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Philomena (Judi Dench) and Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) by the grave of her son

Dear friends and readers,

To help myself get through Thanksgiving Day yesterday, I went out to a movie that had gotten rave reviews: Philomena, directed by Stephen Frears, written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, and based on The Lost Child of Philomena, a book by the real journalist, named Martin Sixsmith, who did help an elderly Irish woman locate the adult her baby born 50 years earlier and taken from her had become:

50 years ago Philomena became pregnant outside marriage (in the film after one night’s love-making at a fair); she was thrown out by her parents, and taken in by a Catholic Charity who proceeded to treat her in the harshest way: she had a breech-birth with no painkillers; she was made to work long hard hours in a laundry for 4 years for little pay in the meagerest circumstances and, along with the other unwed mothers, permitted to see her child one hour a day. Her male child and another female were sold to an American couple for $1000 and she coerced into signing her rights away. Years later the nuns lied to her when she came back to locate him: they said the records were all burnt but one, the paper where she signed her rights to her child away. In the film the journalist is immediately suspicious: how could this one document survive and all others be destroyed? We discover they lied to the boy become an older man when he returned to find her; when he died of AIDS, he wanted to be buried at the charity and his grave is now there and in the film untended (like those who died at the time of the mean inhumane treatment)

The film resembles Rabbit-Proof Fence, which I saw some years ago (2001) where the aborigine children of three women are snatched by middle class white Australians to be brought up in a European middle class culture (but in a harsh orphanage-like environment); in that film the girls make their way back to their mothers through terrible deserts. In both films, the behavior is justified by those who did it: in Philomena, the nuns say she was a gross sinner who deserved the worst punishment; in Rabbit-Proof Fence, Australian authorities say the white culture will provide a much better life for the children when (and if) they grow up. Philomena acknowledges that the boy, Michael in the film, grew up in a middle class home in circumstances which enabled him to become a successful lawyer and work for top Republican people; he was gay and lived with a male friend in reasonable comfort until he contracted AIDS which killed him well before he and others could get the Republicans in charge to fund any program to help find a cure or help for this fatal disease condition.

So the premise is not sentimental. The story exposes a profound injustice done to a powerless woman.

This review (by Jay Stone, Post-Media News) praising the film tells the basic opening premise: a fired or failed and humiliated politician becomes a journalist who does human interest stories and finds himself hired to help an elderly woman locate her son. Also its moral purport: “an odd-couple drama with a dark heart and a post-modern sensibility, an expose of the shockingly sadistic treatment of unwed mothers in the 1950s, and a worldly dismissal of everything that brought it about.” Martin and Philomena are an odd couple: utterly disparate in cultural understanding and age (she reads and understands improbable sentimental romances literally), his sceptical ironic perspective and her naive defenses of those who damaged her profoundly make for oddly dark humor.

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Researching today is looking into the computer

I had not expected this political paradigm: unlike Rabbit-Proof Fence the way the film is advertised, does not bring out its critique of the anti-sex and anti-women attitude in Catholicism, its hypocritical practices: not only do the nuns in charge lie, they make it impossible for Philomena to talk to the aging still ferociously hateful nuns who did the deed. I also didn’t expect the plot-design: such stories usually end in the victim finding her child all grown up and happy and successful at the close; or dead, having died terribly and had a terrible life at the close. That’s what the head newswoman keeps saying on the phone she expects Martin to find after his journey to the US with Philomena and she wants him to write it up that way in order to sell newspapers and is paying the funds needed for travel and research in the expectation of such a story. He is to find such a story write it this way.

Instead about 1/3rd into the film, maybe less, through the computer’s access to information and Martin’s experience telling him where to look when they get to the US, we and then Philomena discover what happened to her son and that he died some 20 years ago. Armed with his name, the names of the people who bought him and became his parents, and the names of those he worked with in the Republican administrations (and photos too), they slowly discover what was her son’s nature and how he lived (middle class life growing up, good school but the parents were hard on him and the girl who became his sister), his homosexuality (which funnily but believably Philomena suspects quickly upon seeing his photos). They and we visit his sister; then an ex-colleague now at the Folger Library; and after much struggle, they force their way into the house of his partner (who was in effect his spouse) and he shows them one of these montages of photos and films that funeral homes nowadays make up and put on DVDs as wellas websites for customers.

It was when the film became to play this montage I broke down. I began to sob uncontrollably. It was so like the montage the Everly-Wheatley Funeral Home made of my husband Jim; opening with the same sentence telling the day the person was born; closing with a similar sentence recording the day he died, and more or less taking the viewer through the stages of the person’s life as he looked and changed. The relatives of this fictionalized montage and I and my daughter naturally chose the best pictures and the expertise of the funeral director puts them into coherent order. Soft music and interwoven photos of natural phenomenon (grass, birds, sky, flowers) do the rest. So the montage I paid for is common I learned.

After that the emotional moments in the rest of the film drew tears from my eyes. Judi Dench rightly receives high praise for her performance. I’ve seen her several times before perform this high-wire act (Cranford Chronicles, with Maggie Smith, Ladies in Lavender) where she conveys a depth of tender emotion just held in check so that a sentimental story is told prosaically; a underlying sternness of aspect in Dench’s face (Helen Mirren pulls off this kind of thing too) is part of what’s responsible for the effectiveness of Dench’s presence; as Philomena she conveys some self-irony (like Maggie Smith does in her enactments of this kind of role, say Bed Among Lentils) — even in a woman given to retelling with utter earnestness the silliest romance stories.

Dench is helped by being partnered with an acerbic comic actor: Steve Coogan played in a burlesque adaptation of Tristam Shandy (A Cock and Bull Story); as Ann Hornaday says he utters “mordant asides” “often having nothing to do with theology, or religion.” Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian calls them a divine couple.

One must not forget the contribution of Stephen Frears who while not seen has made many film masterpieces as disparate as My Beautiful Laundrette, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, The Grifters, Mary Reilly, recently Cheri, Tamara Drewe. And scriptwriters Coogan and Jeff Pope.

It was Thanksgiving Day which is still kept by many Americans so few people were in the theater. Most were presumably at home with families or friends eating a turkey or other roast-bird meal. Or quietly allowing others to think they are. Some put photos on the Net to show they are participating, a propensity made fun of this week in the New Yorker (see The Ordeal of Holidays).

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A known secret is that Christmas Day is now passed by many by going to a movie — you do see people in groups — and the meal is sometimes eaten out in a restaurant (Asian ones have been open on Christmas Day for a long time, permitting the joke I passed the day in the Jewish way, movie and Chinese food out). Although Thanksgiving itself has not been commercialized beyond the buying of a bird and trimmings, those who don’t get to do this are made to feel bad so public media shows include statements by announcers expressing compassion for the presumed unhappiness of those who don’t get to experience such get-togethers for whatever reason. On Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifills’ PBS Reports, I saw the story of a poor black woman who since food stamp allowances were cut gets $63 worth of groceries per month for herself and her grandchild. This is not enough to buy a Thanksgiving feast. Well some charitable organization in Virginia was giving away grocery bags full of roast birds, vegetables, treats (cakes? pies?) and drinks; as a viewer I listened to her description of her life (she is the type who works at Wall-Mart’s) and how grateful (!) she was to the charity. Right.

The demanded behavior on Thanksgiving or Turkey day is an expression of thanks (read W. S. Merwin’s poem) — in origin it’s a religious ritual feast.

I’m not immune to this. Today was my birthday and I was relieved and rejoiced when my young friend, Thao, and her partner, Jeff, were able to make it to DC all the way from Toronto, Canada, where they live. It is common for people in the US to travel long distances to get back to some relative or friend for dinner. Thao and Jeff were here also to shop for an an engagement ring and see other friends (she attended GMU for her undergraduate degree). I am no cook, but together for the day after Turkey Day, Izzy and I managed to roast a chicken, heat up frozen pre-prepared zuchini (awful), cook spaghetti and a yummy pasta and cheese sauce I bought from Whole Foods; fresh bread, ginger ale for all but me (who drank cheap Riesling) and Port Salud cheese rounded out our feast. We talked, took photos.

If you should see the remarkably candid, intelligent and moving bio-pic Joan Rivers made about her life (A Piece of Work), you will find that on Thanksgiving day she makes a feast in her apartment and to fill the table’s chairs and do a good deed, she invites street-people known to her up to apartment each year to eat with her. A friend of mine whose grown children are divorced, live far away, know unemployment and other obstacles preventing all from getting-together, this friend invites three woman who have no families to dine with her and her husband and those of her children and grandchildren who do make it.

I have a double excuse for this weakness this year: my beloved husband died of cancer this year; the rightly dreaded disease allowed to continue to spread (President Obama just signed some bill easing the way for those who want to frack for huge profits), this disease killed him horribly inside 6 months.

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But I digress. I’ve forgotten Philomena. Don’t miss it. It’s funny. The background is modern day USA as experienced by the middle class in DC and modern day Ireland. We are able to remain calm and not get too indignant because the Catholic nunnery as presented in the film is an anomaly, a broken-down place no one in their right mind goes near. None of the sternness of the ending of Rabbit-Proof Fence: in Rabbit-Proof Fence, the perpetrator played by Kenneth Branagh remains as unreformed as the nuns in Philomena do, but the aborigine children who escaped back to the aborigine people are presented in their present poverty-stricken existences — probably dependent on charities the way the black grandmother seen on the Woodruff-Ifill show was yesterday. The modern-day Philomena lives with a kind patient professional daughter wisely underplayed by Anna Maxwell Martin (another wonderful actress who I hope decades from now is working on in the way Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith all have). Mother and Daughter live in a decent house, do lunch in pubs.

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Ellen

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Original illustration for Conan Doyle’s “The Solitary Cyclist” by Sidney Paget

Dear friends and readers,

As reading and reviewing a book on the subject of violence, middle class masculinity and more specifically (among other things) garrotting and paranoia in the street life of London in the 19th century: Masculinity, Crime and Self-Defence in Victorian Literature, I read, was delighted by and so put onto my website another article by Anthony Trollope from the political magazine he was first editor for, St Paul’s – on my website:

“The Uncontrolled Ruffianism of London — as measured by the Rule of Thumb”

As you will see when you read it, it’s a tongue-in-cheek satire in response to one of the 19th century waves of paranoia where people and newspapers were over-reacting to instances of garrotting by arming themselves and Trollope’s point is partly that by carrying a dangerous weapon you may endanger far more than help yourself. The full context is xenophobia (fear of poor people emigrating into London, sometimes not white); unexamined prejudice against those who had committed crimes and become prisoners and been transported (recently there had been an enlightened compassionate movement to free them of their past with “ticket of leaves” for good behavior; and a general feeling of insecurity among middle class males who identified as gentlemen that they were losing their ability to defend themselves against physical violence.

What is relevant here is we can see Trollope would see the absurdity of the argument that carrying guns (the right to) protects people walking in the streets. I suspect he would not be surprised that nowadays we read regularly how the police murdered this and that suspect and claim the suspect frightened them with a weapon — because police come armed like military people in a war zone. He would see the “Stand your Ground” laws for what they are: an incitement to in effect lawless murder.

A secondary topic is violence in political gatherings and there Trollope assumes a conservative stance casually when he suggests that attributing political motivation to public assembly scenes which turn violent is a transparent mask for mob scenes stirred up (inexplicably it seems) by trouble-makers. As an upper class gentleman who has no problem voting and participating in political life, Trollope values order more than he does any reform.

The piece is funny. The rule of thumb is Trollope’s own long experience as a gentleman walker in London and that of all the similar people he’s known. He includes his wife who (it seems) has a penchant for losing handkerchiefs and blaming someone else.

Its fictional context includes Trollope’s own Palliser (or Parliamentary) novels at mid-century –the two Phineas ones and The Prime Minister where we have instances of attempted garrotting with our heroes (including Ferdinand Lopez) to the rescue and political gatherings which in the case of Phineas Finn turn somewhat violent and led to Phineas’s labor-voting landlord, Bunce (a minor character Trollope sympathizes with) being put in jail when he was out on a march for genuinely political reasons. So Trollope takes the opposite tactic of his non-fiction piece: he empathizes with a person who gets caught up in a demonstration to extend the suffrage (though Trollope is against the demonstration and blames the politicians who stir it up as irresponsible). Trollope also genuinely imagines assaults.

Nonetheless, if you think about the whole novels (and other of his later books where he reverses his early pro-duelling position), the thrust is for caution and self-control as part of those reactions which are most “manly” and effective. In Trollope’s Phineas Finn Phineas does not succeed in freeing Bunce easily (in Raven’s film he manages to bribe the jailer to let Bunce go the next morning). Phineas does duel with a “man of blood” (to be explained in my next blog), Lord Chiltern, and this does not hurt his career, but partly this is due to his having shot in the air and refused to wound Chiltern, in other words exercised high courage, patience in the face of possible death.

In Phineas Redux, on the other hand, Phineas loses control: he seethes at the way his attempt to renewing his career is being easily wrecked by Bonteen (a rival for advancement) and Quintus Slide’s slandering him for his continuing relationship with Lady Laura Kennedy. He does wear a life-preserver, one of the many death-wielding weapons beyond guns of the era, and it’s when he brandishes this at the door of his club and threatens Bonteen that he provides one of the pieces of circumstantial evidence against him as murderer of Bonteen that almost costs Phineas his life.

In The Prime Minister Everett Wharton, Ferdinand Lopez’s silly but privileged friend, shows himself a drunken ass when he perversely and proudly (to show himself more courageous and thus a better man than Lopez) by insisting on walking in a very dark spot of a park very late at night. He is inviting trouble, and garrotters oblige him.

Godfrey discusses Trollope and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes where we see the same kind of resolutions. In earlier Sherlock Holmes’s stories there is a quicker resort to guns and violence than in the later; there is a fascination in all of them with over-wrought cruel weapons (using projectiles like soft bullets which do much inward damage to the human body); and finally in the later stories, “The Solitary Cyclist,” for example, a move to non-violent self-defense. In the story the good and bad guys resort to deadly guns, where Holmes prefers to use martial arts (e.g., boxing) which may wound but rarely kill.

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Declaring “everyone bear witness to my doing this in self-defense” Holmes prepares to box the violent cad Mr Woodley in “The Solitary Cyclist”

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Alan Plater, the script writer had the original illustrations in mind (in other of the 1980s series, the DVD includes sets of the illustrations, e.g. The Sign of Four)

Ellen

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The opening and a montage from Sous les bombes

Dear friends and readers,

If there is anyone who reads this blog who thinks that dropping bombs on the people of Syria is a good way to punish Assad for using out-of-bounds chemical warfare, pray watch this film. It opens with an intertitle about the bombing of Lebanon and then we are on the ground under the bombs with the people. Remember Assad is not going to be bombed — except insofar as a bomb might hit one of his probably super-safe houses; the people of his country are. We watch the bombs explode and it’s terrifying; we see house blown to bits, huge clouds, fireballs, and then the camera cuts to the streets a few days after the devastation has been cleared a bit. Bare outlines of structures, furniture flung and destroyed every which way, cement, rubble, dangerous wires, ruins. The film is shot entirely on location and blended into the fictional typifying story: funerals, aid centers, the streets where commerce goes on, schools, deserts, private houses. The ferocity of a war machine is before you. Dramas of raw stress, loss.

The story & context and mood: A woman, Zelan (Nada Abou Farhat) searches for her sister (dead in one bombing) and her son who was sent to stay with the sister in southern Lebanon — with the help of a cabdriver Tony (Georges Khabbaz) whose brother is exiled in Germany and who appears at first to be acting simply to make money. A bonding between the two emerges over the course of the movie. Context: it is the summer of 2006, and Israel has just unleashed a ferocious 33-day assault on the country. The search takes the pair through the chaos, differing groups of people, kinds of behavior found in a just post-war dangerous landscape, and a history of the south. The mood is not didactic or preach-y: the two stay in a hotel at one point and he has sex with the receptionist; she gradually reveals her upper class privileged background has fallen apart as her husband remains in a center of power, has mistresses. He reveals the political history of his family as Christians, talks of his two sons and wife. This family had thought Israel would help against Muslim fanaticism. They were quickly disabused of such ideas. There’s a curious feel as across the film the woman moves from a sexy western dress to a lightweight scarf on her head and more traditional wrap-around light robe; and as the man moves from irritated driver to complex human being, who can dance traditional dances with glee, who loves his 1975 car as his basis of living — he has to give it up in a desert as it’s a target for cluster bombs. They learn to sympathize with one another.

We see what life is like in places like Iraq, Iran, Syria — the west bank of Israel. As the tall white guys loaded with heavy armory flood the areas now and again, you understand how they are (rightly) seen as the actors of a remorseless set of events indifferent to the fate of the average person on the ground, under the bombs.

One article calls the film powerful protest art and suggest why such art fails partly in terms of the film itself to obtain its object. To stop these wars you have to stop the powerful people in whose individual interest (often not clear to outsiders) these wars are set on foot: arms manufacturers, people who own land and mine it for natural resources, merchants; such a person might not sit through this film (would a slave-owner have read Uncle Tom’s Cabin?); if he or she did, it’s easy to suggest it’s an exaggeration for dramatic effect. This film operates against this trivialization, and is one of a movement of such films about the Middle East. I realize to do real justice say to Obama and those pushing for war we need a Machivelli to do the subtle allegoresis which might explicate how they act and why.

This film’s more than an anti-war film; it’s about the hard maimed lives all around the war that continues after the ceasefires are sounded. For them the war is not over when it’s declared over. It’s a feminist or female-centered vision, women’s and we see how Hezbollah, the resistance movement within Lebanon, ignores the voice of and impact on women and children of their desperate behavior.

A must-see. I wish I could screen it in the next place Obama goes with his war-mongers as background to their hypocritical rhetoric. I say hypocritical for many reasons: the US has used chemical warfare many times, from Agent Orange in Vietnam, to supporting Saddam against the Kurds, to recently blowing Fallujah up with toxic uranium. See Alan Grayson, Florida House Member, on all the things the US gov’t should be spending its money on.

Ellen

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Pablo Larrain shooting his film

Dear friends and readers,

“No.” Just say no is not all that easy. I recommend heartily as educational as well as absorbing this film about a serious revolution from the perspective of a real plebiscite able to oust Pinochet because the military and powerful let it happen: the man and his clans, flunkies, thugs were just too murderous and destructive … it’s treated from the perspective of campaign commercials. Links to the real commercials show the film is accurate enough. One drawback is the man who made the film is a close relatives of people high up in Pinochet’s gov’t so the superficiality and cynicism of it comes from his rightist take.

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I write to recommend hurrying out to see Pablo Larain’s No, a film about a serious revolution from an unusual, perhaps shallow and cynical and disillusioned, or at least piquant perspective. I went to see it because it starred Gael García Bernal

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René Saavedra (Bernal) with his son on his shoulders, next to him the socialist (or communist) leader, Urrutia (Luis Gnecco) who recruited him to make campaign commercials

I remembered Bernal as central to the power of a great political film, Even the Rain about a real-life attempt to by brutal cruelty privatize and charge huge prices for water in Columbia. I wrote a blog explaining why it was a must-see film.

In comparison, No has significant flaws outlined here: One Prism. The unusual perspective is that a transformative plebiscite which formed the legal engine for ousting a brutally cruel fascist military dictator, Pinochet (mass murderer, torturer) is treated from the perspective of campaign commercials. Certainly these were significant and important in explaining to the largely uneducated population of Chile why they should vote No when they were given the choice of continuing Pinochet or begin the arduous uncertain process of building a democracy. You might think it’s obvious the best choice is to get rid of such a state-leader terrorist, but it’s not. What will replace him? What are you voting for? “No” is such a negative word to push a lever on. But these were the loaded terms the Pinochet establishment offered to have an election on.

Those who wanted to overturn Pinochet had 15 minutes of TV time at night, the first TV time anyone outside the Pinochet (and US) groups had had any access to the public. When Rene is hired, things are not going well for the democrats because their commercials are too pessimistic; they show what has been, the horrors, they universalize and validate individual people’s memories, but as seen in vignettes voters vote their narrow interests and they are interested in their future. Some were afraid of retaliation; that the election would be rigged, and a win would not be allowed and torture and killing would ensue for those who voted for democracy.

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Police Squads are everywhere in the film

Political argument is not easily understood. Rene concocts films which are the equivalent of selling coca-cola by images of happiness, rainbows, silly pictures of people soaring on skates, sexily dressed women dancing. But it begins to work and then we watch a battle of commercials as the other side run by Rene’s ex-boss, Guzman (Alfredo Castro) makes similar commercials mocking, riffing, refuting, imitating Rene’s.

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Guzman

It’s cynical because the message is you can only persuade people by vacuous nonsense. It omits months of hard registering votes, years of gradual dangerous organization, the full political and economic context. It’s no coincidence the director is Larrain descends from two prominent right wing families who supported Pinochet. But while as usual in these political films, we are given a few elite men get together to save a country, it undeniably true that the commercials used pop methods and were important. Larrain’s movie does imitate them. But the suspense of his movie results from the very real threats from the regime the movie-making team are seen to deflect avoid, luckily escape from, and equally the movie’s message could be, do what you have to to get progress going. if the average person is not attracted to listen to gravity, to careful literal argument, does not want to remember the grief of horrifying losses, then give them happy coco-cola images.

Further, it’s not true that all the images in the films made are dancing girls and jumping young men. Passing by our eyes are silent images of what was and the treat: one struck me was a film of a tank threatening to mow down a little girl in its path. We get slow motion shots of police cracking down on the heads of peaceful protestors with hard-wood batons. We see wrenching grief, abysmal poverty — fleetingly but there as reminders. We see real footage of actual political events blended in with the fictional ones, seemingly seamlessly. And the film shows that on that last day Pinochet tried to present a miscount of the vote, and declare victory when he had lost, but that he could not get away with that because important military leaders had gone over to the side of democracy.

As I watched I remembered that Even the Rain had been about the making of a movie too. The movie was to be about Columbus and the crew hired local peasants at peon wages; a parallel to the harsh and relentless exploition of Colmbia’s people is seen in the story of Columbus told. So you might say that No takes one part of the matter of Even the Rain and develops it more thoroughly. All the talk about film-making, the watching of the making of these films is intriguing: Try Freedom. Less Filling. Tastes Great!. After all campaigns are centrally important in who wins an election.

There is a sub-story, a romance where Rene’s wife is an active political operative who has a male lover and lives apart from him. She is in fact the only individualized woman in the film. Yes this is another movie of a world run by men, with token women used as weapons against one another, there as sex objects or mothers and aunts mainly. When she is clapped into jail, and Guzman as a favor to Rene, engineers her release, Rene is grateful to Guzman.

Here Rene is hurt and lonely but does not know how to win her back.

Gael García Bernal, Antonia Zegersblog

Their son lives with him, and is who he must protect from marauders for the gov’t. At the end of the film Rene is not that happy. His life has not been fundamentally changed, for individual improvement goes slow. He even goes back to his original job making commercials for a corporation to sell soda.

But I felt this refusal to offer meretricious joy was part of the film’s strength. As Obamacare kicks in provision by provision, it helps this or that person this or that way. If Medicare is whittled away, it will take a few years for large porportions of the people to feel the new pain, new costs, renewed exclusion, and it’s hard to connect someone’s early death directly to a loss of coverage since much that occurs in human life has several causes.

Yes it can be read as susceptible to a right-wing frivolous superficiality, but here history is defeating this. Gradually some Latin and Central American countries are throwing off these military dictators put in power by the US, neo-liberal regimes, and opting for social democracy and in countries like Venezuela the improvement in people’s lives as a result of elections speaks for itself.

So while not a unqualifiedly great film, go see this attempt to commemorate and dramatize an aspect of the political experience of reforms (and set-backs to reforms) today. By seeing it you register a vote for making more adult political films.

Ellen

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The bell Martha (1748-1782), white wife of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) used to summon Sarah Hemings (1773-1835, Sally), given to Sally by a dying Martha: Sally was among those who tended Martha during her death agon

Dear readers and friends,

I read on about what I find I must call Jefferson’s women and men after
finishing Kierner’s biography of Jefferson’s oldest white daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph , and watching and reading about the sources for the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala film, Jefferson in Paris. By chance during the more than 3 weeks it took me to read G-R’s Hemingses of Monticello Henry Wieneck’s Master of the Mountain was published and prompted yet another spate of denunciation of Jefferson.

The Hemingses of Monticello is an excellent, eloquently written, thoroughly researched, convincing (perhaps over-argued), and although rightly often quietly indignant and even angry (under control), judicious and yes balanced (sigh) book. It’s as much about slavery and the beginnings of US cultural life in the 18th century, the early colonization of Virginia, the life of Jefferson’s class of people as about members of the Jefferson, Wayles and Hemings kin. The name Hemings honors (as did her children), Elizabeth or Betty Hemings, the woman who was the mother of (at least) 4 wholly African children by a black man, 6 mulatto (as they were called) by John Wayles (Jefferson’s father-in-law) and 2 mulatto by two other white men. She is the patriarch of a large ensuing clan.

I found the book compulsive reading. It’s about American earlier history and race relations today, the origins of some of our excruciating norms and fault-lines. G-R writes eloquently & honestly, nothing falsely upbeat, bringing out fully what is often presented discreetly or not at all. Most compelling in her book were discussions of norms and social and economic circumstances limiting, making people then and now.

G-R has a complicated story to tell and carries several threads and purposes through at once, which I here separate out in order to summarize, epitomize (I will tell stories) and try to evaluate clearly. Her central problem is she must rely on too little documentary evidence, and tries to make up for this by too much speculation at length so the book occasionally becomes repetitive.

She tells of how slavery came to be institutionalized. It was not necessarily in the cards that the western hemisphere would be taken over to make money and grab land and found families on the basis of slavery. Indeed the British driving the French Acadians so brutally from Canada wanted to have non-slave labor in Nova Scotia. But it was too tempting to get someone for free and there was a long tradition before of slavery in the world (seen as mitigation of war — after all the person was not just murdered or as a woman raped and abused until she died), plus in Africa the very bad land for growing (two huge deserts) made it more economical and profitable for African tribes to go to war, enslave the losers and sell them.

The Western Hemisphere set up a different basis for slavery by using race as the central marker of the person who would be enslaved for life. To use the color of someone’s skin was to use a visible marker. Early on then there arose the problem of what happens when a white man fathers a child on a black woman. Is her child a slave? People went to court (black people who hired lawyers too) and those arguing not lost quickly because Roman law was used: that said that if the woman was a slave, her child was a slave in perpetuity. The law favored men having sex when they wanted and other men not losing their property by this. That was a bad day for black people and black women. The difference that one was a slave forever unless you could buy yourself out was the main different between indentured servants who were white and early on every effort was made to allow poor whites to despise and exploit black slaves.

To understand what happened to the Hemings as a result of being literally owned by by white people is the whites did all they could to deprive them of personhood. I own three books on and by Jefferson: Adrienne Koch, ed., introd., Life and selected Writings of Jefferson, Vol 5 of Jefferson the President (on his second term, 1805-9) by Dumas Malone, and Jefferson in Love (the lover letters of Jefferson and Maria Cosway), ed, introd. John P. Kaminksy. In each Jefferson is treated with unqualified respect. We are told of his humanity towards others, his compassionate respect, originality of thought, decency, his real strength of character. In only one (Kaminsky) are his slaves mentioned; in none is justice done to the centrality of his relationship with them.

Jefferson was humanly speaking their brother-in-law (through his first wife), uncle, cousin, of Elizabeth Hemings’ children and grandchildren, the father of 5 children by Sarah (Sally) Hemings. He kept all these people near him, educated the men to be skilled tradespeople, freed his cohort when he felt he had his his moneys’ worth of training them or at the end of his life (after they served him utterly when he needed them with his needs given all priority); and he freed his children by age 21. Sally lived her life from age 14 next to him; was always there for him until he died; she had her own room in his private quarters, was taught to read and write (she spoke French for a while at least); was dressed respectfully, was in effect freed and given wherewithal to live with dignity upon his death. But never once did he write her name down, never once acknowledge what was his relationship with her. He was (as far as we can know) never openly loving as a father to his children by her; he rarely referred to them in writing and then always in coded language.

There is no a single picture of anyone but Isaac Jefferson, the son of Ursula Grainger, who had been Jefferson’s wife’s wetnurse. Like Madison Hemings (Jefferson’s second son by Sally) Isaac was interviewed by a reporter and the resulting writing has come down to us as their memoirs. That’s significant. Most of the people were not photographed until granted the status of people and the right to be remembered.

It will be said he protected his relatives and (in effect) friends this way; given the virulence of hateful prejudice (especially violent because the whites of this culture were so horrible in behavior to these people), he and his white family were also at risk. But never once is there a discernible gesture left of his granting them full person-hood in his eyes. G-R will write that James when freed asked to be treated with dignity and reciprocal need and was not. She suggests that John Hemings found he could not create a self-respecting life of his own after Jefferson died. That the code was never to acknowledge their existence as people around them in writing. Jefferson did clearly treat them as people but quietly, silently and without admitting it. The Hemings are to be erased, not remembered.

And in acting this way he violated something profoundly important in bringing up and interacting with them. as far as we can tell his white relatives behaved similarly. This was his searing sin as chance and his own choices — especially the taking of Sally’s life as his to have — had given him the power over them to have done more right by them.

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ChaircarvedyJohnHemingsforJeffersonblog
A chair carved for Jefferson by John Hemings, Elizabeth’s youngest son — his poignant life story emerges late in the book

We begin with Elizabeth Hemings (1735-1807, Betty), a mulatto (to use the term used then) woman. Her mother Parthena, a black woman was impregnated by an English captain named Hemings. We know about this by a memoir; he tried to buy her and her infant (his child) out of slavery but Francis Eppes, the owner was not selling. G-R says one reason that most freed slaves found in the US were mulattoes is that often white fathers did feel something for their children and did try to educate or free them occasionally. Parthena and Betty were sold to John Wayles. It seems that Betty was very very pretty — this was important — and also smart. As far as we can tell she was always a house servant. By the time she was in her early teens she was being impregnated by black men — it’s fair to say she was being used as livestock.

John Wayles’s life, character, and economic success is put before us: he was a brutal ruthless determined man, began life in England as working class, a servant and brought to the US and rose to become a lawyer — he had enough education to put out a sign, just. We see how he finagled and the people he had to deal with. When Betty was 18, he took over her body. He had three wives of his own beyond her. His first wife was an Eppes mother of Martha, Jefferson’s wife and when she married she took these half-brothers and sister (not called that of course) into Jefferson’s household and that’s how Jefferson came to own them all.

Elizabeth Hemings is called Wayles’s concubine until he died and then joined the Jefferson family. She was not his common law wife as slaves were outside the law; she did not (as her daughter did) live as a hidden substitute for a wife either. The norm then was to pretend white men didn’t take black women to bed with them as a regular thing. No one discussed it and it was done privately — at night, or discreetly. Jefferson differed in that he didn’t hide Sally in the way others did; at the same time he never wrote down anywhere that Sally was in effect a wife, her children were his & Elizabeth’s were related to his wife as half-siblings. This was part of the code.

The code was to erase black people. They didn’t matter. Who and what they were didn’t count. I see this as relevant to the way class and illegitimacy works today. We — many of us — many have come across cases of illegitimacy where no one writes it down and no one admits to it, sometimes where the child has as a father a kind of cover, the mother’s husband. Socially, as social knowledge, everyone knows who the father is (by time, circumstances, resemblances), but by not admitting to the reality you can hide behind the protections of legal fiction. It also renders powerless the woman involved (white too); the only person who deserves protection will be the biological father and the legal one.

What G-D’s research did was break through this code. She was aided by Jefferson who again did treat the Hemingses differently than his other slaves, not like free people, and not like his legitimate daughters and sons-in-law: whites inherited your property, were your companions in public social life. Black people were unacknowledged intimate companions whom Jefferson rewarded with education and skills and minimum coercion (he expected the system to do that for him). Some white fathers did treat their biological children more decently (like Jefferson) but since records are so sparse even for him(we are dependent on his farm books, these reinforced at long last by DNA studies), it’s very difficult to find instances to study in detail. That’s why the Jefferson and Hemingses are such a gold mine.

I want to stress the class bias too. Wayles was originally a servant who became a lawyer; I said he rose by force of brutal personality, by intelligence and luck. Again and again we see that he was quietly despised by those Virginians who arrived earlier and came from gentry in England. He defended a man, John Chiswell, accused of killing Robert Routledge during a quarrel in a Williamsburg tavern. Snide references to Wayles abound; he is forthright in his own defense; the business was brought to a halt when Chiswell killed himself but the documents show the class side of these world. Very like ours.

When Wayles died, it was against the law in Virginia to free slaves except in cases of “considerable merit” and the standard was high and had to be approved by a governor and council. If you tried to free the negro, the churchwardens of a parish could try to snatch the person and put him or her back into slavery. That’s interesting: it suggests some people did want to end slavery and free their slaves. To do so remember meant depriving your children of considerable amounts of property and people really do want to leave their children what they can. Here she does not mention buying your freedom.

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JeffersonsPocketblog
Items Jefferson carried in his pocket

When Jefferson enters the picture, G-D takes time out to give his story. Kierner told too little of Jefferson. It’s important to know his mother was a Randolph. In Virginia this family is still not gone from high social life. We have Randolph-Macon college and Randolph college in mid-Virginia. Jane Randolph was Jefferson’s mother. It’s been said he didn’t love her, or was cold somehow towards her since few papers by him about her survive. G-D suggests they could have gone in a fire, but it is true he was far closer to his father. He was early on recognized as highly intelligent, capable. and educated accordingly. He was close to a sister, Jane. We are told of the men who became his mentors and his patrons and how they pushed him forward. How they knew Wayles from courtrooms and thus Jefferson meet Martha. He was very creative, loved to do mechanics, liked working with his hands, an architect himself and builder. He educated his sons, Beverley, Madison and Eston (by Sally) under the tutelage of of their uncle John Hemings (Elizabeth’s son) to be carpenters. Jefferson would walk round with a compass and other gadgets in his pockets. He read enormously,very verbal, loved music — as did his first wife.

Jefferson was ambitious and from his early days we see a radical thinker. He lost a case because he offended a judge. Samuel Howell brought suit to be freed from indentured servitude. As a punishment for having a child out of wedlock by a black man (get this), Howell’s white grandmother was fined and her child (Howell’s mother) was born out for servitude for 31 years (an average life span); Howell was born during this mother’s servitude. Jefferson worked with extreme diligence to search for any legal precedence or theory that might aid him. His brief included these words; “all men are born free and everyone comes into the world with a right to his person and to use it at his will. This is what is called personal liberty and is given him by the author of nature because it is necessary for his own sustenance.” We are not far from “inalienable rights” here. The judge cut him off in mid-sentence and the man lost the case. Jefferson gave Howell money and soon after Howell ran away and was never heard of again in that area of the US. On the legislation punishing women for having sex with someone of the other race, Jefferson wrote these strictures were to “deter women from the confusion of species which the legislature seems to have considered an evil.” Seems to have is a strongly sceptical note here. (pp. 100-1)

Before he married Jefferson wanted to life his status, and that’s why he began the first Monticello. He and Martha lived on the site in a small house, a sort of one gigantic room where they did everything. It’s apparent that they socialized and networked from the very beginning even in these small quarters. That’s why they needed servants. This house meant a lot to him, so too did spending money and living well. (Thus the later debts.) He did just love Paris and the time he spent there.

Jefferson did quickly single out Elizabeth’s sons (his wife’s half-brothers), Martin (by a black father), Robert and James to travel about, learn trades, hire themselves out and keep their money. He freed Robert and James during their lifetime – they were Sally’s close brothers. He freed all his children by Sally as young adults so they had their lives ahead of them. Three others he freed (more distantly related to him or them) he freed when they were older – and had “earned” it.

He treated black women as feminine, which by his standards means they were not to work in the field and do hard labor. They were house servants and encouraged to dress nice, ornament themselves — like white women. But since they were slaves, the real result of this was they ended up being sex partners of the men in the house. The place was rather like a stereotypical new Orleans: white males pursuing and attaching themselves to light-skinned black women. The norm for black women slaves was to refuse to recognize their ‘femininity” as European standards saw this — so you could work them hard in the fields, endlessly impregnate them and demand they get up and work the next day or so, sell their children and them at will. Jefferson remarked on European peasants how shocking it was that women worked in the fields. In Africa women worked in the ground too. But of course these women were not slaves, not subject to rape.

There is much sympathy for whoever is the underdog throughout. G-R does make us aware of how much his white wife Martha suffered from these yearly pregnancies and how she didn’t have to die at 35

It was a great grief to Jefferson and he really collapsed over it, went into weeks of depressive behavior – stayed alone, couldn’t sleep, would talk to himself. Partly he knew he was partly responsible for her death, since it was he who kept impregnating her. As she lay dying, she asked him not to remarry so as to not put another stepmother in charge of her two girls. This suggests her father’s second and third wives had not been good experiences. He didn’t remarry. Perhaps like Edward Austen and others I’ve come across Jefferson couldn’t see his way to use some form of contraception (other practices beyond full frontal intercourse were known and among others, used by Fanny and Alexandre d’Arblay) or keep away or control himself or treat his wife other than as someone he must use sexually to the full.

Jefferson had also suffered badly as governor. He had been unable to cope with the military part of his office (perhaps partly because he and Washington did not have sufficient funds to cover all the areas they had to) and was for decades afterwards harshly criticized for not using local military to fight Cornwallis in Virginia. When he didn’t, Richmond and then Charlottesville fell to the British and he had to flee and his family too. He had wanted to retire before this — again not understood at all by people of this generation, especially other men. These bouts of retirement recurred after the first wife’s death so they were not just the result of wanting to be with her and his family (his rationale).

G-R tells of how the Hemingses experienced the American revolution. She has some memoirs, oral traditions, and some papers Jefferson kept too, and a later interview of a great-grandson of the Hemingses’ Among other things, when Jefferson fled he left the house in the care of Martin, Elizabeth Hemingses’ oldest son by an unnamed black man. Martin stood up to Cornwallis and would not tell where Jefferson was at threat of death. This is sometimes interpreted as see the loyal black slave. It was actually in his nature, unflinching and aggressive and the kind of person who would rise to be the one in charge were he not have been enslaved. There’s one of this hide the treasures stories. Martin hid Jefferson’s silver and as the soldiers were coming in could not let another black man out in time so Caesar had to stay below for a couple of days and nights.

We see Robert and James, Elizabeth’s sons by the white Wayles, accompanying Jefferson and how they were educated.

Finally Elizabeth and her daughters did the work of the house and were the people who cared for the wife as she lay dying, the hard work of all this. They are never mentioned in white accounts as if they weren’t there, as if Martha did the work. No she ordered them to and probably didn’t closely supervise .That was Elizabeth’s job.. G-D tells of how (ironically/) Martha the white wife signaled out Sally before she died to give Sally a hand-bell as a memento. An ambiguous thing to us as it was this hand-bell Martha used to call Sally by. It does show a particular regard.

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RevolvingBookstandblog
Revolving bookstand made in Monticello Joinery in later years

James Hemings, a Provincial Abroad (in Paris)

Not Jefferson, not Patsy his daughter. I’ve not mentioned that one real obstacle G-D has is lack of documentation. So in this chapter where she builds a picture of James’s life in Paris, 1783-87 (and beyond when Sally and Polly arrived, and Jefferson was having his affair with Maria Cosway and Patsy living at the convent still), she has to theorize and use what is known about black people in France in general in this era. (I had to do the same for Anne Finch in my chapter on her girlhood; I talked about what was done usually, what was done in the place and schools she might have gone to.). She suggests that James bought the cloth or clothes for clothes-making. She suggests it was an eye-opener to James to see Jefferson and his daughter outfitting themselves. They had been the high ideal in Virginia. The house probably startled him – and the varied interesting company (which dazzled Jefferson and he loved it.) She tells a couple of stories of other black people that have come into the records and documents, for example John Bologne, Le Chevalier St-George (circa 1745-1799), sometimes called “the black Mozart” (about whom I had heard a talk in an EC/ASECS conference at Penn State).

G-D succeeds in persuading us James Hemings had an almost equivalent experience of a white young man who goes on a grand tour. His eyes were opened, his experience enormously widened. His letters of introduction were the apprentice papers that took him to several palaces and several chief French chiefs. He had freedom of movement; Jefferson paid for “all found” (daily food, his lodging in Hotel of course, his clothes). The rest was his.

Did he have free movement? The trouble was racism even in France but this in conflict with “the freedom principle.” Some people wanted to keep blacks out of France (much fewer than in England, some 4-5,000 out of 30 million while in the UK it was 10,-20,000 out of 9 million) and others wanted to free them. The law demanded Jefferson register James’s presence; if James stayed more than 3 years, he was automatically freed. Jefferson got round that by not registering James and we have notes in his handwriting advising others to do the same.

But he did not need an escort of an older white person around as he had in Virginia. No one would beat him up, no one snatch him. Yet the one note we have beyond the apprenticeship noted in Jefferson’s diary is Jefferson’s note sent indirectly to James’s mother: “James is well. He has forgot how to speak English, and has not yet learnt to speak French.” A light kindly joke.

SallysKeepsakesblog
Jefferson’s spectacles and other items Sally kept and handed on to her children

Sally at the Hotel de Langea

Annette G-D says Jefferson did not want Sally to bring Polly; he wanted an older woman. Thus we cannot say he was looking to bring a concubine to Paris for himself. But once he came, that is what G-D thinks he after a little time made Sally into. Inoculated against small pox, while his daughters had typhus, put to stay with a friend she was apparently given nothing to do. G-R says the unusual thing about Sally is she’s never mentioned with any concreteness. He quarrels with Martin, comments on James, sends directives to just about every Hemings but Sally. She is suggestively in one place only said to be his “female chambermaid.” There’s the negative response of Abigail Adams: upon seeing the girl, she urged Jefferson to send her home as not of use, as a little non-effective or puzzling a a 16 year old too old. Abigail thought her 16; she was 14.

So Sally was taken in for the next four decades as Jefferson’s mistress. There are signs she was given French lessons and there are orders for very nice cloth for her. At another point she seems to be included in a group of servants sewing. Women sewed. She did stay in the house most of the time. She was not registered as a slave and this way he could keep her beyond the 3 years without having to worry she’d be free. The convent he put his daughters in freed slaves left there. Keeping them in the convent was also convenient for keeping them out of the way.

He has already begun his dalliance with Maria Cosway and their apparently famous correspondence has begun. I saw a copy of the letters for $1 so I’ll be reading that slender book soon.

For Sally we may postulate she spent time with James down in the kitchen, that she saw and enjoyed what was available through windows. Her life circumscribed like that of her half-nieces, Patsy and Polly. I am struck by the use of euphemism for her in later accounts (which G-R uses): they remind me of the way Eliza Austen’s mother, Philadelphia Austen is discussed as well as the probable illegitimacy of Eliza. Gender makes all women one when the male is powerful and gentry educated.

she does seem to have gotten an allowance — like James. Disposable income. When Jefferson did not need her, she was free to wander about — had to be careful that’s all mainly because she was not registered. (Had no papers you see). (My own comment: there is no record of hats made; I wish there had been.) Oral tradition in Hemings family was she talked of Paris to her dying day; made a huge impression, perhaps like Jefferson himself a very happy time for her. We may even imagine them coming together if not in love as not equals, but both having this good time, older man, younger girl, after all movie not so wrong

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Thomas, James, Sally and Patsy go home

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Photo of Monticello, 1890

Jeffferson returned to the US thinking he would return soon; he was asked to be Washington’s secretary of state and he could not turn that down — if only for the sakes of others who were attached to him. He also persuaded James and Sally to return with him. Martha was thwarted in love and went perhaps expecting a continued debutante life. Her father married her off within 2 months, to the son of a friend.

She persuades me that the explanation for Sally going home when she could have been freed, and in the paragraph pointed this out to Jefferson, is the relationship was one of trust, affection, and satisfying to both, very much. She had not been raped, though her position shows she could not easily have said no. Once there he treated her very differently than just about all known relationships of white masters and black concubines: she was set up in Monticello, in the house, in the central quarters and lived there (one stray remarks shows this. When there was another illness, she was not called upon to nurse (that’s the second stray phrase). He depended upon her to be there; he wanted her the way a man wants a stay-at-home wife who he is congenial with and comes home to rest by. There are such relationships.

G-R also tells by contrast of terrible relationships: one Celia, age 14 also, this one a rape by a master, put in a cabin of sorts, and raped regularly until she murdered him, burnt his body, and gave the ashes to a grandson. We know about this because there was a court case and interestingly her side was told (by an abolitionist leaning lawyer). She was hung.

She tells of ordinary ones we can track — the white woman kept away or made to work with the other slaves, even if her children were treated better or eventually freed. Very common the older man taking the pubescent girl.

And she tells of Jefferson’s white women. His daughter married off at not quite 17. Now we are told more frankly of Martha’s husband’s violence, and how he came to be over-shone by Jefferson and Martha as much Jefferson’s non-sexual wife as he was Thomas Mann Randolph’s sexual one. Even if they didn’t get along after a short time, her life was one of yearly pregnancies. The girl Nancy shifted over young to a Randolph branch who became the mistress of Randolph’s cousin and the infanticide. Especially the brutality of Martha’s oldest daughter, Anne’s husband, how he beat her and impregnated her to death and nothing much done to stop him. Anne too married off at 16. G-R quotes Kierner to the effect that Martha, Jefferson’s daughter did after that one marry her daughters off much later — or not at all. The non-marrying becomes almost a deliberate choice or option for Martha’s daughters (though at the end they did have to open a school).

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With Sally settled into Monticello, Thomas Jefferson is off to New York with her brothers. He is going to be secretary of State to Washington and takes up residence a couple of blocks away from Washington. Their long journey in the snow by carriage. Robert has been spending a lot of time away from his “master” and continues to be given “general passes” (which were frowned on by other whites). He had married a woman named Dolly while Jefferson was in Paris and shortly after they arrive in NY he leaves to visit her. He never asked Jefferson to buy her as Jefferson did buy the spouses of other slaves. He apparently preferred to keep her and his life apart, and he pretty quickly also began to hire himself out. He seems to have led a remarkably independent life — for a slave.

He never ran away. Jefferson’s rule was to sell all slaves who ran away and could be brought back. Not before flogging them harshly and telling the person who bought them not to keep them beyond immediate need but sell again. Not kindly there, was he?

James settled down to being chef. In the film Jefferson’s attitude is voiced: he felt that James owed him a couple of years of being a chef and to train others before he freed him. He was again given an allowance. Both NYC and Philadelphia were places where the nature of liberty and freedom were part of life and ardent discourse. NYC had a sizable number of black people, some free. The talk was a spillover of the French revolution going on just now — as well as reaction to what was happening in England (strong repressive measures as well as war and depression).

Jefferson also began to have usual illnesses, psychological in origin these, migraines. James is mentioned each and every day of the diary; it was he who went and got Jefferson his medicine. She makes the point that James and Sally Hemings probably knew Jefferson intimately as well perhaps better than anyone else.

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High Street, Philadelphia, 1799: James lived on this street in the 1790s

But soon the capital was moved to Philadelphia and so Jefferson and now 4 servants (2 non slaves) moved there. He felt he was going to be permanent enough so Jefferson never seems to have moved anywhere without full scale renovation. He began this – always the big library and something like 89 boxes of books. (I begin to identify though not with the renovation and moving.)

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G-R presents a much more positive view of Jefferson than she could have; her purpose was to persuade as many readers as possible to take an interest in, respect the lives of the Hemingses and that’s served best by judiciousness.

In Paris, there are often conflicts between servants and also would be between slaves and servants and from some of these emerge information and insight into James Hemings’s life — because white people left documents. One French servant’s wife, Seche, alleged another indulged in “sodomy” and that he loved men. Petit demanded Seche’s wife get out. Since Jefferson’s longer relationship was with Petit, and he needed Petit’s services, more the Seches had to leave. We have a letter from Jefferson showing him using a confidential direct personal note with Petit. Petit refers in a letter back to “Gimme” (James) and “Salait” (Sally). Jefferson did not hing about this taboo behavior — as he never appeared to try to punish or ostracize his son-in-law’s sister, Nancy when her brother-in-law impregnated her and participated in an infanticide.

This keeping his cool is characteristic of Jefferson. There exists a correspondence from these years between a black free man, Benjamin Banneker, from Maryland; Banneker presents an almanac to Jefferson who write back with great respect and sends the almanac to Condorcet and then helps Banneket get a place (job) as an assistant in surveying land for the Federal District (p. 475). This was going beyond just courtesy and helping quietly.
Now 18 years later it was charged that Jefferson helped Banneker in his superior almanac and then became a target of those who hated his support for the French revolution, his mild anti-slavery and when Banneker and his friends printed Jefferson’s correspondence with this man, Jefferson simply kept quiet about it (p 477)

G-R suggests at the time of the original correspondence Jefferson might have told James Hemings about it.

Jefferson had no problem in offering common courtesies to black people in public. He once rebuked a grandchild for not bowing back to a black man who bowed to them in the streets (p 477). He referred to servants as Mrs, so Henrietta a washerwoman was called Mrs Gardiner , p 479. Things like this count. A lot. There’s a stray remark by someone later on (oral tradition) that Sally had her own room apart from Jefferson at Monticello. Her own space.
I’ve been snubbed and know how much it hurts. I can’t bear when someone calls me by my last name without the title; it’s disrespectful, abrasive. It would’ve cost so little to the person doing the snubbing is what I keep my eyes on. But to have given her a room of her own goes beyond this.

The story of how the three black men who were so close to Jefferson finally left him — were freed – is ambiguous too. The chapter is called Exodus (the allusion to the Bible). Mary, Elizabeth Hemings’s oldest daughter by a black man was sold to Colonel Bell, the white man who had become her substitute husband. Jefferson believed all women ought to be under the control of a white man. But he only sold with her her younger children; he did let all her family go, her “older” children, including Joseph Fossert then 12 and his sister, Betsy, 9, stayed on as slaves. Joseph was a talented artisan. To understand this takes a lot of trouble since the language used to describe it in the letter is so coded.

Elizabeth’s oldest son, Martin, called “the fierce son of Betty Hemings” by Lucy Stanton (a later reporter), the man who held Jefferson’s house together while Jefferson fled during his time as governor during the revolution, quarrel, and Jefferson writes that he will sell Martin at Martin’s request to a man Martin approves of — Jefferson’s tone is of one furious. In another note (earlier the selling of Martin is referred to as the equivalent of selling a chariot). But in fact this did not happen (tempers cooled?), Martin stayed on in Monticello for 2 months and then went to NYC (or DC). He was quietly freed and heard of no more in the documents.

The second son, Robert was just as bad. When the quarrel occurs Jefferson says James is “abandoning” him. It’s been told that a deal was worked out where Robert’s wife’s owner bought Robert and then Robert from his saving re-pay Stras and thus be free. Again Jefferson felt this was somehow dumped on him unexpectedly; that he had expected more years of services, and you see hurt and anger. A kind of bitter lament referring to what he had taught Robert (including barbering). Jefferson thought one could build emotional capital with a slave but he does not realize at no point can Robert really assert his identity or what he is or choose freely. All is given and he is to be grateful; much is demanded and he to be quiet.

A tense struggle occurred at the end of Jefferson’s time with James show Jefferson expecting reciprocation from James and (like many powerful people who are higher than you say) not understanding how James must’ve seen the relationship. Jefferson’s notes about James have phrases like his “desiring to befriend” James. Jefferson wants James to stay on as cook after they go home from Philadelphia after the ordeal of his time as secretary of state.
Elizabeth’s youngest daughter, much younger than any of the others is sold to James Munroe.

Elizabeth herself retired to a cottage much as Sally did at the end of her life. It was an arrangement which freed her in fact but where the Jefferson carried on paying her expenses and protecting her from “snatching.”

The analogy G-R uses much earlier is a propos: Baldwin says that when someone would give him a small version of what Baldwin felt others (whites) got much bigger how it embittered him; it was not a reconciler. I understand that too. You are not grateful. G-R “they did not want to give their very lives to him any more than he would have wanted to give his life to them.” The shows of devotion while slaves are not to be taken at face value and Jefferson could not understand this. He was also unusually powerful and respected and they knew this. He could and would help him. but to be with him was “emasculating” too says G-R — as it was for Martha’s husband, the son-in-law.

The one person who did not leave was Sally. Her decision to return to France permanently fixed her in his orbit until he died.

PoplarForsetblog
Poplar Forest, Jefferson’s other plantation, a retreat for all, black and white, late in Jefferson’s life

Continued in comments.

Ellen

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Robert Fripp’s website

Dear readers and friends,

I am honored and delighted to have a guest blogger today. Robert Fripp, the author of Dark Sovereign, a thoroughly researched play that does justice to Richard III. Robert came across my blog-review of the WSC’s production of Richard III: WSC Richard III: a parable about politicians. He liked what I wrote and was prompted to write himself about this king and his play here:

Richard III: Receiving emergency care after mauling by Shakespeare

Discussing Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Richard III, Ellen recently wrote, “They [the WSC] mean to take [Richard III] into the 21st century; as the director says, it’s not a history play anyway (as nowadays we know Shakespeare was repeating heavily shaped Tudor propaganda).”

“It’s not a history play anyway.” Too true. Shakespeare’s Richard III comes close to emulating British pantomime, where a rough-looking male with five o’clock shadow plays a wicked step-mother, and the leading lad is a nubile young woman in tight-fitting Robin Hood garb. Shakespeare’s Richard III goes far beyond character assassination. It crosses the line into farce.

Someday we may recognize 1983 as a watershed year in the history of research and reportage on the subject of Richard III; not because 1983 marked the 500th anniversary of Richard’s accession to the throne. Rather, because a current affairs television producer in Toronto (me) got so fed up with the quasi-history and fabulous (in the literal sense) character assassination of Richard III that I started writing a “better” play than Shakespeare to produce a plausible King Richard. I’ve written my play, Dark Sovereign, in the English it was available to for Shakespeare—which I learned to write “fluently.”

Strange projects may spawn stranger outcomes. Whether Dark Sovereign lives or dies as a play, overnight it is now the longest drama written in Renaissance English. Dark Sovereign bumps Hamlet and Richard III from being the first and second longest down to being second and third. I never intended Dark Sovereign to be performed at full length. My Introduction invites directors “to grab a machete and roll up their sleeves.”

Now to our new Richard III. As a boy, he took military training at Middleham Castle, in the North Riding of a northern county, Yorkshire. Much later, he married Lady Anne Neville, who grew up at Middleham. In Dark Sovereign, before Richard proposes to Anne, Robert has Richard remind her:

” ‘Twas in your father’s house I learn’d to war.
Remember wi’ yourself, how I bethought was
to play David in Golias’ armour;
whilst did you, a little golden girl, sit out and pick pied daisies.”

Five hundred years after the king’s death in battle, two Richard IIIs stalk England. Shakespeare’s ambitious psychotic still enjoys a warm welcome in the South. But many Northerners won’t hear a bad word against Richard. In many respects he was a benign governor in the North. When you enter a pub in Leeds, Leicester, Nottingham, Manchester or York, be careful what you say.

For nearly a decade Richard served as military commander in the North, defending the border against Scottish raiders on behalf of his brother, King Edward IV. In Dark Sovereign, a letter informs Richard that King Edward’s ambitious queen, Elizabeth Woodville, appears to be reaching for regal command herself, and Richard’s allies demand that he hurry to London. Richard angrily responds:

Richard: “I am to Edward shield and general captain
in the office of a wall against the Scot.
But these would have me hole the wall,
lay down my arms, quit vigilance, invite invasion.
Is England so phantastically king’d, that I
—while Scotsmen ravish English wives—
must haste to London,
there to save my brother from his queen?
Psha! Though it be comfort-killing, yet the Border is my stage.
I’ll order myself in the play I have in hand.”

When King Edward dies, Queen Elizabeth Woodville is able to use Edward’s underage heir, their son, as a rubber stamp to enact mischievous policy. Richard in turn is forced to react. Given the opportunity to seize the boy, he joins forces with Harry, Duke of Buckingham, who reminds Richard how many members of his immediate family had already been killed during England’s war for dynastic power:

BUCKINGHAM: “Our hurt’s not small;
no more is the common griefs of England.
Spare for no cost, no more than if it were the cause of all.
          A time and times the Rose that bare you
wept death-wearied tears for York, which,
claiming England’s dear-bought majesty,
did quit it debt with dearest blood. [110]
‘Twere the devil’s undeserving profit, did your father
—his three sons withal—untimely fall in grave.
For nothing!
          To sway the diadem doth mitigate abominations.
To lose the rule were death. And treason.
Standing: I’ll take me out a pissing while.
I’d purge the wine of fellowship on daisies.”
BUCKINGHAM goes.

RICHARD GLOUCESTER:
“Alone. At last alonely and alone.
The nighted hours pass, a quiet wilderness without,
contráry to the noise keeps coil within … [120]
          … How should I think? nor why, with voice of word,
lend mettle and substantial form to thought?
Springs up this maund’ring from a sudden fury of the night?
or wells it from a lock’d up inly fount? …
          … ‘Tis said the soul is fed with charity,
but charity contendeth ever to prevail upon base fearful parts.
The mind of man is wax, wherein old use sets to his seal. [130]
I’faith, it is his learn’d experience breeds each his habitus.
This man, this habitus, is phoenix-like his gather’d self,
but wanting Charity’s pure phoenix-fire
came to his years unpurified.
Seldom suck’d I Charity wi’ nurses’ milk.
How the devil can I express her?”

At this point, Richard broaches a topic much debated in late medieval and early modern times. Dante Alighieri had introduced this question in his Divine Comedy: Does the Will or Reason provoke action?

“Whence welleth thought? and whither flows?
Being mine alone, I speak to me alone. But which self speaks?
and whether, as Another I, doth arbitrate his thought,
I may not know. Some humour feeds the tongue, [140]
which, being feeding, moves noise, so.
Other chooseth out th’opinion ears give audience
and which reject, as they were darts turn’d by a buckler.”
          Lights: Dawn breaks.

Enter BUCKINGHAM silently. He listens.

“Speaks Reason to my Will?
or doth proud Will to Reason speak?
The Comedy did anciently set forth how wayward Will
strove with his government, the passive voice of Reason.
O, would I wist which captain order’d thought,
Prescrib’d it me, dictated every deed.
Whether doth the Will or Reason urge me fasten on occasion [150]
of this night to sway the rule on England?
If either door gaped wide, mankind would wholly righteous be
—or damn’d! How stony is the way ‘twixt Reason and the Will,
to judgment.”

I published Dark Sovereign in Arden style, meaning that the text shares the pages with footnotes, giving actors and students instant reference to precise meanings. Precision extends to the language in which his play is written as well as the history. My aim: “The language of Dark Sovereign is precise. It is written in the vocabulary, idioms and syntax of the period from about 1579 (Sir Philip Sidney’s Old Arcadia) to precisely 1626, a cutoff date dictated by technical reasons involving Francis Bacon. This interval of forty-seven years marked the renaissance of English letters. Every word in Dark Sovereign, each syllable, word-sense, expression, verb ending, tense and function, as well as word order, metaphor and construction patterns, is present because the author found precedents in English written before the year 1626.”

Robert Fripp’s URL: RobertFripp.ca/ & LinkedIn (Toronto)
Dark Sovereign: Available in Paperback from Internet vendors
Tags: Robert Fripp, Shakespeare, Richard III, Dark Sovereign

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William Hogarth (1697-1764), David Garrick as Richard III (1745, a detail)

Gentle reader,

Allow me to add that it was in the 18th century the first revisionings of the Tudor myth began: with Horace Walpole (see his Historic Doubts). The source for Shakespeare’s propaganda play was Thomas More (a strong defender of Henry VIII — even after Henry VIII decided that More was more than dispensable). The subject is covered in Peter Sabor’s splendid Horace Walpole: The Critical Heritage. Paul Murray Kendall’s study reprints parts of More history and Walpole’s Historic Doubts.

Perhaps the 18th century stage, with turning away from beliefs in numinous kings, its scepticism, and new histories (David Hume, Catherine Macaulay), and its great empathetic actors first stirred pepple to doubt the accuracy of Shakespeare’s powerful play. The love of medievalism which fed into the gothic also created sympathy for the Catholic and Stuart point of view (for example, Sophia Lee’s The Recess, a gothic novel about the supposed twin-daughters of Mary Stuart by Bothwell, and Scott’s novels, Kenilworth and The Abbot) helped create a climate for revision.

E.M.

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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.

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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.

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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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