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

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Isaac Cruickshank, Royal Extinguisher or Gulliver Putting out Patriots

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Dear Friends and Readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A University of Victoria theater production of Endgame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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PacoRibeira, 18th century Portugal

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

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

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

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

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

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Death of Robert Burns, engraving, Dumfries July 1796

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An 18th century engraving of a debtor in the Marshalsea

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

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

Ellen

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It was a misfortune to any man to have been born in the latter end of the last century … The flame of liberty, the light of intellect, was to be extinguished with the sword — or with slander, whose edge is sharper than the sword — Hazlitt, The Spirit of the Age (1825), quoted by Johnston

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Dear friends and readers,

Today I finished writing a review I’ve been reading and working towards for several weeks. I didn’t mean to take such time with it, but Kenneth Johnson’s Unusual Suspects: Pitt’s Reign of Alarm & the Lost Generation of the 1970s is so good and important that I wanted to be able to place it in its scholarly as well as contemporary context — and so read other texts and reread some primary materials. This blog is not that review; rather like other blog-reviews I’ve done it’s rather a summary and commentary on details of the book intended to let readers know something of its content and to tempt them into reading it themselves. I tell the arguments and describe the lives and works covered. There’s a lot of worthwhile material here; as with other books I’ve shared on my blogs I’ll divide the blog into two parts to keep the reading from becoming too long.

Johnston tells stories of the ruined lives – ruined careers, thwarted writers, artists, politicians innumerable of the 1790s in the UK. His argument is that There was a widespread and viable reform movement shared by countless people across Great Britain, which was ruthlessly repressed, decimated — by Pitt the Younger’s establishment through violence, by manufacturing adverse opinion, by punishing people legally and socially, by trials for treason & sedition (or being a public nuisance or whatever would do) in the 1790s. He discussed people not tried for treason but penalized in common ways we are used to do (from the McCarthy era on), people in artistic and academic walks of life. Why did Charles James Fox never become Prime Minister? Was was Paine’s style not influential? Pitt’s Reign of Alarm did the job. An oligarchic and militarist foreign political world was shaped by Waterloo and treaties signed by Allies, put in place, in the UK a domestic better world put off for more than 70 years.

What Johnston’s makes book especially worthwhile are nuanced words in which he conveys the humanity, decency, genuine need for reform, the gross ruthlessness of those doing the destroying – in small things not susceptible of documentation – a new historicism indeed.

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James Gillray; Caricature of John Thelwall supposed speaking at a Correspondence Society Meeting

Part I: The Red Decade

Chapter 1 is called “Before and After Lives”. Johnston opens with Hazlitt’s Spirit of the Age as about how England missed its inspiration, was prevented by official reactionary ruthless determination to stamp out reform of any kind, individual prejudice, and cowardice (hard term). Johnston suggests coupling the terms romantic period and age of revolution (1776-1832) as twin terms is odd. He singles out as a double defeat two sets of acts: Pitt’s Gagging Acts (1795) and Sidmouth and Castlereagh’s Six Acts (1819). In the 1790s people were asking for extension of franchise, equitable districts, frequent elections, rights of men; in 1732 Tories vote with Whigs to increase electorate by 200,000 property owning males. Foot’s joke was rarely has reform given so little to so few. Even with the suppression it remained more important what happened in Norwich, Bristol, Sheffield, Belfast, Dublin, Edinburgh (periodical publications, correspondence societies, meetings, even conventions) than in Paris; nonetheless, it was not inevitable that ideas, acts of poets & others would fail while France was having its revolution; why should lurching of France’s monarchy towards a republic be a bad time?

He divides the decade of 1790s divided into four parts.

Nov 4, 1789-May 1792, Price praising French Rev to Pitt proclamation against seditious writings: Burke’s answer to Price, Paine’s to Burke, destruction of Priestley’s home

Dec 1792-Oct/Dec 1794 – active legal repression: trial conviction of Paine in abstentia; of London 12; conviction and transportation to Botany Bay of Scottish martyrs

1795: gov’t lost treason trials of 12 so re-groups, secret services modernized; protests against Pitt’s war (ruinous domestic economic effects). Gagging acts after attack on king’s coach – no public meetings of more than 50 persons (despite mass protest), no publishing criticism. Two acts, 1795 – no one can speak in public without gov’t approval if there are more than 50 present (Grenville); no publications that bring King’s gov’t into disrepute or censure.

1796-1800: mopping up operation, of radicals left standing: Wm Stone, John Thelwall … includes 1798 trial and imprisonment of Gilbert Wakefield (died of it) for libeling Richard Watson, Bishop of Llandaff …; 1800 a bill of indemnity protecting Pitt and his cabinet from claims

Thus was a reform movement grindingly shut down: Johnston reviews the arguments among a group of older scholars (Veitch, Thompson, Dickinson): was it large, organized or serious enough to be considered the beginning of British socialism, a failed form of proto-revolutionary activity; new voices (Barrell, Philip, McKee, McCalman, Radical Underworld) argue they they were socialist precursors.

What happened to these people? Johnston lists names of people: Death by execution or from imprisonment, itself and transportation; abscond, flight, immigration, exile; arrest and long periods of detention; financial damage and career ruination; gov’t harassment; psychological damage, physical harm; effective silencing, stopping publishing; orchestrated ridicule and libel; anonymous publication; disappearance from publication; change in topic and style; revision and erasure as juvenilia; move to conservative positions; public recantation, informing on others; direct monetary reward for informing, changing views. All his subjects have entries in the old DNB & ODNB – repressive hegemony of state ideological apparatus plays upon thoughts, ideas, actions

He wants us to appreciating the non-development of English literature – what didn’t happen – and the small mean private ways by which hegemonic control work; the endless ripple effects. If they went on to do other things, biographers, historians ignore or apologize for “youthful errors.” The materials are ambiguous and Gillray’s cartoons a good example of the difficulty of “reading” them.

He takes Amelia Alderson Opie as opening example: she moved from radical reform politics, to careful revision, to pious Quakerism – we can see the effects of repression registering on her — a full reprint of her memory of treason trials shows how fearful she was, how she identified with those accused, the unfair accusations… dangerous punishments, and her lone and lonely life at 80.

Chapter 2 is about John Thelwall (1764-1834) and Wm Goodwin (1756-1836). Thelwall is a usual suspect – against Thelwall the state acted directly by arrest, interrogation, imprisonment, trial, conviction, punishment and later also unusual suspect; he found how difficult it was to get out of political catchment, how the distinction between personal and political is non-existent. Godwin had to turn to anonymity, become a non-person to survive in his later years. Thelwall arrested as one of the 12 and Godwin’s Cursory Strictures laid out argument defense counsel used. While Godwin supported Thelwall in treason trial, later he wrote arguments gaved ammunition to gov’t bills of gagging and no assembly.

Johnston reviews lightly the central points of some of Thelwall’s speeches – they are intended as speech in action. His occasional best. The absurdity of presenting superstitious practices, to send peasantry to be annihilated in a crusade to restore the fallen despotism of France. Treason now means telling the truth to the shame and confusion of ministers. Thelwall presented himself as a target – let him be prosecuted; but after the acquittal, the way he was kept from any success was through means like a petty illegal smashing of a hall, frightening others who welcomed him, beating him up – all he could get was laughter at his plight.

Godwin Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft for which modern scholars have castigated him was a form of “grief-work” based on the principle that you could understand her best by knowing how she came to have her views in Rights of Woman; what happened was the rest of the world wouldn’t listen; abuse then never let up – I wondered if the mockery of Radcliffe was part of this way of coping with anything unconventional and in her case at moments Girondist radical. As with Lilian Hellman, friends (Mackintosh) rehabilitated themselves by attacking Godwin; he experienced the pusillanimity and opportunism of his friends: Mackintosh refused to name Godwin and only when Parr did did Godwin have opportunity to refute – and he comes off well – why are you attacking me and why now? – he sees how they are attacking him because of pressure of events around them but he refuses to meet them on the low road of personal abuse and his sarcasms too subtle to reach readership – he still had the remarkable nerve to talk about the value of Napoleon’s life.

Mathus’s famous thesis meant as a refutation of Godwin type argument that would provide for more people – the only result could be more would end up starving. Mathus a man of the left, went to dissenting academies, his father friend of Rousseau, enthusiast for Condorcet and Godwin. Godwin realizes the advocates could not find a doctrine more pleasing to them. In preface to Caleb Williams Godwin writes about “the modes of domestic and unrecorded despotism by which man becomes the destroyer of man” – hegemonic disciplining Johnston calls it. Are we condemned to despair things will never improve? – 4 pieces of controversial prose.

Thelwall had found it impossible to speak anywhere so now Godwin to publish. Now for Godwin publishing was his means of making a living. He marries Sarah Jane Clairmont, a widow with children of her own. Godwin publishes as William Scolfield Bible Stories, these sell well, but watchdog Sarah Trimmer seeing its liberal lessons of humane behavior says it has “very pernicious tendencies.” Fleetwood and Chaucer under his name don’t sell so he brings out juvenile library under pseudonyms – some sniff out – they are “creditable,” do not “pander to prejudice,” but educational and liberal presentations of stories and subject.He was destroyed as a writer; irony that he was denied a passport to join Holcroft in Germany; forced to remain in a country that couldn’t abide him.

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A painting of the riots aimed at Priestley

Part II: Forces of Public Opinion

Chapter 3 is titled Dr Phlogiston and is the story of Joseph Priestley (1733-1844). Everyone shocked, tut-tuts at destruction of home and lab of Priestley in Birmingham 1791 July; 5 day riot of king and country mob, more than 30 houses destroyed. Planned event from the start -– in effect an assassination attempt. He was at the time a famous scientist, discovered oxygen, nitrous oxide & 5 other elemental gases; a friend of Franklin, competitor to Lavoisier; also public intellectual – wrote 30 volumes. He was a dissenter; not popular because he’d speak his mind (so too Thomas Beddoes and Gilbert Wakefield). Spoke & wrote on behalf of American revolution. Identified Phlogiston, gaseous element produced by fire.

Johnston tells the history of the slowly evolving riot and its aftermath, showing it was gov’t encouraged, led, endorsed until it changed to proto-revolutionary and then only a few scapegoats punished. Attacked were 1) people at dinner 2) dissenters; 3) intellectuals and rich men. Riot against supposed revolutionaries, then Papist dissenters (!) and then on town’s economic and punitive elite. Priestly did preach a sermon of forgiveness, condescending and ironic, and much disliked by literature classes.

Riots enabled officials to bring Birmingham by customs and actions back into conservative fold. Birmingham independents and unitarians no longer found in positions of authority or publicly acting – how an alarmed reaction can be carefully orchestrated to end in Tory and Anglican party becoming strong. 1794 Priestley sees it is over for him in the UK and emigrates to the US where he refuses public position and carries on as private citizen; his sons join him; Cobbett ridiculed Priestley’s loss, later on he too found refuge in the US. Priestley rightly did not feel safe until Jefferson was elected.

Chapter 4, The Radical Moravian: James Montgomery (1771-1854). Born of Irish parents, in Scotland, his parents went to West Indies as missionaries when he was 8; precocious, wrote poetry, hired as counting house clerk by Joseph Gales in Sheffield; on staff of reform newspaper Register.

Sheffield was a radical place, base for societies and periodicals. There were riots in 1792, Montgomery writes essays on behalf of reform, religious poetry against war. When his employer was hounded out of England to Philadelphia where he founded a press; as the new editor in chief, Montgomery twice arrested: once for reprinting poem re-interpreted as offending. Sheffield Register now called Iris; he is arrested for reporting a troop behavior during a “riot”; 6 months, fined; had a bad time in prison, wrote poetry which shows his outlook and ill health; when he was released, his health was impaired. He goes on to write a series of periodical essays; 1795 The Whisperer or Hints and Speculations: these manifest the twisted kind of prose one writes when trying to say something and hide it at the same time; The Art of Shortening Life, and a 4 volume novel he destroyed. In his later years he devoted himself to good works, religious poetry, against slavery, on behalf of chimney sweeps. He writes a poem against Napoleon’s invasion of Switzerland; Byron preferred Montgomery’s Wanderer of Switzerland to Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads; the public agreed and bought it; he is respected and liked by Southey. Montgomery’s radicalism was not accidental but cut off.

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Part III: Keeping the University and Church Safe from Reform

Chapter 5: Friend of Jesus, friend of the devil: William Frend (1757-1841). Frend was drafted into army in American revolution; in 1775 he went to Cambridge, and began to agitate against Test Acts and exam system (these were sacrosant, they were the way egalitarianism was prevented, they kept these positions in the hands of an interlocking few coteries. Topics he debated debated included the rights of subjects to resist tyranny. Surprisingly perhaps Frend was successful in this milieu at first; he moves to teach poor children of the parish and mathematics for real. When he intensified his Hebrew studies, he no longer believed in the Trinity, and as an idealist began towork for a unitarian church to emerge.

Johnston claims thus Frend was surprised when the response to his arguments was to take away his teaching; he himself gave up two of his parishes as matter of conscience. He also wrote 3 works, each time widening his audience: Thoughts on .. Religious tests, to Rev. HHCoulthurst; then to Inhabitants of Cambridge and finally to Members of church of England. He was expelled; he could not understand why a constitutional critique and his goal of improving Christian knowledge no good.

At this point, Frend went to Germany and spends time with like-minded men, including Priestley’s son, Wm; in Belgium he is closer to events in France. Meanwhile at Cambridge Isaac Milner, Tory politican type takes over; they go after 5 faculty including Frend & 2 friends. The work prosecuted was his Peace and Union – a pamphlet arguing for compromise between republicans and anti-republicans and reform is pretending these things are acceptable. It’s the short appendices that matter: one where he imagines himself the women whose ¼ of salary suspended to pay for war that does them no good; the other remarkable argument that execution of Louis XVI none of UK’s business: they had cut a king’s head off for treason legally too. Startling. Some of the accusations were vague; he protested, his protests werer overridden; the existence of unproven alarm was grounds for prosecution; he is declared guilty and thrown out of university.

Frend then went to live in London and became member of LCS, wrote pamphlet on scarcity of bread and how to provide instead of gathering money for French aristocratic emigres. This is time of Thelwall’s speeches, exposure of exorbitant prices from war, monopoly. Frend would not disobey 1795 acts, though, and spent the rest of life teaching. His new career for money was a job working for actuarial assurance. He was befriended by Lord Byron’s wife, and continued to support good causes, against flogging, in support of reform bill 1832 and published Plan of Universal Education – tax income of Church of England to pay for it (forget that).

Chapter 6: No Laughing Matter: Thomas Beddoes, Sr (1760-1808). Beddoes was mentor to Humphry Davy, professor of chemistry, a forward-looking doctor of medicine who understood how it occurs and is shaped by its social context; he came from a politically liberal commercial family in Shropshire, was admitted to Pembroke, Oxford; studied on his own German, French, Italian; 1790s he wrote translations and reviews in the Monthly Review. 1792 A Letter to a Lady the way to reach the poor is to give them text to read that concerns them for real– private circulation. Prolonged geological researches in Wales; handbill against funding clergy escaping from French revolution – a kind spy system afoot ferrets it out – why he is not offered a salaried post. He was forced out of chemistry lectureship at Oxford; in Bristol later in decade his Pneumatic Institute suffered from conservative attacks. ODBN is misleading and sarcastic.By 1794 Beddoes needed help for this Pneumatic Institute for experiments with nitrous oxide, a therapy for TB; and did receive money from Wedgewood, help from Watt & Georgiana Spencer, Duchess. He was sufficiently well known to consider emigration of the sort envisaged by Coleridge and Southey (active with Coleridge in public meetings). Beddoes is an easy target by 1797-98; changes name of his institute, Preventative Medicine for Sick and Drooping Poor; then Hygiea addressing middle class in their style. He became a standard butt; died at 48 and his work lost to society for another 40 years

His 5 pamphlets exposed interwined issues of war, peace, political policies, economic scarcities and health of poor: A word in defense of the bills of rights; What would be the harm of a speedy peace?. He could not understand how people do nothing and wrote On means of relieving presence scarcity: this would be a system of soup kitchens. His Essay on Public merits of Mr Pitt was published by Joseph Johnson – how badly handled was the war; how much “human misery passes under medical inspection;” lastly, Alternatives Compared; or what shall the rich do to be safe?. These contained a remarkable series of questions that are utterly relevant to day: how far am I secure against false alarms, frauds, violence; do circumstances which I can control threaten deprivation of accommodation and necessities of life; unjust laws encroach on freedom. He makes it plain that real politics are quite mad if you were considering most people’s welfare; Pitt’s design to attack French revolution has made the crisis.

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Broadview edition

Part 4: Other Voices, Other Places: The suspect gender.

A prologue where he suggests women who worked for reform or revolution as writers had it much worse: Wollstonecraft chief target and then whip as a name; and he goes over the destruction of careers of Anna Barbauld (her 1811 poem), Mary Robinson (he emphasizes her later writing and crippled state), Charlotte Smith (her originality marginalized) and Mary Hays (mocked by men and friends).

Chapter 7: Our Paris Correspondent: Helen Maria Williams (1761-1827). Williams led a remarkable life: he praises her in career terms: see her contacts, see how her “consort” Stone was a successful businessman. How many people survive being imprisoned by Robespierre and Napoleon? She is the best example yet of an interrupted misunderstood career partly because she carried on (with Stone by her side which Johnston does not sufficiently acknowledge). Johnston shows how Williams was an “up and coming star” of the 1780s, how her Letters Written in France record the changes, first hope and principles of the French revolution, then dismay at turns it took, then horror at reaction and reactions to reactions, nevering loses sight of the root causes of the terror. This is intertwined with history of her life and her strengths as a writer.

Most effective is learning about those who first distanced and then attacked her (from Piozzi to Seward to Boswell). We see the meanness of Laetitia Hawkins; how others used Williams to forward themselves, “Twill then be infamy to seem your friend” is the motto here (Pope, Rape of Lock, 132) What is valuable here is how he quotes Williams to great effect making the reader want to read her. Her texts include an unflinching horrifying scene of massacres by mass drowning. He goes over her poetry too.

Chapter 8 takes us to Suspect Nations: Let Irish men remain sulky, grave, prudent and watchful, William Drennan (1754-1820).

Again a prologue: how the Continental congress terrified authorities: it showed people organizing and finding a voice without having official state-sanctioned offices! Without any law allowing or controlling them – this was enough to call it treason – they looked and acted like legislative body, would gain respect,so the five leaders were arrested, convicted and transported to Australia 1792-94 (these were called the Scottish Martyrs). Mass demonstrations were quelled. The gov’s went after effective writers too: Joseph Gerrard, son of Irish planter in West Indies, educated under Samuel Parr, worked in Philadelphia with Tom Paine; Welsh people intimidated (David William; Edward Williams aka Iolo Morganwg); William Orr hung in 1797 – administered oaths to members of United Irishmen, wrote in Northern Star – charges totally trumped up and shown to be by satire showing emptiness by rev James Porter also hung, June 1798

William Drennan follow the trajectory of politician-into-poet. The Drennan Letters (culled from 1400 and published Belfast 1931, ed. D.A Chart) survived and contain detailed information about daily events in Ireland, 1776-1807. As a talented literary person he took brunt of attack, wrote to sister, brother-in-law, mother. After he was tried for sedition, June 26, 1794, he withdrew from active politics, where his metier public or open letter, ended an obstetrician. He had written a series of letters on behalf of reform: Of Orellana, an Irish Helot, likening helots to native Irish population, as a fellow Helot haranguing, rolling climaxes with Paine like language. Drennan argued for volunteer rather than constitutional convention (object is constitutional), quietly sought to establish a secret society (favored at the time – think of the Masons) – goal was independence for Ireland, republicanism, united Irishmen his idea. His writing was too; the United Irishmen was declared illegal as an organization and he arrested for sedition. Johnston quotes Drennan in published papers and letters. Informer was Wm Carey but he testified on his behalf and judge told jury to return a guilty verdict for the good of the tranquillity of Ireland, they said Not Guilty. When Wolfe Tone indicted for treason, that ended much overt political activity and writing.

He lost friends when he did not come forward,plus his inheritance, his family & friends suffered humiliations. He married a rich wife, met William Roscoe of Liverpool, and founded a non-denominational academy in effort to free education, edited Belfast Monthly. His poems project a lyricism of loss. His later poetry shows him an “aristocratical Democrat:” he is for republic, not a particular religious group; looked on in 1798 horrified at Irish masses cut down by English and Protestant allies.

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Hubert Robert, Madame Geoffrin drawing (or perhaps writing) when she should be eating her lunch

To sum up this first half of the book, his opening section embodies the idea of book through Opie in old age, and two eloquent victims showing how one does not realize one can be destroyed by others means: Thelwall’s eloquence gives us central argumetns; Godwin exposes motivations for what was done to him by others. Thelwall destroyed in ways he could not foresee, Godwin betrayed and silenced; Johnston presents their thoughts to show their value and their works. Part 2 explains what is hegemonic control with Priestley and Montgomery as examples of what this means. We see this today through what is allowable on TV and how reporters do not tell the full story of an event, distort evidence to please the government and powerful who hire them. Part 3 is about keeping patronage in close-knit network; both Beddoes and Frend are destroyed university types: it’s a kind of ambiguous indirect destruction – and Beddoes still misrepresented, Frend not done justice to.

Part 4 allows us to see through the career Helen Maria Williams carried on with an achievement can be ignored as well as a picture of English views of revolution over its phases. Suspect nations include Scots, Welsh, Ireland – Johnston exposes real questions, real reasons these people were destroyed, imprisoned, silenced, intimidated (Porter’s anonymous articles on Orr who was executed) – in Johnston’s article he is showing how these people were not nationalists – that is somewhat lost sight of here – finding all sorts of individuals shows how wide spread these ideas – underlying is belief it’s continual repression that keeps better world from coming forth – that with power and arms and money you need only destroy leaders, frighten people, and then hegemonic control for mass – belief that change comes from individuals is central to this book.

I suddenly remembered Ann Radcliffe’s silence: was it more than her nervous nature? the liberal reform ideas underlying her book, especially open in her travel book. At any rate she becomes one of the women others.

Ellen

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Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass … Wordsworth, Immortality Ode

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A little over mid-way in Robin and Marion (dir. Robert Lester, script James Goldman, producer Denis O’Dell, original music John Barry, photographed by David Watkin)

Dear friends and readers,

Last night I re-watched Robin and Marion whose date at imdb, 1976, tells me it was 37 years ago Jim and I first saw it. It was a personal journey for me. I probably meant to have a nostalgia melancholy memory journey with Jim but he was not up to watching, and the film was also not as fine as I remembered it. The work’s fable (story, plot-design) matter is both sexist and pro-violence in a mindless way. Robin (Sean Connery) shows up and before you know it Marion (Audrey Hepburn) has given up her veil and is back to cooking and sewing for him while he forages out man-like to put together a band of aging and too young men …

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The central ending is engineered by the Sheriff (Robert Shaw) who again wants to root out Robin and his egalitarian band — this time a one-on-one combat. They manage to destroy one another — so this is presented as something gained? The still shows the scene is done with the basic theme of aging in mind (what saves it is this):

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However the usual clichéd presentations of Richard and John are unqualified.

At the time what was remarked upon was how the actors and scenery no longer looked like Errol Flynn & Olivia de Havilland in fancy stage gear. This is so, the clothes were much less pretty, more cloth, and the surroundings and village and weapons (genuinely primitive) far more persuasive. Alas, we have gone beyond this to a grittier realism. The film is a sort of idyll — the cinematographer loved his work and sought to depict a land relatively empty of people, pastoral and the music carried laden emotions along lightly

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Robin and Little John (Nicol Williamson) arriving

But for the watcher of 2013 it’s also not as un-costumy in today’s terms — the costumes are so clean, so whole, the furniture like some card Arthurian board-game. Audry Hepburn does not have a single wrinkle and is so youthful in body and face this jars as camera work is more realistic nowadays and Sean Connery plays himself — something he’s done for a long time, he’s too easy in the part. The lines outside those given Robin and Marion in their exchanges lose the theme, are wooden, at their best spare, though the cast was excellent: Denholm Elliot as Will Scarlett:

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Robert Shaw, the Sheriff; Richard Harris, king Richard; Ian Holm, king John.

So what does it have 37 years later? Well as we look back to it from yet older age, it’s theme of middle age springs out at you with a single complex of living emotion done singularly evocatively, a conception of aging people who can’t return to their youth even in this glorious landscape, and especially the conception of an aging couple trying to re-capture the past, or re-live it for a moment here or there.

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Thus the quiet loveliness of beautiful spots in the country with the muted music (not many trumpets in this film, no crashing surging chords at all) become a form of aching like that found in Wordsworth’s famous “Immortality Ode.” When the two ex-lovers have re-spent time, moved to one spot, joined as a pair a company, they find they are still breathless with passion and when they get together we see them dive into the grass and love-making is understood to resume, thus the Wordsworth lines (see above): but with this addition (I’m quoting a friend). Remember, nothing can bring back the hour/Of splendour in the grass. The emphasis is all are older (some comically clumsy) and there has been much hurt and loss.

It’s not quite Before Midnight of course as the reasons for the failures are kept fairy tale and boyish: Robin of course had to go to the Crusades, couldn’t resist. If the film-makers could have gotten some other reason for the final scenes of the movie than the ending that would have improved the film a lot. What we get is wrestling–with–swords to the death (I doubt many action-adventure movie types would get this far).

I doubt its other themes could be carried off today: egalitarianism, rebellion against obvious evil, a really felt melancholy over a set of idealized pastoral characters inside a past not retrieved — this reflects something pre-1980, pre-Thatcher, pre-Reagan. It’s presented too naively too, with the assumption we are offended by careerism, ruthless ambition, selfishness (with the bad male characters standing in for these).

I was still touched by the close. After the battle, won by Robin’s having killed the Sheriff, Robin returns to Marion’s cell like room (which I thought Marion had abandoned) perhaps himself to die, or to survive maimed:

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I think she does have some line about how she doesn’t want this sort of thing anymore, no more of this forced or volunteer fighting. So they cannot escape but one way. After the scene of their hands stretched out recalls Michelangelo’s God and Adam — they reach out like Adam and God, without explaining why — Marion pours poison into a cup which she drinks from too.

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The characters are presented simply: so Sean-Robin remains puzzled at the use of a poisoned chalice, he seems to soon accept their coming fate, and if you abandon your mind to this finale, it can work a kind of realization of something precious now destroyed. They are a kind of Tristan and Isolde without an appropriate story to move through to reach this point.

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They will both die, one will not be left without the other. Little John comes in

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in the end then I had another kind of experience than I had thought: Jim is now too ill for us go wandering in the grass and know what we once did, but we can hold fast to something else. Another quotation came to mind for this scene and the whole of the film: and I became an English major because of Wordsworth’s Michael, the lines

There is a comfort in the strength of love
Twill make a thing endurable, which else
Would break the heart ..

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Ellen

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Elle grated upon, resentful

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Lui all reasonableness

Dear friends and readers,

This third time round is not quite as somehow miraculous in its worked-up spontaneous art and apparent felt reality as the previous two films, but we have here still a centrally gratifying attempt at an authentic depiction of a relationship, this time the long-lasting kind where people stay together. The two say the cruel things women and men do say to one another (typical ones for each sex), complain typically, needlingly (she), evade typically (he). It put me in mind of George Sand’s Lui et Elle (He and She).

So, here am I to tell you to that if you were among those who enjoyed the first two installments of what turns out to have become a long-lasting relationship between a couple as configured and dramatized in Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), hurry out to see Before Midnight (2013). I say hurry, for there does not seem to be as big an audience for this pair of sincere lovers, as genuine in their immediate interactions with one another as there once were. There were at most 10 people in the auditorium I saw the film in this afternoon.

I loved the films when they were first aired, and wrote about them in a blog now defunct — it was attacked by a virus. So I can no longer give the details I would like to have to convey the quality of the previous films. I can remember how in the first the two got off a train and had until Before Sunrise and that in Before Sunset where the two have managed to meet briefly once again, seemed to repeat the atmosphere, genuine relationship, beauty, conversation, hope of Before Sunrise with no loss. In the first they parted at the close of the film, in the second they were to stay together for a little while longer.

I regret I cannot speak with as unqualified praise for Before Midnight. There is schmaltz: when they are with others in a summer landscape in Greece eating dinner there is too much posturing of social togetherness

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even if qualified by sudden sharp comments, talk of divorce by the other couples, and one older women’s eloquent description of her aloneness now in her old age widowhood. But once Jesse and Celine set out on their long walk to the gift of a night’s tryst at a nearby air-conditioned hotel,

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Walking and talking once again

and they work themselves up through memory (of what went on in-between this film and Before Sunrise), his irritation and feeling he is treating his son just as he was treated, her frustration at the lack of a consistently developing career burst into a quarrel where bitter things are said to hurt as only people who know what each other will endure can utter, then the film clicks, the two people jell. Once in the room together and alone we see the causes of their mutual irritations, and their typical games; she will go out the door and slam it as if not coming back, and then she returns. When she does not come back in, he follows her to wherever she is. Their paired glasses of wine do not get drunk. This closing phase complete with the brief sudden making up (see the last photo in this blog used as the promotion shot in the ads) is almost as intensely gratifying as the whole of its two predecessor films were.

The situation is this: the two have spent the summer in Greece, in an informal small writers’ colony: so small and informal it consists of a Greek writer and publisher and Jesse and one other male writer, and their two wives and children. All summer the men have discussed their work for a couple of hours a day, and the women have cooked and taken care of the children who have romped and swum. Summer’s end, Jesse and Celine take his son by his first and ex-wife to the airport to return to Chicago and boarding-school and his mother. She and he drive back with their two daughters (who are being brought up to be French). This is the last evening we see them talk with the other members of the group and then they walk off to their gift.

In the previous two films the atmosphere was euphoric with the finding of one another of two emotionally intellectually congenial mutually sexually attractive people. The couple was in love.

Now they are two people who love one another but are pushed into tearing into one another’s vulnerabilities fiercely because they pressured and their distaste insufficiently taken into account by one another, for they cannot.

The film opens with Ethan delivering a beloved son into a plane, which son he must be estranged from as his ex-wife will not give him and Celine custody. The son is one of the living objects our couple fight over. Another is Jesse’s desire to help his son, to go to Chicago and live near him. The boy would prefer his father not to come to see him play in a team at his boarding school. All that does is ignite his mother’s (Jesse’s ex-wife’s) resentment. Celine is ceaselessly thwarted by her lack of free time and over-compromised career choices. By the twin daughters she gave birth to and also loves and is devoted to. Both are giving over their lives to one another and other’s needs — he supports her by the earnings of his books and free-lance work; she adds to their income with her part-time jobs. When they get to the hotel despite its having been paid for by their friends, he has to produce his credit card to cover “incidentals.” After that he is asked to sign his books (apparently about their relationship as seen in the previous two films) and she to co-sign.

They go upstairs and at first as if on-cue begin to make love, but soon fragments of conversation drive them apart. He cannot do anything about her not having had his success. She does not help his estrangement from his son by hanging up the phone after the son calls before giving the instrument over to him to try to reach the boy once again. She half-consciously prevents him having a relationship with the son whom the two phone calls suggests wants it more than he confesses to his father’s face in the opening scene. The film opens on his inability to reach his son and her telling Jesse on the drive back to the summer colony from the airport that she is about to take a politically frustrating job to work for people who grate on her as otherwise she feels of no use at all. That he had a brief fling (a one night encounter) with another woman at a writers’ conference a few years back still poisons her mind; she cannot get him either to deny it happened or admit it.

That the road on the way there (the walking and talking) — to the supposed idyll time at the hotel — is fraught testifies to the truth of the later cruel but true remarks the two throw at one another. It is almost midnight when they make up once again on the terrace and by playing at time-traveling they pretend together to come back from their 9th decade (in their 80s) to experience this new snatched time before midnight just before the 4th of July and summer solstice.

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Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, together again still

The melancholy of this film is no longer about the fleetingness of joy but the attempt to sustain generosity out of mutual need.

I have not seen much of Ethan Hawke’s work (and regret this) but I have kept up with Julie Delpy.

Ellen

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Listen and watch Tony Harrison’s filmed poem, V

‘My father still reads the dictionary every day./He says your life depends on your power to master words.’ — Arthur Scargill,
Sunday Times, 10 January 1982

V stands for Victory, Victim, Versus

Dear friends and readers,

She was a blight on us all — but unfortunately only an extreme version of the kind of people ruling most countries today. Like Reagan, she had a facility for saying something that seemed true, but was specious, that would be quoted and people would say “yes,” not realizing what she was endorsing was the worst and most rotten aspects of our experiences of life.

An important article by Andrew O’Hagan (“Maggie,” New York Review of Books, 60:9 [May 2013]:18-20). What O’Hagan does is show continually how in specific individual human terms Margaret Thatcher’s acts either destroyed some specific person’s hope, daily useful activity, job, opportunity or were responsible for killing literal people, destroying the houses or communities they lived in, e.g., the night she had the Belgrano sunk — outside the acknowledged waters of war (then there were limits to war’s purview) — 323 people died.

Maggie

It appears to be open to all, non-subscribers as well as paper and on-line subscribers, but lest you cannot reach it or do not feel inclined to click, some key paragraphs:

It was an impressive work of social engineering but ultimately a dreadful one. She created a population that is more dependent and less productive. She made us more individual but less cooperative. It must have looked heroic on paper or in the essays of Milton Friedman. But what she did was incredibly coarse in practice: she ground the unions down but left workers with no alternative form of self-esteem or protection, and the result, today, is a workforce of the alienated. She boasted of setting people free but British working people have never been more enslaved to the whims of fashion, corporate greed, and agism than they are now. A young person from a former mining community where there might have been classes in the evenings and a sense of propriety, decency, modesty, and community can now only hope for a place in “the zone”—the world of the “haves”—by winning a celebrity contest or by thriving on the black market …

All the kids in my class were given a small bottle of milk every day at mid-morning. It was nice to drink the milk, but nicer, in some larger way, to learn that you lived in a country where the government your parents paid their taxes to cared about you that minutely. Thatcher stopped the milk. It seemed new, the thought—promulgated by Keith Joseph, Norman Tebbit, and, chiefly, Margaret Thatcher—that people who didn’t want to strive and become better than their neighbors were totally lacking in spirit.

At first it seemed like a small philosophical problem: older people, hard-working people, contented people, sick people would argue that they didn’t have to be winners. They didn’t want to do better: they were quite happy to do fine. They liked being like other people. It squared with their sense of belonging and with their idea of what made British life stable. My mother worked in a youth club and Thatcher closed it down …

The summer before going to university I got a job with the Manpower Services Commission, at the Job Centre, working the front-line desk with the unemployed. It was 1986 and I’ll never forget those lines of men coming up to the desk to inquire about their suitability for work. There were no jobs. They could try for something in a bar or a hairdresser’s, but fifty-year-old men weren’t going to get those jobs and I was instructed not to send them for interviews. Norman Tebbit, one of Mrs. Thatcher’s proudest and crudest lieutenants, told them to “get on your bike and get a job.” And here they were, skilled tradesmen with thirty-five years’ experience, asking if I could put them forward for a job they weren’t going to get collecting glasses in a bar. Mrs. Thatcher came up with various schemes, such as Restart, where the unemployed would be called in and interrogated about what they were “actively” doing to seek work. And I was told to talk to each of the men about the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, by which the government would give them a grant to start up their own business. The notion that some people are simply not entrepreneurial was lost …

Most important for US readers:

She couldn’t hold the nation together, indeed she drove it apart, and that is because she didn’t really believe in the nation except as a sentimental or martial entity. That’s the strangest legacy of all about Maggie: if you listen to those who loved her and thought she was manifestly right, you find, after a while, that you are with people who don’t know their own country and don’t like it either. They think they like it because they don’t like Europe, but in fact, they abjure both. They like their own lives, of course, and their own kind, but they imagine the rest of Britain is mainly an unspeakable place of aliens and scroungers

When Romney and his ilk talk of the 47% they are saying that to them most of the US are scrounges and aliends. When the Republicans and their allies try to limit the vote, they are acting out of the conviction only a tiny percentage of people who live in the US are of their kind (well-to-do, white) and all the rest not quite human. Obama is an illegitimate president because his skin color is wrong.

Ellen

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In 1939 Wuthering Heights: Geraldine Fitzgerald played Isabella Linton, but the film-makers did not have the interest, insight, or nerve to present the range of abuse we see in the book

Dear Friends and readers,

My third and final blog report from the PCA/ACA conference held here in DC. For the first, on serial storying and soap opera, see The Way We Watch TV Now).

Here are panels and papers on women’s issues (abortion, motherhood, careers), recent feminists (Vera Brittain), Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Ann Wrighten, an 18th century memoir of an actress who moved from London to the US, Angelina Weld Gimke’s radical novel, Mara Lena Dunham’s Girls and Aaron Sorkin’s TV show, West Wing. These discussions include the best and worst papers I heard.

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I begin with the women’s issues sessions.

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The best and worst were seen as the conference began, Wednesday, 1:15 pm, in session called Motherhood/Fatherhood (1127). Vicki Toscano, a working lawyer, gave a superb paper on the current legal particulars of abortion law and controversy today. Popular anti-abortion propaganda are being transformed into (or regarded) as science and accepted as parts of laws. Anti-abortion laws increasingly exploit the post-modern idea that what is scientific fact is nothing more than culturally driven beliefs. At the core is the idea that a woman upon becoming pregnant, conceiving is a mother. Women are told lies that there is a risk of infertility and must be psychological damage is they have an abortion. The claim of a risk of breast cancer is untrue (and though she didn’t say it the same pattern of turning myth into science is seen in attempts to coerce women into breast-feeding). Explicit moral language is increasingly made part of laws.

Toscano began with Roe v Wade, 1973. The court found a fundamental right to privacy was violated when all abortion was illegal, but that in the case of pregnancy that right was not absolute. the 1st trimester there need be no regulations; during the 2nd trimester to protect women’s health you can regulate the procedure. Once the fetus can survive, is a baby in potentia (there is disagreement when precisely this is) then the state’s interest in saving the child can trump the mother’s desires. Increasingly then a woman has the right to an abortion only if her life is jeopardized: it seems the fetus feels pain at 30 weeks but machines can detect a heart-beat after a few weeks and if you multiply the fetus a thousand-fold you can make a woman feel there’s a baby there.

In Planned Parenthood versus Casey (1992), the court turned away from the fundamental right to privacy, and instead said a woman’s right to an abortion is part of he right to liberty; it becomes a 14th amendment issue. The decision did away with the three trimester turning points; now the state has the right to protect the unborn from the moment of conception as long as it’s not am undue burden on the mother. The court has never found any obstacle to be that substantial that it gets in the way. States began to express a preference for childbirth over abortion. The state can insist on teaching women about abortion; the limitation is the information must be truthful, not misleading, and relevant. For no other medical procedure is there this demand for a 24 hour waiting period while the woman is told information about their abortion.

Then in 2007 in Gonzales versus Carhart legislation outlawing partial birth abortion (intact D & E) was upheld. The law now had a constitutional obligation to intervene, with a concern for the fetus or baby’s life and no exception made for the woman’s health. Congress decided that if there is any serious health risk cited by anyone, that must be taken into account. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent said the court deprives women of information and the right to make an autonomous choice. The pro-act reasonings included the idea a woman’s place is in her home.

Most importantly what’s happened lately shows a disregard for the mother’s life and well-being, a preference to save or force a baby on a woman no matter if she risks in the process. Women are increasingly being put into jail as pregnancy is in effect criminalized (especially when a woman is unmarried). We are returning to attitudes that undergirded accusations of maternal infanticide.

Sign

Ellyn Lem and Timothy Dunn discussed Anne Marie Slaughter’s “why Women can’t have it all” as if for most women in the US having it all means high professional success and fulfilling family life (husband, children). They went over the Internet controversies, saw Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In as a reply. They really defended both books as serious discussions of women’s lives and conflicts, typical enough lives with admirable values that may be held up as examples.

No one can fault their ultimate general comment that the workplace must have central institutional change to allow women who want to to be part-time at home mothers or wives. But the relevant perspective was that of the tenured college teacher who is dissatisfied because she is not making a huge sum, or on a crucially powerful committee, or is guilty because she leaves her children with a nanny for long hours at a time. Most women make small salaries and must struggle to make ends meet together with their husbands; they have no hired help. Or they are the hired help. They get part-time wages for full-time work. No benefits. The sad value of this session was to see that in these books taken at face value, feminism has become a movement for the few women who can afford to hire other women to take care of their homes and children. Feminism also takes on board neoliberalism, and in Sandberg women urged to imitate the anti-social anti-caring characteristics of men in the workplace.

I offered the idea both texts are irrelevant to most women’s lives; that supposed re-structures of work-days leads to people becoming part-time employees and a plunge in salaries with no benefits. I did not say (as I do here) the whole discussion was in unacknowledged bad taste.

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Vera Brittain later in life — she did in her memoirs also chronicle women’s lives in her fiction-memoirs

Liz Podniecks’ paper on Vera Brittain showed that Brittain challenged an attitude that said women must marry and have children to be fulfilled. Brittain was an outspoken pacificist and feminist who argued that women must be employed for money outside the home to be fully adult fulfilled women. In her Testament of Youth she exposed and denounced the barbarity and uselessness of patristic wars. She herself did marry, but kept her name (unusual for the time); Winifred Holtby lived with Brittain and Brittain’s husband and helped a series of hired nannies to take care of Vera’s children. In her writing Brittain continually attacked the “useless” woman, the woman who has nothing serious to do when her children go to school; they vicariously live through their children, are dependent. Once a woman has a good job and home she can stop over-emphasizing the importance of emotional relationships which are not central to the real business of life. They are (in truth) secondary to the way society is structured.

It may be true that some middle class women live pampered lives once their children grow older; and certainly sentiment is not the driving force behind how we order our lives. But this paper, as put, was also elitist at core. It is not a matter of choice for most women. They do not want to be dependent; many cannot get near a good paying job, and thus do find their highest satisfactions in their family’s shared lives. What worried me about this paper was the next inference would be to get rid of women’s right to live on their husband’s social security if he should predecease her when she spent her life as his wife, working at home for him and his and her children and herself mostly without pay. This would force women to work outside the home, many in menial work which given men’s present reluctance to help with housework and take inward responsibility for children would give many women an endless burden. (Pass ERA and the supreme court with its identification with employers would be only too glad to do this; Republicans would be overjoyed to get rid of social security for a good chunk of the population.) For many women it’s asking too much when they are not born to the kind of people that lead to good colleges, degrees, jobs.

To be fair to Brittain, I’ve read her Testament of Youth and know it’s a deeply humane text.

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Cast of Girls: Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham and Zosia Mamet

Well, after the above, the only other women’s issues session I went to was an early Saturday afternoon “Gender and Media Studies” (4427, 1:15 pm) which I attended to hear a paper on “Girls” as well as “West Wing,” the first of which I’ve seen and the second never watched but was curious about.

I found Nikita Hamilton’s paper touching. An African-American young woman, she loves Girls and was determined to justify its lack of black and working class people, it upper middle class stance (the girls are supported by parents, don’t worry about losing jobs) to downplay what she admitted was its neo-liberal stances (“they do regret materialism”). she basically argued that this was a slice of life sufficiently realistic and reflective of young women’s problems today. Her valiant try reminded me of how I sometimes justify Downton Abbey as being for community, showing compassion for its characters (“intelligent dialogue”); so many of us find that we love programs in the popular media which are arch-conservative and exclude us. It’s hard to admit to enjoying racist texts which are rightly attacked as suc (e.g., Gone With the Wind is) on the grounds that this is what is on offer, where fine talents are allowed play. To say the more liberal, inclusive, socialist story is just not told. Ms Hamilton discussed the third season where Lena has a black boyfriend who is (natch) a Republican and it doesn’t last past two episodes. She said the use of a “float” magically powerful female black character (as is found in Sex and the City in recent formulations) is not much better.

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Martin Sheen as the bully president, Allison Janney as his right-hand Hillary

I would have liked to believe Olivia Kerrigan’s thesis that West Wing is liberal economically and seriously alert to class privileges as well as mildly feminist but from her anaslysis of the three central women characters (all in elite positions, from a Hillary Clinton first lady, to her secretary, to a press agent), it seemed to me this program supported the point of view I heard expressed in session 1127. The program’s male hegemony (comically exposed) irritates & limits the women characters only in small symbolically grating ways. I’ve seen a video which does show the central male (president) as a bully mocking an educated women (naturally with that horrifying thing, the equivalent of a bluestocking sign, the English Ph.D.) but as explained to me we were to admire that man so I came away thinking the program reinforces our elitist hierarchical corporate society with its endorsement of competition as central to social life. Older feminist movies with actively strong career women types like Rosalind Russell (or Jean Arthur) had neither the bullying males nor the anti-intellectualism I’ve glimpsed in this series,and they evinced a genuinely social conscience towards people outside the elite world.

Two other papers briefly: Angelita Faller analyzed a group of commercials for home alarms and showed that they assume women want to be raped, black men are very dangerous, white men good protective heroes, and women living alone are not safe. Jose Feliciano brought out underlying challenges to mainstream conventional heterosexuality in MTV videos, discussing the bisexuality of stars like Lady Gaga. See my super-numinosity.

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If nothing else, the papers on imaginative works from a feminist point of view vindicated literary studies. Asked to study finer imaginative works, the presenters did bring out sustainable critiques of the way society is organized, gives women a raw hard deal, victimizes them, complete with examples of a few women who did manage fulfilled lives despite this.

I’ve three sessions, but only four papers to cover, as (shocking) in one of them only one person out of a planned three or four showed; in another the other two papers were written in an abstract jargon impossible to understand, read at top speed and appeared to be about embarrassingly poor texts; and in the third only two papers were about women issues.

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Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland at the Abbey (yes one of the four includes on Northanger Abbey)

I’ll begin with the best (or maybe only) literary paper in the conference I heard: Andrea Brittany Brannon’s paper on domestic violence in Wuthering Heights (Friday, 3305, 11:30 am).

It was a relief and delight to hear Ms Brannon defend and sympathize with Isabella Linton as the novel’s centrally abused woman. Through this character we see how male power is privileged and unquestioned; how easy it is for the male to disvalue and put his wife in the wrong (how dare she disobey him?): Isabella begins as a woman who enacts her society’s version of impeccable behavior to becoming someone who cannot cope with the smallest difficulty. Bullying has reduced to marginalization; she is Heathcliff’s way of getting back. She wanted him for the same glamorous sexed-up reasons Helen wants the upper class Arthur in Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hal, but unlike Anne’s novel where we live the experience of abuse through Helen, here we see it through Nellie’s conventional eyes: Isabella is therefore become a slattern without self-respect, and if weak, deserving the cruel treatment of the easily irritated. Heathcliff tells Nellie how Isabella comes to him shamefully clinging. We may see her struggling to apply the only social behavior she knows and finding it useless to help her, inappropriate in her situation. We see her physically punished and banished with him playing the rightly scolding parent. She cannot leave for she has nowhere to go — in the case of Helen she turns to her brother. Isabella’s brother, Edgar, her one male relative with power to help, is angry at her for marrying Heathcliff and abandons her to Heathcliff. So the patriarchy fails her.

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Isabella Lindon Heathcliffe (Sophie Ward) from the 1992 Wuthering Heights (glimpse of Ralph Fiennes as Heathcliff from the side)

Ms Brannon pointed out we do have Isabella’s letter, the only narrative in the book which comes to us unmediated by Nellie or Lockwood, but most readers don’t pay attention to this counter-move against the romance of Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliffe. The 1992 movie with Ralph Fiennes is a rare Wuthering Heights to dramatize the next generation and second part of the book where Isabella appears. Most reviewers if they mention Isabella at all blame her (the victim). Ms Brannon made a good case for regarding Isabella as a relevant portrait of domestic abuse today. Isabella is a woman with no access to legal protection. Ms Brannon conceded the novel is problematic as clearly Emily Bronte does sympathize with Heathcliff as the underdog and violence in this novel seems more than accepted as a source of power.

This was the session which was supposed to have paper on Little Women and the Civil War, one on Daisy Miller as a feminist hero and no one came. So there was plenty of time for a good discussion. There were about 5 audience members. Some, like me, said, they had never liked Wuthering Heights as much as the other Bronte books. I thought that Emily Bronte truncated the Isabella story too much, did not realize she was onto some powerful material here. Those who had liked the book when they were young did fall in love with the wild romance.

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Angelina Weld Grimke (1882-1958) (African-American playwright)

For the papers on an 18th century actress who reinvented herself, Ann Wrighten, a powerful early 20th century black woman writer, Angelina Grimke, and Northanger Abbey and A Christmas Carol as gothics, see comments.

Ellen

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Pablo Larrain shooting his film

Dear friends and readers,

“No.” Just say no is not all that easy. I recommend heartily as educational as well as absorbing this film about a serious revolution from the perspective of a real plebiscite able to oust Pinochet because the military and powerful let it happen: the man and his clans, flunkies, thugs were just too murderous and destructive … it’s treated from the perspective of campaign commercials. Links to the real commercials show the film is accurate enough. One drawback is the man who made the film is a close relatives of people high up in Pinochet’s gov’t so the superficiality and cynicism of it comes from his rightist take.

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I write to recommend hurrying out to see Pablo Larain’s No, a film about a serious revolution from an unusual, perhaps shallow and cynical and disillusioned, or at least piquant perspective. I went to see it because it starred Gael García Bernal

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René Saavedra (Bernal) with his son on his shoulders, next to him the socialist (or communist) leader, Urrutia (Luis Gnecco) who recruited him to make campaign commercials

I remembered Bernal as central to the power of a great political film, Even the Rain about a real-life attempt to by brutal cruelty privatize and charge huge prices for water in Columbia. I wrote a blog explaining why it was a must-see film.

In comparison, No has significant flaws outlined here: One Prism. The unusual perspective is that a transformative plebiscite which formed the legal engine for ousting a brutally cruel fascist military dictator, Pinochet (mass murderer, torturer) is treated from the perspective of campaign commercials. Certainly these were significant and important in explaining to the largely uneducated population of Chile why they should vote No when they were given the choice of continuing Pinochet or begin the arduous uncertain process of building a democracy. You might think it’s obvious the best choice is to get rid of such a state-leader terrorist, but it’s not. What will replace him? What are you voting for? “No” is such a negative word to push a lever on. But these were the loaded terms the Pinochet establishment offered to have an election on.

Those who wanted to overturn Pinochet had 15 minutes of TV time at night, the first TV time anyone outside the Pinochet (and US) groups had had any access to the public. When Rene is hired, things are not going well for the democrats because their commercials are too pessimistic; they show what has been, the horrors, they universalize and validate individual people’s memories, but as seen in vignettes voters vote their narrow interests and they are interested in their future. Some were afraid of retaliation; that the election would be rigged, and a win would not be allowed and torture and killing would ensue for those who voted for democracy.

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Police Squads are everywhere in the film

Political argument is not easily understood. Rene concocts films which are the equivalent of selling coca-cola by images of happiness, rainbows, silly pictures of people soaring on skates, sexily dressed women dancing. But it begins to work and then we watch a battle of commercials as the other side run by Rene’s ex-boss, Guzman (Alfredo Castro) makes similar commercials mocking, riffing, refuting, imitating Rene’s.

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Guzman

It’s cynical because the message is you can only persuade people by vacuous nonsense. It omits months of hard registering votes, years of gradual dangerous organization, the full political and economic context. It’s no coincidence the director is Larrain descends from two prominent right wing families who supported Pinochet. But while as usual in these political films, we are given a few elite men get together to save a country, it undeniably true that the commercials used pop methods and were important. Larrain’s movie does imitate them. But the suspense of his movie results from the very real threats from the regime the movie-making team are seen to deflect avoid, luckily escape from, and equally the movie’s message could be, do what you have to to get progress going. if the average person is not attracted to listen to gravity, to careful literal argument, does not want to remember the grief of horrifying losses, then give them happy coco-cola images.

Further, it’s not true that all the images in the films made are dancing girls and jumping young men. Passing by our eyes are silent images of what was and the treat: one struck me was a film of a tank threatening to mow down a little girl in its path. We get slow motion shots of police cracking down on the heads of peaceful protestors with hard-wood batons. We see wrenching grief, abysmal poverty — fleetingly but there as reminders. We see real footage of actual political events blended in with the fictional ones, seemingly seamlessly. And the film shows that on that last day Pinochet tried to present a miscount of the vote, and declare victory when he had lost, but that he could not get away with that because important military leaders had gone over to the side of democracy.

As I watched I remembered that Even the Rain had been about the making of a movie too. The movie was to be about Columbus and the crew hired local peasants at peon wages; a parallel to the harsh and relentless exploition of Colmbia’s people is seen in the story of Columbus told. So you might say that No takes one part of the matter of Even the Rain and develops it more thoroughly. All the talk about film-making, the watching of the making of these films is intriguing: Try Freedom. Less Filling. Tastes Great!. After all campaigns are centrally important in who wins an election.

There is a sub-story, a romance where Rene’s wife is an active political operative who has a male lover and lives apart from him. She is in fact the only individualized woman in the film. Yes this is another movie of a world run by men, with token women used as weapons against one another, there as sex objects or mothers and aunts mainly. When she is clapped into jail, and Guzman as a favor to Rene, engineers her release, Rene is grateful to Guzman.

Here Rene is hurt and lonely but does not know how to win her back.

Gael García Bernal, Antonia Zegersblog

Their son lives with him, and is who he must protect from marauders for the gov’t. At the end of the film Rene is not that happy. His life has not been fundamentally changed, for individual improvement goes slow. He even goes back to his original job making commercials for a corporation to sell soda.

But I felt this refusal to offer meretricious joy was part of the film’s strength. As Obamacare kicks in provision by provision, it helps this or that person this or that way. If Medicare is whittled away, it will take a few years for large porportions of the people to feel the new pain, new costs, renewed exclusion, and it’s hard to connect someone’s early death directly to a loss of coverage since much that occurs in human life has several causes.

Yes it can be read as susceptible to a right-wing frivolous superficiality, but here history is defeating this. Gradually some Latin and Central American countries are throwing off these military dictators put in power by the US, neo-liberal regimes, and opting for social democracy and in countries like Venezuela the improvement in people’s lives as a result of elections speaks for itself.

So while not a unqualifiedly great film, go see this attempt to commemorate and dramatize an aspect of the political experience of reforms (and set-backs to reforms) today. By seeing it you register a vote for making more adult political films.

Ellen

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