We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

The MLA: Great Women Writers: Austen, Wharton, Woolf · 12 January 06

Dear Marianne,

My last letter on this year’s MLA in Washington D.C. I have yet to tell of the sessions I went to on individuals: these included Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf. I did go to a session run by the Byron Society of America and heard papers comparing Byron and Burns’s love poetry, Byron and Scott’s use of romanticism, and Joanna Baillie and Susan Ferrier. The paper on the poetry (given by Carol McGuirk) was splendid: a close reading aloud and commentary on poetry, but beyond that the most memorable moment of the session was a request of a young gay man to be allowed to advertise a gay session on Byron which somehow had not made it into the catalogue—Byron’s bisexuality was otherwise not brought up at all in this session.

The Austen session was held in a large room and was well attended. It showed how what makes a great paper is an intelligent clear-spoken person. Two of the papers were utter wastes of time. Young women took a phrase from the novels, and went off on a discourse of such strained abstractions coming out of their readings on theoretical postcolonialism that I nearly fell asleep. A man (very high in the profession apparently) gave a paper called "The Thing about Fanny Price" where he assumed everyone dislikes Fanny Price because she’s so uncongenial. His paper lacked a thesis too.

But there was one excellent talk: Lillian Robinson: "Lady Bertram’s Shawl." Prof Robinson began by retelling in concrete lively language the plot-design, thematics, and individual scenes in Rozema’s filmic adaptation of MP. She showed the distance of Rozema’s film from Austen’s book, and suggested that Austen’s lack of overriding interest in slavery and other overtly political issues was the result of the reality that upper class white women were profiting from slavery and were privileged by the hierarchical system —as long as they obeyed the hypocritical mores which included staying ignorant of details. She was funny, sarcastic and yet deeply sympathetic to Rozema’s MP. She ended on a slightly flippant irony aimed at those who persist also in ignoring Austen’s real if marginal and understated critique of the social and political and economic and sexual arrangements of her era. She preferred Rozema’s misreading to many a complacent correct reading.

Prof Robinson was introduced as the author of many books, one of which was Sex, Class, and Culture. She looked old, frail, but indomitable: she reminded me of Madelyn Gutwirth (she wrote a great book on Germaine de Stael, and The Twilight of the Goddesses, which is about 18th century France and French women’s lives & how they were represented in various media). Robinson dressed like Gutwirth and had a similar glint in her eyes. Looking Robinson up in bookfinder.com I discovered she’s written many feminist books, books on Canadian women’s literature, and is the principal of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute at Concordian University.

I confess to feeling very pleased when after some back-and-forth exchange with the audience over all the papers, she said to someone who had been defending Fanny Price in a way that lacked nuance, "yes but did Austen love Lady Bertram," I suddenly spoke up and said, "No, but Jane Austen approves of Fanny loving Lady Bertram." Prof. Robinson turned round and looked at me as if I had said the first thing she approved of since her speech, and said, "yes, perfect, that’s right," at which I followed up with a comment that not all people find Fanny Price uncongenial, and that some of the resentment the first speaker had been describing was the result not of Fanny’s sensitivity so much nor her moralism, but her self-possession. Yes these readers don’t want to be asked to identify with the outcast, ugly duckling, and victim, but their intense dislike of this particular victim comes from how Fanny Price lives on and in herself. They resent someone who does not conform to whatever is the going mores—as they do (no matter what the cost). I suggested this self-possession is part of what enables her to find some pleasure in her existence and survive.

Frances O’Connor as Fanny Price (in Rozema’s MP)

The Virginia Woolf run by the Woolf society was also plagued by overly abstract papers. Still there were two on Woolf’s non-fiction essays ("Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown," A Room of One’s Own," and _Three Guineas), and one which included a discussion of Woolf’s late prose poem, The Years. I was delighted as I don’t care for Woolf’s experimental fiction and these were all works I know well. One woman talked of Woolf’s attitude towards Antigone (as real rebel) and this connected back to George Eliot’s use of Antigone I asked about this, Eliot’s use of Hermione in Daniel Deronda (where we are made to see Shakespeare’s character as an image of silent death-in-life existences), and A. S. Byatt’s use of analogous archetypes. She was very pleased. Basically all four people demonstrated how central to modern feminist socialist modernist points of view Woolf’s though is, and how central her poetic use of language to women’s novels after her.

Since "Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown" is rarely done real justice to I’d like to interject my own thoughts on Woolf’s famous essay here. Woolf’s essay is famous for its central objection to the kind of fiction not only "Mr Bennett", but also "Mr Wells and Mr Galsworthy" whom Woolf calls Edwardian novelists—and Mr Gissing all produced. It’s said Woolf objects to the detailed surface of their technique of realism. What’s left out is why.

The central conceit or storyline to the essay is Woolf is sitting on a train (the equivalent of a bus) next to an old woman.

The central thesis of Woolf’s essay is that in the fiction of the Edwardians (the label Woolf gives to the fiction of Wells, Galsworthy and Bennett and we may extend to Gissing) and the Victorians and all the novelists who came before them paid inadequate attention to the Mrs Browns of the world (real typical women). Mrs Brown is repeatedly described by Woolf and is characterized as

1) a real woman who stands for all women of Woolf’s and earlier periods of the novel; she is imagined as sitting across the way in a railway coach she and Woolf share; and as

2) someone who has "led an anxious, harried life, bringing up an only son, perhaps, who, as likely as not, was by this time beginning to go to the bad"; other variants of characterisation stresses the woman’s hidden anxiety, frustration, misery, and endless attempts to hide how she lives on an edge of poverty, is powerless against most of the people she must interact with include: "She sat in her corner opposite, very clean, very small, rather queer, and suffering intensely."

The central thesis of the portrait is

"Mrs Brown is human nature, Mrs Brown only changes on the surface … there she sits and not one of the Edwardian novelists have so much as looked at her. They have looked very powerfully, searchingly, and sympatheticallyout of the window; at factories, at Utopias [this probably refers to William Morris and
Bulwer-Lytton’s late fiction], even at the decoration and upholstery of the carriage; but never at her, never at life, never at human nature."

According to Woolf, the Victorian and Edwardian novelists have not done so because the "tools" they use come from conventions which prevent them and her generation from getting any where near what is the source of Mrs Brown’s impoverished life, choice of silence or powerless complaints. These conventions are so much "ruin" and "death" in life. They are killing in fiction. They are centrally what’s called realism, the probable and socially prudent as our reality and options. They insist on decorum which means the erasure of the realities of Mrs Brown’s inner life. They never present her in her full misery nor begin to explain how she got to be the way she is. Woolf is saying the function of fiction is to ask questions forbidden in repressed corrupt polite society, to get us to ask ourselves if we are content with our marriages, our family, our professional lives, our friends, to open up before us the cost of the "civilization," the social order to the powerless, & the subordination of women particularly.

Another important thread of the piece is the famous saying not that the world or people changed in 1910. That is not quite what she writes. She writes that she and the reader know a change in the depiction of human character in literature has happened in the last couple of decades, one which "was not sudden and definite" but that came to a kind of head as a result of changes in power relationships between people and can be conveniently or fictionally dated as as "on or about December 1910". She amasses a group of works which she says showed "signs" of the shift that was occurring: Bernard Shaw, Samuel Butler (particularly The Way of All Flesh). She tells the reader to read Aeschylus Agamemnon, and "see whether, in process of time, your sympathies are not almost entirely with Clytemnestra."

Mine are. But from productions I’ve seen that many producers do not sympathize with Clytemnestra. Iphigenia’s is a noble death. How great and wonderful she is. Etcetera. I love Woolf for how she takes the reader to where we can say how cruel is Aeschylus and Sophocles, and understand why Euripides was seen as rebel (rightly in my view) corrosive of order.

"Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown" shows Woolf arguing that reading against the grain began on or around 1910 and the works of literature which were most alive to the new currents were written to sympathize with characters who loathed the moral underpinnings of power structures in the world, especially those which supported men and other authority figures whatever these be:

"consider the married life of the Carlyles and bewail the waste, the futility, for him and for her, of the horrible domestic tradition which made it seemly for a woman of genius to spend her life chasing beetles, scouring saucepans, instead of writing books. All human relations have shifted—those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature. And let us agree to place one of these changes about the year 1910."

The change she is most interested in—and the writers she likens her fiction to (E. M. Forster, Lawrence, Strachey, Joyce, and Elliot)—is the one which leads the writer and reader to focus on the harrassment and anxiety which makes the "intense suffering" of life for women or even people like Mrs Brown.

I’ll give an example: Forster’s Maurice who is the first openly homosexual character I can think of who is presented with real sympathy in respectable literature and whose social context of a justified dread of blackmail controlling his life is still important. Henry James’s males are hiddenly homosexual.

Now Woolf is aware that she too is hiding something, is herself vague because she then goes on to say that "You may well complain of the vagueness of my language." Why does she not specify what she means by conventions. Her answer is that her generation has a problem: there is a bridge which divides them and their average or prospective reader, one which demands that they partly conceal what they are getting at, lest they offend those who have not undergone this shift in sympathy. She says the new books will strike you as "indecent" (Joyce), "obscure" (T. S. Eliot), as books which are made up of "fragments" (her own?). This attempt at necessary "concealment" has "robbed his [the modern novelist like herself and these people] of some of the force that should have gone into it, and limited his scope". Nonetheless, what she and all her generation want to see is a "smashing and crashing" of the underpinnings of the social world that Gissing, Bennett, Galsworthy and Wells depict as unchanged and apparently permanent. She says the "prevailing" or important sound of the Georgian age (her own) is of "crashing and destruction". What Bennett does is "compromise" and in compromising he has given up Mrs Brown (and the underclasses of society).

What is concealed? I’m not sure but I’ll guess from the imagery a loathing of sexual repression for women: the older books had to "say a great many things under cover of that exquisite apparel which, had they gone naked, would have been chased by the men-servants from the room." For example, Woolf would loathe the way Gissing in The Odd Women presents Monica’s and Rhoda’s and Miss Royston’s and Miss Barfoot’s sexuality as utterly imprisoning, skewed, killing. They are not presented as having a right to their own bodies. They can have no fulfillment as long as they are not seeing their bodies in and for themselves. Also the materialism of the realism suggests what is central to life is the getting of money, of prestige, of sheer luxurious things. Being safe in the crowd. Here the word philistinism is used and this one is often quoted offhand out of context.

Woolf says certain mores support this. She hints at obedience to authority, at capitalism, at men, but mostly points to religion. Only once or twice does Woolf use the word "religion" but she does this in important places: this slow shift in outlook is coming with a change in attitudes towards religion. Woolf did not foresee the resurgence of repressive religion in the later 20th century. How could she? She did commit suicide and I am among those who think she did so because she couldn’t bear the barbaric horrors she was seeing around her in nationalistic racial & religious slaughter (for the group singled out for extermination were identified by their religion: Jewish).

The very last session I went to on Friday was given by the Edith Wharton society, and the theme was Wharton and Frenchness—French identity and art. Wharton as bourgeois, as gardener, as travel writer, the actual woman.

Irresistible to me. Three papers. One on Wharton’s The Custom of the Country by a graduate student writing her dissertation on Wharton. She spoke of later 19th century feminisms and how Wharton satirized the high-minded moralisms of the first phase, presented atavastic amoral figures (Undine, predator, Moffatt, manipulator and wheeler dealer): French culture was brought in by the comparison of Undine when she lives in France. Wharton idealizes the bourgeois high art culture but shows how repressive it is. The male who ends up committing suicide was not atavistic enough (an irony).

Another on Wharton’s The House of Mirth and Seldon and Grace as book and art collectors. This was given by an assistant professor (that means he is putting a line on his resume towards tenure by giving this paper at the MLA). Here the ironies were about how American businessmen value the cost of the object, its rarity, and price, and never think of the intangible content. Selden becomes an ideal sensitive figure who though barricades himself in by his love of art and books and cannot reach out to "collect" Lily. I asked this professor how did he relate Wharton to these collectors and retreaters? He really couldn’t answer since he said she sufficiently erases her autobiographical presence.

The last speaker was really a fan of Wharton, and her paper was about her pilgrimage to Wharton shrines. The Wharton society (like JASNA, Dickens, Trollope to some extent) has a fan contingent. This woman had travelled to two of the places Wharton lived in in France, managed to insinuate herself inside and taken pictures. Old French streets and buildings still standing in parts of Paris—the block reminded me of where Edward and I and Yvette stayed one Xmas. She photographed the mansion and gardens Wharton lived in at the end of her life. She went on in the most naive way about the aristocratic prince who now lives in this place. Wharton was presented as an ideal heroine who contributed greatly to the WW1 effort and someone whom French people honor. She did good deeds and some French people clearly do honor her. Much was made of Wharton’s love of gardens and books on gardening and art.

The atmosphere in this last session was uncomfortable because of its fan milieu. Not many people were there, and the women running the society were aggressive and rather close-minded about anything which departed from praise or usual scripts at the same time as they professed to be a little tired to hear about Wharton and James (who also deeply writes of art & book collectors as ambiguous figures) and Wharton and ghost stories. One resented the idea we might want to discuss something she’s already written about in her book. Surely we should be ever crediting someone for her work.

I didn’t stay for the talk afterwards. No one would have been able to bring forth the Mrs Brown elements in Wharton’s life or fiction. That Wharton kept herself separated from the avant garde movements of the time, was insulated by her wealth, and was herself deeply hurt by the mores of her era (the anxious woman in that above photo) could not really be discussed.

Marie Bashkirtseff (1858-1881/3) The Académie Julian (1880)

I have accentuated the positive. I did go to a meeting of contingent faculty where I was shut up. The only place. The MLA people had given them a large room. Probably a large percentage of people at this MLA were full-time non-tenured or restricted faculty, and I met a number of part-time adjuncts without even trying. Nonetheless, there were only 8 people in that room. I had come right up against one of the things that make it impossible for these migrant exploited workers of the academy to get anything for themselves: I brought up how the interests of the part-time contingent person conflicted with those of the full-time contingent person. I told of how where I teach the Lecturers’ Association has been disbanded because enough part-time adjuncts have been full-time term-contract people and they distance and dissociate themselves from the part-timers. Who would interact with such a stigmatized group? They long for tenure themselves. I didn’t know until later that most of the people in the room were full-time contingent people. From the way they were talking you’d think they were part-time. I made the mistake of joining their listserv: thus far the threads have been internecine quarrels over the election held at this meeting which several say was rigged.

I get flustered easily at such meetings. When the man who encouraged me to write a paper on Trollope and send it to Antipodes spoke to me I did not behave firmly and my voice rose unnaturally. I dropped my pad. I could see he didn’t like the feel of my tone, suspected something amiss. How rare is tolerance and empathy. I lost a hat I liked—Edward and I called it my Miss Bates hat after a little incident that happened
where I said to someone I look like Miss Bates, and she said, oh no, don’t say that. The joke was she had obviously read Emma. (I have since bought another.) I lost the book one uses to find sessions and had to rebuy another. I almost lost a valuable sweater. It was hard to get myself to go to that Victorian luncheon. At the end of each day I was emotionally drained from the effort.

It was a business meeting. One hotel was filled with nothing but interviews. One place was called "the pit"—a huge room like I once saw in 1977 filled with kitchen sets and people being interviewed. Which I ran away from. Lots of people come to the MLA sheerly by way of business, perhaps most: they are there to make contacts, to go to sessions on how to run a journal, how to do this or that. One on how to negotiate as a woman I glanced at and knew to stay well away from: such things are in my experience the kind of meetings where you are bullied into acting aggressively so it’s a repeat of bullying even if you are supposedly being taught something. Edward suggested that for many people there the sessions I went for are a kind of veiling of the hard or main purpose of the event.

Still for me it was very stimulating, rare learning and social interactions. I now know of a character type disability called Asperger syndrome which I’ve been looking into and will do more research on if need be. Marianne, it’s a good thing the MLA comes to this town only once in a while or I’d never get any work done that I need to do.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. Wow, Ellen. This is great. I only looked briefly over it tonight, but I have bookmarked your site and will study it more closely later.
    Britt-Arnhild    Jan 12, 3:45pm    #
  2. It’s interesting that you are researching Asperger’s Syndrome. Why are you researching it? Several of my friends think I have Asperger’s Syndrome. My mom thinks I have it, but my dad thinks I don’t have it. I went to a counselor over the summer, and I feel like he made my problems worse, or if he didn’t make them worse he at least made me worry about them more. I don’t think I have some of the symptoms he insisted I had. He started with the assumption that I had all these symptoms instead of trying to find out which symptoms I have. He tried to help me with problems that I didn’t think I have. I don’t think I have AS. I sometimes think, "If I had AS I would view this situation this way", but since I view it a different way maybe I don’t have AS. Maybe the counselor did help me a little. One of my friends was trying to help me last year, and she did a good job. I feel like some of my friends don’t understand me, but maybe that’s not because I have AS or I’m different, maybe it’s just because those people don’t take the time to understand me. Maybe I used to have AS but don’t have it anymore. Is it possible to have it and then later not have it?
    Jennica    Jan 12, 10:32pm    #
  3. Jennica, Aspergers can be suggested by a whole range of behaviors. See: If you seriously concerned, see a good psychiatrist who can test you.

    Ellen! Thank you so much for sharing your blog! I had a totally wonderful time clicking here and clicking there, looking at photos, reading papers, etc. I’ll check back so please keep it up!

    from a reading group or two
    Beck - aka Bekah    Jan 15, 1:41pm    #
  4. Here’s the web-site which didn’t show up.
    Becky - aka Bekah    Jan 15, 1:43pm    #
  5. Dear Bekah,

    I cannot tell you how much I regret I’ve not got the time to read the Booker prize books on BookerPrize @yahoo. I just love the type of book and I would enjoy very much joining in.

    On 19th century Lit I’m not so keen on many of the books (to put it mildly -- so many misogynistic, repressive, long-winded), but there too since the listowner and active participants are so kind and level of conversation high-minded (about the book), with the active participants reading, I regret I can’t do it either.

    I am there reading along the postings.

    Thank you for the website.

    Elinor Dashwood (you see from 19th century Lit how much Austen means to me)
    Chava    Jan 15, 8:11pm    #

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