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Selections from the letters of Geraldine Endsor Jewsbury to Jane Welsh…

– tekijä: Geraldine Endsor Jewsbury

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Viimeisimmät tallentajatnelsam, thorold

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... but Geraldine Jewsbury herself still survives, independent, courageous, absurd, writing page after page without stopping to correct, and coming out with her views upon love, morality, religion, and the relations of the sexes, whoever may be within hearing, with a cigar between her lips.
Virginia Woolf, "Geraldine and Jane" in The Common Reader, 2nd Series


If you've heard Geraldine Jewsbury's name, then it might be because Jeanette Winterson borrowed it for a character in Oranges are not the only fruit, or it might be that you've read one of her novels (Zoe was reissued in recent times by Virago, and The half-sisters is in the Oxford World's Classics series). But most probably you've read Virginia Woolf's clever, witty essay "Geraldine and Jane", in which she makes affectionate fun of the gauche, provincial spinster-novelist who somehow managed to wedge herself into the life of one of the great Victorian literary households.

Miss Jewsbury was the daughter of a Manchester businessman. She mixed in intellectual circles there from fairly early on, and sometime around 1840 (when she was in her late 20s) she was invited to visit one of her heroes, the historian Thomas Carlyle, at his home in Chelsea. It turned out that she got on very well with Mrs Carlyle, and the two women launched into a lively (often tempestuous) friendship, mostly carried out by letter. All but one of Jane's letters to Geraldine were destroyed, but Annie Ireland, when she was writing her biography of Jane, came across some 150 of Geraldine's letters, which are published here. Mrs Ireland is a rather infuriating editor, since she took it upon herself to blank out almost all the personal names mentioned in the letters, irrespective of whether they are people Geraldine is being rude about, lovers, passing celebrities, or simply members of her household or people who come to tea (it's usually obvious from the context when she's talking about her brother Frank, with whom she lived for many years, for instance, but his name is blanked out in every letter except the last one. WHY????). And when she does deign to give us a footnote, it's usually to tell us that "Nero" is Mrs Carlyle's dog. She presumably didn't want to cut into potential sales of her biography of Jane by duplicating material... Sadly, there doesn't seem to be any modern edition of the letters.

All the same, it is fun to read the letters, following Geraldine's crazy rush through the emotions and her much calmer reflections on religion, the role of women in society, literature, plain starching, medicine, the pleasures of smoking, and "George Sandism". She disapproved of the fashion for imitating the great French writer, even though she herself liked to wear men's clothes and smoke cigars, often asserted that she was in love with a married man, and had at least one serious lesbian affair besides her — probably — unrequited passion for Jane. On religion she's gloriously inconsistent as well — sometimes she's talking about her unshakeable faith or sitting piously in church (even if the book she has open in front of her isn't necessarily a prayer-book); at other times she's mocking respectability, Unitarianism, Tractarians, and religious hypocrisy. And she seems to have a sneaking admiration for the Roman Catholic Church, even though her most famous novel is about a Catholic priest who finds he has no faith.

One unexpected side-alley for me was when I chased up Geraldine's references to a friend she calls "the Chevalier", and whom Mrs Ireland uncharacteristically identifies in a footnote: he's the Austrian musician, globetrotter, diplomat and presumed spy, Sigismund Ritter von Neukomm (1778-1858), pupil of Joseph Haydn, who seems to have come to rest for a while in Manchester in the 1830s and 40s (amongst other things putting on a performance of The Creation). He apparently liked to entertain Geraldine with raunchy reminiscences of Talleyrand and Chateaubriand. I'd never heard of him, but thanks to the wonders of streaming, I've been listening to quite a bit of his music (fun, in a sub-Mendelssohn kind of way). He sounds like an interesting character to follow up.

A frustrating book if you're trying to piece together a connected story — Woolf had obviously read Mrs Ireland's biography of Jane as well — but nevertheless an entertaining and uninhibited Victorian voice, and a lot of interesting people moving about in the background: Dickens, W.E. Forster, Mrs Gaskell, G H Lewes (if George Eliot is there as well, she's buried between the blanks), Jenny Lind, Mrs Browning (curious to see that the unfortunate Nero suffered from the same dog-napping problems as Flush), and many more. If only we could be sure which was which out of all the blanks... ( )
  thorold | Dec 13, 2019 |
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