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The two friends, Susan Hamilton as the Duchess and Barbara Murray, as Mrs Flynn (The Pallisers 1974, BBC, scripted Simon Raven, Episode 20)


Philip Latham as the Duke wandering about on the grounds of Gatherum Castle, being told it is not for him to question what the Duchess is doing (Episode 20)

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Wednesday, later afternoon, 2:15 to 3:40 pm,
Sept 22 to Nov 10
8 sessions online (location of building: Tallwood, 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va 22032)
Dr Ellen Moody


Stuart Wilson as Ferdinand Lopez visiting his friend, and business associate


David Riall as Sexty Parker (The Pallisers, Episode 20)

Description of Course:

The 5th Palliser refocuses us on Plantagenet & Lady Glen, now Duke & Duchess of Omnium, Phineas & Marie (Madame Max) Finn are characters in the story of the Duke & Duchess’s political education as he takes office and she becomes a political hostess. We delve practical politics & philosophies asking what is political power, patronage, elections, how can you use these realities/events. A new group of characters provide a story of corrupt stockbroking, familial, marital and sexual conflicts & violence. And what power have women? Trollope eschews the realities of most women’s lives and their political, economic and social activities during this period so we will also read as true contexts, selections from Susan Hamilton’s collection of Victorian Women’s Non-fiction writings, Criminals, Idiots, Women and Minors: these writers are Anna Jameson,, Harriet Martineau, Francis Power Cobb, Eliza Lynn Linton, Margaret Oliphant, Helen Taylor, Millicent Garrett Fawcett and Mona Caird.

Required Texts:

Trollope, Anthony. The Prime Minister, ed., introd, notes. Nicholas Shrimpton. NY: OxfordUP, 20011. Or
—————————————–——————————–, ed., introd, notes David Skilton. NY: Penguin Classics, 1994.
There is a readily available relatively inexpensive audio-recording of the novel read by Timothy West; an earlier one by Simon Vance. West’s more genial ironic voice is the one many people say they prefer.

Strongly recommended:

Hamilton, Susan, ed. Criminals, Idiots, Women and Minors: Victorian Writing by Women on Women. 2nd Edition Broadview Press, 2004. ISBN 978-1-55111-608-2. Available new from Amazon and used from various used bookstore sites.

Suggested supplementary reading or the best life-story and best handbook:

Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography and Other Writings, ed, introd., notes Nicholas Shrimpton. NY: Oxford Classics, 2014; see Trollope’s “A Walk in a Wood,” on my website online: http://www.jimandellen.org/trollope/nonfiction.WalkWood.html
Gerould, Winifred Gregory and James Thayer Gerould. A Guide to Trollope: An Index to the Characters and Places, and Digests of the Plots, in All of Trollope’s Works. 1948: rpt Princeton: Princeton UP, 1987 (a paperback)

I will discuss briefly at the opening of our session the 1974 BBC Palliser series, which covers all 6 Palliser novels in 26 episodes, and in general is more or less faithful. They may be found in older and recent digitalized form on Amazon; they also available to rent as DVDs from Netflix; each disk contains 3 or 4 episodes. There is a considerably abridged version on YouTube (4 hours) and one can find on YouTube single episodes here and there. The Prime Minister in the full version (26 episodes) begins at Episode 20 and ends at 23. It is only four episodes of all 26 as one of two majors stories, Wharton and Lopez is cut, and ends quite differently. I think this abridgement and new ending a sort of contemporary take and will discuss it at in our last session. You do not need to have seen any of these, but if you can manage to see some, these are splendid experiences and can add considerably to your enjoyment and understanding of Trollope’s Parliamentary novels as a story about the Pallisers and Phineas Finn primarily.


Ferdinand has to apply to Brewster Mason as his father-in-law, Mr (Abel) Wharton for money (Episode 22)


The Duke with Sheila Keith as Lady Rosina DeCourcy escaping and talking of cork sole boots (Episode 22)

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion. You don’t have to follow the specific chapters as I’ve laid them out; I divide the book to help you read it, and so we can in class be more or less in the same section of the book. I hope everyone will be interested in women in the era as part of the context of this book, but you do not have to read the selections from Hamilton, I will tell what is in them and discuss the issues brought up. Similarly you don’t have to read the on-line essays and columns by Trollope (but they are very good), my own, and others. I will again tell what’s in them — they will form part of our background for topics brought up by The Prime Minister. It’s entirely up to you what you’d like to do, if anything, beyond reading The Prime Minister. Please for the first week, read The Prime Minister, Chapters 1-9 and if you like, in Hamilton, Anna Jameson’s “The Milliners.”

Sept 22: 1st week: Introduction: Trollope’s life and career. The Barchester and Parliamentary or Palliser novels. “The Woman Question.” Read for coming week, Prime Minister, Chapters 10-18 and in Hamilton, Martineau, “Female Industry,” and Trollope’s “The Young Women at the Telegraph Office,” on my website at: http://www.jimandellen.org/trollope/nonfiction.TelegraphGirls.html

Sept 29: 2nd week: The two stories: their connections and subtexts. Read for next time, PM, Chs 19-27. In Hamilton, Margaret Oliphant, “The Grievances of Women” and Trollope’s “The Uncontrolled Ruffianism of London” on my website: http://www.jimandellen.org/trollope/Ruffianism.html

Oct 6: 3rd week: For next time, PM, Chs 28-35. Courtney C. Berger, “Partying with the Opposition: Social Partying as Politics in the Prime Minister,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 45:3 (fall 2003):315-336.

Oct 13: 4th week: For next time, PM, Chs 36-44. In Hamilton, Frances Power Cobbe, “The Education of Women” and “Criminals, Idiots, Women and Minors.”

Oct 20: 5th week: For next time, PR, Chs 45-53. On Colonialism in general in Trollope: Ellen Moody, On Inventing a New Country: Trollope’s depiction of settler colonialism, Antipodes: A Global Journal of Australian and New Zealand Literature, 31:1 (June 2017):89-101.

Oct 27: 6th week: For next time, PM, Chs 54-62. In Hamilton, Frances Power Cobbe, “Wife-Torture in England” (one of the most famous of women’s polemics, its topic is male violence in marriage); and Mona Caird, “Marriage” (this too caused a stir).

Nov 3: 7th week: For next time, PM, Chs 63-72. On Trollope’s politics conventionally considered: Trollope’s Duke of Omnium and the Pain of History: A Study of the Novelist’s Politics,” Victorian Studies 24 91981):204-227. On Victorian attitudes towards suicide: Barbara Gates, “Victorian Attitudes Towards Suicide and Mr Tennyson’s “Despair,” Tennyson Research Bulletin, 3:3 (1979):101-110

Nov 10: 8th week: For next time, PM, Chs 72-80 and the 4 episodes in Simon Raven’s Pallisers which represent The Prime Minister. Trollope and Henry James (as in his novella, Washington Square) and Ferdinand Lopez. For next fall, how about a return to the Barchester novels, The Last Chronicle of Barset and Joanna Trollope’s The Rector’s Wife?


Sheila Ruskin as Emily realizing whom she has married, her mistake (Episode 22)


The Duchess at night, hard at work, nervously tired of “shaking hands and smiling” (Episode 22)

Recommended outside reading:

Godfrey, Emelyne. Masculinity, Crime and Self-Defence in Victorian Literature: Duelling with Danger. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
Halperin, John. Trollope and Politics: A Study of the Pallisers and Others. Macmillan Press, 1977.
Harvie, Christopher. The Centre of Things: Political Fiction in Britain from Disraeli to the Present. London: Unwin, 1991.
Kincaid, James. The Novels of Anthony Trollope. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975. Old-fashioned close reading of the novels. One of the best general books on Trollope’s novels.
McMaster, Juliet. Trollope’s Palliser Novels: Theme and Pattern London: Macmillan, 1978
Mill, John Stuart, The Subjection of Women. Broadview Press, 2000. Online at: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/mill/john_stuart/m645s/
Moody, Ellen. “Trollope on TV: Simon Raven’s Adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s Parliamentary Novels,” Victorian Literature and Film Adaptation, edd. Abigail Bloom and Mary Pollock (NY: Cambria Press, 2011) online at: https://www.academia.edu/6438191/Trollope_on_TV_Simon_Ravens_adaptation_of_Anthony_Trollopes_Parliamentary_novels_as_the_Pallisers
Steinbach, Susie. Understanding The Victorians: Culture and Society in 19th century Britain. London: Routledge, 2012.
Snow, C. P. Trollope: An Illustrated Biography NY: New Amsterdam Books, 1975. A fairly short well written biography, profuse with illustrations and a concise description of Trollope’s centrally appealing artistic techniques.
Vicinus, Martha. Independent women: Work and Community for Single Women, 1850-1930. Virago, 1985. See my summary and analysis: https://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2019/01/11/martha-vicinuss-independent-women-work-community-for-single-women-1850-1930/


Donal McCann as Phineas Finn defending the Duke in Parliament (Episode 23)


The Duchess and Roger Livesay as the Duke of St Bungay conferring as coalition comes to an end: considerable relief (Episode 23)


The two friends, Susan Hamilton as the Duchess and Barbara Murray, as Mrs Flynn (The Pallisers 1974, BBC, scripted Simon Raven, Episode 20)


Philip Latham as the Duke wandering about on the grounds of Gatherum Castle, being told it is not for him to question what the Duchess is doing (Episode 20)

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at American University
Day: Monday, mid-day, 11:45 to 1:15 pm,
Sept 20 to Nov 22
10 sessions online (location of building: 4801 Massachusetts Avenue, Washington, D.C. 20016)
Dr Ellen Moody


Stuart Wilson as Ferdinand Lopez visiting his friend, and business associate


David Riall as Sexty Parker (The Pallisers, Episode 20)

Description of Course:

The 5th Palliser refocuses us on Plantagenet & Lady Glen, now Duke & Duchess of Omnium, Phineas & Marie (Madame Max) Finn are characters in the story of the Duke & Duchess’s political education as he takes office and she becomes a political hostess. We delve practical politics & philosophies asking what is political power, patronage, elections, how can you use these realities/events. A new group of characters provide a story of corrupt stockbroking, familial, marital and sexual conflicts & violence. And what power have women? Trollope eschews the realities of most women’s lives and their political, economic and social activities during this period so we will also read as true contexts, selections from Susan Hamilton’s collection of Victorian Women’s Non-fiction writings on women, Criminals, Idiots, Women and Minors: these writers are Anna Jameson, Harriet Martineau, Francis Power Cobb, Eliza Lynn Linton, Margaret Oliphant, Helen Taylor, Millicent Garrett Fawcett and Mona Caird.

Required Texts:

Trollope, Anthony. The Prime Minister, ed., introd, notes. Nicholas Shrimpton. NY: OxfordUP, 20011. Or
—————————————–——————————–, ed., introd, notes David Skilton. NY: Penguin Classics, 1994.
There is a readily available relatively inexpensive audio-recording of the novel read by Timothy West; an earlier one by Simon Vance. West’s more genial ironic voice is the one many people say they prefer.

Strongly recommended:

Hamilton, Susan, ed. Criminals, Idiots, Women and Minors: Victorian Writing by Women on Women. 2nd Edition Broadview Press, 2004. ISBN 978-1-55111-608-2. Available new from Amazon and used from various used bookstore sites.

Suggested supplementary reading or the best life-story and handbook:

Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography and Other Writings, ed, introd., notes Nicholas Shrimpton. NY: Oxford Classics, 2014; see Trollope’s “A Walk in a Wood,” on my website online: http://www.jimandellen.org/trollope/nonfiction.WalkWood.html
Gerould, Winifred Gregory and James Thayer Gerould. A Guide to Trollope: An Index to the Characters and Places, and Digests of the Plots, in All of Trollope’s Works. 1948: rpt Princeton: Princeton UP, 1987 (a paperback)

I will discuss briefly at the opening of our session the 1974 BBC Palliser series, which covers all 6 Palliser novels in 26 episodes, and in general is more or less faithful. They may be found in older and recent digitalized form on Amazon; they also available to rent as DVDs from Netflix; each disk contains 3 or 4 episodes. There is a considerably abridged version on YouTube (4 hours) and one can find on YouTube single episodes here and there. The Prime Minister in the full version (26 episodes) begins at Episode 20 and ends at 23. It is only four episodes of all 26 as one of two majors stories, Wharton and Lopez is cut, and ends quite differently. I think this abridgement and new ending a sort of contemporary take and will discuss it at in our last session. You do not need to have seen any of these, but if you can manage to see some, these are splendid experiences and can add considerably to your enjoyment and understanding of Trollope’s Parliamentary novels as a story about the Pallisers and Phineas Finn primarily.


Ferdinand has to apply to Brewster Mason as his father-in-law, Mr (Abel) Wharton for money (Episode 22)


The Duke with Sheila Keith as Lady Rosina DeCourcy escaping and talking of cork sole boots (Episode 22)

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion. You don’t have to follow the specific chapters as I’ve laid them out; I divide the book to help you read it, and so we can in class be more or less in the same section of the book. I hope everyone will be interested in women in the era as part of the context of this book, but you do not have to read the selections from Hamilton, I will tell what is in them and discuss the issues brought up. Similarly you don’t have to read the on-line essays and columns by Trollope (but they are very good), my own, and others. I will again tell what’s in them — they will form part of our background for topics brought up by The Prime Minister. It’s entirely up to you what you’d like to do, if anything, beyond reading The Prime Minister.

Sept 20: 1st week: Introduction: Trollope’s life and career. The Barchester and Parliamentary or Palliser novels. “The Woman Question.” Read for coming week, Prime Minister, Chapters 1-9 and in Hamilton, Anna Jameson, “The Milliners” and Trollope’s “The Young Women at the Telegraph Office,” on my website at: http://www.jimandellen.org/trollope/nonfiction.TelegraphGirls.html

Sept 27: 2nd week: The two stories: their connections and subtexts. Read for next time, PM, Chs 10-18. In Hamilton, Harriet Martineau’s “Female Industry.”

Oct 4: 3rd week: For next time, PM, Chs 19-27. In Hamilton, Margaret Oliphant, “The Grievances of Women” and Trollope’s “The Uncontrolled Ruffianism of London” on my website: http://www.jimandellen.org/trollope/Ruffianism.html

Oct 11: 4th week: For next time, PM, Chs 28-35; Courtney C. Berger, “Partying with the Opposition: Social Partying as Politics in the Prime Minister,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 45:3 (fall 2003):315-336.

Oct 18: 5th week: For next time, PM, Chs 36-44. In Hamilton, Frances Power Cobbe, “The Education of Women” and “Criminals, Idiots, Women and Minors.”

Oct 25: 6th week: For next time, PM, Chs 45-53. On Colonialism in general in Trollope: Ellen Moody, On Inventing a New Country: Trollope’s depiction of settler colonialism, Antipodes: A Global Journal of Australian and New Zealand Literature, 31:1 (June 2017):89-101.

Nov 1: 7th week: For next time, PM, Chs 54-62. In Hamilton, Frances Power Cobbe, “Wife-Torture in England” (one of the most famous of women’s polemics, its topic is male violence in marriage); and Mona Caird, “Marriage” (this too caused a stir).

Nov 8: 8th week: For next time, PM, Chs 63-72. On Trollope’s politics conventionally considered: Trollope’s Duke of Omnium and the Pain of History: A Study of the Novelist’s Politics,” Victorian Studies 24 91981):204-227. On Victorian attitudes towards suicide: Barbara Gates, “Victorian Attitudes Towards Suicide and Mr Tennyson’s “Despair,” Tennyson Research Bulletin, 3:3 (1979):101-110

Nov 15: 9th week: For next time, PM, Chs 73-80. If you are interested, Ellen Moody, “Trollope on TV: Simon Raven’s Adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s Parliamentary Novels,” Victorian Literature and Film Adaptation, edd. Abigail Bloom and Mary Pollock (NY: Cambria Press, 2011) online at: https://www.academia.edu/6438191/Trollope_on_TV_Simon_Ravens_adaptation_of_Anthony_Trollopes_Parliamentary_novels_as_the_Pallisers

Nov 22: 10th week: The 4 episodes in The Pallisers: Trollope and Henry James (as in his novella, Washington Square) and Ferdinand Lopez. For next fall, a return to the Barchester novels, The Last Chronicle of Barset and Joanna Trollope’s The Rector’s Wife


Sheila Ruskin as Emily realizing whom she has married, her mistake (Episode 22)


The Duchess at night, hard at work, nervously tired of “shaking hands and smiling” (Episode 22)

Recommended outside reading (if you want to read further after this term):

Godfrey, Emelyne. Masculinity, Crime and Self-Defence in Victorian Literature: Duelling with Danger. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
Halperin, John. Trollope and Politics: A Study of the Pallisers and Others. Macmillan Press, 1977.
Harvie, Christopher. The Centre of Things: Political Fiction in Britain from Disraeli to the Present. London: Unwin, 1991.
Kincaid, James. The Novels of Anthony Trollope. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975. Old-fashioned close reading of the novels. One of the best general books on Trollope’s novels.
McMaster, Juliet. Trollope’s Palliser Novels: Theme and Pattern London: Macmillan, 1978
Mill, John Stuart, The Subjection of Women. Broadview Press, 2000. Online at: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/mill/john_stuart/m645s/
Steinbach, Susie. Understanding The Victorians: Culture and Society in 19th century Britain. London: Routledge, 2012.
Snow, C. P. Trollope: An Illustrated Biography NY: New Amsterdam Books, 1975. A fairly short well written biography, profuse with illustrations and a concise description of Trollope’s centrally appealing artistic techniques.
Vicinus, Martha. Independent women: Work and Community for Single Women, 1850-1930. Virago, 1985. See my summary and analysis: https://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2019/01/11/martha-vicinuss-independent-women-work-community-for-single-women-1850-1930/


Donal McCann as Phineas Finn defending the Duke in Parliament (Episode 23)


The Duchess and Roger Livesay as the Duke of St Bungay conferring as coalition comes to an end: considerable relief (Episode 24)


Cherry Blossoms (Elmar Wepper as Rudi Angermeier, and Aya Irizuki [de] as Yu)

“What I love most about this book, as about all of Downie’s nonfiction works about France, is the way the reader is brought intimately into the adventure of his discoveries as he performs his intrepid research. We are spared, of course, the many hours of reading in dusty libraries he has done for us. But when he sets out into the Paris of today in search of its ghosts of yesteryear, he takes us along with him. We are there with him as he interviews the archivist at the Victor Hugo Museum, and the director of the Arsenal Library–a gathering place for such Romantic age luminaries as Dumas, Liszt, de Musset, Delacroix, Balzac, and Gautier—a place which, Downie tells us, “hasn’t changed much since the 1820s.” We are there with him as he sneaks up back stairways and into private courtyards in his furtive attempts to connect with Romantic heroes of the past, to look out the same windows they looked out of, gaze upon the same courtyards they would have seen. We are there with him in those rare moments when he is able to commune with those spirits of the past” (Janet Hulstrand)

The impermanence of life is at the core of Cherry Blossoms, an exquisite German film directed by Doris Dorrie (How to Cook Your Life). A wonderful sequence in the story takes place during the cherry blossom season at the beginning of spring in Japan. Hanami is celebrated for about ten days as families, friends, and visitors gather under trees while their pink and white flowers are in full bloom. The cherry blossom is seen as a symbol of beauty, awakening, and the transience of life … (Frederick and Mary Ann Brussat)

Dear friends and readers,

Summer is slowly turning into autumn, and I’ve written only once of this year’s summer reading and movies: David Nicholls’s Us, book & film, probably because I’ve only read and seen one I’d so characterize, and now as the days begin to shorten more quickly, I feel I’ve been remiss, partly because my spirits have been again rejuvenated by a movie and a book.


The audio book

First, the book, which will require my speaking first of David Downie as I encountered him in his earlier Paris to the Pyrenees last spring, and providing contexts with other books, and French movies. I took a course at Politics and Prose (the DC bookstore) called A Literary Tour of France, it was somewhat disappointing as the teacher refused to discuss any serious topics (!), and seemed to live in dread of offending people in the classroom, but she did offer two books, with real merit, the equivalent of Steve Coogan and Bill Brydon’s first and second Trip movies, the one where they drive around Derbyshire, into the Lake District ending at Bolton Abbey before returning to London, and the second a journey through Italy, from Rome past Pompeii to Naples.


Somewhere in the West Riding — an idyllic dream vision of what I remember of the rare walks Jim and I took out into the Yorkshire moors

Travel books encompass books about people making a home usually in what is to me a “foreign” country; they can be the encyclopedia type Trollope favored in Australia and New Zealand, the let’s analyze this country, his North America, or his jolly When the Mastiffs Went to Iceland (the nearest he got to popular travel books). I think the genre is invented in the 18th century where the idea of truly telling the truth of what you are seeing, of cultures being different, of trying to discover history this way began with Johnson and Bowell’s twin tours; a second variant is Susannah Moodie’s 30 Years in the Bush, a classic first Canadian book, about how she settled into the countryside to become Canadian.

Jeffrey Greene’s French Spirits: A House, A Village, and A Love Affair in Burgundy, was assigned first, and begins well, but David Downie’s Paris to the Pyrenees sustains the type. Greene’s French Spirits is similarly replete with intelligent insight into places, objects, people. He and his partner are marrying and decide to buy and renovate as a place to live an ancient church: they have plenty of money, live upper class educated lives (whose values Greene never questions, the source of the money never told): Greene is trying to capture his sense of what life against history is, French culture in history, and uses these “odd people” in the countryside to bring this out. Greene’s book is light and half-way through falls off when he goes into these chapters (to me tasteless) on his wedding but it is picturesque and evocative of middle France. He and his wife renovated a presbytery to make it into a home: the history of the building and the real problems of trying to renovate such a structure are absorbing, teach one about buildings.

Downie’s Paris to the Pyrenees is a sort of sceptic’s pilgrimage across that part France and down to the Pyrenees. He’s more somber in spirit, and the character he comes across made less eccentric at the same time more locally embodied. He has rejected much that Greene is content to accept: the materialism, hierarchies, fashion-laden admiration for what reeks of rank, monetary success. Downie is exploring his own mind (quietly, not that openly), his past, and the past of the countryside he and his wife are walking through. One needs courage and a partner to do what they are doing — — just walking following an old route and not sure whether they will find an inn in a given place, or the kind of food and drink they might require. They are doing their journey in an entirely non-commercial way.

Gradually his book turns into a more political polemic attached to French history (eons back) and the recent political events (1871 and the French occupation in WW2, Algeria, modern emergence of fascism). An emerging theme is how much is left across the French countryside of WW2. We saw that in Calais and Brittany. Downie describes so much left of the Resistance (and Nazis’ atrocities) and so criss–crosses for me A French Village (and Come What May). It’s a pilgrimage, in which the French landscape seems to contain almost no one, they have to find taverns and even once stay in someone’s home, take chances, depend on themselves and other people. It put me in mind of Anne Radcliffe’s gothics at their spiritual landscape best. Colleen’s Paris (a blog reviewer) captures the book very well, telling you the details of the story too. Downie’s book is more genuinely worked out than Greene’s.

Both are a long distance from VS Naipaul’s masterpiece, The Enigma of Arrival (Salmon Rushdie finds it too sad), but they move in this direction of deep meditation in a landscape about the history of the place through what’s physically left there and what we can know (and in Naipaul’s case) dream deeply and re-create to make of himself (to the person) embedded in this foreign landscape — through his memories too. For Naipaul it’s the landscape around Stonehenge, as a strong antidote to the culture he was born in and has rejected. Karen Langley in her Kaggsy’s Ramblings writes of a lighter gay variant, Hugo Charteris’s Marching with April (introduced beautifully by Frederic Raphael), the writer and his family determine to leave London and takes root in an ancient place, the Highlands (out of his background) and attempt to build a new life: this time the Highlands. It will come after Downie’s Paris Paris, is lower on onw my night-table’a pile.

To be honest, I’m only half-way through Paris, Paris but I’m just loving it. One problem with many travel books is they fail to convey a deep sense of what it feels like to be in the place — Downie has this ability. Each area of Paris the reader is taken to, is fitted into a larger coherent picture of the city, and then itself explored visually, physically, and mentally. The photographs are beautifully done (black-and-white) and epitomize a mood, the kinds of history that occurred in the place and/or what is there now, the people he sees. I’ve been to Paris three times now, once long ago for 6 weeks on my own in a cold winter, and twice with Jim and Izzy, 2 weeks around Christmas time and the New Year (2000), and the following summer. I am learning more, getting a better feel of the place than I’ve ever done and think if I could go back how much more I’d benefit. Each chapter is a little Eleanor Clarke, Rome and a Villa. Each one forms a walking tour; you are exploring with him. A shorter review by Kirkus. Janet Hulstrand says rightly there is so much here of history, literature, art, that it’s almost impossible to capture in a couple of paragraphs, but I believe she comes near and regales us with the details evocatively.

Downie himself, talking in France, about the book. He begins slowly, and has trouble getting into contact with the audience but as he goes on he’s extraordinary: the romanticism of Paris is the result of its negativity, that it make each visitor invisible, and conveys amid its austere life suffering, time past, darker passions contained.

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


Hannelore Elsner as Nadja Uhi, with either one of the film’s younger actresses or perhaps the director? or costume maker?

I had confided in a friend how much I was again missing Jim this summer, and my friend recommended to me a 2008 German film, Cherry Blossoms, about an older man whose wife dies suddenly. I looked up the reviews and found most reviews to be vitriolically hostile or indifferent. For the record, I watched The Toyko Story and found it to be frozen, creepy, too long, too still, absurdly over-rated. The only parallels are the angry children and the deaths.

Cherry Blossoms opens with Nadja, the wife (a wonderful German actress, Hannelore Elsner) listening to doctor’s tell her that Rudi, her husband has not got long to live. She cries silently; they tell her to take him on a trip and she says he hates adventures. He follows the same narrow routine everyday of his life, including the sandwich she makes him for lunch. It would seem despite her staying home, being there for him all the time as he forges forth in the world, he stays within her sphere.

So no surprise when he follows her advice as she proposes a trip to visit their grown children in Berlin or some other German city (they live in a country town or suburb) and to the beach by a hotel. We see how much they do love one another, are dependent on one another, also glimpse the hostility to them of their grown children who slowly it’s revealed find their presence even so briefly an encumbrance, annoyance. Her favorite son lives far away in Tokyo — later we learn he moved there, that far to escape the domination of her quiet presence.

Quiet mood on a boardwalk; they move to the beach, by the shore, and suddenly she dies.

The film is half an hour in. The rest is Rudi’s very hard adjustment, then a chosen trip to Tokyo to see the son who fled them. At first he is bewildered and this son also hostile; they adjust to one another; he gets lost early on, but soon he is finding his way. Tokyo seemed to me as inhumane as I’ve thought it. The son says everyone works weekends, long days, all the time. They live in small boxes in high look-alike buildings, where everything looks the same. Their talk reveals that indeed the wife had always had this inexplicable desire to visit Japan, had wanted to be a Japanese stylized dancer. We have seen photos of her when young so dancing.

He has brought with him his wife’s clothes, at first he puts them on the bed beside him to sleep (what he started at home) but then he puts them on under his coat. He sees and then introduces himself to a street performer, Yu, an 18 year old girl who turns out to be homeless. She does a dance where she appears to get into contact with the dead; she says she is with her mother this way. She wears white make-up on her face — as the aborigine did in Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith as a sign he was willing to die, to let the whites murder him rather than flee them some more. He and she bond, form a friendship, she says she is an orphan and he suddenly cuts loose from this son (who has said he moved to Tokyo to get away from his mother who he loved so much but was overwhelming).

He takes the girl to Mount Fuji which his wife dreamed of going to. She dreamed of being a dancer, of going to Japan. He feels very badly that he stood in her way. We do see how middle class people in Japan take holidays: in a vast hotel-like structure where they live semi-communally — all eat in the same vast room. He and Yu are failing to see the Mount as each day it is so cloudy; and one morning he gets up very early and sees the mount: a vision. He hurries back, dresses in a Japanese dancing costume for a man that he has brought, and returns to the shore. As he dances, we see a hand reach his, and his wife is there, visible, similarly dressed. They dance intensely together. The camera moves away to Yu, just waking up. She discovers Rudi is gone, a couple of hours go by and he does not return. Now she too goes to the shore and finds him dead, laying by the shore. There follows a Japanese style funeral with his son and Yu presiding over his ashes in an urn, and then another funeral in Germany. The film ends quietly with the camera returning to the girl who has returned to the park to dance for money and to reach her mother. There is a dedication at the movie’s close, apparently by Dorrie remembering someone who perhaps died.

I use the phrase very moving so often, so let me say very very touching. Here is a review by Frederick and MaryAnn Brussat which begins to do the film justice. It’s beautifully tastefully filmed, written, the music just perfect, everything, tactful, controlled. I found it uplifting.

I do have one (many) regrets from my marriage: I never went to the shore or the beach with Jim enough. I knew how he burnt, and I’d get bored. Now I wish I had gone every summer with him — we’d go when we went to England to the Chitterings beach, once we went to Brighton. This summer I didn’t get to the shore at all. It is a three hour drive from my house to reach a public beach.

So these are the summer books and movies I have experienced this season of 2021; Nicolls at mid-summer and these at journey’s end.

Ellen


Ada (Tara Fitzgerald, the Alice Roland of film story) and Flora (Anna Paquin, the Asia of the film story) — from Jane Campion’s 1993 The Piano, a very free appropriation of Mander’s 1920 novel)

Dear friends and readers,

I do not remember what year it was when I first came across Jane Mander’s traditional novel of the trials and ordeals of colonialism for the European colonizers, credited as one of the first true New Zealand novels (a product of this new culture), The Story of a New Zealand River. I found it in the Second Story bookstore in Alexandria, one of two such used book stores: one in DC (Georgetown); and this one in Alexandria, which took up a whole block, all sides and was two floors high. Long gone now such attics of “used” literature where I could rummage in past ages through their left-over books. I might have been attracted by the cover.

I recall being wholly absorbed by it, and recognizing it (not Emily Bronte, as was suggested by some film critics) as a central story source for a movie that made quite a splash with its teasing erotic content. Campion’s English heroine, a mute, coerced into marriage, with a white timber man in New Zealand, is persuaded to go through a slow strip-tease by his assistant, a white man gone native — she removes an item of clothing and in return gets to “own” a small part of her piano until she owns the whole thing), Jane Campion’s The Piano. My reaction to the movie this summer has been very different.

This summer when I decided to try to teach a course in colonialist writings, it leapt to mind as the one book I must do. As I told the people in the zoom space with me, this, together with her Allen Adair, are as worthy to be taught as regularly as the over-rated Heart of Darkness by Conrad and a couple of other favorites by men as classic colonialist books. Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart) is on record more than once inveighing against the deep racism of Conrad’s book. Mander at least meant not to be, and you can learn a lot more about colonialism from her for real than you can from Conrad’s mystic pompous vague ominousness. I am writing this blog in the same spirit as I taught the book: I would like more people to know about it and its contexts.

Its plot-design tells two stories. On the level of primary action, it tells of an epic romantic journey through time, experience, a river and hard adventures (including giving birth many times in a cabin in the rural woods of Nothern New Zealand in the 1870s through 80s) by Alice Roland. She is a woman whose stiff-necked estrangement from others (later understandable), narrow-minded class-based puritanism, the same suspicious authoritarianism towards others that in the book she allows to spoil her life, is in the book changed to assimilation, a broader minded toleration and understanding, an acceptance of her own and others’ sexual love life. The context for this is the difficulty of living with Tom Roland, a white timber man with whom she has little sympathy, himself creating a successful timber business from the ground up (literally) in the wilderness. When we meet her, she has married him to escape her lot as a widow with three children living in Australia (with a piano in tow — she had tried to make a living as a music teacher). She had hoped comradeship. Instead she falls in love with David Bruce, his gentlemanly assistant (also a physician), who does not go native, but becomes her friend and support of her and whole white community. The three, man, wife, friend, are at the center of all that happens. The inner core of this Campion took for her stark but (contradictorily) pessimistic movie; the outer is about people coping with the situations of colonial life and winning, just.

On the level of structure and character relationships, it is the story of a mother and daughter. The first two of the four books dramatize Asia’s growing up, struggling with and loving her mother. The third and fourth books occur ten and then fourteen years later where Asia, now grown up, turns round to teach this same mother as she achieves independence and a far more free fulfilling life than her mother is capable of. It’s a bifurcated tale. Asia is a kind of Jo March modernized — I am morally convinced the novel Mander was most influenced by was Little Women. Asia falls in love with a man married but unable to divorce, and her mother has to accept Asia’s going to live with him as the source of her happiness and life’s strength. This structure and these themes mark The Story of a New Zealand River as very much a woman’s novel. Many of the inward recognitions both women go through are the kind of thing one finds in subjective novels by women which have nothing to do with where they are particularly.

To parse the bifurcation:

Book 1 sets our scene and the themes and character paradigms that will be developed. The arrival. Alice, Asia, two small children and piano ferried deep into bush on the river by David Bruce; Asia falls overboard and Bruce saves her life. Alice’s first impulse to snub Bruce (he not being dressed as the gentlemen). She finds herself very afraid, very alone, has to give birth – this marks the woman’s birth and it’s David Bruce who is there in intimate moments. Her antagonism, her aversion turns to dependency on her part and his pity for her to love, which is acknowledged at the end of Book I. Tom takes a mistress (on the side, in town). She makes friends with a Mrs Brayton, a cultivated and wise woman who helps her learn to live in a rough environment; she clashes with her daughter at each stage in which the daughter asserts a separate and questioning identity. She learns everything she needs she must make herself. One of the things our characters are doing is “clearing the bush” and making a new society mostly in imitation of what they knew in England only shaped by the different climate, flora, fauna, kinds of foods available and grown.

Book 2 includes a gale-level storm, a flood which threaten and almost destroys Tom’s hard-built business site; David Bruce’s drinking bouts (he is a depressive). Tom Roland thinking he is facing ruin, takes poison, and is saved by David and Alice’s united efforts – tremendous inward scene between Alice and Bruce as they are tempted to let him die. Bruce becomes an uncle-father to Asia. Alice’s deep self-repression, guilty, rigidity over sex, and wanting to own her children, her Victorianism, the attitude so reprehended by Bloomsbury is also reprehended by Mander but through a Victorian fiction.

The problem throughout all this is our heroine, Alice Roland, is persistently in the wrong. She needs the putative hero, David Bruce, continually to teach her better values, among these to be nicer to her husband. It seems it’s her fault the husband treats her badly; her fault he goes into these drinking bouts (as does David himself but she cannot be blamed for that). She is told she is intolerant when he visits his mistress. And she is to consider how much of the whole encampment (all the people working for him, their families) is riding on his strength of character; it’s due to his physical and moral stamina that the timber mill is succeeding and creating wealth for him and her and money for all. Ironically what makes the book unpalatable to some readers today, scandalized her New Zealand readership until the 1930s because what Alice is being taught and Asia lives out are modern attitudes towards sex, class, parent-child relationships, work.

Books 3 & 4 (more briefly): 10 years later, Asia 18 and insists on independent life for herself, a terrible wrench for Alice. At first Alice cannot accept this modern way of life for her daughter. Bruce and Mrs Brayton enable Asia to leave, to become a sort of concert pianist going round New Zealand, but Alice again pregnant and now ill (endures yet another stillbirth), Asia returns home for a few months to nurse her. Then 2 and 1/2 years later, we find Asia now living at home (not explained) and she falls in love with Allen Ross. This part of the novel contains the most extensive descriptions of the realities of colonial life, the people who come as failures elsewhere and fail again; the landscape. Here we find the only mentions of the Maoris in the book (very traditional to leave the indigenous peoples out).

The novel’s non-modern techniques: back stories emerge. Alice had Asia as illegitimate child and punished herself all her life by his marriage; Mrs Brayton had rejected daughter who married someone Mrs B didn’t approve of, w/o help daughter died. Bruce himself did not save a man whose wife he loved and blames himself as a passive murderer (this reminded me of George Eliot, and Bruce seemed to me a Daniel Deronda).

Roland finally catches Bruce and Alice in compromising position and it emerges he thought they were lovers all these years –- especially after Bruce told him to leave Alice alone, for these pregnancies were killing her. A sub-textual argument of the book is on behalf of contraception (for which it was attacked). Does she want a divorce? No! but our noble lovers are saved when Tom dies in an accident nobly trying to save others. At novel’s end Asia and Ross have gone to live in Sidney where they hope to do good in politics. Alice and Bruce leave for Auckland to marry and find contentment as older adults together.

The book brings you into its world deeply; it is rich in description of New Zealand at the time. The characters are convincing (if contrived because of the romantic lesson-learning structuring). I find it to be melancholy: life is little to be enjoyed and much to be endured (there are various utterances which are variations on Samuel Johnson, mostly when Alice is thinking of what is to come. What is most striking to me is how the daughter is presented as more reasonable, more able to function in modern society, more daring than the mother, and they get into hard conflicts over opposed values — including directly sexual (against her daughter’s deep pleasures with Ross) as well as about a daughter’s independence.

I’ve seen this in a number of women’s books. I cite 18th century books: Elizabeth Inchbald’s A Simple Story, with two volumes each about the different heroine; Charlotte Smith’s Young Philosopher — at the time I thought of so many others where the mother-daughter paradigm was presented in just this way. In the 19th century there’s Gaskell’s work, Margaret Oliphant has several — Oliphant had her most important relationship with her mother. Oliphant’s greatest grief was the loss of a 9 year old daughter. This dual view enables a dual perspective in such books: here in Mander early colonial experience and then 20 years later where so many changes as the white settlers succeed have been made. Marianne Hirsh’s insightful and important book (still) The Mother-Daughter Plot begins with the idea that for many women, they read as mothers (this is Gaskell) or daughters (say Austen and Bronte and Alcott). Mander begins with the mother as central and crosses over to the daughter (as do Inchbald and Smith).

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Jane Mander, 1923, one of her emigration documents

She was born in 1877, so close in age to Virginia Woolf. Mander grew up in New Zealand, part of its middle class. There is a good literary biography by Dorothy Tucker. Like Asia in the novel, she had little official schooling. Mander’s father was a member of the early New Zealand parliament, a pioneer, sawmill owner, who purchased a newspaper, The Northern Advocate where Jane first wrote as a journalist. There was little audience or opportunity for a modern novelist; so first she went to Sydney and in 1912 traveled thousands of miles to New York City, to go to Columbia University. She joined the suffrage movement. She was politically active as feminist and socialist labor all her life.

It was in New York City she wrote The New Zealand River. 1923 she moves to London and gets involved with familiar names of literature today (and some less familiar) from Bloomsbury to writers of the 1920s; then she works for Harrison Press in Paris. She is fluent in French. She wrote three other novels. She had a very lively life and enjoyed it but there were bad pressures. There are parallels with Katherine Mansfield, also from the upper class of New Zealand, but much much wealthier (whom Mander still resembles in startling ways and who was one of the first reviewers of Mander’s first book). Mander might have been bisexual too — there is no record of heterosexual romance.

She seems to have missed New Zealand, and her parents in were in bad health too, so in 1932 she returned home and stayed. A long trip. She became friendly with New Zealand writer whose work is more widely known than hers: Ngaio Marsh – whose great passion was theater direction though she also wrote the detective stories for which her name is more widely known.

Having been attacked by the local community for this and subsequent books, and for not living conventionally (she never married), Mander grew depressed yet stayed on. She was part of the local higher literary culture of her country – but just could not get her act together for another novel or long work. She wrote reviews; people suggested she return to London, that she write autobiographically. She would not. She produced magazine pieces — very fresh vivid accounts you could call regional writing. Her mother had died and her father became very ill. That she lived with her father in her later years reminds me of Louisa May Alcott who lived with Bronson Alcott and died with in a few months of his death.

She lived through WW2 – and New Zealand, like Australia, was very involved. New Zealand was an independent commonwealth country by 1947. The present enlightened fine PM, Jacinda Ardern, a social democratic progressive, is no surprise; women had the vote in New Zealand in 1893; unions protected, and with an outlook like that of the British labor party after war & Australia’s progressive party, New Zealand throve.

In this first novel one can see many autobiographical connections. It’s in the 1870s when our story begins – there are a few references now and again to situate the narrative. Mander was born in 1877, so from her grand-parents and what she knew of her great-grandparents she remembers an earlier world. Jane Mander lived in the very area she brings her characters to when she was around the age of Asia -– three years before she was 12. This is period of childhood where deepest memories are etched and she continually in her imagination (according to Tucker) returns to this landscape in all her novel writing. Here Asia is she, a bridge into this novel.

Part of the reason for the book’s impact was its authenticity – it is described in books about New Zealand literature as among the first genuine culturally New Zealand books written – like Nathanial Hawthorne in the US, Emerson, Alcott – they don’t sound British any more. The places named all existed and the description of the timber industry is said to be accurate. There was never a mill at Pukekaroro or township but there was one in Puhipuhi near Kaiwaka (Maori names) a town, access in the 1970s when Dorothy Turner wrote her book on Mander was still through waterways. You can trace where the owner of the timber company (Roland) lived; there was a real wealthy Englishwoman living there, Mrs Clayton – and she had a house like Mrs Brayton’s and doubtless a fine book collection. Its specific setting is an obscure smaller arm in Kaipara Harbour, which Mander sailed into and out of herself (like Asia).

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There is an audiobook, LibriVox, so unabridged and for free

The Story of a New Zealand River is a woman’s novel as well as good and important colonialist writing — as some of the classics of colonialist writing, where the man has won a Nobel prize are arguably misogynist and racist: this is true of some of V. S. Naipaul’s novels: A Bend in the River has the hero beating up his female partner and there is no real criticism of this. Action-adventure stories characterize a good deal of Kipling (who is painfully racist and prejudice against non-white cultures). I just loved how Mander showed the way women were part of the colonialist project, central to it, and what they endured, their friendships, networks, deeper relationships with female relatives.

Mander does neglect the Maoris: they are seen only from afar when the reality is in this period a series of wars had been concluded, but feeling between the indigenous people and the interlopers was hostile, with outbreaks of violence on all sides. I discussed in the class and encouraged everyone to see The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, to be sure about an aborigine man in Australia, but a rare movie for depicting the horrifying treatment of indigenous people. Mander’s brother marred a Maori woman.

I’ll end on the use of the piano in The Story of a New Zealand River. It’s not a chance move by Campion to focus so on this symbol of middle class, settled, white upper class life, gentility. In “The Piano as Symbolic Capital in New Zealand Fiction, 1860-1940,” Journal of New Zealand Literature (JNZL) 28 (2010):34-60, Kristine Moffat shows the depiction of the piano in most novels and movies in the later 19th and most of the first half of the 20th century is as particularly a woman’s instrument, an instrument through which women can express deeper and unconventional longings, as her symbolic capital, her status, distorts the history of the piano.  It’s partly false. Evidence shows that the piano was played by men and it functioned not just in the home where there was no radio. Historical records shows that pubs, music halls, clubs, brothels, working men as part of music making groups – it is a versatile percussive instrument (a harp on its side) – means of entertainment; in the first decades of the 20th century Maori people took to having pianos, military camps, concerts.

Towards the end of Moffat’s essay, she focuses on Mander’s novels; in New Zealand River, for Alice the piano is also a symbol of “home,” which is of course England. In one of Alice’s first visits to Mrs Brayton she is drawn irresistibly to this Broadview Grand and starts playing Beethoven’s sonatas with deep feeling and is embarrassed to have let go so – how much had been repressed – the journey is so difficult. She had tried to make a living teaching music; when Asia grows up we are told that she succeeds as a concert pianist in an orchestra that travels around Australia and New Zealand, to places of entertainment. I was not that surprised to read about that Katherine Mansfield’s short stories (Mander’s first reviewer as I said) fit into this paradigm.

Ellen


Mally (Veronica Quilligan) and Jess, her donkey (1973 Malachi’s Cove, Penrith Film)

Dear friends and readers,

I am delighted to be able to say I gave a third successful on-line talk about an Anthony Trollope story to a group of people who have been meeting every two weeks since March 2020 online to discuss Anthony Trollope and his writings (sponsored by the London Trollope Society); that is, since self-quarantining for the COVID pandemic began. In June as a way of transitioning from Framley Parsonage (the fourth Barsetshire novel), I introduced Trollope’s Last Chronicle of Barset by comparing it to Joanna Trollope’s The Rector’s Wife (the first written 1866, the second 1991). Then about five months ago (March 2021) I gave a talk on Dr Thorne as the book by Trollope I first read and one I remain especially fond of. This time, last Monday, I spoke about one of his short stories, “Malachi’s Cove.” The group is still enthusiastic — we are having fun — still going strong, with plans for a another of Trollope’s novels, The American Senator, to begin September 5th.

My paper talk on this story and a comparison of it to its film adaptation by Henry Herbert (1973, Penrith film company) is another paper that comes out of a blog I wrote. But it has a larger context as my subtitle suggests.


John Everett Millais, “Waiting at the Railway Station,” from Good Words

For a long time now I’ve known that Trollope’s short stories are not sufficiently appreciated, mostly because they remain unread even by his more devoted readership. I taught these as a group to college students way back in the early 1990s when I realized that they were a good length to assign students, were written in clear, entertaining, often comic but sometimes tragic ways, and could and did interest college-age students: among other things, they are travel stories (Trollope gathered them more than one as “Tales of All Countries”) and about colonialism. The students were more open-minded towards these old tales than I expected, at first more so than the people on a listserv I was moderating at the time, perhaps because they came to Trollope with no expectations whatsoever — most of them never having heard of Anthony Trollope before. Then a few years later (1997) to the other adults on a listserv I was moderating, I again proposed reading and discussing all the stories; after a while it went over so well that I was able to put on my website a record of what we said and thought. We liked them sufficiently that years later we went through a selection of the stories once again (“The Spotted Dog,” “Why Frau Frohman Raised her Prices,” “Journey to Panama” among these. Each Christmas we still read a couple of the Christmas tales (for example, “Christmas at Thompson Hall”).


John Everett Millais, “Christmas Story-Telling,” “Christmas Supplement,” London News, 20 December 1862

Malachi’s Cove represents one of masterpieces of the genre that Trollope wrote — which I name in my paper.

So, now Dominic Edwards, our fearless moderator and leader (and Chairman of the Trollope Society) this summer proposed for August we as a group read a few of the short stories — as a kind of break from the longer works. (We had just finished The Way We Live Now.) He chose “An Unprotected Female at the Pyramids” and “A Ride Across Palestine” (sometimes called “The Banks of the Jordan”). I know I showed a lot of enthusiasm about the stories, and he asked me would I present a talk on “Malachi’s Cove” to start us off. It emerged that in fact the place on the London Trollope Society website where you can find all sorts of information about “Malachi’s Cove” (story, characters, publication date) is one of the most popular spots on the site. I was happy to do a talk.

In brief, I first showed that Trollope’s tale is a violent mood piece presented as a parable: we experience a persuasive glimpse of two people surviving together through “a hard and perilous trade” (460) in Cornwall: the girl rakes seaweed from the cliffs and rocks on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean where it washes up on the shore, to sell it for fertilizer. She makes it seems just enough to stave off destitution for herself and her grandfather who appears to have custody of her. Then I take the reader through the film adaptation, which I also think superb, and demonstrate how the Penrith film (the name of the company) develops from Trollope’s matter a haunting coming-of-age film (a familiar movie subgenre), an atmospheric Cornish story of intense loss, grief, anger and providential renewal.

So, here as before, is a link to the video on the website, which Dominic kindly accompanied by setting forth talk itself beautifully, “Malachi’s Cove: An Edge Tale: On behalf of Trollope’s Short stories.”. And as before I transfer the video from the Trollope Society site here for your convenience and to have it as part of my blog site:

You can also read the text at academia.edu


Malachi’s Cove, the opening far shot: Mally and Jess as specks by the shore

There is, as any regular reader of this blog will know, another context: I am enormously interested in films, especially adaptations of books. I love them personally and have published papers on them professionally and here on my website and blogs. So my paper values the film as much as it does the story.


Malachi’s Cove, the Vicar (John Barrett) talking with Mally in the graveyard by her dead parents’ gravestone

Ellen


David Nicholls’ Us — Douglas (Tom Hollander) and Connie (Saskia Reeves) in the present time summer of the novel as shown in the spectacular travel scenes of the movie (2015)

Gentle reader, Us, the book, works like Austen’s Emma; near the end a sudden unexpected revelation (if I’m reading aright, which I might not be as the information is delivered ambiguously) makes what we have been assuming all along sufficiently a blunder so a second reading uncovers clues we had not recognized. In order to explicate the book, and suggest why it is superior to the movie, Us, I tell this revelation in my 4th paragraph. For those not planning to read the book, this transformative information is left out of Us, the movie, so it won’t matter to you, except as you learn upfront you have been fobbed off with a far more superficial or at its end shallow experience (that hardly makes sense) or, aka, you are missing out …

Dear friends and readers,

Mid-summer is here and I’ve yet to record even one summer movie or book! The last time I wrote a blog on “summer movies” seems to be in 2018 (includes a summer adaptation of Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream) and before that, 2015 (Mr Holmes — if this be not a summer movie ….). The specific criteria might be that the summer film gives sensual pleasure (be partly a travelogue), that the catastrophic calamities of what’s called (somewhat absurdly) “the third world” not be visited on our characters, and immediate deaths and long-range historical dire events be for the duration of the film excluded. I called last summer’s movies, “Uplift” because as a group they were so earnest.

But, it will be said by those who’ve seen the movie or read the book, a death occurs in Us, Douglas and Connie’s first-born child, a daughter they name Jane, born prematurely, dies not long afterwards of sepsis; and there’s no denying that our hero, Douglas Petersen (Tom Hollander and Iain de Castecker in the film) undergoes strong trauma caused by his wife, Connie (Saskia Reeves and Gina Bamhill).


Us — Douglas (Iain de Caestecker) and Connie (Gina Bramhill) some 25 or so years ago in the movie

The story is initiated when Connie tells Douglas one night (after some 25 years of apparently contented enough marriage) she “thinks our marriage has run its course … ” and thinks (again the hesitating word) she “wants to leave” him. She just can’t explain herself further. She wants to be free; she’s tired of her life with him. Albie is leaving for college/university in the fall. It’s a good time to do this is implied. The rest of the book and film is an extended set of Douglas’s memories leading up to how this 25th summer he and Connie are so unadmittedly (is there such a word?) estranged and strangers that the statement, her desire is wholly unexpected. These memories are interwoven with one last summer tour together with their son, Albie (Tom Taylor) in which Douglas attempts to win his wife over again to get her to stay with him for the rest of their lives. This then (the action of the story) becomes a tour in which he finds he must mend a broken relationship with his son, because it’s clearly the dysfunctional elephant in the room of the marriage that has been helping tear himself and Connie apart.


The trio in a museum (the Louvre?), Albie (Tom Taylor) closest to us (and clearly bored)

What then makes it qualify as a summer book and movie? The deeply sensuous enjoyment of visiting with film-makers in charge, the actors, camera crew, and all those active together to make a film, experiencing many glorious and famous places across six different countries, and several major European cities. 162 sets worth, not excluding filming on trains and in train stations. The continual laughter – yes laughter, for the book is irresistibly funny as Douglas and (no omitting this) Nicholls continually deliciously sends up, brings out the absurdities of our daily life’s arrangements, and shows a extraordinary facility with sheer language – he emits cornucopias of wit — as some of the jokes are out of sheer language, or marvelous intuitive reductive send-ups of what we actually see in pictures, hear in music, how we dress, talk eat, drink, sleep is not left out. I’m a very jaded reader and it is so hard or rare for me to laugh, but I find myself not only laughing and beginning to giggle and stay laughing aloud for extended passages, but on my re-reading the book (I like it so much and feel it has riches not revealed the first time round, or probably only after several times and then repeatable) I laugh all over again.

Yes, the ending of the book has a dark unexpected revelation (omitted from the film) that it’s possible that what motivated Connie that first night the film begins was her lover previous to Douglas, one Angelo, whom on a second reading one realizes is mentioned far more than we had realized throughout the book, her “ex” from whom she said was on the rebound, deigned to show up and offer to renew the relationship. This suggests to Douglas (and us), she had indeed taken Douglas as some kind of super-superior husband material — kind, money-earning, responsible, loyal, hard working, very intelligent, well educated — whom she could spend a comfortable life with (just taking a part time job in a non-profit art museum) and bring up a son to enter the upper middle class through very good schooling. A fun tame-able convenience she could lead, having so much better social skills and daring ways. Not because she loved him deeply the way he had her. He knows the only way he can hold onto his son’s regard is to let him go live a life with no room for his father in it. Abie is Connie’s son. It’s only then and only briefly – but sincerely – in the book Douglas considers killing himself. Connie in the film 20 years later is not character I was much in sympathy with; she seemed shallow rather than “with it,” after all, what was she doing all these 25 years when she stopped painting. Douglas would have had her carry on. In the book there are hidden aspects of her discontentment and lack of inspiration that at least imply a thinking mind and heart, not just a pillow mother who enters into conventional life with child-like zest.

But Douglas pulls back; he tells us of the routine he builds up after Connie is gone, and then or nonetheless, in the book he types Freya’s name into his computer’s search engine. In the movie he turns up in a museum (the museums and a use of relevant old master paintings are a repeated motif of the film) and there she is, sitting, gazing at the picture waiting for him. Both book and movie offer the possibility of a partner for Douglas who actually sympathizes with and understands his socially awkward ways and high serious values. A woman newly divorced (flat left herself suddenly for a younger woman), Freya (Sofie Grabol), whom he met in Florence and spent the most pleasant congenial compatible day he’d spent in a long time — without fooling himself or being asked to be other than he is.


Freya and Douglas exchanging notes on this strange breakfast — cake and/or cheese slices with coffee

It should be obvious that as with the other summer movies I’ve urged readers here not to miss, my deepest pleasure in reading came from a depth of emotion that is carried so lightly and spoke home to me about myself and others. Nicholls’s crisp lucid analyses bring us recognition (not everyone is humble enough to enjoy this), and the kind of quiet or undirected ethical teaching and insight that have lost status of late (so Booker Prize books have turned into fashionable games too). But they are on offer especially in the book. I’ve discovered reviewers (Mark Lawson of The Guardian on the book in 2014) regularly condescend to Nicholls (there must be something suspect in a novelist and screenplay writers whose works sell so widely). Alex Robins of the New York Times is especially above this movie (Nicholls “wrings a certain amount of comedy out of Douglas’s hopeless squareness”). Rebecca Nicolson (again The Guardian) is similarly disdainful. I say especially in the book because (alas) Nicholls himself rewrites the book into a film where he endorses laughing at and rejecting Douglas for at least half the movie because he knows in social life the person who is all heart openly, is despised.

For myself I bond with, identify or maybe just am especially drawn to the personality type other laugh at, the kind of person so serious and earnest about life and his feelings for others and what they are doing together (as a worthy task to be done to the best of our abilities), and it’s that terrain Douglas inhabits. In book and film What his wife and son continually, sometimes unconsciously but often consciously do is exclude Douglas. Connie colludes in this; she precipitates the deepest crisis of the movie when she sides wholly with her son in an incident in a restaurant where Albie, rightly incensed at the obnoxious treatment by men full of themselves (fancy suits) of a waitress, carries this too far by going over to the table and provoking a physical encounter; Douglas seeking to calm things and appalled at Albie’s aggression, apologizes for this. Connie treats this as betrayal like that of Brutus to Caesar. The boy, awash with money he’s ever provided with, flees leaving behind a letter saying he will not get into contact with them for a long time to come.

Both then, but especially Douglas, become hysterically worried about the boy – he might be in danger — and Douglas’s psychological state becomes so revved up he begins an impossible quest to find the boy, apologize and bring him back home — to Connie (who, pragmatic woman, has returned home). The quest has its own traumas (losing all his stuff and being w/o money and a working cell phone at one point); it’s killing on his feet, but also exhilarating experiences. His son’s behavior when he finally catches up to him turns from utter rejection to comradeship when he sees all he means to his father and his father has a serious heart attack.


Douglas in Florence, soaking his blistered feet

It’s important to insist this sequence is not just a (ho hum) clichéd rehash of the character on the edge. Douglas has been hurt repeatedly — the person whose generous hearted gifts are not just turned back, but accepted on sufferance. To say he is underappreciated does not get to it. One typical incident: they blame him for not being adventurous in eating, and he goes with them to a restaurant where Albie knowingly orders him very hot spicy soup, and then hands him a very hot overcooked meat on a stick — and Douglas is driven wild with burning sensation in his mouth. He sees wife and son laughing at the table, ignoring whatever he has gone through in a bathroom to cope. If he shows an inability to understand mindless fun (with legos, at a quiz over celebrity items that pass as knowledge) he has given his all, to put it in philistine terms, pre-paid for all this with hard-earned large sums of money.

Given a chance, Douglas is liberal; his looking askance at an art major comes from his worry his son won’t be able to make a living out of strange photographs. I note that while the film ends with an exhibition of Albie’s art, implying Douglas was over-cautious, not trusting to his son’s special abilities, the book has no such scene. When Douglas discovered Albie is homosexual, there is not a second’s pause in his acceptance of his son’s sexual orientation. Matt Cain (The Independent) who wrote the film and book are heart-breaking and joyous has it right. Candace Carty-Williams of The Guardian in a short notice about the film said by film’s end she could not control her tears

At the book’s end for three pages, our usual narrator, Douglas, vanishes, and Nicholls as narrator or author retells Albie’s story from a very different point of view, and instead of the over-indulged upper class white male, naively self-confident (if he is only let be!) becomes an unconventional young man who had an unusual relationship with an artistic mother, who finally frees himself of an over-bearing well-meaning father (he sees this). Connie’s story is retold too as that of the frustrated artist who somehow (as a woman?) held back for 24 years now wants to fulfill herself before it’s too late, and resisting her husband’s pleas, separates herself from him, goes to London, and lo and behold begins to paint and not only that reconnects with this lover (now afterward for sure); she loves this man’s bohemian nature (all the pictures in the room Douglas saw in the first days of their relationship were of Angelo) and finds happiness with him “just in time.” (So as with Austen’s Emma, which contains very different stories of the characters besides Emma that Emma can never see, so here.) Nicholls says these might have made better stories than his own, that is, Douglas is a surrogate for him. We then trace Douglas’s anguish (as I outlined above), leading to near suicide, but holding out, to type in Freya’s name, with the words of the next unwritten chapter “dentist Copenhagen” (her profession and where she lives). For my part I disagree with Nicholls’ sudden startling turnabout and reversal, for it is Douglas’s story of ordinariness, of everyday failures, of the enemies of his promise (he has not been able to become that great scientist he dreamt of over his fruit flies either), of trying so hard and meaning so well, earnest seriousness, of ethical giving that can provide us with strength to carry on.

Several summers ago I saw a 2015 Far from the Madding Crowd (Hardy’s book adapted) with Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba and just loved it (though I never wrote a blog) and tonight have discovered Nicholls wrote the screenplay for that too. It’s the one time I have been able to appreciate Hardy.


Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene

Ellen


Caryl Phillips (born 1958)

There are those who are willing to pay the highest price imaginable to resist people who would police their identities. And there are those who will pay the highest price imaginable to secure an identity — Phillips, “Color Me English”

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve another author, Caryl Phillips, specific quietly stunning novel by him, Crossing the River (short-listed for the Booker the year it was published, 1993) to urge you to read. Until you do, you are missing out! and thus far (what I’ve read) the novels, Cambridge (1991, powerful double journal of white European woman and young enslaved well educated Black man, brought to a violent brutal Carribean plantation), The Lost Child (2015, a sequel to Wuthering Heights, aka Heathcliff’s story), and original biographical fiction of Jean Rhys’ life, A view of the Empire at Sunset 92018); two books of essays, The European Tribe (a sort of travel book), and Color Me English (more autobiographical, about memory), and all the occasional essays I’ve come across (e.g.”One Grim Winter Evening,” TLS 2012, on the Windrush generation, now being harassed or threatened with deportation!, upon he occasion of the Olympics in London, TLS). I am thus explicit because it’s been my experience than when I mention this man’s name, I get a blank look! Nowadays you need to have a movie made of your book to achieve more instant recognition. But he is well-known enough; here he is speaking to a group of people at a Canadian institution in Vancouver on The City and the Newcomer:

Phillips says he presents “migrant experience in its broadest context; he is draw to the intense frustration and destructive laws, customs and hurt the non-white child knows, the insuperable difficulty of truly participating. What are in a culture true signs of inclusivity and change. Why do immigrants refugees when so punished by the place they come to persist in wanting to stay –- it’s question that could be asked of the Kendalls in the movie Shakespeare Wallah. Why do they want to be loyal (and then of course appreciated, understood as belonging) when they go out and fight for this place and culture and be willing to lose their very lives because it is their country too …

For myself I think what caught my eye or attention was the information he was brought up in Leeds (so I first bought Color Me English), where I spent over 2 and one half transformative years of my life with Jim: where I went to university, married him, and stayed on to work at John Waddington (at the time a card and game company), to wander around the West Riding on buses, see York Minister one day, and just become part of the Northern Yorkshire culture for a brief fulfilling (sometimes hard) moment of my life. The above video will show you how formative Phillips’s experience of Leeds was in his life.


Jim sitting on the gate in front of Leeds Church, 1968

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Crossing the River, is, like a number of Phillips’s novels, a historical fiction, one not made up of one long stories, but several intertwined, with a framing that makes his book, though clearly out of the African diaspora, one which is deeply invested in the vulnerable powerless subaltern person of any race, all genders, from a linked group of imagined interinvolved communities. Three of the four stories are about enslavement, enslaved people, two 19th century, one mid-18th. The fourth is about a young working class woman in England during World War Two, given little opportunity to develop her gifts, find herself, thwarted by her class, then ignorant husband; she meets a young Black man in the American military and they fall in love.

“The Pagan Coast,” centers on the relationship between Nash Williams, a freed enslaved man who is sent by the American Colonization Society to Liberia, and his beloved and loving patron and former master, a father, and once lover, Edward Williams. Nash is repatriated there in the 1830s to establish a Christian mission and colony. And much to his deep sense of loss and grief, he fails. As he story opens, it is seven years since Nash was freed by his master, Edward Williams and sent to Liberia. Now a letter arrives, which Edward reads and teaches him that all the letters Nash had sent had been destroyed before he could see them by his recently deceased wife, Amelia (who just drowned herself); in these letters Nash had at first asked for help of all sorts (money, equipment, advice, support) and then increasingly desperate cried out in despair and loneliness, missing his home and all the people he knew so badly; we read them eventually and learn of the impossibility of the task set before him – the unreality given the circumstances of this country and culture of the people. The novella is about these two men, their characters, their relationship, the painful nature of what each does to try to come up to the ideals the other has of him, and in the case of Edward to himself go to Africa, and rescue Nash — too late.

They are deeply appealing characters whom we see embedded in, unable to extricate themselves from the evils and failures of several different groups of people they encounter on their journey in time and space.

“West” is the tale of the life of an enslaved Black woman, birth to death: like the first, it is told through a flashback – we begin in present time when Martha is old, sick, dying, exhausted, and has been left to freeze or starve to death but in a central street in a town where it’s hoped (supposedly by those fellow “colored pioneers” who had to abandon her they felt as too much of a burden) she will be rescued. She is taken to a bare cold room with a thin bed (the stove cannot be got to work) by a kindly woman who appears to be part of some group who rescue the homeless, and as she lays there that night she dreams of her life. I am telling the story in more straight chronological order than it is told — it weaves beautifully from experience to experience. She was snatched from her mother with her two brothers, put onto a slave ship, brought to the US and sold to a plantation owner who names her Martha — she becomes Randolph as that is his family name (we wonder if we are near the Jeffersons). Sold and the second set of scenes is of her married to a loving man, Lucas, who we first met in exhausted silent despair (suicidal, drunk) because the present owner has died, and he, Martha, and their young child, Eliza Mae are to be sold with the other property. He must tell her: “he took me in the circle of his arms and laid me down” — She also remembers the fear and bewilderment of her daughter, and her inability as mother to provide any protection for her child: “I did not suckle this child at the breast nor did I cradle her in my arms and shower her with what love I have, to see her taken away from me …. My Eliza-Mae holds on to me, but it will be of no avail. She will be a prime purchase. And on her own she stands a better chance of a fine family. I want to tell her this, to encourage her to let go, but I have not the heart. . . . ‘Moma’ Eliza-Mae whispers the word over and over again, as though this were the only word she possessed. This word. This word only.”
This is the moment her mind returns to throughout the story; what she longs for most of all is to be reunited with a dream of this daughter grown up, strong, beautiful, living in a fine house, on a broad avenue — towards the end in California.

What happens is she is sold to a couple, the Hoffmans, who themselves seem to own only a very few people, up close to her they see how traumatized she is, and try to help her by taking her to some evangelical events; these do not take her out of her abject state of mind; then they do poorly and must they plan sell her and with the money they hope to make return to the east. At the last minute, they relent and allow her to escape (with nothing but her clothes a bundle of things she gathers together before fleeing). She knows some happiness once again: next scene shows her working with a beloved Black woman friend, Lucy, both cooks in a shop and laundresses, somewhere in the west, protected by Chester, a man who is kindly, generous, the lover of Martha. The story is dated by her saying during this time she is told she is now free because of the emancipation proclamation, but says it has little influence on her life as far as she can tell. Alas, Chester gets into a card game with some white men, they cheat him, he complains and they return and shoot him to death. She and Lucy are no longer safe; Lucy has a man willing to take her with him to California, but not willing to bring Martha along. That’s how she ends up with a group of pioneers making their way west, and for quite a while worked very hard for them (washing, cooking, ordering things) but finally grew ill, and they feel they cannot keep her, whence she is sitting where we come upon her when the story opens.

The story is deep tragedy – she dies, with dreams of Eliza Mae ahead of her, and unknown to her is given a yet another name by the woman who does not know her name. She has more than once voiced how she dislikes being renamed — it is a form of not having an identity when she has one. Or had. All of Martha’s geographical journeys are also journeys in search of family, and journeys that create and perform kinship ties. She finds other daughters (Lucy) and other husbands (Chester) and they all echo her original family. She mothers the pioneers in their trail westwards, “rallying them to their feet” in order that they may realize their dreams of freedom in California. What emerges from Martha’s story is diaspora of connectedness via the pain of original loss.


Dorothy Lange photo of a elderly Black woman in the 1930s

Two more. I can be brief about the third: it is based on captain’s journal, John Newton, whom we might see or argue is the lowest of low human beings – doing just horrific things to all the people he seeks to control, from his officers, to the impressed men, to the enslaved people in chains (or instruments of torture around their necks), a man who resorts to the lash continually, a slave trader, named by Phillips James Hamilton. For some who have not imagined this or read deeply detailed historical accounts (I recommend Clifford D. Conner’s biography of Colonel Despard, who briefly turns up in Winston Graham’s Poldark novels as Anglo-Irish rebel turned revolutionary who is guillotined for his pains, as a scapegoat but also spent years as the leader of British men in the Carribean trying to steal the Native’s lands from the ferocious Spanish and build communities in the fiercely hot diseased ridden islands using enslaved people.) How hard a business his was – he has difficulties picking and buying enslaved people, they run away, they rebel, they also get sick and die; his men get drunk, humiliate the enslaved, insurrections, disease, diarrhea (he feeds everyone rice) aboard ship as well his life (letters home to a beloved woman whom he treats with dainty kindness, discretion, courtesy) is strewn with difficulties.

How can you leave out the colonialist slaver? the nightmares might not have happened had such people not been possible, not existed …. not somehow been allowed to ply their vileness almost globally. I could have gone over the injustice and cruelties step-by-step. Like reading a day in the life of a guard in a concentration camp in Europe during WW2 – maybe not as – a day in the life of police force in the famous ghetto Lodz. But I spare myself and my possible readers.


Scene from a World War Two movie focusing on a heroine ….

Then the last. I unravel a story told in the Faulkner-Graham Swift mode by voice and diary entries arranged not chronologically but thematically so we must slowly work out the outer story as we confront the inner hidden life of Joyce Kitson — whose name also only gradually is told.

The novella-length piece is presented in a journal or diary form in the voice of Joyce, a young woman during the years leading up to and through World War II. Consistent with the title, the small town and smaller village from which Joyce observes wartime England remains unnamed. Joyce has had a hard childhood continually pressured by her hostile mother who has never gotten over the death of her military husband in the First World War and has taken refuge in religious zealotry. Her mother makes her leave school when she is very bright and loves to read – her mother resent this one pleasure of hers. She goes to work in a factory, and does not fit in. One night she goes to a theater to see the Christmas pantomime and meets an actor named Herbert playing in Mother Goose. Suffice to say she gets pregnant, and when she gets no answers for her letters, has an abortion out of fear of ostracizing and pressure from others, but goes to London to find Herbert. When she does, what a disillusion! He flees her within ten minutes (July 1936 to February 1938 but her relationship with her mother is interwoven throughout the letters from the very opening to her mother’s death). When the story opens Joyce has married a working class (it turned out thuggish, violent) young man, shopkeeper named Len from a small village near the town where she lives with her mother. We eventually discover Len beats her, and Joyce knew almost immediately that the marriage is a mistake Len eventually goes to prison for dealing in the black market during the war, leaving Joyce to run the village shop. She feels for him over this as an injustice.

There is a parallel story: a friend, Sandra has a similar experience of marriage (maybe not as bad) but her husband is also gone to war and either she had married him because she was pregnant by him (or another) and has had a child, Tommy, whom she cannot breast-fed (partly anxiety partly lack of nourishing food) and whom she seems anxious to hide from her husband. She says that she has never been able to deal well with people (she thinks Joyce does) and becomes pregnant again (with a friend of Len’s). Joyce advises her to write and tell her husband. Among other things, she cannot put the baby up for adoption without the husband’s permission. Alas he returns and kills her, shoots her dead instantly. As Joyce’s one friend, Joyce never forgets her or that Tommy, the child, was taken away.

Not long after Joyce’s job has enabled her to meet a young Black (colored) man from the US. The U.S. Army stationed a detachment of black soldiers near the village where Joyce lives, and she falls in love with one of the officers named Travis. He is kind, courteous, fun to be with; they lead off a dance one night. He is beaten once by some white officers for returning late (or perhaps for going out with a white woman). She becomes pregnant by Travis just before he is shipped off to Italy. He is able to return on leave to marry Joyce – whose divorce from Len is finally settled (after scenes of his rage beating of her, demanding she give him the shop — Travis intervenes in one beating) – just days before the birth of their baby, Greer. Travis is killed in Italy, and Joyce is forced to give Greer up to the county as a war orphan. (A parallel to Martha and Eliza Mae.) The only time she sees him again is in 1963, when he comes as a young man to visit her in a new life. Joyce secretly continues to love Travis, even in her new better life, still a working class woman, now with 2 children, and she is portrayed as a good person, caught up in bigotry and circumstances beyond her control.

I have probably not conveyed how this story told another way could take 500 pages and how it wrung my heart. The story includes the bombing and destruction of part of her village – which she registers fully the horrors and ordinariness of — which bombing her mother dies in as she will not flee to a shelter.

The book has a prologue and coda spoken by a symbolic father who has foolishly sold his children into slavery, driven to it he says by starvation. He turns into a universal figure standing for those who give into society, who simply provides as children and then grown-ups the characters whose suffering we live through across the centuries. The coda connects Edward and Nash, Martha, Joyce, Travis, to specific cases and types of the hurt and victimized in the 20th and 21st century. All his children. Phillips brings back some of the most painful poetry in each of the sections.

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Poster Art on the Banks of the Gaza Strip

Orwell said “who controls the past (the way it is described, discussed, taught), controls the future.” There has been and continues to be a real drive to erase the injustices of the past and create self-glorifying – or justifying tales for the winners and powerful to tell of their power, well-meaning good acts. Phillips realizes common ground among the subalterns of the world. – subaltern is a person of low or lower status – those excluded from the hierarchy of power. They may get to row a boat but no say in how or why it’s rowed or for what or whom. I love how he often has women at the center of his books – not that common for male writers and I give him the great compliment that he does not see them from a masculinist POV at all. Why do we read colonialist, post-colonialist writing? So we may understand what we are seeing happening in our world all around us today — and we hope be able to do something to improve matters however small.

Ellen


The Householder (1963): husband, Prem (Shashi Kapoor) and wife, Indu (Leela Naidu) not getting along


Shakespeare Wallah (1965): daughter Lizzie (Felicity Kendall) and mother Carla Buckingham (Laura Liddell, Felicity’s real mother) playing Shakespeare


Roseland (1977): a few of the chief presences sitting around one of many tables just outside the dance floor


Heat and Dust (1983): chief characters: Nawab (Shashi Kapoor) and his kept man, Harry (Nickolas Grace) and the English Official’s Wife, Olivia (Gretta Scacchi) out for a picnic

Friends and readers,

Over the course of my life, I’ve seen at least 16 of some 40 films (and some several times) made by the whole M-I-J team or two of the three over half a century. A few are bound up with memories that matter: going out to the cinema one summer’s day with Thao, a young woman I am motherly towards, and Izzy and seeing the Chekhovian The City of Your Final Destination (2009, so very late, after Merchant’s death); one night very late, Jim asleep, I burst into hysterical tears at the sense of a life thrown away, in The Remains of the Day (1993) and rushed into a room in the front of the house so as not to awaken Jim; during our trip into Quebec one summer, about (I thought at the time) retreat, Heat and Dust (1983), and now I’ll remember Shakespeare Wallah (1965), studying, trying to understand the work of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala for a course I’m about to teach, and feelings about England deeply awakened by the poignancy of the characters having to leave India to go home …

While they are quite varied, I’d say at the core what makes them so often so compelling, so memorable is the true feeling caught or theatricalized in their actually usually quietly understated films; themes like memory, inexplicable longings, an undercurrent of melancholy. Film stories carefully developed, so the hidden life of social scenes is revealed before us. I didn’t chose the most striking shots from the many many brilliant actors who have performed for them, some of them almost unrecognizable by the time they were swept up into the film world (especially once Maggie Smith transformed) though the shots released to the public bring out the actor from the part to sell the picture:


A young Shashi Kapoor as Prem, the intensely frustrated, repressed (before his mother) and occasionally distraught husband in The Householder


Julie Christie as Anne supposed independent young woman come to India to research the life and places her great-aunt Olivia ended up in India in Heat and Dust

Ismail Merchant in one of the many short films he made with Ivory abut their work, and now to be found (if you are lucky), as features in re-digitalized DVDs, said what differentiated their work was they all worked with “heart, intelligence, art.” They were earnest as well as playful about their trade (Wallah can be translates into a trade). I find in their best moments, they approach the work of Ingmar Bergmann; there are also many fallings away, as they stumble, try for non-cinematic almost non-dramatic material (Roseland), attempt to please an audience with simply lush photography (The Bostonians). There is a love affair with the English southern countryside, though three continents, three cultures are their groundwork: India first (Southasia), then England (and Anglo places wherever found), then NYC (very late South America) and Italy (Europe). They could take a photograph: in their very first movies, The Householder and Shakespeare Wallah, they had the direct help of Satyajit Ray and his cinematographer from whom they learned much about cutting, editing. I feel they were drawn to the misty and intangible currents emanating from characters to one another


Felicity Kendall, the wandering half-broke troupe’s daughter, and Shashi Kapoor, the young Indian aristocrat in Shakespeare Wallah


Daniel Day Lewis as Cecil Vyse and Helen Bonham Carter as Lucy Honeychurch in Room with a View (1985)

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I have vowed to make these blogs shorter and so readable; my aim here is to encourage the reader (and watcher) to watch the earlier films (1962-83), perhaps in the black-and-white versions off-putting at first (little is compromised, they are not bland)go to Amazon prime or YouTube (where many are to be found), rent one of the older DVDs from Netflix (or better yet, splurge and buy a newly re-digitalized version with features as long as the movie), so perhaps the best thing, swiftest is to make a picture worth a thousand words by linking in the whole of Householder from YouTube

with a precise, carefully observed detailed study of the film’s art and the human story’s appeal. What I can add as to the story:

The Householder is a close adaptation of Jhabvala’s apparently fourth novel (in books on her The Householder is said to be her first). Now I realize it has in embryo central motifs and types of characters she has throughout her fiction, from beginning (all India) to middle (English women drawn into India and their original personality destroyed by the experience) to end (cool stories of corrupt individuals exploiting vulnerable ones across the Indian/American divide), — you can see a parallel plot in way (putting aside too literal alignments) in Heat and Dust (which I chose as the end of the early films as it was their first true hit, and ever after they were too often tempted into cream and enigmatic evasion).

The Householder is also a utterly believable story of two young Indian people put into an arranged marriage, and then left to make it on their own with the husband, Prem, having a low level job as teacher on a small salary. One of the aspects of all Jhabvala’s novels is that as we begin (and in many of her novels this does not change) in pairs of characters supposed to spend their lives together at least one, sometimes both have no concern or love for one another, are not congenial and what’s more don’t expect to be (particularly true here). Prem is having a very hard time adjusting to teaching in a crude place with no help from colleagues, no education in education, students absolutely w/o any real motivation to learn what he’s teaching (a dialect of Sanskrit); Indu (Leela Naidu, also an actress in France) is given nothing to do, no one to be with, her only function to serve him and he’s gone all day. One of his big mistakes is to bring his mother to live with them — a greedy, self-centered woman, rather stupid. The wife flees back to her parents and what she remembers as a happy household of sisters when she discovers she is pregnant. It’s this period away that awakens our hero to his need of her and desire to be a successful husband (householder). Amanda Vickery did a three part series on men in the 18th century and one of hours was how men wanted and needed to marry to belong, to have status, to be seen as successful males. So often 18th century England resembles 20th century India.

There are remarkable scenes of fights between teachers, of his attempt to get a rise in salary and get his rent put down, a friendship with a young man very like himself, but having an easier time adjusting to what the society has given him as his fate. We are shown that marriage is no picnic at all — The Namesake of Jumpha Lahiri (a writer whose franker work teaches you much about Jhabvala’s) is an idealized depiction — in Jhabvala these males are just so rude and commanding to the imprisoned females whose feeble weapon is to strike back by being awful in conversation. Prem gets involved with very ego centered Americans who have come to India to escape to some sublime nirvana (as does Anne in Heat and Dust) and we meet both sincere gurus and crooks. This is a sketch of the kinds of people and social interactions which matter which she repeatedly, almost obsessively develops at length in her later stories. I hope women today in India in some classes are offered far more in life for real individual fulfillment.

A Daphnis and Chloe archetype underlies this story, for at its end we are asked to believe they are making a happy adjustment at last


Returning home together on the train

I’ve not got a video of the whole Shakespeare Wallah for free online, but I can supply some remarkable reviews, from the New York Times archive; in The Guardian, the professional Chris Weigand approaches with concision some adequacy on the film’s complicated arts: Bollywood and the Bard

In his Guardian obituary for Geoffrey Kendal in 1998, Ivory wrote about the tensions during the production with the veteran actor (Geoffrey Kendal): “He let me know how he despised the cinema – that the cinema was his enemy, causing theatres to be empty and tours to be cancelled.” But Kendal – who has an ease in front of the camera despite his lack of film experience – came to recognize that thanks to Ivory “it was the despised cinema that told the world of my existence and to a certain extent of my fight”.


Geoffrey Kendal doubting the value of what he has spent his life so beautifully on

And the despised cinema is here undeniably beautiful. Shot in black and white (for budgetary reasons) by Subrata Mitra, the film has a stately pace, is sensitively written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and comes with music by the esteemed director Satyajit Ray. The bumpy travels of theatre troupes often make for bittersweet comic escapades

And now my words:

A wandering troupe of actors have made a living traveling around parts of India doing Shakespeare and other classics (as the film opens we see a Sheridan play in progress before a mass group of boys in suits — white, Indian and one Black).


In 18th century costume performing on a bike

But they find they are no longer wanted in the same numbers or way. Gigs dwindle: the local places would rather Sanskrit poetry; the British schools are closing; they are paid much less. We see their truck break down on the road. They are aging, one man dies. The Gleneagles Hotel (pitch perfect that Scots name) that used to accommodate them – very British – is closing. Felicity Kendall is not comic in this and she is not thin — no need to be near anorexic in the 1960s. She and Sanju, an Indian man who rescues them on the road fall in love ad who has as his mistress, Manjula, a Bollywood star who performs one of their sexualized songs, Madhur Jaffrey (she is the Begum in Heat and Dust).


Manjula performing a Bollywood song and dance for Sanju

The poignant question is, Can They Stay On?


Exhausted, on the road, rainy, hot ….

So this is a version of Paul Scott’s famous masterpiece, Staying On, a story retold by Olivia Manning in The Rain Forest (franker and nowhere as well know, and yet more visionary, acerbic, yet in Manning our hero and heroine after some scarifying ordeals escape back; in Scott’s the man dies and we leave our heroine in a desperate situation, just holding on in a beauty shop and hostile hotel. They and this are all autobiographical: the Kendalls did live this way and in one of the features, a mature Felicity tells us at first her father was disappointed with the film as it did not show their triumphs, the fantastical fun they had living the way they did, it too emphasized the ending and sense of loss

We see several famous scenes from Shakespeare done very well in what seems an old-fashioned 19th century way (disrupted now).
Saying goodbye; her parents know it’s best for Lizzie to return to an aunt in the UK; they will follow when they find they must — now they will go round just doing “gems from Shakespeare”. The way it is discussed off-hand by ordinary people suggests a rollicking comedy (!), but while it does not end tragically and there are very comic moments, it is a melancholy and oddly realistic film.

It’s very realistic in the sense that we get feel for India. Jhabvala is the author of the script which while not as subtle as her later ones is very good — no book behind it. I am slowly beginning to appreciate her stories for the very first time ever –understanding her better and being older less emotionally involved, more distant myself.

These two films are a pair.

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Roseland, the place and marquee


The dancefloor

I would call Roseland one of the team’s noble failures. They actually filmed in the real Roseland theater, and with some professional actors, used the aging and ordinary people dancing of an evening: the idea seems to have been to concentrate on the dancing itself, with the stories barely sketched and the repetitive obsessions of those who come to such places regularly emphasized. It has its moments (Geraldine Chaplin of the professionals manages best); there are some professional dancers who catch our attention now and again, but it is fatally unrealized because it is trying to show us that the shell of these places is quite other than what is unexaminedly celebrated briefly in commercial films and histories.

This evening’s task is nearly done. I am passing over the effective The Europeans (1979): sorry to do this as it features a young Robin Ellis (also Lee Remnick — see just below) is a Henry James story, about clashing cultures, which is picked up later on, as just the sort of thing that M-I-J were particularly good at. Its themes differ from those of the other early films and the film anticipate other Henry James stories as well as several of the later, E.M. Forster stories — all set in England — or the US as The Europeans seems to be. It is not one of their best; they grew better at this type as they went on.

Heat and Dust has been if anything over-reviewed. Jhabvala’s novel had won the Booker Prize (so it sold fantastically well). Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian

After 37 years, Heat and Dust stands up as an intelligent, ambitious, substantial picture – with flaws but also intriguing aspects that were perhaps not sufficiently understood at the time. Is the movie’s love story a diversionary heterosexualisation of something else?


Anne after reading her aunt’s letters seems (mysteriously) taken by their content, next to her Chidananda allowed back in (he lives off her)

Yes, the Nawab is homosexual (the team also had real empathy for homosexual men), and the ending is not happiness; Olivia and now Anne turn out not to be free spirits but frustrated women who allow themselves to become the sexual partners, Anne, for example, as deluded as the successfully for a bit stubborn shaved American with his faux-Indian name, Chidananda (Charles McCaughan), and her landlord Inder Lal (Zaki Hussain, another less scrupulous Prem). She does not know who the father of her child is, and her retirement for help in the transformed building that Olivia ended her isolated life in as far from self-actualization as Olivia. The Nawab we have learned is a corrupt thug.

Bradshaw concentrates on the wonderful performances, and hidden meanings that leap out today, as well as the facile nature of the Anne parallel (just compare a real depiction of such a household, with the wife subject to epileptic fits, the mother-in-law supplying counterproductive punishing remedies). I want to add that what helped make people keep coming to the film after they satisfied an early Booker Prize enthusiasm, is the simplicity with which the stories is filmed — almost the hollowed out nature. Like The Householder, Shakespeare Wallah (and the quietly complex The Europeans), nothing is over-produced or over-emphatic at all, even if feel of the film’s images and music is so sensual — which gave our film-makers their nuggets for turning to a commercially successful second half (later M-I-J).

What people remember best — who saw it — is the parallel plot, exquisitely dove-tailed into the same places — Anne (Julie Christie) comes back to India to see the place her great-Aunt Olivia’s (Gretta Scacchi) life played out, to understand it better by inhabiting the living context – and we go back and forth between the 1920s elegant Raj (once again Shashi Kapoor) with its desperate people and high violence (not seen by us but heard about off-stage) and the 1970s in exactly same places in India. The parallels including both women getting pregnant by the India man closest by, only Olivia has an abortion and the disgrace leads her to desert her (boring) English husband, Douglas (Christopher Cazenove doing a serious job a la Leonard Woolf) for the alluring (to Olivia glamorous because strange) Raj — a retreat which deepens when he is said to visit her only 3 times a year — in deference to his mother, the Begum (Madhur Jaffrey from Householder now grown 20 years older), and then stop altogether. Like so many of the women in Jhabvala’s stories, Olivia is utterly alienated from all the women she meets, and some have good advice, try to support her. Anne is your liberated young woman, but supposed sensible, with her affair with her landlord (Inder Lal) emerging slowly. But unlike Olivia, she stops short of an abortion


Anne stops the woman in mid-performance

and is seen joyously retreating to a building now a hospice institution, hospital, where we last watched Olivia live her life playing the piano, until the very end when (it is hinted) Olivia ended in desperate poverty. It seems the Begum has won at long last


Jhabvala presents these Indian mothers-in-law as vengeful when given any power

We have the saturninely bitter-witty gay companion, kept and bullied the Raj — Harry (Nickolas Grace, young in the 1920s, and made up to be very ancient in the 1960s; Grace played this type too many times — Brideshead Revisited, Dance to Music of Time. He can convey no wisdom to Anne now grown old, back in England so safer and more comfortable, but storyless — we learn nothing of the inbetween time — it is story which thickens out characters in films.


The two take tea many years later, miraculously Anne has aged little

Maybe what was liked were the scenes of playful social activity, rituals done so quietly (not much gossip) and dinners at length, Anglophilic with the important qualification none of the white men or women show any understanding or sympathy for the people they are supposed to be governing, except maybe Douglas at his table in the heat trying to dispense justice.


Maybe it’s his stiff white shirt and tie that make Douglas (Christopher Casenove) so unappealing to Olivia (Gretta Scacchi)

But unlike the stories of her later career, Jhabvala is willing to grant her heroines a refuge with the implication they have accepted being women alone or subject to others.

I recognize the types and themes (people performing, a foolish American following gurus, who at the film’s end, somewhat unusually escapes relatively unscathed — like Lizzie, he is headed home to his aunt, in his case it seems almost a Kansas of Dorothy-like security and safety. This is the paradigm for Adhaf Soueif’s Map of Love who gives the story post-colonial politics, with dollops of feminism, strong heroines in the past and present and the central heroine at book’s end her own person, bringing up a daughter, companion to her deceased husband’s elderly (kind and gentle) father in middle class Kensington.

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Early in the partnership

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s most central theme in her books (as also Jhumpa Lahiri) comes from her thoroughly post-colonial roots; born in Germany of a Polish father whose nuclear family were killed in German concentration camps (he later killed himself), brought up in England (she writes in English), studying literature, she married to an Indian Bengali man, spending 25 years in India (read “Myself in India”), and the last phase of her existence in New York City. She was a perfect fit for the Englishman James Ivory who had come to India, and Ismail Merchant A major theme of her fiction — searching for, building an identity, which even people who stay put at first sometimes must do as the one the nuclear family and community they live among seeks to impose one that violates their innermost nature which seeks actualization. This is the central theme of The Namesake (Lahiri also has a multiple identity now: Indian, English, US, and now Italian. It fits the Merchant-Ivory perspective as seen in the writing and interviews by and about them. She died in 2013.

Merchant appears to have personally been a secular man, but as an Indian born he grew up in a religiously-laden society, with opposing groups (Muslim, Hindi). In the online biography at wikipedia His father, a textile manufacturer, was the head of the Muslim League, and he refused to move to Pakistan at the time of independence and partition. “Family networks” enabled him at a young age to become friends with people influential and in the film industry. He studied at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai and received BA degree of University of Bombay, moved to New York City where he worked as a messenger for the UN, and showed his talent for attracting funds from Indian delegates for film projects. He was the producer, the man who made the money come, and when he died, Ivory did not have the same talent. He and Ivory had met in 1961 when he was in the US on a scholarship in a New York coffee shop; at the time Ivory was an Ivy Leaguer with aims to work in artful cinema. He died in 2005.

Ivory’s biography in wikipedia tells us he came from middling people in Oregon, where he first went to University, he moved to the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, where he directed the short film Four in the Morning (1953). He wrote, photographed, and produced Venice: Theme and Variations, a half-hour documentary submitted as his thesis film for his master’s degree in cinema. The film was named by The New York Times in 1957 as one of the ten best non-theatrical films of the year. He graduated from USC in 1957. Here we are told Ivory met producer Ismail Merchant at a screening of Ivory’s documentary The Sword and the Flute in New York City in 1959; but we meet up with the other biography for we learn they formed their company in 1961. He wrote and or collaborated with all four books on them as a team.

Neither man seems ever to have married or had a public partner.


The three continual creative spirits grown older …

In Robert Emmet Long’s wonderful (full of wonders) and useful book, The Films of Merchant-Ivory: there are good biographies, much better than the ones I’ve provided, insightfl details about stages in their careers, the gifts they showed, where learned their crafts, then descriptions and accounts of many of the films, many beautiful and thought-provoking photographs and stills. Long calls these three “unique uncommon individuals” who make “unique uncommon films.”

Ellen


The Last of England (1855) — Ford Madox Brown

Dear friends and readers,

This too is an unusual blog or has become unusual. I’ve not for a long time advertised (in effect) one of the many group reads I participate in: I used to do this for those I lead on my listservs. We’ve been reading non-Trollope books on Trollope and His Contemporaries @ groups.io lately, books relatively unknown by women, colonialist and post-colonialist novels (Mary Taylor, Miss Miles, Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration from the North) and have come to read one of these by Trollope, and I’m hoping this relatively unknown but strong book will provoke interesting conversation. We read it once before on the list, but twenty years is a long time and the world has changed so that I feel we would come away concentrating on very different things than we did the first time round. Then we talked a lot about the sexual promiscuity and bigamy stories:


From modern illustrations by Francis Moseley in the Folio Society edition: John Caldigate glimpses Mrs Euphemia Smith for the first time aboard the ship going to Australia

Now I surmise we’d be a lot more interested in the cultural and social conflicts undergone and conflicts arising from these.

On Trollope-l (at the time the name) we read after JC after Is He Popenjoy? and The American Senator as three relatively unknown novels by Trollope. N John Hall says it is nonetheless among his best (!) — I’m not sure about that. In said Folio Society edition, R. C. Terry gives the novel high praise: he connects its matter to The Way We Live Now with its “evolving world of money, greed, and materialism in which ethical issues are becoming more urgent and difficult; it has a romantic myth of a young man who disappoints his father but wins out through high adventure, court-room scenes and stints in jail. There is much autobiographical resonance in the depiction of the estrangement and then coming together of the father and son.

From N. John Hall — in my own words: It has a number of chapters set either on board a ship bound for Australia or in Australia itself. Trollope had twice (1871 and 1875) journeyed to Australia to see his son, Fred, and had completed a long travel book about his time there, Australia and New Zealand (published 1873). It is one of several fictions set in Australia or on the way “out” & back to a colony (Harry Heathcote, “The Journey to Panama”, “Catherine Carmichael”, “Returning Home”). The toughness of the life presented, the frankness which which life is lived connects John Caldigate to Trollope’s Irish books as well as to other novels with romantic and adventuresome locales. The intransigent (and anti-sex) mother of the heroine, Mrs Bolton, recalls a similar female in Linda Tressel; the intolerance of everyone Nina Balatka. Although many of the novels’ chapters are set in England and explores English provincial life, particularly the narrowness of a provincial community, its lack of choices, what happens on board and in Australia initiates everything else, and we return to Australia in order insofar as this may be done vindicate the eponymous hero in the end.

It did help Trollope’s reputation. After several novels which were strongly criticized or didn’t sell very well (including The Prime Minister), this one was liked and sold, and reviewed favorably. Trollope hadn’t placed it quickly but when he had he got £1,200 from Chapman and Hall for exclusive book rights, and £600 from Blackwood’s for serial rights. It was serialised in Blackwood’s Magazine from April 1878 to June 1879.

It connects back to Is He Popenjoy? (written October 1874 to May 1875) because it too is said to have been inspired by the Tichborne case: just about everyone who has written about it tells how Trollope wanted to call it Mrs John Caldigate or John Caldigate’s Wife because it focuses on bigamy, and has people turning up thousands of miles from where the hero thought he had left them forever in order to lay claim to an estate. The question is again legitimacy. It is also linked to Trollope’s Dr Wortle’s School (a novella written 8-9 April 1879) and to “sensation” novels like Ellen Wood’s East Lynne and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. There’s a dramatic trial, a disreputable past (clandestine sex is what happens), and some harsh emotional violence between a mother and daughter over her sexual and emotional allegiance to the man she calls her husband.

To join click on the link; here is our schedule:

June 12, Chapters 1-8
June 19, Chapters 9-16
June 26, Chapters 17-24
July 3, Chapters 25-32
July 10, Chapters 33-40
July 17, Chapters 41-48
July 24, Chapters 49-54
July 31, Chapters 55-64

While there has been no film adaptation, there has been a graphic novel by Simon Grennan. It was announced, described, made available at the Leuven Trollope conference in 2015, and on one of my blog reports from the conference I reprinted one page of the pictures and one side of the endpapers — a beautiful depiction of a very gothic looking house, which I transfer here:


This could be either Caldigate’s father’s house or the Bolton’s — probably the Bolton’s, an imprisoning fearful emotionally violent place.

tt is a kind of unusual graphic novel because 1) the pictures are not close-ups; we are kept at a distance from the characters. And 2) there are few words — or far fewer than some of these graphic novels use when it comes to a serious “classic” 19th century novel. I don’t see a summary of the plot but I did read it and beyond omitting the comical post-office part of the novel at its ending), Grennan makes a couple of other modernizing changes. There are aborigines in the story

This is from my blog:

The team chose this novel as a less familiar one, one never adapted before. They cut the post office sections of the novel as they felt a graphic novel could not make these appealing Grennan decided he would try for pictures that projected what he thought were the aesthetic emphases of the novel. He wanted to visual equivocation, to keep readers and viewers at a distance from the characters in the way Trollope does: there would be no close-ups and even few middle distance shots and the point of view would be of a camera low-down. He was seeking a rhythmic roundtable of points of view; all the costumes reflect the way 19th century people of that decade dressed, the kinds of rooms they lived in. He did not want to use styles associated with classic comic; he wanted to capture this previous time as something strange. He developed a story of aborigines, practiced historical verisimilitude.

Grennan later told me he dressed Mrs Smith so she would have been recognizable in the era as a “Dolly Varden:” she is a character in Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge whose coy highly-sexualized self-presentation (Dickens just salivates over her) was taken up by music hall performers — after all Mrs Smith has been and returns to the stage (though the reader never see her do this). (I admit I prefer to imagine Mrs Smith in her more somber outfits as a mature woman who confronts life and men frankly as their equal.) Simon chose dark deep rich colors (purples and browns) where-ever appropriate, and reserved yellows and golden browns and greens for suggesting seasons and landscapes. There is an French edition if anyone is interested, but be warned there are very few words.

So, come one, come all, you are not likely to find this book read by a group of people anywhere else this summer.


Telegraph Depot, Ninety Miles up the Roper River, Northern Territory,” Illustrated Sydney News, 31 August 1872

To Trollope-l

Ellen


Frances McDormand as our thoughtful Fern – she recites a Shakespeare sonnet by heart, and at other moments shows herself to be well-read (Nomadland)


The owner, boss, chief of the glass-making factory who permitted American Factory to be made

Dear friends and readers,

This might be labelled now for something somewhat different. Most of the contemporary movies and plays I review on this blog take a liberal, sometimes radical, left-wing, anti-racist, social humanist stance: these are the kinds of stories I enjoy. Theatre I look for something profoundly (if possible) exploratory of the human spirit, especially in distress, on the edge of not coping (Uncle Vanya: scroll down). For tonight I’ve a film to recommend as mesmerizing, whose not-so-hidden agenda is libertarian enabled by sleights-of-hand. Nomadland, scripted & directed by Chloe Zhao, featuring Frances McDormand, based on a book of the same title by Jessica Bruder, resembles Mudbound, in being a movie made by, coming from material by women, and much be-prized. I had been sleepy and the experience projected woke me up.

But then I recommend that the next night as contrast you watch on Netflix, American Factory (made partly because of the Obamas’ presence, also an independent film, directed by Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert). You will discover what is the true context for Nomadland and how what is presented are desperate self-induced romantic delusions, which people tell themselves as in: they have made a good choice in their apparent willingness to flee inside their van-homes from a ruthless asocial society to wander about deserts, snow belt, and forests. (There are those who refuse to consider they will end up with this kind of job as a life choice.)

At the center of the Nomadland is a widow, or should I say wife whose husband has died a hard death of cancer: asked her status, Fern says she is married, only her husband is dead. His death has not parted her from him. Her memories, the decades she spent living with him in the way he wanted (in factory jobs), in a house he preferred (tract house), situated in a place he liked (at the edge of a desert), surround her mind, keep her company. To be fair, this emphatic inward shaping is not brought forth at first: what we are immediately confronted with is a factory sign which tells us the factory is shut down, and intertitles inform us that upon that factory closing the community vanished. No jobs, no way for the people to stay and to survive. She appears to be living a subsistence life, near destitute, in an old “ratty” van; caging the lowest sorts of jobs (a packer at an Amazon warehouse, a cleaner in a campsite, a cook and washer-up in a huge fast food place (turns out to be a sort of Disneyland store-as-mall called Drug Wall), at which she works for as long as they need her, and then is either fired or she quits. She has made enough money to live for say weeks on end in her van traveling about the west in the midst of spectacular scenery (beautifully photographed of course — never dingy, never just grey, when it rains it rains impressively). We see her looking at her pictures remembering happy moments – I’ve seen this in many films centering on older women.


The life of Fern and Dave presented as if they were on a perpetual sunny picnic (see the review it appears in)

Only gradually do we see the hardships of such a life, but they do not seem to bother our heroine. What if she urinates or defecates in a bucket – she can empty it the next day. What if her van lacks heat: she has plenty of blankets. She has a TV, radio. Once a tire goes, and she is almost stranded: but a woman she has the nerve to ask help from relents and they become close friends for a while — until it’s time for the friend to move on, probably to a hospital for she is dying of untreated cancer. Once when she is told to move on, this is not a place to park overnight, her car stalls. Turns out to fix the car she needs $2300 and she is told the car is worth $5000 — but it is she says her home. (She has told someone she is not homeless, only houseless.) She doesn’t have it, and on the phone, her sister refuses her, so we see her somehow take a long journey by bus and foot to that sister living in a beautifully appointed middle class home. The sister would clearly keep her, and the sister’s friends sort of accept her, but Fern will not stay; she gets the money in an envelope and promises to pay it back, and return to her truck. We see her disappoint herself and a small dog by refusing to take the poor creature into her truck with her. She stiffens herself and walks away.

There are some “feel-good” compensations. She travels to real life gurus about whom people like herself gather and learn how to survive from, as well as in groups celebrate together their existence

She attends several such events during the movie. Enjoys dances. Becomes friends with a man she is clearly compatible with, one Dave (David Straitharn) who she travels with for a while: they take hard jobs together; then his 30+ year old son shows up, and asks his father to return home with him and see a grandchild. Dave confides to Fern he’s been a lousy father and seems unwilling to go with his son, asks Fern to come with him, or later on; the son (miraculously) seems to hold nothing against the father and when she does take Dave up on the invitation, we find ourselves in another beautiful middle class home, the food just gorgeous and originally cooked; she is told she is welcome to stay. But she foregoes this. As with her sister, she says she cannot. It’s not her? When the movie is over, we are told the charismatic leader whom she returns to more than once (and he has his tale of hard grief) and many of the people she meets are real “nomads” like herself.

The movie was just showered with awards. Rotten tomatoes gave it a rating of 98%. Most reviews give high praise with little qualification: Ebert’s reviewer just “loved it”:. Ditto as “the critic’s pick” for the NY Times. I began to wonder what was wrong with this film? My mind was very tired by the time I came to it at 11 pm (nowadays you can watch films into the wee hours w/o worrying about how you are to get home, or the movie theater’s hours). But then I found what I was troubled by expressed by Richard Brody of the New Yorker: A nostalgic portrait of itinerate America, he calls the film. He noticed all the characters were presented in a simplified way and kept at a distance from us through Fern’s mind. Read what he has to say. Here’s how I’d put it

The way the subsistence existence of these people is presented is that this is their choice — as Fern chose to live with that husband and not stay with her sister (who complains she could have and she left a hole in their family). They seem to want to live this way, and indeed the real people say this – but real people in social life do not like to present themselves as impoverished and near destitute, especially at the end of their lives. Ask about the company they work for and they will often excuse its hard behavior to them, identify with the company that is gouging them. Fern clearly chooses this because in front of us she has a new right now (romantic) offer from Dave who could go live with his son, who (as I say) seems to have forgiven his father for a boy- and young manhood of total neglect and be living in very nice middle class circumstances — as do Frances’s sister and relatives. Amazon looks a horrible place to work, so too the kitchens of a restaurant stop on some big highway, or as someone who is the cleaner of a campsite for RVs — but our Fern needs only work there for as long as she needs to get together enough money to go out on the road again.

Who needs Biden’s infrastructure or plan to make good jobs, bring industry back when we can spend weeks in the mountain moon light? There are a couple of lines now and again by someone very old who implies he or she was given no chance for anything else once the job was up. Could save nothing. I remembered Willie Loman of The Death of a Salesman; Arthur Miller has him say in anguish, am I to be thrown away after a lifetime of hard work? We are confronted with a refrigerator engineered to last as long as it takes to pay for it. I remembered Grapes of Wrath where the people go on strike; where they are relieved when for a short time they can go inside a gov’t run camp and live better (if there are rules to abide by).

I don’t say there isn’t enough here to show you what the economic reality is. But all but one or two people who if they offer no help, look very sorry over Fern’s plight and tell Fern of a bed in a near by church — of course she is not bothered, remember she is houseless, not homeless. A friend recognized in this movie “an American spirit, a sort of go it on our own mentality in opposition to going along with a government plan for everyone, though it also avoids being very political. These people have a sense of pride that doesn’t want to take charity.” He did remark he had never seen Wall Drug from the harsh point of view we were shown it in this film (a hot kitchen, a place where garbage mounts up).

Brody notices all the things the film leaves out: practicalities: how do they pay their taxes? He says the film omits in the case of Dave’s brief stay in a hospital how before a hospital will perform a procedure on you you must sign a document accepting any and all related charges. I wondered also where they kept any money they might have? do they vote, ever? In the large scheme what is left out is the salary structure and price of goods in a society that disabled them from ending up with savings or pension. Of course the people are on a spiritual quest now. Right.

When I was identifying with the heroine as a woman who choses to be alone rather than re-marry or get a new partner, there is a huge difference between me and this woman. I own a house, have widow’s annuity (2/3s of my late husband’s federal gov’t pension), my social security, and both my parents’ savings — I can afford to say no to someone like Dave — who himself is apparently going to live of the charity of a son he was a lousy father too. Maybe it’s foolish and useless to complain about this kind of (in effect) libertarian propaganda, but maybe not. It is not my mentality to live liminally continually, oh no, and not (I submit) most people’s.


Miss Pettigrew before putting on attractive clothes …

I am wondering if Frances McDormand makes a specialty of portraying white working class type women. The last movie I saw her in, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, she was a very violent woman and very angry and working class essentially — what I remember best about the film is the continual profanity and anger and abysmal poverty — cars loaded down with guns in the back. Mississippi Burning was a whitewash (pun intended). It was years ago I saw her in witty comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, again a person with low expectations, so very appealing in a very non-feminist film.


Workers

Earlier this spring I saw a documentary, American Factory, recently about a Chinese company — huge corporation — who came to the US and took over an empty US factory that had failed the capitalist demands of high profits — very like the what the factory in Nomadland. did When it closes, almost everyone in the town is unemployed. I recommend it because it exposes the workings of capitalism from the inside of the work day, from the point of view of American and Chinese workers, the long hard hours (Chinese will endure hardly any time off and long periods away from their children), the required worship of a boss, high efficiency demands, no vacation for long periods, demands of utter loyalty and pretend obedience rituals. What people in the class said was they were amazed the company allowed the camera in — the answer was it was supposedly fair — showed “both sides.” Well it did show how the boss regarded his profit, but it made clear how his company (very like Amazon) thwarted an attempt to unionize (forced meetings, constant propaganda against it, threats made good to fire people). The real thrust was to expose the ruthless stealing of people’s very lives so one man or several can make huge sums. What enabled the making of it was the Obamas backed it. Here is an excellent review by Peter Bradshaw (from The Guardian), e.g.,

the workforce realised that to show their gratitude they were expected to conform to the Chinese culture of regimentation and submission, uncomplainingly working six or seven-day weeks, pushing up productivity at all costs and declining to make a fuss about decadent and lazy American indulgences such as lunch breaks and safety precautions …

He found this “solution” for a stable life “discomforting and desperately sad.”

Sheelah Kolhatkar places the film against the backdrop of our political polarization as US society is confronted, as the New Yorker puts it, with challenges of a global economy, i.e, mass unemployment, menial jobs, or the harsh regimen of non-unionized corporate work.

So here is your alternative. Get yourself a van, try to live in the most minimum way possible, take jobs as you need them (the way the boss hires you) and call it liberty. Only a romantic movie like this can persuade anyone you will not soon get into hard trouble. How many popular and be-prized books quietly urge the same alternatives dressed up as this Nomadland. How rare to get a real look at the factory or capitalist life increasingly inflicted on US people?

Ellen