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Miss Temple looking at Jane Eyre (many many films have this icon)

Friends,

My first book for the new year:


A virago re-publication — keeping the book in print

Vicinus’s study remains as important and relevant today as when it was written 50 years ago, about crucial failures 50 years before that. Her title tells us the matter of her book, the details of her story line; she only slowly reveals that this is a study which explains why now nearly 100 years ago when women began to vote as a group, they have not achieved needed power for themselves as a group and as individuals when they comprise one-half of the human race.

Where real power resides that effectively can change the structures and conditions of our lives is in society’s central agencies and institutions and she studies those institutions women were allowed to join and try to rise to top shaping positions in, or were allowed to make institutions of their own. She shows that repeatedly women were thwarted from taking shaping power (church, military, high gov’t, medicine), within the lower echelons how class and the psychologies of their own natures interfered with creating successfully run places, because it was demanded of them that they behave like capitalist men, and their needs as women (to run families, to have friends) were disciplined out of existence; how the institution was allowed only to be an interlude (women’s colleges); or what they won was nullified (the vote).

Thus women failed to influence the organizations of industry, military, schools, gov’t to bend to respond to women’s issues, needs, and help women (crucially needed) to counter male sexual and familial tyrannies. Where women have had gains is where they have mitigated the impact of a male-dominated society upon the friendless and vulnerable, where it met an immediate need of the woman herself (intermittent child care, freedom from beating) and her children (school meals — still contested in the US, humane treatment of elderly). The age of indecent assault was moved from 13 to 16, a pension scheme for widows ….


This is the whole of the cover photograph: Westfield College — for women, June 1889

The book begins (Chapter one) with her talking of how women at first tried for general power outside rich and well-connected family groups. She has to omit the working class woman because she could not try; she also omits widows. The first work for powerful people and only achieved power after 1930 when they formed their first women’s union (garment workers); they were excluded from men’s unions until very recently. Widows are a special case and just don’t fit (!) into her story unless they drop this identity. The problem Woolf saw in 1928 (A Room of Your Own) was to explain how the vote seemed to have made little difference. Yes, you could have custody of your children, couldn’t be legally beaten, could get a separation, could not be legally forced to return to a husband, but how minimal these protections and rights, how unaccompanied by anything else.

She then discusses the importance of the norm which denied any rightness or value to the life of an unmarried women. Your life was not useful or respected unless you married and had children, and that immediately put women into the power of compulsory heterosexuality of marriage. So Vicinus begins with the campaign against “redundant” women in the 19th century. Her argument is that unmarried or single women were not an anomaly, not a rarity or uncommon at all. Given death, sterile women whom men abandoned or simply disliked and discarded, unmarried woman forced to care for aged parents, seen as not attractive, quiet lesbians were noticed only to be stigmatized and punished by denying them any ability to make a living which would give them independent or a dignified life. As soon as the punishments became less — because of the increase of industrialization, capitalism, the substitution of money as the basis for society rather than male violence, and so the life of a single woman became more viable and thus more visible, they were to be fiercely denied and erased and worried about, deported (to colonies to find husbands).

So this made-up category of redundant women didn’t go away, instead gradually a world of institutions from which women could exercise the needed power to change norms, make real money, and create spaces in which single women could live independently and freely in safety for the first time began to emerge — all the while society remained hostile to unmarried women and women given power. She turns women attempting to run prestigious institutions while keeping socially acceptable behavior. Gregg who wrote the famous essay introducing this concept wrote that women unattached to men or not in households run by men must be forced back into male control. His scheme was to deport the redundant women, which did not include servants or anyone not middle class and above.

One of the most telling parts of the book is about the ferocious and physical assaults wreaked on women demanding the vote. This reaction apparently astonished the suffragettes at first, then dismayed and horrified them. They were seeing for the first time the men and society they had thought still fundamentally on their side, were not, would dispense with them all as individuals until those “making trouble” were dead or crippled.


Christchurch hospital nurses

So how under this assault can we discover where women can find power, were managing to find it for the first time in the UK and ended up still controlled by men.

How did upper class women become important members of come to almost look for truly high positions of authority in religious organizations and prestigious hospitals comprise Chapters two and three. Religious belief and a place in churches were important parts of women’s lives outside the family and in public space, and then taking care of, nursing people were accepted areas of women’s activities in the public world. Gaining change had to be done first by strong-willed well connected very upper class women in socially acceptable ways and the first positions filled by upper class women — and it’s not a matter of education so much as status, and respect they got and expected. Only such women would be obeyed by others and gained primary respect. Thus some women reached medium and relatively high positions who were not truly qualified in medicine. You had to be a type who obeyed, who conformed because very quickly men and other women who could asserted control.

She describes in detail areas of life and work where women could for the first time in groups enter public life and find or create power and she shows how in effect they failed. For religion, they were never respected enough, nor did they respect themselves enough. They turned to men as the figures who must have these positions, and churches decreed and supported this. When it came to the nursing profession, the women building the profession wanted upper class women to be in positions of authority and chose women based on status and rank not abilities. Then in the context what happened is they demanded of the women they hired absolute obedience and didn’t pay them well and gave them hard tasks. Some women stayed and took the punishment — as escape from home, or something worse — or just did. The women who couldn’t stand this went to work in less prestigious hospitals; as a group they also failed to enforce education standards so anyone could be a nurse.

At the same time they themselves never gained power — as in religious institutions — men remained in charge. They ddidn’t think well enough of themselves no matter how high their position, finally they buy into their inferiority. Else why take on the drudgery and the way they cannot conceive having an institution where women are in charge, women the administrators and doctors. I am bothered by how Vicinus accepts the class and rank status as necessary to being in charge, to managing and just concedes it must be there to be successful. Maybe only such women have the self-esteem and training or attitude of mind from their family backgrounds. She tells the stories of individual women who bucked the system and how they came to grief. They tried to go too high or they succeeded for a while, and then were attacked and marginalized by male hegemonic values of various sorts and attacks on them as women.

There was an almost insane emphasis on discipline (far more than cleanliness) in hospital work, which made it so awful to do, so much like a prison camp, and made nursing a profession like being a governesses had been – who’d want to submit to that. This was partly an attempt to throw off the disrespect and unwillingness to believe women can have another sort of discipline to rise high, to have clean bodies (not sexy – I remember when to rise in academia it was de rigueur to dress dowdy). How can women become powerful on their own behalf in such an atmosphere. These impossibly long days, are in service to male doctors. I’ve known women who worked hard to be nurse and when it came to enduring the profession left; some of nurses’ tyranny over women patients (like breast-feeding) is these are areas where they have handles to be the important person.


Somerville College Boat Club — where the caption says how proud the college is of a tradition of ambition and competition

Chapter Four, Women’s Colleges. Vicinus moves to women wanting an independent intellectual life. This means going to university, ultimately getting the right to have a degree, so you can go out for professional work. But she is also — let’s hear a rousing hand — interested in women who come for this education and intellectual life where the prime motive is not a job but the intellectual life.

She argues that status or rank does not always play the abysmally awful part it did in nursing and religious communities. It’s not that it’s not there (think of Sayers’s Gaudy Night) but it’s not a fault-line for who stays on after the first year or so. These are usually unmarried women. This third institution offered as none other did an “unparalleled” opportunity for a women to have “private space” to herself, to find “shared interests” with others no where else to be found, the use of “public amenities” no where else. There was no time for such things in nursing, no raison d’etre for them but religious belief in church type institutions. And one of the barriers parents resisted most was not so much the degree or job eventuality, but they didn’t want the girl to live there: they lost control of her space and her body and who she could mingle with. They feared not being able to choose her partner through control of who she met and who supported her emotionally.

She discusses more individuals here, and the complications of university life which both allowed it to be place where women could know freedom, seek what their talents were good at, lead an independent life to some extent while they were there. Outside the college remained a strong disdain and dismissal of this intellectual life for women, distrust of it as dangerous or silly. In the details of relationships norms for women coming out different from norms for men which prevent women from gaining power in institutions. Women’s friendships and mentorships work differently, are more emotional she says. They had to develop different appropriate rituals — imitate family roles, like sisterhood. What emerged in many women’s colleges was the life there was an pleasant interlude instead of seeing what you did there as something to bring back into society.


A sketch from nature (Punch, 1884)

The fifth chapter is boarding schools and I wondered why that was a separate area until I realized she was determined to uncover the nature of emotional women’s friendships and mentorships as central glue to women combining in groups outside structures. This too is a basic source of power — the old girls’ network.

She first uncovers an emotional bath of coy adoration and cloying interdependence in the language (relationships called “raves”), and the kind of thing that later critics use to find lesbianism. But she neither seems to care if this kind of thing can become lesbianism or is superficial or just deep emotion — she rejects Carol Smith-Rosenberg’s famous article about female ritual staying ritual; Lilian Faderman’s equally famous insistence lesbian friendships did not include open sex and more recently Lisa Moore’s idea they all fucked as best they could.

No what’s important is this bonding and that it was a secret way of subverting the established order; she has lots of evidence on how the headmistresses’ disciplinary techniques were there to deal precisely with this — to stop secrets between girls, to stop secret friendship because there things like masturbation, and all sort of rebellions took place. At the same time the headmistresses and women in charge themselves saw this was a way of rewarding some girls, punishing others, picking favorites — and gaining power and authority over the girls who obey. Vicinus concedes this sort of thing was very unfair and victims (ostracized girls were also often lower class), but she sees it as important bonding. She talks of the rituals of these places including the headmistress kissing each girl before she goes to bed at night. Example after example from these schools.

Her idea is power came from this kind of exploitation of a level of women’s emotion, which was frustrated and stifled so they could not express it heterosexually going after boys. When they went home, there were chaperons. As such women grew older, they learned to have a severe demeanor or manners with outsiders and kept up their respectability. All this is a basis for power, and when it was student and teacher who went in for this kind of relationship — and it often was and allowed as mentoring — then the result could be a career of public service. Mutual religious belief was brought in to make all moral. I am seeing Miss Temple and Jane in a whole new light.

Bad side-effects was some girls ended up deranged, would have breakdowns in these places because they enforced long hours of work. For some girls this was a remembered paradise, for many more a kind of hell they got through. Vicinus does remark that too much was expected of a single relationship by naive or powerless girls and when they were dropped or it didn’t work out, there would be great hurt or anger. “Pent-up ambition, frustrated ambitions, and constrained sexuality” was behind all this. She is right that something subversive could happening beyond an individual pair of girls rebelling say politically can be seen by how — as she records — so much hostility to this pairing emerged too. Parents took home daughters. They wanted them to marry. I saw some of this in Sweet Briar: the girls were assigned older sisters among girls already there or younger ones and an attempt was made to encourage this kind of bonding to start. Any ostracizing or bullying or victimizing of a particular girl was noticed and put a stop to.

Vicinus seems to me too complacent about what she is showing. I suppose the price of bonding between boys in public schools is similarly ambiguous. What can happen is heterosexual boys are taken over by homosexual ones — and vice versa, for sex does enter into it there in the ugly ugly fagging system. There was no fagging system in the girls’ schools.

Vicinus then analyzes what are clearly lesbian relationships even if she never uses the word. The women lay in one another’s arms, call one another husband or wife, the strong insists on kissing others. These girls and women called their relationships marriages. With Freudianism and new psychoanalyses marginalized these relationships once again.

Eventually and today single sex institutions began to disappear; the claim is they are not needed or wanted. She says it began to be seen as strange by many who began to take notice that a poorly paid apparently celibate woman should have any power. A woman’s career should not be seen as something separate it’s claimed. Vocations don’t support the woman, and we are almost back to where we started.


Women outside a Settlement House (Blackfriars) — turn of the century — settlement houses were run by and often for women

Settlement houses: Chapter 6: community ideal for the poor

Another group of institutions that emerged that women tried to gain power from were settlement houses built among the poor and meant to help them find shelter, medical care, education, employment, what they needed: women’s names are remembered here: Mary Carpenter, Louisa Twinning, Octavia Hill (given money by John Ruskin to start houses he had ideas for), Jane Adams, Dorothy Day. Amid the horrors of industrialization, factories &c philanthropic organizations grew too – women were allowed to cross class lines for such purposes 211 armies of volunteers as middle class people’s income soared in the gilded age ….In the US such settlement houses partly political were run by women; in the UK often by men and were stepping stones to a career.

But problems arose. I am startled to have to say Vicinus is for means tests! She is for the Charity Organization Society which was against giving any help until people investigated and then if any other relative can help well then help is denied. Then it’s fine to interfere. There were women who joined who were socialists or pacifists but more Christian millennialism – working with children for the future. Now instead of military metaphors found in nursing we find language of colonialism: cleanliness, middle class deportment, cooking sewing – do-it-yourself self-respecting well doing &c&c. Some working class people found this appalling, but submitted to obtain help.

One ironic result the middle class suddenly can walk where she pleases alone but the working class is now spatially confined – put them in clubs, in service, &&c. Women did this work and lived in such places to be public leaders and have professional work, saw how fellowship and association gave them place and power. Women’s colleges got involved – they did help some people, disabled children for example. All made a point of linking with some other recognized institution (school, college church, political ones). Had long-time women running them as wardens, and they enabled women to keep up relationships with one another and make new relationships. You had privacy as a resident; indirect access to shaping of laws. They moved into places like school boards.

There was a problem of finding reliable volunteers – what brought people: curiosity, religious commitment, idealism, boredom, desire for adventure, self-education. You paid to be a resident and the working girls couldn’t understand what you were doing or why. Leaders of women’s settlements wanted to turn these into a paid profession. Then part-time volunteers outnumbers residents two to one – money needed for drains for upkeep of houses …. Small sums out of these women’s reach; only after WW! And take over by gov’t were social workers regularly paid.

So then we have women choosing settlement not based on which school connection but what the settlement’s speciality in caring was; class condescension can be replaced by “professional expertise” – communities divide all sorts of ways into committed and un committed. Some very devoted and high minded hard working women but mocked too.

What was benefit for working people: very small staffs, volunteers, huge numbers of people to service. Clubs for working girls were popular – emphasis on pleasure so most had dancing. One successful one moved into instruction too – skills and trade unionism. Baby care, housewifery and other skills to older women who were presumed to be mothers. A great disconnect between them and who they were serving. Resident teachers were most successful with young children in new formations of schools. Men against them – paradoxically most were unmarried women advising all these married women – week after week the real problems of women and children at home incapable of being addressed. What do you do about low self-image?

And then when their function was taken over by the state, the women were given subordinate jobs. They were not enfranchised …. A failure to cement connections between different kinds of settlement houses … Eleanor Rathbone a rare individual with larger social vision did move into parliament.

Chapter 7: Male space and women’s bodies: the suffragette movement.

I was again surprised – much – when she treated the suffragette movement not as economically based but as a spiritual one. She kept using that word “spirituality” whose meaning I have yet to make precise or understand fully because as far as I can see I have no “spirituality.” I gather she does not mean religious belief attached to a church but some undefined set of emotional needs somehow connected to religions.  Her argument, which I think she does demonstrate, is that the suffragettes got as far as they did because they were actuated by motives akin to religious belief that can overturn an old religious order and replace it with a new. She also thinks religious motivations are at the heart of women’s way of bonding – as well as unformulated erotic ones – let’s call them loosely indirect.

She makes a good case for her insights again and again and in this chapter as she goes through the familiar trajectory of being lied to, disappointed, ignored and then seeing that they must break the law and be utterly disruptive if they are to get anywhere, that they must be regarded seriously as a political force with the _right_ to work effectively in public political space, she again and again has recourse to “spirituality” as an actuating motive clinching the women’s behavior. Certainly at the beginning most women could not see what votes would get them. A failure of imagination is at the heart of this. Women did see some movement – no beating, custody of children, but not enough in their daily lives. Men did see the deep subversion of what these women were asking and the one thing they held out against was recognizing they were political prisoners for example. Churchill treated them like naughty children who needed to be treated more softly.

She agrees with others the movement was engendered by upper class women, and typical are sentences like this: “the fierce loyalty and strength of the movement sprang from a spiritual self-confidence that unleashed enormous energies not only for the vote, but also for a total reconsideration of the role of women.” Consider that the wretchedness of poor life was not a motive for these women, it was genuinely a desire to have liberty of choice in life for themselves and thus power. It is no coincidence that Bell (tomorrow we’ll have a loose schedule) and Cobbe came from very wealthy people; Florence Nightingale and filled with self-esteem.

She quotes Mary Gordon (a Catholic writer) that “such spiritual upheavals are always irrational and irrational human types are swept into them as high priests.” So the women’s movement for the vote is like the Protestant reformation.

The WSPU was extreme in its behavior out of desperation, and this is important: it frightened some women away but it got attention. Gradually more women saw also getting the vote was not asking a lot new and doing it was easy. That’s important. I’ll never canvass anyone but I can vote – and through votes you can perhaps get many different kinds of things. For others militancy was putting off “the slave spirit” – so it was like abolition. Women were beat and told they were to obey. The call was “Rise up Women!”

Then they were horrified at the men’s reaction, stunned at the cruelty derision, hatred. That taught something important. And when they didn’t fill the roles they were supposed to and then considered fair predatory game they learned something else.

And then the beast comes out from behind the screen publicly: hitherto men beat women in private with impunity now they were willing to do it publicly, with the aid of subordinate women (nurses ironically).

Vicinus reveals how viciously the suffragettes were treated, not just indifferently badly but compare the treatment to the way white racists have treated black people — out right ugly humiliating attacks and bodily injury she would not recover from, both in the streets and prisons, but especially the prison. Force feeding was intended to maim the woman and it did and hundreds were subjected to this. Those in power were intensely enraged because they did see the demand for a vote as an attack direct on their masculinity and whole way of life. They detested the demand to use public space as an authority. What surprised me was the horror of the women — they did not expect this and Vicinus’s own attitude towards the hunger strikes. And many were physically and/or emotionally maimed for life. She says hunger strikes — or suicide as in Emily Davies just gets rid of pro-active effective women — and ultimately is liked by the powerful. They’re glad of it or indifferent. Given that she sees the suffragette movement as driven by an emotional “spirituality” these sacrifices bound women but also were so self-defeating. I know these hunger strikes reverse the age-old way of punishment of subversion: put the person in a hunger tower to starve but most writers are chary to say how useless – because it attracts attention. Vicinus doesn’t think attention per se is enough.

At the end of the chapter she says that when the movement was over some suffragettes felt they had won something – the right to be recognized or recognition, the idea they wanted liberty which desire even had been denied them. But Vicinus shows how the newspapers went against them, how other women betrayed them, and says what they are saying they achieved doesn’t click because the basic structures of society in 1920 remain the same. The vote has ameliorated conditions. Today many of ties that bound women today are as strongly in place and the vote does not come near these.

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

I’ve already told the conclusion. This last coda is interesting for the examples she brings forth to once again make her argument, and how various norms thought to protect women were used against them; at the same time, some liberties women sought and thought they had gained from at first were seen only to favor men more when put into practice.

All women’s communities declined during and after WW1. One of most persuasive chapters is the short appendix where she shows men’s clubs continue to be supportive of them and fill needs all their lives; women’s clubs are an interlude just like women’s colleges. Women’s clubs interfere with her family obligations and she drops them. Women communities were successfully attacked for new reasons but one glimpses old ideas: they are restrictive psychologically and emotionally, silly places with old-fashioned dangerous behavior (ties to other women mocked. Paradoxically these communities often class bound become unsympathetic unfriendly places for many women.

Jobs were taken right back after WW1 and WW2. Men refused to work for women and refused to allow the workplace to reflect women’s ways.

As the idea women are not morally superior and pure were dropped because that was used to restrict them, they lost out again — not respected. She sees uses for those older ideas as they can empower men if transformed into valuing chastity, non marriage, friendships. But women ill prepared for Freud — who, Vicinus doesn’t say, is so misogynist so they rejected Freudian psychology and were left with what? A new kind of psychology emerged slowly in the 1970s first. What did the new sexual freedom of the 1970s finally achieve? ultimately gave men greater access to women and vulnerable men on their own terms. Women still do not do well when they report and go to court to punish men for raping them.

Then women fought within their own groups. There were those who wanted protective legislation (often turns out for families, for the breadwinner’s packet of money or state support should go to her and children not him as if he were the family) — these were contested bitterly but there were wins in welfare, but these seen as socialist, humanitarian. Those who wanted liberty to fulfill the demands of their own nature got nowhere; independent women accused of sex hatred, preferring women. She shows instances where the word “women” is removed; no this is a fund for citizens. It reminds me of the women’s review of books wanted to use the word “gender” and how “gender studies” replaces women. Far from identifying as a group they run from the group name is implied. Women didn’t or couldn’t invent a different language and set of terms to see themselves by –I think that was attempted in the 1970s to 1990s myself. – and they still haven’t.

The professions she goes over where power bases could have developed remain single-sex ghettos or when men come in, they take over. There had been an attempt at a richly nurturing subculture and the university is one place (all women’s college this can sometimes be seen), but once you leave you are outside the aggressively married heterosexual world.

She ends on a paragraph by Winifred Holtby where Holtby says we know where the aggressively male outlook leads women — to slave markets of all sorts, including marriage. Holtby is arguing that individual ability rather than social conditions should determine a woman’s fate – but Vicinus has shown that without institutions which provide a basis for power (certificates say, incomes) by refusing to change the class bias or sexual terms on which recognition is given out renders such demands moot.

Of course Vicinus is talking about women in general, the large majority not what particular individual women may luck into or be able to access by denying themselves some of the rewards of obeying successfully aggressive heterosexual male hegemonies (i.e., marrying). Many of the women writers I study are women who had talent enough to secure a living somewhere or other in the society and at least for a while and maybe much of their lives managed to escape this thwarting.

Vicinus book is written more softly and in academic style prose than I have and so the impact of what she is saying only slowly dawns on the reader, but once she does, her book has enormous explanatory power. My frontispiece for this blog suggests Vicinus’s whole new ironic and sad take on the stories of Miss Temple and Jane Eyre, how they ended up ….

Ellen


Christmas at Noningsby

Friends and readers,

As is our wont for too many years than I like to count, Christmas week on TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io (we have now resided on five different platforms) we took time out to read a few Christmas or ghost stories and watch a few Christmas or New Year’s movies. I realize I’ve hardly blogged about this, but from our discussion I thought I’d ask the question I posed in my previous blog on two Christmas movies of the 21st century, Is there any general difference between the Christmas story that emerged with the first commercialization of Christmas — in the 19th century, around the time of Dickens’s most famous tale, A Christmas Carol (but not caused by this story), and the type that has dominated the second half of the 20th century and is just dying now.

The simple answer is, Yes. The Victorians were much more into ghosts. Not that we don’t have ghost stories: we do. But I’d say we want our ghosts to be redemptive, to bring hope, cheer, and uplift while the Victorians tended to want generally to mirror as aspects of their society all the year round as seen through the lens of a Christmas ritual. And often as not darkly gothic. We are changing and our new traditional stories are beginning to be less insistent on faery joy and benevolence (It’s a Wonderful Life, engineered by an angel) and more inclined to accept the temporary rescue (as in this year’s Mary Poppins Returns or Love, Actually). I am in the position of having too much material to demonstrate this (from all the years I’ve saved what people wrote over different weeks’ choices, but thought this year’s stories were as able as any to register this. Two by Anton Chekhov, “Frost,” and “A Christmas Time,” and one by Margaret Oliphant, “A Christmas Story,” which I’ll follow up as a kind of coda, Trollope’s depiction of six very different experiences of Christmas in the same year and juxtaposed chapters in Orley Farm.


17th century Dutch: scene on the ice

Chekhov’s “Frost” shows us people attempting to have this joyous time on a vast frozen pond, and what happens is among the upper classes, one man complain how this is false and, far from a cheerful time for all, the winter imposes cold and misery for many, for the poor much deprivation and hard work in the bitter cold. Along comes a man whose appearance and story bears this idea out. The problem (I’d say) is that the complaining has destroyed what cheer there is, and other characters reiterate this idea. But somehow they cannot forget. There is that suffering man.


John Atkinson Grimshaw, Silence (late 19th century, English, probably Yorkshire in winter)

Cheknov’s “A Christmas Time” tells of two very old people who have not heard from their grown daughter for a long time, so long the wife goes to a person who can read and write. He asks her what she wants him to say, and Chekhov says she cannot get herself to say the (I’d call them) vulnerable open longing emotions she has or what has happened for real. She is too inhibited to speak the truth. So the notary produces the usual boilerplate rot of his upper class niche, which flatters him and would say nothing to this daughter. The letter arrives and we learn that there were letters written to the old couple but never delivered. The foolish poor people, the daughter especially trusted to others to deliver them. (Like the southerners who gave their ballots to people coming to the door; I wonder if in the modern case the people were intimidating and that’s not said in public) At any rate when the two grown children read the letters one cries with joy and remembrance. So the letters do serve as a minimum communication. But the pair do nothing about going to the aging couple so they cannot know if they have reached their daughter.

Bleak stories, indeed, but not unusual. And to show this I think I’ll follow up with a few blogs on previous year’s readings. For now have a look at a M.R. James Christmas tale.


John Millais, Christmas (ghost) story-telling

Our last short story for this round, Oliphant’s “Christmas Story:” Oliphant has a man who wants go somewhere Christmas and misses his train. He takes an old-fashioned coach and finds himself by an old broken down landscape where all is desolate and thence to an inn which fits this area. Bare. a dearth of objects. The food offered is bad, and an old gentleman comes and offers to take our narrator to his manor – all the while talking against modern ways. They get there through an uncanny landscape, and the old man tells our narrator that the sullen son he meets is going to replace the old man. According to the family will, each generation must make the oldest son the heir. The family has trouble having sons. A story is told where when the family attempted to get round this harsh treatment, to give the house to a daughter, and they almost lost the house. Our narrator is horrified to think what this means is the son will kill the father somehow or the father kill himself. He tries to stop this, but is somehow ejected from the house, and must return to the inn, deeply disquieted. Next day he goes back indignant determined to overcome the indifference of all around him to what is done in this family each generation but it is too late. And then he wakes up … Was it all a nightmare?

How to take this? The details and experience may leave people reacting very different ways to this gothic — without ghosts so it’s not reprinted in the ghost stories but my hunch is it is a story of the “unseen.” My reading: it’s about Oliphant herself. As Trollope’s Fixed Period is about his fear of death, his aging and misery, his sense the young would like him to die, with the awful Mrs Neverbend a version of Trollope’s wife, Oliphant’s is even more painfully about her. Her sons want to replace her — a number of her novels are metaphors for her painful relationships with her disappointing sons and her neglect of her sweet niece (“Lady Mary’s Story”).

My good friend, Fran, had another take very close to Victorian broad themes:

I found it an intriguing one, despite the unfortunately clichéd, ‘it may have been only a dream’ ending.

As you say, it was probably informed by her own distressing and disappointing experiences with the ne’er-do-well males in her family, who took and took, but didn’t respect,but it seems to go further than that and be an oblique critique of patriarchy, patrilineal inheritance rights and inheritance laws in general. She does it by taking the privileging of male inheritance ad (macabre and possibly murderous) absurdum. It isn’t that the family has difficulty having sons: due to the losses of a wastrel forebear, the family has made a conscious decision to have only one child, a son, in each generation in order to maintain patrilineal succession and prevent their land being cut up even further by multiple heirs or falling to another family if a female should succeed and marry. That son automatically accedes to the title upon marriage whilst the father dies, whether by his own hand or that of his son, remains unclear as you’ve already pointed out – a kind of precursor to the Highlander’s ‘there can be only one’ maxim:) The narrator stumbles upon the present incumbent of the title on the day this will come about and is shocked by his equanimity at the prospect of his loutish son succeeding him in this way. The only thing that seems to bother the father is that his son has insisted on marrying outside the preferred narrow gene pool and into a particularly fecund family, thus presumably increasing the danger of multiple heirs.

Women are of absolutely no importance in this family beyond the obligatory production of a male heir. The lady of the manor is a completely silent, passive and presumably accepting cypher who quite literally blends in with the furniture and her husband is positively gleeful when he recounts that the one time a female child was born first and in danger of inheriting both she and her mother met with an early demise – manner again unspecified – whilst the second wife performed her duty and produced the required son to continue the male line.

This stands in ironic and suggestive contrast to the legendary figure of Godiva referenced at the beginning of the tale, who took action and stood up against her despotic husband and caused harmful laws to be rescinded for the good of the people. The male who disrespected her, the first Peeping Tom, was summarily punished by a higher power. Wishful thinking perhaps…..


Mr Furnival greeting Lady Mason, to the right side sitting Mrs Furnival, to the left Lady Mason’s son, Lucius

And finally Christmas in Trollope’s Orley Farm (mostly contained in 21-24) as simply truthful. The truth is few people can be happy upon command. Some who are already cheerful in life can easily enter into the spirit of a festival; for others it is a form a work which brings its rewards; for still others, the social requirement just makes life harder to bear. We see all these types in the 6 Christmases Trollope shows us. But of course Trollope doesn’t present Christmas in all his books or because Christmas come every year; he presents it here because it fits into his exploration of law, custom, and now ritual in this particular novel.

There are six Christmases. The four obvious ones are: Harley Street, Noningsby, Groby Park, and Great St. Helens.

Christmas at Harley Street. The scene of the aon and accused mother, Lady Mason, late at night matches the scene of Mr and Mrs Furnival. Less is dramatized in the first but we are to understand Lady Mason feels a bitter agony at her son. He is driving his absolute right to a property too far and a court case will be the result. He, she feels, rightly is cruel. Trollope wants us to understand that Lucius cannot bear that his opponents do not answer all insults: his pride is his undoing. But we are shown that pride is necessary to win in the world. All the characters have it, but only the wiser use it with discretion. I feel we are to see Mr Furnival is cruel and mean, cold. We’ve been told enough to know he has women. He never comes home to supper one night in the year and is even out on this Christmas celebration. To those not in groups Christmas is a cruel time because (as Trollope shows) people without friends or celebration who have hearts are made to suffer and feel bitterly ashamed. But Mrs Furnivals handles Mr Furnival badly. Had she been skillful, he still would gone out, never be home. She cannot humble herself and admit to herself or him she speaks out of deep loneliness.

Trollope does “paint” the scenes of Christmas at Noningsby remarkably finely — he has wonderful description and psychological powers. And while showing us the enjoyment he does justice to all the pettty, cross and unsatisfied emotions of the various lovers and children and adults too. Unlike Dickens Trollope shows a variety of how people get through this day, does justice to all. This sequence of chapters is famous as well as the illustration of blind man’s bluff. Ironically appropriate _– the way to get through life is to bluff the blind men.

Christmas at Great St Helens’ shows Mr Moulder bullying everyone into appearing to be cheerful, and somehow they get through sll the insisted upon rituals with heavy food, much drink, and obedience.

But to this we should add Christmas at the cottage of the Greens, the Mason’s tenants in Groby Park, and Christmas at the Cleeves. What unites the Greens’ and Cleeves’s Christmas is they are simply an adorned moment in which all attempt to show good fellowship. Mr and Mrs Green come home from the long ordeal of ugly pretense and parody of hospitality that has been the Groby Park Christmas (everyone an utter miser), and Trollope writes: “‘And now, my dear, we’ll have a bit of bread and cheese and a glass of beer'” (1985 Oxford Classics ed. DSkilton, p. 237).

Christmas at the Cleeves also has a good moment:

“[Lady Mason] made an effort to be serene, and the effort was successful — as such efforts usually are. On the morning of Christmas-day they duly attended church, and Lady Mason was seen by all Hamworth sitting in the Cleeves’ pew. in no way could the baronet’s friendhship have been shown more plainly…”

In the evening Sir Peregrine proposes the toast. They drink to the health of the absent young men, he retires and Lady Mason is able to relieve her heart in conversation with Mrs Orme (p. 247). We may assume they drank something far more expensive than beer.

These 2 Christmases are overlooked because they only get a couple of paragraphs each and are very quiet. They also lack children. Children are what makes Christmas for some so happy, especially when they still believe in the pretty lie of Santa. Children are drunk on life of course. Finally these two seem to me the most modern of all the Christmases we see. Not everyone is near a divorce on Christmas day. But many people nowadays are cut off from large family groups — or single –and spend their day alone, quietly, or with one or two adult friends.

The 6 Christmases are presented in this novel this way too because they fit into what Halperin has identified as something Trollope dislikes wherever he sees it, and is a strong part of his animus towards political life: they avoid the ceremonies of falsifying rituals. I would say that this presentation of the ritual of Christmas as enacted in six places connects to the novel’s exploration of law and custom and what I’ll call the brutal politics of every day life: shall one bully? as Moulder does, or retreat into self-abnegation or controlled repeat or veneer ritual like Lady Mason?

In this connection what Trollope shows us is ritual at home doesn’t hide reality; rather it heightens it. In each of the Christmases we find everyone behaving in ways that epitomize the reality of their lives and natures at this point. The difference is the need to join in the ritual at the same time makes what is true about them more obvious; it turns life into a theater. Thus each of the six moments again reveals to us aspects of each character writ large, and carries the book’s stories and themes along strongly.

And there is a fun illustration by Millais for Christmas at Noningsby (which I used as the frontispiece to this blog) to which I add a picturesque one of companionship between Judge Staveley and his daughter later that spring.

Finishing this old year, let us hope, my friends, we may yet have a peaceful and stable one to come, be well and know and give kindness.

Ellen


One of the many whole family scenes in Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (2008)


Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

Friends,

Over these few Christmas days I watched two new (to me) Christmas movies, read three Christmas stories I’ve never read before, and renewed my acquaintance with a series of Christmas chapters in a strong masterpiece of Victorian fiction. I most enjoyed the extraordinary creation of a several day Christmas time together by Arnaud Desplechin in his much-awarded A Christmas tale and was fully absorbed by six different households and their experience of Christmas in Anthony Trollope’s Orley Farm. I’m with those reviewers who found that Mary Poppins Rebooted half-a-century later fails to enchant, and think anibundel comes closest to explaining why. The three stories I read, two by Anton Chekhov, and a third by Margaret Oliphant, suggest what was expected from a mainstream Christmas story in the 19th differs considerably from the 20th.

In this blog we’ll stay with movies, and in my next turn to stories.

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Sylvia’s children, Paul, grandfather and Sylvia doing a play of the children’s own device during the week (A Christmas Tale)

I can’t speak too highly of Desplechin’s film. It must may be the best or most mature Christmas movie I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen many. Before this I would say John Huston’s The Dead (from Joyce’s story) and Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan (an appropriation of Mansfield Park) were the finest, with the 1951 Christmas Carol archetypally old-fashioned, still delivering a depth of inward anguish, anger and redemption hard to match anywhere, partly because of the performance of Alistair Sim and partly the use of some film noir and fantafy techniques — and Dickens’s famous bitter and joyous lines. But they feel so limited in scope and what’s presented in comparison. Love Actually is vulgar in comparison (and finds sexual predation a bit too humorous with Bill Nighy’s impeccable parody dating just a bit); It’s a Wonderful Life — so meaningfully anti-capitalist for us today, with its angel Clarence seeking promotion and no one doing hysteria the way Jimmy Stewart can (I weep each time) — has problems — the depiction of the wife had she not married as this dried up spinster librarian afraid of her shadow is grating. There are none of these kinds of mistakes in Desplechin’s film.

I’d say if you are alone (like I fundamentally am now) and want to experience Christmas with other intelligent well-meaning real enough people sit for the full 2 and 1/2 slow-moving hours and then watch the 2 hours of features too. It’s the story of a large bourgeois family who all get together for the first time in several years because the mother, Junon (Catherine Deneuve) has a cancer which requires a bone-marrow transplant if she is to have any chance of living even for two years. Two of the family members have compatible blood types, one Paul (Emile Berling) the 15 year old troubled son of the eldest daughter, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), a gifted playwright, who loathes the other, her brother, Henri (Mathieu Amalric) to the point five years she demanded her father, Abel (Jean-Paul Rousillon) and her mother cut off all relationship with him in return for her paying the enormous debts Henri had racked up; if someone did not pay it, her parents would lose the family home.

A major character across the film is this large comfortable ramshackle home and its landscape, both of which frame and is a brooding and comforting presence throughout all the scenes which don’t take place specifically in Roubaix. Roubaix is the film’s subtitle, a small French city in which Desplechin grew up and which he photographs lovingly, realistically in small interludes of shots. The key characters are Abel (the father), Junon (the mother), Henri and Elizabeth (two of their grown children), with Amalric as Henri delivering a character of extraordinary complexity and interest, vulnerable, resentful, despairing, kind, insightful by turns.


Mathieu Amalric as Henri talking earnestly to his younger brother, Ivan (Melvil Poupaid) as they decorate the family tree.

Back history (like a novel): Abel and Junon had four children, and the film opens with the death of the eldest, Joseph at age six as a flashback of memory in Abel’s mind — as he and his wife await the arrival of the family as it is today for Christmas.   Elizabeth and their youngest son, Ivan, have married. Elizabeth’s husband, Claude (Hippolyte Girardot) leaves at one point, so incensed does he get against the tactless Henri, when he is having to deal with his son Paul having had a breakdown, and spent time in an asylum. Claude is preparing his mind for a coming interview with authorities to try to get the boy out of the asylum while Elizabeth wants to put him back there. By film’s end the boy will not return to the asylum but stay with his grandparents, Claude has returned, and Elizabeth been helped by talk with her father.

Ivan’s wife, Sylvia (Chiara Mastroiana, Deneuve’s actual daughter) while reacting with real affection to her two small boys whenever they are around, is essentially bored by them and her life, and during the course of the film discovers that Simon (Laurent Capelluto) a cousin who lives with Abel and Junon, and works in their dye factory (the source of the family income) is deeply in love with her, and gave her up to Ivan after he lost a bet. She apparently had preferred Simon to Ivan; he is one of several family members who absents himself from the group now and again — he drinks too heavily, maybe is bisexual, is doing nothing with his life. So Sylvia finds him alone in a bar on Christmas eve, and they spent a night in bed together, something accepted by Ivan, who himself lives unconventionally as a musician commanding large audiences in rock concerts, one of which we attend.

Henri’s first wife, died in a car accident a month after they married:


Henri showing Faunia a photo of his long dead wife

Henri has had several partners since, and the present woman, Jewish, Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos) finds herself feeling alien, Henri’s response is he wants to leave too; at one point she goes shopping with Junon, and without telling her, Junon leaves the shop, driving herself back, so Faunia has to get back herself. She does leave early.


Simon, Sylvia, Ivan, Junon in a corridor (left to right)

A complicated family you might say – but no more than many families. I assure you, you will not be bored; it’s funny, wry, quiet and peaceful (as they watch appalling movies), suddenly all is fraught emotion and then they calm down again and exchange presents.

The stories close with Elizabeth intoning the epilogue from Midsummer’s Night Dream, as she overlooks Roubaix.  This last literary quotation (of several) signals the underlying mood that holds it together: acceptance (except during eruptions) of one another, their fates, with barbed raillery mixed with profound thoughts, sometimes read aloud —


Abel reads Goethe to Elizabeth

What helps hold everyone together: the house where they dwell together. All they do in and for it. The town they know. Even the cemetery close by where their baby brother was buried.  The father is the final authority all the while going off to clean up the table, the yard after fireworks were set up all over it; the mother is respected by all even if she had the disconcerting habit of telling this or that child she never cared for them. So a combination of tradition and concrete truth.  Things.  Prickly, messy and companionable (Henri goes walking in the snow with Paul and helps him), filled with shots of beautiful winter, ghastly streets, and the house and rooms every which way, this movie finally helps us to endure on. Chapter headings, days of the week also named by mood, characters who turn around and address us, hospital and bar scenes, it’s all there, Christmas time. The hope in the film that they do get together, help one another, share their memories, which is to say their deepest identities, has some fruition.

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Look at the look in Blunt’s eye — cold as ice

The Mary Poppins movie is not the most tedious Christmas film I’ve ever seen — I give that prize to the Muppet Scrooge story. But it can come close. It’s a child’s movie because the main action, the rescuing is precipitated by the children. I bring it up because Disney has such a prominent presence in our culture, as a girl I loved the books by P.L Travers (wildly disparate from the 1964 movie), which have yet to be done justice to by any of the movies (including Saving Mr Banks), two of which have been used as Christmas icons. Emily Blunt herself played the wife who dies, a central role in Sondheim’s Into the Woods, which was another Christmas day extravaganza, and this gives us our clue to what goes wrong.


Emily Blunt as the despairing hysterically lost baker’s wife (2014)

Sondheim’s song was simply about how in life sometimes we end up walking alone: “Sometimes people leave you/Halfway through the wood.” Paradoxically the film also tried to bring something of the original thwarted feelings of the book: each time an adventure is over, Mary Poppins denies it took place; she is all vanity, egoism, discusses nothing, orders everyone about (Blunt tried for a soupcon of this). Anibundel suggests the problem is the film took on “deep emotional themes” the Disneyfiction can’t include. Manohla Dargis agrees that it follows the trajectory of the old songs; and finds it uncanny that it never captures the original “delicacy of feeling” or bliss.


Lin-Manuel Miranda imitating one of Van Dyke’s routines

I’m inclined to think the actors didn’t believe in it the way they did 50 years ago; Emily Mortimer was thrown away; Julie Walters was a stray from 19th century music hall; the occasional nervous plangency allowed Wishaw went nowhere, and Lin-Manuel seemed to be biking to no purpose, round and round. What seems to me important is capitalism won out; no subversion allowed. All the talk of the movie was money, certificates, and while Dick Van Dyke stepped in for a moment to dance a delicate shoe number and remind us trust in one another was the key to the first bank’s success, that was lost in the hard noise of triumph. The principals worked so hard because it was all counter-productive; the less true Christmas message they had, the more vigorous they became. When they went high up in balloons, they were not escaping from their world. The material as brought down not from Travers, not from her book:


Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers very irritated by what Disney did to her book (Saving Mr Banks, 2013)

But the previous naive travesty won’t work any more because we are cut off from social feeling.


Is the Mary Poppins in the center having any emotion with respect to anyone around her?

They wanted more than a Sondheim production, where rousing music and slow depth simple words convey significance. The movie lacked haunting music because it was not permitted the real melancholy of life’s existence (as caught in Abel’s words in the book he reads; another review by Jen Cheney this time of the DVD set). Streep’s song could have fitted the movie’s story: the Banks children and Michael Banks need to be righted. But one visit from MP will not do it. This was a ludicrously over-produced fantasy, a commercial for Disneyland, pictures of which opened and closed the movie itself.

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What should a Christmas story be? Trollope said “the savor of Christmas” was a story that instilled (in his language) “charity,” which translates literally into acts of giving. We’ll explore this next time. At the end of A Christmas Tale, Henri has given life’s blood, risked his life, on the chance he could save his mother’s. There has been no talk of money here; what tore the family apart was money.


The church scene repeats the arrangement of characters in the court scene only then it’s Abel next to Henri

I mentioned my DVD included two disks. As Cheney says, “Arnaud’s tale” is disappointing: we are told how central the house is to the film, and the city, and these connect back to Desplechin’s life and Almaric talks of how he understood and played Henri. But it’s the one hour documentary movie that illuminates why he chose to make a Christmas movie:

“L’Aimée,” on the other hand, immerses us completely in the tale of Desplachin’s relatives: his grandmother, who was diagnosed with tuberculosis in her 30s; his father, Robert, who was forced to live apart from his contagious mother, then grow up without her after her death; and the many relatives who played a role in nurturing Robert into adulthood. Like “A Christmas Tale,” a film that clearly was inspired by this documentary effort,” “L’Aimée” introduces us to all the heartbreak, joy and tucked-away memories that comprise one family’s history. And that, in its very French, thoughtful and occasionally somber way, is what Christmas is all about.

Into the Woods was not about charity but it was about heartbreak, memory and camaraderie as solace. A roll of the dice, chance moments, human obtuseness and self have caused much damage but by the end (as Philip Lopate says in the essay that accompanies the DVD — such a lot of stuff in this DVD case) even the depressed Elizabeth “gets her bearings.” And moments of grace no matter how odd (like when the nurse does not stop Henri from drinking and smoking the morning he is to do his part of the procedure) enable the people together to invent livable lives. No one altogether crushed, and everyone at some point smiles with some shared or individual enjoyment.


Walking in snow


Playing piano, others listening


At one of the many meals ….

Ellen


Emma Stone as Abigail Hill Masham — unfortunately the released promotional shots don’t begin to offer an accurate sense of the nature of the typical scene in this costume drama

Friends and readers,

For a third time this year I break a sort of rule with me which is not to write about a work of art that is awful on every level — the other two were the egregiously stupid and misogynistic opera, Marnie, commissioned by the Met, and a crude frantically violent caricature of the violence, cruelty and stupidity that may seem to characterize much of American public life, especially as reflected in westerns, Damsel. That’s a lot for half a year, but three times now a movie, opera, and many more books I don’t begin to read, and TV serial dramas (on channels like FX, Starz) have seemed genuinely to me to function perniciously in our culture, and especially at the present time. I have many friends who want nothing more than a great 18th century historical film or would be interested in a new take in “victim queens” especially the long 18th century variety. Folks, this is not it. This is derision.

It didn’t seem to me a matter for mild bemusement when Anthony Lane of the New Yorker can produce an anondyne (this is screwball comedy you see) amused praise of The Favourite, giving the impression this is still your regular costume drama (quintessential lately in Netflix’s The Crown) by virtue of his complacent tone. He does say it’s “very odd,” but then defends the film by the assertion its “lubricious scenes” are true. They are not; we are presented with wild exaggerations intended to disgust, excite, shock, and rivet us by a kind of fleshly horror. One scene has a very fat man naked with bruises all over him, with a huge fantastical wig being assaulted by projectiles and hosed by over-dressed aristocrats just hilarious with joy; another Abigail stamping to the point of crippling a rabbit for fun; I couldn’t count the number of scenes where Olivia Coleman as Anne is a grotesque embarrassment, a pile of ugly sores, screaming at the top of her lungs she wants or does not want this or that, with Rachel Weisz as a kind of gothic handmaiden dildo-ing the bored queen upon command, bullying her physically (as well as morally), looking like a caricature of a midnight nightmare of maleness in soldier-like courtier outfit.

A. O Scott (Critic’s pick!) of the New York Times is franker but writes in a dense prose which defeats visualization and often remains on an abstract level. How he comes up with how a mountain of self-indulgent flesh (as Coleman is presented) is a figure of “sincerity,” dependent on wheel chair, grim body brace head to toe to go riding, vacillating between okaying Lady Sarah’s desire for more war and higher taxes (from others) to pay for this, and just yelling “no” (knowing nothing about anything) is a “free spirit” is beyond me. His justification too is that all this is faithful to what humanity in the court of Queen Anne in England was:

The best — and also the most troubling — thing about “The Favourite” is its rigorously bleak assessment of human motivations and behavior. The palace is a petri dish aswarm with familiar pathogens of egoism, cruelty and greed. A sentimental soul might wish for a glimpse of something else, but at the same time it’s hard to say that anything is missing from this tableau, which is also a devastating, flattering and strangely faithful mirror.


The first close-up shot of Olivia Coleman as Anne, witheringly told by Lady Sarah she looks “like a badger”

It is true that in this film there is not one character who acts morally, who appears to have any sense that anyone ever acts morally, who shows any kindness, true courtesy or respect for anyone else. At every opportunity, spite, corruption, sensual gratification as a major motive in life with a complete lack of moderating reason is put before us. I am aware I will be told don’t I understand irony or satire. I reply:  I can recognize when a pretense of satire is used to as a cover for rottenness.

I have read a biography of Anne Stuart, Queen of England between 1702 and 1714; a volume of her letters to and from Sarah Churchill (they did address one another as Mrs Marley and Mrs Freeman) together with Abigail Masham’s letters. Also essays suggesting lesbian attachments, rivalry, and lately (as scholars love to elevate the view of the figures they study — it’s an identity thing, theirs) that Anne was by no means an ignoramus, and while Sarah, Lady Churchill bullied her badly to make political choices favoring the wealth of her husband, his career, their Blenheim palace, favoring war, the merchants in the UK, and the Whig establishment (represented by James Smith as Godolphin in the film), she, Anne, wanted these, was complicit, and when she changed course, and put the Tories (represented by Nicholas Hoult as Harley), it was not just that she was breaking free of Sarah at long last and plummeting herself into the arms of Abigail. When I left to see the film I felt good to think a new female icon would enter the “familiar queen” matter, one not attractive to men, one perhaps lesbian, with a sad frustrated life (tragic over the loss of so many pregnancies and the ruination of her body); when I left, I told myself if this is the way Anne Stuart is going to be dramatized, I hope this is the last movie about “her” I ever see.


Lady Sarah in a “fun” mud bath with Queen Anne, they both make themselves much moustaches — characters in this film are repeatedly thrown into the mud, into ditches, made filthy and humiliated by this

The movie is an argument no woman should ever be given power because they are hysterical, ignorant, easily debauched: by the end of the movie, Abigail Masham is not the virtuous downtrodden scullery maid, birched at will, any longer, but she has learnt very little and is herself involved with debauched grotesque sex scenes. She has achieved title, income and we see her jerk her husband’s penis off as a form of sex in payment. Sarah Churchill is a violent, cruel egoistic ruthless woman (a monstrous sort of Thatcher), who appears to hate Anne. And Anne is a helpless blimp. When Sarah is thrown out, and Abigail (this is the kind of detail the film uses to justify itself) doesn’t read the political documents, Anne bumbles through them, falling asleep as she cannot understand what they are about. The historical Anne may have had a stroke towards the end of her life. This is the most anti-feminist film I’ve seen in a long time and that’s going some.

Some of the images reminded me of the vilest ones I ever saw picturing Hilary Clinton, which a  group of articles on the defamation of Marie Antoinette by her contemporaries during her imprisonment and trial argued were in alignment as to what was to be inferred. Profoundly unnatural sexed-up hag.  There was no real tenderness in evidence in Anne or Abigail over the pathetic 17 rabbits the queen keeps in her bedchamber:  they were self-centered children at play with toys.

That the egregiously vulgar language (I don’t know how many times the word “fuck” is hurled around rooms), anachronistic high-jinks, and utterly distasteful interactions between the characters are not meant as satire but as substitutes for the high-action of a male movie with all its bloody corpses and seething action-intrigue that recent fantasy costume dramas have come to lead a thirties-to-forties audience to expect can be seen in the level of noise in this film. Each time a bird is killed we get a close up of the animal’s agony along with a deafening gun noise.

The women are repeatedly shown to be as violent and aggressive as men. They slap one another very hard; they thrown one another down — even Anne gets this treatment from Lady Sarah; all three major women and some of the men are seen vomiting into vases. We get exaggerated stylized versions of males dressed up in wild Restoration type garb; the worst wigs of the contemporary portraits on the men. All bowing and preening in high heels. Masquerade type make-up. The point of this is to entertain by startling you — as if the audience was a bunch of hens sitting in a yard and someone shoots off a gun. I used the word repulsion because I remembered back to Polanski’s unspeakably exploitative movie about depression in a repressed young woman, Repulsion, but really it was just nerve-wracking, continually deeply unpleasant and on the whole revolting. On Wikipedia we are told Repulsion is considered by some to be Polanski’s greatest film; surely something has gone deeply awry with any set of aesthetic or moral understanding that can come up with this judgement or say The Favourite is the treat of this season (women’s film it’s implied) to see.

There seems to be desire to transform the conventional “victim queen” movie — strength of character is in Mary Queen of Scots translated into woman as male warrior, possible lesbian, by no means “a loser” but trapped because she thought she had to stay married.


Saoirse Ronan as Mary Queen of Scots is also addicted to in-your-face gunning other creatures down (she also affects a strong Scots accent).

The Favourite does use lines from Anne and other letters by Sarah but the screenplay has no sense at all of history, of what makes communicable good art, repetitious events.  This is specious travesty. Save your money and don’t throw away time for something from which you may emerge from with a headache from the noise, and anything but refreshment from the mean obscenity of many of the scenes.

Ellen


Outlander, Season 3, Episode 8: First Wife Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe as Jamie and Claire Fraser aboard a ship to seek out Ian, captured below ….

From Prologue to Voyager:

When I was small, I never wanted to step in puddles. Not because of any fear of drowned worms or wet stockings; I was by and large a grubby child, with a blissful disregard for filth of any kind.

It was because I couldn’t bring myself to believe that that perfect smooth expanse was no more than a thin film of water over solid earth. I believed it was an opening into some fathomless space. Sometimes, seeing the tiny ripples caused by my approach, I thought the puddle impossibly deep, a bottomless sea in which the lazy coil of tentacle and gleam of scale lay hidden, with the threat of huge bodies and sharp teeth adrift and silent in the far down depths.

And then, looking down into reflection, I would see my own round face and frizzled hair against a featureless blue sweep,and think instead that the puddle was the entrance to another sky. If I stepped in there, I would drop at once, and keep on falling on and on, into blue space.

The only time I would dare to walk though a puddle was at twilight, when the evening stars came out. If I looked in the water and saw one lighted pinprick there, I could splash through unafraid — for if I should fall into the puddle and on into space, I could grab hold of the star as I passed, and be safe.

Even now, when I see a puddle in my path, my mind half-halts — through my feet d not — then hurries on, with only the echo of the thought left behind ….

Friends and readers,

I decided to return to blogging about Outlander tonight, intent on writing about Season 4, and its source thus far, Drums of Autumn, and and discovered (much to my horror) that I never finished blogging about Season 3! I last posted 13 months ago (November 2017) and wrote comparing the second and third season to one another and their books and took the series up to Episode 8: First Wife. I feel I ought to finish the third season before going on to the fourth.

So, first, to catch up, I was so taken by Season 1 (the first book is called simply Outlander) that I blogged about it 2 episodes at a time and one on the book too (across 2016): A handy list; a few thoughts on the novel (February 2017).


Claire at the window: Opening soliloquy

Much as I loved Season 2 (all but the opening out of Dragonfly in Amber), I blogged but once on the whole season taken as a whole and the books it came from: “A differently framed Dragonfly in Amber” (October 2017)


Claire grieving over stillborn child (Episode 7, Faith, towards the close)

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A quick recap:


Season 3, Episode 9: The Doldrums (in front Cesar Dombuy as Fergus and Lauren Lyle as Marsali)

We left off as Ian (John Bell) has been kidnapped by pirates and Jamie and Claire see no other solution to freeing him than to follow the young man to (possibly) “the new world,” and they, their foster son, Jamie’s step-daughter, and Jamie’s new sidekick friend, Willoughby (Gary Young) take ship. Episode 9 is a series of wild and improbable adventures. It put me in mind of Greek romance in the 3rd century, long narratives of a couple endlessly parted in a vast seascape. Instead of a tempest, they are afflicted by a calm; instead of magic rituals, Willoughby’s religious art and typhus. There is a real movement to “strangeness” and uncanniness in the story of himself that Mr Willoughby tells – reminding me of an inset “history” in 18th century novels. Our Claire takes on Stephen Maturin’s role in O’Brien’s adventure romances: ship’s surgeon, hair graying, skirts tied back. Claire is tricked into getting on to another ship in order to save as many of a dying crew dying as her inadequate medicines but wise natural means can, and Jamie insists the ship he is on follow the ship she is on.


Episode 10: Heaven and Earth: Albie Marber as the appealing 14 year old Elias Pound in training to be an officer becomes Claire’s aide and then dies himself of typhus

We have two sets of adventures in two ships headed for Jamaica. On Jamie’s ship, The Porpoise, we have to worry ourselves whether Fergus and Marsali are having sexual intercourse, and Jamie is a nervous wreck and seasick, tended by the faithful Willoughby with acupuncture; on Captain Fraser’s ship we watch Claire deal with a serious epidemic where most of the sailors die. The best moments are those of Claire and Elias’s growing relationship, his sickening and dying. Claire’s ship lands and she attempts to escape but is thwarted. Claire provides suture by her voice-over. Brought back, with the help of the ship’s cook, she is induced to perform the madness of jumping ship with just a bundle and board to hold onto in order to try to reach Jamie before his ship lands in Jamaica where the plan is to have him arrested for a ransom. The ending of Heaven and Earth has her between heaven and earth in the sea itself, and this, with her back in just shift and smock (soaked) returns us to the old spirit of psychologically consistent daring of Season 1. She is her own woman, has a career; she wanted to have equal say in a marriage as to where they live, now she is like Shakespeare’s Miranda as a billow carries her to shore.


Episode 11: The Uncharted: Claire making her way, hungry, needing water, finding herself attacked by insects, heat, in danger of dying if she cannot find help

We might call this Claire meets Robinson Crusoe; her encounter with someone who seems at first to be a madman hermit-priest reminded me of Evelyn Waugh’s hero in Decline and Fall where he ends up in a jungle and for the rest of his life must read Dickens (Waugh loathed Dickens) to a similar madman hermit. after a terrible walk, she is rescued by a half-made ex-priest and the mother of his now dead beloved wife. Meanwhile Jamie has driven the Porpoise to find Claire — most conveniently the captain and most others also died in an epidemic and the storm, and landed on the same island. Claire, altered by the priest’s anger at a “chinaman” who killed his goat for soap and food, Claire realizes Willoughby and therefore Jamie must be nearby. Escaping from said priest, she flees back to the beach just as Jamie is sailing away, but, ever the clever resourceful woman, she signals with a mirror and he sails back. I admit I had tears in my eyes as they ran across the beach to one another. One sailor said this man’s wife shows up in the most unlikely places.


The Wedding

A wedding ceremony for Fergus and Marsali (where the priest is astounded she will marry a man who has lost his hand — Gabaldon and then Ronald Moore’s nagging over Fergus’s disability is in bad taste, showing their discomfort) and finally the long scene of love-making between Jamie and Claire we had been waiting all 7 episodes for (that is, since she entered 18th century Scotland in Episode 5).

It makes psychological sense they should not have had this right away. The film-makers have problem with taste and taboo: Claire is older and my guess is the film-makers and it’s taboo to present an older woman who was just widowed as intensely sexual; the same goes for the “mature man.” So how do you present a “reunion” after twenty years; they have to get to know the new person, and as for the sexual matter, the film-makers opted to be “safe” (decorous). She is dressed boyishly and then womanly. They keep the uncomfortable at bay and her acceptable with the teasing about her being this “respectable married woman” and “honorable wife.” But now they can once again reach for sexual pleasure at length ….

Closure

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The last two episodes make one arc in the way the first three (Claire seeking Jamie from modern Scotland) do.

Episodes 12 & 13: The Bakra and The Eye of the Storm

Lotte Verbeck as Geillis Duncan (Gillian Edgars who burnt her husband to cross the stones) now the Bakra

Claire and Jamie land, have to integrate themselves into this new slave society, meet (ever so conveniently) Lord John (David Berry) whose authority prevents the ruthless captain Fraser from imprisoning and sending Jamie back for money. They successfully hunt Ian out to the lair Geillis Duncan, now a fearful sorceress-like presence) amid a jungle of tribal rituals, escaped and obedient enslaved black people. We have the first incidents involving slavery and Claire’s deep disgust; we witness a homoerotic relationship between the now near equals Lord John and Jamie — the metaphor that realizes this is dramatized in their enjoyment of chess together.


Claire leading Margaret through the tribe, Willoughby seen at the back of the shot

We meet again Margaret Campbell (Alison Pargeter), driven half-mad by her greedy brother after she had been gang-raped at Culloden; she is now rescued from his brutality by Willoughby and the two make a touching pair: he so gentle, she so tender and in need. Amid scenes of colonial luxury, as Claire discovered at the opening, Geillis has been trying to obtain magic talismans to assure the succession of a Scottish Stuart on the throne; she is the devouring sexual monster of misogynistic nightmares and Claire stops her killing Ian only by beheading her with a sword. They must flee once again and in a remarkable water sequence end up in a tempest, are thrown overboard and almost drown. Claire shows a death-wish we had not expected, and now Jamie pulls her out of the sea and her desperate mood onto the shore, where at first he thinks she has died, but she revives as the child of some English colonists come up to them.

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The Prologue to Outlander, book and film: “People disappear all the time./Young girls run away from home./Children stray from their parents and are never seen again. Housewives take the grocery money, and a taxi to the train station./Most are found eventually./Disappearances, after all, have explanations./
Usually.


The outline of the Scotsman seen by Frank looking up to Claire’s 20th century window

The Prologue to Dragonfly in Amber, just the book:

I woke three times in the dark predawn. First in sorrow, then in joy, and at the last in solitude. The tears of a bone-deep loss woke me slowly, bathing my face like the comforting touch of a damp cloth in soothing hands. I turned my face to the wet pillow and sailed a salty river into the caverns of grief remembered, into the subterranean depths of sleep.

I came awake then in fierce joy, body arched bow-like in the throes of physical joining, the touch of him fresh o my skin, drying along the paths of my nerves as the ripples of consummation spread from my center. I repelled consciousness, turning again, seeking the sharp, warm smell of a man’s satisfied desire, in the reassuring arms of my lover, sleep.

The third time I woke alone, beyond the touch of love or grief. The sight of the stones was fresh in my mind. A small circle, standing stones on the crest of a steep green hill. The name of the hill is Craigh na Dun; the fairies’ hill. Some say the hill is enchanted, others say it is cursed. Both are right. But no one knows the function or the purpose of the stones.

Except me.


Talking after love-making (from Season 1)

As my stills suggest, the true thread that unites this third divagating book is still romance: a series of couples, which include Jamie and the mother of his son, Willie, her sister, Isabel who Lord John obligingly marries so as to make a family for the little boy. In my blog on the first part of this third season I accounted for the changes from the two books to this serial drama and its lack of a clear thrust and resort to “dazzling” adventure to keep the audience entered. The book is about voyaging across the sea, and voyaging through different worlds. Seen against the backdrop of the whole cycle of books (by now at least 10), it’s a stage in a vast woman’s book landscape: updated Daphne DuMaurier, many-great granddaughter of Anne Radcliffe, a motif of ghosts as if this past is hauntingly alive in the mind of the author.


Lord John (John Berry) looking at Jamie’s suddenly resurrected wife, Claire — very quizzical — he compensates for the homophobia inherent in the portraits of Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies) and the Duke of Sandringham (Simon Callow)

Starting in the third season of the serials, there was a more determined attempt to make Jamie the center (deviating from the book), with one episode wholly about him, but as the outline of all 13 episodes suggests, the center remains Claire’s disappearance into another time. The opening still of the ghost standing by a monument in a darkened street, looking up at someone through a window is iconic; he is her dream. In many women’s romances, the novelist’s heroine expresses a self that is masculine in many of her impulses in her relation to other characters and the culture at hand. In Gabaldon it seems to me Jamie serves this purpose; Claire is very much a classically female heroine. She can be differently female from the other women, as they are all 18th century in conception; for example, Jenny with her many children. Claire is independent, scientifically educated, progressive in politics, pro-active in behavior.

But the theme, the image is watery, that of water become magical and that is adumbrated in her prologue (above, the opening epigraph to this blog)

Now here is the great opening of Drums of Autumn, the book starts almost astounding strongly; each of them thus far with a long internal monologue: this one is about living with ghosts, and so directly relevant to the whole project of historical fiction and time-traveling. And then we turn to Claire and Jamie witnessing a very strong scene of hanging and the violence of the US colony, its cruelty.

I’ve never been afraid of ghosts. I live with them daily, after all. When I look in a mirror, my mother’s eyes look back at me; my mouth curls with the smile that lured my great-grandfather to the fate that was me. No, how should I fear the touch of those vanished hands, laid on me in love unknowing? How could I be afraid of those that molded my flesh, leaving their remnants to live long past the grave? Still less could I be afraid of those ghosts who touch my thoughts in passing. Any library is filled with them. I can take a book from dusty shelves, and be haunted by the thoughts of one long dead, still lively as ever in their winding sheet of words.

Of course it isn’t these homely and accustomed ghosts that trouble sleep and curdle wakefulness. Look back, hold a torch to light the recesses of the dark. Listen to the footsteps that echo behind, when you walk alone. All the time the ghosts flit past and through us, hiding in the future. We look in the mirror and see the shades of other faces looking back through the years; we see the shape of memory, standing solid in an empty doorway. By blood and by choice, we make our ghosts; we haunt ourselves. Each ghost comes unbidden from the misty grounds of dream and silence. Our rational minds say, “No, it isn’t.” But another part, an older part, echoes always softly in the dark, “Yes, but it could be.”

We come and go from mystery and, in between, we try to forget. But a breeze passing in a still room stirs my hair now and then in soft affection. I think it is my mother.

In the book the narrative alters between Gabaldon as Claire and Gabaldon as Briana so this opening can equally be author, Claire once again or her daughter, who will cross the stones in the fourth season.

My next blog on Outlander will be on the first six episodes of season 4.

Ellen

by Dora Carrington, oil on canvas, 1920

E. M. Forster by Dora Carrington, oil on canvas, 1920

“But in public who shall express the unseen adequately? It is private life that holds out the mirror to infinity; personal intercourse, and that alone, that ever hints at a personality beyond out daily vision.”

Dear friends and readers,

I doubt I can convey what a good time we had for the last two or three months on TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io reading and talking/writing together on Forster, his Howards End, and the two movies made from it (1993 Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala with Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, Samuel West &c&c; 2018 BBC Lonergan-Hettie Macdonald with Matthew Macfayden, Hayley Atwell, Joseph Quinn, Philippa Coulthard &c&c), a couple of biographies, especially Nicola Beauman, and then (irresistibly it felt) A Room with a View (again two movies, 1985 Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala (Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliot, again Carter, Daniel Day-Lewis) and a superlative 2007 ITV Andrew Davies (Elaine Cassidy, Timothy and Rafe Spall, Sophie Thompson, Mark Williams&c&c), not to omit talk of Bloomsbury, fluid sexuality, Virginia Woolf as a topic in her own right, the new art and so on and so forth. We were turned into a Forster listserv. We have torn ourselves away at last to turn to Trollope’s The Way We Live Now for December through early February, but we plan a Forster summer in a few months. We’ve got four more novels, and who knows how many movies and great actors ….

He wrote fascinating novels, wonderful novels, smart, complicated funny and very sad. So what can I say about what we said about Howards End that can fit into a blog? a novel filled with ghosts and silences: “I didn’t do wrong, did I?” Mrs Wilcox is said to have asked her husband


Vanessa Redgrave as the first Mrs Wilcox (M-I-J 1993 film)

“Houses have their own ways of dying, falling as variously as the generations of men, some with a tragic roar, some quietly, but to an after-life in the city of ghosts, while from others—and thus was the death of Wickham Place—the spirit slips before the body perishes. It had decayed in the spring, disintegrating the girls more than they knew, and causing either to accost unfamiliar regions. By September it was a corpse, void of emotion, and scarcely hallowed by the memories of thirty years of happiness — from Howards End


Samuel West in a dream sequence of longing as Leonard Bast (M-I-J 1993 film)

In general a number of people said they found themselves reading this book very differently from the way they had say 30 years ago, and they were noticing elements in Margaret’s marriage to Henry Wilcox and Helen’s full attitude towards Leonard Bast they never noticed before: how condescending both woman can be to Bast; how Margaret marries to have monetary security, on materialistic considerations she ignores her incompatibility with Henry Wilcox who cannot change to the extent she imagines.


Anthony Hopkins as the unreasoning instinctively closed Henry Wilcox (the successful businessman) when Margaret angers him (M-I-J 1993 film)

The Wilcoxes in their turn say they would do anything for their mother, but the one request she makes, that she leave her own house, Howards End to Margaret is looked at as preposterous. All the characters are trapped in unsatisfactory human relationships, if the causes of the dissatisfaction differs for each. This is a novel about the cruelties of class. How Margaret is shocked at Helen not sleeping in her own house, but with (we know) Leonard Bast. She tricks Helen into coming to Howards End. She is presented as having been a mother to her siblings in the 2018 film but not in the book


Hayley Atwell as Margaret (2018 film)

All over the world men and women are worrying because they cannot develop as they are supposed to develop. Here and there they have the matter out, and it comforts them. Don’t fret yourself, Helen. Develop what you have; love your child. I do not love children. I am thankful to have none. I can play with their beauty and charm, but that is all—nothing real, not one scrap of what there ought to be — Margaret to Helen at the close of the book — though she is kind to her aunt

A couple of us defended the perhaps ex-milliner Jackie; she is treated in the novel as ontologically inferior, erased, forgotten.


Rosalind Eleazar as Jacky Bast (2018 film)

How often Forster comes out directly as narrator, how conversations among the characters are multi-dimensional. He projected his love of the English countryside vividly — as when Bast goes on that passionate roaming reverie though an old wood. He read Ruskin and Ruskin’s love of art and proto-socialism are forces in the novel. There is a magic faery tale element about the house. Miss Avery by unpacking the Schlegels things, especially the books, makes the house alive; it was suggested that Helen is a Pre-Raphaelite figure as she sits in its porch waiting to be let in by Margaret. She is deeply human, sensual and comfortable in her skin


Philippa Coulthard as Helen (2018 film)

Margaret is deeply gratified to have Helen with her again, but I note how she tricks Helen into coming into Howards End, and then moves from distrust and alienation and a new almost automatic rejection of Helen to the old bonded feelings and agreement. What enables this is not common grounds in attitudes but common ground in the furniture and books; set up in this house they are enough to bring back the past and begin a re-bonding. I wonder if this is not a wish fulfillment and this intense love of early places and the past (which I’m now reading about in Beauman’s biography) is not a strong delusion or illusion fantasy: “all the time their salvation was lying around them — the past sanctifying the present, the present, with wild heart-throb …. the inner life had paid”


Alex Lawther as the appealing impish, but marginalized Tibby — the character reappears more fully developed, older, articulate in Cecil Vyse in A Room with a View (Lonergan 2018)

We talked of Forster’s homosexuality and why he stopped writing novels so early in life: he was frustrated by having to present heterosexual life and leave so much he valued outside his text, to respect in the text what he felt alienated from. Tyler Tichelaar had written a perceptive blog-essay on this aspect of Forster’s art and life as seen in Maurice. I wrote about Sean O’Connor’s book Straight Acting where he described his and other playwright’s dilemmas as gay men pressured into misrepresenting themselves and what they longed to dramatize in life; I watched the recent film adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s Deep Blue Sea by Terence Davies: wrecked and wrecking heterosexual relationships represent a gay man’s take on heterosexual marriage and compromise; he pitiable but at the same time vengeful older lover.


Peppard Cottage used for Howards End in M-I-J 1993 (here it is not photographed in prettying up light) – the house in the novel is Rooksnest which Forster and his mother lived in for many years

Death is an important reality in the novel and outside a reason to live, become your own identity as you make your choices. We talked of how moving home, from one place to another, is akin to the experience of death (though for some it’s liberty at last from stifling hierarchies and militant naturalisms. Judith Cheney quoted Robert Louis Stevenson:

The coach is at the door at last;
The eager children, mounting fast
And kissing hands, in chorus sing:
Good-bye, good-bye, to everything!

To house and garden, field and lawn,
The meadow-gates we swang upon,
To pump and stable, tree and swing,
Good-bye, good-bye, to everything!

And fare you well for evermore,
O ladder at the hayloft door,
O hayloft where the cobwebs cling,
Good-bye, good-bye, to everything!

Crack goes the whip, and off we go;
The trees and houses smaller grow;
Last, round the woody turn we sing:
Good-bye, good-bye, to everything!

We don’t know that if Henry Wilcox should predecease Margaret the Wilcoxes will not go to court to get Howards End back.


The room with the view in the Merchant-Ivory-Jhavala film (1985)

We read the earlier book, A Room with a View second. it is shorter and at first it seems simpler — there is no larger critique of colonialism, no debates over socialism, the removals of people from capitalism, but it isn’t simpler. What it lacks in breadth, it makes up for in intensity.

Lucy was suffering from the most grievous wrong which this world has yet discovered: diplomatic advantage had been taken of her sincerity, of her craving for sympathy and love. Such a wrong is not easily forgotten. Never again did she expose herself without due consideration and precaution against rebuff. And such a wrong may react disastrously upon the soul


Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy setting out on her adventure among the art and churches of Florence (M-I-J 1985)

I loved the ancient classical myth in the book too, the use of Italian art, the pastoral, all mixed with the everyday in Pensione Bertolini. We are invited to revel: Lucy is called a Work of Art, and Forster is generalizing out from this incident to make large statements about art, sexuality, and all the ritual events of daily lives. It’s false to say our conflict is passion versus duty; it’s real feeling versus the pretended and hypocritical. Lucy almost misses out on marrying George where her joy is presented as potentially so fulfilling. By contrast to convention, Cecil repeats Tibby’s statement about the work ethic more forcefully: “I know I ought to be getting money out of people, or devoting myself to things I don’t care a straw about, but somehow I’ve not been able to begin.” Diane Reynolds quoted “Lucy’s vehement outburst of hatred towards Mr. Eager’s cold snobbery and ascetism. I found it quite satisfying—and true: We perhaps should hate people who destroy other people by spreading lies:”


The bathing scene (from the 1985 film)

“Now, a clergyman that I do hate,” said she wanting to say something sympathetic, “a clergyman that does have fences, and the most dreadful ones, is Mr. Eager, the English chaplain at Florence. He was truly insincere—not merely the manner unfortunate. He was a snob, and so conceited, and he did say such unkind things.”
“What sort of things?”
“There was an old man at the Bertolini whom he said had murdered his wife.”
“Perhaps he had.”
“No!”
“Why ‘no’?”
“He was such a nice old man, I’m sure.”
Cecil laughed at her feminine inconsequence.
“Well, I did try to sift the thing. Mr. Eager would never come to the point. He prefers it vague—said the old man had ‘practically’ murdered his wife—had murdered her in the sight of God.”
“Hush, dear!” said Mrs. Honeychurch absently.
“But isn’t it intolerable that a person whom we’re told to imitate should go round spreading slander? It was, I believe, chiefly owing to him that the old man was dropped. People pretended he was vulgar, but he certainly wasn’t that.”

Beauman, Charles Summer and all I read suggested that Forster matured, found such pleasure, liberty, love when he traveled — Italy, Greece, Alexandria, and India, all meant so much, and this book records these feelings. I show but one still of these English in the countryside:


That’s Maggie Smith, Judi Dench as Miss Lavish (makes phony art) and Lucy (1985 M-I-J film)

Mr Emerson and Mr Beebe, but especially Mr Emerson are the two benign knowing genius locii of the book. Mr Emerson (I found Timothy Spall pitch perfect) speaks eloquently of the “holiness of direct desire” and Mr Beebe quietly for whatever is your sexuality — he encourages Lucy to play, everyone to bathe, tries to help Cecil recognize himself. He does not blame Mrs Honeychurch for her dim appreciation of nothing beyond the obvious comforts of living. There is much lightness, pleasant humor. Tyler wrote: “I love how the bathing scene comes about – Freddie just inviting George to bath – the awkwardness of the invitation and the joviality of just spontaneously going to bath, and the joy of the Sacred Lake being large enough to bathe in, only to have it return to normal size soon after. I did not really think there was anything very gay in the bathing scene, even though the film sort of suggests it. They are just being boys and being playful, acting like teenage boys, although it does seem odd they are wrestling and playing ball naked outside the pond. It’s a very strange way to get to know your new neighbors.”


A scene of Charlotte successfully repressing Lucy and persuading her to go home to escape George (1985 M-I-J film)

There is death and it is swift and sudden in this book: the man knifed in the piazza. Davies’s film frames the story with George’s death in WW1 by having Lucy return 20 years later, most of the film a flashback, ending with her going on a picnic with Gino, who had been ostracized and stigmatized on the trip into the countryside by Mr Eager. We are told Mr Emerson died. In much of the book Charlotte Bartlett plays the part of “a corrosive, selfish, and dull personality ” who spoils life for others, represses others with shame, a loving kiss is an insult; but at its close she is presented as alone, poorer, having trouble with her plumbing (no bathing for her) and forgiven: Forster wants us to think she facilitated Lucy and George finally getting together. It’s not quite believable but the 1985 M-I-J movie ends with Maggie Smith as Charlotte reading a letter of the young couple in love and the movie’s last scene of love-making is a flashback from this letter. The book and movies are charitable: as acted by Daniel Day-Lewis, Vyse conveys how much small experiences in art do mean much to him; the character is deeply sensitive and he is hurt by Lucy’s lying but gentlemanly, chivalrous in response. The book is about an awakening.


Elaine Cassidy as Lucy after listening to Mr Emerson’s description of George (2007 Davies film)

I discovered many parallels with Austen (she was his mentor in novels) but also much other influence beyond art. Edward Carpenter, idealistic, socialist gay man (Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love by Sheila Rowbotham), Forster’s mother & aunts, his milieu, and that of different circles of artists; as the years went on when he taught, and later years of broadcasting in the BBC. He did not shut down because he stopped writing fiction, and beyond the novels there were numerous unpublished short stories, and published essays and travel writing and biography. Jim liked Forster’s correspondence with the Greek gay poet, Cavafy.

What Beauman does in Morgan is what write up Forster’s deep past and what’s to come from Morgan’s point of view when he grew much older and perhaps after he had written all his novels from the beginning to the end of her book. That’s the curious perspective taken on the incidents of his life and his art examined in more or less chronological order: each incident is retold from how Forster would see it when he became an artist or was a practicing writer.

So for example, in talking of Rooksnest into which Forster and mother moved when he was just 2, she says the way his mother set it up was “to make a statement about how life should be lived” and then connects this to Mrs Wilcox’s love of Howards End. Beauman is soon describing the real place using Forster’s words many years after, e.g. about the hall, “he tells us about “a kitchen when the house was a farm and sad to say had once had an open fireplace with a great chimney but before we came the landlord, Colonel Wilkinson, closed it up put a wretched little grate instead and made the chimney corner into a cupboard.” Says Beauman: “The reader does not visualize the cupboard; instead one gets an image of a difficult landlord.” Then she goes on to give an example of this kind of thinking and feeling in a character’s mind in Forster’s fiction. And so it is built up memory by memory.


Sophie Thompson as Charlotte, pitch perfect) probably modelled on one of Forster’s aunts or his mother (2007 Davies film)

We plan to do it again with two or three of the following four novels: each person can choose which ones he or she would like to read: The Longest Journey, Where Angels Fear to Tread, A Passage to India (which I was listening to read aloud in my car by Sam Daster and I am now persuaded is one of the finest shorter novels in the English language) and/or Maurice. And if I live, I’ll teach a course in both OLLIs on the novels of Forster two springs from the one coming (2020).

Ellen

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Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark brooding (near the opening, early still after the prologue)


Elinor Tomlinson as Demelza Poldark (near opening &c), singing, troubled

All we know is this moment, and this moment, Ross, we are alive! We are. We are. The past is over, gone. What is to come doesn’t exist yet. That’s tomorrow! It’s only now that can ever be, at any one moment. And at this moment, now, we are alive — and together. We can’t ask more. There isn’t any more to ask … Demelza to Ross (last page of The Angry Tide).

Dear friends and readers,

A second Winston Graham blog-review in a row! Beyond Poldark, Graham is the author/source of the misbegotten Hitchcock movie, Sean O’Connor play and now perverse opera Marnie. This time, mostly due to the excellence of the two source novels, Poldark novel 6, The Four Swans (A novel of Cornwall, 1796-97), and Poldark novel 7, The Angry Tide (ditto, 1798-99 is listening), the film adaptation is well worth the watching and thinking about. I declare myself (as loud as I can, in the hope someone with power to realize Poldark novels 8-12, might hear me), I’d love to see the same cast or another (as the Netflix series The Crown has done) film Stranger from the Sea, Miller’s Dance, Loving Cup, Twisted Sword and Bella [misnamed by an editor, ought to be Valentine], 1810-20 as further serial drama seasons for Poldark. Begin two years from now ….

NB: I have eschewed summaries (except to compare the older series in the comments) and concentrated on the realization of the novels as 2018 TV serial drama.

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Turner as Ross eloquent and bitter does bring out the central economic power issues


Elise Chappell as Morwenna grieving over the coming hanging of Drake — a very French revolution scene because of the bars …

Episodes 1 & 2 are much changed from the last part of Graham’s Four Swans. Prologue: Ross standing on the beaching is having bad dreams about Demelza and Hugh Armitage. Story (Episode 1): What had been a politically meaningful series of violent thievery because the people are starving (Corn laws keeping the price of bread very high), and Bassett’s demand for scapegoats, with which Ross feels forced to cooperate, becomes a highly personal melodramatic story involving Morwenna and Whitworth since Horsfield replaces the people in the book rounded up (with one poignant man hung) with the two Carne brothers and Zacky Martin’s son. It’s out of character for gentle religious Sam and the now withdrawn depressed Drake to be in a riot, but now Horsfield can make Ross central hero: he’s off to Bassett’s to try to get them off, and failing, comes to the hanging, where his impassioned speech on their behalf improbably reprieves them. Nothing like last minute reprieves from scaffolds. I was moved by Zacky Martin’s grief for his son. The general primary scenes in the book and in the old series – at Lord Dunstable’s house and Bassetts — become secondary, brief. Horsfield also builds up the romance scenes between the three couples with very explicit dialogue. I liked the conversations between Ross and Demelza over the course of the hour as they work out their estrangement; some of this from the book.

Horsfield’s way of making Ross’s now agreeing finally to become an MP to prevent such personal injustice (the result of many such episodes in previous seasons) gives the new series a kind of unity and simplifying single thrust forward it didn’t have in the first series. In the book Ross’s refusals come out of subtler psychological reasons in complicated circumstances.

Episode 2 again Horsfield turns a realistic depiction of the way the world then worked into a personalized heroic drama. As Ross is dragged into replacing Armitage (now dying) in the election against Warleggan, we dwell on Ross’s complicated psychic life: Horsfield sets up juxtapositions between the elections and Armitage dying with Demelza supposed to love him but reluctant to be seen by his side. So the story is now Ross in public succeeding without having bribed anyone or even run a campaign — while Warleggan is intimidating, threatening and bribing people (to no avail finally). One side effect is Dwight becomes more central as presiding physician. In the book and first series Armitage was allowed to die slowly and only after Demelza is seen grieving separately, and Ross seen devastated and embittered by her grief for another, that the new election starts and The Angry Tide starts. Conversations between Demelza and Ross oddly didactic in all 3 iterations (book, 1970s series, this new one) but he came out of them the finer soul.


Ciara Charteris as Emma Tregirls watching the wrestling match


Tom York as Sam badly hurt

Secondary stories: Sam loses to the lout Harry partly because at the end of the fight Harry insinuates that Emma has gone to bed with Harry. A little later Emma says she had not; Sam’s heart was not in this violence in the first place — he is a believing gentle methodist. The true plangent note was struck by bringing in Drake’s distress for Morwenna: she still holds out against the bully Whitworth. Caroline’s finding herself pregnant and making a joke out of how she doesn’t want this baby. Horsfield shows no feel for this couple – in the original an earnest sincere man coupled with an incompatible “gay” lady; in the 1970s an earnest hard-working physician engaged with his patients married to a frivolous aristocrat who wants to spend her life socializing — the whole thing rings false, coy, with Luke Norris as Dwight embarrassing.

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Ross reading letters in London


Max Bennett as Monk Adderley emerging from darkness

Episodes 3 & 4: After the death of Hugh Armitage in the previous, and Ross’s agreeing to run and his win, he goes to Parliament in London. He and she talk of a different life for both, with her remaining in in Cornwall in charge and taking care, while he goes to London to argue ferociously in parliament on behalf of good causes. Exchange of letters using over-voice contains good feeling. Recess and everyone comes home – Ross and Whitworth in the conversation that opens Graham’s Angry Tide: Ross tells Whitworth to give his curate Odgers what he should get and he’ll help him — thematically effective underlining. In Cornwall Warleggan to the fore with his throwing a large party to make the right connections in which we meet the insinuating Adderley who insults Ross out of instinctive envy (I took you for a down-and-out troubadour). Whitworth visiting Pearce learns of embezzlement, tells Warleggan and his uncle so hypocrisy of the most sordid type, and underhanded dealings can ruin the good banker, Pascoe. Meanwhile well-meant mine venture flooded because supports not well-built (in book Sam allowed to be hero, but Horsfield will not allow anyone but Ross to be chief rescuer)


A Madonna-like moment


Esme Coy as Rowella selling herself

Private life themes: Rebecca Front as Lady Whitworth, the harsh mother-in-law, her snobbery, Whitworth indignant at Morwenna refusing him sex (coerced marriage seen rightly as rape), seeks out Rowella now she has not had a child. Horsfield’s further ill-conceived changes flattening and making senseless subtle characters: Demelza now she bickers with Ross (made resentful, she wants to go to London, the feel is of an estranged couple who from far away love one another but close by end up in much awkward uncomfortable talk); Elizabeth exults in George’s amorality (she made unlikable) while George made one note villain (life seems lived to get back at Ross). Verity’s good feeling visit; Geoffrey Charles now grown made naive. Caroline having given birth Dwight confronted with baby fatally ill unwilling to tell her as she clings absurdly to her indifference (all the while never putting the baby down). But when baby dies (a moving scene), she is all funereal and must to London with Ross to get over it. Excruciating painful scenes drenched in melancholy: Emma tells Sam she must marry elsewhere; the attempt to put Mowenna in asylum. Meanwhile Demelza has engineered a marriage between Drake and Rosina.

Beautiful and effective shots throughout, suggestive psychology, casual effective landscapes, but scenes move too quickly, are too brief for us to appreciate them, and to make effective the amount of action and rich nuances of feeling piled in.

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Episodes 5 & 6: I thought 5 very good except in those places where Horsfield, it seems to me perversely, alters the story or characters. Many of the minor characters were very effective in this episode (Rebecca Strong as the woman bully &c).


Luke Norris as Dwight: his best moments are when his character is acting as physician

London scenes: On the whole well acted, powerful atmosphere in London, corrupt parties, the pressure, and the political skein of given-and-take between Ross and Falmouth throughout, and Ross’s friendship with Bassett especially. Adderley effective. We are to find it natural that Caroline would enjoy his company? Gabriella Wilde is so painfully thin — she wears nothing low cut; they know it would be distressing to see the edges of her bones come out. I cringe when Enys cringes. Ross’s meeting with Pitt effective; yes Pitt had plans for pensions for the poor and helping them help themselves and in the book Ross does protest against just helping enslaved people and not the working poor. He does (again) seem to me to be sitting on the wrong side of the benches The Tories were in power and he is there as a member for a Tory patron, Lord Falmouth, very well acted by James Wilby. She adds scene between Elizabeth and Ross over Geoffrey Charles to once again make Ross the hero: this time he is saving the boy from bad company, from being beat up by them, but of course these are peccadilloes he just needs to outgrow. We should be glad that he is not characterized as going after girls aggressively as another “boys will be boys.” In the book Elizabeth stays away from Ross lest she rouse George’s jealousy. Elizabeth is taking a great chance, and Ross himself regards her warily as strongly self-centered. He has no need to remind her that she can try to misrepresent the date of her parturition.


Amelia Clarkson as Rosina Hoblyn


Harry Richardson as Drake the morning he is to wed Rosina

Cornwall: A powerful moment when Dwight’s baby dies & he grieves, Horsfield gives Aidan Turner as Ross some lines remembering the death of his daughter. Ross at first just uses the word daughter, and Dwight assumes he means Clowance: Dwight may have forgotten Julia, but Ross has not and Turner renders the lines and memory very touching. I would have liked to have the script so I could have exactly the lines. Neither film adaptation has dared to present the Morwenna-Rowella relationship or Rowella’s story truly candidly: Rowella is presented as poisonously promiscuous, reminding us of a snake; Whitworth is a sadistic rapist; his son is a horror from birth (just another just like him). The film-makers are afraid of this material: they dare to present Drake as depressed but that’s as far as it goes; he is fierce (as Harry Richardson is not) and in the first series (Kevin McNally) he was as obsessive as any character in Proust. The scenes leading up to and the murder of Whitworth powerful (these in the book and first series) juxtaposed to invented happy scenes of Rosina and Drake (these are Horsfield’s invention; in the book he remains reluctant.

So then what does the writer do: she has Demelza, Demelza (!) inform Drake just before he is about to wed Rosina that morning that Whitworth is dead and Morwenna supposedly free. That’s the last thing she would do. She has engineered this marriage, done everything to bring it about. In the book he hears from someone else and runs off to help Morwenna live again (he loves her truly and it is partly unselfish to rescue her) and Demelza is desolated because she and all and he agree if he had wed Rosina, he would have been true to his vows. In this episode he asks Demelza why did she tell him? Good question. She has ruined a possible happiness. She says he would not have forgiven her. Clearly untrue and anyway whom is she thinking of here? I like that Rosina as a character is built up, and that Sam is beginning to flex towards conventional aggression against bullies in order to help his brother. Sam and Drake’s relationship is beautifully done — as it was in the first series.

The story of Warleggan’s Machiavellian near-bankruptcy of Pascoe’s bank, Demelza’s actions to help prevent this, the yielding of Basset to make a consortium appealed to me — and it’s done close to the book. I like the actor, Hope, who plays Harris very much and bringing in his daughter and her ne’er do well husband economically stranged by the Warleggans is effective.


Richard Hope as the ever patient, decent, reasonable appealing Pascoe — more idealized in this series than the book or first series

Aidan Turner must be kept before us as the hero in every episode, and each young male needs to be seen nearly naked in the water — so we’ve Ross several times, Drake once and Dwight who for a moment seemed to be killing himself by hanging on the surface of the water.

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Episodes 7 & 8: At moments as a pair unbearably moving. Best when closest to the book. It truly gets the emotional pain of what is happening across up close and intensely. I felt the way I do when I read the book. Oddly I especially admired how the film-makers got across how Caroline can be regarded as irritating — she is so into London culture and so comfortable in it that while at first both Demelza and Dwight seem to be glad of her knowhow, when they realize how hollow this social life is, she becomes the alien to them, someone who could approve of duels. Again Dwight and Caroline talking through the dog. Here the angrier and more individualized Demelza is more fitting; Angharad Rees was just too sweet. Turner as Ross and the actor playing Adderley were pitch perfect: Turner is very good at steely ferocity. The Morwenna plot has been done far more strongly all along and here hits a core of anguish the equivalent of the book. This the photography was fitting — the scene of the duel was beautiful — blacks and whites. Elizabeth in the book is not complacent but as Horsfield has made her so, now that she is shaken out of it, her desperation becomes more effective. I liked the use of darkness, the way the rooms were angled. I don’t know if others recognized Adrian Lukis as Sir John Mitford: he was Wickham so long ago in the 1995 P&P.


Ross and Demelza beginning their time in London so well


Demelza not sure how to react but right away seeing that something is wrong with the way Adderley is speaking to her

First just 7 Three powerful striking stories: how Demelza and Ross’s time in London begins so well when they are alone but once in society, she is taken advantage of by a vicious male egged on by Warleggan. Ross’s manhood is threatened when Demelza does not reject Adderley thoroughly: she is not attracted to him, she even quickly sees and feels what a shit he is, but does not know how to put him off.. The one element left out is that part of this is her low status: this is a deeply hierarchical society and in the book Angry Tide the point is made that many of the people in London despise Demelza and the men regard her as simply probably available. That’s what she can’t handle. further (as in the novel Demelza at her first ball) Ross refuses to give her any help; he refuses to recognize or cannot see she needs help or why. they really dwelt on this far more than 1970s where none of this really came up (as it did in th 1975 first season adaptation of Demelza) The photography was superb. Did others notice how the screen sparkled as the dawn came and then turned into the park where the duel occurs?

Horsfield then tied this story to the other two. By simple means of juxtaposition: we move from Ross-Demelza to Morwenna-Drake and just before the crisis of the duel, Morwenna turns up at Drake’s forge and tells him her inner torment after years of violation, of martial sadistic rape. She is a bit too pathetic in her encounters with the mother-in-law because Horsfield has been so unwilling to make her hate the children she has born by this monster, has been unwilling to make John Conan a chip of the vicious block. If you feel like me, I wanted more of the Morwenna-Drake story in this episode but Horsfield chooses to give more room to Dwight-Caroline’s troubles.

There too there is this softening. Why cannot she allow Dwight to be stronger (as he is in the book) and just sick of London society openly and anxious to get back to his patients, a real chasm of understanding between him and Carolin: they are not truly compatible


Jill Townsend as pregnant Elizabeth with Valentine just before Geoffrey Charles makes his fatal passing comment (1975 BBC Poldark, episode 13, scripted Martin Worth)

The third story of Elizabeth’s pregnancy at first binding the two together but the glue there being so thin that a passing remark by Geoffrey Charles that Valentine looks like Ross just overturns all and George goes back to hatred. This cannnot be an easy task for Jack Farthing: basically he presents the man as cold steel, far more icy than Adderley — who in the book is a narcissistic cold sociopath. We are not really given any reason for Elizabeth to like this guy except that she likes being rich lady in society. This is tied sharply into the duel: as soon as Ross can go out he marches to Warleggan who throws the coins in his face. Thwarted by the local JP (played splendidly by Adrian Lukas — once Wickham in 1995) and the customs of acceptance of duelling, George has again not been able to destroy Ross.. but he will destroy Elizabeth as we see her pacing in the darkened room at the end of the episode.


Jack Farthing as George exposing his hatred and making a fool of himself before Sir Christopher

Episode 8: For this one I also rewatched the 13th episode of the second season of the 1978 Poldark for contrast or comparison. The older show works under the disadvantage of far less time so far less is dramatized in detail, but what is there is in mood much closer to the book, especially the bleak ending.


Far shot for duel (1975)


Heida Reed as Elizabeth seeking the doctor to help her

I found the insistence on Morwenna’s being somehow “ill” or weak by the additions grating. In the book she just appears on the horizon, and Drake runs to her, and says, have you come home? and she is taken into his arms as he takes her heavy bag in which she is hauling all her worldly possessions. Yes she goes to Trenwith, lured by the still obtuse Elizabeth and in the 2018 scene she does finally hold out, declare that Warleggan has no idea what kind of person Drake is — and that augurs well. At no point in the book is the phrase: “you are safe now’ repeatedly. Well thud, thud, thud. She doesn’t want to be safe; she is not safe with Drake in the sense he has no money, no power, no status, but she is herself, gets her identity and inviolabilty of her body back. That’s the point. Not that Drake is so sweet but that the perpetrator, the predator, Whitworth is out of her life for good.


Jane Wymark and Kevin McNally as Morwenna and Drake (1975 BBC, both series include the eloquent speech by Drake about the nature of love in marriage)

I had forgotten how much better Judy Geeson was at the part of Caroline — far more like the “gay lady” of restoration drama. She understand duelling and defends it; she also is sexually interested in Ross as he is in her and they discuss going to be with one another — and coolly decide against it. This is not the coy character all drippy over children or not that Horsfield invents, and Dwight in the 1970s one is attached genuinely to his patients and that is his identity. Again Luke Norris is made just to “icky.”


Judy Geeson as a convincing Caroline (1975 series)

The book ends with Ross saying that Death is Intolerable and it shapes all of our reality, our feelings, and Demelza replying, just about yes except that one has to accept, live with it, and realize this here, now, is all we’ve got and we’ve got to make what we can of it. I should say that Angharad Rees is herself too sweet as she utters those words and in my view Elinor Tomlinson could have projected the acceptance of hard compromise much better – she has now and again over the course of these 8 episode


Robin Ellis as a desolate Ross (1975) leaning over to kiss Elizabeth now dead (1975)

And ending on their wedding shifts the emotional temperature too much. At the end of the book George is still in a rage though at the universe now (in which he includes his children) — I liked the stance Jack Farthing manages of dignified regret and acceptance but it’s a soft Warleggan.

The new opening too emphasized Elizabeth as the “problem” or her and Ross’s love as causing much of what happened. That striking flashback at the opener and bringing back Kyle Soller for the occasion. The book and the 1970s version made the statement that life itself is hard.

So however briefer the earlier version is the stronger truer one to life. Why he and Demelza need to go on about about Hugh Armitage in this 2018 version is beyond me — they don’t in the book except the suggestive hints earlier that in killing Adderly he was killing Armitage and there is a distrust of Demelza (which vanishes in 2018) — but then she has accepted his continuing deep affection for Elizabeth. In the 1970s version we do get an intimate moment of him kissing the dead woman in her bed. Why not have that if you are softening — it’s not in the book. Again and again Horsfield turns to personalities as causing our difficult lives. Graham is wider and better than that and so was Martin Worth (who wrote the scripts for the last 4 episodes of the 1977-78 series)


The last shot: George given dignity of grief in front of Elizabeth’s grave

That said, Aidan Turner, Jack Farthing, Heida Reed and Elinor Tomlinson play their complicated roles well. Turner has grasped the essentials of Ross’s character — only softened. Elise Chapell probaby had the hardest roles. I thought Aidan Turner pitch perfect in what he had to do.He had to provide a kind of coda of stability and he managed that — though Jack Farthing got the last shot.

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To conclude, I worry to think that next year we are in for a fifth season where the present script-writer, Debbie Horsfield will be free to invent what she likes between the ending of Angry Tide (1799) and opening of Stranger from the Sea (1810). Horsfield is said to be writing X number of episodes about what happened between The Angry Tide, which ends 1799 and The Stranger from the Sea (novel 8), which begins 1810 and ends 1811. It is true once Graham’s Poldark fiction comes alive again, half-way through Stranger from the Sea when Ross and Demelza re-unite in Cornwall (as an MP he has spent the last half-year in London), over the course of Poldark novels 8, 9 and 10 (9 is Miller’s Dance, 10, Loving Cup) some of what occurred in-between is remembered and told. I speculate these brief fragments of flashback will provide hints for Horsfield to work with. OTOH, Horsfield may ignore or distort them completely. The son, Andrew Graham, has given full permission to invent stories (something Winston Graham refused to do in 1979).


Garstin Cox, Kynance Cove, Cornwall by Moonlight

What you must do, gentle reader, is read the books (see my “‘I have the right to choose my own life:’ Liberty in the Poldark Novels” and then see the earlier serial drama (see my Poldark Rebooted, 40 years on) I regret to say that shorter and much less expensively done, the concluding episodes of the 1977-78 Poldark (Episodes 10-13) are finally more satisfying not so much because in general they were truer to the books, but because when they did differ (as all films must) the decisions made produced subtler truer-to-life drama with more effective political and feminist thought.

Not that I did not enjoy this season: it was like the last three uneven, but it had much merit, strong merit, was ethically better probably than 9/10s of what you might find on your TV or cinemas — and moving, entertaining, absorbing, beautiful, humanly strong with its visual and sound impact working on our imaginations — all those good things.

Ellen


Isabel Leonard and Christopher Maltland as Marnie and Mark Rutland on their honeymoon

Friends and readers,

I regret to have to tell you that this beautifully-sung, acted, and orchestrated Marnie is as repulsive a misogynistic story as I’ve come across in a while — and with Trump as president that’s going some. Ann Midgette of the Washington Post opined the work has a “hollow center” and offers no substantial understanding for why Marnie behaves the way she does (continually changing her very identity as she moves from outrageous theft to outrageous theft), why Mark Rutland responds to seeing she is a ruthless thief and liar by marrying her and then proceeding to win her over by almost raping her.

Not so: at the center of the opera, its “terrifying” back story is a slattern prostitute of a mother who (without an excuse offered) has rows of military men into her flat while her husband is nobly risking his life in battle, and when she becomes pregnant and has the baby, maneuvers her young daughter, into believing she killed the “bonny boy” when it was she. Each time we meet this woman she is snarling, spiteful, and a downright hater of her daughter. It’s known that a recurrent figure in many of Hitchcock’s films is the “terrible mother.” In Graham there is pity and economic explanation for Marnie’s mother’s behavior (abysmally poor, frightened at the same of ostracizing of her from others), and even Hitchcock condescends to have his Mark (Sean Connery) explain the apparently sweet Marnie (Tippi Hendrin) as someone seeking refuge. At least Marnie’s mother’s outward acts are in Graham’s text, Mark’s mother in Graham is not the scheming capitalist she is here. Mrs Rutland nags her son about his business failing all the while she is ruining it in order to buy it out from under him. In Graham, Mark’s mother is dead and it is his father and sister he must persuade to accept Marnie.


Denyce Graves as Marnie’s mother (not otherwise identified in this production) — smoking away & sinister in her wheelchair

Perhaps the most dismaying element of all was how blatant this is. The relentlessly cheerful announcer brought up the “evil mothers” as if it were a joke, and then the two actresses opined that this didn’t matter. No one said it’s just entertainment for the great hype of these interviews is how serious and important the operas are. It is the equivalent of how in Hitchcock’s movie Marnie is repeatedly called a liar and all ads about the character in this movie call her a liar as if this lying were a moral sin of gargantuan magnitude. Worst of all really the lack of any explanation for the actions of the three central characters (Marnie, Make, and Marnie’s mother): we are left with a simplistic crude Freudianism “feel.” That the critics have latched onto this time — they all seem to feel Hitchcock somehow “explained” this — he is at least suggestive, nuanced and detailed in his presentation.

Probably the accusation of hollowness comes from how in this production, like Sean O’Connor and Hitchcock before him (a psychological play focusing on sex, class, money of play, Marnie, London, 1982; and a 1964 Hitchcock psychoanalytic film respectively) Muhly never gets inside Marnie’s mind (certainly not the harridan mother). There is no credible explanation for this crazed re-dressing of herself every few months, this dangerous stealing of the whole of a company’s capital. So Marnie in all three iterations emerges as a clothes-changing frigid manipulative domineering bitch. Since Mark has been directed to be far sweeter to Marnie than Sean Connery, indeed to be loving, kind, well-meaning, once we get past the unexplained impulse on his part to marry her (when all despise her as an employee so beneath him), we feel for Mark at least. Again Muhly goes one step further in an absurd direction: astonishingly, Muhly does not allow Mark to rape Marnie. This is to rob the book of hard trauma. In several of his books Graham adheres to the idea that marital traumatic rape is good for the women — yes afterwards it seems they were longing for the man to overcome them. Graham has his men rape women for their own good (!) in some of the suspense novels (The Forgotten Story is one); a few of these men are forgiven for killing the woman when the woman commits adultery (presented as an understandable reaction). They are allowed to love two women (that’s Ross Poldark’s case in Warleggan). In Hitchcock’s case we have documentary evidence to show Hitchcock delighted in voyeurism and insisted the camera stay on Hedron’s face as Connery bears down on her. Hedron as Marnie flees (as in the book and film) but instead of leaping into a pool , in this opera she tries to kill herself by swallowing a bottle of pills. Red light suggests blood, and we move on.


Here they were reminiscent of the TV serial drama, Madmen.

I was further dismayed by the ignoring (as did Hitchcock before him) of Graham’s attack on capitalist soul-less offices — the production chose a very fat man to play Strut and he played the part as a gross narrow bully but beyond that nothing explicit. The 1950s was simply characterized as filled with men in suits sitting at desks or crowding in on women; the women were trussed up in offices sitting behind desks; at parties, they looked uncomfortable and absurd in their overdone gowns and big hair or French twists. In this production Terry Rutland (Lestyn Davies) does not develop a slow true understanding of like people with Marnie (which in the novel is at least interesting). In Hitchcock Terry Rutland works to ruin Marnie’s reputation, and she is innocent of his enterprises; here she works with him in deceit and corruption. Lastly, there is no landscape to speak of and Marnie’s one good relationship, with her horse Forio is not presented as the healthy experience it is, nor is she close or intimate with her horses’ feelings. In the book Graham may be remembering the incident in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina where a horse’s life is sacrificed to a race and much sexual innuendo floats about. In the opera and in Hitchcock the horse-riding, racing and shooting of the horse is simply an acting out of a crude suggested (never detailed) Freudian-style analysis about sex: Marnie enjoys riding roughshod over Mark so she rides roughshod over her horse.

The book can go at length into an analysis; when Mark is hurt trying to stop the death of the horse, we can see a relationship develop between him and Marnie. We do feel for Marnie as an inexplicably sick person: she is a Humbert Humbert, except she is the victim, hoist with her own petard. Blackmailed into marriage, raped, then trapped, and finally found out by one of her previous bosses who comes to one of Mrs Rutland’s fancy garden parties and put into jail. In the book she seems almost relieved, and with a sort of reconciliation happening, it seems when she emerges, she may try for a sane relationship with Mark. In Hitchcock’s movie at the end she is pathetically grateful to Mark (as masterful Connery): the seething liar becomes a remorseful dependent. By contrast, in the opera she suddenly sings “I’m free” — of what? her mother who she has learnt in the previous scene died, so pat along comes the mid-wife-housekeeper, paid companion, Lucy, to tell Marnie her mother became a prostitute in the war and when she found herself pregnant out of wedlock smothered her “bonny boy.” Because Marnie has confessed he own crimes and understands her mother’s, she is not free of what happened or her past. She has just suggested to Mark she could like him when she gets out.


As in the book Marnie agrees to go to a psychiatrist (as part of a bargain with Mark): here as elsewhere she is surrounded by “other selves” — to the side we see her mother in a slip in red light

I did ask people near me what they thought of it. Most audience members are very reticent but as with (to be fair) other modern or non-traditional productions, I saw faces made. One woman said the piece was “repulsive.” Lynn Gardner of The Guardian thought that Graham’s novel seduced Sean O’Connor because he saw it as “gritty parable of repressiveness in which sex, class, money and manners are central motivators.” Many years after the initial movie Richard Brody is now cured of his Hitchcock mania. Midgette thinks Muhly too eager a collaborator elsewhere, to glad to have a commission; the music, says James Jordan of The Observer is forgettable. As if he needed to explain his opera more, during one of the interviews Muhly told the “host” how each of his characters corresponds to a particular motif by a particular instrument. The music was meant to be emotionally expressive.What I noticed is Terry Rutland is a counter-tenor, and (unless I’m mistaken), Muhly and Michael Mayer are gay men and wonder if as homosexual men they were drawn to this hideous parable of narrow wretched heterosexuality in a desperate environment. I did like some of the costumes, especially Marnie’s later wardrobe — and I find that 1950s costumes are associated with a gay sensibility.


This was perhaps her last outfit and it and the cream one just before are appealing; she is on the stage after a London performance with Tippi Hendren (who played Marnie in Hitchcock’s film and was sexually harassed by him)

I fear it did nothing to increase anyone’s understanding of the tragic way women experience sex and motherhood in our society. It did not endorse male violence and macho maleness the way Hitchcock did. In his study, The making of Marnie, Tony Lee Moral quotes Winston Graham’s son to the effect that his father was not a feminist despite his father’s assertions he naturally was. In a letter to Hitchcock in that volume it does seem as if in general across his books Winston Graham meant to create sympathy for women who have a “raw” deal in our society, are forced to submit, endure much and enjoy little. He said he based this story of the mother on a maid he and his wife had had years before and a story he read in a newspaper about another working class women. Maybe he intended to break through the repressive sexual miseries of the eras (1950s); instead (what he never mentions) because he was improving his technical prowess in using the new amoral ironies found at the time in the suspense novel, he happened upon an imitation in reverse of Nabokov’s hypocritical Lolita, and his adapters have not known what to do with the result.

One caveat: is the opera based on Graham’s book as claimed or Hitchcock’s movie (with a little help from Sean O’Connor’s play)? Asked about how they came to choose the book, the script writer and director said they saw in the movie such astonishing fodder for an opera. Is the opera then based on the movie, asked the interviewer. The answer was if they had tried to get their permission to use the material from the film company or individuals involved, they would never have gotten past the squabbles that would ensue. So the answer is they cannot say they got their opera from the movie, only that their permission stems from the book. As they were talking and a few others interviewed talked, it seemed some of the people had read the book. I believe Muhly did. But the opera is equally influenced by Hitchcock and for all one can tell it’s Hitchcock’s misogynistic and voyeuristic outlook that was a deciding factor. Hard to say.

One last angle: still and whatever the relationship between original source and this opera, surely, all three adaptations should shed more light on Graham as the writer of the Poldark novels, or on other of his suspense books than they do. I find little connection between the early Cornwall successes (The Giant’s Chair, The Dangerous Pawn) and the World War Two tales (No Exit),  and Graham’s book, but there is continuity with The Forgotten Story, The Merciless Ladies, and with some of the hard bleak later film noir books (especially Angell, Pearl and Little God), and with some of Graham’s more memorable vicious ruthless and emotionally twisted characters across his oeuvre (Mark Adderly, Valentine Poldark). Some of my friends have declared Graham’s books misogynistic because of the books’ sympathy with male rapists and murderers; I find a qualified feminism because there is much sympathy with women victimized by the society as a whole and with particular vulnerable males. It is an anomaly to see that Winston Graham could not extend understanding to Marnie’s mother — or that this brutal material found at the core of many a society (what to do with unwanted babies and with women who won’t submit or retreat before the hegemonic patriarchal order) proved too much for Graham here.

Ellen


Suzanne Simonin after harsh punishment thrown into a dungeon (2013 La Religieuse, Pauline Etienne)

Friends,

The second text I assigned as required reading for my The Enlightenment: At Risk? course has been Diderot’s The Nun (La Religieuse), which most people read in Leonard Tancock’s translation for Penguin. It is a superior translation to Russell Goulbourne’s for Oxford World’s Classics, but for the sake of the introduction (much fuller and more informative as well as having an insightful close reading), and the inclusion of the hoaxing “practical joke” letters which Diderot first sent a benevolent philanthropist-friend (left out by Tancock), next time I’ll assign the Oxford. From the class discussions, and responses to even a short clip of the 2013 film adaptation by Guillaume Nicloux, featuring Pauline Etienne, Isabelle Huppert, Martha Gedeck, and François Négret (the truly powerful Jacques Rivette 1966 version has never been made into a DVD), I can state unequivocally that Diderot’s novella was far more effective in communicating what Diderot meant to than Voltaire in his Candide.

The reason is not far to seek. The Nun, however early in the development of the novel (like Defoe and Prevost, there are no separate chapters, there is much fuzziness when it comes to the relationships of time and place to the incidents, there are inconsistencies in the use of first-person narrator &c&c), has at its center a deeply felt psychologically compelling portrait. Her situation is complexly and realistically (in terms of the situation as set out) explored; each section where she is cruelly punished, scourged, emotionally and physically tortured for attempting to protest, to get out of the convent she is being imprisoned in, for attempting then to go to law to escape, is relentlessly, persuasively and exquisitely realized. I can’t say the people in the room enjoyed the novel, but most were riveted enough to think about social coercion, silent violence, the twisted perversion of human nature or what we think are natural impulses), trauma and its effects. Though some critics talk about the text as libertine, and as inviting vicarious sexual voyeurism in the last section where the mother superior is a an aggressive semi-self-hating lesbian, no one in this class showed any evidence of such titillation — unlike what I’ve seen in response to Lovelace’s hounding, harassing, and teasing of Clarissa in Richardson’s epistolary masterpiece Clarissa. (Early on I described Clarissa, we read an excerpt of Diderot’s Éloge de Richardson, and I suggested that The Nun couldn’t exist but for what Diderot learned from reading Richardson’s novel and imitated from it.) In a way I gathered those who did respond to Voltaire’s Candide took some pleasure from the hard jokes, there was little pleasure in such an exposé — it was like reading stories from the anthology I reviewed, Speaking about Torture, edd. Julie Carlson and Elisabeth Weber. There were at the same time genuinely original insights — one woman pointed out the mother who so berated Suzanne Simonin (our heroine’s fictional name) for poisoning her existence was not sinful; it was the mother who committed the sin; her daughter was innocent. I hadn’t thought of that.

A summary:

Diderot and his friends had heard of this case and played a practical joke on the sentimental heart of M. de Croismare, a philanthropist. A series of letters fooled him so they had to pretend Suzanne had grown sick and died. Finally they confessed; it’s said that Croismare was not upset but I wonder. Like Madame Roland’s Memoir, La Religieuse was first published in 1796, in his case many years after his death.

Diderot has a problem: he felt in order to gain sympathy for the nun, he had to make her religious; the reality as far as we can tell (and makes sense) is most girls who didn’t want it weren’t religious; they wanted to marry. Suzanne does not; she is presented as wholly innocent: that’s another element hard to believe because she also enjoys the lesbian sex.

First person narrative has real problems: the narrator has to report her own compliments. I’ve been trying to emphasize analogies with other forms of imprisonment, hostage situations, violations of one’s body and identity (like rape) but it is also seriously a critique of the whole idea of monasteries and nunneries as deeply wrong for human nature.. He means it – Diderot is not attacking the church as the central of the worst evils of the ancien regime as Voltaire does (intolerance, barbaric punishments, thinking life a sin) but he is attacking this way of life imposed on people from many angles

Story falls into three parts. Opening section about how and why she is pressured into going into the first nunnery, Sainte Marie, and we can say that the time there where she is wheedled into taking her vows and just goes to pieces and hates it; she is sent home. There was such a place, established 1763 and it was a place that Marguerite Delamarre spent a long time at. The mother superior at the first place wants to win new recruits.

Second and longest section, she is sent to Longchamp: there is repetition because she was scapegoated. I’d call it humiliated in public, scourged in Sainte-Marie, but here it goes to high lengths. First she has a kind mother superior, Madame Moni whose regime is reasonable; no sourging, allowed all sorts of liberties, but she is urging Suzanne to take vows and that is not what Suzanne wants; she dies and then Sister Christine takes over –- she is mean and cruel, sadistic. It is there Suzanne writes her plea to the lawyer and her friend smuggles it out, and the lawyer makes the case. There we see the visitation of these powerful men. All the lawyer can get for Suzanne is a change of convent. He pays her dowry.

St Eutrope, Arpagon. We are never given this third mother superior’s name… We get stars or dot dot dot – or hyphen. This was a device used in novels to make readers think some real and powerful person was involved Suzanne is a bit of a prig, and she seems to disapprove of the mother superior’s lax ways but it’s really that there is no rule, it’s all her whim and caprice; this week she is cheerful and in love with the natural world, next week she is guilty. Mother superior’s guilt is played upon by the father viciously (natural feelings are perverted) and she becomes crazed with guilt and repression. Suzanne is blamed and she finally escapes; it’s not clear if the man who helps her escape is the same one who assaults here Dom Morel.

This is only to find herself a victim of attempted rape, dragged to brothel and finally working as a laudress and from the original hoax that is when she writes M. de Croismarre.

I find the ending very poignant, and if we don’t have the letters Diderot faked and sent to Croismarre (as one does in the Oxford) it is more plangent in its way. Clarissa dies at the end of her ordeal – as does Ursula, and perhaps Theresa


Suzanne’s one compassionate friend (2013) — the recent film emphasizes the woman’s community perverted and the friendships as well as the lesbian story (Isabelle Hibbert plays that role)

I did at first try to downplay the attack direct on the Catholic church’s practices, doctrines and especially elevation of celebacy in our discussion, even if in one long passage it’s obvious that Diderot (like Voltaire before him) is intent on showing the harmful social arrangements and practices the powerful state Catholic religion was responsible for, and encouraged (getting rid of daughters where you could not afford a prestigious dowry to place her in a high position flattering the family). But as we talked I began to see that was counterproductive. One must begin there and Diderot’s investment in the story was pointed out by one of the people in the class after I described the fraught relationship Diderot had with his bigoted Abbé brother: nothing Diderot ever did could appease this man or soften his demands that Diderot believe as fervently and act as austerely, punitively as he. Diderot used a vow he made to the brother to excuse himself from trying to publish his radical works, which paradoxically freed Diderot to write for 20 years great works without worrying what the public would think. Luckily most of this has survived — the critics and scholars seem to think. I also repeated the story that Diderot’s daughter, Angelique, reported in her memoir that his third sister died of insanity after she was put into a convent: it is thought from over-work but who knows. He has in The Nun at least two unforgettable portraits of young women driven mad by the conditions and ideas they are forced to live with.


Jacques Rivette has Anna Karina play the part more gently, and more openly vulnerable (1966)

Nonetheless, I moved on to generalize as there we were involved. (It did turn out that one man as a young man many years ago had voluntarily entered a monastery; he said after class, he had had no trouble getting out.). Just at this time I’ve been following a good Future Learn course from the University of Strathclyde in Scotland on Understanding Violence Against Women and had been reading Victor Vitanza’s Chaste Rape. I’ll start with the latter:


Kate Millett’s The Basement

I had seen The Nun as a Clarissa story: in the center Suzanne forced to become a nun by the cruelties of her family, coerced, harassed. I also saw the hideous treatment she is meted out by the other members of the nunnery (they humiliate her, strip her naked, force her to whip herself, starve her, leave her to be filthy, scream at her, make her walk on pieces of broken glass) as a parable of what can happen in a prison and when you are outcast in a community whom you have openly rejected. Now I saw this is a story just like all the stories of rape except without the open sexual attack –- which is not necessary. It is very like the real events retold by Millett in The Basement where a woman is coerced into agreeing with her captors’ evaluation of her, loses her pride, self-esteem, identity, her very personality until the point when she is asked further to hurt and to berate herself she gladly agrees. Vitanza says the purpose of rape is not the sexual attack centrally; the point is to violate your ego and self-respect to the point you never forget the experience and are traumatized. This helps explain why women are so upset by rape and assault attacks and that fucking does not at all have to occur. Public humiliation is enough. Like a hostage, when such a victim is kept for weeks, he or she can easily be driven to kiss the tormenter for the smallest relenting, the smallest glass of water or kindness.

After one of the sessions of horrifying treatment, Suzanne is told her lawyer has obtained a change of convent for her. He lost the case to have her freed but he can do this. What does she do? she gives her most precious objects to the cruel superior mother; she begs those who thew her into the dungeon physically to take other favors form her and kisses them and thanks them. When the overseer comes who has the news she can move and he forbids her to see her lawyer, she says that she has no desire to see him and when there is an opportunity she refuses. This cannot encourage the lawyer to go on helping her. He might think her forbidden but he might think she doesn’t care.

Diderot’s tale also anticipates what happens to Offred-June in Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale where she takes on the values of the Waterfords, Lydia and everyone else – like Suzanne. In the second season of the TV film adaptation, the film-makers move away from the original humiliation and enforced fearful docility and cooperation of the victim and make her a heroine to American watchers by having her hold on to violence herself and manifest an active desire for revenge and hatred; the American TV Offred-June does not utterly prostrate herself as Suzanne and the woman in The Basement do.

Suzanne is obviously such another as Levi in the concentration camp; people in solitary confinement and beat the hell out of and mistreated in US and other tyrannical nations’ prisons … I would not have been able to put Suzanne at long last next to Clarissa without Vitanza’s hook. Paradoxically he takes us past the way rape is discussed by de-centering the sex.

As for the Future Learn course, one of their advisors is Judith Lewish Herman whose Trauma and Recovery I know well and have long admired. So from watching and reading along with this Future Learn course I summarized:


Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery

Although Diderot started by a hoax — the typical case of based on a single real woman: Marguerite Delamarre. In 1752 at age 35 after several years she tried to have her vows annulled; she was turned down but the testimony showed an awful life; she tried again 1758, again turned down, she was still alive in 1788 when the convent was finally dissolved. What happened to her we don’t know. I say typical because young women were regularly forced into nunneries. The case of Galileo’s Daughter as retold by Dava Sobel from the 100 letters this girl left is heart-breaking and unforgettable. Gifted, socially engaging, she was cowed, starved, left in ignorance to die young – and he knew it.

The core of the Diderot’s story is violence against women, sometimes silent, sometimes overt – through law and custom. The perpetrators deny her right to have bodily security. To tell and/or seek help is to be punished. We see the impossibility of recovering from trauma in this situation. She lacks control over her environment, people helping her don’t consult her – she has experienced prolonged and repeated trauma so she is numbed – how to put back peace in her life; she has to be provided with safety, with a community to live in, work to do that’s meaningful, that she feel she is in charge of herself – problem won’t go away until society changes – until power relationships change. She is never given any opportunity to use her gifts for music and when last seen has been threatened by rape, a brothel and now lives hidden as a laundress. I assigned one recent essay which argued that the males in the tale have all the power: Suzanne’s mother is subject to her angry husband; her daughters have to pay their husband steep sums; the men in charge of the nunneries are harsh. The lesbian nun is driven into neurotic self-hatred by the priest who forbids Suzanne to have anything to do with her. At the same time, the one person who genuinely helps her with nothing to gain is the lawyer Manouri who even pays her dowry to enable her to move to the third nunnery, and pursues her case on her behalf as far as he is able.


The lawyer in the 1966 film has a stronger role, more prominence

According to the studies of the Strathclyde group: men believe they have the right to control women and whatever they have to do to achieve this is fine. The society is set up so that all authority figures have the right to transgress women’s bodies to force compliance in whatever way the society declares is fitting and to its interests. The way the female gender is trained, submissive, secretive, obedient, supposed to appeal to men, make their relationship with men central to survival fits into this paradigm. Violence against women begins early, in the girl’s earliest years. (I knew this.) It takes the form of setting up coercion in such a way that you prevent the girl from learning a skill, or idea that is enabling, or gives power to act freely on her own behalf. Later on when she is married (forced or seeming to choose), more than half the battle is done for the husband whose pride is made to inhere in controlling her to do his bidding and act out of and for his interest first. A silent violence against the child is secondary; it’s first aim is against her mother who is kept in an invisible straitjacket this way. The aim is twofold, mother and child, and we see this in The Nun, only the mother is absolutely faithful to her role as vicious instrument (as are the women who perform FGM on other women. They resent women who are not cowed and maintain self-pride. This secondary violence of women on girl children and sisters on sisters is seen with searing clarity in The Nun. Herman (like Adrienne Rich) brought out how compulsory heterosexuality is central here too: and in The Nun, the one act that is seen as bestial and beyond all forgiveness is lesbian love, yet whatever comfort and help Suzanne gets is from other girls who identify and say they love her: Ursule, Agatha. I remember Miss Temple in Jane Eyre’s story — until she marries. It is also important that no where helps the girl or women genuinely to find another role beyond wife, mother, as equally fulfilling.

To conclude, life-writing and trials bring into public awareness these kinds of psychological distress symptoms of traumatized people, but it is rarely retained for long. The woman remains so ashamed, and she carries on being punished for telling (especially when she does not win her case and she often does not) of these secrets men and society want to keep unspeakable and deflect attention from. The strong and lucky and men will deny the existence or even validity of such feelings so as not to have to deal with them.

While perhaps Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew like Voltaire’s Letters on England, would have brought before the class the sceptical and original ideas of the Enlightenment (Diderot had to make Suzanne religious in order to gain sympathy he felt), I could see from the fifteen pages I assigned it would not hve had the impact the other did.

On the two movies: Jacques Rivette’s The Nun versus Guillaume Nicloux’s The Nun.

Ellen


Susan Engel as the aged and unappealing Cunegonde (a sort of old lady 2) at the close of a Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon Candide (2013), favorably reviewed by Paul Taylor (“astringent, nihilistic, dry”)


Christa Ludwig as the old lady (Barbican, 1989, conducted by Bernstein) —

Friends and readers,

As you probably know (since I’ve announced this more than once), I’m teaching a course I called The Enlightenment: At Risk at the OLLI at AU. The first 18th century author and book we read has been Voltaire’s Candide; ou, l’optimisme. And I assigned selections of his treatises, we saw clips from La Nuit de Varennes (which they appeared to enjoy), and this coming Monday I shall show two clips from a 1989 concert performance of Bernstein’s Candide at the Barbican (Bernstein conducting), and one from a 2004 concert performance at Lincoln Center (Marin Alsop conducting, directed by Lonny Price). What is most striking to me is how many of the people, maybe most in the room came up with interpretations and reactions to Voltaire’s Candide that resemble Bernstein’s comic take on Candide, far more hopeful, morally didactic, essentially preferring a positive point of view on life to Voltaire’s mordancy and presentation of the chaos of experience, senselessness of pain.


1778, 1787 illustration emphasizes the grimness in the adventure

To begin with Voltaire’s Candide, a number of people in the class suggested the famous ending of the tale (“Il faut cultiver notre jardin”) is its finally restorative moral. Some saw redemption, hope here and there, some religious apprehension. I took the view of J.J. Weightman (a critic in the Norton edition) that tale is absurd and mordant, and that Voltaire produced Candide when his awareness of evil was at its most violent and his vitality at its strongest. I also felt with Wolper that the famous gnomic statement at the end is ironic.

In “The Gull in the Garden,” Eighteenth Century Studies, Wolper argues that Candide is a blind gull to the end. How could Candide forget he was once thrown out, and afterwards an army came and destroyed, beat and killed just about everyone in his home estate. In “Il fault cultiver son jardin,” Candide has only learned to shrink into himself. Yes, work can be a form of salvation: Voltaire himself only when near death tried to stop trying to help people. Diderot is continually trying to help people — individually, though in Diderot’s case they are not crazed events so he ends up with small people bothering him. Camille shuts out the rest of the world — as if one could. He can’t stand the sight of Cunegonde because she’s no longer young and pretty. Martin’s words at the end of the previous paragraph are as close as we get to Voltaire but Voltaire is far far more mordant. All his experiences should have taught Candide that he is not safe anywhere, and he is utterly selfish and narrow in the meaninglessness of what patterns we can discern: “Travaillons sans raisonner, dit Martin; c’est le seul moyen de rendre le vie supportable.”


Recent illustration — that’s the Cunegonde hanging up the laundry, the old lady with the sails

One man strongly objected to all Wolper said! There are other readings by critics in the Norton (Richard Holmes, Adam Gopnik) and I assigned one of them (Weightman), and did go over the text and tried to show its continual apprehension of stupidity and evil everywhere. I read aloud incidents, the history of herself the “old woman” told, and they so many were powerful individually considered: women living lives of sex slaves, raped continually, worked to exhaustion, thrown out in old age; the barbaric punishments, frantic slaughters, the making individuals into examples ludicrously killing “pour encourager les autres”.

But when I told the usual definition (a conte is a story shaped by a strong central point) and reiterated the tirelessly reiterated lesson it is not all for the best in the best of all possible worlds, a couple of people appeared to find this not very exciting, and the flatness of the characters was stale. When I went about to say why this obsession —

Leibnitz, deism, Pope in his Essay on Man (“whatever is, is right.”) — unless we look about us and accurately say what is, we cannot improve it. We must not rest easy in what is; we must not look to an afterlife; it’s here and now. Panglos, he glosses over everything —

they were (as living in a different age) indifferent to this cliché. People did say they had taken 18h century courses where Johnson’s Rasselas was read alongside Voltaire’s Candide as similar. Yes, yes, said I and so too Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield. With Rasselas, it’s the hunger of the imagination after some fantastical happiness (“vanity of human wishes”), the importance of one’s “choice of life. But this led to intelligent explications of why a moderate hope is needed: to believe in useful activity and within limits doing good. That it is a mock on the picaresque romance came up: the opening recalls Tom Jones — so a couple of the people in the room suddenly said how hard it is to remember details, its seeming hundreds of stories (I got in “enough piled into every paragraph for a commonly written realistic long novel were the characters psychologically developed at all”).


This 18th century illustration makes the opening incident resemble Tom Jones or other contemporary sentimental erotic novels

On the whole though I felt people were a bit disappointed by Voltaire’s Candide — they asked me about my title of the course: The Enlightenment: at Risk? what was at risk in this world that was valuable? I had used Outram’s book to try to show the ideas of this movement went much much further than small coteries, spread everywhere in cities, country houses, and were themselves outgrowths of new economic and social circumstances and began in the early modern period. So I went back to that and then tried to explain how satire, hard satire was the mode of this progressive period and the kinds of fundamental attacks on humanity Candide can prompt were not possible before people questioned religious belief as such, monarchy and divine right as such; conversely on powerful men, before people began to feel they had a right themselves to liberty, a good life, secure ownership of their property.

But that hardly can make someone like a book. So I then admitted that this summer rereading or reading for the first time some of Voltaire’s work I was more impressed by Letters on England than Candide, and famous and popularly read or widely distributed as Candide is, think Letters on England more important, his Treatise on Toleration teach us more directly about the Enlightenment thought of the era. I had assigned excerpts from these and then they took notes:

Differing sects of religion keep people from becoming absolutist and makes for toleration. In his chapter on Locke he argue against the immortality of the soul. Locke saw we were born with our minds a tabula rasa; what Voltaire is impressed is Locke accepts that matter thinks. Animals are like us, not simple machines but perceiving and sensitive. In the chapter on Bacon he extols basing oneself on probable experience, and takes over from his chapter on the history of inoculation for small pox, a scientific method. In the chapter on Newton he substitutes the old cosmology of God, eternal heaven, sin and reward with a modern scientific Newtonian universe. No need for all sorts of silly inventions and concepts once you have come up with the concept of gravity and turn it into mathematics and see that these mathematics describe what’s happening accurately, and enable to predict. Things like vortices perihelia. He shows how we now measure. Why the universe sticks together – it’s the brute reality – we would call it a force. How weight works. Newton’s Optics fascinated 18th century people –- to through a prism that light divides into colors. I read some poetry by Pope and Thomson: if you look at Shakespeare and Jacobean poetry you find mostly simple color words – red, pink maybe orange, purple; in these 18th century verses the color words just explode into cascades of shades. Far from attacking Shakespeare he admires him and says it’s impossible to translate him (18) and 23 and 24 he admires and recommends how the English support their men of letters (humanities) and men of science by academies. And so on.

I don’t say they weren’t spot on. First, none of the English translations we had came near Voltaire’s concision, wit, and tones.  Then to be honest, I prefer a realistic psychological story and enjoy Voltaire’s letters to Madame Du Deffand, and much more Nancy Mitford’s Voltaire in Love and Ian Davidson’s Voltaire In Exile where we see him fighting barbaric injustices, and occasionally winning (as against the oligarchy of Geneva he opened a manufacturing factory where people came to work and live more freely). I shall tell about these letters and books next week. . Maybe there is “more” to learn from Lettres Philosophiques (and also La Nuit de Varennes last week)

As a test case on whether the general class view of Candide makes it speak home to us, I found I was irritated by the Lincoln Center 2004 production, thought it mostly a travesty of Voltaire. It’s accurately reviewed by Peter G Davis, with whom I disagree only in that I found the usually appealing Patti Lupone as tasteless as everyone else. The witless sexual gags where the women were supposed to enjoy being raped were the worst. I am very troubled by how sexist this (and other) productions are. To me Voltaire’s females do not enjoy being sex slaves at all. I think Anthony Tommasini) has it right when he says this farrago doesn’t know what to do with Voltaire’s work — they were Hollywood bumpkins, clowns:


Paul Groves, Kristin Chenoweth, Patti Lupone as Candide, Cunegonde and the old lady ….

The best song was the penultimate sharp gaiety of the ensemble “What’s the use.” Still, Voltaire did not mean us to shrug and be gay over life’s meaninglessness. But people in the class said they had seen and they appeared to have been entertained by this production. I was lent my copy by one of the people in the class who wanted me to show it to the class and I will show one clip, “What’s the us?.”

The second DVD I have I bought myself, and I sat through far more patiently. It is the Barbican 1989 production.  Jerry Hadley as Candide sang the lyrical melancholy of Candide (in Bernstein’s “It must be so”) beautifully. Far more of Voltaire’s story survived in the enclosed whole script (!), and the absurdity of the enjoyment of torture and death at Lisbon (“auto-da-fe … What a day!”) seemed to approach a little Voltaire. Yet I remained uninvolved and felt the actors (Adolphe Green reading away so very hard)

and singers were flailing at perceptions that failed to touch them except as generic archetypes.


Jerry Hadley as Candide and June Anderson as Cunegonde

It was nowhere wild enough, but the reviews of this “labored over” production were more charitable and patient for the sake of the music. I can see it’s respected because my DVD came with the full script and credits to Lilian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, John LaTouche, Bernstein himself — all credited. I learnt that the original script was wholly by Hellman and that it was much closer in spirit to Voltaire, among other things, satirizing the House UnAmerican Activities committee. Indeed the script did reflect Voltaire in the narrative lines — read aloud as best the performers could, complete with explanations (“what is a picaresque tale? well …. “)

Each of the three productions I’ve mentioned here (the third at the opening of this blog, which I found on-line) have different dialogues so there has been a great deal of free improvisation allowed. It is true it is a mix-mash of different genre types as may be seen in the different earlier illustrations. But what went wrong in the 20th century and is still a problem is candor — reminding me in sound of the name, Candide. In the 18th century a “candid” interpretation was one which tried to present things in the “best” and most moral or sympathetic light. You wouldn’t think we’d want to look away if you turned on recent cable TV movies with their wild violence and amoral sex. Still the history of the adaptation says the first production (1957) was a flop (73 performances), and reveals since then the people daring to mount it have for the most part struggled, almost in vain to come near it. Apparently the 2013 began to come close, as has a recent 2016 operatic Candide at the New York City Opera.

I do find it telling that in our era of massacres, senseless laws and widespread injustice, where the president of the US can go around ridiculing a woman who comes forward to tell a story of assault, rape and humiliation as her civic duty (she knew she had lot to lose personally) rather than have a conscienceless raving elite thug on the supreme court for life, we have a hard time presenting the true core of Candide to an audience. The first edition (1759) was presented as a translation from the German by a physician named Ralph.

Ellen