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Helena Bonham Carter as Eleanor (55 Steps, 2017)

Friends,

Tonight I’ll concentrate on one kind of experience I’ve been having a lot of these last few weeks. I’ve been watching movies screened for me, and screening movies for others in my classes. I’ll save the Tudor Matter movies for Austen reveries (especially a great one I’d never seen before, Henry VIII, scripted Peter Martin, featuring Ray Winstone), and the film adaptations of Howards End (1992 Merchant-Ivory, 2018 Lonergan for HBo) and now Room with a View (1985 Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala, 2007 ITV Andrew Davies) for a blog on E.M. Forster, of The Nun  (1966 Jacques Rivette, 2013 Guillaume Nichols) for a blog on Diderot. What unites the rest of them?

That film has become the central medium of our time? Izzy and I also saw this past weekend a moving and creditable performance and film of Sanson et Dalila (music Camille Saint-Saens, with one exquistely beautiful song, “Responding to your tenderness” the refrain) at an HD Screening (Robert Alagna especially effective up close). Yes it has, but something else, which may be seen as a push-back against what is happening in the powerful US gov’t.

Daily the behavior of a large but countable number of groups of people who have power over the well-being, prosperity, liberty of millions of people literally around the globe grow more heinous, and what do I discover myself effortlessly watching: a series of movies exposing similar behavior of earlier groups of people. Just in the last three or four weeks or so: Battleship Potemkin, Journey’s End, Judgment at Nuremberg, A Dry White Season. As with the harassment, rape and humiliation of Christine Ford, film-makers can make these with impunity as it might seem to those countable groups of people. The Nazis at the of the Nuremberg trials were most of them set free within a short time; the situation in South Africa in 1989 was desperately grave as the South African courts would do nothing to stop mass murders and torturing of black people. One black man manages to take revenge on one chief torturer. All the men is the Journey’s End, and which generals were ever called to account for this mad slaughter. Potemkin escaped the ferocious wrath of the Czar because the Russian armed forces would not fire on them, but then no one would take these men in at any port. Story after story ends this truthful way. Last year I was stunned by Paths of Glory. Everyone in an army unit stood by while a single innocent low rank soldier was scapegoated in lieu of the general who knowingly through hundreds of lives away. Probably none of these could be made in most of the states controlled by the people I began with.

What I wonder is if telling a particular local story has more resonance. Half the population of Yemen is starving to death, and it’s hardly mentioned in mainstream or most media, but the murder by torture and dismemberment of Jamal Kashoggi is this week being heard all over public media as detail by detail is let out into the public. It is true that in the movies I’ve named our attention is called to particular protagonists, complicated victims and heroes and heroines alike. How do you sear the consciousness of someone? Diderot in his essay on slavery said it was so hard to eliminate as the world is filled with people who feel no guilt over using people as abject slaves. This to introduce yet another movie that will hit you hard based on a personal story and single performance. As 55 Steps (alternative title: Eleanor and Colette) begins we see Helena Bonham Carter being shoved, into a room where there is only one blanket; she is wearing white gown used as a strait jacket; she is shouting and protesting and begging the crowd of people not to imprison her in that room, not to inject her with the drugs and they throw her on the ground, hold her down and inject her. She goes silent and still and then begins to twitch. They walk out, shutting the door behind them. Only one high window. She soon has to go to the bathroom and no one will answer her calls for help, so she urinates and defecates in her gown and all over the floor.

It’s unforgettable. How it happens that when she is let out, cleaned, and put into a room with a bed, and given food, she has the ability to phone for a lawyer we are not told. But she does. Slowly the story emerges or evolves. she is told by Colette Hughes (Hilary Swank) that the lawyer can work to release her pretty quickly, but she can also agree to stay in the asylum longer in order to argue as representative of a class action suit. (By the way the present supreme court has done all it can to stop class action suits). Almost unbelievably Eleanor opts for the second choice. Had this not been based on a real story, I would have said here is where it is not believable.


In court with Jeffrey Tambour as Mort Cohen and Hilary Swank as Colette Hughes

This is another protest film, this time on behalf of mentally disabled or troubled patients. She seems originally to have been epileptic and still can have minor seizures. Mark Bruce Rosen Bille August, and Sarah Riser dramatize how the attorney, Colette Hughs (Hilary Swank), with the help of a professor of philosophy, Mort Cohen (Jeffry Tambor) over the course of many hearings and trials managed to persuade a judge and then a review board that patients have the right to refuse medication even when they are mentally disabled. Despite several other scenes that were for me deeply distressing to watch, and although this woman died fairly young because these drugs had so weakened her immune system, she succumbed to a kidney infection (age 47), this is an upbeat story. It’s not just that Eleanor’s case was won, but that we were shown her through a camera and script that respected her as a full human being. She was not made into a plaster saint. Her very experiences taught her to survive by being obnoxious, being difficult, telling uncomfortable truths to those trying to help her (like I embarrass you, don’t I?) or demanding they accede to her needs however inconvenient at a given moment. She needs time to find a dress or suit that looks decent on her awkward body. She needs time to be listened to. She intrudes herself, is a busy-body, she likes crass music. She is unembarrassed to ask about someone else’s religion or to impose hers on the shared space equally as more discreet ways of coping. In the story she is Catholic. She is determined to be who she is. One has to live with her not understanding everything and being loud.

Carter’s performance is the film. She makes her character so touching, brings out her tender heart — for she cares for the other mentally disabled people around her. She is not shy and gives a Christmas party for these people to which her lawyer, now become a friend too, comes. She gives advice to the lawyer about how to handle her boyfriend. We do like how the professor is won over to fight for a first amendment right to speech as part of an argument — he fears to bring this up will make the case harder to win. I have seen Carter get so many good roles and have wondered why she did, as I never was that impressed with her performance. I admit I thought she was given characters not that hard to portray. Well here she is given something precious to do, make us feel her character is precious and like any living creature as worthy of the life she can achieve as anyone else. The film makes the point because you are disabled one or more ways, that does not incapacitate you from other achievements or other talents. She can get home by herself on a bus with difficult suitcases. She can live alone, pay her bills, take complicated medicines, find places.


In some shots, Carter is meant to evoke the Bride of Frankenstein: Frankenstein we recall is a protest figure

As I was watching, I found myself very distressed; I could hardly keep my eyes on the screen, and it was only that this kind of cruelty was forced on Eleanor fully before our eyes the one time, and that tin the case of the others (we do glimpse a couple of others cases), we see in passing a girl chained to her bed, we hear crying, terrible crying, or begging not to do this to her, in the midst of a plot-design which is moving upwards. The lawyer comes. Despite the lawyer’s warning, she might not be able to get Eleanor released for quite some time (even years), she is released within months and that’s happens quickly in film time. So that made what we were seeing more emotionally endurable for me. The way the film “worked” was centered on Helena Bonham Carter and as we feel her helplessness and distress and see the faces and behavior of the perpetrators (called doctors, nurses, assistants), it is driven home into our bones or hearts or feelings, how profoundly wrong this is — if we have any decent mind (I realize that Trump and regime would laugh or despise the women or simply never go to a film like this).

Such a film is frightening for me to watch. As I watched I felt there but for Jim could have gone I. It’s seeing what one dreads most put up before you. I can speak with authority. I have spent a week in a ward in an English hospital, trying to recover from a breakdown where I had just sat and cried for days. In the US I could not have had the benefit of a hospital without spending thousands. No one forced any drugs on me. Again in my very late 20s, early 30s, my state of mind was intense and fragile because I was finishing my Ph.D and didn’t have the skills to pass an interview and so became inwardly distraught as I saw my opportunities lost. I was held up by Jim, and a year or so later by a proper psychiatrist in Virginia. The right help and the person stays in society; the wrong and the person is cast away and made much worse. This is one of many areas where US society is going all wrong. Individuals are not valued because money comes first, and you can only escape the vise if you have high status or rank.

Maybe others can imagine themselves so caught up and then victimized. In small compass this is what the new psychiatry (not worthy the name does): insists on conformity, makes psychology a mild boot camp (mild is there only for social reasons of writing this). You find yourself in a mild form of boot camp; you are not validated, not comforted. I was told by one person, Oh you’re afraid to swim (I wasn’t but used that as an example), the thing to do is throw you in the water where it’s deep. Oh you find yourself abroad and unhappy; just turn round and go home. As if by magic. Completely the wrong kind of personality is encouraged to become a psychologist or psychiatrist, and then they do the bidding of the drug industry. And I know from close association with disabled people that they are treated as morons and one disability is considered the whole of the personality — if say the person doesn’t dress fashionably. That’s why the film-makers dressed Carter the way they did.

So the film has accomplished its core business: make you identify so you will want to act on her behalf. At the same time by making her such a difficult personality (again she has not learned much about socializing and what socializing she did was meet by derision or incomprehension), we see that this is not a sentimental portrait, and then when she does accomplish a lot (as I’ve outlined). It’s one part of her mind though it affects her looks. I learned to be angry at myself for at first being embarrassed at how she dresses somehow wrongly. When at the end she dies, I did think to myself, it is going over the top, and perhaps the funeral oration by Colette was repeating what we had learned too explicitly. But then the credits inform us Eleanor Riese did die age 47 as a bye-blow of these drugs. My friend, Vivian, felt that her years on drugs left her debilitated, unable to sleep and who knows if these years were not unrelated to the cancer that killed her at age 62. Camera shots of the real Eleanor Riese and then we see how Carter was dressed and behaved to look like her and the real Colette Hughes and Hilary Swank ditto.

I had worried so for Eleanor. Even if the constitutional right was proved, would the doctors obey it? would another case take away that right? could she be hurt in her apartment. Now dead, she was safe from all these.


Now and again a nurse is decent: after she wins her case, a few step forward to tell her they had not wanted to behave the way they had (then why did they so? they could quit, refuse to go along)

I have read many times that autistic children such as Izzy once was (at age 2) are sometimes put in institutions and never have a chance to develop or fulfill themselves. I’ve been reading Louise De Salvo’s Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on her and her work. I am completely persuaded by De Salvo that not only was Woolf abused sexually and many times, so was her sisters Stella and Vanessa emotionally and intellectually abused, and her half-sister Laura institutionalized because she wouldn’t obey the conformist patterns demanded of the Victorian child in a strict patriarchy. I’ve mentioned I’ve been watching, reading, following a course on Violence Against Women on Future Learn. The later weeks are on the survivors of abuse, how they fare afterwards, how they are treated by society, what the trauma does to them. They make the point that trauma can cut deep and be caused by banal everyday behavior in life, if that includes the right of authority figures and men to harass, humiliate, rape, beat, silently enforce patterns of behavior. We are shown how case workers fail the victim because they stay at a high level of abstraction, turn away from the particular patterns of the perpetrator and demands that the perpetrator change his ways. Worse of all is the punishment for complaining and that is what that opening scene in 55 Steps records. So 55 Steps has general application. The underlying paradigm is the one Diderot uncovers in his La Religieuse, or Nun (which I’ll blog about separately under Austen reveries).

The film was first screened in a festival for prizes in August 2017, and it has taken all this time to reach a Virginia film club; it has yet to be distributed generally so I write to urge people to go see it if they have the slightest chance. As you can see over the past few weeks as a result of the courses I’m following, I had several others I could have chosen to write about. But somehow this common experience from the now abusive world of psychiatry and violence against women and non-conformist seems to me to reach more of us.


As friends, watching a wedding

55 Steps are the number of steps it takes to reach the courthouse room where Eleanor’s case is adjudicated. She counts the steps as they go up. They are the two lawyers who holds her hands and go up with her, steadying her. She counts the steps to get to her apartment too: 27. I remember Laura and I counting the steps up to the Milan apartment last spring after a few days and nights in Milan. The apartment on in effect the fourth floor, with its narrow stone stairwell and steep steps hurt one’s thighs after a long day. I had to pull myself up sometimes. As Eleanor was pulled and pulled herself up.

Ellen

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J. J. Sempre one of my favorite cover illustrators for The New Yorker: the reading group — I like the tone, his pictures often filled with human kindness and need fulfilled. Often pleasant landscapes & rooms.

Keep Ithaca always in your mind — C.V. Cavafy

You will go uncompanioned, but go you must — Theo Dorgan

Friends and readers,

I got through last week with much reading, some in-depth, the close reading sort, then immersion in films, and writing, writing, writing and hurrying about to classes. I’ve out in (so to speak) for some new experiences: I’m to have a visitor here with Izzy and I in our house, the night and morning before I go off to the East Central ASECS (American Society for 18th century studies, regional conference) in Staunton, Virginia, with me on the long drive there and then again back three days later, and again staying over the rest of Sunday and Sunday night. I cannot remember doing that in all my 71 years. I told the people on that tour group around the Lake District and Scottish/English borders I grow weary, tired with all this learning, all these new experiences. But here I am again. How do people do this? I never got the memo of instructions.


Shenandoah Shakespeare Company — Jim & I have been to Staunton many times to see this company — where “they do it in the light”

I’ve returned in thought and reading to that project I developed into a CFP and paper: The anomaly: the adult woman living alone: widows, divorced women, spinsters. You might remember it, I was given 2 (!) panels because 6 papers came in that were thought related, and an editor from LeHigh University said if I could develop it into a collection of essays they’d be interested. I tried to publish my paper on Widows and Widowers in Austen, but Susan Allen Ford didn’t care for my perspective, and I didn’t know how to go about to write prospectus, and worse yet, gather contributors.

Well I’ve been re-thinking this — from reading Barbara Pym on WomenWriters@groups.io or not quite sure why, from thinking about early modern or Enlightenment women? — and come to the conclusion one obstacle was I was mis-formulating the very core title. A male hegemonic point of view has been obscuring that immediately I write down the phrase, what do I do: I begin to formulate the group by defining each woman there as there because of her relationship (or lack of one) to a man. The assumption is there needs to be some sort of explanation why a woman is forced into this, not that she wanted it in the first place — spinster as we know has such negative connotations (like bluestocking). And when I come across essays on these typology the assumption immediately is that the woman is clubbing together with other women or doing this or that because without a man she has not the wherewithal to support herself on her own.


Adrienne Rich

Diane Reynolds had been reading Adrienne Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Experience” and pointed to that. I read it and find she writes about how men have denied women their own continuums of sexuality, one of which begins with the mother-daughter bond, can move to sister-bonds, female friendship and then for some sexual engagement. Why is “sadistic heterosexuality” more normal than lesbian and mother-child sensual bonding. The “rich interior” life bonding with women is marginalized as unimportant. Her desire for work of her own apart from her functions serving and being with men discounted, or (in many societies in the past and some today) forbidden. Diane points out though the dilemma is not to move to see the choice as simply happy as to chose it is to be hedged about with incomprehension, misunderstanding, disapproval, circumstances become to hard to cope with. “A single woman has such a propensity to be poor,” says Austen.

Think about things from a perspective not yet formulated. Do something never done before. Me who resists change. We have been talking about one theme of Forster’s Howards End on TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io: how moving is often an experience of existential loss, of one’s identity and past erased (herein is it like experiencing the death of a beloved person whose life intertwines with our own), all the sites, symbols, things suffused with memory thrown away, re-vamped, the very streets one lived on when we come back we find have vanished. To leave this house would be to lose what enables my life. Forced into a new life, much barer, stripped before the world.


Joanna David as the displaced Elinor Dashwood in the 1971 BBC Sense and Sensibility (scripted Denis Constantduros, perhaps the first BBC film adaptation of an Austen novel & among its earliest scenes)

Lucy Worsley (JA: At Home) suggests Austen’s fiction fueled by her loss of her original home and her heroines’ attempts to recreate, re-find a new one.

Kauffmann, Angelica: Penelope Taking Down the Bow of Ulysses

I told the people on Trollope&Peers (the list’s abbreviation) how Jim read Forster’s letters with C. P. Cavafy and tonight will end this brief excursus with Cavafy’s poem (translated from Greek by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard). Here the courage needed for life’s adventures and the experiences you might enjoy so are set out before us:

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

original Greek linked in; or read aloud

and Theo Dorgan’s response (for Leonard Cohen)

When you set out from Ithaca again,
let it be autumn, early, the plane leaves falling as you go,
for spring would shake you with its quickening,
its whispers of youth.

You will have earned the road down to the harbour,
duty discharged, your toll of labour paid,
the house four-square, your son in the full of fatherhood,
his mother, your long-beloved, gone to the shades.

Walk by the doorways, do not look left or right,
do not inhale the woodsmoke,
the shy glow of the young girls,
the resin and pine of home.
Allow them permit you to leave,
they have been good neighbours.

Plank fitted to plank, slow work and sure,
the mast straight as your back.
Water and wine, oil, salt and bread.
Take a hand in yours for luck.

Cast off the lines without a backward glance
and sheet in the sail.
There will be harbours, shelter from weather,
There will be long empty passages far from land.
There may be love or kindness, do not count on this
but allow for the possibility.
Be ready for storms.

When you take leave of Ithaca, round to the south
then strike far down for Circe, Calypso,
what you remember, what you must keep in mind.
Trust to your course, long since laid down for you.
There was never any question of turning back.
All those who came the journey with you,
those who fell to the flash of bronze,
those who turned away into other fates,
are long gathered to asphodel and dust.
You will go uncompanioned, but go you must.

There will be time in the long days and nights,
stunned by the sun or driven by the stars,
to unwind your spool of life.
You will learn again what you always knew —
the wind sweeps everything away.

When you set out from Ithaca again,
you will not need to ask where you are going.
Give every day your full, unselfconscious attention —
the rise and flash of the swell on your beam,
the lift into small harbours —
and do not forget Ithaca, keep Ithaca in your mind.
All that it was and is, and will be without you.

Be grateful for where you have been,
for those who kept to your side,
those who strode out ahead of you
or stood back and watched you sail away.
Be grateful for kindness in the perfumed dark
but sooner or later you will sail out again.

Some morning, some clear night,
you will come to the Pillars of Hercules.
Sail through if you wish. You are free to turn back.
Go forward on deck, lay your hand on the mast,
hear the wind in its dipping branches.
Now you are free of home and journeying,
rocked on the cusp of tides.
Ithaca is before you, Ithaca is behind you.
Man is born homeless, and shaped for the sea.
You must do what is best.

Here the poet is online reading aloud:

I have been companioned these last couple of nights though: by Claire Tomalin in her marvelously good A life of My Own picked up for £5 cash in Keswick — she is keeping me good company just now

Ellen

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Jim, summer 2006, on a bridge in London leading to the Globe theater

Friends,

My late husband, Jim Moody, was born on October 3, 1948; he would have been 70 today. When I would ask him, if he would like to travel here or there or he himself would talk of it, it was ever when he was 70 and some percentage of the money he had set aside for us via his job and added to over the years, would have to be spent, so much each year. I reached 70 more than a year ago and have found an alternative is simply to take out this percentage and put it in my taxable Schwabb account. I have also been spending it — with the money unexpectedly to me left me by my mother and the unexpected windfall amount from the insurance company as he died at age 65.

We married on October 6, 1969; we had met October 6, 1968 and we married a year to that first night. We went to a registry office and it took 5 minutes. We were married 44 years, together 45, to the day (or night). His parents and two girlfriends of his (friends) showed up; his parents took us out to dinner and when we woke and discovered we had 10 shillings between us, we shared it out, 5 each, and then went to work that day. I asked for an advance from the Chief Engineer whom I worked for and got £25 in cash across my palm. Not the first time I had had a pay packet that way. I told him I had been married the day before.

The last day he spoke was October 7, 2013. He had been been doing that hard dying for a few days. He made some sign for Izzy to come in before going off to work and she came in and he said “goodbye” and kissed her. Later that day he said to me “I don’t want to die.” These may have been his last words.

He died October 9, 2013, at 9:05 am, in my arms. I felt his heart stop and was glad for him that he knew no more suffering.

I am aware that since his death I have done a number of things he said were not a good idea, or had stopped me from doing, and that I couldn’t get him to agree to travel to the Hebrides, where I had this long-held dream to follow (more or less Johnson and Boswell’s route), he wouldn’t hear of Cornwall (not as bad an idea as Australia as impossibly far away), and didn’t want to return to the Lake District either. I can remember him only talking of Venice. If he knew how I loathe airlines, airplanes, airports, he would think I might go for his dream of taking one of these ships that carry cardboard boxes all over the world. Jenny Diski went round the world in one, but I had read they are dangerous, and wouldn’t hear of it. We both agreed we’d be bored out of out wits in a luxury cruise as I nowadays know I dislike luxury hotels, large anonymous soulless tasteless exploitative palaces. You can’t take a train to Venice ….

This to introduce my six blogs on my time in the Lake District and borders of Scotland and Northern England. I went with a tour group: I don’t see how he would have been able to get himself to try that — though he once said of a tour we took with a guide to Gettysburg battlefield, we did learn a lot. And there was no other way to see it. For me there is no other way to travel without enduring an ordeal of intense anxiety and perpetual mistakes (which end in my being cheated of too much money). I already told of this time in my Canterbury Tale of Road Scholars here.


Alnwick Castle, a photo taken from a bus stop by one of the “pilgrims” as Jim and I once took pictures of Eastwell, Kent, where Anne Finch had lived

The Wordsworth people and their sites; Keswick & neolithic stones

More Wordsworth sites; Beatrix Potter; lakes, mines & churches

Roman, ancient Celtic and Reivers Britain; castles, fortresses, dungeons …churches & mines …

Carlisle & the Tullie Museum; Lannercost & Hermitage; Scotland & Lindisfarne

Wallington Hall, Vindolanda & Hadrian’s Wall, Durham Cathedrale & heading home again

He had stopped me for many years from enclosing the porch; well, now I have, and did manage by lying to the city at first and not taking out a permit so I escaped the absurd expenses builders are able to pile on through these permits. Jim would never have done that nor permitted me to. I spent under $30,000 to enclose the room, build a new floor in our vestibule, paint the house and install a new ceiling fan. The room is far larger than he and I imagined it could be. The cats love it for the sunshine. I like it as a quiet rest away from the Internet, TV. I like looking at the world from the large windows and garden I have overpaid for (but not badly).


Suits me perfectly … my father used to say I never use a room in a single consistent way. No.

Jim thought working for nothing a very bad idea. He was thinking of how I got for Izzy two volunteer jobs working at libraries through a couple of students I knew. And he was correct insofar as enabling the capitalist system to flourish on the labor of ordinary people at wholly inadequate compensation. He saw she learned that she loved library work and had a good letter to show for the one chance she was given. Wage theft, starvation wages, have grown much worse since his death. Imagine college students now get on lines to receive bags of food sent by charitable organizations. Don’t even think about what Obamacare is fasting becoming.

Well, I spent 5 hours just doing the lecture and notes for my course on Monday (The Enlightenment: At Risk) and 5 yesterday for my course today (Wolf Hall: A Fresh Angle on the Tudor matter). I expect he would understand as he said to me “do what you can to get through the rest of your life.” Also “if you can’t do something, live with it.” I need company of like minds, and I love the work no one would ever pay me for. They paid me a derisory sum for years as an adjunct teaching undergraduates introductory literature and composition courses (one on Science and Tech writing faute de mieux) and when I had the first grounds of a job being paid similarly for teaching this sort of thing again I couldn’t manage it.

I sometimes ask myself if he knew about the OLLIs. My guess is no, because he would have enjoyed some aspects of both: Bridge at Mason, and the intellectual challenges and new materials in both in some classes. He did try to join the Wagner Society of Washington DC, and was bitterly disappointed when they excluded us from their yearly weekend away. He liked going with me to the 18th century conferences and even insisted I try (with him) two Victorian ones and both Trollopes. There is another one set up the London Society about to go on now in some far away expensive place — I just learned about it on the Trollope face-book page. Did he know about these package or Road Scholar type tours? I’ll never know. He spent so much time on the Net in later years, how could he not have come across them? but he never mentioned any of this ever.

He must have known about the Smithsonian where I’m going tonight for a George Gershwin concert — if I can find it, if the Metro works, if the crowds don’t stop me (I’m told Gallery Place has some kind of celebration on – I hope not). Note: I went, found it easily and the man’s talk was so stupid it was embarrassing: silly really, but he played wonderfully well and had remarkable clips and knew Gershwin’s career. My feeling is Jim would not go again while I am willing to compromise now that he is not here.

It has not been made much easier today because one of my proposals was rejected: the good original strong one on Anne Boleyn, Jenny Jones and The Provok’d Husband in Fielding’s Tom Jones (scroll down). In a text message though an app on my cell phone (which happily I don’t know to read so managed only so a part on face-book messenger) which mentioned my [lack of] “rank” and being a “senior” [age] as why she had to reject it. Is it that serious research and original ideas is not what conferences are for?  I will put my thoughts towards this paper on my Austen Reveries blog.

I still have a chance to go to the ASECS in Denver if the panel head for my other proposal (on Graham’s Poldark novels) get two panels. I thought I’d like to see Denver; have never seen the middle west of the US; it’s a single plane, direct and for all I might dislike the hotel, there is one set up.  Sometimes these conferences include tours for the people to go on so I can get out of the hotel. I am not holding my breath.

Jim was even against my developing the Poldark material seriously for scholarship on the very good grounds I have not the personality or connections to try to make this material respected after all these years. He did not live to see the new Poldark mini-series. He would not have been surprised at Andrew Graham’s grudging half-permission to look at his father’s archives.

How ironic all this is. Am I happy in this new life? I am cheerful, I sometimes enjoy myself. There is much to interest, amuse me, I do know some deep pleasure. I have companionship now and again. I’m thus far solvent. He would never write such a blog as this. The way he dealt with grief and rage is silence and eventually humor or poetry.

He had a wonderful sense of humor, the ability to make a funny joke which did not hurt people and yet could turn an experience around to put it in its place and make as absurd as much of life is. Now and again Izzy will remember his gentle jokes at her.

So why did I marry him and was so happy — I’ve given so many grounds and reasons in this blog since he died, I will only refer the interested reader to explore, among other things his love of poetry, a shared love of the intellectual and imaginative life, both of us strong leftists in politics, both atheists, we liked the same paintings?

But there is something specific I wanted to commemorate Jim today for, which I may not have mentioned as yet. Yes. We have today had the loathsome creature who some large enough minority of Americans voted for to become the new corrupt president ridicule, deride, and mock a courageous woman, Dr Christine Blasey Ford, who came forward to give credible evidence (as they say) that the new nominee for the supreme court (a lifetime appointment) is a thug, was a rapist for fun, a perpetual drunkard during his “glorious time” in prep school and at fraternities in college. I have been aroused so deeply by her testimony that in my blog on his motivations and behavior (An Instance of Male Bonding) to tell however briefly some of my story as to why I married Jim.

I experienced a series of deeply traumatic experiences from age 12 to 15. I finally tried to kill myself and when I didn’t manage that I retreated and retreat became my safety. It was the males who attacked but my experience was females didn’t support me at all and I saw they didn’t support others. Far from it, they spread rumors about one as a tramp, slut. When I had tried to find a friend and tell someone I thought was my friend, another girl came over and “as a gesture of friendship,” told me mot to do that any more. That girl had promptly told others so they could all jeer together and triumph as “chaste” and “good girls.” I never forgot that lesson. It was as important in understanding safety as keeping away from abrasive vile males of the Kavanaugh type and his buddies. So I went anorexic and was left alone. It has taken me decades to eradicate some of this anorexia (like alcoholism, one never recovers fully.)

She has said once of the same kind of treatment maimed her for decades. How shocked she was — coming from the sheltered privileged environment she had known. It apparently did not stop her from being (as all report)  “in the midst of a distinguished career.”

Unlike most other boys or men I ever met, Jim never tried to harass or rape me; he never came near to insulting me or making fun of me. He never treated me with discourtesy. He never badgered, never pressured me — well over traveling he did, but I did manage quickly to bring an end to that and we came to a compromise over his desire in the 1990s to begin to travel to Europe. And there was no residue. No reminders. No asking for gratitude for anything he didn’t do because he shouldn’t. He didn’t pretend to do what he didn’t want to do and kept his right to his own life — as how long he would work, where, and how. He never told defamatory stories about other women or men: he said of a man who refused to marry someone because she had had some unfortunate sexual experience, it was “a failure of imagination.” I can never remember him lying. He did omit to tell the truth sometimes but never concealed that ploy either. When he said he would meet me somewhere at a certain time, he never failed me. He was there and on time. He was to me utterly trustworthy.

I’m now taking on Future Learn a course on Violence Against Women. I recommend it. In the first week, the women scholars stressed that violence connects directly to the way women are gendered: men are violent to them because they can be and the gendered behavior imposed on women, how they are understood allows men to get away with.

Women do not trigger violence and victims are never to blame and the way she does this is to show all the different each of us live in: our habitas, our family and friend types, our class, what community we live in; all these show that women have to and do expect violence because it comes; it has nothing to do with them personally often. I was struck by how Dr Ford talked about how shocked she was when she was assailed. She repeated that word shocked and over. Well I never was shocked, not I had seen my uncle beat my aunt, other people beat up, the lack of respect and status for many people around me, the way the police behaved to people in the South east Bronx. Dr Ford never expected such a thing could happen to her and there she was treated as a female thing. Remember the crude medieval tales: all women are alike. I will put in the slides that were used to identify these contexts into our files — if they will go.

This was not yet been brought up except tangentially: an important point is ever after you lose your trust in everyone. If it’s someone inside your family and the family ignores it, and he has full access to you, imagine the loss of security and trust. That’s Woolf’s case — and many women in traditional family structures. Someone in her family did it, and no one would show they noticed. In many cultures, if the woman tells, she is punished, disbelieved (as Freud disbelieved Dora). In some, they’ll be honor-killed. My experience was I lost trust in everyone, not just the people who did it and laughed but those who from afar spread rumors, mocked, and then tried to climb on board. So how escape? retreat, anorexia, suicide ….

In the second week how violence exists in contexts and all these contexts are set up to shape what happens and exert control over women. Lots of slides. From all of it I take away this:

Violence against women begins early, the girl’s earliest years. I knew this and that this takes the form of setting up coercion in such a way that you prevent the girl from learning a skill, or idea that is enabling, gives power to act freely on her own behalf. Later on when she is married (forced or seeming to choose), more than half the battle is done for the husband whose pride is made to inhere in controlling her to do his bidding and act out of his interest. Again I knew this but didn’t make it explicit to myself in quite this way.

What I had not thought and this relates to the Woolfs is this silent violence against the child is secondary; it’s first aim is against her mother who is kept in an invisible straitjacket this way. The aim is twofold, mother and child. If we think about how Woolf hero-worships her mother in her Moments of Being, the first long piece and will not blame her but sees her father as the ogre, we see she is not understanding the full source of her oppression. In To The Lighthouse she does see how Mrs Ramsay is a controller, a forcer of marriage, teaching her daughters to re-enact her life but she is not truly seen as complicit.

Where Virginia broke away, was she did not grow up to be another women like her mother or at least she tried. When she became too ill (that is too nervous, too unable, too sad, or too angry to function), then she too came under the control of Leonard and the doctors and also her sister. I don’t know how Vanessa treated her daughter, I do know she rebelled utterly against Clive and lived the way she wanted to — it ended in great emotional pain for her since her choice was a man who was homosexual and promiscuous. But did she leave Angelica free?

I am probably not expressing what I want to as strongly or focusing sufficiently on it. It’s the early coercion which is not visibily violence except when the child disobeys and is punished (say put in her room, deprived of this or that) with this act being a secondary accompaniment to making the mother obedient and having her enact forcing obedience on the daughter I think so interesting.

As part of the second week, there is a number delving into female genital mutilation showing a girl who was mutilated growing up to understand how terrible her physical condition and returning to Gambia to be part of a campaign to stop the practice.

I hope they go into this from an inside view — thus far they have emphasized the larger outside view to show how women exist in contexts and these violations occur in contexts. The inner people count just as much in the experience of life

So why did I marry him and love him: he was everything most of the men I ever met were not. Only twice in our lives together did he ever become violent and in both cases he was provoked beyond bearing (the first instance included mockery and humiliation). I am not a sentimental liar; I can’t write a “how do I love thee” poem, so I wrote this.

He used to say: “I can deny thee nothing.”

Ellen

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A woman reading — one of the Corot paintings I saw with a friend at the National Gallery exhibit yesterday

Friends,

Sometimes I wake up and in my mind I know I am deeply distraught. This morning as I came out of sleep I realized I had been having a dream the first two weeks I came home from my trip where I was on another trip and behaving in an isolated manner. Now that the dreams have ceased I cannot tell the details. Had I a real psychiatrist as twice I have been lucky enough to have, I could have talked to him or her and perhaps brought these details to surface. Even now they are just outside my mind and disturbing me, and I Know this is so because until this morning I half-believed that the experiences I dreamed happened. I am relieved to realize that the skein was not real but also distressed because I believed in them.

Then as the darkness fades and the room become filled with a grey morning light (there is just now an intense hurricane near by northern Virginia where I live) I see my two cats. They are waiting for me to get up. I know if I obeyed some deep inner impulse and did not behave in the usual morning calm way of getting up, petting them, going with them into the kitchen, getting out their food, and then going round the house to open the shades, decide whether to open the windows (would you believe the air is still and hot this morning just outside the window?), put on the computer and the rest of it, they would be very distressed. I used sometimes to distress my dog 40 years ago because I could not keep to a calm routine. I was not even able to want to and when I realized what was happening to the dog it was too late to turn things round; age 13 Llyr became mortally ill with cancer.


Close up of Ian, 2016

I have today tickets for Izzy and I to go to the Folger theater where the company is playing Macbeth by William D’Avenant, the 17th century poet, playwright, impresaro, entrepreneur who opened one of the two theaters in London after the Stuart regime was put back on the throne and took over the establishment again. He could write exquisitely beautiful erotic pastoral poetry. He claimed he was Shakespeare’s son (his parents’ tavern was on a road between London and Stratford and it was said Shakespeare sometimes stayed there). He is one of those who adapted Shakespeare to the tastes of audiences in the 17th and 18th century before Shakespeare’s reputation improved to the point no one would do this openly: only abridge and in the case of a movie, adapt to be a movie. I must ready myself so as to be available, dressed, and on our way by 1 o’clock. So this helps too.

I have this computer and face-book, people to interact with, the two listservs, have to eat, dress, do tasks of tidying up. All these help.

But it is the cats who keep me in my routine equilibrium aka staying sane. My obligation to these two creatures who are deeply attached to me, and would become themselves not emotionally well —  if I let out what I am.

Among the many retrograde movements against personal liberty and liberal thought and action is what has happened  in the “health care establishment” to coerce people who are not well or do not conform to feel or think the way a majority of people. Ultimately the cause is money: the vast majority of people don’t pay to pay anything towards helping such people and on top of that others saw an opportunity for huge charges. The result, indifferent demeanor, pushing drugs,  and now and again new cruel operations that are not needed but make oodles of money.  This push back culminated in the 1990s when insurance companies led the charge against psychiatrists. On that trip all around the Lake District and the Borders I was lucky enough to meet an 80+ year old man who was a practicing psychiatrist. He told me his daughter, Amy Goldstein (I believe her name is) is a journalist who wrote a book for which she got some kind prize, Janesville, about the destruction of this town or city by the economic choices and racism inflicted on the unaware and powerless by the ruthless powerful and their opportunistic henchmen and women over the last 50 years.

Bob said he is the only physician or psychologist in his office still practicing psychiatry or effective psychological work. All the others do this CBT, which (this is my view) comes down to pressuring people by talk to force themselves to think the way to be well is think good thoughts, push bad thoughts out of your head by conforming, and of course taking drugs. How easy it is then. And oh yes join clubs.

He talked of the absurdity of the new definition of autism. You take 2 characteristics from 6 sheets, they can be entirely different ones but if they match a slew of such characteristics on a huge sheet, the person is declared autistic. It makes no sense. Does it not matter what is the specific characteristic ? Does it not matter you have thought up so many disparate characteristics and not tried to align them in any reasoning convincing way. He said this kind of non-thinking lies behind the prescription of many strong drugs.  These drugs can and do help some people, but it is all scatter-shot. He will soon have to retire completely and then there will be no sensible person trying to help the real paying individuals who come to that office.


Photo of ClaryCat taken by Laura during one of the times I’ve been away

Meanwhile I have my cats and others their pets too. I keep my promise to them when I bought them that I would come up to what was required, the responsibility I had taken on. Just now Clarycat is sitting tight on my lap looking up to me.

They are such good animals: I’ve now determined it is best to keep them out of the space between my computer and window and if only I will keep to saying, no, they cooperate. They voice to me nowadays on and off, stay near, keep an eye out for me, play when I am happier and all feels content. Have I said Ian (Scruffy) is not longer well? age 10, his heart is not operating right any more. His facial colors are distorted, grey here, too pink there.

So love, reciprocating obligation and responsible keeping of promises, can rescue us, just enough so we can function steadily too.


Tater-du Lighthouse – this morning as my revolving wall paper my screen was cover with a dramatically angled photo of Tater-du Lighthouse in Cornwall

Ellen

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Lake Windermere, the largest of the lakes (second is Ullswater, all others much smaller, meres, waters)

There is a comfort in the strength of love;
‘Twill make a thing endurable, which else
Would break the heart … ” — Wordsworth, Michael

Dear Friends and readers,

I’ve been back from the Lake District and Northumberland for two days now, and am re-settling in. I fulfilled a long-held wish thoroughly: for six days two tour guides, one from the area, Anne (with a strong Lancashire accent) and the other originally from London, Peter (so a sort of Cockney accent now laid over by several others), who was said to know a lot about local northern border history, took 20 Americans on two mini-buses for an average of 8 hours a day up, down, and all around the winding roads and many lakes of Cumbria. Immersion. Like last time, the first night we were asked each of us to tell why we had chosen to come to this area, and a little bit about who we are. I spoke (briefly) of my bad miscarriage in 1974 in the Lake District, which had led to Jim and I spending the five days we had planned to travel about in, in a small Kendal hospital, that I had come originally because it might be said 5 lines of Wordsworth’s Michael decided me in my line of life, English major, teacher of English literature, then literary scholar and college teacher, writer. I had come back alone because my husband died 5 years ago, but I was there with him in my spirit. I came to England after the first year every year since he died.


Otterburn Castle, where we stayed — the Internet access was dodgy, but my room was magnificent, large, with a landscape tapestry above my bed

That first night was indicative of an important aspect of the trip this time: it was a Road Scholar experience. I had not realized this so strongly last time. Last time had been 7 days at the Aigas House restoration ecology estate (2 days arduous traveling), in Inverness, and I sort of put down what happened to John Lister-Kaye, and his wife, Lady Lucy, with their hierarchical ways, and various interning science students as guides with deep interest in the area, its history, its culture, gardens, cookery, animals, the Scottish environment and history. Now I realize whatever they were individually, and the local culture, the program was shaped, inflected by the Road Scholar point of view, which is thus far educational touring. There are athletic programs, and (I was told) much more “commercial” ones with a large group of people, say a cruise. I thought people were friendly but last time had gotten to know only a few people’s names well, and little about them individually (one woman artist, a widow, working in New York City, and another never married woman who lives about five minutes from me especially); I just saw most of the people as types. This time it was some 11 days (again 2 day traveling ordeal), in three hotels (one in Manchester one night at airport), two places, Lake District in Cumbria, Lindeth Howe Country Hotel, Bowness, which had been Beatrice Potter’s country house mansion; Otterburn Castle, Northumberland, which had been a Peel Tower in the days of ferocious Reiver violence, then a 10th century castle (which is from the outside still what it looks like), renovated again and again, especially in Victorian and then later 20th century. The Aigas experience dominated by two people, all tourists in single large bus, with little free time, evenings occupied too (lectures, music one night); this time four different Road Scholar tour guides, evenings free, a full Sunday free day to do what I liked — I mostly sat in front of a real fire reading Voltaire’s Lettres Philosophiques. Free hours in several towns — I saw exhibits, and there were pre-paid lunches sometimes together, sometimes separately or formed into smaller groups: Keswick, Grasmere, Hawkshead, Jedburgh (Scotland), and Durham. This time by the end I knew everyone’s name, something of the history and character of each individual or couple; they became very vivid in my mind. I keep hearing one man’s pleasant voice.


The tapestry over my bed in Otterburn castle

One problem I’ve been having is I dream of them. Each night I find myself waking early and not realizing I am in my house in my own bed living my usual life in Alexandria, but coming out of a dream which is inhabited by these people, and for a few moments am so confused as I try to work out which hotel I’m in. Usually when I wake from a troubling or obsessive dream, I break “the spell,” and it stops or is transformed so that the material is being lived in by someone else and begins to fade. But today I had a brief nap in the afternoon (I am very tired) and found the same phenomenon occurring: I woke in confusion, got up and began to walk about, stressed, to see what was happening now, where I was, only to find that I am home after all, not surrounded by these others, but rather my two very loving cats:

Clarycat missed me badly: Izzy said Clary would not have anything to do with her, but remained in a kind of retreat, and until today Clary has been yowling at me (vocalizing) in a harsh tone, now she is simply all over me, all the time. Ian did sleep with Izzy, stay around her, and at first stayed with that pattern, but today he began to nudge me, rub me, stay close, playing, and making me alert to his companionable presence.


You see some of the group: the woman with white page boy hair facing us and other woman, helping her, is the fellow New Yorker, Barbara (same accent as me): Inside the Hermitage: a place of fierce cruelty. The story repeated is how Bothwell was badly wounded trying to arrest some murderous Reivers lords so Mary Queen of Scots rode here to see him. She didn’t stay long. Walter Scott included it in a couple of his historical romances …

I don’t want to intrude on anyone’s privacy, but would like briefly to name and describe them (using substitute first names) so as not to forget. It was a group of people very similar in type, age, profession, and marital status and income to last time: ages from mid-50s to later 80s, mostly retired, though some had jobs they could carry on with in older age or volunteered (teachers for example, writers).  Mostly pensions from years of working were enabling this. Both times I have been in all white groups but then my choice of literary writers and places would lead to that.

5 married couples in their sixties to mid-eighties. Larry and Lea (from Oklahoma, he wrote a poem for the last night, not very good, she boasted of how he was thinking all the time); Clarence and Sheila (from Alabama, not far from Asheville, North Carolina, where they attend an OLLI as students; he a retired mine owner, she with him had had 4 children, then discovered she was good at running non-profits, he went to Yale, she Vassar, living a charmed life, by virtue of wealth from his career, and a sale of property in Florida so that today they have a beautiful apartment in Tudor City, Manhattan too, conservative democrats); Bob and Cynthia (New York Jews from Rochester, he a practicing psychiatrist of the old school who really try to help people, humane brilliant witty man, interesting to talk to about human relationships, with daughter who was a White House correspondent but quit after Trump and wrote a book about a community destroyed after a corporation left, Janesville (Amy Goldstein), Paul Ryan’s home town); Sandi and Dave (from Florida, decades ago he traveled with a friend all over southeast Asia, he kept getting left behind, at one point locked into a dungeon like fort-castle, he was determined to do all as if he were 40, and not so forgetful, refusing one of the guide’s offer of his van instead of walking, she told a story of a previous miserable Road Scholar cruise tour; as in the previous trip here was a couple who were living in a late second marriage); Rick and Maggie (she originally from Australia wrote a wonderful Chaucerian parody with vignettes of all the people channeling different Canterbury Tale characters, which gave me the idea for the title to this blog; he helped me download my boarding pass from my cell phone in the 10th century castle renovated into a hotel, the hotel reception clerk helping; otherwise they go from holiday to holiday, from Broadway play to musical). All with children and grandchildren.

Four aging widows: me; Norah (from North Carolina, husband died at 40 but as alive in her mind today as he ever was, an environmentalist, she has written 7 books, gave the impression of countless articles, reviews, post-polio she called herself, but personally daring, at dinner an effectively sharp tongue when she wanted to); Suzanne (also North Carolina, Bavarde, social worker, psychologist, doing good work with groups trying to raise minimum wage, kindly easy going mostly silent lady with a cane, lucky to be alive after many operations, husband died 24 years ago next month); Sara (Cape Cod, widowed 3 months, in throes of trauma, ceaselessly talking, insistent). Two sisters, Ginny and Linda (from California, perhaps divorced, perhaps widowed, living near one another, lots of stories, one a teacher of disabled children, teacherly; the other living this seeming cheerful life, so good-humored, with children living these successful prestige lives of university, laboratory and business). One widower, Gary, turned out to be divorced years ago, brought up his children himself (Swedish by background, has traveled to every continent, so many countries, son lives in Germany and talked of how good life is there for him). All with children and some grandchildren.


Steve, one of the 20, at the Wallington House conservatory gardens

Single people. Two never married women living in mid-town Manhattan, Dorothy (successful academic art historian professor, interested in 12th century church architecture, lived much in Italy, worked for the Met); Barbara (high school teacher in English for 35 years, I liked her, we compared notes on British costume dramas, including Poldark, liberal democrat, Jewish her talk of nieces, nephews, brother she reminded me of Vivian). They told me of how in the last 10 days of August, the Met Opera puts up a huge screen in the Kennedy Center square and screen one a night each of the 10 HD operas for that year for free. Who knew? and other stories of delightful lectures, poetry reading (Jeremy Irons reading Eliot’s The wasteland at the 92nd Street Y. One single man, Steven (from Texas, MD, PhD, pathologist, retired has taken or is taking anywhere from 17 [to 34?] Road Scholar and Overseas adventures tours, highly intelligent man, vegetarian, up early in morning, walking away, something of a loner,thought grave by the others, prickly).

One conversation. How what we use as words matters. Somehow famine came up, and I said that famine is not the result of not enough food in an area; it’s that a group of people have precarious entitlement to the food that is there, and the amount of food goes down, becomes scarce and prices soar. Steve said, “yeah, it’s a distribution problem.”

Then two of the tour guides who were with us most of the time: Anne, “happily divorced” (from the Lake District, northern Lancashire accent, thoughtful of everyone, conscientious, a model of patience, good driver, knew a lot about the area’s culture and history and geology, botany, bogus and real history, very bright, as so many Brits accepted her lot and the world she finds herself in, loves to hike, bike); Peter, now living alone on a small island (from London originally, said to be an expert in history, he did know the fierce legends, about battles, lively and tactful, bubbling over if a man can bubble over, also conscientious and knew better than a GPS where everything is, except when he got tired).

Something like 10 people had Ph.Ds, several had been teachers in college or high school, a librarian, three physicians. People with professional certificates. Three business people.  A well-educated bunch of people (like last time). Comfortably well off but not above trying to save $200 say in the fare. A number had been on quite a number of Road Scholar tours.

I learned as much from being with these people as from being on the trip. I found myself remembering back to when I was 5 and asking myself where I was or how I related to all the different houses we visited, museums exhibits I saw, amid all these different eras and varying cultural groups (Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, French Normans, Reivers, modern English, Scottish, Welsh, Cornish) who left their rubbish and precious things and writings and inventions, and made the world we are now living in a palimpsest (if we will only look) through whose relics, remains, and texts we see them. I am become versions of my central self after these 6 plus decades, first in New York City, then in England, and now in Alexandria.


Lady Mary Lowther (1738-1824), The Waterfall — from Stephon Hebron’s In the Line of Beauty: Early Views of the Lake District by Amateur Artists

Most days were sunny and very warm by noon, though I needed the fleece I bought for the trip by the later afternoon; it would rain now and again. The mini-bus going up and around in narrow twisty-lanes sometimes very close to a steep edge of a cliff made for excitement at Hardnut and other passes. I began to wear my training shoes towards the end.

So, gentle reader, now I have prepared us to tell of my latest pilgrimage on Ellen and Jim have a blog, two. It is crucial to understand that everything I saw and did was in the company of these people and the choices I made were limited and shaped by their presence. It is not true that when one visits a site de memoire what matters only is the history of place, its function as a symbol to a culture, but what is being done at the moment, how it is functioning today as what 20th and 21st century people do around it and as a result of the visit. I will now go on to describe the tour itself.

I did read away for a couple of hours a day every day while away, and (among other volumes) my remarks blog style on Gina May’s moving biography of Madame Roland, and her famous memoir, and Lucy Worsley’s Jane Austen At Home will be found on Austen reveries.

Ellen

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The central reading room of the Library of Congress

A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library” — Shelby Foote

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

Friends and readers,

On July 9th I began to join on a meme where you were asked to name a book that strongly influenced you, or had a real discernible impact. You were to find the cover illustration of the book as you remembered it, and do no more. Well I couldn’t see why you should not tell why or how the book had this impact; without that, the meme seemed to me to be contentless. So often cover illustrations are misleading if not downright distortions of the book’s content. So I began to list my 10, and found that I was writing an autobiography of sorts. Just about all of them made a strong impression on me before my mid-20s, and many had linked books and led to life-changing experiences. And here they are:

Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1)

Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (2)

Suzanne Therault’s Un cenacle humaniste de la Renaissance autour de Vittoria Colonna, chatelaine d’Ischia (3)

Anthony Trollope’s Dr Thorne (4)

Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (5), along with Bronte’s Jane Eyre, DuMaurier’s King’s General, Austen’s Mansfield Park

Lousia May Alcott’s Little Women (6), along with P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins in the Park, and the Nancy Drew series

Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (7), and all the rest of Shakespeare too

The Letters of Julie de Lespinasse and Madame du Deffand (8), and the women memoir & gothic writers of the later 18th century ….

Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands, along with Boswell’s A Tour of the Hebrides (9), and books Scottish

Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows to Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (10), Jim’s favorite books, books that influenced him, that he kept reading.

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

How better to introduce my in praise of libraries.


One of the several books discussed in the series above ….

Gentle reader, I’ve not been blogging here as I have been writing the above series and spending three days a week in the Library of Congress reading scarce books by Winston Graham, author of the Poldark books. I renewed my Reader Identification card earlier this summer, and found myself by the afternoon of all the days I was there in a semi-circle of readers around a central area where the librarians are still located. There is no longer a card catalogue but the old habits of spacial arrangement die hard. When I’d begin around 9:30 am there would be few people there, and by 4:00 pm when I’d leave off, the place would be humming with activity.

As in so many projects before how much I enjoyed sitting there among these people, now and then watching the different librarians and librarian helpers at their tasks, bringing books on carts, taking them away, leading groups about quietly to show this or that. Downstairs in the lobby groups of tourists and students going on tours, or off to hear a lecture or look at an exhibit. The different reading rooms. I brought my lunch, a soda and went outside to eat on a bench and then watched people go by near the Congress, on the mall, over at the Folger Library. I’ve learned much of value about Graham in exploring these early works of his.

This kind of activity has been going on in some form or other for centuries. I’m especially fond of the Library of Congress because it is fully public: you need only describe your project to a librarian and you get a card: no need for letters of introduction, for institutional affiliations; no exclusionary practices going on. No money is asked.

Which are the books or authors I’ve made treks of considerable trouble for weeks or months and even years on end to read about and to read in research libraries? Samuel Richardson, Charlotte Smith, Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, Vittoria Colonna, Veronica Gambara, Anne Murray Halkett (17th century autobiographer, spy, Scots by birth), Aphra Behn, Anthony Trollope, and now Winston Graham. Which libraries have I loved and haunted, rummaged in the world’s attics in:  Once at age 15 Degas’s illustrations for a performance of Hamlet for a paper on 19th century art — a library on 51st street off Park Avenue in NYC. For long stretches the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, the Folger Shakespeare; by letter and through microfiche, the British Library. I’ve at least visited and read at the Chawton House library.

Gentle reader, these are my life’s events; this are crucial events in what my life has been.

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


From the cover of Wilkie Collins’s Rambles Beyond Railways, a book about his travels in 19th century Cornwall, a book that cannot be spoilt by knowing what’s in it and has no particular ending

And how better to link in a topic of considerable importance on the Internet: spoiler warnings. Since the advent of the Internet, these have spread to the introductions of printed books, and turn up in the most preposterous places or discourses. You are in a class where a book has been assigned and the class is to discuss it, and the teacher apologizes for telling the class what is in the book! A long while ago Stanley Fisher placed on essay on the Net explaining his objections to these, declaring their use often absurd.

I won’t do that here but rather explain why I dislike using them and for myself would prefer people not use them and am grateful when someone tells me freely about the story or about the characters or themes or whole of the book and its ending too when we share our experience of a book.

Here goes:

First off, what is told is not what I read for. Not at all. I read for the unfolding of an experience. How can anyone replace or substitute for that by telling me the literal story matter. I saw a movie today called Gavarai which was described as being about a German businessman who tries to hire someone to take him in a tour of Norway! ludicrous: it’s about a man grieving for the death of his wife who links him to another estranged from the world, and the journey they take through one small rainy part of Norway’s countryside, and that doesn’t begin to tell what it’s about.

During group reads or discussions, people put summaries of the content at the beginning of a week. Is that a spoiler if you haven’t read the stuff? what it functions as is a redaction saving those participating the trouble of reading carefully or at all. It’s superficial, the surface that doesn’t count. I read for companionship for depth of thought and feeling to be in contact with the best of someone’s mind or heart, to learn about the author’s inner life, an earlier historical world, and how can that be spoilt? most people don’t begin to convey it — I try for that in reviews and my blogs sometimes, but only in spurts. It used to be called close reading. If they quote the text, they can get closer but most of the time what I read for is not there in the person’s redaction at all — it’s them, their personality, their ideas.

Now I grant sometimes that does spoil a text because their inferences are so awful that they can color the text when I return to it or remember it and make me dislike the text. “Oh omg if this is what people are led to think or feel when they read/watch this text, how awful this text must be.”

I grant that while some texts are set up to have a surprise at the end, most writers don’t manage to make me care or have a revelation which upon the second reading makes one read the text differently. My reaction to mysteries which do make me wonder what happened without caring about the characters much is irritation – I try to discover what it is to save myself the trouble of reading. I don’t enjoy most games. They are no fun because it’s unpleasant to cope with the other person’s desire for triumph. Anyway what a waste of time.

Again I grant there seem to be more people reading to discover what happens next and not want to know than the way I or others like me read but then I think of how Forster lamented the way most people read and wished it were otherwise because he’s an author.

Still I don’t think I’m that unusual. I am unusual for admitting this — in 1995 in the early days of the Net I was on a listserv where the listowner/moderator had a rule against spoiler warnings — she regarded them as a form of censorship, and as imposing a certain way of reading on us. My older daughter who runs groups on face-book thinks they are weapons for controlling others — and has lots of anecdotes to show they are used that way. To attack and shut someone up because what that someone wrote is displeasing to others, intimidates them in some way. If she could get rid of them where she is she would — but it’s too tempting a tool (she says) for others. Spoiler alerts are for me and those like me an irrelevancy, an distasteful word which I’ve been coerced into submitting to, and signals social and mind policing.

I’m rereading and rewatching the Poldark matter. It doesn’t matter to me how many times I read these books, each time I read the story through I become just as anxious for Morwenna, maybe more upset because I know what we have to go through before we reach the ending of this phase of her existence; if I know the character I care has a bad ending, I become even more upset. It doesn’t matter how many times Verity is cut off from Blamey it seems for the rest of her life, I grieve for her all over again. In the case of Austen I’d say I’m deeply invested int all the heroines, but cannot like Emma or Mary Crawford and feel Emma didn’t deserve her happy ending nor Mr Knightley; at the end I grudgingly feel for Mary left with her sister for life. But that she doesn’t marry makes me respect her since no one around is worth marrying — that we’ve been shown and she can like.


The first 1945 edition of this book which took Graham five years to write, and which he cut down effectively again in 1951

Austen’s Emma is one of those texts where one reads differently the second time, but like most intelligent versions of this, on even the first reading so long ago I began to suspect that Jane and Frank were engaged and Emma a dupe at the alphabet game and then when Knightley tried to warn the complacent snob Emma I felt yes that “something is going on.” The deepest pleasure is the second and third and subsequent readings as one sees more and more.

One final example from movies: I don’t care for and am not invested in any of the Handmaid Tale characters. I never was. I feel that I could love Nick, the man the heroine comes to have deep affection for and a baby with, but I am not shown enough — I feel the actor conveys kindness. For some of the handdmaids (Emily) I see glimmers of what I can respect and like and recognize, I’m terribly sorry for the poor thing who loses her eye and then her vagina’s clitoris. The rest of them are mostly thin or awful. I know I’m supposed to be anxious for Offred but I have not been able to even in the first season. She leaves me cold. I just don’t recognize her; I think the character is set up to behave morally but she has become hostage to the idiotic values all around her (and repeats them as in the Stockholm syndrome). So each time I don’t care enough what happens to her and if I’m told the ending it saves me the trouble of reading the book or watching the hour.

I’ve come to think that a movie communicates its expressive content to us through the actor-character’s presence, and if a bonding doesn’t happen that can carry you through deeply, the movie won’t perform its most important work. One problem I’m having with the new Poldark films is none of the actress types presented to me touches me deeply …

Now I think bonded with Caitriona Balfe as Claire Randall immediately, deeply from her opening soliloquy about people disappearing all the time and her regret that she had never had a fragile vase: the key is she is a 1950s figure, the years of my girlhood

Ellen

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A photo I took of one of the small bushes in my front garden still flowering this summer

Friends,

Today has been a usual fourth of July for me for the past 20 years or so:

Memories of long and not so long ago: when Jim and I were much younger, say 50 years ago, we would as a couple go out in the heat to a concert in Central Park; for a couple of those early years we were away from home and at a beach. After we had children and I felt we were supposed to be doing something, because for a few years we belonged to a military Officers Club (by right of his job working for the Defense Department), which enabled me to take my children to a nice pool and send them to day camp cheaply, we were able to go to a barbecue held by the people running the club. I remember three picnics in the evening with them. Jim did not care for fireworks, and the one time we took the children aged 7 and 1, to the center of DC both became hysterical at the noise. Sensible he said.

So he and I and Izzy began staying home together, keeping cool, me reading and writing or watching a movie and he on the Net, Izzy watching sports on TV and reading or writing on the computer, sometimes sending what she wrote as a blog to the world. Laura usually contrived to find friends to go out with.

I think fireworks have a certain beauty against the sky, and since the world beyond the earth is so meaningless and blank, dark, there is a certain pathos in throwing up these mechanically induced showers of color. So after hJim said or let me know he was tired of trying to do something special, and wanted to stay at home at peace in he quiet cool,

I would in the evening try to take Izzy to where we could hope to see the fireworks from Alexandria Park. Both times failed. We could see nothing. We discovered up on top of a high hill in Alexandria on the 14th when the city had its celebration, we could watch them. Other than that unless there was a good film on at the local cinema, I began to ignore the day too. One year Laura took Izzy to a party and I remember how Izzy came home having enjoyed herself, and her standing at the window waving goodbye looking so wistful at the good time over. Laura said the kind of people there were good kind liberal types, talkative and so Izzy could be comfortable with them. How I wish for her she could have had this more often.

Then Jim died and I became friendly with Vivian. She said, why didn’t I and Izzy and she go to the Alexandria city birthday party on July 14th, and we did that for three years. On a huge meadow, the city sets aside an arena for picnics; it’s by the Potomac. Ringed round are vendors selling snacks and drinks from carts. At 8 o’clock a free concert starts; usually well-known movie music and at 9 fireworks. We did that together, we three, three times. Below you will find a video of the fireworks from 2013, we were there that evening

Now Vivian is gone and so Izzy and I are back to staying home together. She watched tennis mostly, wrote fiction, a blog. So hers was the usual day. Morning I read Trollope’s Ayala’s Angel, Kamilla Shamsie’s Home Fire, finished reading Voltaire’s Candide in translation, wrote to friends, posted to my three listservs, and to face-book chat and about books. But then I had a treat. At the OLLI at Mason on Tuesday after I finished teaching or talking with the people in the class of Virginia Woolf and her Orlando, my new friend, Panorea and I, were told by another friend in the class of a movie, Xavier Beauvois’sThe Guardians, a literally beautiful film, filled with Cezanne like shots of the French countryside. we had told her we enjoyed so a local exhibit of Cezanne’s portraits. See Marion Sauvebois’s review:

“I can’t find him,” cries Solange, staring at an atlas trying to locate the German town where her husband is being held prisoner. Her mother Hortense picks up a magnifying glass and points to a dot on the map. “There,” she says sullenly, turning away arms protectively clasped against her chest. At least, she consoles her daughter, they can find solace in the knowledge he is alive, unlike her two sons languishing in the trenches somewhere in northern France. This all-in-all restrained scene truly captures the essence of The Guardians.

Far from playing up the inherent pathos of their situation, Xavier Beauvois’s matter-of-fact and subdued storytelling is as unnerving as it is affecting. We’re lightyears away from Hollywood’s maudlin war-time epics: these dauntless women have neither the luxury of grief nor time.

I met Panorea at 1 as afterwards she was to go to a barbecue with relatives. The Guardians is about characters like those in a Hardy novel: farming class. It takes place during WW1 when the men have to go away to war; we watch the women perform very hard work, grieve when a male relative is killed or taken prisoner. Our heroine is a Tess figure who works very hard, and is a very decent person. She is taken in by a family and thinks she is beloved and becomes the lover of the son, but the mother then betrays her by suggesting to the son she is having sex with the American soldiers and he immediately rejects her and tells his mother to get rid of her. She finds another yet harder job with a kinder poorer woman. She is discovered pregnant but not thrown out. She has great reserves of strength and after returning to a near relative, she cuts her hair to look better, gives birth to her baby, christens it properly and keeps it to love and be loved. In the last scene she has become a singer (she sang beautifully to the people at these farms at intervals) in small nightclubs in the area. She kept her child, survived and still knows some joy from daily life. it was a French film, and I could understand much of what was said, because these were not articulate peasants. Feeling and thought was conveyed by facial and body expression and what they did. What I loved best was how the film-makers respected the characters for themselves, valued them for themselves, especially the heroine. You didn’t need to be rich or high status or supposedly admirably successful in some way. You were valued for your nature and goodness and cooperation and the meaning you made out of your life by making some order and beauty and helping others and yourself to survive

Home again by car in the searing heat: a couple of hours later Izzy and I had good meal together. I drank too much wine for myself as usual and then found I kept falling asleep so for the third night gave into myself and took a couple of hours nap so here am I writing and reading what I had longed to read earlier: friends’ letters, more on Candide. I am listening to a beautiful moving reading aloud of Graham’s 7th Poldark book, The Angry Tide, and was almost unbearably moved by the story of Drake and Morwenna. These two characters are among my favorites in the Poldark books.

The vicious corrupt vicar, Whitworth is killed and one of our heroes, Drake breaks off what could have been a good marriage with the disabled Rosina (who I like so much too) because he finds irresistible his original devotion to Morwenna, a frail sensitive good young woman: he cannot desert her in her dire need, and risks everything to reach her, to pull her out of her deep depression and despair and away from the cold cruel people she has been forced to live among, and renew his life by renewing hers. The first time I read this part of the book I could hardly bear the suspense I was so anxious for him lest he be blamed for the murder of Whitworth and in her case lest she not get to live her life by Drake’s side after all. I am Morwenna (as I am Demelza and in some phases Elizabeth in these books)


Morwenna (Jane Wymark) finally reaching


Drake (Kevin McNally) — from the 1977 iteration

I wish Graham had not dropped them (basically) after this novel but that we had been permitted to have a full story about them afterwards. It’s as if he is so tender towards them, he leaves them in privacy. I like that she never really recovers — at a party years later the very sight of her son by Whitworth is enough to shatter her again: it’s true to human nature and helps us as readers remember that such cruelty that she knew is not to be trivialized by the idea the person will heal. She never fully does. I regret other characters I like so who are dropped eventually: Verity is not important in the later novels for example.

On the novels in general: What I have noticed that WG loves non-human animals and has his favored characters love them too. Like dogs, cats are mentioned over and over where other authors wouldn’t, and kindly interesting central characters are kind to their cats. Demelza will be my example of disliking all cruelty to animals and picking up on language which shows that the human being has not thought out how he or she is not attributing to animals a real consciousness of pain or attachment, which WG repeatedly shows they have. The culmination in the Poldark novels is the orangutan Valentine adopts. This deep empathy across species is part of why I like the suspense novels too. I just finished a rare early suspense book, Strangers Meeting, it ends with one of the heroines freeing a rabbit from one of these cruel traps and trying with the help of one of the heroes to mend the poor creature

It’s at such moments, with a friend who values a movie that has beauty, peace, decent values, or reading a book that conveys such experiences, that I know some happiness.


After my coming trip to the Lake District (UK) this August I shall not leave them for more than a few days at a time again


This year upon her reaching 40 Laura posted a photo of herself with one of her beloved cats

I called this for July 4th since I wanted to register some kind of decent values today — and I hope I have now done that — against what I realize the USA has again become under the gerrymandered corrupt regime of Republicans upholding a harsh corporate state: a society whose people are limited by deeply unjust unfair cruel laws, customs, who are perpetually overworked, underpaid, cheated of their labor’s value, hurt by shame, and except the lucky (by birth to people who can help them, in a place where there is some opportunity for all for a modicum of comfort) kept impoverished. It is as I type being turned back to a racist disguised dictatorship of a few powerful groups of whites, and gains that everyone had benefited from between the 1930s and 60s eviscerated utterly. Frederick Douglass’s famous speech applies to far more than black people now. Here is the whole speech introduced by David Zirkin:

It speaks to our every frustration spurred by the gap between the ideals of the United States and the reality we witness every day; between the Bill of Rights and our decaying civil liberties; between the USA’s international declarations of human rights and the ordered drone attacks backed by presidential “kill lists”; between the words “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and a nation that leads the world in jailing its own citizens

“What to the slave is the fourth of July?”. Here is part of it read aloud by James Earl Jones:

Izzy and I were not able to go to the demonstrations all over the US this past Saturday, because we had already bought tickets for an opera at the Barns Theater at Wolf Trap. We go but twice this summer to this place because my eyes are grown too poor to drive that far at night. We saw Mozart’s Idomeneo: Kim Pensinger readily turned this opera with its beautiful music into a play about a tyrant doing all he could to destroy refugees, whose cruel state he was partly responsible for. The staging was minimal, she allowed the figures of the fleeing, the victims, the war scenes their full plain predominance.


From Mozart’s Idomeneo, sung and staged at Wolf Trap this past Saturday, June 30th

Ellen

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