Archive for February, 2011

Charlotte Mew and her Friends (book #97)

26 February 2011

Penelope Fitzgerald, 1984.

Mew’s father’s jollifications in the years after his marriage. They lived at Doughty Street, round the corner from Coram’s Fields. “His idea of an evening out was a smoking concert, or Jolly, at the R.I.B.A. … Sometimes he crossed the street to the Foundlings’ Home in Coram’s Fields to talk to the orphans, and see them eat their dinners.”

May Sinclair “‘came to dinner sometimes [wrote the novelist I.A.R. Wylie] and talked mainly about cats'”.

The Poetry Bookshop (1913-26) “was on the ground floor of a dilapidated eighteenth-century house, with only one cold-water tap for the whole building. However, as you came through the swing door you felt the warmth of a coal fire burning at the other end of the room. There was a dog stretched out there and a cat, which sometimes sprang about the shelves, apparently deliberately, knocking down piles of books. The furniture had been made by the Fabian master-carpenter Romney Green, and was exceptionally solid, the curtains were of sacking, and there were cushions in “jolly” colours. Across the walls rhyme sheets were displayed in rows, a penny plain, twopence coloured, and bought mostly for children.”

Georgian poetry:

It was true that these little volumes, even when they were by the newer poets, were often not very demanding. John Drinkwater, for example, in Poems of Love and Earth (1912) thanks God for
(1) sleep;
(2) clear day through the little leaded panes;
(3) shining well water;
(4) warm golden light;
(5) rain and wind (apparently at the same time as (2));
(6) swallows;
(7) wallflowers, tulips, primroses and ‘crowded orchard boughs’;
(8) good bread;
(9) honey-comb;
(10) brown-shelled eggs;
(11) kind-faced women with shapely mothering arms;
(12) tall strong-thewed young men;
(13) an old man bent above his scythe;
(14) the great glad earth and ‘Heaven’s trackless ways’.
There was a great deal of this kind of thing at the lower and easier end of the repertoire, where eggs were always brown, the women always kind, and the earth always glad. But the poetry was meant to give pleasure and it was, after all, the last body of English poetry to be actually read, by ordinary people, for pleasure.

Her life was affected by family mental illness – a brother and a sister both died “insane”, and she and a surviving sister agreed not to marry in case they passed on madness – by caring for her elderly mother, by her lesbianism (mostly unacted on apart from a farcial and humilating episode with May Sinclair), by poverty and guilt. It is difficult not to think that her life would have been happier if she’d been born a hundred years later.

On the Asylum Road

Theirs is the house whose windows – every pane –
Are made of darkly stained or clouded glass:
Sometimes you come upon them in the lane,
The saddest crowd that you will ever pass.

But still we merry town or village folk
Throw to their scattered stare a kindly grin,
And think no shame to stop and crack a joke
With the incarnate wages of man’s sin.

None but ourselves in our long gallery we meet,
The moor-hen stepping from her reeds with dainty feet,
The hare-bell bowing on its stem,
Dance not with us; their pulses beat
To fainter music; nor do we to them
Make their life sweet.

The gayest crowd that they will ever pass
Are we to brother-shadows in the lane:
Our windows, too, are clouded glass
To them, yes, every pane.

The People’s Music (book #96)

23 February 2011

Ian MacDonald, 2003.

I read this mainly for the Nick Drake essay, though the others are also interesting. Argues that Drake had read about Buddhism and had a naturally Buddhist sensibility, “boiled down to the linked recognition that life is a predicament and that the world is ultimately an irreducible mystery”. MacDonald reads “River Man” as a description of enlightenment versus everyday life: “The river is the realm of material life wherein the senses wander and the mind gets lost in the flow of time and thought”. The woman in the song, Betty, considers “leaving the everyday life for the life of detachment,” but decides against it. MacDonald thinks the final lines “Oh, how they come and go” are a reference to reincarnation. Have to say this all seems a stretch to me.

Jessie Phillips: A Tale of the Present Day (book #95)

23 February 2011

Frances Trollope, 1843.

What a muddle, but powerful despite that.

Tells the story of a brother and sister, Frederic and Ellen, and a village girl, Jessie Phillips. Frederic is unredeemably evil and seduces Jessie. When her mother does, she has to go into the workhouse. She absconds from the workhouse to confront Frederic, who repudiates her (the book leads me to use words like unredeemably and repudiates). She then has the baby in a barn. Whilst she is unconscious after the birth, a woman who is a “natural,” Silly Sally, takes the baby away. She brings it back after Jessie has been discovered and taken back to the workhouse. Frederic then finds the baby and murders it, in a nasty few lines:

In an instant the thought suggested itself to Frederic Dalton that Jessie has abandoned her child, with the certainty that a few hours of such abandonment would cause its wished-for death, and his heart leaped with mingled agitation and joy as he thought that he should be thus saved from all future danger of discovery or inconvenience. … but … the infant’s piercing cry again smote his ear, and the wretch paused to curse it, as he remembered the probability that it might live till noonday brought wanderers, either for pleasure or for business, through the lane, who might, and must discover its existence, if it repeated such cries as it was then uttering. “Confound her idiot folly!” he exclaimed; “if she had common sense enough to determine that it should perish, why could she not silence this confounded cry?” He had turned as he muttered these words, and was again standing over the spot where the child lay. Again it uttered a sharp piercing cry. He raised his booted foot, and made a movement as if in sudden rage, and the piercing cry was heard no more.

The body is discovered some days later, and Jessie is tried for infanticide. Ellen discovers her brother’s guilt and tells him to leave the country. Instead he recklessly falls into a river and is drowned. As she stands in the dock at the end of her trial, Jessie hears this mentioned. The verdict is then announced, not guilty on the grounds of temporary insanity, and Jessie is found dead in the dock.

There are two subplots. The first concerns Ellen, who is in love with the local nobleman, who has decided on his parents’ advice that he can’t afford to marry her because of their joint poverty. At the end of the book they do in fact marry. The other, slighter, subplot concerns Ellen’s friend Martha, who falls in love with a lawyer whom she persuades to work on Jessie’s behalf. Although these are strictly subplots and the main business of the novel is with Jessie, in fact Ellen’s story, in particular, takes up a good deal of space, probably more than Jessie’s. Elsie B Michie writes that “The juxtaposition of these plots makes the novel a strange hybrid that combines the dark concerns of reformist prose with the romantic brightness of earlier nineteenth-century fiction”.

As you can see from the quotation, Trollope can’t leave well alone. For goodness sake, why qualify the text with the stuff about why the wanderers might be there? And the first sentence could be cut off after “mingled agitation and joy”.

Trollope has two political targets in the book. The first is the workhouse system brought about by the amendment to the Poor Law in 1834. Trollope shows it as abusive, humiliating and pointless. Although Jessie is perfectly able to work, she can’t work whilst she’s in the workhouse, she has to associate with women who are “of that wretched class of females which a seaport town is sure to produce … prostitutes,” and when she wants spiritual advice the visiting minister refuses to talk to her. Trollope’s second target is the Bastardy Clause in the same Act. This made mothers of illegitimate children solely responsible for their support; the fathers had no duties.

There is a longer summary here.

And here’s Mr Mortimer, the new Commissioner:

Mr. Mortimer … committed one or two sad blunders … he had enforced the legal necessity of coming into the [work]house upon a widow woman, who had maintained herself and three children by working like a horse at any labour that was proposed to her, because he did not happen to know that she stuttered dreadfully, and could not pronounce the word “yes,” which would have been the satisfactory answer to a question he had very attentively put to her when enquiring the reason of her present want of help …

The Gay Seducer 1, 2 and 3:

The Gay Seducer 1

The Gay Seducer 2

The Gay Seducer 3

Much leg-play throughout.

Jessie in prison:

Jessie in prison

No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting (book #94)

22 February 2011

Anne L Macdonald, 1988.

A fascinating book, though it needs more crochet references. And if it were written now it would be differently feminist, I think.

Here is Washington “conducting plantation affairs by correspondence with his manager”, in several letters.

Doll at the Ferry must be taught to Knit and MADE to do a sufficient day’s work of it, otherwise (if suffered to be idle) many more will walk in her steps. Lame Peter, if no body else will, must teach her, and she must be brought to the house for that purpose.

The deficiency of Stockings is another instance of the villainy of those I have about me, for, as you justly observe, it is impossible for that Lame Peter and Sarah’s work could amount to no more than 60 pair. The Gardener’s Wife must NOW see that there is a just return of all that is given out and taken in, and when the work is handed over by her, to you. I am persuaded it will be safe. Let the Gardener’s wife give work to, and receive it from Lame Peter, as well as others; and then the whole will come under one head. Their reports ought to be dated.

And can Lucy find sufficient employment in the Kitchen? It was expected her leisure hours, of which I conceive she must have very many from Cooking, would be employed in knitting, of which Peter and Sarah do too little.

The same attention ought to be given to Peter (and I suppose to Sarah likewise,) or the Stockings will be knit too small for those for whom they are intended; such being the idleness, and deceit of these people.

The book is dedicated to a Peter – I like to think that this is in recognition of Lame Peter.

Macdonald identifies knitting as part of war culture. For instance, she mentions songs about knitting from the Second World War, such as five separate songs called “Knittin’ from Britain” in 1941, “Knit One, Purl Two” recorded by Glenn Miller, “Knittin’ on a Mitten” and “Stick to Your Knittin’, Kitten”. She quotes two 1918 plays. The Knitting Club Meets or Just Back from France, in which Jane, “very slender [with] a spiritual face … dressed in a shabby tailor suit, somewhat out of date, but with neat hat, gloves, and shoes” tells the members of a knitting group about what she has seen in Red Cross camps in France, energising people like Lucy, “a rather silly person dressed in the height of fashion, [carrying] a magnificent knitting bag”. Another play from the same year is The Knitting Girls Count One.

And a silly bit for J – “famed golfer Babe Didrikson Zaharias’s comment … “When I really want to blast one, I just loosen my girdle and let ‘er fly”.

The M helped me write this entry by reading bits out to me. The M says “I liked the pictures because they are black and white, not like normal pictures now, and there’s a picture of a little girl knitting with her grandma, and their swimming costumes are not like the swimming costumes we have now because they are knitted”.

Cartoon, about 1870, spoofing the Sorosis Society – an early women’s club.

Cartoon spoofing the Sorosis Society, c 1870.

The Winding of the Skein, 1868.

The Winding of the Skein, 1868.

Heel and Toe, 1873.

Heel and Toe

Winding Up the Yarn, 1897.

Winding Up the Yarn, 1897

Lines from “The New Woman and Her Grandam”, Nixon Waterman, 1897:

My grandam used to turn her wheel,
And spin the glistening tow;
Or knit a sock as she’d sit and rock
The cradle to and fro.
And when that sock was worn or town,
Oh, then with soft-spun yarn it
Was soon made new all through and through,
For my grandam she would darn it.

My grandam’s daughter’s (sic) spins
The wheel with her glistening toe,
The whole day long, for she isn’t strong,
So she daren’t work you know.
But when her wheel of polished steel,
With nothing to forewarn it,
Hits a snag kerplunk and gets a “punk,”
Why, she’s almost sure to “Darn it!”

(Judging by his book A Girl Wanted, Nixon Waterman was a pain in the neck.)


18 February 2011

Been thinking a lot about plots recently, and a sense of never having had one. It’s made me realise that this is one of my probs with the 1811 story; so I think that’s what the story needs to be about, getting away from the dead hand. Wch is difficult whilst still trying to be faintly historical.

My views seem to be up a lot, and as a result of some odd searches. “Destroyed place,” for instance, and “word first page”. Also “ПЕЧАТНЫЙ СТАНОК,” wch apparently means printing press in Russian.