Archive for the ‘biography’ Category

Hannah Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) during trial of Eichmann

Every Day: War is no longer declared,/only continued — Ingeborg Bachmann

Where a great proportion of the people are suffered to languish in helpless misery, that country must be ill policed, and wretchedly governed: a decent provision for the poor, is the true test of civilization — Samuel Johnson

Dear friends and readers,

In the feature Von Trotta says she had wanted to make film about Arendt for a long time, but was stopped because this was the story of a thinking woman, a woman who spent her life thinking passionately and then writing about it. She did succeed in making an absorbing thoughtful movie on just this theme, though the way it’s done is to thread into much of the story (I tell below) with scenes of Arendt lying on her bed smoking and (presumably) thinking, walking in woods smoking (and presumably …) or at her typewriter. We get little about her earlier background, and only so much of her autobiography as sheds light on her experience of Nazism: she was fortunate enough to escape.

Although I know I’m not qualified to write about Margarthe von Trotta’s thought-drenched portrait of Hannah Arendt in a film named after her because I’ve read only excerpts from her essays or brief essays about her (often semi-hostile or not quite comfortable) and have just begun Elizabeth Young-Bruehl’s Hannah Arendt: for love of the world (biography), still since I may never get to a level of reading in her or hear or see her talk, I think I can make do on what I do know, as what this blog will be about it is von Trotta’s film.

Allow me to cut to what is important about the film. While von Trotta is known for representing forgotten or marginalized women, or “foremothers” in history:

VISION. A film by Margarethe von Trotta.

her film about Arendt is about a centrally important & remembered philosopher whose works include Eichmann on Trial and The Origins of Totalitarianism. And though some love stories provide “beats” in the movies’ plot-design, the central of the movie is Arendt’s thought. In a DVD feature, von Trotta talked about the difficulty of portraying a woman most of whose hours were spent reading, writing and thinking. She also wanted to convey the content of the thinking.

The solution was to move quickly in the film from a depiction of Hannah’s home life and friends, a long time correspondent, Mary McCarthy (Janet von Teer),


Hannah’s long-time happy marriage with a kindred German spirit, Heinrich Blucher (Axel Milberg)


and secretary, Lotte (Julia Jentsch),


a general ambience of her life living in a co-op in Manhattan, teaching at NYC, to the New Yorker invitation to her to write several essays as a reporter. It was the ferocious angry rejection of what Arendt wrote and her response that gave von Trotta her opportunity. In life Arendt carried on writing (as she does in this film) and stood up for her beliefs and her work. In this film she gets into debates with the central figures in her life, e.g., Hans Jones (Ulrich Noenthen) and Kurt Blumenfield (Michael Degan. She explains and defends her choices.

One seemed to me relevant to us here today, whether you live in the US (evolving in the most inhumane and unjust ways as a fascistic oligarchy backed by militarism) or Europe (see, e.g. Perry Anderson’s Italian Disaster, LRB): what is causing the evils we see growing everywhere (from privatizing of all things, hospitals, prisons, schools, the post office): she argues one center of evil comes from the refusal of people to behave as individual human beings with any kind of conscience and obligation to others as human beings. Not recognizing any sense of social reciprocity beyond their obedience to an organization to maintain and rise in their place in it. It’s not fiendish monsters. This idea of Arendt’s that Eichmann was not extraordinary monster provoked outrage. The key to where evil comes from is the idea individuals have no obligation to others. Here’s an economic example:

A story example: Bruno Bettelheim has a story about how real evil occurs between two men sitting in a restaurant where one offers the other a contract for a supposedly strong bridge built cheaply and gets a kick-back knowing the bridge will collapse in a few years (or need heavy repairs).

An economic example: from The Arrogance of Architects in the NYRB, June 5, 2014:

In Dubai, the much-ballyhooed botanical symbol of a sheltering oasis gives way to a more mundane reality. As Moore writes:

The Palm, so impressive when seen on Google Earth, is more ordinary at ground level, where what you see are high walls and close-packed developments that block views of the water. Owners of homes on the fronds found that they faced not so much the sea, as a suburban cul-de-sac penetrated by a tongue of brine.
Moore describes even more unappetizing realities of this dysfunctional fantasyland:

What couldn’t be seen from the helicopter was the crisis in the drains. Dubai’s buildings emptied their sewage into septic tanks, whence they were taken to the Al-Aweer sewage works, on the road out towards the desert and Oman. The sewage works had not kept pace with the city’s growth, and a long line of tankers, some painted with flowers by their Indian drivers, stood for hours in the heavy heat as they waited their turn to offload….
Some drivers, tired of waiting, had taken to pouring their cargo at night into the rainwater drainage system, which discharged straight into the sea. The owner of a yacht club, finding that his business was affected by the sight and smell of brown stuff on the bright white boats, took photographs of the nocturnal dumpings and gave them to the press. The authorities responded, tackling the symptoms but not the cause, by introducing severe penalties for miscreant drivers.

Yet such treatment of migrant workers would scarcely surprise the vast foreign labor force recruited worldwide to construct and maintain the new architecture and infrastructure of Dubai and the other United Arab Emirates, under sometimes appalling and widely documented conditions tantamount to indentured servitude, if not de facto slavery. The preponderance of celebrated architects hired to work in the Gulf States for the “value-added” commercial cachet of their well-publicized names and Pritzker Prizes—including Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and Jean Nouvel—has led to calls that these respected figures boycott commissions there until laborers’ working conditions, pay, and freedom of movement are markedly improved.

However, despite the numerous horror stories about this coercive exploitation, some big-name practitioners don’t seem moved by the plight of the Emirates’ imported serfs. Andrew Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University and a member of Gulf Labor, an advocacy group that is seeking to redress this region-wide injustice, earlier this year wrote a chilling New York Times Op-Ed piece.1 In it he quotes the Iraqi-born, London-based architect Zaha Hadid, who designed the Al Wakrah stadium in Qatar, now being built for the 2022 World Cup. She has unashamedly disavowed any responsibility, let alone concern, for the estimated one thousand laborers who have perished while constructing her project thus far. “I have nothing to do with the workers,” Hadid has claimed. “It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it.”

She also devoted a number of pages to the leading well-connected and better-off Jewish leaders who colluded with the Nazis, making it easy for the Nazis to round up poor Jews and send them off to their deaths. Like Eichmann, they claimed innocence, but on other grounds: they denied knowing a massacre and enslavement were what awaited deported Jewish people. Others less well-placed did not flee because they could not or kept hoping that they would not have to (and leave a life-time’s work behind). She was accused of blaming all Jews, of blaming the victims — she was explaining the social psychology of what happened.

These are but two of the debates the film manages to convey without becoming at all a didactic costume drama where characters talk in unreal abstract preach-y ways. Also dramatized briefly is Hannah’s affair with Heidegger (Klaus Pol), a Nazi, anti-semite some said, her mentor in college, and his idea that what we flatter ourselves is thought logical thought is not; it’s ideas going through our heads as we remain alive. We see her talk with her husband, Heinrich about people politics; with William Shawn (Nicholas Woodson) about editing the New Yorker articles and Shawn talk with his staff about what the average New Yorker reader understands and wants to read.


Three men at the New School who hired her become implacable enemies (fearful for their school reputation).

Margarethe von Trotta

All this is embedded in a woman’s life. The director a woman, the scriptwriter, Pam Katz, the producer, Bettina Brokemper. I enjoyed the story-line which represents another alternative script-type from Syd Field — this one personal and cylical as we watch Hannah’s relationships with her women friends and then each male, sometimes in a flashback, sometimes re-met today as older people who go back together. Her husband has an aneuryism and she’s terrified of losing him. He does seem to recover. It’s said Sukowa is one of von Trotta’s favorite actresses for her films: in this one became Arendt — chain-smoking away, going through phases of existence and writing. A friend Diane R had alerted me to the existence of the movie on Women Writers Across the Ages (at Yahoo) when she wrote:

It wasn’t a great movie, too episodic, too polemic in spots, too wooden in other spots, hampered by its clunky attempts to be faithful to history, but I very much appreciated its depiction of Arendt as a middle aged woman who is relentlessly presented as no longer beautiful but who is nevertheless a full human being with a full life. While not sexualized in a Hollywood way, she is yet clearly sexual to her husband (or partner), and while she is attacked over her Eichmann in Jerusalem book, she is never humiliated. No woman in the movie is humiliated. Although Arendt has a young, pretty assistant, and at the beginning of the movie Arendt’s friend implies that Arendt’s husband/partner must be having an affair with a student, the set up of older woman betrayed by younger woman never comes to pass.

So many movies make older women into figures of ridicule (Grand Budapest Hotel the most recent.)

A great deal of money was spent. It was a long-time germinating and took a long time to do. It was filmed in New York City, in Jerusalem, in parts of Germany. The costumes and hair-does of the sixties, the furniture, the student ambience. The way TVs worked. There was real care to imitate the look and arrangement of the rooms (their uses) and furniture in the last Riverside Drive apartments (all taken precisely from Young-Buehl’s book). Each room had several functions, all had books and places to write and places to sit and talk with friends. And it’s all there.

Perhaps the strongest stroke of inspired genius was to work in the real footage of Eichman himself in Jerusalem. He was creepy: his face twisted with humiliation and anger as he faced people he had treated as “vermin.”


I felt his arrogance and disdain. It was chilling, like someone out of Dr Strangelove. As Hannah and Heinlein say in the movie, the trouble with hanging him is it doesn’t get near to what might be an adequate punishment without becoming barbarians ourselves.

Other characters in the film have stories like that of Hannah: Fran on our WWTTA list also wrote the “Zionest Kurt von Blumenfeld the fatherly figure also turns from her on his deathbed, and was a writer, a survivor of the Holocaust himself, who wrote the memoir, Not all of them were murderers. A childhood in Berlin describing the way he and his mother escaped deportation and the gas chambers by assuming false identities and living with non-Jewish friends for the duration. His father wasn’t so fortunate: he died as a result of the torture he experienced in Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Degen’s memoir has also been turned into a film.”

I mean to read (if I had spirit enough and time) Eichmann in Jerusalem, the book that was published from the six New Yorker articles. Origins of Totalitariansm: (from Publishers’ Weekly): “she discusses the evolution of classes into masses, the role of propaganda in dealing with the nontotalitarian world, the use of terror, and the nature of isolation and loneliness as preconditions for total domination. (e.g., Republicans in Tennessee outlawed any further money for public transportation; US cities are rebuilt to put middle and lower middle class people out of the center and with little public transportation.) The film has provided a basis for seminars in studies of Arendt.

The real Hannah Arendt


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We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art — Henry James

An English Home, Albert Coburn (1907 illustration)

Dear friends and readers,

I began Gorra’s marvelous book as an alternative read to Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, a kind of companion-match antidote: I felt it was the same sort of book, one which took the reader through a deeply-felt reading experience of a book, in this case James’s The Portrait of a Lady. I discovered that Gorra’s does not pretend to be a semi-confessional autobiography as semi-literary criticism; indeed I learned very little about Gorra’s life, though I did learn how he reacted not only to James’s The Portrait of Lady but many of James’s other books — without any particular references to Gorra’s life, except that Gorra is also American and regards himself as having an American identity (whatever that is). Gorra’s book rather elaborated in how James’s other books and The Portrait fit into James’s private and writing life, into James’s career, and into how James’s readers and critics have seen him since he began publishing and up to the time of his death.

In other words, this is an unconventionally-written biography. Gorra’s can offer insights into James’s life not allowed by most methodologies: his method is to bring together how he feels (impersonally put) about James’s writing, what he Gorra sees, and how James wrote James felt about it with what we know of James’s life from all sorts of angles, some of them drawn from phases of writing The Portrait of a Lady. Gorra weaves a sort of biography where the writer does not have to follow the life history of the subject but can weave in what he or she wants and when, with the justification that well I’m going through associations from this novel. So we skip dull parts of the person’s life and also get new sorts of insight as the material is reconfigured.

We out James in a new way: this is a new sort of biography, one which moves out from one central great book, rather like someone deciding to write Trollope’s biography by intensely going through every detail of say The Way We Live Now or The Claverings — or both together. Mead’s book was not a biography of Eliot in disguise it was “her life” in Eliot

For example, Gorra can’t prove it yet he makes a persuasive case for seeing Isabel Archer and Ralph Touchett as a doppelganger out of the dying Minnie Temple, James’s cousin. Sometimes the method is inadequate: I was much entertained by his reaction to Henrietta Stackpole – only he seems not to know that Stackpole is also an unkind caricature of Kate Fields, beloved of Anthony Trollope, an entertaining travel writer, journalist in her own right.

Martin Donovan as Ralph Touchett (Portrait)

Another example: Gorra re-sees Isabel’s early refusal to marry in terms of James’s — for James was under pressure to marry; her going to Europe, her choice of waiting to see (Ralph Touchett’s) of being a witness not a doer — all these three are brought together with James’s gayness and made sense of — he is masking himself in Isabel is the point and it’s an interesting one, for else we just do really have another story of the chaste heroine making a bad or good marriage.

He dwells on Madame Merle who emerges upon Isabel getting the money (women has a good nose) and how she stands for a social animal. She and Isabel have a debate with Isabel coming out on the side of that she is not expressed solely or nearly solely by her outward behavior, dress, occupation — as Madame Merle implies. I’ll add that From Daniel Deronda the mother shows one has a self apart which will break away, but Isabel’s tragedy will be she cannot

Barbara Hershey as Madame Merle (Portrait)

In a section early in the book called the Envelope of Circumstances where Gorra talks almost of himself — at least of an American identity (which often makes me uncomfortable) — he elaborates on the idea that Portrait is unusual in its lack of religion and Gorra says this is true of all James’s work but the ghost stories. I know I like James and feel he is equally European/English (not British)

I much enjoyed the chapter in Gorra after the one detailing all James’s homosexual friends, contacts, strains (“An Unmarried Man”): in “A London Life” he tells of how James came to live in London, that it was no foregone conclusion: he tried Paris first; about an expensive apartment he lived in for quite a while that was well located for theater, plays, making a life of going out to dinners and socializing with the upper class, near enough to publishers and parks. I quite envy James — we also get a strong sense of him supporting himself through writing for magazines and the kinds of texts he was writing to do that. I knew all this but not in this way and Gorra quotes from James’s wonderful thick diary commonplace book so well. He intuitively holds onto and writing about the most astute utterances of James: after G.H. Lewes died, James visited her and described her as “shivering like a person who had had a wall of her house blown off.”

It may be these names of James’s possible lovers and his relationships with them are known, but I’ve never seen the series of men set out so clearly, the stories told so intelligently, and rightly the doubts sowed over the idea James was physically celibate without overdoing it. People are still today writing books which obscure this aspect of James’s life and when they do write about James’s complex feelings, they write turgidly, with embarrassment, hedging. Gorra tells of James’s important life long relationship with his woman amaneunsis-secretary, Theodora Bosanquet whose biography of the boss she spent 2 decades with and lived in close intimacy gives us a lot of the leads and details that help us see this aspect of James’s life. Her book: Henry James at Work and published by Hogarth Press (the Woolfs).

Thus I found finding Gorra’s book more satisfying than Mead’s because I was made to realize more about James and his writing. Most of what Mead wrote I knew about Eliot — and while she is applying our information about Eliot is more subtle autobiographical ways, it does not change what I have seen. Since James’s homosexuality has only recently been openly admitted to and discussed as central to his life — as it was the way what gender you are is — there are new insights to be gotten

He begins with the richness of the letters and how much we can learn about James from them (most have not yet been published, a many year project by many people). The question is how far can we be ourselves apart from social life and within ourselves how much there is a real separate I from construction. I agree with him (and James) it’s there but vulneragble and fragile — as we see in Isabel Archer. Touchett is in retreaet and sinks his life in Isabel’s – I believe that outside his job Jim sunk his life in mind and job in the last years was also endured to support the two of us. That it was not him is seen in how he didn’t mind retiring and only thought of going back in order to move to England.

Still the great source for all people wanting to know James is a book edited by Mattiessen, a continuous diary: it’s vignettes of going out, little bits of stories he later worked up into his great novels, thoughts on aesthetics, whatever popped into his head: The Notebooks of Henry James. I read it while doing my dissertation and trying to understand the creative mood of reverie underlying novels. Gorra emphatically uses this book.


Rome, outdoor Market, Piazza Navona by Guiseppe Ninci (1870)

Gorra first shows us James’s situating himself in London and ambivalent; how he tried Paris, and we go on to his trips to Italy – where much of the later action of The Portrait of a Lady takes place and we get a chapter on Madame Merle and Osmond – not moralizing but how they represent some real aspects of the expatriots. It was not all high (or today unacceptable) art. Then Gorra moves into a portrait of the community in Florence and Rome at the time. Several interesting pages on his relationship with Constance Fennimore Woolson’s. As sympathetic to the people caught up there as Mead on Main – I’ve been at least to the Spanish Steps and some of the places Gorra describes – which he takes you through with him as your walking guide – and connects them to the atmosphere of the novel which is un-Victorian … bringing all this to bear on Isabel’s wrong choice gives it a whole new kind of aspect – and connects it to the modern reader too.

Gorra follows James from place to place as James writes The Portrait of a Lady. James was escaping his American identity as he traveled from place to place in Italy, and tried to find a quiet place to write a lot and yet have some company and enrichening landscape. From expatriats he moves onto strangers, and how James was surrounding himself with strangers, was himself an exile, a stranger, and saw that the American communities were themselves disconnected from Italian society, didn’t understand it, in search of what they couldn’t find at home. Then he says they were – -and James is – drawing on the heritage of different countries and cultures to make a new amalgam for themselves.

That aspect of American identity as self-invention I do see in myself, though the amalgam is mostly from English sources. I turned to read James’s Roman Rides as Gorra said it’s better than just about all James’s early fictions — and it struck me that’s right. The opening is a meditative piece on the landscape of the campagna. Jim and I went there and walked alone one morning — we did not take our children who were with us on that holiday because they would have been so bored. Often the places he and I wanted to go to were to them places with nothing there. James does a gorgeous rendition of the feelings one can have just outside Rome among these ruins in this desolated place — it was still that way in 1994. How important place and history are to some authors.


John Malkovich as Osmond (Portrait)

Gorra then moves onto Isabel’s strange choice of the stifling Osmond and how Isabel came to make such a bad choice. Gorra suggests we don’t bring in the sexual angle enough and Isabel was attracted to the man who declined openly to chase her. I did not remember that time went by and Isabel traveled with her sister I Europe and then Madame Merle in the Middle East (that was dangerous). Ralph tells her she is going to be put in a cage but it’s no good. We are not shown the moment of submission, the marriage or its first experience. Why? It’s a sleight of hand that takes us to thwarted aspiration, imprisonment, narrowing but not how she got there. Are these James’s fears for himself?

The book moves onto Venice as James does – and an immersion occurs as James is drawn into this defeated place filled with poverty striken people, even then dying, dependent on tourism. James himself eat and drank expensively as Gorra finds this out by going to the same place (still there). A political fight over the vaporetto and the vaporettos won – James didn’t like the noise either. He makes two friends whose houses he can stay at, ordinary upper class American and English, not the resident famous homosexual population …. It’s the evocation of these places through quotation of James’s travel writing that makes this section so appealing …

John Singer Sergeant, An Interior in Venice (1899)

Gorra is trying to relive the experiences James had while writing the book at the same time as he re-imagines what the characters feel as the story progresses: tracing James’s steps in Venice, looking at paintings Sergeant made of the expatriot people into whose houses James was welcomed. From James’s letters Gorra picks up that the landlady was offering her daughter as a sex partner by sending her to hang around the fourth floor. Byron took up such invitations, not James. He moves onto the this kind of atmosphere in Venice, and its treacheries, the grim whiff of the closed streets (seen in Sergeant”s pictures too I know) and says this seeped into Portrait of a Lady and what Isabel’s chose of Osmond brought her


Constance Fennimore Woolson

Venice prompts by association the really poignant story of James’s long time and finally failed relationship with Constance Fenimore Woolston. Gorra characterizes her with great empathy and tells a lot I didn’t know or had forgotten. Again he brings together what is not usually brought together: how they quietly lived in one building she on the first and he the ground floor — in Florence. She apparently went to Venice to live on the assumption he would follow her but he never did. The letters to and from and her were burned. As everyone knows she killed herself by jumping out a window and he tortured himself by trying to drown her dresses — why he just didn’t throw them out or give them away as rags I can’t guess.

Woolston’s death though partly in reaction to James’s behavior is obviously not his fault. She suffered depression much of her life. When she’d finish a book she’d be in a state of nervous collapse. It’s said some people are exhilarated by it. I was neither. Eliot went into collapse mode.

As he tells the story, Gorra connects it James’s “Aspern Papers,” “he Beast in the Jungl”e (Sedgewick renamed that “closet”) and a couple of other uncanny stories (“The Romance of Old Clothes) which he retells very well — and The Wings of the Dove.

Quite what this has to do with The Portrait of a Lady? it illuminates James’s feelings towards relationships, the real life of expatriates … A central “sin” in James is when one person uses another, makes them an instrument for his or her needs. Imposing your will on them. He suggests Lyndall Gordon (who wrote a conventional biography) accuses James of doing this to Woolson. Now the second version a Portrait of a Lady occurs well after Woolson’s death and so we are left to make our own allegory here.

Paris, La Rue de Rivoli, Anonymous, undated

I love the illustrations in this book, picturesque, in the mode of Alvin Coburn, the illustrator for James’s turn of the century complete revised edition.

Following upon the chapter on James and Constance Fenimore Woolston, we move into “sex, serials, the continent and critics.” A full chapter on how near impossible it was to get into print and distributed in the UK and US too a story which told what every one know to be the case with sexual life; you could only tell supposedly what life was supposed sexually to be like, to teach lessons. The French were much freer.

This part of the book includes a chapter on the magazines James wrote for and Gorra uses is also valuable beyond telling us how James dealt with the problem of instalment publication: demands for a certain length, for cliff-hangers, who and where his work appeared (with what provided the context of respectability for the reader); it’s an intelligent portrait of a world where people are still reading magazines. James was apparently a writer who had in mind his whole book so would start a new instalment not with a reader turning the pages of a magazine who might need (as we call them today) recap. Today’s American context is alluded to: the importance of Atlantic, Harper’s then – New Yorker today

Gorra is showing us how Isabel Archer could come to say she did not want to hear anything that Pansy could not hear — this is supreme foolishness on her part; far from being dangerous for her, it will be dangerous for her not to have more knowledge of what a man can do to his wife once he marries her — Cameron’s movie makes Osmond into a sadistic man in bed too — as does Andrew Davies make Grandcourt in his film of Daniel Deronda. This is chapter comparing French fiction of the period that was admired by the English with the English. A rare novelist to break through what was allowed was George Moore (Esther Waters) but his novels were not distributed by Mudie’s.

Gorra spends a long chapter on the whole long chapter in Portrait of a Lady after Edward Rosier comes to call – he is the young man who loves and could be loved by Pansy, but Osmond won’t allow it, and he lets Isabel know that she ought to use her sexual pull on Warburton to lure Warburton into marrying Pansy — for Osmond assumes that’s a front for a love affair Warburton means to have with Isabel.

Isabel is sickened, appalled, desolated — we come upon her well after the marriage has taken place, we even missed the birth and death of a young son. Gorra says this is deliberate on James’s part: he does not want to show us directly (remember our thread on showing and telling) such dramatic moments but their affect on consciousness.

I was not surprised to see Gorra attribute some of James’s sophistication to his reading of Daniel Deronda where Gorra finds the same kinds of techniques. The difference is that James goes on for much longer (he says) and makes the narrative stop still and ruminate a past we’ve not seen.

He also says the shrewdest most aware appraisal of Portrait was by Constance Fenimore Woolson. So James is in a women of ecriture-femme — with Oliphant ranging herself on the other side in defense of what she thought of as English fiction.

He finds this so original. I don’t think so — Trollope does it, Austen does it, Eliot does it a lot but the interior monologue is important and Gorra’s way of discussing it as becoming central to the art of fiction does show one important innovation. Hitherto story was said to count a lot and more; and it’s clear that for James the actual story matter — the events that manifest the inner life — does not matter. Gorra says this changes the novel’s emphasis and is part of a switch over that finds an extreme in Woolf.

Romola Garai as Gwendoleth Harleth Grandcourt telling Daniel Deronda (Hugh Dancy) about what her life has been (2004 Daniel Deronda, scripted Andrew Davies)

No what makes the difference is the content. Trollope’s Julia (The Claverings) does not think one really unconventional thought. She never thinks to herself these people are shits, why should I want to sit with the housekeeper, look at their terrible values. Nor any of them until Daniel Deronda with the magnificent portrait of his mother (the same actress who played the role in Davies’s film played Madame Merle in Campion’s film) Isabel does not break away but she has utterly subversive thoughts about the values of those around her. Eliot invents another set of ethics using Gwendoleth Harleth’s experience (which Davies’s film brings out), implicitly anticipating Flaubert but much more sympathetic to the woman, as is James. Again and again Gorra links James to Eliot. So when Gorra exaggerated because he so goes on about it, one can learn and see …

He is tracing an important direct new line — into it was fed the travel writings that he has been going over too. Roman Rides, Venice. Also William James’s books on cognitive psychology show up the new interest. The new line was objected to intelligently by RLStevenson in his Gossip on Romance and James’s prefaces, his Art of Fiction was intended to intervene in this debate. Gorra’s discussion of James’s use of stream of consciousness in Portrait of a Lady is so rousing that I become eager for Phyllis Rose’s A Year of Reading Proust to come — I just hope I’ve read enough of Proust’s volumes to be able to appreciate it. I’ve only read one and almost to the end of the second volume.

Gorra then uses his analysis of Isabel Archer’s long meditation to launch into more than James’s Art of Fiction; he makes large claims for James as an innovator of a new kind of novel: one based wholly on inner life, nuances. Of course these were written before — in epistolary narratives of high quality in the 18th century but not self-consciously. Gorra argues that Woolson was one of the first to understand, and Howells to defend James and his Art of Fiction should be understood as part of a debate which includes RLS’s Gossip on Romance.

I like how Gorra fits this into the growth of serious literary criticism of the novel, taking it seriously. James could not get himself to write in the other “new” school of naturalism (Princess Cassamassima is the one that may be linked): too pessimistic, too bleak he felt, though Howells did it in his Modern Instance. The novel’s stature is going up

Henry James by Katherine McClellan (1905)

The last part: putting out the lights. This one takes us through James’s response to the deaths of his father and mother; he came for the funerals, just missed the dying. I think he’s right to argue against Edel’s insistence it was the mother who screwed the family up: common sense and all evidence suggests it was the father (if people can be screwed up who produced what Wm and Henry James and even Alice did and lives the lives the first two did) with the mother complicit. It seems to have been a contest which of the parents self-destructed first and in reaction to the other’s coming demise. They did cling together.

As with Mead at the close of her book, but without personal references, Gorra then makes leaps into the fiction to find analogies about death. Gorra shows how often James wrote about death after this period, and how a metaphor for loss. In this chapter he says it was at this time James began to keep his journal of all anecdotes, an important source for this book (and many others).

And he suggests it was after this or around this time several of the great Victorians died and I’m glad to say — serendipitiously — for James this includes Trollope. Trollope for James a major voice like Eliot, Flaubert and Turgenev. James’s essay on Trollope has been very influential — perhaps too much so but I didn’t know about the line calling Trollope a “difficult mind.” That’s good. What a different list from the modern canon, no?

James’s “The Altar of the Dead” is about the ghosts we live with, the ghosts in our memories of who died and Gorra speaks eloquently of it. Alice was another great loss by then and Constance Fenimore Woolson. No wonder I liked this chapter and it leads a powerful chapter centering on the last image Isabel has at the end of her mediation: Madame Merle and Osmond talking together. Gorra takes us through to Isabel’s realization that when Madame Merle said to her “let us have him” (italics added) Madame Merle has given away 1) that she and Osmond think that Isabel wants Warburton for herself, not that she is appalled by the proposition that she should use his attraction to her to win him to marry Pansy as payoff for a liaison; and 2) they assume what bothers Isabel is not the amorality of all this but that she wants Warburton for herself, and finally 3) Madame Merle is Pansy’s mother.

When Osmond’s sister comes to tell Isabel of this truth however indirectly it’s after the realization and this is followed hard on by the most quiet and devastating of needlings I’ve ever read. Madame Merle comes in to tell Isabel as Isabel is contemplating visiting Ralph as he lies dying (after Osmond has forbidden it) that it was Ralph who gave her the enormous sum of money that made her “a brilliant match,” spoken in bland feigned innocence she is nonethleless triumphing over telling Isabel that Isabel owes this hellish marriage to Ralph. And pointing our to her yes “she was perfectly free” so she did it to herself.

One problem for the modern reader who wants to read hard truths about life is these earlier novels (and many since) end ambiguously in ways that allow us to think the characters will be all right, make do by following conventional norms and thus uphold the very structures that the whole novel has been designed to expose.

Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer Osmond (Portrait, scripted Laura Jones, directed Jane Campion)

It is a startlingly even terrifying moment when Madame Merle so quietly and blandly lets Isabel know it was after Isabel who chose to marry Osmond and she was given all the clues she needed to what he was if she had only looked.

Austen has scenes of withering corrosion where the speaker does not realize what he is saying and the listener is mortified and hurt, but nothing quite so horrible in feel or mean and malicious in intent. Madame Merle’s purpose is to make Isabel angry at Ralph and prevent her going — as Lucy Ferrars in telling Elinor of the long engagement was to make Elinor give up on Edward, be very angry with him. The increase in subtlety and what has been done is a hundredfold.

For the book’s last chapters, see the comments.


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Dear friends,

In the computer disaster I had two days ago it appears that the course proposals I had made for a summer teaching course at an Oscher Institute of Learning may have been permanently lost; as I want these documents and today (as yet) have no writing program I can put them on — the new computer with Windows 8 is hellishly cutsey, tricksey. I cannot figure out how to write on Word on this Macbook Pro without the whole screen being transformed, so that I appear unable to reach my gmail with hitting F3 which minimalizes everything and let’s me see, and get back to gmail and the row of programs I have at the bottom of Macbook Pro. So I am saving two sets of documents or writing here — I used to use this blog to work out my thoughts on books, films, teaching; well read these as 5 sketches towards a summer course for retired people.

The Gothic

This course will explore the gothic mode in fiction and film. The gothic as a mode is a vast terrain with many differnt subgenres, yet images, plot-, and character types repeat like a formula. Take one huge labyrinthine ancient or partly ruined dwelling, place inside a murderous incestuous father or mother (preferably chained), heroes and heroines (various kinds), get a tempest going at night, be sure to have plenty of blood on hand, owls, and stir in a great deal of supernatural phenomena, have the action occur in the deep past or be connected to a deep past … We’ll use short stories on-line, beginning with ghosts and terror, moving onto vampire, werewolf, and wanderer paradigms and horror, and last socially critical mystery and possession. The course culminates in two recent novellas, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly, and the justly famed film, Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963, featuring Julie Harris).

Texts on-line will be chosen from among these: Wharton’s “Afterward” and/or “Kerfol,” M. R. James’s “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral;” Sheridan LeFanu’s “Green Tea” and/or “Carmilla,” Marion Crawford’s “For the Blood is the Life,” R. L. Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Suzy Charnas’s “Unicorn Tapestry; Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of Abbey Grange.” This spares students buying an expensive anthology.

Memory, Desire, and Self-fashioning: Life Writing

This course will enable students to better to understand and recognize the nature of life-writing: diaries, books of letters, journals, memoirs, travel narratives, autobiogaphies, biographies. Our three texts will be Richard Holmes’s Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer, Iris Origo’s War in Val d’Orca: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944 (or George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia) and Margaret Drabble’s The Figure in the Carpet: A Personal History, with Jigsaws. We will ask what is the nature of the truth autobiography produces and look at the relationship of a biographer to his subject. We’ll look at writing done to the moment when the writer does not know what the future holds (diaries, letters); how far is a biography the product of a biographer’s memories interacting with text by his (or her) subject. We’ll talk about the importance of childhood and play in this form, how aging, imagination and disappointment work are part of the mental materials that make up life-writing. If time permits and the DVD is available, the class will conclude with the 2013 film, The Invisible Woman, based on Claire Tomalin’s biography of a long love-relationship between Charles Dickens and Ellen Ternan (an actress), where most of the evidence for the events was destroyed, and thus be able to discuss events that happen, and are important in people’s lives and yet have left no discernible clear record.

The Political Novel

The course aims to enable the students to recognize what is political novel and how such novels can function in our society. We’ll read Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September, Walter Von Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident, and Valerie Martin’s Property and see William Wellman’s film, The Ox-Bow Incident (1963, featuring Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn). We’ll look at the nature of political allegory: how ideas about society penetrate the consciousness of the characters and can be observed in their behavior. Why some events enter what’s called history and why political novels often lend themselves to historical treatment; why other events are not discussed as serious history, which can limit what we perceive as political behavior. Finally, how films contribute to understanding a novel or its political meanings.

The Historical and Post-Colonial Turn in modern novels

This course will examine historical and post-colonial (or global) turn that English fiction has taken in the last quarter century. We’ll read and discuss three novels: Paul Scott’s Staying On, Graham Swift’s Waterland, and Andrea Levy’s Small Island. The first poignant novel is also about two aging people now retired, who have seen the word they were part of disappear and must cope with new arrangements hostile to them. The second will enable us to discuss how some events enter political history and others don’t, and thus our past is past is something we invent through imposing choice and order based on hierarchies in our present culture. Historical romance can therefore be liberating acts of resistance, a way of redressing injustice, and creating a more humane usable past. The third novel shows the centrality of nationalistic identities in enforcing exclusions or forming imagined communities. The course will conclude by watching an excerpt from a mini-series adaptation of Small Island (2009, BBC, featuring David Oyelowo and Ruth Wilson). I hope the class will see the connection of these novels to young adult fiction, counter-factual fictions, and romantic history as well as TV costume drama.

Jane Austen: the early phase

This course focus on Austen’s first published novels: Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Love and Freindship (a short hilarious burlesque which we will read first), Austen’s Steventon years, and letter fiction provide prologue and context for reading S&S and P&P. An alternative perspective provides the last phase of the course: Austen’s Bath years, a brief mid-career epistolary novel written there, Lady Susan (with an utterly amoral heroine), and discussion of how Austen revised the novels when she settled at Chawton. Last, we’ll see Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s S&S (a 1995 Miramax product), and discuss what this film makes visible about the way film-makers think readers read these novels and how these interpretations differ from this course’s historical, autobiographical and aesthetic readings.


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Friends and readers,

I know I’ve not filled out the “about” gadget so there is no biography of me to the left nor is there an actual photo on the top right of this blog. If you have wanted to know, I’m not sure this will do, but here is my resume as put into 2 concise paragraphs from on The Victorian Web. It’s “to go with” the three essays and any reviewing I do. Compare to one I wrote in early 2000 for my website.

A resume is a very odd document. It tells the biography of someone from the peculiar (if you think about it) angle of each time he or she has been attached to an institution or business or governmental organization, done something one of these bodies recognize as counting, mattering. You can — if you must — add a few personal details, but if you look closely you find these two are of the kind that produces a certificate somewhere, as marriage, producing other human beings. Or you could, if you’re pinched, give yourself a title, invent an institution, fund it and list. But to those in the know this is a transparent maneuver.

How do we define ourselves for real? How many people take this measuring of themselves against such a scale to heart? I fear too many.

I will be reviewing regularly for the Victorian Web. I didn’t have a conventional mug shot of me taken recently: this too should be clearly arranged so as to fit into some conventional mode. All my good ones are of me in my fifties and worse yet the best are in black-and-white. So there only a detail of one I’ve put the whole of here. Shows that no one institutional has been taking photos of me and I haven’t been having photos taken in that style (one need not renew a passport more than every 10 years, and colleges and gov’t organizations save money by re-digitalizing older ones).

So here am I very un-institutionally, with my two cats, Ian (a ginger tabby) and Clary (a tortoise)


It’s a hot day but not hot enough for air-conditioning so the picture is “marred” for official use by the fan — as well as the cats. Yes I’m reading Trollope: that’s He Knew He Was Right, as edited by John Sutherland for Oxford Classics. This is the picture I should have on the top right of this blog, but don’t (cats, fan).

And I add a third book I’m proud of as I’ve written here: my long essay, “Intertextuality in The Pallisers and other Trollope films,” was praised by Kamilla Elliot as particularly outstanding in the volume.



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The Allington Estate, big & small house & grounds (The Small House at Allington)

Dear friends and readers,

I’m delighted to be able to announce a third essay by me on Anthony Trollope is now on the Victorian Web.

The latest is my Mapping Trollope; or Geographies of Power (see Geographies of the Book). What differentiates this text from the one on my website is the maps are much larger and clearer and you can click on them to further enlarge them. For example, here’s Trollope’s drawing of Barsetshire enlarged. The Victorian Web also has software which allows the scene I transcribed from the BBC 1974-75 Pallisers, Part 9, Episode 8, Madame Max (Barbara Murray) conferring with Mrs Meager (Sheila Fay) as a separate clear document. As in the other two essays, the footnotes are far more accessible: you can click on the raised number and go rapidly from text to footnote, and in this new set-up the notes and bibliography are to the side.

In 2006 I wrote my second conference paper, this time in accordance with the conference’s theme (Trollope and Gender), about how male sexuality and norms of manliness and/or masculinity are presented in Trollope, Trollope’s Comfort Romances for Men: Heterosexual Male Heroism in Trollope. I am finding that this aspect of his work is central to the film adaptations still available: Raven, then Plater and now Andrew Davies explore the problems of having to abide by norms of masculinity and manliness in Victorian society, presented as not all that much different from analogous problems today.



Upon finding Paul Montague [Cillian Murphy] at Lowestoffe (2001, TWWLN, Part 2, Ep 12) with Mrs Hurtle (a woman whom Paul was formerly engaged to and will be led to have sex with that night in their shared room), Roger Carbury [Douglas Hodge] (an older cousin-uncle) berates Paul scornfully for sexual faithlessness and for abusing Hetta Carbury to whom Paul has now engaged himself and Paul replies:

‘You think so little of me (near tears). Are you so proud of your own dealings with Hetta? … you think of her and speak of her as a child, Roger, all your intercourse with her has been as a grown man with a child and now you offer yourself to herself as a lover? How could you regard your advances to her as anything but an embarrassment and with disgust (anger in his voice rising) that is what I mean …

I’ve learned to understand how Mark Turner’s book, Trollope in the Magazines shows the importance of male audiences to Trollope’s narrator’s sexual stance. What I now realize is Trollope’s novels are not as comforting to men as I had thought. And modern film adapters see the contradictions, cruelties and human tragedies in the conceptions of masculinity enacted in Trollope (say the Pallisers where a young Lady Glen is married off, sold to the much older Plantagenet) and bring these out.

G. H. Thomas, “She read the beginning — Dearest Grace”, Breakfast Scene, The Last Chronicle of Barset

My first paper on the Web is of course still there: are “Partly Told in Letters: Trollope’s Story-telling Art, which I wrote some 13 years ago now. As the years progress I become more and more convinced that epistolary narrative in a genuinely conceived epistolary situation is central to Trollope’s creation of insightful interiority: the readers, reader and character, cannot know what will happen next, the letter readers’ response is as important as the letter itself, and the letter is presented with an awareness of all the surrounding conditions and internal lying (posing) it brings, how it is also potentially an incriminating document.

Both my first and most recent paper, letters and maps in Trollope, became part of Trollope’s art partly because was himself a postal employee, himself literally mapping Ireland and southwestern England, and cared intensely about everything having to do with letters. From his Autobiography:

Early in 1851 I was sent upon a job of special official work, which for two years so completely absorbed my time that I was able to write nothing. A plan was formed for extending the rural delivery of letters, and for adjusting the work, which up to that time had been done in a very irregular manner. A country letter-carrier would be sent in one direction in which there were but few letters to be delivered, the arrangement having originated probably at the request of some influential person, while in another direction there was no letter-carrier because no influential person had exerted himself…

It was intended to set this right throughout England, Ireland, and
Scotland; and I quickly did the work in the Irish district to which I was attached. I was then invited to do the same in a portion of England … the object was to create a postal network which should catch all recipients of letters. In France it was, and I suppose still is, the practice to deliver every letter. Wherever the man may live to whom a letter is addressed, it is the duty of some letter-carrier to take that letter to his house, sooner or later. But this, of course, must be done slowly. With us a delivery much delayed was thought to be worse than none at all. In some places we did establish posts three times a week, and perhaps occasionally twice a week …

It is amusing to watch how a passion will grow upon a man. During
those two years it was the ambition of my life to cover the country
with rural letter-carriers. I do not remember that in any case a rural post proposed by me was negatived by the authorities; but I fear that some of them broke down afterwards as being too poor, or because, in my anxiety to include this house and that, I had sent the men too far afield. … I would ride up to farmhouses or parsonages, or other lone residences about the country, and ask the people how they got their letters, at what hour, and especially whether they were delivered free or at a certain charge. For a damnable habit had crept into use, which came to be, in my eyes, at that time, the one sin for which there was no pardon, in accordance with which these rural letter-carriers used to charge a penny a letter, alleging that the house was out of their beat, and that they must be paid for their work. I think that I did stamp out that evil … (Chapter 5, pp 87-90)

I love book illustrations, and to immerse myself in the worlds of books, and have been fascinated by the intersection of these with Trollope’s texts since I began reading him. when the Sharp people announced their topic would be maps, I knew I had to write about these in Trollope. And my long interest in epistolary narrative (I wrote my dissertation on Richardson’s Clarissa and Grandison), just love of reading novels told in letters and 1st person subjective narrative novels and studies in the 18th century also led me to take this perspective. I’m now interested in filmic epistolarity, how historical films imitate earlier illustrations and acquire interiority through the use of letters, voice-over, flashbacks, montage, all attached to letter writing, receiving, reading.

Soft focus: Emily (Laura Fraser) writing Colonel Osborne and saying she would like to see him again, he can come any time, after we have heard his voice-over in a letter to her (2004 HKHWR, Part 1, Ep 5)

And I’ve also shorter piece on the Victorian Web: The Art of Biography, Modern Style: Thackeray, with a response by Peter Shillingsburg. I do love life-writing.

All gratifying. I am very grateful to the people on the Victorian Web who made this possible.


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Thackeray’s drawing of the jester-narrator of Vanity Fair

Dear friends and readers,

Over the last several weeks a few of us on Trollope19thCStudies read Trollope’s An Autobiography and, as a coda, his Thackeray. Trollope had spent the time of writing An Autobiography thinking about the relationship of his life to his fiction, and he carries on with a similar perspective in Thackeray. As his Thackeray is not much discussed, I thought an account of its parts might be welcome. It is much much better than those who have read it have acknowledged.

In The Cambridge Companion to Trollope, ed CDever and LNiles, Victoria Glendinning has an essay on Trollope as autobiographer & biographer and, unusually, deals with Trollope’s Thackeray and Life of Cicero. As she does in parts of her biography of Trollope, she says while Trollope clearly revered Thackeray Trollope’s tone is of a friend watching a good friend play tennis and “agonizing as he sees him knocking the ball into the tent.” It is true as she says though that Trollope is exasperated by Thackeray’s lack of work ethic, view of society, destestation of “snobbishness” (I’d call this in Thackeray hatred of what Thackeray sees as worship of rank and hierarchy), Thackeray’s “abnormally bad” characters (that’s Trollope’s view).

For those unfamiliar with Thackeray’s writing who are daunted by too many pages, you cannot do better than A Shabby Genteel Story and Other Tales, as edited and beautifully introduced by D. J. Taylor in the Everyman edition. A Shabby Genteel Story is a sort of Vanity Fair in little; Thackeray’s “Going to a Hanging” is included; as Hugo’s Last Day in the life of a Condemned Man presents the cruelties of the rituals & realities of state murder from the condemned person’s point of view so Thackeray exposes the crowd enjoying it. There’s “On Being Found Out,” good notes.

Wm Makepeace Thackeray (1811-63)

The Introduction: Trollope begins by telling us he is hampered by a lack of papers and knowledge of Thackeray’s intimate life, so has determined to write a literary study, consisting of a brief general sketch of Thackeray’s life and character, and individual discussions of Thackeray’s writing. He makes use of whatever he has, including Thackeray’s friends’ memories. What Trollope creates is the picture of a successful literary career. Trollope was unusual for his time in presenting his own life as an author as a life of a career professional, and now repeats this perspective for Thackeray. This is how he puts his aim:

it certainly is not my purpose now to write what may be called a life of Thackeray. In this preliminary chapter I will give such incidents and anecdotes of his life as will tell the reader perhaps all about him that a reader is entitled to ask: how he became an author, and will say how first he struggled, and then how he worked and prospered, and became a household word in English literature; — in this way, he passed through that course of mingled failure and success which, though the literary aspirant may suffer, is probably better both for the writer and for the writings than unclouded early glory. The suffering no doubt is acute, and a touch of melancholy, perhaps of indignation, may be given to words which have been written while the heart has been too full of its own wrongs; but this is better than the continued note of triumph which is still heard in the final voices of the spoilt child of literature, even when they are losing their music. Then I will tell hew Thackeray died, early indeed, but still having done a good life’s work. Something of his manner, something of his appearance I can say, something perhaps of his condition of mind because for some few years he was known to me. But of the continual intercourse of himself with the world, and of himself with his own works, I can tell little, because no record of his life has been made public.

So we learn of Thackeray’s birth in India, his father’s early death and his schooling in England. Thackeray did not lose his fortune sheerly by gambling, dissolute life or incompetence; he invested in a magazine, a very difficult way to make money. We see Thackeray slowly through journalism achieve reputation and financial success. He does not write hagiography, but his evaluation of Thackeray is conditioned by memories of his own arduous struggle. So although Trollope speaks of Thackeray with the highest respect, he harps on Thackeray’s lack of diligence and procrastination=someone who will do it badly. At one point he says had Thackeray gotten a gov’t job he tried for (using influence and for the money) he’d not have had what it takes to get up early in the morning — the portrait is of himself. Trollope does bring in Thackeray’s suffering helped cause the procrastination. Trollope does not specify that Thackeray found urination very painful, probably the result of venereal disease, for which there was no cure and no painkiller but opium. Nor that this disease probably caused Thackeray’s early death.

Trollope’s way of describing Thackeray’s early career rings with truth: how hard it was to break in, how a connection led him to Fraser’s, how his style and genius was recognized. He says again how easy it is to begin being a writer, but to make a career how one must go step-by-step. Thackeray’s way was through journalism. I was impressed by the candour which states that Thackeray fulflled his potential utterly three times really: Vanity Fair, Henry Esmond, Barry Lyndon and in some of the character portraits beyond these books (Colonel Newcombe and literary life in Pendennis). There is a striking comparison of Thackeray with Dickens: Thackeray distrusted his talents and Dickens thought well of his; Trollope feels that the public liked Dickens immediately was not a sign his work was greater at all, and that Trollope’s sympathies are with Thackeray.

Trollope says that Thackeray’s great flaw is a kind of holding back, a refusal to say fully what’s on his mind, a failure to present his vision fully. I suggest some of Thackeray’s holding back is that he was afraid to offend by telling the truth so wrote gentle satire when it was in him to write satire more in Swift and Johnson’s veins. That is the implication of Barry Lyndon which is more like Fielding’s Jonathan Wild in outlook than Tom Jones.

Trollope also critiques Thackeray as an artist: his drawings highlight and visualize the spirit and tone of his books superbly well, but Thackeray can’t draw (with verisimilitude is what Trollope means).

So there is much here on Thackeray as such, irrespective of Trollope. All biographies are after all a picture of the subject through the writer’s mind. Trollope is much troubled by Thackeray’s cynicism and tries to argue he was not a cynic based on his kind heart and generosity to friends and family. To assert that the latter precludes the former is to misunderstand cynicism. Because you generally see the world in bleak hard and realistic terms does not mean you don’t love people; indeed a cynic might be more inclined to help his family (as we see Thackeray desperate to do for his daughters – that’s why he did the lectures which were distasteful to him, very) because the word is such a hard (mean too) place. The false formula comes from a negative view of cynicism. It reminds me of how people — often of religious turns — think atheists are not moral. They are. I’ve found that if a person is religious is not guarantee he or she will be decent or moral; their religion is function of their character not the other way round so many religious people use their religion to justify cruel and inhumane behavior.

Thackeray in Punchblog
A Punch cartoon by Thackeray

Chapter 2: Fraser’s Magazine and Punch. Trollope’s as good as G. H. Lewes in pinpointing what is the central urge of his author’s texts as well as central techniques and use of just the right passage to convey these things. As Trollope says of Lewes’s limited audience, since few people themselves can see these things, this kind of writing often is not appreciated. Again Trollope is also judging Thackeray by his own conscious morality.

Since Trollope clearly enjoys Thackeray enormously and certainly understands his meaning, it may be suspected that without being able to admit it, Trollope sees the validity of Thackeray’s vision. Only Trollope won’t write it. He simply will not write a Catherine as the subject matter is so “deeply unpleasant.” He simply will not present the full amorality of society’s structuring, whether in the ancien regime with an aristocratic pattern the one lauded or after it with the bourgeous one. Trollope doesn’t approve of telling partly because he sees by telling you make what is — this cruel amorality — appealing, even if at end the hero ends up in a bad way (punished). Trollope sees the meanness of human kind as the real target of Thackeray’s snobs, but he says isn’t Thackeray “hard on people?” and they are having sparks of good nature and enjoyment while they behave in these phony ways. Trollope’s right that snobbery is hypocrisy and if you are genuinely wanting to show your luxuries, that’s not wanting to show them as a evidence of your status so as to definition yes the word snob won’t do, but it’s something else Thackeray is fueled by, and Trollope may be right that to make money Thackeray over-worked this vein, but the key here is Trollope doesn’t mind “the humbug” of people as much as Thackeray; he is not against snobbery, finds hierarchy and a climb up and satisfaction in that valid.

For myself everytime Trollope quoted Thackeray and I heard Thackeray’s words I agreed with Thackeray, e.g. “The Broker of the exchanges who bull[ies] … ” (p. 73) When Thackeray says ironically “it does my ‘art good” (p. 78) it is a kind Swiftian vision presented as utter good nature and makes me think of Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield. In each case Trollope analyses Thackeray’s texts to bring out their qualities. The opening with the satire on other novelists Trollope has picked passages which send up the very pith of what novelists had begun to claim was their genius: I’ve “fathomed the mysterious depths of the human mind’ (Trollope society edition, p 64). I love how Trollope marveled at how Thackeray was able to keep up the ironic stance of Barry Lyndon throughout (see paragraph beginning, “The marvel of the book … “, (pp. 72-73)

I rather enjoyed Trollope’s quotations. In the era presenting misspellings was seen as hilarious. There is a class-bias here, but I felt that Thackeray’s misspellings created satires of their own, on the concepts hypocritically supported, some were salacious puns. Stil this kind of thing is easily overdone — most modern readers seem not to have much tolerance for it.

There was only one place where I thought Trollope didn’t get it. The poem he quotes at length about a girl leaving home who almost kills herself. Trollope presents this as simply a ludicrous form of joking about a foolish girl (pp. 68-69). And perhaps consciously Thackeray presented it in this light — it’s quoted without its contextualizing story. But reading it myself straight it seems to me to have real feeling for this girl who wanted to escape and really wanted to kill herself but after all didn’t have he nerve and so went home to unsympathetic and dense people whose response was to “punish” her by depriving her of tea for a fortnight.

Thackeray’s character sketch of Becky Sharp — with dolls

Chapter 3: Vanity Fair. The chapter is much less wide-ranging and has fewer surprises than the previous. There is also not as much about Thackeray’s style in this chapter, but then he’d talked about that in the others. While it seems at first that Trollope has his doubts about Vanity Fair’s moral tendency and thus its value, by the end of the chapter, he has come round to say that the novel gives us a rich journey through the world where we learn something on each page; we see much of its evils and follies but are not allured (says Mr Trollope). First he follows Becky and is ironic himself over her continual successes: Trollope does not believe a Becky would have these successes and thus aims a quiet shaft at the book. He will have it that Becky did love at least a little her very stupid captain. Trollope cannot stand her at some level: over and over again we hear how false Becky is. His own Lizzy Eustace is a loser and not presented at all with any tenderness or identification. (He comes much closer to Thackeray’s Becky with Arabella Trefoil in The American Senator.

Trollope thus also half-disbelieves any man could be so besotted with Becky so Rawdon has got to be stupid. Trollope stands up for Amelia — even then most readers were frank enough to complain about the exemplary heroine – here Trollope does not seem to see that Thackeray is very ambivalent about
Amelia’s kind of goodness and he only quotes how Amelia gets her strong tree to twine herself about; he does not quote Dobbin’s disillusion with Amelia by book’s end and the sense that she’s a parasite on him. (That disillusion may be part of what fuels the ending of Gone with the Wind when Rhett finally gets Scarlett and looks at her and is not keen: “Frankly, my dear … “) But the world around them he cannot deny.

Dobbin (Philip Glenister) home from Waterloo, having left George Osborne dead on the field (1998 Vanity Fair, scripted Davies)

Trollope made me remember Andrew Davies very great 6 hour VF and want to re-see it. I feel that Trollope’s way of seeing Thackeray’s book is closely like that of Davies only Davies is not bothered by Becky’s amorality the way Trollope is. Davies’s idea of Pitt is just such another as Trollope’s Pitt and the actor who played it — David Bradley — perfect. Here Davies’ comic vein succeeds masterfully.

Illustration for Pendennis by Thackeray
Thackeray: a sketch in Pendennis (colorized)

Chapter 4: Pendennis and The Newcombes. I really liked Chapter 4 better than Chapter 3 because I felt Trollope went into the heart of Thackeray more. There are a number of striking insights into the “condition” of Thackeray’s mind that arise from each of his accounts of the books he examines. Trollope does not go in chronological order in order to show us how The Newcomes comes out of Penndennis: like Trollope Thackeray has recurring characters in recurring partly imagined partly real landscapes across books, e.g., Pen is editor of Newcomes; Costigan a mean man (in every sense of the word) recurs. Trollope’s comment is Thackeray’s novels are all like “a slice from the biographical memoirs of a family” (p. 115)

A particularly good general insight: “A sardonic melancholy was the characteristic most common to him, — which, however, was relieved by an always present capacity for instant frolic” (p. 119) The passages Trollope chose to quote were to me like Arnold’s choice of touchstones. For example, on p 118 of the Trollope Society edition, beginning, “What’s the use of it all …” Where Trollope goes off: he’s displeased that Thackeray doesn’t follow conventions (!) and provide happy endings for admirable heroes and heroines. He, Trollope, often does not do this; I wish Trollope did it even less than he does. We have to remember it’s Trollope who thinks a character like Miss Quigley is an ass; Thackeray may not. (p. 117)

For my part I didn’t like Pendennis because I felt despite the satire Thackeray thought altogether too well of Pendennis as s an important type of male. Trollope is right that he’s selfish, worldly, false, padded, caring altogether for things mean and poor in himself. Nor did I like Dickens’s Pip nor Austen’s Emma. To me these characters are dream selves of authors who forgive them because of their social status.

Thackeray’s first illustration for Esmond: the boy: ‘Le pauvre enfant, il n’a que nous’
Chapter 5: Henry Esmond and The Virginians. Henry Esmond appears to be Trollope’s favorite novel, and he thinks it Thackeray’s finest masterpiece. Why? The psychological complexity, the genuine historical content (serious) and the distinctive true (not falsely sentimental) depiction of Esmond’s mother and Beatrice appeal. Trollope admires how Thackeray managed to invent a language that seemed later 17th century and was not pastiche, not false — though on the other hand, Trollope adds that Thackeray never “dropped” this tone and kind of style altogether later. He does use it in the sequel, The Virginians. (In another place Trollope said it was the problem of inventing a language redolent of 1790s French that defeated him in part in La Vendee.)

Trollope prefers HE to VF because of what he takes to be the lack of cynicism in Esmond: its gravity of tone. Trollope keeps emphasizing also that this is a planned book and that is most unlike most of Thackeray’s. (He, Trollope, planned his books and it’s rare — Framley Parsonage is one place — he began to publish a book before he finished it even if after FP he wrote his books as if they were all going to be published in instalment chunks – that was a way of shaping his narrative. Trollope does — as he does most of the time everywhere – avoid discussing the deep sexuality of Thackeray’s Esmond which has the central male loving his mother and marrying her.

I should mention how much I liked Henry Esmond. We’ve read and discussed it twice (!) on Trollope19thCStudies and if anyone cares to you can find weekly postings on it there. Judy Geater put many of the original illustrations into an album. While it’s heavily indebted to Scott (17th century Scotland is part of it), it’s not about politics but private experience, inward. Andrew Sanders has a good chapter on this novel in his Victorian Historical Novel, 1840-1880.

Thackeray’s image of Beatrice come to womanhood

For the concluding three chapters (6 & 7, 8, and the conclusion), see comments.


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The bell Martha (1748-1782), white wife of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) used to summon Sarah Hemings (1773-1835, Sally), given to Sally by a dying Martha: Sally was among those who tended Martha during her death agon

Dear readers and friends,

I read on about what I find I must call Jefferson’s women and men after
finishing Kierner’s biography of Jefferson’s oldest white daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph , and watching and reading about the sources for the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala film, Jefferson in Paris. By chance during the more than 3 weeks it took me to read G-R’s Hemingses of Monticello Henry Wieneck’s Master of the Mountain was published and prompted yet another spate of denunciation of Jefferson.

The Hemingses of Monticello is an excellent, eloquently written, thoroughly researched, convincing (perhaps over-argued), and although rightly often quietly indignant and even angry (under control), judicious and yes balanced (sigh) book. It’s as much about slavery and the beginnings of US cultural life in the 18th century, the early colonization of Virginia, the life of Jefferson’s class of people as about members of the Jefferson, Wayles and Hemings kin. The name Hemings honors (as did her children), Elizabeth or Betty Hemings, the woman who was the mother of (at least) 4 wholly African children by a black man, 6 mulatto (as they were called) by John Wayles (Jefferson’s father-in-law) and 2 mulatto by two other white men. She is the patriarch of a large ensuing clan.

I found the book compulsive reading. It’s about American earlier history and race relations today, the origins of some of our excruciating norms and fault-lines. G-R writes eloquently & honestly, nothing falsely upbeat, bringing out fully what is often presented discreetly or not at all. Most compelling in her book were discussions of norms and social and economic circumstances limiting, making people then and now.

G-R has a complicated story to tell and carries several threads and purposes through at once, which I here separate out in order to summarize, epitomize (I will tell stories) and try to evaluate clearly. Her central problem is she must rely on too little documentary evidence, and tries to make up for this by too much speculation at length so the book occasionally becomes repetitive.

She tells of how slavery came to be institutionalized. It was not necessarily in the cards that the western hemisphere would be taken over to make money and grab land and found families on the basis of slavery. Indeed the British driving the French Acadians so brutally from Canada wanted to have non-slave labor in Nova Scotia. But it was too tempting to get someone for free and there was a long tradition before of slavery in the world (seen as mitigation of war — after all the person was not just murdered or as a woman raped and abused until she died), plus in Africa the very bad land for growing (two huge deserts) made it more economical and profitable for African tribes to go to war, enslave the losers and sell them.

The Western Hemisphere set up a different basis for slavery by using race as the central marker of the person who would be enslaved for life. To use the color of someone’s skin was to use a visible marker. Early on then there arose the problem of what happens when a white man fathers a child on a black woman. Is her child a slave? People went to court (black people who hired lawyers too) and those arguing not lost quickly because Roman law was used: that said that if the woman was a slave, her child was a slave in perpetuity. The law favored men having sex when they wanted and other men not losing their property by this. That was a bad day for black people and black women. The difference that one was a slave forever unless you could buy yourself out was the main different between indentured servants who were white and early on every effort was made to allow poor whites to despise and exploit black slaves.

To understand what happened to the Hemings as a result of being literally owned by by white people is the whites did all they could to deprive them of personhood. I own three books on and by Jefferson: Adrienne Koch, ed., introd., Life and selected Writings of Jefferson, Vol 5 of Jefferson the President (on his second term, 1805-9) by Dumas Malone, and Jefferson in Love (the lover letters of Jefferson and Maria Cosway), ed, introd. John P. Kaminksy. In each Jefferson is treated with unqualified respect. We are told of his humanity towards others, his compassionate respect, originality of thought, decency, his real strength of character. In only one (Kaminsky) are his slaves mentioned; in none is justice done to the centrality of his relationship with them.

Jefferson was humanly speaking their brother-in-law (through his first wife), uncle, cousin, of Elizabeth Hemings’ children and grandchildren, the father of 5 children by Sarah (Sally) Hemings. He kept all these people near him, educated the men to be skilled tradespeople, freed his cohort when he felt he had his his moneys’ worth of training them or at the end of his life (after they served him utterly when he needed them with his needs given all priority); and he freed his children by age 21. Sally lived her life from age 14 next to him; was always there for him until he died; she had her own room in his private quarters, was taught to read and write (she spoke French for a while at least); was dressed respectfully, was in effect freed and given wherewithal to live with dignity upon his death. But never once did he write her name down, never once acknowledge what was his relationship with her. He was (as far as we can know) never openly loving as a father to his children by her; he rarely referred to them in writing and then always in coded language.

There is no a single picture of anyone but Isaac Jefferson, the son of Ursula Grainger, who had been Jefferson’s wife’s wetnurse. Like Madison Hemings (Jefferson’s second son by Sally) Isaac was interviewed by a reporter and the resulting writing has come down to us as their memoirs. That’s significant. Most of the people were not photographed until granted the status of people and the right to be remembered.

It will be said he protected his relatives and (in effect) friends this way; given the virulence of hateful prejudice (especially violent because the whites of this culture were so horrible in behavior to these people), he and his white family were also at risk. But never once is there a discernible gesture left of his granting them full person-hood in his eyes. G-R will write that James when freed asked to be treated with dignity and reciprocal need and was not. She suggests that John Hemings found he could not create a self-respecting life of his own after Jefferson died. That the code was never to acknowledge their existence as people around them in writing. Jefferson did clearly treat them as people but quietly, silently and without admitting it. The Hemings are to be erased, not remembered.

And in acting this way he violated something profoundly important in bringing up and interacting with them. as far as we can tell his white relatives behaved similarly. This was his searing sin as chance and his own choices — especially the taking of Sally’s life as his to have — had given him the power over them to have done more right by them.


A chair carved for Jefferson by John Hemings, Elizabeth’s youngest son — his poignant life story emerges late in the book

We begin with Elizabeth Hemings (1735-1807, Betty), a mulatto (to use the term used then) woman. Her mother Parthena, a black woman was impregnated by an English captain named Hemings. We know about this by a memoir; he tried to buy her and her infant (his child) out of slavery but Francis Eppes, the owner was not selling. G-R says one reason that most freed slaves found in the US were mulattoes is that often white fathers did feel something for their children and did try to educate or free them occasionally. Parthena and Betty were sold to John Wayles. It seems that Betty was very very pretty — this was important — and also smart. As far as we can tell she was always a house servant. By the time she was in her early teens she was being impregnated by black men — it’s fair to say she was being used as livestock.

John Wayles’s life, character, and economic success is put before us: he was a brutal ruthless determined man, began life in England as working class, a servant and brought to the US and rose to become a lawyer — he had enough education to put out a sign, just. We see how he finagled and the people he had to deal with. When Betty was 18, he took over her body. He had three wives of his own beyond her. His first wife was an Eppes mother of Martha, Jefferson’s wife and when she married she took these half-brothers and sister (not called that of course) into Jefferson’s household and that’s how Jefferson came to own them all.

Elizabeth Hemings is called Wayles’s concubine until he died and then joined the Jefferson family. She was not his common law wife as slaves were outside the law; she did not (as her daughter did) live as a hidden substitute for a wife either. The norm then was to pretend white men didn’t take black women to bed with them as a regular thing. No one discussed it and it was done privately — at night, or discreetly. Jefferson differed in that he didn’t hide Sally in the way others did; at the same time he never wrote down anywhere that Sally was in effect a wife, her children were his & Elizabeth’s were related to his wife as half-siblings. This was part of the code.

The code was to erase black people. They didn’t matter. Who and what they were didn’t count. I see this as relevant to the way class and illegitimacy works today. We — many of us — many have come across cases of illegitimacy where no one writes it down and no one admits to it, sometimes where the child has as a father a kind of cover, the mother’s husband. Socially, as social knowledge, everyone knows who the father is (by time, circumstances, resemblances), but by not admitting to the reality you can hide behind the protections of legal fiction. It also renders powerless the woman involved (white too); the only person who deserves protection will be the biological father and the legal one.

What G-D’s research did was break through this code. She was aided by Jefferson who again did treat the Hemingses differently than his other slaves, not like free people, and not like his legitimate daughters and sons-in-law: whites inherited your property, were your companions in public social life. Black people were unacknowledged intimate companions whom Jefferson rewarded with education and skills and minimum coercion (he expected the system to do that for him). Some white fathers did treat their biological children more decently (like Jefferson) but since records are so sparse even for him(we are dependent on his farm books, these reinforced at long last by DNA studies), it’s very difficult to find instances to study in detail. That’s why the Jefferson and Hemingses are such a gold mine.

I want to stress the class bias too. Wayles was originally a servant who became a lawyer; I said he rose by force of brutal personality, by intelligence and luck. Again and again we see that he was quietly despised by those Virginians who arrived earlier and came from gentry in England. He defended a man, John Chiswell, accused of killing Robert Routledge during a quarrel in a Williamsburg tavern. Snide references to Wayles abound; he is forthright in his own defense; the business was brought to a halt when Chiswell killed himself but the documents show the class side of these world. Very like ours.

When Wayles died, it was against the law in Virginia to free slaves except in cases of “considerable merit” and the standard was high and had to be approved by a governor and council. If you tried to free the negro, the churchwardens of a parish could try to snatch the person and put him or her back into slavery. That’s interesting: it suggests some people did want to end slavery and free their slaves. To do so remember meant depriving your children of considerable amounts of property and people really do want to leave their children what they can. Here she does not mention buying your freedom.


Items Jefferson carried in his pocket

When Jefferson enters the picture, G-D takes time out to give his story. Kierner told too little of Jefferson. It’s important to know his mother was a Randolph. In Virginia this family is still not gone from high social life. We have Randolph-Macon college and Randolph college in mid-Virginia. Jane Randolph was Jefferson’s mother. It’s been said he didn’t love her, or was cold somehow towards her since few papers by him about her survive. G-D suggests they could have gone in a fire, but it is true he was far closer to his father. He was early on recognized as highly intelligent, capable. and educated accordingly. He was close to a sister, Jane. We are told of the men who became his mentors and his patrons and how they pushed him forward. How they knew Wayles from courtrooms and thus Jefferson meet Martha. He was very creative, loved to do mechanics, liked working with his hands, an architect himself and builder. He educated his sons, Beverley, Madison and Eston (by Sally) under the tutelage of of their uncle John Hemings (Elizabeth’s son) to be carpenters. Jefferson would walk round with a compass and other gadgets in his pockets. He read enormously,very verbal, loved music — as did his first wife.

Jefferson was ambitious and from his early days we see a radical thinker. He lost a case because he offended a judge. Samuel Howell brought suit to be freed from indentured servitude. As a punishment for having a child out of wedlock by a black man (get this), Howell’s white grandmother was fined and her child (Howell’s mother) was born out for servitude for 31 years (an average life span); Howell was born during this mother’s servitude. Jefferson worked with extreme diligence to search for any legal precedence or theory that might aid him. His brief included these words; “all men are born free and everyone comes into the world with a right to his person and to use it at his will. This is what is called personal liberty and is given him by the author of nature because it is necessary for his own sustenance.” We are not far from “inalienable rights” here. The judge cut him off in mid-sentence and the man lost the case. Jefferson gave Howell money and soon after Howell ran away and was never heard of again in that area of the US. On the legislation punishing women for having sex with someone of the other race, Jefferson wrote these strictures were to “deter women from the confusion of species which the legislature seems to have considered an evil.” Seems to have is a strongly sceptical note here. (pp. 100-1)

Before he married Jefferson wanted to life his status, and that’s why he began the first Monticello. He and Martha lived on the site in a small house, a sort of one gigantic room where they did everything. It’s apparent that they socialized and networked from the very beginning even in these small quarters. That’s why they needed servants. This house meant a lot to him, so too did spending money and living well. (Thus the later debts.) He did just love Paris and the time he spent there.

Jefferson did quickly single out Elizabeth’s sons (his wife’s half-brothers), Martin (by a black father), Robert and James to travel about, learn trades, hire themselves out and keep their money. He freed Robert and James during their lifetime – they were Sally’s close brothers. He freed all his children by Sally as young adults so they had their lives ahead of them. Three others he freed (more distantly related to him or them) he freed when they were older – and had “earned” it.

He treated black women as feminine, which by his standards means they were not to work in the field and do hard labor. They were house servants and encouraged to dress nice, ornament themselves — like white women. But since they were slaves, the real result of this was they ended up being sex partners of the men in the house. The place was rather like a stereotypical new Orleans: white males pursuing and attaching themselves to light-skinned black women. The norm for black women slaves was to refuse to recognize their ‘femininity” as European standards saw this — so you could work them hard in the fields, endlessly impregnate them and demand they get up and work the next day or so, sell their children and them at will. Jefferson remarked on European peasants how shocking it was that women worked in the fields. In Africa women worked in the ground too. But of course these women were not slaves, not subject to rape.

There is much sympathy for whoever is the underdog throughout. G-R does make us aware of how much his white wife Martha suffered from these yearly pregnancies and how she didn’t have to die at 35

It was a great grief to Jefferson and he really collapsed over it, went into weeks of depressive behavior – stayed alone, couldn’t sleep, would talk to himself. Partly he knew he was partly responsible for her death, since it was he who kept impregnating her. As she lay dying, she asked him not to remarry so as to not put another stepmother in charge of her two girls. This suggests her father’s second and third wives had not been good experiences. He didn’t remarry. Perhaps like Edward Austen and others I’ve come across Jefferson couldn’t see his way to use some form of contraception (other practices beyond full frontal intercourse were known and among others, used by Fanny and Alexandre d’Arblay) or keep away or control himself or treat his wife other than as someone he must use sexually to the full.

Jefferson had also suffered badly as governor. He had been unable to cope with the military part of his office (perhaps partly because he and Washington did not have sufficient funds to cover all the areas they had to) and was for decades afterwards harshly criticized for not using local military to fight Cornwallis in Virginia. When he didn’t, Richmond and then Charlottesville fell to the British and he had to flee and his family too. He had wanted to retire before this — again not understood at all by people of this generation, especially other men. These bouts of retirement recurred after the first wife’s death so they were not just the result of wanting to be with her and his family (his rationale).

G-R tells of how the Hemingses experienced the American revolution. She has some memoirs, oral traditions, and some papers Jefferson kept too, and a later interview of a great-grandson of the Hemingses’ Among other things, when Jefferson fled he left the house in the care of Martin, Elizabeth Hemingses’ oldest son by an unnamed black man. Martin stood up to Cornwallis and would not tell where Jefferson was at threat of death. This is sometimes interpreted as see the loyal black slave. It was actually in his nature, unflinching and aggressive and the kind of person who would rise to be the one in charge were he not have been enslaved. There’s one of this hide the treasures stories. Martin hid Jefferson’s silver and as the soldiers were coming in could not let another black man out in time so Caesar had to stay below for a couple of days and nights.

We see Robert and James, Elizabeth’s sons by the white Wayles, accompanying Jefferson and how they were educated.

Finally Elizabeth and her daughters did the work of the house and were the people who cared for the wife as she lay dying, the hard work of all this. They are never mentioned in white accounts as if they weren’t there, as if Martha did the work. No she ordered them to and probably didn’t closely supervise .That was Elizabeth’s job.. G-D tells of how (ironically/) Martha the white wife signaled out Sally before she died to give Sally a hand-bell as a memento. An ambiguous thing to us as it was this hand-bell Martha used to call Sally by. It does show a particular regard.

Revolving bookstand made in Monticello Joinery in later years

James Hemings, a Provincial Abroad (in Paris)

Not Jefferson, not Patsy his daughter. I’ve not mentioned that one real obstacle G-D has is lack of documentation. So in this chapter where she builds a picture of James’s life in Paris, 1783-87 (and beyond when Sally and Polly arrived, and Jefferson was having his affair with Maria Cosway and Patsy living at the convent still), she has to theorize and use what is known about black people in France in general in this era. (I had to do the same for Anne Finch in my chapter on her girlhood; I talked about what was done usually, what was done in the place and schools she might have gone to.). She suggests that James bought the cloth or clothes for clothes-making. She suggests it was an eye-opener to James to see Jefferson and his daughter outfitting themselves. They had been the high ideal in Virginia. The house probably startled him – and the varied interesting company (which dazzled Jefferson and he loved it.) She tells a couple of stories of other black people that have come into the records and documents, for example John Bologne, Le Chevalier St-George (circa 1745-1799), sometimes called “the black Mozart” (about whom I had heard a talk in an EC/ASECS conference at Penn State).

G-D succeeds in persuading us James Hemings had an almost equivalent experience of a white young man who goes on a grand tour. His eyes were opened, his experience enormously widened. His letters of introduction were the apprentice papers that took him to several palaces and several chief French chiefs. He had freedom of movement; Jefferson paid for “all found” (daily food, his lodging in Hotel of course, his clothes). The rest was his.

Did he have free movement? The trouble was racism even in France but this in conflict with “the freedom principle.” Some people wanted to keep blacks out of France (much fewer than in England, some 4-5,000 out of 30 million while in the UK it was 10,-20,000 out of 9 million) and others wanted to free them. The law demanded Jefferson register James’s presence; if James stayed more than 3 years, he was automatically freed. Jefferson got round that by not registering James and we have notes in his handwriting advising others to do the same.

But he did not need an escort of an older white person around as he had in Virginia. No one would beat him up, no one snatch him. Yet the one note we have beyond the apprenticeship noted in Jefferson’s diary is Jefferson’s note sent indirectly to James’s mother: “James is well. He has forgot how to speak English, and has not yet learnt to speak French.” A light kindly joke.

Jefferson’s spectacles and other items Sally kept and handed on to her children

Sally at the Hotel de Langea

Annette G-D says Jefferson did not want Sally to bring Polly; he wanted an older woman. Thus we cannot say he was looking to bring a concubine to Paris for himself. But once he came, that is what G-D thinks he after a little time made Sally into. Inoculated against small pox, while his daughters had typhus, put to stay with a friend she was apparently given nothing to do. G-R says the unusual thing about Sally is she’s never mentioned with any concreteness. He quarrels with Martin, comments on James, sends directives to just about every Hemings but Sally. She is suggestively in one place only said to be his “female chambermaid.” There’s the negative response of Abigail Adams: upon seeing the girl, she urged Jefferson to send her home as not of use, as a little non-effective or puzzling a a 16 year old too old. Abigail thought her 16; she was 14.

So Sally was taken in for the next four decades as Jefferson’s mistress. There are signs she was given French lessons and there are orders for very nice cloth for her. At another point she seems to be included in a group of servants sewing. Women sewed. She did stay in the house most of the time. She was not registered as a slave and this way he could keep her beyond the 3 years without having to worry she’d be free. The convent he put his daughters in freed slaves left there. Keeping them in the convent was also convenient for keeping them out of the way.

He has already begun his dalliance with Maria Cosway and their apparently famous correspondence has begun. I saw a copy of the letters for $1 so I’ll be reading that slender book soon.

For Sally we may postulate she spent time with James down in the kitchen, that she saw and enjoyed what was available through windows. Her life circumscribed like that of her half-nieces, Patsy and Polly. I am struck by the use of euphemism for her in later accounts (which G-R uses): they remind me of the way Eliza Austen’s mother, Philadelphia Austen is discussed as well as the probable illegitimacy of Eliza. Gender makes all women one when the male is powerful and gentry educated.

she does seem to have gotten an allowance — like James. Disposable income. When Jefferson did not need her, she was free to wander about — had to be careful that’s all mainly because she was not registered. (Had no papers you see). (My own comment: there is no record of hats made; I wish there had been.) Oral tradition in Hemings family was she talked of Paris to her dying day; made a huge impression, perhaps like Jefferson himself a very happy time for her. We may even imagine them coming together if not in love as not equals, but both having this good time, older man, younger girl, after all movie not so wrong

Thomas, James, Sally and Patsy go home

Photo of Monticello, 1890

Jeffferson returned to the US thinking he would return soon; he was asked to be Washington’s secretary of state and he could not turn that down — if only for the sakes of others who were attached to him. He also persuaded James and Sally to return with him. Martha was thwarted in love and went perhaps expecting a continued debutante life. Her father married her off within 2 months, to the son of a friend.

She persuades me that the explanation for Sally going home when she could have been freed, and in the paragraph pointed this out to Jefferson, is the relationship was one of trust, affection, and satisfying to both, very much. She had not been raped, though her position shows she could not easily have said no. Once there he treated her very differently than just about all known relationships of white masters and black concubines: she was set up in Monticello, in the house, in the central quarters and lived there (one stray remarks shows this. When there was another illness, she was not called upon to nurse (that’s the second stray phrase). He depended upon her to be there; he wanted her the way a man wants a stay-at-home wife who he is congenial with and comes home to rest by. There are such relationships.

G-R also tells by contrast of terrible relationships: one Celia, age 14 also, this one a rape by a master, put in a cabin of sorts, and raped regularly until she murdered him, burnt his body, and gave the ashes to a grandson. We know about this because there was a court case and interestingly her side was told (by an abolitionist leaning lawyer). She was hung.

She tells of ordinary ones we can track — the white woman kept away or made to work with the other slaves, even if her children were treated better or eventually freed. Very common the older man taking the pubescent girl.

And she tells of Jefferson’s white women. His daughter married off at not quite 17. Now we are told more frankly of Martha’s husband’s violence, and how he came to be over-shone by Jefferson and Martha as much Jefferson’s non-sexual wife as he was Thomas Mann Randolph’s sexual one. Even if they didn’t get along after a short time, her life was one of yearly pregnancies. The girl Nancy shifted over young to a Randolph branch who became the mistress of Randolph’s cousin and the infanticide. Especially the brutality of Martha’s oldest daughter, Anne’s husband, how he beat her and impregnated her to death and nothing much done to stop him. Anne too married off at 16. G-R quotes Kierner to the effect that Martha, Jefferson’s daughter did after that one marry her daughters off much later — or not at all. The non-marrying becomes almost a deliberate choice or option for Martha’s daughters (though at the end they did have to open a school).


With Sally settled into Monticello, Thomas Jefferson is off to New York with her brothers. He is going to be secretary of State to Washington and takes up residence a couple of blocks away from Washington. Their long journey in the snow by carriage. Robert has been spending a lot of time away from his “master” and continues to be given “general passes” (which were frowned on by other whites). He had married a woman named Dolly while Jefferson was in Paris and shortly after they arrive in NY he leaves to visit her. He never asked Jefferson to buy her as Jefferson did buy the spouses of other slaves. He apparently preferred to keep her and his life apart, and he pretty quickly also began to hire himself out. He seems to have led a remarkably independent life — for a slave.

He never ran away. Jefferson’s rule was to sell all slaves who ran away and could be brought back. Not before flogging them harshly and telling the person who bought them not to keep them beyond immediate need but sell again. Not kindly there, was he?

James settled down to being chef. In the film Jefferson’s attitude is voiced: he felt that James owed him a couple of years of being a chef and to train others before he freed him. He was again given an allowance. Both NYC and Philadelphia were places where the nature of liberty and freedom were part of life and ardent discourse. NYC had a sizable number of black people, some free. The talk was a spillover of the French revolution going on just now — as well as reaction to what was happening in England (strong repressive measures as well as war and depression).

Jefferson also began to have usual illnesses, psychological in origin these, migraines. James is mentioned each and every day of the diary; it was he who went and got Jefferson his medicine. She makes the point that James and Sally Hemings probably knew Jefferson intimately as well perhaps better than anyone else.

High Street, Philadelphia, 1799: James lived on this street in the 1790s

But soon the capital was moved to Philadelphia and so Jefferson and now 4 servants (2 non slaves) moved there. He felt he was going to be permanent enough so Jefferson never seems to have moved anywhere without full scale renovation. He began this – always the big library and something like 89 boxes of books. (I begin to identify though not with the renovation and moving.)

G-R presents a much more positive view of Jefferson than she could have; her purpose was to persuade as many readers as possible to take an interest in, respect the lives of the Hemingses and that’s served best by judiciousness.

In Paris, there are often conflicts between servants and also would be between slaves and servants and from some of these emerge information and insight into James Hemings’s life — because white people left documents. One French servant’s wife, Seche, alleged another indulged in “sodomy” and that he loved men. Petit demanded Seche’s wife get out. Since Jefferson’s longer relationship was with Petit, and he needed Petit’s services, more the Seches had to leave. We have a letter from Jefferson showing him using a confidential direct personal note with Petit. Petit refers in a letter back to “Gimme” (James) and “Salait” (Sally). Jefferson did not hing about this taboo behavior — as he never appeared to try to punish or ostracize his son-in-law’s sister, Nancy when her brother-in-law impregnated her and participated in an infanticide.

This keeping his cool is characteristic of Jefferson. There exists a correspondence from these years between a black free man, Benjamin Banneker, from Maryland; Banneker presents an almanac to Jefferson who write back with great respect and sends the almanac to Condorcet and then helps Banneket get a place (job) as an assistant in surveying land for the Federal District (p. 475). This was going beyond just courtesy and helping quietly.
Now 18 years later it was charged that Jefferson helped Banneker in his superior almanac and then became a target of those who hated his support for the French revolution, his mild anti-slavery and when Banneker and his friends printed Jefferson’s correspondence with this man, Jefferson simply kept quiet about it (p 477)

G-R suggests at the time of the original correspondence Jefferson might have told James Hemings about it.

Jefferson had no problem in offering common courtesies to black people in public. He once rebuked a grandchild for not bowing back to a black man who bowed to them in the streets (p 477). He referred to servants as Mrs, so Henrietta a washerwoman was called Mrs Gardiner , p 479. Things like this count. A lot. There’s a stray remark by someone later on (oral tradition) that Sally had her own room apart from Jefferson at Monticello. Her own space.
I’ve been snubbed and know how much it hurts. I can’t bear when someone calls me by my last name without the title; it’s disrespectful, abrasive. It would’ve cost so little to the person doing the snubbing is what I keep my eyes on. But to have given her a room of her own goes beyond this.

The story of how the three black men who were so close to Jefferson finally left him — were freed – is ambiguous too. The chapter is called Exodus (the allusion to the Bible). Mary, Elizabeth Hemings’s oldest daughter by a black man was sold to Colonel Bell, the white man who had become her substitute husband. Jefferson believed all women ought to be under the control of a white man. But he only sold with her her younger children; he did let all her family go, her “older” children, including Joseph Fossert then 12 and his sister, Betsy, 9, stayed on as slaves. Joseph was a talented artisan. To understand this takes a lot of trouble since the language used to describe it in the letter is so coded.

Elizabeth’s oldest son, Martin, called “the fierce son of Betty Hemings” by Lucy Stanton (a later reporter), the man who held Jefferson’s house together while Jefferson fled during his time as governor during the revolution, quarrel, and Jefferson writes that he will sell Martin at Martin’s request to a man Martin approves of — Jefferson’s tone is of one furious. In another note (earlier the selling of Martin is referred to as the equivalent of selling a chariot). But in fact this did not happen (tempers cooled?), Martin stayed on in Monticello for 2 months and then went to NYC (or DC). He was quietly freed and heard of no more in the documents.

The second son, Robert was just as bad. When the quarrel occurs Jefferson says James is “abandoning” him. It’s been told that a deal was worked out where Robert’s wife’s owner bought Robert and then Robert from his saving re-pay Stras and thus be free. Again Jefferson felt this was somehow dumped on him unexpectedly; that he had expected more years of services, and you see hurt and anger. A kind of bitter lament referring to what he had taught Robert (including barbering). Jefferson thought one could build emotional capital with a slave but he does not realize at no point can Robert really assert his identity or what he is or choose freely. All is given and he is to be grateful; much is demanded and he to be quiet.

A tense struggle occurred at the end of Jefferson’s time with James show Jefferson expecting reciprocation from James and (like many powerful people who are higher than you say) not understanding how James must’ve seen the relationship. Jefferson’s notes about James have phrases like his “desiring to befriend” James. Jefferson wants James to stay on as cook after they go home from Philadelphia after the ordeal of his time as secretary of state.
Elizabeth’s youngest daughter, much younger than any of the others is sold to James Munroe.

Elizabeth herself retired to a cottage much as Sally did at the end of her life. It was an arrangement which freed her in fact but where the Jefferson carried on paying her expenses and protecting her from “snatching.”

The analogy G-R uses much earlier is a propos: Baldwin says that when someone would give him a small version of what Baldwin felt others (whites) got much bigger how it embittered him; it was not a reconciler. I understand that too. You are not grateful. G-R “they did not want to give their very lives to him any more than he would have wanted to give his life to them.” The shows of devotion while slaves are not to be taken at face value and Jefferson could not understand this. He was also unusually powerful and respected and they knew this. He could and would help him. but to be with him was “emasculating” too says G-R — as it was for Martha’s husband, the son-in-law.

The one person who did not leave was Sally. Her decision to return to France permanently fixed her in his orbit until he died.

Poplar Forest, Jefferson’s other plantation, a retreat for all, black and white, late in Jefferson’s life

Continued in comments.


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