Date: Sat, 20 Dec 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] Is Ellen Glasgow lurking?
Given last week's conversation about photographs, I couldn't help but smile to find the following sentence early in the Ellen Glasgow story for this week, "The Past":
"It was an arresting face, dark, thoughtful, strangely appealing, and picturesque--thought this may have been due, of course, to the photographer."
Enjoying the chance to read a Southern writer in this series...
Date: Sat, 20 Dec 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] Ellen Glasgow: "The Past" v "The Shadowy Third"
I read "The Past" -- though I read it last night. I'm sorry to be a nay-sayer but again I found this one curiously flat, as a ghost story a disappointment in the way I have thus found the other two stories in Restless Spirits.
This is not to say I don't like them as stories centered on women's powerlessness, frustration, betrayal by others but not as ghost stories. A ghost stories is supposed to be unnerving; you are supposed to get up from it having been made uncertain about your presuppositions about the mind and reality; you are supposed to feel terror at an eruption of what is most of the time gleeful cruelty. Put another way, you are supposed to care about the ghost's having been a ghost; it's supposed to matter, and it's not supposed to be explainable or go away. The archetypal ghost story is Le Fanu's "Green Tea" (the monkey story we read on Trollope-l a couple of years ago now). The emotion at the center ends up intense grief which is experienced as the result of the ghost's operation though psychoanalytically read we can see the grief is the author's or comes from somewhere else in the story. Oliphant's "Beleaguered City" shows this; it is in fact a great ghost story and is true to the genre -- though not feminist except at the margins and then not really.
I asked myself, if this is the same for women's stories? Is Oliphant's an anomaly? Having read ghost stories by women before not as women's ghost stories, but intermixed with men's, I wondered if they do differ, especially after reading these stories just by women in Restless Spirits, which are often not unnerving, not about metaphysics and death. However, I began Dalby's Virago Book of Ghost Stories last night and there the type rings true -- for women as well as men except the terror, hostility mischievous malice inheres in women's lives and problems. An abyss does open up but it is brought on by things women characteristically experience.
From Richard Dalby's The Virago Book of Ghost Stories, I first read Wharton's "The Eyes." It has a good one by Ellen Glasgow, not great, but good: "The Shadowy Third." The ghost there is a terrifying child who murders the male husband who may have murdered her -- but true to ghost stories we are not told. True to ghost stories there is no justice, only an appearance of it if you don't think about it at all. I also read several others in Dalby's volume, and they are all true to the type which Lundie's are not necessarily at all.
In a way what I'm talking about is something hard to express and when expressed jeered at or trivialized. Until very recently gothics were ignored and treated as fourth rate silliness; ghost stories still are. That's one reason they are not taken up by political agendas. Davenport-Hines goes into how one could use them for reactionary agendas and how they are potentially subversive (as does Punter) but they are not seen this way outside critics who are psychoanalytical or take them seriously. Such a critic is Eugenia La Motte.
I have now got hold of LaMotte's Perils of the Night and she begins her book with the idea that women's ghost stories and the female or feminine gothic is dissed, erased, sneered at (as in all the mockery of Radcliffe whom she says, rightly, is central to the female and feminine gothic), but in fact ghost stories are regarded as silly and not to be paid serious attention to by the general public whether by men or women. People giggle. When I first start teaching them when I've done it usually some student will say, "how cute" this is, and only by doing a powerful one do I set the atmosphere that we are going to take this as seriously as so-called "realistic" stories -- which work by obeying conventions of verisimilitude. I make them uncomfortable when I point out that the supernatural they are dismissing is the same supernatural underlying religion. I don't go on about this because it will offend, but I say it when it comes out of the story naturally. The erasing of this lack of a distinction is one reason ghost stories have been dismissed since the 1890s when they were partly arose out of religious uncertainties. By dismissing the ghost story, you shore up your religion, Christianity. La Motte is not interested in this center of the genre either; she reads them from a feminist angle; curiously she doesn't choose the most powerful and she dwells on a number by men which are famous. I'll write about what I've read thus in Perils separately.
In Restless Spirits Lundie has not picked her stories out looking for gothic terror. This one called "The Past" ends with a cross-blackmail twist which moves into utter silly good killing evil and goes as much against taking the genre seriously as Dunbar's "Shell of Sense." Only in the first appearance of Emma Saxon did Wharton work at creating a deep sense of the uncanny; otherwise she and Austin and now Glasgow simply present the ghost. We might as well have a regular character. The ending merits Eliot's mockery of silly women's novels. The point of a ghost story most of the time is the past is not retrievable. When it is, as in Dickens's "Christmas Carol" (the exception that makes the rule) it must be done up for all you are worth as wholly miraculous unexpected redemption in the context of great bitterness. Oliphant plays with this in her "Old Lady Mary's Story" too.
There is one great gothic I know in Restless Spirits: Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's "Luella Miller," but this almost makes my case as usually it's interpreted as a vampire story. I've seen "Luella Miller" in print twice thus far: in a volume of horror (not terror or ghost stories, but horror) and in The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories, ed. A.Ryan. It is a gruesome, loathesome story which implies physical attack, not emotional debilitation, harassment and shattering (which is what happenes in ghost stories -- it's usually not physical until the ghost lures the person away to their death or does something which leads to them getting killed). That Lundie doesn't seem to realize this signals to me she hasn't thought about the genre as such, doesn't care that much about it.
Date: Sun, 21 Dec 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] Ellen Glasgow (1873-1945)
It's my turn to facilitate again, this time Ellen Glasgow's story, 'The Past' (1920).
Ellen Glasgow is one of the many writers this list first introduced me to, so I thought I would start by providing a few links to help situate her for others in the same position, before going on to introduce the particular short story in question in a second email. Here is a link to a brief discussion of her life and work:
Here is a longer chronological list of the events in her life:
and here a link to an account of her friendship and rivalry with James Branch Cabell, a page containing additional photos to the one presently adorning the list's homepage, including one of her as a child and another of her practically life-long home in Richmond, Virginia:
The biographical details and pictures show that she grew up in the kind of affluent, upperclass household that she depicts in 'The Past' and also indicate that she rebelled against it, concerned in her works to explore beyond society's surface facade, just as she does to a certain extent in this short story.
Apparently expected live the life of a southern belle rather than that of an artist, she was mainly self-taught and had to deal both with early physical impairment - deafness - and chronic heart disease in later life in the course of a successful writing and social career, one culminating in the award of the Pulitzer Prize for her last novel, In This Our Life.
Given that infidelity is also a theme of her short story, I was also drawn to the fact that, though remaining unmarried herself, she had been involved in a long affair with a married man. She revealed this in the autobiography that was only released for posthumous publication in 1954, tellingly entitled 'The Woman Within'.
Date: Sun, 21 Dec 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] Ellen Glasgow's 'The Past'
Ellen Glasgow's 'The Past was first published in the October 1920 issue of Good Housekeeping Magazine. I can't help wondering if the restrained nature of the gothic elements and the stories benign outcome that Ellen took issue with in her email may not have something to do with the kind of readers this magazine targeted or whether it is just typical of such Glasgow stories in general?
On reading the story myself, I was first struck by the superficial similarities to 'The Lady's Maid's Bell' at the beginning: again a new employee, an outsider, comes to the house of a gracious lady - here Mrs Vanderbridge - who is under an at first inexplicable shadow, the reasons for which are gradually revealed both through conversations with another employee and her own observations, sensitive as she is to atmosphere and supernatural emanations.
Unlike that of the servant in the first story, however, whose sensitivity was indirectly explained by her own near death experience, the new secretary's is not, yet she is immediately assailed by the contrast between the beauty, culture and affluence of the house and its owners and the instantaneous impression of being imprisoned when the 'black iron doors swung together behind' her in true gothic manner. The facade is at odds with the dangerous problems bubbling below the surface.
It's interesting that the secretary, the story's narrator, instantly assumes the lady's unhappiness and troubled health must stem from the as yet unseen husband and is confused to find a charming, handsome and loving, if troubled, man instead of the presumed brute of a husband à la Wharton when she is introduced to him.
Penny has already mentioned the photograph that is the secretary's first sight of him; I myself was also struck by Mrs Vanderbridge's comparing him to one of Titian's figures, presumably the kind of hansomely earnest aristocrats as depicted in one of my own favourite Titian portraits 'Man with a Glove,( http://www.abcgallery.com/T/titian/titian30.html ).
However, it does turn out that the husband is responsable for the wife's unhappiness after all in that his obsession with and guilt over his first wife's early death in pregnancy has caused her vengeful projection or ghost to haunt them. This is invisible to most, but still almost tangibly felt by the whole household, and it stifles his marriage to his lovely young second wife, whose strength is drained in an almost vampiristic way by the unspoken struggle with her immaterial, but formidably strong rival, whose sway increases the more the husband obsesses on her.
We've pointed out before that this is a common trope in gothic literature, and Lundie in her introduction herself points up that the difficult situation of a second wife having to live up to or under her predecessor's shadow was common enough to many women of the time, remarriage after the early loss of a partner through childbirth being a frequent occurence, and as such a strong matter of concern to the stories' readers.
The first wife's dubious sway is broken when the secretary finds old love letters she first presumes were from Mr Vanderbridge, but then on showing them to Mrs Vanderbridge she discovers they are the product of the other wife's adulterous affair with another man. Mrs Vanderbridge nobly resists the secretary's persuasions to apprise her husband of the affair, not wishing to dispel his illusions in such a shabby way, and the character of the ghost miraculously changes to the positive illusion Vanderbridge has of her and ceases her persecution once Mrs Vanderbridge has cast them to the flames. Though I tend to agree with Ellen's negative take on this particular ending, I thought I'd quote from Lundie to see if anyone shares her own particular interpretation: '
So the second wife finally gets her man, but only by being the willing instrument of of evil, the concealer of sexual sins. Through her decision not to expose the rival who has been destroying her marriage, Mrs Vanderbridge suggests she has guessed the real reason behind the ghost's animosity and bitterness: the ghost is unable to rest because Mrs Vanderbridge has the power to change her husband's memories of his first wife. By destroying the letters, the second wife blots out the sins of the past, thus restoring the first wife to her original and loving self. The dead woman's need to preserve her image as angel in the house is what keeps her from resting in peace, an incredible testimony to the ideal of female purity and a curiously subversive example of appearance versus reality in the sexual arena.'
I think some of this interpretation runs contrary to textual evidence - the first wife's original character is seldom painted in positive terms by witness report, for example , - but it's an interesting take.
Given her own affair, perhaps Glasgow was simply just subconsciously in favour of having the sins of the past whited over in this way.
One thing I forgot to mention myself is that the Vanderbridge household is seemingly so obsessed with its personal past and the present, private, psychological and emotional battle being waged within its walls that the physical war raging without (presumably the First World War, given the date of publication) is given but cursory and passing mention.
Date: Mon, 22 Dec 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] Ellen Glasgow: biographical and critical
As the criticism I quote below reveals, Glasgow's most prominent kind of fiction was the "realistic" -- the one which obeys the conventions of verisimilitude and probability and she does not try to undermine our sense that we experience the world as sound and ourselves as sound. I also found the ending coming out of overwrought absurdities founded on unreal sentimentalities, but as Fran seemed to me to suggest the ending also is straining. Like the one by Dunbar we get a reversal of expectations which doesn't make much sense and is unprepared for. It's a twist upon twist upon twist. Probably we should remember money could be made in this period by selling stories to magazines. Boys' magazines, women's magazines and the sort of middle brow publication (Saturday Evening Post) had space to fill and an audience not to offend.
Nonethless, I am keen to read more Glasgow, especially her Woman Within. It is probably Anglophilic in feel -- the way Wharton's work is; Glasgow would have grown up in a world influenced by upper class English culture.
I noticed in one of the biographical pieces Fran pointed us to Glasgow attempted the nonviolence suicide one finds in women (taking pills) upon breaking up an engagement to Howard Anderson. Did he become her lover later in life? All the sources indicated were models of discretion and I couldn't make out who was her lover. Does anyone know his name? (The stories about Wharton are much more satisfying: we told the lover was Fullerton; we know her life partner-companion was Berry.) Was he this man she intended to marry and then tried to commit suicide when she didn't? If so, that's interesting if they later became lovers. I've also been much attracted to the titles of her two most respected works (Barren Ground and The Sheltered Life). I own old battered hardback copies (from library book sales where I get many of my books) of The Woman Within and Sheltered Life and a very old Vein of Iron (paperback from long ago) so am ready whenever anyone else is. The southern aristocracy of the US is an important group in understanding numbers of operative elements in the reactionary cultures of the US today.
Again from Gale (I hope people don't find this database tiresome), I quote the more severely critical commentary first. There's a lot of it considering the brevity of the entry. I paraphrase and then quote: At first [as might be expected I add], Glasgow was attacked for her "negative" portrayals of the south [she told many hard truths, though not so much about how black people and lower and working class desperate people were treated], but
"With the passage of time, Glasgow's realism was interpreted as something more akin to idealization; her plots were often felt to be unreal, and the uncommon success of her heroines led many critics to believe that she refused to accept the world as it was. Though many have praised her for her knowledge of Virginia social life and manners, her ability to interpret the complexities of southern history, and her insight into the intricacies of human nature, other critics have attacked Glasgow for her inability to use symbol, her failure to pay closer attention to the structure and form of her novels, and the lack of psychological depth of many of her characters. Her work has also been criticized for its lack of tragedy. Glasgow rebuked this claim, saying that her major theme was the conflict of individuals with human nature, and that "tragedy lies not in defeat but in surrender."
I'll try to come back tonight to summarize and show how "The Shadowy Third" is a good powerful story -- if not so effective in evoking "faery" as one could wish: I wasn't scared, unnerved though the uncanny was there. More it does seem to me that the close of the "The Shadowy Third" is about surrender.
Having just read Mary McCarthy's autobiography I feel reminded to say that Cabell was much respected by the generation of the 1920s. Now he is seen as dullish and, similar to his "rival", idealized, avoiding central issues, and especially in his case supportive of the southern establishment's hypocrisies. (Have others come across a new phase in reader response publicity to Monica Ali's Brick Lane? I read in TLS that her Bangladesh readers are upset that she has presented them so "negatively" and are beginning a campaign to boycott her book.)
The critical praise for Glasgow's work begins with talking of her early "sword-and-cape" romances and goes on to say "[but]
she did not gain wide critical acclaim until after World War I and the publication of Barren Ground. This work is considered by many critics as Glasgow's greatest achievement and the one novel in which she most poignantly expressed the feminist struggle for freedom and individuality in a hostile environment. Often compared to Glasgow herself, Dorinda Oakley is the author's concept of the model woman who refuses to feel guilt or repentance over an illegitimate child; instead she utilizes her talents and reaps success from the "barren" land.
Like no other writer of her time, Glasgow attempted to relate the American South to the rest of the world. Her fiction is an account of the old plantation civilization invaded by industrialization and a rising middle class; of a society dying under outmoded manners, opinions, and methods; and of a woman's place in such an environment. Her novels modulate in range and tone from the comic to the tragic, the two opposing realms bridged by her ironic sense of the disparities in human existence. In her best works, Barren Ground and Vein of Iron, Glasgow created fiction of epic and, occasionally, tragic depth and fullness. These novels are notable for their lifelike characters, controlled language, and the infusion of what Glasgow called "blood and irony," a phrase she coined for the realistic, critical focus of her narration. "
Here we have some evidence for thinking that maybe ghost story or gothics were not typical of Glasgow's art -- though perhaps like Elizabeth Gaskell when she wanted to hit hard at something she turned away from the softening effects of realistic conventions. There are a number of good essays on the limits of realism; while the gothic has its problems and is susceptible of various exploitations and debasements (what is not), it can get at emotions and areas of life "realism" cuts the reader off from.
Date: Mon, 22 Dec 2003
Subject: Re: [Womenwriters] Ellen Glasgow: biographical and critical
You asked about the identity of Glasow's married lover, Ellen: apparently, though mentioning the affair, she protected his name to the end. The entry for 1899 in that chronology I gave you merely says, 'falls in love with "Gerald B--," a still-unidentified married man' and other sources say they met in New York and indulge in idle speculations as to his profession etc. based on similar characters in her books.
I've been reading a little more background and the blurb on some of the books on her life and writings, and I saw several comments to the effect that Glasgow's decision against marriage and children, despite this affair and two other engagements, was influenced in part by her own hearing disability and the fear of passing it on to her children. The discouraging comment on her efforts to become a writer that she quotes in 'The Women Within':
In the end, as in the beginning, Mr. Collier (A noted figure on the American literary scene) gave me no encouragement. "The best advice I can give you," he said, with charming candor, "˜is to stop writing, and go back to the South and have some babies. The greatest woman is not the woman who has written the finest book, but the woman who has had the finest babies."
must have seemed all the more sexist and hurtful in this context.
One ludicrously macabre aspect I found about her life relates to her last wishes: she apparently wanted her two dogs dug up out of her garden and placed in her coffin with her; more importantly and significantly, she wanted to be buried as far away from her father as possible. I had read in another biographical note elsewhere that her relations with her strict father had never been of the best, even if she respected some of his attributes, and it's perhaps interesting, too, in relation to Mrs Vanderbridge's wasting nervous disorder in 'The Past', that Glasgow's own mother suffered from something similar in later life, apparently worn down from bearing and raising ten children, of whom Ellen had been the ninth.
Date: Mon, 22 Dec 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] The Past
What I tried to figure out is why the ghost was haunting her husband and his new wife. I come up with jealousy and selfishness. The ghost is jealous that they are still alive. She's selfish to want to keep the man's affections for herself even if she didn't love him, but because she once possessed him. I don't think the ghost wants them to be happy and I suspect part of her reason is that she was not happy when living.
I can't seem to believe, even for a moment, Lundie's interpretation of the ghost's fear of having her reputation tarnished. I agree with Fran that Lundie's interpretation is counter-indicated by the text. Hard to believe this ghost is worried about her reputation.
What I liked about the ending was the second wife's decision not to use the letters as a weapon, but to fight on current terms for her husband's affection. While the proof of the first wife's affair may have been a temporary solution, I feel that ultimately it might have done more harm than good. I can picture the man dwelling on his first wife's infidelity and it might have poisoned his relationship with his new wife by making him wonder if she would also betray him.
The ghost's reaction to the burning of the letters did not ring true to me either. I can imagine that it would have caused the ghost to stop haunting them, but not that she suddenly turned loving and good. IF the ghost was hanging around for the letters I am more inclined to believe she wanted to protect the reputation of her lover, so once the letters were burned she could leave them in peace.
Date: Mon, 22 Dec 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] Ellen Glasgow: biographical and critical
Judy was kind enough to provide me access to the Washington Post article on Ellen Glasgow that Penny first mentioned. I enjoyed reading it, not only, but especially because it filled out and confirmed some of the scattered biographical details I'd found piecemeal in various places on the net and put into that last email. Many of its details seem to be taken from Glasgow's autobiography, 'The Woman Within', which begins to sound more and more worth reading.
As I think Penny may have already said, Jonathan Yardley's article here is part of a series on unjustly neglected authors and works. Apart from Glasgow, he also lists several other writers he feels underrated, and I was struck by the fact that I'd read none of them myself, except Marquand perhaps.
The other women writers he mentions in this category are Dawn Powell, Roxana Robinson and Elizabeth Spencer - is anybody here already familiar with their work? A little surfing seemed to show they are a disparate, but intriguing-sounding bunch.
In the light of my own growing appreciation of Georgia O'Keefe, I was particularly interested to see that Robinson had produced a biography, in addition to her fictional work.
Date: Tue, 23 Dec 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] Maid and mistress in ghost stories
Fran wrote of 'The Past':
On reading the story myself, I was first struck by the superficial similarities to 'The Lady's Maid's Bell' at the beginning: again a new employee, an outsider, comes to the house of a gracious lady - here Mrs Vanderbridge - who is under an at first inexpicable shadow, the reasons for which are gradually revealed both through conversations with another employee and her own observations, sensitive as she is to atmosphere and supernatural emanations.
Out of the handful of ghost and Gothic stories I've read recently, I've been surprised to see how often this seems to be the beginning - that a new maid or nurse, who has often been ill or has some tragedy in her past, starts a new job and finds herself working for a woman who has some strange shadow hanging over her, as you say. There seems repeatedly to be this feeling of an outsider moving in and becoming caught up in someone else's tragedy.
I mentioned that 'The Violet Car', the story by E Nesbit in the Virago Book of Ghost Stories, fits this pattern, and so does another story I've just read, 'The Children' by Josephine Daskam Bacon in 'Restless Spirits'. It's a clumsily constructed story, and falls away at the end, but, still, to me there is something scary there at the centre. This one is the tale of a maid, Sarah who has somehow lost her own children before the story starts, something which is only revealed in a couple of asides - at the beginning Sarah says "I was twenty-five and no chicken, but rather more settled than most, having had my troubles early and got over them." Then later on there is a brief mention that "Hodges said it was because I had had children". Sarah goes to work for a woman who is mentally ill and, between them, the two construct a game of make-believe centred on imaginary children - I won't say what happens at the end.
I've also read another story in 'Restless Spirits', the very short 'Broken Glass' by Georgia Wood Pangborn, which is written from a different angle, seeing through the eyes of the mistress rather than the maid, but again the relationship between them is central - this one didn't scare me and I don't think the ghost element in it works all that well, but I find it moving all the same, and there are one or two poetic lines which I think will stick in my mind. It points a moral about the class divide and the mistress's failure to realise that her nursery maid is also a person, in fact a child, but living in another world from her own warmly-wrapped and pampered children.
Although this isn't the theme of any of the sections in Restless Spirits, I'm starting to wonder just how important the relationship between maid/nurse and mistress/patient is in these stories. Maybe there is more about this in one of the books on Gothic which I'm hoping to read after reading some more stories. I know the use of a maid is partly a plot device to get an outsider into a house where something sinister has happened in the past, but I feel there is more to it than this.
All the best,
Date: Tue, 23 Dec 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] Ellen Glasgow's 'The Past' and 'The Shadowy Third'
First of all I want to say that I enjoyed both 'The Past' and 'The Shadowy Third' and was held by the power of Ellen Glasgow's writing. I'd definitely like to read more by her in the future, especially 'The Woman Within' - looking at used book websites, it looks as if it will be all too sadly easy to pick up her books very cheaply indeed, with even first editions costing only a couple of pounds in some instances. As the article which Penny led us to suggested, it seems as if Glasgow has been largely forgotten and neglected despite the quality of her writing.
All the same, I must agree with Ellen, Fran and Dagny that the ending of The Past' seems forced to me too. The problem for me is partly that it's too neat and explains too much away - it is so convenient to have this explanation of the first wife's malignity, these telltale letters which can be burnt and leave no trace. I think ghosts are more effective if you don't know exactly what they want and something ambiguous is left hanging around them, as with Emma Saxton in 'The Lady's Maid's Bell', who may be coming to save or to have revenge on her mistress.
The discovery of the letters in this story reminds me a bit of the revelation in Rebecca that Rebecca had just been told she was dying and might have had a reason for suicide, which in the Olivier/Fontaine film version (because of the board of censors) is how she actually died. In both cases, it's an explanation you don't really need - the anger of the ghostly first wife seems to go beyond the reasons suggested.
All the same, I do like 'The Past,'especially the beginning, because I feel it does have a chilling central image which sticks in my mind - the moment where the first wife appears for the first time and takes her place at the table for dinner, like Banquo's ghost in 'Macbeth'. The problem for me is that this is the climax and it feels a bit as if Glasgow isn't sure where to go from there - I suppose I was expecting the first wife to go on and drive either the husband or the second wife to their death, rather than retreating. I don't believe in this character suddenly becoming sweet and yielding, and agree with others that Lundie's interpretation doesn't seem to be borne out by the text.
I agree with Ellen that 'The Shadowy Third' is the more powerful of the two - I won't go into detail because I'm running out of time, but this one yet again has a nurse going into a strange house and becoming caught up in the lives and tragedy of the couple who employ her. The ending of this is truly frightening and doesn't back out like the ending of 'The Past'. It reminded me a bit of some of the MR James stories.
Merry Christmas/ Happy Holidays to all on the list,
December 23, 2003
Re: Women's Alliances? 19th to mid20th century ghost stories
I noticed that either Judy or Fran brought up the repeat motif of several ghost stories I've read: the the narrator is a governess/companion. Today Judy added the nurse trope: oftentimes in these stories the narrator is a nurse whose narration swirls around protecting or dealing with a child or the ghost of a child. To Mrs Gaskell's (relatively) well-known "The Old Nurse's Story" I'll add one we read on Trollope-l a couple of Christmases ago: Mary Wilkins Freeman's "The Lost Ghost" which is told by a woman now grown old (as is Gaskell's nurse) remembering back to an incident where the ghost of a child took away (presumably to death) a woman who pitied it. Glasgow's "Shadowy Third" reminded me of that story. Burnett's "The White People" centers on a girl whose background repeats that of Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden so the perspective is not that of the older woman and it is told from the point of view of this Mary Lennox type (orphaned, neglected by the parents while they lived, now withdrawn and eager for some companionship, any companionship); the provision of a poorer child to be the companion of the wealthy child provides the narrator for the powerful vampire novella by Le Fanu called Carmilla. Judy's heading of Maid and Mistress struck me as inspired as this way of putting it brings home to us the center of the relationship upon which these tales are structured: an apparent alliance which is often not an alliance but one woman preying on or taking advantage of another. We never know what was Emma Saxon's relationship to Mrs Brympton; if the tale has anything hard about it, surely it would come from the implication one can take away that Emma was Mr Brympton's mistress and getting back at Mrs Brympton.
Women's alliances? A recent anthology of essays about Elizabethan woman I came across in my local bookshop; one edited by Susan Frye and Karen Robertsoniis called Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women's Alliance in Early Modern England. It takes as its frontispiece Vermeer's Mistress and Maid. Here's a URL for those who would like to see this one:
It doesn't take much observation to notice how richly the mistress is dressed and how plainly the maid. It is naive to suppose that the hiring of a woman to be your companion/maid/governess necessarily sets up a reciprocal alliance. Far from it Betty Rizzo tells us in Companions Without Vows, one of the more thoroughly researched unsentimental books I've ever read about women hired to live in intimate relationships with other women or to work for them to take care of their children, run their household, and do various of the unpleasant time-consuming jobs of a woman's life (for a review of Rizzo's book, see directly below). Frye and Roberston's book is similarly frank and truthful insofar as they can be. Yet at the same time what Rizzo and Frye/Robertson show us is an alliance, no matter how fraught with humiliation, exploitation and continual class conflict: indeed Rizzo really delights in showing us those situations in which (very like the classic movie, The Servant where the servant, Dirk Bogarde takes over the personality of the master, James Fox) the mistress is dominated by the maid; this happened often in conjunction with said maid becoming the husband's mistress and having his children too.
Having said this, it is true that for the most part the ghost stories I've read thus far have presupposed a loving relationship between the inferior woman and her employer. The inferior woman is loyal and terrified/appalled by what happened or happens to her mistress, and sets it down for the reader. Maybe another aspect of the power of Wharton's "The Lady's Maid's Bell" is its subversion of this sentimental trope. At the same time the sentimental trope would bring to mind in women who hired such people what the realities would have been. Those stories I've been referring to all come from the 19th and early to nearly mid-20th century. The later stories in Dalby's volume have no such woman about the place.
So what we have is a fraught alliance. The mistress needs someone; she is in need of help and she takes into her house a woman yet more in need, more desperate. She has to trust this woman. She also is taught and encouraged by her culture to look down on her and use her. Rizzo shows repeatedly how when you give one person power over another they most often abuse it. We in the later 20th century are probably missing vibes readers of an earlier era would automatically get. And perhaps that has been one of the problems we had in understanding "The Lady's Maid's Bell." Fanny Burney, as I said, hated the ringing of the bell that called her; it was a humiliation; it reminded her of what she was. When she lived with Mrs Thrale as a sort of semi-companion, she didn't have to come at the ringing of the bell.
The nurse and governess role are often in the stories I've read shown as profoundly sympathetic to the child. We see this in "The Shadowy Third." The ghost who takes the form of the child can then take advantage of this nurse or governess. But in reality the nurse/governess was prey for the master of the house -- if the mistress found out she might fire her (if she dared), but then she might not find out.
This pairing strikes me as significant. Oftentimes the "mark" of the woman's picture is to show a pair of women as friends in the center. In modern pictures which usually present an upbeat relationship between people the alliance is often presented as sustaining. I saw a film with Isabel the other day I much enjoyed. I realized it flattered me; it has the usual overemotionalism and idealism of women's emotion pictures, but I admit I fell for it, partly because unlike most other movies I've seen of late it did not present women's bodies as so much animal fodder (so many cows to be milked, so many Barbie dolls eager to jump in bed with any man), but was witty and respectful of women's bodies: Calendar Girls. It made a ironic joke of what our society seems of late very fixed upon: women's breast. In one of the classic feminist books of the 1970s (I forget which) the writer talked about how women are seen by our society as beings with breasts and how this image is used to subdue and control them. Not in this film. Well at the center of this film was a friendship between two women, indeed an alliance between 12 women. People will talk of Helen Mirren's performance (which is good -- she is also doing Eugene O'Neill's Clytemnestra as Christine Mannon in London just now), but some of the other women were just as powerful: Penelope Wilton as Ruth (once again, she was Ruth in a film version of The Norman Conquests) stole the show and is very memorable.
We've mentioned that reading women's ghost stories in a row brings out how the ghost itself stands in for the woman writer. Well another motif different from men's ghost stories is this delving of this ambiguous alliance. The use of a child ghost is more typical of women's stories -- though men use them too.
Re: The element of "faery" in ghost stories
It's difficult to talk about how to evoke terror and the uncanny in the gothic and particularly in these ghost stories which depend on a suspension of disbelief. In the introduction to the Oxford Book of Ghost Stories, Cox and Gilbert attempt to describe what needs to be done in writing a ghost story to evoke "faery;" M. R. James has some very good words; so too Lovecraft, and before them Dryden (yes Dryden is good on this in his preface to one of his adaptations of a medieval poem). Basically they all say the writer must work at it; take time and make the reader really believe in the story as a realistic one and then suddenly, the malevolent is there and seems not unexpected but called for, intrinsically part of the world of the story. Dryden insists it is wrong to take "the enchanted ground" as light and benevolent (he is arguing against a way of reading medieval literature as silly superstitution, playful, and nowadays something "we have gone beyond"). There are other writers who have tried to describe what they do (Wharton, Bowen) but really either the writer manages it or he or she doesn't. It's a matter of deep inward conviction in the presence of the text. You don't need the classic paraphernalia necessarily; most modern stories drop this as corny and not believable: in two of the closing stories of Dalby's volume, Elizabeth Walter's and Elizabeth Bowen's the retreat is to the psychological in the second and in the first simply an intense quarrel of hatred between a married couple in a car. One of the finest ghost stories I've ever read is an Italian one by Mario Soldati where he simply manages this terror through snow. The person is destroyed by getting lost in malevolent snow. It sound funny but the experience of it isn't.
Judy remarked that the powerful center of "The Past" is the appearance of the ghost. What I like about Peter Penzoldt's book on the supernatural is he attempts to describe the typical structure of a series of gothic types as a way of understanding and and also appreciating the text. He says the climax of most fine ghost stories, if not all of them is the appearance of the ghost. This can come quite early in the story. This is very different from the way most short stories work. Obviously it makes for difficulties in getting the reader to read on if the climax comes not at the story's end but at the appearance of the ghost. One reason time is often rearranged using first person narratives (so that you can tell what happened first at the last -- as in Jekyll and Hyde) is the writer seeks to put off the appearance of this ghost. Penzoldt thinks the more effective or less "cheap" ghost story will have the ghost occur where it should naturally and then work out the thematic implications of the story/characters from there. There's a story by Maupassant whose dread is built by beginning with the ghost's presence (it's never seen). Everyone usually says M. R. James was the first to show how to do this psychologically and subtly; he has been a great influence on the 20th century ghost story. But M. R. James is not really terrifying or subversive finally in the way of Le Fanu; recently I came across an interesting "take" on his stories as shoring up the elitist heritage industry :). I've been impressed by Penzoldt again and again; it was he who "opened" up Jekyll and Hyde for me by showing how it conforms to the brutalities of the werewolf tale.
The subversion of the form comes from its sense of regions outside the story, quiet, still fearful ones which are only glimpsed in the text. These quiet fearful ones are, though, longed for. The person who is lured away by the ghost called the ghost up (however unconsciously) and desires to retreat away from present time and life with it. The stillness has its lure. The snow appeals to Soldati's central presence. One analogy in the vampire story (another subtype of gothic) is the longing for sex/maiming by the vampire; the longing for the dark villain in female sexuallystructured stories (ultimately going back to Radcliffe). An implication is that all we know here doesn't matter and can be defeated by the mind withdrawing. Eugenia de LaMotte's idea about female gothic being about boundaries between women and society and their desire to shift it off, get away, escape and the violation they endure in it make sense in terms of this sense of the gothic too. It combines structure, mood and theme. The interest of the stories chosen by Lundie in this world and the idea one could have made this one better or will do goes counter to this deeper sense of what a ghost story figures forth and what its provenance is. Lundie seems to have gone for do-gooding stories. But women in gothics are as capable of anything as men or children.
I'd like to agree that Lundie's choice came out of her trying for more unusual ghost stories as well as seeking feminist ones -- as she understands feminism. But in Salmonson's essay Salmonson complained that Lundie has simply reprinted a number Salmonson did. My experience is most anthology's choices are based on previous anthologies. It's the rare editor who really goes back to an enormous body of whatever kind of material and begins sifting on his or her own.
Date: Wed, 24 Dec 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] Maid and mistress in ghost stories
One of the things that struck me in 'The Past' was that, similar though her plot role is to the other maid/mistress relationships we've been talking about, the social role of the secretary is a slightly anomalous one. She is in a kind of no-man's-land between the actual servants, who she constantly, if vainly, tries to distance herself from, and the master and mistress of the house, who she would also have appreciated more distance from in the beginning, as when she expresses her dislike of being expected to eat with the latter and act as one of the family. She even says if she'd known that she wouldn't have taken the job at even double the salary. She's drawn into their problems despite herself, won over by the charm of Mrs Vanderbridge's personality and her own emotionally starved, lonely needs, which seem to run contrary to the social distance she'd like to preserve.
I suppose her social position is in some ways similiar to the uneasy, half-way position of the companion/confidante or governess in earlier stories, but in her desire for more independence and autonomy, she seems to reflect the change from servant/mistress to employee/employer relationship in the less feudal, more modern and impersonal industrial society of the early 20th century.
Date: Thu, 24 Jul 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] Companions Without Vows by Betty Rizzo
This is strongly to recommend reading Betty Rizzo's Companions Without Vows: Relationships Among Eighteenth-Century Women, one of the more perceptive, thoroughly well informed and non-sentimental, non-false books I've read in years. I connect it to these ghost stories by women as in these we do find the mirrored reflection (no matter how indirect, how glancing) of the real relationships between maids and mistresses. Sometimes the maid dominates the mistress, sometimes the husband uses both, and then again the wife is dominatrix.
Rizzo's book is explicit and hard. She studies a series of pairs of women in the 18th century where one was a mistress and the other a companion. In some cases the woman who is the mistress is shown with a series of companions; in some cases, the woman who finds herself driven to this hard position is shown as companion (or treated as a companion) with several women.
This is a deeply unpleasant book in a way. Rizzo shows just how people will treat others who they can dominate almost it seems inevitably and the treatment is nearly always disrespectful on some level, and frequently openly grating, exploitative, and demeaning for the "unpaid" companion. I just finished the chapter on Burney who was partly treated as a companion by Hester Thrale and did endure 5 years of being the companion of the queen's wardrobe woman. Burney nearly died of it. The previous chapter was about Elizabeth Chudleigh (mistress); those to come include a hard look at Elizabeth Montagu (mistress), Frances Greville (companion). Threaded through are smaller "lives" of women like Sarah Scott, Sarah Fielding and Jane Collier. They formed circles of women who tried to live independently -- on very little -- rather than submit to becoming someone's "toady." The word is used frequently in 18th and 19th century diaries.
I hadn't know the origin of this unsympathetic slang term for sycophant. It comes from mountebank shows in the 17th century. A boy was hired (think Oliver Twist) to eat toads as part of the show. The meal was something clearly nauseating. I also hadn't know why Jane Collier's The Art of Tormenting was such a popular book among women readers in the 18th century and can still be seen as a "lift-off" in some 19th century books by women. By sheer happenstance I came across it as the opener in Charlotte Smith's The Young Philosopher (which later had the beautiful poems I quoted last week. Here is how The Young Philosopher opens:
"It is, I believe, in a work written by Mrs Sarah Fielding [a common misattribution], and now out of print, called The Art of Tormenting that I have read the following fable:
'A society of animals were once disputing on various modes of suffering, and of death; many offered their opinions, but it was at length agreed that the sheep, as the most frequent victim, could give the best account of the agonies inflicted by the teeth and claws of beasts of prey."
Smith then goes on to liken herself to the sheep in the fable and says her novel will dwell on the world seen from the view of sheep like her: not all of them sheep based on the same reasons.
The sheep in Rizzo's book are unpaid and paid companions of the wealthy and some upper servants (governesses), but she shows how the position of such women (very real and very common throughout the 19th century as it was not socially acceptable for a woman who had the money to afford it to live alone) could resonate out to many niches in society and how "the art of tormenting" - a way of making daily experience grating could ring home to readers. A drop in status is one of the worst social experiences people can suffer, and to be an unpaid companion brings home quite graphically the awareness of such experiences. Rizzo's book includes reprints of ads by women trying to find a place (nowhere as innocuous as Jane Eyre's) as well as ads by women trying to get such a woman (through the general language you see a kind of continual obedient slavery and utter complaisance about how each minute of your life may be spent is what is demanded). Then she also quotes diaries where it's clear the woman doesn't quite realize what she's doing to her companion (Mrs Thrale's early treatment of the Burney doll who wrote the star book, Evelina) and also women who realize what they are doing and even revel in it (though they don't admit this).
The book is filled with sociological and and economic data about real women's lives very hard to come by. There's an underlying desire once and for all to stop romanticizing women. Rizzo gets a kick out of showing what people are. Curiously too (and this is part of the book's atmosphere or feel and perspective) Rizzo does not only sympathize with the companion, she openly enters into the case of the mistress. She herself likes some of her bullies. She sees that they are bullied too.
A second perspective working its way continually through the book is that the unpaid companion and her relationship to her mistress were seen as precisely analogous to the position of a wife to a husband. The wife was the unpaid servant. The way Thrale treated his wife constrained and enslaved her: what else is this continual going to bed and producing children when the man is distasteful to her and doesn't care for her in the least? Repeatedly Rizzo quotes poems and passages where women in the period who were wives or were being pushed into marrying likened the position to that of a servant, unpaid and having to obey.
She argues that another way of reading books on women and their companions is to see in them an argument against marriage. Why should a woman marry? Cannot society be arranged another way where this is not the only way she can survive respectably? A whole undercurrent of (justifiably) angry and depressed and frustrated feeling which went with a way of life that underlies Victorian novels is brought out. When men write these novels, we can't see this; if we want to get at the woman reader of such books and the very occasional woman writer who brings this out (and that's not Eliot or Gaskell but Austen very indireclty, Brontes openly and hardly anyone else), we need to see this analogy working out in women's minds. Rizzo provides the data for us to see it both in life and in many many texts.
I have put the following poem on 18thCentury Worlds more than once. It was the most frequently reprinted poem by a woman in the 18th century. It's by Mary Lady Chudleigh (1656-1710):
To the Ladies:
Wife and servant are the same,
But only differ in the name:
For when that fatal knot is tied,
Which nothing, nothing can divide,
When she the word obey has said,
Abd man by law supreme had made,
Then all that's kind is laid aside,
And nothing left but state and pride.
Fierce as an eastern prince he grows,
And all his innate rigour shows:
Then but to look, to laugh, or speak,
Will the nuptial contract break.
Like mutes, she signs alone must make,
And never any freedom take,
But still be governed by a nod,
And fear her husband as her god:
Him still must serve, him still obey,
And nothing act, and nothing say,
But what her haughty lord thinks fits,
Who, with the power, has all the wit.
Then shun, Oh! shun that wretched state,
And all the fawning flatterers hate.
Value yourselves, and men despise:
You must be proud, if you'll be wise.
(first printed 1703
Here's another poem on marriage, not so well-known:
"Wedlock: A Satire"
Thou tyrant, whom I will not name,
Whom heaven and hell alike disclaim;
Abhorred and shunned, for different ends,
By angels, Jesuits, beasts and fiends!
What terms to curse thee shall I find,
Thou plague peculiar to mankind?
O may my verse excel in spite
The wiliest, wittiest imps of night!
Then lend me for a while your rage,
You maidens old and maidens sage:
So may my terms in railing seem
As vile and hateful as my theme.
External foe to soft desires,
Inflamer of forbidden fires,
Thou source of discord, pain and care,
Thou sure forerunner of despair,
Thou scorpion with a double face,
Thou lawful plague of human race,
Thou bane of freedom, ease and mirth,
Thou deep damnation upon earth,
Thou serpent which the angels fly,
Thou monster whom the beasts defy,
Whom wily Jesuits sneer at too;
And Satan (let him have his due)
Was never so confirmed a dunce
To risk damnation more than once.
That wretch, if such a wretch there be,
Who hopes for happiness from thee,
May search successfully as well
For truth in whores and ease in hell.
(written 1752, published 1862)
Hetty Wright was sister to the Wesley brothers. Her years were 1697-1751. The editor, Lonsdale, treats her brief entry unusually: he adds an autobiographical detail to the effect Wright was unhappily married. This is a good instance of using autobiography to limit the general reach of a poem.
Or you could skip Rizzo (though you shouldn't) and read or reinforce reflections of what she has to say in ghost stories by women.
Cheers to all