Archive for February, 2010

Gwendolen Harleth (Romola Garai) at the roulette wheel (2002 Daniel Deronda)

J. W. North (1841-1924), “The Home Pond” (1860s illustration to Round of Days, magazine carrying novels like, say, Oliphant’s)

Dear friends and readers,

Here I am for the last of 4 blogs on this past post-Christmas MLA at Philadelphia. As I promised, it’s a miscellany: summary accounts of a paper on Margaret Oliphant, and sessions on George Eliot, Simone de Beauvoir (with a description of the new translation of La Deuxieme Sexe), and Margaret Atwood.

I end on dining in central Philadelphia, and the nights spent in our hotel room watching Andrew Davies’s Little Dorrit on my laptop wrapped up in a blanket.

Monday noon, I attended the panel on “Writing Race and Scotland” and listened to Elsie Browning Michie read a paper called “Scotland, England, and India: Margaret Oliphant’s Kirsteen (published 1890). I’ve read Kirsteen, having acquired it in a Kessinger Publishing Reprint, and what I remember most about it is how Kirsteen was so independent minded, didn’t want to marry at all, and ended going to London to support her family (left back in Scotland) and makes a life for herself as a successful indeed fashionable seamstress-businesswoman.

Perhaps this recent Virago cover for another Oliphant heroine will do to evoke something of the way this novel was then and is now regarded

Prof Michie wanted to set the novel (as apparently so many do nowadays in Victorian studies) in a context of a larger empire. So she began with reminding us that Kirsteen’s lover had gone to India where he died. While there are echoes of Walter Scott (Jenny Deans goes to London in Midlothian to save her family). The novel is set earlier in the century and undercuts the idea there is a hard fast difference between the prseent economic and older chivalric worlds. The lands surrounding Waterloo, Scotland itself and London are all commercial arenas where money and power are on offer to those who can seize them. Brutality in these three is linked to brutality in the colonies, all backed up by military violence, but commerce is what individually saves and helps creates the identities of the characters in the novel.

7:15 Monday night I made it to a panel entitled “Alterity [oh dear] in George Eliot’s Ethics of Sympathy.” In “Foul-Weather Friends” … Empathy in Adam Bede and Middlemarch, Rebecca Mitchel demonstrated that a failure of empathy and communication is what we find in both novels. Victorian beliefs in norms of sympathy are shown not to go far at all. Proximity does not assure any awareness nor recognition. Dorothea collapses versions of herself into others; Dinah cannot see that Hetty tells the truth when Hetty says “I cannot feel anything like you.” Hetty’s insistence on her otherness and Lydgate’s recognition of this are the bedrock of these novels’ greatness.

Douglas Hodge as Lydgate registering discomfort (1994 Middlemarch)

Tina Young Choi’s “Probable Feelings” began with the rattle of the roulette wheel in Daniel Deronda.

2001 Daniel Deronda

Prof Choi showed how chance determines what’s to come in Daniel Deronda; it’s a novel where the accidental makes the major happenings: Gwendoleth’s poverty, Daniel saving Mirah and through her meeting Mordecai, Grandcourt’s death. Eliot multiplies daily encounters, ambiguities, and breaks the providential even if the latter ending of the book is insistent on the prophetic.

That is all I managed to take notes on from the session and don’t remember what was said post-papers, but would like to record how enjoyable the whole session was, how the talk afterwards was rich somehow. That I’m not dreaming this is confirmed by an email Ms Choi sent me afterwards, thanking me for coming and joining in so enthusiastically.

What do we go to conferences for? Why I do record them? A hunger for being with our own tribe for real: for me to find myself among those who care about books, who spend their lives on art and research. While these mass parties have their careerists, the graduate students and people seeking tenure, others jobs, there are many people who come year after year well after they have made a successful career (or not). The poignant drawing in ever hoping for that authentic moment in these over-structured formal presentations leaves you connected though you may know no names in the room.

I don’t usually mention the names of those people I look forward to meeting once again at these conferences, but this means a lot to me as well as new acquaintances I make. But this happened again. That it does shows how people want to get together.


Simone de Beauvoir in 1949

Tuesday at 1:45 I was at the Simone de Beauvoir panel. There was one good paper by Bansari Mitri where she outlined the enthusiastic reception of La Deuxieme Sexe, a few of its basic premises (women’s lives are spent in immanence), and showed how its depiction of how women are treated and cri for justice is not at all obsolete.

I bring up this panel to say that the two other presentations and showing of few people were tellingly bad. The first paper was by a woman who analyzed a work by Arthur Miller (not a woman the last time I looked), which she said exemplified a central idea in Beauvoir: that we must live up to our social responsibility and live in solidarity with those around us. I was relieved when the question time came and several women said this thinking was precisely the kind of thing Beauvoir showed imprisoned women in sacrifice, and I asked what a male playwright who wrote masculinist socialistic dramas had to do with Beauvoir and women.

The second paper, by the chair, was made up of meandering assertions about her personal reactions to Beauvoir’s fictions presented without any principled argument. The idea seemed to be these reactions must be feminist as she’s a woman. Online feminist forums ceaselessly show women backtracking, trying to bring male writers into list meant for women writers (you don’t see the opposite), become embroiled in quarrels because the personal is taken as an (unexamined often) principle and some women define feminism as what any particular woman wants. There were no men and indeed few people in the audience and the talk quickly became abruptly argumentative.

The sad state of feminism is also seen in the recent translation of La Deuxieme Sexe. An article in the most recent issue of London Review of Books by Toril Moi tells us this latest one is a great disappointment. The older or original translation by a philosophy professor from the mid-west Pashley was abridged and has now been replaced by an unabridged text translated by two women teachers of English who have lived in France for many years.

Moi says this new English text is very disappointing. The new tanslators are a pair of English teachers in Paris (since 1960s), Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier; their translations hitherto are two essays for catalogues. Basically they produced a bad crib: it’s the sort of text which is literally often right, but awkward, hard to read, translationese; further they make errors in the French, get words which have the wrong connotation and when it comes to any philosophical points make such a hash it seems they didn’t understand Beauvoir’s points.

By contrast, Pashley produced a lively, an alive, a readable text. He did love the original but did not get help from Beauvoir and the publisher pressured him to cut, and he did cut the more philosophical-physiological or radical thought passages, just those which are centrally about sexuality. He is sometimes inaccurate but he is very good at getting the right English words in general for the French even though his area is not French but philosophy

Moi says that Pashley did love the original but did not get help from Beauvoir and the publisher pressured him to cut, and he did cut the more philosophical-physiological or radical thought passages, just those which are centrally about sexuality. He is sometimes inaccurate but he is very good at getting the right English words in general for the French even though his area is not French but philosophy. The new tanslators are a pair of English teachers in Paris (since 1960s), Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier; their translations hitherto are two essays for catalogues. Basically they produced a bad crib: it’s the sort of text which is literally often right, but awkward, hard to read, translationese; further they make errors in the French, get words which have the wrong connotation and when it comes to any philosophical points make such a hash it seems they didn’t understand Beauvoir’s points

Borde and Malovany-Chevalier did not produce an abridged text and for someone like me it would be a convenient dictionary — all the words looked up for me as I go along. Apparently the two women got the job because the director of foreign rights at Gallimard is their ex-student. This is so typical of what passes for translation, and that the people who get to do it are those who know the right people and it fits in their career plans. The great shame is probably Beauvoir will now have less and less readers if this new translation replaces Pashley’s for English readers.

A critical study

While at the MLA I saw copies for over $40 of the new translation of Beauvoir’s Le Deuxieme Sexe. On the last day when I came to buy books (prices drop precipitiously) I found none were left. I have a two volume copy of the original French text, uncut and unabridged and have read in it and sometimes great swatches. But it’s eaiser and much swifter for me to read it in English and the first copy I read straight through in the mid-1970s was Pashley.

And so the world rolls along; merit, ability mean nothing — Moi mentions four highly competent good translators of French text who would have been glad to be the translator of such a famous broad-selling book. Probably the translators in this case got a decent sum.

The last session I attended before we left to pick up lunch in a nearby huge outdoor covered market (where we ate each day) and go to wait for our train home — was on Margaret Atwood’s latest science fiction novel, The Year of the Flood. There were six panelists, all intensely adoring lovers of Atwood who all seemed to know one another very well. They kept to 10 minutes a piece.

I put into one summary what they all said: The Year of the Flood is a sequel to Oryx and Crake. it’s apocalyptic, with a speech by Adam at the close, predicting the end of our world because we have ruined our environment. Male insecurity is at the core of very bad male behavior; they are victimizers, sexual predators. Women experience searing heart-break; Irsula Le Guin has talked of how we experience the events of the book through powerless women. Much of the story is violent and cruel. The book laments much that is good in human beings is ground down or out by crazy hate-filled competitive deceivers. The novel nonetheless exhorts the reader to forgive to find or create inner peace; the novel is dedicated to St Julians, who advocated peace, forgiveness.

Margaret Atwood, Eden Mills Writers Festival, 2008

Desperate times, desperate measures. This is a speculative fiction meant to speak to us. Can we do anything to improve our lives, save our planet. Jeannette Winterson writes about speculative fiction that it models futures for us. There is a porn collector, a gardener who shows us to share work, respect one another, and raise vegetables; so too a digital technologist: cellphones and digital technologies serve the cause of liberation. It’s also an eco-feminist novel which uses the archetype of the cleansing flood; and a dystopian satire where we see corporate men living lives of high luxury. There are fairy tales and folk remedies (as the best cure for what ails you).

I didn’t stay for the talk afterwards. I can’t get myself to read science fiction as I’ve little patience for moralizing allegory; but I do love Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, Alias Grace (realistic women’s novels), her literary study of Canadian Literature (it’s rooted in survival and a hard landscape), and her poetry cycle, The Journals of Susannah Moodie, and her essays.

*Variation on the Word Sleep*

by Margaret Atwood

I would like to watch you sleeping,
which may not happen.
I would like to watch you,
sleeping. I would like to sleep
with you, to enter
your sleep as its smooth dark wave
slides over my head

and walk with you through that lucent
wavering forest of bluegreen leaves
with its watery sun & three moons
towards the cave where you must descend,
towards your worst fear

I would like to give you the silver
branch, the small white flower, the one
word that will protect you
from the grief at the center
of your dream, from the grief
at the center. I would like to follow
you up the long stairway
again & become
the boat that would row you back
carefully, a flame
in two cupped hands
to where your body lies
beside me, and you enter
it as easily as breathing in

I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
& that necessary.

While Philadelphia is not in as desperate a condition as Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (where Jim and I attended the EC/ASECS conference), the center of the city has only few good restaurants. Many stores are discount types, and once you leave the main streets, you find empty ones gone out of business. The first night we were so tired, the wind was felt mortal and raw and we ducked into an Irish pub. It was pleasant, with plain edible Irish food and a healthy variety of drinks. Soon it was filled with locals, lots of single people in their 20s, pairs, groups, and we relaxed and talked.

The second and third nights we fought the even colder air and found two of the recommended places and while I don’t remember what we ate, I do remember both meals were scrumptious, the wine flowed, and while both places were very crowded,with more and more tables brought out and sometimes lone people squeezed in here and there, the noise level allowed us to talk and hear one another and be comfortable. This time the crowd was older, some families and what looked like out-of-towners and people from the MLA conference like ourselves. Lighting is important and in all three places it was soft; none had a TV going.

All around the streets we saw homeless people. We had intended to try to get to the museum, but the weather and street life were demoralizing. So at night we came back to our hotel where Jim soon fell asleep. I cheered myself intensely with Davies’s Little Dorrit: the good people of the story lifted my spirits, I felt for and with them. I did meet and struck up a conversation with a nice woman scholar around my age while waiting for the train with Jim; she looked like Juliet Stevenson and had apparently just written and published a book on Anne Enright. She was headed for a college in Lynchburg, Virginia. I told myself I would read Enright’s The Gathering and it is sitting on one of my TBR piles even now 🙂

When we were finally in our train on the way home again, I rewatched 2/3s of Little Dorrit on the train home once again, relieved to be fully absorbed.

Claire Foy and Matthew Macfayden as hero and heroine


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Aida Begic’s Snow

Filming Chabrol’s Les Biches [Bad Girls] in Paris

Dear Friends and readers,

For my third entry about the MLA meeting at Philadelphia just after Christmas this year, I’ll report on two film studies and two translation sessions. Both of these arts are injured by the persistent accusation they are secondary, inferior to originally written texts. I’ve been studying films for a few years now, and for about 15 years translated poetry.

I went to “Paris on the Periphery in Literature and Film” (Tues, 10:15-11:30 am) for the sake of the place named: the admiral, I and Izzy spent a magical time in Paris one Christmas, and at least a good time the following summer for a week, and there’s nothing potentially better (I prefer to think) than a film set in Paris. Izzy and I saw an intelligent Paris with Juliet Binoche just this fall (2008). The underlying theme was the irony of how Paris is an obsession as an (upper class) image while this is denied by keeping it at the periphery.

Maggie Finn’s paper was on Julien Duvivier’s still remembered and popular 1936 La Belle Equipe. It’s the story of 5 working class male friends who win a lottery together and pool the money to rebuild a ruined house. Three men leave the collective before it’s done: one goes to Canada, one is expelled from France, one falls off the roof. The remaining two becomes rivals for the same woman.

Male bonding (yes that’s Jean Gabin)

The construction story was not meant to be political, but rather about a community which forms through an act of territorial reconstruction. The film was immediately interpreted allegorically as leftist, a popular front film. Two endings were filmed; a vote was held, and the happy ending won. The collective ending could equally be fascist though, and the women are secondary creatures, and presented as having no knowledge of life outside their local France countryside. If we look at the story more closely though, we see that Duvivier wants us to see the untenable fractures within the group. What’s loved is the depiction of working class leisure activities, Sundays in the country, montages of appealing individuals. These moments are Utopian.

The second paper, Philip Usher’s “Sex in Saint Tropez: Paris as Periphery in the French film (1956-64),” centered on the mythic use of a fishing village not far from Paris where painters had gone in the 19th century. It became a quiet Utopian winter resort and then morphed into a glamorous summer one. Films privilege as a place where sex is fulfilling.

Chabrol’s Les Biches, which begins and ends in Paris, shows us two women who sexually desire the same man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and one another; ironically Paris becomes a site of escape from St Tropez. This film uses the widespread myth that characterizes lesbians as narcissistic; the sexual tensions are strong:

Stephane Audran and Jacqueline Sassard

One of Brigitte Bardot’s films interweaves images of the island with her, and the island becomes a place associated with the female libido. In some stills she slowly emerges first naked feet and then her body on the sand.

Here she is traveling inbetween

Jean-Paul Belmondo became associated with these. Sous le soleil is the most recent instance of a Paris-St Tropez story.

The last paper, Lia Brozgal’s “The Center Cannot Hold: La banlieu parle cefran,” was about banlieu literature. Banlieu is a term which describes the immigrant suburbs of Paris where unconnected, underprivileged ghetto people live. She spoke of a trio of novels which features people who might as well live thousands of miles from France when it comes to participating in its culture, getting decent jobs or places in school. The author’s success was ironic she said, for how he is part of the Parisian elite. She denied he had had a coherent political message.

The respondent Patrick Bray made sense of this panel: he said he lives in midwest Illinois, a periphery of a periphery and finds that Americans react obsessively to the idea of Paris as an elegant upper class arty place. It’s highly varied, and the old spacial exclusionary places (the heart of the city around the river) has internalized a state of mind about itself. Paris becomes a presence in movies. The banlieu is the place of deprivation (one must see La Haine). If we look at what is filmed, we find that often Paris is shot in studios (made up), and so too can New York City be, but places like St Tropez must be shot self-consciously on location and in summer.

It seemed to me these films swirled about class envies, dreams, and exclusions more than anything else.

At noon on the same Tuesday (12:00-1:15 pm) I attended “Reading Women Directing, Reconceptualizing Women’s Spaces in World Cinema.” The general theme was how in Bosnian, Peruvian, international films by women center on how women have had to cope with the war conditions of counter-revolution in these countries, and especially rape. How they survive by scrounging a living and how they make tenuous friendships to do this. The Indian film differed: it’s about the emotional undergirding of family life.

The first paper, Patricia White’s “Aesthetics and Politics in Transnational Women’s Cinema” argued women directors have to struggle against stereotypes coming from a global Hollywoodization. She dwelt on The Milk of Sorrow by Claudia Llosa who lives in Barcelona. Her film is about mass rapes used by the army as a strategy of war. In her book, Theidon documents a number of testimonies from women who were raped by as many as thirty men at a time, atrocities that often times resulted in pregnancies.

While her aim is to redefine women so they will not be shown just as victims, she does concentrate on how women are abused: an earlier film is the story of a father who inflicts incestuous sex on his daughters. Desperate acts are everywhere: one woman puts potatoes in her vagina to prevent violation. Her mode is expressionistic rather than realistic. National and local identity are central to the lives of her characters. She addresses class conflicts: in one film a white women refuses to pay her servant who sang a folk song for her.

Milk of Sorrow: the woman is working out how not to be mistreated
Magaly Solier and Efrain Solis

Meta Mazaji, “Balkan Women Filmmakers: Marking the Trail in Aida Begic’s Snow.” The Balkan film industry (such as it is) used to be hyper-masculine (only men directors); now they join in world cinema festivals where 40% of the directors at one film festival were women. The problem is success is leading to returning these women to falsifying what the women’s movement is about. Begic is determined to disseminate how women experience war: they were raped as a matter of course during ethnic cleansing in the 1990s. Her movies do soften women’s experience which was devastating.

Prof Mazaj also discussed Jasmila Zbanic’s Grbavica has a heroine who struggles to create a life with a child who was the product of a horrifying rape. Vivid simple images convey her trauma; the words though are evasive, hesitant. She wants to evoke the pressure of situations on women. The story concerns Esma, a single mother, works two jobs while struggling to raise her 13-year-old daughter Sara amid the ruins and wreckage of Sarajevo’s Grbavica neighborhood, an area that functioned as a death camp during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.

Mirjana Karanovic

In these movies women escape to dream landscapes in which the female director constructs a life which reflects female subjectivities. Prof Mazaj also spoke of books which take the reader into this unfamiliar or little know territory of women’s cinema outside the western European and Hollywood-UK ambit, but I could not take down the names.

Expressionist dream scene from Begic’s Snow

The last paper, Srimati Mukherjee’s “The Impossibility of Incestuous Love: Women’s captivity and national liberation in Rituparno Ghosh’s Utsab. A Bengali family returns to their ancestral home; the family had moved away during the war to make money; we see the women reconceptualize themselves. The mother had been complicit in leaving her daughter in the home to bear the burden of family traumas. We see how women are used as a form of gift exchange (a trafficking in women), deprived of an identity. This girl’s husband displays horrible verbal brutality. The home does seduce as a place of comfort; instead we see it’s where she is violated, and where she re-enacts what led her mother astray. Some cousins’ love for one another is rare happy moment in the film, so too the deep love of this woman when a mother for her son. A very moving moment at the close of the film when the women now a mother makes breakfast for her son and has to watch him reluctantly walk away. She has suffered so and her one pleasure is making him breakfast.

Ritupparno Sen Gupta

The repression which takes such strong hold in Bengali family life is symptomatic of national public life. She suggested that incest (emotional more than physical) is a familiar if hidden feudal experience, and that rape functions as a voyeuristic experience. Such films are careful to present this difficult material gently.

This MLA meeting was supposed to have translation as its major topic and there were many sessions about translation. I went to two. Each one had one good paper. I probably make a mistake to go to one with such a general topic, “The Disciplinary Challenges of Transation Studies” (Sunday, 3:30-4:45 pm), but I thought translations of texts in languages I knew nothing about would be full of material I couldn’t appreciate. In the event the papers were too abstract: except for one.

Alisa Steadman’s “Releasing the Remainder: The Politics of Translation” hit sparks when it was realized the editors and publishers she was describing were in the room. Steadman had translated a minor French text, Julie de Murat’s Voyages de Campagne, 1699, a text originally marginalized because it had formalistic features outside of the mainstream. She called it a free-flowing hybrid text which combined classical with salon culture. As Venuti and other translation scholars have said, readers today want a fluid modernized text: you are literallly close enough, but you change grammar and tone, paragraph and syntax to make the sentences flow in the modern way. She had tried to stay close to the text: the term for parts of texts that stays close to marginalized features is “remainder.” She wanted to communicate the spirit of the original. It has been published 5 times in the 18th century.

She found that Bucknell editors didn’t want her text; they said it “lacked literariness.” Eventually it was published. She told her story to show us the difficulties of putting either a close translation or more free one into a respectable book marketplace today. Here you see a discussion of how it has been published in the modern form.. It’s really a delightful rich fairy tale.

It was a little demoralizing to watch Prof Steadman begin to half-apologize for her paper, and say how the press had been right to reject her translation; it was more upsetting to see how the people in the room regarded the kind of thing I’ve done: I put my work on the Net. But then I’m no professor and if I had told myself I needed to publish in a conventional book I would never have done the poems in the first place and I know lots of people have now read and loved them. Prof Steadman might have gone on (I thought the paper was going in this direction) to tell how such a marginalized unusual text can function creatively but she did not.

The thought did strike me that what Andrew Davies does is modernize, turn individual quirky and sometimes “remainder” type texts into something fluid in the filmic world.

The other session I went to should have been a rare eye-opening privilege to me since it was about Italian translations and texts. My two translations are from Italian poets, Vittoria Colonna and Veronica Gambara. It was not because not on translation art as such nor Italian poetics. Nonetheless, there was much of interest.

Irene Zanini-Corda’s paper on Elisabetta Caminer Turra did tell the truth about Turner that Turner’s journalism work is dull by talking of how Turner wrote for money and to make herself a career but this takes us away from the work; similarly Zanini-Corda emphasizes how vicious were the attacks on Luisa Bergalli Gozzi as a way of destroying her husband. We did see how treacherous the world of translation politics can be — as translated texts are often ones wanted for some political moment. Gozzi’s book was dedicated to women and she urged them to read and study, and her literal translation of a feminist text by Madame de Genlis unveiled a French enlightenment woman’s world to her readers.

She was the first woman to gather a large anthology of poetry by women together.

Paola Gambarota’s paper was on Melchiore Cesarotti’s Ossian, a central text for the romanticism of the later 18th century, loved by (among others) Germaine de Stael (an inspiration behind Corinne which Austen valued above Milton). Prof Gambarota said that Cesarotti tried for a balance between an available 18th century Italian and a text which conveyed the nostalgia, melancholy, romance of the imagined Scots identity. By using Italian conventions and figures Cesarotti challenged the idea of a national identity and presented a universal ideal. In his text the ideals of individual liberty are defended.

Casper David Friedrich (1774-1840), Sylphide, a visual manifestation of the romantic spirit the Ossian poems belonged to.

One more blog to come, a sort of miscellany: a paper on Margaret Oliphant from a Scots session, and then brief accounts of sessions on George Eliot, Simone de Beauvoir, and Margaret Atwood; a few remarks on eating in central Philadelphia and the hotels for a few very cold days, and how I watching Andrew Davies’s Little Dorrit on my laptop into the night. And I’ll have done.


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Thomas Holcroft by John Opie

Memoires of Francoise de Motteville, 17th century historian

Dear Friends and readers,

Here is my second blog about panels and papers at this year’s MLA in Philadelphia. Here I stay with long 18th century matters. You will learn about the radical Jacobin writer, Thomas Holcroft, his life, translations, and memoir (as revised by William Hazlitt). More briefly: Johnson’s aesthetic ideals and how he was used in the marketplace, a Bengali rewriting of Defoe’s Crusoe by a woman (and a rape in The Further Adventures of Crusoe where it’s ignored); two French women romancers, Mesdames de Scudery and LaFayette. Then again more detailed the remarkable histories of the Fronde told by Mesdames de la Motteville and Guette, one a kind of Machiavelli, the other a 17th century Lady Brilliana Harley as crossed by the spirit of Christine de Pizan.

First up, perhaps the best session (for me) that I attended this time: a Monday afternoon session (3:30-4:45) on the English Jacobin writer, Thomas Holcroft.

The first paper, by Miriam Wallace, “Translating Culture: Montolieu’s Caroline de Lichtfield and Holcroft’s theories of translation,” thrilled me because she talked at length — at length — about Isabelle de Montolieu’s epistolary novel, Caroline de Lichtfield, for which I have made an e-text edition of the net, together with a biography, bibliography, account of other of Montolieu’s works, and an e-text of a selection of her meditation-walks from her travel book, Les Châteaux Suisses, Anciennes Anecdotes et Chroniques.

Woman on a Balcony (1824), by Carl Gustav Carus (1789-1869)

The son of a shoemaker, wholly self-educated, Holcroft came to London and, as a writer and radical, became a close friend of William Godwin, Tom Paine, Joel Barlowe. To support himself he had worked at a race course, been a prompter for small parts at theaters, and, having taught himself mathematics, French and German, lost himself (as it were) in books, in the 1780s he sought a respectable living as a translator. He translated French texts, among them The Marriage of Figaro (it’s said from memory) and German, and there has been some scholarship on his translations from German.

Prof Wallace then outlined the story of Caroline de Lichtfield, its nature as an epistolary novel of sensibility with a woman-centered point of view (about the education of a young girl). See my Note on the E-text, the novel’s source. Prof Wallace saw elements in the novel which anticipate Holcroft’s 1792 epistolary Anna St Ives.

“Le comte de Walstein retrouve sa soeur Matilde et son ami le baron Lindorf s’aimant enfin”

She then compared the first volume of the translated text with Montolieu’s first volume. Holcroft is much harder on the courtier-father who, and ancien regime values which, coerce Caroline into marrying Walstein, though in both there is a clear judgement against parental tyranny. Holcroft has less idyllic passages. She saw this book as serving transnational purposes in Holcroft’s mind. I’ve argued in a paper and will in my book, The Austen movies, that it was this book which inspired Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. See my note on the contemporary reviews. At this point because of the proliferation of facsimile texts by google, you can buy all 3 volumes Holcroft’s text for around $90.

There was some brief talk after the paper and I asked her if she knew what Holcroft’s translation of Felicite-Stephanie’s Adele et Theodore was like — I own a copy of Genlis’s French text. She had not compared these texts but she did talk about the importance of these women’s texts, and how his translations of them were seen as a sign of his revolutionary sympathies.

Hilary Freezer’s paper, “Thomas Holcroft’s Translation of Male Desire in Anna St Ives,” was of intense interest to me because she articulated for the first time what I have left to be true: the homosocial loving friendship between the suitor-rivals for Caroline’s hand, Walstein and Lindorf is far more intense than the love of either man for Caroline; she then found a parallel for this in first Jacobin Anna St Ives. Frank Henley is working class, sone of a gardener, and becomes close to the predatory rake, Coke Clifton; in this depiction Holcroft comes closer to delving real male sexuality intimately inwardly and candidly in an earnest way than anyone else in the era. For example, Frank becomes impotent before Clifton. As in Caroline de Lichtfield, both men are competing for one woman, and the passages Prof Fezzey quoted reminded me of the French novel.

Clifton and Frank debate idealistic morality, and Clifton calls Frank visionary (naive). Clifton says “I was born to rule, not to be ruled.” There is much sexual tension between them: one says of the other: “I could kiss him one moment and kill him the next. Tellingly, Coke slaps Frank after seeing Frank come out of Anna’s room. Frank does win the contest for Anna’s love, partly because he’s feminized. An Irish character is called black, boisterous, is presented as the “other” and it’s he who abducts Anna and almost rapes her. Coke plans the crime, but does not act.

Holcroft also means to redefine what is a gentleman, and this is an egalitarian ideal which includes sensibility traits. Consciously, though, Prof Fezzey said, the novel does include surprisingly conservative or establishment views. Holcroft’s concept of manliness excludes drinking, gambling (as in life he had seen how destructive these can be). His hero, Frank, is against sexual promiscuity, for balance, benevolence. He hesitates to court Anna not because he’s of a lower class, but because he wants to keep his passion under control. Holcroft saw the Gordon riots as the result of people losing control over their baser passions, as an unparalleled daring outrage which led to desolation and destruction. Holcroft does not seem to blame catholicism here either: for example, Clifton is the one who pursues Anna; yet it’s he and not Frank who criticizes the murky climate (so to speak) of Catholicism. Holcroft’s most basic instincts were for moderation; he presented a heteronormative story for Anna and Frank; concludes with a bourgeois marriage story.

A 1792 painting: Mademoiselle Rosalie Duthé by H. P. Danloux

Arnold Markley’s excellent paper was on Holcroft’s memoir of his life, which exists nowadays only in the revised and censored form Hazlitt made it into under Godwin’s orders: Holcroft, Thomas and William Hazlitt (1852). Memoirs of the Late Thomas Holcroft: Written by Himself; and Continued to the Time of His Death. Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans. Holcroft had dictated these memoirs, and had gotten up to Chapter 17 and his seventeenth year when he died. Holcroft wished to show how his specific experiences of a childhood of abject poverty led him to become a strong reformist. Hazlitt was hired to finish it because Hazlitt knew Holcroft and was felt to sympathize strongly with Holcroft’s ideals. The money they made was to help Holcroft’s widow.

William Hazlitt, a Self Portrait

Hazlitt supplemented the 17 chapters with letters, interviews of Holcroft’s friends and passages from Holcroft’s books. He finished the new book in 1810, but, having been castigated for his truthful memoir of Mary Wollstonecraft, Godwin insisted in alterations which were expurgations. Hazlitt remained committed and tried to do his best. He sought interviews with people who turned him down, including Wordsworth and Coleridge.

What can we tell about Holcroft from this memoir that has come down to us? Holcroft passionately wanted to tell the pure truth of this life, to show how he had ovecome difficulties by endurance and developing (not stifling or ignoring) his hidden talents, even if they did not seem to be remunerative to others at first. He shows how an adult emerges from a child. Specifics include how he taught himself math, acted in pantomimes, and taught himself not to be gulled (cheated, deluded). He wants to teach the reader never to gamble. Somehow he had taught himself how to care and trains race horses at the new market races where he saw such cheating, gambling. He was passionately against capital punishment: we see this came from his experiences his tramping of roads with his parents where they would sell tiny things; he saw the turmoil of such a life, the “singular wretchedness.” At age 15 he saw a man hanged and never forgot it; it was “intolerable” to him to look at the gloating mob.

How great the irony that this moderate man who worked so hard to improve himself was accused of treason in 1794 and for a while was waiting to be hung. What must he have thought and dreamed while this coming punishment was about to be inflicted on him. He and the others with him were reprieved; he was one of those released as not guilty; others were transported. But afterwards for a long while Holcroft was shunned, felt himself the target of venal manipulation and ugly tongues and left England. Hazlitt offers a length treatment of this trial. The whole experience was a particularly painful stigma for Holcroft to have to endure.

Hazlitt’s book includes accounts of Holcroft’s novels and plays which mirror Holcroft’s life and political goals. An early comedy, Duplicity, is on gambling; soo The Road to Ruin. A later novel (Hugh Trevor, 1797-8?) shows with horror the ugliness of a gambling life. We have a social climbing hero who is expelled from school for cheating; it’s a kind of map and dictionary of common vicious behaviors, cant language, showing criminals stealing big sums. Holcroft criticized capital punishment nonetheless, for it was meted out for tiny thefts too. He insisted people can be rehabilitated, and can be turned into useful members of society. Holcroft’s memoir, a major effort by a dying man, was his last effort to reach people with his exemplary life story and belief in the power of virtue.

There were not many people in the audience and the papers had been long; we had some comments right after each paper and then, alas, it was time to stop.

Unfortunately, my hands seem not to have been firm for two of the other three sessions, and my notes are too poor for me to do more than summarize the papers briefly except when it came to the Bengali Crusoe by a woman writer and the material on women historians. For the latter I was helped by my own knowledge of the era and woman historians so could get down more.

Earlier on Monday (10:15-11:30 am) I heard three superb papers on Samuel Johnson, part of the ongoing celebration of his three hundredth birthday (he was born in 1709). Molly O’Hagan talked about Johnson’s involvement in the production of the Lives of the Poets from the point of view of conflicts and struggles between Scots and British publishers over control of the texts of poets; Johnson’s name wanted for respectability. The publishers had only wanted the briefest introductions; in the event Johnson produced gems of biography that became a separate great work in its own right. She read a letter by Johnson where he eloquently defended the author’s ownership of his text.

Samuel Johnson intensely reading by Joshua Reynolds

Carrie Shanafelt showed how Johnson was critical of strong demands for realism and personal egoism in imaginative work. Thus Johnson praises Thomson’s visions in his Seasons and the beauty of ideals as well as detachment in Addison’s work: both understand the limited nature of an individual’s observations; the writer must move beyond the solitary nature of judgement (writing and reading too) to the outside world, avoid isolation. He wanted realism to be tempered by having ideals shape what is created; amoral fiction destroys out hope for bettering ourselves. Johnson attempted to maintain hope in literature as a guide, support, and expansion of experience.

Nicolas Poussin, Winter; or, The Flood

I have to admit that Sara Landreth’s “How Doctor Johnson broke the laws of motion,” went over my head. The admiral was with me; in case you don’t know, gentle reader, Jim is ABD in math and had many courses in physics, and he said the paper was superb, better than any of three he heard in a session on 18th century science.

The talk afterwards was lively and led us into Defoe. Somehow Defoe’s Moll Flanders came up as work intendedly realistic where there is no sense of consistent shaping ideal, and someone said how students enjoyed it from an unconscious or unexamined cynical perspective. I wondered how cynical they were since both 1996 Moll Flanders movies show the film-makers shaping the story to promote a moral outlook consonant with our own time: Pen Densham makes her into a poignantly good mother and anti-racist as his version of ideal feminism; Davies turns her story into a parable of survival in a hard capitalist world. The talk then turned to films — which people usually enjoy talking of. Not that Johnson was forgotten altogether 🙂

The third 18th century session I attended devoted to an individual was on Daniel Defoe (Wednesday, 10:15-11:30, shortly before we left to return home). The papers attempted a new perspective on Defoe’s work caught up in the title: the Global Defoe. Jeongoh Kim discussed how Defoe’s works are filled with the power networks, information and commodities of human geography in his era. Rivka Swenson discussed The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe; she suggested that Defoe was writing to promote the union of Scotland and England but his texts shows how communities are becoming refragmented despite all efforts to join them nationalistically.

Moll (Alex Kingston) and her third husband, her brother as it turns out (Tom Ward) sail to the US (1996 Moll Flanders)

Christopher Loar dwelt on the importance of technology and violence in the same book: an island is discovered by colonizers; the two different groups want control, and a massacre ensues. Crusoe dreams of a neutral space where trade and improved lives can take place; it is quickly shattered when someone kidnaps a woman, and a group of people seek revenge, a rampage using guns erupt so a free peaceful place becomes a murder zone. Loar dwelt solely on the nature of the warfare.

At the end of the session when I asked him about the woman, who she was, why did it matter so much, was she raped, was she returned to her original tribe or did she stay with the new group, he appeared startled at the questions. He had not thought about this central event which began the barbarism. At first he made a slight joke, well, it seemed someone had “taken liberties” with her, but he changed his tone partly because of the next and last paper and partly because it was obvious he had omitted a significant part of the event and suffering.

Consider, gentle reader, the massacre is begun when “a woman” is “kidnapped” or raped. Neither speaker Knew for sure what had happened. I asked if she survived. Neither had noted that detail.

Women’s experience in the Global Defoe was represented by Rashmi Bhatnager’s paper on “Heroines in the Bengali Muslim Robinsonade in Colonial India, 1908.” Robinsonades refers to a multitude (really) of rewritings, elaborations, free translations and adaptations of Robinson Crusoe since it first was published. Isabelle de Montolieu did one of the free translations: Journal d’un père de famille naufragé dans une île déserte avec ses enfants.

The novel Prof Bhatnagar discussed is Englished as The Sultana’s Dream (translated by Barnita Bagihi, a 2005 Penguin paperback). It’s a story of a girl’s rebellion against a coerced marriage. A non-European woman is imitating Crusoe’s rebellion against his father, and she gains a sense of power by imagining herself a castaway on an island. The heroine’s brother teaches her English when her father is asleep. Language, the vernacular Bengali becomes a place and way for one to fight one’s predestined fate. Urdu was identified with Islam and oppression. In the book the heroine does marry an enlightened husband and becomes Begum Rocaca; her husband encourages her to go to the library as an act of liberation; he and her brother support her against her father.

It was the public libraries with English books (some in translation, some not) set up in Bengal in the 1840s which allowed this, a sphere of freedom for the reader to formulate an identity for herself by reading and translating. In these places there was a readable translation of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. These readers also enjoyed Victorian melodramas which when translated into Bengali with memories of Defoe’s book plus Defoe-like Robinsonades took on Indian values too. A new amalgam emerges. Defoe’s book is thus opening new worlds and ideas and freedoms.

Such a book presents the condition of Indian womanhood indirectly. We are in a female imaginary which escapes the narrowing of Purdah society. The heroine is exhilarated and awkward as she walks the streets and public space. Often, though, these dreams have not a single man on the street too. Still this is a place or text where female subjectivity can be expressed, a kind of Utopia where women are not secluded.

I asked if the book dealt with the fear of rape. She said yes, the heroine is nearly raped. I wondered why she had not brought that up herself as women are secluded precisely to prevent them from having sexual experience their families can use for themselves. I never got a chance to ask as the session ended.

Again Moll (Kingston) stirred deeply as she looks out at sea and imagines the adventure before her

The last 18th century session I went to brought me back to multiple writers, two of whom were women historians of the Fronde. This area is of particular interest to me since I’ve read so much about the English civil war, and especially books by English women, memoirs, letters, biographies, poetry, recording their experience of what happened — and 20th century studies of this literature too. It was called Histories/Histoires (held on Tuesday, 3:30-4:45 pm).

The first paper was Helene Billis’s on Corneille. She saw Corneille as engaging in the real politics of the day through the themes and characters of his idealized tragedies where he supported the absolute state as the only way to stave off war and have grandeur (experience beauty?) in life.

Emily Kugler also discussed romance and historiography in the work of Mesdames Scudery and Marie-Madeleine LaFayette. She spoke of a similar movement froma God-centered history to one concerned with human motivation. She said stylization, character development and plot-design shaped the partly romances they wrote so when they wanted to include history and signficant themes the problem was how to weave history in.

Prof Kugler then quoted a funny passage from Charlotte Lennox’s Female Quixote. Lennox had made money by translating French letters and publishing editions of Madame de Maintenon (among others). We see our heroine is having a hard time distinguishing romance from reality because she is viewing the world through Scudery romance eyes.

She then quoted Devoney Looser’s book on history in England in the 18th century, a book I haven’t been able to see as about history since it’s mostly about novels. A new definition of history and respect for the subjective approach of memoirs, the fragmented nature of letters and autobiographies, as well as travel books has to come in before any new understanding can be achieved. Since Prof Kugler too did not seem to have thought about considering a non-fiction text as history which male chroniclers, and objective historians since don’t think of as history, she really couldn’t get say much that was new beyond see how romance and historical memory mix.

I have read parts of Clelia (in a 17th century English translation), La Calprenede’s Cassandra, which purports to tell the private lives of post-Republic classic heroines and heroines; also read several times and taught the masterpiece novel, La Princesse de Cleves twice. I read Zayde once and remember thinking of how beautiful and still it was; a distillation in little of the enormous books of Scudery. All these books are women’s novels, very different from Lafayette’s history of Charles II’s sister, Henrietta, and Scudery’s letters, or say Lucy Hutchinson, Anna Halkett or Catherine Macaulay.

I did enjoy listening to Kugler quote some passages from these books aloud in French with an English translation (provided by her). The famous map of tender love by Scudery (above) and the quietly erotic cover of the recent edition of Zayde epitomize the tone of these romances she concentrated on.

Mihoko Suzuki discussed the memoirs of Mesdames de Francois de Motteville and Catherine de Meurdrac de la Guette. Her paper was lucid, well thought-out, informative, in short excellent. She began by telling us that these two memoirs are ambitious books with events told from the subjective point of view so often taken by women; they are consulted by historians and read today.

Like Lady Brilliana Harley, Guette was a provincial wife and mother protecting her property. She supported Mazarin and the Regent and involved herself successfully in negotiating on behalf of peasants as a mediatrix, and she presents herself as having a gift for negotiation between opposing parties. Her credibility derives from her distance from the court and knowledge of local conditions and nobility, her grandfather having been a nobleman of the robe. She does exaggerate her mother’s education.

In Catherine de Meurdrac de Guette’s work we find extreme violence; she remembers scenes of rapine, solders breaking down and destroying all before them, pillaging. She experienced hunger herself and as someone who had to cope with the results of the violence afterwards. She does try to mitigate the inferences one might draw from such scenes but she is resolute against any praise of them. Like Brilliana Harley, she copes with a seige; in her case, she persuades a Duke and his army not to attack her land and people. She is of course the heroine of the piece (she tells us she read widely — and she apparently did as this book shows it), but the overall result is an exposure and critique of the violence of the era.

Francoise de Motteville was a woman in the court itself, and her memoirs may be read something in the spirit of Madame Campan’s on Marie Antoinette. Motteville is witty, satiric, fills her book with aphorisms. Her purpose is to explain and justify the private motives of powerful people in public dispassionately; she assesses Richelieu, deconstructs state-level rhetoric. She shows he was working for himself, not the public good at all. She was Anne of Austria’s confidant, but when her judgement is not in accord with the queen, she criticizes her. She displays real independence of thought.

She also renders character sketches with credibility, men and women both, and uses the interpolated tale in the manner of Marie-Madeleine de Lafayette as a way of ironically commenting on her major story and characters. In her book women as centrally causes of what happens as men. She insists on the truth of what she has written. She retrieves for us what happened behind the public scenes, outside the documents, thus explicating enigmatic pamphlets.

Prof Suzuki suggested that Motteville is the closest historian of the French 17th century to Machiavelli in his Discourses. Guette is a 17th century Christine de Pizan in her gravity, morality, and woman-centered perspective.

I asked if she thought any particular woman beyond Brilliana Harley was analogous to Motteville or Guette. She felt perhaps Lucy Hutchinson was an historian equal to Motteville but her tone and outlook were so different that the books can’t be compared fruitfully. She thought we needed to move to the 18th century (say Catherine Macauley and Mary Wollstonecraft) to find equivalent broad and sceptical views like those we find in Motteville.

A 19th century illustration for Alexandre Dumas’s romancing of these women historians (Le collier de la reine): the illustator has imagined the intelligent woman being appealed to by a subordinate court male; notice the powerful body she’s given

My friends, I relearned a lot by transcribing out these notes tonight.


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Angela Japhet (born 1962, Nigerian artist), Instrument of the Act (watercolor, a razor)

Helena Bonham Carter and Olivia Williams as heroines in The Heart of Me, film adaptation of Rosamund Lehmann’s masterpiece The Echoing Grove, (1953)

Dear friends and readers,

It’s been way over a month since the Admiral and I attended the after-Christmas MLA conference in Philadelphia, and if I don’t type up some of my notes soon, by mid-March I’ll have two sets of sten notebooks from the ASECS conference at Albuquerque where I am to give my paper, “Rape in Clarissa.” I had been trying to finish a set of blog-reviews on Andrew Davies’s films first, and now think I’ll hold off on his 1997 Vanity Fair, and instead write a thumbnail sketch of what I’ve done so far on Reveries under the Sign of Austen since after all my interest in Davies began because of his Austen movies.

So this evening I begin a new series of reports on a conference, this time the MLA one. As I did for the EC/ASECS this fall, I will keep the reports shorter, and only report on those papers I enjoyed and feel had strong merit. This means four blogs on the sessions. It was very cold while we were there and while we went to three decent restaurants (an Irish bar was one), they were close to the hotel, nothing out of the ordinary so nothing to report on.

For tonight I report on two Sunday sessions, Girlhood and Nationhood (5:15 – 6:30 pm), and the other The Death of the Heart (7:00 – 8:15 pm), named after Elizabeth Bowen’s novel and about fiction in Britain after WW1.

The chairperson of the Girlhood and Nationhood panel opened with a truism about how girlhood and adolescence as it is really experienced by females has been often been ignored by feminist and other groups. The focus is on early and mid-childhood, partly because it’s easier to talk publicly about these areas and schools of psychology which look upon the earlier period as so pivotal, and partly because when seeking power this younger period of girls’ lives seems to be a pre-awareness past, one hard to get it since at this age girls are strongly coopted by their cultures and (paradox this) little truth has been told so far. Few novels which tell any serious truth. Particularly what is avoided is how a girl is turned into a woman; what is done to her, how she really reacts except in a few sociological studies (noble exceptions are Mary Piper’s Reviving Ophelia, Naomi Wolff’s Promiscuities) In memoirs the realities are elided over (again exceptions come to mind, e.g., Anne Frank’s diary). I found this eliding, ignoring to be true in a recent memoir I read: Susha Guppy’s Memoirs of a Persian Childhood. Guppy managed not to write about her intimate life from ages 9 to 17 and then the book stopped.

The three papers were excellent.

The first paper was by Jane Dougherty, “This Girl is Not a Girl: The X Case and the Limits of Irish Female Subjectivity.” Ms Dougherty concentrated on the case of a girl who had been raped whose reaction did not fit pre-existing agendas of anyone. It was much discussed and led to women’s right to have an abortion in Ireland if the her life was at risk from the pregnancy, and risks included the possibility she’d commit suicide. The name of the girl is still not known. In 1983 an amendment or law had been passed which provided equal rights for women, leaving strict regulations against abortion. The media constructed images of the girl as an innocent, virginal child, and the girl was said not to want an abortion. Her identity was never revealed. She was never presented in a way that validated what might have been her feelings or thoughts; the statutory rape law says what the girl feels is invalid. While her paper concentrated on European women, she showed an analogous erasure of girlhood as well as a lack of concern for what the adolescent girl might want or need that is found in women’s African texts and lives.

Nuala O’Faolain (1940-2008), Irish writer/journalist who fought for womens’ rights

Tobe Levin’s paper was the ironically titled: “Female Genital Mutilation Transforms Girls into Women.” Ms Levin said she didn’t want to utter words, but rather shrieks. A huge (scary) percentage of African muslim women have this barbarity inflicted on them. She cited many legislatures which ignore what continues to happen. The alleged respect for culture is a cover-up: the respect ceases when moneyed groups are thwarted. Books written about it are not translated into English (a hegemonic language).

She described the detail of this excruciating procedure which insists on gratutitious suffering — they cut with razors and rough needles; hot sand is poured into the gash; dry dung waste applied; tying; lice; no washing allowed. A girl has no rights in societies which inflict this on them, either to her body, not to any joy; they are often married off very early to pre-chosen man as sexual object. The wedding night is often a rape, a criminal act. She cited texts where women write of falling into a coma, hating themselves, blocking emotion by becoming ferocious within. Others become intensely timid; the norm of modesty and a demand they have a chaperon is used to keep them from seeking real help from doctors. Doctors themselves can be insensitive, brusque, not want to involve themselves in real care of these women.

She was particularly upset by nationalist feminists who seek to silence the truth as they insist this defames their culture and puts them and it in a bad light. (This made me recall lines by Forster in A Passage to India where he talks of the many evils that come from nationalism.) She gave out a booklet, Through the Eyes of Nigerian Artists, from which the above depiction of one of the cruel weapons used to inflict FGM on women comes, as also the next:

Helen Idehen (Nigerian artist), The Unfulfilled

The third paper, “Tough Girls: Dancing in the Dust” by Denise Handlarski was about how during apartheid in South Africa since girlhood was defined as between recognized states, girls were pushing into being politically active locally and never recognized for their efforts nor protected. We see them in Dancing in the Dust by Kagiso Legeso Molope as looking to get outside of South Africa; while there they live in female-centered networks, which include (unacknowledged) lesbians.

Everyone is regarded as heterosexual at the same time as girls are not supposed to desire anything sexually. What we find in books by or about these young women challenges the idea femininity is seen as weak since they were burdened with important tasks, at the same time as they are erased afterwards.

Molope’s book is a coming-of-age memoir-novel where girls are highly vulnerable “accidental activists.”

The discussion afterwards was passionate and unusually informative. It did turn on the importance of paying attention to girlhood. This maiming for life is usually done when the girl is 7. They are inculcated into an emotional attachment to those who do this to them. A few African countries have made only limited progress. The repressed rage goes down deep. They are forbidden to speak of anything by their mothers, and trauma is not reached. I told of the young woman in her 30s who was a nurse when in my class; she wrote a paper for a class I taught, and how she feared her daughters could be kidnapped and taken back to Sierra Leone and have this terrible thing done to them, and how she and I put her paper on my site. Other people told of how shame and impotence shapes the lives of these women later on when they have escaped. Again a counterproductive backlash of African scholars resentful at the depiction of the nation they are born in was described as another obstacle to change.

There was not much explicit talk about abortion rights, though apparently obstacles are put in a woman’s way; people discussed how much (or little) effect on women’s rights in Ireland a woman Irish president had had. Also arms manufacturers who make huge sums of money from colonialist wars in Africa, the corrupt regimes which run the countries, and how small boys as well as girls are exploited and (in effect) thrown away.


Harold Pinter’s film adaptation of Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day (1949), starring Michael Gambon, Patricia Hodge, Michael York

The chairperson of the Death of the Heart opened the session by explaining the papers would be about the uses of emotionality in mid-century novels by women. The session was useful and enlightening because so many of the novels had similarly themes, were similarly misunderstood or mischaracterized by critics until recently, were by women I had not heard of until a couple of years ago on WWTTA we began to read books about them and the books themselves (e.g., Our Spoons Came from Woolworth’s by Barbara Comyns). A definition of them as “intermodern” was proposed, one which could fit many another women’s novel which has been marginalized or seen as second rate (not “great” the way say Graham Greene’s novels are described).

Stevie Smith’s autobiographical novel, The Holiday (1949)

Kate Flint’s paper, “Telling It to Strangers: Anger, Evasion and Form in Postwar Feminist Fiction” dealt with novels which confront domestic entrapment fiercely. She showed the picture of more or less contented women one sees in Ruth Adams’s A Woman’s Place is contradicted utterly in novels by women from before WW1. In particular the short story or short fiction lent itself to telling incidents of rebellion and disruption without having to openly deal with the consequences of explosions. The novels depict a world of grey ordinariness, a form of stultification. The women live in large houses, with servants, but strive for autonomy. She cited many names — those I am familiar with from Nicole Beauman’s study of mid-century novelists, A Very Great Profession, but I was unable to take any down beyond Minnie’s Room (a collection of short stories) and One Fine Day (a novel set in the countryside) by Mollie Panter-Downs. As with Alison Light’s reading of novels in Forever England, Flint contended the usual way of talking about Panter-Downs’s fiction and describing it mischaracterizes the experience and misreads it as complacent.

I enjoyed this talk — and admit I was startled to see she has a posh British accent, is a high tenured type (Chair) now at Rutgers (pay much better); she has written well on and edited novels by Trollope and often taken a feminist and egalitarian point of view, reading them as subversive critical books. Somehow I did not think she would be upper class British, the sort of people who can afford the high prices of the Trollope Society, and within that group many read him as conservative, endorsing them, their privileges, their lifestyles.

Interpreter cover illustration for Bowen’s Death of the Heart

Patricia Laurence’s “Capturing Emptiness: Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen” concentrated on the two writers’ masterpieces, The Death of the Heart and The Years. (I love them both.) Laurence suggested that The Death of the Heart captures the emptiness, the devastation of the era; The Heat of the Day is a book haunted by time and sordid treacheries. Woolf had said she wanted to break the traditions of novel art, and Bowen imitates Woolf: private lives are subsumed by war; the wall between living and dead thins out, the streets seem filled with the already dead, sleeplessness, fatigure, a vivid recreation of what it’s like to live where you are continually bombed and day by day watch other die and wonder when you will. It’s a book about things once unnameable (women who have affairs with men while their husbands are fighting elsewhere is made natural).

Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in the film, The Hours, an unsympathetic rewrite of Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway

In Woolf’s The Years, time is a healing presence; the alienated self finds comfort in memories of a life no longer lived, a past gone. Laurence did not talk of Mrs Dalloway, but some of the images of the three heroines from Michael Cunningham’s novel seem to me to make visible memories and associations people might have of Woolf’s desperate characters in their nonetheless upper class privileged environments.

Meryl Streep as Clarissa Vaughn

It was Kristin B. Bluemel who came up with the term “intermodern” and defined this kind of novel as feminine (men write them too, though much less) and filled with grief and loss, an unbearable misery at the same time as they invite wacky laughter. She began by concentrating on Stevie Smith’s autobiographical, The Holiday (1949)

Glenda Jackson as Stevie Smith in the movie adaptation, Stevie (1978)

Smith implicates history as a sequence of griefs and loss; the style of this and Barbara Comyns’s Our Spoons came from Woolworth’s is dry and restrained on the surface, but a kind of horror, terror, desolation story lurking just below.

Laurence covered Olivia Manning’s School for Love (1951). It resists binaries and also the kind of austere T.S. Eliot metaphysical interpretation many men’s novels can be fitted into. Manning presents an ideology which resists modernism, challenges it. Intermodernism also suggests a group of aesthetic qualities, highly literary, subjective (thus Lehmann belongs here, Elizabeth Taylor), and sometimes filled with quiet ironies and self-deprecating wit (so Patricia Duncker’s Miss Weeton and Cherif belongs here too). Mostly she insisted on how much we weep when we read these books. She urged us to embrace our real and valid emotions.

I love this sort of book myself and was cheered enormously to see it so frankly described and praised with high comic enthusiasm.

Marilyn Zeiber took a different tactic: while her subject was a woman novelist, Muriel Spark, whose novels belonged to this group (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Loitering with Intent, The Driver’s Seat, also outright gothics), she was determined to place them with men’s much-respected books, like Nabokov or Joyce. She too, though, said her subject was misread and misunderstood. Spark is deliciously chilly, uses the light touch to present a radically different perspective on what makes life worth while; she loves to shock with horror special affects. To find herself she had to exile from Scotland and her books present a world that is hollow or without obvious meaning in the center. Writerliness is her aim (as also Nabokov and Joyce).

She discussed The Driver’s Seat as a terrifying novel using traffic to show the absurdities of life. Apparently at the end the heroine wants to be raped and murdered and is; the novel shows a response to experience made up of humiliation, despair and anger, wild laughter too. A mordant book.

There was little time for discussion afterwards but there were so many people in the large room listening and some seemed as excited and interested as I felt so very quickly interesting comments were made. Does this new sort of fiction invent a new art of lamenting? some people once again can’t stand to have to identify themselves with victims in books, the powerless. Are mockery and ridicule together with crying an appropriate response or are there paralyzed visions? One should not apologize for these books. Since a number of these particular books and the type book they all represent are among my favorite subgenres I’m in no danger of that. And so on and so forth.

Julianne Moore as Laura Brown (the name is iconic) who gives up home, husband, and son, to become a librarian in Cunningham’s The Hours (and is much blamed for it): reading away


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Ann Stanford, photograph on back of above book

Dear friends and readers,

What an adventure I’ve had this week: in my local physical place and then on Wompo in cyberspace.

On Thursday this past week (before the world turned into unpassable hills and meadows of snow and thick thick ice), I had the stunning good luck to come upon a new great poet — yet whose work or at least name has been long familiar to me without my realizing this: Ann Stanford. Now I have another voice to add to my favorite women poets: Fleur Adcock, Anne Stevenson, Stevie Smith, Adrienne Rich, Marge Piercy, Judith Wright.

We had stumbled upon the kind of bookstore I was beginning to assume doesn’t exist anymore (see below) and in a “poetry” (!) section came across Holding our Own: The Selected Poems of Ann Stanford, edd. Maxine Scate and David Trinidad. I was attracted to the title (as in “holding out”) and began to read …

As I usually at least begin a book by reading the introduction, this poem quoted in Scates’s introduction was the first that riveted me — with its living things under our cement world growing on and up still, hitting against the now walled-down existence they must endure. From The Descent, 1960, ought to be (and for all I know) famous:

Done With

My house is torn down —
Plaster sifting, the pillars broken,
Beams jagged, the wall crushed by the bulldozer.
The whole roof has fallen
On the hall and the kitchen
The bedrooms, the parlor.

They are trampling the garden –
My mother’s lilac, my father’s grapevine,
The freesias, the jonquils, the grasses.
Hot asphalt goes down
Over the torn stems, and hardens.

What will they do in springtime
Those bulbs and stems groping upward
That drown in earth under the paving,
Thick with sap, pale in the dark
As they try the unrolling of green.

May they double themselves
Pushing together up to the sunlight,
May they break through the seal stretched above them
Open and flower and cry we are living.

Jane Fruilicher (born 1924), Casement Windows (1974)

Her poetry is visionary. From An American Gallery:

To Her Spirit at Winter Solstice

Now the year ends darkly.
The sun drifts in the south.
Will it ever return?

And you force me in the cold to gather red berries
Up early in mist, breaking the branches —
The musky smell of the toyon —
Will this be enough?

Look down, spirit, from your height of fire,
Look from the skiff crossing the black river.
Call back the sun that lingers.

Shall I bring only remembering
Who cannot bring flowers? for the cold
Grows deep and dark where you linger.

And the ship of fire goes farther
Toward some chill cape of waves and darkness.
Hold fast in the rough riding.

o blown spirit, do not draw me
To those chill tides
Where I too cast my offerings
In darkness.

John Everett Millias (1829-96), Blow, blow, thou winter wind … (1890s)

She puts women at the center as often as men. The next is from The women of Perseus:


I am terrified
marooned on a rock with a gale
freshening and the waves already
spatter me with spindrift.

What could my father be thinking of!
Listening to a two-faced oracle,
chaining me like a dog in this gnashing water.
It is low tide now – high tide will be the end of me.

I will either drown struggling against water
or be caught here by the monster from the sea
the claws searing me along the bone
the teeth quick cutting through flesh and nerve.

It is grim being a sacrifice.
The garlands, the watching crowds, cannot make me heroic.
My legs tremble and fire streaks across my brain
the roots of my hair are daggers.

If this were a story there would be a hero
to swim through the impossible waves, a sword at his belt.
He would cast off my chains, kill the monster,
take me
out of this country mad with fear and riddles.

But all I am sure of is the explosion of waves,
my mother crying from the shore, the seething
of a large invisible bird circling the rock,
and the head of the monster coming up over the horizon.

Nell Blaine (1922-96), Two Trees, Mykonoes

This last shows her strong impulse to make splendid landscapes from memories of landscape gardens in her reading

The Fountain

You must remember never to offend the gods
by being too sure of anything.
Think of Niobe, how she grew in pride
watching her seven tall sons and seven fair daughters.

Who would not? Having created such
superb heads set on the pure column
of the neck, the long hair glistening in the sun
and their voices musical as water

in a bright stream rippling over rocks —
­the archer, the runner, the studious,
the orator, the weaver, the gatherer of garlands,
one with his horse, another at the lyre.

Wherever she looked she saw the gold
limbs of her children, strong
in the sun, their laughter
beyond the sounds of the strings, even the chords

Orpheus struck before he lost his bride
before he disobeyed the charge of Hades
and looked back into the dark
where Arachne in a still corner wove

over and over the stories of the gods
and their offenses, how Hades caught
Persephone, and Leto’s son
killed one by one the children of Niobe.

She has a three part poem which is the closest I’ve ever seen to Anthony Hecht’s supreme masterpiece, Venetian Vespers: Stanford’s Dreaming the Garden. It is an ironic recreation of Virgil’s Georgics,on memories of literary figures, landscapes redolent of 18th century ruins, the sort of thing film adaptations of high status novels with great houses in the center play with. Only she uses these to do more than weave beauty; rather to create a space in which to breathe.

View of the Temple of the Sybil, Tivoli Louis Ducros (Swiss, Moudon, 1748-1810, Lausanne) and Romanized Italian, Giovanni Volpato (Italian, Angarano di Bassano, 1740-1803, Rome).

Formalism is the poetry of the eighteenth century and some of my favorite male poets too (along with Hecht, William Empson, Alexander Pope).


I described my lovely afternoon finding this book of poems and then reading it on two of my lists beyond Wompo — where I had no reply. The bookstore I found this volume in (see above) is located in the upper part of Old Town Alexandria nor far from my house (about 20 minutes walk). The town is a kind of semi-preserved later 18th century/Edwardian town which is kept that way for tourism and because enough decent people have been on the city council (democratic-liberal) for a couple of decades and zoned to prevent hideous architecture (the brutal style or tall inhuman buildings &c&c)

Shades of Jane Jacobs: the top of Old Town is still cheap for rent — there are parking lots selling used cars dotted in. Small shops. Among these we found the kind of bookstore which can introduce you to good books and authors. Sections set up according to type of subject, and books within them in alphabetical order! Sections were labelled history or literature or theater or psychology. I found 8 Trollope novels in a row under literature! Granted 6 were a set of Pallisers, paperback brown from the Oxford so they came in all at once. But also a beautiful edition of Barchester Towers. Trollope said that book would live if any of us did. It must be the only store in all Virginia to show that many; most nowadays have none.

And then I did get a response on Wompo; indeed several. It seems that Stanford is still a sufficiently remembered presence in Calfornia, to be fiercely spoken up for. I was led to brief wikipedia stub, an analysis of one of Stanford’s poems and a review essay.

My first response to the first two paragraphs of this review was that terms for this opposition were a stalking horse for preferring poetry which reeks of macho maleness. How many women are in this new anthology they talk of I wonder? Take the central terms “raw” versus cooked. Big he-men tearing at the hunted down deer with their spears. No thank you. I’ll take my good cooked and on the table by women any time.

Leah Schwartz, her Mill Valley Kitchen (probably 1970s)

I also could see it’s a dislike of formalism, of rhyme and meter which Annie Finch has identified in a couple of her essays as something women gravitate to.

But as I thought on I realized I have an anthology in my house by Stanford, one I’ve had for years and much cherish. She is or was the editor of one of my first anthologies of women’s poetry, and one of my best: The Women Poets in English. It displays impeccable taste: she zeroez in unerringly on the best poems by women in English from the first English ones (early modern) to this century.

Then I remembered how the now famously Elizabeth Bishop sneered at Stanford and refused to have her poems put in this anthology. She asked who would make a “Men Poets in English.” No need, most books are 90% male and chosen from a male perspective (raw v cooked is part of this).

It matters what taste the editor has. The latest of the 18th century ones (by Backscheider) shows such a lack of taste, the book had almost better not have been published. One can’t deny it offers such wealth of information and general essay on kinds, but when it comes to individual poems, so dull it’s excruciating. Now by contrast, Stanford’s are alive. The feminism in the book is not overt either nor any particular agenda within women’s poems — just sheer greatness, differing in each case too. The product of many years reading I should think.

And now that I looked at it I saw her point of view influenced her choice: the love of meditative verse, the non-careerism. Yes this mirrors her mind too.

Just one example, this by Elizabeth Jennings appears in Stanford’s Women poets in English:


Let it disturb no more at first
Than the hint of a pool predicted far in a forest,
Or a sea so far away that you have to open
Your window to hear it.
Think of it then as elemental, as being
Not for a cup to be taken to it and not
For lips to linger or eye to receive itself
Back in reflection, simply
As water the patient moon persuades and stirs.

And then step closer,
Imagine rivers you might indeed embark on,
Waterfalls where you could
Silence an afternoon by staring but never
See the same tumult twice.
Yes come out of the narrow street and enter
The full piazza. Come where the noise compels.
Statues are bowing down to the breaking air.

Observe it there — the fountain, too fast for shadows,
Too wild for the lights which illuminate it to hold,
Even a monument, an ounce of water back;
Stare at such prodigality and consider
It is the elegance here, it is the taming,
The keeping fast in a thousand flowering sprays,
That builds this energy up but lets the watchers
See in that stress an image of utter calm,
A stillness there. It is how we must have felt
Once at the edge of some perpetual stream,
Fearful of touching, bringing no thirst at all,
Panicked by no perception of ourselves
But drawing the water down to the deepest wonder.

Poussin, The Travellers Resting

I read further. I read much more of Holding our Own last night and this morning. It strengthens and solaces me; it includes works of splendid beauty and puts before us central tragedies of our time: in the form of poems on demonstrations broken up and destroyed by various government-people hired thugs who destroy parts of the demonstrator’s bodies, kill them, and poems where she imagines building a dream garden to replace the brute buildings, trash malls, and commercialization that surrounds us. It does require that the reader have read other books, and older books, know of classical figures and poets, the stories. The Elizabeth Jennings’s “Fountain” is in Stanford’s mode, only usually Stanford includes the kind of ruins and filth left when the rich places in the chaparel are washed down leaving the landscape bare.

The blurb on the back of Holding Your Own (which Scates and Trinidad might not be responsible for) seems to suggest that Stanford is another woman at risk of vanishing. For example, "When Stanford died in 1987, she was at the apex of a distinguished literary career …. [but] Her final manuscript remained unpublished while each of her books slipped out of print." Scates and Trinidad's edition is thus framed as a rescue job.

From the two above passages, we see the script laid out before the person is gone altogether for disregarding her work …

And I should say the bookstore I so celebrated is small, in a place in Olde Towne where not a lot of people come (used car lots on the two previous blocks) … And it's not easy to find things about her by google without a persistence.

Much of the above was commented on — see comments section.


Hubert Robert (1733-1808), Hermit in a Garden (1790)

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Nick Guest (Dan Steevens), opening shot of hopeful young man dazzled by wealth, power (Line of Beauty, 2006)

Nan Astley (Rachel Stirling) and Florence Banner (Jodhi May), closing moments, seasoned real friendship, bravely going to introduce themselves to family (Tipping the Velvet, 2002)

Dear friends and readers,

I decided to group the remaining Andrew Davies films I meant to cover differently when I realized after watching his recent Fanny Hill (2007),

Fanny (Rebecca Knight) amid the ladies

that an important undercurrent in Davies’s films is a strong support for unconventional sexual life, which comes out in not only his openly GLBT films but those whose source books have a predominantly heterosexual bias. In his Moll Flanders (2010), the slyly comic-poignant point is made in an invented scene where Moll feels guilty that not she not help her good loving friend, Annie (Catherine Trowbridge) to escape the police (her usual “what could she do?” comes out less aggressively), and it’s her fault her friend cannot plead her belly: her friend is not pregnant too, for they pleased themselves, stayed lovers:

Alex Kingston missing her friend (see the indent in the empty pillow)

Will the injustices against non-heterosexual people never cease?

This blog covers more concisely (and with less stills than usual), Tipping the Velvet, The Line of Beauty, Fanny Hill, and Davies’s marvelous Room with A View (2007)

Mark Williams as Mr Beebe waiting for his friends to jump in too

Davies’s Moll Flanders I’ve discussed already with his He Knew He Was Right

To begin with, Tipping the Velvet, adapted from a neo-Victorian lesbian novel. I’ve not read any of Sarah Walters’ books, and can see this one plays off a love of Victorian literature, only here the characters do things they never do in your average Mudie’s Library book. It was interesting to me how much freer the costume part of the film adaptation felt — as if the mise-en-scene itself was made to feel at another remove from the usual historical costume scene.

Some of the scenes did make me uncomfortable, or I wanted to look away. It wasn’t the lesbian sex (of which there was a lot and frank physical scenes), but rather some of the cruelty and rejection the women subjected one another to based on class and the heterosexual world inflicted on the gay women — partly out of a sheer disbelief.

Since I’ve been reading about how if we slightly redefine slavery as not permanent chattel status, we discover it’s alive and well in the 20th century (an important book with an argument that it’s fatuous and false to say slavery would have died in the US without a war as slavery is ever profitable), it was interesting to me to see the theme of women and the vulnerable and powerless turned into forms of slaves through prostitution, debt, having no one to turn to (there was no state help whatsoever).

Nevertheless, on the whole, Davies’s film was a sort of positive bildingsroman – the same conditions obtain in Bleak House and there there is no lightness about it whatsoever. No one dies bitterly; people just disappear or go their half-merry or desperate way. At the conclusion our heroine finds herself and ends up with the good kind loyal lover (Jodhi May, who seems to play this type), rather than the inconstant untrustworthy one (Keeley Hawes) who also had star billing:

A poignant tender moment on stage

or the downright bully and spirit-breaker, Anna Chancellor, as sapphic socialiite (she plays hard types typically; hard Miss Bingley from the 1995 P&P that was):

The rich, powerful and therefore lethal, Diana Letherby

Some of my favorite actresses were in it: Sally Hawkins was a desperate thieving maid, Zena Blake:

Lonely, she offers her body, but the next morning Nan finds she has been fleeced

I’ve noticed another pattern in Davies: repeatedly he has female producers and often female directors and producers. Also he likes the use of the sea (and how much melancholy and energy he got out of that in his 2008 Sense and Sensibility), the beach, and to show us when he can working class scenes.

A characteristic Davies’s moment from the end of the film

A subplot concerned a socialist brother (played wonderfully by Hugh Bonneville) of one of our heroines giving speeches; a baby adopted when it has no one else; and finally older people wanting sex with the young (here a woman is the older powerful one).

It was the ending I liked. The scene of our heroines together now (Nan and Florence), holding hands on the beach and turning to visit our Nan’s childhood home. Seasoned, independent, supportive.

Here’s an article to show how women are usually represented in the media.

By contrast, Davies’s adaptation of Hollinghurst’s Booker Prize winner, Line of Beauty. is deeply bitter frequently. Davies’s Tipping the Velvet, despite some ravaging misery and exploitation, has on the whole an upward turn and readily ends happily. At the end of all three parts of Line of Beauty, there was a devastating parting, never brought on by Nick, but always the other person or people, who either claim they are realistic or simply dump him, however reluctantly with ease:

Leo Charles (Don Gilet) moving off and on

The difference is partly Tipping the Velvet is costume drama set in another century: this is ever finally fantasy and the level of probability we expect is lower. But it’s also due to a reality that lesbian couples simply aren’t recognized automatically as such and two women can set up housekeeping together infinitely more easily.

A central theme in Hollinghurst’s book which makes it over to Davies’s film is the life of the homosexual male is twisted and perverted by having to hide it, being subject to blackmail, and the reality that often the male who can pretend to be heterosexual or act out a bisexual life can get the world’s prizes so will scuttle his relationship with a man. This is the story of Clive in Forster’s Maurice; and an undertext story in Henry James. Raven in his masterpiece, Fielding Gray (a gay classic like Wilde’s Dorian Gray) takes this further showing how the blackmail aspect of life allows spite, rivalry and endless punishments wreaked on a gay man who wants to fulfill himself.

Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty descends from Henry James in the subgenre gay novel. Eva Sedgwick goes into this: one feature is the quietly or implicitly gay (closet) homosexual male. I had thought Fielding in Fielding Gray showed Raven’s allegiance with Henry Fielding (he’d probably despise Clarissa with distrust of women) with Gray an homage to Dorian, but now I see Fielding refers to a possibly homosexual man, Fielding in Forster’s Passage to India (which I”m listening to now as read by the golden voiced David Case, also a gay man), who however marries. His deepest relationship is with the Indian man accused of rape, Azziz, to whom Fielding remains loyal at possible real cost to himself. The “signal” allusion that this book belongs to this subgroup is Nick Guest begins the novel by being someone working on a graduate thesis on Henry James. He gives it up as the years wear on in the book. One difference — and it goes on hurting Nick right and left is Nick is openly gay.

To return to the film, after winning some awards, it dropped out of sight. I don’t wonder. Not only openly gay, the ending is courageous enough to have no false uplift. Within the film Nick himself wants to make a film of James’s Spoils of Poynton and finds the enough of the film-makers insist on changing the story so we don’t have a cheated old woman at the center to make the whole presentation utterly false to James’s novel.

The end of the filmic story was inherent and the very point in the beginning. It’s been very easy to drop Nick all along because it’s so easy to pick him up: he is shown to have no recourse and nothing he can give others when he wants to hold onto them (like the lover at the end of the first part). It was to be expected and the foreshadowing began in the second part. In the last part we see from the get-go he is increasingly used as an errand boy. He gives all as in this scene where he has been kind to the daughter, Catherine Ferrens, whom the mother to cater to her husband, neglects:

Alice Krige as Rachel Fedden, cannot be there in order to keep her husband, the powerhouse Thatcherite worshipping hypocrite philanderer, Gerald

Gerald (Tim McInnery) with his stern face

It didn’t distress me — it seems what would be and as I like tragic closes that seem right from the premises so I liked this close. It was not tragic since Nick is not a tragic hero, but more ironic — as 20th century works often are.

Lots of little incidents about many aspects of Nick’s life along the way contribute to the richness of this story: one about sexuality and women, is Nick’s close Muslim friend’s near marrying a rich heterosexual girl. Another is due to his connection with the Ferrens’ family he gets a job as an editor of a magazine which comes out with one rich issue before he’s ejected by the family. I mention this as part of what I called Hollinghurst (and before him) James’s gay awareness; an awareness of the so many indirect things that cannot be sustained as a result of being sexually and socially marginalized.

So, at the close our hero is thrown out of the palaces:

He’s often photographed to the side of the screen, slightly apart from the others, his eye the alienated oe looking on.

But not to worry one guy leaves him a building (it’s real and really owned, with real tenants in a good location) which may support him for the rest of his life.

Rich Muslim friend comforting Nick; the friend apparently had everything, including a rich arranged wife; he commits suicide

Nick is expelled because his masters (so they have become), his apparently family and good connections have gotten embroiled in a scandal which exposes them as utter phonies, and the male honcho has to resign from parliament. His wife learns about his promiscuity. The daughter finally leaves.

So Nick Guest ends with a prize (a small part of the take — which in a poem by an American male poet I came across a while back is presented as the real American dreams) and a strong kick by those who have no other dog nearby to kick and know they can kick him with impunity.

And why can they kick him so easily; call him ugly names; why hasn’t he a family to turn to? Because he’s openly gay. It’s this sort of thing I was referring to when I said James has characters like this and uses them to make general meanings. It provides the bitter ending of Fielding Grey by Simon Raven – whose film adaptation of the Pallisers is shaped by his strong identification with outsiders, stronger than Trollope’s own as coming from a different really alienating experience

This film enabled me to I’ve picked up on another element in the typology of Austen males; three of the actors who have been chosen to play Edward Ferrars also have played successfully important star roles as gay men. Robin Ellis, Edward in 1971, was the closet gay man in Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala Europeans; Hugh Grant in 1996 Clive in Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala Maurice, and now Dan Steevens in 08 (a brilliant much more effective Edward), Nick Guest in Line of Beauty.

Nick as a name and narrator, the everyman, also has resonances from Fitzgerald’s Gatsby to Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time.

There have been articles about the use of sensitive, emotional typologies in leading males who are also conventionally sexy for Austen movies since the
1990s (most notably Colin Firth, Alan Rickman), but nothing about this reaction in movies to Austen’s undermining of macho maleness in her books. Nor about the use of Mark Strong (who plays torturers) for Mr Knightley.

To turn now to Davies’s adaptation of Forster’s Room with a View. I have read the novel this time though 30 years ago now. It links to James and Hollinghurst by its homoeroticism. I watched it last night and as in the case of Davies’s Dr Zhivago, find I am not that unusual in finding it superior to a much lauded previous film, Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala’s 1980s Room with a View.

Again Davies has boldly challenged a famous much-lauded movie and created a movie which is as a whole better even if the individual performances of Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala’s actors are inimitable. The older film is too drawn out, too self-indulgent, not enough happens because the inner life of homoeroticism is erased and we are left sorrow for Cecil Vyse but no sense of what he longed for as worth it, as rich as what the heterosexuals in the movie achieve by casting off repression — without giving up a love of great art and learning.

Lucy (Elaine Cassidy) looking up at a church front

Without the absolutely famous-star cast, but a very effective set of actors, Davies presented a more concise version of Forster’s Edwardian novel. It’s a slight story really and much of inward meaning comes out of the strongly sexualized yet repressive atmosphere. By making everything happen much quicker, Davies brought home more effectively in some ways the homoerotic currents of the original story where the males express their sexuality far more freely than most books; at the same time he does justice to the central story where a gay man, Cecil, and our heroine, Lucy Honeychurch, almost make the mistake of marrying one another. Lucy faces up to the reality that she has fallen in love with a man from the lower classes (Mr Emerson’s son) and Cecil that he’s forcing himself to woo her, and preparing a life of estrangement from his own identity for himself.

Lucy (Elaine Cassidy) and Cecil (Laurence Fox) facing they don’t want one another even if they are of the same class.

As it happened, I listened to David Case read aloud Forster’s Passage to India just at the time I watched Davies’s film. I also came across a Guardian review which said Davies was “truer to the spirit” of Forster — without saying why. How discreet. (Cowardly.) Davies has scenes of homoerotic swimming and uses the male sensibility centrally as trembling, sensitive, inward, and just as important to the story’s end as the women’s fulfillment whereas Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala pur Lucy at the center and fore and shuffled off Cecil, Edward’s father, Mr Beebe to the margins at the end. He also genuinely brings home to us the pain of exclusion for fringe people:

Mr Emerson and his son (Timothy and Rafe Spall) and his father, who give up their window to Lucy and her aunt (Charlotte Bartlett, Sophie Thompson), first excluded

Now this is true to the novel, but as with A Passage to India where Forster originally intended to include a description of the sexual assault Adela Quested endured and was pressured into dropping it, so in with A Room with a View there was a previous draft which was a much more conventional heroine’s text/story, which Forster discreetly and successfully changed. In the case of Passage to India, the earlier text was pro-feminist, women, about how the central heroine was raped; the one we have now is capable of being read as implicitly misogynistic (the false accusation in a courtroom).

Thus I think Davies’s changed ending is truer to Forster than Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala’s literally faithful one. In Davies’s film that happy ending with the two conventional heterosexual people at the window (in Forster and M/I/J) is changed. The emphasis becomes more explicitly that the heterosexual girl breaks off her engagement to marry a man of a definitely lower class who is sexually attractive to her and she to him, but they are not permitted to be happy forever. We fast forward past WW1 to discover he has been killed in WW1 and she turns to the Italian escort who gave the small group from the pension such a happy day in the country. It is generic romance and resembles the ending of the movie version of Secret Garden where Dicken is killed and Mary remarries, this time Colin so we are in the same genre of movie, but it seemed to me more appropriate, about how society makes people lose what is most valuable to them.

The luxury in this civilization comes at the price of war as well as repression: Aunt Charlotte and Mrs Honeychurch (Elizabeth McGovern) watching Edward and Lucy from afar

Last but not least (as they say) is Davies’s strongly woman-centered and frequently lesbian Fanny Hill. It is arguable that John Cleland’s text is a homosexual, not lesbian one, and is misogynistic. Davies has liberated the women from convention here instead of the men and written an implicitly feminist screenplay.

He has brought out the affinities of Cleveland’s plot-design — which he generally follows — with Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Marivaux’s La Vie de Marianne, not to omit Richardson’s Pamela: young girl detached from parents or orphaned, is taken up by corrupt people but her good nature wins out with luck and she ends the world’s winner.

In addition, the same continual direct address that we find in his Moll Flanders is repeated arguing defensively from a woman’s vulnerable standpoint. The story is presented with Fanny as our storyteller writing it down with the scenes framed by her confiding addresses:

Opening shot of Fanny (Rebecca Knight) turning to us to tell her happy tale

He follows the “euphoric” tradition of Nancy Miller’s reading of these 18th century heroine’s texts: our heroine does descend to the streets at one point (and treated very badly indeed), but she is taken up by a very old man (Edward Hardwicke, who often does kindly parts: he was Doctor Watson in the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series), and this one is patient. And we are asked to believe that when he dies not only did he leave all his money and a huge estate to her, but his relatives let it stand and her early first love, Charles Standing (Alex Robertson) returns from the West Indies, in good health, finds her, most providentially as he pretends to be a robber of a coach; when she alights, they fall into one another’s arms:

and live rich as well as happily ever after.

Where is the proto-feminism (I’ll call it as it’s a period piece) and lesbianism? Early on quite unnecessarily Fanny Hill is brought to lose her virginity and like sex by having a semi-affair with a friendly gentle prostitute pushed on her, and we are shown far more of their sex than hers with the sweet Charles who is her first protector. We do see her with Mr H (Hugo Speer, the best performance in the film) having sex: he is hard on her, possessive and rigid, but he is genuinely passionate, involved, and that’s why he tries to take revenge and rejects her at one point:


But the explicitness is left to the prostitute who breaks her hymen.

Early in the film Davies also focuses on the ruthless animal brutality of an older man who tries to pay for Fanny when still a virgin; he is a horror of a human being in other ways in a later scene. We do see how little the so-called sexual power of women is worth.

In addition, the emphasis on the full realities of women’s lives comes out through Davies’s witty use of intertextuality: we were meant to remember the actresses who madams in this film were mothers and mentors in the Austen ones: Alison Steadman’s grating domineering Mrs Bennet becomes a hypocritical and somewhat vengeful first brother madam, ruthless; Samantha Bond’s sensible Mrs Weston becomes the political madam who hides her brothel with a milliner’s shop. Handy dandy, the same authority figure in different circumstances.

Alison Steadman as the madam Fanny runs away from

Admittedly, earlier in the day I saw this film I had read a deplorable romance tale by Eliza Haywood (early to mid-18th century romance writer, great on vacuous hectic salacious prose) called “The Lucky Rape,” about which the less said the better. I know Davies’s film could be turned into a kind of smirk smirk smirk. It lends itself to that. It is, however, true to say here that this line of emphasis tells us more about the coarse mind of the viewer than this film. In one scene we have Charles teaching Fanny the sonnet “Those who can do hurt and will do none” (Shakespeare Sonnet 91): it’s a deeply instinctively ethical point of view rarely articulated.

To conclude, like Ang Lee, the openness to unconventional sexuality, a wide humane liberality in Davies’s films has not been much noticed. He deflects attention by vaunting or claiming a frivolous pandering sexuality for his films. You can take them this way, but they are really much better and finer than this.

Florence (Jodhi May) animated by real half-angry feelings about life as she and Nan (Rachel Stirling) feast on oysters (Tipping the Velvet)

Catherine Fedden (Hayley Atwell) calms herself by cutting; here is Nick helping her and he will keep her secret too (The Line of Beauty here the line of the bandages)

Lucy (Elaine Cassidy) at her piano, at peace, rejuvenating in solitude, with a view too (A Room with a View)

Fanny (Rebecca Knight) holding her own yet with the other women as colleagues (Fanny Hill)


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