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

Niagara, Glimmerglass -- & Trollope · 21 August 06

Dear Marianne,

We got back from our 4 day adventure about 1 in the afternoon. We had intended to help Yvette settle into her apartment at the University of Buffalo campus, and we did manage that on Friday, mostly (she had to wait to get her Internet connection today, Monday). Quite unexpectedly the time away turned into a small holiday too.

Yvette has a decent-size apartment: downstairs a living room, closet and kitchen; upstairs a room for herself and one for her new friend who shares the apartment with her, & between the two bedrooms a modern bathroom.

The University of Buffalo contains tens of thousands of students who apparently lived in scattered sites stretched out over miles of land. Yvette’s apartment complex for graduate students is one of several right off a creek; each individual dwelling looks like a tiny attached house and they seem to alternate 2 young men, 2 young women. Another similar looking complex, also for graduate students, is a 5 minute drive away and next to a lake. We saw apartment buildings which are dorms (filled with shared rooms) across a highway-looking road. And so it goes.

In the center is what’s called "the academic spine." These are the buildings for classes, for meetings of all sorts, an administration, gym, bookstore, library; not far from these a huge stadium for football. Lakes everywhere. To walk it would be exhausting and time-consuming, but there are regular shuttle buses everywhere as well as parking lots. A shuttle bus takes students from the north to the south campus and back again, and a shuttle bus takes them from the south campus to the city proper of Buffalo.

We drove from the campus about 5 minutes to a long stretch of commercial malls and shops: suburban sprawl. There we found a Wegman’s and pharmacies and Target. A shuttle bus takes students from the campus to this place too.

As we drove into Buffalo, we were immediately reminded (by the signs everywhere) that Niagara Falls was 20 minutes away by car. How could we not go? So we went early Saturday morning.

I found myself having the odd experience of seeing it partly through the eyes of the many 19th century English travellers I had been reading about for such a long time, particularly Anthony Trollope who has a marvelous description of the falls from a position similar to that the present Cave of Winds trip provides. The Cave of Winds is gotten to by taking an elevator down one of the cliffs and arriving next to a smaller falls. You can walk safely nearby on built runways and walk behind the fall too. Leading up the park is a long block of debased (ludicrously cheap and phony) amusement park-type entertainments & objects in shack-looking buildings. However, once you pass the highway and the Visitors Center, and cross the bridge over to Goat Island, you are surrounded by or engulfed in a world of natural beauty even the heavy numbers of tourists can’t dominate.

Goat Island was familiar to me from William Howells’s description. He went to Niagara with his wife, Isabel, and wrote about their trip in a transparently autobiographical fiction, Their Wedding Journey. The boat I’ve taken up to West Point from NYC was running then and the Howells took it, then a train, and with an illustrator (for the periodical Howells intended to publish his essays in) wandered about the islands and falls.

Illustration from Howells’s Their Wedding Journey (1871): Howells and Isabel watch the falls from a 19th century vantage point

I can’t say it was the astonishing overwhelming experience the 19th century tourists felt they had to claim; still, roaring falls are magnificent. You can walk near two of them, and see the horseshoe from not far away. The waters pour down seemingly eternally with a thundering sound. Mist rises over water that’s beautiful blue-green. We watched a boat filled with people dressed in blue raincoats slowly edge close to the horseshoe. Heliocopter rides ferry people above. I was impressed by the little purple flowers and greenery which stubbornly persist in growing near the edges of the waters.

I wished Caroline had been there, for 1) she would not have left the camera behind in the minivan we had rented to bring Yvette’s stuff; or if she had, she would 2) have gone back to retrieve it, and then taken lots of photos. As it is, I have none to share. Here is one reason to return.

I would like also next time to take the trip offered by the Cave of Winds "attraction," if only to experience something of what Trollope did. In North America when he finally arrived at the falls, Trollope urged us to dismiss from our minds all the human surroundings, all the petty fakery, everything but the enormous mass of water, its strength and energy and colour and throw ourselves into intense reverie.

And then let him stand with his back to the entrance, thus hiding the last glimmer of the expiring day … The rock will be at his right hand, high and hard, and dark and straight, like the wall of some huge cavern, such as children enter in their dreams …

The music of the waters becomes a roar, passing all round, the broken spray rises. Earlier Trollope described the autumn colours of the leaves sparkling through the water:

And as he looks on, strange colours will show themselves through the mist; the shades of grey will become green or blue, with ever and anon a flash of white; and then, when some gust of wind blows in with greater violence, the sea- girt cavern will become all dark and black. Oh, my friend, let there be no one there to speak to thee then; no, not even a brother. As you stand there, speak only to the waters.

I would also next time take our passports and cross over that high bridge to Canada to see the park and flower clock once again.

Once again? Don’t you remember Marianne, I was there once before—with my first husband when I was 17. All I can remember from that was how much I liked the clock face created entirely out of flowers in patterns on the Canadian side and thought the thousand lakes and mountain districts of New York State superlatively beautiful. How much I’ve changed since then. I would never have guessed even dimly what the future held, that I’d come back with a daughter about to start graduate school in librarianship, myself with a Ph.D. in English—and having read so many accounts of trips to Niagara.

It was the place all 19th century travellers had to write about and outdo one another in describing. We ate in a restaurant whose windows overlooked the horseshoe falls, and Edward said he knew little of the geology and geography of the falls, only that we were watching Lake Erie pouring down into Lake Ontario. Yvette talked about a short story she wrote about a small country she invented which is between Canada and the US.

It had taken us some 9 hours Friday to drive straight from Alexandria to Buffalo in the minivan we rented. We stopped off but once for a picnic lunch. A grind but we did it. The way back we took far more liesurely.

After we came back from Niagara Falls Saturday, it was around 2. We bid adieu to Yvette and we drove through New York State (it is still beautiful) to near Cooperstown where we rented a small one room flat in a building (part of a chain called Candlewood Suites), and went to a Wegman’s and bought some food, brought it back and cooked it for ourselves. Up early and off again on Sunday after returning to Wegman’s to get a picnic lunch (we seemed endlessly to end up in a Wegman’s wherever we go), we drove for a couple of hours further west and south to arrive at Glimmerglass Opera playhouse.

Henry Biva (1848-1928), Etang en Ile de France, a scene which if you add mountains could be New York State along the many lakes area.

We came upon a quiet pretty scene: surrounded by a park and just behind a lake we saw a pleasantly shaped plain grey wooden large structure which looks like the Shakespeare theatre in the park, which looks like the two different Stratford theatres (one in Connecticut and the other in Canada). There were picnic tables and like many of the other people, we had a picnic lunch, this time with Australian wine in wine glasses (which we bought at the theatre itself).

I said in my previous letter we were to see Leo Janacek’s 1903 Jenufa, an early 20th century opera based on a play by a later 19th century Czech woman: the 1890s play in Czech is titled Her Fosterdaughter and is by Gabriella Preissova. What I couldn’t know was this is a powerful opera whose source is an Ibsenesque play.

Here’s the story: the heroine is a young girl, Jenufa, whose bethrothed, Steva, gets her pregnant and then, disdainful of her serious earnest ways, scornful of her for having given in to him, and determined to marry up (the mayor’s daughter), refuses to marry her. His half-brother, Laca, has also been courting her, and when Laca tries to make her turn to him, and she repulses him, cuts her face badly with a knife. The first act ends with this horrific cruel scene.

The center of the opera (and perhaps play too) is Kostelnicka, Jenufa’s foster-, or stepmother who has lived a hard life with a brutal alcoholic man who beat her continually. Despairing and shamed by what has happened to Jenufa, Koselnicka hides Jenufa during the rest of Jenufa’s pregnancy, and after the baby is born and an fierce failed attempt on Kostelnicka’s part to pressure Steva into marrying Jenufa, Kostelnicka takes the newborn and exposes it on the ice to die. She does this to protect Jenufa from shame, to win for her a husband in Laca (who will not take the child) and protect her from having a life such as she has known. Thus ends the second act.

By the last third of the opera Jenufa has been pressured into marrying Laca, but on the wedding day the dead corpse of the baby is found, and rather than let her stepdaughter be taken away to be murdered as guilty of child murder, the stepmother confesses, is taken away, and we are left to see Laca and Jenufa cling to one another.

Tellingly, the music creates intense pity and sympathy for Koselnicka and Jenufa: they are the writhing blamed & shamed victims. One problem with older opera is while the form at its finest evokes intense passions over tabooed subjects, the subject matter and stances are often obsolete. Not in this case.

There are still problems with the text: Jenufa must still be exonerated and made acceptable by making her into a saint. She forgives everyone & never has an angry thought. Kostelnicka is expelled at the end—even if Jonathan Miller has directed the play so we see men take her away in the form of a stupid mob. We are to accept Jenufa’s fate to become Laca’s wife as a qualified happy ending.

The audience did seem to love the opera, and applauded loudly and strongly. There was a lecture beforehand about the music where the man began by playing Smetana’s Moldau and talked about how the motifs stood for different veins of emotion and thought and had a strong reconciling trend. The music was mostly melodic. It was (to my ears anyway) beautifully and effectively sung. The singers acted effectively too. The stage settings were stark with the characters dressed in the poverty-striken outfits of people in Appalachia in the 1930s, but to my mind it doesn’t matter much what particular era or place this archetypal story is set in. It’s now a modern classic (done over and over again):

Cover of recent CD of Jenufa

Edward and I have seen many a badly produced (ludicrously presented) opera, particularly in provincial theatres. This one was as good or better than many we have seen at famed houses. The book we were given asserted all productions at Glimmerglass are of high calibre. This year the company did a Pirates of Penzance and Rossini’s Barber of Seville, both of which looked like great fun. Also a brand-new opera, the world premiere of Stephen Hartke’s The Greater Good, an opera set in the Franco-Prussian war and based on a short story by Maupassant. Next year the theme is Orpheus and they are doing Monteverdi’s, Gluck’s, Offenbach’s, and Philip Glass’s very different operas on the theme. There seemed no sign in any of the blurbs ecstatic over the myth that Carol Ann Duffy (or anyone else) had registered a sceptical attitude towards this great music hero.

The real problem would be it’s hard to get to this theatre; you’d have to pay not only for the opera but to stay nearby (and subscriptions are sold so that people come for a long weekend and try to get in 3-4 of the operas), so it would be very expensive. The audience seemed made up of middle class older people (a large number of older gay couples too). A very New Yorker crowd I thought. Also that you need to have surplus money and leisure time for this.

We did leave having been moved and roused by the experience.

A few hours of driving and we arrived at a Holiday Inn Express. The room was comfortable. We ate in this truck stop restaurant—the buffet allowed you to choose some plain food at a cheap price. We then returned to another anonymous room to read and to sleep.

I should mention that along with much rural and picturesque beauty, we saw much rural and suburban poverty. New York State is filled with abandoned farms and factories. The city of Syracuse where we stayed in Candlelight suites looks desperate in many places. We stopped in stores and places where clearly the ignorance and dunciad-state projected by hundreds of TV stations with nothing but garbage and nonsense on them is repeated in the things on sale and looks in the faces of people.

This morning, Monday, we got up very early, drove home, & arrived in Alexandria around 1. We returned the minivan. Now we know what it’s like to drive for long hours in one of these enormous womb-like objects. The seats are comfortable, and the experience of being high up with lots of room inside flatters the owners, but we wouldn’t buy one of these things. They drive clumsily, & are not safe, not to omit the price of gas. I didn’t drive this one (which creaked) at all.

Out we went to shop—not at Wegman’s, but Shoppers Food Warehouse. I got back online in the later afternoon and was glad to see Yvette was now online too. I was happy to communicate with my friends on the different lists; we had eggplant with tomatoes as a sauce on spaghetti, and went for a walk. Edward tapped away to different people on blogs, on his lists, to Yvette.

Another term ahead. I did get a notice of yet another conference I’d love to go to, this one for Victorianists with the theme "cosmopolitanism." That’s just what I first called my coming paper on Trollope’s North America and Australia and New Zealand, thinking of his great letter where he writes: "There is much that is higher & better & greater than one’s country. One is patriotic only because one is too small & too weak to be cosmopolitan . . . " (August 23, 1862)

But one can’t go everywhere :). It’s the week after we come back from Atlanta. What a change is here for me: from being unable to go to any to wanting to go to all. Today I wrote someone I’ve long wanted to meet (a fellow Janite, Nancy M) to set up a time to meet together in Atlanta this spring.

We did have a some stressful or tense moments (when we encountered some difficulty or disagreed), and once again Trollope got me through. Years ago in Rome when we went on our first far-away vacation with our daughters, I’d read Trollope’s Last Chronicle of Barset in the heat of the afternoon in our shaded apartment, losing myself in this absorbing rich book. When I landed in hospital after an accident which almost killed Edward, my father brought me Trollope’s The Vicar of Bullhampton which helped shut out the the total inadequacy of the hospital (for the indigent and mostly non-English speaking).

Well this time I went through about 2/3s of The Last Chronicle once again as we drove along wherever we were going. Trollope conveys an intense living presence (his own and his characters) through the energy of his language and its nuanced precision which captures rich worlds of things and landscapes, deeply felt thought and insight. David Case read it brilliantly and again a novel by Trollope got me through.

Grace Crawley or Lily Dale reading, Last Chronicle of Barset

Back again in a couple of days,

Posted by: Ellen

* * *


  1. Dang it. It deleted what I wrote, because I didn’t write my name.

    I said I’m glad that Izzy has a new friend, and I also said I love lakes.

    I also said that you gave a great description of your trip to Niagara Falls. I said that thinking about a waterfall makes me want to drink it, because I took a walk and haven’t had a chance to drink water.

    Then I said that I’m at a computer workshop (so I should be paying attention instead of writing this) and they said that if you have spyware, it sends everything you type to the person who installed it. That means that people are reading the e-mails I send to my friends, and everyone knows my secrets.
    Jennica    Aug 22, 3:29pm    #
  2. I’ve been to Niagara Falls many times. My parents honeymooned there (a tradition which seems to have died out) and were very fond of it. I went to behind the falls for the first time, the last time I was there. It was breathtaking and well worth the trouble. The biggest sense I had was one of hugeness. I love the feeling. I wonder if there are still those mountains of dirty looking foam backed up against the shore. The most unattractive part, much worse in the sixties before the outlawing of phospate detergents.
    The Met is staging Jenufa this season; our mutual friend Howard has tickets.
    Tatyana    Aug 22, 9:43pm    #
  3. Dear Jennica,

    I’m glad to hear you are back at Sweet Briar. I hope you have good courses this term.

    You can’t drink the water coming down from the falls :), but you do get wet if you come at all close.

    Sophie    Aug 22, 11:07pm    #
  4. Dear Tatyana,

    Well this is only my second time, and I’d like to go back. If Yvette remains for 2 years and graduates (which we hope for), then the likelihood is I’ll have another chance.

    Niagara Falls did not seem fashionable from the crowd we saw.

    I wouldn’t mind trying the ride to the horseshoe falls too.

    Elinor    Aug 22, 11:10pm    #
  5. On WWTTA I had made a connection between Lionel Shriver’s (a woman author whose book won the Orange Prize) We Need to Talk about Kevin and the 1950s best-seller about a "vicious" child and "inadequate" mother, The Bad Seed, and Fran wrote as follows:

    "Glad your trip went well, Ellen. I enjoyed learning more about an opera whose name I’d only really read on playbills here before. I also looked it up in my Harenberg and saw it was Max Brod, the man also responsable for preserving Kafka's work for posterity, who had been instrumental in making the work popular in the German-speaking world and not only by doing the original translation. I saw there, too, that the bride’s disfigurement you mentioned was a deliberate act to despoil her and no accident.

    Violence to and by women has come up in a number of ways today. Thomas passed on that CFP, you mentioned this and The Bad Seed, and I’ve just finished a rushed reading of a book my library has just recalled, Joyce Carol Oates’collection, Tales of Mystery and Suspense: The Female of the Species;, partly set in that typical Oates’ home landscape of mingled beauty and squalor in the up-state New York you’ve just come from.

    The book’s cover picture, Caravaggio’s ‘Judith and Holofernes’, and blurb opens up the kind of debate we’ve just been talking about, too: ‘With wicked insight, Joyce Carol Oates demonstrates why the female of the species – be they six-year-old girls, seemingly devoted wives, or aging mothers – are by nature more deadly than the males’ In fact, with a couple of marked exceptions, the female violence depicted is less something inherent that a learned reaction to various forms of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of men. One of the more disturbing stories, ‘Doll: A Romance of the Mississippi’ concerns ‘Lolita’-type girl prostituted by her own father and who has taken to murdering the men who come to her – a sort of Wournos in miniature or another sociopathic bad seed?

    Elinor    Aug 23, 8:05pm    #
  6. And a very kind reply from Diana B (aka Miss Schuster-Slatt):

    "There, I have now caught myself up to date with your life (before doing anything else here, even opening my mail, grin!). I am very struck with your fabulous connecting of Niagara to the accounts of literary 19th century visitors, it’s exactly what I most love to do, and what I’d do myself. I visited Niagara with my cousins a few years ago (the Canadian side) but didn’t have the literary references as readily as you do, though I have read North America, and so I’m reveling in yours. Thank you SO much for posting the Howells' Wedding Journey picture – just what I like! You’ll be back in that area again, with Isabel in Buffalo. I would love to have a trip to upstate NY sometime, to see Fredonia, NY, where my grandfather Bertrand Babcock lived when he was the friend and neighbor of Jean Webster, who would much later become Winnie’s great friend.

    Oh! I liked where you said in your blog, that you’ve gone from not wanting to go to any conferences to wanting to go to all. I do believe I have followed your progress on that front, every step of the way! ... "
    Sylvia    Aug 23, 8:06pm    #
  7. IN response to Fran,

    While I was writing the review I did on femmes fatales in romanticism, I read a powerfully persuasive book about women’s violence: Patricia Pearson, When She Was Bad. Its outward packaging make s it look like a misogynistic lurid book, but it is in fact a sober sociological study, very intelligent. In brief, she shows that we do not understand women’s forms of violence since we don’t want to admit women are violent. What she emphasizes is women are violent differently from men because they live different sorts of lives, have different daily activities and their reasons for violence are different. If we "think back through our mothers," we see that the reason we don’t know about this to start with is that the realities of how real women are violent are suppressed. We haven’t the stories widely circulated at all, and when we do get one, it’s skewed so we miss what is the salient or important points and patterns. Wuornos is one of her violent women, but Wuornos type of violence is one of those which seems closer to men’s, if only because it arose during sexual exploitation and abuse.

    Women do sometimes kill newborns; they are driven to it. Preissova shows the foster-mother or aunt first trying hard to pressure the man who impregnated her daughter into marrying her; when he won’t, trying to see if the other suitor (who in the play cut her stepdaughter’s face up) will marry her, and finding he will only agree if there is no child. One of the patterns of violence I was most struck with was the situational one: women don’t move around a lot, and they thus have to commit violence (usually this is to get money) through setting up as a housekeeper for vulnerable people (they get their pensions from the state and agree to "take care" of the elderly person).

    Pearson would not say the female is at all more deadly than the male; she is violent in a different way for different reasons. This coheres with other patterns: women's autobiographies are rooted in a desire for self-expression but come out in different ways and use different themes.

    On WWTTA we haven’t ourselves read many stories where we had violent women. I suggest we’ve come closest to this when we read the ghost stories for 2 Christmases (plus poor Annie from Gaudy Night). Go look at our list of books and stories read thus far. Myself I found very distressing Bessie Head’s Question of Power for she showed a older woman tormenting a younger violently.

    To turn to fairy tales, since Fran brought it up, violence in these comes out in stepmothers who are presented as jealous of the child because she wants possession of the father totally or to keep the child from growing up (having sex with a man). I suggest this is a man’s view but can terrorize a young child. The Rapunzel story is a very scary one for girls. Their mother’s power over them is brought out in fearful ways.

    I think myth and fairy tale enormously important: these provide the stories we are told or tell ourselves from what we come in contact with around us in our most formative years. They provide the archetypes for books and films and art and music we enter into later.

    One real central problem is women have not been able to make central myths and fairy tales which project a woman’s point of view; they have not even made significant the male myths and legends retold (at least) from the marginalized woman supposedly at the center of these. On my blog I mentioned that the Glimmerglass opera company will next year "do" the theme of Orpheus. None of the four works registered the slightest feel of scepticism towards worshipfulness of Orpheus or a sense that the way Eurydice is treated is just awful.

    There are myths that are important to women which are the same as men’s and they are separate ones. The ones the same as men’s include the stories of the Aeneas—only Dido is the figure we care about. (I think the Heroides letters by women are not at all women’s stories; see below on Penelope et aliae.) The Greek myths that include female figures that count and have been used by women are the stories of Iphigenia (the first tragedy written by a woman in Europe is a translation of Euripides’ Iphigenia through an Italian copy by Lady Jane Grey—remember her, her head was chopped off), Philomela and Procne (terrible story but important); of mythical goddesses turned into figures, Arachne. You can tell these are women’s stories as women when they write turn to them and use them. Persephone and Demeter seem to me to be a story that resonates with women.

    I’d say Penelope is not one of these and when Carol Ann Duffy writes her debunking poems she choses the male’s choice of women types and configuration to suggest how women see them. Somketimes women take these figures and use them successfully: Charlotte Lennox in her retelling of Shakespeare’s stories makes a good use of Hermione from Winter’s Tale. Who needs to wait 16 years in death and then say you lived only to see the daughter and now could die happily? Just great that (and then the figure understood this way turns up in Eliot’s Daniel Deronda). Then you get women becoming themselves complict, coopted, having internalized destructive patterns: that’s Eliot’s use of Antigone who we recall was walled up.

    I’ve not mentioned fairy tale. For the life of me I can’t think of one fairy tale figure who is centrally a woman’s conception. I can imagine women debunking them, showing how they really seem to women but not that they really configure an experience of women’s themselves as woman might want it. The ugly witches (Rapunzel’s mother, the wicked queen looking at her aging face in the mirror) are figures hated. Cinderella? Sleeping Beauty. The little mermaid (especially in Anderson’s version). Snow White. Forget it.

    I dislike Bruno Bettelheim’s book. I nowadays incline to see some fairy tales as ways of being cruel to children, of frightening them.

    Earlier this summer I read John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women and thought he made an important point early on which Woolf does not emphasize enough. He says in the present state of humanity we cannot know what women could be, they are so artificially coerced and pressured. That may help us understand why it’s so hard to come up with myths that find real wide acceptance.

    Elinor    Aug 23, 11:04pm    #
  8. An addendum, Marianne,

    There’s a perverse review of the music and dramatic art in the marvelous (an apt word for once) production of Jenufa which I describe in the blog in the September 21, 2006, Fall Issue of New York Review of Books: Geoffrey O’Brien’s "Nightmare on the Prairie," pp. 35-37. It was too much to expect him to acknowledge the real content of the opera: by which I mean the victimization of the young woman, demonization of her foster-mother, and true unacknowledged murderers of the child (the males whom it inconvenienced). No, says O'Brien, it's a story of a dominating women (stepmother) who destroyed her daughter and the baby says this reviewer.

    Moral stupidity? Did the man see the opera? Is it a deliberate conspiracy to ignore the obvious male culprits? The audience stood up to applaud with intensity for the woman who played the stepmother. They booed the man who played Steva. Mild applause for the male character who slashed Jenufa's face and then (oh how grateful she was to be) married her only because he thought there was no baby. Jennufa's stepmother abandons the baby in ice only after both men refuse to marry Jenufa, the first (Steva) so he can marry the mayor's daughter, the second (Laca) only if she has no child. They knew which characters were to be admired. In the original play mother and daughter abandon the baby together.

    The first article of the _NYRB_ is similarly outrageous. A man writes an article where all Israel's claims are taken at face value and all the Arabs' are poses.

    This is not the first time I've seen the limits of a newspaper written heavily by mostly males (at most you get one female reviewer an issue, maybe 2) for a heavily Jewish middle stream Americans. And it's very complacent about itself too, pontificates.

    Elinor    Sep 2, 9:40am    #

commenting closed for this article