Lucy and Todd

Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

What Happened — Hillary Rodham Clinton

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on September 24, 2017 at 1:37 pm



What’s a girl to do? She said she wanted to be prez, Wall Street backed her as prez, Bill and Barack said she should be prez, and the Democratic National Committee got up to all kinds of dirty tricks to make her prez. Some people even voted for her (more than voted for Trump). But she’s not the prez!

Clinton wonders why she lost the U.S. election every day. So she got together a large team to write a book about it in her name. Like the giraffe, this group-effort apologia’s all over the place. The story’s told backwards, starting with Trump’s inauguration and George W. Bush’s appraisal of his speech: ‘That was some weird shit’.

Then it’s the morning after election night and time for Clinton’s painful concession. Then come the reasons she decided to run, unconvincing even if she genuinely cares ‘about struggling working-class families in fading small towns’ (it sounds like a Bruce Springsteen music theory mnemonic). To hear her tell it, she’s a real sweetie. She seems to see herself as some kind of overgrown Shirley Temple from the Good Ship Doolally.

Most of all, she wanted ‘to make life better for children and families’. Her interest in children is sickening, given that she presided over civilian drone strikes as secretary of state. Awash in American exceptionalism, she says the lead-poisoning of children in Flint, Michigan, ‘is not something that should happen in America.’ Where should it happen?

Let’s be clear. Women undoubtedly need to take over the world – it’s our only hope. But Thatcher, May, Imelda Marcos and Hillary Clinton will never help anyone eliminate patriarchy. Hillary couldn’t even bring herself to espouse the $15 minimum wage, the least she could do for women, who are the poorest of the poor. This ‘pragmatic progressive’ is actually a corporate-entrenched, business-as-usual capitalist nursed at the nipple of Walmart. But what’s a little slave labor between friends?

The Clintons invented Blairism, a money-grubbing centrism founded on indifference. To this Hillary added her own brand of Nixonian secrecy, torpor and contempt. The few actual beliefs she has turn out to be wishy-washy: feminism lite, healthcare lite, gun control lite. It’s all about strategy with her, and polls and data and focus groups and policy teams; caution, never passion. She likes the idea of a universal basic income so much she never even mentioned it in the campaign.

She writes of ‘the problem’ of income inequality when she should be talking about the obscenity of it. She claims to want to make her country ‘freer, fairer, and stronger’. Why not just free, fair, and strong? Next she’ll want equaler pay for women.

She’s right about all the sexism and misogyny in the 2016 election, and the beauty contest aspects of being a woman in politics. Clinton had to wear contact lenses, get her hair done daily, employ a makeup expert recommended by Anna Wintour (ouch), and buy a ‘uniform’ designed by Ralph Lauren: the pantsuits. This was another missed opportunity for feminist rebellion: for the sake of other female politicians, Clinton should have worn her beloved yoga pants.

Next comes a nauseating chapter on family and friends. Chelsea, the apple of her eye. Bill, her best pal and great fun to be with. How they love their bedroom in Chappaqua, with its many windows (hints here of lifestyle porn). From her father she learned unconditional love, and she loved her tough mother too, who endured a harsh upbringing. She’s also got hundreds of male and female friends who are always there for her, including (apparently) the Obamas.

The Clintons are philistines, their house full of biographies of past presidents. Bill reads spy novels, Hillary mysteries. But after the election all she did was watch box sets of TV series and practice nostril breathing. Bill’s a night owl (that’s not all he is). They walk the dogs together, and he edits her speeches. She calls him every night and buys him presents when she’s on the road. A martyr to the snooze button and snacks, she likes Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers, hot sauce, and ice cream bars. She’s a grandma, bigly, and a Methodist: she reads a morning devotional every day, prays quite a bit, and they say grace before dinner. She seems to think having a ‘faith’ is something to be proud of! But religion has killed America. It really stinks up the joint.

One chapter deals with gun violence, which Clinton rather bravely made an issue in her presidential campaign, risking the ire of the NRA. Sanders disappointingly stalled on the subject, treating gun ownership as a civil liberties matter, and the gun industry as the source of manufacturing jobs. Meanwhile, the Sandy Hook massacre has been labelled a hoax, and the parents get death threats. Not only the American people but the police need their weaponry confiscated.

But Clinton’s commendable stance on domestic guns vies weirdly with her hawkish behaviour in foreign affairs. She voted for the Iraq War, is always up for bombing people and, chuckling on camera over the savage slaughter of Qadaffi, once boasted: “We came, we saw, he died.” On top of that, where the Clinton Foundation goes, an arms deal always seems to follow. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence.

She offers an interminable recap on the ‘damn emails’, but the most significant chapter arrives near the end. It should have come first. Here she deals with Russia’s unprecedented interference in the election, which she deems an act of war. A Russian coup d’état has occurred in America and nobody’s noticed. (She suggests Russian government interference with Brexit too, shifty operations in Holland, Germany, Denmark and Norway, and a failed attempt to insert Le Pen in France.) While Trump tweeted that he wished the Russians would hack into Clinton’s missing emails, others concluded he himself had been (perhaps) unwittingly recruited as a Russian agent. Maybe Melania’s a KGB robot. That would explain a lot.

Was the ‘misguided’ Comey unwittingly recruited too, along with Sessions, Kushner, Assange and Mitch McConnell? Clinton reckons that the combination of Russian espionage, Comey’s last-minute pronouncements, the Republican very successful voter suppression efforts, the reckless inanities of mainstream TV news reporting, the misogynistic witch-hunt, the outdated Electoral College system, which she deems undemocratic, and her own deplorable ‘deplorables’ moment, cost her the election.

A terrible trick was played on the American people. But it wasn’t that Clinton lost; it was that Bernie Sanders, riding a groundswell of true popularity, was denied the Democratic nomination. Bernie would have had a landslide. Clinton couldn’t beat the outright nincompoop who won with a mere 25% of the electorate.

So she’s freed women in one way: to screw up. If you ever feel you’ve really made a mess of things, just think of HRC. It takes a village idiot.




A version of this review appeared in the Herald, Sept. 23, 2017.





Samantha Ellis–Take Courage

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on January 19, 2017 at 9:13 am

“A lone cur howled across the sleet-drenched moors as I, in semi-transparent skeletal form, struggled to the door of Miss Samantha Ellis’s temporary dwelling in Haworth. Having discovered she was writing a book about me, I had come to plead with her to stop forthwith, for I did not wish my life to be arbitrarily exploited, however fast the bicentenary of my birth might be approaching.

“It was not my aim to argue with Miss Ellis’s inaccuracies, inelegancies, or irrelevancies when we met, nor rebuke her curious attempt to prove that my treasured pebbles were the droppings of dinosaurs. Nor would I deign to refer to those dreams she related, in which she had supposedly found me sitting at the end of her bed, begging to be written about. Everyone must deal with their unfortunate proclivities according to their own moral fibre, however malnourished it may be.

“I did intend though to question her having the audacity to wonder at my taking nine days to write my sprightly preface to the second edition of Wildfell Hall – a very long time, Miss Ellis propounds, to write a mere thousand words. Are we athletes? Is writing a race? Does she approach every wayward paragraph of her own, armed with an egg-timer?

“But what I objected to most strongly was Miss Ellis’s incessant projection of her own subjectivity on to mine. O how passionately did I wish she would stop entwining my life story so cloyingly with her own! I did not want my Irish-Cornish-Yorkshire parentage hollowly compared to her Iraqi-British roots, nor my hair colour deemed lighter than hers, and therefore ‘depressing’. Nor need she eat porridge on my account! I felt no desire, either, for empty blandishments on my badly flawed novels. I had by this time recognized that (rather like Miss Ellis herself) I needed better editors than I ever got – despite all of our prancing round and round the drop-leaf dining table, my vexed sisters and I, reading our manuscripts aloud to each other after poor Papa and his outlandish cravat had retired to bed.

“Moreover, I wished that Miss Ellis would not subtly taunt and triumph over me with references to her love life, evidently in contrast to my own lack of one. For, indeed, though I am not ashamed of having died in ‘single blessedness’ (a putrid phrase I myself overused), it is aggravating when Miss Ellis sports her acquaintance with a ‘man’ on page 77, who becomes a ‘boyfriend’ by page 106, and later a ‘partner’, notwithstanding her unbecoming complaint that he is only ‘five foot ten on a good day’. By the end, reader, she marries him.

“Would that I could avenge these subtle slights! But I knew full well by now Miss Ellis’s unshakeable determination to turn biography into an impertinent form of autobiography. She litters her Brontëiana throughout with solipsistic soliloquies vaguely arising from whatever titbit of information seems to come to mind. On this basis, she announces that Emily favoured mutton sleeves, Branwell had a large forehead, there are fifty locks of Brontë hair scattered across the world, the poet Southey forced his daughters to bind 1400 books, Muriel Spark is ‘ungenerous’ to fellow novelists, and Thomas Bewick’s engravings were cruel (quite wrong). More bafflingly, she wishes Dorothy Wordsworth and I had met and that I got cream on my bilberry pie, and reports that she has seen Kate Bush live. Whoever that may be.

“In her earlier book, How to Be a Heroine, Miss Ellis debated which was the best Brontë: Charlotte or Emily. Now, perhaps in contrition for leaving me out, she wants to make a fetish of me. Yet she confesses to a growing impatience with our diaeresis! If I were to gain admittance tonight, my first duty would be to suggest she redirect her energies in future to author-victims with unaccented surnames.

“Finding my desperate knocking all in vain, I began instead a spooky scraping at the window, inspired by the histrionics of Wuthering Heights – I had always a great rapport with my sister Emily, alias Ellis Bell. But this Ellis was deaf to me. Hence, in muddy flight past the old Black Bull (ah, my hapless brother Branwell!), the Jane Eyre Lino Company, and Heathcliff’s Afternoon Dainties (both new to me), and briefly slipping into what is now dubbed the ‘Brontë waterfall’ (though I myself have no remembrance of it), I returned in defeat to the silence of my Scarborough grave, which Miss Ellis had already wept over in appreciation of the endearing drama of my premature demise…”


In her new book, Take Courage, playwright Samantha Ellis pinpoints the Brontës as ‘one of the most famous families in history’. We’re all taught to admire their pen names, pertinacity, potato peelings and pathos – and the way the three sisters achieved more than Branwell. Anne was possibly the most fiercely feminist of them all and, despite asthma and TB, had the stamina and chutzpah to write one excessively long and complex novel and one surprisingly short one, and get them published. The trouble is, they aren’t terribly good. She’s a true wheel-spinner.

The Brontës are all melodrama queens, but Charlotte and Emily added silly supernatural elements to the mix. Anne, who considered herself more down-to-earth, tried to stick to reality, her own version of it anyway. In her semi-autobiographical novel, Agnes Grey, the disadvantaged heroine Agnes slaves away as a governess, running after sadistic charges who kick her, spit in her workbag, and torture animals. One of them later even tries to steal her man. But as a protest against general inhumanity and in particular the mistreatment of governesses, the novel is marred by fairy-tale elements – the poor but happy family, an improbable shipwreck, and the magical reappearance of Agnes’s beloved in Scarborough, marriage-ripe. (Anne had a thing about Scarborough.)

The first two hundred and fifty pages of her other novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, are creakingly slow. Once revealed, Helen’s big fat enormous secret (her escape from her no-goodnik husband) is exhaustively unravelled. Huntingdon seemed okay at first, a dashing suitor, but as a husband he goes awry, with the drinking, with the cha-cha, “live now, pay later, Diners’ Club” (as Dr Dreyfus puts it in The Apartment). He calls their baby a ‘little senseless, thankless oyster’ (a rather good description of a newborn baby!), and mistreats the dog. His pals are even worse, outrageous, dissipated and violent. The Brontës all have a scary side.

Anne’s concerns may well be seen as fairly modern and even political. But her characters are inscrutable posturers, always edging oddly toward windows to hide their emotions. Charlotte made Jane Eyre a defiant little girl and a passionate, no-nonsense woman: you root for her throughout. Anne’s books are more artificial, they’re novels of ideas, rinsed in a goodly amount of Victorian soap suds. The religiosity of Wildfell Hall is intolerable: dreary Helen’s a self-declared expert on how to secure a comfy hammock for yourself in heaven – a rather selfish idea, I’ve always thought.

Making big claims for both of Anne’s novels, Ellis says their political engagement, class critique, pleas for education, exposé of governessing, and the suggestion that mad bad Byronic men may be dangerous to know, ‘still feel revolutionary’. Her own literary aims here are somewhat less ambitious: apart from some insightful, whimsical or frivolous asides, the book just becomes a walk in Anne’s boots, which were probably as muddied as her prose. Big walker, Anne.

In a form of delayed literary stalking (and not a little padding), Ellis stalks the moors. She reads Brontë biographies, even that wacko Angria and Gondal juvenilia. She Googles and Pinterests. She dons latex gloves to examine Anne’s last letter or a hideous hair brooch of Charlotte’s. She asks if Anne Brontë invented the romcom (no). And she takes everything, but everything, personally: ‘wrongfooted, slighted, dissatisfied, bored, over-worked, underpaid and out of her depth – Agnes Grey is brilliant on the peculiar horror of a first job.’ It’s Ellis who’s scraping at the window.

“Samantha, Samantha, let me go!”


A version of this review appeared in the Herald, January 14, 2017.

Carol Ann Duffy — Collected Poems

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on January 24, 2016 at 2:01 pm

There are over three hundred poems here and most of them are hum-dingers – Carol Ann Duffy is nothing if not a bang-beat bell-ringing rip-roaring Poet Laureate of the first water. In terms of the intelligence and artistry with which she has discharged the duties of that appointment, she’s the best ever to fill the job. It even says POET LAUREATE in big letters on the jacket of this volume, in case you’d forgotten or didn’t know.

The trick to it is, of course, that she’s a great poet. She’s brave, witty, wry, depressed, political, lyrical, erotic, frightened and furious by turns, and it is fascinating to note how these qualities developed over the course of her writing life. She deals with a huge number of themes and one gets a sense, in looking through the Collected Poems, of how much control she exerts over the ebb and flow of them. In turning to one subject to scrutinize, in a run of poems or a book, she draws many other cherished things closer to her.

In The World’s Wife, a scalpel-sharp look at the women of various real and mythological males, she gave voice to females you never would have thought existed, or else they were so studiously ignored by history that it was time to do something about it. But not just poetic voice – witty, superior voice. Mrs Midas tells you what it really was like to have that touch: impossible and very sad. It broke up their marriage, like those couples who win the lottery. Mrs Pygmalion decides to become a red hot lover – punished for that of course. At the zoo, Mrs Darwin whispers to her hubby that a certain chimpanzee looks like him.

One thing that makes Duffy a great poet is her intimate connection with all of poetry. The spirits of many writers flit through her work. And as a defender of poetry, and of the idea of education, she’s something of a superhero. There are quite a few poems about the abysmal experiences of school, and an equal number about a favourite teacher or book or hour by the fire: transformative moments in the lives of children that are surely diminishing. She’s also an expert on repression, something she returns to often. ‘Mouth, with Soap’ is an anatomization of a mother or aunt: “She was a deadly assassin as far as words went. Slit-eyed, thin-lipped, she bleached and boiled the world. No Fs or Cs, Ps and Qs minded, oh aye. She did not bleed, had Women’s Trouble locked in the small room, mutely.”

Duffy is a British poet in a heady way. Her poems are full of the traditional English subjects: rain, coal smoke, tobacco smoke, poverty, train journeys, loneliness, puzzling and angry fathers, seasides and sudden funerals. Politics is one of her strongest suits (although one of her best recent poems, ‘Democracy’, isn’t included here). She can be very sexy, viz. ‘Stuffed’, in which it’s tantalizingly unclear if the narrator is talking about taxidermy or erotic games. And she has a real way with occasional verse, like ‘Valentine’, where the lover is given an onion instead of a card.

The release of a Collected Poems like this is perhaps the most important milestone in a poet’s career. It should be cause for rejoicing and a little festivity, but this book is too plain, too severely designed to be such a landmark. It is unnecessarily large and too heavy to enjoy easily, with a flat spine that doesn’t fit the hand, and has quite nasty sharp corners. The layout and type are uninspired and the sections are separated by inept fuzzy calligraphic pieces that show through the paper, which is too thin. A book like this ought to be sumptuous, no? Instead it’s kind of obnoxious. Prickly. But it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the author wants it like that.

Duffy likes writing about Christmas, and ‘Mrs Scrooge’ is one of the best of these. Now a widow, she and society both have benefited from Ebenezer’s transformation from Cameronian to Bennite. That’s Tony Benn, folks. She’s like a Guardian reader – she takes buses, is a vegan and forager, and buried Scrooge in an eco-coffin. But it’s deep: Duffy’s reanimation of Dickens’s characters and atmosphere is quite moving, and that is a power for which many historical novelists would pay with their souls. In ‘Bethlehem’ she describes the place on the night in question in terms of smells, food and sounds. But even a great re-imaginer like Duffy still fails to explain why there were no rooms available. Was there a convention in town? It wasn’t like it was Christmas or anything.


(This review appeared in The National, Dec. 21st, 2015)


Gloria Steinem — My Life on the Road

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on December 3, 2015 at 4:31 pm

I gave a speech in New York earlier this year in favor of female supremacy. At the end of it, I told the men in the audience to hand over all their cash to the women in the audience. There wasn’t universal compliance on the night, but some money did change hands. It was my first experience of this kind of activism and boy was it fun! So I can almost see how, once you get the bug, you can’t stop.

Gloria Steinem can’t stop, and that’s a great thing. She was the right person at the right time: flexible, modest, tolerant, indefatigable, determined and canny enough to weave her way past the ramparts. She calls herself a wandering organizer, and this book has a wandery form of organization too. Part memoir, part campaigning history, it mirrors Steinem’s keen antipathy to all forms of hierarchy. Unhampered by chronology, its chapters are almost interchangeable. So among her other achievements Steinem has helped liberate the memoir form.

It’s an inspiring political chronicle, illustrated by personal anecdotes and a few statistics, in the style of many a Steinem speech no doubt – which she deliver anywhere from subway stops, bowling alleys and bagel shops, to school gyms, flatbed trucks, YWCAs, churches, bookstores, college campuses, and backyard barbecues. Much of it is concerned with the patient business involved in getting bills passed, candidates selected and elected, consciousnesses raised, and enemies thwarted (Betty Friedan was one; the Pope another). It can get personal, and moving, but she’s not going to dish the dirt on her love life if that’s what you were hoping. She mentions merely a handsome boyfriend in high school, her engagement to a ‘good’ but ‘wrong’ man in college, one amorous tryst in a taxi, and her misguided attempt to fundraise in Palm Springs among her rich boyfriend’s rich friends, one of whom was Frank Sinatra, who seemed more interested in showing off his hangar full of miniature trains. ‘I try not to think about how much all this cost’, Steinem ruefully remarks. ‘In three days of talk about how to make money, I haven’t been able to insert one idea about how to use it.’

In the 1960s, Steinem wrote: ‘If men could menstruate…[they] would brag about how long and how much.’ My Life on the Road may lack that kind of sparkle, but it too has its moments. There’s the time she gave a speech on institutionalized sexism at a Harvard Law School banquet, nearly reducing one professor to apoplexy (a pity she restrains herself from making this scene as funny as it could have been). When writing an article in 1967 in defense of Ho Chi Minh, she needed to fact-check so she sent Ho a telegram. Finding his address wasn’t easy, and then he never got back to her – must have been busy. She also reveals that Bella Abzug once injured her vocal chords yelling at Friedan.

As well as co-founding New York magazine and Ms, Steinem wrote abundantly about presidential campaigns. She notes here Nixon’s excruciating attempts to ingratiate himself with members of the press at the back of the plane, by spouting some totally out-of-date personal detail about each reporter. Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern both disappointed her: McCarthy for his aloofness, and McGovern for his reluctance to openly support abortion rights. Robert Kennedy would have been better, she feels. People doubted whether Geraldine Ferraro could ever be ‘tough’ enough to press the button, but ‘they didn’t ask male candidates if they could be wise enough not to’. She notes that the response to Hillary Clinton during her 2008 fight for the democratic nomination was way beyond rude, with nutcrackers made in her image, T-shirts that said ‘BROS BEFORE HOS’, and Rush Limbaugh banalities such as “Will this country want to actually watch a woman get older on a daily basis?” and his comparison of Hillary Clinton’s legs to Palin’s. (How about his legs?) Steinem comments, No wonder the misogyny toward Hillary was almost never named by the media. It was the media.

We follow the growth in Steinem’s thinking about sexual politics from the early it’s-not-fair stage, through her adoption of Gandhian tactics in India, to her fascination with the Iroquois Confederacy, ‘the oldest continuous democracy in the world’. The real narrative that emerges here is Steinem’s increasing involvement with Native American culture and prehistory. She was helped in this by Wilma Mankiller, the first woman ever to be elected chief of the Cherokee Nation. Steinem was stunned by witnessing how Native American activists hold meetings: ‘It took me a while to realize, These men talk only when they have something to say. I almost fell off my chair.’

The best character here is Steinem’s father, whose marriage proposal to her mother was, “It will only take a minute.” His letterhead said, ‘It’s Steinemite!’ and he spent his life in the car, continually on the move, selling antiques to roadside stands. His ‘idea of childrearing was to take me to whatever movie he wanted to see, however unsuitable; buy unlimited ice cream; let me sleep whenever and wherever I got tired; and wait in the car while I picked out my own clothes… [T]his resulted in such satisfying purchases as…Easter shoes that came with a live rabbit.’ Steinem didn’t go to school until she was 10, and learnt to read by studying roadsigns, with their helpful illustrations of hotdogs and hotel beds. She was thus ‘spared the Dick and Jane limitations that school then put on girls’. But there’s a sense here that her mother, who’d once been a newspaper reporter, sacrificed a career, a life in New York, and her sanity, in order to have children. Steinem has been ‘living out the unlived life of my mother’ ever since – when she isn’t traveling, in imitation of her father.

Steinem is hooked on travel, and urges us all to do more of it. It is a bit silly for women to stay at home, when that’s where (statistically) they’re most likely to be murdered. For Steinem, travel has been a compensation, a compulsion, and a political tool. It’s the communal aspects of it she craves, not the glamour. She doesn’t drive, and reviles the isolating effect of private cars and private jets, or taxis with window barriers between the driver and passenger, that make her feel like she’s ‘ordering French fries’. A whole chapter is devoted to taxi drivers she’s met, including a racist she had to ditch mid-journey, a vocal (female) advocate of tantric sex, and a guy abjuring all forms of media so as to live in the real world. “I’ve been clean for eight months,” he proudly reports.

My Life on the Road downplays the assault on the female psyche that was ’60s America, but there are glimpses of what Steinem endured as punishment for being smart, good-looking, ambitious, angry and politicized. During Robert Kennedy’s New York senate race, she was sitting in a taxi between Gay Talese and Saul Bellow. Talese suddenly leant across her to inform Bellow: “You know how every year, there’s a pretty girl who comes to New York and pretends to be a writer? Well, Gloria is this year’s pretty girl.” Steinem didn’t erupt (neither did Bellow), but she admits that it’s been trying, having her success continually attributed to her appearance.

Steinem’s other major obstacle in becoming an organizer was her dread of public speaking. She found a way around it by teaming up with partner speakers. These included Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Margaret Sloan and Florynce Kennedy, African American activists who brought with them, as an extra bonus, a more diverse audience. It was a breakthrough for Steinem. Florynce Kennedy even tried to cure Steinem of her statistics addiction, by saying, ‘If you’re lying in a ditch with a truck on your ankle…you don’t send somebody to the library to find out how much the truck weighs. You get it off!’ It didn’t take – Steinem kept her journalist’s weakness for numbers, but she still became an engaging if not flamboyant speaker. A firm believer in the power of talking circles, her biggest thrill is when people in the audience start answering each other’s questions, leaving the her out of the picture.

Early in her career, when she tried to get journalism assignments to write about women, she was told that articles about equality would have to be ‘balanced’ by ones in favor of inequality, for the sake of objectivity. Things have perhaps moved on. But Steinem’s still stuck trying to persuade people up and down the land that reproductive freedom is essential to gender equality. Curiously, she’s not in favor of matriarchy, and argues that it’s ‘a failure of the imagination’ to have one group dominating another. Now, this I resent. Equality’s the failure of imagination! It might do, in a pinch, but female supremacy would be a lot more fun. Men are too keen on money, oil, plastics, beef and golf. Only by restraining them can we hope to reverse the social and environmental damage patriarchy accomplished over the past five thousand years. And in this revolution, men can lick the envelopes and make the sandwiches.


A version of this review appeared in Bookforum, Dec/Jan 2016.




Persuasion — Jane Austen

In Stuff We Like, The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on October 3, 2014 at 3:10 pm

It is surely the most convincing love story Austen ever wrote, and it’s about a young love, eager, passionate and joyful, which is thwarted by adult ignorance, ill faith and snobbery. Anne loves Wentworth, and Wentworth loves Anne. So it makes pretty good sense that, when the novel opens, eight years later, he has been smarting from Anne’s reluctant rejection of him, and hurt pride has so far stopped him from proposing again. Anne has meanwhile suffered helplessly in silence, alone, ignored, disrespected – seemingly a dutiful maiden aunt but inwardly a dubious one, full of disgust for the society and the individuals that urged her to relinquish him. This is an autumnal novel, full of melancholy. Anne and Wentworth have contemplated this disaster for years, and are stuck in grief and anger.

This situation has been harder for Anne to bear, since she’s had little to distract her from the ruination of her hopes, her looks, her love life, and her prospects. She has remained in the very spot where their love affair was forcibly dismantled, and lives with the same unsympathetic people and, wistfully, amid the same (beloved) scenery. She has naturally spent a lot of her time reading poetry and naval reports (in search of news of Captain Wentworth on his various frigates). But she bears another significant wound too: her mother died when Anne was thirteen. So Anne is really alone in the world, lost, frozen, lovestruck – and inadequately loved or protected by the people around her. The deterioration in her looks is a dangerous development for a young privileged woman in the early 1800s: it seems to doom her to spinsterhood and playing the piano while others dance. Even Wentworth, on his return, dances to music Anne provides. Her lowly position in the family circle, and her initial suffering on Wentworth’s return, are exquisitely painful: ‘His cold politeness, his ceremonious grace, were worse than anything.’

On a walk with the lively group of cousins, Wentworth’s new groupies, Anne recites poetry to herself, but after overhearing Wentworth flirting with Louisa, loses even that comfort: ‘Anne could not immediately fall into a quotation again. The sweet scenes of autumn were for a while put by–unless some tender sonnet, fraught with the apt analogy of the declining year, with declining happiness, and the images of youth and hope, and spring, all gone together, blessed her memory. She roused herself to say…“Is not this one of the ways to Winthrop?” But nobody heard, or at least, nobody answered her.’ A low point – and incidentally, she was right about its being the way to Winthrop!

This is what it feels like not to be heard. She can’t or doesn’t bother to participate in most conversations, apart from offering a thoroughly sensible remark or two now and then. She’s never given a chance to speak. Her sister Mary is always yammering on, but everyone else too talks over Anne. No one listens to her at Kellynch Hall either, her supposed ‘home’, an insult that bugs Lady Russell on Anne’s behalf: Lady Russell recognizes that Anne is the most sensible person in the family. She may even have some regrets about blighting Anne’s life by encouraging her to reject Wentworth all those years ago. But Lady Russell is often out of the picture, so Anne doesn’t get to speak to her either.

What keeps happening is that in her powerless position – metaphysically gagged and bound – Anne overhears things. In reaction to all the indifference around her, she becomes more ears than mouth. Much of the novel turns on hearsay, second and third-hand gossip, and eavesdropping (Anne even reads someone else’s mail at one point, though she at first objects to the necessity of doing so). This is the story of a woman so alone it’s an achievement that she continues to exist at all. She lives in a society equally fragile, held together by strands of gossip and misrepresentation. Hearsay and gossip are powerful, if flawed, means of coercion, or ‘persuasion’. It’s also how the powerless communicate (look at Twitter). And the most hurtful, ill-judged remarks are the most quickly (and callously) shared. For instance, Mary blithely relays to Anne Wentworth’s shocked reaction to the change in her appearance: “…he said, ‘You were so altered he should not have known you again.’”

The harmfulness of ‘persuasion’ is at the heart of the book. Anne’s advisor and mother-substitute Lady Russell was WRONG WRONG WRONG. Yet, eight years on, Anne ‘did not blame Lady Russell, she did not blame herself for having been guided by her; but she felt that were any young person, in similar circumstances, to apply to her for counsel, they would never receive any of such certain immediate wretchedness, such uncertain future good.’ What the book most lacks is a gratifying confrontation between the two of them on the subject: Anne should really get to tell Lady Russell a thing or two. But by the end, thanks to the intrusive subplot, she has too much to tell Lady Russell (about Mr Elliot’s deceitfulness, as well as her newly independent attitude towards Wentworth), and evades meeting her at all! This is a bit of a cop-out. As a result, the ending’s too peaceful, and too pat.

Like Anne, Persuasion itself suffers from muteness. The wit here is abashed and awkward. What happened? Austen’s eye’s not always on the ball. A few memorable caricatures emerge (too few). The charmless father, Sir Walter, is nicely reprehensible, complaining at every opportunity about how ugly everybody is, especially anyone who’s been at sea (an apt analogy for Anne herself, who has been ‘at sea’ – in her own head – for eight years). He’s like someone lacking in zinc, for whom everything smells like shit. In response to the news that his tenant is an Admiral, he exclaims with customary revulsion: “Then I take it for granted…that his face is as orange as the cuffs and capes of my livery.” His older daughter Elizabeth is just as cold, but characterless; Austen never does much with her. The truly obnoxious Sir Walter at least earns his keep. Some sprightly fun is poked at him again in Bath, when he notices that the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple has arrived: ‘…for the Dalrymples were cousins of the Elliots; and the agony was, how to introduce themselves properly.’ That ‘agony’ is genius.

It’s funny too that ‘…the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year.’ But the joke is over-played in succeeding pages, releasing a brutality Austen usually saved for letters. She’s needlessly cruel too about Mrs. Musgrove’s plumpness, suggesting that it’s ridiculous to grieve over anything if you’re fat: you’re supposed to be jolly. She could surely have had more fun with Bath instead (a place Austen often energetically scorned). Anne merely dreads going, but has to go, and (suddenly) goes. And there, Cinderella-like, she changes character, becomes more able, more beautiful, more esteemed and less ignored, and more of a free agent too, finally being rewarded by an ecstatic resumption of love. Anne talks more in Bath than she has in the rest of the novel. The chance for Austen to knock the place is completely lost.

Even allowing for the lack of genuine satire, Persuasion is flawed. A very poignant story is marred by almost gothic convolutions of plot that heave themselves unnaturally into being in the last third of the book: all that stuff about the sinister Mr Elliot’s sneaky plans, awkwardly conveyed to us (through hearsay) by the never fully realised semi-invalid, Mrs. Smith. Unusually for Austen, this clumsy subplot verges on the tedious. What she had up until then was a nice tight little novel about loneliness, ostracism, enforced female immobility, and despair. She loses that intensity in favour of a Herculean (and unnecessary) struggle to sort out the good from the bad. But what’s it to US if Mr. Elliot’s a jerk?

Though much interrupted by all this Mrs. Smith malarkey, the delights of Anne’s contact with Wentworth in Bath are well done, those tentative thrilling moves towards reunion and happiness. Anne’s excitement at the concert is almost hysterical; she’s throbbing with hopes and fears. The climax of the Wentworth/Anne romance though, comes, oddly enough, with a conversation between Anne and Captain Harville (with Wentworth eavesdropping in the background). Harville movingly complains that Captain Benwick, in proposing to Louisa, has recovered surprisingly fast from the death of his previous fiancee, Harville’s sister Fanny: “Poor Fanny! she should not have forgotten him so soon!… It was not in her nature. She doated on him.” “It would not be the nature of any woman who truly loved,” replies Anne.

Then in a great little discussion along feminist lines, Harville comments mildly, “… I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.” “…Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. … I will not allow books to prove anything.” (Excellent irony, since the world by then contained Austen’s own novels.) The whole Louisa-Lyme Regis-Benwick-Fanny subplot then finally comes together in the once abject, now vibrant, Anne’s best line: “All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it) is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.”

The unevenness of this novel is in some ways part of its charm. There is an artlessness and honesty here that hint at real pain, and perhaps at something too personal to be easily fictionalised. All the great Austen ingredients are there: she’s got her moral premise up and running (that young love should be allowed to flourish, and life is not only about money); she has a central female character who, though at first silent, meek and almost amorphous, becomes solidified by her own unhappiness and finds her voice; she has hypochondriacs, hypocrisies, absurdities (though not enough of them). That she didn’t manage to sculpt all this into quite the masterpiece Pride and Prejudice is (from the git-go, P & P means business), hints that much of the raw emotion here stayed raw – for Austen too – and became curiously (and intriguingly) intractable.