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Tobias (John Lithgow) with his sister-in-law and occasional lover, Claire (A Delicate Balance)

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Henry (Ewan McGregor) with Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), at first his mistress and then his wife (The Real Thing)

I am so much accustomed to be alone — Madame Max, in Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn

Dear friends and readers,

While in NYC I went to two great plays performed greatly. Well, maybe the actors playing The Real Thing needed to project depths of emotions much more, only the highly verbal intellectual continually witty script was in the way while in A Delicate Balance Glenn Close played Agnes with such balance, discretion, strength that one was almost as fooled as she pretended half to be so that I didn’t quite realize their topic was the same thing: deep betrayals and treacheries (only one aspect of which is adultery).

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Agnes (Glenn Close) with Tobias, apparently all serenity if you don’t listen to her words: she opens and closes the play with how she’s about to go mad

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A similar confidential moment between Henry and Annie (The Real Thing)

Happily the plot-summaries and character sketches for both plays are on-line so I need not retell the matter. Both are plays you should read before you go.

I had unexpected experiences in both theaters. I never expected to find Albee Jamesian (all I had seen before was the film of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with Burton, Taylor and Sandy ) but Glenn Close or her director brought this out and a strong unexpected unusual form of feminism: an ambivalent portrayal of the woman who keeps it all in, who will not openly admit to the pain, adultery, betrayal, so she becomes “luminous.” James often emits such solemn and vague or not explicit terms for something some character does we are to admire — at the cost of everything real in her; that darkness is stronger in James than it felt in this production-play. Until now just about all the plays by Stoppard I’ve seen, have had as their central focus, play-acting itself and the theater, or there is a great poet or literary person whose life he is exploring; I’ve also seen farces and he does like to avail himself of a previous work which he rewrites from another angle (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is no aberration).

The Real Thing is directly about the emotional life of a marriage, of two marriages or three depending on how you reconfigure the characters (Henry and Charlotte, Max and Charlotte, Max and Annie, Henry and Annie), and it was done through intellectual battles of wits — it’s hard to see how it becomes popular, but the theater was full and I expect some of that was the name of the playwright and the stellar cast (all young stars, and I heard people recite where they had seen the actor/actress before). People were listening and laughed at the right spots; perhaps it was a more intelligent audience than usual who could see themselves in these characters. I read half-way through the text last night and it is singularly bare of any indication of how the actor should play the part or stage setting. At any rate the characters were continually half-discussing their adulteries, acting them out, judging them, singing about them through 50s pop songs (said to be Henry-as-Stoppard’s favorite music)

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Charlotte (Cynthia Nixon), Henry’s wife at the opening of the play (Real Thing)

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Max (Josh Hamilton), sometimes a “real” betrayed husband and sometimes a character in a play by Henry who is a betrayed husband (Real Thing)

The Real Thing had fine actors: you had to be to convey the complexities of language of the material. Ewan McGregor had the lead role, a surrogate for Stoppard. At first I was thinking as I watched and left the theater, the problem with this The Real Thing about the intense pain one can know in marriage or through the dependencies of love is what is shown is not common, at least among those few people whose marriages I have known something for real about while A Delicate Balance is the more universal.

But then I realized A Delicate Balance also had at its center adulteries casual and long-term and emotional disloyalties about other thing as important (one’s writing and politics in Stoppard’s play, one’s life career and friendships hard to sustain in A Delicate Balance). And I thought about how many couples I know and my own experience of sexual and other unfaithfulness. The real difference is Stoppard treats adultery and bitterness so frankly while Albee keeps them contained (that balance Close maintains — like a Henry James character). I dare say the commoner thing is to pretend in the way of Albee’s characters, not to look or act upon hurt.

At first I had a hard time in Stoppard’s play figuring out what was happening: sometimes the characters were characters in a Stoppard play, sometimes a bad play (of course not by Stoppard); sometimes characters in the reality of the play. But in a tiny first break in the first act I whipped out my trusty cell phone (a handheld computer) and read wikipedia’s summary just as I had in the first full intermission of A Delicate Balance: then for both I could get immersed. Many are the uses of our World Wide Web with its shared worlds. Oh how the loss of net neutrality threatens us in “small” and large ways.

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What was remarkable about A Delicate Balance and made it a comment on The Real Thing is how Glenn Close played the lead heroine deeply sympathetically — as in a Henry James story, we were to admire her as “beautiful” and “tremendous” without being explicitly told that she was holding the whole household together by her magnficient hypocrisy, her act. Agnes as Maggie Verver (I hope my reader has read The Golden Bowl) whose father, Adam, marries Maggie’s prince-husband’s lover, Charlotte (the same name as Stoppard’s heroine) in order to remove Charlotte from Maggie’s prince husband though he likes neither Charlotte nor that prince.

If you read the criticism of the play (and wikipedia) you get a diatribe on Agnes as all repression, and (surely a sign something is seriously wrong) the moralistic rigid Edna who with her husband, Harry has fled her apparent in fear and shows up in Close’s apartment and proceeds to blame and carp and blurt out corrosive rebarbative descriptions of the others (especially Julia, Tobias and Agnes’s many-times divorced daughter, come home once again and wanting her room in which Edna and Harry have taken up temporary residence). Close’s clothes were of peaceful colors (as the guy, majoring in theater who sat next to me and talked to me said), signalling how she was holding the best emotions to the fore in all the scenes luminously (as James might have said), with intense bravery and pain.

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Agnes (Glenn Close) in a rare moment showing how betrayed and bitter and hurt she is, her sister, Claire, having fallen down (she drinks heavily, but maintains she is not an alcoholic, or no more than the others)

Were it not for her fake act, her sister, Claire would be out on the streets, Tobias incapacitated by fear and his own need to support others he calls his friends in order to believe in some good emotion somewhere.

I had chosen to see A Delicate Balance because I so admire Lindsay Duncan in all the roles I’ve seen her in, and I gather she played Claire utterly differently from Elaine Stritch (who did it caustically, a hard caricature of a drunk) and Maggie Smith who was wry, insouciant, amoral. This Claire was warm, witty, appealing, the only one in the room who could comfort Julia.

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Julia (Martha Plimpton), on her fourth break-up (A Delicate Balance)

The “thing” is that it doesn’t help to tell the truth, it doesn’t help to verbalize or articulate in The Real Thing. Similarly there is (seemingly mysteriously) Tobias and Agnes don’t demand that Edna and Harry tell them what has so terrified Edna and Harry that they must retreat to one of Tobias’ and Agnes’s bedrooms, namely Julia’s:

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Harry (Bob Balaban) and Edna (Clare Higgins) (A Delicate Balance)

The characters in The Real Thing achieve their best relief when they put records on of familiar 50s songs — creating a kind of nostalgia in the audience for a comfort that never was. I did find the performance too brittle and the transitions into song awkward. The play is of course about Stoppard (his marriages, his “low” tastes in music, his playwriting) and Henry had the funniest undercutting lines. The characters in A Delicate Balance do once in a while lose it, and we get this great emotional outpouring, but it does not seem to provide much release. The funniest moments were Clare’s (playing an accordion) and Harry’s (Bob Balaban is a remarkable actor, he was inimitable in Gosford Park)

It has been for me a deep treat to go to the theater and really have a deep or thoughtful or exhilarating or grief-striken or funny experience — it was with Jim I first went and he who taught me to go, and where. London has great theater too (and we went when we were there to the National Theater, Old Vic, and RSC especially) — both London and NYC attract the best as best paid and respected; in other cities English speaking you can have greatness too — here in DC sometimes, in London often. (There is a lot of junk in NYC too). Jim would have enjoyed both plays; had he been alive, both are the sort of play we’d have seen together and talked about over drinks afterward.

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Group scenes

I’m aware that readers coming to this blog have wondered why I write the way I do, why I often go on at length, why so many. It’s always been out of loneliness, even with Jim, but when he was here, my blog was prompted by our talk, and after I’d write it, we’d talk about what I’d written. Now I write out to try not to feel so alone in the silence. I trust I am talking to someone who comes here and reads these even if mine are imagined sounds and more than 99% of the time I’ve no idea what the reader is thinking or how responding.

Ellen

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We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art — Henry James

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An English Home, Albert Coburn (1907 illustration)

Dear friends and readers,

I began Gorra’s marvelous book as an alternative read to Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, a kind of companion-match antidote: I felt it was the same sort of book, one which took the reader through a deeply-felt reading experience of a book, in this case James’s The Portrait of a Lady. I discovered that Gorra’s does not pretend to be a semi-confessional autobiography as semi-literary criticism; indeed I learned very little about Gorra’s life, though I did learn how he reacted not only to James’s The Portrait of Lady but many of James’s other books — without any particular references to Gorra’s life, except that Gorra is also American and regards himself as having an American identity (whatever that is). Gorra’s book rather elaborated in how James’s other books and The Portrait fit into James’s private and writing life, into James’s career, and into how James’s readers and critics have seen him since he began publishing and up to the time of his death.

In other words, this is an unconventionally-written biography. Gorra’s can offer insights into James’s life not allowed by most methodologies: his method is to bring together how he feels (impersonally put) about James’s writing, what he Gorra sees, and how James wrote James felt about it with what we know of James’s life from all sorts of angles, some of them drawn from phases of writing The Portrait of a Lady. Gorra weaves a sort of biography where the writer does not have to follow the life history of the subject but can weave in what he or she wants and when, with the justification that well I’m going through associations from this novel. So we skip dull parts of the person’s life and also get new sorts of insight as the material is reconfigured.

We out James in a new way: this is a new sort of biography, one which moves out from one central great book, rather like someone deciding to write Trollope’s biography by intensely going through every detail of say The Way We Live Now or The Claverings — or both together. Mead’s book was not a biography of Eliot in disguise it was “her life” in Eliot

For example, Gorra can’t prove it yet he makes a persuasive case for seeing Isabel Archer and Ralph Touchett as a doppelganger out of the dying Minnie Temple, James’s cousin. Sometimes the method is inadequate: I was much entertained by his reaction to Henrietta Stackpole – only he seems not to know that Stackpole is also an unkind caricature of Kate Fields, beloved of Anthony Trollope, an entertaining travel writer, journalist in her own right.

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Martin Donovan as Ralph Touchett (Portrait)

Another example: Gorra re-sees Isabel’s early refusal to marry in terms of James’s — for James was under pressure to marry; her going to Europe, her choice of waiting to see (Ralph Touchett’s) of being a witness not a doer — all these three are brought together with James’s gayness and made sense of — he is masking himself in Isabel is the point and it’s an interesting one, for else we just do really have another story of the chaste heroine making a bad or good marriage.

He dwells on Madame Merle who emerges upon Isabel getting the money (women has a good nose) and how she stands for a social animal. She and Isabel have a debate with Isabel coming out on the side of that she is not expressed solely or nearly solely by her outward behavior, dress, occupation — as Madame Merle implies. I’ll add that From Daniel Deronda the mother shows one has a self apart which will break away, but Isabel’s tragedy will be she cannot

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Barbara Hershey as Madame Merle (Portrait)

In a section early in the book called the Envelope of Circumstances where Gorra talks almost of himself — at least of an American identity (which often makes me uncomfortable) — he elaborates on the idea that Portrait is unusual in its lack of religion and Gorra says this is true of all James’s work but the ghost stories. I know I like James and feel he is equally European/English (not British)

I much enjoyed the chapter in Gorra after the one detailing all James’s homosexual friends, contacts, strains (“An Unmarried Man”): in “A London Life” he tells of how James came to live in London, that it was no foregone conclusion: he tried Paris first; about an expensive apartment he lived in for quite a while that was well located for theater, plays, making a life of going out to dinners and socializing with the upper class, near enough to publishers and parks. I quite envy James — we also get a strong sense of him supporting himself through writing for magazines and the kinds of texts he was writing to do that. I knew all this but not in this way and Gorra quotes from James’s wonderful thick diary commonplace book so well. He intuitively holds onto and writing about the most astute utterances of James: after G.H. Lewes died, James visited her and described her as “shivering like a person who had had a wall of her house blown off.”

It may be these names of James’s possible lovers and his relationships with them are known, but I’ve never seen the series of men set out so clearly, the stories told so intelligently, and rightly the doubts sowed over the idea James was physically celibate without overdoing it. People are still today writing books which obscure this aspect of James’s life and when they do write about James’s complex feelings, they write turgidly, with embarrassment, hedging. Gorra tells of James’s important life long relationship with his woman amaneunsis-secretary, Theodora Bosanquet whose biography of the boss she spent 2 decades with and lived in close intimacy gives us a lot of the leads and details that help us see this aspect of James’s life. Her book: Henry James at Work and published by Hogarth Press (the Woolfs).

Thus I found finding Gorra’s book more satisfying than Mead’s because I was made to realize more about James and his writing. Most of what Mead wrote I knew about Eliot — and while she is applying our information about Eliot is more subtle autobiographical ways, it does not change what I have seen. Since James’s homosexuality has only recently been openly admitted to and discussed as central to his life — as it was the way what gender you are is — there are new insights to be gotten

He begins with the richness of the letters and how much we can learn about James from them (most have not yet been published, a many year project by many people). The question is how far can we be ourselves apart from social life and within ourselves how much there is a real separate I from construction. I agree with him (and James) it’s there but vulneragble and fragile — as we see in Isabel Archer. Touchett is in retreaet and sinks his life in Isabel’s – I believe that outside his job Jim sunk his life in mind and job in the last years was also endured to support the two of us. That it was not him is seen in how he didn’t mind retiring and only thought of going back in order to move to England.

Still the great source for all people wanting to know James is a book edited by Mattiessen, a continuous diary: it’s vignettes of going out, little bits of stories he later worked up into his great novels, thoughts on aesthetics, whatever popped into his head: The Notebooks of Henry James. I read it while doing my dissertation and trying to understand the creative mood of reverie underlying novels. Gorra emphatically uses this book.

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Rome, outdoor Market, Piazza Navona by Guiseppe Ninci (1870)

Gorra first shows us James’s situating himself in London and ambivalent; how he tried Paris, and we go on to his trips to Italy – where much of the later action of The Portrait of a Lady takes place and we get a chapter on Madame Merle and Osmond – not moralizing but how they represent some real aspects of the expatriots. It was not all high (or today unacceptable) art. Then Gorra moves into a portrait of the community in Florence and Rome at the time. Several interesting pages on his relationship with Constance Fennimore Woolson’s. As sympathetic to the people caught up there as Mead on Main – I’ve been at least to the Spanish Steps and some of the places Gorra describes – which he takes you through with him as your walking guide – and connects them to the atmosphere of the novel which is un-Victorian … bringing all this to bear on Isabel’s wrong choice gives it a whole new kind of aspect – and connects it to the modern reader too.

Gorra follows James from place to place as James writes The Portrait of a Lady. James was escaping his American identity as he traveled from place to place in Italy, and tried to find a quiet place to write a lot and yet have some company and enrichening landscape. From expatriats he moves onto strangers, and how James was surrounding himself with strangers, was himself an exile, a stranger, and saw that the American communities were themselves disconnected from Italian society, didn’t understand it, in search of what they couldn’t find at home. Then he says they were – -and James is – drawing on the heritage of different countries and cultures to make a new amalgam for themselves.

That aspect of American identity as self-invention I do see in myself, though the amalgam is mostly from English sources. I turned to read James’s Roman Rides as Gorra said it’s better than just about all James’s early fictions — and it struck me that’s right. The opening is a meditative piece on the landscape of the campagna. Jim and I went there and walked alone one morning — we did not take our children who were with us on that holiday because they would have been so bored. Often the places he and I wanted to go to were to them places with nothing there. James does a gorgeous rendition of the feelings one can have just outside Rome among these ruins in this desolated place — it was still that way in 1994. How important place and history are to some authors.

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John Malkovich as Osmond (Portrait)

Gorra then moves onto Isabel’s strange choice of the stifling Osmond and how Isabel came to make such a bad choice. Gorra suggests we don’t bring in the sexual angle enough and Isabel was attracted to the man who declined openly to chase her. I did not remember that time went by and Isabel traveled with her sister I Europe and then Madame Merle in the Middle East (that was dangerous). Ralph tells her she is going to be put in a cage but it’s no good. We are not shown the moment of submission, the marriage or its first experience. Why? It’s a sleight of hand that takes us to thwarted aspiration, imprisonment, narrowing but not how she got there. Are these James’s fears for himself?

The book moves onto Venice as James does – and an immersion occurs as James is drawn into this defeated place filled with poverty striken people, even then dying, dependent on tourism. James himself eat and drank expensively as Gorra finds this out by going to the same place (still there). A political fight over the vaporetto and the vaporettos won – James didn’t like the noise either. He makes two friends whose houses he can stay at, ordinary upper class American and English, not the resident famous homosexual population …. It’s the evocation of these places through quotation of James’s travel writing that makes this section so appealing …

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John Singer Sergeant, An Interior in Venice (1899)

Gorra is trying to relive the experiences James had while writing the book at the same time as he re-imagines what the characters feel as the story progresses: tracing James’s steps in Venice, looking at paintings Sergeant made of the expatriot people into whose houses James was welcomed. From James’s letters Gorra picks up that the landlady was offering her daughter as a sex partner by sending her to hang around the fourth floor. Byron took up such invitations, not James. He moves onto the this kind of atmosphere in Venice, and its treacheries, the grim whiff of the closed streets (seen in Sergeant”s pictures too I know) and says this seeped into Portrait of a Lady and what Isabel’s chose of Osmond brought her

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Constance Fennimore Woolson

Venice prompts by association the really poignant story of James’s long time and finally failed relationship with Constance Fenimore Woolston. Gorra characterizes her with great empathy and tells a lot I didn’t know or had forgotten. Again he brings together what is not usually brought together: how they quietly lived in one building she on the first and he the ground floor — in Florence. She apparently went to Venice to live on the assumption he would follow her but he never did. The letters to and from and her were burned. As everyone knows she killed herself by jumping out a window and he tortured himself by trying to drown her dresses — why he just didn’t throw them out or give them away as rags I can’t guess.

Woolston’s death though partly in reaction to James’s behavior is obviously not his fault. She suffered depression much of her life. When she’d finish a book she’d be in a state of nervous collapse. It’s said some people are exhilarated by it. I was neither. Eliot went into collapse mode.

As he tells the story, Gorra connects it James’s “Aspern Papers,” “he Beast in the Jungl”e (Sedgewick renamed that “closet”) and a couple of other uncanny stories (“The Romance of Old Clothes) which he retells very well — and The Wings of the Dove.

Quite what this has to do with The Portrait of a Lady? it illuminates James’s feelings towards relationships, the real life of expatriates … A central “sin” in James is when one person uses another, makes them an instrument for his or her needs. Imposing your will on them. He suggests Lyndall Gordon (who wrote a conventional biography) accuses James of doing this to Woolson. Now the second version a Portrait of a Lady occurs well after Woolson’s death and so we are left to make our own allegory here.

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Paris, La Rue de Rivoli, Anonymous, undated

I love the illustrations in this book, picturesque, in the mode of Alvin Coburn, the illustrator for James’s turn of the century complete revised edition.

Following upon the chapter on James and Constance Fenimore Woolston, we move into “sex, serials, the continent and critics.” A full chapter on how near impossible it was to get into print and distributed in the UK and US too a story which told what every one know to be the case with sexual life; you could only tell supposedly what life was supposed sexually to be like, to teach lessons. The French were much freer.

This part of the book includes a chapter on the magazines James wrote for and Gorra uses is also valuable beyond telling us how James dealt with the problem of instalment publication: demands for a certain length, for cliff-hangers, who and where his work appeared (with what provided the context of respectability for the reader); it’s an intelligent portrait of a world where people are still reading magazines. James was apparently a writer who had in mind his whole book so would start a new instalment not with a reader turning the pages of a magazine who might need (as we call them today) recap. Today’s American context is alluded to: the importance of Atlantic, Harper’s then – New Yorker today

Gorra is showing us how Isabel Archer could come to say she did not want to hear anything that Pansy could not hear — this is supreme foolishness on her part; far from being dangerous for her, it will be dangerous for her not to have more knowledge of what a man can do to his wife once he marries her — Cameron’s movie makes Osmond into a sadistic man in bed too — as does Andrew Davies make Grandcourt in his film of Daniel Deronda. This is chapter comparing French fiction of the period that was admired by the English with the English. A rare novelist to break through what was allowed was George Moore (Esther Waters) but his novels were not distributed by Mudie’s.

Gorra spends a long chapter on the whole long chapter in Portrait of a Lady after Edward Rosier comes to call – he is the young man who loves and could be loved by Pansy, but Osmond won’t allow it, and he lets Isabel know that she ought to use her sexual pull on Warburton to lure Warburton into marrying Pansy — for Osmond assumes that’s a front for a love affair Warburton means to have with Isabel.

Isabel is sickened, appalled, desolated — we come upon her well after the marriage has taken place, we even missed the birth and death of a young son. Gorra says this is deliberate on James’s part: he does not want to show us directly (remember our thread on showing and telling) such dramatic moments but their affect on consciousness.

I was not surprised to see Gorra attribute some of James’s sophistication to his reading of Daniel Deronda where Gorra finds the same kinds of techniques. The difference is that James goes on for much longer (he says) and makes the narrative stop still and ruminate a past we’ve not seen.

He also says the shrewdest most aware appraisal of Portrait was by Constance Fenimore Woolson. So James is in a women of ecriture-femme — with Oliphant ranging herself on the other side in defense of what she thought of as English fiction.

He finds this so original. I don’t think so — Trollope does it, Austen does it, Eliot does it a lot but the interior monologue is important and Gorra’s way of discussing it as becoming central to the art of fiction does show one important innovation. Hitherto story was said to count a lot and more; and it’s clear that for James the actual story matter — the events that manifest the inner life — does not matter. Gorra says this changes the novel’s emphasis and is part of a switch over that finds an extreme in Woolf.

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Romola Garai as Gwendoleth Harleth Grandcourt telling Daniel Deronda (Hugh Dancy) about what her life has been (2004 Daniel Deronda, scripted Andrew Davies)

No what makes the difference is the content. Trollope’s Julia (The Claverings) does not think one really unconventional thought. She never thinks to herself these people are shits, why should I want to sit with the housekeeper, look at their terrible values. Nor any of them until Daniel Deronda with the magnificent portrait of his mother (the same actress who played the role in Davies’s film played Madame Merle in Campion’s film) Isabel does not break away but she has utterly subversive thoughts about the values of those around her. Eliot invents another set of ethics using Gwendoleth Harleth’s experience (which Davies’s film brings out), implicitly anticipating Flaubert but much more sympathetic to the woman, as is James. Again and again Gorra links James to Eliot. So when Gorra exaggerated because he so goes on about it, one can learn and see …

He is tracing an important direct new line — into it was fed the travel writings that he has been going over too. Roman Rides, Venice. Also William James’s books on cognitive psychology show up the new interest. The new line was objected to intelligently by RLStevenson in his Gossip on Romance and James’s prefaces, his Art of Fiction was intended to intervene in this debate. Gorra’s discussion of James’s use of stream of consciousness in Portrait of a Lady is so rousing that I become eager for Phyllis Rose’s A Year of Reading Proust to come — I just hope I’ve read enough of Proust’s volumes to be able to appreciate it. I’ve only read one and almost to the end of the second volume.

Gorra then uses his analysis of Isabel Archer’s long meditation to launch into more than James’s Art of Fiction; he makes large claims for James as an innovator of a new kind of novel: one based wholly on inner life, nuances. Of course these were written before — in epistolary narratives of high quality in the 18th century but not self-consciously. Gorra argues that Woolson was one of the first to understand, and Howells to defend James and his Art of Fiction should be understood as part of a debate which includes RLS’s Gossip on Romance.

I like how Gorra fits this into the growth of serious literary criticism of the novel, taking it seriously. James could not get himself to write in the other “new” school of naturalism (Princess Cassamassima is the one that may be linked): too pessimistic, too bleak he felt, though Howells did it in his Modern Instance. The novel’s stature is going up

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Henry James by Katherine McClellan (1905)

The last part: putting out the lights. This one takes us through James’s response to the deaths of his father and mother; he came for the funerals, just missed the dying. I think he’s right to argue against Edel’s insistence it was the mother who screwed the family up: common sense and all evidence suggests it was the father (if people can be screwed up who produced what Wm and Henry James and even Alice did and lives the lives the first two did) with the mother complicit. It seems to have been a contest which of the parents self-destructed first and in reaction to the other’s coming demise. They did cling together.

As with Mead at the close of her book, but without personal references, Gorra then makes leaps into the fiction to find analogies about death. Gorra shows how often James wrote about death after this period, and how a metaphor for loss. In this chapter he says it was at this time James began to keep his journal of all anecdotes, an important source for this book (and many others).

And he suggests it was after this or around this time several of the great Victorians died and I’m glad to say — serendipitiously — for James this includes Trollope. Trollope for James a major voice like Eliot, Flaubert and Turgenev. James’s essay on Trollope has been very influential — perhaps too much so but I didn’t know about the line calling Trollope a “difficult mind.” That’s good. What a different list from the modern canon, no?

James’s “The Altar of the Dead” is about the ghosts we live with, the ghosts in our memories of who died and Gorra speaks eloquently of it. Alice was another great loss by then and Constance Fenimore Woolson. No wonder I liked this chapter and it leads a powerful chapter centering on the last image Isabel has at the end of her mediation: Madame Merle and Osmond talking together. Gorra takes us through to Isabel’s realization that when Madame Merle said to her “let us have him” (italics added) Madame Merle has given away 1) that she and Osmond think that Isabel wants Warburton for herself, not that she is appalled by the proposition that she should use his attraction to her to win him to marry Pansy as payoff for a liaison; and 2) they assume what bothers Isabel is not the amorality of all this but that she wants Warburton for herself, and finally 3) Madame Merle is Pansy’s mother.

When Osmond’s sister comes to tell Isabel of this truth however indirectly it’s after the realization and this is followed hard on by the most quiet and devastating of needlings I’ve ever read. Madame Merle comes in to tell Isabel as Isabel is contemplating visiting Ralph as he lies dying (after Osmond has forbidden it) that it was Ralph who gave her the enormous sum of money that made her “a brilliant match,” spoken in bland feigned innocence she is nonethleless triumphing over telling Isabel that Isabel owes this hellish marriage to Ralph. And pointing our to her yes “she was perfectly free” so she did it to herself.

One problem for the modern reader who wants to read hard truths about life is these earlier novels (and many since) end ambiguously in ways that allow us to think the characters will be all right, make do by following conventional norms and thus uphold the very structures that the whole novel has been designed to expose.

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Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer Osmond (Portrait, scripted Laura Jones, directed Jane Campion)

It is a startlingly even terrifying moment when Madame Merle so quietly and blandly lets Isabel know it was after Isabel who chose to marry Osmond and she was given all the clues she needed to what he was if she had only looked.

Austen has scenes of withering corrosion where the speaker does not realize what he is saying and the listener is mortified and hurt, but nothing quite so horrible in feel or mean and malicious in intent. Madame Merle’s purpose is to make Isabel angry at Ralph and prevent her going — as Lucy Ferrars in telling Elinor of the long engagement was to make Elinor give up on Edward, be very angry with him. The increase in subtlety and what has been done is a hundredfold.

For the book’s last chapters, see the comments.

Ellen

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Woolf’s working desk at Monk House

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve four more sessions to report on from this year’s MLA (see a rejuvenating time, the 18th century, public poetry, audio books, films): two on Virginia Woolf (one with Katherine Mansfield as part of a dual subject), one on Mark Twain and Henry James, and a fourth on the Victorian marriage plot.

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Duncan Grant (1885-1978), The Coffee Pot (1916)

“Everyday Woolf” (No. 31, Thurs, Jan 3rd, noon to 1:15 pm) was the first I attended and (as sometimes happens) it was one of the best. All three papers were superb. Adam Barrows talked of “Mrs Dalloway and the Rhythms of Everyday Life”. Mrs Dalloway is confined to one day is a polyrhythmic sympohy felt in the body of biological rhythms, social patterns intersecting with the irreducably local and yet it all fits into a cosmic pattern. Discordant uneasy rhythms which function as disruptions. The text covers sleeping, eating, a continual melange of noise, visual perception, silence. We hear an irregular heartbeat. Septimus is made ill by what is imposed on him from war and now work. Mr Barrow read aloud great reveries from the novel. Kayla Walker discussed To the Lighthouse; each character is at work, Mrs Ramsay cooperatively, carving out space and time; she close-read the text for its rhythms and imagery.

In his paper, “Virginia Woolf and the Modern Blessings of Electricity,” Sean Mannion suggested that modernism begin when electricity began to spread. At first it was written about as a disenchantment, and Woolf shows nostalgia over fire- and gaslight. Newspapers found the world now looked like an amusement park; moonlight would not have the same function or meaning; light is now separated from fire. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote of he warmth and radiance of gaslight. There were dangerous and fatal incidents early on as people had to learn how to use electricity. Woolf’s Night and Day captures a love of firelight lost in the glare of electric light; her Jacob’s Room has a mixed assessment. Of course the power of what electricity could do more than compensated for the losses, and there is an ecstatic feel too (in The Voyage Out), among other places, the library.

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Vanessa Bell (1879-1961), a friend reading in a library

A second session on Virginia Woolf, this time with the Katherine Mansfield Society, was about their personal relationship and aesthetic and professional interactions (No. 338, Fri, Jan 4th, 3:30 4:45 pm). I missed the paper on their reaction to the newly formed theories of psychoanalysis, but I did hear part of Bret Keeling’s talk on their dealings with masculinity in their work and men in their lives, and Kathryn Simpson on their differing attitudes towards gifts (also in the sense of talent) and desires. She defined a gift by its function: it can consolidate social bonds, be an assertion of power and identity and authority. What was the central focus of all I heard (including the discussion afterward) was how the two women were different in background: Woolf the daughter of the Victorian intelligensia, and then a member of the Bloomsbury intellectual art-radical group, a highly defensive writer; Mansfield a colonial who needed money more desperately than Woolf and was treated badly by men, plagiarizing sometimes, radical, adventurous in during her tragically short life. Writing was central to their identity and their styles and aims were coterminous; they were rivals.

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James Whistler (1834-1903), The Giudecca (chalk & pastels on grey paper, 1879)

The joint-societies’ session of Henry James and Mark Twain (No. 377, Fri, Jan 4th, 5:15-6:30 pm) was filled with unexpected perspectives. Kaye Wierzvicki’s paper focused on James’s The Bostonians, Book 3 set in Cape Cod. We encounter a post-civil war US, a central nub in a global network as well as tourist attraction. James explores its geographic identity, what places in the world it brings together through culture and characters; it figuratively projects other places like it. Kathryn Dolan taught me that Twain was anti-imperial. Twain wrote several travel books, and one (1866?) about Hiawaii exposed how the product sugar led to cruel exploitation of imported (coerced) efficient labor patterns. In his later travel writing he reported on British islands in the South Pacific, Following the Equator, then he traveled to islands in the Indian ocean. He sees forms of slavery in the transported. I just loved Harold Hellwig’s paper which he read very fast as it was long: he covered the many images, myths and stories, and visions of Venice found in Twain and James’s writing. Both show that the allure of Venice is a cover for its ruined condition. Venice provides an inner journey of the mind; Twain presents a place false, destructive marketplaces yet its people with strong self-respect. Both have famous character sketches where they capture qualities of life (James an American Mrs Bronson, Twain an escaped black enslaved man). He recited powerful passages by both writers and had a continual montage of images of Venice from the Renaissance until today when few can live there because of the continual floods.

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Christopher Eccleston as the hopeful aspiring Jude at the begining of the film (1996 Jude directed by Michael Winterbottom; see my blog on Hardy films)

The last session we attended (suitcases under our chairs) was “Rethinking the Victorian Marriage Plot” (No. 745, Sun, Jan 6th, noon to 1:15 pm). Despite an apparent contemporary emphasis on women characters looking to be useful, do real work in the world (for which they are paid in some way), a professed interest in disabilities and people in need, the underlying perspective was that of women reading for love stories that teach the female reader what she wants to hear as relevant to her. Talia Schaffer suggested that Jane Eyre scorns St John Rivers because his ideal of meaningful work represses private satisfactions. Ms Schaffer looked upon Rochester as disabled and needing Jane’s help and love. Maia McAleavey discussed how the bigamy plot in Victorian novels substitutes for an argument on behalf of divorce: in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Aurora Floyd a female bigamist makes choices she escapes from; in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure Arabella marries bigamously and finds more opportunity while Jude and Sue by behaving ethically find themselves bound and destroyed.

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Sue (Kate Winslet) in a similar hopeful moment (1996 Jude)

As I sit here tonight I find myself going through the MLA book of sessions and wondering why I didn’t go to this or that (tonight seemingly) far more interesting session than those I chose. In these four blogs I have omitted a lot I did try because the time turned out dull, or jargon-ridden and phony, people posing, or the topic actually preposterous. Some were hard to write about or take notes: like a session given by companies who have put huge dictionaries on line. I went to no sessions on translation; none on intriguing odd topics (“Denis de Rougemont and appropriations of the troubadours”); there were sessions on dubbing and subtitling in movies, on animals, on psychoanalysis in literature, prison architecture, the poetics of death, global Shakespeare. It was a matter of guessing, try what I knew and where I might meet friends and acquaintances, try to go to some with Jim, leave a little time for going out and eating (it was too cold to explore Boston much). I can’t prove this but I had a sense there were fewer sessions than there used to be, and consequently a greater proportion of sessions on job hunting, careers, teaching and scholarship politics (all of which I’ve learned to avoid, especially anything for contingent faculty which often are semi-acrimonious).

I need tonight to remind myself that when we left we were exhilarated by our time away, and said we would go again the next time the MLA came to the east coast (as long as it was not too far south). We have two planned for this year already (ASECS in April and EC/ASECS next fall) and I’m going to one on Popular Culture here in DC in March where I plan to spend a full day listening to sessions on film adaptations, films and hear a paper on Winston Graham’s historical fiction from a feminist standpoint.

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Inge Morath (1923-2002), A Park Bench

Ellen

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Colm Toibin when much younger

Dear friends and readers,

Last night we went to a local bookstore which regularly hosts talks and classes about books (as well as a weekly storybook hour for children and tours too), Politics and Prose. We’d never been there before, and to the area only once, when last July we were invited to come to a fourth of July barbecue (what a treat for us). A member of the Irish embassy asked all those who came to read James Joyce’s Ulysses on Bloom Day. We heard about this because Jim got an email from the Irish embassy which now has his name.

A large old-fashioned bookstore, two floors (!), where books are actually set up by their categories and within that the author’s name (like a library, like Borders once was). A couple tables upfront with latest sellers, and in the back audiobooks on CD. You can wander about and come upon treasures just like this. I saw Alice Kessler-Harris’s A Difficult Woman (a biography of Lillian Hellman) on display, but had decided for Toibin’s Love in a Dark Time: And Other Explorations of Gay Lives and Literature, a book of somewhat rewritten essay-review meditations published elsewhere (the LRB, the NYRB and other places). If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know how much I like his essays, and how I’ve loved those of his novels I’ve read thus far. It turns out I’ve read 4 of 7 (In praise of Colm Toibin: Un-put-downable).

Last night he was there to promote his latest novel (apparently the 7th), The Testament of Mary. Yes the central character is the Virgin Mary (does she have a last name like the rest of us?). It’s a really a novella, a short one at that, and from what he wrote a retrospective meditation by Mary some 20 years after the brutal crucifixion of her son. She is now living in safety, relative peace, left to herself by all and two visitors show up, one Lazarus. Yes he takes liberties — good historical fiction often does. The core idea is the irretrievableness of what happened and how she cannot forget and if she could change it, do it differently somehow, how she longs to. It’s memories poured out. As a subjective narrative by a women it harks back to his great The South. He seems to have a predilection for writing heroine’s texts (Brooklyn, Henry James in The Master is a kind of male heroine).

What a large crowd. It did not overwhelm the store, but it was much larger than we’d expected of such an intellectual sensitive author. There were not enough chairs for all.

He began by telling us of his trips to Venice and two paintings of the Virgin he had stood before repeated: a Tintoretto, perhaps The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, and a Titian, The Assumption. What he seems to have liked especially about the latter was her red robe and how she soared above reality. He is himself getting older.


Recent photo — he does look like this, only he is a small man, somewhat bent, light brownish-white skin, light brown hair

Today I see that the Tintoretto has Mary in a red robe too, and the picture’s content against the reason for its festival, takes us across her life.

They were the inspiration for the book. He did not tell us why he wrote it, only that he would like it to be taken seriously and he didn’t mean it as a mock. He didn’t think the church would bother notice it — he said this in answer to one question afterwards. He does read very well, and his voice was how I’d imagined it, Irish lilt but not too heavy. I stayed awake and listening for much of it, though when his register came too low I couldn’t hear it all. We were in the back, having arrived only ten minutes before the “reading” started.

It was obvious he’d done this many times. He was smooth, and seemed such a sweet man. These sorts of things are part of what makes an author successful. The book launch. He’s learned how to do it. Among questions asked were does he have a routine, a place he always writes, what does he write with. He said he writes anywhere and with any thing (mostly a pen) and no he’s not a routine type. He does sometimes have to write a book quickly or whatever quickly lest he forget it; get it down, and then he comes back to work at it. He is not a man who has written a lot of very long books, say like Dickens, Trollope, Margaret Oliphant, Wm Dean Howells, and they all had fixed routines and places they wrote. He has made his career through socializing too and his oeuvre (in pages) most actually be preponderantly non-fiction.

I wanted to reply to something he had said before starting his readings. He said that other “classic” fiction novels, 19th century, were no help “here.” He comically alluded to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Dickens’s Miss Havisham, they could not help him. Nor Henry James. Perhaps Mrs Touchett (Ralph’s mother, isolated, alone, an “odd” woman.) While he was reading I thought of Daniel Deronda’s mother, Eliot’s older heroine who returns 25 years after giving her son up to another so she could have an operatic career, a life of her own. Now bitter, not remorseful, but regretful because after all she ended up marrying and having children anyway. The dreams she had had not been realized and how here was this son reproaching her.
But the mike was too far away.

I didn’t try to buy anything directly afterwards. The line became very long. Instead we walked three stores down to the Comet, a pizza place with ambience. A large screen played over and over the poignant short Italian film, The Red Balloon. No sound just the images before you. The walls gray. The tables ping-pong, the seats benches. Soft lights. We had two pizzas, small, a white (all cheese, garlicky nothing else) and a red (just tomato sauce topping, more spicy, reminding me in its heavy dough and yummy surface of pizza in NYC in the 1950s, so-called Napoles-like). A carafe of chianti. The place was moderately full.

We talked. We realized this was probably the first book reading we’ve ever gone to as such. Play readings by a group, lectures, maybe a book reading within a performance of other things, but not alone. Jim said we never went to the Folger poetry readings because they cost. This was for free. Also the people were less known and there was obviously time for too much talk. So too much egoism would be on display he felt. I remembered going to listen to Empson read his poem in the Graduate Center in the 1970s. How he read little and talked much of his poetry. But the talk was splendid, really insightful (as Toibin’s was not quite, though not deliberately misleading as say Andrew Davies on his films), and how John Hollander got up to ask questions, all admiring and how Empson (spiteful in this but perhaps made uncomfortable) cut him down, half-mocked him. Also a lecture by Margaret Mead at the Museum of Natural History. All I can recall is how intelligent and humane she was and ever after have reacted to all dismissals of her work, denigrations of her with a memory of this seeing her and knowing they are unfair to her.

We decided we would try some more at this place. Then to support the bookstore, we went back. That’s when I bought Love in a Dark Time. All the Testaments to Mary were gone. To tell the truth, I was not sure I wanted it, as I felt it would be wrapped up in Catholicism as some level, and I’m an atheist. I was sure it’d be feminist in intent. If Toibin had said he found out or invented a last name for her, and told us of it, I might’ve. They had only had his most recent novels: (Blackwater Lightship two copies, one still left, and mostly Brooklyn and The Master, latest and best known. I have them all plus The South and Homage to Barcelona (not there). But there was suddenly one copy as if from deep in a basement (the girl at the counter said it was “a backlist” book), this book of essays. So I snatched it. His essay on Wilde’s exposure of his homosexuality as “found out,” as a person wanting to be “found out” has influenced my thinking ever since.

We got home by 10ish, not too long to write one final blog on Jane Austen’s letters. I’m not going to give them up, but maybe go yet slower and do it by myself. The prompting from Austen-l helps, and the sense (however deluded) of reaching people, but the flak, the continual cliched readings and occasional either preposterous or theoretical agendas don’t help me at all. I waste time and make no friends refuting them.

Earlier that day I had talked on WWWTTA about Temple Grandin’s film about how animals form bonds, friendships, and people’s perception of them, and the trajectory the film belonged to. Really worth while and gotten into other debates on the growing dissemination of how it’s okay for women to subjugate themselves to sadism, even light fun … ), but I’ll add these as brief comments here later today.

We wished we could have more such nights. People are only gradually becoming aware of what a delightful city DC is slowly turning into. The neighborhood around there is small houses, apartments further off, and some shopping blocks. It’s marred by a large street which traffic streams through daily and that obscures the quiet ambience of the play otherwise. I’ve vowed to myself to read Love in a Dark Time, Homage to Barcelona, and (connected to Toibin and the project on book illustrations to Trollope which I’ve just finished — a blog this weekend), Amy Tucker’s The Illustration of the Master.


Reprinted by Tucker, it was chosen by James as a frontispiece for A Portrait of Lady, and could serve as frontispiece for Toibin’s The Master.

Ellen

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Darkness

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went–and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light …
The meagre by the meagre were devoured,
Even dogs assail’d their masters, all save one,
And he was faithful to a corse, and kept
The birds and beasts and famish’d men at bay,
Till hunger clung them, or the dropping dead
Lured their lank jaws; himself sought out no food,
But with a piteous and perpetual moan,
And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand
Which answered not with a caress–he died.
— Byron, inspiration for Shelley’s The Last Man


The Gothic Wanderer by Tyler Tichelaar


Caspar David Friedrich (1174-1840), A Monk by the Sea: a sublime picture Stephen C. Behrendt uses when teaching the gothic (from Gothic Fiction: The British and American Traditions: Approaches to Teaching, edd. Diane Long Hoeveler & Tamar Heller

Dear friends and readers,

As someone who has been reading gothic books ever since I began to read books meant for adults, and has taught gothic books many times, constructed a course I gave several times in different versions, Exploring the Gothic, and dedicated part of my website to the gothic, I found myself a little startled to discover that of some 19 or so novels Tyler Tichelaar analyses with care, I’d read through only 5 of them (!), and never finished another 2 — until I turned to the MLA-sponsored Gothic Fiction: The British and American Traditions, edd. Diane Long Hoeveler & Tamar Heller, to find my ratio there was just as bad, maybe worse. The gothic as a mode is a vast terrain capable of swallowing up a variety of forms (novel, poetry, film, story, opera, video game) and conveying a themes diverse enough to be popular across several centuries. Sometimes the same book at the same time can be accurately interpreted as reactionary-conservative or radical progressive (see Richard Davenport-Hines’s The Gothic: 400 Years … ). Nevertheless, as those of us who love the mode know there are a number of images, plot-, and character types, moods, emphases that repeat like a formula. That’s why it’s easy to make fun of. Take one huge labyrinthine ancient (preferably partly ruined) dwelling, one cavern, a seashore, place inside a murderous incestuous father or mother (preferably chained), heroes and heroines (various kinds), get a tempest going at night, be sure to have plenty of blood on hand, and stir in a great deal of supernatural phenomena, have the action occur in the deep past or be connected to a deep past …

It seems most teachers begin a course in the gothic the way I did: by attempting to immerse students somehow or other: I used a short gothic novel, Susan Hill’s Woman in Black and the 1989 film adaptation, a genuinely unnerving experience whose central figure students told me they feared seeing afterward, or (for brevity as well as power), Edith Wharton’s short story, Afterward, with the BBC 1 hour film adaptation. Then I’d have the students say what they thought was characteristically gothic in either.

Tyler Tichelaar would though probably not begin with these two, nor Scott Simpkins (one of the contributors to Gothic Fiction) who seems to concentrate his course on what’s called the male gothic, and who says there are nowadays few full-scale books devoted to the male gothic, probably because the revival and recent respectability of the form is a direct result of feminism. As Eva Figes shows in her Sex and Subterfuge, the female gothic allows women writers and readers to express, experience, awake up to see, express and protest in a displaced fantasy form the real oppression and destructive nature of the upbringing and circumstances women are subjected to. At its center is usually a woman who is unjustly victimized, often imprisoned, beaten in some way. The male gothic takes the male trajectory of inflicted stress, loss, pressure, punishment, usually a male at the center, and often someone exiled — wandering far from home, unable to find or make a home, to belong anywhere. I am here simplifying of course, a book can contain both modes, women can write male gothics; men, female gothics.

This is not the only fault-line. How is it related to the picturesque on the one hand and the sublime on the other? Are horror distinguishable from terror gothics? There are sub-genres to the form: the ghost story does tend to dwell on guilt, on some irretrievable injustice having been done and is not physically violent but offers psychological terror, where the vampire story is a brutal physical exercise in breaking bodily taboos, its origins include fear of the dead hating the living, simply because (in atavistic kinds of thought) they are still living. The modern short story with its subtle sudden intrusion of the uncanny (un-home-y) stemming from M. R. James tends to present the supernatural as psychological projection. So too ways of reading differ. Tichelaar tends to analyze his stories from a Christian perspective, looking to see how the gothic enables readers to cope with the breakdown of family-centered or supportive laws and customs, and older traditional forms of state organization; Eva Sedgwick is persuaded that the gothic arises from paranoia about homosexuality (really any transgressive sexuality outside a narrow set of conventions) and discusses what gothics can make us see sexually which realistic conventions would preclude (Between Men; also her notorious “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl” reprinted in Tendencies).

I take this direction because it is the great merit of Tichelaar’s book to dwell on the male gothic and use the figure of the wanderer as a way of exploring a series of related books, some written by, as for example, Fanny Burney where he analyses the distinctively feminist perspective of her work (a long chapter on her The Wanderer) and Mary Shelley where he analyses the woman’s deployment of Rosicrucian elements, the Christian myth of Paradise Lost, a profoundly pessimistic rejection of much of the romantic in an apocalyptic mythos (another long chapter, this one on Frankenstein and then The Last Man).


Robert de Niro as Frankenstein’s outcast, lonely monster, wandering in a world of snow and ice (1993 Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein)

As Tichelaar says, we never learn for sure that the monster has found peace in death. Tichelaar’s point of view on The Wanderer as a gothic book about a figure seeking a community has recently been discussed in The Burney Journal too: Andrew Dicus, “Evelina, The Wanderer, and Gothic Spatiality: Francis Burney and a Problem of Imagined Community,” Burney Journal 11 (2011):23-38.

Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho as well as Matthew Lewis’s The Monk are also key texts. Tichelaar empathizes with Antonio. He understands and justifies Radcliffe’s heroines turn to reason and community at the close of harrowing losses, where especially married women and daughters are abused.


Alfonso Simonetti, Ancor Non Torna, an illustration for 19th century Italian translation of Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest

Tichelaar takes the gothic into the Edwardian era and then the 20th century with discussions of Stoker’s Dracula (another long chapter), Tarzan and the modern heroic vampire. (Although not discussed as an example by Tichelaar I’ve done Suzy McKee Charnas’s 1980s Vampire Tapestry, much indebted to geological ideas, with great success with students.)

This could be an effective book for teachers to send students to read. Tichelaar writes in a readable style; he really does tell the stories of his books effectively. I can vouch for this as in a number of cases I was not at all at a loss not having read the book. Their situations and character types are summed up clearly. He begins with Milton’s Paradise Lost which is a centrally alluded-to text — until recent times and its presentation of legitimate transgression (as the romantics saw it). I liked the plainness and personal sincerity of the approach. Tichelaar begins with his love of the gothic as a boy, how he found himself when he first became an academic forced to travel far from home (upper Michigan), displaced, identified with the gothic wanderer, and feels this is a figure who can speak home to people today similarly transplanted, or peoples today who fight to control their homeland. He traces anti-semitism and sympathy for the outcast Jew in the figure of the wanderer. He’s very concrete when he makes analogies. It is true that gambling is a central sin in Udolpho. Godwin’s St Leon does seem to be about Godwin’s own troubles as a radical philosopher trying to persuade people that reason (and a scientific outlook ultimately) drawn from experience is a far better guide to life than religious beliefs (or myths). Tichelaar is unusual for arguing that for Godwin “life’s true meaning exists in the value of human relationships, so he condemns whatever may sunder them” (p. 67). Many critics suggest Godwin’s detachment from his personal context when he argued his theses that he offended his readers intensely.

I probably learned most (new) material from Tichelaar’s chapter leading from Thomas Carlyle’s at first despairing Sartor Resartus (he ponders suicide) as a text about a gothic to Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni leading to Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens borrowed his tale of Sidney Carlton substituting himself for another man from Zanoni, was influenced by Carlyle’s French Revolution, and B-L’s use of Rosicrucian ideas about immortality and Christian Redemption. For my part I’m not sure that Dickens himself believed in these providential patterns, but he was willing to use them to (as Tichelaar says) “create a novel that is life-affirming and provides redemption for its Gothic wandering characters” (p. 193). Tichelaar emphasizes the number of wanderers in this novel, the theme of “recalled to life” (as an imperative), and how Carlton acts for the Darnay family (“I hold a sanctuary in their hearts,” p. 206) group and is a Christ-figure. The revolution is a background for a plot of sacrifice (p. 196). Maybe. I remember I was intensely moved by Dickens’s portrait of the depressive Sidney Carlton, and his poignant semi-suicide (I just cried and cried), the famous line (no matter how parodied I care not): “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known,” and Ronald Colman’s enactment:


Ronald Colman (when I was 13 my very favorite actor) — a noble-in-failure gothic wanderer

Jim’s complaint has been (while watching the movie, he read the book decades ago) that Dickens’s text lends itself to anti-French revolution propaganda of a simplistic sort. It’s easy to fear and detest the Madame Defarges of the 1935 film. I’m not sure; I’m hoping later this year (or next) to read the book with a fun and generous group of people on Inimitable-Boz (at Yahoo) and watch a number of the films adapted from it before pronouncing even tentatively.

The MLA Gothic Fiction is so rich with titles of books, ways of defining and introducing different forms of gothic, and then essays on specific gothic texts, I must perforce select out those chapters which either impressed me particularly or troubled me and draw examples from those where the kinds of gothic and those specific texts I’ve gravitated towards, preferred to read or have taught are those analysed.


Friedrich, Woman at the Window (1822)

The opening section of the book is particularly rich and useful. Six essays by respected scholars on how they start their gothic courses, how go about defining the gothic, exemplifying it: Marshall Brown uses philosophical texts:

Solitude moves us in every one of its peaceful pictures. In sweet melancholy the soul collects itself to all feelings that lead aside from world and men at the distant rustic tone of a monastery bell, at the quiet of nature in a beautiful night, on every high mountain, near each crumbling monument of old times, in every terrifying forest. But he who knows not what it is to have a friend, a society in himself, who is never at home with his thought, never with himself, to him solitude and death is one and the same.

Stephen Behrendt offers pictures, Anne Williams distinguishes female from male gothic, Carol Snef gothic’s distrust and use of science. In the last part of the book we again get general approaches, which films (Wheeler Winston Dixon), how to cope with demands one make the course interdisciplinary or include public service, reach out to relatively unprepared students. There are just a cornucopia of cited secondary studies; I looked and did see all my favorite texts were there (including the profound Elegant Nightmares, about ghost stories as popular version of Kafkaesque visions, by Jack Sullivan), though I missed the French studies that are so important (Maurice Levy). The book is limited to Anglo versions of the gothic — though these are influenced by European texts and pictures.


Henri Fuseli (1741-1825), Perceval delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma (1783) — said to be wholly invented by Fuseli. What is happening here: Is the man trying to kill himself, thrust that sword down the women’s body or is he trying to break the chain of the kneeling man?

Then there are 19 essays on specific texts set out chronologically (starting with Walpole’s Castle of Otranto and ending on African-American gothics, e.g., Naylor’s Linden Hills, and really pop books (equivalent to Tichelaar’s Tarzan) like Anne Rice’s. Notable: Angela Wright on the intermingling of solid historicity with narratives of female sexual exploitation in Sophia Lee’s The Recess, Diane Long Hoeveler in effect summarizes her book Gothic Feminism for you (using among others Wollstonecraft, Dacre). Like Tichelaar, Daniel Scoggin takes you on a journey through the gothic by follwing a single figure: the vampire. I found myself learning new characteristics of sub-genres in Mark M. Hennely’s description of the Irish gothic (big-house displacement), liked the clarity of Susan Allen Ford on contemporary female gothic (Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood).

I’ll concentrate just on Judith Wilt “‘And still he insists He Sees the Ghosts’: Defining the Gothic” and Kathy Justice Gentile’s “Supernatural Transmissions Turn-of-the-Century Ghosts in American Women’s Fiction: Jewett, Freeman, Wharton and Gilman.” I was troubled by Wilt (and a couple of other contributors) who said she encourages her students to suspend their disbelief and really believe in this world of spirits or “spirituality,” and cannot quite believe her assertion that their students are sceptical. I taught gothic courses for a number of years and I found students all too frequently did believe in ghosts or could be led into saying they did. They’d imply “we don’t know, do we?” sometimes at the end of a talk. Gentile shows how to read Sarah Orne Jewet’s Country of the Pointed Firs as gothic, and then Mary Wilkins Freeman’s collected ghost stories (collected as The Wind in the Rose) re-enacting the tragedies of mothers losing their children and their loneliness and rage, culminating in Wharton’s ghost stories one which I’ve read again and again with my students and with people online in cyberspace. Wharton’s subjects marriage to a relentlessly alert scrutiny; as theme across them all is a concealed repressed vulnerable self who becomes enthralled by the past and the dead evaluation of Edith Wharton’s.


“The Lost Ghost” (from Forrest Reid, Illustrators of the Eighteen Sixties, 1928, p. 89)

As a measure of this MLA’s book’s advice, the bibliographic essayist recommends Chris Baldick’s introduction to his Gothic Tales volume as one short place which really puts the history of the genre and it central dispositions together. I read it and agree. I like how Baldick denies that the gothic is universal in reach: each of its fears work only within “the peculiar framework of its conventions” and it does belong to a peculiar set of people in a specific set of centuries where life has been lived in a fraught way (pp. xx-xxi). Margaret Anne Doody’s essay, ‘Deserts, Ruins and Troubled Waters: Female Dreams in Fiction (in Genre, 1977) is one of the best essays (and so enjoyable) ever written on the female gothic. I bought myself Mary Wilkins Freeman’s collected ghost stories (I had read only one thus far), read in a couple of the anthologies of tales and ghost stories I have in the house, and vowed I’d read my collection of essays on intertextuality in Wharton bye Adeline Tintner next.

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“The Library Window” (illustration for ghost story by Margaret Oliphant)

I have myself been troubled that when I teach the gothic that I am encouraging atavistic dangerous beliefs. I’d be careful at the outset to say I didn’t believe there was a supernatural world filled with ghosts, witches, vampires or anything else. I emphasizes we were entering a fantasy realm which made heavy use of realism to draw us in. I know the gothic takes us into the realm of the numinous (to my mind the origin of the term where cathedrals are concerned) well beyond the limited doctrinal codes of establishment religions. But once we raise these terrors and the awareness death is not far from us at any time do we have the courage to confront honestly the perception of human experience raised. Elizabeth Napier famously honestly argued gothic novels fail, are silly, masochistic, disjunctive in form. Neither of these books answers responds to such objections.

I felt a residual reluctance because the material can be called sick. To myself I would say that much in human live and society is sick or very bad, and this mode enables us to explore serious issues in life, loss, grief, sexuality, madness, death, but yet I know the instigation of fear and playing around with character who are made neurotic has a downside. When students morally condemn this or that, it’s no help as most students are regarding what they are reading as “other” than them. To suggest that the stories are ethical because they bring out spirituality (religious feelings) in characters is to suggest that those who do not believe in religion are unethical. By implication this is discussed continually when the critic analyses the story to bring out its ethical content or how it criticizes society, and yet I know many students do not listen well, do not understand what they are told, and simply dismiss what a professor might say if it goes against their deep-seated lessons from their family backgrounds.

I admit I chose the gothic because it was safer. When I taught directly realistic books I would often end up being directly political or more clearly so than I meant to be. Students often did not agree with my politics, were disturbed and even angered by books like say All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Marque or John LeCarre’s The Constant Gardener. So when I did Walter von Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident after say doing Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, the depiction of the violence of US culture was somehow deflected by the use of fantasy to depict victimization.

Still I carried on teaching gothic books as part or the whole of a course because students responded intensely to some of the material. The very formulaic quality of some of it (ghost story structure) made asking them to do a talk something they could do. Perhaps Leslie Fielder was right and US culture really has gothic currents embedded in it. I like how Tyler Tichelaar reads the gothic out of his personal experience. His idea seems to me valid: we are turned into rootless souls in emotionally destructive environments when we are torn from our birthplaces and original families because that is what one must do to get a paying job (survive) in the US. I identify with the female victim heroine or the hero who is a man of sensitivity attacked for this, and this is out of my experience of growing up female in the US. Like Ann Radcliffe’s heroines I turn to reveries in beautifully ordered (picturesque) landscapes to find peace.


Friedrich, Evening

I recommend both books for readers and teachers of the gothic.

Ellen

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Toibin’s Ireland

Dear friends and readers,

It’s about time I wrote in praise of Colm Toibin, of his biographical and critical essays, of his novels, his biographical fiction, his travel books. I can’t think of any writer as originally thoughtful, perceptive, humane, quietly iconoclastic, informative, absorbing, who reads authors as interesting or simply writes as well so consistently. When I see his name on a list of contributors to any periodical I subscribe to, I go to him first and he doesn’t disappoint. This morning I was lifted out of bleak loneliness (Coping) into a consoled companionableness by his review of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending (for New York Review of Books LIX, 8 (May 10, 2012)9-11 where he quoted Larkin in ways that resonated with my feelings, validated them.

Toibin an Irish journalist who comes from precisely the area he has set his story in; he is himself gay or homosexual and he has written out of this perspective more directly at times. While he does write about overt politics, there is much travel writing and three of the novels at least center on this business of the compromises and concessions you must make if you want to stay in a family circle at all, or the difficulties of being in a family setting. He is interested in colonialists and hybrid-identities and literature: Anglo-Irish, Anglo-Indian, French-African, Irish-American. Catholic by faith, liberal-leftist in outlook, sympathetic to revolutionary movements, he’s a gifted writer: delicately powerful stories. He now lives in Dublin.

I can’t list all the essays by him I’ve read, over the years especially on Henry James, Oscar Wilde; his arguments stay with me and I use them in my essays and postings and they become part of my thinking. I’ve not read his short stories, but I have read The Master (a fictional biography of Henry James, see my blog on Kaplan’s biography), The South, Blackwater Lightship, Brooklyn. I wish I had read more, and now that my reading time at night is limited I shall have to turn to him during the day.

The South

I remember parts of the book vividly still. Reading The South made me choose to read his The Master and teach Blackwater Lightship and most recently (as my Christmas treat) Brooklyn.

The heroine in The South leaves cold husband and unsympathetic son to make a new life for herself in the south with a wholly unconventional painter who had fought on the left side against Franco; he had been tortured, is now under surveillance and the way he leaves is to retreat to the mountains to live very meagrely (since he has little money and no way of getting any kind of middle class income-producing job). She loves the escape, release, life with him, and herself begins painting. Much on Spanish landscape and customs of a leisured pattern of days. Eventually she gets pregnant by him and years pass and they do improve their (what some would say) squalid living arrangements. Alas, the authorities decide to come after the man again, he is again trying to do some good in the political world. He is again imprisoned, perhaps tortured (I’m not sure on this latter detail), at any rate deeply distraught once more. He has retired from society as a reaction to what he saw in the thirties. (The texts to read here is Orwell’s Reflections of the Spanish Civil War and the Homage to Catalonia). Alas, a horrible accident kills both this man and the new son — we are to see this accident is also wanted; the man wants out and he takes his son with him.

The devastation to our heroine is for a time crushing — though her behavior manifests the same pragmaticism of approach. Some wandering, and meandering and eventually she does return to Ireland, partly lured there by her son by the first husband. Not forgiven (for what should she be forgiven? is the sense of the text) nor forgiving (they are not sorry for what they are), nonetheless, her older family finds a place for her to live in Ireland.

Meanwhile (I’ve left this part out) her career as an artist has gone on quietly flourishing with paintings recording her sense of Spain and experience. She has lived an authentic life and continues to do so until the book quietly closes and at whatever price she had to pay in others’ refusal to countenance this since they did not.

The reverse is true of the heroine of Brooklyn. Indeed the slightly shocking close shows the heroine returning to Ireland and her originally intended husband because 1) she had promised to, and under the stress of circumstances been pressured into literally marrying the first lover, he having surmised she might just not come back when she sees improved living standards and freedom — he had been her only choice; no jobs anywhere that are fulfilling or money-making for such as someone from her family); and 2) the authority figures in Brooklyn discover she has married elsewhere and threatened to expose her; she knows she will become a pariah because this is the way such people as a group work, so home she goes, leaving then the man who had come to love her in his compromised way (he needs her, she fits in &c&c).

I remember the devastatingly accurate assessment of her relationship with the mother, used and she knows using her. We had been thinking the heroine was better than all these, but she is exposed as just like everyone else. And we are to feel for her, deeply feel for us all in her case.

The heroine in The South escaped all this; hers is the reverse story. But she did for much of her life live hard, in poverty, alone, her beloved man tortured, hounded and escaped through killing herself and she ends in this cottage provided for her, silent again (as the kind of talk in her Irish family is once more irrelevant to anything that matters to her for real).

But the meaning inherent in The South and Brooklyn is the same, the perspective out of which they come and the ultimate message about the obstacles to living an authentic life.

I love candour and hard-truth telling in a book; the unexpected ending exhilarated me. So many falsely easy and happy pseudo-optimistic stories are told; rather than give hope, they irritate and depress me as having the effect of throwing the blame on people who don’t do well. On the the other hand, wanting to think very well of the heroine, Eilis Lacey, when she was in the very final pages of the book obviously willing to overthrow her Brooklyn husband, Tony, and marry the new Irish man, Jim, who owned a pub and was admired by all, in a situation where she saw that instead of being ignored as the useless superfluous second sister, she would get a better job than in NYC (the competition in NYC was too keen for her to rate an office job), I liked her less. I was anxious for her because I thought it would matter to her so much to lose the beloved Tony, but when I was shown how she would give this up, I acceded it was truthful but cared less.

I loved the portrait of the mother who knew or had enough to suspect all along
her daughter had formed new ties in Brooklyn but ignored it, pretended not to
know in order to pressure the girl into lying and staying. But when the girl was
to go because her marriage in Brooklyn was found out, instead of showing affection, the mother shut the door on her. Here we see how people really value one another and what for. Now she can’t get from the girl what she wanted: not just a companion but someone who this pub owner would marry so she the mother would be admired in public.

On the immigrant patterns: I grew up in the south east Bronx mostly, in a slum which at first was heavily Irish but by the time my parents moved out was heavily black. The patterns of Irish life were to me no different than the working class Italian life I saw in Richmond Hill, a neighborhood near the one we moved to. I didn’t dislike them; they seemed to me American catholic working class by the time I was in my teens, only on the surface different from middle to upper middle class Jewish life in Kew Gardens where we did move. The Kew Gardens neighborhood I did hate and had a hard time getting used to: much snobbery, ostentation, and we lived in a 3 bedroom apartment on the ‘low end’ of life there. My name, Ellen, is partly the result of my mother imitating the names she heard around her in the Bronx. (It’s also the name of the mother in Gone with the Wind, which however she denied knowing and said it was just the people around her. I doubt she would have called me Colleen though as my mother was Jewish and that would have been gonig too far.)

Toibin sets the two other novels I’ve read by him partly or wholly in Ennisworthy. It’s where he comes from. And he has a poignant statement about missing it (boyhood memories) in Blackwater Lightship.

The Brooklyn New York parts were truth to life. My mother’s people lived in Brooklyn and for about 2 years (one year when I was small) I lived in Brooklyn and did on occasion visit these relatives growing up. The climate would seem extreme after the British Isles.

I read with an intense anxiety on behalf of Eilis, worried for her as succumbing to pressure. I had to peek ahead to assure myslf she broke away and returned. But when I experienced why and how my feelings for her changed dramatically. But this is a truthful probable portrait. It showed me patterns in my family’s reactions to me I’ve seen repeatedly.

Blackwater Lightship throws yet another permutation and light on this central experience — as does The Master, only then the partial escapee is James. This novel is about a homosexual young man who returns to his family for a weekend just before he died. They had nothing to do with him until then because they didn’t want to know or allow anyone else to know he lived a gay life. We see all their estrangements from one another too.

It’s been criticized for not centering more emphatically on the issue of homosexuality, even marginalizing it. To my mind that Toibin presents Decclan’s sexual orientation, and condition as another important element in the life of the family, not more devastating or central than say the father’s death (Mr Breen) or Lily’s long time adjusting to being alone and her giving her two children to her mother, Dora Devereux while she coped is one of its strengths.

It’s realistic: no false sentiment about family life, but that biological ties are there and for reasons that are hard to explain pragmatically except that people turn to families and families take them in as a matter of survival; there is no alternative to rely on so people come through for one another most of the time. Not all. Homeless people not uncommon. People living away from families and managing to support themselves and find company and worlds with friends happens a good deal.

Still the family pattern is the dominant one whether in a modern country and culture like the US or traditional one like Zimbabwe and India (there we have an arranged marriage and couple who come to live in the US.

Key theme of this and two other of his books, The South and The Heather Blazing (I’ve read about it), and his fictional biography of Henry James called The Master are The key themes, “are the compromises and concessions involved in belonging to a family and in calling somewhere “home”.


The DVD cover of the TV movie adaptation

Three complex female characters: Helen (now married to Hugh O’Doherty), her mother, Lily Breen, and the grandmother, Dora Devereux. All three have similar characters: proud, standoffish, determined with the ability and knowhow of domineering, running a situation, self-contained, self-possessed, but like most people wanting affection, support, and Helen shown as having sensitivities like her older son, Cathal; Manus has mean bullying personality from the get-go, huge ego. You might say it’s about the problem of mothering; by no means does this come more naturally to women than men though the task is forced on them by social arrangements and expectations.

There is no easy reconciliation. The family’s fumbling attempts at change are set against the natural process of erosion that is eating away the coastline close to the family home in Cush. The liminal space of the beach as a setting for the beginning of Helen and Lily’s reconciliation, and the novel ends with the muted triumph of Lily spending the night at Helen’s home after returning the now severely ill Declan to the hospital in Dublin.

It’s a delicately powerful story of a family’s failure to face difficult feelings and their stubborn refusal to admit need (especially the grandmother). He through them delve into memories with a visceral, unsparing depiction: main character through whom we see action is Helen: snapshots of the family’s fraught past are filtered through her memory.

When Helen was 11, she had had to deal with her father’s illness and death virtually alone – she was left with her 8-year-old brother at her grandmother’s house for six months while her mother nursed her father, or tried to. Gradually Helen withdrew from everyone except Declan into a watchful guardedness. She “trained herself to be equal to things, whatever they would be.” But her defenses against the pain of the past are a barrier against present life. She mothered Decclan, came into his room at night the way she does for Cathal and Manus. Helen’s memory of the day before her father’s funeral when she arranged on her parents’ bed a suit of his clothes complete with underwear, tie, socks, hat, and shoes, then lay down beside the father figure she had made.

There is no father figure here; Hugh kept from us; Helen and Decclan’s father died young, we see almost nothing of the grandfather. We have instead Decclan and his two friends, three male characters match three female ones: the strong Paul (a counterpart to Helen) who tells us of his marriage with Francois, and Larry, who has had bitter experiences with his family about his homosexuality and shows us the hypocrisy of the world, but is bright and cheerful in temperament and gets along very well with the grandmother, planning architectural changes to the house we know she’ll never do, and she and he know it, but he does teach her to drive a little a stick-shift car.

The theme is not coming out but coming to terms with oneself. And humour — evolving from camp Larry’s unlikely affinity with the grandmother and from her own sardonic wit–leavens a sombre load. Each has a story:

Larry tells how he came out to his family on the six o’clock news. Paul tells how he and his mate were married by a priest in a traditional Catholic ceremony.

Granny Dora tells how she got the switchblade knife that’s in her apron pocket. Helen’s mother, Lily, who fled into a fast-lane business career and a huge designer house she occupies alone, tells Helen about her father’s last days.

Then we get Declan’s graphic deterioration. The family members and friends do not avoid him

It is about homosexual man regarded as other and I understand the frustration of some gay critics because Decclan is kept at a distance from us: he seems dependent, unable to make a permanent relationship like Paul, acting out as a child to Paul. But there’s revisiting the same theme over and over: Toibin has written novels focusing on a gay man, the one I’ve read is The Master, and Henry James lived away from his family, estranged. Looking at otherness is kept away to some extent

The sense of place, here, is germane and its adjoining strand–close to a disintegrating cliff, caught in the reiterative sweep of the lighthouse–permeate the book with an elemental atmosphere.

Beautiful spare graceful prose: measured and restrained as a Victorian memoir yet poetic in precision-”extraordinary skill for rendering time and place. This quiet novel achieves its effects gradually and with subtlety

The presence of Decclan’s homosexual friends influence the behavior of his family to one another and him as he lays dying in Blackwater Lightship, and we discussed pretty fully of the six main characters, three women, daughter who is now a mother, Helen, mother, Lily, and grandmother, Dora; and we went briefly the three men: Decclan, Paul and Larry.

Decclan is dependent, not strong, looks for help from friends. He has no permanent relationship with a significant other unlike Paul and perhaps Larry. We don’t learn much about his private life for the past years. He is the person in the book dying about whom we learn least. He is kept away from us, except to give us these graphic descriptions of his suffering as perceived by the other characters. Who does he seem to depend upon? Paul.

Paul knows what to do; he finds the emergency room to bring Decclan back to at the end. He is in charge. And he and Helen, as a similarly strong character exchanges stories. Thing is they are not that strong: they need someone depending on them. We see that it’s Helen’s husband Hugh who has the friends, who is the open more giving person, really there, and she needs that. Paul’s partner. What is his story? Francoise who was an only child and needed to be married to have security. Waiting for Paul to return.

Larry, you might call him the comedian, but he’s getting through life that way. Let’s look a little more carefully at the passage where he tells his parents and family he is gay: he gets involved with public politics and finds he appears on the six o’clock news as a gay person, which his family was watching. What is the hard thing? Not the actual event or even the retelling, but the reaction in the room to when he tells of his present love relationships with a nearby family where the men lead overtly heterosexual lives.

The book is named after a lighthouse that no longer exists. Helen and Lily are talking. We don’t learn much about Decclan’s private life nor about him directly; when we learn about Larry’s life it’s indirect and the powerful stuff is about here and now and yet what is not there matters; so too Paul’s relationship with Francoise. About how important memories are and the intangible invisible lives we don’t show publicly shape the public. At the close of the edition I ordered into the bookstore, we have Toibin’s statement about his book: he gains meaning and solace through reliving his memories, and bringing them alive again.

There are eight chapters with some of the stories (memories plus present time) achieving a kind of quiet climax in the 7th, with 1st as prologue, Helen at home, and 8th as the denouement as they prepare to and bring Decclan back to the hospital and Helen brings Lily back to her house. her mother has never been there before. For those working on Blackwater Lightship for this coming journal entry: a series of inset stories or memories embedded into the narrative. People talking with Helen present, Helen and Paul confiding. Then Helen and Decclan’s story from when their father dies We see grandmother and grandfather watching TV and arguing over what they see. Then Larry’s story, Lily’s story, Paul’s story (Toibin a Catholic and has written about Catholicism in travel book on Barcelona central here); Helen’s story (Decclan the spoilt favored child as the boy). Back to Lily’s story; how Blackwater Lightship as a long gone lighthouse is central; Helen’s story again; Helen’s portrait of Lily.


Our cat (Ian) facing forward

The cats — They run away and to the Grandmother this is a bad loss. Cats are affectionate clinging creatures; Lily’s story again; told to Helen, talking of grandmother and past, signals some understanding

Book about the rhythms of the night, and how people cope with death: the Grandmother turns to these mediums who feed people’s desire to reach the dead. A dark theme of redemptive power of death runs through all his books.

The comfort in The Master is James got to live his own life to some extent. He lives as the heroine in The South, only because he has money, property and connections he manages far better than our heroine and ends up with his measure of independence, until of course he’s done in at the end by terrible sickness and death and again finds himself taken over. We see how he lives a life apart, the price of it and the achievement he managed by remaining apart.

I find I don’t have separate notes on The Master, but I do on an essay he wrote for the LRB: The Importance of Aunts. in his usual cagey or elusive way Toibin manages to say what he pretends would be “too crude” to say: especially with respect to James. The problem with Austen’s getting rid of the useless mother (which Toibin does connect to her relationship with her own) is the caricatures she creates are in danger of being taken non-seriously; you can laugh at Lady Betram, which would be to misunderstand or ignore her effect on Fanny Price.

I particularly like how Toibin deals with James’s family: he says how James loved his mother, but in the same breathe, how he kept away from her as it was all too painful to contemplate or let touch (and destroy) him. In Washington Square despite the understatement and careful avoidance of offering the readers ways of not reading what’s in front of them, her heroine has to cope with a loathsome father, a morally idiotic scheming aunt and her own pent-up sexuality. Her nobility comes from her enduring steadfastly being alone in the world. She escapes the fate of Isobel Archer because she knows how to feel and is not to be dissuaded by those around from to violate herself.

She is then a cynosure for James himself.

On Austen’s use of aunts: Austen feels free, on the other hand, to make Lady Catherine de Bourgh both imperious and comic, her wealth and power serving to make her ridiculous and unworthy rather than impressive; but she is not meant merely to amuse us, or to show us an aspect of English society that Austen thought was foolish. She is an aunt who does not prevail; her presence in the book succeeds in making Darcy more individual, less part of any system. Her function is to allow her nephew, who refuses to obey her, a sort of freedom, a way of standing alone that will make him worthy of Elizabeth ….


From the 1983 BBC Mansfield Park: Mrs Norris (Anna Massey) berating Fanny (Sylvestre le Tousel) in front of the whole family

The reader is invited, then, to dislike Mrs Norris for her cruelty and to admire Fanny for her forbearance. Austen’s biographer Claire Tomalin sees Mrs Norris as `one of the great villains of literature’; Tony Tanner thought she was `one of Jane Austen’s most impressive creations and indeed one of the most plausibly odious characters in fiction’. All this is clear, at times rather too clear. What isn’t clear is what the reader should feel about the other aunt, Lady Bertram, mistress of Mansfield Park. Tomalin dislikes her. `Fanny’s experience at Mansfield Park is bitter as no other childhood is in Austen’s work. Her aunt, Lady Bertram, is virtually an imbecile; she may be a comic character, and not ill-tempered, but the effects of her extreme placidity are not comic …

Just one from James: This sexualisation of an aunt figure is what gives the book its power. James radically destabilises the category, moves Madame Merle from being Isabel’s protector, who stands in for her mother without having a mother’s control, to being someone who seeks to damage and defeat her

More generally: The idea of the family as anathema to the novel in the 19th century, or the novel being an enactment of the destruction of the family and the rise of the stylish conscience, or the individual spirit, has more consequences than the replacement of mothers by aunts. As the century went on, novelists had to contemplate the afterlives of Elizabeth and Darcy, Fanny and Edmund, had to deal with the fact that these novels made families out of the very act of breaking them. It was clear that, since something fundamental had already been done to the idea of parents, something would also have to be done to the idea of marriage itself, since marriage was a dilution of the autonomy of the individual protagonist. There is a line that can be drawn between Trollope and George Eliot and Henry James: all three dramatise the same scene, each of them alert to its explosive implications. What they are alert to is the power of the lone, unattached male figure in the novel, someone with considerable sympathy, who moves unpredictably, who keeps his secrets and ego intact …


Photo of Henry James as the master, late in life

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Toibin’s greatness also lies in his quiet unassuming style. He gets so much in
and yet does not seem to stretch or have to overwrite at all. It’s part of what makes the novels seem so truthful.

He teaches we must find and live out our own identities at the same time as he compassionates those who do not as the cost can be so high.


From the movie adaptation of Blackwater Lightship

I need to read his Homage to Barcelona next. See the LRB archive for treasures.

Ellen

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From recent movie attempt to improve the Robinson Crusoe perspective: Crusoe (Aiden Quinn) and the Warrior (Ade Sapara) in Caleb Deschanel’s Crusoe Arthurian tales often show the process of rising slowly through violence and obedience in an aristocratic society — that’s what the boys are shown.

Dear friends and readers,

Another blog which is partly intended for my students. I was asked to provide a more sophisticated understanding of texts for my students, which would (inevitably?) lead them not only to want to publish, but to go about such projects in ways that ensure publication (what is the topic of converse this year, the actual self-interested goals of participants).

I didn’t quite do that because I know that most students don’t have a discipline, much less know what is the state of place in that discipline. Instead I assigned a couple of books which analyzed the cultural values behind our children’s language; the lack of choice; and devised projects so we could hear one another’s hard-worked upon papers, projects, hopes and dreams.

The first book was Bobbie Ann Mason’s Girl Sleuth: In search of Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton and Cherry Ames. I’ve written a blog summarizing, critiquing Mason’s book and setting it in the context of a short history of children’s literature.

Now I turn to Bob Dixon’s invaluable revelations — in the context of no talk at all about such things, his readings are revelations. Mason and Dixon function as two witnesses, two genuine cultural analyses of the values we find endorsed in classic and popularly distributed childrens’ books in schools and bookstores, and stories in magazines.

As Dixon says often what librarians and teachers present as their books and the reasons for choosing these are just lists or they simply describe a book through its blurb in praise or a rousing good tale …. As to popular series book, Mason says many of these books do not even turn up in schools and are not given prizes: they are just rewritten and distributed.

It needs also to be said first that many “classics” that young adults think they read — say Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe or Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels are a silently rewritten, dumbed-down, abridged and often sanitized or re-normed version of the original book.

And second, that everyone agrees much more common is to assign books with males as heroes; women writers will use their first initials to try to hide that the author is a woman. The book sells better. J. K. Rowling conforms precisely to both habits. Young male at school; she is J. K.

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Bob Dixon (1931-2008), grapefruit juice in hand

Who was Bob Dixon? He is highly unusual in reaching us because he was anti-capitalism as presently practiced. I’d call him a progressive, a strong progressive. Born in country Durham in the UK, brought up by grandparents, ill from TB when young so did not go to public school, but got into university and became a writer, teacher, poet, peace activist. He did not try to take on the establishment when teaching the way J. L. Carr did.

Bob wrote much poetry but his best known books are Catching Them Young and Playing Them False in which he showed how the same elitist, sexist and racist attitudes and political ideas were being instilled through toys, games and puzzles, and he exposed the role of the commercial interests in priming the compliance of future consumers and the mass media.

His autobiography is called The Wrong Bob Dixon shows clearly how his childhood in a family broken by narrow attitudes towards his unmarried mother, his illness and the war had affected him, and how his life post war had been blighted by those same narrow attitudes and the political system that confines the ambition and natural talent and creativity of young people in the education system.

A tribute was paid to his memory in 2008 during a demonstration against war. He is not in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography nor the Literature Resource Center. The establishment erases him.

Those chapters I chose from Catching Them Young deal with issues of real concern today, sore ones: class; the imperialist-colonialist thinking and feeling which leads to devastating wars abroad; how religious allegory is used to squash an understanding of today’s world’s organizations and structures and bewilder any attempt to ameliorate the lot of most people on the earth.

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From John Boorman’s Excalibur, an Athurian epic-romance:
Arthurian tales often show the process of rising slowly through violence and obedience in an aristocratic society — that’s what the stories from the point of view of a boy show us centrally

Snakes and Ladders

Dixon opens with Plato because with Plato begins the idea you can type people and also have ideal types everyone should aspire to. Dixon then asks the question why everyone we go we see a form of social apartheid and the visibilia of rank. Until the 19th century not only in the US but the UK the way the classes were explained were it’s God’s doings. Only by charity should or can you act to change this and that means only the “deserving poor.”

This is followed by a section on language and how language is used to differentiate and stigmatize people. Stigmatizing goes on all the time in all sorts of ways.

What we have is a literature that mirrors what is expected of a middle class child and norms. This is true of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake. We see this reflection in Bobbsey Twins, for example, on TV it’s been shown that the way people dress, the jobs we see that are given respect are middle and upper middle. Dixon suggests that working class norms are different, less demanding probably because less is expected. IQs and in the UK 11 plus exams where used to send some children to college and the rest to vocational schools and stop education early.

Dixon goes over fables and stories of people winning money and what they do with it: the moral here is to be happy with your lot. Know your place. It’s where you belong. We might say in the US this is not so (pp. 47-51).

Another important line of thought offered; this is the mantra of US public arenas. It’s asserted that anyone can have anything you want, you need only will it. Will it read hard, not for doctors’ wives just again.

Therefore if you don’t have everything you want, it’s your fault. It’s not the schools, lack of opportunities, connections, not knowing the right manners that stop you.

At every turn in most stories there are implications about social class, status and politics. It’s unavoidable because it’s implicit in our lives. What he is pointing out is the particular single perspective that is repeatedly imposed on children.

Dixon teaches us how to read: he makes points rarely made, e.g. “the germ of virtually every work of literature is conflict. The key is to look at the way the reader or view’s sympathies are aligned. I’ll give an example from a decent recent police procedural: Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren. It is very unusual for someone to sympathize with illegal immigrants in hiding. The story concerns the murder of two young woman who clean hotels for a living. The murderer is a male Bosnian who has raped one of them and wants to cover this up; they also know about a massacre that occurred that was covered up and he killed the other lest she tell once her sister was dead.

It’s not childlike for they are not presented as saints — no Uncle Toms — but real people interacting with real motives, of fear, desire for revenge, for jobs in hideous circumstances of wars brought about by ethnic rivalries is the way this show presents it.

Authors chosen not evil; they are middle class and this is their world, Nesbitt’s animal fables (p 58). I asked about the short answers the test about The History of Sandford and Merton so maybe I had better skip these two pages. But I”ll read them anyway (pp. 60-61). But little Tommy reminds me of little Trixie: how terrible to be rich they say; it’s our duty to accept and be glad our condition is no worse they say.

Forgotten is the idea that society is a contract and all of us are in it together and need one another and use one another.

Another problem is one we find in Dickens: the poor or working class are seen entirely from outside. Why do condescending, demeaning, implausible fictions continue to be shown? Downton Abbey showed two servants utterly abject before the master lord of the house; he is just generosity itself as he is not going to fire the aging woman but pay for her cataract operation. Won’t up her salary nor conditions of employment (pp. 67-69)

It’s an intensely class conscious world: He exposes a whole array of such books and only in the 1930 did they begin to circulate widely. takes these books and shows how the same paradigms are working out in classics movies for children are still made from: Francis Hodgson Burnett’s Little Princess, Secret Garden

Chapter ends on Tarzan of the Apes: Tarzan an aristocrat in leopard skins, heredity all.

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Lagaan, a re-reading of British imperialism

Empire: Fiction follows Flag

This is an important chapter because it is so rare for people to go beyond showing racism in the US towards African-Americans and bring out the colonialist ideology that supports these terrible wars we partly fund by funding the gov’ts that pursue them.

A three page piece on Robinson Crusoe which I assigned. It’s a more peaceful book than some (p. 75) The ultimate arbiter and justification of all these is that Christianity is a better religion, the western way of life superior. At one time this was tooted unashamedly, now these ideas come in through the back door in the form of programs – in Iraq a number of laws passed to turn the essentially tribal structure of the society into a capitalist friendly one, and they passed laws against unions. They do not help women.

Killing an important part of this tradition (p. 77) as well as justification by Christianity, imperialist. Except later on as sex objects by and large women don’t turn up in these action-adventure tales and we will see very few in Ox-Bow Incidents which has some of the features of cowboy stories (p 78).

Many close imitations and (pp. 78-98) give us many variations on these foreign glamor stories, and ends on Kipling — who I think got a Nobel Prize – as to style he can write (1907). India is still a major realm in western literature; witness Jhumpa Lahiri.

The books mentioned here include authors that Mr Ellerbee’s son, Edgar in A Month in the Country, wants to win as a prize for church-going. Coral Island is the book Edgar longs for (p. 85). The aim of colonialism was to relieve unemployment at home — you could snatch land. Read the tones (p. 82). There has been change here: the Black Hole of Calcutta is now presented as part of the war of independence for India in films (p. 83) — but the presentation of the ungrateful (unnatural?) people who don’t appreciate our arms, and companies is found in the way Afghanistan is discussed today, Iraq and Iran (p 83). They don’t want us; we make things worse. The story of the Indian girl who fawns on the hero, saves him, wants to be Anglicized. That’s our Pocahontas myth (p 84). She’s really part English the way peasant girls turn out to be princesses. Part of fairy tale.

As a bye-blow these stores enforce kidnapping, child abuse and kidnapping, but I carry on. G. A. Henty, another author writing in this vein. Henty wrote hundreds of these action-adventure, sometimes science fiction, sometimes boys’ adventure-stories.

Later 19th century religion in retreat, more children are educated in schools, schools are placed where children may be indoctrinated in patriotism: the belief it’s in your interest to go to these wars and kill or be killed (p 89)

Rider Haggard (She, King Solomon’s Mines) a heady mix of sexism, imperialist wars, native Tarzan stuff. Kipling’s Jungle books: boy scouts come out of this era, Baden Powell drew heavily on the jungle books. 3. These show much cruelty to animals, don’t appear to take seriously they have feelings and an existence of their own.

These formulas remain unchanged, are only tweaked some so I didn’t assign anything on the later books except Heinlein as that allows us to see him in the context or generic background out of which his work comes and to which it belong (p. 114): Starship Troopers, a very popular glorification of war;

It ought to be a strange idea that “fighting and killing people” makes one a man only it isn’t. Ultimately all this destruction, death, maiming do come forward at the Met. I’ll come back to times where small tribes fought small tribes but the conditions have so changed that this evolved point of view functions very differently today.

I did omit Roald Dahl (pp. 111-113); his are colonialist in thrust. I find Dahl’s books so nasty where horrible things happen apart from the hero, they startle me. I have read they are liked because they fuel children’s intense resentment, give children a chance to act out revenge. Alone among popular books they are sometimes analysed and critiqued adversely. I think it’s because they do encourage hostile emotions to adults. He makes adults uncomfortable. I have read by one student a real defense of Dahl’s relatively unknown Matilda which I admit to no longer remembering but thinking the student had understood what the manipulation was.

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Fangorn Forest, just outside Fairfax county

Supernatural: Religion, Magic and Mystification

The basic paradigms or story lines and suppositions are found in early religious didactic literature where after all a belief in the supernatural is central. Religion depends on a belief in a supernatural realm and beings.

Dixon begins with Winstanley because many religious groups have been rebels against the social order; most of them ruthlessly squashed – by the present establishment and its religious leaders. Doctrines are important in order to control ways of thought. Do not want people believing in too wild ideas; you want to control the fantasy.

I read Pilgrim’s Progress when a girl. Its sales were once close to the Bible; it’s written in very simple English with simple allegories a child can follow. Copies that are sold today are often rewritten in modern English (pp. 121-22 for Robinson’s mindset).

We are taught hard lessons in such schools. Where we learn what social quietism, obedience is how children experience patience; you must learn to suffer, nothing against social order ever.

He points out such books teach children self-contempt: the way the girl sleuth presents an impossible ideal is what the girl cannot not coming up to and so gives her a false body image (“I am fat”), and illegitimate norms she must and yet cannot follow, so “feelings of personal worthlessness” and self-abasement are part of children’s religious literature. Awe is one favorite mood.

Books made cheap and they are used to reinforce from another stand point what we see in action adventure. We are to despise the poor, the losers they are called in US society. I believe Romney said he had no interest in the poor. Some huge percentage of the US population nowadays.

We have the usual suspects, books proselytized for and no explanation of their values given — J. R. R. Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin (who I know from being on a listserv with her — as a poet), Madeleine L’Engle, Richard Adams and C. S. Lewis. He does cite some that are good and changing the mode: I’ll cite The Golden Compass by Philip Pulman (heroine). We get action adventure female-heroes in these. As we do in modern detective novels. and police procedural there are a few. Alas, often sexed up sex objects.

Basically Dixon objects to teaching them to die as a matter of course, and teaching them they can be prostitute, Five hours as beautiful. I’s how they mystify life and make you accept whatever is by making all a mystery; they also allow us to defy laws of nature: gravity, death; great escapist quests, sometimes with animals that we can identify with. The works slide into science fiction and allegories. Allegory where acts and people easily stand for concepts part of the terrain.

Evil is this disembodied force or someone is simply shown as maliciously evil (usually the result of envy — you are not to envy others what they have; if you are outcast, it’s your fault

Evil not located in the poor; anyway this often takes place where poverty is irrelevant; rather it’s class and place antagonisms that are manipulated. Great love of ceremony and ritual (p 149).

I agree with Dixon that the asserted idea children like a black and white world has yet to be proved; but if it’s a childish way of seeing the world, why do adults promote it? (p. 150)


2008 cover for Wrinkle in Time

Dixon’s comments on Madeleine L’Engle are eye-opening: enforced conformity seems to stand for communism so it’s really a political struggle that she disguises with mysticism. Her idea is matter is getting unbalanced. Her books makes no sense of the world to children.

Watership Down: a kind of smug complacency, highly authoritarian military warren. The rabbits set up a police state. In another book Adams makes no distinction between the kind of suffering that is endemic in human nature in a society (so religion becomes a kind of comfort, a hoped-for protection) and the kind that can be changed by changing human social circumstances (p 154.)

To me the sickest book I’ve read for children is G. H. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. Dixon says the self-absorption it encourages makes all that happens outside the self unimportant. I remember it justifying death; a kind of medieval attitude towards miracles as what we wait around for. Devils everywhere who must be smashed. Lewis makes it explicit that the Narnia books have a Christian allegory at the center. Among other things he’s a fervent monarchist, ridicules progressive schools. He married for the first time late in life and part of his outlook is naive.

Ends on a book that shows some change. TwoPence a Tub by Susan Price. It sets up an actual debate. Death is God’s way of punishing these strikers. Does God want these people to suffer. The strike doesn’t achieve much: the men go back to longer hours and cut wages.

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To conclude:

Political correctness is a phrase hurled at people who are perfectly sincere in wanting to improve the world. They don’t talk or act the way they do to obey some strange convention or impress others; they really want to see a better life for all.

What we see on TV, in the movies, read in books has a profound influence on what we do and act effectively towards gaining a good adult life for ourselves and others.

Ellen

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