An Extraordinary Ordinary Woman (review)

August 27, 2017 at 1:36 pm (books, diaries, entertainment, history) (, , , )

James Boswell sums up in one sentence his idea of good biography:

I cannot conceive a more perfect mode of writing any man’s life than not only relating all the most important events of it in their order, but interweaving what he privately wrote, and said, and thought.”

Susan M. Ouellette, who presents the entire extant diary of Phebe Orvis Eastman, first provides an adroit clarification of the diary, in a set of essays. The diarist, of course, never wrote with the intention of publication. Her thoughts are personal and private – and, at times, (well-labeled by the editor) cryptic. This layout, of essays then diary, guides the reader to pick up on the crumb-like indicators within the diary. Ouellette has uncovered a good deal of the life of Phebe Orvis Eastman — before, during, and after the diary, which makes for a rounded biographical profile. She also informs the reader about the era in which Phebe lived.

Extraordinary Ordinary Woman

An Extraordinary Ordinary Woman: The Journal of Phebe Orvis, 1820-1830 tells of life on the American “frontier,” first in Vermont and then in the vicinity of Canton, New York. A young nation, the United States was still at war with England during Phebe’s childhood (she lived from 1801 to 1868). The geography of her diary is not the cosmopolitan perspective of Philadelphia, New York, or Washington; nor even from some great plantation. Thereby supplementing those perspectives, it enlarges our knowledge of young women in post-Revolutionary War America.

Phebe’s immediate family had staked claims and worked to clear the land and worked to create their community. (Vermont joined the Union as the Fourteenth State in 1791.) Phebe’s picture of rural Vermont, in the decades beyond that first settlement, offers readers first-hand experience of a growing, interconnected community. And through her move to a less congenial, even “wilder” frontier, Phebe’s own words involve us as witnesses to her personal pain and turmoil.

Phebe Orvis lived a somewhat carefree life as a young woman in Bristol, Vermont. Ouellette’s earliest chapter covers the tragedy of Phebe’s early life: Her mother died when Phebe was just a toddler. The baby’s age and gender (she was the fourth child, but the only daughter) resulted in her living not with her father and siblings, but with her aging maternal grandparents.

Readers of The Midwife’s Tale, featuring Maine’s Martha Ballard, will find a similarity here in the craft-skills taught to young women. Phebe Orvis is a weaver, spinner, and sewer; for instance, when Phebe writes of “Finished my web”, she is telling readers that she has yet again begun a weaving project. Such projects probably helped to fund the classes she took at the Middlebury Female Seminary.

Phebe Orvis is a serious student – and among the early cohort of women attending Willard’s establishment (though Willard herself had moved on by this time). Phebe’s “formal education” is unfortunately cut short, and readers feel her disappointment, and her reticence in doing what is requested of her: She moves to Parishville, New York, to help at her aunt and uncle’s Tavern. This transition led her to marry a man who was not her first choice for a life-partner. Ouellette uncovered in the diary the subtle “ceremony” of gifts exchanged (and ultimately returned), which points out a certain young man as Phebe’s prior attachment.

The Eastmans married in 1823; it is the marriage, the arrival of children, and the constant scratching for a living in New York, which concerns the remainder of the diary, which ends in October 1830. The blank pages that follow serve as silent testament that life went on, even if the woman writing could see no reason to spare the time to record more of that life. Phebe Orvis Eastman retained her diary, and even placed a few later inserts inside it. The diary meant enough to her, at the very least as evidence of early concerns and feelings, to have preserved it.

And others preserved it after Phebe’s death.

Special mention should be made of the late Mary Smallman, who encountered the diary after it surfaced again in Plattsburgh, NY. She transcribed the diary and dug about for information about the mystery diarist. Safe in her hands at a time when few put value on such manuscripts, Smallman ultimately deposited the diary and support materials with the Saint Lawrence County Historical Association (NY).

As with any primary source, records helped to fill out details, but aspects remain that can never truly be known. This book, with the diary in its entirety, ably supported by informative essays, is a window into early 19th century America. That its roots begin in Vermont makes it special to me, a native Vermonter, like Phebe. The physical world she knew nearly two hundred years ago can still be discerned.

Maps provide visuals for those needing to conceptualize the placement of Bristol, Middlebury, and Vergennes, Vermont; also, Saint Lawrence County, New York. An index is included. The size of the book – being both taller and wider than the average hardcover – somehow makes it a bit unwieldy; being produced in hardcover rather than paperback might have minimized that sensation. A tighter layout of the diary entries might have allowed for slightly larger type without increasing page count. Generous spacing between lines tries to compensate for the font and font size. Notes and a bibliography bring the book to 380 pages (Excelsior Editions, SUNY Press; $29.95).

Diaries, in general, are filled with the insignificant, and Ouellette has done the hard work of teasing out the significance behind the diarist’s little clues of life-events. This single volume diary indeed covers (as Boswell prescribed) “all the most important events” in the life of this Vermont girl, from her days as a single woman seeking education at the Middlebury establishment founded by Emma Willard; to her employment in New York, which brought her into the company of Samuel Eastman, whom she eventually married. The diary tells her story; the essays and finely-tuned editing makes Phebe’s history accessible to all readers.

*

Susan Ouellette, a history professor from Saint Michael’s College (VT), has written on Phebe Orvis Eastman over the decade that researches into the diary have taken. One of the more accessible (it’s ONLINE) is her article “Religion and Piety in the Journal of Phebe Orvis“, in the Vermont History magazine. The book An Extraordinary Ordinary Woman: The Journal of Phebe Orvis, 1820-1830 is the richer for this lengthy gestation.

See also:

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reviews for JANE AUSTEN and the ARTS

January 24, 2017 at 11:11 am (books, entertainment, jane austen, jasna) (, , , )

Natasha Duquette, as one of the editors (along with Elisabeth Lenckos) of Jane Austen and the Arts: Elegance, Propriety and Harmony, has recent uploaded some reviews of the book. One, by Audrey Bilger in the journal Women’s Studies, mentions my contribution, the chapter entitled, “‘A Reputation for Accomplishment’: Marianne Dashwood and Emma Woodhouse as Artistic Performers”.

ja and the arts

“Kelly M. McDonald examines Marianne Dashwood and Emma Woodhouse in terms of their skill as artistic performers and sees the primary lessons that each heroine needs to learn as being linked to their initial stance as artists: Marianne, who is ‘consumed with interior passions,’ must cultivate restraint; Emma ‘[c]onsumed with exterior experiences’ must develop deeper insight.”

This is a chapter that I have not revisited in the recent past, yet, given my 2016 topic for the JASNA Annual General Meeting that celebrated the 200th anniversary of the novel EMMA, the ‘art’ of Emma is definitely an ongoing preoccupation of mine. (My paper was entitled, “Sketching Box Hill with Emma”, also given to the Vermont JASNA chapter in December 2016.) I found, in revisiting the paper AFTER transcribing more Smith & Gosling family letters in October and November, that I had a few new points to make on the subject.

But to get back to Audrey Bilger’s review of Jane Austen and the Arts

Being an academic press (Lehigh University Press), Jane Austen and the Arts is currently selling for $30 (used; paperback) and up on Amazon. Bilger’s comments on the book as a whole, include:

  • “The editors perceive the arts in the broadest possible way, … encompassing painting, music, dance, and theater, … also judgment, taste, morality and ultimately reading and writing as aesthetically charged activities.”
  • “An excellent preface by Vivasvan Soni, ‘Jane Austen’s Critique of Aesthetic Judgment,’ explains the meaning of the book’s subtitle.”
  • “most of the contributions are theoretically nuanced, especially with regard to the history of aesthetics.”
  • “the book’s focus on the arts illuminates aspects of Austen’s work in fresh ways…. Readers familiar with the Austen canon will appreciate the book’s numerous close readings and textual analysis.”

Another review Natasha posted is by Marina Cano, for The Modern Language Review. Cano recognizes the volume as “a highly interdisciplinary and polyphonic study”. Cano is especially enthusiastic about Jeffrey Nigro’s “The Sister Artist: Cassandra Austen’s Portraits of Jane Austen in Art-Historical Context”: “he argues, here Cassandra was experimenting with the artistic conventions of her time”.

Cano concludes, “Jane Austen and the Arts is a valuable collection in its exploration of Austen’s involvement in the aesthetic concerns of her time and in its examination of little-studied materials.”

Looking today at books.google I see Jane Austen and the Arts listed as being in 204 libraries worldwide; maybe one of these is nearby, allowing you, too, to dip your toe. Would love to hear from readers on any and all aspects of the book (ie, you don’t even have to comment on my chapter!).

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Bias of Family Histories?

November 12, 2015 at 11:43 am (books, estates, europe, history, jane austen, research) (, , , , , )

Readers of Jane Austen all recognize the (lack of) funds heroines likes Elizabeth Bennet or Elinor Dashwood have as their marriage portion. And, what happens to the family estate when their fathers die: Norland goes to the only Dashwood son; Mr. Collins, a male relative, will inherit Longbourn.

But, in a highly interesting and exceptionally valuable book, A.P.W. Malcomson tells us that the HEIRESS, such as Wickham’s Miss Grey, may have been as cash poor as anyone else. Marriage portions didn’t always get paid, or paid in a timely manner. Sometimes, the lady’s fortune was quite tied up by trustees, and sometimes “a fortune” ended up meaning that you inherited nothing else other than your marriage portion – even when your parent had a healthy bank account.

This last seems to have been the lot of Mary (Lady Smith; née Gosling) and her sister Elizabeth (Mrs. Langham Christie). A letter written by Augusta Wilder, Emma’s eldest sister, passes on news following the decease of father William Gosling, partner in the Fleet Street firm Goslings and Sharpe, in January 1834. He left the bulk of his HUGE estate to Robert Gosling, the eldest surviving son. (Elder brother William Ellis Gosling predeceased their father by only three weeks.) The main item going to Bennett and Thomas Gosling (the remaining sons) was the country estate of Roehampton Grove, although each were said to be receiving a healthy £135,000. Mary and Elizabeth, who had married, respectively, in 1826 and 1829, surely thought some further monies would come to them – one a widow and the other living “in limited circumstances & with an increasing family” – especially given the size (possibly up to a million pounds, in 1834 currency) of Mr. Gosling’s estate.

Augusta Wilder’s letter passes on information gained from young Charlotte Gosling. Augusta wrote:

“It seems to me perfectly unfair to heap riches so upon the sons & portion off the daughters with comparatively such small sums.”

Augusta’s mention of “to cut off I may say the daughters with 20.000 is inexplicable” reflects the marriage portion Mary was said to have brought with her in 1826 (which was a decided surprise to Mrs. Chute! She wrote of it in a letter).

Charlotte Gosling, one of two children born to her mother, formerly the Hon. Charlotte de Grey (the Walsingham barons of Norfolk were her siblings), still had a living mother – which circumstance was seen as a blessing to Augusta: “Charlotte who if her mother were dead would be very poorly off after what she has been used to…”

Augusta said of the news of William Gosling giving so little to his daughters, in comparison to his sons: “It really passes our comprehension & is quite distressing – for it is irreparable; no wonder Mary did not wish to talk about the will.–”

Writing on the same day (but from a different place), Spencer Smith, Emma’s brother, passed on knowledge (gleaned from a Gosling cousin, Henry Gregg) “that Mr Gosling out of his vast wealth has left her [Mary] & Elizabeth nothing, or what is next door to it”. Bennett Gosling could tell Spencer about his own inheritance (Roehampton and a sum of money): “The bulk of the property … is entailed in the most strict & inconvenient manner possible, & the Will … is most exceedingly complicated.”

Such documents – diaries, letters, wills, settlements, court documents – are the bread and butter of Malcomson’s edifying research into THE PURSUIT OF THE HEIRESS: Aristocratic Marriage in Ireland, 1740-1840.

heiress_malcomson

Books.google has a “healthy” preview of the book – it is what convinced me to buy a copy. You cannot beat BooksIreland, which has the hard cover for £9.99 (on sale from £24.99) or the eBook at £7.99. Although the airmail postage to the U.S. from Northern Ireland was as much as the book, even U.S. readers will want to plump for the hard cover; it is so fully illustrated and a handsome book.

Malcomson discusses a range of topics. His first chapter introduces the idea of “the by-passed heiress” => the woman who seems on the brink of inheriting, but who in fact may not only be “by-passed” in favor of a male – she may also have her “fortune” so tied up in the estate of her deceased parent that funds aren’t even forthcoming to her! Mention is made, for instance, of two sisters – daughters of Edmond Sexten Pery (Viscount Pery). The father’s estate passed to a nephew (son of the Viscount’s brother), “the 1st Earl of Limerick. In toto, the ladies seem to have received c.£20,000 each. £5,000 of which represented their original (and still unpaid) marriage portions. (These figures are belied by the usual family anecdotage, according to which one daughter got £60,000 in cash and the other the equivalent in land.)”

On the heels of the Pery girls comes the tale of the co-heiresses of Sir Arthur Brooke, bart. Selina and Letitia Charlotte received marriage portions – which, along with another debt, were evidently “charged” to the estate (ie, monies taken out after the owner’s death; in short, while his bank account remained healthy, “less” was there to be inherited). The Brooke “estates were not huge, and Francis Brooke, the nephew who succeeded to them, and Francis Brooke’s descendants considered themselves aggrieved and impoverished by the open-handedness of Sir Arthur. This is typical of the male whingeing of the period and of the bias of family history written by men. It would be more to the point to suggest that the two by-passed heiresses… were not well done by.”

Makes me glad to come from a family with no money or landed estate…

Other chapters touch on “the younger son”; “The ‘marriage of affection'”; and “Elopements, mésalliances and mis-matches”. All are fascinating topics, and relevant to Smith and Gosling research, as well as Austen studies.

As mentioned, the volume is generously illustrated (full color more often than not), and the writing is engaging and always informative. The research is deep and well presented; the focus (geographically and chronologically) is tight and always on point. Generous notes; a useful bibliography; a handy index.

HIGHLY recommended. Five full inkwells.

* * *

  • a note: Malcomson’s earlier treatise on the same subject, from which this book grew – given new information and sources, has the same title. This edition was published in 1982 and has the years “1750 to 1820” in its title (70 pages). Malcomson rightly claims in his preface that the volume under discussion above (published in 2006 by the Ulster Historical Foundation [same as in 1982]) is “new, greatly enlarged and more widely focused”.

heiress_malcomson earlierthe 1982 edition
(not to be confused with the 2006)

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Matters of Fact in Jane Austen (review)

October 3, 2013 at 10:19 pm (books, entertainment, jane austen, jasna) (, , , , )

Entitled “The Sister Arts and Jane Austen,” Janine Barchas entranced her 2009 JASNA AGM audience in Philadelphia with a show-and-tell about the “Sister Art of Painting,” hypothesizing how the insertion of artists’ names suggested extra-textural nuggets Jane Austen’s original audience would have spotted and mined. The most cited instance concerns Pemberley’s housekeeper: Presumably bowing to the famous portraitist, Austen’s “Mrs Reynolds” sketches a verbal portrait of Mr Darcy that serves to enlighten Elizabeth Bennet to his true worth.

matters_barchasBarchas proved a riveting, persuasive speaker. I left the room overwhelmed with the idea of how painting indeed played this unassuming role in Austen’s novels. Her conference paper appears in print in Persuasions (the journal of the Jane Austen Society of North America) [issue No. 31, pp. 145-162], but does not reappear in the book Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity. The three chapters that are reworked prior publications (chs 2, 3 and 5) are among the most convincing, so it is a minor pity that painters and paintings were not similarly “revised and extended.” Mere referencing of this appealing topic (in the Introduction) is no compensation when one is faced with the longueurs of a chapter on John Evelyn and his influence on Burney’s Evelina and Austen’s juvenile effort Evelyn.

Perhaps indicative of an academic press (The John Hopkins University Press, in this instance), there seems an assumption that readers of Matters of Fact would be fully conversant with Donald Greene’s 1953 article “Jane Austen and The Peerage”. The Introduction is heavily predicated upon a discussion of Greene as preparation for the ensuing six chapters. I felt compelled to hunt up a copy before I could continue; an appendix, reprinting Greene, would have been helpful. (Thank goodness for JSToR.)

A name that “‘has the right ring’” (Greene quotes Charles Morgan, author of The Fountain) is a notion most writers will agree holds a certain degree of importance. For topicality and a recent frenzy, examine discussions of names, titles, and estates behind the popular TV series Downton Abbey. While only the writer knows where inspiration sprang from — it can be fun to dissect and deduce!

Clever dissection is why Barchas’ book will have value to readers attracted to slices of history. Thought-provoking connections will create a desire to tease out further avenues of “historical references and topographical clues.” As in her AGM presentation, when Barchas illustrates how a particular historical incident or person elucidates some aspect of an Austen novel, her story engages the imagination. Readers can delve into Austen’s fiction with renewed attention, or simply enjoy the tale imparted.

One favorite chapter, “Touring Farleigh Hungerford Castle” (chapter 3) invokes the life-history of Miss Tilney-Long. Barchas’ recognition that Miss Tilney-Long may have been on the minds of those first readers of Austen’s Northanger Abbey was enlightening. She also presented an interesting story of a long-forgotten heiress. In recovering the “long-forgotten,” Barchas exposes the type of everyday-knowledge Austen surely possessed — knowledge of scandals, travel, books, paintings, politics, general news, which would have been culled from conversation, gossip, letters, newspapers. Anyone reading even a small correspondence – Jane Austen’s own, for instance – will see the rapid succession of news (family or the greater world) and topics that made up an average letter. If, in bringing forth some of the more accessible “histories,” Barchas sheds light on Austen’s integration of the world into her novels, that discussion ultimately aids fans of Austen’s fiction, as well as those who wish to study the “times” in which Austen lived. For instance, reading this condensation of Miss Tilney-Long’s life and struggles made me long to learn more about her.

“Jane Austen as keen observer” should come as no surprise to fans. Barchas highlights more of Austen’s personality – from her individual wit, to her use of word-play; as well, she provides explanation of the mindset of Austen contemporaries. In an online interview, Barchas comments,

Historicizing is back. New editions are encouraging the reading of Austen’s novels in their original historical context, with new notes and increasingly fuller explanations of how a contemporary reader might have understood a detail of dress, money or manners. This is a different impulse from the prior view of celebrating Austen as “timeless” (that view is only partially true). My own book is part of a trend in scholarship that would historicize Austen to her time and place. [read the entire article]

After reading about Sense and Sensibility’s nominative association with some rather-infamous Dashwoods (chapter 5: “Hell-Fire Jane”), it’s rather amusing, in contemplating writers who use Austen’s name, characters, and words (“Zombies” comes to mind) as a marketing tool, to concoct a similar advantage for a newly-published author in 1811. “Quite Unconnected” and “Persuasion’s Battle of the Books” (chapters 1 and 6) invoke the passage wherein Sir Walter Elliot attaches – then detaches – Frederick Wentworth from an influential family tree. Association and detachment, games of hide and seek for “hidden-in-plain-sight truths” (to borrow Devoney Looser’s phrase), all heighten the comical, satirical, timely, and masterful aspects of Austen’s fiction.

An academic remoteness, especially in sections that go a little off-topic, repeat information, or serve to merely inform about prior points or upcoming subject matter, sometimes creeps into Barchas’ discourse, which will distance some readers. Despite a style that occasionally gets in the way of storytelling — and only Austen (in the end) knows what Austen intended, Barchas’ revelations of the histories and “coincidental” references will engage those looking for some timely reading material. New this summer (2013) in a less-expensive paperback edition, Matters of Fact in Jane Austen should gain Barchas larger audiences whenever she offers a public presentation. Hearing her in person is an even better treat.

three and a half filled ink wells

Further Reading:

Downton Abbey links:

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Mansfield Park – Marspeachgirl reviews

September 26, 2013 at 7:39 am (books, entertainment, jane austen) (, , , , )

Having finished Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park this past weekend (VERY enjoyable!), I wanted to sample an adaptation or two – so of course went to YouTube. Found there the 1983 BBC series, which I’ve never seen (only watched episode 1, so far). Looking a bit more, Marspeachgirl’s video review turned up. Recommended, for offering perspective on the novel, and three DVD-available offerings.

mp-review

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New York Times reviews Jane Austen

February 28, 2013 at 8:04 pm (books, jane austen) (, , , , )

real austenClick the picture to go to the New York Times review of The Real Jane Austen.

(for my own review: click here)

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