Feeds:
Posts
Comments


One of several competing portraits of Edward Marcus Despard (wikipedia offers a barebones outline of the man’s life)


Promotional parallel shot of Aidan Turner as the somewhat aging Ross Poldark, and Vincent Regan as Despard in his last 4 years (Season 5)

Friends and readers,

I had not written until now on the fifth season of Debbie Horsfield’s Poldark because I’m in several minds about it. Having watched the whole season twice, and now going through carefully each episode Sunday by Sunday I know had this been the first group of serial drama episodes I saw I would never have gone on to read Winston Graham’s Poldark novels. I first read the first four quartet (Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark and Warleggan, written 1945-53, and set between 1783 and 1793) after watching the first four episodes of the 1975-76 Poldark (scripted by Jack Pullman, mostly directed by Christopher Barry). I learned later Winston Graham detested Pullman’s adaptation of Ross Poldark (Pullman departed radically in linchpin scenes), but I found myself having a deep affinity with them, and unexpectedly, as the series was itself ceaselessly disdained as romance costume drama [for women], and I assumed the books would be perhaps a cut above what was called “bodice rippers” (historical fiction except for a very few writers had fallen to a debased level in the early part of the 20th century), fell in love with them. They seemed to me fine historical fiction with something serious to say to readers barely out of, recovering from the devastation of World War Two.

Horsfield seems to have made the decision to fill the ten year interval between the ending of the first trilogy of Graham’s Poldark novels (The Black Moon, The Four Swans, The Angry Tide, written & published 1974-77/8, set 1794-99), not from the fragments of details about the intervening years found in the later five books but by inventing a story whose source and treatment resembles that of Graham. In my paper on the use of documentation in Graham’s historical and suspense fiction I demonstrated Graham had a penchant for choosing the minor real figures of history who were just and decent men scapegoated (using law and state terror and legal violence) by or part of a reactionary establishment but often meaning to do good or not wholly bad men. His deepest sympathy was for the humane rebel, the Che Guevara type combined with the elegance of Gainsborough historical romance males that his own hero, Ross Poldark, represents. To have picked a man like Edward Marcus Despard speaks very well of her, we must give her the credit of calling attention to this man to a wider audience than ever reads non-fiction about the French revolution, the analogous upheaval in the UK in the 1790s for reform (prompting the reign of state terror by Pitt and his state machinery). As the promotional photo for the series suggests, in real life Despard was such another as Ross Poldark in Jeremy Poldark where we see him come near to hanging and/or transportation because his very real illegal activities leading a huge group of local ordinary desperate people to remove and use for themselves the flotsam and jetsam of two wrecks from a violent storm were used by his enemies (and the local state apparatus) to make an example of him to deter people from combining to demand a far better life and share in the good things of the earth than they had ever had.


Promotional shot of Kerri McLean who plays Catherine (Kitty) in this fifth season of Poldark

She also brings to the viewer’s attention other people who lived during this ten-year interval and whose life history has much to say to us today. Joseph Merceron, a corrupt Godfather boss of Bethnal Green (or Spitalfields, as a blog about this older area of London calls it), a Trump type colluding with Pitt’s gov’t to spy on and help imprison, transport, execute anyone who wanted to change the status quo. James Hadfield, a pathetic religious fanatic, crazed by his life and experience, who tried to kill George III (Andrew Gower, fresh from his brilliant complex portrayal of Prince Charles Edward Stuart makes the few moments we glimpse this man memorable). Catherine Despard, about whom records are sparse, come from just the period of her (probable) marriage to Despard, life with him, continual remarkable unusual pro-active activities on his behalf, including publicizing the horrific conditions in the prison he was thrown in for two years (Coldbath Fields), showing herself (probably a Creole, daughter to a freed African woman living in Nicaragua, herself alas the owner of enslaved Africans) to be better educated than many European women, until the time of his execution, whereupon she disappears from public records. It is thought she took her and Despard’s children to Ireland in an effort to appeal to the consciences of his Anglo-Irish protestant family. No picture survives


Geoffrey Charles (Freddie Wise) and Cecily Hanson (Lily Dodsworth-Evans), the only conventionally romantic couple in the season ….

Catherine is interestingly accurately likened to the wholly fictional Cecily Hanson, daughter of Ralph Hanson (Peter Sullivan). Catherine was an educated woman who understood how to negotiate with upper class people and could hold her own in political salons (it takes Demelza many years to learn this). Cecily shows self-esteem and agency in her choosing to engage herself to Geoffrey Charles, and then when (in a later episode), she finds he is beaten senseless by her father’s thugs and cannot begin to hold onto their relationship, give him up. A feel of poignancy hovers around Geoffrey Charles, as the orphaned son of Francis and Elizabeth Poldark. Hanson’s name harks back to a real brutal plantation owner from the Caribbean, Hanbury, a composite figure (such men did make money producing natural wood for mahogany found in mosquito-infested places), who Hanson attempts to coerce into an advantageous marriage with the sadly-reduced but still cruel and amoral widower George Warleggan (Jack Farthing sustains the difficult part of a man hallucinating from grief and guilt, rescued from heinous treatment by Dwight Enys, Luke Norris in the familiar Graham conception). William Wickham was a minor official in the foreign office during Canning’s time — and given Graham’s respect for Canning and in the later novels make his Ross an reporter-spy-negotiator for Canning — to use the name leaves room for a return to the 8th novel, Stranger from the Sea (which there are various signs in even the first four episodes of this series Horsfield and the film-makers, crew and actors would be willing to do).

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


Promotional shots push viewers to liken Demelza to Tess and Demelza in this series is presented as seeing herself in Tess

So with all this important history for interested intelligent viewers to explore, which can also be linked back to Graham Winston’s own novelistic achievements and politics, what can be the cause of my dismay. 1) that Debbie Horsfield’s interpretation of Despard is that of the authorities and establishment of the later 19th century which stigmatized and degraded Despard into a “nut,” a deluded naive upper class male who courted his own destruction. Nothing could be further from the truth, but in scene after scene we have Ross and Demelza and Catherine stopping a foolish man from following the obviously provocative antics of envious revolutionary thugs; 2) that freed from any text, Horsfield abandons the middle-of-the-road perspective of Graham on the revolution (his stance might be likened to the Girondists) continually to condemn any rebellion as coming from envy and dense stupidity, actuated by spite. She turned Graham’s Keren Daniels (who had some cause for discontent) into a dense promiscuous thug; now she invents such another in the character of Tess (Sofia Oxenham).

It is painful for me to consider (as I do) that Debbie Horsfield might be accurate: there are many many scenes of Demelza showing hurt, anger and resentment at his cold distrust of her in the second half of Jeremy Poldark and after her love affair with Richard Armitage. Similarly in his suspense novels post-World War Two, and later Poldark novels Graham evidences a great conservatism. That’s why I am in several minds. I may have been misreading Graham for all these years.

I face the reality that my love of many film adaptations derives from my love of the source book and the original conceptions of the key characters. I have no doubt that Debbie Horsfield’s conception of Demelza as frequently vexed with Ross, dominating when she can (masculine in her approach — as made visible in her mannish outfits), pro-active on behalf of the material needs of her family makes sense prudentially (and might appeal to non-romantic women in the 2nd decade of the 21st century). Horsfield introduced the idea that Ross regards Demelza as his savior, and he repeats this ad nauseam in season 5. Demelza likens herself to Catherine Despard (Eleanor Tomlinson must follow the script she is given) by asserting she too “entrapped” a man whose kitchen she also was (this is a startling travesty of what happened in Graham’s Ross Poldark, Jack Pullman’s adaptation and also Horsfield’s own Episode 4 in the 2015 Poldark). I can only assert and ask those who have read the books if I am correct: Graham’s Demelza is the underdog, a different kind of misfit from Ross, having given her ego, her very soul into her relationship with Ross; like him, finding deepest pleasure in disinterested activities and quiet solitude. What is so appealing about their relationship is they never bicker, are unself-conscious about their deep compatible character geniality.

Now that she is freed of Graham’s texts, I feel Horsfield travesties all Graham major women characters, but Verity, who is dropped, perhaps with relief? (Several of the students I taught Graham’s novel, Ross Poldark to, maintained she was a female Ross as understood in that humanely idealistic book, figures who found peace in solitude.) Graham’s Morwenna loathed the child Whitworth impregnated her with; Horsfield’s is turned into a sentimental fanatic, trailing around abjectively after the boy child, barely protected by the vulnerable (because low-class) Drake (Harry Richardson). She is made as mad as George Warleggan. Debbie Horsfield is more comfortable or wants exaggerated emotional states: in the later novels we are told George grieved, felt guilty, remembered ever after all Elizabeth’s finer qualities, but he did not go mad: Jack Farthing’s acting carries it off as does Elisse Chappell were I not embarrassed for her — perhaps some viewers will be embarrassed for George:

I found irritating Morwenna and Rosina being turned into tenderly loving schoolmistresses — back to the patriarchy. Caroline (the now anorexic-looking Gabrielle Wilder) reminds me of the medieval statue of Barbara, always with lamp except she carries around a deliberately chosen fat dog. She is now resentful and jealous of Catherine whom Dwight does seem drawn to. Even he is travestied, becoming belligerently aggressive toward Ross in order to pressure Ross into giving up his loyalty to Despard (as imprudent). Dwight’s complete lack of this kind of emotional blackmail has escaped Debbie Horsfield (or she is glad to shed him of a characteristic generosity and inability to pressure others many would despise him for). OTOH, as in the books he shows himself to be his own man; he has his professional conscience and follows it despite his wife’s upper class prejudices and ignorance.


Dwight helping George by taking him to his wife’s grave: he utters an idea which is a play on a sentiment that Graham ends The Angry Tide with: all we have is that we are alive here today and that is what we must make what we can of

I share an objection to the pace of these four episodes: relentless. Many of the recap blogs wax snarky over this. If only she would trust her viewer to have the patience to see small moments develop slowly. We cannot dwell in the relationship of Ross and Demelza when it is deeply companionable because the scenes are so rushed and embedded in distractions (juxtaposition, switching back and forth):


The look on Eleanor Tomlinson’s face here suggests to me she has read Graham’s books, and some of her comments show how much she has invested in Graham’s heroine ….

I realize the larger content, the actual thrust of episodes is so often sheerly repetitive. Again Ross is saving countless victim- miners and their children from death in an avalanche. Again he risks all his estate and fortune, this time to save the miners from unemployment. At least in Graham’s books, he does this to begin a business for himself, because he is guilty over Francis’s death and wants to control Elizabeth, make her dependent on him.

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


Opening of episode 1: gradually we focus in on Ross out in his boat, and watch him come into shore

A few elements to praise:

I wish there were more moments in the four hours that derive from Graham’s Poldark books or conceptions, which the reader of Graham’s novels, someone who has read some 18th century history and knows the importance of the French revolution and the Enlightenment to a modern way of life today, and the lover of thoughtful period costume drama is left alone in peace to enjoy. Examples: At the opening of the first episode this season we see Ross out in a boat fishing by himself quietly. He is taking a needed break. George at first leaving Trenwith to rot; then his beginning to see Elizabeth and returning to Trenwith to find her is touching. I thought the conception of George’s half-craziness and coldness towards his son well taken, though he is blackened since in the books he did pay for Geoffrey Charles’s education as far as Geoffrey Charles asked for — the depiction of less major characters too — that Morwenna will have a hard time coping with sexuality is at first presented with sensitivity as is Demelza’s attempt to win over the workers.

Episode 2 has much that is persuasive and interesting politically — as a historical film (the way the first four seasons presented mining, farming and other realities of the era). The 1790s was a period of severe repression — unfairly because the English protesters were out for reform, but Pitt and the wealthy were frightened by what had happened in France. And they did frame people, and use just such printed circulating pamphlets. The gov’t did have surveillance techniques. Despard was far smarter than she presents him, he was impulsive and used to using violence; all characteristics praised and honored by the establishment of this era — very like Nelson (who he was friends with, worked with in the Caribbean) in some ways, only more controlled.

Episode 3: There is an anticipation of a sixth season in the behavior of the children: the young Clowance looking yearningly over the fence at Trenwith. We will find her there in the first phase of The Stranger from the Sea. Sam and Rosina slowly getting together over Bible-reading. Valentine ever alone wandering, picked up by the kindly Ross (who we see is his father from visual resemblance).


Ross watched by spies, enemies ….

In this interim plot-design, we are shown how slowly Hanson and Merceron in London draw a noose of inference and suspicion around both Despard and Ross, to accuse them of treason. This was done in the 1790s and people were tried, imprisoned, hung — 10 famously got off partly by the brilliant defense, Godwin’s publication of a treatise on equity and justice, and the reality the population was deeply against this repression. Of course our characters use Tess as their mole and encourage her to get at the head of gangs to destroy houses and people (highly anachronistic the idea any mob of men would automatically obey a woman). A noose of inference and suspicion is gradually being unfolded around Ross, ever oblivious in her desire to help his friend, bring about meaningful reform, love his wife and children …

Harry Richardson as Drake Carne attempting to care for a mentally distressed young woman delivers a pitch perfect performance; his behavior a parallel to Dwight Enys in the fiction; Luke Norris has his character as far sterner, but then he does not love the people he is treating.


Epitomizing shot

The linking together of the neglected Valentine with the once abused Morwenna is valuable symbolically.

I’ll conclude with my finding that several of the heroes of Graham’s suspense novels involve themselves politically, usually on the left, and act in ethical ways against their own interest, endangering their lives. In one I have been studying, Greek Fire, a depiction of the US-UK ruthless intervention in Greek politics in the 1940s and 50s to destroy social democracy — it result in years of dictatorship, but then Papandreos took power by election and a social democracy for years emerged — Graham’s hero is characterized in waysthat recall Ross. Greek Fire was written not long after Warleggan. Here is one typical characterization: a friend wants the hero to give up his ethics, morality, efforts: and the man says here you are “pushing on, never letting up, … why do you not accept life as it is instead of trying to worry it with your teeth all the time, like a terrier with a bone. Is this not Ross too?

Ellen


Claire Randall looking longingly at a vase in a shop window (Outlander 1:1)

Strange, the things you remember.
Single images and feelings that stay with you down through the years.
Like the moment I realized I’d never owned a vase.
That I’d never lived any place long enough to justify having such a simple thing.
And how at that moment, I wanted nothing so much in all the world as to have a vase of my very own …

But I can still recall every detail of the day when I saw the life I wanted sitting in a window.
Sometimes wonder what would’ve happened if I’d bought that vase and made a home for it.
Would that have changed things? Would I have been happy? Who can say? I do know this:
Even now, after all the pain and death and heartbreak that followed, I still would make the same choice.

Friends and readers,

So, after all, I am going to the 50th anniversary conference of ASECS (American Society for 18th century studies) in St Louis, Missouri (! — where?). About a week ago the male scholar-professor whose panel I gave my paper on Winston Graham’s uses of documentary facts and silences in the last ASECS emailed me to ask me if I wanted to submit a proposal for his panel, which request pleased me (it means he respected my paper) and whose new proposal had puzzled me:

“I Refute It Thus”: Encounters with Eighteenth-Century Objects (Roundtable) [Northwest Society for Eighteenth Century Studies] …. Proposals invited on any aspect of encounters with eighteenth-century objects, then and now, whether personal, professional, or philosophical; whether in texts, or with texts, or without texts.

Like many — almost all — of the Calls For Papers this year I just couldn’t get it — most of them were filled with jargon beyond me; this (thought I) must came from “materiality” theory, which (to me) is a hodgepodge of gobbledygok most of the time. So I asked him (as he had emailed me) could he explain in commonly used (natural easy) — English — for I would like to join in another panel with him. After a couple of days he did.

What I was thinking for this round-table was a set of 10 minute presentations on personal encounters with 18th-century objects, in mini essay form, that captured what essays can do, and connects with specific research you might be doing. It could be as simple as encountering an 18th century text, or an object associated with an author (Jane Austen’s turquoise ring?), or even encounters with objects in fictional texts. The main linking element really would be the essay/roundtable form, which allows for having fun with a topic. Some round-tables invite discussion because of the ideational content. This one would invite more “show and tell” responses from the audience with other encounters, I’m thinking

Well, all right. Not only did I get it, I found myself enthusiastic. I am it’s not too much to say profoundly engaged by historical fiction and romance. A couple of summers ago I taught Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover. The impetus or impulse for this book (so Sontag has said) was the collection of extraordinary objects and painting Sir Wm Hamilton gathered together, especially his vases.


An ancient vase found in Naples area

To teach the book and put this idea across I had bought a marvelous (expensive) art book on this collection published by the Sloane Museum, which owns a goodly part of Hamilton’s estate: Jane and Kim Sloan, edd. Vases and Volcanoes: Sir William Hamilton and His Collection. I passed it around to the class and we looked at a variety of real historical objects found in the catalogue and in Sontag’s book. With The Volcano Lover, I taught Daphne DuMaurier’s The King’s General. The class’s subject matter was historical fiction set in the long 18th century: this book is set during and in the years just after the 17th century English civil war in Cornwall. It’s an unusual book for her because closer to historical fiction than most of hers; it is far more thoroughly researched than most of her books, based on papers and documents about a siege at Menabilly, which ended in attempting to burn the place down, a real general (a cruel ruthless man), indeed many of the Rashleigh and other Cornish family and military characters really existed. Its impetus too (I can’t remember where I came across this — probably Margaret Forster’s biography or one of DuMaurier’s memoirs) was an old wheelchair (ancient type) that she claims she once saw (I am not sure this is true) in an old building on the grounds of Menabilly. She also tells a ghostly tale about half-ruined objects found in a closed tower, suggesting someone hiding away or imprisoned for years on end — haunted things left over from the 17th century civil war.


Said to have been Sir Thomas Fairfax’s wheelchair — DuMaurier says the one she saw was pathetically feeble and looked uncomfortable


The famed (since DuMaurier’s Rebecca) Menabilly with DuMaurier and her children during her long time there as tenant

I said nothing of how the central propelling image in Ahdaf Soueif’s tale of Anna Winterbourne’s journey into Cairo, Map of Love, is from John Frederick Lewis’s oriental paintings, still in a Kensington museum, which I had just reread, attended a class on, and blogged and written about too.


John Frederick Lewis’s Cairo: Indoor Gossip

But I did talk of Paula Byrne’s brilliant biography of Jane Austen, a series of essays meditating and ferreting aspects Austen’s life through the small things she owned and we can look at still: A Life in Small Things. How successful (so suggestive) is Deborah Lutz’s The Bronte Cabinet: she too writes lives of Brontes, using relics, this time objects connected to them through death — some might find this morbid. I didn’t and don’t. And how I remembered Martha Bowden’s perceptive study of historical romance and fiction, Descendants of Waverley, romancing the 18th century, dedicated a whole part to how real historical objects put into fiction makes them come alive, validates them, are vivid focuses.

Bowden traces fascinatedly how these novelists mix true realities then and now (say time) with fictionalizing techniques (e.g., richly subjective world historical characters), especially those using allusion and intertextuality (to music, plays, once or still extant historical paintings and relics, memoirs) … Caryl Phillips’s Cambridge and Crossing the River (not covered by Bowden) include[s] a precious historical document, the scrap remnants of a past that have survived, and Phillips’s novels produce a take on this material that is sustaining and comforting today to those who today still suffer … where there is an intense desire on the part of a specific readership to go back and retrieve the past, to experience it intimately … there is a section on ekphrasis and the importance and uses of archeaology …

And so my proposal was accepted and then the panel also. So I’ve some delightful reading, re-reading, interesting thinking and dreaming and I hope effective writing ahead.

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


Kenneth Branagh as Thomas Mendip, the discharged soldier who says he longs to die


Cherie Lunghi whom the town longs to burn as a witch — she escapes by fleeing …

I would say most of the time Winston Graham does not turn to material objects for inspiration or begin (say) with manuscripts. He is a sceptic and when he does have a written document will point out how problematic it is (Forgotten Story, Groves of Eagles, “Vive le Roi”). He does have pictures and the collecting of art objects as central to a number of his suspense books (his characters are artists, connoisseurs, insurance agents, thieves) and every once in a while (no where often enough for my taste) a real book, author, piece of music painting, but he rarely names any, most are fictional (cited plays in the Poldarks). He will use an alluring allusion to enrichen his meaning (again mostly in the suspense books): in one of his best I’ve discovered, The Tumbled House where a now deceased writer, John Marlowe’s reputation is defamed when John Shorn, a supposed younger friend, driven by envy and perhaps a betrayal, accuses him of plagiarism, and Don, the son and Berenice, the daughter experience much trauma suing the man for libel (a kind of nightmare haunting Graham himself — who had a son and daughter): the writer’s son’s wife, Joanna, is a TV actress playing the part of the witch in Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not for Burning. This complex and Christianizing play preaches charity, tolerance, forgiveness — not that the wife whose adultery the novel suddenly swerves to focus on (to the detriment of the book) is at all to blame for what happens. Don and Joanna get back together at the end of the book in the same way as Ross and Demelza do at the close of Angry Tide,

When he was young, he had thought love had something to do with understanding, but with age he knew that no human being understood another. Love was the wish to understand, and presently with constant failure the wish died, and love too perhaps or changed into this painful affection, loyalty, pity … Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter

and the final moral that here is all we have, all we can have, so we must cherish, make do is the burning center of all Graham’s disillusioned texts.

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


Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza and Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark repeat in turn parts of the above passage with bits of sentimentalized love language thrown inm — done far too passionately, Debbie Horsfield, 5th season of her Poldark


The older series (script Jack Russell) had Angharad Rees say the lines softly, unchanged to Ross as what comfort could be found for death, and thus got closer to the book (1978 BBC Poldark 13:6)

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

Still all historical texts romancing objects begin with a kind of enchantment with the past, haunted by imagined passionate caring for what the objects stand for in the past: these prompt the minds of the historical novelist.

Today is the 7th anniversary of Jim’s death and his spirit is everywhere in this house in all the objects with me from our lives together. Here is Samuel Johnson on Sorrow: Rambler No. 47 

” The safe and general antidote against sorrow is employment …  Sorrow is a kind of rust of the soul, which every new idea contributes in its passage to scour away.”

Ellen


The Upstairs set come out to greet the king and queen


The Downstairs set toast the king and queen (Downton Abbey, the film, 2019)

Friends and readers,

The old magic, the trick played on us by Julian Fellowes and his teams of people — for those susceptible to it — does not begin until at least one-third and maybe closer to half the way through. Anibundel over on NBC has argued that this cinema continuation carries on one important characteristic of the 5 year series at its best: nothing much or nothing overt happens to change anything in the visible life of these sets of people very much. I agree with her that the first season was particularly strong because more or less this formula was kept to. A crippled man arrives to become Lord Grantham’s butler (Brendan Coyle as Mr Bates), and after much stigmatizing and complaints, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonnville) keeps him on, because “it’s just not right” to fire him. An old suitor of Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) turns up and asks her to go to a fair because at long last free he wants to propose marriage, and after much heart-wrenching, she decides to stay where she is. Lady Mary, the princess of the family, eldest lovely virgin daughter (Michelle Dockery) is (arguably) raped and the cad (Theo James who blackmailed the homosexual butler, Barrow, Robert James-Collier, to sneak him in as a surprise attack) dies during the fuck! But (awkwardly, with difficulty, comically) the corpse is carried back and there is no scandal at all!

But I want to qualify the implications here. The trick of the thing is to present a character in the throes of some inner crisis that matters to him or her and dramatize how some decision no one but the character and his or her closest intimates see, affects in some central way the rest of the emotional temperature or outlook of that character, the decisions he or she make afterwards, for the rest of their lives. This trick is most effective when it’s played out with the Downstairs people who are more vulnerable to deep hurt or an ejection (getting “sacked”) from the apparent social safety of the orderly household. Add to this what you find in many serial dramas, strong emotionalism, the stance that most people behave in warm and even caring ways to one another, at least emotionally. This does not distinguish Downton Abbey from other serial dramas, but Julian Fellowes is good at making this kind of thing believable. In life most people we meet behave anywhere from indifferently or with a hard edge. An adult might be extra benign to a child. I feel this sentimentalism is central to why people watch what are called realistic (naturalistic) domestic drama movies.

As everyone knows who has paid the slightest attention to the advertisements what happens at Downton is George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) invite themselves for a one-night stay at Downton while they are traveling through Yorkshire and this creates an nearly traumatic emotional reaction as everyone in the household gear up to present an appearance of high excellence and welcome. As late as one-third or later the way through it becomes apparent the exclusionary snobbish tactics of the royal household decree that its staff replace any local staff. It also sets up a confrontation between the queen’s lady-companion, Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) and the Dowager Duchess Violet (Maggie Smith) who are related kin but have been estranged for years; it is rumored she is determined to leave her fortune elsewhere than Lord Grantham. Gradually this visit, these two social dramas ripple outward to affect the inner lives of a number of vulnerable characters and at least momentarily affect the self-esteem and comfort of everyone else.


Imelda Staunton as Lady Maud Bagshaw (a name from Trollope)

The problem the movie has is these things take time, and when you have say anywhere from 8 to 10 episodes (plus Christmas specials) you have the requisite time; so it’s in the third episode of the first season that Mr Bates throws away the torture instrument he has put on his leg to make his disability less apparent. We have learned to feel for him for two episodes before this. Plus since Julian Fellowes has been determined to present the world order as ultimately benign, the last we saw of everyone they were apparently set for life in good and fulfilling circumstances. This was not so to begin with, nor did the shape of the series emerge as benign providential patterning until the fourth season when the series began to have problems finding crucial traumas and had to introduce new characters and put old ones through twists and turns of misery (especially Mr Bates and Anna as his wife, aka Brendon Coyle and Joanne Froggart).

So, Fellowes strains to invent inner troubles that matter. He has a couple and adds some: Thomas Barrow is still a vulnerable homosexual man; Daisy (Sophie McShea) has not agreed to set a marriage date with a footman, Andy (Michael C. Fox); Tom Bransome is still not trusted as an ex-chauffeur radical Irishman; and over the course of the couple of hours we discover Lady Maud is trying to leave her estate to her illegitimate daughter disguised as lady’s maid, Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton).


Anna and Mr Bates — brief scene showing her telling her idea to him and his loving her for it

What’s more: several favorite characters and a couple of new ones become powerful linchpins in securing respect and power for one another. It’s Anna Bates who seems to think up the plot that puts the royal staff out of commission (drugged, locked in rooms, hoaxed away) and recognizes the queen’s lady is a thief; Bransome saves the king’s life and falls in love with Lucy Smith; she likewise and they are last seen dancing a ballroom dance on the terrace in a lovely landscape (since she is not yet acceptable to the Upstairs people in the ballroom). Daisy leads Mrs Patmore (Leslie Nichol) for once to kindly lie to the grocer and accept an order of food she thinks they will not need.


Allen Leech as Thomas Bransome (working with Lady Mary again)

It does not all work: You would think Bransome was trusted by this time and a few others seem a stretch: Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) is still feeling undervalued and left alone; the rivalry of the Dowager and Isobel, Lady Merton (Penelope Wilton) has become tiresome; their quips no longer amuse. Lady Mary is still unsure she doesn’t want to disburden herself of Downton. Mr Carson (Jim Carter) is still absurdly proud and wants to work as a butler; Moseley (Kevin Doyle) makes a fatuous worshipper of himself. But Fellowes does have a gift for endowing his characters with good feelings and kindliness towards one another, and those endangered in some way, yearning for some kind of companionship, security achieve this by film’s end.

I’m saying I don’t think the movie quite succeeds. Those who like it are giving it slack — extra patience like you would an old friend.

Some will say this is not what draws people to this series. It’s the super-rich glamour of the house, the grounds, the gorgeous clothes, the leisured existences, the evocative music, the nostalgic escape into a world that never was — the servants were not treated in the way this series dramatizes; it omits 9/10s of the population of England. On top of that, the whole idea this order was a non-violent one is ludicrous. I can’t deny that might be why many people watched the TV series year after year and are making the Downton matter once again a big box-office money-maker. Who does not enjoy seeing a ball? I do. I love the beautiful photographed landscapes. There is the reiterated idea that these super-rich privileged people lead troubled lives themselves — so let’s not envy Princess Mary (Kate Phillips) as she tries to have a life with some emotional satisfaction with a cold mean man. (As if this were anything like the desperate needs and anguished conditions of ordinary people everywhere.)


Princess Mary (Kate Phillips who most of the time ends up dead or otherwise pulverized — as in Davies’ War and Peace …)

To that I can only say, I am not fooled, this kind of supposed comfort (?) is not for me. The thought we are offered at the end that the building, Downton Abbey, and this way of life will last another 100 years and more does not make me happy. It’s sad to think that so many will remain without and desperate so that the money may be gathered by this privileged class to live this way. I suggest that there are many like myself — since this trick so in evidence (for at least three years of TV time) is at the core of the plot-design once again. I know I would be an utter outsider and long ago (say the 2nd season) been ejected as unfit, perhaps scapegoated as a seduced woman. I don’t belong in this series anywhere — the closest I come is to Anna as she was presented in the first couple of seasons. Even then she is such a “good” girl, so filled with respect for the order that keeps her at work long hours most of her life — this is wholly anathema to my finding something to live for in my hours of existence as I recall them.

Yet I found tears coming to my eyes when a character is once again rescued from the possible exposure and punishment — Barrow is lured into going to a homosexual club, something very new, taken in to jail by a police raid but then released on the say-so of one of the king’s footmen, himself homosexual. I wish there had been more of the inner life of Anna and Bates (my favorites) but it’s clear their lives are all content, comfortable, good — as are those of Mrs Hughes (now Elsie to Mr Carson) and Mr Carson (Charlie to her) and others. I am fond enough of them all to feel good seeing them surviving still — like Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) still waiting to marry Moseley.


Moseley and Baxter — behind the scenes (promotional) hsppy moment

I am not dead or broke yet myself. The magic is the trick of involving you, getting you to believe and identify.


Thomas finds a friend and ally, the king’s footman, Richard Ellis (Max Brown)

If you can respond to these carefully studied characters presented with tact and mostly compassion, and most of all, if you watched and liked the TV series for that first and second (occurring during WW1) seasons, here it is back again, trying to repeat what it managed in the first season especially. There is something for everyone, some qualification to enable us to identify. I agree with Anibundel the sweetest story is of that Barrow at long last finding a world forming he can join, and that the charm the wanting to hold onto this world is it feels like a blessed escape.  Quiet lives. So if you want a happy ending, yes, that’s there, but if you are into quiet melancholy, it’s here too.


Lady Mary at the opening of the film, tough lady left in charge at the end

And, for those who would find some satisfaction in thinking this meretricious stuff will go away for good after this, in the last scene Violet tells Lady Mary that she has been diagnosed with a mortal illness and will be gone from from the scene before long. It is a moving moment as she turns the Abbey over to Lady Mary as her replacement. One thing I liked across the series (and think it’s what makes it so appealing to women) is that we have strong women characters through out; it’s the woman’s anguish and loss and power that is often focused most upon. And so it is in this installment.

Ellen


Charles Keene, “The Waiting Room”, for The Cambridge Grisette (1862) – this seems to me very much in mood of more poignant moments from Miss Mackenzie

Dear friends and readers,

During the month of August over on TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io we had quite a vigorous conversation on Trollope’s mid-career two volume novel, Miss Mackenzie (published 1865). This is the second time I read it with a group on this list but the people participating were almost all different people; the last time was 15 years ago (!) and what we had to say seemed so different from what had been said the first time round. On my website I simply put all the postings that had been written over 7 weeks we read the book; here I’ll try to summarize the general take and then offer a few specific responses to specific passages or chapters. For those who have not read the novel, a rather dry plot-summary may be found on wikipedia.

At first it seems this is a book deeply sympathetic to unmarried women, one where the novelist means to expose their plight: unable to make a living, over-sheltered, living the dullest of controlled lives, we see Miss Mackenzie at first attempting to make a life choice for herself. She is 35, a “spinster,” who has been given no chance to be in the world, she knows nothing of its cliques, its pettinesses, even how to go to the theater is a puzzle. And unexpectedly she inherits her brother Walter’s fortune, which she much deserved by her selfless devotion to him — though her other brother’s wife is livid with anger she is not to have half. She then refuses the obvious “out” of marrying Henry Hancock (his name like several other of Miss Mackenzie’s suitors is also a salacious pun); she will not live with that brother or his wife, for then she would be subject to them. She goes out on her own! to Littlebath “where [she hopes] she might know clever people, nice people, bright people, people who were not heavy and fat like Mr Handcock, or sick and wearisome like her poor brother Walter, or vulgar and quarrelsome like her relatives in Gower Street”. And in a spirit of generosity, she decides to (in effect) adopt the living brother’s oldest daughter, Susannah, and send her to school. Thus giving herself a companion and her niece a chance to enjoy what she never did. She is generous, kind, good, and even intelligent. She has dreamed of love (she writes verses) and in a moving scene when she looks at herself in a mirror and tightens her shift across her breasts, we see that she enjoys her body and has a certain sensual attractiveness.

A few of us quickly modified that or saw it in a more nuanced way: Miss Mackenzie’s choices are realistic; she does want to marry, and she wants someone who is a gentleman, of a rank as high as hers (so Mr Rubb, her brother’s partner who seems kind and eager but is also vulgar, lower in class, is unacceptable). He also refuses to give Miss Mackenzie any interests, any vocation, any thing to do but visit other spinsters who have little to do and themselves super-careful about their reputations, or super-respectable religious people (the Stumfolds) who invite her over so as to have more followers (aggrandize themselves), and when she is friendly with those the woman doesn’t approve of, she finds herself in an acrimonious scene. She goes to a dinner party given by her sister-in-law where everyone is made miserable because the snobbery and lack of income of the hostess makes enjoying the meal naturally impossible, and the conversation mostly spiteful. We do see that she has been brought up to doubt herself, with low self-esteem; she is not sure she is worthy of her dream of an ideal husband, though she does not want to give up that vague dream. She has by this time met her cousin, John Ball, a gentleman with whom she has an instinctive compatibility and is attracted to her, feels warmth is not an eager attractive suitor. He is an older balding widower, with nine children, living on a limited income, not making much; he tries to persuade Margaret to marry him partly for her money and his answer to her response that she doesn’t love him enough is he will love her more than enough for two.

Then in Chapter 11 Trollope reveals his conscious purpose: as narrator he tells us the reason he is telling this tale of a spinster lady is not to reveal to us her other desires and what rights she might have beyond marriage; no, his point is to counter all these people he says who are now teaching women who don’t need an income from a man they can be happy without marriage. So the atmosphere is grim, and he does not allow Miss Mackenzie any outlook beyond these narrow people is he wants us to conclude all women must marry. He asserts that nature is too strong for both women and men need who don’t the money (at the beginning of the chapter he does exclude women who have to work for a living – I’d say to that at least they have something to do), and they will become unhappy. Not marrying is particularly injurious to women because they are looked askance at much more than men if they do not marry. (This reminded me of how still many women today seem to feel they must have children within a couple of years of a marriage.)


Frederick Augustus Sandys (1832-1904), “The Emigrant’s Daughter,” Good Words (1861) — again the mood here is one I would like to imagine Miss Mackenzie might eventually know with John Ball

His implication is you won’t know true kindness and support because in a marital partnership that is the core advantage of the relationship: it’s in the interest of the two people to be kind and supportive of one another. (He forgets how irrational people are). Maybe this is why he is inventing characters who are all cold to Margaret finally (including Miss Baker who was at first a congenial soul), or indifferent — except the brother who did not reproach her for inheriting the money, Susannah (who is a non-presence) and the semi-reluctant John Ball. One person, Linda, said it was enough to make her angry at Trollope is the way he said it: I quote her: “women will only find true happiness when they marry and are added onto a husband. Not becoming a true partnership, but an appendage.” Another reader in our group, Nancy, said Trollope was “cagey” in the way he expressed this central aim of his book: “Beware when any writer appeals to ‘human nature,’ since none of us know what that is. It cannot exist outside of whatever social system or culture makes life possible for that human. He doesn’t say that there is no evidence that this works as least some of the time for some women, just that human nature cannot support it, and so a woman’s life is not perfect or whole until she has a husband.” It’s more than “status or satisfaction:” he is admitting “social” and biological “realities” (Miss Mackenzie “dreaded delay.”

I’ll cut to how people felt about this central theme when we got to the end of the book: by this time Miss Mackenzie has been deprived of her inheritance (the money is found to have been wrongly left to her side of the family and to by rights be John Ball’s), has seemed helpless against her kindly lawyer, Mr Slow (who apparently can only hope that Ball will be kind and share the fortune with her). She has been castigated by Ball’s vicious-mouthed mother, Lady Ball (who was only too eager to have her for a daughter-in-law when they needed the money), the subject of yet more bitter reproaches by her sister-in-law who appears to think Margaret just about deliberately gave up her money so she should not have to support her sister-in-law (now a widow). Is the victim of campaign of sexual harassment and misrepresentation by an impoverished clergyman, Mr Maguire, who, not able to believe she never meant to marry him, told the Balls and anyone else who will listen that Margaret has lied about her relationship with him, and has humiliated John Ball by publishing what has been happening in a newspaper (thus exposing Ball’s private life and as greedy, in need). She is first dependent on the kindness of an ex-housekeeper, Mrs Buggins; and after she again refuses a now kindly (and clearly decent feeling) Rubb (who has shown himself capable of enjoying himself and real loyalty), if she were not to marry Ball, would be able to support herself only by hard physical and demeaning (it seems) labor in a hospital as a very low paid nurse. Near the novel’s close Trollope has recourse to a “faery” dea ex machina in the form of another Mrs Mackenzie, this time from yet another branch of this family, an upper class kindly intelligent female woman who knows how to handle John Ball (and comes complete with splendid house for Margaret to marry John Ball from).

Linda wrote this:

I read an interesting essay in He Knew She Was Right by Jane Nardin. Her thesis is that “ Trollope used a far fetched plot and a cast of ludicrously unattractive minor characters…precisely because the work is a parable about the lives of women in Victorian England, rather than a completely realistic novel. If Miss Mackenzie is a parable, then the farcically exaggerated deficiencies of Rubb and the other suitors, as well as the unaccountable legal developments that emphasize Margaret’s helplessness, can be defended. For on this hypothesis, we would expect Margaret’s experiences to be both revealing typical and revealing extreme.

…Through this heightened reinterpretation of the “ordinary” woman’s experiences, Trollope makes some disturbing points about the position of women…Miss Mackenzie’s symbolically suggestive plot implies that Margaret is a representative Victorian woman…

Miss Mackenzie suggests that even the least rebellious women may nurse secret desires for sex, pleasure, and self-expression. But their world offers them only the choice between Mariana in youth and Griselda in middle age. Should they move beyond these roles, they risk both censure and self-reproach. Safety is to be found only in the acceptance of severe restriction, the kind of restriction Margaret accepts when she marries…thought he comic form and the narrator’s pleasant tone help to screen this disturbing interpretive possibility from the conventional reader, Margaret’s story is a parable about women’s unsatisfactory options and the small blessings for which they must be grateful.”


This is a full-length illustration of Miss Mackenzie and John Ball from an 1875 (8th edition) of the novel

I found this an attractive hypothesis as it puts Trollope in the position of social observer rather than advocating a specific position about the proper role for women in society. Margaret’s lack of an entirely satisfying option (in the reader’s eye at least) would then make sense as it underscores not only her situation, but a situation many (most?) Victorian women could identify with in some aspect. For Margaret, I did feel that her final choice did stay true to the character which Trollope created.

Is Nardin’s hypothesis plausible to others who have more experience as Trollope readers?

I agreed with Linda and also Nardin, and cited other books where we feel despite whatever the narrator nags, that the real underlying inference is feminist, with the reservation that Trollope himself repeats more than once “his purpose is to urge how unhappy spinsters are; and her very helplessness against Mr Slow and the law, how she herself refuses help makes her even more a proud victim.” What really bothered most of us was the corrosively mean Lady Ball: she threatens to go live somewhere else if her son marries Miss Mackenzie. We felt that unless Lady Ball left the house, Margaret would not be allowed to know any joy — give how John Ball persisted in making himself subject to his mother. Nancy wrote: “If he truly intended to write a novel based on the aspirations and experiences of a middle-aged single woman, he ended by showing that her best option was marriage. What I would emphasize is the limitations on her choice imposed by Margaret’s own socialization. It has resulted in her denigrating herself as attractive — aside from her money — and making it difficult for her to see the disadvantages of Ball (that mother!) over the social position he offers. Yes, she is a snob, but her life experiences and the values within which she has been raised have made her so. Rubb does sound like more fun as a husband, but that is less important to Miss M than other attributes.”

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


Cover illustration of the best most affordable edition of Miss Mackenzie available today — the illustration is a reproduction of Angelo Asti’s A Message of Love

In the early part of the novel, we had some fun talking about Littlebath and some of the characters Miss Mackenzie encounters there and at her brother and sister-in-law’s. There was some difference of opinion over Mr Rubb (was he just a fortune-hunter?), but we regretted that Miss M could not take to him. We all liked Miss Todd and (until she herself cold-shoulders Miss Mackenzie in order to please Mrs Stumfold) Miss Baker. Miss Todd was reminiscent of Miss Dunstable in her truth-telling and courage to chose her own friends; she would be more of a festival figure if she were not found in this rather grim book. We also thought how absorbing the book was, how you moved into so easily and were anxious for Miss Mackenzie, cared about and liked her. Tyler kept saying he wished Miss Mackenzie would just get up, take Susannah and move to Paris.

The middle part of the book has scenes of dinner parties, proposals, card-playing parties. Brilliant insightful exposure of people in society. We talked about the nature of this kind of satiric comedy, how people are such hypocrites in their pleasures, so bound by what they fear other people imagine of them. In general, the comedy in this book is uneasy — rather like mid-career Shakespeare (if I may make such a comparison). It’s a book about sex too in the same uneasy way. Miss Mackenzie has to be careful where she boards; any place less exacting than “the Paragon” might have unmarried women who are less than respectable (i.e., have suitors who might contribute money to their upkeep on the side). I did love Miss Mackenzie for writing her poetry, felt terrible when she tore it up, and wished she could blog.

People were startled that Miss Mackenzie could even consider Mr Maguire (after she had rejected Mr Rubb). Perhaps his being a clergyman, perhaps she is getting desperate. The demands her brother makes on her when he is dying are even worse than anyone has: she should give over her whole life to the sister-in-law. She does step back from that. Her fear of ending up friendless was found poignant.


A pleasing Simon & Schuster cover from a Canadian edition of the novel

We did discuss whether people today are under the same pressure to marry as they once were. We agreed they are not because we can most of us support ourselves without a spouse, but also discussed whether nonetheless the expectation that one should or does marry makes for a kind of stigmatizing the person who chooses not to. You can be so much freer if you live alone. Although the earlier idea that somehow it is selfish not to have children is not gone altogether, again the child-free couple are free to pursue their careers and own enjoyment. Children cost such money (as in sending them to college). I had been reading Rebecca Traistor’s All the Single Ladies where she demonstrates a huge percentage of women in the US marry much later than once they did (in their thirties) and some large percentage spend many years of their lives happily unmarried, productive in ways that are more congenial to them than marriage. The statistics she starts her book out with are recent: 3.9 million more women single adult in 2014 than 2010; between 2008 and 2011 the rate of new marriage falls 14% for those not completing high school and 10% for those with at least a bachelor’s degree. What she wants to show is while the choice is often the results of life’s circumstances, the results for many is liberation. It’s a whole new set of options out there.

And towards the end of the novel we had much discussion about Margaret’s time with Mrs Buggins (and how she snubs the woman); about Mr Maguire’s use of the newspaper to expose Ball (reminiscent of Mr Harding’s agony over his exposure by the Jupiter in The Warden); about Lady Ball’s excoriation of Miss Mackenzie when, Lady Catherine de Bourgh-like, she comes to bully Miss Mackenzie out of marrying John Ball; and as Margaret did with Mrs Stumfold, she stands up to Lady Ball. We did not omit the charity bazaar where we meet (briefly) Lady Glencora Palliser. The last includes distasteful satire against women, and the a rather callous use of “negro orphans” as part of a joke (the civil war against slavery was going on) so typical of Trollope when it comes to liberal causes: in Phineas Finn he makes similar fun of the idea of a female emigrants’ society.

Several people thought the chapters about Mr Maguire and the newspapers were the genuinely funniest of the book — Trollope’s own experience with the publishing world and different writers and editors’ motives came into the book. Tyler called him “a total nutcase,” but alas not atypical of some people who will write to authors complaining about a book. Is Maguire mad? well Trollope shows us so many characters who live on the edge of madness and slide over — so the world is filled with mad people, no madder those who become authors. John Gay in the opening of his Beggar’s Opera has a mad beggar poet as his narrator. I agree maybe the editor should not have published it, but think about the New York Times writing seriously about Trump’s desire to “buy Greenland.” We thought how imbecilic, but the man means it — he thinks he can buy other countries, kick the local population out (Greenland is predominantly indigenous). This sells papers. Mr Maguire’s letter was repeated in a London paper and talked about in others. Any story will do — that’s partly Trollope’s point.

Was the ending sad and unsatisfactory? Tyler wrote: “John Ball I think is the very worst of them all. He has such a huge chip on his shoulder. I admit that if money that should have come to me didn’t I’d probably be upset too … I wish Margaret could just go withdraw all the money while it’s still hers and run off to Paris with it where English laws cannot touch her.” I did loathe John Ball for this imagination: he says he is owed the interest of all those years he should have had the money. Why? because I’ve personally heard this kind of talk before: it’s a deep violation of what time is to us — someone told me that when I left college or during the years I was in college and then graduate school, all the time I had spent not going to work was lost money. He then totted up what he imagined I could have made plus interest. This sickened me. Did it not matter that instead I had lived a life I enjoyed and had some fulfillment out of. All measured by money this is the outcome and this is John Ball type thinking.” There has been an intense explosion, exploration of the deepest feelings and some of the most crucial assumptions or ideas of the Victorian (and by implication our) society exposed and dramatized and yet nothing much occurs outwardly. We have to concede to Miss Mackenzie the right to dream of what man she wants to — and by the end of the novel she is dreaming of John Ball coming to her. Her behavior throughout has been unselfish and conscientious, responsible (she hurries off to tell her sister-in-law the minute she knows she will not have any money, knowing the woman will sting her with reproaches), admirable.

I wrote (this is a typical posting by me for this novel this time round): Throughout she says the truth, she does not exaggerate, she does not wheedle. I love that she refuses to submit to John the next day after the coldness of his conduct to her because of what Maguire has said has stunned and nearly broken her feelings. Now (we are reminded) she has no one, not one friend she can turn to. He has almost believed his mother. Yet worse, these ideas 19th century men had and maybe still have that he has the right to know everything about her, and what’s worse, before they got engaged he has some rights over what she did. She somehow betrayed him by even contemplating Maguire. Then she is to tell him about this guy immediately before or after proposing? This is the core of _Kept in the Dark_ and there the husband’s suspicions and demands bring everyone to tragedy, or near enough. He also distrusts her for being attractive. He begins (poisoned by his culture) to think of her as manipulating to entrap him. Trollope has indeed exposed a heterosexual male fully in all his distasteful and egoistic graspingness. He keeps saying he needs time and needs to think but what he wants is Margaret’s submission, she should apologize to him — for what? (This reminds me of the demand for confrontation by women I find in recent women’s films/period drama.) She decides, rightly I think, not so much this is not the man she wants, this is not the situation or relationship with him she wants.

Trollope wants us to see her as no Griselda, which he keeps repeating.

I can’t stand how she does still concede authority to the aunt. I would not see her. She gives the aunt more opportunity to insult her. A long time ago (9th grade) a teacher hated me (partly my fault) and at the last she gave me my grades last in the class. She had this ceremony in order to show power. I stuck my hand to shake hers and she pulled hers back. When I got home, my father said i had won that encounter because I had shown myself the better person. Now much older I am not so sure because now I know that woman would not recognize I had won.
Lady Bell is brilliant in her techniques for humiliation. She is almost as keen and able in this direction as the evil Trump. Margaret’s eagerness to get away is to get away from her snubbing. How much snubbing does count – and reading this makes me feel I have been right in my life when I have openly objected to someone snubbing me (of course they denied this). So my father’s point of view still has play with me: it is enough that I know I’m the better person and nice to tell them so, though not necessary.

I assume that Margaret assumes she will get enough money to tide her over until she finds work.

How Trollope makes fun of the employment office Maguire goes to. I found this offensive. Trollope is so part of an elite world he mocks employment offices. You should know someone of course, be part of a network where you need not so stoop. What was progressive in the Victorian era is that such offices existed – and for women too.

It is odd it was never published in magazines; at this time Trollope was at the top of his reputation and yet he didn’t manage to serialize this. I’d like to suggest that because he opens up all sorts of ugly emotions that undergird the taboos of her era and shows them to us. He did the same with The Belton Estate (also nasty fights over money, a lacking suitor, it includes suicide) and by having become an editor himself (after he gave up his post office job when he was not promoted), he serialized it in the Fortnightley Review which ran “serious novels” — and essays by people like GHLewes. At the time of Miss Mackenzie he understand he was defying the demand for vacuous or soft entertainment. I’ve thought one reason he quit the Post Office (beyond anger like Margaret’s for not being promooted — she is angry) is he wanted time to be an editor


The Elibron lovely grey two-volume reprint of Miss Mackenzie (an 1876 edition in Berlin)

To conclude: AOJ Cockshut’s introduction to the Oxford World Classics emphasizes the critique of religious hypocrisy and evangelicalism (a class matter too). Cockshut shows snobbery himself: his way of trying to find better qualities in Ball in order to prefer Ball to Rubb is a case in point. Trollope as narrator at the end fears he had made Rubb too attractive and goes so far as to say far from wanting not to marry, many women are so eager, they would take a Rubb — and he deplores this. Then Trollope as narrator turns around to do justice to the man, marries him off to one of the other Mrs Mackenzie’s daughters — that keeps him in his class place.

It’s a heroine’s text. It’s good that the awful Mrs Mackenzie (I think her name is Susan) when last seen is suddenly on top of what her yearly rent is, how much it costs her in rates, what she gets for rents, how much the interest will bring. She may well be a better manager than her husband ever was. We have quite a number of single women living on their own, surviving on in this book. I don’t like Miss Colza, but there she is, surviving too. The last time we read Miss Mackenzie with Linda Tressel and Nina Balatka (scroll down); it also stands comparison with Rachel Ray (in the sense George Eliot said, an aesthetically satisifying nut and (as I suggested) invites comparison with The Belton Estate, which I find more coherent and ethically acceptable than Miss Mackenzie.

Ellen


Phineas Finn (Donal McCann) being introduced to the important politicians in Parliament with Lady Laura Standish (Anna Massey) by his side (Pallisers 3:6)


Phineas and Mrs Bunce (Brenda Cowling) looking over his clothes in his battered suitcase to make sure he is presentable

A Syllabus

Online at: https://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2019/09/10/an-autumn-syllabus-for-a-class-on-anthony-trollopes-phineas-finn-the-irish-member-at-olli-at-mason/

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Wednesday later morning, 11:50 to 1:15 pm,
Sept 25 to Nov 13
4210 Roberts Road, Tallwood, Fairfax Va
Dr Ellen Moody


John Everett Millais, “‘I wish to regard you as a dear friend, — both of my own and of my husband””, Phineas and Lady Laura Kennedy (original illustration for Phineas Finn)


Phineas making friends with the top politicians at Loughlinter, including Mr Monk (Bryan Pringle) and Plantagenet Palliser (Philip Latham), with Lady Laura in the background (Pallisers 4:7)

Description of Course

We continue our journey through Trollope’s 6 Palliser novels over several terms. The 2nd Palliser differs from the 1st in making central stories from how politics works from inside Parliamentary circles to outside in society central. Phineas Finn dramatizes fights over crucial transformations in law & electorate politics that occurred in the mid-19th century UK, and dramatizes how a young man can make his way rising in a career as a politician through his associates, the rotten borough system, and taking the party positions. Also how he can fall. It is also about the frustration of a woman who wanted a career through marriage, Lady Laura Kennedy. The book also belongs to Trollope’s Anglo-Irish fiction since it adds to the Pallisers‘ recurring characters, & English landscapes, Ireland as a place, Irish characters & issues. Trollope also examines sexual and marital conflicts with extraordinary psychological portraiture in socially complex situations. There is no need to have read CYFH?

Required Text:

Anthony Trollope, Phineas Finn, ed., introd., notes Simon Dentith New York: Oxford UP, 2011.
There are two (!) relatively inexpensive MP3s of Phineas Finn, one read aloud wonderfully well by Simon Vance (aka Robert Whitfield, Blackstone); and the other read even more brilliantly by Timothy West (Audiobooks). I’m listening to West and it would be fine if people wanted to listen to Vance or West (who is my favorite reader of Trollope).

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion. Please read ahead PF, Chapters 1-10

Sept 25: 1st week: Introduction: Trollope’s life and career; male and female careers. Read for coming week, PF, Chapters 10-20

Oct 2: 2nd: Phineas Finn. Read for next week PF, Chapter 21-30. The situation of an Irishman, Victorian Ireland; the political situation in the 1860 generally.

Oct 9: 3rd: Phineas Finn. Read for next week, PF, Chapters 31-40. Lady Laura’s plight. Abigail Mann, “Love in the time of Liberalism: Phineas Finn, Divided Affections and Liberal Citizenship,” Victorians: A Journal of Culture and Literature, 127 (2015): 90-104

Oct 16: 4th: Phineas Finn. Read for next week, PF, Chapters 41-50. Ramona L. Denton “‘That cage’ of Feminity: Trollope’s Lady Laura,” South Atlantic, 45 (1980):1-10. Henry N. Rogers, “‘I know why you have come:’ The art of Madame Max,” Philological Review, 33 (Fall 2007):37-5o.

Oct 23: 5th: Phineas Finn. Read for next week, PF, Chapters 51-60. First set of clips from the Pallisers

Oct 30: 6th: Phineas Finn. Read for next week, PF, Chapters 61-70.  Read over the next two weeks Owen Dudley Edwards, “Anthony Trollope, the Irish Writer” Nineteenth Century Fiction 38:1 (1983):1-42. Ireland. Problems of office v independency

Nov 6: 7th: Phineas Finn. Read for next week, PF, Chapters 71-76.  Concluding intrigues; the Palliser group of characters emerge. John Graves, “Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux: One Novel or Two,”  Trollopiana, Fall 2019: 12-23.

Nov 13: 8th: Second set of clips from Pallisers; anticipating Eustace Diamonds; seeing the whole cycle of novels.


Phineas aggressively courting Violet Effingham (Mel Martin) at Loughlinter (Pallisers 5:9)


Phineas duelling with Lord Chiltern (John Hallam) over Violet on the sands of Blankenberg (Pallisers 5:10)

Suggested supplementary reading & film for Trollope and Phineas Finn

Edwards, Owen Dudley. “Anthony Trollope, the Irish Writer,” Nineteenth Century Fiction, 38 (1983):1-42.
Glendinning, Victoria. Anthony Trollope. NY: Knopf, 1993. Lively and filled to the brim with a sense of Trollope’s life.
Godfrey, Emelyne. Masculinity, Crime and Self-Defence in Victorian Literature. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Halperin, John. Trollope & Politics: A study of the Pallisers and Others. University of So. California, 1977. Informative invigorating study.
MacDonald, Susan Peck. Anthony Trollope. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Excellent concise study of the man and his novels.
McCourt, John. Writing the Frontier: Anthony Trollope between Britain and Ireland. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015.
Mill, John Stuart, “The Subjection of Women.” Broadview Press, 2000. Online at: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/mill/john_stuart/m645s/
Nardin, Jane. He Knew She Was Right: The Independent woman in the Novels of Anthony Trollope. Carbondale: So. Illinois UP, 1989. Balanced, and insightful.
Pallisers. Dir. Hugh David, Ronald Wilson. Screenplay by Simon Raven. Perf: Susan Hampshire, Philip Latham, Donal McCann, Barbara Murray, Anna Massey and Donald Pickering (among others). BBC, 1974, DVD. Available in a newly digitalized version.

The interlocking stories and characters of the Phineas Finn begins at the close of Can You Forgive Her?. In Simon Raven’s TV adaptation, the story of Lady Glencora and Plantagenet Palliser, and Madame Max and The Duke of Omnium are made prominent throughout; Lord Fawn is brought out more too. In Trollope’s book, the Pallisers are kept in the background and Madame Max and the Duke only emerge at the end of Phineas Finn; the emphasis is the story of Phineas and Lady Laura Kennedy. A very much abbreviated version of the Pallisers series is on YouTube. Not recommended because too much is cut.

Pateman, Carole. The Sexual Contract. Stanford University Press, 1988.
Scharnhorst, Gary. Kate Field: The Many Lives of a Nineteenth Century American Journalist. Syracuse University Press, 2008. My blog: https://reveriesunderthesignofausten.wordpress.com/2010/02/22/kate-field-a-great-important-american-woman-journalist-and-anthony-trollopes-love/
Skilton, David. Anthony Trollope and his Contemporaries. London: Macmillan, 1996.
Snow, C. P. Trollope: An Illustrated Biography. NY: New Amsterdam, 1975. A pleasure to read.
Terry, R. C. Anthony Trollope: The Artist in Hiding. New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977. About how artful the novels are.
Wall, Stephen. Trollope: Living with Characters. NY: Holt, 1988.


Street protests on behalf of the secret ballot (Pallisers 4:8)


Mr Quintus Slide (Clifford Rose), the newspaper man who becomes Phineas’s enemy (Pallisers 5:10)

Three good general books on the era:

A.N. Wilson, The Victorians. Entertaining, a bit dense, lots of little biographies.
Susie Steinbach, Understanding The Victorians: Culture and Society in 19th century Britain. She may look less entertaining but she writes clearly and reads easily — and about larger issues from an angle that enables the reader to see the larger political struggles in terms of the daily lives, experiences, and attitudes of ordinary Victorians, and thus manages to get at the important difficult terrain of inward mentalities and the actual experience of particular milieus in the Victorian era.
Simon Heffner’s High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain. He is a conservative paternalist Tory writer for the Spectator, Telegraph, New Statesman, sometimes the Guardian and his book, fat as it is, gives real insight into what is commonly thought of as politics. A lot about parliament and progressive legislation and how these laws came about. A section on the Great Exhibition.


Lawrence’s sister, Miss Aspasia Fitzgibbon (Rosalind Knight) pays Phineas’s debts to Mr Clarkson (Sidney Bromley) (Pallisers 5:9)


Phineas and Mary Flood Jones (Maire Ni Ghrainne) in Ireland again (6:11)


Phineas Finn (Donal McCann) being introduced to the important politicians in Parliament with Lady Laura Standish (Anna Massey) by his side (Pallisers 3:6)


Phineas and Mrs Bunce (Brenda Cowling) looking over his clothes in his battered suitcase to make sure he is presentable

A Syllabus

Online at: https://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2019/09/10/a-fall-syllabus-for-reading-anthony-trollopes-phineas-finn-or-palliser-2-at-olli-at-au/

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at American University
Day: Monday afternoons, 1:45 to 3:15 pm,
Sept 23 to Nov 25
4801 Massachusetts Avenue, Washington, D.C. 20016
Dr Ellen Moody


John Everett Millais, “‘I wish to regard you as a dear friend, — both of my own and of my husband””, Phineas and Lady Laura Kennedy (original illustration for Phineas Finn)


Phineas making friends with the top politicians at Loughlinter, including Mr Monk (Bryan Pringle) and Plantagenet Palliser (Philip Latham) and Lady Laura in the background (Pallisers 4:7)

Description of Course

We continue our journey through Trollope’s 6 Palliser novels over several terms. The 2nd Palliser differs from the 1st in making central stories from how politics works from inside Parliamentary circles to outside in society central. Phineas Finn dramatizes fights over crucial transformations in law & electorate politics that occurred in the mid-19th century UK, and dramatizes how a young man can make his way rising in a career as a politician through his associates, the rotten borough system, and taking the party positions. Also how he can fall. It is also about the frustration of a woman who wanted a career through marriage, Lady Laura Kennedy. The book also belongs to Trollope’s Anglo-Irish fiction since it adds to the Pallisers‘ recurring characters, & English landscapes, Ireland as a place, Irish characters & issues. Trollope also examines sexual and marital conflicts with extraordinary psychological portraiture in socially complex situations. There is no need to have read CYFH?

Required Text:

Anthony Trollope, Phineas Finn, ed., introd., notes Simon Dentith New York: Oxford UP, 2011.
There are two (!) relatively inexpensive MP3s of Phineas Finn, one read aloud wonderfully well by Simon Vance (aka Robert Whitfield, Blackstone); and the other read even more brilliantly by Timothy West (Audiobooks). I’m listening to West and it would be fine if people wanted to listen to Vance or West (who is my favorite reader of Trollope).

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

Sept 23: 1st week: Introduction: Trollope’s life and career; male and female careers. Read for coming week, PF, Chapters 1-9

Sept 30: 2nd: Phineas Finn. Read for next week PF, Chapter 10-18. The situation of an Irishman, Victorian Ireland; the political situation in the 1860 generally.

Oct 7: 3rd: Phineas Finn. Read for next week, PF, Chapters 19-27. Lady Laura’s plight. Abigail Mann, “Love in the time of Liberalism: Phineas Finn, Divided Affections and Liberal Citizenship,” Victorians: A Journal of Culture and Literature, 127 (2015): 90-104

Oct 14: 4th: Phineas Finn. Read for next week, PF, Chapters 28-36. Ramona L. Denton “‘That cage’ of Feminity: Trollope’s Lady Laura,” South Atlantic, 45 (1980):1-10. Henry N. Rogers, “‘I know why you have come:’ The art of Madame Max,” Philological Review, 33 (Fall 2007):37-50

Oct 21: 5th: Phineas Finn. Read for next week, PF, Chapters 37-45. In class first set of clips from the Pallisers.

Oct 28: 6th: Phineas Finn. Read for next week, PF, Chapters 46-54.  Read over the next two weeks Owen Dudley Edwards, “Anthony Trollope, the Irish Writer” Nineteenth Century Fiction 38:1 (1983):1-42.

Nov 4: 7th: Phineas Finn. Read for next week, PF, Chapters 55-63.  Concluding intrigues: Pallisers emerge again

Nov 11: 8th: Phineas Finn. Read for next week, PF, Chapters 64-72.  Ireland.

Nov 18: 9th: Phineas Finn. Read for next week, PF, Chapters 73-76. John Graves, “Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux: One Novel or Two,”  Trollopiana, Fall 2019: 12-23.

Nov 25: 10th:  Second set of clips from Pallisers; anticipating Eustace Diamonds; seeing the whole cycle of novels.


Phineas aggressively courting Violet Effingham (Mel Martin) at Loughlinter (Pallisers 5:9)


Phineas duelling with Lord Chiltern (John Hallam) over Violet on the sands of Blankenberg (Pallisers 5:10)

Suggested supplementary reading & film for Trollope and Phineas Finn

Edwards, Owen Dudley. “Anthony Trollope, the Irish Writer,” Nineteenth Century Fiction, 38 (1983):1-42.
Glendinning, Victoria. Anthony Trollope. NY: Knopf, 1993. Lively and filled to the brim with a sense of Trollope’s life.
Godfrey, Emelyne. Masculinity, Crime and Self-Defence in Victorian Literature. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Halperin, John. Trollope & Politics: A study of the Pallisers and Others. University of So. California, 1977. Informative invigorating study.
MacDonald, Susan Peck. Anthony Trollope. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Excellent concise study of the man and his novels.
McCourt, John. Writing the Frontier: Anthony Trollope between Britain and Ireland. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015.
Mill, John Stuart.  The Subjection of Women. Broadview Press, 2000. Online at: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/mill/john_stuart/m645s/
Nardin, Jane. He Knew She Was Right: The Independent woman in the Novels of Anthony Trollope. Carbondale: So. Illinois UP, 1989. Balanced, and insightful.
Pallisers. Dir. Hugh David, Ronald Wilson. Screenplay by Simon Raven. Perf: Susan Hampshire, Philip Latham, Donal McCann, Barbara Murray, Anna Massey and Donald Pickering (among others). BBC, 1974, DVD. Available in a newly digitalized version.

The interlocking stories and characters of the Phineas Finn begins at the close of Can You Forgive Her?. In Simon Raven’s TV adaptation, the story of Lady Glencora and Plantagenet Palliser, and Madame Max and The Duke of Omnium are made prominent throughout; Lord Fawn is brought out more too. In Trollope’s book, the Pallisers are kept in the background and Madame Max and the Duke only emerge at the end of Phineas Finn; the emphasis is the story of Phineas and Lady Laura Kennedy. A very much abbreviated version of the Palliser series is on YouTube. Not recommended because too much is cut.

Pateman, Carole. The Sexual Contract. Stanford University Press, 1988.
Scharnhorst, Gary. Kate Field: The Many Lives of a Nineteenth Century American Journalist. Syracuse University Press, 2008. My blog: https://reveriesunderthesignofausten.wordpress.com/2010/02/22/kate-field-a-great-important-american-woman-journalist-and-anthony-trollopes-love/
Skilton, David. Anthony Trollope and his Contemporaries. London: Macmillan, 1996.
Snow, C. P. Trollope: An Illustrated Biography. NY: New Amsterdam, 1975. A pleasure to read.
Terry, R. C. Anthony Trollope: The Artist in Hiding. New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977. About how artful the novels are.
Wall, Stephen. Trollope: Living with Characters. NY: Holt, 1988.


Street protests on behalf of the secret ballot (Pallisers 4:8)


Mr Quintus Slide (Clifford Rose), the newspaper man who becomes Phineas’s enemy (Pallisers 5:10)

Three good general books on the era:

A.N. Wilson, The Victorians. Entertaining, a bit dense, lots of little biographies.
Susie Steinbach, Understanding The Victorians: Culture and Society in 19th century Britain. She may look less entertaining but she writes clearly and reads easily — and about larger issues from an angle that enables the reader to see the larger political struggles in terms of the daily lives, experiences, and attitudes of ordinary Victorians, and thus manages to get at the important difficult terrain of inward mentalities and the actual experience of particular milieus in the Victorian era.
Simon Heffner’s High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain. He is a conservative paternalist Tory writer for the Spectator, Telegraph, New Statesman, sometimes the Guardian and his book, fat as it is, gives real insight into what is commonly thought of as politics. A lot about parliament and progressive legislation and how these laws came about. A section on the Great Exhibition.


Lawrence’s sister, Miss Aspasia Fitzgibbon (Rosalind Knight) pays Phineas’s debts to Mr Clarkson (Sidney Bromley) (Pallisers 5:9)


Phineas and Mary Flood Jones (Maire Ni Ghrainne) in Ireland again (Pallisers 6:11)

Ellen


Cap Blanc Nez, looking down — the areas of the cliffs takes about 20 minutes by boat


The book

“I am at home everywhere, and nowhere. I am never a stranger and I never quite belong.” — George Simenon

“As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” — Virginia Woolf

Friends and readers,

I’m back from a trip I and my two daughters, took to the shores and town of Calais, France. We had a good time in the bnb, on the beach, relaxing and exploring the immediate environment around the ancient and now modern town of Calais (deep harbor, channel port on the Atlantic), and for others traveling as far as Paris and London, and then rather closer, Dunkirk, Lille, and the two cliffs across the way from Dover. I wrote about the trip on my Under the Sign of Sylvia II autobiographical blog.


The French coast line of cliffs seen from a distance

We also read, and, among other books, Michel Agier and his team’s important The Jungle: Calais’s Camps & Migrants. There is nothing like comparison and contrast to teach us, and the history of what happened in Calais, from 1997 or so, when the British closed its borders to all but a thin trickle of migrants, until October 2016, when all the townships and encampments which had gradually developed along the northern coast of France were evacuated, and all their structures destroyed, will teach us how such a situation comes about, and what are the results of humanitarian intervention, the results of brutal obduracy and intrusion (it seems the police engage in this continually, and no one including Agier is empowered to stop them) Anyone concerned over what has been happened at the US Mexican-southwest border, wanting to understand how the situation there has come about, and what can be done in humanitarian ways (as opposed to the depraved cruelty of the US ICE agency), and what are the mixed reactions of local populations, when their organizations are not ceaselessly destroyed, the people put in prison (for say, leaving migrants plastic large jars of water).


Children being moved

The framework to keep in mind is that most borders are inventions of local gov’ts seeking to control the mobility, kinds of inhabitants, and social and economic realities of the populations under their control. Once a territory is delimited, and the conditions on the ground are such that cause displacement (war, famine, epidemic disease, poverty), large numbers of people seek to cross the borders or move about globally to protect and build prosperous (or at any rate safe) lives. Special recognized spaces (or hidden or somehow marginalized ones) spring up; exceptions from definitions of belonging (as citizenship) are used by authorities controlling law and military; and exclusions from the normal customs of life by the local population are used to frighten and drive away the immigrants. A transformation, usually urbanization, and politicization goes on within the migrant communities once they begin to thrive. As a whole, given different groups living in close proximity, they might fight or cooperate with one another in a common world, or they struggle for space, movement, rights from the authorities who might and often do treat them with violence or unjustly — though not always.

In northern France (and elsewhere or other than the US), the existence of many organizations charity, philanthropic, humanitarian, doctors, lawyers, set up precisely to help refuges, enabled cultural worlds to emerge, while at the same time xenophobic, genuinely uncomfortable and anxious local people (about businesses, schools, money, property) might be ratcheted up to become angry and want to rid themselves of the burden, and work suddenly to demolish, deport, inflict suffering on the migrants and do all they can to prevent them moving further or assimilating.


One of the emigrant camps seen from a distance

This is a larger generalized picture which in Northern France was particularized by the local culture and the cultures from which the fleeing people were come: middle eastern mostly, Syria, Afghanistan, the Kurds, peoples from the horn of Africa; and the cultures of the people who tried to help or drive them away. Agier, Yasmine Bouagga Mael Galisson, Cyrille Hanappe, Matilde Pette, and Philippe Wannesson all show a crisis and change of attitude is occurring which makes for sudden mobility, and then, depending on conditions, useful behavior that make for solidarities, accommodate world-wide movements, or criminal, violent, and desperately exploitative behavior. It seems the latter was rare; such fights as occurred were nationalistic, ethnic, religious in origin. A logic of harassment and dissuasion went on continually, and the refuges were willing to put up with bad conditions because they wanted to be allowed in, to find aslyum; they did not want to be abruptly returned from where they had fled. As border are externalized, the immigrants pile up, crowd into smaller spaces, live as blocks of people. It seems the preponderance of the migrants were men; there was one encampment which was mostly women and children (Norrent-Fontes). In places where women predominated, few were seen outside the tents or houses as a regular thing. In all places the divisions of space within the houses resembled the divisions of space in the houses from the places these people had grown up and lived in.

The contrast with the American situation is once the borders were closed, no philanthropy or even knowledge of who these migrants are was allowed, not dissuasion but cruelty, humiliation in detention, and forced deportation were the weapons used against these people. If you try to help them, you can be put in prison or shot. No social organizations have been allowed in to see the people.


Room used for religious worship, a church

The first part of the book tells of how the situations were initiated (wars, closing of borders), and specific organizations, countries, NGOs and agencies involved — as well as volunteers. Always there are volunteers. The second part tells of how the migrants spread from Sangatte to Calais, and how the term jungle(s) emerged. Maps of their places and detailed descriptions of the living conditions, and places that were built are here, as in restaurants, schools, hospitals, family and ethnic enclaves. There were “no man’s lands,” and some people lived outside the commonality. Part 3 is sociological, part 4 anthropological. What was heartening was the variety of political expression, types of action, emergence of sub-communities. Spokespeople are identified, and they mobilized themselves or were mobilized by the outside organizations and volunteers. Attempts were continually made to stop disease spreading (showers provided, food, trade in clothing).

Through it all, though, there is push-back, and right-wing larger political and economic groups, always with the police on their side (apparently ever using violence) are succeeding in destroying now this encampment, now that. At the borders everything is being done to stop the continual efforts of individuals and groups to cross illegally and legally. Chapter 5 tells of the destruction, and dispersal of the people, and how some tried to return. Again as opposed to the US behavior, gov’ts with histories of socialism and liberal democracy attempted to move people in groups to where they could assimilate, and gov’ts which represented conservative and right-wing groups, deported, imprisoned (prisons take a variety of forms) but also dispersed people. People were dumped on roads and into places with no help; when all crowded together, there was serious dysfunction.


Push-back

The authors deny that nothing is left. Memories of what happened are everywhere if not openly discussed in anything like explicit or truly neutral terms. The world is turning global because of the modes of transportation available, supranational and yet the old nationalisms are what are used to define and shape and control what is going on. If you become stateless, you are highly vulnerable. All over the world today we find camps, encampments, refugees.

The lessons for the refugee, according to Agier, is that it is possible (maybe not in the ferocious US southern border, and countries run by violent dictators, which use fascist techniques of putting huge numbers of people in isolated places, or simply massacre everyone they can) to inhabit sites. You must appropriate singly and collectively and that produces an informal and egalitarian (in its way) community. They must try to practice coexistence, and collaboration (Local networks), and form solidarities across countries as well as work with the organizations who come to help. A common world which politicizes itself (holding up posters, shouting slogans, demanding human rights) and reaches out to lawyers and the govt’s they find themselves living next to or among. Interlocutors are needed. The emergence of a common world, commonalty, a sort of commons with the different groups policing themselves (according to a “good code”) is ever precarious, with a conflict of meanings in different situations playing out.


Night-time

Some of the particulars are fascinating. Access to space and privacy is at a premium. A housing market with huts for sale spring up. Access to places could be restricted by an entrance fee. There was lots of waiting time — these were jobless people who had to line up for food, documents, shower tickets. Children were put into schools, there was entertainment in the form of team sports; British theater groups came over. Religion is show to give form and structure to daily lives. The activity of trying to cross the borders and move on also gave a rhythm to daily life. It was an unstable society of shifting identities, there were rapes, assaults, murders, destitution, and prostitution by men as well as women of themselves for food, money, shelter. But at the height of the numbers and active volunteer organizations and NGOS, pervasive attempts were made to help children and minors and other vulnerable people, to set them aside, and provide more individual attention and help.


Potted flowers for a garden

Last month I read Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots where her second section on Roots and Nationhood is about a key political issue today: how geographical boundaries when reinforced by national gov’ts become people’s identity and an excuse to exclude and despise people outside those boundaries as different and inferior. She explains or gives a history of how money and the state came to replace much more natural attachments: local, and now the familial is a desperate resort. Nation replaced religion which was seen to be powerless to help you – only controlled you – for African-Americans it was the one place to turn to. She gives history of industrialization as a building of prisons (factories) with severe limits on people desperate for a means of survival – by money. Families break up and shame is used to silence people. Taxes are a totally arbitrary imposition by one of these totalitarian nation-state gov’ts – or groups of people sometime headed by a king. People learned to hate the state but then in an odd inversion worship the very thing in concrete forms (the country) that they hate in people forms (bureaucrats) because they are deprived by people who manipulate these gov’ts for sinister ends … See my previous blog on the exhibit about global displacement over the centuries in the Phillips Collection: The Warmth of the Sun.


Shopping market

Down with fences! In Peter Linebaugh’s book, Red Round Globe Hot Burning, on Colonel Edward Despard, he writes an introduction showing a global resistance to enclosures has been going on for centuries: across land, sea, against prisons. We have ever needed to fight the repressive apparatuses of the ruling class of whatever age. We need to embrace common right and share the world together. The amount of people Trump has managed to block up if dispersed could be easily fitted into US society; had he not illegally stopped people from obtaining asylum, had he allowed the slow movement of peoples north for jobs; they would be no harm done and much good.

They told me that I had five senses to inclose me up,
And they inclos’d my infinite brain into a narrow circle,
And sunk my heart into an Abyss, a red round globe hot burning
Till all from life I was obliterated and erased.
— Wm Blake


A group of volunteers

Ellen


Actor in British soldier costume, from Vertigo Sea


Griselda San Martin, The Wall

Friends and readers,

From my house in Alexandria (just outside Old Town) it takes an hour and one half to get to the Phillips Collection in Northwest Washington (a block away from Dupont Circle). My little mildly difficult trek (there is no Metro train stop at King Street, my “natural station” so either I take two buses and walk or a cab — guess which I chose?) was a comfortable secure instant compared to the journeys I witnessed records in all sorts of forms of many different emigrations, migrations by bodies of people and individuals from one part of the earth to another. Do not miss The Warmth of Other Suns — it will make you think of any journeys towards a new identity you have taken yourself. Here are two of mine:

On September 6, 1969 I traveled back to the UK from NYC to join Jim after I had gone home a month before, thinking I might never see him again. I came by car, plane, train, traveling from 9 one evening to 6 the following evening. I had telegrammed him once, we had spoken on the phone once (calling long distance was not easy to Leeds); we had forgotten to make a plan how or where to meet.  And yet there he was, at that train station, on the platform, waiting for me. He had in hand a document signed by his parents giving us permission to marry before October 3rd, for that was his 21st birthday. We set the bans the next day and were married a month later, October 6, 1969, at Leeds Registry Office at 1:30 in the afternoon. It took 5 minutes. I had a VISA whose validity was fast vanishing because it was a student Visa only good to the end of that September. So I was an illegal immigrant for more than a week. I became legal by the simple expedient (at the time) of marrying him; several weeks after the ceremony I had to go to the Leeds Police Station to be finger-printed, passport in hand, and was given temporary papers to stay and to work; and a couple of months after that, I got a document saying “all restrictions were lifted” and I was a British subject. I wonder what would happen to me today? I am white (in case you didn’t know), a native-born American citizen, was at the time nearly 23, with my divorce papers in hand (I had been divorced April 1967 in Spanish at a Juarez, Mexico court). Come to think of it both of us needed documents to do what we wanted to do.

A year and one half later I made the same trip in the other direction, with Jim this time, & after he had secured a green card & full permission to live as a resident in the USA. I had worked as a secretary, personal assistant for John Waddington (game and toy and package manufacturing company). For this green card, we needed more documents, and had taken at least two trips from Leeds to London, coped with much mail & document filling out; & my father had written a six-page document outlining his assets to assure the US gov’t Jim would not be a ward on the state. We had several suitcases, one vacuum cleaner, and the trip took two days: train from Leeds on day one, train to London airport, plane, car to my parents’ apartment on day two. I had thought I would stay in England, become English, but Jim could make 9 times as much in NYC, and the cost of living was nowhere near 9 times as much, and I had a place in a graduate school in NYC to do a Ph.D. in English literature. My parents had rented a one-room apartment for us, with a bed in the wall (not far from them). But we did not stay, and moved to Manhattan soon after. Chelsea.


People viewing De L’Aute Cote —

I was much moved by the exhibit – kept going back and forth between parts.  It was not as painful as the permanent history exhibit at the African-American exhibit where towards the end I began to cry (while I was in the tragic Emmet Till memorial), but I felt just indescribably upset as I went. I watched movies (two longish ones, several short), looked at paintings, drawings, sculptures of all sorts, installations, photographs (many many photographs), sculptures of all sorts, drawings using different media from oil or watercolor paintings (also there), documents too. The museum says 75 artists are represented; there is an emphasis on the most recent groups of victimized migrants on the US-Mexican border. The long film, by Chantal Ackerman (among many others), De l’autre cote (From the other side) is filmed all along the US-Mexican border, night-time, day time, rural and city. The conceit is she is interviewing the other side:

a elderly couple (in their 70s) whose son and grandson were killed in Las Vegas and were obviously very poor, still crying; a Mexican fourteen year old who had “crossed” more than once, one time trafficked, who said he wants to cross again to join his parents in New York in order to make more money and build a big house. Another girl said she wanted to cross to eat more, eat better. At the end of the film we hear the voice of a hispanic young man who has migrated legally and is now seeking his mother, a summary of his non-findings and her wanderings through jobs, places, rooms. The wall is filmed with the people on the both sides — it is made of different materials in different places. We also hear from a sheriff (appalled at the deliberate crisis and huge crowds created by Trump’s policies), two people who live on a farm, deeply anti-immigrant, a white man who owns a cafe near the border, watch a heavily armed ICE person or guard with flashlight seeking people on dark meadow — the other side.

It is not just about recent immigration, refuges, but goes back and forth in time. I found “myself” early on: a half a wall of photos of immigrants arriving in 1905-10 at Ellis Island. All four of my grandparents from Eastern Europe came in that way


Refectory

There were artefacts from the Trail of Tears: the horrific 1830 expulsion of Native Americans from their lands, forced to walk hundreds of miles to barren places to start life again.


Trail of Tears

Dorothy Lange and other WFA photographs on the migrants and farm-workers of the US in the 1930s, underpaid in order to force them to keep moving to find more work; African-Americans trekking from the south to the north for decades (Jacob Lawrence’s art); Vietnamese escaping in boats; people from Africa and the Middle East walking, attempting a dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean; also photos of The Jungle (denigratingly called), a huge immigrant camp that sprung up in Calais.


Delano – Florida migrants on their way to pick potatoes


Jacob Lawrence migration series


Full size statue of Middle Eastern woman


Liu Xiaodong, Refuges

The second long film, Vertigo Sea by John Akomfrah (and many others), took you back to eternal time: three screens often filled with the rushing sea, ocean, walls of ice (and expeditions). You were taught how strong, indifferent and dangerous is this medium for travel. Two of the screens at any time were showing fish and animals in large flocks, some surviving, some just living, others in bad shape; or individuals gunned down (I felt so for a polar bear with a man relentlessly pursuing him), dead and trussed up; one huge whale people were crawling around knifing, stripping. The third screen usually had people: Africans transported in terrible conditions,

thrown over board, stories told by narrators of a baby thrown overboard for irritating a sailor, from famous novels (Moby Dick), diaries, poems. Often one person (actor or actress dressed in upper class 18th to 20th century garb) standing out or sitting looking at the sea. Furniture thrown helter-skelter near the sea.

The exhibit fills up one of the two Phillips buildings. The overall impression is of a desperate struggle for survival (one floor is filled with abandoned clothing), a long ordeal of endurance and loss, much rightly to fear, where for the most part the attitudes of those inside the land mass the migrant is declared a foreigner to, where he or she or they have no relative, or friend, or prepared place or job to turn to, and no legal right to be there, ranged from indifference to hostility. You see early in the 20th century officials behaving with minimal decency, but this seems rare. Short films tell of this or that person’s acute misery in say a hotel that is like a prison, grief. Poverty, war as a cause of the flight, fleeing for safety, was most common. Much social and neo-realism, where we see stalwart families holding up, individuals looking out at us proudly or with thoughtful eyes, some famous 19th century engravings (one by Honore Daumier, The Uprising).

Admittedly the exhibit might be accused of being one-sided. In the US there have been periods where those seeking asylum have not been treated cruelly; individuals and families have gone with more belongings, documents and thrive: they quote Richard Wright: I was leaving the South to fling myself into the unknown … I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns, and perhaps, to bloom (1945)

But the emphasis rightly is intended urgently to bring home to the attendee the new level of depravity the US present gov’t is inflicting on the vulnerable, and include a history of ruthless enslavement and settler colonial destruction against a tragic song of the earth and sea’s rhythms and animals and people displacement and death. You are prompted to re-think and see this general phenomenon in constructive — and generous — ways. Also historical, rational: a nation-state is an invention, it’s a group of people governing a place, often tyrannically; how has it come to be a religion so that borders become sancro-sanct and everyone outside is an “other?”  Alexander Betts and Paul Collier’s Refuge: Rethinking Refuge Policy in a Changing World is one of several books that are left on a table in a room at the end of the exhibit where you can “reflect” on what you’ve seen.

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

I was led to go because I’m just now reading towards a paper I’m going to give at a coming 18th century conference on Culloden and the highland clearances (as this Scottish diaspora and ethnic “cleansing” is called). A few words on my reading and watching (movies matter) thus far and then I’ll have done:

In general, Culloden literature (as I call it) resembles other literatures emerging from other diasporas. Most of the fiction tells an upbeat story (!): the community somehow moves as a group, or ends up sticking together through re-constitution and individuals finding their way back to “their friends.” The person who suffers badly is the person who falls out, does not obey all the norms & fit into the praised culture the others practice. It becomes hard to find a story of an individual at the crossroads of an existence where the ending and shape of the whole narrative is traumatic. This holds true for Hogg’s Perils of Women (often jocular –eeek!) and the truly tragic story (often a woman ostracized for pregnancy, and gang-rape), the calamity is an interlude got over; Naomi Mitchison’s Bull Calves, even Alistair MacLeod’s contemplative melancholy-lyric No Great Mischief.

You must go to the more thoughtful, less popular memoir, the raw found diary or journal, and good serious non-fiction. The outstanding best book I’ve ever read in emigration, refuges, diaporas is Christopher Hodson, The Acadian Diaspora: An Eighteenth Century History.

Hodson demonstrates that for individuals and family groups with only small or no property, no connections they can call on to enable them to overcome local exclusionary customs, and no military to support them, the ability to control their circumstances and future is extremely limited. He shows that “ordinary people’s safeguards” are long-standing and recognized commercial and familial relationships and also known and understood local economic environments that cannot be misrepresented to them.

Communities don’t survive almost intact; they don’t reconstitute themselves as a mirror image of what was — as we watch the Outlander characters do in North Caroline in Drums of Autumn — I grant she more includes more intermittent tales of desperate tragedies, calamities, cruelty than many such books; tellingly, most of these associated with enslaved people and low status gang-raped women. But what she’s not having is your identity changes and so does everyone else’s under the impress of need and a different world geographically and socially.


Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Claire (Caitriona Balfe) in front of their tent – they will soon with Ian’s (John Bell) help build a magnificent log cabin (Outlander, Season 4)

For Culloden and the highland clearances, the recent best is T.M. Devine’s The Scottish Clearances: it’s been praised as showing that John Peeble’s powerful detailed Culloden and indignant Highland Clearances are wrong, unbalanced, far too hysterical, too tragic; in fact Devine ends up telling a similar story, only nuanced and occurring over generations and with many more bad and mixed actors. And I must say, if a literary masterpiece (especially endurable you are not reading but listening to it read aloud by the brilliant David Rintoul (who knew he is Scots?), Walter Scott’s Waverley is as distorted & misleading a book as you can find.

A friend is sending me a copy of Chasing the Deer (1994, much influenced by Peter Watkins’s masterpiece docudrama, Culloden (1965), and said to be a credible depiction of Culloden, with Brian Blessed and Iain Cuthbertson in lead roles.

As these films are mostly all men — male experience –, I’ll end on one of a beautiful cycle of poems on an emigrant’s life experience in Canada, Margaret Atwood’s re-creation of Susannah Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush in her brilliant poetic The Journals of Susanna Moodie.

First Neighbours

The people I live among, unforgivingly
previous to me, grudging
the way I breathe their
property, the air
speaking a twisted dialect to my differently
shaped ears

thought I tried to adapt

(he girl in a red tattered
petticoat, who jeers at me for my burnt bread

Go back where you came from

I tightened my lips; knew that England
was now unreachable, had sunk down into the sea
without ever teaching me about washtubs)

got used to being
a minor invalid, expected to make
inept remarks,
futile and spastic gestures

(asked the Indian
about the squat thing on a stick
drying by the fire: Is that a toad?
Annoyed, he said No no,
deer liver, very good)

Finally I grew a chapped tarpaulin
skin; I negotiated the drizzle
of strange meaning, set it
down to just the latitude
something to be endured
but not surprised by.

Inaccurate. The forest can still trick me:
one afternoon while I was drawing
birds, a malignant face
flickered over my shoulder;
the branches quivered

Resolve: to be both tentative and hard to startle
(though clumsiness and
fright are inevitable)

in this area where my damaged
knowing of the language means
prediction is forever impossible


The front poster for the exhibit dwells on that little girl

Ellen


Jenny Fraser Murray (Laura Donnelly) unwrapping books from Paris, looking forward to reading them (Outlander 2:8, “Fox’s Lair,”adapted from Dragonfly in Amber)


Francis Poldark (Kyle Soller) turning from harvest festival to see Ross and Demelza have come to join him, his family and tenants (Poldark 2:3, adapted from Jeremy Poldark)

one must distrust the almost-the-same … the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates, and all patchwork. The differences can be small, but they can lead to radically different consequences — Primo Levi, The Periodical Table

Sometimes earlier (just after supper), but mostly very late in the evenings, my last two waking hours I please myself by re-watching the Outlander and Poldark series, re-experiencing the seasons, first through fourth thus far, episode by episode, until I’ve got to the end and then (after a break where I may turn to another serial drama of the period drama from great-book type), start again.  The more I watch them, the more I find I love them both.  I see more, notice more. (This is true of all good movie watching for me.) I also re-read the books, as well as re-listen to them read aloud, and peruse small pieces of the texts as the mood takes me. It has become that it does not matter if the videos differ from the books in literal content or themes: after all the two kinds of art are strongly different in means and probably effect.

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

One difference between the two series is Poldark has several heroes, several heroines and creates a crowded world which extends to highly varied detail, while Outlander is centered on the central hero-heroine pair with all others circling around them and the history that accrues is what is needed to tell their stories. You can see this repeated in structure after structure of all the episodes.


Claire (Caitriona Balfe) arrived in Scotland once more drops all over-luxurious elegant outfits to become her workaday self — I just love her here, the expression on her face especially

We returned to heal in the peace of the Scottish Highlands. Jamie’s sister, Jenny, and her husband, Ian, had had another baby while we were in Paris. Their welcome and the daily routines of Lallybroch worked like a tonic on our battered souls. We hoped we had done enough to stop the war. We began planning our future, but as a very prescient Scot once observed, the best laid schemes of mice and men.

I have not bonded enough with the filmic Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) as yet. (Demelza in the book is quite different: I bonded with her long ago.)  Neither actress who has played the part (I refer also to Angharad Rees) was allowed an over-voice, and Tomlinson is a figure in a vast pictorial landscape, not the voice which imagines or makes it (as  Claire and Balfe function in Outlander).


Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) seen from middle distance, walking along, the scene lasts a minute perhaps, and we ask ourselves, is she thinking of the pregnancy she cannot get herself to tell Ross about as yet … she is hurt, but silent … and as usual the moment is interrupted …

Another difference is the first, Poldark, is more serious about history, and with more real detail woven incontinually, real historical figures, real places thoroughly mapped, real events, including the weather, and as the series progresses more and more authentic (often minor individuals). It is strongly sincerely political; leftist-liberal in outlook throughout, though conservative in its attitude towards males (there are no homosexuals as central characters, no lesbians, this is heterosexuality presented as universal or normative with other kinds of sexuality seen as lacks, or “not normal”)

The center of the Poldark books is not a romance between two or even four people: the center of the Outlander books is. Gabaldon provides as much history as you need to understand the characters’ relationships, not much more.

Outlander is fundamentally a woman’s historical romance, with stretches conforming to what is found typically (as to issues and metaphors) what is found in women’s novels (contemporary ones too). More idealization of love relationships; more fantasy (it’s a time-traveling tale!); it’s arguably after the introduction of Lord John Grey an ambivalent LBGTQ series, but equally arguably homophobic with all the women presented as (thus far) conventionally heterosexual. By comparison, DuMaurier’s historical romances (which I think were influential, especially the House on the Hill, with its back-and-forth from the 20th to the 14th century) are genuinely gender questioning, with sexuality fluid.


Horsfield does like to shoot Aidan Turner from angles and in lighting that make him look far larger than he is, as a symbolically magnificent figure

Horsfield changes the Poldark matter to be centrally pro-community so what in the books one often has to flee for liberty (and in the 1970s series) becomes the individual’s safety, salvation, comfort in the new series. She is also far more sympathetic to capitalism, but alas also far more melodramatic and tends to dwell on individuals as causes of what happens rather than larger groups of people and climate, and history, which is what is found in Graham.

Ronald Moore (the central linchpin force and decider for Outlander, the series) has interjected much action-adventure, a male outlook repeatedly, and this kind of thing replaces the more lengthy home-building and other very female concerns with Jamie’s story as central (sometimes even marginalizing Claire) so that fathers-and-sons (-or daughters) becomes a predominant pattern rather than mothers-daughters. It is true that Roger is a second narrator for the books.


Sam Heughan as Jamie, first seen in Episode 2 of the first season at Lallybroch.

There’s a perceptive essay on both series compared in James Leggott, Katherine Byrne and Julie Anne Taddeo’s Conflicting Masculinities, comparing the two series: Gemma Goodman and Rachel Moseley (“Television Costume Drama & the Eroticized Regionalized [Male] Body: Poldark & Outlander“)  find they undermine traditional masculinity traits, emphasize an ideal norm for men as tender, loving, and susceptible of sensitive emotions and thoughts, the male body is under siege, his body as contested territory (symbolic of the ravages of capitalism, colonialization) with the women emerging as strong active figures.

One problem with this essay is it omits the second male(s) in both series, especially Dwight Enys and Francis Poldark in Poldark, and Frank Randall and Roger Wakefield Mackenzie on Outlander. Francis and Frank are tragic figures, with Frank becoming a ghost-revenant figure, and Dwight taking on a strongly womanly role (as a type he is found in Graham’s suspense novels, the refreshing non-heroic heroes here and there). In some moods I much prefer Dwight to Ross (and he is in the last story Graham ever told where he is about to be introduced by a still grieving (for Jeremy) Demelza.

I do love the Francis character in the book, and the way the first actor played him (Clive Francis is a Joe Orton figure); and I feel for Frank in the book (where there are love-making scenes with Claire that are deeply involving) and the series (Tobias Menzies is superb). It is a loss not to be compensated for when Frank Randall/Black Jack Randall literally die by the third book — as the deaths of Francis, and Elizabeth are part of what makes the last 5 Poldark books much weaker.


Tobias Menzies as Frank being told the story of her time with Jamie (Season 2, Episode 2, “Through a Glass Darkly): he is an astonishingly flexible actor whose Black Jack Randall seems another presence altogether — he too participates in making patriarchy central as he is a deeper parent to Brianna than Claire in the series (not so much the book).

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

One result from both is I turn to writing about their matter in some way, blogs, papers, even teaching. Outlander has now led me to promise a paper on Culloden as a primary example of experiencing a crossroads of life moment; I am re-energized for my project of a book (whether published or not) on Winston Graham, and (however slowly) I’ve read two more (Little Walls and Sleeping Partner) and begun a third (Greek Fire) of his contemporary male-centered suspense books written between the first quartet of the Poldarks (1-4) and the first trilogy (5-7). I look forward to the fifth and sixth seasons of Outlander and am so sad to have to accept that Horsfield and Company will not go on to adapt to video the concluding 5 books.

I read other books too — for the Poldarks more books on Cornwall, Philip Paynton, other historical fictions set in Cornwall (the Virginia Woolf-like China Court by Rumer Godden). I will take with me on a coming trip Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief. For Outlander, books on Scotland, by Scots writers, Naomi Mitchison’s Nine Lives by Jenni Calder, Maggie Craig’s The Women of the ’45.

I’d like to come up with a better explanation for the combined effects of books and film adaptations in the historical fiction & romance kind than I’ve done before. On the criss-crossing, intertextualities between the a book as source and video as transformed process. For example when you read a text and the narrator tells you about a character talking to him, the language focuses us on that character most of the time; visualize the scene in a video and the narrator is equally likely to rivet our attention on a silent character there as actor, so the tone and interaction of the scene is differently understood.

How and why such texts and films can infuse our very beings so that each small thing a given character we’ve invested a lot in does delights or absorbs us.


Dwight Enys (Luke Norris) spotted by Caroline (POV) caring for people (Poldark, still 2:3)


Young Fergus (Romann Berrux) insisting on the promise he would accompany Jamie & Claire everywhere (Outlander, still 2:8)

Ellen


Poster for Chernobyl (2019, scripted Craig Mazin, directed Johan Renck)


Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley) looking through the plastic (her baby still died of radiation) at her husband dying howling and wretched with pain

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled — Richard Feynman, Appendix F on the causes of the Challenger disaster

The truth doesn’t care about our needs or wants.
It doesn’t care about our governments, our ideologies, our religions.
It will lie in wait for all time
And this, at last, is the gift of Chernobyl.
Where I once would fear the cost of truth, now I only ask: What is the cost of lies?
— over-voice of Valery Legasov

Friends,

Chernobyl is not a summer movie — it is a riveting melodrama whose political implications should be frighteningly relevant in political worlds shaped by man (Trump) whose modus vivendi is by lying, small, big, outrageous, cruel, bigoted and dangerous lies. The history we choose to tell each year is the one that we intuits matters that year (not that nuclear power plants as potentially catastrophic places are limited in time or space) Anibundel reads the movie succinctly through the perspective Marzin sets up: the cost of lying was then and will be again limitless suffering and the sacrifice of lives and worlds of thousands of people. I write to add another, from Richard Feynman about how NASA operated and produced the Challenger disaster, and also uttered in the concluding eloquent voice-over of film’s learned scientist, Valery Legasov (played painfully effectively by Jared Harris): there are limits to how far you can manipulate the natural world and coerce frightened powerless people to serve the interests of ambitious men whose pride and position in an organization for them take precedence over everything else.


Jared Harris makes the movie, he just carries it

This dual lesson is dramatized in five episodes as carefully laid out as HBO’s previous political film this year: Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us. Most people recognize that HBO movies have had distinguishing features for some time (contemporary subjects or treatment, box-office brilliant actors, quality production); they have recently added a new one: the hard-hitting demonstration. Both movies are well-proportioned wholes, clearly set out, complete and (to quote George Eliot) “natty” as nuts on a stem. It may seem peculiar to use aesthetic language about episodes which drain us with the horror of what they are presenting, but the film’s effect is so strong because they are so effectively plotted.


The explosion

The first episode throws us in medias res (though we only realize this when we come to the end of the last episode), the high crisis of an exploded nuclear plant core, catapulting into the air, everywhere in the peopled environment burning lethal poisons. We experience the explosion from the point of view of those it first impacted: the people driven to set it off and the people all around the reactor, among whom we see the immediate chief culprits, a boss of the unit, Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter), who was told to get the test done that night “or else”, and his boss, Viktor Bryukhanov (Con O’Neil), manager of the Chernobyl plant; the first responder firemen and their families, where we follow the heart-breaking story of Vasily Ignatenko (Adam Nagaitis) and his wife. Our central protagonist is among those called out of bed, Legasov (Jared Harris) by a high ranking officer in the communist party, also in charge of the department of energy (and perhaps other related things) in the Soviet gov’t, Boris Shcherbina (played by Stellan Skarsgård)


“Boris moves from hostility and antagonism towards Legasov to an effective working relationship, both emerging as decent men

Each episode focuses on one or more incidents which are terrifying to watch, where the film-makers pull out all their techniques so that we shall feel the visceral pain, hardness of task, sheer physical stuff people were required to cope to the death with. In this first men are uselessly exposed to acute radiation as they try to hose the nuclear bomb down (as if it were a fire), make visual inspections, go into the area to try to prevent various components coming together to cause a meltdown (this was hopeless as it was happening). And each episode dramatizes different groups trying to cover up some aspect of what happened, no matter whose or how many deaths this causes, and each time the group is thwarted because they cannot stop the natural processes going on and find it politically and humanely impossible to let death spread everywhere. We see how small and vulnerable we are singly and in large groups too


Inside just one of the terrified engineers, Leonid Toptunov (Robert Emms)

By the second episode people in nearby countries are registering spikes in radiation, which are reported in newspapers and so cannot be dismissed. Slowly the various officials are driven to take what has happened seriously; they would like to deny and refute all the Legasov and a woman scientist, a single character who stands for the many scientists who became involved, Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) have to tell them. What she understands immediately and travels to tell the leaders of this disaster is the lava-like mess of molten fuel threatening to melt down into the earth would render the ground water of Ukraine’s 50 million inhabitants toxic for life.


Here she has realized the air has been contaminated

They aksi learn unless they follow what these two have to say, they are confronted with immediate death — they must not fly heliocopters over the core even if that’s convenient; they have to get rid of the radioactive graphite (not deny its there) and boron and sand is what must be poured on the fire.

We see meetings of high officials, including someone playing Gorbachev, and evacuation begins. Another motif which was seen in the first episode emerges explicitly: this is a society where people volunteer to help one another, where the idea that we are socially connected as groups and to help ourselves, we must contribute all our energies and talents (without seeking an individual big reward) seems to shape people’s behavior. We see three of the engineers go on a lethal mission to drain water (basically turn by hand valves) to prevent a meltdown (it happens in part anyway). In the third episode the miners called up to excavate the area below the central reactor — in terrific heat, subject to radiation (only 100 of 400 lived past 40) — Liam Nelson their captain


They eventually work naked because that is the best way to endure the heat, the clothes they are given to protect them are useless

The moment of highest admiration in the five hours is for these working class men, doing hard and dangerous work — the officials (“bureaucrats”) have to confront the necessity of truth here, for lie, prevaricate, evade and the captain will take his men back to their usual mining. The hospital is now overwhelmed; we see individual vignettes

and we follow Lyudmilla as she frantically tries to reach her husband, follows him to Moscow and will not be stopped from seeing and comforting him until she can no longer reach emotionally, much less physically. A moment of strong poignancy (the film works by contrasts) is that where we see her standing with a group of women watching a line of lead coffins (in which what was left of their husband’s bodies) are placed into a deep hole and boron and sand poured over them.

The instructions given a group of men who have to behave as close as they can to quick-moving robots:

Because of the nature of the working area, you will each have no more than 90 seconds to solve this problem.
Listen carefully to each of my instructions, and do exactly as you have been told.
This is for your own safety and the safety of your comrades.
You will enter Reactor Building Three, climb the stairs but do not immediately proceed to the roof.
When you get to the top, wait inside, behind the entrance to the roof and catch your breath.
You will need it for what comes next.
This is the working area.
We must clear the graphite.
Some of it is in blocks, weighing approximately 40 to 50 kilograms.
They all must be thrown over the edge here.
Watch your comrades moving fast from this opening, then turning to the left, and entering the workspace here.
Take care not to stumble.
There’s a hole in the roof.
Take care not to fall.
You will need to move quickly, and you will need to move carefully.
Do you understand your mission as I have described it? Yes, Comrade General.
These are the most important 90 seconds of your lives.
Commit your task to memory, then do your job.
It’s time to go.
After 90 seconds, I will ring a bell.

It seems (from comments and other reviews) that perhaps the hardest episode is in the fourth: we watch an older man teaching a younger one to gun down and kill all the pet animals left behind in an evacuated city. The POV is that of the boy. I had to turn away as a dog came leaping forward, only to realize something was wrong and be shot. The boy moves from inability to kill, to inability to shoot more than once in order to be sure and (so his mentor tells him) “prevent the animal from suffering,” to killing and shooting grimly. We see the animals hiding, one aging cat looking puzzled, and a group of puppies around a mother. We are glad not to have to watch when the older man ushers out the boy and so it’s (only?) the repeated shots and sudden cries that tell us what is happening. Read and see the story as told by Svetlana Alexievich (actual camera pictures of the animals).

But the strongest episode is the concluding one, where we realize that in fact what happened can be explained. First the point is being made that so often we are told things are complicated, complex and cannot be unraveled and they can. Structurally (or as a movie), the effect is something like a mystery, only in this movie almost everyone we see does not want the explanation.


I found the explanation fascinating — it may be that this scene cannot have taken place quite in the coherent full blown way it did ….

The episode cannot wholly rely on testimony in the courtroom: it’s framed by a brief conversation where we experience how Bryukhanov bullied Dyatlov, how he was himself allured by the prospect of replacing Fomin (Adrian Rawlins) if he could pull off this hard feat (test the safety of the plant is the irony). Then bravely and against protests, Legasov patiently explains how reactors work and how this disaster happened (partly no one in the room truly understood what they were dealing with) and insists there is a serious flaw in the way 16 nuclear reactors are designed, and the reason they has not been fixed, is it would cost a great deal of money to redesign the reactors. For this by the end of the episode Legasov has been mortally threatened but let to live (as it would look bad after his testimony) so “merely” lost his job, salary, place in the world, the ability to communicate with others.

The film opened with him recording on a tape this story, putting the tapes in a bucket, hiding the bucket and then hanging himself; it closes with his over-voice and then (just as DuVernay does at the end of When They See Us), photos of the real people played by these marvelous actors. Once again this is very effective.


Valery Legasov at a Vienna conference

We have seen that Lyudmilla lost her baby and are just told she had multiple strokes and was herself told she would never have children — because she exposed herself to stay near her husband. In fact she is one of those who survive and today lives in Kiev with her son. Most of the characters we see died of cancer.

It’s important not to see this as story about communism or a particular culture at all, and to say that the inferences apply to more than larger political issues. The same sort of cover-up was attempted over the Challenger and it was only Richard Feynman’s Appendix F which told the truth. As everyone knows who read Feynman’s report and his story of the Challenger, the reason the Challenger went up in January when the weather was too cold and the o-rings could not dilate was due to several decisions which ignored nature: among these, one, they built the thing top down and they knew they had a design failure: the o-rings were not originally designed to fill a gap when the glue hardens. Nonetheless, they persisted in relying on this. And two, they knew that they needed the weather to be warm or above a certain temperature. Nonetheless, they went through with a January launch on a very cold morning because that was the day the State of the Union address is given, and Reagan wanted a publicity stunt: that he would give the state of the union address the evening after this launch.

In the flashback scenes in the final episode (interspersed and juxtaposed with Legasov’s lesson to judges and jury) the engineers (Akimov, Toptunov and others) in the room knew enough to know this was terrifically dangerous and they were breaking all protocol — they had to be bullied and threatened to get them to do it, and when they saw the core explode (and in effect the reactor turn into a nuclear bomb), were driven to lie and not tell what had happened. How: by the threat of loss of job, or loss of promotion, or their place in the organization. This is how all bullies (including Trump who backs this up by suing you, and then paying you to stay silent) frighten people. We are so susceptible to these sorts of threats. Now Dyatlov was immediately responsible but the situation that led to that was the same as the one at NASA: a refusal to spend money, a refusal to fix a design flaw, and not educating and giving authority to people involved. The human dimension of this film drills down to everyday life.

You can read the scripts online

Each episode tough & riveting to watch, each had remarkable heroism, and remarkable unspeakable pain. The story itself (as Arendt suggested about the nature of evil) at core is the banal one of the behavior of human beings trying to get promoted, protect a job; the refusal of a gov’t to spend money for public safety. And most people lie or they fall silent. If they can find a group to belong to, they might speak out as a member of that group.

Ellen