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Archive for September, 2012


St Perpetua of Carthage in window of church of Notre-Dame of Vierzon, France

Dear friends and readers,

A short follow up to my blog on John Riddle’s History of Contraception and Abortion in the West: I’ve had so many comments that I am moved to write a sort of PS on important aspects of the topic I omitted.

A book I reviewed sometime ago is an eye-opener for a longer very long history of attacking pregnant women simply as potential baby-killers: Child Murder and British Culture, 1720-1900 by Josephine McDonagh. From earliest times we come across the common accusation at the time of women as killing their babies — this connects to modern hostility to women having the right to have an abortion. The way the law and customs worked, especially against unmarried women, was to assume the woman killed a stillborn child if it had shown any sign of life upon birth. It was the culture’s way of blaming women for their own getting rid of unwanted babies and controlling them at the same time. The woman was supposed to conceal her pregnancy; if she did not, she was suspect. The cultural “leaders” in a given area actually thought they had the right to explore an unmarried woman’s body who they suspected was pregnant.

McDonagh covers a number of women novelists and writers of the 1890s who tried to expose the fallacies. I remember best a a section on Dickens’s The Chimes (tellingly a ghost Xmas story) where there is just such a cruel accusation on an impoverished unmarried young woman whose baby was stillborn (mostly because she starved during the pregnancy). A biography of Dickens by Fred Kaplan foreshortens this to say that Dickens persuaded himself he had made a change – in fact he hadn’t, he hadn’t even changed the sensibility of people as no one discussed for real what the center of the story was.

As I read the book I kept thinking of all the novels and stories I’d read where a dead baby was central and I just didn’t think about the text that way, from Scott’s Heart of Mid-Lothinan (Jeanie takes a long walk) to Christina Stead’s The Man who Loved Children where a sister-in-law either has a baby who is stillborn or is accused of murdering it or has an abortion. As recently as 1970 a girl was accused of murdering a baby because she concealed her pregnancy: Josephine McDonagh, “Infanticide and the Nation: the case of Caroline Beale,” New Formations, 32 (1997):11-21.

A historical perspective which takes into account the inadequacy of contraceptives until late in the 19th century and then their unavailability until people like Margaret Sanger began to defy the law and disseminate the Dutch cap takes you outside the box perhaps? makes you see the hostility to women and how the cultures themselves wanted to control the numbers of children who survived unless they had legitimate fathers. Only fathers could have children.


This image does not lie behind the Republican push to stop the dissemination of contraception and outlaw abortion — it’s a war picture, and could be a woman today home from the market to find her house and child destroyed by a drone

I also today read an opening moving review-essays in the September 14, 2012 (p. 1) in Time Literary Supplement — and to me startling review — by Peter Thonemann of two rare texts of journals intimes of women from antiquity. They are known as The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity. A new edition by Thomas Heffernan has been published and a book of essays edited by Jan N. Bremmer and Marco Formisano.

I was one of those who thought of Christian martyrs as virgins, but if not unmarried women or not surrounded by children. I did not imagine them as they must have been and Perpetua and Felicity were: women perpetually pregnant, giving birth in pain, often very bad and often leading to death, subject creatures. Perpetua and Felicity’s passions tell of how their recent and newborn babies were taken from them harshly, how they grieved, their bad dreams
over dead children and siblings, how one was laughed at while giving birth. Thonemann says the church has been embarrassed by these two rare journals and much that is presented ever since represses all actualities. It’s just so poignant it brought tears to my eyes to realize this in the few sentences the reviewer provided. I think of all these salacious virgin martrys in Dryden’s plays as acted by Nell Gwynn (to please the mostly male aristocratic rakish crowd).

Then Thonemann describe their torture and then humiliating deaths in the Roman arenas.

We have so little of women’s writing until the European middle ages and then only censored stuff comes through. Maybe Christine de Pizan is one witness who transcends this.

Finally, I should originally have brought in Angela Carter’s essay in her Shaking a Leg (collected journalism), very witty, giving the reader a history of women’s childbirth and experience or reproduction across the whole volume, also of women’s breasts as obsessed over by men and then our culture (used to nail women down, both to babies and inside corsets and modern equivalents, wonder bras), food fetishes (organic food supermarkets), how “fat is ugly” — in short, masochism for the women finding safety (company?) in servitude.

From the sardonic tragedies of history (as mirrored in texts), to cruel laws of history refusing to allow reality to be seen, to witty farce, I conclude with a woman’s poem on the occasional joy of a lucky childbirth (which I did omit):

Childbed

I looked and saw,
collared in my own dark fur,
your face, blurry with vernix and strange,

like a drawing by the Master
pen and ink over wet chalk
and pricked for transfer
.

Out you slid, cabled and wet,
delivered. time of birth given;
yet what I keep is that first look

at your pause half-born, sheathed
from the neck down, crowned
in unfamiliar regions of light and air,

your lungs beginning to draw
as you verged on our world
and waited, prescient, rare.
– Fiona Benson

Ellen

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The question is what we really want out of life, for ourselves, what we think is real [has] to do with our social panic, with our fear of losing status. One cannot afford to lose status on this peculiar ladder, for the prevailing notion of American life seems to involve a kind of rung-by-rung ascension to some hideously desirable state — James Baldwin, from Nobody Knows My Name


How is this book packaged: for whom; how framed

Dear friends and readers,

My good friend, Kathy, (Frisbee here on WordPress) has been writing about the attack on bloggers from Sir (note the Sir) Peter Stothard, a Man Booker Prize Judge: bloggers are destroying literature, damaging the future of writing. She did not go to Oxford, she is not one of his friends. How dare they? they are not selected by winnowing editors like him with his values. To look at film adaptations (whose appeal is partly rooted in the audience’s desire to identify with a higher richer class than lower middle or working), you’d think school was central.


An iconic picture of Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews in Brideshead Revisited

And I mentioned it first. But look at a panoply of stills, and you see the house (ah, the house: consider Downton Abbey and how Americans lap it up), its grounds, the bar, Venice, trips, cars, dinners, Rex (the businessman son-in-law) networking his way into power. In a way what’s needed first is an understanding of power, how it works: class confers power.

I answered Kathy in two ways and want to put my answers in a blog here to prompt thought and discussion further — as this is an important topic. The way Scott Walker and Ryan win elections is to pretend they are lower class: Scott Walker had a commercial where he showed himself driving himself to work with his lunch in a brown bag: he had to save for his kids college. Ryan pretends to be a orphan working his way up; his father died, when he was young, but the whole family are local businessmen who have contacts, networks, money, connections and he today lives in a big mansion on the place where a factory once stood.

School is mythic and it’s the mythic way school functions that enables ALEC’s corporations who want to end public education so they have put their hands into the 600 billion that go to educating young people to fool others. Parents want their children to rise from school. But school is only one part of what makes a person a member of the upper middle and upper classes.

As I wrote, looking at what school and what year a British person ended his schooling at does not tell much about class. Princess Diana never did her A levels. In the 18th about the connections of the whole family (so George Austen’s sons could go to university) but not how the immediate nuclear family would fare in the position game. In the 19th century it told about money and the success of the father at the time. Trollope always regarded himself as a gentleman. Jim my husband went to a public school as day boy; his origins were working class and lower middle. It tells something but only in a larger context.

Funny — it’s a good contrast. I’ve always been alive to class though I was told from the time I went to school that the US was classless. I knew it was a lie. My parents were very poor and my father was a socialist at one time. That’s part of it. I could see with my eyes the difference between my neighborhood (East Bronx) and those in the north west Bronx. I knew others had self-esteem I didn’t have. When I grew older and lived in Queens (Kew Gardens) I had friends with parents who lived in beautiful homes, but it was the way the other children somehow knew to be independent and interact with others that I didn’t. In the UK when I went to live there class was overt, but its underlying abilities (for those with knowing parents and higher expectations) and those without was no different. The US did sometimes substitute race for class. Black people in the US filled the role of white working class in the UK. Think of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. Do read it if you’ve not already. Sister Carrie. In An American Tragedy a young working class man is picked up and becomes part of an upper class group. He has a chance to marry a girl from this elite group (romance). His girlfriend, working class like he, is already pregnant. He is so driven by his guilt that he drowns her in an attempt to rid himself of her. Carrie is from poor working class people. She can hang into a local car-dealer and move with him to NYC and enter the acting profession, but there are limits on how far she can go at the time. She lacks a certain know-how to leverage herself any further than medium positions on the stage.

Dreiser’s and other literary naturalist books from the US and France and England too are all about the devastations of class. The old argument between Fitzgerald and Hemingway.

Class is money, manners, being told how to negotiate and present the self in a certain way, education, expectations, your habitas (all of it). In the US university people with degrees (the Ph.D) can seem to transcend class or enter a new one, but watch what happens during a depression. Some of them have children who carry on being upper class; others have children who in the next generation are in retail shops. The difference is what class the individuals really belong to: what money, connections, the sense of entitlement their grandfathers had. This firm sense of entitlement that matters is the key to why some people can use liberty and some cannot: see my “I have a right to choose my own life” on “Liberty in the Poldark novels.

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We had a related revealing conversation about Tereska Torres’s first novel (Women’s Barracks, see image at top of blog) and her writing life on Women Writers through the Ages at Yahoo two days ago. One friend told us about Teresa Torres. An unusually effective obituary-biographical sketch told about Torres’s life in WW2 and as a writer. From the Independent: John Lichfield: Teresa Torres: War Heroine and Reluctant Queen of Lesbian Pulp Fiction. Do read it. At least look at the photo of her: in war uniform (which makes all seem equal) shouldering an oar: you see she’s working physically. The book meant for a Booker Prize usually sports original art or a reproduction of a high culture 19th century painting.


The discreet masochistic erotica of Edward Burne-Jones is presented as core Arthurian

Lichfield’s essay-biography is cleverly well-written, discreet too. How did Torres move from one stage of that life to another? Meet those people? Her steps are staged movingly, to the end: “The last sound that mummy heard was the sound of children laughing and singing where she had herself lived as a little girl in the 1920s. It was as if life had gone full circle.” But the daughter cannot know what her mother’s mind’s ear heard just as she died.

This is not to say the life is not admirable and fascinating. She was part of a semi-elite, or moved within one of the edges of the upper class, the art part where literary people make their lives if they are lucky. Not all can: music people like say Whitney Houston (who remained black) in her personal life never left her original class and people.

One of the important give-aways is the opener and sentence worth critiquing

The writer says she “was a well-regarded novelist” and in the next
sentence: ‘to the rest of the world she was ” the mother of lesbian-erotic pulp fiction.” Unacknowledged is the reality that only a few people really understand what they read and have a judgement worth listening to. That does not mean they are the reviewers or people who write in magazines I hasten to add. These few can include online bloggers, academic writers, or people who don’t write but read intelligently. “The rest of the world” is those who make money for writers, and why they buy what they do is also not known.

Now it might not be that the vast majority of buyers of Women’s Barracks thought it lesbian, but look at that packaging. For all we know some read it as a good war novel, but it was presented as a salacious erotic book for men to titillate themselves with about women in uniform (the way some people read salacious erotic books and pornography featuring nurses). Paradise Road I was told was partly seen that way and great efforts were made to stop this perception.

It’s salutary to ask people why they read what they read; most of
the time they won’t answer or can’t tell you quite but when they do it’s all over the place. (Sadly, like voting. why people vote for whom they do is equally hard to get at.)

Richard Sennet in his Hidden Injuries of Class suggests class is a more painful reality in the US than the UK or its commonwealth because it’s hidden, made shameful, lied about, distorted. Let us not be fooled or manipulated into despising ourselves for not belonging to what is presented as easy to belong to. It’s not.

Ellen

P.s. For another aspect of attacks on bloggers and reviewers too see: We are an injured body.

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Peggy Ashcroft in her fifties (promotional photo)


Kitty (Naomi Watts) and Edward (Walter Fane) floating down the river (2006 Painted Veil)

Dear friends and readers,

Here am I trying to keep my word and make shorter blogs. I’ve two movies to urge you to see. Rent them at Netflix or buy or download from Pirate Bay and luxuriate in the beauty of the photography and depth and sensitivity of what’s presented: Dennis Potter’s rightly valued 1980 Cream in My Coffee and John Curran and ron Nyswaner’s wrongly ignored Painted Veil (a film adaptation of a Somerset Maugham novel).

In the first case you want see more Potter-scripted films of the 1980s, and in the second you will long to read Maugham’s novel.


Jean now old, first near close up (Peggy Ashcroft, 1980 Cream in my Coffee)

I am now able to say a Dennis Potter film can be as stunningly powerful as people say. He is a much praised (adulated) script writer of the 1980s in BBC and other British TV films and plays. I had tried two films, both with great actors: in the first I found Bob Hoskins continually breaking into song, as a working class man holding up his pride against great odds, half-broken puzzled, seemingly bewildered, yet continually breaking out into song. In the second Michael Gambon (the great Gambon Ralph Richardson calls him — and certainly nothing comes up to his Squire Hamley in Davies’ 1999 Wives and Daughters out of Gaskell), Gambon anticipated the time I saw him on stage doing a Becket play. I realized Beckett plays hate drama; they are set up so actors can do so little. In that one Gambon was imprisoned in a can; in the Potter he was swathed with bandages in the last stages of dying life in a hospital. A situation rich, but it was like watching Beethoven making some music instruments can hardly play. Yet in both I was unbearably moved.

This time the script was doable and utterly fulfilled.

Here the great presence is Peggy Ashcroft: it takes a while to realize we are watching the same couple. First Jean and Bernard, when old coming back to one of these genteel style elegant hotels that are so endemic in British novels and plays (especially plays, think Separate Tables) when he is very old, ill, dying and she a woman cowed for many years by his irascible bullying and hard nasty spiteful even tongue, picking at her:


First of series of photos panning hotel and beach (Cream in my Coffee)


Then series of photos of elderly couples


Then from one to another versions of youth


Sitting in room (Ashcroft and Lionel Jeffries)

Second, as young Jean and young Bernard over 40 years ago they had stolen away for a weekend before they married, apparently very much in love, soft focus photography

.
(Peter Chelsom as Bernard, Shelagh McLeod as young Jean)

Placed against the second older version we slowly begin to see how what was to come – an embittering life — is anticipated, but also how it could not quite have been predicted. Like life too much is enigmatic. We see during this time the young Bernard despises the young Jean partly for her lower class origins and partly for coming away with him before marriage. Young Bernard’s father is killed in an accident during the three days (bad luck) tehy are away, and he returns home to a narrow repressed somehow very English lace and there is this dreadful scene with his harridan mother who wants to control him and prevent this marriage. How she scorns Jean.


(Martin Shaw as glamorous matinee idol singing songs like “You’re the cream in my coffee/you’re the salt in my stew … “)

But while young Bernard is gone, young Jean succumbs to the kindness, and aggressive romantic words and gestures of the orchestra singer, a cad type. Lonely, feeling herself denigrated and uncomfortable, she gets “squiffy” (very drunk) and is half-coerced (but only half) into spending a long pleasurable night with him – more than any she ever had with Bernard. When Bernard returns, there’s no sign he guesses and yet …

The life to follow he has gotten back.

The bitter ironies, poignancy, plangency, occasional comedy of the two relationships and what we glimpse about the hotel, by the pool, on the beach are caught in songs whose lyrics comes out as on the spot precisely awful. You’re the salt in my stew. Right. Lots of these 30s to 40s songs. Fast forward and instead of creamy violins and big band we have hard rock and they are just as ironic, just as false.

The way each place is filmed, the dialogues just reeked to me of England and English people of a certain milieu. I need to see it again and read an essay I have on Potter’s films, but will tell a joke Jim and I had.

I said to him, we never went to such a place when we lived there. It was beyond us. We didn’t have the money. When we returned 20 years later or more (1990s), we were way beyond that and would know it’d be miserable snobbish and somehow tawdry in all its efforts. We went to Landmark recreations — a joke too time capsules and all that. He stopped and said he has never known anyone who went to such places. Did they ever exist? are they a myth that captures something in English class ridden minds?

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Why do Edwardian stories and films seem to speak home to us? Forsyte Saga (which I’m watching the 1967 version of over these two months now — 26 one hour parts — about which I’ll be blogging soon), Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs. Maughn’s post-colonial Painted Veil is a brilliant epitome of this subgenre.

In part the greatness of the film is sheer photography: breath-taking beauty in China, especially of waterways, slow montage, background French music, evocative:

What it’s about is two people finding themselves as they journey “out” into a wild natural place and leaning some humility and tolerance; the triangle is contrasted to another couple, disillusioned ugly man, Waddington (Toby Jones, as great as Gambon) who lives with a native girl, in a kind of retreat from the world both came from — with records from the 1950s. This anticipates or imitates (depending on whether you are thinking of Greene’s novel or the recent film with Michael Caine), The Quiet American. Edward has left his cushy job in England to do research in China and she can get no one to marry her so she follows him.


Toby Jones as Waddington explains how he came to live there, and how the girl he loves was rescued from a short life of beating and prostitution

I’m writing about this partly because I’ve seen it so mis-described. A denigrating way of describing hero and heroine dominates all blurbs: “shunned by scientific research husband,: wife “ignites passionate affair;” or “British medical doctor trapped … in loveless marriage with faithless wife …” We do have the Maugham triangle of the selfish woman who takes over the shy young man and seems set to destroy him. But this is not what happens at all. We see his science is a form of self-gouging and how she turns to want to help him, the school (Diana Rigg is a nun running the place), the helpless women, all the diseased people. We see the way the tribal leaders are murderous towards one another and so no help can come from there:


One of her stations of the cross


One of his

It ends in tragedy — reminding me in its savagery of Before the Rains. This is like Paul Scott: while written by a white man, it is a take from a point of view that shows the European corrupt. She gets to go back and gives birth to a child; we last see her rejecting the old life, her old lover, and walking with the child away. Older now than when I read the book, Of Human Bondage (blotted out in my memory probably by the film’s take and Bette Davis as Bitter Destruction with Leslie Howard in the abject role), and aware Maugham was homosexual (he lived in south France with his partner).

I’d like to read the book and then re-see film. We’ve said we’ll do it on Trollope19thCStudies. Alas it was a flop, so no features or voice-over commentary.

An intense psychological investigation in the context of sharp disillusioned picturing of snobbish colonialism, it’s a heroine’s text, Watts turned a perhaps misogynistic story into one of a heroine coming of age (she was one of the producers).

Ellen

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Phineas (Donal McCann) famously humiliated and harassed by Mr Clarkson (Sidney Bromley) who urges him “Do Be Punctual” (Pallisers 4:7)

Dear friends and readers,

Another in the same spirit as my last. Again on Victoria someone asked for citations of debt in Victorian novels, so I wrote as follows:

As he often mirrors common reality, Trollope has so many instances and characters driven, worried and occasionally (rarely but it happens) exploiting debt in different ways it’s impossible to catalogue briefly. The most common and well-remembered plot device is of the man who counter-signs a bill for someone else and then the other person doesn’t pay it. Phineas Finn lured and pressure by Lawrence Fitzgibbon in Phineas Finn, but also Mark Robarts in Framley Parsonage who co-signs for Lord Lufton who can much better afford living on more than he has.

Larger versions of this include male characters who owe a lot of money and hide this or that their business is failing or non-existant: this leads to suicide — Melmotte and Lopez and Dobbs Brougton. Debt collectors can sometimes hound women and they seek to sell jewels or use them as insurance (Lizzie Eustace). The “blaggard” type male who we are to have contempt for is the man driven to take money from a woman (though we may be led to understand why he does): George Vavasour dragging money out of Alice Vavasour because he has to pay huge election bribes, and then breaking his sister’s arm when the grandfather dies and it’s discovered he had left just about everyone to George’s sister, but in trust so he cannot get at it.


Kate Vavasour holding her broken arm after George has fled (from the original illustrations of Trollope’s novels, this one by Miss Taylor, a scene in Can You Forgive Her?)

The most interesting instances though are those which enabled us to see the working of finance in the Victorian period: say, the short story, “Why Frau Frohman Raised her Prices” shows an Austrian woman innkeeper’s struggle not to raise her prices:

The Frau had always held her head high,– had never been ashamed of looking her neighbour in the face, but when she was advised to rush at once up to seven swansigers and a half (or five shillings a day), she felt that, should she do so, she would be overwhelmed with shame. Would not her customers then have cause of complaint? Would not they have such cause that they would in truth desert her? Did she not know that Herr Weiss, the magistrate from Brixen, with his wife, and his wife’s sister, and the children, who came yearly to the Peacock, could not afford to bring his family at this increased rate of expenses? And the Fraulein Tendel with her sister would never come from Innsbruck if such an announcement was made to her.

She learns a very hard way that to keep up with inflation (as we would put it, she must must raise her prices. Trollope analyses the workings of a business: how the Frau has to buy things before she makes money by selling them, and how when the price of these go up, she must put her prices up; if she does not, how she must buy inferior goods and then loses customers but when she does, she helps other people do better (who work for her). He does not (unfortunately) go further than that, but it is still an insightful analysis which explicates the workings of capitalism. In Doctor Thorne Roger Scatcherd now an alcoholic and ostracized from people of his own intelligence because he is not of their class grew rich by saving the large amounts he made as a construction worker who opened his own business; he then lent money to others to begin enterprises. In the Victorian period it was very difficult (well nigh impossible) for an ordinary man to borrow large sums to open a business. Charles Darwin’s father grew rich by lending money and charging interest (like Roger) of course.

Novels by Trollope about gambling or fearful of it will be about debt include s a minor gambler in Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite, man who is an aristocratic drone type (familiar) and lives off his mistress; Burgo Fitzgerald does very badly at the gambling tables when last seen in Can You Forgive Her and is given an allowance by Plantagenet Palliser who also becomes wrathful when his wife, Lady Glen, congenial with Burgo and still in love with him, wants to gamble too and blamed Alice Vavasour (poor Alice). Quiet prostitution within boarding houses to pay the rent is shown in Trollope’s Miss Mackenzie. How single women really got on.

Other novelists:

Oliphant’s Hester is about the workings of a business and family and thus how well the successful yet lonely, envied and somehwat isolated heroine by the end has handled debt (It reflects Oliphant’s successful career). Gwendolen marries Grandcourt in Daniel Deronda to avoid her mother going into debt; the novel opens with her learning how gambling will not do. In Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, the secondary heroine, Cynthia is hounded by Preston, a ruthless aggressive steward who sexually wants her (and now wants to be allied to her as her mother has married up by marrying Mr Gibson), Preston, I say, tortures her emotionally over a 20 pound debt and blackmailing letters to prove it; he wants to force her to marry him.


From opening shots of Daniel Deronda (director Tom Hooper, scripted by Andrew Davies): next to Gwendoleth an aging women’s bejewelled hands at the gambling table

And so much in Dickens, just to start: Little Dorrit. The Marshalsea prison. Mr and Mrs Merdle destroyed. Arthur Clenham thrown in jail near the end.

And who can forget:

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure
nineteen pounds, nineteen six, result happiness. Annual
income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds,
ought and six, result misery. —Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Debt does never seem to make anyone happy in Victorian novels. It does not make individual people happy in our own day, and that’s why the Republicans can manipulate the populace by arguing the state deficit must be brought down. Corporations are not people; nor are states. Deficits when the money brought in is used by gov’t to expand social services, building roads and schools, providing for lower interest rates really does provide more jobs and a better life for all. Ask Frau Frohmann how capitalism can work well.

Ellen

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Stuart Wilson enacting Lopez just before he gets on a train to go to another station with the intention of throwing himself under an oncoming engine (Pallisers 11:23)

Dear friends and readers,

I’m trying to turn over a new leaf, and write blogs that are not only shorter but not worked up as much. Hitherto I’ve been taking postings I write to list-servs and developing and elaborating them before putting them on my blog. Since that takes time and energy (plus often finding the exquisitely-apt picture or exemplary passage), I don’t write as often as I could and many of my postings remain in list-serv archives. I’m going to try to put an end to this over-wrought sense of standard and blog more freely.

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So, to begin this morning,

Over on Victoria (Patrick Leary’s list-serv, mostly academic in content, a forum for discussing every and all Victorian matter), someone asked for suicides in novels and people began to list them. I was prompted to write this because there was one longish posting about a Kipling story (“Thrown Away”) where the person writing the posting seemed to condemn the suicide, especially for having told the truth of what people had done to him, and what he felt. This bothered me. As the person wrote it up, it would seem she was reflecting Kipling who condemned this unhappy male character too.


Original vignette by George Housman Thomas to the chapter in which Dobbs Broughton shoots himself through the head (Last Chronicle of Barset)

Trollope has quite a number of suicides as well as some near-suicides. Many of them fit into Barbara Gates’s default positions (so to speak) in her Victorian Suicide: Mad Crimes and Sad Histories. Speaking generally, the men kill themselves because they have been or feel they have been publicly disgraced and cannot bear to face people, to live with the position they would not be put down into. These include Melmotte (The Way We Live Now), Ferdinand Lopez (The Prime Minister), and from Last Chronicle of Barset, Dobbs Broughton; from The Bertrams, Henry Harcourt. Lopez is a rare instance where we actually witness the suicide and while it may be hard poetry, I’d call the power of the scene, a huge railway station, anonymous in the modern way and the depiction of the smash poetry.

From The Prime Minister, “Tenway Junction”

Trollope depicts a modern railway station with power. Slowly he builds up a scene familiar to many of us:

After a while he went back into the hall and took a first-class return ticket not for Birmingham, but for the Tenway Junction, as everybody knows it. From this spot, some six or seven miles distant from London, lines diverge east, west, and north, north-east, and north-west, round the metropolis in every direction,
and with direct communication with every other line in and out of
London. It is marvellous place, quite unintelligible to the
uninitiated, and yet daily used by thousands who only know that
when they get there, they are to do what someone tells them. The
space occupied by the convergent rails seems to be sufficient for
a large farm. And these rails always run into one another with
sloping points, and cross passages, and mysterious meandering
sidings, till it seems to the thoughtful stranger to be impossible that the best-trained engine should know its own line. Here and there and around there is ever a wilderness of waggons, some loaded, some empty, some smoking with close-packed oxen, and
others furlongs in length black with coals, which look as though
they had been stranded there by chance, and were never destined
to get again into the right path of traffic. Not a minute passes
without a train going here or there, some rushing by without
noticing Tenway in the least, crashing through like flashes of
substantial lightning, and others stopping, disgorging and taking
up passengers by the hundreds. Men and women,–especially the
men, for the women knowing their ignorance are generally willing
to trust to the pundits of the place,–look doubtful, uneasy,
and bewildered. But they all do get properly placed and unplaced, so that the spectator at last acknowledges that over all this apparent chaos there is presiding a great genius of order. From dusky morn to dark night, and indeed almost throughout the night, the air is loaded with a succession of shrieks. The theory goes that each separate shriek,–if there can be any separation where the sound is so nearly continuous,– is a separate notice to separate ears of the coming or going of a separate train.

I like his sense of how people order themselves. This is something human beings are good at. Like so many small animals in a maze. The way it’s done is each person does attend intently to his particular destiny. My analogue is Penn Station at 34th Street or Heathrow airport.

Trollope then enters the mind of the man who notices that Lopez is not getting on a train. From the outside we watch the man march, walk this way and that, getting ever closer to the trains. It’s not until the last moment we realize he has worked his way to get as close as possible to the smash. We are (at least I am) led to sympathize since we realize how hard this act must’ve been to him and yet how determined he was. Very efficient. Very businesslike:

Now, Tenway Junction is so big a place, and so scattered, that it is impossible that all the pundits should by any combined activity maintain to the letter the order of which our special pundit had spoken. Lopez, departing from the platform which he had hitherto occupied, was soon to be seen on another, walking up and down, and again waiting. But the old pundit had his eye on him, and had followed him round. At that moment there came a
shriek louder than all the other shrieks, and the morning express
down from Euston to Inverness was seen coming round the curve at
a thousand miles an hour. Lopez turned round and looked at it,
and again walked towards the edge of the platform but now it was
not exactly the edge that he neared, but a descent to a pathway,
–an inclined plane leading down to the level of the rails, and
made there for certain purposes of traffic. As he did so the
pundit called to him, and then made a rush at him,–for our
friend’s back was turned to the coming train. But Lopez heeded
not the call, and the rush was too late. With quick, but still
with gentle and apparently unhurried steps, he walked down before
the flying engine–and in a moment had been knocked into bloody
atoms.

In some of these cases, Trollope’s attitude towards the man who killed himself is ambivalent: he feels for them, he enters into their cases, and Lopez is one of these, so too Melmotte. He does this by conveying critiques of those who showed them up or despised them or dropped them. He also has characters who apparently killed themselves for similar reasons (again males) before the novel opened: this time the loss of an estate, an inheritance, the brother in Belton Estate. In some of these he brings out how important it was to hide the suicide both out of public shame and (apparently) for fear somehow the property inheritance might be endangered (as it would have been in earlier times).

Women kill themselves too, and sometimes violently. Here it’s because they are being driven to marry someone they don’t love, often intensely distasteful to them: the girl in “La Mere Bauche” throws herself off a cliff rather than marry the aging captain her protectress has picked out for her. She cannot be brought back. But sometimes it really is left ambiguous whether a young woman actively killed herself or died of intense harassment and misery: Linda Tressel for example (a kind of Clarissa character). We have a fascinating instance of watching a girl about to kill herself (throw herself from a bridge) and draw back: Nina Balatka. (Their novellas are titled with their names.) Another young woman appears and in part helps Nina not to do it, but we are in Nina’s mind as she’s about to do it.

She had always been conscious, since the idea had entered her mind, that she would lack the power to step boldly up on to the parapet and go over at once . . . She had known that she must crouch, and pause, and think of it, and look at it, and nerve herself with the memory of her wrongs. Then, at some moment in which her heart was wrung to the utmost, she would gradually slacken her hold, and the dark, black, silent river should take her. She climbed up into the niche, and found that the river was far from her, though death was so near to her and the fall would be easy. When she became aware that there was nothing between her and the void space below her, nothing to guard her, nothing left in the world to protect her, she retreated, and descended again to the pavement. And never in her life had she moved with more care, lest, inadvertenty, a foot or a hand might slip, and she might tumble to her doom against her will (Nina Balatka, pp. 183-4)

And there’s a parallel in Trollope’s Autobiography where he describes himself as dreaming or plotting of suicide and going up high somewhere but thinking the better of it and coming down). I can’t think of any young woman who kills herself because she has discovered she is pregnant outside marriage and will have a baby or has had a baby (which would connect in trajectory and motive to women forced to marry someone they don’t want — which would result even if not called that marital rape) — is that not the case of Hetty in Adam Bede in effect? They suffer badly (Kate in An Eye for an Eye); also women ostracized because they have been divorced or lived with someone outside marriage (Mrs Atherton in Belton Estate) but they are not driven to destroy themselves.


Oliver Dimsdale as Louis in his last moments in Italy (He Knew He Was Right, scripted Andrew Davies)

A couple of these cases of “of was it?” do cross gender lines. Louis Trevelyan (He Knew He Was Right) driven by his sexual anxiety, shame, jealousy, may be said to bring his death on himself as he drives himself mad. Lady Mason (Orley Farm) who herself faces public disgrace for having forged a signature to keep her son’s property for him so he can be a gentleman holds on, just, and partly by telling someone. There is one remarkable scene of her brooding depicted by Millais (a picture Trollope pointed out as seeing more into the character than he had).


John Everett Millais’s original full-size illustration of Mary Lady Mason deep in thought (Orley Farm): Skilton shows Trollope was criticized by his public for having such woman (who gets off by the way) for his heroine

I would say Trollope might well disapprove in a novel of a character telling the full truth of what happened to him or her and leaving it in a letter. Just about all of his suicides do it without telling. But the near self-destroying tell; Josiah Crawley (Last Chronicle) for example, a genuinely tragic figure in letters described by the narrator as noble in intent.

It’s in these moments in his fictions that Trollope (as Henry James puts it of the closing sequence of He Knew He Was Right and Nina and Linda) that Trollope does himself justice. Had he ever written this way … I am not sure that today we have gone as far from Victorian condemnations as at least I would like to think, so Trollope’s empathy really speaks home to us.

I’ve written this to counter an implied spirit I felt from some of the postings on Victoria of self-distancing and judgmental evaluation from the point of view of social status of those left or the person’s reputation among them after he or she has died. There were excellently informative ones too of course.

I’ll try to find a similar posting I wrote about disability in Elizabeth Gaskell where I was startled to see on this list reflected a lack of understanding (much less sympathy) for what a disability is and how its worst aspects come from how other people respond to the person’s particular disability (how they won’t let the person be him or herself otherwise). Like Trollope on suicide, Gaskell on disability is still well above the narrowness and blindnesses of our as well as their own time.

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

Jim and I are not entirely through with coping with my mother’s estate, we still have some stuff to do about the money she left, which has come to me. Sunday, though, we finished the physical things. This is the story of unfinished business going back to 1971/2.

Shortly after I left my first husband and was living with my parents in an apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant (for a few weeks before I was to go to England), I found myself wandering in an department store. I no longer remember why. I came across this picture I just fell in love with. I didn’t know the artist’s name and still don’t. It was not an original — it was just a print. But it seemed to contain in it a vision of a mood, a life, a lifestyle that had deep appeal. I knew most of NYC city didn’t look like this row of picturesque brownstones through which one could view a young woman walking quietly. It has something of a feel of my favorite painter, Pissaro. I wished I could live in a part of a city that at least faintly resembled it. Its frame was plain wood and the cost $14.00.

Readers of this blog or the list-servs I post to will know how much I care about pictures.

I took it home. It was not easy since I had to bring it by subway. Then I hung it over my new cherry wood bed. It had come with string and all I needed to do was bang a couple of nails in the wall. When it came time to go to England, I knew I couldn’t take it with me. It was way too big. I had to leave it with my parents in the apartment they had just moved into in Fresh Meadows. This was 1967/68.

Fast forward a couple of years later I had returned from England, was now married to Jim and I came to my parents’ apartment. There was that picture again, but now it hung over the central sofa in the living room. Alas, my father had to some extent ruined it. He had re-framed it with an “better” wood frame that had a gold lining in it. It didn’t fit it. It was too pompous. He admitted that was so. It had become his picture in appearance as well as possession. What else would he put over that couch.

So I said nothing.

Well when we came to clear out my parents’ apartment, bag and box everything and remove what we wanted, I almost didn’t take it with me. I still couldn’t bear that new frame. Further, the picture itself had faded and embrowned over the years. (It’s not as dark as it appears in this blog; that’s the result of the darkness of the corridor.) Morning I used to think in the city was the best time of day, the time before people’s faces took on the growing anxieties and stresses of the day. But who would hire someone to clean a print that had cost $14 30 years ago? It had lost that early morning freshness of colors it had had. Also where would we put it in the truck. It was silly of me to care. It was self-indulgent in a way I couldn’t find reason for. Yet I wanted it. As Izzy wanted the china lazy Susan in the front of the house, and a small reproduction of a fin-de-siecle painting (cost $3 in a supermarket sale) that was in the front room.

In the end I took the Susan, small painting and my large one home. My big painting took up the side panel of the truck and it got scratched. Since I decided on this the last moment, the Lazy Susan didn’t get properly wrapped and one of the china pieces got smashed.

Still she was happy with them. She put the three (one chipped) on the round thing that swings about and now has her pencils, pens and other things in it on her new cherry wood hutch and desk affair that stretches from her desk to Laura’s now ex-desk with a new wide-framed TV on it.

When I got my picture inside though, it was not clear where I could put it. We have 54 bookcases. Most of our walls are covered and those which are not have favorite pictures already. There is Jim’s three Italian sloops in the front room. He found that similarly, took it to work in the Pentagon, and the day he retired brought it home.

It was more like $30.00, but then this was 30 years later he bought it.

Walls with small ones: an acqua nymph on a rock, looking dreamily up from the waters to the sky; an Alma Tadema in black-and-white of pseudo-classical figures listening to someone read aloud Virgil (these from auctions); from thrift antique shops, some commedia dell’arte figures sitting and wandering wearily in a park where some kind of masquerade is occurring; and this print of an engraving in bad shape of a salon with a gentlewoman to the side holding (cuddling) a cat:

A Chardin of musical instruments:

But I did have behind the door in the hall and over the small thin bookcase (with audio books), a stretch of wall that had a sort of reproduction of a Monet of an exhibit from a museum in France that I really didn’t care for. Had it had been a Pissaro that would have been different. Would this fit? just? and how could I put it up? My father had taken away the original string set.

Well yesterday Laura and Rob brought over their drill. I had bought a new string set from Home Depot, and voila Rob put it up so it was straight and beautifully cover the whole wall. The bookcase under it prevents the door from slamming at it. It’s a bit dark in that corridor since there is no window and just one light bulb so you can’t tell how the painting needs a cleaning and the frame somehow loses its prominence.

I had held it against my father that he had gotten my painting. I had acquiesced in giving it up because he had made it his by that frame. But over the years it had become his, it had somehow in my mind stood for where we did share a taste, for he liked it as much as I did — though could not just leave it be, had had to make it conform to some imposed norm of impressiveness. But then when he had done it, he saw he had lost part of its charm.

So, at long last I got it back. But I got it back with this new meaning, that it had been his, but time has now reverted it back into being mine through the operation of shabbiness.

Almost there.

Ellen

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Michael Benz was a superlative Hamlet — within the limits of the kind of acting used

Dear friends and readers,

Jim and went out last night to see the London Globe company act Hamlet at our Folger Shakespeare Library. Like last time (8 summers ago now, in the Globe Theater itself in London where we were groundlings), the company’s way of doing the plays left me cold. They again enacted actors acting the parts. For me the result is too stylized.

The dress this time reminded me of the way people costume the rude mechanicals in Midsummer’s Night’s Dream and before the play started two actors, one playing Polonius (Christopher Saul) and one Claudius (Dickon Tyrell, a superbly effective presence even in stylized patterns), mingled with the audience. They were people like us you see, their costumes not so different from ours. The era imitated was 1940s mostly, with Miranda Foster having her hair in a snood, buns on top of her head, seamed stockings, 1940s pump shows. One problem was, why 1940s? This choice of era was not addressed. Like the Shenandoah play, the company do it in the light. Minimal props. I loved all this in a way. And I can’t really complain that they depend wholly on the lines spoken beautifully in a talk way. That means you’ve got to listen — and you appreciate the words both how they still speak to us and how they are Elizabethan in feel, outlook, nuance. But during the intermission I heard people talking about how hard it was for them to keep up, to follow. Those who had read the play rejoiced. I’ve read it many times so I could follow. I loved the folk dancing before and aft. They do get across the comic moments of Shakespeare’s even most pessimistic of plays.

A couple of the younger actors were weak. There were but 8 of them, lots of thoughtful doubling. Tom Lawrence most notably as Horatio stood out as somehow embodying a quintessential English Renaissance player look. The actors playing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern came in with sheepish comic looks, carrying suitcases, tennis rackets, vacation stuff. The whole feel alluded to Stoppard’s play — so the aesthetic control could be broken to allude to another art world.

But finally I prefer modern psychological enactment because I was not moved until near the end. The acting keeps me at a distance: the pace is too quick, and the gestures somehow slightly frozen, graceful in frenetism would be the way I’d characterize the Hamlet-Gertrude hard encounter. The American Shakespeare Company players (formerly Shenandoah express) do their plays using modern psychological mimesis with direct connections to our lives and norms today. I also much preferred the more abridged Hamlet we saw this summer: this Globe version was shortened too, lines sweated, here and there a speech omitted).

Go see it as an attempt to bridge the past into the present.

For a list of the company, director and notes, see Globe on Tour with Hamlet (they come to the Folger).

Ellen

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