Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Friends,

Carrying on the topic of Internet experiences, specifically worlds of words and digital images, I report on a talk I heard at the Library of Congress at a meeting of the Washington Area Print Group (members of Sharp, a book history society), taken from a coming book by James Farman, “Waiting for the Word: How Message Delays Have Shaped Love, History, Technology and Everything We Know.” Farman’s previous books include the The Mobile Story and he is an Associate Professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. Prof Farman studies the history of message exchange in (or across) time. Usually I report on talks like these on my Sylvia blog (see Harlequin Romance in Turkey), but I thought this topic had such general and immediate significance for everyone who writes on the Internet, who communicates a lot in cyberspace today. It’s really an aspect of a yet broader topic, the anthropology of social media (“why we post”) be it through digital or post office or smoke signal means.

Prof Farman began by suggesting if the time of anticipation is significant, this will transform the experience of the message once it is delivered. Waiting is the interpretive moment made up of fear, anxiety, longing, hoping, boredom. From the earliest of historical records we find people have been trying to gather knowledge of one another from a distance. Also to authenticate the message came from whom it declares it is from. Very early modern Europe sees the first development of the seal. The first and on-going continuing success or letters arriving at their destination has come through the institution of a post office. The first reliable service in Britain begins in the later 18th century; the first non-corrupt (no bribes, no opening letters for most people) begins in the middle of the 19th. That late. Literary Victorians are famous for the volumes of letters they wrote and preserved (or burnt). The first rapid communication is the pneumatic system of cylinders underground in the US. The telegram, the telegraphic (these are not intimate exchanges), and lastly the telephone (this is or can be) reigned supreme for speed until the arrival of gmail.

A good deal of Prof Farman’s talk was about his adventures doing extensive research in British archives of all kinds to find out how the early modern world’s powerful people sent messages down to the ordinary person on the Internet today. He was allowed to research into the High Court Admiralty in London, a treasure trove of thousands of messages never sent. Thwarted communications. How did you authenticate the message as really coming from you? From well before pre-early modern monarch, Henry VII, seals were used. How do you mark something with your identity? What does a face show except you are still alive, you exist. A king might send a letter and expect it will get there but there is no other sure-proof way except a faithful paid messenger. The changing of the post office to regard letters as private sacrosanct communications between particular people took 250 years. Censorship and reading of the mails only very gradually ceased. In the later 18th century, members of Parliament had a seal to frank a letter with, showing their considerable know-how — and power over others. What people want is certainty, speed, privacy. They also want a response and to be able to respond and to know they are heard.

Authentication is repeatedly the basic concern: passwords were invented on the net to authenticate who you are. Somehow seals have taken precedent over signatures, and Farman said he had done a lot of research into different seals. In early modern times a letter could have several seals attached to it, showing through whose hands it had gone. He shows us pictures of these. In later times a person who had power could frank a letter. Now all of us can buy a stamp. We begin in history where only one numinous person has a seal; nowadays in Japan most people carry seals to authenticate themselves.

Farman suggested human instinctive reality has not been totally able to accept bodily absence. Face-to-face is what’s wanted by most people still. Skype won’t do either — unless you knew the person before in the flesh, in physical actuality. People seem to have a need to be with another person; they believe they know you only after they’ve seen you. It’s true a lot of information is left out from letters and email communications, from photos (which are set up), but there is something else going on here. Farman sees this demand as coming out of that need to authenticate. Uncertainties of geography, rank, social network leaves the known and unknowable existence unauthenticated. People continue to create modes of linking our bodies to messages too — through photographs, emoticons. People try to personalize their messages. But the power of the document, of the extant document over time, in court, as a record, can become more or seem more important or make human viscerally physical contact seem irrelevant (marginalize it, especially if you are a good writer or maker of videos) so we live with and thrive upon texting and emailing.


A cat playing with an ipad

Yet there is nothing like a human hug. Or the cat on your lap.

It was at this point he moved on to waiting time — the person producing the response has the time to choose when he or she will respond — that his talk fascinated his audience most. When it’s a case of a letter or card sent through the post office, I expect if I’m lucky, I may have an answer or reciprocal card in a month. On the Internet, that week, before 6 days are gone. Electronic cards invite the receiver to respond immediately. A good deal of the talk in the audience afterwards and questions were about power relationships through withholding response. One’s relationship with someone is changed, when one is made to wait. Time is not distributed evenly; more powerful people more respected people are given more time. Who gets to define temporality (how much time a person has) is the more powerful person most of the time. Sometimes someone can prefer to wait in the hope of a better response or prefers not to know. There is software which tells someone whether the person receiving your message has read it so the person cannot pretend not to have gotten the message.


Emily Trevelyan reading a letter to which she will respond (He Knew He Was Right, scripted Andrew Davies)

As the man spoke and people asked questions, I found myself thinking about Anthony Trollope’s depiction of letters in his novels, his building up of epistolarity. As a postman or once postman he is preternaturally aware of how long it takes for a letter to get to someone, its path, how power can lead a person to get his or her letters quicker (a servant can carry it to the city) or leave someone suffering for a response (often a woman) in days of anxious misery. Trollope makes comedy out of this; irony over when a letter arrives. He may be unique in how often this kind of thing plays out in a story. He also uses forgery and shows us characters insincerely performing through their letters. The character who accepts what is written at face-value is at risk.

We know (or we ought to) everything we write here is under surveillance. In the Victorian and more recent periods if you are writing something seditious and it is found out and spreads and influences others it can cause you to be arrested. If a prospective or present employer/institutional affiliation finds out you have been writing what he or she does not approve of, you can lose a job or position or prospect of one. Prof Farman had researched into letters sent during wars, systems of communication among the powerful, in newspapers. Communications can decide whether a battle is fought, whether a war is carried on. Spies are all about discovering communications meant to be secret. Prof Farman suggested one could call this part of the study media archeaology.


Alec Guiness as George Smiley (master spy)

Ellen


Brian Friel’s Translations at the Studio Theater (14th Street)

Friends and readers,

Since returning from Milan, and my health improving, I’ve been to the theater twice, and the concert hall at Kennedy Center, and the experiences have shown me whatever the rotten, seepingly poisonous and willfully destructive behavior of those in the rooms and corridors of a few staggeringly powerful individuals here in DC, the local culture has not lost its moral compass.

Brian Friel’s Translations on Saturday afternoon, the house full. This is not the first play by Friel I’ve seen: Jim took us twice while in London — I remember Dancing at Lughnasa. I saw in NYC on my own The Faith Healer (about hypocrisy in the Catholic religion). I’ve a volume of plays by him and have read in it.


Language played upon, classical figures become Irish, a contrast of Irish and gaelic too

The first half was a deeply lyrical and quietly hopeful scene in a hedge school in 19th century Ireland: a son long gone returns, now a surveyor and translator for the British, who are opening National Schools in Ireland. These are English Protestant schools where Irish language and culture will not be taught. This act was slow moving and thoughtful, meditative. All about differences of language, culture — as someone interested in language and how it influences thought and culture I found this absorbing, but also we see the impoverishment of these Irish and how desperate their circumstances. It starts slowly and requires thoughtful watching. Each of the Irish characters is carefully delineated, sometimes comically, sometimes with considerable plangency. British officers barge (they don’t ask permission) in, interrupting the studies at the hedge school. Their behavior is, though, gentlemanly, decent. They seem to be trying to accommodate Irish ways. One who wants to assimilate, to learn the Irish language and Irish history, falls in love with one of the Irish girls (not similarly high-minded).

Second half is, by deliberate contrast, devastating, stunning with shock. The officer who had fallen in love and been truly open to Irish culture eloped with the girl, but has since disappeared, probably murdered in the tryst itself. The British response — of the officers we have just seen — is counter-productively, senselessly harsh — if it were a case of seeking justice or equity. One of the officers who had pretended such friendliness, such interest in Irish schools the day before (in the play), says if the man is not found alive after one day searching, the British destroy all the Irish crops of the people in the area. If he is if not found on the next day, the British army will kill all the animals (more than livestock) owned by Irish; on the the third, they will burn down their houses and evict them. So the pretense is over. We watch the characters crack under this regime.

It doesn’t take much to see the British as the US today, devastating countries or helping others to devastate countries, helping the present Israel gov’t to destroy the Palestinian people. In the 1980s Arthur Miller wrote that the retreat from realistic politics in plays was a cowardly retreat and inveighed against the fantasy-farce type play prevalent in the 1990s. American theater has come back from that, but the one place where exposure is found is on TV satire where the genre and time precludes the depth of a play like Friel’s.

The audience was clearly deeply affected by the wanton cruelty inflicted on our characters.


Adrian Edmonson as Malvolio (Christopher Luscombe’s production)

The Folger continues its periodic HD screenings, and this Monday night they screened a recent RSC production of Twelfth Night. As one review has it, the play as done here lacks the nuanced intertwining of melancholy and not only raucous laughter and gaiety, but downright bitterness (in one version I saw which took Sir Toby Belch’s words and position seriously), which argues a lack of thorough-going thought about the words and social-pragmatic relationships in the story. Shakespeare never neglects that.

But it brought to bear a post-colonial point of view, that together with bringing out the latent homoeroticism between Sebastian and Antonio, his sea-captain beloved friend, between Olivia and Viola (Olivia seems very reluctant to give Viola up even after she has been married to Sebastian), provided a relevant reading for the play. Viola, Sebastian, and Feste are all Indian characters: dressed in Indian garb and played by Indian actors. Malvolio is made self-consciously the ambitious white Victorian caste-climber. Much has been made of the later 19th century costumes, and certainly we are intended to remember Wilde as we watch Malvolio sneer at Maria, appear so cold, but I think the allusion is clearly to the Raj empire. Edmonson’s Gilbert-and-Sullivan patter song, fun in itself, is part of this skein. The caste system, the practical and cruel jokes dissolve these hierarchies, with a good deal of help from wine, song, and sex. Perhaps the Merchant-Ivory point of view is also mocked.

The imprisoning of Malvolio into a tiny dark dungeon, his humiliation and bad treatment, his lack of recourse were intended to allude to obduracy of the US prison system with its solitary confinement. I would not want to lean too heavily here (torture is probably not alluded to), but the whole way this part of the denouement is built up suggests the contemporary perspective. It’s not the old wild comedy of born great, achieve greatness, greatness thrust upon ’em that is at the center of this. I was much moved by Edmonson when he is finally brought out of the darkness to tell Olivia what he has suffered. Equally important is the high elegance and projection of true rapture in the “willow song” conveyed by Dinita Gohill. As in a recent production of The Merchant of Venice, the non-Christian has full humanity and depth. It was also strongly feminist in the way both Maria and Fabian (turned into a young woman) are master-minds of the revenge-trick by the servants.

It cost me $15 as a senior Folger Shakespeare member.

I chose for my one night ($25 for a good seat) out of at least a week’s worth of concerts brought together under the umbrella term, Festival of American Orchestras, a program which eschewed the usual (and sometimes to me too often repeated fare of) suspects: Beethoven, Handel, Brahms, Mozart, Bach. The Albany symphony appeared to be doing beautifully melodic and varied “picture” music by composers I’d not heard of but where what’s pictured or is the story attracted me. As an old New Yorker, I love a bridge, and the last full piece was by Michael Torke where three phases were music evoking Manhattan bridges I’ve drove on so many times.

When I arrived, the audience looked odd or different: far more of the young parent and children group in he audience than usual, many hispanic and black people. It was also not sold out. The mystery was explained when I realize the first half of the second part of the concert centered on a chorus from three DC schools, where children read aloud edifying verse about the building of “The Mighty Erie Canal.” The audience was made up of many people personally attached to some one child in this chorus. The singing was not great, but Dorothy Chang wrote the songs (“The Worker’s Song) suggesting hardship overcome, just, to have this communication, transportation system. Compare how llmost nothing for the common social good is sought by the US gov’t today. Then there were two soloists, both women in the first and last half. Joyce Chang is a great pianist; and she made the piano into a flowing river. Despite (to my eyes) the incongruous mermaid-like silvery dress Carol Jantsch fitted herself into, she is a fine musician on the tuba; she too was mirroring a river’s presence.

It was pleasant on the terrace to see the different groups of people. Very pretty in the sunset over the Potomac too. I was reading Antonia Hayes’s little book, A Universe of One’s Own, (a small present from a friend here on the Internet) as a kind of prelude to Katie Brigg’s This Little Art (on the practice of literary translation). Hayes says from her experience if you learn a language very young even if you forget it, the underlying grid stays with you, the language’s rhythms, forms, intonation. She talks about two areas of the brain where “mother tongues” where are found the first language we learn fully and later learned efforts in school or elsewhere. Hayes argues for a criss-cross, a blending, and talks of how what language we chose to make our primary tongue is so often chosen to gain a new identity, a new culture (You won’t find any of this in any of the review blurbs. Her mother did not want to be a Philippines person and deliberately forget her Tagalong and resisted teaching it to her daughter. Hayes appears to have a learning disabled boy and argues that teaching him two languages at once, French and English as he grew up in France, has unlocked his language barriers. The teacher in France wanted her to stop teaching the boy English, to stop talking it, and Hayes resisted. On the Kennedy Terrace the people were speaking English; in the concert hall, only some were using Spanish.

Hayes goes well beyond the usual way of discussing how we acquire language — as Jhumpa Lahiri tries to in her In Other Words — written by her in Italian with a facing English translation by Ann Goldstein (which I’ve also been reading). The theme of a character, in this case female Indian living in the UK turning herself into a French woman through study, art, and language is central to Lahiri’s prize-winning novel, Namesake (also filmed brilliantly and movingly). Lahiri (in In other words) is convinced you can’t have the same thoughts in different languages and she wants to have the thoughts and feelings she experiences in Italian. Language as identity, as finding oneself.

I know I feel this irrational sense that in Italian and/or French there is something I can experience that is sustaining for me not available at all in English. Thus my joy in translating recently say Elsa Morante’s poetry to her cats printed in her original Italian with facing French translations.


Gwen John drawing

Sometimes I wonder why anyone bothers reprint review blurbs since they consist of in effect noises of praise …. or denigration …). I looked up reviews of both Hayes and Lahiri’s books and you would not know what’ve I’ve suggested is their content at all.

But I am rambling on.

So, to bed.
Ellen

Gentle reader,

I am sure you are aware there is such a thing as an Internet Style. If you know this, I am even surer you have gone beyond the kind of academic or plain-talking, writing style I fancy I practice here (rather than the mandarin demanded by peer-edited journals) and your meditative, autobiographical and magazine blogger (not to omit fan fictioners). I imagine many readers revel in (get a great kick out of) or endure (as need dictates) that “in-group of savvy, sardonic media consumers” known as recap and commentary content-providers. Over the last couple of evenings, I’ve come across essays in traditional publications (from MLA publications to the venerable TLS and brilliant coterie left-leaning LRB) seeking to imitate and and define the style and outlook of today’s popular Internet Writing.

Tom Rachman’s “Like. Whatever” is the most fun (TLS, January 19, 2018). Reviewing Emmy J. Favella’s A World without Whom: The essential guide to language in the BuzzFeed age, and Harold Evans’s Do I make Myself Clear: Why writing well matters, Rachman is. Just. Hilarious. Not behind a pay wall. Embracing this new way of writing does not mean writing incorrectly or sloppily; the point is to be entertaining and avoid (Heaven Forbid) the pedantic. First abolish Whom. No semi-colons allowed. Talk your words, and stay cool, unfazed. Figure out how to write sarcastically without offending the reader. When to use the asterick. When “in” abbreviations (jk, Imfao). Rachman quotes Favilla deliciously: she declares the emoji “the most evolved form of punctuation we have at our disposal.”

I mean, what a time to be alive, seriously.

Evans is your gentleman from the Times, growling, irascible, the man with the impressive resume. Edited thousands of writers, the “complex thought processes” of such as Kissinger (mass murderers who consider themselves realistic, respectable, need complexity). Evans remembers typewriters and when “there was no meandering in cyberspace.” Evans does think the public is I mean seriously in trouble, confused. Someone is for health care but against the policy providing it. Induced bewilderment comes from the scuttling of credibility as a criteria altogether. Buzzfeed apparently has exposed important frauds amidst its attention-getting games.

Rachman does catch Favilla easily enough writing gibberish, gobbledygok. Citing Orwell’s irreplaceable “Politics and the English Language,” Rachman tells us Orwell was warning us against manipulative language, which Internet style is a new form of. What’s wrong with “It is what it is” or “whatever?”:  cynicism and passivity oozed together. Rachman says we must not hum loudly until the opposition has left the room. The better fairer writer will seem to take into account the other side of whatever it is. And there are still writers writing in the way Evans once did, especially for the better TV programming and films. Much of this writing is about TV and for fan communities lured by franchise-worlds of evolving film characters and story events.

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


Susan Herbert’s Dietrich: Cool cat

What I liked about Christine Photinos in her “After Cliffs: The new Literature Study Guide and the Rhetoric of the Recap,” in Modern Language Studies: Beatrice, 47:2 (Winter 2018):64-73 (probably not available online or behind a wall of some sort) is Photinos explains the attitude of mind behind the Recap style and genre, the posturing wry or snark-filled blog. What these writers are doing is creating the experience of being a member of an “in-community.” The point of all the many allusions left unexplained to the latest meme, slang, fashionable shows and characters or actors is to pull the reader into a shared discourse where he or she will feel in a crowd where everyone knows everyone else, or assumes such easy contact.

To characterize that community’s discourse, Photinos close-reads their tones, terms, conventions, and she finds at core the idea that valuing the material at hand, taking seriously whatever judgements are going on, is dismissed. The stance of arch mockery implies indifference to what is being peddled; summing up what is presented as obviously and all the time a cliche and nothing more turns serious thought or protest into something futile and childish (“take that”), or non-existent, a pretense.

A very few examples out of many cited by Photinos: Silas Marner is basically dismissed in the phrase “Time for a Montage!” For War and Peace, we read “Prince Bolkonsky has him sitting with the family as some kind of lesson about all people being equal. Or something”. “Ma Joad throws a hissy fit” sums up a chapter in Grapes of Wrath. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof summary: “[We] discover Big Daddy has been sick, however, and that he and his wife, who is known as Big Mamma (we’re not making this up), have been … ” It’s a trivializing: “Get ready for some excitement: next, Thoreau describes how he planted and cultivated his bean-field. Wow” (Walden). Lots of “in” terms from film and media art (“cut,” “pan,” “close-up”) are part of a shorthand that performs a chiding of anyone for sensitive emotion. We are not supposed to lose control, never ask for or feel sympathy. “Blanche starts rambling maniacally” (Streetcar); “Chill out, Jimmy” (Lord Jim). Lots of reassuring hedge language (“kind of”). Much of this is dressed-up cliffnotes in burlesque.

We need to attend to this insulation of the reader from vulnerability.

Photinos says this is also a an assumed male-male discourse (references to “bro” abound) presented as gender free. The recap discourages commitment to the material, any sustained inquiry into the ideologies at play that “critical reading would call into question.” So there is a pretense of evaluation. Not all recaps or commentaries are like this but enough are. She includes a list of other articles on the new writing. I recommend the whole of this issue of Modern Language Notes. Beautiful illustrations of Dante and other Beatrices, and good poems scattered across the issue.

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

Jennifer Howard brings up the important issue of pay: the gig economy underlying much of this content production “doesn’t pay the rent.”: Again for TLS, this time March 23, 2018, is a review of a book about online culture and practices: Houman Barkat, Robert Barry and David Warner, edd. The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online (see many articles by her). Howard begins 15 years ago when she wrote for Book World, a stand-alone pull-out review section of the Washington Post,and admits that many of the litbloggers who replaced her kind have morphed into “familiar bylines with publishing deals to match their strong opinion.” In the early years of writing on the Net, an appealing worthy writer could become “known to people of power and influence” who opened doors for him, so he could skip jumping off from an MFA and slogging through different underling jobs.

But there is now “an spirally galaxy;” the old hierarchies have replicated themselves on the Net but a “snappy Twitter feed, a good pitch and some connections” can help a writer to progress to the head of the line. One problem is the demand for perpetual content: how can you provide seven good posts a day or even week? Superabundance accompanied by “quick takes” preclude genuine critical thinking. When Howard turns to writing as “pay-by-exposure,” (the payment you get is the exposure your writing attracts, she writes about writers without a steady income. Not all causes paid in the days of sheer newspapers, and still don’t. You will have to work your way up through lesser genres to the editing desktop.

Howard ends on an essay from Digital Connection where Will Self laments the loss of solitude, isolation, loneliness, and the time to compose “long-form” fiction and essays. People online are surrounded by endless input/output, making it “hard to have the quality time alone with writing as writing.” Howard’s last remarks remind me of what I used to say to students as writing teacher: “we write alone but to pursue a career as a writer you become a social animal.”

Writing I would say is a social act. So there is a deep contradiction between what goes into the act of writing and how it has to function in the worlds of others. I like her hope that “perhaps counter-intuitively, the ties enabled (by online interaction), social media, web-based publication have a reach or tenacity that match or exceed what came before.” You are after all easily in more contact.

One online writer, Esposito writes that “so many of my primary literary relationships occur primarily by screens,” and the contacts in his case have been “durable.” Still, there is the qualification,that “who pays and who reads remain open questions” (I think) much more for someone online than someone off.

I hope I have not bored you, gentle reader.


Cat circa 1904-8 by Gwen John (1876-1939) Purchased 1940 by the Tate

Ellen


Illustration from the original 1933 edition

It is universally admitted that the family from which the subject of this memoir claims descent is one of the greatest antiquity — Woolf’s opening sentence, much Austen allusion in this fun book.

What is not biography — is nothing at all — Stanislaw Brzozowski

Dear friends and readers,

We might regard this as an unusual foremother poet blog for Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61). One of the people class asked me if I would recommend this as a biography. Yes, to start with. Perhaps for Mary Russell Mitford (1787-1855) too.


From the same edition, the way photographs of Vita Sackville-West dressed in costumes of different ages are scattered throughout Orlando

This and last week I read and discussed it with a class of older adults. We had a very good time with it. We discussed it as a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning through the eyes of her dog (anticipating Margaret Forster’s Lady’s Maid, about how EBB’s life impinged on, used up and was seen through Wilson, her lady’s maid). Thus it’s about the life experience of a 19th century woman attempting to be a serious writer and feminist and ruled over, contained by men and imprisoning conventions. It is also her ripost to The Barretts of Wimpole Street (as Mantel’s Wolf Hall is hers to Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons).

As the viewpoint is most of the time a cocker spaniel’s and every attempt is to make see and feel the world as a dog might — smell, feel, emotions of loyalty, attachment, sheer joy in bodily exercise. Why not call it an original modern animal study, about the marginalized, beings not thought worthy commemorating — as not sufficiently representing the general experience of men. Remember too the classic Canadian animal story, Beautiful Joe, and at the same time Darwin’s The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, and the great animal studies by women, Goodall, Galdikas, Fosse and Sy Montgomery.

Flush is also Pinka, a dog given Woolf and Leonard by Vita Sackville-West who figures so centrally in Orlando. Pinka became Leonard’s dog and was much loved.

It ought to be listed with the other original modernist biographies discussed by Andre Maurois. It fits his criteria: artful — it has exquisitely alive description all psychologized through the presence of a consciousness attributed to Flush. It is scientific, with documentable proof. Letters the life-blood of this form are its basis: EBB and Browning’s courtship correspondence as it’s come to be called. The autobiography of Miss Mitford is here. A complex presence in complex circumstances. Flush learns to discount hierarchy. He learns just around the solidity and middle class order, luxury beauty of the houses, lie dangerous slums, people waiting to prey on “innocent” men, come from say from the ballet.
Identification: the writer is reliving some secret need or desire. EBB’s illness began in Torquay (and Cornwall meant much to Woolf); she too needed to overthrow her father, both poets. Much fictionalizing: Flush’s dreams, his talk with other dogs, but also utterly convincing as he (dramatic irony) slowly lives through what we know is about to happen. Women poets, it’s been shown, identify with small animals.

And for its beauty of style, which is as lovely as Orlando.

There are five acts, from which I quote to convey something of the experience of the book.

1. Three Mile Cross: Flush’s genealogy, heritage (broadly satiric and amusing), a description of his younger years, of his attachment to Queen Anne. This includes a brilliant sketch of Miss Mitford herself, to whom Flush was much attached

[from his life with Miss Mitford] Since the Mitfords had fallen on evil days–Kerenhappock was the only servant–the chair-covers were made by Miss Mitford herself and of the cheapest material; the most important article of furniture seems to have been a large table; the most important room a large greenhouse–it is unlikely that Flush was surrounded by any of those luxuries, rainproof kennels, cement walks, a maid or boy attached to his person, that would now be accorded a dog of his rank. But he throve; he enjoyed with all the vivacity of his temperament most of the pleasures and some of the licences natural to his youth and sex. Miss Mitford, it is true, was much confined to the cottage. She had to read aloud to her father hour after hour; then to play cribbage; then, when at last he slumbered, to write and write and write at the table in the greenhouse in the attempt to pay their bills and settle their debts. But at last the longed-for moment would come. She thrust her papers aside, clapped a hat on her head, took her umbrella and set off for a walk across the fields with her dogs. Spaniels are by nature sympathetic; Flush, as his story proves, had an even excessive appreciation of human emotions. The sight of his dear mistress snuffing the fresh air at last, letting it ruffle her white hair and redden the natural freshness of her face, while the lines on her huge brow smoothed themselves out, excited him to gambols whose wildness was half sympathy with her own delight. As she strode through the long grass, so he leapt hither and thither, parting its green curtain. The cool globes of dew or rain broke in showers of iridescent spray about his nose; the earth, here hard, here soft, here hot, here cold, stung, teased and tickled the soft pads of his feet. Then what a variety of smells interwoven in subtlest combination thrilled his nostrils; strong smells of earth, sweet smells of flowers; nameless smells of leaf and bramble; sour smells as they crossed the road; pungent smells as they entered bean-fields. But suddenly down the wind came tearing a smell sharper, stronger, more lacerating than any–a smell that ripped across his brain stirring a thousand instincts, releasing a million memories–the smell of hare, the smell of fox. Off he flashed like a fish drawn in a rush through water further and further. He forgot his mistress; he forgot all humankind. He heard dark men cry “Span! Span!” He heard whips crack. He raced; he rushed. At last he stopped bewildered; the incantation faded; very slowly, wagging his tail sheepishly, he trotted back across the fields to where Miss Mitford stood shouting “Flush! Flush! Flush!” and waving her umbrella …

How distraught he was when she sold him (she couldn’t afford him) and the door slams in his face.

II: The back bedroom: this intensely limited life. Flush learns to live in close confinement. He gives up much for the love of EBB.

Why, Miss Barrett wondered, did Flush tremble suddenly, and whimper and start and listen? She could hear nothing; she could see nothing; there was nobody in the room with them. She could not guess that Folly, her sister’s little King Charles, had passed the door; or that Catiline, the Cuba bloodhound, had been given a mutton-bone by a footman in the basement. But Flush knew; he heard; he was ravaged by the alternate rages of lust and greed. Then with all her poet’s imagination Miss Barrett could not divine what Wilson’s wet umbrella meant to Flush; what memories it recalled, of forests and parrots and wild trumpeting elephants; nor did she know, when Mr. Kenyon stumbled over the bell-pull, that Flush heard dark men cursing in the mountains; the cry, “Span! Span!” rang in his ears, and it was in some muffled, ancestral rage that he bit him.

Flush was equally at a loss to account for Miss Barrett’s emotions. There she would lie hour after hour passing her hand over a white page with a black stick; and her eyes would suddenly fill with tears; but why? “Ah, my dear Mr. Horne,” she was writing. “And then came the failure in my health . . . and then the enforced exile to Torquay . . . which gave a nightmare to my life for ever, and robbed it of more than I can speak of here; do not speak of that anywhere. Do not speak of that, dear Mr. Horne.” But there was no sound in the room, no smell to make Miss Barrett cry. Then again Miss Barrett, still agitating her stick, burst out laughing. She had drawn “a very neat and characteristic portrait of Flush, humorously made rather like myself,” and she had written under it that it “only fails of being an excellent substitute for mine through being more worthy than I can be counted.” What was there to laugh at in the black smudge that she held out for Flush to look at? He could smell nothing; he could hear nothing. There was nobody in the room with them.

III: The Hooded man. The coming of Browning: Woolf imagines Flush imagining Browning. Flush is there, looking on, and participates in EBB’s erotic liberation, it will threaten the status quo, the 8th of July – we can’t know how hurt the dog was, but he is stolen, snatched, kidnapped (Tuesday 1 September), at the book’s end. Both chapters conclude with Flush distraught before human power. Browning did wear lemon-colored gloves (dandyish).

But one night early in January 1845 the postman knocked. Letters fell into the box as usual. Wilson went downstairs to fetch the letters as usual. Everything was as usual–every night the postman knocked, every night Wilson fetched the letters, every night there was a letter for Miss Barrett. But tonight the letter was not the same letter; it was a different letter. Flush saw that, even before the envelope was broken. He knew it from the way that Miss Barrett took it; turned it; looked at the vigorous, jagged writing of her name. He knew it from the indescribable tremor in her fingers, from the impetuosity with which they tore the flap open, from the absorption with which she read. He watched her read. And as she read he heard, as when we are half asleep we hear through the clamour of the street some bell ringing and know that it is addressed to us, alarmingly yet faintly, as if someone far away were trying to rouse us with the warning of fire, or burglary, or some menace against our peace and we start in alarm before we wake–so Flush, as Miss Barrett read the little blotted sheet, heard a bell rousing him from his sleep; warning him of some danger menacing his safety and bidding him sleep no more. Miss Barrett read the letter quickly; she read the letter slowly; she returned it carefully to its envelope. She too slept no more.

Again, a few nights later, there was the same letter on Wilson’s tray. Again it was read quickly, read slowly, read over and over again. Then it was put away carefully, not in the drawer with the voluminous sheets of Miss Mitford’s letters, but by itself. Now Flush paid the full price of long years of accumulated sensibility lying couched on cushions at Miss Barrett’s feet. He could read signs that nobody else could even see. He could tell by the touch of Miss Barrett’s fingers that she was waiting for one thing only–for the postman’s knock, for the letter on the tray. She would be stroking him perhaps with a light, regular movement; suddenly–there was the rap–her fingers constricted; he would be held in a vice while Wilson came upstairs. Then she took the letter and he was loosed and forgotten.

IV: Whitechapel. Now here we have the important kidnapping and the elopement: the London outside that upper middle class: Taylor the head. Flush like a hostage in a concentration camp. Filthy, bad food, no water, others dying around him. Each day added on. He fears for his life.

He lay, not daring even to whimper, hour after hour. Thirst was his worst suffering; but one sip of the thick greenish water that stood in a pail near him disgusted him; he would rather die than drink another. Yet a majestic greyhound was drinking greedily. Whenever the door was kicked open he looked up. Miss Barrett–was it Miss Barrett? Had she come at last? But it was only a hairy ruffian, who kicked them all aside and stumbled to a broken chair upon which he flung himself. Then gradually the darkness thickened. He could scarcely make out what shapes those were, on the floor, on the mattress, on the broken chairs. A stump of candle was stuck on the ledge over the fireplace. A flare burnt in the gutter outside. By its flickering, coarse light Flush could see terrible faces passing outside, leering at the window. Then in they came, until the small crowded room became so crowded that he had to shrink back and lie even closer against the wall. These horrible monsters–some were ragged, others were flaring with paint and feathers–squatted on the floor; hunched themselves over the table. They began to drink; they cursed and struck each other. Out tumbled, from the bags that were dropped on the floor, more dogs–lap dogs, setters, pointers with their collars still on them; and a giant cockatoo that flustered and dashed its way from corner to corner shrieking “Pretty Poll,” “Pretty Poll,” with an accent that would have terrified its mistress, a widow in Maida Vale. Then the women’s bags were opened, and out were tossed on to the table bracelets and rings and brooches such as Flush had seen Miss Barrett wear and Miss Henrietta. The demons pawed and clawed them; cursed and quarrelled over them. The dogs barked. The children shrieked, and the splendid cockatoo–such a bird as Flush had often seen pendant in a Wimpole Street window–shrieked “Pretty Poll! Pretty Poll!” faster and faster until a slipper was thrown at it and it flapped its great yellow-stained dove-grey wings in frenzy. Then the candle toppled over and fell. The room was dark. It grew steadily hotter and hotter; the smell, the heat, were unbearable; Flush’s nose burnt; his coat twitched. And still Miss Barrett did not come.

We see the men and Browning too want her not to pay the kidnapper and argue, it is encouraging black mail. What emerges is they don’t care about the dog, the individual life. We see the courage and pluck it took Charlotte to drive away by herself and retrieve her (by that time) beloved dog.

We are told that Flush never mastered the principles of human society – neither have I — real debate over what this phrase means – is it principle or a life and lives that matter. I’m on the side of live and banks too, and so as EBB and Wilson, the climax of he book and prelude to elopement and Flush’s unsentimental education; what he wants is clean water – but there is now another world out there Flush knows about – a third world.

How slowly the dog moves from attack to attachment towards Browning; he notices the boots set aside; Miss EBB is gone all morning and returns exhausted; then the marriage in London and escape.

V: Italy. This is a long chapter which includes Flush’s re-juvenation, and so thethe birth of Robert whom they called Pen and the return to England and back is so intensely important. -– a new life, the new physical place, the new culture, new weather. Here dogs are different but not differentiated by status and class.

Flush’s new found independence, — they are all liberated now, her sewing heralds the coming of the baby (in life EBB had something like 4 miscarriages. Flush resumes the very happy adult dog life in Italy that he had with Miss Mitford — until he encounters flees. His hair must be shaved.

Flush had lain upon human knees and heard men’s voices. His flesh was veined with human passions; he knew all grades of jealousy, anger and despair. Now in summer he was scourged by fleas. [7] With a cruel irony the sun that ripened the grapes brought also the fleas. “. . . Savonarola’s martyrdom here in Florence,” wrote Mrs. Browning, “is scarcely worse than Flush’s in the summer.” Fleas leapt to life in every corner of the Florentine houses; they skipped and hopped out of every cranny of the old stone; out of every fold of old tapestry; out of every cloak, hat and blanket. They nested in Flush’s fur. They bit their way into the thickest of his coat. He scratched and tore. His health suffered; he became morose, thin and feverish. Miss Mitford was appealed to. What remedy was there, Mrs. Browning wrote anxiously, for fleas? Miss Mitford, still sitting in her greenhouse at Three Mile Cross, still writing tragedies, put down her pen and looked up her old prescriptions–what Mayflower had taken, what Rosebud. But the fleas of Reading die at a pinch. The fleas of Florence are red and virile. To them Miss Mitford’s powders might well have been snuff. In despair Mr. and Mrs. Browning went down on their knees beside a pail of water and did their best to exorcise the pest with soap and scrubbing-brush. It was in vain. At last one day Mr. Browning, taking Flush for a walk, noticed that people pointed; he heard one man lay a finger to his nose and whisper “La rogna” (mange). As by this time “Robert is as fond of Flush as I am,” to take his walk of an afternoon with a friend and to hear him thus stigmatised was intolerable. Robert, his wife wrote, “wouldn’t bear it any longer.” Only one remedy remained, but it was a remedy that was almost as drastic as the disease itself. However democratic Flush had become and careless of the signs of rank, he still remained what Philip Sidney had called him, a gentleman by birth. He carried his pedigree on his back. His coat meant to him what a gold watch inscribed with the family arms means to an impoverished squire whose broad acres have shrunk to that single circle. It was the coat that Mr. Browning now proposed to sacrifice. He called Flush to him and, “taking a pair of scissors, clipped him all over into the likeness of a lion.”

As Robert Browning snipped, as the insignia of a cocker spaniel fell to the floor, as the travesty of quite a different animal rose round his neck, Flush felt himself emasculated, diminished, ashamed. What am I now? he thought, gazing into the glass. And the glass replied with the brutal sincerity of glasses, “You are nothing.” He was nobody. Certainly he was no longer a cocker spaniel. But as he gazed, his ears bald now, and uncurled, seemed to twitch. It was as if the potent spirits of truth and laughter were whispering in them. To be nothing–is that not, after all, the most satisfactory state in the whole world?

Note the last sentiment. We are hearing Woolf.

At book’s close there is the joke Nero jumped out of the window because he couldn’t take those angry silences between Carlyle and Jane. In later years Woolf writes of this Jane and her relationship with Geraldine (Jewsbury) brilliantly.

VI: The end: Coda: Flush’s old age – Flush rightly suspects as frauds the new spiritual mediums Elizabeth enjoys. His care for her is too concerned, too for real care. Here we pick up on how Robert Browning and EBB had their strains. Flush’s aging, tiring, and then disappearance from the record. He predeceased her. The book ends with EBB’s poem to him. Alas, over-written:

You see this dog. It was but yesterday
I mused, forgetful of his presence here,
Till thought on thought drew downward tear on tear;
When from the pillow, where wet-cheeked I lay,
A head as hairy as Faunus, thrust its way
Right sudden against my face,—two golden-clear
Large eyes astonished mine,—a drooping ear
Did flap me on either cheek, to dry the spray!
I started first, as some Arcadian
Amazed by goatly god in twilight grove:
But as my bearded vision closelier ran
My tears off, I knew Flush, and rose above
Surprise and sadness; thanking the true Pan,
Who, by low creatures, leads to heights of love.

Flush was buried beneath Casa Guidi; EBB’s remains are in the Protestant cemetery in Florence, and Browning’s in Westminster Abbey. Why is Flush’s life not set next to Maurois’s of Shelley, Scott’s of Zelide, Zweig of Mary Queen of Scots (just as deeply dreamed). Because “who is interested in a dog?” said another class member.

Woolf’s delightful annotations and notes follow: Wilson’s life caught here. Lily (fell in love with a guardsman who did not stay true to her. But marry she must so she chose a man-servant in the Browning’s house. No document about what happened to him. In later years she takes care of one of Browning’s ancient poet friends; very later as widow living with Pen. The safest thing was to be loyal. Why are there no servants’ lives in the ODNB?

So I propose to add Virginia Woolf’s brilliant tour-de-force of a modernist biography, Flush: A Biography to the canon. 1842-1858? I liken it to Anthony Trollope’s wrongly neglected When the Mastiffs went to Iceland, a political social and ethnographic study disguised a jeux d’esprit travel book.

Ellen


Louis (Oliver Dimsdale) and Emily (Laura Fraser) in later confrontation (2004 BBC/WBGH, scripted Andrew Davies)

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Seven Wednesday mornings, 9:40 to 11:05 pm,
April 11 to May 23
Tallwood, 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va
Dr Ellen Moody

https://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2018/03/08/a-spring-syllabus-sexual-and-marital-conflicts-in-anthony-trollope/

Description of Course

In this course we will read one of Trollope’s most powerful long novels, He Knew He Was Right, a candid and contemporary analysis of sex and marriage, as well as of custody and women’s rights. The novel includes seven couples, with themes that explore sexual anxiety, possession, business transactions, and insanity. It contains tragedy, farce, comedy, and romance, and has been brilliantly adapted in a BBC miniseries scripted by Andrew Davies. We’ll also read Trollope’s short story “Journey to Panama,” about a woman sailing to marry a man she doesn’t know, a common practice in the era, and the relationship she forms on board with a single male tourist traveler.

Required Texts:

Anthony Trollope, He Knew He Was Right, ed. Frank Kermode. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.
—————-, “Journey to Panama,” online at Adelaide University. Also available in Anthony Trollope, Early Short Stories, ed. John Sutherlan. NY: Oxford UP, 1994 (this is the best edition); or Anthony Trollope: The Complete Shorter Fiction, ed. Julian Thompson NY: Carroll & Graf, 1992 (this is the complete and best buy); or Anthony Trollope, Lotta Schmidt and other Stories. Facsimile of original edition online at Adelaide.


Arabella French (Fenella Woolgar) and Rev Gibson (David Tennant), one of the many scenes based on original illustrations (2004 HKHWR)

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

April 11th: 1st week: Introduction: Trollope’s life and career; the state of the law and customs surrounding marriage, child custody, sexual relationships in the mid-19th century. Colonialist marriages abroad. Read ahead for this week, HKHWR, Chapters 1-15

April 18th: 2nd week: read for this week, HKHWR, Chapters 16-31

April 25th: 3rd week: HKHWR, Chapters 32-48: clips from Andrew Davies’s film adaptation

May 2nd: 4th week: HKHWR, Chapters 49-65

May 9th: 5th week: HKHWR, Chapters 66-81

May 16th: 6th week: HKHWR, Chapters 82-97: clips from Andrew Davies’s film adaptation

May 23rd: 7th week: HKWR, Chapters 98-99, “Journey to Panama” Modernity of novel?


A romantic 19th century illustration of emigration

Suggested supplementary reading & film:

Glendinning, Victoria. Anthony Trollope. NY: Knopf, 1993.
Herbert, Christopher. He Knew He Was Right, and the Duplicities of Victorian Marriage,” Texas Studies in Language and Literature, 25 (1981):449-69.
He Knew He Was Right. Dir. Tom Vaughn. Script: Andrew Davies. Featuring: Oliver Dimsdale, Laura Fraser, Bill Nighy, Stephen Campbell Moore, Christina Cole, Ron Cook, Anna Massey. BBC Wales/WBGH, 2004. 4 Part Adaptation
Jones, Wendy. “Feminism, fiction and contract theory: Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right,” Criticism 36 (2004):41ff.
Kohn, Denise. “‘The Journey to Panama’: One of Trollope’s Best ‘Tarts’ – or, Why You Should Read ‘The Journey to Panama’ to Develop Your Taste for Trollope,” Studies in Short Fiction, 30:1 (Winter 1993):15-22
Nardin, Jane. He Knew She Was Right: The Independent woman in the Novels of Anthony Trollope. Carbondale: So. Illinois UP, 1989.
Moody, Ellen. “Epistolary & Masculinity in Andrew Davies’ Trollope Adaptations,” Upstairs and Downstairs: British Costume Drama from The Forsyte Saga to Downton Abbey, edd. James Leggott & Julie Anne Taddeo. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.
Snow, C. P. Trollope: An Illustrated Biography. NY: New Amsterdam, 1975.
Sturridge, Lisa. Bleak House: Marital Violence in Victorian Fiction. Athens: Ohio UP, 2005.
Wagner, Tamara, ed. Victorian Settler Narratives. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2014.


Emily and Col Osborne (Bill Nighy) as imagined? by Louis (2004 HKHWR)

Ellen

Moving days

Dear friends,

It’s not quite been like a UHaul, but it has taken a couple of weeks since I needed instruction and help and the actual transition was done by a remarkably generous digital expert at groups.io. I have been busy this last few days moving three lists from the continually deteriorating Yahoo groups social platform, to groups.io. In the last three years and accelerating when Verizon bought Yahoo, all the software on the social platform of yahoo groups has been debased and then increasingly ignored so that outages, glitches and endless individual problems go unfixed. Sometimes the whole group site vanishes for a time. And not even a boilerplate message explaining what has happened and if anything is being done. There is nowhere to ask a question or for a live individual to help. As the demise of net neutrality sinks in and brings changes based on commercial considerations of the largest profit, at any time Verizon could leave the yahoo groups vanished.

So rather than wait when it will be too late to retrieve archives, like others with communities at Yahoo who care about one another and their shared experiences, we’ve moved to groups.io. This is a new social platform run by Mark Fletcher, who invented the original ONElist, morphed it into egroups, sold it to Yahoo, come back to rescue this specific kind of experience. Among the astonishing attractions of groups.io is you can have its basic services for free, and they transferred the archives, all postings, all photos, all files (essays and whatever). A group’s identity is centered in its memory, which means its history. This the new site preserves.

Email groups are not obsolete. They still offer a kind of closed community interaction, which allows for longer messages, and encourages replies and relationships among the people posting much more frequent and much stronger than is found on blogs, face-book and other large anonymously-directed venues.

So very satisfied by what has happened, as I gather are many other Yahoo groups who moved there (I don’t have firm statistics for how many), this evening I thought I’d tell all the readers of this blog who are interested in Trollope and (a liberally defined) Nineteenth Century (1815-1914); Long Eighteenth Century studies, which I now expanded from just the terrain of the Enlightenment itself to historical fiction, romance and film (1660-1815); and women writers, artists of all kinds in all countries, all ages, and women’s issues; that the three lists I moderate have moved to this new version of the original site and have slightly new titles.

for Trollope and His Contemporaries, which now has the nifty abbreviation (I didn’t think of it) Trollope&Peers

https://groups.io/g/TrollopeAndHisContemporaries


New Banner: George Hicks, At the Post Office

Post: TrollopeAndHisContemporaries@groups.io
Subscribe: TrollopeAndHisContemporaries+subscribe@groups.io
Unsubscribe: TrollopeAndHisContemporaries+unsubscribe@groups.io
Group Owner: TrollopeAndHisContemporaries+owner@groups.io
Help: TrollopeAndHisContemporaries+help@groups.io

Mascot or Gravatar:


Donald Pleasence as Mr Harding playing his violoncello (1983 BBC Barchester Chronicles, scripted Alan Plater)

for WomenWriters:

https://groups.io/g/WomenWriters


New Banner: a collage of several paintings by Maud Lewis

Post: WomenWriters@groups.io
Subscribe: WomenWriters+subscribe@groups.io
Unsubscribe: WomenWriters+unsubscribe@groups.io
Group Owner: WomenWriters+owner@groups.io
Help: WomenWriters+help@groups.io

Gravatar:


Anonymous depiction of Christine de Pizan writing

for 18thCWorlds


Antonio Canaletto, Northumberland House

https://groups.io/g/18thCWorlds

Subscribe: 18thCWorlds+subscribe@groups.io
Unsubscribe: 18thCWorlds+unsubscribe@groups.io
Group Owner: 18thCWorlds+owner@groups.io
Help: 18thCWorlds+help@groups.io

Gravatar:


Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza Poldark, singing as she brings a basket of food to the coal mine owned and run by her husband

The first two have retained the same goal as they’ve had.

Trollope and His Contemporaries — a group of people who behave as friends and read and discuss Anthony Trollope, any 19th texts by other authors and 20th century one relevant to Trollope, by authors as supremely good as he is as a writer People are invited to discuss other books they are reading at the same time, and any movies or art seen and music heard …

Women Writers — a community of women readers. We discuss issues of interest to women as well as their art, writing, music, crafts and lives. We are much more a literary than political list, but it is assumed you are a feminist and progressive in outlook … Men are welcome but we stay with art by or (in the case of film) made with women in mind. We do sometimes have group readings and discussions

I’ve changed the last to encourage people reading historical fiction, romance and watching historical films (and adaptations) to join us and hope to start group reading and discussion of contemporary favorites. The older version only went for texts written in the 18th century (Boswell & Johnson, Fanny Burney, novels, poetry, educational treatises):

18th Century Worlds — for people who are interested in all things in the long 18th century (1660-1830): politics, history, literature, arts, music, society and culture. I also welcome readers and viewers of historical fiction and romance and films set in the 18th century … Books written in the 19th through 21st centuries about or set in the 18th century, or time-traveling tales are part of our terrain.


Sylvia Plath

Ellen

Thinking about biography


The first modern biographer, Lytton Strachey and his subject, Queen Victoria when young

Friends,

I’ve been thinking about biography all my life; that’s because I’ve been reading biography all my life. To prove to you how odd I am the first books meant for older readers (meaning post-childhood) I remember taking out of the adult library on Sutphin Boulevard (in the southeast Bronx), at the time (in my child’s memory) a huge irregular building with many back-stairways; I say my first introduction to adult reading (which I chose, not forced on me) were two fat tomes, bound in brown, of two Renaissance queens, Margaret de Navarre and her aunt, Jeanne d’Albret. Why I chose those or how I found them I’ve no clue. Since my teen years I’ve been aware that I have a favorite kind: literary biography. I’m convinced that as with ghost stories, certain kinds of gothics (female), and epistolary novels, women write the finest versions of this genre, though men who can write an equivalent of l’ecriture-femme can produce gems too. I even love biographies of biographers: like Caroline Moorehead on Iris Origo (of Val d’Orcia, An Italian War Diary, 1943-44).

The last few months I’ve been especially alert to the form as I have not given up my new life’s goal to write a literary biography of Winston Graham (of the Poldark matter and Cornwall) and turned an offer to include a paper by me on the subject of Johnson and Woolf as paired modernists into a study of their biographical art.

And two weeks ago I chanced upon the equivalent of E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel: Andre Maurois’s Aspects of Biography. Maurois makes an attempt to understand his chosen genre’s prevalent characteristics in the modern kind too. Modern biography, he says, is a conscious work of partly imaginative (that is to say, fictional) art, a courageous search for truth in which the biographer realizes highly complex personalities; the most fruiful subjects are of people who have struggled, endured failure, but achieved something. I’m going to look at biography from the different aspects Maurois identified.

First, biography as a work of art: its concern for truth requires documents, but to express a personality requires art. How to do this?

You must choose an angle on the life: he calls this your true subject, and you find the hidden unity of that life through this angle of vision. Johnson may have said the most obscure seemingly reactive, passive life may teach us something important but the truth is you need something to present beyond daily non-events, and it’s best to have an individual who plays some part, no matter how seemingly varied, on some aspects of the world’s stage in a more or less unified performance. Doing the same kinds of things over and over for the same deeply held motives. At the same time all moral preoccupation in the work of art kills the work of art, so the angle should not be moralistic.

Surprisingly perhaps, he finds the chronological method avoids dryness. All of us are artifically made (not just women); that day a great novelist was not born, a baby was. We are not unchangeable. Yet as we change slowly, most of the time imperceptibly, a good biography traces the spiritual and emotional development of someone as history impinges on him or her. You must make us see and feel the person physically. Boswell’s strength is his ceaseless gusto for every particular and entertaining simple style, but while he (I think) presents a distorted emphasis, he has understood enough authentically of his enormous cache of detail, with person who was fecund, varied, interesting so reading the book, we feel the more of this the better. The diary of the brilliant mind, a sketch in words of the person by a close perceptive friend or family member, is invaluable here. Boswell has Johnson’s letters and he (in effect) kept a diary for Johnson every time he met him and was able to find others who had written down or remembered what Johnson said too. There is this obstacle: how much truth do people write in diaries? how representative is what you write down of your life? How much do they understand of themselves. In Johnson’s case he lacked a secular non-judgemental framework. In many other cases, is the product of a writer posing to himself or anticipated others.

Biography considered as a science.

The thoughtful among the public often regard the chief character of a novel as a mirror of the author (no matter how disordered) — especially in non-formulaic fiction. So there is evidence the biographer can use. Also lyric poetry and psychologically revealing plays. A group of characters surrounding and commenting on this center provide a considerable expository base. Of more demonstrable equal value are memoirs of contemporaries who knew the subject — even if the writer is dim (as Margaret Oliphant said of Jane Austen’s nephew in his invaluable Memoir of My Aunt Jane). Letters are the lifeblood of a biography from this standpoint but there people are performing too. No person is understandable apart from her historical time. You must study the era, the geography and way of life where the subject lived, its history. So biography becomes the story of an evolution of a soul against a background of history, with help from contemporaries who knew him or her. That’s as close to objectivity as you’re going to get (thinks Maurois)

Biography as a mean of expression. The biographer chooses a subject which gives her the opportunity to express what is in her very keenly. Beneath the objective surface there should lie that vivid emotion, which gives a book an intensity a burning passion.

Biography will not come alive if you write it coldly or distantly. The biographer is seeking an opportunity for displaying some aspect of him or herself. This is all indirect: by quite an indirect means and through the medium of characters very far removed in circumstances from the biographer, the biographer attains to self-expression. Yet in novels and fictionalized (skeptic, modern) biography, the writers’ characters do not have to have been real or lived as people, just very believable in context. We should ask, whatever the indirect means, what were the secret springs in the biographer which are at the bottom of this desire to write someone’s biography? For Maurois writing of Shelley it was a deliverance for himself to write the life of Shelley. (For me what compels me are an attitude of mind I identify with in the first half of Graham’s Memoir, find acted out in a core group of characters in Graham’s first seven Poldark books, and the escape from my contemporary world is an intense relief.) In sum, biography is an expression of character when the author has chosen his subject in order to respond to a secret need in his own nature. Then it’s autobiography disguised as biography.

The appealing tone (Maurois suggests) derives from how the biographer regards his or her hero or heroine as greater than him or herself — or more important for some reason. Johnson finds it of riveting importance to show that the supremely gifted person can end up having done nothing most people would admire or value and in tragic misery when dying. Woolf is looking at a man as an artist of great integrity, who will not compromise his art, and was (she thinks) crucially influential anyway. The modern biographer recognizes he or she can never uncover the whole of their character’s innermost springs confront the mysteries of real people; Maurois thinks the biographer finds his or her way through a one alive persov by dwelling on one aspect of that person and sometimes fleeting, a limited and yet suggestive expansive aspect. Guilt at running the risk of spoiling the reputation, the considered presence of how the person is remembered, worry at offending and attack doesn’t stop the biographer from writing the life up as accuately as allowed in print. I don’t know quite what Maurois meant when he wrote something to the effect the biographer thinks he can refashion a thought then in the image of our own today.


Anthony Trollope, artful albumen print photo by Julia Margaret Cameron (1864)

He turns to autobiography as a sub-species of life-writing. Do you know the truth about yourself; your invisible center? Several causes make autobiography to some extent false and inaccurate. In a nutshell, we forget.

It’s here he first quotes Anthony Trollope’s utterance as a key: Trollope doubts truthtful autobiography is possible. Who would tell the meannesses he or she had done or thought. Trollope tells us he remembers so much from his boyhood — what produced that violent impression has the power to continue to make us tremble, himself to burn with passionate humiliation. He controls that seismic power. It’s a truism if we live through war we remember more as children. We don’t forget the shock at what we have seen.

To make up for blank space before say ages 7 to 9, most autobiographies of childhood are to some extent fabrications because what we have to fill in is what we remember and that is partly from what our parents told us. The confused feelings and associations of such our first crucial years are lost in obscurity and the unremembered past — yet here is this complex individual (Trollope) emerging around this shock. Johnson (and others) urge people to preserve written testimony before what happened is lost –- a fairly detailed record alone can bring ourselves before us, and the diary is its basis. Trollope relies on these memories burning into his mind still.

What else do we forget? The subject forgets her dreams, yet much of our hours are spent in forms of dreams. The biographer and autobiographer omit or forget in order to make a work of art – so much of life has to left out. “The cult of the hero is as old as mankind,” but we must struggle against it (says Maurois). At any rate we (helplessly sometimes) censor the disagreeable too. People feel a deep sense of shame at petty and other humiliations they have endured (Trollope is able to tell of these), at their bodies, very few can tell truth about sexual life: immediately too one response from many readers may be unacknowledged voyeurism. How painful to think that what you are writing is fodder for someone’s silent ridicule or disdain.

We also rationalize after the fact and finds reasons for what often occurred by chance. Maurois feels (and like Mrs Proudie, I agree with him), that there is no system to life, no pattern for real, no meaning, and we act out of private personal needs and to other people nearest us. The order we experience is from our need to sleep, to eat, to defecate; the institutions society says we must go to; our need to earn a living or share one from someone somehow. We also want to protect those around us. The underlying design here too must be the development of mind, that is your pattern, and that Trollope succeeds in: a portrait of how this novelist came to be and the nature of his novelistic art, a book which is a diptych.

Maurois may have seem to have left out much but he is speaking of modern biography:


A modern biography …


EBB’s life from the point of view of her dog, of her maid, Elizabeth Wilson (said to be Margaret Forster’s finest book, except I’d say for her biographies of the females in her working class family.)

Maurois does not talk of early biography (the way Forster does not talk of the earliest pre-novels before the later 17th century in Europe), not before Johnson and Boswell by which time biography had become in individual instances a portrait of an individual life, and then through these two men’s books (and the fiction of the era) consciously texts aimed at developing the sympathetic imagination of the reader who then can enter in (Rambler 60 and Idler 84),

Maurois mentions but does not regard as “true biography,” commemorative, pious, family, the zealous many volume documentary, which at its best aimed only at a consciously semi-censored “truth to life,” and is found in Gaskell, Oliphant, Froude’s Carlyle where (according to Virginia Woolf in Flush) a dog is said to have jumped out of a window or off the roof in response to the killing nature of the Carlyles’ marriage.

Maurois is contemporary with Woolf’s essay on modern or “The New Biography,” where she says what the new biography does is convey personality deeply, and she includes the semi-fictional sketches of Some People by Harold Nicholson as modern biographies. Later she changed her mind in “The Art of the Biography,” and conceded the foundation of biography must be fact, evidence and its means verisimilitude. And her last biography is her Roger Fry:

Facts are the problem, she says. By the time she gets to the end of either essay she’s made a case that the central use of facts can limit the biography. The existence of documents (facts) for Queen Victoria can make writing her biography so much more satisfying and near to great art. But how powerful and intense Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex, that Strachey got in the “stranger bodies’ of the Elizabethans through strange (unconventional sexuality) imagining.

And at the close Maurois admits the genre has so many limitations and obstacles one might say it is impossible to pull off except you admit it’s fiction ,,,,

Ellen