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John Malkovich as the Le Baron du Charlus and Vincent Perez as Morel (Time Regained,1999)

Friends and readers,

For the last day I thought I would tell of Jim’s books, his favorites and those (insofar as I can tell) that influenced him as a boy, had an impact on his memory and outlook and that he kept reading.

As a boy, Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows (above all, as he’d quote from it,” there’s nothing better than messing about in boats,” or words to this effect; one summer afternoon in London we went to Alan Bennett’s play from it). Surtee’s Jorrocks Jaunts and Jollities (I have a 19th century copy with illustrations), P.G. Wodehouse (yes, he was amused when a teenage boy and called the set we have gay male books). He’d graduated to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by his 5th or 6th form– I bought him a beautiful 5 volume set as my first present to him shortly after we married.

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As a man: he loved poetry Empson, Graves, Larkin, Auden, e.e. cummings; Basil Bunting (he’d quote snatches of poems from these writers), Cavafy, Anthony Hecht, Clive James. Individual authors he never tired of and had a lot of their books, Bernard Shaw, the plays and theater criticism, Oscar Wilde, all of Proust (he had gotten up to the fifth book, starting in French but switching to English; his favorite movie was Time Regained), Anthony Powell (how much he would have enjoyed Perry Anderson’s long review in praise of Powell in the latest LRB, comparing him to Proust), and some 18th century favorites like Samuel Johnson.


Bernard Shaw

Very fat tomes of history early medieval, archeaology books (JHawkes), philosophical books on war. He would insist he didn’t like the novel that much and preferred novels of the French school, books like the one where there is no “e” (The Void; I remember him reading Life: A User’s Manual, from “l’OULIPO” writers.


Signature Theater production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (Sondheim was Jim’s favorite composer of musicals — I bought him the 2 songbooks 2 Christmases in a row, Finishing the Hat, Look I made Hat)

Favorite movies: by Eric Rohmer and Bergman


In the early 1970s Jim and I went to the Thalia to see Bergman’s Magic Flute — I cried for joy and pain – he loved opera too

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A thrush in the syringa sings

Hunger ruffles my wings, fear,
lust, familiar things

Death thrusts hard. My sons
by hawk’s beak, by stones,
trusting weak wings
by cat and weasel, die.

Thunder smothers the sky.
From a shaken bush I
list familiar things
fear, hunger, lust.

O gay thrush! — Bunting (who said he would not travel outside Manhattan until he had thoroughly done Central Park and after decades he was no where near … , a favored poem from a book I bought for Jim for another Christmas )

Ellen remembering on his behalf

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Judy Dench as Paulina in Kenneth Branagh’s recent production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale

I, that please some, try all, both joy and terror
Of good and bad, that makes and unfolds error,
Now take upon me, in the name of Time,
To use my wings — Winter’s Tale, Act 4, Time

I’ve reached Day 7/10 of books that influenced me, had a discernible impact. Since I last wrote on this blog, I’ve listed Days 5: Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (together with Bronte’s Jane Eyre, DuMaurier’s King’s General, and Austen’s Mansfield Park); and Day 6: Alcott’s Little Women (together with Traver’s Mary Poppins in the Park, and the Nancy Drew series)

When I was around 13 and in ninth grade, the teacher took the class to Stratford, Connecticut to see the Shakespeare plays performed there. The play was The Winter’s tale. Below a picture of my old paperback and above recently Judy Dench as Paulina:

However conventional or inadequate, this kind of production might have seemed to me later in life, not when I was 13. I was absorbed, riveted by the first three acts (Paulina for strong tough lines: “Look down and see what death is doing”), entranced at Act four, loved the exquisitely beautiful poetry:

What you do
Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet,
I’d have you do it ever; when you sing,
I’d have you buy and sell so; so give alms;
Pray so; and, for the ordering your affairs,
To sing them too: when you do dance, I wish you
A wave o’ the sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that; move still, still so, and own
No other function …

I was startled moved at the fifth act beating death, ending in tears.

O, she’s warm!
If this be magic, let it be an art
Lawful as eating.

I just reveled in the whole thing. The queen speaking up for herself so eloquently (said to be Anne Boleyn in the play, but understood as Katherine of Aragon), Paulina, Autolycus, the god of thievery. I went home and read it and loved Time’s speech, and parts of it come to mind now and again. I bought a long playing record of this play with John Gielgud as Leontes, Wendy Hiller as Hermione. I’ve loved Shakespeare’s plays and poetry ever after.


Keely Hawes as Widow Grey in Henry VI (The Hollow Crown)

At age 18 finally in college, I took two summer courses where we read Shakespeare: tragedies, comedies, histories and I read some 18 of the plays; I found myself as a older teenager going to college when I went to Shakespeare in Central Park. In graduate school at first I wanted to major in Shakespeare, and write my dissertation on Cymbeline. Jim and I used to go to Shakespeare plays whenever possible, I do so today. His second present to me was a facsimile edition of the first folio. Eventually I read all 37 of them, quite a number numerous times, I went every summer to the park for all the plays they did. I loved old fashioned close-reading studies of Shakespeare, and all sorts of criticism from all angles.


Recently Lindsay Duncan as Duchess of York in Richard II (The Hollow Crown)

Since then I’ve taught The Winter’s Tale many times; I used to say it was my favorite Shakespeare play; it and Austen’s Sense & Sensibility on a desert Island and I’d need no more. Favorites for me beyond The Winter’s Tale to teach: Richard II, Henry IV Part One, As You Like It, Hamlet. Last year there was a Future Learn on Shakespeare, 9 sessions of lectures by Jonathan Bate! I re-watched and re-listened. Another Future Learn was on different productions of Love’s Labor’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing (aka according to this production Love’s Labour’s Won) as twin plays at the RSC — it had clips from rehearsals and from earlier productions. Recently I watched The Hollow Crown series, loved the latest King Lear with Anthony Hopkins. Just never tire of the plays and sonnets. I go to every season at the Folger, all the HD screenings. Yesterday Izzy and I at Wolf Trap saw Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, just another of the countless sequels and variations. The man comes through all the different approaches, he’s there.


Jim’s present to me on our second anniversary was a facsimile copy of the first folio (his first was a copy of the 1924 edition of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility)

I read his poetry too. One of my favorite lyrics poems (repeated to myself in summer especially) is from Cymbeline:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o’ the great;
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The scepter, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.

No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renownèd be thy grave!

Many of the sonnets speak to us through the Renaissance idioms and metaphors. This is one of my many favorites whose plain speaking has the raw edge of a truth I recognize


Pennie Downie as Gertrude in a recent great filmed Hamlet (David Tennant playing Hamlet)

Then hate me when thou wilt, if ever, now,
Now while the world is bent my deeds to cross;
Join with the spite of fortune, make me bow,
And do not drop in for an after-loss:
Ah, do not, when my heart hath ’scaped this sorrow,
Come in the rearward of a conquered woe.
Give not a windy night a rainy morrow,
To linger out a purposed overthrow.
If thou wilt leave me, do not leave me last,
When other petty griefs have done their spite
But in the onset come; so shall I taste
At first the very worst of fortune’s might;
And other strains of woe, which now seem woe,
Compared with loss of thee will not seem so —

Oh do not drop in for an after-loss.

Following this meme, I find I am writing my autobiography through crucial and early books. I’ve included some favorite actresses I’ve seen in Shakespeare plays lately.


Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (John Singer Sargeant)

Ellen

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Illustration from the original 1933 edition

It is universally admitted that the family from which the subject of this memoir claims descent is one of the greatest antiquity — Woolf’s opening sentence, much Austen allusion in this fun book.

What is not biography — is nothing at all — Stanislaw Brzozowski

Dear friends and readers,

We might regard this as an unusual foremother poet blog for Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61). One of the people class asked me if I would recommend this as a biography. Yes, to start with. Perhaps for Mary Russell Mitford (1787-1855) too.


From the same edition, the way photographs of Vita Sackville-West dressed in costumes of different ages are scattered throughout Orlando

This and last week I read and discussed it with a class of older adults. We had a very good time with it. We discussed it as a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning through the eyes of her dog (anticipating Margaret Forster’s Lady’s Maid, about how EBB’s life impinged on, used up and was seen through Wilson, her lady’s maid). Thus it’s about the life experience of a 19th century woman attempting to be a serious writer and feminist and ruled over, contained by men and imprisoning conventions. It is also her ripost to The Barretts of Wimpole Street (as Mantel’s Wolf Hall is hers to Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons).

As the viewpoint is most of the time a cocker spaniel’s and every attempt is to make see and feel the world as a dog might — smell, feel, emotions of loyalty, attachment, sheer joy in bodily exercise. Why not call it an original modern animal study, about the marginalized, beings not thought worthy commemorating — as not sufficiently representing the general experience of men. Remember too the classic Canadian animal story, Beautiful Joe, and at the same time Darwin’s The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, and the great animal studies by women, Goodall, Galdikas, Fosse and Sy Montgomery.

Flush is also Pinka, a dog given Woolf and Leonard by Vita Sackville-West who figures so centrally in Orlando. Pinka became Leonard’s dog and was much loved.

It ought to be listed with the other original modernist biographies discussed by Andre Maurois. It fits his criteria: artful — it has exquisitely alive description all psychologized through the presence of a consciousness attributed to Flush. It is scientific, with documentable proof. Letters the life-blood of this form are its basis: EBB and Browning’s courtship correspondence as it’s come to be called. The autobiography of Miss Mitford is here. A complex presence in complex circumstances. Flush learns to discount hierarchy. He learns just around the solidity and middle class order, luxury beauty of the houses, lie dangerous slums, people waiting to prey on “innocent” men, come from say from the ballet.
Identification: the writer is reliving some secret need or desire. EBB’s illness began in Torquay (and Cornwall meant much to Woolf); she too needed to overthrow her father, both poets. Much fictionalizing: Flush’s dreams, his talk with other dogs, but also utterly convincing as he (dramatic irony) slowly lives through what we know is about to happen. Women poets, it’s been shown, identify with small animals.

And for its beauty of style, which is as lovely as Orlando.

There are five acts, from which I quote to convey something of the experience of the book.

1. Three Mile Cross: Flush’s genealogy, heritage (broadly satiric and amusing), a description of his younger years, of his attachment to Queen Anne. This includes a brilliant sketch of Miss Mitford herself, to whom Flush was much attached

[from his life with Miss Mitford] Since the Mitfords had fallen on evil days–Kerenhappock was the only servant–the chair-covers were made by Miss Mitford herself and of the cheapest material; the most important article of furniture seems to have been a large table; the most important room a large greenhouse–it is unlikely that Flush was surrounded by any of those luxuries, rainproof kennels, cement walks, a maid or boy attached to his person, that would now be accorded a dog of his rank. But he throve; he enjoyed with all the vivacity of his temperament most of the pleasures and some of the licences natural to his youth and sex. Miss Mitford, it is true, was much confined to the cottage. She had to read aloud to her father hour after hour; then to play cribbage; then, when at last he slumbered, to write and write and write at the table in the greenhouse in the attempt to pay their bills and settle their debts. But at last the longed-for moment would come. She thrust her papers aside, clapped a hat on her head, took her umbrella and set off for a walk across the fields with her dogs. Spaniels are by nature sympathetic; Flush, as his story proves, had an even excessive appreciation of human emotions. The sight of his dear mistress snuffing the fresh air at last, letting it ruffle her white hair and redden the natural freshness of her face, while the lines on her huge brow smoothed themselves out, excited him to gambols whose wildness was half sympathy with her own delight. As she strode through the long grass, so he leapt hither and thither, parting its green curtain. The cool globes of dew or rain broke in showers of iridescent spray about his nose; the earth, here hard, here soft, here hot, here cold, stung, teased and tickled the soft pads of his feet. Then what a variety of smells interwoven in subtlest combination thrilled his nostrils; strong smells of earth, sweet smells of flowers; nameless smells of leaf and bramble; sour smells as they crossed the road; pungent smells as they entered bean-fields. But suddenly down the wind came tearing a smell sharper, stronger, more lacerating than any–a smell that ripped across his brain stirring a thousand instincts, releasing a million memories–the smell of hare, the smell of fox. Off he flashed like a fish drawn in a rush through water further and further. He forgot his mistress; he forgot all humankind. He heard dark men cry “Span! Span!” He heard whips crack. He raced; he rushed. At last he stopped bewildered; the incantation faded; very slowly, wagging his tail sheepishly, he trotted back across the fields to where Miss Mitford stood shouting “Flush! Flush! Flush!” and waving her umbrella …

How distraught he was when she sold him (she couldn’t afford him) and the door slams in his face.

II: The back bedroom: this intensely limited life. Flush learns to live in close confinement. He gives up much for the love of EBB.

Why, Miss Barrett wondered, did Flush tremble suddenly, and whimper and start and listen? She could hear nothing; she could see nothing; there was nobody in the room with them. She could not guess that Folly, her sister’s little King Charles, had passed the door; or that Catiline, the Cuba bloodhound, had been given a mutton-bone by a footman in the basement. But Flush knew; he heard; he was ravaged by the alternate rages of lust and greed. Then with all her poet’s imagination Miss Barrett could not divine what Wilson’s wet umbrella meant to Flush; what memories it recalled, of forests and parrots and wild trumpeting elephants; nor did she know, when Mr. Kenyon stumbled over the bell-pull, that Flush heard dark men cursing in the mountains; the cry, “Span! Span!” rang in his ears, and it was in some muffled, ancestral rage that he bit him.

Flush was equally at a loss to account for Miss Barrett’s emotions. There she would lie hour after hour passing her hand over a white page with a black stick; and her eyes would suddenly fill with tears; but why? “Ah, my dear Mr. Horne,” she was writing. “And then came the failure in my health . . . and then the enforced exile to Torquay . . . which gave a nightmare to my life for ever, and robbed it of more than I can speak of here; do not speak of that anywhere. Do not speak of that, dear Mr. Horne.” But there was no sound in the room, no smell to make Miss Barrett cry. Then again Miss Barrett, still agitating her stick, burst out laughing. She had drawn “a very neat and characteristic portrait of Flush, humorously made rather like myself,” and she had written under it that it “only fails of being an excellent substitute for mine through being more worthy than I can be counted.” What was there to laugh at in the black smudge that she held out for Flush to look at? He could smell nothing; he could hear nothing. There was nobody in the room with them.

III: The Hooded man. The coming of Browning: Woolf imagines Flush imagining Browning. Flush is there, looking on, and participates in EBB’s erotic liberation, it will threaten the status quo, the 8th of July – we can’t know how hurt the dog was, but he is stolen, snatched, kidnapped (Tuesday 1 September), at the book’s end. Both chapters conclude with Flush distraught before human power. Browning did wear lemon-colored gloves (dandyish).

But one night early in January 1845 the postman knocked. Letters fell into the box as usual. Wilson went downstairs to fetch the letters as usual. Everything was as usual–every night the postman knocked, every night Wilson fetched the letters, every night there was a letter for Miss Barrett. But tonight the letter was not the same letter; it was a different letter. Flush saw that, even before the envelope was broken. He knew it from the way that Miss Barrett took it; turned it; looked at the vigorous, jagged writing of her name. He knew it from the indescribable tremor in her fingers, from the impetuosity with which they tore the flap open, from the absorption with which she read. He watched her read. And as she read he heard, as when we are half asleep we hear through the clamour of the street some bell ringing and know that it is addressed to us, alarmingly yet faintly, as if someone far away were trying to rouse us with the warning of fire, or burglary, or some menace against our peace and we start in alarm before we wake–so Flush, as Miss Barrett read the little blotted sheet, heard a bell rousing him from his sleep; warning him of some danger menacing his safety and bidding him sleep no more. Miss Barrett read the letter quickly; she read the letter slowly; she returned it carefully to its envelope. She too slept no more.

Again, a few nights later, there was the same letter on Wilson’s tray. Again it was read quickly, read slowly, read over and over again. Then it was put away carefully, not in the drawer with the voluminous sheets of Miss Mitford’s letters, but by itself. Now Flush paid the full price of long years of accumulated sensibility lying couched on cushions at Miss Barrett’s feet. He could read signs that nobody else could even see. He could tell by the touch of Miss Barrett’s fingers that she was waiting for one thing only–for the postman’s knock, for the letter on the tray. She would be stroking him perhaps with a light, regular movement; suddenly–there was the rap–her fingers constricted; he would be held in a vice while Wilson came upstairs. Then she took the letter and he was loosed and forgotten.

IV: Whitechapel. Now here we have the important kidnapping and the elopement: the London outside that upper middle class: Taylor the head. Flush like a hostage in a concentration camp. Filthy, bad food, no water, others dying around him. Each day added on. He fears for his life.

He lay, not daring even to whimper, hour after hour. Thirst was his worst suffering; but one sip of the thick greenish water that stood in a pail near him disgusted him; he would rather die than drink another. Yet a majestic greyhound was drinking greedily. Whenever the door was kicked open he looked up. Miss Barrett–was it Miss Barrett? Had she come at last? But it was only a hairy ruffian, who kicked them all aside and stumbled to a broken chair upon which he flung himself. Then gradually the darkness thickened. He could scarcely make out what shapes those were, on the floor, on the mattress, on the broken chairs. A stump of candle was stuck on the ledge over the fireplace. A flare burnt in the gutter outside. By its flickering, coarse light Flush could see terrible faces passing outside, leering at the window. Then in they came, until the small crowded room became so crowded that he had to shrink back and lie even closer against the wall. These horrible monsters–some were ragged, others were flaring with paint and feathers–squatted on the floor; hunched themselves over the table. They began to drink; they cursed and struck each other. Out tumbled, from the bags that were dropped on the floor, more dogs–lap dogs, setters, pointers with their collars still on them; and a giant cockatoo that flustered and dashed its way from corner to corner shrieking “Pretty Poll,” “Pretty Poll,” with an accent that would have terrified its mistress, a widow in Maida Vale. Then the women’s bags were opened, and out were tossed on to the table bracelets and rings and brooches such as Flush had seen Miss Barrett wear and Miss Henrietta. The demons pawed and clawed them; cursed and quarrelled over them. The dogs barked. The children shrieked, and the splendid cockatoo–such a bird as Flush had often seen pendant in a Wimpole Street window–shrieked “Pretty Poll! Pretty Poll!” faster and faster until a slipper was thrown at it and it flapped its great yellow-stained dove-grey wings in frenzy. Then the candle toppled over and fell. The room was dark. It grew steadily hotter and hotter; the smell, the heat, were unbearable; Flush’s nose burnt; his coat twitched. And still Miss Barrett did not come.

We see the men and Browning too want her not to pay the kidnapper and argue, it is encouraging black mail. What emerges is they don’t care about the dog, the individual life. We see the courage and pluck it took Charlotte to drive away by herself and retrieve her (by that time) beloved dog.

We are told that Flush never mastered the principles of human society – neither have I — real debate over what this phrase means – is it principle or a life and lives that matter. I’m on the side of live and banks too, and so as EBB and Wilson, the climax of he book and prelude to elopement and Flush’s unsentimental education; what he wants is clean water – but there is now another world out there Flush knows about – a third world.

How slowly the dog moves from attack to attachment towards Browning; he notices the boots set aside; Miss EBB is gone all morning and returns exhausted; then the marriage in London and escape.

V: Italy. This is a long chapter which includes Flush’s re-juvenation, and so thethe birth of Robert whom they called Pen and the return to England and back is so intensely important. -– a new life, the new physical place, the new culture, new weather. Here dogs are different but not differentiated by status and class.

Flush’s new found independence, — they are all liberated now, her sewing heralds the coming of the baby (in life EBB had something like 4 miscarriages. Flush resumes the very happy adult dog life in Italy that he had with Miss Mitford — until he encounters flees. His hair must be shaved.

Flush had lain upon human knees and heard men’s voices. His flesh was veined with human passions; he knew all grades of jealousy, anger and despair. Now in summer he was scourged by fleas. [7] With a cruel irony the sun that ripened the grapes brought also the fleas. “. . . Savonarola’s martyrdom here in Florence,” wrote Mrs. Browning, “is scarcely worse than Flush’s in the summer.” Fleas leapt to life in every corner of the Florentine houses; they skipped and hopped out of every cranny of the old stone; out of every fold of old tapestry; out of every cloak, hat and blanket. They nested in Flush’s fur. They bit their way into the thickest of his coat. He scratched and tore. His health suffered; he became morose, thin and feverish. Miss Mitford was appealed to. What remedy was there, Mrs. Browning wrote anxiously, for fleas? Miss Mitford, still sitting in her greenhouse at Three Mile Cross, still writing tragedies, put down her pen and looked up her old prescriptions–what Mayflower had taken, what Rosebud. But the fleas of Reading die at a pinch. The fleas of Florence are red and virile. To them Miss Mitford’s powders might well have been snuff. In despair Mr. and Mrs. Browning went down on their knees beside a pail of water and did their best to exorcise the pest with soap and scrubbing-brush. It was in vain. At last one day Mr. Browning, taking Flush for a walk, noticed that people pointed; he heard one man lay a finger to his nose and whisper “La rogna” (mange). As by this time “Robert is as fond of Flush as I am,” to take his walk of an afternoon with a friend and to hear him thus stigmatised was intolerable. Robert, his wife wrote, “wouldn’t bear it any longer.” Only one remedy remained, but it was a remedy that was almost as drastic as the disease itself. However democratic Flush had become and careless of the signs of rank, he still remained what Philip Sidney had called him, a gentleman by birth. He carried his pedigree on his back. His coat meant to him what a gold watch inscribed with the family arms means to an impoverished squire whose broad acres have shrunk to that single circle. It was the coat that Mr. Browning now proposed to sacrifice. He called Flush to him and, “taking a pair of scissors, clipped him all over into the likeness of a lion.”

As Robert Browning snipped, as the insignia of a cocker spaniel fell to the floor, as the travesty of quite a different animal rose round his neck, Flush felt himself emasculated, diminished, ashamed. What am I now? he thought, gazing into the glass. And the glass replied with the brutal sincerity of glasses, “You are nothing.” He was nobody. Certainly he was no longer a cocker spaniel. But as he gazed, his ears bald now, and uncurled, seemed to twitch. It was as if the potent spirits of truth and laughter were whispering in them. To be nothing–is that not, after all, the most satisfactory state in the whole world?

Note the last sentiment. We are hearing Woolf.

At book’s close there is the joke Nero jumped out of the window because he couldn’t take those angry silences between Carlyle and Jane. In later years Woolf writes of this Jane and her relationship with Geraldine (Jewsbury) brilliantly.

VI: The end: Coda: Flush’s old age – Flush rightly suspects as frauds the new spiritual mediums Elizabeth enjoys. His care for her is too concerned, too for real care. Here we pick up on how Robert Browning and EBB had their strains. Flush’s aging, tiring, and then disappearance from the record. He predeceased her. The book ends with EBB’s poem to him. Alas, over-written:

You see this dog. It was but yesterday
I mused, forgetful of his presence here,
Till thought on thought drew downward tear on tear;
When from the pillow, where wet-cheeked I lay,
A head as hairy as Faunus, thrust its way
Right sudden against my face,—two golden-clear
Large eyes astonished mine,—a drooping ear
Did flap me on either cheek, to dry the spray!
I started first, as some Arcadian
Amazed by goatly god in twilight grove:
But as my bearded vision closelier ran
My tears off, I knew Flush, and rose above
Surprise and sadness; thanking the true Pan,
Who, by low creatures, leads to heights of love.

Flush was buried beneath Casa Guidi; EBB’s remains are in the Protestant cemetery in Florence, and Browning’s in Westminster Abbey. Why is Flush’s life not set next to Maurois’s of Shelley, Scott’s of Zelide, Zweig of Mary Queen of Scots (just as deeply dreamed). Because “who is interested in a dog?” said another class member.

Woolf’s delightful annotations and notes follow: Wilson’s life caught here. Lily (fell in love with a guardsman who did not stay true to her. But marry she must so she chose a man-servant in the Browning’s house. No document about what happened to him. In later years she takes care of one of Browning’s ancient poet friends; very later as widow living with Pen. The safest thing was to be loyal. Why are there no servants’ lives in the ODNB?

So I propose to add Virginia Woolf’s brilliant tour-de-force of a modernist biography, Flush: A Biography to the canon. 1842-1858? I liken it to Anthony Trollope’s wrongly neglected When the Mastiffs went to Iceland, a political social and ethnographic study disguised a jeux d’esprit travel book.

Ellen

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The first modern biographer, Lytton Strachey and his subject, Queen Victoria when young

Friends,

I’ve been thinking about biography all my life; that’s because I’ve been reading biography all my life. To prove to you how odd I am the first books meant for older readers (meaning post-childhood) I remember taking out of the adult library on Sutphin Boulevard (in the southeast Bronx), at the time (in my child’s memory) a huge irregular building with many back-stairways; I say my first introduction to adult reading (which I chose, not forced on me) were two fat tomes, bound in brown, of two Renaissance queens, Margaret de Navarre and her aunt, Jeanne d’Albret. Why I chose those or how I found them I’ve no clue. Since my teen years I’ve been aware that I have a favorite kind: literary biography. I’m convinced that as with ghost stories, certain kinds of gothics (female), and epistolary novels, women write the finest versions of this genre, though men who can write an equivalent of l’ecriture-femme can produce gems too. I even love biographies of biographers: like Caroline Moorehead on Iris Origo (of Val d’Orcia, An Italian War Diary, 1943-44).

The last few months I’ve been especially alert to the form as I have not given up my new life’s goal to write a literary biography of Winston Graham (of the Poldark matter and Cornwall) and turned an offer to include a paper by me on the subject of Johnson and Woolf as paired modernists into a study of their biographical art.

And two weeks ago I chanced upon the equivalent of E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel: Andre Maurois’s Aspects of Biography. Maurois makes an attempt to understand his chosen genre’s prevalent characteristics in the modern kind too. Modern biography, he says, is a conscious work of partly imaginative (that is to say, fictional) art, a courageous search for truth in which the biographer realizes highly complex personalities; the most fruiful subjects are of people who have struggled, endured failure, but achieved something. I’m going to look at biography from the different aspects Maurois identified.

First, biography as a work of art: its concern for truth requires documents, but to express a personality requires art. How to do this?

You must choose an angle on the life: he calls this your true subject, and you find the hidden unity of that life through this angle of vision. Johnson may have said the most obscure seemingly reactive, passive life may teach us something important but the truth is you need something to present beyond daily non-events, and it’s best to have an individual who plays some part, no matter how seemingly varied, on some aspects of the world’s stage in a more or less unified performance. Doing the same kinds of things over and over for the same deeply held motives. At the same time all moral preoccupation in the work of art kills the work of art, so the angle should not be moralistic.

Surprisingly perhaps, he finds the chronological method avoids dryness. All of us are artifically made (not just women); that day a great novelist was not born, a baby was. We are not unchangeable. Yet as we change slowly, most of the time imperceptibly, a good biography traces the spiritual and emotional development of someone as history impinges on him or her. You must make us see and feel the person physically. Boswell’s strength is his ceaseless gusto for every particular and entertaining simple style, but while he (I think) presents a distorted emphasis, he has understood enough authentically of his enormous cache of detail, with person who was fecund, varied, interesting so reading the book, we feel the more of this the better. The diary of the brilliant mind, a sketch in words of the person by a close perceptive friend or family member, is invaluable here. Boswell has Johnson’s letters and he (in effect) kept a diary for Johnson every time he met him and was able to find others who had written down or remembered what Johnson said too. There is this obstacle: how much truth do people write in diaries? how representative is what you write down of your life? How much do they understand of themselves. In Johnson’s case he lacked a secular non-judgemental framework. In many other cases, is the product of a writer posing to himself or anticipated others.

Biography considered as a science.

The thoughtful among the public often regard the chief character of a novel as a mirror of the author (no matter how disordered) — especially in non-formulaic fiction. So there is evidence the biographer can use. Also lyric poetry and psychologically revealing plays. A group of characters surrounding and commenting on this center provide a considerable expository base. Of more demonstrable equal value are memoirs of contemporaries who knew the subject — even if the writer is dim (as Margaret Oliphant said of Jane Austen’s nephew in his invaluable Memoir of My Aunt Jane). Letters are the lifeblood of a biography from this standpoint but there people are performing too. No person is understandable apart from her historical time. You must study the era, the geography and way of life where the subject lived, its history. So biography becomes the story of an evolution of a soul against a background of history, with help from contemporaries who knew him or her. That’s as close to objectivity as you’re going to get (thinks Maurois)

Biography as a mean of expression. The biographer chooses a subject which gives her the opportunity to express what is in her very keenly. Beneath the objective surface there should lie that vivid emotion, which gives a book an intensity a burning passion.

Biography will not come alive if you write it coldly or distantly. The biographer is seeking an opportunity for displaying some aspect of him or herself. This is all indirect: by quite an indirect means and through the medium of characters very far removed in circumstances from the biographer, the biographer attains to self-expression. Yet in novels and fictionalized (skeptic, modern) biography, the writers’ characters do not have to have been real or lived as people, just very believable in context. We should ask, whatever the indirect means, what were the secret springs in the biographer which are at the bottom of this desire to write someone’s biography? For Maurois writing of Shelley it was a deliverance for himself to write the life of Shelley. (For me what compels me are an attitude of mind I identify with in the first half of Graham’s Memoir, find acted out in a core group of characters in Graham’s first seven Poldark books, and the escape from my contemporary world is an intense relief.) In sum, biography is an expression of character when the author has chosen his subject in order to respond to a secret need in his own nature. Then it’s autobiography disguised as biography.

The appealing tone (Maurois suggests) derives from how the biographer regards his or her hero or heroine as greater than him or herself — or more important for some reason. Johnson finds it of riveting importance to show that the supremely gifted person can end up having done nothing most people would admire or value and in tragic misery when dying. Woolf is looking at a man as an artist of great integrity, who will not compromise his art, and was (she thinks) crucially influential anyway. The modern biographer recognizes he or she can never uncover the whole of their character’s innermost springs confront the mysteries of real people; Maurois thinks the biographer finds his or her way through a one alive persov by dwelling on one aspect of that person and sometimes fleeting, a limited and yet suggestive expansive aspect. Guilt at running the risk of spoiling the reputation, the considered presence of how the person is remembered, worry at offending and attack doesn’t stop the biographer from writing the life up as accuately as allowed in print. I don’t know quite what Maurois meant when he wrote something to the effect the biographer thinks he can refashion a thought then in the image of our own today.


Anthony Trollope, artful albumen print photo by Julia Margaret Cameron (1864)

He turns to autobiography as a sub-species of life-writing. Do you know the truth about yourself; your invisible center? Several causes make autobiography to some extent false and inaccurate. In a nutshell, we forget.

It’s here he first quotes Anthony Trollope’s utterance as a key: Trollope doubts truthtful autobiography is possible. Who would tell the meannesses he or she had done or thought. Trollope tells us he remembers so much from his boyhood — what produced that violent impression has the power to continue to make us tremble, himself to burn with passionate humiliation. He controls that seismic power. It’s a truism if we live through war we remember more as children. We don’t forget the shock at what we have seen.

To make up for blank space before say ages 7 to 9, most autobiographies of childhood are to some extent fabrications because what we have to fill in is what we remember and that is partly from what our parents told us. The confused feelings and associations of such our first crucial years are lost in obscurity and the unremembered past — yet here is this complex individual (Trollope) emerging around this shock. Johnson (and others) urge people to preserve written testimony before what happened is lost –- a fairly detailed record alone can bring ourselves before us, and the diary is its basis. Trollope relies on these memories burning into his mind still.

What else do we forget? The subject forgets her dreams, yet much of our hours are spent in forms of dreams. The biographer and autobiographer omit or forget in order to make a work of art – so much of life has to left out. “The cult of the hero is as old as mankind,” but we must struggle against it (says Maurois). At any rate we (helplessly sometimes) censor the disagreeable too. People feel a deep sense of shame at petty and other humiliations they have endured (Trollope is able to tell of these), at their bodies, very few can tell truth about sexual life: immediately too one response from many readers may be unacknowledged voyeurism. How painful to think that what you are writing is fodder for someone’s silent ridicule or disdain.

We also rationalize after the fact and finds reasons for what often occurred by chance. Maurois feels (and like Mrs Proudie, I agree with him), that there is no system to life, no pattern for real, no meaning, and we act out of private personal needs and to other people nearest us. The order we experience is from our need to sleep, to eat, to defecate; the institutions society says we must go to; our need to earn a living or share one from someone somehow. We also want to protect those around us. The underlying design here too must be the development of mind, that is your pattern, and that Trollope succeeds in: a portrait of how this novelist came to be and the nature of his novelistic art, a book which is a diptych.

Maurois may have seem to have left out much but he is speaking of modern biography:


A modern biography …


EBB’s life from the point of view of her dog, of her maid, Elizabeth Wilson (said to be Margaret Forster’s finest book, except I’d say for her biographies of the females in her working class family.)

Maurois does not talk of early biography (the way Forster does not talk of the earliest pre-novels before the later 17th century in Europe), not before Johnson and Boswell by which time biography had become in individual instances a portrait of an individual life, and then through these two men’s books (and the fiction of the era) consciously texts aimed at developing the sympathetic imagination of the reader who then can enter in (Rambler 60 and Idler 84),

Maurois mentions but does not regard as “true biography,” commemorative, pious, family, the zealous many volume documentary, which at its best aimed only at a consciously semi-censored “truth to life,” and is found in Gaskell, Oliphant, Froude’s Carlyle where (according to Virginia Woolf in Flush) a dog is said to have jumped out of a window or off the roof in response to the killing nature of the Carlyles’ marriage.

Maurois is contemporary with Woolf’s essay on modern or “The New Biography,” where she says what the new biography does is convey personality deeply, and she includes the semi-fictional sketches of Some People by Harold Nicholson as modern biographies. Later she changed her mind in “The Art of the Biography,” and conceded the foundation of biography must be fact, evidence and its means verisimilitude. And her last biography is her Roger Fry:

Facts are the problem, she says. By the time she gets to the end of either essay she’s made a case that the central use of facts can limit the biography. The existence of documents (facts) for Queen Victoria can make writing her biography so much more satisfying and near to great art. But how powerful and intense Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex, that Strachey got in the “stranger bodies’ of the Elizabethans through strange (unconventional sexuality) imagining.

And at the close Maurois admits the genre has so many limitations and obstacles one might say it is impossible to pull off except you admit it’s fiction ,,,,

Ellen

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Roger Fry — typical painting

Dear friends and readers,

Some notes on behalf of two qualities I find draws me into books — and movies too, though this inward source is less obvious. A still center of quiet, of thoughtfulness out of which the fiction or biography (I’ve been reading a number of these lately) grows. In a book say good for other reasons (vision, form, richness of knowledge) such moments in a dialogue here or description there, and when I find myself immersed in reading, I know I’m in a thing of value. Accurate rendering of what is, acutely faithfully attended to provides a foundation for such moments.

I’ve experienced both lately in books I find myself liking so much. Virginia Woolf’s meditative biography, Roger Fry, and Frances Spalding’s companion (as it were) art historian biography of Fry, due I think to the criticism and pictures by this remarkable man.

I think we are all agreed that we mean by significant form something other than agreeable arrangements of form, harmonious patterns, and the like. We feel that a work which possesses it is the outcome of an endeavour to express an idea rather than to create a pleasing object … the effort on the part of the artist to bend to our emotional understanding by means of his passionate conviction some intractable material which is alien to our spirit (Fry, 232).

Claire Harman’s strongly written, mesmerizing biography of Charlotte Bronte (the best one on Charlotte alone thus far since Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life), and Richard Holmes’s perceptive biography of Samuel Johnson’s biography of Richard Savage, Dr Johnson and Mr Savage. Holmes and Harman are great biographers, she for the books she’s written, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Fanny Burney, Jane’s Fame (somewhat lighter), he for understanding of the the form that informs his writing (Footsteps: The Confessions of a Biographer) and his Shelley. I was reading Harman all this summer past, in the early morning Charlotte, her and me, how I love her work.

I read a very long article in the New York Review of Books by Alice Spawls (39:2, 16 November 2017), deeply sceptical about of truths about another person that a biographer can offer, and her particular instance, Harman’s CharlotteBronte; I find Spawls unfair: you can pick anything apart if you’ve a mind to. My sense is the great core of such moments in art is the letter written by someone in the throes of a genuine reaching out reverie. Harman ends her biography with a letter from Heger (the man Charlotte loved in Belgium) to Charlotte (which she never saw):

In thinking it over you will have no difficulty in admitting that you yourself have experienced a hundred times that which I tell you about communication between two distant hearts, instantaneous, without paper, without pen, or words, or messenger, etc., a hundred times without noticing it, without its having attracted your attention, without anything extraordinary.

One novel too: Winston Graham’s The Stranger from the Sea (yes, the 8th Poldark book) — he describes a midsummer eve’s picnic in Cornwall by a beach, the exact Celtic customs, the sky. The talk between Ross and his son about an engine, a relationship the son has experienced afterward.

I sensed this contemplative order left over from the characterization in Graham’s books in this still of Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza picking apples with a small girl child:

confirmed by finding the paradigm in Mary Cassatt’s Modern Women

The movie, Agnes Varda’s Visages Villages (Englished Faces Places): truly respectful of people and their lives, their ordinary surroundings, sordid, ruined, anonymous manufacturing places, she put photographs of the people she met and their faces all over these buildings. We looked into their faces as they talked to her. Bachelard for our broken ugly 2017 worlds of docks, yards of plastic boxs, steel pipes, cement walls, and the blessed park space. I’s worth saying here too that Varda felt she needed a young male with her to hold an audience. Her subjects though are as often women as men.

This pair of qualities – quiet, order, realism — is what I value also in poems. The thing to remember is these harmonizing qualities far from precluding active, frenetic life, even agons, suprised joy, can encompass such, and this sense of deep order and truth provide stability for healing, as in Patricia Fargnoli’s Hallowed:

Winter Day in New York City, 1973

Just divorced, a crazy year, everyone sleeping with everyone,
friends becoming lovers and back again, all of us filled with need.

“That’s the way it was when Marty and I, in my Karmann Ghia,
drove down to New York City from Hartford.

Washington Square strangely hushed that January afternoon,
stunned quiet by the harsh cold, the weight of gray sky.

Marty played chess with a local on a stone table as I shivered
beside him for what seemed like hours.

Snow started to fall, millions of pieces of glitter
through which we drove uptown until he found the bar

from the movie he’d seen. There he wandered away from me
into the crowd to try his luck with the city women.

Later on a side street, I changed into disco clothes in the car
while a doorman walked in circles in front of an apartment building.

Under purple strobes ~ a club named Wednesdays
we danced together and apart until we were steamy and breathless.

When the place closed, Marty swiped one of their black balloons.
It floated us to Second Avenue where he tried to tell a homeless lady

how to find the Second Avenue bus, though at 2:00 a.m. there were no buses.
Back then, it seemed like magic, snowflakes lit by building lights,

Marty in his beard and Russian greatcoat, his arm sheltering my shoulder,
as we rushed downtown, uptown, the buzz and sparkle in the zero city air.

I drove us home as dawn was rising over skyscrapers and along the highways.
Marty slept. The radio played something I’ve long forgotten.

Jim and I lived in New York City in 1973; we were there that winter. We experienced this feeling world, which is no more.

I may here over-emphasize this quiet the calm at the sacrifice of realism, but this giving body to what is concretely there, experienced is crucial, to have life spring out at us. So a second movie, a New York Times reviewer almost rightly called perfection, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird: it’s pungent

Admittedly a male coming of age in reverse, the story mirrored in the Sondheim musical they were acting out, “Merrily We Roll Along, bleak and bitter because it begins at story’s end when the hero has top success but dropped all his friends or betrayed them, his wife, ignored his children, hard and alone. Lady Bird (aka Christina, Saoirse Ronan) aggressive, driving, wants to be rich, with a super-prestigious house, the best fanciest dresses, not just a local college, but Ivy League on the East Coast, and she judges falsely — rejects the kind talented well-meaning young man who is gay, the girlfriend who is fat and lives in an apartment! But she has better impulses and doesn’t betray any one, helps her friend go to the prom, does not allow phony snobbery (like not going to the prom itself) to ruin a good time. She is in fact her mother (Laurie Metcalf’s) girl, for the mother wanted success and is bitter without it, taking her lack out on the daughter. she works two jobs; she will have to take out a second mortgage. Her idea of fun is on Sunday to go from super-rich house to house as if she and Lady Bird were in the market for buyning one.

I cannot overemphasize how wrong the actual crucial structure here is. This is how boys are told to see themselves, as the orde of their lives: the aggression, ambition, the seeking of the big opportunity, after which if you don’t have, you won’t live the same life. What is a girl’s actual trajectory as she grows up? far more embedded in friendships, not seizing opportunity and moving from one group to another. Sex would have been much more fraught, when all LadyBird endures is the brutal words of a boy she has (as if she were a boy) gone after. No one ever sexually harasses her; she never gets her feelings hurt over her body; if anything she is the aggressor. What a lie about women’s lives. The importance of mother-daughter was kept, but to do this Gerwig seemed to think she had to demote the father into a worldly failure and depressive. Chantal Thomas has a book on girlhood I unfortunately lost before I could finish it where she told of girlhood, much less outward, indirect (like Lady Bird’s true friend), about being in groups of girls. (Not that I was.) Vie Reelle Des Petites.

Most of the 1970s feminist studies follow Simone de Beauvoir with her admiration for the “transcendant” point of view, and dismissal of the “immanent.” Books by Lyn Mikel Brown, Michelle Fine, and Carole Gilligan are honorable exceptions, but these too are dismissed by the “constructionists:” there is no innate female psychology. There is definitely a typical girlhood; that is barely captured in individual books, e.g., Mary McCarthy’s Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood because sex, weight (your body maturing) are passed over in silence. Or the book presents the experience as illness, trauma, instead of natural reactions to intransigent conditions. Nicole Holofcener has tried to give us movies about women’s real trajectories — but none have been about girlhood. All about young women — like Walking and Talking. So this is genuinely original in what Gerwig aims at: the depiction of a girl growing up and her refusal to sentimentalize.


Mother and Daughter shopping

Leaving the movie together on Thanksgiving Day, Izzy and I understood Lady Bird and her mother spoke to us, about a version of our relationship. As I walked out I said, “I can’t even get you to join a choir” (she sings so beautifully, composes semi-originally and makes YouTubes of herself singing), and for once I got no glare.


More Bloomsbury, Omega Shop type object, Duncan Grant painting

I used to feel I met this central strong calm, quietude and adherence to realism in Trollope’s Dr Thorne, and it was Dr Thorne which sent me on my path of reading Trollope. This is in my introduction about how I came to Trollope:

My second introduction to Trollope occurred when I was around twenty-one and in my third year of college. I took a course in the nineteenth-century British novel, and one of ten novels assigned was Anthony Trollope’s Doctor Thorne. I didn’t forget this one. The memory of some amused calm in Trollope’s voice remained vivid to me. It would make me smile to remember how he kept making all these excuses for himself because he was forced to take two long chapters to tell us the previous history of all the characters in Doctor Thorne before his book could officially begin. I reread the green-and-white 1959 Houghton Mifflin edition I bought for the course, and Elizabeth Bowen’s introduction to it, more than once.

Ellen

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