Susan Eilenberg

Susan Eilenberg teaches at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Emily v. Mabel: Emily Dickinson

Susan Eilenberg, 30 June 2011

One need not be a Chamber – to be Haunted – One need not be a House – The Brain has Corridors – surpassing Material Place –

‘All men say “What” to me,’ Emily Dickinson wrote in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson. She certainly mystified Higginson. He never entirely overcame his uneasiness about her odd, disjunctive words and...

They had heard that we were great Philosophers, and expected much from us, one of the first questions that they askd was, when it would thunder.

Joseph Banks, The ‘Endeavour’ Journal

Richard Holmes describes The Age of Wonder as a ‘relay race of scientific stories’ about the explosion of exploration and scientific achievement in England between two celebrated...

I managed to grow up and leave home before I found out that my mother had once spent time in a mental ward. She was, at the time of her hospitalisation, a very new mother – of me – and consequently exhausted. What sent her to the mental ward was delirium. That, at least, was what the emergency room doctors thought when she arrived at the hospital extremely ill with encephalitis...

Baggy and Thin: Annie Dillard

Susan Eilenberg, 3 January 2008

Patience has been the matter of Annie Dillard’s writing for thirty years and more: patience and watchfulness and humility, together with a good deal of meditation (some of it conducted while crouched ‘mute as a photographic plate’, waiting for some small stalked creature to put aside its alarm and show itself on a chilly mudbank or in midgey thickets in Virginia or the...

Bite It above the Eyes: ‘Mister Pip’

Susan Eilenberg, 4 October 2007

As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them . . . my first fancies regarding what they were like were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father’s gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, ‘Also Georgiana...

Suicidal Piston Device: Being Lord Byron

Susan Eilenberg, 5 April 2007

He could dig no deeper than a grave, six feet perhaps of fractured soil, before the battering instrument began to turn upon itself. [It] sought to bury its body in the reluctant ground . . . Sam had passed the point of all his purposes . . . There was a kind of frantic joy to his desperation, as if the fury of failure itself offered some violent relief to his great...

For the past half-century Muriel Spark has been the recognised master of detachment. The closer she approaches matters of terror or outrage or betrayal or shame the more controlled her voice. To memory-summoned menace and ritually recalled violation her response has been severe amusement or colder revenge; to the threat of madness or obsession (her own or another’s), controlled glee. Her...

Adulation or Eggs: At home with the Carlyles

Susan Eilenberg, 7 October 2004

It’s a century and a quarter since J.A. Froude’s Life of Carlyle and his edition of Carlyle’s Reminiscences, a hundred years since Alexander Carlyle’s New Letters and Memorials of Jane Welsh Carlyle, Froude’s posthumous My Relations with Carlyle, and Alexander Carlyle and Sir James Crichton-Browne’s The Nemesis of Froude. Everyone has long since taken...

Murdoch had begun her romantic life . . . with an attachment to a slug; her first semi-serious schoolgirl romance, largely epistolary and wholly innocent, involved a dentistry student so extravagantly fond of blank verse that he was later to compose his first lecture as a professor of dental anatomy in it. But when Murdoch went to Oxford she unleashed her heart, and unleashed it remained for the next quarter of a century.

Leaf, Button, Dog: The Sins of Hester Thrale

Susan Eilenberg, 1 November 2001

Who would believe Goldy when he told of a Ghost? a Man whom One could not believe when he told of a Brother.

Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi, marginal annotation to Boswell’s Life of Johnson

Here is a museum. Visitors may see in it Nero’s couch, a statue of Cerberus and a skeleton of an Ethiopian, the bones stuck with porcupine quills. Here is a cabinet of curiosities. In it are a...

Forget that I exist: Mary Wollstonecraft

Susan Eilenberg, 30 November 2000

Mary Wollstonecraft’s defenders have always found their task difficult. Writing her life to disastrous effect in 1798, intent on establishing her as one of those beings ‘endowed with the most exquisite and delicious sensibility, whose minds seem almost of too fine a texture to encounter the vicissitudes of human affairs, to whom pleasure is transport, and disappointment is agony...

Durability was what mattered. Wordsworth founded his poetry on what he called ‘the beautiful and permanent forms of nature’ and built it according to ‘the primary laws of our nature’. It cleaved stubbornly to facts, to countable things, to rocks and stones and trees, and behaved rather like the boy Wordsworth himself, who, as he much later reported, often ‘grasped at a wall or tree’ on his way to school in order to reassure himself of the material reality of a world he did not entirely believe in. Single sheep were to refute by their superior probability the ‘abyss of idealism’ that threatened to reduce even mountains to nothingness, or roaring mist, or ‘huge and mighty forms that do not live/Like living men’ and that eclipse the ‘familiar shapes/Of hourly objects’. Even the most solid and reassuringly massive of Wordsworth’s objects suggest an uneasy awareness of the instability, the nothingness, against which they have been invoked but to which they are liable to succumb. Even the most matter-of-fact of his poems suggest the same imminent threat of ‘blank desertion’.‘

He knew not what to do – something, he felt, must be done – he rose, drew his writing-desk before him – sate down, took the pen – & found that he knew not what to do.

Wakey Wakey

Susan Eilenberg, 19 October 1995

Every reader has an archetype of boredom, which every writer fears to realise: a book as thick as a stack of freshman essays, as dim and grammarless as a headache, every phrase a phrase of a certain age, every page only page two. Writers will do much to avoid reminding their readers of possible connections between their own work and this nightmare ideal, sometimes going so far as to pretend that it does not exist, an approach not invariably successful. The more sophisticated, frequently more courageous, have discovered in boredom a subject of intense interest; but of course part of the excitement has to do with the contest between the writer and his cunning antagonist, together with the gruesome possibility that the work won’t make it out alive. An aphorism on boredom might hope to escape the slow, dumb mumbling of its subject. But to carry off an entire volume devoted to a condition about as definite as a mud puddle in a flood – this feat requires extraordinary qualities, such as have preserved from fractious tears countless children on countless rainy afternoons and have enabled novelists and other practitioners of culture to persist and thrive in the face of what Patricia Meyer Spacks calls ‘psychic entropy’. One of the oddities of Boredom is that, having amassed evidence of its subject’s profundity and pervasiveness (what could be more profound or more pervasive than entropy?), the book remains at bottom unconvinced that the phenomenon is anything more than an artefact of pampered cultural imagination. The contest is oddly calm.’

What Charlotte Did

Susan Eilenberg, 6 April 1995

Juliet Barker’s The Brontës is an uneasy work. It seeks to defend the family it takes as its subject against those who sought to invade its privacy: the Victorian reading public, with its prurient speculations about the mysterious authors Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell; meddling acquaintances whose reports fuelled those speculations; previous biographers who exploited those reports; close friends such as Ellen Nussey who defied Charlotte’s husband Arthur Nicholls and refused to burn the letters Charlotte sent her; even Charlotte herself, who, by reading her sister Emily’s poems, violated her privacy and thus allied herself with the intruders and the voyeurs. As a biographer and as a scholar of the Brontë family – she was for many years curator at the Brontë Parsonage Museum – Ms Barker has a stake in Charlotte’s accidental discovery and in Nussey’s obstinacy, even in the salacious speculation she deplores. But her sympathies are with Nicholls, threatening censorship, and with Emily, secretive and outraged. Too conscientious to withhold information, she proceeds only after reminding us that the privacy she seems to violate had in fact been violated long since by those she charges with ignorance, malice and greed. This makes for embarrassing reading.’

For the Good of the Sex

Susan Eilenberg, 8 December 1994

Once regarded as among the most distinguished poets in England, admired by Johnson, envied by Goldsmith, praised by Wordsworth, and read by everyone, Anna Letitia Barbauld has this last century or two thoroughly sunk into oblivion. Until recently, all that was remembered about her was an anecdote in Coleridge’s Table Talk, in which she figured, ingloriously, as the stooge whose miscomprehension of The Ancient Mariner provoked his comparison between that poem and the tale in the Arabian Nights of the genie, the merchant and the date shells. Even this anecdote was more likely to inspire debate about whether dates have shells than about the identity of Mrs Barbauld.

Wordsworth and the Well-Hidden Corpse

Marilyn Butler, 6 August 1992

‘The best-known publication date in English literature,’ says Michael Mason of 1798. But the terse, intelligent Introduction to his new edition of the Lyrical Ballads seems out to...

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