Archive for the ‘women's memoirs’ Category

Angela Down at center as Sylvia Pankhurst (Episode 6 of 1974 BBC Shoulder to Shoulder)

Anne-Marie Duff, Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter as Violet Miller, Maud Watts, Edith Ellyn (2015 BFI Suffragette)

Dear friends and readers,

You have two tremendous treats to avail yourself of this November where we are enjoying a spate of significant politic films. It’s another one of these re-creations of an excellent, original and effective mini-series of the 1970s 40 plus years on (e.g., Upstairs and Downstairs, Poldark). It’s also another riveting new woman’s film, the kind scripted, directed on some woman’s issue (e.g., Bletchley Circle to The Crimson Field, scripted Sarah Phelps).

On-line at YouTube you can watch six 75 minute episodes of Shoulder to Shoulder, (without commercials), and hear the theme song Ethel Smyth’s grand March of the Women:

Episode 1: Emmeline Pankhurst (Sian Phillips); Episode 2: Annie Kenney (Georgia Brown); Episode 3: Lady Constance Lytton (Judy Parfitt); Episode 4: Christabel Pankhurst (Patricia Quinn); Episode 5: Outrage! (it ends on Emily Davison’s suicide by throwing herself under a group of race-horses, Sheila Ballantine as Davison and Bob Hoskins as Jack Dunn); Episode 6: Sylvia Pankhurst (Angela Down).

And in cinemas, there’s Suffragette, screenplay Abi Morgan (who wrote Truth), directed by Sarah Gavron with a cameo peformance as Mrs Pankhurst by Meryl Streep. It also has the theme song, but it only comes in towards the film’s close (as uplift).

I have no reviews of Shoulder to Shoulder to offer; I knew of it by word-of-mouth from other women, especially anyone who has written or read about the suffragettes. I suspect it’s not available as a DVD for the same reason as the Bletchley Circle was cancelled after a second successful year.

Suffragette has been reviewed, not altogether favorably (see Variety). Perhaps since it is a woman’s film, and also about the woman’s movement, the critics have been very hard on it (see the New Yorker especially). A. O. Scott of The New York Times Suffragette justice.

This one has an argument to make, or rather a series of arguments about the workings of patriarchal power, the complexities of political resistance and the economic implications of the right to vote. You might come for the feminism, stay for the class consciousness and arrive at the conclusion that they’re not so distinct after all.

Probably the re-booting (as in the case of the others this year) of Shoulder to Shoulder into Suffragette will please modern audiences more than Shoulder to Shoulder, with its 1970s staged dramaturgy, slower movement, longer scenes and speeches, less closely graphic violence (though Shoulder to Shoulder is as unbearable in its force-feedings and it has several not just one), and I hope people will be drawn to Suffragette. Both movies show how vulnerable and frail are individual revolutionaries and movements against the power of a gov’t with military and legal powers to control, punish, silence, and kill people. Still over-praising something (I believe) in the end is seen through by people and distrusted so upfront I’d like to say that good as Suffragette is, Shoulder to Shoulder is finally superior art.


Police breaking up the women’s demonstration and starting to beat them up

Suffragette‘s central problem is it’s too short and it has been influenced by the use of gimmick and juiced-up plots in mystery-spy thrillers common in mainstream films. So the focus in Suffragette comes from a little climax-ridden plot-design where we are supposed to care intensely if a police officer, Steed (Brendan Gleeson) turns our heroine into a mole on behalf of a gov’t bent on surveillance headed by the heartless monster, a fictionalized side-kick of Asquith (Samuel West) and his henchmen. Scenario familiar? Here is Steed trying to secude, frighten, & bribe our heroine:


We then enter into thriller-like story arcs where our heroines outwit the police in planting bombs, breaking windows, and finally managing to reach the newspapers when unexpectedly Emily Davison (Natalie Press, the daughter in Bletchley Circle) throws herself under the horses in a race course watched by the king.

Emily Davison contemplating what to do to reach the king, or attract attention (Maud is unaware of the lengths Emily is prepared to go to)

This is not to say that Suffragette doesn’t do ample justice deeply even (partly due to superb performances) to the human feelings among the women and in delineating the break-up of the marriage of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) — though it chickened out in showing us the scenes of harsh domestic violence clearly visited on Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff) off-stage. Since a punch-shock element was what the film partly relied on, this was a loss.

In fact though Suffragette also delivers a kind of history lesson. It may be said to be equally organized as moral paradigm. Maud is a factory worker doing hard labor ironing in a laundry for years, during much of it in her earliest molested by her employer continually as a condition of remaining employed.

Given an extra job to deliver a package at the end if the day, Maud rushes for a bus

Maud is therefore naturally attracted to a hope of some better life she intuits the women’s movement offers; when she agrees to go along to listen to Mrs Miller’s speech, she finds herself persuaded by one of the MP’s wives (Romola Garai) to read a prepared speech. Instead she ends up answering questions put to her by the prime minister, Asquith (Adrian Schiller). He asks her what does she think the vote can do for her. She can come up with nothing; she does not know how it could improve her life. The film’s story then proceeds to teach Maud and us why the vote influences women’s lives. Why votes matter.

Maud is slowly radicalized for the same reasons the women in Shoulder to Shoulder are (see just below), and becomes a suffragette. She demonstrates and is beaten and punished. At this her husband, Sonny (Ben Whislaw) becomes humiliated, shamed, and his manhood so threatened, that he throws her out of their apartment. He has the undoubted right by custom. He clearly also despised her when he married her because he knew she had been molested for years and so he regarded himself as “saving her,” putting her on the “right path.” His attitudes are all screwed up by his society’s norms. They lead him to destroy her and the marriage. Worse, he has the legal right to refuse her any access to her child and the right to give the boy up for adoption, which he proceeds to do when he finds he cannot care for the child himself.

Had women had the vote, laws would not give him such a complete right over her and his child. Could she get the vote now, she could vote against such laws and customs. At the film’s close a series of intertitles tell us that five years after a portion of women were given the vote, the custody laws were changed and women had a right to keep their children. Sonny could no longer punish her, himself and their child like this.

Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) works as a doctor, and apothecary in her husband’s druggist shop: we learn she was not allowed to go on to professional school as women were not allowed; the story at the close implies that with the vote, such schools would have to open their doors to women.


Mrs Miller has nowhere to turn from an abusive husband; she will if she can change parliament. There is no help against the employer-molester; there are not enough jobs and those available to women are mostly dreadful hard work. We see a motif in other women’s films, like Water where an older woman saves a young widow who is being coerced into prostitution: Maud rescues a girl from sex harassment and degradation: she knows Mrs Miller’s daughter is submitting to sexual aggression by the boss, so daring arrest, she shows up at the laundry, takes the girl to the house of the MP wife (Garai) and the wife hires her. She is now protected insofar as the system allows: based on a decent kind individual. The movie-viewer can think to her or himself the equivalent of what legislation can provide today: women’s shelters from domestic violence and abuse.

These stories of the fictionalized characters are said to be partly based on real women, but they are enunciated in such a way as to show the viewer why the vote matters.

The only historical women we see are (briefly) Emily Davison and Meryl Streep as Mrs Pankhurst, posed to recall Sian Phillips in the same role:



There are no explicit paradigms or lessons taught in Shoulder to Shoulder, the cast for Shoulder to Shoulder are not working class women (the “foot soldiers” of the movement, as the policeman tells Maud who her “masters” will dump when they don’t need them, after their lives have been ruined), but the elite types who ran the movement. Except — and it’s a big except — the lesson in the grinding nature of the experience of proselytizing, punishment, political in-fighting and finally prison which we are given a full brunt of, and our heroines (except Mrs Pankhurst the highest ranking) are force-feed repeatedly, humiliated by the clothing they must wear, put into solitary confinement.

Christabel starting out (her first speech)

In comparison to Suffragette our heroines’ sufferings are intangible. Respectability, loss of society (but they don’t want that), companionships, acceptance of a much harder life where they do strain to support themselves by teaching, working in shops (or owning them). As in the other 1970s mini-series, our central characters are drawn from the elite, while in 2015 they are drawn from working people. So it takes a little imagination to enter into what is presented.

OTOH, just about all the characters in Shoulder to Shoulder represent real historical people, much of what is presented is accurate (if much must be left out).

The real Annie Kenney

Georgia Brown exuberant as Annie

There is therefore much less false melodrama, and because of its length, we get a long arc of the whole movement from the later 1890s to when Mrs Pankhurst and Christabel supported WW1, and the aftermath of that war.


The most moving episode in Shoulder to Shoulder focuses on the real Constance Lytton (described in my previous blog this week, Victorian into Edwardian, scroll down) who takes on a working class persona and the treatment meted out to working women in prison is inflicted on Lytton.

A photo of Lytton dressed as Jane Warton: remarkably Judy Parfitt comes close to looking just like this

This is the only still I could find on the Net of Parfitt — she is to the left, feeling utterly wretched after having been beaten and force-fed and is now forced to wait for a judicial hearing

The focus in Shoulder to Shoulder is on the human relationships among the characters, and the drama comes out of ideological, political, psychological clashes, its power on how the characters are transformed, variously destroyed, shattered, turned into ruthless political machines who show no gratitude towards those who helped them, especially in the case of Christabel Pankhurst

Christabel fiercely waving her flag

towards the Pethick-Lawrences, a couple who gave up their fortune, respectability, good and moderately useful lives to the movement only to be thrown away, and towards her sister, Sylvia who persisted in wanting equally to fight for social justice for all people, including working class men, immigrants, issues like civil liberty.

Sylvia setting up a shop in a working class neighborhood

Both movies make the point strongly that the prison experience is the second reality the women’s movement contended with that radicalized them, and I now realize this is a central theme of Lytton’s book. Lytton’s book is as much about prisons as it is about the suffragette movement. She makes the point that one way you can gauge your success as a political movement is if the establishment puts its leaders in jail.

The police have kept an eye on and take Maud away

Lytton’s book appears in both Shoulder to Shoulder and Suffragette as Dreams; the title today is Prisons and Prisoners (Broadview Press, edited by Jason Haslam). (I am now in the middle of Constance Lytton’s memoir of her life from the angle of her conversion to the womens’ movement and radicalization through her experience dressed as a working class woman, Jane Warton, in prisons.)

Lytton opens with showing the reader that the votes-for-women movement emerged as a possibly effective force when 1) the upper middle and middle class women enacting leading, and making connections for it realized after 3 decades they would never get the vote unless they severely disrupted the workings of everyday society; and 2)the women were radicalized into real empathy with working and lower class women by their experience of the harsh indifference, cruelty, even torture of the prison system with its principle mechanisms of violent punishment (including force-feeding which led to further pain in vomiting), humiliation, brutalization, and destruction of personalities through alienation. This is what Lytton shows the reader; as a person with a bad heart, she died not long after after her release from the treatment she had received.

Lytton may not appear as one of the characters in Suffragette but her words provide a voice-over as Maud Watts reads her book; and she is the central character of the crucially effective episode of the mini-series.


The group early on in Suffragette

The group towards the end of Shoulder to Shoulder

The sense of life as on-going, a cycle, so characteristic of women’s art ends both films, in this case politically appropriate. Lytton really emerges only in one episode (3), and Davison in another (5), and of the on-going characters my favorite was finally Sylvia, partly because I’ve loved other characters Angela Down played at the time (she was Jo March in a 1970 Little Women) A long talk with the inimitable Bob Hoskins (very young) precedes Sylvia’s final walk off onto the street with her latest ally, Flora Drummond (Sally Miles). When I get the book (I’ve bought it from a used bookstore site, I’ll blog again). We are made to feel we have gone through so much (6 times 75 minutes is a lot of experience time), and the photography of the two inside the crowd makes the point they are just two women inside a larger group.

In Suffragette after Emily has thrown herself under the horses, we see Maud, shaken, but walking off. She must live on; she has shown she will find her son and communicate with him; Edith’s husband locked her in the bathroom to prevent her from joining lest she be arrested again (she has a bad heart we are told); we see the police officer, Steed, his employers; Maud, Violet Miller and Edith get together again in the WSPC office.

The writers for the 1970s series are among the best of the era: Ken Taylor, Hugh Whittemore, Alan Plater, Douglas Livingstone (originally they wanted women scriptwriters but the era just didn’t have enough of these); its creators were Georgia Brown, Verity Lambert, Midge Mackenzie, directors Waris Hussein and Moira Armstrong. If their characters are too harmonious and well-bred to begin with, by the end they are strongly pressured, conflicted, angry. Suffragette has a woman script writer, Abi Morgan, woman director, Sarah Phelps, three women producers Alison Owen, Faye Ward.

The title Margaret Mitchell wanted to give her famous historical novel, Gone with the Wind, was Tomorrow is another day. It’s a saying that captures the underlying structural idea of many a woman’s art work


Read Full Post »

Scan 1
Lillian Hellman, 1943

“Speech,” she said, “is but broken light upon the depth/Of the unspoken . .. —George Eliot, The Spanish Gypsy

“There is nothing really lasting, nothing that will endure, except the sincere expression of the actual conditions of life” — Penelope Fitzgerald

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been meaning to write about a set of profound underrated slender books by Lillian Hellman: her autobiography in 4 parts: An Unfinished Woman, Pentemento, Scoundrel Time, and Maybe. The characteristic of life-writing, that it is often partly imagined, dramatized even when there are long stretches of literal truth has been used to trash her as a “liar,” because the political vision of the four, unqualifiedly socialist was anathema to much of the US intelligensia of the 50s through 90s (and today still); what’s worse she continually criticizes those who, far more than merely complicit with the persecution of anyone left of center in the 1950s, volunteered lies, fingered others to improve their position, and until today in effect support the US gov’t effort to silence and destroy any opposition from the left (of whatever stripe). The continual trashing of her writing (most famously by Mary McCarthy) has badly damaged the dissemination of these texts: the continuing purpose is to make everyone dismiss her important account of the McCarthy era, simply not bother read it.

I loved all four and gathered a sense of deep strength from a communicated sense that there was no hype in the style (if she does make herself heroine, it’s what most life-writers do). The central presence of all four — gradual the emergence — is that of Dashiell Hammet. I admit I fell in love with him because he reminded me so of my beloved Jim. Thus I write about these four memoirs tonight.

Some central perspectives: evasiveness; Hellman’s identifies with outcasts, people who are different from most others, who don’t fit in; people more deeply and actively humane than others (who need not be politicians or powerful people; they can be an African-American servant): the main characters in each book are partly versions of herself. Hammett is the still center of her world providing what happiness and stability of outlook she can hold to. The books are l’ecriture-femme: they show all the characteristics of women’s life-writing (different from men’s): circular, inward, not seeking to find a single triumph, not linear; deeply concerned with others close to her; like much life-writing, the books are compensatory, seeking to assuage life’s disappointments, to find out she came to be what she was. And as the 20th century was one which saw the take-over of many peoples by ruthless fascists and dictators, by scoundrels (as she would have it), a central thread in them all is the attempt of the various characters (versions of Hellman mind) to come to terms actively with what public useful roles in the world they are allowed.

Her greatness and importance as a writer goes beyond her plays: she wrote many important screen-plays and now these memoirs. There is an important accurate absorbing biography: Alice Kessler-Harris: A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Times and Life of Lillian Hellman: it’s a sensible and eloquent defense and explanation of Hellman’s work in the context of its era. K-H places the memoirs in the years the events take place — bigotry in the south of the 1930s and 40s, the savage attack on not just socialisms, but liberalism of any kind in the 50s, extending into the 60s (and 70s too). It is a book as much about 20th century politics everywhere in life as it is about Hellman (and Hammett). K-H includes her personal outward life: one originally of privilege, Hellman’s aggressive nature moving into success by moving to NYC and getting into publishing and then finding herself with like-minded people. She had one marriage which broke up but she carried on being close to the man (Kohler) and the famed long-time relationship with Dashiell Hammett who was always sexually unfaithful. Hellman as a writer emerges as one of the great and powerful women writers dealing with issues of our times. I don’t deal with the more private of these (sexual) as those are in her plays which I don’t include as she herself in her memoirs does not discuss the content of these plays nor her screen-plays except insofar as they came up against political opposition.


An older Dashiell Hammett (after the McCarthy persecution)

An Unfinished Woman

Hellman has in mind what she is today, and she is telling her early life in terms of what she has become. And she does not idealize herself. So she accounts for her anger; how she came to want to follow her own will; her experiences of stark poverty — and just as important the pompous bourgeois lifestyle of her New York (mother’s family) relatives. It’s written in a simple style.

Hammett again and again emerges as this all wise sharp deep friend. He is stubborn and will not act for his self-interest as she sees it at one point. He tells her she must leave him be or walk in another direction and they will part. He walked on ahead, after a couple of minutes she runs after.  She appears to have been his support: their happiest years on the farm. Hints of his infidelities. What an outsider reader might remember is that Hammett’s books while fine as mysteries are not masterpieces — I put it down to his deep scepticism; when you are made that way it does get in the way of making masterpieces (you can’t believe they’ll be appreciated or understood for a start).

Between the childhood which is presented to explain how her temperament and culture were intermixed and some roots for her real sympathy for the dispossessed, outsiders, and those who are bohemian in the older 1940 use of the word, she begins to have intense arguments with her father. She will not yield and one day runs away.

 A stalwart time of her actually managing to live on the streets for a time, using the tiny sum she had to rent a room in a lodging house. Such cheap places no longer exist. The whole incident anticipates how she will deal with what she perceives as injustice later. Finally when she grows so ill, her landlady finds out who her father is. At least that’s what she supposed when she waked to find her father at the top of her bed. In this section we see how central whether a person is black or white is in the culture of the era.

Hellman’s description of what publishing was like in the early to mid-20th century is just mouth-watering. There is nothing like this today: nurturing of talent, editing to help the writer bring him or herself out, the kind of connections that worked, the camaraderie is the central thing. How real political views came in frankly.

What also emerges is how being a woman makes a central difference. She defines two kinds of literary parties given by these publishing firms as differing from one another on the basis of whether the woman there are on offer to sleep with the men or “bluestocking” writing types. When she gets pregnant, she wants to have an abortion and not tell anyone who the father is. The men in her office find out about this and note this: they demand she tell who the father is. They find it unacceptable that she should do what she wants about it. This threatens her job and position and were she less forceful would make real trouble for her — could cost her her position. For writing and literary people as well as women (I think) for just this part of her book a must-read — as a truthful depiction of the milieues literary people came from too.

As the memoir moves on, Hellman skips about and does not tell you how she met so-and-so, but strides forward to places she’s at that matters, things she did that mattered. It gives the book a feel of strength.  Hammet seems to enter at a back door, and from the start is quoted in a way that makes all his utterances intelligent, significant.

She does let you know she knew everyone who counted in the literary world. She says she was incapable of holding an ordinary job down; we see she’s capable of inventing positions for herself as she gets this or that place. I found her account of her time in Hollywood illuminating — again what’s important according to a group of humane values — of creativity. She much admires Fitzgerald, especially Great Gatsby; she’s not sure about Hemingway.

I can alas find no account of women writers — they do not seem important to her as such. Women are there as wives and people working in offices.

She begins to make big money when she goes into the stage – she says she was no theater person, and could not cooperate, could not collaborate, the centre of what’s wanted, but she loved to write the scripts. Another kind of writing by which she made a lot of money were film screenplays.

She travels to Europe and freely says that when she went to the Soviet Union she never saw the slave labor camps or heard of the wreckage of lives not obedient to Stalin’s party in power.  So she does not hide this, nor does she talk up communism. She was much involved in the Spanish war — as were many concerned earnest people are the time. This is the middle section of her book. She goes to Spain first – then comes Moscow I see. It’s not set up chronologically but thematically.

The comments she makes about those she meets, their different levels of sophistication and naivete (for example they want her there on the hilarious expectation she can speak to Roosevelt to get him to help the Republicans) are convincing. I  get a kick of out her witty utterances and she (like Orwell’s Road to Catalonia) suddenly says resonant truths:
“The filthy indignity of destruction is the real immorality.”  

I agree. Orwell remarks as soon as a place is declared a war zone suddenly people will throw anything anywhere and use things for wholly different purposes. My view is many of the people who fix fine homes do it for prestige, for social networking, for show, the last thing they care about really is order or peace.

She presents herself as the brave heroine: it’s intended to function to bring out the heroism of others, the scrambling nature of the life — and especially how many of the idealistic people who came to fight for the Republic of Spain died — many horribly later on killed by fascist regimes. She shows people hungry, desperate, and brings out that Roosevelt and his gov’t really did nothing, sent no money.  Bombing started there and she brings out the terror of living under bombs — houses, streets become holes, people haven’t a chance. (Think about the drones.) Finally she makes the point that had the western powers wanted to stop HItler early, they could have but he was a “bulwark” against socialism; had they fought for real in Spain, they could have limited the damage of WW2, but at each step there were plenty of people high in gov’t who would not step in.

She was made an offer to do a movie in Moscow as propaganda for the war: by Harry Roosevelt’s right man, William Wyler the director, and Goldwyn to make it. They got permission and funds from the Russians, but wrenches were thrown – it was to be really empathetic with the Russians (then dying by hundreds of thousands) so Goldwyn hated it (as he hated anyone not for oodles of profit), Wyler dropped out and she made a crummy film of it in Hollywood.

Her time in Spain during and after the Spanish civil war is followed by her time in Russia. I know I’m writing this as a defense, a corrective, but since the book is framed so hostilely, it seems right to correct. She does notice the pogroms and terrors of the 1930s; she sees them as nightmares but she does put them in perspective — against a world of nazism, in terms of the White army counter-revolution. There is no idealization of the Soviet Union – nor is there demonization.

 Since she was writing in the later 1960s and this came out in 1970 she had to have known how brave it is simply to ignore the relentless anti-socialist propaganda. She persists in pointing out how those who knuckle under and name names enable the likes of McCarthy and his modern variants.

Her time in Moscow is during the war, but it’s told from a present tense point of view. She is badly frightened more than once when she comes near a battle or fighting. She again shows the terror of bombing. She is invited to go places she doesn’t want to go and ends up going lest she insult people. She never does see Stalin — someone not far from him in power. I find it interesting that when she quotes an apt phrase of Stalin’s, she will follow it by a oh we’re not supposed to quote him now.

It’s fascinating how Hammett is used. She invites an unworthy person (we are let to see this) to dinner and after a first bout of the person, Hammett goes upstairs and will not come down until the person has left the farm … There is a continual interweaving of different time periods and places but one can see where one is more or less.

She moves back and forth too and there are deep memories of Hammett and the farm – as part of talking about the perspective people put on these years as a result of fierce anti-socialism of the US. It seems to me clear that Hammett is not the partner she would have liked – she would have liked to be with a permanent partner but she accepted him. I’m not a reader of mysteries and have never read a novel by Hammett – though I have in my house The Maltese Falcon one of a series of 10 “great” mystery novels. Maybe I’ll try it.

She does admit flatly that the McCarthy hearings might be said to have destroyed her life and much of her happiness ever after. So the intense desire of the US gov’t to get after leftists did work in her case too. Hammett went to jail; she was forced to give up the farm. Kessler-Harris says ever after she was regarded with suspicion and as soon as her enemies which now included those she blamed for colluding could they attacked her.

As for Hammett, the time in jail and behavior towards himself destroyed his spirit and then his body. He died of lung cancer – the smoking the instrumental cause. From wikipedia:

During the 1950s he was investigated by Congress. He testified on March 26, 1953 before the House Committee on Un-American Activities about his own activities, but refused to cooperate with the committee and was blacklisted.

A lifetime of heavy drinking and smoking worsened Hammett’s tuberculosis contracted in World War I, and then according to Hellman “jail had made a thin man thinner, a sick man sicker . . . I knew he would now always be sick.” He may have meant to start a new literary life with the novel Tulip, but left it unfinished perhaps because he was “just too ill to care, too worn out to listen to plans or read contracts. The fact of breathing, just breathing, took up all the days and nights.”

As the years of the 1950s wore on, Hellman says Hammett became “a hermit”, his decline evident in the clutter of his rented “ugly little country cottage” where “[t]he signs of sickness were all around: now the phonograph was unplayed, the typewriter untouched, the beloved foolish gadgets unopened in their packages.” Hammett no longer could live alone and they both knew it, so the last four years of his life he spent with Hellman. “Not all of that time was easy, and some of it very bad”, she wrote but, “guessing death was not too far away, I would try for something to have afterwards.” January 10, 1961, Hammett died in New York City’s Lenox Hill Hospital, of lung cancer, diagnosed just two months before. As a veteran of two World Wars, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The last phase of the book is subtitled: Dorothy Parker. The book continues moves thematically: I don’t see the circular structure of man women’s memoirs but it’s not structured as most men’s: following a trajectory to the great success – or failure and then denouement (the rest of his life).

In this last phase she say show remarkable that she and Dottie got along. She is against the modern mode she says of relationships based on pleasantness; you must be who you are to some extent first. Parker presented herself as gushing over Hammett and Lilian learned eventually such a gushing scene was usually followed by Dottie saying to whoever was her confidante some caustic mockery. Hellman said Hammett therefore couldn’t stand her: saw this as sheer sycophancy while it showed someone frightened of others (this tells us more about Hellman).

A substory happens in this book: her love for, their happy years and then the loss of Hammett. She mentions at one moment she preferred him to be let out of prison and then retreat and die in peace than any vindication – would not realistically happen nor would it much matter to him as its social manipulative behavior of people in public. The Parker story includes a vignette where he again threatens to leave or hit (hard) Hellman if Hellman ever invites Dottie over again. She presents this kind of thing without comment. She assures the reader Parker admired Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest. She also seems to excuse him by saying how she couldn’t stand Alan Campbell, Parker’s husband (twice – the Parrtisan crowd had a habit it seems of divorcing and the re-marrying the same person).

In the close of this section we see how close Hellman got to Parker. Hellman was Parker’s executive. This is a moving account of a checquered and difficult friendship since Parker had no interest in the political arrangements which controlled her life – not unusual in the US. They told each other women’s stories – stories of how women survived as a way of communicating their views of how the world worked and their place in it. Tough stories. We see that Hammett got in the way Big Time. She had to keep Dottie in another house at one point. She does not hold this against him – by this time he was a broken ill man. The McCarthy debacle destroyed him – Hellman telling held up (pun intended). But we can see a common conflict for women: the husband/partner who can’t stand the close girlfriend.

The book comes to a strong end: two more sections, one on Helen, a black woman who came to live with Lilian Hellman later in life and had ties back to Sophronia, the black woman who took care of Hellman as a girl. We are returning full circle so the memoir does have the circular repetitive structure of women’s memoirs. Women grow up to do for their daughters what their mothers did for them; life has repetitive patterns if you are considering the family and your life cycle, while male memoirs are about success in the objective marketplace and military worlds

Since Helene was black, this gives Hellman a chance to present her participation in the civil rights movement of the 60s, what she felt at that famous March on Washington when King gave his I have a Dream speech. As with her depiction of Dorothy Parker and her way of skirting and bringing in feminism by telling real stories of real people’s behavior, mostly dismaying desperate attempts by women to secure safety, a good partner (with money), revealing how the underbelly works, so in this memoir we get depictions of what the US does to black people, the kinds of characters that emerged in the 1940s through 60s by telling us of specific individuals related to Helen. She might be accused of being racist in some of this but this is to misunderstand.

And of course the last chapter is Hammett. If you didn’t expect that by this time you have not gotten the depths of this book, its understory. How they met, she 24 he 36 in a Hollywood restaurant, she says he didn’t want a biography from her (for it would be about her he said) and she doesn’t want to be a “bookkeeper of her life” (so we see why she resolutely avoids a chronological approach), so she quickly celebrates their 6 happy unhappy years when he helped her write Children’s Hour she says (what this help consisted of I don’t know) and his joining the army for WW2, his attack ending in hosptial to be told if he keeps his drinking up he’ll be dead in a few months, how he ceased drinking, the tragedy of his later years – again triggered by the McCarthy hearings and his jail sentence. What he said is not that often repeated since it was not memorable but: he simply refused to reveal the names of people who contributed to a fund called communist; he had never been part of it. He preferred Jail to supporting the farcical democracy the US showed itself to have. But it did not prefer him.

It ends with a moving account of Hammett’s death, his last days and her anger (again the candor is impeccable) she is angry at him still for his not trying to survive — that’s what’s she’s saying at the end. He would not like her writing about him this way; how do they rate as a couple, did they love more or less than others when it comes to their relationship, and we see how she still misses him.

Why does Hellman call this memoir “an unfinished woman”? because she feels she has wasted so much time. So do I I often feel. Lots of people who want to live seriously, use their talents to the full will feel that (Samuel Johnson comes to mind). Because you can’t live that way but in the high moments — and often when alone …

Jane Fonda as Julia

Pentimento: Bethe

She opens the second book with material that comes from her childhood so like other women’s memoirs, the structure is circular, not that of seizing an opportunity, advancing and triumphing — or not — as is so common among men’s memoirs. She will progress forward, sort of. Only this time it’s going to be a set of portraits which she’s delve the palimpsest’s beneath to show us more about the world and herself.

The opening one is a stunner Bethe who seems a terribly dull ordinary woman married off to Styrie Bowman because he had money as a family arrangements, but slowly it flowers out to show her living an extraordinarily difficult life, with lovers and apparently a victim of a Mafia group, who lived with Lilian’s aunts, Jenny and Hannah, they too slowly revealed, the supposed intelligent one who did well in school, Hannah, becoming the dependent, while Jenny took over, whose death left Hannah lost. Hannah like so many people in Hellman’s books (rightly) avoid hospitals at all costs, but there one can be saved from dread diseases,. The whole account moves in and out of what’s seen, what not seen: it is an expose of women trying to survive. At one point Hellman as a child tells Bethe she lies because a man tells her to. To do justice to these would take long thought and rereading — it’s also concise and to the point while suggestive, these half-weird details of people’s speech and obsessions which ring so true of humanity.

The story of Bethe ends in a way that begins (to me) to shed light on a number of Hellman’s deeper attitudes. She is in effect betrayed by Hannah and Jenny: when her apparently brutal Mafia lover is found murdered, his hand cut off and Bethe disappears, the aunts will not look for her. They ask why Lillian is concerning herself: her answer is “Love, I think, but I’m not sure.” 11 years later she marries the husband her family approves of and is good to her, but declines to wear the pretty dress set out for her when she hears talk of Arneggio (the mafia man who was murdered and Bethe). Later again after she had left this man and was sleeping with Hammett, a valise of Hellman’s father’s letters turns up and she asks if an explanatory letter from Bethe is still in there. They want all that happened to be dismissed as not important and meaningless. She accuses them of not approving of Bethe – or herself now. Jenny the supposed strong one asks Lillian how she can know the difference between fear and approval.

Do they fear for her? Fear for Bethe? Or were afraid. A huge fight ensues between Jenny and Hannah that night and it seems that Hannah the supposed weak one wins. The two aunts take Lilian to a bad neighborhood and in a very mean cottage living there with a plumber she finds Bethe. Bethe really wants nothing to do with Lillian as she is making dinner for her partner (or husband). Hellman must go, Two years later she is told Bethe died of pneumonia; the aunts found out from a note by T.R. Carter who we are left to surmise was that plumber. Lillian vows to tell the news to relatives the next time she is in Germany but she never returned. But that night she had a quarrel with Hammett because he did not understand what she kept repeating that Bethe’s story has a lot to do with her relationship with Hammett (why she went into it, why she stayed).

She identifies utterly with this outcast — though Hammett was not that she sees a parallel. The story is also about how women who don’t make it into conventional respected roles are treated and react in our society from the old maid aunts to this pariah.


She’s an astonishing writer: this is a little “Heart of Darkness.” Willy the central but elusive male is running an organization as violent, amoral, ruthless and money making as anyone in Conrad’s tale. It’s told from the point of view of a child watching the man’s wife with her fancy absurd jewels as she tries to compensate by these silly accoutrements of wealth for what she doesn’t have: a decent inner life. What’s particularly striking is how this underlying scenario is left to us to get; it’s not emphasized; we are told as a child Lilian admired her aunt intensely; then she had the turn round when she found everything about her repugnant, but that was as wrong as the first impulse. But what was the accurate understanding to have is not made explicit — as it certainly is in Conrad. Moreoever by having the ordinary oppressed people about with all their troubles, the blacks too, we see that this parable is not something occurring just thousands of miles off but it an open version of what we experience in the US and supports the US way of life.

I wondered if she chose “Willy” because the man in Colette’s books is a Willy and he’s a total shit — predatory in a different way, on women directly, on such a woman as this aunt if she had any talent he could exploit (which she does not).


This is powerful from the get-go. She’s going to use fake names because, then she lists all the people involved still living, obviously omitting Julia. The method of moving back and forth in time swiftly creates suspense and intriguing glamor: Julia lives like she is very poor but came from super-rich home and we switch to their intense friendship as girls and how Lilian reacted to the upper class mannered luxurious home. This interwoven with the frightening attempt of Julia from Berlin to through mediaries get mysterious boxes to Lilian. Filled with thousands of dollars, bribes to get people out of prison and camps. Dottie”s (Dorothy Parker) husband plays heavy getting in the way and almost spoiling everything by asinine questions: she did dislike him.

And assertions that her memory often faulty in this case utterly true. Because it does read like a romance.

So from outcast, Bethe, to thug-criminal type providing the money for everyone, Willy, to super idealist, Julia, also though on the outside of conventional life, at risk from its defenders.

The memoir becomes particularly intense and powerful as Julia virtually disappears from the stage. Hellman is living with Hammet and both having successed, but as the war progresses he tells her to go to Europe. Early on Julia writes Lilian telling her how criminal the countries are who are letting Hitler and Franco grow into power (she calls Mussolini a peacock) and Hellman adds that by the early 1940s it was understood horrifying pogroms were going on and nothing done. We then hear of Julia beat the hell out of at a hospital. In the form of notes, letters, people coming to tell Hellman: Julia says her phone is tapped and Lilian is for the first time aware of a network of gov’t and military spies. She says she had not thought of this.We worry for her because the tone of the people at the hospital (which Hellman visits) are hostile and she is removed from there. She is a fugitive from the Nazis in effect.

It seems to me all these characters are dream versions of Hellman’s self – except her self is such an independent and integrated one, fighting her way continually. This is a hidden self which cannot – and shows her intense empathy for those unlike herself. Maybe this is why I find I am intensely drawn into her book. If these people are not versions of me, I have either been luckier or not as brave.

Perhaps the power of this tale (it’s a tale) resides in its evasiveness. As our heroine, Lilian travels with this hat and candy box she gradually realizes around her are helpers of Julia and not far from them great danger. Achieving her mission, she goes into a café and there is Julia and we are told it was the last time they saw one another. Julia is much the worse for wear, and then fast forward to her in learning Julia now dead and where her body is. WE get the usual throw away line about Hammett (“Dash who never wanted me to go anywhere because he never wanted to go anywhere …” who agrees ot her going to London to see the body.
Nothing is left of her. The funeral home was bombed to pieces; lawyer jargon of fancy law firm (fancy Nam) doubting there was a child (“in this strange case,” “a child only I believed existed?), only we know from this text and others by Hellman what happened to Julia was multiplied a thousand thousand fold in WW2 at the hands of the fascists. Relatives deny and we end on a “third cousin” (again the turns of remoteness) who never heard of one.

Scan 1

Pentimento: Theatre

A bitten off piece far more about the circumstances surrounding her play-writing, the social ones especially (like censorship) ratherthan the content of the plays themselves, much less the writing or process of production. How she soared with Children’s Hour (her parents shocked) and then kicked herself and made her second play, a failure, a far worse experience than it needed to be. Pen portraits of Goldwyn: how he made himself powerful through ways of talking. Again at crucial points there is the apt utterance by Hammett …

As she goes on, this becomes as powerful as the others – and as the others we are led to see the events from a point of view to the side of the events, rather than the events themselves – meaning say the content of the play, its relevance to the era: the surrounding circumstances become more powerful as her career proceeds and becomes more complicated, again she is often an outsider. We get these succinct persuasive portraits of then well-known people.

A long interesting section on Candide whose subtexts I probably missed because she does not tell about say Bernstein’s politics and her own and those of the people involved. How it was a flop is not therefore made clear or why.

Of particular interest are her comparisons of the ways theater works and film: few dramas can “stand up to an assertive talent, even if original creator distinguished;” “movies solve this problem” by the director and the writer collaborating with the actors; in film the producer takes a central role. She reminds me of Doris Lessing when she says in effect how what she writes is misunderstood continually: what she means to be seen as ironic is seen as straight; there is a continual misreading of her plays as sentimental and melodramatic – partly they are played that way.

Axioms thrown out: “fear infects and corrupts what it touches.” Yes. “It is best in theater to act with confidence no matter how little right you have to it.”

I was chuffed to discover how highly she and Hammett both regarded Autumn Garden. Mailer much admired Autumn Garden but said Lilian had “lost her nerve,” to which Hammett said “Almost everybody loses their nerve. You almost didn’t and that’s what counts, and what he should have said.

Jim thought it the best play we saw all summer in a summer where we saw a large number; it was written during the “best” period of her life, when she had “found the right place to live for the rest of my life,” where she and Hammett had been together for 20 years and made a “lot of money” and didn’t care how they spent it; they had stopped drinking so heavily and “early excited years together had settled into a passionate affection so unexpected to both of us we were as shy and careful with each other as if we were courting children. Without words we knew hat we had survived for the best of all reasons, the pleasure of each other” (p. 163-64). I am charmed how they never had plans for the future. Hammett never believed in any kind of permanence (p. 171). Jim said he didn’t said he didn’t plan but now I realized he did, and expected a future for which he was holding out the money we had – so he was not the deep sceptic that Hammett was until he became terminally ill and then this hopelessness did him a disservice however I understand it.

She has strong praise for the meaning of the character of Joan of Arc as she sees it, and has trouble translating and adapting Anouilh’s play and here makes an important admission:
“I can write about men, but I can’t write a play that centers on a man. I’ve got to tear it up, make it about the women around him, his sisters, his bride, her mother said ..
Again briefly how she and Hammett were destroyed by the McCarthy era, his emphysema became too strong and the poignancy of his not being able to climb up to a favorite place. She did have a hot, Toys in the Attic and its money provided for his last months during which she didn’t sleep.

A. W. Cowan

Cowan was another — besides Hammett — of Hellman’s long-time lovers. She met him at a poetry reading (by among others Lowell) and he did not act in the smooth socially acceptable way most others did. Abrasive, disjointed in his responses, a disjunctive life, she was attracted to hiim. When she showed him the farm she and Hammett had had together, and expressed the idea she had had to sell it due to the McCarthy years, he denied and it made her cry. His bitterness matched hers. She suggests that those who kowtowed to McCarthy were worse than open McCarthy and his acolytes, and for her this was that her belief in tribal safety was forever destroyed. The one satisfactory explanation for what happened was given by Richard Crossman, whose diaries Jim read. He was highly placed in successive labor gov’ts.

A jagged portrait. The point she made about the McCarthy period that made it so searing is that she cared about those who allowed the persecution, those who joined in, those who sprinted to demean themselves and invented lies is this is the core of evil’s start: the only reason these people objected to McCarthy was he was not “a gentleman.”
She likes Cowan because he helps those he theoretically despises and sees through most people as posturing and phony: but this is asking too little of someone. Surely Hammett would have told her that.

Trying to explain to Cowan why she is broke, or feels broke and was forced to sell her farm, she mentions that the Internal Revenue Dept of the USA so calculated Hammett’s taxes that he was not able to keep any of his royalties. In other words, McCarthy was the showman, the people who were eager to cave in the bellwethers, but what was most important was the gov’t apparatus going after her and Hammett at full throttle force. I’ve spent lots of time reading about my eligibility for a widow’s benefit, the insurance and other policies Jim paid into for years to make sure I was would all right if he should pre-decease me: everyone of them has a clause which say the US gov’t has the right to withhold all these funds from the person if they are deemed — I don’t remember the cagey word, it was not subversive as that is too open or concrete but it’s what was meant. Small details like this are scattered everywhere in this portrait of Cowan, an arch conservative politically who apparently became Hellman’s lover and helped her financially.

By the end of the tale Cowan becomes a curiously pathetic creature in a moving portrait, 3/4s lies, 1/4 great decency, perhaps a reactionary spy for the US gov’t set to watch Hellman, perhaps not. He keeps tying to win people over by telling them he’s leaving all his money to them, but when he dies, there’s no will and no money. He’s a much a wild outsider as Julia and dies obscurely with nothing known about him for sure. Here’s a site that tries to capture some of this period and has various replies. Telling to me is how Hammett will simply not stay in the same room with him: Hammett does not trust Cowan to breath honestly.

This relatively short penultimate piece reveals more than any other thus far how much this book has been about Lilian Hellman, that central to it no matter how marginal he appears is Hammett, and its great disaster only approached indirectly the McCarthy era persecution.


She begins by telling how she nearly drowns when she went out alone to fish one day. It is astonishing to me how alone she lives in her way: yes she is often with others socializing and yet she is fundamentally living within herself and doesn’t mind living alone, traveling alone for long stretches. Here she remembers yet another fragment of conversation between her and Hammett where she asked him about a turtle and if the turtle and Hammett were survivors, and now is she? He said “I don’t know .. maybe you are, maybe not. What good is my opinion” (p. 220). She realizes holding onto piling she is conversing with a man dead 5 years and a turtle dead for 26.That brings home to me that I do converse with Jim, and have ever conversed with him on my blog. By remembering what he would say or a scene.

The rest is a savage account of a primitive kind of snapping turtle that cripples Hammett’s favorite dog by biting his leg, and how Hammett in response studies many books, and decides how to murder a snapping turtle in reaction and does it. It’s not easy. It does seem fictional, mythic and half-crazy for after all the turtle that hurt the dog is not the turtle first tries to kill with an axe, then burn to death. It somehow survives by using it shell as protection, but finally they destroy it.

This phase of this portrait is embedded in an account of her buying the farmland it was on: how she made enough money from Little Foxes to buy this vast undeveloped land and how she farmed it, in Westchester County. No one but her interested in it. She really didn’t have the money, it was an estate and she did without food for a week (she says).

So again we are telling of her idyllic time with Hammett in a raw way. The happy time ended 1952 she says again and it’s just after this statement she tells of the snapping turtle.

And the piece ends on Hammet’s words to her, She had insisted on burying this savage turtle out of respect for its ferocious fight back, and Hammett then dubbed it a version of herself and felt the moral emotion she’d had showed a religious sensibility and there was (at the time of writing? When she nearly drowned) a wooden sign over this turtle’s grave: “My first turtle is buried here. Miss Religious L.H.” Hammett’s words.

I thought this last unnamed piece would be about Hammett’s death since a reference to it opens the piece. But no it’s a return to Helen, and a young black man she seems to be nurturing (in her hard bitten way) who shows enormous promise, wins scholarships, goes to highfaultin places, and yet in the end somehow drops out of it all, or doesn’t get anywhere people think he will, and marries and lives an obscure life in Oregon. Helen dies and he returns for her funeral. Intermittently we hear about the student riots and how the universities handle them badly. He rejected the world which probably didn’t want him after all.


For Scoundrel Time and Maybe see comments.


Read Full Post »


Dear friends and readers,

Ten days ago Maria Musiol contacted me to tell me she has now published her study of Vittoria Colonna through the lens of Colonna’s loving friendship with Michelangelo: she says it’s a “series of essays dealing with the recorded aspects of Vittoria’s external and internal life.” She has mailed me a copy, asking me to review it and I am planning on picking up said book tomorrow. I will start reading some time tomorrow.

She has published a German version of her text in Germany — which is historically consonant with the traditions of Colonna scholarship. The only other complete translation of the poems is in German. (Besides mine — Maria Roscoe missed out some, and attributed at least one poem by Veronica Gambara to Colonna.) The standard biography by Alfred Reumont is in German; those who read it in Italian (as I do, since I cannot read German) are reading a translation. I can see Ms Musiol has a new theory about Michelangelo’s drawings as pictures of Colonna and will deal at length with their relationship (as others have done before her).

She also tells me (I hope I am not trespassing to tell this here as it is significant) that she began her project twenty years ago: “After the premature death of my husband I came to Ischia and, looking for role models as a young widow, came across Vittoria Colonna and began my research about her, because there was no adequate biography.” She’s right: Reumont is outdated and without an inner life; Jerrold omits the complicated politics central to Colonna’s life. I have been rereading Colonna’s poems with new insight and feeling over these past two weeks — since the death of my beloved husband.

Coincidentally in middle September I had a query from another woman scholar now working on Francesco Ferrante D’Avalos, the Marquis of Pescara. Rita Lamb is working on his family background, researching specifically into legends and genetic history, which connect Pescara biologically (as a natural son) to the royal Aragonese family in Naples. I went up to my attic, and took down one of my boxes of 3X5 index cards and was able to tell her the names of his mother, father, their parents, and their parents’s parents as reported at the time. None of these members of the royal family, but all close as allies, fellow aristocrats, strongly Spanish in culture, and some even friends. See my brief sketch. If she publishes, beyond offering more about Pescara, she will probably shed light on the history and culture of Ischia.

In the meantime I updated my review of Brundin’s partial edition of some of Colonna’s religious poetry, and I linked Maria’s book into two places on my site: the table of contents page and the bibliography.

11/2/13: see Widow-parlando.


Read Full Post »

memories surround what’s left
Jim and Ellen Moody, later 1980s, living in present house in Alexandria

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

Dear friends and readers,

A favorite book with me, so favorite that like a few others (e.g., a Roget’s Thesaurus I’ve had since age 12-13; a Dictionnaire Larousse par Marguerite-Marie Dubois …, 1971), it has sat on my desk wherever it’s been, for years and years — is John Hollander’s Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse. I have never found anything better when it comes to cataloguing, defining, exemplifying, and what’s more enacting the inner life and purpose of different forms of English verse. It’s so easy to use; so clear. I know he’s making fun of what he’s doing (it’s tongue-in-cheek), showing off. (It also takes the same place in my pantheon as 1066 and All That did for Jim.) I’ve paid to have my Thesaurus and French dictionary re-covered twice now, and if ever I lost Rhyme’s Reason I’d immediately buy another copy. It’s a great original anthology.

Here is Hollander’s villanelle, a favorite form for me:

This form with two refrains in parallel?
(Just watch the opening and the third line.)
The repetitions build the villanelle.

The subject thus established, it can swell
Across the poet-architect’s design:
This form with two refrains in parallel

Must never make them jingle like a bell,
Tuneful but empty, boring and benign;
The repetitions build the villanelle

By moving out beyond the tercet’s cell
(Though having two lone rhyme-sounds can confine
This form). With two refrains in parallel

A poem can find its way into a hell
Of ingenuity to redesign
The repetitions. Build the villanelle

Till it has told the tale it has to tell;
Then two refrains will finally intertwine.
This form with two refrains in parallel
The repetitions build: The Villanelle.

Repetition. It was a favorite form for Jim, who especially valued and reread William’s Empson’s villanelles (his favorite, “Missing Dates”; I also would reread “Courage means running” (“Muchafraid went over the river singing/Though none knew what she sang”). Jim liked rhyme, stanza, form in poetry (Anthony Hecht another favorite).

As some of you know he, Jim, my lover and friend of 45 years, husband of 44, who made this Ellen and Jim have a blog, two, died now slightly more than 3 days ago (October 9, 2013), and last night I wrote this villanelle to express what it’s like for me now:

Where are you? I cannot reach you.
Surrounded. The sky a thick wall
Nothing’s there on the other side.

Here now that junkyard outside
of which nothing mattered. Eccomi.
Where are you? I cannot reach you.

“Hon.” “Didn’a fash yersel my you!”
His words, blood flowing through my heart.
Nothing’s there on the other side.

Death’s world is rotting. Decay.
I tried to stop you from going there.
Where are you? I cannot reach you.

Time divides. When he was alive
When he’s not alive any more
Nothing’s there on the other side.

The silence of reality
What can I do? a bird flings itself
Where are you? I cannot reach you.
Nothing’s there on the other side.

As I wrote on Under the Sign of Sylvia, one can say in verse what one can’t in prose. Still I’m not sure I didn’t express these thoughts much better blurted out grammarless as I was feeling them in a text message I sent to a friend (Miss Schuster-Slatt once upon a time), but I don’t know how to reach the archives (if it is archived) on an i-phone.

Jim, summer 1978 (age 29-30), in Seaman Avenue NYC flat, with few-months old Laura

Jim, 1985, reaching down to baby Isobel, Laura to the side (Alexandria house again)

I shall be putting a few photos on this blog with poetry (not to worry, mostly it will not be by me) to remember him as he was across the years.


Read Full Post »

Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov: husband & wife, he died suddenly, age 28, of a heart attack during a practice workshop

Dear friends and readers,

I find irony in my reading, finding some shared thought, and now passing part of the night by writing about Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking, which like, the apparently naive My Sergei: A Love Story tells of the sudden death of the author’s beloved husband. Some of the intense distress, exasperation and justified anger I have experienced the last two weeks derives from my husband’s death not having happened with the same single night or moment suddenness as Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, and Gordeeva’s husband, Sergei. We’ve experienced 3 and 1/2 months of partial truths told us sufficiently to lead our natural desire to clutch at anything to escape malignant esophageal cancer, no matter how horrendous — like an operation to remove someone’s esophagus and re-arrange his digestive tract and other nearby organs which in itself has nothing whatever to do with what causes, spreads, contains, stops the cancer. And equally 3 and 1/2 months of many medical people’s carefully calibrated behavior controlled fundamentally by each person’s desire to protect & advantage his or her career/job while pretending some other motive paramount. From my vantage point today I almost (not quite) feel as I never thought I would before: as the blow was (as one begins to see as one reads) foreseeable, to fall, the four people (husbands & wives) were lucky to have it fall this way.

Didion, Dunne & their adopted daughter, Quintana (ca. 1970s)

Didion’s considered thesis throughout, and Gordeeva’s natural perspective (just at the outset of her book) is “life changes fast, Life changed in the instant.” This is the refrain of Didion’s book sudden instant transformation of everything upon the death of a beloved partner. As she well knows however (this is in the book) her thesis is thin. She tells of how for a year previously her husband had insights and hinted to her he felt he was at risk of death at any time — and that at least a year before he’d had a bad heart attack and was now living by using an implanted pace-maker. So (like say Causabon in Middlemarch or “young” Jolyon in To Let of the Forstye Saga) she did know he was in danger – or ought to have taken seriously a doctor’s outright warning.

Didion’s book is initially, and every time she recurs to the shock of the scene of Dunne’s sudden keeling over during dinner, powerful. Her book is recursive. She has two further traumatic sudden near deaths incidents to retell. Twice in the book her daughter comes near death: it escaped everyone that a viral infection of a few days before Xmas, because not x-rayed in the hospital the night Quintana came (as it ought to have been) was a serious flu which then (as Dunne said) morphed into an episode of pneumonia that came near killing Quintana too. Quintana later collapses on an airport tarmac as she is being triumphantly coming home; a paralyzing seizure nearly carries Quintana off. It’s one of those real shocks often talked of (“in comparison” to what we usually watch on TV), including the death before your own of your own child.

After the initial power of the husband’s death, there is this falling off as if Didion’s casting about for what to say next and repeats herself, and I feel there is too obvious a sense of this is another occasion for making a book. It picks up roaring as she moves back to her daughter’s two encounters.

Speed of transformation through illness is important, even if common. We do not go about expecting a hammer to come down on our heads. ON one level, my husband Jim seems to have been transformed from recovering slowly from a drastic operation and and then recurrence of cancer diagnosis (liver, “the worst” someone said) inside a week — to man seemingly near death, weak, frail, fatally ill; then I could say it’s been only 3 months since the initial diagnosis, but I know that before that last autumn he had stopped going to the gym gradually and I saw was somehow not himself, not physically well, suddenly looking older. We had no clue to run to the doctor to check with — though he did go for his legs and other things but the problem was not where he was feeling. Engineering term: the point of origin is often not the same as the place of manifestation; one’s bottom body is tired (manifestation) because a cancer is growing in one’s throat (origin, cause).

Her second theme is her magical thinking: once her husband dies, she plays games with her mind. After his death, she asks him for advice and pretends he’s there. She stays away from places which will evoke deep emotional reactions; or if she goes, she plays games in her mind to avoid thinking about that. She can tell us the next morning magical thinking relieved from having to be realistic. Myself I think the term is capable of wider application. Because a hospice person is in the house, you might feel your relative or beloved is safer. He or she isn’t, statistically. We think magically when we rely on rituals. My grandmother tied onions to my feet when I was 3 and came down with a high fever; she was drawing the evil spirits out of the foot. I had a hard time removing the apnea monitor off my younger daughter because I had begun to believe it was saving her. If we do X, Y will surely occur. Make a rain dance, and it will rain. Pray for X, and you may get it (prayers are magical thinking). Human beings attempting to control the natural world.

Yet we do this faced with imminent or present death. But she does not adequately explore kinds of magical thinking (nor the dangers of atavistic behavior they bring), though she shows her wisdom in she defending those people who in need use magical thinking.

Joan, John, and Quintana at home

Other superficialities: She’s not deep about anything beyond these moments. Beyond no real truth-telling about troubles in her life, she presents hers as a life of utter privilege upper class American (she can commandeer a plane and helicopter to take her daughter across the US from California to NY), all the right schools are gone to by all three people (husband, wife, daughter). In the middle of the book she does not want to talk frankly about her family and its realities so she is without matter since she has no criticism to make of attitudes or the medical establishment either.

It reminds of Carolyn Heilbrun’s autobiographical essay in not being willing really to tell and like Heilbrun Didion presents her life as simply happy; Didion tells more but not enough so there’s nothing gripping. We hear of the dinners she goes to (with famous names dropped). She never questions the values that support her privileges; apparently she lived very conventionally inside a small circle of wealthy family and semi- and famous friends. Hints of darker interpretations here and there of their privileged lives, of antagonisms within her relationship with Dunne, especially from her husband’s remembered words, are left on the surface of the narrative. This problem did not arise in the earlier masterpieces (e.g., Salvador) since she was not personally involved.

Life-writing is demanding in ways many writers won’t submit to. They’re afraid – maybe rightly – of the public.

But then her strengths: her style is as marvelous as I remembered it (in Salvador). She never forgets the literal meaning of her words and so has quiet ironic fun with the language medical personnel use. At Xmas she is told Quintana “may not leave the table.” Of course she must leave the table; what she may not do is be taken off it alive. She makes quiet fun of the stilted euphemistic jargon language, the sticking to a high enough level of generality so nothing is acknowledged. Since contained in her words are a thoughtful critique of this language one can’t fault it, but looking at it tonight from my perspective I’d say she can do this since she did not suffer directly from it beyond the “mere” having useful information withheld, nothing explained. Neither she nor her husband were dependent on the medical community as except afterwards (and then he was dead).

It’s not many people who can write of their intimate thoughts while grieving. In the later parts of the books she talks of how she tried to compensate and cope; she speaks of her memories that were good and she helped me sitting there here in my workroom last night to try to relive happy memories. I mentioned some to my husband much later at night (3 am when we were in the front room) who was sitting across from me in his now usual half-stupor and bewildered, unconscious, hallucinating (from all the drugs he’s given for this and that) and he appeared to understand what I was saying. He smiled and corrected a song I said I liked from the 1970s which came to me at that moment as about us:

Only he attributed it to the The Who.

A Year of Magical Thinking is mostly a superb book, deeply felt in many ways, but what makes it is the feeling that what she tells of the traumatic incidents (three) in the book are literally authentic, true, how it happened and her usual bag tricks of style from her interest in literal and playful words (and names), in ironies, and ability to write windingly graceful involved kinds of sentences that are yet readable.


I did not know until I finished and looked at some reviews that Didion’s Quintana whose near-death experiences (two of them, frantic emergencies coming “out of the blue”) provide some ballast for her book — she can include the girl’s childhood through memory flashbacks too – her daughter died in a third seemingly bizarre episode before The Year of Magical Thinking was published. She would not change her book, but instead wrote about the daughter’s calamitous fatal experience of pancreatitis in her next book. I can’t help wondering if there are not aspects of her daughter’s situation that led to 2 times getting to the hospital nearly too late (the 3rd, in the book) is more than the result of errors and infections/blood clots caused by hospital people not doing or doing their job, in this case too cautiously.

So Blue Nights is about her loss of the daughter, an adopted only child. I’ve bought a copy for $3.45 despite several vows to buy no more books now that I’m not going to have someone with me to shoulder the burden of so many or read and use them together in a universal of our own making. I’ll get to it after Ekaterina Gordeva’s My Sergei, co- or ghost-written by E.M. Swift.

Ekaterina was left with a small daughter by Sergei: Daria


Read Full Post »

In 1939 Wuthering Heights: Geraldine Fitzgerald played Isabella Linton, but the film-makers did not have the interest, insight, or nerve to present the range of abuse we see in the book

Dear Friends and readers,

My third and final blog report from the PCA/ACA conference held here in DC. For the first, on serial storying and soap opera, see The Way We Watch TV Now).

Here are panels and papers on women’s issues (abortion, motherhood, careers), recent feminists (Vera Brittain), Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Ann Wrighten, an 18th century memoir of an actress who moved from London to the US, Angelina Weld Gimke’s radical novel, Mara Lena Dunham’s Girls and Aaron Sorkin’s TV show, West Wing. These discussions include the best and worst papers I heard.

I begin with the women’s issues sessions.


The best and worst were seen as the conference began, Wednesday, 1:15 pm, in session called Motherhood/Fatherhood (1127). Vicki Toscano, a working lawyer, gave a superb paper on the current legal particulars of abortion law and controversy today. Popular anti-abortion propaganda are being transformed into (or regarded) as science and accepted as parts of laws. Anti-abortion laws increasingly exploit the post-modern idea that what is scientific fact is nothing more than culturally driven beliefs. At the core is the idea that a woman upon becoming pregnant, conceiving is a mother. Women are told lies that there is a risk of infertility and must be psychological damage is they have an abortion. The claim of a risk of breast cancer is untrue (and though she didn’t say it the same pattern of turning myth into science is seen in attempts to coerce women into breast-feeding). Explicit moral language is increasingly made part of laws.

Toscano began with Roe v Wade, 1973. The court found a fundamental right to privacy was violated when all abortion was illegal, but that in the case of pregnancy that right was not absolute. the 1st trimester there need be no regulations; during the 2nd trimester to protect women’s health you can regulate the procedure. Once the fetus can survive, is a baby in potentia (there is disagreement when precisely this is) then the state’s interest in saving the child can trump the mother’s desires. Increasingly then a woman has the right to an abortion only if her life is jeopardized: it seems the fetus feels pain at 30 weeks but machines can detect a heart-beat after a few weeks and if you multiply the fetus a thousand-fold you can make a woman feel there’s a baby there.

In Planned Parenthood versus Casey (1992), the court turned away from the fundamental right to privacy, and instead said a woman’s right to an abortion is part of he right to liberty; it becomes a 14th amendment issue. The decision did away with the three trimester turning points; now the state has the right to protect the unborn from the moment of conception as long as it’s not am undue burden on the mother. The court has never found any obstacle to be that substantial that it gets in the way. States began to express a preference for childbirth over abortion. The state can insist on teaching women about abortion; the limitation is the information must be truthful, not misleading, and relevant. For no other medical procedure is there this demand for a 24 hour waiting period while the woman is told information about their abortion.

Then in 2007 in Gonzales versus Carhart legislation outlawing partial birth abortion (intact D & E) was upheld. The law now had a constitutional obligation to intervene, with a concern for the fetus or baby’s life and no exception made for the woman’s health. Congress decided that if there is any serious health risk cited by anyone, that must be taken into account. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent said the court deprives women of information and the right to make an autonomous choice. The pro-act reasonings included the idea a woman’s place is in her home.

Most importantly what’s happened lately shows a disregard for the mother’s life and well-being, a preference to save or force a baby on a woman no matter if she risks in the process. Women are increasingly being put into jail as pregnancy is in effect criminalized (especially when a woman is unmarried). We are returning to attitudes that undergirded accusations of maternal infanticide.


Ellyn Lem and Timothy Dunn discussed Anne Marie Slaughter’s “why Women can’t have it all” as if for most women in the US having it all means high professional success and fulfilling family life (husband, children). They went over the Internet controversies, saw Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In as a reply. They really defended both books as serious discussions of women’s lives and conflicts, typical enough lives with admirable values that may be held up as examples.

No one can fault their ultimate general comment that the workplace must have central institutional change to allow women who want to to be part-time at home mothers or wives. But the relevant perspective was that of the tenured college teacher who is dissatisfied because she is not making a huge sum, or on a crucially powerful committee, or is guilty because she leaves her children with a nanny for long hours at a time. Most women make small salaries and must struggle to make ends meet together with their husbands; they have no hired help. Or they are the hired help. They get part-time wages for full-time work. No benefits. The sad value of this session was to see that in these books taken at face value, feminism has become a movement for the few women who can afford to hire other women to take care of their homes and children. Feminism also takes on board neoliberalism, and in Sandberg women urged to imitate the anti-social anti-caring characteristics of men in the workplace.

I offered the idea both texts are irrelevant to most women’s lives; that supposed re-structures of work-days leads to people becoming part-time employees and a plunge in salaries with no benefits. I did not say (as I do here) the whole discussion was in unacknowledged bad taste.

Vera Brittain later in life — she did in her memoirs also chronicle women’s lives in her fiction-memoirs

Liz Podniecks’ paper on Vera Brittain showed that Brittain challenged an attitude that said women must marry and have children to be fulfilled. Brittain was an outspoken pacificist and feminist who argued that women must be employed for money outside the home to be fully adult fulfilled women. In her Testament of Youth she exposed and denounced the barbarity and uselessness of patristic wars. She herself did marry, but kept her name (unusual for the time); Winifred Holtby lived with Brittain and Brittain’s husband and helped a series of hired nannies to take care of Vera’s children. In her writing Brittain continually attacked the “useless” woman, the woman who has nothing serious to do when her children go to school; they vicariously live through their children, are dependent. Once a woman has a good job and home she can stop over-emphasizing the importance of emotional relationships which are not central to the real business of life. They are (in truth) secondary to the way society is structured.

It may be true that some middle class women live pampered lives once their children grow older; and certainly sentiment is not the driving force behind how we order our lives. But this paper, as put, was also elitist at core. It is not a matter of choice for most women. They do not want to be dependent; many cannot get near a good paying job, and thus do find their highest satisfactions in their family’s shared lives. What worried me about this paper was the next inference would be to get rid of women’s right to live on their husband’s social security if he should predecease her when she spent her life as his wife, working at home for him and his and her children and herself mostly without pay. This would force women to work outside the home, many in menial work which given men’s present reluctance to help with housework and take inward responsibility for children would give many women an endless burden. (Pass ERA and the supreme court with its identification with employers would be only too glad to do this; Republicans would be overjoyed to get rid of social security for a good chunk of the population.) For many women it’s asking too much when they are not born to the kind of people that lead to good colleges, degrees, jobs.

To be fair to Brittain, I’ve read her Testament of Youth and know it’s a deeply humane text.


Cast of Girls: Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham and Zosia Mamet

Well, after the above, the only other women’s issues session I went to was an early Saturday afternoon “Gender and Media Studies” (4427, 1:15 pm) which I attended to hear a paper on “Girls” as well as “West Wing,” the first of which I’ve seen and the second never watched but was curious about.

I found Nikita Hamilton’s paper touching. An African-American young woman, she loves Girls and was determined to justify its lack of black and working class people, it upper middle class stance (the girls are supported by parents, don’t worry about losing jobs) to downplay what she admitted was its neo-liberal stances (“they do regret materialism”). she basically argued that this was a slice of life sufficiently realistic and reflective of young women’s problems today. Her valiant try reminded me of how I sometimes justify Downton Abbey as being for community, showing compassion for its characters (“intelligent dialogue”); so many of us find that we love programs in the popular media which are arch-conservative and exclude us. It’s hard to admit to enjoying racist texts which are rightly attacked as suc (e.g., Gone With the Wind is) on the grounds that this is what is on offer, where fine talents are allowed play. To say the more liberal, inclusive, socialist story is just not told. Ms Hamilton discussed the third season where Lena has a black boyfriend who is (natch) a Republican and it doesn’t last past two episodes. She said the use of a “float” magically powerful female black character (as is found in Sex and the City in recent formulations) is not much better.

Martin Sheen as the bully president, Allison Janney as his right-hand Hillary

I would have liked to believe Olivia Kerrigan’s thesis that West Wing is liberal economically and seriously alert to class privileges as well as mildly feminist but from her anaslysis of the three central women characters (all in elite positions, from a Hillary Clinton first lady, to her secretary, to a press agent), it seemed to me this program supported the point of view I heard expressed in session 1127. The program’s male hegemony (comically exposed) irritates & limits the women characters only in small symbolically grating ways. I’ve seen a video which does show the central male (president) as a bully mocking an educated women (naturally with that horrifying thing, the equivalent of a bluestocking sign, the English Ph.D.) but as explained to me we were to admire that man so I came away thinking the program reinforces our elitist hierarchical corporate society with its endorsement of competition as central to social life. Older feminist movies with actively strong career women types like Rosalind Russell (or Jean Arthur) had neither the bullying males nor the anti-intellectualism I’ve glimpsed in this series,and they evinced a genuinely social conscience towards people outside the elite world.

Two other papers briefly: Angelita Faller analyzed a group of commercials for home alarms and showed that they assume women want to be raped, black men are very dangerous, white men good protective heroes, and women living alone are not safe. Jose Feliciano brought out underlying challenges to mainstream conventional heterosexuality in MTV videos, discussing the bisexuality of stars like Lady Gaga. See my super-numinosity.

If nothing else, the papers on imaginative works from a feminist point of view vindicated literary studies. Asked to study finer imaginative works, the presenters did bring out sustainable critiques of the way society is organized, gives women a raw hard deal, victimizes them, complete with examples of a few women who did manage fulfilled lives despite this.

I’ve three sessions, but only four papers to cover, as (shocking) in one of them only one person out of a planned three or four showed; in another the other two papers were written in an abstract jargon impossible to understand, read at top speed and appeared to be about embarrassingly poor texts; and in the third only two papers were about women issues.

Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland at the Abbey (yes one of the four includes on Northanger Abbey)

I’ll begin with the best (or maybe only) literary paper in the conference I heard: Andrea Brittany Brannon’s paper on domestic violence in Wuthering Heights (Friday, 3305, 11:30 am).

It was a relief and delight to hear Ms Brannon defend and sympathize with Isabella Linton as the novel’s centrally abused woman. Through this character we see how male power is privileged and unquestioned; how easy it is for the male to disvalue and put his wife in the wrong (how dare she disobey him?): Isabella begins as a woman who enacts her society’s version of impeccable behavior to becoming someone who cannot cope with the smallest difficulty. Bullying has reduced to marginalization; she is Heathcliff’s way of getting back. She wanted him for the same glamorous sexed-up reasons Helen wants the upper class Arthur in Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hal, but unlike Anne’s novel where we live the experience of abuse through Helen, here we see it through Nellie’s conventional eyes: Isabella is therefore become a slattern without self-respect, and if weak, deserving the cruel treatment of the easily irritated. Heathcliff tells Nellie how Isabella comes to him shamefully clinging. We may see her struggling to apply the only social behavior she knows and finding it useless to help her, inappropriate in her situation. We see her physically punished and banished with him playing the rightly scolding parent. She cannot leave for she has nowhere to go — in the case of Helen she turns to her brother. Isabella’s brother, Edgar, her one male relative with power to help, is angry at her for marrying Heathcliff and abandons her to Heathcliff. So the patriarchy fails her.

Isabella Lindon Heathcliffe (Sophie Ward) from the 1992 Wuthering Heights (glimpse of Ralph Fiennes as Heathcliff from the side)

Ms Brannon pointed out we do have Isabella’s letter, the only narrative in the book which comes to us unmediated by Nellie or Lockwood, but most readers don’t pay attention to this counter-move against the romance of Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliffe. The 1992 movie with Ralph Fiennes is a rare Wuthering Heights to dramatize the next generation and second part of the book where Isabella appears. Most reviewers if they mention Isabella at all blame her (the victim). Ms Brannon made a good case for regarding Isabella as a relevant portrait of domestic abuse today. Isabella is a woman with no access to legal protection. Ms Brannon conceded the novel is problematic as clearly Emily Bronte does sympathize with Heathcliff as the underdog and violence in this novel seems more than accepted as a source of power.

This was the session which was supposed to have paper on Little Women and the Civil War, one on Daisy Miller as a feminist hero and no one came. So there was plenty of time for a good discussion. There were about 5 audience members. Some, like me, said, they had never liked Wuthering Heights as much as the other Bronte books. I thought that Emily Bronte truncated the Isabella story too much, did not realize she was onto some powerful material here. Those who had liked the book when they were young did fall in love with the wild romance.

Angelina Weld Grimke (1882-1958) (African-American playwright)

For the papers on an 18th century actress who reinvented herself, Ann Wrighten, a powerful early 20th century black woman writer, Angelina Grimke, and Northanger Abbey and A Christmas Carol as gothics, see comments.


Read Full Post »

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

Love & Death at Monticello; Patsy Jefferson’s education

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

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

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

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

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

Hotel de Langeac, Paris, Jefferson’s large mansion

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

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

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

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

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

Wife, mother, plantation mistress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The President’s Daughter

Washington DC, 1800

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

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

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

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

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

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

Decay and dissolution

The entrance hall to Monticello

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

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

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

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

For Martha’s last years, see comments.


Read Full Post »

Older Posts »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 260 other followers