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Archive for the ‘real family life’ Category


Laura and I — she often looked serene


Izzy and I – at her happiest laughing

To ache is human — not polite — Dickinson

I do like to be beside the seaside — Music Hall song

Friends,

Our holiday — me, Laura, Izzy — was not all we had hoped as after the first super-hot afternoon, the beach was chill, and subject to high winds, as were the central roads leading to said beach, but we managed to have a good time and even (stubbornly) sat there both days, the first near 2 hours in the morning, the second after noon. Izzy tried to go in as far as her knees, jeans pushed up, I tried to read a Daphne DuMaurier novel. We returned to walk along the boardwalk in the later afternoon the second day, and evening time, and in the darkness on the third where we said we wished we could believe Jim or Dad were looking down from somewhere.


Late twilight — the inscrutable sea

You should know we four had been to Rehoboth many years before: our first true family vacation probably in 1993 in a house rented inexpensively in Milton — the next year we went to Rome for 5 weeks. We did one year rent a cottage just off Lewes Beach and we remembered the ferry at Cape May; another year briefly a cottage in Duck, North Carolina (but a hurricane blew us away). So there were memories. This holiday was originally conceived as a mother’s day gift for me.

Luckily our hotel was filled with good service: a hot tub we sat in three times, two pools — we swam in one on the first day, a garden, and the third and last morning, a strong fire in the hearth in one of the two library-looking rooms. I sat by the fire two early mornings. There was an on-going huge puzzle on one table of that room where different people over the day sat and filled out the picture. Izzy did some for an hour. Each day a sumptuous breakfast (very good), all day coffee and snacks downstairs. We found outside much shopping (surprising amounts of clothing) — little side alleyways as malls, a splendid bookstore (really) with toys (one of which had a snoopy dog toy Laura and Izzy remembered from their childhood). We had some excellent meals for dinner, one unpretentious in a pizza place bar, the other rightly “awesome,” French, exquisitely well-cooked dishes (I had a rabbit dish, Laura lamb), a pile of ice cream for desert for all, lovely wine

I taste a liquor never brewed —
From Tankards scooped in Pearl —
Not all the Vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol!

all the while a pianist played familiar tunes. People could be heard making requests.

We talked at lot, confided, read: in the room, Izzy her fat Chernow biography of Hamilton, me Claire Harman’s Charlotte Bronte while Laura blogged — she is now free-lancing. We watched some TV together. Our room had three TVs and I watched on the computer with Laura chosen selections from the (to me) slightly astonishing amalgam fantasy, pseudo-cynical and amoral American Gods. There were a couple of prologues or interludes which were telling: one of a slave ship come to the US in the later 17th century, with the focus on the slaves’ anguish fast forwarding to today’s anguish over killing of black people with impunity in the streets; the other the death of a Muslim woman living somewhere in Queens, circa perhaps 2017. Ian McShane was very amusing as the central “God” (Odin in disguise as a crass businessman I’m afraid), and (in a minor role) Chloris Leachman (not much disguise), providing affection.

And so we escaped a little, had a time away.

We hope to repeat this again, perhaps next spring for a much longer time (2 weekends and a week) in Milan where there will be a World’s Ice-Skating Championship. Laura and I will not spend all our time at the ice-skating rink, but use the trains and buses to see a bit of northern Italy.

I admit the cats did not enjoy their time at the Pet Boarding place — though they had a penthouse sized cage (3 linking ones, next to a window they were said to have looked out at)


A reproachful Ian brought home — at first Clarycat stood off from me, but later she could not kiss (lick) and cuddle up and play enough

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

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs …

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –


Cynthia Nixon as the strained Emily

Just before going off, Izzy and I went to see the film about Emily Dickinson’s life, A Quiet Passion, written and directed by Terence Davies. The older I become the harder it is to understand how Dickinson could have chosen so to isolate herself from her later 20s on. I have some reservations about the movie. It begins way too slowly and solemnly. The actors are made to enunciate lines as if they were reciting memorized passages from in a school play, and it seems are trading witticisms done so slowly it’s tedious in feel if the puns are if thought about well-taken. For a while the pace of speech stays the same, as serious psychological and other kinds of immediate content are read into the growing story, and then the story line of betrayal and sexual pain, of power relationships gone awry take over, and the film became for me gripping, mesmerizing and especially towards the end when the family is in internecine bitter quarrels over Austin’s life with his mistress, Mabel Dodd (Noemie Schellens), right in front of them all, including his wife, Susan (Jodhi May as ever so plangent), who however we see hates heterosexual sex, is a closet lesbian, and it’s suggested built a close relationship with Emily (Cynthia Nixon deserves an Oscar). In life they exchanged letters and poems across the space of the houses: “open me carefully” says one.

Perhaps the father was not as much a tyrant as is shown, but the mother’s life as a dishrag conforms to the passive abject lives of such women (Henry James’s mother seems to have lived similarly). The civil war’s disastrous slaughter is not omitted, but it felt as an interlude in this life (however abolitionist the family’s sentiments might have been). We see the father refuse his son permission to join the fighting, lest he lose his life. The father uses his power of purse over children, then Austin uses it over his sisters. A few friends Emily made early on, marry and depart this brooding place. You will come away with a sufficiently historically accurate portrayal of this family whose stifling hypocritical ritual but also genuinely self-flagellating ways seems central to Emily’s decision to retreat from life.


Duncan Duff as Austin Dickenson, Jennifer Ehle as Lavinia, Keith Carradine as the father, Edward, a visiting pastor, and Joanna Baker as the mother

The trajectory is Emily rebels in school and then at home this way and that,, refuses to compromise, and gradually is ostracized and then ostracizes herself. Girlfriend after girlfriend marries. Lavinia (whom I felt for as I have before) is left with this difficult sister; Emily appears to have been all Lavinia had to aid her in having a some sort of social life. Jennifer Ehle is too sweet, too forgiving but she fit the role as envisioned by the film. Emily is hard, difficult, stubborn, will not see people, will be rude. She seethes at Mabel as an evil mistress — what would she have said had she foreseen that Mabel would be the person that first saved her poems, published them. Lavinia to Todd and Higginson: “But for Mrs Todd & yourself, ‘the poems’ would die in the box where they were found.” An irony the movie hoped we realized. But by the end when Emily dies and we hear the famous “Because I could not stop for death,” followed by “I wrote a letter to the world who never wrote back to me,” I became slightly hysterical and started to sob violently for this woman’s grief and loss and strangely thwarted existence as voiced through this poem.

This is my letter to the world,
That never wrote to me,–
The simple news that Nature told,
With tender majesty.
Her message is committed
To hands I cannot see;
For love of her, sweet countrymen,
Judge tenderly of me!

This prompted Izzy to cry too. Others around us as I got up I saw had been moved.

On the other hand, there was much too much suffering: did we have to have lengthy dramatizations of each person’s deathbed (father, mother) and then Emily’s slow decline, the excruciating pain of Wright’s Disease. The choice of poetry was too religious for my taste — everyone recites it as part of dialogues — but they included “wild nights” and some other striking subversive ones. Not enough beauty, gaiety, seasonal nature poems, the thoughtful questioning ones.


Nixon as questioning Emily again

I worry unsympathetic people if they sit through it will come out with prejudices reconfirmed: we see her refuse to talk to people except through a door at the top of the stairs — this to an admirer of her poetry of which only 7 were published with punctuation changed. Austin reads a cruel review of women poets writing of their misery, a mock, but I doubt it was aimed at Emily, but women’s protest poetry — they had a raw deal. They should have perhaps included the content of Susan and Emily’s poems and letters — it is slightly comic they should communicate this way. No comedy comes through, though the audience had people who persisted in laughing (the early puns, whatever could possibly be interpreted as meant to be funny. Anne Badlands as Aunt Elizabeth provides a few comic moments, worth a smile maybe. I didn’t detect anyone laughing at the film, but perhaps I was mistaken. I have read how Dickinson has been used as a conservative icon (apolitical, the solitary genius). I recommmend Anthony Lane’s review for the New Yorker.

At one time these two stanzas were among my most repeated Emily Dickinson lines:

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of victory

So there was enough for me to identify with (yes I can bond with Emily beyond the poetry) or anyone who cares about art and wants to understand the peculiar circumstances from which an original artist has emerged.


Emily Dickinson’s letter from The Dinner Party

After we returned home, we did pull down my volume of The Complete Poems and looked at a few. I read the opening article in a recent Cambridge Companion and discovered people are still arguing over how to punctuate the poetry. Who knew Jerome McGann’s return to the holograph manuscripts is doubted by some. The earliest editions by Todd and Higginson sold very well and she was popular as a 19th century poet, but she was lost from view during modernism, held no interest for socialist writers of the 1930s; the first elevation of her was due to the ultra-conservative white poets of the 1950s (John Crowe Ransom) and she came to the attention of the “close-readers” and humane people like Randall Jarrell. So it was in the 1960s (the same era that saw the first “rise” to real fame of Virginia Woolf) that Dickinson began to achieve the stature of Whitman’s counterpart that she holds today. She was no feminist darling until the 1980s, the discovery of her life-long affair with Susan and the attempt to carve out a l’ecriture-femme. She did make the cut for Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party. Some of this may help account for the peculiarly neutral point of view of the film.


On the beach in the morning birds

Ellen

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Photo of my newly painted house — gentle reader imagine a much lighter, whiter cream color ….

Friends,

Eleven days since I last wrote, and I and Izzy and my older daughter, Laura, are off to Rehoboth Beach on Friday morning to stay in a hotel on the beach front, a suite of rooms where we hope to relax. Sun, wind, fresh air, sand, a boardwalk, I just hope it won’t be too hot — as it has been today.

I’ve had a new pleasant experience — I attended my first face-to-face book club where the people discussed the book for real, Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, such that I wanted to go back and reread because I realized as we talked the book had more depth and varied rich passages and characters than I had given it credit for (Booker Prize winner or no). It’s organized by the OLLI at Mason: serious fiction, with a moderator, all in circle on plain chairs. It’s a bit far for me: Reston, but then I learned how to get there now and it felt worth it. I am listening to a reading of Winston Graham’s sixth Poldark novel, The Four Swans, a fully mature stage within this continuing cycle of novels, about to be dramatized this coming June on the BBC (the third season, which will begin with fifth, The Black Moon). So however tiring, the time in the car is not wasted at all. I look forward to going again; the club meets from September to May. I’m getting better at finding places by car (with my trusty garmin and printed out maps).

I’ve also — unhappy this one — been again astonished by the irresponsibility of doctors at Kaiser when it comes to prescribing drugs (pills). A doctor knowingly prescribed a sleeping pill he must’ve know was addictive and then showed no concern if I was addicted to it. Paid no mind to this aspect of what happened at all. And in true Trump-style manifested a shameless disregard, denial, of obvious truth. After three years and some months of taking a mild depressant each night to help me sleep sufficiently to be able to drive and live my days, I discovered the pill a doctor prescribed is no longer working. I’ve become inured; to make me sleep, I have to take say two pills and they don’t always do the trick — or as much heavier, addictive pill, Restoril, becomes necessary. As my widowhood and the contour of a life that will be mine (with my disabilities over travel, circumstances, placement &c), on my own (as they say) — a long, long road stretching out before me, years I must walk through, I was understanding Julian Barnes’s word for his wife’s “disappearance” as a death-time, since he didn’t and couldn’t forget her, shaping this aftermath; then growing so tired of coping with all sorts of things, deep angst.

So I tell a little of this to the psychiatrist and his reaction: prescribe a pill (new drug!) said to make the patient sleep and provide release from anxiety, Remeron it’s called. He seemed to care that I have a bleeding problem at first; was going to send me to hematology but when he contacted them, he recontacted asking me about bleeding episodes “so so we are on the same page.” Then behaved as if I had had no hemorrhages in my life (when I’ve probably had 4-5). In effect he refused to question an old diagnosis from the oncology and hematology people at Kaiser that I have no hemorrhage problem after I have experienced 4, twice coming near death. That’s not his area. I took one Remeron Tuesday night and found myself in the grip of a trauma, a kind of intense trance where my feelings were no different but at a distance, my body feeling sickened. It was harrowing. I came near a car accident! Not until Thursday noon, did it wear off. I tell this to the psychiatrist and what does he say, Oh, we’ll try another anti-depressant in a couple of days when this wears off. This should be astonishing. Is it? Well, in a mood of self-preservation (what happens when I grow old, I must maintain independence as long as I can), I instead for the next three nights I went “cold turkey,” and took no pills. I felt better physically, more alert than I had in a long time. But I am not sleeping enough — 2-3 hours is not enough.


Vanessa Bell (18791961), gorgeous (just look at that hat) Lady with a Book — from later in her career

I simply returned to segmented sleep, which is my natural pattern, sleep four hours (if I’m lucky), up for a couple where I read in bed, and then hope for another hour or so, from new tiredness. I won’t take any more of these drugs. So a new pattern of daily life is emerging. I’m reading good books at night, and then again just after the second awakening. I might not make it to the gym the way I had been this past winter.

I need a good doctor. Responsible. Looking after my health as an individual.

Leave Kaiser? If I did, I could never go back as I was not the federal employee, it would cost me so much more (I am grandmothered into an earlier deal), and I know from experience when I find myself facing lists of doctors from say an insurance hand-out I don’t know who to go and end up with no one. More than half the time before the HMO I had bad encounters, and no regular doctor. And was fleeced, often disrespected. I remember years ago being charged $37 for five minutes of man’s time – he laughed at me when I said I was suffering from headache. The American health care system is indeed a joke, even when they are not outright fleecing and bankrupting you. I did frighten the present Kaiser psychiatrist by my email to him on the Kaiser site; he phoned me (!) and talked of how he was so concerned, how much thought he had put into this, did I want to come and “chat” (that’s his word for what passes for serious talk with him), and I heard him typing, taking down every word I said lest I sue. That’s why he cares about: his career. (Addiction doesn’t concern him at all. Like some dentists’ attitude towards teeth: the real ones are not as good as the pretty crowns.)

Outside Kaiser I am told this prescribe-drugs and send the patient to a social-worker therapist is the protocol. I did have a good psychiatrist when I went to the Haven for a few months after Jim died — pure luck. She did talk of my past and deeply and helped me see things I had not before. But I lost her when the DMV removed my “driving privileges” and harassed me for months over it (invisible computer monitoring is the way they use the cops to stop people from driving — in the state of Virginia there is a class action suit against the DMV for egregious use of this technique, among other things impoverishing people who can’t get to their jobs) and I couldn’t reach her any more. American institutions, American lack of public transportation. Deep culture here? from many practices followed, isolation structured in.


An interesting mid-20th century painter, John Piper who I read about recently in the LRB: Chicester Cathedral from the Deanery

Just one small life — insignificant against the unfolding of the Trump regime (stop gentle reader and watch this two-part Dutch documentary). Today I spent some 5 hours altogether at the OLLI at AU anniversary party/luncheon (they have been going for 35 years) where Diane Reims spoke. While she is a decent woman I can see, intelligent I did discover why I never listened much: too schmaltzy, too mainstream, and they applauded her for her sentiments a couple of times. What a group these people are. Many went to private colleges, even Ivy League and this in the 1950s, or early 60s. Many of them slightly older than me, most just luckier than me. Many came from genuinely middle class families which led to their careers. So many were lawyers — the men of course. All with grown children, two to four, grandchildren, traveling as a pair to them in say Switzerland or Florida. Though I know there are some single women there (divorced, widowed).

I sat with the good intelligent woman who was the teacher of the Woolf class I attended, who herself used to teach at University of Maryland. It was good talk — of the Brontes, the neglected Anne, the greatness of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Emily Bronte’s poetry, DuMaurier’s powerful Branwell Bronte (a biography) and Gaskell’s Life of Bronte. She and her husband used to go sailing down from Cape May to Bermuda (never did get caught by pirates); she described wonderful evenings after a day’s sail, friends where their crew. She travels regularly; rents apartments in Italy, there for art biennales (the Venice one), goes on hiking trips to Maine with him (at 80); he was a tenured professor of chemistry, Emeritus. I was again berating myself for when Jim suggested we learn to sail decades ago, somehow we never did it — he had found a flyer about lessons; maybe it was my fault; my nervousness; there was the problem of having a boat — we couldn’t afford to own one and Linda and her husband did own a boat.

Through it all I felt how lucky this woman has been. She attributed to her husband the sailing expeditions. He knew how. (Jim could have learned; it would have been good for him.) I was wishing too how I had bought some summer house when he suggested that — somehow we’d go out and look and not do it, not buy — they were another mortgage. He did love boats — or the idea of boats from his growing up in Southampton. I remember one year he said let’s go to this Renaissance conference in Italy and I demurred. Why? shy? in Florence it was. Had we done that would we have begun to go to Italy regularly? with what money? well, he was making enough to go to England and Landmark Trust houses. My fault he and I didn’t live the life we could have?

Others at this table and elsewhere were talking of their Road Scholar vacations and casual holiday in historical places, and I can’t do this — to go on a tour by myself I will have to get up immense courage, to the Lake District and just beyond, it’s 14 days and $5,000. The places to look at sound alluring. Do I want to go to this schedule, I’d have to buy some clothes, sit down with others to 3 meals a day and so on. Would I enjoy this? strangers. What would they be like? I’m told by people that you make acquaintances, even can get sort of close, but then the trip is over, the relationship ends.

But I long for a good life: it’s like I died just as I retired. Jim had been retired for 8 years or so and then I retired, but my life depended on his and his ways, so his dying within a year of my retiring is in effect the death of the life I would have had — it might not have been like these people probably, but in that direction. I had a sort of revulsion or came home from it exhausted. Nervous. I left a little early, had endured enough I felt — everyone talking of the courses we teach or take. Meaning well. It was relief to leave. I said to myself I am over 70 and I don’t want to be pressured — felt so just intensely reluctant at what profession I had had (the offer of that adjunct at the Georgetown place in an innovative BA program for older returning students, the first year I was widowed which I flubbed, couldn’t seem to cope with the dean). I’d have to learn Blackboard, or some other latest technology and cope seriously with students. Eagerness comes from youth, from hope. And my learning curves in tech are so deep.

What life would I gain this way? Tired after a lifetime of in my way trying hard, repeated perhaps making bad and wrong decisions but not because I didn’t care and didn’t mean to end up well — because at the time they were what seemed best, what I could do, what I was led to do, yes by Jim’s advice too; he would say why beat your head against a wall driving two hours to get to this job? I hoped I would somehow know some fulfillment and I did for a time, after I came onto the Net and for say 15 years. I did fear so, that he would die youngish, but turned away from the possibility this disaster would happen. Dreaded it too much. He did leave me solvent, in this comfortable house, with 10,000 books …. our lives history.

Julian Barnes’s phrase is deathtime — a person has a lifetime and then afterward a deathtime in the memory of the life left behind … and in the memory of others (in say books).


A dream picture: put on face-book for another FB friend, Harold Knight (1874-1961), Morning Sun

I finished Oliphant’s Kirsteen this week, in the end a flawed satisfying book, like others of hers (deserves a separate blog). I tell myself I’m still working towards a possible book on “The Anomaly,” and serious reading there has shown me there were very few women living alone until 1850 (in any kind of comfort or safety). Not possible. Not allowed an income to do it on, not allowed the security of knowing no one can break in. And I’m reading a delightful Portrait of Cornwall by Claude Berry. Wonderful black-and-white, grey, photos from all over Cornwall.

Teaching has come to an end for now. I did have a wonderful findal session with the class group at the OLLI at Mason over the profoundly moving Last Orders by Graham Swift. They loved it too. Since then I returned to Waterland, the book and film. Soon I’ll start preparing for this summer’s course: historical fiction, old fashioned first, DuMaurier’s King’s General, which I remember as so erotic, lyrical, so melancholy (the heroine crippled in a wheelchair), and then the post-colonial, post-modern, anti-foundational type, Sontag’s immensely brilliant The Volcano Lover. My review work includes Nick Holland’s In Search of Anne Bronte.


One of Laura’s four cats, either they cooperate more or she is better at capturing them in a photo ….

Since Nine O’Clock

Half past twelve. The time has passed quickly
since I first lit the lamp at nine o’clock,
and sat down here. I’ve sat without reading,
without speaking. With whom could I speak,
all alone in this house?

Since nine o’clock when I lit the lamp
a ghostly image of my adolescent body
came to me, reminding me
of closed and scented chambers,
and past pleasures – what brazen pleasures!
It brought before my eyes
streets now unrecognizable,
bars once filled with movement, now closed,
cafes and theatres that once existed.

The vision of my body in its youth
brought sorrowful memories also:
the grieving of my family, separations,
the feelings I had for my own kin, feelings
for the dead, whom I little acknowledged.

Half past twelve; how the time has passed.
Half past twelve; how the years have passed

— C. P. Cavafy — one of Jim’s favored poets — I have the book of his poetry in my house

Too late, too late, too late, turning to see too late.

Probably I ought to start signing Ellen

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Friends,

It doesn’t look very sunny, does it? The green on the walls is a lighter color too. But as I did manage one photo which sort of gives a feel of this room as an extension of the rest of my house, I put it at the opening of this blog. I should probably have written this early this week as it was this past weekend where I had two experiences that provided me with oases of pleasure comparable to those I used to know with Jim.

The first was to go on Saturday afternoon to a Washington Performance Center in Northwest Washington, part of the University of the District of Columbia: Javier Perianes, a pianist played with extraordinary feeling and nuance music by Schubert, Debussy, a modern Spanish composer Manuel de Falla. It meant I could not participate in the march on behalf of environmentalism (billed as people demanding that Trump’s admininistration recognize climate change and pollution and do something about it), and I regretted I could not be with them out above the underground Metro, but it was a rare treat for me. A friend who is a Johnsonian (meaning he has spent his life studying and writing about Samuel Johnson) and who seems to share other of my tastes (Virginia Woolf) shared an extra ticket with me and so before the concert I had some good conversation about poetry, biography, and with a third friend who came along Booker Prize books (what I’ve been teaching this semester). I did not know about this performance center, before this how to get there, and to look for musical concerts there. Now I do.

The second was truly a joy, and an unexpected one. On Sunday was the last of the Folger Consort series, billed as “The Play of Love: enchanting songs of the 13th century. There were (astonishingly) only three instrumentalists: two men, long time members of this consort, Robert Eisenstein and Christopher Kendall, and a “guest artist,” Shira Kammen, played several different medieval, early Renaissance instruments, and 17th century instruments. The center were two singers, a soprano, Emily Noel, and bass-baritone, Peter Becker (who I’ve heard there before) who sang these unexpectedly witty songs, some showing one or other of the lady and her lover in love, or not, defying one another or another lover, some simply deeply melancholy, others telling a suggestive story. Put altogether and alternating with instrumental pieces, it felt like we were at a play.

We were given beautifully printed brochures with the songs in the original French on one side, and facing English translations on the other. I’ve saved these. It’s medieval troubadour poetry: authors include anonymous, Richart de Semelli, Colin Muset, Conom de Bethune, Etienne de Meaux, Chatelain de Coucy. I was impressed by how the male was far more openly vulnerable, showing his suffering, than the female who kept herself guarded: my favorite by and for him was “The Sweet Voice of the Nightingale;” by and for her, “Beautiful Doetteis sitting by the window” and “Would you like me to sing you/A charming song of love.” On the screen of the stage, were pictures of couples from various illuminated manuscripts, colored in appealing ways — not as gilt-filled as probably they might appear on a page — in various postures, vignettes, on the cover her with a lute, he with a smaller stringed instrument. Over the years since this group started (apparently 50 or 5 decades), they have learned how to put on a deeply satisfying, non-commercialized experience. Izzy and I had come by car so we got home in plenty of time to make ourselves a meal we liked and have some good talk together.

I tell about these two experiences not just as a diary entry but to recommend to anyone who comes to DC or gets online to participate in website experiences these are fine groups and institutions.

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


A new online picture I liked: Howard Phipps: Salisbury Waters Meadow Shadows: Bemerton rectory where George Herbert once lived

I realized this past week why I am feeling newly grief-struck or feeling a sense of loss once again so deep that some days I don’t know what I’m alive for, once whatever it is I’ve been at is over. These were not the only passing good moments I had. On the Monday at the OLLI at AU, as a teacher I had such an enjoyable class over Dickens’s great ghost story of the railways, “The Signalman,” on Tuesday, as class member, the last of a fully cheering semester of reading four Virginia Woolf texts, and then a lunch with the teacher who is become a new friend. (I’ve decided I must broaden my definitions of friend to include many of the people I know to talk to in the places I go regularly, or online.) She got her Ph.D. when she was nearly 60 and only afterwards taught for some 15 years at the University of Maryland, 19th century novels (her area of expertise). Wednesday another good time at the OLLI at Mason as teacher of a class where we discussed Ondaatje’s English Patient, book and movie. Thursday I was busy doing all the chores I had not done all week, including buying a tablecloth for the dining room table for the dinner Izzy and I are going to do this Sunday. I saw Laura and spent time with her, and I think that we will have a good time, she and I and Izzy the weekend of May 19th at a hotel on Rehoboth beach. Then today a luncheon for the teachers at OLLI at AU. I talked with people where I learned new things, gathered different attitudes than the ones Jim and I shared of interest and validity, and saw a few old friends I’d not seen this semester as the new quarters for this OLLI (a single building just a few blocks from the main campus) don’t allow for as much regular social life as the three churches where it was located used to.

Online I had good conversations across the week, wrote a couple of good blogs (The English Patient: a post-colonial text; The Handmaid’s Tale, novel and films) and I am hoping to find satisfaction in my projects for reading and writing this summer. I’ve a course to teach: historical fictions set in the long 18th century (aka DuMaurier’s King’s General and Sontag’s The Volcano Lover). I even got myself to buy a subscription for Hulu and have begun watching The Handmaid’s Tale. On Hulu I find wonderful BBC mini-series that never came to the US. I am learning how to stream.

I have not been able to get myself to make any more travel plans than the weekend with Izzy and Laura, but am following, not trying to force myself, not fighting this impulse not to go anywhere for a while, unless I am sure I will enjoy it or it has a good purpose in my mind.

So what’s wrong? Yes, I am daily and nightly sickened by what is being done by this fascist white nationalist gov’t: health care will be taken from at least 24 million people over the next few years; hundreds of people are daily being killed abroad in the middle east and elsewhere by the US military. It’s become official black people will be murdered with impunity on the streets of the US. My awareness of this certainly doesn’t help my spirits. Today I listened to Amy Goodman interviewing Yassar Louati, a French human rights and civil liberties activist and researcher. He is the only voice I’ve heard discussing how Macron, the opponent of the close to Nazi candidate, Marine le Pen is very bad news for working and lower middle class people in France. A neo-liberal, he will try to run France as a corporation and his great plan is to “launch a nation of startup companies.” I was struck by this phrase: the working people will be “stuck as a digital proletariat: huge corporations onine making thousands and millions of people sell their labor without much benefits.” I am aware nowadays I give mine away and do not forget Jim’s words at any rate: he was deeply against the spread of volunteer work in US society.

But that is not why I can’t sleep more than 3 hours in a row, am troubled with self-recriminating thoughts about how I have made very stupid decisions all my life that left me basically alone once I leave these group meetings. Why did I not take up this full-time appointment at a community college 40 years ago, and perhaps that would have kept Jim and I in NYC and I would be living in New York now — so much preferred as my cultural group.

It’s this: the long glow and feeling of Jim’s companionship which did sustain me for 45 years is gone. The air is silent, there’s no warmth there. As I look at my and his books, they seem there almost to no purpose. And this is never going to change because it’s too late for me to be woven into anything human elsewhere deeply. Thus I feel strong anxiety as it was his presence that made all safe. He made the world continually okay for me and now it’s continually empty of him.

It’s taken over three years for me to reach this point of understanding for and about my condition. More generally, I think the state of widowhood, for older women especially because most cannot find a new partner is one few people are prepared to understand or acknowledge. So you are not going to read about it truthfully presented. It’s a product of a patriarchy where the family group most of them based on the male earner is the foundation structure of daily meaning and experience. I’m only beginning to apprehend what it is to be outside this when (as I think not all that uncommon though perhaps my case is more extreme in some ways) someone has nothing continually to shore her up as meaningful deeply. Which is what I had with him. Why I was willing to live the way I did with him.


Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Lilacs in a Window

I close on Muriel Rukeyser’s The Speed of Darkness, which you may find here, gentle reader: I link in the text rather than type it out because the spaces and dispositions of the lines are important and hard to match. Rightly remembered lines:

I am working out the vocabulary of my silence

Nothing is more violent than silence ….

I’s a poem that could be an epitaph to The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s important today because its existence reminds us this is not the first time a ruling clique (gang) has openly and shamelessly and lyingly deprived millions of people of services and money necessary for their very lives. The Nazi period went further in its barbarism but it was of the same kind, precisely. This week on Trollope19thCStudies we finished a six-week reading and discussion of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, written only a couple of years after Percy Bysshe’s death by drowning. The book fails or is very weak because Mary was unable as yet (or ever) to wrench herself free of the set of beliefs in Shelley’s goodness and greatness that sustained her through her years of traumatic suffering (the price of his companionship) so could not find a metaphoric story to express her deep sense of personal loss and savage critique of the social and political world in which she found herself. She might have wanted to, but she at least she did not fall silent, went on to write two more novels, much journalism (short researched biographies), travel volumes (however censored because she had to please the hostile father-in-law for her and her son’s sake). The book Speaking of Torture (which I reviewed in my Ellen and Jim have a blog, two space) has essays demonstrating that those victims of torture, the millions put in concentration, slave and death camps who fall silent are those who die quickest.

Yes to Rukeyser: we must not be silent — we may fear some risk nowadays, all of us, and we may feel our voices are so useless with people in power who are ruthless and control all legitimate violence — silence is the product of slow violence. Her imagery could be taken from Handmaid’s Tale. In her Three Guineas, Woolf argued that one basis of the militarized patriarchy is the complicity of women.

Miss Drake

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This is the maple tree you see through the window in my new room of my own ….


Perennials in my front garden

Dear friends and readers,

Izzy and I passed a pleasant the spring Sunday holiday (call it Easter, say it’s still Passover, its beauty is the spring renewal) together and apart today. We went together to see a remarkable post-modern political film, Pablo Lorrain’s Neruda, one of whose main actors is a favorite with both of us. Naturalemente, a blog soon: every film I’ve seen with Gael Garnia Bernal I’ve blogged about. In the later afternoon I alternated from rereading Michael Ondaatje’s extraordinary The English Patient to Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage, and she watches ice-skating and/or tennis, and blogs on Anibundel’s I should have been a blogger. She is now in a sense an equal blogger there. Two sisters together. Our garden is blooming with flowers. We had a good meal last night and this evening left-overs. She cooks, I wash up. Then I walk in the neighborhood, different blocks different nights.

My porch is now a small livable space, a very pretty room, light green walls, white trim, soft carpet (wall-to-wall, first time for me on this kind of thing, a sort of rusty color), and I’m beginning to move furniture into it. Its first small bookcase filled with CDs of books read aloud and DVDs of film adaptations, a cat bed (necessity) a fan on the floor, a ladder to reach high bookcase going to be put against one of the walls … I am not going to try to make it a conventional room for visitors to come, to please other people, but an extension of my study. It’s more living space, more breathing room, more light and air and access to the outside of the house. I’ll take down the shutters from two of the windows in the kitchen and on all four windows facing east have light weight pretty shades easy to pull up and down.

I am happy to be able to hope you have had a good day by sending along her latest song:

Here are the lyrics:

She says “wake up, it’s no use pretending”
I’ll keep stealing, breathing her.
Birds are leaving over autumn’s ending
One of us will die inside these arms
Eyes wide open, naked as we came
One will spread our ashes ’round the yard

She says “If I leave before you, darling
Don’t you waste me in the ground”
I lay smiling like our sleeping children
One of us will die inside these arms
Eyes wide open, naked as we came
One will spread our ashes round the yard

She is playing on her Yamaha PSR-185, Voice Setting #51.

I’m still reading a book which upsets me some: Abigail Tucker’s The Lion in the Living Room. I believe it’s a stealth attack on cats as ruining our environment. Rather like Kate Chisholm’s Hunger Games was a ferocious attack on anorexics; except Tucker pretends to be a cat lover. It insists my sense of my cats as loving me and part of a relationship is a delusion. I know how Jane Goodall would reply, and have to find another book to refute Tucker. It hurts me to be told my cat is not attached to me, not happy, but just wants sex and hunting. Not so. Clarycat grieved over Jim’s death, truly grieved. I saw it. And nowadays Ian Pussycat is my friend-cat-companion too.

Miss Drake

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Photo taken by Izzy at the Tidal Basin in Washington DC this week

She who sups with the devil should have a long spoon

Dear friends,

I’ve not been writing here because I’ve been so busy with trying to keep up with my teaching, reading with friends on a listserv, on good reads, and seeing if I can develop a project on a literary biography of Winston Graham, author of the Poldark novels — I’m listening to a good reading on CDs of Warleggan.

If this were all.

I’ve also been involved with enclosing my porch, again trying to renovate or improve or alter parts of my house (the doors once again, electricity): among other things, a deeply spiteful neighbor apparently researched records available to discover I and the contractor had not taken out a permit to enclose said porch and registered a complaint with “code administration.” Or so I think — this man has done similar things to others, and once before said something to me which suggested he had been researching my title to my house! I am told he is an ex-FBI agent, retired; he was urging me to move. Maybe my house was bringing down property value — especially the kind of modest renovation we are doing. So today the contractor and I spent a long day at City Hall “pulling a permit” by proving to the city what the contractor was doing was adequate work, although it does need to be upgraded to prevent damp from destroying the room. Sigh. The truth is I’m not sure that this man will do the job and I don’t know how to get back to the screened porch. Jim was against enclosing the porch because it would cost far too much for the small room we would get out of it. The plain truth is also I have not that much use for it: yes another bookcase, a comfortable chair, lamp, table, maybe an exercise machine. I was trying no longer to be the neighborhood eyesore. I may (as last year over Expedia) have lost a lot of money. It won’t result in anyone wanting to buy the house for a larger sum; whoever buys it will regard the house as a tear-down.

So who has the heart to write?

The question that emerges in this newly rotten environment — that humanity, decency, privacy, reciprocal loyalty, obedience to human, civil, legal rights are ignored are nothing to the renewed resurgence of murder of hundreds of people and more to come in the middle east — so what’s a little local tyranny — is, how do I — how do you, gentle reader — avoid the rot.

The rot seeps in
The rot seeps in everywhere

Nowadays the best, maybe the only way to reach my friends as a group is through my own timeline on face-book. It’s time-consuming to click on one at a time and I’ve over 250 friends — all of whom I know in some way, many well. My general “feed” is filled with ads. I read the Republicans and Trump are signing away our privacy: if you use any large company for your email, they have the right to sell your data. Who would have their soul sold? My gmail is filled with junk in two categories. Commercial values, commodification shapes all experiences and people rightly flee back to exclusive pre-set-up groups. Face-book pages on topics seek to belong to institutions and rules are set up to control interchanges which put a damper on what can be said, what can be shared: rules make sure only what’s socially acceptable to belong to the agency or institution, or “on topic” is allowed and that is hemmed in. Only the NSA can read our private emails (we hope)– only! People I meet and talk to live these apart single lives as they obey the demands of capitalism today — for a job, a scholarship, as a groundwork for belonging. Adorno was accurate, prophetic is Patrick Wright on Journey through London’s Ruins. Time is money is no innocent utterance.

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

This past week I shut this out by the classes I was teaching in and the class I am now attending: in Virginia Woolf, with a professor who is a better teacher than I am. She has strong self-confidence and doesn’t need to have extensive notes to talk from and is able to coax gently and create an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect whereby a lot of the people in the room exchange views, high-minded on a great fiction, Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.


Rupert Graves as the rightly suicidal Septimus, Amelia Bullmore, Rezia


Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs Dalloway who says it was the only way to protect one’s soul …

I’ve seen three great films: (on a DVD on my computer) Ashgar Farhadi’s The Past (the film is searingly honest about people’s utter selfishness, sudden turns of intensely hot temper and resentment, spite without being judgemental); (on another DVD) the extraordinarily subtle Merchant-Ivory Mrs Dalloway, screenplay Eileen Atkins, where the filmic art captures the verbal art and meaning of the novel exquisitely; at my local Cinema Art with a friend, the moving film adaptation by Ritesh Batra and Nick Payne of Julian Barnes’s latest great novel, Man Booker winner for 2011, The Sense of an Ending.

I’ve kept up my friendships on-line.

This was Izzy’s week home: she’s started a new (if brief) touching song; as I watched her watch the World Championship Ice-skating contests at Helsinki, I suddenly asked, where is the next one: why in March 2018 it’s in Milan, Italy we learned. So she and I are going together next year: we’ll take two full weekends on either side and I can take buses and trains to nearby Italian towns and cities I’ve wanted to go to for years: like Brescia, Veronica Gambara’s home. Laura “signed” on and said she’d come and go to the fashion shows going on at that time. Milan —


Galileo as painted by Giusto Sustermans — but see Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel (better yet, read it)

Tonight I spent 3 hours traveling by public transportation (and on foot) to go to the Folger to see an hour and one half staged reading of excerpts James Reston and Bonnie Nelson Schwartz’s Galileo’s Torch: a series of scenes showing Galileo joyous with discovery with his aristocratic friend-supporter in Venice, gradually driven when he leaves for Rome and Florence (why we are not told) by the power of the relentless church authorities to recant publicly (the threat is torture). The great actors (Edward Gero as Galileo, Michael Toylaydo as the Grand Inquisitor), the accompanying Renaissance music by the Folger Concert, a soprano singing two early 17th century songs, with a screen showing drawings and passages from Galileo’s Starry Messenger as well as beautiful shots of our universe (prettied up of course) — it was worth the travel, gentle reader. This was my second of three times this week at the Folger. The first was to see the HD screening of The Tempest from Stratford-upon-Avon. Sunday matinee Izzy and I go to the Folger for the full concert called Starry Messenger.

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


Those are canines, people: as men legislate women’s health care and don’t want to pay for pregnancy …

Shutting the rot out: well here’s a meditation on where we see it continually and how to walk around it.

I admit for the ironic semi-amusement as well as edification of the people in the second course I’m giving (the first is on City and County Victorian novels, plus one Victorian Gothic) here is part of my opening gambit on the Booker Prize niche:

In the last 30 or more years ours has become a prize obsessed culture. Not everybody has won and not everybody’s prize is as good as others, but many win and they are advertised. It’s not just books: I asked Izzy if there are any ice-skating shows any more not connected to prizes? She replied: hardly any. From films, to sports, to classical music, to tattoo art; a concept of art as everything a contest. It does debase the art or sport or whatever: it’s about the relationship of any art to money first and foremost: prizes equate art with money and they enable art and artists to make more money. Then politics of all sorts, power, social and cultural agendas, power, prestige. Ironic that as inequality is still growing apace – or maybe to be expected that an art work is valued by its social capital – that’s a Bourdieu phrase. You can trade in the world with money as capital, but trading cards and chits also include your rank, status, institution, the red carpet extravaganzas are just an obscenely obvious edge of it. BAFTAs, Oscars, Emmy, Grammies, as each one is co-opted the prize is less given for the quality of whatever it was but who the artist is, who connected to. So once upon a time a Golden Globe may have meant a good movie, now it’s just like the Oscars.

It might seem and is a natural human activity but not to the extent it’s taken over. How this has come about and why tells us about our communications industry I suppose, but it’s more than that. Any comments or suggestions. There’s no correct answer. We could give Hitler a great fascist dictator. No one has come near him as yet. As our esteemed tweeter would say “tremendous.” Now in each profession probably a different set of circumstances could and would be produced to explain why.

In the case of books, in mid-century there was this problem distinguishing “serious fiction” from genre and junk fiction as TV and other medias spread and as paperbacks spread. Yes one explanation for the booker is the invention and spread of paperbacks which put books in the hands of people who could not afford hardbacks. The marketplace was flooded with low and middle brow paperback books. There suddenly was a collapse of a number of understood agreements where people didn’t undercut one another. Some of these protections still hold in Germany plus German federal policy works to protect bookstores among other businesses in Germany and not reward them for destroying themselves. – NBA the Net Book agreement – these are policies and practices of major chains of bookstores.


All winners must stand holding their book with the words Booker Prize winner prominently displayed


Short-listed do very well too

What happens is people stumble into things – they also conspire but sometimes they stumble; or one person has the idea and has no sense how workable and efficient it will be if done right. Todd’s Consuming Fictions gives the extraordinary figures as the early success of the Booker was felt. It was a coterie: an in-group of linked people living in and attached to London. It was the brainchild of Tom Maschler, a “rising” young celebrity editor at Jonathan Cape. Booker Brothers were a post-colonial agrobusiness company seeking to diversify and improve their public image with the collapse of colonialism as acceptable. I’m not saying colonialism collapsed; far from it, but it was no longer openly praised to steal another country’s natural resources and put the people into forms of servitude. A couple of other prizes from the 1960s: America Hawthorden and James Tait, Guardian fiction prize 1955.

Nothing remarkable about the Booker in its first couple of years; nothing unusual about their books, venture close to collapse. It’s said in-house correspondence of 1970s reads like a Black Box from a crashed airplane. 1970S a turning years: some extraordinary post-colonial books very like English Patient: V. S. Naipaul. In a Free State. JG. Farrell The Seige of Krisnapur. Books like The Bookshop: Susan Hill, the Bird of Night. Doris Lessing. Briefing for Descent into Hell. Movies helped: ruth Prawer Jhabvala: Heat and Dust is wedded to Merchant-Ivory type films (ah). They included books like Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor – imagine Lady Edith grown old and poor and living in a hotel. Iris Murdoch. The Sea the Sea. Kingsley Amis: Jake’s Thing (just what you think. Barbara Pym with her church jumble sale fiction: Quartet in Autumn – profoundly movingly sad. They cottoned onto the importance of planting stories, of announcing long list, short list, glittering prize ceremony. Series of scandals. J. G. Berger Ways of Seeing accepts his prize by insulting everyone as elite, corrupt, useless. The person who refuses to come pick up his prize – Dylan Thomas who sends the inimitable, unforgettable Patti Smith in his place. . This person gets a prize and that one not and it seems that the one who didn’t wrote the better. Who did she know? Then things like the Ayatollah Khomenai puts out a fatwa on Salmon Rushdie who won for Midnight’s children and has been long and short listed again and again.

All the talk buzzing around the Oscars is just a repeat of this early innovative group. The year of English Patient there were in the end two prize winners; Barry Unsworth no where near as dazzling and about slavery in a intense way ought to have won: Sacred Hunger. English Patient is more fun. Wolf Hall is set off by cult of Anne Boleyn and the marvelous acting talent of Mark Rylance (who can make a whole film come alive with the quiet question when you say shall I do this, “would it help?” So they gave her the prize for Bring up the Bodies. It’s not that good a book at all.

Possession in 1990 was a tremendous moment. It made Byatt’s career and made the prize. The movie wasn’t the center even though Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle were paired again. I find I’m not as enamoured of it as I once was. I prefer Atwood’s Alias Grace – a Jane Eyre immigration story: governess type goes to Canada, based on real woman and murder – Grace Marks accused — in a household of servants. Behind it a classic Canadian memoir: Susannah Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush and Moodie’s career as journalist where she interviews Marks –- and of course the Brontes’ art.

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

What are some of the characteristics the Bookers share which do set them off. I suppose that’s the work of this term. What qualities are found in “serious” fiction that set it off from (sorry for the “terribly snobbish term”) middle brow books? I thought I’d call attention to just a couple in the hope of startling or creating interest or maybe opposition.


Luke Strongman: Booker Prize and the Legacy of Empire: nostalgia, he says, the “clue” theme

After reading through our four and reading desultorily and listening to some of them read aloud on tape: beyond the historical turn accompanied by a deep questioning of what passes for history and why we want these stories told:

The central figure in The English Patient and a number of the events swirling round him: the deeply reactionary erudite adventurer, a Hungarian count Laslo Almasy: Ondaatje may have written an anti-colonialist, anti-war book but his hero is something out of The Prisoner of Zenda, related to royals in middle Europe: born 1896, he was a member of the Zerzura Club, desert explorers and adventurers, outlier types, presented themselves as explorers, lovers of fancy cars and women, looking for ancient cities in the desert, loses oases, but like communist spies inside M16 and Oxford in the 1940s and 50s, the Zerzura club were mapping the desert as spies for the fascists and Nazis, as military people in WW2, traitors some would say, Almazy died of dystentery in 1951 in Austria – never would take care of himself – he was awarded the Iron Cross by German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. People might remember the romantic film Out of Africa based on Isak Dinesen’s book with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford (now married in earnest): the hero there was Anglo and part of a group from Kenya. Dinesen wrote great tales, gothics, but was as reactionary (crazy) as Ayn Rand. We have just two of this type but often when you dig a little in the background of a Booker Prize you find really interesting history, characters, authors events.

To continue: stream of consciousness as a central immediate confrontation of imagined mind with imagined reader; anti-colonialist (the legacies of empire) and anti-war: at some deep level –- and not so there is this perception of life, existence at terrifying. You never know what is going to happen next and you often can’t explain why so as to prevent next time. The Judgement scene in A Month in the Country. In the old English of Moon, a dreamer-archeaologist digging up the savage Saxons

And he shal com with woundes rede
To deme [judge]the quicke and the dede … (p. 34).

But as Amy Dodds puts it on the upper level of her twice weekly bus ride to her profoundly mentally disabled daughter, The thing is not to take it as a punishment.

If you are not terrified by the torture and landmines of Michael Ondaatje’s English Patient, you are not reading what’s in front of you. Water and sand as killers. Deep melancholy. But they are also for lack of a better term “quirky” – Mrs Palfrey at her Claremont is quirky, odd, unexpected. All these people living on houseboats, the book that won Fitzgerald her one Booker (all the others were short lists), Offshore seems to be about eccentric people. Fitzgerald’s point is they are not. But they seem to be. She was shortlisted a remarkable number of times: Human Voices about the power of radio really; In the spring time of the year, a kind of condensed Tolstoy. The Blue Flower.

I asked myself why did these two books by Swift win or were shortlisted and not these others. This works better with authors who keep getting short listed but don’t win a lot – egregiously given the number of authors there are some who win twice. So Ian McEwan is short listed frequently, winning for Amsterdam, but what is different about the books that don’t win. To ask such a question is to be non-cynical and say something in the quality of the book counts.

Last: the embedded narrative, the use of a central picture often one that really existed or exists: as in Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier which won other prizes. They are haunted fictions, sometimes by real banging ghosts as in the Poltergeist in The Bookshop or psychological projection. Memories. In The Sense of an Ending, a repeating motif: as you peel the onion, at the center is a mentally disabled person whose existence offers enigmatic explanations for the world of some key characters in the book.

And they are often turned into spectacularly good movies, commercial successes with screenplays occasionally vying in quality, adding to, enrichening the novels.

So the Booker Prize books reach us via people who know how to manipulate the rot use a long spoon.


And Izzy and I may make it to Milan ….

Miss Drake

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

shahab-hosseini-and-taraneh-alidousti-in-salesman
A close up

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

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

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

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

talkingitover
After the assault

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kay Spark: Virginia Woolf or Seraglia

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

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

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

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

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A Caturday entry: on bonding with my pussycats:

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

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

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

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

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

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New Yorker Cartoon

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

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

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

Miss Drake

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From Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1990 film, scripted by Harold Pinter, featuring Natasha Richardson and Elizabeth McGovern)

Dear friends and readers,

It’s probably not a pure coincidence that a new version of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is going to be screened on Hulu, a new computer channel which shows movies, that they have chosen this distopian tale for their first venture. I’ve read that top sellers for this week at Amazon (which by the way operates with Trump businesses, so if you want to boycott these you can at least try to find other online stores to buy your books from), as listed in the New York Times Book Review include Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. If you want genuinely to understand what we are living through, what we appear to be watching happening at its final visible phase (it’s been mostly stealth or only seen in local instances for some 40 years) — the setting up of a dictatorship, you might do better to read a serious history of the first hundred days or say six months of Hitler’s regime.

I’ve not read It Can’t Happen Here, but have read the others, probably with the mistaken impression in my mind that in fact this is a democracy, people, real individuals in the millions, believe in voting and having their votes properly counted. I have now seen how such a certainly in the mind (I thought) of every American citizen makes it hard truly to believe in the dystopia of your choice. Trollope wrote one: The Fixed Period, taking place on an island that seems coterminous with New Zealand. All people at age 67 are required to “deposit” themselves in an asylum, a year later they will be killed. (His New Zealander, first published in 1972 in an edition by N.John Hall, is a somber analysis of 19th century British political culture as he so lucidly understood it.)

The roll out of destructions by the Republican rump and their ignorant malevolent shamelessly self-centered leader has been and continues to be done piece-meal. He’s putting it together with remarkable ease. His vicious people in the powerful places. Firing the staff just below. Slowly felt contradictory vague executive orders are an attempt to divide people by when they are hard hit – all the while lying. So I have not yet personally felt anything economically critical gone. Just heart. Just. The grief is hard to characterize. This morning I tried Dance Workshop again: they have a new woman, just relentlessly cheerful. Talks about the 45 minutes as a party. I wilt under such treatment.

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Kathryn Schulz

I recommend to my reader Kathryn Schultz’s “Losing Streak,” or When Things Go Missing, in this week’s New Yorker (13, 20 February 2017): she begins with the word loss, which apparently goes back to “Old English” and means “perish;” it was in the 13th century that “lose” meant failing to win; in the 16th century we began to lose our minds (so mental distress, trouble), in the 17th century our hearts. It’s been expanding so now it includes all those hundreds of losses of things we endure over the course of our lives, from “mittens” to money, to beloved people. Now we are feeling our whole future has been stolen from us, robbed by the gerrymandering, politicization of our courts, electoral college, insane campaign against Hillary Clinton; all that we could had in improvement is now reversed and our very republic, safety from all-out war, civil and human and women’s rights about to be lost and in a way that might be irretrievable for decades and more to come. Losing a beloved, losing her father, she talks of death, not of losing friends, which has been part of my losing streak this year.

But in the meantime I’ve met an honest man! My neighbor-friend recommended as a contractor, a German man, semi-retired, and he has offered to do all I want (enclose porch, and make a fully functioning room, paint outside of house cream color, update electricity in house &c&c) for what may come out to be less than the kitchen renovation cost. It seems the demand I have the foundation dug out is a way for builders to make huge sums; the way veterinarians to clean a cat’s teeth want to put them under anesthesia and stick a tube down them (risking their lives) in order to make $500. So after all I’ll have what I’ve longed for for so many years. Too bad Jim is not here now. I’ve no one to take pleasure in it but myself. Izzy approves but it does not mean for her what it does for me. The neighbors will like this as it will help property values. I will have more space for my books 🙂 and not be ashamed any more.

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I can link the two entertainments I’ve gone to over this week to our present dystopia. I was finally able to remember the name of the woman who ran an inexpensive and sometimes innovative and intelligent repertoire company in DC: Carla Huber; her group, The In-Series, located in DC just off 14th Street, a walk along U Avenue (from the Metro). It was a show made up of songs of Irving Berlin with a narration carried on by the performers situating songs in his life, his career, the particular musical or just song cycle. The songs were chosen to reflect some characterization of a type in one of his musicals, the actors and singers people one knew would put the material across. I conquered driving there and back by car, so learned where it was, and then going there by Metro on Saturday evening. One song prompted long, strong and extended applause: a black woman singer-actress, Krislynn T. Perry, sang “Supper Time,” in a deeply moving way, belting it out. I did not know before this that it’s a song by a black woman whose husband has been lynched. Here’s Ethel Waters performing the song:

I attended the first of our Washington Area Print Group’s lectures for this spring: Deirdre Johnson discussed popular series fiction by two American women: their circumstances and what they produced are typical of the era: Adelaide F. Samuels (1845-1941) and her much more upper class sister-in-law Susan Caldwell Samuels (1846-1931). Middling educated white people with connections to publishers, especially through a father, Emanuel Smith (1816-86, zoologist, botanist, collector) and Susan’s husband, Edward Samuel (1836-1908, naturalist). The stories focus on central characters who live individualist successful lives, attached to churches, looking now and again to their family for help. Although strongly teleological, the titles tell an occasional tale of lives stranded and broken (Adrift in the World). Susan and Edward’s divorce led her to concentrate on how the power a husband has can inflict cruelty and failure on those in his charge. Adelaide had come from much poorer people and when she was widowed, with one son, she listed herself as a “writer” and attempted to live off her earnings. Her stories are less moral than Susan’s. But (what the lecturer didn’t say) all these stories are a depiction of a large (taken as a whole) ceaselessly on the move culture treating itself as ever so moral. We got to talking as a group about children’s literature, how it’s changed in the last half-century, and how in contrast to American, British books for children were a melange of fantasy and realism (e.g., The Borrowers). What American children were give was imagined communities. British children were offered an escape from local reality.

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Robert Southey’s desk in Greta Hall as drawn/painted by Caroline Bowles Southey: it’s the world as seen from her husband’s desk; he had the biggest best room in the house; not entirely unfairly as he supported himself, his nuclear family and Coleridge’s, as well as women and children attached to other romantic and dispossessed poets and writers when needed

On Trollope19thCStudies we are into Wordsworth’s Prelude and I’m reading Kenneth Johnston’s excellent The Hidden Wordsworth (it’s really a history-biography of the realities of intimate oppression in the later 18th and early 19th century in Cumberland), and I’m trying to accompany it with reading a fine woman poet’s autobiographical poem, much less well-known, Caroline Bowles Southey: The Birthday: A Life in Verse. I hope by the time we finish I can wrote my first foremother poet blog in a long time. For now, in case you’ve never heard of her (talk about the enemies of promise), here’s a brief literary biography by me:

Caroline Bowles’s years were 1786-1854 so she crosses the 18th and 19th century eras. She was born to people with money but as when her parents died her guardian absconded with the money that was to support her, she grew up very poor. She was educated (she was a genteel hanger-on in a big family and I imagine might have loved Jane Eyre and identified readily with Lucy Morris in Trollope’s Eustace Diamonds or Kirsten in Oliphant’s wonderful novel of that name). She published other books of poetry; The Birthday was originally compared with Cowper’s Task. She does write in the poetic diction of Cowper. Wordsworth’s greatness is based on his original use of a natural spoken English not seen before. At the time Wordsworth’s Prelude was hardly known. Robert Southey met, introduced her to Wordsworth, and they collaborated on a poem called Robin Hood. It never saw the light (was not completed). When Southey’s wife died, Southey married Bowles, but he was very ill by that time and his illness blighted her later life. She received a crown pension in 1854. Unhappily too she has been blamed for marrying him, blamed for somehow getting between his wife and him (she didn’t) and then her own work seen as super-influenced by him — which it wasn’t.

There’s a wonderful essay on Bowles Southey in Romanticism and Women Poets: Opening the Doors of Reception, edd. Harriet Linking and Stephen Behrendt: Kathleen Hickok, ”’Burst are the Prison Bars: Caroline Bowles Southey and the Vicissitudes of Poetic Reputation,” pp. 192-213. There has been an edition of Caroline Bowles Southey’s poetry and a biography by Virginia Blain:, Caroline Bowles Southey, 1786-1854: the Making of a Woman Writer .

“The Birthday” is a longish blank verse poem telling of the growth and development of a poet’s mind through retelling her story. It’s called “The Birthday” because it’s imagined that she begins to write it on her birthday one year. “The Birthday” gives us a woman’s version of Wordsworth’s Prelude. It’s shameful “The Birthday” is not better known. Unlike Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh as it hasn’t got a melodramatic story at its center, but a real one. In the excerpt I sent the poet goes to a filthy shop in London where she meets a laboring man who loves to read and has aspirations to write. He can’t. He can’t begin to get the books he needs (shades of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure) and hasn’t got any time to himself at all. He must work from early morning to late at night. Wordsworth refers to poor people but does not give them reality; in her Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning gives us this melodramatic story of the seamstress in love who has a baby out of wedlock and (in the poem) deserved to be dropped. Not Caroline’s heroine, herself.

To the reading and papers I’m working on (described in previous diary entries), tonight I begin the second of my chosen books for the course I hope to teach at the OLLI at Mason, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop (short-listed), a kind of distilled Cathy Come Home, starting late March. I’m now listening to Nadia May read aloud Virginia Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out: it focuses on the coming into maturity of a super-sheltered, minimally educated intelligent young woman, Rachel Vinrace. Much water imagery. This from The London Scene which I read with someone on Wwtta last week:

A group of sketches, all at most 5-7 pages or so; like much of Woolf’s work, it’s a posthumous publication carefully staggered/staged and packaged by Leonard. I have separate thinnish books of non-fiction by her and for the first time I understand how they came to be and why they are so heterogeneous. This is a late book, first published in 1975, put together by Angelica Garnett and Clive Bell, niece and brother-in-law, published nominally by Hogarth Press but really a small press hired and in a limited edition. These feel bright, seemingly cheerful excursions — the sort of thing one sees in a magazine. I say seeming because the undercurrent leads us to her The Waves. Time is doing its work across the centuries and in single hours, days, weeks, years, all is going to rot or was once (so relics, remnants)

What strikes me as I’ve finished The Waves, and begun The Voyage Out, how water (as in Shakespeare) is central to Woolf, waterways of the world, oceans, rivers, streams. While the sun controls the seeming 24 hour structure of the Waves, the imagery is watery or about stream, life as ooze. Orlando crosses time as in a reverie: Eva Figes’s greatest novella is The Seven Ages of Women. Here we have a eye going through the river recording different phase sof English history by different classes at different times – in 8 pages the eye bypasses very different ships and boats, from Liner and streamers with crowds of ordinary people on the shore, to a dingy warehouse area (very Dickensian), to left over village, with a desolate pub (note desolation), church, a cottage or house gone to ruin, trees, bells once rung here. Then barges, rubbish and Indian, next to the Tower of London, commerce, the city, factories with chimnies. On we go to indefatible cranes unloading and loading according to exquisitely understood plans by mazes of peple. (Le Carre’s Night Manager shows all this replaced by these intensely dull boring containers and very few people employed.) I have read the ships which carry these containers can be dangerous for passengers if not enough of them. Jenny Diski traveled on one in one of her books. Then the beautiful things packed, the oddities, the jewels, sports of nature – Woolf imagines all this. Now we realize if we didn’t before this is a kind dream. Then the wine-vaults: Cask after cask. Customs officers. No smuggling here: stamped out in the mid-19th century by England’s first determined army of police effort.

The phrase “use produces beauty as a bye-product” could sum up all Jane Austen on the picturesque … Then words have been invented out of all we see.I don’t understand a couple of them, nor understand why flogging is there but that sailors were once flogged to get them to do this work, flogged if they mutinied and disobeyed. (Will Trump bring flogging back; there is nothing he can do which bothers his followers or the Republicans. I am waiting for him to beat the hell out of his wife, and the tweet: “I lost it – my temper.” ) Last: all we see is the result of us, of our bodies. All the things and animals that made these products were created and used by us – Australian sheep say. And this rocking rhythm and final peroration. L’ecriture femme with the full stamp of Virginia Woolf

pytorkonchalovskyrussia1876to956poetswindow
From my window where I sit most of the time there has hardly been any snow: very summery days, so here to remind us of winter: Pytor Konchalovsky’s Poet’s Window (1875-1956)

I handed in a proposal for teaching at OLLI at Mason for this coming summer (how relentless is time and it’s been just about accepted:

Romancing 18th century historical fiction

Our topic will be the nature of recent post-modern post-colonial historical fiction as well as how as a genre historical romance differs from historical fiction, and what happens when the two subgenres mix. We’ll read as examples the older traditional The King’s General by Daphne DuMaurier (1946) against the recent innovative The Volcano Lover (1992) by Susan Sontag. Bringing in as part of the discussion, other popular novels set in the 18th century (from Poldark to Outlander) and 18th century historical films (from Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon to Scola’s That Night in Varennes), we’ll explore these questions: How do such books use documents and relics (e.g. houses and paintings) from an era; landscape then and now, history, biography, life-writing; biographical fiction and fantasy, to reach and recreate the irretrievable, the unknowable past, to persuade us to imagine we are in the past as presences with the author. Why do we want to do this? Why is it important for the text or film to be authentic and yet familiar? For us to bond with the characters? And be fascinated by their era?

I end on yet another woman poet-writer, 19th century, American: Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919). In Cox’s case what’s telling is she was very popular, and part of the 19th century progressive or populist socialist movement (Bernie Sanders is a rare unashamed modern representative), which has been crushed since the advent of the FBI and ceaseless repression from the 1950s on.

Protest

To sin by silence, when we should protest,
Makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance, and lust,
The inquisition yet would serve the law,
And guillotines decide our least disputes.
The few who dare, must speak and speak again
To right the wrongs of many. Speech, thank God,
No vested power in this great day and land
Can gag or throttle. Press and voice may cry
Loud disapproval of existing ills;
May criticise oppression and condemn
The lawlessness of wealth-protecting laws
That let the children and childbearers toil
To purchase ease for idle millionaires.

Therefore I do protest against the boast
Of independence in this mighty land.
Call no chain strong, which holds one rusted link.
Call no land free, that holds one fettered slave.
Until the manacled slim wrists of babes
Are loosed to toss in childish sport and glee,
Until the mother bears no burden, save
The precious one beneath her heart, until
God’s soil is rescued from the clutch of greed
And given back to labor, let no man
Call this the land of freedom.

I just thought that I’ve never focused on Scarlett Johansson’s eloquent speech at the Women’s March, on January 21st:

It is still hard and brave for most women to speak before a huge audience, and she’s telling intimate realities of her life. Elizabeth Robins’s The convert is about how hard it was for the first suffragettes to talk before a crowd. It is harder yet to be sincere.

Miss Drake

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