Sunday, July 31, 2022

"I only love the fairer sex": Anne Lister, part 1

Anne Lister by John Horner, ca. 1830s. Image source: Calderdale Museums: Shibden Hall Paintings

The coded diaries

In 1815 the 24-year-old Anne Lister came to live with her bachelor uncle James and his sister at Shibden Hall near Halifax in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Anne's brother John had died of illness in 1810 and her last surviving brother Sam had drowned in 1813, and so it was decided that Anne would inherit the ancient family manor on James's death (which occurred in 1826).

James Lister by John Horner, ca. 1826. Image source: Calderdale Museums: Shibden Hall Paintings

Anne quickly became known among the local population for her "oddities": an unmarried woman, she assumed the male prerogatives of wearing practical shoes and outdoor wear, riding, shooting, driving a gig, mountain climbing, and directing workmen on the estate. But the true extent of Anne's unconventionality was revealed decades after her death when one of her relatives looked into the many volumes of her diary at Shibden Hall.

Shibden Hall, Halifax. The library tower at the left was added by Anne Lister in the 1830s. Image source: Calderdale Museums: Shibden Hall

Anne had begun keeping the diary at age 15 while at boarding school, and continued for the rest of her life; by the time of her death in 1840 at age 49, she had filled 27 volumes, producing a total of 6600 manuscript pages and four million words. (For comparison's sake, four million words is roughly the combined length of Charles Dickens' 15 novels, and is nearly three times longer than the diary of Samuel Pepys.)

After finding the diaries hidden behind an oak panel in the late 1880s, her relative John Lister noticed that many entries were written partly or completely in code. Adding to the difficulty of deciphering the code, the "crypt hand" sections contained no word breaks or punctuation. Lister asked a friend, Arthur Burrell, for help, and ultimately the two men were able to unlock the coded sections. What they read shocked them deeply. Burrell described the coded entries as "an intimate account of homosexual practices among Miss Lister and her many 'friends'; hardly one of them escaped her." [1]

Burrell recommended that John Lister burn the diaries immediately. Lister demurred, but placed the diaries back behind the oak panel. They were discovered there after his death in 1933, when Shibden Hall became the property of the Halifax Town Council. Burrell reluctantly supplied the town's head librarian, Edward Green, with the key to the code; Green locked it away in his safe.

Half a century later, scholar and Halifax native Helena Whitbread was looking for a new local research project and visited the town library to view Anne Lister's correspondence. While assisting her with the microfilm viewer, an archivist asked an offhand question: "Did you know she kept a journal?"

Fateful words. Her curiosity sparked by the coded passages, Whitbread painstakingly deciphered Anne's journals using a copy of Burrell and Lister's key.

Mon. 29 [January 1821]: I love, & only love, the fairer sex & thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any love but theirs. Image source: Ann Lister Diary Archives

In 1988 Whitbread published the pioneering I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister (Virago), a volume of extracts covering the years 1816 to 1824 that was the first time that decoded sections of the diary were made available. In 1992 Whitbread published a second volume, No Priest But Love: Excerpts from the Diaries of Anne Lister, 1824–1826 (New York University Press).

What Whitbread found was that the plain hand sections of the diary recorded aspects of Anne's daily life: her social visits (and how long they lasted), her attendance at church (and the exact length of the sermon), trips to the stationers or the circulating library, expenses. The crypt hand sections offer her frank assessments of her acquaintances ("vulgar" is a word that recurs frequently), thoughts or conversations on sensitive matters, and the material that shocked John Lister and Arthur Burrell: accounts of her flirtations and details of her sexual liaisons. The diary extracts above and that follow are drawn from Whitbread's books, and follow the convention she established in I Know My Own Heart of rendering the plain hand sections in roman type and the decoded crypt hand sections in italics.

M— and C—

When I Know My Own Heart opens in August 1816, Anne is accompanying the newlyweds Mariana (or Marianna) and Charles Lawton on their honeymoon, along with Mariana's unmarried older sister. The practice of having female friends and relatives of the bride stay with her during the first months of marriage to help her settle into married life is surprising enough to modern sensibilities. What made this situation particularly fraught was that for several years Anne and Mariana had been lovers. But Mariana sought financial security and social respectability, and thought she had found both in marriage to the much older Charles Lawton (Mariana was in her mid-20s, like Anne, while her husband was in his mid-40s).

Buxton Crescent, where the Lawton honeymoon party stayed during their visit, 1804. Engraved by Birrel from a drawing by E. Dayes. Image source: Rare Old Prints

Travelling with the couple on their honeymoon, Anne was faced with daily reminders of what she considered her betrayal by Mariana. Racked by hurt and jealousy, Anne made a play for her travelling companion, Mariana's unmarried older sister Anne Belcombe.  Her seduction of Anne seems highly likely to have been a displacement of her feelings for Mariana:

Wednesday 14 August 1816 [at the Midlands spa town of Buxton on honeymoon with Mariana and Charles]: Anne sat by my bedside & lay by me upon the bed till 3 in the morning — I teasing and behaving rather amorously to her. She would gladly have got into bed or done anything of the loving kind I asked her.

Thursday 15 August 1816: Anne sat by my bedside till 2. I talked about the feeling to which she gave rise. Lamented my fate. Said I should never marry. Could not like men. Ought not to like women. At the same time apologizing for my inclination that way. By diverse arguments made out a pitiful story altogether & roused poor Anne's sympathy to tears.

Wednesday 21 August 1816 [at the house of Anne Belcombe and Mariana Lawton's brother Stephen in Newcastle-under-Lyme]: All but connected with Anne.

"Connected" was one of Anne Lister's terms for sex. But before they had an opportunity to take that next step, the two women returned to their respective homes. In early November Anne Belcombe, travelling back to York from another visit with Mariana and Charles at Lawton Hall near Manchester, stopped at Shibden Hall. She wound up staying for three weeks:

Saturday 9 November 1816: Talking to Anne all the morning telling [her] she should either be on or off, that she was acting very unfairly & ought either to make up her mind to let me have a kiss at once or change her manners altogether. I said she excited my feelings in a way that was very unjustifiable unless she meant to gratify them. . .

It's interesting to see this argument, used countless times by countless men to coerce hesitant women into sex, being employed by a woman to importune another woman.

Monday 11 November 1816: Had a very good kiss last night. Anne gave it me with pleasure, not thinking it necessary to refuse me any longer.

In the diaries a "kiss" is sometimes just a kiss, but often (as in the entry above) clearly a reference to sex. This may have been the 31-year-old Anne Belcombe's first sexual experience, and apparently she soon began to feel guilty:

Wednesday 13 November 1816: She asked if I thought the thing was wrong. . .I urged in my own defence the strength of natural feeling & instinct, for so I might call it, as I had always had the same turn from infancy. That it had been known to me, as it were, by inclination. That I had never varied & no effort on my part been able to counteract it. That the girls liked me & had always liked me. That I had never been refused by anyone & that, without attempting to account for the thing, I hoped it might under such circumstances be excused.

Anne Lister's Aunt Anne (there are three Annes in the house at this point) may have become suspicious of the nature of the relationship between her niece and her visitor; in any case, she began "fretting about the length of [Anne Belcombe's] stay."

Anne Lister's aunt Anne Lister by Thomas Binns, ca. 1833. Image source: ArtUK

Anne Belcombe finally returned to her parents' home in York at the end of November, putting an end to the liaison. [2] 

Anne Lister later "owned [to Mariana] that, tho' I had never given any of the hair of my own queer [i.e., her pubic hair] to any one, yet I had asked for & received it from others. I had some among my curiousities now. She would know whose. Guessed everybody she could. At last guessed Mrs. Milne [Mariana's sister Harriet] & my blushing or looking conscious made her suspect. I saw she felt hurt & hastened to contradict. I had blushed at the thought of her guessing so nearly, for it was her sister Anne to whom I had alluded & last night I said that Anne had made up to me & that we had gone far in flirting, tho' Marianna thinks not how far" (Monday 12 September 1825).

After Anne Belcombe's departure, Anne Lister's thoughts turned again to Mariana, designated as M— in the diaries, and her hopes for them to make a life together. In early 1817 Charles Lawton (C— in the diaries) found a letter from Anne to Mariana in which it was clear that the women were biding their time until Charles died, at which point Mariana would go to live with Anne. In the event Charles would outlive Anne by two decades, dying in 1860 at the ripe old age of 89. But after learning that Anne and his wife were waiting (and perhaps hoping) for him to die, he began intercepting Anne's letters.

Charles' distrust made it more difficult, but not impossible, for the women to make occasional arrangements to meet. In December 1817 Mariana was visiting her family in York to have some teeth extracted, and Anne contrived to be invited by her York friend Mary Jane Marsh to visit at the same time.

Friday 12 December 1817: Breakfasted at the Belcombes'. . .a little before 11, [M—] herself suggested our having a kiss. I thought it dangerous & would have declined the risk but she persisted & by way of excuse to bolt the door sent me downstairs for some paper, that she was going to the close-stool. The expedient answered & she tried to laugh me out of my nervousness. I took off my pelisse & drawers, and got into bed & had a very good kiss, she showing all due inclination & in less than seven minutes the door was unbolted and we were all right again.

But despite making arrangements to see Mariana whenever possible, Anne was growing dissatisfied with their occasional furtive meetings and their limited ability to exchange letters:

Friday 11 July 1817: As I was getting into bed I began thinking how little confidence I had in M— & how little likely it was that we should ever get together. I was very low. I felt that my happiness depended on having some female companion whom I could love & depend on & my thoughts naturally turned to Isabella.

Isabella Norcliffe, to her own regret, had introduced Anne to Mariana Belcombe in 1812. Before the introduction Anne and Isabella had been lovers; afterwards Anne's passionate affections became focussed instead on Mariana. Anne and Mariana became lovers in 1814, and Anne thought that they would be together for the rest of their lives. But after Mariana's marriage Anne began to reconsider Isabella as a potential companion.

The women began to exchange extended visits, Anne travelling to the Norcliffe family seat of Langton Hall near Malton, northeast of York, and Isabella returning the visit at Shibden Hall.

Langton Hall, near Malton, Yorkshire. Image source: Geograph

But the visits were not always a success: Isabella ("Tib") liked her port, had a loud voice and boisterous manner, used snuff, and was "too fond" with Anne in front of others, as Anne recorded during one of Isabella's visits:

Saturday 16 September 1820: My aunt seemed still incredulous. I wonder if she smokes [suspects] Tib? Surely she has not nous [understanding] enough, tho' Tib is, indeed, shockingly barefaced. I must manage things better in future.

Although their sexual liaisons would continue for many years more—"A kiss last night of Tib. Perhaps I may never have another" (Tuesday 14 February 1826)—Anne soon came to realize that Isabella could not take the place of Mariana in her emotions or plans.

Thursday 8 February 1821: Came upstairs at 11 a.m. Spent my time from then till 3 writing M— very affectionately, more so than I remember to have done for long. . .Wrote the following crypt, 'I can live upon hope, forget that we grow older, & love you as warmly as ever. Yes, Mary, you cannot doubt the love of one who has waited for you so long & patiently. . ."One shall our union & our interests be" & every wish that love inspires & every kiss & every dear feeling of delight shall only make me more securely and entirely yours.' Then, after hoping to see her in York next winter & at [M—'s brother] Steph's before the end of the summer, I further wrote in crypt as follows, 'I do not like to be too long estranged from you sometimes, for, Mary, there is a nameless tie in that soft intercourse which blends us into one & makes me feel that you are mine. There is no feeling like it. There is no pledge which gives such sweet possession.'

The "complaint"

In the summer of 1821 both Anne and Mariana were invited to the Newcastle-under-Lyme home of Mariana's brother Stephen Belcombe and his wife to stand as sponsors for the christening of their baby daughter. It was the couple's first meeting in over a year, and they renewed their commitment to one another. But Anne noticed something troubling:

Monday 23 July 1821: Went to M— but somehow didn't manage a good kiss. Refused to promise till I had really felt that she was my wife. Went to her a second time. Succeeded better & then bound ourselves to each other by an irrevocable promise for ever, in pledge of which, turned on her finger the gold ring I gave her several years ago & also her wedding ring which had not been moved off her finger since her marriage. She seems devoted to me & I can & shall trust her now. . .It has occurred to me: can C— have given her a venereal disease?

Anne soon began to experience symptoms herself, and approached Stephen, a doctor:

Saturday 4 August 1821: A few minutes' conversation with Steph before breakfast. Mention M— & my suspicion of venereal. He said he was treating her as for this. . .Said I knew someone in the same situation. A young married woman, poor, who had tried much advice without relief & therefore asked Steph for the prescription he gave M—. . .the heat & itching I felt last night have been considerable today & I am persuaded of being touched with the complaint.

Whitbread suspects that the "complaint" was trichomoniasis, an infection which today can be cured with antibiotics. In the 19th century the commonly prescribed treatments were either ineffectual or actively harmful (e.g., topical and internal application of mercury compounds such as calomel). Anne would later pass the disease on to Isabella Norcliffe.

The Ladies of Llangollen

Miss Sarah Ponsonby (left) and Lady Eleanor Butler, "The Ladies of Llangollen," by Richard James Lane after a drawing "carefully taken from life" by Lady Mary Leighton ca. 1820s. Image source: National Portrait Gallery, London

In the summer of 1822 Anne was planning a two-week tour of Wales with her aunt. Anne had a reason other than the scenery for visiting: she asked her friend Isabella Dalton if she knew anyone who could give her an introduction to Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby, the Ladies of Llangollen.

Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby were Irish cousins. More than four decades earlier, on the night of Monday 30 March 1778, they had fled their homes to be together:

Late that night, when the family [of her guardian Sir William Fownes] was in bed, Sarah, dressed in men's clothes, armed with a pistol and carrying her small dog, Frisk, made her way silently downstairs, as silently pushed up the sash of the parlour window, and, climbing over the sill, dropped to the ground. Outside she was met by the trusted labourer who straight-way guided her to the barn where Eleanor Butler was waiting for her.

Earlier that night at about ten, and just as the [Butler] family were going into supper, Eleanor had crept out of the [Kilkenny] Castle. Once outside she too had changed into men's clothes, and, on a horse either begged or borrowed, had ridden off to their prearranged rendezvous. Their goal was Waterford twenty-three miles off and a boat for England. [3]

The two women rode on Butler's horse through rain and wind toward the coast. When daylight came they hid themselves in a barn, and then continued their journey after night fell. Recaptured on Wednesday evening near Waterford, where they had been hoping to secure passage to England, the two women were forcibly separated.

By the time of their attempted escape Eleanor and Sarah had known one another for almost a decade. By 1778 both were under increasing pressure from their families. Eleanor, then in her late 30s, remained unmarried, and to save money on her upkeep her family wanted to send her back to the French convent where she had been educated two decades before. Sarah, then in her early 20s, had been subjected to unwanted sexual overtures from her married guardian. Together Eleanor and Sarah had planned to flee to England and live together in a rural cottage.

After the couple's recapture, the scheme to send Eleanor to the convent of the English Benedictines in Cambrai was put into motion. A few days before Eleanor's departure she was granted a brief final meeting with Sarah. They used the time well.

On the night of Sunday 19 April Eleanor slipped undiscovered out of the relative's house where she'd been held against her will and walked 12 miles in the dark to Sarah's home, Woodstock Hall. There, with the aid of Mary Caryll, a sympathetic servant willing to risk her position to help them, Sarah secretly brought Eleanor into the house through a window and up to her room. There Eleanor stayed undetected for several days (Caryll smuggling in food for her) until her presence was betrayed by another servant.

A psychological and emotional siege of the couple began, but after nearly two weeks it was the families and their allies who were worn down. Eventually they agreed to let the women leave together and to provide them with a small allowance. [4] Early on the morning of Monday 4 May the couple, along with Mary Caryll, entered the Butler family carriage and were driven away to Waterford. The delayed English packet finally departed on Friday, and on Saturday 10 May they disembarked at Hakin in western Wales. After exploring the region, they ultimately settled in a small cottage which they called "Plas Newydd" (New Place) in Llangollen in northeast Wales, about 60 miles southwest of Manchester.

By 1822 the Ladies had been living "in retirement" at Plas Newydd since 1780, and had become famous. [5] They were visited by many leading literary, scientific and political figures of the day. For Anne, the Ladies were a model of the sort of life she had hoped to lead with Mariana.

On arriving in Llangollen Anne had heard that the Ladies were indisposed, and sent a note to Plas Newydd expressing her regret and asking to view the grounds.

Sunday 14 July 1822: I quite agree with M—. . .the place is 'a beautiful little bijou', shewing excellent taste—much to the credit of the ladies who have done it entirely themselves. . .It is an interesting place. My expectations were more than realized & it excited in me, for a variety of circumstances, a sort of peculiar interest tinged with melancholy. I could have mused for hours, dreampt dreams of happiness, conjured up many a vision of. . .hope.

On their way homeward at the end of their tour, Anne and her aunt stopped again in Llangollen. Through their innkeeper Anne sent an inquiry to Plas Newydd about the Ladies' health.

Tuesday 23 July 1822: I am interested about these 2 ladies very much. There is something in their story & in all I have heard about them here that, added to other circumstances, makes a deep impression. Sat musing on the sopha, wotting what to do, inconsolate & moody, thinking of M—. Low about her.

She soon received word that Miss Ponsonby would see her in the early evening after dinner. Anne spent about 40 minutes in her company.

At 7 went to Plasnewydd. . .Shewn into the room next the library, the breakfast room, waited a minute or 2, & then came Miss Ponsonby. A large woman so as to waddle in walking, but, tho', not taller than myself. In a blue, shortish-waisted cloth habit, the jacket unbuttoned shewing a plain plaited frilled habit shirt—a thick white cravat rather loosely put on—hair powdered, parted, I think, down the middle in front, cut a moderate length all around & hanging straight, tolerably thick. The remains of a very fine face. . .Altogether a very odd figure. Yet she had no sooner entered into conversation than I forgot all this & my attention was wholly taken by her manners & conversation. The former, perfectly easy, peculiarly attentive & well, & bespeaking a person accustomed to a great deal of good society. Mild & gentle, certainly not masculine, and yet there was a je-ne-sai-quoi striking. Her conversation shewing a personal acquaintance with most of the literary characters of the day & their works. . .She asked if I would walk out. Shewed me the kitchen garden. Walked round the shrubbery with me. She said she owned to their having been 42 years there. . .I envied their place & the happiness they had had there. Asked if, dared say, they had never quarrelled. 'No!' They had never had a quarrel. Little differences of opinion sometimes. Life could not go on without it. . .At parting, shook hands with her and she gave me a rose. I said I should keep it for the sake of the place where it grew. . .I know not how it is, I felt low after coming away. A thousand moody reflections occurred. . .

Back home, Anne received a letter from Mariana:

Saturday 3 August: [M—] seems much interested about Lady Eleanor & Miss Ponsonby. . .'You have at once excited & gratified my curiosity. Tell me if you think their regard has always been platonic & if you ever believed pure friendship could be so exalted. If you do, I shall think there are brighter amongst mortals than I ever believed there were.'. . .I cannot help thinking that surely it was not platonic. Heaven forgive me, but I look within myself & doubt. I feel the infirmity of our nature & hesitate to pronounce such attachments uncemented by something more tender still than friendship. But much, or all, depends upon the story of their former lives, the period passed before they lived together, that feverish dream called youth.

"I cannot cease to remember": The "3 steps" and Scarborough incidents

In the late summer of 1823 two incidents created an emotional breach between Anne and Mariana that would never fully heal. The first was when Anne walked three hours from Halifax to Blackstone Edge, a distance of 10 miles, to meet Mariana's carriage on the road from Manchester. Anne's sudden, disheveled appearance in "a wildish place" had startled the dozing Mariana, and Anne's eager enthusiasm in front of Mariana's sister Louisa (Mariana at first thought Anne had vaulted three steps in leaping into the carriage) grated on Mariana's nerves. That night Anne wrote that Mariana's cold reception "had fallen like some huge iceberg on my breast" (Tuesday 19 August 1823). The next day Anne wrote in her diary about Mariana's reaction:

Wednesday 20 August 1823: She had a feeling she could not describe. Would make any sacrifice rather than have our connection suspected. . .Mary, you have passion like the rest, but. . .your courage is weak rather than your principal strong.

The next month Anne joined Mariana in Scarborough, a fashionable coastal resort in the North Riding of Yorkshire.

Scarborough, Yorkshire. Drawn & engraved by William Daniell, 1822. Image source: Tate Britain

Anne stood out among the crowds of finely dressed women, to Mariana's dismay:

Tuesday 16 September 1823: We touched on the subject of my figure [appearance]. The people staring so on Sunday had then made her feel quite low. . .'Yet,' said I, 'taking me altogether, would you have me changed?' 'Yes,' said she. 'To give you a feminine figure.'. . .She had just before observed that I was getting mustaches & that when she first saw this it made her sick.

Wednesday 17 September 1823: She said I did not know her feeling; the objection, the horror she had to anything unnatural. I shewed her I understood her & then observed upon my conduct & feelings being surely natural to me inasmuch as they were not taught, not fictitious [learned from novels], but instinctive. Said from my heart, I could make any sacrifice for her, tho' she could not for me. I could have braved anything. Yes, I have often felt I could have rushed on ruin. She said it was lucky for us both her feelings were cooler. They tempered mine. . .My feelings now began to overpower me. I thought of the devotion with which I had loved her, & of all I had suffered. I contrasted these with all the little deceits she had put upon me & with those cooler feelings with which she thought it so lucky to have tempered mine. I thought of these things and my heart was almost agonized to bursting.

A month later Anne was still turning it all over in her mind:

Wednesday 15 October 1823: This Blackstone Edge and Scarbro' business so clings to my memory I can't shake it off. . .I agreed with [M—] when she said she would give anything to efface these last three months. Alas, they have altered me. How they have revolutionized my feelings of love & confidence towards her.

Thursday 16 October 1823: For the life of me I cannot forget &, what is worse, I cannot cease to remember.

The two women would reunite both before and after Anne's pivotal trip to Paris the following year, and recommit to one another. But ultimately, despite the "irrevocable promise for ever," Anne would tire of waiting for Charles to die and would begin to look elsewhere for a life companion.

Other posts in this series:

Sources for and works discussed in this series:

I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister, [1816–1824,] Helena Whitbread, ed. Virago, 1988/2010 (with a new introduction, as The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister), 422 pgs.

No Priest But Love: Excerpts from the Diaries of Anne Lister, 1824–1826, Helena Whitbread, ed. NYU Press, 1992, 227 pgs.

Jill Liddington, Presenting the Past: Anne Lister of Halifax 1791–1840, Pennine Pens, 1994,  76 pgs.

Female Fortune: Land, Gender and Authority: The Anne Lister Diaries and Other Writings, 1833–1836, Jill Liddington, ed. Rivers Oram Press, 1998, 298 pgs.

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, written by Jane English, directed by James Kent, starring Maxine Peake as Anne Lister, BBC, 2010, 92 mins.

Gentleman Jack, written and directed by Sally Wainwright and others, starring Suranne Jones as Anne Lister, BBC, 2019–2022, 16 episodes, 950 mins.

Anne Choma, Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister, Penguin, 2019, 258 pgs.

  1. I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister, p. xiv.
  2. At least temporarily; it apparently resumed during an end-of-year visit to the Norcliffe family in Malton and the Belcombe family in York between early October 1820 and early January 1821: ". . .I easily persuaded her to sleep with me" (8 January 1821).
  3. Elizabeth Mavor, The Ladies of Llangollen: A Study in Romantic Friendship, Michael Joseph, 1971, p. 38. Emma Donoghue has criticized "romantic friendship" as a characterization of the Ladies' lifelong emotional commitment; she writes that Mavor employs the term "specifically to shield the Ladies of Llangollen from being called lesbians." See Donoghue's Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668–1801, HarperCollins, 1995, p. 109.
  4. Lady Eleanor was given about £200 annually by her family, while Sarah was provided with £80 annually by Mrs. Tighe, the daughter of her stepmother Lady Betty Fownes. Lady Betty apparently sympathized with the couple; she left Sarah £1000 in her will (both she and her husband died just a few weeks later) but Lady Betty's brother withheld it, saying that it had been bequeathed "from a mistaken kindness." See Mavor, The Ladies of Llangollen, p. 55.
  5. Mary Caryll had remained their devoted servant at Llangollen, and had died in 1809. On their deaths in 1829 (Eleanor) and 1831 (Sarah) they were buried together next to Mary under a single headstone in the Llangollen churchyard.

Friday, July 22, 2022

E&I's 15th anniversary: 10 favorite posts from the past 5 years

Eve (Barbara Stanwyck) tempts Charles (Henry Fonda) in Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve, from one of my favorite posts from the past 5 years. Image source: Hollywood Soapbox

This post is the 511th published on Exotic and Irrational Entertainment, and marks E&I's 15th anniversary (the very first post, on Jonathan Lethem's The Disappointment Artist, John Ford's The Searchers, and Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, was published on July 22, 2007).

E&I began as a way for me to explore my "indefensible obsessions": literature, primarily from the 18th and 19th centuries, and especially by women authors; opera, primarily from the 17th and 18th centuries; and Indian movies, primarily those produced by the mainstream commercial Hindi film industry known as Bollywood. Although in the five years since my 10th anniversary post I've lost touch with current developments in Indian cinema, my other obsessions have certainly continued unabated (and have been joined by a few others).

So in honor of the 15th anniversary of E&I, here is a list of 10 of my favorite posts (or post series) from the past 5 years:


Angela Carter: A post on Edmund Gordon's biography The Invention of Angela Carter, plus four posts devoted to the best of her fiction, including the evocative The Magic Toyshop and the uncanny tales of The Bloody Chamber. (September–October 2018)
Daphne du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel: Du Maurier's fiction has always been popular, but has long been viewed with unwarranted condescension by many literary critics. My Cousin Rachel (like "The Birds" and Rebecca) is another of her masterpieces of growing dread and inexorable fate. Margaret Forster's groundbreaking biography of Du Maurier, the first to reveal the extent of Daphne's same-sex attractions, was one of my favorite books of 2021. (April 2021, October 2021)
Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis: The 19th-century Brazilian author, the grandson of slaves, is amazingly modern in his subjects and style. I wrote posts on recent translations of his brilliant Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, in which a dead man looks back on his inconsequential life with ironic humor, and on his wistful final masterwork, Counselor Ayres' Memorial, in which an older man observes a young widow's struggles to remain in mourning as she is inexorably drawn back to life and love. (March 2018 and July 2020)
Margaret Oliphant, Miss Marjoribanks: Victorian novelist Margaret Oliphant is not as well-known today as her contemporaries Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot, but she can be equally acute about the strategies that determined, ambitious women in her era had to pursue in order to achieve their aims. In Miss Marjoribanks, the title character (pronounced "Marchbanks") wants to transform the moribund society of the town of Carlingford and inject some youth and life; her matchmaking is so successful that she almost runs out of eligible bachelors for herself. (August 2020)


The mysteries of Dido and Aeneas: The greatest opera in English, Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, is surrounded by mysteries. We don't have all the music: the scores that exist are incomplete copies that don't agree with one another, made for performances that occurred decades after Purcell's death in 1695. We don't know the date of the first performance, or who sang which roles: there is only a single surviving copy of Nahum Tate's libretto from the first (or at least a very early) performance "by young gentlewomen" at a Chelsea boarding-school. In this post I discuss new evidence that has emerged in the last 15 years or so that may enable us to provide at least partial answers to some of the major questions that remain about this opera. (March 2018)
Vittoria Tesi: The first Black prima donna: Vittoria Tesi, the first Black or biracial prima donna, is an extraordinary and ground-breaking figure. She was a star singer who performed on equal terms with other superlative singers of the mid-18th century. And yet I've been listening to Baroque opera for nearly 30 years and can't recall having heard her name before. This post series attempted to bring together all the documented information about Tesi, including some amazing descriptions and images of extravagant Baroque opera spectacles in which she participated. I included arias from the roles she peformed, and identified (for the first time, to my knowledge) a possible image of her father as a young servant in the Medici household. (March–May 2022)
The operas of Antonio Salieri: In the play and film Amadeus, the composer Antonio Salieri is portrayed as "the patron saint of mediocrity," so envious of Mozart's talent that he finally poisons him. One of the many problems with this image is that during Mozart's lifetime Salieri was by far the more successful composer, and Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte drew inspiration from Salieri's work in creating their own. In my post on Salieri's La grotta di Trofonio (The cave of Trofonio) I show that it influenced Mozart's Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte (All women are the same), while in the post on Salieri's La scuola de' gelosi (The school of jealousy) I show that it helped shape Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) as well as Così. The third Salieri opera that I've written about, the one-act Prima la musica, poi le parole (First the music, then the words), was actually a joint production with Mozart, who wrote his own one-act opera, Der Schauspieldirektor (The impresario) to be performed the same evening. In my post on La scuola I wrote, "Salieri may not have been Mozart, but being Salieri was more than sufficient." (December 2018, March 2021, July 2021)


René Clair: Between the mid-1920s and the early 1930s, years spanning the transition between silent and sound films, French director René Clair directed a series of now-classic comedies. Entr'acte (1924) and The Italian Straw Hat (1927) exploit the visual possibilities of film to tell a series of running jokes. In Sous les toits des Paris (Under the roofs of Paris, 1930), the protagonist is a sheet-music peddler whose code of class loyalty leads to a prison term for a crime he didn't commit. Clair's visual inventiveness and working-class sympathies perhaps reached their highest expression in the gentle humor and humanistic ideals of À nous la liberté! (Give us freedom!, 1931), in which an escaped prisoner becomes a wealthy industrial magnate, only to be reminded of his principles by an encounter with his former cellmate. (September–December 2017)
Ester Krumbachová: A survey of three films written and designed by Krumbachová, a central figure in the Czech New Wave cinema of the 1960s: the surreally feminist Daisies (1966), the bitterly funny and morally chilling A Report on the Party and Guests (1967), and the dreamlike Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970). A few years after the 1968 Soviet invasion ended the Prague Spring, Krumbachová was blacklisted for a decade, but these films remain as a testament to the courage and creativity of Krumbachová and her colleagues. (November 2018)
Preston Sturges: Between 1940 and 1944 seven comedies written and directed by Preston Sturges were released by Paramount Studios. There's not a dud among them, and some are among the best comedies ever produced in Hollywood. In my view Sturges' peak achievement is The Lady Eve (1941), with Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda, but others might vote for Sullivan's Travels (1942), with Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake, or the rueful Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), with Eddie Bracken and Ella Raines. (May 2021)

Over the past decade and a half this blog has received (to my astonishment) 657,000 page views. This is a particularly gratifying surprise given that my average post is probably close to two thousand words long, and some far exceed that total. My deepest thanks to everyone who has stopped by E&I since 2007 to read my thoughts and share their own. While I can't guarantee that I'll be continuing for another 15 years, I have no plans to stop writing anytime soon. Take that as fair warning!