Posts Tagged ‘Walter Scott’

Andrew Marr on Winston Churchill: a superlative treatment of Churchill as a painter, showing, explaining, contextualizing many of the paintings:

One of Churchill’s paintings

What unites the best of popular documentaries is the persona of the narrator, of the person at center who is making the series or hour: we delight in the witticisms of Marr, the costumes of Worseley, the profoundity of thought of Simon Schama, Amanda Vickery’s feminist point of view, Mary Beard’s compassionate personality and her bike, her long hair, her refusal to dress to please men, Michael Moore shouting economic truth to power (he goes about nagging and exposing capitalist crooks).

The particular pleasure of these documentaries with favored character-personalities at the center is how much I like to watch and re-watch them. Far more than a fictional narrative movie.

During this profoundly worrying summer when it appears that a minority party, the Republicans, as headed by a criminal liar, is readying up to prevent the majority of US citizens from voting or having their votes counted lest they rightly throw out of office these people who are doing all they can to inflict harm, take away economic security, ruin the environment, make warring arms deals & money with the worst dictators around the world (consider 150,000+ Americans dead in 5 months, and a devastated economy), not to omit destroying even the ancient post office, it would seem understandable that no one notices in print the prevalence of documentaries in on-line movie theaters.

Or on YouTube — many a nowadays virtual conference places part of their presentations on YouTube. Comedians, people lecturing on areas of concern to subgroups of people (Tony Attwood and Temple Grandin on Aspergers and autism), universities sharing lectures, to which are nowadays added thousands of people coming online to cheer one another up: reading whole novels, reading poetry, playing instruments, doing dungeons and dragons. I’m there too with my “The Modernity of Trollope’s Last Chronicle of Barset.

Let’s admit among all this outpouring, some are inevitably very poor (if well-meant), many banal (there needs no ghostly presence come from an ipad to tell us this), more troublingly, some made by crazed fantasists (QAnon, people who hate others and encourage hatred and violence), and political groups, nowadays many fascistic (see above) determined to spread misinformation, to screw up democratic elections.

More commonly as on popular TV stations, some are superficial, gimmicky (this is true of too many of Lucy Worseley’s — exceptions are Jane Austen At Home and Suffragettes), disappointingly insidiously right-wing under a patina of liberal wit (alas too often Marr himself in for example his History of Modern Britain), too compromising (Spaceship Earth), too careful, guarded, worried lest they give offense (“Just one of those things:” on Ella Fitzgerald), which seems odd as the makers cannot really believe they will gain a large audience outside those sympathetic to their subject.

It is also true the professional or paid-for movies are probably there because the movie-theater operators are holding off on their movie “block-busters” for when all the millions of people are (it is imagined) to begin to return to going out to crowded movie-theaters once again. I would not hold my breath.  (Maybe 2022?  but not in the same way.)

Yet many of these are within the terms they set out to cover, on their own terms, remarkably good, excellent — as the above by the famous BBC interviewer, journalist, once strong man of the left, and now a centrist maker of documentaries, Andrew Marr about Winston Churchill’s incessant hobby and apparently real achievement as a painter of effective contemporary pictures. These (along with online university level courses when they are good, e.g., Future Learn) are the silver lining in a dark and frightening time.

What unites the best of documentaries is the persona of the narrator, of the person at center who is making the series or hour: we delight in the witticisms of Marr, the costumes of Worseley, the profoundity of thought of Simon Schama, Amanda Vickery’s feminist point of view, Mary Beard’s compassionate personality and her bike, her long hair, her refusal to dress to please men, Michael Moore shouting economic truth to power (he goes about nagging and exposing capitalist crooks)

Not all are this way: it’s the distinction of Frederick Wiseman to remain absent from his severely controlled documentaries. They are famous for nothing much happening at intervals except the rain or quiet daily life. In Central Park, a duck goes upside down in the water to capture a fish and eat it. Wiseman, let me say it, makes genius level films with serious insightful critiques of the way organizations are at the heart of reality. Cathy Come Home (Tony Garnett), Culloden (Peter Watkins), and other British radical political films are unforgettable. When the subject is a revered or political hero, the documentary maker may make him or herself secondary. So in the documentaries about John Lewis, Malcolm X. Ada DuVernay wants us to pay attention to what the realities of African-American life have been since the inadequacy of the 13th amendment, how it has been undermined almost from the very beginning. But I think the most popular type documentaries, the ones where the documentary maker keeps making them are those where the documentary maker is our chief character, whom we are made to delight in

I’ve written about a few of both types these over the years: Amanda Vickery’s At Home with the Georgians some years ago; more recently Mary Beard’s excursions into classical history across Europe on her bike. John Lewis: Good Trouble. But you can’t do better if you are looking to cheer yourself with a realistic (not fatuous) slice of life than Ceyda Torun’s Kedi: Cats of Istanbul. All three women. Women do documentaries: I don’t say they prevail in numbers, but their woman’s point of view is not the usual rare minority. Lucy Worseley is a case in point.

Beyond calling your attention to the numerous good documentaries available at a single click for not much money or for free (once you’ve paid your electricity and internet computer bill) I mean to alert the reader of this blog to a couple of Marr’s lesser known documentaries about literature because they are very good, and may serve to divert the viewer’s mind from the over-arching calamity (Trump winning again, or stealing the election and then turning the US into a deeply dangerous rotten brutal fascist dictatorship) while leaving us with some relevant knowledge-food for thought and perspectives.

In his wider ranging work (like telling us “the history of the world”!), he often slides by serious and unexamined art. He has a ready wit with quips that can dismiss Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in a memorable (if misleading phrase — for the sake of the joke) but in these two he is sincere, earnest even, taking us (and himself) back to the younger man who meant to make the world better and acted at times bravely, with some integrity. That’s why Noam Chomsky bothered to chide him.


But in these on literary and art topics and with enough time given over, he is superb.  He is himself by birth a Scotsman (born in Glasgow).

I treat first (in time) his Great Scots, a 2014 three-part series where he explores some of the problematic aspects of Scottish identity and political and geographical history through meditations on four male Scottish writers and one English: Part One is on James Boswell, whose work cannot be separated from Samuel Johnson, and their famous tour to through Scotland to the Hebrides. Part Two is mostly on Walter Scott with Robert Burns brought in as a strong contrast. Burns, Marr rightly says, was a political radical who had to suppress himself, or communicate indirectly to protect what income he had (Burns nonetheless died at 37, partly from hard work and exhaustion, poverty) while Scott was politically high Tory and very much a unionist, though endlessly trying to do justice to specifically Scottish culture, sensibility and the old Jacobite cause (at least explain it).

The series was made in 2014, just before the referendum on devolution and it’s clear that Marr is on the side of “no” (stay, not leave England) in Part Three which he devotes to Hugh MacDiarmid (born Christopher Murray Grieve): while Marr presents the beauty, depth of thought and interest of MacDiarmid’s poetry fairly and with high praise, he treats MacDiarmid’s separatist point of view as a fantasy which for a long time was not taken seriously by those who read him. All three hours have beautiful photography, the sections of the books read aloud are done brilliantly by actors and readers, we are taken to the truly appropriate interesting places. I knew nothing of MacDiarmind before I watched this hour and now feel I do understand something of the man; I know a great deal about Boswell & Johnson, Burns & Scott (I have read far too much Scott over my life — especially in my teens and early 20s) and can vouch that they are presented with real insight.

I do wish he had included a couple of women, at least mentioned one (?), and was hoping (when I learned of the series) for a survey, but I admit his choices are well taken and by sticking to three primarily he treats the writings of these men in depth. I wish even more that these were online for American viewers. At best there are podcasts, commentaries, and if you are lucky, you may find them reprinted on DVDS in sets of Marr’s work on Amazon at UK.

More recently (2016) he has made a quietly brilliant three part analysis and feelingful projection of the popular subgenres of the novels he identifies as Sleuths, Sorcerers, and Spies. I rejoice that these are on YouTube, though not transferable

Marr’s persona comes across more strongly in these three than his series on Scotland or his political series: he portrays himself as decidedly un-aristocratic, far from a member of any elite or academia, a “smart-aleck” who is, if not anti-intellectual (he cannot present himself that way as he is so patently perceptive and analytic), at least not a self-satisfied public one. The subtext of these is a kind of vehement anti-snobbery: he wants to counter anyone who looks down on these “paperback heroes” (and heroines) and their best-selling authors to show that their books mirror the eras and worlds they wrote in and bring home to the alert viewer their deeper problems and anxieties and needs. He presents himself as uncovering the “rules” each genre follows religiously.

Yes, they are formulaic. It may be said he hams his material up, but the result is fun, and his interviews with working novelists and quotation from those no longer literally living are of real interest. As this is more popular entertainment, I cannot find a serious review — so perhaps he failed at his seeming aim. Not so, when you can watch them over and over.


How to close? Myself I’m a lover of Scots literature (as the reader to this blog and my Austen Reveries must know), went to Edinburgh for the equivalent of a honeymoon, and have visited Scotland now three times, once all the way to Inverness and up to the Hebrides (across the way, still the mainland on a bus). One of my favorite 19th century novelists is Margaret Oliphant. In my studies of historical novels and romance, I often find the authors whose books I so enjoy also wrote in this distinctively different genre (these thrillers are until very recently usually masculinist even when women write them) and try to understand the relationship between these genres in book and movie form.

My most recent reading for sheer pleasure and interest has been Nancy Brysson Morrison’s The Gowk Storm, to learn the truth of a still wrongly maligned destroyed woman, Margaret Macaulay’s The Prisoner of St Kilda (the true story of the indeed unfortunate Lady Grange, shocking even today), Elizabeth Taylor Russell’s Tomorrow (it takes place on an island off Denmark — in the same kind of edge-marginalized culture).

But from years ago and more recently, I am a strong admirer of Liz Lochhead, a brilliant poet, playwright, polemicist too. So (as my title promised), first two poems by Liz Lochhead:


& just when our maiden had got
good & used to her isolation
stopped daily expecting to be rescued,
had come to almost love her tower,
along comes This Prince
with absolutely
all the wrong answers.
Of course she had not been brought up to look for
originality or gingerbread
so at first she was quite undaunted
by his tendency to talk in strung-together cliches.
Just hang on and we’ll get you out of there!
he hollered like a fireman in some soap opera
when she confided her plight (the old
hag inside etc. & and how trapped she was);
well, it was corny but
he did look sort of gorgeous
axe and all.
So there she was humming and pulling
all the pins out of her chignon,
throwing him all the usual lifelines
till, soon, he was shimmying in & out
every day as though
he owned the place, bringing her
the sex manuals & skeins of silk
from which she was meant, eventually,
to weave the means of her own escape.
All very well & good, she prompted,
but when exactly?
She gave him till
well past the bell on the timeclock.
She mouthed at him, hinted,
she was keener than a TV quizmaster
that he should get it right.
I’ll do everything in my power, he intoned, but
the impossible (she groaned) might
take a little longer. He grinned.
She pulled her glasses off.
All the better
to see you with my dear? he hazarded.
She screamed, cut off her hair.
Why, you’re beautiful? he guessed tentatively.
No, No, No! she
shrieked & stamped her foot so
hard it sank six cubits through the floorboards.
I love you? he came up with
as she finally tore herself in two.

from Part Three of Lochhead’s The Grimm Sisters collection: ‘Hags and Maidens’

Everybody’s Mother

Of course everybody’s mother always and so on…

Always never
loved you enough
or too smothering much.

Of course you were the Only One, your
a machine
that shat out siblings, listen

everybody’s mother
was the original Frigid-
aire Icequeen clunking out
the hardstuff in nuggets, mirror-
slivers and ice-splinters that’d stick
in your heart.

Absolutely everybody’s mother
was artistic when she was young.

Everybody’s mother
was a perfumed presence with pearls, remote
white shoulders when she
bent over in her ball dress
to kiss you in your crib.

Everybody’s mother slept with the butcher
for sausages to stuff you with.

Everybody’s mother
mythologised herself. You got mixed up
between dragon’s teeth and blackmarket stockings.

she failed to give you
Positive Feelings
about your own sorry
sprouting body (it was a bloody shame)

but she did
sit up all night sewing sequins
on your carnival costume

so you would have a good time

and she spat
on the corner of her hanky and scraped
at your mouth with sour lace until you squirmed

so you would look smart

And where
was your father all this time?
at the war, or in his office, or any-
way conspicuous for his
Absence, so

what if your mother did
float around above you
big as a barrage balloon
blocking out the light?

Nobody’s mother can’t not never do nothing right.

And then she is online too — at the Edinburgh Festival:


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To know what you prefer, instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive — Robert Louis Stevenson.

Claire Randall (Catrionia Balfe) arriving at Inverness (Outlander 2015, 1st episode, opening)

Rhyme of a Journey from London to Edinburgh (1914)

Farewell to one city
a dawning of light
and hail to another
at fall of the night

On in the North steams
triumphant the train
ceaselessly grinding
a rhythmic refrain

Meadows fly past and
a luminous sheet
of wind-rippled water,
a grimy back street.

Stark rows of houses
break up the pale sky,
a jangle of coal-trucks,
a station passed by.

Cast the old thoughts that
troubled your mind
to drown in that river
left gleaming behind,

new ones come stirring
with live young wings
from rhythmical power
and swift-running things.

There’s a cathedral
in mist: as a dream
it has vanished, and slowly
we slacken and steam
into that station
whose girders of might
curve upwards, transfigured
in columns of light.

No stopping! No staying!
mad demons of speed
have boarded the engine
are hissing their greed.

Sudden lurch forward
and once more away
and see, we are racing
the dying of day!

A bridge we are crossing
with thunderous swerve;
left and right flashes
a river’s gold curve;

Glittering windows
rise tier upon tier
held steeped in the sunset
what city is here?

To twilight, to darkness
and night has begun
The miles of our journey
ae nearly outrun

Waken, wan travellers,
Look! very high
there stands the great castle
along the dark sky …
— Dorothy Seward Walton (When Evening Comes in the City, 1934)

Dear friends and readers,

A couple of nights ago I went to an enjoyable, informative and perceptive (what more could you want?) lecture at the Smithsonian museum on Robert Louis Stevenson’s life and writing by Stephen Arata, the professor editing the complete works of RLS (39 volumes and still going): towards the end telling us of Stevenson in the South Sea Islands and how gradually he began to write deeply sympathetically to the native cultures, in effect from a post-colonial critical standpoint, Prof Arata said Stevenson wrote that the Scots people were peculiarly well-situated to write from a global perspective. That might seem contradictory, given their half an island is mostly rock, not arable for farming, their intellectual “world” city small (half of it very old), but if you think about their relationship to England as a nearby colony, the massacre at Culloden and the enforced diaspora, and how they set forth to become colonialists themselves as well as subaltern people, it makes sense. More to the point: they write this way.

John Singer Sergeant (1856-1925), Robert Louis Stevenson (1887)

There is no coming back … on the impetuous stream of life. And we must all set our pocket-watches by the clock of fate. There is a headlong, forthright tide, that bears away man with his fancies like a straw, and runs fast in time and space — Robert Louis Stevenson.

Last summer I was working on a paper on Trollope from a post-colonialist standpoint; that meant reading about and works written in, and films from Australia as context; for Charlotte Smith this summer I am on the same wave length of a perspective, but the focus texts are two of her novels partly in Scotland, Ethelinde; or the Recluse of the Lake (early novel, global in reach) and The Young Philosopher (last long fiction, ends in America), and whose affinities with Scottish women poets and novelists I wrote about this past fall, I’ve turned to Scotland. This a perfect excuse for immersion (wallowing is the more apt term) in the first season of Outlander (I’m one of those cut off from the present second season until it comes out on DVD), whose motifs and characters are uncannily like those of the second volume of Smith’s Young Philosopher (Englishwoman elopes to Highlands with Scottish laird, abducted, threatened with rape, saved in the nick of time &c&c), but that’s late at night.


Daylight hours, I’ve read Margaret Oliphant’s the Ladies Lindores and her Autobiography, Scottish women’s poetry, and Margaret Atwood’s poetical sequence, the Journals of Susannah Moodie, Elizabeth Bohls’s Romantic Literature and Post-colonial studies (no less than two chapters on Scotland), some wonderful essays on Scottish women novelists in Lyndsay Luncan, Carla Sassi (&c&c&)’s Re-visioning Scotland, on Nan Shepherd, Christian Isobel Johnstone (nearly contemporary with Jane Austen, would you believe, on war and nationalism), all of which I heartily recommend. I moved into male Scottish writers’ texts too: I’ve just finished what might be the first English novel set partly in India, Scott’s The Surgeon’s Daughter (one of 3 novellas called Canongate Chronicles), and am now thinking of adding to my love of Stevenson’s essays, short stories, and travel books (Travels on a Donkey, The Amateur Emigrant), some of his South Sea Islands writing. I am most interested in the intersection of feminist insights with a post-colonial perspective on structuring of the characters’ experience otherwise. I’ll write about Stevenson and Atwood in a separate blogs dedicated to them alone.

From Atwood’s Journals of Susannah Moodie (an book which is itself literally a work of art)

Free fall
is falling but at least it’s
free. I don’t even know
whether I jumped or was pushed,
but it hardly matters now
I’m up here. No wings
or net but for an instant
anyway there’s a great
view: the sea,
a line of surf, brown cliffs
tufted with scrub, your upturned
face a white zero.
I wish I knew
whether you’ll catch or watch.
— From Atwood, “Small Poems for the Winter Solstice,” True Stories (1981)

Tonight I thought I’d confine myself to sharing a little bit of Oliphant, Scott, a third poem (from An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets, ed Catherine Kerrigan) and a few remarks from the essays I’ve read, not to omit suggestive stills and words from Outlander.


Edward Lear, Civita Castellan (1844) — in her extraordinarily genuine account of her life as a writer, supporting her own and brother’s children, with her three boys and beloved Margaret (at age 9) dying before her, she tells of her travels to Italy and around Europe, a classical cosmopolitan landscape emerges

I loved Oliphant’s The Ladies Lindores and am anxious to read the sequel, The (later) life of Lady Carr. It’s a mix of a sensible and saturnine meditative insightful text (recalling Trollope repeatedly) within a deeply Scottish world from a quietly feminist standpoint. The story-line is complicated, with (like Scott’s) several divagating turns, a back-story set of characters who emerge to become the central figures, and then cannot forget back stories we never see dramatized. We begin with a great Scottish house, Dalrulzian whom John Erskine, a young Scotsman who has been brought up to be English, has come to live. For years Robert Lindores, a younger son living on a limited income in a cheap French spa, suddenly inherits a title and another grand house in the neighborhood, and proceeds to try to make his two daughters and son’s lives the means for him now to become well-connected, in power. The most memorable story dramatizes how he bullies his sensitive daughter Lady Caroline Lindores into marrying Pat Torrance, a man who ferociously bullies, mocks, and terrifies her. His wife’s values remain humane, decent, and she is appalled by the changes in him, but years of passivity, her real dependence, and not having values to oppose his with, has not the strength of character to oppose him. The third Lindores lady is the wry, sceptical Lady Edith, who escapes his Net, just and marries Erksine. A son, Lord Rintoul, by accident causes Pat Torrance to topple over a cliff, and Rolls, Erskine’s servant ends up confessing, thinking he is protecting his master, Erskine. Lady Car is enabled to marry Beaufort, the man she met at the spa, and has dreamed of ever since, seemingly congenial, sensitive, but like Erskine, Rintoul, he turns out to be less than admirable, and Lady Car’s marriage filled quieter tense dissatisfactions. An English young woman, living in Scotland, Nora, with a wise spinster Aunt Barbara, accepts Rintoul knowing what he has done. There is a disabled character (in effect), Millefleurs, an awkward wealthy cousin the father wanted Edith to marry grotesquely short; the irony of the novel is he is the best husband material of them all. The Scottish servants are the loyal and constant characters, keep the whole order steady, and together with the bourgeois characters (lawyers, doctors) and rescue the upper class ones from calamity.

Horatio McCullough, 19th century Scottish landscape painter

Margaret Rubrik has written deeply engagingly about Olipant’s sceptical and unromantic attitudes, especially toward marriage, and about the Caroline story in The Ladies Lindores:

“Only wishful thinkers refuse to accept the unpleasant insight that even the beloved is a simple person with warts. Wherever idealists are not willing to cut their dreams down to size and accommodate themselves to all too human flaws, marriages end tragically, as in the case of Lady Car, whose career Oliphant pursues through two novels -— The Ladies Lindores and Lady Car -— and two unhappy marriages.

Unlike the docile things whom time teaches to cherish the “proper” feelings for their husbands, Lady Car continues to view her brutal first husband with unabated repugnance. Her feelings of nausea and sexual violation, as she had to comply with her repulsive husband’s desires at his bidding, are illustrated by her overt jubilation at his death and symbolised in the image of his trespassing into her room.

“To think I shall never be subject to all that any more—that he can never come in here again— that I am free—that I can be alone. Oh mother, how can you tell what it is? Never to be alone: never to have a corner in the world where— some one else has not a right to come, a better right than yourself. I don’t know how I have borne it. I don’t know how I can have lived, disgusted, loathing myself.” (The Ladies Lindores, II,14, 232f.)

In her second marriage to her childhood sweetheart Car does not find the hoped-for happiness either. She secretly blames Beaufort for letting her marry someone else first; for allowing her to be forced to perform sexual acts with a man she hated and for allowing her children to be fathered by a brute. All of these humiliations are so completely beyond a man’s scope of perception that he cannot understand them.

“Why expose me to all the degradations which nobody could impose on you?” (Lady Car, 7,123)

Beaufort cannot grasp the horror she feels at any association with her prior life, and thoughtlessly relishes his deceased rival’s luxury.

However, it is bitterest for Car to share the insight typical of Oliphant’s heroines that Beaufort is not the epitome of the crusader and social reformer she first fell in love with. She, who, like Dorothea Brooke, wanted to act as a muse for her husband’s magnum opus, attempts desperately, but in vain, to reawaken his enthusiasm for the visions he has lost all interest in.

Don Quixote disenchanted, ready to burn all his chevalier books, and see the fun of his misadventures, but urged to take the field by some delicate Dulcinea, could not have been more embarrassed and disturbed. (Lady Car, 4,74)

Car is one of those dreamers who seek perfection and do not content themselves with less than the absolute. In her analysis of the novel, Showalter reproaches Oliphant for identifying with Car’s disappointment at her indolent husband and her dull children, and for wanting to solicit pity for a passive, indeed even parasitic form of life.

Mrs. Oliphant never fully faces the dangers of a social myth that places the whole weight of feminine fulfilment on husband and children … [and] The tone of the book is certainly pathetic at times. However, it would be erroneous to believe that Oliphant sees her heroine uncritically or fails to recognise the fallacy of the domestic myth. On the contrary, she realises the problematic nature of Car’s immature idealism, and in many other novels she draws women who are not dependent on marriage and the family for their self-esteem. Car, on the other hand, must fail in her attempt to achieve the Victorian ideal that expects a woman to find complete fulfilment in marriage and her children.

The question as to how a relationship can work without admiration or even respect for one’s partner is posed time and again in Oliphant’ s novels because of her unconventional view of gender roles.

It must be admitted this is not a novel where a post-colonial perspective is of much help; it is rather deeply rooted Scottish landscape from which its visual poetry comes. In the novel I am especially drawn to her disillusioned axioms about life: such a we all live alone no matter how surrounded by others. Quiet convincing. Her tone so immediate and strong, with a real voice coming through.

Persephone books cover


Walter Scott (of course): The Surgeon’s Daughter has a pattern I see repeated over and over: a woman is swallowed up by the traditional culture: she either elects to marry or become a mistress of the non-western male, or she is threatened with or actually raped, traumatized, never the same again. The result is the same: retirement, retreat from the outward world. Who thought Scott would link to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust and Ahdaf Soueif’s Map of Love. But so it is, with Smith’s two texts (Ethelinde, Young Philosopher), a first or early formulation. In the case of the poets, the women poets become sympathetic ethnographers and mythologers. In Scott’s novella, What I enjoyed best are the two ironic prefaces: these stumbling made up older male characters Scott writes as — it’s funny and melancholy about publishing and writing issues. Also a brief retelling in swift effective tones of the story as found in some newspaper or chronicle. Rob Rob has a similarly chilling retelling of a bloody set of murders — these are by Scott himself people forget. I also liked the opening where we meet the Scots country doctor, his son, who also becomes a doctor, the villain-protagonists, and our prosaic heroine. Our moral compass is found here, in the home-y early rural scenes. Maybe one way of accounting for the richness of Scott, how much can be taken from him is that his “filler” counts so enormously too and is so varied.

John Frederick Lewis (1804-76), The Reception (1873) — Scott’s vision is orientalist

The interesting thing about the text is that the threat of being a sex slave hovering over our heroine begins at the outset as in the older editions of the 19th century, the chronicle tale where the kernel story is told in less than 2 pages was put first. I have an old Everyman of rob Rob where a bloody chronicle tale is put first. It is important to remember that Scott wrote these too, supposedly paraphrasing with great concision. Yet we get back to that so circuitously. Another one is Kenilworth: I have an old Everyman where the poem Scott cites as his inspiration is put first. Then suddenly at the end of the novel we have this gorgeous barbaric scene. The inference to be drawn (as is common in Scott’s novels) is how irrational and ruthless are men, how prone to horrific violence, which they constrain by their ceremonies. After all as with Ivanhoe and other of Scott’s novels, the surgeon’s daughter though at the end the crux of the issue (will she become a sex slave of a son of a powerful Indian prince), is a minor character in the book. She is rarely on stage, and when she is we do not get much individual insight into her: she remains archetypal.

I know that those film adaptations of Scott I’ve seen often zero as quickly as they can on just those immediate active evens which lead to one of his denouements, stripping away introductions, prefaces, and especially those (often long) parts of the story which dramatize prosaic “ordinary” scenes which are nonetheless essential to understand what is going on, what to infer and what is the inference. From a post-colonial standpoint Scott shows us how as a group the Europeans are viciously exploitative so that individuals can come away super-rich, but also that the native people in power are just as bad to their people. We have the usual very few virtuous characters, many ambivalent ones and a presentation of what power does. We also how people’s characters can change as they cross borders of different cultural groups.


I don’t want to be overlong so end on a few thoughts gleaned from Bohls and Sassia, and a poem by Margaret Gillies Brown, “Emigrant Journey.”

Women dancing around the stones (paratexts of Outlander 2015-16)

How can we present and read landscape so that it is not equated with nature and thus women’s bodies? Women dominate the landscape, and women’s medical magic is drawn from botany and particulars of Scottish landscape, but they are punished for this as witches, so their rituals at the stones, their dance may be turned against them. Their individual identities dissolve away as stories of women from the 19th century and before are read by 20th and 21st century female relatives, or just readers; they cross borders and belong nowhere (connected only by connection to a man within a family structure). Thus (like Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust, Soueif’s Map of Love) Atwood’s Alias Grace blends the several women, not from different times, but classes and places: Susannah Moodie who wrote of Grace accused of murder: aliases.

Emigrant Journey

There was the comfort and the all mod-con of home
With its recognisable dangers;
There was the journey,
1he endless coming on of the same wave,
The no-land time of ocean and high hopes
Until the icebergs rose
Like crystal palaces …

There was the moving days
And weary nights of train-hours overland,
The trees, the lakes, the straight and rolling plains
Until time stopped in sheer fantasy
Of a pre-dawn winter morning –
Gloved hand swinging the iron-hard handle

Of a frozen water pump
At the edge of a bark-rough cabin;
Above, the sky, moving strange magnificence,
Voile curtains of colour
Changing, shifting imperceptibly;
Below, the star sparkled snow –
A virgin’s looking glass
Where spruce trees shot the only shadows
That made no movement –
Silence, immensity of silence,
Oil fires were burning brands
Reaching for chiffon robes
Of an aurora of dancers
Repeating dream sequences …
I tried to wake from unreality,
Felt my spine freeze,
heard coyotes howling down the night.

—Margaret Gillies-Brown (poetry published 1970s-80s)

Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Clare (Caitronia Balfe) crossing the highlands to Lallybroch (Outlander)


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John Constable, Vale of Dedham, Scotland

Dear friends and readers,

This week I was torn between choosing a relatively or wholly unknown woman poet for this week’s foremother poet, or a woman who was part of a larger cultural milieu in which women flourished in her period. I at first thought to write a blog on a Scots’ lyricist who has one famous (often-sung) ballad attributed to her on the Net: Caroline Keppel Adair (born 1734?). But I couldn’t verify the information I had. The books I used when I made the posting have long since been put back in the library; one of them (an anthology of Scottish women poets, available as an inexpensive paperback on the Net) I did buy and when it arrives, I might be in a position to feel I could do one securely on Adair.

In the meantime I thought I’d write about another Scottish woman poet whose poem of friendship to another woman moves me, and about whose “The Highlanders” I found an interesting essay in JStor: Anne Grant (nee Macivar) (1755-1853). I like her combined stance of quiet reason and the vatic and poetic:

Of Beatrice, I know only that she was Anne Grant’s beloved friend. The story of the poem is of a woman who has had to give up poetry to be a wife, have an take care of children; now grown older, she tries to revivify her muse, and finds that friendship and truth rather than romance must be her themes; she names several women writers (showing the contexts she saw herself in), a Scotswoman poet, Anne Hunter (about whom I wrote a foremother poet blog on Jane Austen’s World), a sonneteer, Anna Seward, a romantic and pro-revolutionary, Helena Maria Williams, and the historian Catherine Macauley. Having said she cannot achieve the vatic, she recreates her poetry in a new descriptive, quietly vatic stance.

Familiar Epistle to a Friend

Dear Beatrice, with pleasure I read your kind letter;
On the subject, methinks, there could scarce be a better:
How vivid the scenes it recall’d to my view,
And how lively it waken’d remembrance anew!
Yet our souls are so crusted with housewifely moss,
That Fancy’s bright furnace yields nothing but dross:

Surrounded with balling, and squalling, and prattle,
With handmaids unhandy, and gossipping tattle,
Cut fingers to bandage, and stockings to darn,
And labyrinths endless of ill-manag’d yarn,
Through whose windings Daedalean bewilder’d we wander,
Like draggle-tail’d nymphs of the mazy Meander,
Till at length, like the Hero of Macedon, tir’d
Of the slow perseverance untwisting required,
We brandish our scissors, resolved on the spot,
Since we cannot unravel, to cut through the knot.

Blest vicars of England! how happy your wives!
Though devoted to pudding and plain work their lives,
Though quotations and homilies forced to endure,
While fumes of tobacco their graces obscure;
Though their quiet be disturb’d with the nursery’s noise,
Though their girls should be hoydens, or dunces their boys,
With the tangling of yarn they are never perplex’d,
More difficult to clear than his Reverence’s text.
While with labour incessant our toils we renew,
To furnish fine linen, and purple and blue,
Such a series of self-same minute occupation
Yields nothing, you’ll own, to enliven narration;
And as for the friend of all poets, Invention,
‘Tis a thing, of late years, I scarce think of or mention:

Or of useful inventions alone make my boast,
Such as saving potatoes and turnips from frost;
Or repulsing whole armies of mice from my cheese;
Or plucking the quills without paining the geese.

What a change on the scene and the actors appears?
‘Tis now but a dozen and odd of short years,
Since when we, and the season, and fancy were young,
flowery banks our gay whimsies we sung,
Regardless of profit, and hopeless of fame,
Yet heedless of censure, and fearless of blame,
We travers’d the vale, or we haunted the grove,
As free as the birds that were chanting above;
Where the fair face of Nature was bright with a smile.
Enraptur’d in silence we gaz’d for a while;
Then as clear and as artless resounded our lays,
As the sky or the stream we endeavour’d to praise;
While strains of delight the pure pleasures impart
That thrill’d through each bosom, and glow’d in each heart;
But when from the east, with dun vapours o’ercast,
Came horrors bestriding the bleak howling blast;
When rude echoing rocks with brown cataracts foam’d,
And bewilder’d in mist the sad traveller roam’d;
When to part us, loud storms and deep gullies conspir’d,
And sublime meditation to garrats retir’d;
To the workings of fancy to give a relief,
We sat ourselves down to imagine some grief,
Till we conjur’d up phantoms so solemn and sad,
As, if they had lasted, would make us half mad;
Then in strains so affecting we pour’d the soft ditty,
As mov’d both the rocks and their echoes to pity:
And to prove it, each note of the soul-moving strain
In more sonorous sounds was return’d back again;
And we, silly souls, were so proud of our parts,
When we thought that our pathos had reach’d their hard hearts!

But when grave looking Hymen had kindl’d his torch,
With a pure lambent flame that would glow but not scorch,
The Muses, who plain humble virtues revere,
Were affrighted to look on his brow so austere;
The cottage so humble, or sanctified dome,
For the revels of fancy afforded no room;
And the lyre and the garland, were forc’d to give place
To duties domestic, and records of grace:
Then farewell Illysus, adieu Hippocrene,
The vales of Arcadia and Tempe so green;
To the hills of Judea we now must draw near,
King Lemuel’s good mother’s wise maxims to hear,
And strive to leave none of the duties undone
Which the matron prescrib’d for the spouse of her son;
For my own part, I labour’d and strove with my might
To do all that the proverbs applauded as right:
Fine coverings I made that with tapestry vied,
And with heather and madder my fleeces I dy’d,
While the sun shone I still made the most of his light,
And my candle most faithfully burnt through the night;
And while that and large fires through the winter did glow,
Not a farthing my household would care for the snow:
Their plaids, hose, and garters, with scarlet adorn’d,
Chill December they braved, and its rigours they scorn’d;
Yet these were not all my pretensions to claim
Of a matron industrious and virtuous the name;
My mate (can you doubt it?) was known in the gates,
Among seniors, and elders, and men of estates:
I made him a coat of a grave solemn hue,
Two threads they were black, and the other two blue;
So warm, and so clerical, comely and cheap,
‘Twas a proof both of thrift and contrivance so deep;
His cravats of muslin were spun by my hands,
I knit all his stockings and stitch’d all his bands;
Till the neighbours all swore by St. Bridget herself,
Such a wife was worth titles, and beauty, and pelf.

Quite dead and extinct all poetical fire,
At the foot of the cradle conceal’d lay my lyre;
What witchcraft had alter’d its form I ne’er knew,
But by some means or other a whistle it grew;
The brats in succession all jingled its bells,
While its music to them the piano excels:
But when slowly and surely the cold hand of time
Had stole my complexion, and wither’d my prime,
Resolv’d for a while to respire at my ease,
In Clydesdale I courted the soft western breeze;
Whose fresh breathing whispers my languor could soothe,
With visions of fancy, and dreams of my youth.
While slowly retracing my dear native Clyde,
And reviewing my visage, so chang’d, in its tide,
As sad and reluctant I strove to retire,
To my grasp was presented my trusty old lyre,—
I snatch’d it, I strumm’d it, and thrumm’d it again,
But strove to awaken its music in vain;
So rusty the wire, so enfeebled my hand,
A while in suspence and dumb wonder I stand:
Thus it happen’d they say, to Ulysses of old,
When twenty long years of sad absence had roll’d,
To his Ithaca forc’d in disguise to resort,
When the suitors with uproar were filling his court;
He set his foot forward, and bending his brow,
With a dignified air he demanded his bow;

With joy-mingled sorrow review’d his old friend,
And three times essay’d the tough crescent to bend,
Till the string to his efforts resounded so sharp,
Some thought it a swallow and some an old harp.—
Thus awkward and faint were my efforts at first,
But I rais’d the note higher whenever I durst:
To Friendship and Truth I exalted the lay,
And homewards with music beguil’d the long way;
And now since beyond any doubt it appears,
From duties discharg’d through a series of years,
That nor peace nor industry are banish’d the cell
Where in ease and retirement the Muse loves to dwell;

Once more let us try to awaken the strain,
So friendly to sorrow, so sothing to pain!
The blessings we’ve tasted let’s carefully rate,
And be just to kind Nature, and grateful to Fate;
Thus wisely employing the last closing strain,
We shall not have liv’d or have warbled in vain.
Were the foot-path of life to be travell’d anew,
When we calmly look back with a serious review,
For noisy applause or for tinsel parade,
Would we part with sweet Peace that delights in the shade?
Or blame the kind harbour, remote and obscure,
Where our minds were kept tranquil, our hearts were kept pure?

While with streamers all flying, and wide-swelling sails,
Toss’d high on the billows, the sport of the gales,
The Muse’s fair daughters triumphant were borne
Till the public applause was converted to scorn;
For by vanity guided, so wildly they steer’d,
Or by caprice directed, so frequently veer’d;
Creation’s proud Masters observ’d with a sneer,
That like comets eccentric forsaking their sphere,
Their brightness so gaz’d at, would never produce,
Or pleasure, or profit, or comfort, or use.
[Anna Seward] and [Anne Hunter] thus shone for a day,
How prais’d was each period! how flatter’d each lay!
Till a crop so luxuriant arising of pride,
Affectation, and fifty new follies beside,
The duties and joys of the mother and wife,
The nameless soft comforts of calm private life,
Fell victims together at Vanity’s shrine,
For who could endure to exist and not shine!
Macaulay, of Stuarts had tore up the graves,
To prove half of them fools, and the other half knaves,
And sully’d the mitre and spatter’d the gown,
And flatter’d the mob and insulted the Crown;
Then insensibly shrunk to a faction’s blind tool,
And discover’d too late they had made her their fool.

With virtues, and graces, and beauties beside,
The delight of her friends, of her country the pride,

Say, who could to [Helen Maria Williams] their suffrage refuse,
Or who not be charm’d with her chaste classic Muse?
To the passion for liberty giving loose rein,
At length she flew off to carouse on the Seine;
And growing inebriate while quaffing the draught,
Equality’s new-fangled doctrines she taught;
And murder and sacrilege calmly survey’d;
In the new Pandemonium those demons had made;
Seine’s blood-crimson’d waters with apathy ey’d,
While the glories of old father Thames she decried.
Now with equals in misery hid in some hole,
Her body a prison confining her soul,
From the freedom of Gallia how fain would she fly,
To the freedom which genius shall taste in the sky!
No longer pursue those fond lovers of fame,
Nor envy the honours and trophies they claim;
No further excursive to speculate roam,
But fix our attention and pleasure at home:
Why regret, when celebrity proves such a curse,
he cares of the mother and toils of the nurse:
While the nurse finds delight in sweet infancy’s smiles,
And hope the fond mother’s long trouble beguiles.
“But why these quick feelings, or why this nice ear,
“Or musical accents, if no one must hear?
“Why blossoms of fancy all scatter’d to waste,
“The glow sympathetic, or pleasures of taste?—”

Ask why in the mountains the flow’ret should blow,
Which none but the hermit is destin’d to know?
Why the wild woods re-echo with melody clear,
Which none but the hunter is destin’d to hear?
When often enjoyed and but seldom they’re shewn,
Our riches and pleasures are truly our own:
The milk-maid that carols her wild native airs
To solace her labours, and lighten her cares,
Feels a pleasure more genuine and free from alloy,
Than Catley or Mara could ever enjoy:
Who, while their divisions they warbled aloud,
Depended for joy on the praise of the crowd;

Then blest be the lyre, ever sacred its strain,
In the regions of bliss let it waken again:
When the kind hand of Nature has fitted its strings,
And the dictates of truth and of virtue it sings,
As softly and sweetly it touches the mind,
As Æolus’ harp when ’tis mov’d by the wind;
Untainted by art were the notes it has sung,
It has cheer’d our decline, and has charm’d us when young;
And when useful employments demanded our prime,
Our leisure it soothed without wasting our time:
And when all our sorrows and toils shall be o’er,
Its music perhaps may delight us once more;
When swelling to concords more rich and sublime,
It may rise beyond earth, and may live beyond time.

The blossoms I once so admir’d and caress’d,
That cheer’d my fond heart till they dy’d on my breast,
Which my tears that fell frequent, like soft silent rain,
Could not waken to life and new fragrance again:
There, again, in new sweetness and beauty shall bloom,
And the evergreen plain with fresh odours perfume;
Perhaps while exalted their graces shall rise,
Again their dear verdure shall gladden my eyes!
When the season of fear and of sorrow is o’er,
And our tears and our songs are remember’d no more!

She wrote a poem on the death of Burns outlining his achievements (and misfortunes from her conservative ethical stance) whose best lines seem to me to be: “He wak’d the genuine Caledonian lyre,/Tweed’s severing flood exulting heard her tell …”

This is astute enough:

And Ramsay , once the Horace of the North,
Who charm’d with varied strains the listening Forth ,
Bequeath’d to him the shrewd peculiar art
To satire nameless graces to impart,
To wield her weapons with such sportive ease,
That, while they wound, they dazzle and they please …
The independent wish, the taste refin’d,
Bright energies of the superior mind,
And Feeling’s generous pangs, and Fancy’s glow,
And all that liberal Nature could bestow,
To him profusely given, yet given in vain;
Misfortune aids and points the stings of pain.


Born Anne MacVicar in Glasgow, Scotland, Anne grew up in New England. Her father was a Highland officer, and she crossed the Atlantic with her mother and lived in Albany, New York between 1757 and 1768. There she read a good deal, and from a friend-mentor, Catalina Schuyler, was introduced to Shakespeare, Pope, Addison and other writers. She was fourteen when the family came to live in Glasgow, without “accomplishments” but with a love of the natural world, and knowledge of books and travel.

She married an Army chaplain, Reverend James Grant, and ended up in Laggan, Scotland, a remote village 50 miles from Perth and Inverness. There she adopted Highland customs, learnt Gaelic, translated Gaelic verse. Her personal life was sad and hard because when her eight children were young, they died and her husband in 1801. In debt and with only a tiny pension due to her, she turned to writing.

She published volumes of verse. With the active patronage of the Duchess of Gordon, she began to publish verse; 1803, Poems on Various Subjects. Among these are translations of Gaelic songs, including Grant’s words to “Oh, Where, tell me, is your Highland Lassie Gone?” from which I quote one verse, clearly meant to be set to music:

Oh, where, tell me where, is your Highland laddie gone?
Oh, where, tell me where, is your Highland laddie gone?
He’s gone with streaming banners were noble deeds are done,
And my sad heart will tremble till he comes safely home;
He’s gone with streaming banners where noble deeds are done,
And my sad heart will tremble, till he comes safely home

In 1802–3 she left Laggan for Woodend, near Stirling as her daughter, Mary was ill. When her son, Duncan, received a commission in the East India Company, she needed to find him uniform, weapons, and brought a manuscript to women friends and poets and writers, Joanne Baillie and Catherine Maria Fanshawe. Letters from the Mountains (1805): descriptions of scenery, customs, manners. But in April 1807 her daughter Charlotte died (age 17) and in July of the same year, Catherine (age 20).

It was then she wrote her memories of her time in the US before the revolution: Memoirs of an American Lady (1808) and published more poetry The Highlanders and Other Poems. Her book on her experience of the US is still cited in studies of early New England. Of “The Highlanders” Gottlieb writes it was the poem that clinched her reputation:

Subtitled “Sketches of Highland Scenery and Manners, with some Reflections on Emigration,” “The Highlanders” uses rhyming couplets, iambic pentameter, and discrete parts (each prefaced with a synoptic argument) to announce its epic intentions. Like other Romantic-era epics, moreover, it begins on a personal note, with a candid admission that it was written (apparently in the spring of 1795) as a form of convalescent therapy. Asking “How long must I in storms and sickness mourn? / Oh when will health, and light, and spring return?,” the narrator (apparently Grant herself) rises from her sickbed to view the countryside, only to realize that things are not as they once were (1.13). Expecting to have her spirits cheered by the sight of “social hamlet[s]” and “cluster’d cottages around / Where tranquil peace and rural joy were found,” Grant is upset to find only desolation and depopulation (1.54-56).

The poem has a deeply melancholy atmosphere, and is “initially … a ‘farewell’ to the ‘Genius,’ or spirit, of the Highlands, which has disappeared along with a sizeable portion of its population.

“emotional openness, the poet notes, has already been extended by many Britons to African slaves; now the time has come for the people of England and the Lowlands to recognize the importance of sympathizing with the northern inhabitants of their own island as well.

Accordingly, Grant uses the subsequent parts of “The Highlanders” to describe in great, almost anthropological, detail the quotidian customs and habits of Highland life as it existed in times past. Here, much of Grant’s work reads like a poetic attempt to illustrate the Scottish Enlightenment’s ideas regarding the Highlanders’ place in the stadial evolution of society . . . Grant’s greatest fear is that this traditional Highland culture will be destroyed by the onset of modernity.

To be brief, she fears and desires assimilation for these people; much of the latter part of the poem retells recent Scottish history (adventures of Bonnie Prince Charles) and is politically conservative (for church and monarchy, not for the principles of the French revolution). This helps explain Walter Scott’s later favoring of her, and her poem anticipates or is in line with his Lay of the Last Minstrel.

J.M.W. Turner, Ben Arthur, Scotland, an appropriate image

Two years later she had moved to Edinburgh, and had met Walter Scott. She started a small school and would entertain and it’s said (by several) her house became a gathering place for Scots writers of all political persuasions (despite her own Tory views). Henry Mackenzie, Felicia Hemans, Robert Southey, Scott, Hogg, Francis Jeffrey. She was known for her promotion of Gaelic and pro-Highlander stance, her wit, conversation. In 1811 a book on the “superstitions of the Highlands and more translations from gaelic verse, and in 1814 Eighteenth Hundred and Thirteen: A Poem in Two Parts).

Her later life (like that of many) was not easy: disabled by a fall in 1820, in 1825 Walter Scott obtained a small pension for her; there were the successive deaths of all her children but one, John-Peter Grant who in 1844 published her autobiography and letters, a record of literary life and society in Edinburgh in the 1st quarter of the 19th century. She died of flu on November 7, 1838 aged 84, and was buried in New Cemetery at Edinburgh’s St Cuthbert’s Cuthbert’s church.

Edinburgh, early 19th century, an engraving by William Miller after Turner

Walter Scott wrote of her: “Her literary works although composed amidst misfortune and privation, are written at once with simplicity and force, and uniformly bear the stamp of a virtuous and courageous mind.” She was for a time by a few thought to be the author of the Waverly novels. I would be surprised if Austen had not read some of her writing.

The poems and information come from Jennifer Breen’s Women Romantic Poets, 1785-1832 and the information about her occurs with a brief poem in Paula R. Friedman’s British Women Poets of the Romantic Era. See also Evan Gottliebe, Blameless Empires and Long-Forgotten Melodies: Anne Grant’s “The Highlanders,” Walter Scott’s “The Lay of the Last Minstrel,” and the Poetry of Sympathetic Britishness, Journal of Narrative Theory, 40:3 (1983); and Pam Perkins, “Anne Grant and Late Eighteenth-Century Idealizations of America,” American Literature, 40:2 (2005):315-340.

Anne’s life and her work are best understood among her female peers (with whom we see she measured herself) and as one of large amorphous group of Scots women writers whom Kirsteen McCue in “Women and Song: 1750-1850)” writes about in a delightful (and very fat) book, A History of Scottish Women’s Writing, edd Douglas Gifford and Dorothy McMillan, which I bought myself while researching the life of Anne Halkett, a 17th century Scots and English autobiographer when I discovered it also has long articles on Margaret Oliphant, modern Scots-descended writers (e.g., Alice Munro), memoirists (Elizabeth Grant Smith whose memoirs I read this year — superb and only published unabridged and uncensored in the last 20 years). I am now awaiting Catherine Kerrigan’s Anthology of Scottish Women Poets in order to do this. Eighteenth century women to be celebrated include Carolina Oliphant Nairne, Anne Lindsay Barnard, Anne Grant, Anne Hunter, Susanna Blamire, Alison Cockburn, Jean Elliot. Did you know Muriel Spark was an able Scots poet (who spent much of her life in Italy)?

there is a vast website which reprints her works with appropriate pictures. Anne Macivar Grant


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Olivia Williams as Jane Austen in quiet creative reverie (Gwyneth Hughes and Anne Pivcevic, Miss Austen Regrets 2008)

Dear Friends and readers,

You see above my new avatar for my “Reveries under the Sign of Austen” blog. I’ve put a copy on the wall of my room too. It pictures a mood I wish I could sustain while writing.

For tonight and the next couple of blogs I again present notes from a recent conference I attended: this time the ASECS conference at Albuquerque, New Mexico. This is the one I present my “Rape in Clarissa” paper. As you can see three months have gone by; I’ve been occupied with my projects, reading, and writing. There is no tearing hurry as I probably will not be going to another conference after the one coming up at Portland (JASNA AGM) for at least a year afterwards (we are conserving money). Still unless I do them soon, I’ll not be able to transcribe my notes, for I do rely on memory, and if I don’t transcribe them I will never remember what I heard and it will have been not much good to me. I also like to think others enjoy and profit from reading about 18th century scholar’s topics in this form.

As I’ve begun to do, these will be much shorter as I can no longer take down details, and I include only reports of good papers and interesting sessions. As I spent one full day away from Albuquerque (in Santa Fe, looking at the town, a church, a few museums), there’ll be only two blogs. For tonight I have four sessions to tell of, most of it on Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni, gothic and epistolary novels, and Germaine de Stael’s Corinne.

I got up at 7 am on Thursday in order to make a session starting at 8 on Riccoboni’s epistolary novels (“Special Delivery: French Epistolary, 3/18/10, 8:-9:30 am).

William Hogarth’s portrait of David Garrick and his wife, Eva-Maria Veigel (1762)

Andrea Magermans spoke about “Madame Riccoboni’s Epistolary Agenda.” In life as well as her fiction, Riccoboni was a prolific letter writer, and there are many intersections between her personal correspondences and epistolary fiction. In both she transcends the preconceived notion that women write letters spontaneously and asserts the equality of men and women. Her real life letters are playful, flirtatious, exude confidence; at the same as she assumes a self-deprecating stance; she varies her style to suit her correspondent; her fictional letters mirror this performative self; they have characters who are vivid and subjective in outlook and boldly display [her] opinions.

We hear in her personal correspondences a depth of hurt, from a woman involved with a younger man who is not reciprocating; as someone who wants her views on art to be taken seroiusly. She tells Garrick she loves him while knowing him to be married; she wants him to write her often and addresses herself to his wife too; to Diderot she wrote about plays, as an actress who knows the theater; he tells her in turn he disagrees with her views; he also says he finds her Fanni Butlerd superior to Juliette Catesby. She lectures LaClos on what is a real woman (as opposed to his portrait of Madame de Merteuil).

The novel Fanni Butler has the heroine writing the lover she has lost whose strategy is vengeance. Riccoboni uses a highly emotional style; Fanni is a woman trying to control herself; at the end of the book she rejects Alfred, keeps his side silent, and publishes the letters. She depicts herself as morally superior (though she has had an affair). We have a woman to reasserts composure.

Felicia Sturzer’s spoke on Riccoboni’s Lettres de Mylord Rivers a Sir Charles Cardigan . Riccoboni wrote 8 novels, 6 with woman at the center. This is one of the 2 with male writers, with a heroine, Adelaide, who rejects her suitor, and appropriates power to herself: she will be mistress of her body and fate.
An inset novella inside the main action concerns two heroines whose story challenges the probability of the male point of view in the main story. The novel is profoundly disillusioned about the reach of social interaction; characters struggle to understand one another and don’t manage. The positive outlook we find in the book is undermined by its author’s cynicism and melancholy. The epistolary technique works to held off closure in the novel.

Riccoboni withdraws into her self (“Je me demande ce que je suis”); again we have a woman (like herself) in love with a younger man. She shows the practice of coerced marriage robs women of happiness and dignity for life; they are alienated from themselves. She is not interested in telling stories of scorned women but of women who dictate the terms of their relationships (or who should).

Film realization of Cecile’s introduction to the man her mother has arranged for her to marry (1988 Valmont)

In general women’s novels of this era, and many epistolary and gothic ones have as a central theme that the woman who submits (and so many were forced to) in effect has any attempt at authentic identity destroyed for life

Sophie Calle, an (ironic) image of a birthday

Elizabeth Heckendorf Cook spoke about a modern conceptual artist, Sophie Calle, in order to draw parallels between the experience of an epistolary novel and Internet correspondence. These works enable us to watch writers writing and see how they are not in control of their texts.

This evoked quite a discussion of the audience’s experiences on the Internet and how lately with such a mass of people using computers to write, no longer are even medium-length postings typical. For young adults, what’s wanted is the equivalent of a single-line postcard. Instant messaging is a good example of not being able to be in control of your text. You cannot see the shape of what’s being said until you print it out. You are also prodded to respond to someone’s texting.


Joshua Reynolds, his favorite niece Theophila Palmer reading Clarissa (1770s)

Of course the session I gave my paper at falls belongs to tonight’s category: “‘He said, she said:’: Rape in 18th century law, fiction, and moralist writing” (5/18/10, 11:30 am – 1:00 pm). I’ve already said enough about mine whose proposal and text the reader can read on my website. Unfortunately, the two people who had said they would speak on rape in India (this would have a been a post-colonial treatment) and the laws concerning rape in 18th century America didn’t make it. There were, though, two post-modern papers on rape. Leslie Richardson showed how rape shatters, imposes and fragments the victim’s identity; and Sarah Skoronski pointed out parallels between Richardson’s Clarissa and Eliza Haywood’s The Fruitless Inquiry. Both novels exposed how the English law courts and mores offered nothing to comfort or help women. The discussion afterwards was lively and wide-ranging; one idea was reiterated: repeatedly it matters little what a woman says about her experience; she is judged on stereotypical grounds of distrust.

For the third session I can report on again I got up early to make an 8 am session: “Revisiting the Epistolary Novel” (3/20/10, 8:00 – 9:30 am) included two gothic novels.

Casper David Friedrich (1774-1840), Eldena Ruin (1825)

Caroline Domenghino spoke about the German epistolary novel of the 1790s as reflected in Ludwig Tieck’shttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludwig_Tieck William Lovell. Ms Domenghino’s argument was William Lovell is a generic hybrid mixing gothic, novel of sensibility, bildingsroman, and epistolary types. The main characters are easily deceived; most of the character undergo a journey of deformation; and everywhere are arbitrary and malicious (gothic) forces.

It begins in England; the hero must travel and gets involved with a secret society in Rome; he is corrupted by staged ghosts into becoming a murder by a man who hates his father; he seduces his friends sister who commits suicide. The novel is filled with harrowing twists and turns; fatalistic causality is everywhere; philosophically it’s pessimistic; there is no viable model for a good life. An epistolary novel often gives us a horizontal spacial story; and here we do have tales of intriguing secret societies; and letters and documents which are misperceived. They are often not dated; destructive in impact; again little effective social interaction takes place in the book, only oscillations in blind relationships. Friends become bitter enemies. (Obviously?), it takes a stance opposite to that of Goethe’s Wilheim Meister.

Lorraine Piroux spoke about the impersonal presence of LaClos in his Les Liaisons Dangereuses as an instance of how the private and public intermix in epistolary narrative. The imagined editor of the book insists on flaws in the writers’ styles in order to make us se the letters as the product of the characters and erase the author altogether.

She then went on to say that (ironically) such attempts at self-effacement conflict with the contemporary campaign for copyright or ownership of the text by authors. These claims and the use of paratexts in epistolary fictions are attempts to make one’s text authorless and found in other writers (e.g., Diderot, Richardson). I see the authors as protecting their private lives and themselves from attack; Ms Piroux made the sophisticated point that the notion that literature is an impersonal product of the self is a modern one. These are really deeply personal books.

So the two libertines, the naifs, the complicit and corrupted women while seeming impervious to the expression of personal sentiment in the author are not really so. (I agree with this and when I read these novels often feel that this or that passage is the author expressing him or herself.) The authors get away with these non-personality figures and libertinism becomes the language of literarture itself — divorced from responsibility and a specific real self.

J. W. Turner, Arthur’s Seat, Craig

Nicole Wright spoke about Scott’s Redgauntlet, a partially epistolary novel. She described how Darcie writes to Alan, and how about 1/3 of the way through Scott shifts to omniscient in order to pick up speed and create a larger historical impersonal perspective. Darcie, she suggested, is a Clarissa type as a male. Scott had written in his preface to an edition of Clarissa that Lovelace deserved death for what he did to Clary; we see Darcie imprisoned, tortured emotionally, emasculated, and we enter a nightmare world of the oppressed which includes egregious cruelty to animals. An enlightenment point of view plays over this narrative which is pushing for the rights of society’s outcasts and animals. The fierce Wandering Willie’s tale is a reinforcement of the central tale in dissolute thriller mode.

Later in the book we do return to the epistolary or at least first person mode because Alan reads Darcie’s journal while in prison. Scott thus manages multiple perspectives that are subjective and a dual point of view (as Alan and Darcie are often presented as on opposite sides of all sorts of issues). There are (given this recursive structure) remarkably few repetitions of ideas or types of events.

The discussion afterwards was as filled with insight and information as the papers. From the paper on Les Liaisions Dangereuses we discussed T. S. Eliot’s claim the poet necessarily subordinates his personality; Piroux said you cannot escape your individual presence; while ownership of a text is an imaginary contract as physically the books are made by the publisher, the way we are extending copyright shows just how much we really assume the individual is his or her text (even if this is brought on by corporations who seek to control texts which bring in money)

People said that if you have students who do like to read, they often love epistolary novels. They enjoy the writing selves, the voyeurism, the turning back and forth from relative perspectives.

Finally, we returned to William Lovell as a peculiarly bizarre book, reflecting the troubled era of the 1790s and crazed events that occurred.


Hubert Robert, Washerman on steps in Rome

Probably the most easily enjoyable session for me in all the three days was the one on Germaine de Stael’s Corinne; ou, l’Italie. It was the last session of papers I attended and was titled “Teaching Germaine de Stael’s Corinne (given after lunch on Saturday, 10/20/10, 2-3:30 pm)

Preparatory to this blog I wrote in April (so I meant to write up these reports much earlier) about a reading and discussion we had of this marvelous book on WWTTA in 2002; so I need not discuss the book’s story or why it is an important text. Nanette Lecoat was the moderator and she said the aim of the session was to share ideas on how to keep (or once again make) this book a major European classic. She briefly showed how she always made a careful chronology of the novel’s events to start the students’ off and then brought in chronology of the Napoleonic era and history within the novel to help the students know literally and historically where they are as they read.

Ione Crummy taught the book in a womens’ studies court in 2 state universities and said she felt the experience was a success: the students ended up liking and understanding what they had read. They read it in excerpts. (So it’s considered too long!). Students could read it in the original French or an English translation. She presented the story as partly a romantic dialogue between the sexes — or two gendered people — as we see in Benjamin Constant’s novel, Adolphe, or George Sand’s Lui et Moi (Sand and Musset).

She also made a heavy use of photographs and videos of the places the heroine travels to and where the action takes place: England, European continent, Italy, Scotland. So she showed us slides of Tivoli, the Sybil’s temple, the Sistine Chapel, Vesuvius, the Colosseum at nightGainboroughs. She played music for the students that is played in the novel.

Laura Fortner wanted to present the book as entering into serious philosophical issues as part of a survey course in great books. She specifically pointed to her students’ tendency not to like “whining” characters as something she saw as main obstacle to their liking the book. (I admit I think this focus overdone and wonder why she worried about this problem more than any other.)

Eric Gidal’s approach was the least compromising and probably (for those students he carried with him) the truest way to lead students to understand and like the book. He assigned the whole thing; he contextualized it with excerpts from earlier and contemporary texts:Addison and Steele on travel; Schiller as a romantic; Fielding’s Tom Jones as picaresque; Rousseau’s Julie, ou La Nouvelle Heloise as a book fo sensibility, subjectivity, women; and Byron as a matching figure to Stael.

They analyzed the character’s social behavior as a way of developing a better ethics for themselves. He showed them that Stael’s book promotes a tradition of personal liberation; self-determination; entering into rich national cultures and art forms. He presented it as elegiac and tragic as we see characters unable to reach the past or reconcile cultural authority and independence.

He did use universal terms a good deal so there was probably an erasure of the book’s critique of the way sexuality is experienced for women in our society as central to their misery.

This point of view was taken up by Veronique Olivier-Wallis who juxtaposed excerpts from Corinne (again excerpts) with a reading of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary and a watching of the popular film (Andrew Davies the screenplay writer and central presence).

The anxious Bridget, a modern version of the shattered Corinne

Ms Olivier-Wallis said by juxtaposing the movie especially to this older book, she got a lot more questions about mores and customs then than she ever did before. The students compared what they automatically understood in Bridget Jones to what they read in Corinne.

What did they learn? Bridget Jones has a Hollywood like happy ending while Corinne is not so lucky, and ends a victim. Yet Bridget is also an object of prey to two men; she cannot be herself or feel she has worth unless she’s loved by a man. To be an authentic self she has to alienate her body and mind from what comes naturally. Bridget cannot find herself. She needs to be forgiven by Darcy; to be enabled by him. Corinne asserts the right of a woman to fulfill her passions for herself (as men do). Oswald does repress himself and marry a woman he despises; we see that he too ends miserable.

Peculiarly female anxieties (and not all have to do directly with sex) and the problem of self-acceptance are central motifs in all three works (Bridget Jones, the book, the movie, and Stael’s Corinne).

Fabienne Moore’s talk had the great merit of candour. More than the others she was willing to say where broad troubles come in when teaching this book.

She linked Corinne, ou l’Italie to Europe and presented it as a travel book, where the travel finds her identity through meditating cultures and landscapes. Her idea was also to show how the novel argues a woman has equal right to enlightenment learning, histor and poetry as a man. She did say she felt she may not have been able to get across the importance of history and traditional cultural ideals as embodied in great works or monuments. She talked of the ideal of tolerance then; the book fosters peaceful civilization seems to have been her point. The idea that we can revitalize ourselves through studying, say German did not go over. A country’s place on an (imagined) world stage they did get.

(It must be admitted the problem here really is the average college student today is not as intelligent as one could wish. Mass post-secondary education has made the percentage of more capable thinking students smaller in classrooms.)

Paul Sandby, Windsor Terrace at Night: meditative landscape art

She also found that the way the book works by presenting its argument through tragedy (we see those deprived of these rights destroyed) doesn’t work for most students today; many will not listen to the idea anyone can die for love. So the tragic ending where Oswald is a rigid masculine embodiment of imperialism was hard to get across. Corinne as a character was too exotic to many of them too.

I was sorry that Karyna Szmurlo gave up her ten minutes so we could have some general discussion afterwards. She is such a generous insightful soul and knows so much about and loves Stael so thoroughly it would have been a joy to listen to her.

However, we did get into some good talk afterwards because time enough was left.

Ms Olivier-Wallis had brought along a graduate student of hers who had been introduced to Corinne by way of Bridget Jones. Andrea said she loved Corinne and Bridget Jones both: they are women alone, dependent on their friends, women trying to find love and build a good life for themselves. She loved the farcical comedy of the modern work and understood the tragedy of the older one through it. She liked serious inward novels and thought happy endings not realistic.

It should be remembered she’s probably one of the best students if not the best in Ms Olivier-Wallis’s class. Clearly, though, Bridget Jones, book and film are a way of opening a door students can go through to reach Corinne. You make the unfamiliar understandable by beginning with the familiar.

The people were willing to listen to my experience of reading Anne Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest with people online as well as a classroom as analogous to the problem of reading Corinne with students. I brought that in to suggest how meditating in tranquil rural and peopleless landscapes and the poetic texture of the language evoking this experience is central is to Radcliffe and Stael’s art and how you have to get students to love that, linger on it, appreciate the reading experience.

John Crome, Yarmouth Harbour

Karyna agreed close reading was central to loving Corinne, and added that there’s no getting away from the superiority of Stael’s French. You need to take the time, to have quiet moments in class, to read on the level of the sentence. It’s prose poetry; you have to try to explain or present what the heroine does when she performs improvisations in front of an audience.

Another person in the audiene whose name I didn’t know felt Radcliffe’s Udolpho was a book very like Corinne in its depiction of women’s powerlessness and tragedies. Both are sentimental novels she said — and that is so, for in a way Udolpho is very like Austen’s S&S in its depiction of family life and losses.

Mr Gidal added that Corinne is an anthology: it’s a travelogue, has Ossianic songs, neoclassicism (there’s a section where the heroine falls in love with Rome and alludes to Gibbon’s Roman Empire ironic tragic history); you must grapple with its links to ethnographies (anthropological analyses). You should try to explain what is cosmopolitanism and why such an attitude is one we might want centrally in our earth today (ideally). Finally, one must not make too many compromises in trying to make the book accessible. One must pick one’s critical issues.

And so the session, and the intellectual content of the conference for me ended.

I spoke afterwards to Karyna and the young woman in the room who had talked about Udolpho. She had apparently been in a number of the same sessions I was in and noticed me. Our talk about these was heartening for me.


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Margaret Oliphant (1828-97)

Dear Friends,

For a few weeks now I’ve been sustained by two books, sometimes reading them at night, sometimes in the car as I sit next to Jim while he drives. One, Margaret Drabble’s The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws, I’ve written about on Reveries under the Sign of Austen as having to do with the 18th century (she even quotes Austen on jigsaw puzzles centrally).
The other, Margaret Oliphant’s Phoebe, Junior, a final Chronicle of Carlingford (1876) I’ll write about here as the first of a (I hope) few postings on Oliphant as a great Victorian author.

Tonight I mean to recommend Phoebe Junior, the last of her Carlingford novels, a series of cyclical books written partly in imitatio of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels, and then set the novels against the background of her other remarkable books.

Cover illustration for Virago edition of Phoebe Junior: Victor Corcos (1859-1933), In a Garden

The novel swirls around the lives of several groups of characters connected through their religion, family, and place. They may be grouped by age, class status, and whether they are dissenters or church of England (establishment). The major figure is the young woman Phoebe Beecham (junior); her mother was Phoebe Tozer. Phoebe “junior” is a young woman brought up to be genteel since her mother got out of Carlingford and married a rising clergyman, rising in dissenter circles. Phoebe Junior is highly intelligent, discreet, and ambitious, at once kind and worldly, strong, capable of highly unconventional behavior. She is the alter ago for Oliphant herself.

The story begins when Phoebe’s grandmother Tozer falls very ill in Carlingford. Despite Phobe Senior’s strong reluctance to return her daughter to her lower class origins as the grandchild of storekeepers, rather than allow a sister-in-law and brother to get close to this grandmother and thus inherit needed money, Phoebe senior sends her Phoebe Junior back to Carlingford. Phoebe Junior is to nurse said Grandmother and live with said Grandfather — and keep other grasping relatives at a distance. By living with these shopkeepers (gasp!), Phoebe is coming down in the world and may not be visited by upper class people; she may end up isolated, and have no where to wear all the lovely clothes her mother can now provide for her.

We discover Phoebe Junior is a strong-minded young woman and can withstand having to go live with older people totally out of sympathy with her. She has strong self-esteem, but the theme here is one that appeals much to me: Oliphant makes it explicit: Says Mrs Sam Hurst (one of the older women characters in Carlingford itself): “That is all you know girls” [to the Mays], you don’t know the plague of relations, and how people have got to humble themselves to keep money in the family, or keep up appearances, espeically people that have risen in the world” (Virago ed, p 98).

Oliphant shows the elder Tozers to be irritating, continually nagging or bothering Phoebe to dress in ways she knows are inferior, never once convinced or moved out of their narrow thoughts. How she endures this I don’t know except that the social life elsewhere supposedly higher is not much fun either.

I would not call this satire, but rather hard depiction of realities and I’m not sure that one does have to humble oneself. Phoebe need not have gone. Her mother said so. They might have lost the money and could have done without it. Phoebe goes as a challenge; after all, like Lucilla (Miss Majoribanks, another of the Carlingford novels which I read half-way through) Phoebe hasn’t got much to do.

A second set of young women are the Mays: Ursula and Janey, and the interest (fascination) there is while they are members of the Church of England, by culture they are not very genteel, or no more genteel than the dissenters. In fact (though Ursula and Janey are unaware of it), they are on the edge of economic disaster. Ursula is very ordinary in understanding, even a bit dull, but most of the time well-meaning enough. She is not idealized either, not a bad sort, but imperceptive and egoistic. Ursula is decent to her younger sister, Janey, not out and thus cut off from any pleasure. Austen’s Elizabeth’s comment on the practice of not allowing young women who are the second in age to be “out” is germane here. It does not encourage sisterly feeling, but we see Janey and Ursula rise above jealousy. Oliphant is still making the same point about the unfairness of this.

In an opening sequence, at an assembly Ursula (all in white) and Phoebe (in black) to to a party set up and paid for by the wealthy dissenting older couple, the Copperheads. Phoebe and Ursula end up vying for the attention of Clarence Copperhead who is tall, heavy, and much duller than the other central young heroines and heroes of the novel, but, as is true in the world, sensitive enough about his own ego and pride, out to get what advantages, power, money, enjoyment he can out of life. Clarence perceives that Phoebe would make him the best wife. He is being sent by his father, Mr Copperhead for improvements in education to Ursula and Janey’s father, a Church of England Minister, Mr May.

Oliphant’s characterization of May and development of his character is the most powerful in the book. Cultivated, intelligent when it comes to books, an establishment gentleman, May doesn’t make enough money to support his genteel upper class lifestyle, and continually overspends. So he has been getting on for years by maneuvring someone beneath him, dependent on him, to sign his bills, and who is it but the wealthy grocer Tozer and another tradesman who needs his business and contacts, Cotsdean. May is actually nasty, narrow, and sordid in his human appetites, and only plausible in company (he pretends to respect and like Phoebe and fools her about this). Mrs Sam Hurst would be willing to marry this horror of a man. So would many another woman in the novel.

What Mr May has done is forge Tozer’s signature to a bill Cotsdead took for him to the bank. Like in Austen’s fiction, he is no ogre, and someone utterly in tune with the rest of social life (Phoebe doesn’t suspect anything of what his real mind and characters are). His crime recalls what Trollope’s Josiah Crawley is accused of but did not do.

Mr May has driven his son, Reginald, to take a position which is very like that of Trollope’s Mr Harding. Reginald will be a warden of six old man with a (smaller) sinecure. Reginald, handsome, perceptive, cultivated like his father, is the first of our young heroes. We see how difficult it is for a young gentleman to place in a way Trollope doesn’t quite bring home because Trollope usually doesn’t take us into this level of desperation and jockeying for position most of the time. (We do see it in The Three Clerks.) Reginald falls in love with Phoebe — a man of the church, in love with a female dissenter. But their educational level is the same, though Reginald is not as bright as

Horace Northcote, our second hero. Northcote is a brilliant honest dissenting young man, working for radical causes (the Liberation society) and has attacked Reginald for taking one of these sinecures, but his real target is the established church itself. He is better off financially than Reginald, but when we go for a walk with them to a beautiful church on the warden’s grounds we are made to see or feel the advantage Reginald has in sense of security and meaning to be placed in a world of centuries old art and tradition. Even if Reginald’s way of spending his days is among the ignorant individual poor, while Northcote seems to do higher political things, Northcote’s life is diminished by his not having connection to this tradition.

Now Northcote feels for Ursula; he sees her father, Mr May, bullying and harassing and embarrassing her by complaining about the meals he insists she concoct up for his resident pupil, Clarence Copperhead. Northcote feels such sympathy for Ursula. He is so attracted to her sweetness, he thinks he is in love with her, and begins to court her to her surprize, fear, and delight. Ursula does not love him equally in return because she is not capable of this, but she is alive to the power of the man’s mind and handsomeness, and possibility of a happy life with him.

Class issues are very painful in this novel, and they intersect with gender ones.

Cover illustration for Penguin edition of Miss Marjoribanks: James Tissot (1836-1902), The Rivals

The Copperheads are where we begin the story, with the assembly party they throw for other dissenters and which establishment people will come. Mr Copperhead, a bully of a man who has made huge sums, coarse, show-offy, vulgar, and determined to make everyone admire him for his money which in fact most do. He buys art to show the price he paid for it. He sends his son Clarence to be educated by May, and the son is taken in because May is desperate for the fee and possibilities of further money through the connection.

Mrs Copperhead’s wife is miserable with him: she is sensitive, perceptive and lives an isolated life with no outlet for a real friend. Her best moments are with her son, Clarence who dull as he is, does love her. She is kind and buys things for the May girls, but it’s shown that she gets a good deal out of buying said stuff. No one does anything just like this out of the goodness of their hearts even if they have more than another. Mr Copperhead was very irritated by Clarence dancing with Ursula and Phoebe all evening as neither have the high rank or big money he wants for his son.

A final set of characters fills out the triangulations Oliphant works with. The Dorsets, upper class establishment people who don’t have quite enough money to live wealthily but just manage. Mr Dorset does not forge or embezzle; he prefers to live within his straitened means and we see how this hurts his pride and yet how his pride makes him look down on the Copperheads, Mays (who are lower in rank) and certainly all the dissenters.

There are two young women in the Dorset family: Anne and Sophy Dorset. They live in London, are well educated and perceptive, sophisticated in outlook. With their parents, they are willing to be patronized by the Copperheads (go to their parties, accept their invitations); Mr Copperhead of course despises them, and they dismiss him in their hearts. Anne, who is not going to marry, is the best or nicest person in the story thus far, 30 years old. We see her devoting her hours to a niece and nephew sent from India and her brother’s children, partly because she needs to be needed. She has the best values of anyone in the story and is probably the most exploited in a daily hourly way. Sophy her younger sister (say around 28) was jilted when a young man she loved discovered her father, Mr Dorset had not cultivated his connections and has minimal means. She has not gotten over this. Anne is very kind to Ursula when Ursula comes to visit, and Ursula is aware of this, grateful and sticks up for Anne when anyone denigrates her. It’s at such moments we see Ursula at her best.

Oliphant is strongly anti-romantic (she made fun of Jane Eyre) and her heroine, Phoebe, chooses to marry for money and ambition rather than love. In so doing she helps save Mr May to whom she is grateful for having her in his house where she meets and is courted by both Clarence Copperhead and Reginald May. There too she makes friends with Ursula, Janey and Northcote.

Oliphant puts a hard truthful view of social life before us. It’s what I am loving this novel for this time round. What I objected to in Miss Majoribanks (and it made me unable to finish it) was the value put on it by Lucilla who we are to find dislikable — even if satirized Oliphant wouldn’t write a book about it if she didn’t value it at some level and sympathize with Lucilla’s aspirations to petty tyrannnies and power. (It’s an Emma novel.)

What I like in Phoebe Junior is there is a much larger perspective, with at at the same time I think actually more alienation as Oliphant really shows us how some people have better things in them that make them suffer so and also the larger social monsters responsible (Mr May, Mr Copperhead).

In this Carlingford series Oliphant had the idea of doing for the level below the gentry and church of England what Trollope did for them in Barsetshire. We rarely have shopkeepers’ as major characters, much less their daughters. We do not see dissenters in this way at all — there is no harsh satire on their religion, and they seem to like pleasure as much as the next person (something Trollope will not allow). But like say Anna Barbauld and Elizabeth Gaskell, she shows how social circumstances and a lack of respect drives the dissenters to change their attitude to their religion and emulate upper class ways of worship and attitudes.

Cover illustration for Virago edition of Salem Chapel: John Callcott Horsley (1817-1903), Madame se chauffe

So three young women: Phoebe Beecham, Ursula May and (probably) Sophy Dorset, all delineated psychologically so as to suggest how they cope and how they have gotten to the point where they have probably fates. I at first thought Clarence Copperhead would go for Sophy though he seems to care more for his mother and food than anything else; and predicted the bully vulgar Mr Copperhead may stop it if Sophy doesn’t refuse, or the father may be charmed by the high status, hard to say as money is what he values. If Sophy does marry him, it will not be for love but to have a husband with money and means for her and her sister In fact Copperhead goes for and wins Phoebe, rather easily due to his money and status). Three young men: Reginald May, Horace Northcote, Clarence Copperhread, carefully delineated so as to project psychological, social, economic, humane themes. As men they are plugged or can be directly in to the society; the women must plug into the men. Fascinating older people: Mr May, Mr Copperhead, Mrs Beecham (Phoebe’s mother), Mrs Copperhead (poor woman), the elderly dull lower class vulgar Tozers (grandparents). And the single woman, Anne Dorset reminding me of Trollope’s Priscilla Stanbury (the wonderfully intelligent spinster of strong integrity in He Knew He Was Right) only much sweeter and not going to end up in a miserable cottage since her father has status and enough to keep her.

I love Oliphant’s truthfulness. No one in the novel is imagined as altruistic really beyond what is in their interests; momentarily they can be kind, and they can be sexually attracted or admire someone for something they want, but not beyond that.

And the psychological portraiture is candid: Copperhead is the son of a fantastically rich man, and not a total fool, but no sensitive insightful gentleman; his looks are commonplace, even dull from the outside (this is very Trollopian — I remember John Ball in Miss Mackenzie).

There are some strongly feminist passages in the book too. Take Phoebe’s sarcasm to the young man’s complacent assumption of their superiority:

‘To be sure,’ said Phoebe, ‘we are not so clever as you are, and can’t do so many things. We know no Latin or Greek to keep our minds instructed; we acknowledge our infirmity; and we couldn’t play football to save our lives. Football is what you do in this season, when you don’t hunt, and before the ice is bearing? We are poor creatures; we can’t parcel out our lives, according as it is time for football or cricket. You must not be so severe upon girls for being so inferior to you.’

But as stronger impulse is showing the coldness, selfishness, pragmaticism, value of status, money, and prestige in all human nature. Here’s what Phoebe thinks when she decides to marry Copperhead:

Phoebe had nothing to appeal to Heaven about, or to seek counsel from Nature upon, as sentimental people might do. She took counsel with herself, the person most interested. What was the thing she ought to do? Clarence Copperhead was going to propose to her. She did not even take the trouble of saying to herself that he loved her; it was Reginald who did that, a totally different person, but yet the other was more urgent. What was Phoebe to do? She did not dislike Clarence Copperhead, and it was no horror to her to think of marrying him. She had felt for years that this might be on the cards, and there were a great many things in it which demanded consideration. He was not very wise, nor a man to be enthusiastic about, but he would be a career to Phoebe. She did not think of it humbly like this, but with a big capital Career. Yes; she could put him into parliament, and keep him there. She could thrust him forward (she believed) to the front of affairs. He would be as good as a profession, a position, a great work to Phoebe. He meant wealth (which she dismissed in its superficial aspect as something meaningless and vulgar, but accepted in its higher aspect as an almost necessary condition of influence), and he meant all the possibilities of future power. Who can say that she was not as romantic as any girl of twenty could be? only her romance took an unusual form. It was her head that was full of throbbings and pulses, not her heart.

Instead of dreaming of prince charming (no matter how poor you see), Phoebe dreams of marrying a man who will give her a place, prestige, and work in the world as a society and politicizing wife — in the way Lady Glencora Palliser tries to be in The Prime Minister. Oliphant knows this kind of aspiration is not one conventionally acceptable. The above tone is not sardonic, but rather earnest. Merryn Williams, one of Oliphant’s biographers, says many readers would find Phoebe’s lack of idealism and romance unpleasant — and choice of husband.

And Oliphant does not slide over the boredom of choosing to live with a stupid man:

He was stupid – but he was a man, and Phoebe felt proud of him, for the moment at least” and “He was a blockhead, but he was a man…

It’s even suggested that, although Clarence is a fool, Phoebe finds him quite physically attractive – he is said to be large and “not without good looks”, and there are descriptions of him putting his arms around her waist and lifting her up in the air.

I hope I have conveyed what is the peculiar strength and value of Oliphant’s Phoebe Junior.

Albert Goodwin (1845-1932), The Old Mill, near Winchester

I have written about Oliphant on the World Wide Web before: she wrote one of the best critical essays on Austen in the 19th century: her review of Austen’s nephew’s memoir, while unkindly mocking him, presented Austen for the first time as the satirical acid feminine presence D. W. Harding recognized her to be. She is also a writer of masterpieces in the ghost story kind, e.g., The Beleaguered Cityy= and “The Library Window”.

On Women Writers through the Ages, we read her great novel set in England, Hester (1883) where I wrote weekly about it. The heroine here is an older business woman and the hero her nephew. On my own I went onto her remarkable Scots novels, The Ladies Lindores (1883) and Kirsteen (1890). Her Autobiography as published by her niece (Mrs Harry Coghill), together with her letters to the Blackwell’s is one of the most powerful life-writings of the 19th century. She does not wear her heart on her sleeve, but as you read her candid account of her hard-working literary-art life you see how original a being she was. I wrote essays on these works too, so compelled did I feel to work out their meaning and urge others to read them too.

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Lydia on the Terrace Crocheting

In general, there is a distinction between the presence Oliphant puts before us in her English, Scots and the ghost story-gothic novellas and short fiction. The irony in the English books (and that means the Carlingford) is distinctly pragmatic and concerned intensely with class and money — only Hester makes gender and romance as central and it’s the most powerful I think of all I’ve read thus far in Oliphant’s English mode.

In her Scots novels, she’s ironic and realistic or anti-romantic about different things. She places the books in Scots tradition (and herself is writing to critique and replace what she conceives of as Scott’s romancing and sentimentality about the lower classes in Scotland). She presents more landscape, more delving into culture and, more about women trying to achieve independence. There is dramatization of dangerous sexualities and murderous or atavistic violent impulses because she conceives they have more play in the less populated areas of the UK.

The ghost and gothics are not ironic in these ways at all. She lets loose and we are in a realm of the uncanny and she soars into poetry that is frightening and metaphysical. You might say they have dramatic irony as a structure.

Finally, her Autobiography is pure open poignancy, candour about her inner life, creative faculty, difficult career as a woman, and tragic loss of her husband, sons, nephew. Her literary criticism about her era and the 18th century is as insightful as you will find; she is an independent thinking deep feeling woman who survived by working long and hard (she wrote 126 novels). The end of her life was tragic in that those she loved all predeceased her, and the last line of her autobiography shows her breaking off, writing “I can no more.”

Illustration for Oliphant’s haunted and haunting “The Library Window”


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