Posts Tagged ‘Fanny Burney’

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup re-named Plat when a slave (Twelve Years a Slave, directed Steven McQueen, screenplay John Ridley)

Jay Morris Hunter as Ahab (Moby Dick, San Francisco opera production, Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer)

Dear friends and readers,

Yesterday and in the wee hours of the night I watched two movies I’d like to recommend not missing if you can help it. Both much worth immersing yourself in — thinking about in the case of Twelve Years a Slave and allowing the alluring beauty of the mood and music to bring you in with Moby Dick.

From what I hear other people say to one another, Twelve Years a Slave is misrepresented in ordinary talk somewhat. Since “word-of-mouth” retains its importance in making for a popular movie hit, I’m hurrying a little to write about Twelve Years. If seen by enough people, it could function (mildly) as Uncle Tom’s Cabin once did — this time to help against racial discrimination and racist thinking so prevalent in the US still. People have told me in some areas the film has not opened so maybe I’m precipitantly worrying the film will not be a commercial success. In my area it did open in our local art cinema; the owner rejoiced at getting two prints but it’s already in Theater 4 (smaller and not for continuing hits) and not many people were in the audience yesterday after only a week; and among these were a number of black people, so not many whites in the audience. This theater is not one black people go to much; it’s in an area that’s mostly white, upper middle and attracts art-film audiences. For The Butler I did have to go to Theater 4 but it had been playing for weeks and weeks, all summer in fact, and still the theater (4) was filled and it had a preponderance of white people. The Butler crossed the racial divide. In a nearby theater to me which has large black audiences The Butler was sold out on and off for weeks, long lines of black people waiting to go, early on and then the whites joined them.

Scuttlebutt (or what I’m told or read by friends) is how violent and hard to watch it is. It’s not non-violent and not easy to watch but not because you are shown excruciating torture or close-up shocking violence, nor is this perpetual or at all gratuitous. The violence wreaked on slaves that we see is precisely what will subdue and cow them (not nothing because it’s harsh and includes implicit threats of death), the beatings shown at a distance as (horrifyingly to decent emotions) par for the course, the ordinary routine of treatment for slaves. The coerced sex scenes (on the slaves Patsy played so effectively by Lupita Nyong’o) by the master Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbinder who does steal the movie) are not all that much different from what I’ve seen of half-rape type scenes in (soft-corn implicitly hard sex) movies which don’t name it that. The woman just lies there and lets him.

Patsy asking Plat to help her kill herself

What’s memorable about the scene so many reviewers have mentioned of our hero, Solomon Northrup renamed Plat (Chiwetel Ejiofor) where he’s hung and will die if he does not manage to keep his toes on the ground is how everyday it is, how slaves walk by him unable to help him, how the whites watch and do nothing, and how the supposed “good” master (Bernard Cumberbatch as Master Ford) only comes to cut him down late at night lest he irritate his central over-seer. Ford gives him a violin but will not behave towards him as if he were a human being whose life matters.

Plat rented out to a man who allows him to keep the money he’s paid for his violin playing

Twelve Years a Slave (based remember on a 19th slave narrative, a type or sub-genre) increased my respect for Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (essentially several slave narratives interwoven into a middle class type white novel) and watching it helped increase my respect for that nowadays somewhat under-rated book. It has the same attributed flaws — in the sense that there is a reductive quality, a melodramatic exaggeration going on continually so really the charge hurled at Simon Legree that he’s a monster and no one could be that bad and if he were he’d be an exception can be hurled at Epps.

James Baldwin would not like the way Plat is presented as sheerly noble and insofar as he can be good (see “Everybody’s Protest Novel”); he is not an Uncle Tom; he does not justify a(the character who does this who is popular now is Mr Carson in Downton Abbey) or suck up in his case in the face of horrible mistreatment, but he is an innocent as the film opens. When Solomon is lured to the south, it’s obvious that the two men luring him are crooks; they are over-praising him; he is a simpleton in the scenes. Master Ford as a character is better with his well-meaningness, and his inability to keep Plat, whose opinion Ford consults, thus whose abilities arouse the resentment-hatred of his over-seers slave-servant safe is believable, but numbers of the scenes are too obvious, he won’t help Plat for real, regards Plat as property he must sell to keep his debts down so our moral lesson is clear.

Cumberbatch as the religious ethical man Ford nonetheless showing intense cowardice and lack of real understanding as he briefly explains to Plat why he sells him to Epps

But would such a man sell this man to Epps whom he knows is cruel, sadistic. Epps played as nearly psychotic and seemingly driven by guilt to be even crueller. The central parallel of the two works (Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the film Twelve Years) is this half-crazed white master. Epps is a Simon Legree and his wife a female version. But you do (Stowe and now McQueen) want to make sure the audience gets it.

Sarah Paulson as Mrs Epps riping off Patsy’s ear and taking a chunk out of her cheek with a knife (in Dickens’s Travels in America he easily exposes slavery quoting the ads for finding escaped or “lost” slaves by the scars they are said to have)

Gets what? the key to the film’s power and importance is we see what happens to people who lose all status all caste worth – and in the case of chattel slavery this is reinforced by law which defines them as property. If they should be owned by a mad-man he is allowed to do as he wishes. The point is what law and custom allows. Sure in the Islamic world most men are not ogres, but the Koran and custom allow horrific treatment and power corrupts. People will use power if they are given it even when not as obvious as Legree or Epps.

The film is relevant to us today because today people lose a great deal of status and caste worth depending on how much money they make, the schools they go to, where they live, if they are broke — and worse, if they are immigrants or of a different racial color than the powerful. I was reminded of a book I recently reviewed on global emigration in the 18th century, enforced diasporas, and mass murder, Hodson’s Acadian Diaspora, where the point was made that safety for the average non-powerful non-connected person depends on staying where you are, among relatives or friends and people whose truth or falsehood you can gauge so not be cheated utterly to your destruction with no recourse in courts not made for you. See also David Denby on Twelve Years (from the New Yorker) as best movie on slavery made in the US thus far.

It seems to reflect a book too: there are intriguing sequences which are not part of the plot-driven movement: a group of Native Americans come to dance before the black slaves as if their culture is what slaves will understood. Other curious moments.

The one real flaw in the film is the ending as has been suggested in reviews and conversations I’ve heard. Not so much that Brad Pitt as Bass (a major contributor of money as a first-named producer) gives himself the role of our one abolitionist talker, and the only man to keep his faith with Plat.

Brad Pitt as Bass actually listening to Plat (with exaggerated courtesy)

Plat before this trusts a white overseer who seems to be his friend with money in return for taking a letter to the post office to send to the north to reach friends to help him in court; the man tells Epps so immediately that the man does not have the letter as evidence and Plat manages to persuade Epps (not too bright) that he man is lying:

Half-mad man

The story is improbable Plat persuades Epps, and then we watch Plat burn the hard won paper and writing he did so laboriously with home-made ink and quill.

Bass is a hired architect, an outsider and he does get in touch with authorities up north and friends of Northup — at considerable risk to himself if he’s found out he says.

The flaw begins with how easy it is for the friends to show up & take Northup away. Why did they never look for Northup before? Well, it is true that people were terrified and a reign of terror worked down south (Harriet Martineau’s travels in America books record this) but then it should not have been as easy as we see it for the men to take Northup away Epps should have shot him, would have. We are then not shown the court scenes that would have been another 2 hours but that would have been original and interesting — so let’s hope for a sequel? I doubt it.

The least real moment is the return of Northup to his family. He looks just as innocent and sweet as when he set out. Not haggard, not worn, not much changed at all. His black family is improbably prosperous throughout yet seem to have no connections to anyone black or white outside themselves. All subside into joy in a circle. Plat-Northup keeps apologizing and that makes psychological sense.

I compared the final scene to some photos I’ve seen of Primo Levi when he first returned from concentration camp,haggard, exhausted, not the same ever again. I wondered if a man dragged from freedom to slavery wouldn’t have the same hostage symptoms, the same urges to self-murder and sense of deep humiliation not to be gotten over. We get intertitles to tell us how Northup wrote and published his book in 1853 (Twelve Years in Slavery, and how he worked hard for the underground railway. So he stayed in the US I thought.

But then this quietly ominous final intertitle: no one knows how or when he died or where he is buried. Maybe murdered?

The central performances of male roles as everyone has said are stunningly good. I’ve already named the principles.

As a woman watching I had though to endure the annoyance of women being presented one-dimensionally throughout — except for Patsy the girl who becomes Epps’ concubine; who he beats, who picks heroic amounts of cotton each day — so she is never whipped for under-picking as others are. The two white mistresses are basically either phlegmatic and do nothing (that’s their role) or spiteful: Sarah Paulson Mrs Epps loathes Epps and tries not to have him in her bed, to leave him but he threatens her too – she is a form of his property too (this reminded me of Valerie Martin’s book that won the Orange Prize, Property); Mrs Epps is as sadistic, as sick as her husband, hates Patsy and hurls hard objects at her, knocking her down, cuts her face and ear cruelly, will not let her wash herself so she flees for soap and is gone for a few hours which leads to a horrific scene of Epps beating her and then forcing Plat to do it.

The scene’s reality for the era (keeping clean was difficult) makes one feel it comes from the book — as one of Indians humiliating themselves by dancing as white people expect

We see one black woman who has become a white man’s open mistress: she is fatuous, self-centered, looks down at other blacks. I don’t say these are not human impulses but that’s all we get of these women. A black woman weeps incessantly because parted from her children; another forces herself sexually one night on Plat.

So it’s masculinist movie — Fanny Kemble’s Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, 1838-39 depicts the terrifying work load and sexual exploitation and cruelty wreaked on women — and their complicated humanity too. And Kemble as mistress identifies with them and within 4 years leaves her husband — she must leave behind her children to do it, only regaining the friendship of one of them in much later years. Such a thinking upright brave type woman is not in the film.


Which brings me to the opera of Moby Dick where (like Master and Commander out of the Patrick O’Brien books) where no women are in the film — just remembered as embodying civilization itself.

The one women in the cast was playing the boy, Pip, who is almost drowned. Suffice to say it outlined the major hinge-points of the novel (as seen in a play originally with Orson Welles from the 1940s I once saw), and it brought out the meaningful themes: does life have any meaning? who is this haunted creature-fish and Ahab or Ishmael? they are lonely? Is there a God; if so, is he evil incarnate? The music was alluring, the lines resonant to larger meanings we can identify with through generalizations. Like all films it was made for today, with today in mind. The artwork beautifully picturesque:

The production did not emphasize the primal animal-fish (as did Winston Graham in his last Poldark novel, Bella) but human displacement, alienation. The production did seem to suggest that all would have been well but that the captain was mad. (That’s not the note of the Graham novels.) As I recall the book the thrust is all is not going to be well, never has. We see a dream life or men cut off from where they could know happiness as they are driven to make money in this dangerous occupation.

So I loved the deep melancholy of the men, their desperation to bring home some whale oil for money I see as part of human life. I bonded with the man who survives and calls himself Ishmael. He had wanted to go to an island with Queegqueg and live out our lives as best we can; I felt for Mr Starbuck who is nearly shot point-blank by Ahab, and almost shoots Epps on the way. There are the comic undercutting characters too.

And he wouldn’t know, he was tempted

This novel centrally attacks tenets of Christian belief, from justice as always or often done, to stories of an afterlife. These are deliberately not love or dynastic stories. He wanted to be spared.

I bring them together because I watched them within 12 hours of one another, and was struck by the shared masculinity identification. For myself the plangent nature of the music, Ishmael as a person alone in this world resonated enough. I think Jim would have enjoyed the great range of the masculine voices they hired. The lines on the screen and wild waters as the ships turning out from lines, the wild waters — all pulled me paradoxically soothed me. The ending of the tale is tragic as is a good deal of life.

Friday nights on TV contain a revival of the old Great Performances which I remember from my childhood, watching with my father on the old Channel 13: Judith Anderson in Medea, a Chekhov play with a male character who lived in an attic with birds, a sad poet, a bitter absolutely perfect Twelth Night (so that’s what is meant), Peggy Ashcroft, Duchess of Malfi. Now a few weeks ago the four Henry plays, from Richard II to Henry V (and the actors and actresses were great from the extraordinary Ben Wishlaw as Richard (this was Shakespeare I thought — ever autobiographical in my reading), Lindsay Duncan as Duchess of York, David Morrisey as Northumberland, Tom Hiddleston as Henry, Roy Kinnear as Bolingbroke become Jeremy Irons as king, Michelle Dockery (Yay!) as Kate, Hotspur’s wife, Simon Beale as Falstaff, (I saw David Bradley too), magnificently done.

I did not realize the new version allows you to watch a re-run (as it were) as a podcast.

Learning to watch TV, a little

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I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went–and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light …
The meagre by the meagre were devoured,
Even dogs assail’d their masters, all save one,
And he was faithful to a corse, and kept
The birds and beasts and famish’d men at bay,
Till hunger clung them, or the dropping dead
Lured their lank jaws; himself sought out no food,
But with a piteous and perpetual moan,
And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand
Which answered not with a caress–he died.
— Byron, inspiration for Shelley’s The Last Man

The Gothic Wanderer by Tyler Tichelaar

Caspar David Friedrich (1174-1840), A Monk by the Sea: a sublime picture Stephen C. Behrendt uses when teaching the gothic (from Gothic Fiction: The British and American Traditions: Approaches to Teaching, edd. Diane Long Hoeveler & Tamar Heller

Dear friends and readers,

As someone who has been reading gothic books ever since I began to read books meant for adults, and has taught gothic books many times, constructed a course I gave several times in different versions, Exploring the Gothic, and dedicated part of my website to the gothic, I found myself a little startled to discover that of some 19 or so novels Tyler Tichelaar analyses with care, I’d read through only 5 of them (!), and never finished another 2 — until I turned to the MLA-sponsored Gothic Fiction: The British and American Traditions, edd. Diane Long Hoeveler & Tamar Heller, to find my ratio there was just as bad, maybe worse. The gothic as a mode is a vast terrain capable of swallowing up a variety of forms (novel, poetry, film, story, opera, video game) and conveying a themes diverse enough to be popular across several centuries. Sometimes the same book at the same time can be accurately interpreted as reactionary-conservative or radical progressive (see Richard Davenport-Hines’s The Gothic: 400 Years … ). Nevertheless, as those of us who love the mode know there are a number of images, plot-, and character types, moods, emphases that repeat like a formula. That’s why it’s easy to make fun of. Take one huge labyrinthine ancient (preferably partly ruined) dwelling, one cavern, a seashore, place inside a murderous incestuous father or mother (preferably chained), heroes and heroines (various kinds), get a tempest going at night, be sure to have plenty of blood on hand, and stir in a great deal of supernatural phenomena, have the action occur in the deep past or be connected to a deep past …

It seems most teachers begin a course in the gothic the way I did: by attempting to immerse students somehow or other: I used a short gothic novel, Susan Hill’s Woman in Black and the 1989 film adaptation, a genuinely unnerving experience whose central figure students told me they feared seeing afterward, or (for brevity as well as power), Edith Wharton’s short story, Afterward, with the BBC 1 hour film adaptation. Then I’d have the students say what they thought was characteristically gothic in either.

Tyler Tichelaar would though probably not begin with these two, nor Scott Simpkins (one of the contributors to Gothic Fiction) who seems to concentrate his course on what’s called the male gothic, and who says there are nowadays few full-scale books devoted to the male gothic, probably because the revival and recent respectability of the form is a direct result of feminism. As Eva Figes shows in her Sex and Subterfuge, the female gothic allows women writers and readers to express, experience, awake up to see, express and protest in a displaced fantasy form the real oppression and destructive nature of the upbringing and circumstances women are subjected to. At its center is usually a woman who is unjustly victimized, often imprisoned, beaten in some way. The male gothic takes the male trajectory of inflicted stress, loss, pressure, punishment, usually a male at the center, and often someone exiled — wandering far from home, unable to find or make a home, to belong anywhere. I am here simplifying of course, a book can contain both modes, women can write male gothics; men, female gothics.

This is not the only fault-line. How is it related to the picturesque on the one hand and the sublime on the other? Are horror distinguishable from terror gothics? There are sub-genres to the form: the ghost story does tend to dwell on guilt, on some irretrievable injustice having been done and is not physically violent but offers psychological terror, where the vampire story is a brutal physical exercise in breaking bodily taboos, its origins include fear of the dead hating the living, simply because (in atavistic kinds of thought) they are still living. The modern short story with its subtle sudden intrusion of the uncanny (un-home-y) stemming from M. R. James tends to present the supernatural as psychological projection. So too ways of reading differ. Tichelaar tends to analyze his stories from a Christian perspective, looking to see how the gothic enables readers to cope with the breakdown of family-centered or supportive laws and customs, and older traditional forms of state organization; Eva Sedgwick is persuaded that the gothic arises from paranoia about homosexuality (really any transgressive sexuality outside a narrow set of conventions) and discusses what gothics can make us see sexually which realistic conventions would preclude (Between Men; also her notorious “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl” reprinted in Tendencies).

I take this direction because it is the great merit of Tichelaar’s book to dwell on the male gothic and use the figure of the wanderer as a way of exploring a series of related books, some written by, as for example, Fanny Burney where he analyses the distinctively feminist perspective of her work (a long chapter on her The Wanderer) and Mary Shelley where he analyses the woman’s deployment of Rosicrucian elements, the Christian myth of Paradise Lost, a profoundly pessimistic rejection of much of the romantic in an apocalyptic mythos (another long chapter, this one on Frankenstein and then The Last Man).

Robert de Niro as Frankenstein’s outcast, lonely monster, wandering in a world of snow and ice (1993 Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein)

As Tichelaar says, we never learn for sure that the monster has found peace in death. Tichelaar’s point of view on The Wanderer as a gothic book about a figure seeking a community has recently been discussed in The Burney Journal too: Andrew Dicus, “Evelina, The Wanderer, and Gothic Spatiality: Francis Burney and a Problem of Imagined Community,” Burney Journal 11 (2011):23-38.

Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho as well as Matthew Lewis’s The Monk are also key texts. Tichelaar empathizes with Antonio. He understands and justifies Radcliffe’s heroines turn to reason and community at the close of harrowing losses, where especially married women and daughters are abused.

Alfonso Simonetti, Ancor Non Torna, an illustration for 19th century Italian translation of Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest

Tichelaar takes the gothic into the Edwardian era and then the 20th century with discussions of Stoker’s Dracula (another long chapter), Tarzan and the modern heroic vampire. (Although not discussed as an example by Tichelaar I’ve done Suzy McKee Charnas’s 1980s Vampire Tapestry, much indebted to geological ideas, with great success with students.)

This could be an effective book for teachers to send students to read. Tichelaar writes in a readable style; he really does tell the stories of his books effectively. I can vouch for this as in a number of cases I was not at all at a loss not having read the book. Their situations and character types are summed up clearly. He begins with Milton’s Paradise Lost which is a centrally alluded-to text — until recent times and its presentation of legitimate transgression (as the romantics saw it). I liked the plainness and personal sincerity of the approach. Tichelaar begins with his love of the gothic as a boy, how he found himself when he first became an academic forced to travel far from home (upper Michigan), displaced, identified with the gothic wanderer, and feels this is a figure who can speak home to people today similarly transplanted, or peoples today who fight to control their homeland. He traces anti-semitism and sympathy for the outcast Jew in the figure of the wanderer. He’s very concrete when he makes analogies. It is true that gambling is a central sin in Udolpho. Godwin’s St Leon does seem to be about Godwin’s own troubles as a radical philosopher trying to persuade people that reason (and a scientific outlook ultimately) drawn from experience is a far better guide to life than religious beliefs (or myths). Tichelaar is unusual for arguing that for Godwin “life’s true meaning exists in the value of human relationships, so he condemns whatever may sunder them” (p. 67). Many critics suggest Godwin’s detachment from his personal context when he argued his theses that he offended his readers intensely.

I probably learned most (new) material from Tichelaar’s chapter leading from Thomas Carlyle’s at first despairing Sartor Resartus (he ponders suicide) as a text about a gothic to Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni leading to Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens borrowed his tale of Sidney Carlton substituting himself for another man from Zanoni, was influenced by Carlyle’s French Revolution, and B-L’s use of Rosicrucian ideas about immortality and Christian Redemption. For my part I’m not sure that Dickens himself believed in these providential patterns, but he was willing to use them to (as Tichelaar says) “create a novel that is life-affirming and provides redemption for its Gothic wandering characters” (p. 193). Tichelaar emphasizes the number of wanderers in this novel, the theme of “recalled to life” (as an imperative), and how Carlton acts for the Darnay family (“I hold a sanctuary in their hearts,” p. 206) group and is a Christ-figure. The revolution is a background for a plot of sacrifice (p. 196). Maybe. I remember I was intensely moved by Dickens’s portrait of the depressive Sidney Carlton, and his poignant semi-suicide (I just cried and cried), the famous line (no matter how parodied I care not): “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known,” and Ronald Colman’s enactment:

Ronald Colman (when I was 13 my very favorite actor) — a noble-in-failure gothic wanderer

Jim’s complaint has been (while watching the movie, he read the book decades ago) that Dickens’s text lends itself to anti-French revolution propaganda of a simplistic sort. It’s easy to fear and detest the Madame Defarges of the 1935 film. I’m not sure; I’m hoping later this year (or next) to read the book with a fun and generous group of people on Inimitable-Boz (at Yahoo) and watch a number of the films adapted from it before pronouncing even tentatively.

The MLA Gothic Fiction is so rich with titles of books, ways of defining and introducing different forms of gothic, and then essays on specific gothic texts, I must perforce select out those chapters which either impressed me particularly or troubled me and draw examples from those where the kinds of gothic and those specific texts I’ve gravitated towards, preferred to read or have taught are those analysed.

Friedrich, Woman at the Window (1822)

The opening section of the book is particularly rich and useful. Six essays by respected scholars on how they start their gothic courses, how go about defining the gothic, exemplifying it: Marshall Brown uses philosophical texts:

Solitude moves us in every one of its peaceful pictures. In sweet melancholy the soul collects itself to all feelings that lead aside from world and men at the distant rustic tone of a monastery bell, at the quiet of nature in a beautiful night, on every high mountain, near each crumbling monument of old times, in every terrifying forest. But he who knows not what it is to have a friend, a society in himself, who is never at home with his thought, never with himself, to him solitude and death is one and the same.

Stephen Behrendt offers pictures, Anne Williams distinguishes female from male gothic, Carol Snef gothic’s distrust and use of science. In the last part of the book we again get general approaches, which films (Wheeler Winston Dixon), how to cope with demands one make the course interdisciplinary or include public service, reach out to relatively unprepared students. There are just a cornucopia of cited secondary studies; I looked and did see all my favorite texts were there (including the profound Elegant Nightmares, about ghost stories as popular version of Kafkaesque visions, by Jack Sullivan), though I missed the French studies that are so important (Maurice Levy). The book is limited to Anglo versions of the gothic — though these are influenced by European texts and pictures.

Henri Fuseli (1741-1825), Perceval delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma (1783) — said to be wholly invented by Fuseli. What is happening here: Is the man trying to kill himself, thrust that sword down the women’s body or is he trying to break the chain of the kneeling man?

Then there are 19 essays on specific texts set out chronologically (starting with Walpole’s Castle of Otranto and ending on African-American gothics, e.g., Naylor’s Linden Hills, and really pop books (equivalent to Tichelaar’s Tarzan) like Anne Rice’s. Notable: Angela Wright on the intermingling of solid historicity with narratives of female sexual exploitation in Sophia Lee’s The Recess, Diane Long Hoeveler in effect summarizes her book Gothic Feminism for you (using among others Wollstonecraft, Dacre). Like Tichelaar, Daniel Scoggin takes you on a journey through the gothic by follwing a single figure: the vampire. I found myself learning new characteristics of sub-genres in Mark M. Hennely’s description of the Irish gothic (big-house displacement), liked the clarity of Susan Allen Ford on contemporary female gothic (Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood).

I’ll concentrate just on Judith Wilt “‘And still he insists He Sees the Ghosts’: Defining the Gothic” and Kathy Justice Gentile’s “Supernatural Transmissions Turn-of-the-Century Ghosts in American Women’s Fiction: Jewett, Freeman, Wharton and Gilman.” I was troubled by Wilt (and a couple of other contributors) who said she encourages her students to suspend their disbelief and really believe in this world of spirits or “spirituality,” and cannot quite believe her assertion that their students are sceptical. I taught gothic courses for a number of years and I found students all too frequently did believe in ghosts or could be led into saying they did. They’d imply “we don’t know, do we?” sometimes at the end of a talk. Gentile shows how to read Sarah Orne Jewet’s Country of the Pointed Firs as gothic, and then Mary Wilkins Freeman’s collected ghost stories (collected as The Wind in the Rose) re-enacting the tragedies of mothers losing their children and their loneliness and rage, culminating in Wharton’s ghost stories one which I’ve read again and again with my students and with people online in cyberspace. Wharton’s subjects marriage to a relentlessly alert scrutiny; as theme across them all is a concealed repressed vulnerable self who becomes enthralled by the past and the dead evaluation of Edith Wharton’s.

“The Lost Ghost” (from Forrest Reid, Illustrators of the Eighteen Sixties, 1928, p. 89)

As a measure of this MLA’s book’s advice, the bibliographic essayist recommends Chris Baldick’s introduction to his Gothic Tales volume as one short place which really puts the history of the genre and it central dispositions together. I read it and agree. I like how Baldick denies that the gothic is universal in reach: each of its fears work only within “the peculiar framework of its conventions” and it does belong to a peculiar set of people in a specific set of centuries where life has been lived in a fraught way (pp. xx-xxi). Margaret Anne Doody’s essay, ‘Deserts, Ruins and Troubled Waters: Female Dreams in Fiction (in Genre, 1977) is one of the best essays (and so enjoyable) ever written on the female gothic. I bought myself Mary Wilkins Freeman’s collected ghost stories (I had read only one thus far), read in a couple of the anthologies of tales and ghost stories I have in the house, and vowed I’d read my collection of essays on intertextuality in Wharton bye Adeline Tintner next.


“The Library Window” (illustration for ghost story by Margaret Oliphant)

I have myself been troubled that when I teach the gothic that I am encouraging atavistic dangerous beliefs. I’d be careful at the outset to say I didn’t believe there was a supernatural world filled with ghosts, witches, vampires or anything else. I emphasizes we were entering a fantasy realm which made heavy use of realism to draw us in. I know the gothic takes us into the realm of the numinous (to my mind the origin of the term where cathedrals are concerned) well beyond the limited doctrinal codes of establishment religions. But once we raise these terrors and the awareness death is not far from us at any time do we have the courage to confront honestly the perception of human experience raised. Elizabeth Napier famously honestly argued gothic novels fail, are silly, masochistic, disjunctive in form. Neither of these books answers responds to such objections.

I felt a residual reluctance because the material can be called sick. To myself I would say that much in human live and society is sick or very bad, and this mode enables us to explore serious issues in life, loss, grief, sexuality, madness, death, but yet I know the instigation of fear and playing around with character who are made neurotic has a downside. When students morally condemn this or that, it’s no help as most students are regarding what they are reading as “other” than them. To suggest that the stories are ethical because they bring out spirituality (religious feelings) in characters is to suggest that those who do not believe in religion are unethical. By implication this is discussed continually when the critic analyses the story to bring out its ethical content or how it criticizes society, and yet I know many students do not listen well, do not understand what they are told, and simply dismiss what a professor might say if it goes against their deep-seated lessons from their family backgrounds.

I admit I chose the gothic because it was safer. When I taught directly realistic books I would often end up being directly political or more clearly so than I meant to be. Students often did not agree with my politics, were disturbed and even angered by books like say All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Marque or John LeCarre’s The Constant Gardener. So when I did Walter von Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident after say doing Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, the depiction of the violence of US culture was somehow deflected by the use of fantasy to depict victimization.

Still I carried on teaching gothic books as part or the whole of a course because students responded intensely to some of the material. The very formulaic quality of some of it (ghost story structure) made asking them to do a talk something they could do. Perhaps Leslie Fielder was right and US culture really has gothic currents embedded in it. I like how Tyler Tichelaar reads the gothic out of his personal experience. His idea seems to me valid: we are turned into rootless souls in emotionally destructive environments when we are torn from our birthplaces and original families because that is what one must do to get a paying job (survive) in the US. I identify with the female victim heroine or the hero who is a man of sensitivity attacked for this, and this is out of my experience of growing up female in the US. Like Ann Radcliffe’s heroines I turn to reveries in beautifully ordered (picturesque) landscapes to find peace.

Friedrich, Evening

I recommend both books for readers and teachers of the gothic.


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Olivia Williams as Jane Austen, writing Emma (Miss Austen Regrets, Ch 3)

Dear friends and readers,

This is the second of two conference reports on the ASECS conference I attended this past spring. You have ahead of you brief records of a session on “The Eighteenth Century on Film,” and of the titles of the papers on some Jane Austen films I missed (!); a session on Fanny Burney and women’s literary history; the plenary lecture on race, and a dramatic reading of a farce the last session of the conference.

“The Eighteenth-Century on Film” panel occurred late Friday afternoon (5/19/10, 4:15 to 5:45 pm). The first paper, by Srividhya Swaminathan, was on Amazing Grace: “The African Slave Trade and the Cinematic Eye.”

Inspirational moments

Ms Swaminathan suggested everyone can see that the way the slave trade and 18thc culture are depicted in this film is celebratory, biographical and hagiographic: 2007 was seen as an anniversary of the act of 1807. What has been less noticed is how it shows progress on race as a function of Christian belief which urges reform on people. That the movie was conceived as a vehicle to launch a missionary effort is shown by the “official website” which reveals the movie was funded and distributed by an evangelical wing of the Christian party (so to speak).

There are many historical inaccuracies in the film; but what it does reach out to do is dramatize Wilberforce’s conversion experience. We get a history as a progress narrative enacted by privileged white (mostly — all but one) men.

The movie is careful not to disturb the viewers for real: there is no dramatization of the middle passage at sea; no one seen at real labor on the plantations, no one whipped or left to die. Romance images abound.

Simple equations are made: The Duke of Clarence who is pro-slavery is also a snob, so he is easy to recognize and there is an implication an uncommon type.

The realities were highly complicated and serious reform can be said to arise from many people working for abolition. What is important here though is that this movie was funded by an evangelical group who were pushing a glorification of Christianity (as saving us from slavery) and conversion experiences.

Religious groups in US society have long been exempt from taxes because it’s said they are not political. Nothing could be further from the truth (as we all know). Here though is a flagrant instance of how popular entertainment of a supposed middle brow or ‘high quality’ costume drama, complete with prestigious actors used to forward an agenda.

The second paper, by Peggy Schaller, was another talk on Patrick Leconte’s Ridicule: “Ridicule and Role-Play 18th century feminism in contemporary film. In 1996 Ridicule was nominated best film of the year; it has impressive stars, enticing costumes, witty dialogue, was a box office success.

Ms Schaller showed that three female stereotypes in the film dominate the film: a highly sexualized woman, powerful and first seen naked; a young innocent mademoiselle, and and women as workers (servants, housekeepers, in taverns).

A typical moment and costuming of a woman from the film

Greer Garson as delicate lady with muddy dress (1940 P&P)

The third paper, by Janet Aikins Yount, “Pride and Prejudice of 1940: Aldous Huxley’s Approach to Cinematic Adaptation,” was a filmic analysis of the imagery of repeating objects in the film (like chickens) and of its ethical inferences. She seemed to have immensely enjoyed its silliness as part of a Utopian escape/refuge perspective for moviegoers leading up to WW2.

The proposal scene with Laurence Olivier as Darcy (another of the many non-comic high romance moments in the film)

The two early Friday sessions I missed were entitled: “Adapting Austen: Theory and Practice.” The first was chaired by Byrcchan Carey and the papers were Rachel Brownstein’s “A Pride of Prejudices”; Nora Nachumi’s “Doing Mr Darcy: Sexing up the Adaptations;” and David Richter’s “Theorizing Adaptations of Austen: From John Dryden to Dudley Andrews.” The second was chaired by Katherine Ireland and the papers were Andrea Cabus, “New Spaces: Austen Adaptations as Popular Intrusions into Critical Dialogue;” Deborah Nestor, “Selling Aunt Jane, or When Does Interpretation Become Appropriation in Adapting Jane Austen;” and Eleanor Ty, “Postfeminist and Other Guilty Pleasures in Guy Andrews’s Lost in Austen.

I love its opening paean to escape (Jemima Rooper as Amanda Price diving into her book, from Lost in Austen)

Je suis très désolée that I missed these. I write out names and titles in order to enable myself to keep an eye out for any papers by these people which may turn up in periodicals. Maybe my next paper on a film study will be on Miss Austen Regrets which I’m falling in love with — because it is so serious and I can take it seriously (see still at the head of this blog). I still grieve because I missed a paper on the 1999 mini-seris Aristocrats which I have asked about repeatedly on listservs, but the person who gave the paper stubbornly will not share even his or her thesis.


Juniper Hall, Germaine de Stael’s residence where Burney was welcomed and Burney met her beloved husband

I attended two Burney sessions. I’ll treat the second first: organized by the Burney society, the topic was fashion, and I admit I found myself uncomfortable with the acceptance of some of Burney’s cruel humor (the monkey scenes in Evelina) and also the materialism and performative point of view on life implicit in talking about fashions in Burney. The conservative and pro-establishment- and conventions point of view in Burney came so strongly, I felt this was a post-feminist Burney (on post-feminism see below and “This long morphing life”).

The first session was not billed a Burney one, but “The Contrary Marys: The Fictionalizing of Wollstonecraft” (3/18/10, 9:4–11:15 am) turned out to be four papers mostly on Burney’s parodies of Wollstonecraft in The Wanderer; or Female Difficulties. In Tara Ghoshal Wallace’s “Self and Text: Wollstonecraft in Burney’s The Wanderer, Ms Wallace showed that we have a continuum of women who find themselves at risk of being criminalized because of the social institutions and customs they are surrounded by. So even if Elinor Joddrell (the Wollstonecraft) burlesque is over the top, the other women fleeing appalling husbands, unable to make a living, persecuted, losing their very voices make the hysteria of Elinor understandable. Ms Wallace was strongly persuasive on how the other women characters in the novel are intensely abused so that we are in a nightmare world where women do not succeed in freeing themselves or supporting one another. They all inhabit separate silos of pain.

Jennifer Golightly asked “Where in The Wanderer is Wollstonecraft: Radicalism, Feminism, and Jacobinism in 1814,” and suggested we should read Elinor as another Emma Courtney (from Mary Hays’s epistolary novel), showing outspoken unconventional norms of behavior, and unconventional sexuality. She linked these to Harriet Freke (Edgeworth), Mary Crawford (Austen) and Adeline Mowbray (Amelia Opie). Elinor empathizes with Juliette who is the book’s quiet and successful feminist.

The title of Andrew McInnes’ paper shows it was overlong and complicated, “Wollstonecraft’s Empire: Misogyny and Miscenegenation in Edgeworth’s Belinda, Hamilton’s Memoirs of Modern Philosophers and Opie’s Adeline Mowbray.” He spoke it too fast; I gathered he was trying to show how Wollstonecraft’s way of seeing women’s lives haunts these novels. I could not get myself to sit and listen to the fourth paper because my own session was coming up and I became too anxious in mind.


“Do you imagine in reading my books that I am drawing my portrait?
Patience: it’s only my model” (Sidonie Gabrielle Colette)

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes (a detail), women’s baroque

The session called “Writing Women’s Literary History: Problems and Possibilities” (held Thursday, 3/18/10, 4:15 to 4:45 pm) was an exhilarating experience because so many people crowded into the room, all the speakers spoke with enthusiasm, and there was a lively question and answer discussion afterwards.

The chair was Jenny Batchelor who said she was troubled by the idea we are now in a post-feminist era, which seems to be a label to hide the reality that people are moving away from recovering women’s writing and overturning attitudes which disvalue and ignore it.

This then was a session on how to revive women’s literary history. Now we are being told (in the last decade) that women’s literary history is recovered, there is no need to rescue, and one can see since promotion and prestige come from studying men’s literary history and male texts, that “minor” women’s texts are again being forgotten, work is stopping, and we are told we are in a post feminist era.

This is not so at all. i don’t write explicitly feminist blogs on politics myself any more: but three minutes search turns up the huge disproportion of what is published by men as opposed to women, how much attention is paid to men’s causes. As to the politics of women’s lives, just yesterday I came across a news time where a woman high minister in Angola is trying to pass legislation to outlaw wife-beating. She knows it’s not enforceable, but it’s a start. Wife-beating is still common across the earth.

So this session was about ways to keep women’s literary history studies and a feminist progressive point of view going. It’s not easy because often you have to cross boundaries where lines are set according to male publications. Translation studies, crossing eras, and private papers are of enormous importance is recovering women, as well as huge compendiums of older history where women are simply named.

The women made suggestions on how we can continue to carve out areas where we find women’s books. Gillian Dow’s paper delighted me because she argued for what I so strongly believe in and wish I could do more of: she said that women’s novels crossed continually between the UK and Europe, and we need to unearth and study the networks of women responding to another across languages: e.g., Charlotte Lennox’s Female Quixote and her translation of Maintenon’s letters have French counterparts. We must look at the afterlife of texts: how they are edited and presented by later women. Julie Chandler Hayes argued for researching into vast compendiums for the names and histories of women writers and to study women as patrons and salonieres more.

Rosalba Carriera, detail from La Chaise, Venetian roccoco

Susan Carlile also looked at intersections between novels, especially the classic and famous ones by men and how women’s versions of these (say Sarah Fielding’s David Simple vis-a-vis her brother Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews) depart from imposed conventions. What did women write about Grandison or Clarissa (Sarah Fielding’s “Remarks”)? how translate Amelia (Riccoboni’s translation of Fielding). We must look through and past self-condemnations in books like History of the Penitents too. She quoted Susan Stave on how women had to conform to accepted modes, were barred from institutional education; we should look at anthologies like Poems by Eminent Ladies (1755). Look at their letters to one another, and also see them as colleagues of male writers.

Laura Engels spoke of women’s autobiography and how they present themselves as professionals; also of how we need to cross boundaries of centuries so we need to study Anna Jameson (a woman who began life as a governess, and boldly quit to write and when she made a mistake in marrying, managed to leave the man and eventually carved an existence out for herself as an independent travel writer and student of earlier literature). Anna Jameson belongs to 19th century studies but her studies are of 18th century women. If we go into the private papers behind the publications, we find treasure troves to rescue and recover.

I thought this an especially important point: Julia Kavanagh, a 19th century women writer is one of the first to write a history of women’s literature, and she writes about the 18th century. So you have to encompass both eras. (But this does not follow how people get jobs as a specialist in one era and I could see the limitations of some of the professed claims to try to do things differently. People affirmed the importance of periodization.) I also was so chuffed to see one of the women whose work I know and love (Jameson) turn up in this session.

Devoney Looser talked of how we should keep up a virulent scepticism that feminism has done its task; there is much left to be done. Her thing came out of her recent book: we need to study more older women or books written when they are older, their lives then. We have been over-valuing transgression, so to speak for itself too. We need less commitment to individual authors too. What about the vast body of anonymous work? We could and should look there.

The discussion afterwards was a bit demoralizing as it didn’t take long for someone to say, well we must not ignore men, someone else to worry about “being in a ghetto.” If the amount of people in the room were a sign of real interest rather than not having something better to go too, if these people were in a ghetto, it’s a hugely populated one.

Angelica Kauffman, Virgil at Brindisium, late 18th century neo-classicism


The plenary lecture was given by Ruth Hill, a professor of Iberian studies and long-time student of 18th century American history. It occurred Saturday afternoon and was entitled “Race and the Atlantic Divide.” Her argument resembled that of Steve Olson in his Mapping Human History. Olson (who I read with my Advanced Composition on Natural Science and Tech students) demonstrates that biologically speaking we are across the earth so intermixed there are nowadays very few (he counts four) groups of people so separated from others that there distinct genomes produce a genuinely different look in someone. Now these distinct looks are a tiny part of each of our chromosomes.

Here is in a nutshell is Olson’s argument:

There is no genetic base for separating groups of people acros the earth as of different races; the salient features we pay attention to are tiny and not very important (texture of hair for example, color of eye). All the people on the earth have mitochondria which can be traced back to a single woman living about 150 to 200,000 years ago in Northeastern Africa.

We look different because of sequences of nucleotides on some of our chromosomes; these sequences are called haplotypes and peoples who have them are in the same haplogroups or races.

Race is shown to be a cultural concept, a construct used to shore up power and privilege. Everything is then done in education, bringing up children, and segregating groups of people to make them act differently as to manners and knowledge, clothes, language.

This was exactly Hill’s central point. She assumed that we would understand that race as a concept is a human invention, a cultural state of mind, and tried to show that before Darwin and supposed biological justifications of separating people into distinct groups, an acceptance of hybridity among individuals was assumed and accepted.

In a sense she was attacking the uses of science made by our society since the 19th century. She argued that folklore is less racist than more modern theories and the really rigid use of barriers emerged in the middle of the 19th century in the ferocious attempt to keep slavery going. She used the Spanish part of the US to show mixings of all sorts of peoples. She also spoke of an Atlantic divide and suggested that there was much more separation of peoples in Europe than the US (where we had so many native non-European asian featured people — Indians). Simply, there were lots of interracial couples.

Her mantra: color practices are social and not natural. In her formula, attitudes towards women by men are affected by their racial characteristics. Women were judged and evaluated first on the basis of how they conformed to different norms of female beauty, the European type feature being especially coveted. But if you look, you find mixed features repeatedly and people did realize and acknowledge this.

It also sounds liberal, decent, humane, but one problem in her talk was when she got down to documentary proof, she began to quote letters from Jefferson and she showed this man carefully distinguishing several generations of cross-race sexual births, and when one got to be an 1/8 black Jefferson really seemed nearly to accept the person as the equivalent of white. She also took heart in how Jefferson seemed to look at different races of human beings as so much animal husbandry.

It seemed to me these letters showed just as much intense racism as those who looked to large biological differences and didn’t worry themselves (so to speak) about degrees of mulato. She claims that Jefferson is taking hybridity seriously. Well, only when the person was not already a slave; if they were, then they were property. And would he have married a daughter of his to such a person. In the quoted letters he is also talking (in effect) theoretically about how many generation it takes before someone can pass for white.

How can one take heart from any of this? or argue that hybridity is an effective idea?

Also I wondered if Jefferson really saw the whites as equivalent to animals or only the blacks and mulatos. His talk about animal husbandry troubled me. I’d like to know if he allowed his friends to go to bed with black women slaves in his house as it is apparent Washington or one of these founding fathers (Madison?) and others did from printed copies letters I remember being shown

Further, when her speech was over, several of the questions (to my mind ironically) showed people really didn’t think of race as a cultural frame of mind at all. Further, some people appeared to be controlling their sense of offense at what had been shown. They needed to read Steve Olson. But even then her argument was not (to me) quite convincing.


An engraving of Beggar’s Opera: contrasting it to Italian opera

The last event Jim and I attended was a dramatic reading and half-acting of George Colman’s “New Hay at the Old Market: an occasional drama” (1795). The usual people took large roles: John Richetti had two large parts, Lisa Zunshine, Christopher Mounsey. It was fun to see how the actors at the time could make fun of their own plays and the politics of who got to have what role, plays that are about the theater, but the session was over too quickly.

People were embarrassed to ask questions because that would seem to take what had happened seriously. I understand why this happens: there is the fear that people will start to be competitive or feel bad if they don’t do their part well if there is not enough joking. However, as I felt I had missed a long morning, I was sorry to go to a shortened session and really did want to ask questions about this farce. In this kind of session people also jockey for position to sit next to their friends or an important person, so it does begin more to resemble some of the bad aspects of luncheons.

Writing the conference up this time and looking at the sessions I missed above, and all the sessions with interesting topics about art, music and things I know little about (Venitian pastiche) that I could have gone to (instead of joining in on the popular easy play), I promised myself that the next time I go to one of these conferences I will not be lured away and will try new topics, and follow my own impulses. I know I won’t be able to go to one of these for a quite a while to come, and maybe that will galvanize me not to care who I am with or if anyone does or does not talk to me, but care very much for the privilege of hearing those really at work on my interests, look for the genuine, honest and non-pompous. How old do I have to be to be firm for myself?


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Giovanni (Christopher Maltman) and Leporello (Erwin Schrott) awaiting the Commendatore (Anatoli Kotscherga)

“If the joke against him [Macheath, here Giovanni] is that he is vain to adopt the grand manner of the genteel rakes he at least stands their own final test; he has the courage to sustain it” (Empson, “The Beggar’s Opera,” Some Versions of the Pastoral)

Dear friends and readers,

Lately high art has once again been taking refuge in versions of the pastoral: last week Izzy and I saw Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, this past summer, she, I and the admiral saw Benjamin Britten’s The Beggar’s Opera; and yesterday we went to see in HD form at a local “center for the arts” (renovated movie and play theater) Claus Guth’s 2008 Don Giovanni done before a full audience, all dressed up (as we could see — no dressing down there as we see increasingly in the US) at the Salzburg theater in Vienna (Austria).

The production is a masterpiece, at once suggestively of wide application, and locally (in the narrow story and characters) rooted. I would say for the first time I was made to realize why this opera is said to have such depth and interest.

Claus Guth set the action in a dark wood. Everything happens on a stage which is decorated as a simple rugged ugly forest and by the end of the opera it’s filled with torn garments, dying trees, and garbage from parties (cans, wrappings, dirty food, spoilt clothes — from blood). It opens with a few leaves on trees; mid-point the trees have gone bare; the last third, it’s snowing, as Don Giovanni and Leporello defy the Commendatore (who is digging the Don’s grave just behind their picnic)


We were in a modernist take on an 18th century art work which was a kind of anti-pastoral — and in this it reminded me of Gay’s Beggar’s Opera.

Christopher Maltman as the Don and Erwin Schrott as Leporello came across on one level as two sordid fools, a kind of Vladmir and Estragon who can’t think of what to do with themselves but chase women and fight pettily with one another. They are a homoerotic pair continually squabbling.

As in Saturnalia we have Leporello in the don’s costume with the ever bleeding don laid out in semi-hysterical exhaustion.

The play’s anti- ancien regime subtext came out strongly for the Don need only say he’s the Don and Leporello shuts up — as does everyone else. The women profess to adore him: Maltman is attractive, muscled and is made to behave sort of vampirishly (he drains everyone too), but it’s his position, that he’s my lord that matters. His face is wry and twists with feelings of noblesse oblige (a pretense his pain does not matter). I was also reminded of Faust: how naive these enacted self-glorifications how narrow and silly.

As many will doubtless recall, Empson identifies the pastoral by its level-headed bringing down to reality. Through its distorting x-ray mirror, individuals can be exposed for what they are.

Waiting for the bus

This is a opera where the women want sex with the Don, only on their own terms of power over him. Donna Elvira (Dorothea Röschmann) gets drunk when blindfolded and led away to think Leporello is the Don. Zerlina (Ekaterina Siurina) (this is the usual interpretation) prefers the don over the brutal jealous probably boring Masetto (Alex Esposito).

Elvira fooled by a glum Leporello

Zerlina on swing, Don below

At the opening of the play we see Donna Anna’s father shoot (pistols – modernized everything) and inflict a mortal wound in the center of the Don’s stomach (perhaps to the side a little). Thus Maltman is dying slowly throughout and, refusing to acknowledge so much as the blood itself, spends the opera making jests of his pain and anguish.

Stilling the pain

This is a version which sympathizes with the Don by making him half-mad, sick (a neurotic promiscuity is the idea). Bleeding throughout and he gets blood all over Zerlina’s white dress.

The best single singing moment was the tenor Octavio (Pavel Breslik) with his aria wanting peace with Anna (Svetlana Donev). It was poignant and he no macho male. (Everyone sang marvelously I don’t mean to say they didn’t but Octavio was transcendent). Here the “new” interpretation came into play by having Anna and Octavio attempt to drive through the wood in a not-so-recent cheap-looking car that promptly broke down. The Don looks into their motor as an excuse to get at Anna. The characters go in and out of the seats. Much stage business comedy. Octavio’s aria is undercut by having her inside the car smoking moodily away as he sings his heart out. It’s clear she’s bored. Jim said he felt for Octavio for the first time.

Donna Anna apparently unaware gives her hand to Giovanni

It’s also nihilistic. Like other performances I’ve seen the last chorus is dropped — people often take this coming on stage at the end as providential. See Giovanni is punished. It’s also things are going on as usual, for in the words Zerlina is planning to go off and live with Masetto and have children, Leporello at least free (but now without a source of money) to the tavern, Octavio and Anna to bury and carry on their upper class lives. Only Elvira is stranded but she is justified. All this was dropped in any event. I was glad for I find it grating.

It is however also very much an 18th century play. Donna Anna does not go off with a gun (presumably to kill herself) for love of the Don. In this production she does not pay much attention to Octavio — she grieves intensely for her father now and again.

Anna grieving over her father’s remains

The importance of the father reminded me of Clarissa, of The Marquise of O, of Tom Jones. At the close the father comes back and the drunken, half-dead Giovanni falls into the grave the old man has been digging for the last moments of the opera. The centrality of sex is very 18th century and the exploration of its underside too.

It’s comedy and hard comedy at that. The characters are mad egoists charging about like they do in a Ben Jonson or Moliere comedy.

The sidekicks, that hilarious don and his Sancho Panza servant, Leporello

They cling while they prey on one another

I liked the jokes with clashing anachronisms, the snazzy and prosaic street costumes and stage business. The Don puts on a Burger king crown towards the end; the dancing is modern club so no one really interacts with one another.

The characters live in disconnected worlds, apart from one another.

Finally, it was a relief from the Met’s crassness this year where the general manager thinks to impress us (and put bums on seats) by overproducing and making things ultra-Broadway like. There was nothing overdone, trashy, neon-lit about it the way the Met is often. The women were all relatively young and attractive, but no push-up bras and extravagantly (grotesque) sexy outfits. (American productions go over the top in tastelessness and vulgarity, I think, because at the same time the US remains a fundamentally religious country, as fervently anti-sex for women especially as ever.) I admit I missed the Met host (or hostess) behind the scenes, the interviews, and cameras staged behind the curtain so the audience can watch scene changes inbetween acts. But we did see lovely Salzburg, enough of the inside of the theater to get a sense of its size and feel (it reminded me of Carnegie Hall).

This is the first European production I’ve ever seen (I’ve seen English ones in London but their Anglo-ness connects them to US ones); and I liked it very much. I could make out the Italian words easily (partly because of the subtitles, but the enunciation was clear). It seemed far more tasteful than what is seen in the US, less commercialized somehow, more sharp and clean, no compromises. The stage had a strange beauty — far more so than last week’s Alice because they didn’t try so hard, didn’t overdo:

Leporello and Giovanni before a broken rotted tree, which stands in for a marble statue at the play’s close

A meaningful afternoon. We were charged $13.50 at half-price tickets. The H Street Playhouse (Washington, DC) is in a gentrifying neighborhood we’ve been to before — to another nearby theater to see Marat/Sade and to this one to see Orpheus and an In-series performance. The proprietor was there to introduce the movie and tell us to behave :), doubtless to persuade us to feel good about the experience and tell others. Jim felt word was not getting out: he had just happened upon the ad. But then no long previews, no clutter.

Simplicity Empson said was the byword for pastoral, simplification, getting into contact with the mysterious forces of nature

The finale: dance-like bowing of group holding hands before audience


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Dear friends and readers,

On the last day of the Christmas MLA conference this past Xmas, I managed to buy for myself Eileen Fauset’s excellent literary biography of Julia Kavanagh, a 19th century Irish woman of letters: The Politics of Writing. Fauset’s biography shows Kavanagh to have been a courageous woman, good novelist, and significant critic in the history of women’s literature. For the past few weeks I slowly read Fauset’s book, interspersing it with reading in Kavanagh’s French Women of Letters (1862)

and English Women of Letters (also 1862)


which treasures I own facsimiles of, due to Elibron reprints. Below I’ve summarized Fauset’s book and commented on Kavanagh’s writing as well as that of her 18th century subjects.


To begin with (Chapter 1), Julia Kavanagh was a woman who lived a hard but successful life as a writer: crippled when young (spinal curvature), she was Irish Catholic and her parent separated sometime after the three moved to London (there were no other children). Her father was useless as a partner or companion for life: he never made a living, was continually involving himself with other women, a promiscuous ne’er-do-well philanderer. She and her mother made their way through their connections and her genius into the writing world and she published novels, books about women of letters, travel writing. They lived in London, eventually made their home-refuge, France, and travelled in Italy. Kavanagh became fluent in both Italian and English. She died relatively young. How her mother managed after her death we are not told. This chapter is not well written; it’s faults are awkwardness, overlong paragraphs, uninteresting style. But it is rich in genuine new content. From it I’ve learned that Anthony Trollope’s somewhat unkind but astonished portrait of “Josephine de Montmorenci” combines George Eliot with Julia Kavanagh.

Chapter 2 consists of full-scale summary, analysis and interpretation of six of Kavanagh’s at the time (19th century) wide-selling and reviewed novels: Nathalie (1850), Adele (1858), Daisy Burns (1853), Sybil’s Second Love (1867), Grace Lee (1855), and Rachel Gray (1856) [in this odd order]. Fausset brings them alive, retelling them with gusto, lots of quotations and providing an insightful reading which shows how they are like books well known today (Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey, Oliphant’s lesser known novels) but go much further in their frankness, iconoclasm (the heroines often don’t marry, realities of real family sexual life brought out, the heroines professional lives too). At one time these were wholly unavailable except at huge prices or in specific rare book rooms; now they are available (for not such cheap prices, but not even in the hundreds) as google repeat books on the Net.

Jodhi May as 19th century governess on her way to an interview (1999 Turn of the Screw, screenplay Nick Dear)


The first of her three extraordinary works of biography and criticism, Woman in France during the 18th Century is the subject of Chapter 3. Kavangh’s study combines original research on so many of the women we have discussed in passing or details by Fauset, research on Kavanagh’s “take” as well as Fauset retelling the story as Kavanagh does, and then a brief description of how the original materials and Kavanagh’s take influenced the depiction of these women afterwards. The book was translated into French — I should have said that way before. So last night I read interesting accounts of what we know of and how treated were Maintenon, Liselotte (again Elisabeth Charlotte, wife of Louis XIV’s brother and mother of the regent, she left wonderful letters), de Berri, du Maine, de Launay (later de Staal), Aisse, Lespinasse — niece of Madame du Deffand.

The blind Du Deffand (engraved late in life), aunt

Julie de Lespinasse, the niece

Lespinasse is a “favorite” of mine since I read her stark desperate poiganant letters to Count Gilbert (a cold man who regarded her with indifference and I suppose amazement). It’s very like Marilyn Yalom’s Blood Sisters in the length of the portraits, somewhat better because there is no rightest point of view (as comes out of a book dependent on memoirs of those who loathed the revolution). The larger question is (again) how all this relates to the appearance of strong feminism in the women themselves and French society at the time.

On the individuals covered: Alas, Fauset and Kavanagh know and knew nothing of D’Epinay’s masterpiece hugh Richardson epistolary novel, Montbrillant. It was published in 1929 in French (for the first time) and Fauset ought to know it. But such is the barrier of not knowing the original language. On Chatelet though Fauset and Kavanagh are very good. Both she and D’Epinay deserve much much more attention than they’ve gotten. Both so indicative (Chatelet dead of miscarriage, Epinay in her earlier life apparently hounded by someone to cough up sex to pay his debts and the story is not uncommmon and put in Montbrillant) and interesting and ambitious too. There are biographies of Chateauroux (earlier mistress) Pompadour, du Barry, Marie Antoinette, and Madame Roland, not to omit Madame de Genlis (who wrote an enormous number of books and a gigantic memoir). She also offers an account of salon life: very sceptical, she didn’t believe they had all these great insights gong on all the time (and in Montbrillant Epinay agrees). In the juxtaposition of Antoinette with a series of mistresses, Kavanagh is interested as we are in the gains and losses of the mistress position. She dislikes Pompadour as cold, selfish, a pimp; she gives a complicated portrait of Antoinette, very sympathetic to her as a mother and showing her as an inept politician. Fauset says that Antonio Fraser has proved to Fauset’s satisfaction that Fersen was Antoinette’s lover for a while, and when it cooled, faithful friend. Very great sympathy for Roland: the politics, the memoir, the downfall, her lovers (though Kavanagh choses the wrong guy for Roland’s lover).


Chapter 4 takes us through French and English women of letters. Fauset sets out to say why Kavanagh was attracted to the later 17th through later 18th century French and English women of letters. First, she did find in their work a new tone, a new attitude of mind so general and dominant as to be persuasive, as well as new genres coming out of that attitude. In short, the first women’s books, literature.

She saw that in their lives many transgressed, especially sexually, but she was fascinated by how they managed this and navigated (so to speak) these social restraints, how they spoke out from the margins, and that they made a stand “against sexual difference.” Again this is academic fashion to say gender is undermined: I’d put it they made a stand on behalf of the value of sexual difference. Fauset first deals with the French volume and then the English (in general). She brings to bear on Kavanagh modern scholars on 18th century women’s books (Joan DeJean) and the effect is of a real dialogue between 19th and 20th century voices on this 18th century material.

I’ll begin with the volume on French women too as that’s the one Kavanagh wrote first. She begins by defining romance, as central for women and (rightly in my view) dismisses Clara Reeve’s novel as the first gothic romance: it’s wooden, does not give the truths she is looking for, it’s the outer customs but not the inner self. French women she saw as at the center of the discussion of what counts as realism, in other words what counts as the subject we want to talk about, the conversation we want to have. This book was her first and she began with a general account for the sudden growth of women writers and the new kind of fiction they were writing. Beyond the qualities of delicacy, sympathy and tenderness to the fore, the very lifestyle of women made them write of different content and they wrote subjectively of it.

She sees this. Also the importance of memoirs and letters and the salon life to those who write and could go there. If you could not go, you got to read about its results in part through the memoirs and letters and new “private lives” being printed for the first time. All breaking boundaries. Allow me to dwell on the individuals, gentle reader.

Lucie Dillon de la Tour du Pin (recently the subject of a fine biography by Caroline Moorehead, an 18th century memoirist, letter-writer (not treated by Kavanagh) who lived into the first half of the 19th century)

She concentrates on a few, begins with Madeleine de Scudery and there (again right) says how central are the conversations in these enormous books. Dialogues between characters and what they say is what’s important.

Madame de Lafayette is a shorter section. Kavanagh recognizes she brought something very new to the novel, but appears not to value this that much: the delicate subjective approach would seen not that important to the later Victorian where the historical, political, and larger social novel had trumped the woman’s book. She says that Lafayette shows how women are constained by the norms of their era; the first to reveal this in this way, but then moves on as if this is not important. She values Lafayette for her valuing women’s friendship and how she connects on the one hand to the Hotel Rambouiillet and 17th century learned women — and here Madame Scarron, aka Madame Maintenon turns up in a very different guise. Later on when Francoise d’Aubignac went to court, Lafayette and she became estranged. Also Lafayette was good friends with Madame de Sevigne. Lafayette certainly had an impeccable style, but it’s an insight beyond that or Genlis’s similar romance (quite close) would be as good. For those who can read French and loved Princesse de Cleves, Mademoiselle de Clermont is closely analogous and has a conclusion which anticipates the ending of Persuasion (the writing of that letter and coming together over it).

Joan de Jean finds Princess de Montpensier the more important book than Princess de Cleves because of the range of issues, and the bringing out of what a coerced marriage does to a woman’s inner life. We see a woman subjected to the politics of the state.

A very fine and perceptive long section on Madame de Stael, interweaving Kavanagh’s chapter with what was thought by significant (powerful or intelligent) people then, some of whom knew her, interwoving with what’s thought today, and Fauset’s own views. I’ve not got time to summarize it just now but hope to come back this evening (with more on LLD).

I’ll just say Fauset uses different books than those usually quoted and perhaps they are more insightful. One is an author we read while we were reading Vigee-LeBrun and about Angelica Kauffman: Angelica Gooden: Madame de Stael: Delphine and Corinne; the other a new Twayne type: Gretchen Rous Besser, Germaine de Stael Revisited. Also two 19th century women wrote interestingly: Diana Craik rewrote Corinne as Olife, and Geraldine Jewsbury reviewed Kavanagh’s volume concentrating on Stael. Alas Stael’s novels died for most of the centruy: they were outside the taste of the era, not only as woman’s books which expose “le malheur d’etre femme,” but are deeply sceptical, not mystic, not religious, insistent on seeing clearly into the sources and reality of manipulations.

IN the Madame de Stael section Kavanagh says the problem with Stael as a novelist is she is too analytic and too disillusioned, too cold, oddly enough that she refuses to be romantic. To write novels requires that we lose ourselves in passion is Kavanagh’s view. She finds the epistolary form one which allows the writer to develop principles and passions though in a way no other format can — we are freed from chronology and also the implied author. She also sees that Stael deals wtih “some of the saddest and most perplexing problems of society and life.”

Fragonard’s Gardens at the Ville d’Este at Tivoli (The Little Park)


Now for English women of letters: The English one, the second does not have a preface. It’s conceived of as volume 2 of a set (if not sold that way). She recognizes the importance of Aphra Behn by beginning with her. While Austen is there, she does not stand out except for greater subtlety and characters and a sense of deep pleasure, but not as different and doing something new or great the way Scudery, Lafayette and Stael do for Kavanagh. The longest sections are for Radcliffe and Smith and they are not set up to highlight these two women either.

Kavanagh is highly unusual for even writing of Behn, and while she’s embarassed, she writes at length and defends her. Kavanagh particularly admires Oroonoko, the delving of Surinam, and Behn’s eloquent defense of this slave. She sees that Behn is blamed for what men wrote regularly and makes this plain. Behn put into the novel a fresh vision of just the hidden sexual material of the Restoration from an often angry ambitious woman’s point of view.

It’s apparent Fauset agrees with Maureen Duffy’s biographical portrait of Behn. I’m struck by how Kavanagh intuits German Greer’s stance; there is something here of the woman selling herself recklessly as the only way to nearly (and not quite) surviving. She defends Behn as a learned woman too, reveals the world of secular nunneries, and attacks Moliere’s Precieuses Ridicules (later seeing that Burney boought into this with her Witlings).

She does scant Sarah Fielding as someone who didn’t really write women’s novels: it’s apparent that Kavanagh has missed out much of Fielding’s work, read only David Simple, and argues Fielding’s talent was more for the essay. She has read Fielding’s Remarks on Clarissa (which are important for their empathy with the main character and understanding and respect for Clarissa’s behavior post-rape).

Kavanagh and Fauset are very good on Fanny Burney and her importance — as well as limitations. Not much new or different form modern scholarship here. There is an emphasis on circulating libraries which Kavanagh is concerned to show the importance of for women (she conceives of herself as writing to other 19th century women).

The section on Ann Radcliffe is a very strange: Fauset never once cites Rictor Norton; his book does not appear in her bibliography nor the recent intelligent studies by Robert Miles, Pierre Arnaud; she does not know of Deborah Rogers (1980s) huge bibliography; not even Murray’s Twain book. Her source is McIntyre, a book written in the 1920s plus (yes) all the works of Radcliffe thus published including the memoir in front of Gaston de Blondeville. Without these newer findings and readings, no wonder the section is impoverished. It’s a testiment to the strength of Kavanagh’s text which Fauset does repeat that it is as insightful as it is at least on Radcliffe’s texts. Fauset stays with Kavanagh’s Victorian insights into the description and effective landscape projected psychology but says she knows little about the life. Too bad she had not read Norton who at least makes an outline.

But until now she’s been so up-to-date — or seeming so — I was startled.

Then I realized she had never quoted Gurwirth on de Stael. And as I read on, I see she also lacks the latest good biographies and essays on Elizabeth Inchbald. She has read A Simple Story and Nature and Art, but again without the recent work on the plays and biography she is left to Kavanagh: who for her time is at least adequate: Kavanagh saw the Catholicism, miserable first marriage, Inchbald’s dislike of marriage after that, her independence, her brave rise (very like Holcroft) from very humble background to real intelligence and a cultured life worth living. Kavanagh is also insightful on the vulnerable and shattered heroines (even Miss Milner) in a simple story, their relationship to the tyrant hero

My conclusion is Fauset has not read the English sources the way she should have, and I see has neglected recent feminist accounts too. So for the second time her book falls away The first was the awkward graduate-student wooden style of her chapter on Kavanagh’s biography. Probably an insufficiently revised dissertation there. The section on Radcliffe is strange because Kavanagh sensed a deadly distressing story and the wild insights into sexuality that Radcliffe puts before us, and shied away and Fauset doesn’t make up for it. Indeed pretends or does not see. How could she not even read Arnaud is a great puzzle. Radcliffe is seen as masochistic there, but also a brilliant inventor of the female gothic. Inchbald she is workman like because Kavanagh was: Kavanagh would not be taken by the frivolous comedies and more masculinist stories of the stage, and so there’s just A Simple Story.

Charlotte Smith in the 1790s

Alas, on Charlotte Smith, she’s not as good. She has only read the earlier novels, apparently up to Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake. They were so hard to get, fell out of print, and so she hasn’t got Smith’s disillusion with the French revolution and adherence to its principles. Again she’s fooled by the denigation and only read the sonnets and not with the insight and pleasure she ought to have brought to them. No Beachy Head, no Emigrants (blank verse poems of great power). But as far as she goes, she sees the genius and strength of Ethelinde — that’s remarkable as it is the best of the three early women’s novels (the way George Sand’s Indiana through Lelia are); Kavanagh inveighs against Old Manor House for its insipid heroine. You can see how fond of Kavanagh I’m getting when I say I smiled at that. She feels for Smith’s private agon and miserable life but Victorian like feels Smith should not have brought it into her novels — maybe because she, Kavanagh, kept her private life out.

However, the end of the section captures why this book is so inspiriting to me: Fauset sums up Kavanagh’s achievement in her women of letters volumes (and I’d say the novels probably too) thus: “[Kavanagh’s] sincerity of purpose, a phrase she could have applied to her subjects, is beyond refute.” How refreshing to my soul (p. 172).

Kavanagh argues that despite Inchbald’s supposed amorality and radical thought, she is an important writer for women; this is going far for a Victorianist. Kavanagh says that through this lens we see the sexual injustices of the earlier and her own period. Most important Kavanagh sees “the sense of delivery” — the actual text and details of a given story — are part of Inchbald’s power so that in Nature and Art when she presents a scene of a young girl accused of infanticide by the father of the child (unknown to anyone else) who is the judge in the court, we are wholly engaged in the agon.

Kavanagh on Maria Edgeworth is very strong for other reasons: Edgeworth’s novels set in Ireland, about social change and with wide ranges of interest in topics partly the result of her relationship with her father was seen as an important progenitor of the 19th century novel (by Trollope too by the way). Kavanagh is dubious though about this father’s influence, and Fauset notices that the dearth of real information at the time about Edgeworth’s life (how much was censured of the father’s four marriages, behavior to his wives, and in effect emotiona incest and use of his daughter was suppressed) hinders Kavanagh. At the same time she is aware she is missing something — to us today she misses entirely the lesbian qualities and homoeroticism of Edgeworth and loses much of its complexity for without that the didacticism seems all that is consciously taught.

Jane Austen. Kavanagh is one of the earliest people to see the greatness and importance of Austen’s texts – for women. She does not see these texts as earth-shaking equivalents say of Shakespeare’s vast canon, but in their place they are powerful and she tries to say why. Each time I’ve stopped to read her essay on the particular women in her book, and then returned to Fauset’s analysis and this time I found Fauset too short, and not having read enough of the Austen criticism.

Kavanagh’s section on Austen is long too — as long as the ones on Stael, Lafayette and Scudery and she says little of Austen as a person. Her only source was Henry Austen and she does pretty well — sees the absurdities of it and takes what she can; she dwells on the six novels. I can only point out or summarize for a record a couple of utterances or ideas. Kavanagh sees this central tortured figure of a woman who has to hide her love because it’s socially not acceptable in her circle or will humiliate her beyond endurance. She contends Austen’s superior is in her delicacy (also tenderness and sympathy as well as quiet satire — but the first two she finds in all superior women’s art). By delicacy she means insight into character “the windings of human nature.” She can follow the “foolish logic” of average minds and imitate this. at the same time she finds Austen uses an inspired silliness for some of her characters — she bathes them in this (say Mrs Bennet, Mr Woodhouse). She does find Mansfield Park to be Austen’s closest to perfect novel. About Harriet (since on WWTTA we’ve been talking of this) Kavanagh says she has a “light, cheerful and unsentimental disposition” which we see can enable her to endure her lot not just silently but without continual depression. This makes her different from Jane Fairfax in the book Emma. This makes her different from Jane Fairfax in the book Emma. Harriet can also be led by Emma (why Emma likes her); she can be made to behave as if she thinks, acts, and feels like Emam to the point she will make serious decisions based on Emma’s judgements. She can be silly too, but not in the inspired superamusing way (not bathed in it) of say Mr Woodhouse and his gruel.

She loves the subtlety of the books, the moral depths and the intelligent entertainment. She testifies to many people at the time really enjoying her — now this is 1862.

Turner’s Tintern Abbey: Austen’s Fanny Price kept a transparency of this on her attic-school room window (her “nest of comforts”)

Amelia Opie and Sydney Owenson, Lady Morgan who bring us into the 19th century

Amelia Opie is treated oddly: Fauset said it’s very apologetic, backhanded praise, with Opie’s life treated as a romance. I went over to read the text itself and discovered Fauset is accurate. I am beginning to think that these little lives were written over a period of time in different moods and palaces and perhaps all brought together when they mounted up. Opie was a contemporary nearly, her poetry was known, and her later life as a quaker. The novels are treated autobiographically and a great deal made of John Opie’s early death. Probably too Adeline Mowbray represented a problem for Kavanagh as it openly urges living outside of marriage, even if at the end the heroine is so severely punished for this. Father and Daughter is the novel Kavanagh prefers to discuss, and keeps apologizing for the style.

I’ve never read any novel through of Owenson, Lady Morgan. What I read of Wild Irish Girl seemed to me shallow and hastily done. Since reading Nancy Paxton on rape in colonial novels (Writing in the Raj), where she discusses Owenson’s Missionary (also a gothic book), I’ve been led to see I ought to return to Owenson, Kavanagh’s account here is shaped by her own Irishness; she just loves Lady Morgan’s books and provides strong praise for her independent life, her individuality and her high socialability. She admires how Owenson includes strong politics in her books (and also Maria Edgeworth).

Kavanagh says that this political frankness brought Owenson strong enemies and vitriolic criticism.

Here is where Kavanagh’s English Women of Letters ends; her French Women of Letters ends with Stael, not George Sand as probably she thought of Madame Dudevant, the name by which Sand was known and discussed in the Victorian periodicals, as contemporary, a French counterpart to the Brontes.

The point of Kavanagh’s books was to keep the memory, to keep these important Enlightenment women alive. A deep sense of hope fuels the project, and the earnest attention she gives to their perception of experience, woman’s difficulties and “human mind, its toils, its pleasures, are worth noting, that trace, however fine and often invisible” the important deep past.


Fauset’s concluding chapter is on Kavanagh’s travel book, A Summer and Winter in the Two Sicilies. In line with the rest of the book, Fauset dwells on what is apparently the emphasis in these books: the position of women in Italy. Kavanagh was appalled at the lack of choices for a fulfilled life for Sicilian women. In brief, the middling to upper class woman who did not marry, was put away in a convent or coerced into leading a repressed life as a kind of upper servant where the house becomes a prison. Many rather than do that, entered nunneries. It sound like an exaggeration, but books about customs at the time insist on thow women were pushed into arranged marriages, nunneries, or held tight within a family system; that beating was approved of, also overt jealousy. Kavanagh tells of incidents she saw that frightened her (one woman terrified to leave her house lest she displease her husband) — all this reminds me of Catherine Delors’s heroine in Mistress of the Revolution (original or real title: Lecons de Tenebres) as long as her husband was alive; she escapes because it’s a romance and she is able to find a place as a lady’s companion (but there will be problems like those outlined by Betty Rizzo in her Companions without Vows). Such women could never have travelled as she is doing — though she is herself aware of all the constraints and troubles she has in travelling. She mentions hintingly problems of sexual harassment.
And what about lower class women? apparently Kavanagh doesn’t much deal with them. They look impoverished as individuals but live in a large community where poverty is not the disgrace it is in England and where there are many holidays, festivals and community provisioning of everyone so the kind of near starvation and shame seen in the UK (England, Ireland) is not known. Kavanagh says “there is a sense of acceptance without repulsion of the poor” and so lower status is not so wretched or misery-producing. “The mildness of the climate, fertility of the country” and lack of a demanding continual work ethic makes life softer and happier. She writes that this kind of “social freedom” for the lower classes “compensates for the lack of political liberty.”

Town of Berat, Sicily, early 19th century: Kavanagh probably went to Italy to improve her health

I looked at the google excerpts from this book online and yes, it’s a far more anthropological, and sociological and less personal book that most of the travel books of the era — more like Harriet Martineau’s magnficently entertaining and insightful travel books in America. The customs and prejudices of the people are put before us. I was impressed by her pity for a poor pig “frightened” and “screaming with all its might” during one festival; perhaps he was to be murdered. She did see herself as a guest in this country too, and praises its art.

The book then comes to a sudden end with a half-page postscript summing up its main themes and Kavanagh’s extraordinary achievements, especially considering where she started out and her handicaps.


To sum up, to read this book is to learn about a 19th century life, 18th century women of letters and their books, and a 20th century take on it all put together. It is an extraordinary and original achievement.

It’s uneven because the writing is sometimes weak and wooden (Chapter 1), Fauset’s scholarship is often not up-to-date, but what she knows she knows as well and deeply in her heart as Kavanagh. Fauset (not Kavanagh) shows much more strengths in French 18th century literature than English. One of the most attended sessions at the ASECS conference I was at last month (see next blog) was one where the topic was the obstacles and difficulties of writing women’s literary history. This book shows one: to go to one of the important origins of what we say and how we look at 18th century women you have to be a Victorianist. Jobs go for people expert within a period. Jobs go to people expert within one language and to study women as a group as writers you must transcend nationalities as well as periods.

My next blog will be on three of Kavanagh’s subjects which were the subjects of ASECS panels: Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni’s, epistolary fiction Germaine de Stael’s Corinne, ou l’Italie and Fanny Burney.


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Angelica Kauffman (171401807), The Muse of Composition

Dear Friends,

This is my fifth report on the smallish conference of 18th century scholars held at Bethelehem, Pennsylvania. It consists of reports on papers from three panels: on Saturday, “Bibliography, Textual Studies and Book History, Part I” (8:30-10:00 am), “Foreign Intelligences” (2:00-3:30 pm), and “Late 18th century writers” (3:45-5:15 pm). All were excellent; the women discussed are Anne Finch, Fanny Burney, Mary Brunton, Jane Cummings, Hester Thrale Piozzi, and Elizabeth Inchbald.

The 8:30 session on Saturday concerned the public image fostered by, and actual dissemination of texts by Anne Finch, Fanny Burney, and Mary Brunton. Michael Gavin’s paper, “From manuscript to Print: Criticism and the Poetry of Anne Finch” was about how Anne Finch attempted to rise above the detraction of writers by other writers in the local politics of the era.

Miniature of Anne Finch, at the court of Mary of Modena (1680s).

Mr Gavin argued that Anne Finch’s poems are “haunted by critics.” If we look at her prefaces in her unpublished books, we find a hyper-sensitive poet who invites her readers to share her feelings. For example, her “Introduction” justifies her authorship in the face of hostile male critics, and sensitive readers who read out of their own concern and psyche. She excluded polemical poems from her 1713 Miscellany by a Lady. His argument was the dynamics of literary factionalism got in the way of her writing good poetry.

Mr Gavin began by discussing some of Finch’s poems which were never attributed to her from the 1698 religious miscellany edited (or gathered) by Nahum Tate, and the 1701 Gilden Miscellany . It’s true her poems fit into Jacobitism, can be fit into religious polemic (even Whiggism — she is hailed by Nicolas Rowe in Gilden’s volume), and she is also a poetess of exile. Nonetheless, she wanted to stand outside the literary fields of battle. She was herself a translator as were numerous women in these eras when they began careers of writing. Finch’s prefatory fable for her 1713 volume, “Mercury and the Elephant,” was meant to symbolize this stance. If we want to understand the nature of her career as a poet, Paula Backscheider has described it in her book: dedicating one’s life to writing superior verse aesthetically. I’d add, ethically, as a therapy for herself.

The painted drawing room at Norbury Park (in whose environs Fanny first met Alexandre D’Arblay)

Catherine Parisian talked about “Frances Burney in America.” Although Burney never went to the US, her books were printed in American editions and attempts were made to distribute them. The talk was on the specifics of who published what in Philadelphia and NY. She was interested to show which edition (or text) was dependent on a previous one.

Big runs were 200-300 copies, and it did emerge that despite the high hopes of the publisher/bookseller in the US, no where near enough of Burney’s books sold to justify him continuing. There was a market for this kind of high-minded intelligent book by a woman which was not sexualized overtly (Camilla fits this bill perfectly) but they didn’t reach it.

Lady Anne Barnard, 18th century Scots painter, A landscape

Emily Friedman’s paper was on “Sacred Taboos: Mary Brunton’s Posthumous Packaging.” Ms. Friedman felt the titles of Brunton’s novels (Self-Control, Discipline) are meant as self-evident jokes, and that has been scanty attention given these complex works. Her first novel, Self-Control, is about a heroine who chases after a hero to American and sails down a dangerous river in a canoe. Discipline is a strongly Emma-like novel: a heroine’s mother dies and she has no one to teach her really properly; she is given a Miss Taylor as her governess (whom she bullies) and is left to fend for herself and her father.

Brunton’s last novel, Emmeline, a work not finished, now consists of a fragment published posthumously, together with a memoir of Brunton’s short life. (She died in childbirth at age 40.) This last story is of a woman who decides she no longer loves her husband, divorces him, remarries, but discovers she and her husband are not accepted by anyone around them, and remorse and guilt drive her to misery. What happens is the new husband leaves her. It’s only 100 pages, but reads like a novella in itself.

It’s a fascinating document; contemporary reviews are painful to read now if we recognize Mary Brunton in each of the novels and this one especially has painted herself and aspects or circumstances of her life under the guise of fiction.

Reviewers did excoriate the heroine and Mrs Brunton for writing such a fiction. (Having read Brunton’s Discipline I do know how she excoriates and moralizes over her heroine, and I wondered if this 100 pages is a better novel to us precisely because Brunton couldn’t finish it, and thus ruin her text.)

In the questions and talk afterwards Ms Friedman agreed that Brunton writes very much in a vein like that of Joanne Baillie, Susan Ferrier (Scots I mentioned earlier), and Jane Austen at one remove. I asked Ms Friedman about the value of Mary McKerrow’s biography, Mary Brunton, The forgotten Scottish novelist, 2000, and she said that its emphasis is on Brunton as a Scots writer but much is well-written and revealing. Ms Friedman said this biography is mostly taken from the memoir about his life that was published shortly.

I thought Mr Gavin wanted us to see that by analyzing Finch’s poetry from another stance than that of poetry, more of its greatness came out, and asked him what he thought of its melancholy and the aesthetics of the short romantic lyrics. As I’ve dedicated years of my life to putting her poems on the Net and writing about her his paper was of especial interest to me. I was glad to see him concentrate on the unattributed poems. Someone else pointed out how Finch was in a dependent powerless position, and one reason she decided to print only de-politicized poetry (fables mostly) in her 1713 volume was she could not do otherwise.

I didn’t say so but it continues to bother me that many of the papers and essays published nowadays take positions which enable the writer to avoid the topics of feminism, and the content of the writers’ depressions and troubles. Also this final publication of Brunton’s work by the husband consisting of unfinished works, a memoir and a shaping of the author’s life which moralizes it conventionally and slides under the rug anything that does not fit that moral reminds me of how Anne Radcliffe’s husband published a similar book about her: her posthumous (but finished) Gaston de Blandville, a memoir by the husband’s friend which includes large swatches of her poetic journals, and a moral portrait which erases a troubled solitary life.

Frances Singh told me about the paper she gave on a panel called “Foreign Intelligences” (at 2:00 pm on Saturday). The title of the paper was “Jane Cumming. missing in 1812.” I was not able to hear her deliver it, but would like to offer a summary of it here as it seems to me of real interest.

Jane Cumming was the illegimate daughter of an Indian officer who died and left a comment on her mother to the effect that she was an “evil woman.” At first Jane’s grandmother ignored her; then she had her picked up from school and sent to a training school. Someone said the teachers were lesbian and parents began to take their daughters from the school The school was ruined, and Frances brought out the terribleness of what people would say to one another is brought out.

Jane Cummings left a record of what happened, and it has not been lost to us because the story was picked up by Lillian Hellman for two film adaptations The Children’s Hour. Tellingly the first versions (on stage and in the movies) erased the possible lesbianism of the schoolteachers and the second (a 1960 movie) presented the two lesbians at the center very unsympathetically. The little girl who told is presented as a kind of spiteful fiend. Nowhere does the discourse allow for a discussion of the original blind egoism of Jane Cummings’s father (and erasure of her mother), narrow views of another human being of the grandmother, and then the realities of what would go on in a school and attempts at humane communication between people that say lesbian love might have been reaching for.

On my small list, Women Writers through the Ages at Yahoo, we spent a season reading women’s plays and discussing their films, and discovered that until very recently one group continually excoriated by the public and misrepresented with extreme hostility are lesbians. (The only group as much disliked are “bluestockings” whose stock has not gone up in the way of lesbians because they are not seen as wanting sex.)

The three papers read on the “Later 18th century writers” were all informative and perceptive. Lisa Berglund delivered hers in a lively way as well: it was on the marginal commentary in Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi’s Observations and Reflections of a Tour of France, Italy and Germany. Lisa first gave a brief resume of Piozzi’s life, ending on her last years as a widow, and her late-life “crush” on a young actor, Augustus Conway who at the end of his life committed suicide. One must remember how rich Piozzi was, and also how she said she was miserable during her many years married to Thrale and very happy during her years with Piozzi.

The Thrales’ West Street house in Brighton, photograph from 1865

In this commentary Piozzi is looking back on her life, and she is much franker, more personal, more concrete than in her published writing. She indirectly mirrors conflicts between Protestants and Catholics. Piozzi was treated viciously in the press when she married and when she published later in life. Lisa read aloud to us some touching daily passages she wrote out in both her earlier handbooks and this last one. Part of the point was to show us that the public presentation of Piozzie’s husband was bland and almost not there, but that in this commentary his personality comes across. The commentary in general then is in a way more valuable than the self-censored narratives in public. Lisa intends to published these for Valancourt Press.

The book is also a narrative of her life’s writing process, and Lisa gave out xeroxes of different stages of the writing from Piozzi’s diaries and papers and we looked at the changes Piozzi made as she wrote. It seemed often to be a process of crossing out, generalizing, alas, erasing.

Juniper Hall, where Fanny met her husband, Alexander

Lorna Clarke is working on Burney’s court journals, and her paper comes out of her study of these. What she showed us was how much fictionalizing and imagination went into this journal. Fanny’s process of writing her journals changed at various points of her life and each time her writing alters. Instead of a diary of her daily proceedings, in the 1780s, it became a memorandum which she can write up later. Her notes show she was often very belated so what we get is emotion recollected in tranquility. We could say of her years at court, they were not wasted but that she spent a good deal of the time writing and rewriting.

The major revealing point that Lorna made was Burnye’s texts are a record of a complex interaction of then and now in Fanny’s mind as well as of Fanny writing to someone and expecting a rely. The letters to Susan are a kind of realistic novel with many layers in them. Then very later in life (after her husband’s death), she is glad to keep a diary of retrospection all the while she kept to the epistolary technique. She had developed a mastery of these dramatic and epistolary techniques of writing to the moment. The product is then (in effect) a major novel since much is fictionalized by Fanny’s imagination at different stages of time: close to the event so and so most nearly like what happened, further off so elaborated, meant for Susan’s eyes so the perspective is shaped that way, and then later in life.

Lorna developed a chronology which seems to me to cover the ground and give insight into what we are reading. When you look at the different layers of what is there and how differently different parts were written, we have a fiction of great complexity as well as a rarely well-documents significant life. Hers was an extraordinarily good paper which if heeded could bring before us finally Burney’s journals in a light that would enable us to read them with modern techniques of literary analysis instead of as simply fodder for biographical papers.

Elizabeth Inchbald, frontispiece to British Theater, 1806

Beverly Schneller argued that we should regard Elizabeth Inchbald’s Catholicism seriously — as she does. Inchbald’s first biographer, lost his head (joke alert about superstition and fairy tale ritual here). Ms Schneller suggested that in Inchbald’s novels and prayers, she stays strickly orthodox. Inchbald was puzzled at the strong hatred Protestants for Catholics. She showed how in Inchbald’s life we have much evidence she went regularly to church and followed other Catholic practices, and then went over Inchbald’s fiction carefully, showing analogies with Catholic doctrine and practice. So that although Inchbald lived an unusually independent life for her era. she was at the same time conventional about religion and family.

Ms Schneller also emphasized the importance of Inchbald’s editing work for us today, how she was the mainstay of her family. One area that has been misunderstood is her brief relationship with her husband. He was not long-lived. Often it’s presented as something she was forced to do, the result of having to find a protector against sexual harassment. Ms Schneller wanted us to see the marriage as something Inchbald chose because the man was Roman Catholic.

Alas, there was not time for much talk afterwards. So I’d like to add this thought here perhaps the point of trying to argue for Inchbald’s serious adherence to Catholicism could be to aid us in interpreting Inchbald’s fictions, plays and some of her scholarship. In particular, for example, her Simple Story has a Dorriforth, a man who is a priest and characterized as severe and critical towards the frivolous social behavior of the heroine, Miss Milner. How are we to understand this? Perhaps Inchbald’s purpose was more than secular moralizing. I know when we read it on Janeites, I saw it as very much in the French tradition of manners of comedies only the insights into human nature were harsher and the dramatic narratives incisive and unusually powerful. The second half of the book occurs after the death of Miss Milner and swirls around his lack of a relationship with his and Miss Milner’s daughter, Matilda and himself, now a secular gentleman, Lord Elmwood. It’s a striking contrast to the first half as it’s a gothic novel usually justified as showing what are the results of bad education. Clearly this kind of rationale doesn’t begin to approach what is going on in this plangent — and half-crazy I should say — story of estrangement and despair. I never did get to putting up on my website the many postings a group of us wrote about this novel in 1998 and now I don’t know if I can because my files (wri files) often won’t open at all.

I end with another professional woman artist of this era:

Marguerite Gerard (1761-1837), Le chat angora — threatened by that hair brush!


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Louis-Leopold Boilly (1761-1845), Painter in Her Studio (1796): beautiful, luminous and witty, it’s a family portrait

Dear Friends,

Yet another conference report of the Eastern Region 18th century panels. There were four papers in the panel on Marriage and the Family (Friday, 2:45-4:15), but since I was not able to understand all four (one on Mary Davies’s Reformed Coquet was in too abstract language for me to follow the argument), I will report on three only; further as I find my notes are briefer on all of them, I will include a second panel where again I didn’t take long notes, Another Look at the Rise of the Novel (Saturday, 10:15-11:45). Both sessions were really all about what the speakers found in 18th century novels.

Lori Halvorsen Zerne went first on the panel about marriage and the family in the 18th century and she spoke on “That Amiable Family: The Redefinition of Female Duty in Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall. Scott’s 1762 novel, the stories of 5 women, show that patriarchal society has been detrimental to women’s deepest interests, and yet does leave space for them to experience some personal fulfillment on the margins of the culture. Mary Raymond is the heroine’s name and she goes to live with wealthy people on and off. Lovely pictures of Isobel in apron. Earlier in the story (but still towards the end of the book), a reporter from a local newspaper expressed interest in the illustrations to Trollope’s novels as well as the novels themselves. Jim was ambivalent and didn’t get the job at the interview.

Each story shows abuses of marriage as an institution, pains and troubles you cannot avoid. A subtheme reminded me of Burney’s Evelina; Ms Halvorsen showed how Burney’s guardians in effect abandon their innocent female relative to unscrupulous people. The women in Millenium Hall use their excess income as if they were guardians and protectors of orphants, disabled children, poor spinsters. Revealingly they fullfill Fordyce’s descriptions of virtuous wives to a T. They promote diligence, cheerfulness, a sense of community and distribute money with their own hands. So the women do not overthrow or present a radical restructuring of patriarchal norms which they inherit.


Emily Shreve spoke about how Mary Robinson, Hays and Wollstonecraft (all three Marys) critiqued the institution of marriage: “Three (Mary)ges: Critiques of the Institution.” Mary Hay’s Victim of Prejudice tells a remarkably frank version of Jane Eyre; Hays embeds her story in a sociological analysis and protest against the povety and powerlessness of the disconnected.

Ms Shreve wanted us to see what a heavy price women and pressure to be sexually chaste women in the US pay for a precarious security. The Victim of Prejudice is a resisting novel: she felt one way the heroine resists ironically is her death is continually deferred.

Her title was playful: it calls attention to Hays’s marriage, and the ubiquity and dominance of rituals legitimatizing marriage. One of the ways women could try to resist was to refuse paying bridal shops all that much. But the women of Millenisum Hall end up partly supporting what they mean to attack, and not finding any purchase in the most of the chosen texts. Women who are older and not married, and younger ones who like to go clubbing are resisting but not overtly. Given such pragmatic and continual reinforcements, it becomes very hard to criticize this institutions that foster education as it is now. They express a belief in policing and marriage as meaning well by the woman, and in Hays’s novel we see she too assumes that marriage can support a woman for her lifetime securely.

Mary Robinson’s Natural Daughter. We have a virtuous heroine who refuses to allow her life be conducted in freedom, whose virtue is never in any doubt. Marriage itself is not attacked; the movie based on this text was a failure. Mary chooses to arrive safely, and shoos away most male comers. There is a Martha in this text: she is another heroine of this period; and we see how Martha has an identity secured up by the rest of the society, even with the closest and best of friends. Hays’s heroine has to get beyond seeing what whitey is doing.

Mary, by contrast, has no legitimate father; her mother has become a prostitute and her father a felon. She is the illegitimate child of mother who was sent to prison. Bourdieu offers the idea that certain transgressions are used by societies to define and show benefits to those who behave or are lucky with their parentage. And we see that Mary’s ills are fixed; she can’t get over the lack of status and outcast state of her mother.

Wollstonecraft’s Rights of Women is a yet more devastating critique of women. She shows marriage places women in a threatened vulnerable and powerless (against her husband) status. She closed with the assertion that what matters today is the self-discovery we see young woman can experience in and through such texts — even when they are abused, ridiculed, castigated.

Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-97), A Gotto in the Gulf of Salernum (sometimes called a Sybil), 1780-81)

Jan Stahl (from the Graduate Center, NYC, where I went) spoke on “Psychosexual Drama in Matthew Lewis’s The Monk.. MS Stahl explored how Ambrosio, Lewis’s hero, comes to commit incest and matricide, and suggested Mathilde should be seen primarily as a young woman in disguise. She found 3 phrases in Ambrosio’s relationships with women which correspond to Freud’s analysis of sexual lust. What she shows was a young male character lusting after women pathologically. What was interesting was the violence shown towards the women characters, especially the virtuous Elvira and Ambrosio’s sister, Antonia; how much and how gleeful it is. At times this male character masturbates, at times he approaches Matilde as a mother figure, but he is ever turning to frantic revulsion, as when he plunges a dagger into Antonia’s chest.

She found the pathology strikingly modern, and brought out the nightmarish feel of this fiction.

There was only a brief discussion afterwards as there had been four papers and although all had kept within the time, there was not much time left. One thing did bother me which I brought up: in the paper on Mary Hays’s Victim of Prejudice it was implied that Mary Raymond had done wrong to refuse to marry a farmer early on in the novel: her guardian had found this man of lower status willing to marry her. The passage was read aloud in a way that elided over Mary’s complete lack of knowledge of this man’s character. Together, with the argument that it’s so difficult to get outside the norms of a society, the implication became that the heroine should indeed have followed those norms. Then she would not have suffered what we see her suffer: threatened rape, seduction, abandonment by a young man she loves because his father convinces him she is not suitable by class, and then grinding poverty and debt. True, but I think Hays did not mean us to take this stance: she admires Mary Raymond for refusing to marry the rake who rapes her; she does not want us to buy into the mores of society even if they might offer compensation. In justification of this point of view, in my comment I offer a summary and analysis of this novel (see below).

Another look at the rise of the novel had papers centering on the figures Ian Watt chose to make the important shaping canon of the 18th century. The first paper was by Joanna Myers and was on Henry Fielding. She called it “Fielding and the Strangeness of Character.” She began with Fielding’s statement, “To be placed above the reach of deceit is to be placed beyond the realm of a human being.” She wanted to show that Fielding’s writing took a pragmatic turn in later life by tracing the cynicism of his characters. In his fiction throughout he continually sees the hypocrisy and deceit of people, how a completely artful man can impose himself on so many others. She quoted Fielding a lot, to great effect, on how we misinterpret what we see in faces and elsewhere so easily. Early on he produces detailed perceptive portraits; but in a later tract, a proposal (which she quoted extensively from) Fielding has turned to giving the reader clues on his characters’ faces to help the reader tell harmful from good people. He also lacks interest in individuals and is looking for rules to control the worst impulses of people.

Stanley Kubrich’s 1975 Barry Lyndon (Thackeray’s novel is influenced by Fielding)

Leah Orr and on “Defoe as an experimenter in Fiction.” In this paper she argued that Watt’s famous descriptions of Defoe’s accurate realism describes only one facet of this many-faced politican-writer. Defoe’s career spanned 4 decades and during this time we find spiritual autobiography, travel writing, histories where he tries to rewrite the past, stories of pirates; in his moral fictions we find him wanting to influence the reader’s soul, not encourage individual freedom. She too quoted effectively from Defoe’s lesser-known works. Her idea was that Defoe was not trying to write novels in any modern sense.

Etienne Aubrey (1745-81), Paternal Love

The third paper was on Richardson’s Clarissa, and, as other papers by younger people (say in their 20s), especially women have done in the recent past, this one made me uncomfortable. The title gives something of the speaker’s attitude away: “Collecting Clarissa: The culture of curiosity in Richardson’s Clarissa. Basically she argued that Clarissa is so singular and strange in her behavior that she can be likened to curiosities people liked to collect in the 18th century. Ms Schuetze gave a history of curiosity-collecting. Then she turned to the novel and said she saw Clarissa as “a visual spectacle” (how her eyes “flash beams”) and an object, an abnormal anomaly. She talked of Clarissa’s behavior over her charities, her giving away her property, and likened Clarissa’s behavior at times to the crazy story of the 17 1/2 rabbits born to someone in the era: she’s just impossible to classify (!). At one point she said, “Don’t you just love this book; it is so strange.” She had just described Clary’s coffin.

Clarissa fleeing Anna’s teasing (1991 BBC Clarissa)

I look upon Clarissa as a common ordinary girl behaving uncommonly under terrible distress; she is a role model to the average girl dealing with the terrors of threatened sexual and marital abused, someone being abused badly by her family. I admire her for her anti-materialism (hurray!), and desire to have nothing to do with the cunning and ruthless of the world; for her virtues and knowing what goodness and kindness are. If the reader does not recognize the shared reality of human feeling here, the book might come out as camp. I asked after the panel had finished, if others in the room were bothered in the way young women today couldn’t see themselves in this figure, and the return to an anti-feminist hostility and taking on of Lovelace’s point of view. It’s Lovelace who writes Clarissa as a sweet anomaly. I was really thinking is this the perversion of socialistic feminism into a respect for power, accompanied by a distaste for associating oneself with the victim which I see today in many woman writing as feminists.

One Richardson scholar in the room thought this way of favoring Lovelace and finding Clarissa to be inhumane somehow is an old common stance and we find it today in William Warner. This is removing the argument away from modern feminisms, but it true that I take a stance like that of Terry Eagleton, Terry Castle, Margaret Anne Doody. However, this time I was really coming at the novel from a stance like Anna Barbauld: she reads the novel as about a woman like herself speaking home to her about the horrors a lack of power can inflict on a woman and offering up someone who fought hard, kept her bodily and mental integrity, and if she went down in the struggle, shows a point of view on human relationships admirable, even followable, not strange or laughable or simply unbelievable.

More generally, my ferreting out the content just about the woman at the center shows something about assumptions today that is disturbing: I’ve students who inveigh against sympathy as if this is a poor ground to take to liking someone and helping them. Victims are made into losers or people who didn’t grab the main chance. The talk afterwards also included a young male graduate student in the audience who suggested Defoe’s moralisms are all hypocrisy; he doesn’t mean them. The implication is that no one could intend morality. This is very much of our era (alas).

An older scholar countered that one and adduced numbers of Defoe’s lesser known texts which did sell, but which are undeniably meant as ethical in the pragmatic and religious sense. I cited Defoe’s Religious Courtship.

Someone in the audience then challenged Ms Orr by saying most scholars today have gone well beyond Watt’s way of reducing Defoe for Watt’s book; it didn’t invalidate her thesis, but rather insisted on a wider perspective since Watt. He said Defoe was propelled by external events and saw others as this way.

On Fielding we talked of his use of the face and how it connected to treatises on acting at the time about the actor’s face as his instrument. Also of his style and social conscience.

It was a good session. But what didn’t get discussed was Watt’s book. I argued on C18-l a few years ago that the book has been so influential and liked because it has a neat pattern and its conclusions exportable to other canonized novels, mostly by male. Tonight I’ll add that he takes novels he in the mid-20th century saw as important; at the time, these novels would not have stuck out at all. Watt need supplement: Kellogg and Steele, The Nature of Narrative, and all the many feminist critics who bring aboard our Noah’s arc so many novels by women. Really Anna Barbauld’s outlook on the rise of the novel (beginning with the Greek romances and again the 17th century with Le Princesse de Cleves) is more accurate.

Francois Boucher (1703-70), Le Petit Dejeuner (Breakfast): what novels did these women read?

My next blog on the conference will be on Jon Sensbach’s keynote speech, a moving eloquent one on women slaves and religion with one focus on what happened to women, how they were made to be cut off from women’s expectations about keeping their children and how they were deeply abjected: he concentrated on “the middle passage” of slavery; the horrors of the ships.


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Anna (Hermione Norris) places flowers on Clarissa’s grave, Mr Hickman (Jon Sotherton) standing by (1991 BBC Clarissa)

Dear Friends,

Here is the second panel I went to at the recent conference. The second period on Friday, from 10:15 to 11:45, offered what turned out to be an excellent set of papers on “The Seductive Menace: The Dangers of Popery.”

First up was Teri Doerksen, with “Catholicism, Danger, and Womanly Virtue: Clarissa Harlowe and the Appropriation of Catholic Iconography.” She suggested that until 1745 and the Battle of Culloden, Jacobite Catholicism seemed to pose a real threat to Protestantism. After that year there is a relaxation, and we see in Clarissa, an Anglicanized hagiography sliding into Catholic ideas and practices in Clarissa. Clarissa’s desire for the single life, to join some sort of nunnery, her martyrdom of herself (like a saint), Lovelace’s dream of her going up to Heaven dressed like the Virgin Mary while he is pulled down to hell; Belford’s desire for her to be a mediatrix for him; how he prays to her; her death consummation with the word “Jesus” on her lips — are all seen as uses of Catholicism. Ms Doerksen quoted Margaret Doody’s A Natural Passion where she goes over these kinds of images and says Clarissa’s last moment was calm and tranquil.

I came up to ask a question later about Sir Charles Grandison with its Italian Catholic characters, and Ms Doerksen said she regarded Harriet and Clementina as a kind of splitting of Clarissa into a Catholic and Protestant type, and yes, she thought Richardson was conscious of what he was doing.

Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) Silence (1799-1800)

The second paper, by Rebecca Cepek, was “Remembering the Virgin Mary: Resisting the Normative in Lewis’s Castle Spectre” (found in the anthology Seven Gothic Dramas edited by Geoffrey Cox). Ms Cepek suggested Catholicism was seen as an agent of patriarchical oppression, misguided to actively cruel. Lewish reconfigures the Virgin Mary to represent the maternal; unlike Protestantism, Catholicism offered a woman to worship, and offered another choice to living ordinary women beyond that of marriage and motherhood. Lewis’s Castle Spectre is a powerful female figure resisting male domination. Unlike The Monk which is a male and horror gothic, The Castle Spectre is a work which fits the categories Anne Williams outlined for female gothic in her Poetics of Gothic. In the nightmare work run amok of The Monk, Osmond can either rape or marry Angelica; there is no role outside prostitute or wife. The male characters fail to protect the female ones; romantic love fails. By contrast, the female castle spectre creates feminist theatre. Evelina, a character in the play, longs for a wound, is in white, and has a Christ-like mother who saves her. Angelica must rely on her mother, and becomes more powerful this way. The play recalls Burney’s Cecilia who prays to her mother, anticipates Jane Eyre who does the same.


The third paper was by a French literary scholar, Frederick Conrod, was called “Dialogue between a Libertine and a Pope in [Sade] Histoire de Juliette. South of the English channel, he began, Sade is seen as more than simply a site for evil; he wrote philosophical tracts in the same tradition as Voltaire and Diderot. In this paper, Mr Conrod went over a small pamphlet by Sade: “A Dialogue between a dying man and a priest.” In Sade’s collection of philosophical dialogues, Sade emphasizes how the Pope approved of those who kept their sex lives hidden. This particular dialogue is antagonistic (like Rameau’s Nephew.) The man on his deathbed says he is penitent for a life misspent (wasted, thrown away) repressing his natural impulses. The priest reinforces this idea by saying this is nothing compared to the falsehoods told knowingly by Catholic doctrine; the dying person wants a natural explanation for everything. The priest also says our free will makes a love of God worth while. But the soul equally needs vices and virtues, which are at the center of the human brain or body. In another, The Dialogue of Juliette and Pope Pius VI. The Pope stands in for an ultimate priest, and has Juliette achieve a union of sexual pleasure and perversion, which is a kind of beatitude.

I know I didn’t do justice to the subtlety of the arguments. These dialogues alternate with written-up orgies (which I guess the less said about the better). It seemed to me the paper was an argument for looking more closely at texts-in-history and the real living world Then we can see a revolution going on from the point of view of libertines of the 1790s.

The ancient abbey ruins of Clonmacnois, Ireland

Elizabeth Lambert’s biographical essay on Edmund Burke was one of the best I heard this session: “Meanwhile back at the Ranch: Edmund Burke’s outlaw Irish relations.” During the long penal time (the British control) in Ireland, most messages were sent by word of mouth. What biographers and historians have to do is extrapolate through their imagination — from scraps for what is not recorded is lost. Then slowly quietly heroic individuals living their lives out as best they can emerge. Central to her argument was how these experiences of his Catholic relatives had an effect on Burke and led to his complicated political positions, and some of famous writing. Behind his Reflections on the French Revolution is his personal love of French society as he knew it in contrast to Irish. He could not help them, or not help them very much lest he risk his position and then no one would have anything; he would have to tell them this. At the same time he felt (rightly from the evidence) that his relatives were persecuted as a way of getting at him. If he acted too aggressively (including writing candid notes), his text might very well fall into the wrong hands.

She began her talk with setting the larger scene. A series of laws were passed in 1709 as a punishment to Jacobites: Catholics were banned from public office, teaching, inheriting land in a primogeniture fashion. It’s said Catholic worship was left alone, except when local magistrates chose to bother people, which they mostly did. The atmosphere of the Irish courts was very bad. Now Burke personally experienced the effects of the penal code. Growing up he saw much unhappiness between his mother and father; on the other hand, in the house of the Nagles, more prosperous Catholic relatives who served the Stuarts in France, he held his head up.

Professor Lambert then told detailed stories about Burke’s relatives and his inability to help them when they ran afoul of the penal laws and or were seditious. I can’t do justice to them either in tone or content, but can only indicate generally a couple of the experiences Burke was involved with or saw.

Garrett Nagle had abducted a Catholic woman and was accused of involvement with the White Boys; he had set up a school for one of his female relatives to teach in (many Catholics continued to maintain schools against the law). A second Nagle was accused of fomenting rebellion and was hanged, drawn and quartered. His aunt Mary went to France to be educated in a convent, and did not return for 18 years; she came back to Ireland and saw the wretched conditions of the poor, returned to her convent in France momentarily, but came out again to go to Cork and live and teach in a fine girl’s school alongside her brother Joseph. Mary lived a life outside the law and conventions. She supposedly kept her school a profound secret, but Charles James Fox had heard and came to visit and look round.


The questions during the discussion were about female agency in the different papers. One person commented that if a woman becomes a mother and wants to live her life as a mother, there is no nunnery alternative. To this someone replied, she was studying mother figures in convent life. Finally, how does Lewis compare to Radcliffe when it comes to their depiction and treatment of women as such in their works. I’ve never read Castle Spectre and until now that he showed a callow misogyny (remember he was 19) when he wrote The Monk . one evil shot from a man who has gotten his high

Finally as I did for my second report on the gothic, I want to add something that came to mind as I listened: women’s gothic poetry, specifically that of Amelia Opie (1769-1853), who began as a radical, anti-war, visionary poet and ended a Victorian writer known as a Quaker and unitarian. I thought of how her ethical novel dramatizing the miseries a young woman experiences when she decides she is against marriage and goes to live with a man without marrying him — is really about the daughter and her mother’s relationship (with the mother the destroyer), as seen in its subtitle: Adeline Mowbray; or, the Mother and Daughter (1804). She was briefly married to John Opie, the painter of theatrical portraits, who died young.

Two short poems:

To a Maniac

There was a time, poor phrensied maid,
When I could o’er thy grief have mourned,
And still with tears the tale repaid
Of sense by sorrow’s sway o’erturned.

But now thy state my envy moves:
For thou art woe’s unconscious prize;
Thy heart no sense of suffering proves,
No fruitless tears bedew thine eyes.

Excess of sorrow, kind to thee,
At once destroyed thy reason’s power;
But reason still remains to me,
And only bids me grieve the more.

To Winter

Power of the awful wind, whose hollow blast
Hurls desolation wide, thy sway I hail!
Thou o’er the scene around can’st beauties cast,
Superior far to aught that Summer’s gale
Can, in the ripening year, to bloom awake;
To view thy majesty, the cheerful tale,
The dance, the festive song, I, pleased, forsake;
And here, thy power and thy attractions own,
Now the pale regent of thy splendid night
Decks with her yellow rays thy snowy throne;
Richly her beams on Summer’s mantle light,
Richly they gild chill Autumn’s tawny vest
But, ah! to me they shine more chastely bright,
Spangling the icy robe that wraps thy breast.

Casper David Friedrich (1774-1840) Evening


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Frances d’Arblay (Fanny Burney), 1811, artist unknown

Dear Friends,

Jim and I returned from the East Central ASECS at Bethlehem this past Sunday, having had a rejuvenating time. We met old friends, made some new ones, I heard some (to me) wonderfully interesting papers and took part in lively sessions, we walked about Bethlehem, and participated in a reading of Fanny Burney’s comic play, The Witlings, and read aloud poetry during the evening of the Oral/Aural experience under the direction of Peter Staffel. This play was chosen, and I have put a relatively unknown image of Fanny Burney d’Arblay in middle age because the Burney Society joined in with our small 18th century society, and thus a number of people gave papers on topics connected to Burney in some way. I’ve no doubt that I found most of the papers I heard for once of real interest to me because they were there, and all of these (yes, all) were excellent. I wish the Burney Society would join in with EC/ASECS more often, and now am torn over next year when on the weekend before EC/ASECS meets (the first in November), the Burney Society will again join in with JASNA in Portland, Oregon (Halloween) to talk of and celebrate (most appropriately) Austen’s sanguine gothic, Northanger Abbey. Can I go for two weekends in a row?

As I’ve done before, I’m going to type out my notes for those papers I heard and sessions I joined in on and enjoyed, with the difference that this time I shall only record one session at a time (per blog). I like to make these records for then I remember the sessions and they become much more useful to me, but have found it an arduous struggle to get down what happened. If I do only a session at a time, it will make each stint of work much easier. If I can get myself to follow this pattern, I’m more likely to keep this up, plus it will be less for interested readers to read each time.

So tonight I begin with Devoney Looser’s lecture on Thursday late afternoon (it was around 4:30 pm by the time she began), “An Elderly Lady with No Remains of Personal Beauty.”

Her title derives from an often-quoted line from a sketch Walter Scott wrote in his diary in 1826. Burney or Madame D’Arblay was then 74. He saw her on November 18th, and also wrote that she had “simple and gentle manners,” and “particularly quick feelings.” Unlike other women writers of the era, Burney never sat for her portrait when she was older and so we have nothing to set against Scott’s words which reveal him to be steeped in preconceptions of what female beauty and manners should be when a woman grows old: innocuous, uncomplicated, over-emotional, easy to please, soft-hearted, maternal. Definitely not a repository of wisdom and experience.

Burney was unusual for having carried on writing into middle and very late old age, e.g., The Wanderer (1814), The Memoirs of Charles Burney (1832) and of course her journals going up to 1840; by doing so, she was defying stereotypical expectations as did Maria Edgeworth when she wrote her novel, Helen (1834). Now in just about all the biographies of Burney, her later years are given short shrift; for example, Harman (a rare writer to give any amplitude to Burney’s old age), has only two chapters out out of fourteen for the years 1818-1840 (Burney was born in 1752). Dobson’s older book covers 48 years of Burney’s life in very few pages. Yes her most read and remembered books, Evelina (1777-8) and Cecilia (1782) come from earlier in her life, and Camilla helped shelter and support her and D’Arblay.

Fanny’s husband’s sketch plan of an interior for Camilla Cottage

But like all of us who live into middle and old age, she did important things for herself and others later too.

Professor Looser wants to do justice to these older years — not only for Burney but other women. She recently published a book, women Writers and Old Age in Great Britain, 1750-1850 (it includes a chapter on Anna Barbauld too), and her lecture was an elaboration of a section from her chapters on Burney. Between the years 1820 and 1830 Burney wrote 5 volumes of The Memoirs of Charles Burney, and Prof. Looser argued it has much to recommend it: we see her concept of authorship by that time, her sense of herself as an older woman, and in the hostile reception it got what she was up against.

This biography of her father has been described mostly negatively. It is a book where she is consciously preoccupied with old age, and includes a proud self-defense. She first began it in 1797 from her father’s own journal; she thought this journal was not publishable because filled with “irrelevant” and “mischievous” information (probably in reality just what we might most want to know, the politics of the music world and his worlds of family and friends). So she “burnt it as fast as she reread it.” She turned her father into an exemplary figure and instead of focusing on him, she retells her own life. We lern (once again) of the genesis of Evelina, how it became a tremendous hit, something of her time before she entered the court (writing Cecilia) and again afterwards up to The Wanderer. Using a third person narrative, she creates a distanced portrait of two elderly figures: the aged father and the memoirialist. She is seeking some way to represent herself.

Reading the book today, Prof Looser found a character sketch filled with tenacious information, good memory, sagacity. Burney had been silent for 20 years. She describes herself as trembling with anxiety. Maria Edgeworth was among those bothered by the amount of self-reference, and Prof Looser suggests Burney’s presence is called attention to because she chose to use the 3rd person. In 1806 in her Memoirs of Colonel Hutchinson, also an autobiography disguised as the memoir of a male relative, Lucy Hutchinson found favor: she used the “I” simply and directly. In a way she sets up a competition between her father at 80 and herself: he has a poor memory, and she a good one. But she also includes information about the old age of other people, e.g., Samuel Johnson and Mary Delaney. Delaney becomes a double for herself: unimpaired intellect, contented, competent to the end.

Mary Delany in old age, portrait by John Opie

When we look to see what Burney said of herself, we find she does not describe herself physically; she talks of her father’s decay but not of any illness of her own. Other women did describe themselves physically (for example, Sarah Siddons), tell of their illnesses. Fanny describes the agonized death of her husband, while Hester Thrale Piozzi describes both her husband’s death and her own old age. (Obviously throughout her life Piozzi was more willing to show herself to be unconventional than Burney.) Prof Looser thought that Burney wanted to create a portrait of herself against history and inside her family group.

While she did receive some strong praise for this last book (and her career in general), she was attacked by reviewers with a virulence strong even for this acrimonious era. The attacks had a personal feel: she was called a “senile egoist.” John Wilson who made his living by writing needling poisonous banter spent 29 pages of vitriol on Burney’s Wanderer and Memoir; sexist, ageist, his technique is to slash at her by finding tiny errors; an anal garrulous old woman who he writes about as if she were dead already.

Women were apparently supposed to spend their last years frivolously, reading, and if they must write, writing only “charming” pieces, as they prepare for death.

Scott was behind some of this. Prof Looser thought that Scott’s son-in-law, Lockhart had encouraged Wilson, having perhaps been himself encouraged by his father-in-law. (Prof Looser did not mention this, but in his biography Sutherland tells us it was Scott who got Wilson the job, Scott who encouraged Wilson and his son-in-law, Lockhart to be merciless to any one not strongly Tory in outlook.)

Fanny appeared to take this and other attacks in her stride, and a few months assured her favorite niece, Charlotte Barrett (the one who first published her great-aunt’s diaries) she was not bothered, but she was. Her son, Alexander, wrote a reply on behalf of his mother, but it was not published.

The only surviving portrait we have of Fanny’s son, from 1815

Charlotte wrote one too, and it also was not published. It was Macaulay’s view that Burney had nothing to gain by arguing with Wilson; that her books would live on and thus she would defy him. But her niece did not like that her reputation would be framed at the last as vain and old. Her aunt had been hurt and had not forgotten what was said, and it may be said that in the 1840s Macaulay’s famous favorable sketch of Burney (which served as a preface to Barrett’s edition of her aunt) was also meant an effective silencer of Wilson.

A photograph of Charlotte Barrett in old age, probably from 1860s

After Prof Looser finished her lecture, there was some discussion of the way women in this era often don’t discuss their own physical characteristics; they avoid talking of their bodies. We also discussed how women’s subjective point of view is not sympathized with, especially when they use it to frame history or records or present it too strongly.

I came up to Prof Looser after the session was over and she said there can’t be any questions that are “too late.” I wanted to make a suggestion about any changes she might make or want to add to her book, British Women Writers and the Writing of History, 1670-1820. She had tried to expand our definition of history from those that look like men’s (Catherine Macauley’s) to fictional history novels. But I think we need to develop a whole new paradigm, one which has a subjective frame. I told her about Sarah Vowell’s travel memoir cum-history, Assassination Vacation, which I think is quintessentially women’s sort of history.

What Vowell does is go in search of history as part of her vacation and meditation on places she dwells in. Men do not write personal memoirs like this to talk about history. It’s this use of content to make a new form of genre that is so striking, and to me the scholars who write about earlier history by women are barking up the wrong tree. We have to stop judging by male criteria (which is often disingenuous when it comes to history and biography writing, pretending to more objectively than there can be). Since women’s books don’t even try to fit, we end up filling the space with women’s novels. We need to re-think how women write history the way Deborah Cherry re-thought how women paint and what they paint and their genres in the 19th century and Paula Backscheider thought about how women write poetry, make new genres, and have careers. That matters.

In scholarly works women scholars try to deal with how women write history and have problems even defining the genre since they often write in untraditional ways. Recently I read a book by Wm McCarthy on Hester Thrale Piozzi whose late history, Retrospective is just such a subjective history. It was ridiculed and attacked so at the time she never published again. It’s a treatment of history from a personal vantage — as is really Austen’s hilariously candid and boldly personal squib mocking Goldsmith’s History of England, as in

Oh! what must this bewitching Princess [have felt ‘ when informed that Elizabeth had given orders for her death’] whose only freind was then the Duke of Norfolk, and whose only ones are now Mr. Whitaker, Mrs Lefroy, Mrs Knight & myself …

Prof Looser liked the idea.

And then it was time for drinks and dinner. AFterwards a group of us acted out The Witlings — about which see the comments.

In my next blog I’ll tell of the first session on Friday morning on the 18th century gothic.


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“We have calmly voted slaughter and merchandized destruction . . . things should be called by their proper names . . . : When we pay our army and our navy estimates, let us set down — so much for killing, so much for maiming, so much for making widows and orphans, so much for bringing famine upon a district, so much for corrupting citizens and subjects into spies and traitors, so much for ruining industrious tradesmen and making bankrupts (of that species of distress at least, we can form some idea) . . .” — Anna Barbauld (see her Evenings at Home)

Rosalba Carriera (Venetian painter), a young girl (mid-18th century)

Dear Friends,

Yesterday I finished the eighth revision of my review of William McCarthy’s splendid — moving and original — biography of Anna Letitia Barbauld (1743-1825), subtitled “voice of the Enlightenment.” I sent it off to the editor of the Intelligencer who hopes to get it into the coming issue. When it is published, I’ll put it online in my Reviewer’s Corner.

(Update: it is now published! See a review of William McCarthy’s Anna Barbauld: Voice of the Enlightenment).

I had originally also intended just to put my summaries of the chapters as I went along into a coherent blog, but now as I look at them, they seem inadequate to express the power (and a couple of flaws) in this book, to say nothing of not getting across the depth and generosity of this woman’s character, her strong intelligence and enormous learning, and the courage and compassion with which she lived her life. Even in the inadequate drawing from the side, you can see the sensitivity of her face, the anxious sweetness and calm of her eyes.

As she was not an “in” person and had little money for portraits, like Austen’s, her portrait leaves something to be desired

So instead I rewrote some of what I had wrote about McCarthy’s book as a short life. I preface it with two poems and put two commentaries on her literary criticism and biographies into two comments on the blog.

Of this first (late) poem by Barbauld, my friend, Nick, wrote:

I really like this poem. I think a lot of its strength comes from the contrast provided by the final stanza with the prisoner and the poverty-stricken inhabitant of the ‘dreary fen’ (which made me think of Crabbe yet again – I’m becoming obsessive! – although they are not always dreary in his verse).

But the opening celebratory stanzas are a joy too. A real fire is lovely – we don’t have one and there is no question that radiators in no way provide any substitute – except for heat I suppose – and what’s more the boiler is always breaking down and in need of repair which one can’t carry out oneself. The poem made me wish we did have a fire – even though it doesn’t deal with the business of getting hold of the coal/wood, clearing it out very day etc..:)!

The First Fire, October 1st, 1815

Ha, old acquaintance! many a month has past
Since last I viewed thy ruddy face; and I,
Shame on me! had mean time well nigh forgot
That such a friend existed. Welcome now!
­When summer suns ride high, and tepid airs
Dissolve in pleasing languor; then indeed
We think thee needless, and in wanton pride
Mock at thy grim attire and sooty jaws,
And breath sulphureous, generating spleen,­
As Frenchmen say; Frenchmen, who never knew
The sober comforts of a good coal fire.
— Let me imbibe thy warmth, and spread myself
Before thy shrine adoring: — magnet thou
Of strong attraction, daily gathering in
Friends, brethren, kinsmen, variously dispersed,
All the dear charities of social life,
To thy close circle. Here a man might stand,
And say, This is my world! Who would not bleed
Rather than see thy violated hearth
Prest by a hostile foot? The winds sing shrill;
Heap on the fuel! Not the costly board,
Nor sparkling glass, nor wit, nor music, cheer
Without thy aid. If thrifty thou dispense
Thy gladdening influence, in the chill saloon
The silent shrug declares the’ unpleased guest.
–How grateful to belated traveller
Homeward returning, to behold the blaze
From cottage window, rendering visible
The cheerful scene within! There sits the sire,
Whose wicker chair, in sunniest nook enshrined,
His age’s privilege, — a privilege for which
Age gladly yields up all precedence else
In gay and bustling scenes, — supports his limbs.
Cherished by thee, he feels the grateful warmth
Creep through his feeble frame and thaw the ice
Of fourscore years, and thoughts of youth arise.
–Nor less the young ones press within, to see
Thy face delighted, and with husk of nuts,
Or crackling holly, or the gummy pine,
Feed thy immortal hunger: cheaply pleased
They gaze delighted, while the leaping flames
Dart like an adder’s tongue upon their prey;
Or touch with lighted reed thy wreaths of smoke;
Or listen, while the matron sage remarks
Thy bright blue scorching flame and aspect clear,
Denoting frosty skies. Thus pass the hours,
While Winter spends without his idle rage.
— Companion of the solitary man,
From gayer scenes withheld! With thee he sits,
Converses, moralizes; musing asks
How many eras of uncounted time
Have rolled away since thy black unctuous food
Was green with vegetative life, and what
This planet then: or marks, in sprightlier mood,
Thy flickering smiles play round the’ illumined room,
And fancies gay discourse, life, motion, mirth,
And half forgets he is a lonely creature.
— Nor less the bashful poet loves to sit
Snug, at the midnight hour, with only thee
Of his lone musings conscious. Oft he writes,
And blots, and writes again; and oft, by fits,
Gazes intent with eyes of vacancy
On thy bright face; and still at intervals,
Dreading the critic’s scorn, to thee commits,
Sole confidant and safe, his fancies crude.
— 0 wretched he, with bolts and massy bars
In narrow cell immured, whose green damp walls,
That weep unwholesome dews, have never felt
Thy purifying influence! Sad he sits
Day after day, till in his yourhful limbs
Life stagnates, and the hue of hope is fled
From his wan cheek. –And scarce less wretched he
­When wintry winds blow loud and frosts bite keen,
­The dweller of the clay-built tenement,
Poverty-struck, who, heartless, strives to raise
From sullen turf, or stick plucked from the hedge,
The short-lived blaze; while chill around him spreads
The dreary fen, and Ague, sallow-faced,
Stares through the broken pane; –Assist him, ye
On whose warm roofs the sun of plenty shines,
And feel a glow beyond material fire!

By this year Barbauld was a widow living alone on a small income; her husband had been a manic depressive, and killed himself in 1808; she had been much attacked in 1811 for her radical pro-French revolution (she remained true to its principles) and anti-war stances and didn’t publish after that; the mainstay of her existence was her beloved brother, John Aiken (whose business as a surgeon had gone to pot because of his liberal opinions and writing) who lived close by.

The second is Robert Burns-like. She feels for a tiny insect, because (like Alice from Wonderland and her dinner) she has really entered into its life and physical presence, identified, and now cannot bear to kill it though if left there to multiply it would ruin her garden.

The Caterpillar

No, helpless thing, I cannot harm thee now;
Depart in peace, thy little life is safe,
For I have scanned thy form with curious eye,
Noted the silver line that streaks thy back,
The azure and the orange that divide
Thy velvet sides; thee, houseless wanderer,
My garment has enfolded, and my arm
Felt the light pressure of thy hairy feet;
Thou hast curled round my finger; from its tip,
Precipitous descent! with stretched out neck,
Bending thy head in airy vacancy,
This way and that, inquiring, thou hast seemed
To ask protection; now, I cannot kill thee.
Yet I have sworn perdition to thy race,
And recent from the slaughter am I come
Of tribes and embryo nations: I have sought
With sharpened eye and persecuting zeal,
Where, folded in their silken webs they lay
Thriving and happy; swept them from the tree
And crushed whole families beneath my foot;
Or, sudden, poured on their devoted heads
The vials of destruction. – This I’ve done,
Nor felt the touch of pity: but when thou,
A single wretch, escaped the general doom,
Making me feel and clearly recognise
Thine individual existence, life,
And fellowship of sense with all that breathes,
Present’st thyself before me, I relent,
And cannot hurt thy weakness.– So the storm
Of horrid war, o’erwhelming cities, fields,
And peaceful villages, rolls dreadful on:
The victor shouts triumphant; he enjoys
The roar of cannon and the clang of arms,
And urges, by no soft relentings stopped,
The work of death and carnage. Yet should one,
A single sufferer from the field escaped,
Panting and pale, and bleeding at his feet,
Lift his imploring eyes,-the hero weeps;
He is grown human, and capricious Pity,
Which would not stir for thousands, melts for one
With sympathy spontaneous:-Tis not Virtue,
Yet ’tis the weakness of a virtuous mind.


To begin her life as told by McCarthy : Those interested in Austen could learn a lot from reading the opening section about her girlhood and reading because although Barbauld is from a dissenting background, she is otherwise close to Austen: her father originally a clergyman (not establishment and gave it up) became someone who ran a school out of his large house. The children were given the run of his library. Barbauld’s reading and tastes sound just like Austen’s, especially some of the adverse comments she makes on the earlier literature of the century.

Austen’s music books

I was also delighted to discover that the longer comments on books MacCarthy quotes includes comments on Burney and especially Richardson’s Clarissa — which meant a lot to her. About Burney’s books and Cecilia Barbauld thought that many gentlewomen growing up in England at the time would not be able to learn about society or its inner workings anywhere so well as by reading Burney’s Cecilia. I think she would have said that one-hundred fold could she have read Burney’s journals. She died before they were published.

Clarissa for her embodied a woman’s “heroism” and shows a struggle for real authentic integrity. Barbauld quoted Clarissa’s great lines after she has been raped and refuses to yield to Lovelace again or the women in any way as she did at Harlowe place before her family and says “Compulsion shall do nothing wit me. though a slave, a prisoner in circumstance, I am no slave in my will! — Nothing wil I promise thee.” I’ve always loved that passage particularly; it makes me think of Malcolm X who refused a slave morality. “The real moral of the story,” says Barbauld, is that Clarissa holds out against all wrong, “in circumstances the most painful and degrading, in a prison, in a brothel, in grief, in distraction, in despair . . .”

When she was 15 she went with her parents to live in Lancashire as her father had gotten a job as a schoolmaster at a fine dissenting academy, Warrington. There she became close with Joseph Priestley’s wife, Mary. Mary was a highly intelligent, well-read, educated woman. When Priestley changed jobs, and Mary moved away, the loss of this woman’s company to Anna was even more than the loss of say the older Mrs Lefroy to Jane Austen (when Mrs Lefroy died suddenly from a fall from a horse), and perhaps Burney to Thrale or vice versa, as the young girl (like Anna Seward) lived in the provinces, and (unlike Austen) had no bad feelings about the older woman to cope with (Mrs Lefroy separated Jane from Tom). I’ve come across these sorts of women’s friendships in the 18th century repeatedly: they cross age cohorts because stranded people can’t be chosers. No trains, no phone, no internet, no going to public schools or jobs which are desirable, and for this genteel milieu where money is somewhat scarce, the family kept the girl away from outsiders lest she fall in love with the “wrong” sort or lose her reputation for chastity. Mary Priestley helped Anna pick books, went with her to the circulating library and encouraged her.

Here is the opening of her poem to Mary when Mary moved away:

On Mrs Priestley’s Leaving Warrington

How oft the well-worn path to her abode
At early dawn with eager steps I’ve trod,
And with unwilling feet retired at eve,
Loath its approach unheeded to believe.
Oft have I there the social circle joined
Whose brightening influence raised my pensive mind,
For none within that circle’s magic bound,
But sprightly spirits moved their chearful round;
No cold reserve, suspicion, sullen care,
Or dark unfriendly passions enter there,
But pleasing fires of lively fancy play . . .

Like so many women in the era even though she was 31 by the time she married, Barbauld leaves little record of herself. She had no public role or function. She didn’t transgress, she was not impoverished or beaten (though her later life with her husband was hard as he was a manic depressive), so it’s a kind of filling in, blowing up small details since he has so little to go on. He goes on about her reading and it’s like reading a Prose Prelude, but she herself would not write down her troubles sexually as a girl growing up, why she retreated to the marriage, why for example she was actually terrified and made anxious when it was said she should start a female academy, and also how she backed off from having to (what she thought the aim of such education) control a pubescent girls’ sexuality, direct and shape it. Abrasive women (young and old) were what she had learned to avoid.

By the ninth chapter of the book, a sensitive, intelligent, hard-working woman emerges. She is another teacher. She is making her living teaching. She married Rochemont Barbauld, a man who was not capable of making his way in the world socially and so through connections she with him beside her opened a school and ran it. Palgrave Academy was a big success and became a respected place. She ran it according to different ideas than say Eton. No cruelty as the basis of relationship; no fagging, no whipping. Her curriculum stressed modern languages and subjects like geography as well as history. She had the boys put on a play at the end of the year and recite poetry. She also really was a mother to them. She kept the accounts, ran the school. Mr Barbauld did teach there too and worked with her, but she was clearly the center of the place and made its policy, its life.

Part of her legacy was decent books for young children for the first time. McCarthy prints these dreadful primers to read, made up of the stupidest kinds of brief precepts. Instead she’ll have a story of a cat which is realistic (I’ve cats on my brain and am noticing them everywhere).

Chapter 9 from her time as the headmistress of a school is called “Mother Tongue” and it’s a long analysis of a book by Barbauld which became a wide seller, stayed in print for over a century, and influenced countless children: her Lessons for Children, volumes for years 2-3, 3-4, 5-6. It’s the first volume ever to situate what is to be learned in little dramatic scenes understandable to a child, to write sentences with thoughts the child can understand out of his or her own life (she understands words function as speech acts and how utterances are nested in social situations), and beyond that its style is deeply appealing, sort of pastoral, with remarkably humane but not pointed lessons and realism about childhood along the way. One can find echoes of it in the poetry of T.S.Eliot, Blake and others. Deeper associations of its tone and mood and ambience connect it to Virginia Woolf.

She did use Genlis’s methods in inventing small plays. She probably read Locke, Rousseau, and so on, but for practical suggestions, one finds her turning to other women’s publications where the women were governesses.

Chapter 10 gets her to London with her husband in the summers of these ten years, “How they lived.” She socializes with bluestockings. She was welcomed by Elizabeth Montagu and her circle (Elizabeth Carter, Sarah Fielding), Hannah More, Hester Chapone.

Elizabeth Montagu by Allan Ramsay

But she was not one of them, a dissenter, a working woman (more than full time job running a school, teaching, mothering), shy of other women particularly, and in company could be rigid or backward. Unkind comments about her may be found in Burney’s diary. She did get on well with Hannah More who visited her. We don’t know much about her relationships with these women it must be admitted for 19th century relatives regularly destroyed their dead female relatives’ correspondence (kill them after they are dead if you couldn’t repress them when alive), and Barbauld’s papers not having gotten into the British museum were a huge portion of them destroyed in a building set on fire during the Blitz.

To understand her here and what she and Rochemont did next (gave up their school), we should remember her essay under the influence of Elizabeth Carter’s translation of Epictetus. She writes about hope and ambition in the Johnsonian strain — Johnson writes we should not desire what is out of our power to have because it endangers our virtue, tranquillity, and sanity. (He doesn’t use the word sanity but another that means that.) One of her most famous essays is about how we must only hope for what we can have. Hope aroused and then frustrated or thwarted is a painful thing. Her emphasis not quite Johnson’s; instead she is telling the reader accept yourself. If you’ve spent your life studying, you are not going to have a big position or lots of money. She inveighs against the self-berating people indulge in and envy of others too. It is a different emphasis, more pragmatic.

Lots of people survive by lying to themselves: they hope on for impossible things and whenever something in their life changes, you hear them produce another rationale telling you how good this is, a rationale entirely different from another they had been saying for years. Or they delude themselves they have a higher position than they do, are more respected, loved &c Maybe I tend to err in the other direction. She is a bit too simplistic. She writes as if we had the choice to be this or that freely, when our natures are inherited and our circumstances and people keep up fronts.

Chapter 11 is called “The Pursuit of Happiness.” Anna and Rochemont give up giving over their lives to a boys’ school, and take what they’ve got and go travelling around Europe. They have some 500 pounds and spend a year travelling about France and into the edges of Italy and Germany. He has connections with powerful wealthy Catholic establishment types in the provinces, she with Protestant Huguenots, and they bring introductory letters which let them into better and interesting society. Among those visited is Thomas Jefferson.

The startling matter is that she seems nearly to have had an affair with Alexandre-Cesar-Annibal Fremin, baron de Stonne (to give him all his names). One would not expect this from the way she’s usually (completely inadequately I see) discussed. He flirted with her to the point that it’s evident if she had consented they would have had a liaison. She destroyed all his letters, but he saved his own and some of hers and that’s why we know about this. We see in Stonne the culture of the ancien regime where affairs were tolerated as long as everyone was discreet. Barbauld comes from a more puritanical environment: what happened was she in effect used her husband as a barrier by having him around a lot. Stonne acceded to this and became friends with both. What’s left are these exquisitely courteous and friendly letters and poems which show the three enjoyed one another’s company while they went to high culture things (visit Versailles, go to plays, see pictures in museums, go to dinner party and so on)

Her marriage was a strained one we can see from all sorts of angles: Rochemont’s depressions, inadequacy in comparison with her in dealing with social life and the need to make a living; her not having children and then growing old and tired and (as she records in Love and Time) perhaps not attractive any more to him. There is evidence of close sympathy and understanding between them and at the same time much strain and McCarthy presents this with subtlety and compassion.

Just as moving if less unexpected is that after she closed the school, she and Rochemont had a hard time making ends meet. It seems they did have a very small annuity or income (inherited and it’s not explained as probably McCarthy might not know), but not enough to live on. Her deep and loving relationship with her brother, John Aiken carries on. He had moved near to her school, Palgrave, in Norfolk to be close to her and to try to start a practice as a doctor. It seems the idea was he would provide for all, his wife and children and help his sister. It didn’t happen. Medical practices are hard to start and make work (see Middlemarch, Deerbrook, Wives and Daughters for some fictional versions) and Aiken apparently expected some position to be given him also and it wasn’t. The brother and sister correspond and it’s clear this is the real love relationship that sustained Anna’s life. Their letters and poems to one another are very moving.

Chapter 12 is titled “Revolutions.” Rochemont and Anna come back to London and attempt to build a freer life where she can write and both have friends.

Duncan Grant, an early 20th century depiction of a coffee pot

She was at this time driven to begin to take individual pupils quietly — all young women it seems and it was done by mail too as some letters are extant. After some fumblings, and failures (he tried to become a librarian!), he gets a pulpit in a congregation in Hampstead. McCarthy follows them by researching where they lived and it’s apparent they are not doing well. They go from a much more expensive house to a small cheaper one where they live for 15 years. The house is still standing.

At this time too she begins to involve herself in politics. We are in the 1790s a time of great ferment: represssion and riots and rebellion and radical thought in England, the revolution and then counterrevolution and terror in France. Barbauld was deeply engaged by political events and began to write about them. She was very much an anti-establishment voice, a radical one and (alas) her letters for the most important years of this time 1790-93 are gone, probably destroyed by the niece who wrote the memoir.

I kept noticing parallels between Barbauld’s and Austen’s thought: for example, Barbauld is much touched by a poem by a woman which “imagines the effects on a young woman of feeling her first emotions of love, then of having to conceal her love, and then of finding her love betrayed” (McCarthy, p 265) This is exactly the pattern I find repeated in Austen’s novels.

Chapters 12, 13, and into 14 (“Revolutions, Sins of the Nation,” and “Political Duties”), establish Barbauld as a radical voice. We don’t know that much about this as 1) just about all her prose pieces were published anonymously, at first because she was a woman, and then later on because it was dangerous to publish such things; 2) all her verse is couched in an idiom no longer popular or easily readable; and 3) she answers what happens in a more narrow sense most of the time, making her argument apply to some specific instance of injustice, reactionary tyranny, often involving it with her allegiance as a dissenter, and not putting it into popular rhetoric in the way of Paine or Wollstonecraft. Burke’s book became so well known because he was Burke, it was well circulated and distributed (Wm St Clair shows this) and told melodramatic stories. Hers are arguments and meditations in Johnson’s way. Nonetheless, in her day they were read, among those in the know known to be by her, and they made her enemies who took their revenge and berated and derided her in later years (e.g. Coleridge, an arch conservative, as much for being a woman as anything else).

Her first important pamphlet was written out of when the repeal of the test and corporation acts was defeated. McCarthy makes a case for seeing it as a work similar in reach to Woolf’s Three Guineas. Here it seemed to me curious that he didn’t emphasize what at least seemed to me it’s most radical idea: that the dissenters are being kept out of institutions, offices, and all sorts of jobs because of systems of property and privilege which always exclude groups to some extent must ever favors the others. She sees the utter amorality and ruthlessness of the exclusion and puts her finger on it. He likes how she demands equal rights as a right. I also liked how she showed what victimization does to someone’s self-esteem. As McCarthy says anyone who has suffered this way can be moved by Barbauld. As an adjunct I read it with bitter memories assenting to much of what she wrote.

An essay with a long cumbrous title (“Address to the Opposers … “) which came to be called “Does France Exist” was her answer to Burke. Yes, she said these new groups representing France are France too. They count, they matter. Her husband was part of the overt male groups of dissenters meeting at this time and he got to know Jacques-Pierre Brissot. McCarthy doesn’t mention this but in this way Barbauld connects to Roland who loved Brissot.

Alas, at this point the Barbaulds really ran out of money; her brother was not able to help himself much, less them (later his practice as a doctor was destroyed by his radical publications and reputation — people were unwilling to go to him) and it seems they might have been homeless for a while. I can’t think they were literally in the street, but there is no record of where they stayed.

After the failure of Wilberforce’s campaign and speech (with others) to abolish the slave trade on the high seas, Barbauld wrote a poem out of the shock she felt when she saw how shameless those voting against the bill were. They didn’t care in the least they were supporting such horrors and cruelty. Her conservative friend Hannah More wrote a poem More did not see was actually encouraging the establishment to extirpate non-establishment types and keep up violence and oppression, so Barbauld did write a biting reply. It’s not known if More saw that.

At this time the Manchester authorities apparently stirred up, partly organized and colluded in the mob destruction scene which destroyed Priestley’s house and all he owned and other liberal thinking types. The court cases afterwards which allowed all the people involved to get off basically scot free showed it was a deliberate CIA type venture. This of course worked to terrify and silent dissent of any kind. Then legislation was passed to declare “sedition” (not defined) as treasonable and prosecutable.

The value of this book is not only as a portrait of Barbauld but of the real 1790s as experienced by the average middling and lower middle class person in England: it recalls the 1950s in the US, real effective repression by all sorts of measures by the government, with lots of people suffering a little, and a few made examples of (transportation, hanging too). He recreates the atmosphere of the time.

Among all the ins and outs of controversy, one man, Gilbert Wakefield wrote in defense of secret and individual or private worship (defending himself and also attacking the sensual rituals of churches). Here she wrote a pamphlet in defense of public worship. She thought public worship’s function was to bind a community, bring people togther, a social value. Individuals in solitude are “unanchored fragments” and need fellow human beings to keep them sane.

She began a sort of series of papers to be called “civic sermons” but only wrote 2, one on behalf of secular education (its importance), and the other on behalf of seeing government as there to serve the people, and necessary for that. (Obama would like Civic Sermon 2). But her style was too erudite and learned to reach working people which was who she meant to reach.

On a couple of her essays in the Addison or Johnson vein. They are very good, caustic and sharply critical of the hypocrisy of pleasures that is so common. One called “Letters on Watering Places” could be about living in a fancy hotel for vacation today — as many people may do, going to tourist sites, and generally being far more uncomfortable than one would have been at home or in some real small place of pleasure (if you have the money for it). She is not so mild as Addison, and not so tragic as Johnson.

She worked as Johnson did in the literary world of her day. She made a 3 volume selection from the Spectator, Tatler and another periodical and introduced it and this was the book sold in the 19th century and which made its way into better schoolrooms and libraries.

And she didn’t forget her writing for children. Among her writing is 14 of out of the 99 pieces her brother, John Aiken published as Evenings at Home. This was in imitation of Genlis’s very popular Les Veilles du Chateau (read by Austen aloud with her family from her letters). These were later attacked by a repressive influential Victorian woman educator, Sarah Trimmer. They are delightful: one is on calling things by their right names (anti-war); several are printed in the Broadview collection. I liked best the young mouse who almost gets into a trap mistaking it for a house the kind family has provided him; just in time an older mouse stops him from losing his life. We get a little sermon to the effect: “Though man has not so fierce a look as a cat, he is as much our enemy and has still more cunning.” These went into 14 editions.

There were bright spots. We all know what such moments can mean. She travelled to Scotland as a governess with girls (like men did as tutors with boys on the continent). She declaimed some of Goethe’s poetry in translation aloud. This was a rare bright spot in her life at this time. She visited Buchan probably around 22 September, the date of an annual festival honoring the birthday of James Thomson that Buchan led at his estate at Dryburgh Abbey, a Gothic ruin on a bend of the river Tweed. Buchan promoted nationalism, and Scots poetry and was “an ardent advocate of women’s education and a passionate believer in progress and reform; he deplored British “political insanity” and credited the new United States with every imaginable virtue.

Early Wm Turner, Tintern Abbey done in Gilpin’s style (Fanny Price has a transparency of such a picture on her wall)

This whole scene of this Scottish ramble is cheering. As Buchan ushered her and her companions, Miss and Mr. Wynch, along a scenic path he had laid beside the riverbank, a gust of wind blew her hat into the Tweed. Buchan waded in, retrieved the hat, and presented it to her.

She is an example of a woman actually spitefully attacked — so unjust it’s startling and I think in her case it’s not just she was a woman, identified as a bluestocking (wrongly as she was not of their class), and her class (middling, dissenter — once she and her husband ended up homeless), but that she was presented as so unsexy, as boring to men. Then her relatives or well-meaning niece didn’t help: Lucy destroyed what she could of her aunt’s political reputation and ignored it. She is turned into a conservative pious type or apolitical and her life with her husband kept from view too. Everything human and appealing is erased.

In her sixties (“Middle age”) Barbauld became involved in publishing essays for periodicals, one of which was started by her brother. For the booksellers Cadell and Davies she wrote introductory essays on poets, much in the manner of Samuel Johnson. No where near as many, but a few, and these respond to Johnson. She placed Mark Akenside historically, and defended his doctrine of liberty; she also used Akenside’s traumas to delve her own. She is one of those who wrote blank verse, Milton variants and mandarin kinds of stanzas for meditation — and wrote some herself, with Akenside as well as Collins in mind (“Summer Evening’s Meditation,” and “Odes” to spring, content, wisdom). But late in life she turns from these kinds to prefer rhyme as a way of controlling and shaping poetry in a more disciplined way.

What I was really impressed by were her essays on Education and Prejudice. These were written for the Monthly. For the essay on Education she is responding to Rousseau’s Emile and Genlis’s Theodore and Adele: her idea is the notion that education can be controlled by a teacher and successful if the child is removed from society and then manipulated (for that’s what it is) is absurd: you cannot remove the child from society; what you can offer in a classroom is instructive; the education of a child is a holistic experience that is going on since his or her birth, and central to what the child becomes is his or her social and economic circumstances, what the parent do and how they behave. It’s an existentialist approach which shows the messy ambiguous particular worlds the child lives in (including with peers) makes him or her into the person he or she becomes, as much as innate nature. She is calling into question the Enlightenment notion you can change a person through reform movements in school or particular methods. I do love how she disapproves of teaching children falsehoods to get them to believe and do what you want, and saying to oneself that later they’ll be glad you did so. Later they’ll have imbibed inculcated hypocrisies and acceptance of cruelties this way and do likewise to their children themselves.

Of “prejudice,” she shows we cannot live without it, that knowledge is grounded in someone’s direct conscious experience and there must be faith in authorities as the child grows up, for he or she builds on what he or she is given instructionally and reacts to experience. All learning is situated (once again). You can try to teach principles of ethics, but they will only “take” if they direct your actual behavior. When the child grows older, he or she will insensibly begin to think or react or feel on his or her own.

My feeling or problem with the latter is only that she is too general or avoids the hard realities as she did in her “Against Inconsistency in Expectations.” It’s fine to say accept what you are and your choices, but it’s not easy to do, and choices have been limited from the start. To me she avoids the pain of educating a child for I have seen how a child’s nature can be cruel, dense, difficult, a bully, and determined to imitate the generality of what she (or he) saw around him, using lies when I didn’t try to elicit information, just because, more than defensively, and I made every attempt in Barbauld’s way to at least counter these impulses somehow and failed utterly. Why? Because this was part of the child’s nature and encouraged by the society I find myself in. I guess I’m saying Barbauld isn’t pessmistic enough and prefer Austen’s brief succinct words given Elizabeth that that which counts most can’t be taught. And what bothers me about say Rousseau’s and Genlis’s methods is they enact deceit themselves, manipulation.

So much of enlightenment literature is about education, from Austen’s novels to Mary Wollstonecraft’s Rights of Women.

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie

In one talk I heard at the ASECS, I was reminded of what seemed to me a paradox at the time: Paine’s Rights of Man are directed to the common man and he outlines rights based on humanity; Wollstonecraft’s essay is for more than one-half an analysis of educational treatises to show how women are miseducated; she is appealing to those who get to set the terms and understanding underlining women’s existence; you cannot present to them their rights for they are not in a position to want these even having been so miseducated, so misshapen by their general culture. Wollstonecraft sees what Barbauld sees here too.


McCarthy’s depth is gained through his paying attention to and finding out of course little particulars. For example, ferreting out where she writes from opens up a vista that she was homeless for a while with her husband (probably living in lodgings or with friends) and that she would go apart from him for rest and to write. He notes that Cadell and Davies collects her work from an address in Bloomsbury not Hampstead where she is living with the husband (p. 366). She did have trouble fulfilling her contracts and there are apologies for not having done this or that essay: she was prevented from doing these by home circumstances for it’s clear in nature she was a hard worker, a lover of reading and study. And because of her not turning in smaller copy she would not be given the bigger assignments.

McCarthy gets us to this level of her life.

As I came to the end of this beautiful moving book, I felt sad. I wished it would go on but then her life came to an end. In the penultimate chapter of the book he goes over a book she and her beloved niece, Lucy Aikin put together for Barbauld called Legacy to Ladies. It consists of letters she wrote to young women who were seeking to make her their tutor, some of which Aikin has changed to appear as general statements. She was what is today called a proto-feminist, and her attitudes remind me of Austen’s insofar as we can discern them from her novels; a strong desire to see decent education for all (regardless of class), which is not tightly tied to a coming job, a genuine openness to sexual experience within the constraints of the idea of chastity (the attitude is seen in Richardson’s Grandison and the grandmother’s speeches to Harriet Byron), seeing wifedom (?), motherhood as the footholds in society through which people give women importance and power (ironic that since Barbauld never was a biological mother), these are some of the attitudes towards women’s education found in these materials. She is playful and enjoys her young friends’ company so poignantly — when they are congenial and mostly she took only congenial young women on. She discovered she could make more money as a tutor (net) than running a school. Her proto-feminism is seen through Lucy Aikin’s which I’d define as defensive. Aikin seeks to defend women and particularly their right to possess and develop their minds. She too never had any children; she never married.

One of the reading groups to which Anna belonged; artist, Joanna Maria Smith, year 1817, place Parndon Library

They also ran a book club just for women — like Azar Nafisi, they chose the girls they were most congenial with.

Late in life, like many women left alone, Barbauld read a lot. She liked Crabbe (how often her tastes are like Austen’s). Of Crabbe she wrote: “For strength & truth & variety of character no one exceeds him …” but she felt his depictions of distress so harrowing and criticized him for presenting them without “relief.” Lord Byron “charms & offends, revolts & delights, & def[ies] the critics gain[ing] the applause of all.” She lived long enough to discern that Scott was writing his novels out of a driving need for money: he “certainly writes hmself out, but if you were to ask him — Pray, Sir, how long do you mean to write? he would say, Pray, Madam, how long do you mean to pay?” She loved women’s memoirs and letters too: of Elizabeth Montagu’s she said: “With all her advantages she seems not to have been happy.”

I do think this one on how a tree means to us extraordinary. She understood Cowper’s Yardley Oak the way I do, and what one feels watching a tree (or kitten into cat) grow up:

And we stopped to look at Fairlop oak, one of the largest in England; a complete ruin, but a noble ruin, which it is impossible to see without thinking of Cowper’s beautiful lines, “Who lived when thou wast such.” The immoveable rocks and mountains pre­sent us rather with an idea of eternity than of long life. There they are, and there they have been before the birth of nations …. But a tree, that has life and growth like our­selves, that, like ourselves, was once small and feeble, that certainly some time began to be, — to see it attain a size so enormous, and in its bulk and its slow decay bear record of the generations it has outlived, — this brings our comparative feebleness strongly in view. “Man passeth away, and where is he?” while “the oak of our fathers” will be the oak of their children, and their children.

And so I’ll end where I began: her poetry. She wrote “Dirge” after the death of her husband: Rochemont suffered from depression, and the hardships of their lives drove him into violence at times, and in 1808 she had to put him in a kind of asylum for a time, and he escaped from it and drowned himself (committed suicide). She had when young written lines about growing older, losing her beauty, with the implication that he no longer was attracted to her; here she grieves deeply:


Written 1808

Pure spirit! 0 where art thou now!
o whisper to my soul!
o let some soothing thought of thee,
This bitter grief controul!

‘Tis not for thee the tears I shed,
Thy sufferings now are o’er . . .
No more the storms that wrecked thy peace
Shall tear that gentle breast;
Nor Summer’s rage, nor Winter’s cold,
Thy poor, poor frame molest.

Thy peace is sealed, thy rest is sure,
My sorrows are to come …

0, in some dream of visioned bliss,
Some trance of rapture, show
Where, on the bosom of thy God,
Thou rest’st from human woe . . .

Let these my lonely path illume,
And teach my weakened mind
To welcome all that’s left of good,
To all that’s lost resigned.

But it was not an unmitigated season of final unhappiness (as may be seen above); she often works herself into stoic comforting cheer too:

Lines placed over a Chimney-Piece

Surly Winter, come not here;
Bluster in thy proper sphere:
Howl along the naked plain,
There exert thy joyless reign;
Triumph o’er the withered flower,
The leafless shrub, the ruined bower;
But our cottage come not near;
Other springs inhabit here,
Other sunshine decks our board,
Than the niggard skies afford.
Gloomy Winter, hence! away!
Love and Fancy scorn thy sway;
Love and Joy, and friendly Mirth,
Shall bless this roof, these walls, this hearth;
The rigour of the year controul,
And thaw the winter in the soul . . .

A great 20th century woman writer: Elsa Morante, probably 1930s


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