Archive for the ‘Autobiographical’ Category

March daffodils to the side of my house (close up)

Dear friends and readers,

Yesterday I had to expend a goodly sum to a group of workers (acting with alacrity to obey their boss), the man who owns Residential Lawn Management, to cut my grass, ground down the hedge in front of my house, hand-cut my new flower bed (which unfortunately I had not thought through so didn’t realize I had to set aside an area they didn’t just mow through), cut down and take away a tree in the back of my garden-yard which had been growing upside down (!). First I phoned him twice (landline and cell phone), half an hour later they arrive; I try to re-tell them the message, they listen patiently and then go about the business after themselves phoning the boss.

They did it with good humor and very well — especially considering they don’t understand English very well and my Vietnamese is non-existent.

So this morning I was drawn to a story by Alex Ulam in the Nation (entitled “Foreclosures” and this exhibit), which I found reprinted and slightly revamped here, How to Rehouse the American Dream, about a new unusual exhibit in the Modern of Modern Art, which exposes how the way Americans end up in car-dependent houses in the suburbs (and lawns of grass to have to cope with) is the result of right-wing polemics as well as control of public media and dreams. Really worth reading about and looking at. I can’t send you to Ulam as one needs to be an online subscriber (I’m only paper subscriber and the Nation is not generous this way), but I can to the exhibit itself:

Rehousing the American Dream

Jim and I also have car troubles, large car bills. Luckily we do live in a city-like suburb with strong pro-social attitudes, Alexandria City, where we don’t have to drive miles and miles to get anywhere that’s fun and interesting and has other like-minded friendly people.

My nearly 20 year old chariot

See Surroundings. The truth for me is I love my unpretentious house set in a series of quiet green-laden streets. Sitting in my screened porch this afternoon, I remember how for nearly 30 years I’ve lived here as I look out at the familiar trees, flowering bushes, houses, streets. But the point I make here is there should and could be an alternative within the reach of a majority of people’s incomes and place.


Read Full Post »

Dear friends and readers,

Hitherto I’ve put all my conference reports and news about my papers on this blog. Since the beginning of this year when I created a new blog just for Austen and 18th century studies and women writers, I decided that my reports of 18th century conferences, papers and Austen should logically go onto Reveries under the Sign of Austen. However, as I know I have a small audience for such reports here, I thought I’d cross post just the URLs to the reports of the SC/ASECS conference for which I read so much for an Ann Radcliffe paper and at which Jim and I had such a good time.

So, on the good time we had socially and what touring we did, and my paper:

South Central ASECS: The Nightmare of History in Ann Radcliffe’s Landscapes

The above photo is me giving the paper.

The first day and one half of sessions and papers:

South Central ASECS: Panoramas (gothic, animals in, the Biltmore), Scottish fidding, Rameau & Jane

The third day and evening, a panoply of papers, eating and drinking, ending in a dance:

South Central ASECS: Women writers, poets & actresses, and myths

Just today Jim confided in me that he took the above photo and this one of the central spa in the center of the hotel (whose three buildings formed a horseshoe surrounding the spa, which could be seen from anywhere in the building when you looked down:


Read Full Post »

Filmic rendition in Welch’s movie of the famous opening scenes of Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend: opening shot of movie; Lizzie (Keeley Hawes) at center; John Harmon (Steven Mackintosh) back from the dead and drowned the last

Dear friends and readers,

Over the past 10 weeks I’ve been listening to Mil Nicolson (Librivox) read aloud Dickens’s last complete great novel, Our Mutual Friend while in my car. Alas, I didn’t get very far: I was hardly in my car after the 1st week of December, and I was that awkward with the thumbnail drive and the ipod, I kept re-listening to what I had heard. I managed to get near Chapter 20. At the same time though I did read a number of essays on Dickens’s novel and found myself remembering my first reading of the novel while I was in my thirties, when I reached the point of the strained marriage
of Bella Wilfhur and John Rokesmith and Dickens’s presentation of Rokesmith’s way of educating Bella out of her materialism and prestige-oriented values. It seemed to me a reverse of Ibsen’s The Doll House: he was tyrant and she obdurate pupil. I was pulled along by the ferocious rivalry of Headstone (his deep injuried) and the nihilism, arrogance of that expert needle artist, Eugene Wrayburn. Finally the abject Lizzie despised at some level by both and all but Jenny Wren, her loving self-annhiliation.

So I sought quick entry into the novel by way of Sandy Welch’s masterpiece film, a transposition (faithful), Our Mutual Friend. And I found I got closer to the book than I might have done in the text had I been able to read at night. (I no longer can most of the time.) Welch is (as she often is) faithful to the plot-design, keeps all major characters (and invents no new ones), keeps all the hinge points (central plot turning points), famous lines (well what there is of fame). She respects Dickens — and her audience. I just loved this film and writ here about it to suggest it is a deeply humane way reading of the novel and present another case for the greatness of costume drama and mini-series.

Welch’s film is deeply melancholy, sad and opens where Dickens’s does: the river. I remember OMF as being highly unusual for Dickens for its central exploration of sexuality twisted and gone wrong and the conflict of Headstone and Wrayburn, but this far in the book (Chapter 8) the idea that what is driving the world into sickness is not that everyone is longing to love one another and be loved — which is Welch’s particular emphasis.

Dickens’s book had stayed with me: I still remembered the opening on the river between Liz and her bird of prey father after all these years. The 2nd chapter of the Veneerings is generalized out to depict the dysfunctional — unreal, utterly insincere lying — basis of social life and the goals of those who practice dinners. The 3rd chapter gives us some understanding of what we saw in Chapter 1, and we meet Eugene (a do nothing, this type embitters Dickens so, only here we are allowed to see how hard it is to do something and how it’s all wrapped up in money and performance) and then 4th, Lizzie who can’t read because it would offend her father and she can only hope “to influence” if she gives up her inner life.

Dark and bitter and lost. I miss the use of the narrators in Bleak House (Esther Summerson versus the saturnine voice) and the use of 3rd person free indirect discourse in Little Dorrit. We are at such a distance from these figures we listen to and see thus far.

Welch’s film worked for me as all was presented as deep grief from Lizzie’s horrified bewildered point of view. The settings were most of them of narrow spaces, no room to turn, dark too, scary as allowing people to come up behind you and destroy you. Or abject public spaces.

It’s a world based on the river. Everyone gets their living off the river and around it. Even dredging up corpses. People throw themselves into the river or are thrown there.

It’s a world of garbage dumps. Of people making their living scavenging. The Boffins for years have run a huge garbage dump.

Mr Boffin (Peter Vaughn) showing Mr Rokesmith (Steven Mackintosh’s second disguise, now hired as Boffin’s secretary) his house and environs

In the film after the river scene and the party salon choral scene:

Lady Tippins (Margaret Tyzack) in the center

we cut to the scene in the public tavern which comes out of the river: In both book and film we encounter the hard indifference of behavior Miss Abbey Potterson (Linda Bassett in the film) could enact before Lizzie Hexam when Lizzie refuses to separate herself form her father, disliked by Miss Potterson as much for his low status and what people therefore think of his possible horrible crimes as these crimes themselves: he seems to kill poor people, throw them in the river and then retrieves them for money.

Dickens’s descripion of The Six Jolly Fellowship-Porters, like the use of caricature and abstraction, brings us right back to early Dickens. apparently there was such a pub; here is a later illustration by Sol Eytinge (From Victorian Web)

The house is alive, it’s a person or character in itself, a world built of meanings reflecting its significance in its surrounding by its physical characteristics. Stone had not illustrated it.

Part Two of the film veered off to Welch’s emphasis. She presented the characters are intensely eager to reach one another, to love, to be interdependent. Three love affairs in Dickens which I remember as fiercely devouring, finally selfish, are here presented under the aegis of intense need and hurt. Eugene Wrayburn intensely needs Lizzie to give his life a meaning and him meaningful action (to teach her and Jenny to read). David Morrissey delivers a brilliant performance as a half-mad anguished Bradley Headstone, intensely sexually repressed and hating anyone who is not (especially women): he wants to take over Lizzie to prove his self-worth and loathes Wrayburn for dismissing him, laughing at him.

Headstone (David Morrissey) in his school

Wrayburn stands for the world. It’s hard to see if he has any concern for Lizzie (Wrayburn seems to) but the performance is sympathetic. At least I think so.

Paul McGann as the louche drone who is finally reclaimed

The third affair shows us Rokesmith falling in love with Bella whose kindness to her father is made much of. He takes the father out to dinner, and shows him respect. They have a beautiful day doing things like going to a museum, dressing up, courtesy interchanges; she has bought the father a new outfit all at once (Dickens makes the point that this man never before had a new hat and trousers at the same time). He loves her and she is beginning to see the man who is hovering over her with the same intensities as Headstone and Wrayburn has a heart.

Father-daughter, Mr Wilfur (Peter Wight) and Bella (Anna Friel)

John and Bella

The movie is filled with shots of people hugging one another. Jenny Wren imagines herself being beaten and beating others, but she is all loving kindness to Lizzie whom she has taken in as a seamstress and she needs Lizzie as much as Lizzie needs her.

Lizzie and Jenny Wren (Katy Murphy) hugging together

Thus far the Boffins are loving; even Wegg is respectful, enjoying his cake while reading The Decline.

Regret, anger, grief, alienation from one another: the Lammles (Anthony Calf and Doon Madkichan shortly after marriage

Against this the Lammles are obviously a sick couple, full of hatred because they have married perversely; Lizzie’s brother does stand out as inexplicable in character compared to the others. He throws Lizzie off for not accepting Headstone: he seeks status as well as money, We do wonder why? There seems no reason to — the day out of Bella and her father is not at all connected to having status and money; it seems one can pull this off as long as one has a heart. The Lammles have one only for themselves.

Marcus Stone’s illustration


Lizzie’s brother, Charles (Paul Bailey), sent to school

A crucial moment in the book. Chapter 6, the scene where Lizzie comes home and tells her brother he must leave them to go to school full-time and stay away, and then the profoundly affecting/affective scene of Lizzie telling her father, his sudden (to me) unexpected murderous rage, taking his knife and stabbing the table, saying that if his son rejected him, he rejected the son totally and would smash (or some other word) that son, and Lizzie’s abject cringing horror.

The pictorialism of the scene remains in the mind: the outline of the girl cringing in horror more than terror for herself, the old man again a bird of prey at that table.

I took it that Lizzie is not afraid of her father, but we are to understand that though she insists to herself her father does not murder people, throw them in the river and then retrieve them to sell as corpses, at some level (not very deep) she believes it. And it could be he does.

At any rate she wants to separate her brother from him more to keep the brother from the moral contamination than even the shunning of the father that has begun as Rumor becomes explicit. She refuses to protect herself either from social isolation and pariah-dom and refuses to learn to read well and to teach herself because this would arouse the father’s jealousy and hatred and she no longer be able to influence him.

The complete self-sacrifice of this position is intolerable and the contradictions not improbable. If a girl were so electrified with moral horror, she’d not stay; if she had this kind of intelligence, how could she (like a Radcliffe heroine) refuse to acknowledge wrong-doing even to herself; if she refused to believe it, she’d probably be narrow, obtuse, filled with the usual family loyalty that is a species of hypocrisy (so I see it) and clan protection. By doing this Dickens does make such a scene. I would not call her an angel since her behavior is as morally imbecilic as the Radcliffe heroine of Udolpho faced with terror and refusing to run away because forsooth she has to be obedient to her aunt, some piety.

The brother is such a weasel and now I’m remembering this way he and we meet Bradley Headstone (whose second name refers to death, the graveyard, he’s a headstone, and also his great bodily strength — made of stone, his obtuseness). And that is the way Welch has the boy actor do the part in the film.

We see the breakup of families and how it happens and real internecine feeling.

The shunning by Gaffer by crowd or group mentality against his “pollution” as well as self-protection.

This is a novel and film for this decade — not thus far as to analysis of institutions but the way people are just turned into hideous poverty. I was watching DemocracyNow.Org last night and film of the Syrian people, desperately poor, being shot in the streets by their gov’t’s military forces, their home hovels. They have no access to the great wealth of their own country, it’s kept to the few, in this case including not only the elite of their country running it (1% indeed) but the US which gives millions to support that elite (ditto in Yemen, ditto Bahrain). And we need not go so far: the Tories are busy doing this all over England (impoverishing people, destroying jobs, social services, social institutions for public meeting) and the US gov’t here (billions for drones for surveillance, no money for people foreclosed or the least job).

The real trouble with the book is the picture is not attached to anything the way I have just attached it. Welch I think achieves this with her larger landscape pictures and use of choral commentaries (ironic, bitter) in the rich people salon and party scenes.

Did Dickens expect his readers to understand? or simply have an urge to rouse them against the conditions of their time? the problem is the readership is not Gaffer and Lizzie — they are not real people at any rate. I remember how Madame de Stael said the problem with writing novels is you have to appeal to readerships which don’t understand, will get offended, and get past conscious censorship too.

It appeals through inarticulated pictures and a dependence on the reader having the moral reaction which is comprehensive but the readers often do not :) For example, readers online complain of Stone’s illustrations as ugly or weird or not pleasing. They are spot on — and a product of collaboration between Dickens and Stone. I’ve put a few of them into our albums.

Mr Wegg wants some of his body parts back; Mr Venus (Timothy Spall) charges

Mr Venus’s shop in the pictures scarcely captures the morbidity of the bodies. They are done in both the caricature and idyllic style. Headstone writhing on the floor is the latter:


Peter Vaughn as Mr Boffin asking Wregg to become his reader

Crazed madness of Wregg (Kenneth Cranham) before Boffin’s new mansion

The dwarf is a disabled figure who turns up as an evil grotesque in Dickens — and again it’s bodily and again dwarves are often shown to be twisted people where they are blamed for having poison in them, not that their emotional state is a reaction to how they’ve been treated, which is much more the reality. A powerful black singer (Eric Owen) turned the anti-semitic portrait of a dwarf in Wagner’s Ring into a figure that resonated with justified resentment in a recent Met HD production, and the stance seems to have resonated in many heart and ear. I have never read The Old Curiosity Shop. I can’t think of any dwarves this morning. We have to try to remember disfigured characters perhaps to find an equivalent in realistic fiction.

I remember feeling for Jenny Wren who takes Lizzie in. I understood how she could come to love-hate her clinging devouring father.

Dickens’s Mr Boffin seems to me a male type that has disappeared. Literary types do disappear when whatever social reality that gave rise to them goes. He’s the male simpleton, usually or almost always working class. Such men were used in the Shirley Temple movies. I suggest they come from the strong culture of deference which at once deprived most males of higher education and taught them they would be punished hard if they did not appear happy and complacent and even ignorant of the terms of their lot. The type may be seen (paradoxically perhaps but neutralizing the archetype) in Walt Disney’s Snow White’s 7 dwarves. Dickens does improve this by suggesting Mr Boffin is socially insecure, sensitive, avoiding class hurts. Why else go to Silas Wegg? Mr Boffin feels he’s least likely to be despised, and his tiny sums of money appreciated. So there’s a little insight …


Lizzie as Madonna saving the beaten Wrayburn

In Sandy Welch’s film, we have the uncommon case of a male novel turned into a woman’s film — for all the characteristics of women’s films are here, plus distinguishing elements of Welch’s art. Among these both are this peculiar emphasis on the large landscape as a scene of intimacy. We have one here: in the story Eugene Wrayburn as been in effect stalking Lizzie, trying to get her to come live with him outside marriage. He does it tenderly as if he cannot resist and needs her, but he will not marry her as beneath him. She our ideal woman of course knows it’s unthinkable for him to marry her so flees him, but does stubbornly hold out when he finds her out through bribing Jenny Wren’s father — Lizzie has been working as a seamstress for Jenny who took her in when her father died.

But his stalking her is just one stalking; he is stalked in turn, by Bradley Headstone who tells himself his intentions are all honorable. He wants to marry her. That means in reality crush her spirit utterly. He despises her as he daughter of the lowest of the low, a grave snatcher, perhaps a murderer, who drew bodies from the filth of the Thames. He would control and bend her to his will, with an iron mind. This is honor? This is marriage Victorian style yes. Bradley stalks Lizzie too but he also stalks Eugene who drives him mad by his mockery. Wrayburn won’t acknowledge Headstone is there and gets a thrill out of this stalking.

Wrayburn is a sick man, as sick as so many of the people in this novel are.

Unfortunately Welch softens Wrayburn as many do. What she does do — is make the film about people reaching out to one another, prevented from succeeding by the norms of the private property system, prestige, social performance. The madness of dysfunctional behavior if we were to consider what might make good people happy is pictured for us repeatedly in the landscapes. There are astonishing moments of a crippled man named Wegg dancing in the screen against garbage dumps, against rich houses. Most of the scenes are of garbage dumps, broken down places. Others are of the river, wet, stodgy, dangerous, glittering. Some are the corridors of the city, pictured as narrow labyrinth prisons (like a Renaissance painting). Only nature has beauty. Only there are people together intimately because away from the social group.

The colors are so rich. The film much reminds me of her Turn of the Screw, Jane Eyre, North and South in this use of landscape. Here, for example, is Lizzie reversing what her father did. Her father drew dead bodies from the river which he perhaps killed, and he sold them to doctors or anyone who would take them Ah ha another parallel for today: the animal torture business, people kidnap and enslave animals for experiments and if you protest for real, you can be imprisoned as an eco-terrorist. It also shows the ruthlessness of the medical industry then too.

She is going to save Eugene Wrayburn. She has found him smashed up on the wet grasslands (!?) just outside London, done in by Headstone who he Wrayburn did egg on to this.

It’s deeply felt and the book provides the depth behind the vignettes, each story fully played out with details and thought. I loved the music too, slow, rhythmic like a swaying boat in a river.


In the feature Pam Ferris likened Mrs Boffin to a working class woman today who wins the lottery; she is better than that for she has a very good heart, and unlike Mr Boffin is never corrupted into even seeming mean
Some contemporary analogues and characters in other novels by Dickens:

Some of the description of Mr Podsnap (hardly there at all in the film) put me in mind of Newt Gringich, lines about his solid sliminess (words to this effect). He is not the lout the American politician is. Otherwise his narrow hypocrisy and obnoxiousness is probably an accurate rendition of a Victorian type still partly with us.

Miss Podsnap (not in the film) reminded me of Flora in Little Dorrit: made nervous and unsure of herself by never having been allowed to live or have any independence. I wonder if this type is found elsewhere in Dickens. If she reflects Dickens’s wife’s character, then considering he understood that, his leaving her feels worse. OTOH, I was not sure in either Flora or this Georgiana’s case I’m not reading sympathy into the character rather than derision.

IN the book, Riderhood comes to snitch on Hexam in order to get the award and both Lightwood and Wrayburn return to the Hexam residence. The picture of Lizzie weeping by the fire, her loneliness, her desperate circumstances is moving. She is this still picture of abjection and loss. We are not allowed to see inside her hardly at all in this book.

Rokesmith and the Wilburs are brought in very late: almost an afterthought, something that came to Dickens later. Yet a central group. By contrast, in the film adaptation the supposed murder of Harman comes first, and the character of Harmon to Rokesmith brought in very early. I’ve put a still of Steven Mackintosh talking to Bella after they are married on our website page. He’s a brilliant actor and really best at fierceness, anger and I think has just the right amount of intense sternness towards Bella for the part Dickens meant. I just wish his bitterness had been directed elsewhere or Bella had not been made into this shallow type; Welch changes that a lot, and makes Bella have a warm good heart which very quickly learns to be better once she leaves the Wilbur mother (a misogynist bully figure to my mind).

The surroundings are so oozy and ugly and eerie in the book, but then London was not nice place for most people and Wrayburn’s words about the desperate street life he saw Paris (people picking up garbage to make ends meet) probably I assume reflects what Dickens saw and wants us to realize are the real cities too.


As I watched the first hour or so of the fourth and last part (thus half of it) of Sandy Welch’s OMF, it set me thinking more about Dickens’s OMF. The last part of Welch’s OMF moves very slowly: we have a longish sequence of each of our sets of characters waking: everyone getting up to face the day and what they see: Mortimer Lightwood gets up and Eugene not there; we see the desperate houses by the water, Jenny out anxious and deeply resentful but worried about her father; Wegg vowing vengeance — and we see the misery of the workers at the garbage dump (especially symbolic this); Bella looking at John in bed; Mrs Noddy sad in her splendid loneliness; the Lammles smoking nearby as they prepared to enter to offer themselves as replacements for the real friends the Noddys had (the crippled disabled boy is gone as well as Bella): Mr Riderhood finding Headstone bloodied in the grass near his house. Again when a series of climactic events where Mortimer discovers Wrayburn near death with Lizzie; Jenny’s father dredged up from river where he drowned; John outted as John Harmon finally, the Lammles refused, Headstone back in the school where LIzzie’s vicious brother now says he will have nothing to do with Headstone we get another such sequence.

One does not have time for this in the recent (by Andrew Davies) Bleak House and Little Dorrit films, or most Dickens films I’ve seen. Welch is registering a peculiarity about OMF, one which Christine Edzards tried to pull out of Little Dorrit by removing the idiosyncratic grotesques and concentrating just on two central figures as if the story were seen from their consciousness (Amy Dorrit and Arthur Clenham). It’s set up as a mystery with complicated plot, but that’s not what the text really lends itself to. It’s more a series of dramatic picturse linked through allegory. I noticed for the first time that the Podsnaps are totally omitted from Welch’s film, and how sidelined Mr Twemlow is. That’s in line with Edzards’s film. Mr Twemlow is a comic repeat of decency, only comically puzzled and the Podsnaps another set of grotesques, more hateful in their effect than the Lammles who are at some level (especially in Part 4 of Welch’s film) pathetic, as contemptible in our eyes as they ought to be in their own and the world’s were the world’s values humane. (At the end of the Part 4 the Lammles hook on to another innocent couple to live off them.)

I’ve been very moved by Welch’s film; I love how the characters finally come together — the sudden wild violence of Steven Mackintosh as “our mutual friend” — for he has provided the wherewithal to support Bella, by extension Bella’s father, the Boffins. On Welch’s account it’s John Harmon who is the Dickens figure in this novel, the alter ego, not the more dramatically riveting Wrayburn or Headstone.

All three are Dickens in a sense (Wrayburn what he rejected but impulses in him), but Harmon stands for what is good — as does Arthur Clenham, what is right. Seeing the book this way turns it on a pivot for me and makes it if not easier to get into and engage with at least growing out of a central vision underlying the later books. This time he’s simply made a quieter book.


The green and lovely gardens surrounding the house John Harmon can provide the Boffins and Bella and his child with; we see Jenny and Sloppy join them in a picnic scene

Lammles forever playacting, forever to be humiliated hangers-on

When I came to the end of the film I was very moved. This is one of the great — of many great film adaptations done by the BBC or British TV — and occasionally by commercial groups for movie-houses. The idyllic ending for some had been prepared for in Part 3 when they reached out to one another (Bella and John’s beautifully unadorned marriage with just the father behind them walking in the park); the lousy ending for others by their egoism (the Lammles with their opulent wedding and now cold mean life). Welch had filled out Dickens’s characters with her projection of human need. I can only hope the new spirit abroad of making travesties which assume the audience has not read and would not even like the book fall down on the reality the audience they seek really is not keen on this genre for real – not done with depth of emotion and seriously conceived interaction between era, text, film.

The film also ends with yet another stalking sequence: now the fierce hateful Riderhood stalks Bradley Headstone. We do feel very much for Headstone: this man is a rat, a snake; David Bradley the actor who did the part looks like the actor who did Wegg: Kenneth Cranham. Both are older thin man with heads that can be made up to look skull-like.

Headstone says he never had a friend and when it’s clear that Riderhood (David Bradley — have I done justice to his performance) is going to suck him dry, he’ll starve. He walks away and Riderhood follows and of course what happens is the lonely desperate hurt man (whom no one would know any more than the people at the end of the film will know Lizzie) turns on Riderhood and takes him down to drowning with him.

So the antepenultimate scene of the film is the filthy scary greasy polluted waterways with bodies seen floating in it. Where we began. (The pipeline so touted that Obama did reject would take filthy oil down the center of the US to be exported; not to get any jobs for anyone in the US, and it would pollute). Have people heard of fracking? OMF is about 19th century fracking.

The penultimate scene is a montage partly scene from Mortimer Lightwood’s point of view — he is the only unpaired presence:

Mortimer Lightwood (Dominic Mafham looking down at Eugene in bed)

where we see Sloppy taken in by Jenny and they become a couple interspersed with Rokesmith and Bella and baby and the Boffins on a blanket. Mr Wifur seems forgotten here. (So too Lizzie’s brother but then he wanted to be.) We hear Eugene talk of how he might go abroad with Lizzie but Lightwood would miss him. The perspective on this scene is Lightwood as outsider but needing these people too. Wrayburn wants to go abroad for the wrong reasons: he’s ashamed. He should not be he’s told. Rokesmith rowing and his face seen.

I loved the last scene. After all Podsnap might have been in the social scenes: if the fat nasty man so gussied up is him. Well he and Lady Tippins and everyone are sneering at a party at Wrayburn for marrying this waterman’s daughter. They are disgusted. Why Lightwood stays with these people is beyond me — but it’s what makes us see them. Lightwood appeals to Twemlow and Twenlow has his great moment: they are shits, and what’s most their point of view is stupid and ugly. It’s articulated very generally: anyone who lives in accordance with what he or she thinks is the imagined respect of society is a fool for in a way there is no such thing. “Society’ is a shallow mirror we make up with our own minds, and anyway (to be particular) Wrayburn never cared for these people any way.

A curious contradiction: we are to grieve for Headstone for not having any friends but at the same time see that false friends and the world’s admiration is not worth the loss of your soul. The camera ends on Twemlow and Lightwood.

I liked that ending very much though I’m not sure it was Dickens’s emphasis. It seems to me to speak to 21st century people and come out of a particular perpsective often seen in the finest costume dramas made by women and a few men too.

Eugene and Lizzie’s hands holding tight to one another

In Welch’s film, the pair are never shown in close conversation — except one scene half suggestive itself where he is trying to get her to come and live with him. Even then it’s seen from
afar. It’s all vignettes. When Wrayburn talks, it’s to Mortimore
Lightwood; when Lizzie talks it’s to her brother, father, Abby, Jenny Wren, and except to her brother, it’s all reactive. We see Bella visit her but hear no conversation. In the book is it that we are made aware of how different in class and education they are?

Welch’s is quite different from Davies’s presentation of Amy Dorrit and Clenham: Davies fills in the relationhips, and in Dickens’s book while the scenes between Amy and Arthur are not dramatized, they are told in the third person indirect mode. (Too much is made of showing and not telling, until the 20th century the scene described was as common as the one dramatized.)

This film and book certainly made my spirits soar and validated what I know to be the correct view but one it needs strength to hold to because there are too many Lady Tippins and Podsnaps and Lammles about, to say nothing of their instruments and the hateful complicit angry people serving them too.


At work in the garbage dumps of the film’s world — out of which money is to be made; the actor here when he pulls off his mask turns out to be Sloppy (Martin Hancock), the disabled young man Mrs Higden took in

Finally, we come back to the river. It is the case that in the 19th century the Thames River was (relatively speaking, say compared to today) stuffed with corpses. The vision that Our Mutual Friend projects is not a fantasy nightmare. Many ways to look at this, but I’ll content myself with being literary and say it’s another instance of how the gothic genre is as real, and can actually tell us more about what’s important in life than books which adhere to what’s called “realism” (Trollope is called realistic).

Unfortunately, we have no photos of people dredging the Thames for corpses or dropping them in, but I did see a reproduction which has something of the same meaning as Our Mutual Friend‘s real life symbols: at the Museum of Modern Art there’s a show on of murals by Diego Rivera (see just below for the LRB column by Hal Foster on this) and one includes “Frozen Assets:”

Our modern more decorous version of corpses at least here in the US (outside the US until very recently it was rare for the armies of capitalism to attack citizens outright — now drones are okay too inside the US) does not include soaked human bodies floating in or underneath our waterways as a usual thing. For dead bodies we must go to the streets where they are dragged off to the side, or better yet, hospitals (yes hospitals) where if the person is brought back, it’s with a huge bill. In a way what a black joke is there: the body brought back is priced (chattel slavery priced people too)

Anyway Hal Foster describes the Rivera mural impeccably:

“Frozen Assets is an inspired montage: Rivera based the vault on those he had toured in Wall Street and the hangar on the interior of the Municipal Pier on East 25th Street, while his skyline combines a few downtown banks with several new buildings in midtown, including the Chrysler, Empire State, McGraw-Hill, Daily News and Rockefeller Center (the last three of which were designed by Rockefeller favourite Raymond Hood). The allegory of this literal exposé is explicit: the building boom that gave us the great skyscraper city depended on the cheap labour represented by the subway drones and the sleeping bodies as much as on the stashed assets. In this not-so-divine comedy, the pier is a grey purgatory and the vault a brown hell, as much prison as bank (in this faecal cavern, Rivera almost suggests the anal sadism that Freud associated with money). Only the skyscrapers have any vitality, but their animation is fetishistic; indeed, Frozen Assets depicts a fetishisation of capital on a metropolitan scale, in which urban liveliness counts far more than the actual livelihood of working men and women; unlike the labouring bodies in the other murals, they are the real ‘frozen assets’ here.

Diego Rivera, Frozen Assets (1930)

It may be not be realized but today again aging people in the US fear nursing homes the way the poor in Dickenss’s time feared the poor- and work-house

Another death scene: Lizzie caring for Mrs Betty Higden (Edna Dore), Welch’s interpretation emphasizes the loving care, but the words are the terror Dickens gives the old woman

I understand there is a film adaptation of Edwin Drood “in the works”. I hope so for I’d like to see a good film adaptation in the tradition of the older ones like this of that last book. There is enough there to figure out an ending Dickens probably meant.


Read Full Post »

Bridget Jones (Renee Zellweger) and Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant) on their first night together: he’s lying about Darcy at the dinner, and later they have sex (Bridget Jones’s Diary, 2001)

“New Presbyter is but old Priest writ large” — John Milton

“the progress of reformation is gradual and silent, as the extension of evening shadows; we know that they were short at noon, and are long at sun-set, but our senses were not able to discern their increase” — Samuel Johnson

Dear friends and readers,

Since I read on WMST-L a thread on a debate that has been taking place over “hook up culture” (see, e.g., Sandy Doyle’s reply, “The Boyfriend Myth”, to the reactionary Caitlin Flannigan,“Love, actually”, both in The Atlantic), I’ve been considering writing about “hook up culture” here on this blog.

The immediate prompting comes from my having on the same evening as that thread on WMST-l occurred spoken with a woman not far from my age (she must be in her 50s) and also white (race as well as class matters here) who told me of her daughter’s experiences going clubbing with the daughter’s friends whom this woman described as enjoying slutty-mean behavior. The woman said these young women think nothing of picking up or being picked up at a dance by a young man, going off with him, and having sex that night, with no expectation to meet again. They dress sexily to help this happen and regard it as a “good time.” They also were said to enjoy dancing with homosexual men, leading them along, pretending to want to dance, perhaps go out (and I suppose have sex), when they were just laughing at them. The woman said her daughter was appalled at this superficiality and shallowness. She also said she was aware that this is the way young women get to go out with, meet young men, and if one didn’t at least engage in this culture (even if with self-control), one would never go out with a boy (unless maybe you met on the Net). She never used the term “hook up culture,” but she meant the same thing that Flannagan, Doyle and the women on WMST-l were talking of. (See Gwen Sharp’s “The Promise and Perils of Hook-up Culture” in Sociological Images).

I thought of my own experiences in the later 1950s and early to mid-1960s and I told her at that time casual encounters were not uncommon — though if you told anyone you would be in danger of being labelled “tramp” and ostracized; you could also become a target of “enterprising” (aka nasty) males. In place of modern clubbing, we did go on dates, but one date could include a casual encounter. And casual encounters could occur as a result of meeting at school, going to park and for walk, in fact easily over the myriad ways people meet one another casually. I also told her of how my older daughter would take my younger daughter clubbing with the older one’s friends, and that the younger one disliked it, perhaps for the reasons this woman’s daughter did. That I find young women students come to me to confide and talk and I’ve found a number telling me about their dismay and conflicts at the experiences they’ve had clubbing. Interestingly, even Islamic or Muslim girls have told me they experience pressure to dress western style (from their mothers!) and go clubbing with friends who dress western style. As a humane teacher who is open to talk about these areas when they come up in my classroom (and they do, mostly in classes where I assign fiction or memoirs) I find that occasionally a girl will come to me with a composition or book to discuss from the class and we end up (especially if we meet a few times) talking about such central experiences for them (whether they realize this or not) in the space I am given to sit in in a large adjunct room.

I went on to say to my woman friend that the difference between today and the 1950s/60s is that nowadays in public we find young women and men claiming to enjoy it, and then in public one found young women and men claimed it was shameful, something only a despicable slut or tramp would do. It was part of the unacknowledged norm of this culture.

Well, as we know from all the controversy over the unfortunately named “slutwalks,” the word slut has not gone, nor has its cruel power diminished. (See, e.g., “The controversy”, a link round-up, some black women’s response). It’s worth noting we have no word which bad-mouths the young men who indulge in “hook up culture.” I see this phenomena as part of our rape-prone sexual culture, where if a girl manifests reluctance to have sex, but responds weakly or with emotional resonance and tact to his pressure or the pressure of the situation on her she can be raped. If this simple rape is reinforced by a bullying sufficiently distasteful or physically invasive (violent) such that while girl gives in (and perhaps at first in foreplay say experiences some sexual pleasure), she also understands as things proceed she’s being raped and later distressed, shamed, angry, dares to complain, she may be led to want to accuse him. She is then at a terrible disadvantage because the rules of evidence rule her experience to not have been rape unless she reported it right away; and she will find a cold guarded reaction most of the time if she complains when she does right away and very little understanding if she reports it late.

Hook up culture versus love actually made a joke of in the film of the latter name (with a cast who reprise archetypal roles, Love Actually 2003)

So, I’ve been in a quandary whether to blog because the issue is right now a topic of serious debate — because I feared going on for too long and because I don’t want to become too personal – I just may if I can get up the courage and emotional strength; I’ll then put it Under the Sign of Sylvia — and would probably be dismissed by some who bothered to read it (it would not get much readership) as subjective, personal, the priggish and hurt memories of an aging woman. At long last I come out with this (not very original idea) that I agree with both Flannagan and Doyle and think those who say this culture does not exist are wrong; see Jessica, in “Speechifying” in Feministing. I suggest Jessica is saying this in order to defend other of her agendas. Jessica says there is no such thing as hook up culture because she wants to encourage young women to have liberty to enjoy their bodies as they wish and sees any talk about the emotional pain and loneliness the aftermath of such an encounter brings as a kind of unacknowledged conspiracy to return women to the safety of repression. As Doyle says, the boyfriend relationship is no safer from rape and abuse than the passing date (or casual encounter). Of course I am speaking out of my own experience and reactions, but I am also speaking out of what I remember women friends have told me and what I’ve read in countless books and essays by women. As one participant in the WMST-l debate wrote: “Its negative impact on women can vary, but in general it’s not positive.”

All this is so important. It’s a continuing manifestation of our continuing rape-prone culture which puts most young women and some young men at a severe disadvantage, can maim them emotionally for life. I believe part of the stunning financial success of both Bridget Jones movies and the two Bridget Jones’s satiric novels by Helen Fielding is that Fielding and the film-makers after and with her made painful comedy from the predicament of young women and men today who want to have a meaningful more or less permanent relationship, to commit to one another as caring, loving, helping friend-lovers. As with the way the economic public world, so this sexual world allows the worst values to reign: so for Bridget and her girlfriends the problem is “emotional fuckwits” like Daniel Cleaver who use, lie, hurt, desert them; and the ideal they long for is the sensitive faithful Mark Darcy (modeled on anachronistic romancing of Jane Austen’s hero in Pride and Prejudice).

My central point in this blog is a subjective one: it’s this: that it is probably better for the public media to present young women and men choosing this mode because then we can talk about sexual life. When the experience was presented as shameful (and disgusting) and could be and was used to degrade and further exploit young women (or vulnerable gay young men), nothing was gained. No change for any kind of better way could be hoped for. By changing how we talk about this publicly, no matter if a new hypocrisy has replaced the old, we allow ourselves to bring out in to the open the cruelties and abuses of sexual experience of our various societies. Whether something can or will be done to improve life for all I can’t say. I even doubt it (I’m with Andrea Dworkin in thinking that feminism in the area of sex has often made life harder for young women), but we may at least hope (see my Samuel Johnson epigraph). And I say probably for it may be that the “hook up” culture merely shows young women and vulnerable young men at a worst disadvantage than ever. The bullying culture has taken over. The young woman cannot expect to be treated with the respect it takes to ask her out on a date several days before the time of going out; she will not be sought out. She has to seek the young man at a club.

Saskia Wickham as Clarissa fending off a threatened rape by Lovelace

I conclude on the larger or full picture, a rape-prone bullying sexual world: I wrote a paper on Rape in Clarissa, ostensibly about the depiction of rape in this and other later novels of sensibility in the 18th century, but the real urge or impetus to do it was to discuss rape as such then and now. I read literally for weeks and weeks not only non-fiction essays about rape by both sexes, but fictional and memoir accounts of rape — by women or men sympathetic to women. While I did some description on Reveries Under the Sign of Austen of the non-fiction arguments (see my “Michelle Fine’s Disruptive Arguments”), I did hardly any writing on the fiction and memoirs I had read.

Of all these, the contemporary novel-memoir I remember best now is Alice Sebold’s Lucky (she was not killed). Every women should read it. The opening chapter is a graphic account of a brutal assault on the heroine where the rapist comes near to killing her; the last chapter is a short but ample account of simple date rape where the young man bullies his fiancee (Alice’s roommate) into a crude full sexual encounter against a wall. The case is not taken to court because the roommate is not beaten up as brutally as Alice was; Alice witnesses a brutal date-rape where the girl does nothing as she feels she will not be listened to because the boy is her boyfriend and she was not a virgin. Sandwiched in-between we see how she was treated by others (they tried to silence, ignore her and then kept away from her when they could), how she changed inwardly, and what happened at the trial she was courageous enough to go through with. It is still true that it is aggravated assault rape that in western countries gets to court, and even here any circumstance which may be used to arouse the jury or other authority figures’ suspicion that the woman in any way consented that may be recognizable by law, can lead to a not-guilty verdict or dismissal of the case.

Some realities I learned from my research and reading: There is still no large general study of rape or its aftermath as depicted across many novels, though Jocelyn Catty (scholar of rape in early modern plays) shows that women as a group treat rape differently from men. Just covering prose narratives (fiction and non-fiction), where rape occurs and is treated seriously, when you find rape in nineteenth-century novels, outside commentators tend not to discuss the event as rape. For example, one area where rapes are found, colonial texts: in George Trevelyan’s 1868 Cawnpore, a history of the Indian Mutiny or (more accurately) Rising, we read of a woman, Miss Wheeler, giving into her captor sexually to save her life, and then instead of killing herself agreeing to live with him; this is not recognized as rape and the narrator is so uncomfortable he does not give her full name; similarly, Flora Annie Steele in her 1896 Anglo-Indian historical novel, On the Face of the Waters, wants us to see that her heroine, Kate Erlton experiences sex with her husband as rape, but does not make this explicit. One typical example from recent detective mystery fiction must stand for many many: Susan Hill’s disquieting The Various Haunts of Men. The novel elides the rape to concentrate on the murder.

Yet false accusations of non-rape stories circulate widely, and are popular. A modern popular novel turned into a prize-winning film adaptation, Ian McEwan’s Atonement attempts a sort of rewriting of Clarissa where the center of attention is also a false accusation. The wrong man is accused because he is lower class; the effect on a number of my students (with whom I read the book and studied the film) was to create intense dislike of the young woman and her mother who accused the young man, and discuss them as cold vengeful women. The real rapist was hardly discussed, partly because he is a marginalized figure in the book. We also continue to overlook real rape scenes when the targeted victim is a minor character or lower class.

So, gentle readers, hook up culture exists; it’s the latest version of casual encounters and much that occurs is abusive of humane and sensitive feeling and it’s significantly central to common male and female relationships as they originate, carry on, or are ended.

The value of Lynda LaPlante’s Prime Suspect series (starring Helen Mirren) is it repeatedly oncentrates on the violence of sexual relationships in our society, abusive (thriving) men towards weak men and boys as well as towards women.

“Hook up culture” is also a manifestation of the same set of values that gives us crony capitalism at its reactionary worst, the valuing of competition, aggression, triumph over others and effective connections to wrest yet more as success in life (with how much money and prestige things you’ve wrested, how many similarly successful well-connected people you know). And that’s another blog too.


Read Full Post »

Miss Eleanor Lavish (Sinead Cusack) from Forster’s Room with a View (Davies’s film)

Dear friends,

This is probably my third blog on Donoghue’s Passions between Women, maybe the fourth in which I’ve mentioned the book. I wrote about it to suggest that Jane Austen, her sister, Martha Lloyd, and Anne Sharp all show a pattern of life that in the era was silently identified as lesbian spintershood; then I wrote about it to discuss liberty and women and suggest that women are answerable with their bodies and it’s this ownership of women’s bodies that precludes liberty; I wrote about how Donoghue made me see Sarah Fielding’s The Governess in a wholly new light so that it made more sense, was more interesting, consistent; finally I mentioned it in my blog on Donoghue’s Slammerkin.

Can there be anything else to say? Yes. Why say it? Because I have a whole bunch of texts to tell the reader he or she should read to re-see in a new vital or poignant way. What Donoghue does do is uncover a long history of evidence that lesbian life has been with us wherever we can find some written records of sex life. We cannot treat it the way we can male homosexual history or sex because we don’t have anywhere near the direct evidence, but through the persecution and silencing a poignant human story shows through now and again. She ends on the idea that the history can teach “us” — for she comes out as a lesbian with her use of pronouns at the end — something of how to survive.


Johannes Vermeer (1632-75), Maid and Mistress

Let us begin with the familiar theme of maids and mistresses, and what do we find? We are made aware of the inadequacy of the typical representation of the maid and mistress where the maid gives up all, even her life to the mistress without any qualm or resentment.

I feel I had not read Defoe’s Roxanne before — though I know I did (in a graduate class where we wrote about it). I have little memory of it, but don’t remember it as a story about a maid, Amy and her mistress, as a pair of partners struggling through life where one must ever be a prostitute to support the other. We see Roxanne use Amy, when things go badly Roxanne accuse Amy of being a devil who seduces her. The class distinctions melt as they turn into an “economic double act” with Amy the manager and Roxanne the goods sold.

What destroys them is Amy’s excessive concern for Roxanne – but also her own safety. Amy had previously pushed Roxanne’s children off on relatives (shades of Moll Flanders) and one day a grown daughter, Susan, shows up; Susan threatens to expose the mother, Roxanne and Amy plots to kill Susan. At first Roxanne is horrified, and Amy retreats from this solution, but as time goes on, Amy does indeed murder Susan. Roxanne throws Amy out, but it’s the loss of Amy Roxanne cannot get over, and Donoghue says the novel peters out in confusion — I do remember it just moving into a kind of shorthand drivel and ending.

Johnson’s Rasselas? A rare telling of a close loving friendship between maid and mistress is Johnson on Pekuah and Nekayah where Nekayah saves Pekuah from a life of concubinage after rape. Nekayah sinks into an intense depression and a big ransom is paid to get Pekuah back for Nekayah. Johnson does punt by saying no rape really took place after all. I had never considered them in a lesbian light either.

Then there’s “Unaccountable Wife” by Jane Barker in Patchwork Screen for Ladies. As read by Donoghue turns out to be a story like that of The Duchess of Devonshire, Lady Elizabeth Foster and the Duke (see blog on Amanda Foreman’s biography): two women having a lesbian relationship while both of them go to bed with the Duke too (separately I suppose). What happens is the wife begins to do all the housework and after a while refuses to go to bed with the husband while her maid gets pregnant by him and does no work. It would seem to be a story of a servant beginning to dominate the mistress, only the servant is eventually thrown out and the wife stays by her side supporting her in the most menial of ways. Janet Todd in her book on women’s friendship in literature read as the exploitation of a barren neurotic wife by her servant. I agree that’s not adequate if you consider all the parts of the story.

If Donoghue is right, I have to go back and reread Betty Rizzo’s Companions without Vows where she shows how power corrupts and given unqualified power over someone else it’s the rare person who does not abuse it — whether mistress, maid or master.

Donoghue finds and praises the few stories where real conflict between maid and mistress is seen – or between upper and lower class woman. I’d say that Austen’s Emma takes advantage of this convention that the lower class women is all gratitude — and only at the end of the story has Harriet irritated and moving away and never does deal with what must have been a residual of deep resentment in Jane Fairfax. We only get her gushing. It might be Emma’s blindness but we are not encouraged to read the last encounter between Emma and Jane that way.


Emma (Romola Garai), Anna Taylor Weston (Jodhi May), Harriet Smith (Louise Dylan) (Sandy Welch’s Emma)

Let’s backtrack from this to sentimentalized treatments of true friends. Donoghue’s treatment differs here because she considers pairs of women where things did not go smoothly, women who differed a lot. These are mostly famous and not-famous pairs of women friends who left letters.

I’ve mentioned in the previous blogs Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill’s story: the great irony is that Anne and Sarah have come down in memory as the lesbian pair, when it was Abigail Masham who won Anne finally and the story one of betrayal and pressure from impingments of other status, prestige, money circumstances. Also how Charlotte Charke’s long-time partner, Mrs Brown is just ignored even to today so the memoir is misrepresented.

Poignant is the section on Mary Astell: apparently she could not get close friends to reciprocate and would tell herself this was God’s punishment on her for not begin content with him. Finally she meets Lady Catherine Jones and she is so overjoyed to find someone who does not find her unlovable. Jones was wealthy and became a lifelong friend and patroness. In fact in her old age Mary Astell might have ended up horribly but for Jones taking the the sick woman (she got breast cancer) into her house and providing nursing.

Also The Memoir of Sophia Baddeley. Written by her long-suffering, loyal friend, Elizabeth Hughes Steele, the story is one of what happens to women whose passions the society deforms and will not honor or respect, to women who the society also encourages to be masochistic. Baddeley kept latching onto male “keepers’ who would beat her, and savagely; then she’d retreat to Mrs Steele (who also married and had a child). They have terrible rows and are finally parted. With Elizabeth what matters is a resistance to heterosexuality. The unhappy Elizabeth died young of consumption (37). I’d now like to read this one.


Jane (Samantha Harker) and Elizabeth (Jennifer Ehle) turning to one another (1995 P&P, by Davies)

A third grouping: Sincere and Tender Passions . Anne Damer as a lesbian artist and Elizabeth Farren fit in here (since Donoghue’s Life Mask) What distinguishes Donoghue’s treatment is she also quotes letters from contemporary people who recognized the sapphism; that includes Mrs Thrale. We also see how much competition from other women Damer had with respect to Elizabeth Farren. A chasm of mistrust was easy to start up since the society was so against these alliances (pp. 139-42).

Donoghue often quotes Fielding’s The Governess in this part of the book in passing: there is a book about a girls’ school. I was startled to see Lady Pomfret, a familiar (to me in the letters I had access to) dullard, a friend of Lady Hertford. I remembered that Lady Pomfret left three thick volume of these dull missives. That I had xeroxed a bunch and was disappointed when I finally took them home. I wondered if I xeroxed the wrong ones. Maybe. But now I see they are censored and why Lady Pomfret wrote so much to Lady Hertford and so insistently.

Frances Seymour Thynne, Lady Hertford and Henrietta Louisa Jeffreys Fermor (I mention all her names so we won’t get her confused with someone else), Lady Pomfret were faithful correspondents for years and this verse epistle (a favorite with me) is from Lady Hertford to Lady Pomfret:

We sometimes ride, and sometimes walk,
We play at chess, or laugh, or talk;
Sometimes besides the crystal stream,
We meditate some serious theme;
Or in the grot, beside the spring,
We hear the feathered warblers sing.
Shakespeare perhaps an hour diverts,
Or Scott directs to mend our hearts.
With Clarke’s God’s attributes we explore;
And, taught by him, admire them more.
Gay’s Pastorals sometimes delight us,
Or Tasso’s grisly spectres fright us:
Sometimes we trace Armida’s bowers,
And view Rinaldo chained with flowers.
Often from thoughts sublime as these,
I sink at once – and make a cheese;
Or see my various poultry fed,
And treat my swans with scraps of bread.
Sometimes upon the smooth canal
We row the boat or spread the sail;
Till the bright enveing-star is seen,
And dewy spangles deck the green.
          Then tolls the bell, and all unite
In prayer that God would bless the night.
From this (though I confess the change
From prayer to cards is somewhat strange)
To cards we go, till ten has struck:
And then, however bad our luck,
Our stomachs ne’er refuse to eat
Eggs, cream, fresh butter, or calves’-feet;
And cooling fruits, or savoury greens
‘Sparagus, peas, or kidney-beans.
Our supper past, an hour we sit,
And talk of history, Spain or wit.
But Scandal far is banished hence,
Nor dares intrude with false pretence
Of pitying looks, or holy rage
Against the vices of the age:
We know we were all born to sin,
And find enough to blame within.
(written 1740)

Now these women were married so they had “cover” and a rich fulfilled life in other ways too. Lady Hertford was especially close to her son whom she did not send to public school but educated at home herself, and he grew up to be a fine sensitive well-educated man. Bi-sexual women.


Florence (Jodhi May) and Nan (Rachel Stirling) in Tipping the Velvet (novel by Sarah Walters, movie by Andrew Davies)

The penultimate section of Donoghue’s book is titled: What Joys are these? — Donoghue proposes to pay attention to all those scenes in erotic novels where women are having sex with other women: these are usually ignored. She argues that one quality in most of them which distinguishes them is that the two women do not punish one another where later pornography usually shows the women punished severely and humiliated.

I know I was surprised by the lack of violence and punishment in Cleland’s Fanny Hill. The punishment of Suzanna in The Nun came from her refusing to become a nun, not her getting involved sexually with the mother superior, from her refusing to obey not what she did sexually. There is a scene in Les Liaisons Dangereuses where Madame de Merteuil pleasures Cecile. I too have been guilty of ignoring it.

The first pairs of active lesbian lovers that have been overlooked by readers are gotten by reading against the grain passages mocking and ridiculing women: for example, in Richardson’s Pamela, Mrs Jewkes’s attacks on Pamela — it is true that Pamela evidences a very unladylike knowledge of what Jewkes attempts. Donoghue then moves on to Anthony Hamilton’s Memoirs of Count of Grammont: a more unpleasant book shaped by a set of nasty attitudes I’ve never read — I do have a copy and have tried it more than once. I fully believe and would have noticed had I gotten that far that there are lesbians who are mocked and burlesqued, humiliated as fellow rakes to males. Madame Merteuil’s experience on the sofa with Cecile comes under here.

It seemed to me the book was returning to the ugly material Donoghue had begun with in her opening section: the earliest glimpses of lesbian in texts are the lurid imaginings of lesbians as women with somehow damaged penises.

I want to tell her, Emma, this is desperate stuff. What joys are these is a good title for this material though. But I admit What interested me in the “what joys are these section” most is how Donoghue never seemed to escape in it from the early ugly salacious kind of texts she began with. It seems until very recently (let’s say Sarah Walters) no one presented lesbian sex as fun, pleasurable, tasteful even. Tales of wooden dildoes (because in print it’s so rare for sex to be taken seriously without a phallus, same sex whippings, and unkind orgies close the chapter. Donoghue says we need to remember much of this is male fantasy: women did not get to write erotica at the time.

So one criticism of her book is it is not sufficiently (hardly at all) informed by 20th century texts. She ought to write a volume 2.


Allan Ramsay (1686-1758), Elizabeth Montagu (1718-1800, painted 1762)

And so we come to Lesbian Communities. Here again it’s a matter of countering an insistence X just doesn’t exist, in this case communities of women who are aware of themselves as lesbian in orientation. Were Jane, Cassandra, Martha and Anne Sharpe aware of themselves that way? If so, how did they read The Governess? Again the books to show as incorrect is Janet Todd’s Women’s Friendship in Literature and Lillian Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. We can’t know for sure.

So it’s a case of Margaret Cavendish’s plays (fantasies though), Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall. She does find a long passage in Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House” celebrating what seems to have been a group life for women which was lesbain at least in feel, texts on nunneries, convents of pleasure, but it must be admitted again nothing historically real … as yet.

Donoghue’s catalogue and examination of texts which show that women did form lesbian communities, active in sex as well as anything else. And it continues to be the case she has to resort to these lurid texts to find this kind of material, specifically a long section in Delaviere Manley’s New Atalantis and Secret Memoirs. And the attitudes evinced of the women towards one another continue to be sort of adversarial, punitive (threats if you break away; she has a number of types of lesbian too: cross-dressing comes up. And the initials of the characters can be linked to real women at the time – at the court, in the theaters. The characters are mostly anti-heroines.

She also repeatedly shows us a scholar who has written or worked on these who denies active sex. Trumbach for example says the women cross dress in order to pass unmolested; in fact her passages quoted show they are trying to make contact by so dressing.

Sources for some of these depictions of lesbian networks are French: Grimm’s famous Correspondence litteraire and semi-pornographic French novels, Histoire d’une Jeune Fille published by Pidansat de Mairobert.

She ends on a long piece on how what the documents show of Sappho’s life (a genuine lesbian or perhaps bisexual life) and the ways she has been presented. Again it has been a matter for most writers of either erasing her active lesbian feelings altogether or presenting them as secondary and overcome (rightly) by her heterosexual romance (mostly a concoction, especially the suicide) which is seen as the right and proper and comfortable thing. Pronouns changed in the two full poems we have (as was done with Shakespeare)

But again in the forefront of respected writers now and again she finds a truthful witness: Pierre Bayle. And outside the mainstream those who write frankly, but alas often derogatory or sneering kind of texts that have this lurid tone or attack Sappho or mock her.


Julia Kavanagh (1824-77), bluestocking spent her life studying women of letters (Davies has a Christine Kavanagh in his film, Room with a View)

Donoghue’s larger point that the reason we have no history of lesbianism is not that there was not one and probably very different in feel from these books is made over and over again. I’d say it was really more like what we find in the Bath bluestocking spinster groups and their texts which however are so severely censored (e.g., Sarah Scott, Sarah Fielding …)

So, gentle reader, the next time you hear the word “spinster” or “bluestocking” or phrases “maid and mistress” and “sentimental women’s friendship,” maybe instead of drawing away from something asexual, tedious, dull, you’ll turn to the texts as richly different.

As to Donoghue’s perspective, it’s deeply somber if you think about the stories the books tell of how women suffered from silencing, controlling them severely, erasing what they wrote or misrepresenting it, and ridiculing and treating as sick a whole subset of people.


Read Full Post »

Pandora (Madeline Whiting) — one of the Impressionable Players

Dear friends and readers,

The Capital Fringe Festival — 3 weeks of plays, concerts, events of all cultural sorts — has begun, and we went to the first of six events we’ve chosen for ourselves. It was truly delightful and I recommend even hurrying out to see Pandora written by Shawn and Ann Fraistat, directed by Ann Fraistat and inimitably — with panache, intensity and much body language — performed by the Impressionable Players. As the happy ending was thoroughly announced, I felt myself feeling better about life than I have in quite a while. As the players insisted, there is some good to enjoyed, some hopes will probably be enacted.

The story is super-complicated because they combined the Pandora myth with two vexed romances (these influenced by Shakespearean to witty romantic comedy), a comic power-mad couple, a chorus and did not omit an appearance of a numinous hieratic (and unreasonable) god. Mostly things were frantic, perplexing to the characters and going downhill while most of them meant intensely well. An important source of laughter and pleasure was the language or style of the play: done in modern popular lilting phrases that echoed rhythms of sentences and stances we hear all around us. An ingenious use of minimal props made for more wild semi-realistic (in the classic play sense) fun. I suppose the modern genre the piece belongs to is farce.

Important were the continual allusions to today’s pop culture, sometimes by references — like zombies — but often by what was literally done or said or felt. Jim’s favorite joke was the final one from Chorus: he’s going to open a restaurant. Which gets me to what at the core made for the odd delight and suspense: in various ways what was happening and said was continuously slightly wacky. We were ever slightly off-base, all the characters oddly lunatic in a modern turn kind of style. Poor Eris (Katie Jeffries), the girl in love with Nikodemos (Jayma Bell, a virtuoso performer, he also did the gods) was terribly upset that her lifelong devotion to Niko was going for nothing as he suddenly preferred to marry Pandora (the group naif). The way Eris talked about her life and need for this marriage reminded me of Bridget Jones, except (alas) at the end she underwent a kind of comic ritual humiliation (yes ladies and gentleman that was not skipped) where she almost drowned. Saved by the non-macho very dumb but ever-so-sweet hero, Megas (Matt Sparacino) who kept bumping into furniture, Megas seemed to me a fugitive from Four Guys and a Wedding in state of confusion. And so it went. I can’t quite say what angle it was that was making fun of all our norms but I sensed it was continually there while the norm not really overthrown.

On her blog, Russian Roulette, Izzy brought out precisely how this play deviated from the old misogynistic pattern and how it remained a black comedy while insisting that life has some good and hope in it.

From their site online, I could see the group of young adult doing this play are themselves very hopeful and work so hard to make this succeed. How long will such idealism last? What kind of lives will they have individually at last?

Studio theater where the play played is fiercely air-conditioned, so you will be comfortable. Today in Washington DC the air felt hot as one walked, burning on your skin. It was the kind of day where even at 4:30 pm as we walked to the theater I felt were I bread, I would’ve risen. I cannot understand the insistent hypocrisy of people who say how beautiful such a day it is. They know it’s not because they say it while sweating and diving into just such a cooled building. I mention this because last year we saw a few plays in places not just not air-conditioned, but without fans or adequate ventilation. The fringe is done on the cheap.

The walk from where we parked our car (about 3 blocks away) showed us how gentrified this area has become. It was once dangerous and uncomfortably sordid to walk through. Now it is so orderly, clean, filled with circling roads around tiny parks (with monuments and a few benches), and variously picturesque and pompous houses, it becomes too denuded of people. Not Studio theater (I should add): the auditorium for Pandora was chock-full and lots of people were in the lobby talking and drinking. Nor the restaurants all around: they too filled with people.

The atmosphere uptown (so to speak) contrasted with another festival downtown Izzy and I had been to earlier in the day about 2 hours: folk-like along the mall just behind the Smithsonian museum. It was more than a matter of class and ethnicity and taste: it was modern world uptown (with its downsides) and older world downtown (with its).

We met with a group of online friends and were taken around by a curator (very nice) to the three parts of this huge fair: one was made up of little exhibits of what seemed village life in Columbia (South American), one of huge tents of people making very noisy rock and rhythms and blues music (filled with chairs and aisles to dance in), and one which seemed a huge ad for the peace corps which was presented as an idealistic enterprise (one young woman showed us how she made walls with thrown-away plastic bottles) though nowadays to get into it you must have elite connections, spend huge sums, and through patronage take what place you can get even if your education is being thrown away. Izzy told me that Peace Corps women are not protected from sexual harassment or rape. It probably is true that the culture really created by the Peace Corps is an internal one of its own that the people within it experience.

There was also a certain phoniness about the stance as native life is poor, native people exploited (so the crowd if asked individually and were honest might not admire what they see), the objects craft-like matter, but the curator made a good case for respecting the underlying principles of particular exhibits. One on Shea soap was showing us how hitherto once exploited women now run their own factory. But I wondered how many actually do this and how many are still employed at peon’s wages, work in poor conditions and so on.

I grant it’s not easy to come up with visuals in small booths and there were numerous museum type people on hand to explain what we were supposed to understand from what we were seeing. In two years the curator said she and her museum directors are going somehow to embody the struggle of linguists to rescue languages becoming extinct and with them whole cultures. They’ll have to have movies as well as lectures and people in some tents telling inspirational stories.

Worst and best: Izzy and I found the music way too loud and I for one thought the lyrics in the worst possible taste: one man was shouting at us to get a life and there seemed not many options on offer to do this. The place had crowds milling about and all the Metro stations nearby were filled with people. A horse standing in the sun in a kind of sandbox. Best: here and there the process by which some product we use daily was shown us. Here and there some lovely object — like carved small guitars. The apparent idealism of some of the people.

I did understand why Izzy felt depressed as we got onto the station. It was on the whole disillusioning. These festivals began in the 1960s (Kennedy’s presidency) around the time the Peace Corps was invented. The festival is probably intended to foster pride in DC communities, respect for other cultures than the middle class capitalistic white. From the aspect of US foreign and domestic policy it doesn’t succeed. What should have been done was massive aid genuinely directed at the individual peoples of the world, a stop to the ugly repressive militarism, and within the US genuine spread of socialist reforms. There were a few during Johnson’s presidency: the civil rights act, medicare and medicaid. (Probably a pittance had gone into setting up this festival.) We see today the pests who run congress doing all they can to destroy whatever does genuine good for wide groups of people in order to make a tiny minority super-rich and powerful. (Imagine a country where a group of loud-mouthed nasty pests get in charge of the center of power and proceed to do all they can to destroy the prosperity and liberty of over 90% of the citizens and you have the US today and its Republican congress. Why do the majority of the citizens not put them in jail? Jim’s response was many countries have pests in charge. Pest was Thomas More’s term [he of the Utopia] for soldiers in the Renaissance; he said the type personality who goes in for this are among the evils of human nature that ruin life for everyone else.)

So, an active day where I was glad to met up with a couple of familiar faces, experienced some reality checks, and was rejuvenated by remarkably intelligent well-done art, but also had a salutary reminder why I value my quiet peaceful home and life and (whether anyone would agree with me or not) feel I’m doing constructive meaningful work. We drove home, brought in Chinese food, and sat with wine and had good talk, mostly about the Pandora and other Greek myths afterward.


Read Full Post »

Leon Cogniet (1794-1880), The Artist in His Room at the Villa Medici, Rome (1817)

Dear friends and readers,

The Admiral (aka Jim) and I returned this afternoon from a two day interlude in NYC of nearly non-stop delightful (really) visits and talk with friends, a birthday party, walking in Manhattan and Central Park (whenever it was in the way we went through or at least into a path), time in galleries (Neue Galerie on 86th to see an exhibit of startlingly sexually candid and disquieting Viennese art, circa 1890 to 1920ish), time in the Met museum, bookstores. During lulls on trains, the subway, when I couldn’t sleep at first from excitement and anxiety and generally (as I usually do) to keep my mind calm, I absorbed myself by reading Elizabeth Von Armin’s Enchanted April, finished an unfortunately nowadays unsung masterpiece in the Ivy Compton-Burnett vein, Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes and then Winston Graham’s nineteenth century historical novel, Cornelia (on both of which latter more perhaps next week).

This is a brief report on the exhibits we saw — whose centrality in most of my travel accounts I excuse by saying I am a lover of pictures. Maybe that’s why I so love films too. The Met as ever is overcrowded with people and nooks and crannies of unexpected new and rearranged art. The most memorable is Sabine Rewald’s (doubtless the daughter, granddaughter or niece of the great scholar of impressionism, John Rewald) Rooms with a View, several rooms filled with pictures which include windows. It is an odd exhibit. It is described by her and elsewhere as inspired by her love of Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) and his imitators, e.g., George Kersting (1785-1847, Woman Embroidering by a window) and Carl Gustave Carus (1789-1869, Woman on a Balcony) and as about views seen through windows in Romantic painting. The lead picture plus the blown up ones at the opening and end of the exhibit are of characters looking out a window:

However, most of the pictures instead show characters resolutely ignoring the view (one is even titled that) or for the most part oblivious to it except as the sun provides some light on their work (as in Leon Cogniet’s above). Funnily some of the pictures show the windows covered up by curtain. viz.,

Adolph Menzel (1815-1905), The Artist’s Sitting Room in Ritterstrasse (1851).

In some we are to see the artist is wasting time looking out, most of those having views show unreal perspectives because it’s most unlikely that the window would be so beautifully squared on just the picturesque angle we repeatedly see. Most appear wholly unself-conscious of this falseness; a rare witty exception is

Martin Drolling’s (1752-1817) Girl Tracing a Drawing (undated, early 19th century)

where it’s still not clear that we are to realize what we usually see through windows in paintings is artificially set up. Many of the pictures have windows because rooms do have windows. It is also disturbing that not one picture is by a woman though windows in pictures are so common in women’s paintings as to constitute an obsession, a melancholy sort of joke about how a woman looks out on the world through her enclosed environment,

Jane Freilicher (b. 1924), Casement Window (1974)

To be fair, Rewald acknowledges the woman’s angle in her lead picture, and she does show an interest in paintings sheerly of windows (many of her photos and studies of paintings are of windows, particularly when painted by Friedrich) and some of the views captured are original in feel, not pastiche,

Friedrich Wasmann (1805-86), A View of the Campagne (1832)

What puzzled me and Jim was how nothing was sorted; all the different motifs or types just higgledy-piggedly as if to distract the viewer from perceiving the contradictions and absurdities in the chosen paintings.

Among other pictures viewed a the Met we loved a room of very late 19th to early 20th century art, much of which we’d never seen before, neither impressionistic or anecdotal, not falling into any school at all. We tried to like the pastel portraits of the 18th century and did, but since most of the pictures were of people we’d probably have rightly disliked intensely in life (arrogant aristocrats flattered excessively), we were not bothered that we had to hurry through.

The Neue Galerie is the first private gallery we’ve ever gone to. Countless museums, many small, and we were therefore a little disappointed since the permanent collection was not on display. Jim is taken by the Vienna 1900 art and we stayed quite a while looking at Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele (see a sample). I agree they are important as breaking down taboos that uphold systems of privilege and power, that make for unhappiness through repression, and I did love the landscapes,

Schiele, Town Among Greenery (1917)

But some of the pictures of women masturbating, the complete absence of women artists and focus on genital sex, the harrowed imagery of trauma, distress, derangement, and cruelty were not exactly pleasant. I am not keen on gilded designs and abstractions either. In short, I would not have liked to own any of this and had no desire to buy a book, though I acknowledged that the choice of art books and literary accompaniment in the book store showed great care and money had been spent in putting together a learning experience. I could have bought myself a hard-to-get Zweig short story volume, Rilke’s poems, histories of Weimar. Instead I bought at the Strand (hurrah still going strong apparently) the book of the exhibit of Open Windows even if much less intelligently put together.

What else can I celebrate? My friend’s birthday party in Brooklyn took place in a non-pretentious restaurant in far Brooklyn (the stop on the BMT, the Q train, was Avenue U), with good food: 3 hours of good talk, a time filled with warm feeling among friends. I learned a lot about Brooklyn! We had two yummy meals with good friends originally met here on the Net, one brief phone call. As ever Central Park is this pastoral place fiercely protected by the Conservatory so as to be both beautiful and a public playground, picnic, idyllic exercise haven. Even the subway had its charm. I cannot recommend the Hotel Wales where we stayed: while the hotel is respectable, i.e., safe and quiet and mostly comfortable, the room was so small for the price we paid, it felt like a dark closet, and I couldn’t sleep the first night also because of the noise made by an inefficient window air-conditioner, but it was in a convenient part of town for us. One of our friends lives in an apartment from which we could view much of Manhattan around it, to the old fair grounds of Queens, the river and beyond. I began for the first time to “get” Starbucks. A place where you can wind down to appropriate music, drink coffee and consult your laptop as you watch the people around you and going by the windows of the store.

We did acquire a few new books beyond the Rewald’s Rooms with a View: Daphne Du Maurier’s Cornwall fantasy landscape, Castle Dor, two keepsakes from friends, L. I. Davis’s A Meaningful Life and a paperback single volume edition of Jocelyn Harris’s edition of Richardson’s Grandison (handy for working with on a paper and bringing to conferences).

I did feel the old urge to want to return to live in NYC. A fine place to live but hard to visit is my motto. It’s so vast with so many places with interesting things to see, hear (lecture series, concerts galore) and stuffed to the gills with people that one gets a healthier perspective on life than in a suburban homogeneous limited environment. We also have friends there and think we could make more and be much happier therefore in this environment. Izzy might find a rich life for herself there. Alas, we don’t have the money to repeat the kind of home we have here (Izzy would probably not have the same lovely airy large room with picturesque view), and most of one’s time is spent in one’s home. Still we said we’d think about it again …

And now to settle down to watching my two-hour version of Frederick Wiseman’s brilliant rarely happy documentary, Central Park (downloaded for me by Jim from Pirate EBay).

The first shot of the movie, accompanied by pleasant off-beat jazz


Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 260 other followers