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Susan Herbert, After Pissarro, Girl with a Stick

Dear friends and readers,

It’s time for end of year blogs. What else is the function of birthdays, anniversaries, each Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s — but to prompt us, will we nill we, to look back, to this time last year, and tonight I’m wondering why I have cried so little since Jim died. Such moments — and usually I’ve not gone on to keen — have occurred surprisingly rarely for me. Yes I know it’s the sensible thing. “Would it help?” asked Mark Rylance inimitably, stealing the whole movie, last January. But we act irrationally a good deal, and this week events piled up to the point I began to wonder why I cry so little. Perhaps I exhausted myself at age 14 to 15, my time of enduring traumatic sexual harassment and humiliation I’ve never gotten over. I’d sit or lie down and cry for hours, whole afternoons; one day in the high school I couldn’t cease crying so was taken to the student infirmary where the kindly nurse said, “go ahead, dear.” Better than the English nurses when I was 27 and had a spectacular miscarriage in a Keswick hospital: they looked at me with intense disapproval. I was upsetting the other patients who “could hear.” My recollection is that since those 2 years I’ve been more or less dry-eyed. I did keen on and off for a few days when I first realize Jim was really dying and soon, of liver cancer, but slow motion, low-grade tearing distress, and (to be candid) finding this was openly not appreciated, stopped.

So what happened this week? I’m not referring to Trump’s crowning success of a tax bill the other night — though it will hurt me and mine at first in small ways and gradually a lot, like most others in this now wretched society. (Tonight McMasters declared we were even in danger of war with North Korea, quite seriously — will Trump and his military agents start dropping nuclear bombs, do you think? he and his republican rump have shown no conscience; he regards the death of millions as nothing important to him, or he doesn’t regard this possibility at all.) Closer to me personally is the newly public admission that sexual harassment is pervasive in all aspects of US life; there I might take that as a relief. For decades I thought I was unusual; either super-sensitive or socially incompetent or somehow attracting abrasive male bullies who smelt victim. Would that I could believe this “outing” of well-known men was going to change the behavior of men. But these are topics on my intendedly political Sylvia blog.

No this week I should have cried because hostway.com, the people Jim set up an account in cyberspace for the website he built for me so painstakingly, will do nothing to help me scan and get rid of “five unwanted files” in the file zilla space discovered by a google sweep last week; these may be a virus though they are not spreading, and google now attaches warnings to my site. They were willing to restore earlier versions of the site, and it may be that in a few days the warnings will go off because the “unwanted files” are no longer there. I can’t tell. The technicians were able to tell me there were these files, and they seem to know where they are, and doubtless could get rid of them, but they won’t. This is for the original web developed. I tell he is dead, and they say “I’m sorry for your loss,” and repeat their mantra. My IT guys are finally failing me. They did check my computer and found no virus but again only these “five unwanted files” (which may come from malware) and quarantined and deleted them from everywhere — the file zilla represents cyberspace on hostway. But they refused to do a scan and get rid of the five in the file zilla. They know nothing about web development. I don’t believe that for a moment. So it may be in five or six days if the warning doesn’t go away I have to 1) hire a web-developer whose competence and trustworthiness I cannot judge (I have ascertained there are such people I can hire even to do a small website); or 2) take down the website, unpublish all I put there, back to Emily Dickinson style, and this will hurt Izzy too as she has put much on the website from her URL (fiction, poetry); 3) leave it as it is. Probably in 4-5 days I will take step 1. I’ve been surprisingly cheerful and only lost 3 nights sleep. I began sleeping 3 hours again 2 nights ago.

The IT guys also don’t answer me quickly any more. I have asked them to explain another nagging kind of warning and 24 hours have gone by and no answer. Since there are three people I must assume they didn’t all die. This message said “consult the computer manufacturer” and these IT guys are part of the computer package I bought when I bought this professional computer in February 2014.

The Yahoo listserv are acting erratically and one I moderate (Women Writer through the Ages) stopped working altogether for about 4-5 days. A week before all images across the system vanished; a few days later they came back. The group site page itself disappeared on and off for 3 days. The Yahoo management takes its cue from Trump and Company behavior: utter indifference to anyone hurt in any way or using their software. Not once was there the least notification or explanation. You have not been able to get an individual to help you on Yahoo for months now. I did stumble on groups.io; this is a new site run by Mark Fletcher who invented the original ONElist, turned it into egroups and then sold it to yahoo. He’s had a change of heart and has opened a new groups forum, which he and others claim will replicate all one has on a yahoo site, and work in closely similar ways. I just have to jump ship as moderator to save and take our communities to this other space: I took the first step (somehow or other) and now I just have to give up being moderator and put in my place transfer@groups.io. If I could convey to you, how scary this to me. I don’t understand technology or cyberspace but I must do it soon. Two of my yahoo groups have real friends on them, they are real communities, one of readers (Trollope is the focus for every other book or movie), and one of progressive feminist friends who are genuine readers too.


Charlotte Smith, drawing by George Romney (1792)

As if that’s not enough, my Charlotte Smith paper (“The Global Charlotte Smith: women and migrancy in Ethelinde and The Emigrants) was rejected absurdly thoroughly by the editors of the volume, leaders of that Charlotte Smith conference I went to in fall 2016. I had an idea they’d dislike my politics and the paper — but it is dispiriting and discouraging because I spent 3 months on it better given over to William Graham or something genuinely fulfilling and productive. What they wanted was half of the paper theoretical disquisition on some aspect of post-colonialism and the other half close reading of tiny passages to ferret out a demonstration of this disquisition. I am putting the paper on academia.edu and leave it to my reader to see if it is a good paper showing that Charlotte Smith wrote from an original post-colonial point of view, with a feminist slant from early on in her career to the close of it. See also (if you are interested) the wider paper: A peculiar kind of women’s text: Ethelinde and The Emigrants as Post-colonial texts” The experience is salutary and sobering. I’m now 71 (see below) tired of banging my head against such walls and took the opportunity to bow out of promises to do two other similar papers on women’s whose work I do love. I can’t write to the fashion. Maybe I don’t cry because I feel relieved of three headaches — especially in the Smith case a demand I use a particular edition or version of the Chicago Manual of Style, together with embedded footnotes. Beyond me.

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From 1995 BBC Persuasion (scripted Nick Dear); the characters on the beach at Lyme, November

By no means all rejection. I’m delighted my essay, “For there is nothing lost, that may be found:” Charlotte Smith in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, will be put up on Sarah Emsley’s lovely blog in another week. Autumnal. Just about finished my review of Devoney Looser’s The Making of JA, and will see the last of it by Monday until it’s published. The second class I was teaching (“Booker Prize Marketplace Niche”) came to an end this week, and I was applauded, and got a lovely card, present and I know succeeded with them. I will be teaching two courses in the spring, “The Later [Virginia] Woolf” and “Sexual and Marital Politics in Trollope” (He Knew He Was Right, together with “Journey to Panama”). I’ve returned to Winston Graham and finished at long last The Stranger from the Sea and began The Miller’s Dance (the 8th and 9th Poldark novels) and find them to be truly interesting, quietly appealing historical fiction, and carry on with my third of a paper (so I don’t do 2/3s, and I don’t worry myself about Chicago Manuals) on Woolf and Samuel Johnson as biographers. I will write separate blogs on this soon, but I have loved Frances Spalding’s biography of Roger Fry — the man’s pictures and aesthetic ideals do my heart good. I actually registered for a coming NeMLA conference in Pittsburgh, reserved a hotel room for 3 nights in April 2018, and have someone to drive to Pittsburgh with! I’ll give a paper on close reading a few of Virginia Woolf’s highly original short biographical essays (just 10-12 minutes). Laura came over here last Saturday and with her help, she, Izzy and I rented an apartment in Milan for 10 days and nights in March 2015 in Milan (it looks very comfortable and is not far from the Ice-skating World Championship venue) and bought a flight using Air France. So we three will try Italy again — we went with Jim in 1994 to Rome for 4 weeks.


Interior Autumn, The artist’s wife (Albert Andre)

No reason to cry there. Nor over my birthday. This week another birthday rolled around: my 71st. Knowing how lonely I have felt during these holiday times, I made provision, and I went with a good kind friend to see a film, Victoria and Abdul, a strange if beautifully acted and filmed movie of Queen Victoria’s infatuation in her old age with a young Muslim man, and we had tea and good talk together in the afternoon. Hardly time to come home and I went out with Izzy and Laura to the Olive Garden (once again) for dinner and drinks. On face-book many kind people, many of whom I actually know and/or have met off-FB wished me a good birthday; cards and a phone call with my aunt. I was drained by the end and collapsed into two episodes of Outlander (shoverdosing is the fancy word) where I was lured by the loving of Claire and Jamie, which, along with another poem by Patricia Fargnoli, soothed me into the oblivion of 4 hours sleep. I am also listening to Gabaldon’s Dragonfly in Amber, and while it tries my patience and is occasionally ugly in its political-social prejudices (especially against homosexuality), there are passages of love-talk and love-making between the hero and heroine (with whom I have now thoroughly bonded) that make my soul soar with memories. This from Woolf’s Orlando on sleep and dreams:

happiness … dreams which splinter the whole and tear us asunder and wound us and split us apart in the night when we would sleep; but sleep, sleep so deep that all shapes are ground to dust of infinite softness water of dimness inscrutable, and there, folded, shrouded … like a moth, prone let us lie on the sand at the bottom of sleep … (Chapter Six, p 216,
ed, Maria DiBattista, Harvest book)

A wonderful luncheon on Friday with the other OLLI teachers at AU. I mention this because one of us is apparently a composer of Broadway type music and expert on Broadway musicals. He gave a lecture on songs for older characters in American musicals, which while usually not paid attention to in advertisements or the storytelling are often central to the meaning of the musical — as in “You’ll never walk alone” from Carousel. The older character (in their fifites at least) gives supportive advise, talks wisdom,shares the grief he or she has known. Then he played some marvelous clips. This after another of 10 film classes altogether over the term (the 8th), on Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. A significant moving (angering — I was angry with him) film, and fascinating talk and context offered. I came home aroused and saddened. It seemed to me most people there had partners and someone to come home to. Yet I would not be participating in this place had I not been widowed and in such need.

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Clarycat and her toy grey mouse ….

The photo (just above) shows my beloved Clarycat’s face lit by a flashlight; it was only way I could get enough into her catbed in my room so you could see how she was sleeping on top of her small toy grey mouse. A true tale I’ve been recording over on face-book for a couple of weeks now. I will spare you the diary and just offer the evidence-based deduction: my Clarycat not only remembers and plans, she behaves symbolically. So too probably Ian or SnuffyCat but I have seen only the memory and planning and action, but not the use of a symbol. Clarycat has a favorite toy if keeping it by her side is any measure: a small grey mouse, a stuff toy. I’ve mentioned this before. What happens is when I am not in an area I usually am in, she keeps taking it out of her catbed and putting it there. Say I come home after being out for some 5-6 hours, I will the mouse under my desk, or by my chair in front of my computer, or at the threshold of the our workroom (where my cats reside a great deal of the time too). I put it back in the cat bed lest it get lost. I wake in the morning and it’s again near my bed or by the threshold of the bedroom. I put it back. During the day if I go into another room or am not paying attention to her, Clarycat puts the mouse in these three places or by the front door. Sometimes I’ve thought she behaves in cat bed as if it were her doll, other times she is reminding me of her existence. Putting a charm near me. She wants to remind me of her. Or maybe it stands for me when I am not there.

This is so persistent that I asked people on face-book what they thought she was about. People offered the idea that cats bring their kill to you to show off, but she knows it’s not a kill, and she doesn’t bring it to me, but puts it where I was when I am not there or absorbed in reading or writing or eating or watching TV or reading in another room. One person said “it’s her baby and she wants you to keep a watch over it. My girlfriend had a dog that when it came in heat it would take a certain toy and snuggle it to her breast and carry it around in her mouth. Only did this when in heat.” Diana: “Marshy carefully guards a little hoard of old catnip mice. They’re very important to her.” Patricia: “Rusty-Griffin hides her stuffed mice under the couch, … all in a little nest of them.” Miranda: “Our little neutered female cat used to steal black woolly socks and mother them … husband felt cruel repossessing them for work.” Was it a substitute for when I got back? Pat asked. I’ve concluded that’s closest.


Ian or Snuffy plays with this toy mouse too

Why this is symbolic: cats do hide in catbeds, and other places, but these are real literal places, and do not stand for anything beyond what they are literally. Clarycat is treating an object in ways that she is not reacting to it literally but as a symbol for something. The way we use objects or sounds/letters to speak. The closest I’ve seen Ian aka Snuffy cat (as in Snuffle-up-a-gus)come to this use of something as a symbol is when he fishes in my handbags to find and pull out my gloves and then try to trot away with them. I need my gloves when the air is chilly outside … To him my glove stands for me. It literally smells from me. I’ve seen him leave a glove in my shoe. He shows affection by nudging his head against mine; he comes into my lap and presses his whole body against my chest, his head against mine. He meows a lot nowadays. So does Clarycat. When she awakens suddenly and I’m not there, she wails. He continues to detest and protest against all closed doors. Like him with my blove, Clarycat will put her little grey mouse in my shoe. What she doesn’t do is bring it back to the catbed. I do that so that she doesn’t displace it or put it somewhere where it gets kicked behind or under something and become lost.

Two more November species interaction: It’s autumn and until today when the “lawn” crew came by and vaccumed up the leaves, my lawn was covered in them, and they made their way by wind to the stoop and by the front door. Clarycat goes after these, haunts them. When they come in through the front door, she puts them into her mouth and chews them. I remembered how when she first manifested this behavior as a young kitten, Jim said we should re-name her Marianne. Those who live through Austen’s novels will instantly recall Elinor’s acid remark to Marianne that it is “not every one who has your passion for dead leaves.” So Clarycat is a Percy Bysshe Shelley romantic? Jim would try to take these leaves from her lest she barf. After a while she realized he was the enemy of her chewing dead leaves and would run off with them if he happened to come near when she was mouthing one, and she’d secret them somewhere. Tonight she and I have played this comic act. I told Izzy just about the leaves and she smiled. She didn’t need the explanation of the quotation at all. Just now Clary is moving the grey mouse toy to under my desk, near my feet. Sometimes I find it on my desk.

On the morning we turned back the clocks: we people adjust to what we see symbolically. So the clocks are turned back and I got up in the light. 6:30 in the morning the sky was a light grey blue. And I had an extra hour. Meanwhile my sleep patterns were disturbed for a few days until I re-adjusted. Now the cats do not seem to grasp this symbolism, so they are not cheered by the light as I have been.


John Atkinson Grimshaw (once again), of Yorshire: Ghyllbeck in autumn-winter

It’s now early December, 2018. I may lose that website. I do have backup files in my computer which should stay there. I was in over my head. Jim meant well; he didn’t want me to leave my writing in notebooks and shoeboxes. But he made no provision for death, especially early quick death (he died 6 months after diagnosis). He was ever determined to do things his way on his own; had he hired a web developer to do what was wanted, then needed and kept paying, I could have carried on. But at the time he started (1998), there was very little on the Internet of this individual type ….

So I’m again facing a second great loss. I almost lost all my data when my old computer died suddenly a week after I totaled my car in December 2013. Laura helped me out of that by enlisting a friend who saved the data, and then by introducing me to EJO solutions who have until now enabled me to function on the computer for listservs, blogs, emails, browsers. With the coming loss of Net Neutrality who knows what may ensue. It is a war of the few deeply wealthy and powerful in the US against 90% of the people.

I’ve return to Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States to better understand how this comes about. I’m up to Chapter Six how an elite conservative group enlisted enough white males against the British to win a war against the elites of Britain and write a constitution on their own behalf that functioned with a veneer of democracy and was underwritten paternalism to select loyal groups of white men. In my next blog I’ll tell about my reading this year and in yet a third on the end of a another year without Jim about some significant moviesI’ve re-seen and seen for the first time.

Miss Drake

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Victoria Crowe (b. 1945), November Windows, Reflecting

“Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world” — Virginia Woolf

Friends and readers

As many know who might be reading this blog, this third Thursday of November brings the annual US Thanksgiving day. Like Christmas is a Winter Solstice festival, so this is an autumnal day for memories. We are urged to get together with other people to remember what happened this year that was good, something that meant a lot to us. I can’t meet either demand tonight for myself. The bar is too high. Some good things happened, nothing spectacularly bad.


Laura at a press conference for a Downton Abbey exhibit in New York City, with Joanne Froggartf (Anna Bates)

I can say that my older daughter had become a paid freelance entertainer blogger last year here on the Net where she created and made a great success out of an entertainment blog, Fan-Sided, and is very pleased this year to be regular (in effect staff) writer for WETA, specialty British mini-series. You see her above with a central actress in the once stupendously popular Downton Abbey; Laura had told Froggartt that her mother especially bonded with the character of Anna, and Froggartt was generous enough to insist on sending a photograph of herself with my daughter. Izzy carried on being a successful librarian. They are now blogging together (Ani & Izzy). Those who read this blog regularly know how I spent the year.

I’m in contact with a friend I made at Road Scholar in the Highlands this summer; if I can get up the courage (I know how to do this one), I may go to NYC for three days during December through February (that’s the window of opportunity) to see said exhibit on Downton Abbey, go to a Trollope lecture, play on or off Broadway and then home. Two more photos Laura took:


Leslie Nicol (Mrs Patmore) and Sophia McShera (Daisy) with on-site actors as cooks


The set for the bedroom

Happily this week our local quasi-art movie-house has three (!) decent movies so tomorrow I’ll go with my friend, Vivian to see a film by a film-maker whose work I enjoy very much, Agnes Vara’s Faces Places, on Thursday Izzy and I will make a roast chicken (more than the two of us can eat) and go again to see the latest Jane Goodall documentary, Jane. I used to show these to my writing class in Natural science and tech, and Saturday night, weather permitting or not, Vivian and I bought tickets to go to our first ghost tour in Alexandria. Neither of us have ever done one before. The third is Abdul and Victoria, which I hope will be there next week as I shall go with another friend, Panorea, after which we’ll do lunch. I’ve bought the book.

I am somewhat relieved that teaching is coming to an end for this semester next week, and I’ve just about finished two Austen papers for publication, one (seasonally enough) “For there is nothing lost, that may be found, Charlotte Smith in Jane Austen’s [autumnal] Persuasion” (to be linked in when it appears), in which I quote from Smith’s

Sonnet 32: To Melancholy

Written on the banks of the Arun, October 1785
When latest Autumn spreads her evening veil,
And the grey mists from these dim waves arise,
I love to listen to the hollow sighs,
Thro’ the half-leafless wood that breathes the gale:
For at such hours the shadowy phantom pale,
Oft seems to fleet before the poet’s eye;
Strange sounds are heard, and mournful melodies,
As of night-wanderers, who their woes bewail!
Here, by his native stream, at such an hour,
Pity’s own Otway I methinks could meet,
And hear his deep sighs swell the sadden’d wind!
O Melancholy! — such thy magic power,
That to the soul these dreams are often sweet,
And soothe the pensive visionary mind!
— by Charlotte Smith


The beach at Lyme (1995 BBC Persuasion, Roger Michell)


Anne is “minded” to accept Wentworth — Sally Hawkins — how I loved her Maudie, near my favorite actress at this point (2007 ITV Persuasion Simon Burke)

Three reports from the recent AGM: Post-Austen matters (Gillian Dow, Whit Stillman); Fervency (Devoney Looser, Sanditon, Susan Allen Ford); Among Janeites (Sandy Lerner et aliae)

I can look forward now to throwing myself into my part of a paper on Virginia Woolf and Samuel Johnson as biographers, and at long last moving again on my book project on Winston Graham, author of the Poldark novels (in case you forgot). I like autumn; after all, autumn is the (as it were) continual season in Leeds, England, where Jim and I met, married and lived the first two very happy years of our lives together, a place and atmosphere idealized repeatedly by Alan Bennet’s favorite painter, John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-93)

A November afternoon in Leeds (1881?).

My cats will be more talkative than in the next couple of months than me (they talk a lot nowadays), at any rate make more sound — my talk being of the writing kind. And I thought I’d begin this time with a second poem, this anticipating the season to come, by Patricia Fargnoli (from her volume Harrowed, which I’ve been reading nightly)

Winter Grace

If you have seen the snow
under the lamppost
piled up like a white beaver hat on the picnic table
or somewhere slowly falling
into the brook
to be swallowed by water,
then you have seen beauty
and know it for its transience.
And if you have gone out in the snow
for only the pleasure
of walking barely protected
from the galaxies,
the flakes settling on your parka
like the dust from just-born stars,
the cold waking you
as if from long sleeping,
then you can understand
how, more often than not,
truth is found in silence,
how the natural world comes to you
if you go out to meet it,
its icy ditches filled with dead weeds,
its vacant birdhouses, and dens
full of the sleeping.
But this is the slowed down season
held fast by darkness
and if no one comes to keep you company
then keep watch over your own solitude.
In that stillness, you will learn
with your whole body
the significance of cold
and the night,
which is otherwise always eluding you.


Duncan Grant (1885-1978), Angelica Garnett (his daughter)

I’ve been reading a marvelous biography by Frances Spalding, Roger Fry: Art and Life, alongside Virginia Woolf’s equally (but differently) profound Roger Fry, a biography. I like his landscapes very much, but also his thoughts on art as explicated by both women. Orlando is (I think) more profound, as (dare I say it), Richard Holmes’s book on Samuel Johnson’s Life of Savage, Dr Johnson and Mr Savage, if not as passionately alive with a life, more profound with true insight. I will end on a few of these:

For once the disease of reading has laid hold upon the system it weakens it so that it falls an easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the ink pot and festers in the quill. The wretch takes to writing … Memory is her seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one …

Your only safety, your salvation is

Obscurity … dark, ample and free; obscurity lets the mind take its way unimpeded. Over the obscure man is poured the merciful suffussion of darkness. None knows where he goes or comes. He may seek the truth and speak it; he alone is free; he alone is truthful … being like a wave which returns to the deep body of the sea; thinking how obscurity rids the mind of the irk of envy and spite … allowing the giving and taking without thanks … (Orlando, Chapter 2, pp 56-77)

From Spalding’s Fry: “each of those things is accepted as a symbol of a particular social status. [Most people like art which bestows status on them, will go only to art and lectures where someone’s prestige is asserted.] I say their contemplation can give no one pleasure …” In contrast: “Here nothing is for effect, no heightening of emotion, no underlining .. an even, impartial, contemplation of what is essential — of the meaning which lies quite apart from the associated ideas and the use and wont of the things of life” (209, 175)


David Tutwiler, American Railroad Art

In Johnson’s hands, biography became a rival to the novel. It began to pose the largest, imaginative questions. How well can we learn from someone else’s struggles about the conditions of our own; what do the intimate circumstances of one particular life tell us about about human nature in general … the long journey of research and writing, somewhere behind them walk the companionable figures of these two eighteenth century presences, talking and arguing through a labyrinth of dark night streets, trying to find a recognisable human truth together … if my book’s title strikes some curious chord in the reader’s mind, it came to me on such a night in the small, deserted public garden that now stands behind St John’s Gate in the City, when a light winter rain was falling like a mist round the lamps. The echo you hear, of course, is Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Richard Holmes, the final page).

Perhaps the problem with Woolf’s biography of Fry is he’s not an alter ego (why it feels so distant), while Vita Sackville-West, about whom and whose house Orlando swirls, could be, or is. Virginia is Orlando too. Latest book: Vita & Virginia: the work and friendship of V. Sackville West & Virginia Woolf. I have now joined the Virginia Woolf Listserv attached to the International Virginia Woolf Society. I’ve belonged since 2003, and when I went to MLA meetings, went to every one of their sessions, and once to one of their parties.


Tilda Swinton as Orlando in just one of many incarnations

One coming loss: my Women Writers through the Ages @ Yahoo keeps going awry so no messages may sent or received. There is no one and no where to ask for help. The sites offered take me round and round or offer only boilerplate explanations. I need to move or invite to move the few people still there elsewhere. If not, and this software equipment continues to function badly, I’ll lose some friendships. I hope it does not come to this. I know I’ll return to reading more book of Renaissance women as that is one area few people seem to want to join in on that I know. The very first adult books I ever read were dark brown tomes of the lives of Margaret of Navarre and Jeanne d’Albret. A book on one of TBR piles is Francoise Kermina’s life of her, La Mere passionee d’Henri IV — Kermina wrote the best life I ever read of Madame Roland. Another is Enzo Striano’s Il Resto de Niente, a life of Eleonora Pimental de Fonseca, hung during a revolution in Naples, 1798 (her death concludes Sontag’s Volcano Lover. And study my French and Italian. Nothing is more deeply engaging than going back and forth with women’s poetry. I try hard not to be isolated but if I find I am, I’ll turn back to where I began. I don’t want to kill myself.

My Hilary Mantel Wolf Hall lectures/discussions with my OLLI class at American University are going very well and they make me want to return to good biographies and literary studies of such women and the Renaissance too.

This comment by MacFarquhar on why Mantel is drawn to historical fiction might interest some

MacFarquhar on Hilary Mantel and historical fiction: What sort of person writes fiction about the past? It is helpful to be acquainted with violence, because the past is violent. It is necessary to know that the people who live there are not the same as people now. It is necessary to understand that the dead are real, and have power over the living. It is helpful to have encountered the dead firsthand, in the form of ghosts … The writer’s relationship with a historical character is in some ways less intimate than with a fictional one: the historical character is elusive and far away, so there is more distance between them. But there is also more equality between them, and more longing; when he dies, real mourning is possible.

I cannot bring Jim back, I cannot reach him. Perhaps through writing fiction, biography one does. A ghostliness; there is a real feeling of the author and heroine beating death in Outlander when she returns to Scotland; and, while there, when the novel switches to the present and characters go look at the graves of those the heroine is with in the 18th century; it has this eerie feel.. Other titles by Mantel are Beyond Black (“Black Book” a subtitle for one of Gabaldon’s chapters) and Giving up the Ghost and I’ve learned Mantel’s first popular books were macabre gothics. Winston Graham’s short stories are ghostly chilling gothics.


Dead Nettle Fairies of Winter by Ciceley Mary Barker — thanks to Camille-Sixtine who has again vanished from face-book

I need to read, to listen to Gaskell’s Life of Bronte. When I’m with aka reading Gaskell, I feel I’m with a friend.

Miss Drake

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How to be in the world?

Dear Friends and readers,

Today it came to me that my journey is reading books, reading and writing about them. That is my life. A journey, through time, using it, through gazing at and talking and writing about art, pictures, landscapes, and now films too. I experience much more when I feel others read and respond favorably to what I have said or written, when I can hear and read what others say and write. That’s the business of my life, my vocation, my occupation.

I interrupt this to be with friends: letters, conversation, congenial acquaintances; to go out into what’s outside; most often cultural events, but I like to wander about, walk, swim, drive and take a train too, even exercise. Teaching. At home eat, sleep, clean self, hair, house (hire someone for this last) dress, tidy up, do washes, put stuff in the drier, keep yard/garden in order (ditto on hiring). Reviewing books — following trails (Looser’s The making of Jane Austen takes me into Helen Jerome’s Pride and Prejudice: a Stage Play, Constance and Ellen Hill’s Jane Austen: Her Home and Friends, Woolf’s First Common Reader‘s “Obscure Lives,” as Mary Russell Mitford). Sometimes I have to shop. And then there are the occasional demands: maintenance (bills, doctors, car). Doing lunch with others. Dining out. Doing conferences, lectures. Museums.

I used to make a joke of this to myself when I would find myself in my chair again, in front of my desk, and my computer: here I am back again, to where I was before I was so rudely interrupted.

Right now beyond Mantel’s masterpiece Wolf Hall, Oliphant’s Kirsteen: The Story of a Scotch Family Seventy Years Ago, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (in PP&V translation), Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography: Richard Holmes’s very great Dr Johnson and Mr Savage, Francis Spalding’s Roger Fry: Art and Life, Winston Graham’s quiet Stranger from the Sea.

Cannot do without a woman’s book to be getting on with, companioning myself: going slowly through a memoir, Frances Borzello’s Seeing Ourselves (“Women’s Self Portraits”); Katherine Frank’s A Passage to Egypt: The Life of Lucie Duff Gordon; longing for Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowlands, Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn (as appropriate). Curious as a compare to Winston Graham and just awful male film noirs (which I force myself through for a course, as Orson Welles’s A Touch of Evil) I’ll say Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place.

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How to have an identity when I have lost mine?

Ye ken the greylag, yeah, it mates for life?
You kill a grown one, out hunting, you must wait
For its mate will come to mourn.
Then ye must kill that one too,
otherwise,
it will grieve itself to death
Calling through the skies for the lost one.
— Joy Blake’s First Wife, out of Diana Gabaldon

Haunted by an absence which is a presence because I am in his deathtime, because with Izzy I keep his deathtime alive, his memory. For people have a deathtime as long as others are alive who remember them, and who carry on; those who are left, become different people, trying to lead the same lives.

Much Afraid went over the river,
though none knew what she sang —
— William Empson’s “Courage Means Running,” from Collected Poems

So, keeping awareness of literal aloneness at bay: talking, talking by writing, listening to talk, reading talk, physical affection (as in hugs, lying close, body to body). What else are pussycats for? besides themselves — not alone when they sit and wait, reach out with paws, jump on lap, squat down, press bodies against my chest, head side against mine.

Listening to books on CDs (just now Davina Porter reading all of Gabaldon’s Dragonfly in Amber), on desktop downloaded. Reading poetry (Patricia Fargnoli’s Hallowed, bouts of Nasty Women Poets: An Unapologetic Anthology of Subversive Verse, edd. Grace Bauer and Julie Kane — it has a section, “Mothers, Daughters, Growing up A Girl”). Hearing Voices (title of book by Penelope Fitzgerald, based on her time with BBC radio).

Hearing music on the radio. Making supper together Izzy and I listen to celtic songs. Also watching movies, presences (just now, Fred Schepisi’s Last Orders, the two mini-series Wolf Hall, Outlander, Seasons 1 and 3)


End of Autumn Day

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Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot see her falconer.

A problem I never used to have: [the difficulty of enclosing oneself away for] writing books, long essays, slow communing and development of ideas. Almost there (one of the great memoirs, by Nuala O’Faolain).

Not far to go now, Jim.

Stay for me there, I will not fail
To meet thee in that hollow vale.
And think not much of my delay …
[I] follow thee with all [good] speed
Desire can make, or sorrows breed …
— Henry King’s Exequy for his Wife

The tragedy, my dear, is you are missing out, you could be here with me tonight and we happy in life’s chains.

So, Night-existence: I am become a blogger


Clarycat’s toy mouse

Most of the time I am telling here of the interruptions. Now the right emphasis.

Miss Drake

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I photographed “Grey malkin” from the other side of my glass porch door

the day’s shadow is gone in the moment
it was here with all that went before
gone the same way into the one night
where time means nothing that is visible
— W. S Merwin

Friends,

I thought I might be in the process of adopting a small grey cat about half-a-week ago. I first saw him or her (after this to be denominated her because she reminds me of Clarycat in size) under a bush near my door; I heard loud mewing and there she was. She looked combed recently, brushed, not starving, and had a black soft collar. I put out a bowl of dry food and she rushed there and ate a great deal, and then stopped. A neighbor on a local listserv said she had lost a grey cat but when the neighbor finally showed up (it took all day), in a tennis outfit and gargantuan SUV, and took a look at this grey cat, she said it was not hers. Hers had a micro-chip. I did see the cat was not keen to come to her.

Since then I’ve tried several times to get the cat to come into my house, but she eludes or fiercely resists. I become nervous and drop her as she hisses and squalls, but I have now noticed she has no claws. De-clawed, poor creature. Soon she may be torn to bits by a raccoon. At first I thought if I could get hold of her and find a phone number of name on the collar, I’d phone the owner. But when the woman who denied it was her cat, got onto the listserv and in these pious tones told of how the next day the cat was found dead under a bush, I began to suspect this woman just wanted to get rid of her cat. Someone had a photo of this woman’s cat, a close-up and this woman’s cat looks like “my” Greymalkin. Greymalkin from Macbeth would do for a male or female.


This is probably the cat now sticking desperately around my house when she was in her home; her face has become pinched and her fur color darker (dirtier) than in this close-up

Meanwhile I put food & water out for 2 nights; for 2 nights the next morning the food is mostly eaten, the bowl drunk from. If this proceeds and there is no name or phone number and she comes in, I thought I’ll take her to a vet first thing.

My cousin on face-book pointed out she was bluish, a Russian blue. She had such a female cat and called it Shadow.

For a few days she showed up the same time in the afternoon, mewed loudly. But then stopped coming out. She began to look much worse for the wear. I put out a cat bed and toys and the first morning after I found the toys had been played with ferociously. Since then the play is milder. She comes at night when she feels safest — invisibly visiting me for food. Today I thought to myself when I took the photo (around 5 in the afternoon that she is so frightened she might stay under the branches most of the day — not go very far. though this afternoon when I passed by — having gotten out of my car and going to my door I heard her mewing under the branches. I couldn’t find her though.

The question is, how do I lure her to show herself to me and then inside. I put out tuna and the bowl was licked clean. A third bowl was almost emptied this afternoon. I don’t want to leave the door open and that’s dangerous for us and will let my other cats out. I could call a pet rescue place for advice. I’ve queried this neighborhood list if another person in the neighborhood is missing a cat or has this kind of cat. No answer.

This morning the bowl was 2/3s empty again. Someone on this neighbor list has emailed me to say she would bring it to a shelter where they’d check for a chip (it has a collar) but she in the same sentence talked of having a “foster” for “end of life” if that’s necessary so I don’t think so. If I can catch it, I’ll take it to the vet myself; if not, just wait until it stops coming. If I took it to a vet or the Humane Society and they discovered it was sick and they wanted to euthanize it, I would have deprived it of life. Not doing it a favor then. Maybe I should just let it be a perpetual guest, and become a feral cat.

I decided to phone the Humane Society for advice. I disbelieve that woman’s story about a chip now. There is a collar on that cat and it has a tag only it’s locked. Typical of the exclusive American upper middle class. For my part when the vet proposed to me to put chips in my cats, I thought to myself what a money-maker for you .Not as life-threatening as the way I was told she would clean my cat’s teeth, not as cruel as de-clawing, but the same drive towards expensive tech. She used it to pretend the cat wasn’t hers after all. She didn’t show up for a time when I announced it on the listserv.

But when I phoned two Humane Societies, I got advice but no direct help. Not until I have the cat in hand or in the house will some be sent. Then I’m warned if I let it in or capture it, it could be angry or get under a bureau and then I have a problem. Yesterday afternoon it was in the garden meowing loudly. I see it’s now drinking the water. The toys (I put out another) were mildly played with. She had come over to me on the sidewalk, let me pet her. She has stopped that. I have a perpetual guest until such time as she gets friendlier again and can get herself to come in. If she lives, perhaps when it goes very cold. My two cats have watched her from the window of my workroom.

Laura has said that she has a friend with three indoor cats and three visitors. I admit I don’t want to pay for a third cat when I have to board them when I go away. I worry lest the other two attack her or the three not get along. Would she chew on wires? do her natural business in the litter box? OTOH, it seems to me she’ll die if she doesn’t come in.

Many years ago, in 1970 to be precise, I took in a stray feral cat. A large male black cat. Jim and I were living in Leeds 7, a small flat and one day a black tom cat just walked in. I fed him and he rubbed against me. He didn’t stay but he returned the next day, came in and this time I had cat food for him. It took a little while but eventually he would stay in the flat with me for hours. He sat near the fire. He began to sleep next to me — on my side of the bed. Jim said, fine, as long as he stays on my side of the bed. Sometimes he would go out and not come back for a day or so. One night he was bleeding from a paw. He had been in a fight and when I was all poignant affecion, he looked at me as if to say you should see my opponent. I cleaned his paw.

What I didn’t realize was an illness I had, which I thought flu because I ran a high temperature and was in bed for a few days, was connected to Tom. I called him Tom. In 1984 when I gave birth to Izzy, she was pre-mature but she had anti-bodies to a dangerous illness that was only known about publicly after AIDS began to spread. Before AIDS, it was hardly ever seen because the average person’s immune system fought it successfully. As in most hospitals, the staff had a very ambivalent attitude towards me, the patient. They suspected I had AIDS! but if I had, I would have died. Anyway they asked and then insisted on taking blood and lo and behold found the anti-bodies to this disease in me. They then asked me, had I ever owned a cat. Cats were one way it was transmitted to people. I thought back to Tom.

Yes. I was young then, never thought of trying to take Tom to a vet to see if he was well. Now I would think of it even if I hadn’t this experience. I tell about it partly to show my character: I have taken a stray in.


Jim and Llyr, 1973 in an apartment near Central Park, NYC

I had dog for 12 years and I loved her — though did not treat her as well as I should have, and cannot retrieve that time. Part German shepherd, part beagle, a mutt. Big paws, floppy ears, mostly brown and black. I was too young and didn’t credit my dog with the true feelings she had. She was my companion when I stayed home all summer and studied Latin until I could pass a test reading medieval Latin. She walked in the park with me. She saved Laura and my life once. A man came to the door, knocked hard and when I opened it, demanded to be let in as the electrician. But there was Llyr, three times her size, growling terrifying. The man demanded I put the dog away. Some instinct told me not to. I shut the door. The next day I learned he was a rapist and had attacked another woman. Another time she saved me in the park, scenting danger and become three times her size again.

Jim and I were on the edge of having no money at all; we were in a desperate way because neither had a decent job. Laura had been born. His dissertation was declared wrong. None of us ate right for two years. The dog grew thin and she wasn’t loved enough. My father saw something was wrong. He should have intervened, I would have listened.

We had had years of happiness with this dog. We’d take Llyr to the beach in summer: Tuesday and Thursday mornings at Jones beach and she’d go into the water and play. We’d walk with her by the Hudson River. Shes slept with me on my side of the bed but when we ran out of money she was hungry with us and I had little energy to play any more; I had a young baby and then she was 2. What I had in me to give went to the child. Then Llyr got sick: she began to have growths. I realized how she was suffering and improved my behavior, began to walk with her again, try to sleep with her, show affection, but it was too late. My father paid for one operation, but then the vet said the cancers were spreading.

Great grief when she died. I cried hysterically. I had not thought how a dog or cat must predecease us. I had not realized how much I was attached. I felt forever after I had not been affectionate enough. I know I was not in that last two years. Once when we first had her, Jim and I tied her to a radiator by a leash. She began to cry and we pulled it right off. But that we could think of doing that to go out. Shame on us. When I get much older and can’t travel, maybe I’ll adopt a dog too. Make it up. A rescue one from an agency — he or she can be older, that’s fine. I wouldn’t want the animal to outlive me now.

How naive I was, not responsible enough. I now am open to an animal’s love as I need love so too now. So now I would take this cat to a vet and care for her, give her a good home if she’d let me. I love the affection my cats give me, physical as well as emotional, their presence, their company. They have individual personalities. But perhaps the situation could stay as it is. The problem would be when I go away. Izzy and I are supposed to go away for 5 nights, 6 days the first week of October to a JASNA AGM. I won’t be able to put food out then. What will happen then? As usual I wish I were not going. There will be large stretches of time when I have nothing to do and plan to go to my room and read. If the cat were to come near I would try again. I have so much of physical comfort, I could be of help to her. I would be affectionate too. Two stray souls. I am unmoored and with all my activity don’t have a meaningful center.

On Saturday Laura has helped me buy a new ipad, learn how to use Notes and Pages, put all my apples (cell phone, ipad, and laptop) in sync and made me an icloud! So when I finally take the plunge and try to reach libraries to do research I will actually have equipment to do this with. I am planning to take this ipad with me so I can reach the Internet and won’t feel so much alone far from home and the comfort of Internet companionship and friends. I went to an excellent exhibit on Sylvia Plath at the National Portrait Gallery and heard a pair of intelligent lectures by Dorothy Moss and Karen Kukil on Plath last week. This made me return to her poetry and I found these lines on the word and reality of a

Widow (re-arranged … )

Widow, the compassionate trees bend in,
The trees of loneliness, the trees of mourning.
They stand like shadows about the green landscape­
Or even like black holes cut out of it …

A paper image to lay against her heart
The way she laid his letters, till they grew warm
And seemed to give her warmth, like a live skin.
But it is she who is paper now, warmed by no one …

That is the fear she has — the fear
His soul may beat and be beating at her dull sense
Like blue Mary’s angel, dovelike against a pane
Blinded to all but the gray, spiritless room
It looks in on, and must go on looking in on.


Another of Greymalkin on the sidewalk

Miss Drake

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The Potomac, photographed by me from the Kennedy Center terrace the night Izzy and I went to the Art Garfunkel concert


Land’s End, a lake in Vermont where in 2006 we came with Izzy and she would swim

Ghosts linger in one place because it contains somebody they love and can no longer have — Anthony Lane, on the just released movie, A Ghost Story

The question of all questions … the question which underlies all others and is more deeply interesting than any other – is the ascertainment of the place which man [and woman] occupy in nature — Thomas Huxley

Friends and readers,

It’s been about 2 weeks since I last wrote a diary entry. My word is how I feel now in this fourth summer without Jim. No one can have done more to root herself, to find and be with friends and acquaintances, to create some sort of meaning and usefulness for myself but I cannot find a replacement within myself or anything I do to make myself feel what before I didn’t have to think about, so much was he central to the very air that supports my body. I don’t know why I do what I do, none of it seems to connect me.

I can tell of a few more experiences snatched in air-conditioned places or brief strolls late in the evening. Izzy and I again went to a concert we both enjoyed, probably I more intensely than she. Last year with Vivian I heard Paul Simon make strikingly effective new and old music at Wolf Trap, so now his old partner (old is true too), Art Garfunkel sang movingly, old songs and rendered new versions of great favorites (from Sondheim, James Taylor, Gershwin), read some of his poetry (he’s publishing an autobiography it seems) for over two hours. He was not at Wolf Trap, but the Kennedy Center and in the concert hall, but the price was low for the Kennedy Center, and I couldn’t resist. I realized by the end he aspires to hymns. As it turned out, we seemed to be surrounded by the usual Wolf Trap crowd who had somehow decamped from Virginia and come to DC. Casually dressed, slightly bohemian, they just didn’t have their picnics and blankets with them.

I’ve gone to lunch with a new friend from the OLLI at Mason (where my class on 18th century historical fiction, old and new-fashioned, DuMaurier’s King’s General and Sontag’s Volcano Lover are going over very well — we are having a good time), seen with her a powerful wonderful film, Maudie, causing me to return to my women artists blogs (an acquire a touching fat biography telling all you could know about Maud Lewis, with her Heart on the Door), and this Friday Panorea and I are going for a one day trip to Richmond to explore the Richmond Art Gallery and have lunch together. I haven’t told her but if we get back in time, I may then betake myself alone to Wolf Trap to hear Tosca whose music Sontag makes brilliant use of in her novel. Last minute, what the hell.


A picture in the Richmond Art Gallery

I’m still planning to visit a friend in New York City, the last day of July, and first four of August, and may meet with a new friend in Gaskell in Pennsylvania Amish country — not yet concrete. I had long good sessions with last week, my therapist, and today (even better) my financial adviser who I spent two hours with today, being reassured and having some good talk. It was a relatively quiet empty day for him, and this is what he is partly paid for. The best — beloved friends on the Net, the correspondences with them —

I’ve not told you the worst of this summer: I’ve lost my last three teeth and have been suffering for three weeks with an ill-fitting denture on the bottom gum I can hardly keep in place to eat. The adhesive tastes awful, sour and hot at once. I wanted to spare myself writing out our “solution” of four implants and a new semi-permanent denture to be installed surgically July 26th, in time for some healing before my Scottish tour. And my visits to two other dentists (one super-expensive in DC) for second and third opinions. I have discovered the deliciousness of lasagna with cheese interwoven: cheese filling, goes down easy. What an old woman with her two loving cats clinging to her, playing by her side I am. My African-American woman dentist (bless her heart) is so excited at this new technology we are using, not just the implants but guided ways of putting them in, and the new easy kinds of wax to make impressions. Sigh. Surely something has gone askew here with medicine — though some would say it’s only old age, an old woman toothless with aging skin and gums and two cats.


To this am I reduced Lasagna with ricotta cheese …

For now what is being done to the US democracy, attempted here on the Internet (which may bring an end to these blogs) is unspeakable (deeply shaming, destructive of us all) if I am to maintain a personal tone of calm.

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Nothing much more to say unless you want to hear of my reading and preparing to write: three books I’m reading towards my Road Scholar tour in August to Inverness, Scotland, the Aigas Field Center:

I’m cheered because all three I picked are good. The first, a history of Scotland, very fat, by Magnus Magnusson: Scotland, the Story of a Nation, on my Irish friend, Rory’s advice, a long-time BBC personality (doing documentaries); he’s a gift for capturing in a familiar anecdote essential feels or truths about phases of history. It’s fast reading — not that I will be able to finish it, but it reminds me of the Cornwall book I read by begnning with geology, pre-history.
    The second is by the “leader” of the tour: John Lister-Kaye, Song of the Rolling Earth. At first I was put off by the flowery language and something too upbeat, but he’s won me over — he’s an interesting thoughtful enlightened serious environmentalist, lover of animals and plants and the earth too, naturalist and this book tells how slowly he came to create and now maintains the Aigas field center. It’s politically aware. This morning I was especially delighted to read his invocation of the earliest history of his Aigas field center — in neolithic and later ages but not into history quite. It’s the third chapter called “the Loftier Ash;’ the next is “the Iron Age Fort,” which it was before becoming a ruin in the 18th century and then a Victorian country house not very well disguised as a castle/fortress: he describes the landscape and especially the creatures and plants then (way back, theoretical projection) and now It ends on a description of two fearsome (poisonous) snakes copulating, which is so beautiful and poetic and yet grounded in scientific observation that I recalled for the first time in years a book I regularly assigned to my Adv Comp in the Natural Science and Tech classes: Loren Eiseley’s The Star-Thrower. I thought no one was writing this way any more: Eiseley combined a deep humanism of which his environmentalism was one arm (and animals rights) with science to produce inspirational passages that — probing meditations on the natural world we are not seeing any more because we won’t or there are only remnants where we live. It’s a measure of how far we’ve come away from deep adherence to true science for sheer commercialism and technology divorced from the natural world that I would have been laughed at and the book cancelled if I had.

    The third a genuine exposure of how the Highlands were emptied of people, the terrible treatment of the Scots by their own Scots leaders as well as the British and various corporations. John Prebble’s The Highland Clearances it’s called. I’ve been trying to find the old 1967 The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil on Youtube — a 2 hour rousing interactive performance play which I watched not all that long ago, but alas cannot find it there any more.


An excerpt from Cheviot, Stag, and Black black oil

I believe I’ve spoken of our summer books on the three listservs I join in on. I am enjoying the three film adaptations of Far from the Madding Crowd more than Hardy’s book; I carry on with Virginia Woolf (I’m now thinking next spring at the OLLI at AU maybe I’ll “do” “The Later Woolf: Orlando, The Years, Between the Acts“); we are having themes on Janeites to carry us through the summer and I stay in touch so that I was able to upload on my blog Chris Brindle’s beautiful song for Jane on the 200th anniversary of her death. I have been trying to write the paper on Smith’s Ethelinde and The Emigrants that the conference people wanted from me, but I’ve given it up for now: I find I’m tedious, it just does not come natural to write in this narrow slant on two texts. I’ll try to go back to it, but for now I’ve been reading Winston Graham’s non-Poldark books and soon will try to make sense of them in a blog (thus far The Forgotten Story, The Little Walls, Marnie, The Walking Stick, Greek Fire) and actually forced myself through two Hitchcock (sickening misogynist, a maker of voyeuristic thrills).

But I’ve not yet said, did not tell you I’ve been reading (and now finished) Nick Holland’s new (and it is, an original outlook on her) portrait of Anne Bronte in his In Search of Anne Bronte (I’ve promised a review for the Victorian Web this summer). He has an individual thesis — or so I think — that Anne was hurt badly by Charlotte in a number of ways. Also about her personality — and her religious beliefs (as far more benign and liberal than her sisters). I don’t know enough about what is usually said about her life so I’m going to do a little sleuthing into the other biographies and find a review of a recent volume of essays on Anne Bronte. Then I’ll write it. I’ve known most peace and rejuvenation from this book (and before it Claire Harman’s Charlotte Bronte). It’s maybe when I’m immersed in one of the Scots books or this Bronte reading that I seem to regain some center to my existence and feel my old identity, raison d’etre for remaining alive come back to me.

Two poems by Anne Bronte: she did love someone, William Weightman his name, who predeceased her while yet young too:

Lines written at Thorp Green

O! I am very weary
Though tears no longer flow;
My eyes are tired of weeping,
My heart is sick of woe.
My life is very lonely,
My days pass heavily;
I’m weary of repining,
Wilt thou not come to me?
Oh didst thou know my longings
For thee from day to day,
My hopes so often blighted,
Thou wouldst not thus delay.

To —

I will not mourn thee, lovely one,
Though thou art torn away.
‘Tis said that if the morning sun
Arise with dazzling ray
And shed a bright and burning beam
Athwart the glittering main,
‘Ere noon shall fall that laughing gleam
Engulfed in clouds and rain …
And yet I cannot check my sighs,
Thou wert so young and fair,
More bright than summer morning skies,
But stern death would not spare;
He would not pass our darling by
Nor grant one hour’s delay,
But rudely closed his shining eye
And frowned his smile away.
That angel smile that late so much
Could my fond heart rejoice;
And he has silenced by his touch
The music of thy voice.
I’ll weep no more thine early doom.
But O! I still must mourn
The pleasures buried in thy tomb,
For they will not return …

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Jim during a time in Vermont, the Amos Brown house, perhaps summer 2012 (or 2006)

I know Jim would never have renovated this house; he would not spend the money to make it respectable; he would not himself work hard for no money (maybe he’d take a course at an OLLI, or do an occasional hour); perhaps he would have long ago, sold this house, got rid of half the books, moved back to NYC and start going to older people’s single bars and found a new partner by now.

Some of the most painful moments for me during Jim’s brief mortal illness were when he’d say suddenly I’d find another man and in no time. Finally I said to him, please don’t say that; you have no idea how much it hurts me to hear you say because it could be you think that. How could you think you are replaceable. Don’t you know it’s your unique self I have stayed with, lived by, and loved all these years. And finally he stopped voicing this insecurity. But to tell the candid truth, yes I wish I could find a new partner, not just any one, any male, but someone like him, the dream of Stewart in My Brother Michael (thanks to Mirable Dictu). But I live in a world of women; the men I come across are all “taken,” good people long ago married, and now with children, grandchildren. Those widows, later divorcees who seem to find a partner (it happens) seem to meet someone they knew long ago, or a male who has hung around as a friend for years, a work colleague. Statistics tell me it’s rare for women to form relationship with a new male partner after she has passed 50; for men even common. And I’ve seen why in the eyes of men I do come across who I catch quietly looking at me or who in passing what’s called flirt (at which I’ve ever been very awkward) and rejecting me as too old very swiftly. Of course I’d love a loving genuine friend-partner once more.


Jim, aged 24, our apartment on Columbus Avenue, just off Central Park — how much I’d give to be able to re-live life with Llyr, I know I’d be so much better to her

It is dreadfully hot here, day after day in the high 90s into the 100s in the afternoon. There is an argument for selling up too, moving north, though I daresay the isolation would kill me. I am part of worlds here, have people who help me directly (courteous young males, my IT guy, a Trumpite, my financial adviser who voted for Clinton, even a mechanic who takes my car every time). But I loathe this heat and long for a beach 30 minutes away to escape to of a morning.

As Jim and I once did when we lived in upper Manhattan; Tuesdays and Thursdays early morning we and Llyr our dog (long long dead, and what a grief to me) off to Jones beach with coffee and croissants bought on the way, in 40 minutes there, hardly anyone around but us three. So what I sometimes think Jim would have done in my place is perhaps the selfish (=wise) smart thing. But I cannot do without Izzy nor desert her (she forgot to go to her once a summer pool party this past Sunday so I will return to keeping track of these occasions for and with her), nor Laura.

Dissolve this world away that’s around me? Unmoored already. Why live on? is the sweet air enough on the top of a mountain or in a city near a performing arts center? Maybe it’s my conviction that on the other side of silence is oblivion, endless nothingness and if anything of my body is left it will rot. I do like to read … and write … and watch movies … to be with a friend — and other such like reasons keep me here — as long as I’m safe in my house. Someone asked on face-book what was people’s idea of fun?

Gentle reader, is it any wonder I write few diary entries nowadays. Vedova parlando.

Miss Drake

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openingshot
An shot early in The Salesman before Rana has been attacked

Dear friends and readers,

In my mostly literally solitary widowhood — though I’m online with friends a good deal (letters) and participate in reading groups, Future Learn courses, and these blogs to the point I feel companioned and some of what I do regularly are these joined-in activities (more reading, more writing, occasional f-t-f meetings) — in my mostly solitary state (as like some Defoe character, I say), I’m finding that the love of characters so many readers attest to when they talk of what they read has come upon me more strongly than it used to. I feel this especially when I watch a great film adaptation of a great novel where there are many episodes. Good films, moving books. Beyond these imagined congenial souls, I have my cats — such my topic this week.

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A close up

I burst into tears at one point while watching the Iranian film, The Salesman, written, directed, produced by Ashgar Farhadi’s (2016): fine sensitive intelligent (keep adding good words). I saw this in a nearly empty theater late yesterday (Thursday) afternoon — a first it seemed I and one couple were the only people in the audience, but by the end of the film there were about 10 people I saw when I got up at the end and turned round to look. I urge you to see it if it comes near you. It is a touching realistically done story of a couple in Iran who are part of a theater group putting on Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Emad Etesami (Shabab Hosseini) teaches English in what seems the equivalent of an American high school, except all boys. Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), his wife has no job or occupation beyond being his wife — though she is very capable one can see, even well educated (how I don’t know). Emad plays Willy, and Rana Linda. The play is acted in English and it seems everyone in the audience understands without subtitles.

[It has proved impossible to find any shots of the play within the movie; frequent shots are of Rana looking out a door from the side, through glass-y barred windows; standing behind Emad — these reinforce stereotypes.]

I asked about Iranians’ knowledge of English on two listservs but no one answered. I know few Americans can speak or read Arabic; even the state department under a decent president had limited resources this way. Miller’s is also apparently a story Iranians are familiar with. Does anyone who reads this blog know if Iranian education includes a thorough grounding in English? I used to have a loving friend on the Net, an Iranian woman and poet who shared my love of poetry, of Virginia (my friend has translated Woolf into Farsi), of books, and cats. She no longer can reach me by email. A great loss for both of us. She wrote beautiful English and Arabic and Farsi are both “Greek to me.”

As the movie begins, the building Emad and Rana are living in collapses, and they must move hurriedly, and get into an apartment where the previous female tenant’s things are still there. One afternoon while he is gone either teaching or rehearsing, she goes to take a shower and thinks he has buzzed her from the ground floor. She buzzes back without checking to see it’s him, and goes off to the shower. We stare at the door ajar — an allusion to Hitchcock’s famous sadistic scene. We hear screams, see a shadow. When Emad comes home she is gone, blood all over the floor, on the stairs. Cut to the hospital: he has learned she is there, her face badly bruised, arm wrenched, back sore, but apart from these ailments physically unhurt. She was taken there by a neighbor, Babak (Babak Karimi), also part one of the players. He found the apartment for them we later discover.

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After the assault

So that’s the initiating situation. The results in their emotional and economic (the play doing, the teaching) causes havoc. We see the problems in calling the police; she can’t tell. She is terrified to be in the apartment alone; she won’t let Emad near her at night. The rapist (? — we are not sure what he did, the wife seems to indicate not) left his pick-up truck downstairs. This furnishes the clue for the husband to find the man is a set of keys and pick-up truck downstairs; the keys are in the apartment and they fit the pick-up truck. Since Rana won’t go to the police (she’ll be blamed she says for opening the door to let the man in), Emad begins to have a need to find the man and punish him himself. It’s a telling detail (to my or American eyes) how no one in the apartment building appears to get excited over this pick-up truck. The women seem to turn a blind eye; the men say ignore it. Slowly we (and he) realize that other male neighbors, especially Babak,, were also this woman’s lovers. Babak (and everyone else) knew the woman supported herself by having lovers. Emad becomes furious: why did you not tell me? The film is not explicit but it seems that men are casually promiscuous in this society but they are also intently hypocritical and hidden and they do all they can to hide such behavior from wives and families. When wives find out they wax fiercely angry. The men seem to dread shaming of any kind.

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Emad pacing on the roof — he has much more active visible agency than Rana but she has power over him because he needs to be a respectable married man with seemingly loving respectful wife

The sex and family lives of these people is a different combination of hypocrisy and interwovenness than our own, and we are studying Iranian society from the angle of this situation. Rana cannot bear to be in the apartment alone; she wants to go everywhere with Emad. She appears angry with him and won’t let him near her at night (he says, accusingly); she can’t eat. One of the women in the cast who plays Willy’s on-the-road mistress, Sanam (Mina Sadati), is herself divorced with a child. Or separated. Sanam has accused the cast members of disrespecting her for the role she plays: Willy’s casual mistress upstate for whom he buys stockings. It hurts her reputation further to play such a role. She has her child with her always and it is a relief when Rana offers to take him home one night to keep Rana company. We see a family-group when Emad comes home and the two attempt to have a decent evening because the child is there. They are cheerful; she has cooked some food she bought in a store, but soon the pretended cheer breaks down when he realizes she uses money she found in a drawer that must’ve been this intruder’s. The marriage is now under terrific strain as he asks her to go to the police, and she says no, and she won’t leave him alone. He follows the pick-up truck to a restaurant and finds Majid (Mojtaba Pirzadeh), the young man who drives it. This is his rapist; Emad has to corner and pressure him to get him to work for Emad at a wedding (Emad claims — weddings appear to be sancrosanct and all bend before its needs and demands).

The play and teaching carry on. Emad can’t sleep and falls asleep as his class and he are watching a movie. The young men begin to cut up; we saw they were not disciplined much before. Their gender makes them all important. Maleness must be allowed aggression? Emad is now ridiculed by them, but he holds his own when he threatens to tell their families. At the theater, Emad and Rana are having trouble carrying on with their roles. Emad moves into a rage at Babak at one point — Babak is one of the characters in the play. Rana’s speech over Willy’s dead body was what hit me. Her grief let loose as Linda’s grief, mine at hers. I began to keen and sat there silently shaking and weeping.

At one point, cut to a new apartment Emad and Rana have found. The next day or so, not Majid, but his father-in-law, an old man shows up at this new apartment. And again slowly it emerges this old man knows is there as a substitute for his son-in-law because it was he who was an ex-lover, angry at the woman for something, who came into the apartment and then “tempted” attacked Rana. The confession is tense with shame; Emad is determined to make the man’s family know, especially his wife. We see how important are family ties in this society, far stronger than ours. The old man tries to run away, but Emad locks him in and he has a heart attack.

When Emad returns, with Rana (from another day of playing theirroles), they find him semi-paralyzed. Emad is still determined to humiliate the man before letting him go, and calls the family to get him. The family arrive, Majid all tender loving care for this old man, and the old man’s daughter, and a hysterical wife who says the old man is her whole life. Rana takes Emad aside and says if Emad tells them the truth, she, Rana, will leave him. She will go home to her family. She is making this family’s harmony more important than anything else, including her terror. They are at first grateful to Emad for saving their father as they know nothing it seems of this history of the man, but when Emad demands he take the old man into a separate room, they begin to be frightened. Emad is unstoppable and when he gets the old man alone Emad hits him hard. Another heart attack ensues. Emad had claimed to call an ambulance but hadn’t, now Rana or he does, and the family follow the instructions by phone to revive this father.

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An intense emotionalism characterizes the behavior of this family — yet in dialogues with the old man it seems that underneath there is distrust and all demand strict conventional behavior from one another; my father used to say among naive people emotionalism is prevalent (one reason for Dickens’s popularity)

The last scene shows us Rana being dressed for her part as Linda and Emad for his as Willy. They have stained unemotional looks on their faces. They have not broken up, but they have not made up. It’s probably significant that Rana has had no child, but I am not sure what how this would be read by an Iranian audience.

I was startled at the overt sentimentality of the families towards one another because at the same time the women overlook the men’s promiscuous behavior as long as they are not told or do not have to learn explicitly the men are unfaithful. The society is so interwoven and desperate economically (most buildings are aging, supermarkets are full but it’s clear that lots of better goods are not on the shelves for most people). Many people make it by odd jobs — taking in one another’s laundry I used to call it. Family members utterly need one another. They have no one else to turn to.

Best of all it made Iranians utterly human. I hope the empty theater is not the result of Americans not wanting to be associated with Muslims lest they somehow get into trouble. The Trump administration is demonizing these people so such a film is important. Iranians are so dependent on family members because the US among other powerful gov’ts and the leaders of factions in Iran prevented a social democratic gov’t which was elected in the 1950s from developing. A coup put back a dictatorial theocracy; then the Shah tried to develop capitalism, freeing women as a sop and as necessary for a modern society. We know where that went. A huge proportion of people were left in poverty. Men find keeping women submissive, under their control, soothes and bucks up their ego and pride. Today in our gov’t the Republicans are removing or trying to all our social helps outside the family, including a meritocracy through education so that they can keep their enormous, take in more, live off us more, and in the process destroy outer non-religious (and thus free and progressive) social world insofar as they can.

Don’t miss it! It won awards and is nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. The director is famous, his films are events, so are the leading cast members stars.

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William Wordsworth when young — endorsed as strongly accurate by Kenneth Johnston in his Hidden Wordsworth, which I’ve been reading also

So, another week or so and now on bonding with characters in fiction. Take Wordsworth’s Prelude: it brought back memories. The natural world for me as a child. Not very much. I grew up in the Southeast Bronx. When I think of nature, I think of how Shakespeare says when we live in an artful world, the art comes from nature. Say the word nature to me and I remember a terrifying hurricane my family drove through when I was about 3 — my father’s family had a sort of cottage, home-made where we stayed for a few weeks in summer, on the north shore of Long Island, Suffolk county, a pump in the yard for water, an outhouse. Hurricane Carol hit not far from where we were, and the water coming miles up and high as the cliffs, roofs coming off, trees ripped.

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Turner’s Buttermere Lake — this image is the cover illustration for my parallel texts of two of Wordsworth’s Preludes (1805 and 1850; there’s a third, a short plain evocative 1799)

[I have no pictures of myself when young by a pump in Long Island, no photos of myself climbing up and down fire-escapes in the Southeast Bronx, anyway the block I lived in was torn down decades ago after it was (in my father’s words) abandoned by people, left to the dogs. Now it is rows of small private houses with hispanic families living in them. There is a Crotona Park, in bad disarray when I lived there. In the 1980s, my father meet other older white men from the suburbs there who once lived in these communities, and eventually these other white men brought their equipment from the suburbs and rebuilt the handball walls. Those playing, all male, all hispanic were grateful.]

When he gets to university, Cambridge, wow, the son of a high level agent of a ferociously mean high ranking super-wealthy man, his father dies and the lord refuses to pay the legacy the man had garnered up, so the boy or young man now has a precarious future. Still he is among the privileged boys of his era. As I read I see him as coming there with a group of expectations and a sense of his place. Myself I think how we measure our success or what we define as success comes from where we started out, and what we expected from life from that place. When I went finally to Queens College at age 18, public though it was, I was ecstatic, so relieved. College was not assumed in the cards for me at all. I never thought about — really — the lack of status or where I was going to go afterwards. To me this was a height. I didn’t want it to end. I was there to study, not to get somewhere. It was probably too painful for me to think about what might be my future. I did so much better than others in the class not only because I chose an area or areas that I find myself good at (English, humanities, history of art) but because I valued what I was doing. I knew all around me at the time many didn’t. Dorothy didn’t get to go.

He also says that when he was supposed to leave, maybe he was better off not to have a place to go to. He admits he missed out on something — did things he regrets, but doesn’t say what. For me I grieve not; happy is the man/Who only misses what I missed, who falls/No lower than I fell. Happy is the man is an old Horatian formula.

Well for me years after being in school I knew that I had not profited from “learning” forced on me,for which I had no aptitude — like math, physics — which I did poorly in. Rousseau in the 18th century says we must follow the child or person’s bent. That was a radical idea then: you were paying attention to the individual and saying he (not she in Rousseau) matters; you weren’t forcing them to do or become something for the family’s sake, as part of the family business. Rousseau also says that’s the way a child learns.

I wasn’t badly off in my undergraduate years. I was naively happy in my studies, though it took shutting the future out from my mind. I liked all my courses (even some of the required ones outside humanities) but the honor courses I found myself simply in in my last and have to agree I did read more interesting books in such courses. The shock was to come back and see this institution which had meant so much to me — it did free me, it gave me the scholarship to England I did leave the social class I had been born in basically forever — and that to another (my daughter) it was irrelevant as a place and worse. She couldn’t learn in it even if it’s academic program in music for a librarian was excellent. The social world mattered in her case.

We’ve also talked of Coleridge this week on Trollope19thCStudies: I’ve long loved best “This lime-tree bower, my prison” to Lamb, but as others spoke of Coleridge rhythmic ballads I conceded:

It’s both hard and easy to get back to an earlier self. I’ve said a few lines in Michael confirmed my resolve to be an English major, to go and study British literature for the BA. In that term where I first read Coleridge too I was swept away by the intensity of the “faery” side of his poetry, the unfinished romance, Christabel was it called, also loved and reread over and over Frost at Midnight. And Kubla Khan started — especially with the story about it. But I remember this and cannot feel the same today. I don’t mean to say they are at all inferior to the contemplative type poem only that as I look at them now, I remember how naive I was. I admit I was never “gone” on The Ancient Mariner. Him stopping one of three and the rest of the ritual type chant, even the moral with the albatross at the end seemed something imposed.I grant though lines have stayed with me all my life . Ah sleep it is a blessed thing/Beloved from pole to pole. How many times I’ve repeated that one. It is a mismemory I’ve just discovered: “it’s gentle thing ….” For me until I began with my nightly trazadone it was something often out of reach, only gotten in 3 hours snatches at best. Coleridge ended his life living in a kindly person’s attic, giving free lectures to those who could appreciate great literary criticism, among others of Shakespeare

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Kay Spark: Virginia Woolf or Seraglia

I’m now read/skimming and listening in my car to Woolf’s The Voyage Out as read by Nadia May. I remembered my “voyage out” as I read/listen. Over on Trollope19thCStudies I said going to Queens College transformed my life, but I was plucked out of the limited frustrating environment to which I was born by a scholarship offered through Queens: to go to Leeds University, half paid by Queens and half by a Chancellor’s scholarship from the UK. I took a boat trip that took 12 days. For 12 days I was aboard a boat loaded down with students my age — I had been married and had some adult experiences they hadn’t, but they had had all sorts of social experiences I hadn’t. Fine art films all day long, one of 4 in tiny rooms (Bunk beds). I’ll never forget that experience and coming up the channel to see the white cliffs of dover. Much as I didn’t understand was going on round me, and had a week long nervous collapse in Leeds as result of what to me was also an ordeal — I was with a group of 12 students shepherded by an British history teacher teaching at Queens for the great salary — but fascinating, all so news, 3 weeks in London, arrive at Leeds, a flat shared with another student in a private house (attached), Leeds itself and then I met Jim.

It’s a book much influenced by Austen — as her next, Night and Day, is much influenced by the Brontes. There is a trek the characters take up a hill to look down. It’s not that they go on donkeys or that the breaking into groups is uncomfortable, some of the conversation (though some sublime and refreshing), but Woolf’s characterization of the whole long incident as a group of people “very dull, not at all suited to each other,” and not really wanting to come (some of them). There’s a scene strongly reminiscent of everyone sitting on blankets in a circle and talking. At the end as in the 2009 Emma for some they’ve had too much of a good thing. Then there’s a dance, how Rachel loves dancing, the partners — just very like. She has Austen in mind.

And for a backwards proof, as with male critics writing about Ferrante’s fiction, so Mitchell A Leasla, resentful of Helen (shepherding Rachel in something of the spirit but much smarter, more generous, for the girl’s interest) of Emma with Harriet, Leasla cannot understand what this book is on about.

As for bonding with characters in films that go on for episode after episode and are taken from deeply felt realistic fiction, see my latest blogs on the new and old Poldark films and the 1972 BBC War and Peace (Anthony Hopkins Pierre, Morag Hood, Natasha, Joanna David Sonya …. )

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A Caturday entry: on bonding with my pussycats:

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We don’t credit animals the way we should. To my mind this is part of our defense from treating them with equal respect and affection. Since becoming so close with my cats my understanding of animals has improved and my general behavior. I now buy only “free range” chicken, and I look at labels where I ‘ve read the packaging or company treats their pigs or lambs decently — or not cruelly anyway (so it’s claimed). I try to eat much less meat. I wrote a couple of blogs on books that tell the history of the increase of animal protection laws and companionate relationships. For years when I taught Adv Comp in the Natural Sciences and Tech I had a unit where we read Jane Goodall, and a couple of times showed Wiseman’s Primate. We are such a cruel species it’s hard to get my mind around what scientists do to chimps: primates to other primates.

I was thinking that one of my narcissistic impulses is when I feel glad to see my cats react to things that are recognizable that seem more like a human reaction, something we wrongly do not expect from animals. So for example, when a car drives up to my part of the sidewalk — not close to my house, my boy growls and often the girl will get off her perch and trot to a front window — or she’ll scurry away. They know immediately when someone is coming down the path.

For a couple of weeks I lived with a woman friend who was vegetarian: her diet included cheese and eggs and she was wonderful cook so we had all sorts of vegetables and pasta. I didn’t mind being without meat for the time. I’ve never tried it otherwise but I nowadays understand the logic of the position. You’d have tobe careful to get the vitamins and nuitrition you need. I “use” far too much sugar, wine but we don’t eat much processed food. When we first brought our kittens home, they had one another and (it’s hard to remember) it seems to me pretty fast the problem was how to keep them out of the bedroom. They were too lively to sleep all night and Jim was very bothered by the whole thing. I somewhat forced the cats on him with my older daughter — I wanted them for myself, to find common ground with this older daughter (didn’t work) and to provide Izzy with more creatures to interact with. At the time she was not working and having a very hard time.

My two have been with me since birth. They are frightened to go out the door and start away from it. I know if I were to leave it open they would go out and so keep all doors shut. They both twitch with intensity when they see birds, squirrels outside but I doubt they’d know how to kill them. The boy, Ian, does stalk and by playing with kill insects and occasionally he has brought one to me to show his stuff. It is all routine. I wake with them cuddled into me. We get up when it’s fully light.Into the kitchen where I top up their dry food. Then they just stay round me all day as I go about my routine. They know when I’m going out of “our” workroom from when I turn off the computer or put on my coat. Clarcat looks sad then. They can tell time duration; when I’ve been away on trips, at first they are not friendly and then get intensely affectionate. Usual times away — say an hour or so or 4 at most – one or both come to the door. Around 5 or so they seem to know it’s time for wet food. They do know their names I think; at least they respond to them They know “wet food” I think. I go open a can and pour myself a glass of wine. So all are content. I do differ routines in food: sometimes I give them tuna with or instead of the wet food. About an hour before I go to bed, they go into my room and wait. I have a high cat bed near mine and Ian sleeps there. We have play periods and sitting on lap periods, and he presses himself against my chest and nudges my head. She thinks I’m another cat and licks me industriously sometimes.
Going to the Vet is an ordeal I have described here before.

They do love string. They can’t resist playing with me with string — like people, me, in front of a movie.

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New Yorker Cartoon

Last night I knew a strange moment of intense peace, highly unusual. I had read hard all day, written, and when I drank that glass of wine, and this mood came over me. My mind collapsed. I could no longer read or write. Suddenly I felt so deeply in my gut, What did it matter if I didn’t want to put myself through an ordeal of travel to a Jane Austen and Arts conference. I felt I could choose to not go without telling myself, where does it stop here? Lose contact? what am I talking of? what mad dreams obeying? I just relaxed into myself. I shall have no grandchildren. I re-watched Last Orders, the film I watched the day of Jim’s funeral as it only lasted for 3 hours and by 3 I was home alone again. i’m going to teach the book this coming spring, listen to it read aloud by Juliet Stevenson when my MP3 comes. I sat and tears came and went as I wiped my eyes. And went to bed.

I am now in the fourth year of widowhood and have no words for the kind of grief I live with all the time. Nameless because society refuses to recognize this, give it a vocabulary.

Next up: Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices, on the BBC radio worlds. I’m nearly to the end of her nearly perfect The Bookshop: desperation as courage who loses out to the machinations and human instruments of silent ruthless power enacted, controlled, by one blight of a woman. Any hope I ever had of a full-time contingent position at Mason was destroyed similarly years ago by Rosemary Jann, the chair of the department. So bonding again …

Miss Drake

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A recent photo of the woman who should right now be our president and is not — and a gov’t is being set up in the courts and elsewhere which endangers us all in every way

Dear friends and readers,

I thought I’d start this week’s diary with a couple of incidents that seemed more significant than my having seen a brilliant production of Gounod’s Romeo and Juliette at a rerun of the HD screening at movie-theaters, and heard two (to some extent) informative lectures on another opera, Carl Maria Von Weber’s Magic Marksman (English for Der Freischutz) about to be staged at George Mason University this Saturday evening, which I’m not yet sure I’ll go to. It was an slightly dramatic occurrence that helps explains why Hillary Clinton lost the electoral college, why it seemed so acceptable to excoriate her in public hearings repeatedly (and “lock her up” is still a rallying cry for Trump’s “base” — a scary bunch they have become) and accuse her of doing things called crimes which are in fact everyday business in top gov’t executives’ lives: Trump and his gang use private email servers — meanwhile she was not allowed to use a reasonable excuse that it is common, especially among those not so good at computer programs. Another example, commonplace, of what Rebecca Solnit wrote about so brilliantly last week in the LRB. In the case of Romeo and Juliette, the actress-singer was put into an outfit near falling off her; for the Weber opera, a member of the Virginia Opera Company made a mishmash of perhaps great art.

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Susan Herbert’s ballerina

I still go to a gym (in the Northern Virginia Jewish Community Center) two mornings a week (maybe I should go three) where I take an hour long strengthening class. As with so many of these classes I teach or go to everywhere (not the individual lectures at the Smithsonian though) the ratio is 5 to 6 women for every man on days when there are a number of men. Some days there are few men (they are much less joiners of institutionally-formed groups). I’ve noticed (and thought to myself does the instructor knows she is doing this?) she calls on men all the time to count, to do attendance, she kibbitzes with them, she consults with them in front of the class as authorities. The other day I thought she was flirting. She is 60 and in good physical health, a grandmother as she likes to present herself, living alone with dogs, gardening. She does sometimes address women and there I’ve noticed she has the curious social impulse to talk to women I recognize as alpha types, respected, sometime previously in their life, asking them how they are doing. So maybe the calling on men was not a totally aware act.

But this Monday the man who counts as we exercise and another favorite male who sometimes replaces him were not there. She seemed to ask someone to count as we exercised. She keeps up a patter of talk and she watches to see if people are okay (the average age is 55-65 and older). So I started. I felt a curious frisson. So I changed to French numbers for two sets and that seemed to somehow break tension but then I returned to English (as I had no intention of showing off if it would be seen this way). Then — and this is what I want to communicate — between sets one woman near me quickly came over to me and said how strange to hear a female voice. Yes,she said that and did not look glad. Another said I was not quite carrying across the room. So I spoke louder. And finally one or other of the women half joined to count as if one woman could not do this alone, as ifshe should not.

In other words, they knew and approved of her behavior to men.

Today I realized had I any doubt, she knows it too. When we finished the first half hour of dance, and it was time to exercise, I was not sure she would like this, not sure it was not pushing myself in to be the counter even though both men were not there again. Clever lady, she encouraged me when she saw me begin. I am doing it differently than the men. They seem to sing out a number only at intervals (five, fourteen, and then the last), rather carelessly as a joke, drawling sometimes, but I did it throughout regularly on a regular beat. She said aloud she liked that and my voice was carrying. I wanted to say I’ve taught for over 33 years and think I know how to project. She then went to the trouble of indicating first she always demonstrate so the second movement is no. 1. Then as I continued, she complimented aloud, and said this was very good. So did someone else — a woman. I’m not her and not strong, so some of my numbers start to wilt or groan as we proceed and there was laughter –congenial as if I was expressing what others felt. She indicated a thank you when this part of the strengthening hour was over.

These two incidents went well beyond making a minority of people in the room comfortable. Not just to the men but for the women a woman having any authority disturbs the group. She complimented me to give me legitimacy to give me legitimacy. I was doing it differently, more plainly and seriously. Not cavalierly as if we were above our exercises, didn’t care about our bodies this way.

Even in such an unimportant powerless kind of assertion, this society is made uncomfortable when an ordinary women is given some kind of authority that is not granted because she is a trained teacher. I know as a teacher at OLLI I find the men raise their hands and tend to dominate the discussion; my unashamed feminist outlook is not liked and when I did Tom Jones with a class I got into contentious altercations with men that women in the class had to interrupt and stop.

Sickening when I think of what this past couple of months would have been — only that a ruthless horrific attempt to impeach Clinton would have begun. Reporters actually asked Trump if he would accept the election if he lost. Would they have asked her? Wisers head might have prevail as gov’t is needed and she not be impeached, and then we’d have had a repeat of the Obama frustrated years, but not lose ground and end in a nuclear war. She was demonized to the point she was likened to him which anyone with brains after a week or more sees is governing as a dictator and looking to turn the US gov’t into a male white supremacist fascist oligarchy for a long time to come. Hillary Clinton would have done nothing like what he’s done to Muslims, she’d be improving our social services, not shutting agencies up, putting idiots and corrupt people at the heads of those he wants destroyed, and planning to eliminate health care and slash social security for millions. Soon he will attack voting rights directly. She was going to try to get rid of Citizens United and fight for a constitutional amendment so that money could no longer carry doing what it’s succeeded in doing over 40 years and we could slowly resume our republic.

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Susan Herbert’s Fidelio

So what shall I say of the HD Met’s Romeo and Juliette? what was remarkable was how everything beyond the central love relationship was carved away from Shakespeare’s play. You were given the minimum story line you needed to have to understand the lover’s desperate situation. the set made a single slab the center which became marketplace, bed, tomb, a place for ghosts to wander.

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Set designer Bartlett Sher

There was a powerful actor-singer for Mercutio (Elliot Madore) a part necessary for the plot-design: he must be killed by the fiercely hateful Tybalt (Diego Silva), and we must have the nurse (Diane Montagu), Friar (Mikhail Petrenko) and at least one parent: the librettist has Juliette’s father. Other than these it was simply a chorus. The major songs and long scenes between Diana Damru and Vittorio Grigolo were not only beautifully, alluring, magnificently sung, but acted. They really were psychologically persuasive. All the actors looked the roles too — dressed as young twenty year olds in outfits redolent of today’s teenagers or people in movies in Renaissance garb. Despite my anxiety-ridden and troubled state of mind I was moved. Is it patriarchal? Not as strongly as the Kenneth Branagh production I saw at the Folger (also HD screened, with Lily James as Juliet) because Damru did not seem as much a victim as James, as a passionate woman choosing her fate: but throughout she wore this nightgown which displayed as much flesh as could fall out of the gown, arms, legs, thighs, breasts, this flowing blonde wig. Was it necessary for her to be on the edge of such exposure from the the middle of the first act on.

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A typical poster

The two lectures on The Magic Marksman were part of a four session course on Opera given by the “community outreach music director of Virginia Opera company, Glenn Winters, and his lectures function as advertisements and explanations (pre-opera lectures so to speak) for the productions the company mounts at Mason. I went because the dates of the composer, Carl Maria Von Weber (1786-1826) and his opera are in the romantic era and looked so interestng. I thought I might learn something about the 18th century. I hesitate to go the opera because while years ago Jim and I saw a marvelous production by this company of Aaron Copeland’s The Tender Land, a deeply thoughtful meditative opera, more recently three productions have been awful: there was a boring Marriage of Figaro and Jim said if you make Marriage of Figaro boring something is wrong. And Winters was excruciatingly condescending; tasteless jokes he thought would go over well (one of them with a semi-racist poster); he seemed determined to reach an audience he set up as stubbornly bored and hostile to this opera by making as many popular vulgar comparisons as he could.

The story is a folk-fairy tale one of a young man who is mocked by his village when he fails to win a shooting contest, and who is tempted by a devil with his sidekick to take some magic bullets, and who with these wins but in doing so cheats and almost causes the death of his beloved Agatha. He has to go before a trial, is judged guilty but is not executed; compassion makes the sentence a year long wait in exile. He can then return and marry the heroine. Mr Winters said music is a follower of style, not an innovator (he made large general assertions over and over), yet the interest of the opera is how it anticipates Wagner, and substitutes the old witty rational stories for a this folk one. Winters retold The Sorrows of Werther in a mocking way, but I could see the character of the sensitive alienated young man is that of this hero.

The transformative forces are from witchcraft and the famous scene set in a “Wolf’s glen” in the forest where our hero and he devil Samiel; and the man who has sold his soul already, Caspar, meet to forge seven magic bullets, the seventh of which (unknown to our hero) will kill the heroine. There is a dead mother’s ghost who comes and warns the hero — and when the clip was played this audience (alas) laughed. I had a hard time asking if he thought the center was gothic because he wanted to liken it to Star Wars and showed a clip of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker and the central Flash Gordon sequence of one of the movies as the opera’s equivalent. He did respond when I asked if Weber was influenced by Anne Radcliffe and Mysteries of Udolpho with a yes, and looked at me, curious, but didn’t want to go in this direction. I would have liked to say gothic movies are done today but he was intent on his male action-adventure with stunts super-popular comparisons.

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I did find a staging of the Wolf’s Glen which is reminiscent in an austere way of Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest, with one of her male-father villain type stalking along

He himself seemed to think the contemplative tranquil arias of the heroine were exquisitely beautiful but he talked of them as if we his audience would be bored, and want the passionate arias found in Puccini in all operas. Agatha is not sexy, not sensual he repeated over and over. It seems strange to me to try to appeal to an audience by talking to them half-hostilely about how they’ll be bored, seeming to complain and then playing music which is so appealing. At least I thought so. Maybe he did not and only liked the Wagnerian forceful macho magic music of the Wolf’s Glen which he did take a little time out to describe musically.

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To my dismay I discovered most Agathas are dressed ludicrously sexily or they are put into witch outfits (in dark red): here is a rare attempt at some tasteful fidelity

He did mention that Beethoven’s Fidelio is exactly contemporary with this piece and described Fidelio as a flop (not popular, not making money). Fidelio is to me a neoclassic opera moving into austere romance, with serious ethical themes in a story about prisons and liberty: in other words Enlightenment. What was the shame was I could see he might have given such an interesting talk on this opera and yet did not, substituting crap comparisons because he thought these might get the audience to come see this opera. The Magic Marksman was a tremendous hit and has remained a staple of German opera since it was first played. His argument was Max is undergoing an existential crisis, his identity is threatened and the opera teaches him and us to lose yourself in the German world, its community, its rituals. You must be a huntsman and not by cheating.

I do worry that if he had anything to do with this production he’d be so cowardly as to ruin it by downplaying what is best about it, and going for spectacular scenery and special effects so I am still not sure if I should go. For all I know the costumer will have been directed to make an outfit for Agatha as searingly revealing as Damrau’s for Juliette: she is supposed to be all innocence, virtuous, all obedience to family, a coming mother. What he could not stand perhaps is this is an opera for a sensitive romantic person which uses folklore; that its sources include a female gothic which I doubt he will know anything about any more than he really did Goethe’s masterpiece. He opened the lecture by saying there were three kinds of operas goers, papa bears (dedicated, knowledgeable for real), mama bears (casual) and baby bears (hostile and ignorant). This was embarrassing to listen to but note the knowledgeable is the male. He then said for years he was bored by people watching car races and had to learn it’s as legitimate an activity as opera lovers (perhaps they are fantastically mechanically learned). I was waiting for him to try to bring in football but he never did. He was content with the father-son battle in Star Wars.

An opera with a Werther at the center, a sensitive ethical heroine, caught up in the dark forces of the natural and gothic world, becomes a variant on Star Wars …. This is a stupid mishmash of an opera to try to make it appealing. As I write this out (and see what I think) I realize I’m not going. I am glad I have learned there is such an opera and have been able to gain some insights into it by listening against the grain.

But I am losing my thread. A male hegemonic order which intensely sexualizes women was seen in Gounod, and in this man’s drawling discourse was dismissive of anything intellectual, sensitive. And oh yes to be good and valuable it must be popular and make money.

What if we had a body of opera by women? It would tell such different stories.

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An example of one found in Menabilly began DuMaurier’s The King’s General where the heroine is crippled; Rose Tremain’s Restoration focuses on a mental aslyum and the plague in London — women’s historical fiction is a site for disabled characters, filled with grotesquerie

I am deeply engaged in my reading of Austen and the picturesque, in my reading for my coming teaching of a course on Booker Prize winners: I’ve now reread Michael Ondaatje’s masterpiece, The English Patient, Anthony Minghella’s screenplay and watched the movie. I carry on exploring historical fiction and the sources for Sontag’s Volcano Lover: a volume of fascinating essays called Vases and Volcanoes (collectors and wild geological and political forces). I watched the interesting film adaptation of Rose Tremain’s Restoration, have been listening to Gabaldon’s Outlander and browsing in Daphne DuMaurier’s The King’s General. I’m still reading about Surrealism and women artists (Whitney Chadwick’s book). About these more anon in separate blogs. I’ve much to do to interest me as long as I can stay among my books in my house. But I should not stay in alone altogether. Friends on the Net are not enough. I become desperate, and have panic attacks because of what is happening to the US and may hit Izzy and I hard. I was going to go to a local concert at someone’s home in Fairfax on Sunday, but it is the day of Izzy’s first social club of the year and I must drive her there.

So that’s this week from Lake Woebegone. Where we are really and truly Woebegone.

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Susan Herbert’s mad Edgar from Lear: Tom’s-a-cold

Ellen

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