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The four principals of the film: JRR Tolkien, Geoffrey Bache Smith, Robert Q Gilson, Christopher Wiseman — at leisure, sports and war

Friends and readers,

I thought I’d write a brief review of the biopic film about Tolkien’s life that is just now leaving most movie theaters after a fairly successful run. The reviews have been mixed, and most resembling John Tuttle’s: he likes the art and filmic aspects of the film, beautifully filmed, brilliantly acted, moving story, but he complains not so much that what is presented is all that wrong, but that the emphases are inadequate: he wants more about Tolkien’s religion, more about all the sources of his creativity, a more accurate account of this or that aspect of his earlier and later life: it seems that in later life Tolkien again bonded with a small group of like-minded men of similar attitudes and class. Tuttle doesn’t mind that the film made much of Tolkien’s relationship with Edith Bratt, only says it was presented as suspenseful when it wasn’t. “Everyone” (that is all interested in Tolkien) knows he married her. A similar stance (with different particulars perhaps) is found in Sheila O’Malley’s at RogerEbert.com; David Appleby at Rolling Stone was bored: it was so convoluted and yet did not bring our miraculous author to life. Tellingly, what they all agree on is how grating and excessive are the scenes of war, “oh bother” says Appleby. I could quote others to the same effect.

What no one seems to say is that the this is a film not much interested in Tolkien’s inner creative life: the imagery from his dreams, from his early anguish at the death of his father, mother, fear of being neglected and poor with his brother), and then, as shared with the love of his life, Edith fantasy operas and books, and finally World War One are all in effect decorations; extras piled on to give the film heightened apocalyptic fantasy ominous (exciting?) imagery. The plot-design of this movie is that of the common popular genre, the nostalgic boys’ public school, interlaced with a feminist-inflected romance with strong critiques against class snobbery.

As the film begins, Tolkien is orphaned. His father dies and then his self-sacrificing mother (played to the hilt by Laura Donnelly, familiar to some as Jenny Murray of Outlander), and he and his brother are left stranded. They are taken to live in a boarding house run by a cold snobbish woman (Pam Ferris) by the Catholic priest who has been made their guardian. What saves Tolkien is he is so intelligent, he is taken into the British private aka public school system and there nurtured by deep friendship, and high academic standards that force him to study hard. The public school is presented positively: while there are grossly unfair tutors (one wants to eject Tolkien on the basis he hasn’t got sufficient drive), others (Derek Jacobi) because they are not part of a structured system can eccentrically take him in.


The young man and his professor

The story of Edith is there as part of the usual matter of heritage films.


Courting — the upper class (if orphaned) boy courting the female boarder

It’s worth it to point out the limitations of the heritage tropes: as in so many of them, class is supposedly attacked or critiqued, when we find it is also upheld; in this film, this is done together with religion. Tolkien was a believing Catholic in life; this was his heritage (perhaps from the mother) but also a result of making a priest his guardian. In the film this priest refuses to support Tolkien if he carries on with his courtship of Edith. Tolkien protests, thinks of rebelling but then caves in. We are to feel that he does this out of respect for the guardian as well as concern for his career, but there is a feeling that he recognizes that Edith is indeed not of his class.

As the film moves on, and Tolkien overcomes the prejudices of the people at Oxford, and the war begins, he again meets Edith. Edith is as genteel looking as Celia Johnson in any 1940s film (Brief Encounter, In Which We Serve, Happy Days) and now engaged, and it’s made plain she has done so to support herself. It takes only a few minutes of film time for Tolkien to say he still loves her, for her to reciprocate and (presumably) break the engagement. Later in the film the priest admits he was wrong, and sometime after that Tolkien and Edith are married. This may follow Tolkien’s actual behavior, but we can see that class and obedience to religious and parental authorities are upheld.

The second part of the film is the fulfillment of the first, the war story essential to this genre. It is the final proving ground. Instead of showing us that the values that lead to war are the real basis of public school experience, bullying, competition, physical prowess, daring, separation from one’s family (part of the training that teaches you to be part of an upper class negotiating environment), we are repeatedly shown the great joy, manners, bonding that the young men learn from these exclusive groups within an intellectual demanding environment, which in this case included high intellectual camaraderie, and of course also fierce “healthy” competition in games (we are shown the four young men playing rough sports again and again) . Of course war is horrific, and two of them die, a third maimed for life. No heritage film today is openly militaristic, but the scenes that are individualized show our heroes performing utter self-sacrifice for one another. A small subplot includes Tolkien’s batman, of course named Sam, risking his life to save Tolkien from death, and bring him tea too.


Here is Nicholas Hoult as Tolkien searching for his friend (dead elsewhere several days before)

It’s important to bring this central design of the film out because this elite experience is 1) misrepresented and 2) lies at the core of not just militarism and war, but leads to and shapes colonialism and is behind the mindset promoting Brexit, nationalism, arrogance (the boy becomes privileged, and is kept separate from and encouraged to think he know better than the “lower orders. Joanna Scutts lays out the connection in The New Republic: Britain’s Boarding School problem. The war itself is presented as part of the dream life that led to the exciting adventures, violence, monsters of The Fellowship of the Ring. I’ve seen so many films of this type: Harry Potter feeds into it; Andrew Davies got his start with the multi-episode To Serve Them All My Days (based on Delderfield’s sentimental depiction of the life of a schoolmaster). I do not say I haven’t enjoyed such films. I enjoy heritage films, I loved the romance, and felt for Edith presented as at the time given no opportunity to have a career of her own, but given the times we are living in, when I read several reviews passing by the central explanatory idea of this film, and seemed even unaware of it. I felt something ought to be said.

I’ll add another corrective here too: nowadays upper class and elite girls are sent to such schools regularly too, and then elite universities. Kate Middleton’s great “rise” came from her having gone to the right private boarding school which got her to St Andrews where she met William, the heir. As Scutts points out, huge fees are extracted (such schools are apparently tax-exempt!, like our churches). As a side note I recall now how startled I was at Vicinus’s account of girls’ private boarding schools in her Independent Women: Work and community for Single Women, 1850-1930, because she didn’t seem to care at all and even was for the psychological manipulation of the girls’ friendship patterns and girls-and-female mentors because it trains girls (who thrived in this) to know how to get and keep and use power. As today parents of boys who suffer badly from bullying, and are emotionally twisted or scarred take that as the price of getting them the right connections and “toughening” them, so Vicinus was for allowing girls to emotionally over-wrought, blackmailed, made miserable by girls’ exclusionary coteries as the price of making girls into women who are embedded in power arrangements and understand how they come about.


Tolkien late in life (photo)

As for Tolkien’s actual and later life: the other male group consisted of deeply reactionary Christianizing critics like C.S. Lewis who also wrote an epic of fantasy wars, Narnia, sheltered dons and learned poets like himself. Dorothy Sayers was a hanger-on, for at the time when a young woman finished university there would be no place for her in university. Think of her Lord Peter Wimsey with his batman turned valet, Bunter. Bob Dixon has analysed the fascist vision of life behind Narnia and (dare I say) and other fantasy epics by over-praised writers like Ursula Le Guin. See also Empire Follows the Flag. Tolkien’s later career as a writer included studies and defenses of Beowulf, Anglo-Saxon poetry, medieval English and Chaucer, translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Pearl — delicate lovely poetry with subtle ethical ideas.

I was again startled when I first began to watch the Peter Jackson film of The Fellowship. I had read the books in the 1960s when the illustrations were still taken from romance, fairy books, and looked like feminine depictions Arthurian romance. How had it become a boys’ action-adventure story, filled with violence and Dante-like apocalyptic visions? I have since read that the earliest illustrations were delicate fanciful landscapes done by a woman friend of Tolkien. I dare say a film genuinely interested in his creative life and reading, might help rescue his books from being used or packaged the way they are today. I am told that a five part series, Looking for the Hobbit (on Amazon Prime) does justice to other ignored sources, but I wouldn’t count on it.


Nicholas Hoult as Tolkien deeply engaged with his books

Ellen


After long grueling hours of separate interrogation, the boys are put together & meet for the first time

Friends and readers,

Ava DuVernay has made another movie you must not miss — her others are Selma and 13th. Many people will know about the case of the brutal assault and rape of Trisha Meili (called “the Central Park Jogger”) where four African-American and one Latino boy were accused (“the Central Park 5” was the designation), but not necessarily that the accusation was not just wrong but utterly unfounded (not a shred of evidence linking any of these boys to this woman except that all were in some place in Central Park that night), nor that the confessions which were used as the evidence were coerced (by hounding, harassment, hours of isolated interrogation, threats, lies about what “cooperation” meant or would bring). We see how the prosecutor, Elizabeth Lederer, and DA, Linda Fairfax saw that there is no evidence and Lederer at least is bothered, but goes ahead to do all she can to convict the boys, Michael Sheenan, the head of the operation to wrench confessions, and they acquire a Judge Galligan, known for harsh sentences at Riker’s Island.

The five spent from 6 to 14 years in prison, Corey Wiser, a bit older, was tried as an adult, and put into tough adult prisons. It also seems not well known that in 2002 they were exonerated when Matias Reyes, the real criminal came forward (a man with convicted of rape, with an assault record very like that of the man who raped Meili) and said he did it alone, and the DNA found on her body was discovered to match Reyes’.


Coercion

That’s the outline of the familiar story. The way it’s told in four parts is a display or demonstration of how egregiously unfair is the operation of all the parts of the “justice” system: the first part shows us quickly how early in the evening all five young men were spending their time, how they all somewhat differently came into Central park that night, the jogger coming from her building into the park, and then clips from news shows about the assault and rape; the next 3/4s of an hour make us undergo the same grilling the five young men do: see the members of their families also coerced and threatened, or uselessly angry (not knowing what to do), the confessions imposed on them, and the ultimate result, their incarceration as the plans for the trial are formed.

We see they are innocent; they had no idea there was such a girl in the park; the stumbling nature of what they confessed (they are urged to agree to the story the detectives tell them to through hints), and the final scene in the room brought together where they decide confessions or no, they are going to insist on the truth: they are innocent. It is emotionally wrenching to sit through this — the young male actors cry and are hurt, puzzled, beat up. So too their parents & siblings indignant without knowing what to do to protect themselves.

The second part is the trial, we see how it’s conducted; the hysterical social campaign in the newspapers which play the part of a lynch mob, which results in the social death of these young men. Not their very closest but further off relatives begin to believe they did it; we see the furor in the streets, and Donald Trump’s famous ad demanding the state murder them, saying how he hates them and wants no psychoanalysis, no attempt to explain. We get a glimpse of his repeat he believes them guilty in 2016 and his sneers at the court case which finally was allowed to go forward (Bloomberg blocked it) where NYC paid them 41 million dollars in damages.

They cannot and do not get a fair trial. The felt atmosphere makes whatever the attorneys say or do feel so useless as when one attorney points out there is no evidence linking the boys to the jogger at all. The prosecuter does not come across that strongly, but the tapes have an effect on the jury. The guilty verdict, the boys and parents’ hysteria. And then scenes of the earliest experience of juvenile prison in four of the boys, where we are told that they hear Corey is “in solitary” but know no more of him. It is a grilling episode.

A secondary story told in both parts is that of the family life of each of the boys — we see different relationships, with some parents (two fathers) in desperate straits for money, one has a criminal record the police start to threaten him with. In part one some of the parents do tell the boys “to cooperate;” others demand the child be left alone; a great moment is when one mother says to Fairfax “Shame on You!” Corey’s mother seems not willing, unable for some reason to come visit her son. The latino boy, Raymond, seems to have only his father.


There is no place for Raymond and his girlfriend to find privacy once he is let out of jail

The third part fast forwards to the time (different) when the four boys treated as juveniles are released. A different set of actors are now playing the central boys. We see how the cards are utterly stacked against them. They have to tell anyone who hired them they are felons accused of sex crime; they have to be in their house every night by 7; they have to report to a police station every 90 days for the rest of their lives. One has a chain on his ankle. Worse they come back to groups of people not ready to have them or downright unwelcoming. Raymond’s father has remarried and the new wife is deeply antagonistic to him; he is given no room of his own. She calls Raymond a rapist. They cannot be hired for gov’t jobs, for various professional jobs. Their is strain as they try to make friends, have a girlfriend. Raymond taking an apartment of his own with his girlfriend, is fired, and ends up drug-dealing to support himself. He is caught.

The point is no help is given them to build their lives and hard obstacles put in the way.


Corey disobeying rules to hold his mother’s hands; there is no one for him to tell of the abuse and bodily harm inflicted on him

The fourth part is the most painful. I can hardly bear to tell it. We see Corey Wise put in Riker’s Island. Immediately he is surrounded by scary thugs, which include the guards. One guard asks Corey, if Corey has something for him, and when Corey seems not to understand, has five prisoners beat Corey up. Corey tries to appeal to a nurse who is afraid to help him as a guard is watching. He begs for solitary confinement as a place he can be safe in. I had not realized this might be one reason for the increase in solitary confinement in prisons: to escape the mob violence. We see terrifying scenes of humiliation. We see and hear the noise, the lack of decent food, something to do. Little vignettes: we hear parents saying “for a 10 minute phone call $23.” No medical help worth the name. She does omit probable sex abuse — we are left to remember and to imagine.

Each time Corey meets with his parole board he gets nowhere as the thing demanded of him first is to confess to his crime and say he is remorseful. He is moved to Attica, and now his mother says she cannot come there as it is too. Corey is pulled out of solitary confinement one day to be told his brother is dead. He is told that he is told this for his sake. Clearly that’s not so. No one offers a word of consolation. In a flashback from his mind it emerges the girl I thought one of his girlfriends was his brother, a transvestite who dressed as a girl; Corey remembers his mother loathing her, throwing her out. He becomes hysterical: no one cares for him. Robert grabs hold of him and hugs him hard to help him exert self-control. This is probably the first hug he’s had in years.

One gleam of light: Robert, the guard in charge of his cell now begins to be kind, offers him magazines, and better food (the guard says he has a son back home), gets him a job cleaning floors. So he can leave solitary confinement (where he appears suffer badly from the heat as no air conditioning comes through his vent until this guard somehow gets it “fixed”). But Corey wants to be transferred in the hope he will be near his mother. So he loses the guard-friend and ends up in a worse place. He is immediately picked on because he is known as the Central Park Rapist: it’s an excuse. Beaten very badly by other inmates.  Laughed at by another guard. And so it goes on and on. A couple of vignettes at the end show his conditions are improving as he learns how to cope and simply keeps surviving and ages so is seen as less of a susceptible victim to bullies.

So DuVernay has put it all before us – this is the system, it’s still in operation, see what it has done. QED. I have not described her powerful use of film techniques because it would produce too long a blog.

The last ten minutes cover quickly the confession of Reyes, the refusal at first of Fairfax and Sheenan to believe it — he is trying for attention; okay there was a sixth. But a new lawyer and Morganthau (who had appeared briefly as protesting the trial because of a lack of evidence) and people we don’t see manage to bring the evidence out and in the last five minutes we see the five men told they are exonerated. For each it’s a different experience as has the whole thing been.

Raymond now in prison is seen looking so joyful with his things walking to the door, and his father comes for him and they hug. Corey as usual treated with no deference or consideration; he is living in a better place again, and no longer in solitary (learnt to hold his own), the guard Robert has somehow helped him again, and he brought out of the prison yard and to an office and given a phone and hears his mother’s voice telling him he is going to be freed. Fast forward to the other three told on their jobs or at home, and then all five standing together on a stage, holding hands.


The young actors


The real individual men as they are in 2019

The coda is moving. An inter-title tells us about the court cases and litigation and their monetary compensation. And then we hear where each of them is in life now. At first we see the younger actor, then the older, and then (very moving this) the real man. All but one has left New York City and all are thriving to some extent, married, with children, one in business, another writing and teaching, one opened a business to help people wrongly accused of crime. Seeing the real men, their real faces brought tears to my eyes.

You should watch it because to do so will be part of Netflix’s rating system and perhaps more movies like this can be made. Any Goodman has devoted a full hour to this movie: she shows clips and interviews DuVernay. I went to find reviews; Roger Ebert’s site has a review which does justice to the film and gives fuller details than I do. It speaks of flaws: I see none. Lucy Mangan of The Guardian is better, she speaks of heart-wrenching (dare I suggest that there is racism in the Ebert site and not here); Sophie Gilbert of the Atlantic: three of the men now live in Georgia.

It is important to know that Linda Fairfax has shown no remorse, and in fact continues to maintain these young men did the crime! and has publicly protested the film, saying it is inaccurate. It is not; the public records are available. She should be tried and put in prison for what she did to these young men.


Felicty Huffman plays the part


Linda Fairstein — she makes money writing crime books; I read the publisher has pulled them off shelves; that some honorary degree she got is now lamented over


Vera Farmiga as Elizabeth Lederer who also maintains she did the right thing but has enough decency to not call attention to herself

For my part being frank here I’ll say at the time I didn’t understand Trisha Meili, the young woman, had run out into the park after dark. I thought that there was understood to be curfew not to go into the park after dark. Of course you can’t fence in the park. But this series does show that late at night groups of people did go in. I may be criticized for this but one of my gut reactions is I don’t understand why Meili went out at that time of night to run by herself. Did she think she was immune to dangers? did not her expensive building have a gym? Was her sense of privilege so strong? She did not understand how we are all at risk and some situations very risky? she should have thought of other people and understood she should find some other mode of exercise.

I am simply puzzled that a young woman like this would go out running late at night in the park. Why did she not realize how dangerous this would be. I cannot see myself courting danger this way, taking this kind of chance. When I was young, there are a couple of instances where I took a crazy chance, but (without telling these) these were not risky to my body. The park is enormous and has many dark people-less spots. I’d like to say a curfew was understood except the movie showed that lots of people went to or were in the park late at night. It might be that I thought there was a curfew because I think there ought to be one: when there are events in the park (like a concert, or Shakespeare play) one must walk back but my sense was of being in a crowd walking on lit lanes and cops around.

Meili has since made money on her book, permitted herself to become something a celebrity (“I am the Central Park Jogger”); there is something wrong with a book about this incident given the sentimental gush subtitle “A story of hope and possibility”


Middle class costume, jewelry, make-up — has she learnt anything?

Trisha Meili is not to blame — the blame falls squarely on the man who did the crime and the cops and the DA and prosecutor. They simply picked out five black young men and proceeded to nail them for the crime. They did not try genuinely to look for the insane woman-hater who did this. They did not follow the clues they had: the semen nor the evidence she had been dragged on the ground by one person. The same police officer and judge were judging Reyes during the same period. Meili was unlucky and so have thousands of other young women been throughout history. They did nothing to protect any girl from another such assault.

We today still refuse to protect girls — think of how the Republicans on the Senate believed Christina Ford and yet put Kavanaugh on the supreme court, an exposed hypocritical thug who for years enjoyed himself and his masculinity by leading fraternity boys to humiliate and rape girls at parties. The concern was to punish these black young men “as a warning,” not to discover who raped and nearly murdered Meili.

To sum up: the movie shows that the lynching mentality of the first half of the century was operative in NYC in 1989 – that the privileged girl was white is central. Indeed Trump is still sneering at DiBlasio for allowing the litigation for compensation to come to court. To me that the center of the push to make these young boys/men confess is a woman just brings home how women can be as reactionary and racist as any man — and reminds us that the person who signed that Alabama bill criminalizing pregnancy was a woman.

The prosecutor who framed them is part of and respected in US society today — and she is objecting mightily to the portrayal of what she did with the help of all her colleagues in the system. Her way of objecting shows she is guilty of having framed these young man and her justification is to assert all she did was legal and they were guilty. She seems to think it was her job to frame them. This was and still is legal — so too plea-bargaining which the boys refused once they were put together.

I repeat she calls what DuVeray presents as lies at the same time as she justifies (she justifies) how those boys (now men) were treated and just about says (despite how the movie shows a complete lack of evidence) they are guilty – were it not for those DNA tests, they’d be in prison still. She implies the DNA tests she leapt on when she found the sock and semen are inconclusive. Doubtless she would not believe in climate change were it in her interest not to believe. Fairfax now has show-off photos taken of herself smiling in a red suit in front of the supreme court put on her site. Indeed, shame on her!


Ava DuVernay

In DuVernay’s interview with Goodman, DuVernay says as she is speaking someone in the US some African-American person is being wrongly treated in an early phase of the criminal justice system; that the whole of the way and where and how people are incarcerated is profoundly wrong, and that she herself believes it will take a long time to fix, against many objections (not least the private companies running prisons) and may not be righted in her lifetime any more.

Ellen


Marcus Stone, “Trevelyan at Casalunga”

Dear friends and readers,

Though it’s been some time since I taught Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right, and I have published a chapter of my book (Trollope on the ‘Net) on this novel, and know there is a sizable body of subtle interesting essays on the book — on the subjects of love, sex, marriage, custody of children, gender power, male abuse of women, male sexual possessiveness and anxiety — since writing on Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? after teaching it, I’ve been wanting similarly to focus on one aspect of this enormous and complex book, which we discussed in my class. This because I feel this perspective has the power to make the book function on the side of compassion in today’s world, and it was taken up by my class with real interest as reconciling together many of its disparate elements.

We can look upon He Knew He Was Right as a modern semi-medical study of anxiety and depression. I found the idea most fully worked out by C. S. Wiesenthal in “The Body Melancholy: Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right, which appeared in the Dickens Studies Annual for the year 1992. In the case of Louis Trevelyan Trollope goes beyond his other studies of male who cross the line of sanity into insanity through obsession by a fixed idea, usually sexual jealousy, to present, examine and then trace the “psychopathology of melancholy.” He has gone beyond the traditional figure of melancholy (think of Durer’s famous icon) — super thinness, sleeplessness, profuse perspiration, paleness, hollow eyes, a bent back, his eyes not working right, all are slowly developed in Trevelyan.


Oliver Dimsdale brilliant as Louis Trevelyan, here he watches Emily leaving River Cottage (2004 He Knew He Was Right, scripted Andrew Davies)

In the last session of the class we examined Louis’s descent into profound illness and finally death as a gradual piling on of mental and then physical symptoms which destroy his ability to judge rationally and see what is in front of him. This leads to his inability to be around others, to adjust to them, so that he isolates himself in a nervous irritability. Most centrally he and Emily are just not compatible; what amuses her (social life, flirting) is anathema to him (he prefers to write papers in his study). He cannot bear the solutions presented to him as what he must do to alleviate the situation — take his wife away or come out of his study. He cannot present his case, adjust his conversation to theirs, and ends up intensely alienated from everyone. We were watching him break down step-by-step, with his hiring of Bozzle just one of the stages on his journey to a loss of the identity he had. Bozzle’s jokes are not just edgy, they have a sinister feel. The actor playing the part in Davies’s film adaptation had an expression on his face of self-deprecating irony, a wild laughter at himself,a kind of cunning in his eyes. He is alienated from himself and half-watches himself acting and talking in self-destructive ways, but he cannot help himself to stop. He writes letters from time to time which he thinks are offers of compromise when they are insults, threats, and come out of paranoia. Continual nervous distress and paranoia exhaust him to the point he becomes weak with inanition. He cannot dress himself conformably, is not used to sitting down to do anything with others. Bozzle sums this process up as Mr T “is no longer becoming quite himself under his troubles,” and wants to rid himself of this client. Louis crossed a kind of Rubicon when he paid Bozzle to kidnap his son. In his dialogue with Lady Rowley when the Rowleys come to England she discerns a mentally sick man.


Geraldine James as Lady Rowley, startled by what she is seeing

Seen from this angle, we could read the novel as a defense of Trevelyan: in his Autobiography Trollope said he wanted to create sympathy for Louis, and saw that he had failed. When I say the novel then becomes out about how Trevelyan came to act so badly, I would agree that this perspective is inadequate because it omits too much: Louis’s desire to control Emily, his insulting her for being knowing in bed (“harlot” is the word he uses); his overreaction to the petty rake, Osborne. Madness was in Trollope’s era thought to manifest itself in delusions, and he is delusional about what is going on between Emily and Osborne: flirting yes, adultery no. Emily’s refusal to assuage his anxiety at the price of her social liberty, life and self-respect are understandable, and the novel is probably more convincingly seen as genuinely feminist, genuinely about insoluble conflicts in temperament in marriage, the problems of using hypocritical cant. But Trollope also blame Emily for not yielding, refusing to compromise or reassure Louis — look how by contrast Dorothy and Aunt Stanbury give in and win out because they self-negate. She drives the man (the way Desdesmona does) when he visits by her recurring to the terms of the original quarrel and demanding he make a sign of admitting some wrong done; Trevelyan in frustration, and out of spite too, angry at his inability to make the Outhouses behave the way he wants — seeks some weapon he can use to compel the others to declare Emily sexually unfaithful, a bad wife, a mother risking her children. The weapon is his kidnapping of his own child. Now all will have to deal with him since the law is on his side over this child. We are now canvassing the larger important feminist themes and humane outlook at the core of this Trollope novel.


Uncle (Mr Crump) and Camilla


She cannot


Kindly collapse

Singling out Louis’s symptoms and trajectory —- helps us appreciate the depth of insight in Trollope. You can go round him to look at the other characters, and their coping with their bleakness: like Dorothy Stanbury who will say she is nothing to others, has nothing to offer, or Nora Rowley who wants more useful tasks and power than her gender allows; Priscilla Stanbury’s deeply generous letters showing her sane perspective against her life of poverty because she will not marry (is probably lesbian). The comic analogue to Trevelyan is the madness of Camilla French and her carving knife. She caves in easily when met with common sense backed by kindness. It’s funny in the film when Claudie Blakeley as Camilla breaks down and cries and hands the knife over to her uncle. But I suggest at the core of this is Trollope exorcizing his own demons: I agree with those (the Stebbinses are not alone in this) who suggest he spent long periods depressed (he says as much of his youth in London) and he is pouring his own experience into this character.

What I liked about ending the class discussion on the novel this way, and making this perspective one of the central ones is that the feminist position can become a series of beratings, blaming of Louis, anathematizing him. How does that help?

Ellen


Lily Collins as Fantine sometime after she sells her hair and teeth


Dominic West as Jean Valjean on the barricades


Joseph Quinn as Enjolras, the serious revolutionary

Bishop: Myriel: God tells us to love our fellow men.
Jean Valjean: How can I love my fellow man when he treats me worse than a dog?

Andrew Davies produces video masterpieces as regularly as other people simply go out to a movie, and in the last few years or so, the only material that (it seems) will do are the kind of literary masterpieces considered crucial and extraordinary works politically as well as socially. On top of this he has a penchant for choosing among such books precisely those where a previous film has been made with super-popular actors or some super-respected film-maker and seen by so many people and accepted as “unsurpassable.” Usually he has been polite about the previous (clearly to him inadequate and dated effort), as in the cases of David Lean’s Dr Zhivago, Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility, the earlier BBC Bleak House (1985 Arthur Hopcraft), War and Peace (1972, Jack Pulman), but he revels in using them while inventing a new conception and in just about all the previous films he’s redone, correcting (Lean turned Pasternak’s book into anti-communist propaganda) or simply superseding them. What’s special about this new Les Miserables is Davies frankness in accurately describing the musical as “a travesty” (the 2012 film is frequently awful), and how watching it brings home to most viewers they didn’t know or understand Fantine’s story at all, hadn’t realized how crucial Waterloo and an honest depiction of street fighting against a ruthless gov’t is to Hugo’s anti-war reformist book (the 1998 film presents what it does of the complicated stories incoherently).


Thenardier (Adeel Akhtar)


Madame Thenardier (Olivia Colman)

But this is a movie which makes us want to read the book; since Davies got only 6 hours (as opposed to the more than 9 he had for War and Peace, 2016), he makes us aware we are watching a suggestive and quick-moving surface. As the novel very early on includes Waterloo and has a long historical meditation on the significance of this battle and the lost war, Davies opens on Waterloo (he is apparently the only of the many movies made from this book even to include the battle) and brings Thenardier (Adeel Akhtar) to the fore as the first active character we see: he is stealing from corpses and near dead men, not rescuing anyone as he later on claims. David Bellos (in The Novel of the Century, indispensable) says (rightly) the Thenardiers are not funny figures in Hugo. These characters represent people who are key obstacles to political progress. Bellos asks what makes them hate, resent and fleece others so. They are the kind of people who loathe the poor when they are themselves part of this class. And it’s not just greed, but a passion, they bear “grudges,” “deep furnaces of hate.” and resentful revengeful grief. Like the woman supervisor in Valjean’s factory, they want to “get back” at anyone living more easily, or anyone who rouses their considerable repertoire of hurt. We so want Fantine to return and take her child back. Olivia Colman plays Madame Thenardier as an accomplice, complicit in anger and harm of others as the most convenient rout of survival.


The Thenardier family evicted — Colman’s face registers one origin of brooding resentment that emerges as jeering abuse of others

Bellos suggests that Hugo asks, what can be done to stop such people from undermining any compassionate law, rule, institution. Davies adds that they are punished as decisively and ruthlessly as those they resent and take it out on: Thenardier beats his wife casually, her daughters too, and when last seen Madame Thenardier has been parted from her daughters and left in miserable prison.

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It opens brilliantly with shots in black-and-white of innocent animals killed (especially horses in extremis,in agons, in black silhouette), animals and trees used symbolically (crows), the exquisitely dark and dream like atmosphere is kept up in the first half — that is until we meet a grown up Cosette, and her demand that she be placed in a bourgeois environment where she can “learn about life,” catapults Jean Valjean (Dominic West) into a fiercely guarded island of an apartment in Paris. This reminds us of the Pontmercy home with the ancient grandfather (David Bradley) fiercely rejecting his son and bringing his grandson up to become an aristocratic of the now defunct ancien regime.

Church to one side, naturally, police headquarters prominently there. The wild landscape of white clay, rock, brick, the wretched prison quarters, the chains and whips everywhere are to the fore. In episode 2 The people Fantine meets are costumed like nightmare circus figures (Ron Cook as the man who cuts off Fantine’s hair and cruelly wrenches her teeth out is heavily made up) and the low budget set of streets is like the bleak corner or marketplace of a slum. So in contrast, Father Myriel’s (Derek Jacobi) hospitable table, deep gentle kindness, determination to do and be good, and the Mother superior’s convent are experienced as intense relief.


Lily Collins as Fantine, holding Mallow Defoy as the child Cosette (Episode 2) seeking work and a place to keep her child

Fantine meets Madame Thenardier: I’m on my way to Montreuil.
I’ve heard there’s some good work to be had there.
Where’s hubby? Erm He’s He’s dead.
Oh, dear.
So you’ve had a hard time of it, I dare say.
Yes, I have.
But once I get into a steady job, I’ll soon be on my feet again.
Yeah, of course you will.

The set in the second half expands outward from the provincial towns of the first, the wood where Valjean hides his treasures and earned money, and we find ourselves in Parisian gardens, then in the streets as people pour out and set up barricades, and when the fierce killing is over, in the sewers some have escaped to. The contrast is now the countryside to which Jean Valjean finds another refuge before dying. The whole ambiance is far more symbolic and artificial than Davies usually is as he tries to cover so much swiftly. For example, Jean Valjean and Cosette sitting in the snow:

Typically in all his films Davies brings new insight into the book he is realizing, and here importantly he provides further explanation for Javert’s obsession: his feeling goes beyond the homoerotic, his rage is the rage of frustrated, the man who cannot understand the humane emotions and behavior of Valjean and loathes the man as a threat. The two men are photographed in close proximity again and again:

It takes considerable skill to convey this kind of hidden and criss-crossing emotionalism (for as portrayed by West, Jean Valjean does not participate in this) and the brilliant David Oyelowo is pitch perfect, down to an intense nervousness and sense of someone at the ready for an insult from his subordinates; he is perpetually on the edge. He is fascinated by Jean Valjean (“you astonish me”) and his eyes and body convey deep attraction. This throws light on other pairs of pursuer and pursuit from Frankenstein and his creature, to Caleb Williams and Falkland — to modern doppelgangers. But he is still a police officer:

Javert upon meeting Thenardier when he is in search of ValJean:

Did he say what he wanted the girl for? No, but we’re men of the world, Inspector.
Not hard to guess.
Doesn’t bear imagining.
Y All right.
That’s all.
– That’s all? But look here – What? What are you going to do for me? Nothing.
You should think yourself lucky that I don’t charge you.

His suicide as Javert is given time– the writing of his resignation,

JAVERT: I beg, Monsieur Le Prefet, to consider these proposals for improvements to the service.
First, that we end the practice of prisoners returning from interrogations being made to remove their shoes while they await transport back to the prison.
Many are coughing when they return to their cells.
This leads to hospital experiences.
Second, a prisoner who drops a thread in the weaving room loses 10 sous.
This is an abuse of HIS RECOMMENDATIONS OVERLAP: Third, special regulation of the Fourth, surveillance is generally Fifth, gendarmes Prisoners coming back from the –

Writing this he is pictured and writes as an elegant man. Davies gives him time for a silent agon when he cannot bear to jump into that dark waters but does. He lived his life in darkness and amid filth and cruelty and hatred inflicted on others, now he ends in the dark filth. Davies’s Les Miserables includes Javert as among the wretched of the earth even if it’s he who is a relentless punisher of the wretched.

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Master crook (Ron Cook)

I can single out only a few scenes, performances, themes. In Episode 2 Lily Collins astonishingly powerful-pathetic as Fantine — without hair, without teeth, laughed at, her mouth filled with blood, spurned and finally dying, crying crying crying because she has lost her beloved daughter and is afflicted with the idea this is God’s punishment. Only if the child arrives on time, can she feel she is forgiven. This is Davies’s overlay of interpretation on the effect of religion on those like Fantine whom society condemns. Ron Cook is a nightmare masquerade figure with his dolls for sale using the human hair and teeth he has wrenched out of the vulnerable.


Josh O’Connor as Marius

Episode 3: a riveting and unexpected theme brought out is the danger of being innocent. Innocence and ignorance helps the vicious, ruthless. Davies presents Marius and Cosette as utterly innocent and ignorant. In Marius’ case the cause is a reactionary hateful embittered rich grandfather; in Cosette’s a deeply humane loving victim of the society, once a life convict, our Jean Valjean. The result is the same: show Cosette a group of prisoners being treated like animals you mean to murder shortly except put on top of this is vicious cruelty and she says what bad men they must be — and I know in Davies’ version will be automatically horrified when Valjean tries to tell her his story. Showing her these men is his first step and see the result: she rejects him. Show Marius Thenadier and have him listen or remember his own innocent father’s gratitude to Thenadier and Marius assumes he is a “great hero” of war (as was his father — without ever thinking what the war was about and what killing is); Marius goes to the police (!) to tell them of how an older man (fully described by Marius) is about to visit Thenadier and Javert suspects this Is Valjean and is there to re-capture him. It’s like informing the FBI that some good black people are in trouble from criminals: the FBI would come in in the 1970s and murder all the black people.


Eponine (Erin Kellyman)


Gavroche (Reece Yates)

Mabeuf (Donald Sumpter) — a poor man who works at the church Marius’s grandfather’s woman servant takes him to each Sunday

The one innocent who hurts no one is Eponine: she seems so without any partisan or protector. Similarly, her younger brother (or step-brother, in the novel he is only semi-adopted, Gavroche (Reece Yates) who thinks what is happening is a game, tries to protect his younger brothers, and dies senselessly. The old man, Mabeuf (Donald Sumpter), his one revolutionary gesture in a spirit of fine hope is killed by sniper fire


The revolutionary young men: Enjolras (Joseph Quinn), Courfeyrac (Archie Madekwe), Grantaire (Turlough Convery)

Parts 5 and 6: the street fighting. In this version the revolutionaries are not presented as frivolous students, but genuinely aroused revolutionaries; yes some of them drink, they make bad decisions, but they are serious about demanding a better life for all. Marius is an outsider. With all the talk about street fighting that I have come across (the one book I know is Tariq Ali’s) this is the very first attempt I’ve come acrosss to show how terrifying it is to revolt against a govt, and really give a feel of the what it’s like to know a bunch of paid human beings are there to murder you, and see it happen all around you. Davies’s switches points of view, partly as individuals go down, but the most frequent is Enjolas. The episode even had a warning for viewers that the violence here is exceptional: it’s not; what’s rare is to show how paid police and militia will kill citizens. During the Obama era only glimpses were seen of what was done to the Occupy Wall Street people when some prominent person’s son or daughter’s body was destroyed — not all die when they are horrifically maimed nowadays. It was very moving when Grantaire (Turlough Convery) chooses to die standing with Enjolras. I’d say Joseph Quinn had a major role in this film


The death scene

The death scene of Valjean collapsing and put to bed with Cosette next to him put me in mind of Andrei’s death in Davies’s War and Peace. Davies had more time in War and Peace (9 episodes of differing length) so he showed the process of dying (and James Norton is a virtuoso actor) — but we may ask, Is it enough for this man that Cosette loved him? There is a bit too much poetic justice perhaps: Thenardier tells us in his losing scene that he is ending in shit. Hugo’s Les Miserables is not Shakespeare’s Lear

ValJean dying with Cosette by his side:

WEAKLY: Are you still there? Yes, Papa.
I had things to tell you.
Never mind.

Somewhat differently conceived a narrator and over-voice would have helped. Davies has rightly conceived of the piece as an epic but is driven down to individual metonymy too often. Is it though right to feel that Jean Valjean has let us down? Had he made it an educational opportunity for Cosette from all we have seen I doubt she could have understood.

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Father Myriel


Sister Simplice

Bellos mentions as another flaw in Hugo’s book the long sequence about the convent. In a book overtly anti-clerical, rightly critical of the church’s role in repression, to make two of the characters, Myriel at the opening and now the mother superior (Georgie Glenn) as well as Sister Simplice (Natalie Simpson) near saints does more than tend to mute the radical point of view on life. Bellos suggests that like many authors, Hugo is ambivalent; his politics are also partly conservative at times — as would be understandable given his background


We must have the upper class couple: Ellie Bamber as Cosette grown up; Josh O’Connor as Marius

Davies counters this: in each of his adaptations, while it is Davies’s spirit and presence that unites them all (and there are remarkable parallels among the actors he chooses for his heroes), in each he is reacting to and producing a content which is partly a recreated version of his author’s so he is reacting to the author. In Les Miserables Davies turns a sentimentality towards Catholicism at times into a humane secularism, and convent and moral life become symbols for finding peace and safety amid the evils of human nature and the society this nature creates. Davies pulls out of Hugo’s retreat narratives what a good person wants in life is peace and safety. His good people are rarely ambitious; they may want to work hard for the meaning of this, to help others, but they most of them do not seek high position. The bad people are those who value others for their high rank irrespective of anything else. What Jean Valjean seeks for Cosette and himself as the best that can be gotten generally is a framework, a place apart from the world that allows each individual to know individual private happiness in whatever way he or she can achieve – play music, read, whatever.

The priest, the mother superior and the nun who cared for Fantine, were seeking and created peace and safety for all under their protection. That more than any religious belief is the point; it’s the respect the state pays to religious space and offices that allows them to do this for Jean Valjean. We see in the revolutionaries that although Enjolras is a good man and well meaning, all the men surrounding him are too vain, follow their appetites, and simply haven’t the firepower to achieve what this man is after — some other mode of achieving more for “mankind” is needed. So in the meantime we make do.

Voltaire’s famous ending of Candide throws scepticism on the ability of Candide and his friends to protect their garden, and the sense is how tenuous and fragile their space is, it can be invaded at any time.

Another important original move is to genuinely hire as many black as white actors: this is a thoroughly color-blind and integrated cast, from Thenardier, from Arab backgrounds to many black and white actors and actresses, not omitting the usual blonde princess Cosette. There was a black population in France from the 18th century on, but this casting mirrors an ideal for our own times.

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Douglas Hodges as the unbowed Lydgate with whom the film adaptation begins (the book begins with Dorothea)


Juliette Aubrey as Dorothea hard at work on her plans for workers’ cottages, which are never built

To conclude, I have been watching Davies’s films as a kind of year-long marathon, and much as the originality and relevance of Les Miserables to today, makes it the one to see now, I suggest that his finest art, the ones beyond those I cited in my opening paragraph, the finest of his film adaptations occurred in the 1990s; I’m thinking of film adaptations like Moll Flanders (1996), Vanity Fair (1998), and early 2000s The Way We Live Now (2001), Daniel Deronda (2002), and especially Middlemarch (1994, the narrator’s voice is Judi Dench and by the end I find myself weeping uncontrollably as the destinies of each play out). This Les Miserables is another of the better recently dumbed-down serial dramas: the language is simple, crude, not much given over to subtlety of thought such as we find in his mid-career films.

Enjolras and Marius in front of the other revolutionaries:

I have to say, first, I’m not royalist any more.
What are you now then? I’m a Bonapartist and a Democrat.
Now, that’s a step in the right direction.
Napoleon was a defender of the Republic before he made himself Emperor.
Well, have a drink.
Yes, have a lot of drinks.
[THEY SING AND CHANT] I say down with all nations and down with all kings.
What about emperors? An emperor is just a king by another name, only worse.
I won’t have it.
Napoleon made this country great.
He brought reforms through his conquests.
What a joy to serve under such a man as that.
What could be greater? To be free.
I want to be a citizen of the Republic, not a subject of a king or an emperor.
One day we’ll all be fighting to the death about that, on one side or another.

Ironic and satiric comedy is closer to Davies’s own spirit (and can be just glimpsed abovve), and deep musing grief for the price we all pay for our failures in life and society’s control, punishment and thwarting of our dreams and innate selves, but also a buoyant enough spirit for self-examination to find strength to play out the roles that are offered us as ethically as we can. Davies does not despair. He offers deep filmic pleasures and humane liberal content still, and has created a wealth of video libraries from books — early on more in his own right individually (education and daily ordinary life his theme), then from popular romance and sentimental novels (Delderfield), from the 1990s on the very entertaining and relevant (House of Cards) as well as some of the greatest novels ever written.

Fingers crossed his star is rising again, and he has the years left to do a new The Pallisers.

Ellen


Caroline Mortimer as Alice Vavasour reading the morning after her and Lady Glen’s night in the priory at Matching … (1974 BBC Pallisers)


Alice brooding just before she accepts John Grey (from original illustrations to the novel by Miss E Taylor)

Friends and readers,

What a time we had in my two classes with Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? Nobody wished it longer but apart from one Doubting Person (isn’t Trollope just bit repetitive?) most seemed to think the length justified. We had so many different kinds of conversations about the characters, Trollope’s landscapes and uses of symbolic houses, his plot-design and themes, epistolarity in the novels, irony, point of view, and much that has been probably said elsewhere, but one perspective I used is perhaps not the usual: from Arlene Rodriguez’s “Self-sacrifice as desire”, a thesis for a masters’ degree (sent by one of the people in the class): it attracts me partly because it forms a counterpart to Trollope’s definition of manliness (as I saw it years ago in a paper at a Trollope conference): Trollope’s Comfort Romances for Men.

Ms Rodriguez begins with a group of ideas that she takes from John Kucich in his Repression in Victorian Fiction: Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot and Charles Dickens, ideas ultimately adapted from Michael Foucault and Judith Butler – theorizers of sexuality. Like Lucy Snowe, Dorothea Brooke, Esther Summerson, Alice Vavasour is a self-controlled repressed figure, the kind of heroine who seems not so much masochistic but simply refusing to join in on things you might suppose she wants very badly. Trollope has a number of such characters and they are very much disliked by the fans, who can become vehement in their distaste, particularly those women who refuse to marry for a long time or not at all, but the type behaves in this supposedly self-negating manner in other areas of life, take for example, Mary, Lady Mason, a forger for her son, in Orley Farm.

I had a hard time with it because it seems perverse and anything on the face of it perverse ought to be scrutinized. The idea is if you self-negate, if you refuse to be aggressively after desires that are presented by our society as instinctive, natural, normal and as it were retreat into yourself, refusing all these you gain autonomy and self-ownership, a space to be yourself in –- or to find or create an identity for yourself in. A secret self, another authentic existence. These natural desires are social constructs, not natural for all of us; many of us just don’t want for real what we are assumed instinctively to want. For example, I never in my life wanted a wedding, much less a big one. I never had one. The last thing in the world I’d want to bothered with. Vexation and cost and time-consuming. That’s conformity forced on us: you concede you’ll have a small affair and before you know it you are involved with a large headache. In the usual paradigm we have characters filled with appetites that are thwarted by society who forces conformity on them.

But what equally if you don’t want to get sexually involved; you don’t want to fall into paradigms of self-abnegation, be a subordinate woman; you really don’t want to elope with this guy; or, you don’t like the person others admire, or the career your parent wants you to choose, or in Can You Forgive Her? sticking by an engagement or being coerced into a marriage that will leave you unable to do what you enjoy (say live in London), suits the aggrandizement of others (Burgo Fitzgerald) or helps them hide themselves. What if truly you want none of this?


Kate Vavasour — after George wrenches her arm, drawn parallel to Alice — Sharon Marcus suggests she is Trollope’s portrait of a lesbian secret self; marginalized in the theme adaptation she is repeatedly central to the Vavasour story

You don’t like the choices on offer. The example I can think of best which captures this and which I do understand is anorexia. People have a hard time accepting someone who does not want to eat? surely eating is natural, and needed. Who would give up eating? Many young women? why? As Hilary Mantel put it, “Girls want Out” (a diary entry in the London Review of Books one year). Mara Selvini Palazzi’s Self-starvation is about how family and school pressures are as central to anorexia as sexual pressure. In order to obtain some autonomy, to escape social’s demands you don’t enjoy. This condition of mind is found increasingly in upper class Indian women. Alice is ever eager not to go out. Kate, we are told, never dreams of marriage to a man. She proposes on George’s behalf to Alice. She may be said to violate Alice when she gives George Alice’s letter. Very aggressive for what she wants that no one will recognize. She ends living with Aunt Greenow at Vavasour Hall — I love how Aunt Greenow ends up in charge of the family country house. Poor Miss Arabella Vavasour that was.

Kucich argues that self-negation was very well understood by Victorians and enabled them to have a far livelier and more varied sex life than we suppose because they practiced public self-negation. Turn to Eleanor Bold a central character in three of the six Barsetshire novels. She likens herself to Iphigenia; she will immolate herself on her father’s behalf. He wants out, and she wants out too. She refuses to marry or have anything to do with John Bold until he gives up his case in the newspapers. She performs self-negation several times in Barchester Towers, and thus achieves not only autonomy and peace of mind for herself but also her father.


Donald Pleasance as Mr Harding, Janet Maw as Eleanor, sharing a well-deserved drink at the end of The Warden … (1982 BBC Barchester Chronicles)

We went over so many examples of this kind of behavior in Alice I don’t know where to begin; but there is a problem for unlike say Lily Dale, Mr Harding, Mary Mason, and in Dickens Arthur Clenham (males can practice this kind of carapace too) Alice ends up in a situation she is still ambivalent over, and in the last chapter of the book her author-narrator cannot stop himself from needling her and having the characters around her triumph unkindly, from Lady Midlothian (it’s as if a Lady Catherine de Bourgh took a central role in Darcy and Elizabeth’s wedding), to china, to diamonds. On these latter I wished Lizzie Eustace had been there to embody the notion that diamonds are being made to mean more the money (for myself I ended up endlessly pawning mine from my first marriage until I simply sold them). To the end of the book Alice has more in common with Isabel Archer than is supposed: thinking about having said yes to John Grey,

“She would have striven, at any rate, to [think as he thought] But she could not become unambitious, tranquil, fond of retirement, and philosophic, with an argument on the matter — without being allowed even the poor grace of owning herself to be convinced. If a man takes a dog with him from the country up to town, the dog must live a town life or die a town death. But a woman should not be treated like a dog.”

The probability of the ending does not validate it as the choice Alice wanted. In the film series, Simon Raven alters the question so that it becomes she must choose life as this is the only life on offer for her (Raven has Grey ask Alice not just in a graveyard but inside a tomb).

And the paradigm makes hay of the parallels set up by Lady Glen’s story whose reference archetypes are take us in another direction, though the drawing by Miss E Taylor configures her outwardly analogously.


Lady Glen after Lady Monk’s ball from which she has not eloped with Burgo


Philip Latham as Palliser at the breakfast table – he wins in the book because the argumet is conducted on his grounds, where he is hurt, not hers

In the film, by mid-morning the brooder is Palliser:


Now walking away from his colleagues, he passes a woman selling flowers, a church, meets George: Raven gives him voice-over

“The quidnuncs of the town, who chanced to see him, and who had heard something of the political movements of the day, thought, no doubt, that he was meditating his future ministerial career. But he had not been there long before he resolved that no ministerial career was at present open to him. ‘It has been my own fault,’ he said, as he returned to his house, ‘and with God’s help I will mend it, if it be possible.

Trollope’s definition of manliness I once argued undermines macho- and predatory male norms, and functions as a counterpart to female self-negation. A rooted original trauma in his life is at the core of these fictions.

“My boyhood was, I think, as unhappy as that of a young gentleman could be, my misfortunes arising from a mixture of poverty and gentle standing on the part of my father, and from an utter want on my part of that juvenile manhood which enables some boys to hold up their heads even among the distresses which such a position is sure to produce” (1:2)

A few paragraphs later he offers concrete examples of what he means by an “utter want” of “juvenile manhood:”

“Then another and a different horror fell to my fate. My college bills had not been paid, and the school tradesmen who administered to the wants of the boys were told not to extend their credit to me … My schoolfellows of course knew that it was so, and I became a Pariah. It is the nature of boys to be cruel. I have sometimes doubted whether among each other they do usually suffer much, one from the other’s cruelty; but I suffered horribly! I could make no stand against it. I had no friend to whom I could pour out my sorrows. I was big, and awkward, and ugly, and, I have no doubt, skulked about in a most unattractive manner. Of course I was ill-dressed and dirty. But, ah! how well I remember all the agonies of my young heart; how I considered whether I should always be alone.

In my paper I wrote:

In many Victorian texts, successful manliness is equated with “courage, resolution, and tenacity,” “the repression of the self,” “financial independence,” and doing useful work. In Trollope’s novels, however, the use of the term “manliness” and all its cognates usually refers to a more narrowly-conceived social behavior. When the young Trollope had insufficient “juvenile manhood,” he was not able to exercise a self-government sufficient to hide his social predicament and to maintain the respect of others. … manliness also manifests itself in [A] firm limiting OF susceptibility to pressure from the views of others in ways that permit a perceived private self to assert an individual presence, self-esteem and power implicitlY.” Thus Palliser can reject the position of Chancellor of the Exechequer after long pressure from his colleagues.

It is important to be emphasize Trollope is making a case against conventional norms. The character who is ugly, awkward, dressed wrongly, relatively poor, and even not quite a gentleman is frequently presented as nonetheless admirably manly. [While physical bravery matters], the word “manly” is much more often attributed to moral courage of the type which enables Mr Harding steadily to quit a compromised position. Trollope repeatedly dramatizes stories which reveal that when a woman chooses a partner based on how well he enacts conventional social norms for heterosexual male sexuality, she courts emotional disaster.

I told the people in the class: Drawing on his personal experience, Trollope dwells over and over in unheroic heroes and redefines worldly loss, defeat and individual withdrawals from social life and competition as misunderstood and understandable choices whose courage is underrated And then for the happy ending he shows the self engulfed – Alice wanted just one bridesmaid. Forget it. Or you integrate in a compromised ironic way. That is the ending of Phineas Finn: a position as a workhouse inspector in Ireland. Characters are unable or unwilling to articulate their point of view because they fear shaming and defeat. Their inability or refusal to manipulate these social codes disables them in the continual struggle for dominance against submission that Trollope depicts as also what shapes most human relationships. I do see homoeroticism coming out in some of the male relationships, especially when they are after the same woman (or have had her, as in the case of Burgo and Palliser or Phineas and Lord Chiltern)


Susan Hampshire as Lady Glen turning away from Burgo one more time …


An extraordinary scene between Palliser and Burgo (Barry Justice) at Baden …

Yes Trollope is intensely concerned over achieving a modern career (“making your way”). It was not having a job but a position you rise in to become someone influential and important. George Vavasour may not have had the patience, but he also didn’t have the money. Nicolas Dames in his essay on careers in Trollope suggests Trollope redefines the successful artist in term of money success with his vocation emerging as mere obsessive motivation, not the negotiation of fitting into a situation, finding the inner logic of what will make for promotion, which is what counts in gaining respect. The older Trollope criticism emphasized ethical relativity and went on about specific values; this way of seeing Trollope is post-modern: you achieve a life-style, a career or marital discipline as you rotate endlessly “upward towards the light,” ” except for those who fall by the wayside. So the first desire of most people is protect their place in organization. Suddenly Barsetshire becomes the world we live in today. I’ve felt that The Three Clerks ought to be have titled: The Way We Work Now.

But I have moved away from our Victorian heroines who have no need of forgiveness, much less vehement dislike, only understanding — for they are some of us.


Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther Summerson looking at herself in the mirror when she is beginning to recover from small pox (2005 Bleak House)

Ellen


August Wilson writing

Teach us to number our days again

The narrative Wilson’s plays tell us say that the public story of progress for African-Americans from 1960 is false: the changes in law intended to change norms and improve lives of black people have not worked. What the story over 10 decades shows is while there was some feel of progress and hope justified in the 1940s and 50s, by the 70s it had been swept away by new customs destroying the communities, individuals of black people in the US. Start with King Hedley II, then read Joe Turner Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, and then Two Trains Running. Gem of the Ocean ostensibly about 1904 but actually mirroring 2004 tells the intermittently but consistently appalling story of grief and loss in a parable.

In the old neighborhood, each funeral parlor
is more elaborate than the last.
The alleys smell of cops, pistols bumping their thighs,
each chamber steeled with a slim blue bullet.

Low-rent balconies stacked to the sky.
A boy plays tic-tac-toe on a moon
crossed by TV antennae, dreams

he has swallowed a blue bean.
It takes root in his gut, sprouts
and twines upward, the vines curling
around the sockets and locking them shut.

And this sky, knotting like a dark tie?
The patroller, disinterested, holds all the beans.

August. The mums nod past, each a prickly heart on a sleeve.
— Rita Dove

August Wilson numbered the decades ….

Friends and readers,

Over the course of the last nine to ten weeks for a class I took at the OLLI at AU I’ve thus far read 9 out of the 10 plays August Wilson wrote in an endeavor to realize through poetic and realistic enough drama on the stage the African-American experience of life in the US from the first to the last decade of the twentieth century. I have been stunned by their brilliance, how he makes poetic drama out of the language and experience of African-Americans seen truly out of the lens of their own culture (the only exception here is Fences). His work is as important, beautiful and insightful as James Baldwin’s (who is the other black male writer where I have read a number of the texts).

Wilson did not write these plays in chronological order partly because it took time for such an aim to emerge but we read them in the order of the life and attitudes African-Americans ended up experiencing over the decades each one is intended to present, explore and realize powerful comedy and tragedy from. They are sometimes called the Pittsburgh cycle as most are set in Pittsburgh, from which city Wilson came and where he educated himself in the public library. Through his involvement and place in the African-American community there he was gradually recognized as the great playwright he was and given opportunities to stage his plays.  He was eventually given a position at Yale where the support of a few central or key dedicated artists in the drama department and theater his plays led to the staging professionally of his plays. Then some of them were performed to New York City theaters . In case you don’t know the titles and year of each, here they are:

Gem of the Ocean (2003): set in Pittsburgh in a symbolic retreat house (threatened with demolition) in 1904. The matriarch, Aunt Esther claims to be 285 years old.
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1984): set in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse in 1911. Joe Turner, was the brother of a Tennessee Governor, who would kidnap young African-American prisoners and force them to work in hard labor for a pittance for years on end.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982): set in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio (the ten-cycle play not set in Pittsburgh). This dramatizes the individual black musicians’s characters, conflicts, and their forced subservience to white producers.
The Piano Lesson (1986): set in 1936 in Pittsburgh. It revolves around a piano, whose early owners bought the enslaved grandparents of the present African-American owners: a brother, who wants to sell it to buy the land the original white owners are now offering for sale; and a sister to whom it stands for bitter and precious memories of her murdered husband, and a way for her daughter to become a pianist.
Seven Guitars (1995): set in Pittsburgh in 1948. Blues singer Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton is newly freed from prison when he’s asked to sign a record deal after a song he recorded months before becomes a surprise hit. I was not able to read this one as it is so drenched in supernatural ghosts I could not tell who was really alive and who not. One of its overt themes is the perpetual killing of black men with impunity by whites, which we see in most of the plays.
Fences (1984): set in 1957 Pittsburgh. Troy Maxson, a former Negro Baseball League player, is a bitter man in his 50s who works as a garbage man. His frustration and disappointments in life affect his two sons; he betrays his wife Rose. It almost seems modeled on Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and is the most white and bourgeois of all the plays. No surprise that it is the one which has been commercially filmed.
Two Trains Running (1990): set in 1969, the play revolves around a restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, which has suffered a long economic decline; the city wants to seize and demolish it (just as it wanted to seize and demolish Aunt Esther’s house).
Jitney (1979): set in 1977 in an black people’s taxi station (one which has emerged because no cabs run by white people will pick black people up) threatened with demolition. It was Wilson’s first play.
King Hedley II (1991): set in Pittsburgh in 1985, an ex-con tries wants to support a family and aims to get the money to open a video store by selling stolen refrigerators. This is the darkest and bleakest of the plays: major characters murder or beat up or threaten people viscerally; the protagonist says:  “It used to be you got killed over something. Now you get killed over nothing.”
Radio Golf (2005): set in 1990 Pittsburgh, the last play he completed before his death. We are back in Aunt Esters home, still threatened with demolition to make way for real estate development in the depressed area (for whites). Investors include Harmond Wilks, who wants to increase his chance of becoming the city’s first black mayor. I will probably not read this one as I have had to buy them all and will not be in the US for the last class (I will be in Cornwall) and I feel I have understood the cycle. But I regret not reading it.


Joe Turner Come and Gone — Roger Robinson and Marsha Blake (see NYTimes review below)

The plays have recurring characters, often move into symbolic realms and modes. While many are set in Pittsburgh, through the memories and backstories of the characters, places in the south, up north (Chicago) and elsewhere on the East Coast mostly are realized vividly so the plays do present a cross-section of African-American experience, including enslavement (with memories of the original kidnapping in Africa and hideous passage in torture ships), in most of the plays horrific violence inflicted on them by whites determined to keep them in subjection, the various forms of harsh injustice and discrimination typical of each era, and also the characters’ own strong effective will to survive and achieve some measure of self-fulfillment and joy and friendship, family life, their gifts (musical, from playing instruments and singing, and as central to their community lives), the important function religion plays for many.

The one flaw or lack that is seen in many is that these are written from a strongly masculine perspective; some plays have just one female character; females are in the minority, seen as wives, girlfriends, sisters, and presented as “good” and valuable when they spend their lives serving the males food, having their children, accepting their sexual promiscuity or mistresses, and just support the men absolutely. Some are comfort pillows (there for sex); others downright Victorian heroines transposed. The teacher called them angels. I found many self-negate, are all self-sacrifice but in a way that refuses to go aggressively after individualistic desires that presented by our society as instinctive, natural, normal or conformist (and thus demanding of these males that they make good money) and as it were retreat into yourself, refusing all these you gain autonomy and self-ownership, a space to be yourself in –- or to find yourself in. In Two Trains Running, there is a heroine who practices self-harm to keep others at bay. They can win out this way or be pro-active by holding onto lieux de memoires: in The Piano Lesson, Beatrice holds onto her precious piano and the memories that sustain her.  She was my favorite character across all the plays.  Wilson did not side with her (I found).

On the other hand, it must be said that even in these limited roles and small space allowed in the plays, Wilson empathizes strongly with many of women enough to transcend the limits they are circumscribed in and one can see were they allowed far more living space, realization of multiplicities of traits (as the male characters are) they could appear in Lorraine’s Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls who have considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf — the only two plays by black women that I have seen and remember. There is an underlying current through much Afro- literature so I will also say the female types found in Wilson include those found in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions and black British males in Andrea Levy’s Small Island and the writing of Zadie Smith. The question of who you are, what is your identity is central to Levy and Wilson.

Here is an excerpt from King Hedrick II where Viola Davis as Tonya explains in anguish to Brian Stokes Mitchell as her husband, Hedrick why she must get an abortion or has gotten one: she cannot bear to watch another daughter grow up and lead a life of violence:

I feel inadequate before these plays because as a white person I have not myself experienced except by analogy (having been poor, excluded by virtue of my class, parentage, and disabilities) and imaginative understanding (not the same thing as experience) what these plays put before us. I do know I was often deeply moved and could remember analogous experiences of my own, and found (much to my discomfort) that when in a classroom with others (all middle class white older people in the class, with the teacher a black man who is a librarian at Howard University) that I would risk my own emotional safety trying to explain to the others the roots of devastation these plays register in these characters’ reveries of deep emotional trauma, desperate, circumstances, often profound resentment and loss of self-esteem, anger at one another.

I cannot say I enjoyed the class because I found it a stressful class to be in. The contexts presented were not literary but became personal: intertextuality beyond the inevitable Bible was not recognized or just didn’t interest these people. You might say the identity crises in Wilson’s plays transferred to these readers. I wish I could have gotten myself to say less.

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore. …
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
—Langston Hughes, from his poem Harlem (1951) — but what if you never had that dream …

FWIW, I found Joe Turner Come and Gone and The Piano Lesson to be the finest masterpieces of the ten.  Piano Lesson shows the characters getting what they want; it has buoyant comedy at moments.  Gem of the Ocean is a summing-up parable (like Shakespeare’s Tempest). Great anger in Ma Rainey, poignancy in Two Trains Running. I saw the movie made from Fences and while it was superbly well done (Denzel Washington was perfect as Troy, Stephen Henderson as Bono, his loyal friend), and I felt for the son, Corey (like Biff in Death of a Salesman), so liked the son, Lyons, rooted strongly for the wife, Rose (Viola Davis did win an Oscar), I felt the justification of Troy perverse (based on shoring up his punitive masculinity). It has a recurring type: the male so traumatized that he lives in a child-like state (Gabriel, his symbolic name in this play). King Hedley II is as tragic and desperate as Lear; I felt the black people there (representative of the 1980s) had been Americanized much (gun culture on display and deadly, fatal) to their own detriment; they are insecure, unsafe, paid no attention to by those whites whose access to technology, contracts and justice the black people need. Jitney is revealing as a first play and there is a valuable staged reading to watch in YouTube form:

There are numerous good essays on Wilson if you know where to look. Unfortunately on the Internet, much is behind paywalls except for immediate reviews of particular plays (which are highly uneven), but there is Ben Brantley’s powerful Wilson’s Wanderers, Searching for Home (New York Times, April 16, 2009) on Joe Turner Come and Gone. I also recommend reading John Lahr’s Been Here and Gone (New Yorker, April 8, 2001), or the introductory essays to separate volumes, especially those published by “Theater Communications Group; also an afterword essay by Paul Carter Harrison called “August Wilson’s Blues Poetics” in a volume called August Wilson’s Three Plays; this has an introduction by Wilson plus his own notes to the three chosen plays.

But the best thing is to read and to see Wilson’s work, and there is a superb dramatization of the whole of The Piano Lesson on YouTube, so gentle reader now take the time to feel deeply, be uplifted, and come alive with the actors.

Ellen


First editions — 1945 and 1946 bookjacket cover illustrations
Friends and readers,

Last night I was one in a sold-out auditorium in the Smithsonian Ripley Center come to listen to Julie Anne Taddeo speak interestingly and entertainingly on the “World of Poldark: Historical Realities and Fantasies of Georgian England.” I write this blog to share with readers some of what she said.

Her encompassing thesis was that “Poldark engages us with history and contemporary issues.” In a room filled with many people who themselves felt a personal connection with the Poldark matter she told of how when she was a girl she’d watch the Sunday night line-up of period drama on PBS Masterpiece Theater with her mother. Poldark aired at 7 pm, and inspired an active following: people went to Cornwall, they named their children after favored characters; it “fueled their fantasy life.” She came to the books after watching the films, and since for an entrance exam in high school when she wrote about Poldark she won a scholarship, she can say it influenced her life crucially.


Robin Ellis from the first hour of the 1975 series, episode 6, as Ross Poldark accosting Elizabeth Chynoweth as his betrothed


Angharad Rees from the third part, 1975, episode 6, as Demelza, defying Ross’s attempt to cast her as a pathetic dependent on him after they have had sexual intercourse

A “cult” had developed around the show, which could be felt when in 1996 an attempt to film the eighth book, The Stranger from the Sea, using other actors, failed, partly the result of the vigorous protest from fans. (I add that the two hour show under strong American influence also de-politicized the book, omitted all mention of its Peninsular war context so was very weak.)

Julie suggested that the terms of the re-selling of the books as TV drama in 2015 can be seen in the first trailer to the first season, which she played: very sexy, sensual images abound, hard-driving rock music against a gritty background. They spent hugely and were after a younger audience than they assumed had watched the first time round. It turns out that the audience for this iteration has been “quite diverse.” Yes the actors were made to become “hunks” by going to the gym, a female-homoerotic gaze was prioritized. Unlike naked women, this photographing of near naked men enhanced their authority. It is easy to poke fun at aspects of the films; they are inevitably inaccurate. She defended the show, and then quoted Graham’s axiom like statement: “The past has no existence beyond through what our minds can give it.”


For myself I find this still of Aidan Turner astride a horse (from the first episode of the first season), the camera shooting from below at an angle, makes him look magnificent


This of Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza with her dog from the same first hour seems to me vibrant and touching

She then moved on to the multiple contexts embedded in and surrounding the books and films. First the 1940s: she felt there had not been much written about the later 18th century. I’m not sure this is so (the Enlightenment was a popular topic among philosophical scholars and historians; the influence of and the French revolution as a topic has never ceased to fascinate), but I agree with her that this show is one of the first in large social media to show us history from below, the lives of ordinary lower class people, workers and miners. Winston Graham was, as Julie suggested, “a pioneer” in including varied classes of people in his historical romance texts. He said (I add as usual self-deprecatingly) he did not begin with the idea of writing a series of novels, but just one with “a gloomy beginning” and “happy ending.” But there was something far more in the structure of this conception that resonated deeply and he carried on with these books.

She then covered the period of writing (1945-2002) and how the novels reflect the eras in which they were written and the eras written about. Her interpretations here differed from mine. She feels that in the first quartet Graham is showing the UK needs to redefine its empire, face its loss, and he was suggesting bridges to ameliorate life by. In the first trilogy that followed (1970s) he was mirroring the mining crises (these actually occurred in the 1980s and so influence Graham’s second trilogy) and the rebellious spirit of the era. She quoted a long interesting speech from one of Alistair Cooke’s introductions to the episodes. Cooke’s words suggest that Cornwall for the viewer was perceived as almost a different country, separate from the rest of England, an arcane older culture, a wild landscape, while the reality was Cornwall was where there was much industrial innovation. Naming other well-known artists fascinated by the place she cited Matthew Arnold, D.H. Lawrence (who lived there too), famously Daphne DuMaurier. (I’ll add Virginia Woolf, Thomas Hardy.)  The music in these serial dramas is intensely important and Julie played the themes we hear at the beginning of each hour in the recent adaptation. (The theme music for the previous one was alluring too. These paratexts of images and music are often crucial for many of these dramas, setting off the hour from the rest of TV experience.)


A still from the paratexts of the first season: Aidan Turner as Ross astride his horse on the cliffs


A still from the paratexts of the second season: we hear Eleanor Tomlinson’s singing a song Demelza sang in the program, POV hers

The recent series was accused of Disneyfying: much is of course left out: the severe poverty of most of the population, their short lives, hard work (including children), political corruption. She felt this was unfair — the series is not meant to be a serious history text and does present the time as accurately as a program intended to please (and instruct) a large audience can. In the books (and films) we see how unjust is the criminal justice system (a “bloody code” of hard punishment was central); the rotten borough procedures and how George buys himself a seat by buying huge parts of the borough. We see young men unfairly imprisoned, hung, die from “prison fever.”


Jim Carter’s (Stuart Doughty) death from typhus & gangrene caught in prison — he poached (1975, Part 4)


Sam Carne (Tom York) framed and near hanged and rescued at the last moment, not in the book (Fourth season of the 2015 series)

Many aspects of Georgian England are put before us: its diseases, the class structure, the new ruthless capitalist behavior. Ross says aristocrats treat their animals better than their servants. She quoted another critic on how through capitalism, the hierarchical system (ambition) and new industries that money was made in Cornwall, and she suggested in the series (and books) we see a conflict between old aristocratic norms (decadent, a life lived for pleasure) and a new work ethic for a growing middle class, which Ross’s work makes him belong to and shore up. Ross in the new series is presented as a man of the people, somber amid his workers with them as the leader of a band of brothers. She suggested the (I’ll add radical) methodism explored in the novels is felt in the new dramatization of Demelza’s brothers (it was there in the depiction of Sam in the older series). She liked the sympathy the new series showed for George Warleggan as an ambitious man and felt for his need to conform to new upper class norms in order to elevate himself.  She saw Ross as simply a kind of Whig, deprived (because of the laws and customs of primogeniture), at first influenced by (involved in) the nearby French revolution, then leaving the Cornish world, to participate in Parliamentary debates. Travel is on horse, by the mail coach (you could use a boat); London is far away from Cornwall so Ross begins to leave his Cornish and egalitarian nexus behind.

The Demelza story she likened to Richardson’s Pamela: female servants were vulnerable to harassment (I’ll add rape, pregnancy, dismissal) and a wish fulfillment fantasy still allures. We watch Demelza teach herself slowly to dress, dance, behave like, become a lady. Caroline marries down, defying her uncle’s pressure for her to marry wealthy gentry. These, she suggested are fairy stories, and cited Charles Fox’s marrying his mistress, Elizabeth Armistead as a rare instance of a man marrying beneath his rank a woman he has made his mistress. Another case I can think of is Henry Fielding marrying his housekeeper after his first wife died. Fielding was jeered at by his rival, Samuel Richardson (he also wrote Clarissa) as in the recent series Dr Choake and George Warleggan jeer at Ross.


Morwenna (Ellise Chappell) shows continually that she is suffering from abuse (2015, Season 3, Episode 8)

But the new series has its own themes too, and she felt that these historical fictions show Graham to have been “an instinctive feminist.” There is the story of the coerced marriage of Morwenna and how her husband is a sadistic rapist she cannot escape until he dies. We see Verity fight and nearly lose her right “to choose” (to have) “her own life.” Julie sees Agatha as showing us the fate of the spinster, old, worn, powerless. Elizabeth’s story is of a woman with few options. How could she have accused Ross of rape? She would be regarded as an unreliable witness and her reputation destroyed. She is driven to take a dangerous drug to bring on early parturition to soothe her husband’s infuriated pride and dies of this. I agree with Julie’s statement that Graham dealt with psychological trauma inflicted on women with real sensitivity.


Elizabeth (Jill Townsend) pretending to be a Mrs Tabb come to a doctor for a drug to bring on early parturition, told it is dangerous (1978, Part 13, Episode 3)

Julie dealt with a few separate topics too, ones that are central to the books and films. For example, the precariousness of life and its dangerous pleasures. She showed how in the new series the pleasure gardens in London are realized. It is not specified that syphilis was a spreading and grim disease. I agree with her that the major characters sympathized with by Graham all dislike London (a kind of Babylon) and its false sophistications. She showed stills of Tomlinson as Demelza, Turner as Ross, Luke Norris as Dwight looking grim in London. Dwight is a sincere and earnestly hard-working doctor who would rather be in Cornwall.

She (rightly I felt) went on about Dwight as a “cutting edge” physician; Choake is a quack, Dwight well educated for his time where some scientific knowledge was beginning to be understood. She showed illustrations from the era (an apothecary dying), and said that resuscitation was practiced from an earlier age. Sickness abounds in Graham’s books. We have characters dying of diptheria (morbid sore throat); Hugh Armistead probably dies of meningitis; Dwight and Caroline’s baby dies of a congenital heart defect. This is transferred into the new series and reinforced. When Dwight is captured and witnesses horrible treatment, atrocities, torture, he is traumatized: she felt this reflects our own era where military men are abused by too many tours. I can vouch for themes drawn from medicine as common across Graham’s work.

Other strengths:  we see men comforting one another in the new series. There is little comic relief (that has been noticed again and again and that the earlier series had more comedy), but the Poldark books are mostly not light or comic; there is much death, grief, characters who could be better happier people are twisted and self-destruct from their background, upbringing, childhood (Francis Poldark, Valentine Warleggan). Ross and Demelza’s relationship is not an idyllic romance, but a real marital struggle with discord, misunderstanding and love.

She ended by asking why does Poldark matter endure: most of the books have never fallen out of print; we’ve now had two successful TV series 40 years apart. Is it the timeless themes? The heroine moves from waif to lady. The renegade hero becomes a strong pillar of his community. Other of the stories strike chords in us too. Then she quoted Graham again musing that when he dies and goes to heaven, he hopes St Peter will let him in even if he has been responsible for crowding Cornwall with tourists and summer people in caravans.


Photo of Winston Graham with his dog, Garrick

I enjoyed her talk very much. I plug on reading through the whole of his oeuvre insofar as I can reach it and time permits — in the midst of teaching, reading with others online, other projects that draw me on — I live but once and I am fading in some ways now, losing abilities by the month, my able time growing shorter. I am even now listening to Oliver Hembrough reading aloud Ross Poldark (on CDs) while in my car — so as to make more time for myself and books. I have the first seven Poldark novels on such audio CDs, and will go through these this way, and then read the last five over again. Alone as I am, with the obstacles I face (I’ve outlined some of these in the notes to my recent paper), no connections or contacts, little money for travel (and less appetite and ability), I sometimes despair of actually writing a book before I grow too old to do it.

Nevertheless, when I hear a talk like this and find myself returning to Poldark’s Cornwall and re-reading Graham’s words, I am drawn to the man who wrote the historical fiction and those of his books set in Cornwall, and am re-energized with enthusiasm, courage, and hope. I have thought of a good title, at long last too: A Matter of Genre: The Life and Writing of Winston Graham.  There’s my angle in a nutshell.

Ellen


Typical catalogue

Dear friends and readers,

Anyone who reads this or my other blogs regularly know for the past five to six years now I have been working as a volunteer teacher in two local Oscher Institutes of Lifelong Learning. Each spring and fall, and now most summers, I put my syllabus on this or my Austen reveries blog so the people in my class have an on-line document to refer to, which I can link into other sites, and also change as we go along. I decided to write an essay explaining what Oscher Institutes of Lifelong Learning are: their goal, their history, the development of such places thus far, who works there, takes courses, on what terms, and then discuss the pedagogy appropriate for such places for a person like myself teaching humanities or literature courses. Since I wrote it for an 18th century publication, The 18th Century Intelligencer, I concentrated on the 18th century courses I have taught, but the same pedagogy and closely similar kinds of experiences occur when I’ve taught Anthony Trollope’s novels, a course I call “19th century women of letters” (basically 19th century novels by women framed by a more or less feminist historical perspective), historical novels, Jane Austen, the gothic ….

So if you want to know what these syllabuses and the blogs I sometimes write coming out of my experiences with these people my age (many professional of all sorts) are the outward manifestation or signs of, you can read my paper now on academia.edu under the title: Teaching Eighteenth Century Texts in Oscher Institutes of Lifelong Learning Programs.


The building the OLLI at AU resides in

As I reread my text I want to stress more how alike both places are, and (lest I leave a wrong impression) that for me as a person teaching at these and as a person taking courses, I often find the courses at OLLI at Mason as, and often more academically satisfying, than the ones at OLLI at AU. It depends on who is teaching, what is the material the course covers, what’s the goal, and how long the term lasts. One great advantage the shorter terms in fall and spring at the OLLI at Mason allow are genuine winter terms (4 weeks) and summer terms (6 weeks), which are not found in the other. I enjoy myself very much in summer at the OLLI at Mason and I’ve had some wonderfully educational courses in their winter terms: one year Dante’s Purgatorio, and Early American Women Writers, another James Joyce’s Dubliners (these three given by lecturers and professors who came over from Mason itself, two of whom I sort of knew).


The fun thing about this course is it was taught a man who my daughter Izzy took a graduate course in Irish Literature with when she attended Mason at night — so she and I could talk about these courses together

Practical courses are important too. Personally important for me two winters ago, a genuinely basic course in how to fill out my taxes at the OLLI at Mason, with advice on going to the AARP who have volunteer teams to help you or fill out your taxes for you. I don’t know what I would have done without those people at the AARP this and last year, and am glad I understand something of these tax forms, even if it is only to see how I am unfairly fleeced proportionately to my widow’s annuity. At last now I know how the corrupt system is taking so much from me that they eat into my needs so that the hugely rich corporations and super-rich individuals (with all their lawyers and deductions and tax-havens) can keep egregiously more of their income than in a just society they would be allowed — all the while themselves drawing on tax-payer money to make themselves richer.


A picnic at OLLI at Mason June 2013

And finally such places are there to help create and enrich the social life of everyone who goes there. The importance of companionship in shared and congenial activities and in contributing to the community, being part of it actively for older people cannot be over-estimated. If I didn’t detail this part of my and others experience that much, well that was not the theme of my paper. My evolving pedagogy for teaching literature to older adults is the methodology I’m describing.  My topic is teaching the 18th century especially. And along the way I hope I convey what I am learning about teaching and how learning happens.

Ellen


Scenes from the recent Poldark series, with the accent on historical accuracy

Dear friends and readers,

My last blog was partly prompted by my reading through in chronological order Winston Graham’s contemporary suspense and Poldark and historical fiction and non-fiction books; I write again quickly because I’ve just put onto academia.edu, my third essay delivered at an 18th century conference on the Poldark books. The first at an EC/ASECS (East Central subdivision) at Penn State College (2011) whose theme was “liberty,” is called “‘I have the right to choose my own life’:” Liberty in the Poldark novels, and I put it prettily on my website, where you can see the titles of the other papers, and a more plain  copy at academia.edu.


Norma Streader as Verity asking Robin Ellis as Ross to provide a place for her to get to know Captain Blamey so she can decide whether to marry him or not ….

The second at an ASECS conference in Los Angeles (2015) that (appropriately perhaps) made film making and film adaptations a central concern:  “Poldark Re-booted, Forty Years On.”


An emphasis on community

For my third I discerned five phases or perspectives. a shifting genuinely liberal humane point of view politically, shaping Graham’s Poldark novels.

“After the Jump:” Winston Graham’s Uses of Documented Facts and Silences.


Contemporary playing cards

I had originally intended to call it “The Poldark Novels: a quietly passionate blend of precise accuracy with imaginative romancing.” Maybe I should have stayed with this, but it’s not the topic I actually wrote on.  I wrote on Graham’s different uses of fictional facts.


The cloak that Ross buys Demelza in the 2015 adaptation

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

To explain:  At the recent ASECS (American Society, 18th Century Studies) held in Denver, Colorado (a convention hotel downtown), I was one of seven people scheduled to give papers on two panels on “Factual Fictions,” one on early Thursday morning, and the other late Friday afternoon, a session I was to chair.  Both panels organized by Martin Lansverk, president of NWSECS (Northwest subdivision). In the event, in this “subgroup” as I may call it, there were five papers, three on the morning I gave mine, and two on the late afternoon I was panel chair. I have a copy of a sixth paper (a good one), and I put it in the comments. I can offer the gist of the other two papers that Thursday morning: Lee Kahan (“Edgeworth’s ‘Lion Hunters:’ Defining Character in an ‘Age of Scandal'”) traced a shift in attitudes towards what was regarded as accurate personality portrayal. In newspapers supposedly captured real people’s characters by surface portrayal, external scandal, and events; the novel was recognized as different and superior by its endowing characters with depth, subjectivity, interior motives. A gender fault-line can be seen as novelists were then often women and women it was felt were “attuned to intimate understanding.”


Maria Edgeworth by John Downman (1807)

Martin Lansverk (“Laughter and Truth-telling in Jane Austen”) found a pattern of development in Austen’s uses of humor and comedy in her books which parallel emergent and developing theories of humor and comedy in the 18th century. He described what kind of laughter we find in Austen’s novels and what kind of humor and wit is practiced in good and bad characters in the different novels. In brief, honest laughter is a sign of an ethical character; where fake laughter shows amorality (brutal laughter comes in here as well as crude ridicule). He also found a continuum which in Austen and others moves from gentle teasing and silent (sometimes ironic) smiles (Elinor Dashwood) to nervous release (Mrs Palmer) to hard aggressive mockery (bullying and sneering).


Hattie Morahan as Elinor Dashwood (walking alongside Edward Ferrars, 2008 S&S scripted Andrew Davies)

For the two papers on Friday afternoon I can offer a bit more detail because I am myself so engaged by the artistic work of John Gilpin. Tom Hothem (“Natural Fictions: Landscape Aesthetics and the Spatial Imagination”) turned out to be a beautiful meditation on Gilpin’s moral philosophy as made manifest in his idealized picturesque drawings, watercolors and illustrations. Gilpin was reaching for topographical archetypes as truths within all landscapes. Gilpin used aesthetic rules he found in novels (like that of Fielding), his autobiographical experience and apprehension of what he imagined as well as saw. His vision took the “best materials” in order to take “possession of the heart.” The trajectory of thought here leads to modern environmentalism and conceptions underlying urban renewal planning. He showed a number of slides of landscapes, parks, built houses, which (in effect) took us to architects in Italy, England and the US — Olmstead comes out of such schools of thought.


William Gilpin, Matlock from Views of Derbyshire (alluded to in Austen’s P&P)

Jacob Crane (“‘The Algerines are Coming!’ Fakes News, Islamophobia, and Early American Journalism”) revealed newspaper sensationalism and demonization of Muslims in North Africa, actuated by understandable fears of being captured and enslaved by pirates in the waters off the shores of the US. He offered the history of real border and trade conflicts and crises becoming in public media reports of fantastic barbarity. At one point it was claimed that Benjamin Franklin had been captured and enslaved. Again we glimpsed a liminal space (which can’t easily be checked) where fact and fiction were used as arguments and rationales by colonists, emigrants; Jacob quoted specific reports by captains and others, some true or partly true and some faked.


Anne Vallayer-Costa, White Soup Tureen

I will be writing more about this ASECS, one for my Austen reveries, a paper on Walter Scott from a session on the Jacobite uprising; on Andrew Davies’ adaptation of Northanger Abbey; on the theater as a career for actors, and scene painters, and the presidential address by Melissa Hyde on professional woman painters of the 18th century (including two almost unknown women, Marianne Loir and a Mlle or Madame Lusuler), and two here, further on film adaptations of texts written or set it the 18th century (Poldark, Outlander, The Favourite, Games of Thrones, Banished) and landscape gardening, Gilpin to Frank Lloyd Wright


Marked up page of Gilpin book

Ellen


Sophie Rundle as Eva Smith/Daisy Renton/Mrs Birling/Alice Grey (from Walsh’s 2015 An Inspector Calls)


Ruth Wilson as Alison Wilson, a fictionalization of the deceit of a male “patriot” of four women and the families he biologically fathered

Dear friends,

Over the past week I’ve been lucky enough to watch the kind of “thriller & suspense or crime and/or detective novel,” which turns on its head the older hero-centered often misogynistic genre into a satisfying dramatization and examination of disquieting destructive values and norms in many societies. One example, I just loved two weeks ago now, was In a Better World.

Billed as a “thriller,” this Danish film, written and directed by Suzanne Bier, tells the story of a sensitive dedicated Swedish physician, Anton, whose wife has left him after he had an affair with another woman, and whose son is the type of boy who is susceptible to cruel bullying in schools. Elias is rescued not by the school authorities (who like those in real life I’ve encountered) refuse to recognize and stop the cruelty but another boy, Christian, angry at his father because his father was unable to save his mother from dying of cancer and was even relieved when she did die after a long period of mutual suffering. It’s an exploration of sadism in adult political life in Africa. It is when such stories are discussed in this way that we realize the formula for carrying along a mass audience is there merely as a vehicle.


Mikael Persbrandt trying to explain to his son why not to respond to bigoted violence with more violence is an act of desperately needed courage

The film struck me because I am just now reading and studying a group of these formulaic books by Winston Graham, which keep to the misogynistic outward plot-design so that the vulnerable woman is seen as the evil person whom the other characters have to root out (Take My Life) or the self-destructive bewildered victim of a crook who used the resistance movement in France for his own profitable exploitation and sexual predatory habits, and whom an essentially good hero (in this version, crippled himself by war) is right to stalk and pressure until she sees that giving herself over to him will bring her protection (Night Without Stars). Both were made into film noir movies. I am looking for a way to discuss them that brings out this hidden backstory. And sometimes I despair when I see how the generic surface is still presented as valid and tedious as the puzzle-unraveling is when speeded up, made terrifyingly violent sells widely.

So I am gratified when I see “all is not lost,” and the books and films which win worthy prizes, a better and/or female audience (not the same thing) are becoming as common. I am not saying anything many people have not observed before me.

In 1997 Marion Frank wrote a good essay called “The Transformation of a Genre — the Feminist Mystery Novel (printed in Feminist Contributions to the Literary Canon, Setting Standards of Taste, ed. Susan Faulkner [NY: Edwin Meller Press, 1997]) where she traces not just the feminization of the central hero but a transformation of the values and the kinds of stories such material uses: Frank moves from Dorothy Sayer’s Gaudy Night, woman-centered and mildly feminist while upholding the hierarchical and patriarchal establishment to Joan Smith’s genuine feminist, then radical (not just liberal) humanist detective novels (A Masculine Ending to What Men Say).


Joan Smith

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For tonight I want to compare Aisling’s Walsh’s 2015 adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s “classic” everyone-did-it play, An Inspector Calls to the 1954 adaptation, famously starring Alistair Sim, so pitch perfect as the sinister and menacing Inspector Goole (in Priestley’s the name resonates as ghoul) that the 1954 film still has a following, and can be bought as a blu-ray:

and a re-boot has been successful


Pray forgive the conventional frozen promotional shot from the 2015 re-boot

I was reminded of J. B. Priestley early last week when someone on one of my listservs asked if anyone had seen the Walsh TV movie (now streaming on Amazon Prime)? A wonderful humanistic man of letters, novelist, radio host and commentator, playwright, erased by the media after World War Two because he would not give up his membership in the communist party and remained overtly a committed socialist. He was probably actually much better liked than Churchill during the war (Orwell just about says):

But he has been disappeared (like Mike Leigh’s recent movie, Peterloo) lest we have any encouragement for social decency in our media. A few years ago I went to a book history conference where a man gave a paper demonstrating that no communist after the mid-1930s was ever given a prestigious European prize. If you were not a communist openly, but were a socialist and known to be so, your book was suspect from the start. You’d be lucky to be in the short list and don’t expect a movie.

As an 18 year old girl I cherished two novels by him, The Good Companions and Angel Pavement. I sill have the old-fashioned hardbacks in my library which I read nearly half a century ago. At the time I was contemplating returning to college full-time and remember reading a history of English literature by Priestley, which I took out of the library. It stirred and spurred me on; his novels gave me courage and cheer – now I realize how the picaro novel is not one where compassion is the key note, but irony (Sarah Fielding’s David Simple never does find a friend). In later years (when I got to college) I realized Priestley was sneered at, called middle brow, and if I persisted in citing this allegiance of mine I’d be seen as showing I was not part of the knowing cultural world. A little far more candid and non-snobbish talk that day led me to watch Walsh’s rendition on my laptop that night and a kind friend sent me a copy of Helen Edmundson’s adaptation in 1954 and I watched that. I also remembered Walsh was centrally the creator of Maudie, a film about a disabled uneducated man and equally vulnerable woman artist.

So what is made central in the Walsh re-boot:

The conventional barely glimpsed back-story of a dubious unchaste working class girl becomes the central meat of the dish — the reason for having so many identities is she is trying to protect herself again and again, as each time she tries to conform and yet ask for decent usage (wages, respect, courtesy, kindness, a place to stay, companionship) she is used, dropped and sinks lower.

You can find a bit of the storyline in the wikipedia article on the 1954 version. Basically each member of the Birling family was responsible for ostracizing, firing, using and erasing Eva Smith; the worst moment is her humiliation before the smug mother supposedly running a charitable organization.

And in the 1954 film, much closer to Priestley (by Guy Hamilton as director and Edmundson as writer), we do see our heroine Eva Smith/Daisy Renton/Mrs Birling/Alice Grey but only in swift short takes and the focus of the scenes is not on her. Indeed in some of them she emerges as stereotypically a “tramp” or loose woman. But there is little going outside the room so we rely mostly on words to learn of the outside world. The kinds of arguments made are in cliches about responsibility. I feel that it is less believable these people would be guilty — their interactions are far less lethal, the family structure presented as far more conventionally okay.

Watch the 2015 immediately afterwards, and you see there were many more scenes with Sophie Rundle as central presence, scenes of her alone, scenes of her interacting with others, many giving her real gravitas, intelligence, and depth of feeling. What’s more the family is now made bitterly internecine and due to the inspector’s prompting presence are led to truly enter intimately into and expose their corrosive relationships. I’d call Walsh’s film feminist, Marxist, egalitarian, coming down to a human level in its demands, and really turning the “crime” genre inside out, while the 1954 one is Marxist and sentimental, still respecting the hierarchy and pious family “healing” at the end.


Grim

In 1954 Sims as the inspector vanishes and it really does seem as if he’s a ghost of Christmas whatever come to be therapeutic for this family. In 2015 David Thewlis as the inspector is not a ghost; as in Priestley’s he is lead in by the maid, and then let out. In the film we then see him watch (from afar Sophie) walking by the sea, then writing in her diary, and finally drinking the detergent; she is then seen whisked along a hospital corridor to an emergency room with a tube is put down her mouth and stomach (painful) as they try to save her. At the last he is sitting by her dead body at the end. IN both the family is then phoned and then told a girl has died and an inspector is coming.

The question in the 2015 is who is Goole? he is not ghoul as in 1954. Are we to take him as possibly some relative? some spirit conjured up against the capitalist male hegemonic order — almost magical realism rather than the female gothic.


Promotional shot of Soller and Pirrie as the Birlings still cheerful

I was much moved by the second film and not at all for real by the first. I do find Kyle Soller as great actor, and am drawn to Chloe Pirrie in all the roles I’ve ever seen her in.

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I encourage my readers also to watch, not to miss, Mrs Wilson on PBS, one of the more recent of these modern feminist humane “thrillers” — two hours last night (Sunday, 3/31/19) and another hour next week. There are of course the exegeses which try to stay on the surface, but the content so clearly calls out for the “backstory” to be told since the “thriller’s structure is now the emotional exposure by the women or the man’s grown children step-by-step of the male liar at the center. As Mike Hale of the NYTimes writes:

Alexander Wilson lived an improbable, deceitful, destructive but undeniably intriguing life. An author of popular spy novels and a British secret agent himself in World War II, he married four women from the 1920s through the 50s without bothering to divorce any of them. He managed to keep his four families mostly secret from each other during his lifetime, and his children (and many grandchildren) only got to know one another more than 40 years after he died …

Ruth Wilson of “Luther” and “The Affair” is the granddaughter of Alec’s third wife, Alison, and she plays her victimized, mystified grandmother in “Mrs. Wilson,” of which she’s also an executive producer.

So rather than the historical adventure or romance it might have been in an earlier era, “Mrs. Wilson” is an interrogation of history, a feminist critique of mid-20th-century British society, a mystery and, least satisfyingly, a character study. The strangeness of the story, and Ruth Wilson’s characteristic intensity, pull us along. But Alison and Alec, and their motivations, never seem to come completely into focus. The series feels caught between fiction and real life, as if the writers (Anna Symon and Tim Crook) and the director (Richard Laxton) were unwilling to fully dramatize a history that’s still murky, partly hidden in the files of the British Foreign Office.


Iain Glen

It could be said that perhaps the new feminist turn as gone too far in making the male an utter shit — I’m only 2/3s through though. One of the intriguing aspects is how the program makes mince meat of all this talk of patriotism and how keeping secrets for the gov’t is a noble patriotic occupation. Iain Glen the male lead often plays this sort of on the surface enigmatic male in female gothics — he was this kind of character in a recent re-do of a LeFanu novel, Wyvern Mysteries, which partly imitate the plot-design of Jane Eyre, except now there is real empathy for the mad wife chained in the attic. Keeley Hawes is getting old, alas, and Fiona Shaw even older … but are very good in their parts.


Keeley Hawes as Mary, drawn to be Wilson’s second wife


Fiona Shaw as Coleman (a sort of M)

Ruth Wilson ever since I saw her in Small Island, and then Jane Eyre, and now recently in an HD screening of an Ibsen play (Hedda Gabler, with Kyle Soller as the husband) remains one of my favorite actresses. I have never seen her in a film or a role where I didn’t bond with her.

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How to conclude? Don’t give up. Hang in there. Ripeness is all. Despite the horrors being perpetrated in the US by the heads of the federal gov’t, and sustained by its reactionary minority senate and judges in the public realm, there are still a large percentage of people from whom good can come, and who can make effective socially critical art from what Julian Symons (in Bloody Murder) rightly calls an inferior genre-game, which is still frequently obtuse to its own potentials.


A photo taken yesterday (3/31/19), the height of the flowering tree April bloom by my daughter, Izzy, as she walked along the tidal basin — we had the day before (3/30/19) endured more than 3 hours of driving on highways and DC streets to see and hear the Folger spring concert, an oasis of lovely, moving, fun, intelligently and passionately lovingly performed Elizabethan music and song

Ellen