Tag Archives: Literature

Elizabethan Exemplar

It’s been a long time since I featured one of my Renaissance crushes, but today is Sir Philip Sidney’s birthday so time to indulge. Sidney of course was a wonderful poet, but for me he is much more than that: he is the perfect Elizabethan Renaissance Man, multi-faceted, adept at both words and action, on the spot in all the key settings. He is one of those people whose lives can represent an age, albeit a rarefied experience. And he died young, on the battlefield, so that just makes him more: more elusive, more martyr-like, more crush-worthy. His notable contemporaries who lived longer had more layered lives in which both their attributes and their flaws were manifested, but Sidney seems flawless. His biographers note his proficiency in all the subjects in the studia humanitatis, but he himself asserted that one should aim for “well-doing, and not of well-knowing only” in The Defence of Poesy (published posthumously in 1595).

Sidney 2012-03-09-images-sidney_ma409_4_engraving The Sensational Sidney brothers as boys: Sir Philip and Sir Robert, from a painting by Mark Garrard at the Sidney’s ancestral home Penshurst Palace, Kent.

Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) was always connected: He was the eldest son of Sir Henry Sidney, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, the nephew of Queen Elizabeth’s favorite, Robert Dudley, and the godson of King Philip of Spain. I’m not sure he would have been happy about this latter affiliation given that he became a relatively strident Protestant later on, which was perhaps a flaw in Queen Elizabeth’s estimation as she preferred a more moderate public religious stance and must have been very annoyed when Sidney opposed her marriage to Francis, the Duke of Alençon and Anjou, in 1579 on religious grounds. His principled Protestantism is not a problem for me, however: it makes him look like less of a dilettante courtier. Sidney was educated at Oxford but left for a “Grand Tour” on the Continent before taking his degree: clearly he was ahead of his time as this custom did not become popular among the English aristocracy until a century later. He returned to England to the life of a courtier (when he pleased Elizabeth), patron and poet, but clearly longed for some kind of serious placement, which he eventually received in the form of various official diplomatic missions on the Continent. In between, he commenced writing his corpus of poetry, invested in overseas expeditions, and spent time at the estate of his beloved sister, Mary, the Countess of Pembroke, to whom he dedicated his most ambitious work, The Arcadia, and who established a reputation as both a literary patron and poet(ess) herself.

Sidney 1577 (3)_edited

pixlr_20191130100316782-1 Sir Philip Sidney, 1577-78, courtesy the Marquess of Bath, Longleat House; A trio of Sidney copied portraits from the sixteenth, eighteenth, and twentieth centuries: National Portrait Gallery, London; an 18th century copy, NPG, London, and a 20th century version attributed to Frederick Hawkesworth Sinclair, Pembroke College, Oxford University.

All of the Sidneys are so interwoven with Elizabeth, most conspicuously Philip and Mary’s mother Mary Dudley Sidney (also a writer!) who served and nursed the Queen during her smallpox seclusion, contracting the disease herself and marring her beauty permanently. There is a theme of sacrifice that connects mother to son: Philip accompanied his uncle the Earl of Leicester’s expedition to the Netherlands in 1586 to fight England’s now arch-enemy Spain, and reportedly urged Leicester to push harder, eventually falling on the battlefield himself at the Battle of Zutphen. He was shot in the thigh, but took 21 days to die—likely of gangrene. He then becomes larger than life, memorialized by an ostentatious public funeral (paid for by his father-in-law Francis Walsingham), elegies, biographies and posthumous portraits. He is forever young and bold in imagery, and ever eloquent in text.

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screenshot_20191130-080224_chrome Sir Philip Sidney, early 17th century, National Trust @Knole; by John de Critz the Elder, c. 1620; by John de Critz the Elder, 17th century; by George Knapton, 1739.


It all Centers on the House

I am recovering from my second bad cold of the year, and have spent much time over the past few days watching television just like I did during my summer sickness. At that time, I made the dreadful mistake of watching Netflix’s The Last Czars (with dawning and intensifying horror) but this time I went for classic horror and watched a succession of Poe adaptations, perfect for this time of year. I really fell for the The Fall of the House of Usher and streamed every version I could access: the Vincent Price/ Roger Corman version from 1960, the 1950 British film directed (and produced, and shot) by Ivan Burnett, and two very avant-garde silent versions from 1928, a short film produced by James Sibley Watson Jr. and Melville Webber in the US, and a longer French version directed by Jean Epstein entitled La Chute de la maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher). Then I read the short story again, read critiques of both the films and the story, and chased down all of the illustrations of the HOUSE that I could find: I assure you I seldom do this much preparation for a blog post but I was in a full sick-bed-induced Usher fever!

House of Usher 1931

20191022_1816331931 Cheshire House edition with illustrations by Abner Epstein; 1950 British film version.

I can understand why this story has resonance with readers, filmmakers and illustrators; it’s enthralling on different levels, both in terms of its relationships and its setting. The central characters, Roderick and Madeline Usher (siblings in the original story and most film adaptations; spouses in Epstein’s film) are a very odd pair indeed and one could dwell on them for a while, but I agree with the appraisal of the narrator of the 1950 British film, who tells us that it all centers on the house. The Fall of the House of Usher has a double meaning: it’s the end of the line and the end of the house and we readers and/or watchers witness the destruction of both, mirroring each other. I’m so fixated on houses that I often think of them as sentient, so it’s almost reassuring to see one depicted that way.

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screenshot_20191023-074149_chromeThe house exterior in the 1928 American film, the 1950 British Film, and the 1960 Roger Corman film; Jean Epstein’s 1928 film prefers to focus on its baronial interior.

As you can see, these are all Gothic/Victorian structures, characteristic of the haunted-house trope but not the decrepit old relics of Poe’s day: The Fall of the House of Usher was first published in 1839. When looking around for a spooky house, Poe, like Hawthorne, would probably have fixated on a seventeenth-century house, sometimes also called “medieval” here in America but never in Britain. There seems to be some consensus that the house which might have inspired Poe was the Hezekiah Usher House in Boston, built on Tremont Street in the 1680s by the namesake son of British America’s first bookseller. Hezekiah Jr. was also accused of witchcraft during the 1692 trials (of course–because there is always a Salem connection) but was apparently connected enough to avoid formal proceedings. When the Usher house was torn down around 1800, two skeletons were found in the basement, and that story might have caught Poe’s attention even though he never saw the house. And thus the haunted house trope is connected to another (or sub?) trope, someone/something is buried in the basement, in the story of The Fall of the House of Usher. It seems like a pretty straight line from Usher to Henry James’ Turn of the Screw to Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House to Sarah Waters’ Little Stranger (with many more titles in between) though I suppose the Castle of Otranto might have started the thread.

House of Usher Robert Swain Gifford 1884

Usher Collage

House of Usher poe-rackham-usher Arthur Rackham 1935

Grimly CollageThe House: illustrations by Robert Swain Gifford (1884); Daniel Walper (1922), Albert Dubout (1948), Arthur Rackham (1935) and Gris Grimly (2004).

artcont_1534959296Confronting a GEORGIAN haunted house: The Little Stranger (2018). Talk about a house-centered story! In both the film and the book, the house is a MAJOR character, even more so than in Usher. The juxtaposition of the airy (though decayed) Georgian and the “presence” heightens the tension, and you realize that possession has multiple meanings.


The Last Turban-Wearing Women of Salem

At a symposium on Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables last week, members of Salem State’s English Department offered really interesting insights into the text, its themes, context (and subtext) and characters. One presentation in particular, by the very prolific Nancy Schultz, focused on the connections between the two old characters in the book, the house itself and Hepzibah Pyncheon. This was particularly resonant for me, as I’m always interested in “Olde Salem” and Hawthorne’s description of Hepzibah, as quoted by Professor Schultz, immediately reminded me of a description of another woman, who lived in my house at almost exactly the same time in which The House of the Seven Gables was set: Mrs. Harriet Paine Rose. Let’s look at the descriptions of these two women, one fictional and the other real, but both very much characterized by their turbans.

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Turban Pickering Genealogy

Hawthorne is not very complimentary towards “Our miserable old Hepzibah”, a “gaunt, sallow, rusty-jointed maiden, in a long-waisted silk gown, and with the strange horror of a turban on her head!” The author of the entry in the Pickering Genealogy obviously holds Mrs. Rose in much higher esteem: she is (or was) beautiful and virtuous but was notably also “the last person in Salem who wore a turban”, implying that she was also a bit out of style. I would love to see the pencil sketch of the turban-wearing Mrs. Rose alluded to above, but haven’t been able to find it anywhere (it’s probably locked away in the Lee papers in the Phillips Library), but of course we have many illustrations of Hepzibah in her turban, as it was identified as such a “horrible” and characteristic feature of her persona. Such a contrast of an (un-)fashionable portrayal with those much more charming depictions of turban-wearing ladies earlier in the nineteenth century.

Turban MFA

Turban Portrait 1800-1810 Northeast

Turban Cowles collage

Turban Dixon collage

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Turban Gables Graphic.jpgMary Ann Wilson, Young Woman Wearing a Turban, c. 1800-1825, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Portrait of a “fashionable” woman, c. 1810, Northeast Auctions; Hepzibah and her turban (or turbans, as they all seem to be different styles) by Maude and Genevieve Cowles (1899), A.A. Dixon (1903) and Helen Mason Grose (1924), and a more recent (1997) Classics Illustrated cover depicting a very grim turban-wearing woman indeed.

Hepzibah’s turban also reminded me of the most famous turban-wearer of all, Dolley Madison, who was photographed and painted wearing her characteristic headpiece in the year before her death in 1849, long after turbans were fashionable. This was her look and she was sticking to it, whether out of necessity or by design. It certainly does not look like a “strange horror”!

Dolley Madison Brady

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Dolley collage Photograph of Dolley Madison by Mathew Brady, 1848, Library of Congress; Painting by William S. Elwell, also 1848, National Portrait Gallery. Dolley descends upon the White House and witnesses her husband’s presidential oath, be-turbaned of course, in two YA books, Dolley Madison, First Lady, by Arden Davis Melick (with illustrations by Ronald Dorfman), 1970 & Dolly Madison, Famous First Lady, by Mary R. Davidson (with illustrations by Erica Merkling), 1992.


Curtain Lectures

It was Burns Night at Hamilton Hall last night, and my husband and I were charged with giving the Toast to the Lassies and Reply. After a week steeped in the Ploughman Poet, both of us were a bit uncomfortable with the very bawdy Burns in this year of #metoo, so he went with the more inspiring Rights of Woman as the basis of his toast, which meant I had to go for the uplifting too. But I kind of wish he had gone with one of my favorite Burns poems, The Henpecked Husband. I don’t like it for its overall sentiment, of course, but because of just one phrase, curtain lecture, an idiom which I’ve used in class time and time again, because it always provokes a conversation!

The Henpecked Husband

Curs’d be the man, the poorest wretch in life, The crouching vassal to a tyrant wife!  Who has no will but by her high permission, What has not sixpence but in her possession; Who must to he, his dear friend’s secrets tell, Who dreads a curtain lecture worse than hell. Were such the wife had fallen to my part, I’d break her spirit or I’d break her heart; I’d charm her with the magic of a switch. I’d kiss her maids, and kick the perverse bitch.

Burns certainly didn’t coin this phrase; it had been around for quite a while. In my courses, I use the frontispieces from Thomas Heywood’s Curtaine Lecture (1637) and Richard Brathwaite’s Art Asleep, Husband? (1640) but I think the expression predates these works as well. It seems very Shakespearian to me, but the heavily-curtained seventeenth-century bed provides the perfect “frame” for wifely “advice”.

Curtain Lecture collage

If you pop these images up before a class of 19-year-olds you are immediately rewarded with their focused engagement in the history of women, marriage, gender relationships, satirical discourse, and material culture (inevitably their attention strays to the “alarm clock” on the table in the Heywood illustration). Lots of comments, lots of questions, all of which can be contextualized and connected to other timely trends. Obviously the notion had a wide appeal—or recognition–in the seventeenth century and after, which is why it survived up until Burns’ time. In an earlier post, I showed the Richard Newton caricature that dates from around the time of The Henpecked Husband, and it is one of many variations on the theme published in this era, give or take a few decades. As the era of curtained-beds closed, the curtain lecture continued, and was revived quite dramatically by the publication of Mrs. Caudle’s Curtain Lectures by Douglas Jerrold in Punch in 1845. These 37 illustrated lectures were published in book form that same year, and reissued frequently thereafter, inspiring a wave of  variant visual expressions in all sorts of mediums: stereoviews, postcards, even a board game. Now it is a general rule of mine that once animals (or birds) take the place of people a concept has jumped the shark (with a few exceptions), and it’s hard to conceive the curtain lecture could have lasted through the twentieth century in any case, but nevertheless it survives as an effective teaching tool.

Curtain Lecture J. Lewis Marks 1824

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Caudle 3 John Leech

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Curtain Lecture 1907 LOC

Curtain Lectures PC 1905

Curtain Lectures Chickens

Curtain DucksA Curtain Lecture pub. by J. Lewis Marks, 1824, British Museum; illustrations by John Leech for the first edition of Mrs. Caudle’s Curtain Lectures, 1845; Mrs. Caudle Card (with real hair!), Victoria & Albert Museum; 1907 stereoview from the Library of Congress; postcards, c. 1900-1910.


Hawthorne Hub

Considerations of both donor intent and the importance of place were brushed off pretty quickly by the leadership of the Peabody Essex Museum during the Q&A part of the public forum on the relocation of the Phillips Library last week, in contradiction to some of the museum’s own language on its website. Everything I have ever read about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s life and work stresses the importance of Salem in the latter, whether the dark secrets of his Hawthorne and Manning ancestors, the physical relics of the past all around him, or his daily perambulations all around town. His great-grandson Manning Hawthorne, who donated several boxes of family papers (MSS 69) to the Phillips Library in 1975, remarked that five generations of Salem ancestors and Salem itself were in his blood, nor could he ever rid himself of their influence. He was never particularly happy in Salem, but it was of Salem Hawthorne wrote and to Salem he returned in an article about the author’s early years published in the Essex Institute Historical Collections in 1938.

Hawthorne collageHawthorne provides a story for the 1860 fundraising effort on behalf of the indebted Essex Institute; “I should be very glad to write a story, as you request, for the benefit of the Essex Institute, or for any other purpose that might be deemed desirable by my native townspeople”. I wish he was still with us!

The PEM’s own words support the inextricable connection between Hawthorne and Salem: the messaging accompanying the PEM’s bicentennial Hawthorne exhibition in 2004 asserts that: With Salem as the birth and dwelling place of Nathaniel Hawthorne, it is understandable that the Phillips Library is a major hub of Hawthorne scholarship. In addition to the more than four feet of Hawthorne manuscripts, the library holdings include papers of the residents of Salem who were contemporaries and commenters on one of the leading 19th century American literary figures. The C. E. Fraser Clark* Collection of Hawthorniana augments the primary materials, and makes it possible to view all of the American editions and literary criticism of this premier writer. I feel the presence of Hawthorne pretty strongly still in Salem, primarily through extant buildings in which he lived and worked: a short walk around town can bring you to his birthplace, his childhood homes, houses belonging to his mother’s and wife’s families, and of course the House of the Seven Gables. It is difficult to see how an industrial warehouse is going to offer up the same ambiance for Hawthorne scholars, and consequently even more difficult to see the Phillips Library in Rowley continuing to serve as a hub of Hawthorne scholarship. And that’s another loss.

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Hawthorne 1

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Hawthorne 3 Hawthorne’s stencil from the Salem Maritime National Historic Site; just three Hawthorne houses in Salem: the Manning cottage (which happens to be my very favorite house in Salem)  and homestead on Dearborn and a short-term rental on Chestnut.

*It is C.E. Frazer Clark, not C.E. Fraser Clark.

P.S. And speaking of ambiance, here are the two Phillips Libraries, past and future, Salem and Rowley (thanks to Paul Jalbert for the latter!)

Phillips Collage


Bewitched Girls and Seafaring Boys

These days I don’t have much time to read fiction in general, and I tend to avoid novels set in Salem in particular, but I’m always on the lookout for later nineteenth and early twentieth-century novels with alluring covers as part of my ever-increasing, very random Salem collection of material objects. My interest is more cultural than literary, and two trends are immediately apparent when you examine a range of Salem titles dating from the first half of the twentieth century: the girls are somehow entangled in the Witch Trials, and the boys are off to sea. I can’t imagine a more distinct gender division–and while the accused/entrapped/bewitched girls continue into the later twentieth century and later, the seafaring boys disappear. Here we have a YA literary illustration of the rise and dominance of Witch City. I think it all starts with the 1842 publication of Ebeneezer Wheelwright’s The Salem Belle: A Tale of 1692, which has recently been revisited, reissued and revealed: as source material for Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. 

Salem fiction collage

And after Salem Belle: Ye Lyttle Salem Maid: a Story of Witchcraft (1898) by Pauline Bradford Mackie, Lucy Foster Madison’s Maid of Salem Town (1906), Dulcibel by Henry Peterson (1907), and Frederick Sterling’s A Fair Witch (1911), and others—most were popular and reprinted continuously in the first decades of the nineteenth century. This is a 1934 edition which illustrates the type of covers I crave almost perfectly.

Fictional Salem Maid of Salem Towne

One novel from this era that doesn’t quite fit into the endangered-Salem-maid category is Esther Forbes’ Mirror for Witches, which was first published in 1928 and was seldom out of print for the rest of the century. With its provocative woodcut illustrations by Robert Gibbings and its seventeenth-century “voice” (of a girl who witnessed her parents’ burning for witchcraft before she came to Salem), this tale is pretty graphic in more ways than one: the New York Times assessed it as a “strange, eerie book” and a “unique achievement”. It’s hard to believe that Forbes was also the author of Johnny Tremaine!

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Salem Fiction Mirror for Witches 1928

Plots get lot more modernly romantic as the twentieth century progresses, of course, resulting in novels like Mildred Reid’s The Devil’s Handmaidens (1951), in which Puritan maiden Hope Farrell is betrothed to a wealthy Salem magistrate when the object of her affection, handsome young sailor Dan Marston, is captured by slave traders on one of his annual voyages. When he returns eventually, she confesses her love for him but maintains that “a Godly maiden does not break a troth”, and heartbroken Dan yields to the wanton wiles of a certain Submit Tibby (I kid you not). Meanwhile, all hell breaks loose when the Salem Village girls start their fits, and Hope’s own mother is drawn into their net. It’s all there on the cover, how could I resist it? A least we have a little maritime history here. A romantic rivalry also fuels the plot of John Jenning’s The Salem Frigate (1946) which moves the setting up to the Salem’s golden age. The covers below (hardcover and paperback) are a little deceiving: we’re in the realm of men now.

Salem Fiction Devils

Salem Frigate collage

The realm of men (or boys) generally necessitates a wartime setting for Salem novels: the Salem Frigate was set primarily during the War of 1812, and a series of adventurous Salem boys books from earlier in the century featured the American Revolution: The Armed Ship America; or When we Sailed from Salem (1900) was part of James Otis’s Boy’s Own Series, A Patriot Lad of Old Salem (1925) was one volume in a series of Patriot Lads books written by Russell Gordon Carter. Mildred Flagg’s A Boy of Salem (1939), a companion to the author’s Plymouth Maid, is set in the time of seventeenth-century settlement, not that of the later trials. All these Salem boys have a great deal of freedom of mobility: they face the frontier and trials which are largely self-imposed, in stark contrast to those of their fictional female counterparts who were confined to the suffocating world of Salem, 1692.

boys fiction collage


Stalking Nathaniel

I read an amusing, though very flowery, little pamphlet yesterday entitled A Pilgrimage to Salem in 1838 in which the anonymous author, described merely as a “southern admirer” of Nathaniel Hawthorne, happens upon a copy of the recently-published Twice-Told Tales while visiting Boston and, immediately transfixed, decides to travel up to Salem so that he might see–and perhaps even talk to– the object of his affection before returning to his “plantation”. He immediately boards the steamship that will take him to East Boston, where he jumps on the brand new Eastern Railroad train to Salem, and once there, I discovered the way to the lodgings of my favorite author. He was not within, but would probably be at home some time in the course of the day.  I inquired respecting his haunts. They were the Athenaeum—the bookstores–the streets occasionally, or North Fields, or South Fields, or the heights above the turnpike, or the beach near the fort; and sometimes, I was told, he would extend his excursions by foot as far as Manchester, along the wave-washed, secluded, and rocky shore in Beverly. And so Mr. Southern Gentleman pursues Nathaniel here, there, and everywhere, and somehow always misses him (he just left)  but takes in the sights of Salem along the way.

Stalking Nathaniel Map

Stalking Nathaniel E Boston 2nd

Stalking Nathaniel Train Station

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1840 Map of the North Shore showing the new Eastern Railroad, David Rumsey Collection; the East Boston Depot, from an Edwin Whitefield drawing, and George Elmer Browne’s drawing of the first Salem station, built in 1838, both from Francis Boardman Crowninshield Bradlee’s Eastern Railroad: a Historical Account of Early Railroading in Eastern New England (Salem, MA: Essex Institute, 1917). The object of this pilgrimage: Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his earliest portrait by Charles Osgood, supposedly commissioned by the author’s uncle, Robert Manning, Peabody Essex Museum. (One can understand the stalking!)

There is something about this article: something a little off. I couldn’t find the original, supposedly published in a Charleston, S.C. periodical titled The Southern Rose in March of 1839; instead I read a reprint in a 1916 Essex Institute publication, A pilgrimage to Salem in 1838, by a Southern admirer of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Reprinted from “The Southern rose” (Charleston, S.C.) of March 2 and 16, 1839, with a Foreword by Victor Hugo Paltsits, Another view by John Robinson, and A rejoinder by Mr. Paltsits. Mr. Paltsits, of the New York Public Library, believed that the author was William Gilmore Simms, the southern novelist and historian (and slavery apologist), while Mr. Robinson, the great horticulturist and curator at the Peabody Museum, thought it might have been Nathaniel himself! Just think of that: what a public relations feat early in Hawthorne’s career! He comes off as sought after, mysterious, elusive, brooding in a Heathcliffian way, and very clever: a perfect characterization for a young novelist. Robinson thinks the “southern admirer” knows Salem too well, and he certainly does throw in a lot of place names. I’m quite fixated on the train trip myself, about which the article’s author is a bit too blasé while everyone in Salem was much more obviously excited, including Hawthorne. An article in the Salem Register dated September 3, 1838 notes that the railroad has been the great centre of attraction to the people of Salem and vicinity. The novelty of this mode of travelling has drawn immense crowds to witness its operation, and on every occasion of the arrival and departure of the cars, the grounds in the neighborhood of the depot and on the eastern bank of the Mill Pond are covered with delighted spectators of the bustling scene, while the new faces in our streets, and the hurrying to and fro of carriages for the accommodation of passengers, have given to our city a busy appearance to which it has long been a stranger. The southern visitor does not describe a Salem that is in any way busy, but then he is singularly focused on Hawthorne, and also, really, on himself.

Hawthorne collage

The southern admirer, whoever he is, seems particularly excited to encounter Salem’s Old Town Pump (here in 1856 and 1884 illustrations), memorialized by Hawthorne in “A Rill from the Town Pump” in Twice-Told Tales.


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