Some people say that life is the thing, but I much prefer reading.” — Logan Pearsall Smith
“I have lost friends, some by death… others through sheer inability to cross the street. — Virginia Woolf
Hans Holbein, possibly Katherine Howard (fifth wife of Henry VIII)
Dear friends and readers,
Do you find, gentle reader, that you sometimes remember the very first books you ever loved or read and realize that on some level you are still delving there? The first adult books I ever read — taken out of the adult library with an adult card were fat thick biographies of Renaissance queens. I still see the sturdy dull brown covers (they were recovered older books) of 2 books one on Margaret de Navarre and one on her daugjhter, Jeanne d’Albret. Many years later: how many years did I spend reading, researching Renaissance women, writing about them? I’ve now read Margaret’s long inward meditation Dante-like journey poem, Prisons, in an English translation, her spiritual “chansons” in French and literary critical books, one on her and Vittoria Colonna compared (Silvia Laura Ansermin), others on the Heptameron, especially good, Patricia Francis Chokalian, Rape and Writing in the Heptameron, and one of the most vivid insightful books on a Renaissance woman I’ve ever found, Francois Kermina’s Jeanne d’Albret: La mere passionnee d’Henri IV, and what I felt was its cousin Kermina’s study of Madame Roland or la Passion Revolutionaire.
It seems to me that part of my graduate study and the first 20 years of reading and writing after I left graduate school which culminated in my translations of Vittoria Colonna and Veronica Gambara and my student of Renaissance women’s life-writing is another coming full circle.
A modern imagined idea of Sally Hemings from some contemporary descriptions, probably idealized
Well, I’ve been unexpectedly hooked by a book I can’t recommend but will blog about when I’ve finished it: Cynthia Kierner’s Martha Jefferson Randolph, Daughter of Monticello, the oldest white daughter of Thomas Jefferson by his first wife, Martha Wayles Skelton. It’s remarkably readable, and reveals sufficiently a particular life of an 18th century gentlewoman at the same time as it consistently omits much about the second central player, Jefferson himself: his political vision as well as his private life apart from his white family and public life: the relationship with the woman who had she not been African-American and his slave might have been called his second wife: Sally Hemings. Sally certainly lived enough years with and bore many children by him.
I’m intrigued by a relationship I can’t delve: one of the first semi-adult books I remember reading, around age 10, was a slenderish (novella-length) biography meant for say an adolescent, Patsy Jefferson. I can’t recall the author. It was not a “young adult fiction” (or non-fiction), of the sort publishers produce today, deliberately written to a niche, simplified prose and somewhat naive realities, but a real reading book but in the young adult section of an old-fashioned library (in the Bronx where I grew up), one of several rows of books picked out by librarians. Many years later I picked up a copy of another book very like it, which I also read, slightly later (I was 11) LouAnn Gaeddert’s All in All, a biography of George Eliot. Produced by Dutton, I reread it when I found it and showed it to my older daughter, who alas did not show much interest. It is really suitable for a young adolescent or teen; it’s relatively frank telling of George Eliot’s life and career, how she left her father over a religious crisis, went to London, fell in love with Lewes who could not marry her, went to live with him, built a career, and when he predeceased her, her second marriage and death not long afterward. It even has some mild literary criticism.
I don’t know that I’ve come quite full circle with Patsy since what I have in my hands also and will read next is Annette Gordon-Read, The Hemingses of Monticello: the story not only of Sally, but of her mother who was a slave and had many children by Jefferson’s first wife’s father. These children all called Hemings are the subject of this arduously researched book. It’s both books that I need to read and I think I need to because I want to return to what I began when I was 10 and now read a fully adequate or adequate book on this Jefferson’s daughter — and second common-law enslaved wife.
Many years after All in All I can say that having read all Eliot’s fiction, a lot of her non-fiction, several biographies, her life-writing in various forms and lots of literary criticism, plus watched a number of great film adaptations, I fulfilled what I began when I read Gaeddert’s book.
Jodhi May as Mirah Lapidoth in Andrew Davies’ 2002 film adaptation of Eliot’s Daniel Deronda — May consistently appears as precisely the heroine type I bond with again and again — from Sarah Lennox in Aristocrats to Anne Boleyn in a fine BBC film
None of this is part of the reading I keep planning will be my whole occupation over this fall. I just couldn’t resist Patsy as over the years I’ve not been able to resist George Eliot, the Brontes, Austen, Renaissance queens and literary women, all begun when I was young.
A corollary is that I find I am very disappointed by women who write books with male heroes at the center. Reading about the gender fault-line in tastes this week I came across the common or at least familiar idea that women are willing to make the cross-over and read books with men at the center as happily as they do women at the center and enjoy identifying easily with the heroes while men are often not willing to make the cross-over. Some men are not just embarrassed to admit they enjoy women’s books and identify with women’s heroines (not just read them as one would about an erotic object); they genuinely cannot or will not enter into a book with a female at the center.
In my experience, as limited as it is (for how many friends have I had with whom I discuss this sort of thing and are willing to be truly candid), I’ve found a lot of women like me. I strongly strongly prefer a novel with a woman at the center and have found I often like them best when the book is written by a woman. You can get men who come close to writing heroine’s texts or whose heroes have a feminine sensibility, can encompass female obsessions, needs, roles (Trollope, Henry James, E.M. Forster, LeCarre) but I find I often find a greater satisfaction when this kind of novel is by a woman (say Gaskell or Oliphant). I don’t make the cross-over in movies with ease either.
And yet I’ve fallen in love with these historical Poldark fictions by Winston Graham where he has males at the center as much and more than his females, intelligent, complex characters. I identify with his males too. In the last Poldark, Bella Poldark I found I recognized my own kind of self-destructive needling of people and social awkwardness stemming from a background of rejection by one parent and over-possession by the other: Valentine Warleggan. How can this be? I want to understand. My idea is to explore historical fiction, long a favorite with me but also romance and mystery and how these two latter popular kinds blend in with historical fiction. I’ve already done some of this with my reading of Jerome de Groot and Helen Hughes, but I’m not satisfied. Why these books? of course I know it’s something individual in me that a chord is hitting, and that he keeps hitting it in his major characters and their fates. Can I find someone who comes near to discussing this chord as it comes out in historical fiction or these kinds? If nothing else, I’d be able to predict what book I should read next and not waste my little time left.
So I began again with Pamela Regis’s book about what’s called “romance novels” for women. Suffice to say I discovered that (what I already knew) while Graham has some romance patterns, his books do not at all fit into Regis’s notion. Still in reading the first half of Regis’s book I thought Pamela Regis did make visible a pattern that is true to many heroine’s texts, one most feminists overlook.
Regis suggests there are 8 essential motifs or events/occurrences found in romance novels that she defines as a heroine-centered novel about the falling in love and courtship of a woman which ends happily in marriage. According to her, this plot-design allows for the reading traveling with the heroine from innocence into maturity. The stages are: first a definition or description of a society (often flawed, disordered); the meeting of the heroine with the hero; a barrier which keeps them apart; an intense attraction; a declaration of love; a point where all is despaired of (ritual death); then recognition (that you are all in all to one another, you have found your deeply congenial mate); and, lastly, betrothal. The text (or film) can end here, but three more paradigmatic events often recur: the wedding, dance or fete, which brings all the characters together; the exiling of a scapegoat who represents the worst norms of behavior (e.g., in Austen’s P&P Wickham), and someone who behaves very badly converted to agree to the marriage of the central pair sufficiently (again in Austen’s P&P, Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Miss Bingley, just).
I cited Austen’s P&P twice. Regis declares Austen’s P&P the most perfect romance novel ever written, and it seems clear that she just about derives her paradigms from this novel. Not altogether as her examples from the 18th and 19th century include Richardson’s Pamela, Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Forster’s A Room with a View.
I am bothered by several troubling elements in her book. First, she insists that the romance novel have a happy ending. If it does not, it cannot be a “good” or successful one. It will not have done its “job” or performed its “function.” The same idea was produced in Janice Radway’s famous study of romances as read by ordinary women in a mid-western commnunity. Thus DuMaurier’s Rebecca (courtship can also occur after a marriage) and Mitchell’s GWTW cannot be “good” romance novels as their endings are qualified. I cannot see this. I agree with Regis and others that a marriage at the close of a book need not be an imprisonment at all: it can provide real liberty within the terms a real society offers, contentment, security, peace. But I do not see that one must have a happy ending. It seems not to be important at all to Regis what are the particular inward values a novel promulgates (like the trade of virginity for high status in Pamela). I prefer a sad ending to one that is not believable or one based on ugly values the couple will then embody in their lives (be these competition, exploitation, greed, pride whatever).
This reminds me of how I’ve read repeatedly that good mystery novels are escapist and comfort book. To the contrary, when I’m really involved in a mystery novel where characters I care about are at risk of harm (murder, rape), I feel all anxiety, not comfort. I rise from a Susan Hill novel disquieted about society — as I should be, given norms of aggressive behavior allowed. What I like is the qualified happy, unhappy or making do ending.
Jodhi May as the feminine lesbian in Tipping the Velvet (Andrew Davies’ film from Sarah Walters’ marvelous romance novel)
Last in the last part of Regis’s book her examples of 20th century romance novels are all poor and trite: she suddenly shows herself enamored of glamor, of alpha males, accepts rape, does not at all demand complex psychology, will not tolerate truly vulnerable, sensitive, distressed hurt heroes or heroines who at the close are worldly failures.
So one must take the 8 stages and the three optional paradigms apart from the rest of Regis’s perspective and use them to understand genuinely humane, intelligent complex romances. For myself I have to have a definition of romance much wider than the courtship pattern, one which includes other patterns of woman’s lives after marriage and if they don’t marry at all. It must only have a happy ending that is warranted and one that does not celebrate meretricious or unexamined values. With this corrective, I find myself thinking back to so many of the novels by women (and men) with heroines at the center which I’ve loved very much and understanding their structures much better.
I have begun Ford Madox Ford’s famous Fifth Queen: about Katherine Howard and it seems to me superior to Hilary Mantel’s two-prize winning historical fictions set in the Renaissance, centering on the earlier Tudor courts and Thomas Cromwell. This Cromwell has fascinated fine minds: like Bolt for his Man for All Seasons.
I do need companionship and am finding in these books companionship and explanations for why I do find it here. I was not able to lead the 20th century careerist modern woman’s life nor am that of the socially active mother or wife, and these eras (pre-20th century) before the recent constructions of these roles emerged offers me women who feel the way I do. Friends. Instead of writing this blog I could’ve told you a personal story, reader, that ended badly for me, but that kind of thing is supposed to be reserved for my Sylvia blog and after all it is too painful and too much about cyberspace experiences for me to be able to do it.
I find myself reading today, more than 56 years after I was born and I first began to read books meant for adult and semi-adult readers, the same kinds of matter I read from the time I started reading, only I take a much more knowledgeable, sophisticated and I sincerely hope enlightened approach.
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