Archive for January 5th, 2010

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), The Cup of Tea (1879)

Again Cassatt, again her sister, Lydia, this time At the Tapestry Loom (1881) (we went to a wonderful show and lecture on her art at the National Women’s Museum of Art in DC this year)

Dear Readers and friends,

Over on Reveries under the Sign of Austen, meant to be a more personal and musing blog, I’ve written a personal account of how I and my family have experienced Christmas over the last few years, one intended to have some general application too. Here where I intend to write more impersonally and provide essay-like columns, I thought I’d list the books I’ve read this year that meant a lot to me — each set under the listserv community where I was led to read the book or posted about it. So it’s a celebration of listserv community life as well as an indication of what the different online communities do.

On Trollope19thCStudies at Yahoo, there were four:

I had read Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey before, but a long while back and it didn’t mean that much to me somehow. It just struck as more like Austen in tone and outlook than the other Bronte novels I’d read thus far.

This time Agnes Grey just stirred me deeply: AG is far more feminist than
either of her sisters’ books: it’s about a young woman’s attempt to become independent and fulfilled through the only respectable job offered to someone of her class: that of governess. That she fails is the result of her nobility of soul. I loved the acrid angry tone and the candour of the descriptions of social life as seen and experienced by the marginalized governess. She marries at the end: a gentle, aimable man as kind and egalitarian at heart as she; as much a reading person. It’s a quiet joy which she reverts to as a refuge.

Then I read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall for the first time. It’s a masterpiece about so much: the alcoholism so emphasized in the early and recent criticism is but a symptom of what makes Arthur Huntingdon a horror: the point is (like Richardson’s Lovelace) he was educated to become a tyrannical amoral horror, all his worst characteristics developed and his better ones ridiculed or ignored. And so he would make his son another like himself. It’s a novel of female sexual awakening too — and renunciation. The use of journals in the form of letters makes it about the deep past and since these are read by the man Helene Graham grows to love while still married, Gilbert Markham, it becomes his novel too. He is similar to the kind of man who appears at the close of Agnes Grey, only his male ego and pragmaticism and poetry of soul developed much more. I loved the movie adaptation by Nokes and Barron, and then I listened to it read aloud alternatively by David Case (oh a new voice for him I’d not heard before, softly lifting Northern burr) and Donada Peters as Helen.

Tara Fitzgerald and Helen Graham and Toby Stephens as Gilbert Markham

I now think Anne Bronte’s two novels superior to Wuthering Heights and all Charlotte’s novels with the exception of Jane Eyre and Villette.

The third was George Meredith’s Beauchamp’s Career, one of the great political novels of 19th century England — philosophically, realistically, psychologically, autobiographically.

Finally, John Sutherland’s Life of Scott. I won’t read the novels in the somewhat naive way I did before. He put together the man who wrote the journals with the man in the novels.

On Eighteenth Century Worlds at Yahoo, largely due to the enthusiasm of my good friend, Clare, I reread Richardson’s Clarissa not once but twice — I am just finishing it once again. How can this possibly have been a revelation? A transformation. Well, it was. I feel for the first time I’ve begun to read it aright. It’s meant as a portrait of a rapist: Lovelace fits all the characteristics of rapists as gathered by sociologists and others: hatred, desire for revenge, huge egoism (cannot see outside himself), strong turn to violence. The very approval of Lovelace makes visible the substructure of approval for predatory male behavior as attractive that makes the common large percentage of rapes in our society possible — with impunity for the most part. For it is still hard to get a rape case to court where there is no aggravated assault with clear injuries to the woman, she is still on trial. An added-on letter for the 3rd edition shows Lovelace imagining himself with a gang of men raping and humiliating Anna, her mother and servant: Richardson makes the point even here a court case might go in favor of Lovelace.

Clary rushing out to meet the amiable Hickman: all unreserve and generosity — I imagine Davies could do justice to this character in a rewrite of the film

Along with the book I’ve read many film studies and studied a number of films adapted from novels heavily influenced by Richardson’s (Les Liaisons Dangereuses, La Religieuse, Valmont, La Vieille Maistresse) and films adapted from 18th century history to look at how sexuality is presented today, how history presented in these films. Modern films too: Lynn Ramsey’s Morvern Callar with Samantha Morton. Also feminist and sociological studies of rape and sexuality, most recently Michelle Fine, “Sexuality, Schooling, and Adolescent Females: The Missing Discourse of Desire,” Harvard Educational Review, 58:1 (1988):29-53. One book by Nancy Paxton (on colonialist books and rape and female sexuality) led me to reading and gathering colonialist novels and listening to novels (e.g., all of Raj Quartet) where female sexuality and rape are among the many significant central topics.

Paradise Road, adapted from Betty Jeffreys’ diaries of captured women in Japan

It’s been fun and deeply educational and I’m not finished yet.

And I must not forget reading Katherine Jones’s A Passionate Sisterhood: Women of the Wordsworth Circle; a complete decent edition of Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun’s invigorating intelligent travel memoir of her life as an artist; Francoise Changernagor’s L’Allee du Roi, a deeply felt memoir-novel of the life of Francoise Maintenon (with the meditative 12th chapter); and Caroline Moorehead’s life of Lucie Dillon de la Tour du Pin, Dancing to the Precipice.. L’Allee du Roi I had read years ago, but it was like new to me; Moorehead on Mrs Delatour (a joke name) added a rich new set of memoirs and letters for me to delve eventually. I fell in love with Southey reading Jones’s book! And the poet, Sara Coleridge. Had it not been for people on the list, I would not have discovered the English translation of Vigee-Lebrun’s book on the Net is abridged, bowlderized, a shallow wholly inadequate version of this 2 volume set of meditations, character sketches, ruminations on a career and woman’s professional life.

Vigee-LeBrun’s watercolor pastel of Mont Blanc (found by Judy)

These experiences were also due largely to two new members, Penny and Catherine whose blog Versailles and more is on my blog roll.

For Women Writer through the Ages at Yahoo, the year began with Iris Origo’s The Last Attachment: The Story of Byron and Teresa Guiccioli, which I found so enlightening and irresistible I went on to her immortal (I think) diary of her experience of World War 2 in Northern Italy, War in Val d’Orcia, and Caroline Moorehead’s biography of her, Images and Shadows. I learned about a whole new Byron I had not met before — and I’ve read a good deal of his poetry, letters and biography, the Byron of his last years in Italy, the revolutionary, the man who was good husband material after all. Teresa has not been done justice to until now.

This was the year we stopped having formal elections on WWTTA, and it’s hard to remember all the books therefor. This was the year I read Ingeborg Bachmann’s poetry and her novel, Marina, but much as I was moved, I think last year’s summer reading of Christina Wolf’s startlingly original and deeply humane meditation on war as well as travel, Cassandra meant more to me. (Both choices and finds, thanks to Fran, for my knowledge of German letters is woefully inadequate.) Having said that, there are few texts that come near this (a translation of) Bachmann:

Every Day

War is no longer declared,
only continued. The monstrous
has become everyday. The hero
stays away from battle. The weak
have gone to the front.
The uniform of the day is patience,
its medal the pitiful star of hope above the heart.

The medal is awarded
when nothing more happens,
when the artillery falls silent,
when the enemy has grown invisible
and the shadow of eternal armament
covers the sky.
It is awarded
for desertion of the flag,
for bravery in the face of friends,
for the betrayal of unworthy secrets
and the disregard
of every command.

For the rest over the course of the year books by women I posted on to the list comforted and strengthened me. The one that most leaps to mind was Margaret Drabble’s Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws. But also (and this personally) important to me were Suzy McKee Charnas’s My Father’s Ghost, and opening up another set of books, Nicola Beauman’s The Other Elizabeth Taylor

Our spring was spent watching women’s films (films by women and about them) and while no one stood out (and I disliked some of the plays) I learned a lot about the subgenre of women’s films: often have women in groups, emphasize women’s friendship, will usually have a lesbian (only recently presented sympathetically), and this fed into my love of Austen films. Yes I discovered Andrew Davies and was won over by him too. Indeed it’s been such a rich year watching films I can’t recall even the half of them but know how much solace and companionship and insight I’ve had — going nearly weekly with Izzy to the movies was part of this.

And I should not omit how much the weekly poetry day and putting pictures up by women frequently have told and uplifted me — for I loved the subgenres women have invented and fulfilled and what’s typical of their art, e.g., they are coloristic.

Nell Blaine (1922-96), Rooftops (1967)

An author who now means a lot to me I began to read this year on the train going to the Washington Area Print Group sessions on Fridays at the Library of Congress: Colm Toibin. I was gripped by his The South, about an Irish woman that flees Ireland for an unconventional existence in Spain, taught his Blackwater Lightship, and am now so moved by his Brooklyn (which I’m reading right now) I’m having trouble finishing it.

I finished it early this morning. It’s force is grimly powerful, and I’ve been trying to think why. I have read his The South (about a woman who escapes her family to go live in Spain and finds herself embedded eventually in another family group), Blackwater Lightship (about deep alienation within a family), and The Master, Henry James as a gay man, an outsider. After a while the books all do spin around the same concerns, and for me at least are gripping. I find I can’t put them down easily each time I start one up again. I get intensely emotionally involved.

For Booklyn I found I had to peek ahead to the last pages to make sure our heroine does what will eventually lead to some happiness for her, I was so anxious for her. I found I had to have enormous strength to get through so much did I worry for her because she seemed to be this good person, self-sacrificing and could be bullied into giving up what could make her life joyful. But then when I came to the end of the book I saw I had been mistaken. In fact she might have liked to stay in Ireland and not return to Brooklyn, that is, stay with her birth family group instead of the new one she had become a part of it. So right now I’m thinking the force of the book comes from this grim insight: what we think keeps people together is not their intangible feelings, but order itself, and their value for one another comes out of how chance has put someone near someone that fits his or her needs. And either you belong to the order or you don’t.

Now that’s the thing: sometimes you don’t and the reasons for this have little to do with your merit.

It casts a new curious light on life. Come to think of it, I really began to read him as a result of a reading and discussion of two fictional biographies of Henry James: most the 19thCentury Literature at Yahoo read David Lodges’s, which I thought poor and coarse; but Toibin is again stunning as James by virtue of his homosexuality is someone who is not wanted in the order unless he erases who he is, and so he spends his life in exile, unable to become part of any permanent order; the title, The Master, is ironic. Just about every essay I’ve come across by Toibin engages me (I read them in the NYRB and LRB). He loves to write as a woman in drag. Alas, that Sedgwick did not live to write about his books.

A. L. Coburn, Frontispiece for Henry James’s Ambassadors, vol 22 of the New York Edition of Novels and Tales (1922)

The above is a photograph touched up to suggest something of the nature of the novel’s perspective: displaced, quiet, alienated yet there and part of it, ambivalent to cultural prestige (a similar angle is seen in Andrew Davies’s He Knew He Was Right; Davies’s adaptation of Hollinghurst’s gay novel, The Line of Beauty, lays bare the truth in The Master, Brooklyn). Coburn did a number of these frontispieces which were something new and, as photographs, give us insight into period

I have tried to join in on Janeites, Austen-l, and French Literature at Yahoo, but haven’t had the energy. We had a beautiful Austen summer on Women Writers and are enjoying cross-postings on James Edward Austen-Leigh’s memoir of Jane and James Austen, her brother’s poems from Austen-l. For French Literature at Yahoo I really wanted to read with them A Very Long Engagement by Sebastian Japrisot (because I loved the film adaptation, Un long dimanche de fiancailles), but I haven’t been able to make the time.

And finally from teaching: my students led me to reread carefully and appreciate Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake for the first time; I just fell in love with Mira Nair’s film of the same name (a still from this film is now my picture across wordpress) and Mississippi Marsala.

How about you, gentle readers? any book or movie or picture or music you want to list as having meant a great deal to you this year. A new favorite? What say you?


Read Full Post »