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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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Hoffamily

Dear friends and readers,

When Izzy and I arrived at our local better cinema and saw to get into one of the movies we had to join onto a long line thick with people, I was startled to find this was for Saving Mr Banks! which in the trailers had been represented as about a crabby old maid schoolteacher type giving the warm and wonderful Walt Disney a hard time, rejecting his of course charming Disneyland. We had assumed it was for The Hobbit.

I figured and still think that the 4 full Mary Poppins books are not widely read, but liked by a sub-group of reading girls, Anglophilic, with an unusual penchant for implicit meanings and respect for the old-fashioned values of decorum, titillated by strictness. I liked the 1964 Mary Poppins musical, but know it is wildly disparate from Travers’s books. (See my blog on Pamela Lyndon Travers, woman writer of children’s books.)

As we stood there and saw the line grow past us and out the door into the cold, I reminded myself the new film, Saving Mr Banks, did have big-name stars with strong talent (Emma Thompson as PL, Tom Hanks as Walt); was a Disney film and thus guaranteed-to-be-wholesome film, and of course would be connected to the 1964 Mary Poppins film, which perhaps had made a very distorted view of the original character into a household icon.

I’m writing this blog because I’ve since discovered that in more popularly oriented movie-houses parents had brought children (not what the crowd at this art house does) and overtly removed these kiddies from the unexpectedly unsuitable material. That means the hum and buzz is giving a wrong impression of what this film is about and is largely responsible for the big audiences; the few thoughtful reviews concentrate on how the film misrepresents the final outcome of the strong conflicts between Travers and Disney over the nature, mood, characteristics and specifics of the 1964 Mary Poppins film: in the film she relents mostly and is deeply moved by the film insofar as it reflects the autobiograpical sources of her books; in reality; she hated the film.. But see Caitlin Flannagan’s Becoming Mary Poppins.

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Promotional shot at the premier to which Travers had not been invited lest she convey her sharp disapproval: the photo shows she disguised her feelings that night

What’s been left out from accounts is more than 50% of Saving Mr Banks‘s matter: P.L. Travers’s childhood in Australia; few stills of Ruth Wilson as Mrs Hof, Colin Farrell as Mr Hof (the original we are told of Mr Banks in the books), and hardly any retelling of how Mr Hof is first responsible for moving his family from the comparative respectability and comfort of an upper middle class home in a citified area of Australia (New South Wales? Queensland?) into the hinterlands (called Allora in the film, perhaps central or western Australia) where he proceeded to become a thorough alcoholic and failure as a bank manager (someone who could not cope with the stress, repression, hard commercialism of any money-making occupation). We see him humiliate himself and family in a scene on a public stage, fall to the ground and slowly die of TB and delirium tremens. At one point Mrs Hof tries to kill herself by drowning. The child, Helen, called Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley) by her father, who since renamed herself Pamela and then PL (Lyndon a middle name) is totally involved, worshipping and feeling for her father,

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trying to save her mother. A sister turns up to help them, dressed in the film like Mary Poppins in the book with a little of her outward sternness.

This does explain to me for the first time the strange turn the 1964 Mary Poppins takes: Mr Banks risks losing his job by refusing to give all his time to his work when he is made to realize he is neglecting his family; he refuses to yield to pressure and insists on going to fly a kite at the film’s end, when of course he is forgiven and hired back by the bank’s aged boss: Dick Van Dyke played this role as well as Bert, the match man, made in the film a lover-suitor for Mary Poppins, while in the books this is only hinted at, slightly and sometimes denied. There is no such story in any of the four MP books written by 1964 (MP, MP Comes Back, MP in the Park, MP opens the door). It is a much bowdlerized version of Travers’s father’s behavior. In life he did not die of TB either, but influenza; the real Mrs Hof had connections with powerful whites in Australia (and her sister had money).

Saving Mr Banks then may be said to inject back into the books the self-reflexive deeper material compelling the writer’s creation of Mary Poppins as a kind of strange savior of the family: the strangeness is in the way she does this: in adventure after adventure the children find themselves suddenly in another realm of reality, often connected to the zodiac or stars in the sky, the sun, sometimes natural worlds in a green park. Sometimes the figures met there are bullies, mean, or downtrodden and wanting and in need of affection. Mary is called upon to fix a situation, she does and she is worshipped there as a good kind all powerful woman (not the stern cold governess-figure she seems to be to outsiders), and each time the children return to Cherry Tree Lane somehow rejuvenated.

None of the above gets into the 1964 Mary Poppins except the passage to another idyllic place (pastoral and filled with penguins and animated figures) through Bert’s chalk sidewalk pictures (something that does happen in one of the four books’ adventures). Some does get into this 2013 Saving Mr Banks: the outward stern, cold, fussy, dominatrix feel of Ms Travers or Pamela as played superbly well by Emma Thompson is modeled partly on the book’s Mary Poppins. Thompson also conveys non-caricatured hurt, quiet moments of self-doubt, disquiet, with gestures that at moments reminded me of her most magnificent performance in Wit.

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The advertisements for the film emphasize the relationship of Travers and Disney (much idealized, and played more subtly than at first appears by Tom Hanks):

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Some of the Saving Mr Banks‘s worst moments come out in this strand: Walt’s long preachy speech to Pamela (he insists on a first-name basis right away) about how everyone can have or do what they want if only they try or work hard enough (a popular rightist American myth — Disney was an arch-reactionary it is true). (See Slate article on this meeting where she agreed to go along with the film.) Thompson’s imitation of a wry whose guardedness isolates her and accounts for how unhappy she makes herself (message: socializing is the most important thing to do well in life).

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The strand in Saving Mr Banks which tells the story of Travers’s strong reluctance to give over the rights to Disney, her fights with the creative song-writers, Richard and Robert Sherman (David Schwartzman and D. J. Novak) and script writer, Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) are part of the finer threads in the film: we see them inventing and singing some of the better and still well-known numbers from the 1964 film — which as a song-and-dance musical is marvelous (especially where Van Dyke dances with a chorus of men and with Julie Andrews up a stairway into the sky).

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I felt nostalgia for the film as these were sketched out by the creators, and Thompson-as-Travers’s disapproval added a piquant sauce to the mix. I remember how Izzy loved the film as a child. She has read at least a couple of the books.

The best companionable feeling in the Saving Mr Banks derives from Thompson as P.L. Travers’ relationship with Paul Giamatti as Ralph, her driver. He is the on-going person we see her with; at the first she bullies him and mocks his efforts at ingratiation and talk about the sunny weather, but eventually she comes to depend on him, especially when she has no invitation to the premier and he drives her there and provides her with support.

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Driving Ms Travers

The most natural moment of friendship occurs when she is leaving L.A. after having rejected the script when she discovers it will have animated figures (she had been promised it would not) doing inanely silly gestures with clothes. She is seen sitting in the grass deeply distressed to think of what is happening to her story, and the driver comes over and they talk. Here she learns of his disabled daughter at home; I have read that disabled figures are figuring more in mainstream films, and Thompson as Travers is several times rebuked for her demands for formality by stories of the hardships others experienced in life as if precise manners must be an indication of obtuse snobbishness.

As she and her driver bid adieu, she addresses him as Ralph (his first name) and he addresses her as Pamela. Throughout the film her formal or more old-fashioned approach to life is seen in her discomfort in being required to start relationships on a first name basis immediately. I understand that as that is the way it was when I was a child. It’s not snobbishness; it’s a way of making some relationships more special and acknowledging intimacy that’s real. She is followed by Disney to England and he preaches his preachy-speech of his hardships in life, his father, and voila she is convinced — having liked “Let’s go fly a kite” and the depiction of Mr Banks in the film (by David Tomlinson).

Often the best parts of films don’t make it anywhere near the trailer, but this time they are also failing to get into the reviews — perhaps deliberately? Makers and critics of films like to see what is not discussably in the open brought out visually and through story but themselves in the case of expected popular audiences not risk going into tabooed matter.

Saving Mr Banks‘s script is by two women: Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith. I wondered if they had loved the Mary Poppins books, and wrote this movie in tribute to P.L. with a view of doing some justice to her and revealing some of the deeper explicable sources of the books.

I am interested in Australian literature, which I now see the Mary Poppins books belong to, and am tempted to buy one of the biographies of P.L. Travers. Patricia Deemers’s Twayne book may be the sensible one, but Valerie Lawson’s look like the writing of someone deeply engaged by the author and her books. Out of the Sky She Came: The Life of P.L. Travers, Creator of Mary Poppins. The sky provides the highest moments in the books and the 1964 film; this more sceptical disillusioned film (when it’s at its best) makes the sky the place planes fly across, but from time to time a sky is filmed, blue, with lovely clouds, as symbols of the books’ visions.

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Bert and Mary looking up into the sky (1964 Mary Poppins)

Ellen

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Dear friends,

In the computer disaster I had two days ago it appears that the course proposals I had made for a summer teaching course at an Oscher Institute of Learning may have been permanently lost; as I want these documents and today (as yet) have no writing program I can put them on — the new computer with Windows 8 is hellishly cutsey, tricksey. I cannot figure out how to write on Word on this Macbook Pro without the whole screen being transformed, so that I appear unable to reach my gmail with hitting F3 which minimalizes everything and let’s me see, and get back to gmail and the row of programs I have at the bottom of Macbook Pro. So I am saving two sets of documents or writing here — I used to use this blog to work out my thoughts on books, films, teaching; well read these as 5 sketches towards a summer course for retired people.

The Gothic

This course will explore the gothic mode in fiction and film. The gothic as a mode is a vast terrain with many differnt subgenres, yet images, plot-, and character types repeat like a formula. Take one huge labyrinthine ancient or partly ruined dwelling, place inside a murderous incestuous father or mother (preferably chained), heroes and heroines (various kinds), get a tempest going at night, be sure to have plenty of blood on hand, owls, and stir in a great deal of supernatural phenomena, have the action occur in the deep past or be connected to a deep past … We’ll use short stories on-line, beginning with ghosts and terror, moving onto vampire, werewolf, and wanderer paradigms and horror, and last socially critical mystery and possession. The course culminates in two recent novellas, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly, and the justly famed film, Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963, featuring Julie Harris).

Texts on-line will be chosen from among these: Wharton’s “Afterward” and/or “Kerfol,” M. R. James’s “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral;” Sheridan LeFanu’s “Green Tea” and/or “Carmilla,” Marion Crawford’s “For the Blood is the Life,” R. L. Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Suzy Charnas’s “Unicorn Tapestry; Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of Abbey Grange.” This spares students buying an expensive anthology.

Memory, Desire, and Self-fashioning: Life Writing

This course will enable students to better to understand and recognize the nature of life-writing: diaries, books of letters, journals, memoirs, travel narratives, autobiogaphies, biographies. Our three texts will be Richard Holmes’s Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer, Iris Origo’s War in Val d’Orca: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944 (or George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia) and Margaret Drabble’s The Figure in the Carpet: A Personal History, with Jigsaws. We will ask what is the nature of the truth autobiography produces and look at the relationship of a biographer to his subject. We’ll look at writing done to the moment when the writer does not know what the future holds (diaries, letters); how far is a biography the product of a biographer’s memories interacting with text by his (or her) subject. We’ll talk about the importance of childhood and play in this form, how aging, imagination and disappointment work are part of the mental materials that make up life-writing. If time permits and the DVD is available, the class will conclude with the 2013 film, The Invisible Woman, based on Claire Tomalin’s biography of a long love-relationship between Charles Dickens and Ellen Ternan (an actress), where most of the evidence for the events was destroyed, and thus be able to discuss events that happen, and are important in people’s lives and yet have left no discernible clear record.

The Political Novel

The course aims to enable the students to recognize what is political novel and how such novels can function in our society. We’ll read Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September, Walter Von Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident, and Valerie Martin’s Property and see William Wellman’s film, The Ox-Bow Incident (1963, featuring Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn). We’ll look at the nature of political allegory: how ideas about society penetrate the consciousness of the characters and can be observed in their behavior. Why some events enter what’s called history and why political novels often lend themselves to historical treatment; why other events are not discussed as serious history, which can limit what we perceive as political behavior. Finally, how films contribute to understanding a novel or its political meanings.

The Historical and Post-Colonial Turn in modern novels

This course will examine historical and post-colonial (or global) turn that English fiction has taken in the last quarter century. We’ll read and discuss three novels: Paul Scott’s Staying On, Graham Swift’s Waterland, and Andrea Levy’s Small Island. The first poignant novel is also about two aging people now retired, who have seen the word they were part of disappear and must cope with new arrangements hostile to them. The second will enable us to discuss how some events enter political history and others don’t, and thus our past is past is something we invent through imposing choice and order based on hierarchies in our present culture. Historical romance can therefore be liberating acts of resistance, a way of redressing injustice, and creating a more humane usable past. The third novel shows the centrality of nationalistic identities in enforcing exclusions or forming imagined communities. The course will conclude by watching an excerpt from a mini-series adaptation of Small Island (2009, BBC, featuring David Oyelowo and Ruth Wilson). I hope the class will see the connection of these novels to young adult fiction, counter-factual fictions, and romantic history as well as TV costume drama.

Jane Austen: the early phase

This course focus on Austen’s first published novels: Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Love and Freindship (a short hilarious burlesque which we will read first), Austen’s Steventon years, and letter fiction provide prologue and context for reading S&S and P&P. An alternative perspective provides the last phase of the course: Austen’s Bath years, a brief mid-career epistolary novel written there, Lady Susan (with an utterly amoral heroine), and discussion of how Austen revised the novels when she settled at Chawton. Last, we’ll see Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s S&S (a 1995 Miramax product), and discuss what this film makes visible about the way film-makers think readers read these novels and how these interpretations differ from this course’s historical, autobiographical and aesthetic readings.

Ellen

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AgnesLookingatWindowblog
From Andrew Davies’s mini-series Mr Selfridge (based on Lindy Woodhead’s Shopping, Seduction, and Mr Selfridge

I do not believe in recovery. The past, with its pleasures, its rewards, its foolishness, its punishments, is there for each of us forever, and it should be — Lillian Hellman

It is not true that in time you get used to it — Simone de Beauvoir

“The secondary impulse is to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness — C. S. Lewis

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve not blogged in over a week because I’ve been busy with various projects, most of which I am not ready to write on as yet, or I have to wait to write on because something else will be due earlier. My good past gone, I move to a new framing.

I finished reading Musiol’s important book on Vittoria Colonna but feel I must work on it carefully and during the day, that it will take much thought to review usefully (or why bother?): the description on line leads one to think it’s mainly on Michelangelo’s drawings possibly of Vittoria Colonna, when it is rather a detailed biography in the context of the religious and military politics and other literary works of her age.

Other projects nearing conclusion (coming out of list-serv life): LeFanu’s short stories and Wyvern Mystery (plot-designs and characters emerging from interior pathways through melancholy); Lillian Hellman’s 4 memoirs (Unfinished Woman, Pentemento, Scoundrel Time, Maybe).

But before doing that I have to make one or two syllabi for a possible position teaching in the Humanities part of a BA program. Since I’ve never taught courses which match the requirements of their core curriculum, this will take some doing. And a not so small obstacle here is I just ordered the books, so even with expedited shipping for a couple of them, have to wait. Paradoxically though I’m closer to being able to teach a course in the Enlightenment (one of the two offered), as 1) the 18th century is my primary area; 2) I used to teach a survey on the first half of British literature, one third of which I devoted to the long 18th century, I actually have more recent anthologies for the Victorian Age (my other choice).

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Pre-Raphaelite image, Millais (on the cover of the Longman Victorian Age)

Right now I’m thinking I should have for each syllabus a single readable (entertaining too) volume of general history (G. H. Young’s Portrait of an Age [Victorian]), an anthology which will give selections from many topics and a variety of texts and authors, and perhaps one or two whole single texts. Some of these anthologies I see have extended texts on-line which may form the equivalent of single texts. I don’t want to make the students pay extravagant amounts of money. For the Victorian Age one, I’m hoping the Broadview anthology comes quickly because it has a lot of Anthony Trollope in it, but I very much like the Longman (rich in traditional texts) and am drawn to the documents in Politics and Empire in Victorian Britain, ed. Antoinette Burden (with pieces by slaves and all sorts of extraordinary exposures of the condition of people at the time all over the globe which would (I hope) set students thinking.

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Reynolds’s portrait of Abingdon as Miss Prue (on the cover of the Longman 18th century anthology)

For the eighteenth century, Enlightenment one, I find I can think of a set of individual books, one of which might be a poetry anthology, but the outline of the course suggested asks that the instructor to have a core corpus of philosophical texts, some of which must debate attitudes towards religion (certainly central to the Enlightenment is the spread of secularism) so I’ve ordered Kramnick’s anthology of continental and English Enlightenment philosophical texts, and am thinking about single volume anthologies called Enlightenment (Roy Porter, or Dorinda Outram), to which I could add a good novel or travel memoir; or the Longman or Norton anthologies.

I hope all the ordered stuff arrives as I’m supposed to have these syllabi by New Year’s Day (January 1st). Meanwhile along with my etext edition of Ethelinde (slowly typing it still) and my return to Emma, Austen’s novel, for calendar study, and the Emma movies, which I suppose I must put aside for now, or go slower, late into the night I’m enjoying myself watching Andrew Davies’s Mr Selfridge and endlessly re-watching the 3 seasons of Downton Abbey, which I never seem to tire of: partly it’s that so much money and care and the intense art that results from that, & the many characters gone into with all their parallels and ironic contrasts inside evolving stories — makes slow re-watching rich in ever new insights. Partly the depth of feeling the characters show towards one another satisfies an endless need in me:

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Mr (Brendan Coyle) and Mrs (Joanne Froggart): on the beach (4th season)

If Jim were still alive, I’d not be returning to teaching; I’d probably stay with Emma, the Austen movies and Ethelinde, and maybe for fun turn to Winston Graham and historical fiction. Be going out to plays, operas, concerts, walking with him, talking. Travel, say to the Lake District, Venice — but I do know he was beginning to not want to do these things — himself aging, weakening (perhaps that horrible disease cancer that ate him up showing itself). I would have done that paper on Anne Finch and retirement. Lillian Hellman says in her memoirs (which I’m almost ready to write about, just have to finish the fourth and a couple of essays on it) that when you are driven to give up an old way of life, when it’s destroyed, you are spared stagnation, staying in one frame or sameness of place, growing even older than your years.

Can I tell myself (like Hellman) that what was then, is there still now, and the years between, and the then and now are one? No it’s not one, now and the long (now feeling all too short) time with Jim. And what happened to make this raw rip was unspeakable. Here we were, innocent in a landmark house, Amos Brown’s, Vermont, what turned out to be our last summer:

AmosBrownhouseEllenreadingfrontblog

AmosBrownhouseJiminkitchenVermontblog

Before I read with him, now in order not to read all alone, and be utterly desolate in my heart and inner being, I have to turn the reading into socially useful, acceptable patterns and paths.

“Aussi triste qe soit un livre, it n’est jamais aussi triste que la vie” — Chantal Thomas [as sad as a book is, it's never as sad as life], Souffrir

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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Menincarblog
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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OldJackRayblog
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

Camperblog
Camper at races, Ray and Amy making love inside

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

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

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

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

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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).

Cathedraleblog
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),

Vincerememberingblog
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.

Emphasison4menblog
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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memories surround what’s left
Jim and Ellen Moody, later 1980s, living in present house in Alexandria

Time. I, that please some, try all, both joy and terror
Of good and bad, that make and unfold error,
Now take upon me, in the name of Time,
To use my wings — The Winter’s Tale

Dear friends and readers,

A favorite book with me, so favorite that like a few others (e.g., a Roget’s Thesaurus I’ve had since age 12-13; a Dictionnaire Larousse par Marguerite-Marie Dubois …, 1971), it has sat on my desk wherever it’s been, for years and years — is John Hollander’s Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse. I have never found anything better when it comes to cataloguing, defining, exemplifying, and what’s more enacting the inner life and purpose of different forms of English verse. It’s so easy to use; so clear. I know he’s making fun of what he’s doing (it’s tongue-in-cheek), showing off. (It also takes the same place in my pantheon as 1066 and All That did for Jim.) I’ve paid to have my Thesaurus and French dictionary re-covered twice now, and if ever I lost Rhyme’s Reason I’d immediately buy another copy. It’s a great original anthology.

Here is Hollander’s villanelle, a favorite form for me:

This form with two refrains in parallel?
(Just watch the opening and the third line.)
The repetitions build the villanelle.

The subject thus established, it can swell
Across the poet-architect’s design:
This form with two refrains in parallel

Must never make them jingle like a bell,
Tuneful but empty, boring and benign;
The repetitions build the villanelle

By moving out beyond the tercet’s cell
(Though having two lone rhyme-sounds can confine
This form). With two refrains in parallel

A poem can find its way into a hell
Of ingenuity to redesign
The repetitions. Build the villanelle

Till it has told the tale it has to tell;
Then two refrains will finally intertwine.
This form with two refrains in parallel
The repetitions build: The Villanelle.

Repetition. It was a favorite form for Jim, who especially valued and reread William’s Empson’s villanelles (his favorite, “Missing Dates”; I also would reread “Courage means running” (“Muchafraid went over the river singing/Though none knew what she sang”). Jim liked rhyme, stanza, form in poetry (Anthony Hecht another favorite).

As some of you know he, Jim, my lover and friend of 45 years, husband of 44, who made this Ellen and Jim have a blog, two, died now slightly more than 3 days ago (October 9, 2013), and last night I wrote this villanelle to express what it’s like for me now:

Where are you? I cannot reach you.
Surrounded. The sky a thick wall
Nothing’s there on the other side.

Here now that junkyard outside
of which nothing mattered. Eccomi.
Where are you? I cannot reach you.

“Hon.” “Didn’a fash yersel my you!”
His words, blood flowing through my heart.
Nothing’s there on the other side.

Death’s world is rotting. Decay.
I tried to stop you from going there.
Where are you? I cannot reach you.

Time divides. When he was alive
When he’s not alive any more
Nothing’s there on the other side.

The silence of reality
What can I do? a bird flings itself
Where are you? I cannot reach you.
Nothing’s there on the other side.

As I wrote on Under the Sign of Sylvia, one can say in verse what one can’t in prose. Still I’m not sure I didn’t express these thoughts much better blurted out grammarless as I was feeling them in a text message I sent to a friend (Miss Schuster-Slatt once upon a time), but I don’t know how to reach the archives (if it is archived) on an i-phone.

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Jim, summer 1978 (age 29-30), in Seaman Avenue NYC flat, with few-months old Laura

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Jim, 1985, reaching down to baby Isobel, Laura to the side (Alexandria house again)

I shall be putting a few photos on this blog with poetry (not to worry, mostly it will not be by me) to remember him as he was across the years.

Ellen

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1984 BBC Jewel in the Crown (written by Ken Taylor, directed and produced by Christopher Morahan (Hattie Morahan’d father) –Art Malik as Hari Kumar, & Susan Woolridge as Daphne Manners

Dear friends and readers,

A potentially instructive question was asked on my new Historical Fiction and Film Adaptation listserv (18th – 21st century, Austen to Poldark in type): which series got people interested in period dramas? to parse this, what film adaptation and/or mini-series that you watched first made the form so rivetingly irresistible to you? Answered it could mean, why do we like these film adaptations. My point is which film adaptation led you to like film adaptations as such and want to watch more of them? That’s the issue and question I’m asking.

I know I have tried to answer this one before — I talked of the elegiac mode, their slow pace, some of idealistic themes (friendship), but knew the problem here is this does not fit all of them at all: what are we to do with Helen Mirren’s Prime Suspect? modern, quick moving, bitter themes; or those that have no originating book (Downton Abbey?)

In the answer I came up with and that of a friend on the list-serv I saw a parallel: both of us had been hooked by a film adaptation that turned out to have (or we know had) a powerful long book, or a series of books, as its source. For me it was the 1984 BBC Jewel in the Crown, scripted by Ken Taylor out of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet.. She, my long time friend, Judy Geater, a journalist, said for her it was:

the BBC War and Peace starring Anthony Hopkins as Pierre, which I saw in 1972 when I was 12 – I remember being gripped by it and going on to read the novel in two enormous Penguin volumes, though I’m sure I skipped or skimmed the philosophical passages. At that age I loved Natasha and identified with her wildly. More recently I reread the novel and re-watched the series (it was a two or three years ago now, so not quite 40 years on) and admired both as much as ever, though I did feel that Morag Hood was too old to play Natasha and rather miscast – something that hadn’t struck me when I saw it in black and white in the 1970s.

After I saw Jewel in the Crown I read all four of Scott’s Raj novels and just loved them. A few years ago I listened to them read aloud and while doing that re-saw Jewel in the Crown in a DVD with features and bought the book that was then sold as part of the paraphernila, Making the Jewel in the Crown, which I enjoyed immensely — beyond contextualizing essays (autobiograpies, histories), and of course the making of the film (its parts, its artists of all stripes, parts of the screenplay). I wrote a blog using stills.

Another friend, Linda F, wrote: “It was the 1980s adaptation of Pride & Prejudice (David Rintoul) that got me interested in seeing novels turned into mini-series.

People express disappointment when the mini-series is not based on a supposed book, but rather has no book. Fellowes is a remarkably clever man who knows this: thus the publication of his scripts for Downon Abbey set up novelistically enough

I think this intertextuality and enrichening from book to screen and back again is crucial to the deepest enjoyments.

Another for women is an ideal heroine the particular viewer likes: I like Sarah Layton:

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Geraldine James as Sarah Layton (a narrator of one of the volumes the Raj Quartet

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An example of the intertextual study film adaptations can allow:

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Jill Townsend as Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark Warleggan, realizing what she has been complicit with — I’m interested by her and feel for her

Taking one of the focuses (contrasts of type) of the list-serv, the Winston Graham’s Poldark novels and the 1970s two mini-series, I told of how I became hooked onto these.

I was first introduced to them — or became aware they exist when in my research on film adaptations of historical novels I got myself very inexpensively a set of cassettes for the first season. I also bought a cheap copy of the first novel, Ross Poldark. I didn’t expect to read it necessarily; but had it there on the off-chance I might like to try it.

I started to watch the first series and liked the first three or four episodes enormously but felt that the programs were somehow omitting something, leaving out even essential elements in the story which didn’t quite make sense.

So I began to read the novel and was startled at how much I genuinely liked it. I had not liked a novel or author so much in a long time. It reminded me of falling in love with books when I was in my teens where I had more spontaneous enthusiasms. I read less then and not professionally. Well I went on to read the first four novels and then re-began and then finished the series; while I saw where it departed, and felt the depiction of Ross and Demelza’s earliest sexual encounter and early married days in the book so much better than the mini-series, and felt the way Elizabeth was written up, was wooden and false (no fault of the actors, they have to act what scripts they are given), the rest of it while changed seemed to me a good filmic equivalent. I loved the ending of the first season, that climactic catastrophe and the two walking on the beach.

So I went on to read the next three novels and then after that watched the second mini-series. Again the novels were much better; this time in the films the flaws were in the area of sex but also in politics. The politics of the original books were omitted or changed. I didn’t blame the actors again, not their fault, it was the BBC’s cowardice and conservatism.

I then read on and finished the last 5 novels, so sorry there was no third mini-series, but got myself the 1996 singleton film, The Stranger from the Sea. I did like the new actors, but this time the whole feel of the books were changed so that politics and history were omitted altogether. The story could have occurred at any time. It was a domestic romance. Characters who were important were omitted. It was also a matter of money. The US partner was refusing to spend money on a mini-series or on location filming — like something that looked like if it was not Portugal. Still I wished it had not so flopped because after that nothing more was filmed.

Season1Part1blog
From Season 1, Part 1, 1st episode: Clive Francis as Francis Poldark looking at his father, Charles (Frank Middlemass), who pointedly turns his back to exclude his son from mining work

What can be seen with intertexuality: in the above still, we first see Charles Poldark turning his back on his son, Francis, who broods at this — Charles is clearly in charge of the business, not trusting his son, and the son drinking — as someone excluded, not respected.

The outright quick conflict that occurs between them in the first scene brings out what we see later as part of the core reason for Francis’s destruction. The father and son’ insults and sudden opening of their hearts to one another in the film is not in the novel — that is an enrichening addition which again influences us if we read the book afterwards.I thought both actors did these roles very well. Clive Francis played in Joe Orton’s Angry Young man plays around this time, and that typology (anguished) is brought in here too. He is made to feel he cannot live up to our hero, Ross, by the woman he does love and in good faith (thinking Ross dead) chose to engage himself to and marry.

The full reasons for the failure of the marriage itself are *not brought out properly in the film though* — as Vicki knows — she refuses him sex, preferring she feels her son by him, not a woman who does place her ego identity in the men she marries, for there are women who prefer their children, but of course he sees this differently given his full background. We need to read the novels to feel all this (especially Jeremy Poldark — novel 3).

I’ll also suggest that we get fooled in our memories because the films interfere with our memories of the books. For example, you suggest that we have in this book the core of all that follows. Not really. The back story material of Ross and Elizabeth’s engagement while mentioned and important is kept to minimum; we have only their strong love asserted (especially in that Christmas sequence where it’s suggested he loves two women), all the other material we remember from this time is really put into the first four episodes from Warleggan. It’s also in Warleggan (book 4 mind) that the villain protagonist Warleggan is first fully characterized. Again when we meet Warleggan in Episode 1, the material is taken from Warleggan.

Less subtle but also important for why we like _Demelza_ is there is no Dwight Enys in Ross Poldark nor is he thought of. He is central to the 12 books, but not a peep because he was not thought of until Demelza. Then suddenly we are in his consciousness by something like the third or fourth chapter. Now in the series he is brought forth in Part 5 as Part 5 begins, which is earlier, as earlier as Pullman dared.

I’ll also suggest that we get fooled in our memories because the films interfere with our memories of the books. For example, you suggest that we have in this book the core of all that follows. Not really. The back story material of Ross and Elizabeth’s engagement while mentioned and important is kept to minimum; we have only their strong love asserted (especially in that Christmas sequence where it’s suggested he loves two women), all the other material we remember from this time is really put into the first four episodes from Warleggan. It’s also in Warleggan (book 4 mind) that the villain protagonist Warleggan is first fully characterized. Again when we meet Warleggan in Episode 1, the material is taken from Warleggan (his book).

Less subtle but also important for why we like Demelza is there is no Dwight Enys in Ross Poldark nor is he thought of. He is central to the 12 books, but not a peep because he was not thought of until Demelza. Then suddenly we are in his consciousness by something like the third or fourth chapter. Now in the series he is brought forth in Part 5 as Part 5 begins, which is earlier, as earlier as Pullman dared.

The situation of the houses is first mapped in Jeremy Poldark (3rd novel in series) — why? he had not developed Poldark country as yet or fully until he had finished two. But the film makers know where everything is upon starting :)

I’d love to see a new film adaptation more frank and adequate to the sexuality of the novels, but (given our era and corporate sponsorship of such series on PBS) fear that it would further change the politics. I hope the first six hours are meant as a kind of first season for say 4 novels and if it does well they’ll film more. I can’t tell as this kind of information is not available.

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JolyoncomingUponIrenePt5blog
Gina McKay as Irene Heron (the central heroine) in the grass of Robin Hill, come upon by the aged old Jollyon (2002 Forsyte Saga) — I liked her much better after I watched the way McKay played her

That Downton Abbey is not of this type to my mind shows it’s a kind of fluke: it went way outside the usual audience for costume drama. And Fellowes has provided books: the first year, The World; the third, The Chronicle; Powell’s Upstairs Downstairs memoir, and scripts for each part.

I have been over the past year or so been watching the whole of the 1967 and 2002 Forsyte Sagas, and on Trollope19thCStudies we are beginning to make our way through the novels (see The Man of Property). What I’d like to do is transpose my many postings (see Trollope19thCStudies archives) comparing these two series to the books into blogs the better to gain what there is in the books, and the two mini-series interweave.

IndianSummerblog

I end on the two mini-series commentary on the books and one another.

The story, “Indian Summer of a Forsyte” by Galsworthy:

It must be hard to get back into the world of your creation. I remember the first three chapters of Winston Graham’s 5t Poldkar novel (as they’ve come to be called), Black Moon, written 20 years after the 4th Poldark, had three chapters where he was reweaving his spell for himself through the
landscape and came in indirectly, actually through an old man and the secondary villain-hero who is waiting for his wife to give birth, unknown to him to the child engendered not by him but the hero-protagonist of the book, Ross Poldark, through a rape.

So Galsworthy comes in indirectly, nearly 2 decades after Man of Property, the aging Old Jolyon who is dying, and comes across Irene in the meadows around Robin Hill and is entranced by her beauty. We will later learn she had recently returned to England. In both film adaptations the film-makers give this sudden meeting, his entrancement, and the couple of months he spends squiring her to opera and she giving music lessons to Holly, the child Young Jolyon had by Helene full treatment. Old Jolyon was the Forstye who while appreciating commerce saw the hypocrisy and lies and ruthlessness of his clan. We are still not going to be allowed to get into Irene’s mind it seems — but much comes out. She prefers poverty to being bought and kept as rich; she has identified with women of the streets — though she manages to keep up a style. She has remained authentic since Bossiney’s death.

Slowly the old story is brought back. It’s not as ironic, rather emotional.

Then the two adaptations within the larger mini-series:

2002: The long sequence of old Jolyon discovering Irene at the opera. Gina McKay dressed alluring as a poor genteel lady offering piano lessons and doing good to prostitutes who we are told did her good when she was down and out. Again we are not told how she made it. The second half is this idyllic romance between old man and young beautiful woman. He takes her in. She is hired to teach Holly to play — well paid too. Alter his will again to include her.

WInifred sees Irene and Jolyon at opera. Tells Soames. He says he knows. Kind people don’t miss an apportunity to tell him.
Irene loses her nerve and almost disappears — real hurt for old man — before Young Joe and June due back. But she comes back to be with him when he dies. Heart attack as young Jolyon eventually succumbs to.

And his faithful fat dog too. Another poignant dog. There must be one in the book.

Done with operatic music so important for the whole effect. The production design in which they exist is central to the meaning of this adaptation. Retreat, move away from the sordid squalid world of money deals — but if old Jolyon had not made all that money just that way he could not have bought what we are led to see as Robin Hill house.

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Young Jolyon carrying Balthasar, Old Jolyon’s aging dog, now dead, back from the meadow around Robin Hill, a coda to “Indian Summer of a Forsyte”

1967: a long sequence of the old man finding Irene in the grounds, their friendship, how he lures her to teach his granddaughter the piano, tells of his family, a touching respect for her decision to be alone, mystic apprehensions of her beauty, he dies and his dog the first to perceive, the dog’s grief and death. Unexpectedly this text quite different from book, but brings out Galsworthy continual attention to pets, animals, love of them and Balthasar is the first to recognize his master’s death in the last page of the story. the 1967 version had time to dramatize such a walk …

I end this blog on film adaptations on a parallel: someone carrying someone else. It’s easy to find parallels across books and film adaptations.

Ellen

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The key to the whole is power. This can be seen by reconstructing the necessary context the novel creates for itself, which is the political map of Barsetshire — Bill Overton, of Framley Parsonage, The Unofficial Trollope

a book which might better have been called ‘The Chronicle of a Winter at Dillsborough’ — Trollope’s narrator, The American Senator

DillsboroughasDrawnbytheGerouldsblog
Dillsborough

Dear friends and readers,

This week on Trollope19thCStudies, I was asked some good questions:

When you have time, will you explain to us just what you mean by “mapping.” I admit I thought you meant you were making maps of the fictional places in the Barset novels … Is it just noting the places these authors mention in their novels? Is it like the scholars who make maps of the journeys through the streets of Dublin that the characters in Ulysses make? Could you give us a definition and what you believe the purpose or benefit of mapping is.

I’ve used the occasion to get down some of my thoughts towards my paper. One of the purposes of this blog is to work out thoughts towards scholarship projects. I write to know what I think. (E.M. Forster — “How can I tell what I think until I see what I say?”; Edward Albee — “I write to find out what I’m talking about.”) I’ve now read the four books I’m focusing on, each chosen because of its creation or use of a map: Castle Richmond, Framley Parsonage, Phineas Redux, and The American Senator, and I’ve found what are going to be my foundational texts. The above header is going to be its title.

So, to answer the question, the first thing I did was go back and look over 3 of these foundational texts, all by Franco Moretti: — Atlas of the European Novel, Signs Taken for Wonder, and a chapter called “Maps” in his Graphs, Maps and Trees. I didn’t find a definition of mapping. According to the Concise Oxford: a map is 1) a diagrammatic representation of an area or land or sea showing physical features, cities, roads; or 2) a dialogue or collection of data showing spatial arrangement or distribution of something. One critic (Jerome Thrale on The Last Chronicle of Barset) argues that Trollope structures his books not by his stories and plots but by juxtaposing areas and groups of characters; it is a spatial order we have in Last Chronicle of Barset and I think that’s so for The American Senator, and I can think of other novels by Trollope which lend themselves to this kind of movement — he goes from place to place to introduce us to each set of characters. The third definition has to do with genes and biology so I skip it, just ending on the common place truth that we talk metaphorically about mapping all sorts of things.

In Atlas Moretti “mapped” the European novel several ways. He demonstrated to his satisfaction at any rate that England and France were dominating places for the development and dissemination of the realistic novel of the 19th century: it was in these societies they were written because the society lent itself to the typical themes of such novels, such as following an individual career in society, marrying for love which may be regarded as a career choice for women. Also these societies had over the 18th century developed small cottage industries of printing, selling, disseminating such books — the printing and distributed and making of money for writers and publishers grew by leaps and bounds because of advances in technology. Between the two language bases and land masses (French and English) there was also a constant flow back and forth of novels in the original and translation — as well as non-fiction books (travel books for a start).

As part of this Atlas Moretti wrote a chapter where he mapped the stories and characters of the books of several writers. One small section for Jane Austen began it — her map is small, self-contained; she chooses only a small part of even southern England and within that is further selective. Now what has happened is her presence through films and a cult has spread to the point that many readers like to assume the worlds she presents are coterminous with the world of the England in the 18th century. They go so far as to write books where they basically franchise — or do research — within Austen and create a 20th or 21st century Austenland.

Much larger were the worlds of city-dwellers and Moretti’s authors of choice are emphatically Balzac and Dickens. Prelude to these were writers like Bulwer-Lytton (the silver-fork novels of the 1820s, which Trollope read as a young man). What Moretti shows is that when characters in Balzac and Dickens novels move from one place to another they are moving within fields of power. As with Austen, though it’s less noticeable, they are selective; you think you are in a map of London or Paris, but you are not. You are in choice spots. The story of the novel – its narrative — is a story of movement from one place to another and back again.

In Signs taken for Wonders Moretti shows the plot-structure of Balzac’s novels follows his characters’ movement from one site to another where there is a gain or loss of power. Enthralling plots can come from such ordinary experiences. Streets are not where social experiences that matter take place; important experiences are in offices or houses; the characters are ignorant of the larger place they live in except as a route from one site to another. Finally characters can be ruined by other characters they’ve never met (might not have heard off), and they are treated as transformed by the place they live in.

In his chapter “Maps” Moretti compared imagined maps of Mary Mitford (Our Village) and Elizabeth Gaskell (Cranford), which he drew after reading these books, with the Parisian maps by Balzac and and rural Scottish maps by Galt (Annals of the Parish), and real rural maps (in John Barrell’s book on landscapes). As opposed to real maps and maps by Balzac, Mitford and Gaskell did not try to map routes out of their district to cities or towns outside these where things might be gotten that are not in the village; instead in Mitford’s village and Gaskell’s Cranford, most roads lead round and round the village or Cranford; we see one of two go outside but they are drawn only so far as the place. We do not want to go out to the city unless it has something we need for real and can’t get in their village or Cranford, and this is apparently rare.

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Photograph of Victoria Embankment, 1875 (a place and project used in political campaigns in the Palliser novels)

My thesis is Trollope was doing what Moretti says Balzac and Dickens (and Austen and Hardy too) did. The story of Phineas is just such a narrative as Lucien de Rubempre. Trollope is as selective as Balzac and Dickens only he selects up — as does Balzac. From what I’ve been reading Balzac is more all encompassing than either Dickens or Trollope say, but it may be those I’ve read (Graham Robb) write, like Moretti, out of strong admiration for Balzac and love of his books. Balzac encompasses much in Paris, really maps a lot of it. And yet some is imaginary; some are imaginary places. Trollope though has parallels with Austen — a prediction for the gentry in the country — and anticipates Hardy in that his characters do move out of their county life and into towns and cities and far away.

So first Castle Richmond and Trollope’s Ireland. Trollope lived for 18 years in Ireland and all over the place or at least several quite disparate places in Ireland: he first came to the midlands (Banagher) but he moved south and south west (mostly Kellys and OKellys occurs here, but also Dublin); he then moved to the North (Landleaguers); also he lived in Belfast; and he summer vacationed (so to speak) in the far west (where An Eye for an Eye takes place).

Not only did he live in disparate places, he literally mapped the place by setting up mail routes and riding over these again and again. He sat and made postal routes — maps. During the time he was writing the The Warden he was in south west England mapping postal routes and part of the impulse was his seeing Salisbury Cathedral now as a part-outsider who had to return to Ireland when this period of his “real” mapping of England ended and he and Rose moved to Dublin.

Roughly speaking his 5 novels which explicitly take place mostly in Ireland (An Eye for an Eye has scenes in England), Phineas Finn and Redux and the two Anglo-Irish stories take place all over Ireland. The question is, should I concentrate on this. What I have read (by Mary Hamer) is what I suspected may be true of his London maps (Pallisers territory): Trollope creates worlds for his novels which seem coterminus with real worlds we experience, but are filled in with imagined places to the point that you cannot quite map Trollope’s worlds with say southeast England, or London, or, for that matter, southwest Ireland of the other cities in the world he imagined so concretely. The problem here is I’m obsessive and once I started on mapping Ireland in Trollope’s books it would take me months to do it right. And that kind of detail is not wanted — even most of the time by most people. It’d be like my Austen calendars.

My guess is if the Anglo-Irish novels were filmed we’d have travelogues of Ireland. Thady flees to the mountains in Macdermots, the desolate countryside is an actor in that novel; the hero in An Eye for an Eye is murdered by a cliff; the lovers have their trysts out of doors by the seacoast of western Clare; a mass meeting in Dublin opens Kellys and OKellys; murder and clashes occur outside courthouses in Landleaguers. Castle Richmond is southwest but it’s more a matter of contrasting houses (so an Anglo-Irish Ascendency landscape), and London where Herbert Fitzgerald realizes how low his status now is by his experience of the city and where he lives.

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Nichols’ reconstruction of Barsetshire (found in Sadleir)

Trollope also invents or maps places onto places already there. He invented Barsetshire which he tells us is a combination of Dorsetshire, Somersetshire, and Sadleir (p. 164) adds Gloucestershire, Wiltshire. He invented it unclearly at first, but by Dr Thorne it begins to be a place called East Barsetshire and by Framley Parsonage he makes a map. The Small House of Allington he once excluded from the Barsetshire books apart from its lack of a clerical theme, it takes place in Guestwick, an invented county next to Barsetshire.

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Allingham: Trollope is careful to delineate the relationships between the small and large house and their grounds

What should be emphasized is insofar as Trollope is read and his maps believed, his books skew our understanding of place. There are people alive today reading these Barsetshire novels who will call them accurate — when for example, such abysmal poverty is omitted. At the time they had a striking actually partly because Trollope set them in contemporary UK (Scotland as well as England), refers to real events going on at the time. I suspect Angela Thirkell’s books reinforce this and erase the real poverty, real middle class lives today.

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Bragdon Estates (drawn by Geroulds), next to Dillsborough in An American Senator

Turning to The American Senator, it’s a newly developed countryside but I have not come across any criticism or scholarship which names a specific place as the one Trollope had in mind. What I have discovered here is a minute geography of power. As in the Palliser novels across the board of London within the small district of Dillsborough, its outlying area and Bragton estate, as well as the estate of Mistletoe which Arabella Trefoil visits, depending on where you are, and what you are doing you are constrained to do to feel this, you are situated, you have status or not. The very dinner tables are geographies of power. Small House of Allington opens up with same sort of intricate detail of space and place (see above) and it all may be interpreted as to status, but there is also an idyllic romancing going on, nostalgia for past where gentry embedded with its church, tenants, nearby village.

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Pallisers 8:17: What Lord Fawn saw (from Phineas Redux)

In my proposal I did tell of how when I went to an Trollope Society AGM in London in 1999, we went on 1 of 6 circuitous detailed maps drawn from the Pallisers books, but which had locations for characters across Trollope’s whole oeuvre as well as from Trollope’s own life as far as we know it. We walked round Trollope. The route chosen was the one that the Rev Emilius followed in order to murder Fawn and the one Phineas followed to get home that night. What I’ve got to do here is access the accuracy of the routes obsessively gone over and over of say Bonteen’s murder and see how accurate or inaccurate they are, and I’ve been asked to review a book that may do just that: Emelyne Godfrey’s Masculinity, Crime and Self-Defence in Victorian Literature has a chapter on the street life of the Phineas books.

My hunch is while in the main Trollope is accurate, as in his Irish maps, he also departs imaginatively so as to make points about status, the characters, thematic sites. It’s telling that these scenes and streets have been filmed — in the Palliser parts covering the murder and trial. The Phineas Redux material in Pallisers contrasts a pastoral interlude of Gerard Maule and Adelaide Palliser riding in a city park (a kind of generalized convention and not taken from the book which contrasts London with the warmth and congeniality of Harringon Hall and its hunting in Trumpeton wood).

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A bucolic park where Fawn and Adelaide walk, and Maule and she ride together (Pallisers 8:17)

There was some shooting on location for the time in the 1974-75 series, but it was a time when little of this sort of thing was done (the Poldark series was a singular exception and the use of Cornwall and shooting on location was no small part of its success); if you do look at Davies’ recent films of TWWLN especially you see an attempt to get the streets in, but they are not differentiated, situated with respect to one another, nor imitative of what’s in the novel.

(There are also illustrations by Millais showing Phineas leaving the Bunces and taking up residence in a gentleman’s part of London overlooking a park; that is filmed in the earlier parts of the Pallisers from Phineas Finn.)

So that’s where I am.

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Posy Simmons’s Cranford, from end papers of Cranford Chronicles (modelled on Thomas Moule’s 19th century The County Maps of England, see Southern England)

I’ll conclude so many books sell popularly when publishers include maps I’m ever startled by how parsimonious they often are about these. The books of the filmed Cranford Chronicles had as papers Posy Simmonds exquisitely picturesque maps and if I could remember I know I’ve read about how Gaskell slowly invented that countryside and where it relates to.

Writing this blog has helped me be less afraid I’m not getting anywhere. I don’t want to bite off more than I can chew and so think a separate paper to be published just on the Irish novels is something I could do in future but would take too long here and not be appropriate. But I could as an exhibit myself try generally to draw one just to show — to have something to show as I won’t be doing a power point presentation. Jim is not up to it and I can’t do such things myself.

Ellen

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Death of Henri de la Rochejaquelein, painting by Alexandre Bloch

Dear friends and readers,

We’ve been to NYC with the excuse of hearing an (in the event) wonderfully suggestive lecture by Nicholas Birns on Trollope’s La Vendee. Prof Birns spoke at the Groliers’ Club, an older building with full library along 44th Street.

On the novel itself, we read this twice on Trollope19thCStudies and I’ve put the postings onto my website so the reader can find many good essay-postings on the novel there. What I have to offer here are notes I took from Professor Birns’s talk: heads of topics, sketches of themes, historical writing, and an insight into the visualization of place in La Vendee which connects it to Trollope’s novella, Cousin Henry where Professor Birns ended his talk.

One problem with the talk wwhich Prof Birns confessed upfront was Prof Birns had not read the French aristocratic woman’s memoir on which book is based: Memoirs of the Marquise de la Rochejaquelin (translated by Scott). It’s very difficult to access. Trollope did much research and other sources are Lamartine’s recent history, The Girondists and a long history of the French revolution by one Archibald Alison whom Disraeli mocked as Mr Wordy. Trollope did general research too — as he did for his travel books, one of which (abortive) was an Irish one around this time.

First Prof Birns offered a preliminary set of thoughts as a preface. This is Trollope’s third novel, and comes out of intimate relationship with Ireland and his experiences of countryside and marginalized world there. Trollope knew French culture and history. Prof Birns suggested that Trollope was looking for successful topic, and his two Irish novels didn’t sell. Representing a place became for him a way to represent hus metaphoric thinking … There is rich forest and landscape in novel. (Trollope is not known for his descriptive abilities but they are important as is his use of place, houses as symbols, landscapes too.)

Professor Birns reminded us that 1848 was a year of revolution in Europe. (There was much interest in revolution in this era of open class struggle and the first building of unions.) Carlyle has a real success with his French revolution book which is hard to read; Dickens writes or will write Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities. Trollope, though, chooses counter-revolution emerges. Why? He asks and tries to asnwer, Why did peasants not support revolution? They are guerillas. Prof Birns instanced the Spanish peninsular war as analogous complicated event. Prof Birns brought up Balzac’s Les Chouans, a violent book (it seems), but it was of course Scott who Trollope is centrally imitating in La Vendee. Prof Birns also recommended Flanigan’s 20th century historical fiction, Year of the French as a companion insightful book, showing French and Irish parallels? (I have it and could not get into it. Must try again.)

As to the kind of historical fiction, La Vendee represents: Trollope uses real historical characters. It is probably also true that place is central to historical writing. It was Prof Birns’s insight that Trollope resorted to historical fiction to write a book and used the characteristics of historical fiction to try to get into what was to him another time and place and also present an inner meaning or vision about the way human politics works:

What happened was the provinces resisted a central power. Rich lords against any revolution; military leaders had allegiance to ancien regime. This was also a conflict between modern secular groups and Catholic conservatives. Trollope take sides, clearly with rebels. The question would be, why.

The central appealing character killed off in Trollope’s novel, which comes alive around that point. There is an emotionally held-in unhappiness here (said Prof Birns). Trollope also against romanticism and revolution; Prof Birns then connected book to Cousin Henry, a self-flagellating book, where place is crucial. Wales the setting of this novella and Henry ostracized and terrorized by others in the village; Henry cannot understand brutal unsubtle culture.

Prof Birns said Trollope resorts to ekphrasis because he has trouble getting into these cultures. Ekphrasis is a word that has become fashionable nowadays; it appears frequently in academic discourses (and also talk about poetry). Myself I don’t recall Cousin Henry as visual but rather an intense psychological study of a man who is outcast and susceptible to cruel bullying, but I do recall La Vendee is striking in its visual portraiture, especially one scene where the wife of an openly loving married couple (unusual for Trollope) look out a window and the wife describes the battle seen to her husband much in the manner that Rebecca describes a battle to the wounded Ivanhoe.

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Olivia Hussey as Rebecca from the famous scene, and a felicitious still of Anthony Andrews as Ivanhoe (from the 1982 mini-series)

(Trollope’s novel has never been filmed.)

At this point my notes give out. I was really cheered by the friendly greeting of the man who runs the society, Randy Williams; by meeting Stephen Amarnick and hearing how his edition of the complete Duke’s Children is coming along. Two people told me they are on Trollope19thCStudies and read my postings sometimes. One woman said she could not stand I gave away something about Downton Abbey (! see my P.S). I hope now that I’ve retired to be able to find time to come to NYC to attend the society’s meetings, e.g., go to this year’s dinner and come far more regularly to the lectures.

For the rest of our trip, a diary journal (we saw 3 operas, 1 play, a movie, went to Central Park, the Met Museum, the Strand, and walked a hellavu lot: From NYC: a diary of shopping, theatre-going, walking …

Ellen

Postscript: Still on the train earlier in the day, coming into the station. We are waiting in the space between seats in a crowd of people pushing holding luggage, I see a young man with largish black laptop at the same time watching his screen. I peek. There’s Miss Obrien in her usual corner spot at the table next to her Shirley Maclaine’s maid, POV Anna, across the way Mrs Hughes … .. Later I go to lunch and open New Yorker, first joke I come to: lady visiting prison on phone reporting to husband “the bad news is Lady Sybil died but Bates is home … “

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Jim now tells me the man had all 3 seasons of Downton DVDs on his table set up in his seat area …

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Tony Harrison’s is the voice-over; from the TV program aired Nov 4, 1987

Dear friends and readers,

It’s been four days since I reported on three of the 18th century MLA sessions I attended at the MLA held in Boston early this January, and more than a month since I described the trip, where we stayed and what we did outside the MLA.

I’ve got five sessions on poetry on TV and in community centers, on the radio; on paintings in film and doctored photos in graphic novels and newspapers. Two of the great pleasures of my existence — listening to a complete great book read brilliantly while driving my car, and watching the episodes of a long-running great mini-series nowadays mostly on my computer’s DVD player — were the topics of two more. The last I’ve put in my comments section, Agnes Vardes, French film families and how to make a cross-over French hit in contemporary cinema.

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Perhaps the best session in the whole of the MLA I went to was Public Poetry in Britain (No. 289, Jan 4th, Friday noon-1:15 pm) where I heard intelligent discussions and poetry read aloud beautifully either by the speaker or the poet on TV or tape: Emily Bloom on Louis MacNeice’s autobiographical poem, Autumn Sequel, and his career on the BBC radio; David R. Sherman on Tony Harrison and Linton Kwesi Johnson’s political communal poetry; Kelly C. MacPhail on Edwin Muir. Theme: how poets attempt public poetry, to be public poets.

Emily Bloom began with MacNeice’s 22 years as an Anglo-Irish personality on the BBC and then went on to Autumn Sequel, a terza rima poem, where MacNeice claimed that the BBC failed to create a public poetry world which reached out to the wide general audience of Britain. Radio even played a roll in the spread of fascism. He was angry at the BBC as cowardly, filled with hackwork. He did not leave because there was little alternative to the BBC if you wanted to be a responsible public poet. She chose stanza from the poem relevant to 2013; MacNeice needed to cross back into the private sphere to speak.

David Sherman contrasted the white traditions of art-folk poetry of Harrison to the Jamaican rhythmic music hall Reggae chanting renditions of African folk song of Johnson. Mr Sherman suggested that poems become public when the community can rally around the poet himself as object/subject of public memory. V is a 448 line poem where V stands for Victory, Victim, Versus. It’s a deeply anti-war poem, compassionate for working people from which Harrison comes. He stands in a snowy graveyard, remembers Leeds where he comes from and begins to read; we get images of police beating up strikers; of Mrs Thatcher with her fingers making a V sign for victory;we hear Scargill’s voice about how in his house there was one book, a Bible. The program was discussed in many newspapers; MPs publicly protested. We see him quietly reading to a group of what looks like well-educated people in a community center.

This makes a striking contrast to the dialect poetry sung by Linton Kwesi Johnson on a tape of a time in a night club. Johnson’s poems were performed around the time of a riot insurrection in Brixton where many black people were badly hurt, jailed. The lines are angry and accompanied by loud percussive instruments (very strong drums). The theme is how Black Britain has to re-invent itself and challenge the rest of the nation to accept them.

Kelly MacPhail’s talk on Edwin Muir was wide-ranging, about Muir’s life, his career, his personal friendships and conflicts especially with Hugh MacDiarmid. Muir involved himself in the political changes in Scotland as the Scottish slowly dealt with having been forcibly unified with England from 1707; Muir took changing positions but remained steadfast in his written Scots-English. He wanted to create a national (Scottish) poetry and this required (it was felt) a true language apart from that of the English. One language that had emerged was a dialect formed in the lowlands as a new standard form of Scots. This seemed to me the language that Burns used. This dialect is, however, much contested. His friend and rival, MacDiamid, who was born in Glasgow, where his parents and siblings died when he was young, went to Paris and studied French, seems to have supported this form of Scottish while late in life Muir (who had married a middle class woman who influenced him) argued poets had a choice of two languages: the genuine ancient Scots tongue, Gaelic, or modern English. Mr MacPhail read aloud from Muir’s Scottish Journey, written while Muir was depressed (1936), about the predicament of a Scottish sensibility who may have to adopt modern British English in order to be readable.

Can anyone speak for an entity called Great Britain?

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Scarlett Johansson and Tom Wilkinson in Girl with Pearl Earring

Origin of Tracey Chevalier’s book from which film adapted:

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1665 painting by Vermeer

A crowded session I expect many of my readers might have enjoyed as much as I and Jim did occurred the day before, mid-afternoon (Jan 3rd, Thursday, 3:30-4:45 pm, No 90), I attended a rich session on Paintings and Photographs Remediated in Film, Graphic Narrative and Newspaper. David Richter gave another fine power-point presentation of a series of films, this time those using paintings. He began Rohmer’s Perceval where medieval painting shaped the visuals of the film; Rohmer wanted to thwart the viewer’s usual desires. He began with the idea that space in a painting is a static interior, while in a film it move and the screen is implicitly without boundaries. Paintings can be used as set decorations; as protagonists; as providing thematic context (for example in a movie where the characters are discussing war, Pascal’s Guernica is seen against the wall behind them); as paradigms for themes; they enable us to enter the century the film’s story occurs in; they justify symbolic presentations; they foreshadow; they set up parallels; they explain further. In each case he had specific movies which he played clips from and showed us the movie turning into a painting.

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A young Colin Firth was the painter (as he later was Vermeer): here he contemplates his work and interprets the original painter’s intent and presence

Prof Richter had left out paintings painted for a film as rare. He did not seem to know of A Month in the County, a film adaptation by Simon Grey and Patrick O’Connor from J.L. Carr’s Booker prize gem novel; there a painting of a Last Judgement was made for the movie and the uncovering of it is central to the film.

Genie Giamo discussed the autobiographical graphic novels of Alison Bechtel, especially her Fun Home, where as in her other novels she lays bare the anguish, tragic events (her father may have killed himself) and fractured memories of her real family. Giamo told us Bechtel doctored the photos she had in order to present a story line about her family that concrete evidence does not support (though it may be true). Giamo defined remediation as a process whereby a pollutant is cleaned from an area; it makes environmental space less hazardous. By publishing her memoirs Bechtel rehabilitates the dark recesses of her mind and life; it’s an act of living in itself. This kind of memoir is done by other women; Bechtel’s also show a sense of humor like when her heroine-self says “I forget to get a job for the last 50 years.” Her family becomes a realistic Adams family. (She seemed to suggest that it didn’t matter whether the photos were “real” or undoctored or not. I disagree. The talk afterwards revealed what one might expect: Bechtel’s family were angry about the books.)

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A typical mix of photos and drawings with revealing utterances by Bechtel’s father

A third presentation by Lisa Zunshine was about how people communicate by misinformation and miscommunication, and how art seeks to flatter us into thinking we see inside characters and read photographs and visuals accurately. We are invited to be superior voyeurs. She showed the photograph that was printed in US newspapers of Obama, Hillary Clinton and other people high in Obama’s administration watching the murder of Osama bin Laden, and wanted us to see the interpretations given the people in the photo were imposed by stereotypical preconceptions. The people at the session found her lively sceptical presentation effective.

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Six volume Oxford edition of Barchestershire novels

Jim and I were glad we stayed late that Thursday night to attend a session on a type of TV drama I’m addicted to: Serial TV across Boundaries (No. 169, 7:00-8:15 pm). From Kathryn Van Arendonk I had the rare treat of a paper on Trollope and the mini-series, Northern Exposure. As I’ve been pointing to in my blogs on Downton Abbey, Trollope’s serial art is analogous in forms and motifs to serial drama on TV. Northern Exposure gives us a case where a mini-series changed its stories to de-emphasize the male protagonist to give us a portrait of an on-going community, causing the male lead to sue. A love triangle, a place where people gather (bar) become shaping forces. Trollope’s Barchester series shows the same re-forming to create a narrative system, whose preludes or codas can occur in a previous or later novel. The material is capable of perpetual proliferation.

Sean O’Sullivan’s talk on Dennis Potter’s Singing Detective has led me to rent this series from Netflix. Michael Gambon plays an obscure fiction writer in hospital with a painful and ugly skin disease. The BBC allowed Potter creative latitude so that the series was built by putting together fragments of memory; individual episodes were independent of others (they could stand alone) within 3 interwoven stories. We see time unfold with the different floors of the hospital representing different phases of the protagonist’s life; all is integrated with music. The films investigated the personal and communal experience.

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A advertising poster for the movie-house version of the film, Mulholland Drive

Jason Mittel’s talk was on Mulholland Drive, which he argued is today a much acclaimed but misunderstood movie because it originated as a mini-series. The pilot episode was re-designed to be a self-contained film to allow the producers to release it to commercial theaters. He showed how the interpretations of the movie as now constituted bring out how a serial film has an uncanny dream-like underlying structure.

The talk afterward was stimulating. Ms Van Arendook said one could learn much by showing how a tightly-knit classic novel (say Austen’s Emma) was changed when it was turned into serial art. It was here I heard what I’ve come to see is true of Dickens: he breaks up his narrative so as to erase their original instalment publication pattern. People deplored the tendency at HBO in the last decade or so to go for the 6 hour mini-series in lieu of the 13-hour one.

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To me the most personally gratifying was a session very early Saturday morning (Jan 5th, No. 432, 8:30-9:45 am) called Aural Communications and Close Listening. For years I’ve listened to people apologizing for listening to audio books, explaining (half-apologetically, self-deprecatingly) that listening is almost or as good as silent reading; or, assertions that such experiences must be inferior: you can’t control the speed of the utterance, have no text in front of you & so on. (Well you can control it, you can rewind or click ahead and back, and who says you can’t have a text in front of you or consult it before or later? Many audiobooks come with a downloadable e-text nowadays.

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Philip Madoc’s reading and Andrew Davies’ mini-series showed me the reactionary reading of this book is all wrong

Matthew Rubery did more than answer these objections & explain their origins; he defended listening to books as different and sometimes better than silent reading. It is a new embarrassment, because until the later 19th century one form of entertainment in reading households was for the group of people to sit round a fire and listen to someone read aloud a book that was written to be read aloud — as most good novels are. Why do people question the “legitimacy” of aural communication: besides the two I’ve already cited: it’s felt they threaten close or deep reading; the reader is passive and allowing someone else “to do the work” of interpretation; they are abridged. The one objection that he let stand was they are often abridged and abridged poorly, leaving just the bare-bones of a plot. But one need not buy or rent an abridged book.

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Two of my favorite readers made this book a deep love of mine

The defense: the narrator is an imagined voice in the book and the reader-narrator is bringing this to life; acoustic performances can deepen and enrich your experience of the book. You are led to see nuances and feelings you might not on your own. Logically, the more times you listen to different readers, the more you see in your book. I’ve listened to whole Trollope novels read aloud by different narrators and can vouch for that. Audio books offer sensuous resonating language when the reader’s voice is trained. (I just love David Case’s voice.) They help you understand the book, and can bring out its ideology. Im a sense audiobooks function the way film adaptations or stage dramatizations do only the text is not change. If their interpretation differs from yours, no one stops you from reading the book on your own. It can be difficult to discern paratexts but a good reader will include (by dropping his or her voice) a footnote, the introduction, notes.

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Audio books also enable the phenomenon of the secondary activity while reading. For me listening to books turns what would be excruciatingly frustrated time in traffic jams into privileged time. Some people exercise, others clean their houses; they jog and walk their dogs. There is the wonderful element of imagined company. The drawbacks that Rubery registered were 1) the tendency of these companies to chose voices whose intonation are upper class, thus reinforcing false associations of value with one set of aural sounds rather than another; and 2) that it is difficult to find out what’s out there once an audio company goes out of business or is bought out by a larger company. The profit motive and fear of free downloaders makes the companies unwilling to pool their information into any standard source.

The second speaker, Cornelius Collins, talked about how in our culture the visual dominates the aural so that the aural is not sufficiently discussed and less money is spent on top-of-the-line sound mix and/or readers. Music today is massively compromised to fit i-tune requirements. Audio books are not compiled in a central place and the amateur readers remain under-rated, ignored. Much that is recorded is quickly in danger of being lost within a couple of years. Collins asked, What does it mean to listen closely? citing Peter Zendy’s Listen: A History of our Ears (about how to critically listen), said the way to do this is break the experience into segments (the way one does a movie). We need to discuss it and find a vocabulary for the quality of sound and someone’s tones.

More briefly: Justin St Clair discussed the new phenomenon of novels published as sound tracks, or with sounds of music accompanying them (hybridized reading); Linda Hutcheon’s Adaptation has a section on this new book. One problem here is the sound track is used as an ad for the book, and do not provide a meaningful atmosphere. Lisa Hollenback’s talk was on poetry and music on MP3s. These invite nostalgia is the recording is from time past. Vast websites on line provide experiences of sharing, swapping recordings. Music and story listening become social activities experienced in partly-imagined communities. It is much easier to collect and list music that’s recorded than books because of the free on-line collections.

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Izzy and I saw the Agnes Vardes’s film, The Beaches of Agnes (it is every bit that good) that was part of the discussion of Contemporary French film (Jan 5th, Saturday, 10:15-11:30, No. 479). I almost missed the session because the title of the paper no where indicated she was its central subject.

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Agnes Vardes speaking at a retrospective series at the Harvard Film Archive

See comments.

Ellen

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