to be uncertain about the attributions, or talk about Defoe’s works in a different way than we do.

Ms Orr went further: she argued against the attribution to Behn of all the novels published posthumously by Briscoe and the Love-Letters between a Nobleman and his Sister, published anonymously during her life and never acknowledged by her. Briscoe’s publications are wholly unreliable (he publishes works under the names of dead people). Why did Briscoe attribute these posthumous works to Behn? 1) Behn had written and stockpiled these, intending to publish them for money; 2) she had not finished them and they needed editing so she gave them to Charles Gilden (who I know was in the habit of publishing texts he got hold of apparently unscrupulously (Gilden is untrustworthy); or 3) Thomas Browne, a contemporary, is the link between Behn and Briscoe.


Love Letters between a Nobleman and his Sister (1684)

As to the famed Love-Letters (sometimes honored as the first or among the first novels in English), they show a radical switch in technique: after the hectic lurid epistolary opening, the text becomes a dog-trot narrative. They were republished several times during Behn’s life and they exposed people she would not have wanted to see exposed (Monmouth, Charles II’s son). The attribution goes back to Langbaum in 1691 who does not say why he attributes the novel to Behn. Janet Todd relies wholly on the signature “AB” at the close of the dedication, but many works in ECCO show “AB” as a signature to paratexts. The work is wholly unlike anything else that Behn ever wrote: all her five published novels during her lifetime are signed with her name and are concise semi-tongue-in-cheek narratives; three are consistent gems, Oroonoko (highly original and autobiographical, in effect an anti-slavery tract); The Nun and The Fair Jilt (both powerful romances). Ms. Orr questioned Todd’s use of subjective (read feminist) criteria.

Listening to this, I know that finally we do fall back on subjective criteria. Ms Orr uses her sense that these texts are unlike Behn’s others. I’ve also seen the term “subjective” used as a kind of underhanded or unacknowledged allusion to feminism which implies a tenacious agenda distorts whatever reading is at hand. Nonetheless, it’s refreshing to remember how texts really appeared in the long 18th century, what our attributions are often so slenderly founded on, and book history analysis provides healthy scepticism, often finally cynical (nothing wrong with that) which appeals. I really should do a foremother poet blog for Behn.

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We talked about this last paper as we settled our bill, put our cases in the car and drove away. It was a beautiful November morning and had been a splendid conference for both of us. I enjoyed being in the play on Thursday night and Jim had read some poetry aloud; we enjoyed the dinners, lunches, receptions and treat of good conversation; we had seen a new town and library, met with old friends and acquaintances. We had gone to the business breakfast for the first time because Jim is the webmaster and offered a short report. (I recommend Nittany Lion’s breakfasts, especially the exquistiely well-cooked rich French toast.)

We hope to come again next year to EC/ASECS. The general topic is to be scandal or infamy. It’s a topic that lends itself particularly to scholars of the scandal-ridden world of the French ancien regime, with its internecine backstabbing. At first blush in English novels I can think of when young women lose their reputations (has a baby out of wedlock especially) they vanish from the narrative, but a little consideration of the papers I heard this time reminds me that if one goes outside this narrow didactic imagined purview, one finds these women don’t go away after all. Far from it.

This year’s topic of liberty was so fruitful because it’s such a fundamental impulse and developing new norms across the whole era.

Ellen

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The puppets (image taken from English Royal Opera production — the puppet makers at the Met were presented as a London group)

Dear friends and readers,

Well this past Saturday the Met put on Glass’s Satyagraha, and the question Jim and I debated afterwards was whether it was a religious oratorio strained into a theatrical masque (or “pageant” as the people on the HD film persisted in calling it) so as to make it palatable on a stage and thus susceptible of making money or a missed opportunity to present a genuinely political opera evaluating and critiquing one of the more important symbolic politicians of our era, the man who made non-violent civil disobedience an effective strategy against the British and other powerful elite groups in India.

First, Jim’s view (as I understand it): he said the opera was not about Gandhi, even if we were told that the thoughts attributed to Gandhi were thoughts going through Gandhi’s mind in the form of endlessly repeated prayer lines. It was an adaptation of specially those sections of the Indian ancient narrative epic, the Bhagavad Gita, where we find worship of the god, Krishna, and a rational for obeying his gnomic commands. The allegorical scenes which simplified a series of chief political conflicts, not the actual working out of these in courts, or public squares, or the Indian political establishment, or even the fields themselves, were a kind of distraction which were not linked to the gnomic sayings we had translations of. You could apply them of course if you were determined. And so too the appearance of Tolstoi, Rabindranah Tagore (later 19th to early 20th century Indian writer who was friendly with Gandhi) and Martin Luther King were a kind of window dressing, Luther King less so since he also succeeded in using non-violent civil disobedience in the 1960s in the US. We were to assume that the meditations in this man’s mind somehow led to how he used civil disobedience so cleverly. Filling in the gap was left to us.

Jim’s comment:

The piece really isn’t an opera. It’s an oratorio on texts drawn from Hindu scripture coupled with a pageant of episodes from Gandhi’s life. I think the word pageant is appropriate. There aren’t many works like this where there’s such a gulf between the music and text on the one hand and the visual elements on the other.

Glass was assuming a good deal of knowledge in the audience. I do know something of how Gandhi managed successfully to use civil disobedience (very hard, as we’ve now seen in 2011, when those who control the media are more ruthless and have been re-establishing new norms which make civil disobedience unacceptable), and it was referred to in the first intermission/interlude when a scholar of Gandhi told something of the real man’s life. He concedes, or brought in — somewhat hesitantly I noticed, embarrassedly — that the sort of thing the real Gandhi fought against in India, unwarranted arrests, imprisonment, harassment of poverty-striken immigrants from India is precisely what the establishment in Arizona wants to do to all Spanish- and other “suspect” types. Precisely is my word, not this scholars. It’s apparently not true that the Koch brothers are major contributors to the Met (they support the City Opera) but in general I doubt the elite contributors would like to see this kind of analogy made. It casts doubt on the Republican establishment in Arizona and places Gandhi in a genuinely reformative political context relevant to us today. Wouldn’t want that, would we?

While in the auditorium, Jim did try to justify the lack of any subtitles explaining to Izzy and I (and other audience members) what the allegorical masques were supposed to represent, any subtitles offering something of the narrative context of the gnomic phrases from this Sanskrit text, for gentle reader, the opera is not in Hindi or any other spoken Indian language. No it’s Sanskrit. But at home he changed his views somewhat:

The pageant is not as successful as the music [on which see below]. To some extent this is because it is separated from the text and music. In the third act, the “skills ensemble” collect up the scotch tape that has been stretched over the stage (don’t ask). One of them is harnessed and rolls the tape into a ball in mid-air, assisted by a couple of others on stilts, and then is lifted up into the flies with the ball of tape. I still don’t know what connection that had either with the music or book. But it was visually impressive. One gets the impression the director (and skills ensemble) felt the need to provide visual accompaniment without their being a hook either in the music or book to hang the visuals on. Where there was a good connection (as in 2.i) the visuals helped; where there wasn’t, they didn’t.

The other problem was lack of subtitles. Apparently this was the
request of the composer. In other media, if the author makes foolish suggestions the creative team simply ignores them; if he insists he’s barred from rehearsals or the set. Presumably in opera it’s so rare to have a living composer he’s listened to, even when wrong. The most glaring example, to my mind, was the final tenor aria. The words reprise the words of Krishna from the first act:

‘I come into being age after age and take a
visible shape and move a man with men for the
protection of good, thrusting the evil back and
setting virtue on her seat again.’

Asked why he chose Sanskrit Glass didn’t say very much; online I’ve read that like the use of Latin in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, the language because so unfamiliar has a monumentality in its sonorousness. Yes when I first heard a Catholic liturgical mass with “God bless Mayor Lindsay” it was nowhere as impressive as “Deus &c&c. Mystery is alluring to some. Stravinsky did subtitle his work “opera-oratorio” and I’ve seen it done on chairs with little staging. But in those productions full subtitles were given, so we could understand Sophocles’s play as adapted by Cocteau for the stage and early to mid-20th century.


This staging is strongly like that of much of the staging of the production of Stravinsky’s on tape I’ve seen

I should admit now that I didn’t say for the whole of it. I left about half-way through. I urged Izzy to stay if she liked the music — which she said she did. Izzy said even if she liked the music or was interested by it (she has a BA with honors in music from Sweet Briar and performed a 1 and 1/2 hour recital for her degree), it was just too frustrating for her to sit in front of something otherwise incomprehensible. She tweeted that when she got home. She, like me, has loved these HD operas partly because until now they have made an opera hitherto opaque understandable. Asked why the Met didn’t provide adequate subtitles at home over dinner (bowls of spaghetti with eggplant and tomato sauce washed down by wine), Jim’s reply was, well it’s Philip Glass. In other words, the prestige of the man is enough? snob appeal?

I do remember years ago where I teach how the whole English department came out to watch and hear another Glass opera; all three rows and everyone just oohing and so impressed with it (see comment). No one didn’t come. I found myself in the middle of a long aisle with no break; I had to walk past so many people so obviously. It was excruciating, but not as bad sitting in that row enduring that incessant high decibel repetition. In a memorable moment for me in hospital after I gave birth to Isobel I also found myself in the middle of a long horse-shoe row of seats, I had dared to get up and leave and also speak out against what was being done. At the Philip Glass musical event I didn’t speak out; my job or what reputation I might have was at stake (people would have thought I was mad and certainly showed my lack of educated taste). I did lose a very pretty folding expensive umbrella I left under my seat. How could I return once having left?

This time (at the movie-house, Nov 2011), I had no trouble leaving as the theater was relatively empty, far fewer people for an HD Met opera than I’ve seen since we started going (some three years now). Also the rows are not overlong.

Jim said he stayed for the music:

The oratorio, as an oratorio, is very impressive. The sextet and chorus which forms the focal point of the last act is glorious. The tenor arias (if that’s the right term) which open the first act and open and close the last act are very fine; the soprano and chorus extended piece that opens the second act and the ensemble that follows it worked very well. It’s very symmetrically constructed. I’d compare Glass’s constantly repeated, methodically changing structures to long poems in heroic couplets.

He and Izzy said it was very subtle and one had to appreciate the tiny changes. I quite appreciate it must be a difficult opera to sing. No one understands the language which is repeated gnomic sayings and yet you have to know where you are in the music to do it right. A virtuoso feat. I also know how hard it is for readers today to understand the aesthetics of the heroic couplet, but honestly I don’t think the variations subtle. If anything, they clang at us (part of the complaint), and you would have to go far to find something as different as Pope’s conversational-dramatic use of the heroic couplet in his Horatian odes and the meditative romantic mood of his Eloisa to Abelard and then again Dryden’s Marlowe-Tamberlane like early plays and Johnson’s later 18th century saturnine tragic ironies.

But I write this blog because I saw the mounting of this opera as more than a missed opportunity. Of course a man has the right to make the work he wants. I tell my students that when they critique one another’s talks they have to accept the speaker’s thesis as something he or she has a right to and then look to see if his or her strategy fits that thesis, if the arguments and evidence marshaled works. They cannot protest the idea as such. So if Glass wants to present a mystical work which counsels submission, and sticking to duty (by which is meant what the society or religious institutions say it is), fine. But I do think he has at the same time a duty to his audience to be more frank about this as well as a duty to link it to Gandhi for real. He didn’t.

Instead we were asked to take this opera as about Gandhi and civil disobedience without ever really any discussion in the opera of what all this was about at the time or means now. Puppets turned the piece into the child-like discourse it is. My view is it’s put on precisely because it does avoid all real politics and constitutes a reactionary retreat. I was reminded as I watched of an essay by Arthur Miller on the retreat of American plays from genuine political engagement to psycho-neurotic romance, unrealistic symbolisms and the like. Miller said even movies do more. I felt I understood for the first time why Glass had pleased the establishment and his work been mounted, praised, pushed when an audience member tried to explain to me that he was enjoying it the way he does when he goes to church Easter-time.


Swirl of newsprint a motif in the staging (true enough, nowadays newspapers are co-opted by the capitalist order, but the sense of the production is the reactionary idea that newspapers are useless)

To me this opera erased the meaning of civil disobedience, was a distraction from its difficulty, and today impossibility. It made havoc of what Gandhi was about, was silly about Tolstoi (he’s so conplicated they would have done better to have a scribe up in that luminous closet, one standing for Glass). Let us recall Martin Luther King was murdered.

Jim’s comment on this:

It’s clear that Glass thought of Gandhi as being a man with men moved for the protection of good, and that perhaps Glass, certainly the director, thought of Martin Luther King as also such a man. The director had Gandhi during an orchestral interlude within that aria move downstage to the pillar on which the King-figure was miming giving a speech, lean on it and then move back upstage for the repeat. But the audience had no idea what Gandhi was singing. The last subtitle had been half an hour ago. What might have been in Glass’s head or the director’s was completely lost on the audience.

I certainly felt it arrogant (or a return to snobbishness) of the Met not to provide real explanation as we were going along of what we were seeing, and probably obtuse as well commercially-minded to present a scholar of Gandhi for one interval as if this explained what we were seeing. (Jim says it might be what we saw was a company following the naive foolishness of a musician-scholar type;, but then why do that?) What we might have had was a scholar of the Bhagavad Gita, someone who has studied say Indo-European languages and could connect Sanskrit with Latin and both the modern day descendents in India and Europe. I did hear people around me laughing at some of the staging. Mysticism turned into puppetry doesn’t work for everyone.

What about the music from my point of view? This time Glass did not drive me by stressing my nervous system further than life already does; on the other hand, unlike some of Glass’s music which accompanies movies (and where, like Randy Newman, he makes big money), I didn’t care for it particularly. A kind friend, Jill, had sent me earlier in the week a UTube rendition of Thomas Tallis’s If Ye Love Me Yes if the music had sounded like that I could have forgiven what was on the stage and the political meaning of it. I have “spem in alium” on tape in my car and never tire of it. If you click on the URL, you may see a brief film which imitates a sequence in Disney’s Fantasia that I like, the Ave Maria. I’ve nothing against religious imagery or allegory per se. It depends how and what it is used for. Had Glass’s music sounded like Tallis’s I felt compelled to stay by the intense beauty. For all that Izzy said she liked the music, she left, and when we got home, she was like a prisoner freed: she hurried to the kitchen, poured out a small bowl of apple sauce and rushed to her room to watch and listen to the music accompanying an ice-skating competition.

Philip Glass’s life as told on wikipedia omits his long time of making little money. Copyright was his saving. He would not give permission to play his work unless you hired him and his musicians. This enabled him to collect unemployment since he had been employed. He also worked for a moving company. His music is described as appealing to visual and performance artists, as minimalist and reductive. Perhaps he is genuinely apolitical. (I doubt it. Those who say they are usually are for the status quo.)

But the use of his music in the opera setting is not. Jim and I have now been to modern operas done at Castleton by Lorin Mazaal in Virginia. I’ve seen enough of them to know that like 19th and 18th century operas, 20th century operas speak directly to their audiences (us) politically: from Brittain to Master Pedro’s Puppet Show.

Opera is (like it or not) not a popular form, but an elite one, supported by the wealthy establishment and that’s partly why we continually have revivals of old operas. In our context, they reassert old misogynistic values. Untimeliness is an effective strategy to reset time and values. It is not an indifferent ploy, but one that seeks to negate today; it’s this that Eurotrash is intent to defeat (see my Claus Guth’s Don Giovanni: taking refuge in the pastoral.

I advise the interested reader to read Indian novels today, and while, wrongly, trashed by Salmon Rushdie, English readers would gain a lot from reading Paul Scott’s Raj novels. Or get out a book on Gandhi (or read an online essay), or Rabindranah Tagore or (today) Kamala Markandaya (Nector in a Sieve) or any of the several Anglo-Indian writers now be-prized (since they are apolitical economically, even if apparently critical from an identity politics point of view), as in The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai or any of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s fictions or movies.

As to the political context today, raging out in the streets not in Virginia or DC, but NYC, Oatlands, the terrible things done once again at the University of California, I’ve a blog on that which links to other sites on the Net more adequate than me: Occupy Wall Street: What We Are Being Taught.

Ellen

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The family broken up in a slave auction

Dear friends and readers,

I continue my report of the fine conference (East Central Region meeting of ASECS at Penn State) centering on the concept of liberty in the long 18th century. Over the course of three days, there emerged a developing definition for different groups of people, much pursuit, much thwarting. Gambling emerged as a mode of liberty rather than enslavement; controlling your image in public (a form of self-restriction) so as not to tell of your real private life provides a modicum of liberty; I heard defended cases of people turning away from friends so as to protect themselves (a paradoxical use of liberty). We all at the business lunch heard of the courage of the scientist and radical thinker, Priestley.

As in my first, my summaries of the papers are just part of the gist of what I heard: what I was able to take notes about and interested me. I enjoyed all the papers I heard very much and (as at Bethlehem), you’d think someone had my interests in mind. Then it was Burney; this time (for me) women seeking liberty as professionals, especially actresses as presented in their memoirs.

See the first report and the third.

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So, in the later afternoon on Friday, we had our first plenary lecture: Jennifer L. Morgan in “‘Their Children shall be bound:’ Freedom and Family Life in New World Slavery.” Prof Morgan began by quoting Toni Morrison’s Beloved that marriages in slavery occurred in the darkness: it could not exist during the day. The slave trade turns enslaved people into commodities and black women disappear from the record. Women were treated brutally over and above their sexualized labor (for sex and to produce babies), enmeshed in systems of violence. The rhetoric justifying slavery claimed that African women were different from European: they had no pain in childbirth, could put their distended breasts behind their backs to feed a child while they were laboring in the fields; the purpose of their existence was to work and work hard, and mercilessly whipped to force this. She quoted someone who had written a description of family forcibly parted; showed us an Abolitionist image of the hold of a slave ship in the middle passage where one can see a slave women in a tiny space giving birth while she is shackled. There was a tradition in Africa of women doing hard agricultural work. She told of why African people sold others as slaves (you make more than when you farm); of the diseases African were and were not subject to; the difference in a life of rice versus cotton or tobacco cultivation

Despite all this black people were able to experience aspects of family life however checkered and anguished. Much of the lecture was taken up with showing whatever remnants are left of whatever kind of family life: slave owners wrote that one way to stop a man from revolting is to provide him with a wife, and there is much evidence enslaved parents cared intensely about their enslaved children; there are records of terrible punishments for women (working harder in fields, given worse jobs) when they try to cling to their children longer than allowed. This was a grim sobering talk about how slavery shaped and deformed slave families. I thought of speaking in the discussion afterwards of how George Calvert freed his slave family at Riverdale house and tried to provide for them, but I know these ameliorating sort of anecdotes because whites wrote them down.

An hour after the lecture, we had our reception of drinking and snacks at the Nittany Inn and then a banquet to which many people came. Suffice to say I enjoyed the talk with friends and acquaintances very much, especially some more women friends, Erliss, Sylvia and mingling with all sorts of people and the talk with yet others over dinner.

And then it was back to our room, some Riesling wine, books and bed.

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Hester Thrale Piozzi (1741-1821) by Charles Dance (1793)

The next morning (Saturday) I went to two more sessions on professional women: these went beyond actresses to include novelists and letter-writers. Marilyn Francis’s paper on Hester Thrale Piozzi began the sequence. She began with the real problem that the definition of professional is not fixed in this era. Professionalism in the 16th century was defined as someone with a vocation; it has a religious sense as of one professing a faith. By 1784 it means someone engaged in a profession, someone with training and a skill; and by the end of the 18th century professionals were to be distinguished from amateurs in something of the 20th century way, but either word can be found used derogatorily. What do you do with a scientist like Caroline Herschel? Her paper was about women achieving professional status or recognition and respect for their kind of work (from writing to saloniere) even if we cannot see an outward recognizable shape in the sense of consecutive steps (and salary). Thus Sarah Fielding is a professional woman of letters if you study her life and work.

Marilyn felt, however, that Hester Thrale Piozzi represented someone unusual because she really commanded respect the way men who set standards do: say, Johnson with his dictionary, Reynolds with his Discourses of Art, Burney’s history of music. This, even if what she wrote was not conventionally recognizable as say a biography (her writing about Johnson is titled Anecdotes). Reviewers were unable to discuss her work according to their preconceived categories about genre, style, purpose, yet her content is liked. She was consistently writing, consistently inventing new genres and new criteria for genres. She existed in a liminal space between amateur and professional which allowed her to “take liberties” which were creative.


Gambling scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 Barry Lyndon

Loring Pfeiffer discussed gambling in women and men’s plays, with Susannah Centlivre’s Basset Table and Gamester, Mary Pix’s Beau Defeated, and Colley Cibber’s Lady’s Last Stake providing her example texts. Gambling was wildly popular in the 18th century, and when written about the concern was over “depravity,” loss of money; Collier said it leveled class distinctions. It displayed wealth and seemed immoral. Many characters in the era’s plays gamble, especially women, e.g., Lady Townley in Vanbrugh and Cibber’s Provoked Husband. Gambling compromised women’s chastity, shows that women are not easy to control. In Cibber’s Lady’s Last Stake, Lady Gentle is challenged when payment is sex; that frightens her into reform. In Centlivre’s Basset Table, Lady Reveler does not repent, marries and does not stop gambling, carries on with life of pleasure. Mrs Sago steals from her merchant husband to fund her habit of gambling and Mr Sago is blamed for not controlling his wife. Similarly in Mary Pix’s Beau Defeated, the middle class female character, Mrs Rich, learns to eschew gambling. Ms Pfeiffer felt that those heroines who at the end of their plays still have access to money parallel Centlivre’s own financial success and independence.

In her paper on Elizabeth Farren (1759-1829), Nora Nachumi asked what enabled Elizabeth Farren to escape the calumny and sexualizing of actresses in the period so that Farren’s presentation of herself as chaste and not having sex with Lord Derby was believed. On 14 March 1799 Derby’s first wife died; April 8 Farren played her last role on the stage (Lady Teazle); May 2nd she married Derby and was fully accepted by his people and all others too. Very little survives in her letters; her story was told by others, including Memoirs of the present Countess of Derby, told by Petronius Arbiter, by Scriptor Veritatis; the work is snobbish and presents Farren as lady-like, innocent, not ambitious, but had integrity, good breeding — though when she was dying she did not support her family. In her theatrical career, she was willing to take lessons; she followed Mrs Abington with her own Lady Teazle; she separated herself from a woman architect who wanted to be her lover, Anne Seymour Damer. Farren worked very hard on her roles, and managed her career so that her identity was thought to be glimpsed in well-bred and lady-like characters. Nora thought Farren created for herself an artificial identity; she is a strong contrast to what we know and surmise about Georgiana Spencer, Countess of Devonshire. Derby got her the respectable friendship with Emily Fitzgerald, duchess of Leinster. She became friends with respectable actresses like Sarah Siddons and Elizabeth Inchbald. The “amateur” theatricals she mounted also added to her respectability.


Anne Seymour Damer (1748-1828) by Giuseppe Ceracchi

In the discussion afterward, Jessican Rickman’s Romance of Gambling was recommended. I rose to say that the definition of women as professional women of letters by virtue of making money, or a visible promoted career, or high postion would exclude many women today. On my Wompo listserv women poets and others have agreed with me and Paula Backscheider in her book on women’s poetry in the 18th century that one has to define a woman poet by asking if this is truly her vocation, the way she spends her time, not if she makes money by it, how much publication she has or if she is on some ladder of promotion in an institution. The label “professional” is still a sore one since most women today are not able to encompass all of these categories. So-called poet models include Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti. Someone suggested maybe we had to look at women in different genres differently. Perhaps.

I only briefly suggested this to the larger group, but I was struck in the two sessions thus far on how hard most of the women’s lives were and how rarely a happy older life (when the woman aged). Those who escaped to marriage or got some permanent funding or land through a man or family were able to be stable and seemingly contented. Some exceptions among those mentioned at the sessions include Elizabeth Inchbald who supported her family — though she did destroy her memoirs and it seems was under the thumb of priests. I did notice too there seemed to be a pattern among the successful women of dropping beloved or close women friends or family members or just associates who seemed to give the writer, actress a real or meaningful relationship of her life. There was overt pressure from others to drop these women (like Derby pressured Farren to drop Damer). It puts me in mind of Charlotte Lucas who has to distance herself from Elizabeth quite tangibly to be safe.

On gambling, I thought of how Louise d’Epinay’s Montbrillant, Georgiana Spencer’s Sylph, and Edgeworth’s Leonora all contain stories of husbands bullying (menacing, threatening, physically forcing in the case of Montbrillant) their wives (the book’s heroine) to have sex with a man the husband owes money to. To be sure, Leonora (Austen’s Lady Susan was modelled on her perhaps or just such another type) doesn’t really mind. Also that George Sand’s Lelia is about a woman who recklessly and pleasurably engaged in gambling and sex. She was excoriated for it to the point that afterward she ceased writing openly heroine’s texts, and put males at the center of her stories. I told this to Loring Pfeiffer though she was not interested. perhaps because these are novels. What I liked about Sand’s was the heroine was having a deeply alive time.

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The second session of papers on professional women began with Jan Stahl’s paper on Mary Davys’ The Reform’d Coquet. Jan said that Davys’ problem was she wanted to present and critique male violence, and yet not lose her own reputation for chastity and virtue because she wanted to continue to write for money and for the respect her friends showed her when she produced her books. Davys also produces a novel where the heroine learns lessons from her guardian and her reward is marriage to the hero; here, though the apparently major story is blended into one that seems to count more than the central one: the heroine’s friend is raped and nearly murdered, and the two women characters have a homoerotic relationship important to them. Davys allows them to engage in role-playing in ways unusual for women characters. It’s a novel which presents itself as about the education of the central characters, but this is a sort of outward disguise.


Mary Robinson (1757-1800) by George Romney

Lisa Wilson presented a long talk on Robinson from a book history perspective: the thrust was that the way Robinson’s books were packaged (paratexts, illustrations, what was said about her life) were all calculated to make Robinson into a respectable poet and woman of letters (they resemble aspects of Accademia della Crusca poetry books). Prof Wilson divided Robinson’s life into 3 careers: 1) amateur writing of poetry, stage acting; 2) mistress of George IV (a short career); and 3) a return to poetry, novels, memoirs. Wilson said she used the recognizable identity of the woman poet of genius; she claimed sensibility, artlessness. (It seemed Prof Wilson didn’t care Robinson’s poignant senusual poetry much; she never discussed any of Robinson’s poetry as poetry.) John Bell had a long career of publishing well-made books of find literature, and his accepting, recognizing and helping Robinson when others rejected her makes him an appealing figure.


Elizabeth Hamilton (1756-1816) by Henry Raeburn

The last of these papers on professional women that I heard was Temma Berg’s “Becoming a Professional Woman: the Career of Elizabeth Hamilton.” The session was running out of time and Temma had to cut short her paper unfortunately. Temma set two of her novels, The Letters of a Hindoo Rajah (1796, where she pretends she’s a translator), and Memoirs of Modern Philosophers (1800) in the context of Hamilton’s life, her brother’s early death and other literary texts where political stances were debated. Temma said that Hamilton wanted to present herself as on the side of reform in these books, but that the reform is not a radical one; women need and want to be lovers, mothers, wives, mistresses, a helpful aide. She partly wrote Hindoo Rajah to solace herself after her brother died. I liked the relativity of the novels’ structures, their tone, their kindness (at least as described by Temma). They do have strongly anti-Jacobin elements and one anti-feminist caricature: Bridgetina, through whom she makes fun of herself. Temma felt these books are post-modern, register an experience of post-modern self-reflexive learning, of alienation.

The discussion afterward had to be short, and most of the questions were addressed to Lisa Wilson about book sales in the era.

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Two more events to record. During the business lunch, Lisa Rosner gave a splendid lecture on Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), radical thinker, scientist, land- and library owner. It was great fun to see her do some of these experiment sin front of us; she had an attractive power-point presentation of images of Priestley, his books, his home, his experiments. Lisa began with Priestley’s political and educational work and issues; later her discourse on his experiments (some shown to us), and, finally, briefly, her later sad years. After the lunch for Roy Wolpert, a small group went with Christine Clark-Evans, who teaches at this conference, and together with Linda Merians (the society’s central organizer), she made this conference happen and have all the lovely events we did. Well she took us to the Paterno Library where we saw spread out on tables, rare precious books from the 18th century. Christine performed the function of curator herself. I could see what a rich place Penn State is for a scholar, and enjoyed looking over the separate volumes on the tables, hearing their stories (as it were).

While we were there, the scandal over the exploitation and sexual abuse of boys by one of the lead coaches at Penn State was beginning to saturate the newspapers. Ironically, this is a story of thwarted and exploited liberty too: of how the trust others had in these men to give them free access to these boys (a kind of liberty) was abused. Other similarly trusted and powerful people allowed one man directly to hurt the boys seeking success and promotion (he raped them), of how other people, his colleagues and other boys allowed this to happen rather than risk their careers, the reputation of Penn State, and the income football generated, of how norms of masculinity and heterosexual sexuality twist, limit, and direct and enslave children and adults (see links in comment).

My last and third blog covers a session and lecture later in the afternoon (on Thomson’s The Seasons, and then on Joseph Boulogne, Le Chevalier de St George, known sometimes as “the black Mozart”), and two of Sunday’s presentations: Did Aphra Behn write the short fiction and Letters between a Noble-man and His sister? Edgeworth’s Leonora as an epistolary novel of Continental sensibilities?

Ellen

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Paul Montague (Cilian Murphy) and Mrs Hurtle (Mirando Otto) at Lowestoffe based on one of the original illustrations (2001 BBC/WGGH The Way We Live Now, script Andrew Davies)

Dear Friends and Readers,

More than five years after we had our first Trollope conference in 25 years (!); thirteen months after sending off my review of the above book which contains 15 of the 40 essays given at said conference, and making 2 blogs of my summaries and evaluations; and six months after it appeared in Nineteenth Century Contexts, I finally put the review itself on my website.

Whew!


Mr Gilson (David Tennant) edging away from Arabella French (Fenella Woolgar), also based on original illustrations (2004 BBC/WBGH He Knew He Was Right, script Andrew Davies, director Tom Vaughn)

Ellen

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Gmail trouble

Dear friends and readers,

My google mail has disappeared for number of hours and that has given me quite a scare. I got a frozen message for many hours which claimed to be fixing an error in my mail storage. So anyone who wants to contact me, please remember that I have two other addresses available on two further site: beyond ellen.moody@gmail, there’s Ellen2@JimandEllen.org or emoody@gmu.edu.
I’m also on facebook (Ellen Moody) and twitter (Miss Sylvia Drake)

Thank you for staying in contact with me,

Ellen

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William Hogarth, “Signing the Settlement,” showing that the powerful people in the room were doing all they could to curtail the liberty of one another, Marriage a la Mode

Dear friends and readers,

A week ago tonight, a Thursday, Nov 3rd, the EC/ASECS conference began. The theme that was to unite the papers was that of liberty, and it had turned out that this was a popular compelling theme for eighteenth century scholars. Many of the papers could be summarized under the aegis of a pursuit of liberty: authors, characters, books, seeking and being frequently thwarted in their quest for liberty.


The conference emblem by Cruikshank: we see Liberty trying to protect herself amid the ferocity of various authors determined to make their books prevail

This is the first of three blog reports (see the second and the third).

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On the last night of the conference, a Saturday (Nov 5th), I was out in a restaurant in Penn State with a friend; on the final evening of the last day of our Eastern Region eighteenth-century conference, we had treated ourselves to a yummy meal in a nearby restaurant to Nittany Lion Inn. When we returned to the Nittany, a friend took this photo of us:


Caroline and me

As chance — and luck — had had it, on the first evening (Nov 3rd), we had both played together in the comic half of John Dryden’s Marriage a La Mode, performed without the heroic tragic stuff. We had been the married couple of several years, a couple writhing over their lack of freedom from one another: Caroline Doralice, and me, Rhodophil. The conference began with a reception with drinks and snacks at 6 or so, and the evening was given over to Peter Staffel’s Aural/Oral experience. First Peter had us read poetry aloud and then we turned to the play.

The play was piquant and somewhat hard to do (without rehearsals), even to practice alone, because the characters’ speeches and action are so intertwined, salacious in innuendo, and mine (at least) bitter with disillusion from the experience of an arranged marriage for money. Its opening song (to be sung by Doralice) is famous:

Why should a foolish marriage vow,
Which long ago was made,
Oblige us to each other now,
When passion is decayed?
We loved, and we loved, as long as we could,
‘Till our love was loved out in us both;
But our marriage is dead, when the pleasure is fled:
‘Twas pleasure first made it an oath.

II.
If I have pleasures for a friend,
And further love in store,
What wrong has he, whose joys did end,
And who could give no more?
‘Tis a madness that he
Should be jealous of me,
Or that I should bar him of another:
For all we can gain,
Is to give ourselves pain,
When neither can hinder the other.

And here is one of Doralice’s disillusioned dialogues with the bitter Rhodophil:

Dor. What should you talk of a peace a-bed, when you can give no security for performance of articles?

Rho. Then, since we must live together, and both of us stand upon our terms, as to matters of dying first, let us make ourselves as merry as we can with our misfortunes. Why, there’s the devil on’t! if thou could’st make my enjoying thee but a little easy, or a little more unlawful, thou should’st see what a termagant lover I would prove. I have taken such pains to enjoy thee, Doralice, that I have fancied thee all the fine women of the town–to help me out: But now there’s none left for me to think on, my imagination is quite jaded. Thou art a wife, and thou wilt be a wife, and I can make thee another no longer. [Exit_ RHO.]

Altogether 7 of us went through the lines as best we could, and there were still some people left in the audience when we ended! It was fun and an instructive experience to go through. My respect for Dryden went up.

Beforehand we read some poetry aloud to one another, and afterward more drinks at the bar — or bed. I learned that night that Peter had seen the same version of Marriage a la Mode I saw in the 1980s: Giles Havergal took the comic part of the play and interwove it with an abridged version of Dryden’s All for Love (Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra rewritten). He had the characters, Doralice and Rhodophil, and Melantha and Palamede (the largest part, played wonderfully by Robert Mayerovich) become actors who were putting on the tragic play. The action takes place in the rehearsing room. Peter had loved it — he saw it in Toronto and I saw it at the Folger Shakespeare library. There is a good review of it: Judith Milhous, “The Poetics of Theater,” Theatre Journal, 35:3, (Oct1983):416-418.

And so the conference had begun.

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Friday: I heard three sessions, one of which was “my own” (I chaired it), then a plenary lecture, and later in the evening another reception with drinks and dinner sitting down together.


statue of John Wilkes (1725-97)

I began with Panel 1, “Wilkes and Liberty,” and heard three fine papers. Jack Fruchtman’s in his Radicalism and Reform: the Case of John Sawbridge, M.P., asked “what did radicalism mean in the 18th century, and how did it fit into the Wilkes and Liberty movement? These were contentious times, and no organization was considered legal outside parliament; from 1780 to 1792 people became radicalized within such organizations. Tradesmen and artisans joined them. Among the new demands were shorter parliaments, small electoral districts, prevent bribery, exclude place men, a smaller standing army, lower taxes, better infrastructure. Most people were whigs, and words like “virtue” and “corruption” catchwords. In 1768 Wilkes had fought for his seat successfully; he was a supporter of the Bill of Rights and his election was overthrown as corrupt. This was seen as quite unjust and Wilkes’s cause became intertwined with that of principled liberties.

John Sawbridge (1732-35) was Catherine Macauley’s younger brother. She wrote her history of England to counter Hume’s: in Hume liberty is an important empowering concept, but in Sawbridge it’s only more menial work at the same pay for employees. Sawbridge left a body of writing unsigned. Among legislation he proposed was annual parliament which would obviate corruption; for who would spend such money on a short stay in Parliament. He supported the impeachment of North, associated with Fox, views like John Horne Took. Prof Fruchtman said Sawbridge was clever and polished politician who successfully cultivated his constituency.

Corey Andrews’ paper was on Scottophobia in Charles Churchill’s poetry and prose. Where did it come from and why now (18th century) so virulent. Churchill edited Wilkes’s North Briton; he was attacked by his own countrymen, and ever after did not forget who was responsible for the recalls and the mob. Churchill was caustic, bleak and bitter towards Swift, competitive towards Smollett (who edited an important review which published anti-Scottish reviews). Corey read aloud from Churchill’s “Apology” (1761), “Night” (1761) and “The Prophecy of Famine” (1763). It seems that Churchill held grudges for a long time; he conflated private feelings with public displays of anger and ill feeling. He did not forget his boyhood in Scotland and as an adult wanted to live for pleasure. He wrote strong poetry and yet by Southey’s time could be pronounced as forgotten. Corey ended by quoting Byron on how Churchill had become “nothing but a name.” The implication seemed to be that by being so personally antagonistic, Churchill never built a big enough constituency for valuing his poetry past his lifetime.


Hogarth’s caricature of Churchill as “the bruiser.”

Brijraj Singh’s paper on “The Radicals, General Warrants, and Press Freedom” described what was meant by radicals in the 1760s: someone who wanted to curb the prerogatives of the crown, widen the franchise to include artisans, craftsmen, tradesmen, freedom of the press &c. A general warrant could be issued against someone accused of libel. Neither party wanted to pass this bill. Brijraj described two important judges, Lord Mansfield, an originally impecunious Scots lawyer who rose to the top by talent and Pratt who supported the opposition to Fox and Pitt.

I know I am not doing justice to the subtleties and ironies, let alone vivid concrete information in the papers and during the lively political talk afterward. What I especially liked was for once people made connections with today — and yet there was no controversy stemming from people’s allegiances to modern parties.

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Elizabeth Inchbald (1753-1821)

At 10:30 I went to the first of three sessions on actresses, professional women, their memoirs, the theater, publishing as such and the public.

Linda Troost’s paper, “Publicity that Money Cannot Buy: The Syren of Covent Garden and The Duenna.” After “Love in a Village,” Sheridan’s Duenna was performed more frequently than any other play across the century. Sheridan’s father-in-law (Linden) revised the music. In our time the play is helped to an audience through advertising the parallels in Sheridan’s life and marriage and that of his wife, Elizabeth Linley, and the characters in his play who elope to escaped an arranged materialistic merciless match. The action of the play concerns the heroine’s continued attempts to escape an unwanted marriage by eloping. At the time Anne Brown was given the lead, and she too kept running away, eloping, and there seems little doubt this outside play real-life activity kept the staging of plays indoors.

Linda was very amusing on the real life stories of Anne Brown who it seems eloped once too often, and died drowned off a ship on its way home (with, so the sentimental stories said, her newborn baby in her arms). For my part, I felt for Ann Brown and wondered why she was so determined to escape her father and was so susceptible to seduction.

Melissa Wehler spoke of Dorothy Jordan’s cross-dressing. Her argument was the importance of the body politic and real natural body of a woman, how the latter is confused and confounded with. Like Linda, she talked a lot about the real woman, including such matters as the manipulation of tickets that goes on to get a seat. She gave us the following handout and spoke from it about attitudes towards cross-dressing:

In Dramatic Essays, Hunt specifies Jordan’s “wearing the breeches” as antithetical to what he refers to as the “proper style of the actress” calling it “one of the most barbarous, injurious, and unnatural customs of the stage,” arguing: “In all cases it is injurious to the probability of the author and to the proper style of the actress, for if she succeeds in her study of male representation she will never entirely get rid of her manhood with its attire; she is like the Iphis of Ovid, and changes her sex unalterably. There is required, in fact, a breadth of manners and demeanour in a woman’s imitation of men, which no female, who had not got over a certain feminine reserve of limb, could ever maintain or endure; and when the imitation becomes frequent and the limbs bent to their purpose, it is impowwigl3 to return to that delicacy of behaviour, which exists merely as it is incapable of forgetting itself. Vivacity does nothing but strengthen the tendency to broadness by allowing a greater freedom of action; it merely helps the female to depart more from her former chaste coldness of character, from the simplicity of her former mental shape [ ... ] . (“Mrs. Jordan,” 83)
[ ... ]

Hunt offers a note to all of his “serious reviewers” and “female readers”: “Serious Reviewer, interrupting. But, my good sir, suppose some of your female readers should take it into their heads to be Mrs. Jordan? Author. Oh, my good sir, don’t be alarmed. My female readers are not persons to be so much afraid for, as you seem to think yours are. The stage itself has taught them large measures both of charity and discernment. They have not been so locked up in restraint, as to burst out of bounds the moment they see a door open for consideration.) (Autobiography, 149) (for “Works cited” see comment)

Afterward the group did talk of Jordan’s later life, how the prince dumped her after she bore him so many children, made her life apart from them (she died young), and Claire Tomalin’s biography, Mrs Jordan’s Profession, which recounts all this frankly. (I remembered that Trollope spoke similarly of any female character in his novel: it seems once a woman gives up her modesty in some ways, she is mentally tainted forever. This might not be a strongly common Victorian male point of view so much as the cant one finds published to control women.)

Sharmain van Blommenstein was one of the surprising and most unusual papers for the conference. She discussed the history of ballerinas, from the time of the first depictions of women dancing (as comic shrews) to our own time (when they have become tragic central heroines). She began in the medieval era, and moved quickly through the Renaissance, 18th, 19th centuries and then early modern times. I couldn’t begin to take down what she included. It was a power-point presentation with texts put up in front of us.

Suffice to say that originally the men were the central dancers. Then in 1720 when skirts were shortened, ballerinas began to proliferate and eventually displaced men as the central figures in ballet. She talked about how story ballets came in. In the 19th century the age-old connection of actors with prostitutes came to dominate the discourse (stories) and ballerinas were stigmatized because of their working class origins and (assumed) sexual impropriety.

Along the way she explained a great deal that we see in ballet until today. She said it was simply true that the less fortunate ballerinas did fall into prostitution; they were followed about by the declasse rich men who hung about the theaters (called abonnes). I wish I could convey the excitement and interest of hearing so much I never knew before. At the close Sharmain put up a photo of 4 homosexual men in ballet drag, and showed how they stand parallel to earlier ballerinas.

Laura Engel is most interested in actress’s memoirs and her discussion was about Elizabeth Inchbald’s relationship with Mary Wells. It seems that while at first the two were very close, gradually Mary began to crack up, and when she did Inchbald distanced herself from her once old friend. To me the way Inchbald dropped her friend was off-putting; she was protecting her reputation and apparently did the same vis-a-vis Mary Wollstonecraft. It’s very hard to know why Inchbald did what she did since she destroyed her 2 or 3 volume memoirs and all that is left are tiny diaries where the barest annotations are found.

Well, Laura found the same paradigms of posture, dress, and self-presentation in their very different memoirs. From the diaries Laura suspects that Inchbald also separated herslf perhaps because Wells had become too difficult for Inchbald to deal with. Inchbald did give Wells an annuity for the rest of Wells’s life.

The problem for such women’s reputation is these actresses’s memoirs are rarely read, and then usually through pre-conceived (prejudiced) eyes and only to use them for purposes outside any interest in them or their theater. Laura also described Boaden’s biographies, one of Inchbald and one of Sarah Siddons, and how Boaden’s narrow attitudes shaped the evidence that was left. When I got home, I bought a copy of Laura’s book on actresses’memoirs, Fashioning Celebrity.


Dorothy Jordan as Viola in Twelfth Night by John Hoppner

What struck me here (once again) is how women scholars want to celebrate and present very positively what were tragic and/or hard lives in many ways.

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My own panel was scheduled after lunch, and alas, as has happened before, because I was so nervous before giving my paper I didn’t take adequate notes on the papers of the others. The subject I had proposed was historical, post-colonial and rewritten fiction and liberty: I wanted to see explored the different uses to which historical fiction (very popular in our time and also in the 19th century after Scott) can be put.


Kosciuszko at Raclawice, a painting by Jan Matejko (1888).

Talissa Ford’s paper, “Jack Mansong and West-Indian Liberty” was about William Earle’s epistolary novel Obi, or, the History of Three-Fingered Jack published in 1800. In 1780 Jamaican hero, “Three-fingered Jack” Mansong escaped from slavery and led a maroon band in acts of terror; by August of 1800, Toussaint L’Ouverture controlled all of Saint Domingue, and a nation of liberated slaves was a real possibility. Talissa “seized on the decade between Jack’s story and its publication, in order to read Earle’s novel in the context of the 1791 slave uprisings in Saint Domingue.” She argued that, “in the midst of the Haitian Revolution, Earle uses the narrative of a small, short-lived band of rebels in Jamaica to raise the broader possibility of an independent black nation in the West Indies.”

What I found most interesting was her characterization of the hero as a violent terrorist who is at the same time patterned on classical heroes; the novel delves into and creates a complicated argument about how slavery is set up, enforced, what it is, but what she said was most revealing in it was its exposure of the sources of revolution in the anger of the central figures. The real Jack Mansong died terribly, was killed in the most brutal and horrible of ways.

Sylvia Marks’s paper, “Another Jane, A Foreign Grandison,” was on Jane Porter’s Thaddeus of Warsaw (1803) Thaddeus is modeled on the famous Polish war and Enlightenment hero, Kosciuszko. In Porter’s preface she “recalls” “the moving sight of a “gaunt” and “melancholy” figure among the many “hapless refugees wandering about St. James’s Park. They had sad companions in the like miseries, though from different enemies, in the emigrants from France” (1861 New York edition, v-vi). Sylvia wanted to remind us that British writers felt sympathy for the Poles fighting for their liberty after 1794. Porter creates in her good hero another Charles Grandison, with the difference that the accent is now on magnanimity; the novel is really a kind of conduct book and it appealed greatly to Kosciuiszko himself and Carlyle and went through 8 editions. We see Thaddeus experience joy in benevolent action, as an exile he is fine, gentle scholar, a Christian, an honorable warrior.


From the 1997 mini-series Tom Jones: Partridge, the tutor, kisses Tom as if Tom were his son (Ron Cook and Max Beesley)

Geoff Sills’s “Col. Jack, Tom Jones, and The Sot-Weed Factor: A Trans-national, Trans-atlantic Dialogue” showed that while John Barth had Fielding’s Tom Jones in mind for the underlying paradigmatic plot-design of the 20th century novel, Defoe’s definition of liberty was the one that controlled Barth’s novel, not Fielding’s. The Sot-Weed Factor is supposed to be a book published in 1708 while it is set in 1694. The poet, Ebeneezer Cook is the hero, who travels with his beloved tutor, Henry Burlingame; they discover that European values do not translate into American settings. Instead of an idealistic or philosophical definition of liberty, liberty is defined as what people experience when they trade as equals; it is in establishing a relationship of exchange that effective liberty emerges and is operative. Geoff quoted from Defoe’s Colonel Jack to show us the parallels. His was a really intriguing paper, and he made me really want to read The Sot-Weed Factor.

Then came my turn: I had proposed “I have a right to choose my own life:’ Liberty in Winston Graham’s Poldark novels,” and I delivered the paper I’ve put on on my website, which I invite interested readers to read at their leisure.

Here is its first paragraph:

It is the argument of this paper that Winston Graham’s historical fiction brings into focus areas and perspectives on experience essential to understanding the nature of civil liberty. In Graham’s treatment of women’s lack of rights, he centers their stories on their experience of rape, how class works to prevent them coping with abrasive sexual encounters, and on sexual discord, dissatisfaction and abuse within marriage from the woman’s angle. In Graham’s Poldark novels what gets in the way of liberty for women is they are answerable with their bodies in situations where they have inadequate or no control (Pateman; Vickery 24). A main heroine, Elizabeth Chynoweth defends her life and her son Valentine’s, from destructive assault by her husband, George Warleggan, by swearing “I have never, never given my body to any man except my first husband, Francis, and to you, George. Is that enough?” (FS, II:9, 390). Her body is the issue and her problem that she had sexual intercourse with Graham’s hero, Ross Poldark, and Valentine is Ross’s son. She did not “give her body” since Ross raped her.

Here is what I think is important about Graham’s handling of liberty in these Poldark novels:

Liberty. How is it, as it sometimes undoubtedly is, taken from us? If we feel we have it to exercise, in what situations do we actually manifest it and what can such exercise bring? The franchise is but one manifestation of liberty. What I missed in reading most of the famous voices on liberty (Constant, Berlin, Carol Pateman though not Mill and Vickery), was some adequate accounting for an inward self-prompting sense of right and capability and the resulting courage that exercising a right to liberty demands before any negotiation can be opened. This is the crucial psychological area the Poldark novels explore.

There were about 6 people in the audience, of whom three were real friends, and a fourth someone I’ve been getting to know. All asked good questions, not about historical fiction, but directed at each paper. Someone asked for more on Defoe; someone appreciated Sylvia’s work on Grandison.

I tried to be a good panel chair and bring papers together, and remember that I compared Sylvia’s use of magnanimity to the concept of the hero in the magnificent Indian film, Lagaan and said it was a lot easier for most or many people to identify with and like the peaceful kind orderly hero who plays so strictly by the rules than the man of violence, who resents and hates (as Jack Mansong rightly was), but that it was this anger that fuelled revolution. I remembered how I was all aquiver with anxiety for the Indian hero of Lagaan because he insisted on playing cricket by the rules and was depending on the British to keep their word if the Indians won the game. I doubted they would; I thought that some treachery at the last moment would be played on the Indians. It was not. But then it’s an idealistic film. The worst (ruthless, violent) people get into and stay in power much of the time. I asked Geoff who said he had assigned the book to his students, how they had liked it. He said it was very long for them, but he hoped that a second time at it, after they had read (or he at least assigned) Tom Jones, might make them have a more favorable response.


Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees as Ross and Demelza Poldark (1975-76 season)

So, now, gentle reader, I go off to bed.

Ellen

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Caterina von Hemessen (1527/8 – ?1566), Portrait of a Lady, 1551

Dear friends and readers,

Six years ago now I finished making this large bibliography page for women’s literature (it’s not limited to women poets), and rejoice to say that Anna Galovich has translated it into Estonian and placed it on her website.

I am planning to take all my foremother poet postings, website additions and (revised) partially poet blogs over the years and place them in a single region on my website this summer; one place where people can come to. This will help encourage me to do it.

The origin of all this was my translations of Renaissance women poets, whence my choice of Caterina for the page and this blog.

Ellen

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Anna Madeley as Margaret Prior in Andrew Davies’s film adaptation of Sarah Waters’s Affinity (2008 ITV).

Dear friends and readers,

Although I’ve not seen Davies’s film adaptation of Sarah Waters’s remarkable and powerful neo-Victorian neo-Gothic novel (indeed just found out about it when I was googling for information about the novel and its various covers), I decided to use the stills as they are appealing (though not how I envisaged Margaret), and to underline that four of Waters’s novels have been made into film adaptations, two by Andrew Davies: Fingersmith (script by Tim Fywell), Tipping the Velvet (script by Davies), Affinity (script by Davies), and The Night Watch (script by Paula Milne, which I long to see). This is remarkable as at their core these are films about books focusing on frank lesbian love.

I take it that they are so good and insightful, powerful and gripping that their iconoclasm and frankness does not matter.

My blog on Tipping the Velvet is mostly on Waters’s book; this is wholly on Waters’s riveting text. Both are records of my reading as I went along. For a brief commentary, see wikipedia. The store centers on Margaret Prior, who becomes “a lady Visitor” t0 women prisoners, apparently a well-recognized Lady Bountiful position. She meets Selina Dawes, apparently put in jail egregiously wrongly: she did no kill Mrs Blink the woman who died while Selina was conducting a seance. The plot-design shows their intense relationship growing, and taking over Margaret’s as well as Selina’s lives. They experience trauma from their refusal to obey the peculiar conventions of the houses (so to speak) where they live. They plan to escape using ghostly magic. At its end (the coda of the book) we revise our understanding of Selina, which has a radical turnaround worthy DuMaurier’s My Cousin Rachel, and a depth of characters like Austen’s Emma. I recommend this book to anyone who loves Gothic, Victorian gothic, neo-Victorian and Victorian novels, who can deeply immerse him or herself in diary- and epistolary fiction, l’ecriture-femme, and fiercely socially critical novels, and as it’s a basis of a film adaptation, Victorian film studies people. The book also mirrors the concerns of people today over the heavily weighted system of criminal justice, where a young man (usually) black can be thrown solitary confinement for little reason. We are becoming a more distrustful and brutal society.

Finally, anyone who loves to read books which remain overtly (for their effects) a bookish experience. Allusons abound to the work of Daphne DuMaurier.

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An image of the panopticon: the women walking in the courtyard, watched by the women guards’ eyes

The story centers, to start with, in a Pantopticon like (fearful) prison for women. Waters is reflecting contemporary (today) prison conditions, and especially the controversy about enforced solitude as a form of torture, but much else is rooted in apparently Victorian realities. My view is the weight (gravitas, seriousness) of a verisimilar historical novel depends very often on the accuracy of the circumstances the fictionalized characters are embedded in. And my guess this novel would not be read as anachronistic.

The novel gives the impression a considerable percentage of women were imprisoned in Victorian England? is that so? were conditions severe and grim? I’d love to know of articles or books on this.

In this novel the women are “in” for several years at a time. Now I’ve read that prison sentences were seen as temporary (unless in debtors’ prison and then women were not liable), so that after sentencing the prisoner was hung, transported, fined, but then let go. So how long were prison sentences in the Victorian period for women? Again articles and books is what I’d like to know of. Last, sexual harassment. I wondered if there was any record of this?

I put the above on Patrick Leary’s Victorian and got some comments and a list of essays to read, which I have placed in the comments.

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Margaret Prior (Anna Madeley) visits Selina Dawes (Zoe Tapper)

I’m past Part One and have realized this is a fable about cruelty, about the cruelty of women to other women. It is a stark outline of how class enables people to de-humanize one another. About the cruelty of severity of punishments and the helplessness of individuals against a system. Again and again I think of Dante and there are allusions to Dante’s Inferno: not in its specifics but what it has come to stand for, and so by extension one of Oliphant’s ghost stories. The terrain reminds me of one of her ghostly nightmare terrains.

The affinity is between the lady visitor, Margaret Prior and the spiritual medium, Sarah Dawes, who by Book 2 we discovered has ended up in this prison partly because she dared to rise above her station and allow a woman to take her into her house to be used as spiritual medium. Never go where you are too powerless in comparison with others.

There is an astute use of structural irony through the juxtaposition of Prior’s present time carefully narrated diaries (as she visits the prison) and Dawes’s scatter- shot notes towards a diary which begin precisely 2 years before. The contrast works to explain the injustices.

I recommend it as a book about human nature, society and probably the Victorian era too, how the powerful can and do enslave, mistreat, then throw away not just the law-abiding powerless, and not just in official prisons.

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Margaret amid her family

I’m into the third part (of three) and finally have seen how the book relates directly to readers today. Identifying the prison theme (and its modern analogies), the spiritual medium (ditto) and GLBT (which however until just in this last part of the book there was hardly anything except if you insist on seeing all spinster presentations as redolent) — are a way of reading that still stays away from personal engagement or bonding. I kept asking myself why I was riveted and hoping it was not that I enjoy suffering.

The third part quietly (it’s done with subtlety) switches the perspective so instead of Margaret Prior as gazer (my head just now filled with specularization vocabulary), it is she who is subject. The prison apparatus and all the cruelties we see are a metaphor for what I’ll describe as the inexorableness of individual people to budge from their egoistic preoccupations and perspectives (stupidity is the frank word) and consequent cruelty and indifference to others. Margaret finds herself shut out from Selina Dawes because the women guards loathe seeing anyone happy, any affinity of relationship. They respond to Margaret’s pleas with supposedly reasonable objections to how excited Margaret makes Selina (absurd) to the norm that Selina is there to be punished. It’s in the loving relationship of Selina to Margaret at the first homoerotic current of the book emerges and we need not see it as sexual.

This inexorableness is relentless in Margaret’s mother. The light is suddenly cast on Margaret and figures who were mentioned now emerge full. We see her mother dislikes her intensely because she never married and behaved unconventionally, and longs to go live with her “successful” children: the just married (beautiful wedding) Priscilla and Arthur and the long married Stephen and Helen. We realize for the first time the drugging of Margaret each night is forced on Margaret, and how dependent Margaret is. The mother begins to manipulate to keep Margaret away from the prison and insists on Margaret reading aloud each night Dickens’s Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit functions as the floor rug that Margaret’s mother wants Margaret to become. Dickens often gets bad rap here: this reminded meo of Waugh’s novel, Decline and Fall, where the ultimate torture of a man left on an island with a mad man who insists he read aloud all Dickens night after night.

Margaret is as emotionally harrowed by her mother as the women prisoners are by the guards, and there is the implicit threat of imprisoning her in an asylum too. We learn that Helen and Margaret had a tight emotional relationship which Helen gave up — Helen tells Margaret she is brave. This is the place I said a lesbian theme does emerge.

So at the heart of this book is a deadly mother-daughter relationship. Margaret is a traditional “good” heroine in the Victorian tradition — seen far more deeply and hauntingly because no fairy godmother (in the shape of an author) are likely to shower love and good people on her at the book’s end.

I can see why Davies might not want do this book very well; he really would have a hard time finding that upbeat ending he manages for many of his films, and he is rarely willing to move into vulnerable psychology the way Water has. Margaret needs protection, so does Selina and there is none not be found, only exploitation or quiet silence if they can find a place to survive alone, which neither has.

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A dream (or nightmare)

I’m into the last quarter or so of this powerful novel. It does turn into a lesbian novel: at its core is a pair of lesbian women who love one another intensely because of an emotional affinity. The apparatus punishing them both becomes a metaphor for the suppression of this precious relationship for which both are willing to give up everything including food, clothing, shelter, bodily safety, sanity itself. At times I begin to see it as a modern La Religieuse (Diderot”s book) which comes to mind though Diderot’s paradigm seems so distant — modeled on the assault-type rape book of Richardson’s Clarissa. When Sarah is removed from Miss Prior’s visits, Miss Prior stopped from visiting her (and how the techniques used to imprison Miss Prior remind me of much of see and have experienced around me), they both suddenly pour out another reading of everything that was implicit, including the sister-in-law Helen as a thwarted lover to Miss Prior (Margaret).

Lots of allusions to Elizabeth Barrett Browning suddenly appear, not her works so much, but her, her personality (anorexic, repressed, half-mad in some ways when young) life, her feminist atittudes (I had to leave off Margaret Forster’s biography – she was doing justice to this).

I think it a masterpiece of fiction; probably because its verisimilar historical fiction it won’t be rated highly in the way say Stead’s The Man Who Loved Fiction is, and also because it is not heterosexual.

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Selina with Peter Quick [aka Quint/] in background; from the first page of the novel his has been an essential presence at seances

Those who do not like to know the ending of a book had better not read on, for I must tell it in order to show the final devastating power of the book and how once you finish, you should really reread it again.

This goes against all my practices nowadays; the last time I did this that I remember was DuMaurier’s My Cousin Rachel, when I realized the meaning of the novel’s first sentence which is also its last and that the narrator was the heroine’s murderer.


Richard Burton as Philip Ashley and Olivia de Havilland as Scarlett O’Hara (My Cousin Rachel, Hitchcock out of DuMaurier)

The time before that I remember I was 15 and just finished Mansfield Park, and after reading the last few paragraphs (including ” the consciousness of being born to struggle and endure”). conclusion so fired with it was I, I turned to the first page and read the whole thing again.

I should have done it for Austen’s Emma as the book was utterly altered once I realized I had missed Frank and Jane’s engagement like everyone else but Mr (George) Knightley (and who knows what Mr John knew), but it was an assigned book, the revelation took place before the ending and had time to wear off, and I didn’t love the book the way I had MP, nor had I been gripped in the way of Rachel and now this. (Emma is too lengthened out at its close, and then made too benign.)

So, Affinity turns on itself to reveal to us that Selina Dawes is a fraud. The book had been written and worked up so carefully that the author has the reader believing Selina Dawes things turn up in Margaret Prior’s room and half-expecting Selina to break out of her prison magically like the lady in St Agnes Eve (Keats’s poem), whose central stanza about this is quoted. Water plays with our willingness to suspend our disbelief in a gothic novel and our experience as readers of gothic.

Like phantoms, to the iron porch they glide,
Where lies the Porter, in uneasy sprawl.
By one, and one, the bolts full easy slide,
The chains lie silent on the footworn stones,
The Key turns! and the door pon its hinges groans ….

It’s a kind of trick on us. We say, of course she couldn’t. What happens is Selina tells Margaret she will come to Margaret’s room and they can fly together. Margaret so good, buys tons of clothes, pulls out 1300 pounds from her account and waits. Selina does not come. What a harrowing night we spend with Margaret. We come to the prison where astonishing to the prison people Selina has escaped. All suspect Margaret as the releaser and tell her they will prosecute her — until they see her and then half-credit that she knew nothing. She runs home horrified without seeing Mrs Jelf (the one kind guard) who is (she is told) off for the day. Mrs Jelf is on her doorstep hysterical. Mrs Jelf enabled Selina to escape, it was a plot between them. For months Selina has been enabling Mrs Jelf to see her dead baby and we get this harrowing story of Mrs Jelf’s life. Like so many middle-aged women who have this dull caretaker jobs strictly disciplined (remember the governess in Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley) Mrs Jelf has a miserable past where she married badly, had a lover to compensate, a child out of wedlock, and in her case it died. Selia promised Mrs Jelf she’d take Mrs Jelf to her child. No such thing. It seems Vigers, the maid upstairs was the go-between (Selina did tell Mrs Jelf this) and suddenly Margaret realizes how she got all that magical stuff. She thinks back.

We get a piece of diary and suddenly we realize Peter Quick (who is meant to be Peter Quint) was real, Selina’s accomplice and maybe they did kill the people at the opening and Selina deserved to go to jail. We have to surmise that Vigers (Margaret’s apparently selfless completely devoted maid) will be dropped (killed?) and Quint and Selina escape wit money and expensive clothes to Italy. Margaret at first runs to a policeman to tell but then realizes she will be put in that terrible prison.

The book ends with a piece from Selina’s diary that is the next day after the opening piece.

But it’s not a stunner that is unexpected quite. Like Austen’s use of Mr Knightley (again George), we had some inklings. Margaret’s mother does go off on a trip without her and we see in a way she does mean well — mostly because the mother reveals Margaret has control of her money. Margaret’s brother, Stephen, husband of Helen, is shown for the first time in the book and we can see how these well-meaning heterosexuals mean well by Margaret; we see Helen, the sister-in-law’s concern. At the bank when Margaret pulls out that 1300 pounds we begin to worry about her. Will she be broke ever after? We begin to worry that Selina is somehow exploiting Margaret unconsciously and the relatives are right: this is a mad scheme to escape together as Margaret is emotionally unstable.

A whole other outlook, the conventional one is laid open as not unreasonable if you just accept (and big just) that there is this blindness towards same sex sexual love — which to Stephen, for example, is unthinkable. He does not imagine he has deprived his wife of anything.

I was away and after all free of usual obligations with not as many books as usual and in fact I reread the first section. It came out very differently, and I saw for the first time a group of parallels with Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, which had the effect of increasing my sympathy for the governess but asking myself if I was being one-sided.

It is a story of betrayal: Margaret Prior by Selinda Dawes, but also Margaret by her mother, her sister-in-law; Mrs Jelf by Selina; Vigars probably by Belinda. Have we paid enough attention to Peter Quick (Quint): quite enough to know the society will sympathize with him in any quarrel.

Waters is a great historical fiction of our era. The panel I chaired (very nervously) at this past weekend’s EC/ASECS on historical fiction which I have must carry on with, studying it in many of its verisimilar and self-reflective forms.

Ellen

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