emma_in_dream: (cameron)
Mrs Oliphant was recommended to me as a writer similar to Austen, writing in the mid-nineteenth century. This is certainly a fair description and I am *amazed* that Oliphant is not better known.*

I’m not saying she is as good as Austen (which would be a big call). However, she certainly shares two of the characteristics I like most in Austen: the mastery of irony and the tight focus on the social life of a small group of people. This is such a line to walk – to say that what is really important is the happiness and quotidienne life of a group of middle class people and to simultaneously stand back and laugh at the same people. What a triumph.

The story is about Miss Majoribanks, who is constantly likened to a general, a Napoleonic hero, a genius who shapes the social life of Highbury... I mean Carlingford. Miss Majoribanks returns to the village after the death of her mother and, despite her father’s efforts, revolutionises local social life so she can be ‘a comfort to dear Papa’. She organizes those around her, avoids marriage with the social climber, and in the end manages to triumph even over the death of her Papa which leaves her penniless – by marrying her cousin and moving into a manor house with the prospect of running the local village.

Oliphant is not as romantic as Austen. There are no obvious couples circling each other. And the outlook is perhaps slightly less optimistic – which would be the difference between writing in the genre of romance (where the happy ending is part of the definition of the genre) and family novel (where there is no such guarantee).

So why is Oliphant not better known? Perhaps this is because she was crazily over-productive and so pumped out lots of bad work as well as good. Ninety eight novels, people, plus non-fiction, literary criticism, travel guides, biographies and short stories over the course of decades. She wrote her first novel while nursing her mother on her death bed, literally writing in the room. Not until she was in her 30s did she write in solitude.

She continued writing, without pause, to support her family and her extended family. Her husband was an ineffectual stained glass window designer who died of consumption, leaving her with three children. Three more had died in infancy. Her daughter died, so she moved to Winchester so the boys could go to Eton. She also supported her alcoholic brother, her two orphaned nieces and a cousin. Her boys grew up and meandered about, having no careers and earning no money, before both dying early. After all her sacrifices to her children, she outlived them all.

An 1883 critic wrote: ‘While I cheerfully recognize that the imaginative force of Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot is in certain respects inimitable, I am often inclined to maintain that Mrs Oliphant is the most remarkable woman of her time…. Each of these great romance writers concentrated all her faculties for months (I might say years) upon a single work. Mrs Oliphant has never had the leisure for this absorbing devotion, this almost fierce concentration… Had Mrs Oliphant concentrated her powers, what might she not have done?’

She was at the centre of nineteenth-century literary circles. She was a friend of successive generations of the Blackwoods who edited the influential Blackwood Review. She was intimate with Anne Thackeray Ritchie and with the Carlyles. In later years she was befriended by JM Barrie; reviewed Henry James; attacked Thomas Hardy; thought Leslie Stephens (father of Virginia Woolf) had only got to edit the Dictionary of National Biography because of his connections and because he was a man.

Decades later Virginia Woolf had a violent response to Mrs Oliphant who she viewed as a hack who compromised her integrity for sales, necessitated by having to support her children.** ‘Has [reading her work] smeared your mind and led you to deplore the fact that Mrs Oliphant sold her brain, her very admirable brain, prostituted her culture and enslaved her intellectual liberty in order that she might earn her living and educate her children? Inevitably, considering the damage that poverty inflicts on the mind and body, the necessity that is laid upon those who have children to see that they are fed and clothed, nursed and educated, we have to applaud her choice and admire her courage. But if we applaud the choice and admire the courage of those who do what she did, we can spare ourselves the trouble of addressing our appeal to them, for they will be no more able to protect disinterested culture and intellectual liberty than she.’

Woolf argued so passionately for a room of one’s own, with Oliphant representing the very opposite of that. (In a quite literal sense – she wrote in sick rooms, nurseries, drawing rooms). And even in the nineteenth century critics recognised that her talents had been squandered by the need to support her children. In a review of her autobiography, published after her death, she was described as a better writer than Trollope. The reviewer asked: ‘Why with all these advantages does she get no further? What is it that sets the dividing line between her and George Eliot or Charlotte Bronte?’ He concluded: ‘It may be an accident – but more likely it is not – that the women who have been great artist have been childless women.’

Another critic wrote that ‘for [her children] she abandoned the hope – or as we believe, and as she believed – the certainty of being a great authoress on a level with George Eliot, and deliberately reduced herself, as she thought, to a manufacturer of saleable literature.’

She was indeed a remarkable woman if contemplating her life led the reviewers to make the first tentative steps towards defining traditional femininity and especially motherhood as problematic. It is a long journey from here to the twenty first century, and yet… so much in her life is still unresolved today.

I will leave you with another quote, this one from Margaret Forster, writing in the Times Literary Supplement in 1995. ‘She is the perfect example of that well-known literary puzzle, the writer highly rated and immensely successful in their own time who becomes relegated by posterity to a position only just above obscurity. ...of Mrs Oliphant's ninety-eight novels modern readers will be unusual if they have read two or three. Fewer still will be acquainted with any of her twenty-five works of non-fiction...
Mrs Oliphant is valuable not only for the integrity of her stories and the grace and fluency with which she tells them, but for the unusual prominence she gives to domestic lives and female friendships. She was a thoroughly professional writer who supported her family entirely through her own labours, without neglecting them one iota. She should, perhaps, become the patron saint of all harassed women writers with demanding families.’

PS: I desperately want someone to read some of her stuff so I can discuss it with a friend.

• QD Leavis called Miss Majoribanks the stepping stone between Emma and Middlemarch.

• Woolf may also have had a personal response to Oliphant as Oliphant was friends with Anne Thackeray Ritchie who was Viriginia Woolf’s aunt. Leslie Stephenson wrote about Mrs Oliphant in the Mausoleum Book 1895 which described his first wife in hagiographical terms.
emma_in_dream: (Default)
I have to begin by saying that my opinion of *Mansfield Park* has steadily increased. When I read it in high school I snickered over Fanny’s name and thought she was a terrible kill joy. All of her mumping about in the background worrying about the impropriety of putting on a play was wearing.

But as an adult I love the book. I still don’t think there is inherently anything wrong with play acting – but obviously there was something wrong with Maria Rushworth’s feverish ‘rehearsals’ with Crawford under the very eyes of her fiancé.

And although Fanny says little and takes almost no positive action, she is nonetheless a smouldering volcano of emotions.

‘Fanny, whose tears were beginning to shew themselves…’;

‘but the tears, which a variety of feelings created, made it easier to swallow than to speak.’

‘He had told her not to cry, or had given her some proof of affection which made her tears delightful.’

‘Her uncle's consideration of her, coming immediately after such representations from her aunt, cost her some tears of gratitude when she was alone.’

‘Till she had shed many tears over this deception, Fanny could not subdue her agitation; and the dejection which followed could only be relieved by the influence of fervent prayers for his happiness.’

‘Fanny was too urgent, however, and had too many tears in her eyes for denial…’

‘Another burst of tears…’

‘I feel that we are born to be connected; and those tears convince me that you feel it too, dear Fanny.’

‘Poor Fanny! though going as she did willingly and eagerly, the last evening at Mansfield Park must still be wretchedness. Her heart was completely sad at parting. She had tears for every room in the house, much more for every beloved inhabitant. She clung to her aunt, because she would miss her; she kissed the hand of her uncle with struggling sobs, because she had displeased him; and as for Edmund, she could neither speak, nor look, nor think, when the last moment came with him; and it was not till it was over that she knew he was giving her the affectionate farewell of a brother.’

‘Afraid of everybody, ashamed of herself, and longing for the home she had left, she knew not how to look up, and could scarcely speak to be heard, or without crying.’

‘Fanny was by this time crying so bitterly that, angry as he was, he would not press that article farther.’
emma_in_dream: (white collar)
On 24 May 1813, Jane Austen visited an art exhibit at the British Institution in Pall Mall, London. The popular show was the first-ever retrospective of the works of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), England's celebrated portrait painter.

The University of Texas has recreated what she saw: whatjanesaw.org
emma_in_dream: (Alice Liddell)
If I had been organised I would have reread *P&P* in time for the 200th anniversary of its publication. Maybe in February.

Instead I read a whole heap of Nerina Hilliard romances. You may know her better as Norma K Hemming, who, in her pursuit of a professional writing career, wrote several Mills and Boons which are really alien first contact stories.

Read more... )
emma_in_dream: (Default)
I have been thinking about representations of female friendship. Here are a few thoughts... I’d be interested in recommendations from others.

Jane Austen’s *Sense and Sensibility* (1811) may not pass the Bechdel test* - most of the dialogue is about love and relationships and, you know, men - but it certainly is about female friendship. The love of Eleanor for Marianne is the centre of the novel. And the relationship between Lizzie and Jane in *Pride and Prejudice* (1813) is pretty cool too.

I guess I am reminded of Louisa May Alcott’s *Little Women* (1868) - Jo loves her sisters so much. There’s a line in there where she talks about wanting to marry Meg herself, to keep her in the family, which I guess is a bit creepy but in the context of the book just seems sweet. (And, indeed, the only one who does marry to get into the family is Laurie who is desperate to find a March girl who will take him in.)

*Little Women* would certainly romp home the Bechdel test as it’s essentially an all-female community which is interested in growing up and improving themselves. Ditto *Anne of Green Gables* (1908) which has the ‘kindred spirits’ of Anne and Diana.

Terry Pratchett’s *Witches* books take the Bechdel standard and toss it contemptuously aside as something far exceded. Each character is completely different and each one is completely kick ass. I particularly like the way they hand the roles of maiden, mother and hag around as they move through their lives.

Marilyn French’s *The Women’s Room* (1977) is basically all about women’s relationships, friendships. Like the blurb says, this book will change your life.

And, for another out of left field suggestion, John Marsden’s *Tomorrow When the War Began* series. Ellie Linton’s friendships with Corrie, Robyn and Fi are incredibly well drawn. She relies on them, idealises them, knows them so well, lives with them and fights by them.

So, what genres am I looking at? Not entirely sure actually. Obviously there’s tons of female-centred fiction in the genre of, say, school stories like the Chalet schools. Apparently there’s a lot of female friendships in classic girl’s stories like *Little Women* or *Anne of Green Gables* or, just thought of it, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s *A Little Princess*.

And when I get into contemporary writing, I’m all over the place. My examples don’t come from one genre. Perhaps that’s because there isn’t one genre of contemporary writing centred around female friendships?

* The Bechdel test - It has to have at least two women in it, who talk to each other, about something other than a man.
emma_in_dream: (Default)
Who states that no woman is his literary equal. He especially singles out Austen, criticising her 'sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world'.

He said: 'I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.'

My first response is: tee hee, I know artists have to have rock solid egos but are you kidding? Without even venturing into the twentieth century, better than Austen? Charlotte Bronte? Emily Bronte? Elizabeth Gaskell? George Eliot? Sapho? A woman who suggested that all men - from Dickens to Heinlein - were also-rans would be laughed out of the room.

My more considered response is: I would suggest that women do often (though not always) write about matters that are different to those chosen by men. These are not inferior. To paraphrase Virginia Woolf (another author Naipul claims to be superior to) writing about war is somehow regarded as lofty, large scale and important, while writing about the feelings of women in a drawing room is hermetically sealed and unimportant.

And my final thought is: I haven't read Naipul and, after this, am not likely to. But I'd suggest that however good he might consider his own writing, he clearly sucks at reading if he thinks of Austen as sentimental. Austen is a woman who started a novel with this line: 'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.' Not what I'd call sentimental.

emma_in_dream: (shelves)
Unfortunately, I can’t find my beautiful book that shows all the surviving Austen letters and reproduces contemporary illustrations. My library didn’t have her correspondence so I read it online (my least favourite way to read texts I want to consider in detail).

The least you need to know - The vast majority of letters that Jane Austen wrote were destroyed by her sister Cassandra after Jane’s death. She removed basically all the letters covering any matters of emotional turmoil or importance so that these matters would remain private.

However, there are still glimpses of her love of writing, her love of life and her pointed wit.

‘No, indeed I am never too busy to think of S&S. I can no more forget it than a mother can forget her sucking child.’

‘What dreadful hot weather we have! It keeps one in a continual state of inelegance.’

‘Mr Richard Harvey is going to be married; but as it is a great secret, and only known to half the neighbourhood, you must not mention it.’

‘Lady Hales, with her two youngest daughters, have been to see us. Caroline is not grown at all coarser than she was, nor Harriet at all more delicate.’

‘I am very much flattered by your commendation of my last letter, for I write only for fame, and without any view to pecuniary emolument.’

The weirdest you need to know - I have always thought that there was a huge flaw with Connie Willis’ world where time travel was invented but turned out not to be profitable because you couldn’t loot objects from the past. In her books, people give up on it and only wacky historians bother with time travel.

Except I think that there would be a *massive* tourism industry. Think about how many people would pay to go to Bethlehem about 2000 years ago (regardless of what they found there).

And aside from that, think of the intellectual property you could bring back. Canonically in Willis’ world it’s possible to install a subcutaneous recorder, so during your trip to the Globe you could record Shakespeare’s lost works. We’d finally know what happens in *Loves Labours Won*!

We know where Austen lived. You could totally break into the house and copy the letters before they were destroyed. She did readings to her family. You could install a tape recorder and get a copy of *Austen’s own reading* of the texts.

I’m pretty sure there’d be an audience for that:-)

Jane Austen

May. 6th, 2011 08:50 am
emma_in_dream: (Default)
The end of the month discussion is of Jane Austen's letters.

I did have a book which combined her surviving letters with Regency recipes and illustrations - can't find it. Can I have lent it to someone?
emma_in_dream: (Default)
Lori Gottlieb says that women who have failed to find their perfect partner by the age of 30 should give up their search for Mr Right and settle instead for Mr Right Now.

"Older, single women often deny themselves any chance of finding happiness by failing to downgrade their expectations, says author Lori Gottlieb.

Women are being fooled by happily-ever-after films, television programmes and books - from Friends to Jane Austen novels - into believing marriage is about finding The One. Instead, she argues, women should be realistic and understand that marriage is not a "passion-fest" but instead a "partnership formed to run a very small, mundane and often boring non-profit business"."

Obviously these are the rantings of a madwoman, so no ned to refute them. The bit that seems odd to me is the massive misreading of the sources.

I wasn't really a fan of *Friends* but doesn't the title kind of imply that the emphasis is on friends rather than romance?

And her reading of Austen (in this synopsis) seems, frankly, kind of nutty. It's not like Austen women go out with a dozen men before defiantly settling down as spinsters.

In fact, as I count it, the average number of proposals per woman is like two. Is Gottlieb arguing they should jump at the first one and not wait to see more than one man? Literally the first person they meet? Mr Collins? Mr Rushworth? Mr Elton?

Read more... )


Feb. 24th, 2010 01:29 am
emma_in_dream: (Elizabeth Peters)
*Sense and Sensibility* this weekend!
emma_in_dream: (Default)
27 February - Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility.

I'm expecting a big response for the Austen month.
emma_in_dream: (IMan despair)
Spoilers for the first part of the BBC's recent version of *Emma* (though, seriously, it has been in print for nearly 200 years so surely I don't really need to allow for spoilers).

Read more... )


emma_in_dream: (Default)

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