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

Recovery, retrieval, rescue & Jane Freilicher's _Casement Window_ · 25 March 06

Dear Lady Mary,

Earlier women who were so embedded in their families (they often didn’t get to go to school), had their deepest relationships with men with their brothers, and we sometimes find strong tenderly-loving sibling ties between brothers and sisters in the literature of early modern through 19th century Europe.

I like to dream too, and as I wrote Tatyana in the comments, I’m probably most at peace, happiest, contented when I’m at home at my desk writing and reading. Writing fills my mind and blocks out troubles and anxieties in life, in reading I commune with women and characters of my own temperament.

On the Frances Hodgson Burnett list (which I’ve been on a long time but have lately become more active on—I hope to read two of her best books for adults, The Shuttle and Through One Administration), the listowner, Diana B (Miss Schuster-Slatt) was talking of her friend, Janet Todd, and remarked that in an article about her, John Sutherland said the theme of "Janet’s lifelong scholarly endeavor is ‘recovery’ (of past women’s writings). In a small way that is what I think we are trying to do here. It’s also what I did for my novelist grandmother, with my book on Onoto Watanna, and what Ellen does with her lists and writing too."

In response I tried to make some distinctions. I like to think of the effort women writers, readers, and scholars and editors are making as recovery, retrieval, and rescue. Some works need recovery. We need to rediscover them though they are available and almost but not quite forgotten. Perhaps that’s Burnett’s adult books. Also Margaret Oliphant’s novels. For 18th century scholars Anne Finch’s poetry. Fanny Kemble’s memoir of her time on a Georgian plantation.

Others need retrieval. They are out of print for a very very long time. Etexts is one route—if you have no connections for an edition in paper. So I made etexts editions and translations of Vittoria Colonna, Veronica Gambara, Isabelle de Montolieu and Sophie Cottin. And I’ve been making myself very happy scanning in the letters of Lady Brilliana Harley over the past couple of late afternoons, one hour each time. Two days ago I had in my hand the 19th century edition I first held in the Library of Congress. I got it through interlibrary loan. Last night I began OCR’ing it into my computer. Can I convey the joy I felt?

Then there’s rescue. We need to rescue works from false framing which makes them misread, misconstrued and often (in the case of women’s writers) denigrated. This includes so many women’s works I won’t try to cite any.

Doing this we can begin to study and know women’s literature as it really is, not what myth and legend invent. The myth of female masochism is dependent on a man’s text, a book of mostly nonsense which when compared with the man’s wife’s real life is infuriating. I’ve come to think this myth thrills males—at least those represented in and by popular media. Who would not love to think they have this helpless enthralled being at their beck and call? I’d like to think Trollope’s healthy scepticism would mock it, except I know he repeats the idea—without imagining it fully.

By contrast, studying actual women’s writing, art, music, work of all kins we study how they see things, what they might want, what constricts, limits, shapes their desires. Of course we have to see what’s there and not be pre-fooled by preconceptions and false framing. Most people apparently will "understand" a text by the framing that is given them, not one they take away from the text. They read too literally, cannot see the forest for the trees, cannot get themselves to see a subversive thought or one they are unprepared for.

The imagery of women’s art often includes window and doors, still-lives. Women live in rooms. Oh what a beautiful room for me to live in imagines Catherine Morland as she’s taken through Henry Tilney’s parsonage.

The above paragraph to introduce Jane Freilicher’s Casement Window (1974), a picture I fell in love with last week as I searched for an image to put on the groupsite space of WWTTA:

Freilicher is one of the women mentioned briefly in Eleanor Munro’s Originals: American Women Artists, a book which concentrates on American women artists of the later 19th and into the 20th century. Munro tells us that Freilicher wrote she wants to convey her own

"exaltation over bits of nature available in Brooklyn, where I was born. A bouquet of flowers. On Brighton Beach, picking up stones. Some chrysanthemums growing in two inches of dirt in a yard."

Freilicher creates intimate landscapes from the realities of places and things she was surrounded by which she endows with her

"romantic inclination to beautiful things. A free-floating feeling that something was creative in me."

One online site says she

"creates intensely personal realistic paintings­Long Island landscapes, New York cityscapes, interiors, and still lifes. She has consistently rejected prevailing artistic fashion to produce subtly colored, witty, quiet, urbane, and incandescently atmospheric paintings and prints."

To me her paintings are melancholy, sad, abstract expressionist without being intensely psychoanalytic in thrust. They have a surface realism while quietly revealing meaningful intersections of abstract shapes and colors.

I wrote on WWTTA:

Casement Windows exploits the iron bars on the windows through which we glimpse the buildings of a city. Our eye keeps going up the dangling plant and the shapes of the pot and leaves against the shapes of the window panes.

to which Fran replied:

"The view through the window looks a little like Brooklyn Borough Hall, but I suppose it could be just about any other larger civic building."

So I said:

Yes I feel too it’s supposed to be any city. You could be walking across the Thames and seeing a church surrounded by commercial buildings; it could be New York City seen from an apartment by a bridge; that is, from a distance.

Freilicher does not try to startle or attract us through semi-lurid psychoanalytical sex or odd incongruities of imagery. She does not take over pop cartoony imagery either. Her work as presented on these sites and what I have in my books is quiet. There’s nothing showoffy, nothing meretricious. I often think of Dali when I look at the well-known abstract expressionists (women as well as men), and to my mind there’s something phony, manipulative, stuff put there because it sells in his work.

So she doesn’t get as much attention. But I would probably much prefer to have one of Freilicher’s pieces on the wall than many of the more touted or famous mid-century abstractionists.

On WWTTA Fran said she’d never heard of Freilicher before. so this letter is an instance of recovery :)

I like to dream too.


Posted by: Ellen

* * *


  1. Amazing. Freilicher’s casement window took me back to yesterday, when I was visiting a woman who lives in a senior’s apartment building in my small city. I had no idea such apartments existed here; eighteen foot tall ceilings, windows lining two walls (she has a corner apartment).

    And yet these wonderful apartments are for low income seniors. I want to go rent one for myself right now .. but I’ll have to wait until I’m over 55. Not so long now… the view from Virginia’s window is similar to Freilich’s.

    Another woman I know who lived in these apartments loved their central location. All summer there are free concerts in the city square and she was able to just take a folding chair outside and enjoy the free entertainment.

    As someone who has seen much sadness and squalor, I am thrilled to find such beautiful affordable housing in an historic building.—Tatyana
    Tatyana    Mar 25, 10:13am    #

commenting closed for this article