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BatesAccostsThomas
First season, 2nd episode: Bates (Brendan Coyle) accosts Thomas (Rob James-Collier)

Dear friends and readers,

I’m now well into Season 4 on this fifth journey of mine through Downton Abbey and have begun to notice a parallel: repeatedly both John Bates and Thomas Barrow are photographed as looking on at others. One or the other of them, sometimes both (separately) are seen on a threshold, from a space across the way, leaning against a wall. Bates’s face looking at Anna with such benign appreciation comes most strongly when he is watching her from afar, doing some act of fairness, dancing, or just sewing.

BatesWatchingfromAfar
Bates watching Anna doing the Scottish reel at Christmas

Thomas’s face is endlessly guarded as he watches others flirt, moves to snitch on someone (once in a great while rightly, like the bigoted Nanny West [Di Botcher] in Season 4), and especially when we see him yearning for a moment and twice he crosses an invisible barrier to reach out to another man, and then (in both cases, the Duke of Crowborough [Charlie Cox] and Jimmy Kent [Ed Speleers]), rejected. After he has been openly found out in the second case, and is about to be fired, we have striking scenes, e.g., of him watching Mr Bates looking at the bare cottage he and Anna are fixing up for themselves, of him downright crying in a corner:

Ep8Pt2crying

Unlike Bates, there is no mainstream other whom Thomas can latch on to, who suits Thomas, and who is an insider. His alliance with Miss Obrien (Siobhan Finneran) is with a pretend insider, which is therefore easily broken (as she has nothing to gain from him). People may not remember that it is Bates who goes out of his way to rescue Thomas from the spiteful and cruel revenge taken on him by Miss Obrien who, when Thomas (foolishly from a prudential standpoint, but as ever jealous of anyone’s gaining some foothold in the family that could possibly threaten him), far from helping Alfred Nugent (Matt Milner) her nephew, brought in to be a footman, lays traps for him.

Let’s look at that incident once more: helped along by the affection Thomas cannot resist showing Jimmy as he helps Jimmy learn to wind clocks and do other Downton chores, Miss Obrien has slowly aroused Jimmy Kent’s suspicions of Thomas’s sexuality, and planted hope in Thomas that Jimmy does like him, and one night, lonely, Thomas braves Jimmy’s room to be thrown out by Jimmy, horrified, filled with repugnance, just as alas, Alfred is entering to ask something. (The men seem to have their own rooms while the maids share rooms.) Thomas is exposed and called “foul” by Mr Carson (Jim Carter), an epithet he does openly repudiate — job or no job. Then when Mr Carson, unexpectedly offers at least to give Thomas a good character, Miss Obrien has no trouble rousing the fears of both footman, that their reputation and livelihood will be threatened if they don’t make sure that they are not suspected of homosexual leaning: they must act revolted, Jimmy must demand that Thomas leave without a character (or he’ll tell the police); Alfred must be made to enact disgust. In the earlier incident where the Duke to have had a liaison with a maid and she had his letters, there would be no case for blackmail. Sin or not, crossing class lines or not, heterosexuals are allowed, homosexuals not.

The larger interest which makes me write about it is that Fellowes is putting before us the same argument that E.M. Forster makes in his Maurice and Henry James through Kate’s father in Wings of the Dove and Simon Raven explictly, powerfully, angrily in his masterpiece first novel, Fielding Grey, that the misery of a life of a gay man is that what is natural ordinary looked upon with kindness, help, admiration on the part of heterosexuals — love, companionship — is a source of blackmail, petty sometimes, harsh often, for homosexuals. A heterosexual can betray a girl, even rape her (this is in Raven) and get away with it (and were it not for Bates, Mr Green would have in the case of Anna [Joanne Froggart]); the ugliest of conduct is not attacked as such, is overlooked; a homosexual man in love is at risk every moment. They live as outsiders.

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And this is the center of a key scene which wins Bates to help Thomas though Bates knows full well and lets Thomas know that Thomas has been Bates’s enemy, been spiteful and tried to get Bates fired (by planted clues suggesting Bates a thief when it was Thomas who had been pilfering wine so steadily 2 sets of boxes were missing at an inventory). Bates and Anna have been painting and making their old run-down cottage (in bad shape, not much of a gift if you compare it to the DA) and Bates is standing outside in satisfaction. Out of the dark Thomas comes up and starts to talk of how much he envies Mr Bates despite all that has happened to Bates in his (long prison sentences now twice, the Boer War, crippling) and (implicitly) what might yet occur (over the death of Bates’s first wife). This because everyone is happy for Bates, admires him and Anna for their nest together, do things to help them while (as we know) Carson uses cruel words like “foul” for Thomas’s feelings. It’s in the next juxtaposed scene that Thomas is seen crying by a corner by Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) in her frequent usual role as reconciler, who takes Thomas into her room, and discovers what is happening.

Thomas lives behind a wall is the feel he conveys to Bates, an invisible prison where he is continually at risk if he steps forth.

It’s this that makes Bates identify sufficiently with Thomas — as an outsider, forever at risk, in a society that can just thrown them out. In a remarkable series of moves (that he has to do several shows the generosity of it), Bates talks to Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) who expressed sympathy for Thomas and a desire to see him on the yearly cricket team so bad that it seems Grantham is willing to keep Thomas on in a made-up job if only for that talent), then to Mrs Hughes who tells Bates the instigator was Miss Obrien, and finally to Thomas himself, telling Thomas it was Miss Obrien. Is there nothing Thomas knows that could be used here?

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Bates’s POV as he asks Thomas to think if he knows anything as a handle for Bates to help him

And of course Thomas knows it was Miss Obrien’s putting a bar of soap near Lady Grantham’s (Elizabeth McGovern) tub that brought on her early miscarriage, thus forever cutting off the hope of a direct male heir.

Mr Bates invites Miss Obrien to the cottage and whispers the word (soap …) in her ear, we see Miss Obrien now desperately convincing Jimmy he’s done enough. Jimmy has been subject to the reprobation of the whole staff including Ivy (Cara Theobold), with whom he flirts:

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the worst sin is to try to take someone’s references and character. They will not find another job. So Jimmy (something of a mannequin dummy here) acts.

Thomas’s danger is not yet over. Alfred is also not the smartest brain in the house and he has been made to feel how “sinful” is Thomas (Miss Obrien’s grating reinforcements reinforced this) and has himself called the police. They arrive but luckily Lord Grantham is the first approached, just as he is telling Jimmy how generous it will be of Jimmy to accept Thomas’s continuing presence on the staff and that Jimmy will now be “first” footman (not much gain there for real) — Thomas is all this while playing cricket superlatively – Lord Grantham is told of the police presence and hurries over. The police tell him Alfred Nugent has revealed he was approached by a Mr Barrow. The power of the chief or bright hero of the series is shown: decisively pressured by Grantham, in a few minutes (screen time less than a minute) Alfred is there before the police, saying it was a misunderstanding, and Grantham is (in effect) punishing Alfred by offering the helpful explanation that Alfred was a bit squiffy. Drunk. Alfred takes the rap.

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The chief police officer looks at Grantham and says he gets it. They know all this is concocted but there is nothing to be done and they walk off.

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Thomas playing well, clapping enthusiastically — unobtrusively

As I have argued, we are given sufficient evidence to convict Bates of the murder of his wife and then to see that there is a strong probability he pushed Mr Green (Nigel Harman) into a bus (as the pattern of his going to London for the day and when he returns, the person has lost his or her life) and yet like Bates enormously, grant him a hero’s place in our hearts, because continually throughout the series not only is Bates himself a victim (crippled, tripped, trapped, as a disabled person at first stigmatized) but he is generous to other outsiders, e.g. Ethel. He stands aside when the others are interrogating Gwen (Rose Leslie) over her typewriter. In this blog I am concerned to bring out that there is a strong positive argument on behalf of homosexuals in the series despite its being presented in such a way that allows for the prejudices of a still bigoted audience. That Thomas is no angel would be approved of by James Baldwin: there was nothing that grated more on Baldwin than protest novels which made society’s victims into saints. They are not because they must in order to survive be collusive.

I noticed that the ends of the first and this third year conclude with some magnanimous deed of Grantham, his opening up in new ways, with Bates just behind him, engineering it (using his abilities to forge, sniff out how a criminal-cardsharp will operate, and pickpocket) — and that is what happens at the close of the fourth season too. In the third season, with a little help from Lord Grantham’s status, it’s his fellow outsider whom Mr Bates saves.

Interview
Brendan Coyle discussing his role in the feature to the third season: it’s not over-speaking to say that in this hour-long summary of 2 seasons amid fluff, Coyle contributes the more serious reflections on the dilemmas of the character he plays (See Bates as dark hero, alter ego for Fellowes)

Ellen

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MrCarsonMrsHughes
Mr Carson (Jim Carter) and Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) in final shots of the season

Shot of older man’s bare feet in water
Mrs Hughes: ‘Come on, I dare ya.’
Mr Carson: ‘If I get my trousers wet … ‘
She: ‘If you get them wet, we’ll dry them …’
He: ‘Suppose I get them wet …’
She: “Suppose a bomb goes off, suppose you get hit by a falling star — you can hold my hand then we’ll go in together …’
He: ‘I think I will hold your hand, it’ll make me feel a bit steady … ‘
She: ‘You can always hold my hand if you need to feel steady …’
He: ‘I don’t know how but you manage to make that sound a little risqué …’
Hands held out, and grasping. She laughs good-naturedly …
She: ‘And if it did, we’re getting on Mr Carson, you and I, we can afford to live a little …
Medium-length shots of them going wading in together from the back …

EdithDrew
Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) let know by Tim Drew [Andrew Scarborough] he knews who’s this little girl is and will take full responsibility for the needed lies:

Drew: ‘I tell you what I think? It should be our secret, milady, our secret ours and no one else’s. I’ll … uh… send a letter to myself and tell Margie [his wife] it’s from an old friend of mine that’s died who asked for me to take the child. She won’t question it; then nobody but you and I will know … ‘
Edith: Mr Drew, would you do that for me …’
He: ‘For you and the little girl milady yes …
She: ‘How comforting it is that there are a few good people left in the world’ –

Dear friends and readers,

Of the four codas thus far this was the weakest yet had the most beautiful moments and witty dialogues. I too thought of the marvelous song, “By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea, you and I, you and I oh how happy we’ll be …” and felt the Granthams really ought to get themselves more than one tenant as they have done so well in choosing this nobly hard-working one.

The weaknesses are serious. The central idea of the episode was to make us rejoice in Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James’s) debut in society, her presentation to the king, queen, prince, whose Edmund Burke-like meaning enunciated by none other than our most faithful liberal, Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton):

‘It came to me that these balls and presentations and comings out are not aristocratic folderol, but the traditions by which members of this family mark their progress through life … ‘

Thus that Rose carries on being unbelievable in her child-like behavior, depicted shallowly when she is told something real about life — as when her friend, Madeleine Allsop (Poppy Drayton) hints to Rose that Madeleine’s father, Lord Aysgarth (James Fox) is a debauched roué on the scent for money — and she giggles, astonished someone could be this way, just doesn’t cut it for the needed gravitas.

Except when for a short time Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) showed depth of feeling as a mother, grieved bitterly over her daughter’s death (and rightly) implicated her husband as at major fault, this second key character reveals a Fellowes’s lack of engagement with her. She really shows an astonishing lack of curiosity or insight into Edith’s long disappearance. It’s not believable — Fellowes can’t be bothered because making her understood would involved a deeply conflicted story. Cora has also shown no anger when her self-proclaimed “monarchist” husband lost all her money; this way Fellowes could have her do nothing herself about it: had it not been for that money, the Abbey would have been lost decades ago; mis-invested since by this same husband in railways, it was Matthew’s unexpected inheritance from Lavinia’s father (which we are reminded of in this finale) which has kept the building as shelter for a luxurious leisured way of life for the Crawleys. None of which Cora appears to register.

Fellowes wants us to believe her effective; her realm is making parties (luncheons, charity picnics, balls) so structurally necessary for the mini-series; no wonder everyone over-congratulates her upon these — But without the really able Mrs Hughes and Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol) Cora would not succeed at all — and in this episode we are shown that the real strength Cora depends upon is the unacknowledged Daisy (Sophie McShea), the power and great cook enabling Mrs Patmore, who, as she tells her fleeting suitor, Mr Levinson’s valet, Ethan Slade (Michael Benz) is “never excited.”

Robert, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) is not much better. He really believes Bates (Brendon Coyle) when Bates says he has (implied) another man ready to forge what’s needed. He somewhat hysterically blames the Crawley family for a near scandal involving the Prince of Wales, and stage-manages an ill-thought out attempt to steal back a love letter from Sampson by gaining access to Sampson’s room and ransacking it. As Bates tells ‘milord,’ if he were to have a precious document, he would not leave it about, but keep it close to him on his person, say his overcoat. We know Bates did just that with his train ticket to London, though why he kept it in the overcoat one minute longer than he needed to is a mystery of the same type as why Lady Grantham does not see immediately that Edith is going to Switzerland where ‘there are good hospitals’ to have a baby. Grantham also never suspects Edith, no matter how guiltily she talks in front of him (“Just remember I would never do anything to hurt you”).

As benignity is the tune that Lady Grantham’s effectiveness plays, so it is Lord Grantham’s tune, but that need not preclude giving them some cunning. Fellowes is again not engaging deeply enough with his character. The initial mistake was not to show that a lord of such a minor would be necessarily be a local politician to some extent, his house kept up as a linchpin of county networking — as are all Trollope’s comparable figures no matter how asocial they might be by nature (a number are) and Fellowes knows his Trollope novels very well. The ironic telling reason for their hollowness is Fellowes wants to justify such people: the “toffs” are not, as Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) tells Blake (Julian Overden), the villains of the world.

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At the gallery

Fellowes’s way of convincing us of this is to make them seem powerless.

And pace Edith’s words to Drew, this coda of a fourth season has a preponderance of good people left in the world: I counted three bad: Mr Green (Nigel Harman), rapist willing to strike again (not to worry, done away with); Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) whose spite, bitter resentment, bad-mouth snitching hardly has an objective correlative in his supposed insecurity; Terence Sampson (Patrick Alexander) who in this episode adds theft and intended blackmail to his card-cheating abilities.

Also number of weak or ill-advised, most notably in this episode, Lord Aysgarth (James Fox) trying to marry Mrs Levinson (Shirley MacLaine) as an exchange of money and title; Jimmy Kent (Ed Speleers) a kind of minor devil version of Barrow (“Thank you, Wat Tyler” says Mr Carson to him at one point); the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII) played by Oliver Dimsdale as far feebler than he was

Dimsdale
Grinning when he thinks of Rose’s father, “Shrimpy” (stuck in the heat of India, another helpless aristocrat)

Then there’s that bad-advice giver, Lady Rosamund Painswick (Samantha Bond) who pressures Edith to give up her baby but clearly loves her (has spent months with her on the continent, watching her give birth, breast-feed her baby, wean it) and thinks she has done what’s best for all:

RosamundEdith
Rosamund appealing emotionally to her niece:

‘This is for the best if you’ll only keep silent; there’ll be other loves other children. Don’t cheat yourself of that I beg you … [you think] I don’t know then, trust me because I do …’

What saves the coda — and the series too — is the actual writing, the concision and suggestiveness of all the dialogues (which I quote from liberally here to demonstrate) and that all the rest of the characters are seen in depth, are well-meaning, reach out to one another, are not self-reliantly effective (win out) while in pain themselves.

To be “kind,” Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) informs Barrow Mr Molseley (Kevin Doyle) is to have “the advantage.” The series of scenes where the sensitive and intelligent Molseley protects Miss Baxter from Thomas includes this from Molslely:

I don’t know what Mr Barrow’s got over you and I don’t want to know; but you must’t let him do things that aren’t right, and you can’t let him bully you. That’s easy to say I know but if he draws you into his scehemes, that’s not going to be easy for you either. Sometimes it’s better to take a risk than go down the wrong path, that’s all

He’s already told her to trust to the views others are gaining of her: though viewer knows that Mrs Hughes is onto Miss Baxter’s over alert presence, Miss Baxter has betrayed no one. In their final moments as Molseley replaces Barrow by her side:

MissBaxterMolseley,

her words are:

Miss B: ‘I have to thank you, Mr Molseley.
Mr M: ‘Oh why’s that?”
She: ‘There are things in my past that made me afraid, but I’m not afraid any more. I’m not sure what will happen, but whatever it is, it’s better than being afraid. You’ve made m strong. Mr Molsley. Your strength has made me strong
He: ‘My what?’
She smiles

The parallel is to Edith who now has things in her past but by the end of the season is learning not to be afraid. Allen Leech as Tom Bransom almost retrieves his character. He is one of several characters who declare they are not ball-going, dancing types and declare at first they will not go to Lady Grantham’s ball after Rose’s presentation.

Tom is still exhibiting awkwardness and lack of confidence and self-esteem he has shown throughout this season, not least when he shows it’s the affection these people have shown to him that he has lapped up (of the museum-like library he says: ‘No it’s nice when everyone’s here and the fire’s going …’), especially with the schoolteacher, Miss Bunting (Daisy Lewis) whom he likes, partly because she is as wry and disillusioned as he once professed himself (He to Lord Grantham: ‘We all live in a harsh world, but at least I know I do’): high on the balcony looking at the engraved designs for the family, she asks where Cora’s is and if it’s a dollar sign.

But like Molseley, he gives in and comes to London, even goes to the ball, and at the right moment he turns to a woman near him who he knows is herself in need of support and encourages Edith (the episode began with them walking and talking together). Edith has watched him dance with Lady Violet, the Dowager (Maggie Smith) after the Dowager had finally told him ‘These are your people; this is your family now,’ and he had said, ‘This may be my family, but not quite my people, and asked her to dance.

EdithandTom

Edith to Tom: ‘So did you enjoy it after all …
Tom: I enjoyed it fine, but we need to stand up to them, you and I. We may love them, but if we don’t fight our corner, they’ll roll us out flat
Edith: ‘You’re right, thank you for that …’

Edith then marches off to tell her obtuse mother she needs to take a trip to the continent, and her Aunt Rosamund that Rosamund cannot go for her. She brings her baby home. (One wonders if Tom knows …)

So in this coda the patriarchy is alive and sufficiently well that even less than respected strong males give important support and delight to strong but dependentconventional females. The scenes between Isobel Crawley and Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) who is continually after Isobel to come to the ball, and when last seen is dancing with her are touching. He is bringing her out of her widowhood as surely as Rhett Butler once did Scarlett O’Hara:

IsobelMerton

Daisy refuses the indirect marriage proposal of Mr Levinson’s valet (he disguises it through persuading his boss to hire the English cook whose food has shattered Mr Levinson’s assumptions that all English cooking is inedible, but as she tells Mrs Patmore, ‘I’m that chuffed it’ll take me through to next summer,’ and for once is not jealous of Ivy but glad to see Ivy have her chance by asking if she might replace Daisy and go to America.

MotherDaughterpair

A mother-daughter pair will return for another season …

The most interesting of these alert complex males are Mr Bates and Mr Levinson — Paul Giamatti is magnificent as the uneasy uncomfortable Mr Levinson attracted to Aysgarth’s daughter. Their several gradually less awkward dialogues where she takes as an insult his open frank (meant to be American) cynicism about her and his motives are worth some study showing Fellowes’s subtlety when engaged with his characters and issues their clash of personalities bring out. This is a pair I hope is brought back next season as she has told him she will demand a commitment the kind of girl he has hitherto taken aboard his yacht did not:

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In an interview after the airing of this London season, Fellowes offered some insight into why Bates rivets us to the end:

So many women have had to conceal things that have happened to them, because if they reveal them, they went down, too. It was very important that it should be completely clear that it is not the victim’s fault at all. This was a chance to make the argument for the innocent rape victim who has done nothing to deserve it. And Anna, as either the most sympathetic character or certainly one of them, the audience could immediately grasp, she had done nothing to deserve to this. There is no sharing of guilt, no blurring of the edges of responsibility. Also, it created this mammoth thing that she and Bates had to get through, and Bates’s response is that he doesn’t love her less. He says himself, if anything he loves her more. What it has of course awakened is the kraken of rage in his belly.

Yes that’s it – and we’ve seen that deep rage against the order of the world, its injustices peep out here and there all along with evidence of sudden outbreaks over the “years” the show covers, from the time he invited Lord Crowborough (Charlie Fox) to search his drawers and room (Season 1, Episode 1), threatened Thomas at the throat (Episode 2) onto the clever doing away of Vera (Maria Doyle Kennedy), manipulating her reputation for spite into an apparent act of suicide, and his survival in prison. It’s he whose skill in forgery and pickpocketing saves the Prince of Wales (who of course thanks the wrong set of people as they run the ball). Bates knows part of his survival and thriving depends on his not being thanked — on his taking no credit. When his rage is stilled, he lives with what the world has allowed him:

BatesAnna

And in Downton Abbey terms, it’s not a little. Anna has been our real heroine for four years now, from the time she took a hot meal up to Mr Bates when he was about to be fired because too many of the other servants and the Crawleys could not flex for a disabled man, to when she married and bedded him in one quiet day and night to now when she is determined to protect him more than herself from all that Mr Green could do or cause to happen.

Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is a cold performer in comparison. ‘Let the battle commence’ is the way once she learns that he is an aristocrat like she, she invites one of her men, Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden)] to woo her and win her over another, Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen), a childhood sweetheart. Her ‘destiny’ is to save Downton Abbey for little George. Oh spare me.

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The princess leaves the set

I admit to being unable to see any act of hers as magnanimous (as I gather we are supposed to see her burning Bates’s London ticket that Mrs Hughes gives up to her); Blake’s first view of her is the more accurate: too privileged to understand her vulnerable humanity. Matthew never taught her that lesson either.

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The real question of that scene for me is why did Mrs Hughes give Lady Mary a chance to turn Bates in, as she, Mrs Hughes, has said all along he did the right thing. Fellowes leaves ambiguous whether Bates did murder Green; after all, as Mrs Hughes says to Lady Mary, we have no idea where Bates went when he was in London. I suggest Mrs Hughes’s ambivalent behavior was Fellowes’s way of making his program look law-abiding, respectful of civilized methods. In both Anna and Mr Bates’s story we have one of Downton Abbey’s serious forays — as is Sybil’s death in childbirth — into sexual experiences in life for real.

I have not done justice to the sets or photography of places — which as in the codas of the other seasons had some interest.

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The picnic by the Victoria and Albert Monument cost them a pretty penny

Nor some of the wry dialogues between Mrs Levinson (Shirley Maclaine) and the Dowager (who can put the other down more), the Dowager’s self-reflexive comments on the hour (she has “spent the evening in a who-dun-it”) or between Mrs Levinson and Lords Aysgarth as she dismisses his hunt for money through her — he seems never to realize that when she dies, it will go to her son. One of the best was that between Violet and Isobel setting off for London:

DuchessandMrsCrawley

Duchess: ‘I know I’m late, but it couldn’t be helped. Cora insisted I come without a maid. I can’t believe she understood the implications
Mrs Crawley: ‘Well and they are? …’
Duchess: ‘How do we get a guard to take my luggage and when we get to London? What happens then?’
Mrs C: ‘Fear not. I’ve never traveled with a maid you can share my knowledge of the jungle.’
Duchess: ‘Can’t you even offer help without sounding like a trumpeter on the peak of the moral high ground?
Mrs C: ‘And must you always sound like the sister of Marie Antoinette?’
Duchess: ‘The queen of Naples was a stalwart figure. I take it as a compliment.’
Mrs C: ‘You take everything as a compliment.’
Duchess: ‘I advise you to do the same it saves many an awkward moment’

What I enjoyed most were the home-scape scenes (so to speak), the characters who were given depth and in numbers of their scenes, the beauty of integrity, which brings me back to the close and Mrs Hughes who for another season played the role of the insightful woman quietly working to achieve a sensible compromise.

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Mrs Hughes pinning up a postcard picture of the beach alongside Mr Carson’s other materials on the servants’ bulletin board

I have not really explained why I forgive this mini-series so much — next time, when I write of Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch.

Ellen

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KingwheelsRooseveltInblog
George V (Samuel West) pushing Roosevelt’s (Bill Murray) wheelchair into the library where they can talk freely

DaisySmokingblog
Same night, Daisy (Laura Linney) smoking freely by small cottage on the grounds of Hyde Park

Dear friends and readers,

Until I read the reviews which came out around the time this film was released, this past Christmas (yes I’m 7 months late, but then this is better than my usual 10-20 years), I was going to tell of how much I enjoyed the movie the first time I watched it around 1 in the morning so perhaps in the mood for a sort of odd “midsummer night’s dream” about real people escaping the world of day. Then how I grew to dislike it as I considered all it had left out about the importance, greatness, nobility of the finest, best president the US has ever had bar none, his decent associates, and listened to the tasteless and hypocritical voice-over commentary of the film-makers. And then how I reversed again upon third viewing, again at 1 in the morning (gentle reader it’s been so hot here), realizing its appeal lies is that it’s traditional costume drama of the BBC type done for film adaptations with a quirky difference. It is a genuine defense of unconventionality; of people with what’s called and in the case of Roosevelt certainly was after polio disabilities. Its center is a spinster with little ambition.

Inthefieldblog
Love-making in a flowered field — Daisy also begins to smoke in this scene

So, quirky, but not so much because of the female narrator whose marginalized kindly, apolitical, private point of view permeates the film: that’s par for the course in these sort of films. They often have such women only they are usually made beautiful and married by the end. The usual nostalgia there is (including the use of film taken from a historical picnic at the time which provides the film’s penultimate scene), alluring landscapes, wistful light music, the leisurely pace, the complex psychology of some of the characters, multi- and parallel stories. Rather it’s quirky because of its self-deprecating non-solemn or off-hand presentation of the unconventional, the disabled, women no one wants (but Roosevelt it seems), the usual slice of life angle from the upper class (Hyde Park house is a sort of Downton Abbey, with several extensive staffs, steward, butler, man to carry the president when needed), one presented so wryly and combined with an important political reconciliation (this was the first visit of an English king to an American president).

Fringehangeronsblog
Daisy and Missy (Elizabeth Marvel) as friends playing cards, fringe hangers-on — the happy ending

The quirkiness is also in presenting disabilities (a stutterer, cripple), spinsters (Missy LeLand is as much a spinster as Daisy Suckley), and an unconventional marriage (FDR and Eleanor’s) as not needing to be normalized. There is none of this heroic overcoming we had in King’s Speech, no great win as in Lincoln, the stuttering and bigotry (the butler is simply let go for not being willing to allow black men on his staff in the kitchen) and unromantic sexual habits go on.

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OpeningStillblog
As in a novel the opening sentence is telling so in a movie the opening still: we begin and end with Daisy’s voice and here she is from the back answering a phone call to come help cheer the president

It was the second thought, the doubts I was going to emphasize. This is one of the cases where the over-voice commentary on the DVD is worse than a waste of time: Roger Michell and his buddies talked false hype: continual
self-regarding stories about “the stars,” silly stories about Roosevelt; if the film-makers understood anything of the film techniques they were using (which they surely did) it was the last thing they were going to discuss. What do they think people listen to commentaries for? To be given a commercial in disguise. And the feature was not a feature but a trailer, which like most trailers distorted and dumb-downed the movie to make it appeal to a larger audience many of whom would not like this movie. I was particularly offended with their salacious references to the “hand-job” Daisy is said to give FDR in the film, and thought they had handed the public a deliberately degrading and debased way of viewing the man responsible for the few social ameliorations US people enjoy today and whose laws until they were repealed controlled the rapacious banks.

I thought one typical remark in the commentary revealing. The film-maker apologized for cutting the scenes of Blake Ritson as Johnson (luxury casting here), the butler who refuses to work with black men whom Eleanor has hired.

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Scene filmed from odd angle, Eleanor (Olivia Williams), president’s mother (Elizabeth Wilson) faced by Johnson (Blake Ritson) and other staff, two black men from the back

He says it’s them or me. Eleanor says it’s you and Ritson as butler is fired. All cut — you can view it in the DVD’s deleted scenes. No explanation from Michell beyond how sorry he was to lose Ritson’s performance. This is a part of the lavish flattery of these features for all the people participating in the film and pretense of happy times for all doing the film seen together with no rivalry (it seems). I think they cut it because it lacked the semi-humor with which everything else was dramatized.

I know FDR was the greatest (best, most decent, unbeatable as to programs) president the US ever had (bar none), though I’ve never sat down and read a full-length book about FDR or Eleanor — only what essays have come my way in periodicals we get in the house. I’ve the highest respect for Eleanor — and feminist avante la lettre as to her expressed points of view — I’ve never even read her memoir which I’ve had in my house for donkey’s years. I don’t know which is the best and don’t know where to ask, and know what is written about him is so skewed — during his 4 terms (my father used to say) from the newspapers you’d think he was the most hated man in the US and each election it was presented as astounding that he’d won again and big. His one mistake (driven to it, partly by illness) was to give up Wallace as his vice-president in that last term. History might have been different. I’m telling myself I’ll find out the best book and get to that memoir. I’m no “Americanist” — just don’t read much American literature though most of the books as a child and young woman without trying were US authors and types. I do like American gothic.

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But then I read the reviews and realized the film was dissed as “imbecilic” and idiotic because it told the story from Daisy Suckley’s, an obscure woman’s point of view: Daisy has “a termite’s view of history” said one reviewer. Who could care about her? I love that it was as much a heroine’s movie as say Frances Ha or an Austen film.

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Daisy (Laura Linney) appealing to and FDR (Bill Murray) reciprocating affection

A film without great stirring events and resolutions offended reviewers: it wasn’t going anywhere, had no point (like Lincoln). (None of the adulterers is punished like Anna Karenina [another Xmas movie], except if you think being told that while FDR shared his estate with Missy he did not visit her in the hospital when she felt fatally ill.) Eleanor (who did keep a second house) looked dowdy! (but she did in life). Those who recognized the film’s genre complained about what was the point: its discomfort, the unease. I agree a sceptical harder view of who these individuals were and why they hooked up (more characters should have been individualized) would have improved it (see Peter Bradshaw) — there were more serpents in this garden than the disabilities never discussed.

There is something odd in this film, but no one asks what it is: why did Nelson choose the incident of the king and queen’s visits (he adds it onto Daisy’s diaries) to show Roosevelt’s astuteness and humanity? it’s not only singularly devoid of hard mean politicking, war enter only through the king’s pity for the children in Spain bombed out of existence, and it does focus on the most privileged pair in the UK, partly trivializing them too, though Elizabeth’s (Olivia Coleman) needling George (Samuel West) with pointed references to his more suave brother, Edward VIII (who vacated the throne) seemed not improbable. The film is explicitly, consciously a defense of keeping secret the private lives of these politicians – that can be used by conservatives to cover up the their personal uses of their offices, I see that, but ti also allowed a crippled man to be president greatly. Should people’s sex lives and vulnerabilities be exposed when its their economic and social ideologies that count? In this film the characters have freedom in private.

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Roosvelt catching himself with his hand

Its central scene is where the president comforts the king for his stuttering by showing himself lurching along a desk as a crippled man to reach his cigarettes. And its climax occurs when Daisy discovers the president is having an affair with Missy as well — in that cottage she thought he had set up for her. And how the two women then became close friends, buddies in a car together.

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So instead I will emphasize how the film does not enforce normalcy. How it shows people behave irrationally: that the British King should eat an American hot dog as a great symbolic act is silly, and yet that is what happens in life. How Daisy remained the spinster around the place, the president’s friend except to those in the know. Daisy’s point of view is good-natured, open, tolerant, caring about others (her aunt played by Eleanor Bron who also lurches) as she hopes to be cared for,

DaisysAuntblog.

and this wins me over.

As with The King’s Speech, I felt sorry for the king while his character played so adeptly and slightly comically by Samuel West is not paid enough attention to. He makes the film fun. I liked his jokes (lame as they were) when the poor servants dropped those trays heavy with dishes and food.

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And the performances were very good. My view of Laura Linney has changed: I’d hitherto only seen her enacting that godawful introduction to Masterpiece theater where she is dressed in a ludicrous trussed-up sexual way. Here she is a Fanny Price who gets to stay on, everyone’s confidante.

As one commenter said, it’s a fine summer romp that I recommend. A beautiful movie.

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The president asks Daisy how does she like the landscape; she says very well.

And then sit down and read a good book on FDR, Eleanor, Henry Wallace, the political, economic and social worlds of the later 1930s. Yes we would have learned more to have Frances Perkins in the film (and political associates of FDR), but that and Eleanor’s politics require a separate documentary or biopic. Due to some good talk on Trollope19thCStudies I’ve ordered Kirsten Downey’s book on Frances Perkins. Also Closest Companion: The Unknown Story of the Intimate Friendship Between Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret Suckley, ed Geoffrey Ward — Daisy’s diaries and private papers (nowadays very cheap), and Hazel Rowley’s Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage (ditto).

Ellen

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GosfordParkUpstairsblog
Gosford Park: Upstairs

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Gosford Park: Downstairs,

Dear friends and readers,

Notwithstanding Rumor to the contrary, Gosford Park and Downton Abbey, both scripted by Julian Fellowes, are distinctively different movies. Here am I again about Gosford Park: a fine film about costume drama, whose signature music I offered two Sundays ago and again on Downton Abbey (see archives).

Robert, Earl of Grantham, the controlling Top Male whom all ultimately reverence in Downton Abbey, is a good decent man who keeps his word; he does not have a liaison with any of the servant girls. He means well; we are endorse all his decisions for himself and others. Sir Wm MacCordle, the controlling Top Male of Gosford Park and many investments, is a ruthless lying seducer, especially of working women around him dependent on him. In DA, everyone (even Thomas the homosexual footman and Miss Obrien, the old maid lady’s maid) is presented as having a good side, explicable by a sort of pop Freudian psychology, most mean well, most believe in the value of their job, the general order of things against which they may rebel, but then blame themselves as ungrateful. Godford Park is shot through and thought with knowledge of how demanding, careless of their health and needs, indifferent, utterly selfish, obtuse the upstairs people mostly are; the staff is sceptical, notes the hypocrisies, idle lives of their masters and mistresses, lack of lives of their own. Sir William is murdered three times over and his death upsets no one but his (foolish) worshipful valet.

Every one of the 16 stories (we have 16 major characters) in Downton Abbey is elaborately worked out; we are given many clues for each story; if the story is left to end ambiguously, by the end nothing is mysterious or merely suggestive. In Gosford Park, suggestiveness without elaboration is the key to presenting an interweave of 40 characters. The characters are glimpsed mostly as an ensemble, clues are sparse, lines which explain given only once and indirectly. Gosford Park therefore feels much much realer as we experience, each scene has so much piled into it (rich texture) you feel you could watch it so many times as you might read a book at least several times.

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Downton Abbey: the upstairs group enjoys a Christmas dance

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Downton Abbey: the downstairs group enjoying a day-long fair

Downton Abbey is a justification of the older hierarchical order of the world, with some counting far more than others; Gosford Park is an exposure of the anguish this giving power to a few males wreaks on everyone else, a perversion or out natural appetites.

The difference is the presence of Robert Altman to provide a counterweight to Fellowes’ arch-conservatism, to undercut, undermine, satirize Fellowes’ vision while showing it going on as if intact, only at the end the house is almost all closed up as all people but McCordle’s wife, butler, valet, are getting out as fast as they can to something they hope will be better for them. At the same time Fellowes provides a brilliant script psychologically and knows how to make effective filmic scenes.

Two closing moments can epitomize what I’m getting at: the last part of Season 1 where Lady Mary has gone a step too far: Matthew breaks it off and speaks from the gut as he realizes Mary is offering to marry him if she doesn’t get a better offer (supposedly actuated by Lady Rosamund); he has just nearly been kicked out by the prospect of Cora, Lady Grantham having a baby (stamped out by Miss Obrien)

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The moment the American producer nods to Elsie, ex-head parlormaid, kicked out upon breaking code and in front of all at the table showing herself to be the latest in a long line of Sir William McCordle’s mistresses; Elsie, I say, crosses over to his car where await her Igor Novello (songster, failed movie-maker) and the producer’s lover-companion, Denton. She’ll do all right after all – on her back — and as Mary (Lady Constance’s lady’s maid) closes the door on her we see Sir William’s dog has a berth in her case. Much said in this series of stills:

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The scripts of both read like novels. And their dramatic range and for suggested complexity of character both deserve to be awarded. The scripts of Downton Abbey read like stage plays, plenty of thought into the lines; sincerely believed in and imagined, not tongue-in-cheek; a landscape country house story of clashes within characters and across the tabooed lines between them. We have scenes omitted from the final cut.

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Big moment of shock when tabooed lines crossed

The scripts of Gosford Park reminded me of the game of Clue. The first page had thumb-nail shots of each character and their role/job and one characteristic; they were lined up against a tree connecting them to one another. This was a murder-mystery in which when we realized the usual suspects had done it (the young man driven to bankruptcy by McCordle, his ex-mistress housekeeper whose life & dreams he has blighted utterly; his bastard son who loathes him, we realized it didn’t matter and no one cared as it’s all a game we agree to play in order to be in the order, play a part. It also has stories omitted from the final cut.

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Someone matter-of-factly directing traffic: Mrs Wilson, housekeeper

I’m on my third viewing of Downton Abbey, and while I become so involved with the characters over and over and do see more psychologically, socially, I’ve managed to deepen the experience by attention to filmic techniques, by reading The Chronicles of … and The World of Downton Abbey, and now the scripts for the first season. I’ve now watched Gosford Park 6 times (!). I’ve now watched Gosford Park 6 times altogether: once in the movies, once when Jim downloaded a copy from Pirate Bay, and now 4 more times since I’ve gotten myself the DVD with the feature, two of these times with over voices, first just Fellowes and then Altman with his production designer and one of the producers.

To sum up, Altman’s presence has made GP shots so much more overflowing with information, story matter, and continually undermined any of the longed-for ideals both programs dramatize so the matter of these scripts feels inexhaustible; each time you watch the Altman you see more (40 characters about 25 stories in 2 and one half-hours, many of them hollow though deeply emotional); each time you watch Fellowes alone you see more fully the same thing but no more — what you see is what you get — and there is no undercutting that is not made explicit by Maggie Smith as sour Dowager.

Ellen

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margaret-thatcherblog
Listen and watch Tony Harrison’s filmed poem, V

‘My father still reads the dictionary every day./He says your life depends on your power to master words.’ — Arthur Scargill,
Sunday Times, 10 January 1982

V stands for Victory, Victim, Versus

Dear friends and readers,

She was a blight on us all — but unfortunately only an extreme version of the kind of people ruling most countries today. Like Reagan, she had a facility for saying something that seemed true, but was specious, that would be quoted and people would say “yes,” not realizing what she was endorsing was the worst and most rotten aspects of our experiences of life.

An important article by Andrew O’Hagan (“Maggie,” New York Review of Books, 60:9 [May 2013]:18-20). What O’Hagan does is show continually how in specific individual human terms Margaret Thatcher’s acts either destroyed some specific person’s hope, daily useful activity, job, opportunity or were responsible for killing literal people, destroying the houses or communities they lived in, e.g., the night she had the Belgrano sunk — outside the acknowledged waters of war (then there were limits to war’s purview) — 323 people died.

Maggie

It appears to be open to all, non-subscribers as well as paper and on-line subscribers, but lest you cannot reach it or do not feel inclined to click, some key paragraphs:

It was an impressive work of social engineering but ultimately a dreadful one. She created a population that is more dependent and less productive. She made us more individual but less cooperative. It must have looked heroic on paper or in the essays of Milton Friedman. But what she did was incredibly coarse in practice: she ground the unions down but left workers with no alternative form of self-esteem or protection, and the result, today, is a workforce of the alienated. She boasted of setting people free but British working people have never been more enslaved to the whims of fashion, corporate greed, and agism than they are now. A young person from a former mining community where there might have been classes in the evenings and a sense of propriety, decency, modesty, and community can now only hope for a place in “the zone”—the world of the “haves”—by winning a celebrity contest or by thriving on the black market …

All the kids in my class were given a small bottle of milk every day at mid-morning. It was nice to drink the milk, but nicer, in some larger way, to learn that you lived in a country where the government your parents paid their taxes to cared about you that minutely. Thatcher stopped the milk. It seemed new, the thought—promulgated by Keith Joseph, Norman Tebbit, and, chiefly, Margaret Thatcher—that people who didn’t want to strive and become better than their neighbors were totally lacking in spirit.

At first it seemed like a small philosophical problem: older people, hard-working people, contented people, sick people would argue that they didn’t have to be winners. They didn’t want to do better: they were quite happy to do fine. They liked being like other people. It squared with their sense of belonging and with their idea of what made British life stable. My mother worked in a youth club and Thatcher closed it down …

The summer before going to university I got a job with the Manpower Services Commission, at the Job Centre, working the front-line desk with the unemployed. It was 1986 and I’ll never forget those lines of men coming up to the desk to inquire about their suitability for work. There were no jobs. They could try for something in a bar or a hairdresser’s, but fifty-year-old men weren’t going to get those jobs and I was instructed not to send them for interviews. Norman Tebbit, one of Mrs. Thatcher’s proudest and crudest lieutenants, told them to “get on your bike and get a job.” And here they were, skilled tradesmen with thirty-five years’ experience, asking if I could put them forward for a job they weren’t going to get collecting glasses in a bar. Mrs. Thatcher came up with various schemes, such as Restart, where the unemployed would be called in and interrogated about what they were “actively” doing to seek work. And I was told to talk to each of the men about the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, by which the government would give them a grant to start up their own business. The notion that some people are simply not entrepreneurial was lost …

Most important for US readers:

She couldn’t hold the nation together, indeed she drove it apart, and that is because she didn’t really believe in the nation except as a sentimental or martial entity. That’s the strangest legacy of all about Maggie: if you listen to those who loved her and thought she was manifestly right, you find, after a while, that you are with people who don’t know their own country and don’t like it either. They think they like it because they don’t like Europe, but in fact, they abjure both. They like their own lives, of course, and their own kind, but they imagine the rest of Britain is mainly an unspeakable place of aliens and scroungers

When Romney and his ilk talk of the 47% they are saying that to them most of the US are scrounges and aliends. When the Republicans and their allies try to limit the vote, they are acting out of the conviction only a tiny percentage of people who live in the US are of their kind (well-to-do, white) and all the rest not quite human. Obama is an illegitimate president because his skin color is wrong.

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:

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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.

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This would take me back to the eighteenth century.

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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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Society is no comfort/To one not sociable — Shakespeare, Imogen, Cymbeline, IV:2, 12-13

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The Walking Stick: Deborah (Samantha Eggar) badly lamed leaning on Leigh (David Hemmings) (1970, Eric Till, Winston Graham, George Bluestone)

Dear friends and readers,

Disabled characters have increased in numbers in popular fiction & film in the last quarter century. Has there been a genuine increase in sympathetic empathy and understanding, any real help offered such people or acceptance as a result. It would seem not. I link these two phenomena to the growth of fandoms in cyberspace and elsewhere and how they effect the development of programs and series of fictions. Why there are there. I exemplify briefly with the way disabled characters from Sondheim’s Passion to Winston Graham’s mystery and Poldark novels are treated, and more at length in Downton Abbey, from Fellowes’s himself to the indifferent to hostile commentary on him & Anna, the head housemaid who loves him.

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A spin-off from both the APA/ACA and ASECS conferences: in both there were roundtable panels on “disability studies: I feared not enough would be said in the more casual talks these roundtables offer to take up enough time and the audience would be called upon to talk, and then feared I’d reveal myself too much or get too involved. I have seen academic people present themselves as interested in isabilities and found that they were not, except as an abstract topic; worse, if I probed I discovered the people were just as strong for enforcing “normalcy” (on behalf of “success”), just as prejudiced (not taking a whole personality into account, not being willing to critique their definitions of success), fearful and/or nervous in their reactions. I worried I’d feel angry or know intense dismay.

So I didn’t go, and now regret this because what I did do was take down names of journals, books and periodicals with disability studies for today. First off I learned that in the last quarter century there’s been a huge increase in the number of disabled characters in popular fiction. It might be the disabled characters were always there in mystery-crime fiction, though not acknowledged, as villains or victims, but not being acknowledged, presented as freaks, or evil, or reprehensible in some way. But this is a big change to presenting people with disabilities in a sympathetic or seeming sympathetic way. Nowadays disability is also popular in historical fiction and romance. So that I noticed so many disabled characters in Winston Graham does not show originality on his part, but rather a following of a zeitgeist.

I won’t cite the names of the articles or journals separately unless someone asks for these (in the comments) which is most unlikely, just describe generally. Most were studies of texts or art in the close reading humanities way today (looking sociologically, how they function in society). Basically there were two schools of thought: one argues that the new wave of appearances of disabled characters is not increasing any real understanding or sympathy for people with disabilities because 1) at the end the disabled person is forcibly or seemingly willingly co-opted into the “normal” world, made to seem “normal” and the point is to defuse the person as a threat, on the way the emphasis in portrayal is the disability itself with full utterly varied richness of people ignored; it’s voyeurism; and 2) we see very little progress in the outer world for funding, real acceptance, or even understanding in wider circles of people. The other argues that the spread of such depictions does help; little by little the stories make people no longer ignore the disabled, no longer erase them altogether, and does gradually work up sympathy and we may hope for change.

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When Anne Elliot (Amanda Root) wants to visit the crippled Mrs Smith (Helen Schlesinger), her father rages at her with open disgust for her “queer” tastes (from the 1995 BBC Persuasion, Roger Michell, Nick Dear)

Then there are essays on particular works or authors or sub-genres: how disabled people are presented in romance; how presented in mystery-crime stories (where they’ve long been an unacknowledged central type, either as villain or victim); in later Victorian gothic. The way they are discussed in non-fiction case histories, which sometimes turn out to be obtuse fictions which promulgate single-minded freakish stereotyped views, e.g., Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night which invites voyeurism. Once in a while a particular writer or work is found which increases understanding and sympathy. The value of these is if you want to do such studies they show you how to do and what’s said, and give you insights.

Two good books are worth noting: Women with Disabilities, ed. Michelle Fine (and others). Fine’s the one who’s done intelligent candid studies of how women who have been raped are treated, women’s studies. The kind of character includes is Fosca in Tarchetti’s book (now called Passion from Sondheim): I’ve noticed again and again women who are presented as disabled are eroticized, made beautiful but for the disability which then adds to their alluringness (and the kick of having sex with them in the imagination apparently). Another is more historical and crosses gender, class, ethnicity: Rosemarie Garland Thomson: Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring disability in American literature. The truth is many people still believe in disabilities only if they are physical.

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Fosca from Passion, made plain not crippled (yet this came from a website mocking the addictive love affair)

From what I’ve read thus far I think the those who say this increase in visibility has not led to a gain in empathy or understanding are right. Even when the novel does not enforce normalcy, readerships insist on misreading the fiction to emphasize a happy ending at the close — happy being equivalent to assimilation and erasure. From what I’ve seen in real life — the cutting off of funding, the cutting out of Aspergers from the DSM (Diagnostic Statistical Physicians Manuel), and the increase in coercive techniques & drugs among psychologists again those who say more visibility has not helped are right. No one really has a mechanism for helping such people gain self-sustaining employment for or proposes helping older adults socially for real at all.

Misreading in terms of the readers’ own identity needs, to throw off a threat of anything unknown or new leads me to the other related topic I heard discussed at the conference and want to consider again. Next time (if there is one for me at either conference), and if I have a chance to go on panels about fandoms, fanzines, I will. The book here is Textual Poachers by Henry Jenkins.

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Fandoms are one aspect of different ways of life in the Net that are reactions the increasing anonymity and loss of community in US life, the impoverishment of individuals and high unemployment rate so that people come onto the Net to find community, meaning when there is nothing where they live. These groups replace religious communities too, can be a religious community, and they are real. It’s another instance where the idea that what happens on the Net is not real is false. In the 1950s Richard Hoggart wrote a book called The Uses of Literacy where he argued that TV was being used to create “imagined communities” which through propaganda and loyalty to shows inculcated in people Tory reactionary values; again people at a loss, people left out, communities devastated by global capitalism; the book was re-issued during the 1980s Thatcher years.

But it’s not true that these are imagined and unreal communities. These groups of people active and aggressive; authors ignore them at their peril. They meet outside the Net when they can and influence where they can. They will punish, ostracize, exclude the person who takes a different view and attack that. I have found it very painful to deal with such people; actually I can’t, don’t know how to. They can be group bloggers. They can be seen whirling to some extent around mini-series programs, Games of Thrones say or Downton Abbey.

How do you recognize a fandom. It’ll be a message board where anonymity is enforced, and thus no one held accountable. No personal relationships can develop easily. In the case of films or TV, the re-doing of bits of films in YouTube videos to change the original meanings of scenes to fit what the fans want and posting of these. They can be embarrassing. Fierce conversations which a given aggressive individual will not give up. I’d say worse than some of what happens on Austen-l only it’s moderated so the two or three people moderating immediately shut up whoever has said what they don’t agree with (they were particularly fierce over sex), “community” activities centered on the actors and stars of the films and a whole range of sociological or psychological phenomena having to do with inventing a fictional identity. They do meet outside the Net when they can. A pre-screening of the new Sherlock in a New York movie-house brought fans from around the country to meet in the movie-house, see their movie, eat and talk together afterward.

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A deeply sexual shot: Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees about to go to bed together as Ross and Demelza Poldark (1975 Part 7)

Examples include Harry Potter, Batman, Dr Who, Star Wars, long-running TV programs. My experience has been with the Winston Graham Society webpage, really a message board dedicated to discussing two of the famous stars from the first mini-series: Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees (although she’s dead now). I had read in Graham’s autobiography this group succeeded in damning a 1996 film and making it impossible to go on; a paper I heard at ACA showed that the group influenced the second season of the films. I was told by one woman my discussion of disability, violence and sex in Graham’s fiction “deeply upset” her so how dare I? No one should write about this series what could upset her, no details allowed. I had notice how many disabled (often autistic) characters Graham has in his Poldark and mystery novels; how he studies alienation (Marni) and individual loss sympathetically and wanted to discuss this. The shattering of one of the heroines from continual marital rape; the reality the hero rapes one of the chief heroines and the son they have, neglected and over-indulged (anything but taken care of) after her death grows up disturbed and lonely enough to reach out for an orangutan as a companion. Forget it.

Facebook pages dedicated to famous stars or authors identified as conservative and classic, or with some ethnicity or doctrine. The audience for Austen’s books is leavened because it includes different types of people, academics and heritage industry and there’s a lot of money to be made on sequels and conferences and tourism so the fandom cannot invent this world of its own and control the material. Austen has prestige, her texts are not considered trivial and worthless in the way of say Star Trek and other texts around which fandoms whirl. These groups dislike any criticism of their author; they will justify or excuse or explain away the smallest unfavorable remark. Their identities have become involved, their egos, their self-image. They build whole worlds around their texts & shows.

Tellingly, for people interested to see if popular fiction that has a wide enthusiastic audience can function to increase the sympathetic imagination, the fiercest hostile responses come from any assertion that the fetishized material explores sexuality or gender in unconventional ways, has an ambiguous or sad ending, shows the hero to be less than admirable (violent for example, politically radical).

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I’ll end on the treatment of disability in Downton Abbey, the first season. Since I think I do not misread, I cannot tell what the misreading would be precisely, probably in the direction of scorn or dismissal or somehow turning the disability into what’s normal if “unwanted,” as Sir Anthony Strallon was treated in the third season, or silence, as the man with the heinously disfigured face was in the second — both given over to the program-scapegoat, Edith.

In the first part of Downton Abbey, the lamed Mr Bates is almost fired because few will accept his disability: most take it as a blemish on community, insist he will not be able to do his job, a few ridicule him, a couple (that’s enough) tell false tales; Lord Grantham almost fires him but his decency and better self seeing the cruelty and injustice of the act, keeps him on at the close of the hour.

In the third part, Mr Bates still driven by fear he’ll be fired, tormented by cruel jeering or physical gestures (as when Miss Obrien trips and humiliates him) buys an instrument of torture to make himself walk more straight. As the hour wears on we see Bates in pain, leaning over in agony, having a sour expression, indeed not be able to do his job. (In the context of the hour’s juxtaposition, the parallel is the ejection of Pamuk’s corpse from Lady Mary’s room after he half-rapes her; both are trash which ruin the body and probably spirit of the character.) Finally Mrs Hughes, the housekeeper insists on seeing what is wrong with Mr Bates, and he shows her his leg, now covered with blood and sores from the contraption on it.

As ever Fellowes is on the side of the mainstream: we next see the pair by the side of a river on the property. Mr Bates has agreed to throw the thing away. The lesson Mrs Hughes instructs Mr Bates to remember is: “I promise I will never again try to cure myself, I will spend my life happily as the butt of others’ jokes and I will never mind them.” Mrs Hughes: “We all carry scars Mr Bates, inside or out, you’re no different than the rest of us, remember that.” Mr Bates: “I will try to that I do promise.” And then he hurls it off, and she cries “good riddance.’

The part about not trying to cure oneself is good — autism month should be called autism acceptance month. The group of articles I have include two arguing the higher ends of autism include people who are in many ways more gifted than the average and would not have to consider themselves disabled if others didn’t ostracize and punish them. And Mr Bates is doing his job fine. But the second part half-blaming Mr Bates and saying it was he who considered himself different is the narrow cold-shouldering mind of the establishment speaking, demanding in effect (were he autistic) that he be neurotypical and leads to people purchasing such contraptions or having painful useful dangerous operations. Stiff upper lip. Never admit to anything.

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Mr Bates and Anna (Joanna Froggart) end of Part 5: he getting into cart

As far as I could tell from reading the fan’s responses to the hour, they were sympathetic to the obtuse and mean Lady Mary; in his notes to the script Fellowes exclaimed against letters to him decrying a supposed buggery — the people couldn’t endure that Lady Mary should lose her virginity (hymen) so they jumped to the conclusion buggery had occurred and this was why the man had a heart-attack (!). (How revealing of silent suppositions this is.) And on-line people quickly tired of Mr Bates — by the second season as homely and a “sob-story” (“passive-aggressive” was a favorite phrase)and felt excruciated when (they felt) asked to identify with Anna, for they would not have fallen in love with Mr Bates as she slowly does for his intelligence, integrity, good nature, refusal to kowtow or forsake his dignity, good heart (of which we see instances).

A friend wrote:

Mrs. Hughes’s comment that ‘we all carry scars’ nags me, however. Who is the “we?” On the first glance, I’d take it to be a universal statement–the series shows that everyone, upstairs or downstairs, has their problems, but I’m not convinced it is a universal “we.” (I’m sure Fellowes meant it to be.) Is the “we” the servants? However, whether or not Mrs. Hughes “we” is universal, this leads me to think that disability plays out differently between servants and masters — Matthew’s Hemingwayesque war wound, leaving him “crippled” and impotent, is a parallel to Mr. Bates’ disability — both
are physical and both call into the question each man’s ability to do his primary “job” — in Matthew’s case of course, to “make the heir,” but one has a miraculous cure and the other not …

Yes. Who is the we? In the case of the servants, they have no buffer or support to help them if they are rejected, so they must conform and if they cannot, must not complain.

I was told again and again how my blogs on Downton Abbey took “a different view,” and at times (especially around the character of Edith whose scapegoating I exposed) attacked. Twenty years from now attitudes will have frozen and it will be hard to talk freely to those still remembering (many will no longer but move on). I never did discuss disability in Downton Abbey. I should have. So have made up for that now.

Ellen

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