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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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Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln

Gentle reader,

See it. Don’t miss. It’s riveting, suspenseful (we get to watch an election vote-by-vote — without computer, without Fox News — what more American?), gritty. People every once in a while insult one another gleefully. Says Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens to a racist conservative democrat I don’t believe in equality because I know you, you idiot, bigot, loud-mouthed animal are not my equal; I just want everyone to be equal before the law, even you. Of course there’s a myth wrapped up in that as there are many in the film you have to think about later, such as the idea that real liberty for black people was won with the 13th amendment. The film has the usual flaws of such films (e.g.,like Amazing Grace; “history as progress narrative“). Still it has much to deliver. If you don’t want to bother read on, that’s what I have to say tonight. The rest is why and how the film is good and where are some flaws.

I can’t know what you’ve read about Spielberg’s Lincoln (Anthony Lane’s “House Divided“?), screenplay Tony Kushner, focusing on Lincoln’s determined effort to have his Congress pass the 13th amendment to the US constitution, outlawing chattel slavery. I’m writing about the film because I was very moved by it — along with (it seemed to me) most people in a heavily crowded mixed-race auditorium at my local semi-art cinema in Northern Virginia. I might have said “despite its iconic material” but know it’s because of the iconic nature of its material that in this year 2012 this story, these characters are quickened with wrought up life. What US child has not been exposed to scenes of civil war carnage, the millions dead, the bloody bloody battles, the archetypal figures of Lee all formal frozen elegance and Grant taking off his hat at Appomattox. Lincoln? You cannot do such scenes ironically or as comedy. Are we still not fighting the civil war in our other present damaging wars? This is a movie about us today, about racism, about whether you believe in equality of all (whites against whites too); its issues have not yet been resolved it seems. When near the close Jackie Earle Dailey as a weasel-like Alexander Stevens, negotiating for the confederacy will not concede that it’s not a question of two countries at war but one in dire conflict, nor that anyone has the right to free “the property” of the confederate wealth, we are hearing a variant of this year’s unspoken elite-control versus egalitarian-liberty, Romney/Ryan-versus-Obama/Clinton clashes.

Historical films worth seeing are about today in disguise and present their issues ambivalently. I thought this would be like in type to two season’s ago The King’s Speech, a mini-series inside 2 and 1/2 hours, film adaptation (of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals) with Lewis taking the Colin Firth eloquent hero role. It’s not. After all these mini-series are a British form. This is not an intellectual’s film — though it helps if you know your American history, the more about this period of the civil war, these individuals the better: such as Stevens was beaten viciously so that he was nearly crippled, had a black mistress-housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton smith [played by S. Epatha Merkerson) he loved dearly. It’s like wholesome American TV: Ken Burns stuff.


Tommy Lee Jones as Stevens

Also it helps to know your cinema. Film-makers like to quote. This one quotes The Talk of the Town (1942). At the close of the forever unforgettable TOTN after Ronald Colman’s risks his career appointment as a justice to the supreme court, and gets the position, we see him walk away from home (from the back) from the POV of his endlessly loving, smiling older independent minded male black valet who has just made sure Colman is wearing the right jacket, so at the close of Lincoln, we watch Lewis walk away from home on the fatal night of his assassination (yes Spielberg neglects no buttons) from the POV of William Slade as his endlessly loving, smiling older male black valet who was never a slave and has just tried to make sure Mr Lincoln wears his gloves. This kind of worshipfulness of the great (white noble) man by the superior (black intelligent) “everyman” is still with us. We also have an obligatory scene between Lincoln as great (white) man taught by an ordinary (black) person, this time a woman, Gloria Reuben as Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Lincoln’s “colored” maid: Mrs Keckley encourages Mr Lincoln to go on with his determination to pass the 13th amendment after his wife has such raged against his refusal to try to make peace above all and at any price because now their son has enlisted.


The Lincoln family (Mr, Mrs, her maid) at the theater

There are still far too few black people in the film. It’s too much a small group of white men saving the world (something one finds in many a commercial historical film). Lincoln opens on Lincoln talking to two black men, one of whom I recognized as the powerful black male lead of Small Island, David Oyelowo. He did not appear again after the initial scene, opening scene where Lewis was Lincoln as Henry V listening to the men who fight:


Oyelowo wants to know why black men are paid less

Izzy told me biopics often begin with the death of the central figure. One of the mistakes of this film was to fast forward at its close to Lincoln’s death so we could then have a retrospective drenched in nostalgia and loss where we see and hear at long last one of Lincoln’s many stump speeches delivered to a huge crowd. I’ve read these. They have much Biblical language, but are simple direct passionate denunciations of slavery, eloquent defenses of equality (in the mode of Burns’s “a man’s a man for aye that”). I’d hoped we’d have more of them and earlier. The choice was rather to show us Lincoln at home (undoing Mary’s corset, arguing fiercely with her over their son, reminiscing and looking forward to the traveling future they would not have), Lincoln with his cabinet, with his son, with his hired band of half-drunk bribers, one-on-one with this or that person. Or alone, at a distance, privately ruminating. He is all height, a concave shadow, who walks awkwardly as if he doesn’t want to take up the space his body needs, his hands oddly strength-less.

No one can say that Lewis’s performance is one of impersonation as we have no tapes of Lincoln, only the words of his speeches, what he and others wrote down about him in life, his writing to be read — these Lewis delivers with an understated held-back, soft, low startlingly (if you remember his usual cut-glass accent in Room with a View, his cockney in My Beautiful Laundrette) western American set of vowels circa 1860; his whole posture is of laid back, withdrawn power brought forth fully when periodically force is called for. It does work because none of the speeches are wooden lines of narrative or ideas fed the audience in the way of BBC/PBS style mini-series costume-historical film drama. The character talks naturally. He can pronounce, but he is also witty (“joyful to be comprehended” he mutters at one point to James Spader as Bilbo who anachronistically greets Lincoln with “I’ll be fucked” what are you doing here?),


Spader as Bilbo in the House

He is conflicted, deep in thought, worried, austere and icy too. at moments I wondered if Lewis had Obama in mind.

It may be taken as a rebuff to Obama since central to what happens is how Lincoln will not give in. He will pass the 13th amendment before ending the war lest the peace legalities find his Emancipation Proclamation does not apply post-war situation. He fights and fights hard, using all weapons, from a crew of coarse bribing networker-enforcers who bully, pressure, manipulate to get the necessary votes. When Lincoln is needed in the last days, he’s there in the thick of it, finding out individuals and persuading them. As Obama often has failed to and so given up what he should not have or not gotten what he should.

Too much radiance, too much plaintive music. Far too little sense of history as a group of forces. Ang Lee’s Ride to the Devil did that (also civil war), and somehow Lee managed to avoid cliched scenes (he’s not American himself), but Ang Lee’s film was trashed by the studios (they did not advertise it) and it flopped. Sally Field as Mary Lincoln made too dense or again too seething. But it has to have the rhetoric debates, the scenes of corpses, the songs, the lines of men in blue or grey.

I’ve an idea Spielberg made the film because the matter is iconic.

But there are also some funny moments, and wry jokes here and there (Kushner wrote it): Lane caught Mary Lincoln’s just think “four more years in this terrible house”. I loved Lincoln’s fondly told long-drawn out gentle joke-y tales, with their indirect relevance. When Lincoln moves into gnomic poetry mode, and David Stratairn as Steward beyond patience, exasperated into complaint, cries aloud “I have no idea what you are talking about,” I laughed aloud. I laughed aloud several times in the movie when no one near me did.

So go and you too can get to appreciate the jokes no one sitting near you does.

Ellen

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Recent photo

Dear friends and readers,

George McGovern died yesterday, Sunday, October 21, 2012. He was a great and a good man. He achieved nomination as the candidate for the Democratic Party in 1972. He genuinely garnering a majority of votes at the convention after having managed to change the rules of such conventions so that a small pre-, & self-selected elite of rich & powerful could not limit the choices. Had he been able to win the election in 1972, the world would be a much better place for the majority of peoples in it today.

He vowed to stop bombing Vietnam upon taking office. He was against supporting military & fascist dictatorships around the world. He would change the goals of NATO: to support the peoples of Europe toward a better life. He made commercials showing how a huge percentage of the elderly in the US are living on the edge of poverty, arguing for a support of college education for all, bringing into the picture of the US world the way the poor live in the US (white as well as black). He would set in place social programs to enable these people. His nomination included a platform from the Democratic party which was the first to announce women’s needs as part of a goal for the party; the first to support GLBTQ rights.

I sent two checks to this man, $20 each time, real money for me at the time (1972). Since then I’ve sent only an equal amount in 2008 to Obama (or I thought I was sending to Obama, but it turns out I sent it to Moveon.org) and $50 last year and $85 this to DemocracyNow.org. This is Amy Goodman’s news-show and this weekend I watched excerpts from the film about McGovern’s summer campaign in 1972: One Brief Shining Moment. I listened to him say how wrong it was to spill so much blood, to destroy so many young lives, so many people in Vietnam, Cambodia, their homes, their fields, their food. How he would end all bombing the day he took office. I’ve never heard anything like this from Obama. McGovern had no anti-racist rhetoric but black people were behind him and for the first time ever everywhere in a convention were ordinary people (all ethncities and in ordinary clothes). In 2012 the Democratic as well as Republican conventions were scripted performances run by fat cats (corporations, donors) with their fancy parties more than half paid by the gov’t. In this film you will not make the mistake to think that Nixon was a better choice than Romney today. We see him vowing no demonstration will alter his course as the police beat up, maim, murder young adults on US campuses (who are refusing to die or silently acquiesce).

New York City went for McGovern. I understand Alexandria City (where I now live), Va. did. The electoral college after gerrymandering made him look bad: he took DC and Massachusetts’ electoral votes. But he also took 39% of the people who voted. As did Mondale. Clinton didn’t get much more but they were differently distributed and there was a 3rd party candidate.

I had to wipe away the tears from my eyes as I watched Abe Ribicoff’s shock, horror at the Gestapo tactics of Mayor Daly’s Chicago police beating up white young people in the streets of Chicago who were refusing to go or send others to Vietnam to die, be maimed, and kill others. Who is shocked today to see police beating, pepper-spraying even aged people in the streets protesting civilly against the egregiously unjust economic systems of our era? The film was made in 2005 and so the interviewed had in mind our present era; yet they were prophetic: Gore Vidal spoke of the way the rich and elite despise the 75% and in effect predicted Romney’s scorn for 47% of the US population.

So many obituaries. From the New York Times to the Huffington Post. He is blamed for losing in 1972; there was some fatal flaw in him. Nonsense. His capturing of the nomination was a sort of fluke that was “fixed” by 1984 when the coteries were back in the driver’s seat of the convention again. Whatever he did in 1972 would have been turned against him. Nothing so easy as to ridicule someone when a dominant group are determined. William Grieder says it right: McGovern was the last genuinely open and honest presidential campaign.

We must not give up. McGovern never did. If it be that in this money-shaped gerry-mandered Presidential election, we can fend off the destruction of a civil, socially decent society, based on public education for all (under attack) with people allowed to unite on behalf of their shared working lives by electing Barack Obama, sobeit. A minimum to hold to. Better times may come. We are reeling from the effects of 30 years of reactionary legislation destroying jobs, changing the tax system to create globally-wide ruthlessly exploitative monopolies backed by brutal military action. We need time and Obama will provide another 4 years to re-group, defeat Citizens United, find a socially progressive candidate.

My father said McGovern lost because he was a genuinely nice person. Voters want someone like themselves, and most people aren’t; so, not only do they not appreciate such traits, they resent them. McGovern was not devious enough to hide himself — like FDR — during campaigning. But I like to remember that after that bruising campaign 39% of the voters did vote for him.

I’m sad tonight to think of this man gone, how he was treated in 1972. Humiliated, shamed, and stirred to remember how he stood up against it. How I admired him for that. I admire few people and think few deeds in the world equivalent to this in importance and personal cost.

Ellen

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New Yorker Cartoon

The right to privacy encompasses a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy [but] a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy is not absolute … Roe v Wade, 410 US, p 154

Dear friends and readers,

This morning I read a thoughtful questioning blog by a friend who maintains a journal of her reading online: Margaret Sanger and the Planned Parenthood Rally. I got all fired up, felt strong emotion as I have before when it’s pointed out that, hard as it seems to believe, a sufficiently large percentage of the population in the US is against letting people have the liberty to buy and use contraception to vote in congressmen who will fight to pass laws to destroy women’s health organizations, specifically and most notoriously (see the name) Planned Parenthood, in order to stop the women from having access to safe contraception.

I wrote about this on my blog once before when I had a sudden insight into this apparently destructive aim: after all who would force on families endless children, the enormous work, the inability to care for children individually, the dire poverty, the exhaustion of a woman’s body and a man’s ability to support her and the family that would result: The woman from Planned Parenthood: what is hated is a woman’s access to contraception:

I’ve noticed in mainstream media the determination to de-fund Planned Parenthood has not been treated with any clarity or truthfulness. What has been repeated is the mantra of the Republican group refusing to sign the budget is the objection to Planned Parenthood is they support abortion and do abortions. The reality is a tiny percentage of Planned Parenthood’s efforts are about abortion (different figures are quoted, one that’s repeated is 3%).

The real animus against Planned Parenthood is they enable women to have sex without getting pregnant. The whole thrust of the organization (as seen in its name) is to spread contraception, to give women control of their bodies — and inexpensively. It’s a legacy of Margaret Sanger. The real objection of the republicans is such places enable women to have sex without anxiety.

As I wrote my friend in my comment I’ve gone beyond this insight I had (Katha Pollit saw it too) as I’ve watched and listened to the public media’s reporting of this anti-contraceptive care movement. I still see that republicans and their quiescent allies want to prevent women from having control over their reproductive functions. By stopping access to contraceptives, they also make sex risky so the woman can no longer have an adult sex life of her own choosing.

But the reasoning goes beyond this. They want to subject women to men who they think have the right to demand of a woman they have a relationship with that she produce a child, preferably a son for them — to prove or act out their “manliness.” Romney’s nomination and all he stands for, now coupled with Ryan enforces this lesson: the people heading this movement don’t want to pay any taxes for anyone else’s need. Yes they know very well that Planned Parenthood also provides cheaply for women’s health care in other areas: for antibiotics, for psychological help, for operations (say if you have endometriosis). But every one must be on their own, everyone keep every penny he or she earns except for the minimum of taxes to have wars and say build sidewalks and roads. Poor people deserve whatever happens to them; they are meted out discipline and punishment this way.

The last part of the agenda (not to pay anything for anyone, not to share and take responsibility for anyone but yourself and only pay into what you get an equivalent out of) is not in John Riddle’s Eve’s Herbs. But the rest of the agenda emerges as he tells the history of contraception and abortion in the west.

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Riddle opens his book with the quotation that heads my blog and a full account of the Roe v Wade decision which he says troubled him because not only the were the judge’s arguments but much of even the intelligent discourse around it was riddled (pun intended) anachronistic misconceptions of the previous history of abortion, for example, that the Hippocratic oath implied a physician could prohibit or refuse to help a woman produce an abortion, that the idea that a human life begins with conception is an ancient widespread one, that scientific studies were central to women and their physician’s decisions about how she should go about treating her reproductive system. Says Riddle in the first chapter (with witnesses in print to demonstrate this) many ancients accepted not only abortion but suicide, not condone but accept.

He decided he would write a book which would demonstrate clearly that until the 19th century in Europe and the cultures the spread from Europe (through emigration) it was acceptable to abort a fetus before quickening, and that few believed a human being was created at the time of conception. I wish he could have proved all that he set out to prove. Alas, he does not. It is true but only generally speaking that until the later 18th century until quickening a woman could obtain an abortion and not be punished or ostracized as long as she kept her act private — as she would most of her sex life. But very early on (3rd century conferences and their publications like the Bible) the church’s hostility to sex and to women demonstrated a strong disposition to stop any control of reproductive functions by either men or women, and there emerged the corollary idea that a human life or soul began at conception. And even earlier than Christianity, from Roman times on we see the persistent idea that a man has a right to have children, especially a son, and that such a right trumped the woman’s right to abort the fetus in her body. In fact much of the discourse that got into court when cases involving marriage, children, pregnancy outside marriage, stillborn babies (with accusations of murder often flung at a woman) was about how a man had been deprived of a possible heir (a son was wanted).

But along the way, about 2/3s of the book demonstrates something as important to the contraception, abortion debates — and let us include here debates and a lack of real common knowledge about miscarriage, stillborn and deformed fetuses and babies, artificial insemination and technologically-induced pregnancies, induced parturition (bringing on childbirth before the full term or 9th month), and choosing a child’s sex. From the beginning of recorded time women have wanted to control their reproductive functions to protect themselves and control their destiny and, together in earlier times with midwives and “healing” women, done everything they could to help themselves in these areas. Riddle has a hugely long chapter where he lists and describes all the herbs and concoctions used (as far as we can tell) from medieval to later 18th century time to bring about fertility, prevent contraception, or cause termination (abortion) or early birth, or somehow control and aid a woman who seemed to be sick because of the pregnancy. Riddle keeps saying many of these did work, some were also toxic, and of course some probably had little effect at all.

So for centuries women were left alone to deal with their pregnancies and reproductive functions more or less. If it was not at all acknowledged as her right to chose, because much was invisible, not mapped publicly, she could exercise her own judgement and follow her desires insofar as herbs could help. They did all they could for themselves. The strongest motive for control was a man’s right to have a child by his wife.


A group of men, an iconic copy of Roland of Parma’s Surgery depicting a context in which surgery is not simply professionalizing but masculinizing quite thoroughly.

It’s important to know that medicine was seen as a woman’s province until the later 17th century when it became part of medical science and began to be a paying licensed profession. Groups of women together. Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English argue in a their Witches, Midwives and Nurses that a large majority of women burnt as witches were women who practiced medicine, and that some of this stemmed from the animus of men who wanted to repress them. It’s no coincidence that the largest number of such burnings took place in the 17th century too. It also came from fear as if a woman is granted this power to heal, she is blamed if something goes wrong (and who better to blame than an aged ugly old woman, an easy scapegoat). Riddle concurs that midwives were subject to ostracizing and anathematized and burnt (together with, as Doris Lessing and Stevie Smith say, their helpless hapless cats).

He also demonstrates that until the 19th century laws ignored this fraught and important part of women’s lives, and that attitudes across many levels of society about when you could abort and when human life began were multiple and flexible and endlessly ambivalent. He shows that the recourse to “science” as a rational or explanation for what a woman chose to do only began in the mid-20th century,and then (as science often is used) only those parts of scientific explanation were brought forward which enforced a particular group’s previously held cultural beliefs or agenda.


19th century photo: doctor in charge, nurse his servant, and woman patient subject to them

The last third of the book is the most troubling. We see how easy it is to lose knowledge. Riddle demonstrates that the rise of evangelicism and Victorian determination to control sexuality itself led to the repression of earlier traditional knowledge about herbs. Middle class women no longer had access to or handed down knowledge of herbs. Physicians also did all they could to ridicule and stigmatize as silly or dangerous all means of self-medication that they did not themselves invent or see as scientific. Women’s wombs become a sort of public territory — women had never managed to have the right to control the space about their bodies and their right not to be searched or invaded bodily by members of the community if they have transgressed sexually. Now their reproductive functions were seen as producing important commodities: children. This is another version of men wanting children, but now with the growing understanding of conception, development of fetuses, and physicians’ apparent right to bring babies into the world using socially approved of methods, one could make laws about conception, and childbirth and enforce them by punishments.

Riddle cites new kinds of bills, like Lord Ellenborough’s 1803 omnibus bill which covered various kinds of murder, and this law included a demand that a court determine whether a child who was born dead or alive, to see whether the mother should be accused of murdering it if it died soon after and she had not told anyone it had been born (this hit at women who had babies outside wedlock). It included language like:

It is a crime of murder for anyone to unlawfully administer to, or cause to be administered to or taken by any of his Majesty’s subjects any deadly poison, or other noxious or destructive substance or thing, with intent [for] … his Majesty’s subject or subjects thereby to murder, or thereby to cause and produce the miscarriage of any woman, then being quick with child.

There may still be glimpsed the assumption that no human life or baby is there until quickening, but someone who understood these words or act would be foolhardy to administer any herbs at all, lest she be accused of having done it after the quickening. Quickening is ambiguous and occurs differently for different women and not at exactly the same time.

The last chapter takes us back to modern America, and we find a melange of extraordinary punitive and repressive laws, including attempts to stop women from using any drug that is not prescribed by a certified physician, attempts to prevent women from regulating their menses, prohibitions against the sale of contraception or any drug for female use only. We have arrived at the time of Griswold v Connecticut when the US Supreme court invalidated a Connecticut law that forbade the sale of contraceptions on the grounds of a right to privacy. (Scaglia thinks this hilarious, this right to contraceptive privacy, does not find it in the Constitution.)

At the same time women continued to, albeit quietly, hiddenly, secretly (and thus with shame and fear and anxiety) avail themselves of what help they could get outside the medical profession (and inside when it came to by then illegal abortion). Among popular medications supported by women’s groups was Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, advertised as a “blood purifier” but actually known (as herbs once were known) to have anti-fertility properties so sold as a means of birth control. There were attempts to take it off the market, its ingredients were investigated and changed (fenugreek seed was removed), vitamins were added. It is still sold today. The AMA has of course been tireless in damning such bottles as quack and charlatan stuff.

As Riddle shows all along, one text discussing this preparation is probably partly right when it suggests that abortifacients like this could also be placed in “a volume on toxology.” Drugs that terminate pregnancies are often toxic. The Republican congressmen who likened the product of rape to a product of sex outside marriage and said US people should consider the cases as parallel and consider the feelings or rights of the father takes us right back to the age-old assumption that a woman’s body is only a container for a man to have children through. Plus ca change, moins ca change.

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Jill Townsend as Elizabeth in very bad pain after inducing a premature birth, Michael Cadman as Dwight Enys, the doctor (Poldark 1977-78)

I read this book because I wanted to answer a question I had about a key incident in the Poldark novels. In the fourth novel Ross Poldark rapes Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark in order to assert his right over her body and stop her from marrying George Warleggan. Events and feelings transpire such that she goes ahead and marries Warleggan and gives birth to a baby 7-8 months afterward and claims it was premature. But it was not, it was full term baby, the child was Ross’s. Warleggan is told that the child was not born prematurely, and his savage jealousies are aroused; he torments her and the boy and when she becomes pregnant again (by him), after a terrible scene of his corrosive bullying, she takes a herb compound a London physician has given her to induce an early birth. She wants to persuade Warleggan that she naturally gives birth early so that he will accept the son. She is told the herb or drug is dangerous and should call a physician immediately upon bad cramps. But she does not call a doctor immediately and by the time a doctor is on the scene who recognizes a smell from her increasingly rigid and cold body as gangrene-like it is too late to save her. I wanted to know if there was a compound from herbs which could prompt early parturition, but then kill the person by causing gangrene. Riddle does not descend to that level of detail.

Lest my reader find this story melodramatic, I should say that Charlotte Smith’s Romance of Real Life includes court cases where a woman has a child prematurely and the husband accuses her of trying to foist another man’s child on him. Jim suggested that if the trajectory here is probable, perhaps the specification of gangrene-like is fantasy.

But if I did not have my question answered, I learned about an aspect of women’s history far more important generally. From a book I reviewed Josephine McDonagh’s Child Murder and British Culture, 1720- 1900, I did know that women were routinely accused of infanticide when their babies were born dead, especially if they were poor, powerless, or unwed, that laws were written which made them guilty until they could prove themselves innocent and that as late as the 1980s one can find a case of a girl prosecuted for murder when she was found to have hidden her pregnancy and the baby was stillborn. Well, now I have the larger picture and I have shared it with all who read my blog.


Another New Yorker cartoon on behalf of women

Ellen

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Tom Morello and his “Guitarmy” perform his “World Wide Rebel Song” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” for the crowd at Union Square.

Dear friends and readers,

It’s been a week since I last blogged and I have been longing to blog here, and tonight at last I have a topic so important and dear I hope all my friends and readers — our hope for change for the better for us all –, that I must blog. May Day. I did post twice on my Sylvia blog (That dog: he ran away; women without men ought to be ought there working from Day One; May Day) but in neither case did I have the material I really wanted: good talk, films, songs, dancing, conveying the immediate experience of what was going on in so many places as well as a history of May Day and all it has meant and could mean again since it was first promulgated in the 1880s in the US.

I came across that tonight: Amy Goodman’s DemocracyNow.org podcast: she does first interviews Tariq Ali (British-Pakistani political commentator, writer, activist, and editor of the New Left Review. Author of numerous books, including The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad) and Amy Wright (retired US Army colonel and diplomat) on Obama’s midnight visit to Afghanistan: both are worth listening to. But what I am hoping you’ll stay for is what follows: over 40 minutes of broadcast of the Occupy movement joining with unions, all sorts of associations, people in the streets from colleges, to make their voices and reality known. I wanted to embed this video onto this site, but found when I went to UTube (where I have an account), it must be under 15 minutes. I can though provide a link and if you click you will have a bloody great picture, good sound and be inspirited as I was:

May Day in New York City and around the world

Two poems:

Poem

I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane.
The news would pour out of various devices
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

–Muriel Rukeyser

The Proletariat Speaks

I love beautiful things:
Great trees, bending green winged branches to a velvet lawn, Fountains sparkling
in white marble basins,
Cool fragrance of lilacs and roses and honeysuckle

Or exotic blooms, filling the air with heart-contracting odors; pacious rooms,
cool and gracious with statues and books,
Carven seats and tapestries, and old masters,
Whose patina shows the wealth of centuries.

And so I work
In a dusty office, whose grimed windows
Look out on an alley of unbelievable squalor,
Where mangy cats, in their degradation, spurn
warming bits of meat and bread;
Where odors, vile and breath-taking, rise in fetid waves
Filling my nostrils, scorching my humid, bitter cheeks.

I love beautiful things:
Carven tables laid with lily-hued linen
And fragile china and sparkling iridescent glass;
Pale silver, etched with heraldries,
Where tender bits of regal dainties tempt,
And soft-stepped service anticipates the unspoken wish.

And so I eat
In the food-laden air of a greasy kitchen,
At an oil-clothed table:
Plate piled high with food that turns my head away,
Lest a squeamish stomach reject too soon
The lumpy gobs it never needed.
Or in a smoky cafeteria, balancing a slippery tray
To a table crowded with elbows
Which lately the busboy wiped with a grimy rag.

I love beautiful things:
Soft linen sheets and silken coverlet,
Sweet cool of chamber opened wide to fragrant breeze;
Rose-shaded lamps and golden atomizers,
Spraying Parisian fragrance over my relaxed limbs,
Fresh from a white marble bath, and sweet cool spray.

And so I sleep
In a hot hall-room whose half-opened window,
Unscreened, refuses to budge another inch,
Admits no air, only insects, and hot choking gasps
That make me writhe, nun-like, in sackcloth sheets and lump:
of straw
And then I rise
To fight my way to a dubious tub,
Whose tiny, tepid stream threatens to make me late;
And hurrying out, dab my unrefreshed face
With bits of toiletry from the ten cent store

—-Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Ellen

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William Hogarth, “Signing the Settlement,” showing that the powerful people in the room were doing all they could to curtail the liberty of one another, Marriage a la Mode

Dear friends and readers,

A week ago tonight, a Thursday, Nov 3rd, the EC/ASECS conference began. The theme that was to unite the papers was that of liberty, and it had turned out that this was a popular compelling theme for eighteenth century scholars. Many of the papers could be summarized under the aegis of a pursuit of liberty: authors, characters, books, seeking and being frequently thwarted in their quest for liberty.


The conference emblem by Cruikshank: we see Liberty trying to protect herself amid the ferocity of various authors determined to make their books prevail

This is the first of three blog reports (see the second and the third).

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On the last night of the conference, a Saturday (Nov 5th), I was out in a restaurant in Penn State with a friend; on the final evening of the last day of our Eastern Region eighteenth-century conference, we had treated ourselves to a yummy meal in a nearby restaurant to Nittany Lion Inn. When we returned to the Nittany, a friend took this photo of us:


Caroline and me

As chance — and luck — had had it, on the first evening (Nov 3rd), we had both played together in the comic half of John Dryden’s Marriage a La Mode, performed without the heroic tragic stuff. We had been the married couple of several years, a couple writhing over their lack of freedom from one another: Caroline Doralice, and me, Rhodophil. The conference began with a reception with drinks and snacks at 6 or so, and the evening was given over to Peter Staffel’s Aural/Oral experience. First Peter had us read poetry aloud and then we turned to the play.

The play was piquant and somewhat hard to do (without rehearsals), even to practice alone, because the characters’ speeches and action are so intertwined, salacious in innuendo, and mine (at least) bitter with disillusion from the experience of an arranged marriage for money. Its opening song (to be sung by Doralice) is famous:

Why should a foolish marriage vow,
Which long ago was made,
Oblige us to each other now,
When passion is decayed?
We loved, and we loved, as long as we could,
‘Till our love was loved out in us both;
But our marriage is dead, when the pleasure is fled:
‘Twas pleasure first made it an oath.

II.
If I have pleasures for a friend,
And further love in store,
What wrong has he, whose joys did end,
And who could give no more?
‘Tis a madness that he
Should be jealous of me,
Or that I should bar him of another:
For all we can gain,
Is to give ourselves pain,
When neither can hinder the other.

And here is one of Doralice’s disillusioned dialogues with the bitter Rhodophil:

Dor. What should you talk of a peace a-bed, when you can give no security for performance of articles?

Rho. Then, since we must live together, and both of us stand upon our terms, as to matters of dying first, let us make ourselves as merry as we can with our misfortunes. Why, there’s the devil on’t! if thou could’st make my enjoying thee but a little easy, or a little more unlawful, thou should’st see what a termagant lover I would prove. I have taken such pains to enjoy thee, Doralice, that I have fancied thee all the fine women of the town–to help me out: But now there’s none left for me to think on, my imagination is quite jaded. Thou art a wife, and thou wilt be a wife, and I can make thee another no longer. [Exit_ RHO.]

Altogether 7 of us went through the lines as best we could, and there were still some people left in the audience when we ended! It was fun and an instructive experience to go through. My respect for Dryden went up.

Beforehand we read some poetry aloud to one another, and afterward more drinks at the bar — or bed. I learned that night that Peter had seen the same version of Marriage a la Mode I saw in the 1980s: Giles Havergal took the comic part of the play and interwove it with an abridged version of Dryden’s All for Love (Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra rewritten). He had the characters, Doralice and Rhodophil, and Melantha and Palamede (the largest part, played wonderfully by Robert Mayerovich) become actors who were putting on the tragic play. The action takes place in the rehearsing room. Peter had loved it — he saw it in Toronto and I saw it at the Folger Shakespeare library. There is a good review of it: Judith Milhous, “The Poetics of Theater,” Theatre Journal, 35:3, (Oct1983):416-418.

And so the conference had begun.

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Friday: I heard three sessions, one of which was “my own” (I chaired it), then a plenary lecture, and later in the evening another reception with drinks and dinner sitting down together.


statue of John Wilkes (1725-97)

I began with Panel 1, “Wilkes and Liberty,” and heard three fine papers. Jack Fruchtman’s in his Radicalism and Reform: the Case of John Sawbridge, M.P., asked “what did radicalism mean in the 18th century, and how did it fit into the Wilkes and Liberty movement? These were contentious times, and no organization was considered legal outside parliament; from 1780 to 1792 people became radicalized within such organizations. Tradesmen and artisans joined them. Among the new demands were shorter parliaments, small electoral districts, prevent bribery, exclude place men, a smaller standing army, lower taxes, better infrastructure. Most people were whigs, and words like “virtue” and “corruption” catchwords. In 1768 Wilkes had fought for his seat successfully; he was a supporter of the Bill of Rights and his election was overthrown as corrupt. This was seen as quite unjust and Wilkes’s cause became intertwined with that of principled liberties.

John Sawbridge (1732-35) was Catherine Macauley’s younger brother. She wrote her history of England to counter Hume’s: in Hume liberty is an important empowering concept, but in Sawbridge it’s only more menial work at the same pay for employees. Sawbridge left a body of writing unsigned. Among legislation he proposed was annual parliament which would obviate corruption; for who would spend such money on a short stay in Parliament. He supported the impeachment of North, associated with Fox, views like John Horne Took. Prof Fruchtman said Sawbridge was clever and polished politician who successfully cultivated his constituency.

Corey Andrews’ paper was on Scottophobia in Charles Churchill’s poetry and prose. Where did it come from and why now (18th century) so virulent. Churchill edited Wilkes’s North Briton; he was attacked by his own countrymen, and ever after did not forget who was responsible for the recalls and the mob. Churchill was caustic, bleak and bitter towards Swift, competitive towards Smollett (who edited an important review which published anti-Scottish reviews). Corey read aloud from Churchill’s “Apology” (1761), “Night” (1761) and “The Prophecy of Famine” (1763). It seems that Churchill held grudges for a long time; he conflated private feelings with public displays of anger and ill feeling. He did not forget his boyhood in Scotland and as an adult wanted to live for pleasure. He wrote strong poetry and yet by Southey’s time could be pronounced as forgotten. Corey ended by quoting Byron on how Churchill had become “nothing but a name.” The implication seemed to be that by being so personally antagonistic, Churchill never built a big enough constituency for valuing his poetry past his lifetime.


Hogarth’s caricature of Churchill as “the bruiser.”

Brijraj Singh’s paper on “The Radicals, General Warrants, and Press Freedom” described what was meant by radicals in the 1760s: someone who wanted to curb the prerogatives of the crown, widen the franchise to include artisans, craftsmen, tradesmen, freedom of the press &c. A general warrant could be issued against someone accused of libel. Neither party wanted to pass this bill. Brijraj described two important judges, Lord Mansfield, an originally impecunious Scots lawyer who rose to the top by talent and Pratt who supported the opposition to Fox and Pitt.

I know I am not doing justice to the subtleties and ironies, let alone vivid concrete information in the papers and during the lively political talk afterward. What I especially liked was for once people made connections with today — and yet there was no controversy stemming from people’s allegiances to modern parties.

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Elizabeth Inchbald (1753-1821)

At 10:30 I went to the first of three sessions on actresses, professional women, their memoirs, the theater, publishing as such and the public.

Linda Troost’s paper, “Publicity that Money Cannot Buy: The Syren of Covent Garden and The Duenna.” After “Love in a Village,” Sheridan’s Duenna was performed more frequently than any other play across the century. Sheridan’s father-in-law (Linden) revised the music. In our time the play is helped to an audience through advertising the parallels in Sheridan’s life and marriage and that of his wife, Elizabeth Linley, and the characters in his play who elope to escaped an arranged materialistic merciless match. The action of the play concerns the heroine’s continued attempts to escape an unwanted marriage by eloping. At the time Anne Brown was given the lead, and she too kept running away, eloping, and there seems little doubt this outside play real-life activity kept the staging of plays indoors.

Linda was very amusing on the real life stories of Anne Brown who it seems eloped once too often, and died drowned off a ship on its way home (with, so the sentimental stories said, her newborn baby in her arms). For my part, I felt for Ann Brown and wondered why she was so determined to escape her father and was so susceptible to seduction.

Melissa Wehler spoke of Dorothy Jordan’s cross-dressing. Her argument was the importance of the body politic and real natural body of a woman, how the latter is confused and confounded with. Like Linda, she talked a lot about the real woman, including such matters as the manipulation of tickets that goes on to get a seat. She gave us the following handout and spoke from it about attitudes towards cross-dressing:

In Dramatic Essays, Hunt specifies Jordan’s “wearing the breeches” as antithetical to what he refers to as the “proper style of the actress” calling it “one of the most barbarous, injurious, and unnatural customs of the stage,” arguing: “In all cases it is injurious to the probability of the author and to the proper style of the actress, for if she succeeds in her study of male representation she will never entirely get rid of her manhood with its attire; she is like the Iphis of Ovid, and changes her sex unalterably. There is required, in fact, a breadth of manners and demeanour in a woman’s imitation of men, which no female, who had not got over a certain feminine reserve of limb, could ever maintain or endure; and when the imitation becomes frequent and the limbs bent to their purpose, it is impowwigl3 to return to that delicacy of behaviour, which exists merely as it is incapable of forgetting itself. Vivacity does nothing but strengthen the tendency to broadness by allowing a greater freedom of action; it merely helps the female to depart more from her former chaste coldness of character, from the simplicity of her former mental shape [ ... ] . (“Mrs. Jordan,” 83)
[ ... ]

Hunt offers a note to all of his “serious reviewers” and “female readers”: “Serious Reviewer, interrupting. But, my good sir, suppose some of your female readers should take it into their heads to be Mrs. Jordan? Author. Oh, my good sir, don’t be alarmed. My female readers are not persons to be so much afraid for, as you seem to think yours are. The stage itself has taught them large measures both of charity and discernment. They have not been so locked up in restraint, as to burst out of bounds the moment they see a door open for consideration.) (Autobiography, 149) (for “Works cited” see comment)

Afterward the group did talk of Jordan’s later life, how the prince dumped her after she bore him so many children, made her life apart from them (she died young), and Claire Tomalin’s biography, Mrs Jordan’s Profession, which recounts all this frankly. (I remembered that Trollope spoke similarly of any female character in his novel: it seems once a woman gives up her modesty in some ways, she is mentally tainted forever. This might not be a strongly common Victorian male point of view so much as the cant one finds published to control women.)

Sharmain van Blommenstein was one of the surprising and most unusual papers for the conference. She discussed the history of ballerinas, from the time of the first depictions of women dancing (as comic shrews) to our own time (when they have become tragic central heroines). She began in the medieval era, and moved quickly through the Renaissance, 18th, 19th centuries and then early modern times. I couldn’t begin to take down what she included. It was a power-point presentation with texts put up in front of us.

Suffice to say that originally the men were the central dancers. Then in 1720 when skirts were shortened, ballerinas began to proliferate and eventually displaced men as the central figures in ballet. She talked about how story ballets came in. In the 19th century the age-old connection of actors with prostitutes came to dominate the discourse (stories) and ballerinas were stigmatized because of their working class origins and (assumed) sexual impropriety.

Along the way she explained a great deal that we see in ballet until today. She said it was simply true that the less fortunate ballerinas did fall into prostitution; they were followed about by the declasse rich men who hung about the theaters (called abonnes). I wish I could convey the excitement and interest of hearing so much I never knew before. At the close Sharmain put up a photo of 4 homosexual men in ballet drag, and showed how they stand parallel to earlier ballerinas.

Laura Engel is most interested in actress’s memoirs and her discussion was about Elizabeth Inchbald’s relationship with Mary Wells. It seems that while at first the two were very close, gradually Mary began to crack up, and when she did Inchbald distanced herself from her once old friend. To me the way Inchbald dropped her friend was off-putting; she was protecting her reputation and apparently did the same vis-a-vis Mary Wollstonecraft. It’s very hard to know why Inchbald did what she did since she destroyed her 2 or 3 volume memoirs and all that is left are tiny diaries where the barest annotations are found.

Well, Laura found the same paradigms of posture, dress, and self-presentation in their very different memoirs. From the diaries Laura suspects that Inchbald also separated herslf perhaps because Wells had become too difficult for Inchbald to deal with. Inchbald did give Wells an annuity for the rest of Wells’s life.

The problem for such women’s reputation is these actresses’s memoirs are rarely read, and then usually through pre-conceived (prejudiced) eyes and only to use them for purposes outside any interest in them or their theater. Laura also described Boaden’s biographies, one of Inchbald and one of Sarah Siddons, and how Boaden’s narrow attitudes shaped the evidence that was left. When I got home, I bought a copy of Laura’s book on actresses’memoirs, Fashioning Celebrity.


Dorothy Jordan as Viola in Twelfth Night by John Hoppner

What struck me here (once again) is how women scholars want to celebrate and present very positively what were tragic and/or hard lives in many ways.

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My own panel was scheduled after lunch, and alas, as has happened before, because I was so nervous before giving my paper I didn’t take adequate notes on the papers of the others. The subject I had proposed was historical, post-colonial and rewritten fiction and liberty: I wanted to see explored the different uses to which historical fiction (very popular in our time and also in the 19th century after Scott) can be put.


Kosciuszko at Raclawice, a painting by Jan Matejko (1888).

Talissa Ford’s paper, “Jack Mansong and West-Indian Liberty” was about William Earle’s epistolary novel Obi, or, the History of Three-Fingered Jack published in 1800. In 1780 Jamaican hero, “Three-fingered Jack” Mansong escaped from slavery and led a maroon band in acts of terror; by August of 1800, Toussaint L’Ouverture controlled all of Saint Domingue, and a nation of liberated slaves was a real possibility. Talissa “seized on the decade between Jack’s story and its publication, in order to read Earle’s novel in the context of the 1791 slave uprisings in Saint Domingue.” She argued that, “in the midst of the Haitian Revolution, Earle uses the narrative of a small, short-lived band of rebels in Jamaica to raise the broader possibility of an independent black nation in the West Indies.”

What I found most interesting was her characterization of the hero as a violent terrorist who is at the same time patterned on classical heroes; the novel delves into and creates a complicated argument about how slavery is set up, enforced, what it is, but what she said was most revealing in it was its exposure of the sources of revolution in the anger of the central figures. The real Jack Mansong died terribly, was killed in the most brutal and horrible of ways.

Sylvia Marks’s paper, “Another Jane, A Foreign Grandison,” was on Jane Porter’s Thaddeus of Warsaw (1803) Thaddeus is modeled on the famous Polish war and Enlightenment hero, Kosciuszko. In Porter’s preface she “recalls” “the moving sight of a “gaunt” and “melancholy” figure among the many “hapless refugees wandering about St. James’s Park. They had sad companions in the like miseries, though from different enemies, in the emigrants from France” (1861 New York edition, v-vi). Sylvia wanted to remind us that British writers felt sympathy for the Poles fighting for their liberty after 1794. Porter creates in her good hero another Charles Grandison, with the difference that the accent is now on magnanimity; the novel is really a kind of conduct book and it appealed greatly to Kosciuiszko himself and Carlyle and went through 8 editions. We see Thaddeus experience joy in benevolent action, as an exile he is fine, gentle scholar, a Christian, an honorable warrior.


From the 1997 mini-series Tom Jones: Partridge, the tutor, kisses Tom as if Tom were his son (Ron Cook and Max Beesley)

Geoff Sills’s “Col. Jack, Tom Jones, and The Sot-Weed Factor: A Trans-national, Trans-atlantic Dialogue” showed that while John Barth had Fielding’s Tom Jones in mind for the underlying paradigmatic plot-design of the 20th century novel, Defoe’s definition of liberty was the one that controlled Barth’s novel, not Fielding’s. The Sot-Weed Factor is supposed to be a book published in 1708 while it is set in 1694. The poet, Ebeneezer Cook is the hero, who travels with his beloved tutor, Henry Burlingame; they discover that European values do not translate into American settings. Instead of an idealistic or philosophical definition of liberty, liberty is defined as what people experience when they trade as equals; it is in establishing a relationship of exchange that effective liberty emerges and is operative. Geoff quoted from Defoe’s Colonel Jack to show us the parallels. His was a really intriguing paper, and he made me really want to read The Sot-Weed Factor.

Then came my turn: I had proposed “I have a right to choose my own life:’ Liberty in Winston Graham’s Poldark novels,” and I delivered the paper I’ve put on on my website, which I invite interested readers to read at their leisure.

Here is its first paragraph:

It is the argument of this paper that Winston Graham’s historical fiction brings into focus areas and perspectives on experience essential to understanding the nature of civil liberty. In Graham’s treatment of women’s lack of rights, he centers their stories on their experience of rape, how class works to prevent them coping with abrasive sexual encounters, and on sexual discord, dissatisfaction and abuse within marriage from the woman’s angle. In Graham’s Poldark novels what gets in the way of liberty for women is they are answerable with their bodies in situations where they have inadequate or no control (Pateman; Vickery 24). A main heroine, Elizabeth Chynoweth defends her life and her son Valentine’s, from destructive assault by her husband, George Warleggan, by swearing “I have never, never given my body to any man except my first husband, Francis, and to you, George. Is that enough?” (FS, II:9, 390). Her body is the issue and her problem that she had sexual intercourse with Graham’s hero, Ross Poldark, and Valentine is Ross’s son. She did not “give her body” since Ross raped her.

Here is what I think is important about Graham’s handling of liberty in these Poldark novels:

Liberty. How is it, as it sometimes undoubtedly is, taken from us? If we feel we have it to exercise, in what situations do we actually manifest it and what can such exercise bring? The franchise is but one manifestation of liberty. What I missed in reading most of the famous voices on liberty (Constant, Berlin, Carol Pateman though not Mill and Vickery), was some adequate accounting for an inward self-prompting sense of right and capability and the resulting courage that exercising a right to liberty demands before any negotiation can be opened. This is the crucial psychological area the Poldark novels explore.

There were about 6 people in the audience, of whom three were real friends, and a fourth someone I’ve been getting to know. All asked good questions, not about historical fiction, but directed at each paper. Someone asked for more on Defoe; someone appreciated Sylvia’s work on Grandison.

I tried to be a good panel chair and bring papers together, and remember that I compared Sylvia’s use of magnanimity to the concept of the hero in the magnificent Indian film, Lagaan and said it was a lot easier for most or many people to identify with and like the peaceful kind orderly hero who plays so strictly by the rules than the man of violence, who resents and hates (as Jack Mansong rightly was), but that it was this anger that fuelled revolution. I remembered how I was all aquiver with anxiety for the Indian hero of Lagaan because he insisted on playing cricket by the rules and was depending on the British to keep their word if the Indians won the game. I doubted they would; I thought that some treachery at the last moment would be played on the Indians. It was not. But then it’s an idealistic film. The worst (ruthless, violent) people get into and stay in power much of the time. I asked Geoff who said he had assigned the book to his students, how they had liked it. He said it was very long for them, but he hoped that a second time at it, after they had read (or he at least assigned) Tom Jones, might make them have a more favorable response.


Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees as Ross and Demelza Poldark (1975-76 season)

So, now, gentle reader, I go off to bed.

Ellen

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