Dear friends and readers,
It’s probably not a pure coincidence that a new version of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is going to be screened on Hulu, a new computer channel which shows movies, that they have chosen this distopian tale for their first venture. I’ve read that top sellers for this week at Amazon (which by the way operates with Trump businesses, so if you want to boycott these you can at least try to find other online stores to buy your books from), as listed in the New York Times Book Review include Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. If you want genuinely to understand what we are living through, what we appear to be watching happening at its final visible phase (it’s been mostly stealth or only seen in local instances for some 40 years) — the setting up of a dictatorship, you might do better to read a serious history of the first hundred days or say six months of Hitler’s regime.
I’ve not read It Can’t Happen Here, but have read the others, probably with the mistaken impression in my mind that in fact this is a democracy, people, real individuals in the millions, believe in voting and having their votes properly counted. I have now seen how such a certainly in the mind (I thought) of every American citizen makes it hard truly to believe in the dystopia of your choice. Trollope wrote one: The Fixed Period, taking place on an island that seems coterminous with New Zealand. All people at age 67 are required to “deposit” themselves in an asylum, a year later they will be killed. (His New Zealander, first published in 1972 in an edition by N.John Hall, is a somber analysis of 19th century British political culture as he so lucidly understood it.)
The roll out of destructions by the Republican rump and their ignorant malevolent shamelessly self-centered leader has been and continues to be done piece-meal. He’s putting it together with remarkable ease. His vicious people in the powerful places. Firing the staff just below. Slowly felt contradictory vague executive orders are an attempt to divide people by when they are hard hit – all the while lying. So I have not yet personally felt anything economically critical gone. Just heart. Just. The grief is hard to characterize. This morning I tried Dance Workshop again: they have a new woman, just relentlessly cheerful. Talks about the 45 minutes as a party. I wilt under such treatment.
I recommend to my reader Kathryn Schultz’s “Losing Streak,” or When Things Go Missing, in this week’s New Yorker (13, 20 February 2017): she begins with the word loss, which apparently goes back to “Old English” and means “perish;” it was in the 13th century that “lose” meant failing to win; in the 16th century we began to lose our minds (so mental distress, trouble), in the 17th century our hearts. It’s been expanding so now it includes all those hundreds of losses of things we endure over the course of our lives, from “mittens” to money, to beloved people. Now we are feeling our whole future has been stolen from us, robbed by the gerrymandering, politicization of our courts, electoral college, insane campaign against Hillary Clinton; all that we could had in improvement is now reversed and our very republic, safety from all-out war, civil and human and women’s rights about to be lost and in a way that might be irretrievable for decades and more to come. Losing a beloved, losing her father, she talks of death, not of losing friends, which has been part of my losing streak this year.
But in the meantime I’ve met an honest man! My neighbor-friend recommended as a contractor, a German man, semi-retired, and he has offered to do all I want (enclose porch, and make a fully functioning room, paint outside of house cream color, update electricity in house &c&c) for what may come out to be less than the kitchen renovation cost. It seems the demand I have the foundation dug out is a way for builders to make huge sums; the way veterinarians to clean a cat’s teeth want to put them under anesthesia and stick a tube down them (risking their lives) in order to make $500. So after all I’ll have what I’ve longed for for so many years. Too bad Jim is not here now. I’ve no one to take pleasure in it but myself. Izzy approves but it does not mean for her what it does for me. The neighbors will like this as it will help property values. I will have more space for my books 🙂 and not be ashamed any more.
I can link the two entertainments I’ve gone to over this week to our present dystopia. I was finally able to remember the name of the woman who ran an inexpensive and sometimes innovative and intelligent repertoire company in DC: Carla Huber; her group, The In-Series, located in DC just off 14th Street, a walk along U Avenue (from the Metro). It was a show made up of songs of Irving Berlin with a narration carried on by the performers situating songs in his life, his career, the particular musical or just song cycle. The songs were chosen to reflect some characterization of a type in one of his musicals, the actors and singers people one knew would put the material across. I conquered driving there and back by car, so learned where it was, and then going there by Metro on Saturday evening. One song prompted long, strong and extended applause: a black woman singer-actress, Krislynn T. Perry, sang “Supper Time,” in a deeply moving way, belting it out. I did not know before this that it’s a song by a black woman whose husband has been lynched. Here’s Ethel Waters performing the song:
I attended the first of our Washington Area Print Group’s lectures for this spring: Deirdre Johnson discussed popular series fiction by two American women: their circumstances and what they produced are typical of the era: Adelaide F. Samuels (1845-1941) and her much more upper class sister-in-law Susan Caldwell Samuels (1846-1931). Middling educated white people with connections to publishers, especially through a father, Emanuel Smith (1816-86, zoologist, botanist, collector) and Susan’s husband, Edward Samuel (1836-1908, naturalist). The stories focus on central characters who live individualist successful lives, attached to churches, looking now and again to their family for help. Although strongly teleological, the titles tell an occasional tale of lives stranded and broken (Adrift in the World). Susan and Edward’s divorce led her to concentrate on how the power a husband has can inflict cruelty and failure on those in his charge. Adelaide had come from much poorer people and when she was widowed, with one son, she listed herself as a “writer” and attempted to live off her earnings. Her stories are less moral than Susan’s. But (what the lecturer didn’t say) all these stories are a depiction of a large (taken as a whole) ceaselessly on the move culture treating itself as ever so moral. We got to talking as a group about children’s literature, how it’s changed in the last half-century, and how in contrast to American, British books for children were a melange of fantasy and realism (e.g., The Borrowers). What American children were give was imagined communities. British children were offered an escape from local reality.
Robert Southey’s desk in Greta Hall as drawn/painted by Caroline Bowles Southey: it’s the world as seen from her husband’s desk; he had the biggest best room in the house; not entirely unfairly as he supported himself, his nuclear family and Coleridge’s, as well as women and children attached to other romantic and dispossessed poets and writers when needed
On Trollope19thCStudies we are into Wordsworth’s Prelude and I’m reading Kenneth Johnston’s excellent The Hidden Wordsworth (it’s really a history-biography of the realities of intimate oppression in the later 18th and early 19th century in Cumberland), and I’m trying to accompany it with reading a fine woman poet’s autobiographical poem, much less well-known, Caroline Bowles Southey: The Birthday: A Life in Verse. I hope by the time we finish I can wrote my first foremother poet blog in a long time. For now, in case you’ve never heard of her (talk about the enemies of promise), here’s a brief literary biography by me:
Caroline Bowles’s years were 1786-1854 so she crosses the 18th and 19th century eras. She was born to people with money but as when her parents died her guardian absconded with the money that was to support her, she grew up very poor. She was educated (she was a genteel hanger-on in a big family and I imagine might have loved Jane Eyre and identified readily with Lucy Morris in Trollope’s Eustace Diamonds or Kirsten in Oliphant’s wonderful novel of that name). She published other books of poetry; The Birthday was originally compared with Cowper’s Task. She does write in the poetic diction of Cowper. Wordsworth’s greatness is based on his original use of a natural spoken English not seen before. At the time Wordsworth’s Prelude was hardly known. Robert Southey met, introduced her to Wordsworth, and they collaborated on a poem called Robin Hood. It never saw the light (was not completed). When Southey’s wife died, Southey married Bowles, but he was very ill by that time and his illness blighted her later life. She received a crown pension in 1854. Unhappily too she has been blamed for marrying him, blamed for somehow getting between his wife and him (she didn’t) and then her own work seen as super-influenced by him — which it wasn’t.
There’s a wonderful essay on Bowles Southey in Romanticism and Women Poets: Opening the Doors of Reception, edd. Harriet Linking and Stephen Behrendt: Kathleen Hickok, ”’Burst are the Prison Bars: Caroline Bowles Southey and the Vicissitudes of Poetic Reputation,” pp. 192-213. There has been an edition of Caroline Bowles Southey’s poetry and a biography by Virginia Blain:, Caroline Bowles Southey, 1786-1854: the Making of a Woman Writer .
“The Birthday” is a longish blank verse poem telling of the growth and development of a poet’s mind through retelling her story. It’s called “The Birthday” because it’s imagined that she begins to write it on her birthday one year. “The Birthday” gives us a woman’s version of Wordsworth’s Prelude. It’s shameful “The Birthday” is not better known. Unlike Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh as it hasn’t got a melodramatic story at its center, but a real one. In the excerpt I sent the poet goes to a filthy shop in London where she meets a laboring man who loves to read and has aspirations to write. He can’t. He can’t begin to get the books he needs (shades of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure) and hasn’t got any time to himself at all. He must work from early morning to late at night. Wordsworth refers to poor people but does not give them reality; in her Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning gives us this melodramatic story of the seamstress in love who has a baby out of wedlock and (in the poem) deserved to be dropped. Not Caroline’s heroine, herself.
To the reading and papers I’m working on (described in previous diary entries), tonight I begin the second of my chosen books for the course I hope to teach at the OLLI at Mason, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop (short-listed), a kind of distilled Cathy Come Home, starting late March. I’m now listening to Nadia May read aloud Virginia Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out: it focuses on the coming into maturity of a super-sheltered, minimally educated intelligent young woman, Rachel Vinrace. Much water imagery. This from The London Scene which I read with someone on Wwtta last week:
A group of sketches, all at most 5-7 pages or so; like much of Woolf’s work, it’s a posthumous publication carefully staggered/staged and packaged by Leonard. I have separate thinnish books of non-fiction by her and for the first time I understand how they came to be and why they are so heterogeneous. This is a late book, first published in 1975, put together by Angelica Garnett and Clive Bell, niece and brother-in-law, published nominally by Hogarth Press but really a small press hired and in a limited edition. These feel bright, seemingly cheerful excursions — the sort of thing one sees in a magazine. I say seeming because the undercurrent leads us to her The Waves. Time is doing its work across the centuries and in single hours, days, weeks, years, all is going to rot or was once (so relics, remnants)
What strikes me as I’ve finished The Waves, and begun The Voyage Out, how water (as in Shakespeare) is central to Woolf, waterways of the world, oceans, rivers, streams. While the sun controls the seeming 24 hour structure of the Waves, the imagery is watery or about stream, life as ooze. Orlando crosses time as in a reverie: Eva Figes’s greatest novella is The Seven Ages of Women. Here we have a eye going through the river recording different phase sof English history by different classes at different times – in 8 pages the eye bypasses very different ships and boats, from Liner and streamers with crowds of ordinary people on the shore, to a dingy warehouse area (very Dickensian), to left over village, with a desolate pub (note desolation), church, a cottage or house gone to ruin, trees, bells once rung here. Then barges, rubbish and Indian, next to the Tower of London, commerce, the city, factories with chimnies. On we go to indefatible cranes unloading and loading according to exquisitely understood plans by mazes of peple. (Le Carre’s Night Manager shows all this replaced by these intensely dull boring containers and very few people employed.) I have read the ships which carry these containers can be dangerous for passengers if not enough of them. Jenny Diski traveled on one in one of her books. Then the beautiful things packed, the oddities, the jewels, sports of nature – Woolf imagines all this. Now we realize if we didn’t before this is a kind dream. Then the wine-vaults: Cask after cask. Customs officers. No smuggling here: stamped out in the mid-19th century by England’s first determined army of police effort.
The phrase “use produces beauty as a bye-product” could sum up all Jane Austen on the picturesque … Then words have been invented out of all we see.I don’t understand a couple of them, nor understand why flogging is there but that sailors were once flogged to get them to do this work, flogged if they mutinied and disobeyed. (Will Trump bring flogging back; there is nothing he can do which bothers his followers or the Republicans. I am waiting for him to beat the hell out of his wife, and the tweet: “I lost it – my temper.” ) Last: all we see is the result of us, of our bodies. All the things and animals that made these products were created and used by us – Australian sheep say. And this rocking rhythm and final peroration. L’ecriture femme with the full stamp of Virginia Woolf
I handed in a proposal for teaching at OLLI at Mason for this coming summer (how relentless is time and it’s been just about accepted:
Romancing 18th century historical fiction
Our topic will be the nature of recent post-modern post-colonial historical fiction as well as how as a genre historical romance differs from historical fiction, and what happens when the two subgenres mix. We’ll read as examples the older traditional The King’s General by Daphne DuMaurier (1946) against the recent innovative The Volcano Lover (1992) by Susan Sontag. Bringing in as part of the discussion, other popular novels set in the 18th century (from Poldark to Outlander) and 18th century historical films (from Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon to Scola’s That Night in Varennes), we’ll explore these questions: How do such books use documents and relics (e.g. houses and paintings) from an era; landscape then and now, history, biography, life-writing; biographical fiction and fantasy, to reach and recreate the irretrievable, the unknowable past, to persuade us to imagine we are in the past as presences with the author. Why do we want to do this? Why is it important for the text or film to be authentic and yet familiar? For us to bond with the characters? And be fascinated by their era?
I end on yet another woman poet-writer, 19th century, American: Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919). In Cox’s case what’s telling is she was very popular, and part of the 19th century progressive or populist socialist movement (Bernie Sanders is a rare unashamed modern representative), which has been crushed since the advent of the FBI and ceaseless repression from the 1950s on.
To sin by silence, when we should protest,
Makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance, and lust,
The inquisition yet would serve the law,
And guillotines decide our least disputes.
The few who dare, must speak and speak again
To right the wrongs of many. Speech, thank God,
No vested power in this great day and land
Can gag or throttle. Press and voice may cry
Loud disapproval of existing ills;
May criticise oppression and condemn
The lawlessness of wealth-protecting laws
That let the children and childbearers toil
To purchase ease for idle millionaires.
Therefore I do protest against the boast
Of independence in this mighty land.
Call no chain strong, which holds one rusted link.
Call no land free, that holds one fettered slave.
Until the manacled slim wrists of babes
Are loosed to toss in childish sport and glee,
Until the mother bears no burden, save
The precious one beneath her heart, until
God’s soil is rescued from the clutch of greed
And given back to labor, let no man
Call this the land of freedom.
I just thought that I’ve never focused on Scarlett Johansson’s eloquent speech at the Women’s March, on January 21st:
It is still hard and brave for most women to speak before a huge audience, and she’s telling intimate realities of her life. Elizabeth Robins’s The convert is about how hard it was for the first suffragettes to talk before a crowd. It is harder yet to be sincere.