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Archive for January, 2019


Scarlett Johansson by Annie Leibovitz — although Johansson is not capable of nuanced subtlety she was right for Mary Boleyn (the comments has a biography of Mary Boleyn)


Johansson with Javier Bardem (I remember Before Night Falls), another Leibovitz concoction

Instead of the famous “Art of Losing:”

I will be good; I will be good.
I have set my small jaw for the ages
and nothing can distract me from
solving the appointed emergencies
even with my small brain
— witness the diameter of my hatband
and the depth of the crown of my hat.

I will be correct; I know what it is to be a man.
I will be correct or bust.
I will love but not impose my feelings.
I will serve and serve
with lute or I will not say anything.

If the machinery goes, I will repair it.
If it goes again I will repair it again.
My backbone

through these endless etceteras painful.

No, it is not the way to be, they say.
Go with the skid, turn always to leeward,
and see what happens, I ask you, now.

I lost a lovely smile somewhere,
and many colors dropped out.
The rigid spine will break, they say —
bend, bend.

I was made at right angles to the world
and I see it so. I can only see it so.
I do not find all this absurdity people talk about.

Perhaps a paradise, a serious paradise where lovers hold hands
and everything works.
— I am not sentimental.
— Elizabeth Bishop,

Friends,

One blog which should have been two: I got carried away with a woman artist and foremother poet , but it is really not overlong (if you will only visit twice; come two times — why not?):

The second woman photographer the OLLI at Mason class on American Woman Photographers was to watch a movie about and discuss was Annie Leibovitz. In the event, there was a weather report telling everyone in Northern Virginia we were in for some mighty brutal cold and it would rain ice, snow, and just pelt us all. Since the gov’t agencies in charge of cleaning and making the roads safe are underfunded in Fairfax (where the OLLI at Mason resides), all schools were closed as of the early morning. I can’t say the day was warm, but we were nowhere near Antartica, and the precipitation began around 4 when it was still 39F, so it began to rain and eventually it did rain ice for a while and then later 3 inches of snow. The next day the same story: everything closed when it need not have been. So the American Poetry class on Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry was also cancelled.


Recent photo

However, the kindly and well-meaning (and frustrated) volunteer teachers sent everyone the URL to the American Masters film of Leibovitz we would have seen, and I watched it by myself and now share it with you

What the film suggests is that Annie Leibovitz is not a woman who can articulate or talk about her art in any coherent reasoned way, at the same time as she takes brilliant shots, has an eye for the arresting costume, gesture, featured actor or actress or somehow semi-numinous person and can capture a portrait of them either in movement among others or facing the viewer which is intensely revealing or (less articulately) riveting to the memory so that we remember the image and want a copy ourselves.


Nelson Mandela

This is unexpected since her longest life partner (15 years) was one of the more articulate writers and speakers of the 20th century, Susan Sontag. Years ago I went to an exhibit of photography by Leibovitz featuring Sontag’s life. She said in the film she loved best photographing beloved family members and friends and those she had been intimate with, could feel utterly comfortable with and hoped her subject felt likewise: ““You don’t get the opportunity to do this kind of intimate work except with the people you love, the people who will put up with you. They’re the people who open their hearts and souls and lives to you. You must take care of them.”

She had three daughters (two by surrogate mothers) who mean a great deal to her. Iconic with a dog:

Beyond the bare outline offered by wikipedia, you can read this life story. The magazine Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker have been important in her life. In the film she admits she had periods where taking drugs with her subjects and alone took over too much. Although presented to tempt a student into buying an essay and submitting it as his or her own (plagiarism), this critical analysis of Leibovitz’s art should give us pause: there is voyeurism, sensationalism and a strong bent towards the commercially riveting. You will not find on this blog the notorious photograph of John Lennon clinging to Yoko Ono as if he were cat seeking comfort from his mother, in fetus-like posture. Also not here her many nudes. She photographed to make humane political arguments (so to speak) but also powerful and vulnerable people whose reputation or integrity has since been questioned (see A Decade of Power). She’s published books of photographs, of celebrities; many glamor shots of stars looking ethereally or sexily beautiful. Men too. She captured Mick Jagger and his band leaping through the air.

I was startled by the film, for I found some images I had been drawn to and taken off the Net to save were by her. Especially this of Keira Knightley as Dorothy on the yellow brick road; her famous friends are actors who I recognize but cannot place

In sum, her art is arresting, voyeuristic insightful — she captures the gothic within us. Susan Sontag. Her Three Children too.

**************************

This photograph pf Elizabeth Bishop is not by Annie Leibovitz:


The line from one of her poems: “the island within” is its caption, and that she was “the loneliest person who ever lived.”

She is wondrous at traveling through books: her opening lines are often her best moments and her thesis:

“Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete
Concordance”

Thus should have been our travels:
serious, engravable.
The Seven Wonders of the World are tired
and a touch familiar, but the other scenes,
innumerable, though equally sad and still,
are foreign. Often the squatting Arab,
or group of Arabs, plotting, probably,
against our Christian Empire,
while one apart, with outstretched arm and hand
points to the tomb, the Pit, the Sepulcher.
The branches of the date-palms look like files.
The cobbled courtyard, where the Well is dry,
is like a diagram, the brickwork conduits
are vast and obvious, the human figure
far gone in history or theology,
gone with its camel or its faithful horse.
Always the silence, the gesture, the specks of birds
suspended on invisible threads above the Site,
or the smoke ising solemnly, pulled by threads.
Granted a page alone or a page made up
of several scenes arranged in cattycornered rectangles
or circles set on stippled gray,
granted a grim lunette,
caught in the toils of an initial letter,
when dwelt upon, they all resolve themselves.
The eye drops, weighted, through the lines
the burin made, th elines tha tmove apart
like ripples above sand,
dispersing storms, God’s spreading fingerprint,
and painfully, finally, that ignite
in watery prismatic white-and-blue.

Entering the Narrows at St. Johns
the touching bleat of goats reached to the ship.
We glimpsed them, reddish, leaping up the cliffs
amog the fog-soaked weeds and butter-and-eggs.
And at St. Peter’s the wind blew and the sun shone madly.
Rapidly, purposefully, the Collegians marched in lines,
crisscrossing the great square with black, like ants.
In Mexico the dead man lay
in a blue arcade; the dead volcanoes
glistened like Easter lilies.
The jukebox went on playing ‘Ay, Jalisco!’
And at Volubilis there were beautiful poppies
splitting the mosaics; the fat old guide made eye.
In Dingle harbor a golden length of evening
the rotting hulks held up their dripping plush.
The Englishwoman poured tea, informing us
that the Duchess was going to have a baby.
And in the brothels of Marrakesh
the little pockmarked prostitutes
balanced their tea-trays on their heads
and did their belly-dances; flung themselves
naked and giggling against our knees,
asking for cigarettes. It was somewhere near there
I saw what frightened me most of all:
A holy grave, not looking particularly holy,
one of a group under a keyhole-arched stone baldaquin
open to every wind from the pink desert.
An open, gritty, marble trough, carved solid
with exhortation, yellowed
as scattered cattle-teeth;
half-filled with dust, not even the dust
of the poor prophet paynim who once lay there.
In a smart burnoose Khadour looked on amused.

Everything only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and.’
Open the book. (The gilt rubs off the edges
of the pages and pollinates the fingertips.)
Open the heavy book. Why couldn’t we have seen
this old Nativity whlie we were at it?
— the dark ajar, the rocks breaking with light,
an undisturbed, unbreathing flame,
colorless, sparkles, freely fed on straw,
and, lulled within, a family with pets
— and looked and looked our infant sight away.

In a way she’s competing with the pictures: I’ve read
it somewhere that the essence of poetry is in the line;
the unit the line. Each of her lines is a world in itself,
and filled with more serious true content than the
illustrations she looks at.

She begins with the idea that the illustrations tell us what we should have seen, but soon moves on to suggesting that they tell us to be false tourist and not to see what is there.

What is there? This poem comes from a 1955 book called _A Cold Spring_, and we see that the anxiety, fear and prejudice against those who are
different from us which is fuelling the nonsense of the “war on terror” so that we are to ignore every and all statements of the people who rebel against the US in the countries we occupy or use our military to enable other powerful groups to occupy. All these people are simply plotting with hatred against the Christian empire — we are told.

She is as sceptical as Jhabvala. This is the content of the non-western women writer of women’s books, but note here it’s not used to argue for accepting individual repression or escaping it. This world is too relentlessly simply what it is: each living unit intensely going about its egoistic appetitive unexamined life. Bishop records some compassion: the dead man in Mexico, dead nature, the little pockmarked prostitutes.

Yes it is all very frigthening. Maybe better to look at the 2000 illustrations and study the concordance to them and keep our mind on them.

Nothing explained. What have we been missing all this while. What as children we are to allow our time to pass entertained in this way. We should be looking at that dark ajar.

This seems to me as great a poem at Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck.” Maybe Bishop is however distracting us by these illustrations

I find I never wrote a foremother poet blog for Elizabeth Bishop (1911-79); much as I’m deeply touched by some of her life-writing poetry, her plangent controlled desperation, I find her use of geography and mythic creatures makes up a wall of avoidance I can’t get past except by speculation, which is unsatisfactory. The biography sent us omitted her lesbianism, her years of ceaseless alcholism, that her positions as a teacher were gotten for her by the elite clique of American poets she belonged to (by origin, her family she came from the Boston Brahmin group, which included Robert Lowell who was physically abusive to her as he was to Elizabeth Hardwick). Her early life was very sad, but so too her later sometimes harrowing one abroad and in the US. Strange the flight to Brazil: what did she think of the reactionary gov’ts? No clue is offered. She could not have ignored them altogether — or could she with her books, maps, illustrations. Her work & life crucially significant. Her sad life, her wonderful poems. I print unusual ones: her art of losing through books, illustrations, maps, and alas alcohol and retreat


Don McCullin, from Landscapes: Somerset Levels Near Glastonbury 2010

This New Yorker essay by Claudia Roth Pierpont is superb: Elizabeth Bishop’s Art of Losing. She left a fat book of letters, many on punctuation. She is said to be “the most popular woman poet” after Emily Dickinson (!). I can only understand that if it’s like the popularity of Robert Frost: from misreading or preference for distanced strangeness (and geography) Many of her poems will be well-known to readers of modern American poetry, but here is one you may not have come across:

Sonnet

by Elizabeth Bishop

I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling finger-tips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.
Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,
A song to fall like water on my head,
And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow.

There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, hat sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep

She was mistress of the sonnet form.

And this is so kindly to another women poet whose poetry is deliberately set up to keep her life and us at a distance, who apparently was unable to get from under her tyrannical narrow-minded mother’s domination, not even to find an apartment of her own far away from far off Brooklyn:

Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore
by Elizabeth Bishop

From Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning
please come flying.
In a cloud of fiery pale chemcals,
please come flying,
to the rapid rollng of thousands of small blue drums
descending out of the mackerel sky
over the glittering grandstand of harbor-water,
please come flying.

Whistles, pennants and smoke are blowing. The ships
are signaling cordially with multitudes of flags
rising and falling like birds all over the harbor.
Enter: two rivers, gracefully bearing
countless little pellucid jellies
in cut-glass epergnes dragging with silver chains.
The flight is safe; the weather is all arranged.
The waves are running in verses this fine morning.
please come flying.

Come with the pointed toe of each black shoe
trailing a sapphire highlight,
with a black capefu of butterfly wings and bon-mots,
with heaven knows how many angels all riding
on the broad black brim of your hat,
please come flying.

Bearing a musical inaudible abacus,
a slight censorious frown, and blue ribbons,
please come flying.
Facts and skyscrapers glint in the tide; Manhattan
is all awash with morals this fine morning,
so please come flying.

Mounting the sky with natural heroism,
above the accidents, above the malignant movies,
the taxicabs and injustices at large,
while horns are resounding in your beautiful ears
that simultaneously listen to
a soft uninvented music, fit for the musk deer,
please come flying.

For whom the grim museums will behave
like courteous male bower-birds,
for whom the agreeable lions lie in wait
on the steps of the Public Library,
eager to rise and follow through the doors
up into the reading rooms,
please come flying.
We can sit down and weep; we can go shopping,
or play at a game of constantly being wrong
with a priceless set of vocabularies,
or we can bravely deplore, but please
please come flying.

With dynasties of negative constructions
darkening and dying around you,
with grammar that suddenly turns and shines
like flocks of sandpipers flying,
please come flying.

Come like a light in the white mackerel sky,
come like a daytime comet
with a long unnebulous train of words,
from Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bride, on this fine morning,
please come flying.

Apologies for not being able to replicate the stanzas.

Bishop to Moore, Elizabeth to Marianne is a beautiful beautiful love poem of longing, friendship as love. It reminds me of a poignant letter by Jane Austen to Mary Lloyd, looking forward so eagerly to when they will be together again. I’m glad to see Jane and Mary did have their night on the floor together, their reading, walking, talking. It appears that Marianne in Brooklyn did not make it to Elizabeth in Manhattan.

One last:

“Crusoe in England”

A new volcano has erupted
the papers say, and last week I was reading
where some ship saw an island being boonr:
at first a black fleck – basalt, probably —
rose in the mater’s binoculoars
and caught on the horizon like a fly.
They named it. But my poor old island’s still
un-rediscovered, un-renamable.
None of the books got it right.

Well I had fifty-two
miserable, small volcanoes I could climb
with a few slithery strides —
volcanoes dead as ash heaps.
I used to sit on the edge of the highest one
and count the others standing up,
naked and leaden, with their heads blown off …

My island seemed to be
a sort of cloud-dump. All the hemisphere’s
left-over clouds arrived and hung
above the craters — their parched throats
were hot to touch.
Was that why it rained so much …

I often gave way to self-pity.
“Do I deserve this? I suppose I must,
I wouldn’t be here otherwise. Was there
a moment when I actually chose this?
I don’t remember, but there could have been.”
What’s wrong about self-pity, anyway?
With my legs dangling down familiar=ly
over a crater’s edge, I told myself
“Pity should begin at home.” So the more
pity I felt, the more I felt at home.
….

There was one kind of berry, a dark red.
I tried it, one by one, and hours apart.
Sub-acid, and not bad, no ill effects,
and so I made home-brew. I’d drink
the awful, fizzy stuff
that went straight to my head
and play my home-made flute
(I think it had the weirdest scale on earth)
and, dizzy, whoop and dance among the goats.
Home-made, home-made! But aren’t we all?
I felt a deep affection for
the smallest of my island industries,
No, not exactly, since the smallest was
a miserable philosophy.

Because I didn’t know enough.
Why didn’t I know enough fo something?
Greek drama or astronomy? The books
I’d read were full of blanks;
the poems — well, I tried
reciting to my iris-beds,
“They flesh upon that inward eye,
which is the bliss …” The bliss of what?
One of the first things that I did
when I got back was look it up.

Dreams were the worst. Of course I dreamed of food
and love, but they were pleasant rather
than otherwise. But then I’d dream of tings
like slitting a baby’s throat, mistaking it
for a baby goat. I’d have
nightmares of other islands
stretching away from mine, infinities
of islands, islands spawning islands,
like frogs’ eggs turning into polliwogs
of islands, knowing that I had to live
on each and every one, evntually,
for ages, registering their flora,
their fauna, their geography.

Just when I thought I couldn’t stand it
another minute longer, Friday came,
(Accounts of that have everything all wrong.)
Friday was nice.
Friday was nice, and we were friends.
If only he had been a woman …
He’d pet the baby goats sometimes,
and race with them, or carry one around.
— Pretty to watch; he had a pretty body.

And then one day they came and took us off.

Now I live here, another island,
that doesn’t seem like one, but who decides? …
I’m bored, too, drinking my real tea,
surrounded by uninteresting lumber …

The local museum’s asked me to
leave everything to them:
the flute, the knife, the shrivelled shoes,
my shedding goatskin trousers
(moths have got in the fur),
the parasol that took me such a time
remembering the way the ribs should go.
It still will work but, folded up,
looks like a plucked and skinny fowl.
How can anyone want such things?
— and Friday, my dear Friday, died of measles
seventeen years ago come March.

(Geography III, 1976)


A painting by Doreen Fletcher of vanishing England (“The architecture of the ordinary”), the area in London called Spitalfields, caught by her and her colleagues with scrupulous reverent meanness (to paraphrase a Joyce phrase for his Dubliner — another course I’m taking) — Bridge over Regents Canal Bow, 2018

Ellen

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Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)

Friends,

The OLLI at Mason winter term has started, and I’ve had two remarkable classes in two days. For tonight I can offer to you, a two hour plus movie on the art and life of Dorothea Lange, made by PBS, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities, part of the American Masters series. All of these I ever saw were of uniform excellence at the same time as differing considerably from one another: each program took its shape from the artist it was about, and the creative film art-biography a shaping spirit in response made. Do take the time:

[A bit of a warning: the full-size screen movie can be seen only on PBS websites that carry; below is this movie, only for reasons I don’t understand the picture takes up only about a quarter of the left hand bottom side of the screen. The voice is intact, the photos shown, the narrative, but on the right side and just above the “movie” space you have to endure a black background with flickering stars]

I could for once leave this at that and for once have a genuinely brief blog (on my part) but I would like to tempt your appetite lest you have said to yourself I’ll come back later, and of course never do. After a prelude where she speaks of her core ideas on how to extract life from all around her into a camera shot, and we are shown her famous iconic picture, “Migrant Mother,”

One could say this picture is the Mona Lisa of American art: in the movie you learn who this woman was, her circumstances and how she felt about the photos taken of her later in life. Neither she nor Lange ever made the money from these they would have had they been controlled by a contemporary studio.


She posed many women and children, some with the children on the mother’s lap, some with their heads and bodies wrapped around the mother

You will move on to a narrative that combines her life story with the stages of her developing art, and at each point where she created some soaring set of hundreds of negatives and then photos, you are told the circumstances of how she came to make this set of pictures (who funded by, when, what the circumstances of the people). Many are shown you with intelligent insightful commentary on the narrator’s part.

Her life story begins with her childhood, how she wanted to become a photographer, how she was trained as a photographer at Columbia University by Clarence H White, how she moved to San Francisco, and there made her way to a job in a shop developing photos people brought to it. She managed while there and photographing San Francisco herself to met crucially innovative photographers running studios, exhibiting one another’s work, and sustained relationships. The film concentrates on her two husbands, both encouraged her: the first a noted western painter, Maynard Dixon, with whom she had two children; and 10 years later, after her marriage became strained and she fell in love with Paul Taylor, a professor of economics at Berkeley, deeply socialist, who had himself been married, so was now divorced. At one point she was caring for two of her own children, and three step-children; at times, she put them in foster homes to give herself time to practice her art. There is much emphasis on the ambiguous and difficult but brave relationship of her and Dixon, and then the long loving companion with Taylor.


This might be a still from the movie Grapes of Wrath

She began photographing the elite in fashionable ways for money, but when the depression emerged, turned her camera to the real people of the US suffering from the devastation of this catastrophe. We see them in monumental individuality and invulnerable moments, standing there, their struggle t survive. What they value enough to take cross country. And their despair too.

She was enabled by FDR’s agencies: Farm Security, Resettlement. The Oakies were among her subjects, and her pictures are reflected in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. A second set of photos are of a large community destroyed by a project to build a dam: this was seen as progress, and it did deliver water across a vast region and gradually improved the lives of those living around the dam, but it drowned, displaced worlds of people.


Pea Harvest, 1937

She also photographs immigrant workers in the fields of California, the hard work and small pay, the dismal housing, how they wrenched improvement for themselves and a better life for the children from such jobs; she does not neglect, average people and the land and natural world of the US. Another third set of photos are of the Japanese Internment Camps, where she had to fight censorship to show the individuals in these prisons.


A family awaiting a bus

These were impounded by the US gov’t and not shown for years. One of her themes is the effect of ripping whole families from their homes, their things, their very identity. You will see other smaller projects: she photographs how poorer people coped with the criminal justice system, courts. Her husband was a social activist and later in life she was taking photos by his side as he went about doing research, working with the UN to improve people’s lives around the earth where they could.


A group of women at a meeting

Her vision was partly the result of her experience as girl, wife, mother and her ability to identify with those who had no voice, including the environment, plants and animals. Her father had abandoned the family when she was very young; she and her siblings went to live with a grandmother; she also contracted polio at twelve: it left her with a weak leg and a limp. I found one of the most moving pictures one of a terrified horse, fleeing the opening thunderous waters of a dam.


Terrified Horse: Lake Berryessa

This is framed by a second story: the 1964 exhibition of her art at the Museum of Modern Art: after the opening prelude, you see her very old (and by this time sick with esophageal cancer) planning with the director and curator of the museum a magnificent exhibition. We keep coming back to this to hear her talk of her pictures, what this set or that mean to her, the beauty of a negative and so on. The movie ends with her death just before the exhibit was opened.

What’s left from the exhibit; the wikipedia article includes a list of good books, and the notes are filled with contemporary article and essays about Dorothea. There are more modern “theoretic” ones like The Politics of Seeing (a John Berger-type pictorial essay).


Dorothea around the time of the exhibit

It is particularly important as a film today where the impoverished, black people, and immigrants such people are being demonized, deprived of the agencies set up for the last 60 years to help them live good lives and protect them from exploitation; they are being put into prison, separated from their children. Budgets are being imposed on us all to make the super-rich in this country even richer and the rest of us (90%) lose much that enables us to live decent lives without debt and with opportunity to fulfill our talents and enjoy ourselves — the National Endowment for the Humanities has been smashed. Four women who left water for some protesting Native Americans were arrested the other day, put on trial. Federal workers expected to work without pay, as the judiciary is now controlled by reactionary judges (what about the 13th amendment). Heads of unions of federal workers try to demonstrate and they are arrested — a powerful group of ruthless reactionaries are intent on destroying the US gov’t as still constituted (though it had taken many hits for some 40 years) when Obama left office

I have over the years done a blog pictorial essays on the lives and art of women artists:  Dorothea Lange was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. The film itself reminded me of the work of Frederick Wiseman for its social critiques and visual forms of analysis. The film is by her step-daughter, Dyanna Taylor and you see her children now grown speaking of her.


This of Florence Owens Thompson is iconic

The other three women photographers are Annie Lebovitz, Sally Mann, and Vivian Maier (three further films too).  My second remarkable class is on American poetry, and I hope to share some of what I learn and take away on Walt Whitman and Elizabeth Bishop on this blog too.

Ellen

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Miss Temple looking at Jane Eyre (many many films have this icon)

Friends,

My first book for the new year:


A virago re-publication — keeping the book in print

Vicinus’s study remains as important and relevant today as when it was written 50 years ago, about crucial failures 50 years before that. Her title tells us the matter of her book, the details of her story line; she only slowly reveals that this is a study which explains why now nearly 100 years ago when women began to vote as a group, they have not achieved needed power for themselves as a group and as individuals when they comprise one-half of the human race.

Where real power resides that effectively can change the structures and conditions of our lives is in society’s central agencies and institutions and she studies those institutions women were allowed to join and try to rise to top shaping positions in, or were allowed to make institutions of their own. She shows that repeatedly women were thwarted from taking shaping power (church, military, high gov’t, medicine), within the lower echelons how class and the psychologies of their own natures interfered with creating successfully run places, because it was demanded of them that they behave like capitalist men, and their needs as women (to run families, to have friends) were disciplined out of existence; how the institution was allowed only to be an interlude (women’s colleges); or what they won was nullified (the vote).

Thus women failed to influence the organizations of industry, military, schools, gov’t to bend to respond to women’s issues, needs, and help women (crucially needed) to counter male sexual and familial tyrannies. Where women have had gains is where they have mitigated the impact of a male-dominated society upon the friendless and vulnerable, where it met an immediate need of the woman herself (intermittent child care, freedom from beating) and her children (school meals — still contested in the US, humane treatment of elderly). The age of indecent assault was moved from 13 to 16, a pension scheme for widows ….


This is the whole of the cover photograph: Westfield College — for women, June 1889

The book begins (Chapter one) with her talking of how women at first tried for general power outside rich and well-connected family groups. She has to omit the working class woman because she could not try; she also omits widows. The first work for powerful people and only achieved power after 1930 when they formed their first women’s union (garment workers); they were excluded from men’s unions until very recently. Widows are a special case and just don’t fit (!) into her story unless they drop this identity. The problem Woolf saw in 1928 (A Room of Your Own) was to explain how the vote seemed to have made little difference. Yes, you could have custody of your children, couldn’t be legally beaten, could get a separation, could not be legally forced to return to a husband, but how minimal these protections and rights, how unaccompanied by anything else.

She then discusses the importance of the norm which denied any rightness or value to the life of an unmarried women. Your life was not useful or respected unless you married and had children, and that immediately put women into the power of compulsory heterosexuality of marriage. So Vicinus begins with the campaign against “redundant” women in the 19th century. Her argument is that unmarried or single women were not an anomaly, not a rarity or uncommon at all. Given death, sterile women whom men abandoned or simply disliked and discarded, unmarried woman forced to care for aged parents, seen as not attractive, quiet lesbians were noticed only to be stigmatized and punished by denying them any ability to make a living which would give them independent or a dignified life. As soon as the punishments became less — because of the increase of industrialization, capitalism, the substitution of money as the basis for society rather than male violence, and so the life of a single woman became more viable and thus more visible, they were to be fiercely denied and erased and worried about, deported (to colonies to find husbands).

So this made-up category of redundant women didn’t go away, instead gradually a world of institutions from which women could exercise the needed power to change norms, make real money, and create spaces in which single women could live independently and freely in safety for the first time began to emerge — all the while society remained hostile to unmarried women and women given power. She turns women attempting to run prestigious institutions while keeping socially acceptable behavior. Gregg who wrote the famous essay introducing this concept wrote that women unattached to men or not in households run by men must be forced back into male control. His scheme was to deport the redundant women, which did not include servants or anyone not middle class and above.

One of the most telling parts of the book is about the ferocious and physical assaults wreaked on women demanding the vote. This reaction apparently astonished the suffragettes at first, then dismayed and horrified them. They were seeing for the first time the men and society they had thought still fundamentally on their side, were not, would dispense with them all as individuals until those “making trouble” were dead or crippled.


Christchurch hospital nurses

So how under this assault can we discover where women can find power, were managing to find it for the first time in the UK and ended up still controlled by men.

How did upper class women become important members of come to almost look for truly high positions of authority in religious organizations and prestigious hospitals comprise Chapters two and three. Religious belief and a place in churches were important parts of women’s lives outside the family and in public space, and then taking care of, nursing people were accepted areas of women’s activities in the public world. Gaining change had to be done first by strong-willed well connected very upper class women in socially acceptable ways and the first positions filled by upper class women — and it’s not a matter of education so much as status, and respect they got and expected. Only such women would be obeyed by others and gained primary respect. Thus some women reached medium and relatively high positions who were not truly qualified in medicine. You had to be a type who obeyed, who conformed because very quickly men and other women who could asserted control.

She describes in detail areas of life and work where women could for the first time in groups enter public life and find or create power and she shows how in effect they failed. For religion, they were never respected enough, nor did they respect themselves enough. They turned to men as the figures who must have these positions, and churches decreed and supported this. When it came to the nursing profession, the women building the profession wanted upper class women to be in positions of authority and chose women based on status and rank not abilities. Then in the context what happened is they demanded of the women they hired absolute obedience and didn’t pay them well and gave them hard tasks. Some women stayed and took the punishment — as escape from home, or something worse — or just did. The women who couldn’t stand this went to work in less prestigious hospitals; as a group they also failed to enforce education standards so anyone could be a nurse.

At the same time they themselves never gained power — as in religious institutions — men remained in charge. They ddidn’t think well enough of themselves no matter how high their position, finally they buy into their inferiority. Else why take on the drudgery and the way they cannot conceive having an institution where women are in charge, women the administrators and doctors. I am bothered by how Vicinus accepts the class and rank status as necessary to being in charge, to managing and just concedes it must be there to be successful. Maybe only such women have the self-esteem and training or attitude of mind from their family backgrounds. She tells the stories of individual women who bucked the system and how they came to grief. They tried to go too high or they succeeded for a while, and then were attacked and marginalized by male hegemonic values of various sorts and attacks on them as women.

There was an almost insane emphasis on discipline (far more than cleanliness) in hospital work, which made it so awful to do, so much like a prison camp, and made nursing a profession like being a governesses had been – who’d want to submit to that. This was partly an attempt to throw off the disrespect and unwillingness to believe women can have another sort of discipline to rise high, to have clean bodies (not sexy – I remember when to rise in academia it was de rigueur to dress dowdy). How can women become powerful on their own behalf in such an atmosphere. These impossibly long days, are in service to male doctors. I’ve known women who worked hard to be nurse and when it came to enduring the profession left; some of nurses’ tyranny over women patients (like breast-feeding) is these are areas where they have handles to be the important person.


Somerville College Boat Club — where the caption says how proud the college is of a tradition of ambition and competition

Chapter Four, Women’s Colleges. Vicinus moves to women wanting an independent intellectual life. This means going to university, ultimately getting the right to have a degree, so you can go out for professional work. But she is also — let’s hear a rousing hand — interested in women who come for this education and intellectual life where the prime motive is not a job but the intellectual life.

She argues that status or rank does not always play the abysmally awful part it did in nursing and religious communities. It’s not that it’s not there (think of Sayers’s Gaudy Night) but it’s not a fault-line for who stays on after the first year or so. These are usually unmarried women. This third institution offered as none other did an “unparalleled” opportunity for a women to have “private space” to herself, to find “shared interests” with others no where else to be found, the use of “public amenities” no where else. There was no time for such things in nursing, no raison d’etre for them but religious belief in church type institutions. And one of the barriers parents resisted most was not so much the degree or job eventuality, but they didn’t want the girl to live there: they lost control of her space and her body and who she could mingle with. They feared not being able to choose her partner through control of who she met and who supported her emotionally.

She discusses more individuals here, and the complications of university life which both allowed it to be place where women could know freedom, seek what their talents were good at, lead an independent life to some extent while they were there. Outside the college remained a strong disdain and dismissal of this intellectual life for women, distrust of it as dangerous or silly. In the details of relationships norms for women coming out different from norms for men which prevent women from gaining power in institutions. Women’s friendships and mentorships work differently, are more emotional she says. They had to develop different appropriate rituals — imitate family roles, like sisterhood. What emerged in many women’s colleges was the life there was an pleasant interlude instead of seeing what you did there as something to bring back into society.


A sketch from nature (Punch, 1884)

The fifth chapter is boarding schools and I wondered why that was a separate area until I realized she was determined to uncover the nature of emotional women’s friendships and mentorships as central glue to women combining in groups outside structures. This too is a basic source of power — the old girls’ network.

She first uncovers an emotional bath of coy adoration and cloying interdependence in the language (relationships called “raves”), and the kind of thing that later critics use to find lesbianism. But she neither seems to care if this kind of thing can become lesbianism or is superficial or just deep emotion — she rejects Carol Smith-Rosenberg’s famous article about female ritual staying ritual; Lilian Faderman’s equally famous insistence lesbian friendships did not include open sex and more recently Lisa Moore’s idea they all fucked as best they could.

No what’s important is this bonding and that it was a secret way of subverting the established order; she has lots of evidence on how the headmistresses’ disciplinary techniques were there to deal precisely with this — to stop secrets between girls, to stop secret friendship because there things like masturbation, and all sort of rebellions took place. At the same time the headmistresses and women in charge themselves saw this was a way of rewarding some girls, punishing others, picking favorites — and gaining power and authority over the girls who obey. Vicinus concedes this sort of thing was very unfair and victims (ostracized girls were also often lower class), but she sees it as important bonding. She talks of the rituals of these places including the headmistress kissing each girl before she goes to bed at night. Example after example from these schools.

Her idea is power came from this kind of exploitation of a level of women’s emotion, which was frustrated and stifled so they could not express it heterosexually going after boys. When they went home, there were chaperons. As such women grew older, they learned to have a severe demeanor or manners with outsiders and kept up their respectability. All this is a basis for power, and when it was student and teacher who went in for this kind of relationship — and it often was and allowed as mentoring — then the result could be a career of public service. Mutual religious belief was brought in to make all moral. I am seeing Miss Temple and Jane in a whole new light.

Bad side-effects was some girls ended up deranged, would have breakdowns in these places because they enforced long hours of work. For some girls this was a remembered paradise, for many more a kind of hell they got through. Vicinus does remark that too much was expected of a single relationship by naive or powerless girls and when they were dropped or it didn’t work out, there would be great hurt or anger. “Pent-up ambition, frustrated ambitions, and constrained sexuality” was behind all this. She is right that something subversive could happening beyond an individual pair of girls rebelling say politically can be seen by how — as she records — so much hostility to this pairing emerged too. Parents took home daughters. They wanted them to marry. I saw some of this in Sweet Briar: the girls were assigned older sisters among girls already there or younger ones and an attempt was made to encourage this kind of bonding to start. Any ostracizing or bullying or victimizing of a particular girl was noticed and put a stop to.

Vicinus seems to me too complacent about what she is showing. I suppose the price of bonding between boys in public schools is similarly ambiguous. What can happen is heterosexual boys are taken over by homosexual ones — and vice versa, for sex does enter into it there in the ugly ugly fagging system. There was no fagging system in the girls’ schools.

Vicinus then analyzes what are clearly lesbian relationships even if she never uses the word. The women lay in one another’s arms, call one another husband or wife, the strong insists on kissing others. These girls and women called their relationships marriages. With Freudianism and new psychoanalyses marginalized these relationships once again.

Eventually and today single sex institutions began to disappear; the claim is they are not needed or wanted. She says it began to be seen as strange by many who began to take notice that a poorly paid apparently celibate woman should have any power. A woman’s career should not be seen as something separate it’s claimed. Vocations don’t support the woman, and we are almost back to where we started.


Women outside a Settlement House (Blackfriars) — turn of the century — settlement houses were run by and often for women

Settlement houses: Chapter 6: community ideal for the poor

Another group of institutions that emerged that women tried to gain power from were settlement houses built among the poor and meant to help them find shelter, medical care, education, employment, what they needed: women’s names are remembered here: Mary Carpenter, Louisa Twinning, Octavia Hill (given money by John Ruskin to start houses he had ideas for), Jane Adams, Dorothy Day. Amid the horrors of industrialization, factories &c philanthropic organizations grew too – women were allowed to cross class lines for such purposes 211 armies of volunteers as middle class people’s income soared in the gilded age ….In the US such settlement houses partly political were run by women; in the UK often by men and were stepping stones to a career.

But problems arose. I am startled to have to say Vicinus is for means tests! She is for the Charity Organization Society which was against giving any help until people investigated and then if any other relative can help well then help is denied. Then it’s fine to interfere. There were women who joined who were socialists or pacifists but more Christian millennialism – working with children for the future. Now instead of military metaphors found in nursing we find language of colonialism: cleanliness, middle class deportment, cooking sewing – do-it-yourself self-respecting well doing &c&c. Some working class people found this appalling, but submitted to obtain help.

One ironic result the middle class suddenly can walk where she pleases alone but the working class is now spatially confined – put them in clubs, in service, &&c. Women did this work and lived in such places to be public leaders and have professional work, saw how fellowship and association gave them place and power. Women’s colleges got involved – they did help some people, disabled children for example. All made a point of linking with some other recognized institution (school, college church, political ones). Had long-time women running them as wardens, and they enabled women to keep up relationships with one another and make new relationships. You had privacy as a resident; indirect access to shaping of laws. They moved into places like school boards.

There was a problem of finding reliable volunteers – what brought people: curiosity, religious commitment, idealism, boredom, desire for adventure, self-education. You paid to be a resident and the working girls couldn’t understand what you were doing or why. Leaders of women’s settlements wanted to turn these into a paid profession. Then part-time volunteers outnumbers residents two to one – money needed for drains for upkeep of houses …. Small sums out of these women’s reach; only after WW! And take over by gov’t were social workers regularly paid.

So then we have women choosing settlement not based on which school connection but what the settlement’s speciality in caring was; class condescension can be replaced by “professional expertise” – communities divide all sorts of ways into committed and un committed. Some very devoted and high minded hard working women but mocked too.

What was benefit for working people: very small staffs, volunteers, huge numbers of people to service. Clubs for working girls were popular – emphasis on pleasure so most had dancing. One successful one moved into instruction too – skills and trade unionism. Baby care, housewifery and other skills to older women who were presumed to be mothers. A great disconnect between them and who they were serving. Resident teachers were most successful with young children in new formations of schools. Men against them – paradoxically most were unmarried women advising all these married women – week after week the real problems of women and children at home incapable of being addressed. What do you do about low self-image?

And then when their function was taken over by the state, the women were given subordinate jobs. They were not enfranchised …. A failure to cement connections between different kinds of settlement houses … Eleanor Rathbone a rare individual with larger social vision did move into parliament.

Chapter 7: Male space and women’s bodies: the suffragette movement.

I was again surprised – much – when she treated the suffragette movement not as economically based but as a spiritual one. She kept using that word “spirituality” whose meaning I have yet to make precise or understand fully because as far as I can see I have no “spirituality.” I gather she does not mean religious belief attached to a church but some undefined set of emotional needs somehow connected to religions.  Her argument, which I think she does demonstrate, is that the suffragettes got as far as they did because they were actuated by motives akin to religious belief that can overturn an old religious order and replace it with a new. She also thinks religious motivations are at the heart of women’s way of bonding – as well as unformulated erotic ones – let’s call them loosely indirect.

She makes a good case for her insights again and again and in this chapter as she goes through the familiar trajectory of being lied to, disappointed, ignored and then seeing that they must break the law and be utterly disruptive if they are to get anywhere, that they must be regarded seriously as a political force with the _right_ to work effectively in public political space, she again and again has recourse to “spirituality” as an actuating motive clinching the women’s behavior. Certainly at the beginning most women could not see what votes would get them. A failure of imagination is at the heart of this. Women did see some movement – no beating, custody of children, but not enough in their daily lives. Men did see the deep subversion of what these women were asking and the one thing they held out against was recognizing they were political prisoners for example. Churchill treated them like naughty children who needed to be treated more softly.

She agrees with others the movement was engendered by upper class women, and typical are sentences like this: “the fierce loyalty and strength of the movement sprang from a spiritual self-confidence that unleashed enormous energies not only for the vote, but also for a total reconsideration of the role of women.” Consider that the wretchedness of poor life was not a motive for these women, it was genuinely a desire to have liberty of choice in life for themselves and thus power. It is no coincidence that Bell (tomorrow we’ll have a loose schedule) and Cobbe came from very wealthy people; Florence Nightingale and filled with self-esteem.

She quotes Mary Gordon (a Catholic writer) that “such spiritual upheavals are always irrational and irrational human types are swept into them as high priests.” So the women’s movement for the vote is like the Protestant reformation.

The WSPU was extreme in its behavior out of desperation, and this is important: it frightened some women away but it got attention. Gradually more women saw also getting the vote was not asking a lot new and doing it was easy. That’s important. I’ll never canvass anyone but I can vote – and through votes you can perhaps get many different kinds of things. For others militancy was putting off “the slave spirit” – so it was like abolition. Women were beat and told they were to obey. The call was “Rise up Women!”

Then they were horrified at the men’s reaction, stunned at the cruelty derision, hatred. That taught something important. And when they didn’t fill the roles they were supposed to and then considered fair predatory game they learned something else.

And then the beast comes out from behind the screen publicly: hitherto men beat women in private with impunity now they were willing to do it publicly, with the aid of subordinate women (nurses ironically).

Vicinus reveals how viciously the suffragettes were treated, not just indifferently badly but compare the treatment to the way white racists have treated black people — out right ugly humiliating attacks and bodily injury she would not recover from, both in the streets and prisons, but especially the prison. Force feeding was intended to maim the woman and it did and hundreds were subjected to this. Those in power were intensely enraged because they did see the demand for a vote as an attack direct on their masculinity and whole way of life. They detested the demand to use public space as an authority. What surprised me was the horror of the women — they did not expect this and Vicinus’s own attitude towards the hunger strikes. And many were physically and/or emotionally maimed for life. She says hunger strikes — or suicide as in Emily Davies just gets rid of pro-active effective women — and ultimately is liked by the powerful. They’re glad of it or indifferent. Given that she sees the suffragette movement as driven by an emotional “spirituality” these sacrifices bound women but also were so self-defeating. I know these hunger strikes reverse the age-old way of punishment of subversion: put the person in a hunger tower to starve but most writers are chary to say how useless – because it attracts attention. Vicinus doesn’t think attention per se is enough.

At the end of the chapter she says that when the movement was over some suffragettes felt they had won something – the right to be recognized or recognition, the idea they wanted liberty which desire even had been denied them. But Vicinus shows how the newspapers went against them, how other women betrayed them, and says what they are saying they achieved doesn’t click because the basic structures of society in 1920 remain the same. The vote has ameliorated conditions. Today many of ties that bound women today are as strongly in place and the vote does not come near these.

************************

I’ve already told the conclusion. This last coda is interesting for the examples she brings forth to once again make her argument, and how various norms thought to protect women were used against them; at the same time, some liberties women sought and thought they had gained from at first were seen only to favor men more when put into practice.

All women’s communities declined during and after WW1. One of most persuasive chapters is the short appendix where she shows men’s clubs continue to be supportive of them and fill needs all their lives; women’s clubs are an interlude just like women’s colleges. Women’s clubs interfere with her family obligations and she drops them. Women communities were successfully attacked for new reasons but one glimpses old ideas: they are restrictive psychologically and emotionally, silly places with old-fashioned dangerous behavior (ties to other women mocked. Paradoxically these communities often class bound become unsympathetic unfriendly places for many women.

Jobs were taken right back after WW1 and WW2. Men refused to work for women and refused to allow the workplace to reflect women’s ways.

As the idea women are not morally superior and pure were dropped because that was used to restrict them, they lost out again — not respected. She sees uses for those older ideas as they can empower men if transformed into valuing chastity, non marriage, friendships. But women ill prepared for Freud — who, Vicinus doesn’t say, is so misogynist so they rejected Freudian psychology and were left with what? A new kind of psychology emerged slowly in the 1970s first. What did the new sexual freedom of the 1970s finally achieve? ultimately gave men greater access to women and vulnerable men on their own terms. Women still do not do well when they report and go to court to punish men for raping them.

Then women fought within their own groups. There were those who wanted protective legislation (often turns out for families, for the breadwinner’s packet of money or state support should go to her and children not him as if he were the family) — these were contested bitterly but there were wins in welfare, but these seen as socialist, humanitarian. Those who wanted liberty to fulfill the demands of their own nature got nowhere; independent women accused of sex hatred, preferring women. She shows instances where the word “women” is removed; no this is a fund for citizens. It reminds me of the women’s review of books wanted to use the word “gender” and how “gender studies” replaces women. Far from identifying as a group they run from the group name is implied. Women didn’t or couldn’t invent a different language and set of terms to see themselves by –I think that was attempted in the 1970s to 1990s myself. – and they still haven’t.

The professions she goes over where power bases could have developed remain single-sex ghettos or when men come in, they take over. There had been an attempt at a richly nurturing subculture and the university is one place (all women’s college this can sometimes be seen), but once you leave you are outside the aggressively married heterosexual world.

She ends on a paragraph by Winifred Holtby where Holtby says we know where the aggressively male outlook leads women — to slave markets of all sorts, including marriage. Holtby is arguing that individual ability rather than social conditions should determine a woman’s fate – but Vicinus has shown that without institutions which provide a basis for power (certificates say, incomes) by refusing to change the class bias or sexual terms on which recognition is given out renders such demands moot.

Of course Vicinus is talking about women in general, the large majority not what particular individual women may luck into or be able to access by denying themselves some of the rewards of obeying successfully aggressive heterosexual male hegemonies (i.e., marrying). Many of the women writers I study are women who had talent enough to secure a living somewhere or other in the society and at least for a while and maybe much of their lives managed to escape this thwarting.

Vicinus book is written more softly and in academic style prose than I have and so the impact of what she is saying only slowly dawns on the reader, but once she does, her book has enormous explanatory power. My frontispiece for this blog suggests Vicinus’s whole new ironic and sad take on the stories of Miss Temple and Jane Eyre, how they ended up ….

Ellen

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Christmas at Noningsby

Friends and readers,

As is our wont for too many years than I like to count, Christmas week on TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io (we have now resided on five different platforms) we took time out to read a few Christmas or ghost stories and watch a few Christmas or New Year’s movies. I realize I’ve hardly blogged about this, but from our discussion I thought I’d ask the question I posed in my previous blog on two Christmas movies of the 21st century, Is there any general difference between the Christmas story that emerged with the first commercialization of Christmas — in the 19th century, around the time of Dickens’s most famous tale, A Christmas Carol (but not caused by this story), and the type that has dominated the second half of the 20th century and is just dying now.

The simple answer is, Yes. The Victorians were much more into ghosts. Not that we don’t have ghost stories: we do. But I’d say we want our ghosts to be redemptive, to bring hope, cheer, and uplift while the Victorians tended to want generally to mirror as aspects of their society all the year round as seen through the lens of a Christmas ritual. And often as not darkly gothic. We are changing and our new traditional stories are beginning to be less insistent on faery joy and benevolence (It’s a Wonderful Life, engineered by an angel) and more inclined to accept the temporary rescue (as in this year’s Mary Poppins Returns or Love, Actually). I am in the position of having too much material to demonstrate this (from all the years I’ve saved what people wrote over different weeks’ choices, but thought this year’s stories were as able as any to register this. Two by Anton Chekhov, “Frost,” and “A Christmas Time,” and one by Margaret Oliphant, “A Christmas Story,” which I’ll follow up as a kind of coda, Trollope’s depiction of six very different experiences of Christmas in the same year and juxtaposed chapters in Orley Farm.


17th century Dutch: scene on the ice

Chekhov’s “Frost” shows us people attempting to have this joyous time on a vast frozen pond, and what happens is among the upper classes, one man complain how this is false and, far from a cheerful time for all, the winter imposes cold and misery for many, for the poor much deprivation and hard work in the bitter cold. Along comes a man whose appearance and story bears this idea out. The problem (I’d say) is that the complaining has destroyed what cheer there is, and other characters reiterate this idea. But somehow they cannot forget. There is that suffering man.


John Atkinson Grimshaw, Silence (late 19th century, English, probably Yorkshire in winter)

Cheknov’s “A Christmas Time” tells of two very old people who have not heard from their grown daughter for a long time, so long the wife goes to a person who can read and write. He asks her what she wants him to say, and Chekhov says she cannot get herself to say the (I’d call them) vulnerable open longing emotions she has or what has happened for real. She is too inhibited to speak the truth. So the notary produces the usual boilerplate rot of his upper class niche, which flatters him and would say nothing to this daughter. The letter arrives and we learn that there were letters written to the old couple but never delivered. The foolish poor people, the daughter especially trusted to others to deliver them. (Like the southerners who gave their ballots to people coming to the door; I wonder if in the modern case the people were intimidating and that’s not said in public) At any rate when the two grown children read the letters one cries with joy and remembrance. So the letters do serve as a minimum communication. But the pair do nothing about going to the aging couple so they cannot know if they have reached their daughter.

Bleak stories, indeed, but not unusual. And to show this I think I’ll follow up with a few blogs on previous year’s readings. For now have a look at a M.R. James Christmas tale.


John Millais, Christmas (ghost) story-telling

Our last short story for this round, Oliphant’s “Christmas Story:” Oliphant has a man who wants go somewhere Christmas and misses his train. He takes an old-fashioned coach and finds himself by an old broken down landscape where all is desolate and thence to an inn which fits this area. Bare. a dearth of objects. The food offered is bad, and an old gentleman comes and offers to take our narrator to his manor – all the while talking against modern ways. They get there through an uncanny landscape, and the old man tells our narrator that the sullen son he meets is going to replace the old man. According to the family will, each generation must make the oldest son the heir. The family has trouble having sons. A story is told where when the family attempted to get round this harsh treatment, to give the house to a daughter, and they almost lost the house. Our narrator is horrified to think what this means is the son will kill the father somehow or the father kill himself. He tries to stop this, but is somehow ejected from the house, and must return to the inn, deeply disquieted. Next day he goes back indignant determined to overcome the indifference of all around him to what is done in this family each generation but it is too late. And then he wakes up … Was it all a nightmare?

How to take this? The details and experience may leave people reacting very different ways to this gothic — without ghosts so it’s not reprinted in the ghost stories but my hunch is it is a story of the “unseen.” My reading: it’s about Oliphant herself. As Trollope’s Fixed Period is about his fear of death, his aging and misery, his sense the young would like him to die, with the awful Mrs Neverbend a version of Trollope’s wife, Oliphant’s is even more painfully about her. Her sons want to replace her — a number of her novels are metaphors for her painful relationships with her disappointing sons and her neglect of her sweet niece (“Lady Mary’s Story”).

My good friend, Fran, had another take very close to Victorian broad themes:

I found it an intriguing one, despite the unfortunately clichéd, ‘it may have been only a dream’ ending.

As you say, it was probably informed by her own distressing and disappointing experiences with the ne’er-do-well males in her family, who took and took, but didn’t respect,but it seems to go further than that and be an oblique critique of patriarchy, patrilineal inheritance rights and inheritance laws in general. She does it by taking the privileging of male inheritance ad (macabre and possibly murderous) absurdum. It isn’t that the family has difficulty having sons: due to the losses of a wastrel forebear, the family has made a conscious decision to have only one child, a son, in each generation in order to maintain patrilineal succession and prevent their land being cut up even further by multiple heirs or falling to another family if a female should succeed and marry. That son automatically accedes to the title upon marriage whilst the father dies, whether by his own hand or that of his son, remains unclear as you’ve already pointed out – a kind of precursor to the Highlander’s ‘there can be only one’ maxim:) The narrator stumbles upon the present incumbent of the title on the day this will come about and is shocked by his equanimity at the prospect of his loutish son succeeding him in this way. The only thing that seems to bother the father is that his son has insisted on marrying outside the preferred narrow gene pool and into a particularly fecund family, thus presumably increasing the danger of multiple heirs.

Women are of absolutely no importance in this family beyond the obligatory production of a male heir. The lady of the manor is a completely silent, passive and presumably accepting cypher who quite literally blends in with the furniture and her husband is positively gleeful when he recounts that the one time a female child was born first and in danger of inheriting both she and her mother met with an early demise – manner again unspecified – whilst the second wife performed her duty and produced the required son to continue the male line.

This stands in ironic and suggestive contrast to the legendary figure of Godiva referenced at the beginning of the tale, who took action and stood up against her despotic husband and caused harmful laws to be rescinded for the good of the people. The male who disrespected her, the first Peeping Tom, was summarily punished by a higher power. Wishful thinking perhaps…..


Mr Furnival greeting Lady Mason, to the right side sitting Mrs Furnival, to the left Lady Mason’s son, Lucius

And finally Christmas in Trollope’s Orley Farm (mostly contained in 21-24) as simply truthful. The truth is few people can be happy upon command. Some who are already cheerful in life can easily enter into the spirit of a festival; for others it is a form a work which brings its rewards; for still others, the social requirement just makes life harder to bear. We see all these types in the 6 Christmases Trollope shows us. But of course Trollope doesn’t present Christmas in all his books or because Christmas come every year; he presents it here because it fits into his exploration of law, custom, and now ritual in this particular novel.

There are six Christmases. The four obvious ones are: Harley Street, Noningsby, Groby Park, and Great St. Helens.

Christmas at Harley Street. The scene of the aon and accused mother, Lady Mason, late at night matches the scene of Mr and Mrs Furnival. Less is dramatized in the first but we are to understand Lady Mason feels a bitter agony at her son. He is driving his absolute right to a property too far and a court case will be the result. He, she feels, rightly is cruel. Trollope wants us to understand that Lucius cannot bear that his opponents do not answer all insults: his pride is his undoing. But we are shown that pride is necessary to win in the world. All the characters have it, but only the wiser use it with discretion. I feel we are to see Mr Furnival is cruel and mean, cold. We’ve been told enough to know he has women. He never comes home to supper one night in the year and is even out on this Christmas celebration. To those not in groups Christmas is a cruel time because (as Trollope shows) people without friends or celebration who have hearts are made to suffer and feel bitterly ashamed. But Mrs Furnivals handles Mr Furnival badly. Had she been skillful, he still would gone out, never be home. She cannot humble herself and admit to herself or him she speaks out of deep loneliness.

Trollope does “paint” the scenes of Christmas at Noningsby remarkably finely — he has wonderful description and psychological powers. And while showing us the enjoyment he does justice to all the pettty, cross and unsatisfied emotions of the various lovers and children and adults too. Unlike Dickens Trollope shows a variety of how people get through this day, does justice to all. This sequence of chapters is famous as well as the illustration of blind man’s bluff. Ironically appropriate _– the way to get through life is to bluff the blind men.

Christmas at Great St Helens’ shows Mr Moulder bullying everyone into appearing to be cheerful, and somehow they get through sll the insisted upon rituals with heavy food, much drink, and obedience.

But to this we should add Christmas at the cottage of the Greens, the Mason’s tenants in Groby Park, and Christmas at the Cleeves. What unites the Greens’ and Cleeves’s Christmas is they are simply an adorned moment in which all attempt to show good fellowship. Mr and Mrs Green come home from the long ordeal of ugly pretense and parody of hospitality that has been the Groby Park Christmas (everyone an utter miser), and Trollope writes: “‘And now, my dear, we’ll have a bit of bread and cheese and a glass of beer'” (1985 Oxford Classics ed. DSkilton, p. 237).

Christmas at the Cleeves also has a good moment:

“[Lady Mason] made an effort to be serene, and the effort was successful — as such efforts usually are. On the morning of Christmas-day they duly attended church, and Lady Mason was seen by all Hamworth sitting in the Cleeves’ pew. in no way could the baronet’s friendhship have been shown more plainly…”

In the evening Sir Peregrine proposes the toast. They drink to the health of the absent young men, he retires and Lady Mason is able to relieve her heart in conversation with Mrs Orme (p. 247). We may assume they drank something far more expensive than beer.

These 2 Christmases are overlooked because they only get a couple of paragraphs each and are very quiet. They also lack children. Children are what makes Christmas for some so happy, especially when they still believe in the pretty lie of Santa. Children are drunk on life of course. Finally these two seem to me the most modern of all the Christmases we see. Not everyone is near a divorce on Christmas day. But many people nowadays are cut off from large family groups — or single –and spend their day alone, quietly, or with one or two adult friends.

The 6 Christmases are presented in this novel this way too because they fit into what Halperin has identified as something Trollope dislikes wherever he sees it, and is a strong part of his animus towards political life: they avoid the ceremonies of falsifying rituals. I would say that this presentation of the ritual of Christmas as enacted in six places connects to the novel’s exploration of law and custom and what I’ll call the brutal politics of every day life: shall one bully? as Moulder does, or retreat into self-abnegation or controlled repeat or veneer ritual like Lady Mason?

In this connection what Trollope shows us is ritual at home doesn’t hide reality; rather it heightens it. In each of the Christmases we find everyone behaving in ways that epitomize the reality of their lives and natures at this point. The difference is the need to join in the ritual at the same time makes what is true about them more obvious; it turns life into a theater. Thus each of the six moments again reveals to us aspects of each character writ large, and carries the book’s stories and themes along strongly.

And there is a fun illustration by Millais for Christmas at Noningsby (which I used as the frontispiece to this blog) to which I add a picturesque one of companionship between Judge Staveley and his daughter later that spring.

Finishing this old year, let us hope, my friends, we may yet have a peaceful and stable one to come, be well and know and give kindness.

Ellen

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