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Archive for the ‘literary life’ Category


Vilhelm Purvitis (1872-1941), Winter, Latvia 1910 — I’ve been reading much Atwood this week, stories of ice and snow …

“We still think of a powerful woman as an anomaly, a potentially dangerous anomaly; there is something subversive about such women, even when they are taken to be good role models. They cannot have come by their power naturally, it is felt. They must have got it from somewhere. Women writers are particularly subject to such projections, for writing itself is uncanny: it uses words for evocation rather than for denotation; it is spell-making.” Atwood, “Witches.”

From Atwood’s poem, “Spelling,” 1981

My daughter plays on the floor
With plastic letters
Red, blue, and hard yellow,
Learning how to spell,
Spelling,
How to make spells.
*******
How do you learn to spell?
Blood, sky, and the sun,
Your own name first,
Your first naming, your first name,
Your first word.

My blog-reading friends,

A friend and I were talking of how when people grow old, they must to smaller quarters. and that “it is extremely hard to pack up your life and say goodbye.” Especially, to sell and/or give away one’s books.

I remembered a section in Carol Shield’s Mary Swann where a character who is a widower is forced to sell his and his wife’s library and says “Our books, dear Book Browser, are a comfort, a presence, a diary of our lives. What more can we say?” I thought of how Jim and my books were the center of our lives together: we read them together, consulted them, collected, loved, gave them a good home, and told him I have nearly 11,000 books now. About 1,000 more since Jim died. Specifically, 10,989. As I’ve said here more than once, I had told him I have 5 rooms (excluding the kitchen, two bathrooms and a hall and vestibule), large square spaces with high ceilings, and each room has two walls with one large window each. That leaves a lot of wall space for books. Since Jim’s death I enclosed my porch, adding a sixth rectangular sun-room (much sun comes in as it faces east) with one wall having two large windows on the long wall. I also use the long hall in the back of the house for book cases on one side.

And he replied: “I cannot visualize what 11,000 books look like.” So I took photographs across my house and sent a representative example to him.


My living room showing the fireplace, mantelpiece, coffee table and a ceramic cat I bought in Milan as a keepsake — also a home-made doll I fell in love with at the Museum of the American Indian and could not leave behind. You see a sort of shrine I’ve made for Jim: his urn, glasses, picture, a toy sheep we bought at Stonehenge when we went there with our daughters, and a toy penguin Izzy added after she & I visited Chawton House


Another angle


The same living room, the other side — facing the neighbor’s house


I and my cats’ bedroom with a tall cat tree Izzy and I built to one side


Another corner of the bedroom, door leading to the small bathroom just by it


Part of the hall between the two rooms — to one side is a large bathroom and on the other Izzy’s room and my workroom (in both the latter we have books across the walls)


My ex-porch, now an enclosed sun-room: you see my stationary bike


And one more of my porch — oddly the porch, though I don’t spend that much time in it, is my favorite room. It’s without any pretensions whatsoever and the chair is comfort itself.

Today is the 7th anniversary of Jim’s death: Oct 9th, 2013:

Those who are left are different people trying to lead the same lives … Demelza to Captain MacNeil who attempted to console her for death of infant Julia (Bk 1, ch 4, p 55)

This week I saw on face-book many photos of women looking ever so happy in pairs and groups, dressed in 18th century clothes, at the JASNA: the cherry-picking who could come and who was excluded was shamelessly transparent this time, but as I told one friend I felt better off totally excluded because when I go I experience long hours of wasted time in soulless hotel spaces: nothing to do as only 4 to 5 hours have sessions of papers (9 on at a time, so you cannot participate in most of it). Last time I returned repeatedly to the pool where they serve decent whiskey and ginger ale. Another friend said of the 2012 as “the AMG committee thinks that by reducing the numbers who can attend and upping the cost they can “control” who can and cannot enter,” and found “dreadful,” “grown women dressing up, a clubbish attitude, a bovine-like system of hierarchy that puts one in one’s place if you didn’t “belong,” and on and on.” I don’t belong to any of the “clubs” (as in “life-long member reception,” with more and more private parties on in people’s rooms at night) so I’m left with no one and away from all the comforts of my home, in a sense my existence itself. This past week I enjoyed myself at the classes I taught and went to, and the rest of the time at home or in car listening to books, working away at projects so I was not lonely.

I had thought Izzy hadn’t noticed what this conference was like for real (so taken up was she by distracting activities, the sessions she did get to go to, the ball), because she never said anything (and loves to dress up and has learned to go to the ball and dance), but on Saturday evening when we returned from a marvelous performance of Henry IV Part I (Ed Gero as Falstaff unforgettable, so alive) at the Folger Shakespeare library, to eat out together, her talk suddenly showed she had: she said that people join professional organizations (for her librarians) and were they to be excluded from the AGM, what would be the point of paying the yearly fee. Said she, JASNA gets away with this because there is this “pretense of disinterest.”


A good review

I read this week the first of 9 tales of Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress, “Alphinland,” (also all of The Testaments) and lo and behold it’s about a woman whose husband has recently died and she hears his voice over the day and at night talking to her telling her what she needs to do: it’s just ice-stormed so she must go out and get salt and food stuffs; the electricity goes out, so she must find her candles. Her grown children keep telling her she must move, downsize, sell her furniture, give away his clothes, but she will not because then she will be parted from him. In our end is our beginning, a powerful original early book of literary criticism about Canadian literature and culture by Atwood is called Survival and is about how the harsh cold climate is at the heart of their worlds. Our widowed witch remains seemingly cheerful because his spirit is with her. It is not irrelevant to know that just upon the publication of The Testaments Atwood’s partner of many years died.


Another fine review

I am still suffering from the loss of my supposed friend on the internet because I find letters so wonderful and now I have to get through most of my days without this imagined support. It’s time I learned to do without this — a last left-over from the idealism of the first decade of the Internet when one could make real friends even frequently through this medium. But, to paraphrase Johnson, it may there are some who would dismiss such susceptibility (“common losses”), but he says of their lack of tenderness, they lack humanity:

“It is the part of a man to be affected with grief; to feel sorrow, at the same time that he is to resist it, and to admit of comfort” (Rambler No. 47).

For this week’s Caturday I wrote about my “third” cat and put photos on face-book: I’ve been in a relationship with this cat ever since the man who owns him/her left him (I’ll chose a gender) for two weeks with only someone the owner called his (“my”) daughter visiting the house to leave food for the cat once a day. (Maybe 2 years ago.) There is apparently a way for the cat to leave the house. He first began to visit me during this time when I responded with affection. I left food for him as at first there was no collar and I thought he might be starving. But no he is “owned” by by this man who seems to show him little affection because the cat does not know how to show it easily and moves to hissing nervously. Other neighbors had complained because they saw him on their lawns and he might shit on these. Can’t have that. Or just a sense of nuisance: how dare this animal be there? Then I saw a raccoon and knew I was endangering this cat’s life. I tried calling local authorities but saw quickly all they would do was come and take and probably kill a cat without a “owner, and this one has this legal tie (such as it is)


The cat laying on my sidewalk waiting for me to come out

The cat apparently goes missing once in a while: once the man who owns him came over to see if he was with me — I said no and I had not seen him for several weeks. Nowadays the cat sits under a tree just on the side of my lawn, a bush, or lays on my sidewalk waiting for me. Often when I come out he scoots or walks slowly over to me. He meows at me and waits for me to pet her. I give him a small amount of food once in a while which he finishes quickly but he doesn’t go away. Stays mostly under the bush. He is very wary. He does not expect or know how to show affection: will hiss after he has nudged me lest I hurt him. The other day I saw on his head a shaved spot and wondered if the “owner” had done that. The owner is someone who moved into one of these obscene McMansions in my neighborhood after he married a woman who looks 50 from afar; she has a daughter of her own but they seem to have nothing to do with this cat. He is a small grey cat with white feet; if I thought the cat a boy for sure, I’d call him Martin. The photos were a close-up, him outside waiting for me, walking about me, wanting to be petted, coming over to me when I open my front door ….


Here is the close-up


Him circling me, warily but wanting to be petted

A small instance of basic human reactions this cat has mostly known, ranging from indifference to callous selfishness (neglect) in a world bursting with these … This morning the hairless part of this poor creature’s head has grown larger and looks reddish. He greedily drank the water I put out for him. The cat is going into a new phase. He avoids people — that’s what animals do when they are very ill. He stands aside on the side of my house all elusive, looking at me when I come out to go somewhere or stand in my stoop area looking about. Close-by or passing neighbors have asked me if he is my cat and I say no and they say he comes up to them and acts oddly and is seen now and then about my house. I point to the house of the owner and say “he is said to or does lives there.” There is so much misfortune in this world but this cat could have been taken good care of, and had a good longer life.

Having gone through all four seasons of Outlander (Claire a white witch) now four times, I’m back to re-watching the whole five seasons of the new Poldarks, one episode after another in a row as far as time and evenings allow. I had been doing that for over a month (or so) when my Irish Internet friend sent me DVD copies of the British BBC programs as they appeared on British TV. I much prefer these because the American ones are rearranged, often cut (sometimes drastically or carelessly, which comes down to the same thing).

So coming back to Season 3 (The Black Moon and part of The Four Swans), I am impressed by how a few of this particular season are mood pieces — if you simply ignore (more or less) the specifics of what’s going on, enough of that (like the seashore romance of Drake and Morwenna and Geoffrey Charles), of the setting (as in the episode where our local friends learn that the ship Dwight was in was captured or fear that Andrew Blamey’s ship has gone down), allows for many sequences of filming (or whatever you want to call this) of the sea, the near landscape accompanied by appropriate music. The effect is sort of symphonic — a pleasing visual and aural experience. There are mood sequences in seasons 1 and 2, but I feel that in season 3 this kind of thing is allowed to take over and is enjoyable if you can lend yourself to it. They did not try for this except briefly in the 1970s — they didn’t have the kind of mesmerizing computer techniques (and cameras) they do today.


Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza (season 3)


Elise Chappell as Morwenna following Drake

I’ve also embarked on a study of Austen’s Sanditon, using Janet Todd’s edition, after reading her brilliant essay (crisply written, with a fresh feel), going over and over Davies’s new adaptation, returning to Brindle’s, Anna Lefroy’s continuation. See if I can make some sense of this fragmentary text, written by a dying woman, in bad pain on and off, where the beach, the seashore, the air all around it, is a central character.


From Episode 2 of 8 (2019, an ITV product, scripted mostly by Andrew Davies)

To conclude this entry, a woman on a closed face-book page for “Autistic Women” (how I was told about this or got on I no longer remember) told of how at her new job as a cashier, she found the pace and crowds hard, but was trying hard when one customer accosted her for “not paying attention,” and when the woman kept up this harangue and she tried to explain she is autistic, the woman rushed over to her employer’s office and complained bitterly about anyone hiring such a person. So I wrote:

I have learned, much to an increase in sadness and regret, that if you tell someone of your disability or inexorable problem, far from feeling for you, many will act out contempt and try to expunge you away. Thus the way to protect yourself is not allow most others to see your social predicament. It’s the only way to maintain the respect of the cruel, stupid, selfish, unthinking bandwagon types. And that is why a space like this where we are all here together in candour and true support and friendship can mean so much. It is very hard how one cannot tell but must bear on alone. You expected some understanding instead you got hate — you must tell yourself this woman is horrible, behaved truly horribly and not blame yourself but her even if the world is filled with people who react in such ways to disabilities.


A rare oil painting by Honore Daumier: On a bridge at night — a homeless woman, perhaps refuge, with a child or disabled adult

Ellen

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This photo of my miniature maple in my front yard shows the coming of autumn

Robert Louis Stevenson: Autumn Fires

In the other gardens
And all up the vale,
From the autumn bonfires
See the smoke trail!

Pleasant summer over
And all the summer flowers,
The red fire blazes,
The grey smoke towers.

Sing a song of seasons!
Something bright in all!
Flowers in the summer,
Fires in the fall!

Dear friends,

Sometimes I think the hardest thing about being without Jim is living in the silence. I can’t remember that he and I kept up a perpetual stream of talk, but I did not experience hours turning into days and sometimes a week where the silence is broken only for a while after Izzy comes home and we have dinner together. October used to be my favorite of time of year: it was (so I thought before global warming) more or less guaranteed no more 90F days by October 1st; I still find the colors of autumn lovely.

Jim and I were married October 6th, 1969, a year to the day we met. His birthday was October 3rd, 1948. But now a new anniversary intrudes: he died October 9th, 2013, and that is now the anniversary that most matters.

I haven’t written because I hadn’t the emotional strength to say what I thought I needed to say if I were to keep this public diary truthful enough. I will keep it brief and general. I endured another of these incidents on a listserv where I end up scapegoated, humiliated, and excoriated — it occurred over a period of 3 or 4 days. I’ve learned since the years on Austen-l to say very little and keep away as much as I can during such distressful times, but not to say nothing and just get off. But a little fodder goes a long way with people intent on getting back. I then experienced a roller-coaster of emotion: strong distress over several days such that I found I had to tell my friend that I see locally (whose name I’ve mentioned here): Panorea picked up something was wrong and asked more than once and finally I told her about it. I know that this does not increase anyone’s respect for me but she did have some wise words about recognizing who is your friend (in the 18th century sense).

Then bitter anger; that morphs into sadnesss, and finally the world seems a bleak and empty place.


Elizabeth Mondragon as Butterfly and Amanda Palmeiro as her faithful servant-woman

Panorea did come with me during this time, a Sunday afternoon, to the In-Series theater in Washington, DC to see a modern appropriation of Puccini’s Butterfly. Extraordinarily well-sung, it was a 75 minute mini-opera where everything but the core of the story is cut away: we have left the Japanese impoverished girl in love, giving herself to the white American man, becoming pregnant, his departure and reluctant return to take the baby from her., then her suicide. Em Scow’s review for DC Metro describes the attempt to make the material speak to us in terms that critique the colonialist perspective of the original opera. Every seat in the auditorium was taken; alas, I couldn’t eat the meal we went out for later (because my denture would not stay on properly) and hadn’t the nerve to tell her then. But we both were much taken by the opera, had a good walk and good time.


Kenneth Branagh as the witty melancholy jester-hero


Cherie Lunghi — the lady who is not for burning

One of the way I dealt with this anguished memory of online betrayal (which did begin to fade) — as I do periods of anxiety, stronger depression than usual, worry-panic — was to work very hard on my projects, and so I was otherwise home a lot for the two weeks before the term began. It’s during such times that I become more aware of the silence. When I am imagining good social worlds I belong to I tend to be able to shut out the silence, and almost hear voices from FB friends and friends on other places on the Net. This is illusion, delusion. I do still shake when I remember how I felt those 4 days. I can’t always sleep as memories break in.

I now think to myself that it’s hard to say where we are safer or can make realer friends: cyberspace where no one can rape or harass you physically but the lack of bodies enables people to misrepresent what was said and there is no recourse against reiteration; or physical space where so much more information comes in immediately.

Luckily I found my book projects unexpectedly going well: Graham’s Marni (at least the opening part) is much better than I had remembered (Hitchcock’s ugly movie had obscured the real tone of the book), his Tumbled House is very good and even better the play it alludes to, Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s not for Burning, which I was able to watch in a quietly thoughtful BBC production with Kenneth Branagh (and a young Susannah Harker in a minor role — she is one of the actresses I like to watch) and Margaret Oliphant did not fail me — the novel I’m reading just now, The Doctor’s Family (a Carlingford novella) has a painfully accurate depiction of what it feels like as a widow immediately after your husband’s death, what you have to face.

Pussycats helps — my real perpetual companions, and I began to participate in Caturday on face-book. Marnie took such extraordinarily good photos of Ian and Clarycat while she cared for them I now have a bunch to share. Here is a close-up of Ian Pussycat (aka SnuffyCat as in Mr Snuffleupagus). He is notoriously difficult to take a close-up photo of, much less one intensely manifesting, and/or actively seeking for, affection.

When he comes over to my chair as I sit in front of my PC computer on my desk, he often does that. It’s the sweetest gesture. When I pick him up, he sometimes hugs his body against my chest with his paws around my neck, his beautiful tail swishing over my keyboard.

One result of this self-discipline of reading (I read the whole of Naomi Mitchinson’s The Bull Calves, most of Jenny Calder’s biography of this remarkable woman) and writing, reviewing a number of studies and books, my notes, all at once — the result I say was I finished the paper in record time, inside 3 days. I’ve never produced one so quickly before. I was chuffed because it does seem to me I am at long last getting the hang of what’s wanted in a paper for a conference and how to produce it. It has taken only 20 years (I began going to conferences in 2000). I also needed to complete the paper before the term started as I now no have the long periods of time (hours on end) that writing a good paper takes. It’s called “At this crossroad of my life: books and movies on Culloden and its aftermath” and I will share it with everyone on the Net who might like to read it in due course — early November.

I returned to blogging too (on reading Miss Mackenzie with Trollope&Peers), and then was just a miracle of efficiency and patience in obtaining a driver’s license (which I am well aware will be used part of the gov’ts mass surveillance programs).

This week teaching and going to classes began. I was too intensely cheered by how well both my classes on Phineas Finn went (Monday and Wednesday afternoons) — just splendid, and especially the second, at OLLI at Mason, where there were fewer people than I’d hoped (meaning maybe after all Can You Forgive Her? was just too long) but the people in the room greeted me with such praise, everyone seemed so friendly, as we went round the room telling names, where we were born, and for each of us (including me) what Trollope books have you read, or how did you come across him? it seems for a number of them it was I who introduced them to this remarkable novelist. Both classes of people seem to be very much enjoying the book and seeing its perceptive relevance.

Coping with the undercurrents of memories, though, when I came home, and (as often happens) hadn’t eaten enough, I overdrank too much wine too quickly and then later on collapsed in exhaustion from the effort.

I am worry about one thing I cannot easily do much about: my upper denture has a crack in it and it’s getting worse. I started the 6 week (I hope it’s no longer) process of having a new denture made — it’s a series of fittings and orders for teeth — the day I returned from Calais. I held off because I hoped the denture would last until next April when the insurance I bought would pay for what Kaiser/Medicare does not. But I saw it wouldn’t do. Now I am genuinely concerned lest it break before the new denture comes. It’s not the difficulty in eating but do I have the courage to go out and teach a class with no teeth in the top of my mouth. I have the semi-permanent denture with teeth on the bottom. (These need work she said and she’ll do that after we finish making and fitting a new top removable denture.) Would the class be able to control themselves and not keep looking with appalled horror at the astonishing sight of a seemingly middle class white woman who is toothless on her top jaw. I think I would go rather than cancel the rest of the term. But it will go hard with me. I am taking the thing off for many hours now, trying to be as gentle as I can when taking it off, cleaning it.


The chapters are set up like months of the year; each section begins with a recipe – it is very l’ecriture-femme

I know I can manage being in a class – so much easier, less demanding altogether, just have to exercise self-control — though I admit that when I go out nowadays without that denture I wear a headscarf in a style where I cover my mouth — I have two cut in the “Middle Eastern” (the phrase is a misnomer according to Adhaf Soueif.) I’ve been going out once a day this week: Tuesday a fun class on Laura Esquivel’s Like Water from Chocolate: it’s taught in a community college kind of way, power-point slides, then we go into groups (luckily some of the mostly women read the book carefully, looked things up on the Net and contributed much). What I want to say most about it is it is a book filled with tremendous cruelty (of a mother to a daughter — she beats her violently to prevent the daughter from marrying and having a life or any manifestation of feelings of her own), and for the first time I realized one of the uses of magic realism is to break up the grimness and insane irrationalities these third-world lives for women inflict on them – the dream fantasies make for pleasure, release. I’ve order the movie (I had not realized it was such a best-seller) and will watch it soon.

Today I attended an excellent class at Politics and Prose on Adhaf Soueif’s Map of Love. The two women giving this class produced an immensely thorough presentation (wow), going over history (of Egypt and the brutal colonialist policies of the British followed nowadays by an equally brutal dictatorship by the military and elite Egyptians themselves, really discussing in detail the complicated stories and art of this very Booker Prize type (it recalls Byatt’s Possession) book. What they avoided was how she is pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel (that was a remarkable feat but necessary as perhaps one third of the class were Jewish women who I could see horrifyingly accept what this terror state is doing.) Maybe I’ll be moved to write a blog – I wrote about it in a paper comparing it with Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde, or The Recluse of the Lake. I’ve read her non-Booker on the Edge of the Sun, her depiction of the Arab Spring in Cairo and even have her book of essays, Mezzaterra (Fragments from the Common Ground).

To round it the week off, tomorrow I got to OLLI at AU for a first class on Graham Greene in the early morning, Saturday in the later afternoon the Folger autumn concert (I enjoyed the utterly non-commercial simplicity of the presentations, to me an oasis, halcyon) by myself, and then Sunday with Izzy, to the local large library booksale and a nearby movie theater with HD screen where we hope to buy tickets for 2 Metropolitan operas to be aired there in February: Porgy and Bess, and Handel’s Aggripina. We have discovered in the ceaseless devouring commercialism of the Internet today, we can no longer buy these Metropolitan opera tickets at this theater unless we join Fandango (an advertising ticket-selling octopus). We hope to be able to refuse this joining by going directly to the theater and buying ahead at the counter.

I began this diary entry with my feeling sometimes that the hardest thing for me to endure is the silence. I believe I go out to these classes as much to hear human voices talking to one another and to me and to give me an opportunity to talk to others about what is meaningful to me and to them. Yes. Years ago I knew that I bought Books-on-tape for my car so I could feel not so alone as I drove — because even with Jim I was lonely and the voice of the brilliant reader was/is such a comfort. Right now Timothy West is making Phineas Finn such a delight. Izzy is for once listening with me again too.

In the evenings too I have returned to Downton Abbey — the first season at any rate.


Anna (Joanne Froggart) realizing that Mr Bates (Brendon Coyle) has brought her a tray of food


Anne watching him walk away (Episode 4 Downton Abbey 1st season)

The movie arrived in my local cinema art theater, and not altogether convinced it would be this alluring long-lasting hit, I hurried to see it later Tuesday afternoon and then wrote yet another blog — moved to: the trick, the involving magic begins one-third to one-half the way through and doesn’t quite succeed. I was reminded of what had drawn me in so emotionally in the first and parts of the second season so I have added the series to my watching addictively late at night beloved series — returning to old friends, the fourth episode of the first series where Mrs Hughes quietly decides against leaving her position as housekeeper where she feels wanted appreciated needed to be the wife of a man she had loved. Much more than that occurs — a favorite scene for me is when Mr Bates returns the kind favor Anna had done him the night he thought he had to leave (and was crying) by bringing him a tray of supper: he brings her one and the look in their eyes at one another brought peace to my soul. I need more than voices to assuage the aching emptiness.

I went to bed with Clarycat with the memory of their feelingful goodness in my spirit and slept the better for watching.


Close-up of ClaryCat at play with Marnie

Edward Thomas — October

The green elm with the one great bough of gold
Lets leaves into the grass slip, one by one, —
The short hill grass, the mushrooms small milk-white,
Harebell and scabious and tormentil,
That blackberry and gorse, in dew and sun,
Bow down to; and the wind travels too light
To shake the fallen birch leaves from the fern;
The gossamers wander at their own will.
At heavier steps than birds’ the squirrels scold.
The rich scene has grown fresh again and new
As Spring and to the touch is not more cool
Than it is warm to the gaze; and now I might
As happy be as earth is beautiful,
Were I some other or with earth could turn
In alternation of violet and rose,
Harebell and snowdrop, at their season due,
And gorse that has no time not to be gay.
But if this be not happiness, — who knows?
Some day I shall think this a happy day,
And this mood by the name of melancholy
Shall no more blackened and obscured be.

Ellen

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This is a delightful book in the genre of what I have read and how it has affected me; I feature it since I too use paper clips to keep my place ….

“Some people say that life is the thing, but I much prefer reading.” — Logan Pearsall Smith

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

Friends,

Another meme about favorite books was started more than week ago now and again I joined in. You may recall the first meme asked for “10 books that have influenced me most in my life:” I wrote considerable sized blogs and then transferred the titles here. One problem with these memes is quite a number of people seem not to pay attention to what is asked for but just give “favorite” books. Seven books I have loved is quite a different questions from 10 books that have strongly influenced my life. Another quirk in this second one is the originator said one must not comment on the book, no explanation no review, just the cover. Why would someone place such a limitation on telling about 7 books I have loved? To encourage more people to do it? one person said the idea was to promote reading; surely then some idea of the content of the book(s) and why the person loved it are relevant. In any case the question is simpler: I tried to prove the 10 books influenced my life. The objection was made both times that such lists are hypocritical, people posing, pretending to like a fashionable or super-respected book. I’ve seen lists where that’s obviously true. But this is not true for everyone; there are people who can be sincere. You were to list one a day; I kept to that.

So here (once again), now Day 1, my favorite book, a book I have loved since I was 12-13, Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility: These are not the covers I read it in, that was a plain brown book with light gold lettering, part of a set of English classic novels my father had in the family bookshelves. The cover of the paperback edition I have read most often and is from the literal book I have most loved, and is very worn, and an explanation (and image) may be found in my blogs on books which most strongly influenced my life. I put here covers which derive from two beloved movies featuring some of my favorite actresses:

For Day 2, another book I have deeply loved, Elsa Morante’s La Storia, the story of Iduzza, then as years go by her disabled (epileptic, autistic) son, and then his dog against the backdrop of history from the 1930s to aftermath of WW2. I read it slowly in Italian (had no English translation) so when I would weep I had the problem of wetting two books, my Italian dictionary and my beloved novel becaue I had to stop to weep every so often. Despite the vast canvas, I think if it as in the tradition of Richardson’s Clarissa (choice no 2 for 10 books that influenced me). In 20th & 21st century Italian, Natalia Ginzburg and Elena Ferrante are followers of Elsa Morante at her best ….


The English covers rightly emphasizes the heroine, and here the first girl child she gives birth to ….

For Day 3 of books I have deeply loved, I remember Trollope’s The Small House at Allington. I cited Trollope’s Dr Thorne as my 4th choice of 10 books that most strongly influenced me because it was Dr Thorne that set me on this road I’m still on, but ask me which one have I loved best and I have a problem because I’m torn between Small House and Can You Forgive Her? Recently having reread CYFH? I have ringing in my ears still the punitive attitudes the narrator takes towards Alice who I wanted to love best. Trollope’s stinging sneer at Lily Dale occurs outside the novel and in response to those at the time over-sentimentalizing her. I loved her and her choice as I loved Mr Harding and his. Madame Max another favorite heroine is only a small part of Phineas Finn, and anyway I find The Small House so satisfying for many reasons and characters and themes beyond Lily’s. The picture below has the cover of the copy I first read. I probably also choose it because it repeats the paradigms and themes of Austen’s S&S. I believe Small House is one of those novels by Trollope hardly ever or never out of print since it was first published. I also have loved Millais’s illustrations for it, viz. Mr Harding meets Adolphus Crosbie

For Day 4 of books I’ve loved I chose Eleanor Clark’s Rome and A Villa. I loved this one so I am eager to tell others of this treasure. I first came across it as a chapter in the New Yorker (remember the long long essays in the middle once upon a time?) and then bought the book. It is everything a travel book should be: philosophical, beautiful in description, rooted in history, the imagination, answering the needs of the soul; immersing you in Rome and Italian culture, life, poetry. The villa in question is Hadrian’s Villa. I read (the closest writing to a review I can find) and reread it. It has recently (not that long ago) been re-issued with a new cover, which I admit I like better than the one I have at home:

Day 5 of cite a book I have loved and provide an image of one of the cover illustrations it has been graced by. There has not been much citation of poetry; for me the poetry of Charlotte Smith is my fifth inevitable choice. I just love her poetry, never tire of it, but first read them in library reading rooms because there was no single book: I found microfilms and microfiches of her Elegiac Stanzas; then in 1993 one of my heroes, the scholar Stuart Curran, produced a volume of The [More or Less Complete] Poems of Charlotte Smith. The cover is not exciting (just darkish pink with brownish-red lettering), so I’m torn between two more recent covers of the selected poem anthologies which are beginning to come out. She is known as the mother of romantic poets, the way Wordsworth is the father; since those dark ages days, most of her novels have appeared in print, and I am proud to say one of these is my edition of her Ethelinde, or The Recluse of the Lake: I typed all 500+ pages to make a good text, wrote the introduction, notes, annotations; it was published by Valancourt, and I took it to one of the two thus far Charlotte Smith conferences where I met Curran!


A slender but good selection for those who want to start (she has poetry based on science and the natural world)

For Day 6 a book I was surprised into loving Winston Graham’s Ross Poldark. I had begun to watch the 1970s Poldark series in the early 1990s because I was studying film adaptations that were very popular, and as I watched the serial drama episodes (to my surprise as I’d read the usual negative reviews — “swashbuckling” and other stigmatizing terms), I realized I liked it very much; that it was well done, characters interesting, but I felt that the books behind were probably much deeper and I would appreciate the films more if I read the books. I bought the cheapest copy I could find, not being sure I would like the book, and found I couldn’t put it down, I kept reading it where-ever I went: I particularly loved the Verity chapter where she returns to her room after she is thwarted of her lover, the chapters where Ross and Demelza first make love, and then the Pilchards clinched it. I went on to read the first four books, watch the film adaptation of the first year, then the next three, and watch the next year, and then (lack of films intervening) just read the whole 12. I’ve since read RP and Demelza many times, the first quartet quite a number; less so the first trilogy; I ilke the last 5 books, but it’s The Twisted Sword another masterwork that comes up to the first 7. And now written there papers for conferences, and many many blogs and tell myself I am writing a book and maybe will write one. I’d have to find a vanity press (if such things still exist) were I try to publish it, so it may stay on my desk. I would need help to put it on my website.Despite reading my first copies in the splendid 1970s covers with their images of Cornish landscapes, I chose the early covers of both Ross Poldark and Demelza as a pair as they suggest we are moving into another realm, historical fiction.

Now I’ve come to Day 7 I am torn — like I’ve seen others be. I seem to have several to cite. I have loved far more than 7 books and loved them in different ways. So I’ll focus on one more because I read and reread it in the early 1990s, was almost obsessed when I taught it, making calendars, writing up lectures, and I’ll mention two more briefly. So for Day 7 my choice is A.S. Byatt’s Possession; in teaching Booker Prize books I later discovered it was the awarding of this book as first prize that brought the Booker into Big Time Advertising prominence and it sold fantastically well. So no need for me to describe or review except to say it has all the characteristics I’ve long most loved in literary women’s romances, I love the skeins of allusions, the imitation poetry, the scenery …. the story & some of the characters. The first cover is the one I first was allured by; I found an image blessedly without ads all over it. The second is a recent cover, much more tasteful, more respectable (so to speak): I am glad to see Byatt’s photo on the cover. I nowadays think her best fiction, Still Life, and much enjoy her biographies, literary critical essays, some of her realistic short stories (especially memorable “The July Ghost”)

As for the other two, I do so love the books of Iris Origo, and also Caroline Moorehead’s biography of her. I read avidly Origo’s book on Byron, Teresa Guiccioli, and their last Italian and Greek years (The Last Attachment), on Leopardi, but the one that truly counted and I’ve read more than once is her powerful diary on WW2 in Italy, as she took care of herself and her community: The cover is closest to the one I have: the image covers the front page fully, is beautifully reproduced in this first edition:

This last many may not have heard of, but those who have know how exquisitely passionate, understanding, and beautiful is the story Robilant drew from the letters of Andrea Memmor and Giustiniana Wynne and the world of 18th century Venice they lived in. A Venetian Affair:

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As with my first set, I found myself irresistibly led to tell of a book and author whose work Jim loved, & which connects to one of mine: I accompanied Eleanor Clark’s Rome and A Villa by a travel book I know Jim loved, and read around the same time I did Clark’s book: Norman Douglas’s Old Calabria. The wonderful thing about Old Calabria beyond Douglas’s style, outlook, that he was a rare gay man to let you know he was gay, is his book is filled with photographs he took. I have the book still in a plain hardback we found in a vast used bookstore: here is the cover of a more recent edition. Who knows not Douglas’s South Wind (Jim loved that one too) too: a wonderful novel that anticipates the fiction of Virginia Woolf: it’s all conversations.

A happy time when he and I read these books around the same time: a few years we went to stay in Rome for 5 weeks with both daughters in 1994 (also traveling to Naples, Pompeii, and for 3 days stayed on the beach in Ischia. An FB and 18th century friend said this “sounded dreamy,” so I replied: it was a fraught trip where we were learning how to travel for the first time, but we did go because I was teaching myself Italian, translating Vittoria Colonna, and Jim reading about Italy (he also has a public school background in Latin) and had long loved Italian opera …. Looking back sadly now I wish I had behaved better, but then all of us were struggling to adjust. Paradoxically the book that enabled me to endure the lows of that trip was Trollope’s Last Chronicle of Barset, which I found in a book market in a square, battered copy in English. It was August, and much was closed, and air-conditioning non-existent.

Ellen

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The World at Evening — Summer

As this suburban summer wanders toward dark
cats watch from their driveways —

The color of the sky makes brilliant reflection
in the water

There is a time, seconds between the last light
and the dark stretch ahead …

— Rachel Sherwood

A little more than a year ago, I made a summer interlude for my Sylvia I blog; now I’m content with a few words. Then I was gone for 16 days, now it’ll be 10. Then I went with a Road Scholar group to the lake district and borders of Scotland and England in the UK; now we go (me, my two daughters) to Calais, northern France.Why? well I said I wanted to go to the beach, Laura said she wanted to go to France, and Izzy was not going to be left behind.

This sculpture commemorates an eleven month siege on Calais by the British during the hundred years war …

The town or small city has a long history, it’s one of the channel ports between England and France and was owned by England for a very long time. Lots to see beyond the beaches. Castles, prisons, towers, a cathedral, museum. I looked it up on Amazon and bookfinder.com and found many books: on the recent history of immigration to the place and the development of what was known as The Jungle; as a place of war, from 14th century to WW2; where peace treaties and the like were signed; fishing and trading, commerce; a place to set mysteries. Today there are beaches, hotels, shopping, roads to drive, walks to do, markets to buy food and all sorts of goods. There are even ferries.

Laura rented a bnb for us that looks lovely in the picture: it has air-conditioning and wifi. We’ve bought to go to London at least once (see Kensington Garden exhibit), to Paris more than that (we signed up for a food fest). So we’ll use cabs and trains — spend money. The hard question for me is which books to take — to guess which ones will hold you when traveling and away is not easy, but I know Trollope may be relied upon, and so one will be Phineas Finn (as I will teach it this coming fall). I should probably take a good book on or by Austen too. They usually “work.” A small French dictionary — though for a long time it was an English city in France.

Google produces many pictures. Painters like to paint fantasies and semi-realistic images.

I love the art of Eduard Vuillard; many years ago with a visiting friend, I saw a gigantic exhibit (rooms upon rooms tracing his career) of Vuillard’s paintings, murals, drawings at the National Gallery: Dinner with Two Lamps: rue de Calais:

Chez nous, here in Alexandria, Laura’s friend, Marni, will come every day and has promised to stay 45 minutes with the two pussycats, provide food, water &c. Clarycat already made friends with her, and I hope before the end of the time, Ian will come out of hiding and join them in play.


An archetypal harbour scene by Nell Blaine (1986) — Banner Hills, 1986

From Three Poems at the End of Summer by Jane Kenyon

I stood by the side of the road,
It was the only life I had.

Miss Drake

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Simone de Beauvoir’s early existentialist essay

Frank: Might you have forgotten him, with time?
Claire: That amount of time doesn’t exist — “All Debts Paid” (Outlander 3:3)


Frank (Tobias Menzies) and Claire (Caitriona Balfe) — Boston, 1968: he the tragic figure

Hope is the thing with feathers — Emily Dickinson

Friends and readers,

I get so tired sometimes. I want to stand or to sit ever so still, and hold my head with my hand on my forehead, over my eyes, and to keen. To give way at last. I am so fond of my nearly furniture-less sun-room. I wonder what Jim would think of it. I’ll never know. He would laugh, not mockingly. I do not remember him ever laughing mockingly. No jeers. His laughter was ever kind, gentle teasing, cordial, lightening up life. If it were not that I fall asleep because my one plush rocking chair is so comfortable, I’d sit there many hours in sunpuddle reading.

I seem this summer to be feeling more grief than I have in a while. I was so stunned that first year. It may be how things accumulate: this summer I realized too late (typical of me) that the ISECS (International 18th century society) meet in Edinburgh in July was one to go to — I could sense it from the photos I saw on face-book. To have been there then. I would have known enough of the people. I would have walked new streets that I’ve not tried, alleyways, maybe seen a play. I had been earlier this year regretting that Jim and I didn’t go to a Renaissance Society meeting that was held in Florence: he wanted to go in the early 2000s, but I was still so seared from a time in the 1990s when I tried on my own and was shattered by the experience — I knew no one and found it an endurance ordeal. He was right: we could have learned so much while we saw what was worth seeing; he would have been with me this time. Not so here. Now it’s come to me my reason for resolutely turning away, that my idea that I wanted to teach to take up the full six weeks had not taken into account I could have gone by saying I would teach a 3 week session at the OLLI at Mason summer session; no one would have minded. Why didn’t I think of this? Ah, if there is ever a next time.

Jim used to say when I’d cancel a class at Mason where it was a matter of required courses with grades, and it seemed no one or few minded at all, why didn’t he have a job like that; one where when he didn’t show up, many were relieved ….


Giovanni Volpato and Louis DuCrois, Temple to Sybil, Tivoli (1750) — once the wallpaper on Jim’s laptop (now mine, with a different picture

And then I had a panic attack trying to find a restaurant on a central Alexandria Old Town Street — having been invited to lunch there by two thoroughly monied Northwest DC-resident women (from the OLLI at AU). But he has missed so much. I merely miss my friend, my partner, the daily absence, the easy fun together.

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Clarycat this past Wednesday morning ….

I thought for this entry I’d transcribe my notes from a remarkably at moments exhilarating class experience I’m part of at the Politics and Prose bookstore for 3 evenings, 6-8 pm: it’s called “3 Odd Humanists,” but it’s about three existential texts and writers: Sartre’s Existentialism is Humanism” (it’s not), Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity (Of Ambiguity is a more accurate, indeed close translation), and Weil’s The Need for Roots (Uprootedness in French). Ten highly intelligent some well-read people all reading the text, with a professor, David Johnson, from Georgetown who comes prepared. He startled me the first night by beginning with Plato and Aristotle. I remembered back to my early undergraduate days reading “selections” of philosophy by myself (300 people in the class, we sat in a vast lecture hall while the teacher talked on up front) for a required course whose absurd title I can’t quite recall.

I enjoy also when I come out around 8 and the sky is just darkening seeing how crowded the store is (a lecture upstairs will be going on), the people drinking, eating, reading and taking notes in the store (one guy at a table surrounded by books and papers), outside in the street everyone eating ice cream (I finally saw where the ice cream store is further along on the block), people sitting on benches, strolling about, eating out on the sidewalk by or in a restaurant, a good city life scene. Once three summers ago Vivian and I bought ice cream cones in a crowded store in Old Town in summer, it was around 9:30, people milling people all about us, two blocks from the river, an uncommon scene (some special event had occurred earlier in the day). I even ate mine. Then on both occasions, I could come home to my bed, my cats, my house, and relax. This time I ate supper and started this blog. I gather at Politics & Prose this kind of thing goes on almost nightly.

I want to transcribe a few scattered notes in the context of my own reading of the three books thus far. My handwriting is so feeble, the class proceeds by conversation mostly, not lecture, but I suspect I’ll get more out of what was said or remember some of it by writing the notes out, turning my Pitman stenography and memory into readable English.

What is now wonderful about philosophy is I’m learning it’s about finding a rationale, an encompassing perspective for oneself (with others) which explains and predicts how things are and can comfort. A kind of meaning or patterns. And it’s fun to do. The last or only time I took a real philosophy course before was a small class where we read a new book each week, starting with Sophocles, moving “through the ages” and languages, to include Dante’s Inferno, and on to 20th century texts: each time, in a manic way I thought, interpreting what we read to show that this text too exemplifies Heidegger’s existentialism — as explained to us in a readable more or less coherent text by Magda King. And it worked each time! after a while I could parrot and apply the Heidegger as-told-by King outlook to the point of getting an A+ in that course. But I did not see my own thoughts, feelings, acts intimately in terms of existentialism; that is what we are encouraged to do in these grown-up sessions.

So, on to what I have from Sartre & Beauvoir & Weil thus far:

Sartre (translator Carol Macomber): “In reality things will be what men have chosen them to be. Does that mean I must resort to quietism [conform]. No.” So in my life that means that although I was born to very poor unconnected parents, I ignored all attempts to make me make a life’s choice based on making a middle class income. Instead I chose literature, writing, and ended with low paid teaching (because that’s what the society has chosen for someone like me who does this ….)

I see Prof Johnson said that Sartre shows us a paranoid view of reality and what Sartre says we must do is move deep into our own minds and remain true to them. We are obligated it seems to feel the reality of anguish and abandonment when we realize we cannot turn to others to create our own meaning; at the same time as irrespective of others, no matter how they might try to stop us, we must fulfill our talents. We find we are here existing. (This reminds me of Heidegger’s thrownness.) The individual exploration of the self is what matters. We are a presence to ourselves. At the same time we must be responsible for our acts. If circumstances are against your doing something, Sartre says it is still cowardly not to do it — he insists you have the potential or capacity to act so not to act is a choice. David Johnson said that for Sartre subjectivity is your presence in the world.

He asserts that human relationships are fundamentally hostile. I fear this is so. We must affirm the value of what we choose. Must we?

He seems to think morality must have a broader scope than sympathy and devotion to another. Yet the concrete goal of helping another (rather than the vague group) is more useful. Reality alone counts. Dreams expectations only serve to define us as broken dreams, abortive hopes, and thwarted expectations. I feel I am in Samuel Johnson’s world here.

One problem I found is that Sartre is prescriptive, not descriptive as I remember Heidegger was. I think of an old Bible story about how if you are given certain talents, you must use them or God will punish you. No one supernatural will punish you in Sartre’s scheme — but yourself. He is unforgiving. I also found him defensive — especially against communists (!) who he said demanded that we give ourselves over to group idea or set of ideas. Thus we lose our freedom. Why not just ignore them? He was very bothered by Camus’s Stranger because he felt the book argued for the futility of any attempt to explain the world. (This is a branch of nihilism, commented the teacher). He says we must ignore others and yet himself cannot dismiss someone else’s admired book. Sartre says what has happened today is a breakdown of central social systems, so that people are aware their way of life is not universal nor their norms or values: we daily live in close proximity to disillusionment, disenchantment because we have woken up. Now to me we are with Kant saying that the enlightenment is a movement where we are adults and our own authorities based on our own experience and developing judgement.

How is existentialism humanism I asked the teacher: because we are centering ourselves on ourselves, on people relationships; through people the world is created. Well, I’d say in part. I read that Sartre says humanism is thinking man is the end we work for, humanity the supreme value. Well this is just wrong. Other animals count too and we must value them and act for them as much.


Ian this very morning on what was Jim’s desk, now my third library table, with the laptop on it too.

My notes on Beauvoir are more coherent and extensive. I felt that she was explaining Sartre — it is an early work, before The Second Sex, before any of her novels and long memoir.

The past is never to be used as a template for the present — David Johnson’s comment on a passage by Beauvoir which is not my understanding of her.  To me she subtilizes, nuances, and interjects an ethic of care. We might say hers is the woman’s point of view, his the man’s. She is concretely about politics and  the cruelties of fascism (as is Weil):

I know that Beauvoir write at her outset our nature has two basic impulses we must obey: to disclose ourselves to others and to will, to act out what we want or feel as mirrored by this disclosure. (She was accused of essentialism.) I thought how solitary confinement is a form of torture: the person can neither disclose him or herself, nor can he or she will an effective act.

Well, Johnson said for Beauvoir subjectivity is terrifying, as we are a mere small presence in a particularly unjust or evil world. She does insist that evil is real, that there are bad actors in the world, they rise to power and will evil. There can be no general ethics for all. We are left in ambiguity. We find ready-made values imposed on us by “serious” people, and these values veil our liberty from us. She is not a nihilist. When we genuinely act authentically we must not impinge on others’ liberty either – or speak or act for them.

Freedom for Beauvoir brings about transcendence, not in any divine but by opening up and providing for indeterminate possibilities. We do have to exist in the present. The last part of her text is her worrying over the Heideggerian idea that people to be human must thrust themselves forward into the future. The enslaved person is denied a fundamental need because he or she can have no future, can plan nothing as at any time he or she may sold or forced to do something he or she would rather not. Johnson remarked the future is the not yet. Religion tells us to throw ourselves into a future that’s is not so, so we must dismiss that. But many philosophies show how people live in terms of the future. I remember learning in the class on Heidegger that he explains why slavery is so de-humanizing: Nonetheless Beauvoir says we must live in the present; the future can be seen through what we are doing in the present, it is incarnate in the present. We must not lose ourselves in the not yet?

I was impressed by how often she brought up childhood, how many references to Rousseau, a long passage on Emile. She declared that “the child does not contain the man he will become.” At long last. There were several passages on how women have been enslaved, how even in cultures where there is opportunity to disclose themselves authentically to someone other than a trusted confidant, to act according to her will, she has been taught submission, struck by how she saw through the gaiety of women who are complicit with the wills of men, how quickly their graciousness can become hard, bitter fury. She too demands we not resign ourselves or we have failed. A piece on Mlle de Lespinasse’s abject letters in love, that Lespinasse is in love with suffering; she sees Lespinasse’s many renouncements, her dependence as frightening. So does Austen in Marianne Dashwood.

She gave me freedom when she said (reminding me of Elinor Dashwood) it is enough to be liberated in one’s thought. I felt comfort when she allowed for joy in history (and presumably historical fiction) because you assume a relationship of sheer contemplation and aesthetic enjoyment. The past is past.

Outside of time and far from men, we face history — Beauvoir, as translated by Bernard Frechtman

But I do know from Orwell “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls [our understanding of] the past.”

Johnson also seems to have talked of failure — or I have notes where he seemed to be saying how intentional we are, we may not be able to disclose ourselves to another. They are in their subjectivity. I cited RLStevenson, a favorite passage:

There is indeed one element in human destiny
that not blindness itself can controvert. Whatever
else we are intended to do, we are not intended
to succeed; failure is the fate allotted. Our business
is to continue to fail in good spirits. — Robert Louis Stevenson

To which one of the people said, Becket said that more concisely: fail better. I thought of all the exchanges on the Internet I’ve had over the years and how I misunderstand others and they misunderstand me, or how what I have said does not register as important to them, but some side issues or details I cited, and maybe vice versa too.

So we fall back on “the appeal:” we try to appeal to others based on their groundwork to understand us and we try to respond to appeals. An ethic of looking to the other, but respecting (not fearing) them except when evil actors, she can be brought together with Carol Gilligan’s humane groundwork on the psychology of women. And hence l’ecriture-femme.

I have begun Simone de Weil – the cover to my edition of her book is silly: a photo of carrots (root vegetables anyone?). Translator Arthur Wills. I know she starved herself to death, so desperately hideous to her was the barbaric WW2. She is so different from the other two, though. Not just the belief in God but an assumption we must take this belief into account in our understanding of life, death &c The publisher has TS Eliot as introducer because he was an overt fervent (in his later poetry) Anglican. Then he’s right about Weil having a way of beginning with a very wrong idea, indeed lopsided (to my mind), sometime perverse, but then from this point A she leaps to Point B, where she is uttering a brilliant explanatory truth and moving from truth to truth, some just statements and others encompassing utterances … There is paradoxically a lot more pragmaticism and open politics about the 1940s wars and the horrors of Nazism. Yet the soul’s needs is what she is on about: what are “the vital needs of the human being.” She is very Samuel-Johnsonian.

She offers concrete alternatives to the anti-humane organizations of our society, their de-humanizing and uprooted values. I discover too I have her deeply anti-war commentary, The Iliad or The Poem of Force, ed and trans. Hames P Holoska.

I’ve been reading in these two Weils this morning. I am troubled by my discovery that in her Uprootedness (The Need for Roots), the central presences are men. Once she leaves universal needs and talks of society, it’s the working men who must be freed, the peasant is a man. Women come up only as pregnant wives, as prostitutes (which she want to outlaw) or sewing.

There is no more masculine work I know than The Iliad, and all Weil’s words are couched as universals, not as gendered situations, yet here most frequently she picks out passages about women’s grief, women’s subjection. I gave up on Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls because its realism made it so monotonous; the heroine never had any choice, any separate subjectivity; this makes me want to return to it but I know I won’t find there what Beauvoir, Sartre and Weil all claim is possible: freedom in subjectivity through the mind. Frederick Douglas was able to achieve it and then fled — barker did not want to dwell on the unusual person.

I find Weil’s analysis spot on, her memory of the poem is mine. A poem about force, exulting in brutality, incessant and at the same time including all these passages of poignant helpless loss.

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Sissinghurst Kent: the gardens

I want to bring up all-day “course” I took at the Smithsonian a week ago Saturday, “The Splendours of English Country Houses:” Bonita Billman talked a nearly 6 hour lecture (putting it all together and eliminating the breaks and lunch) on “the splendors of English country houses,” historically conceived; we began with Bess of Hardwicke and Renaissance massive structures and ended on a renovaton of a 14th century castle by another filthy rich family with personally aesthetically ambitious people with their hands on great gobs of money, the Courtaulds’s Elthan Palace. She was genuinely informative, insightful, wry, lots of information. I’ve ten pages of dense stenographer, 5 pages of a xeroxed summary of what she said, names of houses, architects, places, a good bibliography. Pictures of architectural elements.  I just can’t transcribe this material.

So my faith in the Smithsonian as a place to go for reasonably intelligent lectures is restored. Once, one long summer day a miraculous nearly 8 hours by a man who knew all these is to know about the Beatles and their music, with accompanying music, pictures. But the last 3 lectures I went to at the Smithsonian were embarrassingly bad; one was morally moronic (about surgery in the 19th century in the UK). I worried I would be getting hours of talk intended to elicit gasps at the obscenities wealth inequality that made these places possible over the centuries (still supports some), or these irritating giggles. There was still this curious stupid laughter (common in film audiences). I like art history – I in effect minored in art history in college. One got only 2 credits for every course you took: so to me that just allowed me to take more of them and I did. The Smithsonian has many art history lectures, most mediocre — the speakers speak as if they never read any deconstructionism or theory. Still, the Smithsonian still has far fewer literary choices than they did when I first joined.

But afterwards I realized that there were serious lacks in her talks. She omitted to evaluate what we were seeing from a truly aesthetic and moral standpoint. If we divest ourselves of alluring richness-worshipping preconceptions about showing off wealth, prominence, making a stage or set to emphasize power, status; many of the rooms Billman showed and a helluva lot of the objects were anything from ludicrous, ridiculous and to objectively seen obscene. Useless. Extravagant and done on the backs of the abysmal low wages and fierce hard physical labor of huge numbers of people. Imagine what John Berger would have said — he’d have perhaps produced an hour’s lecture of what was worth looking at truly, the rest cultural study of the super-rich and super-powerful. I did fall asleep for a while over the long part about Palladian houses and objects. Thank you for this critical funny observation.

The TLS for August 2, 2019 had a review by Michael Hall, of yet another of these books which insist on sheer celebration of the houses the rich for themselves, which had this aware perspective. The houses named were most of them Billman discussed. It is no longer true the 1% must give up these houses; they are buying some of them back and re-converting them into luxury palaces for themselves and their friends. Take Eltham Palace, a renovated 14th century castle:

Inside the house the decor is strictly and unqualifiedly art deco, with the accent on name furniture interior decorators:

Someone on my timeline commented: “This looks like the lobby of the headquarters of a life insurance company. I trust it comes across better in person.” This fits into these existentialists: we are to ask whose subjectivity, what values are these houses imposing on us, at what cost to whom and why cannot this money be spent on the poor, the vulnerable, the refuge (a section of Weil is on the ultimate uprooted, the refuge), or some social services program, how about comfortable for free buses and trains.

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Izzy and I at the neighborhood summer block party Tuesday evening this past week — it’s talked about as if a central event; for the second of two times we’ve come, we found it sparsely attended

So I come back to where I began: this summer or this time of this summer is again hard. Truthful talk of a widow’s life. At that lunch I did after all make at the fine restaurant, with the two women we discussed what it is to be an older woman alone.

One said she was a widow of 40 years and epitomized her experience thus: “yes you get to go out for lunch like this,” but then spend your life as an outcast come evening: suddenly you are not invited to places you were because you are not a couple; how other women regard you as a threat. Yes. The other has been widowed twice, on her third and now unhappy marriage; her first husband was simply shot to death one day in their house; she came home to find the corpse; no one ever discovered who did it or why; she was left with three young children. The second a successful companionship, died of cancer. I remembered a third woman (online friend) this week told me (as she has before) of all the reproaches she has been the target of if she brought up she had been unlucky or looked sad — her husband died when she was 37 and he in his mid-40s:  the speakers seem to resent that she got a social security check, and pension as this man’s widow. She too left with two children. Why do people resent the minimal needs of others their class being met by some group set up for this through some shared scheme.  Jim was dead two weeks and I was told “it’s your own fault now if you are miserable” (but someone I hadn’t realized disliked Jim very much for his reclusive ways); that first year:  “get over it!”

We have been reading and discussing Trollope’s mid-career Miss Mackenzie on Trollope&Peers: its focus is a 35 year old spinster, left a lot of money, and trying to make a choice of life for herself and we’ve been discussing what were and are attitudes towards people who never marry, never have a partner, nor children. Why people marry? Why have children? One of the most moving modern plays of the 20th century of the realistic kind I’ve seen is by Lillian Hellman, The Autumn Garden; it focuses on a 50 plus year old woman now divorced (the husband left her for a much younger woman) whose 3 children are anywhere from indifferent to scornful. How lonely she is, how unappreciated she feels. Maybe I’d like a deeply compatible relationship once again, but I don’t think I’d get one like what I had where I’d again be allowed all the the time to read and write and watch what I want on TV, and nowadays go where I want (to classes) and (as a single man said on our list) I’ve an idea that no relationship could be worth giving up those freedoms for me — even if the price is years of nights alone and coping with my disabilities.


Trollope is having an Italian renaissance …

It’s called facing or accepting one’s lot, which I am doing this summer.

Ellen

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A Native American doll I fell in love with and couldn’t bear to leave behind when I visited the Museum of the American Indian yesterday —- for the expression on her face, the posture of her body, her love for a non-human animal. She made me think of the horrifying treatment the US gov’t is now meting out to non-white children seeking asylum at our southern borders. The long history of cruelty and destruction that Native Americans experienced at the hands of the European settler colonialists has resumed today — this past week miners were with impunity killing leaders of indigenous tribes trying to protect their forest …

I’ve put her on the mantelpiece by Jim’s urn and his ashes, the small stuffed toy sheep Laura bought the day she, I, Jim and Izzy visited Stonehenge, the poignent stuffed toy penguin Izzy bought when she and I were in Sussex for a Charlotte Smith conference at Chawton House Library

Nona: You talk about him a lot.
Me: Do I? I didn’t realize.

Friends,


Jamie (Sam Heughan) as longing revenant seen in the dark from the back by Frank Randall in the streets of Inverness below his and Claire’s window (Outlander, Season 1, Episode 1)

To me one of the riveting little discussed aspects of historical fiction is its connection to ghost stories and the gothic. It is haunted terrain: the characters reached in the previous time are ghosts brought alive, somehow hallucinatory in our dreams and on that luminous film/movie/video screen. There is an idea of getting back to the past is to beat death — in Outlander Claire in the 20th century makes it plain she realizes she longs to join a world of now dead people, all gone to dust and ashes, ghosts; and the feeling in such passages. It’s a ghost of the gothic worked up through time-traveling historical fiction. Hilary Mantel plays with this too — knowingly (one of her contemporary novels is about a cynical seance holder who half-believes in what she does – the heroine is her, making a good deal of money out of this game. I find this insight in Daphne DuMaurier who goes back and forth through time too; it’s occasionally found in a Winston Graham tale. What’s necessary is that a now living person meets the character from the previous historical time as a revenant.

A poem by Algernon Swinburne captures the way Claire feels about Jamie. And when Frank dies in 1968, he becomes part of the revenants who come to life through Brianna and Claire’s memories, and Claire’s dreams — and the stones. Claire keeps choosing Jamie in all the ghostly-reverie prologues of the books, and all my life I kept choosing Jim …

A Forsaken Garden
(Click on the link to see the poem with proper indentations)

In a coign of the cliff between lowland and highland,
At the sea-down’s edge between windward and lee,
Walled round with rocks as an inland island,
The ghost of a garden fronts the sea.
A girdle of brushwood and thorn encloses
The steep square slope of the blossomless bed
Where the weeds that grew green from the graves of its roses
Now lie dead.

The fields fall southward, abrupt and broken,
To the low last edge of the long lone land.
If a step should sound or a word be spoken,
Would a ghost not rise at the strange guest’s hand?
So long have the grey bare walks lain guestless,
Through branches and briars if a man make way,
He shall find no life but the sea-wind’s, restless
Night and day.

The dense hard passage is blind and stifled
That crawls by a track none turn to climb
To the strait waste place that the years have rifled
Of all but the thorns that are touched not of time.
The thorns he spares when the rose is taken;
The rocks are left when he wastes the plain.
The wind that wanders, the weeds wind-shaken,
These remain.

Not a flower to be pressed of the foot that falls not;
As the heart of a dead man the seed-plots are dry;
From the thicket of thorns whence the nightingale calls not,
Could she call, there were never a rose to reply.
Over the meadows that blossom and wither
Rings but the note of a sea-bird’s song;
Only the sun and the rain come hither
All year long.

The sun burns sere and the rain dishevels
One gaunt bleak blossom of scentless breath.
Only the wind here hovers and revels
In a round where life seems barren as death.
Here there was laughing of old, there was weeping,
Haply, of lovers none ever will know,
Whose eyes went seaward a hundred sleeping
Years ago.

Heart handfast in heart as they stood, “Look thither,”
Did he whisper? “look forth from the flowers to the sea;
For the foam-flowers endure when the rose-blossoms wither,
And men that love lightly may die—but we?”
And the same wind sang and the same waves whitened,
And or ever the garden’s last petals were shed,
In the lips that had whispered, the eyes that had lightened,
Love was dead.

Or they loved their life through, and then went whither?
And were one to the end—but what end who knows?
Love deep as the sea as a rose must wither,
As the rose-red seaweed that mocks the rose.
Shall the dead take thought for the dead to love them?
What love was ever as deep as a grave?
They are loveless now as the grass above them
Or the wave.

All are at one now, roses and lovers,
Not known of the cliffs and the fields and the sea.
Not a breath of the time that has been hovers
In the air now soft with a summer to be.
Not a breath shall there sweeten the seasons hereafter
Of the flowers or the lovers that laugh now or weep,
When as they that are free now of weeping and laughter
We shall sleep.

Here death may deal not again for ever;
Here change may come not till all change end.
From the graves they have made they shall rise up never,
Who have left nought living to ravage and rend.
Earth, stones, and thorns of the wild ground growing,
While the sun and the rain live, these shall be;
Till a last wind’s breath upon all these blowing
Roll the sea.

Till the slow sea rise and the sheer cliff crumble,
Till terrace and meadow the deep gulfs drink,
Till the strength of the waves of the high tides humble
The fields that lessen, the rocks that shrink,
Here now in his triumph where all things falter,
Stretched out on the spoils that his own hand spread,
As a god self-slain on his own strange altar,
Death lies dead.

One reason I’ve chosen Margaret Oliphant as the center of my chapter on widowed women writers in our coming book “Not an anomaly” is that she feels her widowhood in the way I feel mine haunted, thus I can enter into her case and come up with a thesis, one I hope to generalize from to include other widowed women writers: Penelope Fitzgerald, Christine de Pizan, to name two. Also I love the tone of Oliphant’s fictions and now (after two weeks of on and off immersion) her letters. She is transformed by the death but it takes a long time ….

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


Lady Mary Lowther — a watercolor 19th century drawing of the Lake District I found on-line and was my summer picture on face-book for a while

A lot and almost nothing at all truly new has happened since last I wrote. I’ve read a lot, written, watched movies, some new, some seen many times, since returning to my book project on “Not an anomaly” I’ve produced a detailed chronology of the life and works of Margaret Oliphant and soon will be ready to pick a few novels (I hope) relevant to the topic of her as a widowed woman writer. I’ve produced an outline for a book on Winston Graham, am into two more Cornish novels (Rumer Godden’s China Court is one), and today began his Greek Fire (it’s set during the later 1950s in Greece when the US gov’t was interfering to prevent a socialist democracy from emerging). I’m almost finished with teaching The Enlightenment at Risk! at the OLLI at Mason and it went over better than at AU if the number of people continuing with the course and seeming deeply engaged in the topic and reading in class is any criteria.

Those of us who read Anne Boyd Rioux’s Meg Jo Beth Amy on Trollope&Peers had a good time with it, telling one another our experiences reading children’s books, and I’ve now decided that the 2017 Little Women, starring Emily Watson as Marmee and Maya Hawke as Jo is far more livingly alive, more real depth, more flexible, with all the characters given serious humanity, continuing believable evolving experience than the pretty picturesqueness of the 1995 Little Women: although Gabriel Byrne is still irresistible as Prof Bhaer, it now seems stilted, too much dialogue from the book, too exemplary in the doing of it. See Rioux’s eloquent book about 4 wonderful 19th century American women novelists. And we’ve started a strange book (to me) on WomenWriters: Zadie Smith’s White Teeth: the paradigms of the characters are so unstable and quick rootless changes with a joking kind of tone at first startled but it is growing on me, she is captivating me slowly.

Little Women — Jo March: Maya Hawke’s performance has been insufficiently attended to because, forsooth she is not a celebrity star

I took a one week course at OLLI at AU reading as a group Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, and watching the two movies (1958, a reactionary travesty by Mankiewicz, and a meditative faithful protest film by Philip Noyce, with Michael Caine playing the part of Fowler brilliantly). It was curiously stirring for me to sit in front of Elaine Showalter as teacher: she is very good in a classroom, friendly, warm, intelligent. prompts the class into conversation. A one day 2 hour session on archaeology in Fairfax county (at Colchester) at OLLI at Mason, Reston, was fascinating: how one learns about Native Americans, enslaved African people and European settler colonialists in the 17th through 18th century.


This is from a Gloucester dig — at the session was a couple I know to be pro-Trump: in the atmosphere at OLLI about this vicious administration, they look about with expressions grim as death, well they support death — the great irony of archaeology is our knowledge comes from garbage and death ceremonies ….

Some strong enjoyment in the three weeks was a 5 hour visit yesterday to the Museum of the American Indian with a new friend from OLLI at AU, Nona: a beautiful building, a cafeteria serving delicious food, and intelligently set-up exhibits and art comparable to what I saw in the African-American museum; these people have been treated just as horrifically, abominably. The exhibits about Native American culture and life were not as commercialized as the contemporary African-American counterparts: in both there was much new and unexpected for me to learn. The story of Pocohontas is of a young woman of elite status who took to visiting some European settlers, disappeared for nearly two years (gang-raped? hidden by her father?) to emerge the wife of John Rolfe, who took her to England where she died quickly at age 22 (perhaps in child-birth). Why she was singled out to be the core of naive myth I couldn’t see. The Indian Removal Act is thoroughly put before us – and the dire consequences, the destruction of a whole people. What a vicious man was Andrew Jackson. I have to admit the museum practiced “balance,” with justifications here and there (see how much prosperity was gotten, see how much needed space … ) — you are spared these in the African-American place.


This photo from the outside gives some sense of the beautiful gardens and fountains all around the building

Also a very hot Saturday night with Panorea we saw a virtuoso performance of Swan Lake (American Ballet Theater) at Wolf Trap: picnic with wine before — I was not as moved as I was once long ago by a ballerina who had extraordinary expressive power. Another interesting (if troubling movie) at the film club: Peanut Butter Falcon, a Huckleberry Finn fable (complete with raft), substituting a story meant to be compassionate about a Downs Syndrome young man for the racist matter of Mark Twain, was nonetheless proposing that it’s easy to provide education into independent adulthood for the disabled, with violence as a solution to his difficulties, dissing the institutions and trained female personnel who do care and whose real problem is they are underfunded. See my blog on Chernobyl: enough said.


We hope on WomenWriters@groups.io to read together (in English translation) the first volume of Beauvoir’s memoir

Looking forward to the future, I taught myself how to get to the Politics and Prose Bookstore in Northwest Washington and took a two session course in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. I know the book and film adaptation well; the point was to see how courses are there, and this one was very good, many people from the OLLI at AU, a serious teacher, so now for August (usually a dearth) I have a three session course in existential humanism (three Friday early evenings) and I’m half way through Simone de Beauvoir’s exhilarating The Ethics of Ambiguity (it is!), with Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots, and Sartre’s Existentialism is Humanism coming up.

The book makes me feel like I’ve been in a backwater not seeing what I do in this larger (to me) refreshing context. The book has relevance to what I’ll read in September, but it also has relevance to a debate a friend and I had off-list about evil in the world and in human beings.

Just a little on Beauvoir’s book (beautifully translated by Bernard Frechtman): it is an existential argument, where she begins with a position that we begin in pessimism as we look about us (this comes later in time in the book and our lives — after childhood), but we are part of the world and the way we interact is a necessary assertion, it is a form of disclosure of the self against which we discover that others push back. Many people take one of two choices she’ll avoid: to deny death by asserting immortality and to deny life, seeing it as an illusion where we are dying all the time (that was unexpected — I thought she’d say taking the Camus view of life as meaningless where we individuals make a meaning). I cut to where she argues that there is bad willing, not that the person is deluded or mistaken, but they are acting harmfully deliberately; and one problem is the coping with evil wills which often gain power because others submit to them. Or people with bad wills given power over others who have a hard time escaping them.

The idea that exhilarated and cheered me is that we are free to chose what we want to do (within the limits of our thrownness of course) and how we go about persevering in the face of much resistance from other aspects of life and what we found to be true about our project itself.

She also talks of how in childhood the child is made to feel he or she is not free and thus irresponsible and can live in fantasy. From this she moves on to women and she talks about the situation of women in cultures where they truly have such limited choices, they are objects or enslaved creatures (even there they have a llmited –I’d say pathetic inward — freedom); in the west they are given windows of opportunity and I found it interesting and revealing (explanatory) when she says women who seem so happy at complicity with men’s desires, needs, orders, will suddenly show themselves hard, mean, cruel or furious when something they individually are keen about is brought into the picture (they drop the appearance of charm, urbanity, grace).

The store is a community center, filled with people buying, looking, a cafe and bar, very pleasant. Jim and I had gone there just for lectures and to the pizza place next door (where one of these fanatically deluded bigots came with a loaded rifle because he thought Hilary Clinton was running a child prostitution racket — he has not turned up to Trump’s concentration camps where he is imprisoning children in cement cells with junk food in appalling conditions so they sicken).

The course I mean to teach starting early September 2019 in both OLLIs — on Trollope’s Phineas Finn — is officially scheduled, and the one for spring 2020, on the novels of E.M. Forster just accepted at OLLI at Mason. Here is the blurb on that one:

The novels of E.M. Forster

In this course we will read Forster’s best-known fiction, A Room with a View, Howards End, and A Passage to India. We’ll discuss what makes them such distinctive literary masterpieces capable of delivering such pleasure while delineating the realities, tragedies, comedy, and consolations of human life. We’ll place them in the context of his life, other writing, Bloomsbury connections and era. We’ll also see clips from some of the brilliant films made from them. I ask that before class begins everyone read his short and delightful Aspects of the Novel. We’ll also look at his travel writing & biographies. This rich early 20th century writing & the films will speak home to us today.

The response from both curriculum committees is delight at the choice. These are “sacred texts” one man said, how he loved Howards End in college.

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


Politics and Prose from the inside ….

Not all was peace and life’s consolations on the surface at least for me.

On the way home from Politics & Prose the first time I realized I was being followed by a cop; at first I couldn’t believe this, but at last he began to flash blue lights, then his loud speaker, then gestured and finally I realized he wanted me to pull over. It seems my registration at the DMV expired in February. Who knew? I never got any mailing from them on this. So now I have to pay a fine, phone the DMV and then go through some rigmarole. The cop was not the nervous wreck cop who appeared to regard me as eager to shoot him because I did not respond in conventional ways. (When I got out of the car to talk he went hysterical: ). https://misssylviadrake.livejournal.com/158920.html

No this young man was amused. He asked me, had I realized he wanted me to pull over. I said, No, why should I? I was doing nothing wrong. I take it that this time he was able to research me while he was trailing me home — so had concluded I was this clueless old white (thus harmless) lady. I discovered my registration expired in February. I shall have to call tomorrow probably to pay a hefty fine and call the DMV to ask what to do: I hope very hard this is a routine if expensive and possibly time-consuming matter for me. I do believe I never got a letter from the DMV about this — the way other organizations try to coerce me into doing this kind of stuff online or letting them have access to my bank account.

The officer was all reassurance but smiled with a half-angry look: At home Izzy suggested this was an abusive stop. The guy had had to do research to discover my registration was expired. And though he asked to see my registration, he did not take it away. What about me or my car attracted this leech? I remembered my motto from RLStevenson: failure is the fate allotted; our business is to go through this in good spirits. But a line on the site telling me that I was now driving illegally kept me up all night; I was at the DMV (seven minutes away) in the intense heat ten minutes before the doors opened on an already long line.

When I got inside, what a scene: understaffed, the computers kept going down, people giving up and leaving. I somehow managed to get someone’s attention to ask if the computers could renew a registration over 90 due. I was thinking I would go to another DMV, but the woman suddenly looked at me and said, ah, let’s try that, and took me to a counter where a very genial woman took the summons and all the documents I brought, and made light of the problem. She said (opposed to others) I needed no new plates or photos, and if she could get her computer to respond, I’d be renewed in two minutes and while the thing went bit slowly, it did it. Home by 10. I couldn’t find out what the fine is because the cop did not register it as yet, and was told to phone back in two weeks. I did ask, why did I not get a renewal form? I do pay attention to this kind of stuff. No answer. Now I’ve marked a calendar and next year in January I’ll remember.

The DMV may be trying to save money by not sending out paper notices and don’t mind if they lure people into not paying on time so as to bully us and collect more fines.


An appealing image of retreat — idyllic

I don’t talk much about my neighborhood but it is filled with snobs who will pay a million for a house but not a dime that does not add to their accumulation. There are increasing numbers of McMansions put up: these “homes” are an obscenity the people should be ashamed of. And when someone asks me what do I think of that house having been flattened and the “beautiful” place made in its stead, I do say I think it obscene.  They fall silent — probably offended.

What’s happened is a group of cypress trees (I’m told) planted by a spiteful neighbor years ago (she wanted to shut me out, and blocked the light going into my living room) just on one side of my property have grown high, strong and over the line to the point they are bending my fence. I asked the new owner (there six months) if she would cut them back and she behaved on the edge of rudeness, resentful. She has lived next door to me for 3 months and said as how these are very old trees They are still her’s. This new woman has done nothing after I spoke with her. She responded with offhand “oh I’ll bring out my lopper” looking at me with hard indifference. Her son-in-law (lives around her) came over and said how cutting would make them ugly. They are hideous now – lots of ivy, very messy. I thought of a lawyer but lawyers cost a lot. I asked someone who lived there before the couple (the trees were small then) for advice and she said I have the right to cut down anything on my property. So I’ll hire my mowing man to cut them back, and especially the branches choking the fence. This woman paid $904,000 for her house.

You probably don’t want to hear about some malicious exclusionary behavior on the part of an Aspergers club I know about to one man who was part of their group for years: suffice to say it was over this man’s thoroughly leftist politics, his ideas for protecting disabled people if the present federal gov’t starts to go after them more than they’ve already done. The ostracized person is in his 50s, lonely, odd looking, makes little money in a part-time job in a library (autistic people are often un- or underemployed). I felt for him and wrote a couple of emails on his behalf but it’s no use.

I could many times tell of such like incidents but they are so demoralizing. Izzy and I are excluded from the coming JASNA: the cherry-picking of who goes and who doesn’t was astonishingly transparent this time. Inequality as a visible shameless continued way of life creeps on. I didn’t even know about a Gaskell conference (wasn’t told nor have been contacted by that Gaskell friend I thought I made last summer – well I didn’t make the cut, probably didn’t boast or buy into her establishment talk enough) or the recent Burney one, somehow not told by them either. Well I don’t have the money and such experiences are ordeals in so many ways too.

A few pure diary entries from face-book:

7/20: I predict today in the N.Va area the heat index will reach 120F. It’s impossible to dress appropriately … Two hours later, around noon, the literal temperature is 99F, but the heat index 119F and still climbing. In my memory of this area or any where else I’ve never experienced such oppressive all-encompassing intense heat, acccompanied by a burning hot sun on my skin. Hardly any people in cars going anywhere, supermarkets relatively empty. I know last week the hour and more sudden astonishing rainfall we had (sheets of water coming down with no stopping for the time it went on) was outside the norm. This strikes me as going outside the norm too.

7/21: It is now 104F literally and the heat index is 125F! But that is not my thought for today (just part of context). My thought is how glad I am to have so many kindly FB friends …

7/23: The weather is cooler today: last night heavy but not unusual rains, this morning heavy dark clouds prevented the sun from heating the area up, and the clouds stayed so I was able to go for a walk. First afternoon half-hour walk in days, I felt a light coolish wind even. Last night I watched the whole of the 1995 Little Women and 1/3 of the 2017: I prefer the 2017, then the second episode of the second season of Outlander; then DuMaurier’s Jamaica Inn; this afternoon I spent with Samuel Johnson (this has cheered me considerably and enabled me to write this diary entry) and now I turn back to Margaret (Oliphant) — with a gratified sigh that I am able to do this.

7/25: Our heat “broke” as we say two days ago, heavy rains that day and our more usual rain yesterday — and today? it is 64F this morning (a high promised of 80F). So livable. I have opened my windows around my house. Yesterday I taught (and the session went very well) and after lunch with a friend and then with her (in a crowded auditorium) re-saw Hampstead — saw flaws this time but as my friend with me said “it’s like a glass of wine” in the desert of a now overtly cruel society this movie tries to treat lightly, came home drained …


A lovely drawing of herself from the back as artist by Constance Fennimore Woolson — she will be the center of my third chapter on spinsters, lesbian and otherwise …

Ellen

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A flowering bush in my front garden

“Sitting alone in a room reading a book, with no one to interrupt me. That is all I ever consciously wanted out of life.” — Anne Tyler’s novel, Celestial Navigations

Friends,

The quotation that begins this blog comes from a long wonderful thread we had on Trollope&Peers in which members told one another about ourselves: it was headed: “Introductions,” but since we all knew one another in some ways, what we were really doing was telling of the significant choices and moments and the roles we played in the social world in our pasts (where you a librarian? a musician? a computer software specialist? and many other jobs), and to some extent why, and how, and where, and also why we post to one another, read and watch movies together, why we read one another’s posts (and blogs too). It was a deeply inspiriting conversation to begin a new season together. This list or our group has been going in one form or other since 1995 or 1997 depending on whether you want to count the beginning on a usenet site (majordomo software) as simply “Trollope” or our breakaway to a site run by Mike Powe with the more coherent explicit name Trollope and His Contemporaries (Trollope-l). So 24 or 22 years; with a few of our original 11-12 having died, and many changes in people, and at least 5 different places in cyberspace. Someone summed up what I said of my “career goal” with the Anne Tyler utterance.


Bookermania

It’s odd to imply (by my header) that summer has just started, for I’ve had my Cornwall early summer holiday, and now the first course I was scheduled to teach (at OLLI at AU, The Mann Booker Prize: Short and Short-listed) is over. I think the class went splendidly for all of us there — we began with 40 and about 35 stayed the course, everyone seemed to be deeply engaged by the books and enjoyed the movies, especially J L. Carr’s A Month in the Country and Pat O’Connor and Simon Gray’s film. We had new insights into Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, and people loved that film too (I showed clips). The applause and praise were music to my soul, and (not to be too ethereal) I had again cleared over $300 in the honorarium envelope I was given in the last session as a parting gift.

A course I was taking came to an end too: Hitchcock films, four of them: the teacher is gifted in his ability to analyze the films (he had studied these for years) and prompt many people in a class to talk. He assigned four (Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, North by Northwest, and Psycho). He demonstrated that as film art, they are fascinating experiences, lending themselves to Freudian psychoanalysis, and very intricate aesthetically, but (I think) did not prove his case that they are meant to expose and critique fundamental patriarchal and cruel paradigms that shape human lives through customs and laws. Yes Hitchcock has a gift for intuiting what is unnerving, uncanny, and presenting the amorality and appetites of people, but he is also misogynistic, homophobic, enjoys marshaling stories and images that prey on, do hostile mischief against the peace of his audience.

I watched six Hitchcock movies this time altogether. I added two to those the teacher discussed (voluntarily — as extras) The Lady Vanishes, Vertigo; and two I fell asleep on: 39 Steps and The Trouble with Harry, i.e., what shall we do with this corpse of a man who had a stroke after his silly wife hit him over the head with a milk bottle. You have to admit this was a mighty amount of film watching — I did it all after 11 at night. I have also seen and remember Marnie (very well, I’ve read a book in it) and The Birds (the latter of which is especially cruel — perhaps to the birds traumatized to behave that way too); vaguely I remember Rebecca; of the TV program Alcoa Presents many years ago I remember being frightened and Hitchcock getting a kick out of frigthenting people with uncanny stories that could arouse their atavism. So I did give Hitchcock a fair shake.

Of all ten I now remember the only one I enjoyed was The Lady Vanishes. I could say why I didn’t like each of them, but it’s a thankless task. Let me just write of Psycho and The Lady Vanishes.

I felt in the case of Psycho that Catherine MacKinnon’s argument that violent pornography aimed at hurting women violates real women’s rights to life, liberty and safety and should be controlled is well taken. It’s a mean cruel picture where a reductive Freudian explanation for people’s sexual and emotional misery is used to make a story that exemplifies that paradigm; after the homosexual man dressed as his hag-mother murders the fleeing woman in her shower, a psychiatrist is produced who explains what we have seen by the myth that was used to put the story together.


May Whittie, Margaret Lockwood (The Lady Vanishes)

As for The Lady Vanishes, the film centers on an older woman (played by Dame May Whitty) who vanishes and turns out to be a working spy for the UK gov’t; she is rescued from murder by the heroine (Margaret Lockwood) who will not believe the woman never existed, and her witty romantic male companion (Michael Redgrave). There is light good-natured (!) comedy; an unusual (for the time) use of camera tricks of all sorts, some beautiful filming of sets and scenes. As in other movies of this era, central is the danger and excitement and “awesomeness” of a train all the characters are on.

This film is not misogynistic at all — it has several brave women who are treated with dignity and respect. A sort of jokey-ness surrounds sex and the men are not predators. Nor are they little boys gone wrong, or wronged, or super-vulnerable or intent on controlling the identity and body of the heroine. The heroine was going to marry for money and rank but is very reluctant and in the end marries the hero because she likes him as a companion and he her.


1972 cast — that’s Diana Quick in the key role of Marion Halcombe


2018 — Jessie Buckley and Dougray Scott as Marion and Laura

Very good hours went into reading (with friends on Trollope&Peers @ groups.io Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White, which I now think an underrated masterpiece, and watching both the 1972 and 2018 BBC five part serial dramas. I will be blogging on this on EllenandJim have a blog, two. We are about to begin Anne Boyd Rioux’s Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, a bit early for yet another Little Women movie, we have been told is coming out next Christmas: directed by Gerta Gerwig, with Saonise Ronan as Jo, Meryl Streep as Aunt March (this is what age does to us). I’m just ending Rioux’s brilliant Writing for Immortality (again full blog to follow separately on Austen Reveries, two). Soon to try on Womenwriters@groups.io Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and then Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter: topics are Afro-women writers, and mother-daughter paradigms as central to women’s lives and art.

And the second phase of summer teaching and courses began: I started my second course (at OLLI at Mason, The Enlightenment: At Risk?) and the class is much much more enthusiastic, we had a rousing time this past Wednesday. Even I am surprised. And the Cinema Art Theater film club began with the wonderfully enjoyable Hampstead (blog to follow) while the Folger Theater ended its marvelous year with an HD screening of Ghost Light, a poignant comic appropriation of Macbeth.

NB: I took the Metro to get there as 7 pm is an awkward time for me. Many shuttle buses are there for the ride back and forth from National Airport or Crystal City to King Street, but the ride is in traffic and takes longer. I got home after midnight. I had enjoyed myself, even had a friend to talk to coming back — another widow like myself. But the next day I was so tired I found myself ever so slightly nodding off as I drove. Can’t have that so this may be the last time I venture forth at night where I need to take the Metro until it’s fixed. So I am back to bouts of Outlander, books and serial drama at midnight …

I am happy to say my Anomaly project with my friend is back on track and I’ve begun to immerse myself in my first subject: Margaret Oliphant, a life-long self- and family-supporting widow as writer. I love her Autobiography and Letters as edited by her niece Annie Walker (1899 edition). Am not giving up on my Poldark studies. I listen to David Rintoul reading aloud Scott’s Waverley with such genius that he almost makes the book wholly delightful (as well as a serious presentation of cultural politics in Scotland around the time of Culloden). I came up with a proposal for the coming EC/ASECS in October: At the Crossroad of my Life; although Izzy and I will probably be excluded from the coming Williamsbury JASNA, for her sake, for the next one in Cleveland I am going to write one out of the blog I made on Austen’s History of England: “Tudor and Stuart Queens of Jane Austen ….”, as in

It is however but Justice, and my Duty to declare that this amiable Woman [Anne Bullen] was entirely innocent of the Crimes with which she was accused, of which her Beauty, her Elegance, and her Sprightliness were sufficient proofs, not to mention her solemn protestations of Innocence, the weakness of the Charges against her, and the King’s Character; all of which add some confirmation, tho’ perhaps slight ones when in comparison with those before alledged in her favour … His Majesty’s 5th Wife was the Duke of Norfolk’s Neice who, tho’ universally acquitted of the crimes for which she was beheaded, has been by many people supposed to have led an abandoned Life before her Marriage — Of this however I have many doubts … The King’s last wife contrived to survive him, but with difficulty effected it (her History of England)

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On my family and physical companionship life, I shall say the obvious, which needs more to be said than people admit (but I often do and can feel others responding with a “well, duh ….”)


He is a beautiful cat — with yellow eyes. He tried to get Clarycat to play. And she hissed growled and spat at him: “I’m not in the mood just now.” So now he’s vanished, gone to hide because a contractor came … who said the life of a cat is easy …

That cats need companionship is not said often enough though. The other morning Ian was following Izzy about as she got ready for work. It was quietly done and not intrusive but persistent. He does often sit at her door when it’s closed and cry, whimper, whine, protest, scratch, until the door is open enough so he can go in and out when he wants. He is the kind of cat who loves to hide, especially high up places (like my kitchen cabinets) showing immense strength when he jumps up to them. He comes down by stages: loud thump and he is on the washing machine; another flatter thump is him hitting the floor. I worry for the machine and his underpaws. Yet when not hiding he is often with me or her and sometimes overly seeks play (brings a toy over) or sits in my lap and in effect makes love to me — murmuring, head rubbed against mine, body against my chest, his upper paws around my neck ….

Cats need companionship with people, their significant person and should not be left alone (with someone coming in to put down water and food) for any real length of time. They need another cat who they have bonded with, but both need their person too.

I also mean they grow ill without this — exhibit signs of self-harm to ward off anxiety and stress. One can read about this in better books about cats–and also occasionally see in an unfortunate cat.

Today Ian murmuring a lot at me. His way of saying I’m here and pay attention or talk to, somehow be with me.

The Cats of Outlander: Did you know the fifth season of Outlander will include cats: yes in Gabaldon’s The Fiery Cross Jamie gifts Claire with a gray kitten, Adso, and the advertisement promotion photographs include the three kittens — to film a cat in a show, one needs three so as not to overwork any one cat.


The cats of Outlander — that’s Caitriona Balfe and Anita Anderson

Izzy spent two days at her first American Librarians Association conference (here in DC) last week, and now five days in New York City: among other things, she took the boat ride around Manhattan, spent a whole day at the Whitney and another at the Metropolitan Museum and Central Park. She saw a musical, a play, spent time at the Strand. We kept in touch by email.

I had a beautiful conversation with my scholarly Johnsonian friend, Tony tonight — three hours — and talk sometimes with Panorea.

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Some funny New Yorker cartoons: Victorian heroines with adequate birth control by Glynnis Fawkes:

Classical heroine who did not need birth control measures:

So I have recovered from the first of my two summer trips. Never say keeping sadness at bay is not hard work.

by Eugenio Montale, as translated from the Italian by Jonathan Galassi

The Lemons

Listen to me, the poets laureate
walk only among the plants
with rare names: boxwood, privet, and acanthus.
But I like roads that lead to grassy
ditches where boys
scoop up a few starved
eels out of half-dry puddles:
paths that run along the banks
come down among the tufted canes
and end in orchards, among the lemon trees.

Better if the hubbub of the birds
dies out, swallowed by the blue:
we can hear more of the whispering
of friendly branches in not-quite-quiet air,
and the sensations of this smell
that can’t divorce itself from earth
and rains a restless sweetness on the heart.
Here, by some miracle, the war
of troubled passions calls a truce;
here we poor, too, receive our share of riches,
which is the fragrance of the lemons.

See, in these silences where things
give over and seem on the verge of betraying
their final secret,
sometimes we feel we’re about
to uncover an error in Nature,
the still point of the world, the link that won’t hold,
the thread to untangle that will finally lead
to the heart of a truth.

The eye scans its surroundings,
the mind inquires aligns divides
in the perfume it gets diffused
at the day’s most languid
It’s in these silences you see
in every fleeting human
shadow some disturbed Divinity.

But the illusion fails, and time returns to us
to noisy cities where the blue
is see in patches, up between the roofs.
The rain exhausts the earth then;
winter’s tedium weighs the houses down,
the light turns miserly — the soul bitter.
Till one day through a half-shut gate
in a courtyard, there among the trees,
we can see the yellow of the lemons;
and the chill in the heart
melts, and deep in us
the golden horns of sunlight
pelt their songs.

Ellen

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