Monday, April 23, 2018

Jane West: A Gossip's Story

Cover of Jane West's A Gossip's Story, edited by Devoney Looser, Melinda O'Connell and Caitlin Kelly, Valancourt Books, 2016

Some readers of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility (1811) imagine a different ending, in which the romantic Marianne marries the dashing Willoughby after all, and the reserved Colonel Brandon finds solace by marrying her sister Elinor.

If you're one of those readers who think such an ending would best match the inclinations of each sister and suitor, you may have to think again. Jane West anticipated your feelings in A Gossip's Story (1796), and the results are not all that happy.

West's novel also features two sisters: a younger one named Marianne (perhaps Austen's Marianne is an homage), who is full of impassioned sensibility, and her more circumspect elder sister Louisa. Marianne is courted by Henry Pelham, who possesses "an open, ingenuous countenance, manly sense, and easy accommodating manners" (Ch. V). However, she is not looking for a husband who exhibits such amiable virtues. She rejects him in favor of the more impetuous and ardent Mr. Clermont, who better fits her idea of a lover. Meanwhile, Louisa feels drawn to Mr. Pelham, but cannot make her feelings known—at first because he is the declared suitor of her sister, and later because her father's unwise investments reduce the family to relative poverty.

Marianne, though, is independently wealthy thanks to a legacy from her grandmother, and can marry whom she pleases. But the marriage of Marianne and Mr. Clermont is not a success. He inevitably plays the ardent, indulgent lover less and less, and hangs out with his drinking buddies more and more. Meanwhile, Marianne confides her disappointments to her best friend, Eliza Milton, who commiserates with her friend and has no hesitation in abusing her husband's character. A deep rift grows between husband and wife, fomented by Mr. Clermont's malevolent mother, who feels that Marianne isn't sufficiently high-born for her son.

The narrator of A Gossip's Story describes herself as an "old maid" who belongs to a meddlesome group of busybodies in a nearby town. So perhaps we shouldn't read her advice as being completely congruent with the feelings of the author. Nonetheless, that advice is likely to make modern readers wince. When a group of Mr. Clermont's friends visit him in his country retreat and propose a shooting party, Marianne objects to "the cruel nature of these sports." Mr. Clermont doesn't really enjoy killing animals either, and after first promising to go, stays behind at the urging of his wife. But he dreads becoming the object of his friends' derision:
A jest upon the subject of female usurpation is dreadfully grating to lordly man, and it is peculiarly so when (as in the present instance) it happens to apply. Mr. Clermont declined his lady's invitation to breakfast, and as soon as his friends had set off, retired to his library, and there continued to pace the room with desultory steps; frequently imagining he had caught a glimpse of the chains which Hymen is suspected to wear under his long saffron mantle.

Respecting the real existence of these said chains, I, as an old maid, must not be allowed to give any decided opinion; but as the very apprehension of them has been known to drive many of the "Lords of the creation" frantick, I constantly advise my newly-married friends to endeavour as much as possible to divert their husbands' attention from this terrible bugbear. I intreat them to hold the reins of government (if by great chance committed to their hands) with circumspect propriety, and to surrender them the moment that the possession of them becomes disputed. (Ch. XXVIII)
The couple argue, particularly after Mr. Clermont learns that his wife has been sharing feelings with Eliza Milton that she has not expressed to him, and allowing Eliza to criticize him severely. He demands that Marianne break with her; tears and anger ensue. The breach between husband and wife is only healed at the urging of Marianne's father. Clermont asks for Marianne's forgiveness sincerely, if a bit reluctantly; and while Marianne acquiesces, she is still bitter at the demand that she repudiate her friend.
Undoubtedly he was too arrogant in expecting his recent provocations could be immediately forgotten, and himself received with a complacent smile. I am, however, afraid that the generality of husbands, from the high idea they entertain of their own superiority, would be apt to think a wife very capricious who should retain her resentment after they have made the slightest concession. Men are remarkably tenacious of their opinions, and since protracting a domestick quarrel must always be at the hazard of future happiness, I must advise my sex to be "easily entreated." (Ch. XXX)
This advocacy of calculating submission in wives is objectionable not only for modern readers. A Gossip's Story was published just four years after Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), which urged men to "be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience." But if, as West's entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has it, "where Wollstonecraft advocates 'Rights', West insists on 'Duties'," the two writers actually share some common ground: both are suspicious of the cultivation of excessive feeling in women, which undermines their claims to equal rationality with men. In the dedication of her novel West, who introduces it under the pseudonym Prudentia Homespun, wrote that the work was "intended to illustrate the Advantages of Consistency, Fortitude, and the Domestick Virtues; and to expose to ridicule, Caprice, affected Sensibility, and an IDLE censorious Humour." While these animadversions are aimed primarily at her women readers, as West's ironic comments about "the 'Lords of the creation'" indicate, she was deeply skeptical of men's claims to inherent superiority.

A Gossip's Story would be of great interest as one of the sources that inspired Sense and Sensibility (along with Charlotte Smith's Celestina, which features a character named Willoughby), and also as a response to Wollstonecraft's Vindication. But it deserves to be read in its own right for West's keen observations on human foibles as well as her frequently ironic narrative voice, which (despite the deferential advice for women) can feel very modern.
To do justice to his Lordship's benevolence he really felt an inclination to stand forth as an active friend; a wish which like many of the desires human nature is apt to entertain, seemed to increase with the improbability of its completion. (Ch. XXII)
As the editors have rightly described it, A Gossip's Story is "by turns thoughtful, moving, and dryly witty." You can read more of their thoughts about editing the novel on Aphra Behn Online's Bluestocking Salon.

For more on the writers who inspired Austen, see Jane Austen's predecessors.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Nayak: The Hero

In his films from the 1950s and early 60s such as the Apu Trilogy (1955-59) and Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963), writer/director Satyajit Ray depicted the lives of ordinary people struggling to make their way in the world. Nayak (The Hero, 1966) at first seems as though it is going to be a radical departure.

Instead of the impoverished villages and cramped apartments of Ray's earlier films, Nayak opens in the spacious bungalow of Bengali matinée idol Arindam Mukherjee (played by Bengali matinée idol Uttam Kumar), as he makes last-minute preparations for a trip to Dehli to receive an official prize. The sudden trip is occasioned by an erupting newspaper scandal about a drunken punch thrown by Arindam in a club two nights previously, as well as the unwelcome news that his latest movie is tanking at the box office. The time seems propitious to get out of town for a few days.

However, instead of providing distance from his problems, his trip will bring him face-to-face with the increasingly cynical and opportunistic choices that have brought him to this crisis.

Because his travel plans have been made at short notice Arindam winds up on the train, and in a shared compartment. As he boards the train for the overnight trip, women stare in surprise and awe. In film studies it has become conventional to speak of the "male gaze," after Laura Mulvey's 1975 essay "Visual pleasure and narrative cinema." But in Nayak the female gaze is central: almost every woman he encounters stares at Arindam with near-adulation:

From the top: Molly Sarkar (Susmita Mukherjee) and her husband (Kamu Mukherjee), Sefalika Ajoy (Jamuna Sinha) and her husband (Subrata Sensharma), Manorama Bose (Bharati Devi), her teen daughter Bubul (Lali Chowdury), and a young girl (uncredited).

As one character says, Arindam is a modern-day Krishna, and his female fans are his secret devotees. There's just one exception:

Aditi Sengupta (Sharmila Tagore) is the writer, editor and publisher of a magazine for women, and she is distinctly disapproving of the unreality of popular movies.

Nonetheless, the opportunity to interview Arindam for her magazine is too good to pass up.

Perhaps to challenge her moralistic certainties, or perhaps to disarm her with candor, Arindam tells Aditi some unusually frank stories about his rise to stardom. He tells her that he feels that by becoming a film actor he has betrayed the devotion to artistic truth of his theatrical mentor, Shankar (Somen Bose).

He tells her of his feelings of inadequacy during his first film shoot when an older star, Mukunda (Bireswar Sen), sabotaged his performance by insisting that Arindam adapt to Mukunda's more melodramatic acting style in their scenes together.

And he tells her of distancing himself from his former best friend, the political activist Biresh (Premangshu Bose), because he fears that to be drawn into controversy would risk alienating his audience.

His reflections on the past give him nightmares; the nightmares drive him to drink; drinking sends him into a downward spiral of doubt and despair.

In his dark night of the soul, Arindam recognizes how empty and unprincipled he has become. And he realizes that he's given Aditi Sengupta enough compromising material to destroy him. And yet he's unable to stop the flow of his confessions; he has to unburden himself, and there's no one else he can talk to.

But his stories have affected Aditi as well. She's come to know the struggles he's experienced, the difficult choices he's faced, and the constant pressure he is under. She gets a small taste of the relentless public scrutiny he must deal with every day when the train is mobbed by his fans during a brief station stop.

So now she faces her own difficult choice: she can publish her interview and ensure the success of her magazine at the expense of Arindam's career, or pass up a chance that will never come again.

Many of the characters, not just the hero, are struggling with the question of how much to compromise themselves in order to achieve what they want in a corrupt and pitiless world. And in Nayak, as in his many other masterpieces, Ray offers no easy answers.

An out-of-work Mukunda begs Arindam for a role in his new film

Nayak has been restored and reissued on a Criterion Collection DVD which does full justice to Ray's complex vision of his characters and Subrata Mitra's glowing black-and-white cinematography.

Other posts on films of Satyajit Ray:

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Saudade: Memorial de Ayres

Machado de Assis, 1896 (detail). Image from the Fundação Biblioteca Nacional via Wikimedia Commons.

The final novel of the Brazilian writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, Memorial de Ayres (1908), is infused with saudade. It's a difficult concept to translate; it suggests a deep longing or melancholy occasioned by irretrievable loss. It's a term with so many layers of meaning that it has its own Wikipedia page. Over the course of the novel Machado uses the word more than 30 times, including on both the first and final pages. Each time it appears in a different context and has a slightly different nuance.

The narrator is Counselor Ayres, a retired diplomat who has returned to Brazil to live out the rest of his days. The novel consists of his journal entries as he observes a young widow with "tender regard" as she tries to remain faithful to her husband's memory but is inexorably drawn back to life and love. [1]

Here are two versions of the opening passage of the novel. The first translation, by Helen Caldwell, was published under the title Counselor Ayres' Memorial by the University of California Press in 1972:
Well, today marks a year since I returned from Europe for good. What reminded me of the date was that as I sat drinking my coffee I heard a broom peddler crying his wares in the street: "Brooms for sale! Dusters! Come buy dusters!"  I have heard the cry other mornings but this time it brought to mind the day my ship touched port, and I, pensioned off, came home to my own land, my own Rua do Cattete, my own language.  Yes, it was the same cry I heard a year ago, in 1887; perhaps it was the same throat.
During my thirty-odd years of diplomatic service,  I occasionally came to Brazil on leave. Most of the time, I lived abroad, in various lands, and it was no small stint. I thought perhaps I would not succeed in accustoming myself once more to the life here. Well, I did. True, I still remember faraway things and persons, amusements, landscapes, foreign ways, but I do not die of longing for any of it. Here I am, here I live, here I shall die.

The second translation, by Robert L. Scott-Buccleuch, was published under the title The Wager: Aires' Journal by Peter Owen in 1990:
Fancy that, it's exactly a year to the day since my return from Europe. What put me in mind of the date was hearing the cry of the street vendor selling brushes and dusters while I was having my coffee: "Brushes-o! Dusters-o!" I hear it most mornings, but on this occasion it reminded me of the day I disembarked here on my retirement, when I returned for good to my own country, to Catete and my own native tongue. It was the same cry I heard a year ago in 1887, possibly even from the same mouth.

During my thirty-odd years in the diplomatic service I sometimes came to Brazil on leave, but most of my time was spent in different countries overseas. I imagined I would end up being unable to accustom myself to life here again. But I did. To be sure, I often think of distant friends and places, customs and pastimes, but I can't say I miss them. Here is where I am; here I live, and here I shall die.

The tone of these two passages is strikingly different. Caldwell's is measured, reserved and somewhat formal; it's easy to imagine this as the voice of a retired diplomat. Scott-Buccleuch's is chatty, outgoing and informal—perhaps this is the voice of a retired diplomat who is relishing his chance to finally unbutton a little.

But which is closer to Machado's original? Although I don't speak or read Portuguese I'm going to try to answer this question. That may sound ludicrous, but I don't think it's impossible. After all, I've previously compared English translations of major works of literature in other languages in which I am not fluent, Pushkin's Eugene Onegin and Flaubert's Madame Bovary. For some, a hopeless sense of inadequacy to the task might be inhibiting, but not, evidently, for the present writer.

Let's start with the title, Memorial de Ayres. In her introduction Caldwell notes that the title "means both Ayres' memorial (of and to himself) and a notebook or diary" (p. v). It actually has a triple meaning: according to the Shorter Oxford, "memorial" is also a term for "informal diplomatic papers" (and Ayres is an ex-diplomat). But no modern English speaker would refer to a journal or memo-book as a "memorial," and the specialist meaning is obscure, so perhaps inevitably the layers of meaning are lost. This tendency to at times tolerate a slight awkwardness in the service of faithfulness is characteristic of Caldwell's translation.

Scott-Buccleuch's choice for a main title, The Wager, relates to an incident in the book—Ayres' sister bets him that the widow will not remarry—but it is not Machado's title. Scott-Buccleuch's subtitle, Aires' Journal, would have been fine by itself, except that Aires is a Spanish spelling, I think, not Portuguese. A somewhat cavalier approach to Machado's text and a willingness to make his own (generally unnecessary) insertions, deletions and other edits is one of the major faults of Scott-Buccleuch's translation.

Machado's first sentence is "Ora bem, faz hoje um anno que voltei definitivamente da Europa." A more or less literal translation might be "Well now, today makes a year since I came back once and for all from Europe." Caldwell's "Well,..." seems closer in tone to Machado's original than Scott-Buccleuch's flippant (and jarringly British) "Fancy that." And Scott-Buccleuch leaves out entirely Machado's intended sense that Ayres' return is final (voltei definitivamente); in his version Ayres speaks only of his "return." Caldwell properly includes "for good." We're one sentence in, and already it's not looking good for Scott-Buccleuch.

The street vendor's cries are altered by both translators, for reasons unclear. Caldwell has "Brooms for sale! Dusters! Come buy dusters!" This seems a bit wordy for a street vendor, although it's actually fewer syllables than in Machado's "Vae vassouras! vae espanadores!" Scott-Buccleuch's rendering seems more like an authentic 19th-century street-cry, and closer to Machado's rhythm: "Brushes-o! Dusters-o!" Except I believe that "vassouras" means "brooms," not "brushes" (which is "pincéis"). I would translate it as "Brooms here! Dusters here!"

In the next sentence Machado writes "Costumo ouvil-o outras manhãs, mas desta vez trouxe-me á memória o dia do desembarque, quando cheguei apozentado á minha terra, ao meu Cattete, á minha lingua." I would translate this as "I've heard him on other mornings, but this time brought back the memory of the day I came ashore, retired, returning to my land, to my Cattete, to my language." Caldwell has "pensioned off" in place of my "retired"; I think her choice offers the nice sense that after his long service Ayres now feels discarded, a bit useless, and its sound even suggests the Portuguese word apozentado. Scott-Buccleuch translates apozentado as "on my retirement," and then adds the phrase "for good" to "when I returned to my country." (It's not clear why he has moved this phrase from the first sentence, where Machado placed it.) Scott-Buccleuch also doesn't provide any context for "Cattete." To be fair, neither does Machado, but Caldwell's "Rua do Cattete" lets us know without doing any violence to the original that Ayres is referring to the neighborhood where he lives. Finally, Scott-Buccleuch renders "minha lingua" as "my own native tongue," but "my own native" is redundant—"my native tongue" would be better.

In the next paragraph Machado writes,
O mais do tempo vivi fóra, em varias partes, e não foi pouco. Cuidei que não acabaria de me habituar novamente a esta outra vida de cá. Pois acabei. Certamente ainda me lembram cousas e pessoas de longe, diversões, paragens, costumes, mas não morro de saudades por nada.
I would translate this passage as,
Most of the time I lived abroad, in various places, and not for short stretches. I doubted whether I would be able once again to get used to the different way of life here. But I did. Certainly I am still reminded of distant things and people, amusements, places, customs, but I don't feel much nostalgia for anything.
Caldwell translates e não foi pouco as "and it was no small stint," the last word of which nicely suggests a period of work rather than pleasure (although I might have rendered it "and not for short stints"). Scott-Buccleuch simply omits it. And in the following sentence he translates pessoas as "friends" rather than "people," which makes Ayres' next statement (that he doesn't miss much) seem a bit odd: if you'd left friends behind forever, wouldn't you miss them? Also, Ayres couples "things" with "people," and puts "things" first; in fact, he's telling us that he didn't form friendships while he was abroad. Scott-Buccleuch omits "things" (cousas) from his translation entirely.

The final sentence of the passage is "Aqui estou, aqui vivo, aqui morrerei." It might be rendered into English as "Here I am, here I live, here I'll die." Caldwell's version is "Here I am, here I live, here I shall die," which works well enough. Scott-Buccleuch translates this sentence as "Here is where I am; here I live, and here I shall die." That "Here is where I am" clanks on the mind's ear, while the insertion of a semicolon in place of a comma after that phrase, together with the unneeded "and" before the final phrase, destroys both Machado's rhythm and his elegant parallel formulation.

So after two paragraphs I think we can come to a pretty conclusive judgment. While Scott-Buccleuch was awarded the Machado de Assis Medal for his work in making Machado known to an English-speaking audience, Caldwell is clearly the superior translator. Her renditions are more faithful to Machado's text and tone, and better convey something of the narrator's formality of style.

To test this judgment, here are the final sentences of the novel. (Don't worry: no spoilers.) Ayres goes to visit a devoted old couple, Aguiar and Dona Carmo. But after entering their garden and spotting them sitting on the porch, gazing silently at each other, he is brought up short. He withdraws quietly without greeting them after seeing in their faces something he can't name or describe. Machado writes, "Queriam ser risonhos e mal se podiam consolar. Consolava-os a saudade de si mesmos." One translation might be, "They seemed to want to smile [or "laugh"], but could only try to console each other. They were consoling themselves with wistful memories of their past together."

The final sentence turns on the concept of saudade di si mesmos, or "nostalgia for themselves." This is not self-pity, but the couple's wistful sadness on thinking of their past together and the inevitable losses due to the passage of time. Caldwell, unusually for her, chooses to flesh out Machado's spare phrases: "They wanted to laugh and be merry but they could do no more than console themselves—console themselves with the sweet melancholy remembrance of their own love." Although the phrase "of their own love" is only implied in Machado, by adding it Caldwell captures the reflexive quality of the couple's memories: they are thinking about their early love, their courtship and the first days of their marriage, now long in the past.

Scott-Buccleuch renders this as, ". . .they were trying to smile, but barely succeeded in comforting each other. Memories were their only consolation." In the final sentence he reverses the order of the words, so that the novel ends with "consolation" rather than with the couple's remembrance. And his translation of saudade as "memories" flattens the emotional affect disastrously. Portuguese has other words for memories; saudade implies much more, none of which Scott-Buccleuch tries to express.

Memorial de Ayres is another of Machado's masterpieces, and its reflective and elegiac tone is made even more poignant by our knowledge that it was Machado's final work. When Ayres' manservant José find a case filled with old papers, he eagerly brings it to Ayres. In Caldwell's translation (pp. 121-122):
They were letters, appointments, minutes, accounts, an inferno of remembrances that would be better not to have been found. What would I lose by not having them? I no longer cared about them; I probably would not miss them. . .I am resolved to order the papers burnt, even though it will pain José since he imagined he had found great mementoes and memories. I could tell him that I have other old papers in my head, which never get burned up, or lost in old suitcases; but he would not understand me.
Other posts on the novels of Machado de Assis:

  1. Alan Cheuse, "Brazilian Master." The Nation, 26 November 1973, pp. 569-570.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The mysteries of Dido and Aeneas

Guillermo Resto (Aeneas) and Mark Morris (Dido) in the Mark Morris Dance Group's Dido and Aeneas.
Original image from

It's remarkable that we have so little information about the greatest opera in English, Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. The scores that exist are neither complete nor original; instead, they are partial copies that don't agree with one another, made for performances that occurred decades after Purcell's death in 1695. There is only a single surviving copy of Nahum Tate's libretto from the first (or at least a very early) performance. It does not indicate who sang the roles, or even the title of the opera, and it includes sections for which the music has been lost. We are fortunate indeed that enough of the work remains to enable staged performances.

Many questions and controversies remain. As musicologist Ellen Harris has written about Dido, "we know even less than we did [30 years ago], or at least less than we had imagined. We can no longer say with certainty in what year the opera was written, where it had its premiere, who performed it or even what the original score contained — the very things that normally provide the foundation for our understanding of a piece of music." [1]

But evidence uncovered relatively recently and discussed in Harris's Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (Second edition, Oxford, 2018), has, in my view, helped to partly clarify rather than further confuse our understanding of Dido's origins. To take Harris's questions in a slightly different order:

Where was the opera first performed?

The one surviving 17th-century libretto for Dido is for "An Opera Perform'd at Mr. Josias Priest's Boarding-School at Chelsey By Young Gentlewomen."

The first page of the libretto of Dido and Aeneas printed for the Chelsea school performance (detail).
Original from the collection of the Royal College of Music.

In 1684 the young gentlewomen at Priest's school had performed John Blow and Anne Kingsmill's Venus and Adonis, the work that clearly provided a model for Dido. It is known that Venus and Adonis was first performed at court, probably in 1683; a libretto from the Chelsea school performance of Venus and Adonis states that it is "An Opera Perform'd before the King. Afterwards at Mr. Josias Priest's Boarding School at Chelsey By Young Gentlewomen."

The first page of the libretto of Venus and Adonis printed for the Chelsea school performance (detail).
Original from the collection of the Cambridge University Library.

This has led some scholars to speculate, despite a lack of direct evidence, that Dido may also have been first performed at court. A major issue with this idea is that the libretto for Dido says nothing about a court performance; its title page merely designates it "An Opera." Surely if Dido had been first performed at court the libretto would have trumpeted the fact, as the Venus libretto does.

There is one circumstance under which the Chelsea school libretto would have been silent about a previous court performance: if that court performance had occurred while James II was king, but the libretto was printed after he had been deposed in the Glorious Revolution of December 1688. That possibility has been virtually ruled out by recent developments, as we'll see in a moment. So it's most likely that no court performance ever took place, and that the performance at Priest's school was the opera's first.

Who performed the opera?

The libretto states that the opera was performed "by young gentlewomen." Dido and Aeneas, of course, is the tragic love story of Queen Dido of Carthage and Aeneas, the heroic Trojan warrior. Some scholars, perhaps perplexed or offended by the thought of a young woman portraying Aeneas, have suggested that a male singer must have been brought in to sing the role.

However, when the tragic love story Venus and Adonis was performed at Priest's school in 1684 the young gentlewomen took all the parts; a note on the libretto mentions that "Mr. Priest's Daughter acted Adonis."

John Verney's inscription on the libretto for Venus and Adonis
Original from the collection of the Cambridge University Library.

So we have contemporary evidence that operas at Priest's school were performed by all-female casts, and no evidence to the contrary. It seems reasonable to assume that a similar practice was followed in staging Dido and Aeneas, and that Aeneas and the other male roles in the opera were sung by young women.

How was the opera performed?

The version of Dido that was performed at Priest's school was probably half again as long as the version that is generally performed today. The libretto for that performance includes a mythological prologue in two scenes in which Phoebus (Apollo), the sun-god, and Venus, the love-goddess, are honored and the arrival of spring is celebrated.

The prologue was clearly accompanied by music; it includes choruses and dances for Tritons, Nereids, Nymphs, shepherds and shepherdesses. [2] And most likely the prologue was preceded by its own overture. Unfortunately the music for both the prologue and its overture has been lost, as well as that for some of the dances that are indicated during the course of the opera.

After the opera a poem was recited aloud. Thomas D'Urfey's New Poems (1690) contains an "Epilogue to the Opera of DIDO and AENEAS, performed at Mr. Preist's Boarding-School at Chelsey; Spoken by the Lady Dorothy Burk." [3]

From Thomas D'Urfey's New Poems (1690), p. 82.
Original from the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery 

The surviving music of Dido takes less than an hour to perform; together, the first overture, the sung prologue, the missing dances and the spoken epilogue may have added another 25 minutes or so to the runtime.

When was the opera performed? 

The texts of both the prologue and the epilogue have been parsed for clues to the likely date of their performance. The prologue, with its scene celebrating the arrival of spring, would seem to point to a performance in April or May. Of course, it's also possible that the celebration of spring could be allegorical, and celebrate a rebirth or renewal of another kind.

For those who read the prologue allegorically, it has been suggested that Phoebus and Venus represent the king and queen (but which king and queen?). Venus is described as "the New rising star of the Ocean" and Spring "Welcomes Venus to the shore." These references have been interpreted by some to indicate that Venus is meant to represent Mary II, who had returned across the English Channel from the Netherlands in January 1689 to join her husband William after her father, James II, had fled.

D'Urfey's epilogue includes the following lines:
Rome may allow strange Tricks to please her Sons,
But we are Protestants and English Nuns,
Like nimble Fawns, and Birds that bless the Spring
Unscar'd by turning Times we dance and sing. . . [4]

From Thomas D'Urfey's New Poems (1690), p. 83.
Original from the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery 

"Rome" is generally a reference to Catholicism (James II had converted in the late 1660s). "Strange Tricks" may refer to the "warming-pan baby," the allegation that the son to whom the wife of James II, Maria of Modena, gave birth in June 1688 was not hers. According to this (almost certainly false) rumor, the warming-pan baby was a substitute infant smuggled into the birth chamber in a bed-warming pan after Maria's child was stillborn in order to insure that James could claim a Catholic heir. The arrival of that son excited fears in Parliament about the establishment of a Catholic dynasty on the British throne, and led to the secret invitation to William of Orange to invade and overthrow James. "Turning times" is thought by some to refer to the Glorious Revolution.

So based on these admittedly speculative readings of the prologue and epilogue, we have a tentative time frame for the performance of Dido and Aeneas: spring 1689, probably after the coronation of William and Mary on April 11. The mystery is solved, no?

Well, no. There are two major problems with a date of spring 1689 for the first performance of Dido. The first is that we don't know whether the libretto and the epilogue derive from the same performance; and the second is that we now know that Dido was likely performed a year or more earlier.

The Letter from Aleppo

In 2009 scholar Bryan White made a stunning archival discovery. While investigating the letters sent home from Aleppo by a music-loving English silk merchant, Rowland Sherman, White came across this passage in a letter dated February 1689 (new style; 1688 old style, when the new year was celebrated March 25):
If Harry has sett to the Harpsechord the Symph[ony] of the mask he made for Preists Ball, I should be very glad of a copie of it. There's another Symph[ony] in the same mask I think in C♭, in the 2d p[ar]t is a very neat point th[a]t moves all in quavers [eighth notes]. if he's applyed th[a]t to the harpsechord, 'twould be very acceptabl[e] too. [5]
"The mask he made for Preists Ball." Assuming that "Harry" is Henry Purcell, an acquaintance of Sherman, there is only one known dramatic entertainment he composed for Priest's school: Dido and Aeneas. If "the Symphony of the mask" refers to the overture to the prologue, then "another Symphony" may refer to the overture played before Act I of the opera. Fortunately, that overture has survived. It is in the key of C minor (C♭), and has two parts; in the second part the upper strings play chasing runs of eighth notes. In the performance that follows by the Amsterdam Bach Soloists conducted by Jan Willem De Vriend, the second part of the overture begins about 50 seconds in:

So Sherman must have been familiar with the score of Dido and Aeneas before he sailed to Aleppo. It was a journey that took almost three months, and Sherman arrived at the bay of Scandroon (Iskenderun) in late October 1688. White has determined that Sherman must have sailed from London no later than the end of July, 1688.

If Dido was made for Priest's school, there was no court performance. And if the score was written before July 1688 it seems unlikely that it wasn't performed until a full year later. In the allegorical prologue, Phoebus and Venus could as easily refer to James II and Maria of Modena as to William and Mary. So on the evidence of Sherman's letter it seems that the first performance of the opera was in spring 1688 or earlier.

But what about D'Urfey's epilogue published in 1690 (or late 1689) with its references to "Rome," "strange tricks" and "turning times"? If the epilogue was performed in spring 1688 or earlier it obviously couldn't allude to the Glorious Revolution; if it wasn't performed until 1689, how can Sherman's familiarity with Dido's score in 1688 be explained?

The Letters of John Verney

The letters of John Verney may shed some light on these questions. Verney was a silk merchant living in London; his wife's family lived in Little Chelsea, not far from Priest's school. Verney's niece Mary attended Priest's beginning in August 1683, when she was eight years old. John Verney wrote to his brother Edmund, Mary's father, who lived well outside London, about how Mary was doing at the school. Verney mentions Mary's performances in Priest's "Grande Balles"; from these references we know that balls were held on 17 April 1684 (when Venus and Adonis was performed), 21 May 1685, 15 and 22 April 1686, and 1 December 1687.

Harris suggests that there may have been at least two performances of Dido at Priest's school: one before July 1688, and one in 1689 (probably in the spring). For the date of the first performance both she and White choose 1 December 1687, the last documented school ball before Sherman's departure from England in July 1688. However, there are no letters from John to Edmund Verney between December 1687 and August 1688, and in any case Mary was probably withdrawn from Priest's school in February 1688 because of Edmund's difficulties in paying the fees. So if there was a ball in spring 1688 (as seems highly probable) it would not be documented in Verney's letters.

I am less convinced than Harris and White that Dido was first performed in December 1687. For one thing, the prologue is full of spring imagery; for another, by the date of his letter in February 1689 would Sherman remember so vividly (and be so excited about receiving the music for) a piece that he had heard 14 months previously? It seems to me more likely that there was a school ball in spring 1688 at which Dido was performed and where Sherman encountered the music.

And D'Urfey's epilogue certainly suggests that there was a performance in 1689 as well. Not only are there the cryptic references that may allude to the Glorious Revolution, but it is known that D'Urfey was employed as a singing-master at Priest's school in the summer of 1689, the most likely circumstance for him to supply a poem to be performed during a school ball. [6]

So: in my view the most probable scenario is a first performance in spring 1688, and a repeated performance with the addition of D'Urfey's epilogue in May or early June 1689. The mysteries of Dido and Aeneas are not quite solved; documentary evidence for both of these occasions is still lacking. But based on the evidence we do have, at least this sequence of events is plausible.

Aeneas and Dido (detail), by Pierre-Narcisse, Baron Guérin (1815)

Dido and Aeneas performed by young gentlewomen

As part of the 2018 Berkeley Festival and Exhibition of early music Dido and Aeneas will be performed by the San Francisco Girls Chorus accompanied by the instrumental ensemble Voices of Music on June 7 and June 9; see the Berkeley Festival website for details. The website states that "this concert is a recreation of what may have been heard" at Priest's school; since a male singer, Jesse Blumberg, will perform the role of Aeneas, that claim is doubtful. Nonetheless, I hope my San Francisco Bay Area readers will not miss the opportunity to hear this brilliant and moving work.

  1. Ellen Harris, "The More We Learn About ‘Dido and Aeneas,’ the Less We Know." New York Times, 15 December 2017.
  2. Nahum Tate. Dido and Aeneas: Prologue.
  3. Thomas D'Urfey, New Poems, 1690, pp. 82-83.;view=fulltext 
  4. D'Urfey, New Poems, p. 83.;view=fulltext
  5. Bryan White. "Letter from Aleppo: dating the Chelsea School performance of Dido and Aeneas." Early Music, vol. 37 no. 3, 2009, pp. 417-428.
  6. How D'Urfey wound up teaching at Priest's school is unknown. He was notorious for his bawdy songs and verse: New Poems includes "A True Tale of a True Intrigue," in which the poet describes being discovered in bed with two sisters; "A Dialogue between a Town Spark and his Miss," about what to do with their child born out of wedlock; "Paid for Peeping: A Poem, Occasion'd by a Peeping hole into a Chamber where a Beautiful and Virtuous young Lady Lodg'd, through which undiscover'd, I could observe all her Actions"; and two lewd ditties "set by Mr. Hen. Purcell" about husbands' difficulties in sexually satisfying their wives. He is a curious choice as a singing teacher for adolescent girls.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Professor Marston and the real Wonder Women

We recently watched Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017), written and directed by Angela Robinson. At the end of the film we had two main thoughts:

First, that it was amazing that this movie ever got made. After all, it's a film "based on a true story" that features disgraced psychology professor William Marston, the man who, while living in a ménage-à-trois with his wife Elizabeth and a former student, Olive Byrne, created the superhero Wonder Woman. (The byline pseudonym Charles Moulton was a combination of the middle names of Max Charles Gaines, the comic's publisher, and William Moulton Marston.)

Wonder Woman became a huge hit during and just after World War II, at one time outselling Superman. Aimed ostensibly at 12-year-olds, the comics featured an eye-popping mixture of:
  • kick-ass feminism
  • anti-fascism
  • bondage
  • more bondage
  • even more bondage
  • yet more bondage
  • still more bondage
  • and homoeroticism

Our second thought after seeing Professor Marston was that the film, entertaining as it is, simplifies and at times falsifies the even more startling true story it's based on. In the discussion that follows I'm relying mainly on Harvard historian Jill Lepore's fascinating New Yorker article "The Last Amazon," later expanded into the book The Secret History of Wonder Woman, as well as some of her other articles and interviews. [1]

Josette Frank. In the movie's frame story, set in 1945, Marston (Luke Evans) is being questioned by Josette Frank (Connie Britton) from the Child Study Association of America, who is portrayed as an anti-comics crusader.

This frame story a little too obviously enables Marston to explain to both her and us the recurrent themes and underlying ideology of the Wonder Woman comics. In the film Frank's inquisitorial questioning of Marston (which never happened in real life) is juxtaposed with images of comics being burned in front of a jeering crowd of children and adults, suggesting that Frank and her organization are whipping up hate. But those images wrongly conflate Frank with figures such as Sterling North or Frederic Wertham, whose infamous book, Seduction of the Innocent, would not be published until a decade later.

Josette Frank; image from Yereth Rosen,

In the 1940s Frank, as staff advisor of the Children's Book Committee of the Child Study Association, was helping to guide the association's much more measured approach to comics. In 1944 she published an article in a special issue of the Journal of Educational Sociology devoted to "The Comics as an Educational Medium." In her paper "What's in the Comics?," Frank takes a far from censorious approach even towards those comics of which she disapproves. "Magazines that exploit the female form or picture amorous embraces with the obvious purpose of stimulating sex interests are certainly not suitable for children," she writes. But she goes on to say,
We cannot choose children's comics for them, since their choices will be guided by their own particular interests. But we can help them to evaluate differences in quality and worth, remembering, however, that taste and discrimination develop slowly . . . The road to wholesome balance lies not in forbidding or confiscating, not in bargaining or cajoling, but rather in broadening the child's real experiences. [2]
In the article Frank notes that "here is a form of reading which children take without coaxing"; children read comics with "avidity and absorption." She was sufficiently convinced of the potentially positive role of comics that she agreed to serve on the editorial advisory board of Gaines' All-American Publications.

Besides Frank, Gaines recruited several other psychology experts for his board. After reading an article bylined "Olive Richard" in Family Circle magazine in which Marston extolled the imaginative value of comics for children, Gaines approached him for the advisory board as well. ("Olive Richard" was the pseudonym of Marston's lover Olive Byrne, who had become a staff writer for Family Circle; "Richard" was her pet name for Marston.) Marston agreed to serve as a consultant, but after he started writing Wonder Woman the other members of the board asked him to step down. In the film Marston has to pursue a busy Gaines around the offices of his comics company to pitch his Wonder Woman idea; in reality, he had special and direct access to Gaines.

The advisory board was mainly seen by Gaines as a means to deflect criticism; he had little intention of actually taking the board members' advice when it threatened to interfere with sales. In a series of memos to Gaines, Josette Frank did deplore Wonder Woman's skimpy costume and the recurrent themes of bondage. When it eventually became clear that Gaines and Marston would ignore her repeated suggestions, she resigned from the advisory board.

But she was hardly leading comic-burning marches in the streets, and to make that association is deeply unfair. According to her granddaughter Yereth Rosen, the real-life Josette Frank was a feminist, a progressive (and a Progressive), worked for social justice, and was inclusive long before that term gained currency (see "Reel Grandma versus Real Grandma"). As Rosen notes, in 1998 the prestigious Children's Book Award was renamed the Josette Frank Award in her grandmother's honor. [3]

The lie detector. In the film, a flashback to the late 1920s shows Marston and his acerbic wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston (Rebecca Hall) working to develop a lie detector with a student from Marston's Radcliffe (actually Tufts) psychology class, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote). Olive's flustered responses to Marston's insistent questions about her feelings during a sorority "Baby Party" (a real thing) gives Elizabeth the insight that lying might be correlated with increased heart rate and thus systolic blood pressure.

Only, the real Marston had published papers on the link between blood pressure and emotion a decade previously. The insight had nothing to do with Olive Byrne (although it may still have been Elizabeth's idea.)

Marston administers a polygraph test to a secretary in his law firm, 1921; image from

And although Marston was an enthusiastic promoter of the polygraph, even today polygraph tests remain notoriously unreliable, and are still not admissible in court except under extraordinary circumstances. In the film the lie detector is shown as unerringly revealing the truth of the characters' feelings for one another, but the American Psychological Association has stated that "there is no evidence that any pattern of physiological reactions is unique to deception" and that "there is little basis for the validity of polygraph tests." [4]

In the film, Frank points out that Marston has incorporated the lie detector into the Wonder Woman comics:

Actually, in the Marston-written comics Wonder Woman's Magic Lasso compels obedience, not just truth-telling—although of course those bound by the Magic Lasso could be ordered to tell the truth as well.

By the way, Marston's Baby Party observations seem to have inspired a storyline in Wonder Woman. In the chapter "Love" in his book Emotions of Normal People (1928), Marston reported that during the Baby Party first-year students had to dress like babies and were punished if they disobeyed the older girls. [5] In the film during the party Olive is forced to spank another student:

In the Wonder Woman story "Grown-Down Land" from 1942, modern parents (named, in case readers didn't get the point, Frank and Selfa Modern), are shown as too self-involved to give their children the attention and care they need. In protest, the Modern children refuse to wake up, and Wonder Woman enters their dream world, "Grown-Down Land." There, while a crowd of babies look on, the children punish her:

Olive Byrne. In Angela Robinson's film Olive tells the Marstons that she has been raised by nuns in a convent school. She has a wallflower's fascination with theater, playacting and costume, but she is portrayed as shy and naïve.

But the real Olive Byrne was a bit more colorful. For one thing, her uncles had a drag queen act on the vaudeville circuit, The Giddy Girls, and as a teenager she had gone on tour with them, singing in the chorus. Her mother was the feminist activist and birth-control hunger striker Ethel Byrne; birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger was her aunt. To Robinson's credit, both women are mentioned, but not Olive's active involvement as the birth-control connection for her fellow Tufts College students. She gave them referrals to Sanger's clinic in New York, and worked there herself during semester breaks; in the film she says "I don't know her very well."

Olive wore her hair cropped short, often dressed like a boy, and was voted the "wittiest, cleverest, and most distinctive student" in her graduating class, according to Lepore. [6] It would be hard to see the film's quiet and apparently conventional Olive being voted the most distinctive student.

The origins of the romantic relationship among the three in the film also changes what seems to have happened historically. Marston is shown as being infatuated with Olive, which Elizabeth recognizes immediately (and initially responds to with jealousy and anger). But Olive is portrayed as having a crush on Elizabeth, and acting on it by kissing her. Eventually Elizabeth agrees to a threesome, and their ménage becomes established.

But in real life the threesome seems to have begun without Elizabeth. During the academic year 1925-26, while Marston was teaching at Tufts in Boston, Elizabeth was staying in New York. She had taken a job as the managing editor of the psychology journal Child Study. (The journal was published by the Child Study Association, and Josette Frank was one of the editors.) At Tufts that fall Olive, a senior, took Marston's Experimental Psychology class, and possibly attended a clinic he held for students with "adjustment problems." In the spring Olive took three more classes with Marston, getting A's each time (the four A's she earned in Marston's classes were the only academic A's she received at Tufts). It seems likely that Marston and Olive began an affair during this time.

Olive Byrne (second from left) with members of the Alpha Omicron Pi sorority at Tufts, 1923 (detail). 
Image from the Tufts University Digital Collections and Archive, reprinted in The Secret History of Wonder Woman, p. 106

After Olive graduated in June 1926 and Marston's appointment was not renewed, possibly because their affair had become known, Marston brought Olive to live with him and Elizabeth in Connecticut. According to Lepore's Secret History, Elizabeth may not have been enthusiastic about the arrangement, at least initially. [7]

Marjorie Wilkes Huntley. This was not the first time that Marston had begun an affair while separated from Elizabeth, nor the first time he had introduced his lover into his household and marriage. In 1918, while in the army, he had been sent to Camp Upton, New York (Elizabeth remained at their home in Cambridge, Massachusetts). Marston was assigned to treat soldiers suffering from shell shock, what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. Huntley, a suffragist activist and a divorcée, was the camp librarian.

It's probable that over the six months Marston and Huntley were together at Camp Upton they began an affair. When Marston was discharged from the army in May 1919 he invited Huntley to visit him and his wife in Cambridge. That summer she did so; she later said that she, Marston and Elizabeth "became a threesome," and her visit is the most likely time for that to have happened. [8] Huntley would continue to be a recurring presence in their lives until Marston's death in 1947. She is absent from the film.

Left to right: Marjorie Huntley, Byrne Holloway Marston (son of Olive), Olive Ann Marston (daughter of Elizabeth), Pete Marston (son of Elizabeth), William Moulton Marston, Olive Byrne, Donn Marston (son of Olive), and Elizabeth Holloway Marston in 1947

The social context of free love. The film portrays the mutual love of Marston, Elizabeth and Olive as occurring in a purely personal context, but the three were actually self-conscious participants in a social movement that had been reshaping sexual relations for decades. Utopian experiments such as the Oneida Community, feminists and suffrage leaders such as Victoria Woodhull, and leftist activists such as Emma Goldman questioned the state-sanctioned institution of marriage and explored other erotic arrangements beyond the monogamous heterosexual dyad.

There were often spiritualist leanings in American advocates free love. Marston's aunt Carolyn Marston Keatley was a believer in Levi Dowling's Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, which predicted that a new age of peace, harmony and love was dawning. Keatley held sexual seminars in her Boston apartment in 1925 and -26 that Marston, Olive, Huntley, and Elizabeth attended. According to notes of the meetings probably written by Huntley entitled "Wonder Woman: The Message of Love Binding," Keatley preached that the perfect "Love Unit" consisted of a "Love Leader," a "Mistress" or "Mother," and a "Love Girl." The categories seemed to be fluid; at one point the notes mention that women should "expose their create in males submission to them, the women mistresses or Love leaders, in order that they, the Mistresses, may submit in passion to the males."

The notes mention "Messenger Betty" (Marston called Elizabeth "Betty"), "messenger R" ("Richard" was Olive's pet name for Marston), and "the girl Zara" ("Zara" was the name given to Huntley by Marston and Elizabeth). Later, Elizabeth would say that "all the basic principles" of their "non-conformist" sexual lives were established "in the years 1925, 26, and 27 when a group of about ten people used to meet in Boston at Aunt Carolyn's apartment once a week." [9] That other people in the Marstons' circle were experimenting with nontraditional sexual arrangements is a dimension entirely absent from Robinson's film.

Despite its sometimes clunkily expository dialogue, Robinson's film is enjoyable on its own terms and has an appealing cast. But as I hope I've shown, the real story of Marston, Elizabeth, Olive, and Wonder Woman is far more complicated and interesting. Lepore's articles and books are fascinating reading, and make far stronger connections than does the film between Wonder Woman and the social and political movements that influenced her creation.

  1. Jill Lepore, "The Last Amazon: Wonder Woman Returns." New Yorker, 22 September 2014.; "The Surprising Origin Story of Wonder Woman," Smithsonian Magazine, October 2014.; "The Man Behind Wonder Woman Was Inspired By Both Suffragists and Centerfolds," interview with Terry Gross, Fresh Air, originally broadcast Oct. 27, 2014.; The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Scribe, 2014.
  2. Josette Frank, "What's in the Comics?" The Journal of Educational Sociology, vol. 18 no. 4, December 1944, pp. 214-222.
  3. Yereth Rosen, "Reel Grandma versus Real Grandma," Anchorage Press, Nov. 1, 2017.
  4. American Psychological Association, "The Truth About Lie Detectors (aka Polygraph Tests)." 2004.
  5. William Marston, Emotions of Normal People, International Library of Psychology, Philosophy and Scientific Method, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1928, pp. 299-300.
  6. The Secret History of Wonder Woman, p. 109.
  7. Secret History, p. 118.
  8. Secret History, p. 58.
  9. Secret History, pp. 118-119.