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Via Navigli, Sunday March 25th, Antiques sale …


with my friend, Luca Gandolfi

The cats of Campagnatico,
Which are never fully grown and have never
Been kittens, will not move for the honking motorist
But expect to be gone round — Peter Porter (1929-2010)

Friends,

The last of my Milan diaries. I’ve described wandering in central Milan on Friday, 4/16 afternoon and evening, and Tuesday, Wednesday and our neighborhood. We are come to all day Friday, Saturday morning, and a long Sunday morning and again in the evening into night.

We began Friday 4/23 by heading for fabric stores and bookshops. Laura likes to sew and make herself clothes. These were goals to take out outside the core place of cathedral, castle, and environs. We took trolleys and trams to find two fabric stores and two used bookshops.


New Tess, Milan

When we entered the fabric stores, at first the owner and/or employees wondered at us, and seemed decidedly uneager — they seemed to me to sell to the privileged. There was a language barrier, but as soon as they realized Laura meant business, somehow all was accommodated, and she came away with some beautiful material folded in rectangles in big shopping bags. For myself I bought Enzo Striano’s Il Resto Di Niente, a fictionalized biography of the later 18th century Italian woman political radical and poet, Eleonora Pimentnel de Fonseca, tragically executed during the brief Neapolitan republic of 1798, Elena Ferrante’s La figlia oscura, and Mario Soldati’s Lettere da Capri. Used bookstores in Italy are polite, quiet places, small, subdued, books set out in alphabetical order by the author’s name within categories.

We did go to Rizzoli’s and I could not find any Italian book that I might want that I did not own already. I was dismayed to discover that like US bookstores, there are less books than there used to be. Things are set up in fanfare ways: I found and bought (Italian) Atwood’s L’Assassino Cieco, traduzione di Raffaella Belletti; in the “classics” E.M. Forster’s Passaggio in India, traduzione di Adriana Motti.

What did we notice in all (some elite and expensive) and ordinary neighborhoods of apartment houses, shops, small parks? Laura noticed that Italian women tended to dress in black. A male-kind of jacket, sweater, subdued, black skirt. Very unchallenging, unobtrusive. Men very casual. Suits for those clearly going to offices.

People are permitted to bring dogs into public transportation as long as the dog is somehow kept close in a carrier of some sort. All on leashes and all small. People must buy or adopt dogs small enough to put in carriers to take on buses and trains. The dogs look nervous when the jump is made onto a trolley, but trust to the master-friend. Just about all these dogs had sweaters on (it was cold), but I spied no boots, so I conclude no corrosive salt is used to remove snow and ice (as in NYC). One woman’s dog’s sweater matched the color of her cell phone cover.

It was distressing to me to see how beggars behaved – very like in France. Utterly humbling themselves. Abjectly squatting on the street like they were praying. Alas, there was no place next to one of them I kept seeing to put money.

We then hopped onto a trolley that took us back to the park in the back of the Castle Forza (which I described in my last blog), and visited a museum with very contemporary art:


Outside sculpture

Unlike older museums (Castle Sforza or the Metropolitan in NYC), where you meander about unexpected corridors, mazes, but like contemporary ones (the Whitney, MoMA), all is clearly laid out, a few select and permanent rationalized exhibits labelled. We spent time in three.

The first was a Rick Owens exhibit (see one of Laura’s blogs on one of his fashion shows): a vast installation of a hundred or so mannikin models in de-humanized, aggressive, parodic outfits, a dark disquieting satire on what we wear and fashion shows themselves:

After a few rooms of these, we sat and watched films of models doing shows of these clothes — many with heavier bodies, many people of African heritage. Haunting, and creepy images.

They still had some of the traditional kinds of art one sees; there was a sculpture exhibit of the history of the bicycle, and intriguing paintings and photos on walls here and there:


A photo-painting of realistically conceived figures looking at art

On the upper floor there was a vast exhibit showing the visitor how we live now or how we ought to live — very modern furniture and appliances; there was a kind of neon-lit forest of electric poles. What kinds of habitations we make for ourselves, how many of our rooms don’t make sense if the point were to be comfortable.

We walked around the park to where the two main streets are, and found a restaurant for lunch. Unluckily, it featured bad service and worse food, but from there we spotted a sight-seeing bus-stop, so we hurried away and took a bus all around another part of Milan. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) the microphone sets which were supposed to tell us where we were and the history of what we were seeing didn’t work.

Evening was coming, we were very tired by this time, and hopped off the bus around the shopping centers near the Cathedral and walked through very expensive shops, took a train back to a supermarket and then a cab home. You can see our feet had had enough. We stayed close to our apartment, we had reserved a table at a restaurant nearby so exclusive you could miss it as you walk by. The meal was exquisitely good.


This was the appetizer from another night: a restaurant where you pay a set fee and have many small courses where you have a taste of this or that food, and with each a glass of wine.

Home again that night to read quietly and rest.

Saturday, 4/24: we had seen on our peregrinations what we thought were basilicas, and decided the next day we would try to go into one of these. We tried for three, and they were either turned into schools or closed.

I suppose if you use Road Scholar, you won’t make these kinds of mistakes but we did learn that basilicas have found new uses in 21st century Milan.


An horse-shoe shaped church in front of the cemetery

What we did happen on was an an enormous monumental cemetery. If you have deluded yourself into assuming the impulse which made Egyptian pyramids is gone, think again. Huge cement buildings as crypts, tombs, massive sculptures of idealized figures (mythological, Catholic-religious, some realistic), many doing things (looking like they are thinking, or about to pick something up, the material they are made of often in bad shape (the damp is not good) in which families asserted their wealth, status, heritage, some of them built as far back as late Roman times, some dated 2015.


One of several wide and long lanes


Yes that’s me looking cold

The newer ones had photographs framed. The effect very creepy. Worse yet was a large house-like structure: we went into it and discovered that the poorer could buy a sort of drawer or shelf; rows and rows of these with people’s names. This reminded me of Arlington National Cemetery where there are now vast rectangles of cremated bodies and urns, each having a kind of drawer with the name of the person who once lived on its outside plaques. People were coming in to leave flowers. Everywhere also evidence that this was a way of extending the person’s life, memory, creating let’s say a deathtime. Laura fascinated took quite a number of photos. I’ll spare you the rest except for one of a cat who has found a home there:

He or she has a corner with an umbrella and under it dishes of food and water. Puss did not appear to have any cat-mates.

Perhaps our the pleasantest time we had was on Sunday morning,4/25, at the Antiques market, where I came upon my friend, Luca (above) on the lookout for good rare books. He did find one, a nineteenth century edition of Dante’s Commedia with illustrations. As I reported in my first blog this market runs up and down the length of a central canal, spreads out to side streets, and as the day progresses all around open cafes, and gradually walls are covered with artists pictures, and people come from all round to buy both ordinary clothes and needed things as well as art and craft objects. I wanted to buy a lovely watercolor of a woman and daughter on the seashore but couldn’t convey in Italian I wanted to be shipped as well as wrapped. Maybe she didn’t have any shipping services. I now regret not persisting. I worried over the price and that I might not get the picture by mail after all. It was a woman on a beach with a young girl.

It’s a flea market too: every kind of hand and machine crafted object you can imagine; some very old, some made recently, art. People talking to one another. Friendliness. I bought a sculpture in a sort of China of a sleeping cat. I looked for Trollope in Italian but no luck; most of the Italian books I found I wanted to read I already had. People kept coming and stalls being added to. There was also a marathon running in Milan that. Every one knew of the massive march in Washington DC and approved heartily.

I found the ceramic cat I described and took home (scared that wrapped up it would be taken for a bomb at the airport but it was not),


Her face held up to the light by Izzy

and here I’ll add a pink warm woolen cap with a fluffy pom-pom, lovely part leather gloves, grey on one side and multi-colored the other, Izzy found a piece of jewelry. Around 11 church bells began to ring upon the hour and seemed to keep that up until 5. Laura said that first ringing of the bells somehow made the day.


Houseboats allowed

Much later in the evening we went to the 19th century museum to one side of the Cathedral for another excellent dinner. The restaurant was on the top floor and we could see the Cathedral to our right and across the square as we ate. Later we tried to walk around the lively square for our last night. Some of the stores closed all day for Sunday opened in the evening. There were street musicians, and yes homeless people (some with pet dogs).

Our time away had come to an end, and the next day getting up around 7 am (our time Milan) we had a 19 hour trip by cab, plane, cab, train and perhaps Laura’s husband Rob’s car awaiting us at 11 at night (his time DC).

I remembered trips Jim and I took within the US, up to Canada, or just to Maine, twice to Vermont, several times to New York State, and how we’d have driven there and drive home together. How content I’d be to go home. How eager then. And tonight I’ve found a poem to express this:

David Holbrook (1923-2011)

Coming Home from Abroad

The air is high and blue yet, as we drive
Northwards across High Marne: summer
Again, after the stormy cold of June.
Yet there’s a ghostliness a sadness in the wind:
I feel it first, in the little park at Enghein
Where the tall plane trees shivered in the breeze.

Oh, I am so content, sitting beside you,
Driving home over the Northern Plains of France,
The sun still strong, everything going well,
The wine and poulard good at lunch at Chalons;
Yet, in the sky, there’s this tall hustling ghost
Drawing a veil across the face of summer.

On Zeebrugge beach all next day, the sane
Unites me to Suffolk: the cold onshore breeze
Whispers of Cotman, and those severe scenes
Of grey half-muted tones, the figures bent
Against the elements: and so we sail
Steering irrevocably into the Felixstowe fog ….


John Sell Cotman (1782-1842) Carnavon 1800

Ellen

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Izzy wearing Laura’s hat just as we entered the castle chapel


A small park, and ruin in a street near ours

Friends,

I’ve told of our trip, our first evening in Milan, three day jaunt out to Zurich, nearby Germany and France, and first general impressions of Italian culture.


When they do have trees on their blocks, they tend to place the same kind of tree in rows (as they do in France)

For the rest of our time away we stayed in Milan, either exploring the city and partaking of its pleasures (each night a different restaurant), or gazing at ice-skaters in the stadium. For me the enjoyable and engaging moments were in the city: all Tuesday, Wednesday morning and night, and all day Friday, early Saturday morning and Sunday morning until 1. Here I tell of Tuesday and Wednesday, early mornings and the neighborhood.


Izzy on the cathedral roof, wearing Laura’s hat


Walking into the castle entrance — a fountain is in front

The center of Milan (not just for visitors) exists between the large square called the Duomo, around which are the enormous cathedral, which everyone will tell you took 6 centuries to build, two beautiful glass covered shopping malls, two museums, with smaller institutional (cultural, gov’t, educational) buildings scattered all about. And blocks going this way and that. The opera house La Scala is right there. Two long wide parallel streets coming away from the back of the cathedral take you to the Sforza castle, an enormous building, which probably took a few centuries to settle into its present state. Between the castle and wide streets, there is what in the UK would be called a round-about where you can catch buses touring all Milan, and see different groups of people gathering. Nearby a movie theater and further along a playhouse (with a repertoire going on). Behind the castle is a large park that reminded me of Central Park in NYC (except not so big): picturesque, meant for leisured walking, with at least one lake, birds, a modern museum at one edge, near which there is an in-door and an out-door stage (for plays or concerts).


The wrapped up person is me contentedly gazing at water birds in a lake in the park — do not mistake how old I look for discontent

Further on, you come upon a beautiful state-of-the-art library for ordinary citizens’ use; wander a bit and you’re sure to come upon the usual ruins tucked away here and there, I believe a carousel, and bike paths.


Ruins

You leave the park area through a massive carved gate which tells you it commemorates a probably not very welcome visit from the armies of Napoleon III.

Tuesday we spent all morning in the castle in the morning, and much of the afternoon in the cathedral. The high point of the castle came swiftly: a sort of chapel in which we could view Michelangelo’s late Pieta.


Michelangelo’s late Pieta, at the Sforza castle

Michelangelo’s work just stands out as more sincere, realer than anything near it, anything we saw in that castle and most that we later saw in the modern museum. we viewed his last work. I sat by it for a while. All around the chapel were artefacts and plaques telling the story of its many adventures before it came to rest, let us hope safely for a long time to come, in the quiet room. It took a long time to walk all around the castle, up and down: clearly originally a fortress from which arrows and later guns could be aimed. Among the more interesting objects we saw were some beautiful later 19th and 20th century (recent) furniture, musical instruments from across the ages. We three enjoyed a good meal in a place where we could watch people go by and I listened to a street musician who played very well and whose apparent poverty touched my heart.


The cathedral roof from just one of many angles

Doing the cathedral is no trivial task. First you must avoid waiting for hours to get in through the front. A comparable tourist attraction is the Eiffel Tower, which is a many hour wait if you want to climb up. You can save the wasted hours and tedium by buying a more expensive ticket which allows you to take an elevator straight up to the first level of the roof.

Then you climb and climb and climb in and out of nooks, stairways, past gargoyles, statues, rows of battlements, seeing Milan become lower and seeing our farther, until you get to the very top.

I almost didn’t make it, and was saying “Non posso,” when someone helped me up the last stairway.


The cathedral highest roof

I saw one young woman with a baby in a carrier against her chest, holding a toddler’s hand. I would not have risked that child. You then climb back down, not all the way, and are led into a corridor where you take another elevator, and by some sleight of hand your ticket takes you into the cathedral by a side or back entrance, and voila.


What we saw as we came in


Walking about


The altar

In order to enjoy the place you have to forget that it was and is a seat of power, intended to impress you with its wealth. Every inch carved; many places sites of worship, shameless individual tombs, marble floors, magnificent windows. Perhaps one can reconcile oneself to it by reverse thinking: imagine where it bombed to the ground, then it’s a treasure of history, beauty, aspiration lost forever. Besides an ancient crypt, there is beneath the building an archaeological dig which has unearthed a previous basilica on the same site. Now we were in early Roman Italy. So this spot has been a community center for thousands of years. We regretted leaving.


The same Duomo square, another angle, at night when after resting in our own apartment we returned for dinner

Wednesday morning we learned how difficult it would be to leave Milan on Thursday to go out by train to the countryside: the biggest disappointment for me of this trip was that I did not get to visit another friend, the biographer of Veronica Gambara, Antonia Chimenti. She lives not far from Reggio Emilia, the area Gambara lived in. There is but one bus from where she lives to the train station, and another to Correggio. A city whose institutional buildings she said not all that much changed from the outside physically from the 16th century. People there still living a quieter traditional life. We would not have had time to get to Correggio, stay there, and get back to the train for Laura and I to return to Milan and she to her home. She sent pictures, we emailed but it seems what we needed was to have someone drive us. I translated all of Gambara’s poetry, wrote a short life myself.


Piazza del Monte, in Reggio Emilia, Correggio today

Laura and I also worried that Izzy would not be able to get all the tickets to go to the ice-skating events at once, and that she might need help from us on Thursday.

So on Wednesday instead of buying tickets at a local train station, we ended up in a local supermarket, and brought home some needed comforts for the flat (juice, milk, sugar, tea, bread, cheese, wine, cereal for the morning).


From our seats inside La Scala

But Wednesday night we had a rare treat: while Izzy remained at the ice-skating stadium, Laura and me hurried back to Milan for a quick dinner and to watch the Goldberg Variations as a ballet at La Scala. Astonishing. As we watched I realized I had seen part of this modern ballet in clips of videos on TV. A wikipedia article details the Bach music. As for Robbins’s choreography, the work consists of many ballet dancers, men and women dressed in the most minimal outfits, beginning dancing as a group, gradually emerging as varying couples and individuals, with no single individual emerging as a star or personality, and then back to the group dancing, with many moods, and much repetition. The last movements repeat the first and the dancers are all back where they began on the floor. By the end you feel you have experienced a life-cycle of humanity.

Here is a typical moment from almost an hour and one half

We were one night too late for Gluck’s Orpheus & Eurydice. Izzy almost said that had that opera been on, she’d have taken off from ice-skating.

Not all our adventures were outside or far away from the house our apartment was in. Laura had brought her laptop and we watched two (to me) unusual movies where food was the central subtext of stories and interviews; one traced the life story of am impoverished girl who became an austere nun who lives to cook simply; another was part of a series, each featuring a different type of food or dish which is central to a class-, race- or culture-laden experience, and that experience is ethnographically considered. Each morning Laura found herself breakfast in nearby bars. She and Izzy took walks around the neighborhood. We discovered two rare book stores, one much better than the other, but alas I owned a copy of the very book that tempted me: a volume of poetry by Elsa Morante. There was a convenient lunch place around the corner from where we were, a sort of snack place for the late afternoon. I read the books I had brought with me, and wrote to a friend; Izzy wrote in her diary (and kept very good records of the ice-skating she was seeing); and Laura kept up her paid work online and texted with her husband and a friend.


Another photo taken from our windows, a different angle includes a basilica like roof near us

Miss Drake

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Laura & me


Izzy & me
Photos taken the first afternoon in the Duomo square (Friday, 4/16) before the Cathedral

Friends,

Last Monday (4/26) we walked out of Union Station (a DC train and Metro center), pulling and carrying our bags after 19 hours of travel from Milan: around 9:30 am Milan time that morning we had gotten into an Uber cab for a 45 minute ride to the Milan airport; it was now 10:30 pm Washington DC time and we were stacking our stuff into Laura’s husband’s car for a half-hour ride home to Alexandria. It was an arduous trip and had been an arduous time away.

So vigorous (rigorous?) had we been that I had come down with a bad cold on Wednesday before (4/21) after a long day at the Assago Milanfiori Forum (where the ice-skating championship was held) and it had not abated one jot. By Thursday (4/29, a week and one day later) Laura was diagnosed with walking pneumonia, and yesterday, Monday (4/2) Izzy was suffering from the same bad cold (painful chest, rough hot throat, constant sneezing, blowing of nose and so on) I still have as I write ths tonight. I will drive Izzy to the doctor tomorrow for antibiotic, cough medicine and (we hope) nose spray.

Next time we better take better care of our selves. There was a raw cold in the air throughout our stay. We just never felt the balmy (warm) air we often enjoy in this southern end of the mid-Atlantic temperature zone. We kept hoping and we would take one of our layers off, and say how warm and sunny it was. But go inside some heated place, and we knew better.


What I saw each morning and evening from my window in the flat — look how antique much below is

We also had not reckoned on steep stairs on long high stairways everywhere. I became convinced Milanese people have yet to be educated into the true wonders of elevators everywhere, with conveniently located escalators a ready alternative, such as we more or less expect in NYC and Washington DC. We had a comfortable enough flat, airy, high ceiling, enough beds, a TV, wi-fi, fridge, tables, chairs, decent bathroom, but getting there was arduous: it was on the third floor. Laura counted 68 steps, stone. One merciless stairway was 14 steep ones. The stairs at the Forum looked like nearly a foot high or inbetween. By Thursday (4/22), both my knees were in pain as I walked up the stairs one last time after dinner, and my legs ached so as I got into bed, I wanted never to take off the covers or move them again. Laura’s feet were covered in bandages. Izzy was so buoyed up by her long days at the Forum she probably didn’t notice, and anyway since she spent long hours, early in the morning to late at night 4 of the days, watching the ice-skating didn’t walk nearly as much.

But now you have had the worst of it.

I’ll tell the second worst and then we can get on with what was good, instructive, fun, beautiful: if you are determined to see the world, and where you want to go is so far, you must take a plane, I would even recommend Alitalia. The Milanese airport had enough chairs for people to sit in (by contrast, in the Icelandic airport nowadays people are treated like cattle). Granted Malpensa is not genuinely comfortably with cafeteria-like places with a variety of food to eat nearby such as I saw in Dublin’s airport. Food was limited to croissants and pizza, and not in convenient locations (Italians have not discovered the wonders of attending to convenience, nearby-ness). But there were no humiliating practices of extra scrutiny at the airport or conducted by the airline (nor at the Forum — there I was waved by) as in all US airports (and twice for me in Iceland, once in Brussels in US space). Alitalia seats were fantastically small but we were fed going and coming, two meals, plenty of water, soda and wine and tea and what they called coffee for free; movies for all (I saw a movie about Thurgood Marshall and Holofcener’s wonderful Friends with Money going). The Italians were not determined to punish us because oodles of money had not been extracted from us. We were not mistreated as one is on so many airlines and in US airports today (where you officially have no civil rights).

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

So the first night, Friday (4/16). I had messengered (is that the verb?) a long-time Internet friend, Luca Gandolfi, just before we left, and that very afternon he phoned me to say he was giving a lecture on Jane Austen and her contemporaries: minor women writers. Would I like to come? Would I? Laura’s google map enabled her to help me find the place among turning alleyways and streets near the Duomo. Laura and Izzy thought they’d be bored so went for an hour’s walk near this institute, which houses a club, lecture hall (Luca is teaching a class of about 6 women as a volunteer lecturer — which scene reminded me of the OLLIs), musical concert places. Imagine we were talking of Julia Kavanagh and her novels. Luca said he preferred women writers to men. So do I.

His wife, Grazia, was there and at the end of the lecture Laura and Izzy were back and we all retired to a local Italian restaurant he and his wife often go to. Lovely place, good pizza and wine, and lots of company. Much good talk. Laura began to take many photos. Unfortunately, she put them on instagram which only later did I realize would not let someone else download them as jpgs. Nor does face-book, where you can find a photo of Luca and me.

I did not realize as yet I was having my first experience of an ancient thriving city. As the days and nights wore on, I was impressed by how everyone is interdependent in Milan. Wealth does not insulate you. Most stores have some time they are closed and everyone seems to know, for example, which pharmacies are open when. So you get lines. Everyone in Milan seems to accept lining up. The antiques market we spent hours at on Sunday morning (4/25) winded up and down the long canal, moving left and right with little spurs on side streets: slowly all the spaces filled up, slowly more and more people; around 11 the hourly church bells heard across the city. and what a higgledy-piggedy of things. I came home with this ceramic cat:

In much bubblewrap. The great Milan cathedral on the one side of a great square and down a wide pair of streets, the Castle Sforza with its vast park — are central sites, the first is tourist-infested but the places all around, the shopping is for everyone. There is some system of cabs where you must phone first but when you do phone, everyone is served. Uber is disruptive of this. The repeated trolley cars and trams going every which way. Higgedy, piggedly modern shops with ancient ruins, old buildings with new made to fit them. The restaurants are places for groups of people and are used a great deal until late at night. You must make a reservation but many do this seems.

There are exclusive practices. La Scala was so dull. As opposed to the wonderful bars (more than 2 usually) in the bowels of UK theaters and on different levels in the US which makes for much interactive experience, there is just the show, hardly announced, it’s over and all spill out. Cabs picking people up. Except for places like La Scala the lesson taught is we must and do all of us live together interconnectedly. Egalitarianism is too much an abstract word for what days really spent across Milan makes one feel.

To return to our lecture and dinner out with a friend, we were very tired, having left DC that morning 19 hours before we got to Duomo square. He and his wife walked us home and on the way showed us where the Milanese gov’t is found. In front of it is a large statue of a hand with its third finger stuck up. (Fuck you is universal.) We said goodbye and hoped we would see each other on Sunday (we did, albeit briefly) at the antiques fair where he sometimes has a stall and hunts every other week for good buys in books (collector’s items). Izzy, Laura and I must have been going 27 hours before we went up those stairs, opened the difficult door, managed to arrange the space in the flat so we slept in separate areas with doors inbetween. Privacy to read or write on ipads. And collapsed.


A Swiss lake from the train as we wound through the mountains of the Southern alps (where there are palm trees!)

Up the next morning bright and early, Saturday (4/17) to get to the Milan railway station leading us out of the country by train to Zurich, Switzerland. Why? We had been invited by a very long-time Internet friend, Fran, to visit her in her house in a small town in Germany about an hour’s drive from Zurich. I have known her since around 1997 on listservs, via email letters, in group reads, as friends, and whom I once met for an afternoon in London for lunch and a visit to a museum (the Wallace collection).


The Black forest from the car

She showed us all around Zurich that afternoon: its church, its very expensive shops, its library; its canals, bridges.


Modern shopping area

Zurich
Zurich church with spire

Then into her area of Germany by Saturday evening and we saw some remarkable small towns. One was called Doherty, Germany. Original gates preserved, streets and squares from 14th century.


A community place

There was at one end community center where immigrants could come to be acclimated, where clubs and civic activities go on; near by the statue of local woman who did much to build the town center. Home again to Fran’s beautifully custom-made house and lovely meal of melted cheese and boiled potato and pickles and pineapple and other things (it has a name but I missed it). It was the next day we visited 4 countries: we drove through the Black Forest, into Frieberg, Germany; Colmar and a French village surrounded by vines; ended in wine-bar.


Three different French villages

We were inside several interesting and quite different churches — it matters whether it was Protestant and stripped bare or high church Catholic, both were built in this region (and ferocious wars fought).


Outside a cathedral


Inside


A clock tower

High points of what we saw: one small Catholic church; Chagall stained windows; little scenes — in one street with the 14th century floors and windows and roofs I remembered how hard it was in Austen’s Emma to get a pianoforte into Miss Bates’s flat. You dropped it by ropes from the roof. Birds nesting on a roof

It has been so heartening to see so much civic pride. This is what is not seen in the US anymore. Everything has been done that can be done to break the spirit and shrink the pocketbook of the average American, at the same time as prices for everything are jacked up, no money put into anything public (not into transportation, not into schools, community centers are closed down if not run by a religious organization). Wide stretches of impoverishment and despair as the blight spreads.

Nourishing meal again at home with Fran and Karl. Much talk. Sleep. Next morning light snow, so pretty in Dogern. We returned to Zurich with Fran and got back on the train. I was sorry to part. I used to have a friend who consoled me after we had visited Salisbury cathedral and a house said to be the one Trollope modeled the Warden’s house on (in Southern England), and it was time to part. He lived in Arizona and I didn’t know if I’d ever see him again. “You know you’ve had a good time when you feel you are parting too soon.” His name was Sigmund Eisner and he was an important presence on the Trollope list with Mike Powe, the first listowner, and me and a few others in the early years. He would describe the original illustrations to Trollope’s novels as we went through them. Sigmund died about 15 years ago. I hold him in my memory.

We were in Milan by 5 pm and had to find a place to eat in — without reservations. We managed it — with difficulty. It took much walking, several rejections, and then luck. After the dinner we returned to the flat and collapsed. We slept late the following Tuesday morning (3/20). When I next write, you’ll hear all about Tuesday exploring,eating, planning for the week, shopping for food in Milan.

Gentle reader, I hope you forgive me these records of the time away with my daughters and contact with a few friends. Most of my life is spent alone. I’m back to that now: I go out to the courses at OLLI so as to be with people. I read with others online so as to be part of an imagined good community. On any given night when so many people might be out with or visiting friends, I’ll be in my house reading, writing, watching movies, listening to music, my cats nearby. So I write these to extend the times and relive them again I’ve had been out in the world with others.

Ellen

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Vivian and me, July 14, 2015, taken by Izzy: Alexandria’s yearly birthday party, a large park area by the Potomac, a concert and fireworks for all for free; we had a picnic

Dear friends and readers,

We are near setting off on our journey to Milan, Italy — Laura, Izzy, and I — where among other things (a visit to a friend who lives near Zurick which will necessitate a train-ride through the Alps and beautiful lakes; a visit to a fellow biographer of Veronica Gambara, in Reggio Emilia) we plan to attend the World Figure-Skating Championships, and find and look into what fashion museums and exhibits there are in this famous world city.

The last time the three of us were in Italy was 1994, 5 weeks with Jim in an apartment in Rome, from the which we took 4 trips: to Pompei, to Naples, to the island of Ischia for 3 days (where there is a beautiful beach and Vittoria Colonna lived for a number of years it’s thought), to Marino (where Colonna was born). We all three have many memories of that time. Upon coming into the flat, Laura, then 15, declared Italy had not invented air conditioning yet. Izzy said to another child at the beach: “mi chiamo Isabella.” A high point for Jim and I was a fresco we saw in a fourteenth century church one morning. We all wandered in the heat over the forum, the Colosseum, saw an opera amid some ancient Roman stones.

And early yesterday evening my good friend, Vivian, died: she went quickly, three weeks after the cancer resumed. I wrote about my visit to her in a hospice place in my last blog. I have learned as she died she was quiet (perhaps sleeping?), appeared to be at peace, kept out of consciousness of pain by drugs. Did she go gentle into that good night? I was not there and in her two earlier phone calls she expressed anguish.

What is it Macbeth says upon being told: “She should have dy’de hereafter;/There would have been time for such a word.” I will not be here when the memorial service is held. I grieve for her and will miss her.

Every moment I’ve been able to I’ve been either reading, writing, thinking for the courses I’m teaching (The Later Virginia Woolf; Sexual & Marital Conflicts in Anthony Trollope: HKHWR), or taking (The Brontes, a book club whose first item is Atwood’s The Blind Assassin), or still at that paper (Woolf & Johnson, biographers), or online with friends, blogging, nurturing (so so speak) my 3 groups.io (the book, the extraordinary American Senator) — not to omit getting through all things needful for the trip. Some of them arduous, time-consuming, confusing — like airline reservations supposed to be on a website which are not there. Not to worry: Laura made a phone call in her firm determined voice and our tickets & we now exist again. “Able to” is the operative phrase: many a later afternoon or evening I give out and succumb to a movie that can keep me up; this weekend I reached the fifth episode of Alias Grace (another Atwood adapted).

I’m more awake tonight than I have been for several, enough to tell of how this past Wednesday I went to the last of the four lectures on Impressionism outside France: so to my last blog on Russia, the low countries and Italy, I add the UK, and I was not surprised it was the most interesting because he had the most paintings to show. Gariff went on for nearly 3 hours. This time I had heard of most of the painters, but had not realized that the work of many of the painters I had “placed” in separate schools when regarded as impressionist made a different kind of sense. Elizabeth Forbes (1859-1912), who I’ve written about as an Edwardian woman painter in the Newlyn School, links to Laura Knight (1877-1970), who I wrote more briefly about as a Cornish artist. Victorian artists familiar to me as recording the abysmal poverty of the countryside and cities, i.e., George Clausen (1852-1944) belong here; and some I’d never heard of, Spencer Frederick Gore (1878-1914):


The Icknield Way (1912) — a road in Surrey since Roman times

Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops, and his fostering of post-impressionism, his pictures belong here too. A Scottish woman artist, Ethel Walker (1861-1951) now fits. She painted Vanessa Bell, the first image I’ve seen that enables me to begin to understand why Bell was so liked:


Vanessa 1937

Two American artists this time were very influential: Whistler and John Singer Sargent. I learned that the next time I go to London I should go the London Imperial War Museum. Its name (because of the militarist connotations) is misleading: it is a leading place for artist painting during WW1, which most of these people did. Sidney Starr (1857-1925) has such a poor wikipedia page, I have to link in a sales one (he was an important art critic):


Starr’s City Atlas (1889-90) was part of an exhibit or talk about how difficult to get to know London

Philip Wilson Steer (1860-1942) ended up an important teacher (teachers matter), he was influenced by Monet and this is his most famous painting.


Children Paddling, Walberswick (1894)


But perhaps this curiosity, of an over-dressed woman with a cat called Hydrangeas is more characteristic

Vivian’s favorite painter was Monet, and during the visit her brother and sister took her on to Paris this summer they took her to Giverny. She also had a cat called Sammy (Samantha) for seven years.

Izzy and I almost didn’t go to a performance by Catherine Flye accompanied by Michael Tolaydo as narrator at the Metrostage of a revue of the life and songs of Joan Grenfell. We had tickets for Saturday, and were so preoccupied we forgot to go. The woman who basically runs the Metrostage single-handed phoned us 5 minutes before, and offered to let us come Sunday instead. This remarkable pair of actors presented a later afternoon of witty cheer with an undercurrent of desperate acceptance; there were some twee moments but also direct hits at frustrated longing hearts. My favorite was a piece called “The Telephone Call” (a woman spending her life caring for an aged parent). A couple very funny: one of a woman on her first airplane flight when people were still treated with respect and given comfort as human beings. The pianist played wonderful older melodies I recognized, one famous from WW2, The Warsaw Concert by Richard Addinsell (who wrote most of the music performed).


Michael Tolaydo and Catherine Flye, 2002 (Gardener McKay’s Sea Marks)

We had both wanted to go because we both remembered the moving play Sea Marks, with Tolaydo and Flye, which we saw with Jim in 2002 at this Metrostage. I’ve had that black-and-white newsprint picture on the wall of my study all this time

I return to Vivian. One of the class members of my Later Woolf came for the first class and for the rest I’ll keep him in the email list as I send comments and readings out, and lectures too. He can’t come regularly as he’s taking chemotherapy and radiation for cancer. Vivian was killed by lymphoma (as was Jenny Diski) combined with brain cancer. She was no reader: odd for a best friend for me, but there are other things that matter. She was a kind person, sensitive. Charitable and forbearing at others’ flaws. She shared my politics, my lack of religion. While she didn’t read books, she always seemed to know the latest US political development; she’d take the progressive side most of the time, and post about it on face-book. We went to Bernie Sanders rallies. We also took wandering walks in Old Town. We’d go to some movies together (we didn’t quite have the same tastes): I went twice to Kedi (the movie set in Isanbul about feral cats and their caretakers in that city) so she could see it, and she cried. She stayed up (she had problems sleeping so would often fall asleep at movies) for and was moved by Still Alice.

Here is one of the poems Flye recited, movingly:

If I should die before the rest of you,
Break not a flower nor inscribe a stone.
Nor, when I’m gone, speak in a Sunday voice,
But be the usual selves that I have known.
Weep if you must,
Parting is hell.
But life goes on …

That doesn’t mean one forgets however little one is given chance to mourn with any ceremony. I feel bad because Vivian had emailed the suggestion when she still thought she would live (some 5 weeks ago) that she and I go to the Grand Canyon this coming May. I had balked at the idea of the plane and asked if there was a way to go by train. No. It would take some absurd amount of time. A drive was ridiculous. I was adjusting to the idea of taking yet another plane (how I hate them all) and was beginning to propose we look into a package tour. I told her I imagined us on donkeys going up and down vast cliffs, which probably showed how little I know about modern tourism in the Grand Canyon. It was still in the realm of half-joke when she phoned to say the cancer had returned and she was in hospital. We had some good walks in Old Towne this summer: a ghost tour, one night along the water eating ice-cream listening to street musicians in the mild crowd.

We all come from the past … life is a braided cord of humanity stretching from time long gone … it cannot be defined by a single journey from diaper to shroud … (Russell Baker, Growing Up, an autobiography I read with freshman composition students decades ago, which I remembered tonight)

Ellen

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Aigas House, Inverness, Scotland

Dear friends,

I realized the other day that I had never linked in here my three travel blogs on my 8-9 days this summer at Aigas House, Inverness, Scotland, located at the southern faultline of the Scottish highlands. So here they are, together with yet another poem by a Scottish women writer.

Scottish Highlands Tour from Aigas House: the framework (1)

Scottish Highlands Tour from Aigas House: historical, archaeological, Caledonian Forest; town & country & women’s work (2)

Scottish Highlands Tour from Aigas House: the West Coast; Priories, Museums & Castles; Celtic folk music & women’s poetry


In Cawdor Castle Gardens

The Star-Reaper

In the city, it was cold, but dry,
Not wild and snow-laden like here.
Another world, of buses, noise,
Traffic-lights and passing people.
Grey skies and mists
But pavements dry,
And telling nothing of this world
Of snow, deep ice and freezing wind,
Waves of snow,
Drifting in the wind,
Across the roads;
Across the trees,
Deep, buried, sleeping trees,
Sleeping in the snow,
Their buried summer dreams.

I miss you now, wood-elf,
With your dreams of deer,
Your eyes of snow, and stars
And buried moonlight,
Leaping up the years and tears and fallen pines,
Star-leaping,
Buried in sky-forests,
Orion, sky-reaper,
Through the diamond fields, to meet me.
Your name sky-hunter
Echoes in the darkened side of Venus,
Through bright Saturn’s ring
And the scattered plains of Sirius,
The hunter’s friend.

Cold, the city,
With your sleeping sun bright in some other sky,
Your sun bright in a day of white earth, and white sky,
Tears from some ice-hearted god.
And you among the trees,
Deep in the frozen tracks of some elusive stag,
Heart of fire,
Spirit of earth,
It moves somewhere among the pines,
Somewhere in front of you,
Frozen footprints cast in the stone snow.
I see the star-reaper,
Moon-sister,
Sunfire in snow forest,
Earth-Iover and sun-born.
— Morelle Smith, Scottish, from The Star Reaper (1979)

Miss Drake

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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

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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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autumnmist
These autumnal photos are from friends on face-book: Mist

“Speech,” she said, “is but broken light upon the depth Of the unspoken . . . ” —George Eliot, The Spanish Gypsy

Dear friends and readers,

I feel like I’m beginning again after some kind of hiatus where I’ve been in this strange state of interacting with all these different people without Jim nearby. When I can return to my house although I know he does not exist anymore, I have my memories and all the things left over and can find peace and strength from routine alone. I have not had that kind of strengthening for hours on end since October 11th. So I realize however hard for me without this nest I lose the roots of my identity.

fallenleaves
Fallen Leaves

The front half of my house is still under-going renovation and we’ve had no kitchen sink, sometimes no stove since October 7th. We eat out evenings (Olive Garden, La Madeline, a nice Pizza restaurant in Old Town where we’ve watched 60 Minutes, Leslie Stall still going strong on a visit to the antartic) or we go to Noodles and Company and carry the pasta back or order from a local Chinese restaurant. While we were in Chawton, I had to put my poor pussycats (badly frightened I realized when I picked them up) in a pet boarding house to make sure they would be safe (not run away), taken regular care of for some 8 days. At home when the contractors are here, they must stay in one room in the back and they hear the startling frightening noises.

Another way to put this is I’ve not blogged anywhere for 11 days! and have not written seriously here (as in The Fragility of Friendship) since before the anniversary of Jim’s death (October 9th). For some people such a stretch would be nothing. Not for me. Out of touch. I need to re-situate myself this way. I’ve not been sleeping the night through for several days and nights now. Waking at 3:30 am no matter what pills I take or how I exhaust myself. So I do read for a while and take a melantonin (non-prescription sleeping pill) and get two more hours if I’m lucky that way.

My books during this time have included Tolstoy’s War and Peace in two different language translations, Gaskell’s Mary Barton, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography. I’ve watched LeCarre’s Night Manager yet once more. Going and coming back on the plane. I’m getting to understand what’s happening, all the nuances of that remarkable exposure of the arms industry: the New York Times tells us how the people fighting in Mosul are a combination of mercenary armies, disaffected ethnic groups, small “classified” (not explained) special forces from the US and other nations, but does not tell us where the fearful bombs (barrels of napalm) are made and by whom and what is the payment. LeCarre calls our attention to this.

I’ve been to three conferences — one far away in Chawton, Hampshire (a Charlotte Smith conference, at Chawton Library, in type very like the Burney, only much longer, 3 days, 10/14 to 10/16, including a many hour series of trips around to Smith sites in Sussex and Surrey on Sunday), two close in vicinity but not in type (the Burney conference this past Thursday, 10/20, and the JASNA, 10/21 and 10/22, both in the Washington DC area). I’m not through yet: I’ve a fourth conference (a favorite, where I do meet real old friends, EC/ASECS) in two weeks, located about two hours away by car, Mary Washington College. Tomorrow is my Film Club which I don’t want to miss. I will resume teaching (I stopped for a week) this Monday.

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chawton-house-library1

So what is worth telling beyond the papers I heard (which I’ll write up as a series of reports about Charlotte Smith, Frances Burney, and Austen and all things Austenian in my Austen reveries blog). Travel looms large in my mind as well as the place I’d never seen before. I sent a proposal to the Charlotte Smith conference as I had longed to see the Chawton Library, the house Jane Austen’s brother inherited, to which Chawton cottage was an appendage. Now I have. It is a beautiful mansion, once a private home (and one can see even now how it was lived in if you apply your imagination), now a building given over to research, with rooms of rare books, mostly 18th century, focused on women writers and artists and Jane Austen. We were shown one beautiful volume of studies of flowers and plants by an 18th century woman — the book is apparently their display copy for visitors to peruse.

During the two days of papers, which included two recitals of her poetry to music, I heard so much about her for the first time and had my sense of what her poetry can be altered, enriched, explained, and in the one day we went touring, saw as many sites as human beings literally could do, with a 20 minute lecture by a local historian, Carol Brown, on the history of the church Charlotte Turner (as she was then) attended as well as the house her mother lived in nearby (Stoke), complete with contemporary illustrations.

It’s ironic this blog will be about all the things that happened during the trip itself, and what I left behind (my two pussycats), and the countryside and city (London) we saw, and not Smith. I met Loraine Fletcher, the biographer of Smith and had much solacing and stimulating conversation. I enjoyed a couple of meals Izzy and I had with her and another friend. The Smith group wants to become a small society, perhaps have a website and face-book page; they are starting up in hard times. One must incorporate a non-profit, to do a journal takes enormous work, but someone from BSECS (British Society of 18th century studies) said he would add the Smith Society (if there is one) to their website as a way of starting. They could have caucuses or panels every other year at ASECS too. Other smaller societies do that.

reading_room_interiorchawtonlibrary
Interior reading room at Chawton Library

What strikes someone in the year 2016 is how small a community the village of Chawton is today and thus how tiny it must have been in the later 18th century. Alton had three (!) bookstores and all the amenities and types of shops daily life requires, but without the internet (intermittent in many buildings) and fully socialized individual life and regular visits to London or visiting theater and other groups what a quiet life it might be. Alton Hotel (where we stayed) is a central hub, as pub, dining room, Sunday meeting and conference place.
juddbooks
A remarkably good Bloomsbury bookstore — superb collection of theater and poetry and all sorts of subjects

Izzy and I spent a full day in London too: we managed 2 Bloomsbury parks, 5 bookstores altogether. Three were remarkable collectors’ places in the middle of the West End theater district: I held a first edition of Trollope’s The American Senator in my hand, 3 volumes, in beautiful condition, in one. Another was a treasure trove of music publications, including reference sets, the most remarkable and interesting (and ordinary) of books published, plus playbills it seemed for the last 200 years, another filled with prints, from the 18th century on, whole series. That I bought only 5 books, all carryable (not the first edition of American Senator, too high in price for me) showed self-control.

We went to the Beyond Carravagio exhibit in the National Gallery: some 8-9 rooms of intriguing imitators of Caravaggio, groups of people playing cards, cheating one another in all sorts of ways, transgressive sex, theatrical scenes of betrayal — this after we discovered the Film Museum (where we had tried to go to do something different) is now as imbecilic as the Maritime Museum in Cornwall was: huge amounts of noise, endless repetitions of cars crashing on films, and the actual cars (it was said) used in James Bond films is all there is there now. We saw a not-so-good production of Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser. Unfortunately the only images I have for the Caravaggio are those where Christ is included, and these are far less interesting than the revelations of people seen in many of those with no gods in them. The film of The Dresser that I saw on my BBC Iplayer was better, but this one seemed so a propos to the wars going on now and the murdering to profound distress and dislocation of many: Sir I now realize is a sexual predator as well as blind egotist. The players did not do the parts as plangently as in the film, and I preferred that.

We stayed at a hotel in Bloomsbury: the George, no bathroom or shower to ourselves, as minimal in comforts a room (one lamp for example) as the hotel we had in Paddington when we came last year. It seems unless you are willing to spend hugely, in London that’s all there is.

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Another wrinkle in warnings against airplane travel. You may recall all the trouble and expense I had buying these non-stop tickets to and from Chawton. Well, when Izzy and I got to the airport to get back to Washington DC on the Tuesday morning (10/18), in plenty of time, at first we were told we were part of “overbooked seats” and would not get on that plane, but maybe the next or maybe stay in a hotel. I became silently but (apparently visually enough) distraught: the woman employee saw in my eyes this wouldn’t do, as I started to say how angering this was, and with startling ease suddenly produced two seats — the same seats Izzy and I had had on the plane to the UK.

overbooked

This incident should trouble anyone: it didn’t feel quite random, not just these same two seats (about the middle of the Premium Economy caste). We were asked to sit apart from other passengers and put on the plane first. It may be the whole paranoiac atmosphere in the US and at airports where the US dominates creates paranoia but I’d prefer if utter disrespect and lack of concern for Izzy and I as individuals (our cases were already on board the plane) were driving this sudden refusal and then production of two seats. Today on the Metro coming home from JASNA, I overheard a conversation where a young woman was refused entrance into a plane, made to wait 3 hours for another, and then not let on that, and finally instead of a hotel, a third plane taking her to a different airport had found out in fact there were seats on the original plane but somehow given to someone else.

This is the power of monopoly corporations. While on said plane, Premium economy people were told there were no good snacks between the two meals. Don’t tell me first and other similar classes on another level of the plane didn’t have these. My cell phone did not work at all for days while away, and I still have not gotten a paper bill from Sprint since July; I was egregiously overcharged in September by phone after I came home from Cornwall and was told my bill was “way overdue.” I am one promised next week. I emailed my other daughter, Laura, to ask about her experience, does she use another server, and her prompt reply was “they are all like this” and she’s not had a bill from Verizon for 6 months and “can’t get one from them.” My phone did begin to work when we got to London and then again when I got home. I don’t want an i7 which is what I’m told I’ll get if I try to buy a new device. I noticed the spread of of Indian caste systems now includes the security theater: different lines for differently labelled US passport holders, different amounts of time to wait, but all seemingly requiring four different snapped photos.

It’s not enough to avoid absolutely all middle men (Expedia, the kind of intervening site which seems to be the hotel you want to stay in, but is a middle man and so the hotel is not responsible if your booking is not there for real), to phone and book the airline direct and talk to a real human being who reads aloud the document and send a copy to you of what you paid for (and pay for a better seat than Economy or Steerage Abuse): my new plan is never take a plane unless I am profoundly sure I want to go to wherever it is and will have an enjoyable time. I realize that when companionless I find the contingencies of all travel itself an trial (when not an ordeal of exploitation) so must take that into consideration too.

Izzy was with me, and she spent two afternoons at Jane Austen’s house in Chawton iself. She said she remembered nothing of the house and so it was of real interest to her. She went over to the church and saw Jane’s sister and mother’s grave; ate a good lunch at Cassandra’s cup. She appeared interested in a couple of the more accessible papers on Smith; said she understood mine and enjoyed the day’s touring. Having her with me was a great help for me, and she saw England once again. But I doubt she’d go for a week in the Lake District, much less follow Johnson and Boswell’s steps into the Hebrides in Scotland. I’m not sure about the latter myself.

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Trinity Washington University - 125 Michigan Avenue NE, Washington, DC
Trinity College, one of the buildings

The one-day all day Frances Burney conference was held two days ago, 10/22, at Trinity College in Northeast DC: it’s still filled with non-minority girl- and young womanhood. A grand old building which has hardly been renovated, we had a large auditorium where they served us very good food for lunch, breakfast coffee and rolls and afternoon tea too. Acoustics not good but we managed. I liked being there, seeing the young women students. The older wood engravings everywhere in the building, the grand stairways, a library spoke of decent hope, original dignity, and a continuing attempt to educate and give meaning to students’ lives. I had a couple of students at Mason who had spent a year or so in the institution, both hispanic, and now becoming nurses.

We had a dinner not far from the Marriot hotel where the JASNA was located. This one was differently enjoyable for me than the Smith, because I know some of the people. I have a couple of very good friends I’d say (though seeing them only twice a year at best, and writing on-line occasionally over the year) and have had good conversations with them over the years of going to Burney conferences (on and off for some 10 years or so, plus I wrote up reports of these conferences for those I went to and they were published in the Burney Newsletter). Still I was beginning to be very tired by this time. I will enter into the individual papers thoroughly on the Austen reveries blog: Burney had a more varied life and her journals are astonishingly rich.

It used to be the Burney conference occurred the day and morning before the JASNA started and in the same hotel or place: some central people in the Burney society are central to JASNA so they have been sister-groups. But now JASNA extends its vacation-like tours and fan-group like workshops, with so-called “light” lectures to three days before the sessions start (cut down from 9 at Portland, 7 at Montreal and now 4 only) on Friday. I met several people who were complaining (though ever so politely and hesitantly): “it’s over so quickly” was a typical comment. This thing has cost Izzy and I $400 each; all the activities beyond the fee were separately charged. You can’t get anything in that hotel without being nickled and dimed (actually 5 dollared).

Anyway the time of the conference extends over counting tours and these scattered lectures cover conflict with the smaller Burney society, so like the small Smith group, this society needs to partner, perhaps now differently: say run sessions or caucuses at larger 18th century conferences, or join (as they will next year) with another smaller women’s group: the Aphra Behn Society.
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The hotel inside looks like this on one of the floors from a frontal view

By contrast to the Burney venue, the JASNA hotel was all marble floors, glass and anonymous modernity, escalators, hardly anywhere to eat but a Starbucks. If there was a super-expensive restaurant, it was not made obvious to someone not staying in the hotel. A floor above the meetings rooms was a small book “Ford’s emporium,” which included the usual junk earrings, paraphernalia Austeniana, and also three or four tables of interesting books and I was able to include my edition of Ethelinde among those on the Jane Austen Books table. Izzy was invited to a halloween party by her ex-boss with a proviso that “costumes are strongly preferred” and I gather for the last 3 AGMS (I went now 4 years ago) someone running a regency costume shop has had a large stall at the JASNA AGM. Izzy found a dress that suited her for this coming occasion. She looks good in some of the regency dresses (and once tried a corset on and looked right in that too).

A small snapshot for now: Arnie Perlstein was there and responded to the lecturer of the key note address. This lecturer (semi-famous with a book written from a post-colonial stance on Austen) asserted rather incoherently about there being so much that is invisible in Emma, but he did not go on to tell us what this was: the lecturer did take a page were servants were mentioned but he did not try to prove 18th century readers seriously read the book to find out about the Woodhouse servants. He seemed to try to make jokes, to have a jocular stance: when he would quote something the audience found funny they did laugh. and he looked relieved. I sometimes wonder if the speakers are told to try to “lighten” it up; they tend to ride over the nebulous. Arnie got up so gratified and began to talk of Jane Fairfax’s pregnancy and some other of his favorite theories. The lecturer looked embarrasssed. But it fit his thesis. Arnie was stopped. Since the academic was too cowardly or careful to say what these invisible depths were (perhaps sexual?), his lecture was to my mind exposed as having nothing in it (invisible?).

I did feel rejuvenated a little about Austen two papers I heard and one Izzy told me about: one was on sexual assault in Emma: the woman said she put her proposal in a year ago so the relevance was unintended but there. She also covered the psychological assault on Jane Fairfax. The audience response was intense and for once stayed on topic. The popular readership in fan cults hardly ever talk on line, but unlike academics they will talk in sessions about what they feel about a favorite book or author. I get the feeling they long to discuss Austen and their views and hardly ever get a chance to do it. They had less this year than previous ones. Another paper on education mildly and therefore persuasively suggested Mr Knightly not the great teacher — as he says himself. Here the audience soon went off-topic to gossip about the characters. But they did hear and take in the paper (in some years I’ve been at talks where the lecturer worked so hard to convince the audience of say how this unpopular Austen movie provided a new insight and when the audience began to respond it was clear they just didn’t listen to or accept at all what had been said). I find it jarring when a lecturer is insisting on some sentimental interpretation of a text (such as how good a daughter Emma is, how inspiring) and then quotes one of Austen’s bitter caustic comments. There was a superb lecture by Susan Allen Ford on what is read in Emma and by whom, and what paying attention to these books cited in the novel tell us about the characters and book’s themes. It was said by some to be “so erudite” (I’m not sure if this kind of statement is apologetic or is critical or what?) but it’s easy to reply by saying, yes it was excellent, and as Austen herself says of political talk, silence comes soon afterward.

I have read the North American JASNA grew exponentially in 1995 at the time of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice (scripted Andrew Davies, with the now tiresome wet shirt scene), and it has not fallen off since. Many of those coming take it as an excuse for a vacation in a famous toured place. Lots of people networking for wherever they work, for other similar organizations, trying to set up coming publications and so on. I’ll write details what presentations (or papers) I heard on my Austen Reveries blog (on illustrations, on three recent Emma films). I find the JASNA each time I’ve attended oddly exhausting, at once crowded and yet lonely. People wave at me who in other places I have talked with.

Happily neither the Burney or JASNA conference necessitated staying away from home. How much easier are those conferences where one gets to leave in the early evening or goes home between bouts of sessions. The cats missed me badly, the house and Izzy too very much. True to family form, they didn’t socialize with the other cats, but preferred a soft box put in their cage, and staying close to one another. Clinging, they were not sick but they did not eat much. It is all so much more endurable, cats, books at home, quiet.

I have not begun to say what it has been. Sylvia Plath wrote after her divorce, “the danger is that in this move toward new horizons and far directions, that I may lose what I have now, and not find anything except loneliness.” It’s not that for me but I understand how she could feel that way. On widowhood: “It is not true that in time you get used to it. Far from healing wounds, time can on the contrary, only make wounds worse” — Simone de Beauvoir. Again it’s not that bad for me rather the wounds just grow deeper as I think about my own conduct all these years and how I must live now.

Miss Drake

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