Ruth Bernard Yeazell

Ruth Bernard Yeazell is Sterling Professor of English at Yale. Her most recent book is Picture Titles: How and Why Western Paintings Acquired Their Names (2016).

Peaches d’antan: Henry James’s Autobiographies

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 11 August 2016

Henry James​ liked to represent himself as hopelessly lagging behind his older brother, but he was also very good at turning childish inadequacy to imaginative account. A year after William’s death in 1910, he set out to edit a selection of William’s letters only to end up producing a remarkable self-portrait. Though he had intended to preface the letters with a short history of...

Constance Fenimore Woolson’s​ fiction is little read these days, and she figures primarily as a character in someone else’s story. Ever since Leon Edel’s biography of Henry James, in which she appears as a lonely spinster with an ear trumpet and an unrequited passion for her fellow novelist, speculation over the closeness of her friendship with James and the motives for...

Oh! – only Oh! Burne-Jones

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 9 February 2012

Edward Jones – the Burne came later – was born in Birmingham to a mother who died giving birth to him and a father who eked out a living as a frame-maker, although art, his son reported, ‘was always a great bewilderment to him’. The only person who seems to have recognised the boy’s talent – a neighbour who bought pictures to rework – had the dubious...

Maisie’s Sisters: Sargent’s Daughters

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 5 August 2010

John Singer Sargent has often been accused of lacking a soul. Even Henry James, who helped introduce him to the London scene in the 1880s and continued to promote his work, worried that he suffered from a ‘sort of excess of cleverness’. The fact that Sargent catered to a transatlantic clientele of celebrities and nouveaux riches at the height of the Gilded Age only encouraged the...

Sometime early in 1876, a person connected with the James family met a 27-year-old woman called Alice Howe Gibbens at the Radical Club in Boston and immediately concluded that William James should marry her. In one version of the story, Henry James Sr returned from a meeting and announced to those at home that he had seen William’s future bride. Another version attributes the discovery...

Sit like an Apple: Artists’ Wives

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 23 October 2008

Claude Monet’s first breakthrough was not the ‘impression’ of a sunrise that lent its name to a movement but a full-length figure in contemporary dress that he submitted to the Salon of 1866 under the title Camille. Posed against a red curtain on a canvas more than seven feet high, a woman in a green and black striped gown and a black jacket trimmed with fur stands with her...

Howl, Howl, Howl! Fanny Kemble

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 22 May 2008

Fanny Kemble was happiest on stage when she took all the parts. She had been a celebrity at 19, when she made her debut as Juliet at Covent Garden in 1829; but she was a middle-aged woman in flight from a terrible marriage when she began a second career reading Shakespeare’s plays before enthusiastic audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Dressed in a carefully chosen series of gowns...

Edith Wharton’s ‘background’ – the word is her own – has always seemed improbable for a future novelist. Persistent rumours that she was not the daughter of George Frederic Jones but the illegitimate offspring of a Scottish peer or an English tutor clearly attest to a sense that there was something otherwise inexplicable about this ambitious daughter of Old New York. Despite the fact that she recalled ‘making up’ stories from her first conscious moment, both her memoirs and her fiction represent the world of her childhood as pretty much impervious to the imagination. ‘In the well-regulated well-fed Summers world,’ her heroine recalls in The Reef (1912), ‘the unusual was regarded as either immoral or ill-bred, and people with emotions were not visited.’

Ah, la vie! Lytton Strachey’s letters

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 1 December 2005

Lytton Strachey loved reading letters, including the published kind, but after glancing at a few sentences of George Meredith’s correspondence in 1912, he felt ‘so nauseated’, he told Virginia Woolf, that he shut the book at once:

Is it prejudice, do you think, that makes us hate the Victorians, or is it the truth of the case? They seem to me to be a set of mouthing...

Merry Companies: the Golden Age of Dutch painting

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 20 January 2005

When we admire genre paintings of the Dutch Golden Age for their realistic representation of everyday life, we may be responding as much to the spell of the 19th century as to the artistry of the 17th. It was in the 19th century that ‘realism’ began to be used as a description of such images, and one of the earliest uses of the French term in an aesthetic sense comes from an 1846...

In the spring of 1877 T.M. Greenhow, a retired surgeon, published an article in the British Medical Journal on the case of Harriet Martineau, who had died in her house in Ambleside the previous summer. Greenhow hoped to settle a heated debate about Martineau’s medical history that had been ignited – or rather, reignited – by some disparaging remarks about doctors which...

Viva la trattoria: Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 9 October 2003

Eleven of Edward Moulton-Barrett’s dozen children survived to adulthood; and eight were left behind when the eldest escaped to Italy with Robert Browning in 1846 (two sons, including the father’s namesake, had died six years earlier). Moulton-Barrett did not attempt to hoard girl-children only, although the legend surrounding his daughter’s elopement has sometimes suggested...

Overindulgence: A.S. Byatt

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 28 November 2002

Towards the end of A.S. Byatt’s first novel about the Potter family, The Virgin in the Garden (1978), the heroine and a clever friend debate the question of whether modern life has rendered some literary forms obsolete. The year is 1953, and the immediate occasion is the staging of a verse drama in the manner of Eliot and Fry; but the debate quickly turns to Frederica Potter’s own...

We have good reason to be wary of paternal metaphors for authorship, but characterising W.D. Howells as the father of The Whole Family is hard to resist – if only because it reminds us of how little control a modern patriarch has over his offspring. A composite novel by 12 hands that originated in a suggestion from Howells to the editor of Harper’s Bazar (as the magazine was then...

Is everybody’s life like this? Amy Levy

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 16 November 2000

Had Amy Levy (1861-89) never existed, contemporary criticism would have thought her up. We have been recovering women writers for three decades now, but Levy was also a Jew and probably a lesbian, as well as a feminist; and at a time like ours when ‘margins’ are central, she can be singled out for having inhabited several at once. Not only did she belong to the pioneering...

‘I thirst for his blood’: Henry James

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 25 November 1999

Henry James was a generous correspondent in more senses than one, but his fellow writers may have found some of the Master’s letters rather exasperating. ‘I read your current novel with pleasure,’ he wrote to William Dean Howells in 1880, ‘but I don’t think the subject fruitful, & I suspect that much of the public will agree with me.’ As a response to another novelist’s work, this is uncharacteristic only in its brevity – and in James’s youthful assurance that the public will be on his side. Even when he was most lavish with his praise (perhaps especially then), he could not resist tempering it with qualifications and advice. With a few rare exceptions – an ecstatic response to Conrad’s Mirror of the Sea among them – nearly all the correspondence with writers that Philip Horne includes in his admirable new edition conforms to the pattern. Experienced recipients of such letters must have learned to watch for that ‘but’ and to steel themselves accordingly.’‘

Immediately after becoming a woman, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando returns from a spell as Ambassador Extraordinary in Constantinople for tea and literary gossip with Addison, Pope and Swift – only to find that her pleasure in their company dissipates when the volatile Pope turns the force of his anger against her. Offended by Orlando’s carelessness in letting sugar splash into his tea, Pope responds by handing her ‘the rough draught of a certain famous line in the “Characters of Women” ’. Woolf may have intended her mock-biography as an affectionate portrait of Vita Sackville-West, but Isobel Grundy is surely right in thinking that these episodes in Orlando’s career were primarily inspired by the life and letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.’‘

E Pluribus Unum

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 11 December 1997

Forget sleepy odalisques and dreams of the East. Polygamy – in the contemporary US – is hard work. And that holds true for both sexes, though the one in shorter supply may well have the more arduous time. The subjects of Polygamous Families in Contemporary Society are fundamentalist Mormons, whose marriages violate both official church doctrine and the laws of the state; but the threat of persecution, legal or otherwise, seems to be among the least of their difficulties. Simply providing for four or five adults and over two dozen children (on average) requires considerable effort, especially when few can command more than lower-middle-class incomes. Even this looks easy, however, compared to the constant managerial and emotional labour in which these families engage. As one of the wives interviewed here remarks, ‘plural family life is a mighty hard day-to-day struggle.’’‘

Glad to Go

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 6 March 1997

Nothing proves a better test of historical difference than what we all have in common. Like us, the Victorians thought the death of the young more terrible than that of the old; they found sudden loss more difficult to cope with than losses they had long anticipated; they relied on family and friends for comfort in times of bereavement; they took solace from memories of the dead, whom they were inclined, at least in the early stages of their grief, to idealise. Some of our received opinions about the Victorians’ mortuary excesses owe as much to their own self-criticism as to their actual practice: contemporary reformers were quick to denounce the expensive funerals popular at the beginning of the period, for example, just as they later campaigned against the ‘ghoul-like ghastliness’ of extravagant mourning-dress for women. Then as now, there were many ways of dying and many modes of grieving for the dead. But a death in the Victorian family did differradically from one in our own – if only because ‘in’ the family was hardly a figure of speech. Until the First World War, the event almost invariably took place at home. And until the later decades of the century, Jalland argues, it typically took place in a climate of religious belief that made all the difference not only to the dying but to those left behind.’

The world’s worst-dressed woman

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 1 August 1996

When Lytton Strachey looked back at the ‘apotheosis’ of Queen Victoria’s final years in his biography of 1921, he could only wonder at the disparity between the ‘dazzled imagination of her subjects’ and the unimaginative woman who had somehow inspired them. While ‘Victoria soared aloft towards the regions of divinity through a nimbus of purest glory,’ as Strachey put it, no one appeared to realise how inadequate she was to her symbolic task:

Doubling the Oliphant

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 7 September 1995

Even by the standards of her contemporaries Margaret Oliphant’s productivity was phenomenal. As the author of 98 novels, she surpassed that other prodigious maker of fictions, Anthony Trollope, by roughly two to one – and this is not to mention her 25 works of non-fiction, 50 short stories and over three hundred contributions to periodicals. Though she usually prided herself on her robust health, it is little wonder that at the age of 65 she half-boasted to her publisher of how she had ‘worked a hole’ in her right forefinger ‘with the pen, I suppose!’ and could not get it to heal – ‘also from excessive use of that little implement’. In an obituary note written after she finally succumbed to colon cancer in 1897, Henry James paid characteristically equivocal tribute to this most prolific of women writers: ‘from no individual perhaps had the great contemporary flood received a more copious treatment.’ His obituary hovered between contempt for helpless female fecundity – what he unkindly termed Oliphant’s ‘uncontrolled flood of fiction’ – and genuine awe at the sheer scale of her achievement: ‘few writers of our time have been so organised for liberal, for – one may almost put it – heroic production.’ Even as James speculated on how ‘her remarkable life, and still more … remarkable character’ might ‘lend itself to vivid portraiture’, he recognised how the very magnitude of her production would militate against the prospect of a biography. Of her criticism alone, he remarked: ‘She practised it, as she practised everything, on such an inordinate scale that her biographer, if there is to be one, will have no small task in the mere drafting of lists of her contributions.’’‘

Ructions in the Seraglio

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 8 December 1994

In a little-known film of 1985 called Harem, a yuppie female stockbroker (Natassja Kinski) is drugged and kidnapped on the streets of New York, only to wake up in the harem of an enigmatic oil tycoon (Ben Kingsley) in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Given its wildly implausible plot and clumsy editing – not to mention Kinski’s permanently drugged performance – the movie more than deserves its present obscurity. But as a testament to the shifting status of the harem in the Western imagination, this particular work of fantasy has much to recommend it. Harem begins with a shameless exploitation of all the old clichés of the menacing and lustful East, from the smoothly sinister black eunuch who welcomes the heroine to captivity to the impassive and vaguely threatening faces of the other women, their exotic caged birds serving as familiar symbols of their confinement. Yet even as Kinski wanders the maze-like corridors and anticipates her rape by the unknown despot who has abducted her, both heroine and audience come to realise that this place has little in common with the erotic prison they have anticipated.’’

Her pen made the first move

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 7 July 1994

When Charlotte Brontë was not yet 21, she submitted a sample of her work to the reigning poet laureate, Robert Southey, together with a letter in which she apparently confided her ambition ‘to be for ever known’ as a poet. Three months later, Southey replied. Though he acknowledged her gift and encouraged her to continue writing ‘for its own sake’, he also made clear that her habit of day-dreaming threatened to unfit her for the ‘ordinary uses’ of the world. ‘Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be,’ he wrote. ‘The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called, and when you are you will be less eager for celebrity.’ Modern feminists have understandably cited Southey’s advice as a representative instance of the oppressive assumptions that inhibited women’s writing. The recipient, however, responded more equivocally. While Brontë would later tell Elizabeth Gaskell that Southey’s letter had been ‘kind and admirable’, if ‘a little stringent’, to the writer himself she returned an answer in which genuine humility and self-abasement can barely be distinguished from an edgy and corrosive irony:

Vampiric Words

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 26 May 1994

When Jane Fonda told an interviewer for Family Circle some months ago that she was heavier than she had previously been but also ‘more comfortable’ with her body, Associated Press duly relayed the news to the world. ‘I don’t weigh myself anymore,’ the 57-year-old Fonda announced, explaining that after two decades of ‘going for the burn’ when she exercised and of binging and purging when she ate, she had decided that there was something unhealthily obsessive about her relation to her flesh. Social critics troubled by the fact that the last twenty years have also seen a dramatic rise in reported cases of anorexia and bulimia, especially among young women in the US, may wish to believe that the ever-canny actress and entrepreneur will once more set a trend. But a cautionary note is in order. As Susan Bordo suggests in Unbearable Weight, her recent study of our collective fixation on thinness – discussed here by Carol Gilligan (LRB, 10 March) – this would not be the first time in current memory that popular magazines heralded a turn toward a ‘softer’ or rounder look for women, only to continue advertising the same taut and rigorously pared-down bodies in their pages. In fact, as Bordo shows, the ideal female form has actually been growing thinner over the last few decades: not only is the model in a 1990 Maidenform advertisement considerably slimmer than her counterpart of 1960, but the same body type who dreamed she took the bull by the horns in her Maidenform bra thirty years ago has now been relegated to the special category of the ‘full figure’. Asked whether they would rather gain 150 lbs or be run over by a truck, 54.3 per cent of young women in a recent Esquire poll chose to be flattened by the truck. No doubt the fact that such questions are asked reveals as much about our culture as the pseudo-science of the results. Still, Esquire’s young women obviously have something in common with the respondents to a previous survey cited by Bordo, over a third of whom replied to the question of what they feared most in the world: ‘Getting fat.’’

Collapse of the Sofa Cushions

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 24 March 1994

New literary movements often declare themselves by denouncing their immediate predecessors, but the Modernist attack on Victorian poetry has endured longer than most. In his Introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936) Yeats summed up his generation’s complaint: ‘The revolt against Victorianism meant to the young poet a revolt against irrelevant descriptions of nature, the scientific and moral discursiveness of In Memoriam – “When he should have been broken-hearted,” said Verlaine, “he had many reminiscences” – the political eloquence of Swinburne, the psychological curiosity of Browning, and the poetical diction of everybody.’ For all the scepticism currently being directed at the high Modernists themselves, their charges against the Victorians have not altogether lost their sting. An aura of sentimentality and prosaic discursiveness still hangs about the images of Tennyson, Browning and the rest. Though there have been individual studies of note, nothing like the feminist affinity for the novel or the deconstructive fascination with the Romantics has brought the Victorian poets back into critical fashion.’

Domestic Disaffection

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 10 June 1993

‘He had lived primarily in his domestic affections, which were of the tenderest kind; and then – without eagerness, without pretension, but with a great deal of quiet devotion in his charming art.’ So Henry James summed up the career of his great predecessor in his Hawthorne of 1879. James was usually a shrewd critic, but ‘charming’ is hardly the adjective that first leaps to mind when the modern reader confronts ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’, say, or The Marble Faun. Especially since the Second World War, most 20th-century commentators have preferred to echo Melville’s celebrated remarks on his contemporary’s ‘great power of blackness’. If we are to credit Dearest Beloved, T. Walter Herbert’s dramatic reinterpretation of life among the Hawthornes, James’s tribute to the ‘domestic affections’ falls equally wide of the mark. Herbert does not refuse to believe in the Hawthornes’ tender feelings for one another, but he insists on the rage and terror that must have accompanied such tenderness, on the deep anxieties that, in his view, inevitably haunted the peaceful arrangements of the middle-class home. From a career that James thought ‘probably as tranquil and uneventful a one as ever fell to the lot of a man of letters’, a life ‘almost strikingly deficient … in what may be called the dramatic quality’, Herbert constructs an often lurid tale of psychosocial conflict and ‘torment’, a narrative of the domestic affections translated into the idiom of New Historicist gothic.’

Allowed to speak

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 19 November 1992

‘The category of the Other,’ Simone de Beauvoir declared in the opening pages of The Second Sex, ‘is as primordial as consciousness itself.’ No doubt she was right. But it is hard to believe that the term has ever had such intellectual currency as it has at present. Whether in works of high theory or in the popular press, invocations of ‘the Other’, ‘otherness’ – even ‘othering’ – continue to proliferate. At times, all this talk proves more fashionable than productive, turning ‘other’ into little more than a glib synonym for ‘victim’. Even as ‘otherness’ threatens to become all too familiar, however, thinking about the human impulse to distinguish self from not-self can still help to decode our political and cultural arrangements. The ‘primordial’ category need not be simple.’

Drawing-rooms are always tidy

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 20 August 1992

Among the hot items at my local video store these days is a recent Hollywood thriller called The hand that rocks the cradle. A successful instance of what might be called the yuppie nightmare film, this particular contribution to the genre also manages to exploit a tear that must trouble every mother who has temporarily handed over the care of her children to another woman – not the dread that the caretaker will harm or neglect them, but the anxiety lest she win their love away. An early scene of the film adroitly converts one kind of anxiety to the other, as the audience watches the new nanny, pillow in hand, threateningly approach the baby’s cradle as if to smother him, only to discover that she is intent instead on a secret session of breastfeeding. At the climax of the film, mother and nanny battle to the death in the attic (‘It’s my family!’ the heroine exclaims), while the man of the house lies immobilised with a broken leg three storeys below. The hand that rocks the cradle capitalises on several sources of female anxiety: the entire chain of events begins when the heroine reports her obstetrician for having sexually abused her during an examination, while before the elaborate plot has run its course, it also feints with the threat of the other woman in the more familiar sense, in the guise both of the husband’s former girlfriend and in that of the nanny herself, who repeatedly attempts to seduce him. But the real horror of the film clearly emanates from the nanny’s insidious campaign to supplant the biological mother in the affections of her children.’

Mongkut and I

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 30 January 1992

In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, The King and I, the English governess quarrels with her royal employer over his refusal to provide her with a separate house, outside the harem walls. Alone in her room afterwards, Anna takes her revenge with a spirited patter song, indignantly denouncing the King as a ‘conceited, self-indulgent libertine’ and seizing the occasion to inform him in – absentia – of ‘certain goings on around this place/That I wish to tell you I do not admire.’’

Tears before the storm

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 24 October 1991

It was front-page news in the United States recently when George Bush brushed away a tear as he described how he had wept while deciding to unleash the air war in the Gulf last January. ‘Like a lot of people, I’ve worried a little bit about shedding tears in public or the emotion of it,’ he told a convention of Southern Baptists in June, but ‘as Barbara and I prayed at Camp David before the air war began, we were thinking about those young men and women overseas. And I had the tears start down the checks, and our minister smiled hack, and I no longer worried how it looked to others.’ As his voice broke, and he paused to dab at his check – ‘Here we go,’ he said, with an embarrassed grin – the audience burst into applause. Like the smiles of the minister in January, the cheers of the Baptists in June presumably commended both the President’s war and his weeping.’

A Favourite of the Laws

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 13 June 1991

In Of the Rights of Persons, the first volume of his celebrated Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-69), William Black stone concluded his account of how the law makes a husband and wife one person by suggesting that the legal disappearance of the married Englishwoman was effectively a tribute to her sex. ‘These are the chief legal effects of marriage during the coverture’, Blackstone wrote, ‘upon which we may observe, that even the disabilities, which the wife lies under, are for the most part intended for her protection and benefit. So great a favourite is the female sex of the laws of England.’ Perhaps not surprisingly, Blackstone’s sisters now tell a different story. For Susan Staves, whose book takes its impetus both from feminism and from critical legal studies, to analyse the history of married women’s property in England is to uncover the ‘deeper’ structures of patriarchy – the system by which men manage to perpetuate their power by transmitting wealth from one generation to the next. The aim of the law, as Staves interprets it, is to ensure that women have as little independent control as possible of the wealth that passes through them.’

‘I can’t go on like this’

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 19 January 1989

At a critical moment in The House of Mirth (1905), just after her humiliating confrontation with Gus Trenor compels Lily Bart to realise how terrifyingly ‘alone’ she is, ‘in a place of darkness and pollution’, Edith Wharton’s doomed heroine thinks for the first time of the Furies: ‘She had once picked up, in a house where she was staying, a translation of the Eumenides,’ the novelist writes, ‘and her imagination had been seized by the high terror of the scene where Orestes, in the cave of the oracle, finds his implacable huntresses asleep, and snatches an hour’s repose. Yes, the Furies might sometimes sleep, but they were there, always there in the dark corners, and now they were awake and the iron clang of their wings was in her brain.’ Though Lily’s memory of the Furies obviously measures the relentlessness with which her society will pursue and destroy her, it serves more subtly to characterise the victim herself: sensitive enough to respond to the power of the dramatist’s art and to recall the scene so vividly, she has neither the education nor the discipline to know anything of Aeschylus beyond this chance acquaintance – an acquaintance casually ‘picked up’ in one of those luxurious houses where the beautiful but impoverished young woman has been a perpetual hanger-on. Having failed to make a wealthy marriage or otherwise to place herself above the reach of scandal, Lily will eventually descend from those houses to the narrow room of a shabby boarding-house, where she swallows an overdose of chloral. Wharton’s heroine clearly suffers from a lack of resources in more than one sense – and if the novel sometimes suggests that there is in any case no escaping the Furies, it nonetheless wishes us to understand the shallowness of her education, like her inability to earn her own living, as an indictment of the culture that made her so vulnerable.’

The Henry James Show

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 7 January 1988

In ‘The Birthplace’ (1903), a tale inspired by the case of a couple who had served as custodians of the Shakespeare house in Stratford, Henry James constructed a marvellously ironic narrative about the ‘stupid’ avidity of a public who care nothing for the artist’s work and everything for his legend, flocking to the shrine to see ‘where He hung up His hat and where He kept His boots and where His mother boiled her pot’. Though James’s notebooks clearly record the Shakespearean donnée, in the story itself ‘the supreme poet’ is never named: the celebrated mystery of the man from Stratford provides James with an ideal instance of the gap between the private person and the artist, even as the fictional poet’s namelessness intensifies his disappearance into his work. In the words of Morris Gedge, the sensitive caretaker who is the story’s protagonist: ‘Practically … there is no author; that is for us to deal with. There are all the immortal people – in the work; but there’s nobody else.’ Yet the poet’s success in covering ‘His tracks as no other human being has ever done’ does not prevent the public from demanding the ‘facts’: it only means, finally, that those facts will have to be invented. When Gedge begins to cast doubt on the legend, he almost loses his job; when he brazenly embroiders the ‘romance’ and piles up the false details (‘It is in this old chimney-corner … just there in the far angle, where His little stool was placed, and where, I dare say, if we could look close enough, we should find the hearthstone scraped with His little feet …’), the visitors’ receipts pour in, and the governing committee doubles his wages. His wife has feared that Gedge may now be ‘giving away the Show … by excess’, as before he almost dished them by restraint – but the point, of course, is that no excess can be too much for the vulgar multitude. The only real difference between Gedge’s original position as librarian at ‘Blackport-on-Dwindle’ – ‘all granite, fog and female fiction’ – and his new one as caretaker at the Birthplace is that he has increased his income by himself becoming a popular romancer.’


Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 7 November 1985

Perhaps all human courtships follow narrative precedents, but few make for such a satisfying story as that of the Brownings. The slightest imaginative pressure can transform the familiar facts of the case into a myth or fairy-tale, with each of the principals in the affair behaving wonderfully true to type: the spellbound maiden, mysteriously immobilised by an unnamed curse; the patriarchal ogre, who keeps his daughter locked away in a darkened room and turns aside all suitors; the lover who arrives with spring to break the spell and carry the heroine south, restoring her to health, happiness and fertility. Though luck must receive some credit for the happy ending of the tale, Daniel Karlin emphasises that theirs was doubly a writer’s story, and that much of its narrative potential should be attributed to the participants themselves. Subject to many subsequent redactions, the love story on which they first collaborated would ironically become the two ‘obscure’ poets’ most popular and accessible work. Rather than offer yet another retelling of the myth, Karlin’s book seeks to analyse the process of myth-making, and the psychological and literary needs that process served.

In a horizontal posture

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 5 July 1984

Shut off from more immediate contact with others, the ailing Elizabeth Barrett Barrett was a prodigious correspondent – as these three heavy volumes amply testify. Like one of Richardson’s immured heroines, she boasts of her skill at writing ‘in a horizontal posture’. ‘I can write as well or as badly when I lie down, as at a desk,’ she announced soon after she began corresponding with Mary Russell Mitford, and more than once she urged the older writer to lessen the strain of fatigue or illness by adopting the practice. Though Barrett was imprisoned by a peculiarly Victorian combination of female invalidism and paternal rigidity rather than by a threatening seducer, her own life would eventually yield enough romantic intrigue even for the pen of a Richardsonian heroine. The history of the Browning courtship and elopement seems made for storytelling, and beginning with the correspondence of the lovers themselves, it has of course been told many times. The nearly five hundred letters to Mitford collected here represent the largest number Barrett wrote to a single correspondent; they open in 1836, when the poet had just turned 30 and the Barretts had not yet moved to Wimpole Street, and end when the Brownings had been living almost seven years in Casa Guidi, the 15th-century Florentine palace in which they took up permanent residence after the liberating flight to Europe. Yet the events which loom so large in most popular accounts of these years figure very little in these documents. That EBB, as she signed herself, nonetheless managed to correspond so voluminously with her ‘ever dearest Miss Mitford’ might well prompt reflection on the arbitrary proportions between any written record and a life. But it also suggests that for the professional writer, at least, there is always more than one story to tell. And these letters are above all the record of a literary relation.–

Doctors’ Orders

Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 18 February 1982

In the summer following the death of Leslie Stephen in 1904, his daughter Virginia lay in bed, listening to the birds singing in Greek and imagining King Edward lurking naked in the azaleas, shouting obscenities; that same summer she apparently attempted to kill herself by leaping out of the window. ‘I have never spent such a wretched 8 months in my life,’ she wrote to a friend when the crisis had passed.


Edith Wharton

19 January 1989

Ruth Bernard Yeazell writes: To anyone who has relied on R. W. B. Lewis’s biography of Wharton, the recent accusations of carelessness to which Christopher Herzig alludes are disturbing, though why Marion Mainwaring has waited more than a decade to make her charges known is far from clear. It is certainly true that too many reviewers rush to praise the scholarship and editing of biographies and...

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Margaret Anne Doody, 9 January 1992

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Death and the Maiden

Mary-Kay Wilmers, 6 August 1981

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