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

Thoughts on Anne Halkett, Part Two · 31 October 06

Dear Harriet,

Today I’ve been reading an irritatingly dull book that sells because its title implies it’s on Lady Brilliana Harley: Jacqueline Eales’s Puritans and Roundheads: The Harley at Brampton Byran and the outbreak of the English Civil War is on her husband, as the writer cannot conceive writing a book out of or about Harley’s letters as such or in their own right. It belongs to the school of history that nearly denies there was an English civil war, and sees it as a breakdown in networking which manifested itself in irrational religious fights over ritual and doctrine.

Eales also seems to value religion as such and find admirable any conduct justified by religion; in addition, she is eager to defend the materialistic, ambitious, ruthless aggrandizement of Sir Robert Harley. No wonder she has had access to wealthy family Harley papers others haven’t. Eales takes all that is said at face value, and ignores economic and any political details save those of religion. The value of her book is it provides literal contextualizing details which enables a reader to understand a little better on a literal level the events or behaviors recounted in Lady Harley’s letters. That’s it.

What a disappointment. Here is a Puritan and learned woman who is coerced into public deeds. She read French better than English. And she is made into this dull doll.

Christopher Hill’s rebutal of the school, of non-thinking conservativism to which this book belongs, in the particular case the mystifications of county history in an article called "Parliament and People" is succinct: to repeat the muddled thoughts of a past people is not to write history. Because people do not have a word for something (say T.B.) doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist; what’s written down is what is safe to say.

He has made me think about the problem of reframing Anne Halkett’s autobiography. I cannot confine myself to what women wrote in the 17th century to elucidate why a small group of them for the first time sat down and wrote secular and concrete autobiographical details of their lives. First they were trained never to think, let alone write down, what happened sexually to them; if they ever did try, it was destroyed or heavily censored. While the ultimate causes of the civil war for men were economic and social in origin, and their aim to seek redress; the ultimate causes for women were sexual in origin, and their aim to speak out to someone who understands and make sense of their condition.

Reframing demands exegesis and alignments using modern feminist psychoanalytic and political texts, and texts by women from the later 17th to the early 20th century where the woman does see clearly, discuss frankly, and got into print. Key texts will not only be a few 17th century autobiographies and novels by women, but also George Eliot’s "Woman in France" and (perhaps) "Three Novels" and Virginia Woolf’s "A Room of One’s Own" and "Three Guineas" (especially for their methodology). I have to admit that I cannot rely on the French women or Aphra Behn because they don’t see clearly enough; the first to try in print is Mary Wollstonecraft. I should also make use of critical works by women on autobiographies and novels by women. And perhaps plays, the theatre. Stevie Davies’ Unbridled Spirits where she tries to track a shift in consciousness among women. Since topic for panel is paratexts wherever possible use one.

The great problem will be (in LeCarre’s ironic hero’s words) the lack of evidence. Women were not allowed into the public sphere. They were shamed and ridiculed out of even thinking to get into print. We have no history of them which recounts why they were having a revolution of sorts alongside the men. The older historians who were women (say Catherine Macaulay) appear not to have been able or willing to discuss the core issues and how they manifested themselves. Nor do most recent historians. How to grasp it? look at the results of what was and what if any changes. That no one consciously meant what happened is no excuse for refusing to analyze the causes.

While at the conference I heard several fine papers (two on paintings and etchings of the era, one on Edinburgh clubs from the middle to the end of the 18th century), only one really taught me or touched on my interests: Lisa B’s beautifully-delivered and lively intelligent paper on the problems of getting Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi’s autobiography into print: like Halkett’s, Piozzi’s is discontinuous, disjunctive, evasive, and has not been printed except as reframed by masculinistic pro-, and anti-Johnson & Boswell points of view; most of these books present themselves as biography. She would like to present Piozzi’s texts as a single book by her. It was heartening to hear Lisa talk along the lines of what I have been thinking, but I did not get a sense she really wanted to reframe the way we think about Piozzi, only separate her off in her own right from others.

So Part Two would be here is what I demonstrated is in the autobiography of AH, and then proceed to reframe, first using modern and probably 19th century insights (I doubt I will find anyone who is not in a muddle earlier than Wollstonecraft), and exemplify what can be seen, and then how the new reading is portable to other texts too.

No one will care. I’ll be speaking to a conversation that has been largely silenced or has a hard time being heard because of the shouts of the women-haters, power-mongers or hangers-on to the powerful (some of whom are complicit and coopted women), indifferent complacent (a breed of those in power) and fearful (this group includes many of the religious). But I’ll do it.

I should say my paper appeared to go over well with two of the four people in the room who heard it. I gave it at 8:30 and the two further friends who showed up got there too late. It’s okay. As Miss Schuster-Slatt said the point is to have read it, done it. The editor of the Intelligencer told me he received praise from people for my review of Paula Backscheider’s book; at the conference I would say more than 3 people told me they admired it, and I got the feeling it was generally read by many. Some said they read it on my website. Nonetheless, the importance of getting my work into a place where those who count read was before me.

This time I once again enjoyed many of the sessions and also the coffee and conversation parts as well as lunch and dinner, indeed all was comfortable and genial. I was rejuvenated to find myself among intelligent people who spend their lives on art and literature the way I do. Jim seemed to enjoy himself too. He had gotten us a lovely small suite to stay in. It had a comfortable prettily-decorated bedroom, and a separate sitting room at whose edge a kitchette with fridge was provided. Breakfast was put in the fridge in the later afternoon. So I could sit up reading after Jim went to bed, and we ate one of our dinners (with good wine found in a local shop) in the room together.

More later this week on Gettysburg as a site de memoire and our seeing the musical The Secret Garden (which we got into for free).


Posted by: Ellen

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