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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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Researching today is looking into the computer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ellen

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Vivien Leigh as Anna (1948 film, scripted Jean Anouilh)

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Ralph Richardson’s Karenin, reasoning with Leigh as Anna

Oblonsky to Levin: It’s Kitty I’m sorry for — not you! — Stoppard’s Anna

Anna to Vronsky: I would never see my son again. The laws are made by husbands and fathers … Unhappiness? I’m like a starving beggar who has been given food — Stoppard’s Anna

Dear friends and readers,

After seeing Wright and Stoppard’s recent film of Anna Karenina, featuring Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfayden, Jude Law, I determined to read the book. I had tried when I was in my teens but been defeated because I found the Levin matter intolerable; this time I thought I’d manage by listening to it read aloud while driving my car. It took time so I lingered over it (sometimes at night reading this or that passage on my own) as Davina Porter’s reading was brilliant.

I found I much prefer the meaning of the story & characterizations in Wright and Stoppard’s from Tolstoy’s; that Tolstoy’s story is meant to be and is harshly punitive on Anna even if he feels for her loneliness married to a repressed easily resentful man much older than she. He presents her adulterous love as an evil impulse in her which moves from impelling her boldly to leave her husband and live an amoral life, and then twists her to destroy her relationship with her lover because she cannot accept her despised position. She cannot find something within herself to give her life meaning because she has moved away from religion. Greater sympathy is allotted Karenin. Tolstoy’s unique greatness seems to me that he conveys a sense of every day life slowly passing for all. He dramatizes people’s working lives, how they pass time in the evening; he reveals the tedium of existence. He is said to be respected for his rounded apparently believable characters, but when I listened to it with my husband in the car with me, they emerged as types, stereotypes from other novels in part. He does not offend against conventional standards of good taste — as forged by male oriented readers.

Tolstoy is not interested in Anna’s lack of happiness or fulfillment as a woman; the system needs to change, and that’s the point of the Levin part of the novel. Levin is said to marry wholly for love (which is basically an animal passion as we see once they marry they do not understand one another’s minds at all); he is not performative. Tolstoy writes against personal ambition, performativeness. Levin is also contrasted to the drone Oblonsky (Anna’s brother) who is unfaithful to his wife, Dolly, does no useful work, conceives of positions in gov’t and elsewhere as sheer plums of money for him to collect to support his habits. Not only does Levin work the fields and keep his house, Levin would change the political complexion of the nation to be more equal, to provide more education and opportunities for the lower orders.

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Domnhall Gleeson as Levin (Stoppard and Wright’s version — it’s hard to find images of earlier Levins as non-entities often played the part and were forgotten by the public)

Here he is stopped because what is valued in political gatherings is the ability to network, to flatter others, to be congenial in an amoral kind of way, to look handsome. All these Vronsky does, and if Vronsky had not been destroyed by his relationship with Anna, the way he fits into his regiment and is liked and the way he immediately is a social success the one time he goes to a political gathering, shows he would have risen to power.

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Sean Bean as a decent intelligent well-meaning Vronsky in 1997 (BBC)

He has a conscience and some decent ideals (unlike Oblonsky); when in the novel with Anna and she is still behaving, he opens and supervises a hospital, schools, but he would not begin to go further than reforming his own area and property and people within it without giving up one iota of power.

In short, Tolstoy writes a 19th century novel which (like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary) has been over-rated because he does at least deal with adultery directly. The way to value it is the way we value Gaskell’s Ruth where the heroine is similarly punished – this time for having a child out of wedlock where at least an attempt is made to present a woman’s sexual life. We can also liken Anna Karenina to Trollope’s novels (Tolstoy admired Trollope enormously, said Trollope’s books “killed him”): they are debates about the political and economic and to some extent social arrangements of the era where a kind of moderate reform is proposed, and how political life is really carried on exposed.

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Structure — I assume the reader knows the story, if not you may find it in the wikipedia article.

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Gretta Garbo as Anna (1935 film, director Clarence Brown)

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Frederick March as Vronsky to Garbo’s Anna

The novel made be said to be made up of two novellas which could’ve been very short but are here blown up into a large book by modern psychological and realistic techniques. At the opening of Is He Popenjoy? Trollope says he wishes he could write his story in the brief strong way of railway novels, but must make it middle class through subtilizing it, then it becomes acceptable to Mudie’s lending library.

If I were to see the novel as an outgrowth of the 18th century novel (it’s set in the early part of the 18th century), I’d say Anna-Vronksy comes from Lafayette’s Princess de Cleves (same central types in the couple) by way of 18th century depth psychology: the president de Tourvel in Les Liasions Dangereuses, and this is a deep vein of fiction important in functioning for liberty. In Anna Karenina, paradoxically the story that functions for liberty is Dolly’s — how badly Oblonsky treats her shows how a woman needs more liberty and independence.

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Matthew MacFayden as the conscienceless, self-satisfied bureaucrat, Oblonsky (given star billing in Wright and Stoppard’s play, considerably softened, he grieves for Anna at the movie’s close)

The Levin material is by comparison Sir Charles Grandison matter. I’m sure Kitty breast-fed, no need for Tolstoy to tell us.

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A wholesome Alicia Vikander as Kitty (Wright and Stoppard’s version)

It’s exemplary, optimistic, leisurely, leaving time for disquisitions on art (though there are some of these in the Vronksy-Anna story when Vronsky takes up painting for a while), politics, farming, social life. In mood it’s closer to section in Rousseau’s Julie, ou La Nouvelle Heloise when the heroine goes to live in Switzerland with her husband. I do like the debates over politics whose nuances remind me of arguments between Plantagenet and Phineas: Levin wants moderation; he does not wan to exploit so ruthless and yet wants his property and place. The others take the modern position of Republicans like Romney which are recreations of this older indifference to anything but the one narrow classes utter comforts. Where the story becomes fascinating again is realism (not in Grandison as character). Levin’s jealousy of Kitty before worldly men, the hunt and his resentment. No kindness in Tolstoy towards the poor animals slaughtered so effectively by Oblonsky who has the admiration of all, very chic in rags and the best guns. I imagine like Trollope over hunting foxes, Tolstoy hunted grouse, and farmed the way Levin does.

D’Epinday’s Montbrillant (mid-18th century long memoir as novel) has the same two types of fiction squashed together only the Grandison part is about salons, and Vronsky-Anna stories of adultery and sexuality are really seen from the woman’s point of view forced to acquiesce in her husband’s adulteries, and attempts to sell her to pay his debts.

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From my reading experience as I went through the book and remembered the movie I had just seen and what I’ve read about the other movies and Tolstoy and other 19th century novelists:

At first: Tolstoy’s book feels so rich. It seems to contain in it other novels: well when Anna first meets Vronsky, he is just about engaged to Kitty, Anna’s brother’s sister-in-law. It’s deep attraction at first sight for Anna and Vronsky — which we are warned is bad news for Anna by Anna’s brother’s father-in-law’s attitude towards Vronsky.

It reminds me very much of Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga. Anna is regarded as this icon of mysterious beauty in just the way Irene Heron is. The possessive successful male sweeps her up, but he cannot understand or satisfy her. The dark continent.

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Eric Porter played both Soames in 1967 and Karenin in 1977 for the BBC

Unlike Irene, Anna resists this attraction at first, but then she’s nowhere as unhappy as Irene with her husband. She has had a child, she is satisfied with her friendship with Dolly, her sister-in-law. In Tolstoy’s novel by this point we see that Levin is actually the central hero or presence of the novel, however ironized, for by beginning with Anna’s brother Oblonsky, Levin his friend is brought on novel’s stage and (unlike the 2012 play and movie) becomes central for chapters and chapters.

Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright’s movie is literally true to the book as it opens (they deviate later) — but then cut off at all the Levin material.

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Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Wright and Stoppard’s debauched, half-crazed Vronsky

I’m into part 2 of 5 and remarkably very early on Tolstoy makes it clear that Vronsky lives the life of a shallow drone, someone Anna should have walked away from. In the play he is neurotic, over-emotional in the extreme whatever he does; in the novel is he an average aristocrat, perhaps a little better than many, capable of shame and good feeling. Others see this — Dolly’s father, for example. We see the low-life demi-monde Vronsky favors. The text feels for Anna very much, but Tolstoy sees love and coupling as sheerly drivingly sexual and has no inward understanding for real.

Myself I find Tolstoy’s a male view — it’s found in Trollope. Tolstoy does sufficient justice to Anna’s tight bond to her son and how much she is as yet comfortable with, respects Karenin at first, but she has tired of the way he is cold, stays away from her, is controlling from the outside. The words Anna used to express her love for Vronsky to Vronsky upon trying to explain why she is not degraded by their affair (all the while made to feel terribly shamed) could be a translation of the words Laura Kennedy uses in Trollope’s Phineas Redux when they walk in Konisberg at the castle over the parapets. The words in Trollope to describe her passion are close to those in Garnett’s translation. It’s uncanny.

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Comparison of an incident: Bronte’s Villette and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

I can’t resist making a note of this. I had earlier been listening to Bronte’s Villette where there is a striking parallel and contrast to Tolstoy’s book.

In Bronte’s a powerful sequence shows Lucy all alone coming to Brussels and with her tiny amount of money seeking a hotel to stay. She is given an address by a kind stranger. Lucy Snow sets out. It’s nighttime. She finds herself followed by two young men who are laughing at her, to her they seem semi-thugs, they call out. In euphemisms it’s suggested they are after her sexually. Terrified she gets confused where she is and goes the wrong way altogether. This results in her landing into the school which takes her in. It determines the course of her life. It’s a harrowing sequence. Izzy was in the car with me and both of us gripped. Told of course from the woman’s point of view.

In Tolstoy’s AK, Vronsky tells this “amusing” story to the demi-monde woman he finds in his flat which he is sharing with a drone low-life officer, she this man’s mistress. It seems that two young men in his regiment saw a young woman coming home and they thought her living alone. What fun. For a lark they follow her upstairs. The next day an irate husband challenges them. Vronsky (good man they all think) has been negotiating to avoid a duel. The woman was his pregnant wife returning home early from the theater. Vronsky is much amused at how often the husband so easily become irate: his honor is involved. To do Tolstoy justice he gives us a glimpse of this young woman coming home and in distress.

But the accent is not there quite. The sequence is not harrowing. The incident reveals Vronsky whose concern is with his regiment. Yet it is told. It is part of Vronsky’s view of women: he tells it to the demi-monde as a joke. I have not got up to her response.

Only in the novel I’m typing slowly, Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde (English Jacobin & sentimental novel), do we have an harassment incident where the point is at least made that an attitude of mind by men towards women causes this at least by implication. Emily is staying with a cousin who does not care to protect her from the men in the house; they know she’s a poor, a nobody, no father and they chase after her through the landscape. The result is not a plot-hinge but it is significant in Ethelinde’s determination to quit this house. We are made to feel this sort of thing is what Ethelinde would have to contend with in this house when she arrives.

As a woman who has had such experiences I know they can drive a girl who has partly succumbed to the pestering and aggression (which is presented as just fine) to avoid going out. The Steubenville rape is a crude ugly bullying version of what I’m pointing to here. How far it can go.

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Tolstoy as a young man, 1848 — he could be Levin

Tolstoy skips over the long year of deepening involvement — unlike another neglected novel which explores adultery seriously as an alternative to a miserable marriage where one can find companonship (Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde).
What Tolstoy is interested in, “does justice” to Anna’s horrific guilt once she and Vronsky have sex. There’s more of this self-horror than anything else. This is utterly different from Stoppard and Wright’s movie too -there we have the woman who wants to escape imprisonment and exploitation. I prefer the movie though I grant the depth of writing and intensity in Tolstoy is powerful

Levin is a sort of surrogate for Tolstoy, and again in the movie this is not so. He is more than half-caricatured by Wright and Stoppard. Oblonsky is sensible in comparison. It’s interesting to see this 21st century amoral modern take as opposed to Tolstoy’s Victorianism which makes Oblonsky into a semi-Skimpole type.

I find myself remembering what I read about Tolstoy about the time Jay Parini’s book, The Last Station, focusing on Tolstoy’s wife was made into an interesting film. The film made Sophia self-centered, materialistic, seeking sex for herself and not for procreation, but it was my understanding Parini’s book in fact was a real critique of Tolstoy as self-deluded, a powerful aristocrat who took advantage of his status all the time, with real sympathy for Sophie — which Helen Mirren picked up on.

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Mirren counters the distrustful anti-sexuality thrust of Tolstoy’s conception of his wife and women

Tolstoy’s last text was one where he presented sexuality as such as loathsome even when inside marriage, Kreutzer’s Sonata.

Frances Trollope’s novel of an unwed mother, Jessie Phillips: A Tale of the Present Day is another 19th century novel which shows far more understanding of women’s vulernability and inner life. But she too (like Gaskell) makes her heroine suffer without showing what was the pleasure. Yet I had to drive 90 minutes in my car once again yesterday and found myself listening to a very long loving description of every detail Levin and Kitty’s wedding ceremony. The equivalent of a bridal magazine today. It so irritated me. Why so much time on this? Tolstoy is clever and he makes ironic jokes about how a couple of years from now for just about everyone this long ceremony seems idiotic, false, but that’s not what the lengthy text does. It insists that each detail the wedding counts; that’s why Levin is late in dressing, why Kitty spends months and months in planning with her mother. Bridezilla.

It could be a woman’s magazine today. It explains why fools complained that in Downton Abbey Fellowes had the brains to present Lady Mary and Matthew’s wedding only in terms of the fuss and trouble leading up to it.

Just before the ceremony Levin is not the ideal exemplary man having won the love of the sweet chaste Kitty, almost alienates her by letting her see his diaries with his disgusting affairs. This great novel of adultery is deeply against sex. When in Downton Abbey Dan Stevens had to play some of this kind of nonsense, he looked excruciated.

Not Wright at all and not Stoppard; they skip the wedding.

Meanwhile in the book Vronsky rushes to Anna in bed who has given birth to their little girl, confessed to Karenin and been forgiven. But Anna cannot stand her husband’s presence or embraces; she is beyond reason or humanity towards Karenin who (in the novel) turns emotionally noble and is willing to be shamed and take her back. Vronsky throws himself onto Anna, she cannot resist and three sentences later they disappear from the narrative only to turn up chapters later several months later so we can see them despised. We only saw their affair a year later.

I hadn’t realize how much Wright departed from Tolstoy until I’d gotten well past the mid-point of the book. In Wright and Stoppard’s version Anna leaves Karenin half-way through the narrative, and takes up life with Vronsky; has her baby daughter by Vronsky while living with him. In Tolstoy’s book she has not left Karenin as yet; Karenin has begun proceedings for a divorce and custody of his (now apparently detested) son. But Anna nearly dies in puperal fever, she hysterically calls for her husband, declares him great, noble-souled, and herself so much crap; she and Karenin manage to humiliate Vronsky and in the throes of this scene Karenin forgives Anna. Vronsky goes home, shamed, and realizing suicide can be brought on by humiliation and the world’s scorn tries to shoot himself through the chest and nearly dies. Both though do not die — Tolstoy implies perhaps Anna would have been better off if she had and so too Vronsky. She lives to regret, and in Tolstoy Vronksy lives on to want to get her back, only much later to be destroyed by her suicide.

It’s theatrically effective in the book and films which use it, and the discourse about forgiveness and how Karenin wants to keep to that, how it brings out the good soul in him is probably (I do believe) the conscious message. But I find the scenes at the bedside absurd and improbable — but perhaps a 19th century reader would not have.

Much of Tolstoy’s text is taken up with how badly Kareinin feels. He naturally becomes the prey of religious fanatics like the old countess, Lydia. It’s the only way he can hold up his head; she is responsible for Karenin’s keeping Anna’s son from her too. So the man is absolved and sympathized with again and again.

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Not so in Wright and Stoppard’s film where the narrow, sexless and vindictive seething of the man is emphasized — here Jude Law has a tight mind and body

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Horse race as done in the theater of Wright and Stoppard’s conception

This is not to say there are not many remarkable and interesting passages in Tolstoy’s book — sort of interwoven in as part of the story but reflecting both Tolstoy’s high sense of himself and his fiction and its purpose.

From the penultimate sections of the book, before the final crash of Anna and departure of Vronsky to a useless war where he and his regiment of desperate men will be killed for nothing — and the qualified contentment ending of Levin’s choice to marry Kitty and live the life of an aristocratic landlord-farmer.

The depiction of Vronsky’s attempt at a career as an artist and patron of the arts in Italy in the earliest phase of his time with Anna, when she is still in control of herself and enjoying life well away from Russian society. This sequence allows Tolstoy to present thoughts on art and the 19th century scene.

The death of Levin’s brother is another sequence — we see the poverty of most hotels in this rigid ancien regime world. We see how badly the supposedly idealistic leftist brother treats the prostitute he has taken in as his wife. On this level, Tolstoy feels for a woman; she ought to have stayed with a peasant husband somewhere. I’m sure Levin would have found her one had she come to him first.

I’m also “enjoyed” the realism of the relationship of Vronsky and Anna as it slowly hurts so badly from being outside the rest of the world, the ostracizing, and even Levin and Kitty with their lack of real understanding of one another and explosive fights in early marriage.

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Keira Knightley as the grieving mother

Extraordinarily strong because so believable Anna’s stolen visit to her son and the responses of the servants, her meeting Karenina and his half-mad behavior. You can prove anything if you get to make up the evidence, but far more than Trollope successfully I think Tolstoy does persuade us a woman of this milieu, religion, would feel the intense guilt of Anna, digs deep into it, how it functions to twist her and give her little chance to finally live a life that is fulfilling for both with Vronsky. The scene at the theater where she goes out of some kind of inner-directed spite at herself and Vronsky equally strong. Vronsky needs to be accepted in the world and live in it; she needs just the respect.

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Anna supported by the corrupt Princess Betsy (Ruth Wilson)

She is mortified and humiliated. I wish I could believe Tolstoy critiquing this double standard but he’s not.

The linchpin connection between the Vronksy-Anna matter and the Kitty-Levin is Anna’s brother Oblonsky and his wife Dolly with whom the book and Stoppard and Wright’s movie opens. Dolly feels for Anna; her husand, Oblonsky a careless rake and roue who is ruining them by his continual spending of money (leaving nothing for the household, saving nothing for the children’s education).

So, Oblonsky’s harried put-upon wife, Dolly, goes to visit Anna. Anna had persuaded Dolly to stay with Oblonsky after one of Oblonsky’s many affairs (the man has casual encounters and sex like some people have meals) was exposed — because it was with the governess. He spends all their money, he impregnates her carelessly; she is worn, her children will have no decent schools unless her father pays for it — reminds me of Montague Dartie in Forsyte Saga. She knows he does not love her. She is miserable. She thinks Anna is no different from her, just braver. When she arrives, Anna is ecstatic to see her and Vronsky so glad. She notices the people around them are third-rate hangers on as the world judges these things. We are made to notice how rich Anna is through her eyes — the riding out, the hat, the horse, the house they stay in.

So, were this an English novel, this moneyed state of Anna would be accounted for — it’s not in AR. It is probably not from her husband. Would she have her own estate? I don’t know. It seems to come from Vronsky who we are told in an early part of the book has to borrow to keep up his lavish life style.

The moral nature of what’s happening is central. Probably because I’m reading Galsworthy at the same time I am so aware of how Tolstoy too makes of Anna this beautiful mysterious icon. In her case being torn apart. Slowly after Vronsky and Anna return to Russia, whether St Petersburg or Moscow, their relationship sours badly. No one respectable will be friends with them; they get only hangers-on. People they once would have passed over, come to them and Vronksy and Anna cling to these fringe types.

Yet he can live with it, he can suffer the loss of his army regiment (very much a Rawdon type — from Vanity Fair); it’s more her fault than his because she cannot live the unconventional part of a mistress and woman of the world. Why she should want the friends we saw at the opening were all so hollow I can’t say. She has Dolly and her brother who seemed to be the only people she enjoyed herself with before. And men do visit. She is pathetically grateful to have Dolly’s loyalty, but we see Dolly becomes sickened at what she sees as their false friends, false lives and stays only one day on a visit meant to go on for a long time.

Dollyblog
Mary Kerridge as Dolly (1948 version, sentimentalized Oblonsky, glimpsed weeping with remorse)

We then get the encounter of Anna with Levin who is drawn to her as mysterious alluring icon but then reverses himself when he sees his wife. Anna here has become evil as she is presented as consciously trying to seduce Levin sexually.

I also very much enjoy some of the political drama and discussions about art in the Levin sections; I don’t have space to detail this sort of thing. The political meeting with Vronksy emerging as successful had the sceptical understanding of Trollope and the principles and parties were of interest similarly. Tolstoy defends realism in pictures.

At the same time I was so grated upon by the long drawn out childbirth, especially the turning from ravaged screaming on Kitty’s part to bliss. No thanks Mr Tolstoy for your moral lesson here. I writhe to have to listen to this nonsense — Trollope wouldn’t have minded and might thought it was just the pap (like the wedding) women might want.

Very interesting are the less cliched stories: Oblonsky, Stiva, near bankrupt trying to get a lucrative post where he does nothing and thinking he deserves it! Some amusement there – this is how Felix Carbury behaves in Trollope and Davies’s TWWLN and Matthew MacFayden played both parts.

The story of Anna’s son being slowly turned against her and made to be cold from his life’s experiences with the angry embittered father and morally stupid tutor.

Why is Anna not afraid she will be broke and end in the streets? she is so sure of her aristoratic words & norms to reach for.

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19thcenturyIllustrationblog
A 19th century illustration of the end of the novel
The novel concludes:

Again I am deeply engaged by Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in the final phase of Vronsky and Anna’s story. It is more than grippingly believable. Tolstoy lays bare how someone (Anna) can act destructively against herself and her interests, because there is not enough on offer for an erasure of those parts of herself necessary to play the part in her world Vronsky as her open lover allows her. She is in too much pain over her own loss of self-esteem. I can see myself acting like that and have in life acted that way.

I continue mostly bored and irritated by the Levin matter.

At the close of book 7 is the powerful sequence where Anna finally loses all perspective, and throws herself under a train. I’ve just ambivalent responses to the depiction. I think the way to get round the worst is to lower expectations – that’s why when I first started reading I suggested Tolstoy is over-rated. If we think of him as just another Victorian-19th century writer, we don’t expect as much, give him more slack, and as with reading say Gaskell’s Ruth, we look at what is gained by an attempt at a frank depiction of a transgressive woman (Anna) or a woman who has transgressed (Ruth) sexually. Trollope will depict no such figure; Dickens would not touch this with a 50 foot pole.Most women didn’t dare lest they be accused of sexual transgression.

I know were I to have read the book in my 20s even I would just have utterly bonded with Anna and felt for her and not noticed as I felt continually Tolstoy’s continual corrective: Anna says everyone is hateful to her, and immediately Tolstoy brings home to us how most people are not hateful; everything she feels or says is quickly shown to be an exaggeration and coming out of her. The worst is how he talks of an “evil’ spirit inheriting her soul — surely this is God punishing her.

He also does not spare us. We are shown that Anna did not die immediately but felt pain and knew what was happening. When we are told that Vronsky saw the body he never got over seeing what was in her eyes. Or her mangled body.

One can read the sequence sympathetically from her point of view too. It is true Vronsky is tired of her. We can see she is trying to reach him as best she can. It’s his choice to stay in Moscow, visit his mother. What he wants is for her to make the best of it or go herself into the country where he would visit her or stay with her and come back to his social life from time to time. She seems unable to manage with this. Myself I know how she feels from the exquisite details about egoisms conflicting that Tolstoy does manage. I’ve experienced this in family life, feeling oneself disdained some, really not respected, and how painful this is, especially when something is done which points to it and the person denies it. Trollope knew our egos mattered: many of his scenes show characters reacting internally emotionally violently over this.

Months have passed when the last book (8) begins again. When we next see Vronsky, now worn, having again nearly gone mad with his remorse and leaving for the war front with a group of less than admirable types because he can’t get anything better together and listen to his mother’s vicious tongue about Anna this is a reinforcement of empathy for her — and him.

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1899 Twilight Moon by Isaak Ilyich Levitan

One then has to wade through at least a hundred pages of Levin material where we learn God is good, well-meaning, dwell in the Russian landscape, and if Levin is also dissatisfied, this are the terms on which we have life. At the close of the book Levin has a vision which shows him the value of his existence and makes him think he will act more loving to everyone no matter how much they irritate, but soon discovers he cannot change himself. I thought of the long shooting bird (grouse) sequences and how vividly (very like Trollope) Tolstoy entered into these and told them in detail; unlike Galsworthy though he did not at all feel for the animals endlessly murdered (by Oblonsky and finally done in by Levin too) — to show his manhood, nor even so much as register them as presences (which Trollope at least concedes).

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Ideally I would after listening to this reading, watch the recent Wright movie and read carefully Stoppard’s screenplay to see how the Anna character has been altered — and it has much — to make it speak to us today. I know Vronsky is blackened in the movie: in the book he was willing to give up much if only she would be at peace with the freedoms he sought and he was not seeking to have any other women (as he is in the movie).

The movie marginalizes Levin into sheer Lawrentian material (how often Wright turns a book into Lawrentian material, even Austen) and plays up the ironies of the Oblonsky story as relevant to us today. Wright also emphasizes the role Vronsky’s mother plays as Anna’s fundamental rival and enemy.

He also makes Oblonsky our everyone; at the close of the movie Macfayden is the only one in the room as the family gathers (including Levin and his wife) for some ritual who remembers Anna

MacFaydenOblonskyblog
He is though as corrupt and useless to anyone but in his kind moments like these as he is in the novel

The Levin group must be put into the movie, but in the movie they function as the vast majority of human beings who buy into conventions and are made safe enough by by them.

The first sentence of AK now strikes me as potentially if unintentionally ironic about happy families, happy people. Tolstoy may be read against the grain.

Ellen

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I hate such shallow pretenses. I’d let the world say what it pleased and show no grief [for a dead husband] if I felt none – perhaps not show it if I did,” and (when Bertie & Charlotte do not reply) “you both know in what way husbands and wives generally live together. You know what freedom a man claims for himself and what slavery he would exact from a wife and you know how wives generally obey. Marriage means tyranny on one side, and deceit on the other, and a man is a fool to sacrifice his interests to such a bargain. The tragedy is a woman generally has no other way of living — Plater out of Trollope, Barchester Towers, uttered by Madeline

MrsProudieSurveryingHerTerrains
Our first shot of Mrs Proudie, surveying the battlefield as she emerges from her coach — no one will tyrannize over her

Dear friends and readers,

Yesterday I watched all 7 hours of Plater’s Barchester Chronicles in a row. A shoverdose. I was newly impressed by this mini-series based on the first 2 of Trollope’s Barsetshire cycle (6 altogether). Maybe this was the first time I ever watched it during the day. I was using it to try to absorb my mind. And it did, mostly. Only towards the very end when the happy ending became too insistent and maybe the pudding was egged by a slightly overdone final toast to Mr Harding (Donald Pleasance).

FirstCloseupasSurveyedbyBold
First close up of Mr Harding, POV Mr Bold — Pleasance understands this Trollope type and plays Malachi of Malachi’s Cove as brilliantly

What’s so good is how it combines serious feeling with a kind of light comedy. Because I was watching it on a laptop, I could stop the Application (I guess it’d be called) and contemplate stills. Geraldine McEwan was magnificient as Mrs Proudie: a seething passion to dominate fueled her very body, and she was matched by Alan Rickman, who was not a comic figure but burned with a kind of matching maddened ambition.

Assessing
Slope at far left assessing Madeline; at far right Arabin, who does not try to conflict with her

Near its final moments he wishes Mrs Proudie and the Bishop to go on being alive the way they are forever. One theme of this film adaptation was ambition: so many of its scenes are characters discussing who is beating out who for what?

Against them is Donald Pleasance inimitable as Mr Harding whose lines are so delightful because they refuse to play this game — and he gets away with it. He would rather be destroyed quietly. He will resign the Wardenship because he’s in the moral wrong to hold such a large salary and the men he cares for have such a pittance. He will not take the deanship because he’s not fit for its duties, to which Nigel Hawthorne as Archbishop Grantly bursts out with a quivering anxiety of desire: what duties? there are none.

HowtocopewithNewspaperArticle
Discussing how to cope with a newspaper article (a serious matter): don’t answer it says Grantley and as a tactic it’s the one which can win if you have the safe position

Elaine Showalter says Barchester Towers is the first academic faculty satire and certainly that’s part of the mix. Walking away, resisting what will destroy you because the price for whatever it is is too (in terms of ego needs) is the tragic pattern of The Warden, whose references are jobs we can do without because we have some other minimum of support, in the warden’s case his small sinecure in the city. He is willing to take a step down, lose of pride and shallow admiration by others to save his sleep as he’s not got the rhineroceros skin getting on in this upper middle class world of privileges demands.

Erotic. How erotic it was too.

Suggestingthewalkblog
It’s not clear who suggests the walk, but it’s probably Bertie as Madeline cannot go — she has but one leg (marital abuse)

The central presence here Susan Hampshire as Signora Neroni, supposed to be the cynical perspective on what motivates everyone. She has had some real hard experience of marriage — and it’s not been pleasant. She is in the end very nasty to Rickman-Slope, humiliating him, exposing him spitefully. She’s a match for Mrs Proudie in this. She and her brother, Peter Blythe (well named) as Bertie Stanhope and Susan Edmonstone as Charlotte are without the usual ambition to rise and to make money but they are not without a desire for pleasure all the livelong day and they do it by living off their father who has one of these unjustifiably large incomes — and by using others. The close of one part ends in a moonlight walk with Janet Maw as Mrs Eleanor Bold, whose lines and feel are taken directly from Trollope’s Barchester Towers.

But they are not quite harmless. One should not marry Bertie Stanhope who no matter how innocent he seems, is not. His lines reminded me of Dicken’s Skimpole (Bleak House) and when they echoed by Mr Harding who also says he’s a child when it comes to money, knows nothing of it, we are to realize the uttered stance has to be unreal, hypocritical at some level.

TheInterviewblog
The interview: Mr Slope hazing Mr Harding — pray tell reader have you been on many interviews (I’ve endured 16, got the job, such as it was 8 times)

Yes the piece is a produce of Alan Plater’s pen, David Giles’s direction (uses caricature at high points) and the uncompromising costumes and production design of Jonathan Powell (who did the 1979 P&P this way), with the art of Juanita Waterson (costumes) and Chris Pemsel (basic design). Very picturesque fairy tale use of closely accurate costumes of the genteel classes of England in the mid-19th century.

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Mrs Vesey Stanhope & Susan Grantley family matters (aka Phyllida Law, Emma & Sophie Thompson’s mother; Angela Pleasance, Donald Pleasance’s daughter who is seen in much of BC eating her morning cereal with a long gold spoon)

This could have been and today make for a non-modern feel that will lose the series watchers. But all this emanates from Trollope’s Barsetshire vision which is about (among other things) the inescapability of ambition, erotic take-overs and sexploitation (I did use that word), with just these characters. Its Christianity is equated with selflessness, really giving to the other person what he or she wants (hoping what he or she wants will not be destructive), respect for the other or others, caught up in music which is presented as asking nothing, only giving an experience of beauty (“if you like music” says one of the sceptical old men).

This continual undercutting is Trollope too.

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Her husband, having given up his job, Mrs Quiverful rounds the bend in her quest to get it back

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Mrs Quiverful at Mrs Proudie’s door — Mrs Bold too goes forth to fight for a man (her father; her hysterical appeal is made to Mr Bold)

Watching it mostly at night, only one part at a time, I concentrated more on — remembered as true the moving scenes of Maggie Jones as Mrs Quiverful doing battle on behalf of her “soft yielding” Mr Quiverful (Jonathan Adams). How desperate they are for, in need of money (14 children is their cry). How eros has done for them. They are the farmost edge of the themes’ continuum. They are easy to notice and as imitations of life feel for. Obvious. Watching it straight through — say Part 4 — one could see suspended an interweave, a kind of dance of couples just after the Stanhopes are introduced into the mix, really engineered by Mr Slope’s maneuverings. It’s then holding the film still and watching gestures and movements and react to them as true cores of emotion, kept private, only given social expression indirectly or silently.

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Note the gravity of Janet Maw’s expression as she rightly rejects Bertie Stanhope (who does need her money)

A young lovely Barbara Flynn provides undercutting calmness — as there is a calm center in Trollope’s books. He remains calm in the face of what he observes as it is sort of droll. It’s not that she takes an Olympian perspective, she’s too realistically wry for that.

WhyMrHardingblog
“Why Mr Harding?” Mary asks her brother, and answer comes there none because reason is, Mr Harding’s vulnerable, in reach

What you don’t notice at first is how she (like Mr Harding) does not participate in personal ambition or a ruthless or needy quest for erotic love. And she too is taken care of as Barsetshire is this idyllic place where everyone is taken care of (as long as they can give up pride at judicious moments). Other pastoral figures in the wistful line are Miss Ullathorne and her brother who live together, keep away from life’s battles, be they erotic love (the sister) or social gamemanship (the brother says he can’t take too much socializing).

It’s not that there is no chance of ultimate loss. People die in Barsetshire. (Stories where no one dies or people can come back from depth cannot have life’s emotions since these depend on knowledge life must come to an end.) But when they do, we are to rejoice at their achieving peace — here we slip reality altogether — except for those who need people to die at a particular moment in order to gain some advantage or place from someone else just then in power. The other end of this (upending death) is the pastoral tournament where a local countryman, young Greenacre (unfortunately not listed on IMDB) takes the lists and falls off his horse immediately, nearly breaking his head – but not quite. Mr Plomacy needed Greenacre to do this to please his lady boss, Miss Ullathorne at that moment, to keep his job. A delightful moment is when Eleanor Bold comes upon him and Bertie with glasses of wine and beer in the grass. It’s matched by Mr Harding at the bedside of the dying, seeing them out as it were.

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Mr Harding seeing old Bishop Grantley (Cyril Luckham) out

Telegramblog
On the other side of the door of the now dead man, Archbishop Grantley ready with the telegram to send to the PM to see if he can get his father’s position: Mr Harding must take it to the post office as it would not be seemly for Grantley …

But I myself did not want to see anyone out. I wanted the man I care most for in life to live and he was being helped to fight for his life by a team of people not far off in an operating room, cutting out a cancer in the middle of his body, the lower esophagus, just above the stomach. This was not novel art. In reality Alan Plater, a great screenplay writer (he did Fortunes of War from Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy which I’ve just now started), died recently. His is the sort of art that I love and wish were more respected: the art of the TV playlet where the TV experience’s strengths are understood.

I had brought a book with me for the day I had to get through but found I could not read. Trollope’s books, especially once in Rome, The Last Chronicle of Barset had seen me through a strained holiday, but the stress of what I was trying to keep on the top of my mind under control would not permit me to lose my mind altogether to conceive thoughts and images. I could only let them in ready-made (as it is in film-taking in). Plater is dependent on Trollope for his concoction.

Movingnearendblog
Mr Quiverful having got the job, the family moves — near the close of the film; it’d been better if it had been the close

I stopped watching only for short trips for food — we went to Starbucks for coffee and croissants (and a hot breakfast sandwich) and Noodles and Company for bowls of spicy spaghetti (and for Laura a juicy-drink, and for me a glass of white wine).

Ellen

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MapofInternetWorldblog

Dear friends and readers,

We’ve gotten into a for once (well to me) enlightening thread on a Women’s
Studies list-serv (WMST-l)
. It began over in Wompo (women’s poets) and slid
across lists because Katha Pollitt is on both list-servs and got irritated
with a couple of contentious threads which had turned into quarrels (still
mild), at which one woman complained at the contention and said she would
get off or fall silent. Katha’s posting was (to me) a form of scolding: she
basically said men’s way of being in cyberspace is superior to women’s
because supposedly they don’t mind quarreling in public. She wrote in terms
that were insulting to women, but attention catching. By mistake she put this posting onto Women’s studies where the people are more reasonable — it’s a more academic style list with more women academics on it.

I’m very interested in the realities of women in cyberspace and how theirs differs from men’s behavior. Obviously, I spend enormous amounts of time on the Internet, and my experiences here have helped me to mature, become more socially active (go to conferences, meet with friends) I wrote a paper on this which the listowner of WMST-l put on line as part of a permanent set of papers. I’m so bad at nuts and bolts I can never reach my paper over there, so for those who want to see (or read it later) , here it is on my website: Women in Cyberspace.

I had the courage to counter Katha on Wompo and nothing reasoned in response to my posting was sent. Instead I got misspelled mild jeering (using CAPs). At the close of my last posting, I just said, “Come, go ahead, abuse me … ” And one woman did, but the thread died after that.

Katha had said to ignore the posting on WMST-l and two of her friends (women
with credentials like hers, Marge Piercy among them) backed her on this,
but what she wrote was significant. Here is the core:

Before the internet, I never believed the truism that women have trouble disagreeing openly because they place such a high value on harmony, fitting in, not standing out. Having been on numerous women’s lists I see how true this is. They ALL have the same dynamic: sugary mutual admiration, with occasional outbursts of snark that cause conniptions. Yerra makes a personal remark, Joyce slaps her down by appealing to ‘the spirit of the list,” Yerra takes her marbles and goes home. On a coed list, or a mostly male list, a slightly snarky remark would have just been one of those things that happen. A reprimand would be be read as impossibly stuffy, and a threat to leave would be a joke.

I’ve been on wom-po for ages, and let me tell you,with all the mutual flattery (complemented by back channeling of expostulations and eye rolls) and self congratulation for our female wonderfulness it’s pretty boring. I barely take part any more, This is a list so scared of open discussion that “political” posts have to be labelled so the frailer flowers can avert their petals and the illusion of harmonious sisterhood be preserved. Oh no, someone mentioned abortion rights! help!

Can we please put on our big girl panties and talk about things like grownups?

Katha

I want instead to cut to the quick, the sudden idea I saw. I often say that the content of a posting is only part of what’s happening the way the content of our words in physical space is only part of what’s happening. For the first time I was able to see how the posting itself functions differently (than say all the stuff that is added on in real space). It’s that we see the posting primarily as either by a man or either by a woman. That comes first. The way writing is primarily seen as either by a man or women (that’s why 90% of what is published in mainstream publications is by men).

Second, the reason men can quarrel openly and not get upset really is they
fundamentally respect one another as men. They can insult and jeer and yet
they are respected and respect one another. I put it that we women don’t
fundamentally respect one another as women. We are taught not to. We may
respect a credentialed woman but she is still a woman. A male homosexual is
respected as a man and identifies as a man first. Lesbians are at the
bottom of a heap of gender types because they are also women.

The books I cited in my first posting tell how much friendships mean to women growing up, how badly women feel betrayed when their friend goes off with boyfriends or drops the other woman for her new “family” or connections. How it hurts. The sense of betrayal.

So when women quarrel it’s not childish.

And the results of quarrels — as the results of rape or any complaint are differently for men than women. Women are punished when they complain and the results of quarrels they are taught will be bad. They will lose the respect of important connections. The punishment meted out will be denied; it will be presented as reasonable behavior. This is where masochism comes in. Women seem to be masochists and accept what happens because they find if they don’t things get worse for them.

My Women Writers Across the Ages, a Yahoo list-serv carries on discussing feminism calmly is we have so few men, the men here are a congenial bunch who agree with feminist values. And a woman list-owner. All of this is highly unusual.

Women quarreling in cyberspace are often quarreling because one or both feels her gender has been betrayed.

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conversationLaMonteblog
Conversation, Susan LaMonte

If anyone wants to read the more essay-like email versions:

1) I don’t think there’s anything wrong in the way women behave differently from men on lists — as I don’t think there is anything wrong with the women behave differently in life. To find the male model preferable is to prefer a whole host of values and norms that at least some of us have wanted to not to be the prevailing code. The classic and still important book on this is Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice; also about why women quarrel so bitterly, Lyn Mikel Brown, Meeting at the Crossroads: Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development;and Girl Fighting: Betrayal and Rejection

Women complain how we never seem to make any progress. Well there are these three books which analyze the phenonomena that Katha has castigated/scorned without looking to see why women behave like this except to imply “coward” or silly emotional creature who bores me. Cyberspace experience is obviously only analogous to real physical life, physical encounters where names and all sort of information are there right away to make the others accountable. Not only empathy and understanding is required to understand why women need moderators on lists, thrive better in some lists than others — it might be recalled that men simply refuse to get onto lists run by women often and get off certain kinds of list-servs that attract women. Does that mean those women’s lists don’t count or are inferior? Men simply disdain what is not consonant with how they are encouraged to behave in our society.

My study of women in cyberspace which is written in a way that looks to find ways to enable women to cope with the experiences they find on lists which are often analogous to what puts them at a disadvantage in life. It should also be remembered women don’t forget what happens in real life — like rape (frequent). I’m upbeat, constructive as that’s what’s wanted in social and public life:

I seek to present material to help us think about what are the obstacles to women using cyberspace effectively, and what can be done to construct cyberspace experience so as to make it more appealing, hospitable and usable for women.

Here though I will break code again and say that indeed the public encounters in front of a whole group of people, most unknown, with no way to manipulate the encounter to your set of values or norms (feminocentric) is analogous to rape (virtual) because it’s public and people looking on are in the position of voyeurs (the term lurkers is a telling one here).

Another aspect I don’t bring up in the paper is that women value friends, they value contacts; they don’t want to lose them, and given their real knowledge of other women’s psychology and their own plus experience of men, they retreat into silence as the really wisest way to cope given the present misogynistic environment. When will we ever stop celebrating the war mentality (which aggression, competition and the rest of what has been put before us as better and more fun)?

WMST-l itself is a list run by women, with women moderators, it has the typical list of rules one finds in women’s lists (not men’s) which are resorted to and I like it because of this and much else.

How are individual women to be heard is the question.

On Wompo I miss Annie Finch’s explicit point of view in how she saw this list as a place for women where women’s values and norms and experiences and knowledge would prevail.

2) The second email adding to original points:

I want to speak again to this one. Much as people still try to deny this, what happens in cyberspace matters — people might acknowledge various govt’s reactions to whistle-blowers, bloggers, privately-sent emails (one-to-one) emails. It also is increasingly central to local affairs. I had thought not to since Gail Dines reiterated what I was going to repeat with more details. That saying women have just got to accept aggression won’t do since many forums in cyberspace replicate the realities of physical space. Men are in charge. I was forced off a listserv (Inimitable-Boz @ Yahoo) last week, and I’m no melting flower on list-servs (or blogs or other venues in cyberspace). It did become impossible to stay because what was implied and not spoken about what I had been writing and what was explicitly said simply ignored everything I had said and the explicit talk became rawly insulting (the attempt was made to shame me), not just snide or a matter of innuendo. The terms of the aggression were misogynistic but if I dared use that word or any like it, I’d be laughed at as a foolish feminist.

Where men are not in charge but constitute the working majority of those who post (and in cyberspace when men become numerous on lists they have been shown to become the active members with only a couple of women maintaining a presence), the same sort of thing occurs, perhaps more muted if at least one of the list-owners is herself a woman. The gender matters. The woman can be very different politically but I’ve observed and experienced nonetheless she will understand and give crucial support to the women poster (sometimes, not
always). It’s like Republican women are mostly pro-choice, and they vote
for shelters for women and children.

We don’t accept the terms in which rape is discussed which (as we saw a
couple of summers ago) allowed in at least three high profile cases, the
case to be dismissed (the Muslim housekeeper in NYC who was raped) or
humiliated and lose her case (the young executive who was intoxicated and
made the mistake I’d call it of phoning the police) and the supreme court
fining parents whose daughter accused frat young men of raping her. We
don’t say we’ve just got to accept this. We try to alter the basic understanding of what’s happening.

It is not a matter of putting “on our big girl pants and talking like grownups.” I talk like a grown-up all the time, even to my cats. The phrase was an irritant.

So I’ve come on this second time because I want also to counter it first
under the aegis of the idea that “older women” are to be assumed to behave
differently in this than younger ones necessarily which is dismissive or
that anyone was being childish. It assumes the problem is the deference of
older woman. I’m not deferent. Another aspect of this particular thread is
some of us come on with more credentials. Not quite the same thing as being
a man (nothing beats that — I’m sarcastic here) but part of power plays. I
speak to Katha the way I do to others — or Barbara Bergson or anyone with
more credentials. This fault-line of age versus youth divides and conquers
us again. In a way being older and who I am and am not frees me (like
Janice Joplin line, freedom’s just another word for nuthin’ left to lose”).
The paradigm of the second wave is implicitly brought in here, but it was
in the second wave people used the word “liberation” and talked about sex
openly. I got myself into trouble (get myself) because I’m not deferent to
men.

And second, women do squabble a certain way but it’s not because they are
childish. The understanding of quarrels and their meaning is different from
men’s. The way women treat one another as girls, what their friendships
mean to one another and how they disrespect one another on lists is different from men’s. I suggest at some level men respect one another as men fundamentally. And women often do not respect one another fundamentally as women. All of us are taught not to – by the society. Look at ads for a start. And they feel betrayed, angered really.

Third, women’s experience of the results of quarrels very different. Third
and fourth wavers (if there is a fourth wave), post-feminists experience
punitive results which teach women silence is the wise policy because of
self-interest works the same. The punitive nature of the result is
frustratingly denied the way rape is called a false accusation (as in you
consented). That’s one of the sources of so-called masochism.
I’ll cut off here as I’ve gone on far too long but I feel these points are
important and need to be dealt with, even if solutions are not easy to see.

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

OnNotcommunicatingblog

Of course most of the replies either ignored my points or saw what I wrote in quite different terms, but one I did think useful for what I was saying.

I think history has given us TWO inadequate models for dealing with conflict, each model loosely associated with a gender role, but available to anyone. In life, we probably all “mix and match” elements of these two inadequate models. On the one hand, there is the “feminine” style of handling conflict (conflict avoidance; conforming to the “feminine” gender role by avoiding direct expression of aggression while channeling aggression into “mean girl” behaviors such as gossip, isolation, manipulation of alliances and social status, etc.). On the other hand, there is the “masculine” style (handling conflict in ways that deny the value of interdependency and rely on inequality/hierarchy; fighting verbally or physically to avoid shame and loss of status by shaming the opposing point of view).

Both of these ways of handling conflict are inadequate. They temporarily stifle conflict rather than truly resolving it, so the conflict usually resurfaces and becomes part of a cycle. There are other, more constructive ways to handle conflict that can lead to better resolutions. Conflict should be seen as a positive and inevitable product of equality. Conflict is inevitable; the only question is how we handle it. If a group can resolve conflict only by silencing it or by creating inequality (“I’m right, you’re wrong, so shut up; your point of view has no place here”), the group has failed. We are products of our culture and our culture has tried to teach us that conflict is threatening to us personally and to our social order. And it has tried to train us to turn to authority figures (ultimately the police or the state) to resolve our conflicts rather than teaching us the skills to resolve them in ways that strengthen us individually while also enhancing our ability to function collectively.

There are occasionally conflicts where logic alone can reveal a “right” and a “wrong”; a “winner and a “loser.” But deeper, more intractable conflicts are not just rational disagreements. They reflect some damage done to the communal bonds holding people together, and mending that damage often requires attention to things such as the quality of communication, and the creation of a group dynamic trusted by all. When Audre Lorde says that our culture has “misnamed difference as a threat to unity” and when she envisions “the creative function of difference in our lives,” I think she is talking about what feminism could potentially contribute to our understanding of conflict and conflict resolution (micro- and macro-) if we look for alternatives to the two inadequate, gender-coded models of conflict “management”/irresolution.

Leah Ulansey

Ellen

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Peggy Ashcroft in her fifties (promotional photo)


Kitty (Naomi Watts) and Edward (Walter Fane) floating down the river (2006 Painted Veil)

Dear friends and readers,

Here am I trying to keep my word and make shorter blogs. I’ve two movies to urge you to see. Rent them at Netflix or buy or download from Pirate Bay and luxuriate in the beauty of the photography and depth and sensitivity of what’s presented: Dennis Potter’s rightly valued 1980 Cream in My Coffee and John Curran and ron Nyswaner’s wrongly ignored Painted Veil (a film adaptation of a Somerset Maugham novel).

In the first case you want see more Potter-scripted films of the 1980s, and in the second you will long to read Maugham’s novel.


Jean now old, first near close up (Peggy Ashcroft, 1980 Cream in my Coffee)

I am now able to say a Dennis Potter film can be as stunningly powerful as people say. He is a much praised (adulated) script writer of the 1980s in BBC and other British TV films and plays. I had tried two films, both with great actors: in the first I found Bob Hoskins continually breaking into song, as a working class man holding up his pride against great odds, half-broken puzzled, seemingly bewildered, yet continually breaking out into song. In the second Michael Gambon (the great Gambon Ralph Richardson calls him — and certainly nothing comes up to his Squire Hamley in Davies’ 1999 Wives and Daughters out of Gaskell), Gambon anticipated the time I saw him on stage doing a Becket play. I realized Beckett plays hate drama; they are set up so actors can do so little. In that one Gambon was imprisoned in a can; in the Potter he was swathed with bandages in the last stages of dying life in a hospital. A situation rich, but it was like watching Beethoven making some music instruments can hardly play. Yet in both I was unbearably moved.

This time the script was doable and utterly fulfilled.

Here the great presence is Peggy Ashcroft: it takes a while to realize we are watching the same couple. First Jean and Bernard, when old coming back to one of these genteel style elegant hotels that are so endemic in British novels and plays (especially plays, think Separate Tables) when he is very old, ill, dying and she a woman cowed for many years by his irascible bullying and hard nasty spiteful even tongue, picking at her:


First of series of photos panning hotel and beach (Cream in my Coffee)


Then series of photos of elderly couples


Then from one to another versions of youth


Sitting in room (Ashcroft and Lionel Jeffries)

Second, as young Jean and young Bernard over 40 years ago they had stolen away for a weekend before they married, apparently very much in love, soft focus photography

.
(Peter Chelsom as Bernard, Shelagh McLeod as young Jean)

Placed against the second older version we slowly begin to see how what was to come – an embittering life — is anticipated, but also how it could not quite have been predicted. Like life too much is enigmatic. We see during this time the young Bernard despises the young Jean partly for her lower class origins and partly for coming away with him before marriage. Young Bernard’s father is killed in an accident during the three days (bad luck) tehy are away, and he returns home to a narrow repressed somehow very English lace and there is this dreadful scene with his harridan mother who wants to control him and prevent this marriage. How she scorns Jean.


(Martin Shaw as glamorous matinee idol singing songs like “You’re the cream in my coffee/you’re the salt in my stew … “)

But while young Bernard is gone, young Jean succumbs to the kindness, and aggressive romantic words and gestures of the orchestra singer, a cad type. Lonely, feeling herself denigrated and uncomfortable, she gets “squiffy” (very drunk) and is half-coerced (but only half) into spending a long pleasurable night with him – more than any she ever had with Bernard. When Bernard returns, there’s no sign he guesses and yet …

The life to follow he has gotten back.

The bitter ironies, poignancy, plangency, occasional comedy of the two relationships and what we glimpse about the hotel, by the pool, on the beach are caught in songs whose lyrics comes out as on the spot precisely awful. You’re the salt in my stew. Right. Lots of these 30s to 40s songs. Fast forward and instead of creamy violins and big band we have hard rock and they are just as ironic, just as false.

The way each place is filmed, the dialogues just reeked to me of England and English people of a certain milieu. I need to see it again and read an essay I have on Potter’s films, but will tell a joke Jim and I had.

I said to him, we never went to such a place when we lived there. It was beyond us. We didn’t have the money. When we returned 20 years later or more (1990s), we were way beyond that and would know it’d be miserable snobbish and somehow tawdry in all its efforts. We went to Landmark recreations — a joke too time capsules and all that. He stopped and said he has never known anyone who went to such places. Did they ever exist? are they a myth that captures something in English class ridden minds?

*******************
Why do Edwardian stories and films seem to speak home to us? Forsyte Saga (which I’m watching the 1967 version of over these two months now — 26 one hour parts — about which I’ll be blogging soon), Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs. Maughn’s post-colonial Painted Veil is a brilliant epitome of this subgenre.

In part the greatness of the film is sheer photography: breath-taking beauty in China, especially of waterways, slow montage, background French music, evocative:

What it’s about is two people finding themselves as they journey “out” into a wild natural place and leaning some humility and tolerance; the triangle is contrasted to another couple, disillusioned ugly man, Waddington (Toby Jones, as great as Gambon) who lives with a native girl, in a kind of retreat from the world both came from — with records from the 1950s. This anticipates or imitates (depending on whether you are thinking of Greene’s novel or the recent film with Michael Caine), The Quiet American. Edward has left his cushy job in England to do research in China and she can get no one to marry her so she follows him.


Toby Jones as Waddington explains how he came to live there, and how the girl he loves was rescued from a short life of beating and prostitution

I’m writing about this partly because I’ve seen it so mis-described. A denigrating way of describing hero and heroine dominates all blurbs: “shunned by scientific research husband,: wife “ignites passionate affair;” or “British medical doctor trapped … in loveless marriage with faithless wife …” We do have the Maugham triangle of the selfish woman who takes over the shy young man and seems set to destroy him. But this is not what happens at all. We see his science is a form of self-gouging and how she turns to want to help him, the school (Diana Rigg is a nun running the place), the helpless women, all the diseased people. We see the way the tribal leaders are murderous towards one another and so no help can come from there:


One of her stations of the cross


One of his

It ends in tragedy — reminding me in its savagery of Before the Rains. This is like Paul Scott: while written by a white man, it is a take from a point of view that shows the European corrupt. She gets to go back and gives birth to a child; we last see her rejecting the old life, her old lover, and walking with the child away. Older now than when I read the book, Of Human Bondage (blotted out in my memory probably by the film’s take and Bette Davis as Bitter Destruction with Leslie Howard in the abject role), and aware Maugham was homosexual (he lived in south France with his partner).

I’d like to read the book and then re-see film. We’ve said we’ll do it on Trollope19thCStudies. Alas it was a flop, so no features or voice-over commentary.

An intense psychological investigation in the context of sharp disillusioned picturing of snobbish colonialism, it’s a heroine’s text, Watts turned a perhaps misogynistic story into one of a heroine coming of age (she was one of the producers).

Ellen

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Stuart Wilson enacting Lopez just before he gets on a train to go to another station with the intention of throwing himself under an oncoming engine (Pallisers 11:23)

Dear friends and readers,

I’m trying to turn over a new leaf, and write blogs that are not only shorter but not worked up as much. Hitherto I’ve been taking postings I write to list-servs and developing and elaborating them before putting them on my blog. Since that takes time and energy (plus often finding the exquisitely-apt picture or exemplary passage), I don’t write as often as I could and many of my postings remain in list-serv archives. I’m going to try to put an end to this over-wrought sense of standard and blog more freely.

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

So, to begin this morning,

Over on Victoria (Patrick Leary’s list-serv, mostly academic in content, a forum for discussing every and all Victorian matter), someone asked for suicides in novels and people began to list them. I was prompted to write this because there was one longish posting about a Kipling story (“Thrown Away”) where the person writing the posting seemed to condemn the suicide, especially for having told the truth of what people had done to him, and what he felt. This bothered me. As the person wrote it up, it would seem she was reflecting Kipling who condemned this unhappy male character too.


Original vignette by George Housman Thomas to the chapter in which Dobbs Broughton shoots himself through the head (Last Chronicle of Barset)

Trollope has quite a number of suicides as well as some near-suicides. Many of them fit into Barbara Gates’s default positions (so to speak) in her Victorian Suicide: Mad Crimes and Sad Histories. Speaking generally, the men kill themselves because they have been or feel they have been publicly disgraced and cannot bear to face people, to live with the position they would not be put down into. These include Melmotte (The Way We Live Now), Ferdinand Lopez (The Prime Minister), and from Last Chronicle of Barset, Dobbs Broughton; from The Bertrams, Henry Harcourt. Lopez is a rare instance where we actually witness the suicide and while it may be hard poetry, I’d call the power of the scene, a huge railway station, anonymous in the modern way and the depiction of the smash poetry.

From The Prime Minister, “Tenway Junction”

Trollope depicts a modern railway station with power. Slowly he builds up a scene familiar to many of us:

After a while he went back into the hall and took a first-class return ticket not for Birmingham, but for the Tenway Junction, as everybody knows it. From this spot, some six or seven miles distant from London, lines diverge east, west, and north, north-east, and north-west, round the metropolis in every direction,
and with direct communication with every other line in and out of
London. It is marvellous place, quite unintelligible to the
uninitiated, and yet daily used by thousands who only know that
when they get there, they are to do what someone tells them. The
space occupied by the convergent rails seems to be sufficient for
a large farm. And these rails always run into one another with
sloping points, and cross passages, and mysterious meandering
sidings, till it seems to the thoughtful stranger to be impossible that the best-trained engine should know its own line. Here and there and around there is ever a wilderness of waggons, some loaded, some empty, some smoking with close-packed oxen, and
others furlongs in length black with coals, which look as though
they had been stranded there by chance, and were never destined
to get again into the right path of traffic. Not a minute passes
without a train going here or there, some rushing by without
noticing Tenway in the least, crashing through like flashes of
substantial lightning, and others stopping, disgorging and taking
up passengers by the hundreds. Men and women,–especially the
men, for the women knowing their ignorance are generally willing
to trust to the pundits of the place,–look doubtful, uneasy,
and bewildered. But they all do get properly placed and unplaced, so that the spectator at last acknowledges that over all this apparent chaos there is presiding a great genius of order. From dusky morn to dark night, and indeed almost throughout the night, the air is loaded with a succession of shrieks. The theory goes that each separate shriek,–if there can be any separation where the sound is so nearly continuous,– is a separate notice to separate ears of the coming or going of a separate train.

I like his sense of how people order themselves. This is something human beings are good at. Like so many small animals in a maze. The way it’s done is each person does attend intently to his particular destiny. My analogue is Penn Station at 34th Street or Heathrow airport.

Trollope then enters the mind of the man who notices that Lopez is not getting on a train. From the outside we watch the man march, walk this way and that, getting ever closer to the trains. It’s not until the last moment we realize he has worked his way to get as close as possible to the smash. We are (at least I am) led to sympathize since we realize how hard this act must’ve been to him and yet how determined he was. Very efficient. Very businesslike:

Now, Tenway Junction is so big a place, and so scattered, that it is impossible that all the pundits should by any combined activity maintain to the letter the order of which our special pundit had spoken. Lopez, departing from the platform which he had hitherto occupied, was soon to be seen on another, walking up and down, and again waiting. But the old pundit had his eye on him, and had followed him round. At that moment there came a
shriek louder than all the other shrieks, and the morning express
down from Euston to Inverness was seen coming round the curve at
a thousand miles an hour. Lopez turned round and looked at it,
and again walked towards the edge of the platform but now it was
not exactly the edge that he neared, but a descent to a pathway,
–an inclined plane leading down to the level of the rails, and
made there for certain purposes of traffic. As he did so the
pundit called to him, and then made a rush at him,–for our
friend’s back was turned to the coming train. But Lopez heeded
not the call, and the rush was too late. With quick, but still
with gentle and apparently unhurried steps, he walked down before
the flying engine–and in a moment had been knocked into bloody
atoms.

In some of these cases, Trollope’s attitude towards the man who killed himself is ambivalent: he feels for them, he enters into their cases, and Lopez is one of these, so too Melmotte. He does this by conveying critiques of those who showed them up or despised them or dropped them. He also has characters who apparently killed themselves for similar reasons (again males) before the novel opened: this time the loss of an estate, an inheritance, the brother in Belton Estate. In some of these he brings out how important it was to hide the suicide both out of public shame and (apparently) for fear somehow the property inheritance might be endangered (as it would have been in earlier times).

Women kill themselves too, and sometimes violently. Here it’s because they are being driven to marry someone they don’t love, often intensely distasteful to them: the girl in “La Mere Bauche” throws herself off a cliff rather than marry the aging captain her protectress has picked out for her. She cannot be brought back. But sometimes it really is left ambiguous whether a young woman actively killed herself or died of intense harassment and misery: Linda Tressel for example (a kind of Clarissa character). We have a fascinating instance of watching a girl about to kill herself (throw herself from a bridge) and draw back: Nina Balatka. (Their novellas are titled with their names.) Another young woman appears and in part helps Nina not to do it, but we are in Nina’s mind as she’s about to do it.

She had always been conscious, since the idea had entered her mind, that she would lack the power to step boldly up on to the parapet and go over at once . . . She had known that she must crouch, and pause, and think of it, and look at it, and nerve herself with the memory of her wrongs. Then, at some moment in which her heart was wrung to the utmost, she would gradually slacken her hold, and the dark, black, silent river should take her. She climbed up into the niche, and found that the river was far from her, though death was so near to her and the fall would be easy. When she became aware that there was nothing between her and the void space below her, nothing to guard her, nothing left in the world to protect her, she retreated, and descended again to the pavement. And never in her life had she moved with more care, lest, inadvertenty, a foot or a hand might slip, and she might tumble to her doom against her will (Nina Balatka, pp. 183-4)

And there’s a parallel in Trollope’s Autobiography where he describes himself as dreaming or plotting of suicide and going up high somewhere but thinking the better of it and coming down). I can’t think of any young woman who kills herself because she has discovered she is pregnant outside marriage and will have a baby or has had a baby (which would connect in trajectory and motive to women forced to marry someone they don’t want — which would result even if not called that marital rape) — is that not the case of Hetty in Adam Bede in effect? They suffer badly (Kate in An Eye for an Eye); also women ostracized because they have been divorced or lived with someone outside marriage (Mrs Atherton in Belton Estate) but they are not driven to destroy themselves.


Oliver Dimsdale as Louis in his last moments in Italy (He Knew He Was Right, scripted Andrew Davies)

A couple of these cases of “of was it?” do cross gender lines. Louis Trevelyan (He Knew He Was Right) driven by his sexual anxiety, shame, jealousy, may be said to bring his death on himself as he drives himself mad. Lady Mason (Orley Farm) who herself faces public disgrace for having forged a signature to keep her son’s property for him so he can be a gentleman holds on, just, and partly by telling someone. There is one remarkable scene of her brooding depicted by Millais (a picture Trollope pointed out as seeing more into the character than he had).


John Everett Millais’s original full-size illustration of Mary Lady Mason deep in thought (Orley Farm): Skilton shows Trollope was criticized by his public for having such woman (who gets off by the way) for his heroine

I would say Trollope might well disapprove in a novel of a character telling the full truth of what happened to him or her and leaving it in a letter. Just about all of his suicides do it without telling. But the near self-destroying tell; Josiah Crawley (Last Chronicle) for example, a genuinely tragic figure in letters described by the narrator as noble in intent.

It’s in these moments in his fictions that Trollope (as Henry James puts it of the closing sequence of He Knew He Was Right and Nina and Linda) that Trollope does himself justice. Had he ever written this way … I am not sure that today we have gone as far from Victorian condemnations as at least I would like to think, so Trollope’s empathy really speaks home to us.

I’ve written this to counter an implied spirit I felt from some of the postings on Victoria of self-distancing and judgmental evaluation from the point of view of social status of those left or the person’s reputation among them after he or she has died. There were excellently informative ones too of course.

I’ll try to find a similar posting I wrote about disability in Elizabeth Gaskell where I was startled to see on this list reflected a lack of understanding (much less sympathy) for what a disability is and how its worst aspects come from how other people respond to the person’s particular disability (how they won’t let the person be him or herself otherwise). Like Trollope on suicide, Gaskell on disability is still well above the narrowness and blindnesses of our as well as their own time.

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

Over on my Austen reveries blog, I expended many electrons on this book: a daughter of Richardson’s Pamela and Cleland’s Fanny Hill, sister to Nabokov’s Lolita — all to no avail (if you read the comments).

So I thought I’d try the a-picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words method:

Who sez I can’t write a short blog,
Ellen

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The cover illustration of the program

Dear friends and readers,

this past Thursday Jim and I went to see John Vreeke’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity on the strong praise given it by Laura’s friend, the stage manager at Woolley Mammoth. It’s this year’s first original production, and Jim recommends going if you can:

A very bleak comedy. There are lots of laugh lines and there’s even a real professional wrestler in the cast (I’m not sure he has any lines, though), but at root it’s despairing. Any sort of engagement with the world (and those in power in the world) fails. Whether it’s the whole-hearted engagement of Chad Deity, the professional engagement of the wrestlers that James Long plays, the go-along with the system so as to create one’s own art that Mace thinks he’s doing, or the outright opposition that VP comes to: they’re all co-opted. The only way to win is not to play: a hipster manifesto?

Woolly did it proud. And I think the audience liked it. People who watch wrestling should go too. Take someone with you who watches. See what an actual wrestling aficionado makes of it. It’s clear that Woolly is selling it to people that have no idea what actually happens in wrestling.

Jim

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Steve Beall (old man Tiresias), Melissa Marie Hmelinick (Tiresias as woman and his mother) and Christ Stinson (Oedipus, the boy, the king) in Stephen Spotswood’s We Tiresias


Jung Weil as Esther Parkr, Kenny Littlejohn as Chad Rollins & Hilary Kacser as Annie Tripper in adaptation of Sartre’s Huis Clos

Dear friends and readers,

We felt very good coming home from our last play (or event) of 14. We participated in this summer season as we had for the 10 months of HD operas at the Met in our local movie house. We’d again had a good time, though one of a different kind: there’d been the people in the tent, talk with other audience members who seemed to us to be very much people of our own spirit (we even met people of our own age who belonged or could belong to the Princeton club), with the people who made up the crews (mostly young). We’d gone nightly to and fro on the Metro (I bought several Smart Cards’ worth), walking about the DC Times Square area all around Gallery Place. We’d eaten out twice (I drank nearly 12 proseccos — what I couldn’t finish Jim knocked back), and of the many entertainments, all that we had seen were done with intense idealisms, on no-cost budgets (basically empty of scenery, often in condemned buildings), a testament to the human spirit and a DC community.

These last four I mean to write briefly about cannot be said to reflect our American culture just now the way the five I treated of (including Castleton representing the 1%) in my previous blog. Three were older or adaptations of classics, 2 British in origin, 1 French; and the fourth a modern re-telling of the Tiresias story which stuck close to the outline of Sophocles’s Oedipus story and the conventional view of Tiresias as a hermaphrodite.

Mitzi’s Abortion and The Outcasts of Poker Flat remain my two best, but I admit The Infinite Jest’s (actually the WSC people) produced an absorbingly effective Rosencrantz and Guildensterne were Dead, and Stephen Spotswood’s We Tiresias was brilliantly acted, probably directed and at a couple of moments personally moving for me. This No Exit needed to be more threatening, more uncanny, more chilling, and the 1960s Alice in Wonderland, has dated badly, to the point it seemed emptily whimsical (tedious), too much aimed at children except perhaps the Humpty Dumpty scene.

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

The real obstacle to praising R&G as much as I’d like to is it was cut down and we lost much of the player’s longer speeches, the actors he led were turned into mimes and acrobats (funny, highly theatrical) and we lost just about all Hamlet’s speeches and I did remember the splendid film version (with Oldman, Roth & Dreyfuss). They had so few props, and the supporting cast (so to speak), meaning Claudius, Gertrude, Hamlet, Polonius, Ophelia (Shakespeare’s central personages) were weak or flaccid, melodramatic at moments, wooden (the Hamlet) at others.

Nevertheless, keeping in mind these are not characters much on stage and they were further cut, within the range of the abridgement, the principals, R & G, and the player king were a marvel.


Mundy Spears as Rosencrantz & Bill Gordon as Guildenstern

Jeffrey S. Clevenger’s attractive player king (as Jennifer Georgia was perhaps more effective than the two principals). I can’t find a photo of him in costume so offer this of him as Shylock in a previous Shakespeare production:

The abridger chose to keep all the lines about death, and so the play emerged as a kind of “no exit” except through death, which is nothing, an absence, a gap, terrifying. The experience was carried by the speeches and interactions of Mundy Spears as Rosencrantz & Bill Gordon as Guildenstern. They voiced the lines with great clarity and I listened absorbed. I got a great kick out of the player king’s burlesque mockeries and reinforcements, done with panache.

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

The problem with No Exit, which I suggest emerged from the juxtaposition as a kind of companion piece, was the adapter and director were too concerned to persuade us we were watching dead people. The players, Hilary Kacser as Annie Tripper, Kendawg Littlejohn as Chad Rollins, and Jung Weil (also the adapter) as Esther Park were too quiet, too sombre, not theatrical enough — though I admit the photos I found remind me that there was a good deal of physical interaction (perhaps they were chosen for this.


Rehearsing with the director

In the 1990s Jim and I saw a WSC production of No Exit and I still recall Nanna Ingvarsson as Annie Tripper as smoking neurotically, never sitting still, an electrifying outpouring of virtuoso words. I think this production wase trying for the creepy, with Thomas McGrath, as the Valet as a gothic half-zombie in a suit who never blinks his eyes. The character’s memories of the evil deeds they did, the people they miss and who are missing them, the world outside the walls was seen on a movie screen through black-and-white images. We were in a world of sad and exacerbated ghosts whose torture was what they had in their minds, rather than one another.

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


A matching still to the one above: each of the actors dominates in turn

We Tiresias was the one that spoke personally to me. Perhaps I identified with the aging male actor, Steve Beall, who stole the show with his wry asides to the audiences, and who I’ve seen from time to time here in Washington repertoire productions (recently Marat/Sade at the Forum). He spoke of how he gets no respect, & so did I none from the female shit running the English comp department last summer (she has treated me continually with great implicit disrespect). But I also found myself entering into the case of Oedipus’s mother holding his hand as they walked about, sexually available to Oedipus as Jocasta and yes for a time Tiresias as female. I’d never seen the Tiresias story made the focus of a play; always it was on the margins, usually with John Gielgud in the role (joke alert).

It had a flaw. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern lives on because its language has content; the wit is in service of examining beliefs, norms, acting, life. We Tiresias had not enough insight through words — plays are dependent on words for their core meaning. We were supposed to enter into the emotionalism of a given character and not led to think about what was happening. The language was just not distinguished enough either — though better than the demotic supermarket interchanges of The Children of the Mist, and spoken eloquently by the players.

We can though feel for the old man left lying on the floor, the anguished stages of a woman’s life, and an Oedipus forced to admit the truth of his experiences.

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

The revival of the 1960s Andre Gregory’s production of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, directed and produced by Betsy Marks Delaney was disappointing and boring — I couldn’t keep my mind on it. Though I enjoy the Disney film and think it a masterpiece of a cartoon, it is meant for children, and much of what was dramatized by Delaney came from the first volume of Carroll’s book (like the Disney film). Children fear getting too big, being too small to defend themselves; the caterpillar sequence is about being bullied as a child. Though a Looking Glass is different in mood and feel; yet even there the playwright seems to me to have thrown away characters as simply eccentric. For example, the white queen. The most effective moments were Humpty Dumpty’s, his anxieties, and his sad ending.

A friend remembered that we had seen Meryl Streep play the part of Alice in this version in the 1970s. She had been so slender that she was literally carried by relays of people across the stage. Jim remembered we saw an Alice in the 1970s aimed at burlesquing this one as pretentious and silly. That’s probably not fair to this one, but honestly I couldn’t find any discernible plot-design or character development.

As the festival came to a close, I thought about how this time it seemed the plays had less money than ever for props and costumes. Many of the venues were still condemned buildings, though this time nearly all were air-conditioned — the heat there this summer is burning. The actors were eager and self-effacing. Most all had day jobs. As a society we need them, to bring us together, to show us ourselves. The people running this festival perform a large miracle each year and are insufficiently supported.

Ellen

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Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) a young husband cut off from his wife, and Anna aka Milly (Penelope Cruz), a prostitute who has substituted for her (2012 To Rome with Love)

Dear friends and readers,

This year’s Woody Allen, To Rome With Love is a pleasing film. It’s cheerful yet melancholy; we are presented with a array of artificial stereotyped couples who play musical chairs among themselves and other characters in scenes of mortification, confusion, anxiety, distress such that I was continually either uncomfortable and or worried what would happen to one or another of them. The central paradigm which repeats over and over is of a character in a situation or saying something which ought to be and is shameful which few around them recognize, and they themselves only intermittently. It seems this is a good thing too or none of us’d survive.

On a searingly hot afternoon to sit in a cool dark theater and watch his cameramen take loving shots of familiar older streets, houses, and stairs in Rome (he must have paid a lot for the Spanish steps), as these paradigms dissolve into the person coping the film manages to convey a world-weary odd relief. The situations become a kind of game, fun even (see the nerve this character has, what that character gets to do or see), and yet incident after incident seems to have roots in a curious despair. The couples all return to those they started out with because they might as well, and anyway life’s chances will surely now and then once again give give all of us an opportunity to fuck, walk, cook, eat and drink with, someone else momentarily more interesting.


Monica (Ellen Page) and Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) trying to cook up a gourmet meal together before they go off to a car to betray Sally, Jack’s live-in girlfriend and Monica’s best friend

It’s not the best Woody Allen film I’ve ever seen, and I’m not going to patiently go through the four sets of couples, two lone male confidants and wise advisor, and one lone female and whore, and their stories. Certainly it’s better than last year’s Midnight in Paris which I thought ludicrously over-praised. Like that, it’s an aging male’s wet dream. Jim often says he cannot understand how it is that when he reads many a male book or sees a male film it’s just filled with these females beautiful or not who are dying to jump into bed with all the males in sight, and when they do, are ever so ecstatically pleased. He seems to be on the wrong planet or these females are on another street from those he walks. It just never happens to him and he’s just like other males. How can this be? This is a film filled with such women. And it’s not really fun when people you are attached to are sexually or otherwise unfaithful.


The real Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) near going off to bed with the famous actor Luca Salta (Antonio Albanese) she’s just met because she got lost (her cell phone fell through a street grate)

A gesture is made to remember the depression engulfing much of the world’s people when Woody’s daughter’s fiancee, Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti) sticks up for the importance of unions. But mostly everyone is rich and untroubled about how to pay for anything. When Woody nags, tempts, maneuvers his prospective son-in-law’s father into singing operatically in a shower on stage in front of mass crowds at opera houses because only when he sings naked in a shower does his voice soar, there is not a smidgin of difficulty making this happen. A young architect said to be living according to idealistic goals with a female studying for a degree live in a bounteous flat on a lovely little corridor of a street with tons of free time.


Jack buying vegetables and flowers with live-in girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig)

All somehow detached. The reviews of the opera Woody puts on describe him in Italian as an “imbecile” and in character Woody reads this aloud. Because he knows no Italian he is chuffed. Allen also comments self-reflexively on his own film, its internal audiences and maybe us watching it all.


Judy Davis as Phyllis, Woody’s wry patient wife, spending life by his side

He has made some great films recently: genuinely satiric and grave ones, Vick, Christina, Barcelona and You will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. This one seems in some sequences an attempt to get back to his early films with their wacky sequences of events that don’t make logical or realistic sense but are hilarious. The spirit somehow is not high enough to make these moments come off.


John wisely advising Jack with the coliseum in the background

What’s here instead is a kind of witty wry self-dialogue. Woody is there himself and as two other men. Alec Baldwin as John plays a sold-out aging architect who has made tons of money building soulless stadiums and buildings and he takes to following our young architect, Jack, around and telling him from several points of view what a fool Jack’s making of himself, how Monica is a liar, a phony, a poser, pretending to know great literature when he knows famous lines, and when at the close of the film she deserts him without a second’s thought because a role in a play has come through Baldwin nearly says, “what did I say?” Jack returns to Sally and Alec goes back to the street corner where he and Jack first met and walks on his way.

As Leopoldo, Roberto Benigni plays a man made senselessly famous for several weeks, each of his daily doings and small acts made subjects for intense reporting, famous because he’s famous and during much of the movie seeming to try to escape the wild noisy argumentative Italian crowds, though not here


With Monica Nappo as his wife whose runs in her stockings are oo-ed over

He too has a Woody-Allen surrogate, male accompaniment who tells him when he is lonely after the world moves on: it’s better to be miserable and a celebrity than miserable and invisible (or some such words). At least then you didn’t have to wait on line.

Don’t go expecting a lot, just two hours or so of inspiriting humane entertainment. Woody is clearly for us all enjoying enjoying what there is to enjoy from life as far as we can and feels for all those mortified by the laughter and dumb applause of audiences — they, we are as imbecile as he has become. He may have put himself into the movie because he looks so feeble. The father of his prospective son-in-law whom Woody tries to rescue for an opera career is a mortician and fictional Woody keeps telling Phyllis how he has these dreams of death and she keeps saying, nonsense, nonsense lots of time left. (Still he hates “turbulence” periods in planes.) The singing mortician is wiser than his tempter and at the close of the film returns to his niche in his family group in the world.

As I say do all the characters return to where they are comfortable when they started out, e.g., the young couple leaves Rome where they had hoped for some splendid promotion. Antonio just couldn’t hack the pretenses wanted. He doesn’t like football. Anna has her compliant customers (the creme de la creme of society) waiting morning, noon, and night — as I say this is fantasy. The weakest point was the young heterosexual glamor couple, Woody’s supposed daughter, Hayley (Alison Pill) and her fiancee, Michelangelo (not Michael but Mickel) who we began with:

But they are soon put at the margins. You can almost measure the success of an Allen film by where this fatuous normative blond and her escort are in the film (they are central to Midnight in Paris and Matchpoint). I think of them as the wooden romance couple at the center of Walter Scott’s fiction and never can understand why Allen finds it necessary to pander by keeping them among the presences in his films.

When I remember back to the great films by Allen in the past (Love and Death, Stardust Memories, Purple Rose of Cairo, Annie Hall come to mind) I realize we were not bothered by this fake normativeness because Allen was the hero. He is too old now, even too old to pass as this heroine’s father, and he knows it.

I didn’t go with Izzy; she is not drawn to Allen (though she liked the Gemma Jones film). My neighbor from across the street and I have become friends and we went together. She is a woman near my age, and it did seem to me most of the people in the audience (however full) were older people. Woody is winding down and he does make a better film when he has a different type of male than himself (say Javier Bardem) or genuinely believable woman at the center.

Ellen

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