Archive for November, 2012

The death of Dido

Dear friends and readers,

Sometimes we do go to live operas. And most of the time it’s one of the productions of Carla Huber’s In-Series, now in its 30th (yes thirtieth!) year. I want you to know how wonderful, original and daring this theater has been.

We were privileged on Tuesday night to be able to to go to a performance of the now over 200-year old chamber Baroque opera by Henry Purcell (composer) and Nahum Tate (librettist-poet): Dido & Aeneas, his abandonment of her taken from Virgil’s 4th book of the Aeneas. I think this may be the third time I’ve seen it: once downstairs in Vivian Beaumont Theater in NYC (a 1970s short-lived attempt to do small operas at the Met, Piccolo Met), once at the Folger, and now on just off U-Street.

This time the theater was so crowded, there was not an empty seat. I fear not everyone knew what they were in for. I heard one woman gong on about the interesting plot, and during the intermission someone behind me exploded with irritation because she was completely grated upon by the formality, conventions, music itself of this 17th century piece. She “had not expected this!” The second piece was a ballet by Manuel Falla, El Amor Brujo (Love by Sorcery), whose puppet show version of Don Quixote Jim and I saw at Castleton a couple of summers ago, Master Pedro’s Puppet Show. It was very still: basically we watch a woman’s nightmare enacted in front of her.

I suspect many in the audience were there for Carla — or because they go to her productions. She seems to know so many people, even recognizes us (or pretends to successfully). She is a miracle woman. Thirty years ago she quit a teaching post in music in a local college and started up this theater. Most women who do it (and women do it) leave off after a couple of years at most: Catherine Flyte ran out of money; you have praise that’s high and not many people come; it’s vexing and tiring and often thankless. Exhausting. She manages partly by devoting half her time to Spanish cabaret which brings in a popular crowd. But she does not compromise quality, taste, intelligence either in her higher culture or more popular ethnic productions. Sometimes the costumes and production design is clearly done on a shoestring budget, and she moves from theater to theater. But she sustains herself. Five Mozart operas where the libretto was rewritten to be modern and relevant. Carmen redone from Jose’s point of view.

This Dido and Aeneas was stylistically performed, beautifully sung, and the costumes lovely and appropriate, but (as we have before) we wondered if there is not a problem in the opera itself. Nahum Tate’s libretto seems to veer between sceptical slightly mocking comedy (subtly seen in the light-hearted witches) and the plangent tragedy of an abandoned woman. That Aeneas is given this hopelessly inadequate explanation for himself does not help matters in the sense of understanding the opera’s stance. Jim suggested that perhaps the origin of the first production explains the see-saw quality where sometimes you find something ludicrous in language or act and cannot be sure it was meant to be funny. Purcell did the opera for a school of young women (girls really) and wrote a moralistic “warning lesson” for them. Nahum Tate, fresh from the Restoration theater, with its ribaldry and misogyny made fun. Or perhaps it was the other way round.

Remarkable how many of these masterpiece-gems in the later 17th cetnury are plays written for schoolgirls to perform: Racine’s Athalie one example. Even more: how adult and grave the content can be.

Be that as it may (as they say), the music is exquisitely poignant in Dido’s famous lament. I embed a YouTube from Hampton court; do click and listen:

I know much less about Love Through Sorcery. It too places a forlorn woman at the center, but she is not a passive or accepting victim. The first version was a gypsy scene. Originally Candelas was a gypsy from Cadiz who goes to a cave to a sybil to ask the witch to conjure up her lost lover. As directed by Alan Paul, this version gave us a working woman whose lover has died, but she cannot rid herself of ambivalent memories. She works up the courage to summon him, and remembers good as well as very bad times in order to exorcise the demon from her soul. The piece included dancing by an alter ego, pantomime, much poetry. I suppose it was a ghost opera. By contrast, Falla’s Don Quixote episode was witty and pessimistic. Both modern disillusioned pieces.

An excerpt of the ballet done traditionally in a large theater:


I asked the next morning on C18-l was there any literature, any secondary studies of this play. No answer cameth. But one friend said she finds herself driven wild by Dido: the play is so a male point of view.

The libretto is written strictly from a man’s POV … I, too, love the music -— Purcell was a musical genius -— our choir has sung some of his works [from his and Dryden’s “King Arthur”] and they were more fun to sing every time we rehearsed them). She was a queen! She’d get over that guy in no time flat -— I can’t stand Aeneas in this version. I just want to go up and slap her, shake her, and say “Get a grip, girl!” But that’s just me, most likely.

An essential source: “Stanley Sadie & associates, New Grove Dictionary of Music (‘Grove 5’) for reliable sources, mostly musicologists, on Purcell. (Purcell, one of my favorite subjects.)”

It is true that Purcell turns Virgil’s stoic male tale into one of the many tragedy queen operas to come. No different I suppose than many of our (by some) worshipped modern numinous stars and dead queens too (Marilyn Monroe dead at 33, Princess Diana), only more obvious. Think of all the Schiller based operas. A number of women poets wrote satiric responses to these tragedy queens, among them Anne Finch on Jane Shore (the play itself was political), Elizabeth Tollett on Anne Boleyn, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu on Mary Queen of Scots, to name but three.

So, gentle reader if you require an antidote to Dido’s lament, here’s

An Epilogue to a new play of Mary Queen of Scots [never finished], design’d to be spoke by Mrs Oldfield by Mary Montagu

What could Luxurious Woman wish for more
To fix her Joys, or to extend her Power?
Their every Wish was in this Mary seen,
Gay, Witty, Youthful, Beauteous and a Queen!
Vain useless Blessing with ill Conduct joyn’d!
Light as the Air, and Fleeting as the Wind.
What ever Poets write, or Lovers vow;
Beauty, what poor Omnipotence hast thou!
Queen Bess had Wisdom, Councel, Power
How few espous’d a Wretched Beauty’s Cause!
Learn hence, ye Fair, more solid charms to prize …

If you will Love, love like Eliza then,
Love for Amusement like those Traitors, Men.
Think that the Pastimes of a Leisure Hour
She favour’d oft — but never shar’d her Power.

The Traveller by Desart Wolves persu’d,
If by his Art the savage Foe’s subdu’d,
The World will still the noble Act applaud,
Tho’ Victory was gain’d by needfull Fraud.

Such is (my tender Sex) our helpless Case
And such the barbarous Heart, hid by the begging Face.
By Passion fir’d, and not with held by Shame,
They cruel Hunters are, we trembling Game.

Trust me Dear Ladys (for I know ‘em well),
They burn to Triumph, and they sigh — to tell.
Cruel to them that Yeild, Cullys to them that sell.
Beleive me tis by far the wiser Course,
Superior Art should meet superior force.

Hear: but be faithfull to your Interest still,
Secure your Hearts, then Fool with who you will.

and Anne Finch’s The audience tonight seems so very kind. Tollett is not so satiric because her Anne writes the night before she is to be beheaded, but she is far wryer, corroded than Tate and Purcell’s Dido. It is also fair to say that Dido has not been picked as a favorite tragedy queen by other men, and in women’s poetry is often used as a Penelope type icon: strong, individual, independent, and ethical, even if done in the end. Anne Finch identifies with this Dido in an autobiographical teasing poem to her husband, asking him to come home after a quarrel: A Letter to Daphnis at London

Not that I don’t love Traviata.

I digress in order to suggest some lines of identification and full context. for both Dido and Candelas (who might be seen as a quiet prosaic daughter of Merimee’s Carmen in the short tale).

We ate out in a nearby good small French restaurant and I had my first ratatouille in years. Washed down by Merlot. Jim a steak similarly washed down.

In January Carla will do Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito on Mozart’s birthday. Since Jim and I and Izzy are going this Saturday to an HD Met performance I’ll be able to compare. I’ll bet Carla’s is as good, and perhaps more relevant. Who knows? maybe the libretto will be one of her updated ones.

In honor of the In-Series and Carla Huber, apparently not a lamenting dying nor ghost-haunted lady.


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Thomas Sully, Martha Jefferson Randolph (1836, the last year of Martha’s life), it’s said she’s looks younger than she did, but the resemblance is true and like that of her father

Dear friends and readers,

As I wrote last time, with this book I felt I had come back to one of my first books that had real content, Patsy Jefferson (by whom I do not know). I’m still not satisfied; while major parts of the falsifying sentimental picture of this woman that appealed to me and stayed in my memory have been corrected, a lot not. The loving father-and-daughter, the well-educated young girl & effective Washington DC hostess for the president now has been filled out with Patsy or Martha’s education (I shall call her Martha as that was her name when she grew older), adult woman’s life, difficult last years, I was still left with a white world. At each turn, for each chapter of Martha’s life the African-American people she was surrounded by were presented as an afterthought, a couple of sketched in paragraphs, apart from everything else. Paradoxically too Jefferson himself was somehow omitted: his attitudes towards women’s education, and his white wife and daughters, his outward public politics, and shaping decisions, to some extent why he went broke in the end, but nothing inward, none of his philosophy.

And yet I did like the book and recommend it for what it does. MJR belongs with thorough studies of upper class educated white southern women of the 18th and through the middle 19th century; Kierner is really readable and adds to our knowledge of the texture of such women’s lives. She also gives a frank if too discrete depiction of a slave-based society.

Love & Death at Monticello; Patsy Jefferson’s education

The various plantations where Jeffersons’ family found refuge during the war

Kierner’s opening chapter concentrates on creating the world of mid-18th century plantation, colonial, settler’s life. Thomas Jefferson fell in love with, but also married prudently a widow, Martha Wayles Skelton, daughter of John Whales. When she came to Monticello, she brought with her as property, the children grown into adults her father had had by an enslaved woman, Elizabeth Heminges. Among them were two brothers, James and Robert, whom Jefferson trained to be a French cook and a valet, and Elizabeth’s (unacknowledged because a slave) half-sister, Sarah known to history as Sally Hemings. The first chapter covers the Jefferson’s family during the time he was a colonial official and then a participant-rebel-architect of the American revolution. Jefferson’s first career, the dangerous revolt and his rise to national prominence. Jefferson was Governor of the colony of Virgina, and the family lived in a beautiful mansion (large and fashionable for Americans, but destroyed in 1781, a fire). Then Jefferson’s position and place enabled him to receive and convey political and military information for the revolution.

We all remember the British lost, maybe not that Jefferson’s military behavior was wanting. Virginia was a main theater for some of the Revolutionary battles, and though Lafayette had arrived with a force of 1200 men, Jefferson did not call out the local militia to defend Richmond itself. The criticism heaped on him led him to do what he periodically did throughout his life: retire from public office and imply he would not be back. Until very old, he would return.

Suffice to say while the family sustained losses (including it’s recorded 30 slaves who successfully escaped), they emerged sufficiently wealthy to return to Monticello and make it again a center of local social life. Meanwhile Jefferson’s wife, Martha had had six live births or babies, and many miscarriages; two children only survived to adulthood, Martha when young called Patsy and her younger sister, Mary or Maria when young called Polly. Her fate is one Kierner records frequently: the woman slowly grew feebler with continual pregnancies and childbed ordeals, and died of them.

Jefferson was a man dependent on women for affection; he liked having women around him, and treated the young Martha as a substitute wife, a companion from the time her mother died. She was intellectually gifted. Jefferson was hostile to women having any independent careers, public power, but eager to educate those able to able to in the finer arts and thought of their society, to provide them with manners and the wherewithal to run a large household effectively and educate their own children. They were to be companions to men (very Rousseau). The portrait of the Martha that emerges is of a gifted young woman living in a society that developed these gifts for a private domestic life, leaving her room and time to fulfill herself and do limited good within her terrain.

Hotel de Langeac, Paris, Jefferson’s large mansion

When the new US was (so to speak) in place, Jefferson managed to secure the ambassadorship to France for himself after spending a good deal of time in Philadelphia (then the culture capital of the US) and Boston. He took Patsy with him, each time leaving her with a woman to live with to guide and educate her. One worked out well, of an enlightened intelligent mind, the other a narrow religious type she had to struggle with. She did have resentments against being left behind and the education she had to undergo — “finishing” (drawing dancing). When they went to Paris, Jefferson put her in a convent. This would seem to contradict his apparent stance that he took her with him for company and to be a hostess for him. Kierney says it was because the convent offered the best education to be had; but Jefferson wanted his daughter chaste, sheltered. He brought Patsy to Paris as a front for him to appear conventional. While there, he had a liaison, with the married Maria Cosway, an Italian-English artist; it’s revealing of his character that Jefferson remained friends with Maria by letters until his death.

The convent was French Catholic and Martha did have a period of religious enthusiasm where she told her father she longed to become a nun — soon after which she was pulled out. Nonetheless, she emerged cosmopolitan in attitudes by the whole experience. In the convent and then in her father’s house, she came across all sorts of attitudes, including outright condemnation of slavery and she herself wrote a few remarks showing she understood the abysmal horrors of this condition. Then her sister, Polly (who had never known the mother and didn’t know the father by then) was brought over (against Polly’s will) to accompany Patsy and Polly joined her father as another companion (sort of).

It was around the time Martha was taken from the convent and was joined by her sister that her life with her father changed. Polly had been accompanied by Sarah Hemings (as a sort of enslaved caretaker-governess); Sarah was a year younger than Martha and 4 years older than Polly. Sarah was also these girls’ aunt (their mother’s half-sister). Robert as Jefferson’s valet and James as the French cook were already there — mingling with the French free servants. I note they were also his wife’s half-brothers, thus Martha’s uncles (and slaves). It seems that by the time Jefferson left Paris for home again Sally was pregnant by him. Suddenly when Kierner tells the reader this, she also says that it’s probable Patsy wrote many letters during this period but all have been destroyed. Well, duh. I wonder why. I imagine she was shocked.

Jefferson was in Paris a total of 7 years. Martha had fallen in love with a Wm Stone, a protege of Jefferson, very intelligent, sophisticated, Stone had gone to Wm and Mary and come with Jefferson, but he declined to return. He had had a number of affairs with the wives of French aristocrats and preferred the relatively free liberated life of France. Martha herself made friends while there, and her Paris life remained in her mind as a high point in her existence, a time when she envisioned for herself a life of liberty and social engagement.

The picture of this family going home may seem to a 21st century mind awkward: Jefferson, Patsy and Polly, the whites and Sally, Robert and James Hemingses, the blacks who slept apart in slaves’ quarters. It’s at this point that Kierner drops in passing how much Sally looked like the white wife, Martha, now dead. The question arises why they didn’t stay in Paris? Kierner says it’s supposed Jefferson promised to free them all when he died, and to free Sally’s children at age 21. I suggest that living with him in relative opulence was superior to having nowhere to turn for jobs or sustenance, no network but Jefferson’s and the one at home was the deciding factor. Jefferson treated Sally as somewhere between a mistress and slave; she had no status — it has to be remembered how a slave is someone defined as w/o any status at all.

Wife, mother, plantation mistress

Martha’s husband Thomas Mann Randolph (1768-1828)

Told by a less discreet, less determinedly optimistic author, Martha’s marriage would turn into a story of how after a mere two months back, centrally because Jefferson had made Sally his mistress-wife, he married Martha off to a friend of his, Thomas Mann Randolph, whose properties abutted, whose family had intermarried with the Jeffersons. Within a few years Randolph the son’s ill-tempered and highly emotional personality emerged, and when the plantation business failed (very hard to achieve given his role as Jefferson’s substitute-aid again and again politically), he became “unstable and abusive,” even in his last decade someone who moved in and out of psychosis.

But this is not the way Kierner tells us. She produces Sally in Monticello as Jefferson’s slave-mistress very much as an afterthought as a reason for wanting to remove Patsy from the house. She concedes others have explained this over-hasty, over-young marriage as a result of Sally’s pregnant presence.

Kierner tells us that Tom Randolph and Patsy Jefferson were childhood sweethearts, of how intelligent Tom was, how much he admired Jefferson, how as the eldest son of the Randolphs he was set to inherit, how natural it all was. Only the lack of time was unusual. And yes maybe Patsy was bit young, just 17. Hard to say, only that what happened was after in the earliest couple of years of her marriage, initially living afar from Monticello, and then wanting to come back to live, Patsy’s desire to be near and with her father re-asserted itself and she and her husband first moved to a property nearby and then into Monticello itself. The couple at first did seem happy enough and worked hard to make themselves independent plantation master and mistress while Jefferson went off to serve in New York city where the political center of the country was. (Taking Sally with him.) Within 5 years Patsy had 4 children.

The Randolph family did not cooperate with Jefferson’s scheme of providing for Martha through their heir and placing her in a thriving atmosphere. Tom’s father remarried a much younger woman, Gabriella Harvie — she too the daughter of a friend and she just entrenched herself in the big house, and she had a son. Then Tom’s father wrote a new will giving most of his property to the new son. A close relative, another Tom Randolph impregnated Nancy, his wife’s sister, who seemed continually to be living with them; worse yet, when it was born, he helped her murder it. They thought to cover it up but the slaves saw and eventually the magistrates saw they would have to prosecute. The court exonerated the couple (so not only juries nullify) and Nancy and Tom and Judith took up life together again, only soon after Tom died, and then Nancy and Judith was left alone with little property.

An interesting set of statistics brought in at one point: in Albemarle where Tom and Patsy had their main property near Monticello 5579 slaves accounted for 44% of the population; the county’s 9226 slaves were the majority. To do Patsy’s husband justice he at first did not want to have more than a minimum of slaves, wanted a small holding and to be an attorney, but found he could not make money that way and found he didn’t have time to study. It’s clear that many of these wealthy people lived on an edge and their wealth was very much dependent on free slave labor, slaves they didn’t have to treat well.

Tom did not that quickly succumb to too much stress, emotional, and some kind of organic illness. He held public office, and what did him in more than anything else was debt. Debt was the burden of the southern plantation owner.
Martha spent much of her life making sure that illness did not conquer her children, a major feat with malaria everywhere. Educating them. She ran an efficient plantation too, and an important presence in her life was Molly Hemings, Sally’s niece. Molly was the daughter of Mary, Sally’s sister and thus another half-sister of Jefferson’s first wife. Jefferson has Martha and Maria (Polly’s name changed to that when she grew up, and she too was married off to a son of one of Jefferson’s friends and county allies) come to Washington to be his hostesses.

Chapter 4 comes to an end with Kierner’s suddenly telling of the children Sally had by Jefferson before Jefferson became president, Harriet, a girl who died at age 4 and William Beverly. Jefferson’s children by Sally were given white names.

Kierner does say there is a disconnect between the life Martha was allowed to live in Paris and the expectations for her future she could have formed there — especially watching how other upper class women lived. If so, and if the life thrust upon her quickly, ever felt at odds with what she had dreamed for herself, Martha never said so.

The President’s Daughter

Washington DC, 1800

Martha and her sister, Maria, spent two periods in Washington DC acting as hostess for their father. This was not easy for them as both had responsibilities to their husbands and homes and children. But he needed someone to present a socially acceptable face and family to the DC world. Since sometime after Jefferson became president for the first time the first raw and mean caricatures of Sally as his mistress-bull were printed, I guess that he took the bold step of taking her with him to DC. There is something unusual here: southern men did simply take black woman as if some kind of animal they had a right to, or sometimes more humanly but Jefferson’s behavior was too consistent and continual towards Sally; he also named her children with names from his family and white culture and he was bringing them up with education. Thus he was a target for ridicule and derision as part of campaigns by those who disagreed with his policies.

The tale of Jefferson’s two daughters’ lives is otherwise yearly pregnancies, childbed traumas, and babies for Martha, with Maria finally (like her mother before her) dying of this. Martha’s husband, Tom gradually gets deeper into debt. At one point they feel forced to sell a large group of black people south.

Then we have Jefferson’s post-presidency years. The book is organized along the lines of Jefferson’s life because Patsy (or Martha) organized her life in accordance with where her father was. Yet Jefferson kept his distance. We are told his part of the house were his, and Martha’s family was leary of coming into these places (library, his bedroom, a sitting room). Sally is mentioned once and we hear of more children as well as other Hemingses trained to do skilled work (John, a master woodworker, p 169)

For Martha of course yet more children too, more deterioration of her and her husband’s finances. Again Kierner is the justifier, seeking balance and cheerful normalization. Tom craved respect as a man and joined the military and made a temporary success out of that. Martha was afraid of losing Tom (by death) and got him to resign, but he felt he had won respect. Kierner recounts how most accounts of Martha’s life tell of much unhappiness and discord because finally the husband could not accept his second place and says that’s not so, there was much compatibility and satisfaction. Perhaps. But all Kierner’s details are of clash, discord. They did sell a huge parcel of land again.

Perhaps the nadir of this phase of Martha’s life is found in what happened to her daughter, Anne, whom Martha had married off young to a nearby neighbor, Charles Bankhead. Bankhead turned out to be not just a gambler, and unfaithful but violent. He assaulted his wife and not one member of the family — not Jefferson, not Martha, tried to protect her. It was okay for this man to beat this woman in another room. They would not interfere and said they were powerless. So here you have your aristocratic home with elegant knowledge and how is a chief daughter treated? (pp. 168-169) One day this man stabbed Martha’s oldest son, Jeff and almost killed him. Again (as with the early infanticide incident) there were charges but the man was found not guilty. Since her family would not help her, it’s almost fortunate that Anne was dead by 36 — the yearly pregnancies hadn’t helped either.

Martha tried to find good husbands for her other daughters. She made efforts to step them from marrying young — as she had, her (dead) sister had and now her daughter, Anne. She sent them to DC to women she knew there (Dolly Madison among them) to find suitors. One problem was she had kept them too much at home and they were awkward and somehow naive.

Decay and dissolution

The entrance hall to Monticello

A bright spot for Tom, the husband, was he became governor three times. There was no general election; you were elected by the members of the state senate. Along with his military record, this gave him a boost. Ellen, Martha’s daughter had married late and well and is happy with a well-to-do lawyer in Boston, has a baby. But the debts became overwhelming, Thomas Jefferson’s too, and by the end of the chapter Martha’s husband has had to sell most of his beloved property and also slaves. He does feel bad about this — as does she and she tries not to sell some house servants and succeeds to a certain extent. One wanted to be sold because she so hated her father who beat her. At Monticello and other Jefferson properties “enslaved persons’ to keep Kierner’s formulation were allowed to marry and encouraged to live in family groups.

Tom finally separates from Martha. He had himself been if not physically abusive, emotionally so in the last years together. He had suffered from the comparison of himself to Jefferson; now Tom’s eldest son, Jeff, the same Jeff who was stabbed was left all the property by Jefferson — some in trust for his mother. This Jeff was not intellectual and did poorly at university but he was a very good businessman. Tom could not accept this. It was Jeff who pushed his father, Tom, to sell his property and then Jeff himself bought it, cut it into parcels and sold each separately, making a profit — something badly needed.

Jefferson took a long time dying. While just ill, Lafayette came once more and it was a happy time — both aging men cried. Again Kierner is grating. It seems to take her a real effort to finally admit the last 2 week vigil of Martha sitting by her father included Sally in that room. It also is hard to her to call Jefferson’s sons by Sally his sons. They were freed shortly before he died and sent on their way as apprentices and with skills — well out of the area to protect them. Sally was (oddly)was not freed. I don’t know why not and it’s not explained. She goes to live with a (suddenly appealing) grandchild and other Hemings relatives in Charlottesville. Nominally she and they remain owned by Martha. It was an understood arrangement which worked. Salley died in 1835.

So the chapter closes, and Martha must leave her home. She chooses first to live with Ellen in Boston. Her other unmarried daughters plan to open a school. Jess is a businessman farmer. They all did dislike slavery, on record about this and they now own very few — house and personal servants. she staved off opening a school and teaching. She would say she wanted to, but in a revealing phrase, she concedes that since people send their children to learn whatever it is for a few short years at most, you must ever be introducing a pupil to an area, giving them elementary background and never get to where it’s interesting. So all her languages knowledge would have devolved into grammar exercises.

For Martha’s last years, see comments.


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Some people say that life is the thing, but I much prefer reading.” — Logan Pearsall Smith

“I have lost friends, some by death… others through sheer inability to cross the street. — Virginia Woolf

Hans Holbein, possibly Katherine Howard (fifth wife of Henry VIII)

Dear friends and readers,

Do you find, gentle reader, that you sometimes remember the very first books you ever loved or read and realize that on some level you are still delving there? The first adult books I ever read — taken out of the adult library with an adult card were fat thick biographies of Renaissance queens. I still see the sturdy dull brown covers (they were recovered older books) of 2 books one on Margaret de Navarre and one on her daugjhter, Jeanne d’Albret. Many years later: how many years did I spend reading, researching Renaissance women, writing about them? I’ve now read Margaret’s long inward meditation Dante-like journey poem, Prisons, in an English translation, her spiritual “chansons” in French and literary critical books, one on her and Vittoria Colonna compared (Silvia Laura Ansermin), others on the Heptameron, especially good, Patricia Francis Chokalian, Rape and Writing in the Heptameron, and one of the most vivid insightful books on a Renaissance woman I’ve ever found, Francois Kermina’s Jeanne d’Albret: La mere passionnee d’Henri IV, and what I felt was its cousin Kermina’s study of Madame Roland or la Passion Revolutionaire.

It seems to me that part of my graduate study and the first 20 years of reading and writing after I left graduate school which culminated in my translations of Vittoria Colonna and Veronica Gambara and my student of Renaissance women’s life-writing is another coming full circle.

A modern imagined idea of Sally Hemings from some contemporary descriptions, probably idealized

Well, I’ve been unexpectedly hooked by a book I can’t recommend but will blog about when I’ve finished it: Cynthia Kierner’s Martha Jefferson Randolph, Daughter of Monticello, the oldest white daughter of Thomas Jefferson by his first wife, Martha Wayles Skelton. It’s remarkably readable, and reveals sufficiently a particular life of an 18th century gentlewoman at the same time as it consistently omits much about the second central player, Jefferson himself: his political vision as well as his private life apart from his white family and public life: the relationship with the woman who had she not been African-American and his slave might have been called his second wife: Sally Hemings. Sally certainly lived enough years with and bore many children by him.

I’m intrigued by a relationship I can’t delve: one of the first semi-adult books I remember reading, around age 10, was a slenderish (novella-length) biography meant for say an adolescent, Patsy Jefferson. I can’t recall the author. It was not a “young adult fiction” (or non-fiction), of the sort publishers produce today, deliberately written to a niche, simplified prose and somewhat naive realities, but a real reading book but in the young adult section of an old-fashioned library (in the Bronx where I grew up), one of several rows of books picked out by librarians. Many years later I picked up a copy of another book very like it, which I also read, slightly later (I was 11) LouAnn Gaeddert’s All in All, a biography of George Eliot. Produced by Dutton, I reread it when I found it and showed it to my older daughter, who alas did not show much interest. It is really suitable for a young adolescent or teen; it’s relatively frank telling of George Eliot’s life and career, how she left her father over a religious crisis, went to London, fell in love with Lewes who could not marry her, went to live with him, built a career, and when he predeceased her, her second marriage and death not long afterward. It even has some mild literary criticism.

I don’t know that I’ve come quite full circle with Patsy since what I have in my hands also and will read next is Annette Gordon-Read, The Hemingses of Monticello: the story not only of Sally, but of her mother who was a slave and had many children by Jefferson’s first wife’s father. These children all called Hemings are the subject of this arduously researched book. It’s both books that I need to read and I think I need to because I want to return to what I began when I was 10 and now read a fully adequate or adequate book on this Jefferson’s daughter — and second common-law enslaved wife.

Many years after All in All I can say that having read all Eliot’s fiction, a lot of her non-fiction, several biographies, her life-writing in various forms and lots of literary criticism, plus watched a number of great film adaptations, I fulfilled what I began when I read Gaeddert’s book.

Jodhi May as Mirah Lapidoth in Andrew Davies’ 2002 film adaptation of Eliot’s Daniel Deronda — May consistently appears as precisely the heroine type I bond with again and again — from Sarah Lennox in Aristocrats to Anne Boleyn in a fine BBC film

None of this is part of the reading I keep planning will be my whole occupation over this fall. I just couldn’t resist Patsy as over the years I’ve not been able to resist George Eliot, the Brontes, Austen, Renaissance queens and literary women, all begun when I was young.

A corollary is that I find I am very disappointed by women who write books with male heroes at the center. Reading about the gender fault-line in tastes this week I came across the common or at least familiar idea that women are willing to make the cross-over and read books with men at the center as happily as they do women at the center and enjoy identifying easily with the heroes while men are often not willing to make the cross-over. Some men are not just embarrassed to admit they enjoy women’s books and identify with women’s heroines (not just read them as one would about an erotic object); they genuinely cannot or will not enter into a book with a female at the center.

In my experience, as limited as it is (for how many friends have I had with whom I discuss this sort of thing and are willing to be truly candid), I’ve found a lot of women like me. I strongly strongly prefer a novel with a woman at the center and have found I often like them best when the book is written by a woman. You can get men who come close to writing heroine’s texts or whose heroes have a feminine sensibility, can encompass female obsessions, needs, roles (Trollope, Henry James, E.M. Forster, LeCarre) but I find I often find a greater satisfaction when this kind of novel is by a woman (say Gaskell or Oliphant). I don’t make the cross-over in movies with ease either.

And yet I’ve fallen in love with these historical Poldark fictions by Winston Graham where he has males at the center as much and more than his females, intelligent, complex characters. I identify with his males too. In the last Poldark, Bella Poldark I found I recognized my own kind of self-destructive needling of people and social awkwardness stemming from a background of rejection by one parent and over-possession by the other: Valentine Warleggan. How can this be? I want to understand. My idea is to explore historical fiction, long a favorite with me but also romance and mystery and how these two latter popular kinds blend in with historical fiction. I’ve already done some of this with my reading of Jerome de Groot and Helen Hughes, but I’m not satisfied. Why these books? of course I know it’s something individual in me that a chord is hitting, and that he keeps hitting it in his major characters and their fates. Can I find someone who comes near to discussing this chord as it comes out in historical fiction or these kinds? If nothing else, I’d be able to predict what book I should read next and not waste my little time left.

So I began again with Pamela Regis’s book about what’s called “romance novels” for women. Suffice to say I discovered that (what I already knew) while Graham has some romance patterns, his books do not at all fit into Regis’s notion. Still in reading the first half of Regis’s book I thought Pamela Regis did make visible a pattern that is true to many heroine’s texts, one most feminists overlook.

Regis suggests there are 8 essential motifs or events/occurrences found in romance novels that she defines as a heroine-centered novel about the falling in love and courtship of a woman which ends happily in marriage. According to her, this plot-design allows for the reading traveling with the heroine from innocence into maturity. The stages are: first a definition or description of a society (often flawed, disordered); the meeting of the heroine with the hero; a barrier which keeps them apart; an intense attraction; a declaration of love; a point where all is despaired of (ritual death); then recognition (that you are all in all to one another, you have found your deeply congenial mate); and, lastly, betrothal. The text (or film) can end here, but three more paradigmatic events often recur: the wedding, dance or fete, which brings all the characters together; the exiling of a scapegoat who represents the worst norms of behavior (e.g., in Austen’s P&P Wickham), and someone who behaves very badly converted to agree to the marriage of the central pair sufficiently (again in Austen’s P&P, Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Miss Bingley, just).

I cited Austen’s P&P twice. Regis declares Austen’s P&P the most perfect romance novel ever written, and it seems clear that she just about derives her paradigms from this novel. Not altogether as her examples from the 18th and 19th century include Richardson’s Pamela, Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Forster’s A Room with a View.

I am bothered by several troubling elements in her book. First, she insists that the romance novel have a happy ending. If it does not, it cannot be a “good” or successful one. It will not have done its “job” or performed its “function.” The same idea was produced in Janice Radway’s famous study of romances as read by ordinary women in a mid-western commnunity. Thus DuMaurier’s Rebecca (courtship can also occur after a marriage) and Mitchell’s GWTW cannot be “good” romance novels as their endings are qualified. I cannot see this. I agree with Regis and others that a marriage at the close of a book need not be an imprisonment at all: it can provide real liberty within the terms a real society offers, contentment, security, peace. But I do not see that one must have a happy ending. It seems not to be important at all to Regis what are the particular inward values a novel promulgates (like the trade of virginity for high status in Pamela). I prefer a sad ending to one that is not believable or one based on ugly values the couple will then embody in their lives (be these competition, exploitation, greed, pride whatever).

This reminds me of how I’ve read repeatedly that good mystery novels are escapist and comfort book. To the contrary, when I’m really involved in a mystery novel where characters I care about are at risk of harm (murder, rape), I feel all anxiety, not comfort. I rise from a Susan Hill novel disquieted about society — as I should be, given norms of aggressive behavior allowed. What I like is the qualified happy, unhappy or making do ending.

Jodhi May as the feminine lesbian in Tipping the Velvet (Andrew Davies’ film from Sarah Walters’ marvelous romance novel)

Last in the last part of Regis’s book her examples of 20th century romance novels are all poor and trite: she suddenly shows herself enamored of glamor, of alpha males, accepts rape, does not at all demand complex psychology, will not tolerate truly vulnerable, sensitive, distressed hurt heroes or heroines who at the close are worldly failures.

So one must take the 8 stages and the three optional paradigms apart from the rest of Regis’s perspective and use them to understand genuinely humane, intelligent complex romances. For myself I have to have a definition of romance much wider than the courtship pattern, one which includes other patterns of woman’s lives after marriage and if they don’t marry at all. It must only have a happy ending that is warranted and one that does not celebrate meretricious or unexamined values. With this corrective, I find myself thinking back to so many of the novels by women (and men) with heroines at the center which I’ve loved very much and understanding their structures much better.

I have begun Ford Madox Ford’s famous Fifth Queen: about Katherine Howard and it seems to me superior to Hilary Mantel’s two-prize winning historical fictions set in the Renaissance, centering on the earlier Tudor courts and Thomas Cromwell. This Cromwell has fascinated fine minds: like Bolt for his Man for All Seasons.

I do need companionship and am finding in these books companionship and explanations for why I do find it here. I was not able to lead the 20th century careerist modern woman’s life nor am that of the socially active mother or wife, and these eras (pre-20th century) before the recent constructions of these roles emerged offers me women who feel the way I do. Friends. Instead of writing this blog I could’ve told you a personal story, reader, that ended badly for me, but that kind of thing is supposed to be reserved for my Sylvia blog and after all it is too painful and too much about cyberspace experiences for me to be able to do it.

I find myself reading today, more than 56 years after I was born and I first began to read books meant for adult and semi-adult readers, the same kinds of matter I read from the time I started reading, only I take a much more knowledgeable, sophisticated and I sincerely hope enlightened approach.


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Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln

Gentle reader,

See it. Don’t miss. It’s riveting, suspenseful (we get to watch an election vote-by-vote — without computer, without Fox News — what more American?), gritty. People every once in a while insult one another gleefully. Says Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens to a racist conservative democrat I don’t believe in equality because I know you, you idiot, bigot, loud-mouthed animal are not my equal; I just want everyone to be equal before the law, even you. Of course there’s a myth wrapped up in that as there are many in the film you have to think about later, such as the idea that real liberty for black people was won with the 13th amendment. The film has the usual flaws of such films (e.g.,like Amazing Grace; “history as progress narrative“). Still it has much to deliver. If you don’t want to bother read on, that’s what I have to say tonight. The rest is why and how the film is good and where are some flaws.

I can’t know what you’ve read about Spielberg’s Lincoln (Anthony Lane’s “House Divided“?), screenplay Tony Kushner, focusing on Lincoln’s determined effort to have his Congress pass the 13th amendment to the US constitution, outlawing chattel slavery. I’m writing about the film because I was very moved by it — along with (it seemed to me) most people in a heavily crowded mixed-race auditorium at my local semi-art cinema in Northern Virginia. I might have said “despite its iconic material” but know it’s because of the iconic nature of its material that in this year 2012 this story, these characters are quickened with wrought up life. What US child has not been exposed to scenes of civil war carnage, the millions dead, the bloody bloody battles, the archetypal figures of Lee all formal frozen elegance and Grant taking off his hat at Appomattox. Lincoln? You cannot do such scenes ironically or as comedy. Are we still not fighting the civil war in our other present damaging wars? This is a movie about us today, about racism, about whether you believe in equality of all (whites against whites too); its issues have not yet been resolved it seems. When near the close Jackie Earle Dailey as a weasel-like Alexander Stevens, negotiating for the confederacy will not concede that it’s not a question of two countries at war but one in dire conflict, nor that anyone has the right to free “the property” of the confederate wealth, we are hearing a variant of this year’s unspoken elite-control versus egalitarian-liberty, Romney/Ryan-versus-Obama/Clinton clashes.

Historical films worth seeing are about today in disguise and present their issues ambivalently. I thought this would be like in type to two season’s ago The King’s Speech, a mini-series inside 2 and 1/2 hours, film adaptation (of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals) with Lewis taking the Colin Firth eloquent hero role. It’s not. After all these mini-series are a British form. This is not an intellectual’s film — though it helps if you know your American history, the more about this period of the civil war, these individuals the better: such as Stevens was beaten viciously so that he was nearly crippled, had a black mistress-housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton smith [played by S. Epatha Merkerson) he loved dearly. It’s like wholesome American TV: Ken Burns stuff.

Tommy Lee Jones as Stevens

Also it helps to know your cinema. Film-makers like to quote. This one quotes The Talk of the Town (1942). At the close of the forever unforgettable TOTN after Ronald Colman’s risks his career appointment as a justice to the supreme court, and gets the position, we see him walk away from home (from the back) from the POV of his endlessly loving, smiling older independent minded male black valet who has just made sure Colman is wearing the right jacket, so at the close of Lincoln, we watch Lewis walk away from home on the fatal night of his assassination (yes Spielberg neglects no buttons) from the POV of William Slade as his endlessly loving, smiling older male black valet who was never a slave and has just tried to make sure Mr Lincoln wears his gloves. This kind of worshipfulness of the great (white noble) man by the superior (black intelligent) “everyman” is still with us. We also have an obligatory scene between Lincoln as great (white) man taught by an ordinary (black) person, this time a woman, Gloria Reuben as Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Lincoln’s “colored” maid: Mrs Keckley encourages Mr Lincoln to go on with his determination to pass the 13th amendment after his wife has such raged against his refusal to try to make peace above all and at any price because now their son has enlisted.

The Lincoln family (Mr, Mrs, her maid) at the theater

There are still far too few black people in the film. It’s too much a small group of white men saving the world (something one finds in many a commercial historical film). Lincoln opens on Lincoln talking to two black men, one of whom I recognized as the powerful black male lead of Small Island, David Oyelowo. He did not appear again after the initial scene, opening scene where Lewis was Lincoln as Henry V listening to the men who fight:

Oyelowo wants to know why black men are paid less

Izzy told me biopics often begin with the death of the central figure. One of the mistakes of this film was to fast forward at its close to Lincoln’s death so we could then have a retrospective drenched in nostalgia and loss where we see and hear at long last one of Lincoln’s many stump speeches delivered to a huge crowd. I’ve read these. They have much Biblical language, but are simple direct passionate denunciations of slavery, eloquent defenses of equality (in the mode of Burns’s “a man’s a man for aye that”). I’d hoped we’d have more of them and earlier. The choice was rather to show us Lincoln at home (undoing Mary’s corset, arguing fiercely with her over their son, reminiscing and looking forward to the traveling future they would not have), Lincoln with his cabinet, with his son, with his hired band of half-drunk bribers, one-on-one with this or that person. Or alone, at a distance, privately ruminating. He is all height, a concave shadow, who walks awkwardly as if he doesn’t want to take up the space his body needs, his hands oddly strength-less.

No one can say that Lewis’s performance is one of impersonation as we have no tapes of Lincoln, only the words of his speeches, what he and others wrote down about him in life, his writing to be read — these Lewis delivers with an understated held-back, soft, low startlingly (if you remember his usual cut-glass accent in Room with a View, his cockney in My Beautiful Laundrette) western American set of vowels circa 1860; his whole posture is of laid back, withdrawn power brought forth fully when periodically force is called for. It does work because none of the speeches are wooden lines of narrative or ideas fed the audience in the way of BBC/PBS style mini-series costume-historical film drama. The character talks naturally. He can pronounce, but he is also witty (“joyful to be comprehended” he mutters at one point to James Spader as Bilbo who anachronistically greets Lincoln with “I’ll be fucked” what are you doing here?),

Spader as Bilbo in the House

He is conflicted, deep in thought, worried, austere and icy too. at moments I wondered if Lewis had Obama in mind.

It may be taken as a rebuff to Obama since central to what happens is how Lincoln will not give in. He will pass the 13th amendment before ending the war lest the peace legalities find his Emancipation Proclamation does not apply post-war situation. He fights and fights hard, using all weapons, from a crew of coarse bribing networker-enforcers who bully, pressure, manipulate to get the necessary votes. When Lincoln is needed in the last days, he’s there in the thick of it, finding out individuals and persuading them. As Obama often has failed to and so given up what he should not have or not gotten what he should.

Too much radiance, too much plaintive music. Far too little sense of history as a group of forces. Ang Lee’s Ride to the Devil did that (also civil war), and somehow Lee managed to avoid cliched scenes (he’s not American himself), but Ang Lee’s film was trashed by the studios (they did not advertise it) and it flopped. Sally Field as Mary Lincoln made too dense or again too seething. But it has to have the rhetoric debates, the scenes of corpses, the songs, the lines of men in blue or grey.

I’ve an idea Spielberg made the film because the matter is iconic.

But there are also some funny moments, and wry jokes here and there (Kushner wrote it): Lane caught Mary Lincoln’s just think “four more years in this terrible house”. I loved Lincoln’s fondly told long-drawn out gentle joke-y tales, with their indirect relevance. When Lincoln moves into gnomic poetry mode, and David Stratairn as Steward beyond patience, exasperated into complaint, cries aloud “I have no idea what you are talking about,” I laughed aloud. I laughed aloud several times in the movie when no one near me did.

So go and you too can get to appreciate the jokes no one sitting near you does.


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Trollope’s Barsetshire

Dear Friends and readers,

You may recall how proud I’ve been of my chapter on the original illustrations to Trollope’s novels in my Trollope on the ‘Net, my love of pictures and my huge section of illustrations to Trollope’s novels on my website. Not such happy memories: when I told you of how the North American Victorian association rejected my proposal to discuss how Trollope used cliches in his illustrations. My argument would have been how Trollope used sentimental pictures of minor stories where there is no counterpart full dramatic scene to provide heroine’s stories we don’t quite get. These provide a countervailing set of patterns for women from the ones the novels which have male readers’ tastes primarily in mind.

Well I’m trying again. I’ve sent a proposal to the Sharp Society (History of authorship, reading and publication) again to talk about my original research into nearly 500 images for Trollope’s books. This time to accord with the conference’s themes, “Geographies of the Book,”, I proposed to talk about how Trollope creates worlds for his novels which seem coterminus with real worlds we experience, but are filled in with imagined places to the point that you cannot quite map Trollope’s worlds with say southeast England, or London, or, for that matter, southwest Ireland of the other cities in the world he imagined so concretely.

I told of how when I went to an Trollope Society AGM in London in 1999, we went on 1 of 6 circuitous detailed maps drawn from the Pallisers books, but which had locations for characters across Trollope’s whole oeuvre as well as from Trollope’s own life as far as we know it. We walked round Trollope.

I thought I’d deal with how this imagined space influences us, both for good and bad, for, like Dickens, Trollope omits and stigmatizes space. Space where the abysmally poor or people who have to operate outside the norms and laws and customs his society conferred respectability on lived and worked. I’ve not only been influenced by recent book illustration histories and Franco Moretti’s famous Atlas of the European Novel, but my reading about Bath and its bogus as well as real history (see Peter Borsay, The Image of Georgian Bath).

Trollope also idealizes spaces the rich lived in, and his illustrators exploit well-known picturesque motifs. Engravings are just so important; writers like Radcliffe (believe it or not) actually relied heavily on these. For example, this is precisely the sort of illustration that picturesque writers has in mind:

Wm Westall (1781-1850), Rievaulx Abbey from Duncombe Terrace

In the illustrations themselves, emblematic objects, dress, costume, the way a particular character’s body fills (or does not fill) out space conveys evaluations of their status, position, character.

Alice Vavasour (Caroline Mortimer) in the window-seat at Matching Priory (Palliser 2:3): she’s reading in the early morning just before Mr Palliser (Philip Latham) comes to see and accuse her of what he takes to be her “abominable” conduct in taking his wife, Lady Glencora (Susan Hampshire) out to the priory ruins late at night.

People are unaware of how many city, country- and even seascapes he has in his books.

Kate O’Hara from An Eye for an Eye (illustrator Elisa Trimby)

Like other Victorian novelists, Trollope chose what passages in his book would be illustrated, and when he was at his height of success he could dictate what kind of illustrator he would have, change illustrators mid-way if he didn’t like what was drawn. Even late in his career, we find his strong influence.

Again I want to show how some of these illustrations influence the choice of actor and scene, production and costume design of the film adaptations of Trollope. Conscious departures count too.

Phiz, Burgo Fitzgerald and the Beggar Girl (Can You Forgive Her?)

Film adaptations (costume dramas, for Trollope they must be mini-series so as to give time for development) influence our dreams and longings; and the best of them picture the price we pay for our social identities, with our the hurt of those thrown away and the losses of those who sustain their roles:

Jane asking George, “What am I to do”? juxtaposed in the series with

Lady Glen in her agon having just sent Burgo away (Can You Forgive Her?, Pallisers 3:5).

I wrote it telling myself it would probably not be accepted and I must live with this as I have no particular status myself, but I’m not dismal over this, and gentle reader, you must hope with me that this time my proposal is accepted. Hope springs eternal …

A facsimile reprint: on the cover the original map


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Emblematic logo for production

Dear friends and readers,

I write to urge anyone reading this who lives within driving or Metro (or walking) distance of the Artisphere in Arlington where a group of Washington Shakespeare Company players are performing Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of An Author — to go see it! It was still in inexpensive previews; I say this not that the play is costly to go to once “opened,” but as explanation for why I can find no photos of the cast in costume or acting out their roles on line, only some photos of the cast out of costume.

It’s superb. I’ve seen only one version of Pirandello’s play before, a film on PBS, and it didn’t begin to convey the strong tragic center of the story that the characters are (apparently) driven to repeat over and over, though we get to see them do it but once. That’s enough. The trauma of their seething feelings is so exhausting to them that it becomes farcical at the edges; we feel in our minds there is something absurd about their hysteria and yet the events of their lives are not much worse than any other family, and probably banal or par for the course for many a life. I had recalled that a troupe is researching a play, and as the director begins to get annoyed with them, these characters in black barge in seeking their author who has disowned them. No wonder. This is a parable of incest, adultery, emotional and economic betrayal, unjustified accident death, mortification, driven continual ceaseless hurt which is intended to be a kind of nightmare mirror. The director at first tries to get rid of them, but finds himself having to allow them to take over his stage and soon is trying to direct them too; he cannot stop them from acting out their story until its final conclusion. Along the way there are many comments about drama, about reality and illusion (the stage takes a beating here), comedy over the actors’ response to these real characters who are indignant at the idea they are just a game.

I don’t know which of the principals to praise more: Bruce Alan Rauscher as the director (I saw him recently in Marathon 33, marvelous there too), the great Brian Hemmingsen as the father, the truly perfect (such an off-putting word but it’s accurate) acting of Nanna Ingvarsson who is pitch perfect down to the way she walks so lightly at one point as she moves over to the older son she is grieving for. The hardest role which demanded the most emoting is the Stepdaughter: Sara Barker was up to it. Joshua Dick so quiet during most of the play startles the audience when it’s his turn to act out his inner seething self insisting he made no scene, there was no scene. The little girl who drowns very sweet. Liz Dutton as Madame Place suitably over-the-top arch, complete with red whig and high voice.

The director Tom Prewitt perhaps had a core idea of the gothic meets the wry comic. The stage was done minimally as the company is not rich, but it was more than adequate to the case. We are watching a rehearsal after all. The translation by Carl R. Mueller seemed perfectly naturalistic.

If you value evenings of high theater, this is one to go to.


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Colm Toibin when much younger

Dear friends and readers,

Last night we went to a local bookstore which regularly hosts talks and classes about books (as well as a weekly storybook hour for children and tours too), Politics and Prose. We’d never been there before, and to the area only once, when last July we were invited to come to a fourth of July barbecue (what a treat for us). A member of the Irish embassy asked all those who came to read James Joyce’s Ulysses on Bloom Day. We heard about this because Jim got an email from the Irish embassy which now has his name.

A large old-fashioned bookstore, two floors (!), where books are actually set up by their categories and within that the author’s name (like a library, like Borders once was). A couple tables upfront with latest sellers, and in the back audiobooks on CD. You can wander about and come upon treasures just like this. I saw Alice Kessler-Harris’s A Difficult Woman (a biography of Lillian Hellman) on display, but had decided for Toibin’s Love in a Dark Time: And Other Explorations of Gay Lives and Literature, a book of somewhat rewritten essay-review meditations published elsewhere (the LRB, the NYRB and other places). If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know how much I like his essays, and how I’ve loved those of his novels I’ve read thus far. It turns out I’ve read 4 of 7 (In praise of Colm Toibin: Un-put-downable).

Last night he was there to promote his latest novel (apparently the 7th), The Testament of Mary. Yes the central character is the Virgin Mary (does she have a last name like the rest of us?). It’s a really a novella, a short one at that, and from what he wrote a retrospective meditation by Mary some 20 years after the brutal crucifixion of her son. She is now living in safety, relative peace, left to herself by all and two visitors show up, one Lazarus. Yes he takes liberties — good historical fiction often does. The core idea is the irretrievableness of what happened and how she cannot forget and if she could change it, do it differently somehow, how she longs to. It’s memories poured out. As a subjective narrative by a women it harks back to his great The South. He seems to have a predilection for writing heroine’s texts (Brooklyn, Henry James in The Master is a kind of male heroine).

What a large crowd. It did not overwhelm the store, but it was much larger than we’d expected of such an intellectual sensitive author. There were not enough chairs for all.

He began by telling us of his trips to Venice and two paintings of the Virgin he had stood before repeated: a Tintoretto, perhaps The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, and a Titian, The Assumption. What he seems to have liked especially about the latter was her red robe and how she soared above reality. He is himself getting older.

Recent photo — he does look like this, only he is a small man, somewhat bent, light brownish-white skin, light brown hair

Today I see that the Tintoretto has Mary in a red robe too, and the picture’s content against the reason for its festival, takes us across her life.

They were the inspiration for the book. He did not tell us why he wrote it, only that he would like it to be taken seriously and he didn’t mean it as a mock. He didn’t think the church would bother notice it — he said this in answer to one question afterwards. He does read very well, and his voice was how I’d imagined it, Irish lilt but not too heavy. I stayed awake and listening for much of it, though when his register came too low I couldn’t hear it all. We were in the back, having arrived only ten minutes before the “reading” started.

It was obvious he’d done this many times. He was smooth, and seemed such a sweet man. These sorts of things are part of what makes an author successful. The book launch. He’s learned how to do it. Among questions asked were does he have a routine, a place he always writes, what does he write with. He said he writes anywhere and with any thing (mostly a pen) and no he’s not a routine type. He does sometimes have to write a book quickly or whatever quickly lest he forget it; get it down, and then he comes back to work at it. He is not a man who has written a lot of very long books, say like Dickens, Trollope, Margaret Oliphant, Wm Dean Howells, and they all had fixed routines and places they wrote. He has made his career through socializing too and his oeuvre (in pages) most actually be preponderantly non-fiction.

I wanted to reply to something he had said before starting his readings. He said that other “classic” fiction novels, 19th century, were no help “here.” He comically alluded to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Dickens’s Miss Havisham, they could not help him. Nor Henry James. Perhaps Mrs Touchett (Ralph’s mother, isolated, alone, an “odd” woman.) While he was reading I thought of Daniel Deronda’s mother, Eliot’s older heroine who returns 25 years after giving her son up to another so she could have an operatic career, a life of her own. Now bitter, not remorseful, but regretful because after all she ended up marrying and having children anyway. The dreams she had had not been realized and how here was this son reproaching her.
But the mike was too far away.

I didn’t try to buy anything directly afterwards. The line became very long. Instead we walked three stores down to the Comet, a pizza place with ambience. A large screen played over and over the poignant short Italian film, The Red Balloon. No sound just the images before you. The walls gray. The tables ping-pong, the seats benches. Soft lights. We had two pizzas, small, a white (all cheese, garlicky nothing else) and a red (just tomato sauce topping, more spicy, reminding me in its heavy dough and yummy surface of pizza in NYC in the 1950s, so-called Napoles-like). A carafe of chianti. The place was moderately full.

We talked. We realized this was probably the first book reading we’ve ever gone to as such. Play readings by a group, lectures, maybe a book reading within a performance of other things, but not alone. Jim said we never went to the Folger poetry readings because they cost. This was for free. Also the people were less known and there was obviously time for too much talk. So too much egoism would be on display he felt. I remembered going to listen to Empson read his poem in the Graduate Center in the 1970s. How he read little and talked much of his poetry. But the talk was splendid, really insightful (as Toibin’s was not quite, though not deliberately misleading as say Andrew Davies on his films), and how John Hollander got up to ask questions, all admiring and how Empson (spiteful in this but perhaps made uncomfortable) cut him down, half-mocked him. Also a lecture by Margaret Mead at the Museum of Natural History. All I can recall is how intelligent and humane she was and ever after have reacted to all dismissals of her work, denigrations of her with a memory of this seeing her and knowing they are unfair to her.

We decided we would try some more at this place. Then to support the bookstore, we went back. That’s when I bought Love in a Dark Time. All the Testaments to Mary were gone. To tell the truth, I was not sure I wanted it, as I felt it would be wrapped up in Catholicism as some level, and I’m an atheist. I was sure it’d be feminist in intent. If Toibin had said he found out or invented a last name for her, and told us of it, I might’ve. They had only had his most recent novels: (Blackwater Lightship two copies, one still left, and mostly Brooklyn and The Master, latest and best known. I have them all plus The South and Homage to Barcelona (not there). But there was suddenly one copy as if from deep in a basement (the girl at the counter said it was “a backlist” book), this book of essays. So I snatched it. His essay on Wilde’s exposure of his homosexuality as “found out,” as a person wanting to be “found out” has influenced my thinking ever since.

We got home by 10ish, not too long to write one final blog on Jane Austen’s letters. I’m not going to give them up, but maybe go yet slower and do it by myself. The prompting from Austen-l helps, and the sense (however deluded) of reaching people, but the flak, the continual cliched readings and occasional either preposterous or theoretical agendas don’t help me at all. I waste time and make no friends refuting them.

Earlier that day I had talked on WWWTTA about Temple Grandin’s film about how animals form bonds, friendships, and people’s perception of them, and the trajectory the film belonged to. Really worth while and gotten into other debates on the growing dissemination of how it’s okay for women to subjugate themselves to sadism, even light fun … ), but I’ll add these as brief comments here later today.

We wished we could have more such nights. People are only gradually becoming aware of what a delightful city DC is slowly turning into. The neighborhood around there is small houses, apartments further off, and some shopping blocks. It’s marred by a large street which traffic streams through daily and that obscures the quiet ambience of the play otherwise. I’ve vowed to myself to read Love in a Dark Time, Homage to Barcelona, and (connected to Toibin and the project on book illustrations to Trollope which I’ve just finished — a blog this weekend), Amy Tucker’s The Illustration of the Master.

Reprinted by Tucker, it was chosen by James as a frontispiece for A Portrait of Lady, and could serve as frontispiece for Toibin’s The Master.


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Simon Keenleyside as Prospero

Dear friends and readers,

Lest it be thought I’ve gone over-the-top in my praise of so many of these Met Operas transmitted by HB, my reaction to the first act of Ades’s and Oakes’s Tempest was it’s so still, and “there’s nothing doing.” I didn’t like the (to me) screetch-y high notes of Ariel, nor the lack of long melodic arias. The costumes were trying too hard. Keenleyside with his skin tattoos, feathers on his head, was still not US Indian-like; Ariel in pink fluff with ludicrously heavy-make-up – all green eyes; the lovers far too well-fed and smooth, he like something out of When Knighthood was in Flower, she like some fairy tale maiden in the Blue Fairy Book. Robert LePage’s re-building of aspects of La Scala on stage could have made for a disconnect, it added nothing.

What took time to emerge was the focus on an ethical-psychological relationship between Caliban and Prospero: when Prospero loses Ariel, he’s left without consolatory dreams. Ares really gave us an adaptation, serious interpretation of Shakespeare’s play (Enchanted Island was more Dryden/Davenant).

Audrey Luna as Ariel

The play-story does not depart from any of the hinge points of Shakespeare’s; Meredith Oakes’s script brought over to operatic music Shakespeare’s austere visionary core with its intimations of dream aspiration and realities of brute animal creatures and vicious envious evil (Caliban and the Milanese apart from Ferdinand). The young lovers were appropriately innocent for their short beautiful songs and their and all the music was like Debussy (Pelleas et Melisande) — ever there quietly beautiful. After a while the set also turn of the century, with its conceit the people are in an opera house grew tiresome. Yes there was a computer island, soft sea, and we began to see the slow emergence of Prospero’s character as regretful, remorseful, bitter yet in act willing to forgive began. That’s part of the play’s naturalistic miracles.

The last part or act was so moving to me. Keenleyside showed how well he can act: I identified with him as the older person having to give over, to let go, and I liked the presentation of Caliban as an aspect of the solitary Prospero. None of the really powerful lines were omitted, and Prospero’s response to Miranda’s “O brave new world,” was plangently disillusioned.

Alan Oates as Caliban

I’d like to see it again so I could enter into Act 1 from the perspective of what is to come.

As to the interviews, Deborah Voight can carry these off. To some extent she asks real questions about singing technique. You could see in Ades’s eyes a moment’s oh I wish I didn’t have to do this hype but he managed and gave eloquent interviews where he spoke more simply and directly about writing and putting on the opera and his relationships with the singers. He said that he saw himself as their support.

Some reviews: this review particularly insightful and with good photos and stills. See New York Times review. Another review.


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Dear friends and readers,

You must allow me one more centrally political blog before I return to our “regularly scheduled programming:” cultural, literary, on art, opera (music), films. This year’s presidential election in the US has been important, and when I’ve come across some enlightening pictures and information I feel I ought to disseminate what I can.

Maps are a fundamental exercise in power as is the division of space. “All maps,” one aware geographer argues, “strive to frame their message in the context of an audience. All maps state an argument about the world, and thee propositional in nature. All maps employ the common devices of rhetoric such as invocations of authority … selection, omission, simplification, classification, the creation of hierarchies, and ‘symbolization.” It’s a small step – and one which those trained in the visual arts, literary and cultural studies, would easily anticipate, along with readers of Foucault-to move to a second level of analysis, which insists that maps don’t only embody in disguised form the power of nations, empires, a ruling class, but further at the act of mapping is in itself an exercise of power.

Foucault wrote of how a critical geography would need to be attuned to the role played by maps “in shaping mental structures, and in imparting a sense of the places of the world” that blocks the circulation of alternative visions and definitions.

Now look at the map above which reflects the voting patterns of a couple of days ago now: it’s set up by county, not state, and thus enables us to see the popular vote, where it comes from, and (as it keeps the state lines just enough) thus that Obama beat Romney by a large margin popularly (51 to 48% — I’m not making these numbers up — 332 to 206). Republicans on mainstream TV (Fox, CNN, even MSNBC) are saying Obama’s was a close win. Nonsense. He has a real progressive mandate. They get away with this because the way the map is drawn leaves huge red spaces where few live as big as small blue spaces where many do. Here’s a map that is drawn proportional to votes and people — by county. The great thing about this one is if you are in a “red” state, the parts of the state that went “blue” are shown, and vice versa.

I don’t know how one gets the mainstream stations to stop using maps which favor conservatives — because they do it knowingly. When the electoral college map was first introduced in the early televised elections, it was clear the map did not reflect the popular vote, but it was the map children learned in school. Since the 1990s and the real divergence of two points of view (one which Fox tells lies to support, and CNN supports, and the others more subtly), these maps become invidious. Maps of the earth re-adjust themselves to what is disseminated popularly every once in a while. Australia used to be wholly unreal but it’s been adjusted so it doesn’t look like a tiny island.

Even this less adjusted one while going state-by-state, reveals the real popular vote state of the case:

The corollary lie one is hearing is that Obama is a man of the left. Not a bit of it. He’s centrist as this is understood today. We need not return to a stalemate of reactionary pro-super-rich, pro-evangelical religion versus everyone else, something sustained in Obama’s administration last year because he bought into the Republican’s point of view. He’s a hawk on foreign policy; he did not save Detroit, nor its people; he saved General Motors. He has not set up Employment offices (with healthy jobs programs to do much needed social services across the country), but left to us the same tired useless (how not to do it) unemployment offices — which have no jobs. He does not re-expand the Federal Gov’t the way Roosevelt did; he appoints more centrist and progressive types on the supreme court, he does not work directly to stop mass incarceration and brutal treatment of people for protesting peacefully, of minority young men for being black. At best he’s a mild ameliorator. But let us hold him to that. NO cutting our social security, medicaid, present programs at all. What has to happen is if they can his constituency and local leaders must push him to do the right thing strongly.

Huge numbers of people defied the harassment, the long hours they had to wait to vote. It took courage. The Occupy Movement has not been forgotten. All of us need one another to improve their lives. Let us think up and implement new programs (to shape and control global warming); let us re-fund older ones which worked to bring people together as friends, not competitive rivals and enemies. Talkin’ about a revolution. Keep as a goal Martin Luther King’s dreams of equal opportunity, human rights for all, time for pleasure and self-fulfillment; enacting one’s heart’s desire and finding peace.

Think of the arrogance for Romney to have run for president, accuse 47% of the population of not paying taxes at all, when it was he who paid no taxes from 1996 to 2009. See Bloomberg News and the comments below. Bill O’Reilly the last two days said (disdainfully sneeringly) how the many in the US want “stuff,” “things.” Fine for bankers to collect billions of course, and how the election was very close. Not so, and for just reasons.


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Dear friends,

We all joined! Voting for decency, for wise caution, for caring for others, for making sure their small precious stakes — be it money, the small investor, or their life savings and social security, or their health care, or sexual & social liberty, for good education for all and widespread knowledge of science, humanities, social knowledge. Voting for the man who kept us from a depression and will not deprive us of Sesame Street!

At 1:00 pm, 11/7: Joke alert: on BBC America someone remarked early in the evening that the “colony was [he feared] dysfunctional.” Well the colony is okay after all.

Jesse Jackson summed up what happened very well: the intense and overt effort to suppress the vote boomeranged. There was a huge turnout; people were willing to go through intimidation, long lines, were able to overcome illegal demands they produce unnecessary IDs, the NAACP and others did send out watchers. Then Romney blew off African-Americans, women, the elderly, college young adults, the poor, Spanish people, and immigrants. Who is left? Not enough to win.

A picture from the campaign:

Celebrate tonight, he said, and then tomorrow do not be passive, we will be all for one and one for all and work hard for all we want. Worrying note: that’s not exactly what Obama stands for — and we are like at the beginning of the reconstruction era, it took time to suppress the vote so this will probably be something (suppressing the vote) that has to be fought and re-fought.


P. S. Every single progressive woman won, every single one who ran: Tammy Baldwin, Tammy Duckworth, Elizabeth Warren, Claire McCaskill (whose opponent said women’s wombs shut down if the rape is real, and called her a dog who fetches), all of them.

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