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St Perpetua of Carthage in window of church of Notre-Dame of Vierzon, France

Dear friends and readers,

A short follow up to my blog on John Riddle’s History of Contraception and Abortion in the West: I’ve had so many comments that I am moved to write a sort of PS on important aspects of the topic I omitted.

A book I reviewed sometime ago is an eye-opener for a longer very long history of attacking pregnant women simply as potential baby-killers: Child Murder and British Culture, 1720-1900 by Josephine McDonagh. From earliest times we come across the common accusation at the time of women as killing their babies — this connects to modern hostility to women having the right to have an abortion. The way the law and customs worked, especially against unmarried women, was to assume the woman killed a stillborn child if it had shown any sign of life upon birth. It was the culture’s way of blaming women for their own getting rid of unwanted babies and controlling them at the same time. The woman was supposed to conceal her pregnancy; if she did not, she was suspect. The cultural “leaders” in a given area actually thought they had the right to explore an unmarried woman’s body who they suspected was pregnant.

McDonagh covers a number of women novelists and writers of the 1890s who tried to expose the fallacies. I remember best a a section on Dickens’s The Chimes (tellingly a ghost Xmas story) where there is just such a cruel accusation on an impoverished unmarried young woman whose baby was stillborn (mostly because she starved during the pregnancy). A biography of Dickens by Fred Kaplan foreshortens this to say that Dickens persuaded himself he had made a change – in fact he hadn’t, he hadn’t even changed the sensibility of people as no one discussed for real what the center of the story was.

As I read the book I kept thinking of all the novels and stories I’d read where a dead baby was central and I just didn’t think about the text that way, from Scott’s Heart of Mid-Lothinan (Jeanie takes a long walk) to Christina Stead’s The Man who Loved Children where a sister-in-law either has a baby who is stillborn or is accused of murdering it or has an abortion. As recently as 1970 a girl was accused of murdering a baby because she concealed her pregnancy: Josephine McDonagh, “Infanticide and the Nation: the case of Caroline Beale,” New Formations, 32 (1997):11-21.

A historical perspective which takes into account the inadequacy of contraceptives until late in the 19th century and then their unavailability until people like Margaret Sanger began to defy the law and disseminate the Dutch cap takes you outside the box perhaps? makes you see the hostility to women and how the cultures themselves wanted to control the numbers of children who survived unless they had legitimate fathers. Only fathers could have children.


This image does not lie behind the Republican push to stop the dissemination of contraception and outlaw abortion — it’s a war picture, and could be a woman today home from the market to find her house and child destroyed by a drone

I also today read an opening moving review-essays in the September 14, 2012 (p. 1) in Time Literary Supplement — and to me startling review — by Peter Thonemann of two rare texts of journals intimes of women from antiquity. They are known as The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity. A new edition by Thomas Heffernan has been published and a book of essays edited by Jan N. Bremmer and Marco Formisano.

I was one of those who thought of Christian martyrs as virgins, but if not unmarried women or not surrounded by children. I did not imagine them as they must have been and Perpetua and Felicity were: women perpetually pregnant, giving birth in pain, often very bad and often leading to death, subject creatures. Perpetua and Felicity’s passions tell of how their recent and newborn babies were taken from them harshly, how they grieved, their bad dreams
over dead children and siblings, how one was laughed at while giving birth. Thonemann says the church has been embarrassed by these two rare journals and much that is presented ever since represses all actualities. It’s just so poignant it brought tears to my eyes to realize this in the few sentences the reviewer provided. I think of all these salacious virgin martrys in Dryden’s plays as acted by Nell Gwynn (to please the mostly male aristocratic rakish crowd).

Then Thonemann describe their torture and then humiliating deaths in the Roman arenas.

We have so little of women’s writing until the European middle ages and then only censored stuff comes through. Maybe Christine de Pizan is one witness who transcends this.

Finally, I should originally have brought in Angela Carter’s essay in her Shaking a Leg (collected journalism), very witty, giving the reader a history of women’s childbirth and experience or reproduction across the whole volume, also of women’s breasts as obsessed over by men and then our culture (used to nail women down, both to babies and inside corsets and modern equivalents, wonder bras), food fetishes (organic food supermarkets), how “fat is ugly” — in short, masochism for the women finding safety (company?) in servitude.

From the sardonic tragedies of history (as mirrored in texts), to cruel laws of history refusing to allow reality to be seen, to witty farce, I conclude with a woman’s poem on the occasional joy of a lucky childbirth (which I did omit):

Childbed

I looked and saw,
collared in my own dark fur,
your face, blurry with vernix and strange,

like a drawing by the Master
pen and ink over wet chalk
and pricked for transfer
.

Out you slid, cabled and wet,
delivered. time of birth given;
yet what I keep is that first look

at your pause half-born, sheathed
from the neck down, crowned
in unfamiliar regions of light and air,

your lungs beginning to draw
as you verged on our world
and waited, prescient, rare.
— Fiona Benson

Ellen

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Phineas (Donal McCann) famously humiliated and harassed by Mr Clarkson (Sidney Bromley) who urges him “Do Be Punctual” (Pallisers 4:7)

Dear friends and readers,

Another in the same spirit as my last. Again on Victoria someone asked for citations of debt in Victorian novels, so I wrote as follows:

As he often mirrors common reality, Trollope has so many instances and characters driven, worried and occasionally (rarely but it happens) exploiting debt in different ways it’s impossible to catalogue briefly. The most common and well-remembered plot device is of the man who counter-signs a bill for someone else and then the other person doesn’t pay it. Phineas Finn lured and pressure by Lawrence Fitzgibbon in Phineas Finn, but also Mark Robarts in Framley Parsonage who co-signs for Lord Lufton who can much better afford living on more than he has.

Larger versions of this include male characters who owe a lot of money and hide this or that their business is failing or non-existant: this leads to suicide — Melmotte and Lopez and Dobbs Brougton. Debt collectors can sometimes hound women and they seek to sell jewels or use them as insurance (Lizzie Eustace). The “blaggard” type male who we are to have contempt for is the man driven to take money from a woman (though we may be led to understand why he does): George Vavasour dragging money out of Alice Vavasour because he has to pay huge election bribes, and then breaking his sister’s arm when the grandfather dies and it’s discovered he had left just about everyone to George’s sister, but in trust so he cannot get at it.


Kate Vavasour holding her broken arm after George has fled (from the original illustrations of Trollope’s novels, this one by Miss Taylor, a scene in Can You Forgive Her?)

The most interesting instances though are those which enabled us to see the working of finance in the Victorian period: say, the short story, “Why Frau Frohman Raised her Prices” shows an Austrian woman innkeeper’s struggle not to raise her prices:

The Frau had always held her head high,– had never been ashamed of looking her neighbour in the face, but when she was advised to rush at once up to seven swansigers and a half (or five shillings a day), she felt that, should she do so, she would be overwhelmed with shame. Would not her customers then have cause of complaint? Would not they have such cause that they would in truth desert her? Did she not know that Herr Weiss, the magistrate from Brixen, with his wife, and his wife’s sister, and the children, who came yearly to the Peacock, could not afford to bring his family at this increased rate of expenses? And the Fraulein Tendel with her sister would never come from Innsbruck if such an announcement was made to her.

She learns a very hard way that to keep up with inflation (as we would put it, she must must raise her prices. Trollope analyses the workings of a business: how the Frau has to buy things before she makes money by selling them, and how when the price of these go up, she must put her prices up; if she does not, how she must buy inferior goods and then loses customers but when she does, she helps other people do better (who work for her). He does not (unfortunately) go further than that, but it is still an insightful analysis which explicates the workings of capitalism. In Doctor Thorne Roger Scatcherd now an alcoholic and ostracized from people of his own intelligence because he is not of their class grew rich by saving the large amounts he made as a construction worker who opened his own business; he then lent money to others to begin enterprises. In the Victorian period it was very difficult (well nigh impossible) for an ordinary man to borrow large sums to open a business. Charles Darwin’s father grew rich by lending money and charging interest (like Roger) of course.

Novels by Trollope about gambling or fearful of it will be about debt include s a minor gambler in Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite, man who is an aristocratic drone type (familiar) and lives off his mistress; Burgo Fitzgerald does very badly at the gambling tables when last seen in Can You Forgive Her and is given an allowance by Plantagenet Palliser who also becomes wrathful when his wife, Lady Glen, congenial with Burgo and still in love with him, wants to gamble too and blamed Alice Vavasour (poor Alice). Quiet prostitution within boarding houses to pay the rent is shown in Trollope’s Miss Mackenzie. How single women really got on.

Other novelists:

Oliphant’s Hester is about the workings of a business and family and thus how well the successful yet lonely, envied and somehwat isolated heroine by the end has handled debt (It reflects Oliphant’s successful career). Gwendolen marries Grandcourt in Daniel Deronda to avoid her mother going into debt; the novel opens with her learning how gambling will not do. In Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, the secondary heroine, Cynthia is hounded by Preston, a ruthless aggressive steward who sexually wants her (and now wants to be allied to her as her mother has married up by marrying Mr Gibson), Preston, I say, tortures her emotionally over a 20 pound debt and blackmailing letters to prove it; he wants to force her to marry him.


From opening shots of Daniel Deronda (director Tom Hooper, scripted by Andrew Davies): next to Gwendoleth an aging women’s bejewelled hands at the gambling table

And so much in Dickens, just to start: Little Dorrit. The Marshalsea prison. Mr and Mrs Merdle destroyed. Arthur Clenham thrown in jail near the end.

And who can forget:

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure
nineteen pounds, nineteen six, result happiness. Annual
income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds,
ought and six, result misery. —Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Debt does never seem to make anyone happy in Victorian novels. It does not make individual people happy in our own day, and that’s why the Republicans can manipulate the populace by arguing the state deficit must be brought down. Corporations are not people; nor are states. Deficits when the money brought in is used by gov’t to expand social services, building roads and schools, providing for lower interest rates really does provide more jobs and a better life for all. Ask Frau Frohmann how capitalism can work well.

Ellen

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Hugh Goldwyn Rivere (1869-1956), The Garden of Eden (1901)

Dear friends and readers,

Stirred this past spring by Rodrigo Garcia’s film adaptation of George Moore’s novella, Albert Nobbs (featuring Glenn Close and Janet McTeer), when a friend on Trollope19thCStudies proposed we revive the group readings and discussions we used to have on that list-serv, I said let’s do George Moore’s Esther Waters and then Albert Nobbs. Id long wanted to read Esther Waters, as one of those reputably great and powerful Victorian/Edwardian novels I had (somewhat unaccountably) never been assigned in any classroom, never even owned, nor tried to read. I wanted to do the full novel first as I usually like longer novels better, it had such a good reputation, and both together, might make a really satisfying new experience.

Well two of us have read Esther Waters together and when I come back from a brief time again in next week (we go to Vermont for 7 days), we mean to go on to Albert Nobbs. Esther Waters is a compelling novel, richly written, persuasive, humanely moving; its plot design is unexpected (it takes turns one does not expect as life often does), characters complex, and its social message humane. It has been somewhat misrepresented. It is usually talked of as a novel which exposes the “baby-farm” trade in later 19th century England as if this were the core, central, dominating and most shocking thing in the book. It’s there and important, but it’s not dominating, just one of several devastating experiences Esther has when she become pregnant, has a child out of wedlock, is fired, ejected from her parents’ house, and must work long hours in service even to survive so is forced to put the child out to nurse. She does not realize until a few weeks later that this recommended place means to let the child die. When she does, she snatches her darling back, and at great sacrifice to herself, holds onto him, keeps him in good health by paying someone to take good care of him while she again works in another house.


Emilio Longoni (1855-1932), Reflections of a Starving Man (1894)

It’s also said to be naturalistic, a book in the tradition of Zola’s L L’Assommoir, Frank Norris’s Octopus, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Stephen Crane’s Maggie of the Streets, Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. Thomas Hardy’s novels represent the most read British version of this school nowadays, with John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath the best known recent American masterpiece. Naturalistic novels by women include Mary Webb’s Precious Bane and Gone to Earth. These novelists all present life for real and expose the lies and hypocrisies used to support systems of privilege and power. Unlike Dickens say, they show real sex, much more graphic brutality as a system, real war (e.g., Crane’s Red Badge of Courage) is a literary Naturalist text), real criminality, and most of all the wretched real working lives of poor people ground down by their jobs and lack of opportunities. Certainly Moore shows us the last, and rejects religious fundamentalism and repression, but he really does not adhere to a belief in determinism to the extent that human life is entirely shaped by environmental and social forces. Human will does come into play. Moore also has sequences where his characters enjoy themselves, act out some of their dreams, know romance and he marginalizes the more abysmal miseries. Esther stoically survives even if she has periods of real hunger. The emphasis on Esther’s strong will and highly individual character is not typical of naturalistic novels. The thing is Esther (and William’s) choices are so limited and her strength goes only so far. So the critique of society’ structures and norms is all the stronger (I feel).

I found myself strongly identifying with the character and becoming personally involved. It reaches out to us today. And I’ve written my blog to show this.

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

Robert Walker Macbeth (1848-1910), Rainy Day (book illustration)

To cover with the first third to half of the novel or so (Chapters 1-27), each turn of the plot is not conventional altogether so you are ever worried what will happen next. I worried because I really cared for the heroine.

One early central sequence is a realistic depiction of an upper class household, Woodview, with a number of servants (a real un-blown-up Downton Abbey) The Barfields have a much more typical rich establishment. Not so very many servants, one women for cook and housekeeper for example. It’s here Esther is half-coerced into having sex with, William Latch, a stableman she is in love with and gets pregnant. There is much on betting on the races: it reminded me of how Thomas More thought dice so stupid and mindless and boring, but what if everyone does it and many bet lots of money, then (unless you are like me who does not until today know how US football is played) you have to pay attention.

There is a strong demonstration of class mobility. Mrs Barfield is religious in the way of Esther, and tries to teach her to read. They are companions. The Barfields, the people Esther works for were working class not that long ago, and they could and do fall again due to the husband’s gambling habits.

We are kept at a distance; Esther has individuality and courage. She’s not abject. On the rolling in the hay, we are not to see her as having sex with these young men, for when William does make his advance, you see she wanted marriage first. She does give in, but it was half-coerced, she was half-drunk and she refuses him the next time. She manages very well in the family group despite an abusive father (about whom she can do nothing to protect her mother). We see the importance of women’s relationships throughout the novel: Fanny Hill takes this parodically (see how the prostitute and madam collude is Cleland); here we will see a generous employee, a supportive landlady can make a big difference. William is a convincing rat — unlike Hardy’s Alec D’Urberville who practically twirls his mustache.


From London: A Pilgrimage, text by Blanchard Jerrold, pictures by Gustave Dore

We are to admire Esther for her stubbornness; it’s part of what makes her survive. She is tempted say to leave the baby with the baby-farmer, but her tenacity and self-respect gives her the courage to wrench it away and leave. She might have been more tactful with William, but I feel we are to assume she was just about raped, really coerced and is angry with him. She also is naive socially and doesn’t even think of manipulating him at this point. By the time she is with Miss Rice (the novelist-lady who hires her as a kind of paid-companion aide) she does so think. It takes time to learn.

We are indeed to feel William could not have felt much when he turns round and marries money.

The book is daring and not daring. The depiction of a near rape for example — it’s the sort of thing Hardy presents in Tess but more frankly. So when Esther later in the book is walking outside one day she meets up with Margaret Gale, another ex-servant of the Barfields. Margaret has become a streetwalker or prostitute; this is presented discreetly because Moore is not horrified and shows Margaret to live a hard life but she is surviving and in some ways better off than the servants who works from dawn to dusk for almost no money at all. Margaret has breathing time and makes a bit more money.


George John Pinwell (1842-75), At the Pawnshop (1867, The Quiver)

We see how miserably men treat their wives — how power corrupts. Much beating of women, casual and deliberate too. This is the era when the first courts decided a woman has the right to leave a man who beat her.
How deep and supportive is Esther’s relationship with her mother who husband regularly systematically beats her, keeps her pregnant, who eats the best food in the house because he controls his salary. How people of the lower classes are torn apart by the economic system, forced to move far away from one another and spend long hours of soul killing work. Body destroying too.

On hospitals, I don’t know when the pernicious practice started to stopped, but as early as the 1840s in Gaskell’s Mary Barton no worker (apparently powerless to effect this just by being sick) person apparently can get into a hospital without an employer writing a letter asking the hospital to take him or her in. By Esther Waters, this has been codified into tickets. It’s pernicious because if you displease the person who has the power to write such letters or tickets, you can’t get medical help. Obviously that can be and was used against strikers or anyone the person thought not respectable or simply didn’t like. No one talks of this much and I wish I knew more, especially when in the UK it was stopped. Perhaps WW1? sometimes wars have some unintended good effects. You’d have had so many near death, how could you stop to “vet” them by asking for letters from empowered types.

I’d like to stress the emotional honesty of the opening sequence. Nothing overdone, nothing forced. I had an experience this weekend of watching a group of relatives casually mistreat a paid home companion — nothing anyone would object to except they didn’t give her the respect of an equal human being and are planning to drop her as soon as they can with no warning. I admit I did nothing at all except (perhaps hypocritically I don’t know) salving my conscience by at least asking after her relatives, home, concerns. I know “home-aides” are still excluded from various forms of social legislation in the US intended to help domestic paid workers.

When Esther snatches back her child and after a period at the workhouse (which we don’t see — an important difference from purely naturalistic novels), Esther begins to prosper; she is hired by Miss Rice partly because Mrs Lewis gives her some slack: she is allowed to live there without paying the rent until she can. Then again a relationship forms. Fred Parsons, a evangelical type asks her to marry him, and she likes his family and they are prepared to accept her, child and all.

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


John Everett Millais (1829-96), “Robert Lyon and Hilary”

The marriage between Esther and Fred never occurs. In the middle to near the end of the book (corresponding to the second volume, Chapters 28-33/34), the book takes an unexpected turn. Esther is driven by her passions (erotic) which her mind cannot fully control. When she unexpectedly meets William, she shows herself drawn to him, unable to say no. We are to feel she finds William irresistibly sexually attractive, and she is really just not allured by Fred. The point made early about how Fred is small, meager and does not turn her on (so to speak) is part of this. We are supposed to find Fred’s particular brand of evangelical Christianity overdone. It did help him to accept Esther though as well as his mother. The portrait is complex.

I was much moved by the chapter in which Esther tells Fred she must marry William, or to put it more narrowly at the moment of the chapter, she must go live with him and hope that he will get his divorce, marry her and be a good father to his and her child as well as husband to her. The book is famous for its depiction of baby-farms, but I think this chapter is as important — the asserted thoughts and feelings behind her decision are probably still inculcated in women today. We know from the novel’s text and this scene itself that she is also intensely attracted to William physically as she is not to Fred, and that she is ambitious to be a tavern-owner and finds the prospect somehow glamorous.

To again bring in identification, again I parted company from Esther. I would not have left that baby with that baby-farmer and certainly would have gone back, taken it away and taken my chances. So I would certainly have married Fred. Esther fears the boy, Jackie, will hold her decision against her and stop loving for for giving him a different father than his bio-dad (as we would call Wm today).

I also think perhaps — now referring to Moore’s being daring and yet not daring — Moore lacked the nerve to marry Esther off to someone else when the child’s father was around. It’s an ancient idea that fathers have even primary rights over their children. We are perhaps supposed to feel that she feels tied to William emotionally and physically because she’s had his child, i.e., it is “natural” for her to prefer the father of the child. How quickly Mrs Lewis accepts William as the boy’s father notice.

William is not good husband material at all. He’s proven that thoroughly. He’s a gambler, and as presented for all she knows, he’d hit her. No I might have stayed stay away and married Fred all the quicker, hoping that if William presented himself as the father after Fred married me, that Fred would understand. He has understood about the child out of wedlock. In fact here Esther seems to me to make a serious mistake — not to be blamed as we are all creatures of unknown emotional forces within us, and one is sexual attraction. She was in love with William originally and she only began to love Fred after Fred was so good to her.

Austen would say esteem and gratitude are much better grounds for marriage than sexual attraction and shows this in her books. I agree.

One of the weaknesses of the book is we don’t see enough of Jackie and he is not characterized individually. Since so many of Esther’s decisions, indeed her life story hinges on her having gotten pregnant and having given birth to a living child and then decision to bring him up with love and care, to have him hardly there at all and then there just archetypally weakens the book considerably. We lose sight of how much part Jackie is playing in Esther’s decisions. Her anger at the child preferring the father’s goodies, her breaking the new toy might seem so selfish and again the old angry resentful Esther emerging (but then again why not? why should she not be angry? it’s from such anger revolutions emerge) without sufficient justification. But she is justified. She has given all to that child. The child becomes frightened as he knows he cannot depend on this fleeting father and is willing immediately to give up toys, suits, if he has his mother’s promise to be there always.

He would have accepted Fred. I thought Fred eloquent and clearly that he sees through that Esther does not love him and that is partly sexual and that she is ambitious.

Now what could have happened is Wm does not get his divorce, does not marry Esther, she has another child and Wm is a lousy husband. Instead we fast forward to a year later and are told it all went well. And William is presented as kind, sexually satisfying and doing well in his public house for Esther and Jackie, until he is threatened with fines and closure because he also brings customers by running a betting shop on the second floor. Fred comes to warn them about this — and also lecture them.

Maybe after all I would not have married Fred. I did myself marry someone I thought might give me an enjoyable life. I didn’t want someone who was (as I had seen all my life growing up in a working class lower middle home) who would be afraid to spend the money he made, would sock it away and not spend it — as to to accumulate something towards what? safety? paying for your old age in yet another compromised situation of half-misery and loneliness. And I have enjoyed what the money would buy that we had had and keep to the courage (with him there) of living today and telling myself when the morrow comes (if it does) then I’ll act if I must however I see it out of my own character. Yes Fred’s a banal killjoy

Still I might not have gone to live with William either. By marginalizing the great dangers — that Wm would not be able to get a divorce, that she might have gotten pregnant, that he might have left her in a far worse situation, Moore dodges this. In life one can’t or I might not have. After all Esther had a good situation living with Miss Rice and she need not have done anything. She could have offered say to go away for a couple of weekends and let someone take photos and do the trial but not had sex with Wm (as it seems they don’t use contraceptives) until marriage.

Another unreality is that Esther has not gotten pregnant again. That makes their lives so much easier. Moore ought at least to account for this by suggesting she now can’t or it’s difficult for whatever reason. And again by Chapter 41 Jackie is still kept at a distance; it’s as if she doesn’t have a child.

Apparently Moore is not interested in that kind of trajectory of tragedy, women as victims. He has shown us abused women but really it’s part of what he wants to show is working class life. Early in the novel he did say Wm and Esther were a good pair, would work, and could have made it and we begin to see them make it now as in one paragraph we are told that Wm got his divorce easily and he and Esther married and a year has passed. Really so easy? Moore is not a naturalist writer as naturalists would have gone for this story of Esther probably defeated at one of these turning points.


“Urban Smoke,” an illustration from Margaret Drabble’s A Writer’s Britain, the later 19th century

We move back to chapters about racing and betting taking over the working people’s lives (to be fair, as well as drink for solace) — as with Trollope, one has endure these chapters because Moore himself went to the races, bet, and liked to discuss horses. Also racing was common, horses were ubiquitous until the car emerged and I suppose it’s partly natural that they should have become a “toy” for pleasures as well as a “instrument” for hard work. The poor horse was an abused creature and still is or can be.

The 24 hour a day presence of a child in your life often changes it utterly, if you’re it’s mother, and especially if you have no financial or emotional support to enable you to fulfill yourself too. And that’s not what Moore admits to. Perhaps because he’s a man and hasn’t experienced it himself.

Some things to emphasize: here and there I see naturalism influencing the book. The description of the whole experience and raced of Derby day, beginning: “This was the last race,” especially where the landscape is described at length and the narrator sees this from the perspective of “William struggled with the crowd …” It’s very Hardyesque.

Also the beautiful effective description in the book of both the town and countryside: all have their beauties: “a Cockneyh pilgrimage … ” Lovely and yet so real because of the perspective.

Here and there too sex between Wm and Esther is done justice to.

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

Millais, A Chill October (1852)

The last third and conclusion of the book (Chapters 34 to the end).

Sarah’s story. As in Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho where at the close suddenly we switch to another minor heroine and have an intense even more frank replay of Emily’s ordeals, so i Sarah near the end of the book we have a harrowing replay of Esther’s. Thrown out of her house, she takes up with Bill. As he has done before, Moore only alludes to the core of the story: we see her a year later thrown out by Bill and are only told of how he forced to be a prostitute to support him. Then how she is so easily saved by Esther. In naturalistic books by Zola, Upton Sinclair, Dreiser and other top naturalists, Sarah would have perished – as she would in real life probably. But Moore does tell the story, and he emphasizes how erotically enthralled she is by Bill — conveys it. This one gripped me.

Meanwhile Esther and William are threatened by his ill health (he seems to have TB), the animus and needs of their neighbors to stop them being a betting center, and the aftermath of Fred’s visit to warn them. Then I was much moved by the persuasive, creditable — utterly believable account of William’s descent into a fatal illness of TB and gambling as a wild addiction while his house is attacked for being a betting place, he is fined and forced to close. I see now that Sarah’s story serves as a catalyst for the house’s exposure.

Because William and Esther testify on Sarah’s behalf, they call attention to themselves and their house, and the police raid them. The judge is as harsh towards them as he is towards Sarah.

I was strongly angered as I am meant to be by the judge’s hypocrisy: Moore’s point is that there are two sets of laws, one for the rich and the other for the poor. The rich can gamble and do what they want and the poor are despised and hunted down for the same behavior, half abetted by other of their own poor people because what is really wanted is that the poor work work work very hard and remain “respectable” and not bother the luxurious life of the rich whom the poor serve. Someone like Fred Parsons is actually serving the rich when he insists that (justifiably) that gambling, drinking and what other pleasures are available be strictly controlled to keep the poor minimally comfortable.

The book here fits into the naturalistic type of novel — these all strongly critiqued the capitalist system, from the above angle as well as that of the natural world people can’t fight. People do have sexual desires, they have children out of wedlock, they get sick. The way Wm gets sick, the money it costs, the way the hospital works, that he cannot get to “Egypt” is the result of his poverty. He caught his first bad cold and TB by going to race-tracks as a bookie and then switched to keeping this in the house as his health would no longer take the punishment of the courses. I did underline one example of imagery typical of the naturalistic novel: “She [Esther] grew frightened as the cattle do in the fields when the sky darkens and the storm draws near” (chapter 41, p 318)

The way William’s final death scenes first in the hospital and then moved into his own house are handled is touching. We see how far we are from the 19th century pious novel as there is no religious imagery or ideas here.

I kept thinking that Esther might turn to Fred in the end as she shares his ideas, but it is more fitting (I feel) for this work of art to end where it began. She has to support herself, has nothing, has her son. She is too old to do the job as a laundress so must “go out to service,” cannot live on her own supporting the boy at school. He will now have to go to work too.

I liked the ending and it felt fitting but I would say that at many of the turns of the story I felt Moore was inventing as he went along. There was no first outline.

So we see her by chance (and also fairy tale) return to Woodview, the house she worked in earlier with Mrs Barfield again as her congenial employer. She fulfills an older version of her position as this woman’s friend-Servant.


Elin Danielson Gambogi (1861-1919), The Sisters (1891)

It is not unrealistic to present the mistress and maid as friends. Many were, and there was not always a large distance between them. We see that in Roger Scatcherd’s wife in Trollope’s Dr Thorne who spends her time with her housekeeper

I am feeling I am ending where I begun but this book reminds me I am not. I am very different from the person I set out as and have had some measure of success with my husband so we need not live as other people’s servants with no time or place of our own or life to create of our own.

Tyler, my friend’s response:

Yes, it is a stoic ending. Quite sad. It’s as if all Esther’s life ends up being worth is that she had a son, and he could be killed in war as you say. It is not tragic like other naturalism novels – I’m most familiar with Zola’s, which tend to be depressing and disastrous in their endings, but it is still sad. It does come full circle, and in the friendship between Esther and the mistress, seems to suggest perhaps that time is the great leveler. In just a few generations, the Barfields rose up the social ladder and now they have fallen back down some and Esther has gone up some and they are almost equal, and simply time and the beat goes on and perhaps all is vanity in the end. It will be interesting to read another book by Moore now to see the similarities and contrasts.

It is a stoic ending, but it is also a kind of full circle. I was much moved by the last moment as Esther looks at her soldier son, and we are reminded how he could lose his life at any moment. He took that job as soldier partly to make money. We see the three of them standing against a fall landscape, the tone of the book sad, sombre autumnal.

I very much look forward to reading Albert Nobbs. As a piquant note: Janet McTeer starred in the film adaptation of Mary Webb’s naturalistic early 20th century Precious Bane, so she starred in the film adaptation of George Moore’s Albert Nobbs.

Ellen

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Mathilde Blind (1872) by Lucy Madox Brown (1843-94), chalks on grey paper

Dear friends and readers,

Frances Wilson’s summary of Mathilde Blind’s life in her review of Angela Thirkell’s book which tells the story of the four women-as-partners in Ford Madox Brown’s life, the last of which was Mathilde Blind, is unbeatable for vivacity and concision:

Mathilde was raised in Germany by an overbearing revolutionary stepfather who knew Karl Marx; her brother shot himself after failing to assassinate Bismark. In her own first attempt at revolt, Mathilde was expelled from school for atheism. A feminist, journalist, critic, poet, translator, novelist and biographer, she was a fabulously beautiful wild card (and most likely a lesbian) who shared with Madox Brown an interest in radical politics. She lived as a friend with the artist and his wife on and off for 20 years, until Emma’s death in 1890. Because none of their letters survives we cannot know the true nature of the relationship between Mathilde and Madox Brown; Thirlwell concludes that it “was probably not physical in the full sense”, but contained “a special erotic charge”. But had Mathilde felt any physical passion for Madox Brown, she seems the type to have expressed it. Mathilde is not only the most interesting of Madox Brown’s loves, she was also probably the most interesting woman in London at that time.

I’ve chosen her also because I found her poems in a book which choses unusual poets, provides a strong biography, and gives a lengthier selection than usual, Virginia Blain’s Victorian Women Poets: An Annotated Anthology. Blind’s are strong, passionate, electrifyingly descriptive and intelligently feminist, socialist. To begin with,

Manchester by Night

O’ER this huge town, rife with intestine wars,
Whence as from monstrous sacrificial shrines
Pillars of smoke climb heavenward, Night inclines
Black brows majestical with glimmering stars.
Her dewy silence soothes life’s angry jars:
And like a mother’s wan white face, who pines
Above her children’s turbulent ways, so shines
The moon athwart the narrow cloudy bars.
Now toiling multitudes that hustling crush
Each other in the fateful strife for breath,
And, hounded on by diverse hungers, rush
Across the prostrate ones that groan beneath,
Are swathed within the universal hush,
As life exchanges semblances with death.
[1881]

A Winter Landscape

ALL night, all day, in dizzy, downward flight,
     Fell the wild-whirling, vague, chaotic snow,
     Till every landmark of the earth below,
Trees, moorlands, roads, and each familiar sight
Were blotted out by the bewildering white.
     And winds, now shrieking loud, now whimpering low,
     Seemed lamentations for the world-old woe
That death must swallow life, and darkness light.
But all at once the rack was blown away,
     The snowstorm hushing ended in a sigh;
     Then like a flame the crescent moon on high
Leaped forth among the planets; pure as they,
Earth vied in whiteness with the Milky Way:
     Herself a star beneath the starry sky.
[1889]

She felt herself an internal exile; someone exiled from the rest of her society by virtue of her inner self. Towards the end of her life she wrote in her Commonplace book “I have been an exile in this world. Without a God, without a country, without a family.” Her series of love lyrics, published in The Ascent of Man (a Darwinian perspective made optimistic) is called Love in Exile. It begins:

1

THou walkest with me as the spirit-light
     Of the hushed moon, high o’er a snowy hill,
Walks with the houseless traveller all the night,
     When trees are tongueless and when mute the rill.
Moon of my soul, 0 phantasm of delight,
     Thou walkest with me still.

The vestal flame of quenchless memory burns
     In my soul’s sanctuary. Yea, still for thee
My bitter heart hath yearned, as moonward yearns
     Each separate wave-pulse of the clamorous sea:
My Moon of love, to whom for ever turns
     The life that aches through me.

She was deeply active on behalf of impoverished women and prostitutes, and her purview included non-western women. Blind’s poem “Mourning Women” describes, then addresses, the Muslim women of Egypt (from the volume Birds of Passage: Songs of the Orient
and Occident
[1895]
,

Mourning Women.

ALL veiled in black, with faces hid from sight,
     Crouching together in the jolting cart,
     What forms are these that pass alone, apart,
In abject apathy to life’s delight?
The motley crowd, fantastically bright,
     Shifts gorgeous through each dazzling street and mart;
     Only these sisters of the suffering heart
Strike discords in this symphony of light.

Most wretched women! whom your prophet dooms
     To take love’s penalties without its prize!
Yes; you shall bear the unborn in your wombs,
     And water dusty death with streaming eyes,
And, wailing, beat your breasts among the tombs;
     &But souls ye have none fit for Paradise.


Samuel Fildes (1843-1927), Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward (1874)

Many many more poems at Matilde Blind (1841-96)

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

As to a more extended view of her life, I don’t mean to suggest she lived a solitary or at all reclusive existence. She’s much better known for her political and social activities. Her father had been a Jewish banker and she was born in Mannheim, Germany, but when he died and her mother remarried, the revolutionary leader, Karl Blind, the family moved to Paris, and from there to England where Matilde was educated at a London girls’ school. She tried to again admission to university lectures and her failure fired her first enthusiasm for women’s education. When she died, she bequeathed her estate to Newham College, Cambridge, to found a scholarship for women.

Her first poems were dedicated to Giuseppe Mazzini, and she supported the Italian revolutionaries; she was influenced by and admired Elizaabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot, about whom she wrote yet another life (1883). Shelley, Byron inspired her. Two poems show her time in Scotland, one set in the Hebrides deals with religious questions from an atheist angle (The Prophecy of St Oran, 1881). The Heather on Fire (1886) is about the shameful Highland clearances, razed villages, people driven cruelly into further absymal poverty and emigration. There is no false romance here: we see the “agonizing plight of a crippled old woman whom no-one removed from her home before” it was set on fire; we see the people herded onto beaches to set sail for Canada. The scope, sincerity, intensity and authentic concern made her poems admired. She was no favorite with critics; her poems were not designed for male readers. Her fallen woman poem of a prostitute dying in a hospital was seen as distasteful. The pains of childbirth were not their concern. But Arthur Symons did published a full Poetical Works in 1900.


John Everett Millais (1829-96), Blow blow though winter wind (a Scotland scene)

As to her prose writing, she admired Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote an article on her (1878) and herself spent her life as an independent woman. She traveled widely in Europe and Egypt and through Scotland, published translations from Goethe, and wrote a life of the French revolutionary, Madame Roland (1886), and (her most famous work today) translated the extraordinary Journal of Marie Bashkirseff (1890), herself a fine artist. Her one experimental novel, Tarantella: A Romance is online (18805). To sum up her social existence as seen by others, confident, generous, she had circles of friends in the arts (especially the Pre-Raphaelites), knew the radical novelists, Mona Caird, was friends with Eleanor Marx. Blain says that Blind loved to give “‘literary dinners’ in rooms in well-chosen hotels.”


Lucy Madox Brown, The Duet (1870), watercolor on paper

See wikipedia and recent articles:

S. Brown, “‘A Still and Mute-Born Vision': Locating Mathilde Blind’s
Reproductive Poetics,” Essays and Studies 56( 2003): 123-144.

James Diedrick, “‘My Love is a Force That Will Force you to Care':
Subversive Sexuality in Mathilde Blind’s Dramatic Monologues.”
Victorian Poetry 40.4 (2002) 359-386.

James Diedrick, “A Pioneering Female Aesthete: Mathilde Blind in the
Dark Blue.” The Victorian Periodicals Review 36.6 (2003): 210-241.

Christine Sutphin, “Human Tigresses, Fractious Angels, and Nursery Saints:
Augusta Webster’s A Castaway and Victorian Discourses on Prostitution and
Women’s Sexuality.” Victorian Poetry 38.4 (2000) 511-532

As to Lucy, as will have been seen she succumbed to romantic pictures of actors playing Shakespeare. But then these sold. But she also wrote a book, on Mary Shelley and it’s online.

I thank my good friend, Fran, for helping me find some of the above material and filling me in on her knowledge of Blind from Fran’s childhood in Lancaster and now life in southern Germany.

I had begun to place my foremother poet blogs over on Austen Reveries where they have mounted up to 18, as under the sign of a central women writer (who also wrote verse); but this one I felt really was not a life which can be placed with Austen as a gravatar, example. For the other (25) foremother poets on this blog, see the archive here.

Ellen

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courtesan. n. a prostitute, especially one with wealthy or upper class clients (Oxford Concise Dictionary). n. a woman of the town [courtisane. Fr.] Shakespeare (Johnson’s Dictionary)

Also: from traviare. v. to be lost, wandering, travail, travel, astray (Concise Cambridge Italian Dictionary)


Nightmare parody as dreamt, seen, experienced by Alfredo

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been writing altogether too frequently about prostitutes lately: from trafficking to The Rise of the English Actress, from arguments about how or whether to help prostitutes to suspect individuals and another night in the life of Roman Polanski, it seems hard to leave the topic.

And now Willy Dekker’s La Traviata at the Met directed with HD camera transmission in mind, featuring Natalie Dessay and Matthew Polenzani (to whom much of the power of the experience is owed), is undoubtedly the most memorable, striking, & contemporary production of an opera I’ve seen since Claus Guth’s Don Giovanni at Salzburg. To speak metaphorically, it seemed at first the La Traviata characters has gotten lost in some minimalist Samuel Beckett play: instead of a tree, we had a clock, instead of a dirt road, a highly uncomfortable couch, instead of a horizon, a bending wall with a overlooking roof.


Dessay in her white slip by the clock, her rich flowered robe fallen and forgotten

But then as I saw this crowd of greedy men grabbing at our heroine, assailing her, tossing her about on stone couches, making her their puppet, I was reminded of Jane Campion’s take on Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. Isabel Archer was destroyed by this hard devouring and (paradoxically) scornful adulation too.


Dessay thrust above the horde, arms thrusting champagne bottles outward

What is it with Salzburg — as that’s where the Dekker & Guth premiered — what electric current from a core of contemporary brilliance is running through this place? The production has been making the rounds of opera houses since 2005, and everyone apparently “knows” the script is based on partly autobiographical novel by Dumas, La Dame aux Camelias, which has been filmed and retold many times, and this version provides the capable singer with an opportunity to deliver the most moving of performances (see, e.g., The NYTimes and Minnesota Radio).

I just loved the set. Very demanding. You are just out there singing with no distractions beyond what is meaningful.

And I was swept away by Verdi’s music. It rocks, you sway within from it. Exhilarating, mysterious (as a song in this one tells us), thrilling. The music of this part of his oeuvre makes your body move, it’s irresistible the rhythms and harmonies. Two others just the same: Rigoletto. La Forza del Destino.

So what can I add beyond what I’ve already said: If the purpose was to make an unsentimental Traviata, to wrest this cliche from false tears, Dekker and Company managed it by hitting truer emotions. Bold and simple through and through: black-on-white for everyone but Dessay against an often royal blue background:

The nerve was to bring out the underlying realities of the original Dumas by transgressive parody. The traditional ballet became a muscular man naked to the waist, putting on Dessay’s red dress, and cavorting about the stage with all the men, making gross sexual gestures (see above). Where Alfredo once left the stage, now he was there to be teased, bullied, mocked, banged about:

— or was this a nightmare? The last act was just inspired. I was near or in tears, holding them back, stunned with emotion (though often not for the specific situation in front of me but rather the emotions themselves which I’ve felt in other situations). Our heroine was no longer emoting from a bed but walking about dazed, now grief-stricken, mad with depresson, then lit with sudden crazed hope (which hope alerted even the dim Alfredo that she was not going to last), all activity, trying this, demanding that (to go to church, to go out, to be forgiven, with plans for the future), letter in hand:

Polenzani as Alfredo sang exquisitely beautifully and his acting almost as good as Robert Alagna (Don Jose in the Met HD Carmen). He was more subtle than Dessay:

And his voice was stronger and more moving: his arias were like prayers to joy. Jim said that technically Dessay wasn’t up to it: her voice rasped at the end, the middle register was lacking. Well, if so, it made her singing all the more effective at the close, her destruction more believable.

For me the only failure was Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the father; I felt he was stiff, wooden, not acting at all. Jim suggested that he was impassive because he was directed to do that by Willy: he was supposed to be the relentless male, refusing to engage in what was in front of him.

Well, I’ve read the story and the father is supposed to be intensely emotional too — he wants to go to bed with her (maybe he does). But do see the comments below where people felt otherwise and liked Dmitri’s singing and stance, and I agree that making this male a stone figure reinforces the idea of a sweeping dismissal of this woman as a human being who counts. No all that counts is the “pure” daughter for whose advantageous marriage (monetarily, for prestige) Violetta is to be cast away. (Castaway was a Victorian term for prostitute).

A fine production to end a season which included a similarly (humane, sensitive) transformed Faustus (Marina Poplavskaya has played Violetta in other stagings of this production).

Deborah Voight was again our “hostess” (replete with commercials I have to admit) and told the movie-house audience that we could go over to facebook and offer our views or go to Twitter #metfaves & register our favorites for this year. I looked at my blogs & discovered after all I’ve written separate blogs on the HD operas from the Met only 13 times over 3 years (plus 1). It seems more because I write about HD operas from Europe which we’ve seen in movie-houses in DC, and operas we’ve seen at Glimmerglass & Castleton (see operas). So I can’t remember (separate out) what I saw so very accurately even this year but this is what I tweeted (with the 129 characters enlarged a bit for coherence): Luca Pisaroni as Caliban & Leporello. Marina Poplavskaya as Marguerite and Dessayas Violetta and Renee Fleming as Rodelina. Favorite productions: Traviata, Faustus, Enchanted Island, Don Giovanni. Then I came back and added another: Joyce Didonato as Sycorax, Danielle de Niese as Ariel. As will be seen after all I’m not gone on the Wagners, nor those with Nebtrebko. I too (like many people today) find myself drawn to baritones & deeper-voiced males than the tenors and yet except for Simon Keelyside I don’t remember their names. I did like Andreas Scholl, but I had to look up his name and remember him basically as the man who sang Rodelina as the countertenor who partnered my favorite diva Renee Fleming.

I did feel I had participated in a long opera season, including a development of habits (bringing my New York Style Cream Soda, my books), recognitions as when the same people sitting in the same areas of the auditorium over the year. Very satisfying.

We’ve picked out 9 of the 12 for next year that we must see. At $20 a seat, a ten minute drive at most away, it can’t be beat.

Ellen

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