Remedios Varos (1908-63), Luna
Here is my third report of a session at the recent East Central 18th Century conference in Bethlehem. I’ve summarized Devoney Looser’s lecture on Burney’s Memoirs of Dr Burney, and a session on four little known 18th century gothic texts, and a session on the treatment of Catholicism in literature and politics (Burke’s Ireland and France). For tonight I have two excellent papers and a lively candid discussion afterwards to report in a session where all chairs were taken (and it was not a small room with few chairs) but where all but one person were women. Apparently a topic with “mom” in the title scared away all but the most courageous of men. Three papers were listed, but only two were given.
First up was Laura Engels’s “Phantasmic Performances: Gothic Maternity in Mary Robinson’s Life of Mrs Robinson Written by Herself (1801). Ms Engels began by saying that Robinson had an early marriage, was an actress, novelist, poetess, and had a number of affairs after her liaison with the Prince of Wales, but she kept that single brief incident alive as her dominant experience for 20 years. In the era, motherhood was seen as irretrievably connected to the body, but was a legitimate role in the era; and Wollstonecraft and Siddons present themselves as private and domestic to counterbalance their socially iconoclastic experiences. Robinson, though did not present herself as a mother to counterbalance the other parts of her life, but rather simply to present herself as a mother briefly. Otherwise she foregrounded her seductive qualities and obscured her real body. [We can see this in portraits of her by Joshua Reynolds (where she is elusive and sexual) and Thomas Gainsborough, where she does seem to be spectrally sitting in a wood by a dog.]
Her depictions of mothering women show them vulnerable, powerless, hurting, in trouble. There was her mother whose husband (and Mary’s father) left her mother after 9 years of marriage to travel to America; he returned and took up a mistress and continued to dominate her mother and herself anyway. There was her teacher and mentor in boarding school, Maribel Lorrington (?) who she saw years later as a beggar in a torn dress, penniless, disfigured, the ghost of herself. She also saw destitution, aging, derangement in fiction connected to aging women and mothers, which made her not want to be a victim of her passions and desires. Still, to self-fashion herself as a mother in public felt impossible. During the time she was married and expecting her daughter, she presents herself as continually sewing clothes for her child, and kept out of public life. Her husband (to whom her Mrs Bennet-like mother married her off) was a gambler, had other women and she ended in debtor’s prison with him for a while. Yet at the same time she invokes her mother as the most important person in her life, and forced to leave her mother she at first feels powerless. She was eventually forced to survive on her own, and heavily pregnant, and breast-feeding her baby, she went on the stage to act. There is guilt over whether she can act and be a good mother at the same time. She was herself a strong woman who played many roles, had — as we can see in this depiction and her poetry — her own identity and views.
George Dance, Mary Darby Robinson (1793)
Ms Engels wondered if this presentation of herself was a bid for sympathy, and/or she was exhibiting herself, was making herself into an image offered up for voyeurism (desire on the part of a spectator) or acting “in your face.” After this short representation of her earlier adult life, her daughter finished her memoir and in effect Robinson becomes a kind of ghost. She gradually disappeared from public view in her life. We owe what we have of her works to her daughter, Mary Elizabeth Robinson, and like her own mother, she became the central influence of her daughter’s life.
Laura did mention that by contrast in the Victorian period mothers (nursing and otherwise) were shown as strong angels.
J. D. Watson (the illustrator), “The Aspen”, in Good Words, a 1863 issue
Marilyn Francis then spoke from her paper, “When Will These Discoveries End:” Gothic Motherhood in Radcliffe’s The Italian. Ms Francis began by saying that The Italian ends soon after Ellena discovers her great friend and mentor, Olivia, is her mother. She quoted a critics who argued that absent motherhood in the female gothic allows the text to become a kind of bildingsroman; while the mother is waiting to be found and rescued by the child (often the mother is incarcerated and must be set free), the child’s story unfolds. The child’s story ends when the mother is revealed. Some scholars go so far as to say that mothers just have no story; the absence of a mother makes a story possible.
Ms Francis countered this with the self-evident truth that real mothers did and do have stories before, during, and after their lives with children, and in The Italian we have four active maternal figures in the novel. Bianca is Ellena’s chaperone who dies early in the novel; she protected Ellena and encouraged her relationship with Vivaldi. She tried to tell Ellena her background and that her mother was alive. The Marchesa di Vivaldi (the hero’s mother) tries to have Ellena kidnapped, put permanently in a convent, and is in collusion with the evil monk, Schedoni who is said to be Ellena’s uncle [but as I recall turns out to be her father so his desire for her and attempt at sexual coercion/rape at one point is incestuous]. The Marchesa thinks her son way above Ellena, and says of herself she “loses the mother” when she acts decisively (usually to be vicious). Only mothers who deviate from passivity and goodness get to have stories? In the novel Vivaldi never learns how complicit in evil his mother was and sorrows for her. The abbess is a third figure who Olivia defies to help her daughter.
Olivia is hiddenly a figure as major in the novel as Schedoni. She tries to teach Olivia how to have a mask, how to appear not to fight and yet fight. Olivia’s own story is kept opaque and untraceable and she relinquishes her daughter as soon as she is unmasked. We are to feel Olivia will be haunted by the memory of her daughter and loss of her daughter for the rest of her life.
Ms Francis suggested this paradigm was typical of more than gothic stories. Repeatedly in fiction mothers leave only traces of their stories behind, whch are waiting to be discovered but never are. Could it be that children don’t want to know, that the reality of women’s emotions and lives are erased because it’s too threatening to the society’s structure so the conventional narrative insists on giving us a child’s (unacknowledged) perspective?
Remedios Varos, A Paradise of Cats
The discussion afterwards was marvellous and wide-ranging. We (many people in the room, including me) kept it up for the rest of the time. Alas, I find I didn’t (or couldn’t because of my problems with hand-eye coordination and slowness) take much down. Scattered comments I got were the remark that in modern novels the mother’s story is deferred until near the end and then embedded in an inset story (say like Byatt’s Possession where Christabel LaMotte’s story is told in flashbacks or through a packet of letters). There is great distress in a child even when grown-up when the mother is discovered to have broken taboos and/or given the child up (I instanced Daniel Deronda’s mother Vashti). We discussed how women collude in the silencing of their presences; they keep quiet to protect others (society will attack them in any case). It was suggested that reticence has been enforced over private real lives until recently and that little is gained for those who speak or those who know by telling — except release. Things don’t change for the better for women. Revealingly, pregnancy endows women with authority and strength (a kind of substitute for a phallus) so perhaps pregnancy is erased because a patriarchy will not allow women to appear stronger than men. Through pregnancy she does transcend (by creating life).
We talked of how actresses present a chaste image where it seems they are not married and have no children when no such thing; Emma Thompson is one who presents herself nowadays as a spinster or unmarried independent woman when she has two children and has long been married to Greg Wise; in the 18th century actresses similarly invented narratives which made their lives closer to the conventional heroine images they embodied. The conversation slide into discussing women politicians and the intense hostility to strong public women like Hilary Clinton. People also talked of their own experiences as mothers and daughters.
Finally, we seem to have returned to 18th century icons, and discussed Marie Antoinette who Robinson wrote a poem to and sympathized much with as did many other women of the era (see my blog “how little we can know of her”); she had a story of her own all right and tried to model a mother role too, and was savagely punished for it. But today too women are drawn to her, to the stories of her and her women (as in Adieu a la Reine by Chantal Thomas)
From Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006)
Kirsten Dunst as the young girl
The revolution approaches and she dons a more somber (darker colored) outfit
I end on a Swiftian poem by Mary Robinson, written perhaps as she looked out the window, no longer able to walk
PAVEMENT slipp’ry, people sneezing,
Lords in ermine, beggars freezing;
Titled gluttons dainties carving,
Genius in a garret starving.
Lofty mansions, warm and spacious;
Courtiers clinging and voracious;
Misers scarce the wretched heeding;
Gallant soldiers fighting, bleeding.
Wives who laugh at passive spouses;
Theatres, and meeting-houses;
Balls, where simp’ring misses languish;
Hospitals, and groans of anguish.
Arts and sciences bewailing;
Commerce drooping, credit failing;
Placemen mocking subjects loyal;
Separations, weddings royal.
Authors who can’t earn a dinner;
Many a subtle rogue a winner;
Fugitives for shelter seeking;
Misers hoarding, tradesmen breaking.
Taste and talents quite deserted;
All the laws of truth perverted;
Arrogance o’er merit soaring;
Merit silently deploring.
Ladies gambling night and morning;
Fools the works of genius scorning;
Ancient dames for girls mistaken,
Youthful damsels quite forsaken.
Some in luxury delighting;
More in talking than in fighting;
Lovers old, and beaux decrepid;
Lordlings empty and insipid.
Poets, painters, and musicians;
Lawyers, doctors, politicians:
Pamphlets, newspapers, and odes,
Seeking fame by diff’rent roads.
Gallant souls with empty purses;
Gen’rals only fit for nurses;
School-boys, smit with martial spirit,
Taking place of vet’ran merit.
Honest men who can’t get places,
Knaves who shew unblushing faces;
Ruin hasten’d, peace retarded;
Candour spurn’d, and art rewarded.
A smart woman, a poem of the “universal pursuit of the mundane and amoral aggrandizement. She lived hard and died fairly young, badly crippled from rheumatic fever. The Prince was pressured into giving her a pension, and when her last lover with whom she travelled around Europe deserted, she lived her last 8 years with her daughter, supporting them by writing in lodgings. A lonely difficult existence whose solace was her daughter.
And one last gothic image, Leonor Fini’s (1908-97) Red Vision, an archetypal image of a girl child looking up at a protective maternal vision:
There was yet one more session on Friday: “Marriage and the Family in the Eighteenth Century” and that super one I’ll tell about in my next blog on the conference.
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