Archive for the ‘Autobiographical’ Category

Bridget Jones (Renee Zellweger) and Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant) on their first night together: he’s lying about Darcy at the dinner, and later they have sex (Bridget Jones’s Diary, 2001)

“New Presbyter is but old Priest writ large” — John Milton

“the progress of reformation is gradual and silent, as the extension of evening shadows; we know that they were short at noon, and are long at sun-set, but our senses were not able to discern their increase” — Samuel Johnson

Dear friends and readers,

Since I read on WMST-L a thread on a debate that has been taking place over “hook up culture” (see, e.g., Sandy Doyle’s reply, “The Boyfriend Myth”, to the reactionary Caitlin Flannigan,“Love, actually”, both in The Atlantic), I’ve been considering writing about “hook up culture” here on this blog.

The immediate prompting comes from my having on the same evening as that thread on WMST-l occurred spoken with a woman not far from my age (she must be in her 50s) and also white (race as well as class matters here) who told me of her daughter’s experiences going clubbing with the daughter’s friends whom this woman described as enjoying slutty-mean behavior. The woman said these young women think nothing of picking up or being picked up at a dance by a young man, going off with him, and having sex that night, with no expectation to meet again. They dress sexily to help this happen and regard it as a “good time.” They also were said to enjoy dancing with homosexual men, leading them along, pretending to want to dance, perhaps go out (and I suppose have sex), when they were just laughing at them. The woman said her daughter was appalled at this superficiality and shallowness. She also said she was aware that this is the way young women get to go out with, meet young men, and if one didn’t at least engage in this culture (even if with self-control), one would never go out with a boy (unless maybe you met on the Net). She never used the term “hook up culture,” but she meant the same thing that Flannagan, Doyle and the women on WMST-l were talking of. (See Gwen Sharp’s “The Promise and Perils of Hook-up Culture” in Sociological Images).

I thought of my own experiences in the later 1950s and early to mid-1960s and I told her at that time casual encounters were not uncommon — though if you told anyone you would be in danger of being labelled “tramp” and ostracized; you could also become a target of “enterprising” (aka nasty) males. In place of modern clubbing, we did go on dates, but one date could include a casual encounter. And casual encounters could occur as a result of meeting at school, going to park and for walk, in fact easily over the myriad ways people meet one another casually. I also told her of how my older daughter would take my younger daughter clubbing with the older one’s friends, and that the younger one disliked it, perhaps for the reasons this woman’s daughter did. That I find young women students come to me to confide and talk and I’ve found a number telling me about their dismay and conflicts at the experiences they’ve had clubbing. Interestingly, even Islamic or Muslim girls have told me they experience pressure to dress western style (from their mothers!) and go clubbing with friends who dress western style. As a humane teacher who is open to talk about these areas when they come up in my classroom (and they do, mostly in classes where I assign fiction or memoirs) I find that occasionally a girl will come to me with a composition or book to discuss from the class and we end up (especially if we meet a few times) talking about such central experiences for them (whether they realize this or not) in the space I am given to sit in in a large adjunct room.

I went on to say to my woman friend that the difference between today and the 1950s/60s is that nowadays in public we find young women and men claiming to enjoy it, and then in public one found young women and men claimed it was shameful, something only a despicable slut or tramp would do. It was part of the unacknowledged norm of this culture.

Well, as we know from all the controversy over the unfortunately named “slutwalks,” the word slut has not gone, nor has its cruel power diminished. (See, e.g., “The controversy”, a link round-up, some black women’s response). It’s worth noting we have no word which bad-mouths the young men who indulge in “hook up culture.” I see this phenomena as part of our rape-prone sexual culture, where if a girl manifests reluctance to have sex, but responds weakly or with emotional resonance and tact to his pressure or the pressure of the situation on her she can be raped. If this simple rape is reinforced by a bullying sufficiently distasteful or physically invasive (violent) such that while girl gives in (and perhaps at first in foreplay say experiences some sexual pleasure), she also understands as things proceed she’s being raped and later distressed, shamed, angry, dares to complain, she may be led to want to accuse him. She is then at a terrible disadvantage because the rules of evidence rule her experience to not have been rape unless she reported it right away; and she will find a cold guarded reaction most of the time if she complains when she does right away and very little understanding if she reports it late.

Hook up culture versus love actually made a joke of in the film of the latter name (with a cast who reprise archetypal roles, Love Actually 2003)

So, I’ve been in a quandary whether to blog because the issue is right now a topic of serious debate — because I feared going on for too long and because I don’t want to become too personal – I just may if I can get up the courage and emotional strength; I’ll then put it Under the Sign of Sylvia — and would probably be dismissed by some who bothered to read it (it would not get much readership) as subjective, personal, the priggish and hurt memories of an aging woman. At long last I come out with this (not very original idea) that I agree with both Flannagan and Doyle and think those who say this culture does not exist are wrong; see Jessica, in “Speechifying” in Feministing. I suggest Jessica is saying this in order to defend other of her agendas. Jessica says there is no such thing as hook up culture because she wants to encourage young women to have liberty to enjoy their bodies as they wish and sees any talk about the emotional pain and loneliness the aftermath of such an encounter brings as a kind of unacknowledged conspiracy to return women to the safety of repression. As Doyle says, the boyfriend relationship is no safer from rape and abuse than the passing date (or casual encounter). Of course I am speaking out of my own experience and reactions, but I am also speaking out of what I remember women friends have told me and what I’ve read in countless books and essays by women. As one participant in the WMST-l debate wrote: “Its negative impact on women can vary, but in general it’s not positive.”

All this is so important. It’s a continuing manifestation of our continuing rape-prone culture which puts most young women and some young men at a severe disadvantage, can maim them emotionally for life. I believe part of the stunning financial success of both Bridget Jones movies and the two Bridget Jones’s satiric novels by Helen Fielding is that Fielding and the film-makers after and with her made painful comedy from the predicament of young women and men today who want to have a meaningful more or less permanent relationship, to commit to one another as caring, loving, helping friend-lovers. As with the way the economic public world, so this sexual world allows the worst values to reign: so for Bridget and her girlfriends the problem is “emotional fuckwits” like Daniel Cleaver who use, lie, hurt, desert them; and the ideal they long for is the sensitive faithful Mark Darcy (modeled on anachronistic romancing of Jane Austen’s hero in Pride and Prejudice).

My central point in this blog is a subjective one: it’s this: that it is probably better for the public media to present young women and men choosing this mode because then we can talk about sexual life. When the experience was presented as shameful (and disgusting) and could be and was used to degrade and further exploit young women (or vulnerable gay young men), nothing was gained. No change for any kind of better way could be hoped for. By changing how we talk about this publicly, no matter if a new hypocrisy has replaced the old, we allow ourselves to bring out in to the open the cruelties and abuses of sexual experience of our various societies. Whether something can or will be done to improve life for all I can’t say. I even doubt it (I’m with Andrea Dworkin in thinking that feminism in the area of sex has often made life harder for young women), but we may at least hope (see my Samuel Johnson epigraph). And I say probably for it may be that the “hook up” culture merely shows young women and vulnerable young men at a worst disadvantage than ever. The bullying culture has taken over. The young woman cannot expect to be treated with the respect it takes to ask her out on a date several days before the time of going out; she will not be sought out. She has to seek the young man at a club.

Saskia Wickham as Clarissa fending off a threatened rape by Lovelace

I conclude on the larger or full picture, a rape-prone bullying sexual world: I wrote a paper on Rape in Clarissa, ostensibly about the depiction of rape in this and other later novels of sensibility in the 18th century, but the real urge or impetus to do it was to discuss rape as such then and now. I read literally for weeks and weeks not only non-fiction essays about rape by both sexes, but fictional and memoir accounts of rape — by women or men sympathetic to women. While I did some description on Reveries Under the Sign of Austen of the non-fiction arguments (see my “Michelle Fine’s Disruptive Arguments”), I did hardly any writing on the fiction and memoirs I had read.

Of all these, the contemporary novel-memoir I remember best now is Alice Sebold’s Lucky (she was not killed). Every women should read it. The opening chapter is a graphic account of a brutal assault on the heroine where the rapist comes near to killing her; the last chapter is a short but ample account of simple date rape where the young man bullies his fiancee (Alice’s roommate) into a crude full sexual encounter against a wall. The case is not taken to court because the roommate is not beaten up as brutally as Alice was; Alice witnesses a brutal date-rape where the girl does nothing as she feels she will not be listened to because the boy is her boyfriend and she was not a virgin. Sandwiched in-between we see how she was treated by others (they tried to silence, ignore her and then kept away from her when they could), how she changed inwardly, and what happened at the trial she was courageous enough to go through with. It is still true that it is aggravated assault rape that in western countries gets to court, and even here any circumstance which may be used to arouse the jury or other authority figures’ suspicion that the woman in any way consented that may be recognizable by law, can lead to a not-guilty verdict or dismissal of the case.

Some realities I learned from my research and reading: There is still no large general study of rape or its aftermath as depicted across many novels, though Jocelyn Catty (scholar of rape in early modern plays) shows that women as a group treat rape differently from men. Just covering prose narratives (fiction and non-fiction), where rape occurs and is treated seriously, when you find rape in nineteenth-century novels, outside commentators tend not to discuss the event as rape. For example, one area where rapes are found, colonial texts: in George Trevelyan’s 1868 Cawnpore, a history of the Indian Mutiny or (more accurately) Rising, we read of a woman, Miss Wheeler, giving into her captor sexually to save her life, and then instead of killing herself agreeing to live with him; this is not recognized as rape and the narrator is so uncomfortable he does not give her full name; similarly, Flora Annie Steele in her 1896 Anglo-Indian historical novel, On the Face of the Waters, wants us to see that her heroine, Kate Erlton experiences sex with her husband as rape, but does not make this explicit. One typical example from recent detective mystery fiction must stand for many many: Susan Hill’s disquieting The Various Haunts of Men. The novel elides the rape to concentrate on the murder.

Yet false accusations of non-rape stories circulate widely, and are popular. A modern popular novel turned into a prize-winning film adaptation, Ian McEwan’s Atonement attempts a sort of rewriting of Clarissa where the center of attention is also a false accusation. The wrong man is accused because he is lower class; the effect on a number of my students (with whom I read the book and studied the film) was to create intense dislike of the young woman and her mother who accused the young man, and discuss them as cold vengeful women. The real rapist was hardly discussed, partly because he is a marginalized figure in the book. We also continue to overlook real rape scenes when the targeted victim is a minor character or lower class.

So, gentle readers, hook up culture exists; it’s the latest version of casual encounters and much that occurs is abusive of humane and sensitive feeling and it’s significantly central to common male and female relationships as they originate, carry on, or are ended.

The value of Lynda LaPlante’s Prime Suspect series (starring Helen Mirren) is it repeatedly oncentrates on the violence of sexual relationships in our society, abusive (thriving) men towards weak men and boys as well as towards women.

“Hook up culture” is also a manifestation of the same set of values that gives us crony capitalism at its reactionary worst, the valuing of competition, aggression, triumph over others and effective connections to wrest yet more as success in life (with how much money and prestige things you’ve wrested, how many similarly successful well-connected people you know). And that’s another blog too.


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Miss Eleanor Lavish (Sinead Cusack) from Forster’s Room with a View (Davies’s film)

Dear friends,

This is probably my third blog on Donoghue’s Passions between Women, maybe the fourth in which I’ve mentioned the book. I wrote about it to suggest that Jane Austen, her sister, Martha Lloyd, and Anne Sharp all show a pattern of life that in the era was silently identified as lesbian spintershood; then I wrote about it to discuss liberty and women and suggest that women are answerable with their bodies and it’s this ownership of women’s bodies that precludes liberty; I wrote about how Donoghue made me see Sarah Fielding’s The Governess in a wholly new light so that it made more sense, was more interesting, consistent; finally I mentioned it in my blog on Donoghue’s Slammerkin.

Can there be anything else to say? Yes. Why say it? Because I have a whole bunch of texts to tell the reader he or she should read to re-see in a new vital or poignant way. What Donoghue does do is uncover a long history of evidence that lesbian life has been with us wherever we can find some written records of sex life. We cannot treat it the way we can male homosexual history or sex because we don’t have anywhere near the direct evidence, but through the persecution and silencing a poignant human story shows through now and again. She ends on the idea that the history can teach “us” — for she comes out as a lesbian with her use of pronouns at the end — something of how to survive.


Johannes Vermeer (1632-75), Maid and Mistress

Let us begin with the familiar theme of maids and mistresses, and what do we find? We are made aware of the inadequacy of the typical representation of the maid and mistress where the maid gives up all, even her life to the mistress without any qualm or resentment.

I feel I had not read Defoe’s Roxanne before — though I know I did (in a graduate class where we wrote about it). I have little memory of it, but don’t remember it as a story about a maid, Amy and her mistress, as a pair of partners struggling through life where one must ever be a prostitute to support the other. We see Roxanne use Amy, when things go badly Roxanne accuse Amy of being a devil who seduces her. The class distinctions melt as they turn into an “economic double act” with Amy the manager and Roxanne the goods sold.

What destroys them is Amy’s excessive concern for Roxanne – but also her own safety. Amy had previously pushed Roxanne’s children off on relatives (shades of Moll Flanders) and one day a grown daughter, Susan, shows up; Susan threatens to expose the mother, Roxanne and Amy plots to kill Susan. At first Roxanne is horrified, and Amy retreats from this solution, but as time goes on, Amy does indeed murder Susan. Roxanne throws Amy out, but it’s the loss of Amy Roxanne cannot get over, and Donoghue says the novel peters out in confusion — I do remember it just moving into a kind of shorthand drivel and ending.

Johnson’s Rasselas? A rare telling of a close loving friendship between maid and mistress is Johnson on Pekuah and Nekayah where Nekayah saves Pekuah from a life of concubinage after rape. Nekayah sinks into an intense depression and a big ransom is paid to get Pekuah back for Nekayah. Johnson does punt by saying no rape really took place after all. I had never considered them in a lesbian light either.

Then there’s “Unaccountable Wife” by Jane Barker in Patchwork Screen for Ladies. As read by Donoghue turns out to be a story like that of The Duchess of Devonshire, Lady Elizabeth Foster and the Duke (see blog on Amanda Foreman’s biography): two women having a lesbian relationship while both of them go to bed with the Duke too (separately I suppose). What happens is the wife begins to do all the housework and after a while refuses to go to bed with the husband while her maid gets pregnant by him and does no work. It would seem to be a story of a servant beginning to dominate the mistress, only the servant is eventually thrown out and the wife stays by her side supporting her in the most menial of ways. Janet Todd in her book on women’s friendship in literature read as the exploitation of a barren neurotic wife by her servant. I agree that’s not adequate if you consider all the parts of the story.

If Donoghue is right, I have to go back and reread Betty Rizzo’s Companions without Vows where she shows how power corrupts and given unqualified power over someone else it’s the rare person who does not abuse it — whether mistress, maid or master.

Donoghue finds and praises the few stories where real conflict between maid and mistress is seen – or between upper and lower class woman. I’d say that Austen’s Emma takes advantage of this convention that the lower class women is all gratitude — and only at the end of the story has Harriet irritated and moving away and never does deal with what must have been a residual of deep resentment in Jane Fairfax. We only get her gushing. It might be Emma’s blindness but we are not encouraged to read the last encounter between Emma and Jane that way.


Emma (Romola Garai), Anna Taylor Weston (Jodhi May), Harriet Smith (Louise Dylan) (Sandy Welch’s Emma)

Let’s backtrack from this to sentimentalized treatments of true friends. Donoghue’s treatment differs here because she considers pairs of women where things did not go smoothly, women who differed a lot. These are mostly famous and not-famous pairs of women friends who left letters.

I’ve mentioned in the previous blogs Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill’s story: the great irony is that Anne and Sarah have come down in memory as the lesbian pair, when it was Abigail Masham who won Anne finally and the story one of betrayal and pressure from impingments of other status, prestige, money circumstances. Also how Charlotte Charke’s long-time partner, Mrs Brown is just ignored even to today so the memoir is misrepresented.

Poignant is the section on Mary Astell: apparently she could not get close friends to reciprocate and would tell herself this was God’s punishment on her for not begin content with him. Finally she meets Lady Catherine Jones and she is so overjoyed to find someone who does not find her unlovable. Jones was wealthy and became a lifelong friend and patroness. In fact in her old age Mary Astell might have ended up horribly but for Jones taking the the sick woman (she got breast cancer) into her house and providing nursing.

Also The Memoir of Sophia Baddeley. Written by her long-suffering, loyal friend, Elizabeth Hughes Steele, the story is one of what happens to women whose passions the society deforms and will not honor or respect, to women who the society also encourages to be masochistic. Baddeley kept latching onto male “keepers’ who would beat her, and savagely; then she’d retreat to Mrs Steele (who also married and had a child). They have terrible rows and are finally parted. With Elizabeth what matters is a resistance to heterosexuality. The unhappy Elizabeth died young of consumption (37). I’d now like to read this one.


Jane (Samantha Harker) and Elizabeth (Jennifer Ehle) turning to one another (1995 P&P, by Davies)

A third grouping: Sincere and Tender Passions . Anne Damer as a lesbian artist and Elizabeth Farren fit in here (since Donoghue’s Life Mask) What distinguishes Donoghue’s treatment is she also quotes letters from contemporary people who recognized the sapphism; that includes Mrs Thrale. We also see how much competition from other women Damer had with respect to Elizabeth Farren. A chasm of mistrust was easy to start up since the society was so against these alliances (pp. 139-42).

Donoghue often quotes Fielding’s The Governess in this part of the book in passing: there is a book about a girls’ school. I was startled to see Lady Pomfret, a familiar (to me in the letters I had access to) dullard, a friend of Lady Hertford. I remembered that Lady Pomfret left three thick volume of these dull missives. That I had xeroxed a bunch and was disappointed when I finally took them home. I wondered if I xeroxed the wrong ones. Maybe. But now I see they are censored and why Lady Pomfret wrote so much to Lady Hertford and so insistently.

Frances Seymour Thynne, Lady Hertford and Henrietta Louisa Jeffreys Fermor (I mention all her names so we won’t get her confused with someone else), Lady Pomfret were faithful correspondents for years and this verse epistle (a favorite with me) is from Lady Hertford to Lady Pomfret:

We sometimes ride, and sometimes walk,
We play at chess, or laugh, or talk;
Sometimes besides the crystal stream,
We meditate some serious theme;
Or in the grot, beside the spring,
We hear the feathered warblers sing.
Shakespeare perhaps an hour diverts,
Or Scott directs to mend our hearts.
With Clarke’s God’s attributes we explore;
And, taught by him, admire them more.
Gay’s Pastorals sometimes delight us,
Or Tasso’s grisly spectres fright us:
Sometimes we trace Armida’s bowers,
And view Rinaldo chained with flowers.
Often from thoughts sublime as these,
I sink at once – and make a cheese;
Or see my various poultry fed,
And treat my swans with scraps of bread.
Sometimes upon the smooth canal
We row the boat or spread the sail;
Till the bright enveing-star is seen,
And dewy spangles deck the green.
          Then tolls the bell, and all unite
In prayer that God would bless the night.
From this (though I confess the change
From prayer to cards is somewhat strange)
To cards we go, till ten has struck:
And then, however bad our luck,
Our stomachs ne’er refuse to eat
Eggs, cream, fresh butter, or calves’-feet;
And cooling fruits, or savoury greens
‘Sparagus, peas, or kidney-beans.
Our supper past, an hour we sit,
And talk of history, Spain or wit.
But Scandal far is banished hence,
Nor dares intrude with false pretence
Of pitying looks, or holy rage
Against the vices of the age:
We know we were all born to sin,
And find enough to blame within.
(written 1740)

Now these women were married so they had “cover” and a rich fulfilled life in other ways too. Lady Hertford was especially close to her son whom she did not send to public school but educated at home herself, and he grew up to be a fine sensitive well-educated man. Bi-sexual women.


Florence (Jodhi May) and Nan (Rachel Stirling) in Tipping the Velvet (novel by Sarah Walters, movie by Andrew Davies)

The penultimate section of Donoghue’s book is titled: What Joys are these? — Donoghue proposes to pay attention to all those scenes in erotic novels where women are having sex with other women: these are usually ignored. She argues that one quality in most of them which distinguishes them is that the two women do not punish one another where later pornography usually shows the women punished severely and humiliated.

I know I was surprised by the lack of violence and punishment in Cleland’s Fanny Hill. The punishment of Suzanna in The Nun came from her refusing to become a nun, not her getting involved sexually with the mother superior, from her refusing to obey not what she did sexually. There is a scene in Les Liaisons Dangereuses where Madame de Merteuil pleasures Cecile. I too have been guilty of ignoring it.

The first pairs of active lesbian lovers that have been overlooked by readers are gotten by reading against the grain passages mocking and ridiculing women: for example, in Richardson’s Pamela, Mrs Jewkes’s attacks on Pamela — it is true that Pamela evidences a very unladylike knowledge of what Jewkes attempts. Donoghue then moves on to Anthony Hamilton’s Memoirs of Count of Grammont: a more unpleasant book shaped by a set of nasty attitudes I’ve never read — I do have a copy and have tried it more than once. I fully believe and would have noticed had I gotten that far that there are lesbians who are mocked and burlesqued, humiliated as fellow rakes to males. Madame Merteuil’s experience on the sofa with Cecile comes under here.

It seemed to me the book was returning to the ugly material Donoghue had begun with in her opening section: the earliest glimpses of lesbian in texts are the lurid imaginings of lesbians as women with somehow damaged penises.

I want to tell her, Emma, this is desperate stuff. What joys are these is a good title for this material though. But I admit What interested me in the “what joys are these section” most is how Donoghue never seemed to escape in it from the early ugly salacious kind of texts she began with. It seems until very recently (let’s say Sarah Walters) no one presented lesbian sex as fun, pleasurable, tasteful even. Tales of wooden dildoes (because in print it’s so rare for sex to be taken seriously without a phallus, same sex whippings, and unkind orgies close the chapter. Donoghue says we need to remember much of this is male fantasy: women did not get to write erotica at the time.

So one criticism of her book is it is not sufficiently (hardly at all) informed by 20th century texts. She ought to write a volume 2.


Allan Ramsay (1686-1758), Elizabeth Montagu (1718-1800, painted 1762)

And so we come to Lesbian Communities. Here again it’s a matter of countering an insistence X just doesn’t exist, in this case communities of women who are aware of themselves as lesbian in orientation. Were Jane, Cassandra, Martha and Anne Sharpe aware of themselves that way? If so, how did they read The Governess? Again the books to show as incorrect is Janet Todd’s Women’s Friendship in Literature and Lillian Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. We can’t know for sure.

So it’s a case of Margaret Cavendish’s plays (fantasies though), Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall. She does find a long passage in Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House” celebrating what seems to have been a group life for women which was lesbain at least in feel, texts on nunneries, convents of pleasure, but it must be admitted again nothing historically real … as yet.

Donoghue’s catalogue and examination of texts which show that women did form lesbian communities, active in sex as well as anything else. And it continues to be the case she has to resort to these lurid texts to find this kind of material, specifically a long section in Delaviere Manley’s New Atalantis and Secret Memoirs. And the attitudes evinced of the women towards one another continue to be sort of adversarial, punitive (threats if you break away; she has a number of types of lesbian too: cross-dressing comes up. And the initials of the characters can be linked to real women at the time – at the court, in the theaters. The characters are mostly anti-heroines.

She also repeatedly shows us a scholar who has written or worked on these who denies active sex. Trumbach for example says the women cross dress in order to pass unmolested; in fact her passages quoted show they are trying to make contact by so dressing.

Sources for some of these depictions of lesbian networks are French: Grimm’s famous Correspondence litteraire and semi-pornographic French novels, Histoire d’une Jeune Fille published by Pidansat de Mairobert.

She ends on a long piece on how what the documents show of Sappho’s life (a genuine lesbian or perhaps bisexual life) and the ways she has been presented. Again it has been a matter for most writers of either erasing her active lesbian feelings altogether or presenting them as secondary and overcome (rightly) by her heterosexual romance (mostly a concoction, especially the suicide) which is seen as the right and proper and comfortable thing. Pronouns changed in the two full poems we have (as was done with Shakespeare)

But again in the forefront of respected writers now and again she finds a truthful witness: Pierre Bayle. And outside the mainstream those who write frankly, but alas often derogatory or sneering kind of texts that have this lurid tone or attack Sappho or mock her.


Julia Kavanagh (1824-77), bluestocking spent her life studying women of letters (Davies has a Christine Kavanagh in his film, Room with a View)

Donoghue’s larger point that the reason we have no history of lesbianism is not that there was not one and probably very different in feel from these books is made over and over again. I’d say it was really more like what we find in the Bath bluestocking spinster groups and their texts which however are so severely censored (e.g., Sarah Scott, Sarah Fielding …)

So, gentle reader, the next time you hear the word “spinster” or “bluestocking” or phrases “maid and mistress” and “sentimental women’s friendship,” maybe instead of drawing away from something asexual, tedious, dull, you’ll turn to the texts as richly different.

As to Donoghue’s perspective, it’s deeply somber if you think about the stories the books tell of how women suffered from silencing, controlling them severely, erasing what they wrote or misrepresenting it, and ridiculing and treating as sick a whole subset of people.


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Pandora (Madeline Whiting) — one of the Impressionable Players

Dear friends and readers,

The Capital Fringe Festival — 3 weeks of plays, concerts, events of all cultural sorts — has begun, and we went to the first of six events we’ve chosen for ourselves. It was truly delightful and I recommend even hurrying out to see Pandora written by Shawn and Ann Fraistat, directed by Ann Fraistat and inimitably — with panache, intensity and much body language — performed by the Impressionable Players. As the happy ending was thoroughly announced, I felt myself feeling better about life than I have in quite a while. As the players insisted, there is some good to enjoyed, some hopes will probably be enacted.

The story is super-complicated because they combined the Pandora myth with two vexed romances (these influenced by Shakespearean to witty romantic comedy), a comic power-mad couple, a chorus and did not omit an appearance of a numinous hieratic (and unreasonable) god. Mostly things were frantic, perplexing to the characters and going downhill while most of them meant intensely well. An important source of laughter and pleasure was the language or style of the play: done in modern popular lilting phrases that echoed rhythms of sentences and stances we hear all around us. An ingenious use of minimal props made for more wild semi-realistic (in the classic play sense) fun. I suppose the modern genre the piece belongs to is farce.

Important were the continual allusions to today’s pop culture, sometimes by references — like zombies — but often by what was literally done or said or felt. Jim’s favorite joke was the final one from Chorus: he’s going to open a restaurant. Which gets me to what at the core made for the odd delight and suspense: in various ways what was happening and said was continuously slightly wacky. We were ever slightly off-base, all the characters oddly lunatic in a modern turn kind of style. Poor Eris (Katie Jeffries), the girl in love with Nikodemos (Jayma Bell, a virtuoso performer, he also did the gods) was terribly upset that her lifelong devotion to Niko was going for nothing as he suddenly preferred to marry Pandora (the group naif). The way Eris talked about her life and need for this marriage reminded me of Bridget Jones, except (alas) at the end she underwent a kind of comic ritual humiliation (yes ladies and gentleman that was not skipped) where she almost drowned. Saved by the non-macho very dumb but ever-so-sweet hero, Megas (Matt Sparacino) who kept bumping into furniture, Megas seemed to me a fugitive from Four Guys and a Wedding in state of confusion. And so it went. I can’t quite say what angle it was that was making fun of all our norms but I sensed it was continually there while the norm not really overthrown.

On her blog, Russian Roulette, Izzy brought out precisely how this play deviated from the old misogynistic pattern and how it remained a black comedy while insisting that life has some good and hope in it.

From their site online, I could see the group of young adult doing this play are themselves very hopeful and work so hard to make this succeed. How long will such idealism last? What kind of lives will they have individually at last?

Studio theater where the play played is fiercely air-conditioned, so you will be comfortable. Today in Washington DC the air felt hot as one walked, burning on your skin. It was the kind of day where even at 4:30 pm as we walked to the theater I felt were I bread, I would’ve risen. I cannot understand the insistent hypocrisy of people who say how beautiful such a day it is. They know it’s not because they say it while sweating and diving into just such a cooled building. I mention this because last year we saw a few plays in places not just not air-conditioned, but without fans or adequate ventilation. The fringe is done on the cheap.

The walk from where we parked our car (about 3 blocks away) showed us how gentrified this area has become. It was once dangerous and uncomfortably sordid to walk through. Now it is so orderly, clean, filled with circling roads around tiny parks (with monuments and a few benches), and variously picturesque and pompous houses, it becomes too denuded of people. Not Studio theater (I should add): the auditorium for Pandora was chock-full and lots of people were in the lobby talking and drinking. Nor the restaurants all around: they too filled with people.

The atmosphere uptown (so to speak) contrasted with another festival downtown Izzy and I had been to earlier in the day about 2 hours: folk-like along the mall just behind the Smithsonian museum. It was more than a matter of class and ethnicity and taste: it was modern world uptown (with its downsides) and older world downtown (with its).

We met with a group of online friends and were taken around by a curator (very nice) to the three parts of this huge fair: one was made up of little exhibits of what seemed village life in Columbia (South American), one of huge tents of people making very noisy rock and rhythms and blues music (filled with chairs and aisles to dance in), and one which seemed a huge ad for the peace corps which was presented as an idealistic enterprise (one young woman showed us how she made walls with thrown-away plastic bottles) though nowadays to get into it you must have elite connections, spend huge sums, and through patronage take what place you can get even if your education is being thrown away. Izzy told me that Peace Corps women are not protected from sexual harassment or rape. It probably is true that the culture really created by the Peace Corps is an internal one of its own that the people within it experience.

There was also a certain phoniness about the stance as native life is poor, native people exploited (so the crowd if asked individually and were honest might not admire what they see), the objects craft-like matter, but the curator made a good case for respecting the underlying principles of particular exhibits. One on Shea soap was showing us how hitherto once exploited women now run their own factory. But I wondered how many actually do this and how many are still employed at peon’s wages, work in poor conditions and so on.

I grant it’s not easy to come up with visuals in small booths and there were numerous museum type people on hand to explain what we were supposed to understand from what we were seeing. In two years the curator said she and her museum directors are going somehow to embody the struggle of linguists to rescue languages becoming extinct and with them whole cultures. They’ll have to have movies as well as lectures and people in some tents telling inspirational stories.

Worst and best: Izzy and I found the music way too loud and I for one thought the lyrics in the worst possible taste: one man was shouting at us to get a life and there seemed not many options on offer to do this. The place had crowds milling about and all the Metro stations nearby were filled with people. A horse standing in the sun in a kind of sandbox. Best: here and there the process by which some product we use daily was shown us. Here and there some lovely object — like carved small guitars. The apparent idealism of some of the people.

I did understand why Izzy felt depressed as we got onto the station. It was on the whole disillusioning. These festivals began in the 1960s (Kennedy’s presidency) around the time the Peace Corps was invented. The festival is probably intended to foster pride in DC communities, respect for other cultures than the middle class capitalistic white. From the aspect of US foreign and domestic policy it doesn’t succeed. What should have been done was massive aid genuinely directed at the individual peoples of the world, a stop to the ugly repressive militarism, and within the US genuine spread of socialist reforms. There were a few during Johnson’s presidency: the civil rights act, medicare and medicaid. (Probably a pittance had gone into setting up this festival.) We see today the pests who run congress doing all they can to destroy whatever does genuine good for wide groups of people in order to make a tiny minority super-rich and powerful. (Imagine a country where a group of loud-mouthed nasty pests get in charge of the center of power and proceed to do all they can to destroy the prosperity and liberty of over 90% of the citizens and you have the US today and its Republican congress. Why do the majority of the citizens not put them in jail? Jim’s response was many countries have pests in charge. Pest was Thomas More’s term [he of the Utopia] for soldiers in the Renaissance; he said the type personality who goes in for this are among the evils of human nature that ruin life for everyone else.)

So, an active day where I was glad to met up with a couple of familiar faces, experienced some reality checks, and was rejuvenated by remarkably intelligent well-done art, but also had a salutary reminder why I value my quiet peaceful home and life and (whether anyone would agree with me or not) feel I’m doing constructive meaningful work. We drove home, brought in Chinese food, and sat with wine and had good talk, mostly about the Pandora and other Greek myths afterward.


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Leon Cogniet (1794-1880), The Artist in His Room at the Villa Medici, Rome (1817)

Dear friends and readers,

The Admiral (aka Jim) and I returned this afternoon from a two day interlude in NYC of nearly non-stop delightful (really) visits and talk with friends, a birthday party, walking in Manhattan and Central Park (whenever it was in the way we went through or at least into a path), time in galleries (Neue Galerie on 86th to see an exhibit of startlingly sexually candid and disquieting Viennese art, circa 1890 to 1920ish), time in the Met museum, bookstores. During lulls on trains, the subway, when I couldn’t sleep at first from excitement and anxiety and generally (as I usually do) to keep my mind calm, I absorbed myself by reading Elizabeth Von Armin’s Enchanted April, finished an unfortunately nowadays unsung masterpiece in the Ivy Compton-Burnett vein, Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes and then Winston Graham’s nineteenth century historical novel, Cornelia (on both of which latter more perhaps next week).

This is a brief report on the exhibits we saw — whose centrality in most of my travel accounts I excuse by saying I am a lover of pictures. Maybe that’s why I so love films too. The Met as ever is overcrowded with people and nooks and crannies of unexpected new and rearranged art. The most memorable is Sabine Rewald’s (doubtless the daughter, granddaughter or niece of the great scholar of impressionism, John Rewald) Rooms with a View, several rooms filled with pictures which include windows. It is an odd exhibit. It is described by her and elsewhere as inspired by her love of Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) and his imitators, e.g., George Kersting (1785-1847, Woman Embroidering by a window) and Carl Gustave Carus (1789-1869, Woman on a Balcony) and as about views seen through windows in Romantic painting. The lead picture plus the blown up ones at the opening and end of the exhibit are of characters looking out a window:

However, most of the pictures instead show characters resolutely ignoring the view (one is even titled that) or for the most part oblivious to it except as the sun provides some light on their work (as in Leon Cogniet’s above). Funnily some of the pictures show the windows covered up by curtain. viz.,

Adolph Menzel (1815-1905), The Artist’s Sitting Room in Ritterstrasse (1851).

In some we are to see the artist is wasting time looking out, most of those having views show unreal perspectives because it’s most unlikely that the window would be so beautifully squared on just the picturesque angle we repeatedly see. Most appear wholly unself-conscious of this falseness; a rare witty exception is

Martin Drolling’s (1752-1817) Girl Tracing a Drawing (undated, early 19th century)

where it’s still not clear that we are to realize what we usually see through windows in paintings is artificially set up. Many of the pictures have windows because rooms do have windows. It is also disturbing that not one picture is by a woman though windows in pictures are so common in women’s paintings as to constitute an obsession, a melancholy sort of joke about how a woman looks out on the world through her enclosed environment,

Jane Freilicher (b. 1924), Casement Window (1974)

To be fair, Rewald acknowledges the woman’s angle in her lead picture, and she does show an interest in paintings sheerly of windows (many of her photos and studies of paintings are of windows, particularly when painted by Friedrich) and some of the views captured are original in feel, not pastiche,

Friedrich Wasmann (1805-86), A View of the Campagne (1832)

What puzzled me and Jim was how nothing was sorted; all the different motifs or types just higgledy-piggedly as if to distract the viewer from perceiving the contradictions and absurdities in the chosen paintings.

Among other pictures viewed a the Met we loved a room of very late 19th to early 20th century art, much of which we’d never seen before, neither impressionistic or anecdotal, not falling into any school at all. We tried to like the pastel portraits of the 18th century and did, but since most of the pictures were of people we’d probably have rightly disliked intensely in life (arrogant aristocrats flattered excessively), we were not bothered that we had to hurry through.

The Neue Galerie is the first private gallery we’ve ever gone to. Countless museums, many small, and we were therefore a little disappointed since the permanent collection was not on display. Jim is taken by the Vienna 1900 art and we stayed quite a while looking at Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele (see a sample). I agree they are important as breaking down taboos that uphold systems of privilege and power, that make for unhappiness through repression, and I did love the landscapes,

Schiele, Town Among Greenery (1917)

But some of the pictures of women masturbating, the complete absence of women artists and focus on genital sex, the harrowed imagery of trauma, distress, derangement, and cruelty were not exactly pleasant. I am not keen on gilded designs and abstractions either. In short, I would not have liked to own any of this and had no desire to buy a book, though I acknowledged that the choice of art books and literary accompaniment in the book store showed great care and money had been spent in putting together a learning experience. I could have bought myself a hard-to-get Zweig short story volume, Rilke’s poems, histories of Weimar. Instead I bought at the Strand (hurrah still going strong apparently) the book of the exhibit of Open Windows even if much less intelligently put together.

What else can I celebrate? My friend’s birthday party in Brooklyn took place in a non-pretentious restaurant in far Brooklyn (the stop on the BMT, the Q train, was Avenue U), with good food: 3 hours of good talk, a time filled with warm feeling among friends. I learned a lot about Brooklyn! We had two yummy meals with good friends originally met here on the Net, one brief phone call. As ever Central Park is this pastoral place fiercely protected by the Conservatory so as to be both beautiful and a public playground, picnic, idyllic exercise haven. Even the subway had its charm. I cannot recommend the Hotel Wales where we stayed: while the hotel is respectable, i.e., safe and quiet and mostly comfortable, the room was so small for the price we paid, it felt like a dark closet, and I couldn’t sleep the first night also because of the noise made by an inefficient window air-conditioner, but it was in a convenient part of town for us. One of our friends lives in an apartment from which we could view much of Manhattan around it, to the old fair grounds of Queens, the river and beyond. I began for the first time to “get” Starbucks. A place where you can wind down to appropriate music, drink coffee and consult your laptop as you watch the people around you and going by the windows of the store.

We did acquire a few new books beyond the Rewald’s Rooms with a View: Daphne Du Maurier’s Cornwall fantasy landscape, Castle Dor, two keepsakes from friends, L. I. Davis’s A Meaningful Life and a paperback single volume edition of Jocelyn Harris’s edition of Richardson’s Grandison (handy for working with on a paper and bringing to conferences).

I did feel the old urge to want to return to live in NYC. A fine place to live but hard to visit is my motto. It’s so vast with so many places with interesting things to see, hear (lecture series, concerts galore) and stuffed to the gills with people that one gets a healthier perspective on life than in a suburban homogeneous limited environment. We also have friends there and think we could make more and be much happier therefore in this environment. Izzy might find a rich life for herself there. Alas, we don’t have the money to repeat the kind of home we have here (Izzy would probably not have the same lovely airy large room with picturesque view), and most of one’s time is spent in one’s home. Still we said we’d think about it again …

And now to settle down to watching my two-hour version of Frederick Wiseman’s brilliant rarely happy documentary, Central Park (downloaded for me by Jim from Pirate EBay).

The first shot of the movie, accompanied by pleasant off-beat jazz


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

Dear Friends and Fellow Readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Autumn Maneuver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday night into Friday morning

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Frank Currituck Benson 186201951), Currituck Marshes, North Carolina (1926)

Dear friends and readers,

A brief seasonal blog: tonight in Alexandria we are experiencing the kind of cold that threatens the life of anyone who has to spend the night out in it. I did finish and sent off my paper on the film adaptations of Anthony Trollope to the editor of the coming volume, Adaptation: British Literature of the Nineteenth Century on Film: the title of mine is “Prologomena to a study of film adaptations of Anthony Trollope and Victorian films: the 1974 BBC Pallisers.” Whew!

I start teaching again on Monday, a one-day schedule again, though not as long as last term. I have but two sections this term, one in Advanced Comp in Natural Sciences and Tech, and the other Advanced Comp in Humanities. If you click on the links, you will see the times, places and my booklists as well as the plan in the syllabus for the course. I’ve added a new student model: “The Common Prejudice against Men as Nurses has got to go!”

I have no new books for the Natural Science course but I do have a new experiment: I’m going to screen film The Constant Gardener by Mereilles (from LeCarre’s novel) but instead of asking the students to read the fat book, I’ve ordered the screenplay. I think it may work better for most students and the screenplay book has good essays on the drugs company’s appalling amoral behavior and Africa. I am doing a new book for Advanced Comp in Humanities: Andrea Levy’s Small Island (together with the film); so now with Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake I need no longer feel my list of books is so white European I’ve decided to take the leap and instead of assigning books on children’s literature (Mason’s Girl Sleuth) and about reading as a significant experience (Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Teheran), I’m going to do a brilliant (wonderfully rich) children’s books, Randall Jarrell’s The Animal Family, and a book I’ll present as a girl’s coming of age book (Austen’s Northanger Abbey — see my “A Refreshing approach: a fun experience”) and a book I’ll present as a popular historical romance in the male mode (Graham’s Ross Poldark). So now in the class we’ll be going in search of lost time to semi-popular literature too.

There were sufficient changes to make me have to change many links on my online library for my students, especially for Randall Jarrell, Andrea Levy and Winston Graham. All new texts linked in. Older now irrelevant texts removed.

I begin my teaching work tomorrow. Right now I’m working on my review of Mary Trouille’s Wife Abuse in 18th century France, and keeping up watching movies in the evening. I have not made up my mind whether I will try to write a paper on historical novels (Graham’s Poldark novels) for the EC/ASECS next fall or not. I do so want to return to my book, “A Place of Refuge: the Austen movies” and was not able to this Dec/Jan because I did the Trollope paper.

So readers and friends, that’s where I am tonight. My title comes from James’s Washington Square. I am working hard tonight at accepting our — the Admiral’s, Izzy’s and mine, not to omit out two cats, Clary and Ian’s — lot. I’ve framed this with a natural world picture and a city poem.

*Friday Night at the Royal Station*

Light spreads darkly downwards from the high
Clusters of lights over empty chairs
That face each other, coloured differently.
Through open doors, the dining-room declares
A larger loneliness of knives and glass
And silence laid like carpet. A porter reads
An unsold evening paper. Hours pass,
And all the salesmen have gone back to Leeds,
Leaving full ashtrays in the Conference Room.
In shoeless corridors, the lights burn.
How Isolated, like a fort, it is -
The headed paper, made for writing home
(If home existed) letters of exile:
Now Night comes on. Waves fold behind villages.
– Philip Larkin


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Colin, my fiber optic penguin

Dear friends and readers,

Some people my age have grandchildren, others have great-nieces and nephews: I have two cats and a fiber optic penguin which lights up in a glittery way when I plug him in. I gave him the name I would have given a son had I had one. Colin glitters when plugged in but this does not appear on photographs.

On the other side of endurance tonight. I just gave of myself as a teacher for 3 sets of 2 hours and 45 minutes, 13 hours alogether at GMU.

We are doing Christmas in a small way. As I wrote on Reveries under the Sign of Austen, Izzy and I went to a party for The Birthday (Jane Austen’s of course — coming up on the 15th) where we danced the afternoon away doing patterned 18th century figure dances, up and down the line, in groups of twos and threes. For Snow Reveries (more general) go to Reveries under Austen.

We dare not have a tree again this year. Three years ago the cats attacked what we had (balls, lights, branches) so steadily the tree was wretched looking before New Year’s and they are still so lively. But we did put our white and colored lights out on our bushes in front of our house. We sat them in patterns on top of the bushes so the light seem to come out of the greenery: tasteful and pretty. (At long last we have a safe method: heavy white cord meant for outside, leading through the porch to inside the window and a switch on a panel inside the house.)

I did take Colin down from the attic. At first I thought I’d put him in the screened porch but then I would not see him, and he’d be cold so I have him in my workroom. Outside I fear he’d be stolen and that would upset me.

When my neighbor, Michelle, first gave him to me as a present I sang spontaneously: … Colin, the sledding penguin had a very shiny nose and if you ever saw him, you would even say it glows. All of the other penguins used to laugh and call him names, they never let poor Colin join in any penguin games. Then one foggy Christmas eve, Santa came to say, Colin, with your nose so bright, won’t you guide our sled tonight …

Clary-Marianne not too long ago

Whenever the girl cat, Clarissa-Marianne darts into my workroom she is startled by the lit penguin. She runs away or sits and looks. She doesn’t get to stay in the room long enough to get used to him and begin to investigate.

On the 15th (the Birthday) I will make out my 10 to 12 cards — if I can think of that many snail-mail card friends to send to. I have one cousin and so does Jim to send to.

We have very little to buy and I got it all online. I can’t announce it yet as two of the gifts are surprises for Jim and Izzy. I know Mr Knightley is against surprises, but just this once. For myself I got the DVDs of the Poldark series for the 2 seasons; also Posy Simmonds’s Tamara Drewe and Gemma Bovery.

Ian-Little Snuffy recently

The cold season shows us our cats sitting by the grates. (We have forced heat through grates). In our bedroom the grate is behind a door, and they love to sit in the triangular space between grate and door. Izzy keeps her Italian electric radiator on all the time so her room is cosy warm. Ian snuggles behind her computer and in front of her window on her desk in the sun. Clarissa sinks down amid the blankets near where Izzy sits.

Winter passes.

For The Day we’ll have our token exchange of presents, go to see The King’s Speech (with Colin Firth), eat a yummy meal at Mark’s [non-pretentious] Duck House, and in the evening I’ll watch one Christmas movie — possibly the film adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead (beautiful moving film). Boxing Day we’ll go to a museum (our tradition) and this year it’s a Victorian exhibit: vast, photography at the National Gallery. And for New Year’s we’ve tickets for a Woolly Mammoth show: Neo-Futurists Girl Guides (?), Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, with post-show drinks and snacks afterwards.

The hope is to return to the atmosphere and expectations we had in the years 2001 and 2002. We had gone to Paris in 2000 to erase so many previous Xmases (and had had one of our wondrous times — all three of us in Paris, that last day Izzy stood there intensely looking about trying hard to remember the spot where we stood below where we lived), and in 2001 it worked. I remember 2001 happy in a lovely Chinese restaurant after a good movie, the three of us over a duck (had been fired in front of us). We were at peace last year but not back where we had been.

Still just now we are all set: nothing to dread, it will be just as we expect, nothing to surprise, hurt or upset us …

A lovely late 19th century early 20th century December scene: Luigi Loiri: Paris under Snow

I continue this in a more meditative general vein on Reveries under the Sign of Austen: Snow Reveries


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The Isle of Wight, Alum Bay, UK

Dear friends and readers,

My 64th birthday! Who’d have thunk it? I never thought to last this long and really it’s an accomplishment. Millions have died much much younger. It takes nerve.

And since yesterday (a couple of days now) I’ve had the Beatles’s famous jaunty tune , “When I’m 64 …” And the line: “Will you still need me?” I mentioned this to Jim and the Isle of Wight came up as I sang another jolty ironic line: “We will scrimp and save … ” (make sure your voice goes up and becomes screetch-y at the end of the line). The Admiral rejoined, “If it’s not too dear.” Alas, ’tis. Plane fare you see. Never mind, said I; it’s overrated.

Then to Izzy this morning, “Remember going there the summer we stayed in Sussex in the Duke’s hunting lodge?” At first not, but I reminded her of that noisy bouncing boat that took us over a sort of vaporetto. And taking the bus to Winchester one day (to see from across the street the house where Jane Austen died and to go into the cathedral to see the plaque placed over where she was buried); and on another day a bus to and all about Portsmouth (with a young man as our good-natured guide at the top) and then walking on the ramparts (a Mansfield Park pilgrimage). She laughed. “Yes many houses in rows.”

Still, Fanny Price thought very highly of it …


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Kenilworth, 1575 reconstructed

Dear friends and readers,

As you may know, for the last two weekends I have been away: for 4 days in Portland, Oregon, for JASNA AGM, preceded by the Burney conference, whose topics were the Abbey (NA) and gothic respectively.

Kenilworth, popular 1814 print

And for 1 night, 1 day and 1 morning Pittsburgh, EC/ASECS annual meeting whose topic was “recovery.”

Kenilworth, Sporting Fields photo, early 20th century: an angle & vision used in recent film adaptations of 18th/19th century novels

The topic for the 1212 JASNA AGM in NYC, is “sex, power and money.” Izzy made a good suggestion: why not focus in on the depiction of cities in Austen’s work. Her idea is look at “Sex, Power and Money” in the towns Austen depicts. I can see that; as I think about it, I realize that there is a strong animus against the town; it’s where people are hurt, are betrayed, it’s dangerous; it’s ugly (in Portsmouth), cut off from the natural world and its rhythms.

Another possibility (but not probable) is a paper on Burney’s journals for the Burney conference in 1210 (piggy-backed onto the JASNA).

Having chaired two panels successfully, I’m also thinking of proposing for the next EC/ASECS whose topic will be “liberty” (held in Penn State) a panel on 20th and 21st century novels set sometime in the long 18th and 19th century novel. Of course I want to write a paper on Winston Graham’s Poldark novels. My problem here is I have got to get up a respectable line of argument. Alas, most historical novels are not respected (this is most unlike the 19th century) and seen as romance. So I am trying to gather secondary materials (essays and books) on historical novels in the 20th and 21st century as well as Graham to give me ideas beyond the super-abstractions of post-modern thinking. Christine Clark-Evans, organizer for the coming EC was enthusiastic and open to all sorts of approaches so I’m hopeful I’ll come up with something for real.

She also suggested I send in a second panel call, saying I need not chair that one too. So I’m thinking I could propose applying Isiah Berlin’s conceptions of “positive” and “negative and positive liberty” to 18th century novels and memoirs. I define these (after Berlin) this way: Negative liberty is what you can do after you have counted in all the constraints society and your own needs put on you. Positive liberty is knowing who you are apart from all this from within and seeking to enact it; then when you agree to do what someone else wants in order to get what you want, it can be seen as a freely taken form of acting, not servitude or enslavement. Then one would see how these sub-genres and concepts act out in recent fiction. Is it different for 19th century fiction in the way filming an 18th century book or matter produces a probing of modern familial and sexual pathologies and 19th century social and economic and class issues.

Kenilworth, 1850 photo

I admit developing a new set of routs is a challenge. I am teaching; I have still this (very enjoyable) book on Austen films to write. This project now includes reading about time-travelling, an essential dream that is part of the longing to return to the Austen world and also fuels the films.

I’d like to add a project on Graham and historical novels set in the18th and 19th century novels/memoirs, and read solid (informed, thoughtful &c&C) articles & books (if there are any) about historical fiction in the 20th and 21st century. I’ve read a few on historical fiction in the 19th so this will help, but the subject is not the same at all as attitudes have undergone a sea change. This would be towards the EC/ASECS panel I mentioned above but I’d be doing it for myself. I see that it was his novel, Marnie, upon which Hitchcock’s once famous (if commercially failed) movie was made; and have gotten a superb film study by Tony Lee Moral on the film. I’d learn a lot about film from reading the novel, seeing the film, and reading this book. This would ‘feed’ into my JA movie project.

For further off projects/absorbing work, I met and talked with Gillian Dow (whose paper on Genlis’s Countess of C******** was an argument just like mine: that this gothic is a central source for NA). She told me about a coming 1213 conference at Chawton library which will celebrate the 10 years of this place devoted to women writers of the 18th century. She liked my ideas for a Charlotte Smith paper.

I will really watch out for 1213 Chawton one, and budget that year accordingly. Jim even said, why don’t we try for Cornwall that summer, one week in Hampshire and one in Cornwall following the imagined worlds of Poldark and DuMaurier too (I’m a lover of DuMaurier’s historical gothic novels too).

Not to omit plus read for fun and to join in with other on my listservs.

It feels too much and I might not be able to do it all. I’ll try for I don’t want to give anything up any more: “one cannot have too many holds on happiness” says Henry Tilney. Maybe I ought also to make my motto one of Trollope’s favorite aphorisms (from Macbeth): The labour we delight in physics pain.


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Graham with Angharard Rees (who played Demelza in the original two series)

Perfection is a full stop.
Give me the comma of imperfect striving,
Thus to find zest in the immediate living.
Ever the reaching but never the attaining
Of the mountain top (Memoirs of a Private Man, Book 2, Chapter 11, p. 312).

Dear friends and readers,

I read this book over the weekend I was at the JASNA — in the later evenings when I returned to our room. Thus unlike all the other Graham books I’ve read thus far I don’t have detailed notes from chapter to chapter, but I have managed a blog where I cite the pages of the important sections.

The book is worth while for far more than understanding Graham’s work, especially his historical novels and later mature realistic mysteries.

Winston Graham walking along cliff path, Porth Joke, Cornwall

It exemplifies all the typicalities of a male autobiography (man seizes opportunity, man gets ahead, man is success); rich in content about Graham particularly, his outlook, methods, and about the inspirations and background of the Poldark novels. There are useful sections on historical novel writing, on how he achieved human realism in his later mature mysteries, and much candor about the way deals are made to film books and how this kind of thing is so variously done.

For women the contrast of this Horatio Alger kind of story and say Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Slipstream (which I’m reading just now and is by an author often similarly ignored and who lived during the same era) is instructive. Even more for women, is the long section on his once famous novel (and it’s still in print), Marnie, which Hitchcock made a movie of (and tried to get big stars to come on board but could not). A strongly transgressive female (cold, not all feeling, not caring — we are told on IMDB she has “serious psychological problems”) who fascinated Graham. There’s a long book on The Marking of Marnie (an early film-making type book which analyses film and book sophisticatedly). I’ve ordered it. It’s in this book that Graham is called “an instinctive feminist.”

One interesting element about historical writing which he emphasizes in a more general way than he does in Poldark’s Cornwall is how important geography is to the historical novelist. The historical novelist has to want to visualize, imagine, live in a particular place, unearth and visualize and make it alive, and out of that comes the cultural patterns that people living at that time had to respond to.

So, first as a professional author: Graham’s early chapters include (especially Chapter 3) his long period of apprenticeship: how at 18 he began to write on his own and did not attempt to go to university nor get a job that was unsuited to his temperament or would have used up his time and not allowed him to develop his gift for writing. He was very lucky in being the second son, born much later than the first, to a woman who had sufficient private income to support them both. She could, however, have been intolerant and bowed not only to the norms then and now, but the ridicule heaped on her son for “doing nothing.” He was fortunate in one relative: his father’s younger sister, an unmarried woman, persuaded him not to leave his ms in the drawer, to type it, and then she bound it lovingly in two boards and it was sent to Ward and Lock (publishers of Trollope volumes in the early 20th century).

“Life is not kind — nor is it in any way even-handed (Book 1, Chapter 3, p 38)

From a very young age, he wanted to write (age 5); the writing industry or literary marketplace at the time included many small publishers to whom an author could send manuscripts; if and when, an author was accepted, the contract was simplicity itself. He had actually stockpiled novels (novels he had written and not sent out) and was able to keep up attention to himself by sending along a novel quickly after the first to be published, and one after that. He was reviewed in big dailies and locally. This is a modest chapter as he does not praise what must have been gifts to draw positive attention to himself.

Later in the book we see how he was picked up by Book-of-the-Month club after he had written Marnie and that book had been filmed by Hitchcock.

On the set of Marnie: Hitchcock, Tippi Hedren, Graham

He calls himself “the most successful unknown novelist in England’ (p. 117); the first choice was a historical novel, The Grove of Eagles (Cornwall, 16th century). Although not personally known as a name until the film series, Poldark, his books sold widely and it was certainly noticed by publishers, and once he was one of the Book-of-the-Month club choices among the non-chattering classes his “name” spread. We see how step-by-step his career built: from his abilty to socialize easily and make friends, to his Poldark novels being picked up by film-makers who persisted in wanting to make a film series (comparable to Gone with the Wind he says — that is, a historical saga), and how through several successes (selling modern mysteries, US Book-of-Month-Club, Poldark novels and films, Hitchcock films), he got into groups of people who led him to join a London club, the Savile (p. 112), where he met the finest authors and minds of his era.

List of his novels

List of films

Graham in the coast guard, 1941

Second, as the autobiography of a male. It follows (almost uncannily if you know it) the outline of Trollope’s autobiography: obscure boy of a fringe-genteel family makes good. Underlying the book is the idea that opportunity strikes and it’s up to the individual to seize and make the most of it, or should I say a series of such opportunities strike, and the individual must be both quick and lucky to take what’s coming and then he succeeds. Like Trollope’s (and many other life-writing by a man) we hear almost nothing of his wife (Jean) and lo and behold he is suddenly marrying her; we are for long stretches (especially the early years of the marriage), told little of their inward intimate private life together except exemplary statements (like she was ever cheerful, it was she who supported them at first by her abilities as a landlady), and he never says much at all about his children, except to name them, and indicate they are around now and again, tell their marriage dates and children when it seems the chronology fits. He tells of his early visits and then life in Cornwall and how and why the place meant so much to him, and how important geography is to the imagination of the historical novelist (who is a romancer after all).

Winston and Jean Graham, later in life, on a Cornwall beach

Women’s autobiographies (of which I am reading one just now, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Slipstream) tell of the intimate details of who their husbands are before they marry them, how they come to marry, their children’s lives, and the structure is not one of opportunity knocked and see me on my Pegasus soaring, but a cyclical structure, repetitious, with much beyond the writing life meaning a great deal and brought out explicitly as central to characters and stories in the work. By the end of the book when Graham has told of his continual traveling (there’s a list of places and times went comparable to Trollope’s list of sums made), and dropped so many famous names (like Gregory Peck and his wife), his jaguars, if this structure were not the bare bones of a much richer outlook poured into it, the correct term for the book ought to be Memoirs of a Socially networking financially successful writer. The public man not the private one. What he’s private about (but does not lie) is his sexual life and misdeeds and deep misgivings (which two he does not tell — but then as Trollope says which of us has not done mean acts and which of us can bear to tell them).

Graham and his dog, Garrick, named after Demelza’s dog

However, the book is much better than that, and one sign of this is how after the initial phase of Graham growing up, it breaks chronology continually, and jumps forward in time suddenly to explain say his inner life as a writer and his aims in his fiction, feelings about, and thorough descriptions of many different books and how they were written, or filmed, and, occasional sudden eruptions of some of his deeper beliefs about the nature of experience, and how people perceive it – the kind I find in the Poldark novels often attributed to Ross Poldark at particularly disillusioned and bitter moments (Book 2, Chapter 3, pp 178-79).

“I rely on hearsay for everything that has happened in the world before I was born, and the world as I know it, till end on the day I die. When I become part of ‘the dull, the indiscriminate dust’ there is nothing to prove to me that anything will still go on, any more than that anything existed before I opened my eyes and blinked up at my doting parents. Nothing can prove to me that the world and all it appears to contain has an objective reality. I know it has a subjective reality but no more … I burn my finger and I feel the pain. I feel nothing of the horrible pains of a thousand martyrs who have been -. it is said – burned at the stake for their beliefs, or disbeliefs. Even among my nearest and dearest there is no transference — can be no transference — of experience. One can feel empathy for someone suffering, but one cannot feel the suffering. We are all alone — desperately alone.

It’s in these long displaced chapters that the reader sees the sources of the Poldark novels and the later realistic ones, which use the mystery plot-design to keep the reader going but are about believable ordinary people caught up in circumstances of high violence and trauma, guilt-ridden, puzzled, not knowing how to act but acting impetuously (the last two qualities are very much Ross’s), but becoming trapped in a pattern they don’t understand themselves. He also himself describes what he thinks is good novel art, discusses (as he does in Poldark’s Cornwall) the types of historical fiction as he sees them and the demands and skills historical novels require (above all self-control not to dump irrelevant information the author has dug up as part of his immersion in the era), as well as (for him) its rooted nature in a place, geography, and cultural moment. The Poldark series of books meant enormously to him, even before they became the sources for the fame- and money-making TV films. Cornwall where his family went when his older brother looked for a new home outside southern England, where he lived with his family for many years, is central to this preoccupation.

Lamora Valley, Cornwall

It’s also apparent he formed some real friendships with the actors and actresses who played the central roles. Here’s a comic photo of Jill Townsent waiting on the set to be called, smoking a cigarette

Since I did not take notes as I went along (which are in effect) what my weekly postings to listservs really are, I will tell only what I remember best from his direct discussions of the Poldarks as well as (not unconscious but not admitted to) descriptions of his private life, and especially himself and his wife which shed eye-opening light on the novels. In these latter revelations he is like Trollope too who discreetly lets us know (for example) he had liaisons as a young man and casual encounters with women as an older one traveling, and that he loved Kate Field. In a long chapter on his relationships with a group of wealthy artists and patrons, he discreetly suggests female loves (e.g., Book 2, Chapter 2); he gives little vignettes of conversations between himself and his wife later in life which ring with the voices and ambivalence of an intensely bonded-partnership between Ross and Demelza.

In the film series, Robin Ellis as Ross when he first takes Angharad Rees as Demelza home with him

Graham does say at one point Demelza is an idealization of his wife. His tolerance in his novel over Demelza’s adultery with Hugh Armitage (in The Four Swans) can be seen in the broad calm way he does not become enraged and hysterical when his crippled wife is nearly raped in Eygpt by a (hideously) unscrupulous guide. He tells the story simply, making it obvious that in such a place and country they’d have no one to complain too.

Cornwall coastline: long view of where the BBC filmed

There are a number of chapters detailing the writing of the Poldark books, his impulses about them as he went along: Book 1, Chapter 5, pp. 66-90, Book 1, Chapter 6, pp. 97-98 (“Demelza was finished lovingly …”). The Forgotten Story is another historical novel deal with ( Book 1, Chapter 6, p 103); he shows real interest and understanding of film-making in his discussions of (among others, Marnie (Part 2, Chapter 8, pp 138-47),

“Lee describes me in his book as an instinctive feminist. Maybe that is right” (p. 142)

Who else makes marital sex in coerced marriage an occasion for insisting it’s a form of nightly rape. I was (I admit) delighted to learn that at the conclusion of the second trilogy Morwenna is rid of the lout Whitworth and marries Drake at last. Graham knows that the actor playing the part of Whitworth (Christopher Biggs) has a heavy load of association to carry with ordinary naive readers so goes out of his way to characterize Biggs as a remarkably cordial man and his friendship with Jane Wymark (who played Morwenna, the raped woman-wife).

Christopher Bigg and Jean Graham on the set

He also cites Robin Ellis’s opinion that Kevin McNally who played Drake delivered the strongest performances of all.

We learn more details about the inspiration for the Poldark landscape, characters and film-making both of the first series and second and later than we did in Poldark’s Cornwall (Book 2, Chapters 4-8, pp 182-234, 10, pp 279-83). This long section is frank about who wanted to do the series, the companies involved, how the first proposal seemed to be going somewhere and then was cut off, why it was refused when it was again taken up, how the different two series were conceived, and (especially interesting) how the 1995 film while interesting film-making, showed the film-makers and screenplay writer had “a total blind ignorance of what Poldark was really all about” (p. 224). I regret to say that Graham does not go on to say just what that is, but hope my several blogs have outlined sufficiently what some of this is.

It seems a final break came when Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees backed out of the second film because they saw their characters were going to be not only sidelined but made a travesty of. Graham did an interview where he did praise the series (in the hope) that this two-hour trial balloon would not be the only attempt, remembering how he disliked the first episodes of the first series, but it was never published, he thinks because there was a deliberate attempt to sabotage the film as the fan clubs which had grown up around the original series had become powerful. Fan cults are by no means fruitful of good results in writing or the life of the author they purport to celebrate. Graham attributes the failure of this last effort in his life-time to make another series of films on the Poldark novels to insistence of the British producers on following the US model of financial success (and less risk), where what’s favored is a one episode two-hour film; what his novels needed (as he had in the long years of writing) was slow leisured build-up to make their effect. (This, he says, is very different from the art he practiced for his modern books).

In the last chapters of the book he tells of his later modern novels (Green Flash, After the Act) as earlier he tells of Angell, Pearl and Little God (which includes his own criticism, pp 149-56), Marnie (pp 151-55).

All this is rich material for someone wanting to know him too, and he ends his book by saying (very like Trollope) he has not been a bad man (loved his wife and she loved him, did not terrorize, browbeat or woefully neglect his children, never frequented public lavatories &c&c)) and also does not go to literary lunches or advertise his private feelings, ideas and life and need not because

“I have by now written a great many novels, and must through them have surely revealed a fair amount of my own nature and public feelings. Let that suffice.
Tolstoi says somewhere; ‘There is no point in visiting a great writer, because he is incarnate in his works.’ Should this not to some extent be true of the less important writer? Even down to the least important of all” (Book 2, Chapter 11, p. 312).

I love the ending on his philosophy as a writer which I have made the epigraph to this blog. And I much respect and agree with his assessment of what makes a good book and kept his fine: when you do continue to write “with such integrity, it can’t be all bad, and it can’t be all lost”

I don’t know why the website devoted to Graham’s work has a photo of an old typewriter on it. Graham specifically says more than once that he never typed his novels. He wrote them all out in long-hand and his drafts are revisions in long-hand. He feels that he did not feel the life-blood of what he was writing except as it came through his body into his arms. I suppose it’s a case of this continual (and here I must think unconscious) misrepresentation of authors when they don’t conform to the usual. Graham didn’t conform quietly. He liked to think of himself as a quiet non-conformist man — though he was also strongly ordinary (as when he more than once goes on in a negative about homosexuality. He could not have had the continual professional successes he had had he not appeared to conform and that cannot be pulled off so easily in a life as much in public (though his many novels and the films) as his was.

Perhaps after this is a photo of the typewriter used to transfer Graham’s ms’s to readable copy after the long-hand fair copy draft was made. Graham does say early on his aunt urged him to type an early book before sending it off, but he neglects to tell us who his amanuensis (or typist) was in later life.


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