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Hoffamily

Dear friends and readers,

When Izzy and I arrived at our local better cinema and saw to get into one of the movies we had to join onto a long line thick with people, I was startled to find this was for Saving Mr Banks! which in the trailers had been represented as about a crabby old maid schoolteacher type giving the warm and wonderful Walt Disney a hard time, rejecting his of course charming Disneyland. We had assumed it was for The Hobbit.

I figured and still think that the 4 full Mary Poppins books are not widely read, but liked by a sub-group of reading girls, Anglophilic, with an unusual penchant for implicit meanings and respect for the old-fashioned values of decorum, titillated by strictness. I liked the 1964 Mary Poppins musical, but know it is wildly disparate from Travers’s books. (See my blog on Pamela Lyndon Travers, woman writer of children’s books.)

As we stood there and saw the line grow past us and out the door into the cold, I reminded myself the new film, Saving Mr Banks, did have big-name stars with strong talent (Emma Thompson as PL, Tom Hanks as Walt); was a Disney film and thus guaranteed-to-be-wholesome film, and of course would be connected to the 1964 Mary Poppins film, which perhaps had made a very distorted view of the original character into a household icon.

I’m writing this blog because I’ve since discovered that in more popularly oriented movie-houses parents had brought children (not what the crowd at this art house does) and overtly removed these kiddies from the unexpectedly unsuitable material. That means the hum and buzz is giving a wrong impression of what this film is about and is largely responsible for the big audiences; the few thoughtful reviews concentrate on how the film misrepresents the final outcome of the strong conflicts between Travers and Disney over the nature, mood, characteristics and specifics of the 1964 Mary Poppins film: in the film she relents mostly and is deeply moved by the film insofar as it reflects the autobiograpical sources of her books; in reality; she hated the film.. But see Caitlin Flannagan’s Becoming Mary Poppins.

DisneyAndrewsTravers
Promotional shot at the premier to which Travers had not been invited lest she convey her sharp disapproval: the photo shows she disguised her feelings that night

What’s been left out from accounts is more than 50% of Saving Mr Banks‘s matter: P.L. Travers’s childhood in Australia; few stills of Ruth Wilson as Mrs Hof, Colin Farrell as Mr Hof (the original we are told of Mr Banks in the books), and hardly any retelling of how Mr Hof is first responsible for moving his family from the comparative respectability and comfort of an upper middle class home in a citified area of Australia (New South Wales? Queensland?) into the hinterlands (called Allora in the film, perhaps central or western Australia) where he proceeded to become a thorough alcoholic and failure as a bank manager (someone who could not cope with the stress, repression, hard commercialism of any money-making occupation). We see him humiliate himself and family in a scene on a public stage, fall to the ground and slowly die of TB and delirium tremens. At one point Mrs Hof tries to kill herself by drowning. The child, Helen, called Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley) by her father, who since renamed herself Pamela and then PL (Lyndon a middle name) is totally involved, worshipping and feeling for her father,

savingMrBanksfatherdaughter,

trying to save her mother. A sister turns up to help them, dressed in the film like Mary Poppins in the book with a little of her outward sternness.

This does explain to me for the first time the strange turn the 1964 Mary Poppins takes: Mr Banks risks losing his job by refusing to give all his time to his work when he is made to realize he is neglecting his family; he refuses to yield to pressure and insists on going to fly a kite at the film’s end, when of course he is forgiven and hired back by the bank’s aged boss: Dick Van Dyke played this role as well as Bert, the match man, made in the film a lover-suitor for Mary Poppins, while in the books this is only hinted at, slightly and sometimes denied. There is no such story in any of the four MP books written by 1964 (MP, MP Comes Back, MP in the Park, MP opens the door). It is a much bowdlerized version of Travers’s father’s behavior. In life he did not die of TB either, but influenza; the real Mrs Hof had connections with powerful whites in Australia (and her sister had money).

Saving Mr Banks then may be said to inject back into the books the self-reflexive deeper material compelling the writer’s creation of Mary Poppins as a kind of strange savior of the family: the strangeness is in the way she does this: in adventure after adventure the children find themselves suddenly in another realm of reality, often connected to the zodiac or stars in the sky, the sun, sometimes natural worlds in a green park. Sometimes the figures met there are bullies, mean, or downtrodden and wanting and in need of affection. Mary is called upon to fix a situation, she does and she is worshipped there as a good kind all powerful woman (not the stern cold governess-figure she seems to be to outsiders), and each time the children return to Cherry Tree Lane somehow rejuvenated.

None of the above gets into the 1964 Mary Poppins except the passage to another idyllic place (pastoral and filled with penguins and animated figures) through Bert’s chalk sidewalk pictures (something that does happen in one of the four books’ adventures). Some does get into this 2013 Saving Mr Banks: the outward stern, cold, fussy, dominatrix feel of Ms Travers or Pamela as played superbly well by Emma Thompson is modeled partly on the book’s Mary Poppins. Thompson also conveys non-caricatured hurt, quiet moments of self-doubt, disquiet, with gestures that at moments reminded me of her most magnificent performance in Wit.

saving-mr-banks-emma-thompson

The advertisements for the film emphasize the relationship of Travers and Disney (much idealized, and played more subtly than at first appears by Tom Hanks):

tom-hanks-emma-thompsoncarousel

Some of the Saving Mr Banks‘s worst moments come out in this strand: Walt’s long preachy speech to Pamela (he insists on a first-name basis right away) about how everyone can have or do what they want if only they try or work hard enough (a popular rightist American myth — Disney was an arch-reactionary it is true). (See Slate article on this meeting where she agreed to go along with the film.) Thompson’s imitation of a wry whose guardedness isolates her and accounts for how unhappy she makes herself (message: socializing is the most important thing to do well in life).

SAVING MR. BANKS

The strand in Saving Mr Banks which tells the story of Travers’s strong reluctance to give over the rights to Disney, her fights with the creative song-writers, Richard and Robert Sherman (David Schwartzman and D. J. Novak) and script writer, Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) are part of the finer threads in the film: we see them inventing and singing some of the better and still well-known numbers from the 1964 film — which as a song-and-dance musical is marvelous (especially where Van Dyke dances with a chorus of men and with Julie Andrews up a stairway into the sky).

DVDykeontheroof

I felt nostalgia for the film as these were sketched out by the creators, and Thompson-as-Travers’s disapproval added a piquant sauce to the mix. I remember how Izzy loved the film as a child. She has read at least a couple of the books.

The best companionable feeling in the Saving Mr Banks derives from Thompson as P.L. Travers’ relationship with Paul Giamatti as Ralph, her driver. He is the on-going person we see her with; at the first she bullies him and mocks his efforts at ingratiation and talk about the sunny weather, but eventually she comes to depend on him, especially when she has no invitation to the premier and he drives her there and provides her with support.

DrivingMsTravers
Driving Ms Travers

The most natural moment of friendship occurs when she is leaving L.A. after having rejected the script when she discovers it will have animated figures (she had been promised it would not) doing inanely silly gestures with clothes. She is seen sitting in the grass deeply distressed to think of what is happening to her story, and the driver comes over and they talk. Here she learns of his disabled daughter at home; I have read that disabled figures are figuring more in mainstream films, and Thompson as Travers is several times rebuked for her demands for formality by stories of the hardships others experienced in life as if precise manners must be an indication of obtuse snobbishness.

As she and her driver bid adieu, she addresses him as Ralph (his first name) and he addresses her as Pamela. Throughout the film her formal or more old-fashioned approach to life is seen in her discomfort in being required to start relationships on a first name basis immediately. I understand that as that is the way it was when I was a child. It’s not snobbishness; it’s a way of making some relationships more special and acknowledging intimacy that’s real. She is followed by Disney to England and he preaches his preachy-speech of his hardships in life, his father, and voila she is convinced — having liked “Let’s go fly a kite” and the depiction of Mr Banks in the film (by David Tomlinson).

Often the best parts of films don’t make it anywhere near the trailer, but this time they are also failing to get into the reviews — perhaps deliberately? Makers and critics of films like to see what is not discussably in the open brought out visually and through story but themselves in the case of expected popular audiences not risk going into tabooed matter.

Saving Mr Banks‘s script is by two women: Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith. I wondered if they had loved the Mary Poppins books, and wrote this movie in tribute to P.L. with a view of doing some justice to her and revealing some of the deeper explicable sources of the books.

I am interested in Australian literature, which I now see the Mary Poppins books belong to, and am tempted to buy one of the biographies of P.L. Travers. Patricia Deemers’s Twayne book may be the sensible one, but Valerie Lawson’s look like the writing of someone deeply engaged by the author and her books. Out of the Sky She Came: The Life of P.L. Travers, Creator of Mary Poppins. The sky provides the highest moments in the books and the 1964 film; this more sceptical disillusioned film (when it’s at its best) makes the sky the place planes fly across, but from time to time a sky is filmed, blue, with lovely clouds, as symbols of the books’ visions.

Bert&Mary
Bert and Mary looking up into the sky (1964 Mary Poppins)

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

Over on my Austen reveries blog, I expended many electrons on this book: a daughter of Richardson’s Pamela and Cleland’s Fanny Hill, sister to Nabokov’s Lolita — all to no avail (if you read the comments).

So I thought I’d try the a-picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words method:

Who sez I can’t write a short blog,
Ellen

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As Marilyn Monroe


A masquerade ball: life for women as gothic

Dear friends and readers,

There is a wonderful exhibit, a full retrospective of Cindy Sherman’s career as a photographer on right now at the Museum of Modern Art. It takes you through all the phases of her career, from the 1950s/60s imitations, to the later grotesques, to the more recent showing of the underlying reality of powerful and rich and patronizing women. This column by Hal Foster at the London Review of Books summarizes the consensus view.

For myself when I looked at this shot I saw what I was doing at age 15 without being aware of it:


Cindy Sherman (MoMa exhibit), circa 1950s


Me, age 15, 1961, Rocky Point beach

My friend, Diana Birchall was struck a while back by the uncanny similarity of one of her a year younger (14), also on a beach:

She says she saw herself as doing a ballet step, and she is not lying down. I was posed that way by a cousin, then aged 16 (to my 15) and he and I were not innocent by that time but as to making the icon, that is what we were unconscious of. One swallow does not a summer make. We have here two utterly disparate girls (from at the time different backgrounds) on two different beaches from different years should be doing the same thing is the telling thing. It’s necessary for Sherman to use herself, because she does understand what she is exposing: that’s why her photo of herself is openly kittenish. Bridget Bardot comes to mind..

The many images in Cindy Sherman’s photographs of women at the exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art are mostly about how women show themselves to the world, and the inner reactions of their spirits as glimpsed through the social self. Sherman photographs herself to bring this out. As Marilyn Monroe, she brings out the anguish. Details — such as the shape and manipulation of our bodies, our gestures, small details — speak volumes about that.

One has to look and look again. This is the experience of seeing motion pictures, which are pictures moving with voice, stories, music.

A brief overview in pictures:


Sherman’s early work: accompanying, illustrating Betty Friedan


Exposing Andrew Wyeth’s cruelty to a disabled woman in the famous painting of Christina unable to reach the house


What it does to you, the type you must be, to be a patroness of the arts


We are asked to admire these patronesses (as in the Renaissance), well here you see the iron soul beneath the rich robes


She had a period of making grotesqueries, often using Renaissance imagery: this is a milder one as I don’t want to attract hostile attention to my blog


Push back

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Now I write this blog because I notice what has been happening is dismissal and erasure of the meaning and function of Sherman’s work.

This is a sickening article from the New York Review of Books (59:10, 2012): a major show by a feminist artist and they give it to Sanford Schwartz — and quite deliberately chose the ugliest more unpleasant images which instead of exposing the feminist analysis of culture present us with mean looking women. It is online to all. Unusual for an art exhibit article for the NYRB. They wanted to make lots of people could read this. She’s an impersonator you see. Making it up. Reveling in herself. Yes she uses herself as a model. Lots of women have. It’s cheap.

I thought to myself, this is an aberration, it is the complacent NYRB with its usual male ostrichs. But no. Today I came across another similar column.

One might have hoped a woman reviewer would talk about the meaning of the exhibit. In Paula Marantz Cohen’s review for Times Literary Supplement (April 27, 2012, p 180), not available publicly online, but no big loss, the closest to an understanding she comes is “short of a hackneyed feminism, there is very little that one can say about what her art means.” Very little one can say? To expose our pornified culture is hackneyed. To bring home what drives women anywhere from anorexia and self-conscious manipulation of their bodies to simply feeling bad about themselves, spending huge sums to beauticians, hot-waxing, is meaninglessness, hackneyed. To be sure, it does not seem to do any good if change is our criteria.

For Cohen, Sherman’s art is again about her dressing up. She says the “curatorial decision” to provide explanations “seems particularly wrong-headed,” but we are not told what these explanations are for the most part. One of a middle-aged woman staring at herself in the mirror (bourgeois, Sherman herself) is described by the curator as something vain, filled with pathos, a “struggle with the impossible standards of beauty that prevail in a youth- and status-obsessed culture.” No, Cohen says it’s about the love women have of dressing up, and why shouldn’t they have that pleasure?

Last night I watched Lena Dunham’s HBO situation comedy, Girls and in two key scenes with men we see dressing up is not much fun. She goes over to her boyfriend’s apartment. She texts him, he does not text her. While there to keep his affection and interest, she allows him to bugger her and enact the position of self-tied up slave. In another a male boss who she attempts to please, and for which situation she has dressed up as the semi-bohemian graduate student fires her when she asks to be paid for her work. She is working there for no money at all. (See insightful review, NYRB, June 7, 2012, by Elaine Blair.)

Now Cindy Sherman has included the poignant self Lena Dunham is working out of for her show:


Wistful’s the word here

By damning with faint praise, by saying the exhibit makes him uncomfortable and there’s something grating and wrong about this sort of thing (Schwartz), by referring in an offhand disdainful way to what makes the exhibit important and never explaining this (Cohen), you do a hatchet job on the exhibit. Since to understand art, you must see it. In future, people studying Sherman’s work will have to go on such write-ups. This is how to destroy feminism, how to perpetuate what Sherman is trying to change through awareness.

It’s awareness. It’s seeing yourself, understanding what you are doing to yourself. Cindy uses herself as a model because she is consciously enacting the inner world of our culture and needs her own vision to stare out at us, to walk before us, in the social performances we enact.


Girl on Fence (see comments)

Ellen

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Our books, dear Book Browser, are a comfort, a presence, a diary of our lives. What more can we say? (Carol Shields, Swann)


Mary Cassat, Modern Women (mural) for Women’s Building


Mary Cassatt, detail of mural as a painting

Dear friends and readers,

Some may remember that I reported on a lecture and book I learned about on the Women’s Building at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1892-93 where the stupendous aim was to gather a copy of every book published by a woman since 1492, and while they came short of that goal, they came as close as anyone could in 1892-93. I wrote a blog that got many hits about the lecture and book, Right Here I see My Own Books: “I did not think there were so many books in the world written by women … ”

In this year’s issue (it comes out once a year) of the Woman’s Art journal, there is an essay on the pathetically little art that has survived from this heroic endeavor, complete with a few photos of the building before it was torn down.


Women’s Building, Northern Pavilion


Women’s Building, Reading Room (Hall of Honor)

The crime — or tragedy – is how all was destroyed and dispersed again — by plan! The article is by an independent scholar, Charlote Garfinkle, “Progress Illuminated: Two Stained Glass Windows from the 1893 Woman’s Building, Woman’s Art Journal, Spring summer 2012. The survivors are two murals and a church-like stained glass window. I’ve put these and the photos of this exhibit to which thousands came in an album for us. You see above the Hall of Honor where you could read some of the women’s books as well as one of the murals: Mary Cassatt’s Modern Women.

As the two presenters of the lecture and writers of the book, Right Here I see My Own Books“, Sarah Wadsworth and Wayen Wiegland, did say the art of this place was limited by the mainstream range of the types of women who ran the clubs which engineered this feat and it may seem a bit stodgy to look at Massachusetts as Mother hovering over the (as yet) coming woman of liberty, but the ideals were all we would want today (and rarely have). Mary Cassett’s mural has women working in a garden like another mural I’ve seen by her, and Mary MacMonnie’s Primitive Women remind me of Puvis de Chavannes (everyone dressed in pseudo-Greek like dresses):

The title of Elizabeth Parsons, Edith Blake Brown and Ethel Isadore Brown’s stained glass contribution, Massachusetts Mothering the Coming Woman of Liberty, Progress and Light is embarrassing, and the imagery highly traditional:

Garfinkle thinks Mary Crease Sears’s Seal of Boston has much private imagery:

Here is a final surviving photo:


The East Facade

The Woman’s Art Journal is itself a marvelous periodical: printed on art paper, it’s just filled with images. It has several long essays, and 23 pages of reviews of a couple of columns each. Expect more from me taken from this periodical from time to time.

For example (one more article): A long essay on the once popular caricatures by Minna Citrone, Jennifer Strebe’s “Minna Citron’s Feminanities: her commentary on the culture of vanity.”


Citron, Hope Springs Eternal/Bargain Basement (1930s)

Citron’s art was social realism intended to critique the present political and social order, especially the workings of unameliorated capitalism. Here’s a cornucopia of her art; and here some of her fellow women print-makers.

She also worked in traditional tropes. Her self-image of the artist makes herself out to be a powerful woman, but not quite no vanities (look at the pretty shoes and improbably fancy dress with the scarf), living in an apartment in the city, where she is not at all cut off from its realities …

Ellen

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Woman reading, artist or photographer unknown

Dear friends and readers,

The title may be off-putting, but Corrigan’s book is an inspiriting book to read in the dark near-dawn hours of a spring into summer morning, one intended to keep the reader company in her journeys with others through books. Corrigan writes of reading as intense adventure, as that which can interweave itself into the deepest fibres of our memories of things we do as we do them, what influences, directs, teaches, and comforts the reader who has that within her to be transformed. Corrigan’s tone is at moment luminous with remembered moments of strengthening and hope.

Sometimes the book feels too Pollyanna (people returning from war are presented as all good feeling about their memories), and sometimes Corrigan may grate on your nerves by apologizing to those who wouldn’t read her book in the first place (a sort of bending over backwards to her readers who do worry about what the non-readers of the world would say). These are minor blemishes, though (they do not go on for very long) and are not the core of a book where reading has meant everything to the writer. It’s a book also about Corrigan’s career writing and teaching about her reading to an imagined community of sympathetic readers and her students.


Marilyn Monroe reading Joyce (Eve Arnold photo)

Corrigan vindicates, reads in front of her reader in the way of Bobbie Ann Mason in her The Girl Sleuth, “extreme female-adventure books” and detective stories. “Extreme female-adventure” books are classic women’s books and l’ecriture-femme by another name. Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Villette, Gaskell’s Mary Barton, and (for a modern example) Anna Quindlen’s One True Thing and Black and Blue make visible what the hard adventure of life is for women:

“terrible contests with solitude,” “endurance” of the marriage market and successful socializing. fortitude, “keeping one’s nerves steady, the emotional power of confidence and a thoughtful strong mind, the long nightmare of being linked to a man for life who doesn’t “get you,” who doesn’t begin to understand what means most to you (Kate Simon’s Bronx Primitive).

These are indeed the terrors, the miseries, the small mean hardships of many existences, what withers joy, the enemies of promise.

Such books “got her through” her life, taught Corrigan much — just as Woolf said such books can.

By the time Corrigan gets to the end of her third long section and has told about adopting a Chinese baby girl, her time as a working class young woman at the prestigious and snobbish University of Pennsylvania (so she didn’t have it so bad, did she?), her career as a writer of reviews for the Village Voice and now on NPR, and her long-delayed marriage all the while validating and showing how reading and books have been important in each of her transitions, I felt I was communing with a non-philistine, decently humane presence validating the life of the mind (even if clearly she had been one of the privileged of this world).

The piece de resistance of the book is a long wonderfully refreshing, fascinating and carefully qualified section on Sayers’s Gaudy Night in the context of what women’s communities can be for women, and in vindication of educated women. Corrigan worked at Byrn Mawr. (My goodness.) She dwells on Harriet’s freely entered into relationship with Peter, how he is a knight who rescues her (from death, for she is accused of poisoning her lover-partner in Strong Poison).


Harriet Walter who played Harriet Vane (my gravatar for my Under the Sign of Sylvia blog).

Then onto other women’s books of the 1920s and 30s, more detective fiction by women, memoirs (Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood).

The book’s title is somewhat misleading, for Corrigan also writes it to show the reader that detective fiction by men and women is not simply riveting or terrifying and sad entertainment (when it’s good as in Hound of the Baskervilles, or Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon, Chandler’s The Big Sleep or Susan Hill’s The Various Haunts of Men), but also an indirect means for discussing how it feels to lead a working life where the reader is liberated since the hero or heroine has autonomy, savvy, intelligence, wit. She sees detective fiction as an replacement for the Robinson Crusoe myth (work as seen also in Gaskell’s Mary Barton). The best of them invent communities of people who mirror real milieus of our world and are either therapeutic or worlds split open with all their banal harshnesses and horrors. She convinced me. But then it was 3 in the morning.

Throughout Corrigan brings up analogies with the same ones I so treasured when a girl: Nancy Drew, Little Women, nurse stories (for her it was Sue Barton) and autobiographies (by Agatha Christie including wry comments about how much is made of ten days Christie she fled wife- and motherhood). I wanted to tell her about Bobbie Ann Mason’s Clear Springs and Marge Piercy’s Sleeping with Cats.


Dorothy Lange photo: Girls at Lincoln Bench School, Malheur County Oregon, October 12, 1939

I’ve written before about how important girls books are to them: Girls’ books and women’s lives. The picture by Vanessa Bell (I love the rich reds and yellows) makes visible how good dolls are part of a young girl’s health-giving imaginative terrain. On WWTTA we noticed that although men will often use depictions of women reading to make “come hither fuck-me” pictures of these women for themselves (turning the women’s reading experience into forms of substitute masturbation), women often depict themselves reading in ways that call attention to their class status or inward emotional state, depict themselves as older women reading to children or paint young girls reading.

I’ve not gotten to the last part of Corrigan’s fiction: on what she learned from Catholic martyr stories (Mary Gordon’s Final Payments).

She does talk about the importance of parodies and funny books by women too: her candidate is Austen’s Northanger Abbey; this past Christmas on WWTTA we read Stella Gibbons’ often misrepresented Cold Comfort Farm (she made me want to read Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn), and her favorite poet seems to be Stevie Smith (me too), but enough, it’s nearly 2. It’s pouring, and I had better to bed.

A toute a l’heure, courage mes amies:

The Ballet of the Twelve Dancing Princesses

— by Stevie Smith

HAYES COURT, JUNE 1939

The schoolgirls dance on the cold grass
The ballet of the twelve dancing princesses
And the shadows pass

Over their cold feet

Above in the cold summer sky the clouds mass
The icy wind blows across the laurel bushes
The sky is hard blue and gray where a cloud rushes
The sky is icy blue it is like the night blue where a star pushes.

But it is not night
It is daytime on an English lawn.
The scholars dance. The weather is as fresh as dawn.
Dawn and night are the webs of this summer’s day
Dawn and night the tempo of the children’s play.

Who taught the scholars? Who informed the dance?
Who taught them so innocent to advance
So far in a peculiar study? They seem to be in a trance.
It is a trance in which the cold innocent feet pass
To and fro in a hinted meaning over the grass
The meaning is not more ominous and frivolous than the clouds
that mass.

There is nothing to my thought more beautiful at this moment
Than a vision of innocence that is bound to do something
equivocal
I sense something equivocal beneath the veneer of an innocent
spent
Tale and in the trumpet sound of the icy storm overhead there is
evocable
The advance of innocence against a mutation that is irrevocable
Only in the imagination of that issue joined for a split second is
the idea beautiful.

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.

***********************

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.

*************************

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.

**************

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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“La bibliothèque devient une aventure” (Umberto Eco quoted by Chantal Thomas, Souffrir)

Dear friends and readers,

Friday afternoon I went to hear two well-delivered (one was rousing) lectures in the Library of Congress, hosted by the Washington Area Print Group (put together by the indefatigible and generous-spirits Eleanor Shevlin and her colleague, Sabrina Baron) and the (as yet invisible as to building) National Women’s History Museum. John Cole of The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress provided the venue, the Whittal Pavilion. The National Women’s History Museum women spoke briefly too; theirs is a place in the making: a group of people hope to open and start an institution comparable to the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Sarah Wadsworth and Wayne Wiegand who wrote the above book (so this was a book launch too) gave two lectures on “the Women’s Building Library at the World’s Columbian Exposition,” the latter better known as the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. A woman’s building library does not sound rousing but what it housed and what happened there was inspiriting.

For the first time ever women’s books were gathered together, books
that had been published somehow anyhow since 1492. Even then a few people suggested this was to make women’s books a ghetto: the counterproductive vanity of this can be seen here: only this way can one reach these books, find them, see them, acknowledge, respect, distribute them. For the first time to show one saw a woman’s canon, made visible women’s achievements. The curators and librarians who did this solicited books across the world too — the cut off date the same, 1492.

Huge numbers of women visited and stayed for hours, came back day after day. Although the norms articulated were those of the male canonizing establishment it had become obvious very quickly that women’s genres, kinds of publishing houses, levels of discourse were utterly disparate. There was an adherence to upper class white decorums too in choice of text, but they were conscious of how important the AFrican-American (“colored”) heritage was in the US and prominent black woman authors, artists, and those few women who were middle class or had some kind of position where they could be found and show up and talk effectively were invited. So there was a minority representation. There was even an attempt to get some Spanish, German and French language books printed in the US or Canada.

The norms of buildings for libraries began to change as a result of this library building. To make people [men] respect institutional groups, most buildings built by men (though often cleaned and kept up by women) were of distant impersonal space. (Always this preference for the apparently objective.) The women running the Women’s Art Building wanted a home-y space; they bought comfortable chairs, made up a partly-new style table (it could be found in the New York Public Library at 42nd Street and also Carnegie funded public libraries) where someone could sit comfortably for hours and read — or knit or sit with children. One women did breast-feed while sitting there. They included paintings, sculptures, and miniatures of women’s achievements in other areas. Cookbooks were not omitted.

The two speakers have published “Right here I see my own books:” The Women’s Building Library at the World’s Columbian Exposition” to tell the story. It may be regarded as a kind of companion volume to Elaine Showalter’s A Jury of her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx and her A literature of their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing.

For 18th century the collection was less rich, 17th less so, though here too there is an equivalent book for British books:

and so it goes. (Not to omit Ellen Moers’s Literary Women and Patricia Meyer Spacks, The Female Imagination.)

Among the things one learns — for the catalogues are partly still partly extant and have been studied carefully, is how, as in the case of the Romantic Canon from the university, the Norton Anthology of Women’s Literature doesn’t mirror what real women were primarily reading — except maybe Jane Eyre and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. We have to make Mary Ward much more central for English books. George Eliot was a heroine but in the US not as read as a number of today not well known American women authors. Unexpected known queens were heroines: Lady Jane Grey became an icon (not the usual Mary Queen of Scots).

“Right here I see my own books” was a phrase heard said by a woman by
a reporter and used in a book about the exhibit: Marietta Holley’s Samantha at the World’s Fair (1893), became a handle, for women were startled to see put before them sets of books they liked to read, a place they felt at home in intellectually & imaginatively. Wadsworth and Wiegand’s book includes several sites where these books and more information about what was in the building can be accessed & read (not just the titles and where the books are). It is simply so that google and other facsimile on line texts are making available for the first time many of the books by women that were in this building; many of the American ones are in the Library of congress. Another important library for research of such books is the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Book history can be fun; these were Sharp lectures at their best.

********************

Hagar by Mary Edmonia Lewis

Here’s the gist of what Sarah Wadsworth, professor at Marquette University, said: as she talked she named women who were active here and there I name them too.

On May 1, 1893 the Chicago World’s Fair was opened. There was a woman’s building; one of the moving spirits was Bertha Honore Palmer. It became for the time it was there a library of 8000 books by women from all over the world. Books by and about women never before assembled. Frances Cuillard. These provide a vital counter-narrative which however did perpetrate its own exclusions. Subjects included fine applied arts, service, healthy care; the norm controlling their ideas was full “true womanhood,” which meant ideas about femininity, necessary domesticity, benevolence, and education.

Candace Wheeler, an architect, designed the well-appointed building and its inner spaces. She said she wanted to make a decorated home, a place people would feel at home in: it should be “warm” in atmosphere.
Susan Gale Cooke made the color scheme. They wanted “quiet, elegance, literacy, ease.” There was an elaborately carved fireplace, matching curtains on the windows. Ceiling paintings. Portraits of many women. Framed illustrations by women. Pocahontas’s portrait. Many copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, translations, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s portrait, a sculpture of her. Mary Edmonia Lewis, her Hiawatha sculpture. 16 different languages represented. It was a room rich with many things. Rebecca Felton the first woman senator came.

Regionalism was a vital element. The criteria was meant to be broadly inclusive, and it was assumed how important libraries are as an agent of culture. So if a book got into a library catalogue it was more likely to be among the 8000.

Difficulties encountered: women are not central to the publishing establishment. These people did want to raise the standards given to women’s books. They wanted to contribute to the amelioration of social problems. There was a winnowing, self-winnowing really. Beyond cookbooks, Sunday school books, self-published and privately published books abounded. Working girl favorites, mysteries, sentimental novels, seven some sensationalist.

********************

Library card catalogue — I do miss these

Wayne Wiegand’s background is that of a long-time librarian professor so he began with the assertion that as the ALA (American Library Association) at the time reflected the political compromises of groups of males, so the choices, shaping of these books, the presentation of them reflected the views of upper class white women. Unless I got it down wrong, he said the library did not permit people to pull down and read these books, only look at them (!). They were treasures to be protected. The books were arranged by state and country and were catalogued according to subject. The Dewey Decimal system was used.

Two prominent African-American women: Frances E. W. Harper and Anna Julia Cooper talked of the heroic struggles of blacks, but radical views and books by black people were excluded. Mary Logan said it was women clasping hands with women. Some black women did want the books by black women separate so they could be seen distinctly, but they were merged with the whole collection. Joan Imogen Howard. Prominent officials spoke and influenced choices. Helen Keller came. Isabel Bate Winslow.

Problems were the frequent name changes of authors, the use by women of pseudonyms. Some practices in non-English books made it difficult to know where to catalogue and then place them precisely.

Silently imposed were some boundaries. So women singled out for celebration: a sanitized image and life of George Eliot. Of Harriet Martineau. Poor Lady Jane Grey. Frances Burney (Madame d’Arblay). The Brontes. Jane Austen. All either apparently single. There were pictures of George Sand, but carefully culled from later in her life. A Kate Field would not be singled out: single, living an unconventional quietly transgressive life. I don’t know if pictures of actresses would be included or which of their life-writings.

It was a way of constructing women’s private and public lives. One could see and begin to study them. The record of their public sphere. Important influence was the 19th century women’s club movement; these influenced how this library and other libraries came to look. Marietta Holley: we can see how women felt and feel about the world. We can imagine communities. So despite limitations since so many books of so many types allowed in, there was an anti-canonical inclusiveness.

***************
In the question and answer period afterwards it emerged that after the exposition was closed, many books were sent back. The largest group did stay in Chicago. The organizers did want a permanent collection and building, but they did not manage this.

It was a testimony to libraries and all they can mean. Today when they are being systematically destroyed by those who want to cut taxes, such a moment of remembrance could function to slow down this murdering of hope, opportunity, rich experience shared across boundaries. My happiest memories are in libraries. See Jim and my library.

Ellen

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Beth Hardiman, from Tamara Drewe


Alexandra, from The Night Bookmobile

Dear friends and readers,

A couple of years ago now I became aware of how graphic novels have grown up; they are no longer fancied up comic books; the art and words can be as complex and moving as many a sheer verbal longer novel. What happened was I went to see Tamara Drewe, a film adaptation of one of Posy Simmonds’s marvelous graphic novels, and I so liked the movie, I wrote a blog about it, then bought myself a copy of the book so I could really take it in, and discovering it to be a satire on literary life:


Posy Simmonds, from Tamara Drewe

as well as a moving account of several characters’ lives over one year (loosely based on a Thomas Hardy story), went on to get myself a copy of Gemma Bovary, which I liked just as much, again a moving account of a modern Emma Bovary who lives in London and moves to France, truly empathized with:


Gemma learning to shop sensibly in Normandy

Then I went on to buy myself a copy of a group of graphic novels called Gothic Classics, which included witty and pleasing re-dos of Ann Radcliffe’s Udolpho (!), Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (female vampire story):


Emily St Aubert writhing from nightmare


Catherine Morland and Henry and Eleanor Tilney take their country walk

an Edgar Allen Poe story; and, for Izzy, Nancy Butler and Sonny Liewe’s Sense and Sensibility (strongly influenced by Andrew Davies’ 2008 film adaptation),
See interview with one of the authors

and a friend bought me Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, a memoir of growing up in Iran, originally in French, whose strong content goes into real world and nationalistic politics:

.

***********************

Monksted, the ideal conference place (Posy Simmonds)

Now a few weeks ago someone on my WWTTA (Women Writers through the Ages @ Yahoo) list pointed to an article which suggested that while the typical graphic novel, even by women, had been over-sexed, done from a masculinist point of view, they were all beginning to change to be more like those I had so liked:

Ker-pow! Women kick back against comic-book sexism

The Guardian article also provided a list of graphics to find on the Net, published in periodicals, to buy, to find in libraries. A friend recommended Audrey Niffeneggar’s The Night Bookmobile (I had tried her Time Traveller’s Wife and Izzy and I seen the film adaptation). First I read the strips as they appeared in an online newspaper, and so liked them, got myself the book.

Tonight I had intended to plunge into writing just about The Night Bookmobile, thinking I had written before here on this or my other blogs on Posy Simmonds as well as my other three treasures. And these would provide context. No such thing. I know I have brief and longer postings I sent to WWTTA over Gemma, Tamara, Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe (who I am chuffed to be able to say the authors’ treated in the more empathic spirit I did in my paper), Emily St Aubert, not to omit Marjane. But I can’t pile it all in here — something I used to do by mistake, make overlong blogs — I’ve already strained my readers’ attention with what I’ve referred to. So I’ll just begin with Niffenegger’s Night Bookmobile

***********************
It startled me:


Back cover left side

It was even more melancholy than Simmonds (it was deeply so) and reminded me of Guy Andrews’s free adaptation of Austen’s P&P as Lost in Austen and had allusions to Jorge Borges’s, depictions on the shelves of the covers and titles of the heroine’s favorite books from childhood, adolescent, young adulthood, and didn’t leave out books I read to my daughters in early childhood, Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon one of them. and just hit home too.


The titles are not my favorite ones, more fantasy and far fewer of the heroine’s text and Anglophilic books I loved

It doesn’t matter. What I really loved was how it made no compromises with what the world says we are supposed to be made happy by and accept.

It takes one through the stages of a heroine’s life, each of which are marked by her simply being older and finding the book mobile again.

Each time she is drawn as much older.

Each time the shelves are stuffed fuller. Each time the librarian (a male) is more welcoming and she is led into other parts of the book mobile.

Towards the close there’s a version of a book reading room that reminds me of the one at in the Jefferson building in the Library of Congress, what I’ve seen of the old British Museum, a Jorge Borges circular place of rows of seats around a card catalogue with everyone reading.

No irony, no pretense of her being a misfit. The opening reminded me of Lost in Austen. Our heroine has such a boy, dressed so down, so flat, so lank, so unimaginative, watching TV. She wanders far grimmer streets.


She seeks out Wilkie Collins’s Moonstone

Amanda Price in Lost in Austen lives in London; this woman lives in some more provincial city or suburb of the US: nothing but malls, cheap stores, empty streets. She leaves said boyfriend. Who wouldn’t? But there is no Mr Darcy and fantasy land to escape too, only this book mobile with this librarian. Each time the books added are those she’s read though sometimes we hear of children’s books she’s read. Pat the Bunny (which I didn’t read as a child but I read to my children). Gradually she begins to ask if she can stay; and then can she be a librarian too. Alas, he cannot give her this position and he can only stay the night. We see the book mobile drive off in dawn.

By this time the model is Goodnight Moon in feel and several of the frames evoke it.

It seems the only way to become a librarian in this novel is to die; but upon taking a bottle of pills, the book mobile appears once more. The page has small frames of bottles and slippers and her looking at us surrounded by books she can’t reach, her in middle age.


Almost there (the title of the second volume of Nuala O’Faolain’s memoir)

And then there it is. The last line of the book evokes it, only the reality is she has died and yet at the same time become a librarian at last:


Note the words resonate with our present heartless economic system which leaves huge numbers of people unemployed or underemployed or menially employed or make tiny sums of montye. The words of congratulations in our world are: “You’re hired.”

At heart it’s partly a disguised suicide story.


The cover shows her cradling her book

I was so surprised as the open sadness of it. Also at how comforting it was at the same time.


She is reading for two

The Night Bookmobile made me remember my love of girls’ books and how much they had meant to me — even though my choices were so much different from Alexandra’s: Judy Bolton was the one I loved.

One problem is Niffenegger is not as good a visual artist as Posy Simmons. Not as lovely and pleasing. She also lacks Simmonds’s undercutting ironies that are so saturnine and capture our world just as surely. Still … this is so much better than most one comes across in steely feel and has its strong truth with no pandering or compromises.

It makes me want to try Niffenegger’s The time Traveller’s Wife once again. I have faced up to my not being able to read seriously at night and if I want to do this — and read other books I long to — I must go slower and do less projects, interweaving them with projects, papers, books, and teaching during the day.

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A Heraldic map of Cranford by Posy Simmonds!

Thus do these things all come together. A tentative sort of conclusion: womens’ graphic novels keep the patina of humor, wit, jokes and/or fantasy on the surface and when they are advertised, that’s what emphasized. But the predominant mood in these all is semi- or outright protest, a quiet sadness to devastating melancholy. This fits in with a certain kind of woman’s novel that remains my favorite — and often wins the Orange Prize.

So, for example, Simmonds has done her typical artwork to illustrate the town of Cranford in the companion to the film series.

Did you know gentle reader and viewer she made the map and envisoned one of the stories woven into the Cranford (out of Elizabeth Gaskell) mini-series.


Posy Simmonds’s illustration for Gaskell’s My Lady Ludlow

Now the film adaptation called Cranford Chronicles brings together a group of stories by a woman so tyipical of girls’ and women’s books: a self-reflective ironic re-do of My Lady Ludlow (also sympathy for the disabled narrator), Mr Harrington’s Chronicles, (the doctor whose first concern is the patient’s health) and the second season brings in Mary Smith, who left a governess autobiography.

As time and the spirit permits, I shall go on to write more of Simmonds and lesser known graphic illustrators and novelists.

Ellen

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