30 December 2009

"my panting soul"

Still does my panting soul push forward, and live in futurity, in the deep shades o'er which darkness hangs. -- I try to pierce the gloom, and find a resting-place, where my thirst of knowledge will be gratified, and my ardent affections find an object to fix them."

Mary Wollstonecraft, 120

22 December 2009

things don't change: on Wollstonecraft and Tina Fey

"Two feelings remained acute: irritation with her own sex -- the boisterous, unmeaning laughter and bickerings of 'silly females' -- and persistent alienation: 'I am an exile -- and in a new world.'" Vindication A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft 86

I kind of hate women of today. There, I said it. I liked them better in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth century when they had to fight for their individual freedom. Even though there were plenty of women then who were, by Wollstonecraft's account, "silly females' -- caring only for show in order to acquire husbands, focused only on begetting babies, not caring for others feelings save their own -- there were also those who were upset with their inferiority in society and strove, as Mary Wollstonecraft did, to change that.

Now women have been given lawful rights and education they seem not to know how to use it. They still parade in showy dress (or no dress) excentuating their physical body, neglecting their mind. We praise and veritably stalk female celebrities (twitter, anyone?), but not one among us can name a famous female scientist. I feel like women today have given up, retreated into their silicone bodies, and so have become the new creator of their own inferiority: Doctor Frankenstein and the monster in one.

There are a scant number of women today who, wittingly or no, provide a model of the true liberated female. The big one in my book is Tina Fey* and her character (that she created and embodies) on 30 ROCK. Liz Lemon (and by extension, Tina Fey) is pretty, in a non-model nerdy and quirky sort of way. And she is an in-charge woman, the boss of her employees, script writers and actors who are composed of dorky men and Liz's best friend Jenna, a platinum blonde, attention-seeking narcissist who was the lead actress of Liz's "The Girlie Show", now renamed for the incoming of a more popular (african american male) actor. Her boss Jack Donaghy is played by Alec Baldwin, a controversial figure in his own life and in the show no less. He is at once the model of the patriarchal gentleman, wielding his power over all, ruthless, exacting -- and Republican. He owns Lemon's show, like a 19th century land-owner. A corporate big-wig -- but one with a heart, who desires to take Lemon under his wing, be her mentor, improve her life. He criticizes her and uses his power to improve her. Which is a bit Pygmalion-esque mixed in with a little Emma of the Jane Austen variety. And this probably proves more than anything that things don't change. Men still have a desire to shape women to their ideal, and because of long-held social mores or gender DNA, this will probably, in my life-time at least, always be so. What makes Tina Fey's character so inspiring for me is that no matter how much Baldwin's character tries to improve her, she is, and will always be, (mostly, granted, as a vehicle for comedy) a scatter-brained, cute but never beautiful, faulty, smart, witty woman who embraces her independence. And for those of us who live in the real world, this is a relief.

An addendum -- couldn't fit this in above, but a counter-argument could be that such female models like Tina Fey's character have been around for a while: Murphy Brown, for instance. But what I see in Tina Fey is a 21st century model of an independent woman, for obviously she exists in this time period, but also she comes at a critical time, when our desire to control technology supplements our socially unacceptable desire to control others, and women, subjugating themselves on television in reality T.V. shows and home-made movies, need some models other than the Kardashians and the Girls Next Door of this world.

An addendum to this addendum: I watch, and even enjoy, both of the latter programs.

*another favorite of mine is Chelsea Handler.
Gordon, Lyndall. Vindication A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft 2005

20 December 2009

Emily Bronte died on this date 161 years ago

I am the only being whose doom
No tongue would ask, no eye would mourn;
I never caused a thought of gloom,
A smile of joy, since I was born.

In secret pleasure, secret tears,
This changeful life has slipped away,
As friendless after eighteen years,
As lone as on my natal day.

There have been times I cannot hide,
There have been times when this was drear,
When my sad soul forgot its pride
And longed for one to love me here.

But those were in the early glow
Of feelings since subdued by care;
And they have died so long ago,
I hardly now believe they were.

First melted off the hope of youth,
Then Fancy's rainbow fast withdrew;
And then experience told me truth
In mortal bosoms never grew.

'Twas grief enough to think mankind
All hollow, servile, insincere;
But worse to trust to my own mind
And find the same corruption there.
~ Emily Brontë, 17 May 1837

15 December 2009

arguments against and for women's colleges...

...in the 19th century.

"Nothing would induce me to be associated with such a project. A college [for women] would mean the loss of tender home bloom of womanliness which is a more precious thing than any proficiency in knowledge." Charlotte Yonge

"It is a rare thing to meet with a lady who does not suffer from headaches, langour [sic], hysteria or some illness showing a want of stamina. Dullness is not healthy, and the lives of ladies, it must be confessed, are exceedingly dull." Emily Davies


quotes: Brandon, Ruth. Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres. Waller & Company, New York: 2008.

portrait: an idyllic Victorian couple

10 December 2009

letters between literary lovers

84, Charing Cross Road is a non-fiction book of a series of letters written by a New Yorker Helene Hanff and a famous book sellers in London on Charing Cross Road (a street infamous for its many bookstores) called Marks & Company. Letters between the shop and Helene span for 20 years. Frank Doel, one of the clerks of the London store, quickly became her sole correspondent, and although they never met, their relationship through letters developed into very much a tender, perhaps even romantic nature. Reading these letters written before the time of text messages, e-mail, even Internet, is truly refreshing; when letters took days, even weeks to arrive, and the anticipatory touch of the envelope of a letter brought a sensation more wonderful than even the words within. Let the following letters -- originally written on typewriter -- speak for themselves. Here are my favourites, beginning with Helene's first letter to the now famous (although now extinct) bookstore:

[All double spaces in the letters written below are, in the book, only one space and a tab over]

14 East 95th St.
New York City
October 5, 1949

Marks & Co.
84, Charing Cross Road
London, W.C. 2

Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature says that you specialize in out-of-print books. The phrase "Antiquarian booksellers" scares me somewhat, as I equate "antique" with expensive. I am a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books and all the things I want are impossible to get over here except in very expensive rare edition, or in Barnes & Nobles grimy, marked-up schoolboy copies.

I enclose a list of my most pressing problems. If you have clean second hand copies of any of the books on the list, for no more than $5.00 each, will you consider this a purchase order and send them to me?

Very truly yours,

Helene Hanff
(Miss) Helene Hanff

Two months later, after a series of correspondence between Helene and the shop, including a transaction of books, Helene writes:

14 East 95th St.
New York City
December 8, 1949

Sir [Frank Doel]:

(It feels witless to keep writing "Gentlemen" when the same solitary soul is obviously taking care of everything for me.)

Savage Landor arrived safely...I do love secondhand books that open to the page some previous owner read oftenest. The day Hazlitt came he opened to "I hate to read new books," and I hollered "Comrade!" to whoever owned it before me.

I enclose a dollar which Brian (British boy friend of Kay upstairs) says will cover the /8/ I owe you, you forgot to translate.

Now then. Brian told me you are all rationed to 2 ounces of meat per family per week and one egg per person per month and I am simply appalled. He has a catalogue from a British firm here which flies food from Denmark to his mother, so I am sending a small Christmas present to Marks & Co. I hope there will be enough to go round, he says the Charing Cross Road bookshops are "all quite small."

I'm sending it c/o you, FPD, whoever you are.


Helene Hanff

Reply letter from Frank to Helene:

20th December, 1949

Miss Helene Hanff
14 East 95th Street
New York 28, New York

Dear Miss Hanff,

Just a note to let you know that your gift parcel arrived safely today and the contents have been shared out between the staff. Mr. Marks and and Mr. Cohen insisted that we divide it up among ourselves and not include "the bosses." I should just like to add that everything in the parcel was something that we either never see or can only be had through black market. It was extremely kind and generous of you to think of us in this way and we are all extremely grateful.

We all wish to express our thanks and send our greetings and best wishes for 1950.

Yours faithfully,

Frank Doel

It seems three months passes before the next letter, sent by Helene. I love this letter for Helene's brazen outspokenness and flirty wit:

14th East 95th St.

March 25, 1950

Frank Doel, what are you DOING over there, you are not doing ANYthing, you are just sitting AROUND.

Where is Leigh Hunt? Where is the Oxford Verse? Where is the Vulgate and dear goofy John Henry, I thought they'd be such nice uplifting reading for Lent and NOTHING do you send me.

you[sic] leave me sitting here writing long margin notes in library books that don't belong to me, some day they'll find out I did it and take my library card away.

I have made arrangements with the Easter bunny to bring you an Egg, he will get over there and find you have died of Inertia.

I require a book of love poems with spring coming on. No Keats or Shelley, send me poets who can make love without slobbering -- Wyatt or Jonson or somebody, use your own judgement. Just a nice book preferably small enough to stick in a slacks pocket and take to Central Park.

Well, don't just sit there! Go find it! I swear I don't know how that shop keeps going.

These two letters (the last I will post) are from and to Cecily Farr, a female shop assistant of Marks & Co. I find them charming, and a bit heartbreaking really:

84, Charing Cross Road
London, W.C. 2

7th April, 1950

Dear Miss Hanff,

Please don't let Frank know I'm writing this but every time I send you a bill I've been dying to slip in a little note and he might not think it quite proper of me. That sounds stuffy and he's not, he's quite nice really, very nice in fact, it's just that he does rather look on you as his private correspondent as all your letters and parcels are addressed to him. But I just thought I would write to you on my own.

We all love your letters and try to imagine what you must look like. I've decided you're young and very sophisticated and smart-looking. Old Mr. Martin thinks you must be quite studious-looking in spite of your wonderful sense of humor. Why don't you send us a snapshot? We should love to have it.

If you're curious about Frank, he's in his late thirties, quite nice-looking, married to a very sweet Irish girl, I believe she's his second wife.

Everyone was so grateful for the parcel. My little ones (girl 5, boy 4) were in Heaven -- with the raisins and egg I was actually able to make them a cake!

I do hope you don't mind my writing. Please don't mention it when you write to Frank.

With best wishes,

Cecily Farr

P.S. I shall put my home address on the back of this in case you should ever want anything sent you from London.


14 East 95th St.

April 10, 1950

Dear Cecily --

And a very bad cess to Old Mr. Martin, tell him I'm so unstudious I never even went to college. I just happen to have peculiar taste in books, thanks to a Cambridge professor named Quiller-Couch, known as Q, whom I fell over in a library when I was 17. And I'm about as smart-looking as a Broadway panhandler. I live in moth-eaten sweaters and wool slacks, they don't give us any heat here in the daytime. It's a 5-story brownstone and all the other tenants go out to work at 9 A.M. and don't come home till 6 -- and why should the landlord heat the building for one small script-reader/writer working at home on the ground floor?

Poor frank, I give him such a hard time. I'm always bawling him out for something. I'm only teasing, but I know he'll take me seriously. I keep trying to puncture that proper British reserve, if he gets ulcers I did it.

Please write and tell me about London, I live for the day when I step off the boat-train and feel its dirty sidewalks under my feet. I want to walk up Berkeley Square and down Wimpole Street and stand in St. Paul's where John Donne preached and sit on the step Elizabeth sat on when she refused to enter the Tower, and like that. A newspaper man I know, who was stationed in London during the war, says tourists go to England with preconceived notions, so they always find exactly what they go looking for. I told him I'd go looking for the England of English literature, and he said:

"Then it's there."

Regards --

Helene Hanff

Helene's aspiration to visit London came true over 20 years after this last letter -- finally able to make enough money to pay for the journey -- but by then Frank had died of appendicitis and the shop as it was during her years of correspondence was abandoned.

There is a movie version of 84, Charing Cross Road, starring Anthony Hopkins as Frank, Anne Bancroff as Helene, and Judi Dench -- in her first film -- as Frank's wife.


Hanff, Helene. 84, Charing Cross Road. Grossman Publishers, New York: 1970.

02 December 2009

hypocrisy is good, m'kay

Freedom is a solid good, that requires to be treated with reverence and respect. -- Mary Wollstonecraft

The British National Party (BNP) are known for their fascist principles, the prominent being that they don't believe anyone but full blooded English people should live in Britain. They were founded in 1982 and have since refused any applicant in their party that were non-white until this year when finally their party was seen by the law as discriminatory. Now they are allowing their first non-white member, a Sikh who, however, does not believe in racial integration in Britain, and believes that Islam (a religion not his own) is based solely on "deception, fraud, and surprise attack." Non-white by look, yes, but not exactly uniquely ethnically-minded to those already in the party. The BNP were recently featured on a show called Question Time, where audience members ask political leaders questions which they then obliquely answer in a manner that positively benefits their public appearance.

The BNP have never been asked to feature on this show because of their ideals. But in the name of "democracy" they were allowed to guest for the first time since the show's first broadcast in 1979. Although Nick Griffin, the leader of the BNP (who has on numerous occasions stated that he does not believe the Holocaust occurred), was soundly ridiculed by most of the public and other representative parties on the show, it is thought that after he appeared, some people who were not aware of the BNP before now look favourably on them.

I'm going to be frank. I don't think the BNP should have been allowed to feature on this show. Some say that it would have been non-democratic to NOT allow them on this show. I can't see any good reason for letting them on now when they never have been before. They have the rudimentary features of modern day Hitler and Stalin. Whatever issues they may promote that are not anti-humanity -- whatever they may be, I haven't yet heard -- I still do not think the BNP should be given a voice. I think it is right -- even democratic -- to stifle their voices.

Democracy dictates that everyone should be given free say, but how is it correct to allow a repressive faction to participate in our democratic society when their actions nullify the purpose of democracy? This is what is wrong with our world, among many other things: we are afraid of being hypocrites. We are afraid of looking bad. In order to save face, we refuse to take a stand on something most of us believe is wrong.

There are no definitives in this world, although we like to pretend they exist, in order to make us feel safe, in order to not have to think too strongly about a complex, contradictory issue. Democracy is roughly translated as allowing others to say what they wish and believe what they will. This definition is too simple by far, but if we are to believe that it's foundation is such, then why can't we also believe that in a democracy that allows such free-will, we should also be given the right to denounce and even lawfully chastise those who use their rights in an unnatural manner? Even if that means we are seen as hypocrites? For even though a law was passed this year prohibiting racial segregation within the BNP, so far the only non-white member to be admitted to the party still shares the parties racial principles. In this case, both literally and morally, looks differ from actual intent.

Humans are gullible by nature, and what happened in the time of Hitler's reign was our gullibility used to its full advantage. We don't have to be taken advantage again. And if we are hypocrites for saying that the BNP should not be allowed to spew its propaganda on live television, or be given a prominent voice in Parliament, then maybe we will share the brunt of public denunciation, but then maybe we stop something that has the potential to become destructive against that democracy that we promote with such steadfast pride.

01 December 2009

today, and yesteryear

I wake at 10:00, and listen to BBC radio (Coldplay comes on), and play poker online before I get dressed in my black pants, white collared shirt, black vest, pin-on bow-tie. I read Lauren Bacall's autobiography on the bus. Once off, I get a snack at Rite Aid, drop off some books at the library across the street, and walk furiously to the theatre to get there the hour and half before the performance begins.

Once there, I sign in with the manager, put my coat in the coat room, sign up for two performances of A Musical Christmas Carol, sit in the meeting, get assigned upstairs, disregard the woman whose pissed because I've been assigned the left Mezzanine level, even though "she always works that section."

I stand outside the theatre door for 30 minutes, make sure no patrons come in before we open the theatre doors. I direct people to their seats. I tell a patron that she can't bring in an open drink in the nicest tone I can, but she still tells me that I'm stupid.

I watch the beginning of the Rockettes performance, waiting for an applause section to take late comers to their seats. I run downstairs and get my snack out of my purse that I have stashed in one of the fancy closed cupboards of which on top there are some lamps to light the foyer.

I rush downstairs to eat near the coat room where I am allowed to eat. I rush back upstairs and watch the rest of the show. During intermission I make sure no one brings in open drinks. Watch second half of show....

Well, all the while I'm doing these things that I've been doing since I was in high school, I think -- what am I doing here? I like the theatre, I even still get something out of it, but all the same, I wonder how it is I am in the same place I was five years ago.


01 dec 08

woke at 9:40

40's, sunny

bought stamps, picked up reading from school

watched Top Gear while eating meatball sub from Pret A Manger [I really miss those]

Read Hardy along South Bank

The Eye and Big Ben from Waterloo Bridge

Top: Edward Hopper "New York Movie"