So, What Is Bitterness?
Anna Jameson and Hedda Gabler
By Eli Siegel
Introductory note by Martha Baird
No man was a more accurate critic of women than Eli Siegel; and no man ever respected women, honestly admired them, more than he. I say this as a woman and as his wife. Eli Siegel understood me, and I have heard many women in Aesthetic Realism lessons and classes say sincerely, “Eli Siegel, you understand women.” This is praise I do not believe another man has earned sincerely. Women are chary of nothing so much as saying any man can understand them.
A classic text on the subject is Mr. Siegel’s “A Woman Is the Oneness of Aesthetic Opposites” in Definition 18 (1964). Since Aesthetic Realism sees reality as the oneness of opposites, it stands to reason that every instance of reality, including a woman, would be that too. But one doesn’t feel understood until the particular way one has opposites is seen, and this is where Aesthetic Realism criticism becomes art.
Among the women Eli Siegel was a critic and admirer of is the 19th-century writer, now little known, Anna Jameson. Mrs. Jameson had a mind: she was an art critic and she wrote well of Shakespeare’s plays. She also suffered as a woman. In relating these two aspects of her, Eli Siegel says something of all women, and particularly—for this was his purpose—of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. The lecture from which this. excerpt is taken was given in 1969, when Mr. Siegel was presenting a new way of seeing Hedda Gabler.
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So, What Is Bitterness?
By Eli Siegel
I HAVE MENTIONED various people as illustrating Hedda Gabler. Today, I deal with Anna Murphy Jameson, 1794-1860. What hurt Hedda Gabler seems to have hurt her. She was the daughter of a pretty well known miniature painter, an Irishman named Murphy. Some of her writings are very notable. Anyway, a lawyer, Robert Jameson, proposed to her. They were engaged; the engagement was broken off. Later there was a marriage, and the marriage didn’t last very long. The pain of Anna Jameson came to be known, because she wrote about it.
What can be presumed is that Robert Jameson was interested in Anna Jameson because of the fact that she had mind. But they separated soon because the idea of being so close to a feminine being with mind apparently didn’t please Robert Jameson. Anna Jameson was hurt too. I think there is a likeness of the hurt of Anna Jameson and the hurt or bitterness of Hedda Gabler. Anna Jameson, whatever else, is one of the women of the 19th century who had mind and knew things her husband didn’t, although he was a pretty impressive and learned lawyer.
Her most popular book was her first one. There was a bitterness as Anna Jameson, in 1825 or so, went to Europe, after having this disagreement with a man. The title brings Hedda Gabler to mind: Hedda Gabler does talk of how bored she is. The book is called Diary of an Ennuyeé, “Diary of a Bored One,” in French. I read some passages from an early American edition:
O how idle to talk of “indulging grief”: talk of indulging the rack, the rheumatism! who ever indulged grief that truly felt it? to endure is hard enough.
That is quite sincere, and affected readers in England. Then there is a poem which is straightforward. I cannot say it is the best in the field, but it says something. I can see the daughter of the General writing something like this stanza in Norway:
But a spirit is burning within me,
Unquench’d, and unquenchable yet;
It shall teach me to bear uncomplaining,
The grief I can never forget.
It was very hard for the men of 1800 to 1900 to think that a person whose body they went after could have any mind. The fact that they were interested in the being’s body was compliment enough—also, it was humiliation enough. But that there should be a mind that went along with an alluring shape—that was too much.
If a woman was intellectual or if she wasn’t intellectual, she took a risk of not being seen by the man she likely had to marry, because being unmarried was very hazardous. But loneliness does occur when how one can see is not seen desiringly by another. She writes:
With a faith, O! too blindly believing—
And what was this faith? The faith was that Robert Jameson, barrister, was interested in Anna Murphy as a complete being. Of course, I’m not saying that Anna Jameson had all the rightness—if she had, she wouldn’t have suffered so much. Still, on the subject of womenn who show mind, men have been very punko. As verse, this is not in excelsis.
Then Mrs. Jameson tries to forget through the liveliness of Paris:
What in Paris is the supreme talent? That of amusing. And what is the supreme happiness? Amusement.
So Mrs. Jameson is giving up deep feeling—she’ll just take the moment as it comes.
However, she is bitter, hurt; and that is quite clear. There is much evidence that hurt was ever so deep:
I cannot surely in this world suffer more than I have suffered; it is not possible that the same causes can be again combined to afflict me.
People have felt no one could suffer more than they have. Mrs. Jameson had as much right to say this as anybody.
Mrs. Jameson goes to Switzerland, and then she goes to Milan where she looks at paintings. She was the most popular describer of paintings before Ruskin. At the Brera in Milan, she studied the works of Correggio and Raphael. She talks of Correggio’s Hagar, one of the sadly dealt with women in the Old Testament:
The face of Hagar has haunted me sleeping and waking ever since l beheld it. Marvelous power of art! that mere inanimate forms, and colors compounded of gross materials, should thus live—thus speak—thus stand a soul-felt presence before us, and from the senseless board or canvas, breathe into our hearts a feeling, beyond what the most impassioned eloquence could ever inspire—beyond what mere words can ever render.
Correggio still can be seen with meaning for these days.
In Padua, the bitterness comes back. We don’t have Hedda Gabler crying herself to sleep, and having tears suddenly as she wakes up in the middle of the night; but this has happened with the feminine portion of humanity fairly often; sometimes for a good reason, sometimes for a bad reason.
O bitter and too lasting remembrance! I must sleep it away—even the heavy and drug-bought sleep to which I am now reduced, is better than such waking moments as these.
It seems she was using laudanum, as she traveled. This tells of the bitterness of the lady who died about the time Hedda Gabler was born—that is, 1860.
So we have this question, which will come up again: Was Hedda Gabler an intellectual? What does that mean? An intellectual woman is a woman who sees her mind as concerned with the whole world, and as seeing things that should be known, and as valuable.
The fight between personal and impersonal is in man and it is in woman. Hedda Gabler wanted to see herself as seeing, and wanted others to see her as seeing. Mrs. Jameson, who wrote quite a few books, had England see her as seeing. There she is different from Hedda Gabler, who doesn’t have any bibliographical history. But she is like Hedda Gabler in having the bitterness of feeling she cannot be cared for for what she truly is, for what is best in her.