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

Women's counter-universes · 25 May 06

Dearest Lady Mary,

I’ve been meaning to write you since last week when on Eighteenth Century Worlds you responded to my commentary on a retirement poem by Charles Cotton and a friendship poem by Mary Robinson. I’d been reading carefully in order to write a review of a book about 18th century English women’s poetry, and quoted "mine author" (as Chaucer would say) who argued that women’s friendship and retirement poems differ from men’s. She wrote:

"the friendship poem gives access to women’s private or
counteruniverse and to new evidence about the ways literature can nurture independence, identity formation, and imaginative self-realization. By encouraging both a private, interiorized identity and a repertory of social selves … "

The friendship poem and women’s novel can become sites for resisting society’s gender and other intense pressures. Women’s novels when at least partly "l’ecriture-femme" have been instrumental for women in developing modern individual consciousness—and modern feminisms.

When written by men and women:

"retirement poems often represent a person without political or public power, even an exile from decision making [certainly the case in many of these ex-cavalier royalist poems], and they portray or insists upon … a hard-won, deeply virtuous, and
self-sufficient contentment.

"Mine author" suggests that women’s retirement poems are different since they do not construct an alternative to public life available to women, but rather construct a way of life for the women inside her community and in accordance with her private identity.

To these passages you replied:

I enjoyed both poems enormously, and was myself moved
by both Leslie’s intro. for Mary Robinson and what Ellen had to say about retirement poems – especially women’s.

I somehow felt almost galvanized by the notion of the
difference in women’s retirement poems, the life within the life, as it almost sounds. Also the dignity and moral choice involved.

Reading this book led me to reading an article on modern women’s poetry, novels, memoirs and films. The writer tries to demonstrate that "women do not have a marginal investment in the avant-garde, that women, in fact, are partial to an experimental poetics." Apparently it’s often said women try safe forms, and want to stay within these, but this writer says no. We see experiment and much that is unconventional by male standards:

"radical lyrics [and art] offer a model for a generation of women writers to come … [we can] outline a contemporary women’s vanguard … New canons lay down new borders and landscapes and create geo-centers of intellectual power.

Women are fascinated by"the formal properties" of whatever art they practice, and show an "obsession" with "the vicissitudes of gender" (what it is to be a woman).

Well today I carried on reading my book and was into numerous retirement poems by women. "Mine author" says they differ from men’s because into the retreat the woman often imagines a deeply-congenial woman friend (or friends), and they are "about defining a self and recognizing an autonous identity" in an imagined space which they control. They celebrate imagined memories, and beyond becoming poems of vision, provide a community for the woman reader to enter into.

I should also mention an important argument I read today in Margaret Ezell’s Writing Women’s Literary History where Ezell says the insistence that a piece of writing be published in print and have made money (been written to make money) as a basic standard criteria for inclusion in today’s canon of women’s past is falsifying and crippling. If we look we find early modern men’s writing is not subjected to the same standard.

It’s taken me so many words to make this general statement about women’s poetic art that I feel I must not go into too many details in suggesting some works I’ve read and seen recently which exemplify all this. I would be keeping you from Charles, and perhaps the children (if they are still up).

So, since finishing the paper on Trollope, I’ve been immersing myself in novels and memoirs by women as well as going to movies with Yvette. I feel they all demonstrate the truth of the above statement even if they are not in verse: Frances Hodgson Burnett’s That Lass o’Lowrie, Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Anne Halkett’s memoir, Holofcener’s Friends with Money and Deepa Mehta’s Water (a wrenching important film about how widows are treated ruthlessly amorally in traditional Indian culture—I just burst into tears at the tragic waste of such misery among these women, their impoverishment, humiliations, and crazed ceremonies) and much 18th century poetry by women. All create imagine space for a community of women into which the woman reader or viewer is invited to enter; all are haunted by a need to project a collectivity of women’s friendships (perhaps Tyler’s differs in this regard as the pair at the center are a mother and her loving son with whom she is "together forever"—until death does them part). They constitute an art where individual real lives can be shown in a perspective which presents a counter more truthful view from the prevailing conventional one, where the woman artist can explore and makes visible women’s situations and roles from their subjective standpoint. Come to think of it Fanny Burney’s Cecilia shows a heroine writhing with her inability to create a space for herself and the lack of sympathy and understanding in women complicit with the hegemonic masculine and capitalist or hierarchical militarist (macho) order.

I’ll end this brief literary excursis with an unpretentious friendship and retirement poem (which I hope you like) by a woman I’ve long liked from her letters and a biography about her by Helen Sard Hughes: Frances Seymour Thynne, Lady Hertford’s "To the Countess of Pomfret." Thynne and Henrietta Louisa Jeffreys Fermor (I mention all her names so we won’t get her confused with someone else), Lady Pomfret were faithful correspondents for years:

We sometimes ride, and sometimes walk,
We play at chess, or laugh, or talk;
Sometimes besides the crystal stream,
We meditate some serious theme;
Or in the grot, beside the spring,
We hear the feathered warblers sing.
Shakespeare perhaps an hour diverts,
Or Scott directs to mend our hearts.
With Clarke’s God’s attributes we explore;
And, taught by him, admire them more.
Gay’s Pastorals sometimes delight us,
Or Tasso’s grisly spectres fright us:
Sometimes we trace Armida’s bowers,
And view Rinaldo chained with flowers.
Often from thoughts sublime as these,
I sink at once – and make a cheese;
Or see my various poultry fed,
And treat my swans with scraps of bread.
Sometimes upon the smooth canal
We row the boat or spread the sail;
Till the bright enveing-star is seen,
And dewy spangles deck the green.
          Then tolls the bell, and all unite
In prayer that God would bless the night.
From this (though I confess the change
From prayer to cards is somewhat strange)
To cards we go, till ten has struck:
And then, however bad our luck,
Our stomachs ne’er refuse to eat
Eggs, cream, fresh butter, or calves’-feet;
And cooling fruits, or savoury greens
‘Sparagus, peas, or kidney-beans.
Our supper past, an hour we sit,
And tlk of history, Spain or wit.
But Scandal far is banished hence,
Nor dares intrude with false pretence
Of pitying looks, or holy rage
Against the vices of the age:
We know we were all born to sin,
And find enough to blame within.

(written 1740)

These past two days have been good and happy ones. Yesterday Caroline, Yvette and I had our hair cut, shopped galore, and had much good talk. We decided to join the gym at GMU where we’ll have no less than 2 pools to swim in. In the evening I watched the recent film about Queen Elizabeth I and Leicester starring Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons. The icon of Elizabeth has been modified again: this time she is all tender loving loyalty and utterly ethical, and intensely in love with Leicester. What a turnaround from Scott and the seething sexually frustatred harridan of the later 18th century. Now Mary Queen of Scots is the obduarate politician. The scenes move too swiftly in modern movies though the cinematography is effective: dark lights and rushing waters for realism.

Today Jim helped Yvette find a listing of internship jobs on line and together they sent off letters and resumes and will do some more tomorrow. We walked in the afternoon and tonight had a scrumptious meal of steak, potatoes and peas—washed down with much wine. Yvette has reread Miss Sayers’s Gaudy Night and just finished LeCarre’s Little Drummer Girl and I’ve just written this to you.

Our plans for this weekend include walking in Olde Towne on Saturday night (when the "ride to the wall" motorcyclists will be everywhere), an opera (Rossini’s Italian Girl in Algiers), for me more reading and study and driving my syllabus into GMU, for Yvette working at the job list and also writing on her own and music, and for Jim probably lots of blogs and comments and his book by Erich Segal. Caroline and Rob may go to some carnival festival in Maryland.

I expect the lists and cyberspace will be even quieter than usual. Nick tells me it’s Whitsun day weekend in England. I’ll watch the people on 19thCenturyLit talking of Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles, most of it in such a way as to avoid what humanly affects us where we live when we read such stories, so for me empty. For some of the people doing this it’s instinctive or strongly inculculated; for others a careful way of writing. I expect to see the "regulars" pop in and out. My theory is that the stalwarts or continually active people on any list (say 5 to 10% of the membership) are there but not posting (pretending not to be there) in order to seem to be living according to conventional expectations that they are holidaying somewhere with someone (e.g., their family). Last night I saw an example of this pretense on FrenchLit where the listowner is said to be away (and may indeed be travelling), but appeared quickly when a newcomer came on and might have been attempting to sway the list in a new (perhaps interesting if overtly playful and frivolous) direction for a reading of the Claudine books by Colette. In other words, the regulars and controllers of a given list are there (within reach of the Net) when they perceive their interests are at stake, and can reach the Net very rapidly when they want to.

There’s an unacknowledged political dimension to this behavior in listowner, moderators, and regulars: on lists where politically conservative and masculinist views hold sway what they are doing is squashing any of the kind of overt thinking and feeling which lets itself become discernible on behalf of the woman’s counteruniverse (most of the people on these lists are women). Arabella calls this kind of listowner behavior in general "wetblanketing." I’ve just seen a firm instance of this on the Booker Prize list. The listowner there will turn what has been said to mean its opposite or something which supports the conventional (often inhumane) order, in effect shutting people up and negating what has been put in the public realm in the hope of reaching someone among the many people who are hurting and would be solaced to know they are not alone. For myself I hope to post pictures, poetry and write sincerely and as fully as I dare to the friends who are there on the lists I participate in.

I can’t resist a final image. By Antonio Caneletto , its quiet perspective leads us ever endlessly into air and light in a controlled delicate harmonious way. A very 18th century image of civilized hope:

View of Grand Walk, Vauxhall Gardens (1751)

I hope you have a lovely holiday weekend, my dear.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. My dear Sylvia,

    I received your letter with great pleasure. Charles and I were just in from a movie (2004’s ‘Proof’), and the children safe abed. In the afternoon I’d walked to see my sister and her sons; sat in a neighborhood park and watched the ducks like peaceful burghers crowding round the nearest bench; come home and made myself another cup of tea. While I read your letter in the evening, Charles curled on the windowseat, began reading Origen again.

    You wrote: Today I carried on reading my book and was into numerous retirement poems by women. "Mine author" says they differ from men’s because into the retreat the woman often imagines a deeply-congenial woman friend (or friends), and they are "about defining a self and recognizing an autonomous identity" in an imagined space which they control. They celebrate imagined memories, and beyond becoming poems of vision, provide a community for the woman reader to enter into.

    And this continues to much move me. Perhaps because for me the wishful certitude that one can ‘change anything’ or ‘do anything you put your mind to’ is, however encouraging in intent, false. I’ve battered myself against the wall of impossibilities before: again and again. One cannot stop making the best of what exists, but much lies beyond our control. Poems and artistic genres that recognize this and focus on creating and manipulating the interior circumstances and fashioning, as you say, ‘a hard-won and deeply virtuous contentment,’ matter profoundly to me. More yet, in recognizing and honoring those aspects which we do control – at least in some measure – they relieve the stigma of our lives’ unimportance, of small choices not mattering, of failure if we cannot change great or outward things. The community involved – whether real or imagined, that of a single ‘deeply congenial’ friend, or of a group, or entered only by a reader – alleviates the great loneliness we feel, breaks some of the imprisonment of circumstance, allows a voice to come through and be answered. It wakes a sense of dialogue and likeness. – With each other, with our experience of life, or between works. Whether or not the readers’ voice is heard, echoes of the reading reverberate inside their lives.

    Your comment on Cecilia is excellent; for she has books, but is quite isolated from any real community, in the midst of a very hostile one.

    I love the poem you sent. Its beautifully unpretentious voice and the life portrayed’s friendly allure captivated me. If Frances Thynne, Lady Hertford were alive, I should want her for a friend. Perhaps at least I can obtain her writing. My thanks for the biographical information sent separately.

    It sounds as if men and women may be motivated to different areas of experiment – which would explain a tendency to percieve women as unadventurous when they’re not. Or am I misunderstanding?

    I’m glad you brought up the point about women’s writing being held to a false and indeed unimportant standard to which men’s of the same period is not subjected before being deemed canonical. They have the benefit of time: of having been accepted for long before, not newly judged, rehabilitated, rediscovered, even championed, past a great drift of forgetfulness and disdain, now.

    In_Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant_, I think Ezra is a character-type which is frequently female, and traditionally for his role: pacific, passive, nurturing, in some degree self-sacrificial. He stands in well for an analogous daughter… so that it doesn’t feel like a great or jarring deviation from type.

    I hope you also have a wonderful holiday weekend. My own plans are minimalist, but perhaps family will ‘interfere’ with something unexpected to do. I shall not, in any case, pretend to less presence and more normalcy than I possess. :)

    Charles and Harriet and Peter asked to be remembered to you; extend their greetings – and mine – to Yvette, please.

    With much affection,

    Lady Mary
    Julie Vollgraff    May 26, 12:48pm    #

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