June Miscellany (2009)

A scanty month dominated by another bout of Depression. In fact a week of recovery at the beginning June has only punctuated an episode which began in May and from which I am far from recovered. The problem in writing about Depression is that it is miserably re-iterative, solipsistic and impossible to make interesting. Depression is a state of complete negativity – not feeling, not thinking, not doing and not being. It is absence and silence. So I will pass over it and note those few things of interest which have occurred this month.

To begin the musical highlight was another excellent CBSO concert; this one featured a programme of Mahler’s Symphonic Prelude, Britten’s Les Illuminations and Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony. The Britten is a vocal setting of some completely loopy poetry by Rimbaud ; it was brilliantly sung by a Canadian Barbara Hannigan. The music is extremely complex and feels at times a little too intricate, perhaps even too experimental if that is possible although it was still scintillating. The Shostakovitch was wholly terrific; consistently interesting, with a wonderfully moving slow third movement. It is the fourth movement which is controversial however, as there is debate about whether the composer was sincere in its overwhelming optimism, or whether he was merely ensuring his survival by composing something in accord with Stalinistdictates of good musical practice. The composer’s own explanations at the time and then at the end of his life are wholly contradictory on this point. Whatever the truth of this it is an electrifying piece of music.

In my short period of wellness we did manage to get back to Compton Verney to hear a talk by Karen O’Brien on the subject of Women and Enlightenment in 18th Century Britain which is also the title of her recently published book. The talk was in connection with an exhibition of Georgian Portraits and also obviously to promote the book – I am not being critical here – indeed we bought the book and I hope at some point to read and write about it! The following is one of my summaries to which all the usual disclaimers (not to be taken as wholly accurate etc.!) apply. Anyway O’Brien began by saying that her subject was an attempt to answer the question what Enlightenment did for women in 18thC Britain? Her very broad answer is that there were some gains, but within severe limits – and that these were followed by setbacks in the early to mid 19thC. However the evidence is contradictory. The exhibition demonstrates the relaxation of dress and style between the mid and late 18thC. There is a higher value of affection in marriage, and the start of a debate about marrying for money as against marrying for affection. O’Brien believes that the reforming Anglican and dissenting movements actually contributed to arguments for equality because of stress on equality of all before God (this is one of several lines of argument which I will be interested to read more about in her book). There definitely is a feeling that things changed for women between1750 and 1830 which O’Brien exemplified with a quote from Maria Edgeworth [1] ; however there was no legal or political progress, indeed there is in fact a suggestion that women’s settlements under wills get worse and worse – as illustrated by Sense and Sensibility. Although there were a few pamphlets earlier in the century it was really only in the 1790’s that women developed a voice and crucial in this were Catherine Macaulay and, of course, Mary Wollstonecraft.

In the 18thC the prestige of learned women rose – main factor rise of the blue-stockings – salon of Mary Montagu crucial – visible campaign that women could be learned and rational – Mary Astell was an important pre-Salon figure arguing that no-one can properly know God unless they read Bible and reflect – have learning and reason. Steady increase in women’s literacy and huge expansion in print – larger and larger number of women writers – poets but above all novelists. There is a massive involvement of women in 18thC writing but still ambivalence about their place. Opportunities for women to engage in social life expand considerably – exemplified by Vauxhall Gardens and Ranelagh – more confidence for women to get involved in public campaigns eg: anti slave-trade – idea of women as moral creatures. Big debate about the type of education and socialisation desirable for women – Rousseau did not believe in equality – it is Emile who receives the ideal upbringing while Sophie does not. However this was a big influence later in 18thC England and women asked if Emile why not Sophie? This was in Wollstonecraft’s mind when she came to write Vindication. O’Brien very interesting on Vindication noting its attacks on contemporary women, on the use of female sexuality -the book has a misogynistic/puritan side – attack on late 18thC novels where women have grand passion, are seduced and then have to die. As well as change for women there is general change – sense in novels of generation gap – also present in plays of Sheridan. 18thC great period of historical writing Gibbon (very liberal on questions of women) – Scottish philosophers ask questions about how societies are organised economically and how that changes nature of society itself. Gothic revival included references to chivalry – fetishising of idea of the ‘lady’ – with moral restrictions of course! – some saw through all this eg: Wollstonecraft. Women in history – after Catherine Macaulay (who is a great heroine of O’Brien and I have omitted much she said) a lot of women start writing popular history – history of Queens -social history. Women themselves are historicised and placed in history. Bodies – Cartesian duality lasts well into 18thC – can be progressive because mind/body divide means mind is divorced from sex/gender and therefore equal [2]. By late 18thC however greater understanding of nervous systems and therefore brain/body connected – so then study of men’s/women’s nervous systems being different. Women blamed for population explosion – Hannah More – class-based attack on working-class women.

It will be seen that this was a rich and fruitful talk covering many areas which no doubt the book discusses in greater depth. Unfortunately the discussion/questions afterwards were generally unsatisfactory (apart from an interesting question about class which O’Brien said was central in everything) and did not really add anything. I look forward however to reading O’Brien’s book and following up many of the points she made in more detail.

The actual exhibition was a small one in which the outstanding picture (other than the Canalettos which I have talked about before – see April Days at https://movingtoyshop.wordpress.com/2009/04/28/april-days/ ) was Angelica Kaufmann’s Portrait of Laura Henrietta Pulteney (c 1770)….

Portrait of Henrietta Laura Pulteney (c1770)


(in looking for this I came across an interesting YouTube video discussing this very picture at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CwsI9VZJS3Y . The short talk is centred on the way in which portraits of children changed in the 17th and 18th centuries and pays specific attention to the influence of Locke and Rousseau’s ideas on education; apparently Laura was raised in line with those ideas which are reflected in the picture – in a ‘natural’ landscape). I love the sinuosity of this picture and the way in which everything seems to curve and bend.

Only one film for this month – Pedro Almodovar’s Volver. I had not seen an Almodovar before and it may be that I came to it with too high expectations – or it may be that my slightly low mood dampened my reactions – but whatever the cause I was somewhat disappointed. This is not to say that it was ever boring or anything less than highly competent – but I found nothing exceptional about it. Another reason for this is that the film basically resolves itself into a sexual abuse murder mystery and I have just read too many of those. The strength of the film was that all this was seen from the women’s perspectives and crucially included that of the mother (of the abused daughter). It may be that I am being somewhat unfair; the film was always watchable. But I will not be rushing to view more Almodovar’s.

Finally moving to books I obviously haven’t been reading much this month. But I have collected another enormous (40!) pile of mysteries to review for Reviewing the Evidence and have already completed Laura Wilson’s follow-up to the brilliant Stratton’s War; entitled An Empty Death it matched all the heavy expectations which were laid on it (watch out for my review on rte – link on right). Outstanding from previous months are a couple of books which I am having trouble writing about but will mention here – Isaiah Berlin’s The Roots of Romanticism and Alexander Herzen’s My Past and Thoughts. The Berlin is, like all his works, utterly brilliant, but extremely hard to write about as I am finding. It was Berlin who led me to Herzen, yet another cause for gratitude, as My Past and Thoughts is a brilliant and wonderful book, which in turn will lead me to Russian 19thC literature about which I am deeply ignorant. I also read four of Caryl Churchill’s  plays (SoftCops, Top Girls, Fen and Serious Money) as a follow-up to our seeing Serious Money in May. These are difficult plays and I must admit to failing to grasp the meaning or intent of SoftCopsin particular; of course it is designed for performance and maybe needs to be viewed to make sense (or a clearer mind than I was able to bring at the time). Serious Money however is almost as much of a delight to read as to watch – indeed in some senses one is better able to appreciate the verse on the page; Top Girls is also a fascinating play. If I take anything out of my reading it is the fairly obvious point that in those two plays at least Churchill is very concerned with the meaning and development of feminism in 1980’s, and the intersection of class and gender politics. The confrontation of the sisters Marlene and Joyce in Act 3 of Top Girls is a striking example of this. If however we turn to Serious Money one striking thing is that at the end when the various characters present one-line summaries of their fates it is the women who, by and large, have triumphed in terms of material and worldly success – of the main characters Greville is in prison, Jake dead, Duckett broken-down, TK in jail etc. while Marylou, Scilla, Biddulph, Etherington, Jacinta are all doing fine. However as these summaries are followed by that appalling yet rousing final satiric chorus (‘five more glorious years’ celebrating Thatcher’s third election victory) it is very clear that we are not intended to see that success as in any sense meritorious or to be rejoiced at. Something has gone very, very wrong. This is not to suggest that Churchill does not know that she is dealing with a small percentage of women or that issues of class are not enormously important, but there is a sub-text of, if not despair, then deep concern that the the struggles of feminism seem to have culminated in some women behaving as viciously, heartlessly, ruthlessly, unpleasantly as men – indeed proving themselves to be rather better at it. I think however that I need to read these plays again and some more Churchill and some criticism – she is certainly a fascinating writer.


  1. “Let me observe to you, that the position of women in society, is somewhat different from what it was a hundred years ago, or as it was sixty, or I will say thirty years since. Women are now so highly cultivated, and political subjects are at present of so much importance, of such high interest, to all human beings, who live together in society, you can hardly expect, Helen, that you as a rational being, can go through the world as it now is, without forming any opinion on points of public importance. You cannot, I conceive, satisfy yourself with the common namby-pamby, little missy phrase, ‘ladies have nothing to do with politics’……Female influence must, will, and ought to exists on political subjects as on all others; but this influence should always be domestic, not public – the customs of society have so ruled it.” (Maria Edgeworth, Helen, 1834) (a quote which points to both change and limits).
  2. “It is a known truth, that the difference of sexes regards only the body. and that merely as it relates to the propagation of human nature. But the soul, concurring to it only by consent, actuates all after the same manner; so that in this there is no sex at all” (“Sophia”, Woman Not Inferior to Man, 1749).

3 thoughts on “June Miscellany (2009)

  1. Dear Nick,

    I enjoyed reading this very much, and I trust you don’t mind if I put URLS on ECW and WWTTA to tell the people there about the excellent information and insights you provide abouit books of interest to them.

    For myself I think I’ll get the O’Brien; I’m now rereading Rizzo’s _Companions without Vows_, and though like so many people I prefer to read a new book rather than reread, it is so rich — with hard-won details of real people’s lives set in a context like that of O’Brien, so Rizzo would be filling out the picture. I’ve yet to get to Mary Trouille’s serious book on marriage (it’s about physical abuse which was even encouraged, certainly not discouraged by men of wives and children — we have to remember this was reinforced by the power of the slaveowner over his slaves). I agree that it’s a mixed bag over the century and while we see some progress, we also see retrograde things happening. The reality is our own: the men remain in power and whatever are the local transformations, they can’t get beyond that and there is an endless cycle of a little progress and then back you go, since those in power are not going to tolerate any real losses.

    I’ve learned to like Kauffmann’s paintings very much; here’s an instance of a very feminine art (the characteristics of her paintings are associated with women’s art and remain central to her paintings). On ECW we read a very interesting book about her career by Angelica Godden (I think that was the name).

    I liked Volver and wrote about it on my old blog twice!



    As you can see I found it inspiriting and this enables me to segue into Churchill. I agree with you that at the heart of her plays is a kind of despair. Consider the heroine of Top Girls: a woman who has four jobs cleaning for a living and keeps her niece that way. It’s an expose (I think) of the problem at the heart of Judy Chicago’s Dinner Table: the celebration, or those allowed at the table are too often there based on wrong criteria of hard power and fame, and much is fairy tale (one third is devoted to goddesses which is absurd). I’ve not seen Serious Money and like you think plays do need to be seen. On WWTTA people seemed not to like Churchill and saw her as not supportive of women enough (the way we noted in some movies), but I feel that it’s rather she is so disappointed and wants to tell truths about human nature. The powerless tend not to identify with one another: that’s the problem the labor movement and before the civil rights era black people in the US were ever dealing with: too many people just want to be like the powerful and refuse to identify with those low on hierarchies (pride is such a strong element in human nature).

    I know so little about mysteries, Nick. I read a biography of Elizabeth Taylor and noticed there that like me she found the better written recent mysteries disquieting and disturbing (e.g., Susan Hill’s) and anything but an escape so was puzzled about them (like me).

    I like the idea of monthly miscellanies. It seems to me something that one can realistically do. I so exhausted myself writing the Ronald Colman blog I had to sleep yesterday with naps and then go to bed early so I can’t keep that sort of thing up.


  2. nick2209

    Many thanks Ellen – I would recommend everyone go and read Ellen’s brilliant review of Volver and the discussion which followed. My own comments are obviously just an attenuated note of my having seen the film – if I don’t find anything which really fascinates me I don’t go into any detail; if you want to learn about the film read Ellen! :).

    And thanks for the insights on Churchill. I do think she is a fascinating playwright but my – very limited – understanding (based on a limited reading) is that she assigns a primacy to issues of class which might disconcert some.

    I think I have said before that I am not a fan of Susan Hill’s mystery writing but it is certainly true that many modern writers (though by no means all) are certainly not using the genre as an escapist one – they do intend to disquiet and disturb. In a way the genre is well suited to this aim since mystery can be of itself disquieting and disturbing. But in other hands it can be consolatory. The genre’s possibilities are virtually endless which is what makes it so interesting.

  3. Pingback: Very Very Late August Miscellany « Moving Toyshop

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