When I was 17 I began to find myself, who I was and what I liked to do. I did this by taking a 2 and 1/2 hour trip into Manhattan from where I lived in Kew Gardens, Queens, twice or three times a week. I found that at 11 in the morning twice a week the Metropolitan Museum of Art had art lectures — or so I thought them. I just loved these, mostly on Renaissance paintings as I recall. I’d never experienced that kind of talk before. I went faithfully for months and months. At the time I realized the women who did this began to recognize me and if I asked questions, they were particularly nice. I remember best how each of them would say how the Met had all these paintings or other art “downstairs” in the basement and no one got to see them. Nowadays we do because the building has expanded and the Met is willing to show painting that would have at one time been dismissed as inferior. It was a great shame just to leave them there.
Well, in the spirit of taking a picture up from the basement that would have at one time been left unseen, invisible, here’s a lovely Victorian landscape that I can see illustrating a Trollope novel (Hulme’s life span is almost coterminous with Trollope’s too): it is the sort of thing you would displayed in an exhibit in the Met today — if they had it:
Frederick William Hulme (1816-184), Lakes in Rivington
Around the same time my father told me about a theater in Manhattan that played art and foreign films called The Thalia. It was on 96th Street on the Upper West Side. He thought I might like some of the films there. At the time the word film transformed the adventure into something more than entertainment. I’d go on weekends, Saturday or Sunday. Once a week. I remember seeing King and Country, Master and Servant, The Afternoon of a Faun, Viridiniana, a passionate Spanish Wuthering Heights. There were half-mad German films, and John Gabin in French films. So at least three times a week back and forth for hours I was going into Manhattan and participating in its life this way. This was in 1963.
I’m remembering this now because I went alone. I didn’t think about not having to please someone else’s taste or worry if he (I had a husband, a husband!) or she (a rarity for me as I had no girlfriends) was enjoying the experience. I simply knew no one who would have liked those films or would have gone to such lectures. I’m wishing I could experience that innocence of perspective again since it is this kind of satisfaction once again, 52 years later, that I try to have. I take myself to films, to concerts, museum shows, plays, lectures, even operas. I can’t. What was such a revelation to me at 17 is now what I grew accustomed to do as a matter of course for decades with Jim. I was singularly uncritical when I was 17. I’ve had a companion all these years, 45, and since getting onto the Net more than 20 years ago have understood the world as made up of pairs of people, people in social groups when they do things together, and have myself been part of such groups offline. I’ve lost my unself-consciousness and my unawareness of my differences from others. Today I’d be aware of the docents in the Metropolitan Museum puzzling over me. I was not, then. But I can’t undo what has now been woven into my perspective.
I find myself asking if my father meant to help me out, saw I didn’t know what to do with my life once school or paid work for the day was over. The following year I was able to switch from the School of General Studies at Queens College (night-time courses), to the BA program (I had gotten all A’s in my courses) during the day. The women in the office told me I could go for $25 a term — nearly free! My mother had taken to giving me $40 a month at the time. Our rent (remember I had a husband in my apartment with me, and pace Gaskell’s Deborah in Cranford he didn’t much get in the way), my rent, I say, was low. I ate hardly anything at all. Queens College was two buses away from my apartment. So I quit my job as a legal secretary for the Federal Aviation Agency to go to college full-time. How proud and glad I was to do that; I understood, felt it was a privilege I’d almost missed.
It was summer and I took two Shakespeare courses, the first and second half, each 6 weeks. The classes met 2 or 3 times a week, and in each we read 10 (!) plays. I loved them, and read them over and over. My first college paper was on The Winter’s Tale. Well, one day my father came over to my apartment and said, Would you like to go to see plays by Shakespeare in Central Park, the Delacorte theater. “Yes.” That summer I saw three with him, waiting patiently on line together from about 4 o’clock on. He took off time from work to meet me there. Now I can watch great Shakespearean productions on my BBC iplayer, but alas in the DC area there is nothing like the Delacorte which is still going strong in NYC. This week I found a still, from the first of the two cycles of the Hollow Crown, of my favorite Julie Walters (Calendar Girls anyone?) as Mistress Quickly and Maxine Peake (she was Miss Wade in Little Dorrit and does a great deal with almost silent role as) Doll Tearsheet:
That first year I became an English major: I never doubted I wanted to do anything else, but I took art history courses as a minor. These were better than the Metropolitan museum lectures I had to admit but along similar lines. They were held in very old “Spanish-style” buildings with no air-conditioning (little heat either), and one teacher was my especial favorite. She smoked in class and allowed people in class to smoke. She would bring in stacks of frames with pictures and put them up on the screen in front of the class and go ecstatic over them. She’d get ash all over herself in her enthusiasm. It was delightful.
I made my first friend in a long time. Her name was Leslie, she had two young children and lived not far away from the college on a small income. She was not much older than me despite the two children, and we became friends because we were both English majors taking art courses. As chance had it that first year we were in a few of one another’s classes. I wish I could remember more from ages 17 to 19; I feel there are gaps. This was a time of no or little sleep for me, and I was very very thin (78 pounds, 5 stone 5). My first husband tried to teach me to drive, a stick-shift Volkswagon bug, and (foolishly) I resisted this. I felt I didn’t need to and didn’t foresee how I’d ever live anywhere else but NYC.
Years later, when I was 28 (now married to Jim, my beloved husband of 45 years, who I usually refer to by the words “my husband”) my father had to teach me to drive, a partial stick-shift Volkswagon bug. We’d go up and down Broadway past Central Park, and then round the highways, across the bridges, and then back to Queens, where he lived and then onto Seaman Avenue at the top of Manhattan, under the Cloisters itself where I then lived with Jim, and our dog, Llyr. Like Jenny Diski in her Smoking Around America I still rode trains a lot. The year I was 17 I also walked endlessly, around the city, all over Manhattan, took buses between boroughs — one very long trip every once in a while from Kew Gardens to the Cloisters at the top of Manhattan. It was so beautifully quiet there, with a herb garden, and on Tuesday late mornings concerts of early modern music. At age 28 I just walked up the hill, with Jim mostly, but sometimes with Llry, and we’d go to the yearly festival, eat semi-medieval food, watch play-jousting and go inside to see the tapestries.
I think I miss not remembering between ages 17 and 19 what I read or the specific courses I took and what I did at night-time. All the writing on-line nowadays helps me to remember and again to compensate the strong contemporary novel I’m reading just now is Ahdaf Soueif’s Map of Love, a kind of re-do of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust. A pattern in both and one I find in 18th century Scottish and other post-colonial women’s texts is a depiction of generations of women where at least one is gripped by, returns to, is swallowed up by the traditional culture and her love for a specific man. Anna Winterbourne (the Victorian heroine to whom this happens) begins her journey after she is widowed and begins to be allured by John Frederick Lewis’s orientalist paintings (1804-1876 — Emily Weekes’s art biography, Cultures Crossed is helping bring back respect for these paintings):
Prawer presents the vanishing of the 19th century heroine into India as a mystery, and rejoices at her 20th century heroine’s decision to have a baby and utterly alter her life to become a mother. Soueif is already doing better than that: as it opens, her tale-teller, Amal, is a divorced woman who has immured herself as a writer for some 20 years and it seems that there is going to be some accounting for why through this second pattern of withdrawal, and there are several other women: Isabel, a young woman in her early twenties who’s a journalist and has found the papers, her widowed quietly distraught mother, Jasmine, lives in some kind of home in NYC (of all places, how did she end up there?). Several of their brothers and sons have been egregiously murdered through the ferocious colonialist and local wars or just died young. The text seems to me so like the earlier women’s novels I’ve been reading, only so much more aware of the source of its patternings.
I had stopped watching commercial TV at age 13 or so (I’ve not seen any TV situation comedy or drama series since 1959). But that year (1964), the first I went full-time to college, I do remember watching with my father, Play of the Week, some filmed play would air every night (like “Million Dollar Movie” on Channel 9, Metromedia) over a few months: Medea with Judith Anderson, The Waltz of the Toreadors, the best Twelfth Night I’ve ever seen (bitter, melancholy, dark and angry). He’d come over once a week and we’d watch together. (I don’t know if I’ve said: I have no brothers or sisters. So I was his only child.) The year I was 18.
This past Tuesday night I went to the Kennedy Center to hear Fiona Shaw read poetry — she enacted it really. I heard people in the elevator after marveling over how she’d memorized the poems. Well she does that when she acts on stage or in a film. To me what was marvelous was the way she acted them out, read them, and her passing comments about the poets. Her choices were from Yeats, Emily Dickinson (though it was supposed to be Irish poetry) and Seamus Heaney. She did a combination of famous, and rarely read aloud poems. One was this (I leave the middle out):
After great pain a formal feeling comes —
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs …
This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow —
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.
I was reading Charlotte Smith today, the 18th century poet, her novel Marchmont and her poetry, so moving. I told how I came to in the early 1980s and how nowadays her texts are just about all available. One poem today which swirls around a ruined castle on the cliffs of Channel projected a vision which is relevant to the way European gov’ts are treating the refuges their own ruthless policies have made. A few passages:
Chaotic pile of barren stone,
That Nature’s hurrying hand has thrown,
Half-finish’d, from the troubled waves;
On whose rude brow the rifted tower
Has frown’d, thro’ many a stormy hour,
On this drear site of tempest-beaten graves.
Sure Desolation loves to shroud
His giant form within the cloud
That hovers round thy rugged head;
And as thro’ broken vaults beneath,
The future storms low-muttering breathe,
Hears the complaining voices of the dead …
On the bleak hills, with flint 0′ erspread,
No blossoms rear the purple head;
No shrub perfumes the Zephyrs’ breath,
But o’er the cold and cheerless down
Grim Desolation seems to frown,
Blasting the ungrateful soil with partial death.
Here the scathed trees with leaves half-drest,
Shade no soft songster’s secret nest,
Whose spring-notes soothe the pensive ear;
But high the croaking cormorant flies,
And mews and awks with clamorous cries
Tire the lone echoes of these caverns drear.
Perchance among the ruins grey
Some widow’d mourner loves to stray,
Marking the melancholy main
Where once, afar she could discern
O’er the white waves his sail return
Who never, never now, returns again!
On these lone tombs, by storms up-torn,
The hopeless wretch may lingering mourn,
Till from the ocean, rising red,
The misty Moon with lurid ray
Lights her, reluctant, on her way,
To steep in tears her solitary bed.
Hence the dire Spirit oft surveys
The ship, that to the western bays
With favouring gales pursues its course;
Then calls the vapour dark that blinds
The pilot-calls the felon winds
That heave the billows with resistless force.
Commixing with the blotted skies,
High and more high the wild waves rise,
Till, as impetuous torrents urge,
Driven on yon fatal bank accurst,
The vessel’s massy timbers burst,
And the crew sinks beneath the infuriate surge.
There find the weak an early grave,
While youthful strength the whelming wave
Repels; and labouring for the land,
With shorten’d breath and upturn’d eyes,
Sees the rough shore above him rise,
Nor dreams that rapine meets him on the strand.
And are there then in human form
Monsters more savage than the storm,
Who from the gasping sufferer tear
The dripping weed?-who dare to reap
The inhuman harvest of the deep,
From half-drown’d victims whom the tempests spare?
This week we again saw hundreds and hundreds of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. And there was again a photo of a drowned toddler, this time the body craddled in the arms of a male volunteer who was part of a team trying to rescue these people.
Some of those who survive are taken to these barren prison camps of tents, and then shipped back. So in the 18th century we find the same kind of thing occurring around the time of revolutions in the 1790s around the channel (beyond smuggling). Smith precedes the poem by a paragraph about the 1790s as an “alarmist” era and how trivial things are being treated in what we’d call paranoid style to whip up treason trials, kill writing careers, and imprison people. This is the first reference backing Kenneth Johnston’s thesis in his book Pitt’s Reign of Alarm (and “a lost generation”) outside the texts (many admittedly from Wordsworth to Blake) he quotes in his book.
I meant to garden but just as I went out it began to rain, and as I had hurt my big toe very badly (stubbed it when I excitedly prevented a cat from playing with the wires in my workroom), I gave it up. Tonight I watched Part 4 of Bondarchuk’s courageous and astoundingly ambitious War and Peace — which Smith’s poetry could be inserted into, if Tolstoy were of her political complexion. I’ll be writing about this one and two other film adaptations of Tolstoy’s masterpiece (1972 BBC by Jack Pulman, 2015 BBC by Andrew Davies) soon. I am deeply absorbed by all three and have been watching them over and over. I’m on my third round of the Pulman mini-series (the best), my second on Andrew Davies and my first of the Russian one (it’s partly dubbed in English, two different sets of subtitles, and has the original French and Russian in there too). Later this summer on Trollope19thStudies three of us are going to read Tolstoy’s book together and discuss it as we go along.
I need no longer get on a train for 2 and 1/2 hours to do what makes being alive worth that pain Emily speaks of, and sometimes it is so strong. But I was also unknowing, had an innocence that cut me off: I didn’t know how to function, but was also shielded by having no sense of common expectations so I knew happiness more easily, more simply.