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Posts Tagged ‘Henry James’

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

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An English Home, Albert Coburn (1907 illustration)

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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Martin Donovan as Ralph Touchett (Portrait)

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

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

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Barbara Hershey as Madame Merle (Portrait)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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John Malkovich as Osmond (Portrait)

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

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

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John Singer Sergeant, An Interior in Venice (1899)

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

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Constance Fennimore Woolson

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

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

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

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

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Paris, La Rue de Rivoli, Anonymous, undated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Henry James by Katherine McClellan (1905)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

This time I will quote from my book:

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

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

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

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

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A suggestive photograph by Carleton Watkins (1865-66)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can’t recommend it too highly.

Ellen

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Woolf’s working desk at Monk House

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve four more sessions to report on from this year’s MLA (see a rejuvenating time, the 18th century, public poetry, audio books, films): two on Virginia Woolf (one with Katherine Mansfield as part of a dual subject), one on Mark Twain and Henry James, and a fourth on the Victorian marriage plot.

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Duncan Grant (1885-1978), The Coffee Pot (1916)

“Everyday Woolf” (No. 31, Thurs, Jan 3rd, noon to 1:15 pm) was the first I attended and (as sometimes happens) it was one of the best. All three papers were superb. Adam Barrows talked of “Mrs Dalloway and the Rhythms of Everyday Life”. Mrs Dalloway is confined to one day is a polyrhythmic sympohy felt in the body of biological rhythms, social patterns intersecting with the irreducably local and yet it all fits into a cosmic pattern. Discordant uneasy rhythms which function as disruptions. The text covers sleeping, eating, a continual melange of noise, visual perception, silence. We hear an irregular heartbeat. Septimus is made ill by what is imposed on him from war and now work. Mr Barrow read aloud great reveries from the novel. Kayla Walker discussed To the Lighthouse; each character is at work, Mrs Ramsay cooperatively, carving out space and time; she close-read the text for its rhythms and imagery.

In his paper, “Virginia Woolf and the Modern Blessings of Electricity,” Sean Mannion suggested that modernism begin when electricity began to spread. At first it was written about as a disenchantment, and Woolf shows nostalgia over fire- and gaslight. Newspapers found the world now looked like an amusement park; moonlight would not have the same function or meaning; light is now separated from fire. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote of he warmth and radiance of gaslight. There were dangerous and fatal incidents early on as people had to learn how to use electricity. Woolf’s Night and Day captures a love of firelight lost in the glare of electric light; her Jacob’s Room has a mixed assessment. Of course the power of what electricity could do more than compensated for the losses, and there is an ecstatic feel too (in The Voyage Out), among other places, the library.

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Vanessa Bell (1879-1961), a friend reading in a library

A second session on Virginia Woolf, this time with the Katherine Mansfield Society, was about their personal relationship and aesthetic and professional interactions (No. 338, Fri, Jan 4th, 3:30 4:45 pm). I missed the paper on their reaction to the newly formed theories of psychoanalysis, but I did hear part of Bret Keeling’s talk on their dealings with masculinity in their work and men in their lives, and Kathryn Simpson on their differing attitudes towards gifts (also in the sense of talent) and desires. She defined a gift by its function: it can consolidate social bonds, be an assertion of power and identity and authority. What was the central focus of all I heard (including the discussion afterward) was how the two women were different in background: Woolf the daughter of the Victorian intelligensia, and then a member of the Bloomsbury intellectual art-radical group, a highly defensive writer; Mansfield a colonial who needed money more desperately than Woolf and was treated badly by men, plagiarizing sometimes, radical, adventurous in during her tragically short life. Writing was central to their identity and their styles and aims were coterminous; they were rivals.

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James Whistler (1834-1903), The Giudecca (chalk & pastels on grey paper, 1879)

The joint-societies’ session of Henry James and Mark Twain (No. 377, Fri, Jan 4th, 5:15-6:30 pm) was filled with unexpected perspectives. Kaye Wierzvicki’s paper focused on James’s The Bostonians, Book 3 set in Cape Cod. We encounter a post-civil war US, a central nub in a global network as well as tourist attraction. James explores its geographic identity, what places in the world it brings together through culture and characters; it figuratively projects other places like it. Kathryn Dolan taught me that Twain was anti-imperial. Twain wrote several travel books, and one (1866?) about Hiawaii exposed how the product sugar led to cruel exploitation of imported (coerced) efficient labor patterns. In his later travel writing he reported on British islands in the South Pacific, Following the Equator, then he traveled to islands in the Indian ocean. He sees forms of slavery in the transported. I just loved Harold Hellwig’s paper which he read very fast as it was long: he covered the many images, myths and stories, and visions of Venice found in Twain and James’s writing. Both show that the allure of Venice is a cover for its ruined condition. Venice provides an inner journey of the mind; Twain presents a place false, destructive marketplaces yet its people with strong self-respect. Both have famous character sketches where they capture qualities of life (James an American Mrs Bronson, Twain an escaped black enslaved man). He recited powerful passages by both writers and had a continual montage of images of Venice from the Renaissance until today when few can live there because of the continual floods.

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Christopher Eccleston as the hopeful aspiring Jude at the begining of the film (1996 Jude directed by Michael Winterbottom; see my blog on Hardy films)

The last session we attended (suitcases under our chairs) was “Rethinking the Victorian Marriage Plot” (No. 745, Sun, Jan 6th, noon to 1:15 pm). Despite an apparent contemporary emphasis on women characters looking to be useful, do real work in the world (for which they are paid in some way), a professed interest in disabilities and people in need, the underlying perspective was that of women reading for love stories that teach the female reader what she wants to hear as relevant to her. Talia Schaffer suggested that Jane Eyre scorns St John Rivers because his ideal of meaningful work represses private satisfactions. Ms Schaffer looked upon Rochester as disabled and needing Jane’s help and love. Maia McAleavey discussed how the bigamy plot in Victorian novels substitutes for an argument on behalf of divorce: in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Aurora Floyd a female bigamist makes choices she escapes from; in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure Arabella marries bigamously and finds more opportunity while Jude and Sue by behaving ethically find themselves bound and destroyed.

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Sue (Kate Winslet) in a similar hopeful moment (1996 Jude)

As I sit here tonight I find myself going through the MLA book of sessions and wondering why I didn’t go to this or that (tonight seemingly) far more interesting session than those I chose. In these four blogs I have omitted a lot I did try because the time turned out dull, or jargon-ridden and phony, people posing, or the topic actually preposterous. Some were hard to write about or take notes: like a session given by companies who have put huge dictionaries on line. I went to no sessions on translation; none on intriguing odd topics (“Denis de Rougemont and appropriations of the troubadours”); there were sessions on dubbing and subtitling in movies, on animals, on psychoanalysis in literature, prison architecture, the poetics of death, global Shakespeare. It was a matter of guessing, try what I knew and where I might meet friends and acquaintances, try to go to some with Jim, leave a little time for going out and eating (it was too cold to explore Boston much). I can’t prove this but I had a sense there were fewer sessions than there used to be, and consequently a greater proportion of sessions on job hunting, careers, teaching and scholarship politics (all of which I’ve learned to avoid, especially anything for contingent faculty which often are semi-acrimonious).

I need tonight to remind myself that when we left we were exhilarated by our time away, and said we would go again the next time the MLA came to the east coast (as long as it was not too far south). We have two planned for this year already (ASECS in April and EC/ASECS next fall) and I’m going to one on Popular Culture here in DC in March where I plan to spend a full day listening to sessions on film adaptations, films and hear a paper on Winston Graham’s historical fiction from a feminist standpoint.

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Inge Morath (1923-2002), A Park Bench

Ellen

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Colm Toibin when much younger

Dear friends and readers,

Last night we went to a local bookstore which regularly hosts talks and classes about books (as well as a weekly storybook hour for children and tours too), Politics and Prose. We’d never been there before, and to the area only once, when last July we were invited to come to a fourth of July barbecue (what a treat for us). A member of the Irish embassy asked all those who came to read James Joyce’s Ulysses on Bloom Day. We heard about this because Jim got an email from the Irish embassy which now has his name.

A large old-fashioned bookstore, two floors (!), where books are actually set up by their categories and within that the author’s name (like a library, like Borders once was). A couple tables upfront with latest sellers, and in the back audiobooks on CD. You can wander about and come upon treasures just like this. I saw Alice Kessler-Harris’s A Difficult Woman (a biography of Lillian Hellman) on display, but had decided for Toibin’s Love in a Dark Time: And Other Explorations of Gay Lives and Literature, a book of somewhat rewritten essay-review meditations published elsewhere (the LRB, the NYRB and other places). If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know how much I like his essays, and how I’ve loved those of his novels I’ve read thus far. It turns out I’ve read 4 of 7 (In praise of Colm Toibin: Un-put-downable).

Last night he was there to promote his latest novel (apparently the 7th), The Testament of Mary. Yes the central character is the Virgin Mary (does she have a last name like the rest of us?). It’s a really a novella, a short one at that, and from what he wrote a retrospective meditation by Mary some 20 years after the brutal crucifixion of her son. She is now living in safety, relative peace, left to herself by all and two visitors show up, one Lazarus. Yes he takes liberties — good historical fiction often does. The core idea is the irretrievableness of what happened and how she cannot forget and if she could change it, do it differently somehow, how she longs to. It’s memories poured out. As a subjective narrative by a women it harks back to his great The South. He seems to have a predilection for writing heroine’s texts (Brooklyn, Henry James in The Master is a kind of male heroine).

What a large crowd. It did not overwhelm the store, but it was much larger than we’d expected of such an intellectual sensitive author. There were not enough chairs for all.

He began by telling us of his trips to Venice and two paintings of the Virgin he had stood before repeated: a Tintoretto, perhaps The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, and a Titian, The Assumption. What he seems to have liked especially about the latter was her red robe and how she soared above reality. He is himself getting older.


Recent photo — he does look like this, only he is a small man, somewhat bent, light brownish-white skin, light brown hair

Today I see that the Tintoretto has Mary in a red robe too, and the picture’s content against the reason for its festival, takes us across her life.

They were the inspiration for the book. He did not tell us why he wrote it, only that he would like it to be taken seriously and he didn’t mean it as a mock. He didn’t think the church would bother notice it — he said this in answer to one question afterwards. He does read very well, and his voice was how I’d imagined it, Irish lilt but not too heavy. I stayed awake and listening for much of it, though when his register came too low I couldn’t hear it all. We were in the back, having arrived only ten minutes before the “reading” started.

It was obvious he’d done this many times. He was smooth, and seemed such a sweet man. These sorts of things are part of what makes an author successful. The book launch. He’s learned how to do it. Among questions asked were does he have a routine, a place he always writes, what does he write with. He said he writes anywhere and with any thing (mostly a pen) and no he’s not a routine type. He does sometimes have to write a book quickly or whatever quickly lest he forget it; get it down, and then he comes back to work at it. He is not a man who has written a lot of very long books, say like Dickens, Trollope, Margaret Oliphant, Wm Dean Howells, and they all had fixed routines and places they wrote. He has made his career through socializing too and his oeuvre (in pages) most actually be preponderantly non-fiction.

I wanted to reply to something he had said before starting his readings. He said that other “classic” fiction novels, 19th century, were no help “here.” He comically alluded to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Dickens’s Miss Havisham, they could not help him. Nor Henry James. Perhaps Mrs Touchett (Ralph’s mother, isolated, alone, an “odd” woman.) While he was reading I thought of Daniel Deronda’s mother, Eliot’s older heroine who returns 25 years after giving her son up to another so she could have an operatic career, a life of her own. Now bitter, not remorseful, but regretful because after all she ended up marrying and having children anyway. The dreams she had had not been realized and how here was this son reproaching her.
But the mike was too far away.

I didn’t try to buy anything directly afterwards. The line became very long. Instead we walked three stores down to the Comet, a pizza place with ambience. A large screen played over and over the poignant short Italian film, The Red Balloon. No sound just the images before you. The walls gray. The tables ping-pong, the seats benches. Soft lights. We had two pizzas, small, a white (all cheese, garlicky nothing else) and a red (just tomato sauce topping, more spicy, reminding me in its heavy dough and yummy surface of pizza in NYC in the 1950s, so-called Napoles-like). A carafe of chianti. The place was moderately full.

We talked. We realized this was probably the first book reading we’ve ever gone to as such. Play readings by a group, lectures, maybe a book reading within a performance of other things, but not alone. Jim said we never went to the Folger poetry readings because they cost. This was for free. Also the people were less known and there was obviously time for too much talk. So too much egoism would be on display he felt. I remembered going to listen to Empson read his poem in the Graduate Center in the 1970s. How he read little and talked much of his poetry. But the talk was splendid, really insightful (as Toibin’s was not quite, though not deliberately misleading as say Andrew Davies on his films), and how John Hollander got up to ask questions, all admiring and how Empson (spiteful in this but perhaps made uncomfortable) cut him down, half-mocked him. Also a lecture by Margaret Mead at the Museum of Natural History. All I can recall is how intelligent and humane she was and ever after have reacted to all dismissals of her work, denigrations of her with a memory of this seeing her and knowing they are unfair to her.

We decided we would try some more at this place. Then to support the bookstore, we went back. That’s when I bought Love in a Dark Time. All the Testaments to Mary were gone. To tell the truth, I was not sure I wanted it, as I felt it would be wrapped up in Catholicism as some level, and I’m an atheist. I was sure it’d be feminist in intent. If Toibin had said he found out or invented a last name for her, and told us of it, I might’ve. They had only had his most recent novels: (Blackwater Lightship two copies, one still left, and mostly Brooklyn and The Master, latest and best known. I have them all plus The South and Homage to Barcelona (not there). But there was suddenly one copy as if from deep in a basement (the girl at the counter said it was “a backlist” book), this book of essays. So I snatched it. His essay on Wilde’s exposure of his homosexuality as “found out,” as a person wanting to be “found out” has influenced my thinking ever since.

We got home by 10ish, not too long to write one final blog on Jane Austen’s letters. I’m not going to give them up, but maybe go yet slower and do it by myself. The prompting from Austen-l helps, and the sense (however deluded) of reaching people, but the flak, the continual cliched readings and occasional either preposterous or theoretical agendas don’t help me at all. I waste time and make no friends refuting them.

Earlier that day I had talked on WWWTTA about Temple Grandin’s film about how animals form bonds, friendships, and people’s perception of them, and the trajectory the film belonged to. Really worth while and gotten into other debates on the growing dissemination of how it’s okay for women to subjugate themselves to sadism, even light fun … ), but I’ll add these as brief comments here later today.

We wished we could have more such nights. People are only gradually becoming aware of what a delightful city DC is slowly turning into. The neighborhood around there is small houses, apartments further off, and some shopping blocks. It’s marred by a large street which traffic streams through daily and that obscures the quiet ambience of the play otherwise. I’ve vowed to myself to read Love in a Dark Time, Homage to Barcelona, and (connected to Toibin and the project on book illustrations to Trollope which I’ve just finished — a blog this weekend), Amy Tucker’s The Illustration of the Master.


Reprinted by Tucker, it was chosen by James as a frontispiece for A Portrait of Lady, and could serve as frontispiece for Toibin’s The Master.

Ellen

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

So, to begin this morning,

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


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

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

From The Prime Minister, “Tenway Junction”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Toibin’s Ireland

Dear friends and readers,

It’s about time I wrote in praise of Colm Toibin, of his biographical and critical essays, of his novels, his biographical fiction, his travel books. I can’t think of any writer as originally thoughtful, perceptive, humane, quietly iconoclastic, informative, absorbing, who reads authors as interesting or simply writes as well so consistently. When I see his name on a list of contributors to any periodical I subscribe to, I go to him first and he doesn’t disappoint. This morning I was lifted out of bleak loneliness (Coping) into a consoled companionableness by his review of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending (for New York Review of Books LIX, 8 (May 10, 2012)9-11 where he quoted Larkin in ways that resonated with my feelings, validated them.

Toibin an Irish journalist who comes from precisely the area he has set his story in; he is himself gay or homosexual and he has written out of this perspective more directly at times. While he does write about overt politics, there is much travel writing and three of the novels at least center on this business of the compromises and concessions you must make if you want to stay in a family circle at all, or the difficulties of being in a family setting. He is interested in colonialists and hybrid-identities and literature: Anglo-Irish, Anglo-Indian, French-African, Irish-American. Catholic by faith, liberal-leftist in outlook, sympathetic to revolutionary movements, he’s a gifted writer: delicately powerful stories. He now lives in Dublin.

I can’t list all the essays by him I’ve read, over the years especially on Henry James, Oscar Wilde; his arguments stay with me and I use them in my essays and postings and they become part of my thinking. I’ve not read his short stories, but I have read The Master (a fictional biography of Henry James, see my blog on Kaplan’s biography), The South, Blackwater Lightship, Brooklyn. I wish I had read more, and now that my reading time at night is limited I shall have to turn to him during the day.

The South

I remember parts of the book vividly still. Reading The South made me choose to read his The Master and teach Blackwater Lightship and most recently (as my Christmas treat) Brooklyn.

The heroine in The South leaves cold husband and unsympathetic son to make a new life for herself in the south with a wholly unconventional painter who had fought on the left side against Franco; he had been tortured, is now under surveillance and the way he leaves is to retreat to the mountains to live very meagrely (since he has little money and no way of getting any kind of middle class income-producing job). She loves the escape, release, life with him, and herself begins painting. Much on Spanish landscape and customs of a leisured pattern of days. Eventually she gets pregnant by him and years pass and they do improve their (what some would say) squalid living arrangements. Alas, the authorities decide to come after the man again, he is again trying to do some good in the political world. He is again imprisoned, perhaps tortured (I’m not sure on this latter detail), at any rate deeply distraught once more. He has retired from society as a reaction to what he saw in the thirties. (The texts to read here is Orwell’s Reflections of the Spanish Civil War and the Homage to Catalonia). Alas, a horrible accident kills both this man and the new son — we are to see this accident is also wanted; the man wants out and he takes his son with him.

The devastation to our heroine is for a time crushing — though her behavior manifests the same pragmaticism of approach. Some wandering, and meandering and eventually she does return to Ireland, partly lured there by her son by the first husband. Not forgiven (for what should she be forgiven? is the sense of the text) nor forgiving (they are not sorry for what they are), nonetheless, her older family finds a place for her to live in Ireland.

Meanwhile (I’ve left this part out) her career as an artist has gone on quietly flourishing with paintings recording her sense of Spain and experience. She has lived an authentic life and continues to do so until the book quietly closes and at whatever price she had to pay in others’ refusal to countenance this since they did not.

The reverse is true of the heroine of Brooklyn. Indeed the slightly shocking close shows the heroine returning to Ireland and her originally intended husband because 1) she had promised to, and under the stress of circumstances been pressured into literally marrying the first lover, he having surmised she might just not come back when she sees improved living standards and freedom — he had been her only choice; no jobs anywhere that are fulfilling or money-making for such as someone from her family); and 2) the authority figures in Brooklyn discover she has married elsewhere and threatened to expose her; she knows she will become a pariah because this is the way such people as a group work, so home she goes, leaving then the man who had come to love her in his compromised way (he needs her, she fits in &c&c).

I remember the devastatingly accurate assessment of her relationship with the mother, used and she knows using her. We had been thinking the heroine was better than all these, but she is exposed as just like everyone else. And we are to feel for her, deeply feel for us all in her case.

The heroine in The South escaped all this; hers is the reverse story. But she did for much of her life live hard, in poverty, alone, her beloved man tortured, hounded and escaped through killing herself and she ends in this cottage provided for her, silent again (as the kind of talk in her Irish family is once more irrelevant to anything that matters to her for real).

But the meaning inherent in The South and Brooklyn is the same, the perspective out of which they come and the ultimate message about the obstacles to living an authentic life.

I love candour and hard-truth telling in a book; the unexpected ending exhilarated me. So many falsely easy and happy pseudo-optimistic stories are told; rather than give hope, they irritate and depress me as having the effect of throwing the blame on people who don’t do well. On the the other hand, wanting to think very well of the heroine, Eilis Lacey, when she was in the very final pages of the book obviously willing to overthrow her Brooklyn husband, Tony, and marry the new Irish man, Jim, who owned a pub and was admired by all, in a situation where she saw that instead of being ignored as the useless superfluous second sister, she would get a better job than in NYC (the competition in NYC was too keen for her to rate an office job), I liked her less. I was anxious for her because I thought it would matter to her so much to lose the beloved Tony, but when I was shown how she would give this up, I acceded it was truthful but cared less.

I loved the portrait of the mother who knew or had enough to suspect all along
her daughter had formed new ties in Brooklyn but ignored it, pretended not to
know in order to pressure the girl into lying and staying. But when the girl was
to go because her marriage in Brooklyn was found out, instead of showing affection, the mother shut the door on her. Here we see how people really value one another and what for. Now she can’t get from the girl what she wanted: not just a companion but someone who this pub owner would marry so she the mother would be admired in public.

On the immigrant patterns: I grew up in the south east Bronx mostly, in a slum which at first was heavily Irish but by the time my parents moved out was heavily black. The patterns of Irish life were to me no different than the working class Italian life I saw in Richmond Hill, a neighborhood near the one we moved to. I didn’t dislike them; they seemed to me American catholic working class by the time I was in my teens, only on the surface different from middle to upper middle class Jewish life in Kew Gardens where we did move. The Kew Gardens neighborhood I did hate and had a hard time getting used to: much snobbery, ostentation, and we lived in a 3 bedroom apartment on the ‘low end’ of life there. My name, Ellen, is partly the result of my mother imitating the names she heard around her in the Bronx. (It’s also the name of the mother in Gone with the Wind, which however she denied knowing and said it was just the people around her. I doubt she would have called me Colleen though as my mother was Jewish and that would have been gonig too far.)

Toibin sets the two other novels I’ve read by him partly or wholly in Ennisworthy. It’s where he comes from. And he has a poignant statement about missing it (boyhood memories) in Blackwater Lightship.

The Brooklyn New York parts were truth to life. My mother’s people lived in Brooklyn and for about 2 years (one year when I was small) I lived in Brooklyn and did on occasion visit these relatives growing up. The climate would seem extreme after the British Isles.

I read with an intense anxiety on behalf of Eilis, worried for her as succumbing to pressure. I had to peek ahead to assure myslf she broke away and returned. But when I experienced why and how my feelings for her changed dramatically. But this is a truthful probable portrait. It showed me patterns in my family’s reactions to me I’ve seen repeatedly.

Blackwater Lightship throws yet another permutation and light on this central experience — as does The Master, only then the partial escapee is James. This novel is about a homosexual young man who returns to his family for a weekend just before he died. They had nothing to do with him until then because they didn’t want to know or allow anyone else to know he lived a gay life. We see all their estrangements from one another too.

It’s been criticized for not centering more emphatically on the issue of homosexuality, even marginalizing it. To my mind that Toibin presents Decclan’s sexual orientation, and condition as another important element in the life of the family, not more devastating or central than say the father’s death (Mr Breen) or Lily’s long time adjusting to being alone and her giving her two children to her mother, Dora Devereux while she coped is one of its strengths.

It’s realistic: no false sentiment about family life, but that biological ties are there and for reasons that are hard to explain pragmatically except that people turn to families and families take them in as a matter of survival; there is no alternative to rely on so people come through for one another most of the time. Not all. Homeless people not uncommon. People living away from families and managing to support themselves and find company and worlds with friends happens a good deal.

Still the family pattern is the dominant one whether in a modern country and culture like the US or traditional one like Zimbabwe and India (there we have an arranged marriage and couple who come to live in the US.

Key theme of this and two other of his books, The South and The Heather Blazing (I’ve read about it), and his fictional biography of Henry James called The Master are The key themes, “are the compromises and concessions involved in belonging to a family and in calling somewhere “home”.


The DVD cover of the TV movie adaptation

Three complex female characters: Helen (now married to Hugh O’Doherty), her mother, Lily Breen, and the grandmother, Dora Devereux. All three have similar characters: proud, standoffish, determined with the ability and knowhow of domineering, running a situation, self-contained, self-possessed, but like most people wanting affection, support, and Helen shown as having sensitivities like her older son, Cathal; Manus has mean bullying personality from the get-go, huge ego. You might say it’s about the problem of mothering; by no means does this come more naturally to women than men though the task is forced on them by social arrangements and expectations.

There is no easy reconciliation. The family’s fumbling attempts at change are set against the natural process of erosion that is eating away the coastline close to the family home in Cush. The liminal space of the beach as a setting for the beginning of Helen and Lily’s reconciliation, and the novel ends with the muted triumph of Lily spending the night at Helen’s home after returning the now severely ill Declan to the hospital in Dublin.

It’s a delicately powerful story of a family’s failure to face difficult feelings and their stubborn refusal to admit need (especially the grandmother). He through them delve into memories with a visceral, unsparing depiction: main character through whom we see action is Helen: snapshots of the family’s fraught past are filtered through her memory.

When Helen was 11, she had had to deal with her father’s illness and death virtually alone – she was left with her 8-year-old brother at her grandmother’s house for six months while her mother nursed her father, or tried to. Gradually Helen withdrew from everyone except Declan into a watchful guardedness. She “trained herself to be equal to things, whatever they would be.” But her defenses against the pain of the past are a barrier against present life. She mothered Decclan, came into his room at night the way she does for Cathal and Manus. Helen’s memory of the day before her father’s funeral when she arranged on her parents’ bed a suit of his clothes complete with underwear, tie, socks, hat, and shoes, then lay down beside the father figure she had made.

There is no father figure here; Hugh kept from us; Helen and Decclan’s father died young, we see almost nothing of the grandfather. We have instead Decclan and his two friends, three male characters match three female ones: the strong Paul (a counterpart to Helen) who tells us of his marriage with Francois, and Larry, who has had bitter experiences with his family about his homosexuality and shows us the hypocrisy of the world, but is bright and cheerful in temperament and gets along very well with the grandmother, planning architectural changes to the house we know she’ll never do, and she and he know it, but he does teach her to drive a little a stick-shift car.

The theme is not coming out but coming to terms with oneself. And humour — evolving from camp Larry’s unlikely affinity with the grandmother and from her own sardonic wit–leavens a sombre load. Each has a story:

Larry tells how he came out to his family on the six o’clock news. Paul tells how he and his mate were married by a priest in a traditional Catholic ceremony.

Granny Dora tells how she got the switchblade knife that’s in her apron pocket. Helen’s mother, Lily, who fled into a fast-lane business career and a huge designer house she occupies alone, tells Helen about her father’s last days.

Then we get Declan’s graphic deterioration. The family members and friends do not avoid him

It is about homosexual man regarded as other and I understand the frustration of some gay critics because Decclan is kept at a distance from us: he seems dependent, unable to make a permanent relationship like Paul, acting out as a child to Paul. But there’s revisiting the same theme over and over: Toibin has written novels focusing on a gay man, the one I’ve read is The Master, and Henry James lived away from his family, estranged. Looking at otherness is kept away to some extent

The sense of place, here, is germane and its adjoining strand–close to a disintegrating cliff, caught in the reiterative sweep of the lighthouse–permeate the book with an elemental atmosphere.

Beautiful spare graceful prose: measured and restrained as a Victorian memoir yet poetic in precision-“extraordinary skill for rendering time and place. This quiet novel achieves its effects gradually and with subtlety

The presence of Decclan’s homosexual friends influence the behavior of his family to one another and him as he lays dying in Blackwater Lightship, and we discussed pretty fully of the six main characters, three women, daughter who is now a mother, Helen, mother, Lily, and grandmother, Dora; and we went briefly the three men: Decclan, Paul and Larry.

Decclan is dependent, not strong, looks for help from friends. He has no permanent relationship with a significant other unlike Paul and perhaps Larry. We don’t learn much about his private life for the past years. He is the person in the book dying about whom we learn least. He is kept away from us, except to give us these graphic descriptions of his suffering as perceived by the other characters. Who does he seem to depend upon? Paul.

Paul knows what to do; he finds the emergency room to bring Decclan back to at the end. He is in charge. And he and Helen, as a similarly strong character exchanges stories. Thing is they are not that strong: they need someone depending on them. We see that it’s Helen’s husband Hugh who has the friends, who is the open more giving person, really there, and she needs that. Paul’s partner. What is his story? Francoise who was an only child and needed to be married to have security. Waiting for Paul to return.

Larry, you might call him the comedian, but he’s getting through life that way. Let’s look a little more carefully at the passage where he tells his parents and family he is gay: he gets involved with public politics and finds he appears on the six o’clock news as a gay person, which his family was watching. What is the hard thing? Not the actual event or even the retelling, but the reaction in the room to when he tells of his present love relationships with a nearby family where the men lead overtly heterosexual lives.

The book is named after a lighthouse that no longer exists. Helen and Lily are talking. We don’t learn much about Decclan’s private life nor about him directly; when we learn about Larry’s life it’s indirect and the powerful stuff is about here and now and yet what is not there matters; so too Paul’s relationship with Francoise. About how important memories are and the intangible invisible lives we don’t show publicly shape the public. At the close of the edition I ordered into the bookstore, we have Toibin’s statement about his book: he gains meaning and solace through reliving his memories, and bringing them alive again.

There are eight chapters with some of the stories (memories plus present time) achieving a kind of quiet climax in the 7th, with 1st as prologue, Helen at home, and 8th as the denouement as they prepare to and bring Decclan back to the hospital and Helen brings Lily back to her house. her mother has never been there before. For those working on Blackwater Lightship for this coming journal entry: a series of inset stories or memories embedded into the narrative. People talking with Helen present, Helen and Paul confiding. Then Helen and Decclan’s story from when their father dies We see grandmother and grandfather watching TV and arguing over what they see. Then Larry’s story, Lily’s story, Paul’s story (Toibin a Catholic and has written about Catholicism in travel book on Barcelona central here); Helen’s story (Decclan the spoilt favored child as the boy). Back to Lily’s story; how Blackwater Lightship as a long gone lighthouse is central; Helen’s story again; Helen’s portrait of Lily.


Our cat (Ian) facing forward

The cats — They run away and to the Grandmother this is a bad loss. Cats are affectionate clinging creatures; Lily’s story again; told to Helen, talking of grandmother and past, signals some understanding

Book about the rhythms of the night, and how people cope with death: the Grandmother turns to these mediums who feed people’s desire to reach the dead. A dark theme of redemptive power of death runs through all his books.

The comfort in The Master is James got to live his own life to some extent. He lives as the heroine in The South, only because he has money, property and connections he manages far better than our heroine and ends up with his measure of independence, until of course he’s done in at the end by terrible sickness and death and again finds himself taken over. We see how he lives a life apart, the price of it and the achievement he managed by remaining apart.

I find I don’t have separate notes on The Master, but I do on an essay he wrote for the LRB: The Importance of Aunts. in his usual cagey or elusive way Toibin manages to say what he pretends would be “too crude” to say: especially with respect to James. The problem with Austen’s getting rid of the useless mother (which Toibin does connect to her relationship with her own) is the caricatures she creates are in danger of being taken non-seriously; you can laugh at Lady Betram, which would be to misunderstand or ignore her effect on Fanny Price.

I particularly like how Toibin deals with James’s family: he says how James loved his mother, but in the same breathe, how he kept away from her as it was all too painful to contemplate or let touch (and destroy) him. In Washington Square despite the understatement and careful avoidance of offering the readers ways of not reading what’s in front of them, her heroine has to cope with a loathsome father, a morally idiotic scheming aunt and her own pent-up sexuality. Her nobility comes from her enduring steadfastly being alone in the world. She escapes the fate of Isobel Archer because she knows how to feel and is not to be dissuaded by those around from to violate herself.

She is then a cynosure for James himself.

On Austen’s use of aunts: Austen feels free, on the other hand, to make Lady Catherine de Bourgh both imperious and comic, her wealth and power serving to make her ridiculous and unworthy rather than impressive; but she is not meant merely to amuse us, or to show us an aspect of English society that Austen thought was foolish. She is an aunt who does not prevail; her presence in the book succeeds in making Darcy more individual, less part of any system. Her function is to allow her nephew, who refuses to obey her, a sort of freedom, a way of standing alone that will make him worthy of Elizabeth ….


From the 1983 BBC Mansfield Park: Mrs Norris (Anna Massey) berating Fanny (Sylvestre le Tousel) in front of the whole family

The reader is invited, then, to dislike Mrs Norris for her cruelty and to admire Fanny for her forbearance. Austen’s biographer Claire Tomalin sees Mrs Norris as `one of the great villains of literature'; Tony Tanner thought she was `one of Jane Austen’s most impressive creations and indeed one of the most plausibly odious characters in fiction’. All this is clear, at times rather too clear. What isn’t clear is what the reader should feel about the other aunt, Lady Bertram, mistress of Mansfield Park. Tomalin dislikes her. `Fanny’s experience at Mansfield Park is bitter as no other childhood is in Austen’s work. Her aunt, Lady Bertram, is virtually an imbecile; she may be a comic character, and not ill-tempered, but the effects of her extreme placidity are not comic …

Just one from James: This sexualisation of an aunt figure is what gives the book its power. James radically destabilises the category, moves Madame Merle from being Isabel’s protector, who stands in for her mother without having a mother’s control, to being someone who seeks to damage and defeat her

More generally: The idea of the family as anathema to the novel in the 19th century, or the novel being an enactment of the destruction of the family and the rise of the stylish conscience, or the individual spirit, has more consequences than the replacement of mothers by aunts. As the century went on, novelists had to contemplate the afterlives of Elizabeth and Darcy, Fanny and Edmund, had to deal with the fact that these novels made families out of the very act of breaking them. It was clear that, since something fundamental had already been done to the idea of parents, something would also have to be done to the idea of marriage itself, since marriage was a dilution of the autonomy of the individual protagonist. There is a line that can be drawn between Trollope and George Eliot and Henry James: all three dramatise the same scene, each of them alert to its explosive implications. What they are alert to is the power of the lone, unattached male figure in the novel, someone with considerable sympathy, who moves unpredictably, who keeps his secrets and ego intact …


Photo of Henry James as the master, late in life

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Toibin’s greatness also lies in his quiet unassuming style. He gets so much in
and yet does not seem to stretch or have to overwrite at all. It’s part of what makes the novels seem so truthful.

He teaches we must find and live out our own identities at the same time as he compassionates those who do not as the cost can be so high.


From the movie adaptation of Blackwater Lightship

I need to read his Homage to Barcelona next. See the LRB archive for treasures.

Ellen

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“Hill House” — a genuine house just outside London, chosen as embodying just what Jackson imagined, and then photographed as where all the outdoor scenes around it using infrared light (1963 The Haunting)


John Atkinson Grimsaw (1836-93), The Haunted House (1882)

Dear Readers, Students, Friends,

Tonight one of the great American gothic novels and psychological terror films of the 20th century: Shirley Jackson’s highly original 1959 Haunting of Hill House, and Robert Wise’s even more unusual rendition of the literary genre not as a horror film (what was mistakenly tried in 1999), but as a psychological film contextualized by

1) the domestic realism of Eleanor Lance’s character and circumstances;

2) the Citizen Kane representation of the Hugh Crain family (as back-story);

3) the quiet lesbianism of Theo (Claire Bloom);

4) and the undercutting sceptical mockery of Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn) whose contingent of characters brings into the film the ordinary American upper class who’d love to make money on the house.

The blog will also delve the gothic as such and its history. See my review (evaluation and summary) of Richard Davenport-Hines’s The Gothic: 400 (!) Years of Excess, Evil, Horror and Ruin Both Jackson and Wise’s works are in the Radcliffian mode, sometimes called the female gothic.

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Preliminaries:


Eleanor (Julie Harris) turned down by her relatives when she asks for the car (half hers) for a vacation


Eleanor resolute, with all her worldly goods (come to take the car anyway)

When I first read the book I was struck by how it begins in a very secular modern feel atmosphere. Dr Montague (the name of the doctor in Jackson’s book) wants to investigate the supposed presence of ghosts and terrors at Hill House scientifically and he goes about to find people willing to participate in the experiment of living there together for the summer. He gets up a list of names of people from psychic societies, sensational newspaper stories — people who have sighted or been willing to believe they saw or are interested in “paranormal” (the “in” word today) experiences. He doesn’t want any crackpot and there’s a distrust of unknown uncredentialled people which remind me of the distrust of experience on the Net.

He turned up two single women, Eleanor Lance (it’s an “L” in the book), one who cared for her mother all the mother’s life until she died and now lives with a selfish sister and her husband; and Theo, the other who had fought intensely with her woman lover. He also finds the present owner insists he take in a relative. So there are four of them. Then two surly servants (as I said). Now his wife and her chauffeur, Arthur have been invited.

What emerges is something I’ve seen in astute writers of the gothic before. Hell is other people; the group has begun to gang up on Eleanor because she’s susceptible to bullying. It’s a it’s a gothic that analyses the psychic source of terrorizing and why it happens. But beyond that we are beginning to experience terrifying unexplained phenomena. Theodora’s dresses are torn to bits and covered with blood so now she sleeps with Eleanor. One night Eleanor listens to moaning and groaning of a baby elsewhere. Scary things happen in the landscape; all done very slowly you see. Eleanor is suddenly being called Nell and writing appears on the walls which demands she come home.

And we begin to get threats: Mrs Montague talks of being buried alive. She brings a planchette and we have a seance like experience where again Eleanor is picked on, picked out as the one words are hurled at. Slowly I’ve noticed the others are irritated and turn away from her need of them. In the book Dr Montague doesn’t want her around lest she ruins his experiment. (The movie is softer and makes Dr Montague and Theo genuinely concerned for her, and Luke put off by her suicidal impulses on the twirling metal staircase.)

to a sudden powerful close. I was stunned by the ending and yet it was coming at me all the time. The very last words might be said to put a close to a future of endless pain: “and whatever walked there [in Hill House] walked alone.” But …

Warning I’m telling the ending:

There is a constant repeat of lines from Shakespeare’s Twelth Night, the song of the fool: “present mirth hath present laughter” and especially the line; “journey’s end in lovers’ meeting.” This line runs through what I now realize is our heroine’s head: Eleanor. The question is whether when she killed herself by smashing herself and car against the tree, she does know peace or is returned to hill house to walk with whatever walked there.” Journey’s end in lovers’s meeting; the hideous writing on the wall and cruel comments written down are invites to Eleanor (Nell) from whoever or whatever riddles and warps the house — which under assault becomes a wild tempest (making me think of the emotions at the close of Ethan Frome by Wharton, a book I hope never to read again, especially its ending).

Eleanor’s story suddenly is seen so clear as one of a miserable wretched woman: sleeps in sister’s baby’s room and only shares that car, has no right to it, for no husband, no salary. When she loses it after Mrs Montague’s (meant to be obtuse funny — think Mrs Jennings from S&S) antics over a planchette, and nearly kills herself and others by trying to jump off a crumbling bit of gothic convention masonry, they want her out. They kick her out. She’d have to go back to that sister. Theodora has already refused to take her in at summer’s end.

So what were her options? Backstory of clan has two sisters in deadly frightening rivalry.

But what really is chilling is the sudden experience. No one does gothic like Jackson. The cold, the sounds, the wild weird evocation of what can’t be and can’t be explicitly but only allusively described.

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The Gothic:


Eleanor and Theo (Claire Bloom) talking of their lives


Luke (Russ Tamblyn) thinking about the cold spot

First we need to understand the gothic. It’s been a major US popular subgenre since the 1790s — around the time of the French revolution, which can be regarded as a watershed in western culture (another is World War One).

The gothic is easily identified by some repeating central characteristics: the haunted place, usually a labyrithine house with a past where much misery had occurred. Haunted: it is a genre which uses all the realistic conventions so as to make you believe in and enter the fictional world, and then there is this disruption, this intrusion from the world of the supernatural, at first mild, but then insistent and finally overwhelming.

It evokes in us atavistic beliefs we thought we had almost discarded; the fear of something under the bed, the dark, sudden ounds. We can say almost because many people believe in God or gods, and in supernatural realms, but our beliefs usually don’t unnerve us because they come in the form of controlled doctrines from churches. The church works hard to exclude this kind of belief and include that. The gothic undermines this.

Most deeply it’s a pessimistic questioning of what’s beyond the natural; it’s serious even if popularly treated frivolously. Robert Johnson (the actor who plays Dr Markway — Montague in the novel — the anthropologist-physician) and the director Wise in their voice over commentary in the DVD feature brought up the issue of belief centrally. From one of Johnson’s commentaries: the film prompts or comes out of questions about “what happened to the dead, to one’s relations who died … does it all just end like that; it’s all those things connected to religion as well ..I wonder about these things just like everybody else … where am I going … why am I here … ”


Dr Montague (Richard Johnson) introducing himself to Nell and Theo

The gothic is also metaphysical and asks question about the nature of the universe, about God, about justice and life’s value; Kafkaesque, paranoic and death’s effects are central to the gothic too:

Some sub-genres specialize in horror (violence, the vampire story which attacks people bodily; the werewolf story — Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is ultimately a werewolf story); others in terror (spiritual undermining, psychologically traumatized) and that is the ghost story. Haunting of Hill House is a ghost story.

So first we need to define ghost and carefully. A ghost is a the spirit or soul of a living person who died and comes back to haunt those living, usually in malevolent retribution for irretrievable hurt. Very very rare is the benign ghost and it’s no coincidence since people like reassurance and optimistic stories the most famous ghost story is precisely this rare type: Charles Dickens’s The Christmas Carol, where the ghosts come back to redeem Scrooge. Most of the time the ghost are not into redemption.

They form a kind of social protest: social protest books have victims in the center who expose the injustices and cruelties of a system or social/economic/sexual arrangement. I wouldn’t lean too heavily because sometimes the person victimized at the center is actually not to blame for anything at all and makes the mistake of coming to live in this house. Most of the time if you look you find the person has been treated unfairly, is sensitive, and in need of love and comfort and help — so the ghost uses them.

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Jackson’s novel as gothic


Eleanor climbing the twisted metal staircase


Montague and others (we too) watching her climb

Eleanor Vance/Lance is the quintessential gothic heroine (it can be a hero): The gothic is about the patriarchal family, at its center is an exploration of its interior life, and the film is brilliantly inward. The house itself is alive: its past includes a number of exploited victimized women. Hugh Crain is like Citizen Kane — back story told up front in movie, brought out slowly in book.

Obviously Eleanor has been taken bad advantage of and is still being taken bad advantage of. spent the last 11 years of life caring for her mother; she is broke, has no car, no place of her own to live, no way to get an independent life; the two women in the story have lesbian orientations so they are just the kind of women our society marginalizes, will not even recognize the existence of

When it’s a woman at the center, she is imprisoned, buried alive, chased down, when it’s a man he’s made an exiles, outcasts; both experience pursuit, being hunted down, labyrinths. So the gothic critiques our society.

The fantasy element is an enabler because it sets up a false screen of frivolity.

Sex is often central — some sexual experience has been very bad — this is seen clearly in Vampire ones. But since we are not doing a vampire one let’s just stick with what we’ve got.

Films have genres and most scary films are horror films: they connect to vampire stories and are physical attacks with computer enhanced imagery today; often sadistic. Wise’s film is not a horror film. The 1999 film is a horror one and the second hour becomes ridiculous. Wise’s film is a psychological study in terror where a woman is slowly driven to lose her mind — other such films as good are The Woman in Black from Susan Hill’s novel; I’ve shown a number of hour long ones from short stories from the BBC archives (Afterward is one)

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Shirley Jackson


A young Shirley Jackson

Her life in brief:

Shirley Jackson: in his book, Shirley Jackson’s American Gothic, Darrly Hattenhauer tells her life well and concisely. The problem with most lives and the biographies is they have been slanted by her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, a leading critic, publisher-editor, adept in the kind of critical readings that convince people.

The reality is her writing supported them in their life-style and she did write a lot of junk, meaning short crude gothic fictions, to keep the income flowing in. She did all the housework, had several children; he had affairs openly. She didn’t leave. This was the 1950s and very hard to get a divorce; if you may think the discourse against women today is bad, this was pre-feminism. She became very heavy and that’s a no-no in American society.

Mostly what has happened to her books is they are interpreted
apolitically; as if she has no social protest in them but is merely reflecting her own or other people’s neurotic condition (often women’s). Paradoxically that’s partly because her husband and she were once part of the Young Communist league in the 1940s so to distance them from any politics, it’s all erased. The one good book beyond Hattenhauer is Joan Wylie Hall, Shirley Jackson: A Study of the Short Fiction.

She is also forgotten and all but her “Lottery” (a startle) and Haunting of Hill House out of print. Like many women her work regarded 20 years later as biodegradable.

She was the daughter of a middle class Republican businessman who sent her to Bennington College where she met and married Hyman in 1937; he did publish her works. Driven as she was and treated the way she was, with the conventional life in the suburbs (this is before Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique exposed that), she became alcoholic; later
she used tranquillizers. She did find real comfort in her children. here’s often a sub-theme of protection of children in her books.

How does it reflect the 50s: the story of the woman is central; it’s proto-feminist before feminism became fashionable. Deep upsets in cultural rifts over religion. Like other popular sub-genres the features and characteristics of the kind often make its assertions feel more universal and about the genre.

She did what she could to avoid publicity. Like J. L. Carr (A Month in the Country) she was no networker.

Then on her work in general: What she is is a satirist within gothic, showing up human nature as the source or our unjust social arrangements. The society we live in is not some result of imposed conditions; people collude in it. What
we see at the close of The Haunting of Hill House is Eleanor is thrown out, really heartlessly. If the ghosts are after her, the others want nothing to do with her. She tries to suggest to Theo she could come and live with her, but Theo makes quick work of that. Go back to her sister?

I perfectly understand why Eleanor yields to the spirits of the house and crashes into a tree. We should regard her ending the way we do gods in Homer: the gods in Homer are projections of the inner lives of the characters and so when Venus prompts Aeneas to do something erotic, it’s because Virgil’s Aeneas wants to; but they are also there.

One of the most disturbing things I’ve discovered in the criticism of this book is the idea that it’s all in Eleanor’s mind. That is to blame her, see this neurotic woman and encourage others to despise her. The book is parallel then to The Turn of the Screw; Henry James insisted that the ghosts were malign and there but because he presented them subtlety, many readers insist he is wrong and she is this repressed angry spinster who hurts everyone around her. Can’t
take a joke you see.

It can’t be all in Eleanor’s mind. Crain’s young wife crashed into the tree. Crain’s family was blighted. Theo hears all that
Elinor does; by the end of the novel even Luke is persuaded, and in the movie he gets the last (invented line): “[this house] ought to be burned down and the ground sown with salt.”

The modern 1999 (Jan de Bont) film wants to blame the doctor: in 1999 Liam Nelson as the physician has this secret exploitative agenda to further his career; in the book, Dr Montague is a genuine researcher into psychic phenomena who is making no money on his investigations. He may be wrong to play with the spirits as many a person in gothic is, but he is not personally to blame except insofar as he doesn’t take responsibility for others he has brought here. We are our brother’s keepers. Jackson does not incline to Cain’s heresy (I refer to the Biblical Cain).

There is a semi-comic parallel plot in Jackson’s novel with the Dr wife’s Mrs Montague and her silly planchette board, but she is doing explicitly what lies behind the gothic: trying to get in touch with gods. Arthur is her absurd sidekick: there is a parody of the form, a self-reflexive feel to it.

Very refreshing is the lack of a love story. I am sorry to say the 1963 film does project an implicit thwarted love story between Eleanor and the doctor: Eleanor yearns for him. There is no sense of that in the book. If anyone, Eleanor years for the companionship of Theo is made into a closet lesbian – Wise was aware of this and tried to hint at all. Theo is briefly chased by Luke but she quickly debunks and pushes him away.

*******************
Outline of novel, followed by how the 1963 film adaptation differs


Eleanor’s Thelma and Louise moment

The novel:

Chapter 1, p 3:

The opening paragraph with phrases that end the books: “whatever walked there, walked alone.” Introduces the characters, Dr Montague, Eleanor Vance, Theo, Luke.

Eleanor’s escape from her unkind exploitative relatives with her car (half hers) and we see the working class world of the US; its malls, family types; past the bullying gatekeeper, Mr Dudley

Chapter 2, p 34

Eleanor gets in, Mrs Dudley, her blue room, meeting Theo, the walk in the landscape — a difference from the film is in the film all takes place inside the house once Eleanor gets past her car ride; the idea was to be claustrophobic. In the novel the characters wander about the landscape — with hope; they hope to have a picnic even. Eleanor buoyed by her new relationship: she hopes Theo and she will be like sisters; Theo does at least say they shall be cousins.

Chapter 3, p 56

Luke, Dr Montague, the explanation. The first night’s dinner. They are to take notes (making fun — like Ashima (Namesake) shelves books as opposed to reading them). What are the good of notes if you don’t have any brains. Bits of the back story begin to emerge: p. 67: the first woman crashed against a tree even before she got to the house. Pp. 71-82: the rest of the history; the growing up of two daughters, their fierce rivalry over money (very common in US life), how the younger was married (Theo persists with invented story she cut out the older – a common happening) and envied the older for her dishes. Older loved the house, grew old, companion came to live with her: parallel with Eleanor and perhaps neglected her. The companion inherited the house and the Saundersons are the heirs and relatives of the unnamed companion. Often women are unnamed in gothics. Like Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca where we never learn the name of the narrator. We learn Theo is lesbian in orientation; Dr Montague reads Pamela; also likes Sterne, Fielding, Smollett

Chapter 4, p 93

First breakfast; investigating house; more talk introducing characters, interrelationships; first terrifying night: the knocking begins.

Chapter 5, p 136

Dr Montague’s first statement he will turn Eleanor out of the house. Histories of ghosts (o. 139ff); the writing on the wall; the cold spot in the hall (p. 150); Theo’s clothes covered in blood, she removes into Eleanor’s side of their shared space; evil spirit puts ugly thoughts in Eleanor’s mind (p. 159); where she slips backwards on the terrace and could have fallen. Eleanor talk to Dr Montague with great sincerity about how she hates to see herself slipping away; they smell in her a potential victim and they begin to circle her (p. 160). About a third of the way in central sequence; Luke finds handwriting: Help Eleanor Come Home; the night of terror where Eleanor thinks she is holding Theo’s hand and it turns out not so

Chapter 6, p 164

Eleanor learning “the pathways of the heart.” Book for daughter Sophia Craine by Demond Lester Crain found, p 168. Fearful illustrations. Theo curses Crain (p. 171) They wander in the landscape with Luke (pp. 173-80).

Chapter 7, p 179

Mrs Montague coming; again Eleanor is outside. The comic inadequacy of her insensitivity; Mrs Montague goes to live in hursery; the planchette with Arthur again produces a message about Eleanor and home. The four caught in the parlor, and terrible pounding, and cannot reach the nursery (pp. 196-205)

Chapter 8, p 206

The landscape, jokes about rabbits, Eleanor begs Theo to take her back with her, Theo harsh and unkind, Eleanor followed in landscape while Luke and Theo joining forces

Chapter 9, p 227

By this time Eleanor has lost her sanity in effect; the sequence in the hall, the statues, her climbing the stairway, but no one is sympathetic, and they seek to rid themselves of her and she smashes into tree.

*****************
The 1963 film: it is not a horror film, but film noir: see comment: The Haunting as film noir


The last seconds of the film: all look at the wreck

All happens inside — significant change. Mrs Montague comes only in the equivalent of Chapter 9, her face at the top of the stairway used to terrify Eleanor down and again to drive her into driving the car into the tree.

The back story is simplified in the film: Hugh Grain now has only two wives, not three, and just one daughter, not two. Also, Wise gives us our history lesson immediately after the opening title sequence: An unidentified speaker (who we soon discover is Dr. John “Markway” [Richard Johnson]) provides voice-over narration to accompany what we can only assume is an objective/omniscient montage of Crain’s first wife dying in a carriage crash, of his daughter Abigail spending most of her life inside Hill House’s nursery (an extraordinary temporal ellipsis is achieved here via special effects as Abigail’s face transforms from child to adult to elderly woman without any apparent cuts), and of old Miss Crain’s female companion committing suicide in the tower. By way of contrast, Jackson’s Dr. Montague does not share his knowledge of Hill House’s dark past until much later.

Dr. Montague a slim, clean-shaven, and decidedly romantic figure in the film; Dr. Markway to take the object of Eleanor’s (Julie Harris) affection, with the result that their scenes together operate on multiple discursive levels: They converse not only as scientist-subject, teacher-pupil, and doctor-patient, but as potential lovers.

There are three additional differences: 1) Dr. Markway’s wife plays a much smaller role in Wise’s film than does Dr. Montague’s wife in the book, and the latter spouse’s hyper-masculine (though quite possibly asexual or lover-friend) Arthur does not appear in the film at all.

Theo’s relationship with Eleanor: in the book extremely ambivalent, is in the film here rendered in somewhat (though not entirely) more straightforward lesbian (if implicit) terms. On the one hand, Jackson’s Theo, although probably gay, expresses only a mild attraction toward Eleanor, and by the end of the novel seems to be hitting it off quite well with Luke. Wise’s Theo (Claire Bloom), in contrast, makes a number of fairly obvious passes at Eleanor and evinces a strong negative reaction toward Luke. Going in the other direction, Theo’s insensitivity, if not outright cruelty, toward Eleanor becomes manifest as The Haunting of Hill House proceeds (“I don’t understand. . . . Do you always go where you’re not wanted?” [2091]); in the 1963 film, Theo only becomes angry in response to Eleanor’s own expressions of jealousy and animosity.

Finally, Eleanor’s last moments alive are handled quite differently by Jackson and Wise. In The Haunting of Hill House, Eleanor’s death drive is, at least until the “unending, crashing second before the car hurled into the tree,” a) indisputably self-willed–perhaps even suicidal–act: “I am really doing it, she thought, turning the wheel. . . . I am really doing it, I am doing this all by myself, now, at last; this is me, I am really really really doing it by myself” (245). Gidding and Wise, almost certainly under pressure to rule out suicide as a possible motive for their protagonist’s demise, make it cle ar that Eleanor is not trying to kill herself, that the wheel of her car is being controlled by an outside force that she cannot resist, despite her strongest efforts.

Movie is less sympathetic to Eleanor’s dread of going home; makes more of the Crain presence in the house; the house becomes a chief character, a malign alive presence. In book Eleanor seems to alienate them all from her; they seem to feel she has in her the spirits of the house; in the movie they are protecting her from these spirits and thus themselves.

Ellen

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