Posts Tagged ‘Mary Robinson’

Jean Henri De Latude (1725-1805) escaping

Roger Daltrey as Macheath (Sheppard) singing a rousing Handelian drinking song (1987 Jonathan Miller’s production of Gay’s Beggar’s Opera)

Dear friends and readers,

We returned from the East Central American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies conference late Saturday night. I found it rejuvenating — there may be in the world a set of people as enthusiastic over 18th century studies, but surely nowhere is any group more devoted.

The topic for the conference was “What does infamy matter — when you get to keep your fortune” [Juvenal], but of course not everyone does. I had not realized what a fruitful angle this could be until I came to listen to the papers. This was not the emphasis of the papers, but it seems to me a craving for money and all it can buy of luxury, and for respect and all it can gratify of pride and self-esteem were primary motivations leading to the infamy all figures I heard about the first day of the conference endured when they failed, perhaps kept failing, and then tried and tried again. Chance and and the changes of times then wove the kind of curtain or exit each won when they grew old and/or died. This does not cover all cases: women become infamous if they lose their virginity or chastity in an socially unacceptable way. Sometimes people can courageously defy a powerful man and yet not he but they become infamous.

For the 2nd part click here.


Typical vision of a period trial: the seven bishops at trial

Three superb papers in the first session on Friday morning: “Infamous Conduct: Treason, Bigamy and Escape Artistry.” The chair was Jack Fruchtman. In these three cases (as in a couple of others) I offer more detail than I have of late or I do of the others because the papers offered in the first session had such interesting and (to me) new content, but it should not be taken that I’ve gotten the whole of these papers; these are just outlines where I omit much detail, nuance, and post-modern and other arguments.

Jane Wessel spoke on the trial of the 7 bishops. A man could be hung, drawn, and quartered for performing a seditious text in 1688. In 1687 James II suspended the penal laws against Catholics, and debates everywhere (public, private, at work) ensued whether he had the right to do so. James then asked that clergy and bishops read his proclamation;’ in May 1688 the bishops in effect declared that the king had not the right unitaterally to impose tolerance and suspend the penal laws for Catholics. The clergy did not want to read this petition because that was tantamount to saying they approved (they did not).

Well, the bishops had been foolish enough to show up at James’s request to talk to him. It seems the two sides had been alone. James then had them indited for a misdemeanor. The bishops themselves did not publish their petition, but it quickly appeared and no one could say how or who was responsible. So the prosecution focused on publication: they argued that the act of writing was itself a form of publication, writing an armed act of rebellion, a violent act. The defense rejoined that a peer of the realm could not be brought to trial for a misdemeanor.

The prosecution was unsuccessful when the justices could not come to a decision and the jury were appealed to. So the prosecution tried again; a new inditement accused the bishops of “vi et armis.” One of the peers who challenged this was Heneage Finch, later 4th early of Winchilsea (Anne Finch’s husband); a state of mind was not treason. Again the prosecution countered that the Anglican church had a doctrine of passive obedience; writing was active rebellion. Justices split and jury again ruled in bishops’ favor.

This case bring before us the interrelationship of publishing, writing, political engagement with and without arms. The trial transcript was printed, and was over 100 pages.

Barbara Villiers Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland (1640-1709)

Ashley Shoppe discussed the liaison and marriage of Robert (Beau) Fielding to Barbara Villiers, Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland and Castlemaine. Fielding was nearly allied to some powerful people, and he inherited a fortune from his father-in-law. He proceeded though to squander it, and from then on made a career for himself by marrying rich older women. She was 65 when they married; she demanded a divorce and got it pronta. It was on Nov 25th that they married. Meanwhile much earlier Fielding had tried to marry another woman for money and instead ended up marrying Mary Wadsworth. He was before this involved with Anne de Laure. The time together and part included brutal beating by Fielding of Cleveland, emotional humiliation, assault. He was imprisoned as a Jacobite though he had not involved himself in politics. In 1706 Fielding was found guilty of bigamy, which carried a death penalty. Nothing like it was ever inflicted. It should be noted that Fielding and Cleveland later reconciled themselves to one another. It’s important to remember that Cleveland could have had children but apparently did not.

Two popular memoirs were printed not that long after:one memoir defended her as an upper class woman and therefore allowed; Henry is someone who is used to watching his wife flirt and more with his friends and brothers. The other condemned her a worse than useless aristocrat; it has Steele in it as someone who acted out of individual desire and that the reader should emulate his actions.

The one by Richard Steele lampooned Fielding as Orlando the Fair and ridiculed both people, showing real disdain for aristocratic corruption. Steele is criticizing the Tories and that Fielding was mad. Steele was an orientalist and applied sexualized imagery to Valeria. In this tale the seraglio exercises a fascination, and the Stuart abuse of power roundly criticized. His usage of Cleveland is called barbarous; and he is presented as effeminate, ridiculous.

Latude memoirs

Michael J. Mulryn delivered the last paper. Jean Henri de Latude was a man who achieved notoriety by his many escapes from prison, the persecution (as he felt it) from the Marquise de Pompadour armed with an initial lettre de cachet. She had gained power first as the king’s mistress and then as the woman who organized his seraglio and saw to his every need. Today she has been given a positive press as a patroness of the arts. Latude has been depicted as a con artist and madman; he depicted himself as a victim of the excesses of the ancien regime. His Memoirs were popular, and part of the anti-Bastille literature. (One should remember there were people who supported the lettre de cachet system and Bastille, e.g., Sade’s mother-in-law.) The Bastille was stormed to get arms.

Who was he? A fast-talking “Houdini” who eventually had 4 aliases, and could talk himself into and out of situations; he had been the illegitimate child of a domestic servant, and so could not inherit anything. He decided to tell the Marquise of a plot to assassinate her and threaten her that if she did not pay him, the plot would go through. She did fear assassination and put him in prison. Probably this plot was a bunch of lies.

He then (like Sade) spent many years in prison; he became famous for his extraordinary escapes but would be brought back. One of the most famous occurred in the Bastille, notoriously difficult to get out of. This escape included building a ladder, climbing chimneys, getting past grates and sentries, hours spent in a frozen moat. He was helped by a friend, a famous engineer, who organized the escape and he ended up in Charenton. He said he’d rather die than write a letter of apology to the Marquise. He claimed she cast spells on him. In 1777 the Charenton monks at Charenton helped him to escape but when he got out on the streets he mugged someone. One of his re-arrests occurred in Holland in 1756 when he cashed a letter of exchange sent him by his mother. The Marquise herself kept hunting him down, using the state’s resources for this. At last he ended in one of the worst prisons, meant for ordinary people (no gentlemen), where he somehow managed to write copiously (he would use his own blood it’s said).

His Memoirs were then transferred to someone outside the prison and in 1784 published. Many people sympathized and came to his defense; Louis XVI revoked the original lettre de cachet and he was freed. Later in life he dined with celebrities like Thomas Jefferson. After the demolition of the Bastille he was paraded through the streets like a revolutionary hero. Stories of all sorts were printed and it is very hard to distinguish fact from fiction. One historian, Brentano, wrote a tract on behalf of the gov’t; another defended Latude who could present himself as a gentleman. It is possible he was simply a clever common criminal. He was probably emotionally disturbed; his father never would recognize him. Towards the end of his life he had a pension and lived in a lovely apartment.

Then we had a lively question-and-answer period. Someone asked where do the trial transcripts of the Fielding-Cleveland case come from? Ms Wessel said the state published them after the “glorious revolution” (James II ousted); the 1706-7 Memoir is a 9 page cheap publication; Lawrence Stone told the story and there was a popular biography in the 1980s. Someone else was surprised that the King met the bishops alone and had himself insisted on the interview. What went on in the bigamy trial itself? Fielding tried to insert his marriage to Mary Wadsworth and was able to use benefit of clergy to avoid execution. I asked if the brutality he displayed at all influenced the outcome and she said it’s hard to know. A final set of questions were about Latude. Mr Murphy suggested that Latude had a grandiose view of himself, that he never was a loner type. What is telling is how quickly the Marquise could enlist the state apparatus and spies to locate Latude and extradite him from Holland.

It seemed to be felt by everyone that the way the powerful king, the lawyers, and the 7 bishops behaved and the stories of Latude and Pompadour had parallels to our own era of eroding civil rights, and how cases prosecuting whistle-blowers and so-called terrorists show the same avoidance of central issues to argue small points to get the case thrown out of court, the same use of harassing hounding police forces and state apparatus. The class parallels: upper class people are allowed; or upper class people are drones. I see a parallel in the Fielding case in that he was let off and had been so treacherous and brutal to the women he preyed upon.


Sir John Hill (1716-75) where he’s called a botanist and that his “provocative and scurrilous writings involved him in many quarrels, both in the field of science and that of literature.”

Mid-morning we listened to George Rousseau’s plenary lecture on John Hill; this session and a reception later on were really book launches. As Mr Rousseau’s was a talk and included many anecdotes about himself, the Royal Society (he’s a fellow), and the people he’s known, I omit much only bringing in what seems to me might be of interest about Hill and the book. Mr Rousseau’s salient idea is that Hill sought celebrity as a way of getting money; that he was socially a borderline personality, often “badly behaved,” an outsider whose untamed genius led him to offend and outrage all sorts of people so he was continually changing professions or simply involved himself in many areas of life so that he can function as a sort of “filter” or mirror which manifests central aspects of 18th century life. To me Hill seemed a polymath.

Among the stories told were how Hill was blackballed three times by someone in the Royal Society and so Hill never was a member. He was the 2nd son of a clergyman who owned more than 100 books and taught the boy himself (including Greek, Latin, science). His employers included Stukeley (who uncovered Stonehenge); his patrons included the Earl of Richmond, a man living on a cosmopolitan estate, Goodwood, where a highly cultured informal community interacted; Emmanuel de Costa was a geologist and friend whom Hill betrayed by plagiarizing Costa’s research, but then de Costa embezzled funds from the Royal Society and went to prison for this. Hill went after Christopher Smart and was badly behaved to Garrick. Through Hill’s connection with Bute (see below) and Linneaus Hill was knighted. One he tried to fake his own death.

Hill’s writing was enormously varied and continual: like a Grub Street denizen he wrote around the clock to make money, scandal chronicles, early fiction, science, operas, farces, routs (perhaps as many as 200 works). He paid 50£ to get a certificate as a physician; he began a newspaper with Ralph Griffiths called The Daily Advertiser where Hill wrote twice-weekly columns where he made 1500£ a year. He wrote on reproductive science, a treatise on tobacco which correlates it to cancer. Angry that he never got into the Royal Society, he wrote a prose satire about it which like the Dunciad degrades people and names names. Lord Bute, George III’s tutor became a friend, both loved botany and Hill functioned as a master gardener and then published a huge work on vegetables.

Among those who drew or painted him was Allan Ramsay when Hill was 37. Hill married twice, the first time to the daughter of Earl of Burlington, she died early. He then remarried the Viscountess Ranelagh with whom he had 10 children; 6 survived

Mr Rousseau did not seem to like Hill very much, nor be sympathetic. He assumed that his audience would not care for Hill either. In the question-and-answer period someone seemed to suggest perhaps Hill was really most driven into extremes by a need for money. For my part the portrait as presented prompted some empathy nonetheless. I liked Hill for his reactive defiance and anger and non-conformity, counter-productive though some may find it.


Mary Robinson at the height of her beauty as painted by Joshua Reynolds

After lunch, I went to two sessions, and heard five papers altogether. In the first session, Caroline Breashears’s “Secret and Celebrated: Life-Writings by and About Notorious Figures” Ellen Malenas Ledoux’s on Mary Robinson’s Memoirs, was on the now familiar material of a subjective reading of the actress’s images: did Robinson invite interviews half-undressed and breast-feeding and chose the peculiar format of her memoir, 3/4s written by a pious daughter in order to frame herself as good mother to exonerate herself from the infamy of having been the prince regent’s mistress or was she titillating her reader.

Jonathan Wild (1683-1725) in his prison (1725)

Jack Sheppard (1702-24) just before he was executed as drawn by John Thornhill

Peter Staffel’s paper presented Wild in four ways: what we can know of his life, how he is presented by Defoe, John Gay, and finally Fielding. Wild was a highly successful cutthroat businessman type who as first someone in the prison and then a fence-receiver and thief-taker governed a ring of associates, cunning and cruel, he was unable to recognize the resentment and angers of others (e.g., Sheppard), and himself was terrified of execution and tried to kill himself by poison in order to avoid the abuse (physical too) of the hanging scene. His grave was in fact robbed and the body stolen 3 days later — perhaps by people fascinated by him who thought they could learn about his brain this way. As with Michael Murphy, Mr Staffel showed us the difference between what we know of the actual facts of the man’s ilfe and character, the writer’s texts, and various legends.

One question was how did he achieve such notoriety? Prison had been a step up for him, a place he could organize from, terrible though such places were and despised the people in them in this era, with incarceration not seen as a punishment, but a period of waiting either to be freed or murdered by the state apparatus. Wild became Mary Melliner’s lover, herself an effective brothel madam there; he learned a lot from Hitchen, a master in Newgate and the Old Bailey. Wild kept a ledger, had stolen goods to offer others, was a good interviewer of people, could extract high fees and recognized strong desires for given things and manipulated this into high fees.

Isla Mair as Jenny Diver (Mary Melliner? the 1987 Beggar’s Opera)

We didn’t talk very much about the three texts, all of which are read today, nor was there any time to go into the different realizations of Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, out of Gay, as black farce (Bertold Brecht), as opera (Benjamin Britten). I found myself remembering how Jonathan Miller in a brilliant BBC production in 1987 aided by theatrically effective actors turned the comic material into invigorating satiric bleak tragedy by its close. More interesting perhaps how certain characters and details Mr Staffel had mentioned still turn up in this production

Patricia Routledge and Stratford Johns as Mr And Mrs Peachum (1987 Beggar’s Opera) pour over those central ledgers

For the last session of the day, Eleanor Shevlin’s “Book History, Bibliography and Textual Studies” see comments.


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An imagined portrait of Margaret Woffington’s first interview with theater-owner and manager, John Rich (whose theater harbored many cats is the joke)

Francis Abingdon as Lady Bab in in Burgoyne’s Fair Maid of the Oats by John Hickey

Dear friends and readers,

On and off for the past couple of months, I’ve been reading Felicity Nussbaum’s Rival Queens: Actresses, Performance and the Eighteenth-Century Theater with a view to writing a review for publication in an academic journal on it. When I write reviews, I not only read the book with great care, thinking about it as I go, but (unless I really am an expert in the area or, conversely, when I find I can’t stand the book or the material and will still write briefly on it because I promised to), I read a selection of the materials the author read to write it. In the case of Nussbaum, I was eager to read more than I had. I had read some contemporary biographies of the actresses (e.g., Anne Oldfield) and memoirs by them too (George Anne Bellamy), and a few modern biographies (of Oldfield, of Bellamy, Dora Jordan [Claire Tomalin’s], Hannah Pritchard, Elizabeth Inchbald) and a few essays on and texts either by them or intended for them to act out (Catherine Clive, Sarah Siddons), and also a few general histories, but this was my opportunity to read more. And I did.

I’d like to share some of this with my reader as it’s just fascinating stuff, relevant to our world today in so many ways, but unfortunately I didn’t have the time to write up coherent notes as I went, plus I was partly directed by my reaction to Nussbaum and my task to check her out, see how accurate were her readings and who disagreed with her and why. I chose to write up two because one swallow does not a summer make and if two don’t either, the pair do reveal the tragedy, pain, and ambivalent lives of loss as well as triumph both women lived.


Woffington as Sir Harry Wildair in Farquhar’s The Constant Couple

Margaret Woffington (1720-60) is one of the women Nussbaum focuses on and like other 18th century actresses still remembered for their supposedly exciting sex life and transgressions on stage, it’s not hard to find sites which purport to give a gist of her life and pictures of her on the Net. Unfortunately, like many of these (and Nussbaum too) what is available is filled with falsifying glamor and puffery, which obscure what was Woffington’s experience of life.

The only full-length book that exists is Janet Dunbar’s Peg Woffington and Her World (1968). On one level, it’s a poor book. It’s a story outline of Woffington’s life interspersed with potted biographies of those she worked with, and imagined thoughts she gives them, nothing of which contains any real insight into the characters of the people. What’s also missing is the keen ethical perspective of Mary Nash’s Provoked Wife (a life of Susannah Cibber in the context of her family, era, musical and stage theater).

OTOH, since meager records (playbills, lists of plays performed from memoirs of the era and various documents) and gross bogus history and legend, calumnies that make Woffington into a monstrous sex-made half-prostitute, and recorded silly exaggerations that idolize her are mostly what’s left from Woffington’s life, Dunbar’s book is a unexpectedly sober, respectful and coherent narrative from which one can draw a probable understanding of Woffington’s life.

What else is available? a very few articles which treat Woffington from an author’s agenda-driven point of view (nowadays a favorite is her penchant for cross-dressing); the ODNB biography; A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660–1800, ed. Highfill, Burnim, Langhans (1993); Nussbaum’s chapter in her book and the first writing; and a 1760 biographical memoir (Memoirs of the Celebrated Mrs Woffington). This memoir is disgraceful, a document which testifies to the shameful tone of writer’s mind. Suffice to say that as an adolescent Peg was perhaps “discovered” by a French impresario woman who was looking for talent for fair-ground, and this memoir presents part of this time as Peg, an 11 year old giving herself up to disgusting fellatio and other forms of oral and anal sex to young men out of sheer love of it. The tone of the memoir throughout is crude, leering, voyeuristic.

Margaret Woffington spent her life as an actress living on her own and now and again she lived with different well-known males and she did not attempt to hide this. None of them had the high friends that Anne Oldfield’s first choice did — Arthur Maynwarning was attached to the Queen and high gov’t Whigs. Garrick’s popularity and position did not cut anywhere near that high. Peg really defied many norms: she did not even try to appear chaste or virginal when not married. Like Clive, she seems not to have had any children. Woffington did not weave total lies of improbable virginity and chastity like Elizabeth Farren. She just let her life be seen.

Several times she found herself ousted from her theater group: sometimes from the London group and then she’d quietly turn up in Dublin and then after a while the journey would be reversed (she’d be ousted from Dublin and then be found playing on a London stage). Her specialty was the transvestite role: dressing as a men and playing a man’s role nearly straight, dressing as a man and playing it as a travesty (with her woman’s body emphasized): what we can see in this is this the outsider and perhaps a bisexual or lesbian person. Her one long-time liaison with Garrick is not atypical in that she apparently did want to marry him, but he found her unacceptable as a social choice. Once Margaret educated her sister, Polly, and managed to marry Polly into Walpole’s family (Horace sneered at the man who married the girl) the sister more or less dropped Margaret.

The way Nussbaum treats Woffington’s collusion with the powerful authorities in Ireland (Duke of Dorset) to encourage men to go to war reveals Nussbaum’s agenda: Nussbaum’s goal is to counter those who have said women had no effect on politics. Nussbaum seems not to care what kind of effect. Woffington “influenced the political imaginary of the time.” One famous instance of her pronouncing an epilogue (as a “Female Volunteer”) we know about it because the playbill of Woffington has her dressed as a soldier with a low cut blouse that emphasizes her breasts and a bunch of cloth that shows where man’s phallus would be; she spoke an epilogue which reminds me of WW1 posters urging women to send their sons to fight. Nusssbaum is just all ga-ga about how this shows how important and powerful Woffington was (!). Woffington was then invited to a dinner at an exclusive club with the Duke of Dorset — Dunbar describes this and provides the sycophantic poem Woffington recited, and then quickly tells how not long afterward Woffington was hooted from the stage by an Irish contingent and fled to London. Nussbaum chose Woffington because Woffington was especially known for this kind of “patriotic” cross dressing. For one of her epilogues see comment.

Nussbaum argues such enactments show Woffington bringing together cross-dressing, sexual transgression and patriotism; she was answered by a satirical pamphlet that defended the English soldier against this attack on their masculinity. It dismisses Woffington’s piece as sexual contamination not genuine patriotism. A later tract, Guide to the Stage (1751) maligned Woffington by claiming she rather than Jacobites lures audience “into a clap”.

Woffington apparently spoke another epilogue, one to the Non-Juror (by Cibber) where she appears as feminine and again nags the audience to be English protestants against “vile banditti” from “Church of Rome” (Charles Stuart). She thus distanced herself from Catholicism, critiqued the festering Jacobitism of Scotland, called French “henpecked” and effeminate.

At the time in Dublin Sheridan was playing one of Voltaire’s radical plays Mahomet ou le Fanatisme and Woffington was in it. The audience was heavily Irish Catholic; they cheered for the villain-hero and insisted he re-say his speech. Sheridan was livid at the actor who did this. The next performance Sheridan forbad this. What emerged was the hostility and anger of the audience towards the players who were co-opted by the Anglo-Protestant establishment into doing such a play to flatter them at the same time as they had Woffington (paid her of course and Sheridan) do these “patriotic” epilogues. They booed Woffington and threw eggs at her when she came on stage. Sheridan fled. The theater inside was smashed. The theater was fixed and within a few months everything but to normal but Woffington found herself not appreciated by anyone after all and returned to London.

Nussbaum does present this but as a triumph by not telling us the details, not telling us the realities of what Woffington was enacting and for which side. Does it not matter? Again I cannot see how this is admirable if that’s what Nussbaum wants me to see. I see an actress maligned and castigated, doing reprehensible kinds of urging for money in clothes that make her body a salacious joke. Not that Dunbar is any better, for she does not mention the true or full context; the reader has got to be politically aware, knowledgeable him or herself to understand fully what is happening.

There is at this time nothing written about Woffington that conveys her reality, that tells the politics of it with any humanity or decent values and relates it to our time as I have just done. I suppose it’s in no one’s interests but perhaps the Irish who however will today have a nationalist agenda anyway.

Margaret died young (perhaps a heart attack while on stage) because she ceaselessly worked. People who’ve studied her playbills mention how she seems hardly ever to have taken off. Night after night ceaselessly.

She did make money, enough to support her probably illiterate and very low-in-class mother in Ireland. Surprisingly Nussbaum does agree openly with the earlier biographers which have Woffinton the daughter of a bricklayer and laundry-peddlar woman. Woffington bought a nice house in Twickenham area, Teddington. Several times like Clive she found herself tricked and pressured into taking a much lower salary and she refused. She never wrote defenses of herself. I assume she was not sufficiently educated. In fact we have hardly any writing by her about herself.

Nussbaum presents a version of Woffington’s life which is all success and power and money and achievement. Nussbaum is of the idolizing school. She omits what Dunbar presents under the wraps of conventional dullard speech: such as for example, that Owen M’Swiney, a Signor Angelo, and later in life a Colonel Caesar functioned as her protector-males (M-Swiney and Caesar probably capable of the necessary thug behavior) from other thugs who might and would attack a woman living alone. From my reading of Anne Halkett’s memoir and other 17th and 18th century women who lost their respectability and had no family or friends or connections to support them (who would have to be answered to), I know a woman living alone was continually at risk for any bully male to break in and try to harass and rape her.

She apparently suffered a stroke while playing Rosalind in As You Like It; she retired to her hard-won house, a villa in Teddington where she was cared for by Colonel Caesar for her last three years.

My favorite picture of Woffington F. Haytley’s as Mistress Ford (from Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor). I fancy her courage and intelligence shines through:


Mrs Abingdon as Miss Prue in Congreve’s Love for Love by Joshua Reynolds (1771)

Again there is no good modern biography, a few articles which push an agenda; the ODNB and the Highfill, Burnim and Langhans Biographical Dictionary; Nussbaum’s chapter and an earlier biography, this one written in 1888 (The Life of Mrs Abingdon) – which is however not bad. Like Dunbar’s life of Woffington, this 1888 life of Abingdon provides an outline, some imagined suppositions, and is based on documentary evidence, including this time a revealing series of letters between Garrick and Abingdon, which letters show them to have had high quarrels and frequent bickering.

Frances Abingdon (1737-1815) also rose from very poor people, spent a period as a young girl surviving and promoting herself in whatever way she could, and slowly took on distinctive roles: in Abingdon’s case, they were often a strong, cool, guarded fashionable woman. She became rich men’s mistresses more manipulatively, and used dress as a costume to distance herself from others. She wanted people to forget her origins. She quit the stage more than once. Like Woffington, forced out of London, she went to Dublin and unlike Woffington had a unqualified success monetarily and from the point of view of her reputation. Unlike Woffington, she got two men to leave her big legacies and retired. She was not short lived either as she didn’t exhaust herself the way Woffington had.

From the 1888 biography a complex woman who dressed the way she did out of intense pride emerges. The comic roles she took were quite different from Clive’s (hoyden, chambermaid) or Oldfield (aristocratic witty lady); she took on middling women who were super-elegant and highly intelligent. Her intense engagement with such roles was the result of her perpetually beating back her background to show how she was as good as any one else. The facade became her protection.

About 2/3s the way through the biography the anonymous biographer suddenly dumps a huge cache of letters between Garrick & Abingdon on the reader. They are mind-bending. However corrected, they read as real. Abingdon was continually taking offense, tirelessly defensive, ever accusing Garrick, paranoic some might say. If he wanted control, strong respect from her, and profit, she was tremendously touchy and probably was often slighted. They fight over each iota of status, monetary gain or loss continually. She quit several times. Abingdon’s constant complaints, anger, go beyond something pragmatic, well beyond. She was hurt and angry from within from her experience of life.

She paid the one husband she married to stay away: his jealousy reminds me of the Frenchman who beat his actress wife to death: it’s not sexual or even plain jealousy of her success; it’s something more dangerous; he cannot bear that his wife should do better than he since for him too the rest of the world was despising him. Perhaps that was their initial bond. She too had many epilogues written for her and these do provide a fascinating take on her which somehow emanates from her even if she didn’t write them. (I reprint a typical one in a comment.)

For a narrative life once she gets successful the 1888 biographer gives us the gist of each of her famous roles, then little paragraphs about the play’s production, then a contemporary review and then we move onto the next famous role. And after all what were her waking hours but these? It’s wisdom to make this the central text rather than the marginal love and sex stories that occurred in the interstices of time or even her social support network — fragile without the legacies she got from her two lovers. It’s revealing that Mrs Abingdon called herself Frances and made it stick. Not Fanny. I see in that her intense desire for respect.

The most interesting thing Nussbaum tells is that Abingdon was “reputed to have been a servant to a French milliner in Cockspur Street where she learned dressmaking and design.” The actresses were supposed to get their own costumes. Nussbaum suggests the rumors of prostitution in youth might have come from her having been a milliner (here she resorts to old-fashioned language: milliners the “prey of unsavory men,” regarded as morally suspect!). Abingdon would know how to make all sorts of articles of clothing, what was liked when it came to her to commission clothes for others once she rose to have a good salary and fine clothes herself. I remember that George Anne Bellamy mentions sponsoring a milliner to go to France to learn the art of making clothing of all sorts.

Abingdon’s epilogues bring out her role as an icon of fashion. She combined a material milliner with lady of quality she aspired to be. She was adroit in the use of accessories, like fans, pins, flowers (as a girl selling flowers she was known as “Nosegay Fan”). Rather than asserting sexual power through body anatomy she manipulated accessories. The biographer of Elizabeth Inchbald and Sarah Siddons wrote that Abingdon commanded space. Nussbaum insists that Abingdon was not trivialized and lists her famous roles: Widow Bellmore, The Way to Keep Him; Lady Bab in The Maid of Oaks, Mrs Candour in School for Scandal. Abingdon combined a nostalgic or traditional femininity with an avante-garde/modern femininism.

Abingdon did dressed just spectacularly jewelled and overdressed (she wears Satin as Prue), got up as a kind of Madame de Pompadour. Abingdon broke with a tradition of generic type dressing and when she could dressed individually and sumptuously for each character; we see these outfits immortalized in paintings which do justice to her costume. A contemporary is quoted saying that Abingdon was consulted as a physician, paid as an artist, people of fashion treat her as an equal (the 1888 biography, p 232-33). Other women were copied this way: Anna Cartley, Woffington. I remember that Pritchard came from family of staymakers, costumers for stage, said to be consultant to Queen Charlotte; the Pritchards had a warehouse.

I remember reading in Bellamy’s autobiography that she lost a wardrobe worth hundreds of pounds in New Theater at Glasgow; ladies of Edinburgh loaned her more than 40: “some new … as well as very rich” Nussbaum brings in Bellamy’s intense quarrel with Elizabeth Furnival over Bellamy’s outfit to be Cleopatra, which ended in outrageous insults. Furnival stole clothes for Octavia that Bellamy intended for herself as Cleopatra; seamstress fell on her, Bellamy complained to Sheridan.

Nussbaum wants us to believe that Abingdon “mobilized nation’s fashion industry.” One thinks of Bette Davis who in Now Voyager becomes beautiful and sexy by dressing glamorously. Carole Lombard movies were sales pitches for clothes in the Neiman Marcus mode.

What I’d end on was how Abingdon got writers to rewrite Jacobean and Caroline plays for her (by Fletcher, by Massinger) so as to present earlier hard types, strong, abstract female characters, who (if in the end humiliated) give as good as they get for most of the play, e.g., The Capricious Lady out of The Scornful Lady; an updated version of an updated version of the heroine in Rule a Wife and Have a Wife. Abingdon wanted to enact fantasies of power and one of the famous portraits of her (by Reynolds) comes from her role in the farce, The Sultan where we are asked to take seriously that she reasons the Sultan into changing the nature of his relationship with women and his court, (absurd) Orientalist fantasy. Nussbaum says she “reforms the seraglio, erases erotic power of tragic Eastern woman, and replaces it with comic female sway.” She forgets how the play teaches us to despise the eunuch. Well, one can’t have everything.

My favorite story of Abingdon: Samuel Johnson liked her so much that he sat in the pit to watch a play he could neither see or hear very well. Boswell pictures Johnson sitting there gravely and attentively.


The interested reader is invited also to look at my Anne Oldfield as actress, and foremother poet-writer blog on Catherine Clive; and what I managed of an etext edition of Bellamy’s autobiography before I discovered this 6 volume autobiography is readily available on ECCO. These women I also bond with. I’ve put some notes on Susannah Arne Cibber as revealed by Mary Nash’s Provoked Wife and briefly defended Sarah Kemble Siddons in my comments too.


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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.


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.


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Remedios Varos (1908-63), Luna

Dear all,

Here is my third report of a session at the recent East Central 18th Century conference in Bethlehem. I’ve summarized Devoney Looser’s lecture on Burney’s Memoirs of Dr Burney, and a session on four little known 18th century gothic texts, and a session on the treatment of Catholicism in literature and politics (Burke’s Ireland and France). For tonight I have two excellent papers and a lively candid discussion afterwards to report in a session where all chairs were taken (and it was not a small room with few chairs) but where all but one person were women. Apparently a topic with “mom” in the title scared away all but the most courageous of men. Three papers were listed, but only two were given.

First up was Laura Engels’s “Phantasmic Performances: Gothic Maternity in Mary Robinson’s Life of Mrs Robinson Written by Herself (1801). Ms Engels began by saying that Robinson had an early marriage, was an actress, novelist, poetess, and had a number of affairs after her liaison with the Prince of Wales, but she kept that single brief incident alive as her dominant experience for 20 years. In the era, motherhood was seen as irretrievably connected to the body, but was a legitimate role in the era; and Wollstonecraft and Siddons present themselves as private and domestic to counterbalance their socially iconoclastic experiences. Robinson, though did not present herself as a mother to counterbalance the other parts of her life, but rather simply to present herself as a mother briefly. Otherwise she foregrounded her seductive qualities and obscured her real body. [We can see this in portraits of her by Joshua Reynolds (where she is elusive and sexual) and Thomas Gainsborough, where she does seem to be spectrally sitting in a wood by a dog.]

Her depictions of mothering women show them vulnerable, powerless, hurting, in trouble. There was her mother whose husband (and Mary’s father) left her mother after 9 years of marriage to travel to America; he returned and took up a mistress and continued to dominate her mother and herself anyway. There was her teacher and mentor in boarding school, Maribel Lorrington (?) who she saw years later as a beggar in a torn dress, penniless, disfigured, the ghost of herself. She also saw destitution, aging, derangement in fiction connected to aging women and mothers, which made her not want to be a victim of her passions and desires. Still, to self-fashion herself as a mother in public felt impossible. During the time she was married and expecting her daughter, she presents herself as continually sewing clothes for her child, and kept out of public life. Her husband (to whom her Mrs Bennet-like mother married her off) was a gambler, had other women and she ended in debtor’s prison with him for a while. Yet at the same time she invokes her mother as the most important person in her life, and forced to leave her mother she at first feels powerless. She was eventually forced to survive on her own, and heavily pregnant, and breast-feeding her baby, she went on the stage to act. There is guilt over whether she can act and be a good mother at the same time. She was herself a strong woman who played many roles, had — as we can see in this depiction and her poetry — her own identity and views.

George Dance, Mary Darby Robinson (1793)

Ms Engels wondered if this presentation of herself was a bid for sympathy, and/or she was exhibiting herself, was making herself into an image offered up for voyeurism (desire on the part of a spectator) or acting “in your face.” After this short representation of her earlier adult life, her daughter finished her memoir and in effect Robinson becomes a kind of ghost. She gradually disappeared from public view in her life. We owe what we have of her works to her daughter, Mary Elizabeth Robinson, and like her own mother, she became the central influence of her daughter’s life.

Laura did mention that by contrast in the Victorian period mothers (nursing and otherwise) were shown as strong angels.

J. D. Watson (the illustrator), “The Aspen”, in Good Words, a 1863 issue


Marilyn Francis then spoke from her paper, “When Will These Discoveries End:” Gothic Motherhood in Radcliffe’s The Italian. Ms Francis began by saying that The Italian ends soon after Ellena discovers her great friend and mentor, Olivia, is her mother. She quoted a critics who argued that absent motherhood in the female gothic allows the text to become a kind of bildingsroman; while the mother is waiting to be found and rescued by the child (often the mother is incarcerated and must be set free), the child’s story unfolds. The child’s story ends when the mother is revealed. Some scholars go so far as to say that mothers just have no story; the absence of a mother makes a story possible.

Ms Francis countered this with the self-evident truth that real mothers did and do have stories before, during, and after their lives with children, and in The Italian we have four active maternal figures in the novel. Bianca is Ellena’s chaperone who dies early in the novel; she protected Ellena and encouraged her relationship with Vivaldi. She tried to tell Ellena her background and that her mother was alive. The Marchesa di Vivaldi (the hero’s mother) tries to have Ellena kidnapped, put permanently in a convent, and is in collusion with the evil monk, Schedoni who is said to be Ellena’s uncle [but as I recall turns out to be her father so his desire for her and attempt at sexual coercion/rape at one point is incestuous]. The Marchesa thinks her son way above Ellena, and says of herself she “loses the mother” when she acts decisively (usually to be vicious). Only mothers who deviate from passivity and goodness get to have stories? In the novel Vivaldi never learns how complicit in evil his mother was and sorrows for her. The abbess is a third figure who Olivia defies to help her daughter.

Olivia is hiddenly a figure as major in the novel as Schedoni. She tries to teach Olivia how to have a mask, how to appear not to fight and yet fight. Olivia’s own story is kept opaque and untraceable and she relinquishes her daughter as soon as she is unmasked. We are to feel Olivia will be haunted by the memory of her daughter and loss of her daughter for the rest of her life.

Ms Francis suggested this paradigm was typical of more than gothic stories. Repeatedly in fiction mothers leave only traces of their stories behind, whch are waiting to be discovered but never are. Could it be that children don’t want to know, that the reality of women’s emotions and lives are erased because it’s too threatening to the society’s structure so the conventional narrative insists on giving us a child’s (unacknowledged) perspective?

Remedios Varos, A Paradise of Cats


The discussion afterwards was marvellous and wide-ranging. We (many people in the room, including me) kept it up for the rest of the time. Alas, I find I didn’t (or couldn’t because of my problems with hand-eye coordination and slowness) take much down. Scattered comments I got were the remark that in modern novels the mother’s story is deferred until near the end and then embedded in an inset story (say like Byatt’s Possession where Christabel LaMotte’s story is told in flashbacks or through a packet of letters). There is great distress in a child even when grown-up when the mother is discovered to have broken taboos and/or given the child up (I instanced Daniel Deronda’s mother Vashti). We discussed how women collude in the silencing of their presences; they keep quiet to protect others (society will attack them in any case). It was suggested that reticence has been enforced over private real lives until recently and that little is gained for those who speak or those who know by telling — except release. Things don’t change for the better for women. Revealingly, pregnancy endows women with authority and strength (a kind of substitute for a phallus) so perhaps pregnancy is erased because a patriarchy will not allow women to appear stronger than men. Through pregnancy she does transcend (by creating life).

We talked of how actresses present a chaste image where it seems they are not married and have no children when no such thing; Emma Thompson is one who presents herself nowadays as a spinster or unmarried independent woman when she has two children and has long been married to Greg Wise; in the 18th century actresses similarly invented narratives which made their lives closer to the conventional heroine images they embodied. The conversation slide into discussing women politicians and the intense hostility to strong public women like Hilary Clinton. People also talked of their own experiences as mothers and daughters.

Finally, we seem to have returned to 18th century icons, and discussed Marie Antoinette who Robinson wrote a poem to and sympathized much with as did many other women of the era (see my blog “how little we can know of her”); she had a story of her own all right and tried to model a mother role too, and was savagely punished for it. But today too women are drawn to her, to the stories of her and her women (as in Adieu a la Reine by Chantal Thomas)

From Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006)

Kirsten Dunst as the young girl

The revolution approaches and she dons a more somber (darker colored) outfit

I end on a Swiftian poem by Mary Robinson, written perhaps as she looked out the window, no longer able to walk

PAVEMENT slipp’ry, people sneezing,
Lords in ermine, beggars freezing;
Titled gluttons dainties carving,
Genius in a garret starving.

Lofty mansions, warm and spacious;
Courtiers clinging and voracious;
Misers scarce the wretched heeding;
Gallant soldiers fighting, bleeding.

Wives who laugh at passive spouses;
Theatres, and meeting-houses;
Balls, where simp’ring misses languish;
Hospitals, and groans of anguish.

Arts and sciences bewailing;
Commerce drooping, credit failing;
Placemen mocking subjects loyal;
Separations, weddings royal.

Authors who can’t earn a dinner;
Many a subtle rogue a winner;
Fugitives for shelter seeking;
Misers hoarding, tradesmen breaking.

Taste and talents quite deserted;
All the laws of truth perverted;
Arrogance o’er merit soaring;
Merit silently deploring.

Ladies gambling night and morning;
Fools the works of genius scorning;
Ancient dames for girls mistaken,
Youthful damsels quite forsaken.

Some in luxury delighting;
More in talking than in fighting;
Lovers old, and beaux decrepid;
Lordlings empty and insipid.

Poets, painters, and musicians;
Lawyers, doctors, politicians:
Pamphlets, newspapers, and odes,
Seeking fame by diff’rent roads.

Gallant souls with empty purses;
Gen’rals only fit for nurses;
School-boys, smit with martial spirit,
Taking place of vet’ran merit.

Honest men who can’t get places,
Knaves who shew unblushing faces;
Ruin hasten’d, peace retarded;
Candour spurn’d, and art rewarded.

A smart woman, a poem of the “universal pursuit of the mundane and amoral aggrandizement. She lived hard and died fairly young, badly crippled from rheumatic fever. The Prince was pressured into giving her a pension, and when her last lover with whom she travelled around Europe deserted, she lived her last 8 years with her daughter, supporting them by writing in lodgings. A lonely difficult existence whose solace was her daughter.

And one last gothic image, Leonor Fini’s (1908-97) Red Vision, an archetypal image of a girl child looking up at a protective maternal vision:


There was yet one more session on Friday: “Marriage and the Family in the Eighteenth Century” and that super one I’ll tell about in my next blog on the conference.


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