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Archive for the ‘18th century’ Category

Dear friends,

In the computer disaster I had two days ago it appears that the course proposals I had made for a summer teaching course at an Oscher Institute of Learning may have been permanently lost; as I want these documents and today (as yet) have no writing program I can put them on — the new computer with Windows 8 is hellishly cutsey, tricksey. I cannot figure out how to write on Word on this Macbook Pro without the whole screen being transformed, so that I appear unable to reach my gmail with hitting F3 which minimalizes everything and let’s me see, and get back to gmail and the row of programs I have at the bottom of Macbook Pro. So I am saving two sets of documents or writing here — I used to use this blog to work out my thoughts on books, films, teaching; well read these as 5 sketches towards a summer course for retired people.

The Gothic

This course will explore the gothic mode in fiction and film. The gothic as a mode is a vast terrain with many differnt subgenres, yet images, plot-, and character types repeat like a formula. Take one huge labyrinthine ancient or partly ruined dwelling, place inside a murderous incestuous father or mother (preferably chained), heroes and heroines (various kinds), get a tempest going at night, be sure to have plenty of blood on hand, owls, and stir in a great deal of supernatural phenomena, have the action occur in the deep past or be connected to a deep past … We’ll use short stories on-line, beginning with ghosts and terror, moving onto vampire, werewolf, and wanderer paradigms and horror, and last socially critical mystery and possession. The course culminates in two recent novellas, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly, and the justly famed film, Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963, featuring Julie Harris).

Texts on-line will be chosen from among these: Wharton’s “Afterward” and/or “Kerfol,” M. R. James’s “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral;” Sheridan LeFanu’s “Green Tea” and/or “Carmilla,” Marion Crawford’s “For the Blood is the Life,” R. L. Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Suzy Charnas’s “Unicorn Tapestry; Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of Abbey Grange.” This spares students buying an expensive anthology.

Memory, Desire, and Self-fashioning: Life Writing

This course will enable students to better to understand and recognize the nature of life-writing: diaries, books of letters, journals, memoirs, travel narratives, autobiogaphies, biographies. Our three texts will be Richard Holmes’s Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer, Iris Origo’s War in Val d’Orca: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944 (or George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia) and Margaret Drabble’s The Figure in the Carpet: A Personal History, with Jigsaws. We will ask what is the nature of the truth autobiography produces and look at the relationship of a biographer to his subject. We’ll look at writing done to the moment when the writer does not know what the future holds (diaries, letters); how far is a biography the product of a biographer’s memories interacting with text by his (or her) subject. We’ll talk about the importance of childhood and play in this form, how aging, imagination and disappointment work are part of the mental materials that make up life-writing. If time permits and the DVD is available, the class will conclude with the 2013 film, The Invisible Woman, based on Claire Tomalin’s biography of a long love-relationship between Charles Dickens and Ellen Ternan (an actress), where most of the evidence for the events was destroyed, and thus be able to discuss events that happen, and are important in people’s lives and yet have left no discernible clear record.

The Political Novel

The course aims to enable the students to recognize what is political novel and how such novels can function in our society. We’ll read Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September, Walter Von Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident, and Valerie Martin’s Property and see William Wellman’s film, The Ox-Bow Incident (1963, featuring Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn). We’ll look at the nature of political allegory: how ideas about society penetrate the consciousness of the characters and can be observed in their behavior. Why some events enter what’s called history and why political novels often lend themselves to historical treatment; why other events are not discussed as serious history, which can limit what we perceive as political behavior. Finally, how films contribute to understanding a novel or its political meanings.

The Historical and Post-Colonial Turn in modern novels

This course will examine historical and post-colonial (or global) turn that English fiction has taken in the last quarter century. We’ll read and discuss three novels: Paul Scott’s Staying On, Graham Swift’s Waterland, and Andrea Levy’s Small Island. The first poignant novel is also about two aging people now retired, who have seen the word they were part of disappear and must cope with new arrangements hostile to them. The second will enable us to discuss how some events enter political history and others don’t, and thus our past is past is something we invent through imposing choice and order based on hierarchies in our present culture. Historical romance can therefore be liberating acts of resistance, a way of redressing injustice, and creating a more humane usable past. The third novel shows the centrality of nationalistic identities in enforcing exclusions or forming imagined communities. The course will conclude by watching an excerpt from a mini-series adaptation of Small Island (2009, BBC, featuring David Oyelowo and Ruth Wilson). I hope the class will see the connection of these novels to young adult fiction, counter-factual fictions, and romantic history as well as TV costume drama.

Jane Austen: the early phase

This course focus on Austen’s first published novels: Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Love and Freindship (a short hilarious burlesque which we will read first), Austen’s Steventon years, and letter fiction provide prologue and context for reading S&S and P&P. An alternative perspective provides the last phase of the course: Austen’s Bath years, a brief mid-career epistolary novel written there, Lady Susan (with an utterly amoral heroine), and discussion of how Austen revised the novels when she settled at Chawton. Last, we’ll see Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s S&S (a 1995 Miramax product), and discuss what this film makes visible about the way film-makers think readers read these novels and how these interpretations differ from this course’s historical, autobiographical and aesthetic readings.

Ellen

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From Andrew Davies’s mini-series Mr Selfridge (based on Lindy Woodhead’s Shopping, Seduction, and Mr Selfridge

I do not believe in recovery. The past, with its pleasures, its rewards, its foolishness, its punishments, is there for each of us forever, and it should be — Lillian Hellman

It is not true that in time you get used to it — Simone de Beauvoir

“The secondary impulse is to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness — C. S. Lewis

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve not blogged in over a week because I’ve been busy with various projects, most of which I am not ready to write on as yet, or I have to wait to write on because something else will be due earlier. My good past gone, I move to a new framing.

I finished reading Musiol’s important book on Vittoria Colonna but feel I must work on it carefully and during the day, that it will take much thought to review usefully (or why bother?): the description on line leads one to think it’s mainly on Michelangelo’s drawings possibly of Vittoria Colonna, when it is rather a detailed biography in the context of the religious and military politics and other literary works of her age.

Other projects nearing conclusion (coming out of list-serv life): LeFanu’s short stories and Wyvern Mystery (plot-designs and characters emerging from interior pathways through melancholy); Lillian Hellman’s 4 memoirs (Unfinished Woman, Pentemento, Scoundrel Time, Maybe).

But before doing that I have to make one or two syllabi for a possible position teaching in the Humanities part of a BA program. Since I’ve never taught courses which match the requirements of their core curriculum, this will take some doing. And a not so small obstacle here is I just ordered the books, so even with expedited shipping for a couple of them, have to wait. Paradoxically though I’m closer to being able to teach a course in the Enlightenment (one of the two offered), as 1) the 18th century is my primary area; 2) I used to teach a survey on the first half of British literature, one third of which I devoted to the long 18th century, I actually have more recent anthologies for the Victorian Age (my other choice).

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Pre-Raphaelite image, Millais (on the cover of the Longman Victorian Age)

Right now I’m thinking I should have for each syllabus a single readable (entertaining too) volume of general history (G. H. Young’s Portrait of an Age [Victorian]), an anthology which will give selections from many topics and a variety of texts and authors, and perhaps one or two whole single texts. Some of these anthologies I see have extended texts on-line which may form the equivalent of single texts. I don’t want to make the students pay extravagant amounts of money. For the Victorian Age one, I’m hoping the Broadview anthology comes quickly because it has a lot of Anthony Trollope in it, but I very much like the Longman (rich in traditional texts) and am drawn to the documents in Politics and Empire in Victorian Britain, ed. Antoinette Burden (with pieces by slaves and all sorts of extraordinary exposures of the condition of people at the time all over the globe which would (I hope) set students thinking.

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Reynolds’s portrait of Abingdon as Miss Prue (on the cover of the Longman 18th century anthology)

For the eighteenth century, Enlightenment one, I find I can think of a set of individual books, one of which might be a poetry anthology, but the outline of the course suggested asks that the instructor to have a core corpus of philosophical texts, some of which must debate attitudes towards religion (certainly central to the Enlightenment is the spread of secularism) so I’ve ordered Kramnick’s anthology of continental and English Enlightenment philosophical texts, and am thinking about single volume anthologies called Enlightenment (Roy Porter, or Dorinda Outram), to which I could add a good novel or travel memoir; or the Longman or Norton anthologies.

I hope all the ordered stuff arrives as I’m supposed to have these syllabi by New Year’s Day (January 1st). Meanwhile along with my etext edition of Ethelinde (slowly typing it still) and my return to Emma, Austen’s novel, for calendar study, and the Emma movies, which I suppose I must put aside for now, or go slower, late into the night I’m enjoying myself watching Andrew Davies’s Mr Selfridge and endlessly re-watching the 3 seasons of Downton Abbey, which I never seem to tire of: partly it’s that so much money and care and the intense art that results from that, & the many characters gone into with all their parallels and ironic contrasts inside evolving stories — makes slow re-watching rich in ever new insights. Partly the depth of feeling the characters show towards one another satisfies an endless need in me:

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Mr (Brendan Coyle) and Mrs (Joanne Froggart): on the beach (4th season)

If Jim were still alive, I’d not be returning to teaching; I’d probably stay with Emma, the Austen movies and Ethelinde, and maybe for fun turn to Winston Graham and historical fiction. Be going out to plays, operas, concerts, walking with him, talking. Travel, say to the Lake District, Venice — but I do know he was beginning to not want to do these things — himself aging, weakening (perhaps that horrible disease cancer that ate him up showing itself). I would have done that paper on Anne Finch and retirement. Lillian Hellman says in her memoirs (which I’m almost ready to write about, just have to finish the fourth and a couple of essays on it) that when you are driven to give up an old way of life, when it’s destroyed, you are spared stagnation, staying in one frame or sameness of place, growing even older than your years.

Can I tell myself (like Hellman) that what was then, is there still now, and the years between, and the then and now are one? No it’s not one, now and the long (now feeling all too short) time with Jim. And what happened to make this raw rip was unspeakable. Here we were, innocent in a landmark house, Amos Brown’s, Vermont, what turned out to be our last summer:

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Before I read with him, now in order not to read all alone, and be utterly desolate in my heart and inner being, I have to turn the reading into socially useful, acceptable patterns and paths.

“Aussi triste qe soit un livre, it n’est jamais aussi triste que la vie” — Chantal Thomas [as sad as a book is, it's never as sad as life], Souffrir

Ellen

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Winston Graham — from his middle years

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Robin Ellis, recently — very important in shaping and keeping memory of Poldark alive (Making Poldark appeared in a 3rd expanded edition this year)

Dear friends and readers,

I’m delighted (and honored) to be able to report that James Dring has made a significant contribution to Winston Graham studies: on his website you can find a long, thorough listing of all Graham’s fiction accompanied by remarks culled from reviews at the time of the particular book’s publication, comments by Graham on the book (in green letters), and accurate contextualization of both sets of remarks by Dring (in brown). The file includes the films, screenplays, books on these, and letters by Graham and a letter from Graham to Dring. And finally a listing of all Graham’s minor publications (essays and introductions) and the few essays that have been published on him (mostly on his mystery-crime books). One could use this information as the beginning basis of a literary biography or longer study of all Graham’s writing.

An annotated bibliography

The films make visible the kinds of reactions readers have to the novels, the way they have been read:

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Still from the fine 19560s semi-art film, The Walking Stick

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Richard Armitage and Demelza Carne Poldark falling in love over their shared reading (Poldark 1977-78, Part 9)

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1996 Stranger from the Sea: an attempt to de-politicize the Poldark novels, turn them into ethnic (wild Cornwall) domestic romance (defeated by the brevity of the film and vociferous protests of fan club for 1970s mini-series & its stars)

Mr Dring has also provided two files of the dust jackets of the books: dust jackets; more dust jackets

Here are a few telling ones I’ve gathered (from the Net):

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First 1945 edition of Ross Poldark

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Art work on back of all Bodley Head Poldark novels (1960s)

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Cover for the 5th Poldark novel reflecting the 1970s film adaptation

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Recent British set (21st century)

Dust jackets are an important form of packaging information about a book: they suggest who the book is aimed at; the imagery, if true to the book, something of its genre and nature; how much respect a particular press lends to the book. These provide the basis for a study of Graham’s readership, the initial reception of his novels and later evaluations by publishers, readers, and himself (he rewrote or at least revised his early books).

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1st edition of Little Walls

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Edition of Forgotten Story, story set in Cornwall, 1898 (perhaps 1960s? or around the time of the 1984 film adaptation, featuring Angharad Rees)

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Recent edition of novel set in India, Corfu, Wales, something of a historical novel (sexy cover fixated on woman from the back in slip influenced by memories of Hitchcock’s Marnie)

Mr Dring contacted me to suggest I link his website to mine as providing on-line information about Graham, the Poldark and his other books. I’ve now done so, linking all three files into my central section and bibliography page

Ellen

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Geographies of the Book

Dear friends and readers,

During the all too short time (about a day’s length) I was able to be at the Sharp conference this year, held at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, I enjoyed myself and heard some engaging informative papers — and gave one myself. Although I was able to attend the conference only briefly (as my husband was still recovering from an operation), I would still like to remember and share the gist of what I heard and experienced (as I did two years ago) and what I wish I could have been there for.

I arrived on Saturday, July 20th, around 2:00 pm, in time to attend two panels and in the evening go to a scrumptious banquet (at which there were Philadelphia mummers) and walk around the campus.

No surprise when I decided on “studies in the long 18th century” (e-7, 3-4:30 pm) and “the circulation of 19th and early 20th century genres of medical knowledge” (f-1, 5-6:00 pm). I’m originally an 18th century literary scholar, and for more than 20 years I regularly taught Advanced Composition in Natural Science and Technologies where I devoted a third of the course’s reading to texts on medical science as it’s really practiced in the US today.

Studies in the long 18th century covered shaping French and Polish georgraphical contexts. Elizabeth della Zazzera suggested how the different locations in which literary periodical production occurred Restoration Paris can teach us what were the social worlds and different political agendas of these locations — and how the periodicals in question reflected this. There were many geographic centers in Restoration Paris, some had students, others the rich, clubs here, and booksellers in commercial areas. Ms Zazzera studied and explicated imaginative geographies too. Lorraine Piroux argued Diderot’s Natural Son should be reprinted as it was in the first edition with its preface, 3 conversations, and 2 dramatic narratives as part of a contextualized text. Diderot was trying to establish a new kind of bourgeois authentic drama. A play should be played as if it were life, not art. He was writing experimentally and offering a novelistic contextualization for his play. These texts are today printed separately, divided into different genres.

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Partitioned Poland — 1795-1918

Teresa Swieckowska described the difficult position of Polish authors in the 18th and 19th century — and compared the situations in Germany and England. Poland had been cut up into different terrorities dominated by other national courts and companies; and copyright (a system of privilege with a contradictory evolution) was not an effective except as it aroused interest in a work’s author(s). Most Polish writers of this era were aristocrats, for there was no money to be made. Literary books were not profitable and not respected. Commodification in Poland starts in the later 19th century.

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Medical College of Virginia also a library

The papers on how medical knowledge reached physicians and patients too showed how entangled were social, gender, and racial politics in deciding who could get information, what was available, and how presented. Brenton Stewart’s paper was on 19th century southern medical an surgical journals. He described and discussed specific medical colleges and hospitals (some meant just for “negroes”) & how the dynamics of local power politics shaped knowledge. To disseminate and share medical information across the south physicians and surgeons turned to highly politicized medical journals whose findings included examinations of medicine and surgery forced on slaves. (Afterwards I asked and was told that The slaves were named as well as their “owners”).

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Early health magazine published by the AMA

Catherine Arnott Smith told of the early invention, spread and codification of the Layman’s Medical Journal (a kind of consumer health magazine) by women. She began by saying libraries were places where people could find information, but medical journals were written for other physicians; the earlier policy of associations like the AMA was to withhold information from patients (in order to control and make profits from them). She described the lives & roles of Addie and Julia Riddle who became physicians; of Jessie Leonard who censored movies; hygiene was their goddess; of later titles (Journal of Preventive Medicine, 1910), of political complications, like a Race Betterment League (contraception seems to lead back to eugenics, and women (Martha [?] Stearns Fitts Jones; Lady Cook; Virginia Woodhull) whose class and political positions (especially on the question of prohibition) made it difficult for them to work together. Both scholars studied ads and diaries.

Sunday I went to the session I was giving a paper at, “imaginary geographies iii” (g-3, 8:30-10:00 am), and Ian Gregory’s plenary lecture on using GIS to map and analyze geographical information within texts (10:30-noon).

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Winnie-the-Pooh world mapped

Elizabeth Frengel gave a charming paper on the ideas about, illustrations and lives of Walter Crane and Ernest Shepard. She began with the history of end-papers (where from the later 19th century maps are often found), told of Crane’s writing on the importance of harmonizing text and illustration, and how described Shephard’s maps and illustrations realized the imaginary worlds of Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh and Graham’s Wind in the Willows.

I gave my own paper, Mapping Trollope: Geographies of Power where I argued Trollope’s visualized maps are central means by which he organizes and expresses the social, political and psychological relationships of his characters and themes, that they names places important to him personally; & that through his Irish maps he aimed to put Ireland into his English readers’ imagined consciousness. I show also how his use of maps changed in the later stages of his career to become minutely studied and sceptical geographies of power and take the reader well outside the corridors of power to show that what happens in ordinary places matters too.

The session concluded with Iain Stevenson on the life and “achievements” of a remarkably nervy entrepreneurial crook (soldier, husband of rich wives, Ponzi-scheme initiator), Gregor MacGregor who (among other things) was able to set up and enact crazed schemes of emigration (see my review of The Acadian Diaspora by Christopher Hodson) by exploiting the delusional dreams of independence and wealth among the ignorant abysmally poor and lower middle class. Gregor invented and produced imaginary money as well as countries and Prof Stevenson brought along some original specimens of his Poyais notes.

It was a well-attended session, and there was much stimulating talk for the half hour of time we had. As I wrote, people thanked me for the packet of maps — I gave out old-fashioned good xeroxes of maps from Trollope’s novels instead of doing a power-point presentation. During the discussion on my own paper I raised a note of doubt: Trollope’s maps are not accurate portrayals of the real worlds of Victorian England: for a start, they omit the prevalence of the abysmally poor, the huge industrial complexes (which here and there in his novels he does describe, like St Diddulph’s in He Knew He Was Right, an imagined version of London East End docklands), and thus erase and mislead modern readers and can function as propaganda. I quoted Orwell: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” People defended the escapist aspect of these imagined worlds. Many more were interested in the history and development of end-papers (which Ms Frenkel had gone over in some detail), and maps for children’s books and mysteries in general. One woman had given a paper earlier in the conference about the practice by one company of putting maps (automatically it seems) on the back covers of published mysteries.

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Posy Simmons map of Cranford for the book that accompanied the TV mini-series adaptation of Gaskell’s short stories — just the sort of end-paper map people were discussing

Ian Gregory showed the conference how analytical and pictorial mapping of the frequency of specific words in paired (Wordsworth and Grey’s written tours of the lake district) or comparative texts (19th century official reports of the incidence of diseases like cholera and small pox in cities in England) can enable a researcher respectively to grasp unexpected emphases and large trends, and suggested the understanding gained this way can be added to close and/or deconstructive readings of texts. He made a lively wry talk out of philosophical, somber and abstract material.

It was then noon and as I had a 1:30 pm train to catch to return home to Washington, it was time for this Cinderella to leave imagined maps and return to her hotel and modern pumpkin coach (a cab) and head back for the 30th Street train station. What I wish I could have heard: more discussion on how maps are exercises in imposing power. I would have gone to session a-2 about maps and reading habits of soldiers and poets of WW1 (especially the paper on Edward Thomas reading Shakespeare); a-8 about why imaginary geography matters to book history; b-6, “books down under”, Australian convict memoirs, radical publishing and schoolgirl books (the Australian session probably included a paper on Ethel Handel Richardson); c-5 which had a paper on Chaucer’s portrait; d-4, the survival of WW2 concentration camp publications and letter culture; d-5, erotics of family books like Jane Eyre’s German daughters in the US (“emigrating books”). But fancy had had to be reined in.

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Wind in the Willows illustration by Shepard

Ellen

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Vivien Leigh as Anna (1948 film, scripted Jean Anouilh)

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Ralph Richardson’s Karenin, reasoning with Leigh as Anna

Oblonsky to Levin: It’s Kitty I’m sorry for — not you! — Stoppard’s Anna

Anna to Vronsky: I would never see my son again. The laws are made by husbands and fathers … Unhappiness? I’m like a starving beggar who has been given food — Stoppard’s Anna

Dear friends and readers,

After seeing Wright and Stoppard’s recent film of Anna Karenina, featuring Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfayden, Jude Law, I determined to read the book. I had tried when I was in my teens but been defeated because I found the Levin matter intolerable; this time I thought I’d manage by listening to it read aloud while driving my car. It took time so I lingered over it (sometimes at night reading this or that passage on my own) as Davina Porter’s reading was brilliant.

I found I much prefer the meaning of the story & characterizations in Wright and Stoppard’s from Tolstoy’s; that Tolstoy’s story is meant to be and is harshly punitive on Anna even if he feels for her loneliness married to a repressed easily resentful man much older than she. He presents her adulterous love as an evil impulse in her which moves from impelling her boldly to leave her husband and live an amoral life, and then twists her to destroy her relationship with her lover because she cannot accept her despised position. She cannot find something within herself to give her life meaning because she has moved away from religion. Greater sympathy is allotted Karenin. Tolstoy’s unique greatness seems to me that he conveys a sense of every day life slowly passing for all. He dramatizes people’s working lives, how they pass time in the evening; he reveals the tedium of existence. He is said to be respected for his rounded apparently believable characters, but when I listened to it with my husband in the car with me, they emerged as types, stereotypes from other novels in part. He does not offend against conventional standards of good taste — as forged by male oriented readers.

Tolstoy is not interested in Anna’s lack of happiness or fulfillment as a woman; the system needs to change, and that’s the point of the Levin part of the novel. Levin is said to marry wholly for love (which is basically an animal passion as we see once they marry they do not understand one another’s minds at all); he is not performative. Tolstoy writes against personal ambition, performativeness. Levin is also contrasted to the drone Oblonsky (Anna’s brother) who is unfaithful to his wife, Dolly, does no useful work, conceives of positions in gov’t and elsewhere as sheer plums of money for him to collect to support his habits. Not only does Levin work the fields and keep his house, Levin would change the political complexion of the nation to be more equal, to provide more education and opportunities for the lower orders.

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Domnhall Gleeson as Levin (Stoppard and Wright’s version — it’s hard to find images of earlier Levins as non-entities often played the part and were forgotten by the public)

Here he is stopped because what is valued in political gatherings is the ability to network, to flatter others, to be congenial in an amoral kind of way, to look handsome. All these Vronsky does, and if Vronsky had not been destroyed by his relationship with Anna, the way he fits into his regiment and is liked and the way he immediately is a social success the one time he goes to a political gathering, shows he would have risen to power.

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Sean Bean as a decent intelligent well-meaning Vronsky in 1997 (BBC)

He has a conscience and some decent ideals (unlike Oblonsky); when in the novel with Anna and she is still behaving, he opens and supervises a hospital, schools, but he would not begin to go further than reforming his own area and property and people within it without giving up one iota of power.

In short, Tolstoy writes a 19th century novel which (like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary) has been over-rated because he does at least deal with adultery directly. The way to value it is the way we value Gaskell’s Ruth where the heroine is similarly punished – this time for having a child out of wedlock where at least an attempt is made to present a woman’s sexual life. We can also liken Anna Karenina to Trollope’s novels (Tolstoy admired Trollope enormously, said Trollope’s books “killed him”): they are debates about the political and economic and to some extent social arrangements of the era where a kind of moderate reform is proposed, and how political life is really carried on exposed.

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Structure — I assume the reader knows the story, if not you may find it in the wikipedia article.

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Gretta Garbo as Anna (1935 film, director Clarence Brown)

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Frederick March as Vronsky to Garbo’s Anna

The novel made be said to be made up of two novellas which could’ve been very short but are here blown up into a large book by modern psychological and realistic techniques. At the opening of Is He Popenjoy? Trollope says he wishes he could write his story in the brief strong way of railway novels, but must make it middle class through subtilizing it, then it becomes acceptable to Mudie’s lending library.

If I were to see the novel as an outgrowth of the 18th century novel (it’s set in the early part of the 18th century), I’d say Anna-Vronksy comes from Lafayette’s Princess de Cleves (same central types in the couple) by way of 18th century depth psychology: the president de Tourvel in Les Liasions Dangereuses, and this is a deep vein of fiction important in functioning for liberty. In Anna Karenina, paradoxically the story that functions for liberty is Dolly’s — how badly Oblonsky treats her shows how a woman needs more liberty and independence.

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Matthew MacFayden as the conscienceless, self-satisfied bureaucrat, Oblonsky (given star billing in Wright and Stoppard’s play, considerably softened, he grieves for Anna at the movie’s close)

The Levin material is by comparison Sir Charles Grandison matter. I’m sure Kitty breast-fed, no need for Tolstoy to tell us.

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A wholesome Alicia Vikander as Kitty (Wright and Stoppard’s version)

It’s exemplary, optimistic, leisurely, leaving time for disquisitions on art (though there are some of these in the Vronksy-Anna story when Vronsky takes up painting for a while), politics, farming, social life. In mood it’s closer to section in Rousseau’s Julie, ou La Nouvelle Heloise when the heroine goes to live in Switzerland with her husband. I do like the debates over politics whose nuances remind me of arguments between Plantagenet and Phineas: Levin wants moderation; he does not wan to exploit so ruthless and yet wants his property and place. The others take the modern position of Republicans like Romney which are recreations of this older indifference to anything but the one narrow classes utter comforts. Where the story becomes fascinating again is realism (not in Grandison as character). Levin’s jealousy of Kitty before worldly men, the hunt and his resentment. No kindness in Tolstoy towards the poor animals slaughtered so effectively by Oblonsky who has the admiration of all, very chic in rags and the best guns. I imagine like Trollope over hunting foxes, Tolstoy hunted grouse, and farmed the way Levin does.

D’Epinday’s Montbrillant (mid-18th century long memoir as novel) has the same two types of fiction squashed together only the Grandison part is about salons, and Vronsky-Anna stories of adultery and sexuality are really seen from the woman’s point of view forced to acquiesce in her husband’s adulteries, and attempts to sell her to pay his debts.

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From my reading experience as I went through the book and remembered the movie I had just seen and what I’ve read about the other movies and Tolstoy and other 19th century novelists:

At first: Tolstoy’s book feels so rich. It seems to contain in it other novels: well when Anna first meets Vronsky, he is just about engaged to Kitty, Anna’s brother’s sister-in-law. It’s deep attraction at first sight for Anna and Vronsky — which we are warned is bad news for Anna by Anna’s brother’s father-in-law’s attitude towards Vronsky.

It reminds me very much of Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga. Anna is regarded as this icon of mysterious beauty in just the way Irene Heron is. The possessive successful male sweeps her up, but he cannot understand or satisfy her. The dark continent.

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Eric Porter played both Soames in 1967 and Karenin in 1977 for the BBC

Unlike Irene, Anna resists this attraction at first, but then she’s nowhere as unhappy as Irene with her husband. She has had a child, she is satisfied with her friendship with Dolly, her sister-in-law. In Tolstoy’s novel by this point we see that Levin is actually the central hero or presence of the novel, however ironized, for by beginning with Anna’s brother Oblonsky, Levin his friend is brought on novel’s stage and (unlike the 2012 play and movie) becomes central for chapters and chapters.

Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright’s movie is literally true to the book as it opens (they deviate later) — but then cut off at all the Levin material.

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Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Wright and Stoppard’s debauched, half-crazed Vronsky

I’m into part 2 of 5 and remarkably very early on Tolstoy makes it clear that Vronsky lives the life of a shallow drone, someone Anna should have walked away from. In the play he is neurotic, over-emotional in the extreme whatever he does; in the novel is he an average aristocrat, perhaps a little better than many, capable of shame and good feeling. Others see this — Dolly’s father, for example. We see the low-life demi-monde Vronsky favors. The text feels for Anna very much, but Tolstoy sees love and coupling as sheerly drivingly sexual and has no inward understanding for real.

Myself I find Tolstoy’s a male view — it’s found in Trollope. Tolstoy does sufficient justice to Anna’s tight bond to her son and how much she is as yet comfortable with, respects Karenin at first, but she has tired of the way he is cold, stays away from her, is controlling from the outside. The words Anna used to express her love for Vronsky to Vronsky upon trying to explain why she is not degraded by their affair (all the while made to feel terribly shamed) could be a translation of the words Laura Kennedy uses in Trollope’s Phineas Redux when they walk in Konisberg at the castle over the parapets. The words in Trollope to describe her passion are close to those in Garnett’s translation. It’s uncanny.

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Comparison of an incident: Bronte’s Villette and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

I can’t resist making a note of this. I had earlier been listening to Bronte’s Villette where there is a striking parallel and contrast to Tolstoy’s book.

In Bronte’s a powerful sequence shows Lucy all alone coming to Brussels and with her tiny amount of money seeking a hotel to stay. She is given an address by a kind stranger. Lucy Snow sets out. It’s nighttime. She finds herself followed by two young men who are laughing at her, to her they seem semi-thugs, they call out. In euphemisms it’s suggested they are after her sexually. Terrified she gets confused where she is and goes the wrong way altogether. This results in her landing into the school which takes her in. It determines the course of her life. It’s a harrowing sequence. Izzy was in the car with me and both of us gripped. Told of course from the woman’s point of view.

In Tolstoy’s AK, Vronsky tells this “amusing” story to the demi-monde woman he finds in his flat which he is sharing with a drone low-life officer, she this man’s mistress. It seems that two young men in his regiment saw a young woman coming home and they thought her living alone. What fun. For a lark they follow her upstairs. The next day an irate husband challenges them. Vronsky (good man they all think) has been negotiating to avoid a duel. The woman was his pregnant wife returning home early from the theater. Vronsky is much amused at how often the husband so easily become irate: his honor is involved. To do Tolstoy justice he gives us a glimpse of this young woman coming home and in distress.

But the accent is not there quite. The sequence is not harrowing. The incident reveals Vronsky whose concern is with his regiment. Yet it is told. It is part of Vronsky’s view of women: he tells it to the demi-monde as a joke. I have not got up to her response.

Only in the novel I’m typing slowly, Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde (English Jacobin & sentimental novel), do we have an harassment incident where the point is at least made that an attitude of mind by men towards women causes this at least by implication. Emily is staying with a cousin who does not care to protect her from the men in the house; they know she’s a poor, a nobody, no father and they chase after her through the landscape. The result is not a plot-hinge but it is significant in Ethelinde’s determination to quit this house. We are made to feel this sort of thing is what Ethelinde would have to contend with in this house when she arrives.

As a woman who has had such experiences I know they can drive a girl who has partly succumbed to the pestering and aggression (which is presented as just fine) to avoid going out. The Steubenville rape is a crude ugly bullying version of what I’m pointing to here. How far it can go.

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Tolstoy as a young man, 1848 — he could be Levin

Tolstoy skips over the long year of deepening involvement — unlike another neglected novel which explores adultery seriously as an alternative to a miserable marriage where one can find companonship (Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde).
What Tolstoy is interested in, “does justice” to Anna’s horrific guilt once she and Vronsky have sex. There’s more of this self-horror than anything else. This is utterly different from Stoppard and Wright’s movie too -there we have the woman who wants to escape imprisonment and exploitation. I prefer the movie though I grant the depth of writing and intensity in Tolstoy is powerful

Levin is a sort of surrogate for Tolstoy, and again in the movie this is not so. He is more than half-caricatured by Wright and Stoppard. Oblonsky is sensible in comparison. It’s interesting to see this 21st century amoral modern take as opposed to Tolstoy’s Victorianism which makes Oblonsky into a semi-Skimpole type.

I find myself remembering what I read about Tolstoy about the time Jay Parini’s book, The Last Station, focusing on Tolstoy’s wife was made into an interesting film. The film made Sophia self-centered, materialistic, seeking sex for herself and not for procreation, but it was my understanding Parini’s book in fact was a real critique of Tolstoy as self-deluded, a powerful aristocrat who took advantage of his status all the time, with real sympathy for Sophie — which Helen Mirren picked up on.

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Mirren counters the distrustful anti-sexuality thrust of Tolstoy’s conception of his wife and women

Tolstoy’s last text was one where he presented sexuality as such as loathsome even when inside marriage, Kreutzer’s Sonata.

Frances Trollope’s novel of an unwed mother, Jessie Phillips: A Tale of the Present Day is another 19th century novel which shows far more understanding of women’s vulernability and inner life. But she too (like Gaskell) makes her heroine suffer without showing what was the pleasure. Yet I had to drive 90 minutes in my car once again yesterday and found myself listening to a very long loving description of every detail Levin and Kitty’s wedding ceremony. The equivalent of a bridal magazine today. It so irritated me. Why so much time on this? Tolstoy is clever and he makes ironic jokes about how a couple of years from now for just about everyone this long ceremony seems idiotic, false, but that’s not what the lengthy text does. It insists that each detail the wedding counts; that’s why Levin is late in dressing, why Kitty spends months and months in planning with her mother. Bridezilla.

It could be a woman’s magazine today. It explains why fools complained that in Downton Abbey Fellowes had the brains to present Lady Mary and Matthew’s wedding only in terms of the fuss and trouble leading up to it.

Just before the ceremony Levin is not the ideal exemplary man having won the love of the sweet chaste Kitty, almost alienates her by letting her see his diaries with his disgusting affairs. This great novel of adultery is deeply against sex. When in Downton Abbey Dan Stevens had to play some of this kind of nonsense, he looked excruciated.

Not Wright at all and not Stoppard; they skip the wedding.

Meanwhile in the book Vronsky rushes to Anna in bed who has given birth to their little girl, confessed to Karenin and been forgiven. But Anna cannot stand her husband’s presence or embraces; she is beyond reason or humanity towards Karenin who (in the novel) turns emotionally noble and is willing to be shamed and take her back. Vronsky throws himself onto Anna, she cannot resist and three sentences later they disappear from the narrative only to turn up chapters later several months later so we can see them despised. We only saw their affair a year later.

I hadn’t realize how much Wright departed from Tolstoy until I’d gotten well past the mid-point of the book. In Wright and Stoppard’s version Anna leaves Karenin half-way through the narrative, and takes up life with Vronsky; has her baby daughter by Vronsky while living with him. In Tolstoy’s book she has not left Karenin as yet; Karenin has begun proceedings for a divorce and custody of his (now apparently detested) son. But Anna nearly dies in puperal fever, she hysterically calls for her husband, declares him great, noble-souled, and herself so much crap; she and Karenin manage to humiliate Vronsky and in the throes of this scene Karenin forgives Anna. Vronsky goes home, shamed, and realizing suicide can be brought on by humiliation and the world’s scorn tries to shoot himself through the chest and nearly dies. Both though do not die — Tolstoy implies perhaps Anna would have been better off if she had and so too Vronsky. She lives to regret, and in Tolstoy Vronksy lives on to want to get her back, only much later to be destroyed by her suicide.

It’s theatrically effective in the book and films which use it, and the discourse about forgiveness and how Karenin wants to keep to that, how it brings out the good soul in him is probably (I do believe) the conscious message. But I find the scenes at the bedside absurd and improbable — but perhaps a 19th century reader would not have.

Much of Tolstoy’s text is taken up with how badly Kareinin feels. He naturally becomes the prey of religious fanatics like the old countess, Lydia. It’s the only way he can hold up his head; she is responsible for Karenin’s keeping Anna’s son from her too. So the man is absolved and sympathized with again and again.

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Not so in Wright and Stoppard’s film where the narrow, sexless and vindictive seething of the man is emphasized — here Jude Law has a tight mind and body

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Horse race as done in the theater of Wright and Stoppard’s conception

This is not to say there are not many remarkable and interesting passages in Tolstoy’s book — sort of interwoven in as part of the story but reflecting both Tolstoy’s high sense of himself and his fiction and its purpose.

From the penultimate sections of the book, before the final crash of Anna and departure of Vronsky to a useless war where he and his regiment of desperate men will be killed for nothing — and the qualified contentment ending of Levin’s choice to marry Kitty and live the life of an aristocratic landlord-farmer.

The depiction of Vronsky’s attempt at a career as an artist and patron of the arts in Italy in the earliest phase of his time with Anna, when she is still in control of herself and enjoying life well away from Russian society. This sequence allows Tolstoy to present thoughts on art and the 19th century scene.

The death of Levin’s brother is another sequence — we see the poverty of most hotels in this rigid ancien regime world. We see how badly the supposedly idealistic leftist brother treats the prostitute he has taken in as his wife. On this level, Tolstoy feels for a woman; she ought to have stayed with a peasant husband somewhere. I’m sure Levin would have found her one had she come to him first.

I’m also “enjoyed” the realism of the relationship of Vronsky and Anna as it slowly hurts so badly from being outside the rest of the world, the ostracizing, and even Levin and Kitty with their lack of real understanding of one another and explosive fights in early marriage.

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Keira Knightley as the grieving mother

Extraordinarily strong because so believable Anna’s stolen visit to her son and the responses of the servants, her meeting Karenina and his half-mad behavior. You can prove anything if you get to make up the evidence, but far more than Trollope successfully I think Tolstoy does persuade us a woman of this milieu, religion, would feel the intense guilt of Anna, digs deep into it, how it functions to twist her and give her little chance to finally live a life that is fulfilling for both with Vronsky. The scene at the theater where she goes out of some kind of inner-directed spite at herself and Vronsky equally strong. Vronsky needs to be accepted in the world and live in it; she needs just the respect.

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Anna supported by the corrupt Princess Betsy (Ruth Wilson)

She is mortified and humiliated. I wish I could believe Tolstoy critiquing this double standard but he’s not.

The linchpin connection between the Vronksy-Anna matter and the Kitty-Levin is Anna’s brother Oblonsky and his wife Dolly with whom the book and Stoppard and Wright’s movie opens. Dolly feels for Anna; her husand, Oblonsky a careless rake and roue who is ruining them by his continual spending of money (leaving nothing for the household, saving nothing for the children’s education).

So, Oblonsky’s harried put-upon wife, Dolly, goes to visit Anna. Anna had persuaded Dolly to stay with Oblonsky after one of Oblonsky’s many affairs (the man has casual encounters and sex like some people have meals) was exposed — because it was with the governess. He spends all their money, he impregnates her carelessly; she is worn, her children will have no decent schools unless her father pays for it — reminds me of Montague Dartie in Forsyte Saga. She knows he does not love her. She is miserable. She thinks Anna is no different from her, just braver. When she arrives, Anna is ecstatic to see her and Vronsky so glad. She notices the people around them are third-rate hangers on as the world judges these things. We are made to notice how rich Anna is through her eyes — the riding out, the hat, the horse, the house they stay in.

So, were this an English novel, this moneyed state of Anna would be accounted for — it’s not in AR. It is probably not from her husband. Would she have her own estate? I don’t know. It seems to come from Vronsky who we are told in an early part of the book has to borrow to keep up his lavish life style.

The moral nature of what’s happening is central. Probably because I’m reading Galsworthy at the same time I am so aware of how Tolstoy too makes of Anna this beautiful mysterious icon. In her case being torn apart. Slowly after Vronsky and Anna return to Russia, whether St Petersburg or Moscow, their relationship sours badly. No one respectable will be friends with them; they get only hangers-on. People they once would have passed over, come to them and Vronksy and Anna cling to these fringe types.

Yet he can live with it, he can suffer the loss of his army regiment (very much a Rawdon type — from Vanity Fair); it’s more her fault than his because she cannot live the unconventional part of a mistress and woman of the world. Why she should want the friends we saw at the opening were all so hollow I can’t say. She has Dolly and her brother who seemed to be the only people she enjoyed herself with before. And men do visit. She is pathetically grateful to have Dolly’s loyalty, but we see Dolly becomes sickened at what she sees as their false friends, false lives and stays only one day on a visit meant to go on for a long time.

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Mary Kerridge as Dolly (1948 version, sentimentalized Oblonsky, glimpsed weeping with remorse)

We then get the encounter of Anna with Levin who is drawn to her as mysterious alluring icon but then reverses himself when he sees his wife. Anna here has become evil as she is presented as consciously trying to seduce Levin sexually.

I also very much enjoy some of the political drama and discussions about art in the Levin sections; I don’t have space to detail this sort of thing. The political meeting with Vronksy emerging as successful had the sceptical understanding of Trollope and the principles and parties were of interest similarly. Tolstoy defends realism in pictures.

At the same time I was so grated upon by the long drawn out childbirth, especially the turning from ravaged screaming on Kitty’s part to bliss. No thanks Mr Tolstoy for your moral lesson here. I writhe to have to listen to this nonsense — Trollope wouldn’t have minded and might thought it was just the pap (like the wedding) women might want.

Very interesting are the less cliched stories: Oblonsky, Stiva, near bankrupt trying to get a lucrative post where he does nothing and thinking he deserves it! Some amusement there – this is how Felix Carbury behaves in Trollope and Davies’s TWWLN and Matthew MacFayden played both parts.

The story of Anna’s son being slowly turned against her and made to be cold from his life’s experiences with the angry embittered father and morally stupid tutor.

Why is Anna not afraid she will be broke and end in the streets? she is so sure of her aristoratic words & norms to reach for.

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A 19th century illustration of the end of the novel
The novel concludes:

Again I am deeply engaged by Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in the final phase of Vronsky and Anna’s story. It is more than grippingly believable. Tolstoy lays bare how someone (Anna) can act destructively against herself and her interests, because there is not enough on offer for an erasure of those parts of herself necessary to play the part in her world Vronsky as her open lover allows her. She is in too much pain over her own loss of self-esteem. I can see myself acting like that and have in life acted that way.

I continue mostly bored and irritated by the Levin matter.

At the close of book 7 is the powerful sequence where Anna finally loses all perspective, and throws herself under a train. I’ve just ambivalent responses to the depiction. I think the way to get round the worst is to lower expectations – that’s why when I first started reading I suggested Tolstoy is over-rated. If we think of him as just another Victorian-19th century writer, we don’t expect as much, give him more slack, and as with reading say Gaskell’s Ruth, we look at what is gained by an attempt at a frank depiction of a transgressive woman (Anna) or a woman who has transgressed (Ruth) sexually. Trollope will depict no such figure; Dickens would not touch this with a 50 foot pole.Most women didn’t dare lest they be accused of sexual transgression.

I know were I to have read the book in my 20s even I would just have utterly bonded with Anna and felt for her and not noticed as I felt continually Tolstoy’s continual corrective: Anna says everyone is hateful to her, and immediately Tolstoy brings home to us how most people are not hateful; everything she feels or says is quickly shown to be an exaggeration and coming out of her. The worst is how he talks of an “evil’ spirit inheriting her soul — surely this is God punishing her.

He also does not spare us. We are shown that Anna did not die immediately but felt pain and knew what was happening. When we are told that Vronsky saw the body he never got over seeing what was in her eyes. Or her mangled body.

One can read the sequence sympathetically from her point of view too. It is true Vronsky is tired of her. We can see she is trying to reach him as best she can. It’s his choice to stay in Moscow, visit his mother. What he wants is for her to make the best of it or go herself into the country where he would visit her or stay with her and come back to his social life from time to time. She seems unable to manage with this. Myself I know how she feels from the exquisite details about egoisms conflicting that Tolstoy does manage. I’ve experienced this in family life, feeling oneself disdained some, really not respected, and how painful this is, especially when something is done which points to it and the person denies it. Trollope knew our egos mattered: many of his scenes show characters reacting internally emotionally violently over this.

Months have passed when the last book (8) begins again. When we next see Vronsky, now worn, having again nearly gone mad with his remorse and leaving for the war front with a group of less than admirable types because he can’t get anything better together and listen to his mother’s vicious tongue about Anna this is a reinforcement of empathy for her — and him.

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1899 Twilight Moon by Isaak Ilyich Levitan

One then has to wade through at least a hundred pages of Levin material where we learn God is good, well-meaning, dwell in the Russian landscape, and if Levin is also dissatisfied, this are the terms on which we have life. At the close of the book Levin has a vision which shows him the value of his existence and makes him think he will act more loving to everyone no matter how much they irritate, but soon discovers he cannot change himself. I thought of the long shooting bird (grouse) sequences and how vividly (very like Trollope) Tolstoy entered into these and told them in detail; unlike Galsworthy though he did not at all feel for the animals endlessly murdered (by Oblonsky and finally done in by Levin too) — to show his manhood, nor even so much as register them as presences (which Trollope at least concedes).

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Ideally I would after listening to this reading, watch the recent Wright movie and read carefully Stoppard’s screenplay to see how the Anna character has been altered — and it has much — to make it speak to us today. I know Vronsky is blackened in the movie: in the book he was willing to give up much if only she would be at peace with the freedoms he sought and he was not seeking to have any other women (as he is in the movie).

The movie marginalizes Levin into sheer Lawrentian material (how often Wright turns a book into Lawrentian material, even Austen) and plays up the ironies of the Oblonsky story as relevant to us today. Wright also emphasizes the role Vronsky’s mother plays as Anna’s fundamental rival and enemy.

He also makes Oblonsky our everyone; at the close of the movie Macfayden is the only one in the room as the family gathers (including Levin and his wife) for some ritual who remembers Anna

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He is though as corrupt and useless to anyone but in his kind moments like these as he is in the novel

The Levin group must be put into the movie, but in the movie they function as the vast majority of human beings who buy into conventions and are made safe enough by by them.

The first sentence of AK now strikes me as potentially if unintentionally ironic about happy families, happy people. Tolstoy may be read against the grain.

Ellen

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1984 BBC Jewel in the Crown (written by Ken Taylor, directed and produced by Christopher Morahan (Hattie Morahan’d father) –Art Malik as Hari Kumar, & Susan Woolridge as Daphne Manners

Dear friends and readers,

A potentially instructive question was asked on my new Historical Fiction and Film Adaptation listserv (18th – 21st century, Austen to Poldark in type): which series got people interested in period dramas? to parse this, what film adaptation and/or mini-series that you watched first made the form so rivetingly irresistible to you? Answered it could mean, why do we like these film adaptations. My point is which film adaptation led you to like film adaptations as such and want to watch more of them? That’s the issue and question I’m asking.

I know I have tried to answer this one before — I talked of the elegiac mode, their slow pace, some of idealistic themes (friendship), but knew the problem here is this does not fit all of them at all: what are we to do with Helen Mirren’s Prime Suspect? modern, quick moving, bitter themes; or those that have no originating book (Downton Abbey?)

In the answer I came up with and that of a friend on the list-serv I saw a parallel: both of us had been hooked by a film adaptation that turned out to have (or we know had) a powerful long book, or a series of books, as its source. For me it was the 1984 BBC Jewel in the Crown, scripted by Ken Taylor out of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet.. She, my long time friend, Judy Geater, a journalist, said for her it was:

the BBC War and Peace starring Anthony Hopkins as Pierre, which I saw in 1972 when I was 12 – I remember being gripped by it and going on to read the novel in two enormous Penguin volumes, though I’m sure I skipped or skimmed the philosophical passages. At that age I loved Natasha and identified with her wildly. More recently I reread the novel and re-watched the series (it was a two or three years ago now, so not quite 40 years on) and admired both as much as ever, though I did feel that Morag Hood was too old to play Natasha and rather miscast – something that hadn’t struck me when I saw it in black and white in the 1970s.

After I saw Jewel in the Crown I read all four of Scott’s Raj novels and just loved them. A few years ago I listened to them read aloud and while doing that re-saw Jewel in the Crown in a DVD with features and bought the book that was then sold as part of the paraphernila, Making the Jewel in the Crown, which I enjoyed immensely — beyond contextualizing essays (autobiograpies, histories), and of course the making of the film (its parts, its artists of all stripes, parts of the screenplay). I wrote a blog using stills.

Another friend, Linda F, wrote: “It was the 1980s adaptation of Pride & Prejudice (David Rintoul) that got me interested in seeing novels turned into mini-series.

People express disappointment when the mini-series is not based on a supposed book, but rather has no book. Fellowes is a remarkably clever man who knows this: thus the publication of his scripts for Downon Abbey set up novelistically enough

I think this intertextuality and enrichening from book to screen and back again is crucial to the deepest enjoyments.

Another for women is an ideal heroine the particular viewer likes: I like Sarah Layton:

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Geraldine James as Sarah Layton (a narrator of one of the volumes the Raj Quartet

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An example of the intertextual study film adaptations can allow:

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Jill Townsend as Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark Warleggan, realizing what she has been complicit with — I’m interested by her and feel for her

Taking one of the focuses (contrasts of type) of the list-serv, the Winston Graham’s Poldark novels and the 1970s two mini-series, I told of how I became hooked onto these.

I was first introduced to them — or became aware they exist when in my research on film adaptations of historical novels I got myself very inexpensively a set of cassettes for the first season. I also bought a cheap copy of the first novel, Ross Poldark. I didn’t expect to read it necessarily; but had it there on the off-chance I might like to try it.

I started to watch the first series and liked the first three or four episodes enormously but felt that the programs were somehow omitting something, leaving out even essential elements in the story which didn’t quite make sense.

So I began to read the novel and was startled at how much I genuinely liked it. I had not liked a novel or author so much in a long time. It reminded me of falling in love with books when I was in my teens where I had more spontaneous enthusiasms. I read less then and not professionally. Well I went on to read the first four novels and then re-began and then finished the series; while I saw where it departed, and felt the depiction of Ross and Demelza’s earliest sexual encounter and early married days in the book so much better than the mini-series, and felt the way Elizabeth was written up, was wooden and false (no fault of the actors, they have to act what scripts they are given), the rest of it while changed seemed to me a good filmic equivalent. I loved the ending of the first season, that climactic catastrophe and the two walking on the beach.

So I went on to read the next three novels and then after that watched the second mini-series. Again the novels were much better; this time in the films the flaws were in the area of sex but also in politics. The politics of the original books were omitted or changed. I didn’t blame the actors again, not their fault, it was the BBC’s cowardice and conservatism.

I then read on and finished the last 5 novels, so sorry there was no third mini-series, but got myself the 1996 singleton film, The Stranger from the Sea. I did like the new actors, but this time the whole feel of the books were changed so that politics and history were omitted altogether. The story could have occurred at any time. It was a domestic romance. Characters who were important were omitted. It was also a matter of money. The US partner was refusing to spend money on a mini-series or on location filming — like something that looked like if it was not Portugal. Still I wished it had not so flopped because after that nothing more was filmed.

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From Season 1, Part 1, 1st episode: Clive Francis as Francis Poldark looking at his father, Charles (Frank Middlemass), who pointedly turns his back to exclude his son from mining work

What can be seen with intertexuality: in the above still, we first see Charles Poldark turning his back on his son, Francis, who broods at this — Charles is clearly in charge of the business, not trusting his son, and the son drinking — as someone excluded, not respected.

The outright quick conflict that occurs between them in the first scene brings out what we see later as part of the core reason for Francis’s destruction. The father and son’ insults and sudden opening of their hearts to one another in the film is not in the novel — that is an enrichening addition which again influences us if we read the book afterwards.I thought both actors did these roles very well. Clive Francis played in Joe Orton’s Angry Young man plays around this time, and that typology (anguished) is brought in here too. He is made to feel he cannot live up to our hero, Ross, by the woman he does love and in good faith (thinking Ross dead) chose to engage himself to and marry.

The full reasons for the failure of the marriage itself are *not brought out properly in the film though* — as Vicki knows — she refuses him sex, preferring she feels her son by him, not a woman who does place her ego identity in the men she marries, for there are women who prefer their children, but of course he sees this differently given his full background. We need to read the novels to feel all this (especially Jeremy Poldark — novel 3).

I’ll also suggest that we get fooled in our memories because the films interfere with our memories of the books. For example, you suggest that we have in this book the core of all that follows. Not really. The back story material of Ross and Elizabeth’s engagement while mentioned and important is kept to minimum; we have only their strong love asserted (especially in that Christmas sequence where it’s suggested he loves two women), all the other material we remember from this time is really put into the first four episodes from Warleggan. It’s also in Warleggan (book 4 mind) that the villain protagonist Warleggan is first fully characterized. Again when we meet Warleggan in Episode 1, the material is taken from Warleggan.

Less subtle but also important for why we like _Demelza_ is there is no Dwight Enys in Ross Poldark nor is he thought of. He is central to the 12 books, but not a peep because he was not thought of until Demelza. Then suddenly we are in his consciousness by something like the third or fourth chapter. Now in the series he is brought forth in Part 5 as Part 5 begins, which is earlier, as earlier as Pullman dared.

I’ll also suggest that we get fooled in our memories because the films interfere with our memories of the books. For example, you suggest that we have in this book the core of all that follows. Not really. The back story material of Ross and Elizabeth’s engagement while mentioned and important is kept to minimum; we have only their strong love asserted (especially in that Christmas sequence where it’s suggested he loves two women), all the other material we remember from this time is really put into the first four episodes from Warleggan. It’s also in Warleggan (book 4 mind) that the villain protagonist Warleggan is first fully characterized. Again when we meet Warleggan in Episode 1, the material is taken from Warleggan (his book).

Less subtle but also important for why we like Demelza is there is no Dwight Enys in Ross Poldark nor is he thought of. He is central to the 12 books, but not a peep because he was not thought of until Demelza. Then suddenly we are in his consciousness by something like the third or fourth chapter. Now in the series he is brought forth in Part 5 as Part 5 begins, which is earlier, as earlier as Pullman dared.

The situation of the houses is first mapped in Jeremy Poldark (3rd novel in series) — why? he had not developed Poldark country as yet or fully until he had finished two. But the film makers know where everything is upon starting :)

I’d love to see a new film adaptation more frank and adequate to the sexuality of the novels, but (given our era and corporate sponsorship of such series on PBS) fear that it would further change the politics. I hope the first six hours are meant as a kind of first season for say 4 novels and if it does well they’ll film more. I can’t tell as this kind of information is not available.

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JolyoncomingUponIrenePt5blog
Gina McKay as Irene Heron (the central heroine) in the grass of Robin Hill, come upon by the aged old Jollyon (2002 Forsyte Saga) — I liked her much better after I watched the way McKay played her

That Downton Abbey is not of this type to my mind shows it’s a kind of fluke: it went way outside the usual audience for costume drama. And Fellowes has provided books: the first year, The World; the third, The Chronicle; Powell’s Upstairs Downstairs memoir, and scripts for each part.

I have been over the past year or so been watching the whole of the 1967 and 2002 Forsyte Sagas, and on Trollope19thCStudies we are beginning to make our way through the novels (see The Man of Property). What I’d like to do is transpose my many postings (see Trollope19thCStudies archives) comparing these two series to the books into blogs the better to gain what there is in the books, and the two mini-series interweave.

IndianSummerblog

I end on the two mini-series commentary on the books and one another.

The story, “Indian Summer of a Forsyte” by Galsworthy:

It must be hard to get back into the world of your creation. I remember the first three chapters of Winston Graham’s 5t Poldkar novel (as they’ve come to be called), Black Moon, written 20 years after the 4th Poldark, had three chapters where he was reweaving his spell for himself through the
landscape and came in indirectly, actually through an old man and the secondary villain-hero who is waiting for his wife to give birth, unknown to him to the child engendered not by him but the hero-protagonist of the book, Ross Poldark, through a rape.

So Galsworthy comes in indirectly, nearly 2 decades after Man of Property, the aging Old Jolyon who is dying, and comes across Irene in the meadows around Robin Hill and is entranced by her beauty. We will later learn she had recently returned to England. In both film adaptations the film-makers give this sudden meeting, his entrancement, and the couple of months he spends squiring her to opera and she giving music lessons to Holly, the child Young Jolyon had by Helene full treatment. Old Jolyon was the Forstye who while appreciating commerce saw the hypocrisy and lies and ruthlessness of his clan. We are still not going to be allowed to get into Irene’s mind it seems — but much comes out. She prefers poverty to being bought and kept as rich; she has identified with women of the streets — though she manages to keep up a style. She has remained authentic since Bossiney’s death.

Slowly the old story is brought back. It’s not as ironic, rather emotional.

Then the two adaptations within the larger mini-series:

2002: The long sequence of old Jolyon discovering Irene at the opera. Gina McKay dressed alluring as a poor genteel lady offering piano lessons and doing good to prostitutes who we are told did her good when she was down and out. Again we are not told how she made it. The second half is this idyllic romance between old man and young beautiful woman. He takes her in. She is hired to teach Holly to play — well paid too. Alter his will again to include her.

WInifred sees Irene and Jolyon at opera. Tells Soames. He says he knows. Kind people don’t miss an apportunity to tell him.
Irene loses her nerve and almost disappears — real hurt for old man — before Young Joe and June due back. But she comes back to be with him when he dies. Heart attack as young Jolyon eventually succumbs to.

And his faithful fat dog too. Another poignant dog. There must be one in the book.

Done with operatic music so important for the whole effect. The production design in which they exist is central to the meaning of this adaptation. Retreat, move away from the sordid squalid world of money deals — but if old Jolyon had not made all that money just that way he could not have bought what we are led to see as Robin Hill house.

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Young Jolyon carrying Balthasar, Old Jolyon’s aging dog, now dead, back from the meadow around Robin Hill, a coda to “Indian Summer of a Forsyte”

1967: a long sequence of the old man finding Irene in the grounds, their friendship, how he lures her to teach his granddaughter the piano, tells of his family, a touching respect for her decision to be alone, mystic apprehensions of her beauty, he dies and his dog the first to perceive, the dog’s grief and death. Unexpectedly this text quite different from book, but brings out Galsworthy continual attention to pets, animals, love of them and Balthasar is the first to recognize his master’s death in the last page of the story. the 1967 version had time to dramatize such a walk …

I end this blog on film adaptations on a parallel: someone carrying someone else. It’s easy to find parallels across books and film adaptations.

Ellen

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It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known. — Last sentence of 1935 and Dickens’s ATOTC

AgainColmanendofATOTCblog
Ronald Colman as Sydney Carton in the closing moments of the 1935 MGM A Tale of Two Cities

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Random Harvest — like Lost Horizon the film may be “read” as anti-war

Dear friends and readers,

When I was 12 or 13 my screen idol was Ronald Colman. I remember my love for him best in A Tale of Two Cities and Talk of the Town, which in the way Million Dollar Movie (Channel 9, local NYC metromedia station) operated in the 1950s I saw every night for 5 nights and all day Saturday and Sunday each time they were scheduled. At the time I used to tell anyone who would listen (not many, probably just my father) that were I to tell any of the girls in school my heart-throb was Ronald Colman, they’d stare and ask me, who’s he? Girls my age then loved Frankie Avalon, Frankie Valli (The Four Seasons). Looking back I guess I never told anyone lest I appall anyone.

Not that Colman was not — as well as self-contained, strongly ethical, seeking personal fulfillment, sad, wistful, noble, deeply disillusioned, looking away ironically, quizzically, averted eyes — beautiful in the 1920s in the way of matinee idols. This may still be seen in the 1935 film when he talks with Lucie in the garden in a scene which in the novel may correspond to Dickens’s idealization of his relationship with Ellen Ternan (for whom he had brutally ejected his wife just as he was writing A Tale of Two Cities):

SydneywithLucieinGardenblog

Around that time I managed to watch the 1937 Prisoner of Zenda and just loved Colman’s gay and bitter ironies and thought him so alluring as a swashbuckler against Barrymore, Jr (I’ve not forgotten their thrilling sword fight down a turning stairway over a cliff uttering with many a bon mot at one another);; I saw a much mangled censured version of Lost Horizon which I also read (Hilton’s novel), and then decades (when I was in my later 50s) later replaced some years ago in my memory by reading buying a re-digitalized, newly restored (to an original version not seen in the theaters) DVD (complete with commentary and features) at the same time as I added to my repertoire Random Harvest (1942 MGM, also based on a Hilton novel); his very last performance of Othello in a 1948 Universal adaption of Othello, as actor and character, A Double Life. There is a worth while analysis of Random Harvest in Brian McFarland’s Novel into Film:

GreerGarsonRonaldColmanblog.jplg

and of Under Two Flags (with Claudette Colbert and which I’ve never seen) by Victoria Szabo (“Love on the Algerian Sands: Reviving Cigarette”) in Women at the Movies, Adapting Classic Women’s Fiction to Film, ed. Barbara Tepa Lupack:

ColmanColbertblog
Adapted from Ouida’s (Louise de la Ramee) novel

I’ve even managed a totally silent DVD of the 1925 Romola where Colman played a tenderly brother-type (not in the novel) to the heroine.

The trouble is I know these few films do not begin to cover those Colman acted in. While it’s true he sued Samuel Goldwyn for insinuating he was a depressive alcoholic and was neither (at all), I’ve learned that the suit helped his career. He was being given shallow silly parts, cliched roles, and he was quickly scooped up by MGM and Fox and went on to do some of his best work in the later 1930s. The books to read and peruse are the somewhat hagiographic R. Dixon Smith, RC: Gentleman of the Cinema, and the encyclopedic Ronald Colman: A Bio-bibliography by Sam Frank.

Still, after watching the 1935 A Tale of Two Cities, and liking it better each time (though it is anti- the French revolution) I put this still from the film on the wall. It is Colman as Carton standing outside the Darnay home looking in (a sort of Stella Dallas):

CartonlookingInblog

I’ve now bought myself a re-digitalized 1938 Paramount The Light that Failed (Colman as Rupert Kipling’s failed painter) and await the DVD from Amazon eagerly).

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with Ida Lupino, a dual Snake Pit

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I watched the 1935 MGM ATOTC as well as the 1958 Rank ATOTC — with Dirk Bogarde as Sydney Carton and the 1989 mini-series ATOTC, with James Wilbry as Carton, scripted by Arthur Hopcroft (who scripted the 1988 BBC Bleak House) because with a few people on Inimitable-Boz, I’d been reading & discussing Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities

I had last read it in my senior year in high school so that’s 41 years ago, and yet as I read parts I remembered them. This time I’m finding it a seriously flawed book. Again and again there are long astonishingly insightful and indeed prophetic passages on endless unjust imprisonment; state-fomented paranoia; torture and humiliation of people then murdered by the state, and then psychotic madness of people do tortured (Dr Manette’s fits); an understandable crazed need for revenge after a life of ravaging injustice (the knit, knit, knit chapter) — but then these are not rooted in any sound analysis of the history of the era, or human nature as it is, but instead we get a melodramatic story. We see a man try to change his identity because he rightly cannot bear the one imposed on him (Darnay), but we are given no reason for, no understanding of Carton’s depression, alcoholism, despair. He is a character without a past, no context. How did Carton end up Striver’s jackal. We are not told.

Gaspardblog
We see this abysmally poor man’s child run over and grief jeered at — no wonder Gaspard seeks to murder the killer-blight on his life and all those around him.

But then a history of the time would emphasize these new principles and from what I’ve read of Carlyle he certainly does. Carlyle’s French Revolution (a possible source) is very hard reading — at least I find it opaque. The style is madness.

The question would be, how does a novelist dramatize these ideas? what plot-situation or dramatic scenes can convey them? Hugo resorts to outright chapters of idea- and history. I like these very much and think he carries it off splendidly, but now English translations of his Les Miserables actually put these in the back of the book, as if they were appendices and it’s hard to figure out where they came. One forgets they are there so forgets to read them.

Dickens’s story tends to criminalize the people making the revolution – as they are the perpetrators of the false trials of Darnay. They are presented as crazed and only a couple of anecdotes and stories produced to justify why they are seething with fear and rage. Darnay is Carton’s double and he figures a modern alienation: he does not want the identity imposed on him; he attempts in good faith to build a new life, but finds he cannot escape the past, his roots, his property even, and those around him will not let him escape what his uncle did before him.

As to the films: I watched the 1935 ATOTC twice and the 1958 ATOTC with Dirk Bogarde in the leading role, it shone. The 1958 film is a close imitation of the 1935, step-by-step influenced, but the changes were often deviations into something less believable and fudged (meaning the politics of the film). Especially the characters of Sydney Carton and Miss Manette. 1958: Dirk Bogarde was directed to play the part of an alcoholic who has given up on life without quite saying why; the typology really feel into a ne’er-do-well Skimpole (from Bleak House). Since I’ve seen Bogarde playing greatly (Night Porter, The Servant) I know he was directed into this. Elizabeth Allen believed in her role in 1935 and had an intense sort of femaleness; poor Dorothy Tutin (1958) was embarrassing as Lucie Manette; she didn’t believe the character for a moment and was told to make her voice high.

Colman really played the part of a depressed man, disillusioned by all he’s seen. gayly, poignantly ironic — he was typed this way in other films (Lost Horizon) and as I wrote at one point in his career sued the studio for insinuating this was his real character in life and broke his contract (he had some courage and integrity). The actors in 1935 were closer to Dickens’s world and were better at the grotesques, especially I admit Edna May Oliver and the woman enacting Madame Defarge as well as Basil Rathbone as her evil nemesis who destroyed her family.

From the totally wild self-abjecton and tender chapter of Sydney declaring his love, a chapter undermining masculinity, i 1935 they carried it off, especially since in the 1935 movie it was followed up by slight montages and vignettes suggesting in fact their relationship deepened and was part of their mutual lives for a few years to come. The dialogue reappears even in 1989. Hopcraft just didn’t drop it.

Not that there were no moments in 1958: Leo McKern was the lawyer attacking Darnay, and Donald Pleasance a young Barsad, the spy. Both films are hurt by the excess of sentiment and filming at studio lots. The 1958 could have been more political; it was eschewed, but the individual portraits hit home: the 1958 Mr Manette put me in mind of the prisoners now starving to death in Gitmo, there for more than 11 years, many innocent of any crime but being in Pakistan and poor and known to be leftist in sympathy during the time the bribing scheme was on. The prisons too — they brought to mind our own huge prison industry and people put away in solitary confinement for years and years.

1989: Although the film with James Wilby as Carton and Serena Gordon as Lucie was probably more effective for a modern audience, it was inferior to the 1935. Again it hinges on Carton: John Wilby actually played it as something like a gothic wanderer: he was filmed as a Byronic type. Unlike both Colman and Bogarde, the alcoholism was marginalized.

wilbyasOutsiderblog
Wilby plays the role as the outsider, the man who does not belong, a man apart, alone

The real problem with this character seems to be is he’s absolutely socially unacceptable to a wide audience and only the 1935 group had the nerve and only Colman the ability to play it.

It’s as if with each new version the film-makers departed more from the first try by getting rid of every good touch in the ’35 movie: one of my favorites is when (1935 movie) the people are jeering at Colman and others in the cart, and laughing at him especially, the actor says, “don’t laugh, and some words about the nature of the person or what’s happening there the man doesn’t understand.” Coming from Barsad that’s one of the finest moments in all 3 films.

Hopcraft was the writer and he wrote the 1988 Bleak House and that was excellent yet here he falls into the trap of having the actors do these fake semi-Frenchified voices and behaving in this stilted manner to indicate their Frenchness. It reminds me of the way Arab people are often represented on TV, as “different.” (A rare one not to do this was Prime Suspect). The harm to the movie was incessant. Hopcraft had moderned Esther Summerson by giving her some real characteristics of anger and resentment, and also pro-activity; nothing like that here, though unlike either previous Lucie at the film’s end Serena Gordon seems to realize she has done Carton in and at least looks some regret and memory of him.

Luciemoredoubtfulblog
This is actually the last close-up shot of the 1989 film: Lucie in the carriage

I expect the movie-producers were afraid of offending as this is a book that’s well known. I feel the book itself got in the way. OTOH, no more of this stigmatizing of the “mob” as in 1935 and 1958, more incidents were invented to make us understand the rage and fear of the people in charge of the terror, not a lot but something.

The 1958 and 1989 film were afraid of imitating the 1935 and this too got in the way. Bogarde did have a consistent fulfilling final moment: in accordance with his character, he is not eager to go, rather passively letting things happen than (as with Colman) reaching out (to the seamstress).

DirkBogardeasCarton
Bogarde as an apprehensive Carton

In 1989 we don’t see Wilby mount the scaffold, and the film ends with the carriage trundling away and the over-voice is the Christian “I am the Resurrection and the Light.” While that’s in the novel, it’s not the ending, and to put it last is to make Christian what is a part suicide scene: Carton seeking oblivion, peace, not redemption.

No one is redeemed in Dickens’s novel; it’s deeply pessimistic and as Colman mounts the scaffold (see the still prefacing this blog) we know the reason we do not hear catcalls is Miss Pross has murdered Madame Defarge. Jerry Cruncher, like Dickens’s Flintwich, beats his wife mercilessly, is the Resurrectionist of the book and bleakly parodies all the deaths. He conducts parody of the corpses of the ancien regime, and the corpses of the reign of (more intense because more crowded) few years to come. What is it Jay Gatsby says to Nick Carraway at the close of The Great Gatsby? “Tell me, old sport — what are we going to do with all these corpses on our hands?”

The ancien regime mutilated them. Jerry digs them up and sells them. Resurrectionist — a dark parody of I am the resurrection and the life, no? The US throws them out to sea.

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I know I’ve not written much since May 2nd (Disability Studies). I’ve been both busy and have lacked the heart to write much since My busyness has included finishing two powerful long novels by Trollope (He Knew He Was Right and The Way We Live Now read alternatively) and then carrying on reading three more remarkable novels by Anthony Trollope, the last very long (Framley Parsonage, The American Senator, Phineas Redux). I’m doing some fascinating reading about the use of maps, about the presentation of the city through plot-designs and action which emerge from how space is mapped in these books and hope to write about this soon.

I return to Colman to say to equate him with the “old-fashioned silver-screen gentleman” is to underestimate him. He had gone to a boarding school and started a good education, but was forced to leave school at 16 when his father died suddenly; while working at an office job, he turned to dramatics as an amateur by the time he was 22. For 18th century lovers, he is said to have been able to trace his family tree directly back to George Colman. He fought in World War One, a Ypres, and was very badly wounded. He limped all his life afterward and part of his acting was to disguise this.

LostHorizonblog
As the reporter waiting for his plan in Lost Horizon (this too is on one of my workroom walls)

Ellen

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Adam and Beth go looking for racoons
Adam (Hugh Dancy in key role): a movie about an autistic young man

Dear friends and readers,

There’s a major area completely undiscovered – as it were — in Victorian literature. A way of making genuinely humane sense out of all sorts of works. We need to stop (first of all, a minimum first) stop using terms like “cripples” or “monstrous” as these feed into misunderstanding of what the experience of disability is to the person and those immediately around him or her, who live with and next to them.

To answer a request to cite a few such characters and comment on Victorian characters already cited:

MadameNeroniblog
The first shot of la Signora Neroni (Susan Hampshire): Mrs Proudie asks, “what’s so special about this lady beyond her preposterous name?” Rickman as Slope replies: “She can’t walk.”

Madame Neroni in Trollope’s Barchester Towers is not a monstrous figure, but her crippled state is described as grotesque. She refuses to try to walk is to do that would expose this aspect of her body. If we move away from the word “cripples” and an insistence on physical disability as the key to disability, Elizabeth Gaskell has quite a number of disabled characters across her oeuvre, especially the short stories (a number of which are gothic in feel). It’s mostly mental disability and she shows real empathy for the disabled character and her or his caretaker, mostly women. By contrast, there’s Eliot’s really cruel Lifted Veil where a “mentally retarded” young man (whom today would be labelled low-functioning autistic) is treated with horror, as an unendurable mischievously savage burden. I would count Tarchetti’s Fosca as an Italian Victorian gothic novella — in the modern translation by Lawrence Venuti it’s retitled Passion, the influence of Sondheim’s musical-opera.

It doesn’t take much to see many of the characters in gothic mysteries and crime stories as disabled people stigmatized as “other.” A reading of recent disability studies might open up a whole new area of humane investigation from this point of view, and this has been already begun. An issue of Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies — 6.2 (2012) — is dedicated to disability studies. The central point is made that disability is partly in the eye of the society who defines a series of traits as disability and then sees the person with these as “others”; then the purpose of the issue is to explore how disability is presented in literature. There are essays on “Late Victorian Gothic,” disability in romance, disability in crime and mystery novels.

The claim is persuasively made that crime and mystery novels have often centered on disabled people seen as villains, freaks, or the detective him or herself (mentally different you see). This kind of insight is fueling the new British Sherlock, arguably both Martin Freeman and Bernard Cumberbatch play high-functioning autistic or Aspergers characters who find deep friendship and a metier in helping other outside the cultural norm.

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First shot of Dr Watson (Martin Freeman) home from war

Moving slightly away from Victorian texts, it’s argued in these essays that there are far more openly disabled characters in popular fiction than ever before, but the question is whether there has been really a development of understanding or empathy or it’s a reinforcing voyeurism in the service of enforcing normalcy. I know everyone is tired of hearing of Downton Abbey, but the presence of a character like Mr Bates is part of this new openness. What’s remarkable about Gaskell for example is by the end of her presentation the central characters have not been re-coopted into conventional patterns; they are not made “all well.”And to give Fellowes his due for once, Mr Bates is not co-opted back into “all well.” He remains outside the “norm” with his menacing dignity. The actor, Brendan Coyle, was given a central role in the film adaptation of Gaskell’s Cranford Chronicles.

I suggest a study of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights from the point of disability studies (her verse too) might open whole new points of view on Heathcliff and Emily Bronte herself, the occasional half-hysterical violence of that book, the apartness of her poetry and various stories about Emily herself. Isabella Linton Heathcliff may well be a portrait of a woman unable to cope with social demands, and reacting grotesquely.

There’s also Fictions of Affliction by Martha Stoddard Holmes: her figures in include Madame Neroni, Dickens’s Jenny Wren (Our Mutual Friend), Tiny Tim, Wilkie Collins’s Lucy Finch she also studies Henry Mayhew’s interviews with disabled street vendors; autobiographical writings of Harriet Martineau and John Kitto, both deaf; and biographies of two public figures who were blind, the postmaster general Henry Fawcett and the disabled-rights activist Elizabeth Gilbert.

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Contemporary illustration of Dickens’s character by Marcus Stone

Holmes is said to be interested in the melodramatic way most of these figures are presented; it’s an emotional and moral, not a medical and social struggle. Thinking about this, for Madame Neroni I would say it is a social struggle. For example, her decision not to be seen walking, the way she re-interprets what happened during her marriage. She’s not presented melodamatically either. Not that I am arguing Trollope’s portrait is of a 20th or 21st century enlightened sort, but he does bring in that she was physically abused by her husband.

Though not on Victorian literature, the insights in Rosemarie Garland Thomson: Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring disability in American literature may be used for Victorian literature.

Deafness is also often brought up as a central “type” of disability — partly because of the strong self-advocacy by the deaf, & I suggest Leonard Davis’s Enforcing Normalcy ought to inform any work done in this area; its subtitle Disability, Deafness, and the Body brings out its central focus on deafness. One of the chapters is on the first recording and understanding of deafness as a disability (not a monstrous irreversible condition) in the 18th century; this revolutionary change began in our enlightenment and its work has never been wholly undone. Another chapter makes Quasimodo a central figure.

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From Charles Laughton’s brilliant performance in The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Going back in time a century, Oliver Sacks’s Seeing Voices also has a long eye-opening chapter on individual courageous and insightful 18th century philosophes who developed and taught sign language to deaf people, miraculously it was thought at first, turning them from imbeciles into functioning members of society — by those who would let them function. Sacks goes into the first schools for the dear, unfortunately all too quickly in the early 19th century an attempt was made to enforce talking on the deaf in such schools, to take away from them their sign language, to beat them into submission even. One of the most moving accounts of seeing the change in deaf people once they are treated as human beings like ourselves with another way of communicating is found at the close of Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands writes: if he that speaks looks towards them, and modifies his organs by distinct and full utterance, they know so well what is spoken, that it is an expression scarcely figurative to say, they hear with the eye … It was pleasing to see one of the most [hitherto] desperate of human calamaties capable of so much help.

I’ve not published any conventional articles on this for Victorian studies. It would take such work for me — partly because I’d have to really dig into Gaskell. She seems to me a rare spirit in the Victorian period to show sympathy, but to be accurate, her empathy is with the care-taking women. One limitation of her gothic stories is she tends to show sympathy simply for the care-taker and we see the disabled person as violent or sullen from afar; a rare instance of one of her attempts at a disabled perspecive is Lady Ludlow’s Story where the story is told by Margaret Dawson; however, soon after the narrative begins and not until we get near to the end are we reminded our narrator is a crippled girl on a couch.

I also dream of writing a study of the Poldark novels and Daphne DuMaurier’s King’s General. Placed in the 17th century civil war, the latter’s about a heroine crippled from a fall from a horse: DuMaurier said she began it when she saw near Menabillies (her great house) a home-made wooden wheel chair from the later 17th century in a barn.

antiquewoodenwheelchair

This would take me back to the eighteenth century.

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FridaKahloSelfPortraitblog
Frida Kahlo, self-portrait with doctor

Thinking about Gaskell’s approach, disabilities affect women centrally as care-takers and as disabled. I’ve now gotten myself 3 books on disability studies in the humanities, two wholly devoted to how disabilities affect women, one of which I’ve begun: Michelle Fine and Adrienne Asche’s collection: Women with Disabilities. See Fine’s Disruptive Voices: Fine is the only person I’ve read to do justice to the class bias that ostracizes women who are raped when they come into clinics for help.A little from the introduction.

Because of the way society is structured, women experience disabilities much worse than men, and are much more ignored — the two go together, experienced much more excruciatingly in the area of sexual experience, so crucial to women’s lives. . I now have statistics and essays arguing what I’ve long felt to be so: the only reason it’s said more men are autistic is people care so much more about men not getting jobs or “doing well” socially; women need only be married off and have babies; plus people are more ashamed of reading women than reading men. A reading man might become a scientist, a professor, a lawyer, what is the use of a reading woman?

Why has there been little work done among feminists for women with disabilities? shamelessly, one female academic said: such studies would “reinforce traditional stereotypes of women in need, dependent, perhaps passive.” (Can’t have that.) I’ve just begun the essay in the volume on friendship between women one of whom has disabilities and the other not.

How few the conversations with people about disabilities and how even then when confronted with an individual there’s a turning away and intense discomfort, a desire not to have the burden, fear of contagion: you’ll catch it, you too will be ostracized. Disabled characters, open and disguised, are found among classic children’s books, more often than you might suppose.

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One of Yvette’s favorite books: E. B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan: a mute swan carries a trumpet and writing slate

Two further well-known texts include Elizabeth Spencer’s Light in the Piazza (made into a musical): the daughter is autistic. Lucy Greary’s Autobiography of a Face.

I’ve only begun Women with Disabilities but already the texts bring home to me aspects of a set of texts I’ve been studying for over two years now: Austen’s letters and the experience of discussing these with other people. Again and again I have to watch people continue to misread the emphases in these letters and ignore say Jane’s relationship with Martha Lloyd. Insist that she didn’t marry was a default option not a preference. Ignore the very real peculiarities in her character.

Recently I’ve added and compared Frances Burney D’Arblay’s life-writing and found some aspects of her compulsion to write come out of her disabilities as a child. But her life-writing is not as useful as Austen’s — she hides her disabilities since much is self-praising fictionalizing: she makes herself the central heroine of romances, the adulated, the envied, from George III’s madness to Hastings’ trial. It’s rather in her third novel, Camilla, where one of her two heroines, Eugenia, is lamed and her face disfigured early in the novel that we get an early rare example of empathy for a disabled woman in early literature: what happens to her: Eugenia ends up married to an abusive man.

For studying disability as such (not in literature) I’d much prefer to write about life-writings than novels

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How did I come to write the above? whom am I speaking to?

On the large academic literary listserv, Victoria, there had appeared a query where for a second time someone requested examples of “cripples” in a disquieting way. The person requested “gothic images of cripples” and used the word “monstrous” of such a character without any sense that she (or he) was treating a whole class of people as obvious freaks, taking aboard as it were what one would have hoped in such a place would be an outdated attitude.

I waited a while and when no response beyond that of listing such supposed characters emerged, which then morphed into citing “deaf” characters, I sent a posting which was at first rejected or over-looked as insufficiently Victorian. A little rewriting enabled it to go through the next day and then off-list I got a number of thank yous, remarks about how slow or small has been the progress of understanding of people with disabilities,and descriptions of experiences, that I decided to put the above posting on line to reach more people in the form of a continuation of a blog I wrote about a debate in articles in a humanities journal which covers popular literature as well as disabilities: is the increase in depiction of characters with disabilities creating real understanding or effective help for real people with disabilities? I asked how far fandoms prevent such growth in sympathy and how far authors and film-makers found themselves pressured into creating alienating depictions or enforcing normalcy.

And I discussed the dramatization of the experiences of characters with disabilities in the last 5 of the Poldark novels and Downton Abbey.

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The third shot of Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle, the first two show his face in the window of a train arriving at Downton, !:1)

The first time a startlingly prejudiced posting was put on Victoria I answered it too excitedly, but if I could find that posting, I’d put here on this blog now too.

Ellen

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Old photo from Making Poldark: Angharad Rees and Robin Ellis as Demelza and Ross looking out over the dangerous shores of their world.

‘Mr KilIigrew had been over once afore but the rent was not paid, so we was ordered to take all the doors off, and Mr Killigrew puts an hour-glass on a pole and says if they’re not out by the time the sand is run we’re to go on and put ‘em out.’ -
     There were two white doves cooing in a cote.
     ‘Have our servants been left here since you came last!’
     ‘Aye. The house and furniture has been seized in non-payment and will all be sold. If we’d have left it Unguarded news would have got around, and other debtors would’ve stepped in and claimed a share.’
     I walked slowly into the house. Graham, Groves of Eagles

Dear friends and readers,

Since last I wrote I’ve been delving into the historicity of Graham’s 12th Poldark novel, Bella, re-read The Forgotten Story, set in Cornwall in 1898, perhaps Graham’s first historical novel since Graham wrote FS in the same year he wrote Ross Poldark, and am reading his historical fiction The Groves of Eagle, set in Cornwall in the last years of Elizabeth I’s reign. (Graham’s third other historical novel, Cordelia, is set where he grew up, Manchester, only it’s an imitation Victorian novel, i.e., set in the mid-19th century.)

I’ve also been re-enthused to write again and in this way seriously develop thoughts about, material for a novel or literary-critical book out of Graham’s writing and movies. I’ve met a person who wants to study and write about Graham intelligently as a writer of historical fiction writer and the originator of the material for the Poldark films. Someone else came to my blog, read my posting on The Walking Stick, and told me how to procure the film adaptation of it. The DVD is now on its way to my house. And I reread The Forgotten Story, a novel set in 1898 in Cornwall, written in the same year as Ross Poldark (1945), and am more than half-way through The Grover of Eagles, again Cornwall, this time later 16th century, for the first time. I found I couldn’t put The Forgotten Story down, and while Groves of Eagles does not compel me as much I am enjoying it.

Finally, this evening a United parcel person brought to my door the 3rd edition of Robin Ellis’s Making Poldark. It contains new material; more stills and photos from the two series, more about Ellis’s life since the 1980s, a discussion of why a third series was never made, and an semi-imaginary map drawn from the Poldark places and Cornwall. I surmise we could inscribe the town and places of Forgotten Story and Groves of Eagle onto it too. Ellis is coming to DC to Kramerbooks for a “book-signing,” and I wouldn’t mind going, but alas this Saturday we’ve a conflict: we’re going to Maria Stuarda with Joyce DiDonato.

When I compared this non-pompous paperback to the two expensive lavish books that have come out about Downton Abbey I saw why this series is neglected, kept alive really by a curious intense cult that has developed around the films and the continuing sale of Graham’s books. The Abbey is the book of the 1%, Poldark for the rest of us, really for the 47% Romney lied about, sneered at.

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She [Patricia] tried to scream, but every time he [Tom, her husband, from whom she has separated herself] squeezed the breath out of her; and presently it began to dawn on her that she was fighting a losing battIe. Now she went suddenly limp and helpless. But the trick was played late. He only seemed to take her limpness for deliberate acquiescence.
     Scandalized, she began to struggle again, but more weakly, for her strength was partly gone.
     So it came to pass that Patricia, who had begun the evening flirting with Ned Pawlyn, ended it in the company of her husband. Had Tom Harris been more of a brute the encounter might have gone further than it did. Patricia, for once in her life, was really frightened, for she did not misread his intention. Love can so change that it becomes instead a fusion of hatred and desire. That was what Tom Harris found.
     But unless the change is absolute, it can injure but it cannot wilfully destroy. That and something in the fundamental relationship between civilized man and woman finally stood in his way.
     Not, however, before she had paid in good measure for her deceit and resistance.
     He turned quite suddenly and left her there on the old couch, bruised and breathless and silent. She had never been so shaken up since she was three. The Forgotten Story, a climax occurring around same place as Ross’s rape of Elizabeth in Warleggan

Not quite marital rape, is it? Graham punts.

Rereading: The Forgotten Story has two deeply-felt characters who I care a lot about, a marital rape and a familial paradigm of sexual longings and murderous antagonisms. Anthony Veal, the young boy narrator abandoned by his father, through whose eyes the story is seen is deeply appealing with his honest and trusting nature, and his heroine-older cousin, Patricia, fighting to create an independent adult life for herself in type a Demelza. The character in the now lost or wiped-out mini-series, Forgotten Story was played by Angharad Rees. Anyone reading this who knows anyway I could possibly get hold of anything about it, let me know. I’ve been told writing the BBC gets silence in response.

The story of the abandoned boy left to the not-so-tender mercies of near relatives is found in the Poldark series: Ross, estranged from his father, but much more strikingly, Valentine, over-fathered and fatherless. Real rape and repeated sadistic rape in marriage is also in the Poldarks, murder of one’s wife for which the man is forgiven by author and text too.

Patricia becomes an outcast woman for defending her husband in a trial scene where the prosecutor brings out how she probably has another lover. She is shamed, called “whore,” and now vulnerable to all men’s advances. This moves towards Demelza’s adultery with Armitage, though Demelza never leaves Ross’s side so is not endangered.

The novel’s is derived from Graham’s experience as a beach warden in WW2: the news story which opens the novel turns out to be a much obscured prettied up version of the nightmare happenings in the novel. For everyone’s sake the hero and heroine bury the truth of what happened, but without this we can have no understanding of the events nor hope to prevent analogous ones in future. The underlying subversion is much that passes for history is distortion and what actually occurred deliberately forgotten.

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Pendennis Castle, a drawing evoking how it looked in he 16th century

Reading for the first time: Groves of Eagles shows what a conscious artist Graham was. He’s changes his style to fit the later Elizabethan age: he does not write in pastiche, but rather modern English in more elaborate sentences, with a strong use of imagery. The historical background thick; this is the type of fiction where real historical important characters play a role, here Walter Ralegh who was a powerful Cornish man; in fact almost everyone in the novel has a historical counterpart, from Killigrews to Arundells. Even the central hero, Maughn Killigrew is based on someone, the bastard son of John Killigew, the tough squire in charge of Pendennis castle guarding a shore line of the Channel and the Atlantic. He is ruthless; himself he lives extravagantly, but he is merciless towards tenants.

Killigrew is also stern to his bastard son. Has him chained to a dog kennel at one point, with all the house hold forbidden to give him any food. For a full day and night. Keeps his distance from this son, apprentices him out to an impoverished life. Maughn by luck (and the author’s largess) manages to escape this. Graham enjoys making him amanuensis to Walter Ralegh, who I fear Graham admires too much — while knowing the man was a warrior pest type too. So again we have the estranged semi-fatherless hero.

Sex is again central and as is so common in Graham’s novels we have a married couple where the woman will not permit the husband to have sex with her (and he gently allows concurs), and the hero (like Drake Carne) finds Sue, a servant girl much beloved by him, in danger of rape by her master, and then married off to a much older man. Sue is without status, and in that a reincarnation of Demelza once again.

But now much older customs: the John Killigrew keeps his wife continually pregnant and is an open adulterer. It’s a very violent world filled with rough customs, humiliations and wild parties too; the lies and delusions of newspapers, Ralegh’s persistent fatal trips to find El Dorado, a final Spanish Armada are all part of the multi-year story. A woman treated as witch, Katherine Footmarker is a layman doctor (and like Enys, humble and good at it). She might be Maughn’s mother; if not, she knows who was (the boy’s mother is dead as was Valentine’s by the time he turned 6).

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Drake (Kevin McNally) and Morwenna (Jane Wymark); Maugh and Sue in Groves of Eagle are just such another pair

As with all Graham’s historical fictions, when I pick either of these up and start to read them, I fall into them and can’t put them down.

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An orangutan from Barbary — Valentine is said to have bought his Bhutto from a laser

In the Poldark and these novels however gingerly and sometimes punting, Graham is exploring our rape culture, the pathologies of sexuality in our culture. Ross and Demelza are almost unusual for having a “healthy” sexual relationship from start to finish. From Ross’s rape of Elizabeth to the sadistic nightly marital rapes of Morwenna by the Rev Whitworth (Graham is unusual for exposing clergymen this way), we see how people abuse one another and come to allow themselves to be abused. The Groves of Eagles more than the later novels has customs which encourage enslaving people in more ways than chattel slavery. It does not go into the kinky sex patterns of the Poldark books (Carrington, a bigamist preying on Clowance’s strength) because the heterosexual patterns are devastating enough.

The research I did into what was known of great apes and how people acquired them (all faithfully portrayed) for Bella persuaded me that Graham was combining his real empathy with isolated alienated people, no matter how twisted the culture had made them (Valentine, product of a rape, a father who would not own him, a dead mother, a violently jealous non-father) and disabled people. Butto, the orangutan was like a disabled person, who again like women in Graham’s novels are so vulnerable to destruction. Graham appears to have read some of the books of the era as well as modern studies of apes.

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Poldark Country: a semi-imaginary map of Poldark places and Cornwall

Two very different kinds of things are desperately needed as sina qua non before anyone can begin to give these novels the kind of respect they deserve. To do this would help gain interest in a new film adaptation. But that’s by-the-bye.

The second is a handbook! Yes, a handbook. Ellis’s new Poldark book is pleasant, and it shows (the map above), he’s read the novels at least a few times. But it’s completely inadequate to what’s needed except as a symbolic reminder of the rich material before us. The first sign a writer has arrived, is respected on some level is the handbook. There is none for Graham. Among other things like literary history it puts things on a visible map. So who knows that a number of Hitchcock movies are adaptations (often misogynistic reversals included) of Graham stories. Another is he’s talked about in literary histories. Graham is ignored in high culture ones and does not make the cut for low culture ones either. Too “tame” (not sufficiently a macho-boy book), too realistic, and too leftist.

I find that I cannot remember many of the characters’ names beyond the really central males and females once I’ve put the novels away for a while. Many readers of Graham would probably like it, might even buy one that was packaged attractively. We need entries on mining, banking in Cornwall, smuggling, the courts, animals, poverty, landowning. Many areas need explanation.

I say second for this kind of thing comes out of the first. There is no space for discussing Graham in his complexity. Lots of great authors punt, are ambiguous, ambivalent, but Graham is in some intensely important areas of our society today. Actually one area he does not punt in is his presentation of disability and medicine.

For example, in the Poldark books Graham suggests that Ross spends the whole night with Elizabeth which would seem to suggest that if the sex was at first rape after a while she did join in, and then he wavers in the books. On the whole and especially towards the later books (when the child Valentine has grown up), he presents the act as rape, partly (I fear) to exonerate Elizabeth from having adulterous longings, but partly we are to take Elizabeth as complicit. It’s said in that he thinks had he showed up in the next week she would have openly gone away with him and he is shocked to see her rage the first time he sees her after her marriage to Warleggan.

A false myth used in books where the “chaste’ or central heroine has sex outside marriage or is rape is that she gets pregnant immediately. This is improbable but is a real stereotype intended to exonerate the woman. It works another way though: if she gets pregnant, the popular idea is that she enjoyed it because to get pregnant you have to have orgasm.

The nightly rapes of Morwenna are another matter. These are clearly profoundly abusive of her. She never walks right after; she has this shuffle. He has crippled her. This is not presented at all in the series; but she and Drake become wholly marginalized characters in the later books. That was a real disappointment to me. When he presents her finally yes he does not fake “healing” but he keeps them away from us. The TV show did not show Rowella properly at all: she is presented by as someone who enjoys sadism and masochism in the parson himself. They were probably very brave to show Demelza committing adultery.

Graham himself does this kind of punting in other areas. In Demelza Ross incites the riot; that’s clear. It’s clear in the talk before the trial, but by the time we are into the later novels this is denied. He colluded but did not incite or he was against it, never imagined a riot would ensure. In Demelza he needs the violence. He’s a real revolutionary a Jacobin who understand violence is what one sometimes has to resort to to overturn an established order. I didn’t go into that in my paper on Liberty but in the discussion afterwards among academics (who are themselves conservative) one women had presented a paper two historical novels which she liked because they showed the rebel hero compromising, not being violent ever, at all.

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Trerice, a 17th century Cornish mansion, model for Trenwith

I really do long to know someone else who can with me begin to create a space in the “republic of letters” wherever, start a different kind of conversation on Graham as well as mini-series than I’ve encountered thus far. All I could think of for myself was 1) try another panel at an 18th century conference on historical fiction; or 2) write something for History Today.

Graham’s books have been cut off from real attention because of his original reception and the scorn still heaped on historical fiction (=women’s romance) and BBC “teatime serials” (a way of bad-mouthing the mini-series). He is also defined as regional, a regional novel and of course he followed his audience. Are you aware that Hitchcock paid him a big sum to leave off Graham’s name on the credits of a number of films that Hitchcock did? That’s in Moral, Tony Lee. Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2005. Filmmakers Series No. 95 which also contains a letter Graham wrote where he reveals his attitudes towards how his books were altered when they became films.

I have wanted to open another listserv on Yahoo — this one on Graham and his fiction, all of it. I would ask that everyone use their real names and make it clear we are not there to worship the first two mini-series — though my hunch is it’s the first that is most beloved. I know all the troubles and am not sure even how to open a list as I inherited all three I have. It can be time-consuming and I don’t have the time right now even to start. But as a future possibility I keep it in mind. I would be trying to see if we can find other people — they are there on that literary board and pop up now and again (rare) on the facebook page too. An odd sign of them is they read the mysteries too. If anyone reading this is someone equally interestd in discussing the books and willing to try for a list-serv of the type I’ve just outlined, please to contact me.

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Jill Townsend as Elizabeth beginning to realize something of the horror her sister, Morwenna has known as a married woman

Ellen

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Elina Garanca as Sesto

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Barbara Frittoli as Vitellia

Dear friends and readers,

So we went to yet another of these HD transmissions of Metropolitan opera productions and all three of us enjoyed it so much that Jim and I bought tickets for next week’s Un Ballo en Maschera for the 2 of us (Izzy can’t come, going to an ice-skating communal watch event), though until every single Un Ballo we’ve ever seen has seemed an incoherent mess, and encore tickets (a second set) for 2 of us of Les Troyens because Jim bought before he realized there was an conflict with this year’s MLA (we’re going) and we don’t want to miss it (Izzy will see the first live broadcast on her own).

This despite the manifest hollowness — or maybe senselessness at the heart of the way this 1984 production was (and for all I know most productions are) done. The grandiose still fake stone set is dull, and so too the inanely sexless, or asexual costumes for the 3 central male roles, two sung by female mezzo sopranos, Sesto and Annio (Kate Lindsay) in short skirts and tights and boots, and one by a stiff lifeless tenor, Giuseppe Filianoti (his idea of acting is to make his eyes bulge out at you). The core is riveting and basically the whole of the opera: Sesto (an ambiguous female-as-male) loves Vitellia (an ambitious woman ignored by Tito who drives Sesto to try to murder him) and there is no self-abasing act, no sordid or encompassing terrorist deed Sesto will not do for Vitellia, including (as Sesto does in the opera) set all Rome on fire in an effort to murder Tito, the emperor.

As presently done this makes no sense. Why should Sesto behave this way? She is presented as so innocent and moral she might still believe in Santa. What’s needed is to have it made clear Sesto wants to have sex with Vitellia (it’s not even hinted), and Vitellia refuses Sesto, rejects her and will have nothing to do with Sesto unless Sesto murders Tito. Then the disdain Vitellia continually manifests would have some content too. Sesto must in other words be presented as an active masochistic lesbian (and her costume bring this out) with Vitellia as the sadistic part of the pair or at least sexually flexible on behalf of gaining power by marrying Tito (and satisfying him in whatever way) so she may become empress.

Much of the opera are extraordinary arias sung by these two women. In the first half Sesto driven wild by need and Vitellia the (misogynistic) female who is the nasty woman scorned. Fittoli plays the first half partly comically in order to deflect the sheet disconnect to Tito and Sesto — Vitellia in the production while dressed very sexually, or got up in one of these 3 yard wide gowns stiff with jewels, seems to have no knowledge of sexuality or how to manipulate it beyond the costume put on her (which she seems unaware of).vitelliaSestoblog

In the second half when Sesto has been caught and condemned by Tito because she won’t tell who put her up to it, Sesto is all abject before Tito, in rags, chains, worn sandals, but not because she wants to be used by him, no she seems to need to cling to him in his purple quilted bathrobe, at his neck a frilly lace cravat and brooch.

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Note the irons on her wrist, she drags chains about too — what could be more incongruous?

In this same second half Vitellia suddenly guilty turns up in the usual gothic white nightgown, extremely low cut. Tons of hair on her head throughout. Her costume is will do, just.

Tito right now is your Sir Charles Grandison without a sliver of self-awareness. Told by the young lovely Servillia (Lucy Crowe) in the first half of the opera she would rather not marry him, but prefers Annio, Tito immediately gives Servillia up as the right thing to do. Upon which we get this exquisitely poignant duet:

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Annio and Servillia

Annio and Servillia can stay the same: the thus-far chaste young heterosexuals, with the source of Annio’s love for Sesto not yet aparently to Annio (though maybe Sesto could understand). But Tito must turn up as a gallant hero, good as well as debonair (failing that self-deprecating drag?). Then we would know why Sesto yearns for him too, and why Vitellia cannot attract him, hard as she has apparently tried. I’m not sure there is anything one can do about the content of his arias, they are so hopelessly jejeune but the acting could be of a man mocking himself as he is torn with his need to be ethical while he confronts these women who have (to him rightly) inexplicably tried to murder him. Jim suggested the director, Calixto Bieito is up to it; he of a Carmen which is admittedly far too fussy, what’s wanted is something more in Claus Guth’s vein or Willy Dekker’s HD Traviato.

The opera is made up of extraordinary arias of exploration and display by Sesto of her emotional life, and by Vitellia of her a semi-comic and then plangent journey spite to overwrought anguish. On the side, intertwined in, the parallel Annio for Sesto, and Servillia for Vitellia. Think of it as the soliloquys by the major characters in long 17th century heroic romances based ostensibly on classical history. The chief character comes from classical history, Tito, reigned two years when he was killed, not enough time perhaps for him to become egregiously corrupt and malign. But all else is made up, a heroine’s text (woman centered) about private sex life.

Mozart keeps us at it and the paradigm is as tightly controlled and climactic as you might like. And the singers sang beautifully – especially Garanca. Her voice was beauty itself. Frittoli was as powerful as she had been as Elvira, Lucy Crowne has lovely tones, and Kate Lindsey may someday step into Garanca’s shoes. They kept the viewer and listener intent, absorbed in them while they sang and the camera kept close on them.

All else should be shorn away into large abstract symbols or re-set. Perhaps fin-de-siecle Europe, say Vienna, a cabaret, or everyone in art deco clothing, or surreal rock, anything but the still statues and hard-to-climb up and down steps that cover the stage. In one of the interviews, the hostess, Susan Graham did asks Garancia how she got up and down without seeming to look. Garancia said her boots were very good. Not slippy at all.

While hiring famous Broadway directors, set-designers, getting the most modern of technology going, the Met is still leary of growing up sexually or presenting these often deeply reactionary operas as underlyingly transgressive. As I watched the super-good Tito I thought of today’s world leaders, the Syrian and Israeli Prime Ministers, who appear keen to murder chldren, shoot up thousands of civilians point-blank (fish-bowl style), the US drones: the numinous awe of the production around Tito would not have been true even of the 1790s. Mozart surely had heard of the incompetent but tenacious Louis XVI, his emigre armies waiting to put back the ancien regime, and Marie Antoinette, and her ladies and jewels and the guillotine meted out to them. Citoyen Capet.

This is an 18th century opera, quintessentially so. The typologies, the aspiration, the symmetrical design. Tito is a good guy. We want good men. He ought to be presented in some way that makes him attractive. It’s apparently also autobiographical in that it was Mozart’s last opera written in his last hard year and he pours himself into it. But the 18th century need not be a museum piece. Made relevant, re-thought, sharply satiric (right now the dramatic ironies Mozart sets up just seem disjunctive with the blind characters), you might get full audiences. Today at the Hoffman moviehouse, about 1/3 of the seats were empty — well maybe a quarter. At the Met I could see the place was not near full.

Next week’s Ballo is one such re-thought opera; Les Troyens a new production. One may hope the latter has done for Dido what Catherine Clement would like see done for most opera women in her Opera, or the Undoing of Women (see “It’s not over until the soprano dies”). I doubt it, but surely we have gone beyond marveling simply at Vitellia’s duet with that saddest of horns and not looking to see how it is that Mozart passed beyond hell-hath-no-fury and chained women.

Undoingsmaller

After all this is an opera where at the close the women are not undone. They are all winners, whether in skirts or trousers.

Ellen

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