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Virginia Woolf, a photo taken in 1939

“And the phantom was a woman, and when I came to know her better I called … her the Angel in the House … And when I came to write I encountered her with the very first words…And she made as if to guide my pen … I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her … Had I not killed her she would have killed me … She died hard … She was always creeping back when I thought I had dispatched her.”

Dear friends and readers,

A couple of months ago now I wrote a group of us on Trollope19thCStudies @Yahoo had finished a months’ long reading and discussion of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, in my case accompanied by watching four film adaptations (Bondarchuk; BBC 1972). I read several books, keep at several writing projects, teach, write papers and blogs, watch movies all at once. So along with Tolstoy (as I wrote in August since August 2016) I and a couple of friends have been reading Virginia Woolf. I’ve decided to put this on my general blog as eventually I will show that she is a modernist as central to modern literature as the over-lauded Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and any other post-modern experimental artist. I’m just now reading Graham Swift’s masterpiece, Last Orders (a Booker Prize winner, adapted into a powerful film) and think it owes much more to Woolf’s Waves than Faulkner, or both Faulkner and Swift are sons of Virginia Woolf.

I just love her writing, fiction and non-fiction, and together we read the great literary biography of her by Hermione Lee, and with a couple of others took detours into new texts, writing I’d not read before (The Waves, Memoirs of a Novelist) and re-read and felt anew the extraordinary writing of/in The Voyage Out and To the Lighthouse. Not to omit John Lehman’s important book on the Hogarth Press, Thrown to the Woolves. Memories: I had read more than 10 years ago now, and so loved The Years, her Common Readers, her life-writing in essay format, A Room of One’s Own, Three Guineas), but had still not attempted The Waves, Between the Acts, both of which I’d wanted to understand and enjoy. It was out of all this I discovered Carrington had many so many pictures, was a great letter-writer, and fell in love with her work. And just now I’m attending my first literary OLLI course as a class member (not teacher), where the topic is Virginia Woolf, and I’m now half-way through Mrs Dalloway (I last read it as an undergraduate).


From Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party: Woolf makes the cut of the 39 place settings

Out of all this what can I offer to a reader to tempt her (or him) to read Woolf if you’ve not started or read only a little of, and how to ignore or get past misrepresentation which leads to readers coming with pre-conceived hostility or else staying away (Albee’s anti-feminist title, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf has done much harm) altogether. My experience when I first turned to her is getting to know her for real helps, and Lee’s biography goes a long way towards doing just that. So I’ll write two blogs on Lee’s biography to start with, and then move on to the Woolf’s novels.

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Lee begins with a meditation on biography itself — as life-writing is what Woolf did a lot of. Her first sectionf her first chapter (pp. 1-11) is made up of comments by Woolf on the difficulty or impossibility of biography. We can see that Lee gave a lot of thought to how she was going to turn Woolf’s voluminous writing into an alive life. She then dives into essays where Woolf is trying to get at the essence of a personality, and thinking about the dead biographies, lifeless, “mausoleum books.” How the biographer has to get at the essence of the self and project it. How adhere to the truth (no hagiography). The conflict for a biographer is between fact and inner life. She was herself defensive towards Winifred Holtby who wrote the first biography of her as a single chapter in a book. Woolf saw a ludicrous gap between her own memory of an event and what others wrote or say about it. She did not want her secrets (whatever these were) given away. She starts to write Stephen Frye’s life. What a grind it is. How shall she do it: specimen days; different stages, then there’s the “complexity and intrigue” of someone’s character in life. In painting we see the irreverent. Her own work compromised by her connections that enabled her to publish it. She had a passion for the lives of the obscure, who turn out to be women.

So I took my first detour and read her Memoirs of a Novelist for the first time.

It contains five separate pieces. Two are riveting. On “The Mysterious Case of Miss V:” at first I was not sure Miss Willatt, the novelist whose memoirs her friend, Miss Linsett, has written was a fiction! But of course it is. Woolf shows that the way biographies of women novelists especially (but men too) are written you end up knowing nothing about them. She makes the point that the marmoreal obvious lies could not fool anyone and asks, so why do people write or read such books? Then slowly and with difficulty our narrator ferrets out what can be said for real of Miss Willatt. Alas, not much. That she was conventionally ugly, that her father made her life a misery until he died, that she was capable of deceiving Miss Linsett endlessly, a restless and disappointed woman who sought her happiness in her self and not others, and was never given a chance at an individual life. The Miss Willatt type of biography goes on today. What do readers think a book exists for? Why do people take the trouble to say such rot? Not to know the person’s life.

“The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn,” is a gem, brief, of the type Diski so brilliantly writes in her Apology for a Woman Writing, a short fictionalized, semi-biography of Montaigne’s worshipping disciple, Marie de Gornay as she related to Montaigne (a presence in the book) and her servant. Deeply moving. Here she’s Miss Rosamund Merridew, age 45, who is trying to understand Joan Martyn’s journal, a series of yellow fragments of parchment. How hard it is to get any information: Miss Merridew visits an old hall (15th century one in a decaying early 20th century state). The man there seems to be a minor clergyman and who keeps on his wall “mementos of dead animals, raising paws.” The man takes out his family history and of course we know what that will be … This piece reminded me of Lampedusa’s Gattopardo: the creation of the atmosphere, the insistence on the reality of a person living in such a house, how the place is set up, where papers are, how remnants from generations of people haunt the rooms. Then we plunge into a controlled stream of consciousness which is so immediate and intense with felt life. What makes it extraordinary is the tone, rhythm of the language. It reads like some recreation of earlier language where ritual, repetition is the mode of sentences, and that in itself a sign the girl is structured in her very mind not to have any thought of her own destiny. What happens is Joan is utterly obedient to her mother, family, and is married off to an older man, and then she is dying. A brief life, of someone highly gifted, of real kindness, unable to have a genuine original thought, dying almost upon adulthood. Deeply poetic semi-comic historical fiction, presented as a biographer trying to do her task, shaped at all points by the structures and outlook of l’ecriture-femme. How can we know earlier women? quietly despairing


Horham Hall — plan of restored great hall

Chapters Two through Four are Houses, Paternal, Maternal. I remembered Bachelard’s Poetics of Space: Yes houses are so central to our memories of our pasts. (When I try to remember the past I ask myself, was it before or after or during the time we lived in such and such a place.) To the Lighthouse records Woolf’s memories of summers in St Ives, Cornwall (become the Hebrides), a proto-ghost story, haunted, different people in the house now, she has no right to be there … It was liberty. The contrast the tall narrow attached house in Kensington, Talland house, all constriction, performance, heavy furniture, curtains, the kitchen downstairs awful, dark, nothing done to ease servants having to live and to work there. As I read about Hyde Park Gate I was struck by how close and dark and hard to clean it was. Nowadays we live I wide open spaces surrounded by plastic things, light colors, easy to clean. It actually as a house seemed to me claustrophobic. I am surrounded by books but that’s all. 17 people in the house. At most where I’ve lived there were 4, all family members. Imagine being the servants in their hot tiny spaces. On p 40 Lee quotes Woolf registering how bad it must have been to work for the Carlyles: two of the most exacting nervous people of their time. Jane Carlyle did join her maid in the struggle for warmth and cleanliness – a losing battle. A lot of the things were also relics. Everyone died at all ages, and they are all surrounded by memorabilia of death. We are not told how Minny, Leslie Stephens’s first wife died: pregnancy. She probably died of eclampsia, still quite often a killer today,and her daughter’s developmental problems stemmed from the premature birth. Woolf’s memory of buying ices as this big event. How can such people when they grow up deal with calamity? Their iron self-esteem, their connections money and power they think will come through. On her disabled step- or half-sister, she talks callously

Lee is showing how entrenched in a Victorian set-up Virginia was and that when she and Leonard became part of a Bloomsbury group, many of whose members had parents who had been part of the Edwardian intelligensia elite, they were replicating the embedded coterie Victorian worlds. Virginia’s inheritance was more than 2500£ from a Quaker aunt. Julia Cameron was a relative. Lee says how natural for Woolf to have written a feminist treatise focusing on having a room of your own. How Woolf eventually organized her writing space and within that pictorial details. Yet they all live embedded together; Lee’s point is Woolf’s was a Victorian upper middle childhood. Hard to clean place, everyone assumes respectability must be kept up …

We move on to Childhood, Siblings first deaths: I’ll cut to the chase: for my part I find her preference for her brother, Thoby, very like Jane Austen’s for Frank Austen: the conventional male-brother; he may have had epileptic fits. After the parents’ death, Vanessa became the most important person in Woolf’s life until Leonard and she married. Vanessa seemed all that Virginia couldn’t be: earth mother, easy affairs (at first, they were deeply anguished eventually as Duncan Grant was more homosexual than otherwise, and she needed him more than he her). It was the obtuse dense Duckworth brothers, especially Gerald who sexually abused Virginia as a child. Lee cannot get her mind around the idea this “small” or fleeting set of transient “petting” episodes so traumatized Woolf. So she does what she can to dismiss the incest charge as overdone: her attitude is how common and fleeting this sort of physical forcing by say one cousin on another. Like Rosemary Ashton on George Eliot & Lewes, Lee tries to turn out a normalized Virginia.

The second crashing event was the early unexpected death of her mother (Virginia was 13); Stephens then used and abused (not sexually but in many other ways) the two older daughters, Stella from his first marriage, and Vanessa. Lee tries to answer how far these specific events led to the episodes of breakdown, derangement. I suggest they are part of a large picture of sexual mis-education so profound on a sensitive girl – I find the insistence on feeding her evidence of anorexia, another expression of profound sexual mis-education and repression. Woolf often uses imagery of a veil or wall in women’s minds; so does George Eliot. My view is what happens later counts a lot too, and my guess is her experiences of sexuality with women, with Leonard Woolf and what she experienced of literary and social life later reinforced rather than counter-acted what she knew as a girl.

Liaisons, Bloomsbury, the new art, sexual experimentation, Vanessa marries, then Virginia and Leonard . Her father’s death freed both she and Vanessa to live a modern life, to rent a house in Bloomsbury and mingle with as equals their brother’s friends and art worlds. Virginia escapes to intense study, writing mood pictures. She is tense and diffident with world outside her family (not too great with family either). She did voluntary teaching at Morley College. She gave it up after two years. All the difficulties of teaching real people before us. I remember Woolf writing at one point, if the individual only would or could, they could learn more by steady reading than any lecture as the lecture is perforce much less dense, less nuanced. Her relationship with a working class man remembered in Mrs Dalloway. She writes all the time, on holidays what she sees. Intensely aware of pre-history underlying civilized world.

Great plans for all to go to Greece, Vanessa refusing Clive for a second summer. VW studies away, Thoby ecstatic at what he sees – poignant material found in Jacob’s Room. In Virginia’s notes she does not want to write cliches, problem of how to get down the experience while modern Greece appalled her. A rich person’s country estate in Euboea. Dominated by doctors, medicine, VW had appendicitis, depression, stress, The hotel suddenly sick room, Vanessa has had it too; Virginia deeply involved with first woman: Violet Dickensn and she is lectured by Violet on necessity of unselfishness and self-effacement. They get home, Thoby seriously ill; turns out he has typhoid. An operation 17 Nov; he dies 20 Nov. There are astonishing letters to Dickenson where Virginia writes of Thoby’s progress all the while he is dead – for a full month. Lee takes this as understandable because Violet is ill. I don’t. It’s crazed behavior.

Each family death causes them to lose a home: after Julia, Talland House; after Leslie, Hyde Park Gate, after Thoby Gordon Square. Vanessa to marry; Clive loves her, is artistic, literary, VW must make home with Adrian. The rich and illiterate Clive family home, fox-hunting, church going, money from mines. Virginia as I see it is now alone and having to adjust: she and Adrian are not congenial, not compatible; they set up housekeeping in Fitzroy Square and she does get into more adult and frank talk with male visitors from
Rupert Brooke to Lytton Strachey (they were equivalent geniusses) – but also considerable showing off (as in Lytton Strachey’s famously uttering “semen”. I find Virginia brave for all the times she traveled alone. She learnt she would not have a good time with Vanessa and Clive.

Virginia was finding herself sexually and couldn’t find a man to be a partner with among those she met – she put it down to scared of sex – sex did mean pregnancy and Lee seems to forget that women the first time are often terrified of getting so big, think the childbirth will tear them apart. She grew up in this repressed environment and that’s why Duckworth was so harmful –he was part of it. Lee again demurs about this trauma Virginia insisted she never got over. She’s got a right not to get over it. She writes: “My terror of real life has always kept me in a nunnery.” She saw it was more than the trauma over sex, but it was that. What’s real life anyway?

Several chapters on the experience of World War One: Lee cannot sympathize with pacifism, nor the subversive outlook in so many areas of this circle of people — they had been so privileged. Lee puts Woolf’s “writing” decisively on the side of the anti-authoritarian, on the side of woman’s suffrage, and on the side of post-impression, which presumably would, to a traditionalist, make her a modernist. Lee criticizes Woolf for her lack of participation in specific issues. She was just not one to get involved; in comparison, Leonard is the true socialist, organizer, man of politics. I did not realize that Roger Frye was beyond his centrality in the art of this group Vanessa’s lover and deep friend of Virginia. No wonder she tried to write his biography.


Vanessa Bell, Leonard Woolf

A long section explaining the sources and complication of Virginia and Leonard’s relationship. Diane Reynold summed it up beautifully: “there is a grand bargain going on in this marriage, each partner trading deficits, finding attractions, a complex dance. Mental illness is swapped for Judaism: each partner brings a negative in the context of the culture. However, Leonard no longer has to return to Ceylon: with Virginia’s money and the solid social entree she provides, and what he supplements earning (does it not occur to Lee that Leonard’s compulsive overworking might have compensated not for lack of sex but for not wanting to live “on” his wife?); in any case, he can do work more attuned with his heart, such as start a press, support socialist causes. She gets the stability and social respectability of marriage. They both get companionship with an intelligent and congenial spouse. I agree with Ellen on the importance of outsider status.” Both outsiders in different ways. We find the source of the title of her profoundly anti-patriarchy, anti-war tract: three guineas was the price of an abortion (from a draft section of The Years).

But they did belong to a circle of like-minded outsiders: they were all part of a movement called modernism, which included far more than people in Bloomsbury (Americans in Paris, Joyce, Italian and French writers, women and men in music and art). In brief, experimental in form in all areas of art, radical thought, transgressive of genres, in writing using stream of consciousness which is so common now: minimal plot and action (these are not adventure stories with forward-driving outward plots), intense immediacy of another mind, interior is maximized with focus on language and ambiguity. They needed the Hogarth Press to get their stuff published. Hints on reading stream of consciousness: look for pointers; they are still there, as in “Clarissa Dalloway thought” or in parenthesis: “(for a girl of eighteen as she then was)”; or indentations, or old-fashioned third person indirect discourse where the narrator is there, however discreetly, indentations on the page showing a new mind is on the page; indications of where the speaker-mind is, “She stiffened on the kerb, waiting for Durtnall’s van to pass.” The pointers are kept to a minimum so as not to get in the way of the imagined character and the reader. You have also to care about nuances of thought, insights, passing things we see, ruminations of subjective memories, all the phenomena going on around us, as well as individual characters’ deep situations of emotion indicated by epitomizing painful and guarded thought.

I want to end this blog before it gets overlong by moving to a chapter in Lee which is disappointing but which attempts something important: Virginia’s reading, what meant a lot to her and how. I am more interested in that than her sex life, which eventually became lesbian, her relationship with Leonard, central though his disciplined and supportive presence was. Would all the chapters were like this one: Lee seemed to me to enter more into the reading process, why we love it, how we react and feel as we are reading, how we do it, how it’s integrated into our lives than I can remember reading (joke alert). And she does it through quoting Woolf describing her reading behavior, processes. I find books mean as much to me and in the way of Virginia.


Vanessa Bell, The Artist’s Daughter Reading

In my dissertation I argued central to the writing of the new immersive romance — or novels with complex characters (subjective presences) was this mood of reverie into which the writer went, out of which he or she wrote (with seeing pictures, hearing voices) communicated into the mind of the reader so he or she forgets you are on chair reading, dream you are there somehow. If someone prods you on the shoulder, the suspension of disbelief is off. Paradoxically as Lee goes on, I become aware how rare this kind of deep feeling living with others and places is probably for many people. Thus this mood of reverie I attributed to these writers is a reading mood (Bachelard probably has some passages on this). The word “reverie” is born in mid-century to mean an imaginative mood of high intensity, often connected to some erotic source. Books can arouse us sensually and sexually too.

Diane pointed out that Lee never does tell us which were Woolf’s touchstone books, she does not cite the favorites, which ones read and reread. “Lee makes the point that for Woolf books influenced her as much as relationships (of course, that cries out for her to tell us which books were lifelong friends, which fell away, which were passing infatuations etc…). We learn that reading is Woolf’s life’s pleasure and her life’s work … Woolf read widely and diversely, as many of us do, and liked to mix second rate with first rate literature, as it helped her understand the best literature and its context better. The second rate helped “fertilize” her mind for the “great.” I also appreciated that she hated that coteries with power in the publishing and literary worlds pushed second rate books, the middlebrow, as better than they are: we see that often in our times, needless to say, and we hear people rave about truly mediocre books that are the “thing.”

Part Two will be about Woolf’s relationships with women, Katharine Mansfield, Vita Sackville-West, Ethel Smyth among them, the Hogarth Press, her writing years, the making of the successful careers, and then the slide into World War Two.


I read and reread and loved Alcott’s Little Women and Good Wives at the age of 9 — it was just this edition, this cover

Ellen

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TheCharlestonFarmhouseSussexTheStudio
The Studio, Vanessa Bell’s Charleston Farmhouse, Sussex

Dear friends and readers,

I know I told of how on one of my listservs, we are reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace as a group with each of us reading different other related works or watching films; on the other, WWta (Women Writers through the Ages @ Yahoo) we’ve started a similar project (far few people alas) around Virginia Woolf. Our central focus is a slow read through another massive volume: Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf, and have talked at length about the art of biography, Woolf’s own life writings and writing about biography (her Memoirs of a Novelist, her “Sketch of the Past” in Moments of Being). One of us read To the Lighthouse; we’ve discussed Gaston Bachelard’s perhaps now-dated Poetics of Space; I’ve watched the remarkably complex )(novel-like? biography-like) Carrington and am now determined to make Dora Carrington my next woman artist in that blog series.

First impression:

CarringtonEmmaThompsonJonathanPryce
From Christopher Hampton’s Carrington: this is based on an actual photo of the house (Emma Thompson who is made to look like Carrington as Jonathan Pryce looks like Strachey in the photos of him)

Strachey asked Woolf to marry him at one point; they were close. Strachey was much older than Carrington and I was thinking about the extraordinary convoluted tortured sexual and marital relationships in this wider group. Leonard and Virginia look conventional from the outside, but look in and you see her several deep lesbian relationships.

Jonathan Pryce who was such a wonderful Wolsey, is perfect for Strachey, and Emma Thompson takes on her stout boyish persona to play Carrington. I’ve only got half-way through: it’s a very long movie. What I wanted to say is that in a way it’s lacking:  Hampton wrote and directed it, and he is following Holroyd’s book and therein is the problem. Carrington is such a painful spectacle. The whole menagerie at her and Lytton’s home are wholly outside the mainstream. She loved Strachey because his homosexuality took the form of no sexual intercourse with a woman, so he was not aggressive at all. For someone who wants safety I am now puzzled (not rereading Holroyd) why she ever went to Mark Gertler (played by the then spectacularly handsome Rufus Sewell) who demanded rough sex as central to the relationship (not painful but agressive) and Sewell plays him as a man driven wild by her. The audience is allowed to see this clearly and Gertler’s attack on Lytton when it becomes obvious Carrington loves Lytton. But to keep Lytton she had to allow this reactionary hulk, Reginald Patridge (renamed Rafe by Strachey) to live with them and to keep him she had to have sex with him; in turn he’d have sex with Strachey.  This is not shown clearly in the film. Gerald Brennan (the young excellent actor Samuel West) who left for Spain and wrote two wonderful travel-memoirs of his life in Spain is brought in; but as I’ve not read Holroyd in a while I forget the bargain, but think Carrington was also required to have sex with Brennan to please someone.

Thompson says over and over this is an abject love. Hampton together with these remarkable actors conveyed something different than I’ve read before. Hitherto it was see how abject this woman was, what a mystery but it was Lytton’s kindness, gentleness and their shared love of art that made her invest her very life in his life.

This film shows him a cool egoist who uses her; he may not admit it to himself but he does. All the sex scenes after Mark are her degenerating, allowing her body to be used by man after man to get them for Strachey. That is what the film shows. She goes so far even to marry Partridge who in the film she sees as a macho male reactionary horror though fun as a man to dance with, handsome to draw. She endures his ugly jealousy and infidelities. She leads Gerald Brennan to lie in ways that violate his character — all for this Lytton. It gets to the point she wants to validate her body and gets involved with a man (Jeremy Northam turns up to do it) who just takes her cruelly for sex, getting pregnant by him she gets an abortion. Thee’s a dialogue where Lytton says why not have the baby.I think the film suggests had she, she might have had something else to live for. But she only wants his baby and he never fucks her it seems.

Pryce plays Strachey as realizing how he is using her, but being unable to resist it and enjoying her company, now and again guilty — as when he will advise her to leave off a man, or have a baby, or makes his will to leave her a pension. A very young Alex Kingston as Patridge’s partner after he tires of Carrington plus Strachey. A younger Penelope Wilton does Ottoline so well. The men in the film do seem attached to Carrington and enduring Strachey for the sake of Carrington except the stud last played by Northam. Thompson and Pryce impeccably involving. I grieved over Carrington’s death yet understood. It ends with a series of images of those of her paintings she did not destroy.

It’s a deeply searing portrait of a on the surface beautiful love but just below deeply destructive of her. We are told nothing of her family or childhood. She turns up sui generis and all film long she is without any group but this Bloomsbury one attached to Strachey and her art school. She goes off to London where she finds characters like Patridge and brings him back as a trophy or fodder for Lytton. Was she promiscuous in London somewhere. Patridge’s questioning of her in fact is understandable.

I want to read the screenplay, watch again and have now bought a book (natch) recent, Gerzina’s Carrington (who wrote on FrancesHodgson Burnett if I’m not mistaken).

As a result of the debate on the art of biography and novels (peel them off and you have an autobiography), we debated (a bit) Tim Parks’s iconoclastic theses about novel writing and reading in yet another thinking book from him, The Novel: A Survival Skill on both listservs.

bondarchuckKutusovPart4
Bondarchuk’s War and Peace: Kutusov after defying everyone and ordering a retreat so as to save as many men and as much of Moscow as he can (1966)

Let me say upfront there is no woman author in Parks’s universe in this book who counts, who he discusses at length. He might mention a woman now and again. He focuses on five males and when he has any examples they are all males. He has a history of Italian literature organized by great authors. Apparently in Italy since the Renaissance there has been but one woman writer of note. Something like 25 authors, one is a woman.

I wonder what women do with themselves when I read Parks. It’s important to the man’s outlook, tells us what he reads, how he reads. So by no means is he a guru when he leaves out half the human race; women do write differently, they make art differently — from social life and from innate elements.

Parks’s idea that novels threaten us has some powerful explanatory force; this is why people talk (and perhaps) think consciously about novels so moralistically. They inveigh against characters who do not obey social norms because they don’t want to articulate why those who don’t don’t, nor admit to identification. He follows this up with the iconoclastic idea we love books which are substitutes for the presence and sense of real person they contain, stand for. This a complete refutation of the “biographical fallacy.” Kraggsby says she becomes so emotional when she has to write or feel about Woolf after a bout with a book. This helps explain that. I so agree with it.

With Parks I really feel a mind thinking, not just putting together the platitudes and nouns referring to theoretical positions which the author then aligns him or herself with. He offers this possible description of what’s meant by creativity: “the ability to produce …. The emotional tone and the play of forces in whch the narrator lives, the particular mental world in which he moves …. “ Parks doesn’t need to have Coetzee in front of him, in fact the Coetzee we meet (as Proust would say) is the partial social man, not the man who counts. The greatness of such works, the triumph “we find their work drenched with their personalities, supreme expressionof theirmanner and character and behavior, each absolutely recognizable, triumphantly unmistakable … He does cite Woolf a little way down; her understanding is just so to the point, and what she does. Paradoxically l’ecriture-femme (women’s texts) exemplify much more centrally than men’s what he begins with.

When you say that a novel threatens the reader, and that therefore we need to learn actually how to survive them (really taken into consciousness what they can show) and that the author’s identity (I’ll call it) is everywhere there in different ways, you are set on a very different road than most books on the novel. I just love how he does not repeat cant and situate himself next to it or with it — not that a great books don’t do this: Jerome de Troot’s two books on historical fiction do it, but he examines these theories often to show their fallacies, not always.

Tim Parks is consistent with his view that the great writer conveys an authentic specific self across his or her work, asks about the writer’s tension when he or she thinks of who is reading this text. Parks says the novel is “officially addressed to everyone,but in reality they are not thinking of today’s Ph D student in say Korea addressing scholarly conversations in 2016; the actual circumstances the writer writes in frames his or her perception of what is being written; relatives do often complain and are hurt, as well as friends; t often he or she is thinking of some subgroup of readers alive at the time, “the implicit reader”. He proposes we think of ourselves as overhearing the author’s address to his or her audience at the time. Park then goes over specific details in a Becket text and they come so much more alive when you nail who specific savage ironies are aimed at. Lee quotes Woolf’s life-writing a lot and Woolf assumes her readership knows what the life of the upper class at the time was; her tales of childhood assume familiarity.

Parks says it is not a retreat from the text to be interested in the author’s patterns of behavior, relationships at the time of a text writtten, but rather it can increase our engagement. He then goes on to Gregory Bateson who argues that personality differentation ,how we establish our identities to ourselves are in relation to others aroud us which often are binaries and are reactions against. he is not talking about one-on-one equivalencies but a general presence surrounded by particulars then transposed but often more transparently than we like to allow.

helen mirren the last station
Helen Mirren as Sonya in Jay Parini’s The Last Station (which is part of our Tolstoy matter)

Now to apply Parks’s thesis to The Last Station, for example, you have to know about Hoffman and his life and relationship to the film (which he does bring in in the feature to the film, also Parini, not to forget Tolstoy, Cherthov, the various actors who inhabit the roles.

It is a complex film and now I’ve got to find time to read the book. A good performance can make a character come alive: In the screenplay Hoffman worked to condense, make a coherent POV (Valentine, the most invented of the characters) and in general sort of gave more meaning to what’s in the book and made me wonder if a movie because of its form often does simplify. It’s hard to fight it as successful as Bergman did. He didn’t care if his films made money when he started out. I thought I’d mention that the train was to be much much more important: it was to open with Valentine on the train; the deleted scenes are of Tolstoy fleeing on the train, Sofya following. It now only ends with the train. Hoffman says he wanted it to be a symbol but as he proceeded he decided the characters and their relationships were what he should spend time on. More practically I have watched enough honest features to have heard directors say you have to cut and you have to choose, and many he saw this skein or thread one he could eliminate neatly — to make the movie marketable. This was to be an allusion to Anna Karenina, with Sofya as our Anna who survives. I suspect so.

Also from our Tolstoy group: I am finding A. N. Wilson’s biography on Tolstoy without bothering to argue this in effect bases his biography and assessment of Tolstoy’s novels on a perspective like Parks; Lee is more reticent but then we’ve hardly gotten Virginia born. Wilson thinks Tolstoy is addressing other Russian writers, how he conceives of the cultural and political situation in Russia, but deeply by the time of Anna Karenina moved inward and dealing with his own many layered psyche through her.

Lastly (since I’m going away for a week — to Cornwall, where Woolf spent summer holidays for years on end — and have little time) I thought I’d just briefly call attention to an excellent review essay in TLS by Francesca Wade on the rebuilding of all sorts of house space the various Bloomsbury people had in different sites and museusm: “Interior Designs, Interior Desires: examing the inside of Bloomsbury homes as a guide to their owners’ artistry and personality.”

Wade begins with Bachelard and then goes on to show how the Bloomsbury group utterly defied conventions not just in painting happy pictures of what they were doing on their walls, and but in scattering all the things they used over a day freely around the house, making rooms serve real and different functions peculiar to the people living there all at once. In the movie Carrington we see the house Strachey (Jonathan Pryce) and Carrington (Emma Thompson) live in have her paintings on the wall, and a couple of the rooms are clearly shown to be reflective of how they live. Outsiders thought the decorations were lascivious or salacious because of the unconventional sexual relationships people who came and lived there had, but not at all. Nudes were not sexy nudes — as in the film. They were gay (old use of word), defying the colors, atmosphere of the homes these people had been brought up in.

Most houses today and apartments too are set up in conventional ways with several rooms sometimes given over “to making a show.” More time and energy making the room a symbol of the expected social life and status than the comfort of people living in it. The purpose of the US family room is to have a place where people can do their own thing but even there I’ve seen status and money the criteria for decorations — how many Xs you did of this or that.

Jim and my house was and today mine alone with his presence as memory and filling the objects is not like that. There is no room for show, the rooms have — or had (he’s gone now) several functions. I have been told if I wanted to sell it and/or sell it for a high priceI would have to empty it out and make it a soulless display. So that’s what the average person wants: plus and a soulless display. No thank you I said. Either it’s sold the way it looks or not sold. So Bloomsbury space is still iconoclastic.

Ellen off for a week on holiday in Cornwall

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Charles Camoin, Cat before the Open Window — from Sixtine, one of the lights of my existence

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Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd guarding her side as she allows herself to be taken to hospital

Friends and readers,

There is a great distance between the reviews of this film, the stills you see on the Internet, and the film itself. The film is a wrenching story on several levels set in a weak film; the reviews mostly overpraise saying very little but giving an impression of arch light comedy which we are told is nonetheless weighty but not why.

The story or source are scattered entries in Bennett’s life-writing diary covering 15 years in which Alan Bennett gradually allowed himself to become Margaret or Mary Shepherd’s care-giver, first seeking to get her as street nuisance into his empty driveway and into safety, not protesting when she used his house for whatever she needed (including for a chair to rest), then helping her daily, for example shopping

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to the point where finally the social workers come to him and one complains that she “senses hostility” in him (I laughed wildly at this utterance both times she spoke in this ever-so-patient manner) by way of complaining about his “attitude” or Miss Shepherd’s non-cooperation which include delusions about the Virgin Mary that must be accommodated. This is one-half of the overt central plot-design of an hour and 45 minute film.

The other half, or set of events interwoven are about Bennett’s own mother who we are first shown as in good health, but old and feeling justifiably neglected as he hardly ever comes to visit; she then gradually declines to the point he puts her in a retirement community, then assisted living, and finally into a bed where she seems comatose. He is represented as two Alex Jennings, him as a man living his daily life, and him as a writer observing and writing about himself.

To understand these juxtapositions and doublings you must know about Alan Bennett the real man. Sometime during his boyfriend his mother was put in an asylum because he and his father could not cope with her breakdowns and eventual insanity; his father was deeply depressed over this, and (as I recall) is presented as wanting to kill himself; they were lower middle class and had not much money to improve his mother’s care. Father and son felt destroyed by their decision and yet they could not keep her. In the film Miss Shepherd lives in fear someone will put her in an asylum. What Bennett has done is displace his real mother into softened fictionalized version of her as older mother next to Miss Shepherd to suggest to the viewer (and the writer says this) that he took care of Miss Shepherd to compensate for his lack of care when he was much younger for his real mother.

The backstory of who Miss Shepherd was when young and how she got this way, which is important in the film too, is kept to the margins because the story is about Bennett and this fifteen year experience even though he says near the close forming a first sort of climax that he put together her life over the 15 years and learned that her private life was in some ways more dramatic, theatrical, unusual than his.

The film opens with a concert done as an old film where we see a young woman playing a piano as part of an elegant orchestra. Little incidents, visits, information about a sister and brother-in-law combine to unfold a life of aspiration, gifts for music recognized, early achievement, which was mysteriously brought to an end when she entered a convent as a poor religious Catholic girl. The nuns disciplined her cruelly, would slam the piano cover on her hand when they caught her playing, dressed her poorly. We are never sure how she escaped them but it was too late for a career or marriage.

A woman alone with no career or husband or money does not do well. So we are left to imagine a Cathy Come Home story where there was no home, but a crook of some sort she now has to pay to stay away. I became uncontrollably distressed when a single flashback showed us that the opening of the film was her driving from a crime scene where she had run into a young man on a bike and killed him. Thus her hiding out and fear of police. We see her from time to time praying intensely in improbable places. At the shock of the crash and the spattering of blood, broken glass, I cried out and twisted in my seat such that the friend I was with worried for a moment.

It was not until then that I realized I found Smith’s performance as a homeless friendless ancient tenacious woman who makes a home for herself and the accumulated relics, remnants, junk and trash of her existence in a van pitch perfect enough to distress me deeply somewhere in myself. I went home needing a glass of wine immediately. She was by turns frightened (of a police car when we first see her) so driving at a frantic rate; ridiculous and dignified; stalwartly actually taking herself on a vacation to the beach at Broadstairs and drinking lights drinks as she looks out at the water and sky; and pitifully stinking, weak, in need of a toilet, utterly vulnerable (to an ex-crony played by Jim Broadbent who harasses her periodically, shaking her van, demanding money); and most memorably, indomitable because she held on tight to her pride:

Maggie Smith finds every laugh and every tear in The Lady in the Van. </e

As I tell this it becomes stronger than it feels in the film. The most melodramatic moment occurs when a nun slams down the piano and another scolds her, and we see her fleeing through empty rooms in a convent. The rest is snippets of talk, a fleeting image her, a comment there. Admirably there is nothing over-melodramatic, no juiced-up climaxes, but inevitably (as in life) in the main story repetition as the two participants never budge from their initial positions, she not owing him anything and he not taking responsibility for her. Real and something many of us may experience from some angle in some form, material presented in this displaced way does not make for a riveting naturalistic film experience.

A friend suggested to me Bennett was too close to his material this time. We are not allowed to see or experience what is going on inside Bennett — the way we do his protagonists in Talking Heads. I know his most successful works are ironic comedy with surrogates for himself that are not recognizable. There is an allusion to these six monologue plays because in the film he is during one year of the fifteen seen playing the one closest to himself in a nearby theater. We glimpse male friends and associates now and again (Dominic Cooper plays one), and passing remarks that he hides his life from others, but we must know he is homosexual to understand this too. The present time story is punctuated by incidents where we see his neighbors reacting to Miss Shepherd, or him, or both of them. The neighbors are played by highly respected actors and actresses who seem to be friends and associated with Bennett from other plays or films, for example, Frances de la Tour as Vaugh Williams’s widow

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On the Internet where I found these oddly discordant reviews, Smith is most often pictured in stills with Alex Jennings as Bennett, looking comic, arch, as if she’s having a just this great fun time pushed by Bennett in a wheelchair

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but more true to the continuous quiet temperature of the film are the few of her encounters with neighbors, made up of ever so kind and tolerant but essentially indifferent people who provide no help:

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Deborah Findley and Roger Allam as a married couple off to the opera.

The best reviews here and there remark on undercurrents of the film: it is a strange poignant duet of prickly unhappiness and wry humor. Most seem to overpraise except if you read carefully. The Telegraph seems to feel it stands for the best Englishness (and is just hilarious) Ebert’s column says it’s for anyone who adores Maggie Smith. A number of the more popular type (on Rotten Tomatoes) attempt critiques, it’s a Disney-like homelessness, or dull, one person talks earnestly, meaning well, taking psychological language seriously (“a misunderstood woman suffering from PTSD”), others like NPR typically take it lightly.

But it isn’t light. Look at her! Notice the fierce look in her eyes. She’s holding on to life with great difficulty. Look at how she has to dress to keep herself minimally comfortable and self-respecting. I’ve seen lots of “crazy ladies” in NYC like her. Some men too.

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At the end before Miss Shepherd is taken away to hospital because she has become so very sick, the social workers feel they must take her in to do “blood work.” She looks much better when washed, dressed in a clean starched dress, her hair brushed and put into a ponytail. She eats quietly at a table. She does not die there but returns to the van. Bennett permits himself several untrue sentimental moments (one of the Alexes tells us this) and the night before she dies, she holds out her hand to him, he takes it and they squeeze. The next morning she is found dead. There is a funeral, a burial, a historical plaque like those of famous authors to show the Lady in the Van lived here 1974-1989.

But that doesn’t end it. We get one of these extraordinary post-life scenes where Miss Shepherd suddenly appears and tells Bennett she has met the young man she killed and we see them walking off together. And then we see her in an absurd translation taken into heaven with a God in sky — like the Virgin Mary she has mentioned many times in the film. It didn’t work for me as satire. But much of Bennett’s work is about religious belief and how religion is perverted, misused (I hope my reader has seen Bed Among Lentils) — and in Miss Shepherd’s life it was that.

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In the film Miss Shepherd gets a new van more than once and paints it yellow-orange; Bennett as writer using a voice-over tells us Miss Shepherd was happiest when absorbed painting her latest van

Ellen

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

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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).

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The real Annie Kenney

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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.

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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.

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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The group early on in Suffragette

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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

Ellen

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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.

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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 …

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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.

Willy

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).

Julia

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.

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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.
Ellen

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.

Turtle

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.

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For Scoundrel Time and Maybe see comments.

Ellen

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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.

Ellen

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26JimEllenblog1980s
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.

JimLaura1978laterintheyearblog
Jim, summer 1978 (age 29-30), in Seaman Avenue NYC flat, with few-months old Laura

21JimIzzyLauraReachingDown
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.

Ellen

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