Posts Tagged ‘lesbianism’

Elina Garanca as Sesto

Barbara Frittoli as Vitellia

Dear friends and readers,

So we went to yet another of these HD transmissions of Metropolitan opera productions and all three of us enjoyed it so much that Jim and I bought tickets for next week’s Un Ballo en Maschera for the 2 of us (Izzy can’t come, going to an ice-skating communal watch event), though until every single Un Ballo we’ve ever seen has seemed an incoherent mess, and encore tickets (a second set) for 2 of us of Les Troyens because Jim bought before he realized there was an conflict with this year’s MLA (we’re going) and we don’t want to miss it (Izzy will see the first live broadcast on her own).

This despite the manifest hollowness — or maybe senselessness at the heart of the way this 1984 production was (and for all I know most productions are) done. The grandiose still fake stone set is dull, and so too the inanely sexless, or asexual costumes for the 3 central male roles, two sung by female mezzo sopranos, Sesto and Annio (Kate Lindsay) in short skirts and tights and boots, and one by a stiff lifeless tenor, Giuseppe Filianoti (his idea of acting is to make his eyes bulge out at you). The core is riveting and basically the whole of the opera: Sesto (an ambiguous female-as-male) loves Vitellia (an ambitious woman ignored by Tito who drives Sesto to try to murder him) and there is no self-abasing act, no sordid or encompassing terrorist deed Sesto will not do for Vitellia, including (as Sesto does in the opera) set all Rome on fire in an effort to murder Tito, the emperor.

As presently done this makes no sense. Why should Sesto behave this way? She is presented as so innocent and moral she might still believe in Santa. What’s needed is to have it made clear Sesto wants to have sex with Vitellia (it’s not even hinted), and Vitellia refuses Sesto, rejects her and will have nothing to do with Sesto unless Sesto murders Tito. Then the disdain Vitellia continually manifests would have some content too. Sesto must in other words be presented as an active masochistic lesbian (and her costume bring this out) with Vitellia as the sadistic part of the pair or at least sexually flexible on behalf of gaining power by marrying Tito (and satisfying him in whatever way) so she may become empress.

Much of the opera are extraordinary arias sung by these two women. In the first half Sesto driven wild by need and Vitellia the (misogynistic) female who is the nasty woman scorned. Fittoli plays the first half partly comically in order to deflect the sheet disconnect to Tito and Sesto — Vitellia in the production while dressed very sexually, or got up in one of these 3 yard wide gowns stiff with jewels, seems to have no knowledge of sexuality or how to manipulate it beyond the costume put on her (which she seems unaware of).vitelliaSestoblog

In the second half when Sesto has been caught and condemned by Tito because she won’t tell who put her up to it, Sesto is all abject before Tito, in rags, chains, worn sandals, but not because she wants to be used by him, no she seems to need to cling to him in his purple quilted bathrobe, at his neck a frilly lace cravat and brooch.

Note the irons on her wrist, she drags chains about too — what could be more incongruous?

In this same second half Vitellia suddenly guilty turns up in the usual gothic white nightgown, extremely low cut. Tons of hair on her head throughout. Her costume is will do, just.

Tito right now is your Sir Charles Grandison without a sliver of self-awareness. Told by the young lovely Servillia (Lucy Crowe) in the first half of the opera she would rather not marry him, but prefers Annio, Tito immediately gives Servillia up as the right thing to do. Upon which we get this exquisitely poignant duet:

Annio and Servillia

Annio and Servillia can stay the same: the thus-far chaste young heterosexuals, with the source of Annio’s love for Sesto not yet aparently to Annio (though maybe Sesto could understand). But Tito must turn up as a gallant hero, good as well as debonair (failing that self-deprecating drag?). Then we would know why Sesto yearns for him too, and why Vitellia cannot attract him, hard as she has apparently tried. I’m not sure there is anything one can do about the content of his arias, they are so hopelessly jejeune but the acting could be of a man mocking himself as he is torn with his need to be ethical while he confronts these women who have (to him rightly) inexplicably tried to murder him. Jim suggested the director, Calixto Bieito is up to it; he of a Carmen which is admittedly far too fussy, what’s wanted is something more in Claus Guth’s vein or Willy Dekker’s HD Traviato.

The opera is made up of extraordinary arias of exploration and display by Sesto of her emotional life, and by Vitellia of her a semi-comic and then plangent journey spite to overwrought anguish. On the side, intertwined in, the parallel Annio for Sesto, and Servillia for Vitellia. Think of it as the soliloquys by the major characters in long 17th century heroic romances based ostensibly on classical history. The chief character comes from classical history, Tito, reigned two years when he was killed, not enough time perhaps for him to become egregiously corrupt and malign. But all else is made up, a heroine’s text (woman centered) about private sex life.

Mozart keeps us at it and the paradigm is as tightly controlled and climactic as you might like. And the singers sang beautifully – especially Garanca. Her voice was beauty itself. Frittoli was as powerful as she had been as Elvira, Lucy Crowne has lovely tones, and Kate Lindsey may someday step into Garanca’s shoes. They kept the viewer and listener intent, absorbed in them while they sang and the camera kept close on them.

All else should be shorn away into large abstract symbols or re-set. Perhaps fin-de-siecle Europe, say Vienna, a cabaret, or everyone in art deco clothing, or surreal rock, anything but the still statues and hard-to-climb up and down steps that cover the stage. In one of the interviews, the hostess, Susan Graham did asks Garancia how she got up and down without seeming to look. Garancia said her boots were very good. Not slippy at all.

While hiring famous Broadway directors, set-designers, getting the most modern of technology going, the Met is still leary of growing up sexually or presenting these often deeply reactionary operas as underlyingly transgressive. As I watched the super-good Tito I thought of today’s world leaders, the Syrian and Israeli Prime Ministers, who appear keen to murder chldren, shoot up thousands of civilians point-blank (fish-bowl style), the US drones: the numinous awe of the production around Tito would not have been true even of the 1790s. Mozart surely had heard of the incompetent but tenacious Louis XVI, his emigre armies waiting to put back the ancien regime, and Marie Antoinette, and her ladies and jewels and the guillotine meted out to them. Citoyen Capet.

This is an 18th century opera, quintessentially so. The typologies, the aspiration, the symmetrical design. Tito is a good guy. We want good men. He ought to be presented in some way that makes him attractive. It’s apparently also autobiographical in that it was Mozart’s last opera written in his last hard year and he pours himself into it. But the 18th century need not be a museum piece. Made relevant, re-thought, sharply satiric (right now the dramatic ironies Mozart sets up just seem disjunctive with the blind characters), you might get full audiences. Today at the Hoffman moviehouse, about 1/3 of the seats were empty — well maybe a quarter. At the Met I could see the place was not near full.

Next week’s Ballo is one such re-thought opera; Les Troyens a new production. One may hope the latter has done for Dido what Catherine Clement would like see done for most opera women in her Opera, or the Undoing of Women (see “It’s not over until the soprano dies”). I doubt it, but surely we have gone beyond marveling simply at Vitellia’s duet with that saddest of horns and not looking to see how it is that Mozart passed beyond hell-hath-no-fury and chained women.


After all this is an opera where at the close the women are not undone. They are all winners, whether in skirts or trousers.


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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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Mathilde Blind (1872) by Lucy Madox Brown (1843-94), chalks on grey paper

Dear friends and readers,

Frances Wilson’s summary of Mathilde Blind’s life in her review of Angela Thirkell’s book which tells the story of the four women-as-partners in Ford Madox Brown’s life, the last of which was Mathilde Blind, is unbeatable for vivacity and concision:

Mathilde was raised in Germany by an overbearing revolutionary stepfather who knew Karl Marx; her brother shot himself after failing to assassinate Bismark. In her own first attempt at revolt, Mathilde was expelled from school for atheism. A feminist, journalist, critic, poet, translator, novelist and biographer, she was a fabulously beautiful wild card (and most likely a lesbian) who shared with Madox Brown an interest in radical politics. She lived as a friend with the artist and his wife on and off for 20 years, until Emma’s death in 1890. Because none of their letters survives we cannot know the true nature of the relationship between Mathilde and Madox Brown; Thirlwell concludes that it “was probably not physical in the full sense”, but contained “a special erotic charge”. But had Mathilde felt any physical passion for Madox Brown, she seems the type to have expressed it. Mathilde is not only the most interesting of Madox Brown’s loves, she was also probably the most interesting woman in London at that time.

I’ve chosen her also because I found her poems in a book which choses unusual poets, provides a strong biography, and gives a lengthier selection than usual, Virginia Blain’s Victorian Women Poets: An Annotated Anthology. Blind’s are strong, passionate, electrifyingly descriptive and intelligently feminist, socialist. To begin with,

Manchester by Night

O’ER this huge town, rife with intestine wars,
Whence as from monstrous sacrificial shrines
Pillars of smoke climb heavenward, Night inclines
Black brows majestical with glimmering stars.
Her dewy silence soothes life’s angry jars:
And like a mother’s wan white face, who pines
Above her children’s turbulent ways, so shines
The moon athwart the narrow cloudy bars.
Now toiling multitudes that hustling crush
Each other in the fateful strife for breath,
And, hounded on by diverse hungers, rush
Across the prostrate ones that groan beneath,
Are swathed within the universal hush,
As life exchanges semblances with death.

A Winter Landscape

ALL night, all day, in dizzy, downward flight,
     Fell the wild-whirling, vague, chaotic snow,
     Till every landmark of the earth below,
Trees, moorlands, roads, and each familiar sight
Were blotted out by the bewildering white.
     And winds, now shrieking loud, now whimpering low,
     Seemed lamentations for the world-old woe
That death must swallow life, and darkness light.
But all at once the rack was blown away,
     The snowstorm hushing ended in a sigh;
     Then like a flame the crescent moon on high
Leaped forth among the planets; pure as they,
Earth vied in whiteness with the Milky Way:
     Herself a star beneath the starry sky.

She felt herself an internal exile; someone exiled from the rest of her society by virtue of her inner self. Towards the end of her life she wrote in her Commonplace book “I have been an exile in this world. Without a God, without a country, without a family.” Her series of love lyrics, published in The Ascent of Man (a Darwinian perspective made optimistic) is called Love in Exile. It begins:


THou walkest with me as the spirit-light
     Of the hushed moon, high o’er a snowy hill,
Walks with the houseless traveller all the night,
     When trees are tongueless and when mute the rill.
Moon of my soul, 0 phantasm of delight,
     Thou walkest with me still.

The vestal flame of quenchless memory burns
     In my soul’s sanctuary. Yea, still for thee
My bitter heart hath yearned, as moonward yearns
     Each separate wave-pulse of the clamorous sea:
My Moon of love, to whom for ever turns
     The life that aches through me.

She was deeply active on behalf of impoverished women and prostitutes, and her purview included non-western women. Blind’s poem “Mourning Women” describes, then addresses, the Muslim women of Egypt (from the volume Birds of Passage: Songs of the Orient
and Occident

Mourning Women.

ALL veiled in black, with faces hid from sight,
     Crouching together in the jolting cart,
     What forms are these that pass alone, apart,
In abject apathy to life’s delight?
The motley crowd, fantastically bright,
     Shifts gorgeous through each dazzling street and mart;
     Only these sisters of the suffering heart
Strike discords in this symphony of light.

Most wretched women! whom your prophet dooms
     To take love’s penalties without its prize!
Yes; you shall bear the unborn in your wombs,
     And water dusty death with streaming eyes,
And, wailing, beat your breasts among the tombs;
     &But souls ye have none fit for Paradise.

Samuel Fildes (1843-1927), Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward (1874)

Many many more poems at Matilde Blind (1841-96)


As to a more extended view of her life, I don’t mean to suggest she lived a solitary or at all reclusive existence. She’s much better known for her political and social activities. Her father had been a Jewish banker and she was born in Mannheim, Germany, but when he died and her mother remarried, the revolutionary leader, Karl Blind, the family moved to Paris, and from there to England where Matilde was educated at a London girls’ school. She tried to again admission to university lectures and her failure fired her first enthusiasm for women’s education. When she died, she bequeathed her estate to Newham College, Cambridge, to found a scholarship for women.

Her first poems were dedicated to Giuseppe Mazzini, and she supported the Italian revolutionaries; she was influenced by and admired Elizaabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot, about whom she wrote yet another life (1883). Shelley, Byron inspired her. Two poems show her time in Scotland, one set in the Hebrides deals with religious questions from an atheist angle (The Prophecy of St Oran, 1881). The Heather on Fire (1886) is about the shameful Highland clearances, razed villages, people driven cruelly into further absymal poverty and emigration. There is no false romance here: we see the “agonizing plight of a crippled old woman whom no-one removed from her home before” it was set on fire; we see the people herded onto beaches to set sail for Canada. The scope, sincerity, intensity and authentic concern made her poems admired. She was no favorite with critics; her poems were not designed for male readers. Her fallen woman poem of a prostitute dying in a hospital was seen as distasteful. The pains of childbirth were not their concern. But Arthur Symons did published a full Poetical Works in 1900.

John Everett Millais (1829-96), Blow blow though winter wind (a Scotland scene)

As to her prose writing, she admired Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote an article on her (1878) and herself spent her life as an independent woman. She traveled widely in Europe and Egypt and through Scotland, published translations from Goethe, and wrote a life of the French revolutionary, Madame Roland (1886), and (her most famous work today) translated the extraordinary Journal of Marie Bashkirseff (1890), herself a fine artist. Her one experimental novel, Tarantella: A Romance is online (18805). To sum up her social existence as seen by others, confident, generous, she had circles of friends in the arts (especially the Pre-Raphaelites), knew the radical novelists, Mona Caird, was friends with Eleanor Marx. Blain says that Blind loved to give “‘literary dinners’ in rooms in well-chosen hotels.”

Lucy Madox Brown, The Duet (1870), watercolor on paper

See wikipedia and recent articles:

S. Brown, “‘A Still and Mute-Born Vision’: Locating Mathilde Blind’s
Reproductive Poetics,” Essays and Studies 56( 2003): 123-144.

James Diedrick, “‘My Love is a Force That Will Force you to Care’:
Subversive Sexuality in Mathilde Blind’s Dramatic Monologues.”
Victorian Poetry 40.4 (2002) 359-386.

James Diedrick, “A Pioneering Female Aesthete: Mathilde Blind in the
Dark Blue.” The Victorian Periodicals Review 36.6 (2003): 210-241.

Christine Sutphin, “Human Tigresses, Fractious Angels, and Nursery Saints:
Augusta Webster’s A Castaway and Victorian Discourses on Prostitution and
Women’s Sexuality.” Victorian Poetry 38.4 (2000) 511-532

As to Lucy, as will have been seen she succumbed to romantic pictures of actors playing Shakespeare. But then these sold. But she also wrote a book, on Mary Shelley and it’s online.

I thank my good friend, Fran, for helping me find some of the above material and filling me in on her knowledge of Blind from Fran’s childhood in Lancaster and now life in southern Germany.

I had begun to place my foremother poet blogs over on Austen Reveries where they have mounted up to 18, as under the sign of a central women writer (who also wrote verse); but this one I felt really was not a life which can be placed with Austen as a gravatar, example. For the other (25) foremother poets on this blog, see the archive here.


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As Marilyn Monroe

A masquerade ball: life for women as gothic

Dear friends and readers,

There is a wonderful exhibit, a full retrospective of Cindy Sherman’s career as a photographer on right now at the Museum of Modern Art. It takes you through all the phases of her career, from the 1950s/60s imitations, to the later grotesques, to the more recent showing of the underlying reality of powerful and rich and patronizing women. This column by Hal Foster at the London Review of Books summarizes the consensus view.

For myself when I looked at this shot I saw what I was doing at age 15 without being aware of it:

Cindy Sherman (MoMa exhibit), circa 1950s

Me, age 15, 1961, Rocky Point beach

My friend, Diana Birchall was struck a while back by the uncanny similarity of one of her a year younger (14), also on a beach:

She says she saw herself as doing a ballet step, and she is not lying down. I was posed that way by a cousin, then aged 16 (to my 15) and he and I were not innocent by that time but as to making the icon, that is what we were unconscious of. One swallow does not a summer make. We have here two utterly disparate girls (from at the time different backgrounds) on two different beaches from different years should be doing the same thing is the telling thing. It’s necessary for Sherman to use herself, because she does understand what she is exposing: that’s why her photo of herself is openly kittenish. Bridget Bardot comes to mind..

The many images in Cindy Sherman’s photographs of women at the exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art are mostly about how women show themselves to the world, and the inner reactions of their spirits as glimpsed through the social self. Sherman photographs herself to bring this out. As Marilyn Monroe, she brings out the anguish. Details — such as the shape and manipulation of our bodies, our gestures, small details — speak volumes about that.

One has to look and look again. This is the experience of seeing motion pictures, which are pictures moving with voice, stories, music.

A brief overview in pictures:

Sherman’s early work: accompanying, illustrating Betty Friedan

Exposing Andrew Wyeth’s cruelty to a disabled woman in the famous painting of Christina unable to reach the house

What it does to you, the type you must be, to be a patroness of the arts

We are asked to admire these patronesses (as in the Renaissance), well here you see the iron soul beneath the rich robes

She had a period of making grotesqueries, often using Renaissance imagery: this is a milder one as I don’t want to attract hostile attention to my blog

Push back

Now I write this blog because I notice what has been happening is dismissal and erasure of the meaning and function of Sherman’s work.

This is a sickening article from the New York Review of Books (59:10, 2012): a major show by a feminist artist and they give it to Sanford Schwartz — and quite deliberately chose the ugliest more unpleasant images which instead of exposing the feminist analysis of culture present us with mean looking women. It is online to all. Unusual for an art exhibit article for the NYRB. They wanted to make lots of people could read this. She’s an impersonator you see. Making it up. Reveling in herself. Yes she uses herself as a model. Lots of women have. It’s cheap.

I thought to myself, this is an aberration, it is the complacent NYRB with its usual male ostrichs. But no. Today I came across another similar column.

One might have hoped a woman reviewer would talk about the meaning of the exhibit. In Paula Marantz Cohen’s review for Times Literary Supplement (April 27, 2012, p 180), not available publicly online, but no big loss, the closest to an understanding she comes is “short of a hackneyed feminism, there is very little that one can say about what her art means.” Very little one can say? To expose our pornified culture is hackneyed. To bring home what drives women anywhere from anorexia and self-conscious manipulation of their bodies to simply feeling bad about themselves, spending huge sums to beauticians, hot-waxing, is meaninglessness, hackneyed. To be sure, it does not seem to do any good if change is our criteria.

For Cohen, Sherman’s art is again about her dressing up. She says the “curatorial decision” to provide explanations “seems particularly wrong-headed,” but we are not told what these explanations are for the most part. One of a middle-aged woman staring at herself in the mirror (bourgeois, Sherman herself) is described by the curator as something vain, filled with pathos, a “struggle with the impossible standards of beauty that prevail in a youth- and status-obsessed culture.” No, Cohen says it’s about the love women have of dressing up, and why shouldn’t they have that pleasure?

Last night I watched Lena Dunham’s HBO situation comedy, Girls and in two key scenes with men we see dressing up is not much fun. She goes over to her boyfriend’s apartment. She texts him, he does not text her. While there to keep his affection and interest, she allows him to bugger her and enact the position of self-tied up slave. In another a male boss who she attempts to please, and for which situation she has dressed up as the semi-bohemian graduate student fires her when she asks to be paid for her work. She is working there for no money at all. (See insightful review, NYRB, June 7, 2012, by Elaine Blair.)

Now Cindy Sherman has included the poignant self Lena Dunham is working out of for her show:

Wistful’s the word here

By damning with faint praise, by saying the exhibit makes him uncomfortable and there’s something grating and wrong about this sort of thing (Schwartz), by referring in an offhand disdainful way to what makes the exhibit important and never explaining this (Cohen), you do a hatchet job on the exhibit. Since to understand art, you must see it. In future, people studying Sherman’s work will have to go on such write-ups. This is how to destroy feminism, how to perpetuate what Sherman is trying to change through awareness.

It’s awareness. It’s seeing yourself, understanding what you are doing to yourself. Cindy uses herself as a model because she is consciously enacting the inner world of our culture and needs her own vision to stare out at us, to walk before us, in the social performances we enact.

Girl on Fence (see comments)


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Celie Imrie as Mrs Hardcastle: her story never told, unaccounted for in Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Dear friends and readers,

Are Lesbians as a group (as opposed say to gay men, “queer” people) becoming invisible again? the question was asked on one of my listservs.

I don’t know that lesbians were ever much visible in popular art or entertainment but there was an attempt to include such women as a type. The TV show Ellen comes to mind. Buffy’s best friend. Were these sports? anomalies which had no development? I saw a popular mainstreadm movie this past weekend and reviewed it favorably here, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and it had a central male gay figure: notably he dies before the end of the movie so the happy ending cannot include a homosexual couple. It does include a young heterosexual and an aging heterosexual one. Actually it would not include he and the long-lost friend (40 years ago, re-found) because the friend has married and has a wife who stands by and would probably not appreciate being sidelined.

The common type person not included not include is a lesbian. Let’s look about. Of all the 7 or 8 retired white people at the center, there is a person whose past remains unexplored and whose future is not accounted for. Celie Imrie as Mrs Hardcastle. It came to me as I watched that she’s a lesbian who is not out; she has never been married, and unlike the others there is no sign of her seeking a sexual partner. She could just be an asexual spinster, but the feel of the character is not that either. She dresses sexily (all her tops low-cut):

“Mrs Hardcastle is never explained; could be a quiet lesbian but we are not told this …” We are told nothing of her history.

In my experience there is a strong impulse to deny lesbianism unless it is stridently overt. Not coming out often makes sense too from an individual standpoint. Take the military: I’ve read more than once that lesbians are particularly subject to all sorts of social punishments by heterosexual men in the military (including rape, which is said to be commonplace).

I see no one has cited literary or historical studies so I’ll cite one very good one: Emma Donoghue’s Passions between Women where she argues we don’t see lesbians because their particular patterns in a repressive society are not recognized and for the 18th century she goes about to outline what these are. What I’ve noticed is that often in the particular instances she points to if you go to scholars working on these women, they will do all they can to obfuscate, deny, most of the time on the grounds there is no overt evidence. I wrote a few blogs on this book because it was of great interest and so unusual.

Donoghue meant to create a counterpart to Sedgewick’s Passions between Men but (no surprise) her book has not achieved anything like the fame or acceptance of Sedgewick's book. She does not include Austen though she knows that Austen's life and work fit her pre-suppositions as it has been vehemently denied by the leaders of the Austen fan clubs. My larger point is that when such historical books are written they gain little fame and individual women identified in them little recognition as lesbians — another recent one is Lisa Moore's Sister Arts: The erotics of Lesbian Landscape where she outlines lesbian art patterns. Again the book has been reviewed in Women’s Review of Books, but I’ve not seen it reviewed in many 18th century periodicals:

The old argument about women’s friendship (Lilian Fadermann, Surpassing the Love of Men, and Janet Todd’s Women’s Friendship in Literature) which is not physical is resurrected continually..

A thread on a Women’s Studies listserv I’m on, a debate which began to turn into an embittered fight between women who identify as part of different factions intent on recognition, respect (power and influence) today, but stopped short and then became friendly again and fruitful of understanding prompted the above. I’d like to see the argument wrest free of particular factions from the year 2012.

I suggest people face what I would say is the continued refusal for the most part to recognize that there is such a sexual phenomena as lesbianism — even though (as photos often show) when same-sex marriage is permitted, pairs of women are usually as many among the rejoicing couples, and even though there are magazines and groups of lesbian feminists who maintain a strong presence in say this or that academic or political organization.

And there are corollary questions: who pushes for same-sex marriage? is it gay men or lesbian women? I suggest this is an important question. Do they do it equally? who pushes for the right to be in the military openly? and what about uncontested adoption of a child?

Another corollary: the glorification of motherhood (see Badinter’s The Conflict).

Christmas time, Obrien to the side, self-contained (by contrast, Miss Shaw, Lady Rosamund’s lady’s maid is recognized by Anna and Mrs Patmore as Lord Hepworth’s mistress, a plant to push Lady Rosamund into marrying the bankrupt Hepworth)

It was also prompted by the history-less-ness of Miss Sarah Obrien (Siobhan Finneran) in Downton Abbey, who like her partner in ruthlessness, Thomas (Rob James-Collier) keeps her own counsel

See also Lesbian spinsterhood, On being answerable with her body, Slammerkin. So many things to be said, which remain marginalized or unsaid and therefore unseen.

From Gwyneth Hughes’ and Anne Pivcevic’s Miss Austen Regrets: Olivia Williams as Jane Austen comforting Gretta Scacchi as Cassandra late in life


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Keeley Hawes as Kitty Butler and Rachael Stirling as Nan Astley, the failed couple (touching portrait photo)

Rachael Stirling as Nan Astley and Jodhi May as Florence Banner the successful couple (concluding scene of Tipping the Velvet)

Dear friends and readers,

I began reading Sarah Walters’s Tipping the Velvet as part of my project studying Andrew Davies’s movies. It’s the source text for one of his delightful transgressive mini-series. I had written about this wonderful novel briefly with two others on my Reveries under the Sign of Austen blog, but have revised the blog to make it about just two of Davies’s highly unusual heroine’s text romances: Wilderness and Harnessing Peacocks. Tbis blog is a genuine summary and review of just Tipping the Velvet, film and book.

Sarah Waters shows the real harm our present sexual and social arrangements cause. We experience how repression of the full panoply of sexual instincts by ostracizing people can cause. It reveals how terrible in the cost of so many lives ruined, lost, given no chance by an utterly unequal and wasteful distribution of the wealth. The costume drama is a masquerade to speaking to the reader about today.

Central to this novel is that lesbian relationships are not acceptable. Early in the book Alice, Nan’s sister turns from Nan absolutely, with repugnance, disgust: very painful even if presented in the airy manner of relatively careless youth and innocence in the novel’s early scenes. Her family has no place for her to live out her true decent emotional life. I note that Nan does not dwell on this. She could have but this kind of ceaseless pain is omitted. Simply, she finds she cannot go home again. The extent to which she drops her family may be seen in my not being able to remember her mother’s first name. This enables the book to seem jaunty and cheerful as she does not dwell on such pain and exclusion but the book reveals the effects of this. That is in effect the story.

A moment from Kitty and Nan’s act

Further, it ends in pity. What broke our two loving heroines up, Kitty and Nan up, was Kitty’s understandable fear of the being rejected and jeered at and ending up without employment or beaten up as “Tom.” Kitty’s willingness to live an utterly compromised life (have sex with a man, be married to a man) is not what Nan can do. And Kitty is left to live alone, a fake life.


Keeley Hawes as Kitty Butler with Nan: meeting in Nan’s room at Whitstable Oyster house

Part 1, Chapters 1-7:

Waters’s is just such a wonderful book. It’s the tone that makes it. Maybe I expected alienation, melancholy, loneliness, indirect anger through paradox, many qualities I associate with lesbian fiction. But no. It’s totally frank and direct, warm, easy, comfortable with the self. The heroine writes in the first person; it makes her unhappy that she must hide her sexuality and it would not be accepted by her family, is not by her sister, but other than that the prejudice of others does not seem to seep into the text as deep unhappiness or duplicity or self-hatred at all. In Chapters 2-3, Nan becomes Kitty’s dresser and they move to London, where she meets Kitty’s promoter and patron, the enigmatic Mr Bliss (that’s not his “real” name we are told, nor is “Butler” Kitty’s real name) and the other theatrical members of the boarding house at Brixton. It’s just a joy to read because of the tone, but what happens is not such a joy. They are poor, so is Whitstable where the family survives by fishing and selling oysters in a cafe. Nan does not dare approach Kitty for sex.

It’s refreshing and real.

It must be that there is not much happening and we are mostly in Nan our heroine’s mind as she goes out after her job as oyster girl in the evening first to the theater night after night, is noticed by Kitty Butler, invited in, becomes her unofficial dressed, and then takes her home for a visit and is finally herself invited to accompany Kitty to London. Davies gets all the action in thus far and that’s remarkable since this is a nearly 500 page book and the mini-series but 3 episodes.

Nan moves to London with Kitty; she meets the enigmatic Mr Bliss (that’s not his “real” name we are told, nor is “Butler” Kitty’s real name) and the other theatrical members of the boarding house at Brixton. After Nan joins Kitty on stage, the nature or feel of their act becomes more obvious, and one night in a moment of high success they are heckled and booed as “Toms!”

This seems to unnerve and terrify Kitty and she falls back on Walter Bliss, but he retreats and Kitty and Nan move from their boarding house to a more overtly respectable place, Stamford. They are a commercial success and are taken in by a pantomime company and there are just wonderful descriptions of Christmas pantomime with much insight into why they gratify adults as well as children. There are ominous notes about how Nan doesn’t know what is in Kitty’s mind, that despite their active love affair, Nan is lonely and she determines to visit home — Antaeus to the earth. Kitty will not go with her.

In the film adaptation, when Nan returns to Kitty, she has a harsh shock and surprise.

Usually I don’t like picaresque fictions and this is one. One sign of this is the introduction of new characters casually with little introspection. So for example, on p 149 Nan suddenly elaborates on her and Kitty’s dresser, Flora and Flora’s boyfriend, a young black man, Albert called “Billy-boy.” How discovering he has no talent for singing, he lives by hanging on, then becoming a tech person, all the while soaking up and enjoying the atmosphere and pleasures. Nothing within. My guess is that it’s because the narrative is so suffused with Nan’s subjective presence, and we are led (I am) to like her, I don’t mind the lack of introspection. This lack helps the optimistic kindly tone too — it does not seem that improbable since as we go we see pictures of much poverty, hard times, making do, and all from the outside, the stage, not at home or in the separate rooms people go to. A sweet Cabaret is what we have thus far.

And while the Tipping the Velvet mini-series is not given much praise by Cardwell, said to be crude or over-done, this not true at all. It’s delicate and has the same kinds of rhythms and scenes as other of his classic film adaptations. I found I could not get on with the film adaptation of Michel Faber’s Crimston Petal and White — not because it was not interesting — but because it’s done in this epitomizing packed-in style where you really have to have read the book to understand the movie. So I put the film aside (Jim downloaded it for me).


The heroine has become Nan King, a meditative moment

Part 2, Chapters 8-11

So Nan goes home and does not fit in at all. Her presents are not appreciated, and her family does not rejoice in her successes at all. Indeed she does not tell them for they do not seem to want to know. Only questions are for things like, has Kitty as suitor yet? She returns to find Kitty and Walter in bed with one another.

Here I found the first real change in Davies. First Kitty goes home with Nan and so much of the discomfort is not seen. Thus Davies softens considerably the effect and it is not about how one can’t go home again. Second when Nan catches Kitty and Walter in the book, Nan becomes violent. She bites Kitty, she becomes frantic and uses frank language of sexuality and is mocked by Walter as incapable of what she claims she did. (I’m now avoiding some words lest it be picked up by Yahoo’s vigilant software eager to sell porn ads.) In Davies there is no violence in Nan, no ugly language, no accusations. In the film Walter does not (as in the book) rush in and protect Kitty; it’s merely that Kitty prefers him. In the film Kitty seems more powerful but the whole sense of the scene’s passion is muted plus Kitty’s real reason which is to be conventional and safe.

All the dislike of Nan’s sexual orientation and how it does not fit in and causes this break is basically muted in the film.

I am puzzled by the next chapter (9). In film and book why does Nan not go back and get her suitcase of clothes and her money? She does take some of her earnings she finds in the theater, but most of it was in their flat. I can understand she becomes deeply depressed, goes and lives in the cheapest ugly place she can, avoids going out for a long time until her money is near run out but it’s just too destructive to not bring with her her larger earnings and woman’s clothes. Yes Kitty and Walter would see her, but so what? They would not prevent her from taking what was hers. Yes she does dislike being a woman, but she appears to the new landlady is bedraggled women’s things and she needs them.

Still the narrative follows the mini-series more of less. Now Nan is a “renter” on the streets, but we have more broad comedy of a Victorian grotesque type for she is taken in by two “simple” women who don’t know enough of broader life to work out quite what she does for a living and are glad of her company and money. I’m sorry Davies omitted this pair, and they are a rewrite of Victorian types in fiction

Portrait photo

The tone is probably unreal. We are expected to believe that this narrator can live on the streets in this way, service men in these degrading ways and remain cheerful. She also remains singularly upbeat up. She would have been beaten badly by this time I suspect tor been in ugly brawls. She’d drink more. But I admit it is the tone that makes the book such a delight. It reminds me of say Henry Fielding in his broad expansive acceptance of realities.

This is such a wish-fulfillment narrative and so strange to be one. It’s about this woman who falls to be a male prostitute doing the most degrading things; she lives with two desperately poor simple women. I think Davies chose to film it because he loves really odd stories that break taboos. We then (as in the film) get Nan meeting Florence. Florence is home-y, chunky, a social worker and they are attracted at first sight — across the way window to terrace and then while walking. (In the film the child is a baby her brother took in; in the book she comes and cares for other families and places them in decent housing when she can.) Then she is snatched up by the cruel selfish wealthy woman in the carriage (played by Anna Chancellor who is type cast this way — from Miss Bingley on) who startles Nan because she is a woman. That was where Nan was vulnerable: the chink in the armor was the unexpected woman. She was prepared for bad and violent and lying men.

Anna Chancellor as Diana with Nan dressed up as a Ganymede

Chapter 11 is a raw frank chapter. The descriptions of sex between the wealthy hard upper class exploitative Diana Lethaby (lethal is the allegory) are startling to me. Not lasciviously done, not prurient but graphic. For once Davies somewhat mutes his source. It’s clear too that Blake (played by Sally Hawkins in the film) is exploited as is Nan. Nan just gives herself over meekly. She also bids adieu to Grace and Mrs Milne. It’s a sad scene her deserting them. She also forgets her appointment with Florence. In the film she flees a restaurant she was in with Florence; this has less excuse. She is not frightened, guilty, uncomfortable, just forgets.

The point is really the desperation of everyone in this era for any chance at money or a comfortable life style.

Nan is startled at the artificial quiet of rich people’s neighborhoods. She has never experienced this before. The outward stateliness of money and its ruthless use by those who have it of those who don’t is before us. She is herself though becoming a worse person, becoming a thing too.


A street scene

Part 2, Chapters 12-14

When Nan as an impoverished street walker is picked up by the wealthy lesbian Diane Lethaby (the allegory stands for lethal), and brought to live with her in her mansion, Nan allows herself to be turned into a degraded toy. She is in effect owned by Diana, body and therefore soul. Lines show her like Lydia Bennet so thrilled with gifts, really toys, like her new watch, only this fiction shows us how painfully pathetic this is. We also get lines from Nan: as when she is paraded before Diana’s friends: “when I twitched and cried out there were smiles in the shadows; and when I shuddered, and wept, there was laughter” (p. 281). Nan loses all sense of time, space, as she is a kept enclosed despised thing.

Throughout the novel (as I said in my Reveries blog), Walters as Nan our narrator maintains this paradoxical cheerful or quietly sustained endurance tone, no matter how ugly or dangerous or foul her circumstances are (like when she works as a male prostitute in the streets). But now that Nancy has become Diana Lethaway’s doll gradually we see that the way Nan has gotten through life is somehow to anaesthetize herself, to cut herself off from real feelings. I asked why did Nan run away from Kitty and Walter that morning she caught them in bed without returning for her things at a minimum, and more money.

At last we are enabled to see it: for her birthday Diana dresses her up real fancy and takes her with a friend and the friend’s toy-woman-as-boy to the opera, and there Nan comes across for the first time in more than year someone from her old life. She breaks down completely. Her heart and pride can bear it no longer. And we hear of how it was intense paralyzed distress so great that kept her away from even those parts of London where she thought she might hear of Kitty.

Nan infuriates Diane by standing and talking to this friend. Then when she’s marched to her seat, she can’t stand the opera. I confess sometimes I dislike operas intensely too: people shrieking on stage, the antics often in the worst of taste (as in Mozart where the countess and her maid force the young boy page
into a frock and lock him into a closet – har har), and Nan flees (p. 291). She has been just such another object for too long. She has heard where Kitty is playing and gets herself there. And what does she see? Kitty is dressed as a boy, the child of Walter on stage who comes up to him suppliant like and plays to his wagging fingers like a dog. The audience likes this precisely because of
the humiliation implied too. Nan is sickened for her friend even if the friend doesn’t have the understanding and flees the theater.

It reminded me that this is what the world pays for. On TV reality shows. What are Kitty and Nan to do? Florence was a social worker living very meagerly and she is too plain to take Kitty and Nan’s options anyway. (Harnessing Peacocks for all its shallowness shows us a woman driven to prostitution, being
someone’s companion and cook in our era of joblessness.)

At last Waters has not been able to avoid it. She does not use anxiety as a tool to make us read on — which considering the desperate destitute straits to which Nan is reduced one would think she would. Or violence — as yet anyway. Rather desperation is the key motif.

Zena Blake (Sally Hawkins) appears to be assuaging loneliness in Nan’s kind arms

What happens is Nan becomes momentarily allied to Blake, the young maid in the house who is also sexually exploited. As in the film, Blake (played by Sally Hawkins) was rescued from an orphanage-reformatory and the way Diana bullies and terrifies her into obedience is to threaten to take her there. Comforting one another in part, Blake and Nan go to bed together, Diane catches them, and insane more with their defiance of her power than even her jealousy, she puts them back in the meager outfits she
picked them up in, and throws them out.


Nan and Florence begin to talk

Part 3, Chapter 15

Book 3 opens with them in the streets, no friends, no money, no where to turn. Something that could easily happen to women then.

Davies’s film omits Waters’s insightful horrified apprehension of how the women (and vulnerable people generally) are driven to degrade themselves to please a crowd and sell widely, but this more mainstream kind of critique of out society is there in spades in the film. They are show utterly destitute and clinging to one another in a filthy bed in a street hovel.

I became gripped by the book and couldn’t put it down, read
into late in the night steadily on and on (this is not a short book, these are not short chapters). Over on Eighteenth Century Worlds at Yahoo, I’d been saying that historical novels allow novelists to delve very uncomfortable material directly through the disguise of costume and analogous events.

Well as I read this one I thought about being homeless, I thought about destitution in our world There’s a sequence in Jane Eyre about this, when she flees Thornton Hall and it’s no coincidence the latest Jane Eyre film begins there and keeps coming back to Jane’s experiences of rejection, freezing, danger, hunger, a desperate hunt for someone to help her.

As in the film Blake (Zena is her first name) betrays Nan by stealing what money they have and fleeing. Unlike the film Blake is intensely angry at Nan, scolds her, blames her, and we get more of a sense that the betrayal is also a (unjustified but understandable) revenge.

The film has skipped Nan’s time with Mrs Milne and Gracie (the mother with her simple daughter) so we don’t get her return there. That’s a loss as she is so desolate because these two women were disinterestedly kind.

She then seeks out Florence (Jodhi May). It’s not as improbable as it seems that she does find Florence’s flat finally; she had seen Florence before because Florence resides in the same area among the same type people but doing social work. As in the film at first Florence is very hard and rejects her in part – though takes her in. Nan wins her over gradually by cleaning, cooking, being so eager.

Ironing: how one looks the role one takes

The brother is kinder from the get-go, as intrasexual antagonism is real. It’s overcome we see by fondness in Florence which is beginning to surface.

An improbability which has continued throughout: beyond the one sharp hard hit by Diana, Nan experiences no other violence, not in the streets, no where. No rapes. I don’t believe this especially after two long bouts of being a male/female prostitute too. Plus she ought to have frozen to death or starved. She is too well by the time she reaches Florence at any rate.

But we must have some fairy tale, must we not? or we would not have a happy ending. Costume drama does avoid real life and coming this close is bad enough.


At the Oyster Bar

Chaptera 17 – 18

The ending of Tipping the Velvet is upon me and what’s happened is Florence and Nan’s friendship and now near love liaison is flowering. They have gone to a bar filled with women couples, some dressed as men. Davies has this scene but he does not have Diana have a comeuppance which is unlikely. He also ends his series on a scene of Nan and Florence facing going home to Nan’s family. This is very good because this is hard. I can see that Waters’s does skip this and ends with a long conversation — a la Austen really — of Nan and Kitty talking where Kitty is trying to get Nan back. Austen often has a penultimate chapter with a long conversation between her heterosexual couple. Waters’s book seems to lack closure but the inconclusiveness and dialogue between Kitty and Nan brings us to a different aspect of what breaks women couples up.

While Davies does some things very right, he has to work within the limitations of his media: TV and a 3 part episode. Thus he does not do justice to the development of Nan’s relationship with Florence. We see how individual and unexpected people are. On the one hand, once Florence realizes Nan is a “Tom”, she opens up to Nan and they become fervent and she a frank bold lover; on the other, Florence is a strongly ethical woman and dismayed at Nan’s street life, her year with Diana, her apparent desertion of her family (though that is understandable she says given their reaction to you). Florence remains a strong socialist and Nan gets caught up in intense continual networking duties: the house becomes shabby again and Ralph (dear Ralph, so like men in many women’s novels, the sensitive brother type, no violent there) sweats away at his speech.

The treatment of the women by the men on the streets comes home to a modern woman reader — reminding me of the news-stories we’ve lately had and my own experiences. Historical fiction speaks to us today.

I know a meeting with Kitty is in the wings and know Nan turns her down. I’m glad I do or I’d be so anxious over it, for Waters had made Nan less than moral, capable of leaving the deep feeling Florence even now.


In the night

Chapter 19

I finished this one last night and the conclusion got me to thinking what we differently mean by “comfort” book. I think the phrase must be so individual, for what one person derives from a book that comforts them must be from their own life.

It ends with Kitty coming over to see Nan at the desk at the labor party gala and festival which is so successful. Ralph does not quite make his speech without much help from Nan, but then he does and I believe fervently the speech on behalf of socialism is intended for us today — we can only be happy as a people across the board if we have safety and justice and decent opportunity for all. It’s a clarion call. Of course I liked this and like the book for this shaping perspective throughout (as I do Graham’s Poldark books).

Then we drop to Kitty suddenly appearing and asking an to return to their life together, said that Nan knows she loves Kitty more than she does Florence — and love here means sexual attraction, having sex too, as well as deep memories of a first experience, of leaving home and their first times on the stage together Kitty says to Nan you know you don’t really believe in these politics, you care for individuals and your mind runs on particulars and pleasure. But it would mean including Walter and also living a half-lie for that’s what Kitty would want. Not that Florence and Nan are all that open but there is something craven and shamed about Kitty’s approach that Nan can’t bear. Nan refuses Kitty and turns back to Florence.

Florence is half-bitter and asks Nan, why she did not go with Kitty. Florence too asserts that Nan loves Kitty more. It’s in Nan’s response that my comfort came. Nan says because this is my home now. You are my family now, you and Ralph. You are decent good people who took me in, and I do love you much much more. Nan says Kitty’s behavior and the time lapsed have killed her love. This tender place is where I can be me and live as me. Nan then says she knows she’s not Lily, not earnest, doesn’t care about polticis all that much. And Florence replies in kind, that she’s been missing Lily for so many years, it got in the way of seeing Nan.

The baby is there, they hear the cheers from the audience inside the tent with Ralph and the sun casts it shadow and day and novel come to an end.


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