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Archive for the ‘novels of sensibility’ Category

There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall … Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising … I was a stage rebel, Orwell a true one — Cyril Connolly, The Enemies of Promise

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Isaac Cruickshank, Royal Extinguisher or Gulliver Putting out Patriots

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Dear Friends and Readers,

This is the second half of my summary and commentary on Johnston’s Unusual Suspects (see Parts 1-4). This part of Johnston’s book will probably be more familiar territory to those who have read novels of the romantic and regency period, as well as their milieu and development (say in Gary Kelly’s survey). As women who wrote on behalf of radical ideas, 18th century versions of feminism, or reform were given a much rawer response than men, and there were automatically suspect nations (Chapters 7 & 8 of Part 4), so the novel was a suspect genre (Chapter 9). Johnston treats the novel from a political angle to suggest that the novel was not allowed to develop in ways that contextualize what is happening with a real understanding of social forces: publishers were prosecuted; what you wrote affected your career. In Scott’s attack on Bage we see female liberation allowed no play whatsoever. Johnston then moves into the silencing at the end of the 1790s: the destruction of Gilbert Wakefield was at the time understood as an example of what happens when a writer practices liberty of speech, freedom of the press. He uses Mackintosh to show what a man did who wanted to carry on; to see Mackintosh crudely as an apostate is not to see what happened.

We then follow a trail beginning with a man spying on Coleridge and Wordsworth and see how suspicion, the manufacturing of alarm, class and ethnic disdain operated on known individuals. I found these short biographies contained surprises: these were lives reseen by looking at the evidence used in previous studies from a new angle; that of how justified paranoia (they did have enemies) and ostracism shaped these peoples’ lives and a genuine humane sympathy with their politics. Johnston makes these people’s lives and choices make sense: the people are Coleridge, Wordsworth, Southey (he is especially insightful on Southey’s earlier radicalism), Lamb (on his brands of irony), Burns and Blake (how class disdain operates in both cases). The individual chapters are much longer and I include and link to some readings of the works (e.g., Wordsworth’s Borderers, Southey’s Letters from England, Lamb’s “Praise of Chimney Sweeps”) that Johnston just mentioned without going into.

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Chapter 9: Suspect Genres, the Novelist who was not: Robert Bage (1728-1801)

Johnston looks at the traditional genres, poetry, plays and the new one, novels for general effects from the political conflicts of the era. Story-lines were not allowed development, attitudes were castigated and ridiculed. Among the periodical set up to monitor the literature of the age the most important was the Anti-Jacobin (1798-99) which was very successful in achieving its aims of stopping people from writing clear protest poetry, and when they did, framing what they wrote as absurd, unacceptable, unpatriotic. Keats was hurt, Southey changed course; Coleridge and Wordsworth moderated themselves; others fled to Italy. Thomas Holcroft was a major victim. Plays were shouted off stage, censored in publications (the author not named); publishers arrested and made wary. Johnston sees this process as a destruction of what genres could have been like, one which marginalized potentially great practitioners. In the area of the novel the anti-jacobin novels won, Austen & Scott produce the respected paradigms; Bronte kind of rebellion romantic in feeling is not political or economic in ideology; Byron was silenced.

Robert Bage was a man rare for providing any ideological content, and one of those attacked by the Anti-Jacobin.

Godwin visits in June 1797; Bage was self-educated, admires Holbach, has friendships with Priestley and dissenting people; author of Man As He Is (a jaded aristocrat), and Hermsprong, Man As He Is Not (an American republican). Bage was a businessman running paper and flour mills who found war got in his way, he did have a long term contract but raw materials hard to get; long term contract supplying Hutton, in Birminghan, a friend and dissenter with paper. Long time association with Birmingham, Priestley crowd.

Johnston makes it clear Bage a reformer not a revolutionary in his first four novels. But what he did present was harangued against by Scott. Bage had departed from middle class novel norms by in one novel allowing a young woman who has made a romantic/sexual mistake to be rehabilitated into society. Scott explicitly wrote that ruined women must be stigmatized; in another a heroine prefers the harem to death; one heroine defends herself with a pair of scissors. Man as He Is expands out particular criticisms to suggest wider changes by gov’t policy. Johnston quotes Bage’s books to great effect and we get the dry witty quality of Bage’s strong critiques of corruption, war. Bage published anonymously; he was not interested in a writing career. Johnson argues that Bage’s revealing his last hero a aristocrat shows reader that such a title and money allows tiny minority of people to escape punishment, grow rich.

The gov’t of the day harassed him by excise taxes (directed to war); overcharged he gets his materials back only to have them seized again; he feels the effects of this constant harassment and interruption of his business; at one point he wrote he would like hanging himself. In reprints of his works Barbauld takes him to task for going against received notions and norms; Scott reprints worst Bage’s novels. We know that Austen had a copy of Hermsprong in 1796, in time for some influence. Johnston remarks how critics, and film makers today try to bring to bear in her novels positions only mentioned minimally by her and centrally by Bage. Conservative paradigms, Austen’s and Scott’s predominate by the end of the era; the effect of Barbauld’s collection.

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A University of Victoria theater production of Endgame

Part 5: End-games. Endgame as a title is an allusion to Beckett’s play; its literal meaning refers to when the game is called to a half, the last of the chess pieces so this is exemplified by the prosecution of Wakefield for daring to argue with the Bishop of Llandaff; his incarceration utterly unjust. Mackintosh stands in as the representative of radical disillusionment.

Chapter 10: The End of Controversy: Gilbert Wakefield (1756-1801). Wakefield exemplifies the book’s thesis: he died as a result of absolutely unjust incarceration after acareer as a controversialist who made the mistake of rising to broad principles in his attack on complacent bishop of Llandaff, Richard Watson, a bland, condescending sycophant (the David Brook of his day?). Before this, Wakefield had done battle with several people and used religious language. Wakefield did things like attack the war, Pitt and Grenville, and show how false is the idea that sedition in the UK is everywhere.

Wakefield had had a career among the dissenters, as a controversialist; would attack notion it was sinful not to go to church (thus exposing worship is social worship); he went further than his 6 central theses (includes idea that alliance of church and state is a fraud). He argued that the prosecution of the reform movement was meant to silence opposition to foreign and domestic policies. His defense was his peaceable scholarly character, his friends in high places, that the trial itself is wrong – irony he was visited by known and famous people and yet they could do nothing for him.

He was forced to be in jail for a long time before trial; put in Dorchester way outside where he came from and notorious for bad conditions; then put into solitary confinement for 16 hours day. All sorts of famous friends visited him. His great Juvenilian poem in appendix; most imitations are conservative in thrust, not his.

Wordsworth has him partly in mind in his planned Recluse, the “Solitary” figure: that outline of Wordsworth’s early career resembles that of Wakefield only Wordsworth didn’t publish (only is too weak a word).

Chapter 11: The Great Apostate: Judas, Brutus, or Thomas? James Mackintosh (1765-1832). I did not find this chapter as convincing: Mackintosh did not hurt as much and was following his own character and tendencies throughout. He did not change all that much. Mackintosh was always currying favor, trying to to build a career; e.g., when he left Scotland as a doctor; first he tries to make connections with all the main liberal editors, reformers, he failed. His original fame came from a polemic against Burke defending French revolution, Vindiciae Gallicae, strong but not as available linguistically as Paine’s. Hazlitt is quoted, but Hazlitt’s sketch shows Mackintosh to have been an academic intellectual at heart (eg. Discourse on Study of Law and Nations). He had attacked Pitt for abandoning reform in A letter to R.Hon. Wm Pitt, on his Apostacy. Pitt turned this around to be against reform itself. Pitt’s target and legislation a “free form vigilantism against anyone who wrote, or sol, liberal material of any stripe.” Mackintosh wrote that Pitt’s aim was to subsidize European monarcihes to overthrow the French, evoking from French our country is in danger (a levee en masse).

But after the execution of Louis XVI, Mackintosh found his name was used as a bad associate to have. Johnston himself resorts to a kind of coy arch talk about careerism as explanation for why Mackintosh’s Discourses offended; Hazlitt said Mackintosh was too much an academic at heart. He retired to study. Discourses was a moderate book, gov’ts are there to protect us with “security against wrong.” His prose appealing because of its personal and religious quality. He was attacked by his friends as a trimmer, but he had been that way all along. It was hard for people to see he was consistent. When he was awarded a judgeship in India, his record in India unimpeachably progressive: reform penal law, the police, against death penalty. He came home and has an honorable liberal record in his voting habit (p 222) plans an unwritten History of England from the time of the Glorious revolution (one was written in the 1790s and had been suppressed).

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In Letters to England, Southey has two long sections exposing and inveighing against the treatment of horses, especially the new techniques in breeding and training racing horses

Mackintosh was at the last active in founding The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

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Part VI: The Romantic Poets, the Police and the State of Alarm: Johnston uses a cartoon by Gillray, “New morality,” or “The promised Installment of the High Priest of the Theophilanthropes, with the Homage of Leviathan and his suite” (August 1798) and calls it “The Last Line-up,” to identify the individuals he’s now proceeds to draw portraits of.

Chapter 12: “A Gang of disaffected Englishmen: Spy Nozy and the Somerset Gang.” Johnston retells Coleridge’s famous half-mocking account of a spy sent to listen in on his, the Wordsworths’, and various dissenting and potential and real unusual suspects. The spies report is retold by Coleridge in a way that makes him sound like an innocent and the whole thing hilarious, but the spying was serious. What saved them was they were recognized (according to Johnston) as “disaffected Englishmen.” I admit this does not make much sense to me – the other people the gov’t went after were disaffected Englishmen. If they were discussing some serious issues, the man could have reported it by word of mouth. My guess is the gov’t saw they were poets and not organizers and would not attract followers or organize themselves. Spy nozy was the man’s interpretation of Spinoza: the incident shows class disdain – Johnston does not mention this. It does show the group were spied upon, monitored.

Chapter 13: “Whispering Tongues can poison truth: Coleridge and Thelwall, 1796-1798. This chapter is about a thwarted friendship and stunted growth of a group of people. Coleridge corresponds with and seems to be eager to have Thelwall and his family come and live there – it’s so cheap and they will spend their lives in this retreat. Thelwall so harassed and destroyed seemed eager to reciprocate but when he left Coleridge wrote letters discouraging him to come after all. What happened? Was Coleridge somehow pressured lest he involve the Wordsworths, himself chickened out?

We see that he thought the better of it – rightly feared the results for all concerned, that in fact that spy system was operating to disseminate any grouping, silence them all – but he comes out very badly in these letters as he writhes and turns. Thelwall and Wordsworth truer to themselves than Coleridge. Johnston produces a letter by Coleridge to a magistrate Chubb where instead of really persuading Chubb to help Thelwall live there, Coleridge insinuates Thelwall will be a risk. Johnston seems to me to misread a bit of Coleridge’s letter to Chubb: Johnston says Coleridge is promising to tame Thelwall by having Thelwall live near them; Coleridge’s words suggestthey will teach Thelwall to submit. There is a difference even if the outcome is the same.

This chapter has new material: Johnston directs the reader to Wordsworth’s dramatic poem or play (done in the 1950s), The Borderers, which Johnston characterizes as “one of the most searching examinations of post-revolutionary disillusionment and despair ever written, with insights worthy of Stendhal, and Tolstoy, many of them distilled from Wordsworth’s main source, Schiller’s Robbers.” It was read aloud by the group. Johnston goes over Coleridge’s ode “Fire, Famine, Slaughter” and shows it to be a startlingly brave revolutionary poem.

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Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland, by Thomas Girtin, circa 1797-9 “I think I see a second range of towers”: The Borderers (1797-99) (Mortimer to Rivers as they approach the ruined castle, Act II, scene iii)

My reading of this play: I first read some articles on The Borderers because it is more than a little incoherent and unreadable and exists in two slightly different versions with the characters renamed. To be played (at an American university) it had to be revised once again. I see in the play (which is called gothic by some) a number of the motifs that powerfully resonate today. The play’s villain wants to fool or drive this hero into killing someone — so as to make him share in some blood guilt and join this band of revolutionaries. The villain does believe the old man guilty of being part of the ancien regime and holding it up. In Wordsworth’s play the old man starves and freezes to death because the hero lives him on a heath to die since the hero hasn’t got the stomach or whatever it takes to kill him outright. So the play shows us an example of someone being murdered for his ideology. The 18th century parallels might be guillotined people, but the way Wordsworth writes has no specific reference. The characters do feel there is evidence against the old man, but there is no trial so the modern parallel is killing people using drones with nothing more than the evidence of surveillance, or captured people tortured or driven to “confess” The archetype is the blind Oedipus led by his daughter, Antigone. In Schiller’s play a villain drives the hero to stab his beloved (the heroine) through the heart.

In one of the Northanger novels, Horrid Mysteries, there’s a Rosicrucian scene of ritual introduction of a member to the sect, and one of the things the new member must promise is to kill whomever the group requires — whether the person is a relative or friend doesn’t matter. Unlike Wordsworth’s play, Horrid Mysteries does not bother to justify the demand at all — it’s not a serious book. Wordsworth’s play is. The use of the pathetic daughter makes the murder more abhorrent, but its justifications are spelled out too. Wordsworth has some characteristic gothic motifs, and understands why the outlaw might operate or feel this way, but he stands outside and condemns the outlaw who demands such an act and the act too. One problem with The Borderers than as political discourse is by using the fantasy elements of gothic, Wordsworth does not bring in the real French case — the allied armies massing in Europe to attack the new revolutionary group, the fomenting of counter-revolution in the countryside, some of the causes of the terror – which killed less people than the French 2nd republic did in 1870-71.

Johnson does persuade us of Thelwall’s tragic loss, how hurt he must have been, and how this sort of thing is done to people unanswerably. Excellent chapter hard to summarize to do it justice

Chapter 14: Wordsworth (1770-1850), The Prelude and Posterity. This chapter brings out the problem with the book: it depends upon assuming a counter-factual “what if:” Johnstone assumes Wordsworth’s Prelude would have made a big positive impact if it had been published at the time; he says at one point that all masterpieces do, and works exist in this ideal realm modifying one another – we are back in Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot’s probably dream world of a tiny intellectual elite which even they would disagree on.

He does show that the incident of the spy leading to the non-renewal of Wordsworths’s lease, despite all uncomfortable denials, made a great change in the Wordsworths lives: some good, they went to Germany, some probably bad, they lost a companion. He insists that Byron and Shelley would have been changed, their poetry different – for the better. And he brings out three different versions of a long passage in The Prelude showing Wordsworth was bitter and recognized justice and liberty killed insofar as powers could. The chapter also has excellent definition of hegemonic versus legal: the dangers to all these romantics come from the losses hegemonic pervasive control inflicts on them in all sorts of incalculable ways.

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PacoRibeira, 18th century Portugal

Chapter 15: More Radical than Thou, Robert Southey (1774-1843). This was an eye-opener for me. For the first time I felt I understood why Southey changed his outlook. It made sense of his satiric Letters from England: it fits into the trajectory. The chapter begins with how how originally Southey came to be radical beyond that it was in him to be “psychologically rebellious.” Johnston brings out how Southey was subject to adults and authority figures around him (more than such a person would be today); orphaned, lived with aunt and then uncle; buffeted by suspicion and discouragement. He was gotten into by his uncle, Herbert Hill, and then expelled from Westminster Schools for a a column in The Flagellant, a student periodical, where he exposed the viciousness of flogging. Headmaster sabotaged his admission to Christ Church, Oxford; uncle gets him into Balliol. Not keen on career choices. 1795 aunt kicks him out, uncle sends him to Lisbon. How from an American perspective the scheme for a Pantisocracy in eastern Penn is not outrageous unreal wild idea. Southey works hard to make it happen and in the process forges career as money-making writer; early work is readable and radical, Fall of Robespierre, Wat Tyler. Anti-Jacobin attacks him, but he did not organize and his poems also simply express unhappy emotional states. Others: “After Blenheim,” “Devil’s Thoughts,” and “History:”Southey wants to escape; Clio says the worse history gets, the more we should write about it; but Southey tired, Gilbert Wakefield case spells end of freedom of press (with Flower, on trial for sedition). Visits Wakefield & Flower, also attacked income tax. Now great relief when sent to Lisbon; departure for Lake District in 1803 a surrender.

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Chapter 16: Radical in Lamb’s Cloak: Charles Lamb (1775-1834). This chapter is enormously enjoyable because of the quotations and works referred to. Johnston opens with young Charles Lamb’s enthusiasm over Thelwall (accused of treason, acquitted and thereafter harassed and his career and livelihood and reputation destroyed) to Coleridge; identified viscerally, admired Thelwall’s bravery. Lamb’s reputation has suffered because of the spread of the adjective “gentle” and “gentle-hearted” beginning with Coleriage; Lamb asked him to blot the expression out of his “Lime Tree Bower my Prison;” sentimental obfuscation is a good disguise. Lamb was one of those attacked by Anti-Jacobin. His sonnets express emotion, are on friendship, which he needed. Johnston retells story of Mary’s murder of the mother and how Lamb taking on life-long responsibility for her limited his possibilities; 33 years as clerk for long hours in East India Company, endless moving. His early writing is virulently pro-French revolution found in extended runs of Albion, edited by John Fenwick (1801-2) – all anonymous. His signed self-presentation was highly self-protective; he shows how Jacobinism is used as a bad-mouthing word for people with humane decent agendas; Lamb in effect describes political profiling.

Lamb’s finest work though found in his later years in his essays. Thomas McFarland described these as in a style that manifests the politics of survival (p. 282), others called his ways “acquiescent protest” and “serious levity.”

I read “The Praise of Chimney Sweeps” and found it to be quietly savagely ironic; he seems to be celebrating what is horrific cruelty to these boys; a nightmare world which produces such creatures; “Modern Gallantry” explicit about how courtesy from males is only to limited group of upper class females; the rest are prey. You have to read the texts to get this.

Johnston argues that the idiosyncracy of Lamb’s style and perspective is another result of these decades of repression of all dissent, active republican politics. Lamb expresses outrage at social injustice rather than a considered political opinion. Thomas de Quincey writes of the tabooing of Holcroft, Godwin, Wollstonecraft, Hazlitt, there to offer up to hated and scorn, so Lamb’s way was to appear to care nothing for politics.

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Death of Robert Burns, engraving, Dumfries July 1796

Chapter 17: ‘A man for a’ that': Robert Burns (1759-96)

A moving chapter which presents Burns as having been far more politically and preciselyi radical and pro-French revolution than his works let on: Johnstone argues that the muddled feel of the texts is the result of a deliberate obfuscation Burns had to practice lest he lose his place or job, and a remarkable line by Burns: “for who can write and speak as thou and I – /My periods that deciphering defy (p. 303). Johnston says his views accord with Crawford’s but Crawford’s ODNB Life of Burns presents a far more complicated picture of a nationalistic poet as devoted to poetry as art and gathering texts and a human man with lots of failings. Here one can see that Johnston is skewing evidence by concentrating on a few years in the 1790s, and ignores Burns’s behavior towards women which was highly irresponsible (and surely callous and/or indifferent): Burns had sex sufficiently so often with so many women that he impregnated so many that it’s hard to keep count.

Burns is presented as someone writing sedition which he kept up even after authorities set upon him; he was far more vulnerable than English counterparts (more upper class): he would just have been fired, no need to stage a trial. The period covered is 1791-196: he quotes a contemporary explaining why Burns was isolated to some extent in his last years – after Edinburgh trip; “exiled from polite society on account of his radical opinions, he became sourer in temper & plunged more deeply into dissipations of the lower ranks…. “but this reads like bad-mouthing: Burn always drank & was promiscuous; he suffered depressions, he was ill; much of the argument depends on an analysis of select poems and how his enemies did what they could to ruin him: they could have been after him for his sexual misconduct, hatred of religious hypocrisy; that he gave some spoils due him as exciseman to the revolution is too much pressed; he followed what was happening abroad. Johnston tells of an incident where Burns tricked into exposure when he thinks all the men are going to aggressively assail a favorite woman – a dirty trick which reminds me of other accounts of upper class people humiliating lower class or vulnerable and sensitive people among them: Tom Branson tricked (Downton Abbey) or an incident in Dance to the Music of Time (where a bucket of urine is timed to spill over a door as the victim emerges), in Burney’s diaries at Streatham. Burns openly praised a theatrical epilogue praising Wollstonecraft and then worried because he knew he was monitored and at risk of losing job. The struggles “not quite ancient” which correspond to earlier are not French but local, Thomas Muir, later indicted, convicted, transported. A glued over piece of paper. The most effective parts of the argument come from the poems analysed, not well known – he identifying with someone imprisoned for debt, Esopus to Maria

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Frontispiece to America, A Prophecy (Blake was indeed prophetic — think of what is happening around the world today as a result of the present US’s oligarchy and military’s uses of power

Chapter 18: Blake’s America, the Prophecy that failed, William Blake (1757-1827). In this chapter again Johnston dwells on important personal kinds of experience others often overlook or don’t tell clearly.

Blake’s Jerusalem reminds me of Austen’s Plan of a Novel – actually the same use of private references, same pathetic lack of range, and same absolute rejection of mainstream cliches, tropes, values.

An incident in 1803 where Blake hustled a private out of his garden at Felpham for having insulted him (as Blake thought); for this Blake was arraigned and tried, with quotations that make him sound as ripe for hanging or transportation. Luckily, Hayley, Blake’s patron, was powerful in this area and got character witnesses, himself was a character witness, helped see Blake was arraigned as a “public nuisance” (though this reminds me of police moving into private people’s apartments and shooting them). Johnston says Blake was shocked into silence. Chicester assizes at time of Despard’s execution. Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond hostile to Blake, thought to make an example of Blake as a seditionist would be to shore himself up as unimpeachably patriotic after being part of groups advocating parliamentary reform. In later years Blake claimed someone had been sent to entrap him.

In London Blake completed 1st version of masterwork, Jerusalem: the people who were involved in this incident are immortalized in the poem – along with great names from European history, cultural history; reviewers didn’t like (or understand) poem or visionary art. Contrast to America, written 10 years earlier (1793), revolution anticipates French, weeping illustrations suggest Blake pessimistic about his prophecies; preface to Milton has clear version of poems prefacing chapters of Jerusalem. Johnston shows how America is a very odd sort of poem – not understood by most, combining revenge, private feelings, vast public allegory.

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An 18th century engraving of a debtor in the Marshalsea

Coda: Johnson answers the people who say, so what? and there is nothing unusual here, what did they expect, they deserved it. He begins with how Pitt was responsible for bad policy (Barrell in his review of Johnston’s book asks why Pitt is so respected and argues he was an awful prime minister; his early speeches on behalf of reform were political grandstanding). Johnston goes on to show how Pitt poked mean fun at writers he persecuted and stigmatized. He then reprints Liu’s heart-felt preface to a book on this period that these people matter: again he is discussing writing we could have had, are struggling to recover. Liu’s and other books include the writing we have that bears witness to the struggle and how it happened and so does Johnston’s. He urges us, let us recover what we can. It will show us how the people and their movements fail. Johnston calls this discouraging, but he is himself still a believer with Wordsworth and has faith in social man. We are to feel humanely for these people – multiply it out – recognize that such things do matter. He records and honor the ruined lives – we can see more deeply into what is half-there and into our own lives. He makes us see their works freshly in terms that connect to us.

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The US Occupy Movement in its early stages — still plus ça change, moins ça change; see my “No pretense of regard for life or humanity.”

Ellen

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Maggie Smith between scenes

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A genuinely tried Darcy and Elizabeth:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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John (John Alderton) and Annie (Julie Walters) — looking out over Yorkshire

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Chris (Helen Mirren) as January

Dear friends and readers,

I decided to re-watch the 2003 film, Calendar Girls because I discovered Juliette Towhidi, scriptwriter of Death Comes to Pemberley (out of P.D. James’s mystery-novel-sequel of the same name, to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) had adapted the stage-play, Calendar Girls, by Tim Firth, and remembered I had liked the movie so much I had been prompted to buy the DVD well before the time when I became intensely interested in movies as an art. It was only much later that I began to buy many DVDs of films adapted from favorite authors of great and older books for British TV stations. I’d just been studying several Jane Austen movies, and have been very impressed by the film adaptation by Towhidi and her whole team (director, producers, actors, cinematographers), and convinced of the centrality of the screenplay to its gothic romance success. So I wanted to watch a movie where she had written the screenplay.

Try to imagine my surprise and emotions when I realized the emotional center, and instigating cause oF Calendar Girls is another cancer story. I was ashamed to think I had been, as the movie intended me to be, led to marginalize, even forget the story’s origin and powerful source, for all it stared at me in the face. Chris (Helen Mirren) justifies her plan to raise a large sum of money by posing naked with 10 other middle-aged women friends to provide 12 photos for a Womens’ Institute Calendar thus:

FRANKLY if it meant we’d get — (she gestures a ‘tiny amount’) — THAT-T much closer to killing off this shitty, cheating, sly, conniving, silent bloody disease that cancer is then God, I tell y’, I would run round Skipton market smeared in plum jam with a knitted tea cosy on my head singing Jerusalem (Firth’s stageplay, Act 2, sc 1, p 46)

Their aim is to purchase a new and large and genuinely comfortable sofa for “the relatives’ room” in Knapeley General Hospital, the room where she and her best friend, Annie (Julie Walters) had spent (in Julie’s sudden concise words) “some of the most terrible moments of her life” while Julie’s beloved husband, John (John Alderton, a character based on a real man who died of leukemia, John Baker) was enduring the misery and pain of the shows of force the medical establishment inflicts on cancer victims. Julie’s husband of 28 years in the film story is a man who loves and makes gardens flourish; his favorite is the sunflower, and as he and Julie sat in their car overlooking Yorkshire shortly before his agony and death, he explained why:

I don’t think there’s anything on this planet that more trumpets life than the sunflower. For me, that’s because of the reason behind its name. Not because — Not because it ‘looks like’ the sun. Because it follows the sun. During the course of the day, the head tracks the journey of the sun across the sky [Helen Mirren's arm and hand curve an arc across the space she is standing in as she retells this]. A satellite dish for sunshine. Sow these seeds on the hill and you’ll see … that wherever light is, no matter how weak, these flowers will find it. Which is such an admirable thing (Beat) And such a lesson in life (firth, Act 1, sc 4, pp 24-25)

Chris takes this as directive to make the calendar from John’s spoken analogy of his sense of Julie’s beauty with that of this flower:

Flowers of Yorkshire are like the women of Yorkshire. Every stage of their growth has its own beauty. (PAUSE FOR BREATH) but the last phase is always the most glorious … [then gently undercutting the emotion] Then very quickly they all go to seed (Howtidi’s script, Act 1, 29A)

Ruth Wilson (Penelope Wilton as ever the comedienne), one of the women who consents to be so photographed quips

With respect, I didn’t hear him say the phrase, ‘whip y’r bras off’ (Howtidi, Act 1, 47)

In fairness to myself, I was able to ignore the death of John, his pain and his and his wife’s quiet despair, Annie’s loss and continuing grief– which is expressed more directly and plagently near the end of the film than anywhere else — she would rather have one more hour of life for John than all the money and publicity they have gathered for this “cause” — because this film like most stories of cancer persist in keeping the actual cancer experience to the margins. John’s cancer gets very little play in the movie, on screen now and again briefly, it’s presented as part of another ennobling, enrichening experience which has resulted from this cancer (Breaking Bad breaks from this pattern by making Walter White’s heroic actions criminal and murderous): the making of the calendar and the money it accrues and interest it stirs. The structure of this film, is life-affirming, with the calendar also as meaningful publicity stunt: it appeals to the lower impulses of people yet produces money for a center for studying leukemia as well as the needed sopha. Its mood idealizes Yorkshire by presenting it as green meadows in the sun, which was puzzling even in 2003 as I’ve lived in the West Riding and know it has many impoverished cities and its characteristics landscape is brown, dark moors. The presentation of the characters when it comes to the experience of cancer itself is all silent strength and tact — a ploy which has the effect of assigning responsibility to the patient and the “relatives”.

In short the movie conforms to what studies claim most people who have not had cancer want to be told. Do they want to be told this? Judy C. Segal in her “Cancer Experience and Its Narration: An Accidental Study,” Literature and Medicine, 30:2 (2012):292-318) throws some doubt on this formula; at least in her study, people who have had cancer, their friends and relatives and those who participated in the study seemed to prefer some modicum of truth, though most accepted constraints on the speakable. I found in doing a bit of research on it in Project Muse that two real-cancer epidemic news-stories were cited as possibly motivating Firth – who wrote the first play, a success which moved from a local Chichester Festival (2008) to London, the Noel Coward Theater, with a starry cast (including Patricia Hodge as Annie, Sian Phillips as Jessie, Lynda Bellingham as Chris): two sudden spike-ups in the number of cancers in an area of Scotland where some corporations had been polluting the environment and in an area of northern England (whence the use of Yorkshire). Unfortunately if this is so, neither of these important realities are cited anywhere in the stageplay, screenplay by Howtidi adapting it or any of the literature on the public Internet surrounding it.

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To take the movie on the grounds it presents itself, I still enjoyed it — at least the first half to two-thirds, because — I admit this — it was done as a fable about a group of women friends who keep each other company through life, supporting one another in crises with real warmth, kindness, tact and humor. It’s feminocentric as we used to say in the 1990s (when feminism was still part of university literary talk). Women-centered. The emphasis is on festive release: these older women usually trussed up in respectable (not sexy at all) clothes revel in their bodies’s beauty

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Ruth (during the course of the story she abjures her abject acceptance of her husband’s bullying indifference and sexual infidelity)

as they are photographed doing the usual respectable middle-aged ladies things, as sewing, baking, gardening, playing piano, and sketching, painting

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Cora (Linda Bassett who in the course of the stage play reveals she was pressured successfully by her parents to break up her marriage with her African husband and became a single mother supporting herself and her daughter by running a shop)

and as Lawrence (John Glenister when young), the hospital aid who is discovered to be yearning to be a photographer (he couldn’t manage art school, it’s implied, because it’s too phony), elicits from each smiles of of pleasure and a sense of power:

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Jessie (Annette Crosbie, who we discover taught for decades and had Lawrence as her pupil, is now married to an aging feeble husband, played comically salaciously by Graham Crowden)

The acting was done with comic bravura and panache. Each woman takes a month and the roll call corresponds to the intertitles we see punctuating the film as the seasons go by (January, February) and the photographing of the same landscape it seems in winter, spring, summer, fall, and winter again … It also had refrains and repeating scenes of the women’s togetherness so filled with good feeling, strength.

My first impulse was to think the British way of dealing with and if we must erase the realities of a cancer tragedy while trying to tell of it so much more civilized: only one person we know dies in the film, John; hundreds of letters are written to Annie, some of which read aloud appear to be by people who have lost a beloved person to cancer, so there are some more deaths. But no one is turned into raspberry sauce, no one beaten horrifically, violated, no open crime (I think of Breaking Bad) — unless you consider it a crime not to do anything for real about cancer and pretend you know what you are doing when you don’t (this film does not want to arouse any sense of irony so we never do see any doctors). Obviously the response is communal, the people work as a group (again as opposed to Breaking Bad where it seems to be a war of individuals filled with distrust most of whom get through life by lying). It does suggest the audience for this film are part of a far sounder society.

But before I went on to rest easy with Johnson’s “The measure of a society is found in how they treat their weakest and most helpless citizens” (and who more eligible for that than the cancer sufferer), I remembered the real Leeds and Yorkshire I had lived in — not a pastoral village set in sparkling meadows with churches grand halls, and bought myself both the stage-play and shooting script. You can buy the latter because specially typed copies were prepared for the Golden Globe ceremonies (mine is signed by Towhidi and Firth; others are said to be signed by some of the stars).

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A comparison showed me why the movie once the calendar is achieved and the women become ephemeral celebrities (the movie anticipated the present cult of celebrity), becomes weak and feels liked it’s lost more than its cancer story-line; seems slightly aimless. Why go to Hollywood and show us them on the Jay Leno show? in the movie’s it’s so we can see them in an extravagantly luxurious hotel? so he can make tasteless jokes? that’s all that happens before a sudden return to seriousness at the film’s close.

The second half of Tim Firth’s play remains women-centered, presents a real dramatization of what ambition among such women leads to, and the uncomfortableness of celebrity. First the text of the screenplay reveals some of the central women have had a hard time in life and came to live in Yorkshire because they were pushed into it and have made the best of what is sometimes a hard bargain. This comes out as under the pressure of celebrity, of each of the woman having to change her life for a time (travel, leave those dependent on them in crucial ways), and the women themselves arguing as they become jealous of one another or ashamed and irritated by the way they are treated by those exploiting them. I’ve mentioned how Cora’s parents broke up her relationship with her husband. This is not so much as whispered in the film: all we see is the single older mother, Cora, 55 now, with her light-skinned African-English daughter. She does say she fears her daughter will run away but does not elaborate why.

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Cora and her daughter in the film — looking out an inner window in their shop

Celia (Celia Imrie) whom we see trailing around a golf-course behind her husband and has only one explicit association: she has the biggest breasts of the women and so, comically, when she rearranges the cakes with cherries on the tops in front of her to hide her breasts, ends up making her nipples all the more emphatic. In the play we learn she has no children, and is neglected by her financially successful husband who is bored by her, and she can get his company only by trailing around after him. There are worse fates, but she’d have rather lived in London and gone to plays. Ruth’s husband is downright abusive; if she has children, we don’t see any in either film or play;she appears to live for the husband. So when she breaks away and asserts herself it is gratifying. It in both film and play done by her confronting the other woman and Eddie (George Costigan has the thankless role in the film) cast aside as a nothing.

The strongest clash in the stage-play is fierce and makes the tension in the film between Marie (Geraldine James) who is the head of the WI Institute of Knapeley and said to be ambitious (in the shooting script directions) and Chris, look like child’s play. Marie is presented in the movie as an unacknowledged snob, a sucker-up to upper class women higher in the organization altogether too full of themselves, a priggish hypocrite, who visits Annie with a false expression of grief — one of the best lines in both film and play occurs when Marie says she knows what Annie is going through, and Annie echoes the cliched falsifying words — anyone who has been a widow will feel the knife Annie’s words would like to act as.

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Annie answering Marie as Marie tries to shame her out of going on with the calendar

In the movie, Chris is not seriously ambitious; she cries a lot because her schemes (presented as games) end up disasters supposedly.

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It’s a funny send-up of a contest when Chris buys a Victoria sponge from Marks & Spencers instead of making it herself

In the movie the clash is soon over; Marie gives in because she knows what she presents as fun is boring. But in the stageplay Marie and Christ are both presented as drivingly ambitious, and have bitter arguments where they strip one another’s motives and bare open frustrated feelings. The center remains the women and we see under the guise of togetherness, the women undermine one another and do what they can to gain whatever power is on offer.

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Marie leading the meeting

It’s not “breaking bad” (they are not wildly fantastically destructive) but this WI is not a simple picnic and gay fair.

The movie develops a sub-story in the second half which is a distraction. It makes Chris’s son the obstacle in the way of her going to Hollywood to bask in her achievement. Her son is embarrrassed by the calendar which is also partly inspired by her finding a soft-core porn magazine of her son’s under his bed — this is not seriously critiqued at all; it’s the son’s friend who is obsessed by girls’ breasts and this is made a joke out of. Chris’s boy grows upset by teasing in school, is picked up by the police smoking cannabis, and not doing his homework. More seriously, her long-time husband, Rod (Ciarhan Hinds)’s business is suffering: “flower power,” apparently left-over from the sixties; she neglects him and it, but we are never to take this seriously, and he is there as the faithful boyfriend sitting by the hedge when she comes home. While he did give a newsman a story about how Chris doesn’t have the time to have sex with him any more this is shuffled off, forgotten, as he asserts nothing hurt, all is well. Scenes omitted from the film and in the screenplay are were of them having satisfying sex — that might have supported the first part of the film (on sex) but they were cut.

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A touching scene of the couple where the man is dying of cancer and the couple where he’s not eating the cake bought from Marks and Spencer after the fair is done

The critique of ambition and cost of celebrity theme of the play is muted in the film, turned into tepid tea except at the very end when Annie (Julie Walters) runs out of a humiliating studio scene where the directors is expecting these women to strip for a laundry and wash-on-the-line with them behind it (har har) commercial because “that’s what you do, isn’t it?” The women leave Hollywood the next morning, and the film ends with warmth on their return to the WI in the great hall. Movie has several repeating motifs or refrains — as if it were itself a song — one if the women’s singing to Cora’s piano playing each time they meet, Blake’s partly radical and angry and uplifting lines from his “Preface to Milton” beginning “And did those feet in ancient time/Walk upon England’s pleasant pastures seen?” The film celebrates the survival of the group, but it is a survival won more effectively in the play where more of the forces against this are done justice to.

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Neither of these popular award-winning films (Breaking Bad or Calendar Girls) usefully dramatizes the situation of the cancer patient. A cornucopia of applied technologies and huge money are played with in both. The prism of illness now and again sheds light on the human condition, but the only film which has dared to focus on the cancer, the patient, that I’ve seen is Wit. Death in this movie Calendar Girls provides an excuse for moving speeches, communal self-help and a festive seasonal calendar; in the clearer fuller play there is an attempt at showing us painful aspects of women’s lives, of which Annie’s loss of John, his death, her widowhood is one.

At the close of the play we have three single older women: Annie, now widowed, Cora and Ruth, divorced, separated; one frustrated lonely woman in Celia, a frustrated ambitious women in Marie, with Chris carrying on as a kind of pied piper: she leads them in another of the film’s repeating motifs of hope and energy: we see them as a group high on sunny hill doing Chris’s made-up t’ai chi exercises as a kind of communal dance. They move slowly to some moving ordered music and the message is acceptance of what is by being together in rhythm, life’s rhythms.

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The group

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Chris at the center

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Ruth on the side

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Annie

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The group again

How common it is for women-centered films to present a group of women who are close friends, supporting one another. Alas, another myth. In societies around the world the family comes first and women’s relationships must bend to fit these groups’ demands first. Moments on hills together do not come with regularity. What can I say about Towhidi from this movie and Death Comes to Pemberley: she prefers women-centered materials, and has a strong tendency to make the women strong and idealize their relationships as ultimately supportive (even between Elizabeth and Lydia Bennet).

Since I met Jim in Yorkshire, lived with him there over two years, and we visited, even once planned to return, of course the movie has a personal resonance for me too. I’ve been to Skipton.

Ellen

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Breakfast in a cafe: Meg (Lindsay Duncan) and Nick (Jim Broadbent)

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Moment of release (also from Le Weekend, scripted Hanif Kureishi, directed Roger Michell)

Dear friends and readers,

I hurried out today around 4:30 in the afternoon, to catch my Uber cab to take me to the one theater in my 3 state area (10 minutes away) still playing Le Weekend because I thought I’d like it and I had read reviews whose condemnation was (I could now see) based on the 3 act goal-, and plot-oriented screenplay structure, said to be the only one worth doing (with its obstacles, pinch points, and resolution). I wanted to confirm to myself this movie was being wrongly damned because it used what Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush in their book, Alternative Scriptwriting call “alternative” modes.

Well I did like it very much, it certainly does avail itself of “alternative modes” (as did two more of the four films I’ve seen recently: The Lunchbox, Gloria), and I recommend not missing it as an intelligent and absorbing depiction of a long-married English couple’s attempt to experience some enjoyment and perhaps patch up their relationship by a weekend in Paris they can ill afford. Each feels he and she has failed in life: Nick has just been fired from, and Meg is on the edge of retiring, from teaching. During the time of the movie we see their painful (and sometimes satisfying) sexual acting out: she does refuse him sex, will not submit and at one point he gets down like a dog in front of her (perhaps this is why it’s dissed); at the same time he’s the (ex-)university professor (albeit Birmingham) and she only a schoolteacher and clings to him; Morgan is his friend, not hers. We hear their sudden passionate self-revealing subtext outbursts, witness moments of release and fun too and listen to them talk and talk, not always coherently.

They encounter Moran (Jeff Goldblum), a successful American colleague of Nick’s, go a party where they meet his prestigious Parisian connections in publishing and beautiful young pregnant French wife (he’s on his second family), and empathetic (to Nick) seemingly isolated teenage NYC son from another marriage.

It is part of the movie’s meaning that Lindsay Duncan does carry off the role of an aging still beautiful woman (who may long for an affair but has not had one) and Jim Broadbent an aging still virile (if frequently frustrated and jealous) man. Its intended niche is probably the 50 to 70 set although some of what happens surely speaks home to any adult experiencing increasingly frustratingly counterproductive roles in worlds where inequalities are made more egregious by the insistent luxurious environments.

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The lobby

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In the hotel room

There is a sort of resolution: by the end they have confessed to one another how much they need and mean to one another, have told an exploitative son (who is in need of a place without rats for himself, wife and baby) no, he cannot come live with them again (upon which the son hangs up), gotten themselves so badly in debt for a gorgeous suite in a top Parisian hotel that their passports and luggage is being held. The friend comes to take them back to his flat, with the film dissolving into a three way dance to a juke box in yet another cafe.

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Morgan at a dinner party he invited them to, just before he makes his speech on behalf of Nick’s life — and Nick makes a counter-one showing himself to be a financial and career failure

They do not (as most reviews online have suggested) end up burnt out completely — far from it. The friend, an ex-student pal of Nick’s speaks a speech which shows how meaningful much of Nick’s life as a teacher and scholar have been. Meg has at least held her own as a woman in daily control of herself, her body, her space. The aesthetic closure of the film (the final dancing) is much less important than the texture of the experiences (hotel rooms, clothes, food, their bodies) and thematic parallels and contrasts, the spoken words and gestures in the film’s story-line and character displays, the colors and lights, now garish, now washed out.

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Paris at night and they remember hurts

Shots are oddly cut and juxtaposed, a hand-held camera is common; there are no crises until the very end (when their credit card is canceled), no ratcheting up at the end of “acts,” no pinch points or melodramatic reversals from which there is no return or even surprises.

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Street walking

I decided to write about this movie because it defies the Syd Field prescription — as do many of my favorite films and I don’t just go to art films. I go to mainstream ones (like Woody Allen’s which often do not fit). I don’t think this movie’s premise, appercus, rich if bleak offering could be conveyed by the 3 act structure so insisted on as the only thing possible (except for the rare “art” film) in not only the widely-read work of Field but most books on screenplays which are knock-offs and variations on his schemata. And I regularly see many films which do not adhere to the three act structure trumpeted everywhere, whether character- or plot-driven.

How do these screenplay books get away with this falsification. I’m reading a more intelligent version of these just now: Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush’s Alternative Scriptwriting.

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Cover for first edition

It’s simple: they do not discuss any films by women, any films made with the women in an audience in mind. All the movies they analyze at length are better versions of strong male-oriented hits Field analyzes (e.g., The Verdict where guess what the hero gets control over his life); in the rare instances they do have a film meant for women, it’s one which follows the masculine model (Thelma and Louise does). Another aspect of these choices: — no homosexual central roles in any of the chosen films for analysis. I know US films have a narrow view of heterosexual male sexuality and rarely make a homosexual person central — hardly have a GBLT person as a minor character — and it is reinforced in these formula books.

Dancyger and Rush made be said to try to offer an alternative to what is an intelligent version of Syd Field but not quite succeed. Several times now when they say here is an alternative structure, they go about to discover the Field model (action, goal oriented, finally upbeat) or when it’s not there they talk about what is substituted. I don’t think Ingmar Bergman in his (1955) marvelous magnificent Smiles of a Summer Night (which I watched the other night) was substituting features for a Fieldian model in an archetypcal mould.

I wish I could say I was amused by Dancyger and Rush’s single paragraph acknowledging both the conventional models they begin with are not the way “women know”. They cite a famous classic, Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, agree it’s cyclical and goes against conventional goal-oriented conventions, but after briefly recommending a book on Women’s Ways of Knowing, they move on. They also have a brief chapter on the “multiple threaded long form TV serial scripts.” They do analyze how it differs: for example a “narrative voice” or tone and mood emerges by organizing the segments around unifying themes. They appear to find this form rich with more possibilities of intertextuality and intelligence than the three part Field structure. At the same time though they avoid all the really popular costume dramas and soap operas and instead found some popular male serial on commercial TV or looked briefly at Breaking Bad. There really appears to be no book on women’s screenplays and scripts where they differ radically from men’s. No book on the kind of screenplay used for Le Weekend.

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I have about 4 books on technical filmic art matters by feminist film critics who are women; one of them Women and Film (ed Pam Cook) is quoted everywhere. My little library appears to comprise some of the central ones written! books by women which are in effect analyzing to expose the falseness of typical shibboleths and taboos (no voice over, no flashback as feminine or too intellectual): Kozloff’s Invisible Storytellers, and Turim on flashbacks and time in film, but neither identifies herself openly as feminist or about films by women (as do the books on content and women’s films like Jeanine Basinger’s How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-70). I now see they do go over films I watch and go well outside these action-adventure male films, but none of them go into screenplays, the very backbone of the film. I have a number of studies of costume drama and soap opera but again often not of the scripts or screenplays.

A lacuna. A perspective for the first part of my book (as my reader will instantly recalled its working title is A Place of Refuge: the Jane Austen film canon could be how Austen films go against these male conventions in many of their screenplasy – even though many of the Austen films are by men and several of those by women for popular cinema obey the male conventions, e.g., Juliette Towhidi’s Death comes to Pemberley out of P.D.James’s book has the restorative three act structure used for character development: the premise of the film is Elizabeth needs to prove herself mistress of Pemberley, gain everyone’s respect the way her housekeeper, Mrs Reynolds has, to somehow show Darcy that he did not make a mistake when he married her, and prove that to herself; only within this upbeat goal-oriented convention does a gothic cyclical structure emerge for the Wickham-Young-Bidwell back-story repeating the hanging of a boy in the previous generation; and a flowering out soap opera romance one for Georgiana Darcy, Colonel Fitzwilliam, and Henry Alveston triangular conflicts.

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Each of the characters in the book and film of The Jane Austen Book Club corresponds to characters and themes in Austen’s book

Still of the 5 films I’ve chosen for this opening part, 4 are based on books by woman, 4 have women as script writers, 1 a woman director and producer, and I know three of them, Robin Swicord’s The Jane Austen Book Club, Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, and Guy Andrews’s Lost in Austen rely on the alternative feminine (if one wants to give it a gender label), narrative voice and dialogue within a multiple thread plot-design. The middle part is a study of the 7 Sense and Sensibility films as a group and the third (a triptych!) what are the assumptions film-makers make about the reading experience audiences have had with an Austen novel and expect to have analogously in watching an Austen film. What makes many readers uncomfortable when they read Austen and what have the film-makers done to compensate, erase, replace. The perspective here at the last will be biographical, out of her letters and the one biopic film based on these, Miss Austen Regrets.

I have gathered a number of screenplays and DVDs to watch and study: a number by women, e.g., Laura Jones’s The Portrait of Lady, some by intelligent sensitive males, Pinter’s A Proust Screenplay, Graham Greene’s a Third Man, four of Ingmar Bergmann’s and four of Woodie Allen’s. But I find that nothing is a complete and useful as the annotated and footnoted scripts accompanied by richly-illustrated and photographed scenario books for Julian Fellowes’s Downton Abbey (and a combined book for Vanity Fair, directed by Mira Nair) and rejoice at the coming third book of scripts for the third season, due out next year just in time for the airing of the fifth season: shooting has already
begun
.

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Tom Branson (Allen Leech) and Sarah Bunting (Daisy Lewis) in the rain under an umbrella — making me remember Jo March and Prof Bauer’s kiss under his umbrella (Little Women)

Ellen

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

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An English Home, Albert Coburn (1907 illustration)

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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Martin Donovan as Ralph Touchett (Portrait)

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

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

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Barbara Hershey as Madame Merle (Portrait)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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John Malkovich as Osmond (Portrait)

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

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

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John Singer Sergeant, An Interior in Venice (1899)

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

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Constance Fennimore Woolson

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

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

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

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

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Paris, La Rue de Rivoli, Anonymous, undated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Henry James by Katherine McClellan (1905)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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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.

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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)

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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

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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.

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

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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

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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.”

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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.

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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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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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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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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.

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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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