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Archive for the ‘life-writing’ Category


Helen Allingham (1848-1926), Digging Potatoes (an early fall scene, father and daughter)

Friends and readers,

My daughter, Isobel, has put her latest transposition of a song (music and lyrics) from an unusual lyric-rock group onto the Internet. She says this is an unusual song for a hard-rock group now disbanded:

Here are the lyrics:

Summer has come and passed
The innocent can never last
Wake me up when September ends

Like my father’s come to pass
Seven years has gone so fast
Wake me up when September ends

Here comes the rain again
Falling from the stars
Drenched in my pain again
Becoming who we are
As my memory rests
But never forgets what I lost
Wake me up when September ends

Summer has come and passed
The innocent can never last
Wake me up when September ends

Ring out the bells again
Like we did when spring began
Wake me up when September ends

Here comes the rain again
Falling from the stars
Drenched in my pain again
Becoming who we are
As my memory rests
But never forgets what I lost
Wake me up when September ends

Summer has come and passed
The innocent can never last
Wake me up when September ends

Like my father’s come to pass
Twenty years has gone so fast
Wake me up when September ends
Wake me up when September ends
Wake me up when September ends

Songwriters: Michael Pritch

She’s placed this autumnal piece on YouTube, Tumblr, and face-book (which she joined recently). I thought copying out the lyrics might make her song more accessible to more listeners.


Aleksey Savrosov, The Rooks have come back (1871, late fall, early winter)

Miss Drake

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A photo of me giving a paper on Ann Radcliffe (taken by Jim)

Friends and readers,

Tonight I have reason to celebrate: with the extraordinary computer expertise of an old friend, Mike Powe, whose wedding Jim and I attended, and who knew Jim, my website is healthy again. Free of all “bad code,” “five unwanted files” (what they were referred to throughout this demoralizing incident). “Clean” as they say. Unless I misunderstand, I am now also voluntarily part of Google Search Console, which monitors sites and will in future let me know if anything seems to be going wrong (preventive measures). My IT people came through and my computer is similarly free of any “compromise” (this is the language these people talked in), back-ups working beautifully, movies fine.

During this time I learned that Izzy is still using the website for her original and fan-fiction (the front page itself has not been updated since her teen years), so it is not only what Jim built (so deeply cherished by me) and contains about 20 years of my scholarship, reading and writing with others on the Net, but developed projects of all sorts, the result of blogging, watching mini-series, going off on tangents from experiences with others teaching and digital, but still a on-going creation for Izzyher blogging interests include ice-skating (she knows as much as any person alive about the sport and art), tennis, and some TV mini-series too; she is a musician, sings and composes.

For a time she was writing on Fan-Sided: Culturess professionally (the pay was abysmal for her for the amount of time these blogs took, but she did reach a wider audience and wrote on Austen too) because Laura was there, and stopped writing on her older blog, We Need More Fruit, which is now linked into the website and contains years of superb postings on ice-skating, movies, travel experiences, books she’s read.


“For there is nothing lost, that may not be found: Charlotte Smith in Austen’s Autumnal Persuasion (today this essay was published by Sarah Emsley as one of two previews of a coming series of blog-essays)

For myself aware of the fragility of my minimal knowledge of web-development, I’ve branched out to publish elsewhere, both conventionally and here on the Web, especially academia.edu and these wordpress blogs. I put this year’s reading and film watching on Ellen and Jim tonight as the books and films that affected me and I recommend most are of more general application than in previous years. Home from teaching for a couple of months, I’ve returned to book projects (Winston Graham and the Poldark world), fitting in studying French and Italian and Renaissance women, and women artists and poets once again. I will be back to Trollope as this spring I will be teaching He Knew He Was Right, we are on Trollope and his Contemporaries @yahoo about to read The American Senator once again.

Miss Drake

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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.

*****************************


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.

******************************


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.

************************

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

*************************

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 planted chrysanthemums this week

I woke three time in the dark predawn. First in sorrow, then in joy, and at the last, in solitude. The tears of a bone-deep loss work me slowly, bathing my face like the comforting touch of a damp cloth in soothing hands. I turned my face to the wet pillow and sailed a salty river into the salty taverns of grief remembered, into the subterranean depths of sleep.

I came awake then in fierce joy, body arched bow-like in the throes of physical joining, the touch of him fresh on my skin, dying along the paths of my nerves as the ripples of consciousness spread from my center. I repelled consciousness — turning again, seeking the sharp, warm smell of a man’s desire, in the reassuring arms of my lover, sleep.

The third time I woke alone, beyond the touch of love or grief. The sight of the stones was fresh in my mind. A small circle standing stones on the crest of a steep green I hill. The name of the hill is Craigh na Dun; the fairies’ hill. Some say the hill is enchanted, others say it is cursed. But no one knows the function or the purpose of the stones.

Except me –Claire, Prologue to Diana Gabaldon’s Dragonfly in Amber.

Friends,

Lately this past week or so. I am lying in bed and have half-woken, and I remember something it seems to me that Jim and I did during the day just gone. I feel intensely happy again, so comfortable. It’s something Jim and I used to do as a matter of course, go somewhere together, buy something together, maybe seen a play — walked in Old Town together down to and along the Potomac together. I think to myself, well we’ll continue it when the morning comes. And I fall back to sleep (or worse) I find I cannot fall fully to sleep and lie there with the cats snuggled in tight. Sometimes bad thoughts come; sometimes I feel so tired, look at the clock and discover it is but 3 am, and I’ve been sleeping at most an hour and a half and know this is not enough. So one night-before dawn I took a temazepam and had three drugged hours. As with other times this sort of thing has happened by the third time I realize this is a dream. These events are not happening. He’s not here any more — And last night as I again half-woke, this time four hours after sleep had begun, if I had had such a dream, I couldn’t remember it.

And as with my dream life before, now that I sit down to the computer to try to describe the experience, it fades from me, and nearly vanishes. I wish I could remember the details but they are now beyond my conscious mind, hidden, obscured beyond in that realm my mind when awake and rational or feeling-clear-lucid can’t reach. Did I dream he was alive again? I don’t know.

As you might remember (I mentioned this last week), I didn’t participate in the “#metoo” meme. It went too deep, the results of that wretched and fearful three years in my early teenagehood. It was responsible for a pattern of behavior to protect myself I can’t throw off — because it has protected me, from much hurt and the kind of pain we feel in the marrow of our bones. I know it has to do with why I married Jim, why I behaved with him the way I did, and my inalienable, unalterable love. There is no time long enough because it has become so part of me. It’s what I meant when I’d say he was the blood that flowed through my heart, outside he and I lay the junkyard of what did not matter. But it was also pain-filled this and a reaction-formation to cruel misogynistic social life and the women (or at the time, girls mostly, but my mother too with her corrosive “nasty” [another ruined word now] tongue) that supported it.

Some of this — these dreams, these half-sleepless nights — brought on by doing too much. This coming week starts a ten-week photography course for 2 hours at a Smithsonian site. I signed up because it is for utter amateurs and I’d like to learn practical realities about photography, since I love art so and am so interested in film, which is finally moving photography, moving pictures. I worry it will be too much. Yesterday I was out between 10:40 am and around 5 pm, and came home so depleted I craved specific things to eat, salty pita chips, wine. I am glad fall is here, and soon this hectic schedule will be over — by mid-November I’ll be teaching in just one place, and all conferences will be over.

I miss my one good friend who enabled me to do many things badly. I can never replace him. The organization or structure of society as I have found it is not one which I am able to thrive in so as to publish conventionally or even at my age anymore achieve what people admire. So I lose myself in activities, passing friendships, reading and writing here on the Net about movies too. As ever in my life, I am doing what it is in me to do, what I can. I am learning a new mode too: being alone, that much of social life is performative in the sense of in any deep way insincere, a matter of forms, and having to teach myself to do without support companionship.

So I turned tonight to read some women’s poetry volumes that have been mounting up, the kind that don’t lie (the other meaning for that word now) and are not there to soften the blows. All four of these books and authors write greatly at moments; all four volumes have powerful great women’s texts. Two are as volumes masterpieces: Patricia Fargnoli’s Harrowed and Margo Berdeshevsky’s Before the Drought. Millicent Borges Accardi is near that; she is still maturing. I’m not sure about Maggie Smith; the verse pieces are much weaker; what she might want to say originally not as clear. Ferrante is baring her soul’s nightmares to us once again, this time as a pretend child’s picture book; she must’ve had a terrible relationship with her mother. Hers is a graphic novel. I quote or describe them here in order of the age of the putative narrator or subject.

Perhaps had I gone out at night two weeks ago at Huntingdon beach, and stood there when the bonfires are on in winter, I might have thought of a book of poetry in disguise, that I read some months ago now, Elena Ferrante’s The Beach at Night.

Since what I have read about this book doesn’t make sense, is essentially contentless, or misleading. It’s a truly terrifying book. Masquerading as a children’s story, it is a kind of prose poem where a doll is left behind on a beach in favor of a kitten the girl child has been given a present of. The doll gets covered with sand, is treated badly by a Mean Beach Attendant, ends up laying next to a dead beetle with his feet up (shades of Kafka’s metamorphosis), is set on fire at one point, then doused with water, come near drowning. She is abandoned, deserted, motherless. I cannot imagine anyone giving this book to a child, European or not. I remember when by mistake (or not knowing) I bought the first Barbar book for Laura; she was traumatized by the sudden death of the mother elephant, shot wantonly and without warning by a hunter. It took hours for her to calm down.

It’s not a novella. It looks like a child’s picture book. It’s not quite though because it has full paragraphs and will suddenly swerve into lines of verse and then back again. I suppose the full paragraphs are a give away that this is not a child’s picture book. It’s pretending to be that. It’s an art book, not a graphic comic but an art book because the art work — nightmare pictures with horrible things coming out of terrifying creatures’ mouths: this looks like some kind of twisty corkscrew the monster is eating — reminding me of illustrations I’ve seen of Dante’s hell where in one of the deep circles there are three creatures being munched for all eternity by Satan. It now strikes me as disingenuous the people who say in passing this is a children’s story book and then that European children can take this kind of thing more than Americans: no child could find it appealing.

It’s a distillation of Ferrante’s deeply powerful novellas before her Quartet. It’s like Rachel Cusk in two life-writing books, with full attitudes to motherhood, how she was treated by her husband, what marriage is about. Here we have the anguished nightmare core of Ferrante’s fiction. The doll is saved, just, lest you worry, not by the child, but the kitten who spots it, curious and trots off with it and is noticed finally by the child. The art work is gothic, all colors, reminding me of Audrey Niffenegger; the illustrator is Mara Cerri. I should say the cover is more reasonable — the doll sits up, there is a watering can, a piece of wood which is whole.

Then the student, younger woman.

Millicent Borges Accardi’s Only More So, autumnal, is on the surface more prosaic than the others (mostly narratives like Fargnoli’s), stories of her life and those around her, and equally about women’s bodies, in Accardi’s much younger case, being fixed, having cancer, the world we live in being taken from us, or left to rot (as unsellable). I offer this as characteristic:

Portuguese Bend

Every semester, Doc would take
His geology students from Long Beach City
to Mojave, the painted desert
Anza Borrego for unapproved field trips.
But his great delight was predicting
What would happen next at Portuguese
Bend, the last and largest area
of natural vegetation on the Peninsula.
Doc would look Sideways at the road,
Following the black ribbon of ever-changing
reality, about how the tarmac had jumped
three feet since last semester.
The shaky red cliffs, that once held the future
N ow left to wild, the opposite of development.
But that which was and is now unsuitable
for building also holds our planet’s future.
He smiles in morbid glee, about his
Game of predicting the next house to
Fall. We crouched under stilts, walked gently
Across dried out lawns, examining the movement
Of the earth, the landslides, the slow slippage
Of time back into the sea. The Orange-crowned
Warblers, the coastal sage brush and the Pacific-Slope
Flycatcher our arms entangled with a species of
Love-forever Dudleya virens on the Peninsula headland.
Long before our field trips, this was the homeland of the
Tongva, for thousands of years before Portuguese explorer
Joao Cabrilho wrote of Chowigna and Suangna settlements
And of how Native Americans blessed Palos Verdes
I stoop to look under a house,
half fallen into the sea, leaning against itself
as if it were terminally ill. Soft. Weak.
Yellow caution tapes drawn around its waist.
Portuguese Bend, named after Captain Jose Machado
Who, sailing past Deadman’s Island,
brought a crew of Azorean whalemen in 1864.
Taking barrels of oil from the blubber £lenses
of gay whales off the coast of California.
The ground slips beneath my feet,
a slight landslide of broken rubble,
rock fragments, shale, sand and silt, basalt.
Hollow channels cut beneath the earth
form channels for soft zones to settle …

Then the middle years. Maggie Smith’s Good Bones, about mother-and-child, to me mother-and-daughter relationships, conceived in bone and blood and flesh, a water world


Jane Goldman, Tidal Pool (2001)

And last night Margo Berdeshevsyky’s spectacular Before the Drought about this world of death for “the other” immediately, and the rest of us not-so-long range begun when, well before last November. It’s hard to choose which part of a poem to quote (for these are long and odd shaped so I cannot reprint them properly).

Smith’s book is said to have re-told fairy tales, which it does, and very well done too, its eponymous poem, “Good bones” is said (albeit in the book’s blurb) to be well-known. I like these lines:

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine …

…………………….The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,

but even more the bitter ending about the jackass realtor:

…………………….Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

I also like from “Transparent”

Once the girl
was part of the woman, tethered,

inside her, transparent herself
until the winter she writhed into air …

If she held a lantern
before the woman, would she see

what became of the unfinished child
bled away on the far field. She wonders

if it’s ghost is still on the mountains,
hovering birdlike ….

Dark birds hover over Margo’s volume, natural beauty haunting by the killing going on everywhere. Carolyn Forché crowds the imagery into a splendid paragraph:

Before the Drought is a lyric meditation on corporeal existence, suffused with atavistic spirit and set in historical as well as cosmic time, a work of radical suffering and human indifference but also sensual transport. The tutelary spirits of these poems are the feminine principle, and a flock of messengers that include blue heron, ibis, phoenix, egret, and blood’s hummingbird. In the surround we find ourselves in the magical world of a floating balcony, and a field of cellos, but it is a world in peril, now and in the time to come, on the night of the Paris massacres and in a poisoned future. In the City of Light, Berdeshevsky writes poems commensurate with her vision, poems that know to ask How close is death, how near is God? Hers is a book to read at the precipice on which we stand.

From “Whose Sky, Between”

This day, how many white cranes remember all the bombs we’ve made to make the ‘other’
dead. Said: so we may never die. Said: hang a thousand small wings from our branches.

May one crane fly, one jasmine open, one thrush sing — all fragile night. One bloom of
a peace that cannot die.

Margo’s volume is probably the greatest of all four, set in Paris, the one that comes closest to Sylvia Plath’s vatic, only more soaring.

The way I like the 18th century poet Cowper for his quiet calm sense of keeping order, his winter poetry, I will return to the poems in Fargnoli’s volume.


Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes

Soothing consolation steady-now, keep your sanity type, woman aging, Patricia Fargnoli’s Winter and Harrowed. I can’t resist her “To an Old Woman Standing in October Light.” I can go back to Hallowed (a compilation) again and again. It’s not that she’s forgotten what’s happening outside the place she’s lucky to live in. I see the same desperation in a neighborhood feral cat, the saddest one I’ve seen, calico, so thin, so scared. I’ve tried to give her food, but am not sure she came near enough long enough:

The Undeniable Pressure of Existence

I saw the fox running by the side of the road
past the turned away brick faces of the condominiums
past the Citco gas station with its line of cars and trucks
and he ran, limping, gaunt, matted, dull-haired
pastJim’s Pizza, past the Wash-O-Mat,
past the Thai Garden, his sides heaving like bellows
and he kept running to where the interstate
crossed the state road and he reached it and ran on
under the underpass and beyond it past the perfect
rows of split-levels, their identical driveways,
their brookless and forestless yards,
and from my moving car, I watched him,
helpless to do anything to help him, certain he was beyond
any aid, any desire to save him, and he ran loping on,
far out of his element, sick, panting, starving,
his eyes fixed on some point ahead of him, some fierce
invisible voice, some possible salvation
in all this hopelessness, that only he could see.

The above is probably not characteristic. How the composer says this is how we should live our lives; leave-taking, how to live without companions, arguing for life, watching the light, the hours (as in “Compline:” “I have done only a little … forgive”).

How can other women readers I come across on the Net make do with men’s books (which is what they cite they reading, especially novels), men’s films, which either excludes or re-frames them for men’s use. All these women poets write women’s lives, out of a woman’s body.


From Elena Ferrante and Mara Cerri

I miss Jenny Diski, because there will be no more new great books from her — as there have been several, Skating to Antartica, What I don’t Know About Animals, Apology for the Woman Writer. I need to read much more by her — the way I am reading Woolf nowadays. I have become deeply engaged, now reading Orlando. I must make the next blog for Austen reveries after I finish the JASNAs one on Ferrante, wade into this controversy about her attempt to remain anonymous.

Miss Sylvia Drake

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Vince (Ray Winston) cradling Jack’s ashes in a jar, in a box, in a plastic shopping bag as if he had a baby in his arms, near the war monument at Wick Farm (Fred Shepisi’s Last Orders, 2001)

Dear friends and readers,

This week I began talking with my class where we are reading Booker Prize winners about Graham Swift’s Last Orders, at this point in my life one of my favorite books. I love the film adaptation too, and thought I’d start my diary entry with referring to the central climax in the film: Vince (Ray Winston) drives himself and his deceased yet still and ever felt-to-be-there father Jack’s three friends, Ray (Bob Hoskins), Vic (Tom Courtney), and Lenny (David Hemmings) to Wick Farm where decades ago, Jack (Michael Caine, then J.J. Fields) and Amy (Helen Mirren, then Kelly Reilly) made love in the fields and produced a severely mentally disabled daughter, June, and then ten years later or so, Jack and Amy drove Vince there once again and Jack told Vince of how he had a disabled sister living in a asylum and that he, Vince, was adopted.

The plot-design: a group of four men are taking the ashes of their friend Jack Dodds which are in a jar and going to scatter them on the pier/jetty at Margate. This is a place where people go for holiday, a kind of Coney Island amusement Park at the edge of the sea. Beach, gambling, boardwalk. As they get together at the bar and drive to Margate they take detours. The detours are stages in their life’s journeys which make them remember the past. Finally they get there and scatter the ashes. Meanwhile his wife, or widow, Amy, is traveling by bus for the last time to visit their mentally disabled daughter. We have her memories too; the stages of her journey in her mind.

Along the way all of them are back to his past. Some of the chapters are the characters other than Ray moving back into the past and we go to different levels of past. Some of the characters are the characters other than Ray in the present. Towards the end of the book we also get the thoughts and memories of Amy who is visiting a severely mentally retarded daughter in an institution. We also get the thoughts of Mandy, Jack’s adopted son, Vince’s wife. Once and once only Jack

Well, Vince wants to scatter some of his father’s ashes on this spot and attempts to explain to these men why. He stands there in the middle of the field paralyzed by traumatic emotions arising from the recesses of his being. He is accused of mindlessly throwing bits of his father away and yells frantically, Scatter! what does scatter mean? the text says

he sputters like he’s trying to announce something but he can’t get it out or he don’t know what it is. He delves in the jar and he throws quickly, sputtering, once, twice. It looks like white dust, like pepper, but the wind blows it into nothing. Then he screws the cap back on and turns, coming towards us.

This is where, he says, wiping his face, ‘This is where’

I find this almost unbearably moving. So many of us have these crucial moments in our lives where something happens that lives no visible trace but ever after changed our existence, or lead directly to something that changed our existence radically. For me these occurred when I was about 12 and lived in Kew Gardens one afternoon on May 26, 1959, but to this day I cannot tell anyone the details as they are still so searingly shaming; and again when I was 19 and sat on a bench and told the one friend I thought I had what I had decided would be my life’s goals, what I felt I had it in my character to do in order to live some kind of fulfilled life, probably somewhere in the Queens College grounds, and then crucial moments with Jim. Going back? well I could go back to Edinburgh and I did return to Scotland if it was the Highlands where I had yearned to go since that the two times in Edinburgh together and reading Samuel Johnson and James Boswell twin tours to the Hebrides.

“This is where” memories include than the socially acceptable the first time I went away with Jim and fucked all weekend together, or in summer had in effect a honeymoon for a marriage that had happened months ago.


Me in Edinburgh that summer (1968)


Jim in Leeds that summer after we returned (August 1968)

I can’t tell these other either, not because they are so humiliating or euphoric; rather they are so intimate, complex with also painful feeling, private, and tell of him what he might not want others to know.

I bring this up to introduce two kinds of happenings over the last 8 days or so. I’ve kept up my promise to myself to take myself out more, and this past Saturday afternoon experienced an astonishingly moving work, a sort of play, Wilderness, co-written by Anne Hamburger and Seth Bockley. The core is six supposedly disabled or mentally troubled teenagers, who are sent to a kind of camp for troubled youngsters in Utah. It is said to be based on real teenagers or 20+ year olds and their parents.

I believe it is so based since one of the girls tells a story that resembled my experience as a young adult, age 12-15 (which is where occurred at the beginning of a unspeakably miserable lonely time for me) from which I went into anorexia at age 16 and retreat the year before: this girl found herself trying to have friends and ending exploited sexually by boys, shunned by girls, and gaining a reputation as a slut — a slightly altered version of that happened to me only it was quickly over (by comparison), and crucially there was no internet at the time I was young, as there is in this girl’s experience so she became far more humiliated, mortified, far less able to shut down what had happened: I tried to kill myself only once; she kept at it, and did much worse self-harm. This is but one of five stories, another by a girl (believable as I saw versions of that from afar) and four by boys. The truth is only one was the story of a disabled young adult (perhaps autistic) and the others simply real stories of what it is like to grow up in the US in the last 70 years, about what is inflicted on young and older adults by US society, for which they are blamed, inner worlds we rarely see.

In each case the story as enacted and told to the audience split over to parents who tried to do something about what they saw. Mine did not. They ignored what was happening, and when confronted once or twice, my mother denied what she had seen, or castigated me, sneered at me, and my father exhibited compassion but nothing else, at a loss it seems since his values were of the society we were living in and he just didn’t know what to do about me — for example, as a lone reading girl. These parents discussed their lives — often shot through with divorce, drunkenness, economic dislocation, how they found these children too much to take (one tries to hang the child — my mother was jealous of my father’s affections for me and hated me), how they couldn’t bear and had to act against or do something about a child who didn’t conform (I am actually glad my parents didn’t try to force me into some kind of conformity as that might have ended me in an asylum).

It’s telling to read how the the first review in the New York Times misframes it as mental illness, and what occurs in the camp is called therapy and then clings to the semi-upbeat ending in order to normalize and not discuss any of the searing details of lives these stories expose. Christopher Isherwood does much much better. It’s not about the gulfs between parents from children, it’s about us, the underbelly of say this opiod epidemic, the alcoholism, drug-taking — our underbelly.

People in the audience were slightly shocked; I heard no talk at first, and then very gingerly about “how powerful” that was. Recently I mentioned to someone my suicide attempt; the reaction, I didn’t realize you were so “unstable.” The play was done in a newly re-vamped “family” theater at the Kennedy Center and two school groups filled out the audience, which might otherwise have been very small. I hope some of them felt less alone when it was over.

But otherwise the experience has been less than whatever I vaguely hoped. Including a week or so before we went to California. I’ve been to the Kennedy Center two other times, once to hear the National Symphony play Aaron Copeland (whose music I like so), a second time to be entertained and relieved (I hoped) by Whoopi Goldberg (in the event she was disappointingly cautious, timid about all references to Trump, taking that route that somehow we the audience were at fault or needed to do something not “bitch,” what she didn’t say). It is significant that Joan Rivers could “get away with” hard-hitting comments on gender and sex, and Goldberg does not dare do this on race relations.

Because we care more about race relations? because it’s more acceptable to ruin women than blacks? Or is it not okay to mention blacks because white people want to carry on destroying them to have someone to scapegoat? In Virginia nowadays all cars go slow on the streets. I said to a woman I was trying to become friends with for a bit, and her reply: oh yes people are finally obeying: this was to my remark the brutality of the police has made all races afraid and citing this. She didn’t register or didn’t care about the brutality. I’ve taken a principled stand against “joining in” and writing letter of so-called comfort to the victim young black men, often in solitary confinement that a group at the OLLI at AU calls “doing something useful,” and of course getting a social time together. When I questioned it, one woman answered quickly, they did commit crimes you know. Did they? what kind? why? This is a police state where in black neighborhood police incessantly invade the privacy of black people.

I’ve heard three lectures at the Smithsonian, all less than satisfying. Two weeks ago or so, by Bill Goldstein, on his book, The World Broke in Two, purporting to be about modernism and focusing on the work of Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster and T.S. Eliot, was in effect gossipy biography, somewhat trivializing (he dissed Leonard Woolf in the usual ways, see how the man said nothing he had done had had any effect, see how the man obsessed over money) with grand generalizations, none of them about the literary movement these people participated in. The book I grant is chock-a-block with cruious information brought together (hard research) so I bought it (on the Net afterward).


A clip from a movie, Wilde, featuring Stephen Fry interestingly in the role (played by Griffith for 5 or so minutes)

Tonight an Irish Professor, Christopher Griffin, on the birthday of Oscar Wilde, whose writing Jim so loved (I have two shelves of Wilde’s complete works), a slightly incoherent lecture, thrown together, no deep insight, just asserting how profound or great this or that passage or text (often a quotation, aphorism) was, but with film clips (the very poor movie of Importance of Being Earnest with Colin Firth), and Robert Aubrey Davis (local semi-PBS celebrity) pretending to be Wilde, since Wilde is great, and there was so much material and the life so tragic in the end, I’m glad I went. Wilde was an anguished man who could find no place in his society for his deep gayness and when he tried to defend it, the society scapegoated, jailed and then destroyed him. Griffin never said anything close to that.

The last by Elizabeth Griffith on “American Women in Politics:” her theme, Did Suffrage Matter? (on September 27th, so quite a while back now). She’s written a biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and is in the throes of a huge volume on the history of women in politics. Perhaps a companion volume to Zinn’s People’s History of the US. A more ultimately demoralizing talk I can’t right now imagine — given her progessive stance. Her burden was why the vote has not helped more (though it’s made huge differences), why feminism has again been silenced or failed as a movement. The polite word is women are so diverse — like men, but men don’t need to make a single movement, they own the place. I had not realized how centrally race was used not just to divide women but how they were divided. I did not know there were women’s groups for lynching. There were women who fought against giving black people suffrage if it meant men only. I did not know how vile upper class white women could be and how hard they worked (as they do today) against poorer more vulnerable and non-white women. She was all friendliness and a kind of comfortable as she went fast-talking through her material. Names of women I’ve never heard of especially black women. Alice Paul I knew was so important. Came the questions though and the idiocy of some elicited from her raw dismissals and sarcasm…

I’ve been teaching and it’s going well. Beyond the Booker Prize, the 19th century women of letters course, who if there are some women who have been so inculcated that only action-thrust forward masculinist kinds of structures and upbeat material from me can hold them, there are others much interested. I’ve been to a few courses as someone in the class too: A History and Aesthetics of Film, today Shakespeare’s Last Romances. I’ll talk about these more after I’ve attended more than one class (which is all I’ve managed); for now in my film club and in this course not one film by a woman, not one film centered on woman’s issues, not one where women are treated with any full subjectivity and interest the men are. All our classics are masculinist. I used the word on Trollope19thCStudies and was told I am immature. Right. I’ll write more about this film club and class when I’ve more time and am further into the term; the latter started late.

I am trying to forge ahead on my projects and papers (Devoney Looser’s Making of JA is one, Gaskell and disability another, the Poldark novels, a third) and will be blogging separately on these, but for now I’ll end on two proposals for courses in the spring already accepted. Building on the Virginia Woolf course I took at OLLI at AU last spring (where we read [and I watched on my own films of] Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, The First Common Reader and A Room of One’s Own) and my own coming paper on Woolf and Johnson as biographers, for OLLI at AU:

The Later Woolf. We will read and discuss four of Woolf’s later books: two playful satires, Flush: A Biography [of a Dog], owned (so she thought) by the Victorian poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning; Orlando, a novel which is also a time-traveling tale through literature and culture and gender changes from the Renaissance to our own times; two books written during the crisis time of World War Two: Three Guineas, an essay analyzing the origins of war and suggesting how we may prevent future wars; and Between the Acts, a novella in which a group of characters put on a historical pageant. The contexts will be literary (about biography, fantasy, historical novels), political, and biographical. Our aim is to understand and enjoy these delightful and original books.

And returning to Trollope’s in-depth anguished psychology, mad and normalizing comedy: for the OLLI at Mason:

Sexual and Marital Politics in Anthony Trollope. In this course we will read Trollope’s most candid and contemporary analysis of sex and marriage, He Knew He Was Right: we have at least seven couples, with themes including sexual anxiety, possession, companionate and business transactions, custody and separation disputes, and insanity. It is a comedy which has been brilliantly filmed in a BBC mini-series. With this, “Journey to Panama,” one of his colonial short stories about a woman about to marry a man she doesn’t know in order to marry and the relationship she forms on board

We are having good time reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina on my Trollope19thCStudies listserv and I’ve proposed we watch all of the 1974 Palliser films, all 24, one every two weeks. I cannot seem to bring Women Writers through the Age alive again, alas. What I need to do is find the time to read more 19th century women writers: Caroline Norton’s Lost and Saved, Amy Levy’s Romance of the Shop, when instead I promised to read Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time for a coming Reston Book club. Which good as Barnes’s book probably is (I’ve begun), honest I get more out of group reads from writing selves when people really do write about their experience reading. We need more people, more women readers. And I want to read more women writers, see more women’s films (generously interpreted to include Outlander). I’d settle for Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowlands, Marina Warner’s The Lost Father. I wish I had what I see on a Goodreads group where they are about to read Eliot’s Mill on the Floss after they’ve had a successful time with Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda. I’m going to follow two Future Learn courses, one on Opera, and the other a crucial era in Irish politics, 1916-23 (“this is where” for Ireland), late at night for a few weeks. So filling my life as best I can.

Robert Aubrey Davis did recite Wilde’s The Harlot’s House and left off jocularity: one of the themes I dealt with last week in Mary Barton was prostitution as dramatized by Gaskell in the tragic story of the backstory heroine of the novel, Esther, but it’s the last two lines that contain Wilde’s fin-de-siecle great twilight poetry

We caught the tread of dancing feet,
We loitered down the moonlit street,
And stopped beneath the harlot’s house.

Inside, above the din and fray,
We heard the loud musicians play
The ‘Treues Liebes Herz’ of Strauss.

Like strange mechanical grotesques,
Making fantastic arabesques,
The shadows raced across the blind.

We watched the ghostly dancers spin
To sound of horn and violin,
Like black leaves wheeling in the wind.

Like wire-pulled automatons,
Slim silhouetted skeletons
Went sidling through the slow quadrille,

Then took each other by the hand,
And danced a stately saraband;
Their laughter echoed thin and shrill.

Sometimes a clockwork puppet pressed
A phantom lover to her breast,
Sometimes they seemed to try to sing.

Sometimes a horrible marionette
Came out, and smoked its cigarette
Upon the steps like a live thing.

Then, turning to my love, I said,
‘The dead are dancing with the dead,
The dust is whirling with the dust.’

But she–she heard the violin,
And left my side, and entered in:
Love passed into the house of lust.

Then suddenly the tune went false,
The dancers wearied of the waltz,
The shadows ceased to wheel and whirl.

And down the long and silent street,
The dawn, with silver-sandalled feet,
Crept like a frightened girl.


A Scottish Impressionist painting

Miss Drake

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