Archive for September, 2011

Cast of 1932 film Black and White touring Soviet Union, 1932

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve not written about Women’s Review of Books on the listservs I’m on of late, mostly I’ve been too busy, or they have not as a whole struck me. This fall issue seemed to me of such high caliber I wanted to call attention to it here too.

So much outstanding. Where to begin. Perhaps with four review-articles defeating the continual assertion made in so many places that women are naturally conservative. Recently I’ve come to realize that Alison Light’s Forever England where she argues that women of the 30s were unfairly ignored because they were popular and conservative is wrong: Light writes about a few conservative ones, but, as Jane Dowson in her Anthology of women poets of the 1930s shows, women were as frequently of the left as men.

Mary Ellen Washington’s Feminist Roots, a review of Dayo Gore’s Radicalism at the Crossroads: African American Women Activists in the Cold War and Erik McDuffie’s Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of the Black Left Feminism tells of dozens of women who led and supported organizations working for black women’s civil rights, economic opportunities, self-defense. I did not know that the 1950s when the US gov’t deported leaders of Labor groups, black women filled leadership gaps. The books are about alliances between black women, especially the work of black domestics, which work black women were often forced into where they were harassed sexually, literally treated like slaves — forced to stand on spots so white women could come and decide whether to hire them.

Italian women who took garment work home

The heroine of Sopranos, Carmela Soprano, is a hollow caricature: Italian women too forged alliances with working women and men, preferring local community and specific labor unions (textiles): Karen Pastorello reviews Jennifer Guglielmo’s Living the Revolution: Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880-1945. Chicanos, Mexican American Women in the Southwest, Miroslav Chavez-Garcia’s Retrofitted Memory . on Maylei Blackwell’s Chicana Power: Contested Histories of Feminism in the Chicano Movement shows how negative stereotypes have kept many women away from this field of study. I’ve written a separate blog on Grace Chang’s important revealing review, Weapons of the Weak of Sealing Cheng’s On the Move for Love: Migrant Entertainers and the US Military in South Korea: that the behavior of agents who profess to be helping prostitutes are making life worse for them and is much more aimed at getting and keeping their own jobs, supporting their institutions.

This might be a good place to insert a relevant poem from the issue, one exposing the neurotic hypocrises of medical procedures foisted on women:


Okay, got it that sometimes you have to break
a thing to heal it, but this, this
is raw beef beaten with a flat wooden mallet,
fibers tenderized into separation and shred,

a snowball mashed by a booted foot, an egg
broken between books, a kitten’s head

crushed in a vise. No one who’s night-nursed
a baby, or seen her own white miracle

expressed-no creature with breasts or woman’s
heart, no mother or sister

or daughter-could have come up with this. No,
it took someone with a thirst

for machinery and metal, with a plate of bone
for a chest. It took someone with fists.

— Rebecca Foust

Many of the articles are on individual women. Most notable: Priscilla Murolo’s review of three books on Eleanor Roosevelt, one by Hazel Rowley whose excellent biography of Christina Stead I’ve read and of Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre I recently bought in a library book sale. Excellent and it sounds like Rowley’s book on ER is useful and full. Bridget O’Farrell’s She was One of Us is on ER as herself and as identifying and working for working class women (and lower middle that would be). We see the limits of ER there: not simply some conformist reactions to anti-communist campaigns, but she did not realize the opposition to ERA based on the loss of sex-specific laws protecting women is a leftist-socialist view. Neither does the reviewer, Priscilla Murolo. The third book by Maurine Beasley is about transforming the first lady role: ER: Transformative First Lady.

Eleanor Roosevelt, 1948

Cathy A. Frierson on Tamara Petkevich’s Memoir of a Gulag Actress: in her 20s she was a prisoner in a gulag doing hideous work in sandals in freezing cold; in her 40s sharing a flat 14 square meters with many others; she did become a gulag actress and is still with us today, 91 in her own apartment at last. The reviewer tries hard to be upbeat — how she’s not all alone, tons of phone calls. Like a woman, and there are many fewer by woman, she focuses on her experiences, relationships, and she was befriended by men and also raped along the way — she let it happen to get a protector or helper now and again.

Tamara Petkevich

Which leads to

Rochelle Ruthchild’s review, “The Gender of Survival,” on Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust edited by Sonja Hedgpeth and Rochelle G.Saidet. Talk about taboo subject; sometimes one gets a line indicating some building was the camp brothel or reference to the reality the standard epithet by jailers of women was “whore.” The horrors include Jewish men raping their women, forced killing of children, a need of a protector once you escaped some horror of a place. What happens when civilization breaks down altogether. An important book — also deals with abortions.

Not least at all, Susanna Sturgis on the very-long titled, Alix Dobki’s My Red Blood: A Memoir of Growing Up Communist, Coming onto the Greenwich Village Folk Scene, and Coming Out in the Feminist Movement, about growing up in what must be so rare nowadays a leftist-communist family who were part of groups of such people. Dobkin is known as a lesbian activist too, a singer. Together with Suzanne Kelley McCormack’s fine review of Jerry Lembroke’s Hanoi Jane. McCormack rehearses Lembroke’s findings that Jane Fonda did no more than many other moderate democrats during the Vietnam war. Many went to Vietnam far more than she; were more involved in political maneuvering – and that Fonda was active in other leftist groups, her marriage to Tom Haydn coming out of that.

I found very moving Jane Hirshfield’s poetry discussed in the centerfold:


It is the work of feeling
to undo expectation.

A black-faced sheep
looks back at you as you pass
and your heart is startled
as if by the shadow
of someone once loved.

Neither comforted by this
nor made lonely.

Only remembering
that a self in exile is still a self,
as a bell unstruck for years
is still a bell.

I thought of the daughter who has estranged herself from me, Izzy, Jim.

One Loss Folds Itself Inside Another

One loss
folds itself inside another.
It is like the origami
held inside a plain sheet of paper.
Not creased yet.
Not yet more heavy.
The hand stays steady.

Again these images of bells ringing real emotions

The Tongue Says Loneliness

The tongue says loneliness, anger, grief,
but does not feel them.

As Monday cannot feel Tuesday,
nor Thursday
reach back to Wednesday
as a mother reaches out for her found child.

As if this life is not a gate, but the horse plunging through it

Not a bell,
but the sound of the bell in the bell-shape,
lashing full strength with the first blow from inside the iron

Reviewed fiction include Eileen Myles’s Inferno (A Poet’s Novel), a three part or stage memoir of a woman writers; Angela Barry’s Goree: Point of Departure (takes place in the portal of the West African trade), and I noticed titles of books I dream of having the time to read.

This issue’s art work was photographs by Laura Heyman; I noticed untitled was a detail from an 1890s American women illustrator: the past couple of weeks I’ve been putting drawings from such artists on my three lists: Charlotte Harding (1873-1951), Elizabeth Shippen Green (1861-1954), Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935), added to Violet Oakley (1874-1961), whose work I saw in a Woman’s Art Journal. All were friends and the friendships meant a lot for them as people and for their careers. Their great problem was isolation individually and no larger support.

In Book Illustrated, ed. Catherine Gorden, Ruth Copans’s “Dream Blocks: American Women Illustrators of the Golden Age, 1890-1920,” which shows that the book marketplace of the 1890s to 1920s was available for talented lucky women to be able to support themselves by their art if their outlook was sufficiently acceptable to the mass of readers and could be used to illustrate popular book. Most of the pictures were of women with children or cosy-like (capable of being seen that way) illustrations of establishment children’s books. But not the gothic tree chosen by the WRofB, and I can’t resist the luxurious lady in “The Library” for the sake of her indwelling among books:


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Bronze Age Tomb, Cornwall

Gentle readers,

I hope I do not try your patience by placing a concise survey of the Poldark series, together with the counterparts of each novel in the mini-series, and a list of fiction and non-fiction by Graham I’ve read thus far, two closely related books by other authors, and two links to full lists of each of his publications.

I’m in the midst of writing my paper (it’s coming!), and it would be very handy were I to have a single place to refer to — one click away!

I know I can become obsessive over detail once I allow my love and absorption in a particular interest to take over my mind for a while (I did this with the Palliser series, Jane Austen’s novels’ timelines and the Austen films, and am now doing it over Jane Austen’s letters), so I do try to keep this focused and concise.

First, here are the twelve Poldark books with the dates they are set in, their numbers, counterparts in the films, and first publishers and dates published. All are set in Cornwall.

Ross Poldark (1), 1783-87 (Season 1, Parts 1-4) – Ward Lock 1945
Demelza (2), 1788-1790 (Parts 5-8) – Ward Lock 1946
Jeremy Poldark (3), 1790-1791 (Parts 9-12) – Ward Lock 1950
Warleggan (4), 1792-1793 (Parts 13-16) – Ward Lock 1953
The Black Moon (5), 1794-95 (Season 2, Parts 1-5) – Collins 1973
The Four Swans (6), 1795-97 (Parts 6-10) – Collins 1976
The Angry Tide (7), 1798-99 (Parts 11-13) – Collins 1977
The Stranger from the Sea (8), 1810-11 (1996 two hour film) – Collins 1981
The Miller’s Dance (9), 1812-13 – Collins 1982
The Loving Cup (10), 1813-15 – Collins 1984
The Twisted Sword (11), 1815 – 1990 – Chapmans 1990
Bella (12), 1818-20 – Macmillan 2003

Angharad Rees, Paul Curran and Robin Ellis in costume, with Winston Graham

Here are his other historical novels that I’ve read:

The Forgotten Story, Cornwall 1898 (BBC mini-series, same title 1983) – Ward Lock 1945
Cordelia, Manchester 1869 – Ward Lock 1949
The Grove of Eagles, Cornwall, 1595-98 – Hodder & Stoughton, 1963 (this one just begun, gotten 1/3rd through)

St Ives, Cornwall 1898

The Mystery and Suspense novels — contemporary dates, UK and Europe

Take My life (film of the same name, one of the authors of the final script Margaret Kennedy who, e.g., wrote The Constant Nymph, 1947) — Ward Lock 1947
The Little Walls – Hodder & Stoughton 1955
Marnie (Hitchcock, film of same name, 1964) – Hodder & Stoughton 1961
The Walking Stick (film of same name, 1970) – Collins 1967

Online still from The Walking Stick


The Spanish Armadas – Collins 1972 (this one, just begun, 1/3rd through)
Poldark’s Cornwall – Webb & Brower/Bodley Head 1983
Memoirs of a Private Man – Macmillan 2003

by other authors but directly related:

Poldark Country by David Clarke – Bossiney 1977
Making Poldark by Robin Ellis – Bossiney 1978

20thc photo of Walter Ralegh’s study, Sherbourne Castle, Dorset, set up 1594 (Ralegh figures in The Spanish Armada and Grove of Eagles)

And here are some handy links to lists of all his novels, the film adaptations made from them, and my blogs on his definitions of historical fiction (in Poldark’s Cornwall) and his memoir:

List of his novels

List of films

Graham’s 3 types of historical fiction

Graham’s Memoirs of a Private Man


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Brief review and summary

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been puzzled for quite a while over the terms of debates feminists have about prostitution. Well-meaning feminists stigmatize and inveigh against those working to rescue and help prostitutes (which includes Emma Thompson who travels about trying to help women by lending her acting talent and prestige). This morning for the first time I read an essay which outlined what can be behind arguments like those of Laura Augstin against much of the legislation that seems to be promulgated to protect prostitutes, help them escape what is in effect a new form of chattel slavery (done by trafficking — simply snatching women in the way slaves were once snatched), and decrease, yes perhaps even end prostitution in some places by at least punishing the men who pay for it. The line of argument is partly persuasive. It coheres with a description of how prostitutes were treated in 18thc Magdalen houses that I recently read

First, a brief resume of the arguments of those who say prostitution is a degraded and debasing way to make money; further that the woman who practice it are subject to extreme violence, victimization and often become (in effect) chattel slaves (through sheering snatching of them in what’s called trafficking). On prostitution: an article meant for popular consumption about what kind of men pay prostitutes for sex, and a study of what prostitutes say about their experiences. It’s claimed that the demand to purchase sex this way is increasing; the same people who pay prostitutes read porn. And here is Agustin’s series of objections to the report.

My first reaction is to say I find the objections to Farley come out of an agenda about prostitution which while seeking to empower these women (they are a very abused set of people) does so by trying to present their lives as less victimized than they are. A friend replied that my reaction reminded her of her reaction to a talk by Dr Laura Agustin that she attended at Zurich University’s Gender Studies Department late last year. Here is the title and introduction to the talk which surrounds words like helping and prostitution with critical marks:

Leaving Morality Debates Behind: The Cultural Study of Commercial Sex With the academic, media and “helping” gaze fixed on women who sell sex, the great majority of phenomena that make up the sex industry are ignored. People who sell sex tend to be examined in terms of “prostitution,” focussing on transactions between individuals and personal motivations. A cultural-studies approach looks at commercial sex in its widest sense, examining its intersections with art, migration, ethics, service work, consumption, family life, entertainment, sport, economics, urban space, sexuality, tourism, informal economies and criminality, not omitting issues of race, class, gender, identity and citizenship. The object is to study the everyday practices involved, to reveal how our societies distinguish between activities considered normatively “social” and activities denounced as criminally and morally wrong and to look for ways out of a seemingly intransigent social conflict.”

My friend wrote that she “was still somewhat surprised by the tenor of the talk itself which seemed to be arguing for social and legal acceptance of sex for money in general as simply a further form of economic service and economic choice by the people – not only women- involved, questioning the actual existence of large scale trafficking networks – ‘trafficking’ being another term she preferred not to use – and both highly critical of what she terms the ‘rescue industry’ in the book she was also pushing that evening, ‘Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry’, and extremely allergic to feminist criticism of her own approach.”

After reading Agustin’s blogs I wrote in reply:

On one level she is offering the pragmatic argument that fighting sex trafficking doesn’t “work” (bring an end to it) any more than wars “work” (though the aims of wars are often to make money for arms dealers and put people in power and the first is certainly achieved); thus it’s waste of money to try.
Nowhere does she acknowledge what trafficking in women is and how it works. It’s kidnapping, people snatching done just in the way people were once snatched to become chattel slaves.
Nowhere is there an acknowledgement of the violence inflicted on prostitutes. To say they freely chose this and should be respected for their choices would be hilarious if the lack of acknowledgement of how limited are our choices in life were not so painful.
That sex workers should be treated as equal citizens trying to survive and not punished is obvious and part of the motive for people like Agustin, but it’s also the motive of those who want to end the trade altogether or limit it insofar as they are able to. The problem is that our society refuses to take responsibility for helping people to jobs, to support, to decent schools (the US nowadays pays almost nothing for needed post-secondary education).

I was very puzzled by her motives. Here we are at the core of why women are repressed, controlled, despised and disgarded: men want to use them as sex objects, as baby making machines, as housekeepers, nurses, all of which involved the body so prostitutes are a lightning rod. From the beginning of recorded history women have had to sell their bodies directly — often as a side occupation — because they have so little access to money or property, and this selling has subjected them to severe loss of status, violence, death from disease and childbirth, maiming, self-hatred.

Grace Chang’s review of Sealing Cheng’s On the Move: Migrant entertainers and the US military in South, Korea which appeared in the latest issue of the Women’s Review of Books (September/October 2011) finally at least explained the line of thought to me in a way that makes sense, that shows the people making this argument are not simply dismissing women who are prostitutes.

Cheng outlined for the first time for me what can be behind arguments like those of Laura Augstin against much of the legislation that seems to be promulgated to protect prostitutes, help them escape what is in effect a new form of chattel slavery (done by trafficking — simply snatching women in the way slaves were once snatched), and yes end prostitution by at least punishing equally the men who pay for it.

The core that struck me is the argument that the behavior of agents who profess to be doing this is much more aimed at getting and keeping their jobs. I suppose I was struck by this since I’ve become convinced that the supposed agents (of institutions) who are being paid it’s said to help disabled people get jobs and services are doing no such thing; that their values and norms are that of the larger society which impose on disabled people impossible, conflicting demands and that their services are anything from feeble to non-existent. They are perpetuating their institutions, serving the values and norms of a society which will not help disabled adults and their own interests; so these agents for prostitutes are similarly serving their own interests, not those of women. They are making the women’s lives worse; they are doing nothing to raise their status or enable others to understand and to sympathize.

I have seen the larger argument that these agents are serving a puritanical anti-sex agenda which keeps up the attitude towards sex work as criminal, keeps up blaming them (in effect), sends them back home to places where they have no means of support and are anything from ostracized to murdered.

It is germane to consider how societies have regarded and treated prostitutes even supposedly enlightened cirlces, e.g., in an essay on the 18th century Magdalen house – by Peter Stearns, in Journal of Social History, 17:4 (1984): 617-628: we find the model Emma Donoghue based her depiction of the Magdalen house in Slammerkin on. Stearns demonstrates that basically the women who entered were treated as prisoners in a penitentiary, and many techniques begun which reached a fruition in the 19th century. You could leave, that’s the difference but if you did without references (as Mary Saunders did) you are bereft of a future — her finding her mother’s old friend is actually fairy tale. To anyone interested I can send it on by attachment. It connects directly to this modern debate on prostitution and does provide some ammunition for those who argue that prostitutes ought to be left alone, and not protected if the protection is as severely punitive as the supposed crime, if they are treated as low status people without any say in their future.

Back to Cheng and Change: This is the first time I’ve come across descriptions of what actually happens. Thus the attempt to de-stigmatize the women, to treat them as workers like any other, workers forced into this work for the same reasons others are forced into other work (most people’s jobs are not taken by any choice, we have very limited choices by the time we are ready to try to seek paid employment), is to free them of these useless agents and let those who are making money this way and controlling their lives more than is realized (or admitted) carry on surviving with what tools (so to speak) an deeply anti-woman society makes available to them.

It is a lesser of many great evils arguments from my point of view.

Grace Chang’s review does not quite put it this way — especially the idea that prostitution of any more degrading or based on violence than most work women are forced to perform. The argument on the other side (from Augstin’s) is that prostitution is degrading, debasing, violent; that women are forced into it and everything should be done basically to outlaw and punish severely trafficking in women and do all that one can to (ultimately this is the aim) end or decrease prostitution. Sealing Cheng’s book is one which (according to Chang) gives us the women’s view of themselves. The history is not retold of what the laws and customs in the Philiippines were which did push (force let’s say) women to migrate. Apparently she likens the conduct and movement of these women to women who emigrate as nurses, factory and agricultural workers, and domestic servants. To see them against this background is indeed to make them seem much less different and to remember how marriage and having children is treated in traditional cultures in these starving places extends the picture. According to Cheng, one way the women better themselves is to pretend to adhere to romantic love: they pretend to be in love with a customer in the hope he will marry them or enable them to migrate elsewhere or simply provide decent protections the pimp does not. We should not then make fun of them or deride them for this behavior as false consciousness for it is a performance just a much as romantic love is in the US and elsewhere among many middle class women. The woman want to marry and an American male especially; the men persist in believing these women long to have sex with them — men often do believe this.

Cheng then describes who the NGOS are, these agents and how they behave towards these women – it reminds me of what I’ve read and been told about agents in service agencies supposedly helping disabled people to get job or other services. No tangible support or use but a continued need for the organization itself. So the idea is these attempts to stamp out prostitution as debased, degraded, just further exploit the women – now they are abused by the states running them through their agents.

There is a problem with this as trafficking is snatching and the women are made into slaves. So while it may be that Agustin has a real argument on her side for prosititutes who have not been snatched, it does not follow she does in the area of trafficking. On the other hand, I now wonder how much these agents help the trafficked women. Do they give them places to live for real, help them to decent situations and jobs? I fear they do not; perhaps this may not be possible without spending a great deal of money and changing present misogynistic and puritanical norms and values. I don’t know enough about this.

I also wonder why Agustin and those who write like her have never brought this up or out, have never exposed the agents themselves. She would have no reason to keep quiet about it. So I’m sceptical. Shall one just give up in despair?

Still I wanted to share Chang’s review of this Cheng book in an effort to shed light on something that has puzzled me. Why someone calling herself a feminist like Agustin should take the side she does. Could it be that she doesn’t expose the agents out of some (perverse surely) ideas of political diplomacy or fear of what might be thought if she exposed these people? I know from my own experience I am sometimes astonished at the way the average person reacts to a variety of ordinary situations and cannot fathom the thinking that leads to the usual stupidities we hear all the time — say on behalf of the various Republicans who propose to do such evil. So maybe Agustin knows better than me — silence (as I’ve suggested) is a very feeble weapon, so feeble it boomerangs most of the time.

Unfortunately the review is not online and it may not be one of those few chosen to be online when the latest issue turns up on the website. This is why I have written this blog. I did write a first version to Women Writers though the Ages at Yahoo, and am sending the URL to this blog to the Women’s Studies list run by Joan Korenman (WMST-l). There is now a list of publications published by Moira Richards each week on Wompo (Women’s Poetry list first founded by Annie Finch, now run by Amy King) by members, and maybe I’ll send this along there even if the listserv is really about women’s poetry (prostitution is an important topic for women).


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Little Walls, an ancient “red light” district of Amsterdam

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve gotten into further into this first phase of my project towards a paper on Winston Graham’s Poldark first 7 novels. I read the plot-design of the first novel, am nearly finished outlining the plot-designs of the next three, and then I can just read the blogs I have on the last three: quartet and trilogy. I reminded myself more accurately about Demelza, ironed out (so to speak) the disposition of the story of Jeremy Poldark, and discovered today that I had a skewed version in my head of Warleggan, so am correcting the blog, but hope my work on the next three is accurate. Surely it is: as they are long enough and move chapter by chapter. I’ve read a number of essays and chapters in books on liberty, especially as regards women and I reread some central sources I had on historical fiction. And I read some sources on liberty (essays and chapters in books).

Meanwhile at night now and again I try a new novel by him: last week I read a relatively short older mystery or detective fiction, The Little Walls, for which he won what is said to be a prestigious award and the first time it was awarded: The Golden Dagger (how silly the nomenclature is). The slender novel is named after the Amsterdam “red light” district (where there is much prostitution, gambling, taverns for getting drunk), whence the photo which heads this blog.

It did differ from all but one of the previous books by him I’ve read: both Cordelia and The Little Walls have no marital rape scene. As the wikipedia article says it opens on the apparent suicide of the hero, Phillip Turner’s brother, Greville; like older mystery fiction, Turner becomes an amateur detective who goes on a quest to find out what happened to his brother. He does not believe his brother killed himself: once a brilliant nuclear physicist who worked on the atom bomb, Greville had become an archeaologist working in Indonesia (the book sometimes reminded me of Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost), a world-travelling and morally courageous man. How could he kill himself for the love of a woman whose note was found in his things, a woman he had hardly known? He was a married man too.

It’s clever because turns out the man of integrity who offers to help Turner, Martin Cox, is John Buckingham, the man who had become Greville’s best friend and sidekick aide, the last man who had seen Greville before he died, who betrayed Greville by stashing drugs in Greville’s luggage as a way of moving them from country to country. I guessed that early on; but what I didn’t fore see is the discovery of Martin Coxon’s identity leads to a second reversal. The young woman, Helen Winter, for love of whom Greville was supposed to have done away with himself, who Turner knows as Leonie and is sexually and emotionally attracted to, is Cox’s wife.  So her letter found in Greville’s suitcase is either hypocritical or to Cox.Turner chases them to Indonesia and then around Italy, from Rome to Naples to Capri. In a climactic scene Turner tries to drown Cox: a scene of rivalry and hatred that recalled to my mind George Warleggan and Ross Poldark’s rivalry and hatred for one another, as well as Ross’s killing of Monk Adderley in a duel in London, incensed at Adderley’s insulting harassment of Demelza and her previous liaison with dead Hugh Armitage.

The denouement was a let-down, a meretricious happy close. We are asked to believe that after all Greville did kill himself in despair for having had his integrity besmirched by Cox and perhaps because he did love Leonie — or yearned for her physically. It’s suggested that Greville did know pessimistic despair. And we are given to surmise that Leonie does not love Cox (never did) and will be taking up with Turner — ridiculous unless you believe widows will take up with anyone. So Little Walls is like the close of The Forgotten Story, Patricia gives in to her husband, Tom Harris, and will become his loving faithful wife in a new life in South Africa. Graham really does like to reward his heroes with his heroines. I’m told that readers of such books expect this “happy ending.”

The plot-design fizzles out.

The book had a few passages of astute perception about life, aphoristic, disillusioned, to my mind accurate, and we experience believably hard situations and treacherous people in amoral circumstances of their own creation that are not resolved. There is a remarkably insightful dialogue on modern amorality and Freudian psychology as justifying horrendous behaviro.  I was amused by the erudite reading (which coheres with my own) of his chief murderer: Buckingham reads AE Housman’s edition of Manilius, and then Cervantes’ exemplary novellas . One of the witnesses to the suicide-murder (somehow I wasn’t quite convinced at the close it was suicide) is a prostitute whose pimp is a man who violently beats her (par for the course we are to understand). There are casual society hostesses and men who float through life as their hangers-on. There is even a post-colonial perspective at least adumbrated (the book was published 1955). The novel thrives on suspense rather than anything thrilling or uncanny-gothic.

I then read an essay on Graham’s mystery novels by Gina MacDonald. She seems to have read the volume in print that I found (with The Forgotten Story, Marnie and Greek Fire) plus those novels which have been filmed for commercial movie-houses (e.g., The Walking Stick) and TV mini-series (e.g., The Forgotten Story, Fortune is a Woman [as She Played with Fire]). Macdonald is right about this one and Marnie (the two I’ve read thus far):

To blackmail, murder, fraud, and theft, Graham has added the mystery of the mind, the exploration of motives and deeds that lie rooted in the past and produce the conflicts, doubts, hesitations, and eccentricities of the present. His power lies in his ability to provide a sense of ordinary people menaced by the sort of trauma and violence that could well occur in the daily lives of his readers. His heroes are not blameless supermen, but guilt-ridden humans touched by the lives of others and forced to make personal decisions about loyalties and values … . Graham’s detective, when there is one, is an amateur, innocently caught up in an unsuspected crime, brought into it by accident, by circumstance, or by concern for another person. He is sometimes, again by misadventure or because of his deep personal involvement with another, the suspect, or accomplice, or intended victim … What are most important to Graham are human relationships

What Macdonald says is true of these non-historical novel heroes is as true of Ross Poldark, Dwight Enys, Drake Carne and the later younger heroes:

Graham’s heroes are normally cautious, pensive characters who take life seriously, who rush into love, but who tend to hesitate and ruminate about all else. They accept the need to test their own assumptions and are willing to experiment, if necessary, to find a workable compromise … men must deal with the disparity of facts and interpretations, and must wade through seeming truths that are at odds with their instinctive feelings.

His heroines reach “love through suffering” and look forward to the future with hope.

This too is very true of all the novels I’ve read thus far: “In most Graham novels the past impinges on the present.” “Memory is central to experience.” “Experience molds and makes or breaks a person and the way individuals act as catalysts in human relationships, transforming themselves and others when confronted with a difficult situation.”

Macdonald offers other insights to other novels I can’t judge as yet, but do know that Ross murders people (to break Enys out of prison) and in a duel. She thinks Graham shows that having murdered someone alters people but not in a cliched way. She does not talk of his villains who I find amoral hard obtuse egoists, wrapped up in their own obsessions (George Warleggan, his henchman, Osborne Whitworth).

It has been helpful to read this book — and more to be able to comprehend some of the criticism of his mystery-suspense novels for the first time. For now I will probably not go on to write more blogs on the Poldark movies, but instead try another of his historical novels that I could find, Groves of Eagles, set in Cornwall in the later 16th century. I have begun this and his straight history, The Spanish Armada and find I like them both: as ever good character portrayals, persuasive, and an incisive living style in both.

The 1955 cover calls attention to the backdrop of a long loving relationship between Phillip and Greville: this made me think of Sam’s love for Drake Carne and how Sam succours Drake; as well as the young boy in The Forgotten Story who will presumably grow up to love the man who marries his cousin and takes them to South Africa. As with other authors, one finds paradigms drawn from the person’s inward life throughout the books.

I conclude with admitting that had this been the first novel by Winston Graham I’d read, I’d never read another :). Ever.  The format and stereotypes of plot-design got in the way of his usual themes which are about liberty for the individual or independence; political ideas about society are nowhere to be found.

It was Ross Poldark confirmed for me by Demelza/Jeremy Poldark that took me into Graham’s work. The same goes for Susan Hill: I’m a continual reader of her novels — or I’ve read many and yearn to read her latest one on reading (A Year of Reading from Home). But had the first book been The Various Haunts of Men and not The Woman in Black confirmed for me by In the Springtime of the Year/The Bird of the Night I’d never have read another. In her gothics, Hill’s quiet originality, intense understanding of distress, loneliness, the breaking of conventional pretenses about family life are (as when an older woman feels happy and freer for the first time in decades when she escapes her daughter to a home for aging people) are all disallowed by the format and plot-design of her anxiety-ridden masculinist mystery series.  They make a lot of money for her.

In Hill’s case all I’ve learned about her as a person makes me dislike her (she’s disingenuous when students contact her; I see how she tries to control information about her titles &c&c); in Graham’s from his autobiography I like him: his politics, his class background, his values which include a certain sincerity. That does make a difference too. I would not do any project on Hill (just assign the one usable book, The Woman in Black to students, using the powerful film of the early 1990s too) nor yearn to write a sequel as I have and do for Graham.

Mysteries as a form finally are so artificial and strongly fantastic; more unreal than historical fiction really; life-writing I value when it’s truthful.


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The young Helen Mirren as Marlene Dietrich

Dear friends and readers,

It’s not uncommon of me to do something at least ten years after everyone else, but twenty may be pushing it. At any rate, I finally watched Prime Suspect, Series 1 last week. It held me absorbed straight through no matter how late I put it on — a sign of its powerful content. The first series is strongly feminist. It reminded me of Gwyneth Hughes’ and Anne Pivcevic’s Five Full Days, a male genre re-seen, refueled to become a woman’s story with an interest in nuances, psychology, sentiment.

A murder victim has been raped violently, every orifice filled with sperm says the autopsy man. Mirren is Jane Tennison, a woman detective who is continually not getting the central jobs. The way the men go about it, they do “nab” a man who had been going with the girl but listen to his misogynistic talk and add to it. Mirren living with a man who has left his wife and desperately trying to make a lovely meal quickly with chocolate for his son and gets chocolate all over her blouse. She is trying to juggle two different existences.

Mirren photographed in the usual tough guy smoking looking out at world

The power of the first episode derives as much from all the men attempting to stop Jane Tennison from doing her job as from the job itself. There is far more space and time given to that or equivalent to the unfolding of the case. Especially the male sidekick of the detective who keels over and dies of a heart attack — which is what gives Tennison her opportunity.

I’m wondering if there is sexual desire for John Shefford (John Forgeham), detective who died, by his male sidekick,DS Bill Otley (Tom Bell). Indeed I suspect we are to see homoeroticism here. There is much crossing of sexual borders. Fred Rawlins whom Tennison lives with is struggling to get jobs himself — not doing super-well in the way men are supposed to do. His ex-wife is pregnant by someone else. We see him going to bed and her staying up late with her work.

Jane and her partner, Peter Rawlins (Tom Wilkinson)

The case too is opening up a conversation (I gather no one in public media really ever got near) about sexual experience for women. The detective when we first see him is given a little book by a fellow subordinate: we are to glimpse in this this detective’s own sex life on the side; the reason he suspects George Marlowe as murderer (played by John Bowe, who later was the later Poldark) is they are two of a kind. They pick up women and pay prostitutes. The examination of the prostitutes friends is accompanied by derisive attitudes of the males in the cop shop; the very wanting to close the case and blame Marlowe would have been a real botch-up. First of all the young woman murdered was not a prostitute (at least not known to be one) as the regular male detective wanted to suppose. The event would have been covered up by this false story. Bad woman (=prostitute) murdered so who cares.

No, she was a rich man’s daughter (her clothes and shoes showed this to Tennison immediately) whose body is found in this poor lodging house where women can quietly sell sex — as they have done for aeons of years. (The first evidence I know of is in Chaucer; I’ve found such patterns recorded in 19th century novelists like Trollope — Miss Mackenzie where a 35 year old maiden lady takes a flat in a poorer lodging house).)

So why was she so brutally murdered. And it is horrifying what was done to her body; she may have been strung up before killing. She was super-raped, with every orifice showing seman says the pathologist (played by Brian Pringle who was Monk in the Pallisers). The father gets intensely excited, Tennison is not to upset him by her questions.

The first episode interested me too because several (several) featured actors of the Pallisers was in it as an older man: Bryan Pringle (Mr Monk in the 1970s Pallisers) comes to mind. Pringle and other of the male stars of Pallisers played authority figures there as Police officers in other dramas: Philip Latham who swaggers very nicely even in Pallisers on occasion. I noticed a man who played a doctor in a 1970s Poldark turned up as a doctor in House of Cards.

I bring this up because there has to be a limitation of radical apprehension when the same people play the same types across genres and eras and authors and film-makers. Helen Mirren does often play the tough woman outside but inside deeply feeling and thoughtful, the outlier (so to speak); and strong as steel (as in Gosford park only breaking down at the very end, and the murderess it turns out, or one of them).

I try to note these re-appearances of specific actors and typologies for they fascinate me. It’s like a masquerade ever permeating but every coming up with sameness.

Fran suggested on WWTTA that LaPlante’s novels are weak. I should think one explanation might be the difference in genre. Novels are for private self reading and offer experience social large worlds won’t tolerate easily; movies most often reinforce the social external norms at least outwardly


Episode 2. Again, we see Helen Mirren at work, this time with Peter giving her coffee. It is so very good — and discovered that the writers of the articles on the series that I did read are accurate: we see intense tensions between her work and obligations to family life. In fact Jane chooses (gasp!) to do her work first and come be with her family second and then she can’t dismiss from her mind her work.

But the program is not unfair as we see the men not with their families but indulging themselves in violent sports (they go to boxing) and drinking and carousing and neglecting theirs too. The point is not made as explicitly, except that the hero detective Mirren replaced is now revealed as himself having been the lover of the prostitute who was brutally murdered and having himself tried to hide evidence.

The overt theme emerging is also violence against women. So, side note: Ralph Fiennes as a very young man, superb as the distraught boyfriend of the rich girl who was killed and livid at any suggestion she could have had sex with anyone but him. No he has no idea how she could have come to be in the bedsit of a prostitute and he finds Ms Tennison “disgusting” in her insinuations and behavior.

Episode 3. While the reviews and essays I’ve sent to Women Writers through the Ages at Yahoo are all good, they do tend to stay on a level of high generality, but as Blake said, to generalize is to be an idiot, and it is in the details that the reality lies. I was impressed in this third episode by Helen Mirren going herself to investigate and doing something none of the males do: making friends with the two prostitutes to some extent, visiting them, going out with them, drinking with them — with a comic sharp moment of her being mistaken for a prostitute. By doing this she unearths another murder done in the same horrible way as the two she’s investigating; she learns a lot she could not in any other way. This is a common motif of modern women’s books and films. Further, she alone then puts together the apparent truth the officer who died had been having affairs with these prostitutes and women who were murdered and she suspects him. This horrifies her boss and the deputy who has himself been covering up for Sheffield (is his name). I was disappointed that it seemed this was quickly shown not to be true, but when was the last time a highly respected officer was presented as himself the rapist and murderer whose teams covers up for him.

The film does show her relationship breaking up. I thought this done too quickly; in parts 1 and 2 they seemed to have this fine relationship with her so good to his boy. It may be the film shows how unfair the man is to demand she come home in early time to make a dinner and blames her unfairly but it seems they wanted to present the idea she had to choose between a happy private life with a man and a career. She could not both celebrate a parent’s birthday and keep up with her job because it took an obsessive interest in her mind to achieve victory.

Last I wish she were not the only women with a “hardened sidekick” type to be at the center of the film. She solidifies the idea of the exception to the rule, and she is white. Indeed all of them are by one minor office male seen briefly. This may reflect reality but probably not today — one hopes not though the riots did not encourage much idea that black and minority people are given any positions of authority anywhere.


A portrait shot found on line of Mirren as Jane Tennison: her face is caught very well by the camera, all its flexibility and depth

I finished the first story (all four episodes) and have some general observations. In the end I was disappointed by the first story. The ending does matter, and as my study showed me, this film fit a conventional presentation of male violence and rape. In some scenes Marlowe loves his mother dearly; we see him cater to her, sing songs from musicals with her. He is humanized, but at the close he is suddenly he is presented as crazy, so out of the norm as to be half unconscious, a wild Sade like monster. The reality is rape is common, and so too really mean violence, and is not outside the norm at all. Maybe not the scenario depicted here (with a full dungeon with weapons) but not that far. To make the man a monster is to absolve the society especially as by the end the other men are rooting totally for Jane and as as sickened as she. This summer we see that men (and “their” women) justify and root for bully rapists, police who are sadistic.

Beyond that Mirren played the part of a woman who takes on male characteristics. This is the way she thrives. It may be that’s the way to do it today, but it again reinforces aggression, competition, hardness. Her female sidekick is last seen whooping it up at the bar with the boys. Both of course exceptions.

So the effect badly weakened what went before: it’s the Thelma and Louise ending. In this case justice done, all celebrating. How many people have looked at me with glee and spite and cited the ending of that movie: see, that is what happens when women go off on their own.

What went before though (3/4s and more of the film) is not to be discounted since it is unusual — Lean said don’t look at the ending of his films — we are made to see male violence, the many many dead prostitutes which had the first guy in charge not had an heart attack would have gone unsolved and the serial killer left to carry on. We see that man was having affairs with the prostitutes, and covering up We see how hard it was for her to take the position.

As interesting as Shefford potentially was Zoe Wanamaker as George Marlow, murderer’s common law wife AT the close she suddenly admits she lets this man do some of this vile stuff to her — not so far as to murder and destroy — but to tie her up and play mean tricks. She protected him all along; she goes with him where he goes. Why not give us an inside portrait of her? The two prostitutes Mirren becomes friendly with and who show her this is just two cases out of many. Their lives. They are treated with a kind of respect. But I’d like to have seen much more.


1980s: Helen Mirren as Cleopatra appealing to Michael Gambon as Antony (Shakespeare’s great tragedy)

TV films are, as we know, often despised automatically: one of the values of Helen Mirren, A Celebration, Prime Suspect, ed Amy Rennert is its defense of TV work – and how it shows that great British actors move easily between TV, the live legitimate serious stage and movies. Rennert argues that TV costume dramas, those mini-series (and when they are done – rarely today — single films) are that they give a lot of time and space to close-up nuanced intimate acting in the way commercial films rarely do and symbolic theater can preclude. And here lies one of Mirren’s strengths.

Helen Mirren: A Celebration also includes stills from Mirren and Gambon in Peter Greenaways’ powerful The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover: it seems to me now to reveal the underbelly terrifying life of the woman who lives with the brute male thug criminal type (such as Mirren plays against Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday).

I’ve thought about the film adaptations of Sarah Waters’s novels, several by women teams, say Night Watch (with Claire Foy and Anne Maxwell Martin in featured roles). Waters’s book conveys the reality of alienation people feel in wartime as opposed to the usual jollying-up stories of all-togetherness while the film offers much more reassurance at key points. I’d love to see how the film treats this modern matter from a woman’s point of view, how women experienced WW2 instead of featuring the male experience (as so many films do) — I imagine much much less heroically, much more sceptically and nuanced by the context of private life fully seen the way Five Full Days does a murder mystery.

To conclude, this police film drama advances notions of social justice; we see the characters have oppressors and victims inside all of them. It’s a progressive film: it draws insights from the marginalized: the prostitutes, Marlowe’s common law wife; it locates experiences within larger social contexts; and there is a vision of collective hope and empowerment at the end when all do work together. The film by having Mirren at the center is a challenge to present social arrangements and organizations.

I’ll watch Series or Season 2 soon.


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Still from 1975-76 Poldark series: Verity Poldark (Norma Streader) dancing with her chosen suitor, Andrew Blamey (Jonathan Newt)

Dear Friends and readers,

Yesterday I wrote a proposal for the Brooklyn AGM for JASNA, and sent it to the appropriate committee person “’I am not romantic you know. I never was’: how Jane Austen’s letters enable us to recognize that women’s bodies are her fictions’ arena”. So that’s step one on my agenda for writing this month.

Today I begin step two: the project of writing — at long last — “I have a right to choose my own life:” Liberty in Winston Graham’s Poldark novels. (See “Women and Liberty”.) I think of this as a very pleasant thing to do and look forward to it. I love these novels. The work will absorb my mind while I’m doing and enable me to forget my troubles and the many hard, uncivil, indeed cruel worlds not so far off, my loneliness too. I still long (you see) perhaps fantastically to move back to New York City, and the Admiral has told me he is looking into it — apartments built around 1914 abandoned by their landlords have been taken over by the city and sold to the sitting tenants for a nominal sum. Some of these are coming on the market and people with our income are eligible. If after all Izzy’s hope now for a job does not pan out, maybe we will move.

But while I’m waiting to go to Moscow, I’ve this — and then two reviews (on Nussbaum’s book, Rival Queens: Actresses, Performances, and the Eighteenth Century Theater, and on a Cambridge University edition of Austen’s later manuscripts). And then my paper at long last on Bad Tuesdays in Austen, and then Elizabeth’s Story.

It might be asked, Why I do this. Oh dear. That’s too big. I’ll answer that another time and as Sylvia.

But more narrowly: why also put the proposal and panel description online too? It’s the first time I’ve put anything on my website for ever so long. What’s happened is I put things on blogs and since I do get a sense of readership from the blogs, it’s more satisfying immediately. Since it took me over an hour, and I had forgotten how to and have no intuition what to do at all, I had to enlist the (impatient) aid of the Admiral, I fell to asking myself, Why I do this? Because 11 to 12 years ago say, it would have been unthinkable to me to even dream of going to a conference, and here I am not just going, but giving papers, concocting panels and while there meeting with people I know and doing other stuff with them. It’s quite an accomplishment for me. So that’s why I put them there. For myself.

As to reviews, that’s a slightly different story, not so surprising for me, but I never expected this and that does increase the sense of reward.

Elizabeth Farren (1759-1829), 18th century actress, by Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830): she features in Emma Donoghue’s Life Mask as bisexual


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Renee (Josiane Balasko) and Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic) hug tightly (The Hedgehog)

Dear friends and readers,

Izzy and I continue our unplanned French Indian summer: sparkling, moving films. Just now French films seem the finest, most intelligent, unexpectedly telling movies in our neck of the world’s woods.

We began with Sarah’s Key (Elle s’appelait Sarah — more accurately Her name was Sarah), based on the eloquent subjectiveized woman’s novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, with the movie by directed and written by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, and featuring Kristin Scott Thomas:

Kirstin Scott Thomas as Sarah grown into a mature woman journalist, Julia Ja

This is a story of retrieved memory of the French complicity in the Nazi attempt to exterminate all Jewish people. The film is remarkably realistic in its rendering of the failed flight of the family, the way barbarism is inflicted, a daily mix of bullying, lies, terrors and hope (against no hope) and the first sequences at the concentration camp and the little girl’s escape; it falls off into incoherence and some inexplicable contradictory and improbable romancing (such as the heroine who stands for ulimate loyalty leaves her husband, has no trouble getting a top-paying job in NYC) towards the end. One needs to have read the book to grasp there is consistency and depth of treatment her. I did like the film enough to buy the book at the West End Cinema which had it on sale and hope to read it soon.

Last week it was The Names of Love (Les Gens des Noms — more accurately The People with Names that Count). Izzy reviewed it in her blog. What I’d like to add is underneath this one is the paradigm of the unconventional wacky woman, Baya (Sara Forestier) converts/transforms strait-laced man, Arthur (Jacques Gamblin) into giving himself up to life’s passions generously.

It is another of the countless films where the actress is much much younger than the actor but we are asked to believe they are the same age: here she urges fanciful wallpaper for their flat

Our heroine saving the lives of crabs: she does not eat, but throws them back in the water (she finds the hero’s vaunted environmentalism wanting):

Baya says she is a political whore: goes to bed with men to convert them to socialism, which provide occasions for sex scenes; the good feeling and quick pace of the film enables the audience to slide over the improbabilities. It did defy the new cold-heartedness and conformist securities. Leftism as a lark, fun. As Izzy suggests, a more serious intractable theme was its pro-immigrant France as a melting pot point-of-view, one not shared by its president and those who voted him in.

And the film we saw in the later afternoon today, The Hedgehog (Le Herisson, in the original book, L’elegance du herisson). Its startlingly ending, so moving that it took me a minute or so to take it in (and then I began to cry helplessly) prompted this blog. I wanted to urge readers to go see this film.

It’s more thoroughly heroine’s text, the story modelled on the wicked girls’ book type found in the Eloisa books, with a woman director and script writer,

Mona Achache

woman producer, Anne-Dominique Toussaint, based on a highly intellectual, wittily allusive woman’s novel by Muriel Barbery:


where Barbery plays upon and alludes to Isaiah Berlin’s famous conceit of two opposing philosophic stances, that of the Hedgehog (who knows one thing very well and follows a single doctrine) and that of the fox (who twists and turns as occasions demands, moves from one view to another). Barbery imitates or feminizes the apartment house conceit of Life: A User’s Manual (La Vie mode d’emploi) by Georges Perec (he who wrote a novel in French without an “e”). Barbary’s apartment house has six luxurious apartments and each family set teaches and entertains us relevantly.

Achache tightens the book by focusing on just on its two narrators: the aging, poor, heavy, unschooled (if not uneducated) janitor, Renee (Josiane Balasko) who reads in secret hard and great books (including Anna Karenina whose opening lines resonate through the movie) in a locked-away library:


and the 12 year old Paloma, obsessive film-maker, who keeps talking about how she’s going to kill herself (and we feel just might); she is a troubled lonely child.

We read the book together on WWTTA, and I knew I had not done justice to it because I was too tired at night to read it properly (see review by Philip French). I’d like to stress here how in the film the girl’s and woman’s story grow together until the Paloma’s alienation from her environment leads her to turn to the middle aged woman’s isolation as a low class poor person. The not-so-hidden injuries of class in the woman and how she endures this stoically enable the child to identify and bond with the janitor’s unconcealed humanity. To everyone else Renee is invisible; not to Paloma who spends much time drawing a beautiful pen-and-ink picture of Renee reading in her hidden library. The child’s mother and father are either gone from the home, or distanced through drugs, rituals. Very touching is the romance that grows up between Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa) an elderly Japanese man on the 6th floor (he comes later into the novel), and Renee, where the two people slowly begin to know one another,

When he kisses her hand outside the door, it’s sheer illuminated grace

They are beginning to become friends, trust. There is a painful moment where she refuses to go to dinner with him lest she end up hurt and then yields. He sends her gifts of a lovely dress, shawl and beautiful pumps. Towards the end of the film we see they are giving one another’s lives precious moments of happiness.

I don’t want to give the ending away. It has an ironic parallel in a real life incident that similarly ended comically tragically. Suffice to say the movie works up the audience’s anxiety: first over what the girl does to a poor goldfish (feed it a large sleeping pill) and flush it down the toilet, to what we fear she’ll do to herself and perhaps Renee’s big lazy tomcat. The cat is a central presence in the film, ever there, ever keeping Renee company. There’s a small miracle that occurs over these domestic animals. Izzy thought that everyone in the building seemed to have one or two cats; alas, I can’t find any stills of them on the Net.

If you are seeking a moment where you see people reach out with honest emotional integrity and support for one another, the last two films do this, and The Hedgehog with life’s fleeting poignancy. It is a user’s manual. Maybe one of the lessons of the film The Hedgehog is we must not hide away from one another too thoroughly.

Perhaps too Achache’s film is better than Barbey’s (overloaded) book in that having carved away the other stories and giving up on the dense literary allusion, the seeker experiences the core of the book with full emotional intensity. The pace of the film is important, the feelings grow in you, are developed naturally: it’s like watching grass grow sometimes, and you don’t realize how engaged you are in this diurnal reality until the boom is lowered. I came away longing to re-read Barbery’s book (this time carefully through).


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Stevie Smith’s drawing underneath her poem, “My Soul”

Dear friends and readers,

Stevie Smith is one of my favorite 20th century poets. I’ve been wanting to write a foremother poet blog for her, and waiting until I could re-see the movie, Stevie (1978), based on her life, and starring Glenda Jackson (director Robert Enders, writer Hugh Whittemore), but as I’ve discovered now that I can’t obtain a DVD, and tonight read a splendid literary evaluation of her poetry, have decided to go ahead without benefit of the fictional-biographical portrayal.

A second problem for me is since I like her poetry so much, and have 3 books of it (plus selections and prose writing), I just didn’t know which ones to select. But select I must, so I have chosen a mix of longer monologues, lyrical and epigrammatic verses.

To start with the latter, a poem which states simply what makes love worthwhile and lasting:


He told his life story to Mrs Courtly
Who was a widow. ‘Let us get married shortly’,
He said. ‘I am no longer passionate,
But we can have some conversation before it is too late.’

move onto the former (long monologue) where we see her overturn conventional identifications and judgemental views:


I wonder why Proust should have thought
The lines from Racine’s Phèdre
Depuis que sur ces bords les deux ont envoyé
La fille de Minos et de Pasiphaé to be
Entirely devoid of meaning,
To me they seem
As lucid as they are alarming.
I wonder why
The actresses I’ve seen
Playing Phèdre
Always indulge
In such mature agonising.
Phèdre was young,
(This is as clear in Racine as Euripides)
She was young,
A girl caught in a trap, a girl
Under the enforcement
Of a goddess.
I dare say Phèdre
In fact I’m sure of it
Was by nature
As prim as Hipolytus,
Poor girl, poor girl, what could she do
But be ashamed and hang herself,
Poor girl.

How awful the French actess
Marie Bell
Made her appear.
Poor Phèdre,
Not only to be shamed by her own behaviour
Enforced by that disgusting goddess,
Ancient enemy
Of her family,
But nowadays to have played
By actresses like Marie Bell
In awful ancient agonising, something painful

Now if I
Had been writing this story
I should have arranged for Theseus
To die,
(Well he was old)
And then I should have let
Phèdre and Hippolytus
Find Aricie out
In some small meanness,
Eating up somebody else’s chocolates,
Half a pound of them, soft-centred,
Secretly in bed at night, alone
One after another
Positively wolfing them down.
This would have put Hip off,
and Phaedra would be there too
and he would turn and see
That she was pretty disgusted , too
so then they would have got married
and everything would have been respectable
and the wretched Venus could have lumped it,
Lumped I mean Phèdre
Being the only respectable member
Of her awful family
And being happy.

I should have liked one member
of that awful family
To be happy.
What with Ariadne auf Naxos,
and Pasiphaé and that awful animal
and Minos sitting judging the Dead
In those awful dark halls.
Yes, I should like poor honorable simple sweet prim Phèdre
to be happy. One would have to be pretty simple
to be happy with a prig like Hippolytus
But she was simple
I think it might have been a go
If I were writing the story
I should have made it a go.

Even if altogether too often quoted, Not Waving But Drowning is one of her supreme and characteristic achievements, and for it I have (from a friend on WWTTA) a taped commentary and reading aloud. (I am not sure it will work; I had it on the blog but it was removed for copyright infringement after third parties apparently told someone with the power to block the UTube.) If you can find this UTube recording, you hear her unsettling way of reading aloud, a off-key frank talk that is more haunted and memorable than you at first realize. You also learn that the poem is based on a real incident of someone who really drowned while others thought he was just waving.

She lived her life with women, at one point in a house of aunts, and a sister (when she was young her father went to sea and thereafter never saw his family); this poem testifies to the beauty of the female household:

A House of Mercy

It was a house of female habitation,
Two ladies fair inhabited the house,
And they were brave. For although Fear knocked loud
Upon the door, and said he must come in,
They did not let him in.

There were also two feeble babes, two girls,
That Mrs S. had by her husband had,
He soon left them and went away to sea,
Nor sent them money, nor came home again
Except to borrow back
Her Naval Officer’s Wife’s Allowance from Mrs S.
Who gave it him at once, she thought she should.

There was also the ladies’ aunt
And babes’ great aunt, a Mrs Martha Hearn Clode,
And she was elderly.
These ladies put their money all together
And so we lived.

I was the younger of the feeble babes
And when I was a child my mother died
And later Great Aunt Martha Hearn Clode died
And later still my sister went away.

Now I am old I tend my mother’s sister
The noble aunt who so long tended us,
Faithful and True her name is. Tranquil.
Also Sardonic. And I tend the house.

It is a house of female habitation
A house expecting strength as it is strong
A house of aristocratic mould that looks apart
When tears fall; counts despair
Derisory. Yet it has kept us well. For all its faults,
If they are faults, of sternness and reserve,
It is a Being of warmth I think; at heart
A house of mercy.

This the anguish of loss of such a friendship in a softly melting lyric:

Pad pad

I always remember your beautiful flowers
And the beautiful kimono you wore
When you sat on the couch
With that tigerish crouch
And told me you loved me no more

What I cannot remember is how I felt when you were unkind
All I know is, if you were unkind now I should not mind.
Ah me, the power to feel exaggerated, angry and sad
The years have taken from me. Softly I go now, pad pad.

Drawing by Stevie Smith

I like this brilliant art criticism (how imitations tarnish and bring out what’s bad in the better version of something too). I think of Kenneth Clark’s The Nude is after all endless pictures of naked women for men to look at and judge; he is perfectly unconcerned (the phrase is Austen’s about Lydia Bennet) with their circumstances, context, the models themselves.

Salon d’Automne

One thousand and one naked ladies
With a naivete
At once pedantic and unsympathetic
Deck the walls
Of the Salon d’Automne.
This is the Slap school of art,
It would be nice
To smack them
Slap, slap, slap,
That would be nice.
It is possible
One might tire of smacking them In time
But not so soon
As one tires of seeing them.
We too
Have our pedantic and unsympathetic
It used to show
A feeling for animals.
The English are splendid with animals,
There was The Stag at Bay
And Faithful unto Death,
And Man’s Best Friend the horse this time
Usually under gunfire,
The English are splendid with animals.
That older school
Was perhaps
On an intellectual level
With the Salon d’Automne.
Nowadays, of course,
We are more advanced:
The bad modern painter
Has lost the naivete
Of that earlier school
And in its place
Has developed a talent
For making the work of his betters
Seem stale
By uninspired Imitation.
This is more tiring
Than the thousand and one
Naked ladies.

This poem of a dance performance at a school, dated June 1939. The poet is there watching them, and the imagery of a “cold summer sky” and dark hard currents in the air, with something “equivocal” underneath the “veneer” of a “vision of innocence” soon to come to an end connects to the coming war:

The Ballet of the Twelve Dancing Princesses


The schoolgirls dance on the cold grass
The ballet of the twelve dancing princesses
And the shadows pass

Over their cold feet

Above in the cold summer sky the clouds mass
The icy wind blows across the laurel bushes
The sky is hard blue and gray where a cloud rushes
The sky is icy blue it is like the night blue where a star pushes.

But it is not night
It is daytime on an English lawn.
The scholars dance. The weather is as fresh as dawn.
Dawn and night are the webs of this summer’s day
Dawn and night the tempo of the children’s play.

Who taught the scholars? Who informed the dance?
Who taught them so innocent to advance
So far in a peculiar study? They seem to be in a trance.
It is a trance in which the cold innocent feet pass
To and fro in a hinted meaning over the grass
The meaning is not more ominous and frivolous than the clouds
that mass.

There is nothing to my thought more beautiful at this moment
Than a vision of innocence that is bound to do something
I sense something equivocal beneath the veneer of an innocent
Tale and in the trumpet sound of the icy storm overhead there is
The advance of innocence against a mutation that is irrevocable
Only in the imagination of that issue joined for a split second is
the idea beautiful.


Stevie Smith, photograph on the Net

There are a large number of sites for Florence Margaret Smith (1902-71), which retell her life and offer criticism of her poetry and prose and art as well as cite books and articles: see, e.g., wikipedia tells us also that she suffered from depression all her life, a popular biography and bibliography by Anne Bryan

What follows is a summary of Jane Dowson’s critical essay (a rare good one), her introduction to her selection in Women’s Poetry of the 1930s: A Critical Anthology, with a few interjections of my own (put in parentheses).

Dowson begins by telling us that Smith was self-educated: she found the environment of the “prestigious North Collegiate School for Girls repressive,” and did not go on to college for she foresaw for herself only a career as a teacher, which she did not want to do. She read on her own and took classes in literature, theology, the arts, classics, history. In 1922 she became a secretary to the publishers George Newnes and Nevil Pearson and remained so for 30 years. She wrote prolifically despite repeated rejections from publishers.

She is “framed as an idiosyncratic spinster” though she was later known also for her theatrical readings of her poems (see above). She makes people uncomfortable with her announced preference for death, and readers have found her poetry “unclassifiable.” Philip Larkin called her work “facetious bosch” (in the UTube she obviously has an over-the-top plummy accent, while mocking all pretension.) , but, as Dowson says, “disregard for convention is … a contrived and political gesture.” She renders class and status distinctions irrelevant by “integrating folk culture, ballds, nusery rhymes, hymn tunes, and proverbial sayings.”

Perhaps most striking is her “irreverence” and “literary referentiality” whereby she produces a kind of “metacommunication” (the poems are self-conscious). Dowson’s themes is the social conscience of her chosen women and Smith has strong “socialist sympathies” with outsiders, “children, women, and the socially disadvantaged.” She “challenges” “groupismus.” She opposes “institutionalized uniformity,” and there is a “dialectic of mass culture versus elitism” (see her “Salone d’Automne” and “Sterilization”).

This is “not light-hearted verse;” there is much “unease” and a use of “psychological realism” (which makes for deep melancholy). Her feminism is in her use of off-beat figures, unusual identifications, and “portraits of powerlessness.” “Betrayal” is a central theme, and we see women “the casualties of men’s freedom to choose (“Marriage I think” has an abandoned wife). She rejects “the discourses of power” (academic or hierarchical, traditional viatic poetry). There’s a “persistent transgression” of “conventional assumptions” of all sorts from many areas of life.

By dismissing the poems as “odd or strange” or “eccentric” readers are trying to undo her desire to upset the security of decorums (a kind of disguise). Dowson ends her introduction by quoting Smith’s answer to some of these critics:

You will say: But your poems are all story poems, you keep yourself hidden. Yes. But all the same, my whole life is in these poems … everything I have lived through, and done, and seen, and read and imagined and thought and argued. Then why do I turn them all upon other people, imaginary people, the people I create? It is because … it gives proportion and eases the pressure.”

I close with these three from Jane Dowson’s anthology:

From Jane Dowson’s anthology:


Carve delinquency away,
Said the great Professor Clay.

A surgical operation is just the thing
To make everybody as happy as a king.

But the great Dostoievsky the Epileptic
Turned on his side and looked rather sceptic.

And the homosexual Mr. Wilde
Sat in the sunshine and smiled and smiled.

And a similarly inclined older ghost in a ruff
Stopped reading his sonnets aloud and said ‘Stuff’

And the certainly eccentric Swift, Crashawe and Donne,
Silently shook hands and thanked God they had gone.

But the egregious Professor Clay
Called on Theopompous and won the day.

And soon all our minds will be flat as a pancake,
With no room for genius exaltation or heartache.

And our children and theirs will preen, smirk and chatter,
With not even the sense to ask what is the matter.

Drawing placed to the side of “Marriage I think”

Marriage I think
For women
Is the best of opiates
It kills the thoughts
That think about the thoughts,
It is the best of opiates.
So said Maria.
But too long in solitude she’d dwelt,
And too long her thoughts had felt
Their strength. So when the man drew near,
Out popped her thoughts and covered him with fear.
Poor Maria!
Better that she had kept her thoughts on a chain,
For now she’s alone again and all in pain;
She sighs for the man that went and thoughts that stay
To trouble her dreams by night and her dreams by day.

A last rejecting any heterosexual relationship as a necessary solution to life’s lack of meaning, a child speaking to her mother:


What shall I say to the gentlemen, mother,
They stand in the doorway to hear what is said,
Waiting and watching and listening and laughing,
Is there no word that will send them away?

What shall I say to the gentlemen, mother,
What shall I say to them, must I say nothing?
If I say nothing, then will they not harm us,
Will they not harm us and shall we not suffer?

What shall I say to the gentlemen, mother?
See, they are waiting, and will not depart.
Closed are your eyelids, your lips closed in silence
Cannot instruct me, oh what shall I answer?

Dowson cites Seamus Heaney, “A Memorable Voice,” Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978 (London, Faber, 1980, pp. 199-201); Martin Pumphrey, “Play, Fantasy and strange laughter: Stevie Smith’s uncomfortable poetry,” Critical Quarterly, 28:3 (1986):85-96; Francis Spalding, Stevie Smith: A Critical Biography (Faber, 1988) and Jack Barbera and Wm McBrien, Stevie: A Biography (Heineman, 1985)

Glenda Jackson as Stevie Smith

I add a further selection: Edward Hirsh, “Stevie: the Movie, a Column,” American Poetry Review, 29:4 (2000):32-27, an evaluation of the film (low-budget, low-tech art movie, surprisingly profound and deeply felt”) and poetry, which strongly praises both (“a heartbreaking brightness we needed all along”): he quotes her: “I’m probably a couple of sherries below par most of the time.”

Romana Huk, “Misplacing Stevie Smith,” a review of Catherine Civello’s Patterns of Ambivalence: The Fiction and poetry of Stevie Smith, and Laura Severin’s Stevie Smith’s Resistant Antics, in Contemporary Literature 40:3 (1999):507-23.

Sheryl Stevenson, Stevie Smith’s Voices, Contemporary Literature, 33:1 (1992):24-45.

Jack Barbera, “The Relevance of Stevie Smith’s Drawings,” Journal of Modern Literature 12:2 (1985):221-36. The drawings done separately prompted more poems, and they provide specific instances, grim, jokey, of the general assertions or themes of the poems.

The House of OverDew (drawing placed above poem, by Stevie Smith

My books at home are Stevie Smith: A Selection, edited by Hermione Lee (with an excellent introduction, Faber 1983); Stevie Smith, Selected Poems (New Directions, 1962); and Me Again: Stevie Smith: Uncollected Writings, Illustrated by Herself, edited by Jack Barbera and Wm McBrien (Vintage,1983)

See further foremother blogs in Reveries under the Sign of Austen, Two


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