Some Sketches from The Woman’s Record, or Sketches of All Distinguished Women, by Sarah Joseph Hale (1853)

Sarah Josepha Hale, from the frontispiece to The Woman's Record

womans-record

ASTORGAS, MARCHIONESS OF

A Lady who lived in the latter part of the seventeenth century, in Spain, during the reign of Charles 11., killed with her own hands a beautiful woman, the mistress of her husband, and having prepared the heart of her victim, placed it at dinner before her husband. When he had eaten it, she rolled the head of the woman to him on the table. She then took refuge in a convent, where she became insane through rage and jealousy.

BRUN, MADAME LE

Was a French artiste or painter, who gained considerable reputation at Paris. Her paintings, historical pieces as well as portraits, were exhibited in the Louvre. Madame de Genlis speaks of the talents of Madame 1e Brun with much warmth of praise, and complains that the men sought to depreciate her paintings because she was a woman.

ERAUSO, CATALINA DE

Tns Monja Alferez, or Nun-Lieutenant. More famous women have lived than this, but a more extraordinary one has never been recorded. Her career was one of singular adventure, of wild passions, of unsparing cruelty, of heroic bravery; the few virtues which palliate her vices and savage conduct are such as are found to vindicate the dormant element in the breasts of brigands and pirates. And it is not the least singular circumstance connected with such a history, that it has been written down, detailed, and powerfully described by the heroine herself, in a style wonderfully vigorous, clear, and in pure and classic Spanish.

… It would be impossible, in this sketch, to detail her numerous homicides and fierce anger; but one may be alluded to from its consequences. Becoming enraged, at a gambling house, with a man of consequence, of Chile, she attacked him, and savagely killed him. She was obliged to take the refuge of a sanctuary; but as the friends of the murdered person were of rank and power, her retreat was carefully guarded, and after remaining there eight months, she felt the necessity of escaping into another government. The only way to effect this was by traversing the icy deserts of the Andes. “In this attempt I may find death,” said she; “by remaining here I shall certainly find it.“ At the outset she met three outlaws, who, like herself, were fugitives from justice. These banded themselves by necessity: fatigue and hunger were their first difficulties. Successively they killed their horses, when all other food was spent; but soon advancing into higher regions of the mountain, the cold became intense and biting. Still Catalina cheered on her companions, infused her own courage, and sustained their efforts to drag on, when one of them uttered a cheerful cry — help, aid dawned! Two men were standing at a little distance; the wretched creature tried to spring forward; he fell on a heap of snow. Catalina followed his indication; alas! horror and misery—the two men were unfortunate beings, dead, frozen stiff, with a ghastly look of anguish stamped on their frightful faces! Even Catalina was for an instant daunted. She turned to the man who had first seen them -— he was dead! She felt it was no time to pause, but urging on her remaining companions, sought a new impetus for exertion in her very despair. The cold became more and more bitter; still she stopped not. She saw her companions sink, one by one; she had no time to mourn them — recommending herself to the Virgin, she went on. The temperature became milder; at last she reached Tucuman, where she met with the utmost kindness and hospitality. She soon resumed her wild military life, always involving herself in quarrels.

FONTANGES. MARIE ANGELIQUE, DUCHESS 0F

Successor to Montespan in the affections of Louis XlV. “She was beautiful as an angel, but silly as a goose,” as Abbé Choisi said. She nevertheless captivated the affections of Louis XIV, who was tired of the pride and the caprice of Madame de Montespan. As soon as she discovered the passion which she had inspired, and had secured her royal conquest, she became haughty and extravagant, spending a hundred thousand crowns a month, and retorting a hundred-fold the disdain she had experienced from Madame de Montespan. She became the general dispenser of the king’s favours, and the model of fashion. One day, when she was on a hunting-party, the wind having put her head-dress in disorder, she fastened it with a riband, the knot of which falling over her forehead, this fashion spread all over Europe under her name. The king made her a duchess; but she did not long enjoy the rank, as she died when scarcely twenty years old, in the abbey of Port Royal, Paris, shortly after an accouchement.

ROSAMOND

Was the wife of Alboin of Albovinus, king of Lombardy, in the sixth century. Alboin slew her father, Gunimond, king of a neighbouring horde, in battle, and married his daughter by force. And, in order to retain a monument of his victory, he converted the skull of Gunimond into a drinking-cup, which he sent full of wine to Rosamond. In revenge, she had him assassinated.

from The Woman’s Record, available on the Internet Archive: Link.

Stravinsky’s Lunch, by Drusilla Modjeska (1999)

The Sisters, by Hugh Ramsay (1904)
The Sisters, by Hugh Ramsay (1904)
“Let us begin with two sisters dressed for a ball,” Drusilla Modjeska writes in her introduction to Stravinsky’s Lunch. “Whenever I look at this painting — which, as it is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, is quite often — I think they are waiting for the century to begin…. You can see from their faces that they are not the girls who went to balls in nineteenth-century novels; and you can see from their clothes that there is nothing of the modern woman about them.”

Cover of first US edition of "Stravinsky's Lunch"In Stravinsky’s Lunch, Modjeska looks at how two near-contemporaries of the two women in the painting (the painter’s sisters), Stella Bowen and Grace Cossington Smith — both Australians, both painters — took on the century they encountered and carved out lives and careers very different from the conventions of the Victorian world in which they were raised. Modjeska refers to the book as “a koan in my own practice as a woman and writer.” The choice of the term is apt, as Stravinsky’s Lunch is a book that raises many questions and finds few definitive answers to them.

Such as the story of Stravinsky’s lunch, which Modjeska first heard over a restaurant meal with other writers and artists. It’s not really a story, so much as the fact that when the composer Igor Stravinsky was working on a composition, he insisted that his family eat lunch in silence. “All artists are selfish,” wrote Robert Craft in Stravinsky: Chronicle of a Friendship (1972), “they must be, to get their work done. And they sacrifice the people around them.” for Modjeska, Stravinsky’s selfishness raises larger questions: “What are we prepared to ask of ourselves and of those who love us, what value we put on love and what value we put on art; what compromises we will make; which gods we will appease.”

Stella Bowen offers an example of a woman who, at first, sacrificed herself willingly on the altars of love and art. She happily entered into a relationship with the writer Ford Madox Ford, taking on the many domestic burdens of their rustic, near-penniless existence, in return for the sake of his love and his company: “… to have the run of a mind of that calibre … was a privilege for which I am still trying to say ‘thank you,'” she wrote in her memoir, Drawn from Life. But she also sacrificed her own development as an artist, as tending to Ford’s needs left her with little time and energy for her own work:

Ford never understood why I found it so difficult to paint whilst I was with him. He thought I lacked the will to do it at all costs. That was true, but he did not realise that if I had had the will to do it at all costs, my life would have been oriented quite differently. I should not have been available to nurse him through the daily strain of his own work; to walk and talk with him whenever he wanted, and to stand between him and circumstances. Pursuing an art is not just a matter of finding the time — it is a matter of having a free spirit to bring to it.

When, after one too many affairs with other women on Ford’s part, Bowen broke off their relationship, he failed to understand what all the fuss was about. As Modjeska puts it, he didn’t realize “that the qualities that had drawn him to her in the first place — her courage, her intelligence, her engagement with life — were precisely those that would take her away from him.” And that courage and intelligence were also what allowed her to produce her best work when she herself was free to focus. Yet, as is clear from Drawn from Life, Bowen never looked upon her time with Ford with regret, certainly not when she thought of their daughter. “Was Love the one, in the end, that she chose?” Or did she even chose one or the other? “Is choosing what she did?”

When I first read the story of Grace Cossington Smith that makes up the second half of Stravinsky’s Lunch, I was quite disappointed. There was none of the drama of Stella Bowen’s life. “No husbands. No babies. No affairs. No scandals. No cafes in Paris…. In the prejudices of her time, she was, simply, a spinster.” Smith spent most of her life in the same house with her parents and two of her three sisters. Most days, she painted scenes and people she saw around her in Sydney and the nearby country and seaside, working in a small studio her father had built at the back of their yard. She was over sixty before she was accepted as a serious artist of her own generation, over seventy when she was finally recognized as one of the greatest Australian painters of her century.

"Trees," by Grace Cossington Smith (1926)

Much of Smith’s story is a matter of producing painting after painting, moving first towards a striking mix of realism and abstraction, as illustrated by her 1926 painting, Trees. Smith said she was trying to paint all sides of a tree at once. When it appeared in her first solo show, one newspaper critic condemned it as a “freak.” Modjeska sees the work as revealing Smith’s keen eye for the dual nature of her Australian world: “For this was a young woman who understood both the settled pleasures of a garden with its bloom of peach, and the hectic tangle of branch and leaf, the mysterious possibilities that lay beyond, in bush and gully.”

As she grew older, Smith turned from subjects such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge to her immediate surroundings, painting the rooms in her family home — always with at least one window or door opening out into the world, but always from the perspective of someone on the inside. She experimented with color, settling on yellow as her primary tone, offset with blue (which is why it’s surprising that Modjeska doesn’t quote the opening phrase from Drawn from Life: “The land where I was born is a blue and yellow country”).

Grace Cossington Smith with her father and sister Madge (1919)
Grace Cossington Smith with her father and sister Madge (1919)
But there is another story, which Modjeska brings out. Of Smith’s three sisters, one married early and another took on a lifetime profession as a nurse. But her sister Madge stayed at home and cared for their parents and Grace, and after their parents died, for Grace alone. It was Madge who cooked the meals and saw that the rooms were cleaned and laundry washed and ironed. Modjeska reprints a photo of Grace, Madge, and their father from 1919. It’s one of those family photos that, though accidentally and perhaps misleadingly, seems to betray a secret. “There is Grace with her strong, intelligent face lifted to the sun. Madge’s lowered head is shrouded in misery so intense it seems to burn the paper their images are printed on…. You can tell at a glance that there’d be no question of Grace taking over the kitchen.”

So, despite forging a career in art that was very much of her own shaping, deliberately enforcing her isolation so that she could focus on her work — focus to the point that her paintings from her last decades all depict scenes less than a few yards from her own home — Smith did, in her own way, insist on a form of Stravinsky’s lunch. No wonder that when Madge accompanied Grace on a trip to England in 1949, she found a widower in need of a wife and married him, leaving Grace to return to Australia alone.

Yet Modjeska admits that her attitude toward the story of Stravinsky’s lunch changed in the course of writing the book, and, in particular because of Smith’s example. The nature of the book as a koan is revealed in her realization that the story “not only buys into a way of thinking that would separate art from life, with art striding above and beyond, transcending the ordinary and humble, but it sets life against art, or art against life.” Smith never involved herself in artistic movements and stayed rooted to the home and family she knew. And as her energies diminished with age, she focused on the things she saw immediately around her: her bed, her table, her windows, her mirror.

Some reviewers objected to Modjeska’s interjection of herself, of her own reflections, into her accounts of the lives and careers of Bowen and Smith. But Stravinsky’s Lunch is not really a work of biography as much as an exercise in understanding — and as much Modjeska’s self-understanding as her understanding of the two women she portrays. In 1999, perhaps it was just slightly too early for critics to be comfortable with a work that did not fit neatly into the boundaries of one particular genre, but I think we are seeing now a proliferation of books that sweep across genre boundaries with never a second thought. I hope today’s readers will be ready to seek out a copy of Stravinsky’s Lunch and enjoy it as thoroughly as I did.


Stravinsky’s Lunch, by Drusilla Modjeska
New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1999