Archive for the ‘mystery-suspense’ Category

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

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.

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.

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.

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.


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


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:

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


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


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.


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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

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:

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

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.


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.


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?):


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.

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)

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:


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.


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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.

“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.

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.

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

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.

“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

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.

Chiltern heading for the duel

Phineas waiting

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.

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.)

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.


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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:

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

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

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):

First 1945 edition of Ross Poldark

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

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

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).

1st edition of Little Walls

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

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


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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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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:


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):


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:


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.

with the Dowager Violet, Lady Crawley (Maggie Smith)

How lonely life is going to be for me.


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Cover of graphic novel

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.

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.

The airport scene where she leaves him

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.

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.



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.

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.

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.


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.)


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.



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.

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.


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

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.


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)


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.


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

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.


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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.


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Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce has just tried to kill herself: near the opening of the 1945 MGM Mildred Pierce; director Michael Curtiz, first screenplay by Ranald MacDougall (his script constantly superseded by 7 different writers’ revisions), produced by Jack Warner

From closing shots: Mildred and her ex-husband, Bert (Bruce Bennett), now apparently reconciled leave behind police office and their daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth), stands (rightly) accused of murder

Dear friends and readers,

To me there is just no comparison between this muddle of a film and the 2011 mini-series I wrote about the other night: Mildred Piece 2011: starring Kate Winslett, a woman’s life and a bad seed. The recent film is a genuine exploration in adult fashion of a well-meaning woman’s life and conflicts then and now, with a real attempt to explore her ambivalent relationship to her amoral daughter. That exploration is done in what seems an unconscious way by John Cain in his novel who as narrator is not just absent from his novel, but functions like an unaware mirror of unerringly sore scenes from 20th century American life (recalling John O’Hara, James Jones). In the 1945 commercial film, the book’s story and characters are continually undercut, rendered absurd or simply marginalized in favor of visual film noir images brought in by means of wholesale changes in the original story and characters.

These changes, together with the original story may just be why when we watch this film or discuss it we are become part of a sociological event, a key cultural object for its time. I found no less than 6 essays on it in JStor; it’s dealt with by Jeanine Basinger and other film studies, feminist and not, and because of its history Todd Haynes re-made it. The 2011 film garnered 3 good magazine reviews and within a year two serious film scholars have published analyses. So the film interests me and I watched it because others have and I here to to present what this film is made up of.

So, first the original film departs radically from the book, and in plot-design and ambiance resembles two others films based on Cain novels: Double Indemnity in which Barbara Stanwyck as femme fatale heroine enlists Fred MacMurray to kill his wife for the insurance) and The Postman Always Rings Twice where tough-guy hero, John Garfield and femme fatale Lana Turner kill her husband. These other films, like the 1945 Mildred Pierce, present stories that are made lurid in feel and action, with the actors dressed up glamorously. It also resembles the later (franker) film adaptations of James Jones’s Some Came Running (Frank Sinatra and Shirley Maclaine in profound versions of American-loser roles), and John O’Hara’s Butterfield 8 (Elizabeth Taylor, an American icon who changes her typology with the decades), and A Rage to Live. Cain’s books are male versions of the female domestic romance turned (of which I had patience to read only Some Came Running) into a mirror of US life in the modern city as it is really felt to be lived.

There is a male masterpiece in this subgenre, a great book I’ve never forgotten since I read it in my teens: Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy: where the core story is that young working class man engages himself to young working class woman, gets her pregnant when he finds at the same time he has attracted young upper class girl and crowd so he murders girl to get her out of the way. Much of the novel is this male trying to escape detection rather like Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The difference is in Dostoyevsky we have a story of a man we are to admire who fancies himself a Neitzchean hero; Dreiser’s hero is mean, petty, an utter conformist whose main lesson by the end of the book is that one cannot cross class boundaries. That is not the lesson the reader is presumed to take away, but it is part of the lesson of the films.

Cain’s book Mildred Pierce and this 1945 film both differs significantly in that it attempts to be sympathetic to the woman, and turn a femme fatale into a type found in what was called (derisively) female weepies, a sentimental version of good American woman torn by her conflicts over her love of a philandering unsuccessful husband and desire to be a career woman murdering the female. I can’t know what the original screenplay was like, but apparently the bad-seed daughter in this unexamined scenario of American values still with us, becomes a focal point for a depiction of jealousy: this Veda is jealous of her mother and wants her lover, Monty, to be yet more glamorous, yet more sexy-looking, have more money. What was (in Cain’s book) a depiction of American family life where over-solemn worship of a child is made a twisted center for pieties, an excuse for whatever the adults want to do is here a parallel plot with little psychological motivation except that it provides scenes of two women fighting with one another, where the one sneers (the daughter) and the other looks distressed (the mother).

In this film Crawford departs from her usual hard-bitten roles and often all softness and emotionalisms. Here she is discussing as earnestly as Bennett does as Bert:

what to do about Veda’s career; here’s Ann Blythe as an over-dressed kewpie doll singer in tawdry nightclubs:

I am also interested in women’s films and have watched (for example) and liked Now Voyager, A Letter from an Unknown Woman, and Stella Dallas. In two of these (as in this Mildred Pierce) the woman’s relationship with her daughter is central: in Stella Dallas, the women ends up giving up all to the daughter and in Now Voyager, she retreats into idyllic motherhood for a whole community of girls.

There is a group of people seem to love the 1945 Mildred Pierce (and will declare themselves fans of Joan Crawford). I don’t hate it; it has some merits, especially when compared (it seems) to other women’s films around that era (and before), which usually end on the woman crying, in a fit of utter self-abjection, sometimes in self-sacrifice before her daughter (Stella Dallas), or simply self-loathing because she was deluded by her romantic love for some man. I don’t think it’s a misogynistic movie as a number of 1970s feminist critics (and implicitly Jeanine Basinger in A Woman’s View: How Hollywood spoke to women, 1930-1950) argue, but neither is it feminist, ambivalently or otherwise (as more recent critics want to find out).

It is, in fact, a muddle. No surprise here when you read the history of the film-making and how continually the “studio” (in the person of Jack Warner) demanded sudden changes in plot in the direction of a murder-mystery, subduing of depiction of female sexuality as dreamt of by men and the film noir propensities of Curtiz.

A toned-down shot of Crawford’s legs: as originally shot all we saw was her legs.

The way this heroine’s first success as a restaurant-owner is pictured shows only her legs and torso as her sexed-up boyfriend and eventually second husband (this follows the book) sees them from an angle near an imagined ceiling.

The movie’s real problem concretely is this continual turning away from Cain’s text to make excuses for toned-down sexy shots (Crawford is never naked, ever fully dressed), and effective film noir moments which do just about make sense if you can get yourself to take seriously the turns in the story imposed on the original material. Such moments are at the opening and close (see the two shots which provide my pictorial frame for this blog.) The original book and 2011 film show deep compassion and respect for Mildred; this film blames her for whatever is happening at every turn without explaining what are her motives or precisely what happened and at the end exonerates her on the simple basis she didn’t do the murder-crime, her daughter did. The new plots set Mildred up as a probable calculating murderess until we discover her daughter did it; the business of the film is to tell this story and expose the mother’s true loving character and motives in covering up for her unworthy (shallow?) daughter.


This is a companion blog to my previous. There I summarized the book and compared the book and 2011 movie; here I’m comparing this movie to other movies and the 2011 film.

As the film opens, we see a man shot dead, he is in a fancy suit and the house we are in is well-appointed, with lots of mirrors about. We then see Mildred walking along a bridge in a mink coat,contemplating jumping in. “Cops” (they are called cops, not police) are not nice in this film: one walks over to her, and smart-alecky asks her if she’s thinking of taking a swim; if so, he would rather not, so would she “move on.” Nasty tones.

What a way to talk to someone supposedly suicidal. I suggest the original viewers didn’t take this suicide attempt seriously. They thought Mildred didn’t mean it. Score one against her.

We watch her then drive in a fancy car to a night club where she meets an old associate, a slimy-womanizer type, Jack Carson as Wally Fay (into this cheap stereotype is Mildred’s friend and her and her husband’s pragmatic business associate degraded).

Jack Carson as Wally; here Crawford is dressed in her innocent jumper (pinafore dress) outfits

She invites him back to her house, goes into another room, and then flees, leaving him in a locked house. Next thing the police are at the door, and he’s set up.

This kind of reverse perspective is found again and again and repeatedly
the framing makes Mildred suspect, photographs her as sexy from a male
point of view, coy, slightly prurient. It cuts a viewer like me off from identification, unless as a woman you can identify as macho male bait and get a kick out of seeing yourself in that light.

If you do, there is a countervailing satiric voice, the dry wit of Eve
Arden as Ida, perhaps the finest and most seeming sane voice in the film. She was nominated for an academy award for her role in this film.

Eve Arden’s outfits are mannish yet appealing throughout; she never dresses down nor is she over-fancy

Here Arden as Ida discusses Mildred’s situation with Monty and Veda; unlike the Ida of Cain’s book and the 2001 film, this Ida never shows any interest in the successful working of the business in which she is a partner. Wise cracks exposing the supposed stupidity of the male and unfortunate hypocrisies of some females are her theme. She is in the story now the primary friend Mildred makes in her first job as waitress. Lucy, Mildred’s next-door neighbor has vanished. Ida again becomes Mildred’s employee, then partner, and here side-kick friend. They don’t have the serious friendship supportive talk of the book or the 2011 movie but rather do satiric set-tos where Eve as Ida can undercut and make barbed fun of whatever is happening.

In Lucy’s stead there is a woman we see in the film continually sort of supporting Mildred — without any explanation at all. Butterfly McQueen as Mildred’s servant-maid simply turns up as there as soon as Mildred begins to make money. How she got there I can’t say — except she was contracted by the studio to play black maids for rich ladies in films. The same high voice, the same condescension towards her one sees in Gone with the Wind is found is this film, only much quieter. It’s McQueen who
Veda forces into wearing one of Mildred’s uniforms as a waitress to show
her mother up, in order humiliate her mother into admitting she’s waitressing. And McQueen is also given moments where she is reasoning with Crawford; her role is usually one where she counsels common sense prudence towards says the daughter (don’t over-love her):

Butterfly Queen as Lottie reasons with Joan Crawford

There is the oddity to 2011 eyes that McQueen is the only black person in the film. There are apparently no other black people in the experience of anyone in the film, no other connection. And there is no overt awareness in the film that McQueen is black. McQueen was uncredited in the film’s original listing of cast too.


To return to our opening scenario where the police knock at the door of Mildred’s house with the corpse in it and picking Wally up. They are very slick and efficient and they pick Mildred up too from her walk along the bridge, and there in the cop shop she finds her now ex-husband, Bert. They rudely tell her to shut up, will not let her talk to anyone, and then take her into another room and ask for her story. The movie is a flashback story and we now begin where the book and 2011 movie start.

Mildred and Bert

Mildred is making cake, and Bert taking care of the lawn, and we have the ensuing quarrel where she throws him out for having a mistress. As in teh book, book the camera pays attention to what Bert is doing until the quarrel. Toddy Haynes’s movie dwells lovingly on Kate Winslet as Mildred making fantastical toppings for pieces.

Perhaps because the year is 1945 (and not 2011) unlike the later movie and book, this the movie is very uncomfortable about Mildred throwing Bert
out. So Crawford is all kinds of apologetic before Bert and then her daughters. Crawford as Mildred also does not go to bed with Wally as Cain’s heroine does in the book and Kate Winslet as Mildred in the 2011 movie. But who would go to bed with such a slimy-womanizer as Jack Carson plays; you’d have to be desperate. And there are no condoms in this film; in the 2011 film a condom is pointedly used.

Curtiz and crew won’t let Mildred descend into prosaic reality (probably seen as low) anywhere in the film. There are no mortifying interviews for jobs; Crawford as Mildred quickly gets the restaurant job and quickly rises. When she meets Monty and they go off to the beach house and do make love, the sex is definitely supposed to happen, but we get no undressing of either person and the feel is oddly chaste. I had to remind myself that the divorce and such scenes were for the time probably very transgressive. It does not seem so today. Not all older films are obsolete this way.

Mother/daughter, house-dress style

Mother and daughter, fancy dress style

It’s notable that of the many shots of the two in most they never look at one another though they are both all tender concern

Some of the reviews of the ’45 film that I read said the film made the mother the bitch and the daughter pressured; this is inaccurate. Both the 1945 and 2011 Mildreds cater to Veda; both the 1945 and 2011 Vedas grow into nasty, calculating treacherous cold daughters who used the mother’s need for them. If you blame Mildred in either it must come out of the idea that mothers are to blame when children grow up bad, but the book itself specifically rejects that. At the book’s end, Bert says “the hell with her, Mildred, let’s go stinko” (a yuk phrase meaning drunk. At the close of the 2011 movie Bert again says this and Mildred raises her glass, only in her eyes are tears for a loss she can’t explain but feels. Winslet’s performance is again the shaping force to make the moment humanly ambivalent and meaningful. The 1945 film can’t do this because the story begins with a murdered Monty and no one could get away with murder in mainstream detective stories at the time.

Zachary Scott as Monty — he’s rather boyish looking, clearly not a responsible type

Why have Monty murdered? While sex, work, and motherhood are presented in conventionally shaped ways, the 1945 movie reaches for the jugular over both Monty and Wally. They are despicable sleazes, even if Monty’s alluring. The 2011 film (imitating Cain’s book) presents Monty as a resentful drone, so much scum, but simply accepts that many men are that way, lazy (will not work you see) and it’s “in the cards” for him to replace Mildred with Veda as his meal- and house-provider when Mildred “sees through him.” At the close of book and 2011 film Monty is last heard of as waiting for Veda to come to NY to support him.

The 1945 film changes not only the end of the film but the meaning of the story altogether. David Lean said to ignore the ending of films, but this ending begins the film. The reason for the flashback, for Mildred’s explanation is this murder. Bert is immediately exonerated as a force in the movie when the police tell her Bert said he murdered Monty. Mildred says, oh no he’s too gentle and it’s his usual goodness coming out taking the rap.

So the film is ultimately on the side of a woman staying with her all-good if weak husband. It’s a version of Brief Encounter (a woman’s film where a woman falls in love with a man and resists temptation to leave her dull safe husband) and countless films where a woman is taught to stay with the loyal safe man who behaves well or means to, even if he may occasionally have a girlfriend on the side.

Since Monty is dead, and Veda the murderess, at the close of the film, Mildred need no longer worry herself. Veda is the police’s problem. This Veda murdered Monty because she seethes with the same kind of destructive
resentment Monty does. Having been taken away, there is no need for Bert to encourage Mildred to drop her. Instead we see them as a pair leaving the police shop and walking off into the street.

This close (see above) is one of the movie’s best moments. We are into film noir again and again in the film’s shorts (that’s why the mirrors all over Mildred’s house) and the darkness of the streets, a sense of nothing much ahead, of hopelessness, of an anonymous industrial city glimpsed in the bridges and arcades (which we occasionally see in the film but not often enough — mostly it’s domestic sets) conveys the idea of something gone wrong. Certainly what we’ve seen of mostly upper class family life is awful, everyone (as soon as Mildred begins to make oodles of money) there to show off, compete, have luxury objects.

Basically, the noirish take and elements in the film get in the way of the story and the characters. They make nonsense or hay of or leads us to dismiss the central story and characters on their own grounds. Mildred in Cain’s book and in Todd Haynes’s movie is someone women can (I think) identify with. When she gives Veda a Christmas present and the girl brushes it off as not good enough and Mildred feels terrible, in 2011 it’s not a moment in a flashback whose purpose is to explain not only a murder, one of a trail of scenes where the poor (misguided) mother is trying to protect her daughter.

It’s not that there are not crass stupidities in the 2011 film. The 2011
Veda goes on to be an opera singer and gets a gig at Carnegie Hall. It’s
absurd to make it so easy (reminding me of George Meredith’s Diana of the Crossways where getting this great successful career as a novelist seems so easy one wonders why we don’t all do it). Todd Haynes’s costume designers makes Veda absurd. The 1945 Veda succeeds as a night-club singer where it’s implied she also sells sex on the side (if you are inclined to believe that). It’s no wonder the 1945 Joan Crawford-Mildred can bribe this Veda back with a fancy house & huge allowance she, Mildred, can’t afford.

The most common and thus probably the most popular shot of Ann Blyth on the Net: it turns Veda into a yearning girl with luscious lips

Sometimes the 1945 film did make more common sense, but rarely. The little girl, Ray, really dies of pneumonia. We are never told in the book or 2011 film what Ray died of.

I don’t understand the appeal of the 1945 film today (or even then) except in its film noir appearance. What silly male could like this? Maybe he went because his wife or girlfriend insisted he go with her. Why did women go? I can see why feminists attacked it, but unlike most other women’s films of the era, Joan Crawford does not die at the end; she is not weeping from afar as she’s sacrificed all for her daughter. She was the success.

Mildred as grim-faced businesswoman — in a business style suit

She has kept everyone afloat. She is still standing and walks away free (if companioned with Bert once again). To take it aboard as a feminist film which some have done is a desperate ploy and shows the state of film feminism.

I realize there’s a cult for Joan Crawford. I grant sometimes she was
photographed to look beautiful and sad; often her hatchet-jawed look makes
her look hard, grim, on edge. She really didn’t convince when she had an
apron on. But she leaves me cold. She tries for aspirational looks in this film:

With Zachary Scott as Wally looking up at her

I liked Eve Arden best; she was a kind of center point of alienation from everything going on, amused, but alas accepting it:

Here Arden does look slightly appalled

I am someone who has loved almost every film with Kate Winslet in it that I’ve seen. I know the central star presences count, the psychological baggage and typology they project.

Here she is in Enigma, an unusual WW2 spy story


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Two shots of Kate Winslet as a sensually relaxed and then alertly vibrant Mildred Pierce during the first night’s tryst with Guy Pearce as Monty Beragon (Todd Haynes HBO mini-series, Mildred Pierce, 2011

The alluring presence of the subversive male, Monty Beragon — the last thing he’d think of doing is supporting any family (Guy Pearce that first night) – he does have some of Clark Gable’s quality, only more deliberate

Dear friends and readers,

For a couple of weeks now a movie has gotten to me where I live. I’ve been more personally engaged by the HBO mini-series adaptation of John M. Cain’s 1941 Mildred Pierce (written/directed by Todd Haynes) than I have in a long while. I watch mesmerized, sometimes feeling so depressed about myself, sometimes unbearably moved when Kate-Mildred has done some emotionally painful act I would never allow myself to do but have thought of, citing her and using stills from the movie when I wanted an example women’s married and love life, and motherhood and career troubles. See “A small typical history” and my response to the (silly) Anne-Marie Slaughter essay, “Why women still can’t have it all.”

I read John M. Cain’s novel and discovered that the movie follows the literal surface of the book closely, and faithfully conveys some of its themes, but goes far beyond it in presenting a coherent examined account of the heroine’s experience, and then I watched the famous 1945 murder-mystery film noirish version with Joan Crawford as Mildred (screenplay by a team that included Wm Faulkner, Ranald MacDougal, Catherine Turner, directed by Michael Curtiz)

Parallel scene of Joan Crawford as Mildred on her first night with Zachary Scott as Monty: note how reluctant, coy, clearly pained to go through with this is Crawford)

The 2011 is a compassionate but unsentimental dramatization not (as Jeanine Basinger says in her wonderfully perceptive A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960) of a central conflict a woman who driven to a career experiences between the demands of that career and wife- and motherhood, but rather her difficulty in creating for herself an authentically fulfilling existence sexually and as a mother, given the rotten values or norms those around her either enact instinctively and which she unwittingly passes onto her daughter.

This blog will be an account of watching the 2011 mini-series as it unfolded; a second will deal comparatively and concisely with the 1945 film and Cain’s other novels turned into 1940s film noir and women’s films; a third blog will review Jeanine Basinger’s book.

Part I:

Mildred during her job search: it’s not yielding any job, much less income to support herself and girls and house

Bert (Brían F. O’Byrne) about to be kicked out: he’s done all he can with the lawn, and means to visit his mistress

I watched the first of this six hour adaptation of McCain’s novel late last night. McCain may not be a genius of the Joyce type, he doesn’t soar even occasionally in the way of Mantel, but he is a striking mirror of US life in the early and mid-20th century. He’s rather like James Jones who wrote Some Came Running, John O’Hara (Butterfield 8); Gore Vidal remarks that these books mirror the loneliness, anonymity, and inculculation of excruciating class and money inferiority used as a knife edge to drive oneself to workaholism and social-networking in US life; the success and glamor are false; boredom, self-regard, a kind of glumness and fear of death characterize these novels. Mildred Pierce differs from all the others in that the woman at the center is not a femme fatale, the story is centered in her experience (and thus proto-feminist), and when at the end it’s clear something has gone very wrong in this family, it’s not her fault. It’s just the way things are. I’d say the most striking thing about the book is its lack of reflective thought.

For the story of the 2011 film, see the story of Cain’s novel, Mildred Pierce. Except for some 1) white-washing (in the book Mildred embezzles money from her publicly-sold restaurant company’s stock and in the 2011 film she does not) and 2) more importantly the way the mother-daughter becomes central and supersedes the story of Mildred’s infatuation with Monty and Bert’s quiet or implicit rivalry with Monty — the film’s events and plot-design are those of the novel.

It’s Kate Winslet’s movie. She is in every scene. In this segment, she is instead simply trying to hold onto her integrity and not go down in the world and how hard it is.

We open with her cooking cakes and husband out in the garden. He comes in, honey I’ll be late for supper. It emerges he’s seeing a woman and she is very angry, they fight and he leaves, suitcase in hand, taking the car with him. What now? We watch her try to cope and seem very quiescent, not hysterical at all. She has no training for money-making jobs. WE see these abrasive encounters with employment agency people who tell her she’s got to be realistic, no one wants her, these are hard times, no opening for receptionists, and as for salesladies they are paid on commission. She is humiliated by the way she’s treated — rightly — by one encounter with this rich woman who wants her as a submissive housekeeper, who tries to control her every movement and is gratingly nasty. Slowly we watch her lean to accept a position as a waitress.


Wally Burgan (James LeGros), her husband’s “friend” realizes the husband has left. Mildred’s friend and neighbor, Lucy Gessler (Melissa Leo), the confidant (with confidants like this who needs enemies?) gives her advice on how to manipulate this man to want to marry her. Don’t let him take you out, then you owe him; cook for him.


She obeys and ends up in bed anyway. He’s no beauty and the realism of the sex makes Girls look glamorous. They are awkward, the encounter doesn’t go on for long, afterwards they bicker about how he tried to cut her husband out, but he is supportive.

She has two daughters, Ray, a sweet young child (Quinn McColgan) and Veda (Morgan Turner), who has been taught by Mildred to think the world of herself, and (alas) now disdains her mother: this is a place the film does not depart from conventions. She is the ultimate sweet mother trying to protect her children,and probably caters to them too submissively, presents a false picture of their world.

Mildred explaining to the older daughter, Veda (here Morgan Turner) where Dad has gone, and that he’s not coming back

It’s important to see that in this and the next part there is a real love shown between Veda and Mildred. They do more or less cooperate. Veda does want her mother’s approval; she also wants to look up to her mother.

Arriving for a humiliating interview at a great house (Part I); this experience drives her to take a position as a waitress in a lunch-restaurant

One flaw throughout is that Mildred’s her mother and father are kept at a distance from her as if they exist to take the kids for weekends. Realistically they would be a strong presence and influence outcomes. Similarly Bert’s parents exist to complain and insinuate that Mildred is not a good mother (where was she the night Ray got sick) and take Bert in.
But perhaps the film is mirroring today in the US, 2012, the disjunctions in extended families.

Part II

Thinking about what’s to come

The first job offer; Ida as we first see her and she first sees Mildred

Unexpectedly, as I came to the climax of Part 2 I felt depressed. While there were some sequences I’d love to watch again and again (such as Mildred’s first encounter and weekend escape with Monty to his beach-house), almost obsessively, the total effect was to make me feel bad about myself and at the same time feel that what I’ve experienced is common.

Cain’s is a mainstream book and this self-consciously a mainstream film. It’s as if it’s a self-reflexive imitation; one can see this in the perfection of the costumes; the actors have been instructed to seem to imitate 1940s types in movies. (Upon watching the 1945 movie I realized they did not; they are 2011 types dressed up in 1940s clothes and talking 1940s slang and sentiments, but what they do and their expectations and taboos are those of 2011.

Now we watch Mildred’s slow climb to success. After she refuses to kowtow to the rich lady, she takes that job as a waitress and begins to do well. She’s still making and selling pies to neighborhood people, and she notices how bad the pies at are the restaurant. Enlisting the help and friendship of Ida (Mare Winningham), the woman who hired her, Ida and she maneuvers the restaurant owner to buying her pies. When this success brings in more money, she hires Lettie (Marin Ireland), a woman like herself in class and type, to help and comes home to find that woman in her uniform. Her darling older daughter, Veda (a New Yorker reviewer feels that in Cain’s book this older daughter, Veda is presented as a bitch) has insisted Lettie wear one of the uniforms Veda found hidden in a pile of clothes. This recalls the woman who was trying to boss, humiliate and hire Mildred as her housekeeper.

Veda is really trying to humiliate and bully her mother (exposure is not going to stop the mother from working as her money is going to support Veda’s singing and piano lessons), intimidating her. It takes Mildred considerable time to break through the taboos and accuse the girl of needling her and then the girl is insolent and she spanks her.

Bert, Mildred’s husband has begun to visit and looks yearningly at Mildred, and in one visit Veda plays the same trick of bringing out the liquor bottle she knows her mother is drinking to show the mother up to the mother. By the end of the scene, though, Mildred is lying to Veda, and saying she has a plan to open a restaurant and is doing this job temporarily as a way of studying them. This sickened me because it means Mildred buys into her daughter’s values of despising people in uniforms. Yet I’d hate to wear a unifor, and this is the first movie I’ve seen that I can recall where the reality that such things are status-losses is brought out openly.

Then we get some fairy tale: by a flick of the hand, Wally the husband’s ex-friend who is Mildred’s on and off not very passionate lover seems to have a free property going for nothing (fairy tale here) and gives it to Mildred to fix into a restaurant. Mildred must get a divorce in order not to be liable for Bert’s debts and lo and behold, the divorce is gotten. She takes Bert’s car from him, and seems to wrest the house too. But much of this is Mildred’s own enterpreneurship; we see her work out what her restaurant should look like; her buy things, her calculating costs as she goes to vendors for foodstuffs:

The businesswoman

Montage, time passing, and Mildred’s on her last day of work before throwing herself into running her own restaurant, when a very attractive male shows up, Monty Beragon, and it’s lust at first sight for both. The scenes I said I’d watch over and over come in here. She meets him after she leaves (apparently forever) and we see them in a convertible, then at the beach, then swimming, then making love. To me an alluring sequence also done utterly believably with him as vagabond-smart-aleck. I loved the release.

Alas she comes home to discover younger daughter in hospital. Of course she’s blamed with a “where were you?” Husband, in-laws there. Slow melodrama where child comes near death, seems saved, but then dies. Yes her daughter dies, and she was not there for the first night. But for the next two she is, and the child dies because they have not the medicine to save her. The child gets pneumonia from having been taken to the beach by her grandparents. Mildred stays all night and the third part closes on her going home to older daughter, crawling into bed, hugging and clinging to her.

Nonetheless, and it’s central to see this: Mildred is winning as the world understands it and is supposed admirable: loving mother, responsible at her job, entrepreneurial. Jeanine Basinger says women’s films are centered on a supposed inexorable conflict of love, marriage, and motherhood on the one side, and career on the other. Not this film: were it not for her career, her family would have gone under.

This is where I felt bad: I thought to myself how little money I’ve ever made. And when I went to bed, I said as much to Jim who replied: “making money is not important in life” or maybe it was “it’s not important to make money in life.” There’s much more important things (words to this effect). That helped. The movie got to me in other words.

Veda, the older daughter in the film is not a bitch, but rather what Mildred wishes she could be, and Kate Winslet as Mildred is proud of her. And I understood that.

Part III:

Christmas presents once she is making some money, but not enough to buy the piano Veda would prefer

A friend suggested to me that the movie falls off about mid-way. Not for me. We now watch Mildred at long last succeed after very hard work; she is helped by Ida, her waitress friend from the restaurant she was at who becomes a sort of junior partner; also by Lucy, her best friend who urges her to take on liquor in her restaurant once prohibition is over. The best friend becomes her bartender.

She is vitriolically anti-Roosevelt. That’s interesting and in character. Those who fail deserve to, they are losers. Look at her.

Emotionally she is more and more under the thumb of Veda, her older daughter, somehow subject to that girls’ sneers and utterly selfish demands and there’s a powerful mother-daughter scene where she has failed to give the girl a fancy piano for Xmas and the girl disdains her.

Monty, the sexy boyfriend is turning out not to be such a wonderful thing. He has a name, a famous family, part of a Hollywood crowd and initially helps her restaurant as a numinous person there, but as time goes on he becomes a drone, making no money, living off her and he makes no pretenses of love and after a while it does get on her nerves. Worse, he talks about her condescendingly and sexily with Veda behind her back.

At one point Monty accuses Mildred of having no friends; certainly she has no wide circle. I think that’s common for working to lower middle Americans. What time do they have? What do they have to offer others that they want? In the US there is no sense of community outside family and church is a ritual. The best friend is possible if the woman does not change, does not move and her friend stays in the same socio-economic circumstances That’s increasingly uncommon.

The part ends with him attempting to soothe her into acceptance of him by rape (so he calls his brand of sex) and her breaking free and driving home in a storm, almost getting herself killed and entering the house to tell her daughter she can have that piano.

Part IV

Mildred again contemplative (a favorite scene for me), from towards the end of Part 4

Then walking and talking with Lucy, her friend

One of the themes brought out in Part Four is women’s friendship. Lucy, Mildred’s neighbor, remains a stalwart support. Ida (Mare Winningtom) the waitress who helped her to her first job and now start her restaurant, has become her partner. Mildred now has 4 outlets! One very fancy one near a beach. We see Mildred and her now best & longtime friend walking on the beach together, arms around one another for a moment. Monty the sexy man (guy Pearce) seems long gone as Part 4 opens. But Mildred’s husband remains in touch; we are not old how he supports himself

Evan Rachel Wood is clearly cold, hard, a luscious femme fatale

The flaw in the book transferred to the film is the daughter becomes a version of The Bad Seed, a film and book of the 1960s where the US false worship of children is put into reverse and parents get back at all they have done for children who were ungrateful, or grew up to be small, mean, cold by reading a book and seeing a film on a purely vicious child. Willam March’s book as movie and play operated as a form of release. Here the girl is too bad, and the efforts of Wood and Haynes to now and then show the girl feeling some remorse are not enough to keep a needed realism.

This segment’s focus and climax is Mildred’s estrangement from Veda, the daughter. The decision was made to have an older actress (Evan Rachel Wood) suddenly play Veda older and I’m not sure it works. Veda is the scheming ruthless amoral woman. She has gotten involved with a group of young people who can give her access to movie part, one is a rich young man, it happens the son of the woman who so humiliated Mildred years ago when Mildred applied for a job as a housekeeper with her. The woman visits Mildred and she is astonished at the accusations the woman is throwing at her, and knows nothing. We can see how her face freezes, her teeth are are guards of her rigidly held jaw:

Turns out Veda has been having an affair with the young man and it emerges is faking a pregnancy, so with the help of old Wally (who helped Mildred to own the building she made her restaurant success in) suing this woman. Mildred is horrified, they fight, the girl insults her egregiously and shows she despises her mother. She is not capable of much love. Mildred means to throw her out and demands she leave, and then thinks the better of it (as she did her husband), but (like the husband) by this time the girl has left.

Estrangement. I was very moved. Mildred “can’t stand it” and actually tracks the girl down and drives to the apartment house Veda lives in and watches her come in. I would not have allowed myself to do that.

Mildred watching from her car, trying to hide her presence

Veda is also becoming a success. She had the grand piano, training lessons in playing and singing and as the episode ends she is on the radio singing opera. Mildred did all she could to foster this girl’s pride and talent and her hard work has won out, only she is not allowed to join in. Mildred’s husband is in contact with Veda, and he takes Veda to her own beach restaurant to listen to Veda sing on the radio.

At the close of Part 4 Bert and Mildred have not changed so very much; she is startled to see her daughter’s name and picture in the paper

The Part ends with Mildred walking off to a bannister in her fanciest restaurant to look out at the ocean. She looks intense but we are not given any access to her thoughts: pride (she would), depression, what? Haynes seems to be the kind of film-maker who regards voice-over as effeminate. A loss to his film.

Part 5

In the expensive bedroom, in expensive clothes Mildred has provided, she looks down at her arrogant daughter

Much of Part 5 was unexpectedly weaker than what came before — except the very ending. This was partly because it followed the book and the book does degenerate into this fierce conflict between the daughter and mother. Mildred tries to reach Veda by going to the prestigious teacher-orchestra leader Mildred had hired in the first place, but he laughs at her, and then, seemingly by chance, she meets up with Monty again.

They renew the love-making (in appealing scenes) and she allows him to persuade her to buy his old family mansion. Mildred and Monty marry. They give a party for “swells” and this brings Veda back: she sings there, moves in with her mother and allows her mother to pay for everything. We see Mildred between Bert, the husband, still faithfully there (and now living with his parents, his mistress having returned to her husband, now doing much better), and Monty at the Carnegie Hall watching her daughter solo perform before a huge audience seemingly entranced. Mildred is ecstatic, but we see she is neglecting her business and spending money on the house, daughter, Monty that should be spent on the business. Ida tries to reach her to do something about her business, but Mildred evades Ida.

The shit hits the fan: the men (all men) controlling the shares tell Mildred she must sell her house, stop milking the business, and her lawyer-friend, Wally, tells her she must demand Veda contribute substantially to expenses. She fears asking. She knows in her gut her daughter does not love her, but she must ask. She begins with Monty and quickly the situation blows up when she discovers (as we are to suspect) Monty has become Veda’s lover and they are knowingly fleecing her. Veda scorns her, needles her, openly jeers.

Veda: the scene is melodramatic, theatrical, rather like an opera

Monty opens up to characterize Mildred as using him, as herself disgustingly ambitious, ruthless, horrible it seems. He was her slave it seems. She is so enraged she tries to strangle her daughter, but does not manage even permanent damage on her throat.

Cut to the ending where we see Mildred has had to give up the largest parts of her business to Ida and Wally. She is still doing well, but no longer pretending to be a member of the super-rich. She has divorced Monty, remarried Bert, and they are moving back to their original Glendale house. They are given a party on their return the day of their marriage. Old friends there, including Ida, apologetic for having taken over parts of the business. Mildred understands. Mildred looks disappointed that Veda hasn’t come. Why she expects this is beyond me.

But Veda does come, stands outside in an expensive outfit on her way to NY to resume her career and does seem to look at her mother, herself waiting for some last renewal or memory of their relationship.

As Mildred last sees Veda

The attempt at goodbye, a reconciliation, ends in another scene of insults from Veda, and now bitter recriminations from Mildred who at long last says good riddance. Monty is waiting for her in NY.

Bert pulls Mildred away and says to Mildred: “to hell with Veda,” at long last validating this long-needed idea, and the the last words of the novel and film are “stinko” they will drink until they are so drunk they know oblivion. What makes this moving is the pair look very like what they did when the movie opened: they are wearing the same sort of clothes. And Winslet’s eyes fill with tears. She cannot forget some profound sense of loss. In Cain’s novel this sense of desolation is presented as just the way things are and the mood is flat. With Winslet’s yearning face, the thwarted aspiration and dreams remain

So the last part has its moments and especially in the opening scenes, the first renewal with Monty and thisclose. The depth of feeling that Winslet has endowed her character with, the sense of Mildred’s kindness, goodness, love for her daughter, the honesty of her ambition — it was not her idea to have the mansion — all carry it. As she takes up her drink, we hear over the screen a creamy rendition of Judy Garland singing: I’m always chasing rainbows …”

At the end of the rainbow there’s happiness,
And to find it how often I’ve tried,
But my life is a race, just a wild goose chase,
And my dreams have all been denied.
Why have I always been a failure?
What can the reason be?
I wonder if the world’s to blame,
I wonder if it could be me.
I’m always chasing rainbows,
Watching clouds drifting by,
My dreams are just like all my schemes,
Ending in the sky.
Some fellows look and find the sunshine,
I always look and find the rain.
Some fellows make a winning sometime,
I never even make a gain, believe me,
I’m always chasing rainbows,
I’m watching for a little bluebird in vain.

So I was again caught up.


Kate Winslet as Mildred cooking — something she is seen doing periodically for the first four parts

The finest parts of the film were Mildred’s slow build up of a career after throwing her husband out, her friendships with other women, her intensities of love and ambition for her children. The prosaic rhythms of slow-unfolding is central to its strength.

Winslet is aware she is enacting scenes from women’s lives. As Jim and I cleaned our house this past Friday, and I put on my house-cleaning clothes I thought of Mildred. When we sat together in our living room over the week, I remembered Mildred. The Christmas scenes from the movie brought back painful disillusionments and fraught disappointments.

It’s more up- than downbeat. Mildred has a real (corny I know) heart. That she’s a good cook is symbolic in the film. She’s good at love-making. She utterly gives of herself to everything she does over and over. Kate Winslet does play varied roles, but in many underlying her presentation of whatever character (from Marianne in S&S to April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road), however twisted, however shaped by a genre or director (as in mysteries or a Polanski film she did), she projects a fine generous soul


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