Thursday, December 18, 2008
The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listenin in 2008, Part Six: Lesley Hall
Reading and viewing experiences in 2008
One thing I must mention was the marvellous, if small, exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London, on the C18th Bluestockings (it’s no longer on, alas). There’s an excellent book, with lots of splendid illustrations - Brilliant Women: 18th Century Bluestockings - produced to accompany the exhibition. It’s both heartening to realise that there was a point when learned ladies and women of letters had real credibility and clout, and depressing to consider the very fragile basis upon which this stood. One is cheered by the evidence that these women had supportive networks and worked hard to promote one another’s interests in various ways, but also struck by the issues of class, economic standing, privilege, and political differences which created tensions between these women, and the all-important role of respectability in maintaining their status.
At the time I went to see this exhibition there was also another, smaller special display on Nineteenth Century Women Historians, of whom there were more than one might think. Furthermore, far from writing pious and improving accounts of episodes in the past for the betterment of young readers, they were often engaged in seriously scholarly projects involving research in primary sources, even though it was often difficult for them to obtain access even to national archives (though one of them became the first editor of the Calendar of State Papers, which thrilled me as an archivist as well as a historian).
Someone who has written a couple of excellent studies of C18th women of letters (The Rise and Fall of the Woman of Letters, Dr Johnson’s Women), Norma Clarke, had out this year a riveting study of an eighteenth-century woman who was obliged to earn her living by her pen at a much less reputable level. Queen of the Wits: A Life of Laetitia Pilkington demonstrates how very precarious the life of even a relatively privileged woman at that period was or could rapidly become. In Pilkington’s case her husband (who sounds really creepy and nasty), set her up, or so she claimed, to be discovered in something that looked sufficiently like adultery for him to get a judicial separation. This left her very vulnerable: although she already had a reputation as a wit and author most of her acquaintance, including Jonathan Swift, dropped her like a stone. She left Dublin for London to try and eke a living through her pen and obtaining patronage - Clark is very good on the importance of patronage in the C18th literary world and what a difference it could make. Pilkington developed her career as an author in her own right (though Clarke is somewhat non-judgmental about the merits of her copious poetry, which looks to me, who am not an expert in the field, like bog-standard C18th verse) and also did a lot of ghost-writing and hackwork for others. There is a strong sense that letters were the blogs of the day, with people copying them out and circulating them around their acquaintance and generally showing them off, particularly if they were letters from a significant literary name. (A number of Pilkington’s own letters survive as copies in various archives.) It’s a wonderful book even though Pilkington’s own story, in spite of her obvious verve and vitality, gets more and more depressing as the years roll on.
And on the subject of forgotten or neglected or misjudged women, I’ve been loving the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Lives of the Day, which have brought to light so many women doing so much that it still gets assumed women couldn’t possibly have done in the past - like being serious and respected scientists, spiritual leaders, important patrons of the arts - as well as the intriguing less reputable characters who also feature. The ODNB online this year also had a free special feature on the suffrage movement and after to mark 90 years since the first election in which women in the UK could vote and stand as candidates, and 80 years since the grant of the vote on equal terms with men in 1928.
Another forgotten woman whose rather sad life I read about this year was Joan Eason, in a life by her grand-daughter, Celia Robertson, Who Was Sophie? The Two Lives of My Grandmother - Poet and Stranger. As a young girl, with a rather eccentric upbringing in a single parent household with her mother and brother, she received some acclaim as a poet, with her poems being published by the Hogarth Press. She thus gained some access to the Woolf circle, and also became a great friend of Naomi Mitchison - her letters to Mitchison are one of the major sources for her early life and development of her thought. She began to develop a literary career, including writing for BBC Radio, but marriage, the war, domestic pressures, a move to Australia, and motherhood, wore away at her. She burnt her manuscripts. Her marriage broke up. She spent some time in a mental hospital. In later life she was known as Sophie Curly, living on the margins, getting into bad relationships, damaged and eccentric, although an uneasy rapprochement with her estranged children developed.. A fascinating and disturbing story.
On the fiction side: as always, I read and re-read a lot this year, even with the ongoing distraction of the internet. The outstanding titles were:
The concluding volumes of L Timmel Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle, Blood in the Fruit (which I reviewed for Strange Horizons: ) and Stretto. I am now trying to carve out the time to re-read the entire sequence.
The final volume of Jo Walton’s impressive ‘Small Change’ trilogy, Half A Crown: I very seldom get on with alternative histories, but Walton, it seems to me, has a precise enough ability to evoke convincing period details that these really work for me (this may be because we are both soaked in much the same literature of the period in question).
Elizabeth Bear’s duology Ink and Steel and Hell and Earth, set in the same universe and dealing with many of the same conflicts as her previous duology Blood and Iron and Whiskey and Water. I have fewer visceral objections to fantasticated riffs on history rather than ‘straight’ alternative history, but anyone who has not only Kit Marlowe but Shakespeare himself and various other Elizabethan writers in leading roles is daring a lot. In this case, it was a risk that thoroughly justified itself.
Maggie Helwig, Girls Fall Down. This was not sff, although the theme of panic over a suspected epidemic glances at, while never becoming, that sub-genre the medical thriller. Helwig has a beautifully precise style, I found myself lingering over sentences and turns of phrase, yet the onward momentum of the narrative never found itself in conflict with this.
These were all new books: of re-reads, Winifred Holtby’s South Riding (1936) was a reminder yet again of what a wonderful book this is and how much was lost by Holtby’s tragically early death shortly after its completion. Holtby was a fascinating woman: she was part of the sophisticated intellectual feminist circles around the journal Time and Tide (Catherine Clay, British Women Writers 1914-1945: Professional Work and Friendship is a fascinating beginning to the study of this group), she was a passionate internationalist, she was also involved in anti-racist struggles, in particular in South Africa. (There is a biography, The Clear Stream by Marion Shaw.) But in South Riding she returned to her roots, to an imaginary provincial town on the east coast of Yorkshire based on her own background in Hull and the East Riding, in which she set a rich and complex saga of the crossing threads of provincial life. In the foreword she pays tribute to her mother, herself a pioneering woman in the local politics that provide the structural underpinning to South Riding. Holtby also pays hommage to another famous Yorkshirewoman writer and forebear: the passionately feminist headmistress Sara Burton is one of the few of the very many daughters of Jane Eyre whom Charlotte Bronte might have considered legitimate.
I also (while stuck at home with a debilitating virus) reread my way through two series of British thrillers with tough yet far from invulnerable women protagonists, Anabel Donald’s Alex Tanner mysteries, and Lauren Henderson’s Sam Jones sequence. Both of these are unclosed sequences - the ultimate episode in each ends on a note which is something of an emotional cliffhanger for the series protagonist - which is very sad. In spite of this rather frustrating factor, I strongly recommend both series.
On the viewing side, I finally got round to watching Farscape. The recommendation came from a very distinguished Professor of Classics, over breakfast at the Berkshire Women’s History Conference, just after I’d been to my first WisCon. I really, really enjoyed it, but it is surely a series that has already been much praised, discussed and critiqued: as so often with media sf and fantasy I am trailing along in the rear of the herd.
I also watched the DVDs of an ancient UK adventure series, Adam Adamant, the central conceit of which was an Edwardian gentleman adventurer who had been cast into an ice-bound coma by his adversary early in the century, and finally resuscitated, much to his horror, in Sixties Swinging London. Not all of the episodes survive, and the general quality is less than wonderful, but I was very taken with the Swinging Sixties Chick, Georgina, who recognises Adamant while he is careering round Soho in a state of shock, and becomes (considerably against his will) his plucky sidekick. What is lovely about it is that it’s not about romance, it’s about her desire for adventure, what’s frustrating about it is that even adventure only comes courtesy of some man and that she too often ends up being the damsel in distress, in spite of her enterprise and daring. She is played by the stunning Juliet Harmer. I would really like the Secret History of Adam Adamant in which it turned out that under the flamboyant macho activities of the nominal hero, the real problems were being effectively dealt with by Georgina, who was probably an agent of some intelligence agency keeping an eye on the loose cannon Adamant.
There was also, something that ran over late 2007 to early 2008, watching the Thin Man movies. There are still far too few cinematic couples who come up to Powell and Loy as Nick and Nora (Beatrice and Benedick have married, changed their names, and fight crime!).
Lesley Hall works as an archivist and is also a historian primarily interested in issues of gender and sexuality in nineteenth and twentieth century Britain, an area in which she has published several books and numerous articles. Aqueduct published her monograph, Naomi Mitchison: A Profile of Her Life and Work in 2007.