Maria Anna Mozart Was a Musical Prodigy Like Her Brother Wolfgang, So Why Did She Get Erased from History?

When people ask why we have specifically black histories, or queer histories, or women’s histories, it can be hard for many who do historical research to take the question seriously. But in fairness, such questions point to the very reason that alternative or “revisionist” histories exist. We cannot know what we are not told about history—at least not without doing the kind of digging professional scholars can do. Virginia Woolf’s tragic, but fictional, history of Shakespeare’s sister notwithstanding, the claims made by cultural critics about marginalization and oppression aren’t based on speculation, but on case after case of individuals who were ignored by, or shut out of, the wider culture, and subsequently disappeared from historical memory.

One such extraordinary case involves the real sister of another towering European figure whose life we know much more about than Shakespeare’s. Before Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart began writing his first compositions, his older sister Maria Anna Mozart, nicknamed Nannerl, had already proven herself a prodigy.




The two toured Europe together as children—she was with her brother during his 18-month stay in London. “There are contemporaneous reviews praising Nannerl,” writes Sylvia Milo, “and she was even billed first.” A 1763 review, for example, sounds indistinguishable from those written about young Wolfgang.

Imagine an eleven-year-old girl, performing the most difficult sonatas and concertos of the greatest composers, on the harpsichord or fortepiano, with precision, with incredible lightness, with impeccable taste. It was a source of wonder to many.

18th century classical audiences first came to know Wolfgang as part of a brother-sister duo of “wunderkinder.” But the sister half has been airbrushed out of the picture. She does not appear in the definitive Hollywood treatment, Milos Forman’s Amadeus. And, moreover, she only recently began to emerge in the academic and classical worlds. “I grew up studying to be a violinist,” writes Sylvia Milo. “Neither my music history nor my repertoire included any female composers.”

With my braided hair I was called “little Mozart” by my violin teacher, but he meant Wolfi. I never heard that Amadeus had a sister. I never heard of Nannerl Mozart until I saw that family portrait.

In the portrait (top), Nannerl and Wolfgang sit together at the harpsichord while their father Leopold stands nearby. Nannerl, in the foreground, has an enormous pompadour crowning her small oval face. Of the hairdo, she wrote to her brother, in their typically playful rapport, “I am writing to you with an erection on my head and I am very much afraid of burning my hair.”

After discovering Nanerl, Milo poured through the historical archives, reading contemporary accounts and personal letters. The research gave birth to a one-woman play, The Other Mozart, which has toured for the last four years to critical acclaim. (See a trailer video above). In her Guardian essay, Milo describes Nannerl’s fate: “left behind in Salzberg” when she turned 18. “A little girl could perform and tour, but a woman doing so risked her reputation…. Her father only took Wolfgang on their next journeys around the courts of Europe. Nannerl never toured again.” We do know that she wrote music. Wolfgang praised one composition as “beautiful” in a letter to her. But none of her music has survived. “Maybe we will find it one day,” Milo writes. Indeed, an Australian researcher claims to have found Nannerl’s “musical handwriting” in the compositions Wolfgang used for practice.

Other scholars have speculated that Mozart’s sister, five years his senior, certainly would have had some influence on his playing. “No musicians develop their art in a vacuum,” says musical sociologist Stevan Jackson. “Musicians learn by watching other musicians, by being an apprentice, formally or informally.” The question may remain an academic one, but the life of Nannerl has recently become a matter of popular interest as well, not only in Milo’s play but in several novels, many titled Mozart’s Sister, and a 2011 film, also titled Mozart’s Sister, written and directed by René Féret and starring his daughter in the titular role. The trailer above promises a richly emotional period drama, which—as all entertainments must do—takes some liberties with the facts as we know, or don't know, them, but which also, like Milo's play, gives flesh to a significant, and significantly frustrated, historical figure who had, for a couple hundred years, at least, been rendered invisible.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Cult Director John Waters Hosts a Summer Camp for Naughty Adult Campers: Enrollment for the 2018 Edition Opens Today

I hated sports at camp, so at this camp I think we should reward every team that loses. This would be the camp where the fat people get picked first in dodge ball. 

- Filmmaker-cum-Camp Director John Waters

I can think of many children who would scramble toward the refuge of the compassionate statement above, but Camp John Waters is a decidedly adult activity.

The Pope of Trash shares actor Bill Murray’s relish for oddball settings in which he can meet the public as something close to a peer. But whereas Murray specializes in surprise drop-in appearances—reciting poetry to construction workers, crashing parties—Waters favors more immersive experiences, such as hitchhiking coast to coast.

His latest stunt brought him and 300 fellow travelers to a rustic Connecticut facility (from Sept 22-24) that normally hosts corporate team building events, family camps, and weekend getaways for playful 20-to-30-somethings keen to make new friends while zip lining, playing pingpong, and partying in the main lodge.

ARTnews pegged the inaugural session thusly:

 The Waters camp combines two of the more absurd developments in contemporary leisure: the celebrity-based getaway (see also: the Gronk Cruise) and a certain recreational aesthetic that seems to advocate for a sort of developmental purgatory.

Here,  there were no reluctant, homesick campers, weeping into their Sloppy Joes. This was a self-selecting bunch, eager to break out their wigs and leopard print, weave enemy bracelets at the arts and crafts station, and bypass anything smacking of official outdoor recreation, save the lake, where inflatable pink flamingos were available for aquatic lollygagging.

“Who really wants to go wall climbing?” the founder himself snorted in his welcoming speech, adding that he would if Joe Dallesandro, the Warhol superstar who according to Waters "forever changed male sexuality in cinema," waited up top.

Naughty references to water sports aside, certain aspects of the camp were downright wholesome. Pine trees and s’mores. Canoes and cabins. Presumably there was a camp nurse. (In Waters' ideal world, this position would be filled by Cry Baby's Traci Lords.)

Waters’ recollections of his own stint at Maryland’s Camp Happy Hollow seem primarily fond. It makes sense. Anyone who truly loathed summer camp would be unlikely to recreate the experience for themselves and their fellow adults.

Camp Waters harkens back to the 1950s transgressions its director merrily fesses up to having participated in: unfiltered cigarettes and short sheeted beds, circle jerks and panty raids. From here on out the subversion will be taking place in the sunlight.

Another special camp memory for Waters is regaling his cabin mates with an original, serialized horror story. He retells it on Celebrity Ghost Stories, above:

At the end there was this hideous gory thing and then all the kids had nightmares and their parents called the camp and complained — and I’m still doing that! It was the beginning of my career…. It was a wonderful lesson for me as a 10-year-old kid that I think helped me become whatever I am today. It gave me the confidence to go ahead, to believe in things, to believe in behavior I couldn’t understand, to be drawn to subject matter I couldn’t understand.

Registration for Camp John Waters 2018 opens today at noon, so grab the bug spray and get ready to sing along:

There is a camp in a place called Kent

It’s name is Camp John Waters

For here we come to spend the night

For we all love to fuck and fight

Camp John Waters - rah rah rah!

Camp John Waters - sisboombah!

Camp John Waters - rah rah rah!

Three cheers for Camp John Waters!

Could Waters’ own contribution to such camp classics as Meatballs, Little Darlings and Wet Hot American Summer be far behind?

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She attended Gnawbone Camp in Gnawbone, Indiana, recapturing that happy experience three decades later as the Mail Lady of Beam Camp.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Strange Story of Dr. James Barry, the Pioneering 19th Century British Doctor Who Was a Woman in Disguise

The work of many recent historians has brought more balance to the field, but even within heavily masculinist, Eurocentric histories, we find nonwhite people who slipped past racial gatekeepers to leave their mark, and women who made it past the gender police—sometimes under the guise of male pen names, and sometimes in disguise, as in the case of Dr. James Barry, who, upon his death in 1865, turned out to be “a perfect female,” as the surprised woman who washed the body discovered.

What makes Dr. Barry—born in Ireland as Margaret Bulkley, niece of the painter James Barry—such a noteworthy person besides passing for male in the company of people who did not tolerate gender fluidity? As the Irish Times writes in a review of a new biography, “her life as James Barry was a succession of audacious firsts—the first woman to become a doctor; the first to perform a successful caesarean delivery; a pioneer in hospital reform and hygiene; and the first woman to rise to the rank of general in the British Army (Barry’s commission, signed by Queen Victoria, still exists).”




When Barry's sex was discovered, it caused a sensation, inspiring everyone from muckraking anonymous journalists to Charles Dickens to weigh in on the case. The tale “was explored in novels,” notes The Guardian, “and even a play,” but the “true story is both more prosaic and infinitely more strange.” The video at the top of the post walks us through Barry’s career serving the Empire in South Africa, where she treated soldiers, lepers, and ailing mothers. Margaret's story as Dr. Barry begins in Cork when, longing for adventure at 18, she first decided to take on the persona of “a hot-tempered ladies’ man,” Atlas Obscura writes, “donning three-inch heeled shoes, a plumed hat, and sword.” When her wealthy uncle passed away and left the family his fortune, she also took his name.

Three years later in 1809, with the encouragement of her mentor and guardian, Venezuelan general Francisco Miranda, “she decided to embody a smooth-faced young man in order to attend the men’s-only University of Edinburgh and practice medicine—a guise that would last for 56 years.” Margaret’s early years were marked by hardship and tragedy. In her teens she had been raped by a family member and had born a child. When she became James Barry, a physician attending to pregnant women, she “had a secret advantage,” her biographers Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield write. “There was not another practicing physician in the world who knew from personal experience what it was like to bear a child.”

But of course, she did not need to experience leprosy or gunshot wounds to treat the many hundreds of patients in her care. Her sex was incidental to her skill as a physician. Margaret Bulkley's transformation may be “one of the longest deceptions of gender identity ever recorded,” writes du Preez. Barry "is remembered for this sensational fact rather than for the real contributions that she made to improve the health and the lot of the British soldier as well as civilians.” The doctor’s wild personal story weaves through the lives of commoners and aristocrats, soldiers and revolutionaries, duels and illicit love affairs, and is surely worthy of an HBO miniseries. Her medical accomplishments are worthy of public memorialization, Joanna Smith argues at CBC News, along with a host of other accomplished women who changed the world, even as their legacies were elbowed aside to make even more room for famous men.

via The Guardian

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Margaret Hamilton, Lead Software Engineer of the Apollo Project, Stands Next to Her Code That Took Us to the Moon (1969)

Photo courtesy of MIT Museum

When I first read news of the now-infamous Google memo writer who claimed with a straight face that women are biologically unsuited to work in science and tech, I nearly choked on my cereal. A dozen examples instantly crowded to mind of women who have pioneered the very basis of our current technology while operating at an extreme disadvantage in a culture that explicitly believed they shouldn’t be there, this shouldn’t be happening, women shouldn’t be able to do a “man’s job!”

The memo, as Megan Molteni and Adam Rogers write at Wired, “is a species of discourse peculiar to politically polarized times: cherry-picking scientific evidence to support a pre-existing point of view.” Its specious evolutionary psychology pretends to objectivity even as it ignores reality. As Mulder would say, the truth is out there, if you care to look, and you don’t need to dig through classified FBI files. Just, well, Google it. No, not the pseudoscience, but the careers of women in STEM without whom we might not have such a thing as Google.




Women like Margaret Hamilton, who, beginning in 1961, helped NASA “develop the Apollo program’s guidance system” that took U.S. astronauts to the moon, as Maia Weinstock reports at MIT News. “For her work during this period, Hamilton has been credited with popularizing the concept of software engineering." Robert McMillan put it best in a 2015 profile of Hamilton:

It might surprise today’s software makers that one of the founding fathers of their boys’ club was, in fact, a mother—and that should give them pause as they consider why the gender inequality of the Mad Men era persists to this day.

Hamilton was indeed a mother in her twenties with a degree in mathematics, working as a programmer at MIT and supporting her husband through Harvard Law, after which she planned to go to graduate school. “But the Apollo space program came along” and contracted with NASA to fulfill John F. Kennedy’s famous promise made that same year to land on the moon before the decade’s end—and before the Soviets did. NASA accomplished that goal thanks to Hamilton and her team.

Photo courtesy of MIT Museum

Like many women crucial to the U.S. space program (many doubly marginalized by race and gender), Hamilton might have been lost to public consciousness were it not for a popular rediscovery. “In recent years,” notes Weinstock, "a striking photo of Hamilton and her team’s Apollo code has made the rounds on social media.” You can see that photo at the top of the post, taken in 1969 by a photographer for the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory. Used to promote the lab’s work on Apollo, the original caption read, in part, “Here, Margaret is shown standing beside listings of the software developed by her and the team she was in charge of, the LM [lunar module] and CM [command module] on-board flight software team.”

As Hank Green tells it in his condensed history above, Hamilton “rose through the ranks to become head of the Apollo Software development team.” Her focus on errors—how to prevent them and course correct when they arise—“saved Apollo 11 from having to abort the mission” of landing Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon’s surface. McMillan explains that “as Hamilton and her colleagues were programming the Apollo spacecraft, they were also hatching what would become a $400 billion industry.” At Futurism, you can read a fascinating interview with Hamilton, in which she describes how she first learned to code, what her work for NASA was like, and what exactly was in those books stacked as high as she was tall. As a woman, she may have been an outlier in her field, but that fact is much better explained by the Occam’s razor of prejudice than by anything having to do with evolutionary determinism.

Note: You can now find Hamilton's code on Github.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hear the 150 Greatest Albums by Women: NPR Creates a New Canon of Albums That Puts Women at the Center of Music History

What is it with all the trendpieces on great women artists, writers, directors, singers, etc.? What, indeed. To ask the question is to acknowledge the premise of such pieces. Why should they need to be written at all if women in these fields received fair representation elsewhere? That lists and articles can be written in the hundreds puts the lie to phony claims that "great" women do not exist in every field in numbers. This is especially true in the 20th century, when hard-won political gains opened cultural doors unimaginable to many previous generations. But those gains did not fundamentally alter how cultural histories have been written.

Music critic Anne Powers and Lincoln Center program director Jill Sternheimer recently considered this problem, one which, Powers writes at NPR, persists even in the ways “music history’s being recorded and revised in the digital age.”




They wondered, "why... was the importance of women so often recognized as a trend instead of a source of lasting impact? We came to a conclusion that, in 2017, will likely strike no one as a surprise: that the general history of popular music is told through the great works of men, and that without a serious revision of the canon, women will always remain on the margins.”

This is a truth reinforced in many different ways: by the shelves weighed down with books about Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana, while only one or two about Aretha Franklin or Patti Smith sit nearby; by the radio playlists that still only feature women once or twice every hour.

This isn’t a problem of “representation”—the term we so often hear applied to casting decisions and awards shows. Powers isn’t making a case for diversity in hiring, but for accuracy in writing the historical record. To that end, Powers and Lincoln Center, together with “nearly 50 women who play a role in NPR… compiled and voted” on a list: "Turning the Tables: The 150 Greatest Albums by Women.” You can hear nearly all of those albums in our Spotify playlist below. Calling the list “an intervention, a remedy, a correction,” Powers writes, “These albums were released between 1964, the year The Beatles invaded America… and 2016, when Beyoncé arguably ushered in a new period with her ‘visual album’ Lemonade.”

The point is to offer a view of popular music history with women's work at the center. The list does not represent an "alternate history." It stands for music history, touching upon every significant trend, social issue, set of sonic innovations, and new avenue for self-expression that popular music has intersected in the past fifty years.

Against the argument for “affirmative action”—or simply rewriting old “great album” lists to include more women—Powers argues, “once a canon is formed, it gains an aura of immutability.” Plenty of lists include female artists. Almost none of them include women in the top spots, suggesting that “the paradigms that define greatness remain masculine at their core.” Tokenism, no matter how well-intentioned, does not make for “a shift in perspective beyond the simple mandate to adjust the numbers.”

Ava Duvernay has made a similar argument against mandated “diversity” in Hollywood as a mollifying tactic that maintains status quo power relationships. “The fact that the mainstream starts to gaze at this space doesn’t make it a moment,” she tells Hollywood Reporter, “it makes it a moment for them.” As Powers writes of the way Joni Mitchell was often treated by the rock establishment, "the female musician is a dream, a surprise and a disruptor. She can claim the center of attention, but her rightful point of origin, and the place to which she returns, is a margin."

Instead of marginal inclusion in existing cliques, Powers argues for a cultural shift, a “new canon,” that isn’t hedged with the usual standards that often exclude women on arbitrary purist grounds. Keeping “wide parameters,” the contributors “left room for acknowledged rock-era classics as well as pop hits dismissed by others as fluff.” That disclaimer aside, there’s precious little “fluff” on this list—meaning it’s hard to find albums here that wouldn’t qualify for “greatest” status on more narrowly-defined genre lists. It is a list, that is to say, of 150 great albums, written, recorded, and released over the course of fifty plus years, by some of the most talented writers, players, and musicians in modern music history.

"Lists have their limitations," Powers admits, "They reflect biases and whispered compromises." She and her contributors offer this one "as the beginning of a new conversation" rather than an authoritative statement. At such depth and breadth, however, "Turning the Tables" makes room for nearly every possible genre, from all over the world. Read the full list of 150 albums, with commentary, here. A few of the 150 albums, including Lemonade, Bikini Kill's Yeah Yeah Yeah, Joan Jett's I Love Rock 'n' Roll, Joanna Newsome's Ys, and Laurie Anderson's Big Science aren't on Spotify, so didn't make our playlist above. The top ten albums on the list are:

  1. Joni Mitchell, Blue (Reprise, 1971)
  2. Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Ruffhouse/Columbia, 1998)
  3. Nina Simone, I Put a Spell on You (Philips, 1956)
  4. Aretha Franklin, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You (Atlantic, 1967)
  5. Missy Eliot, Supa Dupa Fly (The Goldmine/Elekra, 1997)
  6. Beyoncé, Lemonade (Parkwood/Columbia 2016)
  7. Patti Smith, Horses (Arista, 1975)
  8. Janis Joplin, Pearl (Columbia, 1971)
  9. Amy Winehouse, Back to Black (Island, 2006)
  10. Carole King, Tapestry (Ode, 1971)

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Strange Story of Wonder Woman’s Creator William Moulton Marston: Polyamorous Feminist, Psychologist & Inventor of the Lie Detector

Most young male fans from my generation failed to appreciate the gender imbalance in comic books. After all, what were the X-Men without powerful X-women Storm, Rogue, and, maybe the most powerful mutant of all, Jean Grey? Indie comics like Love and Rockets revolved around strong female characters, and if the legacy golden age Marvel and DC titles were nearly all about Great Men, well... just look at the time they came from. We shrugged it off, and also failed to appreciate how the hypersexualization of women in comics made many of the women around us uncomfortable and hyperannoyed.

Had we been curious enough to look, however, we would have found that golden age comics weren’t just innocent “products of their time”—they reflected a collective will, just as did the comics of our time. And the character who first challenged golden age attitudes about women—Wonder Woman, created in 1941—began her career as perhaps one of the kinkiest superheroes in mainstream comic books. What’s more, she was created by a psychologist William Moulton Marston, who first published under a pseudonym, due in part to his unconventional personal life. Marston, writes NPR, “had a wife—and a mistress. He fathered children with both of them, and they all secretly lived together in Rye, N.Y.”

The other woman in Marston’s polyamorous threesome, one of his former students, happened to be the niece of Margaret Sanger, and Marston just happened to be the creator of the lie detector. The details of his life are as odd and prurient now as they were to readers in the 1940s—partly an index of how little some things have changed. And now that Marston’s creation has finally received her blockbuster due, his story seems ripe for the Hollywood telling. Such it has received, it appears, in Professor Marston & the Wonder Women, the upcoming biopic by Angela Robinson. It’s unfair to judge a film by its trailer, but in the clips above we see much more of Marston’s dual romance than we do of the invention of his famous heroine.

Yet as political historian Jill Lepore tells it, the cultural history of Wonder Woman is as fascinating as her creator’s personal life, though it may be impossible to fully separate the two. A press release accompanying Wonder Woman’s debut explained that Marston aimed “to set up a standard among children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood; to combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence in athletics, occupations and professions monopolized by men.” It went on to express Marston’s view that “the only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development and equality of women in all fields of human activity.”

The language sounds like that of many a modern-day NGO, not a World War II-era popular entertainment. But Marston would go further, saying, “Frankly, Wonder Woman is the psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.” His interest in domineering women and S&M drove the early stories, which are full of bondage imagery. “There are a lot of people who get very upset at what Marston was doing...,” Lepore told Terry Gross on Fresh Air. “’Is this a feminist project that’s supposed to help girls decide to go to college and have careers, or is this just like soft porn?’” As Marston understood it, the latter question could be asked of most comics.

When writer Olive Richard—pen name of Marston’s mistress Olive Byrne—asked him in an interview for Family Circle whether some comics weren’t “full of torture, kidnapping, sadism, and other cruel business,” he replied, “Unfortunately, that is true." But “the reader’s wish is to save the girl, not to see her suffer.” Marston created a “girl”—or rather a superhuman Amazonian princess—who saved herself and others. “One of the things that’s a defining element of Wonder Woman,” says Lepore, “is that if a man binds her in chains, she loses all of her Amazonian strength. So in almost every episode of the early comics, the ones that Marston wrote... she’s chained up or she’s roped up.” She has to break free, he would say, “in order to signify her emancipation from men.” She does her share of roping others up as well, with her lasso of truth and other means.

The seemingly clear bondage references in all those ropes and chains also had clear political significance, Lepore explains. During the fight for suffrage, women would chain themselves to government buildings. In parades, suffragists "would march in chains—they imported that iconography from the abolitionist campaigns of the 19th century that women had been involved in... Chains became a really important symbol,” as in the 1912 drawing below by Lou Rogers. Wonder Woman’s mythological origins also had deeper signification than the male fantasy of a powerful race of well-armed dominatrices. Her story, writes Lepore at The New Yorker, “comes straight out of feminist utopian fiction” and the fascination many feminists had with anthropologists' speculation about an Amazonian matriarchy.

The combination of feminist symbols have made the character a redoubtable icon for every generation of activists—as in her appearance on 1972 cover of Ms. magazine, further up, an issue headlined by Gloria Steinem and Simone de Beauvoir. Marston translated the feminist ideas of the suffrage movement, and of women like Margaret Sanger, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, his wife, lawyer Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and his mistress Olive Byrne, into a powerful, long-revered superhero. He also translated his own ideas of what Havelock Ellis called “the erotic rights of women.”

Marston's version of Wonder Woman (he stopped writing the comic in 1947) had as much agency—sexual and otherwise—as any male character of the time. (See her breaking the bonds of “Prejudice,” “Prudery,” and “Man’s Superiority” in a drawing, below, from Marston’s 1943 article “Why 100,000 Americans Read Comics.”) The character was undoubtedly kinky, a quality that largely disappeared from later iterations. But she was not created, as were so many women in comics in the following decades, as an object of teenage lust, but as a radically liberated feminist hero. Read more about Marston in Lepore’s essays at Smithsonian and The New Yorker and in her book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman.

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George Eliot’s Middlemarch Gets Reborn as a 21st Century Web Series: Watch It Online

In 1856, novelist George Eliot—real name Mary Anne Evans—issued a vicious critique of other women English writers in language we would expect from the most self-satisfied of misogynists, a group of people with an unqualified monopoly on the culture, but who had very little new to say on the subject. But Eliot certainly did, in “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” Though she couches many of her critical observations in the condescending vocabulary of a male antagonist, the language only serves to make her argument more effective. The essay, writes Kathryn Schulz, “does a remarkable number of things deftly and all at once.”

Although she is an uncommonly compassionate writer, Eliot has knife skills when she needs them, and the most obvious thing she does here is chiffonade the chick lit of her day. Yet even while castigating some women, she manages to champion women as a whole. Her chief objection to silly novels is that they misrepresent women’s real intellectual capacity; and the chief blame for them, she argues, lies not with their authors but with the ­culture that produced them—through inadequate education, low expectations, patronizing critics, and fear of the real deal.

The fault, she asserted, lies with the gatekeepers, the tastemakers, the lazy thinkers. Though an accomplished essayist and translator, Eliot would only publish her first novel in 1859, at the age of 37. But “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” writes Schulz, “traces out in negative space, the contours of a truly great novel”—one that wouldn’t arrive until fourteen years later: Middlemarch: a study of provincial life. (Read online or download in various formats here.)




The book’s first chapter introduces Dorothea Brooke, a well-off 19-year old orphan—who, writes Pamela Erens, “has dreams of doing some great work in the world” but gives her life instead to “dry humorless pedant” Casaubon—with an ironic quote from the licentious Jacobean play The Maid’s Tragedy: “Since I can do no good because a woman, / Reach constantly at something that is near it.”

As with the pen name she adopted, Eliot appropriated the armor of a male-dominated culture to bring into being some of the most staggeringly insightful writing of the time, and a beacon to other great women writers. “What do I think of Middlemarch?,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “What do I think of glory?—except that in a few instances ‘this mortal has already put on immortality.’” Virginia Woolf pronounced the book “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” Number twenty-one on The Guardian’s list of “The 100 Best Novels,” Middlemarch, writes Robert McCrum, exerts “an almost hypnotic power over its readers…. Today it stands as perhaps the greatest of many great Victorian novels.”

Do we have the time or the attention to read Eliot’s sprawling 900-page realist epic in the 21st century? Given that Karl Ove Knausgaard's 3,600 page, six-part autobiographical novel, My Struggle, is one of the most lauded literary works of the past few years, perhaps we do. More specifically, in the language of many a condescending critic of today, do “Millennials” have the time and attention to read Middlemarch? At least a certain contingent of young readers has not only read the novel, but has adapted it into a seventy-episode web drama, Middlemarch: The Series—an “attempt worth watching," writes Rebecca Mead at The New Yorker, "for its ambition as well as its charm.”

Written and directed by Yale undergraduate film student Rebecca Shoptaw, the series stars several of Shoptaw’s peers “as students at Lowick College, in the fictional town of Middlemarch, Connecticut,” and it transcribes the novel’s form into that most 21st century of mediums, the vlog. You can see the official teaser at the top of the post; watch the first episode just above, introducing Yale student Mia Fowler as Dot Brooke; and see the full series, thus far, down below. (The show has already won awards and recognition from several film festivals. See "air dates" and more on its busy Tumblr page.)

Up to now, notes Mead, Eliot's fiction has resisted the kind of treatment given to Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen in adaptations like “a chapter book for tweens called Jane Airhead” and the Austen-inspired Bridget Jones’s Diary and Clueless (not to mention Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). And yet, despite the daunting size, scope, and seriousness of Eliot’s novel, Middlemarch: the Series continues in this tradition of light-hearted, pop-cultural modernizations, using the same device as the award-winning Austen vlog adaptation The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Brontë vlog adaptation "The Autobiography of Jane Eyre."

Though it is "an impossibly tall order,” writes Mead, “to expect a Web series to approach the nuance of a nineteenth-century novel—of the nineteenth-century novel," adaptations like Shoptaw’s don’t even attempt to do this. They express “a winning affection” for their source material, and a sense of how it still informs the very different gender identities and sexual relationships of the present. In that sense, it may be useful to think of them as, in part, working in a similar vein as another very 21st century medium: fan fiction. Would the knives-out critic Eliot approve? Impossible to say. But I dare say she might admire the ambition, creative impulses, and narrative ingenuity of Shoptaw and her cast perhaps as much as they admire her greatest work.

via The New Yorker

Related Content:

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

 

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