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Woman reading, artist or photographer unknown

Dear friends and readers,

The title may be off-putting, but Corrigan’s book is an inspiriting book to read in the dark near-dawn hours of a spring into summer morning, one intended to keep the reader company in her journeys with others through books. Corrigan writes of reading as intense adventure, as that which can interweave itself into the deepest fibres of our memories of things we do as we do them, what influences, directs, teaches, and comforts the reader who has that within her to be transformed. Corrigan’s tone is at moment luminous with remembered moments of strengthening and hope.

Sometimes the book feels too Pollyanna (people returning from war are presented as all good feeling about their memories), and sometimes Corrigan may grate on your nerves by apologizing to those who wouldn’t read her book in the first place (a sort of bending over backwards to her readers who do worry about what the non-readers of the world would say). These are minor blemishes, though (they do not go on for very long) and are not the core of a book where reading has meant everything to the writer. It’s a book also about Corrigan’s career writing and teaching about her reading to an imagined community of sympathetic readers and her students.


Marilyn Monroe reading Joyce (Eve Arnold photo)

Corrigan vindicates, reads in front of her reader in the way of Bobbie Ann Mason in her The Girl Sleuth, “extreme female-adventure books” and detective stories. “Extreme female-adventure” books are classic women’s books and l’ecriture-femme by another name. Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Villette, Gaskell’s Mary Barton, and (for a modern example) Anna Quindlen’s One True Thing and Black and Blue make visible what the hard adventure of life is for women:

“terrible contests with solitude,” “endurance” of the marriage market and successful socializing. fortitude, “keeping one’s nerves steady, the emotional power of confidence and a thoughtful strong mind, the long nightmare of being linked to a man for life who doesn’t “get you,” who doesn’t begin to understand what means most to you (Kate Simon’s Bronx Primitive).

These are indeed the terrors, the miseries, the small mean hardships of many existences, what withers joy, the enemies of promise.

Such books “got her through” her life, taught Corrigan much — just as Woolf said such books can.

By the time Corrigan gets to the end of her third long section and has told about adopting a Chinese baby girl, her time as a working class young woman at the prestigious and snobbish University of Pennsylvania (so she didn’t have it so bad, did she?), her career as a writer of reviews for the Village Voice and now on NPR, and her long-delayed marriage all the while validating and showing how reading and books have been important in each of her transitions, I felt I was communing with a non-philistine, decently humane presence validating the life of the mind (even if clearly she had been one of the privileged of this world).

The piece de resistance of the book is a long wonderfully refreshing, fascinating and carefully qualified section on Sayers’s Gaudy Night in the context of what women’s communities can be for women, and in vindication of educated women. Corrigan worked at Byrn Mawr. (My goodness.) She dwells on Harriet’s freely entered into relationship with Peter, how he is a knight who rescues her (from death, for she is accused of poisoning her lover-partner in Strong Poison).


Harriet Walter who played Harriet Vane (my gravatar for my Under the Sign of Sylvia blog).

Then onto other women’s books of the 1920s and 30s, more detective fiction by women, memoirs (Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood).

The book’s title is somewhat misleading, for Corrigan also writes it to show the reader that detective fiction by men and women is not simply riveting or terrifying and sad entertainment (when it’s good as in Hound of the Baskervilles, or Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon, Chandler’s The Big Sleep or Susan Hill’s The Various Haunts of Men), but also an indirect means for discussing how it feels to lead a working life where the reader is liberated since the hero or heroine has autonomy, savvy, intelligence, wit. She sees detective fiction as an replacement for the Robinson Crusoe myth (work as seen also in Gaskell’s Mary Barton). The best of them invent communities of people who mirror real milieus of our world and are either therapeutic or worlds split open with all their banal harshnesses and horrors. She convinced me. But then it was 3 in the morning.

Throughout Corrigan brings up analogies with the same ones I so treasured when a girl: Nancy Drew, Little Women, nurse stories (for her it was Sue Barton) and autobiographies (by Agatha Christie including wry comments about how much is made of ten days Christie she fled wife- and motherhood). I wanted to tell her about Bobbie Ann Mason’s Clear Springs and Marge Piercy’s Sleeping with Cats.


Dorothy Lange photo: Girls at Lincoln Bench School, Malheur County Oregon, October 12, 1939

I’ve written before about how important girls books are to them: Girls’ books and women’s lives. The picture by Vanessa Bell (I love the rich reds and yellows) makes visible how good dolls are part of a young girl’s health-giving imaginative terrain. On WWTTA we noticed that although men will often use depictions of women reading to make “come hither fuck-me” pictures of these women for themselves (turning the women’s reading experience into forms of substitute masturbation), women often depict themselves reading in ways that call attention to their class status or inward emotional state, depict themselves as older women reading to children or paint young girls reading.

I’ve not gotten to the last part of Corrigan’s fiction: on what she learned from Catholic martyr stories (Mary Gordon’s Final Payments).

She does talk about the importance of parodies and funny books by women too: her candidate is Austen’s Northanger Abbey; this past Christmas on WWTTA we read Stella Gibbons’ often misrepresented Cold Comfort Farm (she made me want to read Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn), and her favorite poet seems to be Stevie Smith (me too), but enough, it’s nearly 2. It’s pouring, and I had better to bed.

A toute a l’heure, courage mes amies:

The Ballet of the Twelve Dancing Princesses

— by Stevie Smith

HAYES COURT, JUNE 1939

The schoolgirls dance on the cold grass
The ballet of the twelve dancing princesses
And the shadows pass

Over their cold feet

Above in the cold summer sky the clouds mass
The icy wind blows across the laurel bushes
The sky is hard blue and gray where a cloud rushes
The sky is icy blue it is like the night blue where a star pushes.

But it is not night
It is daytime on an English lawn.
The scholars dance. The weather is as fresh as dawn.
Dawn and night are the webs of this summer’s day
Dawn and night the tempo of the children’s play.

Who taught the scholars? Who informed the dance?
Who taught them so innocent to advance
So far in a peculiar study? They seem to be in a trance.
It is a trance in which the cold innocent feet pass
To and fro in a hinted meaning over the grass
The meaning is not more ominous and frivolous than the clouds
that mass.

There is nothing to my thought more beautiful at this moment
Than a vision of innocence that is bound to do something
equivocal
I sense something equivocal beneath the veneer of an innocent
spent
Tale and in the trumpet sound of the icy storm overhead there is
evocable
The advance of innocence against a mutation that is irrevocable
Only in the imagination of that issue joined for a split second is
the idea beautiful.

Ellen

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          Books, books, books!
I had found the secret of a garret-room
Piled high with cases in my father’s name;
Piled high, packed large,­where, creeping in and out
Among the giant fossils of my past,
Like some small nimble mouse between the ribs
Of a mastodon, I nibbled here and there
At this or that box, pulling through the gap,
In heats of terror, haste, victorious joy,
The first book first. And how I felt it beat
Under my pillow, in the morning’s dark,
An hour before the sun would let me read!
My books!— EBB, Aurora Leigh

Dear friends and readers,

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading Linda H. Peterson’s Traditions of Victorian Women’s Autobiography, [subtitled] The Poetic and Politics of Life-Writing as a sort of companion-accompaniment to a group reading on WWTTA supposed to be going on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh. I’m a lover of women’s memoirs and letters, travel-books, life-writing. It includes many of my favorite books, deeply cherished ones (see Julia Kavanagh: disabled woman of letters). She shows how such books first came into print in larger numbers from the 17th and 18th century in the 19th century. Arguing (dialoguing) with this book reminded me of some beautiful books I’d read, informed me about others, and showed me the state of feminist and life-writing studies at the time it was written (1999). I recommend the book for its learning, bibliography and thoughtfulness — and the books it calls attention to.

There is (in my view) a serious flaw though: Peterson is concerned to argue against the idea that women’s autobiography constitutes a different separate tradition from men’s. Well. She’s right when she says both men’s and women’s autobiographies share many of the same structures and fall into other types (spiritual or religious is one) but there is a kind of deliberate erasure going on here which doesn’t quite work and is counter to her own book which is just about women’s life-writing int he 19th century. She does show that ideas about women’s nature and what her life should and must be about (private domestic life) generated the production of these earlier texts which also supports the modern feminist structural outlook and her “other” perspective brings out other qualities of the books, but her perpetual use of scare quotes for “feminine” (as if there’s no such thing) does not work.

She is probably worried lest her book be put into a “feminist ghetto” and ignored — by whom I wonder as her audience will be the same women and men who have been working on these life-writings.


Mary Robinson

Chapter 1: “Origins” of Women’s Autobiography; Reconstructing the Traditions

The first chapter concerns the republication in the 19th century of a group of 17th century women’s autobiographies — mostly by clergyman, sometimes antiquarians related to the woman writer, once in a while a scholarly historian. It was these books I first found in the Library of Congress in the 1980s when I returned to scholarly studies here in Virginia after finishing my dissertation in 1979 in NYC. They include the memoirs of Anne Murray Halkett who two years ago I finally wrote two papers on and delivered them at 18th century conferences, and whose text I put up on the Net to make it generally available in the form it appears in the 19th century copy.

There is much of value here. You learn how these books first came into print, which ones, a little about the editing and how this bringing into print of these earlier books facilitated the publication and influenced or mirrored 19th century productions of women’s life writing from Harriet Martineau’s autobiography and travel book to Barrett Browning’s imaginative autobiogaphical (Prelude-like) narrative poem, Aurora Leigh.

The last part of the chapter is of interest to 18th century people too. Here Peterson goes with some depth into Mary Robinson’s Memoir (finished by her Victorian daughter) and Charlotte Charke’s autobiography, apparently framed by the Victorian editor to be a warning lesson and end gloomily when the ms end cheerfully and is not presented as a warning lesson at all. Peterson’s perspective leads her to emphasize of Robinson’s memoir is more than about her life as a mistress, mother, and daugher but also about her as a professional actress and writer. While I know from reading the text there is precious little about these in the book, they are obviously the real background to the publication of such a book. Similarly Peterson’s perspective enables her to make more “sense” of Charke’s non-feminine transvestite behavior, Charke’s love of male roles and her rebellion: an ambiguous experience as unsuccessful if financial and other rewards are the measure, but successful by a deeper measurement, i.e., she lived the life out that was within her, the one she wanted to, choose her identity.

For a good recent study of 17th through 18th century women’s life-writing see Caroline Breashears’s The Female Appeal Memoir: Genre and Female Literary Tradition in Eighteenth-Century England, Modern Philology, 107:4 (2010):607-631. Jane Austen’s letters would be among these kinds of life-writings first brought out in the 19th century and it follows just the same sort of trajectory: censored, re-framed from the original, coming out of genteel milieus. Another Elizabeth Grant Smith’s Highland memoir which had to wait 100 years for the full powerful text to be published, along with several others shorter memoirs she penned.


Harriet Martineau when young (often used as frontispiece to her autobiography)

Chapter 2: Polemics of Piety: Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna’s Personal Recollections, Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography, and Ideological Uses of Spiritual Autobiography

The unsentimental truthfulness of Barrett Browning must’ve stood as a refreshing shock against the common life-writing of the day if Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna’s Personal Recollections are any measure. I read the first half of the second chapter of Peterson’s book last night and admire the temperateness with which Peterson describes Tonna’s melange of silence, outright lying — for what is it to present one’s wretchedness in life as the result of a spiritual conversation when it’s rather that the writer lives with a physically abusive husband who when she makes any money takes it ruthlessly by law from her, has to live in isolated horrible conditions whose minimal comfort depends on unscrupulous rent-racking of starving peasants. Peterson shows us how pernicious are these sorts of lies in effect — though she doesn’t say so explicitly and uses the surface content of the book to demonstrate her thesis that many women’s autobiographies do not make gender central.

Well, duh, Tonna doesn’t but if you ignore the subtext then what can you possibly read Tonna’s book for? And it’s for the subtext that Peterson does read it — though as with Austen, one can’t get behind the veil to discover what were the real particular truths of what happened to Tonna — only that she was lucky enough to escape, had a brother who took her in, became for 10 years an editor of a widely-selling Christian magazine. What she did in the magazine also goes unmentioned, unwritten up.

All that counts. No wonder Aurora Leigh was so valued, such a stunner.

Peterson does take this way — a valuable nugget? Peterson suggests that books like Hannah More’s (whom Tonna modelled herself upon) and Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna’s prove the worth, value and integrity of chronique scandaleuse. These do tell important truths; these do give us what we need to know for real about women’s lives — the pious books give us the illegimate norms and also the rationales women used to control, berate and (I suppose) solace and flatter themselves with.

I’d add unfortunately as to behavior Tonna’s book was the “ideal” and her novels sold widely. But chronique scandaleuses also sold widely and it may be that women readers of these understood them better than we give them credit for, at least intelligent women readers did.

Peterson is slightly (not very) comical in her perverse “take” on Martineau’s autobiography. She insists on reading it as a not conforming to female autobiography because Martineau rejects the inane domesticities and pious hypocritical cruelties of Tonna’s stupid book and instead presents herself as gifted, shows how she was put down and almost destroyed by her family, escaped them to London and built a career. To be sure the latter part of the autobiography is like male ones, and Martineau’s models are implicitly male (Wordsworth, though she anticipates Trollope).

But the point is she had this terrible trouble doing it, she had the breakdown, she broke the taboo, none of which the men had to do, and the shape of her life at the end shows a female friend published the book and how she carved out a non-family group to be with.

I’m troubled by this attempt at erasure of a female version of the genre. Someone read my treatment of Kathleen Raine as “as a quintessential autobiographer who enacted a myth of a return to a past that is still with her, that has never ceased to be, and for women, this is found in childhood as metaphor and reality before the development of an adult female sexual body with all the imprisonment, repression, and destruction of the self that society inflicts” and immediately countered that this is what men experience and is not at all particularly feminine. Did she not read the last phrase? I answered: Didier’s point is when girl develops into a woman, her sexuality inflicts a terrific blow on her self-hood and psyche because her society all around her does all it can to twist and repress her. A boy may find developing into manhood hard, but he is not pressured and, if he will not succumb to pressure, then driven and ridiculed and ostracized until he gives up his appetites.

She barely acknowledged this and then I got this pious type utterance from another woman: “Thank you, too, Christine, for seeing the un-gendered humanity of Raine’s themes.” This is the early 21st century version of Tonna’s self-congratulatory tones.

My project as I see it is to call attention to women’s poetry and try to suggest what an enormous and worthy body of art it is — though much has been destroyed and what’s left from previous history and is written nowadays continues to be ignored. It is also to put together many texts which show that women’s poetry and art is different from men’s and has to understood and appreciated as by women. If most men won’t respond to that, sobeit.

Post-feminism, indeed.


Zelah Clarke as Jane Eyre (1983 BBC mini-series)

Chapter 3: “The Feelings and Claims of Little People:” Heroic Missionary Memoirs, Domesticated Spiritual Autobiography, and Jane Eyre

The problem with Peterson’s chapter on Jane Eyre is signalled in the chapter heading: she is concerned to prove that Jane Eyre like other autobiographies conforms to male norms too, the male norm here being spiritual autobiography. What others have seen as contradictions in the trajectory — for example the daughter’s obedience to the mother, her ambivalent over sex, the disconnect between a providential design and radical doubts — are ironed out. Really the feminism partly erased.

It is true that one third or the novel or maybe a quarter is given over to ST John Rivers and his desire to make Jane into a missionary wife and by paying attention to this as a career option for women, Peterson brings out what Bronte consciously meant us to see: Jane is conflicted over living for love or living for a selfless career (not so selfless as it gives some respect and prestige and activity); the very recent movie takes this last third to turn the book into a conflict between two men over a woman or her conflict which one to take. That’s not the text here.

Still I find what interests Peterson is something that comes out of a desire to accommodate society and its offer of modified compromised goals (to be a missionary’s wife was very repressive, awful really — I read about one half of Catherine Hall’s book on missionaries in Jamaica recently), that itself mirrors the problem with her whole book.


Elizabeth Barrett Browning, posing herself in velvet and satin

Chapter 4: “For my better self: Autobiographies of the Poetess, the Prelude of the Poet Laureate, and EBB’s Aurora Leigh.

Peterson argues successfully that Aurora Leigh may be considered a metaphoric biography of EBB, and that it seeks to counter the image of the woman poet found in the autobiographical poetry and life-writing of Letitia Elizabeth Landon and to imitate and also correct the view of the poet we find in Wordsworth’s Prelude. Along the way Peterson quotes some of the best lines of the poem and shows how Eulalie is as important as Marion in the poem.

There is a real problem in the analysis though: again Peterson wants to show that we should not read women’s life-writing apart from men’s, and it is true that EBB has The Prelude in mind. However, the reason Peterson wants to show this in the case of Aurora Leigh is she wants to argue that EBB wanted a public role for the woman poet and she could only reach for this by making herself the equivalent of a male, seen as doing and feeling analogous things. All well and good but then Peterson has a problem: at the close of the poem Aurora marries Romney, she retreats, the lesson learned is the limits of socialism; apparently the social function of the woman poet is going to inhere in her publication of her poems which will have this influence.

Right.

This is deeply conservative stuff. Ellen Moers’s take on this poem as finally reactionary in a number of fundamental ways is the correct one. That Peterson wants to downplay the class element too is to me part of our present climate where class issues are not presented in the public media.

What is salutary about the poem is its creation and continuation of a woman’s tradition of writing and insofar as we can read against the grain when it comes to the fate of Marion Erle.


Margaret Oliphant when older

Chapter 5: Family Business: Margaret Oliphant’s Autobiography as Professional Artist’s Life

This is perhaps the best chapter in the book; it’s the one which is closest in spirit to its book, and where the refusal to put the book into a female tradition works best — with the ironical qualification that the five books Peterson uses to illuminate this one are all women’s autobiographies. She shows that Oliphant meant her book to fall into a sub-genre where the woman shows how her professional activities arise out of her home milieu, her family and that the two are inseparable. She says this sub-genre has been forgotten — or ignored. Maybe. What we are making the mistake of doing is reading this book as tragic and about a failure; no it’s about how she tried hard to bring her two sons into her profession and did succeed. I’d almost believe much of this except for the long ending where the sons fail at the profession she wanted for them and she makes this clear and they die before the end of the book’s time frame and suddenly she gives over to deeply poignant re-framing of all that has gone before. The opening about her trip to Rome where her (partly failed) artist husband died and her struggle to become professional when she returned — she succeeded largely due to one man, Blackwood – and this close are the powerful parts of the book.

The conservative and careerist biases of the Peterson’s stance became explicit here. Peterson celebrates without qualification how wonderful it is that people’s professions emerge from their families. What about people who don’t have the family talent or don’t have a family framework which suits them. She is absolutely in spirit with the family piety of Oliphant’s approach, possibly because it suits Peterson to argue that there is no difference between private and public selves. She shows how Oliphant disapproved of the life writing by a woman where she goes forth on her own to carve out her career — Martineau, Eliot’s life.

I have found the reading of this book very unpleasant. IN this chapter Peterson’s insistence on how Oliphant’s is not a story of failure (it isn’t when it comes to her personally) reminded me of 2 incidents where I was asked would I contribute my life story to online magazines. In both cases I gave an outline of what I would say and was told after all it wouldn’t do because mine was not an upbeat success story. I didn’t end up with a big job or money from publications. Therefore they didn’t want it. I said my story was that of their readerships. They said their readerships would not want such stories; they want inspiration. Since this happened twice, I was struck with this evidence of why women’s magazines are often filled with phony stories which don’t reflect the average realities of women writers or readers. I’m sure Peterson would have been on the side of these editors.


Mary Cholmondeley

Chapter 6: Mary Cholmondeley’s Bifurcated Autobiography Eliotian and Bronte Traditions in Red Pottage and Under One Roof

This was a very interesting chapter and made me want to read a novel or memoir by Cholmondeley. Peterson analyses Cholmondeley’s novel, Red Pottage and her memoir, Under One Roof Peterson again is in the paradoxical position of beginning by saying we must put women in a non-gendered autobiographical context only to find her intertextual models in women, specifically Cross’s Life of Eliot for Red Pottage, and Gaskell’s Life of Bronte for Under one Roof. Peterson argues that Red Pottage shows a young girl whose gifts are destroyed because of the repressive norms and demands of her family; she does not manage to escape (as Eliot did). It’s the bookish account of a development that is the strongest parallel. It is also based on Mary’s sister, Hester, who died young. Her brother brutally intervened to stop her career

I do love one long passage Peterson quotes from another book, Rachel West’s passionate defense of a friend’s novel, Idyll of East London (ridiculed) by talking of how a relationship with a man did not sustain her where it counted, nor any of her family, but her friend helped give “affection” and understanding to “an empty heart” and “lighten[ed] the burdens of this world” for her.

How many of us would tell our life story by an account of what books we read and what they did for us when we were young. I do think I might were I to account for how I came to get a Ph.d. in English literature, but it would be strongly in reaction to my environment (escape from the Bronx into Mary Poppins in the Park) and not an argument that as a gifted person I deserved to escape. Which in part I certainly did. I am not part of that working class family or environment (father’s, Catholic) nor the eventually bourgeois one (mother’s, Jewish, now accountants).

There is a relationship between pain and personal achievement in Red Pottage and in George Eliot’s life — and maybe for some of us too.

Under One Roof is about the importance of female friendships, of sisters, of how much they meant — as is partly Red Pottage (if by its absence). As I recall May Sinclair has a novel Three Sisters where we see these bonds mean so much. In Gaskell’s book we see that Charlotte was the one who made the public achievement of her sisters possible; it was she who took Emily’s poems and some of hers and Anne’s to a publisher and got it published. She who posthumously published Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Wuthering Heights. Whatever the flaws of Charlotte’s presentation, she did publish these. Cholmondeley is again vindicating and keeping her own sister alive through this memoir.

To conclude, this historically-rooted study is one which adds much to Victorian studies, (despite itself) studies of l’ecriture-femme, life-writing of men as well as women, and can provide many jumping off points for someone else’s study of life-writing. Peterson does make you think about genre, what is a genre, and see how many permutations there are under any given category. You could end the book thinking to yourself that genre thinking gets in the way of understanding what we write and what we read.

To all Peterson’s Victorian candidates, I add another of my favorites: Mary Smith, schoolmistress and governess, my study of her autobiography and poetry.

Ellen

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Mary Smith (Lisa Dillon), invented character from 2008 Cranford Chronicles

Dear friends and readers,

A couple of months ago I read Kathryn Hughes’s moving sterling account The Victorian Governess,


Cover based on painting, The Governess by Richard Redgrave (1840),

and there encountered Mary Smith (1822-1889) who wrote an autobiography of herself; I was so engaged by the tone and life of this woman as quoted by Hughes that when I found her text existed as a google book, I couldn’t resist buying and then devouring The Autobiography of Mary Smith, Schoolmistress and Nonconformist, a Fragment of a Life; With Letters from Jane Welsh Carlyle and Thomas Carlyle.

I just fell in love with this woman as strongly as I did the remarkable central woman journalist, Anthony Trollope’s beloved Kate Field, early this winter, and when I discovered my Mary wrote and published poetry, and this too was available as a google posthumously published book, Miscellaneous Poems, I sent away for it from GMU’s interlibrary loan.

Since reading both I decided to write a blog in her honor this evening, and lo and behold came across a short biography in Atlantic Monthly, June 1894, pp 838-840), and then learned that her poems have recently been republished in an edited annotated collection from Nineteenth-Century English Labouring Class Poets, edd. McEathron, Goodridge and Kossick.

Here we have the magic of the Internet, which has also brought me so many friends. How does the system work? Well there’s a small angel in each machine.

So first, Mary Smith’s life, then a few of her poems, and finally a few words on Kathryn Hughes’s fine achievement.

******************


Henry James’s mid-century unnamed governess played by Michelle Dockery (Sandy Welch’s Turn of the Screw, 2009)

Mary Smith writes eloquently of her life in terms hard to summarize to do justice to. She was a highly intelligent deeply moral young woman born to a dissenting shoemarker near Birmingham. It’s a story of continual hardship, derision of all her gifts, and exploitation. A typical phase of her life: she left a school she was teaching at in Scotby, Cumberland, where she was happy because of the landscape and people she worked for, to continue living with a family named Osborne whom she was attached to; she worked for another 3 years for them for no money and meagre food, not appreciated and finally driven off because someone in the family (probably the wife but hard to say) was jealous of her. She accompanies the family rather than live alone; again and again her being a woman alone is what does her in. She gets no respect that works in a effective way for her. Her life bears out bears out everything Kathryn Hughes says about lives of governesses in England in her The Victorian Governess — and more.

Her experiences as a governess finally drove her to open a school permanently — one she ran in Carlisle, UK, for 24 years. Here’s how it happened. She had been hired by a horror of a woman (cheap on food and clothes so she could show off to outsiders, cruel to servants in her niggardliness and with her commercial salesman husband such another as the grasping Mrs Mason and her hard philistine husband in Trollope’s Orley Farm) and has a hard time freeing herself. Reminds me of landlords today who hound tenants for the rent when they sign a year’s lease.

She then returned to Mr Osborne and his family. I’m beginning to suspect there was an implicit (not consummated) love affair; that would explain why repeatedly she is fired after sudden harsh treatments. The wife is never mentioned but there are apparently endless children.

So she opens a school again. Again blamed by Osborne for taking his clientele I suppose. But he goes out of business, and her school slowly flourishes while her strength holds out, and she has finally had the courage to introduce herself by letter to Jane Carlyle, who becomes a friend and in terms of feeling, just about adopts Mary as a surrogate daughter or niece.

Among the events gone over towards the last decades of her life in the book are her going to the Exhibition of 1861 with her brother. She does not like the train ride, not the Exhibition particularly (not fooled, and more interested by the spectators), but her exploration of London and the tourist world at the time.

In her forties she at last began to publish a little: she got involved in politics locally on the basis of going to lectures, becoming a reporter and writing short pieces others saw were astute: she sees the power-roots of the Crimean war, is an abolitionist, and implicit socialist. She had a small book of poetry published but this hurts more than it comforts: it costs her so much and only one notice.

I’m just compelled by her intense intelligent ethical presence and the remarks she makes about education (she’s right it’s easier to write if not corrected than read with understanding and harder yet to come up with interesting comments on reading) and character growth. How she loves the natural world. I see no sign of her reading Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, alas — or any other of the famous novels of the era (Julia Kavanagh also writes novels about governesses). Surely she would have mentioned it or one if she had.


Zelah Clarke as Jane Eyre (the 1983 BBC mini-series, a masterpiece)

I assume she had not money for a subscription to a library or to buy and was too hard worked for time — or maybe she feared her reader would not approve. Her style is felicitious. Her favorite author Emerson. She does read memoirs sometimes — from out of a local library. Probably she means some of her poems to be imitations of his.

I’m obviously not alone in being drawn to her. Beyond Jane Carlyle, the editors of Nineteenth Century Labouring Poets, and the people who bought us the google reprints, and Kathryn Hughes, Heidi Thomas, and Sue Conklin and Birtwistle, the creators of the BBC mini-series, Cranford Chronicles and Return to Cranford supposedly based on fiction by Elizabeth Gaskell used this real Mary Smith (played by Lisa Dillon) for a major character in the series. There is such a minor character in Elizabeth Gaskell’s fiction, but here she is made a major friend and companion-niece whno lives with Mattie (played by Judi Dench), the heroine from Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford as her young cousin; when Mattie loses much of her money, the mini-series Mary goes to London rather than stay and be a burden; she she begins to write for a living and we are told she works as a teacher (not clear whether governess or schoolteacher).


Again Lisa Dillon as Mary (from Cranford, see also still prefacing this blog)

This is a very fictionalized account of this woman’s life but some aspects of character in this series is taken from this autobiography. It provides the series with the one young woman who leaves town to build herself independence through a career in the modern way.

******************
Mary Smith’s poetry

I liked some of the poems very much. I think I have chosen three typical shorter ones. She writes in ballad stanzas most of the time. Her narratives remind me of Wordsworth and Smith’s protest poems; her familiar poems about her diurnal life some of Anna Barbauld’s poetry. Mary has one long old-fashioned narrative poem (8 line stanzas) called Progress where she tries to give a humane definition of what is progress.

*”The Snow Storm”*

A tale of the fells

The cotter’s children are at the pane,
Counting the flakes as they fall;
But the mother looks up the long white lane,
Anxiously over them all.

She sees the sun set round and red,
Behind the poplars bare,
And the white mist cover the old tower’s head,
And her heart is fill’d with care.

The shepherd’s dog clings to his heels,
As they silently speed through the snow;
And the carter follows with soundless wheels,
Bowing and bending low.

She sees it all, and her heart sinks low,
For her boy, who is scarcely eight,
Is over the fells, the quarries below,
Without either guide or mate.

He went at morn, when the sun shone out,
And the birds were twittering sweet,
And the brown hens chuckled and fluttered about,
And the road was alive with feet.

And now it is getting late and dark,
And not a star appears,
Nor chip of moon, which might serve as an ark,
In a night so dark with fears.

Yet she stands at the pane where she long has stood,
But now she has lost from her sight
The tower and the trees, and her chilling blood
Grows cold as the snow flakes white.

And her boy comes not, nor is there a sound
O’er all that waste of snow
Of human-kind; and with quick rebound
Her thoughts into actions flow.

And now she is over the moor, and has crossed
The brook and the grim white wood,
And has passed the tam all white with frost,
And the dam where the old mill stood.

And oft she has stood with strained ear,
And oft she has shouted wild;
But nought has come back to her heart but fear —
­No token of her child.

But the mother’s heart knows no despair,
And over that pathless deep,
Which the bravest heart might quail to dare,
She still her way doth keep.

Yet in vain she wanders! for in the drift,
Her boy, with clasped hands,
And eyes still calm, and still uplift,
A pallid phantom stands!

His fair hair, like a sweet dead flower,
Flies fitful in the blast,
And his parted lips, all void of power,
Are sealed with a silence fast.

And nevermore will his mother kiss
Those sweet cheeks here below,
For she lies-O heaven! in woe there’s bliss­
Untroubled in the snow.

*”On Hearing the Chimes of Carlisle Cathedral at Midnight”*

Do iron tongues articulate
Those soul·entrancing tones?
Or, has mute silence given leave
To the carved lips of stones ?

Those olden saints, with uplift eyes,
And visages so calm,
Those saints in the Cathedral porch,
Sing they this sacred psalm?

Or, has mysterious midnight
In vigil thought of Him,
And paused to celebrate that thought
In holy choral hymn?

As such, or as a chaunted prayer
From some far spirit sphere,
Or, as the voice of love, those tones
I can do nought but hear.

And yet they are the self-same sounds,
Which, like some gentle word,
Fall on the distracted ear of day,
Unnoticed and unheard.

Like voices long unregarded,
Till, in some dark sad hour,
They’re heard; ah! then we wonder
At their beauty and their power.

Oh, wond’rous chimes, peal evermore,
With rich cathedral swell,
From out the God-built towers of time,
More deep than tongue or bell.

And yet unheard! Oh, is it strange
We’re poor in thought, and sad?
Who hath an ear, knows that these tones
Make rich, and wise, and glad.

*”By the Fireside”*

Sitting once more by the fireside
Of the old paternal home,
As I often sit in memory
Pleasant phantoms go and come.

Hoary winter has descended,
Laid his white hand on the pane,
Flung his mantle on the orchard,
Darkened all the earth again.
,
And I sit there in my dreaming —
In the firelight’s gleaming light
­With the dear ones who in childhood
Made the winter darkness bright.

There are all the dear old faces,
All the forms both young and eld,
In their old accustom’d places,
As I them of old beheld.

Nor are looks of kindness wanting,
For I lean upon a chair,
From which eyes to mine responding
Ease my heart of all its care.

And a smile of love, long darkened
From my life, as in the past,
With a dear uplifting sweetness
Is once more upon me cast.

Words, too, follow, kind and tender,
Words I’ve often heard before,
But familiar still they render
The same blessing evermore.

For they bring back scenes of gladness,
Scenes of quiet household life;
Which remembered, soothe in sadness,
And make strong again in strife.

And though death has come between us,
Breaking bonds that were so blest,
In those scenes of love forever,
I find hope and joy and rest.

******************

Jodhi May as James’s unnamed governess (Nick Dear’s Turn of the Screw, 1999)

As for Kathryn Hughes, it’s a study which reveals the Victorian world to you through the governess figure, and (I think) shows that middling occupations today bear an uncanny resemblance to that of the governess at least when it comes to interviewing and getting the job. The best review I’ve come across is by Nancy Fix Anderson, published in Albion, 25:3 (1993):518-20. My only caveat is Anderson underestimates (why do people do this?) the harshness and abysmal poverty of the typical governess. That others were miserable, doesn’t discount hers. Also the sexual exploitation. Perhaps this is due to her not offering up the details (remember Blake).

The life of a governess very much compares with what Jane Austen’s Jane Fairfax and Emma and Elizabeth Watson dread, and Anne and Charlotte Bronte and Henry James’s governesses experience, not to omit the real life Jane Claire Clairmont, hitherto known mainly as Mary Shelley’s half-sister and one of Byron’s mistresses. Jane Fairfax is just the sort of person who ended up a governess, and the pattern of Jane Austen’s relatives’s lives shows that while she was not personally threatened (as far as we can tell), it was just such a woman of her class and education who would end up a governess or teaching at a school.


Ania Martin as the first Jane Fairfax, here an ignored and mortified Jane grateful for Mr Knightley’s courteous attention (1972 BBC Denis Constanduros’s Emma)

Diane Reynolds wrote on Austen-l:

From what I’ve read about governessing, including Agnes Grey, it was often a hard lot, filled with dawn to dusk labor and petty humiliations (obviously, it varied from home to home). I think to Jane Austen, it would have been a horror, because she would not have have time to write nor support for her writing–who would have taken her manuscripts to London, etc? Would her employers have been enraged that she was writing on “their” time? It would have been a form of death for her. I think there were huge differences between the work world then and now: now, we take “time off” as a given, we consider it “slavery,” when say a foreign-born governess, is made to work long hours without time off or overtime compensation (or social security) and we prosecute the perpetrators in highly-publicized cases that underscore a social consensus against such non-stop use of other humans. We see “stop and start” times, being “on and off” the clock as normal. But none of that was the case in Jane Austen’s time. From what I understand, at least in Victorian times (I don’t know if this holds for the Regency) there were more women seeking “positions” than there were positions ( a buyer’s market) and, as with slavery (which again, sometimes landed the enslaved in so-called (though I would not so call them) “good” positions (in fact, I think there was a book out some years ago in which a historian compared the lot of Southern slaves to Northern factory workers and determined that overall, the slaves had better conditions (!)) but slaves and governesses were essentially at the mercy of their employers. Obviously, a huge difference was that a governess could leave–at least in theory, though I imagine in practice, a single woman with no money would have little ability to leave the food, clothing and shelter of a governess position without another “situation” presenting itself. I would never liken it to “getting a job” today.

I concur strongly with Diane that for Austen it would have been a death-in-life — as would have court life and she uses strong words against life at court for any underlings (to the librarian). Everything we know (in print) by women who were governesses, and especially during the time women like Bessey Park Raines and Barbara Bodichon (mid- to later Victorian) show that the position of governess was disliked by most intensely — mostly because of the snobbery against the governess. how she was treated in a stigmatized isolating and often quietly humiliating way by her employers. The novels testify to this and a number of memoirs. Anthropologists tells us one of the worst experiences (and psychologists too) someone can have is to go down in status and have to stay among those whose status you had or shared or are above you and know it. People who are demoted at work in overwhelmingly numbers quit.

It’s this more than the drudge work, difficulty in coping which children who are also your employers (higher than you in status) and very low pay that made for the misery. Also (as I said about my mother-in-law) the long hours and lack of a private personal life — no courting (no sexuality allowed), no seeing your relatives and so on.

A member of WWTTA, Linda, put the center of the excruciation as Austen would imagine it (and Anne Bronte reveals) very well:

“Being a governess was a humbling–and intended by their employers to be a
humbling–experience. They were made to feel subservient and invisible. No acknowledgment of their intelligence or gifts was ever made. …”

In a collection of reviews of Jane Eyre by an upper class woman who identifies with the employer and we see that she is incensed to see the governess protest, sneers at the book, scorns the “whiner” (she just about uses that cruel word), and sees the book as incendiary radicalism.


Laurie Pyper as Jane Fairfax on her way to the post office (2009 BBC Sandy Welch’s Emma, the most recent incarnation)

Ellen

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