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We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art — Henry James

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An English Home, Albert Coburn (1907 illustration)

Dear friends and readers,

I began Gorra’s marvelous book as an alternative read to Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, a kind of companion-match antidote: I felt it was the same sort of book, one which took the reader through a deeply-felt reading experience of a book, in this case James’s The Portrait of a Lady. I discovered that Gorra’s does not pretend to be a semi-confessional autobiography as semi-literary criticism; indeed I learned very little about Gorra’s life, though I did learn how he reacted not only to James’s The Portrait of Lady but many of James’s other books — without any particular references to Gorra’s life, except that Gorra is also American and regards himself as having an American identity (whatever that is). Gorra’s book rather elaborated in how James’s other books and The Portrait fit into James’s private and writing life, into James’s career, and into how James’s readers and critics have seen him since he began publishing and up to the time of his death.

In other words, this is an unconventionally-written biography. Gorra’s can offer insights into James’s life not allowed by most methodologies: his method is to bring together how he feels (impersonally put) about James’s writing, what he Gorra sees, and how James wrote James felt about it with what we know of James’s life from all sorts of angles, some of them drawn from phases of writing The Portrait of a Lady. Gorra weaves a sort of biography where the writer does not have to follow the life history of the subject but can weave in what he or she wants and when, with the justification that well I’m going through associations from this novel. So we skip dull parts of the person’s life and also get new sorts of insight as the material is reconfigured.

We out James in a new way: this is a new sort of biography, one which moves out from one central great book, rather like someone deciding to write Trollope’s biography by intensely going through every detail of say The Way We Live Now or The Claverings — or both together. Mead’s book was not a biography of Eliot in disguise it was “her life” in Eliot

For example, Gorra can’t prove it yet he makes a persuasive case for seeing Isabel Archer and Ralph Touchett as a doppelganger out of the dying Minnie Temple, James’s cousin. Sometimes the method is inadequate: I was much entertained by his reaction to Henrietta Stackpole – only he seems not to know that Stackpole is also an unkind caricature of Kate Fields, beloved of Anthony Trollope, an entertaining travel writer, journalist in her own right.

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Martin Donovan as Ralph Touchett (Portrait)

Another example: Gorra re-sees Isabel’s early refusal to marry in terms of James’s — for James was under pressure to marry; her going to Europe, her choice of waiting to see (Ralph Touchett’s) of being a witness not a doer — all these three are brought together with James’s gayness and made sense of — he is masking himself in Isabel is the point and it’s an interesting one, for else we just do really have another story of the chaste heroine making a bad or good marriage.

He dwells on Madame Merle who emerges upon Isabel getting the money (women has a good nose) and how she stands for a social animal. She and Isabel have a debate with Isabel coming out on the side of that she is not expressed solely or nearly solely by her outward behavior, dress, occupation — as Madame Merle implies. I’ll add that From Daniel Deronda the mother shows one has a self apart which will break away, but Isabel’s tragedy will be she cannot

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Barbara Hershey as Madame Merle (Portrait)

In a section early in the book called the Envelope of Circumstances where Gorra talks almost of himself — at least of an American identity (which often makes me uncomfortable) — he elaborates on the idea that Portrait is unusual in its lack of religion and Gorra says this is true of all James’s work but the ghost stories. I know I like James and feel he is equally European/English (not British)

I much enjoyed the chapter in Gorra after the one detailing all James’s homosexual friends, contacts, strains (“An Unmarried Man”): in “A London Life” he tells of how James came to live in London, that it was no foregone conclusion: he tried Paris first; about an expensive apartment he lived in for quite a while that was well located for theater, plays, making a life of going out to dinners and socializing with the upper class, near enough to publishers and parks. I quite envy James — we also get a strong sense of him supporting himself through writing for magazines and the kinds of texts he was writing to do that. I knew all this but not in this way and Gorra quotes from James’s wonderful thick diary commonplace book so well. He intuitively holds onto and writing about the most astute utterances of James: after G.H. Lewes died, James visited her and described her as “shivering like a person who had had a wall of her house blown off.”

It may be these names of James’s possible lovers and his relationships with them are known, but I’ve never seen the series of men set out so clearly, the stories told so intelligently, and rightly the doubts sowed over the idea James was physically celibate without overdoing it. People are still today writing books which obscure this aspect of James’s life and when they do write about James’s complex feelings, they write turgidly, with embarrassment, hedging. Gorra tells of James’s important life long relationship with his woman amaneunsis-secretary, Theodora Bosanquet whose biography of the boss she spent 2 decades with and lived in close intimacy gives us a lot of the leads and details that help us see this aspect of James’s life. Her book: Henry James at Work and published by Hogarth Press (the Woolfs).

Thus I found finding Gorra’s book more satisfying than Mead’s because I was made to realize more about James and his writing. Most of what Mead wrote I knew about Eliot — and while she is applying our information about Eliot is more subtle autobiographical ways, it does not change what I have seen. Since James’s homosexuality has only recently been openly admitted to and discussed as central to his life — as it was the way what gender you are is — there are new insights to be gotten

He begins with the richness of the letters and how much we can learn about James from them (most have not yet been published, a many year project by many people). The question is how far can we be ourselves apart from social life and within ourselves how much there is a real separate I from construction. I agree with him (and James) it’s there but vulneragble and fragile — as we see in Isabel Archer. Touchett is in retreaet and sinks his life in Isabel’s – I believe that outside his job Jim sunk his life in mind and job in the last years was also endured to support the two of us. That it was not him is seen in how he didn’t mind retiring and only thought of going back in order to move to England.

Still the great source for all people wanting to know James is a book edited by Mattiessen, a continuous diary: it’s vignettes of going out, little bits of stories he later worked up into his great novels, thoughts on aesthetics, whatever popped into his head: The Notebooks of Henry James. I read it while doing my dissertation and trying to understand the creative mood of reverie underlying novels. Gorra emphatically uses this book.

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Rome, outdoor Market, Piazza Navona by Guiseppe Ninci (1870)

Gorra first shows us James’s situating himself in London and ambivalent; how he tried Paris, and we go on to his trips to Italy – where much of the later action of The Portrait of a Lady takes place and we get a chapter on Madame Merle and Osmond – not moralizing but how they represent some real aspects of the expatriots. It was not all high (or today unacceptable) art. Then Gorra moves into a portrait of the community in Florence and Rome at the time. Several interesting pages on his relationship with Constance Fennimore Woolson’s. As sympathetic to the people caught up there as Mead on Main – I’ve been at least to the Spanish Steps and some of the places Gorra describes – which he takes you through with him as your walking guide – and connects them to the atmosphere of the novel which is un-Victorian … bringing all this to bear on Isabel’s wrong choice gives it a whole new kind of aspect – and connects it to the modern reader too.

Gorra follows James from place to place as James writes The Portrait of a Lady. James was escaping his American identity as he traveled from place to place in Italy, and tried to find a quiet place to write a lot and yet have some company and enrichening landscape. From expatriats he moves onto strangers, and how James was surrounding himself with strangers, was himself an exile, a stranger, and saw that the American communities were themselves disconnected from Italian society, didn’t understand it, in search of what they couldn’t find at home. Then he says they were – -and James is – drawing on the heritage of different countries and cultures to make a new amalgam for themselves.

That aspect of American identity as self-invention I do see in myself, though the amalgam is mostly from English sources. I turned to read James’s Roman Rides as Gorra said it’s better than just about all James’s early fictions — and it struck me that’s right. The opening is a meditative piece on the landscape of the campagna. Jim and I went there and walked alone one morning — we did not take our children who were with us on that holiday because they would have been so bored. Often the places he and I wanted to go to were to them places with nothing there. James does a gorgeous rendition of the feelings one can have just outside Rome among these ruins in this desolated place — it was still that way in 1994. How important place and history are to some authors.

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John Malkovich as Osmond (Portrait)

Gorra then moves onto Isabel’s strange choice of the stifling Osmond and how Isabel came to make such a bad choice. Gorra suggests we don’t bring in the sexual angle enough and Isabel was attracted to the man who declined openly to chase her. I did not remember that time went by and Isabel traveled with her sister I Europe and then Madame Merle in the Middle East (that was dangerous). Ralph tells her she is going to be put in a cage but it’s no good. We are not shown the moment of submission, the marriage or its first experience. Why? It’s a sleight of hand that takes us to thwarted aspiration, imprisonment, narrowing but not how she got there. Are these James’s fears for himself?

The book moves onto Venice as James does – and an immersion occurs as James is drawn into this defeated place filled with poverty striken people, even then dying, dependent on tourism. James himself eat and drank expensively as Gorra finds this out by going to the same place (still there). A political fight over the vaporetto and the vaporettos won – James didn’t like the noise either. He makes two friends whose houses he can stay at, ordinary upper class American and English, not the resident famous homosexual population …. It’s the evocation of these places through quotation of James’s travel writing that makes this section so appealing …

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John Singer Sergeant, An Interior in Venice (1899)

Gorra is trying to relive the experiences James had while writing the book at the same time as he re-imagines what the characters feel as the story progresses: tracing James’s steps in Venice, looking at paintings Sergeant made of the expatriot people into whose houses James was welcomed. From James’s letters Gorra picks up that the landlady was offering her daughter as a sex partner by sending her to hang around the fourth floor. Byron took up such invitations, not James. He moves onto the this kind of atmosphere in Venice, and its treacheries, the grim whiff of the closed streets (seen in Sergeant”s pictures too I know) and says this seeped into Portrait of a Lady and what Isabel’s chose of Osmond brought her

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Constance Fennimore Woolson

Venice prompts by association the really poignant story of James’s long time and finally failed relationship with Constance Fenimore Woolston. Gorra characterizes her with great empathy and tells a lot I didn’t know or had forgotten. Again he brings together what is not usually brought together: how they quietly lived in one building she on the first and he the ground floor — in Florence. She apparently went to Venice to live on the assumption he would follow her but he never did. The letters to and from and her were burned. As everyone knows she killed herself by jumping out a window and he tortured himself by trying to drown her dresses — why he just didn’t throw them out or give them away as rags I can’t guess.

Woolston’s death though partly in reaction to James’s behavior is obviously not his fault. She suffered depression much of her life. When she’d finish a book she’d be in a state of nervous collapse. It’s said some people are exhilarated by it. I was neither. Eliot went into collapse mode.

As he tells the story, Gorra connects it James’s “Aspern Papers,” “he Beast in the Jungl”e (Sedgewick renamed that “closet”) and a couple of other uncanny stories (“The Romance of Old Clothes) which he retells very well — and The Wings of the Dove.

Quite what this has to do with The Portrait of a Lady? it illuminates James’s feelings towards relationships, the real life of expatriates … A central “sin” in James is when one person uses another, makes them an instrument for his or her needs. Imposing your will on them. He suggests Lyndall Gordon (who wrote a conventional biography) accuses James of doing this to Woolson. Now the second version a Portrait of a Lady occurs well after Woolson’s death and so we are left to make our own allegory here.

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Paris, La Rue de Rivoli, Anonymous, undated

I love the illustrations in this book, picturesque, in the mode of Alvin Coburn, the illustrator for James’s turn of the century complete revised edition.

Following upon the chapter on James and Constance Fenimore Woolston, we move into “sex, serials, the continent and critics.” A full chapter on how near impossible it was to get into print and distributed in the UK and US too a story which told what every one know to be the case with sexual life; you could only tell supposedly what life was supposed sexually to be like, to teach lessons. The French were much freer.

This part of the book includes a chapter on the magazines James wrote for and Gorra uses is also valuable beyond telling us how James dealt with the problem of instalment publication: demands for a certain length, for cliff-hangers, who and where his work appeared (with what provided the context of respectability for the reader); it’s an intelligent portrait of a world where people are still reading magazines. James was apparently a writer who had in mind his whole book so would start a new instalment not with a reader turning the pages of a magazine who might need (as we call them today) recap. Today’s American context is alluded to: the importance of Atlantic, Harper’s then – New Yorker today

Gorra is showing us how Isabel Archer could come to say she did not want to hear anything that Pansy could not hear — this is supreme foolishness on her part; far from being dangerous for her, it will be dangerous for her not to have more knowledge of what a man can do to his wife once he marries her — Cameron’s movie makes Osmond into a sadistic man in bed too — as does Andrew Davies make Grandcourt in his film of Daniel Deronda. This is chapter comparing French fiction of the period that was admired by the English with the English. A rare novelist to break through what was allowed was George Moore (Esther Waters) but his novels were not distributed by Mudie’s.

Gorra spends a long chapter on the whole long chapter in Portrait of a Lady after Edward Rosier comes to call – he is the young man who loves and could be loved by Pansy, but Osmond won’t allow it, and he lets Isabel know that she ought to use her sexual pull on Warburton to lure Warburton into marrying Pansy — for Osmond assumes that’s a front for a love affair Warburton means to have with Isabel.

Isabel is sickened, appalled, desolated — we come upon her well after the marriage has taken place, we even missed the birth and death of a young son. Gorra says this is deliberate on James’s part: he does not want to show us directly (remember our thread on showing and telling) such dramatic moments but their affect on consciousness.

I was not surprised to see Gorra attribute some of James’s sophistication to his reading of Daniel Deronda where Gorra finds the same kinds of techniques. The difference is that James goes on for much longer (he says) and makes the narrative stop still and ruminate a past we’ve not seen.

He also says the shrewdest most aware appraisal of Portrait was by Constance Fenimore Woolson. So James is in a women of ecriture-femme — with Oliphant ranging herself on the other side in defense of what she thought of as English fiction.

He finds this so original. I don’t think so — Trollope does it, Austen does it, Eliot does it a lot but the interior monologue is important and Gorra’s way of discussing it as becoming central to the art of fiction does show one important innovation. Hitherto story was said to count a lot and more; and it’s clear that for James the actual story matter — the events that manifest the inner life — does not matter. Gorra says this changes the novel’s emphasis and is part of a switch over that finds an extreme in Woolf.

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Romola Garai as Gwendoleth Harleth Grandcourt telling Daniel Deronda (Hugh Dancy) about what her life has been (2004 Daniel Deronda, scripted Andrew Davies)

No what makes the difference is the content. Trollope’s Julia (The Claverings) does not think one really unconventional thought. She never thinks to herself these people are shits, why should I want to sit with the housekeeper, look at their terrible values. Nor any of them until Daniel Deronda with the magnificent portrait of his mother (the same actress who played the role in Davies’s film played Madame Merle in Campion’s film) Isabel does not break away but she has utterly subversive thoughts about the values of those around her. Eliot invents another set of ethics using Gwendoleth Harleth’s experience (which Davies’s film brings out), implicitly anticipating Flaubert but much more sympathetic to the woman, as is James. Again and again Gorra links James to Eliot. So when Gorra exaggerated because he so goes on about it, one can learn and see …

He is tracing an important direct new line — into it was fed the travel writings that he has been going over too. Roman Rides, Venice. Also William James’s books on cognitive psychology show up the new interest. The new line was objected to intelligently by RLStevenson in his Gossip on Romance and James’s prefaces, his Art of Fiction was intended to intervene in this debate. Gorra’s discussion of James’s use of stream of consciousness in Portrait of a Lady is so rousing that I become eager for Phyllis Rose’s A Year of Reading Proust to come — I just hope I’ve read enough of Proust’s volumes to be able to appreciate it. I’ve only read one and almost to the end of the second volume.

Gorra then uses his analysis of Isabel Archer’s long meditation to launch into more than James’s Art of Fiction; he makes large claims for James as an innovator of a new kind of novel: one based wholly on inner life, nuances. Of course these were written before — in epistolary narratives of high quality in the 18th century but not self-consciously. Gorra argues that Woolson was one of the first to understand, and Howells to defend James and his Art of Fiction should be understood as part of a debate which includes RLS’s Gossip on Romance.

I like how Gorra fits this into the growth of serious literary criticism of the novel, taking it seriously. James could not get himself to write in the other “new” school of naturalism (Princess Cassamassima is the one that may be linked): too pessimistic, too bleak he felt, though Howells did it in his Modern Instance. The novel’s stature is going up

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Henry James by Katherine McClellan (1905)

The last part: putting out the lights. This one takes us through James’s response to the deaths of his father and mother; he came for the funerals, just missed the dying. I think he’s right to argue against Edel’s insistence it was the mother who screwed the family up: common sense and all evidence suggests it was the father (if people can be screwed up who produced what Wm and Henry James and even Alice did and lives the lives the first two did) with the mother complicit. It seems to have been a contest which of the parents self-destructed first and in reaction to the other’s coming demise. They did cling together.

As with Mead at the close of her book, but without personal references, Gorra then makes leaps into the fiction to find analogies about death. Gorra shows how often James wrote about death after this period, and how a metaphor for loss. In this chapter he says it was at this time James began to keep his journal of all anecdotes, an important source for this book (and many others).

And he suggests it was after this or around this time several of the great Victorians died and I’m glad to say — serendipitiously — for James this includes Trollope. Trollope for James a major voice like Eliot, Flaubert and Turgenev. James’s essay on Trollope has been very influential — perhaps too much so but I didn’t know about the line calling Trollope a “difficult mind.” That’s good. What a different list from the modern canon, no?

James’s “The Altar of the Dead” is about the ghosts we live with, the ghosts in our memories of who died and Gorra speaks eloquently of it. Alice was another great loss by then and Constance Fenimore Woolson. No wonder I liked this chapter and it leads a powerful chapter centering on the last image Isabel has at the end of her mediation: Madame Merle and Osmond talking together. Gorra takes us through to Isabel’s realization that when Madame Merle said to her “let us have him” (italics added) Madame Merle has given away 1) that she and Osmond think that Isabel wants Warburton for herself, not that she is appalled by the proposition that she should use his attraction to her to win him to marry Pansy as payoff for a liaison; and 2) they assume what bothers Isabel is not the amorality of all this but that she wants Warburton for herself, and finally 3) Madame Merle is Pansy’s mother.

When Osmond’s sister comes to tell Isabel of this truth however indirectly it’s after the realization and this is followed hard on by the most quiet and devastating of needlings I’ve ever read. Madame Merle comes in to tell Isabel as Isabel is contemplating visiting Ralph as he lies dying (after Osmond has forbidden it) that it was Ralph who gave her the enormous sum of money that made her “a brilliant match,” spoken in bland feigned innocence she is nonethleless triumphing over telling Isabel that Isabel owes this hellish marriage to Ralph. And pointing our to her yes “she was perfectly free” so she did it to herself.

One problem for the modern reader who wants to read hard truths about life is these earlier novels (and many since) end ambiguously in ways that allow us to think the characters will be all right, make do by following conventional norms and thus uphold the very structures that the whole novel has been designed to expose.

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Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer Osmond (Portrait, scripted Laura Jones, directed Jane Campion)

It is a startlingly even terrifying moment when Madame Merle so quietly and blandly lets Isabel know it was after Isabel who chose to marry Osmond and she was given all the clues she needed to what he was if she had only looked.

Austen has scenes of withering corrosion where the speaker does not realize what he is saying and the listener is mortified and hurt, but nothing quite so horrible in feel or mean and malicious in intent. Madame Merle’s purpose is to make Isabel angry at Ralph and prevent her going — as Lucy Ferrars in telling Elinor of the long engagement was to make Elinor give up on Edward, be very angry with him. The increase in subtlety and what has been done is a hundredfold.

For the book’s last chapters, see the comments.

Ellen

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Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov: husband & wife, he died suddenly, age 28, of a heart attack during a practice workshop

Dear friends and readers,

I find irony in my reading, finding some shared thought, and now passing part of the night by writing about Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking, which like, the apparently naive My Sergei: A Love Story tells of the sudden death of the author’s beloved husband. Some of the intense distress, exasperation and justified anger I have experienced the last two weeks derives from my husband’s death not having happened with the same single night or moment suddenness as Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, and Gordeeva’s husband, Sergei. We’ve experienced 3 and 1/2 months of partial truths told us sufficiently to lead our natural desire to clutch at anything to escape malignant esophageal cancer, no matter how horrendous — like an operation to remove someone’s esophagus and re-arrange his digestive tract and other nearby organs which in itself has nothing whatever to do with what causes, spreads, contains, stops the cancer. And equally 3 and 1/2 months of many medical people’s carefully calibrated behavior controlled fundamentally by each person’s desire to protect & advantage his or her career/job while pretending some other motive paramount. From my vantage point today I almost (not quite) feel as I never thought I would before: as the blow was (as one begins to see as one reads) foreseeable, to fall, the four people (husbands & wives) were lucky to have it fall this way.

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Didion, Dunne & their adopted daughter, Quintana (ca. 1970s)

Didion’s considered thesis throughout, and Gordeeva’s natural perspective (just at the outset of her book) is “life changes fast, Life changed in the instant.” This is the refrain of Didion’s book sudden instant transformation of everything upon the death of a beloved partner. As she well knows however (this is in the book) her thesis is thin. She tells of how for a year previously her husband had insights and hinted to her he felt he was at risk of death at any time — and that at least a year before he’d had a bad heart attack and was now living by using an implanted pace-maker. So (like say Causabon in Middlemarch or “young” Jolyon in To Let of the Forstye Saga) she did know he was in danger – or ought to have taken seriously a doctor’s outright warning.

Didion’s book is initially, and every time she recurs to the shock of the scene of Dunne’s sudden keeling over during dinner, powerful. Her book is recursive. She has two further traumatic sudden near deaths incidents to retell. Twice in the book her daughter comes near death: it escaped everyone that a viral infection of a few days before Xmas, because not x-rayed in the hospital the night Quintana came (as it ought to have been) was a serious flu which then (as Dunne said) morphed into an episode of pneumonia that came near killing Quintana too. Quintana later collapses on an airport tarmac as she is being triumphantly coming home; a paralyzing seizure nearly carries Quintana off. It’s one of those real shocks often talked of (“in comparison” to what we usually watch on TV), including the death before your own of your own child.

After the initial power of the husband’s death, there is this falling off as if Didion’s casting about for what to say next and repeats herself, and I feel there is too obvious a sense of this is another occasion for making a book. It picks up roaring as she moves back to her daughter’s two encounters.

Speed of transformation through illness is important, even if common. We do not go about expecting a hammer to come down on our heads. ON one level, my husband Jim seems to have been transformed from recovering slowly from a drastic operation and and then recurrence of cancer diagnosis (liver, “the worst” someone said) inside a week — to man seemingly near death, weak, frail, fatally ill; then I could say it’s been only 3 months since the initial diagnosis, but I know that before that last autumn he had stopped going to the gym gradually and I saw was somehow not himself, not physically well, suddenly looking older. We had no clue to run to the doctor to check with — though he did go for his legs and other things but the problem was not where he was feeling. Engineering term: the point of origin is often not the same as the place of manifestation; one’s bottom body is tired (manifestation) because a cancer is growing in one’s throat (origin, cause).

Her second theme is her magical thinking: once her husband dies, she plays games with her mind. After his death, she asks him for advice and pretends he’s there. She stays away from places which will evoke deep emotional reactions; or if she goes, she plays games in her mind to avoid thinking about that. She can tell us the next morning magical thinking relieved from having to be realistic. Myself I think the term is capable of wider application. Because a hospice person is in the house, you might feel your relative or beloved is safer. He or she isn’t, statistically. We think magically when we rely on rituals. My grandmother tied onions to my feet when I was 3 and came down with a high fever; she was drawing the evil spirits out of the foot. I had a hard time removing the apnea monitor off my younger daughter because I had begun to believe it was saving her. If we do X, Y will surely occur. Make a rain dance, and it will rain. Pray for X, and you may get it (prayers are magical thinking). Human beings attempting to control the natural world.

Yet we do this faced with imminent or present death. But she does not adequately explore kinds of magical thinking (nor the dangers of atavistic behavior they bring), though she shows her wisdom in she defending those people who in need use magical thinking.

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Joan, John, and Quintana at home

Other superficialities: She’s not deep about anything beyond these moments. Beyond no real truth-telling about troubles in her life, she presents hers as a life of utter privilege upper class American (she can commandeer a plane and helicopter to take her daughter across the US from California to NY), all the right schools are gone to by all three people (husband, wife, daughter). In the middle of the book she does not want to talk frankly about her family and its realities so she is without matter since she has no criticism to make of attitudes or the medical establishment either.

It reminds of Carolyn Heilbrun’s autobiographical essay in not being willing really to tell and like Heilbrun Didion presents her life as simply happy; Didion tells more but not enough so there’s nothing gripping. We hear of the dinners she goes to (with famous names dropped). She never questions the values that support her privileges; apparently she lived very conventionally inside a small circle of wealthy family and semi- and famous friends. Hints of darker interpretations here and there of their privileged lives, of antagonisms within her relationship with Dunne, especially from her husband’s remembered words, are left on the surface of the narrative. This problem did not arise in the earlier masterpieces (e.g., Salvador) since she was not personally involved.

Life-writing is demanding in ways many writers won’t submit to. They’re afraid – maybe rightly – of the public.

But then her strengths: her style is as marvelous as I remembered it (in Salvador). She never forgets the literal meaning of her words and so has quiet ironic fun with the language medical personnel use. At Xmas she is told Quintana “may not leave the table.” Of course she must leave the table; what she may not do is be taken off it alive. She makes quiet fun of the stilted euphemistic jargon language, the sticking to a high enough level of generality so nothing is acknowledged. Since contained in her words are a thoughtful critique of this language one can’t fault it, but looking at it tonight from my perspective I’d say she can do this since she did not suffer directly from it beyond the “mere” having useful information withheld, nothing explained. Neither she nor her husband were dependent on the medical community as except afterwards (and then he was dead).

It’s not many people who can write of their intimate thoughts while grieving. In the later parts of the books she talks of how she tried to compensate and cope; she speaks of her memories that were good and she helped me sitting there here in my workroom last night to try to relive happy memories. I mentioned some to my husband much later at night (3 am when we were in the front room) who was sitting across from me in his now usual half-stupor and bewildered, unconscious, hallucinating (from all the drugs he’s given for this and that) and he appeared to understand what I was saying. He smiled and corrected a song I said I liked from the 1970s which came to me at that moment as about us:

Only he attributed it to the The Who.

A Year of Magical Thinking is mostly a superb book, deeply felt in many ways, but what makes it is the feeling that what she tells of the traumatic incidents (three) in the book are literally authentic, true, how it happened and her usual bag tricks of style from her interest in literal and playful words (and names), in ironies, and ability to write windingly graceful involved kinds of sentences that are yet readable.

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I did not know until I finished and looked at some reviews that Didion’s Quintana whose near-death experiences (two of them, frantic emergencies coming “out of the blue”) provide some ballast for her book — she can include the girl’s childhood through memory flashbacks too – her daughter died in a third seemingly bizarre episode before The Year of Magical Thinking was published. She would not change her book, but instead wrote about the daughter’s calamitous fatal experience of pancreatitis in her next book. I can’t help wondering if there are not aspects of her daughter’s situation that led to 2 times getting to the hospital nearly too late (the 3rd, in the book) is more than the result of errors and infections/blood clots caused by hospital people not doing or doing their job, in this case too cautiously.

So Blue Nights is about her loss of the daughter, an adopted only child. I’ve bought a copy for $3.45 despite several vows to buy no more books now that I’m not going to have someone with me to shoulder the burden of so many or read and use them together in a universal of our own making. I’ll get to it after Ekaterina Gordeva’s My Sergei, co- or ghost-written by E.M. Swift.

EkaterinaDariablog
Ekaterina was left with a small daughter by Sergei: Daria

Ellen

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GrimshawHauntedHouse
John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-93) A lady in a garden by moonlight (1882)

ash-treeblog
From BBC film adaptation of M. R. James’s The Ash Tree, 1975

Dear friends and readers,

This Christmas I revived on all three of my list-servs reading and discussion of Christmas ghost stories — or, failing ghosts (the case of Anthony Trollope, too strong a sceptic for this kind of thing), just stories meant for Christmas (we read “Christmas at Thompson Hall”). It is a long custom-sanction’d habit to tell ghost stories at the Winter Solstice, and I’d read some with others a few years ago for a couple of years in a row, and made a gothic section on my website for some of our conversations (see. e.g., Mary Wilkins Freeman’s “Lost Ghost”). On two lists people read with me, and on a third a couple of people watched the YouTube presentations I had found.

So, on the evening of this (fulfilling as it happened) Christmas Day I thought I’d re-tell one, offer a brief synopsis and YouTube of another, some links to powerful ones and an explanation from whence this urge to tell ghost stories Winter Solstice derives.

I found myself reading a-new, finding new qualities in Margaret Oliphant’s “Old Lady Mary.” Oliphant’s most powerful fiction is a ghost novella, The Beleaguered City, where, as in “Old Lady Mary,” part of the power of the story comes from the desire of the dead beloved and loving person to reach one another, in response to a shared loss and loneliness.

A Beleaguered City
19th century illustration of Beleaguered City

The story as I first understood it (here’s the online text):

In brief: a very old lady, ‘Old Lady Mary’, who is very rich and alone, takes the daughter of a distant cousin, nearly a child, without anyone else to turn to, into her house. She is all that can be loving and tender and good to the child as she brings her up. She is told that she must make a will out which will leave her money to young Mary, but cannot get herself to do it. She cannot face the reality she will die, has always herself been because of her wealth sheltered. Lady Mary resents advice, and avoids the lawyers by playfulness. She does however write a codicil, leaving everything to the girl, but she hides it away.

She dies, and the young girl is left desolate.

This begins the story which then takes us through the young girl’s fear, loss, humiliations at the hands of the family who takes over Lady Mary, her guardian’s house — they don’t mean to hurt her, but they put her in her place. She is now their servant. At the very end of the story we are told it was finally found, but that is in a coda and is not important.

The story is told from the point of view of Old Lady Mary after she has died — when she is a ghost, trying to make contact and reparation, retrieval is too late. Her presence is felt but the living act towards her frivolously, foolishly. Ghosts make them uncomfortable. The story is aimed at Dickens’s Christmas Carol, by then an iconic story where all can be undone, retrieved, redeemed. Not so, says Oliphant. Less seriously, she has some fun gently mocking the way ghosts are treated in stories.

The curious effect is to make us believe in Lady Mary as a ghost; to take her seriously. This is no silly story for people who want titillation or reassurance.

These are certainly besides the point to Lady Mary who is desperate to make contact with the young Mary. But, she supposes that she wants more than emotional catharsis, forgiveness, and release. She wants to help her. (Think Tiny Tim.) She wants more than to compensate; she wants to retrieve, to make up for past mistakes, and finds she cannot make genuine contact. She
has convinced herself her attempts her unselfish because there’s the codicil to be found and then the young Mary will own the house where she is now a servant. But ghosts are laughed at or make people nervous. Their paraphernalia is absurd.

The climax of the story is in a obscure but precisely described vision of the young girl. From all her troubles and the disquiet and upset brought on by Lady Mary’s efforts, the young Mary grows ill, and, as in a dream, for a split second sees Lady Mary who feels she is seen. In that moment the girl holds out her hand and Lady Mary feels she has been forgiven. After all she discovers she needs no nothing more. That’s it. We get a sense the young Mary and the old Lady Mary were face to face. But we are not sure. It might just be in the ghost’s mind. Young Mary never fully explains what she feels because people would laugh, and she’s not sure what she saw though she did from the beginning forgive & never hated her ex-guardian. She was taught by the old lady not to expect much.

The last enigmatic line of the story: ‘Everything is included in pardon and love’.

Re-reading: I was more than ever persuaded Oliphant had Dickens’s one benign and perhaps other Christmas season texts in mind where all is made up for in a gush of end-of-story forgive and forgetfulness (modern term “Healing”). But I felt this time that Old Lady Mary however stumblingly and ambiguously did retrieve the situation and felt she reached the young girl she now realized she had loved so.

She does not get to reach out to young Mary directly, cannot have the satisfaction for sure which she is reaching out for soon after the tale opens. In life she could have made sure young Mary understood she was sorry for how she had behaved in life, what she had done in death, but still we are told the old woman managed to reach someone and point to where the will was and the will is found. The understanding and forgiveness are left ambiguous. We do not know for sure that the girl got the money she so desperately needed, but enough is put before us to assume so. How life-like.

I realized how much it’s a heroine’s text. Much of the story is spent in Lady Mary as a ghost’s mind and that is very unusual. I want to stress that. I dare say almost all ghost stories, we are not permitted to get close to the ghost. They are kept at a distance. Again, they are mostly scary, malevolent, Kafka-esque figures. The intensely benign aim of ghost Lady Mary’s efforts is as rare as Dickens, but with Dickens we do not enter the ghost’s consciousness. And show the ghost failing to reach.

Her story in this way shows belief in an afterlife and ghosts around us. The ambiguous wispy signals of seances you see are ghosts trying to reach us and unable to as God has made it too late. I think we may take it that this is how Oliphant understood the absurdity of what happens at seances. My outstanding favorite line from Downton Abbey is the Scots housekeeper’s retort to the lady’s maid’s conventional appeal,

“Don’t you believe in spirits?”
“I do not believe they play boardgames.”

By contrast, Oliphant has it, it’s that God will not let the dead reach us. She was a firm believer in the afterlife. I should stress that. These are not the kinds of ghost stories where the story is strictly speaking a metaphor. In Oliphant’s case her husband, both sons, nephew and a niece all pre-deceased her. To believe they carried on elsewhere was apparently one way she could endure her raw grief and continual sense of desperate loss.

I found it a much more moving story than I did the first time round.

ladymary

Michelle Dockery could play the part of young Mary very well. Now known for her part as Lady Mary Grantham in Downton Abbey, she was much better as the unnamed governess in Sandy Welch’s 2009 Turn of the Screw)

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stalls-of-barchesterMRJamesblog
BBC film adaptation of “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedrale” by M.R. James

It should be said most ghost stories are instances of female gothic, many have been written by women, and they are often ways of presenting the real vampirage over women by men and societies in general. This was a speciality of Edith Wharton whose “Kerfol” I reread last week. The writer need not be a woman, and the vulnerable figure can be a man (as they just about all are in M.R. James’s stories (“The Stalls”). But the one I read from 3 I chose by M.R. James all set in the 18th century was such a story, and gentle reader here it is online and as a YouTube

The film features a very young Edward Petherbridge, and with his and other actors’ help, the BBC group has brought out the terror and power and high violence of an MRJames story usually there, but in muted subjective form. The film version brings out the terror and horror. It’s the story of an 18th century squire-aristocrat who has returned to his estate and country house is haunted by the ghosts of women beaten, tortured and then hung as witches and that this is who the ghosts are that destroy him by their hideous tales only emerges slowly.

What I like particularly about the whole of this early series from the BBC is instead of the usual prettied up 18thcentury (say of faithful Austen films) we see the raw realities of rural life. It’s not a story for the weak stomached if you can get it up to full screen.

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coverfromwomensghoststoriesblog
From the cover of an anthology of ghost stories by women written at the turn of the 19th into 20th century: Restless Spirits

Gentle reader, it’s not hard to find potted explanations of the origin of ghost stories as matter for Christmas. But it’s often-half-hearted. How did this habit emerge?

I’ve a different explanation than most I’ve seen. This festival comes at the end of each year. Says John Donne: “‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s …” It’s natural to look back, to remember, indeed that’s one of the functions of this ritual time. And in many years of our lives, we lose people. Before the 20th century death was ubiquitous for young and old. This year my mother died. I was first drawn to ghost stories after my fathere died, irretrievably gone, and I could not make up wrongs that had happened. Psychologically I would feel his presence in my mind lurking.

This year I found myself remembering more cheerfully a good friend I met here on the Internet, who joined in various reads, who discussed, and who I was lucky enough on one fine night to spend an evening in Brooklyn with at a party with two of her close friends, Linda Ribas. She died in summer, too young to have left us. She read some of these stories with us on WWTTA, Henry James on Trollope19thCStudies, an 18th century novel by a woman on EighteenthCenturyWorlds. She especially loved pictures, John Atkinson Grimshaw a favorite, and landscapes, and I’ve included one by Grimshaw, and another favorite of hers by Nell Blaine. We miss her on WWTTA

BlaineTreesfromStudioblog
Nell Blaine (1926-96), Winter Trees from Studio

So ghost stories come from this kind of remembering, not that in my case at any rate I think we are going to reach anyone after death. Death is annihilation. But we can remember them. And then the ghost is picked up and becomes a vehicle for entertainment, instruction, artful absorption, a suspension of disbelief.

I often assigned ghost stories when I taught the gothic and found students were fascinated by this sub-genre (mode) of a subgenre (short fiction for magazines) — for ghost stories are very artful configurations.

Ellen

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Darkness

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went–and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light …
The meagre by the meagre were devoured,
Even dogs assail’d their masters, all save one,
And he was faithful to a corse, and kept
The birds and beasts and famish’d men at bay,
Till hunger clung them, or the dropping dead
Lured their lank jaws; himself sought out no food,
But with a piteous and perpetual moan,
And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand
Which answered not with a caress–he died.
— Byron, inspiration for Shelley’s The Last Man


The Gothic Wanderer by Tyler Tichelaar


Caspar David Friedrich (1174-1840), A Monk by the Sea: a sublime picture Stephen C. Behrendt uses when teaching the gothic (from Gothic Fiction: The British and American Traditions: Approaches to Teaching, edd. Diane Long Hoeveler & Tamar Heller

Dear friends and readers,

As someone who has been reading gothic books ever since I began to read books meant for adults, and has taught gothic books many times, constructed a course I gave several times in different versions, Exploring the Gothic, and dedicated part of my website to the gothic, I found myself a little startled to discover that of some 19 or so novels Tyler Tichelaar analyses with care, I’d read through only 5 of them (!), and never finished another 2 — until I turned to the MLA-sponsored Gothic Fiction: The British and American Traditions, edd. Diane Long Hoeveler & Tamar Heller, to find my ratio there was just as bad, maybe worse. The gothic as a mode is a vast terrain capable of swallowing up a variety of forms (novel, poetry, film, story, opera, video game) and conveying a themes diverse enough to be popular across several centuries. Sometimes the same book at the same time can be accurately interpreted as reactionary-conservative or radical progressive (see Richard Davenport-Hines’s The Gothic: 400 Years … ). Nevertheless, as those of us who love the mode know there are a number of images, plot-, and character types, moods, emphases that repeat like a formula. That’s why it’s easy to make fun of. Take one huge labyrinthine ancient (preferably partly ruined) dwelling, one cavern, a seashore, 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, and stir in a great deal of supernatural phenomena, have the action occur in the deep past or be connected to a deep past …

It seems most teachers begin a course in the gothic the way I did: by attempting to immerse students somehow or other: I used a short gothic novel, Susan Hill’s Woman in Black and the 1989 film adaptation, a genuinely unnerving experience whose central figure students told me they feared seeing afterward, or (for brevity as well as power), Edith Wharton’s short story, Afterward, with the BBC 1 hour film adaptation. Then I’d have the students say what they thought was characteristically gothic in either.

Tyler Tichelaar would though probably not begin with these two, nor Scott Simpkins (one of the contributors to Gothic Fiction) who seems to concentrate his course on what’s called the male gothic, and who says there are nowadays few full-scale books devoted to the male gothic, probably because the revival and recent respectability of the form is a direct result of feminism. As Eva Figes shows in her Sex and Subterfuge, the female gothic allows women writers and readers to express, experience, awake up to see, express and protest in a displaced fantasy form the real oppression and destructive nature of the upbringing and circumstances women are subjected to. At its center is usually a woman who is unjustly victimized, often imprisoned, beaten in some way. The male gothic takes the male trajectory of inflicted stress, loss, pressure, punishment, usually a male at the center, and often someone exiled — wandering far from home, unable to find or make a home, to belong anywhere. I am here simplifying of course, a book can contain both modes, women can write male gothics; men, female gothics.

This is not the only fault-line. How is it related to the picturesque on the one hand and the sublime on the other? Are horror distinguishable from terror gothics? There are sub-genres to the form: the ghost story does tend to dwell on guilt, on some irretrievable injustice having been done and is not physically violent but offers psychological terror, where the vampire story is a brutal physical exercise in breaking bodily taboos, its origins include fear of the dead hating the living, simply because (in atavistic kinds of thought) they are still living. The modern short story with its subtle sudden intrusion of the uncanny (un-home-y) stemming from M. R. James tends to present the supernatural as psychological projection. So too ways of reading differ. Tichelaar tends to analyze his stories from a Christian perspective, looking to see how the gothic enables readers to cope with the breakdown of family-centered or supportive laws and customs, and older traditional forms of state organization; Eva Sedgwick is persuaded that the gothic arises from paranoia about homosexuality (really any transgressive sexuality outside a narrow set of conventions) and discusses what gothics can make us see sexually which realistic conventions would preclude (Between Men; also her notorious “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl” reprinted in Tendencies).

I take this direction because it is the great merit of Tichelaar’s book to dwell on the male gothic and use the figure of the wanderer as a way of exploring a series of related books, some written by, as for example, Fanny Burney where he analyses the distinctively feminist perspective of her work (a long chapter on her The Wanderer) and Mary Shelley where he analyses the woman’s deployment of Rosicrucian elements, the Christian myth of Paradise Lost, a profoundly pessimistic rejection of much of the romantic in an apocalyptic mythos (another long chapter, this one on Frankenstein and then The Last Man).


Robert de Niro as Frankenstein’s outcast, lonely monster, wandering in a world of snow and ice (1993 Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein)

As Tichelaar says, we never learn for sure that the monster has found peace in death. Tichelaar’s point of view on The Wanderer as a gothic book about a figure seeking a community has recently been discussed in The Burney Journal too: Andrew Dicus, “Evelina, The Wanderer, and Gothic Spatiality: Francis Burney and a Problem of Imagined Community,” Burney Journal 11 (2011):23-38.

Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho as well as Matthew Lewis’s The Monk are also key texts. Tichelaar empathizes with Antonio. He understands and justifies Radcliffe’s heroines turn to reason and community at the close of harrowing losses, where especially married women and daughters are abused.


Alfonso Simonetti, Ancor Non Torna, an illustration for 19th century Italian translation of Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest

Tichelaar takes the gothic into the Edwardian era and then the 20th century with discussions of Stoker’s Dracula (another long chapter), Tarzan and the modern heroic vampire. (Although not discussed as an example by Tichelaar I’ve done Suzy McKee Charnas’s 1980s Vampire Tapestry, much indebted to geological ideas, with great success with students.)

This could be an effective book for teachers to send students to read. Tichelaar writes in a readable style; he really does tell the stories of his books effectively. I can vouch for this as in a number of cases I was not at all at a loss not having read the book. Their situations and character types are summed up clearly. He begins with Milton’s Paradise Lost which is a centrally alluded-to text — until recent times and its presentation of legitimate transgression (as the romantics saw it). I liked the plainness and personal sincerity of the approach. Tichelaar begins with his love of the gothic as a boy, how he found himself when he first became an academic forced to travel far from home (upper Michigan), displaced, identified with the gothic wanderer, and feels this is a figure who can speak home to people today similarly transplanted, or peoples today who fight to control their homeland. He traces anti-semitism and sympathy for the outcast Jew in the figure of the wanderer. He’s very concrete when he makes analogies. It is true that gambling is a central sin in Udolpho. Godwin’s St Leon does seem to be about Godwin’s own troubles as a radical philosopher trying to persuade people that reason (and a scientific outlook ultimately) drawn from experience is a far better guide to life than religious beliefs (or myths). Tichelaar is unusual for arguing that for Godwin “life’s true meaning exists in the value of human relationships, so he condemns whatever may sunder them” (p. 67). Many critics suggest Godwin’s detachment from his personal context when he argued his theses that he offended his readers intensely.

I probably learned most (new) material from Tichelaar’s chapter leading from Thomas Carlyle’s at first despairing Sartor Resartus (he ponders suicide) as a text about a gothic to Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni leading to Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens borrowed his tale of Sidney Carlton substituting himself for another man from Zanoni, was influenced by Carlyle’s French Revolution, and B-L’s use of Rosicrucian ideas about immortality and Christian Redemption. For my part I’m not sure that Dickens himself believed in these providential patterns, but he was willing to use them to (as Tichelaar says) “create a novel that is life-affirming and provides redemption for its Gothic wandering characters” (p. 193). Tichelaar emphasizes the number of wanderers in this novel, the theme of “recalled to life” (as an imperative), and how Carlton acts for the Darnay family (“I hold a sanctuary in their hearts,” p. 206) group and is a Christ-figure. The revolution is a background for a plot of sacrifice (p. 196). Maybe. I remember I was intensely moved by Dickens’s portrait of the depressive Sidney Carlton, and his poignant semi-suicide (I just cried and cried), the famous line (no matter how parodied I care not): “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,” and Ronald Colman’s enactment:


Ronald Colman (when I was 13 my very favorite actor) — a noble-in-failure gothic wanderer

Jim’s complaint has been (while watching the movie, he read the book decades ago) that Dickens’s text lends itself to anti-French revolution propaganda of a simplistic sort. It’s easy to fear and detest the Madame Defarges of the 1935 film. I’m not sure; I’m hoping later this year (or next) to read the book with a fun and generous group of people on Inimitable-Boz (at Yahoo) and watch a number of the films adapted from it before pronouncing even tentatively.

The MLA Gothic Fiction is so rich with titles of books, ways of defining and introducing different forms of gothic, and then essays on specific gothic texts, I must perforce select out those chapters which either impressed me particularly or troubled me and draw examples from those where the kinds of gothic and those specific texts I’ve gravitated towards, preferred to read or have taught are those analysed.


Friedrich, Woman at the Window (1822)

The opening section of the book is particularly rich and useful. Six essays by respected scholars on how they start their gothic courses, how go about defining the gothic, exemplifying it: Marshall Brown uses philosophical texts:

Solitude moves us in every one of its peaceful pictures. In sweet melancholy the soul collects itself to all feelings that lead aside from world and men at the distant rustic tone of a monastery bell, at the quiet of nature in a beautiful night, on every high mountain, near each crumbling monument of old times, in every terrifying forest. But he who knows not what it is to have a friend, a society in himself, who is never at home with his thought, never with himself, to him solitude and death is one and the same.

Stephen Behrendt offers pictures, Anne Williams distinguishes female from male gothic, Carol Snef gothic’s distrust and use of science. In the last part of the book we again get general approaches, which films (Wheeler Winston Dixon), how to cope with demands one make the course interdisciplinary or include public service, reach out to relatively unprepared students. There are just a cornucopia of cited secondary studies; I looked and did see all my favorite texts were there (including the profound Elegant Nightmares, about ghost stories as popular version of Kafkaesque visions, by Jack Sullivan), though I missed the French studies that are so important (Maurice Levy). The book is limited to Anglo versions of the gothic — though these are influenced by European texts and pictures.


Henri Fuseli (1741-1825), Perceval delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma (1783) — said to be wholly invented by Fuseli. What is happening here: Is the man trying to kill himself, thrust that sword down the women’s body or is he trying to break the chain of the kneeling man?

Then there are 19 essays on specific texts set out chronologically (starting with Walpole’s Castle of Otranto and ending on African-American gothics, e.g., Naylor’s Linden Hills, and really pop books (equivalent to Tichelaar’s Tarzan) like Anne Rice’s. Notable: Angela Wright on the intermingling of solid historicity with narratives of female sexual exploitation in Sophia Lee’s The Recess, Diane Long Hoeveler in effect summarizes her book Gothic Feminism for you (using among others Wollstonecraft, Dacre). Like Tichelaar, Daniel Scoggin takes you on a journey through the gothic by follwing a single figure: the vampire. I found myself learning new characteristics of sub-genres in Mark M. Hennely’s description of the Irish gothic (big-house displacement), liked the clarity of Susan Allen Ford on contemporary female gothic (Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood).

I’ll concentrate just on Judith Wilt “‘And still he insists He Sees the Ghosts': Defining the Gothic” and Kathy Justice Gentile’s “Supernatural Transmissions Turn-of-the-Century Ghosts in American Women’s Fiction: Jewett, Freeman, Wharton and Gilman.” I was troubled by Wilt (and a couple of other contributors) who said she encourages her students to suspend their disbelief and really believe in this world of spirits or “spirituality,” and cannot quite believe her assertion that their students are sceptical. I taught gothic courses for a number of years and I found students all too frequently did believe in ghosts or could be led into saying they did. They’d imply “we don’t know, do we?” sometimes at the end of a talk. Gentile shows how to read Sarah Orne Jewet’s Country of the Pointed Firs as gothic, and then Mary Wilkins Freeman’s collected ghost stories (collected as The Wind in the Rose) re-enacting the tragedies of mothers losing their children and their loneliness and rage, culminating in Wharton’s ghost stories one which I’ve read again and again with my students and with people online in cyberspace. Wharton’s subjects marriage to a relentlessly alert scrutiny; as theme across them all is a concealed repressed vulnerable self who becomes enthralled by the past and the dead evaluation of Edith Wharton’s.


“The Lost Ghost” (from Forrest Reid, Illustrators of the Eighteen Sixties, 1928, p. 89)

As a measure of this MLA’s book’s advice, the bibliographic essayist recommends Chris Baldick’s introduction to his Gothic Tales volume as one short place which really puts the history of the genre and it central dispositions together. I read it and agree. I like how Baldick denies that the gothic is universal in reach: each of its fears work only within “the peculiar framework of its conventions” and it does belong to a peculiar set of people in a specific set of centuries where life has been lived in a fraught way (pp. xx-xxi). Margaret Anne Doody’s essay, ‘Deserts, Ruins and Troubled Waters: Female Dreams in Fiction (in Genre, 1977) is one of the best essays (and so enjoyable) ever written on the female gothic. I bought myself Mary Wilkins Freeman’s collected ghost stories (I had read only one thus far), read in a couple of the anthologies of tales and ghost stories I have in the house, and vowed I’d read my collection of essays on intertextuality in Wharton bye Adeline Tintner next.

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“The Library Window” (illustration for ghost story by Margaret Oliphant)

I have myself been troubled that when I teach the gothic that I am encouraging atavistic dangerous beliefs. I’d be careful at the outset to say I didn’t believe there was a supernatural world filled with ghosts, witches, vampires or anything else. I emphasizes we were entering a fantasy realm which made heavy use of realism to draw us in. I know the gothic takes us into the realm of the numinous (to my mind the origin of the term where cathedrals are concerned) well beyond the limited doctrinal codes of establishment religions. But once we raise these terrors and the awareness death is not far from us at any time do we have the courage to confront honestly the perception of human experience raised. Elizabeth Napier famously honestly argued gothic novels fail, are silly, masochistic, disjunctive in form. Neither of these books answers responds to such objections.

I felt a residual reluctance because the material can be called sick. To myself I would say that much in human live and society is sick or very bad, and this mode enables us to explore serious issues in life, loss, grief, sexuality, madness, death, but yet I know the instigation of fear and playing around with character who are made neurotic has a downside. When students morally condemn this or that, it’s no help as most students are regarding what they are reading as “other” than them. To suggest that the stories are ethical because they bring out spirituality (religious feelings) in characters is to suggest that those who do not believe in religion are unethical. By implication this is discussed continually when the critic analyses the story to bring out its ethical content or how it criticizes society, and yet I know many students do not listen well, do not understand what they are told, and simply dismiss what a professor might say if it goes against their deep-seated lessons from their family backgrounds.

I admit I chose the gothic because it was safer. When I taught directly realistic books I would often end up being directly political or more clearly so than I meant to be. Students often did not agree with my politics, were disturbed and even angered by books like say All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Marque or John LeCarre’s The Constant Gardener. So when I did Walter von Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident after say doing Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, the depiction of the violence of US culture was somehow deflected by the use of fantasy to depict victimization.

Still I carried on teaching gothic books as part or the whole of a course because students responded intensely to some of the material. The very formulaic quality of some of it (ghost story structure) made asking them to do a talk something they could do. Perhaps Leslie Fielder was right and US culture really has gothic currents embedded in it. I like how Tyler Tichelaar reads the gothic out of his personal experience. His idea seems to me valid: we are turned into rootless souls in emotionally destructive environments when we are torn from our birthplaces and original families because that is what one must do to get a paying job (survive) in the US. I identify with the female victim heroine or the hero who is a man of sensitivity attacked for this, and this is out of my experience of growing up female in the US. Like Ann Radcliffe’s heroines I turn to reveries in beautifully ordered (picturesque) landscapes to find peace.


Friedrich, Evening

I recommend both books for readers and teachers of the gothic.

Ellen

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“Hill House” — a genuine house just outside London, chosen as embodying just what Jackson imagined, and then photographed as where all the outdoor scenes around it using infrared light (1963 The Haunting)


John Atkinson Grimsaw (1836-93), The Haunted House (1882)

Dear Readers, Students, Friends,

Tonight one of the great American gothic novels and psychological terror films of the 20th century: Shirley Jackson’s highly original 1959 Haunting of Hill House, and Robert Wise’s even more unusual rendition of the literary genre not as a horror film (what was mistakenly tried in 1999), but as a psychological film contextualized by

1) the domestic realism of Eleanor Lance’s character and circumstances;

2) the Citizen Kane representation of the Hugh Crain family (as back-story);

3) the quiet lesbianism of Theo (Claire Bloom);

4) and the undercutting sceptical mockery of Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn) whose contingent of characters brings into the film the ordinary American upper class who’d love to make money on the house.

The blog will also delve the gothic as such and its history. See my review (evaluation and summary) of Richard Davenport-Hines’s The Gothic: 400 (!) Years of Excess, Evil, Horror and Ruin Both Jackson and Wise’s works are in the Radcliffian mode, sometimes called the female gothic.

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Preliminaries:


Eleanor (Julie Harris) turned down by her relatives when she asks for the car (half hers) for a vacation


Eleanor resolute, with all her worldly goods (come to take the car anyway)

When I first read the book I was struck by how it begins in a very secular modern feel atmosphere. Dr Montague (the name of the doctor in Jackson’s book) wants to investigate the supposed presence of ghosts and terrors at Hill House scientifically and he goes about to find people willing to participate in the experiment of living there together for the summer. He gets up a list of names of people from psychic societies, sensational newspaper stories — people who have sighted or been willing to believe they saw or are interested in “paranormal” (the “in” word today) experiences. He doesn’t want any crackpot and there’s a distrust of unknown uncredentialled people which remind me of the distrust of experience on the Net.

He turned up two single women, Eleanor Lance (it’s an “L” in the book), one who cared for her mother all the mother’s life until she died and now lives with a selfish sister and her husband; and Theo, the other who had fought intensely with her woman lover. He also finds the present owner insists he take in a relative. So there are four of them. Then two surly servants (as I said). Now his wife and her chauffeur, Arthur have been invited.

What emerges is something I’ve seen in astute writers of the gothic before. Hell is other people; the group has begun to gang up on Eleanor because she’s susceptible to bullying. It’s a it’s a gothic that analyses the psychic source of terrorizing and why it happens. But beyond that we are beginning to experience terrifying unexplained phenomena. Theodora’s dresses are torn to bits and covered with blood so now she sleeps with Eleanor. One night Eleanor listens to moaning and groaning of a baby elsewhere. Scary things happen in the landscape; all done very slowly you see. Eleanor is suddenly being called Nell and writing appears on the walls which demands she come home.

And we begin to get threats: Mrs Montague talks of being buried alive. She brings a planchette and we have a seance like experience where again Eleanor is picked on, picked out as the one words are hurled at. Slowly I’ve noticed the others are irritated and turn away from her need of them. In the book Dr Montague doesn’t want her around lest she ruins his experiment. (The movie is softer and makes Dr Montague and Theo genuinely concerned for her, and Luke put off by her suicidal impulses on the twirling metal staircase.)

to a sudden powerful close. I was stunned by the ending and yet it was coming at me all the time. The very last words might be said to put a close to a future of endless pain: “and whatever walked there [in Hill House] walked alone.” But …

Warning I’m telling the ending:

There is a constant repeat of lines from Shakespeare’s Twelth Night, the song of the fool: “present mirth hath present laughter” and especially the line; “journey’s end in lovers’ meeting.” This line runs through what I now realize is our heroine’s head: Eleanor. The question is whether when she killed herself by smashing herself and car against the tree, she does know peace or is returned to hill house to walk with whatever walked there.” Journey’s end in lovers’s meeting; the hideous writing on the wall and cruel comments written down are invites to Eleanor (Nell) from whoever or whatever riddles and warps the house — which under assault becomes a wild tempest (making me think of the emotions at the close of Ethan Frome by Wharton, a book I hope never to read again, especially its ending).

Eleanor’s story suddenly is seen so clear as one of a miserable wretched woman: sleeps in sister’s baby’s room and only shares that car, has no right to it, for no husband, no salary. When she loses it after Mrs Montague’s (meant to be obtuse funny — think Mrs Jennings from S&S) antics over a planchette, and nearly kills herself and others by trying to jump off a crumbling bit of gothic convention masonry, they want her out. They kick her out. She’d have to go back to that sister. Theodora has already refused to take her in at summer’s end.

So what were her options? Backstory of clan has two sisters in deadly frightening rivalry.

But what really is chilling is the sudden experience. No one does gothic like Jackson. The cold, the sounds, the wild weird evocation of what can’t be and can’t be explicitly but only allusively described.

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The Gothic:


Eleanor and Theo (Claire Bloom) talking of their lives


Luke (Russ Tamblyn) thinking about the cold spot

First we need to understand the gothic. It’s been a major US popular subgenre since the 1790s — around the time of the French revolution, which can be regarded as a watershed in western culture (another is World War One).

The gothic is easily identified by some repeating central characteristics: the haunted place, usually a labyrithine house with a past where much misery had occurred. Haunted: it is a genre which uses all the realistic conventions so as to make you believe in and enter the fictional world, and then there is this disruption, this intrusion from the world of the supernatural, at first mild, but then insistent and finally overwhelming.

It evokes in us atavistic beliefs we thought we had almost discarded; the fear of something under the bed, the dark, sudden ounds. We can say almost because many people believe in God or gods, and in supernatural realms, but our beliefs usually don’t unnerve us because they come in the form of controlled doctrines from churches. The church works hard to exclude this kind of belief and include that. The gothic undermines this.

Most deeply it’s a pessimistic questioning of what’s beyond the natural; it’s serious even if popularly treated frivolously. Robert Johnson (the actor who plays Dr Markway — Montague in the novel — the anthropologist-physician) and the director Wise in their voice over commentary in the DVD feature brought up the issue of belief centrally. From one of Johnson’s commentaries: the film prompts or comes out of questions about “what happened to the dead, to one’s relations who died … does it all just end like that; it’s all those things connected to religion as well ..I wonder about these things just like everybody else … where am I going … why am I here … ”


Dr Montague (Richard Johnson) introducing himself to Nell and Theo

The gothic is also metaphysical and asks question about the nature of the universe, about God, about justice and life’s value; Kafkaesque, paranoic and death’s effects are central to the gothic too:

Some sub-genres specialize in horror (violence, the vampire story which attacks people bodily; the werewolf story — Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is ultimately a werewolf story); others in terror (spiritual undermining, psychologically traumatized) and that is the ghost story. Haunting of Hill House is a ghost story.

So first we need to define ghost and carefully. A ghost is a the spirit or soul of a living person who died and comes back to haunt those living, usually in malevolent retribution for irretrievable hurt. Very very rare is the benign ghost and it’s no coincidence since people like reassurance and optimistic stories the most famous ghost story is precisely this rare type: Charles Dickens’s The Christmas Carol, where the ghosts come back to redeem Scrooge. Most of the time the ghost are not into redemption.

They form a kind of social protest: social protest books have victims in the center who expose the injustices and cruelties of a system or social/economic/sexual arrangement. I wouldn’t lean too heavily because sometimes the person victimized at the center is actually not to blame for anything at all and makes the mistake of coming to live in this house. Most of the time if you look you find the person has been treated unfairly, is sensitive, and in need of love and comfort and help — so the ghost uses them.

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Jackson’s novel as gothic


Eleanor climbing the twisted metal staircase


Montague and others (we too) watching her climb

Eleanor Vance/Lance is the quintessential gothic heroine (it can be a hero): The gothic is about the patriarchal family, at its center is an exploration of its interior life, and the film is brilliantly inward. The house itself is alive: its past includes a number of exploited victimized women. Hugh Crain is like Citizen Kane — back story told up front in movie, brought out slowly in book.

Obviously Eleanor has been taken bad advantage of and is still being taken bad advantage of. spent the last 11 years of life caring for her mother; she is broke, has no car, no place of her own to live, no way to get an independent life; the two women in the story have lesbian orientations so they are just the kind of women our society marginalizes, will not even recognize the existence of

When it’s a woman at the center, she is imprisoned, buried alive, chased down, when it’s a man he’s made an exiles, outcasts; both experience pursuit, being hunted down, labyrinths. So the gothic critiques our society.

The fantasy element is an enabler because it sets up a false screen of frivolity.

Sex is often central — some sexual experience has been very bad — this is seen clearly in Vampire ones. But since we are not doing a vampire one let’s just stick with what we’ve got.

Films have genres and most scary films are horror films: they connect to vampire stories and are physical attacks with computer enhanced imagery today; often sadistic. Wise’s film is not a horror film. The 1999 film is a horror one and the second hour becomes ridiculous. Wise’s film is a psychological study in terror where a woman is slowly driven to lose her mind — other such films as good are The Woman in Black from Susan Hill’s novel; I’ve shown a number of hour long ones from short stories from the BBC archives (Afterward is one)

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Shirley Jackson


A young Shirley Jackson

Her life in brief:

Shirley Jackson: in his book, Shirley Jackson’s American Gothic, Darrly Hattenhauer tells her life well and concisely. The problem with most lives and the biographies is they have been slanted by her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, a leading critic, publisher-editor, adept in the kind of critical readings that convince people.

The reality is her writing supported them in their life-style and she did write a lot of junk, meaning short crude gothic fictions, to keep the income flowing in. She did all the housework, had several children; he had affairs openly. She didn’t leave. This was the 1950s and very hard to get a divorce; if you may think the discourse against women today is bad, this was pre-feminism. She became very heavy and that’s a no-no in American society.

Mostly what has happened to her books is they are interpreted
apolitically; as if she has no social protest in them but is merely reflecting her own or other people’s neurotic condition (often women’s). Paradoxically that’s partly because her husband and she were once part of the Young Communist league in the 1940s so to distance them from any politics, it’s all erased. The one good book beyond Hattenhauer is Joan Wylie Hall, Shirley Jackson: A Study of the Short Fiction.

She is also forgotten and all but her “Lottery” (a startle) and Haunting of Hill House out of print. Like many women her work regarded 20 years later as biodegradable.

She was the daughter of a middle class Republican businessman who sent her to Bennington College where she met and married Hyman in 1937; he did publish her works. Driven as she was and treated the way she was, with the conventional life in the suburbs (this is before Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique exposed that), she became alcoholic; later
she used tranquillizers. She did find real comfort in her children. here’s often a sub-theme of protection of children in her books.

How does it reflect the 50s: the story of the woman is central; it’s proto-feminist before feminism became fashionable. Deep upsets in cultural rifts over religion. Like other popular sub-genres the features and characteristics of the kind often make its assertions feel more universal and about the genre.

She did what she could to avoid publicity. Like J. L. Carr (A Month in the Country) she was no networker.

Then on her work in general: What she is is a satirist within gothic, showing up human nature as the source or our unjust social arrangements. The society we live in is not some result of imposed conditions; people collude in it. What
we see at the close of The Haunting of Hill House is Eleanor is thrown out, really heartlessly. If the ghosts are after her, the others want nothing to do with her. She tries to suggest to Theo she could come and live with her, but Theo makes quick work of that. Go back to her sister?

I perfectly understand why Eleanor yields to the spirits of the house and crashes into a tree. We should regard her ending the way we do gods in Homer: the gods in Homer are projections of the inner lives of the characters and so when Venus prompts Aeneas to do something erotic, it’s because Virgil’s Aeneas wants to; but they are also there.

One of the most disturbing things I’ve discovered in the criticism of this book is the idea that it’s all in Eleanor’s mind. That is to blame her, see this neurotic woman and encourage others to despise her. The book is parallel then to The Turn of the Screw; Henry James insisted that the ghosts were malign and there but because he presented them subtlety, many readers insist he is wrong and she is this repressed angry spinster who hurts everyone around her. Can’t
take a joke you see.

It can’t be all in Eleanor’s mind. Crain’s young wife crashed into the tree. Crain’s family was blighted. Theo hears all that
Elinor does; by the end of the novel even Luke is persuaded, and in the movie he gets the last (invented line): “[this house] ought to be burned down and the ground sown with salt.”

The modern 1999 (Jan de Bont) film wants to blame the doctor: in 1999 Liam Nelson as the physician has this secret exploitative agenda to further his career; in the book, Dr Montague is a genuine researcher into psychic phenomena who is making no money on his investigations. He may be wrong to play with the spirits as many a person in gothic is, but he is not personally to blame except insofar as he doesn’t take responsibility for others he has brought here. We are our brother’s keepers. Jackson does not incline to Cain’s heresy (I refer to the Biblical Cain).

There is a semi-comic parallel plot in Jackson’s novel with the Dr wife’s Mrs Montague and her silly planchette board, but she is doing explicitly what lies behind the gothic: trying to get in touch with gods. Arthur is her absurd sidekick: there is a parody of the form, a self-reflexive feel to it.

Very refreshing is the lack of a love story. I am sorry to say the 1963 film does project an implicit thwarted love story between Eleanor and the doctor: Eleanor yearns for him. There is no sense of that in the book. If anyone, Eleanor years for the companionship of Theo is made into a closet lesbian – Wise was aware of this and tried to hint at all. Theo is briefly chased by Luke but she quickly debunks and pushes him away.

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Outline of novel, followed by how the 1963 film adaptation differs


Eleanor’s Thelma and Louise moment

The novel:

Chapter 1, p 3:

The opening paragraph with phrases that end the books: “whatever walked there, walked alone.” Introduces the characters, Dr Montague, Eleanor Vance, Theo, Luke.

Eleanor’s escape from her unkind exploitative relatives with her car (half hers) and we see the working class world of the US; its malls, family types; past the bullying gatekeeper, Mr Dudley

Chapter 2, p 34

Eleanor gets in, Mrs Dudley, her blue room, meeting Theo, the walk in the landscape — a difference from the film is in the film all takes place inside the house once Eleanor gets past her car ride; the idea was to be claustrophobic. In the novel the characters wander about the landscape — with hope; they hope to have a picnic even. Eleanor buoyed by her new relationship: she hopes Theo and she will be like sisters; Theo does at least say they shall be cousins.

Chapter 3, p 56

Luke, Dr Montague, the explanation. The first night’s dinner. They are to take notes (making fun — like Ashima (Namesake) shelves books as opposed to reading them). What are the good of notes if you don’t have any brains. Bits of the back story begin to emerge: p. 67: the first woman crashed against a tree even before she got to the house. Pp. 71-82: the rest of the history; the growing up of two daughters, their fierce rivalry over money (very common in US life), how the younger was married (Theo persists with invented story she cut out the older – a common happening) and envied the older for her dishes. Older loved the house, grew old, companion came to live with her: parallel with Eleanor and perhaps neglected her. The companion inherited the house and the Saundersons are the heirs and relatives of the unnamed companion. Often women are unnamed in gothics. Like Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca where we never learn the name of the narrator. We learn Theo is lesbian in orientation; Dr Montague reads Pamela; also likes Sterne, Fielding, Smollett

Chapter 4, p 93

First breakfast; investigating house; more talk introducing characters, interrelationships; first terrifying night: the knocking begins.

Chapter 5, p 136

Dr Montague’s first statement he will turn Eleanor out of the house. Histories of ghosts (o. 139ff); the writing on the wall; the cold spot in the hall (p. 150); Theo’s clothes covered in blood, she removes into Eleanor’s side of their shared space; evil spirit puts ugly thoughts in Eleanor’s mind (p. 159); where she slips backwards on the terrace and could have fallen. Eleanor talk to Dr Montague with great sincerity about how she hates to see herself slipping away; they smell in her a potential victim and they begin to circle her (p. 160). About a third of the way in central sequence; Luke finds handwriting: Help Eleanor Come Home; the night of terror where Eleanor thinks she is holding Theo’s hand and it turns out not so

Chapter 6, p 164

Eleanor learning “the pathways of the heart.” Book for daughter Sophia Craine by Demond Lester Crain found, p 168. Fearful illustrations. Theo curses Crain (p. 171) They wander in the landscape with Luke (pp. 173-80).

Chapter 7, p 179

Mrs Montague coming; again Eleanor is outside. The comic inadequacy of her insensitivity; Mrs Montague goes to live in hursery; the planchette with Arthur again produces a message about Eleanor and home. The four caught in the parlor, and terrible pounding, and cannot reach the nursery (pp. 196-205)

Chapter 8, p 206

The landscape, jokes about rabbits, Eleanor begs Theo to take her back with her, Theo harsh and unkind, Eleanor followed in landscape while Luke and Theo joining forces

Chapter 9, p 227

By this time Eleanor has lost her sanity in effect; the sequence in the hall, the statues, her climbing the stairway, but no one is sympathetic, and they seek to rid themselves of her and she smashes into tree.

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The 1963 film: it is not a horror film, but film noir: see comment: The Haunting as film noir


The last seconds of the film: all look at the wreck

All happens inside — significant change. Mrs Montague comes only in the equivalent of Chapter 9, her face at the top of the stairway used to terrify Eleanor down and again to drive her into driving the car into the tree.

The back story is simplified in the film: Hugh Grain now has only two wives, not three, and just one daughter, not two. Also, Wise gives us our history lesson immediately after the opening title sequence: An unidentified speaker (who we soon discover is Dr. John “Markway” [Richard Johnson]) provides voice-over narration to accompany what we can only assume is an objective/omniscient montage of Crain’s first wife dying in a carriage crash, of his daughter Abigail spending most of her life inside Hill House’s nursery (an extraordinary temporal ellipsis is achieved here via special effects as Abigail’s face transforms from child to adult to elderly woman without any apparent cuts), and of old Miss Crain’s female companion committing suicide in the tower. By way of contrast, Jackson’s Dr. Montague does not share his knowledge of Hill House’s dark past until much later.

Dr. Montague a slim, clean-shaven, and decidedly romantic figure in the film; Dr. Markway to take the object of Eleanor’s (Julie Harris) affection, with the result that their scenes together operate on multiple discursive levels: They converse not only as scientist-subject, teacher-pupil, and doctor-patient, but as potential lovers.

There are three additional differences: 1) Dr. Markway’s wife plays a much smaller role in Wise’s film than does Dr. Montague’s wife in the book, and the latter spouse’s hyper-masculine (though quite possibly asexual or lover-friend) Arthur does not appear in the film at all.

Theo’s relationship with Eleanor: in the book extremely ambivalent, is in the film here rendered in somewhat (though not entirely) more straightforward lesbian (if implicit) terms. On the one hand, Jackson’s Theo, although probably gay, expresses only a mild attraction toward Eleanor, and by the end of the novel seems to be hitting it off quite well with Luke. Wise’s Theo (Claire Bloom), in contrast, makes a number of fairly obvious passes at Eleanor and evinces a strong negative reaction toward Luke. Going in the other direction, Theo’s insensitivity, if not outright cruelty, toward Eleanor becomes manifest as The Haunting of Hill House proceeds (“I don’t understand. . . . Do you always go where you’re not wanted?” [2091]); in the 1963 film, Theo only becomes angry in response to Eleanor’s own expressions of jealousy and animosity.

Finally, Eleanor’s last moments alive are handled quite differently by Jackson and Wise. In The Haunting of Hill House, Eleanor’s death drive is, at least until the “unending, crashing second before the car hurled into the tree,” a) indisputably self-willed–perhaps even suicidal–act: “I am really doing it, she thought, turning the wheel. . . . I am really doing it, I am doing this all by myself, now, at last; this is me, I am really really really doing it by myself” (245). Gidding and Wise, almost certainly under pressure to rule out suicide as a possible motive for their protagonist’s demise, make it cle ar that Eleanor is not trying to kill herself, that the wheel of her car is being controlled by an outside force that she cannot resist, despite her strongest efforts.

Movie is less sympathetic to Eleanor’s dread of going home; makes more of the Crain presence in the house; the house becomes a chief character, a malign alive presence. In book Eleanor seems to alienate them all from her; they seem to feel she has in her the spirits of the house; in the movie they are protecting her from these spirits and thus themselves.

Ellen

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From recent movie attempt to improve the Robinson Crusoe perspective: Crusoe (Aiden Quinn) and the Warrior (Ade Sapara) in Caleb Deschanel’s Crusoe Arthurian tales often show the process of rising slowly through violence and obedience in an aristocratic society — that’s what the boys are shown.

Dear friends and readers,

Another blog which is partly intended for my students. I was asked to provide a more sophisticated understanding of texts for my students, which would (inevitably?) lead them not only to want to publish, but to go about such projects in ways that ensure publication (what is the topic of converse this year, the actual self-interested goals of participants).

I didn’t quite do that because I know that most students don’t have a discipline, much less know what is the state of place in that discipline. Instead I assigned a couple of books which analyzed the cultural values behind our children’s language; the lack of choice; and devised projects so we could hear one another’s hard-worked upon papers, projects, hopes and dreams.

The first book was Bobbie Ann Mason’s Girl Sleuth: In search of Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton and Cherry Ames. I’ve written a blog summarizing, critiquing Mason’s book and setting it in the context of a short history of children’s literature.

Now I turn to Bob Dixon’s invaluable revelations — in the context of no talk at all about such things, his readings are revelations. Mason and Dixon function as two witnesses, two genuine cultural analyses of the values we find endorsed in classic and popularly distributed childrens’ books in schools and bookstores, and stories in magazines.

As Dixon says often what librarians and teachers present as their books and the reasons for choosing these are just lists or they simply describe a book through its blurb in praise or a rousing good tale …. As to popular series book, Mason says many of these books do not even turn up in schools and are not given prizes: they are just rewritten and distributed.

It needs also to be said first that many “classics” that young adults think they read — say Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe or Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels are a silently rewritten, dumbed-down, abridged and often sanitized or re-normed version of the original book.

And second, that everyone agrees much more common is to assign books with males as heroes; women writers will use their first initials to try to hide that the author is a woman. The book sells better. J. K. Rowling conforms precisely to both habits. Young male at school; she is J. K.

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Bob Dixon (1931-2008), grapefruit juice in hand

Who was Bob Dixon? He is highly unusual in reaching us because he was anti-capitalism as presently practiced. I’d call him a progressive, a strong progressive. Born in country Durham in the UK, brought up by grandparents, ill from TB when young so did not go to public school, but got into university and became a writer, teacher, poet, peace activist. He did not try to take on the establishment when teaching the way J. L. Carr did.

Bob wrote much poetry but his best known books are Catching Them Young and Playing Them False in which he showed how the same elitist, sexist and racist attitudes and political ideas were being instilled through toys, games and puzzles, and he exposed the role of the commercial interests in priming the compliance of future consumers and the mass media.

His autobiography is called The Wrong Bob Dixon shows clearly how his childhood in a family broken by narrow attitudes towards his unmarried mother, his illness and the war had affected him, and how his life post war had been blighted by those same narrow attitudes and the political system that confines the ambition and natural talent and creativity of young people in the education system.

A tribute was paid to his memory in 2008 during a demonstration against war. He is not in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography nor the Literature Resource Center. The establishment erases him.

Those chapters I chose from Catching Them Young deal with issues of real concern today, sore ones: class; the imperialist-colonialist thinking and feeling which leads to devastating wars abroad; how religious allegory is used to squash an understanding of today’s world’s organizations and structures and bewilder any attempt to ameliorate the lot of most people on the earth.

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From John Boorman’s Excalibur, an Athurian epic-romance:
Arthurian tales often show the process of rising slowly through violence and obedience in an aristocratic society — that’s what the stories from the point of view of a boy show us centrally

Snakes and Ladders

Dixon opens with Plato because with Plato begins the idea you can type people and also have ideal types everyone should aspire to. Dixon then asks the question why everyone we go we see a form of social apartheid and the visibilia of rank. Until the 19th century not only in the US but the UK the way the classes were explained were it’s God’s doings. Only by charity should or can you act to change this and that means only the “deserving poor.”

This is followed by a section on language and how language is used to differentiate and stigmatize people. Stigmatizing goes on all the time in all sorts of ways.

What we have is a literature that mirrors what is expected of a middle class child and norms. This is true of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake. We see this reflection in Bobbsey Twins, for example, on TV it’s been shown that the way people dress, the jobs we see that are given respect are middle and upper middle. Dixon suggests that working class norms are different, less demanding probably because less is expected. IQs and in the UK 11 plus exams where used to send some children to college and the rest to vocational schools and stop education early.

Dixon goes over fables and stories of people winning money and what they do with it: the moral here is to be happy with your lot. Know your place. It’s where you belong. We might say in the US this is not so (pp. 47-51).

Another important line of thought offered; this is the mantra of US public arenas. It’s asserted that anyone can have anything you want, you need only will it. Will it read hard, not for doctors’ wives just again.

Therefore if you don’t have everything you want, it’s your fault. It’s not the schools, lack of opportunities, connections, not knowing the right manners that stop you.

At every turn in most stories there are implications about social class, status and politics. It’s unavoidable because it’s implicit in our lives. What he is pointing out is the particular single perspective that is repeatedly imposed on children.

Dixon teaches us how to read: he makes points rarely made, e.g. “the germ of virtually every work of literature is conflict. The key is to look at the way the reader or view’s sympathies are aligned. I’ll give an example from a decent recent police procedural: Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren. It is very unusual for someone to sympathize with illegal immigrants in hiding. The story concerns the murder of two young woman who clean hotels for a living. The murderer is a male Bosnian who has raped one of them and wants to cover this up; they also know about a massacre that occurred that was covered up and he killed the other lest she tell once her sister was dead.

It’s not childlike for they are not presented as saints — no Uncle Toms — but real people interacting with real motives, of fear, desire for revenge, for jobs in hideous circumstances of wars brought about by ethnic rivalries is the way this show presents it.

Authors chosen not evil; they are middle class and this is their world, Nesbitt’s animal fables (p 58). I asked about the short answers the test about The History of Sandford and Merton so maybe I had better skip these two pages. But I”ll read them anyway (pp. 60-61). But little Tommy reminds me of little Trixie: how terrible to be rich they say; it’s our duty to accept and be glad our condition is no worse they say.

Forgotten is the idea that society is a contract and all of us are in it together and need one another and use one another.

Another problem is one we find in Dickens: the poor or working class are seen entirely from outside. Why do condescending, demeaning, implausible fictions continue to be shown? Downton Abbey showed two servants utterly abject before the master lord of the house; he is just generosity itself as he is not going to fire the aging woman but pay for her cataract operation. Won’t up her salary nor conditions of employment (pp. 67-69)

It’s an intensely class conscious world: He exposes a whole array of such books and only in the 1930 did they begin to circulate widely. takes these books and shows how the same paradigms are working out in classics movies for children are still made from: Francis Hodgson Burnett’s Little Princess, Secret Garden

Chapter ends on Tarzan of the Apes: Tarzan an aristocrat in leopard skins, heredity all.

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Lagaan, a re-reading of British imperialism

Empire: Fiction follows Flag

This is an important chapter because it is so rare for people to go beyond showing racism in the US towards African-Americans and bring out the colonialist ideology that supports these terrible wars we partly fund by funding the gov’ts that pursue them.

A three page piece on Robinson Crusoe which I assigned. It’s a more peaceful book than some (p. 75) The ultimate arbiter and justification of all these is that Christianity is a better religion, the western way of life superior. At one time this was tooted unashamedly, now these ideas come in through the back door in the form of programs – in Iraq a number of laws passed to turn the essentially tribal structure of the society into a capitalist friendly one, and they passed laws against unions. They do not help women.

Killing an important part of this tradition (p. 77) as well as justification by Christianity, imperialist. Except later on as sex objects by and large women don’t turn up in these action-adventure tales and we will see very few in Ox-Bow Incidents which has some of the features of cowboy stories (p 78).

Many close imitations and (pp. 78-98) give us many variations on these foreign glamor stories, and ends on Kipling — who I think got a Nobel Prize – as to style he can write (1907). India is still a major realm in western literature; witness Jhumpa Lahiri.

The books mentioned here include authors that Mr Ellerbee’s son, Edgar in A Month in the Country, wants to win as a prize for church-going. Coral Island is the book Edgar longs for (p. 85). The aim of colonialism was to relieve unemployment at home — you could snatch land. Read the tones (p. 82). There has been change here: the Black Hole of Calcutta is now presented as part of the war of independence for India in films (p. 83) — but the presentation of the ungrateful (unnatural?) people who don’t appreciate our arms, and companies is found in the way Afghanistan is discussed today, Iraq and Iran (p 83). They don’t want us; we make things worse. The story of the Indian girl who fawns on the hero, saves him, wants to be Anglicized. That’s our Pocahontas myth (p 84). She’s really part English the way peasant girls turn out to be princesses. Part of fairy tale.

As a bye-blow these stores enforce kidnapping, child abuse and kidnapping, but I carry on. G. A. Henty, another author writing in this vein. Henty wrote hundreds of these action-adventure, sometimes science fiction, sometimes boys’ adventure-stories.

Later 19th century religion in retreat, more children are educated in schools, schools are placed where children may be indoctrinated in patriotism: the belief it’s in your interest to go to these wars and kill or be killed (p 89)

Rider Haggard (She, King Solomon’s Mines) a heady mix of sexism, imperialist wars, native Tarzan stuff. Kipling’s Jungle books: boy scouts come out of this era, Baden Powell drew heavily on the jungle books. 3. These show much cruelty to animals, don’t appear to take seriously they have feelings and an existence of their own.

These formulas remain unchanged, are only tweaked some so I didn’t assign anything on the later books except Heinlein as that allows us to see him in the context or generic background out of which his work comes and to which it belong (p. 114): Starship Troopers, a very popular glorification of war;

It ought to be a strange idea that “fighting and killing people” makes one a man only it isn’t. Ultimately all this destruction, death, maiming do come forward at the Met. I’ll come back to times where small tribes fought small tribes but the conditions have so changed that this evolved point of view functions very differently today.

I did omit Roald Dahl (pp. 111-113); his are colonialist in thrust. I find Dahl’s books so nasty where horrible things happen apart from the hero, they startle me. I have read they are liked because they fuel children’s intense resentment, give children a chance to act out revenge. Alone among popular books they are sometimes analysed and critiqued adversely. I think it’s because they do encourage hostile emotions to adults. He makes adults uncomfortable. I have read by one student a real defense of Dahl’s relatively unknown Matilda which I admit to no longer remembering but thinking the student had understood what the manipulation was.

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Fangorn Forest, just outside Fairfax county

Supernatural: Religion, Magic and Mystification

The basic paradigms or story lines and suppositions are found in early religious didactic literature where after all a belief in the supernatural is central. Religion depends on a belief in a supernatural realm and beings.

Dixon begins with Winstanley because many religious groups have been rebels against the social order; most of them ruthlessly squashed – by the present establishment and its religious leaders. Doctrines are important in order to control ways of thought. Do not want people believing in too wild ideas; you want to control the fantasy.

I read Pilgrim’s Progress when a girl. Its sales were once close to the Bible; it’s written in very simple English with simple allegories a child can follow. Copies that are sold today are often rewritten in modern English (pp. 121-22 for Robinson’s mindset).

We are taught hard lessons in such schools. Where we learn what social quietism, obedience is how children experience patience; you must learn to suffer, nothing against social order ever.

He points out such books teach children self-contempt: the way the girl sleuth presents an impossible ideal is what the girl cannot not coming up to and so gives her a false body image (“I am fat”), and illegitimate norms she must and yet cannot follow, so “feelings of personal worthlessness” and self-abasement are part of children’s religious literature. Awe is one favorite mood.

Books made cheap and they are used to reinforce from another stand point what we see in action adventure. We are to despise the poor, the losers they are called in US society. I believe Romney said he had no interest in the poor. Some huge percentage of the US population nowadays.

We have the usual suspects, books proselytized for and no explanation of their values given — J. R. R. Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin (who I know from being on a listserv with her — as a poet), Madeleine L’Engle, Richard Adams and C. S. Lewis. He does cite some that are good and changing the mode: I’ll cite The Golden Compass by Philip Pulman (heroine). We get action adventure female-heroes in these. As we do in modern detective novels. and police procedural there are a few. Alas, often sexed up sex objects.

Basically Dixon objects to teaching them to die as a matter of course, and teaching them they can be prostitute, Five hours as beautiful. I’s how they mystify life and make you accept whatever is by making all a mystery; they also allow us to defy laws of nature: gravity, death; great escapist quests, sometimes with animals that we can identify with. The works slide into science fiction and allegories. Allegory where acts and people easily stand for concepts part of the terrain.

Evil is this disembodied force or someone is simply shown as maliciously evil (usually the result of envy — you are not to envy others what they have; if you are outcast, it’s your fault

Evil not located in the poor; anyway this often takes place where poverty is irrelevant; rather it’s class and place antagonisms that are manipulated. Great love of ceremony and ritual (p 149).

I agree with Dixon that the asserted idea children like a black and white world has yet to be proved; but if it’s a childish way of seeing the world, why do adults promote it? (p. 150)


2008 cover for Wrinkle in Time

Dixon’s comments on Madeleine L’Engle are eye-opening: enforced conformity seems to stand for communism so it’s really a political struggle that she disguises with mysticism. Her idea is matter is getting unbalanced. Her books makes no sense of the world to children.

Watership Down: a kind of smug complacency, highly authoritarian military warren. The rabbits set up a police state. In another book Adams makes no distinction between the kind of suffering that is endemic in human nature in a society (so religion becomes a kind of comfort, a hoped-for protection) and the kind that can be changed by changing human social circumstances (p 154.)

To me the sickest book I’ve read for children is G. H. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. Dixon says the self-absorption it encourages makes all that happens outside the self unimportant. I remember it justifying death; a kind of medieval attitude towards miracles as what we wait around for. Devils everywhere who must be smashed. Lewis makes it explicit that the Narnia books have a Christian allegory at the center. Among other things he’s a fervent monarchist, ridicules progressive schools. He married for the first time late in life and part of his outlook is naive.

Ends on a book that shows some change. TwoPence a Tub by Susan Price. It sets up an actual debate. Death is God’s way of punishing these strikers. Does God want these people to suffer. The strike doesn’t achieve much: the men go back to longer hours and cut wages.

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To conclude:

Political correctness is a phrase hurled at people who are perfectly sincere in wanting to improve the world. They don’t talk or act the way they do to obey some strange convention or impress others; they really want to see a better life for all.

What we see on TV, in the movies, read in books has a profound influence on what we do and act effectively towards gaining a good adult life for ourselves and others.

Ellen

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Anna Madeley as Margaret Prior in Andrew Davies’s film adaptation of Sarah Waters’s Affinity (2008 ITV).

Dear friends and readers,

Although I’ve not seen Davies’s film adaptation of Sarah Waters’s remarkable and powerful neo-Victorian neo-Gothic novel (indeed just found out about it when I was googling for information about the novel and its various covers), I decided to use the stills as they are appealing (though not how I envisaged Margaret), and to underline that four of Waters’s novels have been made into film adaptations, two by Andrew Davies: Fingersmith (script by Tim Fywell), Tipping the Velvet (script by Davies), Affinity (script by Davies), and The Night Watch (script by Paula Milne, which I long to see). This is remarkable as at their core these are films about books focusing on frank lesbian love.

I take it that they are so good and insightful, powerful and gripping that their iconoclasm and frankness does not matter.

My blog on Tipping the Velvet is mostly on Waters’s book; this is wholly on Waters’s riveting text. Both are records of my reading as I went along. For a brief commentary, see wikipedia. The store centers on Margaret Prior, who becomes “a lady Visitor” t0 women prisoners, apparently a well-recognized Lady Bountiful position. She meets Selina Dawes, apparently put in jail egregiously wrongly: she did no kill Mrs Blink the woman who died while Selina was conducting a seance. The plot-design shows their intense relationship growing, and taking over Margaret’s as well as Selina’s lives. They experience trauma from their refusal to obey the peculiar conventions of the houses (so to speak) where they live. They plan to escape using ghostly magic. At its end (the coda of the book) we revise our understanding of Selina, which has a radical turnaround worthy DuMaurier’s My Cousin Rachel, and a depth of characters like Austen’s Emma. I recommend this book to anyone who loves Gothic, Victorian gothic, neo-Victorian and Victorian novels, who can deeply immerse him or herself in diary- and epistolary fiction, l’ecriture-femme, and fiercely socially critical novels, and as it’s a basis of a film adaptation, Victorian film studies people. The book also mirrors the concerns of people today over the heavily weighted system of criminal justice, where a young man (usually) black can be thrown solitary confinement for little reason. We are becoming a more distrustful and brutal society.

Finally, anyone who loves to read books which remain overtly (for their effects) a bookish experience. Allusons abound to the work of Daphne DuMaurier.

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An image of the panopticon: the women walking in the courtyard, watched by the women guards’ eyes

The story centers, to start with, in a Pantopticon like (fearful) prison for women. Waters is reflecting contemporary (today) prison conditions, and especially the controversy about enforced solitude as a form of torture, but much else is rooted in apparently Victorian realities. My view is the weight (gravitas, seriousness) of a verisimilar historical novel depends very often on the accuracy of the circumstances the fictionalized characters are embedded in. And my guess this novel would not be read as anachronistic.

The novel gives the impression a considerable percentage of women were imprisoned in Victorian England? is that so? were conditions severe and grim? I’d love to know of articles or books on this.

In this novel the women are “in” for several years at a time. Now I’ve read that prison sentences were seen as temporary (unless in debtors’ prison and then women were not liable), so that after sentencing the prisoner was hung, transported, fined, but then let go. So how long were prison sentences in the Victorian period for women? Again articles and books is what I’d like to know of. Last, sexual harassment. I wondered if there was any record of this?

I put the above on Patrick Leary’s Victorian and got some comments and a list of essays to read, which I have placed in the comments.

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Margaret Prior (Anna Madeley) visits Selina Dawes (Zoe Tapper)

I’m past Part One and have realized this is a fable about cruelty, about the cruelty of women to other women. It is a stark outline of how class enables people to de-humanize one another. About the cruelty of severity of punishments and the helplessness of individuals against a system. Again and again I think of Dante and there are allusions to Dante’s Inferno: not in its specifics but what it has come to stand for, and so by extension one of Oliphant’s ghost stories. The terrain reminds me of one of her ghostly nightmare terrains.

The affinity is between the lady visitor, Margaret Prior and the spiritual medium, Sarah Dawes, who by Book 2 we discovered has ended up in this prison partly because she dared to rise above her station and allow a woman to take her into her house to be used as spiritual medium. Never go where you are too powerless in comparison with others.

There is an astute use of structural irony through the juxtaposition of Prior’s present time carefully narrated diaries (as she visits the prison) and Dawes’s scatter- shot notes towards a diary which begin precisely 2 years before. The contrast works to explain the injustices.

I recommend it as a book about human nature, society and probably the Victorian era too, how the powerful can and do enslave, mistreat, then throw away not just the law-abiding powerless, and not just in official prisons.

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Margaret amid her family

I’m into the third part (of three) and finally have seen how the book relates directly to readers today. Identifying the prison theme (and its modern analogies), the spiritual medium (ditto) and GLBT (which however until just in this last part of the book there was hardly anything except if you insist on seeing all spinster presentations as redolent) — are a way of reading that still stays away from personal engagement or bonding. I kept asking myself why I was riveted and hoping it was not that I enjoy suffering.

The third part quietly (it’s done with subtlety) switches the perspective so instead of Margaret Prior as gazer (my head just now filled with specularization vocabulary), it is she who is subject. The prison apparatus and all the cruelties we see are a metaphor for what I’ll describe as the inexorableness of individual people to budge from their egoistic preoccupations and perspectives (stupidity is the frank word) and consequent cruelty and indifference to others. Margaret finds herself shut out from Selina Dawes because the women guards loathe seeing anyone happy, any affinity of relationship. They respond to Margaret’s pleas with supposedly reasonable objections to how excited Margaret makes Selina (absurd) to the norm that Selina is there to be punished. It’s in the loving relationship of Selina to Margaret at the first homoerotic current of the book emerges and we need not see it as sexual.

This inexorableness is relentless in Margaret’s mother. The light is suddenly cast on Margaret and figures who were mentioned now emerge full. We see her mother dislikes her intensely because she never married and behaved unconventionally, and longs to go live with her “successful” children: the just married (beautiful wedding) Priscilla and Arthur and the long married Stephen and Helen. We realize for the first time the drugging of Margaret each night is forced on Margaret, and how dependent Margaret is. The mother begins to manipulate to keep Margaret away from the prison and insists on Margaret reading aloud each night Dickens’s Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit functions as the floor rug that Margaret’s mother wants Margaret to become. Dickens often gets bad rap here: this reminded meo of Waugh’s novel, Decline and Fall, where the ultimate torture of a man left on an island with a mad man who insists he read aloud all Dickens night after night.

Margaret is as emotionally harrowed by her mother as the women prisoners are by the guards, and there is the implicit threat of imprisoning her in an asylum too. We learn that Helen and Margaret had a tight emotional relationship which Helen gave up — Helen tells Margaret she is brave. This is the place I said a lesbian theme does emerge.

So at the heart of this book is a deadly mother-daughter relationship. Margaret is a traditional “good” heroine in the Victorian tradition — seen far more deeply and hauntingly because no fairy godmother (in the shape of an author) are likely to shower love and good people on her at the book’s end.

I can see why Davies might not want do this book very well; he really would have a hard time finding that upbeat ending he manages for many of his films, and he is rarely willing to move into vulnerable psychology the way Water has. Margaret needs protection, so does Selina and there is none not be found, only exploitation or quiet silence if they can find a place to survive alone, which neither has.

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A dream (or nightmare)

I’m into the last quarter or so of this powerful novel. It does turn into a lesbian novel: at its core is a pair of lesbian women who love one another intensely because of an emotional affinity. The apparatus punishing them both becomes a metaphor for the suppression of this precious relationship for which both are willing to give up everything including food, clothing, shelter, bodily safety, sanity itself. At times I begin to see it as a modern La Religieuse (Diderot”s book) which comes to mind though Diderot’s paradigm seems so distant — modeled on the assault-type rape book of Richardson’s Clarissa. When Sarah is removed from Miss Prior’s visits, Miss Prior stopped from visiting her (and how the techniques used to imprison Miss Prior remind me of much of see and have experienced around me), they both suddenly pour out another reading of everything that was implicit, including the sister-in-law Helen as a thwarted lover to Miss Prior (Margaret).

Lots of allusions to Elizabeth Barrett Browning suddenly appear, not her works so much, but her, her personality (anorexic, repressed, half-mad in some ways when young) life, her feminist atittudes (I had to leave off Margaret Forster’s biography – she was doing justice to this).

I think it a masterpiece of fiction; probably because its verisimilar historical fiction it won’t be rated highly in the way say Stead’s The Man Who Loved Fiction is, and also because it is not heterosexual.

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Selina with Peter Quick [aka Quint/] in background; from the first page of the novel his has been an essential presence at seances

Those who do not like to know the ending of a book had better not read on, for I must tell it in order to show the final devastating power of the book and how once you finish, you should really reread it again.

This goes against all my practices nowadays; the last time I did this that I remember was DuMaurier’s My Cousin Rachel, when I realized the meaning of the novel’s first sentence which is also its last and that the narrator was the heroine’s murderer.


Richard Burton as Philip Ashley and Olivia de Havilland as Scarlett O’Hara (My Cousin Rachel, Hitchcock out of DuMaurier)

The time before that I remember I was 15 and just finished Mansfield Park, and after reading the last few paragraphs (including ” the consciousness of being born to struggle and endure”). conclusion so fired with it was I, I turned to the first page and read the whole thing again.

I should have done it for Austen’s Emma as the book was utterly altered once I realized I had missed Frank and Jane’s engagement like everyone else but Mr (George) Knightley (and who knows what Mr John knew), but it was an assigned book, the revelation took place before the ending and had time to wear off, and I didn’t love the book the way I had MP, nor had I been gripped in the way of Rachel and now this. (Emma is too lengthened out at its close, and then made too benign.)

So, Affinity turns on itself to reveal to us that Selina Dawes is a fraud. The book had been written and worked up so carefully that the author has the reader believing Selina Dawes things turn up in Margaret Prior’s room and half-expecting Selina to break out of her prison magically like the lady in St Agnes Eve (Keats’s poem), whose central stanza about this is quoted. Water plays with our willingness to suspend our disbelief in a gothic novel and our experience as readers of gothic.

Like phantoms, to the iron porch they glide,
Where lies the Porter, in uneasy sprawl.
By one, and one, the bolts full easy slide,
The chains lie silent on the footworn stones,
The Key turns! and the door pon its hinges groans ….

It’s a kind of trick on us. We say, of course she couldn’t. What happens is Selina tells Margaret she will come to Margaret’s room and they can fly together. Margaret so good, buys tons of clothes, pulls out 1300 pounds from her account and waits. Selina does not come. What a harrowing night we spend with Margaret. We come to the prison where astonishing to the prison people Selina has escaped. All suspect Margaret as the releaser and tell her they will prosecute her — until they see her and then half-credit that she knew nothing. She runs home horrified without seeing Mrs Jelf (the one kind guard) who is (she is told) off for the day. Mrs Jelf is on her doorstep hysterical. Mrs Jelf enabled Selina to escape, it was a plot between them. For months Selina has been enabling Mrs Jelf to see her dead baby and we get this harrowing story of Mrs Jelf’s life. Like so many middle-aged women who have this dull caretaker jobs strictly disciplined (remember the governess in Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley) Mrs Jelf has a miserable past where she married badly, had a lover to compensate, a child out of wedlock, and in her case it died. Selia promised Mrs Jelf she’d take Mrs Jelf to her child. No such thing. It seems Vigers, the maid upstairs was the go-between (Selina did tell Mrs Jelf this) and suddenly Margaret realizes how she got all that magical stuff. She thinks back.

We get a piece of diary and suddenly we realize Peter Quick (who is meant to be Peter Quint) was real, Selina’s accomplice and maybe they did kill the people at the opening and Selina deserved to go to jail. We have to surmise that Vigers (Margaret’s apparently selfless completely devoted maid) will be dropped (killed?) and Quint and Selina escape wit money and expensive clothes to Italy. Margaret at first runs to a policeman to tell but then realizes she will be put in that terrible prison.

The book ends with a piece from Selina’s diary that is the next day after the opening piece.

But it’s not a stunner that is unexpected quite. Like Austen’s use of Mr Knightley (again George), we had some inklings. Margaret’s mother does go off on a trip without her and we see in a way she does mean well — mostly because the mother reveals Margaret has control of her money. Margaret’s brother, Stephen, husband of Helen, is shown for the first time in the book and we can see how these well-meaning heterosexuals mean well by Margaret; we see Helen, the sister-in-law’s concern. At the bank when Margaret pulls out that 1300 pounds we begin to worry about her. Will she be broke ever after? We begin to worry that Selina is somehow exploiting Margaret unconsciously and the relatives are right: this is a mad scheme to escape together as Margaret is emotionally unstable.

A whole other outlook, the conventional one is laid open as not unreasonable if you just accept (and big just) that there is this blindness towards same sex sexual love — which to Stephen, for example, is unthinkable. He does not imagine he has deprived his wife of anything.

I was away and after all free of usual obligations with not as many books as usual and in fact I reread the first section. It came out very differently, and I saw for the first time a group of parallels with Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, which had the effect of increasing my sympathy for the governess but asking myself if I was being one-sided.

It is a story of betrayal: Margaret Prior by Selinda Dawes, but also Margaret by her mother, her sister-in-law; Mrs Jelf by Selina; Vigars probably by Belinda. Have we paid enough attention to Peter Quick (Quint): quite enough to know the society will sympathize with him in any quarrel.

Waters is a great historical fiction of our era. The panel I chaired (very nervously) at this past weekend’s EC/ASECS on historical fiction which I have must carry on with, studying it in many of its verisimilar and self-reflective forms.

Ellen

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North coast of Cornwall, just above Crackington Haven, Boscastle

Dear friends and readers,

I recently read another Winston Graham novel, a novella really, The Forgotten Story, set in 1898, written 1945. I had not expected but found (once again) central to a Graham novel, a marital rape, and central to the atmosphere Cornwall.

It’s one of three the non-Poldark novels recently in print: Wintson Graham: Marnie, Greek Fire, and The Forgotten Story. Marnie is a highly unusual psychological study of a disturbed young woman which was travestied by Hitchcock into a film about a hateful mother, controlling husband and thieving woman (it made a lot of money); Greek Fire, very typical for Graham’s generation of leftist writers, a novel about the overthrow of a socialist movement in Greece, 1948, and its replacement by a capitalist religious group, heralding what was to come as it was engineered by US and other western powers’ agencies (Alexander Baron wrote a similar one about Spain in the 1950s, Franco is Dying); and Forgotten Story, historical fiction set in Cornwall, centered on Anthony Veal, an orphan boy where we meet marginalized people making a living off an inn on the coast of Cornwall at the turn of the century; how Patricia Harris (nee Veal), the daughter attempts to flee a marriage where she has married above her and finds life constraining and painful.

The Forgotten Story, has an unhappily apt title, which paradoxically point to one reason it may still be in a remember collection, as it was made into mini-series in 1983 by then respected actors which appears to have flopped if the complete lack of information in IMDB and on line stills are any indication. Nonetheless, The Forgotten Story, is also one of the few pre-1950s novels, novels before the Poldark series, Graham chose to reprint.


The cover features Sean Connery in an early leading role as the controlling husband, and Tippi Hedren as the disturbed young woman (Hitchcock originally wanted Grace Kelly)

In a brief preface to The Forgotten Story Graham writes that it was novel written just before the first Poldark (Ross Poldark) and during some dark days in WW2 and he says it reflects the dark state of mind he felt at the public revelations of what the state of the UK had been doing, the concentration camps, the reality of what the war had been. He opens by describing those who would reconstruct real events from newspaper accounts as “like paleontologists trying to reconstruct an extinct animal,” never certain because of the deceptive nature of appearances, the multiplicity of details that add up to truth but that can also suggest a number of other possibilities.” What we discover slowly in this book is that we have a dreadful murderess at its center (yes it has the commonly misogynist figure popular in crime mysteries still) who has murdered Patricia, our heroine’s father, the good Joe Veal, and now her uncle, who had been brought into the plot into order to accomplish it. Until near the end of the book it seems as if we are in a more straight historical novel about the psychological social troubles of a set of local people.

We do not know this until the very close to story’s end as it is told by a young boy, old enough to understand on a prime level what’s happening and the amorality or morality of a given event (older than the children in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird who cannot tell us but are transparent windows supposedly). The effect is part of the power: the naif perspective. He is himself endangered at the close, Aunt Madge, the murderess, Uncle Joe (as Anthony calls her)’s second wife, locks Anthony into a room below deck on a sinking ship in order to drown him. The use of a child narrator gives the word its intensity: he is not only innocent, but a good and well-meaning adolescent (aged 11), older than the children of Lee’s story and also (more recently Emma Donoghue’s The Room); nonetheless, the device works to deflect the reader from the central tabooed content in various ways and see what’s happening through normative eyes and a mind continually trying to give an upbeat presentation of events.

Its tightly structured; begins with a wreck on the coast of Cornwall, and returns to the scene at the end, resembling DuMaurier’s Cousin Rachel and Trollope’s Eye for an Eye) which both begin in terribly disturbed moments: in all three cases the novel is the explanation in the form of a story. It gives the piece a gothic framing.

Beyond the redolent use of Cornwall, I was attracted to the uncle who runs a genially transgressive bar, and to heroine, a type very like say Elinor Dashwood, the well-meaning but self-possessed and vulnerable young woman (played in the mini-series by Angarah Rees)


Angharad Rees (online promotional photo, perhaps as Patricia)

When Patricia flees her persistent husband, Tom who with a boyfriend, Ned Pawlyn (who later offers to flee to Australia so they can live as man-and-wife without being known), starts the quarrel in the bar which appears to lead to her father’s death, she has no means of supporting herself decently. This is 1898 and the only professions open to a young woman still are wife or teacher. She takes a position as a strict girls’ school — we are in a mild version of Jane Eyre too. The telling gripping incident of the story is a marital rape scene, which I’m coming to see as an obsession, a highly unusual one. Tom rescues Patricia from the bar quarrel and to assert his rights over her, rapes her. Grahame returns to this unusual motif again and again: presents a marriage scene where the husband rapes the wife and it is clear this is rape. This time it’s in apparent service of a 19th century obsession also found in Trollope's Vicar of Bullhampton: pressure on this woman to stay married to this man because he thinks he has a right to her since he’s prosperous, approved by everyone around him, is what’s respectably called decent and humane (though very rigid, a snob, controlling, cold) and what’s more in 1898 she has no decent way of earning her living. When Patricia leaves Tom publicly, and gives testimony on his behalf in a courtroom which reveals her liaison with Ned, she is ostracized and there’s a scene of public humiliaton (so she’s, to use Trollopeian types, a Mary Lowther, the good heroine who refuses the persistent hero because she’s not physically turned by him into a Carry Brattle, the “fallen” woman).
All the while she is of course in her heart an Esther Summerson/Amy Dorrit type (a pillar for others, a good person — no Arthur Clenhams in sight, alas, but someone who offers to go to Australia with her and live together there unmarried). Everything comes (quite literallly) to shipwreck.

Graham chose to return to the end of the Victorian period to be able to show this paradigm, only instead of Trollope’s way of least questioning it, and nagging the girl to take the man, showing her up, spending time on the obsessive young man and Mary’s unreasonableness (so to speak) in an effort to make the center the women’s quest for sexual satisfaction, Graham de-constructs the framing social circumstances. Tom Harris no longer has the right to demand Patricia back. In 1891 it had become no longer accepted since a famous court case for a husband to try to wrest his wife back to live with him. But he feels he ought to. The sense in the fiction is that this is wrong. This is at least one place where a woman should have real liberty. She is nagged by her (murderous we find) aunt to return to Tom using the conventional argument, she should. Period.

That this motif is returned to ceaselessly shows itd centrality for controlling women in this set of social structures, and that it’s at a great price to her.

The ending shows Tom Harris who has all along been an ambivalent figure (he appears to be exploiting the boy to pressure Patricia) into a hero of integrity. He rescues Antony and brings Patricia back from the school. We discover that Tom has been responsible for her getting her job: he had the connections and respect by his family and position as a lawyer. Unlike Ned, he can take Patricia somewhere as his wife; they can afford to provide a home for Anthony.

But the way he wins her is more interesting than this, or the way it’s presented. The presentation of Patricia’s choice to return to Tom reminded me of Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn. All is not quite forgiven — and as in Marnie, the saving grace is the rape scene is not at all dramatized (as it is twice in Four Swans), nor is the heroine driven by trauma and psychological distress (as in both Marnie and Four Swans), only an indication it took place (this is the way Ross Poldark’s rape of Elizabeth, the central heroine of the whole series is inserted — so to speak, just what led up to it, and the aftermath). Just enough is.

How do they come to this decision. From the same standpoint as Toibin’s: the woman is married to the man and so she obeys the social convention, goes with it. In the case of Toibin’s Brooklyn he uses this obedience to convention to point up the coldness of people towards one another, how they can pick up and drop one anther ruthlessly to follow what’s their interest. The force in Toibin is grimly powerful. I have read Toibin’s The South (about a woman who escapes her family to go live in Spain and finds herself embedded eventually in another family group), Blackwater Lightship (about deep alienation within a family), and The Master, Henry James as a gay man, an outsider. After a while the books all do spin around the same concerns, and for me at least are gripping. I find I can’t put them down easily each time I start one up again. I get intensely emotionally involved.

For Booklyn I found I had to peek ahead to the last pages to make sure our
heroine does what will eventually lead to some happiness for her, I was so
anxious for her. I feel the same for Graham’s heroines, all but Marnie. Toibin’s novel, Brooklyn required enormous strength to get through so much did I worry for her because she seemed to be this good person, self-sacrificing and could be bullied into giving up what could make her life joyful. But then when I came to the end of the book I saw I had been mistaken. In fact she might have liked to stay in Ireland and not return to Brooklyn, that is, stay with her birth family group instead of the new one she had become a part of it.

Toibin’s Brooklyn‘s grim insight is what we think keeps people together is not their intangible feelings, but order itself, and their value for one another comes out of how chance has put someone near someone that fits his or her needs. And either you belong to the order or you don’t.

In Graham’s Forgotten Story in effect this young woman does follow her economic and social interest in going back to the husband who s a rising lawyer. It was due to him she got the one job she did get, a teacher at a school; he vouched for her. She is indignant when she first hears of it, but forgets the indignation during the force of the shipwreck, and re-finding Anthony alive. And if she married Tom, she can also take the young boy with her and protect, mother him. It is to her social advantage and people obey conventions, every one does.


Recent cover of Forgotten Story

It’s not an emotional adherence, it’s coolly done. And we don’t see her do it, we are told it impersonally as the boy sleeps. We learn the boy after all was taken in (his father had abandoned him, sent him back to his family because the father had begun a second family where the boy was not wanted). Tom, Patricia, and Anthony head out for South Africa to make a new life for themselves taking the boy.

The forgotten story is that of this rape, of this marriage. Swept under the rug, swept away as the storm which sweeps away Uncle Perry, the uncle who colluded with the aunt, swept away as Uncle Joe, the father whose real vulnerability we are never permitted to delve. Why he married Madge? what happened to Patricia’s mother?

The fiction remains conventional (in a way Toibin’s does not): Graham treats this decision not as a violation of feeling and he presents the woman’s choice with tact and sympathy. It reminds me of the central heroine of the Poldark books who also finds security, peace, respect from the community by agreeing to marry Ross Poldark, the landowner whose servant she has been and who she has been going to bed with for a couple of weeks.


Early cover for Forgotten Story,signalling it as a woman’s romance novel

But it is the same insight: the convention the society sets up pushes people to obey it as they get rewarded for it. It does not take much in the Forgotten Story to see that those who do not have such conventions on their side suffer badly. And the curious insistence that it’s on a rape that the whole thing turns, on the rape of woman’s body — as the whole trajectory of the Poldark series finally does (I’ll write another blog on the Poldark novels after all and this is partly one). I’ve written a review of two books which argue the order and stability of socieities also depends on their willingness to murder children who do not fit in: Child Murder and British Culture.


Angharad Rees (this promotional photo is of her as a modern woman) – an enigmatic sexualized heroine who does not tell

So, to conclude not only is Graham still unusual for presenting marital rape as a central motif in his novels, he is highly unusual for doing it repeatedly. I suppose we should not be surprised that this aspect of his fiction never comes up in discussions of the Poldark novels; when I’ve talked off list or blog with people who’ve read the Poldark books, they deny Ross raped Elizabeth. Of course she was consenting :) — they can’t deny the rape of Morwenna, so there is the implication in the conversation that I’m morbid to dwell on this unfortunate (highly it’s implied) heroine, when her story is meant to be not that atypical, only her reaction.

When writing my paper on Richardson’s Clarissa and rape (“What right have you to detain me here?”), I took the common view how rare is the depiction of marital rape (well, except in modern African stories, mostly those by women). I was right there, but wrong to have left out this exception.

For more on Toibin’s Brooklyn, see comments.

Ellen

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The Blue Fairy Book, compiled (and written by) Andrew Lang


Alice in Wonderland — in translation

Dear friends and readers,

I am come to the fourth and last blog on this conference. Today topics included the fantastical and imaginative (fairy books and math and Alice in Wonderland), just its seeming opposite, medical memoirs, and large handbooks whose entries and publication are fought over tirelessly because such huge amounts of money can be made by a few if the organizations can keep preventing universal non-profit medicine from going into effect. In effect the social targets for fantastical and fairy books brought before the listener how it was supposed children and their middle class parents were interacting with books, while medical books and the institutions which ignored, published or supported them showed us how an interested profession used books to fight over their territory and promote themselves, their science agenda, their careers.

A Sunday story. There was hardly any traffic on the way in, at noon the park outside the Dillon center was filled with people doing all sorts of things and the carousel nearby crowded with children.

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“The Bronze Ring” from The Blue Fairy Book

Sunday morning I might be said to have fitted in two sessions each period since in both cases, I left 2/3s the way through one session and arrived at the second session where there was still 2/3s to go. In both cases the questions were good enough to elicit re-explanations of the papers. So I heard twice as much.

At 9:00 I went to “Utopia, Fantasy and Prophecy,” and heard a paper by Jennifer Gundry on how print culture (books, thoughtful high-minded doings) were regarded with suspicion and distrust in a selection of Utopias. The critics and reviewers (rightly) assault advertising, find slipping literary standards at each new technology or innovation; they indict the low quality of the new productions. Print has failed 19th and 20th century society. It would seem the only printed object valued is money. Sara Hines described the unexpected huge success of Andrew Lang’s series of “colored” fairy books; here there is a stronger nostalgic pull. With the success of the Blue Fairy book, Lang went on to compile (and write) the nostalgic notes. Critical writing and studies of folklore and fairy tales enables us today to understand him. (Probably translation studies ought to be brought in). Green came next, then a rainbow, then violet. Lang were first intended for the Christmas market; eventually they functioned as a poet manque for family rituals, gathering and creating time together.

I hurried out to a session on scientific and medical publishing. Sounds boring? Think again: Darwin is a central tract; so too Humboldt. I spend 1/3 of my course reading serious books on how medicine is practiced today. Jim Conor’s paper on “The Editing and Publishing History of Rural and Medical Care (1948) was of direct relevance to the essays I read with my students. This was not a how to book: name a condition and then offer treatments. Rather it is a book which describe and defines disease and has essays on aspects of the profession and its author was strongly for socialized medicine. Mr Conor told a story of a man who had continually to fight to get his book published, then respected, then distributed. Eventually it became enormously influential in Canada, in US minus the politics which (if I understood him correctly) were cut out. Jennifer Conor’s paper on a specific medical memoir by Gordon Murray enabled me to see how the medical establishment viewed the kind of scientific medical memoirs I’ve been assigning students for years. With respect. The specific one she discussed had problems that were never resolved, especially balancing autobiography and telling an appealing story with explaining technical cases in difficult language.

The interest of the Health Guide is how it became a lightning rod for political issues. The AMA and other powerful physician organizations were vigilant against anything smacking of socialism, and defining illness in ways that insurance companies want to control was seen as strongly socialist behavior. The AMA fought to suppress the book. Now its definitions are used by our local day coffee bar place. As to memoirs, they can teach ethical norms, and do well when they are beautifully written, like Atul Gawande’s Complications), and can reach a large layman audience. Jennifer Conor said a president of a respected college had had to resign recently because it was discovered he plagiarised his goodbye speech from Gawande’s Complications. The students had read Gawande and recognized the passage by checking the texts on their computers.

I got myself a coffee and then went to the mid-morning sessions. Marie-Claude Felton’s paper was “‘Je ne suis pas fou': The Self-publishing journey of poorly-estimated scholars in the 19th century was a general history of statistics; she showed far more scientists managed to spread their work by self-publishing than is realized. Johanna Lilja told of an “indefatigible botanist” who persisted in the face of neglect, ridicule and misery; institutional norms destroyed him personally though much later in life he was done justice to. The paper was very sympathetic towards the institution and its problems and showed how it learned from this experience to cope with non-conformity. Susan Pickford began her paper by telling of what she called with any specific definition or defense “insane” scientists; she was going to talk about “outsider literature,” but I felt the use of such a blanket derogatory term (“insane”) unacceptable (like the use of “idiot” in Victorian literature for mentally disabled people) in scientific, medical (or humane) senses so quickly left.

I found I had just time to listen to two papers and heard a third discussed afterward from another session, “Play and Politics.” Manuela Mouraco and Margaret Stetz argued the children’s books he described were made with parents’ ideas and desires in mind; they taught children to fit in; encouraged certain kinds of socialization and interest in subjects that are career-worthy. Mouraco and Adam Trammell agreed the Keepsake and other annuals were intended to build an identity for the people buying them; they are books with a strong middle class bias and show nostalgia for the past.

In this session and an earlier one on librarians helping children to form reading groups in libraries, the idea was endorsed in the discussion time afterward that in a classroom socialization is as or more important than the topic taught. So that if math is being taught, the children should be made to do it in group settings. This reminded me of how the whole conference seems to value how books function socially for people, what intellectual stance they enable people to feel they belong to (or do). But what about the child who learns best alone and would learn far more about the topic if left to do so alone. He or she will be straitjacketed into first enacting a set of general social skills or be made to feel bad if he or she can’t (and perhaps graded on social capability rather thabn math). This set of values makes learning very hard for the disabled (e.g., autistic children). And it’s not just the autistic that such tactics in a classroom would stmy but many non-outward people. We do have inward growth as we learn academic subjects sheerly for themselves.

For lunch I sat with Elizabeth Starr on a bench in a lovely shaded area and we shared a sandwich, memories and goals. We hope to keep contact up. She has a student working on a biography of Jane Austen for younger readers and perhaps I could help.

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The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, illustration by John Tenniel

The last session I attended was unexpected fun for me. It was on translating Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Clare and August Imholtz, a married couple of independent scholars and book collectors gave papers on different translations of Alice. Clare went over many kinds across the globe, and August concentrated on those just in Russian. Statistics of how many translations and where are impressive. Of course translation is bad at puns, and some of the word play and games that provide the experience we have of the text. They named particularly good ones (a Spanish one); August took us into the realms and suppositions of a Russian child.

Catherine Parisian then got up to tell us the history of Alice in Wonderland translated into Gregg and Pitman. How many Pitman’s, how many Gregg’s. It seems this was a way of teaching girls to read and to use phonetics. She knew I was in the audience and could read Pitman stenography and I did come up to the front to declare this text was Pitman and did not use vowels or the three line approach and the other was written precisely following the conventions. Stenography by hand is associated with women working in offices and we find it spread as soon as jobs were created: 1872 in the UK it’s said 6 women knew Pitman, in 1893 6000. Gregg grew exponentially from 1901 -1915. Alice was published in 4 systems: Callenders (1899, the 7th, Mad Tea Party chapter), Pitman (1908 and 1909), Gregg (1915) and Pitman again (1979, Chapter 7).

We discussed stenography as well as why the Alice books appeal so. We also discussed the real gender faultline in the uses of hand stenography in the first 3/4s of the 20th century. I offered my memory that in my high school class in 1963 there were not boys learning shorthand, though you could find boys learning to type. Only girls learnt sten so there was a strong taboo of shame involved. But when machine stenography spread and began to be used by court reporters, men went in for the training in great numbers in post-secondary school.

I was charmed with the notion that stenography had been taught this way. In Richmond Hill High School where I was first taught Pitman stenography I was never encouraged to respect it as a system. I did that later when I studied languages in college. I should say here that all the blogs I’ve written since I started going to conferences and blogging are the result of my use of stenography. While recently I can no longer cover pages of my sten pages in pure Pitman, and must use English spelling and abbreviated words, when I am really trying to get down specific wording there’s nothing comes near using Pitman sten.


A table of short forms within Pitman

It’s a 19th century invention.

There was again much more to the conference in the later afternoon. A Plenary panel, a general meeting, and finally an African American Literary Walking Tour, with Toast. I could not do any of it. This was the last night of the Capital Fringe Festival: we had tickets for La Belle Parricide, a play by a community of women on Beatrice Cenci so my conference ended on Alice in Pitman. Many people appeared to be leaving around the same time.

As I came out of the building, the sun seemed so bright and the air very hot. I threaded into the quiet justle of people going down the escalator. The trains to and from into Alexandria were running on just one track (not two) so there seemed to be a mass of people waiting to get on as they were thus running slowly (taking turns). I got home in plenty of time.

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This is the first conference I’ve written about in this extensive way in quite a while. I had heard a diverse number of excellent papers which took positions which did teach about how books can be or are made to function socially. Countless individuals have largely idiosyncratic or personal responses to books that these large social perspectives ignore or sweep by and these are important for the individuals and for their communities too — making for finer disinterested ideals from the sympathetic imagination which can cross all borders. Yet people do choose a book because they are part of a particular sophisticated or political world, and read as part of that (often class-based) world. About this group of people at the conference, I came away feeling the generality might have at one time really loved books for themselves (as on some level I still do a fine, beautiful or wise and good and great book), for their texts (ditto), and that’s why they cared about books materially and how they function as social instruments, commodities and social capital.

See Sharp 1, Sharp 2, and Sharp 3.

Ellen

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The train that thunders through (Dicken’s “The Signal-man” as adapted in the 1975 film)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve another gothic from my Exploring the Gothic class to discuss: for this past Friday my class and I read and discussed Charles Dickens’s unusual and brief ghost story, “The Signalman.” I’ve written about Andrew Davies’s 1976 film of this here before, but then I concentrated on the film, now we’ll look at Dickens’s text itself.

Here’s the story online: “The Signal-man” by Charles Dickens

A summary (if you don’t have the time or inclination to read this gem): an unnamed narrator comes to a deep cutting in the earth, and calls down below to a signalman whose job is to live in a box-like small house by a railway track and provide a signal for people on and working a train of its coming, going, and state. He persuades the signalman to let him come down to his dark place below, and he and the signalman talk. The signalman is in a bad way: he tells the narrator of an apparition he has seen twice: a man stands by the track with one hand over his eye and the other waving at a coming train; each time this vision appears death follows soon. After the first time it was a ghastly train accident; after the second a young woman died. The signalman is distraught because he cannot save the person/people. He is lonely, he is educated, intelligent and has no one to share his thoughts or learning (math, algebra) with. He once had an opportunity to better himself, but missed out because of private events he won’t go into anymore. The narrator goes off but says he will return on the narrator’s off hours again — these off-hours are not much use to the narrator as he has ever to be alert for the bell. His duties to pull the bell are light, yet he is a slave to it. He lives a life of anxiety. The next time the narrator shows up (next day?) he looks below, seems to see the apparition himself, hears the train coming, and then rushing below finds the signalman has died — run over.


Bernard Lloyd as visitor (narrates the tale)

The story is eerie and mysterious: we never learn the names of the two characters, and we never learn who the narrator is. To the narrator, the signalman appears to be a spirit; to the signalman the narrator appears to be a spirit. At the first meeting between the two men, the unnamed signalman is clearly wondering if the narrator is somehow being controlled by spirit forces. He asks him “don’t you know” that the red light is part of his charge – and goes on to ask during their conversation if the words he spoke “were conveyed to you in any supernatural way. At the same time, the narrator (also nameless!) is wondering almost the same thing about the signalman. “The monstrous thought came into my mind as I perused the fixed eyes and the saturnine face, that this was a spirit, not a man.” The narrator finds a “monstrous thought” entering his own mind – and, in the next breath, says of the signalman: “I have speculated since, whether there may have been infection in his mind.” The narrator goes on to share the signalman’s obsession and fear of the red light – and, when the final catastrophe comes, he finds his own thoughts (the words he associated with the warning gesture) strangely borne out along with the signalman’s deadly premonition.

The story begins with one question and ends with another. At the start, as readers, we wonder why the narrator calls down to the signalman in the first place – and we never really get an answer to this. If he wasn’t being motivated by something supernatural, what other reason was there? The signalman could be lured to death by an irrational self-destructive despairing impulse; the narrator could be an employee of the company come to investigate the signalman for being ill or too nervous to do his job properly. We are left wondering and get no definite answer. It almost seems as if the signalman lures the narrator down and disturbs his life just as the phantom (real or imaginary) is luring him and disturbing his life.

The story is about the mental torture the signalman experiences daily. Loneliness, helplessness, lack of power (he is too lowly to persuade the company to act differently about the train), anxiety, a desire to have someone to talk to: there is the strangely creepy repeated line: “But he would beg to remark that he had not finished” – which has a touch of humor, but at the same time helps to give a feeling of impending doom and the signalman’s desire to have the narrator stay. One interpretation says the signalman is haunted by a malicious poltergeist.


Denholm Elliot as poignant signalman

One of my students (the first section I teach) gave a talk where he suggested the story is about the how technology obliterates traditional ways of life. The railway contain immense power, and people felt threatened before it. The student’s view echoed an essay I linked into my “course materials for y students” is by Norris Pope where he argues that the story is a response to the terrifying technology of the railways (which at the same time liberated people more than any other technology had before and except for the car since): Norris Pope’s “Dickens’s “The Signalman” and Information Problems in the Railway Age,” Victorian Studies, 42:3 (2001), 436-461. But the student went much further in suggesting the story was about the evils of technology for the audience.

Another student (in my second section) talked about how the story was about or derived directly from an accident Dickens was involved with and showed us a state of trauma that the signalman should have had help with and couldn’t. She thought the apparition was a psychological projection of the signalman’s mind. (She didn’t explain how the narrator saw the third apparition; questioned she suggested maybe the third apparition was the signalman himself seen by the narrator just before killing himself.) The student’s view was more or less the view the second article I put on my “Course Materials” discussed: Jill Matus’s “Trauma, Memory, and Railway Disaster: The Dickensian Connection,” Victorian Studies, 43:3 (2001): 413-36. The student went much further in saying that today we would try to help this man and the story was showing us how no one did help this man.

I’ll go over that as told in this second essay:

In 1865 Charles Dickens narrowly escaped death when the train on which he was traveling from Folkestone to London jumped a gap in the line occasioned by some repair work on a viaduct near Staplehurst, Kent. The foreman on the job miscalculated the time of the train’s arrival; the flagman was only 550 yards from the works and unable to give adequate warning of the train’s approach. The central and rear carriages fell off the bridge, plunging onto the river-bed below. Only one of the first class carriages escaped that plunge, coupled fast to the second class carriage in front. “It had come off the rail and was [...] hanging over the bridge at an angle, so that all three of them were tilted down into a corner” (Ackroyd 1013).

Dickens managed to get Ellen Ternan and her mother, with whom he was traveling, out of the carriage and then behaved with remarkable self- possession, climbing down into the ravine and ministering to the many who lay injured and dying. Ternan was his mistress and he was concerned to hide this, but still went forward to save others.

With further aplomb, he climbed back into the dangerously unstable carriage and retrieved his manuscript, an account of which is offered in the memorable postscript to Our Mutual Friend (1865).

Once back in London, however, Dickens began to develop the symptomatology that today we would recognize as typical of trauma.’ He was greatly shaken and lost his voice for nearly two weeks: “I most unaccountably brought someone else’s out of that terrible scene,” he said. He suffered repeatedly from what he called “the shake,” and, when he later traveled by train, he was in the grip of a persistent illusion that the carriage was down on the left side. Even a year later, he noted that he had sudden vague rushes of terror, which were “perfectly unreasonable but unsurmontable.” At such times, his son and daughter reported, he was unaware of the presence of others and seemed to be in a kind of trance. His son Henry recalled that he got into a state of panic at the slightest jolt; Mamie attested that her father’s nerves were SP never really the same again: he “would fall into a paroxysm of fear, tremble all over and clutch the arms of the railway carriage.”

I then delivered a sort of lecture, inviting questions as I went along. This is what I do after students do presentations or talks. After their presentations I ask four questions: what was the student’s thesis, what his or her strategry [what did he or she do in the talk, tell a story, give an example, write on the board &c], what his or her strengths and how could he or she have improved the talk. Then the student sits down and I again get in front of the class.

I talked about how Victorians would have had an ambivalent attitude towards trains. Trains liberated people more than anything had before: before trains most people could not easily travel farther than by foot in a given day. Most people could not afford a horse; a carriage went slowly and awkwardly — not comfortable, dangerous (from overturning). Now in a brief time you could get to a major city. You could escape your environment, move far in one day, move away with ease. It’s comparable to the Internet in how it can connect people from distances. It was part of the industrial world making things and making money for some people. They knew this. I talked of how the underground was built in London at the time: promoted by Michael Farraday, he had to overcome tremendous fears (of the world below, of being buried alive) to achieve this, but he did it and then people used the underground quickly.

Dickens’s was a strong purveyor of gothic, or used it centrally in his long and short fictions. In novels and short stories, he has a has a number of character lured to their own death, attracted to self-destruction (Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, Carker in Dombey and Son). Dickens seems compelled by people who are mysteriously drawn towards their own death – there are quite a number of characters in his books who commit suicide, but there are also others who are drawn towards something which will destroy them.

The students’ questions got us talking about the atmospherics of the story as not overdone and effective. A hallucinatory quality is found in Dickens’s great novels. Another way of seeing it is a tale of doubling, the double self (as in Hyde and Jekyll) only this time the double is a threat. At the end we wonder why the signalman allowed himself to be drawn out on to the line and ignored the approaching train. The phantom if there was one appears three times: – the phantom has appeared twice, with death resulting each time, and now is appearing for a third time. We immediately know from fairy tales that the third catastrophe will be the final one, the end of the story. They noticed the number 3.


The horror of the visitor looking at the Signalman’s corpse (what’s left of it)

To conclude, the story or narrator can be seen as a projection of an impulse towards death opening before us a disappointed frustrated man who lives his life shut up in a dark cave through which a machine thunders with mechanical regularity. There are some odd nervous puns in the story which support this idea.

I talked of how this gothic manages to tell the story of another kind of unspeakable: the terrors of technology and misery of an ordinary life controlled by technology. Dickens had great sympathy for working people, and here is a man compelled by the need for a job to live like a troll in a cutting all alone. (How much he would have profited from the Internet and a computer in his hut.)

It takes place in a railway tunnel. Good modern ghost stories do not tend to occur in gothic castles or be set in the long ago. They are often set in modern anonymous places where technology has rooted up a natural landscape: old canals, waterways, and railways are favored. Dickens doesn’t need owls or bats; the wet dark tunnel without a sky is enough. There are no windows in a grave either. There are some good resonating lines about the nature of hard life. He’s missed his chance and does not get another.

As for the film (Andrew Davies, the screenplay writer, Lawrence Clark, director, Rosemay Hill, producer, Denholm Elliot the signalman with Bernard Lloyd the narrator or visitor): they do full justice to Dickens’s appreciation of how technology can land given individuals in terrible isolation. Denhom Elliot plays the Signalman who has little to do but must be there, and is living in these meagre circumstances, an educated man who lost out. Very touching in the story and film how he sits and read math, but no one to talk to or appreciate or ask questions of, but he plugs on. (Such a character might have been found comfort in the Internet.) The man who comes to visit (investigate really) show real compassion and full horror at the close.

It was shot on location. Beneath a high steep hill by a train tunnel. I’ve no doubt it arose from Dickens’s own train accident, the terrors and pain of this are gotten across. For the brilliance of the film techniques, see my other blog.

We had really good talk and the students appeared to have read the story and understood it with no trouble.

Ellen

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