Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘mystery-suspense’ Category

msmith
Maggie Smith between scenes

Dear friends and readers,

I somehow suspect my phrase of praise for Rebecca Eaton and Patricia Mulcahy’s Making Masterpiece that it fulfills the once famous goals of Lord Reith or the BBC to “educate, inform, entertain” might make her uncomfortable: its connotations have become stuffy, elite, even dull; but in fact her book covering a history of PBS’s most famous and long-running Sunday night prime quality (the term now used) serial dramas from the era of the powerful and fine film adaptations, original dramatizations, and multi-episode serial dramas from just before the 1967 The Forsyte Saga up to the 2010-14 Downton Abbey does just that. We learn a lot about the commercial, financial, filming, roles different people play, the TV channels who air the shows, Eaton is unashamedly working for quality in her purchases and commissions and is surprisingly candid.

Along the way she gives satisfyingly step-by-step believable accounts of some well-known to lost forever cult and individual favorites (some never got beyond the arduous planning and early deals) and she lets drops phrases that characterize swiftly how this or that aspect of this complicated art is viewed by its practitioners: such as the eponymous book or novelist-memoirist’s vision is “the underlying material” for the films. While Eaton’s explanations for why the program has held on for so long (they are “family stories, sagas, about love, betrayal, money, infatuation, illness, family deception &c&c) are wholly unsubtle and could be said of poor programming, and she shows that she reflects the commonalty of viewers; nonetheless, now and again for this or that specific series, she also shows she understood very well a political vision, how it fit into a contemporary sociological moment. She lets us know how some of the corporate funding after the mid-1980s when it seemed all but Mobil and the oil companies acted on a new realization that corporations did not need to appear civic-minded or anything but ruthless, and that when their agents discoveed that Eaton would not re-shape a program to fit an ideology (standing firm, sometimes almost alone — she tells instances and names names) she was in continual danger of being fired.

eatonrbaker
Rebecca Eaton with Russell Baker, the host for the show after Alistair Cooke retired — they are on the set for the introductions in the 1990s — note the fire in the hearth, comfortable easy-chair …. library look)

It is also an autobiography, a seeming Horatio Alger paradigm, écriture-femme style. It’s cyclical. She opens with a photo of her mother, Katherine Emery Eaton, who she presents as a successful serious actress and “glamorous movie star” who gave up her career to stay at home as a mother and wife: its in an old (built in 1800) house, her home for many years in Kennebunkport (labryinthine, spooky), which she cherishes, whose image and memories were part of her core impulse to work for and support Masterpiece Theater, but which she tells us on the first page no longer contain her parents, daughter or husband. She closes on her present apartment in Cambridge, Mass, a divorced woman whose daughter she reminds us was named after her grandmother and is now in theater and close to her. This private story of a husband who adjusted his career to bring up, be more at home with the one daughter (someone had to), and her distant relationship with that daughter until the girl grew up is woven in for about 2/3s of the way.

I say seeming because the story is also a justification, an explanation for why nowadays there are so fewer multi-episode (3 is become common) expensively produced carefully meditated productions from literary masterpieces. She is telling us how she did the best she could, how the recent spread of violent thrillers, cynical reactionary adaptations of contemporary novels (something in the vein of Breaking Bad, British style), seems at times to take over the time slot; her lot is fighting a continually uphill struggle where she lurches from acquiring, purchasing BBC and British productions, to producing them with the BBC and from the 1980s alonside or in competition with increasingly tough competition, in the UK, the ITV (Granada) channels, London Weekend, and in the US, cable, A&E, HBO, new technologies which allow viewers to curate and watch programs according to their own schedule (using DVDs, streaming, Netflix). It’s told in a peculiar way. A single person (named and the boss who wanted to get rid of our heroine) theatens a wasteland. Each curve ball or crisis is averted by the sudden unexpectedly widely popular good quality, subtle, intelligent adaptation. So the book reads like a series of rescues. She is not so much the rescuer as the person on the spot when circumstances come together so that a product (most often only a mini-series can provide the amount of ballast needed) is on offer which rescues them.

According to Eaton, Masterpiece theater as “the home for classy drama” (Alistair Cookie’s phrase)

cookiemonster

began when the first The Forsyte Saga developed a visible passionate following (fanbases made themselves felt before the Internet too), and attracted a man from Mobil, Herbert Schmertz (who loved dramas set before the 20th century); at the time Mobil was competing with other oil corporations in the 1970s who thought that they need to be seen as civic-minded (no more). The result: a stream of progressive superb mini-series from the 70s,enough of which were as avidly watched (Poldark, The Pallisers) until well into the later 1980s (The Jewel in the Crown). Eaton does not say this explicitly, but the re-creation of Poldark in terms similar to the 1970s is a bid to create a new and bring along the old fanbase for the Winston Graham historical novels (due Spring 2015); so too the filmically innovative Death Comes to Pemberley just before it (fall 2014) is a carefully calibrated appeal to the changed expanded Jane Austen audience

eleanortomlinsondemelza
A new Demelza who looks like some of the 1960s illustrations from the Bodley Head Poldark edition — Eleanor Tomlinson is also the new Georgiana, sister of

A genuinely tried Darcy and Elizabeth:

Maturecouple
The film does interesting things with Darcy, makes his character more understandable, Elizabeth’s more mature, and as to film: voice-over entangling with shot-reverse shot, scene juxtaposition

The later 1980s, the Thatcher years were the first set back with destructive re-organizations and competitive contracts of packaged dramas at British TV; an occasional return to the old model using new film techniques taken from commercial theater (the 1991 Clarissa) did not seem to help, until the new “savior” appeared: Middlemarch and the art of Andrew Davies.

middlemarch
I still find it painful to watch the failure of Lydgate (Douglas Hodge) unaware how another’s supposed weak view of the world, Rosamund’s (Treveyn McDowell) can wreck dreams no one else can appreciate

I am aware that there are sheaf of essays on the filmic Middlemarch, that it was admired and is still loved — its exquisite historical feel, a breathe of wide humanity, great acting, relevance (the failed career of Lydgate). Eaton recounts losses: how could she have been so stupid as to let go of Davies’s Pride and Prejudice to A&E. It was then she did bow to corporate pressure: a one-time quickie Poldark denuded of all politics will stand for one resulting flop.

But amid these “dark days” she did not forget her job — she attempted to bring into Masterpiece adaptations of good American books. Maybe that was what was needed. If American producers and funders could not begin to understand a British Cornish regional novel, this they might get. She had successes but there are more sad stories, of fine projects that never got off the ground amid a protracted process: The Glass Menagerie with Meryl Streep didn’t happen. She wanted to call her dream The American Collection. Those who helped included Paul Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward, and they did Our Town for which Paul Newman earned an Emmy. About the size of what she could achieve was Mark and Livy, the story of Mark Twain and his wife. It seems that Anglophilia is the fuel of Masterpiece and Americans don’t value their own great books. At one point she was told “not to be ridiculous.”

07NATheAbbey1
Catherine (Felicity Jones) and Henry Tilner (J.J.Feilds) approach Northanger Abbey

Then another fortuitious rescue occurred. Most people seem unaware that the evolving Jane Austen canon came to the rescue again. Since they were done on the cheap, each only 108 minutes at most (depending on where you watched them, it could be as little as 83 minutes) the 2007-8 Mansfield Park (not noticed for Wadey’s take in which the men are ritually humiliated instead of the women), Persuasion (daringly shown to be the trauma of loss it is), and Northanger Abbey (a delightful Davies product) have not been paid serious attention to by film studies people. But these one-shot Austen films were, according to Eaton, central in reviving film adaptations of classic books subtly and originally done again. The three were great draws. By that time she had gotten the rights to Davies’ 1995 P&P so they were accompanied by this P&P and Davies 1996 Emma. She is a great friend of Davies. The next year ahe was able to execute produce Davies’s Sense and Sensibility (with Anne Pivcevic, a long time associate of his), and Gwyneth Hughes’s Miss Austen Regrets. And she used her technique of purchase and cooperative funding to make a 4 part mini-series once again: the Australian Lost in Austen, better liked than people have been willing to admit.

cranford
Michael Grambon, Judi Dench and Lisa Dillon as Mr Holbrook, Matty Jenkyns, and Mary Smith

I was surprised by her then singling out Cranford Chronicles, to which she also attributes the resurgence of whatever is left of the older Masterpiece theater film adaptation and serious domestic drama impulse. The chapter on Cranford Chronicles is the richest of the book. We go from first idea and objections: whoever heard of Elizabeth Gaskell, much less Lady Ludlow? (Cranford was dropped as a school text in the US at the beginning of the 20th century.) Constant trips, lunches, deals sealed with a famous actress on board (Judi Dench), then unsealed, then lost from view, then picked up again, the whole process of acquiring screenplay writer, of writing with her, the sets, how dissatisfied people are with the first rushes, and how they try again and finally have a winner.

When at the close of the book she talks of Downton Abbey trying to explain its draw she identifies what I’ll call a communitarian ideal (she’d never use that phrase) — it’s this sense of loving socially conscientious community where most of the characters in Downton are well-meaning or basically good, with the exception of over-the-top monsters (Vera Bates) or one violent rapist who we know would do it again, no one is ejected, everyone treated with dignity and concern. Well this is the great appeal of Cranford Chronicles too — and Heidi Thomas does one better by allying the stories with progressive ideals. Eaton though singles Cranford out because not just its wide audience (after all Davies had trumped with a new Little Dorrit, Bleak House, a deeply moving Dr Zhivago rivaling and rewriting Pasternak’s novel against David Lean’s reading) but because she does see how it speaks to our times, fairy tale fashion. It must be admitted in this book she spends little time worrying whether a given mini-series reflects its era or particular author — perhaps she leaves that to screenplay writer, producer and director. I note the same film-makers recur for movies made from the same author (e.g. Louis Marks for Dickens). For her warm-hearted Cranford led to warm-hearted Downton.

Her book is meant to function today, 2014 and that too is why two chapters on Downton Abbey are devoted heavily to Downton Abbey, its lead-in, production, aftermath. She talks about why she thinks the program became a sociological event, and now an adjective: it appeared at the right time that year (before the new Upstairs/Downstairs which she says was found to be too dark, too pessimimistic, to much a mirror of our era); the house matters (as did Castle Howard for Brideshead). I’ve just written a paper on Andrew Davies’s Trollope adaptations as part of an anthology on British serial drama and found it distorting to see its purview (it too begins with The Forstye Saga and ends on DA) skewed by too many references to this program. The book is typical; I’ve seen this over-emphasis repeatedly. After all filmically it’s utterly conventional; if it is liberal in its attitudes towards sexuality and the human topics it will broach, it keeps the old decorum up. Its political outlook is one which looks upon the French Revolution as unfortunate, providing only an amelioration; now if only the Granthams had lived in France during the famine. They’d have provided jobs and meals. Nowhere does Fellowes show us that such a house was a power-house, a linch-pin in repressive controlling economic and political arrangements from the which local magistrates and MPs emerged to conscript soldiers and sailors. Everyone who knows anything about country houses knows this.

She does explain why the fuss. The outrageous ratings — it easily beat out Breaking Bad and Madman the first year in the Emmy prize race. It’s a selling card when you want to pitch a new fine series. And to give credit where credit it is, it is high quality; the characters are (as Eaton would no doubt tell us) compelling, psychologically complex; no expense is spared, the actors superb. It is great soap opera and as a woman defending women’s art, I too cry it up (with all the reservations above) as using brilliantly what this individual form in structure can do. She describes the series as a community — that’s soap opera. Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) rescues Mr Carson’s Jim Carter) old time colleague form the music hall from the local workhouse is a single anecdote, but it gathers all its strength by how its embedded in four seasons of memories about these characters. She does not mention that one of its strengths is it is not limited by a nineteenth-century text censored by Mudie’s Library. We can see how a rape plays out.

LadyRosamundEdith
Did Lady Rosamund (Samantha Bond) have a baby out of wedlock and give it up before she married Painswick — soap opera communities license us to look beyond what we can see and hear, to a past to be unearthed

How does an executive producer spend her days. Ceaseless socializing, phone calls, pitches, deciding. She does tell much of this throughout the book and in the chapter on Cranford, but she characterizes her job in another chapter again. She’s in on the film editing, how long the film can be, how its final scene plays. Along the way we learn of how she finally found some stable funding. She garnered as a well-heeled contributor Viking Cruises because a survey she did showed a surprising percentage of people who take cruises to Europe also watch Masterpiece Theater loyally. So she pitched this customer favorite to the running the cruises. She created Masterpiece Trust where wealthy people contribute and get to be named and also introduce the program. Perhaps the unashamed commercials for Ralph Lauren clothes (all expensive artifice) might jar more than the old more discreet pitches for oil and gas companies (but we should remember when we shudder at the anorexic women that they are not encouraging others to drop bombs to ensure Lauren’s profit). One of my books on women’s films has a whole section on how even costume dramas — those set say in the 18th century at any rate and after influence women’s wear. In the 1970s many of the costumes were Laura Ashley like creations — somewhere half between the 18th century and elegant clothes in the 1970s. I note that a certain kind of shawl is now popular since it became omnipresent in the costume dramas of the 2000s Obviously the Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and other stars influenced people — remember Annie Hall, the Annie Hall style … This has long been known and at the close of films nowadays you will see little icons for fashion designers and makers of clothes who the costume designer worked with. So Eaton asked herself who has their product been an advertiser for …

A smaller strand of the book is her relationship with the people who do Mystery! and how and when decisions were made to bring Mystery! material over to Masterpiece. Sometimes it seems as if Masterpiece gets the best of Mystery! they took Prime Suspect (Helen Mirren), and now the new Sherlock (Bernard Cumberbatch). Sometimes a book that one might expect to be on Masterpiece turns up on Mystery!. We are not told why all the time.

rigg
With Diana Rigg on the set of The Heat of the Day (Elizabeth Bowen’s masterpiece on a Mystery! set — but then she was hostess for Mystery! for a while)

The book ends on what she called “the Downton effect” and returns to her personal motivation, satisfactions, and present. It does sound a bit lonely in that apartment. She likes to think of this program she’s served for so many years as she does her life, intertwined memories. The book has flaws; it does not begin to tell all. A full history would be a couple of thick volumes. What has made her the success she is, her rough-and-ready way of seeing things broadly, as some common denominator of intelligent person might, her upbeatness still don’t get too much in the way of sufficient candor. She describes behavior on the sets as no love-fest, and in the various stories of programs that never made it it’s often someone’s ego or a demand for a higher salary that got in the way. She says spontaneous group scenes for photographs are rare. The book never drips; it moves on and has a hardness. It’s apparent she’s not retiring yet. She won me over at any rate. The originating impulse was to do all her mother had not been able to do — she sets up the black-and-white photo near her bed on its last page.

upstarsdownstairs
She gives credit to where it’s due: Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins’s conception of having downstairs get more than equal time to upstairs after watching The Forsyte Saga.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

DA11firstcharacterseen
First named character seen as Downton Abbey began: Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle) heading north for the job of valet to Lord Grantham (DA, 1:1)

DA4LondonSeason
Penultimate named characters seen as Downton Abbey, the 4th season ends: Mr and Mrs Anna (Joanne Froggart) Bates by the sea (“By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea/You and I, you and I, oh how happy we’ll be ….”)

Dear friends and readers,

In this fallow time between last year’s fourth season and the coming fifth season, I’ve been re-watching Seasons 1-3, and reading the first two sets of screenplays, with their long candid notes by Julian Fellowes, as well as the scenario (companion) books by him, his daughter, with contributions by other involved people, and have realized that John Bates is the alter ego, the subversive male self (id anyone?) for Julian Fellowes across the series. Robert, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) is the upright self (super-ego, ego). While Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) was being dramatized as in conflict with because his methods and presence were replacing Grantham, since the star refused a fourth season and was abruptly killed off, the new duo did not emerge, and instead in the fourth season the paralleling of Bates with Grantham matched with their over-arching matched stories in the first season.

I’ve discovered that from the second season on when Mrs Vera Bates (Maria Doyle Kennedy) is found dead, Fellowes provided plenty of evidence to suggest that it was not accidental nor a suicide, but a murder by Bates, driven by hatred and a need to rid himself of this woman who had taken everything from him (money, liberty, respect as he had gone to prison for her crime) and was still determined to revenge herself on the Grantham family who had taken him in and Anna Smith (the woman Bates now loved passionately).

DASeason26finale
From last shots of Season 2, Episode 6: Vera Bates lies dead on the floor

There are four shots and they show evidence of a fierce struggle, things flung on the floor, she still has her boots on.

It’s only in hindsight one goes back to look for the evidence: in retrospect we see the same pattern: what appears to be an accidental or self-induced death, a “happy” and convenient occurrence for both Anna and John Bates, was helped along considerably by Bates. Why is this important? Before we pronounced Downton Abbey woman-centered (in say comparison to Breaking Bad, which it is), even proto-feminist, a gentle and (except for WW1 of course) a non-violent world, we should recognize it also conforms to a pattern I’ve seen in many male texts of the 20th century, males who murder their wives and get away with it, males who pride and ego are thwarted and threatened by a wife’s betrayal and promiscuity (remember the first thing Bates learned when he returned to London with Vera was that she had “betrayed” him) — from George Smiley to say the male characters in Poldark. I mention the Poldark series for a real troubling aspect of them despite their boasted woman-centered and feminist themes, is the males murder their promiscuous wives or the men who cuckold them and get away with it — in the second novel the man who is exiled for the murder is also very much lower class. And as in Poldark and LeCarre’s fiction, in Downton Abbey we have real sympathy for raped women (Anna most notably), including in some mini-series, maritally raped women (coerced marriage is a form of rape, repeated rape) and abused women (that includes Ethel whose baby is taken from her).

It also casts a questioning light on the upright Tory conventional conservatism of Fellowes. In the first two companion books (The World of, Chronicles of), more than once he tells of a newspaper story that stayed with him and he modeled the Bates’s story upon – the trial of Harold Greenwood.

Greenwood, a solicitor from Kidwelly in Wales, was accused of murdering his wife, Mabel, with arsenic, so he could marry a much younger woman. Mabel … had diedin June 1919 … of heart failure, and it was only after a persistent local whispering campaign … that the police … exhumed her body … The found traces of arsenic … and returned a verdict of guilty … it was alleged that he had poisoned her during Sunday lunch, by means of a bottle of Burgundy … Sir Edward Marshall Hunt, [his] lawyer … undermined the forensic evidence, discredited the testimony of a parlour maid … showed that Greenwood and Mabel’s grown-up daughter had also drunk from the same bottle .. the jury, rather reluctantly, returned a verdict of ‘not guilty’ (237-38)

The evidence: reading over the notes to the second season’s scripts I find Fellowes discussing the third and fourth season — not yet filmed, the fourth not yet contracted for. He discusses central themes and brings up his idea that he jumps time as he pleases and would not dwell on a funeral — here it can be William’s death in the 2nd, but it is clearly Season 4 and Mary mourning Matthew’s death he has in mind. Ture, the first five episodes of the first season seem to stand alone as a quiet delight. Viewed without Episode 6 they show that there was no idea that for sure the mini-series would go on for more than one season. The idea was to suggest here this good (ahem) world disintegrating in several ways, but the show’s popularity changed all that and in Episode 6 you see several turn rounds allowing for next season. At the same time it was easy to make Episodes 6 and 7: WW1 was obviously going to be season 2; and the time after for Season 3. So even though they did not plan on a second season for sure, he had ideas for continuation, and from the very first he made stories and characters with some ideas of how things might work out over the years.

He plants clues even profusely, starting in Episode 6 of the second season. We saw the scene at the close of Episode 6 — signs of fierce altercation and on Bates when he came back to Downton early the next afternoon a wound near his eye. Black-and-blue Perhaps she attacked his eye with a knife or fork or whatever came to hand.

discussingsuicidenote
Grantham asking and Bates saying there was no suicide note so they’ll never know

Then the 7th episode. First there is no suicide note. Lord Grantham tells Bates that Lady Cora has been asking if there is any information about Mrs Bates’s death. Women do identify with other women. Bates says he doesn’t think so; “they’d like to know why she did it, but I don’t suppose we ever shall.” (This reminds me of how NASA tried to stall ojn the challenger; they at first asserted they and we would never know what causes the accident.) Lord Grantham; “You’d think she’d leave a note.” Bates: “Perhaps it was a spur-of-the-moment decision.” Grantham says it can’t have been since she’s have had to get hold of the stuff. Bates looks uncomfortable and so his sympathetic employer drops the subject.

Then not filmed but in the screenplay Anna comes upon Bates trying to clean a waistcoat with chalk. He looks very worried, and does not pay attention to her. She signals her presence by suggesting fruit or milk. He is preoccupied and appears not to hear; she asks if he is all right and he says, now that she asks, and is about to speak, but they are interrupted by Mrs Hughes as needed by their employers.

AnnaBeingTold
Anna made to understand by Bates that he had motive and opportunity

The way to deflect attention from how information incriminates yourself is to bring it forward. In the next scene about the suicide (I had almost said murder, so let’s say death) of Mrs Bates, Mr Bates tells Anna his lawyer told him there is a letter from Vera to a friend saying she knows Mr Bates is coming to London after she has told the judge that she and Bates colluded in the adultery evidence so the first decree is thrown out of court and she is now for the first time “afraid for my life.” Bates says, Well he intended to have it out with her; living she had taken all his money and thwarted the divorce. As widower he had everything to again. Anna: “So what are you saying?” that “you had a motive … ” He: “Of course I had a motive. And I had the opportunity.” Now Mrs Hughes interrupts again; Bates is wanted and she says to him he looks as if he has the cares of the world on his shoulder. Not the whole world but quite enough of it he replies.

Episodes 8 and the Christmas episode — which latter weaves as much about the Bates, and a parallel story of Hepworth and Miss Shaw trying to get a handle on Lady Rosamond’s money. In Episode 8 it is carefully dropped in that Bates himself bought the arsenic himself; again he tells Anna this as a sort of afterthought, an unfortunate circumstance which adds to the circumstantial evidence. He brings this up in the one moment we really see a couple naked in bed together thus far — very happy is Anna and she responds by asking him “not to talk about it just now” (p. 477).

shedoesnotwanttohear
They go back under the covers — she does not want to hear this now

Fellowes’s notes to the Christmas episode of the second season in the screenplays are meant to be revealing too: Fellowes writes that he wanted to leave the death “slighty ambiguous,” implying by this that Bates is not guilty yet looks so (p. 508): “I have always quite deliberately left a very slight doubt as to whether or not Batess account is the whole truth,” but this introduces evidence which helps convict the man in the next notes.

MrsHughes
Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) realizing what she’s saying

These concern the improbable way Mrs Hughes, Miss O’Brien and even Lord Grantham tell on the stand the hostile and angry and threatening remarks Bates made. Fellowes knows that people lie on the stand, especially where no one can check up, and in his notes tells us an attorney friend objected to the scenes and characters’ behavior as too idealistic (they would have lied) (pp. 533-536). Fellowes says he did this because he’s seen so much lying that he loves an exhibition of the truth. Rather this is the only way he can highlight more suggestive realities about Bates’s anger that matters for the guilty verdict.

Bates
Bates looking at Anna

Anna
Anna taking it in

When towards the end of the Christmas episode when Anna visits Bates in prison, she thinks he may be hanged, we are told by Fellowes that Bates is “much less unhappy than she” (this is in the stage directions). Bates tells Anna to forgive the others for not lying, says in response to her saying she regrets nothing, he regrets nothing too: “no man can regret loving as I have loved you.” This time Fellowes’s note tells us that “Saint Bates” is not the way to take this: “There is darkness underneath. This is the strength of Brendan Coyle’s wonderful performance.” Brendan Coyle’s resume as an actor includes many ambiguous seethingly angry working class males (Lark Rise to Candleford, North and South, Mary Barton), and we see this seething from the opening episodes on: when Lord Crowborough comes up to the attic to search for incriminating letters between himself and Thomas, Bates is there by his room, and sardonically opens his door, mortifying Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery). Three times he comes close to throttling someone: Thomas after he watched Thomas needle William, his wife Vera after she tells him she will snitch about Lady Mary to the papers unless he gives up the precious position, and most effectively of all in season 3 the fellow prisoner plotting with a warden against him is terrified into wanting to get rid of Bates.

One can only ferret out this information by watching and re-watching, using the screenplays, reading the notes and comparing what is found in in the scenario book for the sources for the character of Bates and Fellowes’s intense involvement and absorption in this character. Anna, Fellowes repeatedly says, is the one fully “good” woman of the series — we may see this as acknowledging how much a Tory, pro-establishment non-subversive, and kindly character she is, but we should notice that in season 4 when she explains why they must keep from Mr Bates the knowledge that it was Mr Green who raped her, she says “I know him and know what he is capable of.”

At the same time if in the second and third seasons we were given enough ambiguous evidence to suggest a covered up murder, it’s only in the fourth when we see a parallel of an supposed accident to Mr Green (he fell under a bus at Piccadilly Circus), which Bates was on the spot to facilitate, that this first death is solved. Again there are the clues, e.g., the day ticket to London hidden in his coat pocket which he is anxious to destroy; his facility with forgery, his guessing where the sleaze card-sharp would have kept an incriminating letter (in his jacket pocket next to his own shirt).

Batesfilchingletter
Season 4: Bates filching the letter from the blackmailer-gambler while Bates pretends to be merely helping him on with his coat

Fellowes is cagey and I am persuaded a self-conscious writer who is aware of the political implications of what he writes. You can see this in his voice-over commentary for both Downton Abbey and Gosford Park. Unfortunately there are no long notes to his screenplay of Gosford Park — which he probably had to persuade Altman to publish in the first place. But in that film-story there is also a valet, Robert Parks (Clive Owen) who murders (or seeks to murder the male equivalent of Lord Grantham in function, a ruthless conscienceless mean liar, Sir Wm McCordle (Michael Gambon) who has been seducing and impregnating his female staff members for years.

Among these victims, is the present housekeeper, Mrs Wilson (Helen Mirren) whose child Parks was; Parks’s placement in an orphanage McCordle lied about. So too did McCordle impregnate (like some gothic villain), Mrs Wilson’s sister, the present cook, Mrs Crofts (Eileen Atkins) whose baby died because Mrs Crofts tried to keep it and didn’t have access to medicine, warmth, food, care enough while she worked. In Downton Abbey the impoverished Ethel and her illegitimate baby are dependent on Mrs Hughes’s care packages. Parks easily gets away with it as most of the characters loathe McCordle (and the inspector, brilliantly played by Stephen Frye does not want to fish in these dark waters), but no one is sardonically quietly seething as Parks. Fellowes wrote that script too and we there rejoice Parks got away with it — with a good deal of help from his mother, Helen Mirren, the housekeeper, Mrs Wilson — the perfect servant anticipating everyone’s every move. Of course in this story Park is the biological son of McCordel by Mrs Wilson whom McCordle lied to about where he placed the boy.

Herfirstlook
Gosford Park: Mrs Wilson apparently visiting Mr Parks to see that he’s got everything
Theyseeoneanother
Parks telling her she misses very little

As films begin to gain more prestige as art forms and we get these written materials we can understand what is in front of us more — see it in the first place as movies move so swiftly we miss a lot.

I’ve been asked this useful question by a friend:

about Bates expressing Fellow’s id — there is something especially unsettling about the servile valet, bowing and scraping to the masters, while inside boiling with a literally murderous rage–which is directed at people of his own class. I find him an interesting counterpart to–and now I am forgetting names–the chauffeur who married Lady Sybil, who seems such a lap dog in contrast. What are we to take from this–that the servants like Bates who are seemingly upstanding and pious really do want to murder their masters in their beds, while the alleged Marxists are simply waiting for a seat at the table? This doesn’t bode well for Anna.

I can’t say no. Maybe Fellowes is dramatizing upper class aristocratic nightmares from the English civil war on — I begin there for in the 17th century we begin to get diaries and private papers showing how servants turned on the masters in civil wars and revolutions. But from the notes and scenario books I feel Fellowes more identifies — and far more humanely than he does with Lord Grantham who is made too much a Sir Charles Grandison figure, a dupe, who cannot take care of the estate and his wife’s money in investments.

I’ve been reading Rush and Dancyger’s Alternative Scriptwriting this morning, where they show how film strongly tends to personalize and find the actuating motive of whatever happens in a particular character, even in documentaries; and how the “other” can become the point of view of a film quietly. That’s what I think happens here sexually and politically. In films there is a strong tendency to see what occurs as a result of personal histories not larger social and economic and political forces. One of the interests of Downton Abbey for me (Gosford Park even more because of Altman’s genuinely liberal presence) is how Fellowes, however you may not like his politics, wants to get theese larger forces into the scenes as actuating them and does manage it. Through Bates and also Tom Branson (Allen Leech) he brings out an opposing outlook on Downton Abbey — one example, when Thomas first shows Bates in Lord Grantham’s room with all his elegant clothes and expensive snuff boxes, Bates remarks on what a load of treasure is before them, how they get to handle, but own none of it. Thomas agrees (though he prefers to filch wine). Then Bates goes up to his room and we see how bare it is, and yet now he is so gratified to have this quiet private space to himself if only for sleeping time. At the same time the other main parallel story of this episode is about how Grantham inherited and held on tothis property by marrying Cora for her money and immediately sluicing her money off to support it.

BransonNotsurewhoheis
Branson and Lady Ethel (Laura Carmichael) expressing to one another at close of Season 4 they have lost their way, he is still not one of the elite, and she a hidden unwed mother who has not given up her baby

Branson by contrast is supposed the idealist socialist — he loses his way because emotionally befuddled. That Bates is not. Bates knows who is the victim, and who we should compassionate. He and Anna (also after she finds out that Ethel is pregnant) alone compassionate Ethel and he alone continues to treat Ethel with respect and his own gravitas, e.g., he remarks to Mrs Hughes, she’sbadly shaken, to Mr Carson she’s lost everything (p. 401, episode 8). In Episode 8 Bates shows up Hepworth for the weak shit he is. That’s what he’s there for. His story is central to many of the hours, especially prominent in the first and fourth season.

I suggest we empathize with Bates, or at least grant him much sympathy. He is not only strong and compassionate towards others, he is himself disabled. In the first three episodes of the series, everyone in the house but Lord Grantham, Anna, and William want to see him fired. He is heroic in his quiet attempts to do all that others do. We see him humiliated and deliberately sabotaged by Miss O’Brien, Thomas, given no human understanding by Lady Cora. The cold Lady Mary cannot understand why someone would hire a man “who can’t do his job.” Anna reminds her that Mr Bates was Lord Grantham’s batman in the Boer War and fought hard. Lady Mary concedes this is so, but will not give the man any slack. His attempt to straighten his leg with a torture instrument in the third episode is painful to watch and we feel painful to experience. He is one of the outsiders, and through him Fellowes does widen his purview to get us to identify with the 99% — all the more in that he is not presented as a Saint, an Uncle Tom. James Baldwin could not attack Downton Abbey as a protest novel (where sentimentalism replaces real anger in a victim).

Beyond this we concede his wife was a horror, and Anna in danger of repeated rapes from Mr Green (until he was fired at Lady Mary’s knowing request) because she felt she could not tell the police. I agree that the story is one which revives lawless duelling as a way of solving problems, and the thinking behind Bates’s killing of Mr Green is in line with honor-killing. The mini-series has an underlay of troubling violence.

Fellowes (again in the notes to the screenplays) offers as a moral lesson he sees as central to the whole of his mini-series, here as connected to Anna and Bates. When Lady Mary gives Anna time off to marry (and we later learn) arranges a room for them to honeymoon in for the first night, Fellowes comments: this show is about “whether or not people are being allowed to exist within their own universe, and here, nothing is disrupting that (p 465). The conservative thinks active socialist gov’ts do not allow “people” to exist within their own universe (people here being the rich, with the rest of us controlled by bureaucracies): I’d put it that active socialist gov’ts who genuinely have humane ideals and decent people and values actuating the way goods and services are seen and delivered facilitate this kind of living within one’s own universe without the disruption of poverty, exclusion, stigmatizing, war.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

LadySmallwoodLindsayDuncan
Lady Smallwood (original story Lady Blackwell, player Lindsay Duncan — one of my favorite actresses), politician

AmandaAbbingdon
Nameless person calling herself Mary Morstan (original story, Watson’s wife, player Amanda Abbington), double

Dear friends and readers,

This was the best of this season’s films: the players returned to the guarded within anguish stride of the first season, only with a multiplication of women — in the original story blackmailer Charles Augustus Milverton knows the sexual past of only one woman, Lady Blackwell, whom he will shame as well as the honor of the man, and the family she is planning to marry into; here she has metamorphosed into a sort of subMargaret Thatcher, woman politician with reeking perfume (Thatcher liked to be sexy with men). In this 2013 story where Milverton has metamorphosed into the amoral ruthless social media magnate who is supposed to make us think of Rupert Murdock but is dressed like Dr Strangelove (all but the gloves, thus evoking Kissinger) and could as easily be Roger Ailes of Fox TV, considering the immediate influence he thinks he has, this villain also is pursuing a second woman: our sweet Mary Morstan turns out to be one of these nameless heroines (so familiar to readers of women’s romance (Rebecca anyone?), only her past appears to be one of violent assassination and such shameful ugly behavior she fears John Watson will be alienated forever if he is already not blindsighted by discovering all she has told him or implied has been lies.

Far more usual of the previous seasons are the twists and turns of extra plot-design with matter from other Sherlock Holmes stories woven in: so we first meet Sherlock apparently under the influence of drugs (opium become heroin? cocaine?) in a filthy temporary open air ruin-space of addicts where Watson has gone to find the son of a grieving black woman who comes to him as a doctor who cares for addicts.

HardMoment
Black and white version of Sherlock (Cumberbatch) as we first see him (from Tumblr)

Now that Sherlock is blessed (to be pious about this) with a family, he and Mycroft and Watson and Mary too do some turns in the parental home at Christmas.

tumblr
The brothers (Matiss as Mycroft) – “Aw shucks, mum!”

Modern motifs combined with older ones include the Sherlock in hospital and Sherlock as out-patient, hovering murderous helicopters over our heads (we are under the bombs), stun guns; lots of overlay of computer print-outs as someone’s inner thoughts. In her study of Holmes stories Emelyne Godfrey showed that weapons, weird, pizzazz ones, or merely cruelly wounding were central to many of the Holmes’s tales; Godfrey also showed that the core meaning of respected masculinity in the tales was not spontaneous wild violence as a means of expressing say disapproval: as when Louise Brealey as the indignant Molly is reduced to half-hysterically slapping Cumberbatch with all her might for “throwing away his gifts”; but rather carefully channeled effective violence aimed at the mindlessness (sorry to say this but it’s true) of the lower class vulgar and/or somehow inferior male. The recent spate of Sherlocks (in the cinema too) move against the grain of Doyle’s work where smart calculated “restraint is a index of modesty, reserve, manliness, professionalism.” But so anxious are these new shows to make women the equal of men, even the silliest behavior if men are thought to do it is enough to give us a woman doing it so she will be deemed admirable.

Mollyworried
Molly worrying over Sherlock in a way that recalls Kitty (Amanda Blake) endlessly fretting over Matt (James Arness) in the 1995 Gunsmoke (‘Oh Matt! be careful.’ ‘I will, hon.’)

A recap.

I shall have to admit that Jim Rovira, one of the commenters of my last blog can make a good case for the thinness and feebleness of the original material in this case. “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” is deservedly usually ignored in studies of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock canon; it is just so cliched, down to the titillation and class snobbery of Sherlock disguising himself as a lower class man courting Milverton’s housemaid (unnamed in the original) to find out where Milverton is hiding the documents he uses to blackmail people and both he and Watson breaking the law (gasp!) in order to steal into Milverton’s lair (called Appleton Towers in both film and original story). Where in those Holmes stories that go deeper, family honor becomes a stalking horse for far more interesting social and psychological conflicts, not so here.

Perhaps they were attracted to the story for the same reason my husband Jim used to say the Sherlock canon has become cult stuff: it is so hollow you can pour anything you want into it. I think that’s unfair as I argued with Jim Rovira: there are some superb stories and lots of people (Emelyne Godfrey among them) have agreed with me the stories dramatize serious and important conflicts and themes then and since (through many film adaptations too). This one did allow for feminization (if I may be permitted the term) of the Sherlock material. Matiss and Moffatt took an opportunity to have yet another supposedly “tough” female about: the unnamed housemaid becomes a secretary/personal assistant who despite her Arab looks (the actress is Yasmine Akram) and name redolent of what Said called “orientalism” (Jasmine) sports a melodious Irish drawl and evening dress even in broad daylight.

janine-sherlock

If we count Mrs Hudson — Una Stubbs doing her best to be memorable –

uktv-sherlock-una-stubbs-2_1

and Mother Holmes (Cumberbatch’s mother also now employed), trying not to attact attention, the domestication (if I may coin another term) of the series I noted in Parts 1 and 2 is now seen in women women everywhere. One joke is to call Sherlock “Sherl” — feminizing the name to a diminutive of Shirley. The joke is made by Jasmine with the effect of bringing Sherlock “down” to her level; that is a woman — implicit is the idea that whatever are feminine qualities, they are not worthy.

I’ve no doubt Matiss and Moffatt did seize the doubling opportunity they hit upon to transform the apparently conventional female Mary Morstan character into a female action-hero who could also sustain a love interest: she emotes wonderfully well her love for “John,” and how she cannot stand to sit in the chair (per usual with the Sherlock material) and tell her tale as victim since her tale will make her beloved Watson reject her. And anyway we are against victims, are we not? there are no such things in the world any more, are there? they must be complicit, passive aggressive becoming a term of praise almost in this new anti-sympathy reactionary ethic preached up in popular media. She is very pregnant by the end and so happy to be so (photographed so as to emphasize this), but by the end of the tale there is real feeling between them:

Talking
John and Mary’s faces as they talk to one another in their final scene

even if John shows his love for her by throwing away her story without reading it: instead of a packet of letters he hurls a thumbdrive into the fire.

Why did I like it – or think it an improvement on the previous two parts. Not for the multiplication of women as only intermittently did Lindsay Duncan or Amanda Abbingdon have moments of genuine feeling. Nor their or anyone’s violence. Nor for the any post-modern working out of typical Conan Doyle themes as in the previous season where camp art and a strong sceptical disillusionment and depressive mentality made for intelligent entertainment. Rather because despite the overlay of superfluous sudden outbursts of violence, modern gadgetry and neon underlinings, the program managed to recreate a companionable rhythm of story-telling, to re-establish the central effective team friendship of Sherlock and Watson

sherlockairplane

ending in a rescue of vulnerable people from a genuinely horrible man in a way relevant to our era.

LarsMikkelsn

The omnipresent spy gathering all our documents, the murderous cold-hearted ambitious capitalist politician with his militarist thugs in tow is a creature we can’t have too many attacks on. What could be worse than a man spying on us all? eager to tell unless we pay him huge sums of money.

That is, I thought the program did what good relatively faithful or commentary (heritage) film adaptations usually do, even if it was an appropriation or modern analogy type. It did take a long time getting there.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

When I turned again, Sherlock Holmes was standing smiling at me across my study table. I rose to my feet, stared at him for some seconds in utter amazement, and then it appears that I must have fainted for the first and the last time in my life. Certainly a gray mist swirled before my eyes, and when it cleared I found my collar-ends undone and the tingling after-taste of brandy upon my lips. Holmes was bending over my chair, his flask in his hand. “My dear Watson,” said the well-remembered voice, ‘I owe you a thousand apologies. I had no idea that you would be so affected’ — Doyle and Hawkesworth’s Empty House

I have heard you say that it is difficult for a man to have any object in daily use without leaving the impress of his individuality upon it in such a way that a trained observer might read it — Doyle and Hawkesworth’s Sign of Four, briefly paraphrased by Moffatt, Gatiss, Thompson

SmallWalkingAway
John Thaw as Jonathan Small being taken away to prison at close of Sign of Four

Sherlock Series 3
It is now Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) who walks off alone from the wedding gaiety (Sign of Three)

Dear friends and readers,

Well something like two years have gone by since the latest Sherlock mini-series was last aired, and as Episode 2 (Sign of Three, a total reconfiguration of the original story (see recap in I Should Have been a Blogger), Sign of Four) shows, there is something genuinely new attempted here; we have moved from sceptical and at times exhilarating camp to melancholy sentiment.

Nothing wrong in that. The real greatness of the 1987 filmic adaptation of Doyle’s Sign of Four was to have made the story turn on the perception that Jonathan Small has thrown away his life in his search for treasure and to have framed the inward story of this man (a kind of redoing of Marcus Clark’s For the Term of His Natural Life where the hero’s life is spent either in slavery or prison) with the grief on the one hand of Mary Morstan (played by the stunningly almost unreal beauty, Jenny Seagrove) for her father and on the other a coming perception of romance between her and Watson (Edward Hardwicke, as ever subtly plangent): inbetween half-mad melancholy bizarre twinned Scholto sons (played by Robin Hunter). Doyle’s story by comparison is a thin if exciting adventure chase, colonialist-drenched, also caught in the 87′ filming:

chase
Jeremy Brett at the helm, on a dark river, passing under steel bridges, keeping the prey stealthily in sight

Pursued
Jonathan Small, the pursued — scenes reminiscent or anticipating of Dickens’s text as seen in recent film adaptations (e.g., Sandy Welch’s Our Mutual Friend)

What’s awry is the melancholy sentimental figure is now Holmes himself and it’s not earned, there is no suffering, it’s egoistic. At the close of Sign of Four Small is the solitary figure, genuinely outcast; at the close of Sign of Three, Holmes walks away looking uncomfortable as everyone else gets on with the conventional wedding, but he is not exactly off to prison; at home will be Mrs Hudson and if he doesn’t keep his door firmly shut, his parents (Cumberbatch’s own parents have been secured) watching over him.

I thought it an intelligent idea to transform the original “Empty Room,” where Doyle brought Sherlock back and had to explain to Watson how he survived jumping over the falls so that the characters really emotionally involved in coping with Sherlock’s emotional manipulation of Watson’s depression:

Sherlock: Holmes and Watson go underground
Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock and Martin Freeman as Watson, together again in Empty Hearse

but when Empty Hearse (see recap) was done in such a way that Watson’s neuroticism has become wounded friendship (I had hoped the new title signaled an allusion to Orson Welles’s Third Man, where we have an empty coffin, but no such thing); and as opposed to the original story (and the Brett-Hardwicke enactment) a huge rigarmole put forward to explain how it was done (filler not camp), I became restless. As Freeman as Watson says, who cares how it was done? I reread the original story and found the explanation had been kept to a minimum.

Worse yet, our two buddies have obtained two emotionally attached female sidekicks, one whom I am not supposed to forget is in real life Martin’s partner (Amanda Abbington) and looks just too ordinary clunky to be lifted into another realm. I really couldn’t help feeling the crew had decided they might as well give another of their set off-screen a job.

SignofThree

The other is a girl so hopelessly smitten with Sherlock, Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey), that’s she’s willing to marry an inadequate simulacrum, rather like a doll; I’m told this character was in the original stories; if so who her open worship in the original stories was kept decently in the margins.

MollyHopper

I admit the most touching scene in Empty Hearse was a quiet dialogue between Cumberbatch and Brealey, slightly sweet, which I wished had not been lost in the overblast of all the computer tricks both episodes are determined to cover the TV screen with.

As will be seen, any whiff of unconventional sex is erased this season. When Mrs Hudson’s (Una Stubbs growing so old) failed marriage is made to carry subversion we are in trouble — not that it couldn’t as she was an abused woman, but it’s made a sort of uncomfortable joke of. One can no longer complain there are no women in this series, though when they function in the way of Lucy Liu as Joan Watson in Elementary (Sherlock Johnny Lee Miller attempting to remain alienated by keeping to ragged clothing), I find myself wishing there were less of them. I don’t claim there was any feminism in the 1980s-90s Brett series, but there were strong lone women, and what was at stake often were versions of their integrity (as is seen in Jenny Seagrove’s performance as a daughter who in the end rejects how her father spent, wasted really, his life and hers).

Again to give the new series its due: The Sign of Three does eliminate the egregious (embarrassing) racism of The Sign of Four, both story and 1987 film. Doyle and Hawkesworth (screenplay writer in 1987) give Small a small (very) black man as a fierce (animal-like) servant with teeth that look like something from an early caricature of Darwin’s intermediate apes: his great quality is a dog-like loyalty to Small: he saves Small repeatedly by poisoned arrows. Of course Holmes has no problem simply casting these off with his hand, and shots the servant point-blank dead. By contrast, Gatiss, Moffatt and Thompson (three screenplay writers now needed) interpolate a new story about a black guardsman, more English, gentleman-like, courteous in his behavior than the guardsman in Winnie-the-Pooh (remember Alice bemused at him?):

guardsman

This Anglo-, very well mannered, self-controlled guardsman is stalked by a white half-crazed man who looks very poor (hence suspicious); this stalker attempts to murder the guardsman by stabbing him in the shower (shades of Psycho?). This man turns up as the photographer at the Watson wedding and is easily unmasked. As will be seen though the writers turn to a new stigmatized group for ready blaming (the poverty-stricken). And they elevate an elite norm of the gentleman. I remembered how in Gaskell’s North and South (adapted as a mini-series), the manufacturer Mr Thornton tells Margaret, our heroine, that what matters in a man is not his manners, his gentlemanly surface, but his character within. In the new Sherlocks we are in Nancy Drew land where the English gentleman is the figure all men long to be, and all women to marry.

The New Sherlocks have succumbed to a pattern I’ve noticed in many of the large number of mystery series that now are found everywhere on PBS; often the detective figure is no longer to the side listening, intervening, with each week a new perspective on whatever the theme is, but develops a little family and friend group who become a central nexus, rather like a situation comedy (which is what Doc Martin feels like). The central figure is normalized, attached to a group of conventional or unexamined ideals. The effect today is to rob these series of whatever serious emotions each of the weekly deaths or anguished characters who walk off the screen provide. The ensemble camp art, the nihilism of the second season is gone.

The inversion of the early and mid-century mystery-crime stories reinforces the complacency of having detectives who go about solving who did what, meting out poetic justice, tidying up the world — Margaret Allingham knew she was doing that with her Campion series; this is not what was projected by the Holmes stories, so we end up with the Empty Hearse supposed rationale of mad chases a terrorist threat laughably unrealized — but laughably won’t do as inspired silliness when one or both of our two men are in an unguarded emotional stews.

Sherlock-Benedict-Cumberbatch-in-The-Empty-Hearse
Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock re-appearing in Empty Hearse

When Sherlock rescues Watson out of a bonfire for the Guy Fawkes’s night we are in a Perils of Pauline scene. (Again the female victims of old have turned male in the new Sherlock.) When the characters we are made to care about each time come back next week, and we are made to feel they will always be rescued in the nick of time, what’s to worry. Again we are in Nancy Drew land.

I am interested in this re-composing of the original materials: it represents a newly aggressive dislike of film adaptation that respects the source text’s terms and power. The justification is this will be more popular: it’s an elite group who knows the original books. Moffatt, Gatiss, Thompson may congratulate themselves that they’ve eliminated obsolete grating costumes and norms; but as we have seen, they end up substituting later 20th century ones.

Further, in the case of the Sherlock stories I think not. These are easy reading and still read. Hence the cult: you can pour into their relatively thin formats what you want. It seems to me no coincidence the last two PBS seasons other hit, when not sneered at because it’s a soap, Downton Abbey, gains more acceptability by not being based on an original novel. Gentle reader, have you noticed there are hardly any film adaptations of great books coming out of public TV in the US at least.

Here (like Austen’s Emma defending what she has hitherto seen no need to defend or herself questioned) I move somewhat in the opposite direction I usually take: I think there is something especially delightful and enrichening when you have a film adaptation that is faithful to the book. What makes people uncomfortable is the film in part does not live alone: you can watch it without reading the book if it’s long and subtle and well done enough, but reading the book enriches the experience immeasurably.

There’s a real prejudice against this — as there is against the art of translation. Since the development of copyright law which enables people to make money and perhaps lots of it dependent on the idea that the text as an idea even not made concrete in concrete books is a property there has been a strong development of the idea that secondary texts which are allowed but not private property in the same way are inferior. That does not go so much for films that make money and are copyrighted in their own right but the feeling does rub off. My feeling is the analogous adaptation, the appropriation is lauded on the wrong basis simply that they are different and so give us something new to talk about more easily — rather than the difference makes for a good film. It may; it may not.

The problem with the New Sherlocks is the material is resistant. They haven’t gotten rid of enough of it. In the originals typically a person who has been a victim comes to see Mr Holmes and sits down to tell Holmes and Dr Watson (standing by) his or her story. The narrator is this victim or another victim as the adventure gets going (in the Sign of Four, Jonathan Small). Colorful characters emerge with their stories (the Schioltos). In the first and second season although not explicit the narrating presence was Watson, blogger, man who visits his psychiatrist and spills his soul out. Now it’s Holmes himself, giving a long account of how he managed to fool Watson, and producing a tedious — and the writers know so try to deflect it by half-making run — wedding speech. The action such as it is is in flashbacks in the form of Holmes’s story. But Holmes does not bare his soul; that is part of the original material the writers haven’t dropped. Holmes listens, say in Sign of Four to Sholto:

Bartholomew (2)
Holmes listening

HauntedHouse (1)
He and Sholto in a far shot of the house haunted by the treasure box kept within

HauntedHouse (2)
Sholto

Bartholomew (1)
Inside the house, brother Bartholomew

The new Sholto (Alistair Petrie) is by comparison the man who listens; his face is horribly scared and he is so stricken by life that Holmes tells the story. Unlike Small and the half-mad Sholtos of the original story, this man has obeyed all traditional moral norms and been blasted; he comes to Watson’s wedding out of the same kind of sentimental friendship we see Holmes and Watson share:

Sholto

The man broods, the present disappears and we are in some other time with everyone watching Mr Holmes explains how he’s doing this, what he’s thinking. Since we don’t have a chase as plot-design, we are left with a curious stillness in both episodes 1 and 2 of this new season. Superfluous torture scenes thrown in — where again we are watching and nothing happens — the joke (bad taste I think) is that going to Les Mis is worse — Mycroft (Gatiss) is forced to take the parents to Les Mis (of course he would) so he is forgiven for letting Holmes be tortured in Empty Hearse. Yet Holmes will not bear his soul: it would not be the masculine thing to do. So whatever inward life such a scene could have is gone; its new context of domestic sentiment precludes taking it as an imitation of Tarentino.

Watching a German film adaptation of Marlen Haushofen’s The Wall last night, meant to be the faithful type and meant for cinema, I knew it was richer for me having read the book and the real interaction and intertexuality between text and film. I know the older Poldark series, the 1967 Forsyte, many of the most praised type of the 13 episode transposition (the technical term for faithfulness) do need us to read the book. That’s true for Fortunes of War — then the experience is remarkable.

Next blog I’m going to argue that part of the richness of Downton Abbey is its original scripts are not written to the formula of Syd Field — moving ever forward in a simple pattern — but rather meander, work up a full world, have much that remains inexplicable rather like a novel. By contrast, the new Sherlocks stay with the assumptions, aesthetic and moral of the latest year. They are interesting, but (I think) fail because they too closely mirror the currents of 2013 in TV, on the Net, in recent unexamined norms in actual life too. Neither looks at the conservative political ideas both programs embody.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

coverart,jpg

Dear friends and readers,

Some nine days ago I put Anthony Trollope’s satiric newspaper article, “The Uncontrolled Ruffianism of London” on my website and described its immediate context on my blog as preface to a review of Emelyne Godfrey’s Masculinity, Crime and Self-Defence … . It’s one of the many many intriguing documents Godfrey discusses in this, her companion volume to her earlier equally original Femininity, Crime and Self-Defence in Victorian Literature and Society (see Caroline Reitz’s review in Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, 59-60 [2011]).

Both books, taken together, depict the era in which modern crime fiction (mysteries, police procedurals) developed as one of the responses to the growth of large cities where crowds of people unknown to one another live in close proximity; others are new permutations in norms for middle-class masculinity (as these are men who had to walk or today at least drive and take public transportation in said cities) and defensive tactics for women who feel themselves at risk or want to participate aggressively too. The root is the very paranoia that Trollope unerringly describes and partly mocks in his timely article.

Istruckhimblogsmall
“I struck him again and again” (from Femininity, Crime & Self-Defence)

In a nugget, Godfrey is looking at crime from the point of view of the city-goer, using popular writing and images and activities (clubs, educational groups), works of popular playwrights and texts by two literary geniuss: Anthony Trollope and Arthur Conan Doyle. Richard Sennett is an important source for her fundamental bases: Sennett (whom she quotes at key points) says modern cities are structured so as to have public spaces where the threat of social contact between upper, middle and lower classes is minimalized — they are planned to keep middling citizens from the “underclass” (the under- and unemployed, the poverty-striken, those driven into criminal and violent activites), but these breaches are easy to cross (p. 3). There are just so many pedestrians, commuters all higgedly-piggedly hurrying along. A fear of exposure emerges, a horror of injury.

Godfrey studies a popular movement then (and there is an equivalent one now), partly paranoic, of self-defense seen in the way male violence is depicted in the era. There is the question of what is a socially acceptable masculine behavior: self control and self-restraint were and still are part of the upper class gentleman ethos; the problem arises that men therefore may see themselves as potential victims as well as perpetrators of crime. When she looks at the interiority of male heroes you find a restrained flamboyancy; sartorial restraint is a index of modesty, reserve, manliness, professionalism. Godfrey has studied a slew of books on the history of respectable fear and where this comes from, on media panic, on figures she calls “men of blood” (violent men who yet stay within legal bounds, e.g., Trollope’s Lord Chiltern in his Palliser books. She looks at male anxieties and some of the weirder deadly instruments that were developed — like the truncheon Phineas Finn ill-advisedly carries with him (“the life-preserver”) in Phineas Redux.

Middle class respectable men were also supposed to protect women from men imagined on the attack. Novels in the era dramatize the maltreatment of women, e.g., Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall; Trollope repeatedly uses trope of animal cruelty to depict a ruthless male; the most typical opening of a Conan Doyle Holmes story is a gentlewoman comes to Holmes for protection.

jenny-seagrove-sign-of-four-1987blog
Everyone remembers John Thaw’s magnificent performance in the film adaptation of Sign of Four, but the story opens with the elegantly dressed Jenny Seagrove, all anxiety, come to Mr Holmes for help.

The later 19th century is a period of wide-spread investigations into methods of self-defense. She divides her book. Part 1 covers hitherto neglected plays popular among middle class audiences. Part 2 is a study of Trollope’s exploration of masculinity in the large political novels which take place in cities and show the importance of a measured response to aggression. Part 3 reveals the Sherlock Holmes narratives as a collection of lessons expressive of Doyle’s views on reasonable force in response to violent crime; they too promote the cause of measured self-defense for gentlemen. One new element emerged for me: I had not realized how frequently the Holmes stories focus on uses of weapons, many of them cruelly wounding.

******************
HenryBallsmall
Henry Ball’s belt-buckle pistol of 1858, Royal Armories, Leeds

AntiGarrotterblog
Anti-garotte collar and advertisement

Part I (Chapters 1 & 2) tell of the xenophobia (“foreign crimes” hit British shores) and class fears that led to the build-up of myths around a phenomenon that did occur but not with the frequency claimed: the garrotting people. Godfrey begins her book with singularly cruel execution in Cuba in 1852: a man was strangled to death in a wooden chair while an iron collar passed around his neck screwed ever tighter; his windpipe is crushed (p 19). Garrotta was the name for this kind of capital punishment and in a twist became used by robbers; you threatened to strangle your victim to death. There were such incidents on London streets where people began increasingly relying on police protection: a 1st incident is recorded 12 Feb 1851.

Godfrey looks at the panic from a literary angle, and debates in texts about nature of middle class heroism. She discusses the 1857 play by C.J. Collins’s Anti-Garrotte, a farce which reveals how reports build an awareness of such crimes; in a later unlicensed play, The Garrotters by William Whiffles, a man feels dread reading about all these strangulation robberies (p 21). The 1853 Penal Servitude Act that allowed more convicts to be given tickets of leave helped justify paranoia; these were conditional pardons for good behavior, with the person released in the UK instead of Australia — such convicts became associated with garrotters. Descriptions appeared in magazines: a 3 people act; Henry Wilkinson Holland interviewed thieves; here were articles on house-breaking equipment which anticipate Holmes uses to break into residences (panel cutter, crobars, skeleton key, lanterns). Later American readers had Wm D Howells’ play The Garrotters (1890s). Anti-immigration and racial fears (terms like “thuggees”) feelings were stirred so for religiously-dressed motivated Indians who carried a scarf (a rumal) were called “noose-operators.” Mid-Victorian novel, Confessions of a Thug (189), our evil Arab, Ameer Ali robs and kills for gain, but he also takes life for sport and exploits and murders anyone showing him kindness. Murder by strangulation is part of the imagined point; in an interview a female thuggee takes pride in having killed 21 people. Fear that exhibit in British Museum teaches these criminal types how to perform such evil crimes

Misogyny plays into this too: a recent book by Neil Story concludes most garrotters were female (ex-prostitutes). A modern film, The world is Not Enough presents Pierre Brosnan as a James Bond tortured by a garrotting woman. (11 years earlier Nicholas Meye’s The Deceivers presented Brosnan as Wm Savage, a British thuggee hunter learning art of manipulating the rumal.) It should be said there were no statistics on female victims.

Tellingly Richard Sennett is quoted suggesting that the fear of exposure leads to a militarized conception of everyday experience as attack and defense. In Phineas Redux Trollope suggests there was a run on life-preservers The Times described a weapon called an anti-garrotte glove; this was a gauntlet fortified with claws, hooks, blades. Some of these show people felt immediate killing or maiming someone else in self-defense as personal protection just fine (p 46). Another recent book, by Rob Sindall (Street Violence in the 19th Century) argues the panic was self-induced and over-wrought. Tom Browns’ Schooldays presented the middle class male ideal and shows concerns over middle class young man’s ability to defend himself. Clerks felt in danger, and acted on norms of self help, independence, masculine self-control — victims becomes feminized (as in the rape in Kleist’s famous novel). Delirium tremens seen as shaming the victim. She notes that Emily Bronte’s novel has many weapons; Gaskell showed that the Rev Bronte kept arms.

[This is utterly germane to our world in the US today where it seems to be open season on young black men since Zimmerman got away with murder: or maybe it's that those of us who were unaware of how black men are regarded as dispensable, attacked with impunity on the grounds the person was made anxious (really) are no longer ignorant. Trollope's article remains sceptical, ironic: he does not say there are no ruffians in the streets, but the man who lives in terror of this as an epidemic, acquires a weapon, is perhaps more in danger from the weapon being taken from him (how modern this argument is, just substitute the word gun for truncheon).]

In Chapter 3 is ostensibly on the Ticket of Leave man, Godfrey studies Victorian
obsessions over middle-class (white) masculine fitness as an index to “the health of nation” and how such ideas stoked fascination with street violence. Images formed in melodrama were deployed to create a garrotter-villain on stage: he’d have a black face, wrinkles, would be degenerate. All in contrast to new middle class ideals of civilized behavior; the magazine All the Year Round insisted there was a link between crime and disease. In this context ticket-of-leave men are seen as belonging to an abject group, who also are involved in a “tide of sewage, disease, and cholera” outbreaks.

Trollope’s is not the only sane voice: Henry Mayhew interviews convicts to show their difficulties in finding work, how they suffer false re-arrests (Stop and frisk anyone?); and Mayhew gives an account of a garrotting supposedly from the point of view of the criminal; the problem here is his story implies garrotters and convicts are the same people (p 31.). Two 19th century plays, the well-known Tom Taylor’s Ticket of Leave Man reveals society’s prejudice to develop sympathy for the rehabilitation of Robert Brierly, duped into a forgery scheme; this play was broadcast in 1937, and revived in Victoria theater, 1966 — the archetypal heart of the story is a good character thrown into bad situation.

Another play, Ticket of Leave has good and bad ticket-of-leave men. One Bottles, disguised as butler plans to garrot and rob his master, Mr Aspen Quiver. A wrongly accused convict saves Mr Quiver; again the play does not address false misconceptions. One famous attack in 1862 on Hugh Pilkington (MP for Blackburn) helped lead to a call for the old system to be put back in place. A Director of Prisons, Joshua Jebb, tried to express his support for ticket-of-leaved men. but draconian security measures against violence were passed in an act of 1863 that stipulated flogging.

Part 1 ends with a chapter about the weapons people carried, how several publications, most notably Punch made fun of these and (like Trollope) suggested the person in more danger than the garrotter by carrying such a weapon. There are plays where farcically we see characters over-estimate the danger and react hysterically to information received in the papers. There really were spiked collars, with self-injury the most likely result. Godfrey suggests articles in magazines register a perceived reader’s reluctance to depend on a perceived incompetent police force. Urban heroes those who supported and aided the police; you were supposed to remain calm; you fight back with similar weapons. Gradually what emerged was a civilizing offensive, an adoption of violence adverse perspective; over-arming seen as form of hysteria, but onus on individual to protect himself.

***********************
LifePreserversblog
“Life-preservers” (so-called), like the one Phineas carries and imagines himself threatening Bonteen with at their club door (see Ruffianism)

Part II: Anthony Trollope : aggression rewarded and punished, 1867-87

74Pallisers48Ballot19blog
A dramatized scene from Phineas Finn

Chapter One is called threats from above and below, fighting for franchise and concentrates on Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux. Some notes: Phineas’s response to violence affects social standing and political career; the question of what is a gentleman important in the novels; Trollope puts forward Phineas as an ideal of gentlemanliness: social grace, innate goodness. Political action in Phineas Finn is complicated by the question of what is appropriate aggression and what shows one’s fitness to vote (Trollope not a democrat). While we see politically motivated violence, Trollpoe distrusts political violence because he suggests it uses political ideal as a cloak. This is placing the cart before the horse (p 65), but the Times agreed: the legitimate citizen was not a man of the crowd (p 66). While Trollope is looks at the problem of bellicosity in all its aspects (a duke can be as violent as a collier, e.g, Chiltern and Kennedy) and suggests women do not forgive blows (p. 67); it is the pedestrian’s encounter with crime that is the focus of the Palliser series as a whole.

74Pallisers510Duel6blog
Chiltern heading for the duel

74Pallisers510Duel7blog
Phineas waiting

74Pallisers510DuelBackwards8blog
The duel

Trollope in his earlier phases seems pro-duel (p. 68): Godfrey goes over the history of attitudes towards duelling swiftly: it was always at odds with rule of law, but the first successful murder prosecution of a duellist was in 1838 (p 71): the voiced Victorian objection was a man left his family destitute. Trollope‘s depiction does, however, throughout betray a nostalgia for outmoded code of honor. His Chiltern resists the new cultural changes, and we are asked to see that when he can channel his violence into hunting, it is a splendid gift for providing healthy and even egalitarian (so Trollope argues though he knew how expensive it was) sports for men. Phineas reluctance is carefully not motivated by cowardice; Trollope means to show us that a man’s bravery need not depend on weapons; Phineas shows bravery and coolness in the face of death; he shoots up into the air, no murderer. The duel in Trollope is also a male secret, a male rite of passage (p 75); but we see how Phineas leaves himself open to Quintus Slide, to blackmail and finally an accusation of murder as a man of blood.

74Pallisers59Kennedy21blog
Brooding Kennedy

Chapter 5: Lord Chiltern and Mr Kennedy are two violent poles. Chiltern is the unrestrained man of blood, he should exercise more self-control, there’s a lack of manliness in not being self-controlled; but violence in Chiltern stems from lack of purpose and frustration (p 78); fox hunting allows him to use and master his finer senses – there are fears here too of the over-sexed male; Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wilfell Hall is anti-hunting. Godfrey points out that Children’s fiery temper does not harm him and men need physical confidence to survive.

Phineas too saves Kennedy, and the scene in Phineas Finn is based on a real life incident in 1862 sparking garrotting panic (pp.83-86). Trollope here seems for citizens arrest, and Phineas’s protection of Kennedy exemplary (by inference though Kennedy seen as impotent male who does not sexually satisfy his wife either). The norm here seems to be that the ideal (male) citizen does not actively seek confrontation, but exercises judgement (the right to bear arms is not the point). In Phineas Redux, he learns that you do not openly threaten, that weapons themselves are endanger people — he becomes too wrathful in his own disillusion and disappointment. His encounters with with Bonteen parallel encounters in earlier book; hunting scenes are parallel; this time Phineas hurts his horse, but this time frustration, his exclusion and feelings of inadequacy erupt. As ever Trollope is intrigued by what precipitates violent turn in human nature (p 108): what really unites all these stories is the male characters are driven into violence by a combination of what is expected of them as men (success) and what is thrown at them (scorn). Godfrey finds a parallel in the treatment of the cloak in Trollope’s Phineas Redux and one of Conan Doyle’s stories; more important is that Conan Doyle restricts his dramatization of males in psychological pain to the men Sherlock Holmes investigates and indites so that the latter series implicitly criminalizes what Trollope presents as part of his heroes’ behavior. (See my Heterosexual heroism in Trollope.)

74pallisers1122creepyexpressionblog
Stuart Wilson endows Ferdinand Lopez with a pained humiliated expression on his face before breaking out into threatened violence against his wife

There is in Phineas Redux and The Prime Minister a fascination with the murderous life–preserver (as we shall see fascination in Sherlock Holmes with exotic weapons) and other more usual weapons (whips). Interestingly, Godfrey likens Phineas wounded by lack of status, rank, respect with Dickens’s Bradley Headstone’s hatred of Eugene Wrayburn (in Our Mutual Friend) — but not Ferdinand Lopez’s; of course both books are virulent with antisemitism in the portraits of the whip-threatening Lopez and Emilius who does cravenly murder Bonteen from behind. So finally, as opposed to his newspaper article (“Ruffianism”), Trollope takes a stern, not comic approach, to the wielding of deadly weapons.

**************************


The Adventure of Abbey Grange — beautifully brings all motifs together, woman needing protection, sadistic cruelty, flamboyant defenses

Part III: Physical Flamboyance in Holmes Canon (1887-1914): on Holmes and martial arts continued in comments section 3.

The conclusion and assessment of a change of norms in the era in comments section 4.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

winstongrahamblog
Winston Graham — from his middle years

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

An annotated bibliography

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

WalkingStickSeashore2blog
Still from the fine 19560s semi-art film, The Walking Stick

POldark77Pt9.blog
Richard Armitage and Demelza Carne Poldark falling in love over their shared reading (Poldark 1977-78, Part 9)

96PoldarkClowanceblog
1996 Stranger from the Sea: an attempt to de-politicize the Poldark novels, turn them into ethnic (wild Cornwall) domestic romance (defeated by the brevity of the film and vociferous protests of fan club for 1970s mini-series & its stars)

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

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

RossPoldark1stedition
First 1945 edition of Ross Poldark

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

5BlackMoonCover1blogsmall
Cover for the 5th Poldark novel reflecting the 1970s film adaptation

4WarlegganNovel4blog
Recent British set (21st century)

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

Graham_The_Little_Walls1stedition
1st edition of Little Walls

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

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

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

Ellen

Read Full Post »

65th+Annual+Primetime+Emmy+Awards+ArrivalsMichelleDockerblog
Michelle Dockery looking lovely at this years’ Emmy awards (the 65th ceremony): Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey; Katherine, Shakespeare’s Henry V’s queen, in an upcoming Great Performances

Dear readers and friends,

I’ve been working on a paper on Andrew Davies’s two film adaptations of Trollope novels (The Way We Live Now and He Knew He Was Right), and was able to read some of what will be published in the coming volume and came across the (to me) intriguing phrase, “a television novel” used of Downton Abbey and The House of Eliot in a paper on serialized drama. The author was quoting an analysis of types of serials by Michael Hammond (Contemporary TV series/serials).

The phrase charmed me and I thought the differentiation of types of narratives useful. There are three basic useful ways one can divide them (the paper has other divisions) and look at the serials as novels. There are the closed ones, serials which have definite closure and an ending since they are based on already extant novels (The Forsyte Saga, The Pallisers, Poldark; all the Austen movies); there are the open-ended with self-contained episodes where we meet characters who dominate a particular week and are never seen again with the continuing characters and place providing a minimum of background continuity (Duchess of Duke Street, and in the earlier seasons, Upstairs Downstairs); then there is the series which is open-ended, has some self-contained story arcs, but also story arcs which not only cross an entire season but are continuous from season to season (Downton Abbey, West Wing, apparently The Sopranos).

I extrapolate: in novels the first type is found inside a single novel (Vanity Fair by Thackeray). The kind of omnibus volumes with a couple of central characters whose stories are important to but where the emphasis is on this week’s or this story’s or this novel’s characters to be set adrift after you shut the book is found in Sherlock Holmes and typical mystery series, also Prime Suspect (which however also developed the central female detective’s story marginally and occasionally centrally too. The second type: open-ended with self-contained episodes or stories, characters who dominate a given book and then disappear for the most part describes Trollope’s narrative art in his Barsetshire and Palliser series. The third type where emphasis is placed on continuing characters and each novel is part of a continuing storyline reminds me of the Poldark novels, or Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time.

It fundamentally changes the experience of a written novel which is tightly structured to turn it into a serial drama — the way so many Austen books are filmed.

HolmesWatsonblog
Typical shot of Lucy Liu as Joan Watson and Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes

I tried to watch the first episode of this year’s Elementary because I so liked the new Sherlocks on PBS with Bernard Cumberbatch and Martin Friedman and very much like Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund Bertram and Mr Knightley (Mansfield Park 1999, Emma 2009) as well as the intensely neurotic types he played on Prime Suspect. He did not disappoint: the character has again been partly reconceived, this time the emphasis on edginess, something coming near breakdown or cracking (coming close to Friedman’s brilliant embodiment of Watson) while the new Holmes character in his down-and-out dowdy wintry clothes, nonetheless holds up and does all the marvelous sleuthing, ratiocinative thinking and talk (Miller is superb at this talk).

Don’t be fooled: this is no more feminist than the recent Sherlocks. Lucy Liu as can be seen in the above and many other stills is Holmes’s secondary side-kick and follower. She is violent all right — this is the series’s stupid idea of making her masculine, but there to feed him lines, fill out the scene in the way of the Conan Doyle’s Watson or the Watson of the Jeremy Brett series.

Jonny+Lee+Miller+Elementary+Films+NYCblog
The pair on a NYC bench

But I only managed a half an hour. The program was so larded with commercials I gave up after half an hour. It might be a fun TV novel but was not being given a chance to breathe, to have any extension without interruption. It’s a shame for here is a program which does not celebrate wealth, gregariousness, conventional glamor and success. He’s troubled; his brother Mycroft turns up having taken over Sherlock’s flat and gotten rid of Sherlock’s things, replaced them with soulless fashionable furniture.

withnailrainmansherlockblog

Rhys_IfansMycroftblog
Rhys Ifan as Mycroft

In this case it’s the look of the stills, the caught moments in front of famous statues in their scruffy clothes with their worn faces that makes the series intriguing more than anything. I shall have to wait until it’s produced as a set of DVDs and ask someone to buy me them for Xmas and then try to watch for real. I did not know that Gielgud played (read aloud on radio) Holmes, and I’d never have recognized Hugh Laurie in that make-up: favorite Sherlocks (perversely omitting Basil Rathbone).

New translations of works continually renew our understanding of them: a great or fine or merely archetypally engaging and popular work which is understood by its first audience in a specific way may not pick up much that is in the work, especially popular understandings; the author may not see all that is there. Yes what grows up around a work becomes part of it; it’s not written in a vacuum in the first place. So too film adaptations work this way, and literary criticism adds its insights.

In the specific area of Holmes films — there are a huge number, possibly more than for Dracula or Frankenstein, especially if you count each film per story as one. In the volume my paper on the Pallisers was published in (Victorian Literature, Film Adaptations, edd Bloom & Pollock) is a paper by Tamara Wagner on the Sherlock Holmes canon. She examines what I suggest can’t stand real scrutiny: she suggests that the Basil Rathbone series are no more accurate than say the Jeremy Brett ones; 1940 is not 1890 and the audience these were intended for were a preWW2 post WW1 audience. For me the imaginative realization that is closest to the text as I imagined it will probably be the Jeremy Brett: that tells something of my age. The Cumberbatch are too devoid of any feminism and there is much feminism of the Edwardian protective sort in the originals (think of the back story of “Hound of the Baskervilles, 17th century girl kidnapped, raped in an upstairs room by rakes for fun). I enjoy these new version for what they shed a new light on: the relationship of Watson to the stories (his psyche) and then Holmes secondarily, and what they show us about our era. Miller and Liu mean to react against worship of luxury, money, rank, but they substitute a new set of somewhat absurd fetishes: drugs and depression as flare.

**************************
FemaleDetectiveAForresterblog
Trying to read James Redding Ward’s Female Detective: a very early set of detective stories (1862), with (as the title indicates): a female detective, Ward in convincing drag — these center on women’s world and their real distresses, vulnerability, blighted lives

I’ve been trying to watch TV in the evenings because I’m now alone and too tired to read all night or even watch a movie with attention. TV invites a relaxed approach. Alas, I get too relaxed and continually fall asleep so I can’t say I’m succeeding. Jim says (he still can understand what I’m doing and comment wittily) I’m bored. I don’t think so; it’s more that there are too many programs on, most of which is junk and when I do find something I think I might like, I often don’t understand what’s happening since the series moves too swiftly, relies far too much on intuitive memories of cliches and stereotypes so the program makers need only allude to a kind of incident or story rather than dramatize anything at length; the dialogue is so naturalistic, I can’t catch what the characters are saying. I do better with older series (Inspector Morse) or say watching a classic drama: Shakespeare’s Richard II last Friday was superb, and I mean to watch Henry IV Part 1 tomorrow night.

I’ve noticed these mystery type genres have taken over serial dramas on the so-called better channels. My view is this supposed masculine plot-driven active sub-genre is a mask for revealing deeply troubled private material of our society. And Ward is doing that. This is part of the gothic mode. Women have been relegated to private life; to hide our private lives under some regimes of law allows beatings, killing, horrible exploitation as women are shamed and terrified into silence. So to see a woman detective is liberating.

I can stay awake for news and some kinds of documentaries: for Amy Goodman and DemocracyNow.org on the Howard University Channel, Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff’s PBS news hour, David Attenborough and his worlds of animals. Amusingly they keep telling me they’ll see me next time, when it’s I who see them; they do not see me. With the documentaries on commercial channels there is the problem of continual intrusions of signs on the screen (visual ads), to say nothing of quick successive many commercials. I know the so-called program is supported as an excuse for ads and there is care taken lest the program have any values which run counter to the ads. The ideology of TV is in the continual advertisements intertwined with everything, one another no matter how ludicrously inappropriate the juxtapositions are; even PBS does it: corporate sponsorship it’s called there. TV is flow; you turn it on like a faucet and the water pours away and I find I have trouble entering this flood. What’s sold is a false picture of prosperity and success through entrepreneurship, desire for goods one does not need but give prestige; goods which deliver youth, health, popularity, social success. I try my best to ignore them but they are very loud and viscerally aggressive.

*************************
LadySybilPromotionalShotblog
Lady Sybil (Deborah Brown Findlay), in the fiction of the show, now gone with Matthew Crawley, William Mason (footman, Daisy’s husband and Lavinia Swire (Matthew’s bethrothed) (all in the burial grounds)

Gentle reader, what would your definition of a TV novel be? It comprises far more than a narrative form. Something within that holds us into its world.

Downton Abbey starts on British TV next week. It’s been promoted for weeks, with continual stills released, a new Behind the Scenes with book — on heavy art paper with lots of beautiful photographs. If you count these couple of weeks, and then at least 13 episodes until Christmas, and then the same 13 run on US TV, then the re-runs and release of the scripts, the show goes on all year long. Not that I mind. It’s to my aesthetic taste. I loved the way Dockery looked at the Emmys: better than any other woman there, her costume redolent of an earlier time in the 20th century, I would be surprised if the costume designer of Downton Abbey didn’t have a hand in it. I watched the speeded-up YouTube covering the season to come jokily

I’m happy to see Anna (Joanne Froggart) back with a spiffy hat, complete with brown velvet ribbon:

AnnaSeason4blog

To me Cora, Duchess (Elizabeth McGovern) is beautifully ethereal if far too thin (semi-anorexia allows her to take on a younger kind of older woman):

CoraCountessCrawleyblogsmall

And I hope Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) comes into her own as journalist, mistress of the proprietor, a Jane Eyre character as seen by a complacent reactionary Tory (Jerome Fellowes): here she is contemplative and not anorexic at all:

LadyEdithSeasonFourblogsmall

Yes as with a novel I’ve bonded with these characters (as I did with Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison). I don’t miss Dan Stevens as I never bonded with his character: he was too much into compromise and conventionality. I hope a less centrally wholesome male will emerge (but with Fellowes I doubt he would allow a hero to be a Jonny Lee Miller type). Thomas the footman might take a lover. I hope. Ethel get her baby back as she learns to be this splendid cook. I’d say I’ll miss Miss Obrien (Siobhan Finneran) with her scepticism subverting the Dowager’s, but she was so often a target of misogyny (as Finneran said she was tired of being contemptible). And there’s Daisy (with her father-in-law and farm), Mrs Hughes (wry, sceptical but hard) and Mrs Patmore (who can make me cry) — these women have not been similarly promoted with beautiful photographs — showing the tenacious hierarchy of the creator’s mind. At any rate I have tonight cheered myself by remembering them too and their mostly lucky (rich as they are) stories. It may be that the character who will make me cry for real is Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) mourning the death of her beloved son — look at her face, it’s being held together.

DowagerIsobelblog
with the Dowager Violet, Lady Crawley (Maggie Smith)

How lonely life is going to be for me.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

our-cancer-yearcoverblogsize
Cover of graphic novel

JBrabnerHPekarblog.jgp
Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner at the time of the book

Dear friends and readers,

As those people who read my Sylvia blog know, my husband, Jim (“the Admiral”), was diagnosed with esophageal cancer this past April 28th, and he and I have been coping ever since. He had major surgery on June 3rd, and has been slowly recovering; it is probable he will have to endure chemotherapy and radiation when his natural body processes have re-asserted themselves.

During this time I have been told many success stories about people who survived nearly inoperable cancer. I have heard of a few who died. I’ve also had recommended to me books to read — to pass the time, to teach and sustain me. One stood out & I bought a copy of the graphic novel, Our Cancer Year, text by Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner, pictures by Frank Stack. Pekar is famous for his powerful because truthful American Splendor comics, adapted for film.

I find I often respond to graphic novels very directly and can get irritated by them in ways I wouldn’t by a sheerly written text. Have others found this? does this genre enter into people’s lives at some sore angle? I found I had a direct visceral personal response to this graphic novel about an experience of malignant cancer in the husband, Harvey, that he and his (third) wife Joyce, are sharing which Jim and I are now analogously experiencing. Harvey and Joyce live in a run-down apartment in Cleveland — the way the real Harvey and Joyce did. They have many books, about the number Jim and I probably had when we lived in an apartment.

Openingblog
Here they are told by the super they will have to move and argue about it

The super will later be shown to be a man trying to cheat them at every turn, trying to set up a kickback situation for himself at the same time. That this may be common shows why some people who persist in this property cherishing DIY.

I am interested in the genre of graphic novel and how it differs on the one hand from comic books and on the other from textual novels. It has depths the comic book does not have: not just the drawings which can be artful, but the text itself comes in at an angle different from that of text. There is an implied authorial and an implied illustrator presence. It is a collaborative and complex new sub-genre of the novel.

Thus far I’ve read adapted graphic novels (from Austen’s (S&S, P&P, NA), and from Radcliffe’s Udolpho; three original great ones by Posy Simmons (Tamara Drew, Gemma Bovery and Literary Life), two powerful gothics by Audrey Neiffenegger’s (Night Bookmobile and The Incestuous Sisters), and a couple of women’s memoirs (Persian whose author’s name and title I can never remember, the pictures too tiny, the writing too dense; Jewish, Bechtel’s which is really half-lies not simply autobiography with imagination; and Phoebe Potts’s Good Eggs, which I found unreadable and ludicrous). This book is closest to these memoirs by women but reaches the level of Posy Simmons’ work at moments.

***************************
Moments from early in the book (my reading & gazing experience):

Well I’m well into the book, and as yet Harvey has not gotten himself to go the doctor, undergo surgery, to find out what his lump near his prostate gland is. He knows of the lump (near his prostate) and has thought of cancer. But (we are told) he had surgery once and it was a disaster. Their lives are busy: she politically active (traveling to Israel, to Palestine); he’s a file clerk in a Cleveland hospital and writes. They make a striking contrast to Jim and my own as we were not at risk of being thrown out of our apartment, not being driven to buy a house above what we could afford, not politically activist, now armchair socialists.

Harvey and Joyce must move as the apartment house they are in will be condemned when its present owner gives it up — which he’s about to do. Harvey hates to buy a house, he is one of these US people who think the house owns them, and she agrees, but Joyce says that she will hire a handy man. (Glad to do this act it seems.) They are about to close the deal on the house, and Joyce goes to Israel because while at a conference she got herself involved with some people and takes this so seriously, she travels to this country and attempts to (in effect) interfere with their lives. She is astonished these conference friends are responding hostilely to her, differently than at said conference. Whole real contexts, experiences of their lives comes out.

She did not realize that there would be Palestinians who side with Saddam Hussein: after all the US lets Israel take over the West Bank and do what it pleases; why should Iraq not have access to the oil rich fields of Kuwaiti? The gassing of people by Saddam is brought up, but not how the US has crushed all social movements in the Middle East ruthlessly.

What gets me here is not these larger issues but that Joyce leaves Harvey in a lurch after promising she would be there for this house she wants and he doesn’t. He’s bad at email and computers. This is irresponsible given that she has reason to believe he is ill.

LeavingHim
The airport scene where she leaves him

HimThinkingAboutIt
He thinks about it

We cannot tell from the pictures or the text where the implied author stands in all this. I suspect we are to take Joyce’s action as right. Later when Harvey persists in carrying things to show how strong he is, part of life (is this the way we measure being part of life), while she waxes exasperated it’s clear this behavior is admired. But when he wants to throw himself out a window, all he gets is anger.

I would not respond this way to most books – it’s not just the incident but how I am made to feel somehow viscerally — yet the pictures are not great (nothing like Posy Simmons) nor the dialogue — which for once is not that self-involved I suppose. It’s a kind of stubborn stupidity, deserting the person she is attached to for people, when if she only understood reality is not her concern in this way. Have others had this experience (I wonder).

The pictures are however good enough and differ from cartoons in comic books. First they resemble the people (look above, the photo of Pekar and Brabner). Second, when the characters (for are they not characters? or is this is a diary in comic form?) when the characters are miserable, they writhe; the kind of strokes change from average comic looks to blackness, or anguished lines on white. There are many close-ups of anxious vexed faces.

HarveyCantSleepblog
Harvey Can’t Sleep

The above is typical. Intimate. The drawings of places, of the offices, the hospital, of things are all resolutely naturalistic. Stack had to work closely with Brabner and Pekar: his drawings give rise to their thoughts and vice versa.

Finally Joyce drives Harvey to go to a doctor and he has a procedure. That he was anxious about this lump after all is shown by his getting up hours early — before dawn — to get to the hospital, and even after Joyce refuses to go at 3 am, getting her up way too early still and getting there at least an hour early. We see her the first instance of how she is not extra-nice or good to him, but impatient immediately.

This is not emphasized by any narrator, but is clearly meant to be there, so we have an implicit author presence. It’s not clear who is it. Often the story is told from Brabner’s point of view (that of the care-giver) and yet there is a double-author. This is another instance of the presence of the dual author different from the text in front of me.

****************************

Handywomanblog

Bondingblog
Joyce finally hires a handywoman to fix her house continually; they bond over memories of her mother’s cancer

In the middle of the story when they finally face he had cancer what struck me is how once they are told he has lymphoma, they at first treat cancer almost as if it was just like any other of their problems. They do go BANANAs over the words and we get several frames where the word is put in GIGANTIC caps as the two characters take this information in but then they don’t proceed really to discuss the new development in any terms different than say their moving. This did astonish me. But among the stories I’ve been told I’ve recently come across one where the couple appear to be doing just that. That they are cannot be discerned.

People behave outwardly as if cancer is just another problem. They never mention the word death. I wonder if their doctors play this silence game with them. I know in hospital the usual greeting is “how are you” very brightly and the expectation is you’ll say “fine!” If you don’t, they ask why. The crass unreality of this false brightness is justified I suppose because otherwise emotionally such places would soon be messes of criss-cross uncontrolled emotions.

Well, Harvey and Joyce’s unexamined notion they must fix the house they are getting well beyond what the code violations require is what takes possession of the narrators’ minds. This leads to Joyce’s hiring their super as I said; but now he turns out to be crook and is subtracting and collecting “finders’ fees.’ That’s a kickback Joyce says. Hundreds of dollars will be spent, but she does have brains and fires him and finds a handy-woman after my own heart who confronted with a “solution” that costs $600 prefers a fix that costs $49.95. In that frame I wondered if the author saw what her characters don’t: how absurd they are in this fixing business. I can’t tell for then they go on with the renovations. Further (as in the pictures directly above), the handywoman is presented idealistically. She never talks about whether things match. The handywoman is not imbued with ideas of fashion or what “re-sell.” She is not believable.

Meanwhile the man in the story and real life too has cancer and it begins to dominate their lives will-they nill-they. They are going to chemotherapy sessions, love to talk about doctors and medicines continually (we are told). Joyce is given a schedule as a nurse like the one I had — totally indifferent to her needs. Should she quit her job, she asks. Answer: It’s up to you, with a refusal to acknowledge money or her personal fulfillment is involved here.

I note there is little open discussion between them and none with the doctors that amounts to any acknowledgement of what is at stake on any level. In our case the doctors did discuss this — maybe because we did. We did not and do not treat Jim’s cancer as if it were just another problem or vexation in our lives.

Fixing a house is a non-serious thing, cancer which brings death is not. Yet frame after frame does show the man suffering: he has to have chemotherapy and there are several frames where they are given this 12 week protocol which turns them both into continual nurses. Friends talk to them and sometimes give them mostly useless advice (go for alternative medicine) or nag at them in a scolding fashion (I would not tolerate this kind of thing for an instant), or tell stories of who died and who lived – the latter we’ve had.

Neighborsblog
On the contrary, I found neighbors gave good advice, or they tell sensible stories, or they smile and stay away

There are similar scenes of his times at chemotherapy clinics and in the waiting room.

*********************

As the book progressed towards its end, I admit I became appalled, more shocked than I usually am at stories of thousands massacred and raped.

Disinfectantblog
Where the nurse cares more about disinfecting the chair than her patient and wants to eject him because his blood count is too low for his chemotherapy

As Harvey declines in strength, is subject to the pains and miseries of chemotherapy, the cold indifference and indignities of the staff: one nurse demands he be sicker or she’ll throw him out; when he does vomit from his treatment, she throws him out in disgust for that. Joyce’s unkind behavior to her husband was not just unforgivable but something I could not understand. Her mother pointed it out to here, and she justified this as “this is the way I am” and Harvey would not like anything else.

Really? He liked being scolded and threatened? He is writhing on the floor, miserable in the chemotherapy clinic, going wild with fear an pain. So she scolds him to behave better. She presents this time as her being simply irritated at being coerced into taking care of Harvey and nothing else. After she shows a film about autistic adults as part of her do-good politics, Joyce is less adamant as long as Harvey represses his misery. She says the feeling against her seems to be, “How dare she?” as if this is wrong; it’s not. She changes his pants, and seems to think he owes her big for this but she takes advantage of his debilitated state. Joyce bullies and pushes Harvey throughout.

It’s not just the big things, but the small ones. Does she help him quietly and kindly and tactfully? Is she tender in gesture? it does not seem so; the gush of sudden togetherness happens periodically but that is not daily life for a person with a fatal painful disease trying to cope with treatment that is harsh and administered with indifference.

Here I thought about the source of genuine liberal generous politics. Joyce does practice this with her vote, but what is the source of her leftism? It seems to be a practical and social bent where she wants to interfere with others, have power intimately, experience other lives intimately, and yet she does not like if the other people really tell her what they are thinking and feeling.

One sequence shows her finding Harvey near paralyzed and she curses him, hits him, damns him for two pages, she hits him with her fist and asks him what is he doing to her? He’s doing nothing to her.

HittingHimblog

The man may be dying, surely now is the time to be courteous, forbearing. And he to her. He is merely silent — while Jim was cranky at moments. She does not after this sequence behave better to him. Again there are loving scenes; of her taking his wedding ring too big for him now and putting it round her neck. But when push comes to shove, she’s not with him.

My learning curve on these nurse duties was large — I am first of all miserable at machines. But it was all mechanical. I didn’t need to learn to be tolerant, courteous, kind. I read and followed instructions, I wrote everything out I was told I had to do. In the face of high risk, my husband simply behaved the way the doctors and nurses said to, and I helped and protected him. We never lied to one another, no mincing words, and no accepting that from physicians. We demanded a minimal from one another, kept up courtesy and made jokes. We did not regard cancer as just another problem nor did we look upon ourselves or any sick person as dispensable, a cog in a crew.

Again, her political activism seemed to me a species of interfering with other people. She was not as bad as the people in the clinic sometimes were — his job is gone and he has to learn the computer while so sick. Now she ignores him and cuts him little slack. The book ends with a visit she is having from her Israeli and Palestinian friends and one of her friends helping Harvey down the stairs. (That’s not in Joyce’s instincts you see.)

Downstairsblog

We are told in a closing note that they omitted many people who did help them. This reeks of “It Takes a Village” sentimental false pretenses. We do need help beyond ourselves; there is such a thing as a community, but only a minimum is given. The closing pictures are of the two of them overlooking a park and the new house and unkempt large yard-garden they will now have to cope with. At least that’s the way they see it.

Close

********************

One is left with many questions. How should one take the story of Joyce? Is it meant ironically? How literally true is it? Are we finally to see the story through Harvey’s point of view? His face is suddenly there in frames and many of the nicest pictures are of him. Many pictures and sequences are about his pain, his misery, his loss of his job, how he is just replaced after 20 and more years of working at the hospital as a lowly file clerk. It is insisted he learn the computer and take on a different function. Were he to have been more ambitious, risen higher would he have been treated better? This kind of specific question is not dealt with.

Their cancer year is a year of learning about many things beyond cancer but its core is the cancer. Why else name the book this way? to sell it? The book is as complicated as any textual novel but the authors are not people who question themselves or their culture deeply enough to have created a masterful novel. So they produce a book which imitates what makes people miserable but does not explain how this comes to be: it is grating and feeble (Joyce’s rage, Harvey’s refusal to buy a house all these years) where it should be exposing US values and its economic system which isolates and does not help this couple. They are a pair of victims (a very unpopular word and one not part of the vocabulary of this book). The artist, Stark, too does not have original pictorial insights — though he is capable of great expressivity with lines. Maybe he needed them (his authors) to see what was happening to them more clearly. In short it remains popular rather than important — as perhaps the movie American Splendor is.

There’s a wikipedia article on Harvey Pekar which tells of his death in 2010. It seems he died of an overdose of medicine after his cancer had recurred for the third time. (Or so the article says; we may suspect suicide.) This would be nearly 20 years later as Our Cancer Year seems to occur in 1992 or so. I’ve never read any of his comic books before nor did I see the film American Splendor.

Joyce survives him and she does look like her photo in this comic book: she remains politically active — brave woman who I find very irritating in what I’d call her neurotypical personality traits.

As for Frank Stack, he is an “underground cartoon artist” who has a very hard time surviving because he would like to practice a genuinely questioning art in the American south.

FrankStackblog
Frank Stack’s picture of himself, the last frame of the book

I do recommend the book to anyone who has experienced cancer, especially from the angle of the care-giver.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

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)

**************

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.

******************

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

Read Full Post »

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.

********************

“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

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 170 other followers