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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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From inside the parasol of petals


Bird watching

Dear friends,

What I remember best from last weekend were the traffic jams, the three hours on Saturday it took Izzy and I to get to and from the Folger, in order to attend (10 minutes late because we had a helluva time finding parking and finally getting into a tiny spot) the spring Folger concert. I am relieved to be able to say it was worth it once again: an oasis of Elizabeth song and instrumentals: they had a Renaissance Band, Piffaro, using all sorts of older instruments (including bagpipes), a soprano with a achingly beautiful voice (harmony itself, and projected many moods. It’s the lack of commercialism, of hoop-la, no microphones, the quietude that is so appealing. The exhibit was about food and chefs, and it was salutary to see the perspective was one centered on the people who worked hard to produce a variety of yummy foods, and got very little of what they grew, picked, cooked, preserved, wrote about in recipe books.

Izzy was not deterred, for on Sunday she braved the crowded Metro and walked herself and her trusty cell phone to the tidal basin, and above are two of her photos; below two more


From a distance


With people

I stayed home and fretted over my garden; after paying Rosemont too much and monthly payments, they still cannot be bothered to start coming again, so finally I fired them — and within a minute got an email of them thanking me for my business (relieved to be relieved of it), and phoned my faithful Mr Sotha. The next day his crew came, cleaned up the grounds, mowed, mulched. He must’ve been taken aback when after years of coming here, I began to hire someone new: that was only because I couldn’t figure out what plants to buy or where. The Rosemont people took my neighbor’s ridiculously expensive “plan” for me (meaning to put it into execution) and just bought the flowering bushes, and did make a start. Now Mr Sotha will be back to care for my garden bi-monthly once again, with the difference I am asking him to do the gardening too. He didn’t mind. After much effort (two trips, finding a young man who helped us skip a very long line in Home Depot and put the tree in the car for us), Izzy and I brought home a new tree, my gay neighbor had the strength to pull it out of said car and put it near where Mr Sotha had left the mulch, I phoned, and within a couple of hours, this is the result:


New baby tree

Nothing of course as yet to the pink magnolia tree which hangs from my other neighbor’s house into my garden near my workroom


I never knew what it was — I called it a pink tulip tree until someone told me there is no such thing

I was twice to the Folger, for on Thursday I went again, to a special event for members: at 6:30 pm, they screened Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus, and then we had a genuinely intelligent discussion of the play and how it was made into a movie, plus how it fits into Shakespeare’s other plays of violent politically ambitious men: it is unusual in not having a figure of integrity (or attempted integrity, say Brutus) or sanity and humor (say Hal against Hotspur) or wit and humanity (Anthony against Octavius) to match the man of blood and insane militarism. I did say one of the courses I’m attending is one on Lear and the Tempest (the AU OLLI).


Both of these for the colors on the waters and in the sky

From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April dress’d in all his trim
Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing,
That heavy Saturn laugh’d and leap’d with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew;
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
Yet seem’d it winter still, and, you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play

I use Shakespeare’s deeply felt poetry as a widow’s poem … Another long-term scholarly friend’s husband died during these weeks, and I spent some time with her.

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

I have had another of my desolating losses: this time a long-time Internet friend; again I was wholly unprepared for her decision to drop me, so did not pick up on her attempts to pick a quarrel nor read the subtext of her comments on how much she needed tranquillity after her trip (I had thought she wanted me to write to her) and solitude, but finally I did realize she had developed a granular dislike of me — or thinks I’m a kind of fool who wants to hear from her or others they are like me.  Nonsense nor do I want to be like her (she’s a religious person) or have what she has. I can’t and don’t recognize names of prestigious schools (nor care about them in my life as just beyond me) so when I showed I did not remember that she had gone to one as an undergraduate, she was annoyed. Maybe she thought “see I pay no attention  to her.” I am tired or her condescension to me (I’m now endlessly having to apologize when I have said nothing wrong or untrue or have been misunderstood quite quickly, with sudden hard slaps). Of her narrow definitions of various states of mind or conditions that don’t of course touch her. It may be she saw that she had no interest for real in a project towards publication I had proposed — very unlikely we’d get anyone to publish a book of essays by us. So there is nothing to be gained from me. She has no interest in these group readings together or the discussions, especially when no one appears to see her points. It was a bad sign that when she’d come to this part of the US she never tried to visit me, not so much as mentioned this as a possibility.

This kind of loss happens every couple of years for me. Recently I read an essay which suggested this kind of behavior is common, and in a book by Liz Pryor this is the way women typically end friendships! Maybe.  When the woman does write a frank good-bye it is often harsh, and the actuating motive seems often to be the one is tired of the other person or the other person is not optimistic enough for them or just does not realize she is an irritant. Gets the leaver down.

Yet oddly enough I am down to one friend locally (meaning someone to go out with and visit) and yet am not eager to spend time with her as I know we are not really suited. Nor a man I have now dated a few times — others might see the occasions as date-like.  I have yet to keep that promise to myself and live on myself, my books and writing and projects, and distant friends, continual rounds of pleasant acquaintances when the OLLIs are in session. You’d think I’d learn. I did feel rotten, and bleak, dark spirited for a few days, but growing inured by time, remind myself I am freer, no need to spend quality time writing real letters which I now know were unwanted. I talked with another much longer on-line friend (who I have met in person three times now) about this and that helped.  Let it go said he.  Carry on.  As time passes I find maybe I will now know the relief of silence and not being put in the position of misunderstanding while it’s she who is the narrow dogmatist (is that the word).

I ask myself, what would be the crushing blow? I’ve had one: Jim’s death, from which there is no genuine recovery as to have that I’d have had to live my life utterly differently. Another would be if Izzy were decide to move. I must not depend on anyone so will try to find an inexpensive time away for myself in August using Road Scholar.

So back to my Graham book project (which is coming along, as I’ve now hit on a better Dashiell Hammett kind of book by him, though with another creepy title: Fortune is a Woman). Here I watched for the first time with real interest the famous Maltese Falcon, and observed the sardonic humor of Bogart & weird hilarity over death in Peter Lorre, and was astonished at the way no one talks of how repeatedly the weepy sentimentally gushing women in these turn out to be cold-blooded promiscuous liars and how they are humiliated and punished.


Bogart as the sardonic witty Spade


That’s an imagined image of Louisa May Alcott

I’ll alternate my Anomaly project with other books by women, other studies, and just subjects that are taking my interest (Henry VII from Shadow of the Tower, I’ve gotten a superb book, Thomas Penn’s Winter King and watched his equally astute hour-long Prime video twice). I’m working up a blog on American women writers of the 19th century seeking to create serious art, live independently from another fine book Anne Boyd Rioux’s Writing for Immortality.


Penn and the death mask of the actual Henry VII


as performed with quiet brilliance by James Maxwell — here he talks to the young boy Lambert Simnel, relieved to be made a servant in the kitchen; he does not like being king “so very much” after all. “Like me perhaps?” the king inquires.

Mornings I’m joining in more with discussions of the Poldark and Outlander books on face-book pages. This summer I’ll take an excursion into two biographies of Vittoria Colonna and write a serious review and make a good blog of it. Another old friend, Italian, now living on the island of Ischia suddenly wrote to say how this had come about and remarked too: “the Castello Aragonese has undergone some extensive renovations and restorations in the last decade or so. It now hosts cinema viewings during the Ischia Film Festival, has two restaurants each with a spectacular view, a hotel converted from a monastery, two museums one of art work another of medeval torture devices, and new walkways and gardens. Many can be seen here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=16T6Do7XXsQ&t=130s. Had I world enough and time and could bear the loneliness, I’d stay home re-teach myself to read Italian and read all Ferrante in the original (I am near through her The Story of a New Name). I shall have to look at Road Scholar and see if they have a tour which includes Ischia.

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Perhaps worth remarking: my essay, “Teaching 18th century texts to retired adults in Oscher Institutes of Lifelong Learning” has been published in the latest Intelligencer (an 18th century newsletter periodical for EC/ASECS) and this morning as I prepared the first of two sets of notes/lectures to teach Can You Forgive Her? with, it has struck me I have 29 people in one class and 31 in the other. Most come, most do the reading. Many participate and talk about the book. At least a few do read the essays I occasionally send out by attachment (like Levine’s “‘Can You Forgive Him?’ & the myth of realism,” and Henry’s “Rushing into Eternity:” Finance, Suicide [and murder] in Victorian novels [especially Trollope’s]. I find this remarkable — people between ages 60 and 85 mostly. I doubt they are coming for me. Worth noting on behalf of Trollope?


Clarycat and Ian in my sunroom: I have decided I love this almost furniture-less room, just one comfortable chair for me, two tables and a rocking chair with pretty blankets and pillow for the kitties — otherwise an assortment of what counts and what is needed …

Izzy and I and our cats carry on our home lives together too. I like to watch them so alertly looking out the window. She works on a new song.

Ellen

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She bought a new keyboard about three weeks ago now, and I hope you can hear the difference:

The song comes from a movie called Once, made a couple of musicians who made a movie about how they met and fell in love. John Carney, the film’s director built the movie around this song provided for him by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. The song won an Oscar the year of the movie. They made a second album about dealing with fame. The third is about how they broke up.

Here are the words of the lyrics for “Falling Slowly:”

I don’t know you
but I want you
All the more for that
Words fall through me and always fool me
And I can’t react
And games that never amount
To more than they’re meant
Will play themselves out

Take this sinking boat and point it home
We’ve still got time
Raise your hopeful voice, you have a choice
You’ll make it now

Falling slowly, eyes that know me
And I can’t go back
Moods that take me and erase me
And I’m painted black
You have suffered enough
And warred with yourself
It’s time that you won

Take this sinking boat and point it home
We’ve still got time
Raise your hopeful voice, you have a choice
You’ll make it now

Take this sinking boat and point it home
We’ve still got time
Raise your hopeful voice, you have a choice
You’ll make it now

Falling slowly sing your melody
I’ll sing along

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This morning I was thinking about earlier stretches of my life. The phrase “long ago” is so common to my imagined conversation in my mind. So long ago Jim and I did this, Izzy would do that. I saw a child walk by from my window, on his back a carry-pack, shouldering a musical instrument. That once was Izzy going to junior high, to high school.

Last night (not atypical day and evening), alerted to it by a book on British TV costume drama I’d been reading, Conflicting Masculinities (one I sent a proposal for on Wolf Hall but was rejected, because I’m not a Brit, have no title or position in a university and my thesis was too much about deeper humanity and attributing the way men are presented in costume drama to an era), I watched Banished, a serial drama which was cancelled but is powerfully about one group of men destroying the manliness and humanity of another group, treating them like enslaved beasts; also showing how one group of people can be so cruel to another when no wider public eyes are upon them. Banished is a parable about how people in our modern societies are now pulverizing the poorer, vulnerable, ethnicities that are not in the majority among them, and refugees from countries these same groups of people are busy destroying so they can steal their natural resources. Unlike Poldark there is no fundamental place, home, knowledge of one another and known community whose interest it is to support one another they can turn to.

Yesterday during the day I read one third of an immensely sad novel, Crossing the River, nominated for the Booker (when it still didn’t accept imitative crap, hadn’t become a sheer advertisement mechanism), by Caryl Phillips. Crossing the River a related book about a white man sending a beloved black man who was enslaved in the US to Liberia (both die of grief as the people they are surrounded by live these punitive lives) made me realize what a fantasy of escape Outlander becomes in this story of Jamie and Claire and Ian making a secure home so readily (he is a wanted ex-convict). I also thought of how I cling to this house as giving me some meaning and safety, not naked in the world among all these indifferent people. Phillips’s message is do anything but separate yourself from a beloved and send them somewhere where life is said to be better — all you are doing is breaking your two hearts. I’m drawn to Phillips: born in St Kitts, yet British, he grew up in Leeds, a place I did love.

Both together — serial drama and book — made me think of how I cling to this house as giving me some meaning and safety, not naked in the world among all these indifferent people, and a book about the Acadia diaspora when threatened by “ethic cleansing,”

“Falling slowly” is a song that cries out for help (as some tweets really do). In retrospect, its framing is a young couple who broke up.

It is March now, signs of spring — such a sweet moment from Emily Dickinson: No 1320, just the first stanza:

Dear March – Come in –
How glad I am –
I hoped for you before –
Put down your Hat –
You must have walked –
How out of Breath you are –
Dear March, how are you, and the Rest –
Did you leave Nature well –
Oh March, Come right upstairs with me –
I have so much to tell —

How I wish I could find a choir for Izzy to belong to. The only ones in my area are part of churches Izzy won’t go near — and she’s probably right not to, reactionary Catholicism she would be a very much outsider in all ways in. With that man I went out briefly with I saw an episcopal church, almost non-denominational, eucumenical, which had a poster looking for people to join their choir. A modern building, maybe enlightened people running the place. But it’s a 45 minute drive and would be at night so I can’t provide a way for her to get there, if I could get her to go. She did say yes when I showed her the place. Too far. But this is her home too.


Writing Last lines ….

Miss Drake

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Richard Hunt’s Swing Low — a bronze sculpture in the front hall of the African-American Museum, alluding to the song, which carries on “sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home … ”

I love this song, and sing it to myself sometimes thinking of Jim, changing it slightly: “if you get there before I do/Coming for to carry me home/tell yourself I’m coming too; bands of angels coming after …


Cosette finds Jean Valjean working as a peasant again, his death by her side — Andrew Davies’s Les Miserables, 2018, one of the finest film adaptations I’ve seen since his War and Peace and before that Peter Straughn’s Wolf Hall — the scenes of the revolt at the barricades are astonishingly grim, true, ferocious; he shows Hugo’s book centers on “the wretched of this earth” —

I thought of Hamlet; who would keep him in this harsh world to draw his breathe in pain …

Friends,

Another 10 days of winter passed, & few things maybe worth recording happened — living from the shelter of my mind.

A friend’s cat died, Andre by name, he was a rescue cat, now 20, and her grief and my memories aroused in me thoughts of what matters in life: the strength to be kind, to give of oneself and see the other and love and be loved; our non-human (non-talking, without hands) animal friends are so helpless against our convenience. I’ll ever regret I didn’t do by my actually beloved Llyr as I should have: my excuse Jim and my dire desperation at the time, but this will not do. She was able to bury her cat companion in her back yard so she can see his grave from her window and remember what was good. I realize why people when they lose beloved people want the bodies back, if only to protect them. I read to Laura when little Judith Viorst’s The Tenth Good Thing about Barney, where he lays under the flowers at book’s end; my favorite passage was the dream image of him in heaven with the other cats eating cans of tuna.


Clarycat this week; and Ian pussycat too

Email letters from a few friends, a long phone call from Panorea, whom I am relieved to say is doing well after the operation on her spine and we may yet go to Philadelphia Museums together this August as we dreamed of in December; Farideh found an old blog of mine, Sylvia I, 2002, which shows that after all I’ve not changed much.

On the blog I found this poem “from Desk,”by Marina Tsvetaeva, as translated by Elaine Feinstein:

(In a letter she wrote to Pasternak :my desk is kitchen table)

My desk , most loyal friend
thank you. You’ve been with me on
every road I’ve taken.
My scar and my protection.

My loaded writing mule.
Your tough legs have endured
the weight of all my dreams, and
burdens of piled-up thoughts.

Thank you for toughening me.
no worldly joy could pass
your severe looking-glass
you blocked the first temptation,

and every base desire
your heavy oak outweighed
lions of hate, elephants
of spite you intercepted.

Thank you for growing with me
as my need grew in size
I’ve been laid out across you
so many years alive

While you’ve grown broad and wide
and overcome me. Yes,
however my mouth opens
You stretch out limitless.

You are a pillar
of light. My source of Power!
You lead me as the Hebrews once
were led forward by fire.

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One of my holds on happiness this week was about 45 minutes of a class at OLLI at Mason where our subject was the texts of TS Eliot, read aloud by members of the group, by himself very ritualistically in a video from PBS (Visions), “The Hollow Men:” it’s a kind of modernization of Dante’s Inferno: favorite lines:

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death’s twilight kingdom
….

I had forgotten a line I often recited to my daughters upon leaving the house comes from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (“Oh do not ask what is it?/Let us go and make our visit … “) but my favorite remains: The Coming of the Magi:

That the high school teacher who was leading the class read accurate interpretations from slides, set forth like test answers (desperation, the aftermath of WW2), which she appeared to treat with a kind of philistine mainstream scepticism, drove made me pay attention to the poetry which did speak for itself.  How beautiful and haunting are his lines, the rhythms of them stay in the mind, on the pulses. Other people in the class made intelligent sympathetic observations too.

For the OLLI at AU, I read (skimmed) with a class who met 5 times (I came four) the whole of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. I have little explanation for why this un-reconstructed misogynistic violent, atavistic romance material so attracts me, but it did again. I found myself making parallels with so much romance I see today (Outlander has the paradigms), remembering back to other Arthurian books and films I’ve read or experienced. Again a fellow class member seemed to have more true depths in his reading than the person serving as teacher, and allegorized the as “Civilization and Its Discontents:” we are watching so-called civilized (at least controlled ritualized) behavior fall apart into chaos as human nature moves into sheer self-destruction, perversions of natural feeling, or cruelty, obtuseness, ending in wild despair. Consider this engraving of “The Passing of Arthur by Frank Dicksee (1889):

Read with insight and truth to our real emotions, Tennyson can be said to anticipate T.S. Eliot (much influenced by him).

At OLLI at Mason, more brilliant moving sessions on Joyce’s Dubliners from Prof Michael Maloof, whose modernism puts stories of ordinary people into Eliot’s frame; a films about Vivian Maier, more poetry, Elizabeth Bishop.

Only connect ….

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Today the last day, 75 minutes at OLLI at Mason on the African-American Museum, which I know must go to. The docent described what is there, just remarkable, sobering, true, with the a better if neither fair nor good time in general in history, with a few genuine gains since Africans were no longer enslaved; the museum showcases culture too –so modern art, music, film, sport, and African-American 20th century culture. It took from 1915 when it was first audaciously proposed to 2015 to achieve this astonishing place; congress people were most of the time willing to approve, but not fund or do anything constructive: two of the movers were John Lewis and Oprah Winfrey. What a day that must have been on opening with the President himself and his wife, African-American. Not enough such good moments. I am half-planning to go all day Tuesday: it’s a trek, bus, train then walk. But February you can just walk in without pre-buying a timed ticket.

At home, I got back to my projects, the book on Winston Graham and the anomaly: I”m reading a very good historical fiction set in the 19th century by Graham, Cordelia (to be written about separately); and a moving account of Liberty: “A better husband,” single women in the US from 1780-1830 by Chambers-Schiller: inspiring she is, telling of the vocational life of women in the era, their valuing themselves gradually, their lives count, their gifts found fulfillment in reading, writing and also finding places in society where their desire to do good work was not just tolerated but allowed to do actual good, as in Emily Howland.

I watched Davies’s Les Miserables, all six parts, and will watch again in March — from DVDs made from the BBC airing while the PBS versions play on Sunday nights, how they rise up and are murdered for their efforts (as in Chile in the 1970s, as Trump and his vile mignons are readying to do in Venezuela, and he’s doing now on the borders of the US. I proposed to Trollope&Peers that in two summers we try Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris: I read it in French in my twenties and think we as a group have learned how to do long books that take effort and patience together. I’m half tempted to propose Les Miserables, but our list had a hard time with it years ago and gave it up; I know David Bellos’s book, Les Miserables: The Novel of the Century (he wrote an exciting book, truly, on translation I reviewed — Is that a fish in your ear?).  Bellos’s one of these autobiographical meditative reads of wonderful novels might get us through — after or together with Davies.

And I continue with Outlander nightly, solacing myself among its ghosts of devoted fierce love, deep congeniality, Jamie & Claire; they’d give up all in a split second to be together again and they do, repeatedly. And I exercise, listen to folk and country music, traditional (Pete Seeger) and contemporary (Nanci Griffiths) from Pandora; the header line comes from a folk song.

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

Personally significant — now I may not die from liver disease or a fatal operation in 15 years:

I was successful in wrenching needed treatment from Kaiser; finally a clinical pharmacist called this Friday and I have begun my pills as of Monday, and my schedule of blood work, restricted diet for now. I discovered Kaiser was indeed stalling and trying to put me off: the pill have a ticket price (wait for it) of $36,000 for three bottles, enough pills in each for three months. My widow’s annuity and social security come to $47,000 for the whole year. Now embedded as I am in “protections,” I can afford these bottles this way: I pay $150 a bottle to Kaiser; now in reality US society is being gouged by the drug companies (read Marcia Angell, “Opioid Nation,” from the NYRB) for these pills through Kaiser, medicare and a web of “financial assistance” it’s called. When I told friends the sum, there was hardly a gasp; instead of got stories of their analogous experiences. Everyone keeps silent, especially when they have not been able to buy or afford the needed medical treatments (opioid victims, people with diabetes, cancer&c): they grow much sicker and die early. I am feeling tired, head-achy and (surprising this!) sleep 6 hours each night, sometimes a light doze but that long …

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

And I went out again (probably the last time, as we are fundamentally incompatible in attitudes towards life) with that gentle older man, a concert at his church by a “famous” (a word he kept repeating) group of singers from Yale, called the Whiffenpoofs. I have very mixed feelings about this elite group of 20 year olds.

They were presented to a mostly white, upper to middle middle class audience, many older as somehow not elite and “working hard” earning all their keep. The group was formed in 1909 and following tradition, the young adults take a year off from their Yale studies and are supported wholly by ticket sales. Wait a minute: who is paying the Yale fees? how much are they? The humor and much be-praised group spirit are sophomoric and this time all but one a woman, she has to sing counter-tenor (a falsetto). This was the first year women were let in — Yale did not accept women at all until 1969. They were all in very fancy tuxedos — they did sing beautifully in some style where their distinctly different voices came out as crooning. Nostalgic repertoire with some contemporary music and songs re-vamped interestingly thrown in.

Well, for the first time I had some insight into blackface. Until recently it would appear the all-male chorus would dress up in ballet skirts, absurd wigs, wear make-up as women and have their photo taken, and spend an afternoon “doing lunch.” What is this but unacknowledged cruel ridicule: the group pretends innocence but utter disdain for women (as in blackface lynching for blacks), and as we saw in Kavanaugh, central fraternities’s right to harassment and rape women is part of their obduracy. Scroll down, and see the meaning of blackface.

This new young woman as reported in the Washington Post, is ever so grateful for being let in to these Whiffenpoofs, to Yale, though recognizes “they have a long way to go,” for example, they must change the voices allowed in to include women’s ranges. Sofia Campoamor cannot be as “ordinary” as pretended since she attended the elite Sidwell Friends school in DC. Julie Zauzmor of the Post article, to her credit kept in focus the elitism, asked questions of the religious aspects of this Ivy League college, this 1920s “fun” group.

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

Political coda: AOC is now in congress and making beautiful waves for a “green New Deal:” I like her smile, don’t you?

So that’s the news from my desk and the shelter of my mind (a line from Paul Simon’s “Kathy’s Song”) in Alexandria, Va,

Ellen

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Snow-cat, made by Rob, Laura’s husband, just outside their backdoor

This morning I realized there was a sweetness about life, about existence, being alive somehow, a tone, a feel to the very air, which has vanished altogether since Jim died. My eye lighted on a house near my street, so familiar after 35 years that corner, and it came to me when I would see that corner and was driving home to where Jim often was, how the world was suffused with sweetness, a tone, a feel — gone forever, with vacuity in its place.

Friends,

The past two weeks have been cold, rain has poured on Alexandria, and now we’ve had a mild three day snow storm. Mild because only some 12 inches but enough to close down what parts of gov’t have been left open after Trump and his regime decided to make their right-wing dictatorship felt. A coup is underway to nullify the election of a democratic house. I am far from alone in being sick with worry and anxiety for my and Izzy’s comfortable existence, this house and my books supplying all that make my life worthwhile.

I’ve been thinking what can I do if Trump succeeds in keeping this up: can the money I have invested be turned around to produce some kind of income? I thought of Jane Austen’s line in Persuasion: Is there any one item on which we can retrench. I’ve been thinking of many items, including eating less and more cheaply. I’ve not bought a thing I didn’t have to since the gov’t shut down. I am already committed for two trips but after this stop. Apply for tax relief from the Alexandria property rates. I have been so proud of my garden: it would hurt not to have the gardeners work at it at least once a month (they came twice in the fall); it would break my heart, but I know nothing of gardening so need them. No more cleaning ladies. That’s easy. Izzy loves her four sports channels but we could go down on the phone somehow. Anything to stay here and keep my books. Night after night Judy Woodruff on PBS catalogues another set of individuals devastated by this.  Trump came on Fox  enjoying himself utterly. Remember he and his Republican loathe most of the agencies, like the FTC which is supposed to protect consumers, stop monopoly and exploitative practices. They are shutting all this down as a trial to see what they can destroy. They like the idea of federal workers forced to work for no pay.  Well these workers won’t keep it up for years.  My especial heart-break is the closing of the Library of Congress.


Saturday night from the windows of my enclosed porch


Sunday morning close up

I’ve been out minimally but not lonely because of the worlds of the Internet I have found so many friends and people who share some part of my taste to spend time with. I visited a friend where we had old-fashioned grilled-cheese sandwiches (on white bread no less, fried lightly in butter on a frying pan) with tea and then settled together to watch the wondrous French A Christmas Tale. She enjoyed it as deeply as I. She’s worried too: she lives on a much larger social security and annuity payments; she will rearrange her annuity payments for a start she says.

One night also I went on a date (the first in 52 years) — an old-fashioned date where the man picked me up by car, drove me to an elegant yet home-y Irish pub in Northwest Washington where we had a yummy meal and good talk; afterwards a drive through very pretty park-lined and riverside streets, and then home again home again, jiggedy-jig, where he walked me to my door. I even dressed up, complete high heels and an attempt at make-up (feeble, basically lip-stick).

I know my face looks awful but consider that the cell phone picked up harsh shadows in Izzy’s half-lit room.

We were in a neighborhood in Northwest Washington I knew existed, sort of, but had never been in. The OLLI at AU is there. Very wealthy, exclusive (he pointed to three clubs he belongs to along the river, one where no one else can come into that piece of land in that park), beautiful, forest-y. There’s a Great Falls I’d never heard of and he was even startled to hear I’d never heard of it. His big income comes from years of working in high positions in agencies Trump will destroy: environmental; he did “operations research” (mathematical finding of which is your best option to do; this is used to bomb things). He is by older heritage Jewish, but his family spent so many years in Arkansas and then Tennessee so he has no memories of any heritage but American — one of his clubs meets in a local very tasteful Episcopalian church.  An intelligent sports person, someone who knew how to and still does socialize and network, a widower, with 2 (!) guns in his house. I could see he was rightist — trained to be a fighter pilot in the later 1950s. He knew what an adjunct is, and said of Jim’s career, what a shame he didn’t make more money with such degrees. I think for us, given my expectations, & where we both came from, Jim did very well. I know mainstream people will comment (adversely) he retired so early. Yes, and I have much less because of this, but he lived for 9 years he would not have had he worked until 65, gotten that dreadful cancer, and been devoured.  So not a lot of common ground. The evening was though very pleasant. Both people kept up cordial conversation.  I think I’d actually never been on a date like this before — never treated that way in my teens. Perhaps it fit Christine Blasey Forde’s expectations when she found herself among thug upper class males for the first time. The evening was a sociological lesson for me.

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


The facsimile edition


the beloved and loving dog, Hajjin

I read a new remarkable short novel where the central consciousness is a nearly kidnapped dog, the 19th century novella, The Confessions of a Lost Dog by Francis Power Cobbe — she anticipates Woolf’s Flush: deeply humane and somewhat convincing attempt to get inside a dog’s personality, not the physical self the way Woolf tried. She is one of the women I am hopeful about writing about for my projected part of a book, working title, The Anomaly (only single women trying to live apart from men have not been.) I  am now reading Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend as translated by Ann Goldstein: she describes a world I grew up in (Naples = southeast Bronx, circa 1950s). Lenu the reader, and Lila who learns to cast off ambition because thwarted hope is one of the most painful of experiences..

Still inching along in the helpful Cornwall: The Cultural Construction of Place, ed Ella Westland, have opened and begun more of my Cornwall travel-memoir meditative history-as-reverie books. I’m now reading the three Poldark novels I’ve chosen for the paper I’m supposed to give in Denver (if airplanes are flying — I don’t know why the TSA people just don’t go on strike — all terrorized they will lose their jobs; this is what employment in the US has come to). And I’ve had one of those delightful literary discoveries fit only for cherished re-telling in a diary.

All the years of watching the two different Poldark, and having read the twelve books I thought carefully through, I never realized both series had omitted Aunt Agatha, the 98 year old unmarried Poldark aunt’s kitten. In scenes where she appears in Black Moon we are told she has a kitten and then cat keeping her affectionate company. His name is Smollett and I suspect the name is reference to the popular 18th century novelist, Smollett who features an old unmarried woman and her beloved dog in an epistolary novel, Humphry Clinker (the hero is Methodist), and cats and offensive smells in a travel -tour book.


Agatha (Caroline Blakiston) saying goodbye to Verity (from Season 3, Black Moon)

When we first see Agatha, we are told

A black kitten moved on her lap. This was Smollett, which she had found somewhere a few months ago and made peculiarly her own. Now they were inseparable. Agatha never stirred without the kitten, and Smollett, all red tongue and yellow eye, could hardly be persuaded to leave her. Geoffrey Charles, with a small boy’s glee, always called her ‘Smell-it.’ [When George Warleggan intrudes.] The kitten, to Agatha’s pleasure, had arched its back and spat at the new arrival (Black Moon, Chapter 1).

Smollett is mentioned in passing, and when on the last page of this novel, Agatha lies dying:

The bed shook as Smollett jumped on it again. Her head was sinking sideways on the pillow. With great effort, she straightened it … then the light began to go, the warm, milk yellow sunlight of a summer day … She could not close her mouth. She tried to close her mouth and failed. Her tongue stopped. But one hand slowly moved. Smollett nudged up to it and licked it with his rough tongue. The sensation of that roughness made its way from her fingers to her brain. It was the last feeling left. The fingers moved a moment on the cat’s fur. Hold me, hold me, they said. Then quietly peacefully, at the last, submissively, beaten by a stronger will than her own, her eyes opened and she left the world behind (Black Moon, last chapter, last page, last paragraph)

Graham is very fond of animals, and especially a lover of cats throughout his novels. Ross Poldark meets Demelza because at the risk of her own severe body injury she was defending her dog, Garrick, from torturous abuse for the amusement of a mob and several boys. Here are Ian and Clarycat near a snow filled window with their toy mouse:

For snow days: I recommend the remarkable movie about Gertrude Bell narrated by Tilda Swinden, for its remarkably contemporary film footage, Bell’s letters, virtuoso performances of BBC actors as Bell’s family, friends, associates: Letters from Baghdad. I’m listening to Timothy West’s inimitable reading of Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, as prelude to Can You Forgive Her? and for a group discussion (Trollope&Peers); this is alternatively with Davina Porter reading Gabaldon’s Drums of Autumn. I shall buy no more of these but listen and re-listen to what I have. My kind Irish friend has sent me so many copies of DVDs of very good British BBC movies, I can go for years. My movies at home and nightly for now are both sets of Poldark serial dramas (back-to-back watching of equivalent episodes), Outlander Seasons 2 and 4. I was disappointed but not surprised when Caitriona Balfe, nominated for Golden Globe as best actress for four years in row, lost once again. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride ….

It is hard to find Balfe in a dress I can endure to look at at these ceremonies: a salutary reminder of the real woman (the first phase of her career was as a fashion model).. She is presented in the features as a cooperative team player . The blog where I found the image, repeatedly said of the dress it’s too “LV” — perhaps Louis Vuitton, but a sneering tone accompanied by scorn for those “who have trouble paying their rent,” so it’s probably a withering resentment of her outfit as not overtly extravagant, ritzy, expensive enough. I remember Jenny Bevan who has dressed hundreds of actors and actresses in the best movies for years, turning up for her award for costume in ordinary pants, top, her hair simply brushed was booed. So you see where the outrageous lengths this red carpet stupidity goes to comes from: the worst values of mean minds.

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As for keeping body as well as soul up, I walk for 20 minutes in the afternoons, and listen to country and folk music in the mornings as I exercise for 10 minutes and close this evening with Pete Seeger’s “There’s a river of my people:

There’s a river of my people
And its flow is swift and strong,
Flowing to some mighty ocean,
Though its course is deep and long.
Flowing to some mighty ocean,
Though its course is deep and long.

Many rocks and reefs and mountains
Seek to bar it from its way.
But relentlessly this river
Seeks its brothers in the sea.
But relentlessly this river
Seeks its brothers in the sea.

You will find us in the mainstream,
Steering surely through the foam,
Far beyond the raging waters
We can see our certain home.
Far beyond the raging waters
We can see our certain home.

For we have mapped this river
And we know its mighty force
And the courage that this gives us
Will hold us to our course.
And the courage that this gives us
Will hold us to our course.

Oh, river of my people,
Together we must go,
Hasten onward to that meeting
Where my brothers wait I know.
Hasten onward to that meeting
Where my sisters wait I know.

Songwriters: Peter Seeger

Miss Drake

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Wilhelm Purvitis (1872-1941) Winter in Latvia (1910)

Friends and readers,

This fine winter afternoon Izzy and I took what has become our “traditional” (five years running) near twilight walk in Old Town Alexandria as our way of commemorating Christmas eve. Above you see the Alexandria City Christmas tree, all lit. The DC tree is not, it is dark due to the crazed semi-dictator who insists on being given billions of taxpayers’ dollars to build a cruel hideous wall before he will let them use their own money to light up their Christmas city tree. In Alexandria we escape him here: our tree stands in front of the town square where our farmers’ market is set up every Saturday morning.

Izzy and I have this year once againy had our spirits lifted, a halcyon moment at the Folger for their Christmas Concert 2 weeks ago now; last week I went with new friend, Panorea to the Kennedy Center to see a Nutcracker suite; Saturday, Izzy, Laura and I again to the Kennedy Center, this time for Miss Saigon (I wept again, Izzy said the Engineer was more flamboyant than the man who played the part in London — he was less witty) and after out to a yummy Asian food restaurant to exchange presents; and yesterday Izzy and I once again to the Christmas Music Hall Pantomime at Metrostage. The routines could never be done today, but kept truly stylized and the ones still living, one of my favorites once again, Christmas in the Trenches, and some good feeling truly funny and touching songs, dances, and routines left us very cheerful for last night’s pre-Christmas eve. Tonight we had roast chicken.

As another year draws to a close, the holiday ritual and longer night-time encourages me to think back to the previous year and many years, to remember and compare different holiday times as well as what we did this year that was meaningful and good, also what happened that brought sorrow. And for I who who live through books and nowadays movies too, that means listing and in previous years I have come up with a list of what I read and/or watched, quite copious and discovered (not to my surprise) how much I read books by women and how much I prefer them, that I find as much intense pleasure and new life in non-fiction (literary biography especially) as I do fiction. This year I went to the trouble — it was telling my life’s important events — of listing and telling why or how 10 different books (some became sets of books) influenced my life, and I know at times I realized I was seeing so many remarkably good and fine films between a course I took in films over this fall into winter and a film club I attended from spring across the summer to early fall I was driven simply to list the titles lest now and again I forget them.

As a holiday to myself I am over the next two days reading a book that has nothing to do with any project, just something I knew I’d love and I am: Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises: her tone is just so deeply congenial, her sense of humor, her sadness and why; and I just saw two more great films, truly, Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (2008), and Arnaud Cuaron’s Roma (2018): both have an apprehension of our life as a small figure in a landscape of crowds. Desplechin’s 2 and 1/2 hour film made me feel I was experiencing the holiday in proportionate real time with a family who let me be in their intimate experience, while with Cleo I saw the world from a compassionate point of view of her & the women & children she worked so hard for.


We look in


Nearly drowned

Instead of like last year trying to remember them all or again, conjuring up why they mean what they have to me, I’ll content myself with another list:

for books the outstanding revelations even were above all Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Paul Scott’s Staying On, and the outstanding author, E.M. Forster for no less than three of his novels, A Room with a View, Howards End, and A Passage to India, indeed I felt I had not begun to apprehend what my mind was processing when I read them years ago, it was as if I were reading them truly for the first time, and just as important in this was Nicola Beauman’s literary biography, Morgan; without her I would not have gotten what I did from these. All masterpieces — alas that the word is so overused. And for the unexpected, I was astonished by how much I responded deeply to because I was surprised to discover how much I liked and identified with the privileged and lucky Claire Tomalin in her A Life of My Own. A journey a life I wish I could have taken but felt grateful she shared hers with me so aware of how fortunate she had been.


A new Helen Allingham when I thought I had seen them all

For movies, may I be candid, gentle reader? Oh yes I know the one that held me over and over, especially at midnight is not finely subtle in its passion as the great TV movie, The Child In Time (Cumberbatch and Kelly MacDonald out of McEwan’s novel). As in another year the serial dramas that I found irresistible, and watched over and over, blogged and found books for, were Wolf Hall (Mantel again) and Downton Abbey (even now when the theme music is played over over the advertisement for the coming theater movie production, I find tears rising out of my eyes); and another year (but not so devotedly) The Crown (I cannot resist Claire Foy?);

so this year it has been Outlander: I’ve listened to three and one half of the four books four seasons have realized, bought and read the companions, joined conversations on face-book pages (!), posted away recaps, meditations. I’m rooting strongly for Caitriona Balfe to won the Golden Globe finally after four years of “almost there” (nominations).

I much prefer it to the new Poldark, which seems to me such a missed opportunity, given how rich the books potentially are.


Lamb, a wolf-dog has been added this year

I suppose in previous years (but I never thought to think of this) I should have said, this 2017 has been the first year I ever bought a good car for and by myself I am fond of (my 2016 PriusC), and went to Inverness and was able to visit the Highlands of Scotland; or this 2016 has been the first year I ever renovated a house and how good it is to sit in my sun-room, it’s become a habitas that I am the genius loci in. Or in this 2015 I won the first prize I ever did — the Peterson Award for service at EC/ASECS.

So unlike all previous years let me list 2018 as the year I fulfilled a long time wish-dream: this summer’s time in the Lake District and northern borders (debatable ownership here) of England. This year I went away with my two daughters to Milan (though alas for reasons best not listed I fear they will not do that with me again). I had my first over-night visitor; he stayed two nights in the sun-room and said I made him very comfortable. I tried.


A Michelangelo Pieta we saw upclose

Sadly, this year my boy ginger tabby pussycat, Ian aka “my lover,” Snuffy, is no longer well, his nose gray where it should be pink: a heart murmur I’m told.  Clarycat has lost that blithe grace she once had. All three of us become yet more attached as we grow yet more vulnerable. A rare good friend, Vivian, died in March.

So here I am on Christmas Eve reaching out once again in the one way I sometimes succeed, before I turn off the computer and go to bed, another poem by Patricia Fargnoli

Message for the Disheartened

When you are expecting nothing
a letter arrives
and someone decides for you.
Your arms fall to your sides,
your hands open.

You dress for the weather
in your gold moccasins
and prepare for long journeys
to distant countries.

The foxes who come out of the forests
stall before you but do not startle.
They are so beautiful,
full of spice and sugar.

Vines grow wildly around you
tangling your thoughts.
There are so many countries
you’ve never traveled to.

You’ve been keeping
to your own rooms
like a blanket stored
inside a closet

or an Egyptian mummy
or a room full of model ships.
In case you miss me,
keep moving through time

and I will arrive finally
in a black coat and top hat,
leaving my cane in the closet,
to open your inner pages

saying, after all, life
is sweet and not as dangerous
as you might think—though the thief
runs off with the child before help comes
(Winter)

I wish all my friends who read this happy Christmas,  a wish: be well and that 2019 should be kind to us all.

Ellen

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My miniature maple tree is now a uniform lovely dark red — I took this photo in the pouring rain

This is the November time of year in Virginia when it rains hard and steadily for several days in a row, taking away the colored leaves. That has not changed over the years. It happens in NYC in later October …

Dear friends,

My mother told me early that whatever happens to you, however unhappy you may be, you can escape into a book — Claire Tomalin

I’m in the awkward situation of having too many books and too many movies and too much activity to tell of since I last posted here. I lack a single overriding focus except to say that the fall term is starting to wind down. I write because I do not want to lose contact with my real friends who read me here. You owe this to Amazon Prime fooling me into thinking they were streaming Sally Fields’s Norma Rae, only to discover all that is on offer is a trailer so I had to send away to Netflix for a DVD and am too daunted by MacCulloch’s Thomas Cromwell (extraordinary as his recreation of the early Tudor world is) to inch further along this evening.

Both courses that I taught (Wolf Hall: A Fresh Angle on the Tudor Matter; and The Enlightenment at Risk, see Candide and La Religieuse) have gone splendidly. They and reading with others on-line, going to a conference where I gave a paper on Austen’s Persuasion and attended two plays, a guest visitor staying with me, who took this photo in front of Blackfriars’ theater in Staunton, Virginia, — all have left little time to blog:

I did have my paper proposal accepted for a coming ASECS meeting in Denver in March on Winston Graham’s historical fiction (with the much more original proposal on Henry Fielding as a feminist turned down). I read late at night and in the early mornings in bed — much to my cats’ impatience.

This week is the last of my Wolf Hall and the Tudor matter lectures, and after we finish Samuel Johnson on Scotland and watching the BBC classic documentary Culloden next week I’ve got but two sessions on Madame Roland’s memoir and the early phases of the French revolution to go. Near the end I want to do nothing so much as read Hilary Mantel and Samuel Johnson’s prose and about him by John Wain (who captures his tone and the best parts of his mind) endlessly.

Probably what has eaten into my time most is watching truly great (often classic) movies for three different courses I attended this term: I do most of this watching at night, and I’ve watched film adaptations of the books I’ve taught so as to be able to show clips in the classes of effective meaningful central scenes, and now this week I’ve added to re-watching the fourth season of Poldark, the stunningly brilliantly done film adaptation of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (scripted by Fiona Seres), and the fourth season of Outlander (Drums in Autumn), where I just find irresistible Jamie and Claire. My favorite actress just this day is Jessie Buckley, my favorite actor Zakes Mokae. All I have had time for is to keep a list simply not to forget what I’ve seen and what’s left to see! the outstanding best of those I’ve not blogged about (I managed only women’s films) have been Paths of Glory, Judgment at Nuremberg, A Dry White Season (this last by a woman, 1989 Euzhan Palcy), and the early classic, Battleship Potemkin.


Jessie Buckley as Marion Halcombe in Fiona Seres’s 2018 Woman in White: what is distinctive is Collins’s novel is filmed so as to realize strongly its tale of a society organized on subduing and exploiting women through silent and overt violence; technically the most expert and marvelously (colored and film noir gothic) serial drama I’ve seen in a while. The use of juxtaposition, flashback, rearranged time is astonishing; all that is left out is voice-over for perfection

The unexpected: I listened in my car to a true masterpiece, E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. I became immersed (insofar as time permitted) in E.M. Forster: he is a deeply morally good and astonishingly multi-perspective genius at novel-writing. On Trollope&Peers, we read and saw Howards End, A Room with a View, and I read a good deal of Beauman’s biography, Morgan & Charles Summer’s close reading of Forster’s writing. Thinking of Forster’s character Cyril Fielding helps me see my continual moral flaws and stupidities and agree with Forster about the sad futility of longing for “the Friend who never comes.”


E. M. Forster by Dora Carrington; a blog essay on his work by Tyler Tichelaar

And who would have thought Barbara Pym’d be a revelation: I was startled into contentment for two of her four characters in the faery tale ending of Quartet in Autumn, and strongly upset for her by her courting public sexual humiliation after she finished at Oxford (no wonder she wrote about 50 year old spinsters when she was in her mid-20s).

An HD opera was unexpectedly very good: Sanson and Dalila by Saint-Saens,and coming up is the new opera Marnie, based on Winston Graham’s novel.

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Longoni, Un gatto per Amicor

So what can I tell of out of all this that you cannot read elsewhere? Something non-famous? I’ve followed an excellent 6 week Future Learn course on Understanding Violence against Women and learnt much (what they do in their program is hold the particulars of the perpetrator in mind and work to stop or eject him). I spoke of the 1st & 2nd week here (scroll down). Now I’ll tell of the fifth week:

The course suddenly dramatically improved: now they were going to talk of survivors, how they are treated by society, what happens to them if they go for help, how they themselves feel inside as people ever after. And lo and behold there was a filmed interview of Judith Herman, and two women running rescue clinics, and shelters and in Scotland groups funded to help survivors of abuse. (I”ll lay a bet there is nothing like this in the US, and that whatever rescue shelters and clinics we’ve had are quickly going badly or being shut down since Trump&Co.)

What had been missing was the larger trajectory of the society that let this abuse inside a marriage happen (as yet there is no idea that marriage itself, compulsory marriage is at the core of all this violence permitted, even encouraged implicitly when you teach men how entitled they are and to be macho, and violence as a solution). They even critiqued themselves in that they said 25 years ago when police or social workers first really didn’t ignore calls to homes where violence had happened, the so-called investigation produced these general abstractions about what had happened instead of the particular case and what was the particular paradigms of behavior that abused the women and children, nor was the perpetrator paid attention to. All that was really written down was any physical injuries. Well no more. Now they try to pay attention to the perpetrator and look at the peculiar patterns and try to get the family members become aware and address the problem so the violence and coercion and cruelty and abuse stops.

We need to look at wider causes of this violence against women and in Judith Herman’s talk that is brought out: compulsory heterosexuality inside a family and society structure that makes women subject to other people’s exploitative uses of them with nowhere to turn. I realize she had outlined places to go, but the interview also talked about how such places don’t always address the problems, can deprive the victim of autonomy (she’s not in control), further punish her, put her further at risk

It was very hard for me to pay attention up front to some of this because I had some horrible experiences age 12-15 and probably no one ever helped me. Over the years and a lifetime I’ve somewhat recovered, but never wholly. I would hope other girls today get help; the situation is not improving in the US right now because of the Trump regime: we are going backwards as women are mocked, ridiculed and once again silenced, and social services cut

Anna Mitchell was superb. Yes we must not be content with general talk and general assessment or just pay attention to obvious physical abuse. You must look at all forms of abuse and abjection (the victim becomes abject) and hold the abuser accountable to stop the patterns of behavior that are harmful.

A movie, The Hunting Ground: It’s a powerful film, with Lady Gaga’s song (this brand name feels like an embarrassment to me — she is Stefanie Joanne Angelina Germanotta) and here it is — I hope my code stuff comes through: of many thoughts I had as I watched, I found that I became directly distressed as I watched and listened to the girl speak of the aftermath, of how they felt and were treated afterward. It was then I began to shake and couldn’t look. I’d say that just about no girl in that film ever had the slightest true justice, and every single young man who raped, gang-raped, assaulted and otherwise maimed these girls got away with it. Here and there in the film a young man is ejected from a university after he has won for them all the games he can, or is thrown out after he graduated. By contrast, a number of the girls whose story is followed through on has suffered massive insult and has been punished by her society in one way or another. I also found on line a video made by the American Enterprise Institute cleverly accusing this film of being “sensationalism.” Towards the end you see Obama and Biden get up and profess satisfaction that these brave girls have come forward and promise to help them; since DeVos has been put at the head of the education department she has turned back the rules that provided even the minimum assistance that Obama and Biden’s administration offered.

I would like to add this: thus far all the cases reported have one of the parents backing the girl, with the implication or assumption the other parent did too. When I tried to tell my mother she first scoffed, when I persisted, she called me a tramp and made derisive remarks, and finally told me she didn’t want hear about this. I am now 71 and have never forgotten those 3 years; they shaped my existence ever after. Since I believe there is nothing exceptional about me, and far from supporting me, I feel that the evidence you have produced should cases where other girls are not supported by one or the other parent. I didn’t tell my father because I was too ashamed, and also worried he too would blame me or tell me to forget about this.

In the US violence is mostly defined as physical violence of some sort. While there are laws in place, a few agencies and local assistance, it seems to me little true help is available. I know from experience that the psychiatric and psychological professions have gone over to CBT, which in my view is worthless: they are basically telling you to have good thoughts and conform, or they offer you a drug. Since the election of Trump, for women in the US life has deteriorated in public.

Probably all three stages are equally important, but it may be that the first two are easier to effect than the last. You need agencies and gov’t to come in and provide safety (put the man or men away in prison) and help the women and if she has children, the children involved find a good place to live, help her pay the rent as she begins to live there separately — or help her get a job. The third one involves personal relationships and this requires social skills on the part of the woman, things in the family that the community around identified with and respects, and the willingness of the people around her to become her and her children’s friends and associates. All this is hard, takes time, may not happen.

Obviously getting the community around women in different localities in the US to support the woman and/or her children. It’s clear from statistics that at this point it is the male assaulter who is supported and protected, and often goes unpunished. The challenge is to get the society as a whole and individual families and if there are institutions involved to value women as people. But the US has elected a man to be president who boasts of his sexual predation and mocks and derides women who are assaulted and come forward to protest. I see very good comments below by other people here.

I found Ann Hayne’s attitude one which would lead to genuine helping of another individual. She behaves and tells others how to behave with the needs of the traumatized individual in mind. It is the particulars that she singles out that struck me as exactly right. I have seen psychologists where the person supposed to help me makes me feel much worse by making demands I can’t meet, or in effect dismissing my fears by advising me to do things that would further terrify me. I thought the video cartoon comforting, and especially like how three very different types of trauma were included. In the talk and video were taken into account the kind of person (me) who becomes attached to someone dominating and then stays with a person because he’s kind, enables some of the things I’ve wanted to do and couldn’t on my own, and it’s so much easier. I suggest though something is left out: what about the person (me) first abused who then gets into another different kind of relationship where the abuse is not obvious, & the second relationship disguises that the first was never dealt with.

Claire Tomalin, London, 1989

The one review of Claire Tomalin’s for me utterly readable and riveting A Life of My Own that I have come across,  Stacy Schiff’s “Making Herself the Subject,” in the New York Review of Books is remarkable for the reviewer’s ability to quote some of the many perceptive memorably put assessments from a few of Tomalin’s great biographies and to squeeze into a clear outline of the most significant & moving of Tomalin’s details about her ultra-busy successful life, but Schiff does omit herself, what we might surmise would be another woman writer’s reaction to Tomalin’s cool candor (shared in the comments).

Sometimes as I’d fall asleep (especially when hers was the last book of the late night) I’d find myself crying. I cried for her because she didn’t cry and I cried for myself because I never had a chance to experience, to be trained, to achieve all she has. I found I didn’t begrudge her because she eschews the self-congratulatory, she blames no one, not a whiff of boasting (and she was a literary editor of the New Statesman and Sunday Times), there is something beautiful in the way she regards herself as neither punished or rewarded, “as powerless to resist as a migrating bird or salmon swimming upstream.” I love her for her empathy in her biographies of others (and I have loved her Dora Jordan, Ellen Ternan, Mary Wollstonecraft, more or less agreed with her Jane Austen) and here for herself for not evading literal truth even when she doesn’t open up her grief or reveal her understanding of what happened, like when one of her daughters killed herself, when her husband, Nick, beat her up, even when she wrongs someone else, marrying the playwright Michael Frayn. I just felt so sad at these friendships I have missed, at the evidence of a courage and know-how that can never be mine. Maybe because she is a biographer, doing what I’d love to do in archives around the Eurocentric world. I have put her Katherine Mansfield on my night table.

Louise de Salvo’s life of Virginia Woolf; she died this week. You won’t hear her important persuasive argument and solid evidence that Woolf’s half-sisters, Laura and Stella, and her whole sister, Vanessa, were all physically as well as emotionally abused from earliest to teen years in that Victorian household, and the mother, Julia, was complicit: they put Laura away for not fitting in; they let Stella die; Vanessa survived by pretending what was in front of her was not; only Virginia reacted with full truth to what they had all experienced, so of course what she had to say was not acceptable and must be over-sensitive, diverted, re-channeled and controlled. De Salvo praised but her insights never mentioned and forgotten by others when they write, so Virginia’s experience erased, misunderstood, quite deliberately.

Still the famous are so sometimes for good reasons: Adrienne Rich touches deepest and widest, and I returned to her essays and poetry on and off, especially “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience.” I don’t cry when I read Rich, I want to return to my project The Anomaly. I will also never love or be loved by a man again. I have to be content to dream what can never be again. I have been reading tonight her book

The Fact of a Doorframe

means there is something to hold
onto with both hands
while slowly thrusting my forehead against the wood
and taking it away
one of the oldest motions of suffering

One of my favorite poems by Rich is too long to share in a blog: Transcendental Etude (this is but one stanza, gentle reader: she begins “This August evening I’ve been driving” and she ends “now the stone foundation, rockshield further/forming underneath everything that grows”). Do you know it?

How about just this to end on:

The longer I live the more I mistrust
theatricality, the false glamor cast
by performance, the more I know its poverty beside
the truths we are salvaging from
the splitting-open of our lives.
The woman who sits watching, listening,
eyes moving in the darkness
is rehearsing in her body, hearing out in her blood
a score touched off in her perhaps
by some words, a few chords, from the stage:
a tale only she can tell …

No one who survives to speak
new language has avoided this:
the cutting away of an old force that held her
rooted to an old ground
the pitch of utter loneliness
where she herself and all creation
seem equally dispersed, weightless, her being a cry
to which no echo comes or can ever come …

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Camille Pissarro, Autumn at Eragny

To conclude, I’ve a new writing project: every couple of months I am to write a review of a historical fiction set in the 18th century, preferably recent, but they can go back a bit into the mid- to later 20th century. It will be for the Intelligencer, a kind of three paragraph column. I’ve a site to start looking for prospective new books (Historical Novel Society) and my own lists of Booker Prize, Whitbread and other powerful historical fiction to work from. I will once again try to subscribe to History Today, but this time through a letter and just for the paper copies. I cannot navigate their site.

It is harder to stay sane than people admit. I couldn’t do it without these routes.  I wake in the morning longing for companionship, the ache in my heart so hard. I grow weary with too much life-learning and find a very few of my computer friends fulfill my heart’s needs more than most people I seem to have to work so hard to spend time with and have what’s called friendship. Claire Tomalin says the writing life is “silence, hard slog, loneliness, and old clothes:” she has omitted deep peacefulness when you are engaged, absorption so as to forget all else. Books are my best friends and I want to spend more time with her, and her characters.

Ellen

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