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Archive for the ‘novels of sensibility’ Category

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

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An English Home, Albert Coburn (1907 illustration)

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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Martin Donovan as Ralph Touchett (Portrait)

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

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

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Barbara Hershey as Madame Merle (Portrait)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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John Malkovich as Osmond (Portrait)

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

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

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John Singer Sergeant, An Interior in Venice (1899)

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

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Constance Fennimore Woolson

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

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

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

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

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Paris, La Rue de Rivoli, Anonymous, undated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Henry James by Katherine McClellan (1905)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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syd-field

A screenplay is a story told with pictures … a screenplay is about a person, or persons, in a place, or places, doing his, or her thing … it is a story told in dialogue and description, and placed in the context of a dramatic structure … each shot [what the camera sees] represents an individual mosaic within the tapestry of the sequence … Syd Field

Scripts … indicate how material could be transferred from the source fiction into an eventual film … [they] plan shooting of the film … John Ellis

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve not written on this blog in a while: I’ve been reading several books at once (and hope to blog on them soon); I also returned to my book on the Jane Austen film canon, and decided to write the opening section on the how screenplays function in film-making and how they may be read as serious literature in a new subgenre, so I’ve been reading well-known practical books on how to write a screenplay plus a number of screenplays, some adapting a book, some wholly literally original. These scripts may be backed up, filled out by companion books which show how to create the illusion of the world of the adapted source; these scenarios can include building up of the context (background stories) for major and minor characters. I’ve also been reading studies of companion books and published screenplays with scenarios when they are published as single or multiple books accompanying a movie or movies.

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A good study

There is indeed an underlying paradigm in the case of all sorts of screenplays whose literal content might seem very different, and above is Syd Field’s well-known way of diagramming it.

The first ten pages or ten minutes shows the viewer the main character and central dramatic premise, the contours of the place and dramatic situation; the next twenty pages or minutes (thirty altogether) takes the viewer to the key crux or happening that must be coped with. In a mini-series one finds that the first 30 minutes or 30 pages functions as both introduction and set up. The middle central section, in a 90 to 120 minute movie shows the character in context confronting obstacle after obstacle: the main character wants or needs something (it can be quite complicated or subtle — or not) and he or she is kept from achieving this. The character has a point of view or attitude and to thicken his or her presence a context (family background, history). We watch the character behave visually and act and speak too. The last part — however long — is resolution. Often at the end of the first act there is a “plot point:” plot points move the action forward; when it comes at the end of the first block or act and the second it’s an incident that spins the action and characters into the next act, often in another direction. This is repeated as we move into resolution. (Field says it always spins the action around in a new direction when it comes at the end of the first act and the second.) A pinch-point half-way through each act is an incident which ratchets up the main or minor characters’ difficulties. Say the theft of Louise’s $6000 which she is depending upon to enable herself and Thelma to live and escape to Mexico (someone attempted to rape Thelma and Louise shot and killed him so they must flee as no court will believe Thelma that it was an assault).

This sounds formulaic and childish but if you begin to read screenplays and watch movies you will find this paradigm repeatedly even in the most apparently sophisticated movie designs. Field and others mention the sequence: I know I have been studying films by identifying sequences of scenes that are informed by an idea; they are often identifiable as they are given an emblem and numbered on the DVD as places to begin watching other than the opening of the film. A scene by the way occur when the camera focuses on a specific place at a specific time of day; there is a scene change when we move to another place or time (and the camera moves or changes its lighting). The scene moves the characters from A to B (or the story forward) in the masculinist paradigm.

There are variations on this paradigm, depending on what the mythic story is or if you have a “character-driven” or ensemble script. But alas, or tellingly (showing something centrally signficant about movies which are so influential), not only are most of the time these plot-outlines expressed in the most masculinistic ways; that is, from the point of view of how a man sees his life as linear and with opportunities, climaxes,

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not (as women do in their autobiographies) as a cyclical and repetitive experience; alas, I have not found a single diagrammed paradigm that is woman-centered. I asked myself if this masulinist paradigm underlies woman’s movies, that they use this as what sells. I found it underlay Koulli’s Thelma and Louise. I must try some more films where the screenplay is by woman, from a woman’s book, and preferably directed by a woman. If the masculinist paradigm is what the viewer is used to, that can explain why a woman’s movie might be called “boring” if it departs from this paradigm. I admit I have only begun to look at them through the lens of these paradigms so I may be wrong; there may be more woman-centered (cyclical repetitive — going “nowhere” as someone might say) than I think. I must check this out further by watching many more movies with attention paid to the screenplay paradigms.

How to recognize a plot point? from this masculinist activity point of view the plot point is a function of the main character: it’s the spins and turns and twists occurring to the main character. Field and others also have a peculiar way of discussing the main character’s action: he asks what is this character’s need and what are the obstacles in his way? conflict is obstacles getting in the way. Well, who is the main character in Gosford Park? Is it Mary? or Helen Mirren? what is her need? to kill or to protect her son who is coming there to kill Sir William McCordle? No because we are supposed to be watching the needy character confronting obstacles. This is a peculiar way to insistently phrase what turns out to be different permutations of stories.

For my study what I hope to examine literally is how the script relates (gives rise) to the verbal materials transferred from a book to become the auditory-visual elements of a film, which are gone over lovingly with many claims to historical accuracy or verisimilitude in the scenario companion books. Since my subject is the Jane Austen film canon I want then to see how these transferred materials and very different screenplays and intermediary source books (say Death Comes to Pemberley out of Pride and Prejudice) relate to one another (say with Lost in Austen or Bridget Jones’s Diary, to stay with Pride and Prejudice sequels and appropriations).

For me what is great fun and enlightening is to place this material alongside screenplays and scenarios from other costume dramas in the form of romantic comedies or dramatic romances in mini-series or singleton form. Musicals too. Downton Abbey (with no eponymous source outside the screenplay) and Gosford Park are not my only candidates; I’ve been studying Callie Khouri’s Thelma and Louise, Marilyn Hoder-Salmon’s The Awakening, and hope to add not just more women’s screenplays (Laura Jones’s Portrait of a Lady), but men’s too, the scripts directed into a film by Ang Lee (e.g., Eat Drink Man Woman), William Goldman’s Princess Bride, Christopher Hampton’s Atonement, Simon Gray’s A Month in the Country &c&c.

Thus far I have found only one literary-critical study which rises to general principles about published screenplays (a published screenplay is a sub-genre: Julian Fellowes has been doing them for each of his scripts): Miguel Mota’s Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio: The Screenplay as Book, Criticism, 47:2 (2005)215-231; and I have found one on the elements of the scenario (see Downton Abbey: bonding with the heroine): Umberto Eco, ”Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage,” Travels in Hyperreality, trans. William Weaver (NY: HBJ, 1983):197-213.

There are plenty of excellent individual studies on the making of this or that film (a remarkably good one on the development of the different screenplays directed by Hitchcock to make a film Marnie out of Winston Graham’s powerful book). Jaoob Lothe’s Narrative in Fiction and Film; Maire Messenger Davies, “Quality and Creativity in TV: The Work of the Television Storytellers,” Quality TV: contemporary american television and beyond (NY: Tauris, 2011):171-84. And there are really excellently-produced screenplays and companion books for successful and art and some popular films. The intelligent ones reveal the thinking behind the mise-en-scene, the choice of “historical accuracies” and the emphases in the detailed expositions of the screenplays (in boxes you can find citations of analogous films and books).

If my reader can make any suggestions for further studies or where to find screenplays (especially for Juliette Towhidi’s Death Comes to Pemberley, Robin Swicord’s The Jane Austen Book Club, Fielding and Davies’s Bridget Jones’s Diary; Guy Andrews’s Lost in Austen), I’d be very grateful. I have already taken down the script for Lost in Austen (using stenography on sten pads, but as of a year ago I cannot hold my hands and guide my fingers with the requisite exquisite control and quickness to make the symbols legible while taking them down as the actors speak). If no one can help me to one of these scripts, I have to sit and watch the three I’ve not down slowly and type the script as I watch.

SusanHerber
Susan Herbert: My Fair Lady (out of Shaw’s Pygmalion)

Ellen

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Those who are left are different people trying to lead the same lives … Winston Graham, Warleggan, Book 4 of Poldark series, ch 4, p 55)

Scan 10 copy
A dream image of Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) visiting Michael Gregson’s (Charles Edward’s) sumptuous renovated flat: he does the cooking too!

Dear friends and readers,

As in the other three seasons, when it comes to discussing an episode in detail and seriously, there are major problems when wanting to praise the new and brave kinds and here sombre materials the film-makers have brought (for a fourth time) to Fellowes’s story and characters. What distinguishes these first two episodes (however conventionally harped at by all the other characters in the usual familiar mode of “you must get over it”) is the real respect and time paid to grief. MIchelle Dockery delivers an expressionist performance (not realistic) and Penelope Wilton a subtly calibrated bleakness at the emptiness of her world (not just only son, but beloved husband gone).

This is though undermined by the assumption that there is such a thing as living in “the land of the dead” as opposed “to the land of the living.” This is nonsense, even for such a privileged person as Lady Mary who need not work for money, need not cope with her inheritance, need not even take care of her baby. What grates and scours the soul of the grief-striken is life not only goes on for you, but you are asked to do many things without the beloved where the now dead person was the competent one or at least the sympathetic support. So a childish notion simplifying what is happening made plausible by the super-rich nature of these privileged people’s lives makes any serious consideration of Lady Mary’s obstacles or Mrs Crawley’s future life precluded. In the early phases of Tom Branson’s (Allen Leech) there was attention to the immediate problem of what he must do now, where go, how cope, decisions he had to make (like his daughter’s religion and where to bring her up), and as he continues not to want to find any substitute but has at the same time to cope with Lord Grantham’s Hugh Bonneville) desire to revert the estate back to a backward management he becomes a quietly pivotal figure.

A second problem is the sheer snobbish emphasis of the circulating stills and shots: repeatedly we see only the upper class characters or the servants in carefully chosen moments. So an important subplot in episode one, concerning the loss of all livelihood and consequent self-respect, and need for emotional support in Mr Grigg (Nicky Henson) gets no shots, and Jonathan Howard as Sam Thawley is credited in only one listing of the cast (for Episode 4.2) and of course few stills, and hardly any mention except as it concerns the upper class girl supposedly “slumming.” So I lack adequate stills to present the visible in these two hours. Among the finer moments in Episode 4.1 occurs when Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) seeks out Mr Grigg in the workhouse and determines to act to help him (as the first duty):

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another occurs when after dancing together turns into a brawl (because of course lower class males must be “toughs”), Sam visits Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James) and she has the decency to see him, and dressed as a maid, takes care not to hurt his feelings and do justice to these (far more sincere, with more depth than we’ve seen Lady Rose show thus far, except when it comes to disliking her mother).

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There are plenty of photos available online of Lady Rose looking superficial (unfair to her as a character probably) — funny that the producers have not seemed to realize few viewers are taken with this aspect of this character; what they like is her attraction to kindly affectionate — males from a class or race other than her own.

I do want to emphasize how much I like this as well as previous seasons, and that I am paying this phenomenally successful serial drama the compliment of rational opposition.

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Maggie Smith, beginning to age badly; here a genial intelligent look comes out

So, what makes a specific series of programs rise to the level of an important sociological event (which the numbers of people watching confirms)? The one Jane Austen movie to make it has been the 1995 P&P famously featuring Colin Firth. According to Dudley Andrews, such films take on a manic life of their own, their filmic qualities “challenge reality with their own intensities:” their content allows “us to relish, cherish, revel in public what we enjoy in secret, and take over the values and experiences we had dreamed as we read the eponymous texts.”

Which are the ones that matter in Downton Abbey? I’m not going to do recaps (see I Should have been a blogger for one of the first two episodes) but rather try to discuss a little some details which may help account for its general emotional appeal — as usual unacknowledged or in some popularly-conceived blogs downright contradicted. The point for me is to bring out into the discussably open what is made visible in this season.

Episode 1 opens differently (alas this is not kept up in the later episodes). We are in a dark house, we see two notes put on a mantelpiece and a woman’s shoes, dark colored, practical, hurry away. A child is crying, then we are in a narrow corridor watching a nanny hurry by; the first face we see is the pale still one of Lady Mary laying silently on her pillow on her side of her bed. The day is dawning as a winter mist.

The first dialogue is all about Miss Obrien (Siobhan Finneran) leaving without so much as a by-your-leave; not only is there no voice raised on her behalf (not that she has earned anyone’s friendship) but those she was attached to are blamed: suspicion falls on her nephew Alfred (Matt Milne) knowning and it emerges that Lady Rose did suspect her mother was plotting to invite Miss Obrien to India, luring her there as an adventure. Another servant is removed too, but not voluntarily: in the dark light of his small room, behind his desk, Mr Carson (Jim Carter) informs Mr Molesley (Kevin Doyle) that Downton has no use for Mr Molesley’s services: now that Matthew Crawley is dead, his job as valet is over; Mrs Crawley tells him as a widow she just takes her meals off a tray. More than half way through episode 2 Molesley has sunk to working in the streets in a laboring crew as his debts have mounted.

As the story evolves, we will find Molseley is not failing as a loser (to give credit to DA not a word Fellowes uses), but in a period of typical unemployment: we will see him show pride and by the end of the season become the support of an unexpected decent lady’s maid, Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) but I get ahead of myself in my efforts to bring forward what is valuable and reinforcing a “rhetorical scheme of motifs and symbols [filmic codes and archetypes]” which includes the rescue of Mr Charles or Charlie Grigg (Nicky Henson) from the workhouse by Mrs Crawley (for once commended for her liberal impulses). I cannot find a still of him working in the streets or I’d provide it. Other hires inauspicious for very different reasons include Miss Edna Braithwaite (MyAnna Buring): Rose’s naive use of a card in a window is shown not to work to produce a good person: Fellowes’s text moves on behalf of the coterie exclusions of character letters and control over people’s behavior these occasion (as well as a way of seeing if they are social enough to acquire these); these only fail to work (we are to see) when from mistaken sympathy Mrs Hughes gave Braithwaite a character: here is Buring from Season 1 looking avid:

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The first Nanny West (D Botcher) turns out to be malevolent as (through Thomas Barrow’s intervention which was not the result of knowing this) Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) happens upon her insulting Tom’s daughter as a “half-breed” (if I’m not mistaken the child’s mouth is taped shut) and exulting the baby George as “heir.” Fired on the spot. No shroving time allowed. Well such women did have enormous power over children and caregivers still do.

Downstairs in these two episodes is treated like a comic-poignant subplot in a restoration or eighteenth century comedy. Daisy (Sophie McShea) is now presented as longing for Alfred’s love while he longs for Ivy’s (Cara Theobold) and she hankers after Jimmy (Ed Speleers) who cares nothing for anyone but himself. (Mr Mason, the father-in-law, is another actor who has basically fled — he comes in for a late cameo appearance when Daisy is in need of older wiser male advice.) The plot-line will provide a quiet parallel for the rape to come but here the value is in the relationship of Mrs Patmore (Leslie Nichols) and Daisy: it’s Mrs Patmore who buys Daisy a valentine lest she feel left out when Ivy gets one (not as she thinks from Jimmy but rather Alfred). The two friends with Daisy emerging as superb cook provide some good moments.

Mrs Patmore is also made nervous because she cannot keep up technologically with Daisy or Ivy, and at one point breaks a plate that is part of a device, and Mrs Hughes gets down the floor to help her clean all up. As in the close of last year’s season, MrsHufhes emerges as an equivalent figure to what I’d usually given male characters — only instead of giving orders from on high she works quietly to reconcile and compassionate except when the person has done some unforgivable deed — and there are going to be several this season. She remains one of my favorite characters and I’ve become quite fond of her Scottish accent.

I assume everyone has read the unemployment statistics and harsh rhetoric that condemns the unemployed for whatever reason, not to omit punitive policies engendering further poverty. Margaret Powell’s Below Stairs does justice to the servant who decides simply to leave rather than be questioned, however this may damage further chances at further jobs (you don’t come away with the precious letter); to the servant who defies and exposes the mistress or master.

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The two major female presences of this season: Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Anna Bates (Joanne Froggart)

Of course the major interest is, Lady Mary, the story’s reigning princess. (She who is left standing after several departures of favored upper class characters.) Lugubrious comments abound: “a great love” pays for itself sometimes with “great misery.” But she is at least no longer materialistically performative. I liked her better in these two episodes than I have before. Fellowes is not always up to kind of utterance needed here: Carson is enlisted by Tom and he enunciates some of the most cliched utterances of the hours. Then Carson is fine with firing people too, and wants them to beg forj job, nothing standoffish allowed as we shall see. The World’s Employer. Over the course of these two episodes (one reason to regret that the two are run together is we don’t get the sense of time passing slowly which Fellowes did mean us to), Mary emerges as the central heir to the estate (due to a will Matthew did think to leave, however hurriedly done) and despite her father’s attempts to bully her into passivity, she begins to take over her husband’s previous role as manager, with the significant difference she is in feel so cold, and we know will not be a compassionate landlord. We must hope Tom stays on.

For romantic love interest, we are really turned over to Edith (Carol Carmichael), still presented in the light of someone or a type a person whose existence is to be regretted, so her appearances in super-sexy gowns, in chic restaurants, seems to me a curious anomaly which doesn’t come off. She will come into her own later in the season upon getting pregnant, but I admit finding the shots of her with Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards’s) irresistible dream images from afar.

People have seemed to resent the as yet happy couple Mr and Mrs Bates; for myself I don’t resent them as I find the images of them most of the time smiling at a distance as they obediently go about their jobs uneviable.

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There is a thread going on about distrustful disloyal employers: thus Barrow finds it easy to poison Cora’s mind against Anna as envious of Miss Braithwaite; Cora tells Robert who with his usual obtuseness warns Bates that Anna must behave. In this episode Violet Lady Grantham tries to help an old-time employee (Molseley) but that ignites the fears of her present butler, but in later ones she joins the chorus of punitive employers on the look-out for thievery (a stance endorsed by Fellowes in an encounter with Mrs Crawley after Mrs Crawley seems to have become emotionally stronger).

Anna does urge Mr Bates to help her find money for Molesley and help him out of his debt, and we are privy to some of his curious talents from his past: after securing a sum from the Dowager he forges an IOU where he appears to owe money to Molseley in order to give him some needed help. This will be matched by Edith’s newspaper man suitor’s ability to manipulate the cards as well as any card sharp and thus rescue Lord Grantham (just spectcularly bad with money) from a huge debt after gambling with one Samspon (Patrick Alexander), a hanger-on in the train of the aristocratic suitor-gentleman, old friends of Mary who will be arriving next week.

I don’t have a still of the touching close when after all Mr Carson going over his photos and pictures and seeing a long-lost loved girl, Alice, decides to come to the train station to bid Mr Grigg adieu (as Mrs Crawley has found him a job as a stage hand in another county) and we see these two friends walk off to talk. The motif of long grief brooding and twisting and finding some surcease in ending a quarrel though is felt with humanity in this still:

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Ellen

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Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Anna Bates (Joanne Froggart) as series begins

Dear friends and readers,

Most of the time when I watch a TV drama especially I never imagine it was made with me in mind. Due to the proliferation of sites on-line with the whole of the fourth season of Downton Abbey wholly available for watching, yesterday I found shoverdosing on Downton Abbey irresistible. In rhythm it’s more like the first: relatively quiet episodes insofar as action is concerned, but unlike the first there are several developed overarching stories and one (once poor Anna is horribly, violently raped) considerable suspense (will Mr Bates find out who did it and murder the man?). I quickly came across overviews which were critical and dismissive — the series is meandering, getting nowhere — certainly no one is jumping a shark. No humiliating desertions at the altar built up to for our delectation. And there is much introduction of new characters.

But it’s very good in a new way: realistic about life’s tragedies, disappointments, real losses (Albert works hard to become a cook, takes a test and at first seems to have failed against others in a competition). Downton Abbey this time is especially about being widowed — not just our central three, Lady Mary, Tom Bransome and Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton brilliant as a woman who has lost both a beloved husband and only son), but others passing by: Joanne David as a kindly Duchess who tries (but the class barrier too strong) to connect to Tom. You need not marry to be deeply affected by the death of someone: Mr Carter’s erstwhile buddy Mr Grigg (Nicky Henson), ends up in a workhouse, and is rescued by Mrs Hughes (many characters are in this series) to meet with Carson again and tell Carson of one Alice who chose Grig, died young.

The rape of Anna is in uterly keeping with the mood of devastating loss you are seemingly helpless to counteract. For a while she cannot bear to have Mr Bates touch her and comes near to breaking the man by moving back into the house. She acts in character and what many women would still do today: she will not go to the police tells only Mrs Hughes because she must have help, and the man who rapes her is a member of the household and there able to do it again. She becomes a devastated version of the strained Lady Mary the series opens with: ghosts. A repeating image now part of the opening credits is a long shot of Lady Mary at first in black and then in non-mourning clothes walking alone up to the house.

It is not all gravity: Edith falls in love fully with Michael Gregson (Charles Edward) who plans a divorce and turns out to have skills in playing cards with cheating thief (another of these louch lords) and wins back money Lord Grantham can ill spare. I remember other films which show the good person exposing the cheat, dowsing him in a barrel, accusing him, but this was much realer. The cheat left in a hurry knowing he could be exposed — but is not. Elegant entertainment in the form of Kiri Te Kanawa as a visiting opera singer, and Gary Carr as an African-Britsh jazz singer who Rose (Lily James) is attracted to, as well as a kindly working class young man she meets at a dance she gets Anna to take her too.

I found myself utterly connecting again and again.

The dowager (need I cite Maggie’s name?) continues with her wry comments, but they are (as before for those paying attention) as much on behalf of individuals in need as against any structural changes — contests ensue between her and Isobel as Mrs Crawley slowly comes back into activity on behalf of the living. There is still the use of the character motivated by malevolent or asocial and disruptive or class resentment impulses: Rob James-Collier carries on his thankless role (without benefit of Miss O’Brien) this time planting a lady’s maid who seems to be under his control and from whom he forces secrets.

But its reactionary stance is considerably softened as Lord Grantham’s paternal Toryism coincides with Tom’s socialist approach in dealing with tenants. Once Lady Mary emerges from her grief she returns to the old somewhat relentless harder self who would turn tenants out after decades of non-payment. When you get to make up the evidence you can argue anything, and this series is an argument against death duties breaking up the estates of these good well-meaning rich people even if one gov’t employee is quite right when he says of Lady Mary she thinks she’s entitled to this life of a princess. Or maybe in our increasingly fascist environment the program’s continual person-to-person humanity is a relief.

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Guess who will provide the third baby for Downton Abbey?

We are no longer in an Edwardian world, but the world of the early 1920s where sex does occur outside marriage more easily. (See Margaret Powell’s Below Stairs). The depression may be what the fifth season will bring.

I say give each episode time; lend yourself to rather like one of the older later 1970s and eary 1980s mini-series with a Chekhovian feel now and again. There has been a change in producer which might help account for the new direction, but it may be Julian Fellowes made a new choice in keeping with a new direction.

I am going away for a week of watching ice-skating in Boston and living in a hotel not too far off and among the books I’m taking is one filled the 8 scripts for the second season and much commentary (and good stills) which I hope to read slowly.

Ellen

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Philomena (Judi Dench) and Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) by the grave of her son

Dear friends and readers,

To help myself get through Thanksgiving Day yesterday, I went out to a movie that had gotten rave reviews: Philomena, directed by Stephen Frears, written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, and based on The Lost Child of Philomena, a book by the real journalist, named Martin Sixsmith, who did help an elderly Irish woman locate the adult her baby born 50 years earlier and taken from her had become:

50 years ago Philomena became pregnant outside marriage (in the film after one night’s love-making at a fair); she was thrown out by her parents, and taken in by a Catholic Charity who proceeded to treat her in the harshest way: she had a breech-birth with no painkillers; she was made to work long hard hours in a laundry for 4 years for little pay in the meagerest circumstances and, along with the other unwed mothers, permitted to see her child one hour a day. Her male child and another female were sold to an American couple for $1000 and she coerced into signing her rights away. Years later the nuns lied to her when she came back to locate him: they said the records were all burnt but one, the paper where she signed her rights to her child away. In the film the journalist is immediately suspicious: how could this one document survive and all others be destroyed? We discover they lied to the boy become an older man when he returned to find her; when he died of AIDS, he wanted to be buried at the charity and his grave is now there and in the film untended (like those who died at the time of the mean inhumane treatment)

The film resembles Rabbit-Proof Fence, which I saw some years ago (2001) where the aborigine children of three women are snatched by middle class white Australians to be brought up in a European middle class culture (but in a harsh orphanage-like environment); in that film the girls make their way back to their mothers through terrible deserts. In both films, the behavior is justified by those who did it: in Philomena, the nuns say she was a gross sinner who deserved the worst punishment; in Rabbit-Proof Fence, Australian authorities say the white culture will provide a much better life for the children when (and if) they grow up. Philomena acknowledges that the boy, Michael in the film, grew up in a middle class home in circumstances which enabled him to become a successful lawyer and work for top Republican people; he was gay and lived with a male friend in reasonable comfort until he contracted AIDS which killed him well before he and others could get the Republicans in charge to fund any program to help find a cure or help for this fatal disease condition.

So the premise is not sentimental. The story exposes a profound injustice done to a powerless woman.

This review (by Jay Stone, Post-Media News) praising the film tells the basic opening premise: a fired or failed and humiliated politician becomes a journalist who does human interest stories and finds himself hired to help an elderly woman locate her son. Also its moral purport: “an odd-couple drama with a dark heart and a post-modern sensibility, an expose of the shockingly sadistic treatment of unwed mothers in the 1950s, and a worldly dismissal of everything that brought it about.” Martin and Philomena are an odd couple: utterly disparate in cultural understanding and age (she reads and understands improbable sentimental romances literally), his sceptical ironic perspective and her naive defenses of those who damaged her profoundly make for oddly dark humor.

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Researching today is looking into the computer

I had not expected this political paradigm: unlike Rabbit-Proof Fence the way the film is advertised, does not bring out its critique of the anti-sex and anti-women attitude in Catholicism, its hypocritical practices: not only do the nuns in charge lie, they make it impossible for Philomena to talk to the aging still ferociously hateful nuns who did the deed. I also didn’t expect the plot-design: such stories usually end in the victim finding her child all grown up and happy and successful at the close; or dead, having died terribly and had a terrible life at the close. That’s what the head newswoman keeps saying on the phone she expects Martin to find after his journey to the US with Philomena and she wants him to write it up that way in order to sell newspapers and is paying the funds needed for travel and research in the expectation of such a story. He is to find such a story write it this way.

Instead about 1/3rd into the film, maybe less, through the computer’s access to information and Martin’s experience telling him where to look when they get to the US, we and then Philomena discover what happened to her son and that he died some 20 years ago. Armed with his name, the names of the people who bought him and became his parents, and the names of those he worked with in the Republican administrations (and photos too), they slowly discover what was her son’s nature and how he lived (middle class life growing up, good school but the parents were hard on him and the girl who became his sister), his homosexuality (which funnily but believably Philomena suspects quickly upon seeing his photos). They and we visit his sister; then an ex-colleague now at the Folger Library; and after much struggle, they force their way into the house of his partner (who was in effect his spouse) and he shows them one of these montages of photos and films that funeral homes nowadays make up and put on DVDs as wellas websites for customers.

It was when the film became to play this montage I broke down. I began to sob uncontrollably. It was so like the montage the Everly-Wheatley Funeral Home made of my husband Jim; opening with the same sentence telling the day the person was born; closing with a similar sentence recording the day he died, and more or less taking the viewer through the stages of the person’s life as he looked and changed. The relatives of this fictionalized montage and I and my daughter naturally chose the best pictures and the expertise of the funeral director puts them into coherent order. Soft music and interwoven photos of natural phenomenon (grass, birds, sky, flowers) do the rest. So the montage I paid for is common I learned.

After that the emotional moments in the rest of the film drew tears from my eyes. Judi Dench rightly receives high praise for her performance. I’ve seen her several times before perform this high-wire act (Cranford Chronicles, with Maggie Smith, Ladies in Lavender) where she conveys a depth of tender emotion just held in check so that a sentimental story is told prosaically; a underlying sternness of aspect in Dench’s face (Helen Mirren pulls off this kind of thing too) is part of what’s responsible for the effectiveness of Dench’s presence; as Philomena she conveys some self-irony (like Maggie Smith does in her enactments of this kind of role, say Bed Among Lentils) — even in a woman given to retelling with utter earnestness the silliest romance stories.

Dench is helped by being partnered with an acerbic comic actor: Steve Coogan played in a burlesque adaptation of Tristam Shandy (A Cock and Bull Story); as Ann Hornaday says he utters “mordant asides” “often having nothing to do with theology, or religion.” Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian calls them a divine couple.

One must not forget the contribution of Stephen Frears who while not seen has made many film masterpieces as disparate as My Beautiful Laundrette, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, The Grifters, Mary Reilly, recently Cheri, Tamara Drewe. And scriptwriters Coogan and Jeff Pope.

It was Thanksgiving Day which is still kept by many Americans so few people were in the theater. Most were presumably at home with families or friends eating a turkey or other roast-bird meal. Or quietly allowing others to think they are. Some put photos on the Net to show they are participating, a propensity made fun of this week in the New Yorker (see The Ordeal of Holidays).

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A known secret is that Christmas Day is now passed by many by going to a movie — you do see people in groups — and the meal is sometimes eaten out in a restaurant (Asian ones have been open on Christmas Day for a long time, permitting the joke I passed the day in the Jewish way, movie and Chinese food out). Although Thanksgiving itself has not been commercialized beyond the buying of a bird and trimmings, those who don’t get to do this are made to feel bad so public media shows include statements by announcers expressing compassion for the presumed unhappiness of those who don’t get to experience such get-togethers for whatever reason. On Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifills’ PBS Reports, I saw the story of a poor black woman who since food stamp allowances were cut gets $63 worth of groceries per month for herself and her grandchild. This is not enough to buy a Thanksgiving feast. Well some charitable organization in Virginia was giving away grocery bags full of roast birds, vegetables, treats (cakes? pies?) and drinks; as a viewer I listened to her description of her life (she is the type who works at Wall-Mart’s) and how grateful (!) she was to the charity. Right.

The demanded behavior on Thanksgiving or Turkey day is an expression of thanks (read W. S. Merwin’s poem) — in origin it’s a religious ritual feast.

I’m not immune to this. Today was my birthday and I was relieved and rejoiced when my young friend, Thao, and her partner, Jeff, were able to make it to DC all the way from Toronto, Canada, where they live. It is common for people in the US to travel long distances to get back to some relative or friend for dinner. Thao and Jeff were here also to shop for an an engagement ring and see other friends (she attended GMU for her undergraduate degree). I am no cook, but together for the day after Turkey Day, Izzy and I managed to roast a chicken, heat up frozen pre-prepared zuchini (awful), cook spaghetti and a yummy pasta and cheese sauce I bought from Whole Foods; fresh bread, ginger ale for all but me (who drank cheap Riesling) and Port Salud cheese rounded out our feast. We talked, took photos.

If you should see the remarkably candid, intelligent and moving bio-pic Joan Rivers made about her life (A Piece of Work), you will find that on Thanksgiving day she makes a feast in her apartment and to fill the table’s chairs and do a good deed, she invites street-people known to her up to apartment each year to eat with her. A friend of mine whose grown children are divorced, live far away, know unemployment and other obstacles preventing all from getting-together, this friend invites three woman who have no families to dine with her and her husband and those of her children and grandchildren who do make it.

I have a double excuse for this weakness this year: my beloved husband died of cancer this year; the rightly dreaded disease allowed to continue to spread (President Obama just signed some bill easing the way for those who want to frack for huge profits), this disease killed him horribly inside 6 months.

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But I digress. I’ve forgotten Philomena. Don’t miss it. It’s funny. The background is modern day USA as experienced by the middle class in DC and modern day Ireland. We are able to remain calm and not get too indignant because the Catholic nunnery as presented in the film is an anomaly, a broken-down place no one in their right mind goes near. None of the sternness of the ending of Rabbit-Proof Fence: in Rabbit-Proof Fence, the perpetrator played by Kenneth Branagh remains as unreformed as the nuns in Philomena do, but the aborigine children who escaped back to the aborigine people are presented in their present poverty-stricken existences — probably dependent on charities the way the black grandmother seen on the Woodruff-Ifill show was yesterday. The modern-day Philomena lives with a kind patient professional daughter wisely underplayed by Anna Maxwell Martin (another wonderful actress who I hope decades from now is working on in the way Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith all have). Mother and Daughter live in a decent house, do lunch in pubs.

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Ellen

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The important thing is not to take it [whatever happens] as a punishment

I do like to be beside the seaside

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Vince (Ray Winston), Lenny (David Hemmings), Ray (Bob Hoskins), Vic (Tim Courtney) — Jack’s son & his friends about to throw Jack’s ashes into the sea

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Amy (Helen Mirren), Jack’s wife saying goodbye permanently to June (Laura Morelli), Jack’s daughter

Dear friends and readers,

Last Orders in Graham Swift’s magnificent and moving book, and in Fred Schepisi’s film of the same name refers to closing time in pubs: just before 11 when it used to be time to close, everyone drinking placed his or her last orders; it also refers to Jack Dodds’s last orders before he died: he asks that his ashes be scattered on Margate Pier where he and Amy, his wife, spent their delayed honeymoon, nearly 50 years ago.

Jim’s last orders were to cremate him, buy an urn which looked like the urn in the HD Met opera, Giulio Cesare, engraved with a witty turn on Rupert Brooke:

If I should die, think only this of me
   That there’s some corner of a foreign mantelpiece
That is for a while England.

Beyond that nothing indicated, only (implied) do as little as possible. I probably did not follow that last (implied) instruction, but then in Swift’s novel & Schepisi’s film, Amy does not herself go to Margate, but rather spends one more day visiting her and Jack’s severely retarded daughter, June, for nearly 50 years an inmate of a mental asylum (of a large type that doesn’t exist any more).

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As the day begins, three men waiting for Vince to arrive with fancy car, look at Jack’s ashes

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First startling flashback: Jack (Michael Caine) feels larger than life, drinking

I got through the last two nights and days and this morning by rereading Swift’s novel (which I’ve assigned to classes several times), watching the film twice (once with Schepisi’s voiced commentary) and reading in a favorite book of poems for Jim: John Betjemann’s Summoned by Bells. Both texts and movies evoke & picture worlds, milieus in England that Jim growing up participated in. And Last Orders is the story of a post-funeral rite: Jack’s four friends take a journey, drive across southern England, from London, into towns, to a war memorial, a farm (Wick’s) where Jack’s parents as young half-broke adults met and made love in, where June was conceived (so a couple of night’s love-making determined their lives as the two married), Canterbury (the cathedral), onto Margate by the sea. During the journey through (in the film) flashbacks and (in the book) intertwined subjective meditations, they each travel in memory to different stages in their shared pasts.

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Inside the car

Amyonbusblog
On the bus

It’s a quest into the self for each of them. A return. In the book it is towards the end that we learn it was to Margate Jack and Amy went for their honeymoon, a honeymoon taken after they married (a forced marriage) and the birth of a severely mentally retarded daughter. In the book they fail to rejuvenate their marriage; the film wants us to believe that Jack’s love for Amy and hers for him made for a solid relationship; in the book we see that though they continued to live side-by-side for 50 years, both were dissatisfied; both felt trapped. Nonetheless, Jack wanted to go back; he dreamt of returning (though it’s probable he knows he didn’t have the money), but he wants to make up to Amy what he had not in him at the time to do: to be some substitute for all she ever wanted out of life. Not having gone back in life, he asks that he be brought there in death. She refuses to accompany the men. He has not compensated her for all she has given up to comfort his hurt male ego: one way a man is said to be manly, the effective man, is to have successful children. Jack wanted more: he wanted a son Amy adopts while he is away at war, Vince, to follow him in his butcher business as he did his father though he would’ve liked to try to become a doctor. Three of the men would have preferred a career other than the one they ended up with: Lenny wanted to be a star boxer, and Ray a jockey.

Seasidejpgblog
Young Jack (J.J.Feilds) and Amy (Kelly Reilly) with very young Vince and Sally at the seaside

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Ray and Amy reading Jack’s last orders — the Thames a continual presence in their bench scenes

Thematically it’s a return to the sea. Margate is haunted by memories in the minds of the characters, though the sea is unchanging and seems not to notice the human beings or time that passes through it; human beings can’t leave a mark on it; life comes from it and Jack returns to it. People came from it
as life did; they return to it to enjoy themselves. I do like to be beside the seaside, by the beautiful sea. Is man a noble animal? He has aspirations and we see in these aging men their disappointed aspirations.

Amy also takes a trip: a long bus trip to the asylum where weekly she goes to see (never recognized) by their daughter, June. One summer 25 years ago Ray and she went there and then for the rest of the summer they traveled about in a camper: the most fulfilling heterosexual love she has known is with Ray. It’s her words about him being a lovely man that we remember at the book’s close: “Oh Ray, you’re a lovely man, you’re a lucky man, you’re a little ray of sunshine, you’re a little ray of hope.” He is the providential figure of the book, winning great sums at races when people need it, personally unambitious. Ray thinks Jack knew (p. 284). We see in Michael Caine’s eyes in the hospital whenever the camper mentioned that he did know and he expects (ambiguously it’s hinted) Ray and Amy will now become a pair. And his sole concern is to make sure the £20,000 he owes on the shop is paid so Amy will be free of harassment and solvent. But I noticed this time how scared Amy is now on the bus; you wouldn’t think Jack no longer being alive in the world would affect her safety and security, but she feels this blank as fear. (That’s how I feel w/o Jim; it is my strongest emotion, the source of anxiety attacks.)

In the film it seems certain Ray and Amy will now travel to Australia; she’s no longer land-locked, but in the book we never know for certain. The weekly trip is partly spite, partly to get back at Jack for not wanting her. She presents it as a love gesture, a gesture of deep longing as the mentally retarded individual can’t even recognize Amy as her mother (or refuses to). Over the course of the novel Amy adopts three other children in compensation: Vince, whose family is destroyed by a bomb from a plane, who becomes their son; Sally (Lenny and Joan’s daughter) who they have to exclude from Vince’s aggressive sexuality aimed at Sally; and then Mandy, who seeks to run away from abusive parents but ends up in a new home quickly, and whom Vince marries. But Amy never does give up that weekly bus-ride — until this day of Jack’s death. She will not return again; it’s time to make a new life for herself. I find that true to life.

I noticed that in the movie flashbacks move chronologically; in book they are placed so as to give us the most emotional impact at the right moment.

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OldJackRayblog
Old Jack and Ray where Jack is showing Ray his debts and Amy’s photo once again

YoungJackRayblog
Young Jack and Ray (Anatol Yousef), where Jack is ever slightly taunting Ray

It’s a book written from a strongly masculinist point of view, more interested for example in Ray’s betrayal of Jack (who half-teased Ray cruelly about Ray’s lack of height and physical prowess) than Amy’s in this deeply happy love affair. In book and film it’s left ambiguous whether Jack knew, but it seems he did and never tried to gain any revenge. Ray manages to have these trysts by the use of a small camper he takes Amy to June with. Their times together are described as “traveling about.” Amy thinks how the bus ride is the high point of her week. “It’s where she belongs,” what she enjoys most. We see her riding on the top of a double decker looking about her. High up. I know I love a train ride for similar reasons

Camperblog
Camper at races, Ray and Amy making love inside

As opposed to the men of the book, the women never get a chance to wander away from their community; they are enclosed in relationships dominated by men or reaching toward men. At the close of the book Ray tells Amy he has won the money necessary to pay off a mortgage to (presumably the usual brutal debt collectors), and asks her if she’d like to go with him “down under.” “Well Ray, Australia is very far away, but I always did like traveling about.”

YOungversionsblog
Most of the pub scenes do not include the women: here we see the younger actors

Women characters are important though they are seen through the perspective of men and their lives are controlled by men. A kind of archetypal femininity going on: seduction, wife, the one in the home who makes it; who is bound by it. Mandy tries to escape and ends up with a new father and mother; she doesn’t get very far — she is a good wife to Vince; both live close to parents and see each other daily. Vince may not become a butcher, but he remains close to his father, needing him and needed.

Women’s journey is landlocked; domesticity as tedious, as historyless. They are seen as inward. They lack a story of their own; but the men’s stories are pre-determined by their cultural norms of masculinity which tie them up in knots. Men cannot dismiss the unreal and illegitimate norms that they (Lenny as prize fighter and now peddler) has allowed to blight and control his real inner emotions. His earlier youthful sardonic realism is now bitter and angry as he lashes out at Lenny for having impregnanted Sally, Lenny’s daughter, and deserted her. She now makes money selling herself, her present husband a convict. But it was Lenny who insisted she have an abortion rather than shame him. Your gender determines your kind of freedom or lack of it and this book shows us unfree women. Thejourney and ceremony are a male enterprise in the film; the males go off to war. But they are bound by state and money and class they are born in.

VinceJackOlderBlog
Old Jack, dying, asking Vince to find £1000 for him

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Younger Vince telling his father, Jack, you must go work for supermarket, and then giving Jack a few quid to tide him over

It’s also about parents and children: we have generational conflicts. Vince keeps his father at a distance, wants his self-interest to reign above all. We do see the emotional isolation of these people while they all yearn to connect. Mutual disloyalty binds them to one another. Like life.

They are entrapped in frailty and biology, in nature’s processes, in society where they are thrown. It’s also an excess of affection and intimacy which betrays people. You give too much; you burden the other person, and you want too much back. Fantasies of idealism lie behind slogans of family values.

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Margatebog
Coming into present time Margate

The book is also an elegy to an England that no longer exists, several Englands (like Summoned by Bells), the film a trip through history. Pub, restaurant, meadow, great cathedral which goes back in time, but most centrally a natural place again: working class holiday in Margate. Simple language
resonates out to deeper truths contained in simple statements. “It was the luck of a summer night (p 268) why you are saddled with one person and not another.” Comical wry as well as gallows humor: Jack is now “a Jack in the box;” he’s carried around in a plastic bag one can carry a jar of coffee in. England’s continual raining: “Atrocious weather” (says Amy, p 276) “Not far to go now Jack” Says Vince craddling the box with the ashes in it as they near Margate (in November).

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Walking up to the cathedral

Places: Canterbury Cathedral, an historically specific site and spiritual place, a threshold into old religion; Margate a seedy holiday resort and out of season too, yet place of oceanic timelessness, of dreams and departures. Along the way, the pub they met at all their lives, Bermondsey; the pub they eat at, the war memorial with all the names of who died; and they remember being torpedoed Wick’s farm (the wick of a candle) where the agricultural techniques go back centuries. Places become meaningful to us as they embody our memories and the history we share with others. The hospital and race-course. The phone where Amy hears of Jack’s death from heart strain. Lots of deaths are told over a phone today. The present is dwindled. I like the lack of condescension; I like his choice of working people. A vision of a modern industrialized country as average people.

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RayRememberingblog
In cathedral others tour and Ray remembers

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the day he propositioned Amy by telling her he’d retired & can now come with her to visit June

The book reminds me of Faulkner in that chapters are named after characters, and in each character’s chapters we are in that character’s consciousness traveling through the past. Schepisi says one of the difficulties of the film was to make it appear a narrative. It jumps around in time zones. In life thogh when someone tells a story, they don’t tell it straightforwardly. You go back in time; then relate that to another past, going back and forth by association. Since the book is written in London working class dialect, this can make for hard reading. In a film you must let the period shown tell itself – not cut to furniture or prams or signs; must keep drive of emotional drama; absolute accurate detail will give the time away so the viewer does not get lost.

Jack Dodds — he’s dead when the story opens. Jack was a powerful intense presence in these people’s lives. In a sense he’s really not dead at all. In the film they alternate Michael Caine alive with scenes of the box of ashes. What is striking about the box of ashes as we look at it? We think that’s what we’ll be someday. Get used to it. In the book he remains a central figure in their minds.

Ray Johnson. It’s arguable he’s the chief character is Ray Johnson. He gets the most chapters. He is the most perceptive and articulate. His words are sheer poetry. He is tempted not to give Amy the £20,000 we watch Jack engineer for her: by asking Vince for £1000 and then asking Ray to bet on it extravagantly. Jack dies at a moment of intense happiness when on TV he watches the chosen horse win. at times. Ray does replace Jack by the end; Ray enabled Vince to open his car business; and it seems that Ray was a central supporting character in Jack’s life and Jack in Ray’s. Ray will take Jack’s place; Jack knows this. He is the single organizing consciousness; he gets the most profound lines. We are told he is intelligent; he has it “up here;” he does not come from people who would send him to university. However, he is no more of a worldly success than the others and he retires as soon as he can — reminding me of Jim. Vince wants to make big money, have fancy cars, go on fancy vacations. If you don’t, you’re nothing. Swift’s story critiques this idea as cruel and unreal demands. People can’t get much farther than they start out. Truth is we are thrown. Ray the odd fairy godfather of a book where the world is supposedly ruled by “blind chance.”

His daughter, Susie, leaves him; he gets the money for her to go to Australia with the young man she has fallen in love with. In that one moment he is a sterling human being in kindness, insight, offers her a life she wants. But as a result his wife leaves him too (!). She can’t bear to lose the daughter. We don’t own and can’t control our children to follow us in life is an important lesson of the novel. When young, he’s scared of sex, small, chubby, unprepossessing. Swift explodes false notions of males. He is in a way the strongest of the four males — emotionally. He carries weight of Vince when Jack can’t; Vince goes to live with Ray. Uncle Ray. He’s a brother to Jack too. Carol, Ray’s wife, leaves him too because the camper is the last straw — her idea of travel is far more elegant, glamorous; she would love to travel far (like Amy she wants something not in her husband),

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Winston as Vince deeply moved remembering and scattering ashes of father into English farm

Vince Dodds (originally Pritchett). Given the most complicated personality. In conflict with the father yet loves him intensely. Hurt because adopted, hurt over June as his real sister. Wants to compete and come out high. He vomited in the meat van; did not like being poor or working class. He never for a moment considers that what hurts him most are values he need not believe in and in fact doesn’t really live by. He’s his parents’ son; he marries the girl they brought home to him; he lives near by. He shops for his wife. Indeed he’s got the tenderest of hearts. He has consciously taken on and believes in vicious values as in his exploitation of Lenny’s daughter’s vulnerability, he beat her too (Sally).

In the novel he’s not a nice person. A bully, a manipulator, not too honest. He desert Sally pregnant. He allows his daughter, Kath, to sell herself to a wealthy comer. He betrays his daughter, Kath just as Jack betrayed his, June — according to Amy. Lenny also betrayed Sally though in paying for her abortion (with money Ray again won at the races) though Lenny meant well. It is important to understand the terrible stigma of a child out of wedlock in the 1940s; her life would have been ruined. It was ruined anyway, but not really Lenny’s fault. Vince didn’t try to help Kath. Yet makes money for others, & must take care of them; & has a tender heart and strong passions and at moments means well. Ray Winston is wonderful in the part.

Vince is also very domestic. He is a house-husband to Mandy who in a sense was his sister. The ultimate rebel never left his father’s aegis; stayed close; is there all the time. That’s another reason he’s a success in a way. But maybe this value is a good one. Swift leaves you to think and decide. Why should men be ashamed of having feelings? This is awful to jeer at. Modern too: he moves way from the earth, from flesh, to machines. He wants to move fast in a powerful automobile.

Ironically Mandy seems luckiest in some ways. We don’t see much of her and don’t know how she feels about Vince or her daughter, Kath. Later in the book Amy thinking about the world as intense competition and failure, says to herself maybe June was better off where she was. She does not mean that fully.

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Emphasis in film on four men and their view of world — here in a pub having lunch

Victor Tucker, an undertaker who took over his father’s business too. Learnt to accept his role during WW2. He tucks people away. We are asked to see him as the most content. He’s the priest of the book. He’s come to terms with himself. I find his portrayal the least satisfying of the novel. He
ought to be more conflicted. However, a brilliant actor, Tom Courtney, got the part. Courtney decided to emphasize Vic as conciliator and one who says “you can’t judge other people.” We do like that value. He did the first funeral; he brings the jar. We are seeing a much better funeral than usual. No false ceremony; no huge amounts of money. Here we find real grief and an attempt to confront real conflicts among the men. Vic is Unobtrusive, the mediator; he knows to keep secrets. Victor also suggests Victory. His beautiful descriptions of Canterbury cathedrale bring out history and rootedness.

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Lenny held back from trying to fight with Vince

Lenny Tate. A disappointed man; in the book we see he will die next. Not in good health. Exboxer he now peddles fruit and vegetables. He doesn’t want to use the word death. Says the uncomfortable thing, the truth. He is bitter, resentful. He can’t help but punch out. And he points to things: Why is Amy not here? Amy ought to come. He calls Vince Big Boy to needle him. High point of drama in the movie is when Lenny attacks Vince at Wick Farm while Vince is scattering ashes where his parents first met and also told him he was adopted.

What’s Amy like? Her voice really first emerges in the second half of the novel. A beauty, a siren (Kelly Reilly is beautiful) when young attracts Jack, Lenny, Ray, but herself entrapped by her body and nature. Mandy is her replacement for Vince. Both Amy and Mandy make love in the camper (so too Sally). We see in the film and hear about in the book how Vince is comforting Amy now that Jack is dead. Some of the finest moments are hers fully remembering. She does like retreat. The world a hard harsh place, p 239. But retreat costs and were it not for the fairy tale winnings she’d have vicious thugs at her door demanding £20,000.

Narrators: Ray, Amy, Vince, Lenny, Vic, Mandy, Jack. We don’t hear from Joan, Pam, Carol, Sally or Kath. We hear Mandy only once (pp 153ff), and near the book’s close, Jack (p. 285). In the film Ray and Amy do the remembering outside the hospital a week before Jack dies, and the men in the car do the remembering as they move through the day.

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YoungFathertellingblog
Young Jack telling very young Vince he’s adopted and about June

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Young Amy looking on and wishing Jack wouldn’t

I have read that much in the book reflects Swift’s own life. Fred Schepisi said that the actors he hired all connected back to this working lower middle class background in England as did he in Australia. Jack a version of his father and Amy of his mother.

I read the book and watched the movie to extend my enactment of a funeral and cremation. So as not to feel so alone. Graham’s point of view on life is one I agree with. And its Englishness brought me close to my husband no longer alive, more gone than Jack in the fiction since so few got to know him, and only I have tried to extend his consciousness into the world.

Theseablog
The last still of the movie

Where has Jack gone? What is death? What do we mean by it? Swift explores the body and how people feel in their bodies. When the body dies, the person dies. But the person was not just his or her body. Jim is still here in my memory and in all the things in the house he helped acquire and enjoyed. He is not yet cremated and I don’t know how I shall really feel about having Jim-in-an-urn in this house on the mantelpiece. I want to scatter the ashes — preferably in England if I can get back — he need be “only for a while” on that mantelpiece: I shall interpret that line that way. I’m not a character in an ancient drama. I’m with Amy in Last Orders who was chary of accompanying her husband as ashes to Margate.

Ellen

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EyeKateblog
Kate O’Hara of An Eye for an Eye by Elisa Trimby

Dear friends and readers,

More than a week ago now a group of us on Trollope19thCStudies finished reading Trollope’s powerful Anglo-Irish novella, An Eye for an Eye. We’ve been having a sort of Anglo-Irish year and a half, having now read (in this order) just before (but not directly after one another), The Kellys and O’Kellys, Castle Richmond, The Macdermots of Ballycloran. The links I provide will taken the reader to group reads of these books a different group of us read on the same list-serv some ten years ago.

The Macdermots of Ballycloran was the first novel the first list-serv group for Trollope I ever was on read together (we chose it because it was Trollope’s first novel), and the reading and book is the subject of the first chapter of my book, where, with its second chapter on all the other Anglo-Irish books of Trollope (excluding the Phineas books) I argue this set of books is a powerful sub-genre, a series whose books share a group of characteristics and repeating motifs; Trollope maps its landscape (and thus Ireland). I wrote in my book it’s:

a place apart, filled with characters who have little hope, who encounter cruelty, hardship and indifference with a combination of pragmatic acceptance, stern heroism, mythic gestures and extravagant fantasies. It is a place ‘especially unhappy’, rural, archaic, primal in customs. When it is realistic, we explore paralysis. When it is romantic, we find ourselves in providential, picaresque or gothic worlds, in the latter of which uncanny happenings are at home. Sutherland remarks that when an English novelist turned to Ireland he evoked ‘a vein of Celtic romance and pathos’ unavailable in English novels.

Well it won over a new set of people (plus me, and any other old-timer). I’ve assigned it twice to my students, have read good student papers on it, and I again wrote about their reaction, how they identified with the young hero and heroine whose lives are destroyed by ethnic, religious, class prejudice.

The best of Trollope’s critics, Richard Holt Hutton, who identified Trollope when he tried to publish anonymously, saw the novella as one where: that two decent people are destroyed by the inhumane twisted mores of our society. Hutton writes: “Of all the strange perversions of which the moral nature of men is capable probably none is stranger than the tendency of certain socalled “social obligations” to override the simpler personal obligations in certain men’s breasts, an dyet to work there with all the force of high duty, and all the absoluteness of an admitted destiny.” Hutton goes over all the characters and how [the hero] Fred is led by them and the place in England to do what he is ashamed of [not marry Kate after he has impregnated her], to tell himself he owes more to “society” than his conscience or God; a “sacred promise” become a thing of “contempt” when what is contemptible is not making Kate is true wife. Hutton does not blame Fred but he shows how he is hardened.

This time I will quote from my book:

An Eye for Eye is a small masterpiece. Nearly all those who have read and written about it have pronounced it a stark, passionate, and poetic romance of surpassing merit. Richard Holt Hutton, Trollope’s contemporary, and still one of his best critics, thought An Eye for an Eye would ‘take a high place among Mr Trollope’s works’. He said ‘there is something in the atmosphere of Ireland which appears to rouse his imagination, and give force and simplicity to his pictures of life’. Holt analysed the novella as a ‘tragic story of mastering passion and over-mastering prejudice, — of a great sin, and a great wrong, and great revenge’ and ‘family pride’, one with a full array of subtly observed real characters’. An Eye for an Eye is a ‘story which no man without a very powerful imagination could have written’.

Lady Scroope, Fred’s adopted stepmother has prided herself on her austere Christian life, but ‘the strange perversion of which the moral nature of man is capable’ leads her for the sake of her family’s prestige first to hound Fred to break off with Kate, then to forbid him to marry her. When Kate becomes pregnant, Lady Scroope hints to him if he cannot desert Kate, he can live with her without marrying her (Eye for An Eye, pp. 156-64). The novel teaches us — most unusually says Holt — that moral justice demands that its hero, who feels contempt for the girl he has seduced, shall still not desert her.

boyhillsblog
John William North, “Requiescat in Pace,” for Jean Ingelow, Poems, 1867 — it could be Fred wandering on the Moher cliffs

What gives An Eye for an Eye the power to astonish and keeps the reader compulsively turning pages is the dilemma the book turns on — the struggle between Fred’s pragmatic and proud ambition which prevents him, a young man upon whom rank and money have been unexpectedly thrust, from offering to marry Kate, and his equally intense desire to escape reponsibility and social ties in order to lose himself in a wild landscape of dreams. There is something deeply appealing to him in the tender love of a wholly undemanding girl (pp. 62-64, 66-67, 71, 81). This is also one of Trollope’s many novels whose meaning cannot be understood apart from, and whose events could not have happened anywhere but in its particular landscape (pp. 189-94).

CarletonWatkins3Brothers1865to66blog
A suggestive photograph by Carleton Watkins (1865-66)

Trollope’s uncanny insight into Kate’s mother’s character is absorbing. Mrs O’Hara married against her family’s advice and found herself isolated and married to a betrayer, a low-life drone. When her husband deserted her, she came to live in a cottage on the Moher cliffs; her only friend is a Catholic priest, Father Marty, who encourages Fred because Father Marty thinks Fred a great prize, especially for Kate (pp. 52-60). Mrs O’Hara allows the courtship to continue because she is moved by her daughter’s silent plea that before Fred her life in isolation was no life (pp. 42-43).

Trollope presents Mrs O’Hara as a woman who has been driven to the edge of desperation by a hard cold society; Fred’s refusal to marry Kate awakens in her a latent ferocity created by her past, one of which Fred was only half-aware and which frightened him (p. 65). Fred cannot foresee this last blow to her pride will be one blow too many for Mrs O’Hara to sustain without resorting to some form of crazed behaviour.

An Eye for an Eye is structured as an explanation of how Mrs O’Hara’s mind came to disintegrate suddenly — it opens with her madness. After I read it for the first time I compared it to Elsa Morante’s 1974 La storia, a fictionalised history of Italy in the first half of the twentieth century as experienced by Ida [Iduzza] Ramundo:

An Eye for An Eye is written as a flashback. It opens with a one and one-half page ‘Foreword’ in which we met a woman in a private asylum ‘somewhere in the west of England’ [in the manuscript Trollope wrote 'Ireland']. She sits quietly all day, occasionally uttering the same phrases over and over, ‘An eye for an eye . . . and a tooth for a tooth. Is it not the law?’ And her attendant agrees ‘An eye for an eye, madam. Oh, certainly. That is the law. An eye for an eye, no doubt’. The book isan unraveling of this opening image, an explanation of who the woman is and how she came to be there, of the meaning of her formula repeated ‘a dozen dozen times’ a day. Morante takes 656 pages to get us to a remarkably similar page and one-half where Iduzza similarly goes mad when one day she comes home from work to find all she had left to value gone. Her beloved disabled young son lies dead on the floor. We are told she spends the rest of her life repeating and muttering a strange series of syllables no-one understands. They are the words of the child who was an epileptic and thrown out of school because he was thought an idiot. When nine years Iduzza finally dies (the last paragraph of this book), we are told she had really died the day her son died. Iduzza has been shattered and destroyed by four years of terrible war, isolation and despair.

In a book of one-quarter the length Trollope presents us with a similarly desperate woman who has severed herself from all other people because she has been scorned as well as betrayed, and when her treasure, Kate, is betrayed by Fred, we watch her gradually strained beyond endurance lose all control until on the cliff, when she is once again asked to listen to Fred refuse to marry Kate, she pushes him to his death.

In Trollope’s and Morante’s novels we are made to feel what the hierarchies of society cost the vulnerable. The epigraph of Morante’s novel is a comment by a Hiroshima survivor: ‘there is no word in any human language capable of consoling the guinea-pig who doesn’t understand why she died’. This epigraph applies to Thady in the Macdermots and the lovers in An Eye for an Eye.

The novella ends tragically; it is intense as are Trollope’s other novellas. The one closest to it for poignant ironic romance is Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite whose stories show strong resemblances, and which itself is a closely analogous story to Henry James’s Washington Square, with the daughter dying unfairly turns against her own father and her maid. Since James was so hard on Trollope, it’s not that often noticed how James reads Trollope assiduously as each Trollope novel is published and how much James owes to Trollope as a source.

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A scene found in Agnieska Holland’s Washington Square which has an equivalent in James’ and Trollope’s novellas alike

I can’t recommend it too highly.

Ellen

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ForstyeSagaPt13FleurJon1967blog
Susan Hampshire as Fleur, Marvin Jarvis as Jon (1967 Forsyte Saga, a scene of intensely idyllic love from To Let) — one of my favorite stills

HollyValEquivalentblog
The closest equivalent in the 2002 film: Holly (Amanda Ryan) and Val (Julian Overden) falling in love

Dear friends and readers,

I know I’ve gone a much longer time than usual between blogs; worse yet, I’ve not written about any books I’ve read for over a month, and then it was one which answered to my needs (Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking) during this time of scarcely endurable personal tragedy, which is far from over. All I was able to do during August was write about a particularly good film I had just seen, in the spirit of recommendation (e.g., Blue Jasmine). I have, though, continued to read and to listen to good books different sorts read aloud, even if the spirit has not been strong within me to blog about them.

One series that has sustained me — and itself — has been Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, first trilogy. On Trollope19thCStudies at least two (and now more) of us have gone on from The Man of Property, to In Chancery (2nd novel) and To Let (3rd), with their intervening interludes, Indian Summer of a Forsyte and Awakening. So tonight I will attempt to write about these and the parts of the two film adaptations which dramatize them.

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In Chancery

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Soames (Eric Porter) come to ask Irene (Dawn Nyall Porter) to return to him, a moment sympathetic to Soames (1967 Forsyte Saga, Part 9)

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Soames (Damien Lewis) come to ask Irene (Gina McKay), to return to him, a depiction sympathetic to Irene (2002 Forsyte Saga, Part 8)

While the death of old Jolyon and his idyl with Irene was effective (Indian Summer, which I wrote about in my previous blog on The Man of Property), I found in In Chancery a strong falling off after the initial push of Soames on Irene to marry him. Until near the end when Galsworthy turned back from the younger generation of Forsytes to Soames, Irene, Annette and Young Jolyon, he meant to be the subject of the book to be the “third generation” (as he calls the youngest adult characters) as belonging to or making up a “new” world. To me they seemed weaker, not as fully believable or realized characters than the middle or 2nd generation Forsytes — Val (Winifred’s son by Montague Dartie), Jolly and Holly (children of Young Jolyon by the governess, Helene, the boy dying in the Boer war), even their names makes them into simpler dolls, including the young Jon (son to Irene and Young Jolyon), not complex embodiments of humanity — until that is, Fleur (daughter to Soames by Annette, the French woman he marries so as to have a child) arrives, a fully-grown young woman in To Let.

Hollyandfatherblog
The 2002 film uses Holly (Amanda Ryan) to show the loneliness of her father (Young Jolyon) before marriage to Irene, and his kindness to his daughter who wants to follow Val to the Boer War

HollyValblog
1967 film shows the innocent couple, Holly (Jackie Smith) and Val with no irony

That this group of characters are weak was seen by the film-makers of both the 1967 and 2002 mini-series: they are sidelined, kept in the margins. Annette who scarcely appears in either book, emerges as a major character. In both the book and films, June, Young Jolyon’s older daughter, by his first wife, Francis, remains an active character to be reckoned with. In Chancery ends in Soames seeking a divorce because he cannot persuade Irene to return to him so as to father a child upon her (and he is honest this is his motive, which he finds reasonable), the birth of Fleur (about whose gender Soames lies to his dying father) and marriage of Irene and Young Jolyon.

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birthofFleur2blog
The birth of Fleur (1967)

The Awakening I found impossibly cloying: it affects to tell of how the world feels to the young Jon, a boy of 6: it does show how a mother’s presence can dominate a small boy utterly, and this foreshadows what Jon’s later life will be. This may be regarded as reverse Freudianism: instead of a girl with penis envy (longing for her father), we have a boy with warm womb satisfactions.

2002BirthofFleurblog
The birth of Fleur (2002)

SoamesMotherblog
The 2002 film picks up this sense of the boy dependent on his mother in Soames’s relationship with his: Barbara Flynn is here comforting Annette

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To Let

By contrast, I felt almost upon opening To Let, a resumption of the power of the first book, with Soames to the forefront once again, now filled out (as it were) and altered to, by the presence of the beloved daughter, Fleur whose heritage emerges as a blend of her pragmatic sufficiently amoral French mother and iron-willed yet sensitive father. We get a strong stand-off, a re-delineation of the original clash between Irene (now with Jolyon by her side) and Soames, only now it’s embodied in the persons of their children who turn into Romeo and Juliet figures who fall in love and want to marry and are forbidden even to think of one another. They demand to know why and both sets of parents are (understandably) reluctant to go near Soames’s rape of Irene, her two adulteries.

Fleurliseningblog
Fleur listening to the history of her parents

Winifredtellingblog
Winifred (Margaret Tyzack) telling it plainly (1967)

In the film and book Fleur is told by Annette’s lover to spite Soames, to separate her off from her father, to somehow take advantage of the situation; and by Winifred who believes Fleur should be told and is doing it on behalf of Soames. Winifred is the person who adjusts to society, who in a sense stands for it in her easy changes and complacencies – she does support her brother and Fleur this way. As in the book, Fleur first finds Irene’s picture deep in Soames’s drawer — so we realize that Soames brooded over Irene while married to Annette. She asks if Soames wanted to marry Irene but Winifred will not answer her at first.

The result is unexpected: Fleur comes to June again and says she wants to talk to Jon and implies strongly she might break off the relationship. I take this to mean she has chosen her father. In the event she tries to trick Jon into marrying her but fails to persuade him.

Jon learns by a long letter written to him by his father, and makes the decision not to marry Fleur. It is he who decides this finally, not she; she would have passionately gone on to marry and presented this as a fait accompli to their parents. Does this mean she loved him more than he loved her? Probably not — we use that word love so superficially and for so many kinds of experiences. What we see in the scenes is her determination to assert her desire and her vision of her future, and his real tie with his mother and gratitude towards parents who have given him (as we are shown) the happiest childhood and continue to be all that’s kind and good when it comes to his choice of career. Fleur’s mother was not tenderly loving and her father is made of sterner stuff (Shakespeare in there) than Jolyon.

Both young adults choose to remain loyal to their respective parents. In 2002 the idea of a grown adult child remaining loyal to family is still a norm.

JonintroducingFleurblog
2002: when Jon (Lee Williams) introduces Fleur (Emma Malin) to his parents, he first realizes they will not accept her

JolyonTellingHisSonblog
Later that night Jolyon telling his son, anguishedly

Michael Mont, the young politician and publishers, son of a landowner, is enthralled by Fleur, and as begun to hang around seriously and told her he wants to be with her, implied to marry her, but she refuses to take this seriously. Michael is also making friends with Soames and has told Soames he, Michael, could therefore go into Parliament and runs or works in a publishing company and Soames is suitably impressed. Michael (Nicholas Pennell) emerges as a major male character in the second trilogy. Mont is something of a rebel, progressive politically, at the same time very very conventional in his social and psychological life, so he able to have a successful career. He has an aristocratic father, they are landowners — a real “catch” as Soames sees it and Fleur will realize.

It’s worth emphasizing right away that Fleur then does not marry for love — neither did her father. Young Jolyon treats Irene as someone to be soothed, reverenced, sheltered, protected. Not his equal. A marriage without love can be very unhappy — Irene to Soames and then Annette who has been embittered by her years with Soames, but I wonder if it’s his treatment of her that grated more than the supposed non-love — his colder nature. June Forsyte lives alone — after what she saw in her father and mother and her own nature she choose that. I did feel the first time watching the mini-series that Fleur’s much later decision to have a baby (she is child-free as she sees it for a couple of years) is to please Soames, for him.

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The books and films compared and intertextually

1967longdayoutblog
1967: the idyllic pastoral time out together: Fleur and Jon in the meadow

MoreTessblog
2002: Jon and Fleur more like farmers, scene closer to Hardy’s Tess

I was moved to re-watch the corresponding parts of the 1967 Forstye Saga (13 & 14 of 26 hours) and the 2002 Forsyte Saga (No 9 of 13 hours), and I had more pleasure for 2 hours than I’ve had for weeks. Last time I could respond only to the beautiful evocative sequence of the first waves of Fleur and Jon’s love — which follows closely the book’s sequence — but this time I saw it embedded in the resumption of the other characters: the film does present Soames much much more positively: we see how uncomfortable and miserable Irene’s presence makes him as much as his presence makes Irene. Instead of (as in the book), our being plunged into his thoughts as this reactionary and he remembering a talk with George, the first novel’s cynic, the 1967 film dramatizes Soames’s encounter with George and gives George all the overt reactionary ideas (taxing the super-wealthy so they have a 1000 less is akin to destroying what’s valuable, working classes are animal like) which while Soames agrees with he doesn’t voice. We quickly see the close relationship of Soames and Fleur paralleled with the close relationship of Irene and Jon. These are subtly done, nuanced — dialogue straight from the book. Annette seems hard and Soames the exploited here – we see the Frenchman as Annette’s adulterous lover, in 1967 Soames seems hurt, in 2002 an acquiescing husband over sex.

CanRefuseHerNothingblog
2002: Soames can refuse Fleur nothing

In the 2002 Forsyte Saga, Damian Lewis as Soames emerges as someone to be pitied. He bottles his emotions up and by so doing twists himself emotionally so his feelings come out stern, angry, hurtful. His fierceness hides a real vulnerability, softer in feel than that Eric Porter projects (or Galsworthy); this is brought out by the continuing relationship with his mother (Barbara Flynn a fine performance) where he turns to her. Jolyon (Rupert Graves) remains spokesperson. 2002 is operatic, with opera music. I do love the actress who plays Irene (Gina McKay) and find her relationship with Jolyon (Rupert Graves) so sympathetic, I can enter into it as I cannot into Dawn Nyall Porter who to me is stiff, lugubrious, smooth, with Kenneth More as a “there,there, now now” father figure. Gina McKay plays Irene as someone who dreads Soames, who shudders at years of sex, shattered still, nervous, fearful he will try to take her again, a very different set of emotions, one I can enter into.

I felt I could watch the 1967 13th hour over and over for its ironies – the dialogues over the pictures. Winifred remains strong character here, not (as in 2002) someone who, disappointed in life by a lowlife husband herself turns to trivia.

2002Winifredblog
2002: unsurprizingly Amanda Root plays the actually unhappy Winifred very well

I do like Kenneth More — he is over-voice and mediator, still a spokesman for Galsworthy. Fleur is an original compound from Soames (she’s going to be harder, less sentimental and resilient); Jon is too idealized; he seems less naive or vapid in the film than the book as the actor is a strong presence (Martin Jarvis). I like that Jolyon’s children from his first two marriages are glimpsed: June with her “lame ducks” of artists and gallery of art that Soames (anti-modern) can’t stand; Holly, the horsewoman on the farm and Val Dartie’s son.

Part 15 of the 1967 Forsyte Saga. It’s very moving and stays more or less close to the book in the middle of Volume 2. The characters go to a cricket match between Eton and Harrow, giving the writer a chance to make an over-voice of Kenneth More satirically describing the upper classes on such a day. Then we zoom into our characters and fine Annette who knows nothing of the game and does not pretend to being half-escorted by Profound. Eric Porter as Soames plays the part of a man humiliated by the openness of this relationship; he is unable to manipulate the situation at all, and leaves early. We feel for him; he had in Part 14 gotten the anonymous letter and shown it to Annette, who basically admitted the truth of it, and it’s in that episode Soames comes to her bed: yes he’s reasserting his “rights,” but in context and given Annette’s total frankness, it’s more that he’s submitting himself to her. No one rapes Annette it seems. She shows real love or interest in her daughter who she recognizes has no loyalty to her and speaks to Michael Mont, encouraging him to keep his courting up in the face of Fleur’s open indifference and even hostility.

The second part of the hour brings us an intense scene between Jolyon, Irene and Jon. The last two have come home from Spain in the previous episode; now Jolyon has written in a letter the truth of Irene’s past, and when Jon comes home from Fleur’s adament pressure that Jon marry her to secure their relationship permanently, Jon insists he needs to know the full truth and also that he wants the right and intends to marry Fleur but not behind their backs or without their permission. He is asking for their permission. Jolyon had written out the past in a letter as the easier way to do it and shown it to Irene who reluctantly acquiesced in this telling (of her adultery too), but now in a dramatic scene Jolyon tells all and grows more and more at risk of heart-attack (unnknown to Jon) and ends in a desperate plea to Jon not to marry Fleur as it will make his mother unhappy for life; Jon flees from this, goes to his mother to talk, and then crash, Jolyon falls and dies of heart-failure in the other room.

IreenReadsfirtsblog
1967: Irene reading Jolyon’s letter

In the book Jolyon’s letter is given in full and remarkable. There is a undercurrent of Lawrentian points of view in these novels: not said in sexual language but what is it but this when men are enthralled by women’s beauty. I agree it shows Victorian/Edwardian beliefs were not monolithic but I’d like to say that the narrator keeps talking about it as if it’s “poisonous”, administer “poison” into who ever reads it. Why? it exposes Soames’s rape of Irene: that’s said very discreetly and he does tell of her adultery and affair with himself.

There is also something slightly unsettling to me in Soames’s persistent idea in the book that Fleur and Jon should have been, almost are brother and sister. It’s like he still owns Irene, and her eggs have been stolen from his sperm. The idea of divorce is something he clearly does not believe in.

Fleurdemandingblog
1967: Fleur demanding her father visit Irene, Jolyon and Jon and ask them to accept him

Meanwhile (the interwoven nature of the series cannot be imitated in prose) in the book and both films Fleur has pressured her father to come to Jolyon, Irene to ask them to allow Jon to marry Fleur. The scene of where Fleur easily pressures her father to go to Robin Hill to plead for the marriage is painful for Soames; how he loves her, how she is all he cares for in this life — how this can happen, people who seem to have such full plates, nonetheless do value one person above all. He’s against this as an act, and thinks his going will do no good, but he goes. Fleur knows he’s willing to go because he still hankers after Irene — after all this time. Again Porter makes the character deeply sympathetic. By the time Soames comes, Jolyon is dead, there is only Irene and there is a moving quiet scene between the two. Soames comes off much the better; he tries to shake hands (she refuses); we see he did and on some level still does desire, even love her. She loathes him. She refuses and Jon comes in, says he will not marry Fleur and to tell her. Soames leaves, Jon thinks he has not acted right, follows the man, but cannot catch him and returns, now (in effect) his mother’s:

Irenedoesnotwinblog

Much better than either movie is a later scene (not in either) where Soames comes to Robin Hill and meets again with Irene. We get this sudden charged scene of the two, Irene and Soames once again confronting one another. It’s like the two have not changed at all — essentially. Neither Irene or Jon is respectful of Soames who quietly leaves. A moving filming of him walking alone away. Jon has better thoughts and follows him out to say goodbye but is too late.

I like especially the lines by Galsworthy: “the old perfect poise and line, the old startled dark-eyed gravity, the old calm defensive voice.” That Nyall Dawn Porter did achieve in the movie. This is the same room he confronted her in with Jolyon and tried to get her back by threatening to go to court. It had the opposite effect, drove the two people together.

IreenListeningblog
2002: Irene listens to Jolyon’s reasons why they must tell Jon

I’m not sure what we are to feel about Irene in the end. Surely Galsworthy wants us to find her refusal even to shake hands, make some acknowledgement about mutual forbearance as a concluding gesture. Jon knows they ought to have said goodbye to him and runs off, but it’s too late. This is where at least Gina McKay’s performance helped me. She played the character in a way that made understandable to me how Irene could never forget, always be in a state on the edge of the old fears and hatred many years later. She conveyed nervous distress when Soames came into the room, some re-arousal of old fears and memories. Now I could understand that, and have read other stories about rape, where the woman felt the same (Morwenna raped continually in effect in the Poldark novels 8-9). Nyree Dawn Porter may have played Irene closer to the way intended in the book, cool, seemingly distanced, all steely-control but to me she came off as stilted and yes unlikeable; she seemed self-satisfied and willing to ignore all the realities around her but what shelter the man could provide (I can understand that but not the self-congratulatory looks on her face); the 1967 Irene is still angry and maybe indignant.

Galsworthy can bring in Soames’s real thoughts now: this is so against his interest. Fleur would be taken over by these people; she would come to see him as an enemy perhaps, a rapist. And yet he asks. The coldness of Irene in refusing repeats her inexplicable to him coldness in the first year of their marriage.

fleurmeetMichaelMontblog
1967: Fleur’s first meeting with Michael Mont (she brushes him off)

fleurMichaelMontblog
2002: Fleur a lot more receptive to Michael Mont (Oliver Milburn)

Back home, Fleur will not believe her father did not wreck her chances. She will not believe at first that Jon said no. This is so painful to see her reject Soames. she flees the room and finds Mont waiting in the garden … The novel almost ends on their marriage. Fleur is tenacious and aggressive and she will take. Michael Mont will not be in the driver’s seat in their marriage, in bed either (I feel). And when we first see them she has made the decision it seems not to have a child; it’s her father who persuades — this reminds me of Irene in 2002 doing douches to prevent pregnancy as that would be a nail in the coffin to her.

Jon is turned off — left to be with his mother. Irene here seems a kind of monster in a way and he too boyish. His father, Jolyon, wanted this. Maybe there’s some underlying misogyny here we are missing picked up in the films.

IreneWinsblog
2002: Irene seems to win as Jon agrees to travel with her

JonLosesblog
But Jon not a happy packer

In the 1967 series in the very last episodes Jon returns with a new wife and his mother and there’s an arousal of the old love between Jon and Fleur, but they do not consummate. Irene is with this couple and there’s an attempt to again deal with the past of these two, but I did think these very last episodes of the 1967 and the first from The White Monkey (the next novel) weaker — more melodramatic and at the same time more superficial. In the books, Irene and Jon don’t come back. So much of the last episodes of the 1967 are invented. The writers of the 1967 series wanted to end where the first trilogy ended and it doesn’t work: Galsworthy’s books are not so neat as life is not neat …

2002Juneblog
2002 June (Gillian Kearney), an accomplished woman with career in the arts

I did note in Part 15, the ironic irritated quarreling of June with one of her hangers-on — why “lame duck” is the phrase Galsworthy uses I don’t know. Maybe we need to know more about 1920s slang. I did not take their dialogue to be part of the critique of the private property system or capitalism in the book. Galsworthy does not see capitalism as the result of individual initiative, it’s inherited money and property and banking and business abilities. The idea of the importance of your individual initiative is an American idea fostered by school curricula of reading and reinforced by commercials all day long on TV — it’s part of what makes for survival but most success comes from background, connections, original stake of money, and a strong sense of self as worthy, and effective coming again from this kind of background when in it. The “lame duck” is actually complaining about English culture and English cultural attitudes which June defends — as what is giving him the chance on an art market, the art market itself is the result of English culture (which values such things as they would not be in another culture). June has the best of the quarrel, after all she is supporting him. This is skipped in the 1967 movie (and comes nowhere near the 2002 which has just about nothing about capitalism or economics so central to the book); instead we have Gradman in the office working for Soames.

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To sum up (as they say), as in The Man of Property, in In Chancery and To Let, the theme is as much property relations as it is sexual and they are utterly intertwined.

Michaelwinsblog
Fleur turning to Michael

SoamesFleurtomarriageblog
Soames and Fleur off to her marriage to Michael (not an reconciling, there are 9 episodes, at least 2 books to go)

Again Galsworthy is looking at why people marry and why they stay together after the first couple of hours. Johnson (Samuel) has a Rambler about how unnatural a long-term love relationship is especially as experienced as marriage (children, having to support them, bring them up, have a house, socialize at least enough to send them to school and you to have a job) that every law and custom is reinforced absolutely to keep a couple together and yet they part and are often miserable when together.

Romantic love is the western myth, enough felt or dreamed about (we so want someone to care about us, some meaning in the world) and supporting a family network of marriages is the traditional myth.

To me it’s a sign of a great novelist if after writing a cycle of novels even over years, they somehow climax the series on a scene which they seemed to have been planning for all along, with seems to gather up all the threads and make some final statement. You have that in Last chronicle of Barset, the conclusion to A Dance to the Music Of Time — maybe it’ll be in the new longer full Duke’s Children for the ending of the Pallisers (we’ve not yet read). Maybe for another cycle I’m in the third novel of six of Balkan Trilogy. I noticed it in Etheel Richardson’s Australian epic, Richard Mahoney.

The ending of To Let in a graveyard, mausoleum with Soames looking back and forwards is very satisfying: it reminds me of The Duke’s Children as we now know it. Trollope ends his series less sombrely, but as quietly: we get the huge society wedding of Silverbridge and Isabel Boncassen, all conventions observed, and then the quiet morning breakfast wedding of Lady Mary and Frank Tregear with the Duke walking with them and standing on some kind of threshold at the book’s end remembering back to his years of marriage, both pained and accepting, looking forward to returning to political work.

SoamesWinsblog
Fleur’s marriage to Jon, a happy ending for Soames (2002 final moments)

So, this book ends with a society wedding, Fleur’s to Michael Mont, in which all are playing parts, especially it seems Fleur, everyone who’s anyone in the book comes, and more than that; in her room, June’s showing up enables Fleur to burst into wild tears.

JuneatWeddingblog
1967: the ever truthful June (June Barry) comforting Fleur

The scene Soames keeps thinking of is her curled up desperately sobbing on the couch — presumably after her second visit to Robin Hill. Then Soames goes to old Timothy’s funeral; he’s dead at 100. The funeral unexpectedly turns out to be not attended except for Soames, Gradman (the many years clerk), cook and the long time maid, Smithers: old Timothy’s funeral. It’s not that he doesn’t have bequests to his family, but they just have no feeling they should show up. Gradman is given 5000 pounds which makes the rest of his life easy for him and his family. And it’s a looking back for Soames: he does encounter (a bit contrived this) Irene on her way to British Columnia to join Jon; at least she comes down from her frozen state now that she assumes (Soames view) she’s free at last and all this does is somehow embitter him. Robin Hill is to let; Timothy’s house is to let – the world is changing, leaving him behind.

1967Endingblog
1967 series: ends with Soames’s death, near him Winifred, Fleur and Michael (reconciled)

We have books which consistently end with a marriages of two people one of whom (Fleur, Soames) is not in love with the other (Michael Mont, Annette), and whose hero (Soames) found himself in a loveless marriage which tore at his inner self to the point he violently raped his wife (Irene) — I’m not justifying it, only showing the full context as we are to see it in To Let. And now she’s (Irene) is still hating him when after all she did marry him and he meant to keep up his end as he saw it.

Galsworthy has inveighed against the idea that a woman is property that a man owns. Maybe in this novel where he shows the younger generation do find themselves constrained by their parents’ past and Jon at least seems partly “owned” by Irene: he feels obliged to be with her after all she has given as his mother and he wants to also, maybe Galsworthy is asking if this idea of ownership/belonging between children and parents is a good thing – when carried far.

RobinHouseblog
2002 film: ends with break-up and renting of Robin House now that young Jolyon dead

Robin House will be to let so that could be the literal meaning — as Jon flees to America and a pastoral existence: note like his father outside capitalism, not one for wheeling, dealing, manipulaing coping with pressure Jon. But I saw that Soames used the phrase to refer to Micheal Mont’s idea that in business the owner should take into account the workers’ needs and feelings and make the work more fulfilling for all. Mont is an idealist, a decent man — and I assume we are to like that he is willing to work in the capitalist environment — though as a publisher.

We are to enter into Soames’s personality in To let far more than say the opening, The Man of Property, where (as I remember) it would be fair to call the narrator-author’s attitude towards Soames as hostile. After all Soames’s moving last meditation which concludes this first trilogy is supposed to come out of his mind. In Man of Property we are kept at an ironic distance from Soames’s mind until the last third of the book when we might say he goes half-mad from frustration, jealousy, lack of understanding, rage — at Irene. Now he looks round him, very melancholy indeed, but forgiving, hoping to join and find meaning in his daughter’s life.

Ellen

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GordeevaGrinkov03blog
Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov: husband & wife, he died suddenly, age 28, of a heart attack during a practice workshop

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

QuintanaJohnJoanblog
Joan, John, and Quintana at home

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

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

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

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

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

Only he attributed it to the The Who.

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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CarryingherhomeSeason1Pt4blog
Ross Poldark (Robin Ellis) carries Demelza Carne (Angharad Rees) home to Nampara (1975-76 Poldark, Season 1)

Dear friends and readers,

This may be regarded as a postscript to my previous blog. I suddenly realized how ubiquitous and often part of an aftermath scene to a troubling crisis is the carrying motif. Loving, protective, strong and loyal male after male is seen emotionally moved and carrying a vulnerable hurt heroine, or child or animal, sometimes an older man, sometimes a close male friend. If the scene’s not in the original book (the above is not in Ross Poldark), then it is added on, invented — thus in the 2008 S&S Brandon carries Marianne home from Cleveland in the pouring rain (pouring rain another motif). “Young” Jollyon carries “Old” Jollyon’s dog, Balthazar who grieved and then died (presumably from old age as well as missing the old man) through the park both loved and walked together in.

This is a masculinity trope — it’s a test of a man’s masculinity whether he rises to the challenge and takes responsibility. It’s the subject of a study comparing the kind of sensitive strong man Gerard Depardieu once played (European ideal) and the abrasive strong man Robert DeNiro (American) once did.

I once did “the pouring rain” motif from such filmic art, but that blog is gone (attacked by a virus).

Another motif was pointed out to me this morning on my Historical Fiction & Film adaptations listserv: one woman dressing up in the clothes of another, preferably the first woman from a previous era.

Ellen

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