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

Serious Radiators & Elizabeth Spencer's "Light in the Piazza" · 2 April 06

Dear Marianne,

We arrived back from Montreal about 4:30 Daylight Savings Time, and spent hours putting things away, doing bills, shopping, and in general reinserting ourselves into our world.

I had many many good moments, and none bad except those I inflicted on myself: like the occasional failure of nerve that my paper would not do (and panic), or leaving some object behind somewhere, with the result I’d sit where I was brooding over my lack of presence of mind (and feel a more subtle panic and anger at myself), or worrying how this or that person would respond to me. Everyone I talked to welcomed me and I really felt like I was one of the people there (as I do not in the Victorian conferences). I met a number of people I regard as old friends and who treated me likewise. For example, an old friend who was part of the Trollope group I wrote about (Carol McGuirk) bumped into me, and lo and behold I discovered she was reading Ayala’s Angel. How did I discover this: I was carrying my copy about (I’m in the midst) and she saw it. We agreed that like Dr Thorne it showed much influence from Austen, and then went on to fill one another in on how life was treating each.

I had so much socializing that I found myself thinking late at night as if I had two minds, one instructing the other how to behave in social situations, and how to see this or that in the light of a social situation—a new experience as I’ve no memory whatsoever of feeling myself to have two minds conversing with one another in this way before.

Nonetheless, for me the high points of the days, what made them worth while, were the many good papers I heard—or saw (many people had slides). I took careful notes of quite a number. There were so many satisfying and good sessions on women’s literature—at least one for each time frame and sometimes several. I plan to write up these notes in letters to you, Marianne, over the next week.

Edward and I did get into Montreal. He tried to get tickets for the ballet but only a few were left and they were far away from the stage. We did go to a play the last night, Prodigy, perhaps most interesting for what it showed about Canadian culture: it was an English translation by the author of her French play (performed in Paris) which she had taken from a novel in French which had won a prize in Paris because she, although a Canadian, lives in Paris and had been unable to make a successful career in Quebec. While it has an equivalent of Lincoln Center (Places des Arts complete with windswept esplanade), some theatres, movies, and many restaurants, it is a small provincial city, and beautiful though parts are, it has poor and insalubrious stretches too.

To us the finest of the pleasures of Montreal was a long 2 hour walk we took on Mont Royal Park where we discovered that Olmsted had endowed another city of people with great beauty. It’s landscaped by him—he who did Central Park: the difference is Mont Royal is all hills and chasms leading up to a very high place from which you can see all Montreal. Still many pieces of the "work" looked precisely like what you see in the very early spring (wintry still) in Central Park, NY. If I could’ve uttered a Popian couplet, I would’ve.

Mont Royal Park, the Lookout

When we got to the top of one of the hills, we found ourselves on a wide esplanade with beautiful bannisters all round, and on top was an observatory. We went in and discovered a cafe. So we had a sit-down and tea and juice. As we were sitting there, Edward glanced over to the many windows and saw standing between each these heavy-duty, large, thick-piped steam radiators. He pointed them out to me, saying "Serious radiators."

It was much colder in Montreal today than in Virginia. At the airport at 3 it was too hot in the sun for a thin sweater; in Montreal at 11 I had to have my winter coat, scarf, and kerchief on to ward off the wind and chill. It’s clear they have a long cold winter. That said, the buildings seemed to us overheated :). And since I do like snow, I loved the many landscapes of snow in the club.

The University Club of Montreal was comfortable. Our room was beautifully decorated: matching wallpapers and curtains. Lovely bathroom. A coffee maker. It was also Anglo. While the people working in the club, and the businessmen who had a couple of events in the club (how the club survives) were Francophone as well as Anglo, the members I saw were all English-speaking and looked English. While we ate our one exquisitely well-cooked dinner in the club (expensive), "Land of Hope and Glory" was (among other tunes) piped into the handsome dining room.

It is hard not to idealize Canada. A vignette: in one cafe we saw 7 girls sitting together; one black, two white, one in Muslim garb, one Asian and one clearly French. A picture of multiculturalism and no racism you could would be highly unlikely to see anywhere in the US. When we crossed from the US into Canada, the customs people were polite, sane, reasonable; when we crossed back, we were quickly confronted with aggressive implicit bullying probably encouraged by the US authorities (and US culture). Total imbecility—a page cutter for a book was confiscated from me because my handbag made the machine beep so when the official started to look at the handbag he needed to take something from it. On the Canadian side the man looked into the bag, saw nothing that could in the least threaten anyone, and bade me move on. Well the US behavior and mood mirrors typicall impersonal encounters in the US you can easily meet in the US in many places today. In Canada the pictures are of landscapes and animals, not guns and aggressive militarism. I felt I was in a European city.

We were very sorry we didn’t take our digital camera.

I also read: Ayala’s Angel (important for the coming paper I’m going to do on "Male Heterosexual Heroism" in Trollope), :Le Carré The Constant Gardener, short stories by Primo Levi, and one moving long short story: Elizabeth Spencer’s "The Light in the Piazzi."

What deep pleasure the light quiet style of this piece originally published in the New Yorker in the 1950s provides. It’s framed by Spencer’s own wanderings in Europe just after World War 2 ended. She connects her characters to herself. Serendipitiously I discovered she lived in Montreal: she was a Southern American, met her husband in Italy, and then the two went to Montreal to live. There are other stories set in this frame, and I probably did not begin to do justice to the connections between story and frame, the real woman and her characters by reading just the one famous first story.

In "The Light in the Piazza," Spencer tells the story of a Margaret Johnson, a woman who has led a frustrated, lonely, unsatisfying life, married to a man with whom she has nothing in common when it comes to values which spring from character and things of the mind. She was sensitive, imaginative, not philistine and narrow; her husband a coarse successful tactless narrow businessman. Mr Johnson (Noel) doesn’t come in time to ruin her plans as he’s working in DC trying to distance his cigarette company from a doctor they had used in their ads who the House Un-American activities committee is hounding as a communist. They had a daughter, Clara, who became retarded after an accident at age 8, and she has devoted much of her life to this girl who barely reciprocates because she is so childish. At one point the mother tried to put the daughter in a school to give her a chance to lead a more independent socializing life, but the child was ruthlessly dismissed once it was discovered she couldn’t do the academic work. This incident is at the center of the story’s narrative.

Now she and the girl encounter an apparently wholly unintellectual Italian young man who falling in love at first sight with the girl wants to marry her want to take the isolated girl in. Against her own emotional needs, after at first removing the girl, she maneuvers to enable the girl to be won by the young man. This includes a large bribe to, and perhaps some superificial sex with the father—it’s hard to tell how far she is forced to go to satisfy him.

It’s a story about how people with a disability are treated less than humanly, are not valued as human beings; about the price of mothering; about cultural differences (a partly ironic celebration of Italy); and—most of all—about how silence can be at once a protection and weapon. I can’t convey the power of one of the closing lines: "She would miss her forever."


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. Very interesting. I’m glad the trip and the conference went so well. One quibble: there are several CUNY campuses, mine included, where students of very different cultural backgrounds (racial, religious) socialize. It’s one of the joys of my working life to see this so often. Anyway, I’m glad you’re back. I missed you.
    bob    Apr 3, 1:17am    #
  2. Dear Bob,

    That’s lovely. It doesn’t happen in GMU. Yes, when the students are in the games or in other large institutionalized events you can see this, but the decision to join a particular group is racialized (and gendered). When you go into the student union, the realities are visible. The middle eastern students sit at one table, the European-American types at another, the African-American types at yet another.

    It was that way when I went to Queens College. Admittedly, in the 1960s there were hardly any African-Americans. It was mostly lower middle class and European-American, all from the local neighborhoods.

    I've more to say about the politics of the conference or its papers, mostly from a gendered point of view. Anon.

    chava    Apr 3, 7:24am    #
  3. From Caroline:

    "silly silly parents not taking their digital camera to canada!

    in your blog you didn’t say where you were when the american officials took away your "page slicer" ... were you in a dc area airport? they behave retardedly there, with the taking off of the shoes …

    i remember flying back from seattle, i started to take mine off at the metal detector … the officer was flabbergasted. when i told him it was "de rigueur" at dc area airports he laughed startledly and asked exactly what it was supposed to do. i told him it was to make people flying out of dc feel important, that they were worthy of such diligent searches. he replied that out here on the west coast they were much more civilized …

    and really mother, these are the same people who took a wine opener … let’s face it, you could (if you were a ferocious left wing Nation-Reading feminist-spouting terrorist) do a great deal more random killing of your fellow airplane passengers with a page slicer—which was probably a completely foreign object to your
    highschool educated screener anyhow.

    serious raidators, huh? i should hope so.

    do get out and enjoy the warmth now that you’re home.


    Brief answer:

    It happened on the US side of the Montreal airport. And the officials there were too self-important to have any sense of humor. The least not-taking them seriously might lead them to confiscating your passport as a potential terrorist who is not respecting them and thus very suspicious. Like the Feds in a typical Henry Fonda film from the 1930s, say Grapes of Wrath?

    chava    Apr 3, 8:43am    #
  4. Your experience with the multiracial group reminds me of (again) my youngest daughter’s (I do have two other daughters!) disappointment with dormitory life her freshman year at OSU.

    She had requested the international dorm and "International Living Learning Experience" because she wanted to get to know the multiplicity of international students who go to OSU. It was in vain that she tried to get to know the Asian students, who seemed to be the most resistant to mingling with other cultures. And that’s even with a Japanese roommate.

    The European and South American students were the friendliest; they were always trying out different languages on each other. A close friend was a German Moslem woman, who patiently helped Julia with her German problems. Julia would speak French to her, and her friend would speak German to her.

    Julia was startled by the fact that so many students would come to the US to study, and be so uninterested in getting to know Americans. The exception was foreign males, who largely seemed to be there due to the perception of American girls being "easy". She brought home a French young man for Thanksgiving (with her Japanese roommate, a Korean young man, and the German woman) and much of her time seemed to be spent scolding Guillaume for his un-pc comments.
    tatyana    Apr 3, 1:41pm    #
  5. Dearest Ellen,
    cynthia roth    Apr 4, 2:23pm    #

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