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

Weeping, Shackled, Silent & Gardening Women: "and the soul was not afraid" · 4 March 06

My dear Anne,

Last night the Admiral and I went to see Richard Nelson’s play adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead as directed by Rick Davis and performed by the GMU players (college students). In 1999 Mr Nelson took a short story with a modern point of view about the frustrations of provincial life, the ennui of existence, petty revenges and spites, casting aside those who age, women who don’t marry and how marginalized and disempowered they must make themselves appear, all in a brilliant language about loss and the natural world—and turned it into Victorian melodrama. Bathetic. The second half ended in the wife weeping in her husband’s arms, limp and clinging, begging him to forgive her? For what? She had loved a boy who died (perhaps suicidal?) And we all gathered round Aunt Julia’s bed where she lays dying; the demand they all look intensely tender produced many strained smirks on the faces of the young actors.

If I believed in spirits, I might speculate that as in Victorian times, the zeitgeist was working to inform these young people that today in the US women in prisons (increasingly private and thus not under surveillance from the public in the way they once were), women are treated not just in analogous ways but precisely like they were when in slavery. Made to make themselves available for sex is just one part of it.

In her Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839, Frances Kemble tells of how slave women were shackled before and after giving birth. The myth was they were such bad mothers they wouldn’t breast-feed their babies. They were released a few days before giving birth, and two weeks after to be whipped into the fields for the usual 14 hour stint. A story appeared online which described how when pregnant and near the end of their time, sopme are shackled from the ankles—to make them cooperate, for their own good. Ah yes Read on.

This is not just anecdotal. People will do what the law permits. The article states:

"The report also finds that nearly half (at least 23) of the states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons have policies or practices allowing women to be restrained during labor; thirty eight states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons may use restraints on pregnant women in the third trimester. As part of its ongoing Stop Violence
Against Women Campaign, AIUSA will mobilize its activists to combat the practice of shackling or otherwise restraining women during pregnancy and labor, beginning with a focus on six states—Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Maine and Ohio—and the Federal Bureau of Prisons …"

Perhaps Nelson’s Mrs Gabriel was right to cling and apologize. On Wompo someone cited one of Octavia Butler’s poems. Its relevance to the empowered clique who control the military and various arms of the US government and have been putting their cronies onto the important US courts is all too obvious.

Parable of the Sower:

Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought.
To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears.
To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.
To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures t obe stolen.
To be led by a liar is to ask to be lied to.
To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.

I could end here, but thought I’d connect more poetry and a picture on the theme of "Il faut cultiver notre jardin".

I send you two poems come from Vita Sackville-West’s recreation of 18th century Georgic poetry in the booklength, The Land and the Garden. The Land and the Garden divides into cyles of winter, spring, summer, and autumn—these repeat more than once. It is written mostlyin blank verse (with Miltonic inversions now and again), but there are also sequences of stanzaic poems more playful rhythms for narrative and intervening lyrics. The book I have was originally expensively published with old-fashioned (pseudo-medieval) woodcut drawings. I find them pleasing. The text is very realistic about country life, the land and making a garden (which is in the 18th century mode deriving ultimately from Virgil’s Georgics). S-W provides information, history and tells the myth of the land around Knole, and Kent.

Her poem does lack that burlesque quality (making fun of yourself) that the Georgics of the 18th century sometimes have (e.g., the powerful comic "The Splendid Shilling" by Phillips, and also Anne Finch’s close in Fanscomb Barn). She seems not to have an alert or self-conscious sense of humor; without this burlesque, her Georgic lacks the neurotic & nightmare, which I think central to powerful moments in most of them I’ve read. Sackville-West’s poem has rather deeply imaginative and fanciful sequences. Another woman craving peace. The Land was published in 1926; The Garden, published in 1946—just after the eruption of barbarism called WW2 had subsided.

This is from "Winter:"

           What have they,
The bookish townsmen in their dry retreats,
Known to December dawns, before the sun
Reddened the earst, and fields were wet and grey?
When have they gone, another day begun,
By tracks into quagmire trodden,
With sacks about their shoulders and the damp
Soaking until their very souls were sodden,
To help a sick beast, by a flickering lamp,
With rough words and kind hands?
Or felt their boots so heavy and so swere
With trudging over cledgy lands,
Held fast by earth, being to earth so near?

Book-learning they have known.
They meet together, talk and grow most wise,
But they have lost, in losing solitude,
Something—an inward grace, the seeing eyes,
The power of being alone;
The power of being alone with earth and skies,
Of going about a takskwith quietude,
Aware at once of earth’s surrounding mood
And of an insect crawling on a stone …



Now die the sounds. No whisper stirs the trees.
Her patten merged into the general web
The shriven day accepts her obsequies
With humble ebb.

Now are the noiseless stars made visible
That hidden by the day pursued the track,
And this one planet that we know too well
Mantles in black.

Then, from the thicket, sang the nightingale,
So wildly sweet, so sudden, and so true,
It seemed a herald from beyond the veil
Had broken through.

The common earth’s confusion all unseen,
But worlds revealed in broad magnificence,
That unembodied music thrid between
Sprang hence, or thence?

Nothing remained of the familiar round,
Only the soul ecstatic and released
Founted towards the spheres in jets of sound,
And died, and ceased.

But plangent from the thickets of the thorn
Broke other voices, taking up the choir,
While Cancer interlaced with Capricorn
In silent fire,

And all the harmonies were joined and whole,
Silence was music, music silence made,
Till each was both or either, and the soul
Was not afraid.


It’s a poem about solitude and written in a spirit of hopefulness about life, of renewal through work that is useful and peaceful natural routines and pleasures. She is clearly turning away to retreat.

Vita Sackville-West was a member of the elite’s elite, a woman whose family can trace their wealth and power back to Elizabethan times, much engaged by a place, Knole, the palace Eliz I gave one of her ancesters (we won’t ask what for Anne), which she couldn’t inherit because of a "technical fault" (her word), i.e, she had no penis.

She was bisexual and had a long relationship with Virginia Woolf—out of which the remarkable Orlando emerged. Woolf said Sackville-West had given her happiness and presented S-W with the manuscripts of Orlando and Mrs Dalloway. Some may value S-W more for having been the muse of Woolf for Woolf’s Orlando.

She was married to similarly elite male, Harold Nicolson, diplomat, publisher (ah), author, politician (conservative). Both had lovers. An open marriage. Sackville-West also had what’s said to have been a painful affair with Violet Trefusis. They were childhood friends and at one point "eloped" to Paris.

One of S-W’s two sons by Nicolson produced a best-seller when he published Portrait of a Marriage. This contains a moving autobiographical piece by Sackville-West about her (among other things) sexuality. (Autobiography and sex sell, don’t you know as Sayers’s Lord Peters, character redolent of S-W’s fiction avers more than once. Lady Mary Parker will know about this.) S-W’s novels are still known and sold at the time (The Edwardians);

I like what I’ve read of her travel writings, histories, and biographies much better. To me Edwardians is wooden while Knole and the Sackvilles alive. She did editions and wrote about women to whom through her family she connected herself, e.g., Anne Clifford, and a ballet dancer, Giovanna Baccelli (ca. 1753-1801), who became a mistress to an 18th century duke, bore several of his children (I think more than one, but am not sure), but who had to hide away when middle class people came
to see the Knole, but then survived to return to Italy to live in comfort.

I wrote about her in a published review where I commented on Karen Elliot’s "The Luster of a Ballerina: Giovanna Baccelli on the Stage and Off." Elliot does not succeed in unearthing Bacelli’s "emotional" existence and perception of what it felt like to live in an alien environment, but I discerned an outline of the life of a silent female survivor whose dancing was at the time written about critically as art.

Gainsborough’s portrait of Bacelli catches an arresting look in her eye.

Giovanna Baccelli in Les Amans Surpris (1772)

S-W also translated (Rilke).

On Wompo SSW responded to the above:

"I’ve always found Sackville-West’s garden writing to be sharper (and certainly wittier) than her poetry. You’re right—the poems tend toward the overwritten and over-serious. I think she parked her sense of humor at the door when she was doing poetry. Her garden at Sissinghurst Castle, where she and Nicolson lived (she couldn’t inherit Knole), is, I think, a National Trust property, still beautifully maintained and a genuine work of art.

A random sample of her close observation and wry self-awareness, from VS-W’s Garden Book: She’s digging up a wildflower with considerable difficulty because of the roots it had seeded among:

‘There was a potential oak-tree, sprouting from an acorn. There were young brambles, already in their innocence threatening invasion. There were young honeysuckles, inch high, preparing to hoist themselves toward the light with the twiggy support of the hazel coppice. All a living tangle underground, struggling together, and me the superior human with my sharp weapon, prising up the chosen plant I wanted, destroying all that other scrambling and wrestling life, which might have come to completion had I not interfered. Lying feverish in my bed I wondered whether I had done wrong or right. A whole crop of moral tangles came up. I had frustrated a young oak, but I had preserved a pink windflower. Where was the answer to be found in virtue?’

I seem to recall that, besides the ballet dancer, there was a more recent exotic mistress in the lineage—maybe even as close as S-V’s grandmother—but I no longer seem to have my copy of Portrait of a Marriage (which is probably where I read that, if I didn’t dream it altogether)."

To which I wrote in reply:

"Thank you for your reply … The passage you picked is the sort of superb thing S-W can write when she’s not writing either poetry or novels.

She’s not good at novels either. And the hegemony of novels as selling commodities was a problem. She was driven to write them. The Colbys’ book, The Singular Anomaly is about a number of 19th century women writers who would have and did write far superior non-fiction to most of their fiction, but had to write fiction to live. One of these is Margaret Oliphant: she has a few strong (two masterpieces probably) in the novel kind, but her real strength was autobiography, criticism and biography. Vernon Lee stayed with non-fiction, but she had money. She didn’t become a "big name." I imagine she understood the value and safety of obscurity. George Eliot is studied as someone who was pushed into novel writing.

She also wrote about earlier women writers. Aphra Behn is one. I wonder if Woolf learned about Behn from Sackville-West."

So, my dear, from are we to choose? Weep? Pussy-foot around apologetically. Smile. Dance? Smile. Avoid what leads to shackling and small humiliations. Stay in the background. Safety in your garden (if you’ve lucky enough in chance’s lottery to have firm access to one)?

A small thing is at least not to be complacent & congratulate ourselves on our luck thus far. On this we have Miss Austen with us.


Posted by: Ellen

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