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Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Entries in catherine engh (4)


In Which We Let Other Pens Dwell On Guilt And Misery

Eliot and Austen


This winter, on the heels of Emma and Persuasion, I read Middlemarch for the first time. Because of this sequence of things, I emerged out of Eliot’s novel with characters and themes from Austen’s still fresh in my mind. I started turning back and forth between them, wondering things like: who was more pessimistic about relations between the sexes?

I want to get into gender and women’s lives in Austen and Eliot but, before I get there, here’s some context: George Eliot and Jane Austen fictionalized provincial English life at different times in the 19th century. Austen lived through the Napoleonic wars and Eliot, the construction of railroads and the rise of the Chartist movement. Though they both created quick-witted, self-conscious heroines that readers adore, their differences as writers are as marked as their shared concerns.

Austen notoriously shies away from corruption — as characters dissipate, they become less worthy of her attention. In the last chapter of Mansfield Park, Austen’s narrator refuses to represent the fates of a handful of undeserving characters. “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can” she declares from on high. Eliot is keenly interested in pathological behavior. In Middlemarch, the Green Dragon is a seedy bar for gentlemen and professionals where Eliot’s narrator hones in on the temptations to gamble, shoot pool and drink to excess. By contrast, all of Wickham’s gambling in Pride and Prejudice happens off-stage where his debts, too, are swiftly dealt with.

Austen never made it to middle age and her novels pivot on the contradictions of the courtship scramble — social duty versus individual desire, love versus money. Eliot was fifty-six when Middlemarch was published and her narratives pick up at that time in life when Austen’s typically drop off — Middlemarch begins with two marriages that soon run afoul. Neither Austen nor Eliot is cynical, but Eliot has fewer stars in her eyes. She, after all, gave the long-view of marriage. 

Though Claudia Johnson has done a great job of reading Austen as a feminist writer, she remains, like Eliot, hard to pin down. It is difficult to ascribe liberal viewpoints to Austen and Eliot because they represented the world more or less as they saw it — not as it should be, but as it was. They were as interested in conserving the family and the landed estate as in critiquing the powerful. Nonetheless, they saw that these institutions had problems, many of which were rooted in gender inequity. Through their female characters, Austen and Eliot represent the psychological ramifications of domestic confinement.

We read on the first page of Emma that our heroine, an heiress, has a personality problem: “The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments.” Most of what happens in the story relates back to this flaw in Emma’s disposition. She meddles in the lives of people less wealthy than her, comes to see that she has been wrong and tries to make amends. She reaches a peak of blind-sighted entitlement when, out walking with a party of friends, she archly demands that everyone share their thoughts. The gaffe exposes the kind of thinking that gets her into trouble. For most of the novel, Emma believes in her own omniscience — she knows other’s feelings and is fit to determine their fates. Unsurprisingly, she’s wrong more than she’s right about what’s best for her friends — she hardly knows what’s best for herself. Emma is about the presumptions that come with class privilege. But it’s also about the damage that may be done when all of an active woman’s energies are channeled into private life. Emma plays matchmaker because she’s bored. She doesn’t have to work, marry or do anything else that would give her an excuse for existing.

The beautiful Rosamond Vincy of Middlemarch is, like Emma, used to getting her way. Educated in music and the social graces at Mrs. Lemon’s charm school, she captivates Tertius Lydgate — an ambitious doctor from out of town. Eliot’s narrator doesn’t like Rosamond much: she’s materialistic, duplicitous and cold to her husband in his moments of greatest need. She wears her demure femininity as a mask, pretending to submit to Lydgate and then doing what he prohibits behind his back. The standard of feminine submission has been indoctrinated in Rosamond from an early age. Her shadowy grasps after influence are misguided reactions to that inflexible benchmark. It’s sad: all of her attempts to shape the course of her life fail because, outside of her drawing room, she has no real power. When she covertly writes to her husband’s uncle for money, he refuses, writing back reprovingly: “I never choose to write to a woman on matters of business.”

Bluntly, Eliot’s narrator sums up Rosamond’s fate: she “continued to be mild in her temper, inflexible in her judgment, exposed to admonish her husband, and able to frustrate him by stratagem.” Rosamond is a difficult and unbending wife. But she behaves badly because she doesn’t know better: the mild variety of femininity that she was taught to perform is a shiny veneer, one that looks nice from the outside but ill-equips her to face the difficult problems that come her way.

While Rosamond frustrates her husband and Emma plays matchmaker, Anne Eliot of Persuasion grieves. The story goes that Anne’s “bloom had vanished early” because, eight years prior, she was persuaded to refuse an offer of marriage from a naval captain with no fortune. When he returns to the homeland rich with the spoils of war, Anne is still in love with him — she always has been. He is resentful, so he courts her sister-in-law Louisa. This creates a number of painful and awkward situations that Anne deals with like a saint.

Eventually, the captain realizes that Louisa is not for him. Anne clears up any uncertainties about her feelings when, in earshot of the captain, she argues that women love longest “when existence or when hope is gone” because, unlike men, they have no daily distractions from grief: “we live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us. You are forced on exertion. You have always a profession, pursuits, business of some sort or other…and continual occupation and change soon weaken impressions.” In Persuasion, Austen articulates a social basis for the emotional delicacy of women but stops short of lamenting women’s marginalized place in the world. Anne’s marriage is to be celebrated — the match a good one. The coming together of thwarted lovers is romantic; it confirms that old wounds can be sutured.

Eliot goes a step further than Austen by qualifying her narrator’s joy in the big marriage that seals off Middlemarch.  Idealistically, Dorothea Brooke plans to make the world a better place. But her plans get brushed aside when she falls for Casaubon, a vicar who is writing a scholarly tome called the Key to All Mythologies. Dorothea imagines that marrying him will be like “marrying Pascal” but she soon finds that he’s a terminal bore and his Key is already outdated. When he dies and Dorothea marries again, Eliot's narrator seems to shrug her shoulders feeling a mix of disappointment and resignation: “Many who knew her, thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as wife and mother. But no one stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done.” A pervasive lack of imagination is as much the cause of Dorothea’s obscure fate as anything else. Spiritual powerhouse that she is, Dorothea is no radical she wants a superior being to tend and support. This is also what people expect her to want.

It is difficult to realize alternative ways of being when the big repressive institutions — the family, school, church and state—are not on your side. The marriage that seals off Middlemarch is not so much a concession to the status quo as a frank estimate of its force. It’s a solemn ending but Eliot’s last words are not hopeless. In the oft quoted final lines of the novel, she writes that “the effect of…[Dorothea’s] being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who live faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Social transformation is not always a loud or visible process. The world becomes better when, checking our will to power, we extend outwards to the needs of others. This is the anonymous purview of Dorothea Brooke. Nearly one hundred and fifty years after Middlemarch was published, we’re still quoting Eliot because the lesson she leaves us with is the kind of thing that we have to learn again and again.

Catherine Engh is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about Gilmore Girls.

"Nemesis" - Benjamin Clementine (mp3)

"Adios" - Benjmain Clementine (mp3)


In Which We Find Ourselves Calling Out For Lorelai In The Night

The Same Mistakes


In October seven long seasons of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s Gilmore Girls were made available on Netflix. This means that instead of having to wait an entire week to see another episode in which nothing essentially happens, Netflix subscribers and their friends can now watch two, even three episodes back-to-back.

For those who saw Gilmore Girls unfold on the WB thirteen years ago, the re-watch promises to be a nostalgia trip, if nothing else. The show is the same, but we’re all older, our judgments are different. I’ve found, for one, that Jess and his beat poetry are far less alluring than they once were. It’s hard to believe that he has it in him to care about anything but his car and his hair gel. Shouldn’t Rory want to smooch a nice guy like Dean?

A little background: Gilmore Girls depicts the social universe of Stars Hollow—a fictional town an hour’s drive from Hartford. We know everyone there is to know here, down to the guitar player who busks on the street corner. At the bottom of the character- hierarchy are the unnamed laborers who work in the kitchen at the local Inn.

At the top are Lorelei and Rory, a mother-daughter pair who tell each other everything because they are also BFFs. There’s an inescapable dynamic between the two: they consume a ton of coffee and food together, they drop all kinds of allusions to indie culture. They can be a bit annoying—cliquish and self-satisfied—but it’s the kind of thing you can forgive. The other characters on the show certainly do.

Alexis Bledel, the actress who played Pete’s troubled love object on Mad Men, is Rory, a high school student with big ambitions to go to Harvard, become a journalist and travel to all of the nation-states featured on posters around her room. We don’t know why Rory is so uncompromising about her goals, Harvard in particular. What we do know is that if Rory doesn’t make the same mistakes as her mother — i.e. get pregnant — then she’ll go to an Ivy League University and that, somehow, will make everything okay for everyone.

Lauren Graham, recently of NBC’s Parenthood, plays Lorelei. Gilmore Girls repackages the story of Lorelei’s fall from grace more times than it should be possible. The story is simple: Lorelei becomes pregnant as a teen and when she doesn’t want to marry Rory’s father, she leaves her conservative parents’ home and moves in at the fittingly named Independence Inn. The change turns out to be a boon: Lorelei becomes Inn manager and no longer has to suffer the oppressions of life with Richard and Emily Gilmore — parents who never really understood her or her rapid-fire jokes.

Everything is going swimmingly for the Gilmore girls until we learn, in the pilot, that Rory has gotten into Chilton, a fancy prep school. Lorelei can’t afford to replace the girls’ lumpy couch and she definitely can’t afford to pay the Chilton tuition. Richard and Emily agree to cover it on one condition: Lorelei and Rory eat dinner with them every Friday night. It shouldn’t be such a bad deal but Lorelei’s pregnancy stands like a traumatic memory that no one can incorporate — over and over again, it recurs, disrupting the tenuous relationships that everyone in the Gilmore family is trying to cultivate.

The Gilmore girls are, like Cher in Clueless, long deluded about their attraction to the important men in their lives. Lorelei represses her feelings for the town’s diner owner; Rory does the same for the local bad boy. Sherman-Palladino draws these self-deceptions out to such lengths that sometimes it feels like she just wants to keep us watching, wondering if the next episode will be the one where one of the girls finally admits to the obvious and couples with the person she is supposed to be with.

Oftentimes, the supporting characters are more fun to watch than Rory and Lorelei. Melissa McCarthy is wonderful as Sookie, the brilliant but clumsy cook at the Independence Inn. Keiko Agena reaches manic heights as Rory’s friend Lane. Living under the authority of a cartoonishly tyrannical mother, Lane’s uneasy mix of resentment and obligation drives her to make many an impulsive decision.

Liza Weil plays Rory’s friend Paris — an intensely driven student who vies with Rory for academic plaudits. Paris exudes all the A-type energy that we don’t get from Rory because we’re supposed to see her as a singular character with sympathies and inner depths. I enjoy Sookie, Lane and Paris so much that I like to think of their frenetic energy as a dissenting outcry against their relatively minor status on the show.

Sherman-Palladino conjures all kinds of drama around the issues of sex and pregnancy, an aspect of Gilmore Girls that grew very tiresome very quickly the second time around. ‘Gilmore Girls’ wants to recover the great old virtue of feminine modesty but, for the modern woman, virginity is for Harvard, not marriage. The Rory-Dean and Rory-Jess narratives function like seduction plots: the premarital sex act looms, ever present, as a potential threat to Rory’s expectations. If Rory has sex with either one of her boyfriends, it will ruin her chances of getting into Harvard. Lorelei frets about Rory’s sexuality, she rewards her for putting off the deed but never once does she bring up birth control. And she’s supposed to be a cool mom!

There’s much about Gilmore Girls that still works. The show's asymmetrical character structure speaks of a world in which few go to Yale and many are the nameless laborers who work at the local inn. The trope of the woman who doesn’t know her own feelings dramatizes what happens when the head and the heart aren’t working in synch. But the seduction plot, which tells of the social regulation of women’s bodies, is anathema in a show that’s supposed to be about two progressively minded gals living in the 21st century.

Catherine Engh is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. She last wrote in these pages about her grandmother.

"Sun Shy (acoustic)" - Dresses (mp3)

"Tell A Lie (acoustic)" -  Dresses (mp3)


In Which We Envision A Vague Someone

Sketch of the Present


My relationship with my Grandmother began when I was in elementary school. My parents decided that it’d be good for me to spend a few hours after school “doing homework” at her place. She’d feed me a Chewy bar and pretend to listen as I went on about my day at school, elaborating the truth into fiction. With gestures, I’d describe how acrobatic performers had contorted their bodies and jumped through hoops at a special assembly. I’d relate the plots of musicals, inventing as I went along. When it was time to go home, I’d stand in the lobby of her condominium building while she stood on the overhanging balcony. One or both of us would exclaim, “parting is such sweet sorrow!” 

When I got my learner’s permit, Eleanor offered to help me learn to drive. What she meant, I soon learned, was that she would let me drive her around in my mom’s Volvo station wagon while she narrated a tour of her “old stomping grounds.” Eleanor grew up in the middle-class part of Alexandria, Virginia, the part of the city where the privileged, mostly white kids who took AP and SAT prep classes with me at Alexandria’s public high school lived. What Eleanor called her stomping grounds, my friends and I called “the hills” — neighborhoods where the streets are named for Ivy League colleges and the houses are spaced just far enough apart from one another for the blocks to feel wooded. There are no sidewalks, few stoplights and the speed limit is a sensible thirty-five.

The Hills made for nice drives. The streets and the houses — like my grandmother — were aged. They’d acquired what the luxury homes on my own cul-de-sac lacked — a character and a past. There was the house where a retired widower crossbred roses and gifted bouquets to the neighbors. There was the home where my great-grandfather Billy saw his wife die of lung cancer and the house, now a mere wing of a much larger one, that my great-aunt sold to Dianne Austen, famous for her popular workout tapes. We passed the dining room where years ago my great-grandfather, Otto, would sit at the head of the table and insist that margarine was no substitute for butter. We drove by the kitchen where Eleanor inadvertently cooked my aunt’s pet guinea pig in the oven; this was the home that my grandfather (a well-known lothario) left when he divorced her. On that street was a steep hill — the source of my Dad’s joke that, as a boy, he had to, “walk uphill to and from school — both ways!”

Other than a couple of years spent in Charlottesville, Baltimore and Nashville respectively, Eleanor lived her entire life in Alexandria. The network of relationships that she cultivated grew and changed organically, without any major ruptures. She breakfasted every Saturday with a fixed group of women who she’d known since high school. Obscure acquaintances of hers popped up in unexpected places: at basketball games, piano recitals and at the local bagel bakery. Authority figures like my principal and my boss knew and asked after her. The enormity of her social network became a joke between my brother and I. With each new friend of hers we met, we’d muse: how many can she possibly have?


Nervous, I run through what I want to say so that when I enter Anna’s office, I’ll feel prepared, hopefully less nervous. I don’t know her very well but she’s friendly, I assure myself. We talked about the Petraeus scandal on the four train, she hadn’t thought the story was very titillating.

“I’m applying to Rutgers’ PhD program in English and it would be really helpful, since I know you studied there, if you would write me a recommendation.” As the words come out of my mouth, they sound bad, too calculated.

She frowns: “Are you going to use this recommendation for all the schools you’re applying to?”

I tell her yes and she sits back in her chair, “Okay, I asked because some students ask us to write recs and then they use them for only one school, which is a waste of our resources. Where else are you applying?”

I stammer that I want to stay in the Northeast and that my top choice is the GC.

“Who doesn’t want to study at the GC? I like to think pragmatically about these kinds of things though. Keep in mind, you’re not going to be able to set geographical limitations when you’re on the job market.”


The German cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote in 1939: “Where there is experience in the strict sense of the word, certain contents of the individual past combine with the material of the collective past.” In the same essay, he argues that the rise of industrial capitalism severed experience from local, ritual tradition. Benjamin argues that in a capitalist economy that rewards efficiency, people have less time for boredom and, consequently, less time for experience.

My shopping routine in New York, where I’ve lived for six years, is pretty devoid of novelty—it’s not that there’s nothing new to see, it’s that I don’t see what’s there. I visit the same grocery store twice a week every week and I’ve come to buy, more or less, the same items. I move through the space in a habitual way, starting at produce and making it eventually to the frozen foods. Because I know the store so well—what they sell and where—I observe little but price tags and sale markers. I pass over what I don’t usually buy. I’m unlikely to explore options, to pass some ingredient that inspires me to cook something new. What I do at the store is meet a set of personal needs as economically as possible: I’m efficient, I move quickly. I buy just enough groceries to fit into the two supported bags I have with me and I move on. There’s no time for boredom; the store has become background to whatever present concerns run, unfocused, through my mind.

Buying a coffee across the street from the GC, my eye catches an advertisement in the window. “The Life of the Mind in the Heart of the City” it reads. I remember a friend, a New Yorker, saying he doesn’t understand getting a PhD here. I picture a vague someone, possibly myself in six months, sitting in the library, trying to bring dense philosophy and old fiction to relevance. I imagine trying to think dialectically here where a marching band with the Veterans’ Day parade processes loudly down Fifth Avenue.


On Christmas Eve, my grandmother Martha Ann asks Eleanor how she’s been doing.

Eleanor responds, “It’s been hard, I don’t really know what’s going to happen to me.” Set against her sharp red sweater, her blue-grey eyes look hazy to me, like she’s looking far beyond Martha Ann, who nods sympathetically.

My Dad had tried to prepare me for this. He called in early December to say that Eleanor wasn’t doing well—she had lost thirty pounds and seemed more out-of-it than usual.

“Something happened — she may have had a stroke but no one knows for sure.”


At dinner, Eleanor tells me she wants to do yoga with me. With a dismissive attitude, she adds, “I’ve been practicing yoga at Goodwin House, but they have us sitting on chairs.”

I ask her about it, “So it’s mostly the upper body that gets worked?”

“Yeah, we do arm stretches. They’re swivel chairs.”

Emphatically, I say, “More and more yoga teachers in New York are getting trained to teach kids, the elderly and the disabled. One of the great things about yoga is that anyone can do it, it’s for everyone.”

"I wouldn’t take a class for disabled people because I don’t consider myself disabled,” she says. I remember telling someone earlier that day about how waterskiing is all about the leg muscles. My youth and able-body suddenly feel like an obscene privilege, one that I’m either oblivious to or can’t keep quiet about.

When I hug Eleanor goodbye, I think of alluding dramatically to our old Shakespeare line but I resist, afraid she won’t remember.


In Paris, the closest grocery chain was small. It wasn’t meant to be the one-stop spot for anyone’s entire kitchen and bathroom needs. The Parisian woman who I lodged with went to the local grocery only for packaged goods. There, she bought the kind of stuff I was becoming obsessed with--butter with sea salt, mini goat cheeses, Haribo candies, readymade crème brûlées and patés. She visited separate shops on a more regular basis for fresh foods — the bakery for bread and pastries, the deli for meat and fish, produce stands for fruits and vegetables.

Unless I wanted to live on frozen food for six months, it was going be impossible to get everything that I needed in one place. Shopping at different places was unpredictable: something I wanted was out of season or just not in stock, I needed more time to shop than I planned for. As I became flexible enough to allow the contours of the local shops to guide my plans, I saw an alternative to the mode of consumption that I knew — a city where buying food at massive grocery chains was not the norm, but the exception.

Virginia Woolf, who admired Jane Austen for her ability to capture the ebb and flow of everyday, domestic routines, explains in “Sketch of the Past” that the repetition of ordinary actions is what creates order and continuity in our lives. Though we might not be aware of it, we are protected by repetition — “comfortably covered in the cotton wool of daily life.” To travel or to move, then, must be to be stripped of some or all of the cotton wool, exposed.

Sometimes, I didn’t go shopping at all. I ate what I optimistically termed a salad niçoise — hard-boiled eggs and tuna over lettuce if there was any in the fridge. I tried to cook lentils with carrots and onions but couldn’t get the timing right — I overcooked the veggies and ended up with a bland-tasting brown mush.

I found that there was something that I needed to know — a word, a process, a norm or a custom — to complete basic tasks. I tried to soothe my feelings of loneliness by eating loads of Nutella on baguette, a momentary fix that made me feel worse. I couldn’t find a place to buy adapters for my electronics during the weeks when I wanted to spend my free time on Skype. My sleeping schedule shifted: unexpectedly, I needed several more hours of sleep than before.


When I pick Eleanor up from the same assisted living home where her father died years prior, it occurs to me that she, too, will die in Alexandria. I wonder: did living here exclude her from some vaster world of experience — some deeper understanding of her relation to the cosmos? I don’t ask her if she’s ever wanted to move elsewhere. If she answers yes, the explanation might be fraught; it won’t fit neatly with what I know of her life. Alexandria is where she’s survived and even thrived despite some pretty difficult twists of fate — she was diagnosed with MS in the eighties. She’s always had such a support system here. As far as I want to know, she never considered moving out of Alexandria. I’m the one contemplating a life of thwarted experience.

Benjamin was writing three-quarters of a century ago about what of experience has been lost. But reading him, I plan trips and hope I’ll have the kind of experience that he describes — maybe, away from “the standardized, denatured life of the civilized masses,” I’ll sense the material of a personal and collective past.


On Facebook, I watch a video of a yoga teacher I know practicing acro-yoga with someone in a grassy yard. A beach, an ocean and a sky are in the background. I scroll down and see a friend from high school standing on a glacier, waving an ice pick over her head.

I open a new window and google “writing retreats.” I find a few in the Northeast but learn that I have to apply to the one that looks the best, where Edgar Allen Poe allegedly composed some of The Raven. It’s too late to apply for dates this summer. Other writer’s retreats now pale in comparison to this one. In the past two months, I’ve researched Airbnb locations in Paris, London and Montreal, bought Lonely Planet PDFs for Mumbai, Tamil Nadu & Chennai, Karnataka & Bengaluru.

I’m good at finding reasons not to travel. The friend who I was going to visit India with got an unexpected job offer and had to back out, flights to Europe were cheaper a few months ago, the Google search engine doesn’t yield very interesting results on Montreal. But, really, I guess I just don’t want to travel alone.

The first thing I do is look for the Agnes Martin paintings that I came to see. In college, a professor had shown one of her paintings in class, a square canvas with horizontal bars painted in pale colors — yellow, pink, blue. She had suggested that everyone go to the Dia: Beacon museum to look at her work in person.

“Standing in front of them, I feel calm. This is art for art’s sake,” she had said.

I look at one of the paintings and think: benign, infinity seems to be there on the canvas, beyond a few blue bars. In another room, I stare at a drawing on a wall that looks like a multi-colored topographic map. It’s intricate; it looks like it took a lot of time to create. I like the wall drawings that refer to a plan was difficult to execute.

In the museum blurb for the room, the artist Sol LeWitt is quoted saying: “a portrait is not a person, but a line is a line.” So this is what artists were up to in the seventies, I think. I’m into it.

Catherine Engh is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. She last wrote in these pages about Mary MacLane.

"Beautiful & Wild" - Kris Allen (mp3)

"Don't Set Me Free" - Kris Allen (mp3)