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From The English Patient: the burnt-up hero (Ralph Fiennes) reading Herodotus, the Canadian who has been tortured (William Dafoe)

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Eight Wednesday later morning into afternoons, 11:50 to 1:15 pm,
March 29 to May 17
Tallwood, 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

In this course we will discuss four gems of Booker Prize fiction. Some have said the prize functions as a brilliantly exploited marketplace tool aimed at a specific readership niche, just perfect for high quality film adaptations and literary criticism. The selected books are characteristically historical fiction, self-reflexive, witty and passionate, post-colonialist, — plus all have been made into films. Before the class begins, please read Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop;then in class we’ll read J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, and Graham Swift’s Last Orders

Required Texts (in the order we’ll read them):

Fitzgerald, Penelope. The Bookshop. 1970: rpt. 1997: Boston: Hougton Mifflin. ISBN 0395869463. Or latest edition: Introd. David Nicholls, Mariner, 2015 iSBN: 978-0544484092
Carr, J. L. A Month in the Country. Introd. Michael Holroyd. 1980; rpt. New York Review of Books, 2000. ISBN 0940322471
Ondaatje, Michael. The English Patient. New York: Vintage, 1992.
Swift, Graham. Last Orders. New York: Vintage, 1996.


From Patrick O’Connor and Simon Gray’s A Month in the Country: the protagoniss (Kenneth Branagh and Colin Firth), and stationmaster preacher (Jim Carter)

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

March 29th: 1st week: The politics of selling good books: history of the Booker Prize; we begin with Penelope Fitzgerald

April 5th: 2nd week: Penelope Fitzgerald’s Bookshop; we begin J. L. Carr and A Month in the Country: historical fiction

April 12th: 3rd week: A Month in the Country; clips from the film and discussion

April 19th: 4th week: Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient: the post-colonial background

April 26th: 5th week: Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient; clips from the film and discussion

May 3rd: 6th week: Graham Swift and post-modernity (Waterlands); begin Last Orders

May 10th: 7th week: Last Orders: alternating streams of consciousness; clips from film and discussion

May 17th: 8th week: Return to Booker and other prizes; wide discussion for future courses in such books

From Fred Schepisi’s Last Orders (2004): Jack’s four friends (Ray Winston, David Hemminges, Bob Hoskins, Tim Courtney) on the pier, by the sea, and his wife, Amy (Helen Mirren) getting on the bus

Suggested supplementary reading & films:

Cooper, Pamela. Graham Swift’s Last Orders. NY: Continuum, 2002
English, James. “Winning the Culture Game: Prizes, Awards, and the Rules of Art,” New Literary History, 33:1 (Winter, 2002):109-135.
The English Patient. Dir. And Screenplay. Anthony Mingella. With Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Juliet Binoche ….. Miramax,1996
Gray, Simon. Old Flames and A Month in the Country: Two Screenplays. London: Faber and Faber, 1990
Kelly, Saul. The Lost Oasis: The Desert War and the Hunt for Zerzura: The True Story Behind the English Patient. Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 2002.
Last Orders. Dir and Screenplay. Fred Schepisi. With Helen Mirren, Bob Hoskins, Michael Caine … Sony, 2004.
Lee, Hermione. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life. New York: Vintage, 2014
Minghella, Anthony. The English Patient: The Screenplay. London: Methuen, 1997.
A Month in the Country. Dir. Patrick O’Connor. Screenplay Simon Gray. With Colin Firth, Patrick Malahide, Kenneth Branagh, Natasha Richardson …. Pennies from Heaven, 1987.
Rogers, Byron. The Last Englishman: A Life of J. L. Carr. London: Aurum, 2003.
Sutherland, J. A. Fiction and the Fiction Industry. London: Athlone Press, 1978.
Todd, Richard. Consuming Fictions: The Booker Prize and Fiction in Britain Today. London: Bloomsbury, 1996.


The sea and the desert …

Ellen


Virginia Woolf, photo by Barbara Strachey (1938)

Friends and readers,

The second part of Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf takes us through the first years of Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s rocky adjustment, her career as a teacher, writer, publisher (with Leonard Woolf, and a lot of help from John Lehman); what was very valuable about Hogarth Press texts; Virginia’s love-affair friendships (from Vita Sackville-West to Ethel Smyth (composer, pianist); her achievements in novel art (The Voyage Out, To the Lighthouse, The Waves); and then, under the onslaught of bombs and terror at what a Nazi state were at a distance and would close-up inflict on her, Leonard, their friends, her feeling of the fragility of her calm about to erupt, she killed herself. No more imposed regimes, no more wretched distress of worrying, no imposed medical regimes which prevented her from writing, her great solace and strength it seems. What is remarkable is how much she accomplished, how much she produced, how she lived as best she could with integrity.

The Hogarth Press

Virginia and Leonard bought, learned to use, and then built a worthy business in the Hogarth Press. They did quarrel sometimes, but mostly they had the same ideals for their press, and they published a remarkable group of books (Forster, TS Eliot, also Vita Sackville-West whose novels sold well). While how this was an absorbing occupation for her to use to remain calm and convalesce when she needed to, obviously it was her way of getting into print too. Lee point out they sold a minuscule number of copies of The Voyage Out the first two years. That they published their friends is par for the course. Until I read Lee’s disapproval (she’s like some tenured person saying your article doesn’t count because it didn’t appear in these journals and so why did you publish there?), I never imagined anyone could criticize this venture. But just not acceptable. Lee says this is after all a vanity press. “Her reputation has been affected by this “in her life-time” and “after it” — says the academic biographer.

Virginia and her circle were attacked virulently by critics on many grounds: Wyndham Lewis was a bully macho male, and what he was doing was simply squashing by sneering and deriding l’ecriture-femme: you can see that in the language he choose. And then like Henry James deriding (to name three on my mind from the other listserv still going) Alcott, Woolson and Oliphant, Constance Fennimore Woolson, Wyndham is listened to — and has been influential: she is neurotic, too feminine, elitist (the pot calling the kettle black there). Virginia became upset because she recognized this hegemonic point of view could and would kill readership, and yet she finds the novel itself a deeply problematic genre which gets in her way. Stael in her one analysis of fiction as such says that the demands of the audience stop her from writing what she wants in her novel: Woolf goes more deeply; it’s the structures and stories that are demanded.

One of publications that emerged just from the existence of the press: The Hogarth Letters: I don’t know how long this book has been on one of my shelves. Introduced by Hermione Lee, it consists of its contemporary introduction by E.M. Forster and then about 11 or 12 “letters:” essays really addressed to an imagined or real interlocutor in which the writer explores some topic of concern, large and small, political and not, social, cultural. They read to me like an oasis of sanity, the “language of rational humanism, deployed on behalf of intellectual tolerance, in opposition to forms of tyranny and reaction” (to quote Lee). Some are snobbish and condescending (advocating a suburban housewife put down her knitting and teaching her to appreciate Poussin) but others have beauty, liberal thought, ideals that are fine and good. Some do sniff out an ominous haunting future not so far off. They were published between 1931 and 33 when the world order (such as it was) was breaking down. It was very much a Lehmann project to begin with and then Virginia joined in.


E. M. Forster by Dora Carrington, 1920 (he was one of Hogarth Press’s authors, the Woolf’s friend

Woolf’s objected to the novel form as such. We talk and critics write about how Woolf overturned novel conventions with the implication that she was not anti-novel in doing this, only stretching the form. Now it is difficult to define novels in any way that limits the form beyond a very long fictional story in prose. But that in itself demands a certain coherence for the story, and the definition ignores expectations even for fantasy books. In the quotations from Woolf about the novel and those Lee has discussed throughout it seems to me in effect Woolf regarded much of the novel conventions as getting in the way of saying deep worthwhile things, especially the novel’s (even in fantasy) concentration on individuals interacting with others in social situations to bring about some resolution. There are novels where the resolution or conclusion can be private and inward; there are forms of the novel which allow the breakdown of chronological coherence and probability, especially the epistolary and journal forms and what’s called magic realism. Women have broken away from probability because that often depends on what is, and what is is what’s allowed and woman want to show we can live another way, have other options. But if you look at what Woolf writes, once she tries to leave conventional novels, she’s not writing to propose other social solutions or individuals finding themselves or tragically failing to.

She prefers the essay, life-writing and prose poems.

From “The Docks of London,”in the London Scene: book of sketches. They are all at most 5-7 pages or so; since Lee tells us how Woolf’s reputation and the way we know much of her work comes from posthumous publication of the non-fiction as staggered/staged in time and packed by Leonard. I have separate thinnish books and for the first time I understand how they came to be and why they are so heterogeneous. The one that differs is The Essays of Virginia Woolf, set up relentlessly by year (not theme, or subject or perspective as the varied others), with dates, only it leaves off the mid 1920s. They seem different laid out this way instead of say The common Reader. Some of the slender volumes were overseen by Virginia or Lehmann. This is book history.
The London scene is different. It is first published in 1975, limited agreement by another press and Hogarth coming in a little later in the year, editors Angelica Garnett and Clive Bell, niece and brother-in-law. These are bright and this first one at least seemingly cheerful excursions – -the sort of thing one sees in a mazagine. I say seeming because the undercurrent is a lighter melancholy than the Waves. Time is here and all is going to rot or was once (so relics, remnants)
What strikes me as I’m reading The Waves, and remember The Voyage Out, how water (as in Shakespeare) is central to Woolf, waterways of the world, oceans, rivers, streams. While the sun controls the seeming 24 hour structure of the Waves, the imagery is watery or about stream, life as ooze. Orlando crosses time as in a reverie: Eva Figes’s greatest novella is The Seven Ages of Women.
Here we have a eye going through the river recording different phase sof English history by different classes at different times – in 8 pages the eye bypasses very different ships and boats, from Liner and streamers with crowds of ordinary people on the shore, to a dingy warehouse area (very Dickensian), to left over village, with a desolate pub (note desolation), church, a cottage or house gone to ruin, trees, bells once rung here. Then barges, rubbish and Indian, next to the Tower of London, commerce, the city, factories with chimnies. On we go to indefatigible cranes unloading and loading according to exquisitely understood plans by mazes of peple. (Le Carre’s Night Manager replaces this with these intensely dull boring containers and very few people employed. I have read the ships which carry these containers can be dangerous for passengers if not enough of them. Jenny Diski traveled on one in one of her books.
Then the beautiful things packed, the oddities, the jewels, sports of nature – she imagines all this. Now we realize if we didn’t before this is a kind dream. Then the wine-vaults –Cask after cask .Customs officers. No smuggling here: stamped out in the mid-19th century by England’s first wide police effort.
The phrase use produces beauty as a bye-product could sum up all jane Austen on the picturesque …
Then words have been invented out of all we see.I don’t understand a couple of them, nor understand why flogging is there but that sailors were once flogged to get them to do this work, flogged if they mutinied and disobeyed. (Will Trump bring flogging back; there is nothing he can do which bothers his followers or the Republicans. I am waiting for him to beat the hell out of his wife, and the tweet: “I lost it – my temper.” ) Last: all we see is the result of us, of our bodies. All the things andanimals that made these products were created and used by us – Australian sheep say
And this rocking rhythm and final peroration. L’ecriture femme with the full stamp of Virginia Woolf

But money and popularity come with telling stories, especially outward social stories – and these two things bring respect.

Monk’s House (where they chose to live) is seen by Lee as a “retreat, a monastery, a monk’s house, and, in that sense, a monastic abode reinforced by separate bedrooms … before buying Monk’s House, Woolf had purchased a small windmill turned into a house that she was afterwards able to sell at a small profit. Interestingly too, it was acceptable in 1919 to buy a house without indoor plumbing, a bath, hot water. This coincides with the practices of Americans buying summer homes in the US in this period” (Diane Reynolds). How Leonard loved to garden.

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I took detours


Just released from copyright, new editions with introductions, notes, new pictures are coming out

The Voyage Out

It appears to be focused on a young woman growing up: she is 24 but she is kept as innocent of the world as a 13 year old. She has no close friend nor many friends; belongs only with family which consists of father and aunts. Being on a ship isolates her further. I can see Woolf building up characters for other novels: we have Mr and Mrs Dalloway using their prestige, influence, connections to board the ship at Lisbon. It is very much a novel and a successful one: the social comedy is apt, it makes me smile, and creates the usual conflicts and insights of novels …. this one so comforting right now because it is redolent of a world of decency and intelligence. Our narrator knows this group of people is dependent on vast cruelty to the colonialized peoples of the world. This comes out from the narrator’s comments because this is a boat, a ship which globe-trots for the British, carries natural resources to Britain to be used in factories. The Dalloways can come on “by special arrangement” because he’s this pampered privileged MP — they too are “visiting” parts of the empire or have been.

To the Lighthouse as a sort of ghost story.

In To The Lighthouse house, your mother does not have to give up her house,. is that novel oppositions ail …. “profoundly autobiographical” and a form of therapy for VW, a way to cope with the past. Lee quotes Vanessa noting that in Mrs. Ramsey, VW “raised” the mother “from the dead.” It was, wrote Vanessa, ” a portrait of mother more like her than anything I could ever have conceived possible. … You have made one feel the extraordinary beauty of her character, which must be the most difficult thing in the world to do.” Vanessa also praised Mr. Ramsey as a clear portrait of their father. Lee shows us here the generous, giving side of Vanessa: she calls her sister’s book “a great work of art.”

Behind the Ramsey family, says Lee, is imperialism, particularly Indian imperialism, which she calls “the history of the Stephen family,” another nod to how this family profited from India. But Lee says no more.
More cryptic are the statements about Woolf’s concept for the book, which Lee quotes but doesn’t explain. What, for example, does Woolf mean by Mrs. Ramsay “feels the glow of sensation–and how they are made up of all different things–(what she has just done) and wishes for some bell to strike and say this is it. It does strike. She guards her moment.” Is this Mrs. Ramsay/Julia Stephens or Virginia Woolf? What does she mean by “fluid translucence” and “central transparency?”

On one level it’s an ode to Mrs Ramsay, to mother. The lead-in to the central section is Mr and Mrs Ramsay in bed, he reading The Antiquary to reassure himself his kind of writing and his hegemony with Scott not superseded, but the emphasis is on the death of Steenie – a very moving chapter indeed, many one of the most in Scott, and the sonnet by Shakespeare that Mrs Ramsay quotes is also haunted, as with your shadows I did play – the lover is absent, has gone, and you are left darkling and deeply at a loss. Mr Ramsay apparently doesn’t approve of his wife’s pessimism and it is true that the style Stephens wrote in (as many of his era) is this rotound graceful sure one and no one would go near saying suicide is a good option or anything truly overturning explicitly.
 
There is something overturning in To the Lighthouse —  not just the feminism about the men as tyrants and fools. There is a luxuriating in death as release at last. And we catalogue the dead (for Mr Ramsay goes too) – there’s a futility in all human beings do is one part of the feel.

The Waves

It took listening to the text read brilliantly allowed (by Frances Jeater): I became hooked into it. Lee says The Waves is six monologues but I think it’s there. They are all a projection of Woolf and in that overt feel this is a more candid novel than most for in all novels most of the characters are on some level as projection of the novelist put together by literary decorums and conventions. It may still be read as her deepest thoughts when “out of her” social mind and into her deep self – rather like Proust only puts this self into long sinuous sentences.

What then paradoxically grips me is identification. She still captures a sense of what it is to be child, adolescent and especially (thus far) have new experiences you’ve never had before. How we grow middle-aged, old, and watch others die (you wouldn’t carry on if I’m in world of semi-stranger neighbors. You were in this cocoon of subjectivity with a nuclear family (at most siblings and one or two servants beyond the father, mother, aunt say, grandmother). I have never forgotten my amazement (the right word) when I first went to kindergarten. There was a small girl my size called Maryann crying as if her heart would break. She couldn’t bear it seemed to leave her mother. I couldn’t get over that, I was so startled by this it has stayed with me all these years – well Woolf would not have been surprised. She here records intense distress on the part of the boy in boys’ school and the girls with their governess. Not going home. How unbelievable, how terrible. How different Woolfs’ home life was from mine. I was cheerful and glad to go. But I’ve cousins who came from a home like mine who tell me they cried.
But I did look askance or in this alienated way at teachers. Woolf captures how children look so coolly at these new beings in charge of them.

The impersonal narrator keeps returning to time across a day, dawn, morning, mid-morning, noon, early afternoon … At each point the natural world returns to record where we are. A larger clock situates through what they saw their stories over the years. Three die before the book closes.

Between the Acts .

With the bombing of her and Leonard’s two houses, the Woolfs are driven to live wholly in the country and Monk’s House. Now she can no longer put barriers between herself and the local people. Written at the end of her life, a time of despair over the war) her experimental historical novel, Between the Acts. The bombing had driven her and Leonard into the country and Woolf tells of a self-reflexive pageant set in three eras, put on by local people. History is conceived as fragments of historical experience recorded in books, scattered relics, local memories and graves within a continuum of time. One detail: she writes about Coleridge in a spirit where she re-engages with her ambivalence over her savage violent bullying and yet ever so civilized father. It’s 21st century like that it should be a group of people putting on a pageant. Themselves all lost, bewildered, often unhappy. Highly original self-reflexive historical novel. Orlando had been her historical romance (time-traveling lesbian classic that it is).

We also see the great troubles she is having with Pargiters trying for a combination of political milieu and family narrative tale (based on her own), rather Tolstoyan. Part of the reason VW killed herself was how she felt she would not stay sane and be a burden; she wouldn’t stay sane because she would not be able to cope — she hates (as I would) the reaction of fellow semi-Nazi citizens around her.

I have read The Years which is almost my favorite, but not this time round.

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Roger Frye, a self-portrait

Her biography of Roger Fry

Vanessa liked Woolf’s Roger Fry – Fry was her ex-lover, her artistic mentor, she was much moved and became affectionate towards Virginia for a time. Virginia gave a lecture in Brighton to 200 women, among them Elizabeth Robins, Octavia Wilberforce. Leonard said Angelica should be let to live her own life (Garnett had been Duncan’s Angelica’s father’s lover). It was pretty widely reviewed: Fry was seen as important and he was a kind of symbol of high culture. It was hypocritical of those who hit at him for his background because most of the writers of reviews in England at the same time came from that background, maybe not quite so literary or art-y. Or they personally chose not to become so.

At first silence greeted Roger Fry and then a bitter debate: some praised, EMForster said it was a defence of civilization; Herbert Read (an arch conservative, a fact Lee doesn’t mention) attacked as elitist super-sensitivity – has elitism come to be synonymous with civilized educated behavior? She responded telling of Frye’s social commitment, that her books reach a wider circle than his, and offered to debate “between air raids.”

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Kati Horna: Retreat with Wounded Soldier

The war:

One could hear the drone of the German planes flying over the channel to drop their bombs, the bombs dropping, the people killed, everything destroyed. As they lay flat on the ground they hear guns overhead

Kent harder hit than Sussex; then Hitler switches to nightly raids on London. I have read some of these moving depictions of the destruction of London – by Elizabeth Bowen in Heat of the Day remains with me – shocked, ragged, rapid, raw – people in shelters killed. Horrifying messes. Mecklenberg smashed – uninhabitable. Leonard: “well really possessions are such a nuisance, perhaps it will be a good thing to start clear again: (the joke that tries for perspective …)

Bomb drops near Vanessa and Duncan’s workshop so Virginia; there were fierce quarrels.


Vanessa Bell by Duncan Grant (during the war years)

Where she had written so much, where they had sat so many nights, given so many parties. Loss of possessions they worked so hard to get. 24 volumes of her diaries were salvaged! – but huge destruction of masses of papers and her and other houses – -and deaths. They end up moving what was left to Monks House – grimy, hopelessly jumbled heaps. They acquire a new kitten – from kitten she says “I can’t make a warm hollow for myself”

She did have an English identity, in the culture of that city, Churchill on “our majestic city” Woolf reduced to “a crushed match box”. In the country they began to know many people; watched the ways all sorts of people reacted to the bombing, killing ,and Germans. Leonard and Virginia speak horribly about disabled people but they try to help them. She had the hardest time with local gentry. Bomb explodes on river bank: beautiful looks, deeply destructive literally of countryside.

Walks, writes family memories, and black sardonic story (The Legacy): dark side of her own marriage; husband wrapped up, absorbed in his work, she regrets not having had children; and now that Hogarth Press is gone, she can’t get it published. Another story about suicide, “The Symbol”

Stuck for paper, she uses local library, cheap notebook for diary and she begins to plan for third common reader, Reading at Random, not focused on author or text but cultural. What it meant to be a writer “thwarted by our society:interruptions: conditions.” First chapter begins with “Anon.” Communal pre-audience world. Was to include Goldsmith (very much constrained by literary marketplace), Sevigne (not), Henry James. She writes two more essays: Ellen Terry, Hester Thrale Piozzi. She has to write in same room as Leonard and can’t take it. She accidentally (ha) nearly drowns.

I wonder could they get liquor? Meaning wine, beer, or alcohol, Lee doesn’t cite these as rationed. Sigh. She doesn’t think of it. One article on-line says liquor was not rationed and another it was rationed, that industrial alcohol needed for war effort; whiskey production stopped. What you might get was very expensive and you had to know the grocer, be favored. Pubs carried on (limited how many drinks you might have?). You could make alcohol but then you had to get grain.

Bitterly cold; using bikes, cut off from friends. Painfully thin, it makes you afraid to see her. The war was not being won; invasion thought imminent. She can’t write – ironically she complains of a lack of public, no printer. She goes to London to see ruined city. She writes about sexual shame and sexual abuse in her childhood to Ethel. She argues with Desmond she can speak for workers; some visits but she cannot trust the people to be endurable

She is disgusted by the conversations of women. (All tarts says Virginia: US about to have a whore as First Lady and Trump threatens to sue anyone who says so in public; the inauguration coming up: ought to be deeply shameful spectacle, but is it? An actual whore with the Rockettes in front of them.) She finished Pointz Hall as Between the Acts – surely Leonard now sees. Olivia Wilberforce visits her and she says she’s desperately depressed, Village will not permit her to do fire-watching as Leonard does. Haunted by memories of father. They go to London and lunch with John Lehman and he sees how tense she is

Another attempt at suicide called an accident on Tuesday ,the 18th, her letter dated “Tuesday” Leonard sees her coming and begins to worry yet more. But it seems to me does not recognize this as a second suicide attempt – a signal to him to help her. But he cannot let himself see what is in front of him. It’s probably too much for him. What was he enduring? A jewish man, deeply liberal, his life’s work in politics for nothing.

Lee goes on about how Virginia’s suicide not an act of fear. She is a schmuck here. Yes I agree her suicide not an act of fear – why should people worry that suicide be seen as an act of fear? If some see it so automatically, they are fools. So she overstates and says the act was rational. No it was not. And it was not deliberate in the sense that she could not throw off the depression but wanted to.

Vanessa comes and writes her a letter which is in effect bullying. She must not get sick again. It’s the letter of someone imposing herself on Woolf, yes she thanks Virginia for “saving her,” but it is a she and Leonard know better than Virginia. She needed this like a hole in her head.

She is told by Lehman he has advertised her book (The Years) and its publication cannot be reversed. So now she’s between a rock and a hard place: do not get sick but endure the publication of this book. She did visit a villager, she got letters of praise from Forster on Jacob’s room and Lehman on Between the acts. Leonard tries to tell her she needs a rest cure, tells Octavia how worried he is. Told by them rest not work the only cure. Right.

Leonard can’t be with her every minute and she drowns herself on Friday March 28th. River running fast and high, she puts a large stone in her pocket and lets herself drown.

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Aftermath:

Close friends told; by April 1 the body had not been found. The Times carried article on 3 April, begins to be reported, River Ouse dragged. Tributes begin. Leonard received over 200 letters, replied to each, to himself. Body found 18 April. Distasteful music; he came alone to her cremation; he hated the pretentious casket. He used quote from Waves; Against you I will fling myself unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!

Leonard carries on business of papers one has to cope with 753. He says he is better off coping alone. The year of 1943 as described in this book and VW’s almost understandable (now to me) suicide. Not quite: as I don’t quite get why Carrington couldn’t live on who had such friends, such worlds to belong to; so why Woolf couldn’t manage with Leonard there. What if she hadn’t had him. I get that. I did read somewhere (maybe this book) that in 1943 Mark Gertler killed himself. He was Jewish.

Leonard was rightly irritated when his choice of “Cavatina” for Virginia’s cremation was replaced by “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Gluck’s Orfeo. I remember how I had to be alert to every reference to Jim’s actual death: he went to his rest the video had on it at the end; I protested angrily each time. How dare they? And Leonard had no one there with him so no need to worry (for those who do) others will be offended. I am not sure one should make a wild joke about one’s death so when it was said the other day Carrie Fisher chose for her urn a pill box for Prozac I can see the mockery of pretension, and Leonard had only pretentious choices. He did make a plain tablet to put above where he buried the urn.

Some jackass wrote a letter printed by the Times excoriating anyone who kills themselves; we “all take our part nobly in this fight against the devil.” For once Leonard doesn’t heed his own advice and answers the jerk, trying to explain. Carrington better off not having anyone to take her as a symbol.


From their middle years together

For the next 28 years Leonard kept up a campaign to keep Virginia Woolf in the public eye as important, respected, he would bring out the vast amount of unpublished material (not novels you see) at carefully timed intervals. He husbanded the material, edited it (so cut sections of A Writer’s Diary), he controlled the way the texts were presented for better or worse.

From Moments of Being: Woolf repeatedly recurs to the real problems of writing a biography. In a way her real thrust totally undermines the social construction point of view (I use a different term but it was the Foucault argument we got into last fall — that far back): what she wants is to get into a biography the deep self, moments of being innate in use through what we remember. One problem here is to do this you’d have a million word first chapter. I particularly liked her worries about moments of “non-being,” left out by Lee. These are the hours we are alive that we do not remember, that if asked about we cannot account for the next day, when we are not fully there somehow or even much. For myself these occur especially at night ,and blogging is a way of overcoming “non-being,” so the next morning if I try to remember how I spent the night, there’s the blog showing that I did exist, and what I thought and how I lived my life that night. Readers might concentrate on the particular content in the two blogs not supposed to be about me, with other subjects, and even the Sylvia blog does not stress how I’m overcoming non-existence.

Diarist feel they get to exist by recording their intimate lives. With some important exception for women especially of recording sex lives (one’s homosexuality for example for a man), and maybe something they are determined to keep hidden (yet often let out — Toibin says diarists want to be “found out”), in fact they don’t worry about privacy for real except that until the Net when people can blog daily and without an editor, often diarists were much freer by deciding not to publish. This is risky as so often around you are relatives who don’t in the least sympathize with or understand you, especially those who regard writing as something that must be monitored lest it endanger their or a friend’s reputation in whatever way.

Lee says it was first in the 1960s she became an icon, a myth, a literary heroine, texts for feminists. She went on living and changing after her death.

Lee pulls away from the death itself. She is a woman who herself does not care for unpleasantness any more than true non-conformity in social life. But she has gone after Woolf like one would a ghost and re-created or found and presented her fully.

Ellen


Virginia Woolf, a photo taken in 1939

“And the phantom was a woman, and when I came to know her better I called … her the Angel in the House … And when I came to write I encountered her with the very first words…And she made as if to guide my pen … I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her … Had I not killed her she would have killed me … She died hard … She was always creeping back when I thought I had dispatched her.”

Dear friends and readers,

A couple of months ago now I wrote a group of us on Trollope19thCStudies @Yahoo had finished a months’ long reading and discussion of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, in my case accompanied by watching four film adaptations (Bondarchuk; BBC 1972). I read several books, keep at several writing projects, teach, write papers and blogs, watch movies all at once. So along with Tolstoy (as I wrote in August since August 2016) I and a couple of friends have been reading Virginia Woolf. I’ve decided to put this on my general blog as eventually I will show that she is a modernist as central to modern literature as the over-lauded Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and any other post-modern experimental artist. I’m just now reading Graham Swift’s masterpiece, Last Orders (a Booker Prize winner, adapted into a powerful film) and think it owes much more to Woolf’s Waves than Faulkner, or both Faulkner and Swift are sons of Virginia Woolf.

I just love her writing, fiction and non-fiction, and together we read the great literary biography of her by Hermione Lee, and with a couple of others took detours into new texts, writing I’d not read before (The Waves, Memoirs of a Novelist) and re-read and felt anew the extraordinary writing of/in The Voyage Out and To the Lighthouse. Not to omit John Lehman’s important book on the Hogarth Press, Thrown to the Woolves. Memories: I had read more than 10 years ago now, and so loved The Years, her Common Readers, her life-writing in essay format, A Room of One’s Own, Three Guineas), but had still not attempted The Waves, Between the Acts, both of which I’d wanted to understand and enjoy. It was out of all this I discovered Carrington had many so many pictures, was a great letter-writer, and fell in love with her work. And just now I’m attending my first literary OLLI course as a class member (not teacher), where the topic is Virginia Woolf, and I’m now half-way through Mrs Dalloway (I last read it as an undergraduate).


From Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party: Woolf makes the cut of the 39 place settings

Out of all this what can I offer to a reader to tempt her (or him) to read Woolf if you’ve not started or read only a little of, and how to ignore or get past misrepresentation which leads to readers coming with pre-conceived hostility or else staying away (Albee’s anti-feminist title, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf has done much harm) altogether. My experience when I first turned to her is getting to know her for real helps, and Lee’s biography goes a long way towards doing just that. So I’ll write two blogs on Lee’s biography to start with, and then move on to the Woolf’s novels.

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Lee begins with a meditation on biography itself — as life-writing is what Woolf did a lot of. Her first sectionf her first chapter (pp. 1-11) is made up of comments by Woolf on the difficulty or impossibility of biography. We can see that Lee gave a lot of thought to how she was going to turn Woolf’s voluminous writing into an alive life. She then dives into essays where Woolf is trying to get at the essence of a personality, and thinking about the dead biographies, lifeless, “mausoleum books.” How the biographer has to get at the essence of the self and project it. How adhere to the truth (no hagiography). The conflict for a biographer is between fact and inner life. She was herself defensive towards Winifred Holtby who wrote the first biography of her as a single chapter in a book. Woolf saw a ludicrous gap between her own memory of an event and what others wrote or say about it. She did not want her secrets (whatever these were) given away. She starts to write Stephen Frye’s life. What a grind it is. How shall she do it: specimen days; different stages, then there’s the “complexity and intrigue” of someone’s character in life. In painting we see the irreverent. Her own work compromised by her connections that enabled her to publish it. She had a passion for the lives of the obscure, who turn out to be women.

So I took my first detour and read her Memoirs of a Novelist for the first time.

It contains five separate pieces. Two are riveting. On “The Mysterious Case of Miss V:” at first I was not sure Miss Willatt, the novelist whose memoirs her friend, Miss Linsett, has written was a fiction! But of course it is. Woolf shows that the way biographies of women novelists especially (but men too) are written you end up knowing nothing about them. She makes the point that the marmoreal obvious lies could not fool anyone and asks, so why do people write or read such books? Then slowly and with difficulty our narrator ferrets out what can be said for real of Miss Willatt. Alas, not much. That she was conventionally ugly, that her father made her life a misery until he died, that she was capable of deceiving Miss Linsett endlessly, a restless and disappointed woman who sought her happiness in her self and not others, and was never given a chance at an individual life. The Miss Willatt type of biography goes on today. What do readers think a book exists for? Why do people take the trouble to say such rot? Not to know the person’s life.

“The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn,” is a gem, brief, of the type Diski so brilliantly writes in her Apology for a Woman Writing, a short fictionalized, semi-biography of Montaigne’s worshipping disciple, Marie de Gornay as she related to Montaigne (a presence in the book) and her servant. Deeply moving. Here she’s Miss Rosamund Merridew, age 45, who is trying to understand Joan Martyn’s journal, a series of yellow fragments of parchment. How hard it is to get any information: Miss Merridew visits an old hall (15th century one in a decaying early 20th century state). The man there seems to be a minor clergyman and who keeps on his wall “mementos of dead animals, raising paws.” The man takes out his family history and of course we know what that will be … This piece reminded me of Lampedusa’s Gattopardo: the creation of the atmosphere, the insistence on the reality of a person living in such a house, how the place is set up, where papers are, how remnants from generations of people haunt the rooms. Then we plunge into a controlled stream of consciousness which is so immediate and intense with felt life. What makes it extraordinary is the tone, rhythm of the language. It reads like some recreation of earlier language where ritual, repetition is the mode of sentences, and that in itself a sign the girl is structured in her very mind not to have any thought of her own destiny. What happens is Joan is utterly obedient to her mother, family, and is married off to an older man, and then she is dying. A brief life, of someone highly gifted, of real kindness, unable to have a genuine original thought, dying almost upon adulthood. Deeply poetic semi-comic historical fiction, presented as a biographer trying to do her task, shaped at all points by the structures and outlook of l’ecriture-femme. How can we know earlier women? quietly despairing


Horham Hall — plan of restored great hall

Chapters Two through Four are Houses, Paternal, Maternal. I remembered Bachelard’s Poetics of Space: Yes houses are so central to our memories of our pasts. (When I try to remember the past I ask myself, was it before or after or during the time we lived in such and such a place.) To the Lighthouse records Woolf’s memories of summers in St Ives, Cornwall (become the Hebrides), a proto-ghost story, haunted, different people in the house now, she has no right to be there … It was liberty. The contrast the tall narrow attached house in Kensington, Talland house, all constriction, performance, heavy furniture, curtains, the kitchen downstairs awful, dark, nothing done to ease servants having to live and to work there. As I read about Hyde Park Gate I was struck by how close and dark and hard to clean it was. Nowadays we live I wide open spaces surrounded by plastic things, light colors, easy to clean. It actually as a house seemed to me claustrophobic. I am surrounded by books but that’s all. 17 people in the house. At most where I’ve lived there were 4, all family members. Imagine being the servants in their hot tiny spaces. On p 40 Lee quotes Woolf registering how bad it must have been to work for the Carlyles: two of the most exacting nervous people of their time. Jane Carlyle did join her maid in the struggle for warmth and cleanliness – a losing battle. A lot of the things were also relics. Everyone died at all ages, and they are all surrounded by memorabilia of death. We are not told how Minny, Leslie Stephens’s first wife died: pregnancy. She probably died of eclampsia, still quite often a killer today,and her daughter’s developmental problems stemmed from the premature birth. Woolf’s memory of buying ices as this big event. How can such people when they grow up deal with calamity? Their iron self-esteem, their connections money and power they think will come through. On her disabled step- or half-sister, she talks callously

Lee is showing how entrenched in a Victorian set-up Virginia was and that when she and Leonard became part of a Bloomsbury group, many of whose members had parents who had been part of the Edwardian intelligensia elite, they were replicating the embedded coterie Victorian worlds. Virginia’s inheritance was more than 2500£ from a Quaker aunt. Julia Cameron was a relative. Lee says how natural for Woolf to have written a feminist treatise focusing on having a room of your own. How Woolf eventually organized her writing space and within that pictorial details. Yet they all live embedded together; Lee’s point is Woolf’s was a Victorian upper middle childhood. Hard to clean place, everyone assumes respectability must be kept up …

We move on to Childhood, Siblings first deaths: I’ll cut to the chase: for my part I find her preference for her brother, Thoby, very like Jane Austen’s for Frank Austen: the conventional male-brother; he may have had epileptic fits. After the parents’ death, Vanessa became the most important person in Woolf’s life until Leonard and she married. Vanessa seemed all that Virginia couldn’t be: earth mother, easy affairs (at first, they were deeply anguished eventually as Duncan Grant was more homosexual than otherwise, and she needed him more than he her). It was the obtuse dense Duckworth brothers, especially Gerald who sexually abused Virginia as a child. Lee cannot get her mind around the idea this “small” or fleeting set of transient “petting” episodes so traumatized Woolf. So she does what she can to dismiss the incest charge as overdone: her attitude is how common and fleeting this sort of physical forcing by say one cousin on another. Like Rosemary Ashton on George Eliot & Lewes, Lee tries to turn out a normalized Virginia.

The second crashing event was the early unexpected death of her mother (Virginia was 13); Stephens then used and abused (not sexually but in many other ways) the two older daughters, Stella from his first marriage, and Vanessa. Lee tries to answer how far these specific events led to the episodes of breakdown, derangement. I suggest they are part of a large picture of sexual mis-education so profound on a sensitive girl – I find the insistence on feeding her evidence of anorexia, another expression of profound sexual mis-education and repression. Woolf often uses imagery of a veil or wall in women’s minds; so does George Eliot. My view is what happens later counts a lot too, and my guess is her experiences of sexuality with women, with Leonard Woolf and what she experienced of literary and social life later reinforced rather than counter-acted what she knew as a girl.

Liaisons, Bloomsbury, the new art, sexual experimentation, Vanessa marries, then Virginia and Leonard . Her father’s death freed both she and Vanessa to live a modern life, to rent a house in Bloomsbury and mingle with as equals their brother’s friends and art worlds. Virginia escapes to intense study, writing mood pictures. She is tense and diffident with world outside her family (not too great with family either). She did voluntary teaching at Morley College. She gave it up after two years. All the difficulties of teaching real people before us. I remember Woolf writing at one point, if the individual only would or could, they could learn more by steady reading than any lecture as the lecture is perforce much less dense, less nuanced. Her relationship with a working class man remembered in Mrs Dalloway. She writes all the time, on holidays what she sees. Intensely aware of pre-history underlying civilized world.

Great plans for all to go to Greece, Vanessa refusing Clive for a second summer. VW studies away, Thoby ecstatic at what he sees – poignant material found in Jacob’s Room. In Virginia’s notes she does not want to write cliches, problem of how to get down the experience while modern Greece appalled her. A rich person’s country estate in Euboea. Dominated by doctors, medicine, VW had appendicitis, depression, stress, The hotel suddenly sick room, Vanessa has had it too; Virginia deeply involved with first woman: Violet Dickensn and she is lectured by Violet on necessity of unselfishness and self-effacement. They get home, Thoby seriously ill; turns out he has typhoid. An operation 17 Nov; he dies 20 Nov. There are astonishing letters to Dickenson where Virginia writes of Thoby’s progress all the while he is dead – for a full month. Lee takes this as understandable because Violet is ill. I don’t. It’s crazed behavior.

Each family death causes them to lose a home: after Julia, Talland House; after Leslie, Hyde Park Gate, after Thoby Gordon Square. Vanessa to marry; Clive loves her, is artistic, literary, VW must make home with Adrian. The rich and illiterate Clive family home, fox-hunting, church going, money from mines. Virginia as I see it is now alone and having to adjust: she and Adrian are not congenial, not compatible; they set up housekeeping in Fitzroy Square and she does get into more adult and frank talk with male visitors from
Rupert Brooke to Lytton Strachey (they were equivalent geniusses) – but also considerable showing off (as in Lytton Strachey’s famously uttering “semen”. I find Virginia brave for all the times she traveled alone. She learnt she would not have a good time with Vanessa and Clive.

Virginia was finding herself sexually and couldn’t find a man to be a partner with among those she met – she put it down to scared of sex – sex did mean pregnancy and Lee seems to forget that women the first time are often terrified of getting so big, think the childbirth will tear them apart. She grew up in this repressed environment and that’s why Duckworth was so harmful –he was part of it. Lee again demurs about this trauma Virginia insisted she never got over. She’s got a right not to get over it. She writes: “My terror of real life has always kept me in a nunnery.” She saw it was more than the trauma over sex, but it was that. What’s real life anyway?

Several chapters on the experience of World War One: Lee cannot sympathize with pacifism, nor the subversive outlook in so many areas of this circle of people — they had been so privileged. Lee puts Woolf’s “writing” decisively on the side of the anti-authoritarian, on the side of woman’s suffrage, and on the side of post-impression, which presumably would, to a traditionalist, make her a modernist. Lee criticizes Woolf for her lack of participation in specific issues. She was just not one to get involved; in comparison, Leonard is the true socialist, organizer, man of politics. I did not realize that Roger Frye was beyond his centrality in the art of this group Vanessa’s lover and deep friend of Virginia. No wonder she tried to write his biography.


Vanessa Bell, Leonard Woolf

A long section explaining the sources and complication of Virginia and Leonard’s relationship. Diane Reynold summed it up beautifully: “there is a grand bargain going on in this marriage, each partner trading deficits, finding attractions, a complex dance. Mental illness is swapped for Judaism: each partner brings a negative in the context of the culture. However, Leonard no longer has to return to Ceylon: with Virginia’s money and the solid social entree she provides, and what he supplements earning (does it not occur to Lee that Leonard’s compulsive overworking might have compensated not for lack of sex but for not wanting to live “on” his wife?); in any case, he can do work more attuned with his heart, such as start a press, support socialist causes. She gets the stability and social respectability of marriage. They both get companionship with an intelligent and congenial spouse. I agree with Ellen on the importance of outsider status.” Both outsiders in different ways. We find the source of the title of her profoundly anti-patriarchy, anti-war tract: three guineas was the price of an abortion (from a draft section of The Years).

But they did belong to a circle of like-minded outsiders: they were all part of a movement called modernism, which included far more than people in Bloomsbury (Americans in Paris, Joyce, Italian and French writers, women and men in music and art). In brief, experimental in form in all areas of art, radical thought, transgressive of genres, in writing using stream of consciousness which is so common now: minimal plot and action (these are not adventure stories with forward-driving outward plots), intense immediacy of another mind, interior is maximized with focus on language and ambiguity. They needed the Hogarth Press to get their stuff published. Hints on reading stream of consciousness: look for pointers; they are still there, as in “Clarissa Dalloway thought” or in parenthesis: “(for a girl of eighteen as she then was)”; or indentations, or old-fashioned third person indirect discourse where the narrator is there, however discreetly, indentations on the page showing a new mind is on the page; indications of where the speaker-mind is, “She stiffened on the kerb, waiting for Durtnall’s van to pass.” The pointers are kept to a minimum so as not to get in the way of the imagined character and the reader. You have also to care about nuances of thought, insights, passing things we see, ruminations of subjective memories, all the phenomena going on around us, as well as individual characters’ deep situations of emotion indicated by epitomizing painful and guarded thought.

I want to end this blog before it gets overlong by moving to a chapter in Lee which is disappointing but which attempts something important: Virginia’s reading, what meant a lot to her and how. I am more interested in that than her sex life, which eventually became lesbian, her relationship with Leonard, central though his disciplined and supportive presence was. Would all the chapters were like this one: Lee seemed to me to enter more into the reading process, why we love it, how we react and feel as we are reading, how we do it, how it’s integrated into our lives than I can remember reading (joke alert). And she does it through quoting Woolf describing her reading behavior, processes. I find books mean as much to me and in the way of Virginia.


Vanessa Bell, The Artist’s Daughter Reading

In my dissertation I argued central to the writing of the new immersive romance — or novels with complex characters (subjective presences) was this mood of reverie into which the writer went, out of which he or she wrote (with seeing pictures, hearing voices) communicated into the mind of the reader so he or she forgets you are on chair reading, dream you are there somehow. If someone prods you on the shoulder, the suspension of disbelief is off. Paradoxically as Lee goes on, I become aware how rare this kind of deep feeling living with others and places is probably for many people. Thus this mood of reverie I attributed to these writers is a reading mood (Bachelard probably has some passages on this). The word “reverie” is born in mid-century to mean an imaginative mood of high intensity, often connected to some erotic source. Books can arouse us sensually and sexually too.

Diane pointed out that Lee never does tell us which were Woolf’s touchstone books, she does not cite the favorites, which ones read and reread. “Lee makes the point that for Woolf books influenced her as much as relationships (of course, that cries out for her to tell us which books were lifelong friends, which fell away, which were passing infatuations etc…). We learn that reading is Woolf’s life’s pleasure and her life’s work … Woolf read widely and diversely, as many of us do, and liked to mix second rate with first rate literature, as it helped her understand the best literature and its context better. The second rate helped “fertilize” her mind for the “great.” I also appreciated that she hated that coteries with power in the publishing and literary worlds pushed second rate books, the middlebrow, as better than they are: we see that often in our times, needless to say, and we hear people rave about truly mediocre books that are the “thing.”

Part Two will be about Woolf’s relationships with women, Katharine Mansfield, Vita Sackville-West, Ethel Smyth among them, the Hogarth Press, her writing years, the making of the successful careers, and then the slide into World War Two.


I read and reread and loved Alcott’s Little Women and Good Wives at the age of 9 — it was just this edition, this cover

Ellen

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Sister Helen (Kate Lindsey) holding hands with Joseph de Rocher (Michael Maynes), Dead Man Walking

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve seen a new great opera. It’s not often I’ve felt this. For a number of years Jim and I, sometimes with Izzy, went to recent and mid-20th century operas performed at the Castleton Festival in summer here in Virginia. Jim took me to Silver Springs AFI theater where we occasionally saw an extraordinary HD transmission of a European production of a recent opera: I remember Britten’s Peter Grimes from Covent Garden. Over 45 years of marriage and living together we occasionally saw a new opera in London or Rome or Paris (maybe 5 times). I can recall a very good short opera about a puppeteer theater, Britten’s Turn of the Screw and feminist (would you believe) Lucretia, Eurotrash renditions of classics, Menotti’s appealing (to me) Amal and the Night Visitors.

Tonight at least none of them that I remember except maybe Peter Grimes astonished me the way this did. We are not spared at all, from the enactment of raw emotion: its unsparing dramatization of ferocious anger on the part of the murdered youngster’s parents, and attempt to show the brutal crime, its equally insistent dramatization of Mrs de Rocher (in this production Susan Graham) as grieving she is a failed mother and yet refusing to allow her son, Joseph (Michael Maynes) to confess he did the crime and say he hopes his death provides some relief. To the insistent pressure and nagging that he must tell the truth in order for Sister Helen (Kate Lindsey) to reach him and offer love. We are not spared the the execution scene where we can see how every effort is made to detach all individuals from doing the act: the police strap the man down, the nurse administers the compound into a feed, but the actual killing is done by a timed switch.

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This shot from the 1995 movie is re-created in this opera production

In Kate Wingfield’s brief if otherwise rave review of the Washington Opera production of Dead Man Walking (music Jake Heggie, libretto/play Terence McNally), Wingfield tells us to wipe out of our minds the 1995 movie made from [Sister] Helen’s memoir with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. The implication is this opera won’t compete or is so utterly different from 1990s film and books (to say nothing of podcasts, radio broadcasts, it’s bound to disappoint unless we hold off on expectations. is it? Arnold Salzman found it magnificent.

Whatever might be the high quality of these earlier iterations, this one on its own, as opera should, reaches the tragedies of our failed social compact today. For it has failed, and most people seem to have no understanding why. A culture gone utterly awry in what it tells itself in the news, publicly. Why else this desperate election of a corrupt malevolent lying clown? The setting is perfect (Allen Moyer): the prison is a realistic recall of Marat/Sade as I’ve ever seen, all black and white, bars, the prisoners on death row mad with anger, the behaviors crazed enactments of frustrations from believing in our macho male norms: American prisons are as bad as any ever were, back to medieval times. The costumes capture the working class characters in jeans, T-shirts, frizzy dyed hair for women (De Rochers), the lower middle (carefully put-together pant suits on the heavy awkwardly made-up women, cheap suits on the men). The nuns, Helen and Rose (Jacqueline Echols) are innocuous in soft blouses and thin skirts.

The story and now this opera is intended and I think it is a deeply anti-capital punishment fable. The auditorium was full and the applause strong. I admit as I left I overheard some conversation which was not encouraging — people saying they “could not sympathize” — the dress of the Kennedy Center patron is upper middle. It is also religious as it’s suggested the nun’s intense generosity of spirit, her willingness to open up comes from her religion, not ethics or rational conclusion upon the full circumstances. It’s not by chance that the hero is not black but a white man. In reality state killings are acted out upon black men far more than their percentage in the population could make believably unprejudiced. With private prisons, draconian imposed sentences, in states where the local culture is obtuse and merciless, executions carry on. So how much good this story has done thus far and can do is hard to say. It explicitly advocates compassion when it should speak more in the vein of this could be you or I who got involved with this, whose child killed or was killed, who is the “failed mother” (thus Mrs De Rocher berates herself), destroyed parent. What were these 20 year olds doing out there in that swamp that night, in that drug-filled club?

It is an opera which shows a people fixated upon death. Death is all around them. In that park that night. The two rapists had guns, clubs, weapon-filled. On the highway the nun speeds down a cop is waiting to threaten until he realizes she is a nun. In the prison. Seemingly everywhere. Police are belligerence personified. This opera slowly becomes transcendent with grief. David Friscic finds it a “dark night of the soul” and one of the people sitting by me was moved t to say in the intermission, “this is no comedy, nothing light here.”

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Susan Graham as Mrs De Rocher begging the appeals board not to kill her son

It’s what Joseph Kerman argued for in his great book Operas as Drama: it’s a sung play, whose dialogue is satisfying. Terence McNally is a great playwright. Nuance is what is respected: well this has nuance throughout: small moments of characters moving in this or that direction. In the second act Owen Hart, the father of the teenage boy who was murdered comes forward to speak to Helen and say that he is not sure the execution is going to give him satisfaction; his wife and he are now separated, and a sense that far from helping, this execution is meaningless to him. The role was to be sung by Wayne Tigges, but he was ill and a bass-baritone was flown in from some other opera house in another state!w whoever he was, he was superb in quiet realism. Graham as Mrs de Rocher remembering Joseph playing porpoise in the water as a child, his giving presents to his half-brothers. The background of poverty, a broken marriage, a dyslexic boy ignored, disciplined, given up on and getting into company of similarly thrown-away young men is suggested by her memories. The larger emblematic scenes (this would be Francesca Zambello) are effective — such as the appeals board. It opens with Helen and Rose and their children singing about love being all around us (from God) and at the end Helen remembers and re-sings the melody. But inbetween are these black and barred scenes, the men on death row, shouting, and angry. Such is the US today.

I thought the singing beautiful — the nun is the center of lovely and ritual melody, Mrs de Rocher’s music echoing hers, and the music harsh and shrill where this was called for. I am not musically knowledgeable enough to particularize further but it did seem to me the closest musical experience I’ve had to the great Death of Klinghoffer which Izzy and I went to NYC to see and hear in November of 2015. I know the Met was badly burned by these deeply reactionary anti-Palestinian groups over that one. This is a similarly deeply humane deeply liberal clairvoyant experience. It’s not choral in the way of John Adams. The US working and lower middle class, Louisiana are not places where social groups come together in any kind of felt love, but its base is the same quiet realism. Here is my review of Adams’s opera truly at the center of American operatic culture, sincerely and genuinely (uncorrupted by trash realizations that sell). Here’s Izzy’s concise take in the context of Adams’s other opera, Nixon in China, and being literally at the Met opera itself.

FILM: DEAD MAN WALKING (1995) SUSAN SARANDON AND SEAN PENN IN A SCENE FROM THE (1995) FILM  WORKING TITLE 01/05/1995 CTK32024 Film still Drama
Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn as Helen and Joseph (this scene is recreated in the production

I should not leave out that this work’s source is a woman’s memoir. On one side of me was sitting a young woman who told me she has met Sister Helen twice. Helen Prejean is now devoting all her time to ending capital punishment. She needs to turn her attention to the larger issue of a harshly punitive culture, and a continuum of de-humanizing and using pain to the point of torture (solitary confinement is merely the most egregious) as the larger context to fight against. It’s women who write such books: Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, and a book I hope to produce a useful review of here soon, Elisabeth Weber and Julie Carson’s important book of essays, Speaking about Torture. As De Rocher is led to his execution, the police and guards cry out: Dead Man Walking.

There are only two performances left in the Kennedy Center, but this is not the first production (in that Susan Graham was Sister Helene). The 1995 film (scripted by Tim Robbins from Sister Helen Prejean’s memoir) was nominated for and won several well-deserved awards. I wish the Metropolitan opera would pick it up and make it an HD opera — my only worry would be they might over-produce. I couldn’t locate any shots of the stage and a limited number of photos of the actors so have filled in with two stills from the 1995 film. So many pre-20th century operas are museum pieces and worse: they are misogynistic, imperialist, just absurd or silly. Every effort is made to somehow make them acceptable or congenial to modern opera-going audiences. Here the opera itself speaks home to us.

Ellen

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Ross (Aidan Turner) and Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson)

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Elizabeth (Heida Reed), Geoffrey Charles (unnamed) and George Warleggan (Jack Farthing)

She’d say life holds only two or three things worth the having, and if you possess them the rest don’t matter, and if you do not possess them the rest are useless (Graham, Warleggan, Bk 4:Ch 5, p 439; repeated in screenplay but attributed to Ross rather than Demelza, screenplay, 70 INT, pp 578-79)

Dear friends and readers,

[Note: this blog assumes the reader has read Graham’s novels, viewed the 1970s mini-series, and is interested in the art as well as content of the books and this older and the new 2015-16 mini-series. I don’t re-cap, expect the viewer to have seen the film, understood the story, and remember it generally.]

So we come to the end of the second season of the Debbie Horsfield’s new Poldark and Winston Graham’s powerful fourth novel, Warleggan. I was powerfully moved by the new finale, which remained close in most respects to the book, but have to admit I was equally deeply engaged by its counterpart in 1975, Jack Russell’s Episode 16, whose events moved so far from the book so as to present a different story, but whose sense and spirit were a theatrically Jacobin version in spirit of the book (rather like Jack Pulman’s Episodes 3 and 4 related to the conclusion of Graham’s first novel, Ross Poldark). I burst into tears at the 1975 version, not just because Demelza’s beloved dog, Garrick, is shot by Warleggan’s thugs, but at some wrenching of me within as Ross (Robin Ellis) and Demelza (Angharad Rees), continue fiercely to tear at one another.

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I didn’t cry during this second iteration because I have a hard time accepting one of the changes Horsfield made: in Graham’s book and in Russell’s rendition, well before Ross’s last visit to Trenwith to talk with Warleggan and (in the book) Elizabeth, Demelza makes the difficult effort to forgive, accept, and let her love for Ross come out and respond to him again so that they could have gone to bed again (Bk 4, Ch 3, pp 413-414 — he feels he will wait until she will feel no reserve once again). In Warleggan they do quarrel angrily in the last scene (over very different and woman’s way of seeing his conduct and his refusal to acknowledge her understanding of what happened is just too), such that they nearly break up as they nearly do in Horsfield’s version (Bk 4, Ch 7, pp 460-66). In my view Graham stopped writing the series for 20 years because he had reached such an impasse, with Ross still at least longing for Elizabeth to acknowledge an ex-love (she won’t, now that he never turned up after the rape, left her pregnant, and she has had to marry a man she doesn’t love and who she knows doesn’t love her, she hates Ross), and Ross and Demelza reconciling themselves to the reality of conflicting emotions they must live with. But Horsfield and Eleanor Tomlinson’s Demelza reached a point of bitterness, sarcasm (she jeers at Ross — “What it is to be married to such a great man!”)), spite in her eyes, hate in a visit to Elizabeth (not in the book)

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Demelza confronting Elizabeth

Elizabeth: ‘Why have you come?’
Demelza: ‘I thought ’twas to tell you that I hate you. That you’ve marred my faith and broke my marriage. That I envy you. for the passion you roused which Ross could not withstand. That I pity you … But now I wonder what do any of it matter? what you did — what Ross did — cannot be undone. And you both must live with that. But I need not.

and reluctant grudging silence even in her last scene with Ross, her eyes so narrow, her face so pinched, that I felt alienated from the character I had bonded with. I found it just so painful that she did not seem to value Ross, invest her whole being there (the way I had with my husband and have imagined Demelza does in the book). A part of my deep joy in the novels is the character of Demelza as imagined by Graham and she is never hateful with fierce looks of spite; never stalks anyone. I can respond better to open hurt than rigid withholding of the self and resentment. Horsfield’s conception and Tomlinson’s acting makes deep pyschological sense, but I could find little to comfort myself with here. I felt for Aidan Turner as Ross, remorseful, trying to be honest (she says he is not honest when he is), and clinging to her (Horsfield gives Graham’s Demelza’s words to him (see above). In the long feature to the DVD of this second season, Jack Farthing remarks that the series “is not a museum piece,” but treats of issues, presents characters of direct contemporary relevance today. In book and this episode she does sow doubt in Ross’s mind that she just might have gone to bed with MacNeil (Henry Garrett) and the scene of Ross’s anger at this in this episode’s penultimate scene is word-for-word from the book and very good (and not in the 1970s version where Demelza never moves away from Ross at all), and she does threaten to leave with Jeremy, but in the last pages of the book and here on the cliff again does not.

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Agatha has nearly the last words of the episode as she tells Elizabeth she has made a pact with a devil and warns the baby may come in February (9 months after May 9th, the night of the rape)

For the record the changes in Demelza are not the only way Horsfield departs from the Warleggan (perhaps, some would say, modernizes). Some of the material comes from Black Moon (Book 5); so too George’s attempt to part Geoffrey Charles from Elizabeth in Black Moon, Elizabeth’s fuller realization her coming baby might be Ross’s – she suspects, worries but the realization comes later. Here it comes at the close from Aunt Agatha’s (Caroline Blakiston) insight; entirely new (not in book, not in earlier series) is the way Horsfield has developed the relationship of Agatha and Elizabeth. Agatha functions in the way the fool did in Elizabethan drama: she tells Elizabeth truths Elizabeth doesn’t not want to hear but knows in her heart. In Warleggan she realizes George has married her as a trophy, is not manageable or comfortable to be with as Francis, but it takes the time passing in Black Moon for her to see she has married a mean bully in George.

The mob scene is the invention of Jack Russell. There is none in Warleggan (as Pulman invented the idea that Charles Poldark took a needed £300 from Ross after he borrowed it from Pascoe, and Horsfield changed that to Charles trying to bribe Ross to leave). Horsfield has not allowed this natural result of enclosure and destroying the tenants’ houses to move into open riot, murder (the crazed lonely Paul Daniel is shot through the chest by Warleggan in 1975), nor allowed Trenwith to burn down, but the episode does give us a theatrically effective rendition of the rage the tenants and all around Truro George’s behavior is causing. Having Trenwith burn down in the older series made havock with Black Moon and Ross and Agatha’s deep resentment and George’s exultation to be in Trenwith. I object to the new way it’s done where Horsfield far more blames the workers (as a foolish group, not a starving deeply wounded people with nothing to lose) but the new episode gives Ross a chance to redeem himself by stopping the riot and appealing directly to Demelza to come home with him. He has come for her.

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Demelza climbing up in front of Ross once more

Jack Russell has Ross called to war to join his regiment (this is anachronistic), so that at the close he leaves Demelza with Jeremy; there is nothing like this in the book — for the very good reasons Pascoe (Richard Hope in this version) and Dwight Enys (Luke Norris) in the new episode tell him not to: he needs to be there to develop his thriving tin business, to keep up his family. But Horsfield picks this up too as theatrical; he joins Dwight in London after the disillusioned Dwight (he has been told wrongly that Caroline has engaged herself to a Lord Coniston) has signed up, but cannot get himself to leave. Horsfield conveys the ominousness of war through having Jeremy play with toy soldiers against the larger background of taverns, and men readying themselves. There is much less romance to it than there was 40 years ago.

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The two friends reunited

Much was done very well –- and the parts that were closer to the book finer in conception, subtler, making more true sense than what Russell concocted (see my account in the comments). In general throughout both seasons 1 and 2 of this Poldark and the whole of the previous, where the writer is closer to Graham, the series is better. As so common, it opens with Ross and (now) Henshawe, Paul Daniel all working at the mine. Only now Demelza is not there; she is not helping but acting out the “elegant” lady, walking in the meadow. We move to Trenwith where George is having Francis’s picture removed, placating Elizabeth with a dual portrait of them in its place(by the “celebrated John Opie — “oh George,” says the fool, “you spoil me”), all the while thinking of how he may part her “reasonably” from Geoffrey Charles (a good school you see) and plotting with Tankard to shoot people on sight who take the hitherto public right of way, and by the next scene seeking to wrench from Ross the shares he paid Elizabeth for from Wheal Grace while they were worthless. In this second scene, Elizabeth lurks by the door and does realize for the first time that Ross had tried to help her, but after a ferocious physical battle where Ross tries to burn George, and he has his men eject him after smashing his face, she seems to side with George. Jill Townsend’s Elizabeth was cooler, assessed George better (as does Graham’s), knew she was caged upon marriage.

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Townsend’s face hardens as she realizes George will not keep any of his promises (to take her to London, to provide her with a great lady social life ….)

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Reed is ever soft: the scene ends now with her telling her boy, George will be his papa now — the child is not impressed

The Dwight and Caroline (Gabriella Wilde) scenes and especially when John Nettles as Ray Penvenen is there are very well and carefully realized. Nettles is a fine actor, and a deeply appealing uncle, who conveys complex feelings: we have the scene where Dwight tells him he has “the sugar sickness” and will not get better by altering his diet (no wine) but may prolong his life.

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I cannot warm to Horsfield’s conception of Caroline as a shallow egoistic heiress slowly growing up; by contrast Judy Geeson is shown as genuinely caring for the beaten down impoverished Rosina Hoblyn:

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Jack Russell’s Caroline hires Rosina as her maid (very anachronistic). Neither is quite Graham’s conception: Graham’s Caroline is a hold-over from the gay witty lady of Restoration comedy, and becomes humanized through her flirtatious relationship with Ross, friendship with Demelza and her ambiguous marriage to Dwight (she does emasculate him somewhat, and in the later books he holds himself apart). But there is something touching about Wilde’s behavior, how she holds her body, when Ross comes to thank her, and brings her back to Dwight (she stands there looking more penitent than ever seen before). It’s pure romance:

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I was moved when after the lovers’ night together, she returns to her lonely uncle to care for him.

I also warmed to the added scene of Verity’s (Ruby Bentall) childbirth: her step-daughter has now sofened towards her; the whole scene is not literally in the book but a fair extrapolation. And it gives Horsfield a chance to have the sympathetic Verity try to talk Demelza into accepting and forgiving, into remembering, believing Ross does love her — and not to let go of that.

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Verity is dropped from the books, marginalized as a character from the time of Black Moon on. In Graham and the 2nd season of the 1970s Poldark (1977-78), instead Demelza’s great friend becomes Caroline Penvenen Enys. I hope Horsfield changes that, and keeps the sister-friendship up as she has developed the aunt-niece relationship of Agatha and Elizabeth.

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Turner in one of several scenes between him and Demelza where he is reasoning with her, trying to apologize, to explain himself.

I thought Turner superb in the episode: it was a hard part. He had to be didactic and explicitly say moral things left to interior thoughts in the book and he did it very well. I found him very appealing throughout. He has become this complicated character thoroughly, driven, with many conflicting loyalties, rightly fiercely protective of everything good which Warleggan would blight. Given the present horrible things going on in the US where a man has taken power and is inflicting pain and deprivation on the majority of Americans, treating non-whites as semi-criminals (they are not safe in the streets anymore), having immigrants snatched up and deported to anywhere, prosecuting parents, increasing private prisons (shown to be cruel to prisoners), Ross Poldark is now an important hero for our time in a way he has not been since the 1940s when he was conceived as an antidote to the barbarism and nightmare war of mid-century Europe. His finally striking out at George, meaning to kill him almost unless stopped is another moment of understandable rage for the character who is emerging as flawed but meaning and doing well often (exemplary in most ways). Farthing is acting George as he is in the book (and as Ralph Bates acted him in the 1970s), we see the banality of evil, cold selfishness, no care for anyone but himself and those he deems extensions of him. I regret they dropped his father Nicholas as a semi-moral villain, slightly comic, amusingly acid (Allen Tilvern); we are in an era where there is no room for comedy and so we have the icy relentless Cary Warleggan (Pip Torrens).

A telling repeat image in this episode is that of people writing letters to one another; we see George writing, and and switch to Ross writing and back again:

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There are scenes of signing, Dwight leans down to sign his return to the navy (as a doctor aboard a ship), Ross nearly signs, he takes documents from Pascoe to London. George is continually among his documents, looking at them (as was Ralph Bates in 1975). No longer boxing and fencing with someone, but attacking the world through ownership and lawyers.

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Not a museum piece as Farthing said.

I aim to reread the coming novels, Black Moon and The Four Swans this summer and am now eager for the third season and for all twelve novels to be adapted into this film adaptation. I also hope they will keep the same actors when after The Angry Tide, the series must move ahead ten years to The Stranger from the Sea. As with The Pallisers (where they age considerably) or I, Claudius, I would enjoy seeing the actual presences grow older and change and endure on.

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The working mine the set-designers keep to

In Maureen Turim’s book, Flashbacks in Film, on history: she makes the point how Hollywood films seem always to tell a political or historical story through the story of individuals; one must. Her philosophical criticism is that this must distort realities, especially as often the film-makers choose exemplary characters and of course they get to chose what example they want to present, and often provide a happy ending. One way the history film can get past this is the use of flashback, montage, retrospective, wide far shots, the characters remembering: well at the close of Poldark on the cliff and in the returns to the symbolic buildings, Trenwith, Nampara, the village, that’s precisely what the film-makers are suggesting.

Next up: Outlander, the second season, when I’ve finished War and Peace. Just now I am watching in a row all the Anna Karenina movies, and especially loving the 1978 13 part BBC mini-series written by Donald Wilson, the same man who wrote much of the 1967 Forsyte Saga. Keep hope alive, my friends, keep hope alive. And I will be writing on books too.

Ellen

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John O’Connor (1830-1889), Pentonville — looking west (1884)

A Syllabus

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Household Words

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The Cornhill with an illustration of Framley Parsonage by John Everett Millais as frontispiece

For a Study Group at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at American University
Literature and Language 641: Pivotal City and County Victorian Novels & Victorian Gothic
Day: Ten Monday early afternoons, 11:45 am to 1:15 pm
4801 Spring Valley Building, near American University main campus, Northwest, Washington DC
Dates: Classes start March 6th; last class May 8th, 2017.
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

We’ll read 3 best-sellers: Gaskell’s North and South (1855), Trollope’s Framley Parsonage (1860), and Dickens’s “The Signalman” (1866). Gaskell’s “Tale of Manchester Life,” published in Dickens’s highly politicized and socially concerned Household Words, is a radical graphic tale of the life of factory workers, based on a strike and time of near starvation and unmitigated depression, and by a woman. Trollope’s 4th Barsetshire concoction, commissioned by Thackeray at The Cornhill for its first series of issues made The Cornhill, which may be called the New Yorker of its day, enormously popular; Framley Parsonage was intensely as Downton Abbey: Gaskell said of it she wished he would go on writing it forever; she did not see why he should ever stop. FP, seen today also as a complacent pro-establishment book, is a Thackerayan ironic pleasure, wider ranging in its perspectives than is usually noted. Dickens’s short story, unrivaled as a psychological study over a response to machinery from an old world and gothic perspective was the Christmas tale his periodical, All the Year Round, is autobiographical, and was in 1976 adapted into a gem of a BBC film by Andrew Davies. We’ll explore how these fictions intersect with one another, mirror their shared era, and connect to our own.

Required Texts in the order we’ll read them:

Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South, ed, intro. Patricia Holman. 2003: rpt of Penguin 1995 ed. ISBN: 9780140434248
Anthony Trollope, Framley Parsonage, ed. David Skilton and Peter Miles. Penguin 1986. ISBN 0140432132
Charles Dickens, “The Signalman,” found in The Complete Ghost Stories of Charles Dickens, ed. Peter Hanning. New York: Franklin Watts, 1983. Contains A Christmas Carol and several other gems, plus has original illustrations with stories. It is online in at least 3 places: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/dickens/charles/d54sm/l also http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=1289
http://commapress.co.uk/resources/online-short-stories/the-signalman-charles-dickens

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John Constable (1776-1837), Stoke-by-Nayland (1835/6)

Format: Study group meetings will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion (essays mentioned will be sent by attachment or are on-line).

Mar 6th: In class: Introduction to course: the era, genres; shared themes. Introducing Gaskell: life & work; conflicts with her publisher Dickens

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Medium range shot of Thornton’s cotton factory

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Anna Maxwell Martin as Bessy Higgins (both from Sandy Welch’s North and South, BBC 2004)

Mar 13th: In class: Gaskell’s North and South, Chapters 1-17 (“Haste to the Wedding” through “What is a Strike?”
Mar 20th: In class: North and South, Chs 18-34 (“Like and Dislikes” through “False and True”. Beyond the novel, read for next time: Rosemarie Bodenheimer, North and South: A Permanent State of Change,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 34:3 (1979):281-301
Mar 27th: North and South, Chs 35-end (“Expiation” through “Pack Cloudes Away”); . Beyond the novel, for next time Michael D. Lewis, “Mutiny in the Public Sphere Debating Naval Power in Parliament, the Press, and Gaskell’s North and South, Victorian Review, 36:1 (2010):89-113.
Apr 3rd: We begin with clips from the BBC 2004 North and South (scripted by Sandy Welch) and discuss the film adaptation. Then Introducing Trollope: life & works; the Barsetshire series and The Cornhill; read for next time: Trollope’s Framley Parsonage, Chapters 1-15 (or Instalments 1-5, “Omnes Omnia bona dicere” to “Lady Luftons Ambassador.”

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Michael Sadleir’s Barsetshire drawn by a sketch made by Trollope

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The Geroulds’ map of just Framley Parsonage

Apr 10th: Trollope’s Framley Parsonage, Instalments 1-5 (Chapters 1-15: “Omnes omnia bona dicere” to “Lady Lufton’s Ambassador”). For next time read Framley Parsonage, Instalments 6-11 (Chapters 16-33, “Mrs Podgens’ Baby” through “Consolation”); Andrew Maunderley, “Monitoring the Middle-Classes”: Intertextuality and Ideology in Trollope’s “Framley Parsonage and the Cornhill Magazine,” Victorian Periodicals Review (33:1, Cornhill Magazine II, Spring, 2000):44-64.
Apr 17th: Framley Parsonage, Instalments 6-11 (Chapters 16-33, “Mrs Podgens’ Baby” through “Consolation”). Read for next time Instalments 12-16 (Chapters 34-48, “Lady Lufton is taken by Suprise” to “How they all Married, had Two Children and Lived Happily Ever after.” Read also for next time, James Kincaid, “Pastoral Thriving: Dr Thorne and Framley Parsonage,” from his The Novels of Anthony Trollope (part of chapters sent as an attachment)
Apr 24th: Framley Parsonage, Instalments 12-16 (Chapters 34-48, “Lady Lufton is taken by Suprise” to “How they all Married, had Two Children and Lived Happily Ever after.” Full context for Trollope. Read for next time Dickens’s “The Signalman.” Read also Jill Matus, “Memory and Railway Disaster; The Dickensian Connection,” Victorian Studies 43:3 (Spring 2001):413-36

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William Parrott (1813-69) The Great Eastern Under Construction at Millwall on the Isle of Dogs (1857)

May 1st: Introducing Dickens, Victorian gothic, the Christmas story; his life & work. For next time, watch YouTube of Signalman online (if you can); read for next time: Norris Pope, Dickens’s “The Signalman and Information Problems in the Railway Age,” Technology and Culture, 42:3 (July 2001):436-461
May 8th: Final discussion of all three texts, the mid-Victorian era, its fiction

Suggested supplementary (outside) reading (the assigned essays will be sent by attachment):

Kaplan, Fred. Dickens: A Biography. New York: Wm Morrow, 1988.
Nayder, Lillian. The Other Dickens: A life of Catherine Dickens. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2011.
Overton, Bill. The Unofficial Trollope. NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1982.
Sadleir, Michael. Trollope: a commentary. 1961: rpt London: Constable, 1927.
Snow, C. P. Trollope: An Illustrated Biography. New York: New Amsterdam, 1975.
Steinbach, Susie L. Understanding the Victorians: Culture and Society in 19th Century Britain. London: Routledge, 2012.
Stoneman, Patsy. Elizabeth Gaskell. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987. Very good short life and works.
Uglow, Jenny. Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1993. The best.

Films:

The Signalman. Dir. Lawrence Gordeon Clark. Screenplay Andrew Davies. Producer: Rosemary Hill. Featuring Denholm Elliot and Bernard Lloyd. BBC, 1976.

Barchester Chronicles. A 7-part BBC mini-series, 1983. Dr. Gilles. Scripted Alan Plater. Featuring Donald Pleasance, Nigel Hawthorne, Alan Rickman, Eleanor Mawe, Barbara Flynn, Susan Hampshire, Geraldine McEwan, Clive Swift
Dr Thorne. A 3 part IVT mini-series, 2016. Dr Niall McCormick. Scripted Julian Fellowes. Featuring Tom Hollander, Ian McShame, Stephani Martini, Phoebe Nicholls, Richard McCabe, Rebecca Front.
North and South. Dir. Brian Perceval. Screenplay: Sandy Welch. Producer: Kate Bartlett. Featuring Richard Armitage, Daniela Denby-Ashe, Brendan Coyle, Anna Maxwell Martin, Sinead Cusack, Tim Piggott-Smith, Pauline Quirk, Lesley Manville. BBC, 2004.

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Beyond “The Signalman,” Dickens published much of his own fiction there: you see the 1st Instalment of A Tale of Two Cities

Ellen Moody

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Pierre (Hopkins) attempting to tell the deeply congenial Natasha he feels called to encounter Napoleon (while Moscow burns half-crazed he decides the calling is to kill this pest)

Dear friends and readers,

As promised, I here conclude the two blogs I’ve written on Pulman’s masterpiece mini-series out of Tolstoy’s novel (see Part 1, Episodes 1-10). These come out of a fulfilling experience I had with a group of people on Trollope19thCStudiesw @Yahoo (we read Anthony Trollope and his contemporaries, but also books on the Victorians, NeoVictorian novels, and talk about film adaptations of 19th century novels and films about the 19th century. I’ve posted an appreciatoin of Tolstoy’s novel after nearly a year of reading; more than a year of watching. Then I did a review of the 1955 King Vidor Italian-American Hollywood W&P; and a film study of Bondarchuk’s 1966 visionary epic W&P.

Doing these has enabled me to re-live these fulfilling experiences, and in the case of Pulman’s film I hope to tempt people who love beautifully acted, written, well-done film adaptations to see this nowadays under-rated (hardly spoken of) mini-series.

We left off at the pivotal center of Pulman’s film (Episode 10), Natasha’s (Morag Hood) delusionary nervous seduction by Anatole Kuragin (Colin Baker), the thwarted elopement, the rigid Andrei Bolkonsky’s (Alan Dobie) bitter disappointment to where he has broken off with her for good. He has lost what had given him hope again to build a good life and (in effect) throws himself away, re-enlists in the renewed war. She grows closer to Pierre Bezukov (Antony Hopkins), who has wild ideas of stopping Napoleon himself. As Tolstoy says (in words given to Andrei in Episode 11 as he listens to the war counsel of Alexander (Donald Douglas) it seems everyone is helplessly moving into a maelstrom of destruction. Thus the tragic second half of the film.

Unlike the novel, Pierre is never absent for any length of time now. He is in almost every episode. A rare instance is 16 where Natasha and Andrei are central forces as he lays dying, and Sonya grieves for the coming loss of Nikolai and all her hopes.

Episode 11: Men of Destiny

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Napoleon (David Swift) determined to become (in effect) emperor of Europe with Paris as his capitol: the massive hubris of the man is caught in Swift’s stiff face

Much of it was dramatized scenes not in the novel at all. At this point the mini-series is approaching the 1812 and so they were (Pullman of course) confronted with the problem of what to do about Tolstoy’s arguments not just about history (which I see Tyler has commented on and I’m glad and will try to respond to later today) but a view of Napoleon which is essential to under the battles. Also they want to convey how Andrey feels about the battle and why — as that is part of the material.

So we have an astonishing good scene between David Swift as Napleon and Morris Perry (a great actor of the 1970s, then an older man) as Fouchet, the police chief who was an advisor to Napoleon and angered him greatly. Fouchet presents all the arguments against going into Russia that Tolstoy relies to make us understand Napoleon was an aggrandizing pest; Pullman puts in Napoleon’s mouth ideas about his control and direction that are clearly wrong. We then move to the Rostovs in Moscow: again there is much monologue and point of view in the continued desire of Nikolai to marry Sonya (Joanna David) and her intense desire to take him up on it: Pullman invents a very good scene between Natasha and Sonya where Sonya reads aloud a letter from Nikolai so that they discuss the issues. Inbetween these two we have other good scenes: the ball that goes endlessly on oblivious, ironically, the men on the battlefield coming on, and Petya wanting to enlist.

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The ball

We move to Alexander and his council or generals: not in the book this scene but Tolstoy’s idea of how useless and narrow most of their advice; one man does say they must lead the French on, not engage directly in battle and the whole effort itself will destroy the French army. Andrew is listening and in over-voice we get Andrey’s justified rejection of much that he sees as corrupt politics. We move to the Bolkonskys and Andrey is home: again a scene between Marya (Angela Downs) and Andrei about their mean father, a dinner scene where the old prince is a lecher towards Mlle Bourienne and Andrei tells him publicly how he should get rid of that woman and is told get out. A scene where Pierre brings his bible to Natasha and attempts to interest her in the 666 of the Bible and she cannot get it, but is eager to please him. It’s sweet. A swift wipe-out and now Napoleon enters the empty ballroom, exultant. Money was spent and they filmed scenesenough to suggest huge armies being amassed. The words in the dialogues skilfull quiet irony to show us how tragically and horribly wasteful all this is.

Pullman knows has made many invented scenes for this transitional pivotal episode. Snobbery never ceases and as I’ve said there is not one published article about this excellent series. This episode is just magnificent in the old version. David Swift as Napoleon interacting with his underlings, especially the chief of police is superb. . The BBC 1972 film is vitriolically anti-war. How appropriate the now ironic paratexts. We see the golden icons of shield, of tzarism, of imperialism slowly canvassed by the camera, and then cut to the countryside probably of somewhere in the British Isles, but plain and vast enough to stand for land people, real actual people attempt to wrest a life out of. The music is appropriately filled with trumpets until we reach the countryside and then it’s the men marching in the dark over the bridge. Then it quiets down. I don’t recognize it but I am not learned in music so that does not mean it’s an original score. The thematic music of these costume dramas matter: they frame and sandwich the experience as “not like the rest of TV;” cut off to be a special experience.

Episode 12: Fortunes of War; 13: Borodino

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The serfs’ attempted revolt; POV the astonished Marya

I found myself more interested in Episode 13 than 12 since Episode 13 like Episode 11 (Men of Destiny above) confronts the problem that in order for us really to grasp the larger meaning of what we are seeing requires invention of scenes and transposition of Tolstoy’s narrative into dialogues between characters.

As before 12 is distressing for me to watch. Not for the scenes of Napoleon and Murat who are on about strategy, how this group of soldiers will do this or that (thoroughly ironized for us by the dialogues of Episode 11) or Andrei and the servant telling of the father’s death and move of the family: the first again an interpellation from Tolstoy’s narrative monologue, the second dramatizing Andrei’s intense inward grief. The scenes that come straight from the book: the uncomfortable elder, the naïve puzzled princess (meaning so well), the peasants’ attempt to revolt lead up to the arrival of Nikolai (Silvester Morand) and the way he so easily subdues the peasants by bullying them, by simply asserting his authority, two immediately handtie the leader and they hasten to obey. I dislike Nikolai in this scene and feel so helpless at the peasants’ abjection. The BBC means us to see and feel this embarrassment and this film belongs to the 1970s liberal point of view of costume drama. In the book and here it begins Marya’s dependence on and transference of love to Nikolai as a much better, a kindly strong male.

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The deathbed scene of the old man, Marya hides her face

13 is to me a lesson in how to try to convey the horror of battle and the way people respond to it. Just about all we see occurs in the book in some way but not dramatized as large scenes. It begins with the small human dramas: the corrupt Julie come to commiserate and repeat her usual hypcrisies (it’s a sardonic long range comment that it was she Marya used to pour her heart out to) about Moscow’s safety she’s heard — all the while she is there to see if the Rostovs are fleeing. The Countess Rostov (Faith Brooke) says she will not until Petya returns and before we can object to Boris’s doings (told so proudly by Julie) the count and Pierre come in to say Petya is safe and Pierre has had him transferred. Natasha all gratitude, Pierre rushing off lest he take advantage. But then the contrast of the war scenes – the BBC spent a lot of money The men coming, the setting up of Napoleon on the hill and the gravity of it. Pierre does look a fool and out of place. The ridiculous icon carried through which Kutusov (Frank Middlemass) comes to kneel before. We are expected to remember how he and then Andrei (in 11) told the people asking for strategy there can be none. Kutusov looks intensely grief-stricken; he tells Andrei he has to told Andrei he has to do this because everyone wants it. And then this death scenes, the bombs, individual vignettes which does not end when Andrei is hit but pans out to show us all the death (in every which way ) and writhing bodies.

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Kutusov: from here on in he is presented as a contrast to Napoleon — his face filled with pity

Borodino: here is where Pierre gets caught up in the battle too and we experience and see the battle from his POV. Andrea seems to be blown to bits by a bomb — Pulman’s Pierre is not the deeply good man, that Davie’s Pierre is; but he is humane and what is happening on the batttlefield horrifies him. I thought of our own continuing wars and the very dangerous man who is now commander in chief of US military and his “Mad Dog” appt, which newspapers are glad of (that it was not someone far worse).

Episode 14: Escape

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Rostopchin exulting over Pierre: war and power brings out the worst in many peopel

Another superlative episode using invented scenes. In the book Rostopchin (Mayor of Moscow) is made hideous to us by the way he sets up a mob-murder scene of Vereschagin (a once naive idealistic student imprisoned and tortured). Pullman wants to make Rostopchin’ s behavior feel equally anathema. So a fine actor (whose name I could not find) reads the proclamation which declares all is fine and no one need flee Moscow in front a gathering of middle and upper class men: Pierre just returned from the battlefield keeps saying “nonsense.” Whether Rostopchin heard or not, he asks Pierre to come into his office and then deliberately is as vile and threatening to Pierre as he knows how: each act is a comment on our themes. He says how he is imprisoning Vereschagin as a free mason (whether he is or no) and will use and torture him (it’s implied). As a free mason, he regards Pierre as subject to arrest and death and tells him to leave Moscow immediately. He reports on Anatole’s death as Pierre’s brother-in-law; when that doesn’t hurt he tells of Andrei’s supposed death and Pierre begins to cry. This is not Tolstoy’s man who is utterly incompetent most of the time. Never so focused. But it works. A scene of Pierre coming home, given the countess letter and growing incensed, repeating her shallow words and planning to kill Napoleon.

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The Rostovs attempting to pack

The second half are the semi-comi scenes of the Rostov’s incompetence – only Sonya is packing and trying to get the others to work with her. Finally Petya arrives, angry he has been brought back.Then the mother will leave; when Natasha feels for the men and wants to unload the carts, and the father agrees on a few,the countess goes into a rage. It’s his fault they have lost most of their fortune and are leaving so late. The latter is hers we know (reinforced by Petya’s return in this episode so we don’t forget). He then says oh Nikolai will come and fix everything and she agrees. We are supposed to understand the hopelessness of this. Finally just before they get off Pierre is seen going by from the window and says he is staying but won’t say why.

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This encounter is repeated in all four of the W&P films I’ve watched

Sonya tells the countess Andrei is among the wounded. They are disturbed: the countess forbids Sonya to tell Andrei, in her obtuse way trying again to keep them apart. The scene ends with countess wandering through the empty rooms hurrying to carts loaded with viciously bleeding wounded men.

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Filmed slowly so we feel a way of life is ending

The 1970s mini-series did the books they did with care and attention to really reflecting the meaning of their texts. There’s enough time to character Napoleon from his standpoint and yet show what a monster he functioned as and was. Kutusov refusing to kill men uselessly for a symbol is strong and memorable. Paul Dano has nothing to work with in comparison to Hopkins: the family of the Rostovs and how the countess carries on caring only about prestige, objects, her children insofar as the situation will permit; she will not budge an iota in views as the world tumbles about her body.

Episodes 15: Moscow; 16: Two Meetings

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Pierre wandering through the fire-filled streets

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The woman hysterical over her baby burning to death in the building

15: Filled with memorable moments and beautifully structured within as well. The marching French soldiers, marching marching, camera angle on their feet, implied growing tired, Napoleon surviving, so proud, sidekick about there’s Moscow. He anticipates the great meetings he will have, how good he will be to all, and insists this was not his doing, he didn’t want this but now all shall be in good order under him. (Tolstoy would agree he alone did not do this – -and the point has been made too by dramatized dialogues in previous episodes.) More marching, then Napoleon in one of these vast cathedral types building, pacing waiting but all the officers can find are “riff-raff.” They try to tell Napoleon, but he is not listening; they bring these peasants in, and Napoleon indignant, wrathful kicks them out. Insists still he will set up there.

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The degraded drinking

After Pierre’s meeting with Rastopchin, the despairing exhausted Pierre home again. Real relationship with servant, amazed to see him, you must leave Sir. Hopkins rueful smile. Then the French officer Ramballe enters the house, self-satisfied, taking over — perfectly enacted — a peasant in the household lunges to shoot him, Pierre intervenes, the French man so grateful insists on the meal and in parallel with Napoleon his batman or equivalent to bring up all the wine. The drunken scene not that well done — they don’t let loose enough, but both sodden, Pierre deeply ashamed. Long center. Hopkins ends up drunk with a French officer where we see the frivolity of the latter and despair of the former, both pass out, and Hopkins ends up taken as a murderous aristocrat once he goes down into the streets. Napoleon set up in that space of the Kremlin, an officer to him and he begins to realize no one is coming.

Pierre in the streets, the street scenes, and then the saving of the little girl, he is captured as an incendiary, partly because he is seen to be upper class — so this is what everyone wants (ironic). Finally Kutusov once again stubbornly holding out, bitter now; a last shot of Pierre looking out dungeon window: parallel made of Pierre and Kutusov. Moscow ends up burnt down; we see Napoleon refusing to see what has happened to his plans, that the Russian generals have beat him because of the terrain and insisting on his rigorous rules and strategy which he cannot enforce.

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Natasha and Andrei re-united — it’s like Romeo and Juliet get to wake up

16: Carefully structured as a unit as the others have been it opens with Andrei just coming into consciousness in the hut; his aide rushes to him to help and we see how much in pain he’s in emotionally as well as physically. The actor is superb: Alan Dobie. It closes with Natasha finally coming into the hut, and coming over and starting to weep uncontrollably, him waking, telling her he loves her, nothing to forgive, he was wrong and their hands clasped as they talk. Morag Hood shines here too. Inbetween the stage is held by socially powerful women – or so Tolstoy thinks. The “other” meeting is between Marya and Nikolai and as in the book it comes about indirectly. Nikolai is dancing and flirting away with a married woman at a dance, his hostess breaks this up with ease, and takes him to Marya’s aunt. He confesses his conflicts over Sonya to said saloniere who has little trouble arguing them away. I felt the scene between Angela Down (Marya as I’ve said) and Sylvester Morand (Nikolai) strongly persuasive, because it moved slowly and this time was based on genuine shared history – and yes values.

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High shot of Nikolai hugging Andrei’s son with Marya taking subordinate role

The Countess the voice of calculating prudence, no lie is too much for her: what’s in her interest financially and socially trumps (that’s a verb I have to stop using as it’s horrible so this will be the last use) everyone’s feelings, promises, history. She nags Sonya and never ceases to to get her to write a letter “freeing” Nikolai. The ugly conformist, refusing to acknowledge and thwarting everyone’s deep feelings and needs around her: she is after Sonia to break off with Nikolai so Nikolai can marry money. The ambiguity here is Nikolai emerges as no great man: after the battle he is flirting with a married woman, clearly after her; he is compatible in nature with Maria but not her religion, and the two are brought together by Maria’s aunt and other of these older woman presented by Tolstoy as the makers of personal misery. Tolstoy’s men’s responsibility for the workings of the world are only in the area of war it seems.

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The harassed beyond endurance Sonya

As opposed to the other films, Pulman really gives Sonya room and thoughts again and again and with the countess and again Natasha she is rightly bitter: she is to give up everything that will give her an individual of fulfillment or she is ungrateful and despicable but what do the others give up? Nothing. It is she who offhand tells Natasha Andrei is there. The weak father had tried to persuade the Countess to tell in the second scene of the episode, directly juxtaposed to the with Andrei so as to give most impact – negatively on the countess. Now Natasha does come to tell her mother that was unforgivable but the Countess is unfazed, unrepentant and Natasha does wait until her mother is asleep and hesitates at first to go to Andrei. How hard it is to overcome the hegemonic norms which violates our deepest better nature. The episode ends with Natasha finding out that Andrea was taken in by the family: the actor playing Andre is superb; he has been all along; he is outstarred by Hopkins but the voice-over of his waking and thoughts in the first half and the meeting in the second was deeply moving. We see he is dying while Nastaya thinks there is a good life ahead for him and her.

Episodes 17: Of life and death; 18: The Retreat

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The death of Andrei

17: It opens with Natasha’s loving nursing of Andrei, touching scene between them with two overvoices as he thinks to himself while she speak and her speech heard as from afar. Very effective. It ends with Marya coming just as there is this terrible changed signaled by his having asked for a New Testament at the end of the opening scene. In the close Dobie enacts a man come to terms with death and moving away and out. So Pulman stays with Tolstoy’s interpretation of the inner life of Andrei’s death. By contrast (as I saw it only a week or so ago), Davies’ has Andrei struggling throughout, not the religious gliding into death at all – that’s why I cried so and it seemed to me so real. But Pulman is discreet and so are the actors and this religiosity of presented in muted but there form. Between this we have Pierre dragged before Davout, and the whole scene is his accusation; in the scene (not in the book) Pierre defends himself with a cogent statement (taken from the narrator) that such a city as Moscow would burn and Davout’s argument doesn’t make sense; nonetheless he is marched with other men and we see the shooting of them by firing squad. The death of the boy is not as anguished (or played up) as in the 2016 (and as I recall the 1955 where the political context was anti-totalitarian anti-communist).

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Then back again with the long dialogue with Platon (Harry Locke), the peasant who sees good everywhere, accepts everything, the dog, Pierre does more than listen; he says he feels more himself in this place than he’s felt for ever so long. Now that’s Pulman’s 1970s view of Pierre and of society: it does work in terms of this film. We are not quite convinced though (and I think we are meant to be); Pierre is so articulate, who would want to be Platon.

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Pierre meets Platon who extends his hand

Then back to the countess nagging Sonya who becomes cold and hard on the surface but gives in. A bitter moment. The Pulman film does give Sonya an inner life, one which critiques the world around her – as Pierre’s speech does. Then the coming of Marya with the boy and death of Andrei.

How quiet Episode 17 is. I had thought Danger UXB so unusual for ending quietly, not overstated at all despite central matter of defusing bombs with several of our heroes killed or maimed; this 1972 War and Peace shows a similar avoidance of ratcheted up melodramas.

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Pierre helping Platon — all four films have this sequence

18: All 45 plus minutes cover the retreat (about 6 chapters in Tolstoy’s book). The episode opens with Napoleon squabbling with his top men (Davout, and two others I recognize) where one is urging him to leave Moscow after they hear a report about no food, no hay, the place a shambles, riot. Napoleon says how else can he “make peace” if he leaves: he is told Alexander will not answer his letters. When he is warned Paris is without someone ruling it and to carry on like this risks revolt, he gives in. Switch to the rest of the time: a long duration of us watching phases of the prisoners kicked out to march, the people bullied, kicked and when one dies, he is pulled off, or himself drops and cries not to leave him, and then we hear a shot. Pierre does all he can to keep Platon going and meditates (flashbacks remembering Borodino as they come there and feeling horror as the montage goes on) but (as in the book) when he begin to feel Platon die, he distances himself: we feel a sense of grief in Platon but he gives over in the way of Andrei, and as they march on we hear the shot. The dog disappears.

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Denisov grieving for the life of Petya whom he had not been able to keep safe

Finally we switch to Denisov Gary Watson) and Dolokhov (Donald Burton): they are not presented as marauding quite, but it’s clear they are stealing and Dolokhov just loves it. After Petyra arrives, the scene of the young ensign is dramatized so that Dolokhov goes to have him shot, and Denisov stops him, is sneered at. Back to the retreat, voice over of Pierre walking off by himself (not quite realistic) and meditating darkly (from the book), and suddenly the Russians are upon them, the prisons realize they are saved. Much murder, mayhem, killing of Petya all the while Pierre stands about dazed. (Davies found this too hard and in his 2016 film has Dololkov joyous to save Pierre).

Last scene Napoleon getting into his fine sleigh, he says he does not want to desert his army (which he said I nthe first scene) but there is apparently nothing for it. He slides off in comfort, the pack of officers (now including Murat) wave in the snow.

The last two episodes (19: The Road to Life; 20: Epilogue) and a coda on the last words of all four W&P films I’ll cover here) are placed in the comments. This mini-series is the longest and fullest of the W&P movies thus far: 900 minutes.

Ellen