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Posts Tagged ‘Samuel Johnson’


Victoria Crowe (b. 1945), November Windows, Reflecting

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

Friends and readers

As many know who might be reading this blog, this third Thursday of November brings the annual US Thanksgiving day. Like Christmas is a Winter Solstice festival, so this is an autumnal day for memories. We are urged to get together with other people to remember what happened this year that was good, something that meant a lot to us. I can’t meet either demand tonight for myself. The bar is too high. Some good things happened, nothing spectacularly bad.


Laura at a press conference for a Downton Abbey exhibit in New York City, with Joanne Froggartf (Anna Bates)

I can say that my older daughter had become a paid freelance entertainer blogger last year here on the Net where she created and made a great success out of an entertainment blog, Fan-Sided, and is very pleased this year to be regular (in effect staff) writer for WETA, specialty British mini-series. You see her above with a central actress in the once stupendously popular Downton Abbey; Laura had told Froggartt that her mother especially bonded with the character of Anna, and Froggartt was generous enough to insist on sending a photograph of herself with my daughter. Izzy carried on being a successful librarian. They are now blogging together (Ani & Izzy). Those who read this blog regularly know how I spent the year.

I’m in contact with a friend I made at Road Scholar in the Highlands this summer; if I can get up the courage (I know how to do this one), I may go to NYC for three days during December through February (that’s the window of opportunity) to see said exhibit on Downton Abbey, go to a Trollope lecture, play on or off Broadway and then home. Two more photos Laura took:


Leslie Nicol (Mrs Patmore) and Sophia McShera (Daisy) with on-site actors as cooks


The set for the bedroom

Happily this week our local quasi-art movie-house has three (!) decent movies so tomorrow I’ll go with my friend, Vivian to see a film by a film-maker whose work I enjoy very much, Agnes Vara’s Faces Places, on Thursday Izzy and I will make a roast chicken (more than the two of us can eat) and go again to see the latest Jane Goodall documentary, Jane. I used to show these to my writing class in Natural science and tech, and Saturday night, weather permitting or not, Vivian and I bought tickets to go to our first ghost tour in Alexandria. Neither of us have ever done one before. The third is Abdul and Victoria, which I hope will be there next week as I shall go with another friend, Panorea, after which we’ll do lunch. I’ve bought the book.

I am somewhat relieved that teaching is coming to an end for this semester next week, and I’ve just about finished two Austen papers for publication, one (seasonally enough) “For there is nothing lost, that may be found, Charlotte Smith in Jane Austen’s [autumnal] Persuasion” (to be linked in when it appears), in which I quote from Smith’s

Sonnet 32: To Melancholy

Written on the banks of the Arun, October 1785
When latest Autumn spreads her evening veil,
And the grey mists from these dim waves arise,
I love to listen to the hollow sighs,
Thro’ the half-leafless wood that breathes the gale:
For at such hours the shadowy phantom pale,
Oft seems to fleet before the poet’s eye;
Strange sounds are heard, and mournful melodies,
As of night-wanderers, who their woes bewail!
Here, by his native stream, at such an hour,
Pity’s own Otway I methinks could meet,
And hear his deep sighs swell the sadden’d wind!
O Melancholy! — such thy magic power,
That to the soul these dreams are often sweet,
And soothe the pensive visionary mind!
— by Charlotte Smith


The beach at Lyme (1995 BBC Persuasion, Roger Michell)


Anne is “minded” to accept Wentworth — Sally Hawkins — how I loved her Maudie, near my favorite actress at this point (2007 ITV Persuasion Simon Burke)

Three reports from the recent AGM: Post-Austen matters (Gillian Dow, Whit Stillman); Fervency (Devoney Looser, Sanditon, Susan Allen Ford); Among Janeites (Sandy Lerner et aliae)

I can look forward now to throwing myself into my part of a paper on Virginia Woolf and Samuel Johnson as biographers, and at long last moving again on my book project on Winston Graham, author of the Poldark novels (in case you forgot). I like autumn; after all, autumn is the (as it were) continual season in Leeds, England, where Jim and I met, married and lived the first two very happy years of our lives together, a place and atmosphere idealized repeatedly by Alan Bennet’s favorite painter, John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-93)

A November afternoon in Leeds (1881?).

My cats will be more talkative than in the next couple of months than me (they talk a lot nowadays), at any rate make more sound — my talk being of the writing kind. And I thought I’d begin this time with a second poem, this anticipating the season to come, by Patricia Fargnoli (from her volume Harrowed, which I’ve been reading nightly)

Winter Grace

If you have seen the snow
under the lamppost
piled up like a white beaver hat on the picnic table
or somewhere slowly falling
into the brook
to be swallowed by water,
then you have seen beauty
and know it for its transience.
And if you have gone out in the snow
for only the pleasure
of walking barely protected
from the galaxies,
the flakes settling on your parka
like the dust from just-born stars,
the cold waking you
as if from long sleeping,
then you can understand
how, more often than not,
truth is found in silence,
how the natural world comes to you
if you go out to meet it,
its icy ditches filled with dead weeds,
its vacant birdhouses, and dens
full of the sleeping.
But this is the slowed down season
held fast by darkness
and if no one comes to keep you company
then keep watch over your own solitude.
In that stillness, you will learn
with your whole body
the significance of cold
and the night,
which is otherwise always eluding you.


Duncan Grant (1885-1978), Angelica Garnett (his daughter)

I’ve been reading a marvelous biography by Frances Spalding, Roger Fry: Art and Life, alongside Virginia Woolf’s equally (but differently) profound Roger Fry, a biography. I like his landscapes very much, but also his thoughts on art as explicated by both women. Orlando is (I think) more profound, as (dare I say it), Richard Holmes’s book on Samuel Johnson’s Life of Savage, Dr Johnson and Mr Savage, if not as passionately alive with a life, more profound with true insight. I will end on a few of these:

For once the disease of reading has laid hold upon the system it weakens it so that it falls an easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the ink pot and festers in the quill. The wretch takes to writing … Memory is her seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one …

Your only safety, your salvation is

Obscurity … dark, ample and free; obscurity lets the mind take its way unimpeded. Over the obscure man is poured the merciful suffussion of darkness. None knows where he goes or comes. He may seek the truth and speak it; he alone is free; he alone is truthful … being like a wave which returns to the deep body of the sea; thinking how obscurity rids the mind of the irk of envy and spite … allowing the giving and taking without thanks … (Orlando, Chapter 2, pp 56-77)

From Spalding’s Fry: “each of those things is accepted as a symbol of a particular social status. [Most people like art which bestows status on them, will go only to art and lectures where someone’s prestige is asserted.] I say their contemplation can give no one pleasure …” In contrast: “Here nothing is for effect, no heightening of emotion, no underlining .. an even, impartial, contemplation of what is essential — of the meaning which lies quite apart from the associated ideas and the use and wont of the things of life” (209, 175)


David Tutwiler, American Railroad Art

In Johnson’s hands, biography became a rival to the novel. It began to pose the largest, imaginative questions. How well can we learn from someone else’s struggles about the conditions of our own; what do the intimate circumstances of one particular life tell us about about human nature in general … the long journey of research and writing, somewhere behind them walk the companionable figures of these two eighteenth century presences, talking and arguing through a labyrinth of dark night streets, trying to find a recognisable human truth together … if my book’s title strikes some curious chord in the reader’s mind, it came to me on such a night in the small, deserted public garden that now stands behind St John’s Gate in the City, when a light winter rain was falling like a mist round the lamps. The echo you hear, of course, is Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Richard Holmes, the final page).

Perhaps the problem with Woolf’s biography of Fry is he’s not an alter ego (why it feels so distant), while Vita Sackville-West, about whom and whose house Orlando swirls, could be, or is. Virginia is Orlando too. Latest book: Vita & Virginia: the work and friendship of V. Sackville West & Virginia Woolf. I have now joined the Virginia Woolf Listserv attached to the International Virginia Woolf Society. I’ve belonged since 2003, and when I went to MLA meetings, went to every one of their sessions, and once to one of their parties.


Tilda Swinton as Orlando in just one of many incarnations

One coming loss: my Women Writers through the Ages @ Yahoo keeps going awry so no messages may sent or received. There is no one and no where to ask for help. The sites offered take me round and round or offer only boilerplate explanations. I need to move or invite to move the few people still there elsewhere. If not, and this software equipment continues to function badly, I’ll lose some friendships. I hope it does not come to this. I know I’ll return to reading more book of Renaissance women as that is one area few people seem to want to join in on that I know. The very first adult books I ever read were dark brown tomes of the lives of Margaret of Navarre and Jeanne d’Albret. A book on one of TBR piles is Francoise Kermina’s life of her, La Mere passionee d’Henri IV — Kermina wrote the best life I ever read of Madame Roland. Another is Enzo Striano’s Il Resto de Niente, a life of Eleonora Pimental de Fonseca, hung during a revolution in Naples, 1798 (her death concludes Sontag’s Volcano Lover. And study my French and Italian. Nothing is more deeply engaging than going back and forth with women’s poetry. I try hard not to be isolated but if I find I am, I’ll turn back to where I began. I don’t want to kill myself.

My Hilary Mantel Wolf Hall lectures/discussions with my OLLI class at American University are going very well and they make me want to return to good biographies and literary studies of such women and the Renaissance too.

This comment by MacFarquhar on why Mantel is drawn to historical fiction might interest some

MacFarquhar on Hilary Mantel and historical fiction: What sort of person writes fiction about the past? It is helpful to be acquainted with violence, because the past is violent. It is necessary to know that the people who live there are not the same as people now. It is necessary to understand that the dead are real, and have power over the living. It is helpful to have encountered the dead firsthand, in the form of ghosts … The writer’s relationship with a historical character is in some ways less intimate than with a fictional one: the historical character is elusive and far away, so there is more distance between them. But there is also more equality between them, and more longing; when he dies, real mourning is possible.

I cannot bring Jim back, I cannot reach him. Perhaps through writing fiction, biography one does. A ghostliness; there is a real feeling of the author and heroine beating death in Outlander when she returns to Scotland; and, while there, when the novel switches to the present and characters go look at the graves of those the heroine is with in the 18th century; it has this eerie feel.. Other titles by Mantel are Beyond Black (“Black Book” a subtitle for one of Gabaldon’s chapters) and Giving up the Ghost and I’ve learned Mantel’s first popular books were macabre gothics. Winston Graham’s short stories are ghostly chilling gothics.


Dead Nettle Fairies of Winter by Ciceley Mary Barker — thanks to Camille-Sixtine who has again vanished from face-book

I need to read, to listen to Gaskell’s Life of Bronte. When I’m with aka reading Gaskell, I feel I’m with a friend.

Miss Drake

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Standing Rock, this Thanksgiving Day: by Medea Benjamin the water protectors

Dear friends and readers,

For the first time since Jim died (and perhaps a few years before that), Izzy and I had a “proper” Thanksgiving dinner and with other people. A beautifully cooked turkey, mashed potatoes, a kind of puree of broccoli (with various delicious ingredients blended in), red cabbage (somehow made sweet), stuffing, muffins, for me wine, for her apple juice. My neighbor who lives across the street invited us over and made this dinner: I brought an apple pie and bottle of wine. We talked, and ate, and talked again with good music from NPR: like Aaron Copeland, while we sat around a table doing some serious puzzle putting together. I’ve no photos to prove it; you’ll just have to believe me. I did read an article in the Washington Post which had your regulation photos of turkeys (not cooked, but alive): Debbie Berkowitz told about the terrible conditions poultry workers (that’s people who prepared the unfortunate chickens too) endure (freezing cold, dangerous hard repetitive work, very low wages). A thought which might hinder the usual showing off by photographing the unfortunate bird.

We went across the street around 4 and were there about four hours. The generosity of this woman gladdened our hearts and made the coming winter time more cheerful to contemplate. I wish I could get myself to volunteer in a local homeless shelter where they make meals for people on Christmas day, but I hesitate each year since Jim died. They want me to fill out forms, to agree to have any photos they want, and this year $50 on top of that. So I don’t know again. At any rate, we came back me to read, and she to sleep because she’s promised to write for Fan-Sided another report on ice-skating (I think it is) which starts US time at midnight; she’ll watch, take notes, off to work at 7:30 am, and back again to resume work. Do not underestimate the great solace of writing. About mid-morning today I wrote four letters to friends who had written me, two because it’s Thanksgiving and they know I have birthday coming up.

Another is reading. Over on Wwtta @ Yahoo, about three of us are reading Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf, and we are into Chapter 24 or so where Lee writes of how important to Woolf was reading. I loved the chapter, but my companion in reading, Diane Reynolds, suggested there is something missing: Lee does not tell which were Woolf’s “touchstone” books (the word from Matthew Arnold’s famous essay on how he tells if a passage is great writing (he reads it against “touchstone” lines of greatness): “which books did she return to again and again in the course of her life.” And why these? In the case of Woolf, one problem is she read so much, it’s not clear she might have thought to write about this until until her immersion was such, she would probably talk of a kind of book (Russian, say, classical). Then as a paid reviewer, she’d have had to think about so many she was paid to read.

So I thought in this desolate, desperate and frightening time before Trump takes office (it’s hard to take in that huge numbers of human beings are willing to allow this corrupt bully monster such power — what a mass failure of imagination is here, Jim might have said), I’d cite the books that I’ve read and reread and reread and those that have changed my reading life and thus me profoundly.

girlandcatreading

At 8 I’d read and reread P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins in the Park — for the park: I lived in the Southeast Bronx and loved tracing the park on the end papers. I loved the quietly magical adventures where this enigmatic strict woman emerged as all kindness, courtesy, reciprocal love. In another of the Poppins books the children visited the Pleiade, the “seven sisters” Margaret Drabble called them and I remembered ever after the drawing of Maia skipping along on the sidewalk. Alcott’s Little Women over and over and I still think in terms of some of its parables. I was lured by The Secret Garden too. I read one copy of Gone with the Wind until it fell apart. All this around age 10 to 12.

From the time (same age) I’ve read Sense and Sensibility Elinor has helped me. She provides a way of thinking, a kind of (yes) self-control, self-protection, that I’d try to emulate and hold to. I remember doing that around age 17 and thought it helped keep me sane. Having spent 5 years on Richardson’s Clarissa it too has been central — though I wish I had known Mary Piper’s Saving Ophelia. It might have helped save me years of mental anguish — I probably would have practiced the same kind of guarded retreat as the best way for me to cope with aggressive heterosexual male culture. How I identified with Fanny, loved the melancholy neuroticism of Anne Eliot. I have never stopped reading Austen for long, especially the six famous books, even Emma which at least has the rhythms of deep heart beat with order and harmony in the sentences, rather like letting Bach or Handel get into the pulses of my blood going through my chest and heart Mansfield Park and Jane Eyre are books I read and reread in my teens. Bronte sent my pulses soaring with her comments about having a treasure within her she’d not sell away

These will seem strange and won’t resonate but this set of books has been as important: Lois Tyson’s Critical Theory Today: A user-Friendly Guide. For the first time I could understand what was meant by de-construction, all these “theoretical” outlooks put into words which were meaningful. It was Tyson’s book which made me a feminist. I am not a feminist out of a search for power, or influence, or about a career (none of which I’ve ever had), but as a liberation from the dark nightmare of the way sexuality is conducted in our society. For the first time I had words which did not shame me to discuss the experiences I had endured, and this book took me to others where I understood for the first time I was not only not alone or rare, but my experiences were commonplace. Lois Tyson’s book enabled me to utter my thoughts to myself clearly and at least think about them and then voice them (here on the Net mostly) to others. Emily White’s Fast Girls (about how such girls become “fast,” are stigmatized, treated horribly), Peggy Reeves Sanday, Fraternity Gang Rape (ought to be required reading for every girl) and especially Judith Lewis Herman’s Trauma and Recovery (wherein we learn why there is no recovery if by that is meant forgetting, going back to what one was). These did changed how I read.

Close at hand, near to heart: I have Trollope’s books and all sorts of secondary studies in a book case that stretches from ceiling to floor and is about 4 feet wide — he helps and certainly he changed what I do 🙂 The novel I read first and never forget was Dr Thorne I was 18, it was assigned in a college class; I wanted to write a paper on it but was discouraged by the professor because Trollope was (just) “a mirror of his age. Then re-hooked when the Palliser films were aired on PBS in the 1970s: Jim and I watched and read the books in turn as we went through the series. Then re-hooked in the 1990s with Last Chronicle of Barset in Rome (it got me through) and The Vicar of Bullhampton (given me by my father when I landed in hospital.) I have read and re-read Trollope’s books, and while his depiction of women leaves much to be desired, his attitude towards colonialism shameful, he does see the truth and is candid enough to suggest it. I give him the high compliment of saying he sees the same world Samuel Johnson does.

Over the years I’ve added this or that author who speaks home to me: there has got to be a strengthening offered, a way of coping as well understanding what existence is — especially for women and in books by women. There is a strong perpetual fault-line between women’s and men’s art. Lately it’s been Margaret Oliphant and Elizabeth Gaskell (yes I like older books) but before that Elsa Morante (in the Italian) as well as Elena Ferrante’s first couple of books (Days of Abandonment is astonishing), Chantal Thomas (Souffrir), Jenny Diski. Graduate school introduced me to Samuel Johnson (how’s that for a different voice), Anne Finch’s poetry, Charlotte Smith but she is so corrosive; she permits self-expression through her but not the calm acceptance and understanding of how this came to be; now and again in different life-writing, memoirs I find women who do this: Iris Origo, George Sand, George Eliot (though too much violation of natural impulses).

In the first few years after graduate school, I discovered Renaissance women wrote (who knew?) great sonnets, and loved Vittoria Colonna (why I taught myself Italian, though I first loved her poetry in fin-de-siecle French translation), Veronica Gambara, Gaspara Stampa, Lady Mary Sidney Wroth. I discovered Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s letters, read all three volumes. Now and again I’ve clutched some contemporary woman author as yes yes yes: Rosamund Lehmann’s mistitled The Echoing Grove comes to mind (The Weather in the Streets might contain the first frank story of an abortion, had just around the time the heroine reads Austen’s Pride and Prejudice); Christina Stead’s The Man who Loved Children tells such good hard truth but offers not enough comfort.

Well of course each day (almost) I reach something which makes being alive worth while. I love reading about women artists, and reading women’s poetry. Today I was having a deeply enjoyable time reading Martha Bowden’s Descendents of Waverley, a stimulating book about historical romance and novels whose reflections criss-crossed with another set of post-modern historical fictions I had been reading about in another book I’m reviewing: Caryl Phillips’s Crossing the River and Cambridge. Between this book and others about historical fictions and films, and reading Booker Prize versions of these, thinking about earlier ones (Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, even the Poldark novels, Walter Scott) I’ve come to the thought that we so love post-modern historical fiction with great dollops of romantic fantasy (time-traveling, re-enactment, erotic giving of the self to a beloved) because through intertextuality they include precious historical documents (books from previous eras), the remnants of a past that have survived which can open worlds of minds and places to us, cultures, while the 20th and 21st century authors, film-makers produce a perspective on this past and our present that is sustaining and comforting today.

Do you love the older images on Virago covers? often I do. Also black-and-white picturesque illustrations.

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This Monet is my header picture on Twitter

So that’s what I have been thinking and what I did this Thanksgiving day. It was a day where no further irrational (unless you believe everything must be set up for a few people to make as much profit as possible), vile (deeply inhumane) and despicable (choosing inept people who known nothing about the area except that they want to destroy what’s there) appointments were paraded by the president elect, not even one of his snark jokes. I’ve in effect praised the Post for one of its Thanksgiving day stories, so let me be clear: the rest of their page was advice to those who see what Trump is to be humble before those who voted for this man if we have to sit down to dinner with any of them: the overt theory is again they are good deluded people (the old shibboleth of “false consciousness”) and we are to blame for this horror about to unfold because we have been elitist: with such a conclusion, how can the paper’s staff hope ever to help those poultry workers they grieved for on the same page?

So I also remember the lesson of the 1930s when a segment of my then extant family in Europe was rounded up, send to camps and many of them exterminated or died of hellish treatment or were shot. I’ve saved for last two books, both slender. The first a sine qua non for a 20th century reader: Primo Levi’s If this be man and The Truce (if you can in the Italian, but if not the English translation is good). I read these (bound together as one book) when I was teaching myself Italian (I was about 44). Indirect, but saying the same thing is Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, which each time I was given the second half of British Literature to teach I assigned as our penultimate read.

Miss Drake

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