Archive for the ‘women's novels’ Category


Dear friends and readers,

When Izzy and I arrived at our local better cinema and saw to get into one of the movies we had to join onto a long line thick with people, I was startled to find this was for Saving Mr Banks! which in the trailers had been represented as about a crabby old maid schoolteacher type giving the warm and wonderful Walt Disney a hard time, rejecting his of course charming Disneyland. We had assumed it was for The Hobbit.

I figured and still think that the 4 full Mary Poppins books are not widely read, but liked by a sub-group of reading girls, Anglophilic, with an unusual penchant for implicit meanings and respect for the old-fashioned values of decorum, titillated by strictness. I liked the 1964 Mary Poppins musical, but know it is wildly disparate from Travers’s books. (See my blog on Pamela Lyndon Travers, woman writer of children’s books.)

As we stood there and saw the line grow past us and out the door into the cold, I reminded myself the new film, Saving Mr Banks, did have big-name stars with strong talent (Emma Thompson as PL, Tom Hanks as Walt); was a Disney film and thus guaranteed-to-be-wholesome film, and of course would be connected to the 1964 Mary Poppins film, which perhaps had made a very distorted view of the original character into a household icon.

I’m writing this blog because I’ve since discovered that in more popularly oriented movie-houses parents had brought children (not what the crowd at this art house does) and overtly removed these kiddies from the unexpectedly unsuitable material. That means the hum and buzz is giving a wrong impression of what this film is about and is largely responsible for the big audiences; the few thoughtful reviews concentrate on how the film misrepresents the final outcome of the strong conflicts between Travers and Disney over the nature, mood, characteristics and specifics of the 1964 Mary Poppins film: in the film she relents mostly and is deeply moved by the film insofar as it reflects the autobiograpical sources of her books; in reality; she hated the film.. But see Caitlin Flannagan’s Becoming Mary Poppins.

Promotional shot at the premier to which Travers had not been invited lest she convey her sharp disapproval: the photo shows she disguised her feelings that night

What’s been left out from accounts is more than 50% of Saving Mr Banks‘s matter: P.L. Travers’s childhood in Australia; few stills of Ruth Wilson as Mrs Hof, Colin Farrell as Mr Hof (the original we are told of Mr Banks in the books), and hardly any retelling of how Mr Hof is first responsible for moving his family from the comparative respectability and comfort of an upper middle class home in a citified area of Australia (New South Wales? Queensland?) into the hinterlands (called Allora in the film, perhaps central or western Australia) where he proceeded to become a thorough alcoholic and failure as a bank manager (someone who could not cope with the stress, repression, hard commercialism of any money-making occupation). We see him humiliate himself and family in a scene on a public stage, fall to the ground and slowly die of TB and delirium tremens. At one point Mrs Hof tries to kill herself by drowning. The child, Helen, called Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley) by her father, who since renamed herself Pamela and then PL (Lyndon a middle name) is totally involved, worshipping and feeling for her father,


trying to save her mother. A sister turns up to help them, dressed in the film like Mary Poppins in the book with a little of her outward sternness.

This does explain to me for the first time the strange turn the 1964 Mary Poppins takes: Mr Banks risks losing his job by refusing to give all his time to his work when he is made to realize he is neglecting his family; he refuses to yield to pressure and insists on going to fly a kite at the film’s end, when of course he is forgiven and hired back by the bank’s aged boss: Dick Van Dyke played this role as well as Bert, the match man, made in the film a lover-suitor for Mary Poppins, while in the books this is only hinted at, slightly and sometimes denied. There is no such story in any of the four MP books written by 1964 (MP, MP Comes Back, MP in the Park, MP opens the door). It is a much bowdlerized version of Travers’s father’s behavior. In life he did not die of TB either, but influenza; the real Mrs Hof had connections with powerful whites in Australia (and her sister had money).

Saving Mr Banks then may be said to inject back into the books the self-reflexive deeper material compelling the writer’s creation of Mary Poppins as a kind of strange savior of the family: the strangeness is in the way she does this: in adventure after adventure the children find themselves suddenly in another realm of reality, often connected to the zodiac or stars in the sky, the sun, sometimes natural worlds in a green park. Sometimes the figures met there are bullies, mean, or downtrodden and wanting and in need of affection. Mary is called upon to fix a situation, she does and she is worshipped there as a good kind all powerful woman (not the stern cold governess-figure she seems to be to outsiders), and each time the children return to Cherry Tree Lane somehow rejuvenated.

None of the above gets into the 1964 Mary Poppins except the passage to another idyllic place (pastoral and filled with penguins and animated figures) through Bert’s chalk sidewalk pictures (something that does happen in one of the four books’ adventures). Some does get into this 2013 Saving Mr Banks: the outward stern, cold, fussy, dominatrix feel of Ms Travers or Pamela as played superbly well by Emma Thompson is modeled partly on the book’s Mary Poppins. Thompson also conveys non-caricatured hurt, quiet moments of self-doubt, disquiet, with gestures that at moments reminded me of her most magnificent performance in Wit.


The advertisements for the film emphasize the relationship of Travers and Disney (much idealized, and played more subtly than at first appears by Tom Hanks):


Some of the Saving Mr Banks‘s worst moments come out in this strand: Walt’s long preachy speech to Pamela (he insists on a first-name basis right away) about how everyone can have or do what they want if only they try or work hard enough (a popular rightist American myth — Disney was an arch-reactionary it is true). (See Slate article on this meeting where she agreed to go along with the film.) Thompson’s imitation of a wry whose guardedness isolates her and accounts for how unhappy she makes herself (message: socializing is the most important thing to do well in life).


The strand in Saving Mr Banks which tells the story of Travers’s strong reluctance to give over the rights to Disney, her fights with the creative song-writers, Richard and Robert Sherman (David Schwartzman and D. J. Novak) and script writer, Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) are part of the finer threads in the film: we see them inventing and singing some of the better and still well-known numbers from the 1964 film — which as a song-and-dance musical is marvelous (especially where Van Dyke dances with a chorus of men and with Julie Andrews up a stairway into the sky).


I felt nostalgia for the film as these were sketched out by the creators, and Thompson-as-Travers’s disapproval added a piquant sauce to the mix. I remember how Izzy loved the film as a child. She has read at least a couple of the books.

The best companionable feeling in the Saving Mr Banks derives from Thompson as P.L. Travers’ relationship with Paul Giamatti as Ralph, her driver. He is the on-going person we see her with; at the first she bullies him and mocks his efforts at ingratiation and talk about the sunny weather, but eventually she comes to depend on him, especially when she has no invitation to the premier and he drives her there and provides her with support.

Driving Ms Travers

The most natural moment of friendship occurs when she is leaving L.A. after having rejected the script when she discovers it will have animated figures (she had been promised it would not) doing inanely silly gestures with clothes. She is seen sitting in the grass deeply distressed to think of what is happening to her story, and the driver comes over and they talk. Here she learns of his disabled daughter at home; I have read that disabled figures are figuring more in mainstream films, and Thompson as Travers is several times rebuked for her demands for formality by stories of the hardships others experienced in life as if precise manners must be an indication of obtuse snobbishness.

As she and her driver bid adieu, she addresses him as Ralph (his first name) and he addresses her as Pamela. Throughout the film her formal or more old-fashioned approach to life is seen in her discomfort in being required to start relationships on a first name basis immediately. I understand that as that is the way it was when I was a child. It’s not snobbishness; it’s a way of making some relationships more special and acknowledging intimacy that’s real. She is followed by Disney to England and he preaches his preachy-speech of his hardships in life, his father, and voila she is convinced — having liked “Let’s go fly a kite” and the depiction of Mr Banks in the film (by David Tomlinson).

Often the best parts of films don’t make it anywhere near the trailer, but this time they are also failing to get into the reviews — perhaps deliberately? Makers and critics of films like to see what is not discussably in the open brought out visually and through story but themselves in the case of expected popular audiences not risk going into tabooed matter.

Saving Mr Banks‘s script is by two women: Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith. I wondered if they had loved the Mary Poppins books, and wrote this movie in tribute to P.L. with a view of doing some justice to her and revealing some of the deeper explicable sources of the books.

I am interested in Australian literature, which I now see the Mary Poppins books belong to, and am tempted to buy one of the biographies of P.L. Travers. Patricia Deemers’s Twayne book may be the sensible one, but Valerie Lawson’s look like the writing of someone deeply engaged by the author and her books. Out of the Sky She Came: The Life of P.L. Travers, Creator of Mary Poppins. The sky provides the highest moments in the books and the 1964 film; this more sceptical disillusioned film (when it’s at its best) makes the sky the place planes fly across, but from time to time a sky is filmed, blue, with lovely clouds, as symbols of the books’ visions.

Bert and Mary looking up into the sky (1964 Mary Poppins)


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

Dear Friends and readers,

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

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

I begin with the women’s issues sessions.


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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From The Grass Is Singing, a Studio 4 film (1962)

Dear friends and readers,

Returning to my promise to try to write shorter more frequent blogs, over the past week and one half I’ve been mesmerized by one of Doris Lessing’s early novels: The Grass is Singing.

Lessing is the kind of writer who can produce such very different books (and thus takes on pseudonyms so as not to disappoint her readership under her first name): she has the intensely realistic social critique novel and/or memoir, often with a heroine at the center (but it can be a cat), where we are invite to experience the nature and sources of commonplace destruction of people, places, environment, relationships, communities on this earth. The Golden Notebook belongs to this type, and alas has overshadowed the others, e.g., The Summer Before the Dark, The Memoirs of a Survivor, and A Small Personal Voice. I remember being mesmermized by The Summer Before the Dark.

She also writes allegories where the action is fantastic, and susceptible to moralistic exhortation, feminist, anti capitalist, to my mind not persuasive because so unreal (you can prove anything when you get to make up the evidence), often dwelling on exterior delineation, e.g., the Martha Quest books, the Canopus in Argos series (some under a pseudonym). There are writers where even the stance or message is utterly different between two or more sets of books (e.g, Margaret Drabble with her traditional heroine’s texts versus successful careerist books; Margaret Atwood again with heroine’s texts, this time made contemporary versus environmental fantasies & allegories). In Lessing it’s the realization.

The epigraph to the novel tells us the title comes from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland which is then immediately parsed for us:

In this decayed hole among the mountains
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing
Over the rumbled graves, about the chapel
There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.
It has no windows, and the door swings,
Dry bones can harm no one.
Only a cock stood on the rooftree
Co co rico, co co rico
In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust
Bringing rain
Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves
Waited for rain, while the black clouds
Gathered far distant, over Hirnavant.
The jungle crouched, humped in silence.
Then spoke the thunder

It is by the failures and misfits of a civilization that one can best judge its weaknesses.

The story: We begin with a brutal murder. Mary Turner, a white woman has been killed by Moses, her male black house-servant. The novel seems to hark back to Olive Schreiner in its immediate reaching out to use the incident for a depiction of the class and racial divides of South Africa, countryside and town, and a sense of landscape dreadfully hard to endure, farm, survive in.

Then we move back to focus on Mary whom we first meet as a exhausted corpse. While not overtly feminist, we experience how she was driven to marry Dick Turner, a man she barely knows after years of living a detached successful enough (not unhappy) life in an office as a clerk. Lessing says Mary’s way of life offering liberty to women would not be possible in the era she is writing the book, 1950; that’s interesting. It means women have recently lost ground.

Mary is driven because she begins to overhear people mocking her, feels she is somewhat ostracized. Delicately it’s suggested people assume she’s a closet lesbian. She is not. She didn’t want to marry because she saw the misery of her impoverished parents, and especially mother’s life and now she finds she’s
repeating it. There is much compassion for the man too.

A colorized still from the 1962 movie

As with Schreiner, a contrast is set up between the veld and the city. The city is hollow, hypocritical, anonymous, mindless impersonal relationships which based themselves on daily repetition of numbing activities (like drinking), but the veld
is hot, dry, impossible to make a living on unless you pour huge amounts of money in and pay no wages for work; death dwells there; catastrophe and egoistic patterns of behavior where people lose perspective emerge. In both places a race and debt system controls everyone’s behavior. Mary’s husband, Dick, refuses to be co-opted into the debt system; he wants to live in harmony with his land and eek a subsidence life from it. This means living in continual bare poverty with small groups of crops providing small amounts of money from month to month. A tin roof which makes the heat worse. No holidays.

In Claire Denis’s White Material (partly based on this book), she emphasized Mary’s hatred of the store Dick tries to run as a version of what partly killed her mother as it died.

Feeling herself to be going mad with heat, poverty, loneliness, nothing to do, Mary at least determines to flee. She takes what has has left of decent clothes, what she can put together to get to a train (but she has to enlist a disapproving neighbor to drive her there), and leaves a note. Once back in town she goes to her old boss whose ad for a person to fill her old job she saw. He tells her sorry he’s just gotten someone else. A lie. She doesn’t look right and anyway she’s married. He’s shocked and alienated – at her looks too. The forces that drove her to this marriage are driving her back. Dick is at the hotel when she returns. He is abject and desperate and she returns.

Mary demands a child. Let’s have a baby and it will give us a meaning. He refuses. A child will only make life harder and how can they bring another human being up with any hope or good life in this place. Mary tries to get him to plant tobacco in huge amounts (he does borrow money) to make cash crops, but the year is a bad one and the crop fails. He hates what it has done to his land.

For a short while his behavior has (from Mary’s standpoint) been better, but he sickens badly. Then she has to run the team in the field; she is ugly in her behavior, inhumane, taking out her despair on them. A physician tells her they must build a decent roof, renovate the house to get rid of the bugs, and take a 3 month holiday. He offers no funds, but does not charge.

Mary has been taking out her rage on her house servants, and her one pride is that she is above them. She treats them like instruments, scolds, slaps, insults. Gradually no one will work for her, and there is left only Moses, and Dick now menaces her: he warns her not to lose Moses. To keep Moses she must bend, and we see him take over as she weakens, sickens, comes to depend on him to dress her, to make her eat. It’s suggested she begins to go to bed with him while Dick is out in the field all day with a small group of black men.

So, it’s a thoroughly implicitly feminist story. An anti colonialist expose of the capitalist system and the lives of poor to middling people who try to escape their grinding lives by emigrating. This is the set of people Trollope wrote his colonialist stories about too (see Returning Home). They mostly die or go to pieces or somehow, just, survive.

But the novel’s greatness is not in this message as in the way the prose begins to soar as Lessing enters Mary’s mind and we exist inside what Mary sees and feels as she desperately holds on against disintegration. It’s here her genius shows itself.

The outer pattern is that of The Golden Notebook. No we do not have four parallel differently colored notebooks where the action in each shows us versions of the heroine — in contemporary London as a bourgeois divorcee living off the proceeds of her one successful novel; in South Africa as a communist; as a fictional heroine invented by herself as magazine writer; as a diarist writing down what is said as she visits a psychiatrist. Then all dissolves into one golden notebook, a sort of final plunge in the final notebook which became identified with the almost Lawrentian idea that what the heroine needed was a long series of good orgasms.

At the conclusion of The Grass Is Singing we also have a dissolution. The heroine has lost her struggle and we return to the impersonal third person perspective we began with. An outsider, a neighbor who was the man who found the dead body now comes to the farm in hopes himself of taking it over and also out of pity for Dick. He sees a woman who has gone utterly to pieces, and become a sort of subject presence to her black servant and her husband gone equally crazed with his inability to cope with what’s needed in capitalist farming. The long stretch of meditation is extraordinary (some typical utterances from the book), but the insight is not sheerly erotically based as the circumstantials details of the disintegration have been exterior to Mary as well as what was in her and Dick.

Loneliness, she thought, was craving for other people’s company. But she did not know that loneliness can be an unnoticed cramping of the spirit for lack of companionship.

Dick often stood at the edge of the field, watching the wind flow whitely over the tops of the shining young trees, that bent and swung and shook themselves all day. He had planted them apparently on an impulse; but it was really the fruition of a dream of his. Years before he bought the farm, some mining company had cut out every tree on the place … it wasn’t much, planting a hundred acres of good trees that would grow into straight, white stemmed giants; but it was a small retribution; and this was his favorite place on the farm. When he was particularly worried, or had quarreled with Mary, or wanted to think clearly, he stood and looked at his trees …

Mary, with the memory of her own mother recurring more and more frequently, like an older, sardonic double of herself walking beside her, followed the course her upbringing made inevitable. To rage at Dick seemed to her a failure in pride; her formerly pleasant but formless face was setting into lines of endurance ….

Though what thoughts of regret, or pity, or perhaps even wounded human affection were compounded with the satisfaction of [Moses’] completed revenge, it is impossible to say. For, when he had gone perhaps a couple of hundred yards through the soaking bush he stopped, turned aside, and leaned against a tree on an ant-heap And there he would remain, until his pursuers, in their turn, came to find him.

We are told briefly (by the narrator) the evil was not this woman, nor was there anything wrong with her, nor her husband, and by implication, not even this “wicked” angry (enraged) black man, but the evil was all around them. The words refer to her past, the farm, how they have been taught to cope. Alas, many readers will not get what these vague or general pronouncements mean: she means the way Mary was driven to marry, the way Dick was not permitted to love his land and cultivate it without exploitation (as economically it’s not viable), the whole race system which when the black man is taken away is referred to when he is made to stand for “hurt human affection.”

In the book this is not spelled out clearly in the way I have just done, only implied and the book could be read as simply a story about a weak or neurotic woman. In her movie, Claire Denis makes sure that we see the larger picture and she writes a part for Isabelle Huppert which turns her into a strong presence who does not turn mad or become a slave, but is externally destroyed by the black revolution. There is a wikipedia article which sums the book up this way:

The Grass Is Singing is a bleak analysis of a failed marriage, the neurosis of white sexuality, and the fear of black power that Lessing saw as underlying the white colonial experience of Africa.[citation needed] The novel’s treatment of the tragic decline of Mary and Dick Turner’s fortunes becomes a metaphor for the whole white presence in Africa.[citation needed] The novel is honest about the fault-lines in the white psyche.

I think from the lacunae in The Grass Is Singing we see why Lessing turns to fantastical books with super-strong (supposedly exemplary admirable) characters and why her rhetoric remains unsatisfying. Lessing has said that people must force themselves, through effort of imagination, to become what they are capable of being, so there is a judgmental view in the book, a way of presentation that can be read as a punishment.

Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907), Girl with Cat

To return to her reading of Eliot’s poem, it’s almost silly to epitomize its meaning as about how failures and misfits reveal to us the weaknesses of society. Eliot’s poem is about a peace that can come when you give up the illusions of hope through civilized progress. Some might call it equally despair, but when the grass is felt to sing with life we are not being exhorted to find ways to build and share better tractors.

The Grass Is Singing is a great book because it shows us human nature and the worlds we create unsparringly.


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In the long winter of 1784, which I passed in Normandy, this little Novel fell into my hands … for their amusement, I translated [into English] as I read [the French], the most striking passages of the story; which appeared to me so interesting that I was induced to translate the whole; or rather to write it anew in English — Charlotte Smith, from her preface to her Manon

The idea of making a name for myself in the Republic of Letters animated all my faculties — Victorine de Chastenay, on first beginning to translate Radcliffe’s Udolpho

Pierre Arnaud’s recent translation of The Romance of the Forest

Dear friends and readers,

You will instantly recall that last month under a similar heading, I wrote about how I was working on a proposal to give a paper at this coming summer’s Chawton conference on women and translation: I didn’t fall asleep over my book after all (!). Well I did a good deal of reading and sent along two different options.

I discovered that Charlotte Smith really changed Prévost’s Histoire de Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut (1731) and Gayot de Pitaval’s Causes Célèbres et Interessants (1734-44) to bring into the English imaginary explosively transgressive reality-based material from sexual and familial life. In Smith’s Manon L’Escaut, or the Fatal Attachment, Prévost’s enigmatic text intended to justify amoral decisions for aristocratic male readers becomes a story genuinely focused from the point of view of a pro-active heroine with a realistic pragmatic consciousness. I also found that her Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake (1790) her first fully poetic landscape novel was translated into French by M. De Montagne, who made of it a romantic “paysage.” Montagne’s romantic translation is really melodious, I loved the sounds of the French, it was like verse in prose. Smith turned gothic and sentimental romance into vehicles for critiquing the ancien regime as it was experienced in the UK at the time. Montagne helped make these sort of landscapes an accepted mode in France.

Lidia Conetti’s recent Italian translation of Radcliffe’s Udolpho: sometimes it’s better than Radcliffe or Chastenay

When I went back to Chastenay’s 1798 translation of Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) I discovered Chastenay resembles Radcliffe in her reformist radical agenda, in her case much modified by her family’s devastating experience of the revolution (including imprisonment, lose of property, and her father having nearly been guillotined). She also identifies with Emily St. Aubert, Radcliffe’s heroine. What Chastenay loses in subtlety, she replaces in much more social understanding of real life experiences of unjust imprisonment, familial abuse, murders, and harrowing hostage experiences. She carries over Radcliffe’s sheer sensibility of into a focused forceful romantic paysage which adds to Radcliffe’s nightmare scenarios of dreams of nervous distraught pursuit and chase, and perhaps remembered experiences of near rapes (incest?).

A later 19th century cover to Chastenay’s translation shows an awareness of the depth of inward strangeness in Radcliffe-Chastenay

Nonetheless, I wanted to suggest that reading these texts (as people still do) as sheer female gothic obscures their critiques of the social, economic and political order which are valuable in themselves, which influenced other important books (e.g., George Sand’s Consuelo/La Comtesse de Ruddolstadt, influenced by Radcliffe through Chasteney).

Alas, I think I wrote about this more clearly here than I did in the official mandarin-type proposal. I am just so much better at writing casually in letter style. I thought by having two sets of texts I could make my argument about the value of these translated texts more strong. I would not present an analysis of each text as that would take far too long but just my findings. It interested me too that Smith’s Manon was suppressed — perhaps people thought her strong amoral heroine dangerous — and people are still today unaware of how she alters that text to make Manon the center and an active heroine (at least in Manon’s mind). Montagne’s Ethelinde is also a nearly anonymous and thus disrespected text. So they make a neat comparison with Chastenay’s whose text is still read in France and countries where French is read. There are on the Net still the frontispieces for the volumes of her 1798 text. I saw a popular copy in a good bookstore when I was in Paris for 2 weeks once. Hers also has prestige and is well-known and yet I think there is but the one article by Dorothy Medlin on 4 (!) different translations of Udolpho into French and only one small part is on Chastenay text.

A frontispiece to a French text of one of the memoirs, life-writing, travel books to emerge from the French revolution & Napoleonic wars

On the other hand, it would be fun to to expand more on Udolpho and on Mémoires de madame de Chastenay, 1771-1815 (written between 1810 and 1817, published 1896). Chastenay lived to the mid-19th century; she knew and spoke with Napoleon (who treated her with respect); she translated Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village as Le village abandonne as a genuinely protest text. I’d really like to tell more people, expand on what I’ve already written about Radcliffe’s A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794 (published 1795) (see my Nightmare of History in Radcliffe’s non-fiction Landscape). Radcliffe is so beautifully well-read in art books, architecture, cultures, and she is a sort of Girondist (rather like Madame de Roland), a serious reformer who means her novels to be taken in the way other novels of her era were which critiqued society. In her case the ancien regime.

Using Smith’s Prevost, Montagne’s Smith and Chastenay’s Radcliffe, a configuration of the three texts, I’d write and talk about translation. If I study Radcliffe & Chastenay’s lives, life-writing, travel, I’d write and about the two women writers, though the centerpiece would be a comparative translation study.

My larger goal is to call attention to a large body of work still ignored, to which these translations belong. When these books are studied the arguments often resemble those film adaptations once had to contend with: evaluation and judgement based solely on a one-to-one literal comparison with the assumption the first text is necessarily the most important and better. I want to show micro-analysis is still at the core of translation study but when we change our assumptions how much we have to learn and how many new and fascinating texts to read.

Hubert Robert’s Hermit in a Garden

I really enjoy reading and doing translation. It’s a real urge as such. One sits with books and books, dictionaries, thesauruses, different previous translations. Sheer language endeavour. Poetry as such. Books I’m interested in from this terrain include Isabelle de Montolieu’s influential translations of Austen into French (both of which I just bought from Amazon, complete with prefaces): Raison et Sensibilite (someone retyped the whole text, four columns a page), and La Famille Elliot, ou L’Ancienne Inclination (a facsimile, the volume labelled I contains the whole text). When Montolieu writes her prefaces to her translations of Austen, she assumes in the first no one will ever hear of Austen a decade from now nor S&S, and in the second her respect has grown enormously (she’s read Emma and MP) and feels she must translate more strictly but her sense of Austen’s place does not come near how she regards Smith (she translated one of Smith’s Solitary Wanderer‘s tales and provides a preface again).

I have written on and just delighted in Felix Fénéon’s gem, Catherine Morland (1898/99, reprinted by Gallimard 1946), and recently bought Pierre Goubert’s serious literary biography of Austen, a rare treatment in French (biographies of Austen do not abound outside English, not in French either); he translated her earlier novels and wrote about them in the Pleiade. I’ve read one of two 1807 translations Stael’s Corinne, ou L’Italie into English (one read and much admired by Austen), and it’s a cross between Radcliffe and Austen! have wanted to try Isabel Hill’s 1884 Victorian and did read thoroughly the brilliant Corinne or Italy by Sylvia Raphael (often unmentioned, she died young, her book printed as an Oxford Classic, 1998).

And I do want to read more translation studies. On my TBR pile is Belllos’s Is that a Fish in Your Ear? and Suzanne Levine’s The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American fiction. I need some outside goal, deadline, to help me do all this for if it’s so pleasurable, it’s hard work.

My proposal was turned down. I think probably most unfairly. To do myself justice and also keep my thoughts where I can find them again and share them with others, I’ve put my proposal on my website. “To translate seemed to me a beautiful thing to do: Translation as Matching Creative Act”. I’ve at least done myself that much justice. (Freedom the press and speech belongs to the woman who has a website.) As you know if you ever read my Sylvia blog I’m just an honorary Duchess aka ex-adjunct lecturer.


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The question is what we really want out of life, for ourselves, what we think is real [has] to do with our social panic, with our fear of losing status. One cannot afford to lose status on this peculiar ladder, for the prevailing notion of American life seems to involve a kind of rung-by-rung ascension to some hideously desirable state — James Baldwin, from Nobody Knows My Name

How is this book packaged: for whom; how framed

Dear friends and readers,

My good friend, Kathy, (Frisbee here on WordPress) has been writing about the attack on bloggers from Sir (note the Sir) Peter Stothard, a Man Booker Prize Judge: bloggers are destroying literature, damaging the future of writing. She did not go to Oxford, she is not one of his friends. How dare they? they are not selected by winnowing editors like him with his values. To look at film adaptations (whose appeal is partly rooted in the audience’s desire to identify with a higher richer class than lower middle or working), you’d think school was central.

An iconic picture of Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews in Brideshead Revisited

And I mentioned it first. But look at a panoply of stills, and you see the house (ah, the house: consider Downton Abbey and how Americans lap it up), its grounds, the bar, Venice, trips, cars, dinners, Rex (the businessman son-in-law) networking his way into power. In a way what’s needed first is an understanding of power, how it works: class confers power.

I answered Kathy in two ways and want to put my answers in a blog here to prompt thought and discussion further — as this is an important topic. The way Scott Walker and Ryan win elections is to pretend they are lower class: Scott Walker had a commercial where he showed himself driving himself to work with his lunch in a brown bag: he had to save for his kids college. Ryan pretends to be a orphan working his way up; his father died, when he was young, but the whole family are local businessmen who have contacts, networks, money, connections and he today lives in a big mansion on the place where a factory once stood.

School is mythic and it’s the mythic way school functions that enables ALEC’s corporations who want to end public education so they have put their hands into the 600 billion that go to educating young people to fool others. Parents want their children to rise from school. But school is only one part of what makes a person a member of the upper middle and upper classes.

As I wrote, looking at what school and what year a British person ended his schooling at does not tell much about class. Princess Diana never did her A levels. In the 18th about the connections of the whole family (so George Austen’s sons could go to university) but not how the immediate nuclear family would fare in the position game. In the 19th century it told about money and the success of the father at the time. Trollope always regarded himself as a gentleman. Jim my husband went to a public school as day boy; his origins were working class and lower middle. It tells something but only in a larger context.

Funny — it’s a good contrast. I’ve always been alive to class though I was told from the time I went to school that the US was classless. I knew it was a lie. My parents were very poor and my father was a socialist at one time. That’s part of it. I could see with my eyes the difference between my neighborhood (East Bronx) and those in the north west Bronx. I knew others had self-esteem I didn’t have. When I grew older and lived in Queens (Kew Gardens) I had friends with parents who lived in beautiful homes, but it was the way the other children somehow knew to be independent and interact with others that I didn’t. In the UK when I went to live there class was overt, but its underlying abilities (for those with knowing parents and higher expectations) and those without was no different. The US did sometimes substitute race for class. Black people in the US filled the role of white working class in the UK. Think of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. Do read it if you’ve not already. Sister Carrie. In An American Tragedy a young working class man is picked up and becomes part of an upper class group. He has a chance to marry a girl from this elite group (romance). His girlfriend, working class like he, is already pregnant. He is so driven by his guilt that he drowns her in an attempt to rid himself of her. Carrie is from poor working class people. She can hang into a local car-dealer and move with him to NYC and enter the acting profession, but there are limits on how far she can go at the time. She lacks a certain know-how to leverage herself any further than medium positions on the stage.

Dreiser’s and other literary naturalist books from the US and France and England too are all about the devastations of class. The old argument between Fitzgerald and Hemingway.

Class is money, manners, being told how to negotiate and present the self in a certain way, education, expectations, your habitas (all of it). In the US university people with degrees (the Ph.D) can seem to transcend class or enter a new one, but watch what happens during a depression. Some of them have children who carry on being upper class; others have children who in the next generation are in retail shops. The difference is what class the individuals really belong to: what money, connections, the sense of entitlement their grandfathers had. This firm sense of entitlement that matters is the key to why some people can use liberty and some cannot: see my “I have a right to choose my own life” on “Liberty in the Poldark novels.


We had a related revealing conversation about Tereska Torres’s first novel (Women’s Barracks, see image at top of blog) and her writing life on Women Writers through the Ages at Yahoo two days ago. One friend told us about Teresa Torres. An unusually effective obituary-biographical sketch told about Torres’s life in WW2 and as a writer. From the Independent: John Lichfield: Teresa Torres: War Heroine and Reluctant Queen of Lesbian Pulp Fiction. Do read it. At least look at the photo of her: in war uniform (which makes all seem equal) shouldering an oar: you see she’s working physically. The book meant for a Booker Prize usually sports original art or a reproduction of a high culture 19th century painting.

The discreet masochistic erotica of Edward Burne-Jones is presented as core Arthurian

Lichfield’s essay-biography is cleverly well-written, discreet too. How did Torres move from one stage of that life to another? Meet those people? Her steps are staged movingly, to the end: “The last sound that mummy heard was the sound of children laughing and singing where she had herself lived as a little girl in the 1920s. It was as if life had gone full circle.” But the daughter cannot know what her mother’s mind’s ear heard just as she died.

This is not to say the life is not admirable and fascinating. She was part of a semi-elite, or moved within one of the edges of the upper class, the art part where literary people make their lives if they are lucky. Not all can: music people like say Whitney Houston (who remained black) in her personal life never left her original class and people.

One of the important give-aways is the opener and sentence worth critiquing

The writer says she “was a well-regarded novelist” and in the next
sentence: ‘to the rest of the world she was ” the mother of lesbian-erotic pulp fiction.” Unacknowledged is the reality that only a few people really understand what they read and have a judgement worth listening to. That does not mean they are the reviewers or people who write in magazines I hasten to add. These few can include online bloggers, academic writers, or people who don’t write but read intelligently. “The rest of the world” is those who make money for writers, and why they buy what they do is also not known.

Now it might not be that the vast majority of buyers of Women’s Barracks thought it lesbian, but look at that packaging. For all we know some read it as a good war novel, but it was presented as a salacious erotic book for men to titillate themselves with about women in uniform (the way some people read salacious erotic books and pornography featuring nurses). Paradise Road I was told was partly seen that way and great efforts were made to stop this perception.

It’s salutary to ask people why they read what they read; most of
the time they won’t answer or can’t tell you quite but when they do it’s all over the place. (Sadly, like voting. why people vote for whom they do is equally hard to get at.)

Richard Sennet in his Hidden Injuries of Class suggests class is a more painful reality in the US than the UK or its commonwealth because it’s hidden, made shameful, lied about, distorted. Let us not be fooled or manipulated into despising ourselves for not belonging to what is presented as easy to belong to. It’s not.


P.s. For another aspect of attacks on bloggers and reviewers too see: We are an injured body.

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Dear friends and readers,

Over on my Austen reveries blog, I expended many electrons on this book: a daughter of Richardson’s Pamela and Cleland’s Fanny Hill, sister to Nabokov’s Lolita — all to no avail (if you read the comments).

So I thought I’d try the a-picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words method:

Who sez I can’t write a short blog,

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Our books, dear Book Browser, are a comfort, a presence, a diary of our lives. What more can we say? (Carol Shields, Swann)

Mary Cassat, Modern Women (mural) for Women’s Building

Mary Cassatt, detail of mural as a painting

Dear friends and readers,

Some may remember that I reported on a lecture and book I learned about on the Women’s Building at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1892-93 where the stupendous aim was to gather a copy of every book published by a woman since 1492, and while they came short of that goal, they came as close as anyone could in 1892-93. I wrote a blog that got many hits about the lecture and book, Right Here I see My Own Books: “I did not think there were so many books in the world written by women … ”

In this year’s issue (it comes out once a year) of the Woman’s Art journal, there is an essay on the pathetically little art that has survived from this heroic endeavor, complete with a few photos of the building before it was torn down.

Women’s Building, Northern Pavilion

Women’s Building, Reading Room (Hall of Honor)

The crime — or tragedy – is how all was destroyed and dispersed again — by plan! The article is by an independent scholar, Charlote Garfinkle, “Progress Illuminated: Two Stained Glass Windows from the 1893 Woman’s Building, Woman’s Art Journal, Spring summer 2012. The survivors are two murals and a church-like stained glass window. I’ve put these and the photos of this exhibit to which thousands came in an album for us. You see above the Hall of Honor where you could read some of the women’s books as well as one of the murals: Mary Cassatt’s Modern Women.

As the two presenters of the lecture and writers of the book, Right Here I see My Own Books“, Sarah Wadsworth and Wayen Wiegland, did say the art of this place was limited by the mainstream range of the types of women who ran the clubs which engineered this feat and it may seem a bit stodgy to look at Massachusetts as Mother hovering over the (as yet) coming woman of liberty, but the ideals were all we would want today (and rarely have). Mary Cassett’s mural has women working in a garden like another mural I’ve seen by her, and Mary MacMonnie’s Primitive Women remind me of Puvis de Chavannes (everyone dressed in pseudo-Greek like dresses):

The title of Elizabeth Parsons, Edith Blake Brown and Ethel Isadore Brown’s stained glass contribution, Massachusetts Mothering the Coming Woman of Liberty, Progress and Light is embarrassing, and the imagery highly traditional:

Garfinkle thinks Mary Crease Sears’s Seal of Boston has much private imagery:

Here is a final surviving photo:

The East Facade

The Woman’s Art Journal is itself a marvelous periodical: printed on art paper, it’s just filled with images. It has several long essays, and 23 pages of reviews of a couple of columns each. Expect more from me taken from this periodical from time to time.

For example (one more article): A long essay on the once popular caricatures by Minna Citrone, Jennifer Strebe’s “Minna Citron’s Feminanities: her commentary on the culture of vanity.”

Citron, Hope Springs Eternal/Bargain Basement (1930s)

Citron’s art was social realism intended to critique the present political and social order, especially the workings of unameliorated capitalism. Here’s a cornucopia of her art; and here some of her fellow women print-makers.

She also worked in traditional tropes. Her self-image of the artist makes herself out to be a powerful woman, but not quite no vanities (look at the pretty shoes and improbably fancy dress with the scarf), living in an apartment in the city, where she is not at all cut off from its realities …


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